Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Spiritual Ancestors as Heroes

Recently I’ve had a very unpleasant experience arguing with an occult pundit (Nick Farrell) who basically called me a naïve fool because I honor my spiritual ancestors and treat them as heroes. Because I celebrate and honor my spiritual ancestors and treat them with a certain amount of reverence I am considered a dupe and a fool. The reason for this criticism, of course, is because I happen to revere such individuals as Alex Sanders, Gerald Gardner, Aleister Crowley, MacGregor Mathers, or any other number of occult founders and trail Blazers. I take an uncritical and positive outlook on these individuals because they have had such an impact upon my own workings and study. Maybe that’s being naïve and stupid, since in our current time it’s so trendy to be cynical, negative and disparaging of the occult luminaries of the past. I have been called a pathetic hero worshiper and that makes me the worst possible judge of anyone’s character, especially those who have been dead nigh these many years. Yes, I admit it, I’m rightfully found guilty of hero worshiping, but I think that I have an important reason for taking this stand.

It’s not as if I haven’t read about these individuals and know all too well that they were human beings with human failings and flaws. I have also talked to individuals who personally knew Alex Sanders and the consensus is that he was quite a disreputable character. There seems to be no lack of stories about things that Alex did that were notorious and completely over-the-top. It seems that everybody has an opinion about Alex who knew him, and most of those opinions tend towards the negative. There are some people still living today who absolutely despise Alex and have few or even no fond memories of him whatsoever. Someone once told me that Alex was the kind of man who hated to work and so chose a life that was materially precarious when all he had to do was keep a regular job, and that would have made his life and the lives of those he supported more stable.

So, Alex Sanders was something of a gold brick. He was also reputed to be a great storyteller (another way of saying "liar") and had to be the focus of attention at all times. He invited the press and even the police to his very public gatherings in order to garner as much publicity as possible. That’s hardly the kind of stellar image that one would consider either heroic or worthy of emulation. Even so, Alex was a trailblazer and started his own tradition. He was an avid experimenter and tried to mix all sorts of different occult disciplines together into a workable whole. His tradition invited many different and divergent people together under one large tradition. Many of the first gay and lesbian witches that I met years ago were Alexandrian, and this was also true of the first African American and handicapped members. Alexandrian Witchcraft was the “big tent” tradition, and this was before other traditions appeared that catered to specific social collectives, such as the Dianic tradition. Perhaps we can turn a blind eye to his various flaws and bad behavior if we focus instead on what he contributed to the pagan and witchcraft movements. The world needed Alex Sanders, warts, obnoxious behavior and all.

What then is a hero? How do we define what a hero is in our culture today? Is Superman or Mighty Mouse good examples of the iconic hero? What about the antiheroes that are found in Marvel comics? Are they to be considered heroes as well? I found myself pondering the definition of a hero, but then I remembered that a good place to find that definition clearly established would be reading what the author Joseph Campbell had to say about it. Joseph Campbell says, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than one’s self.” Well, that seems simple enough, but does that fit the heroism of being a spiritual founder? Additionally, Joseph Campbell says that a hero brings back a “boon” to his community. Basically, Mr. Campbell is referring to the hero’s journey, and the object of that journey is to return something back from the underworld into the world of light. The hero also manifests a steadfast virtue in what they have contributed to their community, despite all of their flaws. According to Campbell, heroes are indeed flawed because they are so human. They are, in word, us. A cartoon hero on the other hand often lacks the kind of humanity necessary as the foundation of being a hero. Despite being flawed, the hero becomes a role model that inspires the rest of us to be better than we thought we could be. A hero is also inspired by an “inner calling.”

I believe that if we take what Joseph Campbell has defined regarding a hero, we can easily apply that definition to individuals such as Alex Sanders, Crowley, and Mathers - not to mention Gardner and many others. As heroes we would expect them to be terribly flawed on the one hand, but also inspiring and the bringer of a profound new way of thinking or practicing occultism on the other. All of these founders had that in common with each other, and all of them were egregiously flawed. To accept their gifts while repudiating their characters or disparaging them could be construed as being highly ungenerous, if not cynically and selfishly motivated. We all owe these founders a certain amount of respect and consideration because we have accepted their gifts and use them in our work; since to behave otherwise is to show oneself as greedy, power-hungry and soulless. I am not advocating that we turn a blind eye to the flaws and imperfections that were so highly on display by these founders, but instead we should really focus on the gifts that they bestowed us. All I am saying is that you can appreciate the history without having to assassinate the character of those trailblazers who came before us. After all is said and done, their gifts were certainly important to us occultists.

Because I’m an Alexandrian witch, then Alex Sanders is one of my spiritual ancestors. Since I also work the Golden Dawn system of magick, at least in part, then MacGregor Mathers would be considered one of my spiritual ancestors. I have to also include Alister Crowley as one of my spiritual ancestors because I have benefitted greatly from reading his work and I was also a member of the O.T.O. Gerald Gardner would be yet another spiritual ancestor in my witchcraft and magical lineage. There are probably many others as well, but that’s the group of ancestors that I’m willing to talk about. So, these four individuals who are founders of their respective traditions make up part of the overall lineage that I have followed as both a witch and a ritual magician. As representatives of the various streams that make up the current of spirituality and magick that I follow, I believe it is important to venerate the memory of these individuals because as magical heroes they have given the world great gifts, and I happen to use those gifts.

We, as ritual magicians, do not stand alone or in isolation. Our practices, whether or not we have been inventive and creative, have come down to us from the work of many other hands across the centuries. This is the whole basis to the perennial philosophy, and while we may add a greater or lesser share to this knowledge, we have received what our spiritual ancestors have passed on to us. Therefore, lineages are important and represent the combined streams that seamlessly joined together to formulate the work and practice of each initiated ritual magician. Our lineages are not exclusive to those founders whose tradition we were initiated into, since each and everyone of us has borrowed extensively from other sources. We are, in a word, a melange or mixture of many different traditions and strains.

To give respect and veneration to the founders of our tradition and practices, we receive from them empowerment, since this opens and establishes the connection between us and them. While this might function as an egregore of a tradition, it is not limited to that vehicle, but could represent the single contribution of some brilliant luminary in the past. Therefore, to use the gifts of our spiritual and magical founders is to be empowered by them. And if we are to retain a certain amount of grace and positive intent in our practices it is important for us to not only acknowledge them, but also to venerate them. This means not just respecting them and their gifts, but also giving them offerings and periodic acknowledgment. This is a Pagan thing to do, to honor our ancestors, both those that are genetic as well as those who represent the lineage of traditions and ideas that we follow. We act this way to retain a certain amount of honor for ourselves and for our work. Just as we give offerings to our genetic ancestors in order to function as modern pagans, we should also give offerings to our spiritual ancestors as well. We do this despite their history and notoriety as flawed human beings who had many failings and even engaged in disreputable activities. This is not white washing or wishful thinking, or even a terrible naïveté; it is a pagan way of honoring those who came before us. It is also how we honor the gifts that they courageously sought and achieved for our benefit.

Now, when we consider everything that I have written up to this point, you can see the ideas that I am promoting and even celebrating as a witch, ritual magician, initiate and adept. I believe that being faithful to the founder and the trailblazer of one’s spiritual lineage is an important part of being an adept. It is not naïve nor foolish to venerate one’s spiritual ancestors, just as it isn’t foolish or naïve to venerate one’s genetic ancestors. It is part of being a pagan and a magician, and so in this context to behave and comport oneself in this manner is honorable and generous. After all, wouldn’t I want people to behave in a respectful fashion to me after I have gone to great lengths to give them the lore that I have labored upon for so many years? Do I want people to disparage me for my all too human failings and personal flaws while at the same time greedily using my ideas and writings for their personal betterment? I believe that that is the real issue regarding the honoring and veneration of spiritual ancestors. How would you like to be treated disparagingly by posterity in the future when you are unable to defend yourself, and even worse, when those same people are still using your ideas and rituals?

While it is so trendy and cool to be cynical, disparaging and cleverly negative to anyone who is a founder or trailblazer, or even someone who could be considered a magical hero, I think that it is despicable and deplorable behavior which only serves to define someone who is actually bankrupt of any original ideas and morally a scoundrel. This might sound like harsh criticism, but I see it as a powerful antidote to the popular sentiment of iconoclastic thinking that seems to be the trend in postmodern occultism today. I stand against that kind of thinking, which I suppose makes me something of counter force in popular thought. Then again, I think that I have good reason for acting and believing as I do because I have found that the popular consensus contradicts both good Pagan theology as well as good magical practice.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. Frater Barrabbas, you are a shining example for all magicians and adepts, regardless of denomination, on the subject of anscestors and forefathers. Anyone mocking you because you pay due tribute to your heroes clearly has an oedipal issue.

    In Licht, Leben und Liebe,

  2. I completely agree and am sorry that this disagreement occurred.

    I came into American, non-BTW initiatory Wicca thirteen years ago via my husband. We also were exposed to African Traditional Religions at that time, which teach ancestral reverence. At that time, my husband/priest and I had no exposure to working with ancestors in Neopagan Witchcraft at all. We decided to try it in the context of our own practices, so at Samhain of 2002, we inaugurated a tradition of honoring our '"Ancestors of Land," "Ancestors of Blood," and "Ancestors of Spirit." The "Ancestors of Spirit" were exactly who you talk about: Alex Sanders, Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, and more. We made up a poster with their pictures (and others) and used it as the center focus of a large dumb supper with our spiritual group.

    That still counts as one of the most powerful - and effective - rituals I have ever done. Within 24 hours, by "accident" my husband and I came across information on the internet that would lead directly to our teachers - information we'd never seen before, unsought information that nevertheless immediately "clicked," filled a hole in our practices and transformed us in many core ways. I have no doubt that one of those "Ancestors of Spirit" led us thusly. We still have that poster, and we still call and honor these Ancestors of Spirit at every ritual we do, and they have a place of honor on our altar.

    I know full well how flawed Sanders, Gardner, Mathers, etc. were. I also don't know their full stories and none of us ever will, on this side of the Veil, at least. I don't know what it was like being a gay male interested in Witchcraft in England in the 1950s and 60s, especially the 50s. And thank the Gods I did not have to live through that. Perhaps the personality flaws that made Sanders unpleasant also gave him the strength to cope. Not trying to enable dysfunction, but sometimes it happens that way.

  3. Care Frater,

    Thanks for this post. I am unsure of the exact interaction you refer to, but I would wager your strong explanation here would not get much disapproval, even from Nick himself.

    I think you hit on the issue very clearly when you write “I am not advocating that we turn a blind eye to the flaws and imperfections that were so highly on display by these founders, but instead we should really focus on the gifts that they bestowed us.”

    This is a choice, a magical action that forms part of your spiritual practice. As you say there are all sorts of moral and ethical reasons for such a choice of emphasis. I think this is a wise and wonderful thing for anyone drawing upon traditions founded or promoted by these people – which as you say is pretty much everyone in the occult community today.

    However, I can also see the concern that some folk have that if we uncritically focus too much on the contributions made by the founders we can become locked into their systems, their way of thought, their practice and not take the traditions forward. Now, since you are the founder of your owner system or tradition this is hardly relevant to you, but PERHAPS it is to the couple of Covens in the UK who are (after 50 years) still using original rituals of Gardner’s, rituals he later revised.

    We also, I believe, need to examine whatever biographies, information, anecdotes we can find concerning our spiritual ancestors. If we hold the understanding that our traditions effect and transform our lives, we should be able to discern those effects in the lives of others. Now of course, if we cannot it does not mean the tradition is flawed, but it should be noted. And one can gain a lot from the work of people, even if their personal life is less than salubrious.

    Our interconnection and dependency on those who went before us is obvious and we owe these people a huge debt. I think we can only repay that debt by taking the traditions forward.

    Scholars and biographers not involved or supported by these magical traditions have to be more objective, but even then they should be able to see contribution and importance within a person’s chosen field amongst the personal foibles and dysfunction. In the end, as you say, we are all human.

    THANKS :)

  4. Thanks everyone for your comments - However, two points that I would like to make in regards to what Peregrin wrote. First of all, he didn't touch on the point that spiritual ancestors are to be venerated. How I venerate a spiritual ancestor is to put their photograph up in some special place, and I make offerings to it. Somehow, I doubt that Nick Farrell would approve of that kind of practice. That was a point that I made which Peregrin didn't either get or for whatever reason, omitted. Also, while I promote a form of Witchcraft that is progressive, inventive and experimental, those who don't feel so inclined, and who aren't into magick, for whatever reason, can and do perform the rites as they were given them to retain an alignment to their founder and their tradition. I have no problem with this approach, even though I take another path altogether.