Initiatory Witchcraft and the beetle in the box

Rhys Chisnall shares this short essay on the use of words, their meaning, and Gods:

Beetle in a boxAlthough I should know better and haven’t done so for years, and will probably not do so again for many more, I recently took part in a debate on the Craft on the inter-web. Generally speaking I think this is a bad idea as the anonymity the internet provides tends to make some folk feel that politeness is optional. Also the net does not convey body language and tone of voice which can lead to misinterpretation of intent, context and meaning. Happily this remained a civil debate amongst, for the most part, intelligent people. However one of the participants was someone who used the debate to have her own faith position confirmed and became defensive when it wasn’t. Her position was that you could only be in the Gardnerian Craft if you had a literal belief in the Gods.

My experience of initiatory Craft is that it does not have or require orthodoxy of belief. As a mystery tradition it does not offer easy ready-made answers in the way that exoteric religion does. There is no faith position, but positions as numerous as the individuals that practise; hard won through the processes and arts of mysticism and liable to change in light of new experience. This lady had a religious faith, and a faith can’t be changed in accordance with evidence or experience, else it would not be religious faith (as commonly understood). She was told by someone that a certain faith was required for initiatory Craft and she expected everyone to think the same.

“Why then”, this person asked, “do we have the word ‘Gods’ if we don’t all have to literally believe in them?” To my mind it is because the meaning of words such as ‘God’, ‘Goddess’ and ‘Divine’ are not as fixed in meaning as she might think.

In the theory of language called descriptivism a word’s meaning depends on its extension and intension. Its extension is what the word refers to in the real world. This is what Hillary Putnam meant when he said that ‘meaning is not in the head’ (Putnam as cited in Barber, 2010, p., 193); the conclusion he came to from his famous Twin Earth thought experiment. So water means water because it refers to a substance in the real world. That substance has the chemical formula H2O and it does not refer to something that looks exactly the same as water with a different formula says XYZ (Barber, 2010, p. 43), even if we can’t tell the difference. The lay person learns the meaning of a word through deference to an expert who fixes its meaning. However, as you no doubt have spotted, this can’t be the whole story as we have words for things that aren’t real, such as phlogiston. There can be no extension of the word phlogiston to fix its meaning. So a words meaning is also fixed by its intension. This is the lexical description of what the word means which we carry around in our heads. For example water is wet, colourless, falls from the sky, can drink it, swim in it, favoured by fish etc.

This would seem to make the Lady’s assertion that Gardnerians should all believe the same thing by the word ‘Gods’ to be correct. So far it seems that for the word to have meaning it must have an extension, but it is more complex than that. Descriptivism also claims that words can have intension and no extension. For example we can talk about Santa and Phlogiston without them existing (Ok, ok so Santa is real). But should the words we use all have the same intensions? Ned Block says no, because meaning can be narrow or wide (Block as cited in Barber, 2010, p 248). Narrow meaning is when concepts vary from person to person. For example Jocasta is Oedipus’s mother and wife is the wide meaning of the concept Jocasta, but the narrow meaning for Oedipus is that Jocasta is my wife and not my mother (Barber 2010, pp 245-246)- until he finds out differently. So if narrow meaning varies amongst individuals then how can words such as ‘Gods’ be used in discourse amongst those who hold it to mean different things?

To my mind Ludwig Wittgenstein, without a doubt one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century provides us with an answer.

In his famous thought experiment from his book, ‘Philosophical Investigations’, he writes.

“Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine that such a thing is constantly changing. But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? If so it would be the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language – game at all; not even as a something; for the box might even be empty.” (Wittgenstein as cited in Beaney 2010 p., 131-132).

Wittgenstein was using his thought experiment to illustrate how it did not matter what the subjective meaning of pain meant for the word pain to mean what it means. But I think the analogy can be extended and even works better for the experience of the Gods and the mysteries. For example, in the Craft we all have individual subjective experiences of what we call the Divine. For some, it is seen as an experience which is interpreted as a literal god, for others it is interpreted as a Jungian archetype, for others it is simply interpreted as a mystery. We cannot look into each other’s heads to directly see what the experience was. Even if we could, we could not have that experience of the other person, in the subjective first person and in the same context. The only way we can know anything about what the other person experienced is by using language.

Here in lies a problem. Experience of the mysteries is transcendent of language. This is the definition of mystery; it comes from the Greek musterion, meaning to close the mouth. It is ineffable and can’t be adequately described with words. Perhaps it would be better to follow Wittgenstein’s advice in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where he says “whereof what we cannot speak there-so we should remain silent”.

However we are a chatty species and do like to communicate using words. The words we are using in this case are words like ‘God’, ‘Goddess’, ‘Divine’ and ‘Mysteries’. These words from Wittgenstein’s perspective have a function in discourse which is not directly attached to their extension, or even intension. They are words that are learnt when we learn English and are used in a specific way, in this case they are words used to describe our own gnosis (gnosis when used in English refers to spiritual knowledge). Therefore the words refer to different things to different people but can be still used in discourse where the function need not rely on the direct reference of the experiences that they pertain to. In other words in using the language of the Craft, when we are engaging in its myths and ritual, we can use the same words, as their functions are not fixed by lexical intension or literal extension, but by discourse. Therefore Initiatory Crafters don’t all have to believe the same thing to share a common language and use words like ‘Gods’.


Barber, A., (2010), Language and Thought, Milton Keynes, Open University

Block, N., (1994), Advertisement for a Semantic Psychology, in Barber, A., (2010), Language and Thought, Milton Keynes, Open University

Putnam, H., (1994), The Meaning of Meaning, in Barber, A., (2010), Language and Thought, Milton Keynes, Open University

Beaney, M., (2010) Imagination and Creativity, Milton Keynes, Open University

    This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

    One Response to Initiatory Witchcraft and the beetle in the box

    1. Jack Dark says:

      Thank you. An excellent piece that articulates well something that I’ve been grappling with myself.

      It’s of particular relevance to initiatory traditions as mystery religions, where one may not even know which gods are to be encountered at the outset.

    Comments are closed.