If someone were to come to you today and ask why it is that you do this crazy magic thing, what would you say? How would you answer this deceptively difficult question?
Just think about that for a second, because aside from the undeniable pull that many of us feel drawing us to this stuff like the proverbial moth to a flame, there’s probably also another goal there too. Maybe it’s a drive to do what is known as ‘The Great Work’, or maybe it’s an interminable curiosity that drives you? Whatever it is though, it’s irrelevant here.
Now imagine this self-same imaginary person were to ask you about that goal. “How do you think you’re doing with that?” they say, with their head cocked slightly to the side with interest. What would your answer be now?
The usefulness of asking ourselves how we’re doing with what we’re doing, or in other words, undergoing a periodic process of self-evaluation cannot be over-stated when it comes to magic. Because whatever our goal is, I’m betting that improvement is part and parcel of it, but you only really improve if you make a concerted effort to do so.
Recently a friend told me that she likes that I keep reminding people to do the work, but in truth, that is only half of the equation. It is not enough to simply do the work, you also have to evaluate the work you do and then decide how you’re going to either rectify issues or continue to improve. There is no end point when you are ‘fully trained’ and therefore do not need to continue improving. Not even the skies are limits to people like us, and nor should they be. But we’ll never figure out how far we’ve come if we do not occasionally take stock. Now I want you to think about the past month and what you’ve been doing magically. Go ahead, take a piece of paper and write it down. If you keep a journal, take a look at the pages you’ve filled. How does it look? Have you had any discernible gains or have did you not really do a whole lot and coast along? Does what you have before you look like the efforts of someone who is taking this *seriously* and who may actually eventually get somewhere?
If your answer was something that resembled a regular practice that was sustained – even if you didn’t have any gains – give yourself a pat on the back. That’s a record of self-discipline and willpower right there, and even though it may not have paid off this month, the point is that eventually it will.
But if your answers were a bit sparse, well, only you can decide what you want to take from that.
What you just did with this exercise though was a simple self-evaluation, and if you’re being honest with yourself, it can be an uncompromising process. But herein lies its value. Self-evaluation is about knowing yourself better, holding yourself accountable, and making sure that you take your magic seriously so that you continue to level up. You simply cannot do those things if you are fooling yourself about the work you’re not doing or the efficacy of the work you are.
The Tools of Self-Evaluation
If you did the exercise above, was it easy to remember everything you’d done during the course of a month? Could you even remember what had happened? And even if you did find it easy, did you remember all the details of the rituals/spells/meditations/dreams you had during that month? Could you have given a full account of what went right, what went wrong, and what you’d decided to change for the better in the future? This is really where journal keeping comes in and why more old-school teachers will insist that you keep one. Their usefulness really cannot be overemphasized. We live in an age of information, in which we’re bombarded by content pretty much constantly. Every time we go online, there are countless pieces of content vying for our attention. This blog post for example, is one of them.
The point though, is that it’s all too easy to forget what you had for dinner last week, let alone what happened during meditation three weeks ago! Finding a way to record for posterity is simply a wise choice, but this is not the only benefit of keeping a journal.
A couple of months ago, my parents sent me a box with stuff from when I was younger. In the box was an old, battered green A4 notebook with a garish fairy postcard glued on the front – my journal from when I was seventeen. Of course, back then I called it a ‘Book of Shadows’, because it was the nineties and that’s what the four or so library books I had access to called it. The pages are littered with rituals, ritual write-ups, spells, prayers, random snippets of information, and drawings of things I saw in my early trances. There are also random pictures of fairies and toadstools that I did with my complete lack of drawing ability scattered *everywhere* for ‘decoration’. (I really wanted one of those awesome-looking books that you see in movies back then, but didn’t we all?) So, it’s embarrassing looking back, but I also love it dearly for the snapshot it gives of who I was back then, the kind of witch I was, and the exercises that I built my craft around. (I did an awful lot of making candle flames leap.) Another book my mother sent me, the
one I created after this, informed me that these were my third and fourth journals; sadly I have no idea where the other two are.
With enough time, self-evaluation also comes with nostalgia and glad memories.
I have a nice leather-bound journal now, unassuming, black. The kind of book you wouldn’t look twice at on someone’s desk. I liked the size of the pages and the way they lie flat when you’re writing in it, and that was all that went into the process of finding a new journal for me. I also have flashier journals, but they don’t get nearly as much use because they’re not as comfortable to write in. The act of writing by hand is becoming increasingly rare nowadays, so if you are going to do it, it’s good to do it on surfaces that are comfortable – and prepare yourself for the inevitable aching hands.
Some people prefer to go the tech route with their journal, some even plan their month like a magical campaign that they plot in Excel. The format doesn’t matter though. Because all that really matters is that you actually use it.
The Process of Self-Evaluation
To evaluate yourself is to look at yourself with the hard eyes of objectivity. It is to periodically look back at the hard data of your record and ask yourself how you think you’re doing and also if you think you’re actually doing enough. What seemed like a good reason for not doing something at a certain time is often revealed to be a petty excuse.
On the months when the answer to your evaluation questions veer into the negatives, it can be a bitter pill to swallow if you care about your practice. However, it can also be one of our best teachers and motivators, serving as a proverbial kick up the butt. The experience of looking back and recognizing the petty excuse masquerading as a ‘good reason’ can help us to avoid falling into that trap again, and improvements can start out small and be done incrementally. There is always room for improvement if you commit to it. The act of self-evaluation, through revealing our failings, forces us to face up to not only our failings, but how dedicated we are.
I have a thing for liminal gods and spirits. Not in some weird ‘sexy times’ kind of way, but there’s definitely a draw
there for me. The same goes for places too. I love those liminal in-between places in which the Other almost feels close enough to reach out and touch. The kind of places where you wouldn’t be all that surprised if it reached out and gave you a quick grope either.
So as you might imagine, the concept of ‘gatekeepers’ (or beings connected to boundaries in general) holds a high level of fascination; after all, you don’t get much more liminal than a gatekeeper.
But whenever we talk of gatekeepers, especially within the context of Indo-European Paganisms, there is this sense that they’re a borrowing from outside and don’t belong.
It all started with a book review…
Recently though, I came across a blog post that discusses the role of the gatekeeper spirit within the Western Occult Tradition and its possible uses and origins. Well ok, the post wasn’t *really* about that, it was a book review of Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica. The post is a very concise and well-done review of a series of five books examining the origins of the magical tech and spirits of the Grimoires, and even though the combined cost of all the books together would be around $140, I have a mighty need to buy them like you wouldn’t believe.
I’m a big believer in figuring out the origins and meanings of things, in deconstructing things like old charms in order to figure out the underlying mechanisms. I’m not a fan of simply copying and taking the (arguably) easier route of having a tradition handed to me. I like to do the work, and then take that work and try it out ‘in the field’ so to speak. So it goes without saying that I find all of this work being done within the occult community to dig for the meanings and underlying mechanisms very, very exciting.
Of Pagan Origins and Christian Veneers
From what I understand from the review, Mr Stratton-Kent’s general argument is that the grimoires represent a survival of ancient Pagan religious and occult practices. But you know, with this covering of Christian and Qabalistic stuffs. The main of Stratton-Kent’s work in his Encyclopedia then, is in stripping away that covering, and revealing those ancient practices as much as possible. At the root of it all, Stratton-Kent argues, are the Greek goetes, those wandering magicians of the pre-classical period from whom we derive the word goetia. Which, if Stratton-Kent is right, has massive implications for not only Western esotericism, but for any magically inclined Pagans in general. (Again, I haven’t read these books yet so I’m being cautious with my language here. Like I said, I have a mighty need.)
Scrying and Survivals
In the first book of the Encyclopedia,The True Grimoire, Stratton-Kent examines the use of a gatekeeper spirit as intermediary between the other spirits and us. More specifically he focuses on the ‘Armadel’ method, a method of scrying in which spirits are called into the surface of the water. It is this method of scrying that Stratton-Kent argues (at least as I understand it from reading the review), is our tie back to the scrying methodology of the Greek Magical Papyri and the Pagan world. For Stratton-Kent, the ‘Armadel’ method reflected in the Greek Magical Papyri of calling a spirit into the surface of whatever you’re scrying with, is a piece of magical tech reflective of the decline of the Pagan period. It was a particularly clever work-around for the problem of how to interact with the old gods without all of the traditional Pagan religious apparatus. The magician or seer would call an intermediary spirit into the surface of the scrying medium. This intermediary spirit is then tasked with setting up a ritual scene in preparation for the arrival of the bigger spirits. The reviewer Kadmus, points out that often the request is focused on setting up the right number of chairs for a kind of banquet for the spirits. This is reminiscent of some of the earliest methods of religious ritual among the Indo-Europeans. After this feast, the magician or seer is then at liberty to ask for a boon; do ut des and all that. By shifting the celebration of a Pagan rite to the Other that lies beyond water, the practitioner can fulfill the exigencies of ritual in a far more discreet and less dangerous manner than if he or she were to set up such a ritual scene in the physical world.
Papyri and Lines
When dealing with the Greek Magical Papyri (or PGM), there is always the question of what comes from which tradition. The PGM date from between 200 B.C.E and 500 C.E, and are the product of intense cross-cultural interaction and blending in the Mediterranean. Kadmus sums this up best when he writes in his review that the PGM are “just as much Egyptian Magical Papyri as Greek ones”.
This is where things become complicated and where we must not only ask ourselves which part of that PGM heritage the use of a spirit intermediary or gatekeeper draws from, but also where we draw the line when it comes to consideration of which sources are ‘ours’. If Stratton-Kent is correct in his assertion that the grimoire tradition has its roots in these origins and that there is a high degree of conservation when you scrape away that Judeo-Christian veneer, then the level of complication is compounded. Perhaps more so for groups who have an expressed IE focus like ADF, for then there is the added task of teasing out the IE influences from non IE – and as we have seen with the Armadel method, that is not always so clear (especially when it comes to magic, Greece, and Egypt).
Continuities and Threads
We all tend to gather in our respective boxes and behind our respective labels, we like to think of cultural traditions as being handed down relatively unchanged for millennia – after all, the world is easier to think of that way. But even without the benefit of reading the Encylopedia, I think that if there’s one thing the grimoires teach us, it’s that the world was never so simple. Cultures interacted, people traveled, aspects of the ‘not us’ found their way in to the ‘us’, and the world marched ever on. Traditions grew, metamorphosed, and sometimes even died. The Armadel method was transmitted, spirit lists persisted (reportedly showing a high degree of conservation), and a newly controversial saint from Antioch found his way into Scandinavian grimoires where he was cited as the author of numerous black books of magic. Going back to those gatekeepers, maybe they *don’t* belong in the strictest sense of the word, but their usefulness can hardly be denied within these settings.
In many ways, magic is like those fleeting shadow figures that disappear when you focus upon them – those liminal figures that are often spied out of the corner of your eyes. This butterfly seems to defy attempts to systematize and classify it, but it makes little sense to ignore what we do have because some parts of it may look a little ‘moth-like’. Because as has been demonstrated time and time again, you can often learn a lot about the bits of something you do like, by looking at those you don’t.
It’s funny how things seem to coincide sometimes, isn’t it?
When I wrote my last blog about local spirits, adaptability, and not being afraid to learn different types of magic, I
had no idea that a blog had surfaced on Patheos that was calling into question the whole idea of working with St Cyprian because he was a Christian.
Just to give a bit of back story here, but Cyprian was a pagan magician who converted to Christianity after getting into a magical barney with someone who used the sign of the cross on him and won. Well, it was a bit more complicated than that (and you can read more about it here), but essentially that’s what it boiled down to. Eventually, old Cyprian was martyred (as the prefix ‘St.’ suggests), and now people are all about that Cyprian shiz because a couple of books have surfaced about Mr Saint’s grimoire.
I feel like I’m saying this a lot at the moment, but so what?
So what if people want to get on down with St Cyprian and work from his grimoire?
The only reason I’m writing this blog is because of the, quite frankly, ridiculous assertion that using the grimoires of Christians – or working with ostensibly Christian spirits is somehow “cultural appropriation”.
Yeah, you read that right. “Cultural appropriation”.
Cultural Appropriation? Cultural Cyprianation?
There are so many reasons why this accusation is ridiculous that I barely know where to start (or how to do so in a coherent manner without sputtering all over the place because of a surfeit of flabbergast).
First of all, as a friend pointed out on her post about the blog post in question, the person who made the accusation worships Egyptian gods; how is this somehow not cultural appropriation but pulling anything from Judeo-Christian culture somehow is? (You know, if we’re going to go there…)
Neither case is cultural appropriation IMO as the necessary power dynamic that makes a thing culturally appropriative is absent in both cases. Judeo-Christian culture is the dominant culture, there is nothing taken in terms of power or wealth from their culture by Pagans who happen to decide that they’ve got a swanky-looking spirit and that a bit of magical interfaith diplomacy might not go amiss. The same goes for the Pagan Egyptians because…well, they’re dead, and unless you’re in possession of some bones and are bullying some spirit, you can’t really oppress people who are dead. The cultures of Pagan Egypt are gone. Still, one would hope that if you worship Egyptian gods, you’d try and find ways to give something back to the culture and country they became eventually. (Not going to get into arguments about who the ‘real’ Egyptians are here.)
Secondly, seeing as most of us are from a Judeo-Christian background, in a sense this is a part of our cultural heritage. As Pagans/Heathens none of us seem to have an issue with looking into whatever Pagan heritage (no matter how far removed by time) we feel we maybe belong to (usually because of cultural or sketchy DNA test result reasons). This shit is a part of who we are. The vast majority of us have at least a thousand years of Christian ancestors at our backs – are we to ignore them too because they were Christian and have Christian cooties that automatically taint one’s pure Pagan soul? Are we now going to decry the simple act of lighting a candle in a church for a deceased Catholic relative as ‘cultural appropriation’, or are we going to see that act for what it actually is – an act of respect towards one’s beloved dead?
Christian Cyprian?,/h3> And you really think even SAINT Cyprian was fully Christian in terms of his worldview (assuming he existed, of course)? Yes, he converted, but as
many of you can attest, there is no magic wand of conversion. It takes *time*, generations even, to change a worldview. In all likelihood – just like many of the people clutching their pearls about the man himself – Cyprian probably didn’t manage to shuck even a sizable percentage of his Pagan worldview baggage during his life time. I mean, let’s face it, the whole “Wow, that worked awesomely, I think I’ll worship the god you do because I want that same shit” thing is pretty Pagan in of itself. In the Heathen period, people would offer to gods and then if their gifts weren’t met with any kind of reciprocity in return, they worshiped different gods. The whole story of Cyprian’s conversion sounds like he had an expectation of reciprocity from the get go (to be even more shit hot at magic than he already was with the help of his new deity). Reciprocity isn’t really a thing in Christianity from what I understand. I haven’t actually read St Cyprian’s stuff, but I’d be very surprised if a lot of the underlying magical tech can’t be traced back to something that’s a little more agreeable to the Pagan purists out there.
Because that isn’t anything new, a lot of these texts with a Christian veneer have underlying Pagan continuities, and just as you may make offerings to a Christian ancestor in a way that might be agreeable to them, why *wouldn’t* you show a spirit you’re hoping to learn from the same respect?
My mother has an idiom that I think would fit here, “it’s no skin off my nose”. And it isn’t – unless of course, you still think of these Christian things as having any/greater power over you (or like the heroin addict that has to keep away from any sniff of opiates, fear a fall from the wagon). Again, these are the questions that need to be wrestled with. People like to write about doing ‘shadow work’, but why not explore all the negative feelings and fears you hold about your previous faith and try to come to some kind of a peace with it all? It’s only when the chains no longer constrain you that you can really dance freely, and people do so need to dance again.
On the whole, the blog post in question felt like no small amount of sour grapes towards Gordon White (a major voice about things Cyprian) and his current popularity. Gordon consistently puts out quality content, and is advocating for a far freer way of doing things – one in which the individual does not need to look to anyone else’s authority. It is not a worldview in which would-be bishops would do particularly well. And maybe therein lies the crux? People becoming interested in magical arts that need not exist within a hierarchy, is quite threatening to those who would perhaps be that hierarchy. Look at how threatened the church hierarchy was by magic, as Giordano Bruno would tell you, they killed over it. Mr White is simply dancing and showing others that there are many types of dance that are possible. It also felt like there was a bit of the old ‘more Pagan than thou’ tone in there too, but which is more Pagan here: avoiding all things Christian lest you be tainted by those Jesus cooties; or deal with the spirits you come across, as you come across them, without giving more weight to some over others because they happen to be Jesus-y?
‘Cultural appropriation’ seems to be quite an easy target nowadays to get people riled up. And don’t get me wrong – it’s a massively serious issue that negatively affects the lives of many people around the world. We should be calling out the members of dominant cultures who take from more oppressed cultures, make bank off their backs, and give nothing back. But over-applying the term to the point of ridiculousness, in a way that the term does not cover, does not help this. If anything, it helps to detract from the seriousness of actual cultural appropriation.
And with that said, I’m going to go ahead and enjoy my weekend in these stunningly beautiful woods.
Have you ever wondered why witches are always so bloody minded? Why we fight so often with each other and get into all kinds of crazy adventures?
I mean, let’s face it, we’re kind of like magnets for weird things and not just weird things that are decidedly other either. No, over the years, I’ve attracted everything from very, very short people with guitars, to that Aryan Brotherhood guy who did pull ups on the grab bars of a moving bus while trying to talk to me.
I often use the analogy that I’m like a pile of turd attracting flies. A super sexy pile of turd, obviously…well, as these things go at least.
Being the proverbial pile of turd can complicate life somewhat in that no matter where you go, because you will always encounter what is there. That shit will pop right up and introduce itself to you on moving-in day/walking through the park/doing whatever it is that you’re doing that isn’t even remotely magical.
Like this one time when I was volunteering to help clean gravestones in my then-town and I felt something very bony tap me on the shoulder to see what I was doing. Or that other time when I was standing in another town with a friend and kept getting shoulder taps and “psst”. Or then there was that time we…never mind, you get the idea. In other words, if you’ve been dealt in by the ‘cosmic croupier’ I referred to in my last post, you will always have to interact with your landscape (both Seen and Unseen). There will always be this process of you getting their attention and them getting yours for various reasons.
Traditions Based In A Land
This is why more traditional currents of witchcraft hold that it’s entirely natural for witchcraft (like Heathenry) to vary from place to place. After all, if you are working with the liminal, local spirits of the land where you live, then your witchcraft cannot help but be localized in some way.
When you see your local land, what do you see? If you haven’t already experienced the Unseen in your location, how do you imagine it to be? Now think about the history of where you live: the various peoples that came through there (if any) and the circumstances of their migrations. What about the religious movements that the area is known for? And lastly, can you point to any occult traditions that you know to have operated in your area? Because these are the kinds of things that affect not only the kinds of spirits that you might come across, but the most effective ways of dealing with them should you need to.
If you live anywhere like where I live, your land – even just by imagining – is a veritable ‘onion’. Or in other words, layer upon layer upon layer of peoples with different beliefs and practices interacting with local spirits and bringing their own spirits and practices with them.
In these kind of environments, a certain kind of adaptability is needed, and those of us who live in these onion-like environs need to attain a certain degree of fluency in multiple magical traditions.
Because witches, as bloody-minded as we typically are, are usually the type of people to get the things done that we need to by hook or by crook. We tend to take a pragmatic approach (if we’re not the kind of people to pretend that we fart magical success of course).
But when it comes to that success – location and the Unseen we encounter in a place are huge factors. Because for as much as we see this whole image of the all-powerful witch on TV, we’re only really as powerful as the relationships we build with the Unseen (like our local spirits) and our Dead. Sure, we can do some things without them, we do have our own intrinsic dynamistic power, but it’s with the animistic powers – best remembered as ‘the things we can make offerings to or interact with’ – where the greatest power (and our greatest potential) lies.
But there’s always some resistance to this idea of gaining fluency in different magical traditions – at least from what I’ve found. Especially when it comes to people who consider witchcraft as a path or even a religion.
A Different Kind Of Beast…
Both descriptors are problematic. A path is restrictive in that you can only be on one at a time, and while calling something a ‘religion’ grants some kind of legitimacy to a group, there’s a whole lot of baggage that comes with that word. You see, we have very definite ideas of what kinds of things a religion involves, and even if we put it into a Pagan context (erasing words like ‘worship’, ‘prayer’, and anything people feel is a little too Christian), we do still end up in the same behavioral patterns.
We start to think of things like the ‘right’ way of doing something and what can be considered a part of that religion or not. Well, I would say that outside of religious observance, it’s the ‘right’ way if it works, and you absolutely want to be doing it the ‘right’ way if you’re being religious.
But historically, witchcraft was always a different kind of beast, and in spite of ideas of ‘the old religion’ surviving in
witchcraft throughout the ages, the likelihood is that the witches back then considered themselves some kind of Christian. Like the old ladies of Norfolk, who up until relatively recently, still knew and used charms in order to keep the elves from spoiling their butter.
The problem with bringing that kind of religious baggage to witchcraft, is that you always run the risk of becoming a purist. I know that’s a trap I’ve fallen into in the past, because it’s so very easy to think you’re on to some amazing ‘explanation of all the things’ and that you’ve figured out an accompanying system. (For why this is foolish, I refer you to the discussion above on the effects of location) Before you know it, you’re no longer looking at what is actually there and instead trying to slot it all into this ‘perfect’ explanation like some kind of mad historian trying to slot the gods of various cultures into the Graeco-Roman pantheon model. It’s also all too easy to get dogmatic about what sources you use too (again, not particularly good for interacting with what is actually around you).
Take the grimoires for example, while not as numerous as you might think, they are a veritable gold mine for magical practitioners. I mean, how many of us have wished at some point to find some book of great antiquity that shows us how witches back in the day got down? Well we have some books just like that, and yet they seem to be largely ignored by modern Pagan and Heathen magic workers.
Is it because of this dogmatism, because these grimoires are often filled with talk of demons and angels and lengthy invocations using the various names of Yahweh? I think that’s throwing all the proverbial babies out with all of the bathwater.
But this is a topic I’ve discussed before, in my last post even, when I talked about the proverbial (Christian) elephant in the room and the necessity of either dominating it or making peace with it. Because if you’re dealing with spirits who come from the kind of paradigm reflected by the grimoires, it’s going to be far more effective to engage full stubborn, suck up whatever issue you have with the punchy Jesus pachyderm, and crack out those grimoires.
Ask yourself, what do you really have when you strip away labels like ‘demon’ or ‘angel’, what is it that you’re left with at the end of the day?
An answer of ‘nothing’ is too facile. Sure, it may make the respondent feel better (because “we don’t believe in that kind of thing, yo”), but there are reasons why these books and the various spirit lists they contain are as long-lived as they are (some of them have threads that go *way* back), and there are reasons for the notoriety surrounding these books.
I mean, could you imagine most modern witchcraft books becoming even remotely notorious in the future? I mean, aside from Paul Huson’s book (a book which pulls from the grimoire tradition and contains that ‘repugnant’ reverse recitation of the Lord’s Prayer).Could you imagine any of them even enduring long enough to gain the weight of tradition that some of the grimoires have?
Of course not, because there’s little to no threat in the average witchcraft 101 book. Every effort seems to be taken to look as benign as possible, and to avoid any suggestion of the Judeo-Christian elephant. After all, we don’t want to give the impression that we are what they always said we are – that we truck with demons and kiss the devil’s arse after liberally rubbing ourselves with entheogens – we’re a religion after all, right?
And it’s here where my points begin to collide.
Tying It All Together
There’s a whole lot going on in this post: from the importance of localism in witchcraft, to labels and how they affect identity (and some of the respectability politics involved).
But so what if we sometimes do the things that those faceless ‘they’ say we do? So what if we dance with the devil and dally with demons? According to a book I’m currently reading, a thoroughly Heathen god that I worship was progressively portrayed as the devil by Christians, and my beloved Ælfe presented as demons (scandalous, sexy demons even). How many of the demons from the spirit lists have their origins in pagan deities – Astaroth, anyone? And to those who would judge us, none of that matters anyway; for whether we call the powers we truck with ‘gods’ or ‘daemons’, or ‘(insert sanitized term here)’, they will never *not* see those powers as the legion forces of evil. It’s really pointless to try with people like that. I’ll be giving that osculum infame business a miss though.
And so what if some of us take entheogens in order to trip our balls (metaphorical balls in my case) into deeper interactions with the Unseen? We humans have been doing that kind of thing for rather a long time. In fact we probably made beer a long time before we made bread, and it wasn’t as though those early brews adhered to some kind of Reinheitsgebot either – archaeologists have found all kinds of mind-altering additions to ancient beers. It’s only relatively recently that we humans have had any kind of issue with entheogen use, or associated it with slovenly and antisocial behavior. I think there’s even a good argument to be made that the removal of mind-altering substances from sacred context has contributed to the abuse and harm of these substances!
For various reasons, time and again, I see us removing ourselves from some of our best tools for getting to know and interact with the Unseen, for putting down roots in our lands, and becoming a part of it all. And I just find it an utter shame. We live in a time in which the other is so much closer; the church bells no longer sound to keep it away. We just need to learn more than one dance.
“You cannot simply draw a bath, light a few scented candles, and declare yourself a witch. Take your bath, but you are only a witch after the demons have come calling, which they most certainly will.” (1)
Growing up in Blighty, sometimes it feels as though most of my childhood took place under steely grey skies. Of course, it wasn’t like that *all* the time, but that is my dominant memory – or maybe it’s simply just the way I like to remember it.
I remember running wild under those steely grey skies, I remember countless adventures up on the moors and in the hidden places where adults didn’t seem to go: like the ‘ravine’ that was really a small stream down the side of an old Victorian factory that led into a more modern industrial park; or the ruins of Victorian farms built in the shadow of a brooding moor.
We never seemed to be dressed for the weather either; choosing little more than the ubiquitous 90s ‘combat pants’ (you know, those pants with all the pockets on – perfect for adventuring), a t-shirt, and a hoodie for the vast majority of these jaunts.
I think about those times on days like this – days clouded over and raining in a way that my mum would describe as ‘spitting’. You know the kind of rain I mean, the kind that isn’t particularly heavy but just feels as though maybe the sky is spitting at you. It’s a kind of rain I played in often as a kid.
The last post I wrote was about how the summer makes me feel dead inside. Well, not quite, that’s a bit of hyperbole. But there is a draining sensation at the end of the summer, and a dragging, and an “Oh for fucks sake, why can’t it be Fall already?” But Fall *is* coming. The leaves are turning, the sky is looking more ‘right’, and I am beginning to come out of my slump.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently, reading up on things that are a little bit different than my usual topics, and it has been truly excellent.
It’s from one of those books that I pulled both the quote at the beginning of this post (and the inspiration for this post as a whole).
You ever read something where you find yourself agreeing so much with what the writer is saying that you find yourself nodding, and mentally giving the author a “Right on, man! You tell em!”? Well, I’m reading a book like that right now. Had this been a church sermon, the entire section that inspired this post would have had me shouting “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lard!”, because it is just so nice to come across someone who writes things that you so completely agree with. That doesn’t happen a lot for me.
The question of what makes a witch is a perennial one in online discussions. Some people think it’s initiation within a specific tradition. Other people think it’s in the doing. For my part, I think initiation is a part of it, and that it is through the doing that you put yourself on the path to that initiation. But it’s not the kind of initiation that comes from other humans (although other humans can set you on that road), but from the Unseen powers.
Today I’m going to talk about the kind of initiation that happens when the demons come calling.
During the course of the summer, I seem to have somehow acquired a couple of students. We had a good first session – covered a lot of ground – and I’m pleased that I have two lovely students with as much potential as they have. I’m really looking forward to seeing them grow (and seeing how much I’ll learn from teaching them, you always learn more from the teaching if you’re doing it right). But at the end of the first session, I warned them that when you set feet upon this path, that there are things that will come a-knocking. When you start doing things, things that garner attention from the Unseen, things that effectively put you in a position for (as Gordon White put it) ‘the cosmic croupier to deal you in’, you will get into situations in which you have to think on your feet and deal with some really fucked up circumstances.
This may sound like I’m rehashing my previous post about Witchcraft not being safe, but if anything, I don’t think I went far enough with that post. Because in spite of what some people think, it’s not about being edgy or ‘dark’, it’s about having the kind of experiences that leave you (to quote Gordon again), “with a lasting, visceral, unshakable knowing that the universe extends beyond what can be physically observed.”
In Paul Huson’s classic Mastering Witchcraft, the student is advised to light a candle right before going to bed and to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards while visualizing the breaking of chains, a move that Jason Mankey referred to as ‘repugnant’ in his review of the book. But in spite of his distaste for Huson’s methodology, Mankey concedes that Huson’s rationale for this makes perfect sense. And it does.
Because we live in a society in which there are many barriers to even coming across the Unseen, let alone seeking initiation from those hidden powers. Our lives are so busy, so full of noise and distraction, and I’m not decrying electricity or anything (I LOVE living in a place with solid walls and mod cons), but there are reasons why when we do have those soul-shattering experiences they tend to be out in the lonely places.
In the liminal places.
Far from the buzz of tech with its incessant reminder of the outside world.
And that’s even before I talk about the barriers of belief involved here. Like the materialism that says that such things simply *cannot* happen, or the generations of dogma that declares that seeking out or trafficking with such things is a sin.
How many new Pagans and Witches claim to no longer believe in their previous monotheisms? And yet how many would baulk at sitting before a candle and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards?
“Nema! Livee morf su revilled tub Noishaytpment ootni ton etc…”
How many Pagan paths offer an alternative to Christianity without eschewing it completely, an alternative in which that person can go an entire lifetime without wrestling with that Jesus-y elephant in the room? Because I think that sooner or later, if you practice witchcraft and you truly want that kind of transformation that witchcraft makes possible, you have to find a way to take that motherfucking pachyderm down. (Or at least figure out how it fits in within your worldview. Clue: it’s all just spirits). You can’t break the chains if you ignore them.
Now I’m not saying that people have to go and recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards tonight or something, but it’s certainly something to think about. Witchcraft is not just unsafe, it is also transgressive. Usually when people talk about that transgression nowadays, it seems to be in very political terms, but I think it’s a lot deeper than that.
This is the kind of transgression in which simply having transgressive opinions isn’t enough. It’s not enough to want to ‘stick it to the man’ (or whatever), you have to step outside of the norm, you have to pass beyond. You have to go from the safe places of the inner yard that everyone else huddles in, away from those electric lights, and the safety and comfort of traditional religion.
You have to cross that boundary, try to traffic with the spirits, get that dirt under your fingernails, muddy up those boots, fuck up, make mistakes, and just have those crazy experiences that are usually highly unpleasant, but that leave you with the kind of clarity that comes with the dawn.
Because it’s often in those times, that the most meaningful of initiations are found.
Things have been quiet around here recently – those of you who read this blog regularly might have noticed the lack of recent posts. Generally, I aim to get a post up per week, but lately things just haven’t been working out that way.
It’s not like I haven’t been writing though, I’ve actually gotten quite a bit done on my book over the past few weeks. I found a whole other line of research that supported what I’d already put forth and spent a few days mired in German texts. Another week, I found some new evidence for another theory elsewhere in my book, so on that front of things, it’s been quite productive. It’s like every time I think I’m done, a new piece of evidence just comes my way in the most random of ways, and I have to chase it down. I am getting closer though with this rewrite/initial edit and am currently looking at my publishing options. So that’s the flood part of this post.
Aside from that though (and the various bits of writing I do for work), I really haven’t felt moved to blog here, and that’s been bugging me for that past few weeks. But this morning, it occurred to me that sometimes there’s a lesson in that.
In the first week when I didn’t post I spent days trying to think of a post to write, but it all just felt artificial and forced. Eventually, I realized that most of the ideas I was having were polemic in some way, and I found that problematic in a ‘low hanging fruit’ kind of way. I mean, who *can’t* just turn on a good rant?
But I don’t want this blog to be that. Sure, I rant on here, but it’s about stuff that has genuinely got my fire up, and I don’t want to get into manufacturing that just because those kinds of posts tend to get more views. Don’t get me wrong, I love that people are visiting my site, but it’s important to me that I don’t just use this platform to tear down, but to build up as well.
And that building up, or more accurately that writing about building up sometimes takes time. Sometimes blog post ideas have to ripen; it takes time before they become the itch under your skin that you can’t *not* write about.
There’s also the season too. I find those final dog days of summer to be pretty sapping in terms of creativity. A lot of people find the darker half of the year to be the time when they go into a more inert and incubatory state, but I’m quite the opposite – this is my ebb. Maybe it’s because I come from an island in the North Sea where grey skies and cooler temperatures are far more the norm than where I currently live; but whatever it is though, towards the end the heat and humidity of Maryland become like the final leg of an endurance race for me and I crave the cooler days. (I’ve even started knitting a cardigan in the hope that I’ll get to wear it soon.)
Because it’s during those cooler days when I begin to emerge and take my daughter out on little adventures again. It’s during those cooler days when I do as opposed to hiding my pasty skin from Sunne’s harsh summer gaze like some strange kind of crysalis-dwelling creature.
And if there’s one thing I want people to get from this blog, it’s the value of doing.
But there is no ebb without flood, and I will be back when my cauldron is brimming once more. I just need to wait for the wave.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about spirits, big or small, having something called agency. In other words, they’re capable of acting independently and of making their own choices. Most of the discussion on this has been framed within the context of the perennial Pagan community debate about whether deities should be seen as archetypes or as beings with agency (there’s that word again!), but I’m yet to see any talk about what it means to live in a world populated by countless unseen beings who all also have agency.
Ok, that’s not fair, I think Morgan Daimler spends a lot of time talking about that kind of thing – heck, along with articles telling you how not to get completely fucked over by all things fae and sorely needed new translations of Old Irish materials, I would say that a good chunk of what Morgan does is try to impress upon her readership this idea of agency and the Unseen.
But how many of us truly think about that? How many of us truly appreciate just how *big* that idea is? This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently (hence the lull period in blogs, I mull while I lull), and I’ve come to the conclusion that while a lot of us would agree with the sentiment when asked, that very few of us have really internalized that concept and way of looking at the world.
I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, nobody is ‘lesser’ for it, it’s just that I think we forget that conversion isn’t something that happens overnight, and what is really taking place is a complete worldview overhaul. That shit takes time and it isn’t easy, especially when most of us live in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society in which so much that many of us take for granted is a product of that worldview. When you first start noticing those innocuous little things that you’ve never really thought much about before but that are Judeo-Christian though, it’s kind of like that moment when Neo first sees the Matrix – only thankfully a lot less dramatic.
(Note to reader: Don’t watch the Matrix after drinking a load of absinthe, Morpheus becomes kind of creepy and you’ll never hear him say that long “yes” the same way ever again.)
It’s everywhere: from the cartoon depictions of souls leaving bodies; to the virtues that most of us are brought up with; to terrifyingly huge chunks of political discourse and so much more. After a couple of decades at this malarkey, I’m finding the differences to be substantial enough that it’s starting to feel like code-switching when talking to people who aren’t Heathen/Pagan/Witches/Druids, and I didn’t even grow up in a particularly religious home. Seriously, I grew up only vaguely Church of England (cake or death) with a mother who graffitied her bible with the names of the Monkees and a Spiritualist father. I also know I still have a long, long way to go and probably won’t manage to completely throw off that Judeo-Christian worldview in my lifetime. Realistically speaking, this is really a generational game, and NONE of us should feel bad or ‘less’ if we struggle to internalize a concept.
So what would internalizing that concept of the unseen having agency really mean or be like for most of us?
Only like going down the best motherfucking rabbit hole of all time!!!
We’re all used to living on this beautiful and mighty Middle Earth, we’re all used to sharing it with other humans, flora, fauna, insects, and countless other things at the microscopic level. I mean, tardigrades! How neat are they? They’re brilliant, like little bears that were made out of off-cuts from a camp bed factory before being inflated, and that can only survive pretty much EVERYTHING! If those guys had a theme tune, it would be this (btw, you’re welcome for the earworm). Now imagine how much *bigger* that all gets when you include the countless different types of Unseen (of all types and sizes), because where else do you think they live?
They’re all right here with us, and guess what, if we accept that we can build reciprocal relationships with them, then we also have to accept that they have their own ideas and plans about *everything*. Just as we look to interact with them, what if they look to interact with us? What if they go out of their way to do so? What if, like us, some of them are better at it than others?
Now look at history, do you really think they just left us to our shit? What about current affairs? Do they still just leave us to do what we do (which seems to be “mostly fucking up” by the looks of it)? And if they have agency, what about their histories and their current affairs? How much do we affect those? What about the unseen that inhabit certain realms like the sea or sky, do they affect things like the weather? And in the same way that we humans can pick up on the emotions of others and get carried away by mob mentalities, can that bleed through from either them or us?
It all gets pretty big when you think about it like that, doesn’t it? Like a massive, knotted ball of string that is weirdly very important to unravel, but at best all we can do is work carefully so as not to make anything worse.
You know…and then pass it on to our children when we die.
For some good tips on working carefully while trying to unravel that ball and maybe even have some wins, check out this blog post by that Morgan lady; and I’ll be back with a post on elves and witches when I figure out how to condense such a big topic into a blog post.
Once upon a time, back when I lived in Korea, my husband-to-be and I took a trip to a very special mountain in Seoul. Korea still has some remnants of Korean indigenous religion, and there are still some holy places knocking around. This mountain was special because it was one of those holy places. It was kind of a cool day when we went up, but after spending the summer going on adventures in the punishing heat and humidity of the dreaded Korean summer, the cool was a welcome change. There was a decorative arch to let you know you’d arrived, and then, as you ascended, some buildings that we could only assume were temples or shrines. As we carried on walking up the mountain and past those buildings, we saw a sack on the deck with the head of a very dead pig sticking out of it, and realized that there was probably going to be some kind of ritual, but as it was none of our business, we’d just keep walking up the mountain. Occasionally, we’d pass people, usually older men and women with their sun visors, hiking gear, and bags of offerings. Below us, the clanging of drums began as the ritual started.
We carried on climbing up, intent on making it to the top to see what was there, the drums fading into the background of our conversations until suddenly, when we were about half way up, we realized that the drumming had stopped.
We also stopped, and then we noticed that even the birds had fallen silent. What was previously a vibrant forest full of all of those little wildlife noises that forests have, was now silent. Well, all except for the sound of rushing wind.
Now, this wasn’t the kind of wind that you experience on a windy day in which it’s all around you. No, this wind seemed to be contained, it seemed to have form, and that form seemed to be making its way down the path that we were on. We moved off the path to stand in the trees and watched as the wind went by as tangible as a train. A few moments after it passed, the drumming began again, this time a different beat, and we continued to walk to the top. The top of the mountain was beautiful, we had a small conversation with an older man who had been worshipping up there at the shrine with our limited Korean, and were treated to a lovely view of the city below. When we came to descend, we made our way back down the same path, but this time when the drumming stopped, we knew what to expect. Moving to the trees at the side of the path we waited for the wall of wind to come by on its way back up the mountain again.
I kind of hate the term ‘Shamanism’, for many reasons, some of which I’ll get into here, but the practice that brought down that wind from the mountain that my now-husband and I experienced so tangibly is often referred to as ‘Shamanism’. Although we didn’t see the ritual itself, research informs me that Korean ‘shamans’, or Mudangs do possessory rituals for various reasons and that that is a likely explanation of what was going on that day on the mountain.
Indigenous Expectations vs (Mostly) White Expectations
Now, that was my only experience of a type of ‘shamanism’ within its own cultural context – albeit from a distance – but it really gave me far higher expectations when it comes to anything bearing the label of ‘Shamanism’. When it comes to a good number of white, western ‘Shamans’, I am unimpressed and if I’m unimpressed after having just that tiny peek into that real, imagine how people from cultures that still have Shamans and Medicine Men feel!
I mean, in 2014 there was an important gathering of Shamans in Siberia from various parts of the world. Per the organizers, they had invited the ‘strongest shamans’ in the world, and yet not one of the invitees was someone rocking up with a dose of Core Shamanism. Now why was that? To put it simply, they only invited people they considered to be peers.
The other day, I came across a documentary called ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’, which I watched with great interest. There have been a few things about much of what passes for ‘Shamanism’ in the Pagan/Heathen/New Age communities that have bugged me for a while now, and I feel this documentary did a really good job of demonstrating the various issues of appropriation, entitlement, selfishness, and economic privilege.
What’s In A Name?
As I mentioned above, I dislike the term ‘Shamanism’. Not because of what it means, after all, it’s just an Evenk word that means ‘excited’, ‘elevated’, ‘ecstatically knowledgeable’, but because of how over-applied the word is to anything that even has a whiff of indigenous practice or what we imagine indigenous practice to be. For the Evenki, the word ‘Shaman’ comes with certain associations that are all rooted in the Evenk worldview (all of which was mostly not understood when Westerners started to take and apply the word ‘Shaman’ to everything else that’s ‘indigenous’). I can’t help but think that when we take a word like ‘Shaman’ and apply it to any indigenous magico-religious practice we come across, we’re not only disrespecting the original culture, but we’re erasing or minimizing the diversity of all the other cultures that still have ritual specialists working within their respective indigenous cultures. Moreover, the word ‘Shaman’ has its own ‘myth’, I mean, we all think we know what a Shaman is/does/looks like, right? But you see, if you approach a culture looking for a ‘Shaman’ and you have in mind all of these associations with the world – this myth of the ‘Shaman’, then how much are you actually looking at that culture vs just looking for the bits that fit your (really quite broad) schema? The minimizing and erasure of diversity that this allows then makes it easy for someone to come along and decide that they all have certain similarities (whether they do or not) that must ergo be indicative of a common human heritage of ‘Shamanism’.
It is here that we begin to enter the murky waters of false entitlement.
Shamanism Divorced from Culture: A Story of Privilege and Entitlement
You see, when an outsider to a culture, starts picking bits that look the same as things seen in other cultures (but that may be the products of very different worldviews), and then start declaring them to be ‘universal, near-universal, and common features of Shamanism’, it makes it possible to pull those practices from their cultural contexts. Because if you believe yourself to be the goddamn inheritor of this *human* heritage, isn’t it already ‘yours’ to take?
And what of the *years* of training the ritual specialists in those cultures typically undergo, or the fact that these ritual specialists only make up a small percentage of the population in an indigenous culture? Don’t worry, westerners, that doesn’t matter when it comes to you; per Core Shamanism originator Michael Harner in ‘The Way of the Shaman’ (p. xviii):
“In my training workshops in shamanic power and healing in North America and Europe, students have demonstrated again and again that most westerners can easily become initiated into the fundamentals of shamanic practice.”
Even better, you don’t even need to enter into a traditional apprenticeship:
“In Western culture, most people will never know a shaman, let alone train with one. Yet since ours is a literate culture, you do not have to be in an apprenticeship situation to learn; a written guide can provide the essential methodological information.”
Because that’s how shit-hot we Westerners are, we can learn and be just as good as ritual specialists from indigenous cultures without the years of training, apprenticeships, or even choosing process that are a feature of those cultures. That right there is some fucking arrogance. In the documentary, two white women and a white man sit outside a sweat lodge and are later shown drumming, rattling, and chanting something that sounded either indigenous or created to sound so. Despite this obvious appropriation, they still talked about how they wished people could understand that what they did wasn’t ripping anything off and was somehow different. Some of them also talked about how they just wanted to help humanity and how necessary ‘Shamanism’ was for the world and its people. But to me, there are some huge issues with this line of thinking too. For starters, you have this ‘one true way’ mentality, and when has that ever been good for the world? I mean, how many of you reading this blog right now have issues in your daily lives because you have to deal with folks who subscribe to a ‘one true way’ worldview? How many of you hide who you are to avoid those issues?
Secondly, there’s a huge aspect of economic privilege here. This ‘universal’ shamanism can only be universal for the people who are making enough to have a high enough level of disposable income to afford these workshops – and I don’t think that’s a small thing nowadays.
Now the cynic in me looks at all of this – the creation of a universal shamanism divorced from culture, something that *anyone* has a right to and can do – and I can’t help but think that not only is it a perfect product, but it will never be anything other than a repackaged product among the majority of Westerners unless it somehow becomes rooted in culture. But again, which culture would be acceptable here?
A Quest For Whole-Making, A Story Of Need And Exploitation
When I first posted that I was going to write this blog on my Facebook, a friend involved in Core Shamanism techniques replied saying that they don’t feel that what they’re doing is appropriation because they are trying to seat these techniques in a historical culture that no longer exists in that form in the modern world. While it is true that there are no living oppressed groups that are being harmed in this, I do still question the application of a so-called ‘universal shamanism’ to a culture we only meet through archaeological finds and on the page. If these ‘universal’ things aren’t really that universal among living groups (as plenty of indigenous groups have pointed out over the years), then how can we believe them to be applicable with any degree of accuracy to a historical culture? Although I may never agree with my friends on this though, I do recognize that they are coming from both a place of service and find their practices whole-making. I really don’t envy them the complexity of negotiating their chosen paths in an ethical manner, especially as people who are aware of the myriad issues.
But that’s the thing that really complicates this issue. Because for all the inherent shittiness of shamanism as practiced outside of indigenous cultural contexts, there are a lot of very caring, genuine, and good people involved. I don’t want to make it sound like I think every single person engaged in these activities is a culturally appropriating dickwad that just wants to make bank while giving the middle finger to indigenous populations – because I don’t. We live in ‘interesting times’, in communities that can barely be called such, and most of us are without tribes in any kind of a meaningful sense. I don’t think that is good for human beings, and I think it’s an absence that we feel very deeply when we find it in our lives. How many people get involved in things like this ‘universal shamanism’ because they want to feel whole, and want that whole-making? How many people get involved because they want to help others and believe that these practices hold the key to helping them do so? How many others are looking for tools to help them deal with the Other in their lives?
There are a whole lot of stories here, a lot of humans doing what humans do: some seeking, some predating, and some mourning the losses of their cultures. Now, two of those things are wrong, two of those things shouldn’t be happening. For me, the best illustration of ‘how to not be’ comes in the form of another story. A story told by a Mongolian shaman by the name of Sarangerel, who related the tale of what happened when the Golomt Center of Mongolian shamans organized in Ulaanbaatar in 1997 and reached out to Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies to basically say ‘Hi, we’re here now!’. The response from the Foundation? A package with membership application forms and a workshop schedule.
If you haven’t already seen it, give ‘White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men’ a watch, you can find it here.
As anyone who’s the parent of a young child knows, it’s hard to get some alone time.
Society pressures us to not see it that way or feel like that, our children are supposed to be the centers of our respective worlds, our little treasures who never tire us or make us angry; friends of mine refer to this as ‘the cult of the child’. However, regardless of how much we love our children, we all *need* time to replenish ourselves, to do things that recharge the batteries we draw so deeply upon when dealing with the fifteenth tantrum of the day, or the horror of heavy-handed black crayon on carpet. Like the analogy of the parent putting their oxygen mask on before that of the child, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of them to the fullest of our abilities.
This past weekend, I was lucky enough to have some time to engage in some of that glorious, glorious self-care, and after a particularly rough week, I leaped at it.
And let me tell you, an afternoon stroll by the river with friends followed by a gathering in the evening was just what the apothecary ordered.
And of course, between the stroll and the gathering, there was the near-obligatory trip to the local pagan store. I usually enjoy trips to this store, like most stores of its kind, it’s interesting to just sort of hang out in there and people-watch a little. They also have a decent selection of herbs and the oils I use to scent my house, which is handy. Most trips to the store though, for all the people-watching potential, pass without incident; but sometimes, sometimes you get that one person who wants you to help them with something even though you’re not staff.
On Saturday, it was a young woman who was looking to ‘draw’ a man closer to her.
Now I don’t touch love stuff and so I let the woman know I wasn’t going to get involved and walked off. However, my friend remained and valiantly tried to explain her ethical reasons for not getting involved. Any time I came into this young woman’s line of vision, she glared at me. From my friend’s exchange with the woman, I later found out that this young woman had had previous relations with the man in question, that they’d apparently moved too fast, that he’d gotten cold feet, and she’d decided to get with the witchcraft although she’s a Christian.
Knowing all of that in hindsight, I’m glad I ducked out when I did.
Putting aside the ginormous issue of attempting to mess with love for a second, those don’t seem to be the actions of someone who is particularly stable – at least not at this time. After all, this is a woman who belongs to a religion that condemns witchcraft and yet she went looking for witches in a Pagan shop – complete strangers – to try and get a man back as opposed to cutting her losses and trying to move on. That to me is insane, and if previous experience is anything to go by, getting involved in that is potentially inviting trouble for the future.
You see, when I was in college, I had a housemate who was really going through the mill with her boyfriend. Things seemed to be unraveling, she wasn’t sleeping much, and when she did her dreams were less than good. At one point, she asked me if I would do something of a more magical nature to help her, and I agreed to do some work to help bolster her rather than try and manipulate her love life. However, when I went to go into trance to ‘find her’ and do what I was planning, I found myself getting sucked into one of her dreams because as ‘luck’ would have it, I was working on one of the nights when she was actually sleeping.
Her dreams were pretty grim, lots of imagery about churches and brides discarding bouquets, my housemate crying, and a burgeoning distance between her and her boyfriend. I pulled myself out as soon as I could and resolved to be up front with her about it the next day.
When the next day came though, although she’d been the one to come to me for help, my (as it turned out) accurate description of her nightmare was a little too much for her, and by the time afternoon came, she’d fled back to her parents’ house. She wasn’t gone permanently though, but the suspicious glare and Catholic blessed metals were permanent. Months down the line, she and her boyfriend – a man who had become her fiancé shortly after the dream incident – were through.
As with our young woman from the store, there were two issues at play here: the desperate grasping to prevent an ending, each woman even going so far as to engage with something they believed to be sinful; and an appeal to somehow fuck with love so that it would go down more in their favor.
Doing things, even when asked, for someone who holds your craft in contempt is a fool’s work. At best, you can be mocked, and at worst, blamed for anything that happens as a result of any meddling. From what I’ve found, many people that ask these favors don’t really believe that what they’re asking is even possible, and when things happen that suggest that it is real, tend to become very scared and fall back on their religious beliefs. Sometimes things happen as a consequence of the stuff they try because of your advice, and again, you get the blame. Witches and magicians are very aware of the truth of the saying ‘the devil is in the detail’ when it comes to magic, but this is not something a person who is not involved in magic really keeps in mind. We know that words are important, and more so in ritual space. Most people do not. Most people grow up being told that ‘god will know what they really mean in their heart’ and so do not ever really consider the possibility that words badly woven while working magic can mean magic not doing what you want in the way that you want. Either way though, this blame can lead to some pretty nasty social situations, and any altruistic intentions on the behalf of the practitioner are meaningless in the court of public opinion.
Secondly and most importantly, can we have a moment of time to discuss love and how goddamn powerful love is?
We live in a society that minimizes love, we say we LOVE certain music, we LOVE a type of cake, or even LOVE a color. Once a year, we have a tacky-ass holiday dedicated to paying lip-service to a shallow love of Hallmark cards and shitty little pink heart decorations.
But none of that is love though. Love is the force in a mother’s heart keeping her going as she pushes out a child, desperate to meet them for the first time. Love is the force that drives parents to put themselves between danger and their offspring. Love is what soothes and nurtures a child as they grow, it’s that look in your child’s eyes that feels like a benediction when they look at you. Love is the force that makes children give up on their hopes and dreams to take care of elderly parents, it’s the force that causes people to uproot their entire lives and move across the world to be with that one person. It’s the force that drives people to take bullets for those they love, to recover from the most incredibly awful injuries to stay with those they love, and to keep on going even though sickness makes life a misery. Love can make a person cling on to life though they barely have anything left, and follow a loved one to the grave.
Love, real love, is far from being easy or cheap. A million Hallmark cards with verses proclaiming to epitomize feelings and love cannot be but the barest drop in the ocean compared with any love felt by a human being.And that’s why I won’t mess with love, that’s my biggest reason why I won’t help with that kind of magic actually. For love is as terrible as she is beautiful. Love sinks ships, causes armies to march, and can even bring down empires. Love is one of the most powerful forces on this earth, and who am *I* to stand in the face of that?
The squash leaves are huge; big, hairy, plates of green that cover smaller plants indiscriminately. I go through them, uncovering patches of kale, collards, lambs quarters, and dandelion greens, picking off pests and checking for various eggs as I do. It’s dusk, and once again it’s just me, my garden, and my trusty green watering can.
When I first started my garden, my daughter ripped up almost all of the seedlings I’d so carefully started, and I’d despaired. All that time, all that money, and all that work had been destroyed in less than a minute by a determined toddler with a stick. After a few tears and talking to friends about growing seasons in my local area, I decided to start again and began to grow more seedlings – this time outside. Eventually they grew, as seedlings do, and I had enough to fill my two plots. I also had some surprises, for nature is nothing if not tenacious, and a toddler’s harsh stick work is nothing in the face of that.
When I first started a garden, I imagined beautiful rows of perfect vegetables that were unmolested by bugs and
blight. These rows were tidy too, the kind of thing you might see in a gardening magazine. But fantasy and reality rarely match, and my garden became this wild pile of squash, tomatoes, jalapeños, various edible leaves, and an orchard orb spinner I like to call ‘Edwin’.
I move the leaves and wedge them around a little fence so the smaller plants can get some sun too, I water, and I harvest leaves for salad as I go. When I’m done, I invariably end up at the bottom of the garden near the wild patch I keep for the wights. Then stretching myself up, I take a deep breath and look around me at the plants, wooden fence, and forest behind our garden gate. I see the odd flare of a lightning bug in the trees above, and I can’t help but smile. I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling at those things, not for any big or deep reason, but because we just didn’t have them where I grew up.
Everything feels so alive, there’s a buzz in the air, a rightness of place, and not for the first time I think to myself that this is what it must be like to put down roots somewhere.
And of course that’s what I’ve done. My travel shrines have become permanent and my idols unpacked for what I hope will be a good long while.
There’s a difference in magic and religion when you’re settled and rooted as opposed to nomadic and wandering where the wind takes you. As a nomadic witch, I would McGyver supplies a lot more, and I would take pains to make my tools and supplies much more innocuous to the casual viewer. Because when you’re an outsider to somewhere, you never know how locals are going to react to things like Witchcraft and Heathenism. I would still practice, of course I would, to be a witch is an active thing – you have to do witchcraft in order to be a witch, but it was different.
I would always begin by walking the local area over and over, taking into account the areas that felt ‘thin’/uneasy/friendly/active/dead and noting what grew where. The lavender that grew across from the supermarket and sphagnum moss I collected from under a tree that helped to heal a hornet’s sting; the wormwood growing out of a stone wall, its roots somehow clinging to the dirt between the rocks; the locations of various tree woods for amulets; the blackberries near the river that I ate one evening with cream – all came from my walks. As I trod the miles, my mind would become a catalogue of what grew where, where I could go to practice my craft, where to offer, and where to avoid.
But it’s different when you’re settled and own the land, both from a Heathen and a Witch perspective. From the moment you walk the boundaries with fire to take your land, you’re granted an agency in that place that you don’t have as a traveler. In your home, you get to create your cosmos, your inner-yard, your most holy of spaces instead of moving between the inner-yards of others and dodging the dangers of the outer-yard. You build reciprocal relationships with the wights in a way that you never did before, like the kind that neighbors make with neighbors who bought as opposed to those who rent. Wandering, liminal gods are joined by gods of ‘peace and good seasons’ in your hearth rites; and the magic you work is less because some scary ‘could kill you’ shit is going down, and more because your family needs a little extra help at times to continue thriving, or even simply just to keep your hand in.
There are times when I miss the outer-yard and being on the road. I think a part of me will always be that itchy-footed kid that wandered the moors as though the miles were food and moved countries at the drop of a hat. But as I stand each evening, stretching up at the bottom of my garden with my trusty green watering can in hand, I can’t help but feel and appreciate the sweetness of it all.