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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

10 Red Flags in Spiritual Books

 I've written before about 7 Warning Signs of a Bad Fairy Source but I wanted to expand a bit here and look more generally at red flags of books that may be problematic. Some of these things will overlap with the previous list and many won't but I think they all are important criteria for judging whether a book or other source might not be solid, especially in today's world where material is proliferating at such a fast pace. None of these, except maybe point #1, are necessarily signs that you shouldn't read a book but they are definitely indicators that caution and extra discernment is needed. 

I don't generally tackle people's personal gnosis in things like this because I feel like personal gnosis is just that, personal. It isn't for me to judge whether its true or not in any wider context, unless its being put out publicly with the expectation that others must or should accept it. That said some of these guidelines will apply to people's personal gnosis that is shared in books or other sources, such as point #4, and I stand by what I am saying here. That doesn't necessarily invalidate that person's beliefs but it should give other people, at the least, pause in considering whether that belief is meant to apply to anyone outside that individual. 

This one checks several on the list

  1.  Super Secret Translations/Sources - #1 red flag and the most easily spotted. When a book claims its text is or is based on a one of a kind ancient or historic text that only the author ever got to see or translate...just put the book down and walk away. Nothing good will follow. I have seen this multiple times in pagan and fairy books and every single time its obviously just a way for the author to try to claim a false authority for their own writing. And however valuable that writing may seem to those who do read it, its coming from a poisoned well in my opinion when the premise is a non-existent text, especially since the books that use this that I have read include multiple other red flags from this list.

  2.  Relying On Outdated Sources - A less serious red flag, but exceedingly common, are books that rely solely or largely on very old outdated sources. If the bibliography is mostly works from the 18th and 19th century* and the author is trying to use those to discuss modern beliefs and situations then at best its going to be inaccurate and lacking nuance. Older texts from those periods are notoriously problematic for multiple reasons: the bias of the authors, the class difference between author and material being recorded, the agenda of the author, the tendency for 'folklorists' of the times to include their own fiction or opinions in with recorded anecdotes, flagrant racism, etc.,. This material can be useful when understood in context but shouldn't be relied on as the sole sources for modern spirituality. 

  3.  No Sources - Obviously if the author is being clear they are relaying their own gnosis this doesn't apply, but if the book includes history, other people's anecdotal accounts, or discussion of factual information that can and usually would be sourced and it isn't then that's usually not a good sign. Referencing a source allows a reader to check that source for themselves; not doing so means the reader is entirely dependent on the author's paraphrased or retold version and I have found numerous instances where I recognized a source (usually Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries) being used in ways that intentionally or not distorted the actual material being repeated - but without that clear reference a reader who wasn't familiar with the source wouldn't realize that. 

  4.  'Everyone Else is Completely Wrong But Me' - Another significant red flag is when an author claims that they are the sole source of accurate knowledge on any subject or the only purveyor of genuine truth. Run, don't walk, away from this sort of approach because it leads directly into cults of personality and literal cults. 

  5.  Pseudowords - Pseduowords aren't necessarily bad if they are acknowledged as such - if the author is clear they made up a word or term for their own practice that's fine. If they say it was channeled to them but aren't claiming its part of any real human language or system also fine, as such. But if they are putting the word forward as a genuine term that they claim exists and has a history but which can't be verified in anyway except by them (see: tenalach) you need to be very skeptical. 

  6.  Invented Terms - Again if the author is honest about this it isn't a problem but when the term is presented as if it were a legitimate term within a wider community or spirituality when that community has no idea of the word or term, that's a big problem. (see: Seabhean). 

  7.  Misused Other^ Languages - Other languages are not, in fact, blank templates that can be redefined at the whim of outsiders. Words have set meanings, even in dead languages like Old/Middle Irish or Latin, and obviously especially in living languages. It is not even remotely okay for an author to take a term from a language they don't speak and redefine it for their own agenda and when tyhat happens in a book its a big red flag. For example Kisma Stepanich in her Faery Wicca books claiming that shillelagh is what wands are called or misusing the term ollamh. 

  8.  False History - Always be cautious of any book that gets basic history dates and facts wrong or claims an alternative history that is incompatible with established facts. And yes I do know that history is far more fluid than set in stone but if someone is claiming, for example, that Irish independence occured in the 19th century not the 20th and involved vampires and it was all covered up to hide the existence of vampires you really should see that as a red flag. Really, really. 

  9.  Racism/Antisemitism - This one may seem obvious but its surprisingly common in spiritual books to see both racism and antisemitism** slipped in with a veneer of either historical or spiritual acceptability. Books that include the outdated and racist theory that fairies were a primitive, dark race of people driven out by light skinned/haired invaders are a good example, and moreso books that advocate the even more blatantly racist 'African pygmies = fairies' theory. Any source talking about 'Irish slaves' should get a hard pass, as should anything getting into antisemetic 'lizard people', New World Order, or similar. 

  10.  Plagiarism - another one that I'd think should be obvious but any instances of  plagiarism of other works in a source is a big red flag. Don't trust a source that is presenting other people's work or writing as their own. This is where checking reviews of a book or source can be very helpful as often plagiarism will be mentioned by reviewers if its an issue; not to say you should automatically trust any random accusation of such online but if you see one you can dig further into it to see if it has substance. 
I do realize some of the linguistic stuff may be difficult to recognize as either legitimate or not, so I always encourage readers when encountering a new term in any book to take a few minutes to research the term. If you do a quick internet search and all the results go back to the author you are checking up on that's not a good sign. You might notice that several of these, particularly around language, are aspects of cultural appropriation, which is true, but as people seem to find that subject in general confusing and hard to parse I thought it would be more helpful here to highlight the specific areas that should be watched for instead of just making CA a point in the list, however that is definitely something to be aware of and watchful for.  

*the exception being when beliefs of that time are being discussed or specific material, like a ballad, is being analyzed within its own time frame. even then modern scholarship should be included as well.
other in this context meaning any language that isn't native/known to the author or speaker.
** I could add misogyny, transphobia, and xenophobia here but so far at least these seem to be more fringe (thankfully) and more easily recognized and called out by people - although I will say xenophobia is definitely on the rise. I'm highlighting specifically racism and antisemitism because I see them far too often and far too often accepted and justified across a range of spiritual works.  

1 comment:

  1. I recall an uproar back in the 90's, when a book claiming to teach Authentic Celtic Druidry used pumpkins as an ingredient in potions, ignoring that they were a new world vegetable unavailable in Europe before the 1500s. Big false history red flag there.