Many in the magical community, occultosphere, and in Paganism know of the contributions of Isaac Bonewits. He wrote Real Magic, designed the first university degree in magical studies, wrote a still invaluable guide on how to recognize a spiritual group as a cult, and founded many of the Druid orders in the US. He passed on several years ago.
Not many people know of the contributions of his brother, Michael.
Here in Paganistan, they call him Doc. I had the honor of interviewing him and his wife, Faun, this past weekend.
He isn’t a doctor, but an EMT — even in his 70s he’s still volunteering as one — and he earned that nickname not only for his mundane work, but as an energy healer of extraordinary giftedness. He was a teacher of the Craft as well, but not a “poobah” like his brother became. (And both he and his wife were simply delightful and insightful to talk to.) They keep a low profile in rural Wisconsin where they live now, but you could see the twinkle in their eyes as they talked about the old days doing ritual in the Cities with their friends, who, I was able to tell them, were mostly doing fine.
That “poobah” business is a fraught one in modern Paganism. People outside of the community don’t get it — it’s not something folks strive for here, but everyone who’s not in the community wants to know who’s in charge. And early in the movement’s days, folks who did put themselves in the position of leader or spokesperson were really dismissed by the community with a sort of who-do-you-think-you-are disapproval. Leadership was always an ambivalence in this community of those seeking equanimity and freedom from authority early on; one of my informants during my dissertation days said, “We have a bad habit of eating our leaders.”
Thankfully, that’s changed, and along with it, the qualifications to be a leader. It’s no longer the loudest voice in the room, or the most bookish and studied, or whoever wrote the most books and became a celebrity, or whoever claims the most magical prowess. Now we have legal ministerial credentials, certifications, qualifications to practice and teach, and just plain hard work and effort put into political and social action work. Longevity is a big one now, too, now that we have long-lived elders.
I recall in an early conversation with a magical colleague, someone I’d hoped to have continued productive and friend-ish dialogues with, about this community leadership business. He was sure that I was a “poobah” simply because of the fact that I was a studied, articulate member of my community, and not a schlump in the area of magic, either. Trying to get him to understand that that’s not leadership, nor the marker of it in my community was an exercise in eye-rolling frustration. But he came from a culture, or a series of overlapping ones, where what made you important was your ability to perform importantly, to be leaned and accomplished (or to act smart if you weren’t), to play the role of the sage, priest, rabbi, professor — which usually means people approach you reverently and submit to your wisdom — and to bear the responsibility of being a teacher, moral guide, and transmitter of knowledge to the non-leaders. It’s a special role for special people. In my community we finally got leaders when folks learned to shut up, sit down, and listen, and when we observed that the most valuable wisdom came from folks who didn’t care for attention, but just did the work for years, decades even. If I’m respected in my community, it’s because I listen and document. I have much to learn before I have any business teaching here. (I discussed this in my book Paganistan; my aforementioned colleague said he had read it, but I’m not convinced of that, or I think he would have understood, and we would have ceased arguing. Oh well. Hopefully we’ll talk again.)
Funny, isn’t it? The history of Western magic in particular contains so much about the magician or the occultist being a Big Important Dude (usually): a priest, a scholar, someone who worked for the king, someone who could read (significant up through the 1700s)… someone already in a position of leadership with a direct line to God or the angels or demons or whoever is giving them their abilities. There is no doubt why there’s still a cultural habit of self-importance that crops up in those trained or self-taught in Western magic (which has certainly included some Pagan folk). It’s also why plenty of women, in the 1980s in particular, walked away to do their own thing, why more ethnic or cultural groups popped up, why the focus shifted from coven to community. There is still a tension, in that sense. But people in the community do want and respect their leaders; they simply want and expect more discernible qualifications from them now. And that’s a good thing.
So, Isaac Bonewits’s contributions can’t be denied. But hearing from Faun, Doc Bonewits’s wife, that the outline of Real Magic was on the fridge at the brothers’ house, and that both brothers poked at it while Isaac wrote — Doc modestly demurring as she spoke… well… we need more attention to those who worked their magic quietly, without aspirations to be a writer, a leader, a “poobah”. Doc was driven to be a healer in the mundane world, but also applied his magical healing knowledge doing his mundane EMT work (more on that in another post). I realized that this humble fellow was loaded with wisdom and experience… but like the local village wise healer, he didn’t hang out a shingle. You had to find him. And you had to ask for help.
And I didn’t feel like I was basking in celebrity when chatting with Doc and Faun (I tend to be unimpressed with that sort of thing, anyway)… but I certainly was in the presence of wisdom. And to be part of preserving it? An honor greater than any successful spell…