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.
- 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.
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.
— Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster, 1613
See us gathered here, three women stood at Richard Baldwin’s gate. I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon, just fifteen and dazzling as the noontide sun, so bright that she lights up the murk of my dim sight. Demdike, folk call me, after the dammed stream near my dwelling place where the farmers wash their sheep before shearing. When I was younger and stronger, I used to help with the sheepwash. Wasn’t afraid of the fiercest rams. I’d always had a way of gentling creatures by speaking to them low and soft. Though I’m old now, crabbed and near-blind, my memory is long as a midsummer’s day and with my inner eye, I see clear.
We three wait till Baldwin catches glimpse of us and out he storms. Through the clouded caul that age has cast over my eyes, I catch his form. Thin as a brittle dead stalk, he is, his face pinched, and he’s clad in the dour black weeds of a Puritan. Fancies himself a godly man, does our Dick Baldwin. A loud crack strikes the earth — it’s a horsewhip he carries. My daughter fair leaps as he lashes it against the drought-hard dirt.
“Whores and witches,” he rails, shrill enough to set the crows to flight. “Get out of my ground.”
Slashes of air hit my face as he brandishes his whip, seeking to strike fear into us, but it’s his terror I taste as I let go of Alizon’s guiding hand and step forward, firm and square on my rag-bundled feet. We’ve only come to claim what is ours by right.
“Whores and witches,” he taunts again, yelling with such bile that his spit sprays me. “I will burn the one of you and hang the other.”
He speaks to Liza and me, ignoring young Alizon, for he doesn’t trust himself to even look at this girl whose beauty and sore hunger would be enough to make him sink to his knobbly knees.
I take another step forward, forcing him to back away. The man’s a-fright that I’ll so much as breathe on him. “I care not for you,” I tell him. “Hang yourself.”
Our Master Baldwin will play the righteous churchman, but what I know of him would besmirch his good name forevermore. He can spout his psalms till he’s hoarse, but heaven’s gates will never open to him. I know this and he knows I know this, and for my knowing, he fears and hates me. Beneath his black clothes beats an even blacker heart. Hired my Liza to card wool, did Baldwin, and then refused to pay her. What’s more, our Liza has done much dearer things for him than carding. Puritan or no, he’s taken his pleasure of her and, lost and grieving her poor murdered husband, ten years dead, our Liza was soft enough to let him. Fool girl.
“Enough of this,” I say. “Liza carded your wool. Where’s her payment? We’re poor, hungry folk. Would you let us starve for your meanness?”
I speak in a low, warning tone, not unlike the growl of a dog before it bites. Man like him should know better than to cross the likes of me. Throughout Pendle Forest I’m known as a cunning woman and she who has the power to bless may also curse.
Our Mr. Baldwin blames me because his daughter Ellen is too poorly to rise from her bed. The girl was a pale, consumptive thing from the day she was born, never hale in all her nine years. Once he called on me to heal her. Mopped her brow, I did. Brewed her feverfew and lungwort, but still she ailed and shivered. Tried my best with her, but some who are sick cannot be mended. Yet Baldwin thinks I bewitched the lass out of malice. Why would I seek to harm a hair on the poor girl’s head when his other daughter, the one he won’t name or even look at, is my own youngest granddaughter, seven-year-old Jennet?
“Richard.” My Liza makes bold to step toward him. She stretches out a beseeching hand. “Have a heart. For our Jennet’s sake. We’ve nothing more to eat in the house.”
But he twists away from her in cold dread and still won’t pay her for her honest work, won’t grant us so much as a penny. So what can I do but promise that I’ll pray for him till he comes to be of a better mind? Soft under my breath, masked from his Puritan ears, I murmur the Latin refrains of the old religion. How my whispered words make him pale and quake — does he believe they will strike him dead? Off to his house he scarpers. Behind his bolted door he’ll cower till we’re well gone.
“Come, Gran.” Alizon takes my arm to lead me home. Can’t make my way round without her in this dark ebb of my years. But with my inner eye I see Tibb sat there on the drystone wall. Sun breaks through the clouds to golden-wash his guilesome face. Dick Baldwin would call him a devil, or even the Devil, but I know better. Tibb, his beautiful form invisible to all but me.
“Now I don’t generally stand by woe-working,” says my Tibb, stretching out his long legs. “But if you forespoke Master Baldwin, who could blame you, after all the ill he’s done to you and yours?” He cracks a smile. “Is revenge what you want?”
“No, Tibb. Only justice.” I speak with my inner voice that none but Tibb can hear. If Baldwin fell ill and died, what would happen to his lawful daughter, Ellen? Her mother’s long dead. Another poor lass to live off the alms of the parish. No, I’ll not have that burden on my soul.
“Justice!” Tibb laughs, then shakes his head. “Off the likes of Dick Baldwin? Oh, you do set your sights high.”
Tibb’s laughter makes the years melt away, drawing me back to the old days, when I could see far with my own two eyes and walk on my own two legs, with none to guide me.
By daylight gate I first saw him, the boy climbing out of the stone pit in Goldshaw. The sinking sun set his fair hair alight. Slender, he was, and so young and beautiful. Pure, too. No meanness on him. No spite or evil. I knew straight off that he wouldn’t spit at me for being a barefoot beggar woman. Wouldn’t curse at me or try to shove me into the ditch. There was something in his eyes — a gentleness, a knowing. When he looked at me, my hurting knees turned to butter. When he smiled, I melted to my core, my heart bumping and thumping till I fair fainted away. What would a lad like that want with a fifty-year-old widow like me?
The month of May, it was, but cold of an evening. His coat was half black, half brown. I thought to myself that he must be poor like me, left to stitch his clothes together from mismatched rags. He reached out his hand, as though making to greet an old friend.
“Elizabeth,” he said. “My own Bess.” The names by which I was known when a girl with a slender waist and strong legs and rippling chestnut hair. How did he know my true name? Even then I was known to most as Demdike. The boy smiled wide with clean white teeth, none of them missing, and his eyes had a devilish spark in them, as though I were still that young woman with skin like new milk.
“Well, well,” said I, for I was never one to stay silent for long. “You know my name, so you do. What’s yours then?”
“Tibb,” he said.
“Your family name.” I nodded to myself, though I knew of no Tibbs living anywhere in Pendle Forest. “But what of your Christian name?” After all, I thought, he knew me by mine, God only knew how.
He lifted his face to the red-glowing sky and laughed as the last of the sun sank behind Pendle Hill. Then I heard a noise behind me: the startled squawk of a pheasant taking flight. When I turned to face the boy again, he had vanished away. I looked up and down the lane, finding him nowhere. Couldn’t even trace his footprints in the muddy track. Did my mind fail me? Had that boy been real at all? This was when I grew afraid and went cold all over, as though frost had settled upon my skin.
First off, I told no one of Tibb. Who would have believed me when I could scarcely believe it myself? I’d no wish to make myself an even bigger laughingstock than I already was.
Ned Southerns, my husband, such as he was, had passed on just after our squint-eyed Liza was born, nineteen years ago. He blamed me for our daughter’s deformity because he thought I’d too much contact with beasts whilst I was carrying her. In my married years, I raised fine hens, even kept a nanny goat. There was another child, Christopher, three years older than Liza and not of my husband, but far and away from being the only bastard in Pendle Forest. The gentry and the yeomen bred as many ill-begotten babes as us poor folk, only they did a better job of covering it up. Liza, Kit, and I made our home in a crumbling old watchtower near the edge of Pendle Forest. More ancient than Adam, our tower was: too draughty for storing silage, but it did for us. Malkin Tower, it was called, and, as you’ll know, Malkin can mean either hare or slattern. What better place for me and my brood?
Still folk whispered that it seemed a curious thing indeed that one such as I should live in a tower built of stout stone with a firehouse boasting a proper hearth at its foot when many a poor widow made do with a one-room hovel with no hearth at all but only a fire pit in the bare earthen floor. In truth, my poor dead mother got the tower given her for her natural life — towers named after slatterns were meant to hide guilty secrets.
When my mam was young and comely, she’d served the Nowell family at Read Hall. Head ostler’s daughter, so she was, and she’d prospects and a modest dowry besides. But what did she do but catch the eye of Master Nowell’s son, then a lad of seventeen years? The Nowells were not an old family, as gentry went, nor half as grand as the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe Hall or the de Lacys of Clitheroe. The Nowells’ fortunes had risen along with the sway of the new religion. Back when Old King Henry’s troops came to sack Whalley Abbey, the Nowells sent their men to help topple the ancient stone walls. King rewarded their loyalty by granting the Nowells a goodly portion of the abbey’s lands. One of Old Man Nowells’ sons went to faraway Cambridgeshire to make his name as a Puritan divine, or so I’d been told. Far and wide, the Nowells let it be known that they were godly folk. But even the pious are prey to youthful folly.
My mam, before her fall from grace, had been an upright girl, so the young Master Roger could hardly discard her as easy as he would some tavern maid. And that was why Mam was given Malkin Tower for the rest of her life on the condition that she never trouble the Nowells of Read Hall. Far enough from Read, it was, for them not to be bothered by the sight of her, but it was close enough to for them to keep watch of her, should she seek to blacken their good name. My mam and I were never respectable — respect costs money and we hadn’t two pennies to rub together. We’d Malkin Tower to live in but no scrap of land for grazing sheep. Most we could manage was a garden plot in the stony soil. By and by, I think the Nowells had fair forgotten us. When my mam passed on, bless her eternal soul, the tower was in such poor repair they didn’t seem to want it back. So I stayed on, for where else had I to go? It seemed they preferred to have no dealings with me and that it shamed them less to allow me to carry on here like a squatter, not paying a farthings’s rent.
My natural father died some years back, happy and fat and rich. His eldest son, my own half-brother, also named Roger, had become the new master of Read Hall, part of it built from the very stones his grandfather’s servants carted away from the ruined abbey. Younger than me, was my half-brother, by some twenty years. Rarely did our paths cross, for the Nowells went to church in Whalley with the other fine folk, never in the New Church in Goldshaw with the yeomen and lesser gentry. But once, of a market day in Colne, I clapped eyes on Roger Nowell. Impossible to miss him, the way he was sat like some conquering knight upon his great Shire horse, blue-black and gleaming, with red ribbons twisted in its mane. That was some years ago, when my half-brother’s face was yet smooth and unlined. A handsome man, he was, with a firm chin just like mine. I looked straight at him to see if he would recognise his own blood kin. But his sharp blue eyes passed over me as though I was nowt but a heap of dung.
Over the years he’d become a mighty man: Magistrate and Justice of the Peace. We in Pendle Forest were careful not to cross him or give him cause for offence. On account of my being a poor widow, he granted me a begging license. Did it through Constable without speaking a word to me. And so I was left to wander the tracks of Pendle Forest and wheedle, full humble, for food and honest work.
But gone were the days when Christian folk felt beholden to give alms to the poor. When I was a tiny girl, the monks of Whalley Abbey fed and clothed the needy. So did the rich folk, for their souls would languish a fair long time in purgatory if they were stingy to us. In the old days, the poor were respected — our prayers were dearer to God than those of the wealthy. Many a well-to-do man on his deathbed would give out food and alms to the lowliest of the parish, so my mam had told me, if they would only pray for his immortal soul. At his funeral, the poor were given doles of bread and soul cakes.
The reformers said that purgatory was heresy: it was either heaven for the Elect or hell for everyone else, so what need did the rich have to bribe the poor to pray for them? We humble folk were no longer seen as blessed of the Lord but as a right nuisance. When I went begging for a mere bowl of blue milk or a handful of oats to make water porridge, the Hargreaves and the Bannisters and the Mittons narrowed their eyes and said my hard lot was God’s punishment for my sin of bearing a bastard child. Mean as stones, they were. Little did they know. Liza, my lawful-begotten child, was deformed because her father, my husband, gave me no pleasure to speak of, whilst Kit, my bastard, borne of passion and desire, was as tall and beautiful and perfect in form as any larch tree. Ah, but the Puritans would only see what they wanted to see. Most so-called charity they doled out was to give me half a loaf of old bread in exchange for a day laundering soiled clouts.
But I’d even forgive them for that if they hadn’t robbed my life of its solace and joy. In the old days, we’d a saint for every purpose: Margaret for help in childbirth, Anne for protection in storms, Anthony to ward against fire, George to heal horses and protect them from witchcraft. Old King Henry forbade us to light candles before the saints but at least he let us keep their altars. In the old days, no one forced us to go to church either, even for Easter communion. The chapel nave belonged to us, the ordinary people, and it was the second home we all shared. Dividing the nave from the chancel with the high altar was the carved oak roodscreen which framed the priest as he sang out the mass. We didn’t stand solemn and dour during the holy service, either, but wandered about the nave, from one saint’s altar to the next, gazing at the pictures and statues, till the priest rang the bell, then held up the Host for all to see, the plain wafer transformed in a glorious miracle into the body and blood of Christ. Just laying eyes upon the Host was enough to ward a person from witchcraft, plague, and sudden death.
When I was twelve, they finished building the New Church of St. Mary’s in Goldshaw to replace the old crumbling chapel of ease where I’d been christened. Bishop from Chester came to consecrate it just in time for All Souls’ when we rang the bells the whole night through to give comfort to our dead.
Back then we still had our holidays. Christmas lasted twelve days and nights with mummers and guizers in animal masks, dancing by torchlight. The Lord of Misrule, some low born man, lorded it over the gentry to make poor folk laugh. The Towneleys of Carr Hall used to invite all their neighbours, rich and poor alike, to join their festivities. Upon Palm Sunday everyone in the parish gathered for the processions round the fields to make them fertile. After dark, the young folk would go out to bless the land in their own private fashion. Everyone knew what went on, but none stood in our way. If a lass and her young man had to rush to the altar afterward, nobody thought the worse of them for it. I went along with the other girls, arm in arm with my best friend Anne Whittle, both of us wearing green garlands and singing. Cherry-lipped Anne loved to have her sport with the boys, but mindful of my own mother’s fate, I did nowt but kiss and dance and flirt in those days. Only went astray much later in life, when I was a married woman and sore unsatisfied, seeking my pleasures elsewhere.
In my youth, upon May morning, we arose before dawn to gather hawthorn and woodruff. We’d dance round the Maypole and drink elderflower wine till the very sky reeled. At Midsummer’s, upon the eve of the feast of John the Baptist, we carried birch boughs into the church till our chapel looked like a woodland grove. Bonfires blazed the whole night through. Some folk burned fires of bone, not wood, so that the stench might drive away evil wights from the growing crops. Most of us gathered round the wake fire of sweet apple wood where we danced all night, collapsing upon the grass at sunrise. At Lammas the reapers crowned the Harvest Queen and one year, by Our Lady, it was me, a lass of fifteen, crowned in roses and barley, the lads begging me for a kiss.
Old King Henry was dead by then and we lived in hope that the old ways would live again. Crowned in roses, I led the procession of maidens on the Feast of the Assumption, each of us bearing flowers and fruits to lay upon the altar of the Queen of Heaven. Only weeks later, Edward the Boy King sent his men to smash every statue in our church, even that of the Blessed Mother herself, whilst we clutched ourselves, full aghast. They tore down the crucifix over the high altar and burned it as though it was some heathen idol. They destroyed our roodscreen, outlawed our processions, and forbade us to deck the church with greenery upon Midsummer or to bring red roses and poppies to the altar on Corpus Christi. They set fire to our Maypole, forbade us to pray for the dead or celebrate the saints’ feast days.
Six years on, weakling Edward wasted away and his sister Mary Tudor promised to bring back the old religion. For the five years of her reign we had our holidays again, our processions, our mass with swirling incense and the sea of candles lit for the saints. The Towneleys, the Nutters, and the Shuttleworths paid for the new roodscreen, the new statues, altar cloths and vestments. We had our Maypole and rang the church bells for our ancestors on All Souls’ Night. But our joys soured when the news came of the heretics Mary burned alive, near three hundred of them, their only hope to end their agony being the sachets of gunpowder concealed beneath their clothes. Our Catholic queen was nowt but a tyrant. Before long Mary herself died, despised by her own husband, so the story went.
With Queen Elizabeth came the new religion once more to replace the old. The Queen’s agents stormed in to hack apart our brand new roodscreen. But they could not demolish the statues or the crucifix this time round, for the Towneleys, Shuttleworths, and Nutters had divided the holy images between them and taken them into hiding, in secret chapels inside their great houses. In those early days, some said Elizabeth’s reign couldn’t last long. Anne Boleyn’s bastard, she was, and it seemed half of England wanted her dead. On top of that, she refused to marry and produce an heir of her own religion. Yet the Queen’s religion had endured.
In truth, the old ways died that day Elizabeth’s agents sacked our church. For the past twenty-odd years, there had been no dancing of a Sunday, no Sunday ales like we used to have when we made merry within the very nave of the church. Though the Sabbath was the only day of leisure we had, Curate refused to let us have any pleasure of it. No football, dice-playing or card-playing. Magistrate Roger Nowell, my own half-brother, forbade the Robin Hood plays and summer games, for he said they led to drunkenness and wantonness amongst the lower orders. Few weeks back, the piper of Clitheroe was arrested for playing late one Sunday afternoon.
Curate preached that only the Elect would go to heaven and I was canny enough to know that didn’t include me. So if I was damned anyway, why should I suffer to obey their every command? Mind you, I went to church of a Sunday. It was that, or suffer Church Warden’s whip and fine. But I’d left off trying to hold myself to the straight and narrow. Perhaps I’d have fared no better even if the old church had survived, for hadn’t I been an adulteress? Yet still my heart was rooted, full stubborn, in that lost world of chanting, processions, and revels that had bound us together, rich and poor, saint and sinner. My soul’s home was not with this harsh new God, but instead I sought the solace of the Queen of Heaven and whispered the Salve Regina in secret. I swore to cling to the forbidden prayers till my dying day.
I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the story: that evening, after Tibb first appeared to me, I hared off in the long spring twilight, heading home to Malkin Tower. Wasn’t safe to be about after dark. Folk talked of boggarts haunting the night, not that I was ignorant enough to believe every outlandish tale, but I was shaken to the bone from seeing the boy who disappeared into nowhere. The moon, nearly full, shone in the violet sky and the first stars glimmered when, at last, I reached my door.
Our Malkin Tower was an odd place. Tower itself had two rooms, one below and one above, and each room had narrow slits for windows from the days, hundreds of years ago, when guardsmen were sat there with their bows and arrows, on the look-out for raiders and poachers. But, as the tower had no chimney or hearth, we spent most of our time in the firehouse, a ramshackle room built on to the foot of the tower. And it was into the firehouse I stumbled that night. My daughter Liza, sat close by the single rush light, gave a cry when she saw me.
“So late coming home, Mam! Did a devil cross your path?”
In the wavering light, my girl looked more frightful than the devil she spoke of, though she couldn’t help it, God bless her. Her left eye stood lower in her face than the other, and while her right eye looked up, her left eye looked down. The sight of her was enough to put folk off their food. Couldn’t hire herself out as a kitchen maid because the housewives of Pendle feared our Liza would spoil their milk and curdle their butter. Looking the way she did, it would take a miracle for her to get regular work, let alone a husband. Most she could hope for was a day’s pittance for carding wool or weeding some housewife’s garden.
Ignoring her talk of the devil, I unpacked the clump of old bread, the gleanings of the day’s begging, and Liza sliced it into pieces thin as communion wafer.
Liza, myself, my son Kit, and Kit’s wife, also Elizabeth, though we called her Elsie, gathered for our supper. Kit hired himself out as a day labourer, but at this time of year, there was little work to be had. Lambing season had just passed. Shearing wouldn’t come till high summer. Best he could do was ask for work at the slate pits and hope to earn enough to keep us in oatmeal and barley flour. Kit’s wife, Elsie, was heavy with child. Most work she could get was a day’s mending or spinning.
When we were sat together at the table, my Liza went green in the face at the taste of the old bread and could barely get a mouthful of the stuff down before she bolted out the door to be sick. Out of old habit, not even thinking, I crossed myself. I looked to Kit, who looked to his wife, who shook her head in sadness. Elsie would deliver her firstborn within the month and now it appeared that Liza was with child, as well. First I wondered who the father could be. Then I asked myself how we would feed two little babes when we were hard-pressed to do for ourselves? We were silent, the lot of us, Elsie doling out the buttermilk she had off the Bulcocks in exchange for a day’s spinning. Our Kit gave his wife half of his own share of bread — wasn’t she eating for two?
Then I found I couldn’t finish my own bread, so I passed it to Kit before hauling myself out the door to look for Liza. By the cold moonlight I found my poor squint-eyed broomstick of a girl bent over the gatepost, crying fit to die. Taking Liza in my arms, I held her and rubbed her hair. I begged her to tell me who the father was, but she refused.
“It will be right,” I told her. “Not the first time an unwed girl fell pregnant. We’ll make do somehow.” What else could I say? I’d no business browbeating her for doing the same as I’d done with Kit’s father, twenty-two years ago.
After leading my Liza back inside, we made for our beds. I climbed to the upper tower. Room was so cold and draughty that everyone else preferred sleeping below, but of a crystal-clear evening I loved nothing better than to lie upon my pallet and gaze at the moon and stars through the narrow windows. Cold wind didn’t bother me much. I was born with thick skin, would have died ages ago if I’d been a more delicate sort. Yet that night the starry heavens gave me little comfort. I laid myself down and tried to ignore the hammer of worry in my head. Church Warden and Constable were sure to make a stink about Liza. Another bastard child to live off the charity of the parish. They’d fine her at the very least. She’d be lucky if she escaped the pillory. Sleepless, I huddled there whilst the wind whistled through the thatch.
When I finally closed my eyes, I saw Tibb, his face in its golden glory. Looked like one of the angels I remembered seeing in our church before the reformers stripped the place bare. Out of the dark crush of night came his voice, sweet as a lover’s, gentle as Kit’s father was in the days when he called me his beauty, his heart’s joy. Tibb’s lips were at my ear.
“If I could,” he told me, “if you let me, I’d ease your burdens, my Bess. No use fretting about Liza. She’ll lose the child within a fortnight and none but you and yours will know she fell pregnant in the first place.”
My throat was dry and sore. Couldn’t even think straight.
“You’re afraid of me,” he said. “But you shouldn’t be. I mean you no harm.”
“You’re not real,” I whispered. “I’m just dreaming you.”
“I’m as real as the ache in your heart,” he whispered back. “You were meant to be more than a common beggar, our Bess. You could be a blesser. Next time, you see a sick cow, bless it. Say three Ave Marias and sprinkle some water on the beast. Folk will pay you for such things. Folk will hold you in regard and you won’t have to grovel for the scraps off their table.”
What nonsense, I thought. Church warden would have me whipped and fined for saying the Ave Maria — and that was but mild chastisement. Catholics were still hanged in these parts, their priests drawn and quartered. I told myself that there was no such boy called Tibb — it was just my empty stomach talking. I rolled over, pulling the tattered blanket to my ears.
He wouldn’t give over. “It runs in your blood. You’ve inherited the gift from your mam’s father.”
I shook my head no. “My grandfather was an ostler. An honest man.”
“He was a horse-charmer, if you remember well.”
Tibb’s voice summoned the memories. I was sat on Grand-Dad’s knee and he jostled me so that I could pretend I was riding a bouncy pony and all the while he chanted the Charm to St. George to ward horses from witchcraft. Enforce we us with all our might to love St. George, Our Lady’s Knight. Grand-Dad died when I was seven, but he’d taught my mam all his herbcraft for healing beast and folk alike, which she, in turn, had taught me, though Mam herself had no dealings in charms.
What a marvel. Grand-Dad working his blessings in the stables at Read Hall, beneath the Nowells’ very noses. He must have served them well, kept their nags healthy and sound, so that instead of reporting him for sorcery they became his protectors. Perhaps that, indeed, was why the Nowells had given Malkin Tower to Mam — it did no good at all to vex a cunning man by treating his daughter ill.
Still the knowing made the sweat run cold down my back. To think that I carried this inside me. I could not say a word, only pray that Tibb would vanish again and leave me in peace.
“My own Bess, do I need to give you a sign or two? You’ll see what I’ve said of Liza will come to pass. Now I’ll give you more knowledge of the future. Before the moon is new again, Elsie will bear a son.”
In spite of myself, I laughed. “Any fool can see she’s carrying a boy from the way she’s bearing so high and wide. I don’t need a slip of a lad like you telling me about wenches bearing babies.”
My mocking didn’t put Tibb off. He only coaxed me all the more. “They’ll name the lad Christopher after his father and you’ll see your Kit’s father in the little lad’s face, my Bess. You’ll feel so tender that the years of bitterness will melt away.”
Tears came to my eyes when I remembered my lover who had given me such pleasure before he bolted off, never to show his face again, leaving me to bear my shame and endure an angry husband fit to flay me alive and the gossips wagging their tongues and pointing. My husband refused to give the baby his name, so that was why my Kit was named Christopher Holgate, not Southerns. As punishment for my sin, I was made to stand a full day in the pillory in Colne marketplace.
“That’s not all I can tell you of your future,” said Tibb, nestling close, his breath warming my face. “In time, your Liza will marry an honest man who will love her in spite of her squint.”
“Fortune-telling’s a sin,” I squeaked. In this Curate and the priests of the old religion had always been of one mind. A dangerous thing, it was, to push back the veil and look into the future, for unless such knowledge came from a prophecy delivered by God, it came from the other place, the evil place, the Devil. Diviners and those who consulted them would be punished in hell by having their heads twisted backward for their unholy curiosity.
Still Tibb carried on in a voice I couldn’t block out. “Liza will give you three grandchildren.”
How seductive he was. If only I could trust him and believe that my Liza would be blessed by the love of a good man, a happy family.
“Her first-born daughter will be your joy,” Tibb told me. “You’ll love her till you forget yourself, my Bess. A pretty impudent lass with skin like cream. A beauty such as you were at her age. She’ll be your very likeness and you’ll teach her the things that I’ll teach you.” His voice sang with his promise.
“What else can you tell me?” I asked, my heart in my mouth.
Opening my eyes, I dared myself to look him in the face, but I only saw the stars shining in the window slits.
©2010 by Mary Sharratt.
Egyptian Revenge Spells
Claudia R. Dillaire
Crossing Press (June 23, 2009)
It’s no secret that the original pagans were no stranger to curses. From tribal shamans to priests to everyday people utilizing folk magic, part of most magic-workers’ arsenal was curses and other maleficio. The Egyptians weren’t an exception to this, and contemporary examples of magic that would make white lighters’ toes curl can still be found today. Of course, “black magic” being antithetical to the Wiccan Rede and many other neopagan ethical guidelines (or, at least many neopagans’ interpretations of said ethical guidelines), curses can sometimes be a subject that gets skirted around — or subjected to flame wars.
Kudos, then, to Claudia Dillaire, for writing a book on something new for a change! In this case, it’s revenge that’s the topic of the day, whether dealing with a jilted lover (including those with stalker-like tendencies), ruining someone financially, or simply messing with someone who has already messed with you. There are dozens of incantations, spells and rituals for multiple uses — and while some of them are most definitely for revenge, there are also some for more benign forms of protection, reflection spells, etc.
This isn’t a book of old Egyptian spells, but is instead a collection of modern Wicca-flavored spellcraft with some Egyptian influence. There’s a decidedly Wiccan feel to them, with the common inclusion of candles, crystals, common “witchy” herbs, and incense, and the fairly standard spoken portions. While they do incorporate calling on Egyptian deities, in some ways this could be any of a number of spell books.
I’m not entirely sure how the author interprets Egyptian neopaganism in the first few chapters, where she’s establishing some context for the spells. Sometimes it seems like she’s comparing “Egyptian magic” to Wicca (in particular, as opposed to general neopaganism); other times, it’s as though she’s trying to differentiate between them. Given that the spells themselves are pretty heavily Wicca (or at least witchcraft) flavored, I would have hoped she’d be a little clearer about how much Wicca and witchcraft influenced the unique brand of Egyptian magic she compiled from research and practice. In fact, if there’s anything seriously missing here, it’s a better explanation of where, exactly, she’s coming from. I was left a little unsure as to where the connection is between ancient Egyptian religious practices that spanned several millennia, and her personal practices today.
I’m also not a Kemetic pagan, and Egyptian religion and culture aren’t things I know a whole lot about, so I can’t speak too much to the quality of research. There was nothing glaringly wrong, and the bibliography had a mix of scholarly and practical source material. I could have hoped for in-text or other citations, especially for the historical information, but it’s a bit late for that now!
If you’re looking for some inspiration to unleash some wicked magic — or at least vent some frustration creatively — this is a good book. Don’t pick it up as an example of historically-based Kemetic paganism, however; it’s rather too eclectic for that. It’s a unique creation of the author, and gripes aside, I think it’s a nice change from the usual strict adherence to “Harm none.”
Four pawprints out of five.
Review ©2009 by Lupa
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Lupa is the author of Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic, A Field Guide to Otherkin, and co-author of Kink Magic, among other works. You can read her blog at http://therioshamanism.com and see her website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com.
The study of magic is, by and large, the study of paradigms. The Witch — by whatever title she or he may adopt — steps beyond the default worldview presupposed by the surrounding society, and instead cultivates a unique paradigm which resonates with her or his deepest intuitions. This line of inquiry constitutes an ever present challenge for the practicing Witch. Our sisters and brothers who practice Chaos Magic may well find this interpretation of magic resonates with their approaches. For the Chaos Magician, paradigms are tools which the enlightened soul can adopt and abandon at will. Dancing from one worldview into the next, ever light of step, the Chaos Magician draws from some particular paradigm what she or he requires before moving on. Key to this approach is the conviction that all paradigms are merely artificial constructs by which we organize and render intelligible an essentially ineffable cosmos, yet herein we discover the key dilemma of Chaos Magic: If all paradigms are ultimately expendable, then where can we hope to ground the very conviction all paradigms are expendable interpretations? Thus presented, the argument becomes paradoxical, which may prove no obstacle for the practicing Chaos Magician — or for the Mystic, should we care to explore beyond the boundaries of the purely rational.
Still, the rationalist inside me, who has yet to surrender all hope for an intelligible universe, questions whether Chaos Magic simply sets up one meta-paradigm that encompasses all other possible paradigms. My concern here is simple: If the meta-paradigm thus proposed resolves into an essentially existentialist position, and I fear Chaos Magic indeed reverts back into existentialism, then how do we overcome or sidestep — or even incorporate — existential angst into our magical paradigms?
Allow me one step back. For those less versed in postmodern philosophy, existentialism proposes that existence precedes essence. That is, there is the world, eternally cold and mechanical in its manifold operations. These operations are pure existence, subsisting without reference to meaning or essence. Essence is what we add, the significance which conscious thought projects into the mechanical process. This essence can be thoroughly uplifting and optimistic — witness Soren Kirkegaard’s essentially Christian answer to the existentialist question! — yet whenever one takes up the mantle of existentialism, there lurks the spectre of nihilism. If all the universe is cold, mechanical process, devoid of any meaning apart from what we decide, then there can be no intrinsic meaning subsisting within anything. The universe simply grinds along, oblivious towards even the possibility of some deeper meaning. This scenario, as presented by existentialist philosophers like Sartre and Camus, becomes the source of existential angst, the pervasive and disquieting suspicion that any significance or teleology to things remains, at bottom, false.
It may remain possible that the Chaos Magician can refer all lesser paradigms back towards one primary reality which has meaning, transcending the merely mechanical. Certainly the irrepressible ebullience of Discordian thought suggests the possibility of one such meta-paradigm. Still, the question of whether reality is truly devoid of meaning — apart from what we add — remains.
This question turns especially vexing if we regard magic as something essential — that is, an essence — as opposed to something purely mechanical. If magic consists of the meaning we add into otherwise purely mechanical motions, then magic seemingly has no truck with reality at its most really real. (I recognize that if you do not perceive magic as the art of paradigm bending, I may have long since lost your attention, and if you regard magic as straightforwardly mechanical process, then existential angst constitutes no threat towards your magical paradigm. For those few readers as crazy as me, or for the morbidly curious, I shall continue this line of inquiry just a little further.)
While I am not deeply opposed to the existentialist project, I do regard their central proposition as essentially misleading. To assume that existence precedes essence means to assume an unobservable existence, for all observation imparts some meaning or essence, however slight and however poorly articulated. We simply cannot observe without becoming drawn into the connection between observer and observed. We are inexplicably entangled with the things we observe, and from this entanglement we derive the essence of the observed. Indeed, we might just as well say this entanglement — the way we think and feel about the observed — actually constitutes the essence in question. And there can be no unobserved existence.
Let me reiterate this point: There can be no unobserved existence. To say an existence is unobserved constitutes a manifest contradiction, since the supposition of the existence in question is itself an observation. Moreover, everything exists precisely by the virtue of being observed, by itself in the barest sense if nothing else. (For those familiar with my metaphysical views, my pantheism does allow for other forms and degrees of perception, but these I shall pass over presently in the interests of constructing the simplest argument possible.) Within everything there is essence, both the essence from self-perception and the essence from an outside observer. Existence and essence are forever and inescapably entwined, just as every being has both material and spiritual aspects. (Indeed, existence and essence are respectively much the same things!)
If spiritual essence always and everywhere coexists with perceived existence, then our next set of questions must revolve around what kind of essence we will or should intermingle with matter. Essence, consisting of a qualitative connection between observer and observed, depends in large part upon the choices we make when interpreting our world. Kirkegaard makes this very point in Works of Love when he suggests we are forever confronted with the choice between belief and mistrust. Love, argues Kirkegaard, is unique among the virtues in this: Love can only thrive within us when we believe in — indeed, unconditionally presuppose — the presence of love within others, from the first moment clear unto the last. Forever the mistrust endemic to nihilism raises the terrible possibility that there is no love within others, and whenever we choose this mistrust, we remove from ourselves the very possibility of finding love. Believe, and we find love, perhaps within others, yet more crucially — more gracefully — within ourselves. The tension between these two possibilities, between which we are eternally poised, lies at the root of existential angst.
Something of this same dilemma confronts the practicing Witch, I should think, for the quality of being magical, much like the quality of being loving, turns precisely upon finding without that which we seek within. To be magical means finding the magic inside those things around us, discovering the connections of meaning and correspondence which empower our spells. I’m not unaware that this position seemingly inverts the traditional formulation of the “Charge of the Goddess” — though in seeming only! Near the end of the Charge, the Goddess observes, “If that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.” These are powerful words, words which counsel the Witch to look inward for genuine power and wisdom. To suggest we should seek the magical in the world around us, should we hope to discover the magic within, seems at odds with this Wiccan saying. Still, the choice to discover the magical inside things is itself a choice which dwells within the Witch, the same choice between belief and mistrust which Kirkegaard proposed nearly two hundred years ago. Magic is an essence, and essence depends upon the relationship between observer and observed that we ourselves choose. “Seek and ye shall find,” says the Christian. “As above, so below,” answers the occultist. And so our world takes shape. Seek love, and you will find love within. Seek magic, and magic you will surely possess. Seek the coldly mechanical universe, of course, and this you’ll find, as well.
Kirkegaard suggests we have no more reason to doubt the goodness within the world than we have to believe in things life-affirming, and I see no reason to doubt this essentially hopeful position. Indeed, the Chaos Magician can happily accept this argument, and then skip between the two positions as she or he desires, perhaps a little more mindfully than most everyone else who blend belief and mistrust in daily life. Still, this paradigm bending fails to escape the spectre of angst that existentialism suggests, and while I’m hesitant to jettison this pervasive sense of angst entirely, I am eager to arrive at workable terms with this metaphysical uneasiness. My solution returns to the central issue of ontological primacy. Simply stated, does existence precede essence? As an idealist, I simply don’t grant matter any existence independent of our ideas of matter. (Taking a page from George Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived.”) Furthermore, I believe every perception includes some qualification, some interpretation — in sum, some essence. Therefore, I cannot grant that existence precedes essence in any meaningful sense. This break from existentialism, however, becomes perhaps the greatest boon for the Witch, because every last sensible thing thus becomes pregnant with the possibility of magic. With every interaction, indeed with every bare perception, there arises the question of essence, whether this especial thing is something magical. And to this question, we Witches can answer with a resounding YES!
The nihilist will suggest we are simply fooling ourselves, choosing to make meaningless qualifications of an impersonal and mechanical universe. They will argue the underlying angst of existentialism points towards the one great truth, that everyone ultimately suffers alone within the cold void of reality. I don’t suggest we should remove all doubt about the nature of things, for such not only blinds us against genuine interaction with the world, but also removes the very emotional urgency which gives our Craft its power. In truth, the nihilist perceives reality through filters just as obscuring as those adopted by their magical brethren; the nihilist cannot cheat around our fundamental inability to grasp directly the ineffable nature of reality. All reality — everything that is — constantly forces us to choose between belief and mistrust, between the magical and the mundane, and this choice speaks most of all towards what we seek within ourselves. I choose to walk with belief, to walk with the magic around and within me. Such is the choice — and the power — of the Witch. And so with this choice I leave you, my dear readers.
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey
I first met Isaac Bonewits a few years ago at the Fall Gathering of the Tribes in West Virginia. It was quite interesting to talk with him and it was at that time that I was introduced to his work. Bonewits has been involved in the occult since the 1960s. He’s the only person to have graduated from a university with a degree in magic. Bonewits has founded and belonged to various pagan magical organizations, as well as having written a number of books on paganism and magic.
My familiarity with Bonewits’ work has focused on four books by him: Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic, Authentic Thaumaturgy, Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca, and Real Energy: Systems, Spirits, And Substances to Heal, Change, And Grow, which was co-written by his wife Phaedra Bonewits. Bonewits has written other books as well (see below). What I’ve most enjoyed about his work, beyond the sense of humor, is the attention to detail Bonewits provides in his works, as well as his ability to explain different tangents and concepts. Real Magic, in particular, is one of the first attempts I’ve seen to provide a coherent set of laws which explains how magic works.
I recommend Bonewits’ books for the detail and variety, but also because he maintains a rigorous academic approach to his works. Consequently, it is very easy to trace where he got his sources from, which can provide additional places of research and reading for people who are interested.
His website is http://www.neopagan.net.
- Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic. (1972, 1979, 1989) Weiser Books
- Authentic Thaumaturgy. (1978, 1998) Steve Jackson Games
- Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach. (2003) Earth Religions Press
- Witchcraft: A Concise Guide or Which Witch Is Which?. (2003) Earth Religions Press
- The Pagan Man: Priests, Warriors, Hunters, and Drummers. (2005) Citadel
- Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca. (2006) Citadel
- Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism. (2006) Citadel
- Real Energy: Systems, Spirits, And Substances to Heal, Change, And Grow. (2007) New Leaf. Co-authored with Phaedra Bonewits.
- Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work. (2007) Llewellyn
Taylor Ellwood is the author of Space/Time Magic, Inner Alchemy: Energy Work and the Magic of the Body, and Pop Culture Magick, among other works. You can visit his blog at http://magicalexperiments.wordpress.com/ and his website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/.
©2009 Taylor Ellwood
Edited by Sheta Kaey
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all!
—”Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
Warm and cool, dry and moist, light and shadow — As human beings, our conceptual frameworks freely draw upon dualistic oppositions. Because we who practice magic are human, our magical paradigms partake of these conceptual divides, though as Magicians we have an intellectual responsibility to question whether our basic assumptions about the world are beneficial, or even warranted, for our magical development. When we find ideas which are useful for our occult endeavors, then cultivating our understanding of these ideas should facilitate their adaptation and application. On the other hand, when our paradigms constrain our capacity to engage our world constructively, we should make the intellectual effort to modify — or even to jettison — the offending assumptions.
From the above examples, we can readily see the influence of dualism and binary reasoning both upon ancient proto-science and within contemporary occult theory. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, when sketching out the fourfold division of the elements so integral to our contemporary magical thought, assigned to each element a primal quality based upon temperature and another based upon moisture, so that Fire was hot and dry, while Water was cold and wet. These pairs of essential qualities proposed by Empedocles — warm and cool, dry and moist — subsist upon binary thinking; without the assumption of either-or, they largely fail to “click” upon an intuitive level. An object may partake of some quality “Alpha” only insofar as the object does not partake of the opposing quality “Beta.” The composite substances which populate our visible world inevitably fall somewhere between these various extremes, yet by this thinking, the composition of any particular substance can always be defined with reference to absolutes, absolutes which can only exist in opposition one to another. Contribute heat, and thereby we move the object further from the primal absolute of cold. Take away water, and so much less does the object partake of the primal absolute of moist.
Taking the four primary composites of these qualities — what we would call the four elements — we have Fire (warm and dry) opposed to Water (cold and wet), and Earth (cold and dry) opposed to Air (warm and moist). Even in non-occult circles, there is the sense that each element acts as foil for its opposite. So when the practicing Magician first encounters the Watchtowers — and whatever their true origins and natures, they certainly seem to function as intelligences which personify the four elements — there arises the very natural tendency to perceive these four godforms as opposed, one to another, or to employ the paradigm and parlance of game theory, as engaged in a zero-sum game.
In the social sciences, the field of game theory has emerged to explain various social and economic interactions among several actors. Game theory proposes an individual faced with choices can be regarded as an essentially rational player of some game with defined rules, an actor who makes decisions and selects strategies in order to maximize their own self-interest. There exist many different kinds of games, with various actors and rules. One particularly crucial distinction is that between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. In zero-sum games, one player can only advance when another loses ground by the same amount. If there are only so many bricks in existence, and all available bricks exist as part of two houses, then my house can only expand when yours contracts. (I would very much enjoy a new game room. You weren’t using that foyer, were you?) In non-zero-sum games, by contrast, one player’s advancement does not have to come from another player’s loss, and often there exist cooperative strategies by which all players may advance together. (Let’s work together to build shelter which we can share!)
By the default paradigm, one element meets and potentially neutralizes its opposite upon the zero-sum field of battle. Fire does battle with Water, and vice versa. Earth does battle with Air, and vice versa. According to this paradigm, an individual Watchtower seeks power and influence over the unfolding cosmos, and this power can only come when the influence exercised by the opposing Watchtower wanes. The question arises: Does this conflict-oriented paradigm constitute a legitimate way of viewing the world, and particularly the realms of magical phenomena? Does one elemental force, viewed as rational player attempting to maximize its power and expression, acquire and exert this power only at the expense of another elemental force?
I believe not. To realize the elements are not engaged in zero-sum competition, we need only to consider the visible world. The universe we experience is scarcely possible if we assume all the force of the four elements ultimately sums to zero. In any composite substance, one element would cancel out the opposing element, until only one was left. And yet in our diverse world we almost constantly find objects with the occult properties of opposing elements. Blood bears all the fluidity of water — and, in fact, blood is mostly water — yet blood carries the heat and sustenance so closely associated with Fire that we can hardly consider one without the other. Mountains extend their roots deep into the element of Earth, yet climbing these very mountains enables us to reach skywards and into elemental Air.
Returning to the field of magical correspondences, and especially those found in folk magic, we observe composite elements which defy any attempt to characterize the world as zero-sum. Citrine is one species of quartz, an expression of Earth, and yet citrine bears all the magical resonances of elemental Air. Quite recently I lit incense scented with pink carnation, an object brought to life by Fire, yet with energetic vibrations much more akin to Water. Indeed, “opposing” elements don’t so much neutralize one another, as they engage in complex interactions — often graceful dances, occasionally violent clashes.
As above, so below — So speaks the ancient and timeless wisdom penned by Hermes Trismegistus. Just as there are four elements which, together with ineffable quintessence, compose the macrocosm of our visible world, there are four elements which compose the microcosm of the human experience, and each macrocosmic element finds its echo within the microcosm. Thus we correlate the Mind with elemental Air, the Soul with elemental Fire, the Heart with elemental Water, and the Flesh with elemental Earth. Within these pairings, we discover further evidence that straightforward oppositions — and the resulting conflicts they suggest — rest upon an ultimately untenable paradigm, for the apparent oppositions implicit within the microcosm flow along different lines. Within the human spirit, the intellectual Mind is opposed not to the Flesh, as the macrocosmic Air-Earth relationship might suggest, but to the emotional Heart, which properly corresponds with the macrocosmic element of Water. Likewise, the physical Flesh finds its opposite not in the Mind, but in the spiritual aspect of Soul, an aspect which metaphorically burns with the passionate energy of elemental Fire.
Does the microcosm of the human experience really rest upon lines of battle different from those of the macrocosm? Does elemental Water quench elemental Fire outside the human soul, only to find its counterpart of human emotion at odds with the microcosmic equivalent of Air? Do the four elements we know so well, both outside and in, obey one set of interactions above, and quite another below? Such a disharmonious arrangement seems at odds with the Hermetic saw, and I daresay with our experience of the world as Magicians. My solution, which I hope will be no great innovation for most of my readers, is simple: To assume a world of straightforward, binary oppositions, subsisting within the context of a zero-sum game, misses the beautiful and terrible complexity of our world.
The apparent oppositions between Fire and Water, Earth and Air, are nothing more than assumptions which we as humans make about the most primal components of our world, assumptions which ultimately fail to capture adequately the complex interactions of these elemental forces. Likewise, our own microcosmic experience of the apparent conflict between Flesh and Soul, Mind and Heart, are persistent and pernicious illusions which keep us from conceiving the human experience as this experience really is. To be sure, we conceptualize such oppositions quite naturally within the context of our shared culture, and not without reason. The mistake is in assuming that these elemental forces exist in perpetual conflict with one another, a zero-sum game wherein one element only gains at the expense of another. Rather, we must consider the alternative model of the non-zero-sum game, wherein all players can advance (or decline) together. If we consider the Watchtowers as elemental intelligences which participate as players in the universal game of reality, we can observe more clearly the ways by which our shared reality reflects this essential premise of non-zero-sum games.
Considering life in all its myriad complexities, we observe life forms composed of all four elements, whether we regard the macrocosm of classical elements or the microcosm of human experience. These forms of life, upon the material plane and elsewhere, assume ever more sophisticated ways of interacting with their world and with one another, and while I’m hesitant to assign moral value to complexity in itself, certainly the development of sentience and the capacity for magical interactions with the world points towards life-affirming tendencies which evolve across time. This evolution occurs not within the context of a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, but through non-zero-sum interactions wherein — through the complex dance composed of cooperation and dynamic tension — the Watchtowers intertwine to create the sophisticated and magnificent world we perceive everyday. Within this world, Air can imbue with power objects made from Earth, and the vibrations of Water can be placed in motion by the power of Fire.
Perhaps even more critically for the practicing Magician, across the human experience we all conceptualize certain oppositions which dissolve upon genuine introspection. The philosophical paradigm into which our civilization defaults recognizes a vast conceptual divide between human reason and human emotion. Through the Enlightenment, emotion was often shunned as something passive, something by which the outside world impinged upon the soul, all too often to the individual’s detriment. Today, alternative fields of study which brush up against the New Age movement often suffer from the opposite extreme, denigrating reason in favor of commitment to one’s emotions. The conflict between these two aspects of the psyche arises at least in part based upon our English language, which places Mind and Heart in opposition to one another. (By contrast, the German language contains the one expression, “geist” — etymologically related with the English “ghost” — which encompasses both Mind and Heart as one singular entity.) Understanding these apparent oppositions cannot lock the elements into zero-sum conflict, we can instead focus our attention upon those ways via which Mind and Heart can work in concert, in order to effect our True Will.
Mayhaps the most cogent argument for the conception of elemental interactions as an essentially non-zero-sum game may be found within the Magician’s Circle. Within this astral construct, we call all four elements, both macrocosmically and microcosmically. (And indeed, both macrocosm and microcosm meet within the context of the Circle!) As we call each of the Watchtowers, the power flowing into our Circle grows ever stronger, precisely the opposite of what we would expect if the apparent oppositions neutralized one another and summed to zero. Rather, we acknowledge all four elements both without and within, and through this acknowledgment we become part of the cosmic dance, the dance of ever increasing complexity which arises from non-zero-sum encounters among the primal forces of creation!
Over the coming months, I challenge you to consider the ways in which the elements combine and interlace to compose the beautiful and terrible cosmos which we inhabit. I’ve offered my intellectual arguments against that view of the universe which reduces to conflict, and ultimately to annihilation into a zero-sum state. I simply don’t believe we inhabit so bleak a cosmos. My faith in the cooperative nature of the elements, however, stems from something more experiential, moments of precious insight acquired through magical practice and developed with heartfelt introspection. I challenge you to practice, to reflect both with Mind and with Heart, and to arrive at those cosmic truths which best speak towards your experience of the world.
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Purpose of Circles In Magic
There are two opinions about the purpose for the circle in ritual magic — the first view is that it is to keep something out, and the second view is that it is to keep something in. Both are correct, and although they may seem contradictory, both views are based on the same principle — the circle is a barrier that divides inside from outside.
Take a pencil and a sheet of paper. Draw a line segment on the paper. The line seems to divide one side of the paper from the other, but it has end points, and it is possible to go around those ends — the line segment is not a true divider. However long you imagine the line to be, it is possible to imagine the paper it is on to be larger, so that the line never truly divides the plane.
Draw a circle on the sheet of paper. You will see that the division made by the circle between inside and outside is absolute. Enlarge the circle, shrink it, distort it, and it makes no difference — as long as the circle is unbroken, it creates a perfect barrier. There is no way around it.
You might argue that in our first example, we could limit the size of the imagined sheet of paper, and then it would be possible to draw a line completely across it, and divide it in an absolute sense. Yes, but to limit the size of the paper we must first draw a mental circle around it, that defines its edge. The actual physical sheet of paper is limited in just this way — its edge is its boundary circle.
What can we say about the nature of a circle, based on this little thought experiment? We can say that a circle surrounds, encloses, contains, and excludes. It defines the edge of something, and by doing so, it gives what it defines a shape. Everything we see has a circle around it. If this were not so, we would not be able to distinguish one thing from another — they would all run together and merge in our minds.
That brings up another aspect of the circle — it exists in the mind. We draw a mental circle around any thing we chose to separate from all other things. When we look at an apple tree and consider the tree as a whole, we draw a circle around the tree that divides that tree from all other trees, from the sky, the earth, from all other things that are not the tree itself; but if we choose to narrow our attention and focus it on a single apple hanging on a branch of that tree, we mentally draw a circle around that single apple.
All circles are by their inherent nature magical. They define order from chaos. There is no separation in the natural world, there are only the separations we choose to impose upon our perception of the natural world. We construct our reality piece by piece when we draw circles of identity around objects and concepts.
If you have followed this line of reasoning, you will understand that names are magic circles. This is the fabled occult power of names. When we name a thing, we separate it from everything else. It comes into discrete existence in our mind at that moment. Everything we perceive has been divided in our mind from chaos by an enclosing circle, and that circle defines the name of the thing enclosed. The subsequent process of assigning an arbitrary word sound to the thing is secondary. We have already named it the instant we recognize its existence. That recognition makes the thing real for us — brings the thing forth into our personal reality. This is a magical act, even though it is seldom recognized as such, because it is so basic to the way our minds work.
The magic circle is usually understood in a narrower sense, as a circle drawn for the purpose of working ceremonial magic. It defines a space within which magic is facilitated. Exactly how the circle aids the working of magic has been a matter for debate.
In traditional Western spirit evocation, the circle was used to guard the magician from the malicious actions of evil spirits, who were excluded from the circle while the magician remained safe within its boundary. In modern Wicca the belief is that the circle retains and concentrates magical energy raised by ritual work, making it easier for the leader of the ritual to direct and release that energy for a specific desired use.
If you consider what was written above about the nature of circles in general, you can see that these two views are not incompatible. A barrier can simultaneously hold one thing out while holding another thing in. A fence around your back yard will keep your dog inside the yard, but at the same time it keeps other dogs out of the yard. The key point is that it cannot be crossed so long as it remains undivided.
The magicians of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were mostly concerned with calling up demons and spirits of a mixed type, for the performance of tasks that would have been beneath the dignity of angels, and unsuited to their natures. These tasks included such work as the finding of treasure, the harming of enemies, inducing love or lust in other persons, gaining social position or power, inducing a glamour of false appearance, and so on.
By their very nature these kinds of low spirits are not inclined to help or obey human beings. Yet they are more suited for selfish tasks than the benevolent angels. The magician got around this awkwardness by calling demons and spirits of a mixed type up outside the bounds of the magic circle, while he commanded them from the safety of the space inside the circle. This protective use of the circle is unnecessary when dealing with angels of a more spiritual nature, since they never seek to do harm.
Even so, the circle was drawn for other purposes than the evocation of low spirits. Wiccans employ it to contain and concentrate the power they raise by their changing and dancing. When the occult energy within the circle has filled the circle to such a degree that it can be felt on the surface of the skin as a kind of heat or electricity, the leader of the ritual releases it like an arrow from a bow toward its intended function.
You may ask how energy can be released from the circle, when the circle by its very nature is an unbroken barrier. This is an occult secret that until fairly recently was never explicitly revealed. I wrote about it in my first book The New Magus, which was published by Llewellyn Publications in 1987, and that may have been the first time this secret was clearly explained to a large number of magicians.
The circle by its nature cannot be broken and remain a circle. No point on the circumference of a circle can be singled out as an aperture without destroying the integrity of the circle, since all points must remain undifferentiated and undivided if the circle is to stay whole. The only way in or out of a circle is through the point at its center, which by the nature of a circle is defined. Yet all points within the area of a circle are the same – one mathematical point does not differ from another mathematical point by its nature, but only by its position.
The center is relative. Any point in space that the human mind chooses to make its viewpoint becomes the center of the universe for that consciousness. We think of ourselves as looking outward through our eyes from some point within our skulls, but this is arbitrary. We can just as easily regard the world from the tip of our right index finger, or from the cat lying on the fireplace hearth across the room.
The practical consequence from a magical standpoint, with regard to the circle, is that any point within the circumference (but not on the circumference) of a circle can be regarded by the magician as its center point, and used as an aperture in or out of that circle.
When the high priestess of a Wiccan coven releases from the circle the accumulated occult energy of a ritual to the fulfillment, she does so by opening the point doorway at the center of the circle. This happens even if she is unaware of what she is doing. There is only one way in or out of the circle, so to release the pent-up energy, the high priestess must open the center — that point within the circle that she chooses, by the focus of her will, to represent the center-point of the circle.
Points are opened by expanding them. The expansion of a point is accomplished by means of a spiral. Only spiral energy can move through a point. Wiccans raise what is known as a cone of power within the circle. The cone has a spiral energy and it focuses upon a point, which is the center point of the circle. It is through this expanded point that the concentrated energy of the ritual is released, to fly like an arrow to its target, where it accomplishes its purpose.
Necromancers working with demons from within a protective magic circle sometimes pierce the circle with a sword to manipulate objects, or to compel obedience from the demons they have evoked outside the circle. They seem to pierce the side of the circle with the blade of the sword. Probably they themselves believed that they were piercing the side of the circle when they extended the steel blade beyond its boundary.
This is not the case. As pointed out, a circle only remains a circle for so long as it is unbroken, and were it broken even for an instant, its protective power would cease. No, the blade of the sword actually extends through the point chosen by the necromancer as the center of the circle. This occurs on the subconscious level. By choosing a place from which to project the sword blade, the necromancer defines the center point, distinguishing it from all other points within the circle, and by projecting the blade he opens that point with spiral energy.
Circles of Stone and Dancing Rings
Mention magic circles to the average person and the first thing he will think of is Stonehenge. The sheer beauty and mystery of that ancient ring of standing stones on the Salisbury Plain has so captured the modern mind that it has become iconic. Yet it is far from unique. Similar stone rings of widely varying sizes and degrees of sophistication are to be found not only across England, or even across Europe, but throughout the entire world. The most ancient that has been discovered to date are probably the rings of curious T-shaped standing stones that have recently been unearthed in Turkey.
The place is called Gobekli Tepe. It is near the city of Sanliurfa, which lies around ten miles to the southwest. The unique T-stones were discovered in 1994 by a Kurdish shepherd, who happened to notice some curiously regular stone blocks poking up from the ground while tending his flock. What he discovered has been called the greatest archaeology find in history.
The stone circles excavated from under their covering of earth turned out to be over 12,000 years old — 7,000 years older than Stonehenge. There are an estimated twenty rings of stones, although only four have been completely excavated to date. Most of the stones are about eight feet tall, but one has been found in a nearby quarry that was 28 feet long, so much larger stones may wait to be uncovered.
The discovery at Gobekli Tepe shows that human beings were building elaborate complexes of stone circles even before they began to settle in villages and farm the land. That is how important the making of circles was to these early cultures. Undoubtedly they were used for religious rituals, but for ancient man there was no clear separation between religion and magic. Shamanism is an almost perfect blending of the two. The shaman is both priest and magician.
Some researches have contended that these stone circles were built to mark the windings of the stars and planets in the heavens — as a sort of elaborate form of sundial. But if this were their only function, or even their primary function, it could have been accomplished just as well with much less massive or elaborate constructions. Imagine how much labor went into the construction of Stonehenge, or Gobekli Tepe.
No, the circles of stones served a magical purpose that was of the highest possible significance. They defined a sacred space, concentrated ritual energies within that space, and protected it from defilement by disharmonious forces. The maintenance of these sacred spaces must have been more important to the peoples who built these great stone rings than any other purpose in their lives. They devoted generations of their lives to building them. The only comparable act of devotion in historical times is the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe.
A ring of standing stones defines a permanent circle to sanctify and empower a specific spot on the surface of the earth, but magic rings of an impermanent kind were also constructed for ritual purposes. The most ephemeral form of magic circle was that formed by the bodies of dancing witches, or the seated ring of chanting shamans. This sort of magic circle could be formed anywhere a nomadic tribe stopped for the night, and although its locality was always different, its manner of formation was always the same, and leant the ritual practice a continuity that persisted in spite of the ceaselessly changing landscape.
We can catch a faint echo of this kind of nomadic ritual practice in the books of the Old Testament that describe the early Hebrews wandering in the desert. Each night they erected a tent to house the Ark of the Covenant. The walls of the tent became the magic circle that contained the occult power of the Ark, and also excluded those who were considered unfit to approach the Ark.
Still more primitive nomadic peoples could accomplish the same ends without a tent, by defining the magic circle with their own tribesmen gathered into a ring. At its center a fire was probably maintained, and around this fire a shaman danced and sang to raise occult power. By dancing around the fire, the center point of the circle was opened, and the energy released to fulfill its function.
European witchcraft descended from shamanism. This is self-evident — there are too many parallels between shamanism and witchcraft to reach any other conclusion. Although we can only conjecture as to how primitive nomadic tribes must have formed their magic circles, we have a much clearer idea how the witches of the Middle Ages went about it. The practices of witches are described in the transcripts of the European witch trials.
These court records are to be viewed with the utmost skepticism. The confessions of witches were extracted under torture, or the threat of torture, and accused individuals tried to tell their captors exactly what they wanted to hear. Even so, the general consistency in the descriptions suggests that they are based upon some collective cultic activity — that there were indeed witches, and that they did indeed gather for the practice of magic and for worship.
This was the conclusion of Margaret A. Murray in her highly controversial yet influential book The Witch-Cult In Western Europe. Murray’s findings have been dismissed by most mainstream anthropologists yet her central contention, that the mythology of witchcraft represents an echo of a surviving pagan religion, or at least a kind of cultic set of magical practices with religious elements, cannot easily be dismissed.
We read in the testimony of accused witches that they gathered at their sabbats to perform works of magic and worship. Those recording these matters were Christian priests, so naturally in the transcripts of the witch trials, the works of magic are invariably supposed to have been evil, and the worship always to have been devil worship. Yet we have only the assertions of the Christian priests that this was the case. It seems more likely that the magic worked by witches at their gatherings was of a mixed nature.
Witches danced in a circle at their gatherings. This was known as the round dance or ring dance. Margaret A. Murray wrote in her 1931 book The God of the Witches:1
The ring dance was specially connected with the fairies, who were reported to move in a ring holding hands. It is the earliest known dance, for there is a representation of one at Cogul in north-eastern Spain (Catalonia), which dates to the Late Palaeolithic or Capsian period. The dancers are all women, and their peaked hoods, long breasts, and elf-locks should be noted and compared with the pictures and descriptions of elves and fairies. They are apparently dancing round a small male figure who stands in the middle. A similar dance was performed and represented several thousand years later, with Robin Goodfellow in the centre of the ring and his worshippers forming a moving circle round him.
(Murray, God of the Witches, pp. 109-10)
Concerning the ring dance of witches, J. M. McPherson wrote in his 1929 book Primitive Beliefs In the North-east of Scotland:2
The ring dance usually took place round some object. Thomas Leyis with a great number of other witches “came to the Market and Fish Cross of Aberdeen, under the conduct and guidance of the devil present with you, all in company, playing before you on his kind of instruments, ye all danced about the said Cross, the said Thomas was foremost and led the ring.” These danced round the Cross. Margaret Og was charged with going to Craigleauch “on Halloween last, and there accompanied by thy own two daughters and certain others, ye all danced together about a great stone under the conduct of Satan, your master, a long space.” Here the stone was the centre round which they danced.
(McPherson, J. M. Primitive Beliefs, p. 169)
Discounting the slanders of the Church Inquisitors concerning the presence of Satan in the gatherings of witches, we can see in these ring dances the formation of a kind of dynamic, movable magic circle. As is the case with modern witchcraft covens when they form a circle for ritual purposes, the center of the ring had a focus for its concentrated energies. Usually this was the leader of the ritual, but the dances might also take place around a standing stone, altar or other object of power. The rotation of the dancers provided the spiral energy needed to focus upon the center of the circle.
The close correspondence between the ring dance of witches and the ring dance of fairies is part of the whole complex of strong ties that exist between the lore of witches and the lore of fairies. Fairy rings, naturally occurring circles that appeared in the grass of meadows and in woods, are the result of the growth of fungus under the surface of the ground, but they were thought to be made by fairies dancing with their hands joined. Other names for these circular phenomena were sorcerers’ rings (French: ronds de sorciers) or witches’ rings (German: hexenringe). By some rural folk they were thought to be formed when witches gathered at their sabbats to dance.
European witches met out of doors, under the moon and stars, and gathered in grassy meadows on in clearings in the forest. They danced on the ground, which was unmarked with symbolic patterns, forming the patterns of their rituals with their own bodies and with their movements. It shows how important the circle is for magical practice, that even under these conditions witches felt a need to define a circle with their dance.
Magic Circles in the Grimoires
The round dance of witches is perhaps the purest form of magic circle. European magicians did not have the option of using a dozen human beings with linked hands to form a circle. They worked alone, or with one or two assistants, and usually performed their rituals beneath a roof on a floor of stone or wood. It was the usual practice to draw or inscribe a magic circle on the floor of the chamber of practice prior to beginning the ritual, using charcoal or chalk. There were other methods for defining the circle – it could be laid down in the form of joined strips of fur or skin, or defined by a rope laid out on the floor, or even painted upon a canvas or rug that was unfolded across the floor – but the usual way was to draw or inscribe the circle.
The term “circle” is used here in its occult, not its mathematical sense. Ritual circles were seldom perfectly circular, or simple in nature. They consisted of concentric circles within a square, or multiple circles, or more involved geometric patterns such as pentagrams, hexagrams or octagrams. These complex patterns on the floor of the ritual chamber are still magic circles, in that they were used to divide inside from outside with a continuous and unbroken line, or set of lines.
One of the oldest of the grimoires, and the most authoritative, The Key of Solomon the King, describes the making of a complex circle. It is evident from its size and manner of formation that this circle is to be made out of doors on the ground.
The magician takes a cord nine feet in length and uses a sword to fix one end to the center of the working space. With the cord pulled taunt, he uses the other end to inscribe with a knife the line of a circle on the ground that is eighteen feet in diameter. A cross is drawn through the center of the circle to divide it into four quadrants – east, west, south and north. Into each quadrant is placed the symbol of that direction of space.
This is the actual magic circle — the magical barrier that protects the magician. Beyond this initial circle, which is called the Circle of Art, other elaborations are to be inscribed which are part of the compound magic circle but not its essential core. Three more concentric circles are to be drawn, each one foot larger in radius than the initial circle, so that three bands are formed by the four circles. Within the outermost of these circular bands, pentagrams are to be inscribed, along with the names and symbols of God.
A square is drawn outside these three bands, or four circles, and outside the square a larger square, so that the corners of the smaller square touch the midpoints of the sides of the larger square. The squares are to be oriented so that the corners of the larger square point in the four directions – east and west, north and south.
It should be noted that the illustration in S. L. MacGregor Mathers’ edition of the Key of Solomon (figure 81) does not match the description of how to make the circle (bk. 2, ch. 9). The confusion arises with regard to the concentric circles — how many there are to be, and what is to be put in them, and where it is to be put. The illustration in Mathers’ book shows only three circles, not the four described. I will quote the relevant passage of text from Mathers’ edition, then explain where the confusion arises. The numbering within the square brackets is mine, and has been used for the sake of clarity.3
Then within the Circle mark our four regions, namely, towards the East, West, South, and North, wherein place Symbols; and beyond the limits of this Circle  describe with the Consecrated Knife or Sword another Circle , but leaving an open space therein towards the North whereby thou mayest enter and depart beyond the Circle of Art. Beyond this again thou shalt describe another Circle  at a foot distance with the aforesaid Instrument, yet ever leaving therein an open space for entrance and egress corresponding to the open space already left in the other. Beyond this again make another Circle  at another foot distance, and beyond these two Circles [2 and 3], which are beyond the Circle of Art  yet upon the same Centre, thou shalt describe Pentagrams with the Symbols and Names of the Creator therein so that they may surround the Circle already described.
(Mathers. Key of Solomon, p. 99)
The first circle with a radius of nine feet is the Circle of Art. The second concentric circle has a radius of ten feet, the third concentric circle a radius of eleven feet, and the fourth concentric circle a radius of twelve feet. A gap is left in the north of each circle for the entrance of the magician after he has finished completing the drawing of the pattern. The magician closes the gap once he stands inside. This gap is not mentioned explicitly for the innermost and outermost circles, but it is implied. In some of the older illustrations of magic circles this gap in the north appears to be a permanent part of the circle — a kind of corridor for entry and exist (see Skinner & Rankine, The Veritable Key of Solomon, p. 70).4
The text seems to indicate that the pentagrams are to be drawn within the outermost of the three bands, between circles 3 and 4. It is not specified how many pentagrams are to be used, but Mathers’ diagram shows four. However, in the diagram they are located upon the square that surround the four circles, not within the outermost band of those circles. Based on the text, these pentagrams should be placed between circles 3 and 4, along with divine names, so that the band of pentagrams and divine names surrounds the inner circles. The text seems to imply that the divine names should be written within the pentagrams, but I believe this is misleading – the names should probably be written within the outermost band of the circles, between circles 3 and 4, beside the pentagrams. A pentagram should be located between each divine name. The symbols of the Creator may be the four Hebrew letters of Tetragrammaton, IHVH.
There is no indication in the text what names are to be written within the bands of the circles, apart from the outermost which does not even appear on Mathers’ diagram. The diagram shows in the innermost band the Hebrew divine names (which I have transcribed into Latin characters) AVIAL, ADNI, IHVH and TzBAVTh. The second band contains the words MI KMKH BALIM IHVH. These are the only Hebrew words shown on Mathers’ diagram.
The vast size alone of this complex magic circle would make it all but unusable. The smallest part of it, the Circle of Art, is a full 18 feet in diameter. The size of the larger square outside the concentric circles is around twice that width. To draw this circle indoors would require a room some 32 feet across, at least, in its smallest dimension. Many modern houses are not this wide.
Fortunately for magicians, the circle in the Key of Solomon is only one such design that may be used. At the opposite size extreme, some older woodcuts show the magician working within a circle so tiny, it is barely large enough to contain him. A few of these older illustrations even show the demons evoked into the circle while the magician stands outside it unprotected, but this is contrary to the usual use of the circle and should probably be considered an error. Malicious spirits are evoked outside the Circle of Art, usually into a triangle, but sometimes within a smaller circle with the magician safely within the larger circle. As is stated in the Key of Solomon, those who work within the Circle of Art “shall be at safety as within a fortified Castle, and nothing shall be able to harm him” (Mathers, p. 100).
Drawing the Physical Circle
Do not be alarmed if you cannot make out the letters of all the obscure names in the magic circles of the grimoires. Some illustrations of these circles are so corrupt, it would take a Solomon risen from the grave to decipher them. The Hebrew and Greek characters have devolved into nothing more than meaningless squiggles. Happily for the modern magician, there are an infinite number of possible patterns for the magic circle, and all of them will work effectively provided the magician who creates them follows a few basic principles, which I propose to give you. A circle you design yourself, if it is rightly designed, will always be more effective than a circle you copy out of an old book.
The first consideration of a magic circle is that it must be an unbroken line the end of which joins up with its beginning. It does not necessarily need to be perfectly circular in shape, although rightly made circles will usually contain at their root a single unbroken circle, beneath whatever elaborations have been added. Bear this in mind — base your magic circle on a simple, unbroken ring, and it will serve you well. It should be made as large as necessary so that you can work comfortably within it. A traditional size is nine feet in diameter, but for a single person working without an altar, a circle as small as six feet across will be fine. If you can make the circle nine feet across, you will be able to set an altar at its center, and you will have enough room to move around it.
The world is usually divided into four directions or quarters. The magic circle is similarly divided into four quadrants — north, east, south and west. It is not essential to physically mark these quarters of the circle, but you should be aware of this division, which is the most fundamental division of the magic circle. The magic altar is often placed at the center of the circle, and the altar has a square top with four sides. Each of its four sides should face one of the four directions. The room in which the magic circle will usually be constructed will likely have four walls. Again, these walls may be referred to the four directions and four quarters of the world. The wall that is closest to the east can be used for the direction of east, the wall closest to the south can be used for the direction of south, and so on. Align the sides of your altar with the walls of the room.
The divine names that are generally used to act as guardians of the circle are four in number, one name for each quarter of space. It does not matter which specific divine names you choose. The grimoires generally use Hebrew names of God culled from the Bible, either written out in Hebrew characters, or in Greek or Latin characters. IHVH, Adonai, Eheieh and Elohim are serviceable. You do not need to use divine names from the Bible if you have an aversion to conventional religions. Pagan divine names will serve equally well, provided that they are names or titles of the supreme god of the pagan pantheon with which you are working. If you were to use classical Greek mythology for your pantheon, you would choose four names for Zeus. If you were to use the Nordic pantheon, you would choose four names for Odin, or Woden. You will find that supreme gods always have a multitude of names and titles from which to choose.
These four divine names are applied to your inner circle, the root of your magic circle, which is called in the Key of Solomon the Circle of Art. Draw a second circle outside the first, so that there is from six inches to a foot of distance between them, and mark the names in this ring. They are your strongest final line of defense, your ultimate authority by which you command spirits of a malicious or mixed nature. Like the greatest artillery, they are powerful but not versatile.
Outside this first ring you should construct a second ring by drawing a third, larger circle, in which you should place the names of four lesser gods, or if you are working with the Jewish or Christian systems, the names of the four archangels, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel. Each lesser god, or archangel, should be chosen to serve as the active arm of the divine name to which it corresponds. The archangel executes the will of God that is defined by the divine name of that quarter. It is the extension or projection of that power.
All the names should be written to be read from outside the circle, not from inside. This important detail is usually overlooked in the grimoires. It is the spirits beyond the boundary of the circle who will be barred from entry by the power of the names, so the names are written for their benefit.
A third line of defense should consist of a third ring, defined by a fourth larger circle, in which are inscribed four names of lesser or earthly spirits that are under the authority of the archangels or lesser gods of the second circle. These earthly spirits will execute minor and mundane tasks assigned to them by the archangels of the four quarters. In traditional Western Judeo-Christian magic, there are four elemental kings that may be used for this purpose, Djin, Nichsa, Paralda and Ghob. Sometimes the nature of the archangels is too elevated to effectively deal with material concerns, and when this is the case these earthly spirits act as their arms, just as the archangels act as the arms of the divine names.
If you have followed this division, you will now have three rings defined by four circles, each ring with four names written in it, one name for each quarter of the world. You may place whatever elaborations you will outside these circles, but the basic circle has already been made, and will serve any purpose to which it is put.
I’ll give the Golden Dawn arrangement for the four sets of divine, archangelic, and kingly names on the quarters, just as a reference. Other names may be used with equally good results.
- East: IHVH — Raphael — Paralda
- South: Adonai — Michael — Djin
- West: Eheieh — Gabriel — Nichsa
- North: AGLA — Uriel — Ghob
An attractive elaboration you can use, if you have sufficient space, is to draw a heptagram outside the outermost circle so that the circles fit within its open center. The form of the heptagram that has a line which reflects from every second point has a large space at its center. The names of the seven planetary angels can them be written at the bases of each of the seven triangles that form the points of this heptagram. This circle is excellent for planetary magic.
The question of what to use to mark the magic circle on the floor always arises. In past centuries a piece of charcoal from the fire was used, or sometimes a piece of chalk. Floors were usually rough boards in those times, or flagstones. Charcoal or chalk do not work well on a modern carpet, or even on polished hardwood.
A popular method is to lay out the circle with colored tape. This can be bought at any craft store. You can be conservative and use white tape for the entire circle, or if you wish, you can differentiate the fourfold division of the circle by using tapes that are colored the four elemental colors. The Golden Dawn correspondence of colors for the four directions would be: east — yellow, south — red, west — blue, north — black (or green).
Projecting the Astral Circle
Now I must tell you the most important part of casting a magic circle. What you have just made on the floor of your ritual chamber, this elaborate construction of three rings with its divine, angelic, and elemental kingly names, is not a magic circle. It is only the physical husk or shell of a magic circle. It has no life, no reality on the astral level, until you infuse life into it, and make it real.
It is for this reason — because the circle you have drawn or laid out on your floor is a dead thing — that I have not written about making a gap in the north to enter the circle. The circle does not exist until you empower it, so making a gap in the north is not necessary. You may just step across the edge of the physical circle to enter it.
To empower and bring the circle to life, it must be projected or cast on the astral level. This is done in the imagination, by a process of successive visualization, at the start of your rituals. The circle you envision on the astral plane will not correspond in every respect to the circle you have drawn on the floor, any more than the astral temple you have erected in your mind will match exactly your physical workspace.
To cast the circle on the astral level, you stand within the physical circle, visualizing yourself standing in the astral temple you have built up in your imagination, and then mentally walk around the inner edge of the physical circle, projecting the astral circle above it with astral fire so that it floats in the air at the level of your heart. If your physical circle is small, it is sufficient to turn on your own axis while projecting the astral circle in the air at heart level.
After you have projected the astral circle, you must sustain it in your imagination for the remainder of the ritual. It is not an empty exercise — when you make the astral circle, it remains in existence in your mind. The more clearly you can visualize it, the more potent its working. Never step through the astral circle once it has been projected.
The astral circle is projected from the right hand, the side of the body that projects. The right side is projective, the left side receptive. You can use an instrument such as a wand to project the circle, or your right index finger. If you use your finger, it is good to have a magic ring on that finger, the better to channel your energies. The astral fire of the circle is drawn out of your heart center and ejected from your wand, or index finger, in a continuous stream, as though it were a stream of burning liquid.
You can visualize this fire to be of any color, but a glowing yellow-white flame is neutral in a magical sense, and will serve for most ritual purposes.
I have developed a very specific way of projecting occult energies. I lay my left palm flat over my heart center at a comfortable angle, as though taking a pledge, and extend my right index finger. I then visualize astral fire shining from my heart-center the way light shines from a flame. I draw this fire out of my heart-center through the palm of my left hand, up my left arm, across my shoulders, and then project it strongly down my right arm and out through my right index finger. The astral fire traces an expanding spiral course through my body.
After projecting the magic circle on the astral level, you should invoke the names of the gods, archangels and kings by turning to face their directions successively, or by walking around the circle to stand in their quarters successively. Start in the east and turn sunwise. Call forth the power of IHVH in the east, then Adonai in the south, Eheieh in the west, and AGLA in the north. Return to the east and invoke the archangel of the east, Raphael, then go to the south and invoke Michael, then Gabriel in the west, and Uriel in the north. Return east and invoke the king Paralda, then the king Djin in the south, the king Nichsa in the west, and the king Ghob in the north. Return to your starting place in the east, or face east if you are turning on your own axis within a small circle.
In this way you will have gone around the circle three times, once for the names of God, once for the names of the archangels, and once for the names of the kings. This turning creates a whirl or tourbillion — a kind of occult vortex — that draws down magical power into the circle and fills it with astral light. If you have done the invocation rightly you will see this light strongly glowing in your visualized astral circle, and you may even see it in the physical circle, glowing on the air with a soft radiance.
You have in this way cast the circle and energized it. You are ready for whatever ritual work you intend to perform.
Breaking the Circle
When that work is finished, you must deliberately break the ring of the astral circle before you leave the physical circle. I say again, do not walk through the astral circle. Nothing so terrible will happen if you do, but by walking through it you demonstrate that it lacks substance. This is not a good practice. You want to make the astral circle so real, to tangible that it would be physically impossible for you to walk through it without breaking it.
Before breaking the astral circle, banish the four regions of space that lie beyond its barrier. By the authority of the God names of those quarters, command any spirits who may be lingering there to depart in peace. Do this in a quiet but resolute voice, or if you are performing a silent mental ritual, with firmly focused thoughts that are sub-vocalized in your throat. Pay attention to how the air of the ritual chamber feels after you banish the quarters. Does it feel calm and empty? Or does it have a waiting, watchful feeling? If it does not feel empty, perform the banishing a second time, or even a third time, with greater emphasis.
After the four quarters have been banished, it is safe to break the astral circle. When you have divided the circle you may draw it back into your heart center by reversing the steps with which you projected it. Break it in the east (that is the usual starting point used by most magicians, although I start my rituals in the south). Draw it into yourself by walking around it widdershins if it is a large circle, or by turning widdershins if it is a small circle. Draw it back into your heart through your extended left index finger, the side of reception.
Ring, Sash and Circlet
Various articles are worn by the ceremonial magician that are in themselves magic circles that enclose and protect the body, by which different forms of occult force may be concentrated or projected.
The magic ring is a standard article for traditional Western magicians. It is customary for a familiar spirit to be bound to the ring, so that the spirit lends its power to the ring, and may be called forth from the ring at need to perform services for the magician. A magic ring is described in the Key of Solomon, showing how ancient this instrument must have been. The Greek writer Philostratus described magic rings worn by the sage and magician Apollonius of Tyana, who lived around the time of Jesus, and the use of magic rings must have been old even in the time of Apollonius. Cornelius Agrippa was supposed to have worn such a ring.
In addition to serving as the receptacle for a familiar spirit, the ring is used to project power through the finger on which it is worn. Usually this is the right index finger, the most willful and potent finger for projection. As energy runs around the circle of the ring, forming a vortex of power, it is directed out through the point gateway at the center of the magic circle defined by the ring, and channeled along the axis defined by the extended finger.
Another magic circle worn on the body is the sash. This is usually wrapped three times around the waist of the magician and tied, although sometimes the sash is closed by a fastener in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail, so that the sash forms a symbolic ouroboros. The sash is sometimes made from seven bands of colored fabric or ribbon that are the seven colors of the rainbow and correspond with the seven planets of traditional magic. The sash I use is made of seven braided cords, each cord died one of the rainbow colors.
The function of the sash is manifold, but one purpose is to contain and concentrate vitality within the center of the magician’s body. It also offers protection against possession attempts, or other intrusions into the body by spirits. Different sashes sometimes form marks of rank within occult orders, just as different colored belts are ranks in the martial arts.
The third magic circle often worn on the body by Western magicians is the circlet, a band of metal worn around the head. Mine is in the shape of a serpent swallowing its tail, and is fashioned from copper. Silver and gold will also serve for making the circlet.
The circlet concentrates occult energy in the head, the seat of the will and the reason. It has the function of strengthening and focusing the mind. Its physical pressure on the forehead helps to awaken and open the ajna chakra, the third eye which is located between the eyebrows. The circlet is helpful during scrying for this reason.
There is no aspect of ritual occultism more ancient or more essential than the magic circle. Indeed, it is difficult to find systems of magic that do not use the circle in some form, and when they are found, they seem incomplete and naked. The magic circle is older than Solomon, older than Moses, and occurs throughout the world in all religions and systems of witchcraft and thaumaturgy. It divides, excludes, protects, attracts, focuses, and concentrates, as these functions are needed by the magician. It is used not merely for evocations, but for invocations, for charging of talismans, for scrying, for projecting accumulated occult energy, and even for meditation. A correct understanding of the circle, not only how to project it, but what it signifies symbolically, is the most basic knowledge any magician can possess, and no magician can be said to know anything of importance about magic who has not mastered the use of the circle.
- Murray, Margaret A. The God Of The Witches . London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
- McPherson, J. M. Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland (International Folklore) . London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929.
- Mathers, S. Liddell MacGregor. The Key of Solomon The King: (Clavicula Salomonis) . York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc., 1989.
- Skinner, Stephen & David Rankine. Veritable Key of Solomon (Sourceworks of Ceremonial Magic Series). Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2008.
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.
©2009 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.
By the dragon’s claws, I crush the hex.
By the dragon’s wings, I dodge the hex.
By the dragon’s breath, I burn the hex.
— Dragon-Shield Chant by Grey Glamer
As a student of witchcraft, I endeavor to understand not only the practice itself, but also the reasons why witches do what we do. For myself, I find my magical practice much more meaningful when I reflect upon my actions. By meditating upon the nature of my spells, I gain deeper insights about my Craft, and even more crucially, a greater understanding of my unique place within our shared cosmos. Know thyself! This maxim — carved by the ancient Greeks upon the stones of Delphi — rings just as true today. Consequently, whenever I design or develop spells for my own use, I endeavor to shape those spells around my penchant for introspection.
For many witches and magicians, one of the first magical experiments to be undertaken is the crafting of magical shields. Magical shields are essentially defensive thought forms which turn aside or otherwise disable all the harmful energies that might come the caster’s way. While I persist in the somewhat controversial conviction that the number of genuine magical assaults is generally overstated — and those curses which do occur are rarely effective — in fact there are psychic and spiritual dangers out there, including curses and bindings cast by others, malicious and dangerous spiritual entities, and all manner of life-negating energy patterns. (I don’t deny there are real threats, mind you. I do believe that by searching for the obvious demon, we miss the soul-draining pessimism of our workplace, or the broad malaise of clinical depression. Most of the bad things out there don’t speak backwards or writhe when splashed with holy water!)
Once deployed, these magical shields interact with the surrounding energy patterns, and with a little introspection, the reflective witch acquires a deeper understanding of the cosmos as streams of energy. Do your magical defenses flare up brightly in the presence of certain people or situations? An instinctive activation of shields could signify unhealthy or harmful configurations of magical energy flowing from the circumstances, information which subsequently allows you to consciously protect yourself from harm.
Is your significant other yelling at you? Shields keep your emotional center from taking the verbal lashing personally, which enables you to approach the underlying issue constructively. Is your workplace draining your reserves, so that when you get home you crash in front of the television? Shields protect your personal sparkle of enthusiasm, even when you’re surrounded by drudgery or stress. Properly understood, magical shields guard against much more than formal curses and full-bore demonic sieges.
The process of developing magical shields itself teaches several valuable lessons. For one, the aspiring witch learns to raise and direct power towards magical ends. Moreover, the manifestation of effective shields demands good visualization skills; even the relatively simple egg of white light suggested for beginners encourages the caster to hone his imaginative focus. And as we’ve already seen, deployed shields teach us much about how energy flows through our immediate environs.
Beyond these immediate benefits, I believe the study of magical shields can teach us something more, something important about how we approach magic. The crafting of psychic shields can be a deeply creative endeavor, insofar as we employ different visualizations to effect specific ends. The basic shield deflects harmful configurations of energy, which is already a monumental leap over the alternative of getting struck. In my experience, however, very few witches and magicians cease experimenting once they achieve the basic egg-shaped shield formed from white light. Rather, they experiment with different forms, which deal with harmful patterns in unique ways. I suspect most practicing spellcasters who read this have implemented porous shields which selectively allow in positive or beneficial energy patterns. More exotic shields are possible, though. One may design and deploy thought forms which catch and hold the harmful patterns like flypaper. Adopting the opposite extreme, one may cover one’s shields with psychic grease and watch harm slide away harmlessly. Visualizing mirrors can even turn harm back upon the sender!
For some months, my usual pattern of shields followed my training in Aikido — accept the force of the strike as gift, then redirect this force towards the ground, where the energy can be recycled into healing forms. I still find this visualization extremely helpful when confronted by threatening circumstances. Still, my inner witch has been eager to experiment of late, and especially with the intersection of shielding and invocation.
Invocation is something which many people — many witches included — find intimidating. To invite another presence into one’s very being takes courage, and perhaps some small degree of insanity. On the other hand, I don’t believe we should fear the process of invocation, when we consider everything — everything which ever was and ever will be — already exists within every individual’s soul. The Goddess — by whatever name you call Her — exists inside you now, whole and healthy, patiently waiting for the mystical moment when you acknowledge Her presence. Likewise, every possible Form exists — in potential — inside your imagination. Invoked beings don’t arrive from without; they awaken from within! Once you grasp the whole complexity of the cosmos lies before your fingertips, genuine magic becomes possible.
With this paradigm in mind, I set out to develop protective invocations which could function as magical shields throughout the day. This experiment requires some rethinking of the traditional paradigms. Most purposeful invocations occur within some defined space and time, usually marked by a magical circle or some like means, even if the experience itself takes on the mystical transcendence of space and time. Shielding, upon the other hand, engages the proverbial back of the mind throughout the day. To hybridize the two practices, I needed to invoke my chosen Form, and then “set” the Form into a defensive posture for my daily activities, much like programming a burglary alarm and then arming the system. I’ll touch upon this process again momentarily.
For my first such experiment, I elected to invoke a dragon-like pattern of shields, emphasizing three particular aspects of the dragon — the claws, the wings, and the breath. The choice of a complex pattern was deliberate. I think one potential pitfall confronting those who consciously shield is the tendency to create one extremely powerful response for every problem. The issue here is plain: There is no single ideal response for every harmful pattern which may come our way. The deflection provided by an egg of white light is very effective against a wide range of threats, which together with its simplicity makes the bubble an ideal place to begin shielding. To borrow from the cliche, hammers are good at solving several construction-related problems, and they’re fairly easy to wield, yet when you possess nothing but the hammer, everything else begins to look like so many lengths of galvanized metal! Applying the metaphor back into my endeavors, I’m looking to broaden my magical toolbox.
The first aspect I invoked was the claws of the dragon. I envisioned my hands and feet sprouting razor sharp talons backed by inhuman strength and speed, which would then shred harmful energy patterns before they could reach my emotional core. Some threats require the witch to challenge magical force with magical force, though unlike the generally passive bubble-shield, this layer of defense actively seeks out and crushes those things which would bring harm. Moreover, I would add as caveat, the destructive element here severs harmful connections and influences, rather than wreaking havoc more directly upon the sources of such malign patterns. Often the author of some hex or other invests some significant portion of their focus or power into the negative patterns which they send out: When they lose their investment, such enervation is upon them.
Not everything is amenable to sheer force, however, even when such force is applied with the utmost skill. Sometimes the best solution means stepping out of the way and letting the negative pattern sail past harmlessly. This is fundamental to the soft martial arts — when the strike arrives, be somewhere else! Adopting a psychological mindset for a moment, this can mean rising above the fray and not taking a verbal assault personally. The dragon is a deadly predator precisely because he’s out of reach until he wants to close. Thus I envisioned the dragon’s leathery wings emerging from my back and bearing me aloft, above the realms where negative patterns dwell. Magical assaults generally don’t possess power over us unless we give them such power. So teaches the dragon!
The third aspect I invoked was the dragon’s fiery breath. The breath is perhaps the most emblematic element of the thought form we call dragon. We should take note the breath is something closely connected with spirit. Within the language of ancient Greece, the two words are one and the same! To conceive the dragon’s breath — or pneuma — to be laced with flames also acknowledges something important about his spirit. The flames are transformative, the powerful element of alchemical fire which converts one substance into another. By invoking the breath of the dragon, our own spirit takes on this transformative character. Sometimes the proper response to magical assaults isn’t outright destruction, or even evasion. Rather, with our thoughts and our words we can transmute harmful patterns of energy into something positive, spiritual ashes from which the flowers may blossom or the phoenix may rise. Energy itself is morally neutral, only the configuration of energy renders some particular pattern either life-affirming or life-negating. By taking the energy of the magical attack as a gift, we can transmute deleterious patterns into something more beneficial. This process isn’t always easy — Flames do burn, after all! — yet transmuting woe into weal can make for some of the most fascinating and satisfying magic.
The process that I’ve outlined here is an ongoing magical experiment, but one which has met with some success so far. Establishing shields by invoking a thought form does require practice. The visualization itself requires imaginative focus, and I find such shielding requires somewhat deeper reserves of magical power than relatively simple eggs or bubbles. Having shielding which not only dispatches the harmful pattern, but also recognizes and implements the best approach for each threat, requires somewhat more subconscious activity. Still, I think this price is well worth paying. Engaging the broader world with informed and creative magical tools requires intense personal effort, and I’m willing to give some to approach the cosmos more constructively. After all, this same cosmos provides all the magical power we could ever want! Thus we give some and we take some, always learning more creative ways to channel the goodness of the world.
I hope my notes here offer you, my readers, something to consider whenever you design your own shielding spells. Be creative, and don’t be afraid to broaden your magical toolbox!
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey
March 21, 2007 by Daven
Filed under altered states of consciousness, deity work, divination, energy work, general practice, invocation and spirit work, magick, mysticism, paganism, protection, ritual, spellcasting, wicca, witchcraft
Okay, you prepared your space. You sat and raised the Circle. You called your allies and astral entities to help. You have called the Quarters, done the Middle Pillar, communed with the Spirits, traveled to the Akashic Record.
You cut the Circle and dismissed the elements. You sent the energy off to do whatever that Power does to cause your spell to work.
What happens next? Most individuals will start putting away the trappings of their ritual and get on with their life, but I think there is a time here that is more important to the magician than simply cleaning up.
This is the time of magical aftercare.
In most sexual practices and relationships, there is a time when after the deed is done and you and your partner are lying together, when you simply exist in each other’s arms for a while. You lay with each other, commune with each other and just be. There is no pressure to do anything, no real discussion of anything; you simply exist in the after glow of an incredible experience, mutually shared.
Why can’t we do that with our spells? Why can’t we use that time to commune with the Gods and to exist with Them? Taking time to revel in the energies raised and to exist for a little while in that sacred space that you spent so much time creating and getting into — why must you destroy it by immediately starting the cleanup?
Some activities to think about in this period after the spell and ritual for you and your group include:
- Divination — Do some tarot readings for everyone, for yourself, and to see how successful the spell is going to be. After all, you spent all that time and energy getting into the mood and working to get into an alternate state of mind to do the magick, so why not use the time while you are in that state to do some related workings that aren’t as labor intensive?
- Reinforcing the Wards on your place of worship — It has always confused me: you spend all that time raising power, getting it to do what you want, making it move in certain specific ways, just to send it all into the Earth when you are done. Why? I understand that loose energy is a danger to the practitioners and to those in the immediate area, but why waste it? Spend a few minutes pulling that Power together and using it to shore up your personal defenses or your group Wards. The Power won’t show up anywhere except in your protections and it won’t be attracting things that should not be there. It will be helping you keep safe and it’s not just sitting there like a patch of tar on a white carpet.
- Grounding — Instead of grounding the energies into the actual ground, why not ground the energy into a “power sink,” i.e. a metaphysical battery? By doing this, you recharge the battery from what bleeds off and you put that grounded energy to a good use. You can do this with any enchanted object you possess and it thereby becomes another source of Power for you to draw upon next time you do a ritual or spell.
- Partying — Here you are, you invited all these spirits to you — your ancestors, your allies, your Gods, possibly even some angels. And once you are done you just dismiss them and move on with your life? How crass can you be? Calling them out of their warm homes to give you some power and then you say “KTHXBY!” Oh, you may tell them thank you, you can even say “stay if you will,” but what about saying, instead, “okay, go if you have to, but we are going to have a party and you are invited to participate!” Then commune with them. Allow them to be part of your life, and be part of theirs. I know your ancestors will be interested in finding out what has been going on, how you and your children are doing, and even finding out how your parents are. Most ancestors are gossipy old things, and they need news, so share it with them. Talk about your family to them, tell funny stories, and make it an event.
- Creation — Once again, you are in a ritual mindset. What’s wrong with using that mindset to create something? You already started with the ritual and the spell, because isn’t that just creation of a set of circumstances you desire? So why not go the next step and actually use that mindset to create amulets, talismans, sacred art, ritual tools, or just to write in your ritual book (whether you call it your grimoire or your Book of Shadows)? How about taking that mindset and using it to write down your impressions of the ritual, so that the event is preserved for future magicians? It doesn’t have to be elaborate, it just needs to be what you saw and felt. If everyone in the ritual does this, think of the group mind that can be built from that spiritual consensus.
- Gardening — I know it sounds nuts, but why can’t you spend a few minutes hugging a tree and letting that tree absorb some of the extra energies, or planting a seed that has to be planted at night? Some plants do better if planted in the light of the Full Moon, and the Gods know there are enough potions and spells that call for components from plants harvested at night. So mark those plants while you are out one day with some nice wide colorful ribbon and go out looking for them after your ritual. You won’t have to get into a sacred space again to harvest the herbs, since you already are there.
- Reinforcement — I know that once you have cast your spell you aren’t supposed to think about it anymore, but there occasionally comes a time when you have to do reinforcement of a spell you already cast. It can be as simple as giving it extra energy or as complex as re-targeting it to another changed goal. But those spells usually have to be helped along by the caster’s active participation.
As with any exercise or activity, use your head. It will be massively counterproductive if you do a ritual to create a servitor for your group and then do another major ritual which involves the creation of Wards after everything is pulled down, dismissed and put up.
Maintenance is the key word here. If you would normally do a small ritual to maintain a spell or process that already exists, this time after another ritual would be perfect to maintain and repair it. It’s a small use of power that pays out immensely when you have the time, and you can avoid doing a whole new ritual for the purpose (which is what most people do).
Once you feel tired and like you are coming down from the high that the ritual has put you into, simply stop and move on with your life. But you have to do something to dismiss those extra energies or they can stay and pull in even more energy to it, and those new energies aren’t always the nicest of effects. Frequently, they cause far more problems than they solve.
Eating food, drinking a sports drink, grounding the energy into the Earth — all these are the classic ways of getting rid of excess energy after a ritual. Try to see if you can’t come up with other means of using that extra energy and focus the next time you do a major ritual. If you can, then that’s one more rite you won’t have to do later.
And Time is always at a premium.
©2007 Eric “Daven” Landrum
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Eric “Daven” Landrum is a Seax Wiccan and the author of Daven’s Journal.
This leg of the Witches’ Pyramid is probably the simplest on the surface, since it involves doing the process that you’ve already decided upon. The decision to do the spell has been made; the caster’s Will is honed and ready to force the change; but now you get your tools out and start the chants to cast the spell. Sounds simple, right?
But there is much more than that to this aspect of magic. Daring to do a spell means you have a self-confidence that says you have the divine right to impose your Will on the universe, that you have the right to actually make things happen simply because you want them to happen.
To my mind, that takes a special kind of arrogance. To say to the Universe and to whatever form of Deity you honor, “I know better than you do, and I am going to make this action happen.” That sounds pretty severe and arrogant in my opinion.
It is saying that your life is not good enough. It is saying that you know how your life should be, in opposition to how it actually is, and it is saying that no matter what, you will use any methods, fair or foul, to force the outcome you wish to see.
It is daring the Universe to do its worst to you.
It is acceptance of not only the outcome, but also all the additional problems and unintended consequences of this spell.
Daring to do something can be a problem if you are going against the powers-that-be. If a deity has decided that the person you are trying to help is supposed to be sick at the same time you are trying to make them well, and you heal them anyhow, despite all the warnings and problems of that healing, there may be divine retribution. To Dare means you are willing and able to accept that and deal with it.
No matter what anyone says, there are powers in the universe that could be upset that you are doing this spell. Perhaps, it is because there will be unknown “butterfly effect” problems in another segment of creation. Maybe it is because there will be a power drain from something else that is needed and it may simply be that the desired outcome is supposed to be one that is out of reach. It is possible the binding you are doing is in opposition to the protection this God has promised to His follower.
Daring to do this spell then sets you up to be in direct conflict with that power. It means that there is the possibility that They will be upset with you and make your life “interesting” for a while as retribution and punishment.
Now, assuming that your Will and your Knowledge is up to snuff in this whole process, the Dare stage is when you actually start doing the spell. At this point, the recriminations and self-examination should be done, the decision made and now you actually get out your tools and start the spell. Just that act should throw you into an altered state of consciousness. This is the physical stage.
If we relate these legs of the pyramid to different sections of our being, then To Know is the mental preparation part; To Will is the spiritual part; and To Dare is the physical part of this entire process.
Remember what I was saying before about humanity being wish generators? Well, wishing for something is only part of the whole process. Wishing will only get you so far magically; it’s the actual process of doing the spell that will achieve results.
But then there is still one part that needs to be addressed, and thankfully it is showing up in more and more teaching texts. Part of the To Dare process has to be actually doing the mundane things that will help the spell along.
In other words, if doing a spell for a job, Knowing what job you want is good; Willing that job into your life is another good part; Daring to actually do the spell is good; but having the courage to go out and face rejection over and over is the most important part.
Daring must also encompass the mundane. It does take effort and courage to follow through on the mundane side of things, if only because we might fail.
In a post he made in his LiveJournal, Taylor Ellwood made the very interesting point that most people are conditioned to avoid failure at all costs. As part of that, we are also not trained to accept success, and current societal standards are doing no favor by encouraging a similar mindset of “it’s okay to fail” in the next generation.
In any spell, simply beginning the process of the spell will open the door for failure. Failure will become an option. So one of the goals in any spellcasting process must be accepting that the spell might fail, and striving to prevent that failure. Don’t go into the spell with the thought that it will fail, but accept that the “nature of the beast” is going to include the failure of the spell, and then strive to overcome it.
Of course, the standard excuse is to blame other factors for that failure. “The Stars weren’t right,” or “Goddess must have other plans for me,” or “It will happen eventually,” are all excuses that come very rapidly on the lips of those who try spells and fail.
But as one Doctor Who episode1 pointed out, what if we dream the impossible? What if, despite all things to the contrary, we actually make it and make our dreams come true?
No one is trained to consider that, but we are trained to fail. So Daring to be courageous, to actually do what we say we want — that is real magick. To think that it is possible to achieve what we want, to have what we dream about — that’s wonder.
This attitude is prevalent in most of modern Western Society. The very first word that most children learn to understand is “no.” From then on it is “don’t,” “can’t,” “Ain’t gonna happen,” and more negative assertions. Very few opportunities in our life teach us how to succeed and what to do when one achieves a goal.
This is one reason that there are so many books and seminars that try to show people how to succeed. But I have rarely seen anything that shows you what to do when you do succeed.
Our culture is built on the supposition of failure, and thus to actually attempt something that is highly unlikely to work is an incredible step of confidence. Actually taking the step to face that possible rejection for the bare slim chance that we could have a better life is truly Daring.
This is the core of To Dare. It’s taking that leap of faith, that step that may pay off and may not, even after been told all your life that you probably aren’t going to make anything of yourself. You must be ready to take that step despite the array of problems in your way, from the mundane to the deities themselves. You must take that step, knowing that it may not pan out, but trusting yourself, your knowledge and your training to see it through anyhow.
Then you must have the confidence to follow through with the mundane work as well, to see the process through.
Then, to add another layer, Daring to continue, even if the original spell didn’t work — doing it again, despite disappointment in the past. Making sure that you do not, do not, do not quit, even when logic says “give up,” even when reason says “enough already,” and even when the universe orders you to cease, stubbornly going on is the essence of, the heart and soul of, To Dare.
- Transcript of the relevant episode is found at here. The exact quote is this, when speaking of the End of the Human Race: “You lot. You spend all your time thinking about dying. Like you’re going to get killed by eggs or beef or global warming or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Maybe you survive. This is the year 5.5/apple/26. Five billion years in your future.” —The Ninth Doctor, “The End of the World”
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Eric “Daven” Landrum is a Seax Wiccan and the author of Daven’s Journal.