Category Archives: Inspiration

The Trouble with Dichotomy

Either–or Thinking

Someone is saying it—whaddya mean, dichotomy? Dichotomy

So let’s start with an image: Two circles, one black labelled A, one white labelled B. They are identical in size and shape, completely separate in position, and have no shared content. This is a pictorial representation of a dichotomy. Oxford Dictionary defines dichotomy as “a division…between two things that are…entirely different.

So why does a witch care? Simple. The absolutism of either–or thinking, a concept that goes back at least 2500 years in religion to Zoroastrianism and affects all modern religions “of the book” also permeates occult writing of the past two centuries. For example, Theosophy, a religion (or “esoteric religious tradition,” to quote Joseph Campbell,) was promulgated by the Theosophical Society with Helena Blavatsky primary among its 1875 founders, In Theosophy, the atma (Sanskrit, “soul”) is the Higher Self so often taught in New Age self-help practices to be the individual’s source of true wisdom.The difficulty with the term higher self becomes evident when one asks the obvious question, “Higher than what?”

The notion that a lower self (or consciousness) exists within us all and must be overcome or improved by a higher self (or consciousness) pervades the New Age assumptions drawn from 19th and 20th century esotericism—which, in turn, borrow extensively from Hindu and Buddhist concepts that buried the Old English vocabulary of the witch, and even the Latinate vocabulary of the ceremonial magician. Even the religion of Thelema, product of Aleister Crowley (and Rabelaisian fiction) presupposes that practitioners have a “True Will” that manages their ethical dictum: “Love is the Law, Love under Will.”

Where Witchcraft Meets Dichotomy

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

—The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good the witch of the north, to Dorothy upon her arrival in Oz

Glinda’s question mirrors a more modern one, often posed to me: “Do you do white magic?” And the questioner invariably looked nervous while asking. Twenty-odd years of teaching, and I reflexively reply, “Is a hammer good when it hits the nail and bad when it hits your thumb?”

Magic is a tool, just as is a hammer. It is a tool used by witches, and a great many others; goodness or badness is a matter of perspective. More to the point, it is not a dichotomy, a division, at all. Goodness and badness as qualities are two ends of a spectrum, and less than that, or more. For a spectrum implies a line, or a series along a line, and goodness and badness do not fall into such a narrow space.  Good magic may mean effective magic, or helpful magic, or healing magic. Bad magic may mean baleful magic, or ineffective magic, or selfish magic. And sometimes selfish magic is beneficial, just as sometimes good magic is interference.

Outside of deliberately contrived fiction, witchcraft connects us to each other, to nature, and to balance. At the solstices, dark or light, humans yearn for a return to a balance. Summer solstice having just passed in the North, the 16 hours of daylight begin to interfere with needful sleep. Walking for fun or exercise is done at times of day when shadows fall broadly, and one instinctively chooses to walk on the shadowed side of the street. In the same way, at winter solstice, with daylight throttled to a scant 8 hours, dry moments of daylight are cherished, and the sun-warmth on skin is welcome, if rare.

labyrinthNorseWicca celebrates the Wheel of the Year, and yet the wheel we speak of is not a wheel but a spiral, for when we reach a point along its cycle, we are in a different time and space. Ancient and modern petroglyphs depict such spirals and their cousin–labyrinths.

Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…

“The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

 

 

Mirth Lightens…

…let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

—the Charge of the Goddess

Here continues a series of blog entries undertaking to examine each of the eight qualities that our Great Mother advises us to cherish in our hearts.

What Is Mirth?

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Harvest merriment outside the walls of Rome.

Mirth means joy or pleasure although modern dictionaries equate the word mirth with laughter & levity. The word itself is simply the noun form of the adjective merry, which means pleasant, agreeable, or sweet. Every winter in the USA people wish each other a “Merry Christmas” while across the Atlantic the British express the same sentiment as “Happy Christmas.”

A traditional time for merriment is after the annual harvest—grain, fruits, fish, nuts—has been successfully gathered and stored. Harvest Home festivities include the early October Erntedankfest in Germany including the famed Munich Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving in Canada on October‘s second Monday, and Michaelmas in Scotland at the end of September—a occasion which inherits customs from the Celtic games at Lughnasadh.

Mirth Without

“We all need joy, and we can all receive joy…by adding to the joy of others.”
—Eknath Easwaran, The End of Sorrow

“Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased…”
—Spider Robinson

CAbuckeye-flowerspikeMirth or merriment is sometimes where one finds it. The seasonal Easter marquee that fronts a local (Christian) church along a minor arterial street in my neck of the woods reiterates the annual proclamation I’ve heard & seen for 60 years…“He is risen!”—for years an in-your-face irritant of springtide, at least when combined with the annual plague of grass allergies.

EARLYARTFreyrMost recently, the image that brought mind is the priapic image of the flowering California buckeye in all its phallic glory—in its turn a reminder of the sacred sexuality of the Hornéd One. And I burst out laughing, with a whole new twist on that old irritation—one that will no longer irk as it has for decades.

Mirth Within

Clearly, having mirth within you is not the same thing as laughing all the time. Mirth is an attitude, taking joy in everyday things, being pleasant with yourself and with others. Certainly laughter may be a result of such an attitude, and supports the attitude itself. Mirth and merriment acts to counter-weight life‘s inevitable irritations and frustrations; much more significant is support of such attitude when facing crisis, tragedy, and loss.

“They that love mirth, let them heartily drink,
‘Tis the only receipt to make sorrow sink.”
—Ben Jonson, Entertainments

dog-bones

NOTHING is like a Burden Cloth!

Enjoying small things even in the midst of sorrow is an instance of keeping at least a spark mirth within. Although I grieved at the death of my mother, I took pleasure in the knowledge that she was able to live her life independently until the end; she sold her Burden Cloth totes at Eugene‘s Tuesday Market the very day before her death. As I gave instructions for her bodily disposal, I handed the funeral home one of her own Farm Size Burden Cloth™ totes to be used for her shroud…and she still wore the prior day‘s t-shirt, one she”d had silkscreened with the image at left & beneath it: “NOTHING is like a Burden Cloth!

Other aspects of her disposal also pleased me, as it would her—the funeral home had arrangements with a local MD who would remove her pacemaker (not suited for either burial or cremation), containing as it did heavy metals)…and although the MD could not do so within the USA, he workd with an organization that sterilized such used pacemakers and supplied their life-saving technology to patients in poor countries abroad. Carol ones wrote an article entitled “Where in the world is Away” on the topic of re-use and re-cycling. I could feel her approval as I signed the paperwork for that detail. Odd to feel pleasure amid the grief. Odd, but true, and supportive. Mirth—joy or pleasure or merriment or even levity—does indeed lighten the spirit.

A Lammastide Tale

Once a time, a great forest covered the westlands, streambanks and flatlands, vales and dales, meadows and hillocks, mountains and ravines and chasms deep in the heart of the country. Many kinds of trees grew there, the lesser—the rhododendron and buckeye, the dogwood and laurel, the manzanita and toyon and the greater—the dugh fir and the live oak, the tanoak and the madrone, the bay laurel and the huge valley oak.

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But greatest of all trees in the forest was the redwood, the sequoia, massive amid mountains or towering high along the land’s edge to drink the twilight fogs, gift of the sea. For those sequoia were more than single trees, they were the mother-tree of all the forest, gathering the mists to water its neighbors, amassing its duff to mulch the forest against the summer sun, and even in death, when an ancient tree, windfallen, cleared a space within the forest, new redwoods sprang quickly from its mouldering body.

RedwoodStreamCanyon

And in that land, where stood these tallest of trees, blanketing the sharp-edged landscape, many waters flowed, tiny rivulets carving paths in the clay soil, or great rivers flowing easily over wide, pebbled streambeds. And not all the waters of that land were above it, for beneath the forest, the waters also ran, chill from mountainous seeps or heated with the very fires of the svartelven folk, the dwarves whose smithies ring powerful in saga and tale alike—but that is another story.

Among those waters ran a everlasting clear stream that issued forth from under the roots of a lofty, towering sequoia, old when the Norsemen relinquished their grip on the vine-lands—but that, too, is another story. From out a lightless hollow between two buttress-roots the which knotted firmly into the golden clay soil sprang forth lustily a pure gush of water, and, falling, smoothed the clay banks of the creek that issued therefrom. Even in these latter days, you may still see the remnants of this great forest, hidden away in clefts of the hillsides, nursed back to health in patches of treasured enclaves, or awaiting destruction from the hand of man.

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In these latter days, it came to pass that one such forest enclave still preserved the ancient lofty redwood and its astonishing freshwater fountain, untouched but for the addition of a cup, hooked at the great tree’s foot, ready to hand.

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Now in these days of sorrow for the forest, it came about that a harvest feast was held in that preserve whence stood the goddess-tree and her sacred spring. And a daughter of the preserve-keepers, those multi-generation farm folk, shared withal the secret of the spring, leading another girl Doireann, then but a lanky lass, into the edge of forest, and bade her drink, from the cup, of the earth’s bounty. And Doireann drank as she was bidden, and found it good.

It came about at the next harvest feasting that, though her guide—the farm daughter—was absent, Doireann was drawn alone into the deep woods. She traversed the trace, darkening from sunlight to forest dim, unsummoned, along the clay path beneath the sword fern and trillium that edged it and the watercourse to its wond’rous source, the sweet spring, for she was drawn to see and smell and drink this marvel once again. She followed her feet and her heart until she came to the great goddess-sequoia, and she felt of the texture and form of the tree, getting to know it better.

And she plunged both hands into the freshet, rinsing her hands and arms of the dust and sweat of the open country (where the Lammas sun beat fiercely beyond the cool forest air), scooping chill handfuls to cleanse her face as well. At last, she took the cup from its hook and rinsed it and drank deeply of the waters of the land, and knew that it was sacred. Leaving, she said naught of her feeling and her experience to others, fearing to make it seem less than it had been. For she felt a tie with the land, with the sequoia, with the forest that seemed new to her, yet long familiar. 

And that is the story of how Doireann met the mother-redwood and her sacred spring, but that is not the last of her tales, for it was she who serenaded the ancient sequoia of Armstrong Grove, and it was she who met the Hornéd One amid another redwood forest, and it was she who was gifted with wildlife contact amid the redwood expanse that yet survives—but those are other stories.

hollowredwood

Recycling Spirit

“In the economy of nature, nothing is ever lost. I cannot believe that the soul of man shall prove the one exception.”     —Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924)

There it is…a clear statement written almost a century before my own conclusion of similar ilk. I’ve thought for decades that nothing vanishes—not matter including living beings, not energy including the nuclear engines we know as stars or suns—nothing at all. Matter become energy becomes matter; thus, nothing that exists ever disappears/vanishes/evaporates/ceases to exist. Consciousness, or spirit, or soul, or qi, or ka, or that-which-lives is real, provable, tangible by its interactions with other consciousnesses. Why should consciousness be the only thing in the cosmos that evaporates, when we know that every thing else in the cosmos continues in other forms? Thus, living spirits continue.

Reincarnation

British Traditional Wicca incorporates a core belief, that reincarnation happens. Our funerary prayer includes a simple request of our Lord of Death & Rebirth:

…when our time comes, we will enter Thy realms gladly. …when rested and refreshed among our dear ones, we shall be reborn by Thy grace and by the grace of the Great Mother. Let it be at the same time and in the same place as our beloved ones. And may we meet and know and remember, and love them again…

So mote it be.

Sacred springs…

inWater is life.      —First Peoples saying

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Greek bronze Pegasus figure, 6th century BCE

Having spoken of the Muses’ sacred spring, Hippocrene (which translates to mean “horse fountain”), it seems fitting to mention the myth of the spring’s creation. Tales tell that Pegasus—himself described as the steed of the Muses—upon launching himself skyward, that his hoof clove the rock of Mt. Helicon, opening the Hippocrene fountainhead  at that place. The Hippocrene remains accessible to hikers on Mt. Helicon today, with a battered old bucket chained to the stone well opening, allowing visitors to reach the subterranean water a few yards (meters) below the opening.

A Scattering of Sacred Springs

Look within, for within is the wellspring of virtue…      —Marcus Aurelius

As the Standing Rock water protectors have reminded us all, “Water is Life.” Freshwater sources, wells and springs, are and have been from time immemorial, regarded with respect at the least and awe at the most. Freshwater natural springs & wells are sacred around the globe.

  • Licton Spring, which I have had the honor to visit personally, is sacred to the Duwamish and intermarried regional tribes of Puget Sound; a source for the medicinal red ochre.
  • The goddess Brigid’s well in Kildare is older than the saint into which the goddess was subsumed. Brigid symbols abound: her sacred flame for forge & crafting; her sacred well for healing & inspiration; her Celtic cross for sun & grain.
  • Aquae Sulis The natural hot springs in Britain’s city of Bath are named for the mineral springs there revered by the Celtic Brythons before Rome supplied the Latin name. The occupying Romans knew her as Sulis Minerva (Minerva is the name they knew Athena by, goddess of wise counsel & creativity), while the Brythonic folk knew Sulis as a healer and judge.
  • Hippocrene fount, sacred spring of the Muses upon Mt. Helicon; the name (Greek compounded of words meaning “horse” & “fountain”) refers to the myth that Athena brought Pegasus as a young colt to be raised by the Muses; when the adult Pegasus leapt for the sky, his hoof clove the stone open to reveal the water beneath, which was reputed to grant inspiration to those who drink of it.

On Muses…

Most references state that the Greek Muses number nine, a few of whose names are part of modern English—terpsichore, the art of dance; and, calliope, a steam organ. These nine best-known Muses are connected with Hellenic Greek mythology of Mt. Olympus and the Olympian deities—these are sometimes called the Younger Muses.

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Mt. Helicon’s Hippocrene spring—sacred to the Muses

One must do further reading to learn that before the muses numbered nine, they numbered three, and before that, there was one. The little-known three Elder Muses have their own sacred mountain, Mt. Helicon, and their three attributes consist of voice, memory, and meditation. Those three attributes enable performance: of poetry, of theater, of music.

Whatever their number, Muses inspire.

When I was a music & theater major, that latter quality of meditation we called “concentration”—the focused, practiced production of sound, emotion, intention that seized and moved our audiences. And when I was brought in to the Wicca, I found that the same sort of “concentration” enables our magic. As the Brits say, “Snap!”

 

Across the Genders

It’s been a while since I dug into the roots of a word. I think I’m overdue.

Gender

First, what does it mean?
As of 1300, the English language noun meant kind or sort or class. No implicit or explicit reference to biological or physiological nature of the thing referenced. Its root word, unsurprisingly, is the Old French gendre or genre (a hint* for those paying attention) which meant kind or species or character. And that Old French word in turn comes from the Latin stem genus meaning race or stock or family or kind or rank or order or species.

*Genre, straight from the Modern French, is now used as an entirely different word in English…but it still means kind or sort or class.

Wowzer. Look at that! Gender is a means of classifying things into groupings. Later, it added the specific grouping of “is it male or female”—much later (I call 200 years later, compared to life spans of 30-70 years…).

Before we ever get to bringing individuals in to our circles, bringing them between the worlds, we tend to cover the term “polarity” in discussing the theoretical underpinnings of what it is that we—those weird-ass Wicca—do. But, y’know, I don’t believe that theoretical underpinnings are what the Wicca had in mind when they wanted to prevent Hitler from invading and defeating Britain. Or five generations (see there, there’s that genera—plural of genus—again) before that, when witches wanted to keep the Little Corsican on the continental side of the channel, and sent an entire summer of uncoöperative winds for the purpose. Or another six generations before that, when the Armada of Spain was already in English waters when it succumbed to the Atlantic gales called up to protect the folk who preferred “Good Queen Bess” over her predecessor “Bloody Mary” (no swearing involved).

In other simple words, witches—the Wicca—do what is needed because it works. We teach and pass and spread our tradition across gender. And for the most part, that means woman to man to woman to man to woman to…

And…

Who are we to say that gender always and forever and only means biological sex? When it did not mean that, in our own language, in the first place. (Remember? two hundred years from sorting into groups, before it also mean sorted by “gender”?)

I don’t see a need to argue about it. I certainly don’t see a need to snipe at equally qualified and trained and experienced witches using apple-pie analogies, as if there were only ever one KIND (sort? class?? gender???) of apple pie. All too often, we elders can show ourselves human and imperfect in oh-so-many ways. Not least of which is telling each other that we have the sole truth when every one of us knows that no one has the sole truth—except as it relates to that particular entity.

Metals, Makers, and Magic

 

hematite-bubble

hematite iron ore

Iron. It’s the first metal that comes to mind for most folk. Hardly surprising—we humans developed iron smelting and tools contemporarily with the alphabetic writing that enabled the bulk of our earliest human histories, and consequently name that era of human proto-history the Iron Age—a macroscopic example of iron in human existence. There’s also the microscopic example of iron in human existence—blood chemistry. Iron and its affinity for oxygen form the foundation of animal life on our planet.

 

Lodestone, that natural variant of magnetite (a naturally occurring ore of iron) is innately magnetic; modern geologists believe lodestones, routinely unearthed close to the surface, to have been permanently magnetized by lightning. Lodestones are, by definition, magnets— drawing to themselves small iron objects, or clinging readily to large ones. It must be magic, this movement without aid…

lodestone-magnet

magnetite iron ore: lodestone

 

These days, it is well known that if you spin a magnet, you get electricity, and if you coil a wire running electric current, you get magnetism. The two are, in essence, dimensional aspects of the other. That’s modern knowledge. What first our ancestors knew, millennia ago, was that a lodestone indicated north, and thus gave guidance when neither sun nor stars provided any. Hence its name in Old English lode + stan = lodestone, the stone that guides the way, a parallel to lodestar, an ancient name for the pole star that guided seafarers. A most practical magic, this, the magic of iron and magnets and north…

 

BLADE

1992 hand-forged athamé with heavy leather sheath

Smith. Blacksmith, metal-worker, skilled crafter—each one a maker of ploughshares and swords, hasps and hinges. Early European tales feature smiths of myth and legend: Hæphestus of Attica and Vulcan of Ætna, Wayland of Albion  or Völund of Jutland, plying skills that created storied blades and magical armor and household wonders. Their work survives everywhere—

 

Rocam_durandal

replica Durandal in château wall

a medieval castle in France holds fast in its wall a sword reputed to be Wayland’s work that dates from Charlegmagne (7th century)—the sword Durandal (or a replica thereof).

 

 

 

1850sIronNails

square iron nails c. 1850

While still a teen, I recall picking out rusty old square nails doing garden work  (given that was northern California, I can be pretty sure they were 19th century, or late 18th). Ironmongery lasts; another magical quality…

 

Makers. The human ability to create, dream up, envision some thing…and then make that thing, create that object, that ability is magical. It is no wonder humans have long revered those of us who achieve those common miracles of making. Out of thin air!…and not all of those makers are human. Rooks and ravens, baboons and bonobos…for all I know, the cetaceæ. It’s all magic, this making.…

Magic. Somewhere in the Western “Enlightenment,” came a disdain for magic, a separation from those who worked the magic of science and observation and experiment, and those who worked the magic of tradition and tales and contagion. We of the twenty-first century struggle to bridge both magics…the whiles we discover the new magics of transisters and quanta and quarks, and feud about how we may weave the new magics into the old. So sad, that the “one true way”—which has never existed despite Abrahamic religious claims to the contrary throughout the past 1500 years—prevents the simple magic of emotion, of community, of love, from being recognized by all those who prefer to make their own world, and make it better. Yet even Carl Sagan himself, that quintessential materialist, came to recognize the magic of the universe….