The Land as Witchcraft Teacher

For today’s blog, I’d like to tell you the story of how I learned witchcraft, and some of the best lessons I learned from my first teacher.

Like many people who end up getting into witchcraft, I felt a draw to all things witchy. Most importantly though, the weird and otherworldly was also drawn to me. Which is good, because witchcraft without the dead and/or Other is just a party for one.

I grew up in a town on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England, and I was the weird kid everyone else came to ask about getting the “power of Manon” when the movie The Craft came out.

When I was first starting out at the (stereotypical) age of thirteen, our local library boasted only a couple of books on witchcraft. One was The Witches’ Bible and absolutely out of bounds because I knew the librarians would call your parents for taking it out on account of all the photos of naked Janet Farrar. The other was Z Budapest’s The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, and as it had no photos of naked people or overtly witchy imagery (at least on the cover), this made it the perfect candidate for withdrawal.

Now, I realize that Z Budapest is a TERFY dumpster fire, and I’m not promoting her in any way. Even then, her work wasn’t to my taste and there wasn’t really any discussion about transfolx to even have the language to describe a TERF. In my backwards hometown in the 90s, dumpster fire or not, she was about the only game in town.

But while Z Budapest’s book may have taught me how to cast my first circle, the moors were my real teacher.

My First Teacher in the Craft: The Moors

teacher - moorland
Wild, heather-covered moorland with clouds dropping to kiss the earth

The moors where I grew up are a wild place, windswept and barren with rocks littered across the heather and grass like broken bones. It’s a place where the clouds meet the land and modern people walk on ancient ruins. And it’s as dangerous as it is beautiful.

When the mists drop and you can’t see further than a couple of feet, it’s easy to get lost. The landscape is treacherous, and the weather can go from snowy to warm sunshine within the space of a half hour. Like Gullveig, the moors of my home county have burned and been reborn. Unlike Gullveig though, she’s performed this trick more than just the three times that Gullveig did.

“Gullveig” being reborn after yet another fire.

Then there are the bogs – the reason why a lot of people tend to stick to the paths.

But for all the danger and creepy stories, I loved them and would spend hours in the wild places up on the tops away from the paths with my little dog.

Some of my first rituals were worked up on those moors, and I’ve seen things up there that few would believe.

There I learned to map the hidden dimensions of a landscape, committing to memory all the places where the Good Folk lived when I found them, and building up relationships as I went.teacher - burial mound

There I learned to sit out on burial mounds.

There I learned to enjoy my own company and be happy observing the shadows of the clouds moving over the valleys below.

There I learned that no matter how badass you think yourself, some places are still best avoided after dark.

Teacher, Counselor, Friend

I haven’t had many teachers during my time, but the best teachers I’ve known happen to also have been friends who give good counsel.

When times were hard, I would take my pain and pound it into the earth through the bottom of my boots. Then (usually at the top of a hill), I would fall to the ground to thank the hills when the knots around my heart lifted.

Other times I’d bring her my magical problems, and I’d think about them as I walked until I happened upon the perfect piece of materia magica to work into a spell. Soon I was bringing back things like sheep skulls and working the teeth into amulets. It didn’t matter what she threw me either. When I got the sense that I was supposed to use a thing, I instinctively knew what to do with it.

From there, I began to think about questions I needed an answer to, and I would pick up nine straight (ish) sticks at random as I walked. Then when I had

Moorland ruin: Victorian era

my nine, I’d hold them between my hands to whisper my question before casting them to be read as runes.

At some point though, I began to think about the ‘why’. Why did she throw me those things and why did they work for what I needed to do? Why did I work in that way when working those spells and why did that work?

This is how one of my greatest magical interests was born – deconstructing magical workings in order to discover the underlying “mechanics”. And that kids, is how I got started taking historical accounts of magical workings and trying them out.

The Four Main Lessons my Moorland Teacher Taught

When you learn witchcraft from a land, much of it is going to be heavily localized and possibly even useless outside of that land. But the moors taught me four main transferable lessons that have stood me in good stead no matter where I’ve been.

1. Take a Place as You Find It

The first lesson is one that embraces impermanence. Places change, as do the beings that inhabit them. And a place and its inhabitants may be one way on one day, and completely different on another day. Even if you’ve been somewhere before, never assume that a place is going to be or feel the same when you go back there. Keep on top of your basic witchy skills, and always have your apotropaics and best manners to hand.

2. Avoid a Feeling of Ownership

This is a big one, and it’s something we humans (at least in Anglophone culture) generally suck at anyway. This idea of ownership of land (and all the non-human people on it) goes to the animism thing all the cool kids are talking about. And if we’re being real, as a group we’re still pretty crap at that there animism. I mean, how many of us actually respect the agency of non-human persons? How many people still see them as basically being some twee little vending machines for favors (in exchange for some pretty subpar offerings)?

(Clearly I’m using “us” in the macro sense here. I’m referring to the modern Pagan movement as a whole, so hold your knickers, Beryl!)

The truth is, we all come from a culture obsessed with individualism. A culture in which selfishness and cruelty are lauded as a twisted form of morality – and that kind of fucks us when it comes to the animism thing. Because when everything is already about you and you getting yours, that puts you on a terrible footing for interacting with the not-you. But when you bring a sense of ownership into the equation (of both the land and by extension the sentient beings who also live there)?

I mean hell, we can’t even get it right with other humans. Feeling a sense of ownership over anyone or anyland is one of the first paving stones on the road to hell.

Moorland ruin: Neolithic edition.

And this is not me saying ‘don’t buy property’ or that I’m coming to take your toothbrushes and make you use some communal, opossum-managed toothbrush (holy shit but I love opossums). No. Own on paper if you need to, but recognize that it’s just a formality for the stupid humans. Instead work to become a part of your land and grow the understanding of belonging to in your heart.

3. Try to Figure out Your Place in the Big Picture

Speaking of belonging to – this mindset sets you up to contextualize yourself within the bigger picture of the place you inhabit. You’re no longer an individual over but cohabiting with. Where are you in your “neighborhood”? Who do you need to avoid pissing off and who do you need to give a little more care and attention to?

If you consider yourself an animist, try putting yourself in the shoes (or roots) of a tree or plant in your community of lives. What do they experience on a daily basis? Who do they interact with the most? What problems do they have with their nearest neighbors? How do you help them (or harm them)?

An interesting thought exercise, no?

Every Land has its Stories and You Should Learn Them

When we were kids, we passed stories like schoolkids pass nits. Stories about

“Yes officer, I believe it was Granny Greenteeth, in the tarn, with some kind of eldritch magic.”

Granny Greenteeth, “Bannister Dolls” (don’t ask), black dogs, ghosts, and the occasional boggart tale all ran round our groups. Especially on the dark nights when we couldn’t find anything really to do but lurk on the streets and tell each other creepy stories (in winter it’s usually getting dark by four in the afternoon where I’m from).

But these stories are important because they’re what help you to fill out the hidden dimensions of a land when you first arrive. This is how you build your witchy map of a place and figure out where to start attempting to build relationships. Not only that, but they can also give you clues as to how to survive should you encounter some of the nastier parts of the local unseen.

For example, I now live in Maryland. There is an alleged cryptid here called the Snallygaster who is apparently the mortal enemy of the Dwayyo – a kind of huge, monstrous, wolf-like being. I’ve also noticed some interesting parallels between some of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious National Park disappearances and Jinn lore, and I know that wolves are also associated with causing Jinn to vanish. So now I include ground down (legally obtained) wolf bones in the black salt I make to carry in my bag of tricks.
See what I mean?

Restoration, Not Reenchantment

restoration -ljosavatn

Hey, you there!

Yes, you, my fellow North American Heathens/Pagans/Witches. I’d like a word with you about a few things. You see, I’ve had a lot to think about of late, and I think some of you all really need to hear what I have to say.

Restoration - Ljosavatn
As you can see, it was a truly horrible place.

First of all, if you’re not already doing it, you need to be going on pilgrimages. Speaking as someone who’s been in Heathenry for a while (over twenty years, fml), we don’t really have a culture of pilgrimages, but we should. Now I’m admittedly biased about this shit seeing as I recently co-presented the Land, Sea, Sky Hiddenfolk, Witches, and Elves tour in Iceland with the incredible Morgan Daimler, but hear me out.

Making the Case for Pilgrimages

When we think of pilgrimages, I think we tend to think of them in terms of

Restoration - rock face
Here’s Johnny!

going to a place that’s considered inherently holy in a way, and trying to gain the favor of some numinous being. And don’t get me wrong, pilgrimages can be that. But I don’t think they have to be that (or at least that’s not where their greatest usefulness lies for us). Sometimes, pilgrimages can be a way to experience things related to your worldview that you wouldn’t otherwise experience in your normal environment.

You know, key things like ‘what it’s like to live in an actually inspirited landscape’.

A Tale of a Few Cultures

Let me tell you a quick story to sort of illustrate the point. The second time I visited the United States, I went to a large East Coast Heathen event where I facilitated the construction of a fire labyrinth. When we first went to the planned site and started to discuss the logistics of construction, we foundRestoration - Labyrinth ourselves being mobbed by mosquitoes.

A common enough occurrence, you say?

True. But none of them were actually biting, and so I took it as a sign that the local spirits of the land required some assurances and payment in order to proceed without us becoming walking clouds of mosquitoes while we worked. So I got some hard cider and addressed my words towards the woods, explaining the entire process for finding the stones we would use to mark out the labyrinth, the contained use of fire that would not burn the land, and how we would put the stones back in the forest when done. Then I poured out the offerings and the bugs left us alone.

To me, that was nothing – that small act of explanation and offering would have been a baseline response in so many other places that I’ve inhabited. However, it simply hadn’t occurred to my American counterparts to do that, or even that the wights would even be a factor to be taken into account. This led to me being introduced as someone who was especially into working with wights for the remainder of the event.

The Whole in the Hole

Now I’m not telling this story in a ‘nur nur I’m better than you stupid

Restoration - Godafoss1
It was just awful…so awful

Americans’ kind of way. (I’m an American citizen now too, so I’m also a stupid American.) I just wanted to illustrate how far they tend to be from the minds of modern American Heathens/Pagans/Witches, despite the fact that the existence of the numinious Other forms a key part of the historical worldviews of each of those groups. Even worse, where people do profess belief, it’s often not in a concrete way. Gods are easy for Americans to grok (as a culture we’ve a long history of god(s)-bothering) – ancestors too to some degree. But the Other is hard.

There are some good reasons for this, but to boil it all down to the most TL;DR explanation ever: Early colonists saw the colonization of America as a kind of religious crusade in which they had to “win” territories from the devil and “cleanse” them of the Heathen. (Don’t believe me? Check out this book, and the rantings of Cotton Mather here.) America was to be a covenant nation, given by god and kept for a long as Christianity held sway. This is the society most of you grew up in, and it is one that not only drove out the spirits in many places, but still lacks nuance when it comes to viewing those beings. If it is not dead or godly/of god, then it is demonic, and here is where we come to the crux of our problem.

There is no cultural framework within mainstream (predominantly white) American culture for interacting with the non-dead and non-godly. So is it any surprise that the Other remains and afterthought for many Heathens/Pagans/Witches here?

Restoring Pieces

Yet I believe it is the missing piece of the bigger picture, and I think many of us feel it or re-enchantment would not be a topic within our community.

Restoration - coast
We were just tortured by stunning natural beauty and elvish sex vibes.

This is where going somewhere that you know to be inspirited (by reputation) comes in. I appreciate that not everyone can afford to go to places like Iceland, but pilgrimages (or perhaps more accurately ‘retreats’) don’t have to be to places that are considered particularly connected to Pagan or Heathen traditions – they can be far closer to home. (Do we really think all those mysterious National Park disappearances are purely coincidental?) Take some like-minded friends! Take some apotropaics (bells, black salt, iron, wolf bones…you know, the usual)! Make a weekend of it!

Restoration - Dimmuborgir
Trust me, the rent isn’t worth it.

Go out there and experience the Other that peeks out of rocks, invites you into ‘move-in ready’ holes (don’t accept though), throws disembodied voices, moves your shit around, and just generally makes itself known.

Do that until you have this kind of an experience,*then* let’s continue our conversations about the ‘re-enchantment of the world’, but instead let’s call it ‘restoration’, and ‘finally getting our boots on for a spiritual war that’s worth a crap’. (Because what do you think all that Christian Spiritual Warrior crap has been doing anyway?)

Restoration > Re-Enchantment

The more I think about it, ‘re-enchantment’ as discussed in modern paganism sucks. (You can find a good example of how some modern Pagans interact with the concept here.) I mean, it’s not inherently bad but I think there are some definite issues with the current discourse:

Firstly, the world is viewed along an axis of enchanted vs disenchanted in this discussion. This suggests an endpoint at either extreme of the axis and I don’t

Restoration - Godafoss2
How the fuck did we even handle it?

believe that to be the case (for reasons I will go into).

Secondly, the predominant focus of re-enchantment is on human perceptions. There is no partnership with the Other here in this ‘re-enchantment’. It’s about humans rediscovering the enchanted nature of their local environment.

Thirdly, it’s all well and good to ‘re-enchant’ your perceptions of your local environment, but what if you work on that and there’s fuck all there? You may perceive the Other just fine when away from home, but what about when your local area is just…empty? Or how about pissed?

This is why restoration needs to be the goal as opposed to re-enchantment – that is just a step along the way.

Going Beyond Re-Enchantment

So what should restoration look like? In my opinion, it should involve inviting the Other back from the Outer yards, creating sanctuaries for them on our lands, building relationship, and giving them greater footholds among us. It should involve facing up to our collective shit as a culture and making amends for past sins.

Restoration - Gryla
Gryla says “Hi!”

I’m not going to lie, it’s not always going to work out. Some folks are likely to have shittier experiences than others with this. Some of you will have spirits that have absolutely zero interest in working with you, and will likely want to skullfuck you into next week. Those spirits have always existed, the same can be said about humans.

It’s time to stop freaking out when the Other makes itself more known, and it’s time to stop talking in ominous terms about the ‘Otherworld bleeding through’. Because this is, and always has been the fight in this land – the back and forth of Christians driving out the Other (both Human and non-Human) in order to maintain their damned, blood-soaked covenant. Cotton Mather knew it, as do his modern Dominionist counterparts do. We just need to finally get on board and start fighting our corner.

”Wherefore the devil is now making one attempt more upon us; an attempt more difficult, more surprising, more snarled with unintelligible circumstances than any that we have hitherto encountered; an attempt so critical, that if we get well through, we shall soon enjoy halcyon days with all the vultures of hell trodden under our feet. He has wanted his incarnate legions to persecute us, as the people of God have in the other hemisphere been persecuted: he has therefore drawn forth his more spiritual ones to make an attack upon us. We have been advised by some credible Christians yet alive, that a malefactor, accused of witchcraft as well as murder, and executed in this place more than forty years ago, did then give notice of an horrible plot against the country by witchcraft, and a foundation of witchcraft then laid, which if it were not seasonably discovered, would probably blow up, and pull down all the churches in the country. And we have now with horror seen the discovery of such a witchcraft! An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the first-born of our English settlements: and the houses of the good people there are filled with the doleful shrieks of their children and servants, tormented by invisible hands, with tortures altogether preternatural.”
Cotton Mather – The Wonders of the Invisible World

Our side in this was decided long ago.

Love and tea,

Me

P.S Check out Morgan’s open posts on the Pleiades for similar content on opening things up.  Part One. Part Two.

P.P.S Morgan is fucking awesome and a pleasure to stalk all over a volcanic land.

The Agency of the Unseen

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 upunseen - tom and jerry death scene 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!!!

Unseen - tardigrade
“Hi, I’m a tardigrade.”

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?

Unseen - big ball of twine
Kinda like this, but BIGGER!

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.