There’s a lot of talk nowadays about spirits, big or small, having something called agency. In other words, they’re capable of acting independently and of making their own choices. Most of the discussion on this has been framed within the context of the perennial Pagan community debate about whether deities should be seen as archetypes or as beings with agency (there’s that word again!), but I’m yet to see any talk about what it means to live in a world populated by countless unseen beings who all also have agency.
Ok, that’s not fair, I think Morgan Daimler spends a lot of time talking about that kind of thing – heck, along with articles telling you how not to get completely fucked over by all things fae and sorely needed new translations of Old Irish materials, I would say that a good chunk of what Morgan does is try to impress upon her readership this idea of agency and the Unseen.
But how many of us truly think about that? How many of us truly appreciate just how *big* that idea is? This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently (hence the lull period in blogs, I mull while I lull), and I’ve come to the conclusion that while a lot of us would agree with the sentiment when asked, that very few of us have really internalized that concept and way of looking at the world.
I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, nobody is ‘lesser’ for it, it’s just that I think we forget that conversion isn’t something that happens overnight, and what is really taking place is a complete worldview overhaul. That shit takes time and it isn’t easy, especially when most of us live in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society in which so much that many of us take for granted is a product of that worldview. When you first start noticing those innocuous little things that you’ve never really thought much about before but that are Judeo-Christian though, it’s kind of like that moment when Neo first sees the Matrix – only thankfully a lot less dramatic.
(Note to reader: Don’t watch the Matrix after drinking a load of absinthe, Morpheus becomes kind of creepy and you’ll never hear him say that long “yes” the same way ever again.)
It’s everywhere: from the cartoon depictions of souls leaving bodies; to the virtues that most of us are brought up with; to terrifyingly huge chunks of political discourse and so much more. After a couple of decades at this malarkey, I’m finding the differences to be substantial enough that it’s starting to feel like code-switching when talking to people who aren’t Heathen/Pagan/Witches/Druids, and I didn’t even grow up in a particularly religious home. Seriously, I grew up only vaguely Church of England (cake or death) with a mother who graffitied her bible with the names of the Monkees and a Spiritualist father. I also know I still have a long, long way to go and probably won’t manage to completely throw off that Judeo-Christian worldview in my lifetime. Realistically speaking, this is really a generational game, and NONE of us should feel bad or ‘less’ if we struggle to internalize a concept.
So what would internalizing that concept of the unseen having agency really mean or be like for most of us?
Only like going down the best motherfucking rabbit hole of all time!!!
We’re all used to living on this beautiful and mighty Middle Earth, we’re all used to sharing it with other humans, flora, fauna, insects, and countless other things at the microscopic level. I mean, tardigrades! How neat are they? They’re brilliant, like little bears that were made out of off-cuts from a camp bed factory before being inflated, and that can only survive pretty much EVERYTHING! If those guys had a theme tune, it would be this (btw, you’re welcome for the earworm). Now imagine how much *bigger* that all gets when you include the countless different types of Unseen (of all types and sizes), because where else do you think they live?
They’re all right here with us, and guess what, if we accept that we can build reciprocal relationships with them, then we also have to accept that they have their own ideas and plans about *everything*. Just as we look to interact with them, what if they look to interact with us? What if they go out of their way to do so? What if, like us, some of them are better at it than others?
Now look at history, do you really think they just left us to our shit? What about current affairs? Do they still just leave us to do what we do (which seems to be “mostly fucking up” by the looks of it)? And if they have agency, what about their histories and their current affairs? How much do we affect those? What about the unseen that inhabit certain realms like the sea or sky, do they affect things like the weather? And in the same way that we humans can pick up on the emotions of others and get carried away by mob mentalities, can that bleed through from either them or us?
It all gets pretty big when you think about it like that, doesn’t it? Like a massive, knotted ball of string that is weirdly very important to unravel, but at best all we can do is work carefully so as not to make anything worse.
You know…and then pass it on to our children when we die.
For some good tips on working carefully while trying to unravel that ball and maybe even have some wins, check out this blog post by that Morgan lady; and I’ll be back with a post on elves and witches when I figure out how to condense such a big topic into a blog post.
Once upon a time, back when I lived in Korea, my husband-to-be and I took a trip to a very special mountain in Seoul. Korea still has some remnants of Korean indigenous religion, and there are still some holy places knocking around. This mountain was special because it was one of those holy places. It was kind of a cool day when we went up, but after spending the summer going on adventures in the punishing heat and humidity of the dreaded Korean summer, the cool was a welcome change. There was a decorative arch to let you know you’d arrived, and then, as you ascended, some buildings that we could only assume were temples or shrines. As we carried on walking up the mountain and past those buildings, we saw a sack on the deck with the head of a very dead pig sticking out of it, and realized that there was probably going to be some kind of ritual, but as it was none of our business, we’d just keep walking up the mountain. Occasionally, we’d pass people, usually older men and women with their sun visors, hiking gear, and bags of offerings. Below us, the clanging of drums began as the ritual started.
We carried on climbing up, intent on making it to the top to see what was there, the drums fading into the background of our conversations until suddenly, when we were about half way up, we realized that the drumming had stopped.
We also stopped, and then we noticed that even the birds had fallen silent. What was previously a vibrant forest full of all of those little wildlife noises that forests have, was now silent. Well, all except for the sound of rushing wind.
Now, this wasn’t the kind of wind that you experience on a windy day in which it’s all around you. No, this wind seemed to be contained, it seemed to have form, and that form seemed to be making its way down the path that we were on. We moved off the path to stand in the trees and watched as the wind went by as tangible as a train. A few moments after it passed, the drumming began again, this time a different beat, and we continued to walk to the top. The top of the mountain was beautiful, we had a small conversation with an older man who had been worshipping up there at the shrine with our limited Korean, and were treated to a lovely view of the city below. When we came to descend, we made our way back down the same path, but this time when the drumming stopped, we knew what to expect. Moving to the trees at the side of the path we waited for the wall of wind to come by on its way back up the mountain again.
I kind of hate the term ‘Shamanism’, for many reasons, some of which I’ll get into here, but the practice that brought down that wind from the mountain that my now-husband and I experienced so tangibly is often referred to as ‘Shamanism’. Although we didn’t see the ritual itself, research informs me that Korean ‘shamans’, or Mudangs do possessory rituals for various reasons and that that is a likely explanation of what was going on that day on the mountain.
Indigenous Expectations vs (Mostly) White Expectations
Now, that was my only experience of a type of ‘shamanism’ within its own cultural context – albeit from a distance – but it really gave me far higher expectations when it comes to anything bearing the label of ‘Shamanism’. When it comes to a good number of white, western ‘Shamans’, I am unimpressed and if I’m unimpressed after having just that tiny peek into that real, imagine how people from cultures that still have Shamans and Medicine Men feel!
I mean, in 2014 there was an important gathering of Shamans in Siberia from various parts of the world. Per the organizers, they had invited the ‘strongest shamans’ in the world, and yet not one of the invitees was someone rocking up with a dose of Core Shamanism. Now why was that? To put it simply, they only invited people they considered to be peers.
The other day, I came across a documentary called ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’, which I watched with great interest. There have been a few things about much of what passes for ‘Shamanism’ in the Pagan/Heathen/New Age communities that have bugged me for a while now, and I feel this documentary did a really good job of demonstrating the various issues of appropriation, entitlement, selfishness, and economic privilege.
What’s In A Name?
As I mentioned above, I dislike the term ‘Shamanism’. Not because of what it means, after all, it’s just an Evenk word that means ‘excited’, ‘elevated’, ‘ecstatically knowledgeable’, but because of how over-applied the word is to anything that even has a whiff of indigenous practice or what we imagine indigenous practice to be. For the Evenki, the word ‘Shaman’ comes with certain associations that are all rooted in the Evenk worldview (all of which was mostly not understood when Westerners started to take and apply the word ‘Shaman’ to everything else that’s ‘indigenous’). I can’t help but think that when we take a word like ‘Shaman’ and apply it to any indigenous magico-religious practice we come across, we’re not only disrespecting the original culture, but we’re erasing or minimizing the diversity of all the other cultures that still have ritual specialists working within their respective indigenous cultures. Moreover, the word ‘Shaman’ has its own ‘myth’, I mean, we all think we know what a Shaman is/does/looks like, right? But you see, if you approach a culture looking for a ‘Shaman’ and you have in mind all of these associations with the world – this myth of the ‘Shaman’, then how much are you actually looking at that culture vs just looking for the bits that fit your (really quite broad) schema? The minimizing and erasure of diversity that this allows then makes it easy for someone to come along and decide that they all have certain similarities (whether they do or not) that must ergo be indicative of a common human heritage of ‘Shamanism’.
It is here that we begin to enter the murky waters of false entitlement.
Shamanism Divorced from Culture: A Story of Privilege and Entitlement
You see, when an outsider to a culture, starts picking bits that look the same as things seen in other cultures (but that may be the products of very different worldviews), and then start declaring them to be ‘universal, near-universal, and common features of Shamanism’, it makes it possible to pull those practices from their cultural contexts. Because if you believe yourself to be the goddamn inheritor of this *human* heritage, isn’t it already ‘yours’ to take?
And what of the *years* of training the ritual specialists in those cultures typically undergo, or the fact that these ritual specialists only make up a small percentage of the population in an indigenous culture? Don’t worry, westerners, that doesn’t matter when it comes to you; per Core Shamanism originator Michael Harner in ‘The Way of the Shaman’ (p. xviii):
“In my training workshops in shamanic power and healing in North America and Europe, students have demonstrated again and again that most westerners can easily become initiated into the fundamentals of shamanic practice.”
Even better, you don’t even need to enter into a traditional apprenticeship:
“In Western culture, most people will never know a shaman, let alone train with one. Yet since ours is a literate culture, you do not have to be in an apprenticeship situation to learn; a written guide can provide the essential methodological information.”
Because that’s how shit-hot we Westerners are, we can learn and be just as good as ritual specialists from indigenous cultures without the years of training, apprenticeships, or even choosing process that are a feature of those cultures. That right there is some fucking arrogance. In the documentary, two white women and a white man sit outside a sweat lodge and are later shown drumming, rattling, and chanting something that sounded either indigenous or created to sound so. Despite this obvious appropriation, they still talked about how they wished people could understand that what they did wasn’t ripping anything off and was somehow different. Some of them also talked about how they just wanted to help humanity and how necessary ‘Shamanism’ was for the world and its people. But to me, there are some huge issues with this line of thinking too. For starters, you have this ‘one true way’ mentality, and when has that ever been good for the world? I mean, how many of you reading this blog right now have issues in your daily lives because you have to deal with folks who subscribe to a ‘one true way’ worldview? How many of you hide who you are to avoid those issues?
Secondly, there’s a huge aspect of economic privilege here. This ‘universal’ shamanism can only be universal for the people who are making enough to have a high enough level of disposable income to afford these workshops – and I don’t think that’s a small thing nowadays.
Now the cynic in me looks at all of this – the creation of a universal shamanism divorced from culture, something that *anyone* has a right to and can do – and I can’t help but think that not only is it a perfect product, but it will never be anything other than a repackaged product among the majority of Westerners unless it somehow becomes rooted in culture. But again, which culture would be acceptable here?
A Quest For Whole-Making, A Story Of Need And Exploitation
When I first posted that I was going to write this blog on my Facebook, a friend involved in Core Shamanism techniques replied saying that they don’t feel that what they’re doing is appropriation because they are trying to seat these techniques in a historical culture that no longer exists in that form in the modern world. While it is true that there are no living oppressed groups that are being harmed in this, I do still question the application of a so-called ‘universal shamanism’ to a culture we only meet through archaeological finds and on the page. If these ‘universal’ things aren’t really that universal among living groups (as plenty of indigenous groups have pointed out over the years), then how can we believe them to be applicable with any degree of accuracy to a historical culture? Although I may never agree with my friends on this though, I do recognize that they are coming from both a place of service and find their practices whole-making. I really don’t envy them the complexity of negotiating their chosen paths in an ethical manner, especially as people who are aware of the myriad issues.
But that’s the thing that really complicates this issue. Because for all the inherent shittiness of shamanism as practiced outside of indigenous cultural contexts, there are a lot of very caring, genuine, and good people involved. I don’t want to make it sound like I think every single person engaged in these activities is a culturally appropriating dickwad that just wants to make bank while giving the middle finger to indigenous populations – because I don’t. We live in ‘interesting times’, in communities that can barely be called such, and most of us are without tribes in any kind of a meaningful sense. I don’t think that is good for human beings, and I think it’s an absence that we feel very deeply when we find it in our lives. How many people get involved in things like this ‘universal shamanism’ because they want to feel whole, and want that whole-making? How many people get involved because they want to help others and believe that these practices hold the key to helping them do so? How many others are looking for tools to help them deal with the Other in their lives?
There are a whole lot of stories here, a lot of humans doing what humans do: some seeking, some predating, and some mourning the losses of their cultures. Now, two of those things are wrong, two of those things shouldn’t be happening. For me, the best illustration of ‘how to not be’ comes in the form of another story. A story told by a Mongolian shaman by the name of Sarangerel, who related the tale of what happened when the Golomt Center of Mongolian shamans organized in Ulaanbaatar in 1997 and reached out to Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies to basically say ‘Hi, we’re here now!’. The response from the Foundation? A package with membership application forms and a workshop schedule.
If you haven’t already seen it, give ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’ a watch, you can find it here.
As anyone who’s the parent of a young child knows, it’s hard to get some alone time.
Society pressures us to not see it that way or feel like that, our children are supposed to be the centers of our respective worlds, our little treasures who never tire us or make us angry; friends of mine refer to this as ‘the cult of the child’. However, regardless of how much we love our children, we all *need* time to replenish ourselves, to do things that recharge the batteries we draw so deeply upon when dealing with the fifteenth tantrum of the day, or the horror of heavy-handed black crayon on carpet. Like the analogy of the parent putting their oxygen mask on before that of the child, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of them to the fullest of our abilities.
This past weekend, I was lucky enough to have some time to engage in some of that glorious, glorious self-care, and after a particularly rough week, I leaped at it.
And let me tell you, an afternoon stroll by the river with friends followed by a gathering in the evening was just what the apothecary ordered.
And of course, between the stroll and the gathering, there was the near-obligatory trip to the local pagan store. I usually enjoy trips to this store, like most stores of its kind, it’s interesting to just sort of hang out in there and people-watch a little. They also have a decent selection of herbs and the oils I use to scent my house, which is handy. Most trips to the store though, for all the people-watching potential, pass without incident; but sometimes, sometimes you get that one person who wants you to help them with something even though you’re not staff.
On Saturday, it was a young woman who was looking to ‘draw’ a man closer to her.
Now I don’t touch love stuff and so I let the woman know I wasn’t going to get involved and walked off. However, my friend remained and valiantly tried to explain her ethical reasons for not getting involved. Any time I came into this young woman’s line of vision, she glared at me. From my friend’s exchange with the woman, I later found out that this young woman had had previous relations with the man in question, that they’d apparently moved too fast, that he’d gotten cold feet, and she’d decided to get with the witchcraft although she’s a Christian.
Knowing all of that in hindsight, I’m glad I ducked out when I did.
Putting aside the ginormous issue of attempting to mess with love for a second, those don’t seem to be the actions of someone who is particularly stable – at least not at this time. After all, this is a woman who belongs to a religion that condemns witchcraft and yet she went looking for witches in a Pagan shop – complete strangers – to try and get a man back as opposed to cutting her losses and trying to move on. That to me is insane, and if previous experience is anything to go by, getting involved in that is potentially inviting trouble for the future.
You see, when I was in college, I had a housemate who was really going through the mill with her boyfriend. Things seemed to be unraveling, she wasn’t sleeping much, and when she did her dreams were less than good. At one point, she asked me if I would do something of a more magical nature to help her, and I agreed to do some work to help bolster her rather than try and manipulate her love life. However, when I went to go into trance to ‘find her’ and do what I was planning, I found myself getting sucked into one of her dreams because as ‘luck’ would have it, I was working on one of the nights when she was actually sleeping.
Her dreams were pretty grim, lots of imagery about churches and brides discarding bouquets, my housemate crying, and a burgeoning distance between her and her boyfriend. I pulled myself out as soon as I could and resolved to be up front with her about it the next day.
When the next day came though, although she’d been the one to come to me for help, my (as it turned out) accurate description of her nightmare was a little too much for her, and by the time afternoon came, she’d fled back to her parents’ house. She wasn’t gone permanently though, but the suspicious glare and Catholic blessed metals were permanent. Months down the line, she and her boyfriend – a man who had become her fiancé shortly after the dream incident – were through.
As with our young woman from the store, there were two issues at play here: the desperate grasping to prevent an ending, each woman even going so far as to engage with something they believed to be sinful; and an appeal to somehow fuck with love so that it would go down more in their favor.
Doing things, even when asked, for someone who holds your craft in contempt is a fool’s work. At best, you can be mocked, and at worst, blamed for anything that happens as a result of any meddling. From what I’ve found, many people that ask these favors don’t really believe that what they’re asking is even possible, and when things happen that suggest that it is real, tend to become very scared and fall back on their religious beliefs. Sometimes things happen as a consequence of the stuff they try because of your advice, and again, you get the blame. Witches and magicians are very aware of the truth of the saying ‘the devil is in the detail’ when it comes to magic, but this is not something a person who is not involved in magic really keeps in mind. We know that words are important, and more so in ritual space. Most people do not. Most people grow up being told that ‘god will know what they really mean in their heart’ and so do not ever really consider the possibility that words badly woven while working magic can mean magic not doing what you want in the way that you want. Either way though, this blame can lead to some pretty nasty social situations, and any altruistic intentions on the behalf of the practitioner are meaningless in the court of public opinion.
Secondly and most importantly, can we have a moment of time to discuss love and how goddamn powerful love is?
We live in a society that minimizes love, we say we LOVE certain music, we LOVE a type of cake, or even LOVE a color. Once a year, we have a tacky-ass holiday dedicated to paying lip-service to a shallow love of Hallmark cards and shitty little pink heart decorations.
But none of that is love though. Love is the force in a mother’s heart keeping her going as she pushes out a child, desperate to meet them for the first time. Love is the force that drives parents to put themselves between danger and their offspring. Love is what soothes and nurtures a child as they grow, it’s that look in your child’s eyes that feels like a benediction when they look at you. Love is the force that makes children give up on their hopes and dreams to take care of elderly parents, it’s the force that causes people to uproot their entire lives and move across the world to be with that one person. It’s the force that drives people to take bullets for those they love, to recover from the most incredibly awful injuries to stay with those they love, and to keep on going even though sickness makes life a misery. Love can make a person cling on to life though they barely have anything left, and follow a loved one to the grave.
Love, real love, is far from being easy or cheap. A million Hallmark cards with verses proclaiming to epitomize feelings and love cannot be but the barest drop in the ocean compared with any love felt by a human being.And that’s why I won’t mess with love, that’s my biggest reason why I won’t help with that kind of magic actually. For love is as terrible as she is beautiful. Love sinks ships, causes armies to march, and can even bring down empires. Love is one of the most powerful forces on this earth, and who am *I* to stand in the face of that?
The squash leaves are huge; big, hairy, plates of green that cover smaller plants indiscriminately. I go through them, uncovering patches of kale, collards, lambs quarters, and dandelion greens, picking off pests and checking for various eggs as I do. It’s dusk, and once again it’s just me, my garden, and my trusty green watering can.
When I first started my garden, my daughter ripped up almost all of the seedlings I’d so carefully started, and I’d despaired. All that time, all that money, and all that work had been destroyed in less than a minute by a determined toddler with a stick. After a few tears and talking to friends about growing seasons in my local area, I decided to start again and began to grow more seedlings – this time outside. Eventually they grew, as seedlings do, and I had enough to fill my two plots. I also had some surprises, for nature is nothing if not tenacious, and a toddler’s harsh stick work is nothing in the face of that.
When I first started a garden, I imagined beautiful rows of perfect vegetables that were unmolested by bugs and
blight. These rows were tidy too, the kind of thing you might see in a gardening magazine. But fantasy and reality rarely match, and my garden became this wild pile of squash, tomatoes, jalapeños, various edible leaves, and an orchard orb spinner I like to call ‘Edwin’.
I move the leaves and wedge them around a little fence so the smaller plants can get some sun too, I water, and I harvest leaves for salad as I go. When I’m done, I invariably end up at the bottom of the garden near the wild patch I keep for the wights. Then stretching myself up, I take a deep breath and look around me at the plants, wooden fence, and forest behind our garden gate. I see the odd flare of a lightning bug in the trees above, and I can’t help but smile. I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling at those things, not for any big or deep reason, but because we just didn’t have them where I grew up.
Everything feels so alive, there’s a buzz in the air, a rightness of place, and not for the first time I think to myself that this is what it must be like to put down roots somewhere.
And of course that’s what I’ve done. My travel shrines have become permanent and my idols unpacked for what I hope will be a good long while.
There’s a difference in magic and religion when you’re settled and rooted as opposed to nomadic and wandering where the wind takes you. As a nomadic witch, I would McGyver supplies a lot more, and I would take pains to make my tools and supplies much more innocuous to the casual viewer. Because when you’re an outsider to somewhere, you never know how locals are going to react to things like Witchcraft and Heathenism. I would still practice, of course I would, to be a witch is an active thing – you have to do witchcraft in order to be a witch, but it was different.
I would always begin by walking the local area over and over, taking into account the areas that felt ‘thin’/uneasy/friendly/active/dead and noting what grew where. The lavender that grew across from the supermarket and sphagnum moss I collected from under a tree that helped to heal a hornet’s sting; the wormwood growing out of a stone wall, its roots somehow clinging to the dirt between the rocks; the locations of various tree woods for amulets; the blackberries near the river that I ate one evening with cream – all came from my walks. As I trod the miles, my mind would become a catalogue of what grew where, where I could go to practice my craft, where to offer, and where to avoid.
But it’s different when you’re settled and own the land, both from a Heathen and a Witch perspective. From the moment you walk the boundaries with fire to take your land, you’re granted an agency in that place that you don’t have as a traveler. In your home, you get to create your cosmos, your inner-yard, your most holy of spaces instead of moving between the inner-yards of others and dodging the dangers of the outer-yard. You build reciprocal relationships with the wights in a way that you never did before, like the kind that neighbors make with neighbors who bought as opposed to those who rent. Wandering, liminal gods are joined by gods of ‘peace and good seasons’ in your hearth rites; and the magic you work is less because some scary ‘could kill you’ shit is going down, and more because your family needs a little extra help at times to continue thriving, or even simply just to keep your hand in.
There are times when I miss the outer-yard and being on the road. I think a part of me will always be that itchy-footed kid that wandered the moors as though the miles were food and moved countries at the drop of a hat. But as I stand each evening, stretching up at the bottom of my garden with my trusty green watering can in hand, I can’t help but feel and appreciate the sweetness of it all.
On the 9th of June, Patheos blogger John Beckett wrote that the Otherworld is ‘bleeding through’, and that even though his awareness of this is a more recent thing, he’s of the opinion this has been going on for longer.
Although that might sound like crazy talk (after all, how many people have believed themselves to be living in pivotal times?), it’s no surprise to the people that know me that I agree with John.
I would say it’s been going on for a while – years even. Back then I was foolish enough to email a famous paranormal investigator for their input, to see if they’d noticed a rise in cases, but as I wasn’t mailing about a potential opportunity for publicity or financial gain, I was called ‘unprofessional’ and sent on my way. Back then it felt more like flood and ebb, there would be periods of crazy activity and periods of relative calm – or at least it did to me. It was around late August last year though when things really ramped up. After asking friends on Facebook if they were noticing or experiencing anything, and receiving affirmative replies from people who typically don’t experience the strange, I really began to take notice.
Not that I didn’t take notice before, but generally when the people who don’t usually get that kind of thing happen to them start to get that, well, it’s far more compelling than when people like myself (for whom these things tend to be ten a penny) get them.
Friends told me of white dog apparitions that lurked at the edges of the woods, of dreams of the dead that felt far more prescient than dream, and premonitions that came to pass. As time has gone on since then, more ‘woo’ friends have told me of hauntings returning that hadn’t haunted for years, of the return of spirits lain years before by exorcism, and of sighting the Slúa of all things.
At first I worried about what could be going on. I ritualized and performed divination after divination, and kept getting the same message back. That the ‘Other’ was now here, that they were rising up and coming back, and couldn’t be happier about it. This was to be our new normal.
In January I wrote my posts about upping our collective game as witches, pagans, ritualists, or whatever sweet label we go by. This is a big part of why I wrote that post, because in spite of all the fake being sold as real that flies around, the real shit is there too – and really *close*. Regardless of whether this situation is temporary or permanent (I’ve seen some debate on that) though, we need to be bringing our A-game because things have the potential to get far more real, far more quickly than before.
Even outside of the more dramatic encounters, on a more day to day level, the sensitive people in our communities are already suffering in this current climate – that’s if the communities my friends are involved in are anything to go by. I’m seeing and hearing about a lot of sleeplessness and nervous issues cropping up right now among many, and I’d like to address some tools for dealing with this.
Right now, I would say that we need our gods, and to honor the reciprocal relationships we keep with the beings we keep them with. People looked to the gods for order and keeping the destructive forces outside of the inner yard, I would say that that’s a good thing all the time, not just when woo woo shit is going wild.
We need to make sure we ground and center often, and if you don’t know how to do that, now is the time to learn. We also need to work on our protections, to getting them down so they’re automatic – preferably tied to some kind of physical action so that when things get overwhelming, the muscle memory can take over and pull you back where you need to be. Muscle memory is powerful and often overrides emotional and/or mental states. We need to come up with back up plans for whenever we’re working for the ‘just in case’, and take hard looks at our liturgy to make sure we’re being smart with our words too (I’ll take a look at this in a future blog post, I think). Words in sacred space have weight and one can invite a whole host of trouble when words are used without thought.
We need to dust off the old tales and charms. Folktales can often provide us clues and ways to interact with or survive interaction with the Otherworld. Most of the etiquette that you see going around about how to interact with the feeorin (fae) for example, comes from these folktales; simple things like not thanking them, calling them honorific names such as ‘The Gentry’, or not letting them know that you can see them come from these stories. The old charms are often the most effective too. Iron carried upon the person or under the pillow can lead to more peaceful nights and costs far less in the long term than melatonin after the initial outlay. Shoes can be utilized as ‘spirit traps’, hung on bedposts, or stuffed on ledges up chimneys. Rowan crosses bound with red thread can protect against the feeorin, salt can be poured over thresholds, and multiple types of herb can be hung/burned/sprinkled in the home to clear or protect.
Admittedly, some of the old practices can be downright dangerous (probably even illegal nowadays), especially to children, but can be made safe with some adaptation. For example, the opened iron scissors hung over a crib can easily be a forged iron troll cross (or anything else that’s iron and not sharp) stuffed under the mattress of the child’s bed (or hung on the wall if the child is old enough), and we really don’t need to go back to testing our children to make sure they’re not changelings (by incidentally torturing or killing them).
But most importantly, we need our human tribes, our families, our friends, and our trusted people. We need to look after each other, because while things may not get horrific, we may be in for a bumpy ride while we adjust.
I enjoy studying apotropaic magic – especially when that magic involves the use of shoes. I like trying to uncover the history and rationale behind it, and I especially like to ‘repurpose’ the old charms.
Recently, I’ve been looking at the use of the SATOR square in the Viking Age. For those of you that haven’t already come across this lovely piece of apotropaic (possibly) magic, the SATOR square is pre-Christian in origin, and is a 5×5 square made up of the word and anagram ‘SATOR’. Kinda like this:
S A T O R A R E P O T E N E T O P E R A R O T A S
As you can see, the square renders the words readable both left to right, horizontally and vertically, and in reverse. The words SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS are Latin, and are most easily translated as meaning ‘The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work”. Now that’s interesting in of itself, but it’s the charm’s popularity in Northern Europe that *really* interests me. Heck, there are even examples of it being rendered in runes (albeit with misspellings that potentially suggest errors from oral transmission). But misspellings not withstanding, I think there’s a good argument to be made that the operation of the SATOR square was considered to have had enough similarities with how Germanic magical traditions were considered to have worked for it to have been adopted as widely as it was. Now I’m not claiming that everyone was cracking out the odd SATOR square as the fancy came upon them, or that it was *common* by any stretch of the imagination. After all, the vast majority of archaeological finds are non-magical in nature, and we are talking about a subset of a subset here. But it’s also a subset of a subset that was found in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, and which continued to be used in Norwegian and Danish black magic as late as the 19th century.
Typically, the SATOR square was used in blessings, for both general protection and more specific protective uses (e.g. protection against lightning, fire, sickness etc). Often, the SATOR charm was an addition to formula or other charm, but even when it was the only charm to be found, I believe it was likely used in conjunction with a spoken/sung/chanted formula or galdor expressing a clearer intent.
When we look at magic from the various Germanic cultures, there are threads of commonality that can be perceived. I believe that one of those threads is that there were temporary forms of magic and long-lasting forms of magic. Magic that would eventually permanently alter what a person had to work with in the future by laying down repeated layers over a period of time. I believe evidence of these long-lasting, more permanent forms of magic can be found in artifacts such as the antler tablet weaving tablet from Lund that wished the weaver’s weeping to ‘Sigvor’s Ingimar’, or the failed love charm of Egil’s saga that only succeeded in making the target sick until it was destroyed. These were magics that involved repeated action, or some form of charm that worked continuously in the background until destroyed.
This is where I think the SATOR square comes in.
Maybe ‘the sower Arepo’ not only ‘holds the wheels at work’, but also keeps the effects of a charm or formula going as well, thus enabling or ensuring that the charm would be continuous and therefore create long-lasting effects?
Furthermore, it’s hard to ignore the symbolism and cultural resonance the imagery of wheels would have had in cultures in which ‘happening’ and ‘being’ were strongly connected with this idea of ‘turning’. If ‘what is now’ is something that is being turned, and you require your intent to be continuously ‘turned’ in order to affect what a person has to work with in the future, then a charm that talks of a sower (one who sows seeds, which may here be viewed as ‘layers’) keeping ‘the wheels at work’ makes a lot of sense.
In terms of modern usage, I haven’t had cause yet to experiment with the SATOR square – I don’t do a whole lot of magic that’s intended to have long lasting consequences, I tend to lean more on the ‘temporary effects’ end of the spectrum. However, if I were to use it, I would use it in addition to another charm or working, as a way of ‘fixing’ the charm to ensure it remains working in perpetuity. Obviously lacking in practical experience here, I’m curious to read about the experiences of others who have used the SATOR square.
We chanted and danced, our bodies whirling with our spindles, the cords lengthening as the twist travelled up the fibers locking them in place. We chanted in praise of a goddess of spinning and witches, but then the song changed and we chanted differently. This time we *pulled*, the spinning of our spindles aiding us as we pulled what we wanted to pull. A shift fell over the room and it was as though the fan no longer worked within the confines of our weoh bonds, but yet we danced and spun and passed the drum between us, taking turns with both spindle and drum. The dance went on, around the shrine with idol and well, around the candles without tumbling; in trance, these things happen.
When we stopped, we were no longer fully *here* but somewhere between, panting with exertion and sweating from the heat that the fans would no longer touch.
And that’s when the real work began.
In my last blog, I presented the idea that the magic of spindle and distaff is a magic of fate, a magic of pulling, of binding, and sometimes, even a magic of creation. Dealing with what you spin up (f you spin it up) often requires other skills of course, but for now though, I’m going to concentrate on the spinning up.
The first thing to understand about this kind of magic – or indeed any magic within the Germanic cultural context – is that some types of magic are temporary, and some are far longer lasting. Most of the examples you read of in the primary sources are temporary in nature; the mind ensnared until the will of the witch is carried out, or the weather temporarily made bad until the ship is sunk. Don’t get me wrong, temporary can cause a lot of damage. When it comes to long-lasting magics though, it’s all about setting down the layers, about repeated actions and intent. It’s about the tablet weaving tablet with a curse written on it, so that every turn of the tablet builds on the curse to imbue the victim with the ill luck of the caster. It’s about the spindle whorls scratched with prayers and blessings. It’s about the charms and staves left in hidden places to work continuously. It’s also probably why the SATOR square eventually became so popular in Northern Europe. If you remember that what we do in the now is what is set down as past layers for the future, then repeated actions over a period of time in the now and the not-so-far from now, set down that which a person has to work with in the future.
The second thing to understand here, is that this kind of spun magic, tends to be of a more chthonic nature. In my last blog post, I mentioned the connection between spinning and death, and spun threads made into various tools used to drag people down to the underworld. This idea was continued in various European folklore traditions that held that the dead had to cross over into the underworld over a bridge of thread, flax, or human hair (which actually kind of resembles flax).
When I first started to look at spun witchcraft – or Seiðr, it was most definitely from the point of view of the non-
spinner, or newbie spinner. Spinning is a craft that takes time, practice, and patience to become good at. Before you even begin to try your hand at spun Seiðr, you have to build up the muscle memory that makes it possible to spin without really thinking about it enough to go into trance.
The process of synthesis is often one of trial and error and this blog post is about my process of synthesis when it comes to spun Seiðr.
For me, it often starts with a flash of a vision of how you need to be doing something. But it’s one thing to see something happening and quite another to figure out the mechanics of how to do that thing or the framework within which you need to make it happen. That flash of a vision then becomes research, often years of research, experimentation, and most importantly evaluation before you have something workable. I think we often forget this because people are so reticent in the modern community to discuss their fuck ups, but let’s face it, everyone fucks up.
When I first began my experiments in spinning Seiðr I was doing so on the premise that the spindle was a tool for trance induction rather than for the magic itself. But as time went on and I experimented, I found that while you can get into a light trance state while spinning, it’s not necessarily good for deep trance, nor does it really go much beyond that (although it’s possible to have flashes of vision in this state). The breakthrough came when I decided to try changing my premise and taking the meaning of the word ‘Seiðr’ at face value – a ‘snare’. From that point on, I started to consider my spindle a tool that created a kind of snare ‘thought form’ that could be ‘sent forth’ or ‘ridden upon’ and used to ensnare and pull what I wanted or needed. My first experiments working in this way were a revelation, finally I felt like I’d hit on the mechanics of what I was meant to be doing.
Over time, I found that when I pulled and bound things, the spinning would become hard for no reason, that I would have to twist harder and that lumps would form in the spinning as the things I pulled were entrapped. I began to use my spindle when called in to help clear houses to attract and bind any leftover remnants of nastiness. Eventually, as I became more confident in this usage, I began using my spindle to pull and bind the kind of things that go bump in the night.
The more I spun and witched, the more I learned that spinning witchcraft is a magic that moves, it’s a magic that makes you want to sway and stamp your feet; to spin as you spin and work the energy out. It’s a magic that reverberates through your entire body, leaving you shaking and your yarn crackling with energy. Wool carries magic exceptionally well, and depending on what kind of magic you’re working, it can feel sharp and biting or warm and protective. It can be your favorite sweater or scarf that you wear when you know your day will be challenging, or it can be that one item that just feels unlucky. It can also carry stories – histories – and be used for divination for those skilled in psychometry.
Eventually I found others who were interested in working on this, on working to try to breathe life into and enliven that old spun Seiðr – people who were prepared to look beyond the high seat and get away from tidy and formal. We spun weoh bonds that we’d imbued with spells and prayers, and set up sacred space. We recreated our cosmos, or at least the lower half of it, with a ‘well’ to represent both the well of wyrd and the water the Dead must often cross between this world and the underworld. We also developed songs of various kinds; songs for pulling, songs for binding, songs for clearing, and songs of praise. Songs that would fill you with joy and songs that can make you feel as though something is walking over your grave. We found a place for those who couldn’t spin, because the drumming fuels our movements, our ecstasy, and we work to go deeper each time.
There is so much more that we haven’t explored yet and so many more possibilities to be integrated into our rites; such as extra magical steps in the preparation of the wool for Seiðr spinning, or the water with which you wash or wet your fingers with when spinning flax from a distaff. There are also ladders to be spun and woven, and an above world to look to as well.
Nowadays in witchcraft (and in other types of Seiðr group), it’s far more common to present a complete tradition, preferably one that’s been handed down in whatever way it has. I think because of this, we forget that most of us are *all* doing something relatively new, but again this is something we hide along with our fuck ups. As far as I know, myself and the people with whom I do spinning Seiðr are a minority out there. We have no lineages, no how-to books, and we’ll probably have our share of fuck ups too. I think it’s important to be honest about this, I think we do a huge disservice to those that come after us when we are not, and moreover, I think sometimes there is the trap of kidding oneself that what we have is the be all and end all of what there is. How can we get better at what we do if we cannot admit and learn from our mistakes? What has anyone ever really learned from a (fake) image of perfection?
For all the *newness* and experimental nature of this practice though, I *know* we’re on the right path. It’s not an objective knowing of course (when is it ever with this kind of thing?), but I *know* as surely as the air rushes back in when the weoh bonds come down.
Tracing Back the Threads from Witches to Viking Age Seiðr
“Are you doing Voodoo?!”
The cashier looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and fear, her hands frozen mid-scan. I looked to my own hands, to the perfectly innocuous spindle and fiber, and then looked at her again. The line had been long and so I’d taken out my spindle and started to do a little spinning – some lovely soft Shetland wool with which I was going (am going) to knit a traditional lace shawl.
For a moment, I was stuck for words, I mean, how *do* you respond to an obviously scared cashier accusing you of doing ‘Voodoo’ in the checkout line when all you’re doing (at least that time) is spinning yarn? Part of me was amused, but another part of me was a little saddened that as a society we’ve become so ignorant to the processes involved in the production of clothing, that someone doing something that would have been commonplace not all that long ago ( especially in the grand scheme of things) was now suspect and participating in ‘Voodoo’.
I decided to try and go for the teachable moment, to explain that I was spinning, turning wool into yarn that could then be knitted, woven, or crocheted into hats, sweaters, blankets etc. From the look on her face though and talk of how she was going to leave her register and run away if it really was ‘Voodoo’, I’m not quite sure I got through; she did seem genuinely scared. I’m guessing the ridiculously dramatic Hollywood depictions of ‘Voodoo’ are probably to blame for that, because real Vodou as I understand it, is a beautiful faith centered around family and community (read ‘Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn’ for a lovely portrayal of this very misunderstood faith).
In spite of the mundane nature of the spinning I was doing that day though, it really cannot be said that spinning and witchcraft are entirely unconnected. No, if anything, there is a connection there that runs very deep and is still yet largely unexplored by modern practitioners.
The only exception that I’ve found to this has been potentially among those belonging to the 1734 tradition of modern Traditional Witchcraft. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not involved in 1734, or any of the modern tradcrafter groups. I come at my craft from a different angle – albeit one with quite a few similarities with some modern Traditional Witchcraft.
From Witches to Seiðr
According to Cochrane, there are three branches of witchcraft: One pertaining to the male mysteries, one pertaining to the female mysteries, and the other pertaining to the mysteries of the Dead and Underworld. Those female mysteries based in spindle and distaff (or stang, in yet another use) are what I’m going to concentrate on in this post. In ‘On Cords’, Robert Cochrane wrote that, “The so-called ‘sacred object’ held in such reverence by some witches was in fact a weaver’s distaff–and could easily be mistaken for a phallic symbol. The weaver’s distaff, bound with reeds or straw, appears frequently in rural carvings and elsewhere. It again has reference to the Craft and supreme Deity. It would appear that the witches were not in the least influenced by Freudian concepts.”
As I’ve already said, I’m not involved in any of those modern traditions mentioned above, if I were, I may feel differently about claims of ancient origins for these traditions. Personally I’m not really sure how much I buy, however there are most definitely ‘threads’ (no pun intended) that *can* be traced back through history; it just so happens that the connection between spinning and witchcraft is one of them.
Moving backwards in time from when Cochrane was writing, we easily find a tradition of depicting witches riding distaffs on woodcuts and in drawings from the 15th and 16th centuries.
If we continue to trace that thread further back, especially in Northern Europe -the place where much of our modern witchcraft is rooted – if we go as far back as the Viking Age, we find mentions of a type of magic called Seiðr.
For most people nowadays though, Seiðr is about the High Seat and seeing, there’s very little though to connect that practice with Seiðr as it was shown in the primary sources. Even the oft-cited Erik the Red’s saga doesn’t feature a Seiðkona but a spá-kona (spae-wife, seeress). You see, Seiðr was in all likelihood a spun form of magic.
Let’s begin with the etymology – or at least Seiðr’s etymological equivalents in Old High German and Old English (which are on far surer footing than the etymology itself) that mean ‘snare’, ‘cord’, or ‘halter’. In support of this is one example of skaldic poetry in which the word ‘seiðr’ is used to refer to ‘cord’, ‘girth’, or ‘girdle’. Moreover, multiple accounts in the primary sources involve spun Seiðr (check out the paper by Eldar Heide linked below for more). Seiðr is a magic that can not only bind, but can also attract things, in fact roughly half of the accounts involving Seiðr in the primary sources are related to attracting things; be those things fish, people, or resources.
This concept of using thread based magic to attract things is one that was retained in later folklore too – as was the tradition of linking spinning and weaving implements with prophecy and magic in general. For example, a witch was believed to be able to steal a neighbor’s milk by milking a length of rope, and the spindle remained the symbol of the witch in Germany until quite late on.
But *why* spinning and witchcraft? Why does such a link make sense, and what can we learn about how spun magic can be used?
Spinning, Fate, and Death
It might be said that there is a common thread (again with the threads) running through many Indo-European descendant cultures, which associates the act of spinning with ‘fate’ (for want of a better word). This is a connection that was reflected linguistically in many older versions of IE languages (Old English among them) and the verb for ‘to be’, a verb which often had connotations with ‘turning’ or ‘spinning’. What is now is what is being turned or what is being spun. Multiple IE cultures also had groups of numina who were often associated with spinning, whose role it was to spin the fates of men. Among the Hittites there were the Kattereš, Underworld goddesses who spun the lives of kings; among the Greeks there were the Moirai, or ‘Apportioners’, one of whom spun the lot of men; among the Slavs you had the Sudice or Rodzanice; the Parcae among the Romans; and the Nornir (who differ in that they’re not explicitly shown to spin) among the Norse. There is also a reference in the Atharva Veda hinting at a similar concept among the Vedics:
“The goddesses who spun, wove, and stretched, and who gave the ends (of the thread) let them wrap you together to old age; as one long-lived, put around you this garment.”
And then there is Death to consider, Death who ensnares and pulls the Dead down to the Underworld of the Dead, using cord, rope, or a snare – in other words, that which is an end product of spinning to complete her task.
“The ropes of Hel Came swiftly; They swung at my sides. I wanted to break them. But they were tough. Light it is to fare when free!”
“You who are richer than the unrifled Treasuries of the Arabs, and the wealth of India – You may fill all the Tyrrhenian and the Apulian sea with the foundations [for your villa], [But] if grim Necessity drives Her adamantine nails in the highest heavens, You’ll not free your soul from fear Nor your head from the snares of Death”
Horace Ode 3.24 lines 1-8
“What awaits goodness, or chaste loyalty, or worship paid to heaven? The dark snares of death encompassed around the wretched woman, the Sisters’ ruthless threads are tightened, and there abides but the last portion of the exhausted span.”
Statius Silvae, V. I. 129-157
Again, these were ideas which were retained in later folklore too. Mirjam Mencej wrote an amazing paper about spinning lore and beings associated with spinning in European folklore. She wrote about how birth and death are conceptualized as being spun into life and then your fibers falling undone when dying, about the idea of womb and burial mound as the wool basket from where one begins and ends, about the crossing to the Underworld of the Dead over a strand of wool, and the incidence of dead appearing as balls of yarn (sometimes leaving trails of blood!) in various European folklore traditions.
With all this in mind, and the historical connection between women and spinning (seriously, ladies used to spin pretty much constantly when not otherwise engaged), why *wouldn’t* any women’s mysteries in witchcraft revolve around spinning? It’s a magic of fate, of pulling, of binding, and at times, even of creation!
Stangs, Staffs, and Distaffs, oh my!
To return to the distaffs, although it’s not a ‘weaving distaff’ (weaving and spinning are distinct, dammit!) Robert Cochrane (who died in 1966) seems to have been right at least about the importance of the distaff. More recent work by archaeologists on the so-called ‘staffs of sorcery’ found in (mostly) Viking Age graves has highlighted the resemblance between many of the ‘staffs of sorcery’ (many of which were made of iron, making them too heavy for work use) and distaffs of the same time period.
Admittedly, those distaffs/staffs didn’t look like stangs, but I rather suspect that the function of distaff may have been added to the stang’s already multi-purpose nature (as much as some people may disparage them, they are the original ‘port-a-witch’ kit). Then there are the crooked staffs to take into account – but more on those another time.
Unfortunately this topic is far too big to be covered fully in a blog post, so I’m including some links to sources for any of you that are interested in exploring this topic further. If there are any specific points you would like clarifying, or a specific source citation, please feel free to mail me and ask. In my next post, I’m going to talk more about the nuts and bolts of working spun magic, and some of my experiences in this kind of work.
Suggested Further Reading:
Eldar Heide – Spinning Seidr George Giannakis – The “Fate as Spinner” motif: A Study on the Poetic and Metaphorical Language of Ancient Greece and Indo-European (Parts I and II) (may be obtainable via ILL) Bruce Lincoln – Death, War, Sacrifice Mirjam Mencej – Connecting Threads Leszek Gardela – Into Viking Minds: Reinterpreting the Staffs of Sorcery and Unravelling Seidr (or anything by Leszek Gardela on the Staffs of Sorcery – go find him on academia.edu)
So there was this one time, when I was fleeing down a dark path with two friends. More specifically, we were running from a burial mound where we’d been since before sunset. One of my friends was experienced in the occult and the other, not so much. I was probably somewhere in between at that point. It was dark and it was scary, and the sound of footfalls following us on the path behind us as we moved was nothing short of unnerving.
Or at least it would have been had I not already crossed from ‘terrified’ into ‘pissed off’.
We made our way as carefully and as fast as we could down this old rocky path, trying to get to the car parked at the road, my terrified friend’s arm interlinked with mine as she talked about how she’d never experienced anything like that before and how it had been a wakeup call for her.
It had started off well, we’d arrived before the sun went down and made offerings before heading inside the mound. Carefully lighting tealights in places where they wouldn’t cause any scorchmarks or other damage, we made our offering of ‘silver’ to Weyland as is customary at that site, and got down to work. We tranced and we called, sung invocations and drummed, we enticed, and eventually the spirits paid attention.
There’s that adage that a person should be careful what they wish for, and that’s usually the kind of response this story gets. Usually from the kind of people who’ve never done anything that didn’t involve pushing back the sofa and doing whatever they do. But let’s face it, if we weren’t the kinds of people to wish for *more*, then we probably wouldn’t be doing witchcraft in the first place.
To cut a long story short, things got dangerous in every way imaginable, and I really wasn’t up for being stuck in a burial mound with a half-possessed person sitting blocking the doorway and everything shifting. You see, there comes a point in a mound sitting, at least in my experience, when everything shifts, when you’re not longer in a burial mound per se, but you are definitely ‘on their turf’. I mean, it’s their turf anyway, but it’s kind of like the difference between visiting the embassy of a country and being in that country.
So we ended up fleeing as fast as we could down a rocky path without breaking any bones until we reached the car and it became clear that the troublesome one from the mound had no intention of not following us. One friend was thrown back as he tried to put stang mark in dirt, and my other friend – the scared one – lacked the level of conviction at that point to make any magic work, let alone the kind needed on the hoof against something not-so-friendly. Her faith had simply been shaken too badly by what had happened. There was a time when she would have probably shared that meme about exorcism via banging pans and telling things to fuck off that goes around Facebook, but now she knows better.
You see, when you get out there, when you leave the comfort of your home and go to places that are dark and old and maybe even inhabited by the Unseen, you tend to come across things that are really not impressed by someone banging pans and yelling “Fuck off!”
In the end, it was my anger that put an end to it following us, that beat of adrenaline and high emotion channeled that so often makes for effective witchcraft.
Whenever I tell this story, I tend to get a number of reactions – most of them about ‘safety’ and comments of ‘ineptitude’ by people who have quite frankly never been there or to anywhere like there. You see, modern witchcraft has an issue – well, it has several – but one of the greatest is that so much emphasis has been put on making it ‘safe’ that many are simply not recognizing the usefulness of fear to a witch, or indeed, what a great teacher it is.
There are dangers that can and should be mitigated when going abroad into the dark and in search of the hidden. Practical measures such as letting someone know where you’re going and how long you should be, having some form of self-defense at your disposal, packing for the elements, carrying adequate survival supplies and a phone – these are all good things.
As is carrying things like salt, hagstones, iron (if your stang isn’t already ‘shod’), and offerings of appeasement. Knowing how to use these things and employ other forms of magical protection is a must, as is knowing the etiquette of dealing with the Other in your area – folk tales are how you learn this.
There are things you can and should mitigate, but witchcraft will never be, nor never should be ‘safe’, and nor should we seek to make it so.
Witchcraft is also not glamorous and sanitized, it’s pissing into bottles full of nails and glass and accidentally getting some on your fingers; it’s blood and bone, it’s using things you’ve come across (or that have come across you); it’s making deals with things you’d damn well better keep an eye on and have a backup plan for; it’s often the mother of cuts and scrapes earned during pitch black hikes with entheogens pumping through your system; it’s not mass-produced and packaged for convenience.
It’s not bland.
I don’t know when ‘fear’ became considered a bad thing in witchcraft, or when danger became considered a failing rather than one of the ‘occupational hazards’ of the witch, but I think it has been very much to the detriment of the Craft.
Some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned have been when my back has been to the wall and I’ve swallowed down the fear and worked with the kind of desperation that you never get when dealing with the ‘safe’. At the mound, I learned to change that fear into white-hot rage to work against something dangerous – something which has saved my ass numerous times since. At the mound, my friend learned that things weren’t as safe as she’d previously believed and that magic is much more than simply saying words and performing actions. Those are some very deep lessons, and lessons that none of us would have learned had we not gone out there into the night and in search of the potentially dangerous.
Fear can be a teacher, it’s not something to be avoided but a test to pass. Sometimes passing that test is getting away hale and whole and having a new tool in your skillset for the future. Other times, passing that test leads you to some of the greatest highs of your life.
But you cannot pass if you never sit the test, and you can never sit the test unless you leave the safe and sanitized behind.
About a week ago on my Facebook page, I asked if any of my friends would be interested in reading posts about some of the many (many) spooky things that have happened to me over the years. The answer was a resounding “yes”, and so this post is the first in what will hopefully become a collection of spook-tastic stories.
The problem though with coming up with such an idea, is choosing which stories to tell. It’s easy to think of them when you’re in a conversation or watching something about similar events, but when you’re sitting in front of the cold, unforgiving screen of your computer, it’s quite another matter.
This week, we’ve had (what we believe to be) a plumbing issue stemming from mains work done in our area. At first, we just noticed that the bed shook, and I don’t know what it says about me that I was both simultaneously glad that our bed is heavy as shit, and pissed off that something might be messing with us just as I was turning off my kindle to get some sleep.
Back in my late teens, I did a semester on parapsychology at junior college as part of my psychology A-level. I also used to belong to a paranormal investigation group in my home town, and so while I do see and experience a lot, I also have this instinct to investigate and debunk. So, out came my hands, feeling different surfaces to try and isolate a source for the shaking – the headboard – it felt like it was coming from the headboard and shaking down the bed. When my husband got up to go to the bathroom during the shaking, the shaking intensified and so I got up, turned on the light and began to video it. The bed didn’t touch the wall, and as far as we knew then, there were no pipes behind that wall. I put my hand against the wall, but it felt less intense than the bed. As I videoed the shaking though, and began to film down the crack between our bed and the wall, it stopped.
“Of course you fucking did.”, I said to myself. Because how many of us have had things happen only to stop when you’re getting evidence?
We climbed back into bed and slept until morning with no further issues. As I wasn’t getting the creep factor, I didn’t bother worrying about it. Until the next night when we were shaken awake at 5 am. That day, I pulled up the mattress and looked to see if somehow, some kind of animal or rodents had managed to slot themselves in between the under bed drawers without the dog and two cats noticing.
To cut a long story short though, it was the next night that I saw the drywall moving and my concerns shifted to far more mundane (and less exciting) issues around structural integrity. Regardless of this though, the shaking did remind me of something that happened to me over a decade ago.
I’ve never really been a fan of being in houses or apartments when you’re in the process of moving. They feel too liminal and open to me, like anything can just walk in. When you’re moving, you’re either relinquishing a claim on a place, or about to be making a claim. In truth, this is why I tend to avoid taking down all of the shrines for as long as I can, and they’re among the first things that are set up in the new home.
I’d been living in this two-level apartment for about three months when this happened. It was the final evening and I was yet to pack, but I wasn’t concerned as I was living out of a backpack at the time and packing in those days took an hour at most.
I’d spent the evening watching TV alone as my housemates were either at work or had gone out for the night, and it had all been very uneventful until it came time to go into my bedroom and begin to pack.
In my experience, with the exception of pure poltergeist phenomenon (in which you only have moving items and literally nothing else going on), there’s always a vibe that accompanies a haunting. It may begin with the sensation of being watched, or simply just a sense of something ‘building’ up in the atmosphere around you. If you ‘see’ things as I do, you might perceive a disturbance in the air around you, an amping up that looks not too dissimilar from ‘snow’ on an old TV set. Except all around you. Making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Often, there’s a preturnatural cold, and if you have any pets, you might notice them beginning to behave very oddly; either trying to escape or barking aggressively at ‘nothing’.
This is what I felt as I began the process of turning off the TV, turning out the lights, and going through the motions of washing my face and cleaning my teeth. There was this sense of ‘building up’, and like I was no longer alone. Knowing my housemates wouldn’t be back for hours and that I really had nowhere else to go, I resolved to get my packing done, and then just go to sleep and ignore it. After all, you wouldn’t believe the amount of weird things I’ve ignored and just gone to sleep on. I’d imagine it’s the ghost equivalent of giving someone a handy J and then stopping right before they come.
But as soon as I stepped into my room – a room that had been completely fine before then – all thoughts of ignoring it were gone as I was physically shoved across the room. Righting myself to the sound of my furious heartbeat in my ears, I scanned the room around me, trying to see what had just got me, while trying to control my adrenaline and fear enough to start protecting myself. As I turned though, before I could get a hold on myself, this voice that was more like an air canon sounded in my ear.
I ducked as though I could avoid the force of the word, which was emitted with such pressure it was almost tangible.
And so it went for as long as it took me to pack. Shoves punctuated with words punched into my ear and seeming to come from just over my shoulder. For my part, I simply tried to get a grip of myself as I packed desperately as the *thing*, the interloper that was taking advantage of the transience, mocked and promised me that moving wouldn’t get rid of him.
By the time one of my housemates came home, I was seriously shaken – on every level. Until that point, I had never had anything actually physically hurt me in that way. But my 23 year old self was nothing if not resilient – if a lot less disciplined than now – and I soon shook it off after I moved the next day.