#paganvalues The Double-Edged Sword of Silence

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My first encounter with what I often see billed as “the Witches’ Pyramid” came from Doreen Valiente’s “an ABC of Witchcraft.”  Valiente calls these ethical commandments the “Four Powers of the Magus” and says some also called them the “Powers of the Sphinx.” In order, they are:

To Know

To Dare

To Will

To be Silent

The idea is that these powers, like the airts and elements, are intended to act in harmony within the witch: no act of ritual can succeed without each of these qualities in balance, and out of balance you end up with a formula for disaster: knowledge into ignorance, daring into cowardice, will into fear and silence into arrogance.

The one that has always given me the most trouble among these powers and their balance is silence. It is not that I think silence has no value, and I’m far from a 21st century exhibitionist. It’s that I think silence is either misunderstood, or misused. There are times, in fact, that the only way to right a wrong, to protect yourself or to break a negative pattern is to break silence.

Says Valiente in her brief explanation, “In fact, it has been said that the fourth power, to be silent, is the most important of all, and the most difficult to attain. Silence is a potency in itself; the silence of the great, timeless desert beneath the stars; the silence of the snow-capped mountains on the roof of the world; the silence within the vaults of the Pyramids. These are the silences of secret treasures, laid up for the initiate. NO chatterers or boasters will find them. People who blab their plans and ideas to everyone disperse their own forces. Occult operations in particular should not be talked about, or they will never come to fruition.”

Valiente probably never initiated anyone from Texas, the land of “If you done it, it ain’t braggin’.”

While Valiente’s description does not speak only to magical practice, but to the entire demeanor of the magic worker throughout life, I think that this command and the very good reasons behind it still gets misinterpreted. The times in life to keep your mouth shut are many: when no one is actually harmed by an action (even if offended), when speaking will lead to irreversible physical or emotional harm, when the information you have just won’t do anything good for the big picture – or when it’s just not your information to share. This hardly exhausts the limits of “shut up” situations.

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Yet often we enforce silence for exactly the wrong things. Just as naming something in certain folk traditions gives you power over that something, speaking out instead of keeping your mouth shut also breaks the “spell.” An example of this is substance addiction: in the various 12 step groups, the first step is to go in front of a room of fellow addicts, say “I am ___ and I am an addict.” The very first act of breaking the spell of addiction is to name it.

In cases of abusive relationships, as in addictions, we often find ourselves in denial. Denial is a form of negative silence, one where we hush our inner voice and ignore the voices of truth spoken both outside and within. “Oh, I’m sure all men have screaming fits when they’re depressed,” “He was just a little drunk,” “It’s not THAT big a deal. He scared me, but it’s not like he hit me.”  These are silencing maneuvers we use on ourselves, that we use on each other, that those who would dominate use to maintain dominance. An inner theme of mine is all about stolen voices – the villains always take away the ability of the their targets to speak, to express – to break their spell.

In my own life, I grew up in a family where my mother advocated  and enforced “Keep your feelings to yourself.” She once told me that she fully believed emotional suppression was good, that “We just don’t talk about it” was the best solution to her family issues. At first, I thought she was just identifying a problem – and there were many, many problems with my extended family because the avoidance of conflict led to the making of assumptions that always in the end came at the expense of my own family. I realized, after I asked my uncle point blank about a train set he stole from her in the hopes of arranging a positive dialogue or at least negotiating a ransom, that my mother was actually praising the act of constant emotional suppression and silence. She would yell at my sister and I for fighting (and my sister has years of me screaming at her that she is owed in repayment for the abuse I was required by my mother to take from her)   but only when I fought back.  I don’t know if the woman is brainwashed or just stupid, and I have no idea if she has the self-awareness to realize that it is her actions based on this suppression that have ruined what should be her most important relationships. Even though my mother was miserable, she fought to prevent any change to the behavior, to continue the tradition of silence and oppression even though it not only didn’t work, it actively damaged her own family.

The demand for my silence and the increasingly absurd behaviors of my childhood home drove me to talk to one or two adults that might actually listen to me. I was completely miserable living there; I wasn’t allowed to talk back – because breaking the silence meant that mother and sister were then accountable for their actions – and so if I was home, I lived in constant danger of their mood swings, constant demands for service and attention, constant demands that I somehow be pleasing, and for some reason, every time the two of them fought, I would get called on the carpet and then they would demand I say something – and then be verbally abused for saying anything. Our church choir director noticed something obviously amiss, and asked me about it during a private rehearsal section. One or two teachers overheard me vent to my friends. They tried to talk to my mother about it, tried to say “Your younger daughter is really, really unhappy and we’re concerned.”

My mother took it back to me. “People are concerned about the stuff you’re saying about your sister.” I knew at the time that that’s sure as hell not what those people meant – but my mother’s response to “You have a real problem in your family, and you’re hurting a family member,” was “Silence the person who is suffering because it’s more convenient than solving the problem.”

I struggle with it, but for the most part these days I err on the side of speech rather than silence.

My mother’s silence is not the silence of power. It is the silence of abuse, the silence of the troll counting on you not knowing it’s there, not being able to scream for help.

Understanding silence as a power of its own – and understanding it as humility – is just as important as understanding that breaking silence is its own power. Often, we must learn not only when to speak, but at what times speaking is actually for the greater good.