Contemporary Deities: Eris and Weasel Wicca

I’m going to feature some pieces and guest posts further exploring contemporary deities. If you’ve got one to suggest, please write to me at literatahurley at gmail.

One of my favorite examples of a ha-ha-only-serious approach to religion is Weasel Wicca, self-described as “a toon trad.” While this is not just about a single contemporary deity, I think it is a great instance of the contemporary understanding of Eris (or Discordia, goddess of chaos) that has emerged in the last half-century. There are also Discordianism and the whole meta-schema of Chaos Magic, but those are both too big for me to tackle here, so I’ll stick to Weasel Wicca for now.

On the other hand, the description of Weasel Wicca does mention Galanthus, saying she was turned into a weasel for lying to Juno. I didn’t find any examples of this myth on a quick search, so maybe a reader can enlighten me: was this an old myth that is seldom mentioned, or is it a new myth? Either way, Galanthus might count as a contemporary deity.

The most interesting thing about Weasel Wicca, though, is that it is in fact a well-thought-out approach to Wicca; it has a myth of its own and a thoroughly adapted ritual, with the major Wiccan components easily recognizable but also uniquely reinterpreted: invoke East by squeezing the squeaky toy, invoke South by hiding the matches, and so on.

Weasel Wicca also perfectly captures the attitude of every person I’ve ever met who lived with a ferret. The trad is designed for them, and as such I think it’s a great example of how we adapt and invent myths and rituals to suit our times and circumstances.

In that spirit, grab some holy Fhood and Bhooze, or not, and with the acceptance that “reality can always use a little bending,” as Weasel Wicca puts it, let’s talk about contemporary deities.

The Great Cat in the Sky

Hecate recently quoted the new American Poet Laureate:

Isn’t that what it’s about –
pretending there’s an alert cat
who leaves nothing to chance.

And all the jokes about Ceiling Cat aside (srsly!), this made me think of one of the best fictional depictions of a pantheon and its myths that I’ve ever encountered, which occurs in Diane Duane’s Feline Wizards books.

Set in the same universe as her Young Wizards series, all species know that there is the One, the creator, and the Powers That Be, who serve the One, and the Lone One, who is the force of entropy but a necessary part of creation nonetheless. Each species has its own versions of these, though, and sometimes multiple versions. In The Book of Night with Moon, cat wizard Rhiow and her team struggle with reenactments and revisions of feline mythology and its intersections and interactions with other species’ myth and history. In the latest installment, The Big Meow, we get a vital addition to the mythology explaining how the feline version of the afterlife came to be.

So overall there’s a pretty viable pantheon, with their stories told in a comprehensive myth cycle that covers creation, the purposes of life, why death happens, and what comes after. Although the cats don’t practice formal rituals as such, there are also plenty of examples of how different cats relate – or don’t – to their deities. All in all, if someone wanted to work with this setting, they could. But would you?

Some ideas of working with imaginary pantheons are simply not tenable for me; I couldn’t keep a straight face through even a self-subverting chaos magic ritual that called on Star Trek characters, for example. But things like the ha-ha-only-serious rituals of Caffeina, or even chaos magicians working with Bill the Cat or with ferrets, those I can all imagine doing. In my particular urban area, I have learned to offer incense and to give praise and thanks to my own dear Asphaltia, Our Lady of Traffic and Parking Spaces.

This is one of the interesting things about not being constrained by the Christian emphasis on belief. I don’t have to believe that Bill the Cat is anything other than fiction; if the ritual does something for me, (even just a good laugh) that can be a good enough reason to do it.

On the other hand, the more I work with Asphaltia, and the more I get unexpected results from those workings, the more I wonder if she’s not actually a contemporary aspect of the deity of travel and travelers who has had many forms throughout the ages.

Star wrote recently about how we don’t create meaning ex nihilo, and that our relationships with the Powers That Be include ongoing revelation. Can some of these new deities – or old deities in new forms – be part of that ongoing revelation? Does it matter if that revelation comes originally in the form of fiction, like Duane’s work, or loving humor, like Caffeina?

What do you think about fictional or invented or “found” deities or powers? Do you work with them? Only with certain ones? Why?

Finally, I raise this question because I’d also like to find out if there would be any interest in me posting a creation myth I wrote based in part on Diane Duane’s felines. I adapted the pantheon slightly and told the story in form more similar to most Wiccan myths. If you’d like to see it, just leave a note in the comments or “like” this post.

Ecstatic Tarot

I think Tarot is often an ecstatic experience, but not in the way we usually think about ecstasy. Most people, even most devoted Tarot readers, wouldn’t describe Tarot as necessarily a joyful experience. A lot of people who only get an occasional reading would argue quite the opposite: they get a reading when there’s something particularly difficult going on in their lives, not when they’re happy about things. But the Greek root of the word, ekstasis, doesn’t mean pleasure or joy. It means “to stand beside or outside of oneself,” something which is both simpler and more profound than happiness.

In this sense, Tarot is ecstatic, because as a means for self-reflection, it helps us stand outside of ourselves. Sometimes we do that alone, and the process of standing outside ourselves as we interpret the cards is fairly clear. Sometimes we use the help of a guide or reader; in my style of reading, I’m still trying to create opportunities for self-reflection, as well as potentially providing an outside point of view.

It’s no accident that position eight in the Celtic Cross spread, representing that outside view, can be one of the hardest to interpret. It’s inherently challenging for us to get away from our own point of view. That’s precisely what positions seven through nine of the Celtic Cross spread are all about, though, which is where that spread gives us the opportunity for an ecstatic experience, to take up a position outside ourselves and our usual point of view.

I’ve already considered position eight, but I’d like to look at positions seven and nine individually and in contrast to each other. If position eight is extra hard to interpret, sometimes position nine, the querent’s hopes and fears, is sometimes especially easy to interpret. In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of very clear cards turn up in position nine, cards that might be an exaggeration of other cards in the core of the spread. Sometimes a five, one, or ten of a suit shows up in position nine, when other intermediate cards show up in the central

If I were using keywords to describe the numbers, I would say that ones (aces) are about raw energy, tens are about fulfillment, and fives are about challenge or conflict. These more dramatic cards embody the duality of hopes and fears: if we have high hopes, they can also be dashed; if we have tremendous fears, a relief from them is something to hope for indeed.

Sometimes a Major Arcana card will show up in position nine, where it can represent an archetype that the querent is either hopeful or fearful of. Again, since the Major Arcana tend to represent overriding influences or storylines, their powerful pull means they can go to extremes, both good and bad, very easily.

Position seven, the querent’s own point of view, also provides a different perspective on the central cross. For a reader, this card is an opportunity to start to sum up the central cross and interact with the querent a little more about not just what the cards might represent, but what the querent thinks about the situation as a whole.

Sometimes a querent will look at the card in position seven and have a rueful moment of recognition: yes, she’ll say, I do tend to see things in that particular light. In particular, if the card in position seven corresponds strongly with one part of the central cross, it can signify that the querent is stuck in looking at the situation from that point of view. Using both the central cross and position eight to contemplate other points of view may help free up the imagination or perspective.

But sometimes position seven seems opaque, or unrelated to the central cross and the primary matters at hand. In those situations, it’s useful to think of the querent’s point of view as a kind of “spin” or additional layer of meaning that might have been added to the cards in the central cross. This can be hard, because interpreting the central cross usually involves imagining oneself to be a character in the cards, so it’s easy to take a look at this card and say that there’s no one doing that particular action involved in the situation.

When this card is difficult, that can be when we most need it to help us stand outside ourselves. Try imagining this card in terms of attitude, not action: how would that character describe the central cross? How is that similar to and different from the way the querent described it?

The contrast between positions seven and nine can help clarify both of them. If they are very similar, it can indicate that the querent is reading his hopes and fears into a situation; how accurate is that likely to be? If they seem totally unrelated, that might represent a mismatch between what the querent hopes/fears and what she actually sees in the situation as it exists right now. Which approach is more realistic?

When position eight is taken into account, you now have three different perspectives. The outside view can be especially helpful in sorting out how justified the querent’s hopes and fears might be, as well as whether her own perspective is blinding her to particular aspects of the issue at hand.

Now, these are all perspectives, and since Tarot tends to be more about possibilities than simple facts, no one of them is going to tell the whole story or be totally accurate.
The ability to compare and contrast these approaches is what lets this part of the spread so helpful. Just as we might ask a friend to give us a different point of view, these cards can help us reflect on different potential perspectives, and to weigh the benefits of each.

Ecstasy gained its current meaning because people can experience this kind of broader perspective or being outside themselves when they are swept away by tremendous emotions like joy, love, or pleasure. The benefit of seeking ecstatic expeiences with Tarot is that we can consider these different perspectives while in a calmer frame of mind, not exhausted or overwhelmed, which gives us a better opportunity to contemplate and integrate the insights we achieve. Then we can act on them to create opportunities for ecstasy – in the joyful sense – as well.

Review: Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder

Edghill, Rosemary. Bell, Book, and Murder: The Bast Novels. Paperback, 448 pages. Forge, 1998. Omnibus edition of Speak Daggers to Her, 1994, Book of Moons, 1995, and The Bowl of Night, 1996, by the same author.

These three novels are set in mid-1990s New York, and follow the experiences and exploits of Bast, a Witch who has to draw on all her talents, mundane and magical, as she stumbles into a series of murders, betrayals, intrigues, and even a curse. In the first novel, one of Bast’s friends is found dead, possibly as a result of malefic magic from an unethical coven and coven leader. Bast’s investigation navigates deep currents of what magic means in the world today and how we can and should use it and respond to it; the outcome is ambiguous in some ways, which is one of the things I love about these books.

Edghill accurately represents the uncertainties of working with magic. There’s no hocus-pocus here, no Harry Potter-esque wand-waving that makes lights flicker, and not even any telepathic messages or ominous Tarot readings. There aren’t detailed accounts of rituals, either – very little of the book takes place in the setting of a circle or ceremony.  Instead, Edghill represents magic as we experience it: in the workings-out of intent in the world, with all the attendant murkiness, with multiple causes and effects intertwining, and with a distinct lack of clear-cut choices in most situations. Bast resolves the situation with the potential curse, but the resolution is as magical – or not – as the suspicion of malefic action was in the beginning, depending on how you see the whole situation. (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers, but also because simplifying the complexities of the plot would destroy the exact effect that I appreciate about this book.)

In the second book, Bast faces the politics – good, bad, ugly, and stupid – of the magical community in the 90s, from Niceness Wicca to an S&M leather coven, from Ceremonial Magic to Womyn’s Goddess worship, plus seekers of all stripes. I can’t speak for the accuracy, not having been in that historical setting, but Edghill’s portrayals come across as incisively accurate and still a good assessment of the kinds of politics and power plays that go on between individuals and groups. Bast herself is something of an insider-outsider, giving her a chance to reflect on the biases of her own viewpoint, which is an exercise that every reader ought to engage in as well.

The third book finds Bast squarely in the middle of a confrontation between neo-Pagans, fundamentalist (often rendered hilariously as “funny-mentalist”) Christians, and the law enforcement agencies who have to try to sort everything out. Villains and potential villains abound; achieving the right relationship between law and justice is more like a complex negotiation than a straightforward set of consequences. This one is the most difficult for Bast personally but also leads to the most reflection on the hard limits to which Bast will and will not go – even in the face of desire.

These works have aged well; there are a few places where a cell phone would have really changed the plot, but those are simple enough to overlook that they don’t distract from the pleasure of reading. Since the explosion of Cunningham-type self-initiated solitaries and the fashion for “magick” (sic) among teens in the Silver Ravenwolf vein, the makeup of the community one finds at open rituals and bookstores has changed a bit, sometimes quite a bit, but the population Bast interacts with is familiar to anyone who has spent a little bit of time around Pagans and magic-users.

The only other big difference from the present day is the lack of an overarching cultural concern about war that has been present since September 11th. For those who can (or want to) cast themselves back to the seemingly idyllic 90s, when whether everyone brought potato salad to the potluck rated as a major concern, these books will be familiar territory.

I’d recommend these to anyone who is pursuing a Pagan or Wiccan path and especially people who enjoy murder mysteries. It’s great to see a well-executed example of the genre set in our sub-culture, and you might just learn something about magic and meaning along the way.

Don’t tell me to “free my mind”

One of the writers on the same Pagan e-zine that I write for posted an article this past month that made me truly furious. I commented on it, and she replied with a non-reply, so I’m going to express my analysis a little more fully here. In short: claiming that we all create our own reality – and that our minds are the entire determinant of our reality – is victim-blaming, insulting to people who don’t have your privilege, privilege-blindness, and sometimes flat-out dangerous or abusive. Here are the key parts of her post:

Once you understand that there is nothing certain that there is no one absolute truth then you have become empowered. It is at this point that you truly understand that anything … ANYTHING is possible and that you and only YOU are The Creator of your own life experience. You have infinite possibilities. There are no limits or boundaries to what you can experience in this lifetime. Isn’t that truly amazing?! What is it that you most desire to do in this lifetime? What is it that you have been told you will never be able to do? And why is it you believe them? I don’t believe them. I know that I can do whatever it is I desire most to do in my lifetime. I am the only one who places restrictions on myself. And those limitations are by my own choosing.
. . .
Regardless of what other people believe and what they think is impossible, I’m here to tell you that you can create your reality. You can have, be and do whatever it is you most desire. You ARE the creator of your life experience. So start deliberately creating!

In my comment, I said that what the author wrote is demeaning and insulting to people like me who have disabilities and very real limitations in their lives. Saying that “I am the only one who places restrictions on myself. And those limitations are by my own choosing,” implies that my physical disability is something I have chosen, and that if I consciously chose otherwise, I could make it disappear. That’s as reasonable as saying that if I flap my arms hard enough, I could fly.

Her reply was that “I am truly sorry you feel that what I have written is demeaning and insulting. I believe that life is all perception and perception is subjective. What I deem as reality may or may not be yours. This piece is meant to be inspirational and empowering to those individuals who feel powerless in their current life experience. I’m sorry you don’t feel it was. Love and light to you.”

My comment was tough but moderate in tone, because I felt the author genuinely deserved a chance to say that she (I think the author is female, but I’m not positive.) didn’t mean these words to apply to, say, gravity, or physical disability; basically she deserved a chance to admit that there are things in the world that aren’t subjective. But her reply simply infuriated me more. If I were speaking to her directly, I would use the refutation of telling her that her fly is unzipped or her shoe is untied. If she really believes what she’s saying, she’d just think about it and change it, not look down and do the zipper by hand or tie her shoelaces by hand. Since I don’t have that recourse, I’m going to explain why this position infuriates me and why this is insulting and demeaning by being privilege-blind and why it can be actively dangerous.

The absolute worst of this kind of nonsense comes out of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and related works. The so-called “Law of Attraction” touted by Byrne et al. says that whatever you think about draws similar events to you and makes them happen in your life. This isn’t just about thinking positive thoughts – this is stated as a natural law, and when faced with a question about the Holocaust, Byrne responded: “if [the Jews’] dominant thoughts and feelings were in alignment with the energy of fear, separation, powerlessness and having no control over outside circumstances, then that is what they attracted.” Byrne would rather blame victims for everything bad that happens to them instead of admitting that there are things in her world that she can’t control. The author of the post avoided blaming me directly for my disability, when I tried to confront her moderately politely about it, but she didn’t deny that she thinks my disability might be my own fault, either. That’s insulting, and degrading, and dehumanizing.

Starhawk had a good description in one of her books – I think Truth or Dare, but I haven’t been able to find it lately – about how the idea that “we create our own reality” in the puerile sense adopted by this author is really only true for people who have incredible amounts of privilege already. People who are generally upper middle class, have more racial privilege, cissexual, able-bodied, and so on, those sorts of people can maintain the illusion that they create their own reality, because they do have a tremendous ability to get the world to do what they want. But that ability doesn’t come from their minds. It comes from their status, which isn’t something everybody has. Ask a subsistence-level farmer if she can create her reality – she’ll look at you as if you’ve lost your mind, or she’ll say, sure, she can, as long as that reality involves working incredibly hard just to keep her family fed, as long as there are no weather upheavals or local wars.

But what the author of this post, like Byrne, is peddling isn’t just insulting to me and people like me. It can be actively dangerous. She’s standing on the roof of a tall building and insisting that she’s keeping herself up so high by flapping her arms. She says that she wants to empower me, so that I too can flap my arms and rise to the same heights. But what she actually gives an example of in her post is an instance where she says that she didn’t let little things like possibly not having a place to live discourage her: “We gave our thirty-day notice without even having a place lined up.” That’s not a message of empowerment, and it’s not about avoiding discouragement. That’s telling people that they should be reckless and believe that everything will come out all right. It also actively discourages them from going out and finding the tools they need to actually be empowered. It’s like her standing on the roof and flapping her arms, and then telling someone that the fact she doesn’t fall is proof that if the other person walks off his roof and flaps his arms too, he won’t fall either. Why should he look for a ladder to climb one floor higher to where you are? Just “free your mind!”

Yes, your attitude and perceptions make a difference, and can even make the difference between success and failure. But having a positive attitude isn’t an adequate substitute for taking basic responsibility for your own life, within the limits you encounter. It’s also not grounds to blame people for bad things that have happened to them or for the limits or burdens they encounter. Sorry, lady: The Matrix was cool, but it was just a movie. I feel sorry for how bad it’s going to hurt when the ground comes up and hits you one of these days.

Element Associations: an exercise

I’ve been reading some of Mary K. Greer’s excellent books on Tarot lately. One of my favorite things about Greer’s books is that she includes lots of interactive exercises for the reader. This can make just flipping through the books seem a bit flat and boring, but once I actually engage with the exercises and work through the books, actively reflecting on the concepts being introduced, I find that I’ve gained far more skill than I would have gained just by reading an author’s opinions on a topic. In that spirit, here is an exercise of my own to help you determine how you relate to the four classical Elements:

This can be done on a single sheet of paper, but it’s a little easier if you use four sheets of lined paper, one for each Element. Write the name of one Element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at the top of the sheet. Then set a timer for a short period, 30 seconds to a minute, and brainstorm words you associate with that Element. These can be nature words, sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, emotional or psychological qualities, verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, whatever comes to mind. Whenever you’re stymied, come back to the name of the Element at the top of the page. Write one on each line, and if you finish the page, start a second column. Repeat, with the same amount of time, for each Element.

As you line up your four pieces of paper side-by-side, how do your lists compare? Is one noticeably longer? Shorter? Are they all about the same? Did you become more adept at brainstorming as you got used to it, so that each list is a little longer?

Now go through your lists and note how each item makes you feel: for terms with positive associations, put a plus sign, and for terms with negative associations, a minus sign. Some things will be neutral, but don’t take too long on each one, and don’t worry about how you “ought” to feel about a particular association; go with your gut instinct. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, “waves” might be a negative one, whereas for a surfer who paddled as soon as he could walk, it could be very positive. The point is to get at what you feel with each term.

Now reassess your lists in terms of how many pluses and minuses are on each. Is one of them longer, but full of minuses? Is your longest list mostly positive? What about the shortest? Which list is most nearly equal in terms of pluses and minuses?

Each of us has personal associations with the Elements. These can be informed by theoretical approaches that give us long lists of correspondences based on abstract theory, but our personal experiences can override correspondences, and can particularly give emotional color to how we perceive an element. Personally, I had a hard time getting in touch with Air, because I associated my experiences of it with wind, and especially cold wind, which I find very painful. This aversion to my mental and emotional visualization of Air made it hard for me to appreciate the Element’s positive qualities, and hard to do strong invocations, which led to difficulty balancing my approach to ritual and magic.

Brainstorming or free-associating can be both a tool for approaching a concept and a measure of how comfortable we are with it. When asked to brainstorm on a topic we feel comfortable with, the associations flow freely, giving us long lists, while ideas we have tended to shy away from, even unconsciously, leave us grasping for words just out of reach. True, sometimes we’ll have long lists of reasons we don’t like a particular thing. (I have plenty of associations with, say, spiders, but they’re all emotionally negative!) Rating the emotional appeal of each term can give you insight into why a particular list is shorter or longer, and whether that has to do with your internal filters, preferences, or preconceived notions that push you into greater or lesser affinity with a given Element.

Take a look, also, at how each list is slanted towards internal (emotional or psychological) associations and external (nature words, actions), and which words are abstract and which concrete. An Element with which you are uncomfortable might be one that you relate to mostly in the abstract. This can be either a symptom or a cause; either way, it means you might benefit from some additional interaction with that Element, especially in concrete, experiential ways that can help you form positive associations. For me, remembering a time with positive emotions that I was suddenly struck by the scent of pine resin baked out of the trees around me by a warm spring sun helped me put my relationship with Air on a whole different footing.

If you feel like this exercise shows you areas you could work on, try doing additional brainstorming around the Element that gave you the shortest list, and also the one with the most minuses on it, if those were different. Search your own memories for better associations you can form: as in my example, a good place to start is with an experience in nature that you enjoyed and that is in some way related to the Element. Brainstorm words to describe the experience, both external and internal. If you can’t find a positive experience, see if you can imagine one, or better yet, make it happen. Sensory memories with powerful emotional connections can make lasting impressions, so if you need to, make a date to do something you know you’ll enjoy, and maybe let the Element change your impression of it.

This exercise is one you can repeat, so keep some notes about it in your journal. You and the Elements just might surprise each other as your relationships grow and change.

Magic and headology

A friend loaned me a few books by Terry Pratchett over the weekend, and I have joyfully immersed myself in the Discworld. Perhaps one of the things most interesting to me is Granny Weatherwax’s approach to using – and not using – magic. Granny gets done most of what she accomplishes by use of “headology,” which might be poorly summarized as getting inside people’s heads to get them to do work towards whatever her goal is. Headology and Granny are both relentlessly pragmatic: in Witches Abroad, she spends a good bit of time explaining and demonstrating how forcing happy endings on people is a bad idea, as well as generally impossible. In Maskerade, the difference between headology and psychiatry is summarized as follows:

A psychiatrist, dealing with a man who fears he is being followed by a large and terrible monster, will endeavor to convince him that monsters don’t exist. Granny Weatherwax would simply give him a chair to stand on and a very heavy stick. (Maskerade, 325)

Contemplating this, I was struck by an article discussing how insight gained in psychiatric therapy doesn’t necessarily make people happy. A large part of of the problem is that insight doesn’t equate to action. Another part, as the article discusses, is that sometimes insight is correct: depressed people can have a quite keen grasp of reality, especially the more negative parts of it. Insight alone isn’t enough. And that’s where therapy sometimes comes up short. The therapist can’t take action to change somebody else’s life; only the person living the life can.

I was also reminded of a description in Amber K’s Heart of Tarot about how to deal with a particular kind of querent. The book teaches a kind of Tarot reading based on principles of gestalt psychology; the point is that the Tarot is a tool to help the querent gain insight, not necessarily a supernatural means of fortunetelling. Amber describes some categories of querents that may cause a professional reader trouble, including the querent who cheerfully does the entire reading herself. With the slightest prompting, she can explain the exact psychological features and issues being reflected in the cards, and possibly even analyze the situation and possible courses of action quite clearly. Amber suggests that the professional Tarot reader who encounters this kind of querent simply sit back, let the querent get on with it, and gratefully accept payment for something much easier than the usual process of engaging in reading as a psychological reflection.

And for Tarot, Amber K is right. The professional Tarot reader isn’t in a position to help the querent make those kinds of choices. In particular, since the professional reader probably doesn’t have a larger relationship with the querent, or a grasp of the context and real situation of the querent’s life, it could be extremely dangerous to make explicit suggestions or advocate for one course of action. But as Witches, when we work for or with others, we want to do more than gain insight. We want to work towards a purpose, to accomplish a goal. We want to do something.

This puts us in a situation much more akin to the therapist: therapists want to help the person get better, and so once they have established a sufficient relationship and grasp of the situation, they generally do work towards that goal, and try to help the person do their own work towards the goal. When we, as Witches, take on that role, there’s a lot of danger involved because we haven’t had the kind of professional training that psychologists and psychiatrists have had. We don’t necessarily have a mentoring system that’s supported us through difficult encounters, or a professional body willing to take away our credentials if we do something incredibly stupid and unethical. So we try to be careful, especially when we put resources out there for others to use – in publishing a ritual, say, where we don’t know anything about the real situations of people who might use it. We try to do our best.

But then again, we have an edge on therapists in a different way. We can use headology, and not just psychiatry. Sometimes it’s more important to get out of our psyches and actually do something. We have to be damned careful about it, of course, to make sure that we’re not giving a chair and a very heavy stick to someone with dementia who can’t tell her son from the monster teakettle that’s been chasing her around, but sometimes we can do magic. Sometimes, magic is what’s needed to bridge that gap between having the insight and acting on it; sometimes magic is what’s needed to change that insight, or to counterbalance it. Sometimes, it really is magic.

I get very irritated when skeptics insist that magic is nothing more than trickery or self-applied psychology. (Well, if you think you’re going to be luckier, then your self-confidence can make you do better, and you’ll interpret that as luck. But we, out here in the grown-up world, know that there’s actually no luck and no magic and no monsters involved. *superior sniff*) But I like Starhawk’s discussion of magic as deep, non-deterministic psychology. And I think that Granny Weatherwax’s headology, dancing as it does across the possibly blurry boundary between magic and mental or psychological work, is a good example of why magic is about psyches, yes, but it’s also about so much more. Reducing magic, and Wicca, to nothing more than a way of ritualizing Jungian analysis is a painful oversimplification. But ignoring the importance of the psyche in magic is equally superficial and simplistic, and possibly even less effective. I, for one, want to work with all the tools at my disposal. Headology for me!

Witches’ Pyramid and responding to violence

The shooting yesterday in Arizona that left multiple people dead, including a federal judge and a child, and critically injured a Representative, was an abhorrent act. As I struggle to shape my response, I found myself turning to a teaching tool often called the Witches’ Pyramid. In short, it is the saying that the four duties or powers of the Witch are “to know, to will, to dare, and to be silent.” In practice, each of those acts is associated with the characteristics of one of the four Elements, and together they form a way to make sure our practices are balanced and responsible. The Witches’ Pyramid has a lot to offer on how we can and ought to respond to this situation.

To Know: Obviously, we don’t know yet all the relevant facts about the situation; early reports were confused, including some saying that Rep. Giffords was killed. The 24-hour news cycle is going to work already with possible details on the background of the shooter and his motivations. The Element of Air and the duty and power of knowing mean that we should not jump to conclusions and should seek to gather all the facts possible. As we do speak – spreading our own knowledge about what happened – we should do so responsibly. That responsibility includes both not saying unfounded things and the responsibility to speak about this. What then should we say?

To Will: One immediate response is to keep those who are injured and the families of the dead in our prayers, possibly including sending healing energy to them. This is a reasonable response, and the Element of Fire certainly includes lighting candles, but that’s not all we should do. Concentrating on our feelings of regret and on our positive wishes for those affected gives us the emotional satisfaction of a deeply-felt response, and we should certainly acknowledge our grief and shock and use them positively. But channeling our deep feelings into only pathos can easily turn into a superficial bathos rather than a real act of will. Fire is also the Element of transformation. When I light a candle for this matter, an answering spark is kindled within myself. Feeding that spark only with the immediate emotion ensures that it will soon gutter and fade. But feeding it with the knowledge – as we continue to learn – of what happened, of the sources and the reasons behind this act, can light a fire that has the potential to transform more than just my immediate feelings. How then do we use that will?

To Dare: We dare to do more than just listen to the news and light a candle in response. We dare to let the knowledge and the spark of our will move us to more emotion than can be soothed with an immediate mourning. We dare to take our response into the realm of Water, into our relationships, and act on it. We talk about what we know: about how violent rhetoric sets the stage for violent acts; about how untreated mental illness afflicts not just individuals but societies; about how easy access to means of violence increases the damage done when other safeguards fail. We look for ways to transform those problems and we dare to put our will to work shaping the world into a better form.

To Be Silent: This is the hardest part of the Witches’ Pyramid, especially in this situation. Here it does not mean that we work in secrecy, that we don’t “advertise” our actions. It means that we take time to listen, to observe, and to reflect on the situation and our actions before we begin the cycle again. In the year, Winter, the season of Earth, is a prelude to Spring, the season of Air. Witches work in cycles, with cycles of nature. Earth reminds us to prepare to listen so that we can know, so we can will, so we can dare – again and again and again. Our response to the shooting should not end in a week, or a month, or a year. Our response reverberates down the continuing cycles as we constantly work to shape ourselves and our world. If we work to limit violent rhetoric, but the result is a chill on certain kinds of free speech, then we may have to decide we’ve gone too far. If we work to assist mentally ill individuals, but end up creating more problems for people who see the world differently than we do, we have to realize that outcome, respect it, and change course.

Only with all the parts of this cycle working together can we make a difference. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

Seasons shifting, 14 Nov

I took a walk on Teddy Roosevelt Island again today. The weather is amazing here; it’s in the mid-60s, very comfortable with just a t-shirt on, and some people were even enjoying shorts. Still, I can tell that it’s getting later in the fall not just by the change of the angle of the light, but by the way the leaves aren’t quite as thick on the trail as they were a month ago. They’re getting swept aside by feet and paws and wind, and they’re breaking down until just the feathery ribs and veins are left. The constant crunch underfoot is dying away. Still, there’s plenty of green on the island, and I wonder if that’s because of the relatively mild weather so far or something else. In the last week, the big beech trees on the eastern side have gone from green to copper leaves, and they’ll be falling soon. I’m left enjoying the weather but also worrying if t-shirt weather in mid-November is making toxins stronger. And I wondered if I’ll still live in DC a year from now, and if not, where I’ll be. And…

And then, out of nowhere, the Horned Lord showed up in the form of a four-pointed whitetail buck, calmly picking his way along the marshy edge.

For the rest of my walk, I treasured that sight, and enjoyed the weather and the way the sycamores are gradually dropping their leaves to show their white-grey dappled branches along the shore. I made my way home again, where I work on conserving energy, and making the most of every day, and somehow, my spirits are uplifted enough to get me through.

Double review and tribute, Isaac Bonewits, Real Magic and Real Energy, Part II

If I went a little overboard on detail describing the contents of Real Magic, it’s because I think that most readers won’t really want to buy it; they’ll want to get Real Energy and know a bit about how Bonewits’ theories and approaches varied and developed over the course of his life. So this part will contain a little less summary and a little more comparison and contrast. I do think Real Energy is a worthy successor to Real Magic and is in fact a better book and a much better text for those interested in magic or energy of any kind.

The major way in which Real Energy is better than Real Magic is that Phaedra and Isaac together take an entirely different approach to situating their discussion with respect to what non-magicians think, know, and believe. First of all, I have to give this book credit: they have “Physics Police” who have not only cooperated with the authors to make sure the authors don’t say anything ridiculous when trying to explain difficult concepts in modern physics, but also contribute their own stories about how physicists can be magic users and vice versa, without compromising anyone’s scientific, religious, or ethical standards. In fact, the Bonewitses take a much more agnostic tone towards the “reality” of the metaphysical phenomena they seek to catalog and describe. Isaac has an appendix in which he presents an impassioned argument against “scientism,” that is, making science into a religion in which only the material and materially explainable has any reality or validity. And the Bonewitses do raise the possibility that “…our ancestors weren’t ignorant fools after all, but merely the victims of insufficiently sophisticated measuring devices. Or not.” (59)

The emphasis here is that although the Bonewitses are as interested as anyone in understanding the scientific roots of metaphysical energy and its uses, they are sticking firmly to Bonewits’ Law of Pragmatism. If it works, even through a placebo effect, or in some way that we don’t understand, then it’s useful, and useful is good enough. Useful is “true enough” for certain situations, in effect. This is a refreshing view because it invites scientific investigation but does not tie its value to the results; magic users will go on using magic whether it is validated by double-blind trials or not, and that actually opens us up to do better science than if we felt we had to get results, at any cost. At the same time, it places sufficient value on science that a superficial understanding isn’t allowed to cover up ignorance; no one in this book is asserting that quantum mechanics says we make our own realities just by thinking about them, or anything like that. QM isn’t a substitute for fairy dust, and those who respect both science and magic can do a better job of either, or both, than someone determined to mix the two, the way that the younger Isaac Bonewits came across in Real Magic.

The intro also contains a lovely overview of metaphysical terminology from around the world going back thousands of years; it’s valuable, to the self-respecting magic user, to know that chakras originate from a different system than the idea of the etheric plane, and that neither of them is the inspiration for acupuncture or Qi Gong, for example. A spoonful of history makes reasonable eclecticism possible, even if it doesn’t always go down well, and the Bonewitses have a great handle on the kind of cultural and situational awareness that makes eclectic discussion a skillful art rather than collage done by a color-blind five-year-old high on rubber cement. And a lot of this book is a collage, a primer on metaphysical systems that encourages the reader to draw her own conclusions about what needs further investigation, and whether there are underlying or overarching coherences between systems.

The book also covers Bonewits’ Laws of Magic, and discusses the difference between thaumaturgy and theurgy. The rest is divided into two parts, one on energies that come from the environment and the other on energies that come from people and spirits. Both Western and Eastern approaches to energy are included; one of the best exercises – yes, there are exercises! – is making a ball of qi. The exercises are few and far between, but carefully chosen and skilfully written. The discussion of psychic talents includes Isaac Bonewits’ theory of the antipsi powers, including ones like catapsi, which is best described by the metaphor of broadcasting static; it interferes with the conduct of any and all other psi powers. Whether or not one thinks parapsychology has had any success in proving psi theories to a scientific standard, the overview is fascinating reading and raises interesting possibilities. Yes, Virginia, crystals are covered, as are ghosts, feng shui, and auras, in addition to more standard Western fare like lunar and solar cycles and the four classical elements.

The penultimate chapter describes ways to raise energy. This chapter is a fantastic overview, with ideas to get would-be energy workers started, but also with descriptions of the pros and cons of each method, and necessary cautions. Finally, the concluding chapter has a summary in chart form of the authors’ current views on the many types of energy discussed in the book. The Bonewitses sum up by reiterating that so much is unknown that it’s most important to keep learning, keep studying, and keep increasing our understanding. They speculate that dark energy/dark matter will be found to be related to some of the topics they discuss, but they emphasize that it’s just “where we’re placing our bets.”

Where I’m placing my bet is that this book is worth getting for anyone in the magical community. For beginners, it’s the perfect introduction. For experienced people, it’s a worthwhile brush-up, one that may encourage you to expand your thinking and even reconsider your relationship with physics. Isaac’s thinking clearly developed over the intervening 30-odd years, and that maturity makes this work a much more valuable contribution than his initial, impassioned, and impractical treatise. Finally, a tribute is in order: Isaac’s work for our community is invaluable, and some of it is summed up in this readable little gem that lets readers take advantage of his years of experience. For all you did, Isaac, thank you.