Review: Blair-Hunt, Tarot Prediction & Divination

Blair-Hunt, Susyn. Tarot prediction & divination: unveiling 3 layers of meaning. Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN. 2011. 283 pages.

This book essentially provides numerous case studies as a way to help the reader learn different spreads. The author has designed fifteen different spreads, divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced groupings, and gives three sample readings for each spread. My favorite thing about this book is that it provides a wealth of examples of interpreting cards in context, in spreads where they interact with each other, which is one of the challenges that beginning readers face in moving from remembering isolated card meanings to doing actual readings. The variety of spreads provided would also be useful to many beginning to intermediate readers.

The subtitle refers to three different ways to interpret the card that the author sees as running along a spectrum from the concrete to the abstract. She refers to these as the divinatory, therapeutic, and spiritual. (p2 ff) She uses “divinatory” to mean specific information about concrete future happenings. Since I see divination as embracing all three of the areas she lays out, I think she would have done better to name this realm of interpretation the “practical” or “predictive” area. She contrasts this concrete level with two more abstract areas: “Therapeutic” is a level of meaning that I would describe as primarily concerned with psychological occurrences and related symbolic interpretations. For her, “spiritual” is the most advanced and/or abstract level of meaning, where the cards are related to generalized statements about Spirit, the Universe, possibly karma, and the overall meaning of one’s life.

Breaking up interpretation into those three levels is an interesting way of getting readers to think about more possible meanings of their cards, especially for those who tend to fall into one type of interpretation too often. Throughout the case studies, Blair-Hunt tries to interpret each reading on all three levels, but she often falls into the problem of the psychological and spiritual blending into each other. Nevertheless, readers interested in seeing different types of interpretation applied to the same cards and spread would find this book valuable.

Blair-Hunt never explicates any particular religious perspective within which she is working, nor does she discuss the way a religious perspective would influence the “spiritual” interpretation of the cards, which is a tremendous weakness in her work. She seems to be coming from a generalized “spiritual” background which includes belief in channeling, past lives, and being able to contact the deceased, but she never addresses either the Christian origin of cards’ symbolism or their more common use among Neopagans today. The author’s perspective on spirit is that the universe is a place where everything is working for our good and that difficulties or challenges are just lessons on the way to a better experience; her optimism on this front can come across as deeply naive.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the text stems from a similar source: she suggests that if the reader has difficulty dealing with the potential meanings of some cards, especially Death, that the reader just remove them from her deck. This suggestion is followed by reassurance that removing cards will not change the interpretive power of the readings. (16) This reassurance strikes me as frankly ridiculous, because removing cards inherently reduces the range of possible outcomes in a reading, and the point of removing “difficult” cards is specifically to avoid having to think about or interpret their images. The way she writes about it really implies that she sympathizes with readers who themselves have a hard time dealing with the potential meanings of the Death card and other cards with potentially negative meanings, as she repeats this advice more than once, and suggests that it may apply to cards such as the Three of Swords and others. (15) I can sympathize with those who have a difficult time thinking about death, but anyone who intends to read meaningfully for herself or others should be willing to spend time and energy grappling with the shadow issues represented in some cards. Trying to make the deck all sweetness and light – or worse, pretending that life itself is all sweetness and light – is willful blindness and likely to lead to all sorts of significant problems.

In more practical terms, the book is difficult to use because the reproductions of the tarot cards in the spreads are tiny – only three-quarters of an inch high (less than 2cm). The author makes a point of using three different decks (the Gilded Tarot, the Lo Scarabeo Tarot, and the Universal Tarot) but the details of the cards can barely be made out in the minute black and white illustrations. In all but a couple cases there is clearly space on the page for the illustrations to be made larger, making the source of this problem truly a mystery.

In addition to the main text, there are five appendices which contain different types of correspondences for the Tarot cards. The first one is a fairly standard set of keywords for the entire deck. The second discusses choosing significators, relying largely on astrological and personal characteristics. Perhaps the most interesting appendix is one on card combinations, where Blair-Hunt lists specific divinatory meanings for certain cards and combinations in a variety of situations that readers are likely to encounter. I was disappointed that she didn’t discuss whether these interpretations come from some other source, her own inspiration, her concrete experience reading, or a combination of all three.

The last two appendices are about the timing that cards can represent and an “empowerment guide” to the Major Arcana. In discussing the timing indicated in cards she uses astrological attributions of the cards that stem from the Golden Dawn without discussing where they come from. But then she creates a timing chart that is completely separate from the Golden Dawn system of attributing the pips to the decans of the zodiac, and doesn’t say where she gets that from either. I am led to believe that she may be unfamiliar with the roots of some of the information she is propagating or that she simply doesn’t care about the historical background of her material. Finally the empowerment guide has color, gemstone, incense, and other correspondences for the Major Arcana, and again she doesn’t cite any sources or explain any background.

If someone learned all fifteen spreads in this book they would be a very well prepared reader for just about any kind of reading someone could ask for, and I really do think this book has a lot to offer in terms of case studies of cards in context. As long as the reader does not fall into the trap of trying to alter the deck to make their understanding of the world sufficiently easy and comfortable, there are some good examples of useful spreads here. If the information in this book is combined with a broader perspective on the Tarot and its history and meanings the reader will have a good resource to help them apply a basic understanding of the deck to its actual workings in real, live readings.

Review: Carson, Celebrate Wildness

Celebrate Wilderness Front Cover w Blurb6 copy

Carson, Jo. Celebrate Wildness: Magic, mirth, and love on the Feriferia path. Natural Motion Pictures: Fairfax, CA. 2015. 116 pages.

This work is not just a book; it is really a complicated work of art with interleavings of prose, poetry, liturgy, theaology (sic) and lots and lots of visual art by Fred Adams, the founder of Feriferia. Together it is designed to communicate something of the Feriferia consciousness of the world to the reader/viewer, and at that it succeeds wonderfully.

The name Feriferia means “celebrate wildness,” from the roots feri-, meaning wild as in feral, and feria, to celebrate. This ecotopian new religious movement founded by Fred Adams after a vision in the early 1950s that everything is united and alive, and the spirit of all is goddess. Out of this came his dedication to creating a new approach to life which revolted against the overculture of the 1950s by celebrating wildness. As Carson expresses it, “Our great work is to unify ecology, artistry, mythology, and liturgy to create a paradise on earth.” (43)

This book serves as an introductory gateway to Feriferia, which concentrates on the ineffable in wildness and cannot be fully expressed even by such a complicated piece of art as this book, although it does a good job of capturing the ecstatic spirit of the movement. Adams’ art constitutes a significant portion of the work, and for those interested in accessing the original spirit of Feriferia, there is nothing like going directly to the source. He drew goddesses in all sorts of contexts and imaginative settings, and these reproductions are as much an important part of the resources in this book as the text.

Part 1 is composed of descriptions of key pieces of art and the ideas they illustrate in the Feriferia path. These introduce the idea of goddess and god as partners, named Kore and Kouros (young woman and young man, in Greek), although Kore, also described as the Divine Daughter, is the central figure in Feriferia myth and practice.

Part 2 introduces the reader to a number of those practices, describing how to create a sacred space, described as a Faerie Ring Henge, whose attributes correspond to the directions and the Wheel of the Year, which is followed by a fuller explanation of the year myth and seasonal celebrations. Interestingly, Feriferia includes a  ninth holy day, named Repose, around the time of American Thanksgiving, between Samhain and Yule. It marks another stage in the goddess’ retreat into her winter seclusion. Also discussed are the phytala, the symbol of Feriferia, the importance of fruit trees, and a number of basic ritual practices, including a lovely ritual for planting and blessing a tree.

Part 3 is described as the “deep roots” of Feriferia, and goes into the mythological sources from which it draws inspiration. Especially important is the myth of Demeter and Persephone (also called Kore, the daughter). This myth played a central role in the Eleusinian mysteries, and like many new religious movements, Feriferia applies its own imaginations to what those mysteries might have been and how they might be translated into modern practice. There is also an emphasis on certain interpretations of Cretan culture, with some citations of archeological studies, although this is not by any means a reconstructionist movement.

Part 4 is entitled “Paradisal Magic – Letting it Blossom” and contains a composite of dreams about how Feriferia could be made manifest in the world, advanced topics including suggestions for exploring sensual sexuality as part of magical practice, a ritual for self-initiation into Feriferia, and Adams’ own “Hallows of Feriferia,” a manifesto of the movement’s intentions.

The material that comes directly from Adams sometimes reads a bit like a Dr Bronner’s soap label with its triumphant proclamations of ideas too grand to be expressed without inventing new compound hyphenated words – love-play-work is an especial touchstone – but this exuberance communicates the joyful sense of idealism that characterized this movement like others in the 1960s and 1970s.

I have some concerns about the use of mythology based partially on archaeological and other types of research. Carson writes that Feriferia’s “utopian visions of the future” are bolstered by knowing that Crete was an entirely peaceful matrifocal society for over a thousand years. (75) But what if new research proves otherwise? How will the foundations of the faith react to the kind of changes that are part of the nature of research-based knowledge?

In another place, the author states that only humans and the great apes menstruate, when this is in fact not the case. (83) Now, the fact that humans have hidden estrus (which is technically a different thing from menstruation) may very well have played an important role in the development of human bonding and social behavior, but the way it is stated is prone to misinterpretation that endangers the conclusions when scientific knowledge changes, as it inevitably will.

My biggest discomfort about the book is that something about the approach feels slightly off to me in a feminist sense. It’s very hard to put my finger on, but the whole attitude seems like it honors the goddess as the divine feminine other, perpetuating the idea that masculinity is normal and the feminine is other. The clearest example I can point to is that I am inclined to distrust a religious leader who claims to be trying to balance out “the excesses of patriarchy” but still refers to humankind as “mankind” repeatedly in his manifesto. (16, 104)

Overall, though, the movement is not restricted to Fred Adams’ personal beliefs and practices, and this work is the kind of introduction that a complicated subject like Feriferia deserves. I admire the idea of creating a poetic religion that restores soul to the earth and honors the divine feminine, and this work is certainly an extraordinary compilation of key materials from one of the groundbreaking movements in that area.

The author provided a copy of the work and asked me to write about it as part of her “blog tour” for the book. As always, I did my best not to let that influence my review.

Review: Raven and Crone, Asheville NC

Raven and Crone

555 Merrimon Ave, Asheville NC 28804

1 828 424 7868, ravenandcrone@gmail.com

Facebook: Asheville Raven and Crone

Hours: Mon-Sun 11am – 7pm

I simply loved this store. I was discussing what I enjoyed so much about it with local Witch Byron Ballard and she pointed out that it is really not a “New Age” store, it’s a Witch store. That’s very true, and it gets to the heart of what’s different about Raven and Crone. This store is truly rooted in its landbase and its local community for both the products it sells and the services it provides. All together this makes it unique and a real treasure.

An amazingly high proportion of Raven and Crone’s stock is made by the proprietors or by craftspeople and artists in the local community. They carry both basic essential oils and house-made oil blends for health and wellness, plus a huge range of magically empowered oils designed for use with specific intentions, or phases of the moon, or zodiac signs, or, or, or…more things than I can possibly remember right now. I was especially touched that when I mentioned I have a nut allergy the proprietor immediately offered to make a version of one of the magical oils using a non-nut carrier oil, and then did so on the spot!

I was also impressed with their empowered candles, tea blends, salves and perfumes, and especially a whole range of gris gris and deity necklaces from a Vodun-inspired approach. Similar to an amulet or spell pouch, gris gris are small bundles made up of stones, herbs, and other materials, blessed with oils, and infused with a specific magical intention, often including a dedication to a particular deity. The gris gris that I chose felt very powerful and beautiful.

Another thing that makes this a Witch’s store is that they carry the raw ingredients of just about all the finished products I mentioned above. They have herbs and stones, and an entire rainbow of candles, all at very reasonable prices. They even have seeds for a Witch’s garden!

They also carry high quality incense, a range of Tarot and divination materials, and a small but varied selection of books plus some used books. Throughout the store, whether in art or books, they highlight the works of local artisans, and carry a unique selection that is entirely unlike the standard ranges available from large chain bookstores or shops that only sell standardized merchandise.

The back room has complimentary tea, and if you are lucky, you might even be able to visit with the store’s cat. She’s a lovely long-haired black cat (of course) named Lovey, and she lives up to her name. Sitting in the back with a cup of tea, a book, and a cat made me feel right at home.

I was also impressed with the busy schedule of readers, workshops, and activities that their calendar displays. Every day of the month has something going on, including a psychic fair, workshops on a range of topics from Nordic traditions to feng shui, plus book signings and much more.

Raven and Crone is an example of the best of what independent shops can be. It has a range of resources and a stock of unique and useful craft items, and it serves as a community center. If you are ever in the area, I would highly recommend a visit.

*Please note this store is not associated with RavenandCrone.com.

Review – Divorcing a Real Witch

Rajchel, Diana. Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the people that used to love them. Moon Books, 2014. 190 pages.

Diana Rajchel takes a very clear stand that divorce is a life passage that some people go through which involves pain and grief that, like other life passages, lead to an opportunity for renewal. Within this approach, her work is intended as a resource for those going through divorce or its after effects. She shares personal reflection, tries to position divorce within a Wiccan worldview, and offers healing methods for coping with divorce and the accompanying changes through spiritual techniques.

She begins with a discussion of divorce, why people might choose to divorce, especially women, and how divorce fits into a Wiccan worldview, system of ethics, and spiritual practice. This discussion broadens into how divorce is seen in the wider culture, including ways that those who choose to divorce may encounter friction with friends, family, and other relationships. This is not a work to help those trying to make a last-ditch attempt to save a marriage; Rajchel takes divorce as a fact of life – and a fact of the reader’s life. Her view of divorce as a life passage rejects the characterization of “broken homes” and the disproportionate blaming of women that often attach to divorce; she asserts early on that “Divorce is not the fault of a massive failure of character.” (xiii) This nonjudgmental approach is refreshingly direct and appropriately sets the stage for helping readers heal.

Rajchel’s writing is part personal reflection, part handbook, part survey report, and part ritual resource, which makes for an interesting mix. Her discussions of what divorcees might go through is clearly informed by her personal experience, which makes them much more valuable. She has clearly done an immense amount of personal work to process her own experience and be able to discuss the wisdom gained. The resources she has created are aimed squarely at those very personal experiences.

The middle chapters contain most of the resources, which include a number of different rituals, meditations, and other techniques. Rajchel suggests reflections that will shape however the reader chooses to personalize the work, then offers several different variations of a handparting ritual, including versions with one or both members of a couple present, an officiant or not, and more.

Possibly even more valuable are a whole series of guided meditations aimed at dealing with different specific emotional experiences that are likely to arise during and after the process of grieving an ended relationship. Rajchel speaks wisely about the emotional issues that can occur, framing them as a type of grief, and explicitly acknowledging that emotions will recur, change at their own pace, and should not be forced to fit anyone else’s framework or expectations. She also recommends that readers seek additional help such as counseling when needed. With that in mind, her wide variety of meditations and associated techniques are a rich field of resources for processing these emotions in a spiritual perspective.

To balance the personal nature of the experience she brings to her writing, Rajchel does try to get outside her own perspective. She acknowledges same-sex couples, and the differences and difficulties they may face in these situations, and briefly touches on some of the issues that arise when couples with children divorce. In trying to expand her perspective, Rajchel apparently conducted a survey of other Pagans from a number of traditions, but she fails to describe how the survey was created and administered, nor does she describe the overall purpose or conclusions of the survey. The lack of information about this survey is one of the weak points of the work. She cites a few summaries, but mostly uses qualitative and anecdotal reports from within the survey, including some vignettes interspersed with the main text. There are many more of her own personal vignettes, and sometimes I found it difficult to determine which were which.

The other major problem with this book is that the organization and structure are haphazard. Chapter titles reveal their repetitive nature, and while there is an attempt to progress from discussion to rituals to further discussion to conclusions, the lack of an overarching structure makes it unclear why some choices of topic were made and where the reader should turn for a particular topic. On the other hand, the episodic nature of the writing is amenable to a reader who is going through a particularly painful life passage and who may want to pick up the book, scan one part, put it down, and take it up again at a later point. Regardless, the rituals and meditations, as well as the overall perspective on divorce as a life passage from a Wiccan perspective make it a valuable work.

Rajchel expresses her purpose by saying “We must become our own heroes because no myths deal with failed interdependence.” (7) While I might quibble that some myths address irreparable breakdowns in trust and intimate relationships, her overall point is quite true – divorce as we know it is a fact of life, for Pagans as for others, and it is not something for which we have a standard narrative template, mythical or otherwise. It is up to us to shape our own personal and spiritual responses to it in the ways that are best for us. Rajchel’s book provides valuable and important resources for doing that work.

Review: Kynes – Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences

Kynes, Sandra. Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences: A Comprehensive & Cross-Referenced Resource for Pagans & Wiccans. Llewellyn, 2013. Paperback, 528 pages.

Sandra Kynes’ book of correspondences competently addresses the fundamental needs of magical practitioners as well as offering opportunities for contemplation for those who want to expand their knowledge and understanding of correspondences. Kynes has done a skillful job of corralling a sprawling mass of information into a reasonably accessible format, and that alone makes this book a success for its intended audience.

In her introduction, Kynes touches on some important points regarding the nature of correspondences and how they interact with each other: “…we can bring correspondences to life by thinking in terms of a web. Doing so not only allows us to expand the links of attributes, but it also allows us to personalize the way we use magical correspondences.” (4) She illustrates the ways correspondences are interrelated and has used that fact to guide her in the difficult decisions that have to be made in any work such as this one.

In particular, Kynes restricts the scope of her material by only listing as correspondences items that have an independent listing of their own. For example, under correspondences for “love,” she does not list Oshun, because there is no independent listing for Oshun. With commendable transparency, Kynes acknowledges the Celtic influences on her practice and experience and her lack of knowledge about Afro-Caribbean paths. As a result, she chose not to include entries for the orishas or similar spirits. As a result of this consistency, for every item that is listed as a correspondence, the reader can consult a main entry to see its other correspondences.

Regardless of how the title describes it, no work like this can possibly be “complete,” and Kynes’ explanations about the way she shaped the work are part of what makes this book valuable. She explains that she is trying to walk a “middle ground,” and specifically aimed to capture the items, powers, and spirits that are most commonly used by Pagans and Wiccans at the current moment, including the ones most frequently mentioned in the bibliography, which contains largely recent popular works. Combined with the consistent and concise style of her entries – which I quite appreciated – the result does live up to the title of “cross-reference” as a resource.

Kynes also wisely avoids the trap of trying to categorize every item under every possible system of correspondences. If a particular plant does not have a specific connection to one of the runes of the Futhark, for example, Kynes does not try to create one. This restraint is wise, because trying to create correspondences that are not natural quickly becomes an effort at pseudo-categorization and simultaneously drains the magic out of the connections that truly do exist. The author deserves praise for not trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, and it speaks well of her understanding of the meanings of correspondences.

Kynes alludes to these deeper issues of correspondence and connection by briefly referencing Bonewits’ theories of correspondences and Eliade’s more scholarly investigations of magical imagination, but she leaves unanswered the question of how she combined and culled the correspondences drawn from her numerous sources. On one hand, such incessant citations would make the work incredibly unwieldy, but on the other hand, at least a small mention of this perennial question would have pointed the reader in the direction of further personal development. Regardless, the work as it stands is still tremendously useful as a starting place for intermediate practitioners to begin their own reflections on correspondences and how to put them into practice.

Since this is a reference work, the structure and layout are vitally important to its functionality. On the whole, the contents are clear and readable; I appreciate the amount of effort that went into making the entries reasonably uniform. The sections are organized in a way that is probably most useful for off-the-shelf needs: correspondences for intentions first, then separate sections on plants, minerals, animals, deities and beings, time reckoning, and general theoretical concepts.

Within these divisions, however, some problems arise. A few entries simply don’t make sense: “Revenge (to seek, protect from)” really should have been split into two separate topics, rather than leaving the user guessing which correspondences are appropriate for the purpose at hand. The plants are subdivided into “Trees,” “Herbs, Garden Plants and Shrubs,” and “Miscellaneous Plants” based on unexplained criteria – why is allspice not an herb, to use just one example? This separation is supplemented by an appendix listing the names of all plants alphabetically, then telling which subheading they can be found under. The author does go to the trouble of listing plants’ scientific names, which is extremely valuable for novice and seasoned botanist alike.

The biggest single problem I have with the work is the decision to place both the Futhark and the Ogham under the section on time reckoning. It is true that these systems can be connected with the flow of time, but they are both independent systems with a strong internal logic, and are used for divination and symbolic representations much more frequently than as time descriptors; perhaps this is different in Kynes’ experience with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Worse yet, these systems are listed in alphabetical order. The Futhark, for example, are not listed in their own order (fehu, uruz, thurisaz, etc.), nor are they listed in the order of the half-months assigned to them, but in alphabetical order by the English names. The same was done to the Ogham. The correspondences for the Tarot are placed in the separate miscellaneous section, but there too, the Major Arcana cards are alphabetized by name, which will confuse novice and experienced user alike.

The place where everything should be listed in purely alphabetical order is the index, and this nearly lives up to its purpose. The index to a work like this is what makes it truly a cross-reference and not merely a dictionary. The only problem is that the index is organized under the same subheadings as the individual sections are, so readers need to know roughly where they are looking in order to find something’s multiple references.

Overall, the book does what the author sets out as her intent in the introduction. Once a reader becomes acquainted with the structure, this work can be an invaluable reference for someone just starting to learn how to use correspondences, a Witch who needs to look something up quickly, a Pagan who needs a starting point to research a new item, or an intermediate practitioner reflecting on examples as a way to explore the deeper meanings of correspondences. Readers who are willing to get drawn into the web of cross-references that the author has woven will likely find themselves discovering unexpected relationships among familiar tools and ideas. Its potential for sparking new ideas makes this book both a reference and a good starting place for further exploration.

Recent labors

I’ve been quiet here lately, mostly to work on my dissertation (a finished draft of a chapter  is such a satisfying thing!), but I’ve also had a few things appear elsewhere.

At PaganSquare, I’m tentatively trying a new kind of short commentary on different works. This approach will be less comprehensive than my reviews usually are, aimed at introducing some lesser-known works to a generalist audience rather than critiquing common materials. I tackle Israel Regardie’s compendium of Golden Dawn material to start:

Overall, Regardie’s compendium can be a paradox: nearly impenetrable to the casual reader, seemingly outdated and irrelevant, for those who have the interest and the patience to immerse themselves in it, it is fascinating and invaluable.

Read the whole thing.

In the fall issue of Circle Magazine, my article “Guarding the Theshold – Everyday Warding for the Home” is featured as part of the Home and Harvest theme:

I live in a busy urban area, so warding my home is vitally important to me on many levels. Creating a sense of mental and emotional privacy is a necessary part of urban life. More than that, though, my warding designates my home as a space set aside, defined by my intention, as the place I and my partner live and love. Casting and maintaining this magical boundary is not just about defining the edges of our home, but about shaping the very meaning of home in our everyday lives.

The full article is available through free download from the Circle website.

Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend, if you celebrate that, and if not, enjoy the turning of the seasons. May your labors bring you a bountiful harvest!

Review of Sacred Space 2013

Sacred Space lives up to its description as a conference for intermediate to advanced esoteric and magical practitioners. That’s pretty high praise, when you think about it.

The draw at Sacred Space is the presentations and rituals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing chance to connect with old and new friends from around the region and more, and the interactions and chance talks or meals together are fantastic, but an introvert who didn’t know very many people could go to Sacred Space and get a lot out of it without any of that happening, if she was interested in intermediate to advanced ideas and practices.

What you won’t see, by and large, at Sacred Space, is the kind of lazy intellectual “recycling” that keeps us awash in Wicca 101 part the kajillionth and yet sparsely prepared for Wicca 201 or practicing in the real world. Many of the presenters at Sacred Space are deeply involved in their subject material. As an academic myself, I especially appreciate it when people have a deep intellectual grasp of their subject, whether that’s reflected in reading ancient texts or assimilating a breadth of current material, or serious study across traditions.

When Gwendolyn Reece presented on Athena, for example, her strong grasp of the ancient texts was synthesized with her own perspective through Kabala, resulting not just a skilled retelling of some of the myths, but some interesting suggestions for alternative possible meanings, and she took care to differentiate one from the other.

I can also see and appreciate that most presenters at Sacred Space have a richness of experience measured not just in years of practice but in the ways they’ve put their ideas into action in the world. You can be fairly sure that a presentation at Sacred Space will not be someone’s rehashing of just one book they read, or a mismash of someone else’s blog posts half-digested and regurgitated at random.

Christopher Penzcak’s presentation related to his book on the 12 Gates of Witchcraft, for example, showed the way he worked to synthesize the breadth of his experience. He explicitly said that he encourages his students to cross-train outside their natural comfort zones in terms of magical techniques, and he shared a lot of comparing and contrasting ideas in different areas. The only downside was that he spent so much time on the background of his topic that he really only touched on about half of his 12 categories; I wish he had gauged his use of time better in that talk.

Sacred Space also tries to be fairly broad in its coverage. Having Luisah Teish as a featured presenter this year brought in an emphasis on the African Diaspora traditions, for example. They bring in featured presenters from outside the region to give us in this area a taste of Paganism from other centers, which makes it a great opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn’t get to see West Coast teachers, for example.

There are usually a fair number of folks from the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel; I get the strong impression that ASW deliberately fosters the kind of intellectual engagement with Wicca and the Western mystery traditions in general that prepares its members to present here, and they do credit to their tradition when they do, but this is not “ASW’s conference.” One of the things I have very much enjoyed, though, is when ASW pulls people together to do rituals, because they put a lot of work into presenting good rituals, and I encourage you to check them out if you ever attend. Maggi Setti’s ritual to Brigid drew on lots of different pieces of symbolism, and I think a lot of the benefit to me from that ritual is going to be returning to those symbols and contemplating them at different times and in different contexts.

Another amazing ritual is the Conjure Dance. This is a unique opportunity to enjoy wonderful drummers and chants and to see and make offerings to deities and powers from all over the world. That in and of itself would be both a good party and an education. This setting, though, is the foundation for a powerful possession ritual. It’s very difficult to describe, but well worth experiencing.

One of the things Sacred Space does not focus on is vending. Don’t get me wrong – there are vendors, and quite good ones, at Sacred Space. I get more interesting and unusual high-quality stones there than just about anywhere else, and there was some amazing art. But shopping opportunities are secondary to providing a solid conference in terms of quality presentations, so if you think you’re coming to Pagan Ren Faire, you’ll be disappointed.

My only real frustrations at Sacred Space had to do with the hotel hosting the conference. Just like any conference-at-hotel situation, there are apt to be bottlenecks at mealtimes as everyone tries to squeeze in breakfast or lunch during the same time period. The Holiday Inn we were at did not handle these things very well, and since it’s a distinctly suburban location, the only alternatives require a car. I would encourage people attending to plan ahead for those issues, pack some snacks, and do a lot of deep breathing. The influx of several youth hockey groups on Friday and Saturday also led to some interesting dissonances; that wasn’t even the hotel’s fault, and from what I heard, they tried to communicate between the groups where needed, mostly requests for quiet.

On the whole, Sacred Space is a well-crafted, high-quality regional conference that draws featured presenters from across the country to present on topics of interest to intermediate to advanced magical and esoteric practitioners and to create engaging rituals.

NB: I am obviously not objective, since I also presented at Sacred Space this year. I did my best to leave that out of consideration.

Pantheacon 2013 reflections

Pantheacon was a lot of fun. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with the large West Coast concentration of Pagans and people from all over the country. I met people in person who I’d “known” online for a while, and while I knew this intellectually, it was interesting to see how different it was to encounter them on two feet, instead of on a computer screen. Jason Pitzl-Waters said in his talk that large community events like this “humanize” these kinds of connections, and I think that’s a very good word for it. That alone makes the conference worthwhile.

I also heard some great talks. Starhawk on the magic of story was interesting; I think that’s something I’m going to have to work with a bit more. Sam Webster’s presentation on theurgic sacrifice was fascinating; I love to see the kind of academic-applied fusion he brings to his work. Other top moments included:

Jason on Pagans and social media: “Facebook may be a wretched hive of scum and villany, [audience laughs] but it’s the only place we’re going to find a smuggler to take us to the Alderaan system.” I’m not sure whether I agree with all of that statement yet – the first part is beyond doubt – but it was an interesting talk overall. The importance of preserving our past and creating infrastructure to preserve our present is especially dear to my heart as a researcher who wants to study things. Where can I find all the copies of the Green Egg ever produced, for instance? Some of them may not even exist any more. I’m glad Jason’s doing this kind of broad-ranging thinking and sharing it with the community.

Renna Shesso on the magical night sky: “I’ve said vulva enough now, we can go on to Mars.” Nuff said.

And last but not least, during a fascinating talk on polarity, Ivo used the metaphor of the “astral squeegee.” This is the magical improvement on brain bleach, and I’m going to shamelessly use it whenever appropriate. His comments on polarity are going to keep me thinking and experimenting for a while, too.

And to all the other wonderful people I met, it was so good to see you in person!

I’m looking forward to next year already.

Double review: Fortune, Sea Priestess and Moon Magic

Fortune, Dion. Sea Priestess. Weiser: New York, 1978. First published privately in 1938. Paperback, 316 pages.

Fortune, Dion. Moon Magic. Weiser: New York, 1978. First published in England in 1956. Paperback, 241 pages.

Please note there are spoilers in this review.

These are probably Dion Fortune’s most famous occult novels. Set in 1930s and 40s England, they revolve around the magical workings of Vivian Le Fay Morgan, who at various points is also called Morgan Le Fay and Lilith. In each one she finds a working partner and does a series of magical rituals, and the real fascination of the novels is the way they convey the spirit or atmosphere of what those experiences might have been like.

The rituals Fortune describes seem drawn from both the Golden Dawn as she would have been familiar with it and something much more like Gardnerian Wicca. She uses some of the language and symbolism of the Golden Dawn, including its emphasis on astrology and allusions to Qabala. Sea Priestess is written from the point of view of Morgan/Lilith’s working partner, who naturally cannot comment on the sources of her rituals, but in the sequel, Moon Magic, Morgan/Lilith says explicitly that the rituals of Sea Priestess were part of her work as an Adeptus Minor. (51) And although many parts of the rituals are (perhaps deliberately?) vague, she also specifically mentions using the “Banishing Ritual of the Greater Pentagram.” (66)

On the other hand, much if not most of the narrative of the books as novels is taken up with the emotional reactions and relationships between Morgan and her successive partners. In a way, they are largely psychological studies of the tension inherent in different kinds of attraction and closeness, especially in the social and emotional context of that period’s gender roles, expectations and prejudices. This is unsurprising given that Fortune studied psychoanalysis, but it might be less than fascinating to someone who doesn’t care about what might be called the “complexes” of the time.

Regardless, it is clear that Morgan/Lilith uses her partners to create a wellspring of personal and sexual attraction that she channels for her own purposes: in the first, she builds up her magical personality, and in the second, she seems to be doing a working that is largely aimed at releasing some of the sexual issues of the culture as a whole. I’m still only beginning to acquaint myself with the Golden Dawn, but as presented by Regardie, its basic rituals seem to eschew emphasis on sex entirely, certainly not drawing on it for the motive power of their rituals. This is why I say parts of the novels read much more like Gardnerian workings, and I think that these contribute to their enduring popularity among Wiccans even though Fortune and her society went to great lengths to make it clear that she was not herself involved in witchcraft or Wicca.

Interestingly, the ways that Morgan/Lilith goes about using attraction as a magical force make her seem almost determined to defy Fortune’s own position as laid out in her Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage, where she is takes pains to admonish readers to abide by both the strictest letter of the law and spirit of social constraints on relationships.

In Sea Priestess, Morgan’s partner is a single man who does not mind running some risks to his reputation. When she is done with him, he ends up tumbling into a marriage that almost seems to take him by surprise, but which the narrator assures us is satisfactory. It has some touches of the esoteric, so if it is not as exciting as his relationship with Morgan, it is perhaps more realistic and thus more sustainable. But in Moon Magic, much of the work takes place while the male character is trapped in a defunct marriage, and Lilith and her partner debate and acknowledge how closely they are splitting hairs between what is and is not acceptable in different contexts.

Fortune writes in the introduction to Moon Magic that the character of Morgan/Lilith had taken on a life of her own which compelled the writing of the second book, and also takes pains to point out that “the viewpoint of Lilith Le Fay is purely pagan,” by which she primarily means not constrained by Christian codes of conduct underpinning societal expectations. (9) She acknowledges that Lilith – as the more developed, independent personality that was only beginning to take shape in Morgan – might be Fortune’s own “Freudian subconscious,” but leaves it as an open question.

The plot of Moon Magic itself is a bit of an open question as well, since the narrative ends with the climax of the magical workings. If the work was propelled by the characters themselves, then perhaps Fortune simply stopped when her characters stopped and didn’t bother to try to tag on an ending that would satisfy conventional expectations of either plot or morality.

Let me be clear, though, that Morgan/Lilith isn’t merely depicted as some kind of conventionally attractive succubus; part of the tension of the books is the way they struggle with the gender roles of the time. Both men find their fascination and satisfaction with Morgan/Lilith stemming from the fact that she is so very powerful, and not just magically; she has a dominant force of personality and does not hesitate to take the lead, directing them, even manipulating them for her own purposes. At the same time, the characters tend to stay within the gender constructs of more powerful vs less powerful; they invert them but don’t really subvert them.

For these purposes, although Fortune’s nonfiction work tends to identify esoteric doctrine with mystical Christianity, Morgan/Lilith’s “paganism” comes out in the way she favors a different set of symbols: in both works, she hearkens back to pre-Christian imagery, acting as a priestess of the moon and the ocean, and as representative of the transpersonal feminine personified in the goddess Isis.

The works are replete with (romanticized) Egyptian symbolism and imagery, and everyone has past lives, including ones in Atlantis. Fortune handles these tropes rather better than most authors, perhaps because in her time they were relatively new and hadn’t yet degenerated into cliches that invariably evoke the most ridiculous fluff of the New Age. At the very least, they’re better integrated here.

And on the whole, Fortune is a much better writer of occult fiction than Gardner; her interest in the psychology of her characters lends them greater depth, although it would be harder for them to be shallower than Gardner’s. Still, they are primarily occult fiction: great value of these books is that she does manage to convey a lot of the atmosphere or energy of magical workings; her male characters are by no means enviable, and in many ways are quite jackasses; while Morgan is fascinating, she’s clearly not a normal human being, so it’s hard for readers to identify with her either.

The works really are set firmly in the context of 1930s and 40s England, culturally as well as physically, so there are some things readers unfamiliar with the period won’t really understand (including the horror of divorce and social strictures on illicit relationships). If you’re only interested in the occultism, that won’t matter much, but you should know that she’s not just talking about airy-fairy imaginary worlds here. Although her characters spend as much time in trance as they do in the real world, they do in fact live in the real world as well.

The great gems of these works are her poems. Many readers may be content with looking at these and the more lyrical pieces of prose as excerpted by the Farrars and others, and prefer to skip the novels entirely. Readers interested in them as telling the working-out of magical rituals will probably enjoy them, but people looking for a good yarn will probably find them disappointing and frustrating. Morgan/Lilith makes every aspect of her life serve the ends of her magic, and in much the same way Fortune shows no compunction in turning every piece of the writing towards conveying the spirit of the rituals. At the same time, they are not handbooks for conducting rituals yourself, and while many people – such as the Farrars – have drawn from them to create their own workings, it takes a good bit of adaptation and creativity to do so. Much like their protagonist, these books will only satisfy on their own terms.

Kindred Spirit has a new location

Kindred Spirit has moved to 2354 E. Little Creek Road, Norfolk, VA 23518, with a phone number of 757-480-0424. The new location is in a newer strip mall between a Pizza Hut and Dollar General. It’s a little hard to see from the road, but worth the trip.