Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Back In My Day, Part One

I came in at a pivotal time in the history of the Craft, in the liminal space between a publishing boom and the arrival of the mainstream internet. Being initiated in 1994, I found myself “between the worlds” in more ways than one. The book blitz of the early 90s was still very much in play and driving much interest and expansion, but there was also the sense of something coming over the horizon, with talk of “computer bulletin boards” and “newsgroups” of interest to pagans. Along with the fashion for witches and witchcraft in popular culture—from Charmed to The Craft to Buffy’s Willow and Hocus Pocus and more—it was a heady time to be pagan.

Still, I consider myself to be among the last generation of pre-internet pagans. My interest was sparked early on in my childhood thanks to the availability of lurid occult paperbacks left over from the late 60s and early 70s. My parents would haul me along to yard sales and flea markets, where I would rummage happily in bins of musty old books and come up with the bizarre treasures that helped fire my imagination and drive me down the paths I grew up so eager to explore. (Fortunately for me, my parents never censored my reading materials.) Once I was old enough to drive, libraries and bookstores were my natural destinations, and discovering that Actual Occult Bookstores existed within driving distance was utterly thrilling. Probably dangerous, too, since I was a sheltered small-town kid with zero people smarts and a certain amount of naievete-induced fearlessness, but for whatever reason I survived my early explorations unscathed. If I had been something other than a conventionally-unattractive Weird Girl, I might have been less fortunate.

I look back on those days now through the rosy tint of nostalgia and feel a bit sorry for today’s newcomers. I wonder if it can have as much of an impact for them as it did for me, and, I assume, others of my generation. There were always two or three shops in town that catered in some way to the pagan/new age/occult subcultures, and regular visits were a given. Seeing new books and statues and tools in person is a very different sensation from just seeing photos of them online. Finding and ordering from catalogs like the old Abyss Distribution/Azure Green was a furtive delight, as well. I can remember very early pamphlet catalogs from bladesmiths and jewelers and the like, passed from person to person and group to group. I remember the fun of going to festivals and gathers and seeing the vendors’ rows set up, seeing the wares handcrafted by magickal folk for magickal folk. Finding out about those groups and festivals was also a challenge and a risk: flyers put up at the shops, ads placed discreetly in magazines like Green Egg or Circle Network News. Phone calls made and public meetings arranged. Chances were that you came into a study group or Outer Court with only the most rudimentary knowledge of what you were in for; there were, for good or ill, a lot more secrets in those days.

Many of those secrets were passed along as multi-generational and barely legible photocopies. I still have reams of such materials, and I can’t even look at their binders on my shelves without recalling the excitement of receiving them, the clandestine thrill of reading through them, imagining how the authors of them felt as they wrote them and ritualized them and passed them on. I remember the fun of long nights at the copy shop, laboriously photocopying hundreds of pages and collating them to be given to a newly initiated or elevated witch. It was a magickal time.

I cherish these memories. For all the backstabbing and bullshit that inevitably came about (people being people, and people in marginalized and factionalized quasi-religious groups being the worst), I still have so many fond recollections of so many experiences. (I hope that you, Dear Reader, have a few of your own.)

If I were to start actively training and initiating people again, I imagine that it would feel profoundly different. I’d be contacting and screening people via email or social media. Meeting them at restaurants or coffee shops instead of witchy stores, as there are so few of them now that everything can be bought online. They would come already armed with extensive knowledge and fully-formed opinions, thanks to the nearly limitless information available for just a few keystrokes. I could send them links to providers of appropriate robes, cups, athames, jewelry, incense. Share suitable books for them to read from my Kindle library. And once they were initiated, I could pass them 50-plus years’ worth of materials as scanned pdfs on a thumb drive, no photocopiers necessary.

I don’t want to give the impression that the internet had no role in my early years in the Craft. I was initiated in late 1994, and got online in 1997, and it was meeting, online, people of other lines and other trads and exchanging ideas and information with them that got me through some of the most difficult and exasperating experiences of my life to that point. The witch friends I made online in my formative years helped make me into the person and priestess I eventually became. I have to think that coming in when I did, at the confluence of these two approaches, absolutely shaped my development for the better, and I’ll always be grateful that I was lucky enough to have it both ways.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Time of Reclamation

I used to skate. Not competitively, not at a high level, and not even very consistently, as other demands upon my limited finances and time would invariably come in to displace it, but skate I did, and I loved it, even though I’d go sometimes for months or even years without ever touching the ice. My most recent period of time away was the longest ever, nearly a decade during which I might have occasionally hit a short public session but never went beyond doing slow laps around the rink among the crush of other ice tourists; that ended last summer when I somehow found out that there were adult-only drop-in sessions happening at the rink about a mile or so from my new home.

It turns out that you can lose a lot in a decade. Mentally, I remembered how it felt to do various things, but my muscles had forgotten all they’d learned, and I was miserably adrift. After a couple of awkward attempts, I realized two things: that I wanted not only to get back what I’d lost but to exceed what I’d ever had, and that I’d have to relearn the very basics and build from a strong foundation in order to do so.

And so it is with the Craft.

Spiritually, magickally, I've been in a fallow period for what feels like the longest stretch since I started serious practice. The truth is--and it's a truth that my very bones instinctively recoil from--I'm older now, firmly middle-aged and starting the downward slope toward Old, and with age comes a raft of unpleasant realities like illness and injury and overwork and exhaustion and family issues that devour our time and drain our energy and leave us with very little left over. Faltering and bowing beneath the immediacy of mundane concerns, the spiritual bleeds out almost unnoticed, until at last you realize its absence when you reach for it and can't find it anymore.

When I felt the pull to resume my skating practice, I was fortunate in that there were resources in place to direct me toward my goal. I enrolled in Learn-To-Skate classes under a patient and perceptive coach, and now some seven months later I’ve gone from wobbling uncertainty to starting to feel a measure of control and competence. I’m still only about halfway through the core curriculum of basic skills, but I can track my progress, see and feel those skills sharpening, and see the places to which they might lead me. There is no corresponding method for recovering my Craft; while there are some training programs out there, they’re not my path, so I’m left to my own devices, much as I was when I first began. I have years of study, practice, and experience to draw upon as I start again, flexing disused “muscles” that creak and protest. But where to begin?
  • Do something. Anything! The most I’ve managed in months are the simplest of stripped-down ritual observances, hardly more than light-a-candle-burn-some-incense (and sometimes, not even that elaborate). Start with something simple, like a Tarot or other card drawn and contemplated. A quick acknowledgment of the season or phase of the moon. Dust off a deity statue and think for a moment about what She or He represents to you. Start small, but start.
  • Meditate. And by that I mean, sit your ass down and apart from all the myriad things constantly clamoring for your attention. Log out of social media. Turn off your phone. Shut down your computer (it probably needs a restart anyway). Throw the TV out the window. In silence and stillness—things so very alien to our daily mundane lives—can you begin to remember what brought you here in the first place, and what still sings in the deep of your mind, drawing you to return.
  • Read. Read pagan blogs and news sites to get a bead on what’s happening out there. Read books, old and new. Dig out some of those old favorites that so intrigued and inspired you in the beginning. Read historical and sociological studies of the Craft and contemplate your place within that milieu. Read magickal and occult-themed fiction (see my Recommended reading page for some ideas) and consider the themes presented.
  • Study. Grab a how-to like Buckland’s Big Blue (or Huson or Cunningham or Roderick or Ravenwolf) and start working your way through it. Resist the part of you that will sneer at such basic fare, just as you must resist the part of you that’s already telling you that there’s no point to any of this, that you don’t even need the Craft, that it’s all bullshit, whatever; that’s outside programming that you’ve internalized over years of stress and sorrow and struggle, and it serves no positive purpose in your life. Remember that your spiritual and/or magickal practice once served you well before things came along to distract you, before other people worked their mischief to dissuade you. Know that you can get back what you’ve lost or given away or squandered or had stolen, but know also that it won’t come without work.
  • Start over slowly. Just as my body had become unaccustomed to the work of skating, and getting all the parts to align properly was frustrating and painful at first, the other parts of me are fighting the painful process of starting over with spiritual discipline. It’s like moving through molasses, fighting a current uphill, pick your metaphor; but it’s worth the struggle, worth the pain, worth the fight, when you remember what you gained from it before: purpose, accomplishment, satisfaction, excitement, power, peace, knowledge, balance, etc.
  • Practice. Thinking about skating and reading about skating is inspiring and useful, but I have to actually physically skate in order to make progress. Go back to step one above: Do something! It doesn’t have to be terribly complex; the simpler you start, the less daunting it will be, and the less likely you’ll be to cave in to those seductive voices telling you to junk it all and go back to dicking around on Facebook (believe me, I know those voices all too well). Start small, and build upon it. Develop your practice. Add in disciplines. Strengthen yourself incrementally.
I'm not saying it will be easy and fun (although sometimes, it will certainly be one or both of these things); there will be struggle and stress and you'll hate it and fight yourself and want to quit, but if you keep with it, I promise you that you will start to see and feel results within a short while. Try to cultivate what in Zen Buddhism is called shoshin, "beginner's mind." Look within and find that feeling again, that sense of wonder and mystery and excitement that first led you to this practice in the first place. Open to it, nurture it, and see where it can take you this time; it may lead you to places you'd never even considered the first time around.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Celebrating the Season of the Witch

As days grow cooler and shadows lengthen, as green gives way to brown and bronze and gold, as crows call and bats wheel against a softening twilit sky, then the witch blood stirs and rises as our season comes alive.

It seems only natural to want to seek our own kind this time of year, a process that, paradoxically, is both easier and harder than ever before. Easier, in the sense that I can, for example, open up my Tumblr and see several hundred apparently kindred spirits; harder, because meeting such people in the flesh is a challenge in an era when it's no longer necessary to leave the house or risk contact with strangers to seek the mysteries. Lately I'm feeling the differences between now and The Way Things Were when I first got in; can curmudgeonly, cat-accompanied croneliness be far away?

Terry Pratchett has famously suggested that the natural size of a coven is one, and most days I'm inclined to agree; still, even the most fiercely independent of us can feel the tug of kinship's bonds, and the sweet melancholy that walks in hand with the thwarted desire to share in such a meeting of minds.

(This is absolutely a topic I plan to pursue further, though perhaps not here. In due time, in due time...)

So what is a lonely witch to do, here in the heart of the October country? Fortunately, the options abound this time of year.

  • Witch up and get outside. Explore the beauties of the natural world so abundant this time of year. Make contact with the spirits of the land. Feel for yourself the shifting of the tides, the thinning of the veil, the turning of the wheel. Most of all, feel yourself as a part of all of these things.
  • Find a festival, sabbat, or group with whom you can guest for the holiday. Particularly at Samhaintide, there are ample opportunities to visit circles and events, from Pagan Pride Days to sabbat-specific festivals. Step beyond your usual comfort zone (though of course keep yourself safe in so doing) and investigate something new, keeping expectation out of it as much as possible. It may end up disappointing you -- or you may end up making a friend or having a memorable experience to treasure.
  • Commune with the ancestors, not only your own blood relations but the blessed dead of your chosen tribe. Honor your elders and teachers who have gone before. Make offerings, visit graves, create shrines, tell stories, keep their names and deeds and memories alive (what is remembered, lives).
  • Do some witchcraft. If you really want to meet like-minded people for future celebrations, why not do some work to that end? Devise an appropriate spell (say, to attract witchy friends, to find a coven to work with, etc.), cast it, then get to networking. Utilize local resources like shops, Facebook groups,, and others to help you broaden your horizons.
Most of all, revel in this, the season of the witch, in all its spooky, magical glory! I have some fond memories of going to my parent tradition's old Samhain gather (and a few other memories that make me mildly stabby to this day). Every year you'd see a lot of people you didn't know and more than a few you wished you didn't, some old friends you were glad to see and, once in a while, new ones you were happy to meet. I'm looking forward this year to celebrating with as many of my current lineage as can manage to get together; and I wish similar happy shenanigans for all of you.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Witches' Bigghes

I remember coming across that odd, evocative word bigghes as a child, though I've long since forgotten just where I first found it. Most likely, it was in one of my cherished weird paperback witchcraft books, the kind I came across on occasion in dusty boxes at Saturday-morning yard sales to which my parents often toted me. (How many modern-day witches owe their early awakenings to the 1960s occult explosion that produced so many trashy-great paperbacks?) I've failed to turn up a provenance for it, even in the reams of traditional materials I've amassed over the years; and if the answer to the riddle lies locked in one of my many books, it may be yet awhile until I'm able to ferret it out. The closest thing I can give to a definition right now comes from Raymond Buckland's The Witchcraft Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism:

The Jewels of a Witch Queen, or a Queen of the Sabbat, they consist of her crown, bracelet, necklace, and garter. They might also include a ring.
 This brief post at Witches and Pagans links bigghes with the Old English béag, a word which refers to a neck-ring or torc (not to be confused with Irish or Scots Gaelic béag, meaning "small"). Beyond that, there are very few references to be found on the internet, save for a couple of dubious mentions from even more dubious sources--one from a notorious "Christian" writer of occult conversion narratives, the other an alleged "ex-vampire" who was also apparently a Very Powerful Majgickyan" or somesuch.

So, bigghes. Just what are a witch's jewels, anyway? Let us take Mr. Buckland's list and work from there.

In this photo, the Lady Olwen is wearing a full complement of bigghes.

She has a crown, which is traditionally a circlet with a large central crescent moon. In older photos showing trad witches in regalia, you will invariably notice that the moons on the crowns are far larger than those typically found today. (Of course, the crowns worn by our ancestresses were hand-made for them by witch craftsmen, and not mass-produced by foreign labor for cheap resale online.) Silver is the preferred metal, though I have seen brass and copper models available. It can be worn straight across the forehead, or higher up at an angle like a tiara or headband.

She is wearing a pair of bracelets, though one is sufficient, and most common. The distance, angle, and lighting of the photo don't allow us to make out much detail on the bracelets, but these would ordinarily bear the wearer's witch name and/or the sigils of her degree. (My own bracelet has my name in Theban, plus my degree sigils.) 
The photo to the right  of Doreen Valiente shows one of the bracelets made for her by Gerald Gardner.

Both Olwen and Doreen are wearing necklaces. The traditional teaching was that the necklace was to be made of large, conspicuous beads and unbroken by a clasp; here, Doreen's appears to fit this bill while Olwen's does not. Amber and jet (a topic for another time and a post all its own) are favored materials, and very popular today. I have two such necklaces, one gifted to me by my partner and one made by a sister-witch.

The garter is not seen in either of these photos, and of all the "jewels" listed it seems to be the least popular today, at least among certain witches. For those who do not work skyclad, the garter makes the least amount of sense, because who would ever see it or know that you were wearing it? Traditionally, it was made of leather or snakeskin, and had a buckle for each daughter coven that had hived from the witch's own. I have heard very specific rules as to the material and color of the garter, but these are likely trad or even line-specific.

Lastly, the set may include a ring. Most witches I've met enjoy wearing jewelry, and may wear many rings at once. Some trads and lines do specify a particular type of ring for initiates to wear, but this is by no means universal. A lapis ring was our particular custom for many years, but it was our own innovation and not something that was passed to us.

There is, of course, no way to tell by looking at the regalia who is a "real" witch or of what trad (if any) these days; a quick scout of Google will turn up dozens of options for any aspiring Witch Queen's adornments, and anyone with a Paypal account can that easily be the possessor of a parure worthy of the highest of High Priestesses. Typically, however, the bigghes tend to be reserved for ritual wear and occasions of high ceremony; one doesn't go off to the grocery in full drag (unless one is Laurie Cabot, perhaps), and anyone seen swanning around thus at a Pagan Pride Day or pub moot when not conducting a formal ritual should probably be given a wide berth. Doreen was famously quoted as saying that the only Queen she recognized lived in Buckingham Palace, and for most witches today the title of "Witch Queen" is a purely ceremonial one, when used at all. Outside one's own coven (and rarely even therein), it is almost never necessary to descend to the indescribable vulgarity of reminding others of one's exalted witchly status!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

An Iconoclastic Review of Alex Mar's "Witches of America"

When I learned, through the Wild Hunt blog, of documentarian Alex Mar’s new book release Witches of America, I immediately went to read the linked excerpts; and finding the subject matter relevant to my interests, I got myself a copy and set about reading it over the weekend. During that time, I also began seeing reviews of the book cropping up, among them pieces written by people of the same type of demographic that Mar’s book chronicles, and was bemused by the tone that most of these were taking. Some were right on the edge of vituperative, and I found myself scanning the narrative more closely, looking at particular passages and their contexts while trying, and mostly failing, to detect the implied insults that these readers were seeing.

(I have a long history of being flummoxed by others’ perceptions of things, to the point where I often find myself wondering if I’m reading or watching or hearing the same thing [the answer to that being, of course, that we’re all experiencing the same thing from different vantage points, but that’s secondary to the subject here at hand]. I can remember once attending a screening of Gone with the Wind with a friend, thoroughly enjoying ourselves discussing [quietly, of course, we’re not complete boors] the historical context of the film, anecdotes about the production thereof, the general social milieu of antebellum and reconstruction-era America, etc.—then being surprised when the lights came up to find ourselves in a theatre filled with mostly weepy middle-aged white women, and noting aloud that we were perhaps getting something from the experience that they were not. I was reminded of that experience as I read Mar’s book, and the reactions to it from various corners of the online pagan community.)

The first thing I noted was multiple references, in reviews and comment threads, to remarks Mar made about certain older, heavier pagan women’s “pendulous breasts.” I re-read the relevant passages, and failed to find any implied insult or value judgment in what seemed to me to be merely descriptive writing—not to everyone’s taste, apparently, but not outwardly hostile. If the description was not especially flattering, neither was it particularly critical; but if we’ve reached the point in our discourse where only obsequious flattery is permissible, then we’ve put the stake through the heart of not only free speech, but creative writing as well.

Learning that Mar came from an Ivy League background helped to explain some of the antipathy she was garnering from certain critics, as well. Not all of us came from backgrounds of obvious privilege (and I hate resorting to that overused and overloaded word, but it’s the most appropriate), nor have the ability to jet all over the country in pursuit of enlightenment, and the fact that this author does can’t help but rankle. I too tend to be very wary of the wealthy, the elite, the 1%, and have to struggle with the impulse to stereotype and dismiss people on basis of their social and financial standings; but I also recognize that as being as limiting and dangerous as dismissing those at the lower echelons of wealth and power, and try to give people at least the opportunity to prove themselves to be worthy (or not) of respect. Obviously, some readers feel that Mar has proven herself, on the negative side of that balance; for the most part, I thought differently.

In this book, Alex Mar openly explores her own ambivalence and skepticism toward the very spiritual and esoteric subjects that also beguile her; a struggle that is very immediate and relatable to me, as I wrestle with these issues continually even after over two decades as an initiate and most of a lifetime of fascinated study. I can’t help but wonder if that openness is part of the problem some pagan readers are having with her. It may be that the author’s voice at times sounds too uncomfortably close to that little voice that some of us carry inside us, the one that questions, endlessly, the validity and the purpose and the reality of our spiritual experiences and pursuits. Certainty is a luxury that many of us lack, but even admitting that to ourselves is sometimes more than we can comfortably deal with. Like Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the not-so-great-or-terrible Oz, Mar lifts the veil that separates us from the myths we tend to create around ourselves and our paths. It’s surely unnerving to some to see (or be forced to admit seeing) that the powerful witch priestess can also be a struggling single mother, or that the dark necromancer started down his left-hand path in the wake of youthful romantic disappointment. But if we (as pagans, witches, occultists, magicians, whatever label we choose) can’t accept and reconcile these seeming dualities, these apparently opposing qualities in ourselves and our acquaintances, what does that tell us about ourselves, or our level of awareness? If our self-created emperors are as naked and blind as we are, where does that leave us? That’s a frightening territory to map, and it’s the terrain Mar leads us into in this book. It’s not always a comfortable read, but it’s an important one, and in the end leaves us in much the same place as the author: with no concrete conclusions, no tidy wrap-up, only a host of new questions to join the ones we came in with. That’s a rare sort of fearlessness, and I can’t help admiring her for it.

Mar goes places far beyond what you’d expect of a journalist scratching the surface of a subculture for salacious copy. This is a work that spans years of study, travel, and expense. This is no Rex Nemorensis redux, no shill going amongst the pagans to run a hatchet job in the press later; either Mar is genuinely seeking something among her subjects, or she is a most brilliant and convincing sociopath. In reading of her experiences, I marveled at her willingness to throw herself into things that would’ve had me balking instantly: hundreds of dollars spent on monthly witchcraft lessons, hundreds more on weekend retreats, multiple days spent camping in a goddamn Louisiana swamp with strangers, awaiting an unknown initiatory fate! This speaks of a dedication to ones’ craft above and beyond the ordinary. And while I can see the questionable ethics involved in sharing swathes of personal correspondence, if Mar was upfront with her subjects about her intention of writing about her experiences, then everyone involved should have known that anything they said or did could potentially end up in print. She did take pains, so far as I could see, not to reveal anything she was asked not to reveal, including peoples’ mundane names, oathbound material from the traditions she studied, or specifics of locations mentioned in the book. I’m not sure what else can be expected of a journalist.

So, in short: I found this a fascinating and valuable book, for all the reasons that are making people quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t always a comfortable read for me, either, far from it. And that, I reiterate, is why this book is important.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Secrecy, Mystery, and Transparency

The traditional forms of the craft predate the Information Age and were in no way designed to function optimally in such a wide-open field. If you'll indulge me in a bit of cane-shaking, back in my day when I made my first foray into the wider world of witchcraft and pagan practice, it was very much up to chance as to who you might meet and how and when. Lacking the internet with portal sites and seekers' email lists and Facebook groups, your resources were limited to word-of-mouth, the recommendation of a local shopkeeper, a flyer put out by a brave coven, or a discreet ad in the back of one of the few major periodicals available in the local chain bookstore. Even so, if you managed to make a tenuous connection, you were mostly on your own, with only your own instincts to guide you as to whether or not the people you met were legitimate initiates of X tradition; and your only knowledge of X tradition was likely to come from said people, written material being scarce and hard to come by. It's difficult to seek further information if you have no idea where to look for it, or even what questions you need to be asking. The tide was shifting by the early to mid 1990s when I was initiated into my first trad, thanks to the explosion of popular pagan and Wiccan books, but it was still a very different time. Secrecy and mystery were experienced in a far different way.

Here in the 21st century, information is out there--in books, on web sites, in blogs and podcasts and every other form of social media. Where in older times the prospective initiate was the one who was being interviewed for a position, so to speak, now it isn't at all uncommon to see seekers quite openly checking up on the bona fides of the coven leaders and teachers they meet. There are email lists and open Facebook groups that exist specifically for such exchange, allowing cautious cowans to ask questions about tradition-specific practices and even about the lineages of specific people. When I was new into all of this, such exchange was all but unheard-of, and perhaps in some cases it still is; there are traditions still in which one's initiatory lineage is a secret only discussed with other initiates, where even the craft pseudonyms of one's upline are not mentioned among those outside the trad, but in the free-market of ideas that is our modern age it is only going to become harder and harder to maintain such secrecy. Seekers today are far from the tabula rasa of those from earlier eras; they read, they listen, they interact in a vastly interconnected way, and they come to pre-initiate practice with ideas and understandings their predecessors lacked. The challenges, then, for the teachers and leaders of today are amplified over what their own teachers faced back in the day.

I'll admit that I do not know the best way to navigate these challenges; much of this is still uncharted territory, still changing every day. Each tradition, each group, each person will ultimately decide for itself how much to reveal, and to whom, and when. Because there are no central registries, or for that matter any truly unbiased sources, a vouch is not always going to be available; and some initiates will be unwilling to reveal too much of their background to a questioning stranger. Documents can be easily faked. Ultimately a seeker is left to his or her own instincts as to who they can trust, who they want to work with, whether or not they can ferret out any information about their prospective teachers beyond what those teachers themselves are able or willing to share. In that way, at least, perhaps things haven't changed all that much from earlier times. More information may be available in our age, but more doesn't necessarily equal better. If anything, the technological revolution has made it easier to create and distribute misinformation, lies, and rumors than ever before.

So the need for secrecy--though I would personally term it confidentiality--must be weighed against the equally-vital need for transparency, and a balance must be struck. I would argue that there are things that a prospective initiate absolutely has the right to know upfront, things that trump concepts of "it's a secret" and "that's oathbound"--for if your oaths require you to lie to people about what will be expected of them, then that is an unethical oath, and you become an unethical leader by upholding it. (For the record, the oaths I've taken were all rather damnably vague about just what the "secrets" I was to be keeping were; oral tradition, I suppose, with variable mileage between trads and lines!) There are things that people want, and need, to know going in, things that in our modern age particularly simply cannot be swept aside as being degree-specific secrets. A balance between maintaining sufficient confidentiality to neither reveal too much of a trad's practices (thus spoiling the esoteric effects thereof) and allowing adequate accountability so that the seeker goes in confidently aware of what will or will not be expected of them (primarily in those areas about which seekers are always most concerned: sexually, physically, psychologically, monetarily). If your trad works heavily with entheogens, for example, and their usage is expected and required of initiates, then those seeking initiation need to be clearly aware of that upfront; and if they have read of the trad's usage of psychoactive substances and ask you about it, only to have you deny said usage categorically, then you have acted unethically, and betrayed your position as a leader. Denying things that are now common knowledge makes you look untrustworthy when the time comes that the truth is revealed.

Balancing the need for confidentiality, the desire to preserve mystery, and the necessity of transparency and accountability is difficult, but not impossible. It requires discipline, honesty, and integrity, all of which are important qualities in an initiate. You can preserve tradition, preserve the craft, and still be an ethical person, upfront and accountable.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Witchcraft: Geillis Duncan's Spell

I've been re-reading Diana Gabaldon's massive Outlander series, and magick does work its way through the narrative in ways both subtle and explicit. It is expressed most explicitly through a character who takes the pseudonym of Geillis Duncan and is a practitioner of what one might reasonably call the Dark Arts, what with all the killing and such.

In Drums of Autumn, the fourth novel in the series(1), we get a glimpse into Duncan's grimoire, which includes the following spell; I reproduce it here as it appears beginning on page 692 of the Nook edition of the book:

I raise my athame to the North,
where is the home of my power,
To the West,
where is the hearth of my soul,
To the South,
where is the seat of friendship and refuge,
To the East,
from whence rises the sun.

Then lay I my blade on the altar
I have made.
I sit down amid three flames.

Three points define a plane, and
I am fixed.
Four points box the earth and mine
is the fullness thereof.
Five is the number of protection;
let no demon hinder me.
My left hand is wreathed in gold,
and holds the power of the sun.
My right hand is sheathed in silver,
and the moon reigns serene.
I begin.

Garnets rest in love about my neck.
I will be faithful.

This would actually be a workable piece, though if I were to test-drive it I would alter the wording a bit to put it more in line with my own praxis (for example, I'd shift the directional attributions a bit, flipping the West and the South as given above). I like the reference to "three flames," which is then amplified by "three points define a plane"; to me this has parallels with the magician's Triangle of Manifestation as well as the symbol of the first degree initiation (at least within some traditions). The four points boxing the earth could easily be the cardinal points that mark the boundaries of the witch's personal universe. Five are the points of the pentagram, which can be used as a protective device. The gold/sun and silver/moon are familiar enough to be nearly self-explanatory. The garnets about the neck have a specific meaning in the narrative (as do the gold and silver on the respective hands), but the wearing of a necklace in ritual is common in BTW-derived witchcraft.

Tweaked to the specifics of one's personal style of working, this incantation might make a fine opening statement before a working. I may try doing just that.

(1) There are many books in this lengthy series of historical time-travel magical fantasy description-defying sagas. If you have the time and the inclination, I recommend them highly.