Stories of Brigid

I first wrote this retelling of some of Brigid’s stories for an Imbolc ritual in 2011. I’m reposting it with a few edits and blessings for the new moon before Imbolc 2020

Sit down, sit down, make yourselves comfortable; you should be comfortable to listen to the stories of Brigid, because Brigid always wanted people to be comfortable, and happy, and loved.

Now, the stories of Brigid have no single beginning. Some people say Brigid was a goddess, perhaps the daughter of the Dagda, the good god. The goddess Brigid was born to the mother goddess Danu, whose people are the Tuatha de Danaan, and Danu is the one who pours out the rivers that flow through the lands. And some people say that Brigid was a woman, the daughter of a druid, or maybe just born to a serving-woman in the druid’s household. And some people say that Brigid was a woman who became a saint – although her nuns today will show you where the foundations of the ancient temple were before the Christians ever came. And maybe all the stories are true.

Now, Brigid was out one day, and when she came home, her cloak was wet all through. So she hung it on a sunbeam to dry. And it stayed there till it was dry. By that you know she had the power – not because she hung her cloak on a sunbeam, mind you, but because the sunbeam stayed there till the cloak was dry! For in Ireland, the weather can never make up its mind for five minutes altogether, and while you might get a sunbeam where you ask for one, it’ll never stay there when you turn your back on it. But I think that maybe the sunbeam just wanted to be helpful to Brigid, because Brigid herself was helpful to others. That’s how she used her power, after all.

The power Brigid had she used for her three great talents: the service of healing, the gift of giving what was needed, and the wisdom to inspire and change the hearts of people.

Once a sick man came to Brigid to beg for food. Brigid asked, “Would you rather be king of all Ireland, or be healed of your disease?” The man answered, “I would rather be healed, holy Brigid, for a man who is healthy is his own ruler.” And she saw that he knew the truth of the matter, and she brought water, and washed him, and he was healed. In this she did the service of healing.

Another time, two widows, who were poor and sick, came to beg for food, and she offered them the one cow that she had, and bid them share it between them. But one of the widows was proud, and insisted that she would not share. The other widow let the proud one take the cow, and turned to Brigid, saying that she would be content if Brigid would just pray for her. Brigid did more than that: she put her hands on the old woman’s back, where it had been bent and sore these many years, and Brigid prayed, and the widow’s back was healed. Just as she was going out, another man who had been helped by Brigid came, bringing her a cow, and Brigid gave it to the widow who had been healed, and said, “See, because you were humble, you have a cow and your health as well, while the proud widow went away content with her pride.” This was the gift of giving what was needed.

Yet another time, two lepers came to beg for healing, and Brigid washed the first one, and he was healed, and she bid him wash his companion, so that he too might be healed. But the one who had been healed refused, and would not share the gift of healing, for now that he was clean and whole, he disdained to touch the ragged skin of his fellow leper. Brigid was angry, but she didn’t say anything; she just took the water, and as she washed the second leper herself, his disease went into the skin of the one who had refused to share the gift of healing. Now he cried out twice as loudly for Brigid to heal him again, and was sorry for his scorn of his fellow leper. She healed him again, and then he had gotten not only the service of healing, but the gift of what he really needed as well, which was the wisdom that good things are meant to be shared. This is wisdom that inspires and changes the heart.

A similar thing happened when Brigid was working in the dairy, for she was told to divide the milk and butter into twelve parts, but she divided them into thirteen, and made the thirteenth larger than all the rest, and gave it away to the poor and hungry. A woman working with her warned Brigid that the owners of the dairy would know that she had stinted the twelve parts, but Brigid said, “The Dagda, the good god, he will make it up.” Then the woman looked, and Brigid was right: the twelve jars of milk were full up to the brim, and the twelve portions of butter were overflowing. On another day, Brigid had given the milk and bread and butter for the evening’s dinner to feed a hungry woman and her children, so Brigid went out before dinner to milk the cows again. And although the cows had been milked twice already that day, and their udders should have been empty, they gave milk in plenty, and as soon as Brigid put her hand to the churn, there was butter, as much as she had given away, and more.

As you’ve heard, a great many of the tales of Brigid have to do with cows and milk and butter, so it’s no surprise that her day falls at this time of year, when the first milk begins to come into the belly of the cows and ewes. Brigid’s day also comes at this time when we crave the beginnings of spring, when we are hungry for light, even hungrier for light and warmth than we are for milk and butter. We look for the light that was promised to us at midwinter, and Brigid brings that promised light, just as she and her priestesses tended the sacred flame at Cill Dara, under the oak, and still, today, in Kildare in Ireland, her sacred flame is burning, and with her three great talents, she lights the way for us.

And now, when they need her talents, the healers call on her, and they bless their water in her name, saying, Brigid, let this be the water of healing just as pure and as clean as if it came from your holy well. Brigid, let me serve others with my healing, and make them whole. Then healers wash people with the water of healing, serving with compassion and caring, helping others become whole. And in doing the service of healing, they shape the world.

And when the smiths need her talents, they call on her, and on her sacred flame, for smiths know that the fire doesn’t just consume things – the fire can give, too, and the fire can be used to make what is needed. The smiths kindle the fire in their forges, saying, Brigid, let this be a spark of your flame, let me use this flame to give to others. Then the smiths heat the metal and bend it and shape it into the tools that are needed. Thus the smiths give the gifts that are needed, and in their forging, they shape the world.

And the poets call on her too. Now you know what poets are like – they are people who feed their souls on beauty, and a verse that won’t run to its meter is as painful to them as a wrenched knee is to the rest of us. But a poet wants more, too – a poet wants a verse to go out and do some good; for the poet shapes the verse – which is what the root of the word poetry means, after all – but then she sets the verse out to do some shaping of its own. So the poets call on Brigid, saying, Brigid, heal my words so that they run to the meter, and Brigid, light the flame of inspiration so that I can bend the words to my purpose, but most of all, they say, Brigid, let my words go out to others to be a source of wisdom, wisdom that does the service of healing, and wisdom that gives the gift that is needed, and wisdom that inspires the hearts of people.

So when we come together, on this, Brigid’s day, we who practice the craft of the wise, we who bend and shape the world, we honor Brigid. We give her praise and thanks, and petition her to be with us, so that she will share her power and her three great talents with us, as we strive to be healers, and smiths, and poets, that we too may shape the world, in her name.

The stories told herein are my interpretations of stories of both the goddess and the saint. Some are derived from these two groups of stories.

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.

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!

Stones for chakras

Much of the way I use stones, minerals, and crystals is based on how their colors correspond to the chakras. In my introduction to the chakras, I described how each one represents an area of life. I use stones corresponding to the chakras to support or stimulate certain qualities within those areas. For example, if I need more self-confidence, I want to use stones that correspond to the solar plexus chakra, so I’ll choose yellow stones.

When working with stones, your mileage may vary significantly, of course, but if you’re trying to get to know a stone, mineral, or crystal that you haven’t worked with before, making an assessment based on its color is a good place to start theorizing what its qualities might be. Experience changes these first guesses, of course. And like all systems of correspondences, the classification by color is only one factor that describes the nature of a stone.

Some stones have specific associations that either contradict or have nothing to do with their color – rose quartz, for example, is a very heart-related stone, even though it’s pink, not green. There are also multi-colored stones and stones that don’t really fall under one of the basic spectrum colors, such as pink and brown stones. I may address some of these specific stones in future posts.

Within a specific color family, different appearances lend themselves to different uses. I have found that stones which are more opaque tend to be more calming and regulating, supporting the functions of a chakra without necessarily overstimulating it. For example, I find calcite to be especially gentle and calming, and it is conveniently available in many colors and pretty affordable. I’ve also found that stones which are physically softer (fluorite, calcite, selenite, etc) tend to have gentler energy.

Conversely, the more transparent and harder a stone is, the more it will be useful for opening and energizing, tending to increase the energy of a particular chakra, whether that’s what is best or not.

There are many, many stones that are frequently used in magic, but here is a list of crystals that correlate with each chakra in my experience:

  • Root chakra: garnet, red calcite
  • Generative (second, sacral) chakra: carnelian, some amber, orange calcite
  • Solar plexus chakra: citrine, sulfur, yellow calcite
  • Heart chakra: emerald, malachite, bloodstone, green fluorite
  • Throat chakra: aquamarine, amazonite, turquoise, kyanite, blue calcite
  • Insight (third eye) chakra: lapis, sapphire, dumortierite
  • Crown chakra: amethyst, lepidolite, purple fluorite

Some people associate clear quartz with the crown chakra, but I’ll get into the subject of clear and dark-colored stones in a future post.

Cuccinelli v All Acts of Love And Pleasure

My religion encourages oral sex.

Ken Cuccinelli, candidate for governor, wants to outlaw it.

Why am I not the new face of the brave fight for religious liberty?

Cuccinelli for Governor: Because oral sex sucks!
Image courtesy of the blogger’s partner (in crime, apparently). If you copy, please link back.

Seriously, though: Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general of Virginia and Republican candidate for governor has just launched a new website as part of his campaign that argues in favor of a law which criminalizes oral and anal sex between consenting adults in private.

This law is currently unconstitutional as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. But Cuccinelli is arguing that it’s a vital part of protecting children from sex offenders, which makes no sense. Moreover, it’s offensive to me as a woman, a Wiccan, and a feminist.

The actual case where the law was declared unconstitutional as a result of SCOTUS precedent involved at least one seventeen year old. I agree that there’s a metric crapton of potential problems with someone in hir teens having sex with someone in hir 40s or 50s. But if Cuccinelli has a problem with 17 year olds having sex, he could try to raise the age of consent, or prove that the situation was not consensual. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s specifically argued in favor of keeping the parts of the law (that are unconstitutional) that ban private consensual non-commercial adult (above the age of consent) behavior.

Cuccinelli basically says that the law won’t be used to prosecute adults doing what they want. But there’s no reason to believe him. That’s exactly what the law says, and in the law, you live and die (or convict and set free) based on what the law actually, very specifically, says. What kind of prosecutor argues that on the one hand, he desperately must have a law that criminalizes a wide range of behavior, but then promises that on the other hand he won’t prosecute what the law says, even when that’s what he’s actually doing? Not to mention, what kind of fiscal conservative says that it’s vitally important to spend precious government time and money to defend laws that have already been declared unconstitutional?

The homophobic kind, that’s who.

From Think Progress:

In fact, Cuccinelli is a major reason that the provisions of this particular law governing non-consensual sex were left vulnerable to court challenge. In 2004, a bipartisan group in the Virginia General Assembly backed a bill that would have brought the law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. They proposed to eliminate the Crimes Against Nature law’s provisions dealing with consenting adults in private and leaving in place provisions relating to prostitution, public sex, and those other than consenting adults. Cuccinelli opposed the bill in committee and helped kill it on the Senate floor.

In 2009, he told a newspaper why he supported restrictions on the sexual behavior of consenting adults: “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. … They don’t comport with natural law.” As a result of Cuccinelli’s homophobia, the law’s text remains unchanged a decade after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

While Cuccinelli tries to spin his efforts as “Virginia’s appeal to preserve a child-protection statute,” this amounts to little more than his attempt to restore the state’s unconstitutional ban on oral sex.

This matters because it shows that Cuccinelli is willing to fight a dead letter over a culture war issue. It matters because he’s willing to mislead people with moral panic over child endangerment to do it. It matters because this anti-sex agenda is what Cuccinelli really thinks is worth working on, and it’s what he thinks will make him win. You’d better believe it’s what he’ll act on if he does win.

His culture-warrior stance runs a lot deeper than just oral sex. He’s been using his current office to move heaven and earth to restrict reproductive health rights in Virginia. In addition, his running running mate is one EW Jackson, a Christian pastor, whose aggressively anti-non-Christian attitudes and comments have been covered quite seriously at the Wild Hunt and with an appropriately large dash of sarcasm at Wonkette.

And quite frankly, my understanding of Wicca really does validate all kinds of consensual sex. It’s right there in the Charge of the Goddess:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

The idea of “acts of love and pleasure” is a very potent way of expressing my feminist ethic of consent to sex. I’m not going to consent to something that’s not pleasurable to me. If I can’t consent – if I can’t engage in love and pleasure – then whatever’s happening isn’t sex; it’s sexual assault, abuse, battery, or rape.

Cuccinelli is actually making a version of the Two Boxes argument about what kinds of sex are permissible and not permissible. Nearly all “slippery slope” arguments about marriage equality are versions of this. (Cuccinelli gets double Conservative SexHater Points for pretending that outlawing consensual adult oral sex is a way of “protecting our children.” Score!)

The Two Boxes argument says that the Christian god has designated certain kinds of sex as “good” and other kinds as “bad,” and that there is no other possible way to differentiate between allowable and not-allowable actions in our secular civil law. Therefore, if you allow one “bad” thing, you’re allowing all “bad” things. Slippery slope: people will gay-marry their dogs! The Two Boxes argument is extremely simplistic. By contrast, my ethics – both my secular civil reasoning and my religious understanding – tell me that we can draw a different boundary based on enthusiastic consent.

In the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the connections between my civil feminist understanding and my Wiccan understanding. There’s already been a lot of great feminist explication of this ethic of consent. I think that we should determine our secular, civil law on the basis of secular, civil reasoning. I am not trying to substitute my Wiccan standards for Cuccinelli’s Christian standards. I am trying to explain why my Wiccan standards coincide with my secular feminist standards. With that in mind, Cuccinelli’s efforts really are offensive not just on a human rights and feminist level but to me as a person with a different religion with different standards.

I think that the idea “acts of love and pleasure” contains the seeds of the concept of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. This concept differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable sex on the basis that some people can’t engage in love and pleasure. That might be because they’re not people: lampposts, dogs, box turtles; it might be because they’re incapable of consent: under the age of consent, handicapped, intoxicated, etc. Either way, the standard concepts of “love” and “pleasure” don’t apply.

Ultimately, my understanding relies on the idea that sex is a cooperative activity that is done by partners together. Sex is not a thing that men do to women as objects. Sex is not a thing that women have that men try to get or take. Sex isn’t just about men and women. It’s about people, and their consent, to acts of love and pleasure.

Those ideas, deep down, are what scares Cuccinelli, and his fellow culture warriors, spitless, pun intended:

People – consent – love – and pleasure

If you care about those things, whether for civil or religious reasons, or especially both, then you ought to find Cuccinelli’s latest actions reprehensible.

PS: Regarding the first statement: There. Now you can start blaming me, right after the makers of Witch-sploitation movies, for causing people to claim that they’re Wiccan when they don’t have the first clue what Wicca really is.

ETA: Think Progress also gives an example of a sheriff’s department in Louisiana enforcing a similar “anti-sodomy” statute which is equally unconstitutional and hence unenforceable. This proves that “unenforceable” does not prevent officers from arresting and detaining people. I don’t know the details of how arrest records work, but they may be different from court records. Certainly the news often reports that people were arrested on offenses in the past, and job applications may ask if the applicant has been arrested, not just about convictions. I hope I don’t have to spell out all the implications.

Friendly Fire

Before the recent community kerfuffle, I was talking about the Pagan blood libel and how that affects the experience of being Pagan and Wiccan today. I want to share a couple of my own experiences to try to convey just a bit of what it’s like.

My partner and I were at a social event with people I’ll call A and B. A has been a friend of LitSpouse for over a decade; B is A’s relatively recently-married spouse, whom we don’t know as well. LitSpouse, A, and B are all in the military.

In the course of other conversation, I mentioned how someone I love, C, had been having a hard time recently because she’s in the broom closet. In that situation, when others treat her as if she’s Christian – talking about her relationship with the Christian god and so on – it causes mixed feelings and a lot of frustration.

B started saying that the others meant well. I acknowledged that and said neither of us was anti-Christian. But some of the actions others have taken – including a Christian spontaneously laying hands on C and praying over her out loud in public without asking first – are simply insensitive and intrusive.

B proceeded to say that since most of the country is Christian, it’s “a reasonable assumption” for people to think that C’s Christian. I pointed out that regardless of reasonableness, it’s rude, and maybe they should ask. She might be umpteen things besides Christian, and no matter what she is, she might not want to be prayed over.

I pointed out that I don’t just tell people I’ll cast a spell on them (or start doing it in public!), and that all I’m asking for is the same level of regard in return. B kept defending this and started saying that we’d just have to “agree to disagree.”

I was frustrated. Finally I said that he simply doesn’t understand how hard it is to be part of a tiny minority religion. Nobody is threatening his religion, or treating him badly because of it, and that changes the context for things like this.

He really didn’t get that. Finally I gave him an example: a preacher on the religious right had recently said (again) that the practice of Witchcraft ought to be outlawed in the military.

B looked me right in the eye and said, “But you’re not in the military, so why should that bother you?”

I was speechless. I have done some martial arts, so I know what it feels like to hit the ground so hard your wind is knocked out of you. That’s exactly how I felt.

There he sat, in his uniform, with his spouse and my spouse in their uniforms, asking me why hate speech directed at my religion and at a fundamental freedom enshrined in the document that he swore to defend “bothers” me.

I was visibly furious. I explained that Christian conservatives want to make Wicca illegal entirely, and they think they can use the military as a leverage point to make that happen. (They’ve only been trying since the mid-1980s, after all.) Then I got very quiet so that I didn’t have a real outburst. I almost left, and if I hadn’t valued LitSpouse’s friendship with A so much, I probably would have.

B realized he’d screwed up and started to back and fill, saying something about how maybe he should have left the subject alone because I obviously have “a deeply held feeling” about this.

I snapped, “It’s not a deeply held feeling, it’s a Constitutional right.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

Spouse and A gradually worked on patching up the social situation by making conversation, and the party broke up shortly thereafter. When I walked out, I was still shaking.

I don’t make a habit of taking offense. But I really think there are some things that should make people stop and think. Defending hate speech is one of those things.

And yes, I think “Your religion should be illegal” is hate speech. My religion is part of my identity and my way of life; you can’t separate me from it. Especially when the people who want to ban my religion also perpetuate vicious, dangerous lies about me and my coreligionists and see excluding us from public life as only the first step to eradicating us entirely, saying that is another way of saying “People like you shouldn’t be allowed to exist.”

I’m lucky: I haven’t had to face too much crap in person about being Wiccan. I don’t have to deal with it in a lot of ways other people do. Maybe that made me overconfident that most people would be reasonably decent about this.

But these were my friends, people I thought I knew, who I thought I could trust. They knew I was recently ordained. Heck, they had been invited to my ordination party less than a month before this happened. In light of this, I guess I’m glad they hadn’t attended.

I thought they might at least try to exercise a modicum of imagination and empathy, or even begin to believe that they don’t fully understand how my experiences are different from theirs. I was so utterly unprepared for this. It took me by surprise and made it hurt a lot more than if it had come from someone else.

This is one of the hard realities of being Wiccan: You’re always at risk of friendly fire.

Review: Gardner, High Magic’s Aid

Gardner, Gerald. High Magic’s Aid. Godolphin House, Hinton WV, revised edition 1996. Originally published 1949 under pen-name of Scire. Paperback, 238 pages.

(Please note: the version that I read is available online. It was typeset by and has a few pages of added material from Gavin and Yvonne Frost. A new edition was apparently released in 2010.)

This book is simply awful. If you don’t absolutely have to read it, don’t bother. I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s true. It’s not an attack on Gardner or Gardnerian tradition, it’s an assessment of the book as a book.

This book is like a sausage: it reads as if Gardner ground up average inaccurate meso-pagan romanticisms mixed with the Key of Solomon, added naked women, flagellation, and “witchcraft” for spice, and encased it in a thin film of plot from a badly-written fanfic of Ivanhoe, tied off with a thin thread of fiction related to English Church history.

Because this is a work of fiction, my review is going to be a bit different; I’m not going to summarize the whole plot the way I summarize the contents of nonfiction works. It is unavoidable, however, that the rest of this review will contain some spoilers. Consider yourself warned. Additional trigger warnings for nudity and sexual assault.

Most of the action centers on Thur Peterson, an apothecary-magician, and two brothers who enlist his help in reclaiming their rightful inheritance. There’s even a beautiful “Jewess,” who is a brief distraction, although of course the elder brother ends up marrying the beautiful witch at the end, after they’ve retaken the castle etc etc. Happily ever after and all that.

I would have fewer problems with this book if it were presented as a fairy tale, although it would still be badly written. One thing is certain; it is wildly ahistorical. Two particular anachronisms stick out: although it’s explicitly set in the reign of King John, and more precisely in 1205 (p 17, p 200), there are references to “the spotted death” and many stories of Christian flagellants. The Black Death didn’t arrive until the 14th century. There’s a slight chance that he meant smallpox, which did indeed arrive in England during the Crusades, but other references to “plague” make me pretty sure he was thinking of the bubonic plague. The very first instances of Christian flagellants were not until 90 years after Lackland died, and then they were not in England. The association between extreme flagellant cults and the Black Death reinforces my impression of bad medieval fantasizing.

Aside from that, it’s oddly written in that sometimes it stops and addresses the reader in completely jarring ways. At one point, a brief recap of the previous chapter is given, as if the reader might have forgotten the previous 20 pages in the middle of a paragraph. At another point, Gardner writes:

It is the fashion today to laugh at the magus and his pretensions, to picture him as either a charlatan or a doddering old fool, and bearing the slightest resemblance to the men who were in fact the scientists of the day, who gave us alcohol, but not the atom bomb. (p 159)

And then he blithely goes back to detailing the placement of the incense burners and the procedures for the Solomonic workings under way. Trenchant though these observations may be, it is bad writing and a lack of editing. Instances like this make me wonder if the story was first told aloud, then transcribed and fleshed out without being fully rewritten as a coherent work of prose.

As for the magic in the book, it is in fact nearly all “high magic,” as mentioned in the title, which is completely distinct from witchcraft. Rituals are led by Thur in the style of the Key of Solomon and other high medieval grimoires, complete with significant influences from the Kabbalah, writing in Hebrew, and the conjuring of spirits to materialize themselves in incense smoke. It’s worthwhile to note that the high medieval grimoires and the Key of Solomon in particular didn’t come into existence until the 14th or 15th centuries, so this kind of magic is also completely anachronistic to Gardner’s imaginary early medieval setting.

The witch, Morven, plays a subsidary role throughout. She is a gateway through which power flows, and her athame is absolutely necessary for Thur to make the magical sword with which he does his magical operations, but other than that her main purposes are to be naked and keep the incense burners filled while he does all the work.

Yes, there’s nakedness, a fair amount of it. The rules work sort of like this: common people like being naked, especially outside on an English night (season not specified). Witches have to be naked. People doing magic are naked, except when they’re not (more on this later), because nakedness is important to magic, as well as having fun, all of which are looked down upon by the Church, which goes to show how good they all are.

The other purpose, besides being naked, that Morven serves is to initiate all three central characters into the witch-cult, which is “an ancient brotherhood pledged to mutual aid.” If you think this sounds like the Masons, and that Gardner’s recensions of the rituals look an awful lot like Masonic rituals, you’re on the right track. The rituals that follow are very similar to what the Farrars lay out – the Five-fold Kiss, binding, oath taking, light flagellation, and so on. You’ll learn a lot more about the whole thing from the Farrars than from this work, in fact.

Then, far from being about “mutual aid,” it becomes totally and completely clear that the whole point of the men being initiated is to allow them to exercise power over the common people. Morven “agreed that it would give them greater power over the brethren, few of whom ever advanced beyond the triangle.” (p 187, see also p 180-1) The general idea of the witch-cult being about joy, nature, and fertility seems completely disconnected from the rituals of initiation, which are all about power and ceremonial-type magic.

Once they get the authority to force the commoners to support them in assaulting the castle, they take the castle, Thur dies, and the elder brother finally decides to marry Morven, remembering a saying:  “‘Women and castles are much the same.’ He seized her in his arms and his lips sought hers, she struggled a minute, then hers went on his, eagerly.” (p 209) After this romantic little assault, they are inescapably deeply in love, and she consents to marry him in a Christian ceremony.

Just before the end, there is an odd little side-plot appended. A local monk named Stephen realizes that Thur is doing magic, and blackmails Thur into doing magic on his behalf, so that he can get the power he wants. Stephen objects, however, to having Morven be naked while himself and Thur are robed during the rite. Thur proceeds to give Stephen a lecture about how witches have to work naked, but more importantly, she has to be naked in order for Thur and Stephen to learn to control their minds so they can’t be distracted. (p 197-8)

Thus, the whole book is in two minds about the entire subject of nudity. On the one hand, it’s natural and good because it is natural, but on the other hand, it is also a source of distraction – potentially very bad and dangerous! – that men must use to learn to discipline themselves, so that nakedness becomes of no importance whatsoever. In addition, the person who must be naked, and who does so to put forth power, is clearly in a subordinate position to the magus in all of the ceremonial magic situations. The initiation rituals are not exactly like that, but they’re not an instance of Morven taking control, either.

Morven also only speaks briefly about the witch-cult’s ideas of divinity, while Thur will go on and on about God, clearly the Judeo-Christian singular divinity. This deity is presented as the ultimate arbiter of what is good or not; on the whole, the witch-cult is never presented as a viable, coherent alternative system of belief or practice. They’re sort of animist Christians, or the poor oppressed people who show how evil the Church is, but they’re not some hidden survival that’s maintaining its independence in secrecy. This melding of beliefs may be one of the more reasonable things Gardner presents, historically, but there are so many incidents in the book that are directly contrary, and hence totally unreasonable, that the result is just absurd.

As the final example of the primacy of ceremonial magic, consider the ending, where Stephen says goodbye to Morven. He turns out to be Stephen Langton, a real figure in English Church history who was pivotal in resisting John Lackland and making the Magna Carta happen. He rides off into the sunset, “… to fulfil his destiny with the aid of magic’s high art as she had fulfilled hers.” (p 220)

So the real point of the book has been for Morven to be a tool for men and get married, and for Stephen to go off to become a famous Christian archbishop, all through ceremonial magic. If this was a murder mystery, witchcraft would be nothing more than a red herring. The book lives up to its title by being about ceremonial magic, but it has not retained any value in terms of relevance to Wicca.

There’s nothing of artistic value here that makes it worth reading for its own sake. If you’re an antiquarian or researching the roots of the Craft, you might be intrigued by it, but it is neither a foundational text for Wicca nor “a good yarn” as the Frosts dub it on the back cover. It’s a muddled meso-pagan mess.

Contemporary Deities: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or, What Would Buffy Do?

This is a guest post by Ka Wahine Ahi, High Priestess in the Order of the White Moon and foundress of the Sisters of the Rising Moon school.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.  I happened to catch an episode while flipping channels.  It was entitled “The Witch” and I was totally awestruck by this teenage girl who could take charge, kick ass and save the world.  Her merry band of Scooby friends, as her support network and co-ass kickers, added the right balance of personalities and emotional intensity to the show.  Following the heroic exploits of our beloved Buffy rose close to the level of religious devotion for me.  Friends and family knew better than to call on Tuesday nights from 8-9 p.m.!

I was thrilled and inspired to find a young woman who was tough enough to survive the onslaught of vampires, demons and zombies, while remaining a vulnerable, sensitive human being.  And, she was no dumb blond.  All in all, she was everything that I could have wanted in a female superhero.

By season four, I was a devoted fan.  Her role as the Slayer began to take on larger meaning for me.  What if we were all “slayers” in our own ways?  We didn’t have to fight supernatural critters, but, we could fight wrongs that were in our own sphere of influence.  Buffy became a role model for me.  No, I didn’t patrol cemeteries brandishing a nice, pointy stake in my spare time!  She had qualities that I aspired to attain for myself.  A constant theme on the Buffy fan sites was “WWBD?  What Would Buffy Do?”. I started to consider that in practical ways, like, she wouldn’t back down from a challenge or a difficult situation, and she’d find a way to overcome the forces of evil with a sense of humor, style and backup from her friends.

In Episode 77, “Primeval,” Buffy annihilates the Big Bad, Adam.  As Buffy faces off with Adam, the gang performs an “enjoining spell” to add their strengths to hers in order to make her stronger.  Here’s the spell from the script.

The power of the Slayer and all who wield it.
Last to ancient first, we invoke thee.
Grant us thy domain and primal strength.
Accept us and the power we possess.
Make us mind and heart and spirit enjoined.
Let the hand encompass us. Do thy will.
Spiritus… spirit.
Animus… heart.
Sophus… mind.
And Manus… the hand.
We enjoin that we may inhabit the vessel, the hand…
daughter of Sineya…
first of the ones…
We are heart…
We are mind…
We are spirit…
From the raging storm…
We bring the power of the Primeval One….

Buffy, super-empowered, speaks in Sumerian:

Sha me-en-den. Gesh-toog
me-en-den. Zee me-en-den.
Oo-khush-ta me-ool-lee-a
ba-ab-tum-mu-de-en

Several years later, I began serious study and exploration of Wicca, as it became obvious to me that Goddess was the way to go.  As I progressed, I found an article online about Chaos Magick and using all sorts of interesting characters in ritual, from Star Trek to Bill the Cat to Bugs Bunny.  I had a “Eureka!” moment.  Why couldn’t I call on Buffy, the Slayer, as Goddess?  Why couldn’t I call on the Power of the Slayer to empower me when I need it?  It was so obvious!

As the Scoobies used the enjoining spell to empower Buffy, I used the Sumerian chant as my personal empowerment spell.  I called on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to instill in me the Powers of the Slayer, grant me the strength, courage and sharp mind to conquer the undertaking that faced me.

I have continued to use the chant as my own personal empowerment spell.  It has found a special place in my book of ritual and in my spiritual practice.  I also consider the Scooby Gang as representatives of each of the Elements, as in the enjoining spell, and have called the quarters with Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy.

Not long after this spiritual breakthrough, I found a pendant online for sale.  It was very simple.  It was oval-shaped, made of pewter, enameled in red.  There was a raised cross in the center, and in each of the angles formed by the cross were the letters WWBD.  I could hardly resist!  (And, I got the replica of the Sunnydale High School ring too!)

I wear this talisman for empowerment and inspiration.  When I’m in a difficult situation and it seems that there’s no way out, I consider the inscription on the pendant.  What Would Buffy Do?

Note: Script excerpt from buffy.wikia.com.

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.

TRI cleanup: Personal reflections

I’d like to share a few personal reflections on the Teddy Roosevelt Island cleanup. First, I’m deeply touched that so many people thought this project was worth their time and effort. I respect organizations that require community service or volunteer efforts as part of their membership policies, like The Firefly House, and I am surprised there’s not more of this kind of putting our words and wills into real, direct action going on in the Pagan community. I’m thrilled that OHF is considering starting a volunteer program and I hope that such efforts will spread. I think it is absolutely necessary for such efforts to happen in order to keep our beliefs and practices authentic and meaningful.

I tried to express in my opening prayer how I saw this action as an integral part of what it means to me to be Pagan in general and Wiccan in particular. We recognize the divine in everything around us; it is our Mother Earth, on whose body we stand, in the Horned Lord who watches over the wild animals, in the Green Man, the very spirit of the vegetation beginning to awaken after the long winter sleep, and it is in the very spirits of the river and the island, the spirits of the place.

I asked that we dedicated our work as an offering to the divine, in recognition of the holy trust that has been given to us, when the divine entrusts us with not just our bodies but our environment as well. The work of caring for that environment is part of that relationship: it is a way of creating that relationship, repairing it where it has been damaged, and strengthening it. I asked that the divine blessed and empowered our work for that relationship.

And that work is so badly needed right now. It was in some ways deeply depressing to see so much trash, so much thoughtlessness and carelessness embodied in drifts of styrofoam and plastic water bottles, Starbucks cups and potato chip baggies. And, yes, so much sheer laziness: who scoops their dog’s poop, neatly ties the baggie off, and then leaves it carefully by the side of the trail when there’s a trash can every quarter-mile or less on that island?

There is no such thing as “unspoiled” nature or areas “untouched” by humans; the whole idea is a social construction that romanticizes the present and ignores the past. But the idea that we are embedding plastics in the geological record is deeply disturbing to me. We are making more and more things that are taking resources out of the natural cycles for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. This has never happened before on the planet. And these things, these nearly indestructible remnants, are what we treat so casually that their fragments float down our rivers in the hundreds and thousands.

I also know that my very life depends on parts of our material culture that use plastics and weren’t available fifty or sixty years ago. But when those resources aren’t just being used to make IV tubing and respirators to save lives but to make plastic eating utensils that are just a few cents cheaper than the biodegradable counterparts, I have to ask myself whether that is a good thing or not. And I can’t find a way to understand my relationship with the earth that makes styrofoam carryout containers a worthwhile thing.

The fact that we live in relationship with our environment, whether we acknowledge it or not, and whether we imbue that relationship with spiritual meaning or not, means that both parties affect each other. We have to ask ourselves whether we are treating our partners in that relationship in a way that makes the relationship likely to continue. The cleanup effort on TRI affected me much more deeply than I imagined, and has moved my relationship with the land, and with immanent deity, to a whole new level. I know, viscerally, in a way that I never did before, how and why waste matters, why petroleum-based plastics are a problem, how my individual decisions make a difference.

This kind of awareness can’t be gained through meditation or prayer. This is the kind of awareness that comes from truly and openly engaging with the other parties in a relationship. I can’t get to know my partner better by staring at his photograph, or thinking about him. Those things only reflect back to me what I already know: I’m relating to my ideas of him, not to the real him, the human being I love. The real person does things I could never expect or imagine; interacting with my ideas about him doesn’t give me that challenge, the kind of challenge that makes me grow, and keeps our love alive.

I fear that many Pagans and Wiccans who do not challenge themselves, who do not make a point of offering their work and engaging actively in their relationships with the land and immanent deity, are relating more to their ideas about the environment, and their mental pictures of it, than with the real thing, with the world they want to love. So I challenge you: go on a date with the world. Don’t make it easy for yourself by doing another guided meditation. Get out into the world where something that you could never imagine might happen, where your love will surprise you, maybe in positive ways, maybe in negative ways, because having that real interaction is the only way to sustain your love, to keep your relationship alive and growing.