I remember, several years ago, coming across this question frequently in forums or other places ’round the net: Where do I find books that are beyond Paganism (or Wicca, or Magic) 101? And I remember thinking ‘Yeah! Where are they, anyway?’ Was there a secret handshake that I needed to know or something?* Even after I moved on into what I later realized was ‘clearly beyond 101’ territory, that quandary always stuck with me.
Now, several years later, maybe I can give a little opinion and insight into that burning question that I, along with so many others, was pondering. Let’s break it down a bit, shall we?
1) What does ‘Beyond 101’ mean, anyway?
In this case I’m referring to, really, any kind of magical or occult knowledge that’s not likely to be covered in a book by Llewellyn publishing. There seems to be an endless stream of books on the market that cover the basics of a given tradition or practice, every flavor of introductory work, and simple spells for whatever ails you. But if all one knows is mass market books like these, one is likely to eventually sense a sameness to most of them and long for something… more. Something deeper and more intimate, more primal and revelatory. Before the age of the Pagan Blogosphere, the Internet and the Digital Grimoire, what trouble was had in finding such!
2) “Why are you still looking for books at all?!” (Or, the ‘you can’t really learn ______ from books’ conundrum, and Why I am Still Reading)
As a seeker who for years was primarily Solitary, I’ve learned a lot of what I know from books. Not everything (there’s no substitute for someone experienced showing you what it feels like to raise energy, for example, so you can be sure you were on the right track), but a lot. Learning from books can be more enriching than just reading the how-to and doing a spell by rote, or following along with a ritual just as it is written. There is nothing wrong with doing those things in the beginning, by the way! If you’re without a coven to teach you the basics, or a good mentor, how else is a person going to discover these things?
At some point, though, you’ll need to go farther if you want to deepen your understanding. Instead of looking for a different book with a more complex spell to do by rote, or a basic ritual honoring more titillating deities, ‘go beyond 101’ by reading works about more specialized subjects by academic researchers or historians, or books by anthropologists, or books put out by small publishers (like Scarlet Imprint or Three Hands Press) that specialize in esoteric material. You may have to get things on inter-library loan, or track down a tattered copy of something out of print for years, or save up for a limited edition, or scour the web for authorized electronic copies. (I’m still looking for a reasonably priced hardbound copy of Paul Bauschatz’ ‘The Well and The Tree – World and Time in Ancient Germanic Culture.’ I read it in college and it really informed what would later become a heavily Germanic and Northern European tinged practice filled with Seidr and other such goings on.)
As an example of ‘books beyond 101,’ I’ve come a long way from Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (which is a great book for the basics). Now I’m slowly warming up to the Viridarium Umbris (though I don’t own a copy of my own), and while I realize it’s a book I could pore over for the rest of my days and not completely “get,” I feel comfortable with, for instance, incorporating the idea of “dead bones” and “living bones” of plants into my herbal work. Much more woo-woo stuff than the good old “Lavender=purification” lists, but since herbalism and wortcunning are things I find really fascinating, I’m glad I found Schulke’s works. Granted, the level of difficulty of the material itself is going to be higher than with ‘101’ level books, but such is the way of things – don’t be intimidated.
Ultimately, it’s about figuring out ways to work what you’ve learned into the framework of whatever magical system or pagan proclivity appeals to you.
3) Welcome to Grad School!
Being at the 101 level of any skill, esoteric or not, is akin to primary school. Lots of fact memorization, standardized testing, and so on. Going ‘beyond 101’ is more like a graduate degree, where you can choose your specialization, and are responsible for the course of your own research. Daunting, especially since in the area of magic or the occult, you are unlikely to have a faculty member at hand, provided for you to act as your mentor or guidance counselor.
But, at the same time, it’s empowering as well. You are now the guide of your own Wyrd – the possibilities are endless! My friend Wandering Woman expressed this idea eloquently by saying that she was glad to be a co-creator of knowledge instead of just a passive consumer of the efforts of others. She was talking about her own advanced course of study at the local University and not her ongoing magical practice, but the sentiment remains the same.
As a person who is driven to create, I long ago had to come to terms with the realization that the hardest part of a project was when the time came to take my awesome idea and translate it to canvas or paper or metal: the Actually Doing It part. While sometimes it’s nice to sit back and bask in the Idea itself, to turn it over in one’s mind and admire it from different angles – that doesn’t compare to the satisfaction that one feels when one has gone through the (yes, perhaps difficult or lengthy or frustrating) process of birthing the creation out into the world. There’s also (for me at least) a gratifying release of psychic tension that comes with completing a project. It’s done! Now we can make room for new ideas, and begin creating something else, and the cycle begins anew.
Magic and Devotion are no different. There comes a time when you have to take what you’ve learned and put it into practice – even if it’s not perfect or you’re not sure what will happen or you’re afraid your doing it wrong. Make offerings. Work simple spells. Memorize poems that move you, and say them to your Gods – out loud. Share food and drink with your grandma, gone since you were little, on the Eve of All Hallows – Even if you cry, and even if you’re afraid you’ll really see her ghost.
Put your back up against that ancient tree in the park… like you’re lounging there while texting a friend, phone in hands… no one needs to know that the phone’s just a prop-you’re mind is quiet and alert, and into that calm space you call out silently with a voice honed into bell-like clarity – Hail thee, O king in green and gold, O strong limbed one of ancient girth, unbent before storms un-numbered…
and maybe you feel really silly doing it. And then you feel along your spine a tingle, cold and deep like the rushing of a clear stream, just for a second. Was it really there? Or, nothing happens at all, and you forget you tried to talk to an oak tree (haha) until weeks later when you have a strange dream that lingers in your memory… something about a figure robed in shifting leaves, and the voices of birds….
Not everything will be a Big Revelation. You won’t always hear the Voice of Spirit. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen, or if it will work. But you’ll certainly never know unless you do – and keep doing, and learning from your mistakes and adjusting and doing yet again and again until you wear grooves in the world made of your own Praxis and Being and Will.
4B) But… Isn’t That Dangerous?!?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: Yes, but-
Look, of course magic is dangerous. It’s Dreaming the Dream of the World, it’s the Parting of the Veil – touching the scales of the Great Snake who Dwells in the Land or the Roots of the Tree whose Limbs Cradle the Stars.
If you want to work magic I think its really of utmost importance that you be working from a place of emotional and mental stability. Be cautious, but also willing to take risks. Be sensible, but open to the idea of enchantment at the corners of your perception. Remember – magic and spirits are real. This is not just in your head. The path through the enchanted forest, as any spinner of faerie tales could tell you, is not safe.
If you are seeking solace, spiritual growth, or emotional and mental stability, then prayer and offerings to whatever deities, spirits, wights, angels, or powers you are building a relationship with is a wonderful thing to do. Even if you are content and whole, do it still.
Here’s a couple of really good writings on the way to seek out magic, and the dangers inherent in doing so:
As I and my co-witches say: “By the time you are likely to attempt something that may set your head on fire, you should probably know how to operate a fire extinguisher.”
*Actually, I think there’s only a secret handshake with some Magical Lodges, and of course British Traditional Wiccans. (Just Kidding! Kind of…)