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!

Authority and Hierarchies II

hierarchies - game of boards

Reader, I have a confession to make.

This blog series isn’t just about grimoire spirits and fairies. In fact, as we will see in this post, the concepts of spiritual authority and hierarchy aren’t limited to grimoire spirits and fairies. My choice of grimoire spirits and fairies when introducing this topic was, in a sense, a foreshadowing of the argument that I would make here: that hierarchies and authority among non-human person groups are not simply the product of Judeo-Christian influence. As we will see in this post, these things are relevant and have implications for us too.

I’m going to begin this post by first taking a look at what a reciprocal relationship is, the various types of reciprocal relationship found in Pagan period sources, and the ways in which they also exist within a framework of hierarchy and authority. Then I will take a look at why spiritual authority is important and the various types of spiritual authority.

Curious? Dive on in!

The Role of Reciprocity

The concept of reciprocal relationships have been out of favor for a couple of millennia. (Caveat here: this has not been, nor is the case with all human societies.) So it’s unsurprising that a lot of modern Pagans and Heathens struggle with the concept of reciprocity, and understanding the various kinds of reciprocal relationship. This issue is further exacerbated by the baggage that many carry from prior religious affiliations. It would seem the submission demanded by the Abrahamic faiths makes it difficult for many among us to freely give those acts of worship they associate with their former faiths.

Do ut Des

Reciprocity is the idea that we cannot get what we need from others, unless we are willing to give something back in return. This is do ut des or “I give so that you may give”, and it’s important for us to understand that this cycle of gifting is the foundation of every single relationship that the ancient Pagan or Heathen would have had. Without that relationship built by reciprocity and perhaps further cemented by oaths, there simply wasn’t any reason to care a whole lot about what happened to others. The land spirits you have no relationship with will not help save your crops, and the Patron you do not serve will not give you support.

But here is where hierarchy and authority come in, because like the spirits, humanity has never existed as a society of equals. Yet reciprocity was a fact of life, and something which applied to all relationships; regardless of whether those involved were of equal or unequal status. Reverend Kirk Thomas of ADF identifies three types of reciprocal relationships in his book Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods. What follows here is a but a (necessarily) brief summary of what he covers in far more depth.

Holy Hospitality

The first type of reciprocal relationship was that of guest and host. Hospitality in the ancient world was not a choice but a duty, and it was incumbent upon both host and guest to obey the rules of conduct. The host was expected to feed, house, and entertain any guests; in return, the guest was expected to be on their best behavior (Thomas 16-17). Within the context of hospitality, either guest or host may be of equal or unequal status, with each expected to provide within their means.

A Friendship of Equals

The second type of reciprocal relationship is one that would be familiar to all of us: friendship. This is a type of authority - friendshiprelationship which has historically tended to exist between people of equal status. Traditionally, differing social status was thought to be a barrier to friendships outside one’s social milieu. Of course nowadays (at least in our society), that is not always the case, and there is some blurring of the lines. However, even now, it can be hard to ignore the power differentials at play in friendships between people of unequal status. One example which Thomas gives is that of the friendship with one’s boss. Yes, a friendship can exist there, however, that boss may one day be called upon to fire you.

Patrons and Clients

authority - patron/clientThe final form of reciprocal relationship that Rev. Thomas gives in his book is that of Patrons and Clients. This is a form of relationship in which one party has vastly more resources than the other, and in which the Patron would essentially take care of his clients in exchange for that client’s service and loyalty. Sound familiar? This is the form of reciprocal relationship which, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, most closely matches what we humans have with the majority of non-human persons we interact with.

Admittedly, there were some relationships mentioned in the primary sources between gods and mortals that did look more like friendships (such as that between Athena and Odysseus). However, that does not change the basic fact that the power balance between mortal and god is still unequal (Thomas 160 -161). In my opinion, these cases are perhaps best viewed as examples of patrons having favorites.

Reciprocal Relationships, Hierarchy, and Authority

Hopefully, If there is anything this (very) brief survey of reciprocity has demonstrated, it’s that even when you leave the grimoires( with their undeniable Judeo-Christian influence) out of the equation, it’s impossible to get away from matters of hierarchy and authority. That can be hard for a lot of modern people to swallow, however nothing says that we have to abandon our modern ideas of equality. It just means that lobsters are gonna lobster, and that when authority - zeusdealing with the gods and Other, the old rules probably still apply.

But given my rant in last week’s post about the perils of anthropomorphizing the Other, how do we know that these types of reciprocal relationships also apply here?

In this case, I believe we can find explicit evidence for at least the first and third types of reciprocal relationship among both fairies and gods.

Hospitality seems to be as important to gods as it was to Pagan period Europeans. For the Greeks, it was from the gods – or more specifically, Zeus – that the rule of hospitality originally came (Thomas 18-19). Similarly, stanza 135 of the Hávamál (or “Sayings of the High One”, a text attributed however erroneously to Odin) contains the following advice regarding hospitality:

I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take advice;
you would benefit, if you took it,
good will come to you, if you accept it:
do not scorn a guest
nor drive him away from your gates;
treat the homeless well.

Authority - hospitality violation
Loki taunting Bragi.

Refusal of hospitality could be disastrous too. In the Irish text, Cath Maige Tuired, the lack of hospitality shown by Bres towards a poet, as well as his own ill-treatment of his clients (the Tuatha Dé Danann), was what ultimately led to his own downfall (Thomas 38). The violation of the rules of hospitality among gods or god-adjacent beings also led to Loki’s downfall in the Lokasenna.

Evidence of hospitality among the Good Neighbors – while not absent – is not nearly as forthcoming. I turned to intrepid Fairyologist (just kidding)…ahem…Fairy Doctor, Morgan Daimler for an answer on that one:

“In stories that’s hard to say – we more have stories have them as rivals with other groups and having strict rules about things like theft and honor between themselves.
We do have stories of them expecting hospitality from us and also offering hospitality to us, although the second bit can of course get tricksy.
But there are stories for example of how people were expected to leave the fire banked but glowing and a bit of food and drink out for any of the Good People who might come in during the night (when the household was sleeping) and also of people who stumbled across the Fair Folk having some sort of gathering who were welcomed in and offered a place in the dancing and food, etc., as a guest – usually if the offer was extended by the Lord or King/Queen though”

(Thank you, Morgan!)

The Patron/Client relationship is also well attested in various Pagan period cultures. The Irish, Norse, and Greek cultures all considered there to be rulers or kings among the gods. Lugh (formerly Nuada) ruled over the Tuatha Dé authority - servantsDanann; Odin was described as being the foremost among the Norse (at least per Snorri); and among the Greeks, it was Zeus who was believed to rule the Olympians. Flowing down from the High one, domains/riches and roles are divided accordingly; with the domains perhaps representing the physical support provided by the High God/Patron, and the roles performed by each of the clients/deities the service rendered to the High God. This pattern is also repeated between the other gods and their respective servants (such as with Freyr and Skirnir, and Thor with Þjálfi and Röskva).

In my opinion, the concept of reciprocity, or rather the different types of reciprocal relationships (with their implied status differentials) further support the assertions that I made in my last post regarding hierarchy and authority. Only this time, these assertions are more firmly grounded with an Indo-European Pagan worldview.

Spiritual Authority, Or “Why This ALL Fucking Matters!”

So having made the case (a few times now), that hierarchies are not only important, but basically underpin the entire system through which we build our reciprocal relationships, it’s time to look at why that matters.

Authority - cow
This has nothing to do with any of this. I’m just amused by how many photos there are out there of children photoshopped into pictures of giant cows.

The most obvious reason why it matters boils down to respect, and showing the proper amount of respect to those with whom you have relationship. As I argued above, while many humans have changed with regards to how we consider hierarchy, the old rules still apply when it comes to the Holy Powers. So in order to show the proper respect, you need to understand your place within the hierarchy. We humans are lower, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the various kinds of reciprocal relationships (with their attendant expectations and duties) provide us with avenues through which we may petition to have our needs met.

The less obvious reason (at least for those who really don’t bother with that magic and witchcraft rubbish) is authority; namely, how you can gain enough favor in order to have what is the magical equivalent of your queen or king’s seal upon your person when you ride out into the land. Royal seals are useful, because they confer upon the bearer the authority of the royals themselves. This means that subjects of those royals are compelled to do what you say, and this is the underlying idea when it comes to spiritual authority.

Authority is a layered thing too, because why bother trying to get the seal of the High King or Queen when you only need the subjects of a dukedom or clergy at a temple to do what you need? Sometimes you just need to court the favor of the more specialized bosses. However, if they don’t come through, then like why not go up the “chain of command”?

Without that royal seal, or (to bring this analogy back to the magical) deity patronage, you’re essentially just some snot-nosed human rocking up and demanding shit. And it’s generally a pretty terrible idea. No one knows who you are, and they’re under absolutely no obligation to do anything you ask of them. Equally bad is showing up with the magical equivalent of a royal seal from a ruler not recognized by the group of spirits you wish to work with. Because again, why should they listen to you? So if any of you are liking the look of Verum spirits (for example), but think you could somehow “Paganize” the superior spirit and deity names – please don’t. “Tech” we can borrow, but we cannot just plug in the names we like better and play.

But just how do you gain that royal seal?

The Role of Piety in Authority

The pre-Christian Pagan Europeans were orthopraxic. In other words, they considered how a person worshipped to be more important than what a person believed. This, and the framework of reciprocity, had major implications for how they saw the matter of piety.

Piety was about fulfilling religious duties, about keeping up with one’s prayers and offerings. It was about carefully nourishing those relationships and not letting them fall away. It was about being a good client. Piety was so important, that it could be held up as a form of authority in itself when compelling the dead. Take the following from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), for example:

“I ask you, daimon of the dead, not to listen to them [but to] listen [only] to me, Neilammon, [since I am]/ pious [toward the] gods, [and to cause them to be] ill for their [whole] life.
Excerpted from PGM LI 1-27

Equally, a lack of piety could be used as incitement of the dead against a person.

…[Spell to bind…(?)]: Take a lamella [made of lead]…: “I say to you who died prematurely and who were [called and taken] away by the wicked [Typhon. Commanding you] is/ the great god who has [dominion above and rules over the lower [gods]. Take into custody this wicked [and impious] man, because this [is the one who burned the papyrus boat of Osiris] and who [ate the sacred fish]. Take into custody [him, NN, whom NN bore…]
PGM LVIII 1-14

See what I’m saying? In order to have authority, you need to have patronage. In order to have patronage, you need to have cultivated relationship, and in order to cultivate relationship, you need to be pious.

You may not always need to “flash your royal seal”; most of us seem to get by in day to day life just fine through building relationship. But for the times you do, you’ll be glad of the hours of prayer and offerings.

In next week’s post, I’m going to take the discussion of authority a little bit further, and move into an examination of authority - firewands and how they relate to the matter of authority. For now though, I’ll leave you with the following words taken from the Rig Veda (RV 1.26.8).

Let us pray with a good fire.

May all your fires be good.

Sources
Rev Kirk Thomas – Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods

Morgan Daimler
Greek Magical Papyri

Authority and Hierarchies I

hierarchies - game of boards

Last year, I took the Rune Soup grimoire course.

I’d recommend Rune Soup premium memberships to anyone, because they really are worth the $10 per month. They’re all are well-presented, the content is killer, and the grimoire course was no exception.

One phrase from that course has been going round my head on repeat this week:

hierarchies - lobster
Look at this magnificent bastard! He’s gonna lobster. He’s gonna lobster *hard*.

“Lobsters are just gonna lobster.”

You’re probably wondering what I mean by that. After all, it is a pretty weird (yet self-evident) statement when presented without context. (Because what else are lobsters going to do but lobster as hard as their little crustacean selves can lobster?)

I would hazard a guess that no one has any issues with that concept, and would think anyone strange who expected dog or human behavior from lobsters. Yet when it comes to the world of the Unseen, we seem to lose the ability to understand that, and our expectations become entirely contemporary and human.

In the first part of this mini-series of posts on authority and hierarchies, I’m going to take a look at the way modern human ideas about numinous beings run counter to more traditional ideas. I’ll move more explicitly into discussing the implications for practice in the following posts.

Perceptions of Spirits, Fairies, and Other Non-Human Persons

We humans engage in anthropomorphism often. We do it with our pets, with senators, and even with numinous beings. However, this is a deeply problematic approach, because when you try to ascribe a certain set of characteristics to something, then you miss what they actually are.

Unfortunately, we humans are often not content with simple anthropomorphism; our perceptions of these beings must also match our very human politics too. We see this bias the clearest in the consideration of spirit and otherworldly hierarchies.

Otherworldly/Spirit Hierarchies

hierarchies - fairy queen“Whether or not there are two set courts of Fairy, one thing that is clear is that the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by kings and queens. When we look at the bulk of the folklore it is usually a Fairy Queen who holds power, often with an unnamed King at her side or else ruling alone. In only a few Irish examples do we see solitary Fairy Kings. In the later folklore and ballads the Fairy Queens and Kings are often unnamed, going simply by their titles, but in older mythology and some local folklore we do have examples of named Fairy Queens and Kings, often beings who we know were once Gods.”
                                                                                                                                          Morgan Daimler, ‘Fairies’, p61

“The Kinds of Spirits.
In regard to spirits, there are the superior and the inferior. Names of the superiors are: Lucifer, Beelzebuth, Astaroth. The inferiors of Lucifer are in Europe and Asia, and obey him. Beelzebuth lives in Africa, and Astaroth inhabits America.

Of these, each of them has two who order their subjects all that which the Emperor has
resolved to do in all the world, and vice-versa.”

Grimoirium Verum, from here.

Hierarchies are a feature among both the spirits of the grimoires and traditional fairy lore. As we see from the examples above, the Fairies have their courts and royalty, and superior spirits reign above the legions of inferior spirits of the Grimoirium Verum (and others).

However, an adherence to hierarchical social structure is not the only common trait shared by both Fairies and grimoire spirits. There is also the matter of power, and where that being lies on the scale of power in relation to its position within the hierarchy; these are dominance hierarchies after all. For example, in the above quote Morgan ties the older Fairy royalty with previous godhood. This is also a factor with the superior grimoire spirits cited above. Beelzebuth, as Jake Stratton-Kent reveals, is none other than one of the Ba’als of the ancient near East, and Asteroth none other than the goddess Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna (depending on time period and culture) (Stratton Kent “The True Grimoire” Pp. 136, 185-189 ).

So we kind of have to assume that the reason why those who sit at the top of their respective hierarchies do so hierarchies - chessbecause they are the most powerful. Power is a universal passport to authority other others, and it doesn’t matter if a spirit or fairy belongs to a particular court or hierarchy, inherent power is always recognized. Especially by those who appreciate the ability to size up and not antagonize those who are stronger as an excellent means of ensuring continued existence.

It can be hard for a modern person to get their head around the concept of these kinds of hierarchies, and I believe this to be especially the case with modern Pagans (who tend to lean more towards the liberal end of the political spectrum). A lot of us tend towards ideas of equality, and some of us may even find the very concept of hierarchy distasteful. However, we cannot just simply decide that we somehow know better despite the literally thousands of years of precedent in multiple cultures. Because like the lobsters (who also interestingly form dominance hierarchies), those spirits are going to do what they’re gonna do despite our silly human feelings.

Centering the Silly Human Feelings

While we’re talking about those silly human feelings, we may as well address another key issue here: anthropocentrism. As a culture, we have a horrible tendency to center human feelings and human experience in all interactions with the Other, and it’s laughable. We act as though everything non-human out there is there for us in some way, when that is simply not the case. This is a large part of what it means to have agency. A being with agency doesn’t exist for others, they are not the means to another’s ends, but ends unto themselves.
Moreover, I can all but guarantee that they don’t see us as the special snowflakes some of us seem to think we are, and if any of them seem to, it’s generally best to assume they probably believe you to be delicious in the culinary sense. (Oh yes, some of them are known to eat people.)

Like I said earlier, “Lobsters are just gonna lobster”.

Birds of a Feather

hierarchies - alien breakdancer
Breakdancing alien, clearly.

Lastly, you know how humans tend to all stick together in alien encounter movies? It seems like a natural response to something so different from ourselves, right? And that’s not even taking into account the many ways in which we privilege our own species over others on this earth. Again and again, we put the needs of humans over those of the flora and fauna of this place, and we generally see nothing wrong with it.

Now think about that, and ask yourself why any spirits or race of otherworldly beings should feel any differently? Perhaps it is also anthropomorphism to ascribe this human trait also to fairies? However, that is not what we see in the centuries of fairy lore involving interactions between Fairies and mortals. If anything, the implication that there is a loyalty between Fairies that is not extended to humans (Daimler “Fairies” Pp 34-38).

Avoiding the Perils of Perception

Hopefully if there’s anything this post has made clear, it’s the importance of questioning our perceptions of the Other. Because not doing so, can lead to some very dangerous (if not deadly) situations depending on who you’re dealing with.

However, there is also a greater lesson here that can be applied to our human-to-human interactions in everyday life. You see, much of the way in which many of us consider the Otherworldly, is a reflection of how we consider other humans who are different from us (albeit on a different level). And I don’t believe it to be any coincidence that we mostly belong to cultures that were and/or are still colonialist powers. The cultural backgrounds within which most of us originate, are steeped in taking from and commodifying the “other” among our fellow humans. This is an important point to recognize and think upon, especially if you find it hard to get away from this mindset. Because if you still carry that baggage, you are not fully considering the “Other” (be it humans who are “other” to your cultural or racial group, or otherworldly beings/spirits) as persons with agency and worthy of genuine respect.

And of course, it has to be said that there is something very fitting about a discussion on the agency of the Fair Folk – who are known for their glamours – pulling the sins of humans towards each other into sharp focus. Sometimes the greatest horror is in the revealing.

In the next post, I’m going to look at the importance of authority when dealing with spirits and the otherworldly. This is quite a large topic, and so it will be sub-divided to save you from slogging through a 3000 – 5000 word post (including an excerpt from my upcoming book). Then finally, I’m going to look at how matters of authority and hierarchy play into the process of acquiring a familiar. So watch this space, and in the meantime repeat after me:

“I am not king shit.”
“Favors may be gained through relationship or reciprocity.”
“Others have agency too.”

Further Reading

For more in-depth coverage of fairy hierarchies and royalty, check out Morgan Daimler’s book ‘Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fairy Folk’.
For more information about the True Grimoire (which contains detailed discussion of hierarchy), check out Jake Stratton-Kent’s ‘The True Grimoire’. If grimoires and goetia in particular are your thang, be sure to check out the rest of the works in his Encyclopedia Goetica (available from the same link).

A Year With Our Gods: Brighid

year with our gods - banner

Gadzooks! It’s a Review!

I really didn’t know what to expect from an online Polytheist conference, and especially not from one which describes itself as a “balanced mix of hands-on, devotional, and experimental practice with academic and lore-based studies”. So it was with a good degree of curiosity that I entered the Zoom room.

The conference, which was entitled ‘A Year With Our Gods: Brighid’, was the first of a series of conferences being hosted by Land, Sea, Sky Travel, a Pagan pilgrimage company that focuses on ethical pilgrimages to sites of spiritual and historical importance around the world.

The Kick-Off

The conference kicked off with a short devotional to Brighid, which included an absolutely gorgeous song sung by

a year with our gods - brigantia
Brigantia

Andrea Maxwell who led the devotional. Andrea’s voice was sublime, and it was a truly beautiful experience to hear her sing. From there, we had a short group chat focused on setting the intention for the day. Participants discussed expectations and what they hoped to gain from the conference. For my own part, I was there to try and understand a little more about whatever strange connection I seem to have to Brighid – or rather Brigantia, the tutelary goddess of the land where I grew up. I say “strange”, because by that point, the goddess I’d felt hints of on the hills of my home seemed to bear little resemblance to the goddess as most modern Pagans see her. But more on that later.

A Journey to Éire

The first presenter was Lora O’Brien, an Irish woman and Draoí who has spent years working as a guide to a lot of Ireland’s sacred sites. Lora’s presentation was very informative. She gave an overview of who Brighid is, and described her own history of encountering the A year with our gods - boatgoddess in the land. Always an advocate of authentic Irish culture, Lora also described the continuing importance of Brighid in Ireland, and the traditions that persist to this day.

The highlight of Lora’s presentation for me though, was the trance journey to meet Brighid. As someone who works predominantly in a completely different tradition, her method was different from what I’m used to, but extremely effective. I was honestly surprised by just how deep I got into trance during that session and the quality of experience that I had.

To cut a long story short, trance-Brighid touched my arm and I felt a physical burn there that persisted for the rest of the day. The day after that, the area was still quite tender too, and since then, it’s like (pardon the pun), someone lit a year with our gods - flamefire up my ass. I’ve been hardcore getting things done! For anyone who is interested in Lora’s work and a chance to experience trance as she does it, she does actually offer journeying courses, the first part of which is free. I’d also recommend signing up for her newsletter because she always includes a lot of really good resources on Irish culture both historical and modern.

A Path of Service

The next presenter was Gemma McGowan, who talked about what it means to serve as a priestess of Brighid. Gemma has been a recognized priestess of Brighid in her community for years, and her dedication to her calling is frankly inspiring. There is nothing that I didn’t love about this talk. Gemma was funny, open, earnest, and remarkably humble. From her priestess origins story, to the more experiential exercises she led us through, her personality just shone through. I wish she had a blog  I could follow!

Moo Money, Moo Problems and Mooogan’s Presentation

The keynote speaker was Morgan Daimler, and although I talk about Morgan a lot, I’d never seen her in any form before the conference. Getting to see Morgan on camera was brilliant, and I’m not just saying this because it will

A year with a our gods - mooo
So okay, it’s not an Irish cow. But when do you get to see a child holding an umbrella over a cow?

probably embarrass the hell out of her, but she. Is. adorable! The best kind of nerd with a penchant for translating Old Irish! Now Morgan is a veritable walking encyclopedia – her presentation was just jam-packed with information about all things Brighid, AND she still had plenty of stuff she didn’t have time to get to even *with* the two hour time allotment! Morgan has a real talent for presenting information, and as a more Heathen type, I really appreciated the background details that she gave to the information she was presenting that helped me to better understand the cultural context. For example, her explanation of the cultural background on the importance of cows in ancient Ireland gave me a far better appreciation of who Brig Ambue (or Brighid of the cowless) is. I have mad love for Brig Ambue, so that was great! If you ever get chance to hear or see Morgan speak, do it. At the least pick up her book on Brighid, you know, if this interests you.

On a personal note, hearing about the fire temple that was apparently kept in honor of Brigantia was very satisfying. If anything, the Brighid I have been experiencing for years (but not really getting it) is closer to Brig Ambue – only with a fire temple and a spring coming out of a massive oak tree. Hooray, insight!

Personal Practice and Necessary Discussions

Next up was a panel discussion, and presenters discussed things like what they like to offer to Brighid, books, and the importance of doing the work. However, the highlight of this discussion for me was the part when the presenters explored the matter of worshipping deities from Europe in the New World, followed by the perspectives of the Irish presenters. I think that was a really important discussion to have. Some of the US and Canadian presenters cited Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as a parallel to how they see the existence of Irish (or other European gods) in the US. People bring gods and spirits with them as they move, however, as someone who has been a long-term fan of American Gods, I couldn’t help but think about the different versions of the various gods that you find in the book and if that also plays into this parallel. For example, at the end of the book, the Odin experienced in Iceland is most definitely not the same Odin that was experienced in America. Further exploration of that would have made for an interesting follow-on discussion.

The responses of the Irish presenters – especially that of Lora – were extremely valuable here too. Lora underlined the necessity of engaging with Irish culture in an authentic way. In other words, to just take the gods and the “cool shit” is the bad kind of appropriation. Ireland was oppressed by my people for centuries. Between Cromwell and Trevelyan, and goodness knows how many other arseholes that rocked up on Ireland’s shores, Ireland has a history of blood and pain that cannot be ignored. Now that’s an uncomfortable conversation for people like myself, and it’s only further complicated by my familial ties to Ireland. But it’s necessary, and there’s no time for that kind of fragility if we are to do better.

The Flame Rekindled

Unfortunately, I had to catch the next two presentations in the after conference notes, as life got in the way again and I had to go back to being mom.year with our gods - candle

After the panel discussion, the next presentation was by Mael Bridge of the Daughters of the Flame. While this was far less my cup of tea than the other presentations, I definitely appreciated the historical background (both ancient and modern) on flamekeeping, and hearing about the role that flamekeeping plays in the lives of those who practice it. I find it absolutely incredible that the Daughters of the Flame and nuns of Kildare both elected to rekindle Brighid’s flame during Imbolc 1993, all without knowledge of each other. It would seem that an Dagda’s daughter had a hand in it.

Healing Fires, Healing Waters

The final presentation was by Julia Waters and focused on the healer aspect of Brighid. Given my background as the daughter of a Spiritualist healer, Julia’s presentation was like coming across common ground once more. She related year with our gods - cauldronher experiences with receiving healing as a cancer patient, and about how she was even able to perceive who was sending her healing by tracing back the golden strands of healing energy she saw entering her body. She then talked about how to go about healing and some of her traditions surrounding her healing practices – a lot of it was stuff that I could see my family engaging in, but it also stuff they never really explained to me in a coherent way. I really appreciated Julia making the point that people shouldn’t promise to pray or heal others if they’re not actually going to do it. I think we all see a lot of promises to pray for people or light candles for them online, but I often wonder how many people actually do it. Julia also touched on healing cauldrons, but sadly didn’t get to spend as much time on that as I hoped.

Final Words

This was a very well run and satisfying conference that I came away from with actual tangible changes to both my practice and my life. Which sounds weird (and horribly clichéd) that I went to this conference and had what was a deep experience. But the fire that was lit under my ass has persisted for almost a whole month now with no signs of

year with our gods - candlehome
The candle on my stove.

abating. Projects that had stalled and courses that were stuck in the doldrums are now underway again, and I’ve been knocking out work like a crazy person. Moreover, Brighid worship in my home has continued beyond the weird yearly Brighid-instinct that normally strikes around mid-January and settles down right after Imbolc. A candle now sits on my stove that I light in her honor, and I’ve started practicing my healing skills again. I haven’t done that for years, despite working on it with my dad as a kid.

So yeah, would I recommend these Land, Sea, Sky conferences? Absolutely, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I will be facilitating a Land, Sea, Sky tour in Iceland later this year. But despite that, I wouldn’t have written as much as I did if I wasn’t really excited by it. As anyone who writes for a living will tell you, it’s *hard* to fake enthusiasm for something – especially over 1700 words of enthusiasm. I mean, that’s as much as a daily Nanowrimo goal!

If you’re interested in checking out any of the LSS A Year With Our Gods conferences, you can find out more information here. The next one is Blodeuwedd, hopefully I’ll see some of you there!

Return of the Helrune

So it’s been a while, huh?

Probably a few months now, although truth be told, I haven’t been counting. There’s just been too damn much going on over here in Seo Helrune land.

First there was the website hosting disaster. Or that time when my hosting service upped my yearly fees by $40. You see, they’d decided to do away with the plan I’d signed up under, and as they were not contractually obliged to let me know, that made for a nice surprise. So I cancelled my service.

Then began the drama of trying to transfer my site…and then the URL….and well, anyway, I’m glad that’s mostly done now. I’ve moved to a much better hosting company and am more than satisfied with the service (check them out here if you’re curious, seriously). I’m still working on re-adding pictures to my older posts, but the site is more or less good to go again. Hence why I’m writing this post.

So that happened.

I also spent about a month and a half writing a new book (seemingly plumbing the depths of insanity while I did so). Helrune - HolleI’m currently working through the first round of editing this insomnia-fueled, oath-bound mess before handing it over to my beta readers, but it’s coming in at around 78k words so far.  So it was no small undertaking. In case any of you are curious, it is a book about Pagan/Heathen/Witchy things. But more specifically, it’s a book of Helrunan and Seidr. My working title is “The Path of Ivy”, and it focuses on more chthonic practice. I’m also reproducing the liturgy for the Cult of the Spinning Goddess in there so that any who wish to found their own local Cults and hold their own rites in her honor have a foundation to do so. Either follow what we do, or take it and run with it. This isn’t in my hands. I’ll also be fleshing out the section about the cult here on this site in the coming weeks.

And speaking of herself? Did I mention the book was the result of an oath to her? I’ll be looking to pitch it to publishers when I’ve heard back from my beta readers. She wouldn’t want anything less. She wants to be known. That is a message I’ve been getting for years in dream and vision, and it feels as though we’re moving into the next phase of that now. The last Cult rite was our best yet, and we’re currently in the early stages of planning an open rite for April/May timeframe. Curious about her? I also put out a paper during the time I was away from my blog detailing the research I’ve done on her. You can find that bad boy here.

These past few months have also seen some pretty seismic shifts in my practice. A lot of things that had been up in the air for years seem to have fallen into place, and things I’ve done instinctively (again for years), now make a whole lot of sense. It’s been hard but ultimately positive, and I’m looking forward to writing about those things. I’m also planning some reviews in upcoming blog posts, because I’ve also done quite a lot of reading of late and I HAVE OPINIONS!!! Some of it is tacky urban fantasy stuff and paranormal romance, but I’ll spare you all that mess.

So there you go, it’s been all change in the house of Helrune.

Oh, one last thing before I go – if you’re interested in Celtic deities, there is an absolutely fantastic series of online conferences being put on this year by Land Sea Sky travel. I had the good fortune to attend the Imbolc one about Brighid and it was amazing. No joke. It was an absolutely perfect combination of scholarship, praxis, and inner work – which sounds odd for an online thing, but they totally pulled it off. The next one (around the Spring Equinox IIRC) is about Blodeuwedd, so get on that as soon as you can if you’re interested in ole Flower Face! I wouldn’t be surprised if these conferences become so popular they actually sell out. The Brighid conference was quality.

Why Circles are Awesome (and Other Sundry Musings)

magic circles - clavis inferni

I think it was some time in the 2000s when I first noticed this kind of ‘anti-circle sentiment’ in the Pagan community. I was at an event, and someone who was clearly much smarter than I am had devolved into mocking me for still casting circles. It was a classic case of someone trying to score social capital at the expense of another, and as I was still new to interacting with other Pagans on a regular basis, I was far more timid in response than what I would be now.

Casting a circle had been declared both “Wiccan” and “fluffy”, and if John Beckett’s anecdote from his recent blog is anything to go by, circle-casting still suffers somewhat from this reputation. All the cool kids seem to find other ways to create sacred space within which to work. Moreover, even when a circle is cast, some will still refer to it by any other name.

But there’s a huge problem with this kind of mentality – well actually, there are two:

1. You’re basing your practice around trying to avoid being something as opposed to trying to figure out where that practice needs to go, and just going there.

2. You’re more focused on ideological purity and the opinion of others rather than what you’re actually doing.

Both of these issues can lead to some severe casting out of the proverbial baby with the bathwater, and that is what I believe has happened to the circle to some extent. Or at least, we don’t appreciate circles as much as we maybe should.

The History of the Circle

The magic circle is mostly associated with Wicca in modern Paganism, however, the use of magic circles predates Wicca by millennia. Scholar and practicing occultist, Professor Stephen Skinner, traces the earliest mention of protective floor circles to Classical Indian magic. The Ramayama (dating from 4th to 5th century BCE) describes the drawing of a circle on the ground to protect a person from a demon. When that person is persuaded to cross the circle, they are then taken by that demon (Skinner 79).

The circle could also be found among the Assyrians. Referred to as an u?urtu (“ring”), the Assyrian circle seems to have either been made with the intention of containment or protection. This is important to note, because although modern practitioners may give many different reasons for casting circles, and explanations of their function/s, in the ancient world the primary functions were that of containment and protection (Skinner 79).

Sometimes lime was used for marking out the Assyrian circle, and sometimes a mixture of water and flour (substances sacred to relevant Assyrian deities); both types of circle may be found in the sources. Once created though, it was then important that the circle was then consecrated with a charm such as this:

”Ban! Ban! [O] Barrier that none can pass,

Barrier of the gods, that none may break,

Barrier of heaven and earth that none can change,
Which no god may annul,

Nor god nor man can loose,

A snare without escape, set for evil,
A net whence none can issue forth,
spread for [against] evil.

Whether it be evil spirit, or evil demon, or evil ghost,
Or evil devil, or evil god, or evil fiend,
Or hag-demon, or ghoul, or robber-sprite,
Or phantom, or night-wraith, or handmaid of the phantom
Or evil plague, or fever sickness, or unclean disease
which have attacked the shining waters of Ea (the water from the water/flour mix),
May the snare of Ea catch it;

Or which hath assailed the meal of Nisaba (the flour from the water/flour mix),

May the net of Nisaba entrap it…” (Skinner 80)

I also include a Mesopotamian consecration charm here for its eminent usefulness and interest:

”We, therefore, in the names aforesaid, consecrate this piece of ground for our defence, so that no spirit whatsoever shall be able to break the boundaries, neither be able to cause injury nor detriment to any of us here assembled, but that they may be compelled to stand before this circle and answer truly our demands.” (Skinner 80)

Both consecration charms make it clear that at its core, the circle is a form of boundary or barrier through which nothing may pass if created correctly. By its very nature, it both contains and protects, this is the core function of a magic circle in the earliest sources – everything else is just gravy.

(Btw, if you do not already own Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, I cannot recommend it enough.)

Circles, often in the form of an ouroboros, also feature in Egyptian depictions of magic – again as

this kind of impermeable barrier (Skinner 82-83). Skinner posits that although the ouroboros circle is only specifically mentioned twice in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the creation of a circle was probably taken for circles - ouroborosgranted and covered by phrases such as “do the usual”. It is no coincidence that the ouroboros features in later grimoires such as the 18th century Clavis Inferni. Indeed, it’s likely that the use of a protective circle in the form of an ouroboros and directions marked out (and associated with elemental entities) were inherited magical tech from those old-school Graeco-Egyptian magicians (Skinner 87).

 

The Core Purpose and its Gravy

However, even the most cursory study of the ‘how’ of casting magic circles shows that there is no one way to cast a circle. Instead, there is variation and adaptation depending on any number of factors, including (but not limited to) the tradition of the practitioner, and the spirits being worked with. For example, in the Book of Oberon, different circles are given for different spirits. Unlike most modern circles, these circles were – like the Assyrian and Indian circles – meant to be drawn out on the ground usually using substances considered to have apotropaic properties either by virtue of the substance itself or by association with a deity/deities.

It would seem that a simple impermeable barrier is not enough though, and much may be included in either the design (when drawn physically) or circumambulation portion of circle casting (also important in the ancient sources).

However, variation is typically reflective of differing ideas about how the cosmos looks and/or the worldviews of the practitioners involved. Here we must not only consider the idea of the circle as barrier, but also the circle as and Eliade-esque “sacred center” and map of macrocosmic creation recreated in the microcosm.

To give you an example of this, take a look at this goetic circle.

 

circles - goetic

You have three circles, a triangle, some candles, and a censer. That doesn’t look like there’s much else going on there, right?

Well now take a look at this circle for the Luridan conjuration.

circles luridan

Just to give you some backstory here – Luridan was one of the spirits associated with the Icelandic volcano, Hekla (Stratton-Kent, Pp 68-71). But here we see a volcano placed in the usual spot for the censer. Now, your average magician isn’t going to manage to get a volcano in his or her circle (not unless you’re working on a scale that’s just completely unfeasible), so it’s logical to assume that within this circle the volcano is represented by the censer. In my opinion, this is a clear recreation of the part of the cosmos inhabited by the spirits the magician wishes to summon (and is a whole lot easier than going to Hekla for the same).

I mean, there’s also some local adaptation to old school chthonic Greek religion and Hephaestus stuff in there, but nifty, huh?

This is why circles are as long lived as they are. Because not only do they work, but they are customizable, meaning you can optimize to get better results if you understand enough of the underlying mechanics.

Pimping Your Circles

So, this is me proposing a more flexible view of creating sacred space. A view in which customization and optimization in order to get better results is a thing. For those of you who only work with the same spirits and within the same system, this is perhaps less useful to you. But for those of you who are like myself, total fucking magpies who straddle multiple systems like a fat cat spilling out into multiple boxes, read on.

If you are looking at ways to pimp your circles, or indeed create new ways of casting circles, then it’s a good idea to consider the following:

 

1. The Purpose of the Rite

The circle for a celebratory rite is not going to be the same as the circle for a rite summoning something potentially dangerous. For example, you’re going to be want to really focus on building that kickass barrier for the summoning, but the circle for a celebratory rite might see the circle mostly envisioned as a representation of the cycle of the year (just to give an example).

 

2. The Gods/Spirits Summoned

When summoning gods or spirits, you may like the Luridan conjuration, want to recreate the part of the cosmos associated with that god or spirit within the cosmology of the circle. Moreover, depending on *which* gods or spirits you summon, you may also have to incorporate things like spirit hierarchies and thwarting angels into the design of your circle. To return to the image from the Clavis Inferni above for a quick example of this, the symbols of the four directional demon kings sit outside the circle, and the thwarting angels for those kings sit within.

 

3. The Cosmos they Inhabit

circles - templeThis idea of going to “play” with a different cosmos can be hard to get your head round. After all, everyone thinks their worldview and idea of how things are in the cosmos is right, right? Relativism can be hard, especially when it comes to deeply held beliefs that are often also tied up in personal experience.

Try imagining it like this – a huge endless space filled with countless temples. In and around each temple, the view of the cosmos inherent to the religion and gods/spirits of the temple not only holds sway but is reality. So if you’re going to go and interact with those gods/spirits, you need to “go to their temples”.

Naturally though, there are a lot of common threads between the “temples” and a *whole* lot of shared history. Lots of people (not to mention those dratted grimoires) did a lot of traveling, spreading ideas and magical tech like magical clap to everyone they came across. So some of those temples aren’t exactly autochthonous in what they display.

But that doesn’t mean that we can start engaging in fuckery like going to a Pagan “temple” where we feel more comfortable and essentially placing a collect call to a more Judeo-Christian “temple” where we might think some of the spirits are cool but not the head honcho. That’s kind of rude. Sort of like calling up someone you don’t know at an unsociable hour, and not only asking them to help you out but to do it entirely on your terms.

Some might even argue that they all really share the same basement too anyway, you know…if you go to the *right*circles - otential sub-level. Even worse, there are some rumors that some of those grimoires even made it down to the basement a few centuries before the current crop of magic users started their sneaking expeditions down there. So you know, that’s a whole lot to take into consideration.

But it’s also a lot of possibilities and scope for improvement. Because magic isn’t something that is static and relegated to what is passed down in books – they can only help us put our feet on the path. No, magic is a living thing that evolves in concert with our interactions with the Other (once we have gained our proper introductions, of course). That, to my mind, is the greatest thing of all about magic, and of course, it all starts with the circle.

Sources
Dr Stephen Skinner – Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic
Jake Stratton-Kent –  Geosophia: The Argo of Magic (Vol II)

Reenchantment and the Psychic Censor

psychic censor - see no hear no

Resistance to Reenchantment

As far as invocations go, this had been a disaster.

I’m not going to go into all of the ways I’d fucked up, but I had. The pinnacle of that fuck up

however, was the fire alarm going off. Instead of giving up though, I’d chosen to see the first attempt as some kind ofpsychic censor - scrying botched practice run, attended to the fire alarm, and started again. There’s a lot to be said for perseverance and not giving up too quickly.

So I’m standing there in my living room, with my less than stellar table of art set up (I’m really no artist), surrounded by various sigils, and rattling through invocations. You know, as you do. Time passes, and I begin to feel a little hopeless – I’m used to getting things in the air much sooner than this – but I carry on.

Then I start to doubt myself and this can be disastrous for a magic user. Maybe I’d messed up too badly? Maybe I’d gotten something wrong? Maybe I’d even offended the spirit I’d been attempting to conjure? There had been a sense of build-up before the fire alarm, so maybe the alarm had put the spirit off somehow?

Refocusing again, I set myself once more to purpose and continued to rattle through the invocations, allowing myself to fall into their rhythm. To pull me up and build with them. In short, I allowed them to put me into a kind of altered state – an ecstatic one in which my body thrummed, my voice soared, and spittle formed on my lips. My vague swaying became a purposeful rocking as I moved with the words.

And somewhere in that, that’s when things began to happen.

There was a sensation of something with weight descending into the scrying bowl before me, then a sense of expectation.

I greeted the spirit in the water and waited for a response.

Nothing.

I had been so certain it had been there, but I was beginning to have serious doubts. Forcing myself to refocus on the water, I let my eyes relax and got into my usual headspace for scrying.

Still nothing.

The doubts began to coalesce and take on a life of their own. Melding together, I found they formed an almost tangible barrier – something against which I could push and that would in turn push me back.

I tried a different tactic and fell back on the physical cues I’d programmed into myself over time with self-hypnosis. I’d done that work for times such as these when the doubts and disbelief weigh heavy but I need to work anyway.

“STOP THAT!”

The voice rang through my head, loud and booming, and the doubts – though still persisting – began to fall away.

Then the surface of the water began to change, appearing to ‘burn over’ with what I can only describe as “purple fire”. With the exception of my level of focus, this was more typical of my scrying sessions. They all seem to start with that burning over of “purple fire”.

Suddenly though, this time, a face rose from the fire, and startled me a little as it turned from side to side (presumably to show me its profile).

Normally when I scry, I don’t get anything like that. Usually I have to hold the bowl in some way and receive images, each one seeming to bubble up from a depth deeper than the shallow bowl I use. Each image is preceded by an icy coldness, the bowl paradoxically switching between colder and warmer despite being held in my hands for the entire time.

This was a far cry from the usual flat images sent though, and somehow clearer despite my working in broad daylight. Moreover, I wasn’t even touching the bowl, when normally I get nothing if I do not.

Regardless, my brain still went into debunk mode.

The mouth began to move, “Why do you do this when you know what is real?”

And thus followed a 30 minute berating session with a spirit in a bowl.

 

The Question

We talk about reenchanting the world in modern Paganism/Witchcraft a lot, but there is relatively little discussion of the barriers to that re-enchantment. Or indeed, whether that re-enchantment is a case of needing to bring something back, or simply see what has been with us all along.

It’s one thing to advocate for something, but it’s quite another to get down into the weeds, examine strategy, and come up with a plan. The spirit’s question to me was insightful.

psychic censor - fairytales “Why do you do this when you know what is real?”

I’ve seen and experienced so many things that are considered ‘impossible’. I’ve seen, heard, felt, and been physically moved/scratched/touched by unseen forces. You’d think someone like myself would no longer have any doubts or constant urge to debunk what I experience. You’d think my world already completely re-enchanted.

Yet if there’s one thing I’ve found in around two decades of this kind of thing, it’s that in the cold light of morning, the walls always come back up again. It doesn’t matter how many scratches you’re wearing from whatever you were dealing with, or how many other people witnessed what you did, the walls always come back.

So why does this happen? Why do those walls come up in the harsh morning light and the brain work to convince us that what was lived is not real? After all, that’s pretty rich coming from a brain that functions in a remarkably similar way dreaming as it does while awake.

 

Introducing the Psychic Censor

The best explanation for this, in my opinion, is the Chaos Magic concept of the “psychic censor”. In Psychonaut, Peter J. Carroll introduces the concept and provides the following description:

”When people are presented with real magical events they somehow manage not to notice. If they are forced to notice something uncontrovertibly magical they may become terrified, nauseated, and ill. The psychic censor shields us from intrusions from other realities. It edits out most telepathic communication, blinds us to prescience, and reduces our ability to register significant coincidences, or recall dreams. The psychic censor is not just put there out of divine malice; ordinary physical life would be impossible without it……The psychic censor on the other hand, is a material thing, which protects the mind from magic and from being overwhelmed by the awesome strangeness of the psychic dimension which appears to us as chaos.”
 Liber Null and Psychonaut 162

Now, how many of us have felt that? How many of us have found ourselves pressed up against that barrier and wondering how to bring it down because we know there’s something there seemingly just beyond reach? How many of us have felt it resurrecting itself after an experience?

It can be hard to see the psychic censor as the necessary and protective thing it is. But imagine a world in which it did not exist! Carroll talks about this on the individual level, but imagine it on a wider societal scale. Imagine if everyone had nothing but certainty – it would be a disaster. You would have an entire world full of people either going insane or trying to change reality to fit with their ideas of how it should be.

Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we humans could agree on how things are supposed to be, but you know, we can’t.

So we struggle with the censor, and anyone who doesn’t is likely either lying or just plain crazy.

 

The Censor and Reenchantment

This concept of the psychic censor though, raises a lot of questions about the very idea of re-enchanting the world. After all, at what point has that re-enchantment gone too far (and to what lengths would the censor go to maintain psychic censor - forestcontrol)? And yet, it might be argued that we live in a time in which the psychic censor not only exists but is further supported by human-made material distractions and barriers.

These factors make the matter of reenchantment a far more complex issue than simply reconnecting with the natural world (both seen and unseen). Historically, we humans found enough danger in the natural world to limit our interaction with it. We built our hedges and gathered together for mutual protection, and that is something that is always worth keeping in mind in all the talk of rewilding and reenchantment.

By virtue of seeking to ‘cross the hedge’, the magic user, regardless of ‘flavor’, is the odd duck here. It is also no coincidence that the strongest experiences tend to happen away from the civilized world of man. ‘Consensus reality’ must be maintained, and there’s plenty about human habitation that is distasteful to the Other.

 

Mapping the Route Past the Censor

According to Carroll, the psychic censor is more active on some levels than on others. He subdivides human consciousness into five parts: unconsciousness, dreaming, awareness, robotic, and gnosis (Carroll 121).

The awareness level – the level of conscious thought and emotion – is given the greatest level of protection by the censor (Carroll 162). Dreams can be magically useful but the censor steals away memory upon waking. On the robotic level, insights and perceptions may be received when performing menial tasks that require little thought, but this time the censor works to steal our perception or memory of them.

What Carroll refers to as the ‘gnosis’ level though, a state described as being quiescent concentration or ecstatic excitement is the least protected by the censor. This gnosis level is not what we do when we engage in most trance work though – Carroll places these as typically lying somewhere between robotic and dreaming states. Gnosis is that which comes when the mind is focused entirely on one thing – that kind of altered state you may have experienced when experiencing so much terror or anger that the entirety of your awareness has narrowed down to a single point.

 

Sneaking By

So to sneak by, we must work to thwart the censor in a number of ways. We must train ourselves to remember our dreams, making them the first thing we think of and record when we wake up in those spare moments before the material world crashes in and those memories are stolen. Some may even try setting alarms in the middle of the night, or attempt to practice first and second sleep with the aim of moving towards more natural sleep patterns for humans in order to facilitate the incubation of dream.

psychic censor - foxRemoving phones from one’s bedside is a good move here too – the psychic censor is a material thing, and those first interactions with that symbol of modern materiality is one of the best methods of banishing memories of dream.

On a personal note, I’ve found that the regular practice of the Stele of Jeu/Headless rite from the Greek Magical Papyri is one of the best methods of having richer dreams that are far more easily remembered. It’s probably not a coincidence that the rite is a form of exorcism and makes me wonder if the censor can be temporarily exorcised (or otherwise temporarily manipulated magically). The Headless Rite does involve some Judeo-Christian names, but seeing as it’s apparently “Shadow Work October”, this is the perfect time to finally confront that Judeo-Christian baggage, right?

We can also work to attain a state of gnosis by either inhibitory or ecstatic methods, and this is where the hard work will come in. Don’t be fooled, if you truly wish to reenchant the world, it’s not enough to just go spend more time in nature. Yes, it will increase your chances of coming across something simply by virtue of being in the right environment, but without working on all this other stuff you’re likely going to miss out.

There are numerous ways to attain gnosis, some more socially acceptable and legal than others. Ecstatic means include drumming and dancing, ordeal work, sexual methods, the use of excitatory drugs, forced over-breathing, and other forms of sensory overload. Inhibitory methods include concentration exercises such as image/sound/object concentration, some types of magical trances, drugs of a more hypnotic nature, and sensory deprivation. This is not encouragement, this information is provided in the interest of completeness. It is up to you to investigate the risks and legalities where you live, and make your decisions accordingly.

But the point is that none of this is easy. Reenchanting our worlds in so far as we feel comfortable is going to take far more work and experimentation than simply walking in the woods and leaving offerings (though none of that is useless either).There are also likely some very real dangers to reenchantment too – not the least insanity. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of the (currently?) Unseen that is just not that nice

As with everything pertaining to magic though, the real question is simple: how badly do you want it and what are you prepared to sacrifice?