Imbolc – Sacred Inspiration

To continue my series on the sacred within Wicca, I would like to concentrate on learning to cultivate a connection with the divine, or sacred inspiration. Imbolc is a time of celebrating Brigid, and one of her specialties is inspiration, especially the inspiration that gives voice to poetry. I am not a good enough poet to begin to express the beauty of her inspiration, but I would like to try my meager hand at encouraging you to try experiencing divine inspiration yourself.

Many cultures have seen inspiration as something that comes from the divine; in some Hellenistic cultures it would be the Muses who brought artistic or scholarly inspiration, and that role has come down to us today in our language, although usually diminished in sense. Being a muse today is often seen as a passive role, while the original sense, and the kind of inspiration I want to discuss here, is very much a function of active engagement on divinity’s part.

There are different ways to experience different degrees of inspiration. Here I am not talking about full-blown possession, but rather something more gentle (which can shade into possession if you learn that style of work), more about a sensed connection with the divine which leads to new information, ideas, or emotions arising within you.

In Judy Harrow’s essential book Spiritual Mentoring, she names the divine collectively as the Entheoi, meaning the deities who are within us. This is a lovely revisioning that emphasizes the immanent nature of deity rather than the transcendent, and it normalizes the connection with the divine, emphasizing that the divine is present within each of us, something we only have to become aware of rather than create from scratch.

Even with those features in mind, though, it can still be difficult to access this kind of awareness; just because the divine is within us doesn’t mean it’s automatically easy to talk with them, because they are still vastly different from us. Think – and feel if you can – how different our awareness is than that of a wild animal, or a plant, especially a long-lived one like a tree. If we are so different from these living beings with whom we share our form of being, then how much more different must be the metaphysical beings we know as the deities? They are as far away from us as we are from the sun and the Moon, yet as close as our own heartbeat, our own breath.

That difference in being but closeness in spirit is why I refer to the relationship that leads to sacred inspiration as a connection that needs to be cultivated, because it is through practice and repeated attention – which, after all, is what we really mean by devotion – that this connection or mode of awareness becomes stronger and more reliable.

Cultivating a connection which will support inspiration requires a particular kind of devotion, though, because this is not the aggressive devotion of an athlete constantly pushing herself harder; nor is it an empty passivity that negates the self; this is a devotion very much like wooing a beloved, with regular attention and an open curiosity that delights in the presence of another.

I learned to cultivate this through trance work first; for me, that was a safer place to have these beyond-normal experiences; the real wonder for me is when we create the conditions to let that awareness flourish while maintaining connection with the outside world so that our different types of awareness can inspire and augment each other.

I believe that one of the highest goals of ritual and the work we do in general is to put people in touch with the sacred more directly, helping each and every person who wishes to do so to open that connection a little bit wider, helping them learn to use it on a regular basis.

The first place to start building this connection is usually with your primary deities – your matron or patron. And having an existing relationship with your matron or patron makes this whole process much easier, because you have someone to guide you, someone you trust, someone you know has your best interests at heart, which makes it much easier to accept the kind of closeness that is necessary for successful inspiration to be communicated.

The more I study, and the more I practice, the more I come to the conclusion that Wicca is a religion of relationship, and the relationship with the divine is one of the most beautiful parts. So once again, begin with relationship, begin with devotion. Begin with the simple act of being present. Be present for yourself, and then expand your awareness to begin to be present for those others who are so near and yet so different, whose wisdom we crave and whose closeness we cultivate.

May your presence be blessed with the awareness of their presence.

Yule – Element of Earth

There is a lovely phrase that I have incorporated in my devotions: that the divine is the “source and ground” of all that is. I think Yule and the season of the Element of Earth are the perfect time to contemplate this perspective, the importance of the ground itself.

In Wicca, our practice of grounding and centering acknowledges and makes use of our intimate connection with the earth as an aspect of the divine. The metaphor of grounding draws partially on an image of electricity, in terms of grounding as removing excessive energy, but much more often the imagery used in actual visualizations is that of living things, plants or trees, making grounding more of an exchange, a chance to both release what is no longer needed and an opportunity to draw in the nutrients that are needed to refresh your own organism.

This is the sense in which I understand the idea of “source and ground,” meaning that the Earth, the planet, is the source of our physical being, and it is what we ground into throughout our lives, and it is what our physical parts return to when our lives are ended. Thus the Element of Earth, although it is the most stable and least active of all Elements, is perhaps the mother of all the Elements, as the planet is the embodiment of our experiences of all of them together.

In Wicca, when we cast circles, we start from the north, the direction of Earth, and we return there to complete the circle. Many Wiccans place their altars facing north, seeing it as appropriate because that is the direction of darkness and mystery, and thus our altars face into the mysteries, the unseen, the place of starlight vision that we need to see beyond (or within) the everyday realities around us. And although we speak to the East first when calling the Elements, we end with the North, always returning to our ground, our source of being in this embodied existence.

As I wrote in the Story of Sif, even the wonders that we know of come from the ground, ultimately, because this is a physical existence, where the physical defines and, yes, delimits the possible. It is up to us to discover and enjoy the wonders possible within those limits. Wicca is not a religion that seeks transcendence or escape from reality above all other things; there is no liberation from the physical world within Wicca, nor a promise of escape into a better, easier paradigm. Instead there is the promise of the transcendent that emerges within the world as we discover it to be, and especially within the world as we can shape it to be more full of love, more full of beauty, and more full of meaning.

In Tarot, the Element of Earth is represented in the suit of coins, also called disks or pentacles in some decks. This suit has to do with the physical, and yes, it has to do with money, and all the things related to money, especially work and possessions. But I don’t think the Tarot has to represent or assume a capitalist relationship with the world; I think it can represent these things as simply energy embodied, and thus it can represent a relationship of love and of exchange, the natural give and take, within the context of that love.

May this Yule be a time for you and yours to connect to your source and ground and face the return of the light refreshed.

Samhain – Sacred Grief

Grief is work. If you don’t know that, then your experience of grieving has been very different from mine. Grief is hard work, as hard as lifting a thousand pounds of emptiness, over and over again, with every breath, every moment of every day.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that grieving is a process; you may even have heard of the famous five stages of grief that Kubler-Ross outlined so brilliantly. But many popularizations reduce this to a simple linear structure, as if we can simply chart our movement through the stages and then know that we are finished with each one. That is a laughably silly – or perhaps lamentably silly – oversimplification of one of the deepest things human beings experience.

Yes, grieving is a process, and it is one that we go through many times over. Even simple choices can trigger a bout of grieving for the alternatives now forever closed off. I would be hard-pressed to name a point in my life that was utterly free from the work of grieving, even if those griefs were often of the smaller, everyday variety.

I have been thinking about grief a lot because it has been a big part of my own work this year. Beginning with the loss of my mother, so many transitions came up so quickly that it was almost overwhelming. I was doing fairly well with it all until we moved, and then I fell apart. Even though that last upheaval was for good reasons and with a good outcome, the separation from my familiar places and familiar faces was just one more thing to grieve, and I couldn’t take it.

So I have been acutely aware of the way that grief is hard work this year. At times it has been more than I could bear, and I had to struggle just to endure, to do the simple, horribly difficult work of breathing and eating and sleeping with the weight of loss all around me and within me. Yes, it gradually lessens over time, until it becomes merely as hard as physical labor, merely grueling and exhausting. Now, a year later, it is part of my everyday work, a fact of life, a part of my practice.

This led me to thinking about how we could make this a sacred kind of work instead of a bare necessity? As I said at Mabon, I don’t flee the world or my experiences of it. I am called as a Witch to dive deeper into them, to commit myself fully to this life and this work, as it evolves and changes, both the deep joy and the deep grief that are part of the human experience.

So how does this become part of our practice? One of my thoughts is that maybe we can try practicing grieving in a way similar to that of practicing gratitude. I’m not talking about putting on a false front of grief; if you’re not experiencing grief, then you can give thanks for that, and maybe you can just sit with those who are, being a witness for them. You don’t have to try to experience it yourself – it will come to you in its own time, and then you will know that grief is hard work. And if you are blessed, you will have others willing to witness it and maybe to do it with you.

For the past 30 days on Facebook I have been putting this into practice by basically inviting people to grieve with me, to engage in small moments of remembrance. Some of them have generated deep stories, and I’m sure many more moments of deep reflection have occurred without being shared, as was best for the person experiencing them. After this practice, I am more convinced than ever that this is valuable work because of the way it goes against the grain of the overculture, which doesn’t really know what to do with grief. Someone said to me recently that following a bereavement she grieved “far beyond what was socially acceptable.” That says to me that she needed that grieving and society simply didn’t know what to do with it.

As a result, I ask that we in Wicca and Paganism try to include grieving in our practice, as part of making better ways to work with grief, to make space for it, and to acknowledge the hard work that it is. We have special kinds of awareness to bring to this work, because instead of falling into the simplicity of viewing grief as a linear process, we bring the wisdom of our circles and cycles to bear, and we can make it part of our work at this time of year to grieve again our own losses, as much as we need to, and to grieve with those who are grieving fresh losses – making space, making time, and being willing to dedicate the energy necessary to doing the work of grieving.

Grief is hard work. Let’s do it together. Let’s make it part of our practice.

Mabon – Element of Water

Continuing the series I started a few years ago, I’d like to spend time this Mabon focusing on the Element of Water. As we continue to travel around the Wheel of the Year, we have come to the season of autumn and the western direction, both of which are associated with Water in my system of correspondences.

Water is represented in the Tarot by the suit of Cups, which is associated with emotions and relationships. Anything having to do with feelings, both internal and external, is in the domain of Water. These cards represent a multiplicity of emotions, from the joy of love to the nostalgia of childhood and also the ennui of depression and the ambivalence of setting out on a new path. In trying to represent such a wide range of emotional states, the Cups are both inviting and challenging cards to work with.

This makes them – and the whole metaphor of Water – a good place for reflection. Water itself is reflective, but not always perfectly so, and it is most reflective when it is still. But at the same time, water, like our emotional state, is seldom still, and that’s a good thing, because motion prevents stagnation with both water and emotions. Reflection is important, but it’s easy to get caught up in that reflection, like Narcissus, and stay caught there. The way to stay healthy is to balance the right amount of movement and stillness together.

At this time of the equinox, we like to think about balance, and it’s easy to get caught up in thinking of that balance as a single point, the perfect moment of equality, as if that were a stable thing. But it’s not; even if that moment of balance happens for a second, it’s because of the motion around it, through that moment, which makes the balancing possible. We see the same thing in yoga, where in even the stillest of balancing postures constant tiny movements are happening to keep the balance going in a dynamic fashion.

Water teaches us that every balance is a dynamic situation, and that we are always in motion, just as water is always moving under the pull of the moon. We are always changing, and that’s essential to us remaining healthy, just as moving water remains a healthy part of a larger system, while still water soon grows stagnant.

Thus our reflections too are constantly changing. Our own self-image has to shift and ripple to absorb the changes that are constantly moving us and our relationships. Similarly, all our relationships have a dynamic component; the relationship itself is a living thing, always changing, in small ways and big ones. This too is part of remaining healthy, because a relationship cut off from changes, isolated from adapting to the living situations of the participants, will soon react as any living thing does without water: it withers and dies.

Seen from another perspective, though, death is just another one of the changes that we encounter, and so it deserves our respect as part of the dynamic balance of life. In this sunset season of the year, we become aware that no matter how much love we pour into the world, the consequence of all things changing is that eventually all things will pass away. Even those things that seem “set in stone” are worn away by the movement of water over time.

This awareness that change is the only constant leads to different kinds of attitudes. Some people embrace that knowledge to such a degree that they become detached from the vicissitudes of everyday life, and they reckon this a great gift, so that pain and joy alike become distant and life as a whole becomes less turbulent. I do not follow that path. I prefer to remain immersed in the ups and downs of life’s white water. The knowledge that the only balance is dynamic helps me cope with both the peaks and the troughs; I savor the sweetness of the good times all the more because I know they will end, and I console myself during the down times with an awareness that they too are fleeting, though perhaps never as quickly as we would wish. Still, the knowledge of variation helps me ride the waves as they come, moving with the flow of life’s waters.

When we get out of balance – because we will, we all will, it will always happen – the knowledge that change is the only constant helps us adapt and move on, flowing with the movement around us to try to find a new dynamic balance, one that we can maintain for a while longer. Still, that sense that things are passing away, even if we know that something new is coming, is one of the most difficult feelings we deal with. We will talk about that more at Samhain.

So I leave you with this idea: water is an apt metaphor not only for our relationships but for so much of our changeable lives and how we have to learn to cope with them. Tears of joy and tears of sorrow have more in common than we like to think. Embrace the moment of equinox, my dears, and we will turn our faces to Samhain soon enough.

Lunasa – Sacred Work

The name of this festival is often written as Lughnasadh, but from now on I’m going to use the modernized Irish spelling: Lunasa. This rendering gives a better impression of how to pronounce it and is easier to remember and write.

Lunasa represents the beginning of the harvest season. It is often described as the grain harvest, but local experiences will vary based on ecology, climate, and weather. Whatever the precise agricultural situation is, Lunasa marks the turning of the year towards autumn. We’re still in the heat, but we know the season will change, and it’s time to think about how to deal with that future and the coming winter.

Harvest festivals have a long history in a huge variety of cultures. Having enough food is a good thing to celebrate, and it’s downright fun. Having enough to get through the next season and be able to make both beer and bread is even better, and definitely deserves a party. But in this day and age few of us harvest any kind of food with our own hands, and although gardens are growing in popularity, only a tiny proportion of us harvest the kind of bounty that provides security through the cold months. I think one result is that we tend to focus on the mystical meanings of bread and life while ignoring the seemingly mundane but fundamentally necessary part of the harvest: work.

Harvesting historically has been hard, sustained physical labor which was utterly vital to the survival of not just the laborers themselves but also everyone they knew and maybe more. Yes, harvest festivals are a way to celebrate the results of that work, but the more I think about it, the more I think that those festivals were originally meant to honor the work itself as well. The amount of work accomplished – how much of the grain was brought in before the onset of the ever-uncertain autumn rains – made a discernable difference to everyone’s lives. Getting that work done, and done quickly and well, was vitally important. The more I think about it, I think festivals weren’t just honoring the person of John Barleycorn but the people who brought him in.

After all, work doesn’t exist without workers. In a harvest festival, the community comes together to celebrate; maybe they were celebrating each other as much as the goodness on the table. Since we do talk about the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth, including how they are seen in food, it’s easy to imagine – and to romanticize – harvesting as a kind of sacred work, especially because most of us don’t have to do it.

We need to face the facts, though: in the US, a tremendous amount of food is harvested by workers who have little to no legal protection and suffer despicable labor abuses as a result. Such a high proportion of them are undocumented immigrants that when some southern states implemented harsh anti-immigrant laws, farmers were unable to find enough workers and food literally rotted in the fields. Workers who do find jobs are subject to being paid a pittance for work performed in totally unsupervised conditions. Clearly, we are not treating this harvesting work as sacred.
If we want to honor a sacred understanding of Lunasa, it is imperative that we acknowledge this problem and begin to engage with it. I’m not going to begin to attempt to speak to the experiences of farm workers; they are an extremely diverse group of people with equally diverse experiences and opinions. But we can and should think about how to treat their work as sacred – and I mean a lot more than simply murmuring a prayer before eating.

In experiences closer to my own, I know that even without outright abuses, there are plenty of problems. Today’s complex economy creates the opportunity for abusing farm workers because their work is technically “unskilled,” while the diversified, stratified, post-industrial service economy tends to reserve more pay for things that take more skill or education, drawing all but the very least privileged away from physical labor. Even though it’s more lucrative, though, I venture that many of us would not instinctively describe the work of a department store sales associate or cellular billing data analyst as sacred.

Perhaps that’s why we like to romanticize the work of the harvest; it gives us a role, even if only a supporting one, in the myth of John Barleycorn. It lets us know where we belong in the sacred story at a time when we crave meaningful work done for its own sake. But even in the most basic subsistence farming, not everyone in a community goes out to reap and bind grain in the fields. A truly communal festival should include everyone.

All of this leads me to ask: what is work?

When I want to talk about sacred work, it’s not acceptable to define work purely by economics; it’s not just something we do that makes money. There is work that leaves us utterly numb but puts food on the table – and harvesting can fall into that category – and there is work that invigorates us, that aligns with our most important goals and does real good in the world, but pays no money at all. With millions of people searching for jobs that don’t exist, many more millions working at jobs that undervalue their efforts, we cannot rely on a dysfunctional economy rife with inequality to indicate what is or is not valuable work.

So what is it that we can honor as sacred which reflects the values of Wicca and Paganism being acted out in the world?

More than anything else, my understanding of Wicca means living in relationship. We are doing sacred work when we honor our relationships with our work, when we reaffirm and renew relationships with our work.

This includes even actions that aren’t done directly for another person. I was mulling over this topic while going about some of the domestic tasks of everyday life. Scooping the litterbox seems like the very definition of what is not sacred. But when I reflected on it, I found that my understanding of the task makes a difference. When I do chores because I “have to,” or because I feel guilty about not doing them, they seem utterly mundane, and they even feel like something that takes up time I wish I could use to do this mythical sacred work.

My mind kept returning to a line from the Charge of the Goddess that I focused on for Beltane:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

I can’t say that scooping the litterbox becomes an act of pleasure, but it can be an act of love: love for my cats, yes, but also love for my spouse and myself so that we can enjoy the pleasure of the cats’ companionship in a clean and pleasant environment.

If I can find a nugget – however small – of love and pleasure in a piece of drudgery, how much more can be found in the work of an artist whose relationships with his medium, with his muse, with the world in general, are manifested in a creative way? Although she may not seem to be relating to another person, she can be living in relationship and honoring those relationships as part of her sacred work.

This shifting of awareness or intent is not going to heal our fractured world of work with the wave of an imaginary magic wand. It’s not going to redeem the drudgery of a job done solely for economic reasons, and it certainly won’t repair the harm done by inequality and abuse. But it might point the way towards how we can change the world and ourselves, teaching us to honor workers and their work, in their myriad forms.

Paganism today is often thought of as an “alternative” form of spirituality, and this label has some truth to it. I hope that Paganism isn’t just an alternative but that it helps us create alternatives. For people whose practice is earth-centered but live in an urban environment, Paganism can help them recognize the coexistence of the “natural” and the human environements and also encourage them to move their lives in more sustainable directions. Perhaps there are alternatives to be found here as well.

Perhaps we can create an alternative vision of work that doesn’t deny the realities of post-industrial capitalism and consumerism in the “First World” today, but helps us create meaningful actions, responses, and relationships. We can examine our experiences to find and make more opportunities for meaningful, even sacred, work for ourselves. And we should certainly work to change our society to one where everyone has those opportunities: where no one is hungry, or homeless, or marginalized. Especially the people who do the sacred work of harvesting.

Finally, this alternative vision calls on us to do a particular kind of sacred work: sharing. This is, deep down, one of the fundamental ways to work in relationship. If we are looking for sacred work, then sharing is the act of grace that blesses what we have done by confirming its value for and with others. It makes the work sacred – and that is the real meaning of sacrifice.

Litha – Element of Fire

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Wheel of the Year. This was originally written in 2012.

On Wednesday near 1pm as I darted from one air-conditioned venue to another, I took just a moment to acknowledge the sun standing at its zenith, dead south, pouring out heat of such intensity that even being outside for a few minutes was difficult. In the evening, I stood on the roof of my building and watched the sun set, appreciating the temperatures that were still hot but seemed tremendously cooler by comparison. The Element of Fire had made its presence known on the summer solstice.

This is the next solar festival, or quarter day, in the Wiccan calendar, and in keeping with my theme for this time around the Wheel of the Year, I want to explore the Element of Fire, its connections with the summer solstice, or Litha, as it is called in Wicca, and the symbolic representations of fire used in Wiccan ritual and in Tarot. [1]

On the whole, the correspondence between summer and Fire is a fairly straightforward metaphorical connection: summer is usually when we experience the hottest part of the year, and one of fire’s most obvious characteristics is its intense heat production.[2] Fire also provides light, and this is the climax of the “light” part of the year. The solstice is the peak of the Sun’s energy, the longest days and shortest nights. Concentrating on Fire at this point on the Wheel can help us understand all the changes that have taken place since the year started and begin to prepare ourselves for reaping the results as we move into the waning light and the main harvest season of the year.

These qualities of change and transformation, where Fire represents both destruction and potential renewal, are why the tool I use to represent the Element of Fire is a knife. This is not the attribution that most Wiccans use, although it is not uncommon, either. To understand why most Wiccans associate blades with Air, we have to look at Tarot.

I mentioned back in the Ostara piece on the Element of Air that most Tarot decks based on the Rider-Waite-Smith prototype associate the suit of Swords with the Element of Air, and the suit of Wands with the Element of Fire, but there is evidence that this was a “blind,” or deliberate inaccuracy, inserted in the Tarot decks intended for public consumption by the creators in order to honor those creators’ vows of secrecy to the Golden Dawn. Whether or not it was a blind, the original RWS deck became influential in English-speaking countries, so most Tarot decks continue to use those associations, although a minority use the reversed Swords – Fire and Wands – Air associations.

I don’t follow the Golden Dawn, so for me this is mostly a matter of why most Tarot symbolism differs from what I use in my own rituals. I see wands, or their larger versions, staves or rods, as a way of directing intention that has a lot to do with intellectual choice and reason. The wand’s larger cousin, a staff or rod, can be used to symbolize authority based on knowledge and experience, both parts of the intellectual domain of Air. Personally, my favorite version of a wand is a pen, and since Air is associated with language, that supports my association of wands with Air. I enjoy using fountain pens, whose very design reminds me that historically quill pens were made from feathers, certainly a symbol of Air, and this cements the association.

On the other hand, to me any blade used in ritual – whether a sword or a knife – symbolizes and embodies separating, changing, and transforming in ways that are the essence of Fire. Along the same lines, it is impossible to make metal blades without fire. Not just warmth or heat but the real blazing inferno of a forge is required to render rocks into sharp steel. The product itself is the most dangerous of the Witch’s tools: hurting oneself with a pen is generally unlikely, but simple carelessness with a small blade can easily cause serious injury.[3] Similarly, fire is inherently dangerous: when in balance or being managed, it is useful and even life-giving, but without serious supervision, it will wreak a frighteningly self-perpetuating kind of destruction. Windstorms, floods, and landslides are all dangerous, but they typically represent an unusual behavior of the Element and will exhaust themselves eventually: the landslide has only so much material to move, as the water floods higher areas it loses energy, and whirlwinds are slowed by the obstacles they encounter. On the other hand, the more fire consumes, the more energy it has and the more it spreads itself, growing rather than diminishing.

But when it exhausts itself, the transient heat and light disappear along with the flames. In this way it’s also the most ephemeral of the Elements, another example of its tendency to go to extremes. All of this can make Fire both an attractive Element and one that is hard to relate to. While we depend on it as a tool, we don’t want to experience it ourselves. The kind of transformation that Fire as an Element represents is often frightening and something we do not want to undergo: dramatic transformations are not easy, even when they are less drastic or sudden than that of fuel consumed in a conflagration.

But Fire reminds us that we have to accept these situations as part of life. In every season, life exists in a constant state of rebirth. While some transformations are harder or more sudden than others, nothing is perfectly static. Connecting with and celebrating Fire can help us understand that. In particular, at this turning point of the year it can help us prepare for the transition to autumn and harvest and exemplify the tools to cope with that season and its transformations.

Summer is what connects the seed of life created through interaction to the coming harvest, and the heat and light of summer help bring that to fruition. When those developments are ready, we have to move into reaping, in the way that harvesting transforms what was a growing plant into the very bread of life. This process requires the Element of Fire at each and every step, in both the blade that cuts the stalks and the warmth that helps a loaf rise. The scythe’s blade and the hearthfire are interconnected manifestations of the Element of Fire, and the duality of their symbolisms is a good representation of the Element which goes to extremes but also unifies them.

In this season, as we see the sun at its pinnacle, we experience transformation whether we want it or not. Perhaps the Element of Fire can help us learn to value the transient and the living, to cope with the changes inherent in life, and to gather the results of our earlier work as we go forward. How are you in transition – either slow or speedy – at this solstice?

[1] The solar holidays are the equinoxes and solstices, called the quarter days. The previous one was Ostara. These alternate with the cross-quarter days which are derived from Celtic fire festivals; the last Sabbat was the cross-quarter day of Beltane. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is currently the time of the winter solstice, Yule, which corresponds with the Element of Earth. I’ll contrast these pairings and discuss how they interact in an upcoming piece.↩

[2] [I]t’s also worth pointing out the American tradition of having cook-outs centering on food cooked over (large, often charcoal) open flames. There’s also a broader tradition of serving cool or cold foods as a counter to the season’s climate. The juxtaposition of these points to another feature of the Element of Fire: the tendency to go to extremes, including opposing extremes simultaneously.↩

[3] These are not the only traditional Witch’s tools; more will be discussed with the other Elements, and exactly what is “traditional” depends on which tradition one ascribes to as well.↩

Beltane – Sacred Sex

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles. This one was originally written in 2012.

In addition to the four Elements, on the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year this year I’m going to explore four major themes or concepts that I think are deeply important in Wicca. Please note that Wicca is not the only kind of Paganism that there is and that even within Wicca interpretations vary widely, so this is not authoritative about anyone else’s practices or beliefs. It’s offered as food for thought.

Wicca is not a religion based on a text. Even the forms of worship vary tremendously, with nothing resembling a formal liturgy that is widely accepted or agreed upon. Most Wiccans, though, are familiar with a few important pieces of writing and many use them in ritual at times or consider them important reflections of the religion. The best-loved of these is Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess.

The Charge exists in many forms and has been revised over the years by different practitioners. Here is a version by Starhawk, a famous feminist Pagan author. I’ll note that some people use the whole thing, but I personally only use the section from “Hear now the words of the Star Goddess…” to the end. In British Traditional Wicca, the Charge is read at each ritual, and others may use the Charge similarly, especially near Beltane. The reason is simple. One of the most oft-quoted lines of the Charge says:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

In Wicca, sex is sacred. This has a lot of metaphysical connotations: the union of Goddess and God is seen as the source of everything, and stories of that union take many forms. But it’s also about the purely human. Beltane is traditionally a fertility festival, even more so than Ostara, perhaps; as we begin to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring and summer, it’s natural to be interested in making whoopee. And as we noted at Ostara, our nonhuman neighbors also tend to engage in acts of love and pleasure with great enthusiasm around this time of year.

But for me, it’s important to understand that this valorization of sex is about a lot more than it can seem. Yes, “all acts of love and pleasure” certainly refers to intercourse, and it also refers to a lot more than that; any loving act of pleasure is included, regardless of the genders of people involved. It doesn’t say “acts of love and pleasure that lead to conception” or even might lead to conception. To me, it’s a bit misleading to say that this is about fertility – unless one expands the concept of fertility to mean a lot more than simply making babies.

One of the ways I like to express this is to say that it’s not as much about having sex as it is about making love. My partner and I make love with each other in all kinds of ways that happen fully clothed and outside the bedroom: he makes dinner, I do the laundry, he gives me a foot rub, and we go to sleep having expressed our love for each other with great depth and passion, just not with “sex” per se. Don’t get me wrong – sex is one of my favorite ways of making love – it’s just not the only one, or the most important one for all situations.

Think also about the meanings of the word “intercourse.” Yes, it is usually used only to refer to sex these days. But historically, its meanings have included what today we might call “dialogue” or “exchange,” where people engage with each other in any number of non-physical ways. To me, these too can be acts of love and pleasure. When two friends have an engaging conversation that leads to the creation of a work of art, I can see that as a kind of non-sexual “intercourse” which has also brought forth something new in the world. And if a work of art has a life of its own, as we often express it metaphorically, then this too is a kind of fertility, of bringing new life into the world.

These expanded ideas of intercourse and fertility make my understanding of Wicca one where sex is sacred not because of sex acts themselves, but because it is one of the most wonderful, vital examples of a whole class of activity – all acts of love and pleasure. Wicca is about connections: connections within nature, connections to deity, and connections between individuals. All acts of love and pleasure that create and celebrate connections between people, especially ones that are fruitful or productive in those people’s lives, are sacred.

This weekend, participated in a ritual that included dancing the Maypole. The Maypole has a long history as a fertility symbol. But what struck me about it, as I steadied the pole and my friends whirled around me, was not the pole itself, but the network we wove as we did so. This wasn’t just about union between two people; it was also about community, coming together to celebrate how our interconnections are important to the fabric of our lives, and how those interactions bear fruit in so very many forms.

And those are what I celebrate this Beltane. Yes, I include plenty of bawdy humor and making love both in and out of the bedroom with my partner, but I also celebrate the ways that I connect with others: through song and story, image and word, through all the myriad interconnections that make my world the vibrant, vital place that it is. One of those is the Slacktiverse, and so I celebrate each and every one of you, too, this season. With that, I wish you many acts of love and pleasure, of many different kinds. Bright Beltane to you all!

Ostara – Element of Air

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles for the Wheel of the Year. This one first appeared in 2012.

We’ve been around the Wheel of the Year once together, so for the next iteration, I’m going to concentrate on the four Elements on the equinoxes and solstices and on four concepts that I see as fundamental to Wicca on the other Sabbats. For Ostara [1] we’ll start with the Element of Air.

I capitalize those words because I’m using them as proper nouns. The four Elements, as conceptualized by classical Greek philosophy, are not the same as the elements on the periodic table, and when I say Air, I’m not just talking about the stuff going in and out of your lungs. I’m referring to the archetype, the whole abstract concept which includes what you’re breathing, but it also includes the whirlwind and the summer breeze, the freezing breath of winter and the surprise of walking past lilacs in bloom.

And symbolically, the Element of Air represents even more than that. The four Elements can also be construed as broad categories with a wealth of symbolic meanings through what we call associations or correspondences. Most Wiccans, for example, cast a circle (or Circle, if you like) as part of their rituals. Each cardinal direction within that circle is associated with an Element. Correspondences differ – sometimes wildly – but I’m going to discuss the system that I use, which also happens to correspond to the one most commonly used. Just keep in mind that none of this is set in stone – or written on the wind. My associations are:

East – Air
South – Fire
West – Water
North – Earth

Now, since East (there’s those caps again) is where the sun rises, it’s associated with dawn, and also with springtime, as the “dawning” of the year. So Air also represents beginnings, a fresh start, and even “a fresh breath.” You’ll find that many of our cliches can be used to summarize these sorts of metaphorical connections; that doesn’t mean the connections are trite. To me, it’s an example of the way a lot of these metaphors are embedded very deeply in our culture and our thinking, as reflected in and mediated by language.

The Wheel of the Year and the circle also correspond. Each of the direction/Element pairings – called Quarters – is associated with one of the solstices or equinoxes, in my understanding. Yule is in the North, Ostara in the East, and so on. Then the other four Sabbats, often called cross-quarter days, take the positions in between. This makes Ostara the perfect time to reflect on the Element of Air.

Air is associated with travel and movement. Thinking back to the days before cars, this makes a great deal of sense; in Renaissance times, ships depended on the wind, and they were the major form of long-distance transportation. Even after that, steam power depended on using air pressure as a driving force.

In several mythologies, birds are the archetypal messengers of the gods, representing both this association with movement and the function of communication. And, after all, speech literally depends on air. Thus the realm of Air became the domain of language, and also of reasoning, deciding, judging, and other intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, this is where Air can start to get a bad rap.

While this understanding of the Elements does go all the way back to Greek philosophy, the current understanding of it was transmitted to us in the Western world mostly by way of the Golden Dawn. This esoteric organization, most active around the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, collected and organized much occult knowledge. They are also the origin of the most familiar design of the Tarot deck, which can give a negative impression about Air.

Tarot originated during the Italian Renaissance and is actually the precursor of the modern deck of playing cards. I’m not going to go into too much history here; the upshot is that in the early 1900s, members of the Golden Dawn designed and commissioned a particular Tarot deck, variously called the Rider-Waite or the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), which has been the basis for most subsequent decks in English-speaking countries.

A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards: four suits, with ten numbered cards and four Court cards in each suit, and twenty-two independent cards with their own sequence, which are now called the Major Arcana. As the deck transformed into modern playing cards, the Major Arcana were dropped, the Court cards reduced to three (jack, queen, king), and the symbols of the four suits became spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs.

In Tarot, the suits are Swords, Pentacles or Coins, Cups, and Staves, and the suit of Swords is most commonly associated with Air. [2] For various reasons, the Golden Dawn created images for these ten cards that included some of the most negative-seeming depictions in the deck. Now, Tarot images are complex things in and of themselves, and I’m not going to try to explain too much of that right here, so let me just say that some of the cards in the suit of Swords have basic interpretations such as depression and grief.

The Court cards, which are often interpreted as people involved in a particular situation, can also take the judging function of Air to an extreme; the Queen of Swords is frequently depicted or described as harsh, even shrewish. The King of Swords is stern and demanding; he’s a judge who won’t accept an excuse.

With all of this imagery going on, people who work with Tarot a lot, and especially with the RWS deck, can get kind of a negative impression of the Element of Air. There’s good reason to think that some of the seemingly negative imagery in this suit isn’t drawn directly from concepts about Air, but rather from other mythology that the Golden Dawn incorporated. Regardless, it’s important to remember that none of the Elements is exactly warm and cuddly: Fire isn’t meant to be played with, Water includes the tsunami and the flooding rains as well as the refreshing drink, and Earth by itself can be as barren and inhospitable as the depths of the desert.

And part of the complexity of Tarot is putting each image in context. While swords are meant for killing, not all blades are intended solely for destruction. Psychologically, the functions of judging, choosing, and deciding are absolutely necessary – when kept in balance.

This is why it’s hard to talk about each of the Elements alone. Part of what keeps the Elements in moderation is the way they exist in balance with each other. The spring weather includes the storms which help strip away the last of the dead leaves from last year and the gentle breezes that tease open the new buds. We need both, and the interplay of wind, water, and warmth that moves across the world is what allows for the variations and tempers the extremes.

With all of this in mind – the domain of Air – I invite you to enjoy this Ostara by finding a time when the weather is cooperative and maybe even a place where those sweet-smelling buds are opening. As you reflect on what air and Air mean to you, what roles they play in your life, and how you relate to this Element, take a deep, gentle breath. May it be the fresh start you need!

[1] In the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox is approaching, which is Ostara, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the autumnal equinox, which is Mabon.

[2] This is a point of disagreement which I will address in greater detail in the Litha piece.

Imbolc – Poesis

I was called away from home suddenly a few days before Imbolc, and things have only settled down now. I am continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2012. I currently plan on moving in the middle of March, so things will probably continue to be intermittently disrupted for me until at least Ostara.

So far in this series, I haven’t written much about magic, or about specific deities, but for Imbolc, I’d like to delve into both areas, and in particular the way that my matron goddess, Brigid, helps me understand magic.

There are lots of Celtic influences in Wicca, and one of the most obvious is the Sabbat of Imbolc, which is traditionally the feast of the goddess Brigid. [1] No other Sabbat is so closely tied to a particular deity; even the rebirth of the Sun at Yule can be interpreted within a multitude of cultural contexts, historical and modern. And while Imbolc can be celebrated as the recovery from that rebirth and presage of spring, many people come together to honor Brigid at this time of year. She is an enormously popular matron and a figure that nearly anyone can turn to, which is perhaps why she was adopted as a Catholic saint and her worship continues in multiple forms down to the present day. I think her continuing popularity and accessibility are due in part to the way she embodies some of the fundamental ideas of magic as a way of interacting with the world.

Traditionally, Brigid has three specialties: she is the matron of healing, especially midwifery; of smith craft; and of poetry. Her history as a healer would be enough to explain her popularity, since nearly everyone needs healing at some point. But the other two areas seem like a strange combination: blacksmithing is not usually associated with either healing or poetry, and it is even more unexpected for a goddess to take an interest in what is traditionally a male-dominated craft. But the piece that seems not to fit is in fact the key to understanding the relationship between all three areas, as well as her continuing presence in Wicca. Smith craft is just that, a craft, and healing and poetry can be approached as crafts as well. It is this idea of crafting in many different forms that makes Brigid such a good representative of witchcraft as well.

Another way to understand this is to start with the idea of poetry. This English word comes from a Greek root, poiesis, which has to do with the whole concept of crafting and creating, almost in the sense of shaping. [2] To me, the way a skilled poet can go to the heart of a matter with just a single word exemplifies poesis. By the very faculty of naming and describing, poesis can influence the nature of a thing. This is not creation ex nihilo; it’s about emergence and shaping the way something develops in the world.

All three of Brigid’s areas are forms of poesis: healing is a process of transforming a situation, and a midwife in particular has the unique opportunity to help both mother and baby. Blacksmithing is also literally a process of shaping and forging something; it turns lumps of rock into useful tools. As these examples show, poesis is not just about words, but to me, the use of language in shaping reality is one of the most amazing examples. When a skilled writer crafts sounds and squiggles to produce meaning . . . well, that’s why we call it poetry. To me, all of these are magical processes, making Brigid fundamentally a goddess of magic itself.

Now, when I say that smithing is a magical process, I don’t mean that it is purely magic in the “Harry Potter” sense: the smith doesn’t wave a wand and instantaneously transfigure iron ore into horseshoes. The very idea of sorcerous shortcuts eliminating the hard work and necessary effort of the craft is antithetical to my understanding of magic. It doesn’t break the laws of nature, it works within them, just like everything else in the world. [3] This is why I don’t tend to ask whether something is “magic” or not. Instead I ask how magical it is. Think of something as simple as a seed sprouting: I can understand the biology, the chemistry, and the physics of it, but the simple fact that an apparently inert object can, under the right circumstances, transform itself into a living being thriving on simply dirt, water, and light is magical. It fills me with awe and joy. It is the numinous in the mundane which is characteristic of what I call magic.

Looked at this way, healing is also terrifically magical, whether it comes about because of meditation and mind-body work, or because of pharmaceuticals and surgery, or (better yet) some of each. Terry Pratchett observed that stopping someone from choking “doesn’t even sound magical until you understand that a way of turning nearly dead people into fully alive people is worth a dozen spells that just go twing!” [4] If you’ve ever seen someone suffering from low blood sugar have a dose of glucose administered, you’d think it was downright miraculous: in a matter of minutes, a person can go from passed out cold to walking and talking as if nothing ever happened. Understanding how that works so that healers can use it to help people, to make a difference in the world, makes it even more magical to me.

When I practice magic, it is closest to a form of poetry. I may use many different tools – stones, herbs, candles, cords – but what I’m doing, deep down, is describing things, crafting an understanding of the world that transforms from one thing to another, the way that the twist of a good poem suddenly transforms your understanding from one thing to another: snowflakes aren’t just snowflakes, they’re bits of lace. That juxtaposition of different understandings that changes the whole situation is the closest I can come to expressing what practicing magic is like.

These acts then become part of the narrative that I am making of my life, and taking that narrative into my own hands is most magical of all. It empowers me and it challenges me: if I really have these choices, what do I do with them? It helps me be more the storyteller and poet of my own life. I don’t have complete control, of course; this isn’t a work of fiction. But here in reality, it makes a difference, even about the things it can’t change. Magic and poesis do not “magically” fix all of the hard situations in my life. They help me face hard things gracefully, with understanding.

[1] There are myriad ways to spell the name of this goddess, including Brighid, Breed, Brigit, and more.

[2] See poesis. It actually comes by way of Latin, because while the Romans excelled in rhetoric and oratory, they admired Greek civilization for its much older and broader tradition of literature in all forms, and many of the great Roman writers considered themselves students of this Greek heritage. Another form of this root survives in medical terms like hematopoiesis, the process by which blood is created.

[3] This is why I both agree and disagree with Clarke’s Third Law: yes, technology can be magical, but to me, obfuscation is not a necessary part of magic. Understanding how something works increases my appreciation for the wonder of it and is part of why I find things magical.

[4] Pratchett, Terry. A Hat Full of Sky. HarperCollins e-books, 2004. Kindle location 4198 of 4579.

Yule – Sustaining Rebirth

I am continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

Six months ago, I told a story of Litha being destruction averted, because although it is easy to associate warmth with the very energy of life, it is important that we not be overwhelmed by it. [1] Yule, by contrast, is a celebration of life being created anew, and created again, even in the midst of cold and darkness. It is a time when re-creation leads, appropriately, to recreation.

People in temperate climates have a long, long history of celebrating the days when the sun seems to stand still, halting its northward journey and then turning southward again, promising longer days and an end to winter, even if it is a long way off. [2] Midwinter solstice heralds a fresh start, and the promise of the whole world coming back to life – not miraculously restored after just a few days, but gradually reborn through the more mundane magic of germination and gestation.

Of course, this isn’t the only time of year we talk about new life coming into being, but it is one of the most poignant and symbolic times. I’ve seen so many rituals, both at Yule and other holidays, that speak to people’s desire for rebirth in their everyday lives. It’s easy to want a fresh start, a sudden and dramatic change – just like magic! – which will remove our obstacles and change our bad habits in one fell swoop. It’s easy to create a ritual that panders to the most unexamined form of this yearning for a quick fix, to assure people that if they simply want it hard enough, or light enough candles, it will happen. Worst of all, it’s too easy to let this devolve into the idea that the universe is a vast wish-granting machine, and that if you don’t get what you want, either someone is out to get you or it’s all your fault. A similar idea is at work in the secular custom of New Year’s resolutions, and they are famously ineffective.

The natural world doesn’t work that way. The sun doesn’t suddenly spring back to its position at the height of summer – and it’s a good thing, too, because that kind of transformation without transition would be incredibly traumatic. This is true for humans, too. Sudden changes and fresh starts do occur, but they’re not always something to be yearned for, and they’re seldom as easy as we would like to imagine. More often, rebirth is not an instantaneous process. Usually it arises not just from our wishing but from our working. New life and ways of life usually require that we make choices day after day, again and again, choosing anew and working in support of that choice.

We experience this in our relationships, too; they have to be nurtured on a regular basis. A marriage vow, for example, isn’t something that magically forges a lasting, loving relationship between two people. It’s choosing to live out that vow, again and again, choosing to love, to forgive, to be patient, that keeps the relationship alive, helps it be reborn day by day. It’s not that every single choice, or word, or action has to be perfect, but that enough of them are good enough to tip the balance. It’s not the making of the vow but the keeping of it that provides the warmth of love in the heart of the family, just as it’s not the single moment of Yule but the gradual lengthening of days that warms the world for springtime.

This kind of gradual progress can be frustrating. The day after Yule isn’t noticeably longer, and it’s going to go on being cold for quite a while. In the face of that, it’s important to celebrate the magical moments, like the days when the very sun stands still and then changes course. But often, our culture puts too much weight on the single moments, with unrealistic expectations leading to inevitable disappointments: the big dinner must be a time of jollity and familial love, the long-awaited present must be perfectly surprising and satisfying all at once, and so on.

Instead of trying to force Yule, or New Year’s, or any other single moment, to give me instantaneous transformation, I try to follow the Sun’s pattern. On this shortest day, I take time to pause, to stand still and just be present. Then, when I want to renew or re-create my life in some way, I do it gradually, gently, a little at a time. That kind of sustained rebirth, a daily, incremental newness of life, has a name: growth. Growth, and the precious knowledge that it continues, even in the cold and dark of winter, is what I celebrate in this season.


[1] At this time, the Northern Hemisphere is approaching the winter solstice, while the Southern Hemisphere is approaching Litha, or summer solstice.
[2] Solstice comes from the roots “sol,” meaning sun, and “sistere,” meaning to come to a stop. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=solstice