On Secrecy and Privacy

By Sarah Thompson, adapted from a mailing list post in September 2010

I feel it incredibly important to be clear about the difference between secrecy and privacy. ‘What happens in circle, stays in circle,’ is a matter of privacy, not secrecy. It’s not unusual for things to happen in circle that are not the sort of thing you’d want to broadcast, particularly the results of certain kinds of work and/or things that come up (for example) when doing divination for coven-mates. That’s all fair enough, and the protection of such privacy is essential and expected.

Secrecy, particularly the keeping of magickal secrets, is not the same thing, and should not be conflated with privacy. It is my firm belief that secrecy in magick is a bad thing, and any seeming benefit it gives is far outweighed by the damage that it causes.

We chose to call our redaction, Open Source Alexandrian, for good reasons. Our inspiration was the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn, of course, though I think we take the Open Source-ness a bit further. The ability of the Anderson Feri tradition to play well with people who are non standardly gendered and/or who are queer is a definite influence on our approach, though the similarity is one of omission rather than inclusion — like most Feri lines, we simply don’t include bits of ritual that depend on the gender of the participants. It’s not traditional British Traditional witchcraft, but it works, and we prefer it this way.

We don’t have specific gods, or god names. Here we differ from Feri, but are a little more similar to Brit Trad as more commonly practiced. We’ll work with whoever and whatever chooses to show up, or that we choose to call. It works, though the simplicity and elegance of the Feri Lemniscate is certainly enviable. Unlike most Brit Trad lines, we don’t have names for generic Goddess and God that are specific to our line, nor do we have coven-specific secret names for deities or other spirits.

We don’t charge for teaching. I personally feel that this is a route to problems, because it creates expectations both in teacher and student that aren’t in anyone’s best interest. We don’t believe in keeping people in the pipe, so to speak, for long periods of time, and charging money, worse still earning a primary living from charging for teaching, creates a tendency to keep people paying for a long time. As Anderson Feri’s co-founder, Cora Anderson, is often reported as saying, this stuff is really simple. Actually, it really is simple, once you get it, so I’d rather figure out how to simply and straightforwardly teach that than invent ways to make it seem harder than it really needs to be in order to keep me in business.

The decision to avoid foundational myths came out of a lot of study — I put quite a bit of effort into researching several Brit Trad lines, Feri, and the history of the Golden Dawn tradition. Several inescapable conclusions came out of this: firstly, that pretty much every tradition founded in the last couple of hundred years has a variety of founding claims, generally of lineage though also of lore, that on examination were most likely simply made up by one or more individuals. Though I fully appreciate the utility of a good founding myth as a teaching tool, I prefer them to be seen as such, because the alternative tends to be fundamentalism, which does no one any favours. Beyond that, the question of lineage is also significant: all of the traditions that I looked at had founders who made claims of lineage that were at best dubious, and in some cases outright lies that were later demonstrated. The founders of the Golden Dawn wove a spectacularly tall tale. Gardner seems to have got his stuff, at least in part, from Crowley. Sanders managed to get hold of a Gardnerian Book of Shadows somehow and claimed it was passed on to him by his grandmother, but neglected to check that the date he claimed was actually before Gardner actually wrote the original.

And, you know what? It doesn’t matter.

All these systems work.

So what can you take from this? Basically, I was forced to the conclusion that, whilst initiation clearly works and Does Pretty Profound Stuff (having been through a few myself), and clearly the chain of initiation creates lineage, but it is NOT necessary for lineage to be valid in order for initiation to work — this logic is inescapable, and the main reason why we chose to avoid all that potential for hurt by simply stating that the material stands on its own merit, and we claim no special powers or special right to do what we do because of any claim of lineage.

The next part is the one that, oddly enough, I’m most proud of, even though I’ll most likely take the most flak for it. Basically, I just can’t see the point of claiming that something is a Big Dark Magickal Oathbound Secret when I can buy it at a bookshop or find it on the internet with 30 seconds of Googling. Many Golden Dawn orders kept the Hebrew alphabet as an oathbound secret, even after Regardie basically published all their most critical material openly. This is just frankly ridiculous, to me. Either something is secret, or it isn’t. If it is, don’t post it on the internet, don’t write about it, and don’t talk about it. If you do do any of those things, you need to accept that the material is no longer secret, and that it’s up for grabs, free for use for any purpose that the user sees fit. I therefore, reserve the right to do just that.

Finally, we don’t have a prescribed Book of Shadows, because it’s just too limiting. Though it’s a useful thing to have available, it tends to restrict rather than extend the available lore and ritual, because there is a tendency to stick to the book rather than invent new stuff. One thing I love about what we do is the ability to go with an approach of unscripted, seat-of-the-pants, do it because you feel it because it’s right in the moment magick. Having a Book of Shadows tends to work against that, because learning tends to be warped toward memorization of canonical lore and away from the, far more important, experiential learning that comes from casting a circle and getting in there and doing it.