Many times when people find the Pagan community we hear that children display many unique abilities, unlike their adult counterparts who have been conditioned to our modern mundane world. How do children view the world of seeming superstition and magick? What can we learn from this and apply to our lives as modern Pagans? It is with the tools of skeptical thinking, psychology and a dash of good old fashioned pondering that I would like to explore with you these topics.
First of all children take things for face value; while observing, they soak in every comprehensible detail unknowingly. Yet their actions are based more on what they have been instructed to do, not what they observe independently. If you were to throw a notion or better a devout law into their thought process, and couple that with the respect they feel for the notion-dropper, that child is capable of believing in any possible thing. Think about Hansel and Gretel, Harry Potter, God, the bogeyman, any of the archetypal “make-believe” characters, and you know what I mean. Their level of belief in the characters, and/or magickal thinking, depends greatly on which level of cognitive development the child currently maintains. Aside from that, social learning plays an important role because parents are the children’s first and foremost teachers and the sheer scope of their job is extensive. “Therefore if children are to learn to walk, to speak, and to take care of themselves, adults cannot simply wait for a time driven process of cognitive development to unfold, neither can they wait until a child exhibits desirable behaviors by chance, and then lavishly reinforce the lucky episode.” (Vyse pg. 157) As the years pass from pre-operational thinking, ages 2-7, to concrete operational thinking, ages 7-11, so declines their susceptibility to superstitious beliefs and irrational concepts of reality. Skepticism is an adult characteristic and is acquired, if at all, with age. Which brings us to formal operational thinking, over 11 years of age, which starts to incorporate logical thinking over the more fiction-based, directly-handed-down method of learning. The pre-adolescent begins to put together abstract thoughts and construct its own views on its reality, and other realities. After the pre-adolescent stage the child therefore begins to seemingly take on a more what we would term adult view of reality and reason. Though conformity can be seen as the destroyer of intellectual thinking, it nonetheless steps in around this age. It works as your individual observations weigh less as your understanding of social interaction and acceptance begin to affect more and more of your decisions.
What exactly does all this mean, you may ask. Well all of these facts show that in our increasingly modern world we are slowly conditioning our children to no longer think with imagination and creativity. Nevertheless a starling array of what are termed as old wives tales, warnings and magickal thought still survive till today and are reflections of many preoccupations and/or human fears that have been passed on over time. But it is my thought that we need not view these things in such a light, as it would be much wiser to view them as a part of oral tradition to pass on. It is also interesting to note as a parallel that sometimes science has demonstrated that certain beliefs relating to various plants and foods that hold magical powers do in fact have a basis in reality and have been proven to work. On the other hand people still avoid walking under ladders and knock on wood and cross their fingers in order to guard there luck. With this in mind, of all things this teaches us that it is not only important to instill our traditions into our youth if they are to survive, but to instill these traditions as a way of love, if the world and intelligent humanity is to survive.
My personal experience with the topic of traditions could be viewed I guess in part as a long legacy if you will, which everyone has, if a little thought has been put into it. First off I come from an Irish/Sicilian descent; both cultures have been steeped in magickal and superstitious thinking for millennia. Ever since I was a small child I remember a figure or wall plaque of the triskele in my home. The triskele is a symbol of Medusa surrounded by three legs representing the three magickal nymphs. In essence the story of this symbol dates back to the times and stories of the goddess Diana within ancient Italy. Still today many Sicilian people have this symbol within there home to guard the home from negativity and yes today here in my home, hanging over the front door, is a triskele symbol. Somehow throughout my childhood I have taken on this simple traditional superstition, accepted it and have woven it into the workings of my own life. But this is typically how family traditions or what may be termed superstitions seem to work.
Thrown into this mix I was born and raised in Kansas. Now the Midwest doesn’t seem like it is much of a magical place, but actually it is a place filled with local traditions and legends, mostly belonging to the Native Americans that once lived there and other people known as God fearing Christians! In addition to this I can remember as a child being told by my grandmother to stay close to the house because of the Gypsies who at one time were known to be in the area. But moreover she taught that they would kidnap me and never let me come home. Actually and generally these Gypsies were immigrants that would travel through the area from time to time, but were long gone before my days on the prairie. What I do know now is that this was her way of protecting and keeping me close to home as was also her way of keeping me in bed at night with tales of the bogeyman and his nightly rampaging of the land in search of children! “But don’t worry; he might let you lose when the sun comes, if you’re lucky, ” she would always say, ever so wisely.
Over the years as I grew up and have (unfortunately) gone far beyond my stages of development I have later learned that these fictional creatures have served as a tool for elders throughout time as means of safeguarding children. Even though I still may think of Mr. Bogeyman from time to time, and maybe I’ll pass that one on. I believe that because of these experiences that I have had in the past, my upbringing and the fact that I am the product of two old hippies, this has led me to where I am today. It has led me to my view upon the world as a much more magical place than what the average may think. Witchcraft and the study thereof, is an earth-based religion passed on from our Pagan ancestors that looks to the divine within the aspects of nature, therefore working and following closely with the waxing and waning seasons of the year. It is heavily involved with ecology and moral issues in addition to environmental issues. Witchcraft also teaches us to be open-minded and at the same time to think very wisely of the world, and the issues within it. It also teaches you to value the people around you and your future of this world, remembering not to take everything for granted or at face value, thereby devaluing one’s own self and worth.
It is suggested these traditions are that of false superstitious behavior and are abnormal in nature. Probably no other aspect of psychological behavior is more challenging to understand than that of the abnormal because it is thought of as kind of working hand-in-hand with mental disorders. In everyday life, people often talk about “mental illness, ” a term which echoes of medical asylums and twisted and cruel mental health practitioners, so in turn this view has given a negative view or stigmatism upon the subject of abnormal behavior. In hand this is placing a negative view upon traditions, which may be viewed as abnormal, because they do not fit into the mainstream. The reality is that public understanding of true abnormal behavior is fairly limited and right now we still don’t have all the answers when it comes to understanding and treating disorders. But is abnormal behavior by itself really a disorder? When you think about the word itself all abnormal behavior really is the fact that when someone may act in a manner that does not fit society’s expected view of normal behavior, they are viewed as abnormal. Does the behavior make them mentally ill? I think not, in fact to me this sounds a little reminiscent of what we now term as The Burning Times. Truer things to consider or to ask when deciding if someone is abnormal are: Is this person suffering? Is her or she seemingly maladaptive? Are they irrational or unpredictable? Or are they violating morals or society’s standards? The thought is that when a person displays a couple or more of these conditions then we could label one as abnormal or as having a mental condition with some confidence. I also think this is a good approach and also say as long as the person is not harming him or her self, others, or the surrounding area then there may really not be a problem at all. Maybe the person is very creative or there could be a long list of other possibilities that do not fit under the heading mental illness. When real thought is put into it maybe the real problem lies in the observer of this “abnormal behavior.” It may in fact be touching on some of observer’s own personal fear, bias and or issues on an unspoken or hidden level. Or simply it may be a behavior that the observer has never been exposed to before.
This also works within the realm of Magickal traditions. Because of the mainstream views upon Magickal traditions as irrational in nature it is thereby simple to label someone as irrational. This type of labeling can be very tricky and or harmful, as history has shown us. But again we tend to view irrational behavior within the context of the extreme, which leads us back to that old abnormal behavior. Are my beliefs or traditions abnormal and/or irrational compared to that of a Christian or a Jewish person or are theirs compared to mine? I think not, because as we can see every faith and/or culture around the world has its own set of values, traditions, and thoughts on belief, magick and superstition. It’s how we think that is really important because when we think in a linear way opposed to a more creative way we tend to push our personal views and/or perspectives upon others and in the long run can lead to conflict, maybe even harm. We see these downfalls and issues working everyday within the media alone.
My closing thought on growing up learning and passing on magickal traditions and in effect living one’s life with the belief in these ways is not something to be shunned. The point is no matter how odd society would like to view us and our magical ways of thinking or what labels they would like to put upon the subject, in actuality under some circumstances it can prove to be very rational, therapeutic and/or a combination of the two. Our beliefs in Magick as well as our traditions will continue to flourish as a natural human expression around the globe even in the most technologically advanced societies, and probably as long as there are humans to utilize these tools… The fact is, is it above irrational to bring comfort to the modern human condition? Which the magickal traditions can and do provide. With this in mind learn once again to think with the imagination of a child and create new beautiful realities for our future to come.
Vyse A. Stuart (Oxford university Press 1997) Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition
Pickering, David (Cassell 1995) Dictionary of Superstitions