Walt Whitman writes in his poem, "Song of Myself":
"Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd
the earth much?
Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
The last line sticks with me: "filter them from your self." What a marvelous, potent phrase about understandingStop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self."
Remember that game of Telephone? I remember how teachers would use it as a way to exemplify how rumors spread. Basically, everyone gets in a circle of five or more people. One person will turn to their right and whisper a phrase. That person will then turn to their right and whisper exactly what they heard. And so on. This process morphs the phrase so that by the time it reaches the last person, the phrase is almost (if not completely) indistinguishable from the first phrase. A phrase like, "I like to buy shoes at the market" becomes "Eyes are hard to mark." This is due to a number of human error problems, like speaking too fast, stuttering, emphasizing some words over others. Etc.
There is a website called Bad Translator that mimics this almost by taking a phrase in English, translating it to a different language, then back to English, then to another language, and so forth for how many iterations you set it to. I typed in, "I like to buy shoes at the market" and it became "I want to buy shoes."
My point is: the further from the source, the more distorted the message.
So there's this word you might have heard called "Karma." As understood in the Western world like the United States, this word in conversation refers to belief that "what goes around comes around." Or something to that effect. However, that is a bastardization of what Karma actually is from the culture that birthed the word. Karma is the accumulation of deeds that determines the next life, and actually only applies to those who are part of the Hindu religion and culture.
See how that definition dropped parts and emphasized others the more and more mouths it passed? This is a word I did not read from the source, thus misunderstood it. And this is not something that evolved naturally. This is a word that a Western heard and detracted all the religious significance so that it made sense.
More over, applying this to studying a religion is most prudent. With the ease of secondhand information being at a click of a button, people can read an article about a certain religion and decree: "Yes, this is my religion!"
Yet if someone wants to be a Christian, they should know the Bible. Though certain branches of Christianity omit this necessity, I would still recommend it as that text is the source of all the knowledge any priest, preacher, or pastor is drawing from. If available, a person should read the Hebrew and Greek texts or the closest translation to those texts.
If someone wants to be in the Jewish Faith, they should know the Torah. And know it in Hebrew. Which, if I am not mistaken, is less negotiable in Judaism than Christianity as the subsections of Judaism require a person to understand or at least read Hebrew to pass their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
So to bring this back to paganism, if someone is going to practice Wicca...start with Gerald Gardner. The books Witchcraft Today, The Meaning of Witchcraft, High Magic's Aid, and Gardnerian Book of Shadows would be where to start, just like an interested person in Juadism would start with the Torah and an interested person in Christianity would start with the Bible.
Unfortunately, a lot of New Age books that claim to teach Wicca are using secondhand information from someone who got their information secondhand from someone who could not disclose everything--since Wicca is a religion based around secrecy and initiation rites.
Though in all honesty, Wicca would be the easiest out of most of the Neopagan movements because the religion has a texts and dedicated teachers (as in, people need to be initiated into a coven and then it is assumed that a priest or priestess would pass along written information.) What about Egyptian Spirituality, that does not have a single source? Or Norse Heatherny? Or Celtic Spirituality? (When the Celtic people did not write anything down about their practices until after they were converted to Christianity.)
But it is still the same: go to the source. That is, go to where the authors would if they were to write a book about the Egyptians or the Norse or the Celts. With almost any civilization, there are historical accounts. Step back from the New Age or Religion section of a bookstore and head to the History books. If one is especially adventurous, learn the language and study primary accounts. But keep in mind that this probably means learning Greek or Roman, as the majority of primary accounts from the time periods were written by outsiders (at least in the case of the Celts, which I am more familiar with.)
Speaking of the Celts, I bought today a Peter Berresford Ellis' book, The Druids. As I move to learn more and more about the Celts and Druids, I realize I have to figure out the historical accounts first and foremost. Else I begin to believe the telephoned information and think they had a zodiac like the Chinese. (They didn't, or at least not one historians can verify.) Yet since I myself will not dedicate a lifetime to studying them, I have to rely on historians who are or did. I will, then, have to gather multiple perspectives on those authors to verify they are reliable sources for historical accuracy. (So far, Ellis has been highly recommended to me in the Celtic Paganism Circle I frequent.) Then, from that historical understanding, I can work on discerning what is opinion and what is factual from books written about Druidry and applying it today.
In short: The surest way to be sure of something is to experience first hand. Remove as many barriers from the source as possible, then work your way backwards.
Reader response question is this:
What other examples of relying on secondhand or thirdhand information you recognize in the pagan community?