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Some thoughts on Lineage

If there’s one topic guaranteed to get an argument going amongst pagans & occultists, its the topic of lineage – whether or not one has a connection to a lineage, whether its judged to be “authentic”, and so on. Its at its most obvious in modern Witchcraft or Wicca, with great store seemingly set by being able to prove that one’s praxis or “tradition” is related to Gerald Gardner, Victor & Cora Anderson, or one of the pre-Gardner family lineages (often with the production of a “convenient granny” somewhere in the background). Some authors – Janet Farrar for example – have argued that this kind of lineage as apostolic succession deal (“only a witch can make a witch”) is something that modern witchcraft doesn’t particularly need any more: “In a time when information on Wicca is freely available, lineage has become an anachronism” (Progressive Witchcraft, p44) – mainly because of the elitism and exclusion of “non-initiates” that it has occasionally engendered. I mention Wicca not to single it out, but it was during my own involvement with Wicca in the early 1980s that I first came across the notion of lineage – and how it was enacted, and in reflecting on it now (I was recently involved in a discussion with some friends in which the importance of “proper lineage” came up), it’s my first point of reference.

In the early 1980s, when I was first finding my feet in the UK occult scene “esoteric” knowledge was much more of a scarce commodity than it is nowadays, and in some ways, I think that the advent of the internet, along with the related cultural ideal of freely or accessible knowledge, has had a significant impact on the centrality of lineage transmission as has the shift from thinking about magical practice in terms of a form of secret knowledge (which of necessity is bounded), to applied technique and primarily a matter of personal experience. Another factor has been the changing public perception of occult practice, and the demolishing (by historians such as Ronald Hutton) of outsider narratives such as the link between keeping witchcraft as a “secret practice” because of the “Burning Times”.

In the first coven I was initiated into, “secrecy” was very much a cornerstone of self-presentation as a member – to the extent that the only people I was told I could discuss my practice (and all the existential baggage that went along with that) with was other initiates in the coven, or with members of other covens which were either related or allied to the parent group. There were a few books available, true, but books were held to be unreliable – unless they were written by people the leaders approved of. There was a smattering of esoteric magazines, and occasional pagan moots, but finding out these was difficult unless one was already tapped into the word-of-mouth networks which was the primary source of circulating information. From what I can recall, there wasn’t much talk about lineage, but there was a great deal of emphasis on tradition – particularly in the sense of “that’s (x idea) not part of our tradition”. What that “tradition” actually was, was rather difficult, at times, to ascertain. But what was more interesting, in retrospect, was being taken around various pagan-oriented gatherings (often psychic fayres, in those days) and being introduced to various other folk as a “new initiate” which entailed more-or-less instant acceptance into those social circles – no longer being excluded from certain levels of conversation – and more significantly – offered hospitality, help, and accepted as “one of the family”.

This latter point for me, has remained an interest when discussions about lineage arise – that although its sometimes perceived (and not without some justification) entirely in terms of making an appeal to the authority of historical tradition or a particular authority figure – that this can only happen within the boundaries of particular networks and communities. After all, if one is going to attempt the time-honoured oneupmanship of claiming authority by invoking connection to a particular authority, it’s no good if one’s claim to connection to the “Master Whoobly” is met with blank faces, “who’s that then?” or derisive cries of “not that old nutter!”

Is lineage just about transmitting knowledge or information in the way that Janet Farrar implies? I think there’s certainly an element of that in the notion of lineage, but that it is about particular types of knowledge – and a kind of self-making or achieved personhood that is related to that process. Its common to find the idea that what distinguishes an “initiate” from a novice is that the initiate, having passed through years of training and self-development, has gained both knowledge and perspicuity which is inaccessible to the novice or outsider – knowledge which is only accessible to the “initiated”.
But what kind of knowledge are we talking about here? Elisabeth Hsu’s study (1999) The Transmission of Chinese Medicine identified three types of knowledge which gets passed from Chinese medical doctors to their apprentices – standardised, personal, and secret. Standardised knowledge can be thought of as formalised or textbook knowledge – it can be comprehended seperately from practice. Personal knowledge is that which arises out of the relationship and is dependent on the degree of trust between practitioner and pupil. Secret knowledge is that which is intentionally concealed from outsiders. The concealment of secret knowledge acts both to render that knowledge more alluring, but also legitimates the authority of those who are the keepers of that knowledge – in other words, it confers power on the knower and reinforces their claim to be the only ones capable of not only transmitting the knowledge, but also of correctly interpreting it. These different forms of knowledge have different degrees of status attached to them. Standardised knowledge – that which can be attained through a textbook – has the lowest, if only because knowledge – and the related idea of self-making is held to arise out of practice, experience, and time spent being tutored – and since novices have yet to go through this process, the knowledge it engenders is closed to them. Often this is reinforced with the idea that this kind of knowledge is opaque to outsiders, and the mastering of it is difficult and dangerous.

Related to this distinction between different types of knowledge is the idea that what’s often transmitted through the teacher-student relationship is tacit knowledge – which can take the form of a shared sensibility, a common perception of etiquette, or information which can’t easily be codified. I’m thinking of times when, on facing a particular problem in my own practice (and usually, the kind of problem you won’t find in a how-to book) I’ve turned to people more experienced than I (sometimes – but not necessarily people I’ve been in a formalised “teacher-student” relationship with) – and asked their advice.

Lineage is an important element in the transmission of knowledge because knowledge is primarily passed on through relationships. There is a potential for a novice to have (or claim) through their present teacher, an important or venerated figure from the tradition’s history. This pattern is not limited to occultists of course – its prelevant amongst psychotherapists too. Assertions of relationship to a particular lineage are increasingly common both as ways of making distinctions between practitioner groups, of asserting authority or superiority viz. other claimants, and in presenting teachings as marketable commodities:

“Finally, in the rapidly expanding modern Pagan marketplace, there is a growing need for entrepreneurs to differentiate themselves in order to attract potential consumers to their product over someone else’s. After all, why study shamanism online with Cougar Silvermoon when you can study with any number of other modern Pagan or New Age practitioners who claim to offer similar services? In the almost inevitable competition for students, what sets her apart as a teacher? Whether they occur online or off-, attempts to instantiate authority always take place in the context of a struggle with others who seek to instantiate a similar authority. … In the online world, with its rampant replication of resources, monopolizing authoritative teachings becomes a function of representation, rather than revelation. That is, potential entrepreneurs must represent that they are in control of authoritative resources, but not reveal the content of those resources lest online replication rob them of the monopoly on which their very claims to authority rest.”
Douglas Cowan, Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet Routledge 2005, p191

Lineage is also concerned with the security of feeling that one’s tradition or practice did not suddenly appear out of a vaccuum, but that one’s own teacher(s) passed through a similar period of learning, and that others, in turn, will follow in a similar manner. It can be, for some practitioners, an important element in making a connection with a sense of historical process – something that in time, one will, in turn, be able to embody and express for others.

There are more aspects of lineage worthy of consideration – such as how lineage is thought of in terms of ancestor veneration, or one’s sense of relationship to a particular culture or geographical region – in a genealogical sense – but I’ll hold it there for now.


  1. Marysia
    Posted September 30th 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    “tacit knowledge – which can take the form of a shared sensibility, a common perception of etiquette, or information which can’t easily be codified”

    I certainly think this can’t be overlooked as a vital part of lineage, at least how I see it in wicca.

  2. Jenny Peacock
    Posted October 1st 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    This is a fascinating subject. My politics tells me, instinctively, that “secret” knowledge, “gated” knowledge, is a control mechanism inherently, which seeks to assert “power over” those designated novices or “non-initiates”. Many power systems would appear to deliberately cultivate this. Legal language, for example, seems to me to be deliberately designed to ensure that lawyers (“initiates”) have power (which in this society equals money) as magicians (namely experts and pratctitioners) who may “act on” the lay person’s behalf (thus controlling power and agency).

    On the other hand, my magical practice seeks to argue with my politics – by considering that some knowledge can indeed only be truly understood through experience and (because of its experiential nature) therefore “should” be gated – as if such knock-the-socks-off-you events require the kind of graft and commitment which means it is simply not appropriate for all “techniques” to be “access all areas” for the armchair surfer.

    Which perspective is correct then? I don’t know! I suppose they both are. Ultimately, when in comes to magic and learning, I aspire to some sense of authentic integrity, all the while aware not only that I may personally fall short of that, but that such purity is an illusion – and one fraught with power/ knowledge constructs…