Harvest of Souls
By Ian Sturrock
(Originally published Lammas 1997)
For Lammas, I would like to look at the arrival of new pagans, into the "scene" or into particular traditions, as a harvest. This is more than just a fancy metaphor, or a way of linking in a rant about the state of Paganism to a Lammas theme. Rather, I would like to broaden the idea of harvest, from a purely agricultural one, to any human activity which brings results after something of a wait. Most of us do not live and work on farms and so it is useful to understand other ways in which the times and the seasons affect our lives. Lammas is an excellent time for looking back at the work that has been done over the previous twelve months and taking stock of the results that have become apparent.
A part of the work of most pagans who practice openly must be dealing with newcomers. Although most of the pagan traditions do not particularly proselytise, I consider it almost a duty to be willing to answer questions, and if asked, point people in some appropriate directions, and so on. This article will focus on the thorny and tricky issue of dealing with newbies, starting when they are just "interested public" and leading if they wish it to initiation and beyond.
I intend more to raise questions than provide answers at the moment. If anyone wants to take this as a starting point for discussion, I can be written to c/o New Aeon Books, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. The Public Image
This section is only really addressed to "out" pagans - those who do not risk losing their job or encountering similar difficulties if their beliefs become widely known. The worst mistake, which I hope can be avoided, is excessive zeal. Your ideas really might be world-changing, but if that is all you ever talk about you will soon be ignored as if you were the most boorish Jehovah's Witness or Socialist Worker. I can almost hear people scoffing, thinking this could never apply to them... but I have known plenty of people who, although they don't talk about their beliefs constantly, get just a little bit too pushy - badgering a close friend to come to an open ritual, for example, when the friend has shown at best a polite interest.
Excessive secrecy can of course be almost as bad. It is highly off-putting to outsiders to realise that unless they have been initiated they can never even be privy to your discussions, let alone begin to understand them.
The best middle ground, of course, is ordinary conversation. I find that I tend to mention my beliefs at some point to many of the people I come into contact with. After that, though, I prefer not to bring the subject up. If they ask questions, I will do my best to answer, but otherwise I treat it as a part of my life that they have no interest in (just as I am unlikely to bore apolitical pagan friends with my Green Anarchist beliefs unless they ask!) Occasionally people assume that I am being secretive, but I prefer to err on the side of silence, rather than the side of inane wittering. It is surely a prerequisite for any religion so individualistic as paganism that any interested parties should at least have the guts/impoliteness to ask any questions they may have.
Another facet of the public image is dealing with the media. There has been something of a fad, over the last ten years or so particularly, for pagans and witches to try to rehabilitate the public conception of their beliefs by doing articles or interviews in glossy magazines or other non-pagan media. This often seems to be a mistake. Obviously it is essential to choose one's magazine/whatever with great care. The point many pagan publicists fail to get across is the diversity of pagan belief and practice: the media like to think they are dealing with an expert or authority in the field, so even if you do try to put across the fact that if they ask another pagan the same questions they will get different answers, the editor is likely to snip that bit out. The other potential drawback with such attempts at popularisation is the target audience for the particular medium: it is likely that for every sane, balanced, potential pagan who reads the piece there will be ten more who grab the wrong end of the stick with both hands and run with it - particularly when one recalls the aforementioned tendency of editors to edit.
A third possible point of contact for newbies has been growing in popularity over the past few years - the pub moot or similar. This is the one of the best ways for new pagans to get to know the ropes, because in theory there will be a good variety of opinions on offer at such a moot and they will be able to make an informed judgement. Care must be taken by all those attending moots that they remain an open forum and do not degenerate into cliques with unwritten house rules on Pagan Correctness. This is something that can happen to groups that have been ongoing for a while, as the regulars get comfortable and begin to assimilate one another's points of view, and the more contentious and energetic attendees lose interest and go bother somebody else. Two suggestions then: Regulars please try to remain in healthy, respectful disagreement with other regulars. Contentious and energetic types, attend pub moots - remember, the world needs your opinions.
The one possible drawback to a good open forum is fairly obvious - it only takes one idiot to loudly rant about how they're going to take heroin 'cos Aleister Crowley did, or one dirty old man to be offensively lewd, and the more sensible of the interested public are probably scared off already. Take almost any pub moot and you'll find someone whom the majority of the other pagans would probably prefer wasn't there. Mostly this is 'cos they're an obvious flake or powermonger. Some of the time the pagans present will unite and make it clear to that person that they're not welcome. Sometimes this is necessary. The drawback is that it can lead to precisely the same cliques as I warned against in the previous paragraph.
It seems to me then that the options for dealing with the public image of paganism are: leaving it as it is; trying to deal with its problems without being too pushy; policing ourselves; or going underground again. Unfortunately, all but the second of these are more-or-less unworkable. Leaving it as it is is just going to lead to further deterioration. Policing ourselves can only cause more harm than good because of our very diversity. There are no standards by which to judge pagans. Do we take a stand against all those who don't agree with the three principles of the Pagan Federation? Against occultists and magicians? Do we tell Satanists that they aren't allowed to call themselves Pagan too? There are so many places where one could draw the line, and all of them would be wrong. The only way self-policing can work is as it already does - by individuals or communities taking a stand against the obvious flakes. Even then, there remains the danger of Pagan Correctness... Unless more individuals and groups begin to take a stand against the powermongers and the flakes, eventually they will become magickally competent powermongers and flakes. Again, though', where do we draw the line? How do we respond to someone insisting on loudly telling the newbies at the pub moot that he's being controlled by aliens, or that they should come back to his place that night for "Initiation"? I usually reckon that the best tactic is a witty piss-take, but sometimes one just can't come up with a snappy enough rejoinder...
2. More than an interest.
OK. By whatever means, you have a passing acquaintance with an interested party. They've got past the flakes and the powermongers. They want to know more. They want to know who to talk to, which books to read, what rituals to try out.
In almost all cases, as you'll be aware, it's almost impossible to give any advice other than "Whatever seems best." How far can we go beyond that, ethically? I'm quite happy to say, "I don't much like author X or book Y" or "I tried Ritual Z and got no results" or even "I reckon everything A says is bullshit," so long as I make it clear that this is my opinion, not fact. And it's fairly rare that I will make such comments, since I tend to think that most magickal paths are effective and that picking one out is up to the individual.
At this point the main difficulty one is faced with is deciding if the interested party is him/herself a flake, powermonger, or a potential one, and if so what to do about it. Do you deliberately try to steer them toward a path that you think will be fruitless for them, or just steer them back toward the other flakes and powermongers and hope they don't bother anyone else? How about people who are a little unstable - how does one judge whether an involvement in magick/paganism is going to stabilise them or send them screaming insane?
This, of course, could be an article in itself very easily. I'll try to avoid that and keep this section fairly short and straightforward. So, what is initiation? As the more sensible modern magicians and pagans will point out, to "initiate" is to set in motion, to start a process off. In modern Wicca the attitude towards initiation often seems to be that it is a kind of recognition of someone's status or progress. This has always smacked too much of reward for my liking. Initiation is about making a start on the magickal path, and the next initiation is the start of a new journey, or a new stage in the journey. The question of whether someone is "ready for initiation" is still relevant, but in most traditions if a prospective candidate for the first initiation is not ready, he or she probably never will be.
I tend to advocate that anyone up for initiation should have two sponsors from the group (or from the degree/grade the person wishes to be initiated into). Their responsibility, for the candidate's behaviour at the initiation, and subsequent progress or lack of it, should be strongly emphasised. If all within a group are aware of that responsibility they will soon stop offering initiation to all and sundry, particularly once they are held accountable for their failures. That may mean fewer initiates, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm not advocating making the Craft/whatever more elitist - it's just that many people get initiated who will do more harm than good, both to themselves, the group, and the wider reputation of both the group in particular and magick/paganism in general.
To return both to the agricultural metaphor and to the idea of initiation as a setting in motion, consider that all serious endeavours require time to come to fruition. Whether it is the turner's wood seasoning in the shed, waiting for the day when s/he takes it and crafts a beautiful cup, or the cook preparing the ingredients and cooking them for precisely the right amount of time, the best work needs to be left to mature for a while. Initiation only begins the process. The candidate, if all is well, then works through the lessons of that initiation, and usually alone. Even the best wood turner or most expert chef will be unable to coax better than adequate results if s/he hurries the process along with scant regard for the fragility of the material. Although it is possible (and occasionally necessary) to "bootstrap" someone through several initiations in a short time, the process is analogous to fast-food or mass-produced "crafts"- although the short term results may be serviceable, there will certainly be difficulty in the long term.
The other great metaphor for initiation is that of construction - ideally the person will build a broad base (that old, nigh-forgotten concept of a "well-rounded personality") before building the next, slightly narrower, layer. A pyramid is much more stable than a tower. Although it is possible for a person to make magickal progress rapidly, without the broad base that comes only through years of hard toil, they build no more than a castle in the air...
What results do we want? Where do we see the pagan "scene" in twenty years, fifty years? Whatever, it's time to start working now. Personally I'd rather see a small and committed scene than vast numbers of Llewellyn-taught dabblers. I'd rather circulate some of the ideas from the pagan faiths than the practices - our honour, hospitality, and ethics would all be more beneficially spread throughout society than giving everyone the knowledge and power of practical magick. You may have your own ends in mind.
My final point, I guess, is to return to harvest. At present, we are getting far more people "into" paganism than most of us had intended, or worked towards. This is unbalanced, and unnatural. With the packaging and selling of paganism and magick as just another aspect of the New Age, we risk all the problems of modern intensive farming: a loss of the uniqueness of our faiths, a concentration of quantity over quality, and a greater susceptibility to dis-ease...