Sex and the Dead: A Right Load of Fuckery

sex and the dead - skull

The Paradox of Sex and the Dead

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the onion was considered a vegetable of the dead. Perhaps it’s because it grew in the ground as the deceased are planted? Or perhaps the reasoning was something else. Either way, along with parsley and celery, the onion commonly graced the tables of funeral feasts

sex and the dead - onions
Viagra, a long time ago.

(“Eating with the Dead”).

But here is where we come to a paradox, because the onion was also well known as an aphrodisiac. And what of grim and unyielding Hades himself? Not only was he connected with the cycle of the year, but was also arguably connected to fertility too.

As it turns out though, this collocation of sex and death is not unusual, and it’s not limited to the classical world either.

Among the Germanic tribes, for example, the god of the mound is also the god who fertilizes the earth. It is he who is depicted with a large phallus – a sign of his virility. Ruler of Alfheim, so too do his subjects share the same associations. Mound-dwelling and sexually deviant, elves would eventually come to be known as incubi.

Moving slightly further afield, the Canaanite Ba’al the god of life and fertility is shown to be constantly locked in battle with Mot, the god of death and sterility.

To move even further afield (at least from the perspective of my resting paradigm), we see the same dichotomy in the Haitian deity Papa Ghédé who presides over both death and eroticism.

Again and again, fertility (or even straight up eroticism) and death walk hand in hand. Life is spun and then unspun in a cycle of generation and dissolution, the fibers falling away only to be respun again. These are in truth, two sides of the same cycle, and without the one there cannot be the other.

Man Imitates Gods (or Elves)

This also seems to be the case for many humans who work with the dead too, and the grave may be just as inseparable from sex and generation within some human practitioners, as it is with the aforementioned gods.

“Thus the Gods did, thus men do”

Taittirīya Brāhmana
(Eliade 98)

sex and the dead - beso negro
Those witches will get with any old unclean spirit!

There also seems to be something in the “wiring” here too. For anyone who has studied historical witchcraft accounts, accusations of “sexual deviancy” go hand in hand with accusations of trucking (sexually or magically) with demons or elves. Again and again we see this pattern of chthonic beings with fertility aspects and their human partners engaged in both necromancy and apparent sexual deviancy. (See Lee Morgan’s ‘A Deed without a Name’ for further discussion on these relationships both among historical and modern practitioners)

It would seem that one cannot separate the sex/eroticism from the chthonic, and by extension, death itself. And this can be unsettling to our modern WEIRD minds. (I note here that apparently Papa Ghédé enjoys fucking with white people because of exactly this kind of hang up. Go Papa Ghédé!)

But patterns rarely emerge without reason, and this one is no exception.

A Matter of “Wiring”?

First though, I’d like to talk about the matter of the “wiring” of human practitioners for a moment. Because here too are patterns to be observed. Why is it that the witch was so associated with sexual deviancy in historical accounts? Why did Jordanes write of the Halirunnae (Gothic for Helrune), if you’re interested) going out and having issue with “unclean spirits”? Why was that so believable to him that people associated with Hel practices would be all about fucking the “unclean spirits”? (Getica XXIV, 121-123)

This matter of “wiring” is something that Martin Coleman (aka Draja Mickaharic) comments on in Communing with the Spirits: The Magical Practice of Necromancy. To quote him regarding women with the propensity for necromancy:

“If you are a woman you may have had occasional vivid dreams of a sexual nature which you remember upon awakening. In some cases, the dream may

sex and the dead - necromancy
According to Pixabay, this is what necromancy looks like

have been so vivid that you awakened as a result of the orgasm that the dream produced. This is not an uncommon phenomena found in those women who are able to work with the spirits of the dead. Women who are able to work well with the spirits of the dead often have very little sense of physical modesty. In a few cases they are excessively modest. Often women who can work with spirits of the dead are quite uninhibited in comparison with most of the women of their generation. Occasionally they are asexual, but these women are usually found at the extreme ranges of dress and sexual behavior.”

So what is going on here? Why can working with the dead turn into such fuckery? (Ha, see what I did there?) Why does this collocation exist?

Sex as a Safety Mechanism

One thing you quickly learn when interacting with the dead is that to interact with the dead is to interact with death, and pull away from life. But to engage in the primal act of intercourse is to pull away from death and to reassert one’s place within the living world. It is to leave the world of shadows and rejoin the world of the heart pounding, heavy breathing, and corporeality of skin and bodily fluids. To fall once more under the spell of the sensual and reconnect with one of the joys of this world. It is in this sense, a way of exorcising the touch of death from yourself in the same way that you may take salt or wash your feet, or whatever else you do to purify when leaving the places of the sex and the dead - life and deathdead.

This is not some sick and perverted thing as some might think. There is no sexual attraction to the dead present (and I actually hate that I feel like I have to say that). Instead, I find it to be more like the triggering a safety mechanism that occurs in response to a certain degree of proximity to death. It’s a form of medicine. When you think about it, this is really no different from people fucking at or after funerals. It is, I believe, the same underlying mechanism at work.

In short, this is a piece of protective wiring for those of us who experience it, and deities like Papa Ghédé rightfully mock us when repression keeps us from this act of self-healing.

(Ace folx, I’d be curious to hear what you experience post-interacting-with-the-dead!)

Bibliography

Eating With the Dead: Funeral Meal Practices, by Tylluan Perry in MEMENTO MORI A Collection of Magickal and Mythological Perspectives On Death, Dying, Mortality and Beyond

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, by Mircea Eliade

Communing with the Spirits: The Magical Practice of Necromancy, by Martin Coleman

Whiteness is the Witchcraft-Killer

Introduction

I’ve sat on this post for a long time. It’s a post that started with a dream that became a maelstrom of thoughts. And since the morning of the 27th of October (which was when I entered the dream into my journal), I’ve been turning it over in my head. You see, I want to be clear about this, because this topic is important.

But it may also be difficult for those of you who share my melanin-deficiency.  I do however, ask you to set aside your initial feelings, read with an open heart, and then turn this topic over in your own mind some before reacting.

Because it is not white skin that is under attack here. I do not deny the realities of white privilege or the different lived experiences of oppressed peoples – those things are as plain to me as the nose on my face. But this is about whiteness, why we must not buy into it, and why we must work to free ourselves of it.

Before continuing though, I should probably define what I mean by whiteness - gated community“whiteness” in this post. When I speak of “whiteness”, I speak of a construct that sits in our society like a gated community that limits its entry to those who fit certain criteria. To reiterate, this is not a post about the the intrinsic and innate, of melanin and ancestry. It is a post about a social construct which actively excludes, harms, and which I believe to be completely incompatible with Witchcraft.

A Brief History of the Concept of Whiteness

Before the 17th century, “whiteness” as a concept or racial category didn’t whiteness - struggleexist. Laws both in the early colonies and Barbados instead focused on religion, setting aside freedoms for Christians and relegating non-Christians to servitude and slavery. However, as times changed and more people of color (both free and enslaved) became Christians, that legal language was changed. The goalposts were moved in order to retain power among the white landowning elite. 1697 saw the passage of the first law that restricted voting rights to only the white [Source].

But whiteness then was not the whiteness we know now; the membership requirements for that gated community have changed again and again, and ethnic groups that are now automatically considered white often found themselves on the outside. They were, according to the thinking of the day, varieties of “lesser” white [Source].

The construct of whiteness as it exists today is inherently a modified version of WASPishness.

Originally coined in 1962 in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, the term “WASP” stood for “White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant”. (There’s also some further underlying fuckery with the “Anglo-Saxon” label that further elucidates the intentions of the creators of this term which you can read about here). But the stereotypical WASP is, in a sense, the epitome of the whiteness ideal. It is that which is to be emulated in so far as nature and circumstance will allow if one wishes to gain and retain access to that gated community. The criteria has changed somewhat since the 60s – largely to allow greater buy-in from a greater number of people, but they can be summarized thusly:

You must have the right skin.
You must have the right tongue.
You must have the right faith.
You must have the right worldview.

And should you catch a glimpse of another worldview, you must not rock the boat.

In short, it should be considered the very anathema of witchcraft. The gated community of whiteness is not a space in which Witchcraft can truly exist, and any attempt to root it within those manicured lawns is not without its betrayals.

Respectability Politics

The term, “respectability politics” was first articulated in 1992 by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920.. It is a tactic of performed compatibility that is undertaken by minority groups in the hope that they are either treated better by the dominant group, or given access to the same benefits. Here too we find our gatekeepers.

People of color are well acquainted with this tactic. It has, after all, been a matter of survival for them. The more a person of color endeavors to make themselves more “respectable” from the perspective of the whiteness construct, the more “acceptable” he or she is considered to be. POCs routinely report code-switching around white coworkers and friends, dressing more ‘white’, emulating white seeming hairstyles, and a whole host of other behaviors that are ultimately designed to coddle white feelings in the hopes of getting thrown a bone.

whiteness - harmless pagans
“See how harmless I am as I wander whimsically through this field with (probably) tick-laden flowers on my head!”

This is essentially what we Pagans and Witches also do when we reassure the Christians in our lives just how “normal” and “harmless” we are; when we hold up the threefold law as a kind of “See! We’re not really dangerous!”; and when we get into that mindset of seeing it as some kind of “win” to be deemed acceptable enough to be invited to Interfaith meetings.

But what is lost when we do this? What is traded away for the scraps we’re thrown? And what of the value of these scraps? Do we truly believe that these would protect us should the law change tomorrow and allow our active persecution? Gentle people, this is what is known as a “forlorn hope”.

Witches and the Other

It is here though that we come to the real crux of this matter: Witches belong far more to the Other than to any inner, and not only do we belong to it, but we are also driven to interact with it.

whiteness - fence
Hedge…fence…whatever.

The image of the hedge rider is a powerful one here. We do not belong fully to any one world, instead going between and negotiating many, and we’ll always have far more in common with those without than those within. As my friend Morgan says, “the Other is the soul of witchcraft”. They are absolutely correct in this, and for more than one reason.

We’ve always seated our cults and practices in both the between places, and among those who society fails or allows to fall through the cracks. The ancient groves of Diana with their diverse adherents comprised of those who would traditionally be excluded are an old world example of this (Green 53-54), but as Peter Grey demonstrates in Apocalyptic Witchcraft, witchcraft has ever been the tool of the oppressed. To then exclude others in our modern cults because of sexuality/gender/social status/ethnicity – the values of the gated community of whiteness – rather than what they have shown through their actions, is to betray that heritage.

Moreover, when we subscribe to whiteness, we hinder our own interactions with the Other. When you exist within a paradigm within which other humans are not fully human depending on arbitrary and innate qualities, then you have little chance of forming the kind of relationships with non-human persons that are the fuel and soul of Witchcraft. I have already written a little about how our attitudes towards other humans affect how we interact with the Other, and some of the common assumptions that that has led to. You can read about that here, but hopefully my point is made.

There is no Witchcraft without the Other, because no matter how much Witchcraft is made increasingly safe and removed from its beating core of inspirited dark nights and heart-pounding experiences, that is what Witchcraft has always been and always will be. It will always be about partnerships with the Other, be that Other the elves spoken of Isobel Gowdie, and referred to as far back as the Old English magico-medical manuals, or the Ov of the Witch of Endor. You cannot replace that with whitewashed bullshit that exists to make the practitioner feel good as a form of edgy self-help.

Witchcraft is service.
It’s not safe.
It’s hard.
It takes work.
And it sure as shit isn’t compatible with whiteness.

If anything, whiteness and the respectability politics it demands for bare scraps of “acceptance” is a Witchcraft-killer, and that is by design rather than accident.

So please, dear people, think about where you stand and what you espouse. whiteness - groveThink about the voices you listen to and the voices you give space to and elevate (here’s a good video by the amazing Benebell Wen about that very thing). Rock that damn boat, use your voice to argue for destroying those gates, make an effort to learn about how things are outside those gates, and make damn sure you don’t erect the same gates in your Pagan and Witch communities. In other words, return to the groves, the Other, and your human siblings.

Bibliography

1. Green, C.M.C Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia
2. Grey, Peter Apocalyptic Witchcraft

Bad Witch Checking In!

Earlier today, famous Fairy-firkler Morgan Daimler, posted their blog confessing the ways in which she’s apparently a ‘Bad Witch’. Just to be clear, they’re not talking about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the sense of ethics here. But rather the ways in which they suck at some of the things usually expected of a witch.

In all honesty, I quite like this conversation. As a group we have this ridiculous tendency to act like we know more than we do, or don’t fuck up as often as we do. A good chunk of us could also do with laughing at ourselves more (but that’s another conversation and another rant).

So in the interests of adding to this conversation, here are the witch things I’m utterly shit at.

Bad Witch Fail #1: Remembering What to Say

This is my biggest issue right here. I can craft some really beautiful ritual but

Bad witch - ridiculous magician
This is in fact me.
(No, no it’s not)

can I remember it? No I really fucking can’t – and that blows. I’m that person in ritual who has to read from the book/paper because she can’t remember what the hell she’s supposed to say. In my defense though, I have memory issues. My thyroid shat the bed a few years ago and now I have a real hard time remembering things like I used to.

And yes, I know there are some of you out there saying “Pshaw amateur! I just make it up as I go along!” Well bully for you, Keith! I don’t, and that’s largely down to knowing the fuckery of my own brain.

You see, I believe that when I’m in ritual I’m interacting with numinous powers. That may seem like a no-brainer, but again (for the kids at the back), these are beings with agency. Which means they generally have their own plans and they aren’t necessarily plans we’d particularly like.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years (and especially since my memory became less useful), it’s that you can cut some really shit deals if you don’t go in there with a plan. Writing it all down before stepping into a circle is kind of like going to the store with a shopping list: it helps to keep you on track. It helps to keep you out of trouble, and even better, you don’t have to rely on your post-ritual memory to have a record of just what went down – it’s already there!

Which is adaptive and logical. But some folks can still get pretty dogmatic about it all.

Bad Witch Fail #2: I Suck at Growing Useful Gardens

I lose both Heathen and Witch points on this one, but for the past two years I’ve had shit gardens. I think I must have had a lucky year the first year I moved

bad witch - vegetables
My dreams, literally every spring.

here. We had lettuce for pretty much the whole summer, tomatoes that wouldn’t stop coming, zucchini, summer squash, okra, jalapenos, and green peppers. It. Was. Wonderful.

But last year we only got two loads of tomatoes and some lettuce (largely because a groundhog ate everything), and this year…

Yeah. I fail at this.

Ok, so my gardening isn’t a total loss. I’ve somehow kept an elder bush alive for a few years now (and it’s *huge*), a pile of wormwood is taking over the lower end of my garden, and my henbane seems to be happy. I just wish I could get fresh edible foods!

I know people who seem to just leave a trail of plants in their wake – almost as though they’re pooping them out or something. And it seems like almost everyone in my kindred has amazing gardens that they feed their families with. Except me.

But I’m not giving up! In fact, I’m going to go for a fall crop next. Because you know, why limit your failure to summer?!

Bad Witch Fail #3:Forgetting Tools/Offerings

Have you ever had that thing happen where you think you’ve got everything you need and you start the rite only to realize once you’re halfway through

bad witch - forget elephant
Fat. Chance. Dumbo!

whatever you’re doing that you’ve forgotten something and it’s actually pretty key?

Because that’s me. No joke, but I’ve actually had spirits do something to stop the right and then tell me to do it again and do it properly.

This is why you will see a ‘You Will Need’ section at the beginning of any rituals I create – because I literally make that list for myself to try and mitigate that whole thing.

Bad Witch Fail #4: I Often Miss Moon Observances

Bad witch - full moon
Fucking space egg. You are NOT the boss of me! That’s my 4 year old.

I know a lot of (if not most) witches observe the full moon, but it’s hit or miss for me. It largely depends on factors like how tired I am, when I have to get up the following day, and if I’ve lost track of the month or not.

I know, those are all really lame reasons. About the only thing I can say in my defense is that I deal with some pretty chronic exhaustion between my thyroid issues and a kid that hates sleep.

Bad Witch Fail #5: I Can’t Read Theban

I should probably qualify that: I can’t read Theban anymore. Because if my old Bad witch - Thebanjournals are anything to go by, I could back then. But now? Nope! It’s the so-called ‘Witches’ Alphabet’ (taken from Trithemius who apparently got it from a possibly mythical character), and I can’t read it.

That’s me, witchy as fuck.

Anyway, those are my confessions. The confessional is open if anyone else would like to have a try!

Law and the Dead

An Encounter with the Restless Dead

The saga refers to what happened as wonders, but I would not call them such. After all, people had died. Oh, it wasn’t just those who had initially died. No, they had returned, others had fallen sick, and more had joined their ranks.law - farmstead

Unlike the dead of other Indo-European descendant cultures, the dead always walked in Iceland. Draugar, they were called, revenants. Other places had them too – the Greeks, for example. They too knew revenants and practiced arm-pitting dead enemies, severing the vital tendons that would allow ambulation should the deceased arise to walk and seek revenge (Ogden 162). But the Greeks also had ghosts; the preference for cremation during the Archaic Era coincided with a diversification of Greek underworld beliefs. The previously faceless dead that existed unaware of the living world above now understood that their descendants poured out and burned offerings for them. The expansion of cremation burial also coincided with the arrival of the psychopomps – a role which would be extended during the Classical Era (F. P. Retief “Burial Customs”).

The Icelanders though, they did not burn their dead, and so their dead walked as you or I do (Davidson 9).

The Court is Convened

But these were not the mindless rotting zombies of movies; let’s not think that they were. No, draugar didn’t rot, and were fully capable of thought and action, passing through the earth of their mounds to visit and all too often harass the law - doorliving. But their visits also brought sickness, and that’s just what they brought to the people of a place called Frodis-water.

So the people of Frodis-water decided to hold a dyradómr, a kind of door-court during which the dead would be judged in accordance with the law, and hopefully sent on their way. Now doorways are significant; they’re liminal places where living and dead can meet. To keep your beloved dead close, you might bury them in a doorway, and the door post holes found before Bronze Age burials could not have been a coincidence (Hem-Eriksen “Doorways”). So they held their door-court at the doorway and called the dead to them to hear their judgement.

Surprisingly, the dead took their judgements and left without argument. But that was the power of the law, and no one living or dead, wants to reside outside of the protection of the law.

The Law is Sacred

You see, law – or at least a certain kind of law – was sacred. It was the difference between order and chaos, between thriving and destruction, and as such, it was valued. It is the ŗta of the Vedic texts and the asha known to the Zoroastrians. These were in turn cognate with the Greek aristos, ‘the best’; harmonia, ‘harmony’; and ararisko, or ‘to fit, adapt, harmonize’. All though, can probably be traced to the same Proto-Indo-European root word, *H²er-, or ‘to fit together according to the proper pattern’ (Serith 30).

The First Rule?

We don’t know that “proper pattern” though, and we cannot claim to know it despite the fact that it would be useful to anyone who follows any traditions inspired by pre-Christian IE cultures. However, we can perhaps infer what law - noosesome of those laws might be. I am going to infer one right now: that our rights to this world are lost when we breathe our last.

This is why the dead must be dragged by fetters or snares from the world of the living. It is why the Rig Veda refers to the “foot fetter of Yama” (the Lord of the Dead); why there are hel ropes in the Sólarljóð; why Horace wrote of mortis laqueis, or “snares of death; and it is why Clytemnestra had a net (Giannakis “Fate-As-Spinner”). The dead do not wish to go, so they must be dragged. It is noteworthy that they only return at the end of all things (Ragnarök), or that their return brings sickness and death. This is one law we can infer; this is part of the proper pattern.

The Rule of Law

Another is that nothing exists outside of this. To be removed to the Underworld is not to be removed from the reach of law. The Underworlds are varied, and descendants would not have made ancestor offerings were those ancestors truly gone and wholly disconnected. We must always remember that a human community has two sides: the living who dwell in the Middle Earth, and the dead who dwell below.

law - gibbetThe story of the door-courts suggests that both living and dead are equally bound by the law. We also see this reflected in the burial customs of those deemed to exist outside the protection of the law. These were often the criminals left to rot at the crossroads, those buried in unhallowed grounds, and those who were too young at the time of their passing to be formally accepted in a community (Petreman “Preturnatural Usage”). Is it any coincidence that the materia magica sought from the human body came most often from these sources? Is it also coincidence that those were the sources thought by the Ancient Greeks to carry the least miasma (Retief “Burial”)? To exist as dead inside the protection of the law is to sleep soundly – or at least it should mean that. Of course, there have always been violations as Burke and Hare could well attest.

From these perspectives, the case against the dead at Frodis-water may already seem airtight. After all, we’ve already established that by virtue of being dead they’re not supposed to be in the world of the living, and that they are just as subject to this “proper pattern” law as we ourselves are. However, there is one more legal argument pertinent to the dead that we have not yet examined, and that is the law of possession.

Claiming and Keeping Space

Fire has always been sacred to the various Indo-European descendant cultures, and was considered to have various functions. We’re perhaps the most familiar with fire as a medium through which offerings may be made to law - firethe holy powers, but fire also played an important role in property ownership too. For the Norse, carrying fire sunwise around land you wished to own was one method of claiming that land (LeCouteux 89), and under Vedic law new territory was legally incorporated through the construction of a hearth. This was a temporary form of possession too, with that possession being entirely dependent on the ability or willingness of the residents to maintain the hearthfire. For example, evidence from the Romanian Celts suggests that the voluntary abandonment of a place was also accompanied by the deliberate deconstruction of the hearth. And the Roman state conflated the fidelity of the Vestal Virgins to their fire tending duties with the ability of the Roman state to maintain its sovereignty. The concept of hearth as center of the home and sign of property ownership continued into later Welsh laws too; a squatter only gained property rights in a place when a fire had burned on his hearth and smoke come from the chimney (Serith 2007, 71).

Sovereignty and the Dead

There is more here too – the matter of sovereignty looms large. So too perhaps is a form of imitation of the relationship between king and goddess of sovereignty played out here between men and the wives who keep the hearthlaw - hearth fires burning. To maintain the hearth was to maintain possession of property, and to maintain the hearth, a woman was required. (Or several, if you happen to be the Roman state.)

And here is where I come to my final argument regarding law and the dead: the dead keep no fires in the habitations of the living. Without the ability to maintain a hearth fire, the dead cannot claim sovereignty in the land of the living, and this is an important point to bear in mind. Because while we often joke that possession is nine tenths of the law, thankfully for the people of Frodis-water, it most likely was that which saved them.

Sources

Davidson, H. R, Ellis. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.
Giannakis, George. “The “Fate-as-Spinner” Motif: A Study on the Poetic and Metaphorical Language of Ancient Greek and Indo-European (Part II).” Indogermanische Forschungen Zeitschrift Für Indogermanistik Und Historische Sprachwissenschaft / Journal of Indo-European Studies and Historical Linguistics 104 (2010): 95-109. Web.
Hem Eriksen, Marianne. “Doorways to the Dead. The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia.” Archaeological Dialogues 20.2 (2013): 187-214. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. <https://mariannehemeriksen.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/eriksen-marianne-hem-2013.pdf>.
Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land – Ancestral Lore and Practices. Inner Traditions Bear And Comp, 2015.
Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Petreman, Cheryl. “Preternatural Usage of Human Body Parts in Late Medieval and Early Modern
Germany.” Diss. U of New Brunswick, 2013.
Retief, Fp, and L. Cilliers. “Burial Customs, the Afterlife and the Pollution of Death in Ancient Greece.” Acta Theologica 26.2 (2010): n. pag. Web.
Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. ADF Pub., 2009.

Dream Initiation

Dream - skull

Dream Initiation – Preface

When I wrote this, I did so to get it out of my head. To write, for me, is to reify and process, and I very much felt the need to do this. Long time readers of this blog will know that I have been encountering the dead since I was a child, and that it is something that I have often struggled with over the years. In many ways, last year marked a watershed of sorts for me in that I formally committed to working with the dead. I began a lot of deep ancestor work within my own lineages, and found my life and practices changing quite dramatically.

The experience that I write about here, I believe to have been one of the initiations of that work. That it took place in dream is still strange to me despite my deeply held beliefs on the importance of dream and its scope for interaction with the dead and Other. However, I find myself very much changed by the experience, and am finding myself doing things now that I could not do before. There will probably be quite a few blogs about my work with the battlefield dead. It is the work of my heart, and I have only just begun.

An Account of Dream Initiation

I enter the room nervously. I had been told nothing of what was to come except for that I would undergo an initiation of sorts. The room is hazy with incense – a pungent scent I struggle to identify – and candles flow as a wave over every available surface. A young man I think I recognize leads me to the center of the room, and the priest begins her invocations. On the floor, I notice a large black sheet.

For a moment I panic, and hope that I do not misspeak. I pray to my gods that any errors be forgiven, and mentally prepare myself for any invocations that I must also give.

But there are none.

There is only the black sheet on the floor, and the young man beckoning me to lie down upon its surface.

I soon notice that half the sheet is gathered at the bottom, and when I lie down, it is pulled up to cover me; it covers all parts of me.

“You need to journey now. You need to let it take you where you must go.”dream - path

And I am confused, for I am already in dream. But I school myself quickly, and begin my usual processes for entering trance.

For what seems like the longest time, nothing happens. But then, I realize I’m moving; a gentle rocking motion carries me forth. Soon I regain my eyes and notice a roughly woven cloth upon my face. I can see through the holes to the sky above, this is not the cloth from the ritual room floor. Above me, trees curve over the path to form an archway, and I try to move but cannot. I am bound but not by ropes, conveyed forth by unseen hands.

The thought soon comes to me that I’m dead, and travel a corpse path, and for the longest time I abide in this knowledge. What am I to learn here? How long will this go on for? What about the room and the ritual?

The Inevitable Path

I have so many questions, and little patience. I work to exit trance, and find myself rolling out from under the sheet in the ritual room. The priest is now gone and only the candles and the young man remain. I stagger around without sense and understand that unless I finish what was begun, that I would not return whole. So I reenter the now-red-sheet and hunker down once more, returning to the endless plod of the corpse-road.

At some point I decide that I’m thinking too hard, that I’m too agitated for one

dream - mound
My local mound where I grew up.

who is already dead, and so I let go, and that’s when I find myself within the mound.

I sit up to find myself surrounded by the dead; dead of many different ages, some appearing bigger, and others appearing smaller. The shroud loosens and I sit with corpse-pale arms and hear their words.

They have much to tell me about how they wish to be worshipped, and the kinds of things they wish me to do. They also gift me something too. I can feel it within me, intangible and indescribable. Like something returned, it feels familiar and right. Then they release me from the mound, the door opening to bright sunlight.

As the sun touches my skin, it lives again. I live again. I step out into light that’s far too bright for my eyes, and into the path of the one I know as Gwyn. We walk back together along the corpse way, and he talks to me of owls and pathways down. The road does not seem so long on the way back, but it was never really about time or distance in the first place. I know that now.

I return to my dream once more, to the ritual room where the young man waits. He’d been waiting the whole time, he says. I’d been gone longer than was normal, and he wanted to make sure I was alright. Three and a half hours was quite a while, and it was kind of his job. I stand up and this time I’m clear. There’s no staggering and I feel whole. I leave the room and find myself at a party for a while, watching people as they perform for the dead they have lost. Their songs are their offerings, their dances are prayers, and it makes their hearts shine.

The heart is the key to this kind of work.

Eventually it’s time to go. My husband and child await, and I’m suddenly aware that I have new clothes that I must pick up. They’re green, and were also once lost but now returned. I put them on and wake up with a scream.

A Rough Awakening

My body hurts now, my trance had been deep. My shoulder is dislocated, and it takes me three days to fully put it back in. I should probably feel angry or upset dream - manassasabout that but I don’t.

If anything, I just thole. It’s a small matter next to the monumental change that took place within. I cannot yet name what was given that night in the mound. Yet weeks later, when I step out onto one of the battlefields of Manassas and walk towards the Dead with my equally touched companions, I feel it as keenly as I feel my limbs.

The Dead surround me here too, but this time, it’s myself and my companions who guide the way along the corpse path for now.

PSA: Don’t Forget Self-Care!!

self-care - fire

Oh look, it’s another PSA (and all in the same week)!! This time my friends, I’d self-care - on edgelike to ask you all how you’re feeling. So how are things?

You see I’m asking because I’ve noticed that a fair few people seem to be either a little overwrought and on edge, or feeling completely drained at the moment. It’s beginning to look a little bit like people are feeling somewhat overloaded.

Signs of Overload

We’ve all been to places where we’ve felt a bit off, right? Or felt the change in subtle energies with the waxing and waning of the moon? This is because we humans, even those of us who try to cling to the physical, tend to react to the energy in our environments. And there are any number of environmental factors that can kick up the energy in a place and leave you feeling…off. (This is what I mean by “overload”.)

self-care - aloneSome of the most common environmental factors that lead to this are things like “psychic impressions” left by horrid historical events; the influence of celestial bodies (as the aforementioned example of the lunar cycle); the time of year (liminal points especially); strong emotions from other humans; and especially strong emotions from other humans en masse. Of course, the degree to which these things will affect you very much depends on your personal level of sensitivity, and the most sensitive and empathic typically themselves more acutely affected than others.

If this is you, you may find yourself feeling on edge or particularly emotional (when you have no discernible reason to be so). You may also feel as though there are too many things going on, a sensation like you’re somehow running out of time, or like you just can’t settle. Conversely, you may feel inexplicably exhausted and drained (likely from the effort of trying to process the overload). And while we’re on the subject, how are you sleeping? Because if you’re on the “inexplicably antsy” end of the spectrum, I’m betting you’re also not sleeping for shit either – at least not without help.

Here is where self-care comes in. So what kind of self-care can you practice when the causes are from more subtle sources?

Discernment

Your first step is to take a deep breath and try to figure out what’s going on. The question you need to ask yourself here is if these emotions are really yours (ie intrinsic to you), or if you are reacting to something external.

In some cases, this is simple. For example, if you have only just started to feel like this after entering an environment but feel fine when you leave, then that can be a pretty clear indicator that the cause was external. However in other cases, this is where self-knowledge comes in and knowing the shape of your own thoughts. For those of you who regularly practice meditation, this is probably relatively easy for you. For those of you who aren’t there yet though, this is where grounding and centering can be helpful.

Grounding and Centering

From the perspective of self-care, or “psychic first aid” (or whatever the hell else you want to call it), grounding allows you to rid yourself of excess energy, and centering helps you to restore your balance. If you suspect overload and are not sure if what you are experiencing is external or not then try grounding and centering. It’s a great way of shifting that excess energy into the earth, giving you the space you need to take stock and figure out your next move.

Feel better now? Then the cause was likely external.self-care - grounding
Feel about the same? You need to look within.

Many forms of grounding and centering involve some kind of tree visualization, during which the person envisions themselves as a tree with roots sinking down into the earth and branches reaching up to the heavens. However, if you’re not really in a place where you can do that because you’re just too wired, I have a kickass alternative that a friend of mine came up that is great for kinesthetic types (thanks Becky!).

Becky’s method is based on the realization that the iron in our bodies is a match for the iron within the earth, and the iron that is to be found in space (which created some of humankind’s earliest iron artifacts). Leveraging the principle of “like attracts like”, Becky’s method involves concentrating on, and feeling for the iron in one’s own bloodstream, then mentally feeling out and reaching for the like substance in the earth, and in the skies above. If you do it right, it should make you feel like someone just opened a sluice, like that excess is draining out, and like you’re suddenly more present.

Shielding

So you’ve grounded and centered, and figured out that you’re getting reamed by whatever the hell is going on where you are. Now what?

Now you shield in order to minimize if not outright stop the factors causing the overload from getting through. Depending on how extreme the conditions are where you are, you may need to keep an eye on and redo your shields as needed. Here, I would advise you to see these shields as being “in addition to” whatever else you use for defense (if you do). This is more like ‘magical sunblock’ as opposed to hardcore defenses.

So how do you crack out the magical sunblock for a bit of continued sanity?

self-care discoball
This disco ball is so extra.

One of the most commonly touted methods is the “disco ball” method, in which the individual visualizes themselves within a disco ball. Of course, you’re not only visualizing here, but also willing this to be so. It won’t work unless you’re fully invested.

With the disco ball, the idea is that the outer mirrors reflect away anything unwanted, thus leaving the person within protected and insulated. Give it a try, and see how you feel. How does the imagery work in your head? Because this is the funny thing about this kind of skill: not all imagery works equally in all people. This makes sense because not all people get equally invested in the same things, and like I said, you need to be invested. So if this is you, you need to find imagery representative of the same principles then work to build that imagery. Just be aware though that how you build your shields can affect how others perceive and react to you. I know some who prefer to create their shields out of a kind of woven net rather than an impenetrable and reflective surface as they believe that that degree of shielding impedes their ability to work.

Purification

Finally, don’t forget purification. In my opinion, purification is one of those massively important but generally somewhat neglected practices among modern Pagan practitioners. Which is a pity because we pick up so much dreck in our lives that it’s pretty easy to become somewhat bogged down and heavy. This is where purification comes in, both for homes and individuals.

Keeping your home clean is your most basic home purification, but it’s also self-care purificationgood to try and burn purifying récels (incense) around your home such as either mugwort, or a rosemary/vervain/juniper mixture. This smoke can also be used for the self too (I like to burn it in a cast iron Dutch oven and just stand over it so that I’m enveloped by the smoke).
Taking cleansing baths with cleansing herbs like rosemary or birch is also helpful; saltwater is also good. I also like to keep herb oils on hand for emergency situations – hyssop oil is good for this.

These are clearly not the only purification methods that you can use; I could write an entire post just on purification (and I may just do so at some point). This whole post is intended as more of a rough and ready survival guide (and reminder to take care of you).

Well, the gym is calling (more self-care), and I’ve got to angry-run on a treadmill. Be well.

PSA: Make Your Oaths Well!

There’s something of a theme du jour in my spookier friend circles right now. It’s complex – there’s a lot of background strangeness here – but the TL;DR version is that people (myself included) either feel the need to make oaths of fealty to numinous powers, or are witnessing others making similar oaths in either dream or trance. Now that strikes me as being pretty odd, and makes me wonder whether this is something which is confined to my various friend circles, or if it’s more widespread. (Answers on a postcard, please!) It also makes me wonder what on earth is going on at the moment. Because as I mentioned above, there is a background of strangeness here. This is not something that I’m prepared to write about it yet, but some of what John Beckett touches on here is eerily similar.

Either way, regardless of whatever the hell is going on, and whether or not this is a localized or more widespread phenomenon, it’s never a bad time to address the matter of oaths of fealty. After all, oathing to numinous powers is a serious business with potentially serious consequences. Friends don’t let friends oath to massively powerful entities without first giving them some tools.

And by “tools”, I mean this handy five-point list.

(Why a five-point list? Because this is the fucking internet, and everything seems to be a five-point list nowadays.)

1. You Can Refuse

This might seem like a no-brainer. However (as a few skeletons that won’t stay in their cupboards can attest), we seem to have consent issues in modern Paganism. We see this in a number of ways, and thankfully there are movements to work on all of that. But one of the ways in which those problematic ideas of consent

oaths - chris pratt
Kinda like this creepy ass movie, only with gods and ungods – yay!

surface (at least in my opinion), is in how oathing to numinous powers is presented in some quarters. There’s this creepy narrative that oathing is like a kind of pursuit by the numinous that the human doesn’t really have any say in, and quite frankly, that’s just plain fucked up.

It’s also wrong to boot, because that’s not how actual reciprocal relationships work. You have a choice, these are reciprocal relationships (read up on those here if you don’t know what that means), you can say no. So if it seems like a bad idea to get in cahoots with whoever, and your gut is twisting with the thought (there’s a clue right there), you can decline – politely.

If you do find yourself in a situation in which you believe you are being pursued by the numinous equivalent of Chris Pratt, then go and get a second opinion from someone you trust. Narrative can frame experience just as much as experience can frame narrative. Just a word to the wise though: not everything is what it claims to be either, so again, it’s good to get a fresh perspective.

2. The Devil is in the Detail

As mentioned above, these are relationships that are reciprocal by nature. In other words, they an exchange of sorts, which means you’re effectively entering into a contract. Now, if you’ve watched that episode of South Park where Kyle clicks the iTunes user agreement without reading it first, you’ll know that blind agreement with a greater power is not a good idea.

Well, it’s the same principle here. You need to be honest about, and lay out what you are prepared to do, and how long for. This is key – you don’t have to oath to a power for life, and you don’t have to give yourself to them after death

oaths - devil
“Hi, I’m goat-devil and I like to hang out in the details!”

either. Temporary alliances for a set period of time or until the completion of certain criteria are a thing, oaths that are renewed on a yearly basis are also a thing. NOTHING SAYS YOU HAVE TO OATH FOR LIFE.

So make a list of your conditions, and pay special attention to any potential loopholes you find. Because some beings out there (naming no names) are *experts* at finding ways to creatively screw humans over while adhering to the letter of any oaths made. So get good at thinking twenty steps ahead and doing thought experiments with potential outcomes. Also, remember that any oaths will also by extension affect your families, so factor your loved ones into those thought experiments too.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to try and figure out what they actually want from you, and assume that has value even if you cannot see it. And that might sound like the most hubristic shit ever until you remember that some beings quite enjoy consuming humans. It’s good to not become food, it’s like a rule for life.

But before you do *any* of that….

3. Do Your Research, Dammit!

If some sparkly and awesome (or dark and scary, or BOTH) shows up trying tooaths - book entice you into some kind of oath, your first move is always research. Go find out everything you can about them, and if it’s not available in physical sources, go pester allies for more information. Because there are a whole bunch of things you need to know here. For example, you need to know their MO; if they’re presenting themselves as they actually are; how others have fared dealing with them; and if they have a GSOH and enjoy long walks on the beach at sunset. Because all of that will not only help you figure out *who* you’re dealing with, but also help you better word any oaths you make so that you can do stuff like insert more protective clauses (which is #winning, trust me).

4. Consult Ye the Ye Olde Book of Oaths!

There’s a lot to be said for those old school handwritten pacts. On the one hand, they were utter shit for getting you convicted and burned (poor Father Grandier). But on the other hand, they also helped you remember just who you had pacts with, and exactly what was entailed. So if you’re in the business of holding oaths with numinous beings, it’s a damn good idea to have somewhere safe where you can write down all the details as precisely as you can (if you don’t already). It’s also good to read those oaths regularly – after all, you want to make sure you’re not fucking up your end of the bargain. However, it’s especially important to re-read your prior oaths when in the process of considering and creating oathed relationships with whatever new beings on the block because you need to know what you can agree to without violating the conditions of your other oaths. Sometimes those prior oaths can turn out to be pretty protective in the long run.

5. Phone a Friend

Finally, when you have all your research, and have tweaked the wording for
your oath as much as you can, run it all by a friend or trusted clergy. For some of you, this would have likely been a continuous thing anyway throughout this entire process, and that’s fine. Just don’t formalize anything until you’ve had that feedback from someone you trust and who has a good head on their

oaths - friends
“I asked my friend and got accused of dogging her for information!”

shoulders. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in things and hurtle towards a thing at breakneck speed, so it’s good to have someone prepared to remind you that there are such a thing as brakes.

But whether you do say yes to the oath-dress or not, you should record everything in as much detail as you possibly can. Because even if you don’t end up oathing, it’s just always good to keep a record.

If you do formally oath though, consider the creation of a pact-style document that both parties agree to before the oath is formally sworn. This document should contain the exact wording of your oath and clearly outline the conditions of the oath.

Lastly, if you are in this situation, I wish you smooth negotiations. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Authority and Hierarchies IV: Or “Why Your Pet Isn’t Your Fucking Familiar”

familiar - Boye Dog

Returning to Familiar Ground

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been on an epic journey. We’ve taken a look at the evidence for hierarchies among grimoire spirits and fairies alike, and discussed agency, anthropocentrism, and to a small degree, colonialism too. We’ve also examined the different kinds of reciprocal relationships, spiritual authority, the role of piety, and finally took a brief tour through the history of magic wands.

This week, I’m coming back to a topic that should be a lot more familiar to everyone (pun intended): the witch’s familiar.

Introducing the Early Modern Witch’s Familiar

The witch’s familiar is an ancient phenomenon, though the most commonly held ideas surrounding them seem to owe more to Early Modern Britain. Simply put, a familiar was a form of spirit helper with which the witch or cunning person held a certain kind of relationship. The kinds of familiars possessed by both cunning folk and witches differed too, with the familiars associated with “Cunning Folk” being more of fairy, and those associated with witches being

Familiar - Hopkins
Prize prick Matthew Hopkins with some witches identifying their familiars.

more demonic. It is the latter form that is the most recognizable today (Wilby 2005).

For witch or cunning person, the acquisition of a familiar was for the most part by chance. Accounts of encounters recorded during the witch trials, paint these encounters as happening spontaneously, as the witch or cunning person went about their business (Wilby 2005). Often the witch or cunning person would also be impoverished, or recently subjected to some kind of further hardship or tragedy. There is an undeniably folkloric feel to these encounters, and not unlike the kind of deal made by the girl forced to spin straw in Rumpelstiltskin (for example).

Unlike period descriptions of encounters with the dead, the fairy or demon familiars are described in stunningly naturalistic terms – they’re as real-looking as you or I. They were of vivid color, and animation and sound. But that’s not to say that they were “really” just the pets of people who looked a little “witchy”; it’s one thing to assume the shape of a thing, and quite another to actually be that thing. Familiar - BoyeHaving said that though, there were cases in which the pets of people suspected of witchcraft also shared the fates of their owners. But witch crazes are nothing if not illogical, let’s not mistake misplaced bloodlust for authenticity.

However, while the majority of accounts depict a person coming across the spirit that would become their familiar in a spontaneous way, there were ways in which familiar spirits could also be acquired. For example, one might petition a condemned person to return and serve as your familiar as in the case of Mary Parish’s familiar, a one George Whitmore (Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”). In other cases, one could gain a familiar by somehow encountering fairy royalty and showing them the proper respect thus acquiring a familiar as a gift. Alternatively, you might acquire a familiar as a gift from another witch – most commonly a family member (Wilby 2005). And lastly, if none of those methods were available to you, you could always try petitioning a demon such as the Verum demon Sustugriel who was reputed to ”give good familiars” (Stratton-Kent 2010).

(About that fairy and devil/demon crossover? You might want to read this piece by Fairy in a Human Suit, Morgan Daimler.)

Tracing an Older Pattern

As I said above though, the Early Modern familiar is simply just the most well-known form of spirit helper. The fact of the matter is that magical practitioners have been finding helping spirits and making pacts with them for a very, very long time. And like wands, familiars traverse a wide range of different cultures (albeit under different names – obviously).

The earliest account of what might be recognized as a familiar is the ob (pronounced “ov”) of the biblical Witch of Endor. The ob was both a spirit “of the dead or minor underworld deity that “speaks from the earth in whispering voices”, and an object of worship whose spirit can enter into a human and reside within them (Barrabbas 2017). In other words, to have a familiar is to be possessed by a familiar (something which I will speak of more towards the end of this post).

Among the Greeks, we find the parhedros who fulfills a similar function to that of the ob and the familiar. Given that the Greek Magical Papyri begins with ways in which to acquire a parhedros, we have to assume that they were considered an integral part of performing magic (Skinner 2014). Moreover, like their Hebrew counterparts, there is also the aspect of worshiping objects associated with the paredros. For those of you who are interested in the idea of performing one of these paredros rituals, it bears mentioning that those early methods of acquisition require blood sacrifice. Far less bloody to summon a demon in this case!

Moving over to Heathen period Northern Europe now, we find evidence that witches partnered with elves in order to perform their magic. Alaric Hall argues that rather than being the result of attacks by elves, the phenomenon of elfshot was more likely curses thrown by elf-empowered witches (Hall 2001). This is where we find our way back to familiar - burial moundWilby’s period of study. Hall traces a pattern of witches working with mound-connected elves from the tenth century Old English magico-medical charm Wið Færstice and term ælfs?den (literally “elf-Seiðr”, or “elf-magic”); to Martin Luther’s account of being “shot” by a neighborhood witch; and finally to Isobel Gowdie’s accounts of encountering the Queen of Elfhame in a mound and seeing elves fashioning the shot. I personally take it somewhat further and point to the portrayal of Frey and Freyja in the Ynglingasaga. Freyja as the sacrificial priestess (and as we know, goddess associated with the form of magic known as “Seiðr”) ends up overseeing the cult to her brother, Freyr (who is associated with elves), even as he lies in the burial mound. The people bring offerings to the mound for peace and good seasons, and so even in death, he possesses a power that his sister does not.

Equally, elves were also associated with possessory divinatory trances that may have resembled or been confused with epileptic fits (Hall 2001), and so here too we find the possessory aspect of the ob.

Familiars and Hierarchy

The themes of hierarchy and spiritual authority also play their respective roles here. You may have already noticed that outside of the spontaneously acquired familiars, a higher power must be approached. This is an important distinction to make: the familiar gifted by fairy royalty will obey you if their royals command it. For those who inherit their familiars from others, one has to assume that the same terms and conditions of whatever pact was agreed upon transfer to the new witch.

Mary Parish’s familiar George is the obvious exception to this. Unlike most other familiars in the accounts, he was a dead human whose service was contracted by means of an oath before dying. This allowed Mary the authority she needed in order to work with him postmortem. However, his story is not completely devoid of involvement by a higher (fairy) power.

At some point, a minor aristocrat by the name of Goodwin Wharton became covetous of George (who he had become aware of through his love affair with Mary), and endeavored to have Mary gift him her familiar. However, a fairy queen referred to as the Queen of the Lowlanders steps in. From Wharton’s journal:

familiar - fairy queen” The transfer of George was further complicated by the queen of the Lowlanders, who demanded that Goodwin stop attempting to have George as his own personal spirit. At first Goodwin was a little resistant, but the queen insisted that if he would not willingly show her this preference, he should never see any of the Lowlanders. She wanted to be his number-one contact with the spirit world. Goodwin had little choice but to agree to her terms. As a consolation, George agreed to answer any questions directed at him as long as Goodwin turned his back and did not look directly where George stood. However, Goodwin could not understand the spirit very clearly, as he spoke in a low, soft voice close to Mary’s ear. So throughout their relationship, Goodwin relied on Mary to communicate with George.”
(Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”)

It would seem that even when it comes to contracting the familiar services of the dead, the fairies will still have their say.

Pets as Familiars

Now to come to something a little polemic, but that I find weirdly irritating all the same.

I’ve noticed a tendency among some in the Pagan/Witch/Heathen communities to refer to their pets as their “familiars”. At first, I thought it was just a joke being made (and for most people, it does seem to be). However, I seem to be coming across more people who actually think their pets are their familiars.

Now hopefully this blog has illustrated all the ways in which that is just fucking stupid. And I think one of the reasons why I get so angry about this is that after having worked with a familiar for a number of years, the collocation of “pet” with “familiar” is just yet more disrespect and treating the Other like some fun and twee little thing that’s just here for our edification, or worse – our entertainment. I feel like I’m quickly running out of ways to say that it’s not all about us humans.

Let’s just stop this, please. We’re better than this. And your dog/cat/bird/whatever may be cool, but he isn’t your familiar. Moreover, if you actually kept your dog as animal familiars were most commonly kept (in a wool basket, being fed milk, blood, or whatever), you’d be in trouble for animal cruelty.

So let’s just not; okay?

Sources

Barrabbas, Frater (2017) Spirit Conjuring For Witches
Cummins, Al (2017)The Rain Will Make a Door III: Faerie and the Dead
Hall, Alaric (2009) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Health, Belief, Gender, and Identity
Skinner, Stephen (2014) Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic

Stratton-Kent, Jake (2010) The True Grimoire
Wilby, Emma (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic

Authority and Hierarchies III: Wands and Authority

Wands - throwing sticks

Welcome to the third part of what is turning out to be a gargantuan series! You know, when I first decided to write this series of posts, I didn’t think I’d end up churning out so many words on this subject (especially not from a predominantly Pagan perspective). However, like almost every time I’ve gone to a bar for “just a couple of pints” only to come back completely trollied, this seems to have gone a little bit further than expected.

So, where was I?

Ah yes, that’s right. I was discussing the matter of authority, the necessity of attaining it, and ways in which it may be obtained. You can pick up those earlier posts here and here. But all you need to start out here knowing is that otherworldly hierarchies and spiritual authority have always been a part of magic (speaking in a relatively general sense here). And like kids trying to bribe the toughest kid in school to keep the bullies in line, we’ve sought blessings and favor from the big kids among the Unseen since we first started grabbing wands and spitting out barbarous words in our circles.

Wands and Authority?

Which is where we come to wands, because they’re not *just* for channeling energy; there is a connection to spiritual authority here too.

If you look at the older grimoires (and more specifically the sections on tooling), you’ll often find quite detailed instructions on how to make the tools required for working the magic of that particular grimoire. Certain materials may be required, things must be done at certain times, and certain prayers or incantations must be said while doing those things. For the most part, I don’t think the majority of Pagans understand why all of that is even necessary, and some seem to consider complexity a sign that something is new.

However, I don’t believe that to have been the original purpose of a wand, and if anything, it is my opinion that the grimoire instructions (for all their seeming complexity), are the product of far more ancient concepts.

(Side note: Why do we always equate “older” with “less complexity”?)

A Brief History of Wands: Ancient World Edition

For the ancient Egyptians, wands were either in the form of a snake or the form of a “throwing stick”. The throwing

Wands - throwing sticks
Egyptian Throwing Sticks. Remind you of anything?

stick wands were quite decorated, like far finer versions of the “throwing sticks” used by the Ancient Egyptians to bring down birds; they were evidently also thrown during ritual (Skinner 126-127). The snake wands though, were more akin to the wands we carry now; the oldest of which (as far as I’m aware) was found in a 16th century BCE tomb in Thebes. Made out of bronze and in the form of an elongated cobra, it would have been a fine, impressive piece in its day.

For Geraldine Pinch (quoted in Skinner P126), the rationale behind these wands was clear:
”Staffs of various kinds were standard symbols of office in Ancient Egypt, so magicians who wished to command demons and spirits naturally used them too. In the Book of Exodus, Pharoah’s magicians and the Hebrew leader Aaron are all able to turn their staffs into live snakes but Aaron’s snake is said to have overcome and swallowed the others.

Wands - Cobra
Cobra wand from Thebes

And we cannot overlook the materials with which these wands were made. For the most part, the snake wands were of bronze, and the throwing sticks of ivory. However we also find reference to the use of an iron staff by Anubis. Is it any coincidence that the god who guided the souls of the dead would wield a staff made of the metal that the dead are reputed to fear? Or that the necromantic rites of the Greeks also featured the use of iron swords in order to keep the press of the mighty dead in line? Put a pin in this, for we shall return to it later.

Picking up the trail from Ancient Egypt, we find the earliest reference to a wand in the Greek epic The Odyssey, where Hermes was characterized as the “god with the golden wand”. Skinner points out here that the wand of Hermes is the Caduceus – itself a snake wand of sorts (Skinner 127).

But as we saw from Geraldine Pinch’s interchangeable use of the words “wand” and “staff” and the example of Anubis’ staff, the wand could take other forms. Or rather, different items could fulfil the function of the wand. To further elucidate, I refer you to P201 of Aaron Leitch’s endlessly interesting Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires:

“…the magicakal wand or scepter also possesses a probable origin in ancient fertility rites. It is the symbol of male virility, and may have once been used in a very practical manner in conjunction with anointing oil. Later on, this was utilized in a symbolic manner in the rite of marriage related to the consecration of the sacred king. The taking of the scepter was often as important as the donning of the crown in the inaugural ceremonies.

From that point, the significance of the scepter or rod spread in several cultural directions. In the hands of the king the scepter became a standard symbol of power and governance…The magickal wand has been a tool of the priest and magickian for thousands of years , as we can see in lands such as Egypt, from which we most directly borrow our occult understanding of the instrument. The wand held by the mage confirms his own authority over spiritual and earthly forces.”

Because what greater staff of status is there than that of a king’s scepter?

When viewed from this perspective and from within the framework of spiritual hierarchies, the complex instructions of the grimoires make perfect sense: you are creating a counterfeit of the status symbol carried by whichever authority figure is recognized by the spirits of that grimoire.

The Germanic Perspective

But the evidence for the concept of wand-as-symbol-of-spiritual-authority is not limited to the Classical World, Near East, and Ancient Egypt. There is also evidence for similar concepts in Northwestern Europe in the form of the staffs of sorcery (a category of staffs found in the graves of suspected ritual specialists which often resemble distaffs). I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book by way of explanation here.

There were two main types of these staffs of sorcery as far as we can tell from the sources and archaeological finds: the first type was of wood, and the second of iron. These staffs differed from the distaffs of everyday use in a number of ways. The ones of iron were heavy, which would have made them all but impossible to spin with. One does not need to spend much time spinning with a distaff to find out that it must be relatively light in order to be useful. With a heavier distaff, your arms would quickly grow tired from trying to hold it in place, and this would make it an impractical tool for every day use. The wooden staffs would have made better distaffs in terms of weight, however I still do not believe they would have made a particularly good choice for everyday use. There is reason to believe that they may have been as “crooked” as the divinely crooked staffs once carried by the Baltic priests of old. This would make the process of pulling fibers from the distaff for spinning less smooth. Moreover, in the case of the one found in the Oseberg ship burial, at least one of those staffs was actually hollow in the center – a modification which I believe would have made it too breakable for daily use.

There was also the matter of length too; the historical staffs of sorcery were also somewhat shorter than the staffs wands - iron staffcarried by modern practitioners. For example, the Oseberg staff measures 107cm; which is a far cry from the usual image of the seer/ess with a staff that comes up to at least shoulder length.

But the peculiarities do not stop there, and this is where things get really interesting.

The iron staffs are quite curious in a number of ways. Firstly, they were in all likelihood far harder to make than swords. This means that not every blacksmith could have produced one, and so there is the aspect of rarity and prestige that must have gone hand-in-hand with possessing one. Secondly, there is a good chance that they were carbonized with human or animal remains, thus producing a link to the ancestral or animal world. Indeed, iron production itself was sometimes even located in cemeteries.

Moreover, we cannot forget that the smith was not just a worker of metals: they too were liminal figures in the Viking Age. It is a deep magic to create a staff that has not only touched both the dead and the Other, but that few of your contemporaries could reproduce. That is not something that can simply be bought from a craftsman on the internet, that is more like the dwarven-forged spear-staff carried by the God of the Roads.

Which brings us to another interesting set of crossroads.

In many ways, despite the more shamanic interpretations, these staffs were like wands in that they often seemed to denote authority: authority to those around you, and also the authority wielded on the behalf of whichever deity patronized your arte.

“It may be …(..)..that both Woden’s spear and the sibyl’s staff have the same origin and the difference is accounted for by the fact that each denotes authority in different areas. In Woden’s hand the staff becomes a spear because that is an ancient symbol of warrior rule; Veleda’s symbol remains staff-like weaving beam or distaff, however, because it still suggests one type of authority and is also easy to associate with weaving sticks, spindles, and weaving swords, all of which remind one of the widespread concept of the weaving of fate.” world. Indeed, iron

The iron distaffs, though conceivably of the Dead, could also be wielded against the Dead. Iron is an age-old apotropaic, and when needed, the distaff could so easily have become as the Greek sword wielded at the pit.

The wooden staffs also had their connection to the underworld and Other; for you could not just walk out into the woods and take any stick. As best as we can tell, these staffs were received *from* the Other. This is also true to some extent with the iron staffs, as the smith is also other (albeit in his own way).

But times and beliefs diversify. The staff that started out as one but became a spear in the hand of a god of warriors and remained a distaff in the hands of a seeress would go through many changes over the years.

Indeed.

Final Words

Hopefully you can see the various threads of commonality between the Germanic/Scandinavian evidence, and that of the ancient world. There are some interesting questions that come up here. For example, could it be mere coincidence that iron staffs would be connected with the dead in both Ancient Egypt/Greece and Northwestern Europe? Is it mere coincidence that divinely “crooked” staffs of sorcery – snakelike perhaps in their appearance – would exist thousands of miles from those of the Egyptians with their very crooked snake wands?

I honestly don’t know. Regardless of all of those wonderful rabbit holes though, I think there is a good argument that the idea that wands were tools that denoted authority was both ancient and widespread.

So how can you incorporate that knowledge into your work?

Think about the beings from whom you derive your patronage, or in other words, your authority. What are their symbols? What were they depicted as carrying? What did those things look like? What are the connections in terms of materials (ie iron with the dead)? What can you recreate, and most importantly, are your patrons okay with you carrying such status symbols in their name? (Divination can help here, preferably from someone who is not you.)

Then get to work – it’s as simple as that.

As for the Other gotten staffs, well, I’ll get to that next time.

Sources
Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic – Stephen Skinner
Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires – Aaron Leitch
A Biography of the Seidr-Staffs. Towards an Archaeology of Emotions – Leszek Gardela

Witchcraft, Magic, Religion, and Holy Powers

religion - hare

It would seem that there is something of a “zeitgeist” moving a number of bloggers right now. I have been blogging about the matter of Spiritual Authority and Hierarchies for the past two weeks. John Beckett dropped a post yesterday entitled “Get Over Your Fear of Religion!” which basically exhorted people to address their religious baggage. (Yay! Glad to have you on board, Mr Beckett!) And Laura Tempest Zakroff dropped her own take (“One Order of Witchcraft Medium-Rare, Hold the Gods please”), which seemed to come at the same matter from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Like I said, it feels like a number of us are poking at the same nebulous mass (albeit from different angles). I was going to post the third part of my series on authority and hierarchies today, but after reading these posts, I have things to say, and say them I shall.

Religion and Baggage

I’m going to begin with John Beckett’s post, as that is the post I came across first. On the one hand, I couldn’t agree more with his points that Pagans need to get over previous religious baggage, and that there are very definite benefits to religion. However, I have real issues with looking to the framework of other (typically monotheistic) religions for a model of how Pagan religion should look now. Granted, this may not have been Beckett’s intention here, however, I don’t think you can extol the virtues of religion for Pagans without also going into what Pagan religion could look

religion - holy book
Religions have holy books, right?

like.

To my mind, this is an important distinction to make too, because when you use a word like “religion” – like any word – it comes with certain expectations of what that thing looks like. And after something like 1500-2000 years of predominantly Judeo-Christian religion, we really need to ask what that looks like for a good chunk of us. In other words, how does the shape of Abramic religion affect the shape we give to Pagan religion?

Let’s take Christianity, for example. Christianity is universalist, in fact, new adherents are actively sought. It’s also orthodoxic in nature, meaning that having the “correct” belief is of the utmost importance. Relationships with deity require submission, and the end reward for good behavior comes after death.

Now compare this with what we (think we) know of Heathen period religion. Here “religion” goes hand in hand with

religion - orans
The orans posture, common to both Pagans and Jewish people in the ancient world.

community, and is made up of the reciprocal relationships held by that community and the customs by which they are maintained (orthopraxy). Religion is not universal, and though there are common threads between groups that are culturally similar enough, it differs by tribe. There are no active attempts to seek out new adherents either, as it is handed down from parent to child. Joining the religion in these cases, is more of a case of tribal enculturation. Afterlife beliefs vary from group to group.

See what I mean? That’s quite a difference! However instead of exploring that, as a group we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater and make weak arguments about “being spiritual instead of religious”.

Along similar lines are the following statements:

“I don’t pray, I chat with my gods.”

“I don’t kneel, that’s a Christian thing.”


“I don’t worship, I honor my gods.”

And it doesn’t matter that the acts of prayer and kneeling is well attested among multiple pagan cultures, or that worship (meaning “to give worth to/acknowledge the worth of”) is the perfect word for what we do, we just keep running.

So I see this issue as twofold: on the one hand, we avoid anything that looks a little too much like the religions we ran from; and on the other, we allow those religions to continue defining our worlds for us.

Don’t believe me on the last one? Consider the Devil for a moment. How do you feel about him? If you’re getting an icky feeling, where do you think that’s coming from? And yet from the probable perspective of someone from the Pagan period, he’d be another animistic power to trade the troll market with (as always, terms and conditions may apply).

Hold the Gods!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Laura Tempest Zakroff’s post argued for the validity of witchcraft without deities – or at least, devotional relationships with those deities.

I’m not going to lie, I think that’s also a problematic approach to take. As I discussed in my last post on Authority and Hierarchies, having reciprocal relationships with higher powers was a part of having spiritual authority. Hell, even the virtue of piety itself was something that could be held up as a form of authority when trucking with the dead.

This is not to completely slate Ms Zakroff’s post (apologies if that is the wrong honorific, I’m happy to amend religion paganaccordingly, as I do respect her). I do think she makes an excellent point about the duotheisms held dear by the earlier Pagan revivalists, and their incompatibility with both modern and ancient ideas on deity. But does that mean that we should once more throw out yet another baby with the water it was bathing in? (Which per this account was a dirty dirty water, possibly filled with spunk and other sexual fluids.) Does that mean that we let (this time) Wiccan ideas on deities in witchcraft define the matter of deities for all witches? Because witch or not, you don’t have to have a god and a goddess. And while it’s true that witchcraft can be practiced without deities, in the old accounts and old charms, there was always the matter of the witch requiring the authority to work her craft (be that authority the Devil or Fairies, or Yahweh).

religion - hareI shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again

Isobel Gowdie, of course.

The most striking thing for someone who spends a lot of time reading both old grimoires and ancient texts about magic though, is how much our expectations of magic have lowered over the years. There was a time when it was perfectly reasonable to have spells for getting your animated divinatory skull back under control. But now what do we have? To quote Ms Zakroff, “magic as an every day practice to change you, your living space, and the world around you. There’s no chapter on “how to choose your patron deities” – but there may be one on finding your inner goddess.”

So were those earlier spells just delusional?

I’m not so sure; let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I was perusing the vendors at a Pagan convention. One vendor was selling (among other things), little sequined books that she was calling “wish books”, the idea being that you write wishes in them and they would come true. Nice novelty, but no one who is magically operant is going to take that seriously. However, as I was looking through her wares, an African gentleman came up and honed in on these “wish books”, wanting to know if they really worked. You see, as someone who had grown up in a place in which witchcraft is a very real prospect that is routinely thought capable of things we might think fantastical, he was as serious as a heart attack. The vendor

religion - enchantment
This came up on pixabay for “enchantment”. IDK…

when faced with this, recognized her conundrum: she could either admit that her products were bunk, or she could lie to the gentleman and potentially face his wrath down the line. Because in his culture, you can bet that bought magic is considered the same as any other product that doesn’t work when it doesn’t work!

So were those older spells delusional? I doubt that gentleman would think so – or any number of people around the world actually. As a community, we talk a lot about “reenchanting the world”, as though the whole world is missing its enchantment, but maybe it’s just our bits of it?

Final Words

I’ve covered a lot of ground here (that’s happening a lot at the moment), but if I were to boil down my points, they would be as follows:

1. Religion itself isn’t a bad thing, but we need to stop running and start figuring out what that can look like for us.
2. We also need to stop throwing out bathwater babies because of how others define things (seriously, we’re creating an army of Útburðir). Don’t like Wicca-esque duotheisms? You don’t need to dump all ideas of forming relationships with animistic powers.
3. It’s about reciprocal relationships, and no matter how awesome your inner goddess is, she probably is going to still be useless if you ever find yourself up shit creek without a paddle with things going sideways faster than the fools at my gym who try to use the treadmills sideways. Plus side though, you can always try shitting yourself, so there is that.
4. It’s also about expectations, and we cannot reenchant the world if we’re not only removing the animistic powers, but also simultaneously lowering our expectations of what magic can do.

So there you go! My Monday ramblings about all the things. I’m still aiming to get the third part of my series out this week (probably on Thursday), but the posts by Mr Beckett and Ms Zakroff were too relevant to ignore.

Have a good week, everyone!