Fukurokuju, Japanese god of wisdom and longevity
As I have mentioned in a previous post, Paganism does not have a prescribed moral code. However, I believe there are plenty of moral teachings in Paganism; they just aren’t necessarily spelled out as they are in Christianity. There are certain qualities that are held in high regard within Paganism, and one of these is wisdom.
I don’t think there is a single pagan path that has nothing to say about wisdom. Traditionally, practitioners of magick in the UK were often called “cunning men” or “wise women,” not to mention the archetype of the wizard, whose very name derives from “wise.” Every pantheon seems to have some kind of deity connected with wisdom – Hellenic Pagans have Athena, Heathens have Odin (who may have inspired the wizard archetype), Kemetic Pagans have Thoth, Celtic Pagans have Brigid, and the Japanese have Fukurokuju (pictured here). The prevalence of powerful and benevolent figures of wisdom in Pagan beliefs to me suggests that wisdom is not merely considered a virtue in Paganism – it is an essential quality for good living.
But what exactly is wisdom, and how does one aspire to be wise as a Pagan? I think wisdom is a complex and multi-layered quality that is difficult to achieve, but one that should be held as an ideal. Here are some of the things that I think make up wisdom, and how I try to achieve these in my own personal and spiritual growth:
1. Knowledge. I believe that knowledge is the primary basis for wisdom, which is why education is so very, very important. Fortunately I like learning things and keeping up to date with all the latest developments in science, art and society, so I don’t find this too difficult (although admittedly, I only tend to read about the subjects I am interested in!). Reading is a big part of my spiritual development as a Pagan too; sometimes, after a ritual and I’m waiting for the incense to burn out, I like to use the time to read my latest book on paganism to further my knowledge.
2. Reason. To some, the idea of reason and rationality co-existing with religion seems contradictory, but as I alluded in my Science and Paganism entry, I think it is possible. The ability to analyse and rationalise enables us to interpret the knowledge we acquire, as well as make sound judgements and decision. I’m not the best at logical thought (which is why I’m so bad at maths, I imagine!), but I try to hone my reasoning skills by thinking deeply about things and considering them from different angles.
3. Experience. Personal, real-life experience is probably the best thing in the world for increasing one’s understanding of reality, and I think it is absolutely essential for wisdom. Why are so many figures of wisdom in Paganism depicted as elderly? Because they have so much life experience, which is why they are wise! I feel the best experience of all is the experience that comes when we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, and try things that we find a little scary. As a rather insular person, I can find this rather difficult myself, but I try to see all experiences where I feel like a fish out of water to be positive ones that will ultimately lead me to being a wiser person.
4. Empathy. One of the qualities that differentiates wisdom from intelligence, cunning and intellectualism is the ability to see into the hearts of others and, what’s more, empathise with them and understand their needs and motivations. In other words, a sage should have good social skills! Again, I find this one difficult, because people are complex and require a lot of patience. They may well have thoughts and feelings that are entirely the opposite of my own in certain situations. But I do try hard to see things from other people’s point of view, even if I’m having difficulty getting on with them.
5. Serenity. Admittedly, some of the pagan god of wisdom (notably Athena and Odin) are not exactly serene characters, but others certainly are – take a look at the picture of Fukurokuju, with his kind eyes and gentle smile! Emotions such as anger, hate and fear are extremely potent, and so they should be – in the times of pre-civilisation, it was these feelings that governed our behaviour and kept us alive. But when it comes to pursuing wisdom, I think these emotions can be a big barrier, as they inhibit both our empathy and ability to reason and so result in distinctly unwise behaviour. Learning how to still one’s heart and control one’s emotions is an extremely difficult skill, but ultimately leads to greater wisdom. As a passionate person myself, I find inner serenity one of the hardest qualities to acquire. I try to control my inner feelings by keeping silent when the potential to say something harmful is present; by examining the situation objectively; and by trying to see the humour of the situation wherever possible.
6. Receptiveness. I think a wise person should always be open to new ideas – most of all, the idea that their own pre-conceived notions may not be entirely correct. Some people are afraid to question their own ideas when they hear differing opinions, as it could mean that they are somehow weak-willed and changeable; but I think it is good to be fluid and flexible in one’s opinions. You could even call changing one’s opinions a form of mental experience. Receptiveness to new ideas and the opinions of others not only lead to greater knowledge and creativity; it also allows us to learn to understand and accept the cultures of others. I am certainly guilty of stubbornly holding on to my beliefs purely because they are mine; but when I do try to be receptive and listen to the ideas of others, I find myself all the better for it.
7. Humour. This is perhaps wisdom of a different sort; the wisdom of the “wise fool.” There are plenty of examples of “wise fools” in paganism, as there are the more conventional gods of wisdom – there’s the mischievous Hermes and Dionysus in the Greek pantheon, both of whom inspire creativity; there are the fae folk of the Celts, who are the embodiment of wisdom within nonsense; and there is Uzume, the goddess of laughter in Shinto, whose foolish behaviour caused so much mirth that it tempted the sun goddess out of hiding and brought light to the world. I see humour as something of a “lubricant” for wisdom; it helps to control emotions, empathise with others, and stop one for becoming over serious and stuffy in one’s dedications to knowledge and wisdom. I actually think a sense of humour is one of the most important things a person can have, and that without humour, the world would be a very dark, hopeless place indeed. Which is why the sage needs an appreciation of the ridiculous, the nonsensical, and the absurd.