"I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics, or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle."
Open Source Magic
I am about to get heretical here. I’m going to admit to you why I do not take on students. It’s because I do not believe in gurus. I’m not talking about the original meaning of guru as counselor or mentor within Hinduism. I’m speaking of our tendency to seek out “perfect” teachers who we perceive as enlightened, above us, all-knowing, wise, infallible –all the things we believe when we put someone on a pedestal and give them complete power over our spiritual path. When we do this within modern magical systems we create cult leaders. I have no desire to become a cult leader and I have even less desire for the asshat I’d become because of it (I’m a Leo, I would so end up wearing my ass as a hat). If you already think I am an asshat, you may be confusing it with situational bitchiness. “Mess with the bull, you get the horns. Mess with the witch, you get the bitch.” I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met too many people yet who couldn’t be corrupted by being treated like a guru. It can happen to the best of people and they often don’t notice the change in themselves until it is too late. “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If you come across a teacher who very obviously wants to be worshipped and who desires to have a cult of glassy-eyed unquestioning followers at their feet, you should run in the other direction. Not sure? Try poking the dragon and see if fire comes out.
What if instead of creating and joining hierarchical organizations teaching one dogma originating from one mouth, we created groups where everyone shared their knowledge with each other? What if instead of creating and fostering a guru-worshipping spirituality we were all seen as equals with something of value to offer? Where each individual would take turns teaching a lesson based on their expertise or leading a ritual with a purpose they specialize in? Imagine how much experience each person would rack up from teaching and leading rituals? Imagine how much the whole group would gain from learning from not just one teacher, but from many?
From Wikipedia: “Open source refers to a computer program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design. Open-source code is meant to be a collaborative effort, where programmers improve upon the source code and share the changes within the community. Typically this is not the case, and code is merely released to the public… Others can then download, modify, and publish their version back to the community.”
I know it’s a bit of a utopic idea. The reality, like open source code, would likely be individuals just giving away their magical knowledge and time for nothing in return while the recipients run off with it and change or corrupt it before passing it on under their own names with a fake origin story. This is pretty much what happens in every forum, facebook group, email list, and blog and also countless times among traditions and teachers throughout the history of neopaganism (I’m looking at you Herman Slater). Other times it would be like hosting a free workshop that four people turn up to, but four thousand people download the recorded video of. Despite this, I think it’s still worth it; that the idea and the ideal is more important than the possible disappointments. I’ve had my writings stolen with someone else’s name put on them numerous times, but I still keep writing and releasing articles and stories to the public for free. I’ve had people tell me I should stop doing this and monetize all of my writings and I’ve alternately had people tell me I should stop because I suck and they hate me, but I don’t listen to either opinion.
Let’s take this open source idea further. What if we admitted we magicians have been magpies all along, both today and throughout history. We are only the sum of our influences, inspirations, books we’ve read, people we’ve met, events we’ve attended, paths we’ve dabbled in, and things we’ve done. We are all eclectics –every one of us. Even members of a strict tradition will have variances in belief, opinion, and experience among them because they are all individuals. We are not the Borg. We are not a hive mind. We are imperfect humans. We are unique snowflakes… just like everyone else.
If we admit this to ourselves it becomes much easier to strip away dogma and the need for fundamentalist segregation and perceived righteousness. Why can’t a traditional witch, a wiccan, a hoodoo practitioner, a thelemite, a Greek reconstructionist, a shaman, and a chaos magician all get along and all learn from each other? Why can’t they do magic and ritual together? I’ve seen it happen, I’ve seen it work among my friends. We all know and have experienced things others have not. We all have a skill or two others do not. It doesn’t make one better or more superior, it makes us different and it allows us to fill in the blanks, the gaps of knowledge and skills, that we and others may be needing for our personal practices. If we can get over the hurdles of prejudices and insecurities, so much magic would happen.
We are animals who will always naturally try to establish a pecking order in physical groups, but members could be expected and encouraged to prevent one person from trying to dominate the others or stop members from having wand measuring contests simply by calling bullshit in a brutally honest, but humorous or kindly meant way. There would also be the opposite danger of members trying to appoint someone the leader so they don’t have to do the organizing or decision making. In that case, the unwillingly appointed person should call bullshit or walk away.
Most interpersonal drama and gossip in groups is caused by insecurities, but if those insecurities were communicated, and the group environment fostered that communication regularly, others would be more likely to have empathy and understanding when issues arise. If we’re not all busy clamouring to one-up each other or tear each other down, we’ll sure get a lot more done.
“I am not a priest, minister, or spiritual leader of that nature although I have performed their functions when I have had to. I do so only until I can find someone appropriate that I can assist to fill those roles. When I find them I gladly give the tasks of priest, minister, saint, and spiritual leader over to them. Those jobs are not my calling; they are not my specific and primary purpose. I am not that kind of an Elder. I am especially not an avatar and if anyone expects me to behave like one they are going to be shocked and disappointed. I am not an Elder of that kind.”
A group of magicians really is like a herd of cats… okay more like a herd of ornery, opinionated people who don’t want to be told what to do. The medicine men and women of the Pacific Northwest coast did not practice in groups, but every now and then they would all come together from near and far and share their skills with one another and perform rituals to speak to the spirits. Tool makers would bring custom pieces others had requested, medicine makers would bring medicines for those who didn’t make their own, and others would share knowledge and practices. They were all individual practitioners in their own villages, but they shared what they knew and what they could do with one another. Their collective knowledge, experience, and skills was their grimoire. An encyclopedia made of living people; of open source magic.
Maybe Suzy is a natural medium whose skill allows her group to directly communicate with spirits and deities. Maybe Johnny is gifted at helping others achieve trance and their objectives while in an altered state. Sally is the herb, garden, and wildcrafting expert whose knowledge has allowed the group to harvest their own plants and make their own incenses, oils, and flying ointments. Joan knows all the chants, their rhythms, their purposes, and the instruments that can be played with them, making rituals that much more awesome. Tom is the group’s resident tool maker and thanks to him the others have wands, staffs, knives, talismans, and can learn how to make their own.
Why not start a movement of open source magic or, if you see it as already existing, why not aid in its continuation? Of friends and strangers coming together to help and support each other to gain the knowledge and experience they seek. Of people sharing their stories so others can learn from their triumphs as well as their mistakes. Of workshops, classes, and open rituals instead of closed traditions. Of online groups and real life groups who share instead of bicker over who is right or wrong. Of practitioners being open to change, growth, and new additions to the traditional bodies of lore. Of individual bloggers and authors who share what they know for the sake of sharing alone rather than for personal gain or to be seen as a guru. We don’t need a hundred more websites copying and pasting Cunningham’s herbal lore without citing the source. What we need is individual practitioners sharing their personal experiences and their hard-won skills and knowledge. Let us make ourselves and our unique knowledge available too. You all have something of value within you.
Writing and hosting workshops is how I pass on the knowledge and skills I’ve gained from years of experience and practice. I’m not good at what I do because I’m just naturally awesome at it, but because I studied hard and practiced over and over until I became good at magic, writing, herbalism, and art. I became knowledgeable because I read and read until my brain hurt and eyes stung and then spent years applying that knowledge. You have to use a muscle for it gain bulk and muscle memory. Flex those muscles! You earned them! There are enough “gurus” in the world. Some of us just want to be people because really, it’s all we are. All of us. Even the gurus and big name pagans. Now who wants to go to the pub and shoot the shit?