Of Tradition, Synthesis, and Danger

You may have noticed by now, dear readers, that I cannot keep my mouth shut when I see people talking about things I have an opinion on.  And y’all know that I have opinions on nearly every fucking thing on this mad, spinning Earth.  But that’s what blogging is, right?  An opportunity to express our opinions?  Well, that’s one thing, anyway.  Unlike some of last soapbox moments, though, this is not a direct response to anything.  People write things, I read them, and it makes me think.(*)

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a traditionalist.  I have never been invited to join a Lodge or Coven.  I had long disdained the grimoire traditions, and while I have come around on that issue in theory, the fact is (for reasons too numerous, and ultimately too obvious) that they will never be a major component of my practice.  It would be an oversimplification, but my practice could be fairly described as eclectic Wicca.

Nor am I a cutting-edge radical, disdainful of everything that has come before.  Hell, I didn’t even get into studying Chaos Magick until I started my ceremonial project.  Embarrassing as it is now, I didn’t really understand where the one ended and the other began; I just thought of Chaos as post-modern choose-your-own-adventure ceremonialism.  I know perfectly well that it’s a fucking bad idea to summon Goetic demons without the full pomp and circumstance: they’ll take that shit personally.  I know better than to mix and match traditions with no regard for the histories involved or the subtleties of difference in technique and emphasis.

My practice lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  I have pushed the Wiccan framework as far as it can go and serve my needs, and in doing so I have read about as far and wide as one can on the subject without ever being initiated.  I have moved beyond Wicca using shamanic techniques gleaned from Michael Harner, Gale Wood, Christopher Penczak, a few friends, a hand-full of workshops, and an ever-growing body of UPG—ever conscious of the deeply problematic elements of neo-shamanic practice, ranging from bad scholarship to appropriation of indigenous practices to outright “playing Indian”.  I have incorporated energy work with no parallel in any tradition I can find in print—Maya Heath’s Energies is the closest I’ve ever seen—but which a significant minority of the practitioners I’ve encountered in the world recognize as close enough to something they, too, did when they were young.  I’ve incorporated some of the Chaos techniques from my as-yet-incomplete survey—sigils in particular—and I’m working on comprehending certain portions of ceremonial arts as well—the evocation of spirits.

But, as you have already surmised, I am not content to merely reproduce the work that has been done before: I’m pushing forward in the directions that are most interesting to me, and where my native talent calls to be explored.  I’m experimenting with mask-making, and the particular sort of invocation and embodiment unique to mask-work.  Through my shamanic work, I’m engaging in congress with spirits the likes of which I have never seen addressed in anything I’ve yet read.  I’m experimenting with the use of sex, drugs, and music in my magic: this is fucking ecstatic work, folks, and sometimes I need higher octane fuel than I can (yet) get my brain to produce on its own.

RO (and all the others) is right to point out that yes, there are dangers.  When you mix traditions and tech—and I do both, for all my concerns about cultural appropriation and pissing of the various Powers That Be—things can go horribly awry.  But I’m with RO on the next step, too: do it anyway!  Magic has been a process of experimentation and syncretism for as long as people have been doing it.  Sometimes you’re going to botch.  Sometimes you’re going to piss off some people … or some spirits … or maybe even some gods.  People can be managed.  Spirits and gods can be propitiated.  Magical backlash can be healed.

Hell, some day you might even fuck up so bad that you have to step out of the game for a year.  Or three.  But you come back to it.  Trust me: you’ll fucking come back to it.

We’re hip deep in the forces of creation, y’all.  No matter what you’re told, there are no flawless systems.  Even when it looks like you’ve found one, you’re still going to have to adapt it to your own particular brain and body.  And even if you don’t, some spirit you get involved with is going to issue a geas or taboo that’ll fuck up your perfect tradition, rock your boat, and maybe even upset your whole damn world.  (Trust me on this one: if it’s happened to me once, it’s happened to me twice.)

(*) But rather than link to any of the inspirations for this musing in the text body above, I’m going to collect them here to make sure that none of this very interesting reading material gets missed.

RO has posted twice (at least) on similar subjects, and introduced me to some very interesting and important work being done in the Celtic traditions.  Jason Miller has also talked about his syncretism, personally, and recently more generally (though his snark about the issue of appropriation is grossly inappropriate).  Peter Alexander Vaughn has a couple posts that touch on the issues.

I’m sure there’s still something important that I’m missing.



Filed under scholarship, witchcraft

4 responses to “Of Tradition, Synthesis, and Danger

  1. inominandum

    I am trying to find the snark in my piece and I really can’t. Please do let me know what you are referring to.

    I mean this in all seriousness, not trying to get into argument.

    Good piece BTW>

    • The line that bothered me was “There was quite a big Blog-ha-ha about this a year or so ago, and people seemed to settle on the idea that synchretism was somehow good but appropriation was somehow bad. Of course no one ever really defined what these were or what the difference was.” Which, on the one hand, is in fact the very serious problem at hand: what is the line between inevitable and healthy synthesis (which cultures need to survive and grow every bit as much as innovation) and cultural imperialism (which harms colonized communities). But something about the way those two sentences read to me just seemed … unfortunate.

      Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this issue because the sectors of the neoPagan movement from which I come have been so, well, awful in terms of “simple” appropriation and outright playing Indian (totem animals? sweat lodges anyone? naming ourselves things like “Blackwolf” and wearing leather loincloths?). Certainly anti-racism and post-colonial issues are major components of the feminism I practice, and my historiography.

      Re-reading my post, perhaps “grossly inappropriate” was going too far, and I should have said “makes me uncomfortable”.

      • inominandum

        If you go back and read the blogs that were chiming in (which were a lot) you can kind of see the development I am talking about though.

        Some people like me were talking about the need for skillful eclecticism, and others were basically saying “no no no, its harmful and disrespectful”.

        Eventually people came to embrace the idea that it can be done well, and it can be done not well, and several people declared that synthesis was OK but appropriation was NOT OK, yet no one ever discussed what these terms mean, which is really the crux of the matter,

        This halloween a coven contacted me to ask if they thought it was good idea to call upon Baron Samedi and Santissima Muerte as their God and Goddess that year for Halloween, but basically keep everything else the same according to their Wiccan protocol. I spent quite a while listing all the reasons that this was possibly the worst idea in the history of bad magical ideas – but one could just as easily call it a dumb synthesis as one could appropriation.

        If however a group decided to start making offerings using a general protocol borrowed from Tibet or something like that, but keep to the Gods and such that they were already working with closely – this is definitely appropriation, but there is nothing disrespectful or wrong about it. It would be rather smart.

        We in the Pagan/Occult community have a bad tendency to name things without really defining what those words mean or how we are using them. This can even extend to common words for which we have special meaning. To a Thelemite, the word Will has a sacredness and purpose that is far beyond what the word means for a normal person, and I have seen conversations get completely bollocksed up because of this.

        Anyway, I am happy to find your blog and will be following it going forward. Good stuff.

      • Amusingly, I have my own story of idiot Wiccans trying to invoke the Baron in grossly inappropriate ways.

        Clearly I hadn’t understood how much you were referring to that particular discussion rather than the issue as a whole. Sadly, I was not yet participating so extensively in the occult blogosphere at that time. I was posting, but my reading list was still fairly limited (I’m sure you know just how useless googling “occult blog” or “pagan blog” is for finding quality thought). I’ll go back and do some looking, though, because it’s an issue that’s important to me.

        You’re definitely right, though, that the occult community is a little too comfortable with fuzzy definitions. In this case it can be particularly difficult, as we are often not in a good position to be the ones drawing the line, but only means we should try harder. I like where Gordon drew it–at the distinction between lay and initiate mysteries–but even that needs elaboration. As you can see, I’m still working through the finer points of it for myself.

        Thanks for reading, and for engaging. I’m honored to have you along for the ride.

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