A few words from Steven Posch have stood out in my mind since the summer that I heard him utter them at a large Pagan festival many years ago: “Pagans are the people of the library.”
Those words resonated with me because our communities hunger for knowledge and the wisdom to use that knowledge well. Many Pagans descend upon their local bookstore or favorite online purveyor of word-wares enthusiastically and often. Most are striving to better understand the philosophies, cultures, histories, signs, symbols, religious practices, and magical procedures, past and present, that constitute our chosen path.Some of us pursue our studies solo, while others join groups; a significant number of us have a mixture of individual and collective pursuits. Our groups have a variety of foci that we explore within various organizational structures guided by a range of principles. Covens, groves, kindreds, and similar types of groups are usually focused on a particular religious tradition and/or magical system.
Over the years, I have participated in several tradition-based and magical groups.
There are a number of resources available to facilitate creation of those types of groups, but we have fewer resources aimed at helping Pagans to create specialized groups focused on particular Pagan topics of interest. I have stretched myself a bit in order to create and facilitate study groups that cultivate knowledge and deepen understanding in a specific area.
Specifically, during my time in central Illinois, I started an elder futhark rune study group. Here in Missouri I have started another rune study group, an experiential astral travel study group, and a devotional study group dedicated to the pre-Olympian titan, Hekate.
There is value in taking a closer look at what study groups have to offer us. To my thinking, the greatest differences are in the what and the why. Pagan study groups are collaborative learning environments born from mutual passionate interest that we co-create from start to finish.
Pagan study groups are focused engagements with a clear and particular subject that allow us to cover various aspects of that subject in depth while harnessing the knowledge and insight of multiple diverse individuals within the supportive container of the collective. Thus far my experiences with four- to s-x-person monthly study groups have been fun, interesting, and informative. Generally speaking, Pagan study groups offer many gifts to their participants.
As “people of the library,” there are a wealth of topic areas that interest most of us at any given time. When forming a study group, I recommend choosing a particular topic that is broad enough to engage for an extended period but narrow enough to bring purpose and order to the group’s time together. For example, the elder futhark runes are a great focus for a study group because group members hone in on the clear subject and work diligently together to cultivate deep understanding.
A more general topic like magical alphabets, for example, might quickly become unwieldy and draw group members in different directions with some seeking the ogham, others pursuing the Anglo-Saxon runes, and still others lamenting that no one will join them in studying the Malachim alphabet.
The focus keeps group members motivated to attend regular meetings and to engage with the material outside of the meetings. The study group forms around the focus and the focus provides a beacon of light to guide the way back to center when the group (inevitably) wanders off in other (related but not quite salient) directions.
Breadth and Depth
Study groups also afford us the opportunity approach one topic from multiple angles and to give greater time and attention to the topic so that we can go deeper. In other kinds of groups a particular topic is usually a small part of what members are learning and practicing but in a Pagan study group, that topic is everything.
For example, there are myriad books on the elder futhark runes, each centering different aspects of the runes such as history, linguistics, culture, magic, divinatory uses, and esoteric applications. Due to the complexity of the material, members of a study group focused on the elder futhark group could spend months surveying the literature, discussing personal experiences with the runes, and sharing notes about how they have integrated the runes into their spiritual lives.
In other types of groups, the elder futhark or another meaty Pagan topic may be incorporated into the larger work of the group but there may be little time to give special attention to the elder futhark collectively, much less each individual rune and the complex system of cultural and spiritual meanings that hold them together as a system.
A study group allows members to hone in and dig deep. Perhaps the greatest benefit of having breadth and depth of knowledge is that it allows study group members to develop a critical eye for what constitutes a well-researched, thoroughly sound source and what does not.
Overall, I have found that allowing for breadth and depth of engagement with the focus opens up new knowledge and understanding for study group participants and the insight gained carries some participants’ spiritual work to the next level!
Deep and focused learning is rewarding when pursued individually or as part of a group; however, learning in a group is a real plus because it affords us the benefit of other people’s thoughts, ideas, and experiences. In addition, other people can be instrumental in bringing about new insights that shape our practice and propel us forward. Our peers in a Pagan study group challenge us to stretch our thinking, feeling, and working with the material in new and dynamic ways.
Diversity is an important part of how group members bless one another so richly. When we join a study group we bring our current knowledge and understanding of the subject matter but we also bring our social and cultural identities, our political convictions, and our worldviews. In an open and egalitarian study group that is well-moderated, everyone has an opportunity to be authentically present in the full glory of who they are. Most groups founded on principles of equality and social justice, no matter the type, provide quality space for everyone.
Pagan study groups offer a unique opportunity to cultivate these principles because they allow our differences and unique socio-cultural and political positions to flow into and through a particular subject matter and provide ample opportunity for meaningful exchange among group participants in a way that enhances everyone’s understanding of one another and the subject matter at hand.
Balancing Individual and Collective
When we know that all of who we are is welcome and has a spot at the table, not only do we learn better but we teach better as well. In my experience, Pagan study groups are magical because a handful of diverse people come together and commit to share themselves and their knowledge with one another with focused intent for the purpose of growing their minds and their respective practices. Because each of us has a passion for the subject, we read, think, journal, and practice outside of our regularly scheduled meetings.
When we come together at the appointed time, we have a great deal to share with one another. We are quite autonomous in our studies but we choose to come together as a group to exchange notes, quotes and passages from books, and knowledge hard won from experience. The study groups that I have facilitated have been discussion based in order to facilitate this principle of equal exchange and full engagement.
Don’t get me wrong. We are human and we do leave the topic in the rear view mirror at times, but usually, we all remember why we’ve gathered. We honor the time by sharing what we currently know and then growing that through engagement with the knowledge of others in the group in the form of lively discussion.
On occasion, if one person knows more about a particular facet of a topic than the others gathered, we may have that person give a presentation followed by discussion. Discussion is always a part of the process because that is how the drop of knowledge held by one individual joins the ocean of the collective and how the knowledge held within the collective ocean is dispersed into each individual drop.
Thus far I have focused heavily on the what and the why of Pagan study groups. Often when those pieces are established, the who, when, where, and how fall into place. But here are a few other considerations and recommendations that may help to guide you, whether you are joining an existing Pagan study group or starting one yourself.
Who do you wish to study with? You may decide to identify a topic that you’re passionate about first which will attract others who are passionate about the same topic area. In that scenario you start as fellow learners, and you may become friends over time.
The alternative is to begin with a group of friends who show interest but may not be as invested in the topic as you are. Of course when you start as friends, it can be comforting and energizing, but it also increases the temptation to engage in tangential conversation.
With regard to other aspects of group composition, are you committed to seeking out interested individuals who are different from one another in terms of socio-cultural identity and of Pagan path? If so, where you advertise your group and how you spread the word will be especially important.
Where will you gather? This may sound like a minor consideration but it can matter a great deal. Is a private residence appropriate? It may be if members know and trust one another. It may not be if the only available private residence belongs to a person who has pets or lives with tobacco users.
These lifestyle choices can have implications for study group members who have allergies. If a private residence is not an option for whatever reason, a public place like a coffee shop may be the best choice.
How regularly will your study group meet? Depending on the topic, you could easily make a case for once or twice per month. That pacing allows for members to have lives and a personal practice outside of the group. It also allows plenty of time for study group participants to read, experiment where applicable, take notes, and journal between meetings.
How long will your study group last? Having an open timeline can increase the potential for breadth and depth in the group. At the same time, it may be a threat to group engagement and participant retention. My first rune group remained active for about one year which allowed us to cover two runes per monthly meeting.
By contrast, the Hekate-focused devotional study group that I coordinate will remain active for as long as participants are interested in studying, learning, and practicing together.
How will your regular meetings proceed? Will there be an agenda established for each meting? Agendas can be set in advance through social media and email or they can be established organically at the start of each meeting. Regardless of method, it helps if group members are on board with the plan for the day.
Democratic, collaborative processes facilitate participant engagement and empower participants as well, but of course those processes do not guarantee empowered engagement. The group facilitator or another socially conscious, engaged, and empathic participant should be aware of voices that are being minimized or silenced in the process and amplify those voices.
Pagan study groups are focused engagements with a clear and particular subject that allow us to cover various aspects of that subject in depth while harnessing the knowledge and insight of multiple diverse individuals within the supportive container of the collective. Simply put, they are magic. What study group magic will you conjure in your Pagan community?
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.