On Maintaining Tradition

Not too long ago, I read on one of my friends’ Facebook walls a particular quote that I find profound and worthy of committing to memory:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.  Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

After the past few posts about how to downsize magic on a budget to what you can manage, it’s probably easy to think that I’m cheering for doing away with tradition and institutionalized forms of magic in occulture in favor of an easier, cheaper route.  Don’t think that I’m supporting this; I mentioned throughout these same posts that, when possible, doing things by the book is important and worth the effort and cost, and if you can afford to do something fancier, you should.  If you can’t but really still need to do something, and if you know the logic and framework of the system you’re trying to change well enough, then doing things in a faster, cheaper, or more streamlined way can also work to more-or-less the same ends, especially if you’re willing to make up for the difference in cost with more ritual work or if you can rely on already-established spiritual contacts.

Not too long ago, I was recently initiated into a religion that places a huge amount of emphasis on tradition.  Not just ritual protocols and songs, though those are hugely important, but even the small things like how to ask questions, how to treat certain ritual objects on a weekly basis, and the like.  Even the smallest details are often the hinge upon which something is done, and changing these things wantonly is a huge no-no against the people and household who initiated me.  While eventually I might be able to experiment and listen to the spirits with whom we work and find ways that work better for me, those times are yet far off and I have much to learn, and there’s no guarantee I can or should find my own way to work.

However, our tradition is just that, our own, and even closely-associated houses within the same overarching religion might have vastly different ways of doing particular things.  Does this make them wrong?  No!  As with most cultures and religions, there is no centralized or centrally-managed “correct” way to do things.  Variations are to be expected based on location, time period, and evolution within those contexts, and it’s natural to assume that what I consider right, another might consider wrong.  Is that alright?  Of course!  Just because I do something differently doesn’t make either of us wrong, so long as we’re following the traditions and working within them as we should.  That our traditions differ doesn’t mean one tradition has to be changed to suit the other.  It just means that our traditions are different and that we respect our own traditions’ validity, and respect the power of other people to maintain their own traditions.

There’s a big push in occulture, and there has been a while, based on postmodernism, Discordianism, and chaos magic theory that we can do anything we want to do and change anything we want because it’s us who’s doing the work and all that’s really powering our magic is, ultimately, us.  I find that notion half-cute and half-obscene.  For one, no, we’re not alone in the cosmos; that kind of solipsistic thinking is insulting to the others who do, in fact, exist regardless of what we think of them, be they spirit or man, alive or dead.  For another, thinking that we can do whatever the hell we want and being right in how we’re doing it regardless disregards the logic, framework, and methodology that has been built up in the traditions passed down to us, and to disregard that or, worse, to cherrypick from them

The word “tradition” literally means “that which is handed down to us”.  We call a lot of things “traditions” when, in reality, they’re no such thing; it was “tradition” at my university to streak the libraries during finals, when it was really just a meme done by one or two generations of students and people wanted to show how edgy or ballsy they were.  That’s not a tradition.  A tradition is something that has been handed down to you as a whole unit from another person, who themselves received it from another person, and so forth until a particular person had a particular revelation that needed to be passed on.  The person who gives that tradition to you is, essentially, an initiator, and you are their initiate in that tradition.  In maintaining that tradition that was given to you, you show your initiator and all their initiators respect for continuing that work, the contracts they made, the sacrifices they paid for, and living their own lives to pass that tradition on.  Thus, what Chesterton said above about tradition makes this poignantly clear to me: regardless of heeding what innovations we ourselves or others make, tradition is heeding the innovations of our ancestors and those who came before us.

Now, I’m not always a stickler for tradition.  It can on occasion be a good move to break from tradition and do things differently, and not everything that’s been passed down is always a good thing.  Sometimes our morals dictate that times have changed and so too should the things we do; sometimes changing climates, famine, war, migration, and the like prevent us from doing things the way things have been done in the past.  Sometimes our ancestors operated on inexact or incomplete knowledge and we honestly have better ways to do things now that couldn’t be done in the past.  A particular story comes to mind about how certain things are passed on that no longer need to be heeded:

A young woman is preparing a pot roast while her friend looks on.  She cuts off both ends of the roast, prepares it and puts it in the pan.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” her friend asks.  “I don’t know”, she replies.  “My mother always did it that way and I learned how to cook it from her”.

Her friend’s question made her curious about her pot roast preparation.  During her next visit home, she asked her mother, “How do you cook a pot roast?”  Her mother proceeded to explain and added, “You cut off both ends, prepare it and put it in the pot and then in the oven”.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” the daughter asked.  Baffled, the mother offered, “That’s how my mother did it and I learned it from her!”

Her daughter’s inquiry made the mother think more about the pot roast preparation.  When she next visited her mother in the nursing home, she asked, “Mom, how do you cook a pot roast?”  The mother slowly answered, thinking between sentences.  “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot”.  The mother asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?”  The grandmother’s eyes sparkled as she remembered.  “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then.  I had to cut off the ends to fit it into the pot that I owned.”

Just because a tradition declares a certain method to be valid within that tradition doesn’t mean that tradition is infallible.  It just means that that’s how the tradition has codified something; should the code need to change for a good reason while keeping the tradition intact, then there’s no reason that the tradition shouldn’t be changed, though the original method and new way should both be kept in mind.  After all, the original method was made for a reason.

When learning magic or any sort of old art, it behooves us to learn the traditional way of doing things first.  I’m no fan of reading a ritual in a book and changing it outright to suit our own needs, especially without taking the time to see why that particular ritual was written that particular way in that particular book.  This is especially true when we consider a book to be a compendium of traditions with dozens, maybe hundreds of initiators’ teachings present within it, and all their cumulative experience in a particular act present in a codified, static form; the ritual is written that way for a reason, and we should strive to follow that ritual as it is presented to us before we go changing it around because we feel like we’re in the right to so do.  Hint: you’re not.  You might be in the right if you try the ritual and can change parts of it without changing the result or the effect, all while maintaining the integrity of the tradition you’re essentially buying into by following the book, but you’re not in the right to disregard parts of it outright and cherrypick the parts you like because you feel you’re important like that.

If you like, consider a tradition a “canonical” form of a particular body of knowledge and actions against which other acts can be compared.  If something follows the tradition closely or to the letter, we can call that thing traditional.  If that something changes a few things without changing the overall flow, feel, or structure, then we might call that thing an innovation within the tradition.  If that thing changes much to affect the flow and structure, even it reaches towards the same ends, then it’s no longer traditional nor does it belong in that tradition.  While none of these three things are “wrong” when trying to accomplish a particular goal, if we’re initiated into a particular tradition, we need to be very careful about what we show to others as part of that tradition.

Ultimately, in our lives and especially in our Work, we need to be concerned with what works and with what works best, but we also need to be mindful of what’s worked for those who have gone before us and what is known to work for others.  What works best for us might work only for us based on our own work, and this sort of thing inherently cannot become traditional though it may fit within an overall tradition.  What can be passed on should be passed on, generally speaking, and what’s been passed down to us should be passed down to others whenever possible, even if we no longer use it.  Even if it’s just for memory’s and veneration’s sake, tradition is valuable and can help others innovate on their own.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote those posts on doing magic cheaply on a budget.  Sure, anyone can whip up a ritual with a candle or a stick and get magic accomplished; that’s not the point.  Many people are used to working within traditions with access to rare, obscure, or precious items, and depending on where we are in our lives or what’s going on around us, we may not have the ability to carry out those traditions with the resources and tools we have available to us.  This doesn’t mean we can’t do our work that we’re used to, but it means we have to work within those traditions we’ve been taught in a way that maintains faithfulness to them while being aware of our limitations and own context.  Traditions aren’t necessarily fixed things, though it’s nice to keep them as fixed as we can.  Thus, within the Solomonic tradition, if we live in a place where hazel doesn’t grow, we can’t rightly make our wands from a wood we can’t obtain, so we need to find a wood that is available that works as well as hazel might.  If we’re too poor to make lamens from gold, we need to find another material that we can obtain.  We can still be traditional even if we’re unable to do as we were taught.

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