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?

Deciphering the Alien Views of the Unseen

Unseen - fairies

This past fortnight seems to have been a time for confronting and dealing with what may seem to each of us to be “alien views”. But I don’t want to get into the politics of that here, because that conversation is dominating the discourse pretty much everywhere else.

No, I want to go in a different direction with this post. Instead, I want to talk once more about agency, patterns, and if it is truly possible to understand that ‘alien’, non-human logic of the Unseen.

In “Fair” Facebook Do We Lay Our Scene

It all started with a conversation on Facebook (where else?) this morning, with a young man who thought there was nothing wrong with putting on a Native American war bonnet while in the ‘wilderness’ and invoking the energies of a Native American chief. (This is a young man who is from and still lives in the UK, I might add.)

I have to admit, the idea of that – all of it – is just so wrong to me for so many reasons. I can’t even understand the thought process behind it or what this man would hope to even gain from doing so, let alone the amount of false entitlement involved in the use of a war bonnet and expectation that the spirit of a Native American chief would just show up for a person in a completely foreign geographical area.

The conversation went on for a while, but along the way, we got back to the question of agency and spirits of land again. (Ah, that old chestnut!) So here I am, writing another post on the Unseen and agency, only with a little twist.

I’ve talked about the land being like an onion before: this idea that land from a more ‘spiritual’ perspective is made up of many layers comprised of the traditions, beliefs, actions, and magical practices of each people that has ever Unseen - magusdwelled upon it. Of course, this onion also affects the kinds of Unseen that might be there: the types of Unseen, their attitudes towards humans, how they expect interactions to look, the pacts that were made between humans and Unseen in years past, and the kinds of offerings they like. Sometimes these layers are things that you might expect. After all, who doesn’t expect Native American layers, and other layers made up of mostly Christianity in America? But even in America, there are also often layers that are far less expected – like the layer of occultism derived from Francis Barrett’s ‘The Magus’ that permeated the life of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism (Horowitz, 23), or the Freemason connections that a good number of the founders held. And regarding that first American religion, I can’t help but feel it significant in some way that its founder and first American prophet not only participated in the occult for years and scryed a holy book from a shew stone, but met his death by mob while allegedly wearing an incorrectly engraved Jupiter talisman. (Quinn 1998). Let that sink in for a moment. America may have layers of Native American religions and crosses, but she also has layers of sigils and magic – even among the saints. (As an aside, there’s a book I really want to pick up at some point called Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People that apparently attempts to track the plurality of religious expression, magic, and sacralization of the land in pre-revolutionary America.)

But that’s not the end of it. Now imagine that onion has a pattern running through it. Something scored on each

Unseen - Jupiter talisman
Joseph Smith’s Jupiter Talisman

layer that has built up into a larger and more coherent pattern over time.

For those of you that bought my book (thankyouthankyouthankyou), you may recall the essay called Sources of Power, Layers of Action and the explanation of how what we do now affects what we have to work with in the future. For those of you that didn’t, a Cliff Notes version of that would be to say that every action a person undertakes sets down a ‘layer’ for that person that goes into a kind of universal store of events and that the accumulation of those ‘layers’ over time, affects what you have to work with in life. In other words, it all builds a pattern, but more about that later.

Space As A Container For Action

In ‘The Well and the Tree’, Paul Bauschatz wrote that “For the Germanic peoples, space, as it is encountered and perceived in the created worlds of men and other beings, exists, to any significant degree only as a location or container for the occurrence of action.” (Bauschatz 86). This is a pretty significant concept in of itself. After all, I think most of us have been to places that have had a certain vibe or lived in homes we’ve felt were ‘luckier’ than others. However, we are also told that , “Every action calls to itself other actions to which it is significantly linked.” (Bauschatz 64), and that “They would bring factors from beyond the immediate to work and predicate events, returning them, as it were, to the great universal store of events from which all power came and in which all meaningful action returned.” (Bauschatz 113).

Unseen - NornirIn other words, if space is a container for action, actions set down layers (which call other similar actions to themselves), and there is a force that ensures that those contexts are revisited, then it would stand to reason that spaces have ‘patterns’ or contexts that get revisited again and again. Not only that, but these patterns don’t just affect humans; as the first Bauschatz quote says, these spaces-as-containers-for-action also seem to apply other beings too. Or at least that’s the best guess of what Germanic Heathens thought about the matter during the Heathen period.

As a caveat, Bauschatz does limit these space-containers to spaces that are enclosed, but I think they can apply to outside spaces too. After all, if we believe in the existence and agency of Unseen beings, then why wouldn’t we believe them to be capable of creating and delineating their own spaces and enclosures that we just cannot see?

When you really think about these ideas, ideas about layers and patterns, even just as a thought experiment, it’s really no surprise that you have oddities like the freak accident that kills every seven years at a river that was once

Unseen - The River Ribble
River Ribble

connected with a Romano-British goddess. Or that you have geographical areas that seem to have more murderers born within their boundaries than in other places. Or, as one of my favorite podcasts has been exploring of late, that there are places in which more people just seem to go missing (in the creepy ‘just disappear’ sense of the word) than others. Or why some houses seem to be a curse for those who live in them. Or…or…

Bauschatz’s work may be theoretical, but I do find a lot of practical application in his ideas, especially in light of my own experiences and UPG.

To Forget the Past is to Repeat the Future….

Does any of this give us the keys to these “alien views” of non-human persons though? No, but there’s a lot to be said for drawing closer to an understanding of some of the (even theoretical) “rules of play” so to speak. As always, the best way to understand as much of that non-human logic as much as possible, is to go back to the fairy and folk tales. These rules of play further reinforce the importance of knowing the old tales, and the warnings and rules of etiquette they contain. To know the past and the things yet unknown to you in the present, is to have the best guess of how to proceed in the present. The future will be made when we get there.

I’ve written about understanding the previous religious, magical, and folk traditions held in the layers of the land onion before now. However, I think these layers are also patterns, groupings of actions that call out to actions that are similar to themselves and which are more likely to reoccur. For many people, the great religious story of the US is that of Christianity, and yet for people like you and I, the far greater story is in the Joseph Smiths, the Fox sisters, the many homes in which a copy of Barrett’s ‘The Magus’ sat, and the myriad of other long-standing religious traditions that cluster in this land somewhat off the beaten path of the Nazarene.

Because it’s a story in which the Unseen were somewhat more seen, and that’s not something they’re likely to forget.

Sources
Mitch Horowitz – Occult America
Paul Bauschatz – The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture
D. Michael Quinn – Early Mormonism and the Magical Worldview

Re: The Otherworld Is Bleeding Through

Re: The Otherworld is Bleeding Through

On the 9th of June, Patheos blogger John Beckett wrote that the Otherworld is ‘bleeding through’, and that even though his awareness of this is a more recent thing, he’s of the opinion this has been going on for longer.

Although that might sound like crazy talk (after all, how many people have believed themselves to be living in pivotal times?), it’s no surprise to the people that know me that I agree with John.

I would say it’s been going on for a while – years even. Back then I was foolish enough to email a famous paranormal investigator for their input, to see if they’d noticed a rise in cases, but as I wasn’t mailing about a potential opportunity for publicity or financial gain, I was called ‘unprofessional’ and sent on my way. Back then it felt more like flood and ebb, there would be periods of crazy activity and periods of relative calm – or at least it did to me. It was around late August last year though when things really ramped up. After asking friends on Facebook if they were noticing or experiencing anything, and receiving affirmative replies from people who typically don’t experience the strange, I really began to take notice.

Not that I didn’t take notice before, but generally when the people who don’t usually get that kind of thing happen to them start to get that, well, it’s far more compelling than when people like myself (for whom these things tend to be ten a penny) get them.

Friends told me of white dog apparitions that lurked at the edges of the woods, of dreams of the dead that felt far more prescient than dream, and premonitions that came to pass. As time has gone on since then, more ‘woo’ friends have told me of hauntings returning that hadn’t haunted for years, of the return of spirits lain years before by exorcism, and of sighting the Slúa of all things.

At first I worried about what could be going on. I ritualized and performed divination after divination, and kept getting the same message back. That the ‘Other’ was now here, that they were rising up and coming back, and couldn’t be happier about it. This was to be our new normal.

In this, John Beckett and I are in agreement. Curiously, this is something the Fairyist survey seems to also be bearing out in that the sightings that people are reporting – at least of the feeorin – are far more in keeping with the view of centuries past rather than more modern ideas of fairies.

In January I wrote my posts about upping our collective game as witches, pagans, ritualists, or whatever sweet label we go by. This is a big part of why I wrote that post, because in spite of all the fake being sold as real that flies around, the real shit is there too – and really *close*. Regardless of whether this situation is temporary or permanent (I’ve seen some debate on that) though, we need to be bringing our A-game because things have the potential to get far more real, far more quickly than before.

Even outside of the more dramatic encounters, on a more day to day level, the sensitive people in our communities are already suffering in this current climate – that’s if the communities my friends are involved in are anything to go by. I’m seeing and hearing about a lot of sleeplessness and nervous issues cropping up right now among many, and I’d like to address some tools for dealing with this.

Right now, I would say that we need our gods, and to honor the reciprocal relationships we keep with the beings we keep them with. People looked to the gods for order and keeping the destructive forces outside of the inner yard, I would say that that’s a good thing all the time, not just when woo woo shit is going wild.

We need to make sure we ground and center often, and if you don’t know how to do that, now is the time to learn. We also need to work on our protections, to getting them down so they’re automatic – preferably tied to some kind of physical action so that when things get overwhelming, the muscle memory can take over and pull you back where you need to be. Muscle memory is powerful and often overrides emotional and/or mental states. We need to come up with back up plans for whenever we’re working for the ‘just in case’, and take hard looks at our liturgy to make sure we’re being smart with our words too (I’ll take a look at this in a future blog post, I think). Words in sacred space have weight and one can invite a whole host of trouble when words are used without thought.

We need to dust off the old tales and charms. Folktales can often provide us clues and ways to interact with or survive interaction with the Otherworld. Most of the etiquette that you see going around about how to interact with the feeorin (fae) for example, comes from these folktales; simple things like not thanking them, calling them honorific names such as ‘The Gentry’, or not letting them know that you can see them come from these stories. The old charms are often the most effective too. Iron carried upon the person or under the pillow can lead to more peaceful nights and costs far less in the long term than melatonin after the initial outlay. Shoes can be utilized as ‘spirit traps’, hung on bedposts, or stuffed on ledges up chimneys. Rowan crosses bound with red thread can protect against the feeorin, salt can be poured over thresholds, and multiple types of herb can be hung/burned/sprinkled in the home to clear or protect.

 

Admittedly, some of the old practices can be downright dangerous (probably even illegal nowadays), especially to Otherworld - Troll Crosschildren, but can be made safe with some adaptation. For example, the opened iron scissors hung over a crib can easily be a forged iron troll cross (or anything else that’s iron and not sharp) stuffed under the mattress of the child’s bed (or hung on the wall if the child is old enough), and we really don’t need to go back to testing our children to make sure they’re not changelings (by incidentally torturing or killing them).

But most importantly, we need our human tribes, our families, our friends, and our trusted people. We need to look after each other, because while things may not get horrific, we may be in for a bumpy ride while we adjust.