When discussing sources, we must consider the word in two ways. One is the traditional understanding, of an academic source, read and cited in one’s research. The other is more broad — the source as a well from which our practice springs, or as the cornerstone upon which one’s path is built. Some paths come from a singular source, such as a religion based on a particular collection of literature, but most make use of multiple foundations and build bridges between them. My personal path, for example, takes inspiration from historical polytheism, modern interpretation of European witchcraft, and folk magic from Gaelic and Germanic settlers of Appalachia. These varied subcultures all have their own primary source materials and academic histories. Each of them is a seed from which ideas and theories of my practice have grown, but the resulting plant is a hybrid of my own creation.
Many witches or pagans create their paths in a similar way. It is important to consider what sort of seeds you are starting from and how those seeds will work together. Do you value sticking to a specific culture, honoring gods, continuing a tradition or heritage? Or basing your path more on personal values, philosophical ideals, and development of the self? Perhaps you desire a bit of both. Some sources may be difficult to combine, and will require careful thought and grafting (techno-Kemeticism, it does exist). Some grow together easily (sabbatic craft and folk magic, for example). No matter your preference, it is essential to remember your priorities and values when seeking source materials.
I have seen many newbies (myself included) ask the question, “but how do I get started? What do I do?“.
They are frequently frustrated when met with a similar answer each time: “I can’t tell you what to do. Each path is unique.”
I understand the frustration. Sometimes I’m surprised people still muddle through all of the conflicting information and shoddy scholarship online and in occult literature in general.
This is where discernment and critical thinking come into play. Consider if an idea is historically and factually supported, but also if it’s useful or true for you personally. That’s the tricky thing about spirituality –at the end of the day, it’s not very factual. There are very few objectively wrong or right answers.
So how do you get started?
#1 — Decide what it is exactly that you want to learn.
I have often had people come to me and say, “so teach me this witchcraft thing.” And I cannot but meet them with a blank stare. Witchcraft is a huge word that encompasses thousands of years, hundreds of cultures, and thousands of subcultures. Which adds up to a lot of different practices, sources, and ideas in which one might have interest.
If you have no idea what exactly it is that you’re interested in, then my honest suggestion is to browse. Wikipedia has decent information on most traditions, and their categories help with browsing related topics. You could go to the library and dig through their selection of history and theology, or just poke around on blogs that seem interesting. At this stage, it’s important to take everything with a very large grain of salt. Much of the beginner or intro information out there is heavily flawed, and many sources (both online and print) are full of issues or outdated information.
That brings us to the next step …
#2 — Consider WHY you want to learn it.
This is especially relevant when sourcing things from a culture that you are not familiar with. Ask yourself what draws you to this particular place or era. Many of us are guilty of perpetuating romanticized ideas about cultures that we didn’t grow up in, and while that may provide a starting point of sorts, it’s not a good idea to base one’s spirituality on cliche or stereotype.
It is common for folks to want to connect with an ancestral culture or heritage-based practice. This is a large part of what brought me to a pagan path. But sometimes one is called in another direction, be it by a childhood memory of mythology books after school, interest in certain cultural practices or values, or a random image or idea that just sticks with you.
I’m not going to take the progressive stance here and harp on about cultural appropriation. Just be smart about it, be respectful, and do your homework. Good sources on other cultures come from those cultures. If you’re only reading things written by outsiders looking in, then you’re not going to get the whole picture. Not to mention that some cultures are totally or partially closed to outside learners, so any information you get from secondary sources could be false or made-up.
Find primary sources. Then find more primary sources. Then perhaps look at some analyses of those sources to help you better understand them. But do try to avoid the scholar’s mistake of taking secondary source opinions for truth (looking at you, Tacitus).
If you’re more inclined towards learning certain skills, like say sigil-making, herbalism, or Tarot, ask yourself how you are going to use these skills, what background information you must have, and how they will fit into your daily life or your spiritual beliefs. Why learn Futhark divination if you do not plan acknowledge the sacrifice Odin made in order to gain that wisdom?
Consider your emotional motivations as well. Do you want to get a thrill, a sense of power, or control over others? Take a step back, and perhaps study a few skills in psychology and self-analysis. Do you find spiritual meaning in the practice, a practical application, or simply a healthy curiosity? Keep researching and see if it’s for you.
We will speak more on building a system of Values in a later post, but it is useful for the beginner to take note of some of their current values and compare them to the value systems of cultures or magical traditions that they’re interested in. If the values of the practice or culture you’re interested in are not at least somewhat similar to your own, it may not be worth it to devote a lot of time and energy to study it in-depth.
#3 — Find yourself some reliable sources.
This is perhaps the most difficult part of the process. Many folks start out with mass-market books that misrepresent the path they’re interested in find out later that the history of the path is much different than what they had learned or assumed. If you’re going to learn something, it’s much easier on you to learn the correct history and factual bits in the first place, rather than having to restructure your brain around new and conflicting information. Not that you won’t find new theories and ideas. But it’s important to have a solid understanding of the basics and vocabulary of the path or practice you’re interested in.
There are many articles out there about how to identify good sources. They are geared towards the academic, but they still apply in theological and occult readings, especially to beginner literature. Take a look at some of them and get a grasp on what to look for. Generally I tend to look at:
- primary sources (consider translation and editor in this as well – some older translations have debated interpretations)
- scholarly articles with peer review (look for that .edu web address)
- bibliographies that include more than one author or publishing house, and are (largely) not self-referential
- author’s background and qualifications (including biases)
- opinion of academic community on their works (not always the best criterion, but still something to consider)
- date of publication. Generally newer works will have better archaeology or history knowledge, but older works may be of value because of their contemporary perspective.
- editing and organization. If it’s haphazardly thrown up on an ugly glittersprite background, one can assume that it is opinion at best, tough age and independent publication can be a factor here as well.
You may find it helpful to make use of a recommended reading list from a trusted source or scholar. You’re also going to want to read reviews before you buy any books. I place more weight in critical reviews because it’s much easier to say “yeah it was good,” than to seriously analyze a source and articulate critiques.
Finally: read more than one source! Do not pick up one book, read it cover-to-cover, and then assume you know all there is to know about the topic. Question things, research the author’s background, and see what multiple authors have to say on a topic.
#4 — Analyze your understanding.
Take the time to evaluate what you have learned. Create a summary for yourself. Try explaining it to someone else to see if your understanding is complete. Meditate on it, or do some journaling. Think about how it will fit and function in your practice. Think about what parts of your self and your practice will change with this new information.
Now is a good time to bring in secondary and tertiary sources. Read forums, books, articles, and blogs about others’ interpretation of this information. See if you agree or disagree with these analyses. Though I caution newbies against online debate (people can get defensive, especially if they know you’re new), it may be useful to find an online group or forum. Lurk, read as much as you can, and then ask polite questions if you cannot find answers elsewhere. After you understand different theories or methods involved in the concept, see if there is further learning to be done.
Rinse and repeat.
#5 — Try it on
Once you feel comfortable with a concept, it’s good to get hands-on experience with it. Book learning is important, but only goes so far. For some things, that could be within a few hours. I picked up Tarot after 2 hours of studying because it relies heavily on personal intuition and does not carry a spiritual responsibility like some divination methods may. For other practices, it could be months or years of research before you feel comfortable enough to actually summon something into that circle or experiment with entheogen use.
Most skills or concepts will be applicable with a few days or weeks, but don’t feel rushed. It is often better to take one’s time and fully understand something before diving in head first, though I know a few practitioners would say that there is merit in jumping first and asking questions later. For things like Tarot, crystals, or religious practice, there’s little harm in picking them up after you have basic knowledge. Just don’t go making oaths or trying to get initiated after 2 weeks of study.
If there is a group near you (or online) that studies or practices the concept you are interested in, consider attending an open session. Not only will this give you experience in the new ideas, but it will allow you to see what the community is like. Many folks will use different sources from your own, or may not pay much mind to source materials at all. Attitudes about learning vary wildly in the pagan or occult community, and your studies will be challenged. Be comfortable discussing your ideas and theories, and don’t be afraid to reject someone else’s opinions or change your own mind.
#6 — Integrate the new ideas.
This can blend pretty seamlessly from step 5, and may happen on its own. Once you have a full understanding and have some practice, the new idea or skill can take a full-time spot in your spiritual understanding. It will be integrated with previous ideas, ethics, and personal preferences and become a building block for other skills, practical application, or future theories and studies.
After going through this research cycle a few times, you may build up enough ideas and practice to find yourself fully immersed in religiousness or occult study. I find it preferable to do this one piece at a time, instead of trying to jump into a fully formed practice all at once, but others may disagree. To some, it’s more important to get their hands dirty and start practicing, even if they make mistakes, rather than to read endlessly. It’s up to the practitioner to strike a balance between research and action.
At this point you may also say, yes I fully understand this concept, but it is not for me. There may be an ethical conflict, or perhaps it simply isn’t practical for your life (you work random hours and daily spellwork just isn’t gonna happen). There is no shame in letting something go from one’s practice if it won’t work — too often people try to cling to ideas or skills that they want to love, but just aren’t them (I’m guilty of this as well — I just can’t be a full-on Reconstructionist and witch at the same time). Perhaps this idea turned out to be much different from your initial understanding and you want to move on to something that works better for your goals.
In either case, each idea or skill that you learn about does shape how you understand the universe and yourself. The very act of studying a new concept is spiritual growth, even if you end up not using the practice.
In the occult world, there are many different kinds of “correct,” and facts aren’t always important to the practitioner. Once you have a solid historical understanding of your topic, it is common to branch out to more fanciful works in order to consider their spiritual and philosophical ideas.
One of my favorite books is Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft, but I would not recommend it as the first source someone read because of its historical fallacies. In this case, it is useful to be familiar with the history of witchcraft scholarship, Romantic ideas about Sabbatic practice, and Medieval grimoires — to know that there was never a pan-European goddess cult or that most of the “witches” confessing about flying to Sabbat were peasants under duress of torture. With this historical context, one can be open to the ideas in a spiritual and occult sense instead of getting bogged down by facts or fallacies.
Most often one builds a practice from the ground up, which is why I emphasize history and academia for the beginner. Once you understand the history of scholarly ideas about occult practice, the history of what people actually practiced, and how those two mesh to form modern spiritual ideas, then it is much easier to integrate new concepts into your framework. If you start off with flawed history, then it may be difficult to understand the conflicting theories of craft practice.
I’ve used Western witchcraft and occultism in most of my examples, but these practices apply to most any spiritual tradition, especially those outside of Western purview (Dharmic metaphysics has been greatly transformed by those who brought it into Western understanding, for example).
This is just a general understanding of the process that one must go through to begin building a practice. It sounds like a lot of work, and honestly it is, but I find it to be enjoyable and fulfilling. Many of these steps will happen fluidly or concurrently, so it won’t be quite as tedious as it may seem. Those who prefer a less academic style of learning may skip a few steps, but I do hold that it is important for everyone to have factual bases upon which to build ideas. I’m quite jaded by the New Age style of picking up ideas, dancing around with them, then calling oneself an adept. To have a true understanding of something, one must know it in context — historical, cultural, academic, and spiritual.
If there are concepts that I’ve missed, ideas you disagree with, or questions that you have, I encourage you to comment below or contact me! If you need help finding a certain source or figuring out if it’s reliable, I may also be able to help. I have a few links on my Resources page, but it is currently incomplete, so I might have more up my sleeve that aren’t listed there yet.