How To Research Spiritual Topics

Wolfwitch by Springwolf 2012

The Challenges Research

What Is The Meaning Of…..

So you want to be a “____fill in the blank____”. Ok, it’ takes time and research. Are you willing to put in the effort? Then here’s how you get started.

The Library at Alexandria was in charge of collecting all the world’s knowledge, and most of the staff was occupied with the task of translating works onto papyrus paper. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens. … Any books found on ships that came into port were taken to the library, and were listed as “books of the ships”. Official scribes then copied these writings; the originals were kept in the library, and the copies delivered to the owners.” – Wikipedia

Today when people speak of the Library of Alexandria they’re often referring to a place of infinite knowledge. A place where you can go to learn anything, discover anything and access the knowledge of time and history.

Today we are fortunate to have access to an equivalent library at our finger tips. Right there in front of you. Where you’re reading this article. You have access to the Library of Alexandria. You merely need to follow a few simple rules for using it.

I receive a great deal of email and quite often it’s from people asking me “Have you heard of this -term-” or “What does this -word- mean?” or “How do I become -this title/label”.

I don’t mind sharing what I think, but I do try to give people resources to do their own research. I can give you a fish, or I can teach you to fish. I prefer to teach you how to fish so you have the tools and ability to learn for yourself. I can’t learn for you. But I can help you learn how to achieve the knowledge you seek. It’s the difference between empowering others, or putting yourself in power over others. I have too much on my plate, I don’t have time for the latter.

How To Research
First and foremost there’s no substitute for research. If you want to achieve knowledge, you’re going to have to read and research. Get used to it.

Second, you must keep notes. Write things down. Whether you use pen and paper, a pc file or tablet. Take notes! In today’s age, don’t underestimate the value of taking a picture with your phone! Even those close up images can give you information that can be researched later.

Third, keep a list of where you got your information! I can’t express how important this is. Years from now you’re going to remember you picked that tid-bit up from somewhere and you’re going to want to go back to it or refer it to someone else. Maybe you discovered some information that contradicts your note and you want to go back and re-read the original source to put it into context. You won’t be able to do that if you don’t know where you found it.

Always keep backups!! If you’re writing things down on pen and paper, this may not be a big issue. But it’s still good advice. If you’re keeping notes in a digital format it is extremely important to keep backups! Invest in a thumb drive or 10, and back up your research data daily or weekly at the very least.

To begin your research project you’re going to need to write out what you’re doing. Yes it sounds tedious, but there’s a reason behind it. Writing out what you want to learn about puts your topic in context. Whither it’s a concept, a word, label of something or the title of a profession, what you think about it now will help you define your research project.  As you get into the topic, your concept may change and that’s ok. But you want to keep the original thought so you know where you started. It’s also nice to look back on that short paragraph or see how far you’ve come with your knowledge.

Now you’re ready to start your research.

The Library of My Dreams

The Library of My Dreams

Where To Start
Here’s a few things you should know about researching topics, terms, words, labels or titles. First off in the world of spirituality, regardless of religion, we all have an idea or concept that’s shared around the world. But we may use a different label or word to describe what that is. So when you ask what does “witchblood” mean, my reply would be in what context is it used and by whom? Because what it means to you maybe totally different from what it means to a Christian living in Rome.

Because of this I fall back on academic resources. The first place I go to find something is a reliable dictionary. My preferred choice is the Oxford English Dictionary. But the OED is an expensive set of books and not every community library has a set. Online access to the OED is also expensive. So let’s talk free stuff.

My preferred online dictionary of choice is Dictionary.Reference.com. When you search a word here, you’ll be given the definition from several online dictionary sources and this is important. Historically dictionaries have not always been unbiased and true to academic standards. Companies doing business in Christian communities tended to create definitions of words with a Christian bias. If you’re pagan, this is especially true when you look up the word “witch”. Websters dictionary at one time defined a witch as woman who was in league with the devil.

Having access to varying definition perspectives helps you compare a word and decipher an unbiased academic meaning. But in addition, this website also links you to reference sites such as Etymology resources which is the second place I go when doing initial research.

EtymologyOnline.com is my next preferred website for research. Knowing when a word came into use, how was used and in what context it was used can be equally important to understanding the topic you’re researching. Especially in society today when so many people try to re-write history to fit their views. If you want to learn what a HedgeWitch is, then you must start with what it was and what it has evolved into. This begins with understanding the word itself and where it came from.

Finding The Clues
One of the things I like most about EtymologyOnline is that it gives you insight into a broader view of a topic. Hedgewitch is a good example to use for how best to conduct research into a topic.

If you search for Hedgewitch in the dictionary, you won’t find a listing. Do the same thing for its etymology and again you won’t receive any search results. Right off the bat this tells me the label is a modern term that potentially is used incorrectly.

Now there are many reasons this could happen. It could be influenced from art, books, movies, tv shows, or any form of literature or social media. Recently someone asked me if I had ever heard the term “Witchblood”. Do a search and the first thing I discovered was a book series with that title by Emma Mills. Immediately I’m suspect of its use and accuracy.

When this happens, the next thing to do is move to the Etymology of the words separately. Hedge Witch has an interesting etymology result. It takes a little time to read through the results, some you can skip, but put together each one can give you clues and tid-bits for continuing your search. Especially when you find a result that refers to concepts that you already know applies to both words. For our example, EtymologyOnline returned “hag” as one of its results.

hag (n.)
early 13c., “ugly old woman,” probably a shortening of Old English hægtesse “witch, fury” (on assumption that -tesse was a suffix), from Proto-Germanic *hagatusjon-, of unknown origin. Similar shortening produced Dutch heks, German Hexe “witch” from cognate Middle Dutch haghetisse, Old High German hagzusa.First element is probably cognate with Old English haga “enclosure, portion of woodland marked off for cutting” (see hedge). Old Norse had tunriða and Old High German zunritha, both literally “hedge-rider,” used of witches and ghosts. Second element may be connected with Norwegian tysja “fairy; crippled woman,” Gaulish dusius “demon,” Lithuanian dvasia “spirit,” from PIE *dhewes- “to fly about, smoke, be scattered, vanish.”
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One of the magic words for which there is no male form, suggesting its original meaning was close to “diviner, soothsayer,” which were always female in northern European paganism, and hægtesse seem at one time to have meant “woman of prophetic and oracular powers” (Ælfric uses it to render the Greek “pythoness,” the voice of the Delphic oracle), a figure greatly feared and respected. Later, the word was used of village wise women.Haga is also the haw- in hawthorn, which is an important tree in northern European pagan religion. There may be several layers of folk etymology here. Confusion or blending with heathenish is suggested by Middle English hæhtis, hægtis “hag, witch, fury, etc.,” and haetnesse “goddess,” used of Minerva and Diana.
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If the hægtesse was once a powerful supernatural woman (in Norse it is an alternative word for Norn, any of the three weird sisters, the equivalent of the Fates), it might originally have carried the hawthorn sense. Later, when the pagan magic was reduced to local scatterings, it might have had the sense of “hedge-rider,” or “she who straddles the hedge,” because the hedge was the boundary between the “civilized” world of the village and the wild world beyond.
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The hægtesse would have a foot in each reality. Even later, when it meant the local healer and root collector, living in the open and moving from village to village, it may have had the mildly pejorative sense of hedge- in Middle English (hedge-priest, etc.), suggesting an itinerant sleeping under bushes, perhaps. The same word could have contained all three senses before being reduced to its modern one.

It’s the second paragraph that gives the best first clue. The words I would hone in on are hedge, old norse and hedge rider.

First element is probably cognate with Old English haga “enclosure, portion of woodland marked off for cutting” (see hedge). Old Norse had tunriða and Old High German zunritha, both literally “hedge-rider,” used of witches and ghosts.

The Giant Bible of Mainz is a very large manuscript Bible produced in 1452-3

The Giant Bible of Mainz
A very large manuscript Bible
Produced in 1452-3

Later in the result we see another clue and pull out hawthorn and European pagans. Trees are an important part of nature to witches. So this link between hag and hawthorn is an important one to our research.

Haga is also the haw- in hawthorn, which is an important tree in northern European pagan religion.

Finally the supposition at the end of the resource is of most importance and interest as it puts the words into context. When you’re conducting research about any subject, the context can be the most important. This entire paragraph gives you some great insight and historical information. But this line in particular helps us understand how the term hedgewitch may have arisen.

Even later, when it meant the local healer and root collector, living in the open and moving from village to village, it may have had the mildly pejorative sense of hedge- in Middle English (hedge-priest, etc.), suggesting an itinerant sleeping under bushes, perhaps.

Follow The Academic Trail
From these clues we can continue our research into the Norse and Middle-Age local healers. These people may have been thought of as witches, but it’s more likely they would be seen as Shamans (as in a profession, not a religion). Now you must think like a person of this age or these regions. Not as citizen of the 21st century.

Healers utilized herbs, roots and anything they could find in nature that had healing properties. They were often found deep in the woods collecting strange plants. Back at home, they would be drying herbs, mixing brews, storing plants and flowers to be used later. If it weren’t for their knowledge, many people would have lost their lives through every day events we take for granted today. A simple cut on the finger could result in infection and possibly even death.

But understanding where and how these words were used helps us follow a trail to learning more about how healers did what they did. So where do you go next? Back to the Library of Alexandria. Or in this case, The Library of Congress, the modern day version of the old Library of Alexandria.

The LOC has many online resources in their Digital Collections. Take a little time to become familiar with this page. You can access Collections from this main page, but off to the left you have additional organization of the information in this library. You can view the Virtual Reference Shelf, or search through Finding Aids.

The first thing you should do when searching with the Finding Aids, is look for the word or topic you’re researching. In our case “hedgewitch”. Again no search results. So we know there are no digital resources available for that specific phrase. Another clue that this is a very modern invention.

Split up the words and search for “hedge witch”, we have a hit; Edison sheet music collection, 1830-1958. Well that’s interesting. You can then look through all the links and information provided in this collection and discover how the terms are used. Here they could be used separately and not together in a label like we’re using them. But that’s part of research.

Next go back to the search page and search for the clues you discovered from the etymology resource. Try variations of those words and think through how you might utilize your local library to discover any material to give you insight into the history of the topic you’re researching.

You may not find anything in the online collections to help you. But it’s a reliable place to start. But if it was a dead-end, where to next. As much as some people don’t like Wikipedia it too has some useful information. And at the very least, it can provide additional resources. By the way, NASA uses Wikipedia as one of its resources. I think you can too.

But you can also narrow your search to reliable sources online by using a simple advanced search method. Google Advanced Search is good for this. Type in what you’re searching for, in our case – hedgewitch. If you’re searching for an exact phrase, use that field in the search criteria.

Leather bound Webster's New International Dictionary from 1927.

Leather bound Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1927.

Under the Narrow Your Search section, you’ll see a field that says: Site or Domain. You can search one site (like wikipedia.org ) or limit your results to a domain like .edu, .org or .gov. In order to help you find reliable information stick to .edu, .gov or whatever extension fits your country’s government sources and search. Why not .org? Because anyone can create a domain name hedgewitch.org, that doesn’t mean they have reliable information.

You may not find anything if you combine your criteria. For instance search for hedgewitch under .edu, .gov and you’ll find no results. Remove .gov and you’ll find a number of .edu links to check out.

.edu limits your search to educational institutions. Stick to places you know. Harvard, MIT, Yale and so on will often have reliable information. Primarily because of peer reviews. If a student posts a research paper and other students read it, you’re likely to learn from their online debate or discussion in addition to the research paper itself. Additionally the individual colleges within the universities, or departments within a college may host sites relating to research projects. One of my favorite examples of this would be the University of Virginia’s Religious Movements website.

Even limiting your search to .edu sites, you will still have to weed through unreliable sources. But you’re cutting your work load down a great deal from the start. Simply by looking at the source of the search result you can find reliable information by sticking to Universities you know. Or at the very least ones you can find out about and then decide if it’s a reliable resource.

My last piece of advice is learning how to separate good information from not so good. Even if you find what you think might be a reliable resource there could still be issues with the information it provides. There’s three things to look for.

First, does the resource you found provide a bibliography? If not, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it could mean it’s suspect. Really good resources will give you information about where they found their information. This also helps you find additional information by going to those original resources.

Second, look at the writing. Are there a lot of typeos or spelling mistakes. Some mistakes are inevitable and you can look over a few of those. But if it’s filled with bad grammar and spelling errors, then you might consider that the information itself could be in question as well.

antique-writing

A period table in one of the rooms at the
Carroll County Farm Museum – Westminster, MD

There’s a difference between a 16 year old writing an article from what she saw in a movie and trying to put “her knowledge” across as an expert and well researched material. You can tell the difference, so be critical.

Lastly, also look for confirming information. Don’t take one persons word for it. And don’t assume that because you’ve found the same line of information on more than one site that the information is correct. Today many bloggers copy and paste from other people because they think it sounds right. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve found some of my own material reposted on someone elses website and they’re claiming it as their own. Simply because one sentence sounds accurate doesn’t mean the entire site is reliable. Always look for confirmation in other reliable resources.

And that last part is the biggest piece of advice I can give to those doing research. Never take someones word for something. Not even mine. Always look for other resources that view a topic in the same way in order to validate the information in context. IN CONTEXT! The whole perspective should be similar from place to place. History doesn’t change, no matter how much some people want it to.

No one can learn for you. Walking a spiritual path takes time and effort to research, read, study, experience and experiment with what you learn. One book isn’t going to make you an expert. One author isn’t going to give you the full picture. If you want to be a “___fill in the blank___” you’re going to have to do the work that goes into it.

Now get to work.

You may want to review my Resources for Spiritual Religions, Paths, Movements where I share my online resources for research.

© Springwolfs Hanko

© 2013 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Springs Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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