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Learning and Unlearning Witchcraft: Can Bad Info Ruin Your Practice?

Learning and Unlearning Witchcraft: Can Bad Info Ruin Your Practice? September 5, 2021

My book, The Witch’s Path: Advancing Your Craft at Every Level, is out on Wednesday! Written during a period of personal burnout, it’s a book about taking next steps as a witch (but really, could apply to magicians and occultists more broadly). Whether you’re an exhausted group leader, an armchair occultist who needs a shove, or an overwhelmed beginner trying to figure out how to create something meaningful for yourself, The Witch’s Path has you covered. I draw on my background as a classroom teacher to discuss core concepts that apply regardless of tradition, differentiating exercises to challenge readers at all levels of practice and experience.

The following is an excerpt from my chapter about literacy, research, and how we go about learning and teaching witchcraft. Enjoy!

Unlearning

It can be tricky hunting for advice from other Witches, especially on social media. There are a lot of cynics out there who paint a dire picture of the quality of information circulating in Witchcraft spaces. Maybe you’ve heard from them about all the dangerously bad books that are supposedly out there. There are even more bad blogs, bad channels, and bad social media posts, they say. There’s just badness all around, making it impossible for anyone to really learn anything genuine. False teachings, and incorrect history, and shoddy magical techniques, and misinterpretations of traditional material, and goodness knows what else. How on earth can anyone be expected to get off on the right foot and learn things correctly when they have to wade through a cesspool of misinformation, both online and on bookstore shelves? If only everything was peer reviewed, or curated by experts. If only publishers would stop appealing to the lowest common denominator, come the angry cries. If only beginner witches would get off social media, get serious, and do the work. Am I right, or am I right?

It sounds kind of silly when I actually write it down like that, and it should. This is a lot of melodrama and fearmongering. Still, these are some very common anxieties in Witchcraft communities. They often leave beginners to worry that they’re going to read a book that’s full of misinformation and that it’s going to hobble their progress in the Craft. Meanwhile, covenleaders and Witchcraft teachers worry that they’re going to wind up with students who’ve been exposed to that misinformation, and then they’re going to have to help them “unlearn” something. Practically everywhere you look there are Witches in public spaces complaining about how damaging the wrong book can be. We talk about authors leading people astray, or social media influencers ruining the next generation of practitioners, but it’s time to chill out and put things in perspective.

When I first came to the Craft, I read books that more experienced practitioners told me were going to ruin my later experiences as a Witch. I was told that I wasn’t serious because I was learning from Witchcraft books that were aimed at young people, and that made Witchcraft seem easy and approachable (lots of people seem to think Witchcraft is only authentic when it’s difficult and painful). This wasn’t serious Witchcraft, people said to me. I read histories online that I later found out were untrue, and I experimented with magical philosophies and systems that weren’t very effective. I met a lot of people over the years that gave me advice that turned out to be wrong or unhelpful. I also made a ton of mistakes when it came to my public behavior, how I interacted with my elders and fellow seekers and, later, how I ran a coven and taught within my own tradition.

It was all part of a process. Learning takes time, and it’s not simply a matter of reading the “correct” books, getting the “real” training, or knowing the “right” people. It’s a mixed bag, pretty much anywhere you look.

The fear that you (or your students) will read a problematic book and it will create more work later in the form of “unlearning” may seem like a reasonable concern, but it’s not a helpful place to dwell. You’re going to read problematic books! You just will. You’re going to consume media that ends up not serving you in the long run, or that you’ll enjoy at the time and then question as you gain more experience. You’ll think some piece of history is one-hundred percent factual, and then new research will come out that will totally raze your worldview. Learn to be excited when this happens, and not discouraged.

When I was in the ninth grade, another kid in my chemistry class asked our teacher how he would feel if some new scientific knowledge came out that rendered the periodic table of elements obsolete. My chemistry teacher—who was the best, by the way—said, “That would be incredible! It would mean that humanity was making progress. And wouldn’t it be exciting to get to learn something brand new?”

That’s exactly how I felt when I graduated from my beginner Wicca books and began reading scholarly works on Witchcraft, books of ceremonial magic, and books on Wiccan theology and tradition. Everyone needs to start somewhere, and what seems “bad” to you may be exactly what someone else needs to take the next step forward. Does that mean that every book and blog post gets a free pass from critique? No, of course not! But critique the content, not the person who is consuming it without another point of reference. It’s perfectly possible to read something questionable and not be “ruined” by it (and reading only really great books, by the way, is not an assurance of wisdom or moral character).

If you’re in a position of authority, consume widely and disseminate those materials that you feel are the most accurate and helpful, and do so without allowing your ego to lead you to believe that you already know everything and can’t learn from contemporary voices. If you’re a newcomer, read with discernment and apply the same kinds of tests that you might use when evaluating other sources outside of the Witchcraft community (whether teachers, courses, social media pages, or books). You might be new to Witchcraft, but you’re probably not new to figuring out when someone has an agenda that doesn’t align with yours, when it’s time to look for a second opinion, and when a text is inherently problematic (racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise worthy of the dumpster out back). Use those skills you’ve already developed elsewhere just by being a thinking person out in the world.

Learning is an ongoing process. You don’t “unlearn” things—you analyze why they were meaningful at the time, what should change, and then you take the next step forward. That’s all any of us can do.

Like it so far? You can order it here, or look for it at your favorite indie bookstore this week!


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