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, Meetup.com, 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!

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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Defining "Classic Witchcraft"

It was not that long ago that I reached the realization that at no time in my life have I ever known witchcraft that was wholly divorced from Wicca.

When I first became fascinated by the concept of witches and witchcraft, I was a child growing up in the 1970s. It was so long ago, and so much has happened since, that I couldn't say for certain how or when that fascination truly began--but begin it did, however it was triggered, and if I try to think back the earliest images that come to me are those of the familiar Halloween figure. Solitary, immeasurably ancient, black-clad, cat-accompanied, hideous and yet somehow appealing rather than appalling. Stirring a cauldron, stirring a potion, stirring up trouble, she was a defiant and transgressive figure, one not to be trifled with, the wielder of powers unknown and highly enticing to one so powerless as I. My first source materials were, naturally, children's literature and fairy tales, joined as I grew older by encyclopedias and books specifically on the subjects of witchcraft and magic, the occult and the paranormal; and all of those were very much products of the 20th century and the dubious scholarship and spurious claims of that century's witchcraft promoters.

Thus, I was early on introduced to such key concepts as "the Old Religion," the "Book of Shadows," even "the Cone of Power" and "the Burning Times," and of covens of witches performing their circular rites by the light of the full moon. I was not an exceptionally critical reader as a child; I read voraciously and indiscriminately, absorbing all sides of a thing and then letting the information simmer until my brain boiled over from the cognitive dissonance, demanding I sort it all out. I've since done so, of course, only to discover to my chagrin that what I always knew as witchcraft is indelibly, inextricably enmeshed with the trappings of the 20th century neopagan religion of Wicca (along with the borrowed elements of other systems that form parts of its composition).

Knowing this, how, then, do I define Classic Witchcraft? As an aesthetic as well as a practice, for one, because atmosphere can make or break a ritual. Bats and cats and the occasional pointed hat. Cauldrons and candles, owls and serpents. Skulls and bones. Incense and bonfires. All things eldritch and uncanny. Once the scene is set, the practice itself can take, well, almost any form that suits the situation. It could look like a fairly standard Wiccan ritual with a cast circle and all the trimmings, or it could be as spare as a steady silent gaze into a candle's flame. It might be performed robed, or skyclad, or in street clothes. Elaborate ceremonial with a lot of prep time and research, or completely off-the-cuff at a moment's notice. Indoors or outdoors. Better it be when the moon is full, unless it isn't.

What Classic Witchcraft is not is rote and regulated. The classic witch, that enduring figure that has never let go of my imagination, is not a person hemmed in by rules and restrictions or a lengthy list of Things That Must Be Done to make the practice "valid." The only real test of validity for the classic witch is, did it work? What works is what is key, and it will vary from one witch to the next, and it can only be discovered through experimentation. One witch can share ideas and experiences with another, and practices can (and should be!) handed on from one to the next; but those practices will likely look quite different from one generation to the next, and I've come to see that as not lamentable but laudable. A practice that isn't adaptable and progressive (which does not mean that it cannot also be grounded in tradition) is ultimately as relevant as a set piece in an old roadside museum: interesting, perhaps, but not very useful in practical application.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Breaking Tradition"

This post by Sarah Lawless confirmed for me a number of things I'd already suspected, granted me a clearer perspective, and gave me a sense of optimism (mingled only slightly with a cane-shaking desire to chase some of these crazy youngsters off my lawn). I was fiercely rebellious against what I saw to be problematic within my parent tradition, so how could I possibly resent that same questing spirit in others? I may not agree with, believe in, or wish to participate in everything that falls within the definition of "witchcraft," but neither do I have the right to define or deny those things to others. Evolution is ever the way of things, after all.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Classic Halloween Postcard Witchery

I'm a bit late getting started on these this year, so let's get right to it.

This charming young witch, while not traditionally dressed, is nonetheless employing her wand in a traditional and appropriate manner--that is, "to call up and control certain angels and genii to whom it would not be meet to use the sword."

In this case, the entities being conjured are identified as elves, though their appearance is ambiguous enough that they could be any sort of spirit. The witch herself is garbed more like a nature spirit or sprite than a classic witch, which only serves to make me long for Hallowe'ens of old when costumes often took such puckish forms. (It's quite racy, too; look how much leg she's showing!)

She may be conjuring these elves out of the moon, though it's more likely to be a ball of papier-mache or crepe paper; such treat balls were given as party favors and typically filled with candies and small trinkets, wrapped in multiple layers of colorful paper. I can remember finding a display of them in a department store as a child, and how delighted I was by them. I almost didn't want to unwrap mine, it was so cool--though of course, I did. (Mine had a witch face, not that that should come as any surprise.)

Now these guys, on the other hand, are demonstrating an absolutely improper usage for the athame. While Gardner does indicate that the athame can be used to "dominate, subdue, and punish all rebellious spirits and demons," I'm not sure that what's going on here is exactly what he had in mind--and in any case, the athame is generally not to be used for cutting. We use our curfane for that. (They did hold to the old recommendation of using tools that look like common household objects, though, so there's that.)

For today, I'll leave you with this one. Here we have as classic a witch as one could ask, although she's dressed in red rather than the more familiar black. Full moon, bats, owls, cats, jack-o-lanterns, cornstalks, all the most evocative symbols of the season are present. And best of all, there's a simple and effective little charm given:

Softly cross your fingers
At the Witching Hour;
Over Fates and Fortunes
The Moon will give you power.