Cunning Woman: Mother Demdike and Her Legacy

May 3, 2010 by  
Filed under magick, witchcraft

Cunning Woman: Mother Demdike and Her Legacy

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire, Northern England were executed. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts describes her:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! In England, unlike Scotland and Continental Europe, the law forbade the use of torture to extract witchcraft confessions. Thus the trial transcripts allegedly reveal Elizabeth Southerns’s voluntary confession, although her words might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a healer and magical practitioner. Local farmers called on her to cure their children and their cattle. She described in rich detail how she first met her familiar spirit, Tibb, at the stone quarry near Newchurch in Pendle. He appeared to her at daylight gate — twilight in the local dialect — in the form of beautiful young man, his coat half black and half brown, and he promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic.

Tibb was not the “devil in disguise.” The devil, as such, appeared to be a minor figure in British witchcraft. It was the familiar spirit who took centre stage: This was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form, as Emma Wilby explains in her excellent scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Mother Demdike describes Tibb appearing to her at different times in human form or in animal form. He could take the shape of a hare, a black cat, or a brown dog. It appeared that in traditional English folk magic, no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their spirit familiar — they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.

Belief in magic and the spirit world was absolutely mainstream in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in spells and witchcraft — rich and educated people believed in magic just as strongly. Dr. John Dee, conjuror to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician and cartographer and also an alchemist and ceremonial magician. In Dee’s England, more people relied on cunning folk for healing than on physicians. As Owen Davies explains in his book, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, cunning men and women used charms to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was technically illegal — sorcery was a hanging offence — but few were arrested for it as the demand for their services was so great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury — your local village healer with her herbs and charms was far less likely to kill you.

In this period there were magical practitioners in every community. Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods can turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. This is what happened to 16th century Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop of Edinburgh, cited by Emma Wilby in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Dunlop was burned as a witch in 1576 after her “white magic” offended the wrong person. Ultimately, the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder. If your neighbours turned against you and decided you were a witch, you were doomed.

Although King James I, author of the witch-hunting handbook Daemonologie, believed that witches had made a pact with the devil, there’s no actual evidence to suggest that witches or cunning folk took part in any diabolical cult. Anthropologist Margaret Murray, in her book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921, tried to prove that alleged witches were part of a Pagan religion that somehow survived for centuries after the Christian conversion. Most modern academics have rejected Murray’s hypothesis as unlikely. Indeed, lingering belief in an organised Pagan religion is very difficult to substantiate. So what did cunning folk like Old Demdike believe in?

Some of her family’s charms and spells were recorded in the trial transcripts and they reveal absolutely no evidence of devil worship, but instead use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground by the English Reformation. Her charm to cure a bewitched person, cited by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. The text, in places, is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm which Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.

It appears that Mother Demdike was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace before the Reformation. The pre-Reformation Church embraced many practises that seemed magical and mystical. People used holy water and communion bread for healing. They went on pilgrimages, left offerings at holy wells, and prayed to the saints for intercession. Some practises, such as the blessing of the wells and fields, may indeed have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it is very hard to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief, which had become so tightly interwoven.

Unfortunately Mother Demdike had the misfortune to live in a place and time when Catholicism was conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of his age, believed the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In a 1645 pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: “No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists.” Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.

However, it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her description of her decades-long partnership with her spirit Tibb seems to draw on something outside the boundaries of Christianity.

Although it is difficult to prove that witches and cunning folk in early modern Britain worshipped Pagan deities, the so-called fairy faith, the enduring belief in fairies and elves, is well documented. In his 1677 book The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. The Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop mentioned earlier, while being tried for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit was a fairy man sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame.

The crimes of which Mother Demdike and her fellow witches were accused dated back years before the 1612 trial. The trial itself might have never happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. Until his reign, witch persecutions had been relatively rare in England compared with Scotland and Continental Europe. But James’s book Daemonologie presented the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation. Shakespeare wrote his play Macbeth, which presents the first depiction of a witches’ coven in English drama, in James I’s honour.

To curry favour with his monarch, Lancashire magistrate Roger Nowell of Read Hall arrested and prosecuted no fewer than twelve individuals from the Pendle region and even went to the farfetched extreme of accusing them of conspiring their very own Gunpowder Plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. Two decades before the more famous Matthew Hopkins began his witch-hunting career in East Anglia, Roger Nowell had set himself up as witchfinder general of Lancashire.

What do we actually know about Mother Demdike? At the time of her trial she appears as a widow and matriarch, living in a place called Malkin Tower with her widowed daughter Elizabeth Device, and her three grandchildren, James, Alizon, and Jennet. Her clan was very poor and supported themselves by a combination of begging and by the family business of cunning craft. The trial transcripts mention that local farmer John Nutter of Bull Hole Farm near Newchurch hired Demdike to bless his sick cattle. Interestingly John Nutter chose not to testify against her family in the trial.

Demdike’s family at Malkin Tower had a powerful rival in the form of Chattox, another widow and charmer, who lived a few miles away at West Close near Fence. Chattox allegedly bewitched to death her landlord’s son, Robert Nutter of Greenhead, for attempting to rape her daughter, Anne Redfearne. For social historians it’s interesting to see how having a fearsome reputation as a cunning woman could be the only true power a poor woman could hope to wield.

Unfortunately this could also backfire as it did with Demdike’s granddaughter, Alizon Device, who exchanged angry words with a pedlar outside Colne in March, 1612. Moments later the pedlar collapsed and suddenly went stiff and lame on one half of his body and lost the power of speech. Today we would clearly recognise this as a stroke. But the pedlar and several witnesses were convinced that Alizon had lamed her victim with witchcraft. Even she seemed to believe this herself, immediately falling to her knees and begging his forgiveness. This unfortunate event triggered the arrest of Alizon and her grandmother. Alizon wasted no time in implicating Chattox, her grandmother’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne.

The four accused witches were interrogated by Roger Nowell, and then force-marched to Lancaster Castle, walking over fells and moorland. Both Demdike and Chattox, whose real name was Anne Whittle, were frail and elderly. It was amazing they survived the journey. In Lancaster they were handed over to the sadistic Thomas Covell, the gaoler who reputedly slashed the ears off Edward Kelly, friend of John Dee, when he was arrested on the charge of forgery. The women were chained to a ring in the floor in the bottom of the Well Tower. Although torture was officially forbidden in England, gaolers were allowed to starve and beat their prisoners at will. Being chained to a ring in the floor and kept in constant darkness would certainly feel like torture for those who had to endure it.

On Good Friday following the arrests, worried family and friends met at Malkin Tower to discuss what they would do in regard to this tragic situation. Constable John Hargreaves came to write down the names of everyone present and later Roger Nowell made further arrests, accusing these people of convening at Malkin Tower on Good Friday for a witches’ sabbat, something he would have read about in Daemonologie. The arrests didn’t stop until he had the mythical thirteen to make up the alleged coven. Twelve were kept at Lancaster and one, Jennet Preston who lived over the county line in Gisburn, Yorkshire, was sent to York. Apart from Chattox and Demdike and their immediate families, none of these newly arrested people had previous reputations as cunning folk. It seemed they were just concerned friends and neighbours who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kept in such horrible conditions, Demdike died in prison before she came to trial, thus cheating the hangman. The others experienced a different fate.

The first to be arrested, Alizon was the last to be tried at Lancaster in August, 1612. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft are a moving tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. Roger Nowell, the prosecutor, brought John Law, the pedlar she had allegedly lamed, before her. Again Alizon begged the man’s forgiveness for her perceived crime against him. John Law, in return, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to heal him. Alizon regrettably told him that she wasn’t able to, but if her grandmother, Old Demdike had lived, she could and would have healed him.

Mother Demdike is dead but not forgotten. By the mid-17th century, Demdike’s name became a local byword for witch, according to John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s Lancashire Folklore. In 1627, only fifteen years after the Pendle Witch Trial, a woman named Dorothy Shaw of Skippool, Lancashire, was accused by her neighbour of being a “witch and a Demdyke.”

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. Long after her demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow Pendle Witches endure, their story and spirit woven into the living landscape, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. Enthralled by their true history, I wrote my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, dedicated to their memory. Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches, but mine turns the tables, telling the story from Demdike and Alizon Device’s point of view. I longed to give these women what their world denied them — their own voice. Their voices deserve to finally be heard.

Sources:

  • Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (Hambledon Continuum)
  • Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale)
  • Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (John Murray)
  • John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore (Kessinger Publishing)
  • King James I, Daemonologie, available online.
  • Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze (Carnegie)
  • Margaret Murray, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, available online.
  • Edgar Peel and Pat Southern, The Trials of the Lancashire Witches (Nelson)
  • Robert Poole, ed., The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press)
  • Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, available online.
  • Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin)
  • John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (Ams Pr Inc)
  • Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (Sussex Academic Press)
  • Benjamin Woolley, The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr. Dee (Flamingo)

©2010 by Mary Sharratt.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Author Mary Sharratt has lived near Pendle Hill in Lancashire since 2002. Her novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, inspired by Mother Demdike’s true story, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website.

The Sweat Lodge: Ancient Shamanism in the Modern Age

The Sweat Lodge: Ancient Shamanism in the Modern Age

Not long ago I had the chance to participate in my first sweat lodge. I thought it might be useful to set down my impressions of the experience, for others who have never undergone it but who are curious as to what is involved, or may be thinking about undertaking the ordeal for themselves.

The sweat lodge is an ancient part of shamanism that is widespread around the world in various forms. It was the ritualized spiritual custom for many of the native peoples of North America. A modern secular derivative of the practice is the Scandinavian sauna. In the sweat lodge the body is subjected to prolonged exposure to high-temperature steam. This causes abundant perspiration, hence the name.

The lodge in which I participated was overseen by a group of shamans in my part of Eastern Canada, among them some of the Mi’kmaq tribe, which is the Indian tribe native to the province of Nova Scotia, and to other areas of the north-eastern part of North America, such as New Brunswick and northern Maine.

Preliminaries

Prior to undergoing the sweat lodge, I had no first-hand knowledge of what it would involve, and did not know what to bring with me. I wondered if I would have to be naked in the lodge during the ceremony. Not to worry, everyone wore clothing of some sort. I was told that an old pair of jeans would be fine, but that I should bring along a change of clothing, since whatever I wore during the ceremony would get wringing wet. I wondered if I should wear shorts instead of long pants but was told by one of the people who planned to participate that, no, jeans would be fine. Mistake — but not a fatal one. Shorts are the clothing of choice for the sweat lodge.

The men generally wear loose shorts, and undergo the experience naked from the waist up. The women wear loose dresses or light tops, and skirts or shorts. In the sweat lodge ceremony I attended, the women were not naked from the waist up, which hardly seemed fair to me. Why should the men get to strip off their tops, but not the women? None the less, that’s the way it was. There is a general custom of modesty in the sweat lodges that are held across North America. However, everyone goes barefoot inside the lodge. No exceptions to this rule.

We were asked to arrive at the sweat lodge an hour before the beginning of the ceremony, which took place in a small clearing in a wooded valley at the end of a long private road, far from any human habitation. The result was complete privacy for the ceremony. Two lodges were being run simultaneously — one for men only in the smaller of the two sweat lodges, and another larger mixed group of men and woman in the bigger lodge. The men’s group consisted of about half a dozen men and the shaman who led the ceremony. I attended the mixed group, which had around eighteen or so participants, plus the person leading the ritual activities.

When I got to the clearing, a huge bonfire was blazing over a pile of stones. It was a nice, mild pre-spring day in Nova Scotia. Most of the snow was gone from the open patches of ground but the winter-browned grass and the sod were still frozen solid. The breeze was fitful and tossed the rising smoke of the fire in all directions, so that it was impossible to avoid it no matter where I stood or sat. Benches had been arranged around the fire, but the smoke was so capricious, no one could use them. We stood around talking while the stones got hot.

One of the organizers of the sweat lodge took me aside and gave me the low-down on what was expected. She told me that I would have to take off my boots and socks to enter the lodge, that it was necessary to crawl through the door and that I should not stand up while inside the lodge. All movement in the circular lodge was sunwise around the central fire pit. She warned that I should take off any jewellery as people had sometimes found that wearing jewellery during a lodge could result in burns on the skin when the metal of the jewellery became hot. She also told me to remove my contact lenses.

The larger lodge was a round, hut-shaped structure about twelve feet across and six feet or so tall. It was made of a frame of slender poles bent together, and was covered in fabric similar to blanket material. It had no windows of any kind, and a single door in the north side facing the fire, so low that it could only be entered by getting on hands and knees. This doorway was closed by a flap of fabric. Inside, the floor was bare turf. I noticed a small vent at the very top of the hemispherical lodge, which I presumed was there for ventilation, to prevent us all from suffocating.

I have to admit, after the recent disaster in the autumn of 2009 concerning a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona, in which three participants were killed and 21 others sickened, being able to get enough fresh air was a concern in my mind. I was glad to see this vent, small though it seemed to be. It was baffled to prevent the entry of any light.

In the center of the floor there was a circular pit around three feet in diameter and about a foot deep. I knew in a vague sort of way what the pit was for, but did not have a clear idea of how it would work during the ceremony itself.

All these features of the inside of the sweat lodge I learned only when I crawled inside for the first time. Before that happened, we performed a brief ceremony while standing in a circle around the bonfire. Each of the six directions of space, and the center, was acknowledged successively in prayer. This was done in an interesting way. Volunteers were asked to speak for the directions. Those who volunteered did not recite a prepared script, but spoke spontaneously from their hearts as the impulse arose within them at that moment. This resulted in uneven prayers, some better than others, but it had a spontaneity that I liked.

When we addressed the east, we all turned to face the east; when we addressed the west, we turned to the west. When we gave thanks and acknowledgment to the earth, the downward direction, many of those present knelt and touched the ground, although this must have been voluntary since many remained standing. I chose to crouch as a mark of respect.

A little mix-up occurred in the sequence of prayers. It was supposed to be the gods of the center that were acknowledged last, but the person speaking for the center jumped in too early, and we ended up praying to the sky last. The leader of the ceremony joked that she was sure the gods would understand, and would not be angry.

Inside the Lodge

We all took off our shoes, lined up on the frozen grass, and crawled into the sweat lodge. The men took up positions on the right side, and the women on the left side, from the viewpoint of the door facing inward. There was enough space to crawl around the lodge sunwise between the seated participants, who had their backs to the wall of the lodge, and the central fire pit.

It was pretty cramped in there, and uncomfortable. The ground was cold and hard, and more than a little damp. The wall of the lodge was uneven. I found that I could not lean back against it without having a ridge of wood dig into my spine. There was very little room to put our legs. I tried sitting cross-legged for a while, but in the end extended my feet toward the fire pit. That seemed the most comfortable position. Nobody wanted to press against those beside them, so everyone was trying to avoid contact by scrunching up, but there was so little room in the lodge, contact was unavoidable. This may have been deliberate on the part of the leaders of the lodge. We were told that the sweat lodge is an ordeal, and that it is supposed to be uncomfortable.

It was time for more warnings. If anyone could not stand the heat a moment longer, they were to call out in a loud voice “open the door! open the door!” which was the signal for the door to be opened. It would have to be called out loudly because there was going to be a lot of noise during the ceremony. Anyone who could not take the heat would be allowed to leave the lodge, but we were all asked not to give in to the heat unless we absolutely thought we were about to die, because it was very disruptive to have to open the door in the middle of the ceremony. We were also cautioned not to crawl into the fire pit in the darkness of the lodge by mistake, because the stones in the pit would be very hot. Well, duh.

I sat there a little nervously, trying to adjust my legs to a comfortable position, but found that there was no comfortable position. I tried to keep the sharp edge of wood on the side of the lodge from digging into my back, but every time my shoulders slumped, there it was again. Even so, I was glad I was sitting on the outside rim of the lodge — some people were sitting in a second circular row in front of me close to the fire pit. I was glad for the coolness of the side of the lodge at my back, and for the coolness of the earth under me. I wondered if I would be the first one to crack from the heat and call out “open the door!” That would be embarrassing.

I wore a T-shirt and jeans. Most other men were naked to the waist and wore shorts. I wondered if my extra clothing would make the ordeal more difficult for me. The person beside me told me that I could strip down to my underwear – nobody would mind – but I kept my clothes on. I wondered if the wedding ring on my finger would burn my skin, or if my metal belt buckle would burn through my jeans. We had been told to drink plenty of water, but I had only swallowed a single mouthful.

Part of the spiritual energy stimulated during a sweat lodge comes from this uncertainty as to what is going to take place. It is strongest the first time, when the person undergoing the lodge ceremony has no idea of what is about to happen. I was primed for a peak spiritual experience. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to come out of the lodge alive.

How the Sweat Lodge Works

The way a sweat lodge works is this — stones from the fire that are called “stone people” are carried into the lodge and placed one by one into the fire pit in the center of the floor. About eight stones are used, and each is around ten to twenty pounds in weight. They are so hot from the bonfire, that when they enter the dimness of the lodge, they glow red in their centers, and you can feel the heat radiating from them even from a long distance.

Since I’d never undergone a sweat lodge before, I had assumed that the heat came from the rocks directly, by radiation. Not so. The heat is in the form of steam, which is generated by pouring water from a bucket over the hot rocks using a ladle. The rocks are so hot, that when the water touches them it is instantly converted to steam. I was afraid the boiling water might splash over my feet, which were close to the pit, so I covered them with a towel, but I did not need to worry. The rocks are so hot, the water does not boil or splash, it is all turned to steam instantly. The water comes from a large bucket that holds around four gallons, which is set beside the fire pit next to the person in charge of the ritual. That person controls the steam.

There are three levels of heat in a sweat lodge, as I soon learned. There is the first level, when a stone is being lifted through the open door on the tines of a pitchfork to the warning call of “rock!” and then blessed with a scattering of herbs, which burst into little sparks of fire and smoke the instant they touch its glowing surface. All the rocks together radiate a large amount of heat that can be felt on the face and skin like the heat from a blazing fireplace.

The second level of heat is when the first ladle of water is poured over the rocks in the pit, and a cloud of white steam rushes upward with a great hiss like that of a giant serpent. It is many times hotter than the heat from the rocks alone. The steam rises upward to the roof of the lodge, and then rolls around and down the sides in a moving curtain, so that it first touches the participants on the head and the back of the neck. It is easy to feel on the exposed tips of the ears.

The final and most intense level of heat is when the door flap is sealed tightly so that no trace of light or air can enter, and the inside of the lodge is plunged into absolute darkness. The ventilation from the open door prevents the full effects of the steam from being felt, but when the door flap is shut, there is nothing to cool the inside of the lodge. The level of heat is magnified several times over. It is most intense a few seconds after the water is applied to the rocks, when the curtain of steam has had time to fly up to the roof and roll its way down the walls.

Each ordeal lasts as long as the water in the bucket. The faster the water is applied to the rocks, the hotter it gets. I half-expected the rocks to explode and scatter hot fragments over all of those sitting around the pit when they were hit with splashes of icy water, but was told that the rocks were basalt and very old, excellent for holding the heat without breaking down. And indeed, none of the rocks cracked.

We did not just sit there in the dark and suffer the heat. All the while the door was shut and the water was being applied to the rocks, the air was filled with the sound of a rattle being shaken and often with the rhythmic pounding of a flat shamanic drum. The leaders of the lodge chanted and sang songs, some with words that were recognizable, and others native songs that seemed to have no words, or only a few words repeated over and over. Everyone was encouraged to join in. Many people began their own chants and songs when the initial song was dying down, so that a continuous noise of singing and chanting was achieved. In part, I think this chanting was designed to distract the mind away from the ordeal of the heat, but in part it was an invocation to the spirits of nature that were being honoured by the ceremony.

Four Sessions

We did four sessions in the lodge that afternoon — by that I mean four times when the door was sealed shut and the bucket of water ladled over the hot rocks. New rocks were placed into the pit for each session, so that they would be hot enough to turn the water to instant steam. The first session was devoted to honouring the Mother Earth and women’s mysteries. The last was free-form, during which we were invited to pray and speak as the impulse arose within us. Each session lasted around half an hour, and we opened the flap of the lodge and exited to cool off between sessions, and to drink water.

In the middle of the second session, the leader threw ladles full of icy water over the people inside the lodge. I think it was designed to shock us into a more intense self-awareness of the time and place. We didn’t know it was coming because of the pitch darkness. The first ladle-full caught me square in the face. It was quite a surprise. I suspect the leader of the session aimed it at me, because the experience was completely new to me, and I would have no idea it was coming, but how he managed to hit my face so accurately with the first shot in total darkness, I don’t know.

During the hottest part of the sweat lodge experience, it is difficult to breath easily. The steam is so hot and dense that it burns the insides of your nose, and if you try to breathe through your mouth, it burns your lips and tongue. We were told to breath through out bared teeth at those times. I found that this did not help much. It made my teeth too hot. The best approach, for me, was to breath very, very shallowly through the nose, and very slowly so that the steam was drawn in gradually, not fast enough to burn. The steam in the air can become quite dense. When the door-flap is first opened after a session, admitting light, the steam is so thick in the air inside the lodge that you can barely see across to the other side.

Needless to say, I got soaked to the skin at each session. Standing outside in front of the smoking bonfire served to half dry me off, but I was never completely dry before we crawled in for the next session. My bare feet on the frozen ground had the hardest time. They became numb but I was able to warm them by holding them up close to the bonfire, and that prevented them from being frozen too badly.

I learned that many of my fears had been groundless. My wedding ring did not burn my skin. Maybe this was because I took care to shield my ring from the direct contact of the new steam as it rolled around the lodge. I could probably have worn my contact lenses, because I kept my eyes closed most of the time inside the lodge. Since the darkness was total, there was not much point in keeping them open.

The herbs that were mixed with the water poured over the stones left a curious taste at the back of my throat for a time, but no ill effects. Apparently, it is possible to modify the effects of the steam by putting various herbs in the water. Each shaman has his or her own recipes of herbs to use with the water.

The Peace Pipe

After the four sessions in the lodge, participants were invited to sit around the fire pit inside the lodge with the door-flap left open, and share a peace pipe. Many chose not to do so, including myself, because they did not smoke and did not wish to expose their lungs to tobacco smoke, and this was fine with the leaders of the lodge. No aspersions were cast on those who stayed outside during the pipe ceremony.

The general mood inside the sweat lodge throughout all four sessions was one of joyful exuberance. Everyone was encouraged to sing, chant, and release their emotions, and everyone seemed to do just that. There was nothing heavy or forbidding in the ceremonies — it was all child-like happiness that comes from living in the moment. Prayers were given, spirits were seen by many of those who participated, and prayers were answered. A good time truly was had by all.

©2010 by Donald Tyson.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

Further Thoughts After the Women’s Voices in Magick Panel at Pantheacon 2010

May 3, 2010 by  
Filed under culture, sexuality and gender

Further Thoughts After the Women's Voices in Magick Panel at Pantheacon 2010

At the most recent Pantheacon, I was honored to participate in a panel of authors who contributed to Immanion Press’s recent Women’s Voices in Magick anthology. It was a real treat to be able to take part in a lively conversation on the state of contemporary occultism with women from a diverse range of magical communities. Celtic Reconstruction, Thelema, Chaos and experimental magic were among the stated approaches used by such notable occultists as Erynn Rowan Laurie, Kat Sanborn, Amy Hale, Lupa, and Jaymi Elford. Despite the disparity in our training and in the communities and Gods we choose to serve, there were a number of common threads in our discussion that I feel shed light on compelling issues of contemporary magical practice. Since taking part, the issues have been much on my mind, and I present some of my thoughts on these topics as well.

Heterosexism, Privilege and Magick

All of us affirmed our affection and respect for our male colleagues, mentors and teachers. We expressed gratitude for their guidance and friendship. But in examining our personal experiences with sexism and heterosexism, it was starkly obvious to all of us that neopagan culture was not immune from either of these ills. It has manifested for us, both subtly and not so subtly. All of us have had to deal with criticisms that our hobbies, interests and life’s work, were not “natural” for women. These are not the attitudes of conservative family members, but rather those of our contemporaries and magical peers. We were told that there was something exotic, unusual, or just flat wrong about a woman Thelemite or Chaote. In those circles, we were either tokens or dupes. We’ve been told that we were doing our magick “incorrectly.” One woman spoke about how she and the other women who founded their tradition now feel pushed aside by male colleagues who monopolize conversations and blog threads with arguments among themselves, while ignoring female voices. Many of us spoke about feeling the hostility of male colleagues in traditionally male occult societies, and feeling distrust from other women occultists for working magick outside of a traditionally female context (Wicca, witchcraft, etc).

We all agreed that we had felt, at one time or another, reduced to sexual and biological objects. We were made to feel, by male colleagues, that our function in our spiritual community was to be sexually attractive and available to men, and if we weren’t, this was interpreted as somehow hostile on our part. To encounter this type of attitude in what we had hoped would be safe magical space is disheartening. What made it worse was the not so subtle message in many magical communities that women’s secondary status is “natural,” that it is somehow “natural” for us as women to serve men in all things, because that’s “how it is in nature.” In addition, this “natural” heterosexism asserts itself as phobic against homosexuality and transgender. “Nature” is used as a litmus test for what is “natural” in human sexuality; therefore, heterosex is privileged above all other sexual expressions for being more “natural.”

This construction of human sexuality is faulty and reductionist, and owes far more to the hidebound moralities of our dominant / dominator paradigm than to reproductive biology. This model is limited because it’s couched in polar binaries only, and even in context of so-called “fertility religion,” it provides an incomplete vision of the natural world as a source of gnosis and connection. The mysteries of egg and sperm, of seed and pollen, are ever present. They are primal forces, the engine that runs our planet. These energies are the forces of creation and destruction that we all engage in, everyday, with every breath: they are not exclusive to one sex, gender or orientation. The deepest human need has ever been to understand these forces, and the religions of these mysteries have ever tried to explain the infinite to finite human minds. The male-female heterosexual current is only one iteration of this primal energy. It’s a powerful one, and it is self-evident. From an evolutionary standpoint it has been wildly successful because it yields the greatest genetic diversity. But it is only one of many currents that energize our planet, our natural world, and in no way does it demand the type of oppressive constructions that culture puts on gender and sexual orientation. These are not natural; these are merely prejudice.

It is one of the more demoralizing tricks of the dominator paradigm to take the entire range of human enterprise, experience and emotional potential, divide it in half, give half to one gender and half to the other, and then expect whole, integrated adults to emerge. The most ancient, and truest, magical injunction remains: Know thyself. We cannot be fully human if we accept the limitations of dominator gender roles without question or complaint. As women magicians, we all had felt at some time pressured to abandon our magick in order to conform to someone else’s vision of what a woman should be. Rejecting those values is part of our commitment to our magical work.

Sex, Pleasure and Consequence

Despite having overcome our dominant culture’s sex-negative programming, we all felt that we had all been sexually objectified at one time or another. In many ways, the pro-sexual attitudes and relaxed sexual mores of Neopaganism have been just as limiting to women occultists as the anti-sexual stances against which many occultists have rebelled. Again, this is a reductionist attitude in which women are relegated to only those roles which serve men. Promoting sexual “liberation” for women serves heterosexual male interests, by encouraging and privileging (pressuring) women to be sexually available. This also manifests in how sexual or love Goddesses are lavished with devotion and reverence, while other Goddesses (mothers, crones, virgins, warriors) are given short-shrift except in women-only ritual contexts (Dianic Wicca, Goddess worship, etc).

The reclamation of sexuality as a sacred act of pleasure and connection is a central tenet of many occult traditions. Certainly for me, who follows the path of the Qadesha (sacred harlot), sexuality acts as both a sacred mystery and spiritual practice. Sexual pleasure can be a conduit for gnosis and connection with our most sacred selves and deity. But often the hedonism of Neopaganism frames sexuality as a purely physical pursuit. It sets up sexual pleasure much as the dominant paradigm does, as a commodity, something superficial, available upon demand, and having no consequence. (This is why the dominant paradigm really has no interest in what women occultists are saying. The vision of a sacred sexuality that we espouse cannot be sold to us, nor can it be purchased from us. Therefore, it really has no assigned value in the larger culture.)

The lie about this reductionist vision of sexuality is that sex is reduced to something inconsequential and tame, and it absolutely isn’t. Sex is full of peril: the peril of connection, of vulnerability, of the very real life and death consequences of . . . life and death. We as human beings have by and large removed procreation from a direct line to reproduction, and medical technology has mitigated much of the risk of childbearing. But those risks, that peril, have been part of human sexuality from the beginning and are encoded deeply within us. (Could the intensity of sexual pleasure be evolutionary coded, in order to offset the pain, danger and risk of childbearing?) Sexuality is more than just “scratching the bunny itch” and a sexual philosophy that diminishes that fact is ultimately false. Sometimes this fact is lost in the hedonism.

An example of this is a Beltane ritual I attended years ago, while I was quite pregnant. Our hosts were gracious, their home and grounds lovely and private, the ritual was beautifully executed. But I became profoundly uncomfortable by the “sermonette” in which our priest discussed the “universal” sexual dynamic of the female enticing the male to chase her till she catches him, which is present in the mating habits of all animals everywhere all the time. I found this fairly reactionary, of course, but as the evening wore on, the vibe became even more sexual as folks got flirty, then lascivious. As it was Beltane, it was considered perfectly appropriate. But once the vibe became licentious, I found myself pointedly ignored. My pregnant state put me outside the “fun and games” — I was no longer sexually available or accessible; I was “spoken for,” not by a husband, but by my unborn child.

While it may seem intuitive to consider a pregnant woman sexually unavailable, I don’t feel it was respect for my relationship status that had this effect. I believe I was ignored because I was a reminder of an aspect of sexuality at odds with the vision of the no-strings, sport-sex that was being celebrated that night. The risks, perils and consequences of sex can transcend the momentary pleasure we are driven to experience, and I was a very present reminder of those consequences. It also hints at old concepts of a divided female sexuality, in which the sexual is degraded as selfish and debauched, and the mother is admired as purely spiritual and selfless, almost virginal. This is ironic, of course, in that the only way to achieve becoming a mother is through that nasty sex. It’s this type of cognitive dissonance that keeps women occultists and witches from feeling fully empowered in magical community. The new boss looks remarkably like the old one.

Women’s Space or Ghetto?

With so many magical spaces and communities being so hostile, what spaces can we as women occultists create? This was a conflict we had all had: finding that the magical communities and work that we were most attracted to, were not necessarily welcoming to us. Specifically, our male colleagues were hostile to our participation, and demanded that we conform to perceived “male” standards of practice and conduct. Even the magical spaces that we and other women created, we could be displaced out of by our male colleagues taking control of the intellectual space. This type of dynamic happens both online and in person. As the group space becomes fractious or argumentative (as will happen when fine points of doctrine are debated endlessly, or when individuals assert their authority or their place in hierarchy), women tend to feel silenced — they do not wish to step into the fray, and feel ignored when they try to redirect the conversation. As a result, many women occultists feel compelled to go “underground,” to create a parallel conversation among themselves only, in order to speak more freely and push forward their own work.

There are benefits and liabilities to this approach. Certainly, this type of woman-only space has been vital in fostering the work of countless women magicians, and is at the core of feminist activism and Goddess spirituality. Its value, its necessity, to the women who feel silenced outside this space, is incalculable. However, by not speaking outside these safe spaces, female voices become more absent where they need most to be heard. These spaces can become ghettos, where women’s creative expression is tolerated at the same time it is barred from the more prominent position in culture that it deserves.

The challenge for all of us — as magicians, as conscious individuals — is to continue to create the work that is sustaining to us and supportive our communities. The stakes are incredibly high — we are all of us engaged in creating culture that is healthy, sustainable and flourishing. This work of generating culture is now inextricably linked to our survival as a species. We have to work together, and seek connection, and look beyond the minute differences that keep us isolated.

©2010 by Leni Hester.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

The Key to Evocation: Zodiacal Decans

April 30, 2010 by  
Filed under evocation, magick, qabalah, theory

The Key to Evocation: Zodiacal Decans

Matrix of Possibilities

There are many ways to perform the operation of theurgy and the evocation of spirits. Most of those who practice this kind of magical operation work through one or more of the many available grimoires. However, there are other ways to perform this operation that have little to do with the old grimoires; yet these other methods require the invention of a completely alternative magical technology. A practitioner is generally stuck between using existing information and available materials or creating something entirely new. The path that I took was to create a new methodology for invocation and evocation; but the clues on how to proceed were already well documented, even though they were subtle and obscure.

Ever since I first examined the Goetia of the Lemegeton, or Lesser Key of Solomon, I have been fascinated by those entities called Goetic Demons, but found the methodologies for invoking them to be too abbreviated and incomplete to be entirely useful. Others have made use of this grimoire, but I found it beyond my ability to produce an effective methodology for evocation. I also found the 72 angels of the Shemhemphorasch (ha-Shem) in this same category, even though they were not specifically listed in any grimoire that I had at the time. To me there seemed to be a lot of pieces of occult lore without the ability to pull them all together. So I tended to work with the spirits and powers that I was able to access through my developed ritual systems, and ignore all of the other spirits that didn’t fit into those structures.

However, when I first read Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth and also studied Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn (specifically, Book T) there seemed to be a new structure implied that might associate the tarot, astrology, Qabalah and the hierarchy of spirits into one unified system. That structure was found in the 36 Naib cards of the minor arcana of the tarot and the 36 astrological decans.

Aleister Crowley discusses that there is an associated spiritual hierarchy with each of the Naib cards, stating it as such: “It is governed from the angelic world by two Beings, one during the hours of Light, the other during the hours of Darkness. Therefore, in order to use the properties of this card, one way is to get into communication with the Intelligence concerned, and to induce him to execute his function.”1

Crowley goes on to write that these two spirits are the angels of the Shehemphorash and that there are a total of 72 of them, corresponding to the five degree astrological segment of the “quinaries,” or what I refer to as the quinarians.2 Crowley omits relating the astrological decans to these 36 Naib cards, but he does use the old style planetary rulers that are associated with them in assigning the planets to these tarot cards. One can see this illustrated in a table on page 283 of the Book of Thoth.

Book T goes further than Crowley by not only showing that the astrological decans correspond to the 36 Naib cards of the tarot, but also that there is a larger matrix consisting of the 16 court cards and the four aces.3

So it would seem that there is a very tight tabular system consisting of all of the 56 cards of the lesser arcana. This tabular system can also be used to represent a spiritual hierarchy of the four elements, the ten sephiroth of the tree of life and the twelve signs of the zodiac. The one association that is missing is where the decans are shown to be hierarchically related to the quinarians, since the former would represent a ten degree segment of the zodiacal wheel and the latter, a five degree segment.

A decan would therefore be the higher order structure of two corresponding quinarians. What this means is that the decan and its associated spirit correspondences rules over the associated quinarian and its spirit correspondences. If the angels of the ha-Shem and the demons of the Goetia are associated with the quinarians, then the angelic ruler of the decanate would be their hierarchical lord, and the decan would be the key to the quinarian.

Clues to the nature of the astrological structure of these spirits are found in the lore from the Golden Dawn and Alesiter Crowley. In the book 777 (cols. CXXIX CXXXII, CXLV CLXVI), the angels of the Ha-Shem,4 angelic rulers of the decans and demons of the Goetia are organized by the zodiac, using the ascendant, cadent and succeedent parts of the wheel of the zodiac, by day and night.

It would seem that the number 72 would lend itself to occult interpretations, being a multiple of six times twelve, both very sacred numbers in Judaism. Also, there already was an astrological structure for the quinarians as lesser aspects of the decans, so I think that it would fit into a neat hierarchy.

I don’t know where this idea originally came from, but I was using existing schemes for all of this, as well as hints from Aleister Crowley in the appendices of the Book of Thoth, so I didn’t invent it.5 As a system it fits really well together, and it’s better than using the Shemhemphorash as a unique and separate set of spirits without any correspondences. As I have stated above, determining a context for spiritual entities so that they may be defined and highly qualified is important if the magician seeks to invoke them.

When I carefully researched the clues, I found where the angels of the Shemhemphorash were given their astrological correspondences. It was in Agrippa’s Book III of Occult Philosophy, Chapter XXV, paragraph 6. Agrippa writes: “And these are those [angels of ha-Shem] that are set over the seventy two celestial quinaries.” So if the angels of ha-Shem are set over the seventy two celestial quinarians, then their hierarchy would naturally be associated with the 36 decans and the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and also with their associated archangels and angelic rulers. This relation between decan and quinarian is not spoken of either by Agrippa or anyone else, but is alluded to in Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth,6 and also Book T of The Golden Dawn. If you put what he says together with the tables in 777, you come up with the system that I am using. To my knowledge, no else quite makes all of the combinations that I have made; but it seems to be functionally elegant.

Needless to say, I was quite thrilled at how neat and tidy all of these various elements were pulled together through the cards of the Lesser Arcana of the Tarot. I speculated that if one could identify the various correspondences associated with each of these cards, that one could put together a system to invoke and evoke all of the associated spirits. So, after basking in this wondrous revelation, I set to work to build a system of magick that would do just that.

To recap, the angelic ruler of the decan and tarot Naib card has the following hierarchy:

  • Element godhead
  • Qabalistic sephirah
  • Zodiacal base element
  • Zodiacal triple spiritual intelligences (archangel, angel, house ruler) — these qualify the specific zodiacal sign
  • Planetary ruler of the decan
  • Angelic ruler of the decanate
  • ha-Shem angel of day and night
  • Goetic demon of day and night (from Lemegeton — Goetia)
  • Angel of the zodiacal degree (From Lemegeton — Ars Paulina — Part 2)

Obviously, if one were to perform an invocation of the angelic ruler of the decanate, one of the angels of the ha-Shem, or one of the Goetic demons, then one would establish or invoke the associated spiritual hierarchy, beginning with the element godhead. Tools used to assist in the establishment of these qualities would be the pentagram (element), lesser hexagram (astrological triplicities), greater hexagram or septagram (planetary ruler) and the enneagram (sephirah).

My methodology uses a technique that defines a spirit through a matrix of correspondences and generates the elemental body and planetary intelligences of the spirit from them. I will defer that explanation to a future article, but I believe that the above information is enough to get occultists thinking of an alternative method to performing invocation and evocation.

Importance of the Astrological Decans

So, what is the importance and significance of the astrological decans? Even if they seem to fit into a nice tidy structure that defines a whole hierarchy of spirits, why is it such a compelling structure by itself? These are good questions, but in order to answer them, we will need to share some historical information about the decans. Once that is done, I am sure it will be obvious why they are significant.

The decans have a long history in the annals of magical religion — the Egyptians had minor deities associated with each of them and these play an important part in the Book of Gates.7 The decans are used in horary (predictive) astrology to determine the dignity of planets in the divinatory chart and they have been represented in both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian theological systems as sidereal gods of time and destiny. Thus the magician contacts the angelic ruler in order to realize and control his destiny, and to affect the general causality of the world. The decans were also used by the Egyptians to indicate the hour of the night.

What gave me a startling clue to the importance of the decans is when I came across a passage in the book Magic, Mystery, and Science — The Occult in Western Civilization by Dan Barton and David Grandy. That passage said that the Egyptians used the decans (and their associated godheads and marking stars) to determine and qualify the hours of the night sky. During the night, the decan that appeared at the ascendant (eastern horizon) would tell the Egyptians what time it was. A decan period would last approximately 40 minutes, so for each night approximately 18 of the 36 decans could be revealed. During the changing of the seasons, the evening would potentially begin with a different decan over time, passing through the whole zodiacal wheel during an annual period.

So the decans were possibly used as magical hours during the night, but these hours would have lasted 40 minutes instead of 60, and each decan would have been accorded a different minor godhead and quality, not to mention the 12 gates of the diurnal solar boat transit through the underworld.

It would also seem that the Egyptians used a system of reckoning when attempting to determine the hours at night, using the decans passing over the horizon as a kind of clock. Since twilight would have made this reckoning impossible, there would have been 12 hours of night associated with the decans, since making this measurement would have required complete darkness. Dawning light would have also potentially interfered, so there would have been an hour and a half both before full night and before dawn when such reckoning would have been impossible.

A device called a merkhet (plumb line) was discovered in an Egyptian tomb. This tool, whose invention was late, probably around 600 BCE, was used to determine the north-south axis. Two of these devices were set up in a specific measured line from each other, and the subject would observe the rising of the decan star between the line of these two devices. It’s likely that this late tool was based on more primitive technology, which would have been used to perform the same kind of sighting.

Another interesting thing about the decans is that every ten days a new decan would appear at the horizon at the first observable hour of the night. It’s from this array of 36 decans, each lasting ten days, that the Egyptians determined their solar based calendar, where the last decan coincided with the period just before the annual inundation of the Nile river. They had a yearly calendar of 36 decans with five days added to the end to make 365 days in all. The five additional days would probably represent a 73rd quinarian in the Egyptian astrological system, but that is another interesting item to discuss in another article.

As you can see, the decans were used to measure time during the night. They also represented the hours of the domain of the underworld, where the solar boat and its occupants fought the threatening chthonic foes in order to gain passage to the gateway of the dawn in the east. This underworld passage occurred every evening, but to the Egyptians it represented the mythic passage from death and mortality to the immortality of the gods — an initiation cycle of profound consequences.

If we now observe that the decans and the Naib cards of the lesser arcana of the tarot are analogous, then not only do we have an elegant system of occult correspondences, but we also have a map for an aspect of the Inner planes, governed by various spirits and representing the underworld passage of occult initiation.

Bibliography

  • Barton, Dan and Grandy, David Magic, Mystery, and Science — The Occult in Western Civilization (Indiana University Press 2004)
  • Crowley, Aleister 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley (Samuel Weiser, 1994)
  • Crowley, Aleister The Book of Thoth (Samuel Weiser, 1972)
  • Regardie, Israel The Golden Dawn (Llewellyn — 6th edition, 1995)

Footnotes

  1. See The Book of Thoth p. 43
  2. David Griffin, in his book Ritual Magic calls them “quinants.”
  3. This association was first documented in the Golden Dawn material, particularly Book T — Tarot. See The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie, 6th edition, p. 87 & p. 551.
  4. Actually, the angels of the ha-Shem correspond to nine of the ten sephiroth of the tree of life for the four suits of the tarot, paired by day and night. Pulling the various pieces together requires a correspondence between the decans and the Naib cards of the lesser arcana of the tarot.
  5. The Goetia of Dr. Rudd has paired the angels of the ha-Shem with the Goetic demons. The relationship of the 72 spirits to the quinarians is quite old, and may be a part of the ancient system of astrological magick, such as that proposed in the Picatrix (11th century). However, there is no precedence for grouping the decans and the quinarians together, and organizing the associated spirits into a hierarchy.
  6. See The Book of Thoth by Aleister Crowley, “Part I — Theory,” p. 40 — 44, and “Appendix B,” p. 283
  7. The Book of Gates, or Am-Tuat, was a hieroglyphic book depicted in Egyptian tombs of the New Kingdom, but may have been conceived from earlier sources. The Tomb of Seti I is a prime example.

    Frater Barrabbas is a writer and practitioner of witchcraft and ritual magick. He has published two books — Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick, and the two volumes of a trilogy, entitled Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Foundation and Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Grimoire. The third volume in this series, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Greater Key will be published soon. You can contact him at this email address and visit his website.

    ©2010 by Frater Barrabbas.
    Edited by Sheta Kaey.

The Magick of Christmas: Renewal and the Aeon

The Magick of Christmas: Renewal and the Aeon

As the Year darkens and grows cold, and as we fall into the depths of the oncoming Winter, we perceive a drop of bright energy in all the chilly gloom. The Winter Solstice season has traditionally been associated not with darkness and despair, but with hope, renewal and light. We feel a deep acceptance of limitation and loss that allows us to surrender into the dark, surrender ourselves and our dearest attachments of ego to the Source, in order that we may be renewed. This energy is manifest as the Solstice dawn lights up the depths of the barrow at New Grange and paints a piercing sliver of light known as the Sun Dagger on the stellar calendar at Chaco Canyon. These observances morphed into the ancient Roman celebrations of the Saturnalia and the Kalends, and found their most recent expression in the dozens of celebrations of the Christmas and New Year season. The Winter Solstice is as close to a global holiday as we Earthlings have, and these metaphors of renewal, rebirth and undying light persist through millennia.

I feel the relief and repose of the land as it goes fallow, of life turning itself gently inward against the cold. It’s reassuring, in its way. As I fall into the growing dark in the weeks after Samhain, I find myself craving sleep, craving tranquility, craving my meditation mat. I’ve brought my harvests in, I’ve fed and praised my ancestors, I’ve done my divinations — all that’s left to do is to drop into my tenderest places, and dream. It’s the time of deep mystery, of silence and stillness and of great joy blooming in the dark and cold.

Sadly, the beginning of Winter as it manifests in our culture and time most certainly does not support introspection or slowing down. The things I dislike about this season — the frenetic crush of activity, the pathological drive towards consumption, toxic family dynamics, the unnecessary glorification of Christian culture — are largely avoidable, so I consciously try to spend my energy wisely. But given the psychic overload of this time it’s no surprise to me that many people claim to despise the whole Christmas season. I certainly hated the whole Christmas season for many years. But I didn’t really want to hate it. I loved Christmas as a kid, and not just because of all the gifts. I wanted to reclaim the Winter Solstice for myself, to honor what I felt were the important lessons of this time. I had to rediscover the magic that I had resonated with so strongly as child.

My earliest memory of Christmas centers on the story of a magical quest. The story of the Nativity, as I learned it, was always couched in magical terms. The story began with the Magi king Melchior, noting the Star in the Eastern Sky, and obsessing over its meaning. I was fascinated by heavenly portents and the wise astrologer-king who alone could read the signs and felt compelled to follow them. I was thrilled by the perilous expedition to follow the Star, and moved by its surprising end: the birth of the Child of Grace in the humblest surroundings.

This is why there always seems to be magick afoot on Christmas Eve. When I stopped celebrating Christmas, I continued to feel that sense of wonder and expectation of joy. In tracing the pagan roots of Christmas traditions, one finds that the Nativity story is just the most recent iteration of this myth. In neo-pagan celebrations of Yule, this child of light may be evoked as Llew, Attis or Horus. This Child is the new Aeon coming about, the resolution of the Dyadic pair into something greater than the sum of its parts. This is the Mystery that the Magi were seeking. This is the promise of renewal that speaks to us from the dark.

Seen in this light, the Nativity myth takes on added depth. Christ’s parents symbolically occupy places on the Pillars of Severity and Mercy, but by moving towards the Middle Pillar they are able to give birth to a being who balances that polarity. Christ’s foster father, Joseph, descendant of the line of King David, is an exemplar of the Law as handed down by his forefathers, representing Logos (logic, law, the written word). As such, he stands firmly on the Pillar of Severity. According to the Law, he could demand that his bride-to-be be killed, since she is pregnant but not with his child. He is moved by compassion to spare her in defiance of the Law. Mary, on the other hand, has long been a symbol of the selfless devotion of motherhood, placing her on the Pillar of Mercy. Yet by embodying the Child’s physical being, she is also condemning what is mortal and human in him to torture and death. From her position on the Pillar of Mercy, and in contradiction of every maternal instinct, she offers her child to expiate the world’s sins. The resolution of these two opposites is the child Christ, who unites these principles and offers up a vision of a perfected Universe that neither paradigm could have predicted.

These potentials exist in every one of us, for all of us are seekers, all of us stand in our turns on the Pillars of Light and Dark, and all of us struggle to come to balance. We all spend time as logical beings trapped in our own histories, cultures and heritages. We are all beings of compassion who give of ourselves. And we are all Children of Light, emanations of the heart of flame that burns in the core of every star and in the soul of all who live. “Every man and every woman is a Star.” We as magicians are always seeking the Star which is our most perfected, essential self. We seek it as the only reliable guide to the Aeon, to the promise of a renewed World. This is the potential of which every Solstice season reminds us, and that we cannot help celebrating, in some small way.

©2009 by Leni Hester.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Leni Hester is a writer, ritualist, Witch and scholar. Her latest work is included in Women’s Voices in Magic from Megalithica Press (out November 30). Her work also appears in the anthologies Pop Culture Magick and Manifesting Prosperity from Megalithica Press, and in various pagan magazines including Sagewoman, NewWitch, Cup of Wonder, In a Witch Eye and Pangaia. She practices Transformational Magick and serves the Orisa near Denver, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.

Greater Wheel of Fortune and Practical Magick

Greater Wheel of Fortune and Practical Magick

Yule — the wheel of the year turns; yet everything appears to stand still in the frozen, icy world. Thoughts during this season turn to the past as we examine and reflect on everything that has happened — from joys to disappointments.

We make promises to ourselves, New Years’ resolutions aimed to fix the flaws and invigorate the positive within ourselves.

Timing is everything. That is probably the greatest lesson to be learned from the year’s successes and failures.

In the realm of magick there are many considerations to make, such as when to work magick, when to pause and when to plan. We can examine our natal charts to determine trends, consult calendars that tell us the cycle of the moon and what sign the sun is in. We can divide the day and night into planetary hours, seeking some kind of insight as to when a given event is auspicious. Timing is everything, but in the practice of magick there is little said about when we should or shouldn’t work magick. Are there auspicious times? Does it even make a difference?

With all of these factors to ponder, we ignore one important consideration and that is the personal cycle or wheel of fortune of the magician performing the magick. Even the most optimal and auspicious signs and portends will avail magicians nothing if they ignore important factors about their own waxing and waning material fortunes. Magick done during a weak trough in the personal fortune of the magician may produce nothing or it might even cause losses and misfortune. Perhaps the most important knowledge that magicians can possess is that which will enable them to work magick on their own material circumstances, and knowing their own timing is critical to that kind of working.

In the many years that I have worked magick, I have discovered purely by accident that certain times of the year are better for materially based magick than others, and that there is a pattern to this cyclic process.

What I discovered is that there is a personal wheel of fortune that systematically turns so that half of the year has the potential for material gain and the other half is better used to plan and position oneself for more optimal times, when action can be met with success. The year is cut in half, and one half fosters increase and the other, decrease. It may not be that the poorer half of the year actually experiences losses or setbacks, although this certainly can occur, rather the richer half of the year seems to effortlessly assist one in the pursuit of material gain and personal advancement.

It’s analogous to breathing — inhalation represents internalization and re-grouping, and exhaling represents external activity and successful outcomes. Both are required for the cycle of breathing to be complete. This is also true of the wheel of fortune.

The simplest way to determine this wheel of fortune is take one’s birthday and add exactly six months to it. So if you were born on January 5 as I was, then your halfway date is July 5. So the two most important dates are the natal return and six months later, which would be a point where the sun would be 180 degrees from its natal position. I am a Capricorn according to my natal sun sign, so my annual halfway point is under the sign of Cancer.

I have found that my time of increase begins after the halfway point in the year. From there it proceeds to climax at my birthday and then declines until the halfway point is again achieved. For me, the best time to plan and reorganize is during the winter, after the holidays and before the summer. After the summer vacation period, I am ready to start putting into action everything that I have learned and determined in the previous six months. This is how my wheel of fortune works.

A few years ago I experienced a terrible economic downturn and the resultant massive debt almost forced me into bankruptcy. However, with an open mind and a willingness to do whatever it took to legally regain my fortune, I performed a large series of Elemental magical workings, starting in June and proceeding for three months. At the climax of these workings, I also invoked and charged several items with the talismanic elemental, Jupiter of Earth, during the lunar mansion called the Star of Fortune1. In addition, I put together a list of specific material objectives that I wanted to accomplish and crafted them into magical sigils, which I charged. In the intervening months, I was able to accomplish all of my objectives.

All of these events helped me to completely transform my financial situation. In fact, the magical workings still continue to aid me, often from unexpected sources. Because I worked this magick at the most important pivotal point in my wheel of fortune, it had a profound and incredible effect on my material situation. Once I discovered this pattern and realized it, I decided that it was the most important piece of self-knowledge that one could possess.

How do you determine the greater wheel of fortune for yourself and learn about your own important personal timing? The first thing that you do is to find that halfway point in your yearly cycle and note it down.

Then look at the past several years and see if you can see a pattern as to when important material advancements occurred for you. It won’t be perfect, but I think that you will find that one of those half year cycles is more auspicious than the other, which is better for planning and regrouping.

The period from the halfway point to my birthday is the most important time for material advancement. However, for others it may just the opposite, from their birthday to the halfway point might be auspicious. I don’t believe that one pattern should fit everyone, but you should at least examine all of the things that have happened to you in the past and make some kind of judgment as to what part of the year is better for advancement, and that will reveal the time that you can work magick to aid that advancement.

An astrological examination of the transits of the Sun to the natal chart Sun show that a conjunction aspect for the birthday and an opposition aspect for the halfway point are clearly delineated as auspicious points in one’s astrology. The Natal Sun is compared against transiting positions of the Sun in the paragraphs below.

Transit Sun conjunct Natal Sun

This is the Solar Return, when the Sun returns to the position that it had when one was born. This aspect represents new beginnings, the ability to perceive the whole year ahead as if one were standing upon some metaphorical ascent and looking across time at the events for the coming year. It is a time of receiving new impulses and perspectives as the old year gives way to the new2.

In some ways a birthday is a lot like a personal New Year’s day, symbolizing the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year.

Transit Sun opposition Natal Sun

This aspect represents energies in life reaching a culmination, events causing realizations, revealing a critical point of success or failure. Situations judged to fail now appear to fail. The way to success opens up and is revealed. It is necessary for one to change course or redirect oneself3.

The halfway point is a place of judgment and evaluation, where one thoroughly examines all of life’s activities, especially those that bear upon one’s fortune. Those efforts that are failing should be either drastically adjusted or ended. Those that appear to be gathering momentum for success should be steadfastly continued. New opportunities may also arise that will need to be judged as to their worth and a change in course may be called for to take advantage of them.

If one reads these two aspects correctly, then my cycle of the wheel of fortune would seem to fit them. However, it would also fit if one experienced the greater fortune on the first half of the year instead of the second half. It really depends on the individual to determine his or her own personal cycle, and once realized, it should be used to one’s greatest advantage. What is clearly indicated is that these two points in the calendar are very important to working material based magick.

Footnotes

  1. Al Sad Al Su’ud (#24 The Star of Fortune) Capricorn 25E 51N — see Celestial Magic by Nigel Jackson, pp. 82 – 96
  2. See Planets in Transit: Life Cycles for Living by Robert Hand, p. 55
  3. See Planets in Transit: Life Cycles for Living by Robert Hand, p. 58
  4. Bibliography

    ©2009 by Frater Barrabbas.
    Edited by Sheta Kaey.

    Frater Barrabbas is a writer and practitioner of Witchcraft and Ritual Magick. He has published two books — Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick, and the two volumes of a trilogy, entitled Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Volume 1: FoundationVolume 2: Grimoire. The third volume in this series, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Greater Key will be published soon. You can contact him at this email address and visit his website.

Poetic Journeys #19 – Winds of the Sea

Poetic Journeys #19 - Winds of the Sea

Poetic Journeys

I hear music in the chilling winds from the sea.
It is wailing my lonely cry, “Come back to me.”
In loneliness, my heart aches so I want to die.
Winds, blowing over the sea, sing my mournful cry.

Yesterday my darling and I strolled hand in hand
On the shore, barefoot, digging our toes in the sand.
Mist from the sea breeze bathed our tear-stained faces,
As we built air castles of faraway places.

With hearts breaking, we knew our dreams could never be.
No tomorrows together, we would ever see.
Then from me, the Death Angel carried her away.
In memories, I live the dreams of yesterday.

Through the veil of the wind, I see her lovely face.
From the wings of the wind, I feel her warm embrace.
In whispering winds, I hear her calling to me.
The wind echoes my lonely cry, “Come back to me.”

©2009 Tina L. Salley. Originally published in The Poetry of Life:A Treasury of Moments by the American Poetry Association, ©1987 by Juanita McIntyre. Tina L. Salley represents the poetic estate of Mrs. McIntyre. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Ghosts and Glamers: What Hauntings Teach About Human Identity

December 15, 2009 by  
Filed under invocation and spirit work, magick, mysticism, theory

Ghosts and Glamers: What  Hauntings Teach About Human Identity

As human beings, we necessarily craft metaphysical paradigms which explain our perceptions and direct our actions. Whether we believe in Providence or in Lady Fortune determines whether we acknowledge some propitious turn of events as divine blessing or else merely good luck. Whether we believe in the inherent dignity of human life crucially affects how we approach questions of personal and societal ethics, as does the manner in which we interpret ambiguous terms like “dignity” and “human life.” Inextricably embedded within every bare perception lies the question of interpretation, and our interpretations have for their bedrock our philosophical and magical paradigms.

Oftentimes, human beings simultaneously harbor two or more paradigms which — considered reflectively — prove mutually repugnant. This confused state of affairs can preserve human life and society, as the extreme conclusions of any one paradigm are tempered by rival belief systems, yet such ideological inconsistency can also inflict significant levels of cognitive dissonance and psychological stress upon those who straddle opposing viewpoints over prolonged durations. The Chaos Magicians within our midst might well regard the ability to dance across multiple paradigms as virtue rather than liability, at least when the pragmatic incorporation of any and all viewpoints occurs consciously and reflectively.

Speaking for myself, I am not so sanguine about the postmodern approach which Chaos Magic takes towards reality — I believe against all odds there is an intelligible cosmos which admits human apprehension! — although I think there are lessons to be learned from an introspective consideration of the paradigm or paradigms to which one holds. In this essay, I wish to examine some common interpretations of that most ubiquitous of paranormal phenomena, the ghostly haunting, and specifically what these explanations suggest about the underlying magical paradigms. My aim here does not encompass the proving or disproving of any particular phenomena. I will not explain what ghosts are, or how such ephemeral beings might interact with the realms of the quick, at least in any definitive or authoritative sense. Rather, I wish to think about how we think about ghosts, and then examine what these thought processes say about us. (To any Zen Buddhists out there, you may fairly assume I am traveling in the opposite direction; in fairness, I am doing so reflectively, and since space-time is essentially curved we might safely assume given enough time we shall meet upon the other side.)

The original impetus for this essay began with idle musings around Samhain, when the Mists which apparently divide the material and the astral grow especially thin. While reflecting upon the nature of ghosts, I found myself face to face with a logical conundrum. There are basically two schools of thought concerning the origin of an active, apparently self-aware haunting. The simplest interpretation, by and by, says the haunting wherein the ghost interacts both with environmental changes and with living people represents the human soul of the deceased, still present in some meaningful sense within our pre-afterlife world. When people die, goes this theory, some people get “stuck” — most frequently due to exceptional life circumstances — and cannot move beyond their earthly existence. (Strictly speaking, this explanation does not require belief in some specific afterlife, or even belief in any afterlife, although one seldom holds the belief in ghosts without some concurrent belief in the afterlife.)

There exists a competing explanation for the existence and nature of ghosts, one fairly well documented in the contemporary occult community. By this reasoning, a ghost isn’t the same being as the deceased individual; rather, the deceased leaves behind a mental and emotional imprint which a sympathetic nonhuman spirit then animates. I presume we’re all familiar with this phenomenon on smaller scales; if you’ve ever walked into a room and felt some inexplicable “vibe” — whether good or bad — then you’re at least familiar with the sort of psychic residue I’m describing. Spirits tend to manifest where this psychic imprint aligns with their own natures and aims. When the deceased leaves behind some especially potent psychic imprint, or when such an imprint is fueled by the emotional charge of those who mourn the loss, then the Mists grow very thin indeed for those spirits in tune with the mental and emotional state of the deceased. The result? A “ghost” which manifests through the psychic imprint surrounding certain deaths.

This latter theory accords better with my personal sense of things, and especially my belief in reincarnation. (I should also add my definition of sympathetic spirits does not generally include what certain strands of Judeo-Christian thought would regard as demons. While I remain skeptical the ghostly presence watching over little Sally really is Grandpa, I’m reasonably certain the manifestation in question isn’t some machination of Satan. That’s not to say there aren’t dangerous ghosts out there. There are dangerous people across the world, and dangerous people leave behind dangerous imprints, which dangerous spirits then inhabit. Nevertheless, I stand by my conviction most spirits are like most people — basically good at heart, sometimes selfish, essentially looking for love.)

This belief in the “ghost” as spirit-animated imprint points towards the thorny problem of personal identity. If the nonhuman spirit animating the psychic imprint does so self-consciously, then there is little issue here; at this point, the “ghost” becomes the Trickster — epitomized by The Magician within the Tarot — although mayhap one who operates with benevolent ends in mind. Some variations of this theory take one additional step, suggesting the animating spirit may inhabit the psychic imprint so completely the spirit forgets its own identity as an independent being.

Now the issue of personal identity begins to take shape. I inquire of myself, as student of the occult: Who am I? Everyday I wear masks, glamers which I adopt and discard as my circumstances require. Here I am child, and there I am lover. Here I am teacher, and there I am student. These masks develop and evolve as I develop and evolve, although we might push too far, were we to identify me as the mere sum of such mutable projections. I am process, perhaps — a ripple of interconnected events and perceptions fanning out across space-time. And yet what are these events? My intellectual processes? My emotional responses? These are certainly the ephemeral things which leave my mark upon the psychic fabric of the universe, and were some spirit to inhabit my energy signature, the workings of my mind and my heart would be the medium through which such manifestations might happen. The warmth I bring to this room, wherein I gathered many times with family and friends — this emotional energy proves the gateway for spirits of warmth and benevolence. The wrath I displayed in another place — such anguish and terror becomes the gateway for much more malevolent spirits. The kindnesses and cruelties we bring into the physical world inevitably set the stage for the spirits who might follow afterward.

If the nonhuman spirits animating such energetic signatures merely echoed the ambient emotions, then we might have little cause to worry about personal identity; we constantly return the smiles and the scowls of those around us, all without losing any meaningful sense of who we ourselves are. Meaningful empathy towards, and interaction with, those around us normally doesn’t compromise our sense of personal identity, and we have no reason to believe spirits should materially differ from us in this regard. And yet ghosts do more than merely resonate with the ambient psychic energy; they actively mimic certain mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of the living. The question then arises: How deep does the psychic imprint run, and how much could the animating spirit really lose itself within the impression?

If some living human being lost all memory of her own identity, and moreover fully believed herself to be some other individual, we would consider her at the very least deeply delusional. If I develop amnesia, and then believe myself to be Bill Clinton, I would be regarded as lunatic, and mayhap rightfully so. The mere belief — even when passionately held — that I am someone else does not make this belief true in any meaningful sense. And yet what if the psychic imprint which the spirit accesses runs deeper? If I had all the memories, together with the intellectual and emotional responses of Bill Clinton down into the most minute of details, then might I in some meaningful sense be the former United States president? Returning to my own (non-presidential) identity, if my own memories and psychic processes could be uploaded into some simulacrum, would this simulacrum then be me? These are the questions of science fiction, of course, although actual hauntings challenge us philosophically precisely because they represent the possibility of such transference. If the imprint runs deep enough, and if we are equal to our mental and emotional activity, then how can we genuinely separate the nonhuman spirit from the deceased individual? The very hypothesis may fall to its own definitional vagaries.

There is one possible solution, although this approach suffers from its own difficulties. We might choose to define ourselves as something apart from the things which leave our mark upon the psychic backdrop. Mayhap we are something other than our mental and emotional activity. Together with the mind and the heart, we are flesh and we are soul. These latter two constitute our own animating force, the means and the will by which we translate the desires of mind and heart into action. For ghosts, the normal definition of flesh in inapplicable, although such beings generally possess the ability to impose at least limited alterations upon their environments, whether through fluctuations in temperature and electromagnetic fields, or through full-blown telekinetic or ectoplasmic phenomena.

Very few people who believe in ghosts would suggest personal identity remains strictly tied with the physical corpus, since ghosts by their very existence challenge this notion, and yet methinks we hold very solid philosophical grounds to challenge an enduring connection between personal identity and the physical manifestation, since this physical manifestation is liable to constant flux, constantly absorbing and expelling elements without any actual destruction of the underlying identity. We might say the same thing of the mind and the heart, and yet there exists this at least intuitive difference: While the complete transference of the mind and heart into another vessel might stretch our sense of personal identity, we would intuitively recognize the simulacrum receiving the psychic imprint as the original individual, whereas changes to the mind and heart strike into the very core of who we are.

There remains under consideration the personal spark of will, sometimes termed the soul. I remain uncertain whether we can meaningfully separate the will from the remaining aspects of human identity, yet making the endeavor in the abstract, we discover something very much like the physical corpus — an animating force which translates mental and emotional desires into meaningful action across our shared world. We constantly “breathe” the ambient psychic energy; much like the flesh, we observe elements enter into the will, and we observe other elements depart. I am reluctant to give some primacy to our mental and emotional aspects, and yet these seem to define us in ways more enduring than the constant flux of energies which mark the flesh and soul. And again, if the psychic imprint runs deep enough — if this imprint contains something enduring about ourselves, then does our identity change with the animating force? And if we answer this question in the negative, then does our hypothesis merely confirm the ghost is — in some meaningful sense — one and the same with the deceased?

Within this especial moment, I cannot answer these questions. I most certainly cannot unlock such conundrums for you, my dearest readers who have patiently endured unto the end. You may harbor a magical paradigm in which such questions are meaningless. Or the nature of ghosts may raise different questions within your own unique paradigm. I hope my personal reflections here encourage you to reflect upon your beliefs and your paradigms, in order to tease out what naturally follows from the assumptions you might make about your world. As always, I welcome your thoughts upon this most mysterious of subjects.

Blessed Be!

©2009 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Guttershaman Halloween Special – The Gutter Press and the Tribe of the Strange

Guttershaman Halloween Special – The Gutter Press and the Tribe of the Strange

“The majority is always sane.” — Larry Niven, Ringworld
“Happy Halloween, ladies . . . Nuns — no sense of humour.” — The Kurgan, in Highlander

All my life, the stories that have spoken to me have invariable been from what are usually considered the “lesser” kinds of storytelling — science fiction, comics, B-movies, horror, fantasy.

Why?

Mostly, because I can more readily identify with the characters. The mainstream and “literary” works I’ve read are about people utterly unlike me and those I know and care about. Their concerns (blood relations, conventional seductions, party politics, capitalist greed — in other words, the consensus reality called “normality”) are not my concerns. My heroes and inspiration in fiction are larger than life — because my life, though not on the same scale as such figures, is still far closer to those “unreal” tales than to the “real life” ones. Being a magician in a world which mostly doesn’t believe in magic will do that, I guess.

I also think that genres that allow room to step outside contemporary society and look at it from an angle have far more to offer than those which reside utterly within it — it’s something at which science fiction (SF) and horror, at their best, excel. Reading SF and other fantastical genres stretches your brain in beneficial ways that mainstream works simply cannot do (one benefit seems to be a kind of memetic inoculation against Future Shock — once you’re used to considering complex multiple universes and ideas in your reading matter, rapid change of information and wider ranges of ideas in the physical world become so much easier to assimilate).

It’s not easy being at such a remove from consensus reality. Even ignoring the scorn (and occasional bullying) it can attract, just finding people you can talk to who get it, who share some of your perspective and have read those same weird writers, seen the same odd films, is an uphill struggle. It’s easier now of course — the Internet has made fandom much more accessible than back in the day when the only way to contact other fans was through mimeographed zines and occasional conventions. And while those folk are not always people I can get along with, I still feel a stronger affinity for them than for those who stick to the mainstream of thought and art.

(It’s worth noting that there’s a huge overlap between fandom groups and other Outsiders1 — roleplay gamers, sexual and gender explorers . . . and, of course, magicians.)

Sometimes, I think of it as being a member of the Tribe of the Strange. Those (to adapt a quote from SF writer Bruce Sterling) “whose desires do not accord with the status quo,” base their existence, their idea of what that entails — and the values they espouse — are often qualitatively different from those of the mainstream.

It’s not simply a matter of the knee-jerk opposition to or rejection of the mainstream (though there’s always an element of that going on, I suspect). It’s more that there’s a greater breadth of possibility outside it. And it’s certainly not saying that those who live within the mainstream are inferior or wrong — just that other possibilities exist and can be just as valid (or more so to those who the mainstream consider outsiders). And some of us prefer to live in that tribe far more than any of the ones offered by the Normal world.

Interestingly, ever since the outpouring of the counterculture in the 1960s if not before, those stories and underground ideas have become more and more part of the mainstream. We’re now at a point where the most popular books ever written are fantasies about magicians and vampires; the best selling movies are about robots, superheroes, spaceships and aliens. Yet somehow there’s still that disdain for the “Fantastika2,” both from ordinary people (who find it “weird”) and the academic intelligentsia (who find it “common”).

Co-opting of the counterculture is something that’s gone on for a long time, but the pace of it has increased rapidly as the mainstream has begun to run out of ideas. But what gets pulled into contemporary mainstream culture is of necessity diluted and superficial, not to mention lacking in imagination — the fuel that drives both genre writing and magic . . . and which seems to be peculiarly limited in mainstream and literary writing. (After all, how much imagination does it really take for a middle-aged college professor to write a novel about the sexual desires of a middle-aged college professor?)

While out for a walk during the writing of this, I overheard a conversation which ties into this nicely.

A young-ish upper middle class couple, chatting after visiting a friend, who they were talking about: “He’s just so . . . so unconventional,” they said. “I sometimes wonder if he’s got a screw loose.”

Unconventional equals insane? For a lot of folk, that’s about right. Showing even a tiny deviation from the Normal is an invitation to scorn, rejection — even violence.

But what the hell is “normal,” anyway?

To anyone who’s paid attention to history (and is not part of a religious or political tribe which rejects examining the past through any filter but their own) the definition of normality is a mercurial thing — changing constantly, no more solid and immutable than fashion. But all those definitions of normal have to be about stability, conservative (small “c”) attitudes, preservation of the status quo — and I do see the necessity of that. But at the same time, there needs to be room for outliers from that majority view, or the culture/ tribe/ country stagnates. There are even indications that the lack of innovation caused by the rejection of the un-normal can destroy civilisations3.

Perhaps this is why so many societies have times where the rules of the normal are temporarily suspended, where the usually despised and shunned aspects — sexual expression, weirdness, dressing strangely — are allowed to roam the streets. Carnival. Mardi Gras.

Halloween.

That lovely time of the year, when dressing like a monster (and increasingly, a sexy monster) in public is acceptable. When, for a short while, Goths, gender queers, and other outsiders can blend in, won’t be ostracised. When the rules of Normal don’t quite apply. Where the superheroes and wizards and beasts are, briefly, as welcome as anyone else.

And of course a time when the normal folk get to be tourists in the Tribe of the Strange . . . only to wake up the next day (possibly with hangovers or sugar crashes) and go back to the “real” world where dressing up like David bloody Beckham is the only acceptable form of cosplay — and the demons and witches get put back in the box marked “Unreal.”

I love Halloween. I love that everyone gets to join in. I don’t think the Tribe of the Strange needs a solid border between it and the “mundanes” — but I know the difference between being a tourist and being a citizen, that me and mine can’t really do the same. That dressing up as a magician one night a year, and being one all the time, are quite different things. Part of me wishes my tribe and theirs could get along better . . . but that the distance and difference between us might actually be the whole point.

Another part of me looks at all this and sees something that looks a whole lot like cultural theft.

Think about it — the majority culture cherry-picks what it finds attractive from an existing tribal tradition, shows little or no respect to that tribe, commodifies what it’s nicked and still insists it’s somehow superior to the tribe that’s been pillaged . . . (Much like those “literary” writers who co-opt SF and horror tropes without having actually read enough of the genre to avoid the worst clichés, then loudly claim what they have created isn’t that horrible sci-fi but somehow better . . . the Plastic Shamans of the Fantastic.)

I don’t actually take that idea seriously. If anything, I see that the weird is actually colonising the mundane in many ways. As our world grows more complex (both technologically and in terms of how many competing ideas surround us), ordinary life more and more resembles the science fiction of only a few years back. Those discrete fandoms that used to be obscure are becoming more acceptable and fannish conceits (from the value of behind-the-scenes documentaries to slash fiction) are becoming part of the general culture.

But no matter how much is absorbed into the common culture, there will always be those ideas and people who are too weird, won’t fit, stay beyond the pale — no matter how much money and publicity gets thrown at Harry Potter and Edward Cullen (and as the latter so perfectly shows, even those parts of the weird which do creep into the mainstream are softened, bowdlerised, rendered safe). And as mainstream culture shifts from permissive to restrictive and back again, this will oscillate. Or the weird will simply, once again, fall out of fashion. For a while.

And outside the normal world, the Tribe of the Strange will persist. We don’t shift with the tides of fashion. We’re not tourists in the weird parts of life — we live here.

We’re not as scary or inhospitable as the mundane world thinks. We don’t want to take them over or make them go away — we just hope to find a place where we can all talk, hang out, celebrate life in all its oddity and loveliness. Maybe we’ll find that Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the fantastic and the ordinary are all one tribe.

On Halloween, perhaps?

Buffy: “You’re missing the whole point of Halloween.”
Willow: “Free candy?!”

— From Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Footnotes

  1. Read more about Outsiders here.
  2. Fantastika, a word favored by John Clute and one worthy of emulating.
  3. BioEd Online: Conformists May Kill Civilizations.
  4. Cosplay, defined at Wikipedia, retrieved October 2009.

©2009 by Ian Vincent.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Ian Vincent was born in 1964 and is a lifelong student of the occult. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying wider aspects of the Art. He blogs on magical theory.

Artistic Visions #13 – A Full Samhain Series

October 22, 2009 by  
Filed under art, culture, mysticism, thelema

Artistic Visions #13 - A Full Samhain Series

Artistic Visions

About the Artist

I began painting long ago while I was still in high school, but of all the painting mediums I have tried I like watercolor the most because I find it the most challenging. Once the paint leaves the brush and is absorbed by the paper, the entire process is out of my hands. The paint goes where it wills and the final painting rarely looks the way I thought it would when I began. This makes me feel as though my paintings are somehow connected with the unseen, or The Divine. The whole process has taught me a thing or two about Lust of Result and being a patient person in general, but I rarely leave a painting unfinished once I start — I begin and finish in one sitting. I am inspired by nature and by my family. Living in Portland provides me with much of my motivation. I do not do traditional watercolor landscapes, and even though my paintings are inspired by my natural surroundings, they are whimsical and exaggerated representations of what I see. The same is true of the portraits that I have been commissioned to paint over the years.

— April del Campo

By the Light of the Moon

Watercolor. In Oregon, there is a vine considered an invasive species that will entirely cover a tree, choking the life out of it. I tried to imagine what would happen and what it would look like if, in order to survive, the tree impregnated the ivy to create a new species.

By the Light of the Moon by April del Campo
©2009 by April del Campo. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Ghost Kid

Watercolor. Inspired by a springtime trip to the forest in Oregon, when I came upon a clear cut. I could sense the angst of the creatures that were displaced.

Ghost Kid by April del Campo
©2009 by April del Campo. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Iron Flowers

Watercolor. Inspired by Russian iron work. In the U.S., we seem to like straight lines and sharp angles. The Russians have a thing for circles and curves, as I do.

Iron Flowers by April del Campo
©2009 by April del Campo. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

H. P. Lovecraft

Watercolor. H. P. Lovecraft, painted while my husband recorded “The Silver Key,” also a title of one of Lovecraft’s novels.

H. P. Lovecraft by April del Campo
©2009 by April del Campo. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Strife

Watercolor. Originally called “Racing The Clouds Home.” Inspired by a Marillion song called “White Russian.”

Strife by April del Campo
©2009 by April del Campo. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Fall

Watercolor. An image from a typical, stormy, Portland day. This is a tree next to our apartment that appeared to be desperately holding on to as many leaves as possible while the wind beat against it.

Fall by April del Campo
©2009 by April del Campo. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

©2009 April del Campo
Text edited and images resized by Sheta Kaey

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