"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."

Aleister Crowley

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.”

~ Joseph Bearwalker Wilson

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.

oprah-memeWhy 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?

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Join the discussion 31 Comments

  • Cat Vincent says:

    Well, there was this piece in 2013…
    http://ultraculture.org/blog/2013/04/15/open-source-occult/

    I approve of the idea, and try to share what I’ve learned on a non-hierarchical basis. This, of course, gets a lot of push-back from the hierarchical system folk, especially the high heid yins!

  • I offer up a piece I wrote, “Coding in Dream” on what the occult community can learn from the hacker community to this important conversation. Put the source code for the sorcery for those who have gumption to do the work. Those who don’t won’t really get that far anyway.

    http://www.sothismedias.com/2014/05/12/coding-in-dream/

    • Sarah says:

      Wonderful piece – thank you so much for sharing!

      This part really struck me as did the section on the Hacker Ethic: “Delving into alternative lines of thought and thinking is very much akin to traveling and immersion in a foreign culture, or the new contacts we make when being of service to the inner worlds. Upon returning home we will find we have been changed, perhaps even transformed by our journey.”

      Many of your points also called to mind this piece that Downstrodden published today “Do Try This at Home”, pointing out that we really need to do away with the attitudes of “this is too dangerous for you, you’re not ready for this, don’t try this at home.”

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to read my piece. I also liked what Downtrodden had to say. I think sometimes a magician or a witch needs to get burned, especially in the early days of their work. That’s how they know this stuff really works.

        Also, I really think that besides having good working relationships with mentors and elders -actually doing magic with them- it’s good just to hang out too outside of the circle, as it were. Then we can see the people whom we might admire certain qualities about, also have their issues and problems just like we do, and we can refrain from putting them on a pedestal, which does neither party any good.

        Love your blog. Thanks for continuing to poke and provoke (and invoke).

  • Stephanie says:

    Fantastic article! I know a personal fear of mine regarding gaining wisdom by experience–that I think is likely shared by many other young/new pagans and witches–is the possibility of our experience not lining up with the given knowledge shared by a specific teacher or within a specific tradition or book. Especially for those coming out of traditional patriarchal faiths, where there is hardly room for divine revelation and adherence to teachings and dogmas as interpreted by spiritual leaders is a basic requirement, the idea that you can not only have your own truths, but that you might disagree with someone powerful, knowledgeable, or experienced (and that is okay) is a novelty. I am grateful after ten years of haphazard practice marked by fear and uncertainty to finally realize and accept both that personal revelation has just as much a place as traditional teaching and practices within paganism, and that one does not have to be a master of all things, but should develop natural gifts and share with others, while likewise receiving the blessing of their own gifts and talents (as in the example of your open source group). Thanks for sharing this with us, Sarah!

  • Michael Thomas says:

    It is much more interesting to weave magics together in an open forum than in hierarchy. I have done both and prefer the former every time and everyone gets to participate and learn experiencially.

    Tradition is alive and the stream will ultimately lead us exactly where we need to go and to the people we should be working with. Seemingly, all else has a pricetag (not that there isn’t coin to be paid). 😉

    Keep up the good work.

  • Pati says:

    Practitioners of the occult arts and of software arts are sooo similar! (I am both) There are many (I would argue the majority) who like to hoard their knowledge and enjoy the feeling of knowing or doing something that others cannot or do not do – as you noted. The truly special snowflakes (ha!) are those folks who want to share for the sake of sharing and who love to work in teams of like-minded individuals. My best experiences as a dev have been on open source projects. Those people are focused, dedicated, mindful, patient, kind, enthusiastic, joyful and energetic about their work. The qualities that you express here as desirable in a team of occult practitioners really does summarize the great experience of working an *any* kind of team where individuals all work towards a shared goal. A most heartening post and your thoughts on this are a most welcome reminder that like minds are out there!

  • Raevyn DreamWalker says:

    I have started an ‘open source’ type of group for my area. I keep hearing people say ‘It’s your group, Raevyn.’ To which I promptly but gently reply that it is not MY group… It’s OUR group. It would not exist without you all.

    I don’t lead all of the rituals, I don’t post all of the interesting articles. Most of them, but not all. I encourage others to post things, provide links to their blogs, etc. But, my main emphasis is on how we are all here to learn, even me. We are all teachers, everyone of us.

    During some of our discussions, I listen to some of the best information around, coming from people who express that they think they have little to give. I point out that they are teaching, whether they think they are or not.

    Our group (which is on MeetUp.com) is coming along. Some of the people in the group aren’t used to doing it this way. But, they are learning. Some are looking for a ‘guru’ or a spiritual leader. But, they are learning that THEY are their own best spiritual leader. They are learning that knowledge from all kinds of sources and people can fit their needs without it being from a specific Path or the Path / Tradition that they are currently following.

    Life is good.

    So, thank you, Sarah, for writing this bluntly honest blog post. I would like to share it with the group I started, if it is okay with you.

  • NatE says:

    I love, love Love this vision of yours. It’s like witchcraft meets social permaculture. Everyone is a leader, a teacher, and a pupil. Diversity as a function with an ever expanding web of magickal connection. Beautiful.

  • Niki says:

    Sarah! It’s like you’ve read my mind, or eavesdropped on my conversations with Adam….. I long for a “magical salon.” Once upon a time he and I started an arts salon in the Bay Area. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, one of the handful of things I am most proud of doing. I want to do something similar again, and also one for occultists/magicians/witches. A gathering that builds trust, shares knowledge, engages in discussion, just as you said : one person might share their expertise on myth, one on stones, one might lead a workshop on making candles, another try out a ritual they’ve been crafting, and so on. No need to share all the same traditions or practices, just to gather together with like minded people with curiosity, sharing knowledge and building community.

    Once the baby is bigger I will make this happen. If only we weren’t 4 hours apart…..

    • Sarah says:

      Great minds think alike? Christophe and I have had pretty much the same discussion. Both of us are qualified to teach or found a group, but neither of us wants to. We’ve talked about starting a discussion group and/or skill trade and both agreed that’s as far as we’d ever want to go. I think there are just as many people looking for something like a salon (great word!) as there are those who seek teachers and covens.

  • Wait!, is that the choir singing again?. *grins*

    Great Article, and links in the tread..

  • dre says:

    Lovely. Fits very nicely with Nao’s post on mastery.

  • Lee says:

    This is exactly our coven! It is totally open-source. We recently wrote a new charter to reflect how we move & learn in our circle. It is located here: https://scotif.wordpress.com/

    Great article, thanks :)

  • Raincloud says:

    It’s definately a noble idea, but I suspect if it occurs in anyway meaningful it will have to go underground. We’re entering a period of fundamentalist dogma in the pagan-sphere. Hard Polytheists, Strict reconstructionists, materialists and hyper-vigilent political correctness seems to be the order of the day.

    What you’ve written would be perceived as ‘problematic’ and ‘appropriating’ by the Pagan police on Tumblr who hold an iron grip of fundamentalism over the next generation fo Pagans. Yes, that’s where the next pagans are, and the pagan police there are not pretty. Hyper overactions and political correctness are the order of the day.

    I was listening to a Podcast by VeeDub where she said Victor Anderson was the King of appropriating. As I come into more deeper study of the Feri tradition I realise what I learn and do will probably have to go underground in this age of Tumblr.

    Maybe that’s a good thing.

    Maybe the true witch blood activity has always been open source, and therefore required to be underground?

  • elnigma says:

    Interesting. I think people who don’t do well with groups maybe shouldn’t just keep trying and blaming their failures on whoever did what. After awhile it should be clear the problem might not be the others – not everybody is cut out for certain kinds of socialization. Every group has a heirarchy of some sort, actually – at least in categories. This isn’t saying people who are less social are bad or anything – just groups, especially cooperative magical ones, aren’t for everyone. Nothing wrong with being solitary, and typically people involved with groups are solitary practitioners – most of the time. But as for “leader-free” I’ve seen chaotes talk about groups “without a leader” often. Every last time it reminds me of Time Bandits – Randall: do you want to be leader of this gang?
    Strutter: No, we agreed: No leader!
    Randall: Right. So shut up and do as I say.” Love that movie.

  • Sean Nolan says:

    It sounds a little like you are talking about Chaos Magick. Maybe, maybe not. In my experience, I have to agree with you, Sarah; on another, I would have to disagree.

    I do not believe in gurus, and I believe like you that corruption is inevitable…for both the teacher and the student. I have found the best remedy to be the destruction of the terms in the first place; and the essence of the relationship in the second. Outside of a “hierarchical structure”. No organism can survive unless it is multi-cellular, and the thriving of an Order rests entirely on its ability to teach. If it cannot teach, it will not last. The sincere student will find another group and it will dismantle itself through its own lack of Spirit.

    Speaking of teachers as teachers and nothing more, these things are almost absolute necessaries. Many disagree on this point because it seems they fail to understand the very idea of teaching and its relation to other things. One can easily find the difficulty in learning martial arts, a second language, driving a bus or riding a bike, by themselves. Granted, some do…but most do not. Yet, when it comes to spirituality, people, for whatever reason, lack the ability to see the similarity between them all.

    There are very serious individuals, who dedicate their lives to better themselves. It would be an error of judgment to say they are not needed. Parenting would be a useless endeavor, otherwise. Student are not aware of the pitfalls, of which there are a great many, when on a serious path of enlightenment. It is about efficiency of mental training, and a helping hand to look at things in a specific manner. A teacher may not warn the student of certain difficulties, but they can teach the student how to handle, say, certain encounters during astral travel, or how to stop the mental chatter during meditation; or enable the student to see that angels and demons during ritual are merely projections of the psyche.

    Although I do understand your context, Sarah, and am personally sickened whenever I hear the word “guru” (not here, but wherever I roam, so to speak), as the name has such negative connotations that it somewhat tarnishes the word “teacher” as well.

    From my 20+ years of being pretty much on all sides of occult relationships, I can’t tell you how much absolute bullshit is printed and sold as ” legitimate”. A good teacher can see through the bullshit; a student rarely can.

    Perhaps the best method of learning metaphysics is to train one’s self on one’s own, then understand that guidance it definitely needed. Open-source would be a failure due to the mere fact that no one is credible; therefore no one knows who to trust. The system of teacher/student has been around for many thousand of years because it works. It may not work at all times or in all places; and yes, there are those that take advantage of another’s trust…but that is part of the learning experience, as well.

    In short (well it was meant to be short…you can thank the coffee for the length of this ;), I think your article is extremely in-depth, and I do agree with about 95% of it, but I personally believe that a systematic structure is a necessity for an aspiring occultist…at least through the first few steps.

    • Sarah says:

      I myself had a wonderful teacher, but he maintained that we were to be equals and that I would end up teaching him as much as he taught me. I wasn’t trying to say here that we do not need teachers, but that we all have something of value to teach and therefore all of us are teachers. If all of us are teachers then all of us are students. A teaching group with this dynamic and philosophy would avoid a lot of the power struggles and abuses that happen in structured groups and also in the relationship between an individual teacher and student.

  • Thank you for this. I wrote a related article a few years ago: http://hyperritual.com/blog/open-sourcery/

  • Larry James says:

    Great article and concept.
    Your opening citation had me hooked, it’s exactly how I’ve felt for as long as I can remember (though strangely I’ve never read it before). I’ve found my way to this path through science, hacker, maker, shaman who’s experienced some strange stuff… so this sort of approach definitely speaks to me.

  • I love this, Sarah.
    I tend to think that a lot of us have this idea that there is only one way to use magic. I don’t know why this happens, but I am sure many- if not all- of us have fallen into that idea once in our path. So and so isn’t doing it right because they didn’t do this or that. But, I think that magic is so much bigger than our puny ideas of what it is. A person practicing in Alabama may do something completely different than someone practicing in Brazil but guess what? It works in both cases. I really have a hard time with the idea that only one group understands the complexity and depth of magic and magic work. It is something all witches, magicians, and magic users have had to wrestle with for centuries and maybe that is half the fun!

    If we stop thinking of magic in terms of “my way or no way” and allow ourselves to learn from different people, I think we would grow as a community. I consider my practice to be more folk witchery than anything and I don’t work with any deities, but I have learned the most from a woman who practices as a Polytheist Revivalist (Roman). Our paths are so vastly different but her wisdom goes beyond both of them.

    I find myself falling into my own judgments about other people’s paths sometimes and I have to constantly remind myself of the aforementioned.

    This is just a great article for me to chew on <3

  • Catriona says:

    “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?”

    If you replace that list with “2 Jewitches, a Shaman, a Feri practioner, a chaos mage, and a Druid”, you have my neighborhood-wide group that’s been meeting for well over three years now. We jokingly call it Magic Users Anonymous. Each meeting consists of checking in about the previous month, a meditation, some sort of practicum always taught by a different person each time, and finally declaring goals/foci for the next month. It’s a great blend of camaraderie and accountability. Probably about as open source as you can get!

  • AV says:

    I think this is a brilliant article and a wonderful and daring idea. I know, I tried it about 20 years ago. Of course we did not have the internet back then but I used the library as the model. We all bring books and we all share the books (metaphorically). My plan was simple. If you wanted to do any type of ritual work the organization would support you in whatever way they could. In return you would record and make available the work you did and its results. This archive was available to all to read, learn from or gain inspiration.

    It seems like it should have worked. Instead there were a tiny number of people who had the energy, determination and will to actually do something and huge number of people who showed up wanting to be a part of something and to find people to follow. And as you pointed out it is almost impossible to resist the siren call of being placed on a pedestal.

    I remember going to extreme lengths to get people to do something – anything. One person in particular disagreed with the structure of a ritual I did. She said that I needed to do another ritual to balance the first. I welcomed her to do the ritual. She demurred. A few weeks later she called saying she had a ritual in mind that she was very excited about involving women’s mysteries and the menstrual cycle. I was thrilled. It seemed like she was going to actually act. But no, she wanted me to write and lead her ritual. I pointed out that, as a man, I did not think it was terribly appropriate. I was missing a uterus which seemed important to the whole thing. Once again nothing happened.

    Anyway – you have my fervent hope that this works. But in my experience it is not so much that some wish to be gurus as that so many wish to follow gurus.

    Blessings

    • Sarah says:

      I’ve tried and failed too AV. The sheep seeking a shepherd and the shepherd seeking a flock is a very hard social construct to break. I think it would take 3 or more dedicated individuals to make a group work so others could learn by example. I think simple discussion groups are a realistic way to start applying the idea of open source –if they evolve from there, great.

  • Julia says:

    Mentally and spiritually de-colonizing oneself is a lifelong process.
    Most people were brought up in mainstream religions and the hierarchical structure and expectation of powerlessness is still locked in their heads. I have endured pagan ceremonies that felt distinctly like a remnant of whatever church the lead witch was brought up in, which was deeply disappointing, but the other attendees were also locked into the “follower” role and there was no way for anyone to contribute….it would have been as awkward as voicing an objection during a wedding ceremony. It left me hoping to encounter community in a more spontaneous way in the future.

  • Obscura says:

    Sacred Text would be the obvious choice, they already have a free BOS that has tonnes of contributors, taking that to the next level would be awesome, particularly as it’s mainly a Wiccan resource.

  • Pete says:

    I have always loved the concept of having a group where everyone contributes as equals… but in my reality of running a Grove, while I encourage everyone to have a voice, at the same time I have to recognise that most are also there to learn all those things that will allow them to build the experience and insight that can have them one day step up feeling like they are equals and have the confidence in their ability and experience. So until then the role of teacher and student is what needs to be embraced, albeit in a space that, while obviously then hierarchical to a degree, also embraces discussion and the open sharing of ideas and thoughts to empower each member within their own Self.

  • Jess says:

    While this is certainly an open source concept (and was actually the first thing that came to mind for me when I read the title) but I was just wondering what your thoughts on Ellis/the Linking Sigil are (if you have any)?
    I think chaos magic is definitely the ‘system’ best suited to open source- so much of traditional paganism is based around the hierarchical student/teacher paradigm. I know from personal experience that I’ve often wanted to contribute something to a group or a page but then held back as I’ve not felt that what I had was necessarily valid in comparison to other people. I suppose that’s the mentality that most needs rejecting.