Sometimes magicians say some rather silly things about words. “I don’t like labels,” “I don’t want to be limited by applying a name to myself,” “it means whatever you want it to mean.” Things like this miss how language works, they also miss an important component of magic. Language is a partnership between ourselves and anyone listening to or reading us. We agree to use words as symbols with a particular meaning. For magic, language is a chisel, the world is a stone, and our placement of words is the hammer. We define, shape, know, and explore things by cutting away bits and pieces until we reveal what a thing is, or shape what a thing is, through the judicious use of words.
Meaning is important. The ability to convey meaning is important. Care and consideration of our words is important.
Sometimes words have meaning beyond what they say, and we need to consider what they express. This is, as I’m sure almost all people reading will know, the difference between denotation and connotation. What a word denotes, what it means, can be pretty static, over time it might evolve some, but its core should be pretty steady. If it is evolving, it should be slow enough for broad agreement to occur in order for our partnership between speaker and hearer to work. Connotation is weird, because it can be contextual, it can be shifting and specific and impacted, or it can be a generally socially accepted thing. It can change on the fly due to lots of factors. Because it has to do with feeling and implication it can be harder to change it intentionally than it is to change meaning.
Today I’m going to suggest we work on changing connotation, and redeem some potentially useful words from the mire they have accreted in their short stint as part of magic’s in-crowd phraseology.
Those words about which we are going to speak? Unverified Personal Gnosis.
Jason Miller and I had a fun chat this afternoon, and the use of the phrase UPG was one of several things we discussed. I believe he is going to be writing about it too. As I understand it, his position is that we should more or less drop the phrase. It creates unreal standards. It asks for things without really defining what those things are. It creates a hierarchy of value for experiences based on some potentially faulty logic.
I agree with those criticisms. I think a lot of things people want to see change in the magical community and the pagan community can fall victim to those same criticisms. We need standards, but are the standards people are asking for what they really want? We need structures, but what are those structures and why do we need them? How do we determine what’s good or bad, or what’s meaningful or not meaningful? We can find a lot of things which should be, but aren’t always, confronting those questions.
As far as UPG, my take is more cautious. I use the term, but with a bit of trepidation. I don’t want to convey something by it that I don’t mean. I know my audience might easily take something from it I don’t mean, even if my audience is, as was this case this afternoon, an individual friend with whom I’m chatting. I think the words themselves are a really good description for a concept that is important and one which should be so very quotidian that we probably do need ways for discussing it, placing it, and exploring it. I think these three words have some baggage though. They’re dirty, not in the sense of being vulgar, but in the sense that people have used them vulgarly and got them a bit dirty in the process.
I think we can clean them up, make them useful, and in doing so highlight how important actual magic and actual experience of the numinous, and of the individuated spiritual ecosphere are to…you know…magic.
Because that’s the thing. We can’t be magicians, and consistently look down on people having experiences of the magical. When we have a set of words to describe all such experiences, and people equate that set of words with hopelessly idiosyncratic at best, and worthless trash at worst…we’re tossing out the existence of magic. We’re throwing away our ability for magic to grow as a living breathing experience within a broader community.
So, how do we clean these words up so they can be useful again?
Let’s start with what the words are. UNVERIFIED Personal Gnosis. I’ve seen some people render the U as Unverifiable. Which would mean we could never confirm if it was real or not, if it has veracity, or a core of truth in it. If something can’t ever touch truth it’s probably just a fantasy. If something can be true, we just aren’t sure yet, it is something which potentially propels us to explore learn and grow. Unverified just means we don’t know yet. If a spirit tells you what the outcome of a major sporting event will be it’s unverified until the event happens, after which you’ve either verified what you were told was true or it wasn’t. Information we get from a spirit isn’t necessarily unverifiable.
Any information anyone gets from a spirit will begin as Unverified Personal Gnosis. The spirit generally isn’t talking to a bunch of people so, any communication will be personal. That doesn’t mean the information is only for the person receiving it. Sometimes we try to dismiss UPG as if it only applies to the person who got it. It really depends on the nature of the message. I’ve had interactions with gods and spirits who have told me things about their nature, things they like to receive, or things about how they are represented which I later encountered in historical sources or works describing their history. Those messages weren’t for me, they were just messages being told to me. Sometimes many people dealing with a spirit will get the same or similar information about a way to work with the spirit. The message is personal in that they’re each personally told the message, but many people receiving it shows it isn’t just for them. A message about events that are going to happen could also be a message for a wider audience than just the person receiving it.
Calling it Gnosis just means it is knowledge but implies something personal and experience driven. It can also be taken as a way to write it off by pushing it closer to the category of WooWoo. Probably my least favorite word choice of the term. Either way, it’s just information.
UPG should be the goal of magic, religion, mysticism, really anything in life. If we’re not personally developing and gaining knowledge or information from our actions and interactions what are we even doing? When we get a tarot reading or a geomancy consultation, the information the reader receives from their spirit contacts is UPG, just UPG intended for the specific client in the specific situation, and hopefully it will be verified in the near future. We have no problem with info being received in that context. So we don’t tend to apply this particular term of potential derision to that kind of information even though it’s no different.
So, what’s the problem with UPG?
People use the term dismissively. They act like any information that falls under UPG needs to be ignored. People act like it should never be considered or discussed. That kind of position is counter-productive. Conversely, ignoring all tradition, history or evidence and proclaiming UPG as truth for everyone or providing it without qualification is also a big, and common problem. That latter problem is why, in my opinion, the term is useful. We need a way to note when something is untested and is sourced from our own experiences. We should also be able to note when something is experientially derived, but when it has been confirmed in some meaningful way. We need a way to view information like this which doesn’t make any experiential information automatically dismissed or derided.
Less discussed, we also need to distinguish between UPG and people’s individual reimagining. If someone is just interpreting historical sources in a weird way, or deciding they don’t like the historical context of a thing and reimagining it for modern times, that is something wholly different. I won’t go into the merit or lack of merit of such an approach right now, but we should be able to distinguish stuff someone is making up, from stuff someone received from spirit contacts. Being able to say “this is UPG,” “this came from an article by Claire Fanger,” or “I made this up,” should all be simple propositions.
UPG becomes problematic because of people’s values and biases. I think a little of this is fair. The NeoPagan community, which the magical community was pretty intimately tied to until maybe ten to fifteen years ago, is full of bad history and fiction and fantasy being equated with truth. Major segments of the magical community have inherited this kind of “it can be whatever I want it to be,” mentality. Counter movements like the Reconstructionist movement, which seems to have been replaced by the Polytheist movement, and the Grimoire Revivalists, have reacted by insisting on exacting historical scholarship…sort of. The scholarship definitely varies and the means by which it’s judged are inconsistent.
I myself lean hard into valuing history. I was into Reconstructionism as a teenager. I studied Classics in college. I took enough Latin in college to qualify to teach high school Latin. I lean hard into valuing magic too. I was never into the psychological model, or doing magic for catharsis. To me, spirits, gods, and magic have always been about connecting with and doing something real. From that perspective while I like history as a bench mark, as a starting point, and as something to use to guide ourselves and compare our results to…I think we need to be intensely concerned with what we experience and discover and how these powers remain vital active and continuously unveiling parts not only of our lives, but of the wider world.
When we consider how history and UPG can interact, we should try to remember that historical material probably started as someone’s UPG that got widely accepted and redeveloped and institutionalized over time. With some historical material we don’t even know if it became accepted or stood the test of time, we just know someone wrote it down and it survived long enough to reach us. We should value historical info, especially historical info that we see was disseminated throughout a broad group of people, or over an extensive period of time. We can presume that it endured and spread because something rang true for people and they had some success adhering to those understandings and practices. It still started with someone receiving some inspiration or some message.
Unless we believe in a degeneration of spiritual contact through the ages of man, and that there are no more prophets, no more sages, no more saints, no more visionaries amongst your everyday people…then we have to accept that people might receive things that are real and meaningful.
I’ll be skeptical when reviewing things people say. If they got something from their experiences and it feels true, or evidence backs it up, or it seems reasonable based on things I know or have experienced I might be inclined to accept it. I don’t have to accept it. I should respect the possibility that it has some truth to it. I should also retain the reason and discernment to recognize when something is just fantasy.
Usually it’s not a hard line to walk. I think when we forbid discussing UPG, or when we decide we shouldn’t note when something is UPG we’re deciding not to use our reason and our faculties of discernment. We’re saying only the historical is valuable…despite that it can also be wrong, or we’re saying nothing is inherently valuable so it doesn’t matter where anything came from. I don’t think either of these positions is true. We should encourage exploring and educating oneself in tradition just as we should encourage diving in and experiencing the richness of the reality of the spirit world. We should openly discuss information derived from both, but we should make it clear where we’re getting that information from. We shouldn’t dismiss things that could be very valuable or useful for us just because it isn’t traditional so it’s just made up, any more than we should because it came from tradition and tradition is just old superstitions. Either way, we should explore, evaluate, and make informed choices.
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