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

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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.

redwoodscale.png - 1But 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.

RedwoodStreamCanyonAnd 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 refresh 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!”

 

about the name Swangrove…

Why Swans, Anyway?

Woodhart-logo-coloredIn about 2003, as best I recall, the HP of the first coven I led, K.C., posed a challenge to the members: come up with an image to represent the coven, something suitable to use on a banner or similar group identifier.  Some discussion led nowhere, and the banner never materialized. We did have a public logo made from our public name, Woodhart, which always satisfied me.

Swangrove-imageDuring circle meditation related to that challenge, however, I emerged from trance with a vivid vision of  huge swans flying overhead, the words feathered dragon echoing in my being. My imagery rang no bells with any of the coven at that time, and I tucked the concept away in my personal magical lore.  That is the kernel of the inspiration. Began teaching again a few years on, and a few years after that…a new coven, Swangrove. But there’s a lot more to the name than the inspiration.

Feathered Dragons

Basic schooling taught me that birds were the modern descendants of the dinosaurs, and paleological discoveries of the past 50 years have added and expanded that understanding. Fossil records taught us that ancient Archeopteryx was feathered. Mythologies of aboriginal Australia, Mesoamerica, and Eurasia all feature giant serpents (or dragons): Rainbow Serpent of the Dreamtime, the Feathered Serpent best known as Quetzalcoatl, the Ouroboros of Europe, or the World Serpent of the Norse. Tribal memory or creative minds, who knows? But this gnostic phrase, feathered dragon, kept following me. So…I looked it up!

giantSwan-Sicily

Extinct giant swan defending territory from Sicilian dwarf elephant

Prehistoric giant swans existed on the Mediterranean islands of Malta & Sicily about half a million years ago, after the last Ice Age. Fossil evidence shows those swans to have been about six and a half feet from beak to tail-tip, with wingspans of 13 feet. Extinct dwarf elephants co-existed on these islands at the time (around half a million years ago), as depicted in the illustration shown here, with human:elephant silhouettes to provide visual scale that points up the enormity of these swans!

 

While isolated species located on islands or subcontinents often evolve dwarf or giant characteristics, I have an unfounded sense that these giant swans may well have been pushed southward by glaciation, having once been known across greater Europe. Given that all extant swan species live in subarctic or northern temperate habitats, I speculate that my sense has some basis in reality. Perhaps.

Swans

About the birds…

swan_nest

Nesting trumpeter swan

A great many folks have little knowledge of swans beyond the ballet Swan Lake or Disney’s animated Swan Princess. To begin with, swans are big. Beak to tail-tip, mature swans grow to five feet plus, with wingspans of double that. Trumpeter swans, the species native to northern North America from the Great Lakes to Alaska, were hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century—a scant 70 individuals—when they were first protected by law. A previously unknown additional population was discovered in the 1950s in Alaska’s Copper River region; today the trumpeter population is estimated at less than 20,000, with three-fourths of that in Alaska.

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Trumpeter swan in flight

Swans are the heaviest flying waterfowl; an adult trumpeter may weigh thirty pounds. Whooper swans are of similar size, living in subarctic Eurasia’s boreal forest.  The mute swan is another Eurasian species, about 10% smaller; brought into the U.S.A in the 18th century for æsthetic reasons —mute swans swim with their necks in an S-curve, while most other swan species swim with necks vertical — the mute swan has become an invasive species in North America. Tundra swans are native to Arctic and sub-Arctic latitudes around the globe, and unlike other swan species, are migratory birds. Six U.S. states allow very limited hunting of tundra swans in late autumn in their overwinter grounds. Black swans are native to Australia and have been naturalized in New Zealand, where a related N.Z. black swan was hunted to extinction before European settlement; they are similar is size to mute swans. The black-necked swan is native to South America and the smallest of the swan species. Swans live as long as 25 years; they fledge late in their first year of life, grow white plumage (instead of grey) at about two years, when they may also pond with their mate, but do not begin nesting until aged four to seven years.

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Swan species show from largest to smallest size with differentiations, mostly bill variations & leg colors

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Swan defending its territory

Swans take several years to mature fully, although they fledge late in their first year, but will pair-bond as early as two years, and usually mate for life, although nest failures may lead to “divorce” in about 5%. Male swans share nest-building, incubation, and chick feeding duties with their mates, with families of cob, pen, & cygnets remaining together most of a year.

If any of my readers have encountered geese kept as guard animals—I have—then you know just how territorial, how protective, how fierce they can be. Swans are just as protective of their nests & mates & offspring—and swans, remember, are larger than geese:  taller, wider, stronger, heavier.

About the myths…

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Swan princes await their sister’s nettle shirts to become human again.

Norse valkyries are swan maidens; one of the thousand-year-old Eddas describes seeing the valkyries as women with their swan’s garb lying on the grass beside them. If this sounds familiar, that’s not surprising. Folk tales of swan youths and swan maidens permeate Arctic cultures across Eurasia—Russian, Norse, European, and more. The Wagnerian operas known as the Ring cycle draw on this Northern mythological heritage.

swan-rivermaidenWagner

1850 illustration of Wagner’s Ring cycle

Russian folktales provided the tragic outline of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet. Germanic tales describe the Six Wild Swans who were cursed from human form into swans, and whose sister-princess then worked mutely for years to make the nettle shirts to remove the curse. (Two details give this tale interesting substance: the historically accurate use of nettle as a textile fiber, and the youngest prince’s left arm that was a “wing”—a reasonable description of many arm birth defects). In Greek mythology, swans draw Aphrodite’s chariot, are sacred to Apollo, and act as mounts to both of them. Most famously, Zeus disguised himself as a swan when seducing the mortal queen Leda. The Hindu deity Brahma uses a chariot drawn by swans.

Classical & medieval depictions of swans with Aphrodite & Apollo,, and of Zeus as a swan.

Hence, Swangrove

The initiates-only name of my coven is in Gaelic. The coven into which I was first brought in had a Gaelic name honoring the sidhe—the folk also called Tuatha de Danaan. Most of the covens that hived from that parent coven have also chosen Gaelic names. The first coven I founded was Fiodh Sidhe, which lived almost a decade before choosing to disband: its name means approximately Forest of the Fey—Woodhart being an easy-to-pronounce name for Fiodh Sidhe’s outer court and to the publicly offered classes.

When I explored Gaelic names for my second coven, I came across the Scots Gaelic soma, with its meaning being “a flock of swans.” In particular, I was struck by the fact that a northern land and language had its own collective noun for a flock of swans. And I knew instantly that here was our private name, Soma Sidhe. Which only left the question of an easier name for the broader world to know us by…and some old readings boiled up from my memory about archeological and written evidence of the past two thousand years and more, that sacred groves (of trees) were ancient sites of worship…and in an instant…Swangrove.

Footnote: Swangrove has closed.