We live in a time of walls. We always have of course, but there are periods of history in which those walls become more restrictive and in which newer walls are far too easily built. In an attempt to disprove the existence of these walls, the skeptic would point to the promise of the Constitution. “See, it’s all right here. There’s nothing to worry about.” Except there is, because often the most effective walls are those that aren’t enshrined by law but in culture instead.
That is a war that the less conservative among us have been failing at badly. Let’s face it, most non-conservatives outside of minority groups didn’t even realize there was a war until relatively recently, even though more socially conservative groups have been fighting it for years.
The election was the dawning of a new era, because not only was it the beginning of what is looking to be a drastic change in direction for the United States, but because a good many people finally woke up to the war and saw the strength of the opposition.
Walls That Protect, Walls That Imprison
So we now find ourselves in a time of walls, but more accurately, in a time of walls that are beginning to encroach on the meagre areas we’d previously kept while believing ourselves to be free – ironic when one considers that our president-elect included a promise to build a wall in his election campaign promises.
But this post isn’t about those physical walls that are built, immigration law, or the election. There are plenty of places that are discussing all of the above ad nauseum and only adding more noise to the cacophonous furor that is social media. Besides, what would be the point of that on a magic blog?
This post is about walls from a magical perspective, the kinds of walls, their origins, and what we can do to tear them down in our own lives and practices.
Most walls are erected against the unknown dangers that lurk beyond the safety of the hearth. Since the beginning of human history, mankind has created enclosures around his dwellings in order to delineate ‘inner’ as opposed to ‘outer’, and more importantly ‘safe’ from ‘potentially unsafe’. From this view, not all walls are bad. However, a wall can just as easily be employed for constraint as for protection, and that is the kind of wall I’m writing about here.
How A Foundation Was Built
In the beginning, after some clarting about, the Bible tells us that the Jewish god created a man by the name of ‘Adam’, and a woman by the name of ‘Eve’. The Alphabet of Ben Sira places Eve as Adam’s second wife, a kind of replacement for Lilith who, made of dirt as Adam was, refused to obey and become subservient to him. After all, why should she if they were made of the same materia magica? Lilith then left and refused all attempts to compel her to return to a life of drudgery with Adam.
To circumvent this with woman 2.0, Eve was created from a piece of Adam so that she would have no claim to equality. It would be her lot in life to obey. This would form the foundations of one of the first walls. However, that was not the only foundation found in the myth of utopian Eden. Eve, or indeed every woman she represents, would play a far more damaging role in the mythological history of humankind.
The Garden of Eden is described as a paradise in which its inhabitants neither wanted for anything, nor knew the kind of trouble that disturbs the mind. It is the perfect place created by a loving father god for his children, but with one significant catch: eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was forbidden.
When you pare down this myth, when you remove the language of paradise and lack of want, what you are left with is an enclosure of sorts that is inhabited by people who are kept naked, ignorant, and obedient. From this perspective, the Fall of Man looks more like a jailbreak from an unethical science experiment than the disastrous curse upon humanity that it is often presented as.
Just ignorant and naked, with no right to one’s body or mind.
Since the Fall, women have been held to be the disobedient and destructive sex, our wombs and vaginas passageways to filth and depravity, and our only salvation to be found in obeying men. In other words, our salvation is to be found in becoming the property of and putting ourselves firmly under the control of men.
“In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell. -Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women, chapter 1
This is the foundation of one of the walls in our society, and a wall that for all of our advances in women’s rights, remains one of the strongest to this day. If anything, this wall is being rebuilt in the places where it was torn down, fortified, and new construction sites opened up. We see this in everything from the rise of MRAs, the increased attacks on reproductive freedoms, to the renewed popularity of the insult ‘cuck’ (a word deriving from ‘cuckold’ meaning ‘husband of an adulteress’, in other words, a man who was not able to control his woman – his property – well enough to prevent her from disobeying). On more subtle levels, we may even see the maintenance of and reinforcement of this wall in the censure of opinionated women in communities that might otherwise extol their own perceived egalitarian nature.
This is not the only wall either, I’m sure we could all think of more walls in our lives. Walls that affect how we see and deal with people of color, walls that affect how people of color must move in the world in order to do so with less harassment, walls that mandate that only one kind of sexual relationship is valid, walls that enforce gender binaries that harm people who simply just don’t fit in those boxes…well, you get the idea.
And all the while, we’re told that without those walls there would be chaos, anarchy, the destruction of order. The people of color will want revenge will come and get you without that thin blue line. Men won’t be able to control women and will end up in some 70s B-movie scenario in which men are enclosed in the same walls women are now. The gays will gay up your kids and people will invent new genders. People will marry outside their own cultures, no one will be able to say “Merry Christmas”, and it will probably also rain. We need the wall, the katechon, that which holds back all of those things they’ve taught you to fear.
Look at the media today, how much of it is focused on emphasizing the things that must be held back? How much of it justifies all those barrier construction projects? We need to do better than we are at recognizing it all, at taking a deep breath and deciding what to listen to and what to ignore. How many of our friends are complicit in this on social media? How many have swallowed the propaganda hook, line, and sinker? The first step for all of us is recognizing where the lines are drawn in our outer lives.
But this would not be a magic blog were I only to speak of the outer and political. Here is a place to discuss the inner too.
Or more specifically, once more the realm of dream.
The War on Dream
“Dream, I will argue, is made. The metaphor that first needs to be grasped is one that bears repeating, that of a war on dreaming. The decisive action here is the one embarked upon by John of Patmos, another exile bound to a far flung isle. His was a deliberate action which set out to not merely loose chimeras in the garden of the mind, but to bar the gates of dream itself. So this is where we decant our vitriol and dissolve the locks that John applied, which State and church imposed. This is by no means the end of the process, but the point at which we choose to begin.” – Apocalyptic Witchcraft, Peter Grey
Dream is a special state of being, one we tend to think of as a place of infinite possibilities in which we may do or experience any number of things that we cannot during waking life. However, from the work of scholars like Lisa Bitel and Jacques LeGoff, we know that our inner dreamscapes are in all likelihood artificially limited. That there are walls there. These are not walls that we can necessarily see from within dream for ourselves – after all, how can we know about the walls if they were set there long before we ourselves even had a chance to dream? However, there is a paper trail that can be followed that shows how clerics attempted to control dreamers and restrict the dreams themselves.
If that very idea doesn’t make you angry, I don’t know that anything can be done for you.
It wasn’t enough to control the waking world, they had to try and find ways to control and restrict the dreaming world too. Dreams came to be labelled as ‘devilish illusion’, and true dreams the sole domain of an elite of saints and Christian kings. Oneiric diversity withered, and the dreams of the common man evaporated from record like the dream that flees upon waking. Nowadays, a medium through which one might have previously entered into the Otherworld of one’s cultural and physical landscape stands weakened by ridicule, pop-psychology, and petty dream dictionaries that tell you nothing.
But we need to be able to dream, and we need to be able to dream fully, because it is through dream that we have some of our most effective communications with the Other. Without that, we will never fully pull down the walls of Christian worldview in our minds, or have those better ideas for new ways of doing things that our world so desperately needs.
When I first started to perform the Stele of Jeu ritual from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), it was, like for many others who begin this work, initially for the purpose of attaining the knowledge and conversation of a ‘holy guardian angel’ (in my case, more a daimon in the Greek sense). However, the more I performed it, the more I noticed that it was far more important than that. The Stele of Jeu is a freeing ritual, a ritual of unbinding and empowerment. It’s a ritual that tears down walls.
“Holy Headless One, deliver me from all restraining daimons and misfortune”
In Chaos Protocols, Gordon White observes that “One thing I will say with every confidence is that your dreams will certainly get a lot more interesting” as a result of performing the ritual, and I’ve found this to absolutely be the case. My dreams are now far deeper and coherent. They feel far less random and more like I am dealing with other intelligences and indeed, another world.
Yet it does not seem to be an effect that lasts perpetually. There is a drop-off in dreaming quality if I do not perform the rite on a regular basis. My dreams become shallow once more, punctuated only by the rare shining gem of a dream that happens to break through the morass of whatever unseen effects are at work in dream. The wall is resurrected once more and must be torn down anew in order to continue.
A Hidden Front In Plain Sight
We are very mistaken if we think there isn’t some kind of metaphysical war aspect to all of this too. How many of you have ever heard of Christian ‘prayer warriors’? Have you ever read their prayers, or what should more accurately be called spells? Just because they are addressed to the Judeo-Christian god or Jesus does not mean that they aren’t spells; the Grimoires are full of spells with similar language. What of the pope’s decree that Catholics only now store the ashes of their dead in special church-approved places? The dead are mighty, and such a place might be viewed as a source of power for a church that historically hasn’t been exactly shy about using its own magic. And what of the power of meme? We don’t often think of meme as being a potentially magical thing, but when you think about the ways in which memes are similar to sigils in Chaos magic, then they take on another aspect.
“Does not matter, need not be.”
How many of us see a meme, invest emotion into it (usually anger or amusement), and then either scroll on or engage with the discussion around the meme before scrolling on? At least sigil magic is done with intent. See, it is really that nefarious.
There is much to be unwoven here, a lot of unnecessary things that need to be pared away, and walls to be torn down both in our outer and inner lives. Becoming aware of those walls, and how they are built is only the first step. The next step is working consciously to bring them down through deliberate action, but we can only do that if we first free ourselves, and most importantly our inner worlds. Lastly, we need to counter the magic that enslaves dream and mind, finding ways to appeal to the hearts and minds of others – the Berlin wall was not torn down by the hands of a few, but by many. If there is anything this past election should have taught us, it’s that haughty cold logic and the mere presentation of that which holds back all that is bad is not enough. We need symbols and messages that appeal to not only minds, but hearts and souls too.
There’s a war on, and it’s about time we fought back.
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.