Caveat Mentor, or Watch That First Step!
Article ID: 13550
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: November 22nd. 2009
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Lately I’ve been contemplating how I found my way to the Pagan path I’m on. Every river of wisdom has a source, and someday when I reach the delta and depart this life, I want to have learned why the waters flow. The origins of my path, and my adventures along the way thus far are a tale long in the telling, and never on a dry throat. But for this moment, in this essay, I’d like to dwell on the sort of magickal and spiritual guidance available to new Witches and Pagans. Please extend me the cliché literary device of beginning with a tale of sordid wrongdoing.
My first experience with a coven was well over a decade ago, on the less seemly side of a large college town. A few Pagan students I’d befriended at the university popped into my office one day to tell me about the magick shop they’d discovered. Their excitement was palpable, their eyes like saucers. Joyous, anime cartoon eyes.
We all have a story about how we discovered our path, and invariably the story is an adventure. It always has an element of escape, a feeling of release or freedom, and at least one moment of sudden enlightenment. Satori, if you will. Sometimes there’s danger, sometimes there are great friends or great adversaries. Always there is emotion. Everyone has a story, and should learn to tell it well, because every such story is worth hearing.
The students regaled me of the artwork and mystic paraphernalia they’d seen at the shop, the stacks of old books, and the keen interest the owners had shown in them. They invited me, and I tagged along, to the “Beginner’s Introduction to Wicca” that had been offered them by one of the proprietors, whose coven was seeking fresh members. I recognized that for some or all of them, this would be an important chapter in their story. Perhaps the first chapter. I felt honored that they might have me as a part of it.
By that point in my life, I’d been around the block a few times, so to speak, and I certainly didn’t need an introduction. But while I’d worked many varieties of magick on many occasions, at times with a close-knit group of friends, I’d never been a member of a formal coven, per se. I was intrigued. And call it a psychic impression, or just a hunch from someone who knows the price of entry into the Great Work, but I had a feeling the youngsters might need a guardian.
We were met with a warm welcome, and we perused the shop’s wares for a time, while our hosts took care of some customers. We were then seated in front of a television and VCR.
“What you’re about to see is a perfect representation of The Craft, ” one of them said. “The magick, the sensuality, the power, and the responsibility that comes with power.” Or something like that. I may be getting his words wrong – what I remember clearly is the way he was leering at one of the teen girls in the group.
Eventually the lights in the area were dimmed, and the movie was popped in. It was, of course, the 104-minute unedited version of the brilliant 1973 film … wait for it, wait for it … “The Wicker Man.”
Now … before I continue … let me say that I absolutely love that movie. It’s a Beltane staple for me. That said, showing such a movie as an Introduction to Wicca is not unlike introducing someone to GLBT issues by showing them “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
The intentions of the proprietors were clear to me, even before they began demonstrating the use of oil in “candle blessings, ” which involved some rather suggestive hand motions. For the next month or so, I saw to it that I was in attendance each of the subsequent times those students returned to take part in coven gatherings. I’m happy to say that the proprietors seemed unaware of my intent to protect my students from their “rituals” until every one of them had lost all interest in the coven. Call me a “wand-blocker” if you must, but I feel quite justified.
I don’t have precise statistics, of course, on how many would-be Pagans and Wiccans encounter predatory mentors in their early development. There are numerous news stories about leaders in other religions who prey on followers, but you don’t hear much about it in the magickal community. But of course it happens; it’s a sad by-product of human nature. Power is intoxicating, and power over others even more so.
This is why networking is so very, very important. Whether we work in a coven or as a solitary, it’s important that we network with many people, preferably not all of the same path, and that we talk amongst ourselves and police ourselves.
Websites such as WitchVox are not only fantastic tools for gathering ideas and information, but they can also be safety nets, particularly for newcomers. Thanks to websites like this one, new Witches and Pagans can not only learn from the articles, but can contact many of us, compare and contrast our styles and philosophies, and end up with a much better chance of finding a good mentor. And more importantly, they have a better chance of recognizing a bad one and getting out before harm is done.
So what makes a good mentor? That’s where opinions vary, and I revert to my previous point that whoever seeks a mentor should use whatever resources are available to compare and contrast as much as possible. All I can do to answer this question is give my opinion, with which anyone can feel free to disagree.
First of all, a mentor and student should be capable of being friends. There must be a compatibility of both general path and personality, because inevitably there will be conflict. Since no two people are alike, the student will at some point have trouble understanding something, or will disagree with it, or will want to go in directions the mentor doesn’t. There must be some form of platonic friendship, or conflict will dissolve the relationship.
Conflict is a necessary part of any learning process. Think back to your days in high school … there were probably times when you found certain homework assignments easy and unchallenging. You breezed through them like they were nothing, while certain other assignments in certain other subjects were challenging. The reason why some of them were too easy was because you already knew the material, which means you weren’t really learning much. But when you struggled to succeed, that was when you were really learning something. True learning is always a struggle, and leads to conflict – it definitely helps, in such times, to have a mentor who is also a friend.
Secondly, I believe that good magickal mentors expect no payment or services from those they teach. If nothing else, to do so detracts from the trust and friendship necessary in a teaching relationship. Knowledge and wisdom should be shared freely between friends, particularly when those friends are as open-minded and accepting as Witches and Pagans need to be.
Newcomers to magick, hear these words well: if someone demands services from you as payment for his guidance, then your spiritual growth is not his principal concern. This doesn’t make him a bad person, but even still, be constantly vigilant, and protect yourself accordingly.
And thirdly, I believe that a good mentor plays more the role of shepherd than pied-piper. A mentor should not be intent on producing another version of himself; to do so is to ignore the individual needs of the student. All people are different, and all Pagans and Witches follow a different path. To force someone off their path and onto yours is a disservice to them, a form of spiritual harm. In a sense, this is the same sort of spiritual harm that many Pagans and Witches escaped when turning from other religions.
A mentor should become aware of the student’s needs, guide the student using his own knowledge and wisdom, and be willing to let the student go if he is not up to the task. There is no shame in letting a student go. After all, it’s the hope of any good teacher that the student will someday surpass him; so letting go should be part of the plan from the beginning. In many cases, learning is not a one-way street, as the mentor learns a great deal from the student. In the ideal case, the mentor/student relationship eventually evolves into a friendship or partnership of equals.
Due to my nearly two decades of teaching (mathematics and astronomy, not magick) , I could probably come up with dozens of other desirable characteristics for teachers and mentors, but I’ll spare my readers further lecture. They’ve been kind enough to read this far, and I’m grateful. This is my first WitchVox article, and hopefully the first of many, most of them along a more light-hearted vein.
Merry we read….
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