On Not Knowing Everything

Kid in a dunce cap

Not knowing everything does not equal stupidity

One of the things I’ve noticed in the occult world is the tendency for people to attempt to be experts on a number of unrelated things. So for instance, one can’t just be a rootworker. One has to also be a necromancer and a mambo. I’m sure you can think of many examples of this. I’m not sure what causes this kind of thing. I’ve sometimes wondered if it isn’t an outgrowth of the American attitude of colonizing the world (“everything you have is ours”), a cultural imperialism. I’ve thought maybe it’s the product of the Christian tradition of poaching (“we know what your sacred writings REALLY say” and “all your holidays are now ours; all your gods are now our saints”). Or maybe it’s a product of fear (“If I don’t know everything, people will think I don’t know anything”). Maybe all of those forces are at work behind someone who puts themselves forward as a master of the secrets of various cultures. But today, instead of asking why people do this, I would like just to argue against this surface approach and instead focus on a very worthy alternative to it: depth–the tiny slice of the knowledge pie that doesn’t look like much on the surface but that goes miles deep.

One of the practices of academia is becoming a specialist in your own little slice of the knowledge pie to the point where you end up knowing a huge amount about a very narrow field, say, early 20th-century Russian stories influenced by spoken speech. There are people who make fun of the idea of mastering a very narrow field in depth, who seem to think that there is something foolish about it or that it cuts a person off from the “real” world, that such people don’t have any sense or can’t see The Big Picture. But in my experience, you can learn more from depth than you can from breadth. It’s an example of the Paracelsian dictum: as above, so below; the microcosm reflects and influences the macrocosm, and vice versa. To have a better understanding of the whole, really get to know the tiny.

I confess that for a long time, I felt buffaloed by all the very many approaches to magic out there. They all seemed interesting in their own way. I wanted to try everything, and I did poke my finger into a lot of candies in the candy box. But I knew (again, from having been a scholar) that it’s pretty much impossible to become a master of more than one endeavor, despite all the talk about “polymaths” out there. Maybe vampires have lives long enough to master a variety of subjects, but us mortals don’t. If a person becomes accomplished in one field in a lifetime, that is more than most people ever attain. Mastery is rare and not to be expected in general. That’s okay: we are not gods. Most people who are serious about whatever craft they pursue are happy to admit they are learners, journeymen rather than masters.

The other thing is this: the more you learn a particular craft, the more you realize there is to learn about it. You come to realize that what you thought was the whole thing is just the skin. So for instance, years ago I got interested in learning needle arts. I learned how to knit and crochet from patterns using specified commercial yarn and particular needle sizes. Following directions, I made everything from socks to gloves to sweaters to doilies. I learned how to knit fairly well from patterns, but I wanted to make sweaters that were really ME, so I learned about traditional sweater knitting (that doesn’t use patterns) and then how to design sweater patterns myself. Then I got thinking about the yarn that I was working with, how it was made, and what it was colored with. I started buying handspun yarn and then learned how to spin yarn myself from wool on a spinning wheel and then on a drop spindle. I learned how to use commercial dyes, but then I wanted to go deeper, to make my own dyes from plants. I dyed yarn I’d spun with natural dye materials I bought and then learned how to grow those dye plants and harvest them for dyeing. I got to the point where I could knit a sweater I’d designed myself from yarn I’d spun myself and dyed with plants I grew in my own garden. I did not consider myself a master knitter, although I was pretty darn good at making sweaters I liked; that’s not why I am writing about this. But compare the knowledge I gained from doing that to the knowledge I had when I was knitting and crocheting various items from commercial patterns with store-bought yarn. Did I know more when I focused just on making my own sweaters or when I knitted all kinds of things with store-bought yarn and commercial patterns? I think the answer to that question is clear.

The other thing this example shows, I think, is that knowledge in depth leads to other types of knowledge in a way that broad but shallow knowledge does not. Because I wanted to make sweaters I really liked and I went deep into what goes into making a sweater, I also learned, for instance, about  how to grow weedy plants like dye plants, how to make dyes that can be used to color paper or wood or linen, the chemical and non-chemical interactions between dyes and fiber, the connection between dyes and alchemy, the poisonousness of modern commercial dyes (pretty much none are NOT carcinogens, for instance), the hideousness of animal testing of commercial dyes, the enormous difference in the color of our clothing before the advent of petroleum-based dyes and now, the preciousness of red and blue dyes, what fiber colors have signified in different cultures, the wide range of naturally occurring colored fibers, and more.  And this caused me to become much more serious about gardening and gave me an interest in the folklore of plants. That led me to plant magic, a body of knowledge I will never get to the end of and which has provided an enormous amount of enjoyment and a lot of powerful magic. I would not have learned any of this by staying on the surface with a broad knowledge of needlework. I would not have known even how much I did not know.

I wanted to give an example of depth vs. breadth that came from outside of magic so maybe a lot of the baggage of such a discussion if it were focused on witchcraft could be set aside. But if we pull it back to witchcraft, I see people making claims to be masters of all sorts of knowledge bases. I won’t even touch upon those who claim to be experts on the magic of another culture without knowing a single word of the language that embodies that culture. To me that’s just self-delusion. Why do I say that? Because I’ve studied several other languages and learned the incredible differences they reveal in how people who speak another language see the world, what they unconsciously deem important and what trivial, what they have words for and don’t have words for. When we’re on the surface of a body of knowledge, skating around and having a grand old time, we think we know it, but we know it less than a skater knows the pond s/he skates over in winter. We can’t even begin to imagine the depths, what grows there, what lives there, its cycle in time, what it’s like in summer, any of that. Why would we settle for that kind of surface knowledge? It’s only good for skating.

As a gardener and a witch, I would like to suggest to folks a path to knowledge in depth about witchcraft that does not require joining any groups or being initiated or paying any fees or even learning another language. 🙂 Not a human one, anyhow. Choose one plant, something that grows in your climate without a great amount of difficulty. Learn its lore by researching it in books, articles, history. Watch how it grows. Harvest its parts and make them into things for magic. Spend time with it and be open to its spirit, ready to listen if it wants to speak directly but willing to accept if it wants to communicate obliquely, though images in dreams, for instance. Do this for at least three years, so you can see it in its cycle. I can guarantee you will learn more about magic from that one single plant than from all the websites, forums, books, groups, classes taught by individuals claiming mastery of this, that, and the other secret thing. That knowledge will be yours, rock solid, tested in the concrete and magical worlds. And it will lead you down many other paths to bodies of knowledge now not apparent.

The focus on a tiny slice of the world is like the doorway to the Underworld–an entry to the mysteries, to knowledge in depth. That kind of knowledge beats skating any day.

5 comments to On Not Knowing Everything

  • “As a gardener and a witch”, I like that. I am that :), I’m a herbalist, studied to be so, but everyday I read something new and learn something new and I would worry about anyone who claimed to know everything about one subject unless they’d be studying for more years than not. Even still – it is impossible to know everything about one thing because everything changes and evolves.

  • Marvelous piece. Applicable to any field really, but especially of course to magic. Reminds me of the quote from the Hagakure (this is the version from Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, just for fun!):

    “It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with his own. “

  • I agree with this sentiment so much, especially about plants being teachers. If one wants to understand the magic of seasons, life, microbes, and the inter-connectivity of pretty much everything, grow some plants.Herbalism just adds another layer to a body of never ending knowledge. Thank you for this deeply inspiring. Keep up the Great Work.

  • Lisa

    I agree with you. This reminded of that saying “Jack of all trades, master of none”. Or “you know just enough information to get you in trouble”.

  • jonquil

    Great post! I am focused on one Lady (I am in awe of those who can develop relationships with a pantheon, but knowing myself, I am well pleased with where I am). To help me know more of where She came out of, what She does & is, I learned a bit of the culture & language of the area where Her places are still said to be. I am taking your advice & will be focusing on one plant (maybe two) relating to Her.

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