One of the 'non-witchy' facts about me is that I have a post-graduate diploma in information management. A large part of this based on how to properly research subjects and topics, and I eventually went on to get a job advising others how best to perform research. I love learning and researching new subjects, and whilst I say this is a 'non-witchy' fact, it has actually really helped me in my pagan studies over the years.
When I first started practicing witchcraft, the internet wasn't readily available in most homes, and mobile phones were those big chunky things that you only saw in movies (showing my age). My research was basically limited to a Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia CD and the small local library. One of the great things about the internet is that it has allowed so much information to be so readily available - simply hop onto Google, enter a search term and you are guaranteed hundreds, if not thousands of resources! Unfortunately, one of the not-so-great things about it is how much of that information is utter bullshit.
I was doing some research earlier for my latest book and came across an organisation - a specific 'temple' to a Goddess (which I won't name), based on myths and legends from a particular culture. And for a cool £1,000 a year you could train to become a priestess in this particular temple - neat huh? Except the 'ancient Goddess' they worshipped has never, ever existed in any of the mythos they were drawing from and seemed to be completely made up by the founder. They spouted a load of fantastic sounding information about how they also worshipped some very specific figures from history and then completely fabricated 'facts' about these figures that never appeared in the mythos they were aligning with. And those that weren't fabricated were just wrong! These are figures I personally work with and have done a lot of research into - the whole thing was actually kind of offensive. The worst part was that they actually had a pretty decent website, a physical location, and plenty of other training courses that looked intriguing. To anybody 'new' coming in, I can see how they would be fooled by this temple.
There is a huge problem within the pagan community when it comes to the spread of misinformation. Unfortunately this isn't a problem unique to the pagan community, but it is one we should be aware of. At best, this information is just wrong, and at worst it can be downright dangerous. On a practical level, most of us work with herbs, oils, and crystals, and not all of them are fit for human or animal use. Misinformation in this area has in the past caused death. On a more spiritual level, many of us work with deities and spirits, and not all of them are sunshine and rainbows. Getting involved with a spirit you don't fully understand can have some very undesirable consequences.
Whilst there is a lot of information out there which is just factually wrong, there is another grey area which can be a very interesting line to tread. This is the line between 'fact' and 'experience'. If I were to say that the Goddess Nantosuelta is often associated with the bounty of the harvest because ancient artefacts depict her as holding a cornucopia, then that is fact. If I say that the Goddess Nantosuelta wears a red dress because that is how she appeared to me in meditation, that is my experience. What is my experience might not be your experience. However, my experience shouldn't become 'fact' purely on the basis of my say-so. It may be a fact for me personally, but that doesn't mean it will be for you - Nantosuelta might come to you in a blue dress! Unfortunately there are a lot of writers out there who will misrepresent experience for fact to the extent that it becomes deliberately deceptive and misleading - I'm thinking of one particular book on Irish tradition which was released last year which got absolutely trashed after the author presented everything in the book as 'fact'. When a number of people in the Irish pagan community came out to highlight the discrepancies and falsehoods in this book, the author doubled down by saying that this was her 'experience' of it. And that's absolutely fine! But don't misrepresent your experience as fact, as this is how untruths get spread.
So, what can you do when you are conducting your own research to ensure that the sources you are using are true and factual? How can you tell if what someone is writing is based on empirical, evidenced fact, or whether they are writing from personal experience? Here are my top two tips. I was aiming to write more, but actually they can all be pretty much summed up by the two below.
1. What are the writer's credentials?
For example, if they have been practicing for five years but list themselves as 'Priestess of Hekate, Keeper of the Isle of the Hedgemaze, Oracle of the Sacred Potatoes, Watcher of the Snakes Supreme, and Third Level Initiate in the Temple of Dipshittery,' then I would be wary. Most titles worth earning will take years of practice and finetuning. Anyone can go on Udemy these days and take a 2 week course and qualify as a Reiki Master - that doesn't make them credible.
If you are on their website, take a look at their 'about' section. Do they list who have they trained with, if anyone (and remember, just because they haven't trained with anyone or might not have any titles doesn't make their information less valid)? Do they list any of their resources or inspiration (I find anyone who mentions Robert Grave's 'White Goddess' as a resource very difficult to take seriously)? Have they written any other books or articles that have been published by reputable sources or do they have support from others in the magickal community? Putting a writers name through Google - especially if you add words such as 'controversy' or 'bad review' to your search - can often bring up some very telling information!
2. Do they cite their resources, and if they do, can you locate and read those resources yourself?
It is amazing the liberties that some people will take, trusting that no-one will actually bother to fact check if they drop a source in there. In relation to my own research earlier with the temple I mentioned above, they stated that according to a certain ancient text there were 9 figures known as 'the 9 X's', and their Queen was 'figure X who is better known in history as figure Y'.
Luckily I have read that ancient text and knew right away that was bull - the author never referred to them as 'the 9 X's', and the whole 'Queen X is better known is history as Queen Y' is complete conjecture. Scholars and historians debate whether Queen X is the first incarnation of her name which inspired other tales of women with this name, but there is zero evidence to be able to state that Queen X went on to become the figure Queen Y. Absolutely none.
If you have read something that sounds plausible but there are no sources listed (I'll admit, I hardly ever list resources), then do a bit of research and see if you can find anything to corroborate this information. Ideally, you should be able to find other websites, books, articles, etc., that agree with that information. However, be cautious; look out for articles all coming from one website on the same subject (when I was researching a particular water spirit I found five articles giving the same background information on her - however, it turned out they were all from the one website. I couldn't find any information elsewhere on her). You want to look for different and independent resources to cross-reference your information with.
Also look out for repetitive information. Many websites will lift and shift information from others onto their own. If you are searching for a description of the Goddess Brigid, and you can only find three websites which say 'Brigid was a purple haired, yellow eyed vixen with a penchant for the strange and unusual' all using those exact words then chances are they have just copied each other. Unless you can actually trace these claims back to a source, I would be very suspicious about accepting them as fact.
Make sure that you are evaluating the sources themselves. You may have five separate sources that all say one thing, but if they are all from tumblr then again, it can be difficult to know where that information originated. Online resources such as the Royal Britannia are very useful, as are museums and local history societies. You can usually tell the validity of an author by their previous titles and reviews from other authors, especially those considered 'experts' in a particular sector.
This method is also good for helping establish what might be fact and what might just be a practitioners experience. Remember, experience isn't lesser than fact and it shouldn't be disregarded, but fact and experience are two different things.
Yes, research can be long, and sometimes boring. But please don't just read something on Pinterest and take it as gospel. Developing our learing and our understanding is an extremely important aspect of our spiritual growth, as is sharing that information with others. If you do struggle to find sources or aren't sure on the writer's validity, then you don't necessarily need to completely disregard it - it can still be useful, and it doesn't mean it isn't true! But it is suspicious, so take it with a pinch of salt, and be open to be corrected if it does turn out to be less than true.
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The Weekly Witch:
Once I week I talk about something 'witchcraft' related I have done with my week. How we incorporate witchcraft into our every day lives is always a topic that has interested me, so I wanted to start this blog to explore it further!