Book of Blackbirds: The Choice

“For many are called, but few are chosen.”

~ Matthew 22:14, KJV

Author’s note: The following was prompted by the Patheos article, The Toxic Narrative of “Being Chosen” by Gods and Bad Boys. I thought it might be helpful to explore this idea a bit further and look at what some of us mean by this idea of being “chosen” by a deity, and perhaps present an alternative viewpoint to this phenomenon.

"Golden Apple of Discord" by Jacob Jordaens.  From WikiMedia.
“Golden Apple of Discord” by Jacob Jordaens. From WikiMedia.

There are many examples from literature of the type of being “chosen” as interpreted in the article linked above, especially if we look to stories from the Judaeo-Christian scriptures (3 days and nights in the belly of a fish, I mean, how manipulative is that?) and so I agree that casting the act of being chosen by some deity as something to which we have no say in the matter is toxic, and those who think this fate has befallen them probably need to examine why they feel their lives suck so bad that they require to be the hapless victims of some bully gods in the first place. Then again it could also be a way to validate certain beliefs that may not have a firm foundation in reality – we have been chosen by this god, this god must therefore really exist.

While I do agree with the sentiments expressed in the article as far as it goes, the argument here can also sometimes be broken down to a question of semantics. Things are rarely so simplistic as depicted in either/or scenarios; not often is life so clearly black and white. This is one reason I don’t think we can dismiss out of hand the entire concept of being divinely chosen as if it were altogether a bad thing. I understand that there are those who might be fulfilling a psychological need by feeling they have been forcefully compelled into the service of some god. If that is not the case however, perhaps a healthier way to express this would simply be to say we have been “called” rather than using a loaded term like “chosen”. Being called implies we have not relinquished free will but retain the choice whether to answer the call or ignore it, and also implies that we might have something to gain personally from the relationship rather than it being just unidirectional or parasitic.

The feeling that our god has chosen us might well be a valid one, but it is also true that in any relationship it is always our own choice whether to accept being chosen or not. I chose my husband, but he also chose me; it was a choice made by mutual consent based on mutual love and respect. I choose to do the work given to me by my employers, and I reap the benefits of getting paid for it. My employers on the other hand have chosen me to do the jobs they want done based on my abilities and past experience. There are types of being chosen (to represent one’s country in the Olympics, say, based on performance skills) that have nothing to do with those in the toxic category.

For instance consider the relationships we have with our spiritual totems. It is often said that we do not choose our totems but that our totems (be they animal, vegetable, or mineral) choose us, and this has been my unvarying experience with totems as well. It is not the same as being “chosen” by a bad boy (or girl) god/dess to do their unquestioned bidding, gods forbid (remember that dreadful Abraham and Isaac story). On the other hand totemic relationships are always potentially beneficial, and other than our lifetime totems, these relationships can come and go as the need arises for a particular totem’s particular message to be applied in our lives. Sometimes these are warnings or portents, sometimes a message to us that adopting the aspects of a certain totem will be helpful in dealing with whatever life happens to be throwing at us at the moment. That is, if we are wise enough to hear the message.

My personal thinking is that ultimately these things originate in our psyches, but I’ve always stood by the axiom that a difference that makes no difference is no difference, so what the hell. I won’t argue here about whether or not gods or totems are really “real” because if we heed what they are telling us the outcome of their appearance is the same no matter what we believe to be their origins (hedgewitching 101 – the late author Terry Pratchett called it “headology”). I think the point is that we not forget that in any relationship the choice to be there always lies with us. Being chosen is ultimately our own choice, every blessed one of “God’s Chosen People” out there notwithstanding.

I’d like to note that Persephone, one of the goddesses I most admire, was “chosen” by the god Hades in just such a manner as presented in the above linked article. Another term widely used for this particular instance is “rape”. I have felt a personal desire to explore the Mysteries of Persephone, and I consider this a great honour. Persephone, working within the culture from which she emerged, turned her abduction into a personal victory and became not only the Goddess of Spring, but also the Goddess and Queen of all the Underworld. Unlike Persephone however, I have never felt any overpowering compulsion to venerate or follow this god, or else (She of all people wouldn’t do this anyway). If I open my mind to Her aspects and meditate on Her stories, then I understand it is to my benefit to experience the wonders and insights that such attention offers me. If I choose not to do so, the only punishment that follows is that I miss out on gaining what might prove to be life-affirming enlightenment. At no time have I felt that becoming fish food was a prerequisite to this enlightenment however.

If we suddenly feel an affinity towards a god that we’ve never given much previous thought to, then by all means we may heed that call if we deem this to be beneficial to us. If not, then that god or that guy or that job can buzz right off and go choose someone else. Either way, the choice is ever and always ours and ours alone. I believe it is good for us to question our gods; any god worthy of respect would never make us into his or her slave. A wise man, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, “God could not be unkind to me if he should try.” In other words, a god deserving of our honour will honour us and our autonomy in return; any other response would be impossible for such a god.

Irish-American Witchcraft: When Fairies Do the Haunting

This time of year, as we move from Samhain to the Winter Solstice, tends to be a time when people are more aware of spirits and ghosts. Our minds seem to naturally be more open to the idea of the dead lingering around us when the external world is in a stage of rest, death, and resetting. It’s always interested me though that whenever there’s an uptick in paranormal activity, be it this time of year or any other, people seem to default to assuming its human ghosts doing the haunting when in reality the world includes a wide range of possibilities.

‘Kelpie’ Thomas Millie Dow 1895, public domain.
‘Kelpie’ Thomas Millie Dow 1895, public domain.

Hauntings aren’t always ghosts and I’ve seen a lot of people aggravate a situation by assuming they are, when what’s actually going on is fairies.  What works for a ghost, both in contacting one and in dealing with one that’s being problematic, not only doesn’t work if what you are dealing with is a fairy but can actually make the situation much worse. I’ve also been really entertained watching some of those ghost hunting tv shows and seeing what seems to me to clearly be fairy activity labeled and treated as either ghosts or demons.

There are, of course, no limit to the places you may have a fairy encounters, and it could be argued that many people will be more likely to have these experiences, and be more open to them, in wild or natural settings. I wouldn’t encourage people to try to take on or drive out fairies on the fairies’ own turf (no pun intended) so in situations where you are running across fairies in the outside world and you can simply leave the area, that’s what I suggest doing. What I want to talk about here are other times you might encounter them, where walking away may not be an easy option or where they are meeting us on neutral ground or even in human places. So let’s take a quick look at some signs of fairy presence, common places we can run across fairies being mistaken for ghosts, and then we’ll discuss what not do, and what to do.

Signs of Fairies

Believe it or not it’s not uncommon for me to have people contact me asking for help deciding whether the activity they have is ghostly, demonic, or Otherworldly. I’ll be clear here that ‘demonic’ is not my forte and any activity that seems to fall into that range I suggest people find a specialist. I will say that most of what I have seen on tv shows and the like that the hosts label demonic I would say is fairy activity, keeping in mind that I use the term fairies as a generic which encompasses an array of kinds of beings. Obviously I can’t diagnose what exactly is going on without being there myself but based on how people describe a situation I can usually get an idea and suggest the likelihood of what’s going on*.

Basically ghostly activity tends to include things like temperature drops, moved items, electronics being messed with – i.e. turned on or off, batteries drained, distortion, signal loss – shadow figures or partial apparitions, or sometimes audible communication. Fairies, when they are around, can physically take objects (removing the item entirely from the place), may appear as movement in the peripheral, can cause odd dreams, create fairy rings, or tangle people’s hair while they sleep. Both types of beings can throw things, break things, may appear with distinctive smells, and can cause different emotions including happiness or fear, and may physically touch people. In my experience in these contexts when ghosts are interacting with us they are trying to get our attention; when fairies are interacting with us they are either being mischievous or malicious.

When people start telling me about experiences that involve items being stolen, individual humans in a group being singled out for abuse, inexplicable bruising, inexplicable tangles in hair, or food being ruined I tend to lean towards thinking it may be fairy activity. Obviously we’re focusing here on the more negative end of things, in this context, and I don’t mean to imply there aren’t positive signs as well but if the Good Neighbours around you are happy with you then you don’t really need to worry about it. If on the other hand they are causing issues, then you need to be aware of the specific indicators that separate them from ghosts. 

an abandoned psychiatric hospital in the process of being torn down image copyright M Daimler 2015
an abandoned psychiatric hospital in the process of being torn down
image copyright M Daimler 2015

Abandoned buildings

If I had to guess I’d say the most common place that people today run across fairies who they mistake for human ghosts would probably be abandoned or unoccupied buildings. These can be either public buildings or homes, as long as they’ve been empty (in my experience) for at least 6 months. We find this in folklore where the ruins of buildings gained a reputation for becoming the abode of Otherworldly beings but this isn’t exclusive to places that are hundreds of years old and long abandoned. Where I live there’s an old, abandoned section of an amusement park for example that now has a reputation for being a malevolent location belonging to the fairies. It’s always best to be cautious when entering or going near abandoned buildings particularly those that have truly started to be reclaimed by nature. I have found that when a house has lost its roof but the walls are still standing there will often be some very intense energy around, particularly if the hearth and chimney are still standing.

Your Home

It’s less common in my experience for a person living in a house to suddenly have an issue with paranormal phenomena that is actually the Other Crowd but it does sometimes happen. What I have seen more often is someone moving into a new house or one that’s been empty on the market for a while and then finding the house already has occupants.  Once a building has been open and empty for at least half a year then Other beings can and sometimes will move in. When humans then move in as well it can cause problems. There are also some circumstances where you may live in a place without issue until something changes that either aggravates the existing fey in that location or upsets the status quo. Once that equilibrium is lost they can start to express their unhappiness in ways that will be clear to the human inhabitants.

Public Spaces

Some public spaces are just pass throughs, as much for the spirits as for humans, but others aren’t.  Where this matters for our current discussion is for people who might encounter fairies either at workplaces, hotels/motels, or possibly public transportation. Generally speaking I might surmise that it’s less likely for a person to notice if they do have such an encounter because they simply won’t be paying attention. However it is entirely possible to run across fairies while you are outside your home and in an otherwise human-inhabited area. I’d point to gremlins as one, less than positive, example of a type of fairy that may be encountered both in the workplace or on public transport. I’ve also had several experiences with fey who attach themselves to or live in hotels and larger public spaces along those lines. These fairies tend to consider these places or items in these places as their own, and this can be a source of conflict with humans.

swamps are a good place to find spirits, image copyright M Daimler 2017
swamps are a good place to find spirits, image copyright M Daimler 2017

Do’s and Don’ts

Or, more accurately ‘don’ts and do’s’. Unlike the way many people approach hauntings you need to treat fairies differently.  what follows is a general guideline, and it should be understood that there are exceptions to these rules, especially for people with more experience, but these are good guidelines to follow based on my experience. I would also strongly suggest if you do think you have an unhappy fairy situation going on that you try to find someone with experience to help you. So, if you think you are dealing with fairies:

Don’t

– don’t yell at them or insult them.  While this can be helpful with ghosts it’s a really bad idea to do this with the Fey. If it is fairies you will almost certainly aggravate the situation

– don’t challenge them. I’ve seen several situations get nasty when people tried to establish dominance over the spirits they thought were there by challenging them directly. This will not end well if you are dealing with fairies.

– don’t expect sage, palo santo, or other popular cleansing methods to do anything. In my experience the Fair Folk are not bothered by or effected by fumigating with these types of plants. It won’t anger them but it won’t make them leave either, so please don’t count on that to help you.

– don’t wave around a holy book or call on generic Gods. This is a bit of a grey area as in some circumstances they will respond to the invocation of specific Gods, however I emphasize specific. Calling on Gods may also temporarily calm the situation only to have it get worse again later.

– do consider leaving them alone. In many cases what is causing the conflict and the activity may be rooted in human activity that is upsetting the local spirits including the Fey folk. Often times the best and easiest way to solve this is to simply leave them alone and stop doing whatever is annoying them.

Do

– do bribe them. Bribery in my experience doesn’t work with ghosts but it should be your first go to with fairies. I recommend milk or cream to start, although butter also works.

– do talk to them in a polite and civil manner. I touched on this above by saying don’t yell at or insult them, but it goes beyond that, because i’s important to try hard to be polite as well. With fairies you get respect by showing respect, and sometimes simply asking them to stop will do the trick.

– do go all out if banishing is needed. Here’s the thing about fairies, if it comes to forcing them out you have to go full on with it. There’s no making a threat you won’t follow through on and trust me they’ll know how serious you are. You can bluff a ghost, you can’t bluff a fairy.

– do ward with iron, salt, and rowan if you need to. There’s no one size fits all to drive out fairies or keep them out, so when in doubt I recommend a combination of iron, salt, and rowan. Burning mugwort is also a method found in folklore.

It can be difficult even with experience to differentiate between ghosts and fairies when you have supernatural phenomena going on, but it is important to know what you are dealing before you decide how to handle it.  If you treat a fairy like you would a ghost the odds are you will make the situation worse instead of better. And with the Other Crowd ‘worse’ is not a matter of degrees but of exponentials. By going in with an open mind and considering the possibility that it may be ghosts or it may be something Else, I believe you have a better chance of a good outcome.

*obviously the first step is to eliminate all the other possibilities, including animals, humans, and technology. Only once you’ve ruled out any earthly explanation do you want to look at supernatural possibilities.

The Crow’s Nest: A Grounding Spell for the Holidays

The Holidays are the most stressful time of year for many. Shopping, food, social and family obligations swell to the bursting point this time of year. Western Culture, already obsessed with “Busy-ness”, demands we do more, be more and buy more than ever. Social and Family gatherings can be a trying time for many of us. While the reasons may vary, it all boils down to the same thing: stress and more stress.

candlespellpatheos

How this Spell came about

I was recently asked to demonstrate sympathetic magic techniques. I wanted to provide a sound technique that would allow even a novice to practice concentration, visualization, grounding, energy work and spell casting.

Spellcasting is a practical technique that allows us to focus our will and intent towards a certain desired outcome. Spell components are selective for vibrational compatibility in order to “strengthen” the spell.

The following spell popped into my head this morning. It can be used as a learning tool, but it is also a method of coping with stress.

A Candle Spell for Grounding

Here is the step by step explanation of the spell:

Gather the following supplies:

One candle

The candle can be of any type you prefer, a pillar candle, a votive, a tea light, etc. A larger candle can be burned over days for ongoing work while a smaller one can be used when a quick spell is necessary. Choose a color you associate with Earth and trees for this spell. I used dark green. A brown candle would also work.  Place it in an appropriate holder. The candle represents a visual focal point in which to concentrate the energy of the spell.

The reason why candle color is mentioned is that spell construction involves gathering components that align with the vibrational intention of your spell. Along with the energy put into the spell, the matching components aid in the overall success of the working.  Individual colors on the spectrum possess vibrations. Tables of Correspondences generally list components such as color and their magical (vibrational) properties. I chose a green candle for this spell because it has grounding, earthy vibrations.

Anointing Oil

The candle will need to be anointed with an oil of some sort. As a Priestess of The Morrigan I chose to work with one of Her aspects, Anu, whom I associate with the Earth and thus grounding. I formulated an oil to use with Anu in mind using nine drops of apple, three drops of cinnamon and six drops of earth oil in a grapeseed oil base. You can chose an oil that suits your own needs. Pre-made spell oils can be purchased or plain olive oil can be used.

The method I used to select the essential oils involved listening to my own instincts, being familiar with my Deity, and years of practical experience. Again, a table of correspondences can be consulted to select essential oils to match your intention.

Anoint the candle with the oil. I generally follow the premise of anointing in a certain direction according to my intent. For example, I anoint from the base to the wick of the candle while focusing what I want to dispel or I anoint from the wick to the base while focusing on what I want to attract. The method is not as important as the intent. While anointing the candle, focus on the spell work, visualize the desired result.  Concentrate on your need to feel calmer and grounded for this spell, visualize the candle as a tree.

Stones or crystals appropriate for grounding should be chosen for this spell. I have obsidian arrowheads I work with. Hematite, Jet or jasper could be used as well. Pick what you feel works best for you. I generally work with what I have on hand. In a pinch, pick up some rocks off the ground.

The number of stones is a personal choice. I use six stone arrowheads because six is a number I associate with magic. Choose a number that holds significance for you.

An offering of your choice. I recommend environmentally friendly offerings. I use herbs, food, liquids and even bird seed as offerings. Small crystals are a good choice as well. The point is to show appreciation to the deity or spirit you are calling upon in the spell.  My offering consisted of dried apples.

Casting the Spell

Now that you have gathered the supplies go to your altar or another place you will not be disturbed for a few minutes. Casting a circle is optional. Work according to your own tradition, needs and the time you have.

Anoint the candle and place the stones around its base, set one stone aside to hold in your hand. Light the candle and hold the stone. This is a good time to ask for aid from a deity or spirit if you choose to. Visualize the candle as a tree. Take three deep slow breaths, relax and focus. Visualize any negative energy that may have accumulated around or inside you flowing into the stone in your hand. Once you have the negative energy concentrated into the stone in your hand visualize it flowing into the stones surrounding the candle. ‘See” the energy moving from the stone in your hand into the stones around the candle.

Next visualize the energy being absorbed into the tree (candle), its roots are sunk deep in the ground. All the negative energy you released is flowing back into the Earth. Energy never ceases to exist.  It only transforms.

Take a brief moment to sense the change in yourself. You should feel more relaxed and clear headed after this spell.

Your offering should be given at this point in the working.

Allow the candle to burn down completely in a safe place or it can be snuffed and relit for the same purpose at another time. If you cast a circle, take the circle down.

This spell can be practiced every day. It can also be adapted to suit other needs you may have. Additional components can be added such as incense. The possibilities are limited only by your own creativity.

Blessings to You and Yours during this Holiday Season!

Irish-American Witchcraft: The Morrigan, Questions and Answers

There’s a lot of people who have questions about the Morrigan and I sometimes have people on social media either private message me or ask me on my Facebook page. I thought it might be helpful to do a blog post where I publicly answer popular questions about the Morrigan, so here you go. For even more answers see my book The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens, part of the Pagan Portals series.

Robert asks is there any truth to the idea that Danu is the Morrigan?

My answer – that idea is from a single reference in the Lebor Gabala Erenn (LGE). However it’s contradicted in multiple other places in the same text where it’s said that the Morrigan’s name is Anand (not Danand) -note that Anu and Danu would be the nominative forms of those names – and it’s also worth noting that we see the Morrigan and Danand together physically in one place in both the Cét-Cath Maige Tuired and Banshenchas. There’s a whole separate issue about who Danand actually is, but that’s tangential here. Personally I favor the idea that the reference to the Morrigan as Danand in the LGE is a scribal error and its should have read Anand, which is supported elsewhere in the LGE.

While it’s not definitively agreed on among scholars, there’s a pretty solid argument in my opinion that Anand and Danand are entirely separate beings. There names have different meanings, for one thing, and what little mythology we do have for each is mostly different.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

Marie asks – How has the Morrigan transformed over time? Related to that Caoimhin asks what activity we see related to her in post Iron-age Ireland?

My answer – in the oldest sources, written in the 9th century based on earlier material, the Morrigan is clearly a goddess and is referred to as a goddess in several places including the Metrical Dindshenchas.  As we move deeper into the Christianized period we find her increasingly seen as a nighttime terror, a supernatural female who terrorizes. Whereas Brighid as a goddess became muddled with saint Brigid the Morrigan was too dangerous to be domesticated and was relegated instead to the wild ranks of Fairy and for the more cynical was viewed as a demon.

Kami asks – What names are conflated with the Morrigan?

My answer – The Morrigan’s true name, if she has one, is possibly Anand (Anu) although I will be clear that this is contested and our only source for it is references from the Lebor Gabala Erenn. Cormac’s Glossary tells us that the three Morrigans are Badb, the Morrigan, and Macha and indeed these three daughters of Ernmas appear acting together in mythology in several places. Badb and Macha are also called ‘Morrigan’ in some sources. These three are the main deities who can with certainty be said to be ‘the Morrigans’.

Much later authors in the 19th century also conflated several other goddess with the Morrigan, often based on those goddesses own connections to war and battle and sometimes through their appearing and acting with either Badb or the Morrigan in myths. These include Nemain and Fea in particular. Lady Gregory also suggested that there was local folklore in Ireland connecting Áine to the Morrigan although she is the only source for this idea. And of course there is the possible link between the Morrigan and Danand (Danu) based on the single reference in the Lebor Gabala Erenn.

Also Kami – Is the Morrigan a horse goddess or a cow goddess?

My answer – The Morrigan is associated with cows in several different stories, particularly with cows through the concept of cattle raids which was the main form of warfare in iron age Ireland. She takes the form of a hornless heifer in the Tain Bo Cuialigne, appears in the Tain Bo Regamna with a cow she’s stolen from the Sid of Cruachan and taken to be bred in Ulster, and in the story of Odras she steals a herd of cattle from the eponymous Odras. Cows were highly significant animals who represented wealth and social status.

The Morrigan is not associated with horses, however Macha is through her possession of the Liath Macha, a horse that would later pull Cu Chulainn’s chariot, and through her racing the king of Ulster’s horses.

Gwen asks – What underlies the idea of the Morrigan as a sex or fertility goddess?

My answer – That’s a complicated one. There’s no direct evidence of the Morrigan having either of these roles in the mythology. She has sex once in one story with a deity who is referred to as her husband so that hardly fits any definition of a goddess of sex. She has no connections to pregnancy or childbirth or agriculturally to crops or the reproduction of herds (except through stealing cows). However many modern devotees suggest that she does fit these roles as an empowered female force who is in total control of her sexuality and as a goddess of death who would therefore also control the other end of the spectrum and influence rebirth and birth.

Personally I don’t see her as a sex goddess myself, as to me a sex goddess would be a goddess who has sex, sexual pleasure, or procreation as her main purviews; or at the very least is known to have a lot of sexual interactions in her mythology. I just don’t see that with the Morrigan. If I were going to nominate any Irish deity as ‘sex deity’ it would be the Dagda who does have a stronger mythic connection to sexual relations and procreation.

Several people – Is the Morrigan a triple goddess?

My answer – In the modern neo-pagan sense of a maiden-mother-crone goddess no. In the older sense of a deity who appeared with two other deities then yes as we often see the Morrigan acting with two others, usually her two sisters Badb and Macha. When we see triple deities in Irish myth they are usually age equals and often siblings who either share a main purview or act together to accomplish a goal, so by that measure the Morrigan, Badb, and Macha would qualify.

Morrigan asks – Is the Morrigan associated with the Underworld?

My answer – This is a tricky one. The Irish don’t have a concept of an Underworld in quite the same way that we might picture it, so on the surface no she isn’t a goddess of the resting place of the dead. However like all the Tuatha De Danann she does reside in the Otherworld and does have a fairy mound, a sidhe, that she claims. She is associated with Uaimh na gCat, the cave of cats, which is sometimes called ‘Ireland’s Hellmouth’ and she certainly does have cthonic associations in the most literal sense because of this.

 Uaimh na gCat, 2016, copyright M Daimler
Uaimh na gCat, 2016, copyright M Daimler

Chelly asks – Why do some people fear the Morrigan so much?

My answer – The Morrigan’s main purviews are war, battle, and death. She was also subject, as was previously mentioned, to a literary shift that took her from a goddess to a spectral figure that was in some cases outright called demonic. I suspect that it is for these reason that modern pagans for a long time tended to fear and actively avoid the Morrigan. This has eased a bit in recent years and there is a more balanced view of her in some places now, although we do need to be careful not to go too far in the other direction by trying to see her as entirely safe or overemphasize her associations with things outside battle for our own comfort. She is a complex deity and should be appreciated as such.

Sarah asks – Why do we focus on the Morrigan as a war goddess and not on her other aspects?

My answer -Well, her mythology does tend to emphasize her roles in battle and in inciting battles. Some people tend to see only this when they look at her, or this and the related connections to death and success in war. These are certainly not her only purviews and we know she was also a goddess of prophecy, for example, and who had connections to sovereignty and magic. Like all deities she really can’t be narrowly defined as a Goddess of (whatever) but it’s better to say that there are some things she’s more well known for being associated with and other things she’s not particularly associated with. Since war is one of her main associations that gets a lot of attention.

Also Sarah – What is the Morrigan’s genealogy?

My answer – According to mythology the Morrigan is the daughter of Ernmas and Delbeath; she has at least five sisters, Eriu, Fotla, Banba, Badb, and Macha. She may also have another sister in Anand (if that isn’t the Morrigan’s actual name) because some versions of the Lebor Gabala Erenn instead of saying ‘the Morrigan, that is Anand’ say ‘the Morrigan and Anand’. The reason for this confusion has to do with the shorthand scribes used in the texts where the symbol for ‘that is’ was i and the symbol for ‘and’ was 7 and the two when written could look similiar.

Her husband is the Dagda. She has a daughter Adair and one son Meiche that we know of and possible three other sons Glon, Gaim, and Coscar (if it’s true that her name is actually Anand). Her two nieces are Fea and Nemain.

Contrary to what floats around online sometimes, the Morrigan is one the Tuatha De Danann, she is counted among their number in the sources and acts on their behalf consistently.

Still Sarah – Why do people visualize her as young and sexy?

My answer – she’s a shapeshifter and appears in mythology as both a young maiden [ingen and ben óg] and a very old woman [cailleach and senntaine]. Her most consistent description is simply as a woman [ben] with no age specified and no detailed description. As to why modern people choose to view her as young, winsome, sexy and all that I honestly don’t know. I might theorize that it’s because that view fits into wider societal norms of beauty, or perhaps that it makes a fearsome goddess of battle and prophecy seem safer and more approachable, but I’d only be guessing. It’s not an aesthetic I vibe with myself as I have always visualized her as strong and powerful and I find most modern depictions of her just don’t say that to me.

Edmund asks – What are the biggest misunderstandings about the Morrigan?

My answer – It would be hard to judge what qualify as the biggest. I’d say the most common ones I see that haven’t already been discussed here would include her relationship to the Dagda and her feelings about Cu Chulainn. I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting that she isn’t married or that her meeting with the Dagda at Samhain in the Cath Maige Tuired is by chance, and the source material is actually pretty clear that they were a married couple and that the meeting was pre-arranged and a regular thing. I also see a lot of people saying she was in love with Cu Chulainn and then tried to punish him for rejecting her, but again we just don’t see that in the mythology.

There’s one vignette in the Tain Bo Cuialigne where the Morrigan appears to Cu Chulainn in disguise as a king’s daughter and tries to seduce him, but there’s no evidence that her intentions were genuine; in fact there’s good indications I think that she was either testing him or trying to deceive him into leaving his post at the river ford. Her proclamation of love in this incident is not any more genuine than her telling him she is ‘King Buan’s daughter’, and her promising him that she will attack him is a result of their conversation rather than his specific refusal of her love.

Brendan asks – What do you think is the best way to respond to people who say they follow the Morrigan but their actions show that their ‘following’ amounts to a glorification of violence, firearms possession, and war fighting?

My answer – Different people will have their own views on this. My response to people who seem to be following the Morrigan as an excuse to glorify war and violence is the same as my response to people who try to argue that she is actually a peaceful earth goddess co-opted by the patriarchy: I gently disagree with the viewpoint, try to discuss the known mythology, and ultimately feel that it is between them and Herself to sort out.

Etain asks – Are there any similarities between the Morrigan and the Cailleach?

My answer – Perhaps in the broad strokes, but for the most part they are very different deities with different mythology and different roots. The Morrigan is one the Tuatha De Danann; the Cailleach is not as far as we know for certain. The Morrigan’s physical locations and stories tend to be located in central and northwestern Ireland; the Cailleach’s are in the southwest, for the most part (Sliabh na Caillí being one exception). Similarities, well, both can appear as young or old, both are associated with cattle, and both are fearsome goddesses.

Several people wanted to know about the Morrigan’s preferences relating to offerings, colors, actions by devotees. We don’t have anything in mythology or folklore about those things so any answers here would be either speculation or my own personal gnosis. I’d probably say her favorite color is red, and for offerings I always recommend whiskey, milk, blood, or bread, but with her the real point is the effort that goes into it. She also seems to appreciate intangible offerings done in her name if they include actions that fall in line with her purviews – or poetry seems to go over well.

Several people asked about ways to connect to the Morrigan and that’s really too long to get into in this post but I’ve written about it before here

Several people asked about resources and original texts that the Morrigan appears in. I’ve written about online resources previously here. Original texts can be found at Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective and would include: Lebor Gabala Erenn, Cét-Cath Maige Tuired, Cath Maige Tuired, Banshenchas, Dindshenchas, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, Noínden Ulad, The Boyhood Deeds of Cu Chulainn, The Wooing of Emer, Tain Bo Regamna, Tain Bo Cuiligne, Bricriu’s Feast, Wooing of Ferb, the Death of Cu Chulainn, and the Cath Maig Roth.

The Other Side of the Hedge: What Harry Potter Got Right (and X-Men: Apocalypse Got Wrong)

I’m going to take a break from my usual exhortations toward steady, committed, daily practice to talk about something that I don’t generally bother with. I want to talk about fiction. Not fiction for its own sake, but what fiction says about the West and about the meaning of magic.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox.
Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

We’re Not the Target Audience

Most fiction isn’t written for us. And by “us” I mean spiritual practitioners of all stripes. From the devout Christian visionary to the third degree Witch to the Master of the Temple, those who have crossed the abyss (by whatever name) and returned are somehow set apart.

With the exception of the occasional documentary that hits just the right note, there’s not much that the writers of the entertainment industry have to say that is of any use.

The grim reality is that we magicky types are, in the words of Hooper from Chasing Amy (1997), “a minority in a minority of the minority” – and nobody’s paying any attention to us. For the most part, that’s no different from other subcultures.

The movies we watch and books we read are a pleasurable distraction written by people who, by and large, do not know much at all beyond the here and now. The stories aren’t for us, but sometimes they are about us.

The Stories Told

For the everyday person, the idea that there might be people with “superpowers” is a ridiculous speculation. Tell them there is a world beyond what they know and they ask, “where is the proof?” But at the same time they carry a lingering doubt, founded on the knowledge that they live in a world they don’t understand. No matter how hard they cling to certainty, a voice whispers inside them what if…?

As people living in the 21st century, and as Westerners in particular, we live in a world of heretofore unimaginable knowledge. Each of us has the opportunity to be so educated that there is no historical comparison. And yet such knowledge does not set us apart – it is knowledge open to all of us.

The everyday, good citizen is prone to flights of fancy, and it is encouraged within a limited context. And there is a certain subset of fiction that is geared for those who wish that magic and superpowers are real. While there are a thousand to choose from, I wanted to examine some of the ideas behind two of my favorites: Harry Potter and the X-Men.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Flight into the Unknown

The worlds of both the Harry Potter and the X-Men franchises focus on small populations set apart from the everyday world. In both of them, some people are born with powers and marked as separate from the common life. In both of these fictional cases, the development of powers is a generally considered a metaphor for coming of age and stepping into the power of adulthood.

For the actual practitioner, such ideas are metaphors. Here in the “real world” the ability to “break the rules” as we commonly accept them is generally unimpressive, though it does hold a certain power. Simply, we magicky types might sense the opportunity for a promotion at work, or the predator lurking, and thus be marginally better off than someone untrained. We might perform magic to find a date, with varying and sometimes hilarious results. We do not, however, learn to literally fly, or shapeshift, or teleport.(1)

That doesn’t mean we don’t have power – power that allows us to reach out from the unknown and turn things to our advantage, ward off our enemies, or whatever else we care to turn our deeper selves to. There is much to be learned, and the greatest lesson is that the universe is more than we ever imagined.

Those who have not made the trip into the unknown imagine us practitioners as not what we become, but petty, everyday people with hidden knowledge and power shoehorned in. It’s a terrifying thought.

Sometimes even Sansa can't save you.
Sometimes even Sansa can’t save you.

Harry Potter Got Muggles Right
In the magical community, there is something of a love-hate relationship with Harry Potter. I think there are two opposing tensions involved.

On the one hand, the movie has nothing to do with anything resembling real magic. That doesn’t set us apart – I’m pretty sure LEOs know there’s nothing real about cop shows, forensic anthropologists know there’s nothing real about CSI or Bones, and so forth.

On the other hand, we’re thrilled to be the good guys for a change (even if we’re also the bad guys, too). Except that’s not true.

Harry Potter isn’t about us as practitioners. It is about everyday people, given gimmicky magic powers. And while it appeals to us as everyday people, it doesn’t really reflect anything about actual spiritual development. It’s fantasy, just like it’s meant to be.

But that’s not really my point. What is interesting is the world that Rowling created, and how she saw that from the perspective of the muggles(2) there would need to be some sort of regulation around practitioners.

Sure, the books are written from the wizards’ perspective, and the characters might (or might not) look down on the muggles, but the wizards are engaging in their own flight of fancy. If there were a war, the muggles would slaughter the magic types and drive them into hiding or extinction.(3)

The Ministry of Magic, in the Harry Potter world, is there to keep the wizards safe. It helps keep the peace. Because within the world, if there were a war, the muggles would wipe out the wizards in about a week. Even more frightening is the idea of what the wizards might have to do to win.

If Harry Potter is about people carefully trained to be wizards, then the X-Men is about people with such powers thrust upon them. There’s little in the Marvel Universe to recommend being a mutant. It’s pretty much a terrible fate.

And speaking of terrible…

Where X-Men: Apocalypse Went Wrong

No, I’m not going to simply agree with Roger Ebert, who gave X-Men: Apocalypse one out of four stars on its merits. I actually kind of liked the movie. I didn’t think it was good, but for a superhero-franchise movie it did its job.

What I would like to reflect on is the lack of serious worldbuilding. The mutants were so inhuman that I ended up sympathizing with the supposedly cowardly, villainous Major Stryker, a man who believed that the mutants should be controlled or destroyed at any cost.(4)

The villainous Apocalypse ends up killing tens, or even hundreds, of millions of people. Just for starters, he wipes out Cairo, a city of about ten million people. He disrupts the lives of every person in the world. By contrast, the “good guys” (if you include a mind-controlled Wolverine) kill mere dozens.

Sure, Apocalypse loses in the end. It’s a superhero movie. But what frustrated me was the sheer lack of anyone but the X-Men taking action. And I’m not talking about the Avengers. A hundred million dead, and still the silly humans don’t learn.

The Truth about Muggles
The “muggles” of the Marvel Universe take the death of a hundred million people lying down. In this, X-Men: Apocalypse is wrong about the power, and the goodness, of humanity. Perhaps we are supposed to hate and pity Major Stryker as a caricature of the blind fear and hatred. The writers want us to see him as inhuman, someone unable to see the humanity – of those who could snuff him out like a candle. He’s no villain; he’s not inhuman. In fact, he’s all too human.

And there’s something to be learned there. Like I said in the beginning, these movies resonate with the everyday person. We love the idea of a hero with superpowers. We are thrilled by the villain who can break the rules – not just of society, but of the universe.

All this takes place against a backdrop of Western culture. It’s a place few seriously believe that there is any power beyond the physical. On a daily basis, most religious people don’t take the power of their prayers to change the world seriously. Whether it’s prayer or ritual, they believe in “magic” but don’t practice it.

As a result, Westerners have some strange ideas of what magic is. We might think it is rebellion against God and the natural order, or a gift from the gods. But few think of it as simply part what people do.

If we want to understand how most cultures, which accept that magic is real, deal with the dangers it poses, it’s not impossible. We need only to think of how we would feel if those powers rested not in fiction, and now with heroes and villains. Imagine if those with hidden powers were our coworkers, our competitors, or even our spouses. Other cultures have rules about those things, enforced with everything from social approbation to mob action.

Wow!  That feels like 100 years ago.
Wow! That feels like 100 years ago.

Magic as a Martial Art
I’ve sometimes heard, in magical circles, a disdain for those who do not know. We follow the trend fiction and call them muggles; we shrug at the mundanes who cannot understand. However we set ourselves apart, we fail to understand that it is we who are relying on our common humanity.

I am not suggesting that we need a Ministry of Magic or some such fictional solution to regulate magical practices. Mostly, such activities are self-regulating.

For our own sake, we need to understand and respect the power of the culture we live in. I have yet to meet a practitioner with a thousandth of the mana(5) of a key political or economic player. In short, we can train to make ourselves stronger within out limits, but there are people out there, as mundane as the day is long, with more spiritual power.

There has been a trend in recent years toward treating what we might call (without judgement) “martial” magical practices as if they weren’t a double-edged sword. Taught by fiction, we with a lightness more appropriate to fiction.

In the martial arts, we tell our students not to abuse their newfound powers. We drum into them, “only for self-defense.” Maybe they think we’re protecting those around them, but it is clear to me that we are primarily protecting our students from the repercussions of bad decisions.

If there is a lesson to be learned, if these stories are modern morality plays, then stories about people with superpowers are about how we choose to act responsibly. And they are also stories about the dangers that await us if we fail in our responsibilities.

—–
(1) There are occasional claims to the contrary. I’ve been present at some bona-fide miracles and the beneficiary of at least one. I have spent much of my adult life studying the “impossible.” Such claims can be lumped into the category, “talk is cheap.”

(2) I feel like I can assume that most everyone reading this blog knows what a “muggle” is. Within Harry Potter, the word is a somewhat snide descriptor of those not born with magical abilities, and who are thus considered somewhat clueless about the “real world.” I have hear the term brought, semi-jokingly, into real life.

(3) The division of the muggles from wizards is taken as a given in the Harry Potter books and movies. For a deeper discussion on it, see this article on Wizards, Mundanes, and Economic Benefit.

(4) The Major Stryker of the X-Men comic books is a much less palatable character, who sets himself up as a televangelist, runs an extrajudicial paramilitary organization, and was originally based on Jerry Falwell’s televangelism in the early 80s. I am ignoring all that and focusing on his character in X-Men: Apocalypse.

(5) I am using the term “mana” here to refer to that raw spiritual power that comes from having high social status. The term comes from the Hawaiian language to refer to the spiritual power of people who are leaders. There are advantages to those positions of power that extend far beyond a fat bank account and swooning investors, and anthropologists have long used this term to describe any similar belief system (while not quite admitting their core origin).

The Corner Crone: In Every End, A Beginning

It was time.

She’d seen it coming for months. When she had moved to the area a few years ago and had opened her Practice, she’d had a flurry of new clients and felt sure that soon this Practice would be as successful as the one she’d had to leave behind in her previous city. She’d hung on as long as she could, even subletting a part of her office space to staunch the financial hemorrhaging, but it wasn’t enough. She was going to have to let all of it go.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

In the last days of the Final Harvest season she asked me to help her craft a Ritual that would honor the death of her business, and the death of the dreams she had had of making her living by using her training and wisdom to provide healing.

On the afternoon of Samhain, we met at a local Forest Preserve. We walked the paved path from the parking lot to the river’s edge, stopping a few minutes to compose our thoughts. The water, swollen and swift from recent rains, slip-slid past the leafless fingers of branches trailing their tips in the current. I watched the branch-fingers bobbing gently, reminded of human fingers fruitlessly seeking to grasp something before it slips away.

We walked along the river to the bridge that crossed it, and paused at the base of the concrete steps leading to the bridge under a massively monumental bur oak. Jane Giffords writes in The Wisdom of Trees (pub. 2000), “The oak represents courage and endurance and the protective power of faith. […] The oak reminds us that the strength to prevail, come what may, lies in an open mind and a generous spirit.” It was a fitting Guide for the beginning of our journey. We lingered under the deeply grooved, twisted branches far above us, watching the dancing shadows of the leaves upon the ground as sunlight filtered through the canopy, then turned our backs to the oak and focused our attention on crossing the river to gain the higher ground beyond.

The land on our side of the river was significantly lower than the land on the other side, and the steep concrete steps leading to the bridge soared at least ten feet into the air, bookended by four-foot high walls of more concrete that flared out at the bottom of the stairway. Standing at the base of the stairs we were surrounded—half entombed—by smooth, chalk-grey concrete. Our voices took on an echoed, somewhat tinny quality. We could not see the river that we knew we were about to cross; we could not see the bridge that we knew was at the top of the climb; we could not see the meadow that we knew was on the other side of the bridge.

We ascended the stairs slowly, rising closer to the vaulted ceiling of criss-crossed oak branches with each step before reaching the lip of the wooden bridge, stopping again as we reached the center of it. Stopping in mid-transition. She cast her prayers upon the river; I thought about bridges, of crossing into unseen land, of knowing where you’ve come from and focusing on where you’re going, and missing the journey. I thought about living into the tension of balance, so often misperceived as a static state when in truth there is a barely controlled dynamism at work, a teetering, trembling energy of seeking and maintaining a shifting center. I remembered the concrete barriers that had surrounded us at the beginning of our journey, the wall of concrete steps that had loomed before us, and thought about thresholds we barely perceive as we move into the center of boxes that we allow to define us, to contain us.

"Sprouting from the Acorn" photo by Mykola Swarnyk, via WikiMedia.  CC License 3.0
“Sprouting from the Acorn” photo by Mykola Swarnyk, via WikiMedia. CC License 3.0

When she was ready, we continued our journey to the small high meadow on the far bank of the river. The earth was moist and spongy under the flattened grasses, muffling our footsteps as we neared the outdoor fireplace we would use as part of the Ritual. She laid her offerings on the hearth—small sea shells and stones—while I quietly chanted and marked the Quarters with my Stones, creating a sacred, holy space. I added my pocket Goddess and a few acorns to her altar. We stood facing North, attuning ourselves to the forest we would be walking after honoring the death of her Practice. The heart-shaped leaves of the basswoods flickered in the light autumn breeze, joined in rhythm by the leaves of elms, sugar maples, and black walnut trees. The breeze died away.

We poured an offering of pomegranate juice upon the earth, and sat on the hearth. She made a funeral pyre for her hopes and dreams out of torn intake forms, crumpled business flyers, and folded business cards, and lit a match to the pile. We watched in silence as these physical representations of all she had lost were transformed into rising smoke and glowing ash. The breeze returned, kicking the burned paper around the firebox, but she tended her fire, never taking her attention away from the destruction of all she had dreamed of, all she had worked for.

At last, only smoke remained. I took the bittersweet chocolate she handed me and passed it through the sanctifying smoke, chanting a short blessing over it. We sat in silence as we drank the juice of the pomegranate, that ancient symbol of rebirth, and munched chocolate, so bitter and yet so sweet. I opened the Circle and just as I finished, a trio of women—daughter, mother, and grandmother—emerged from the forest trail we were about to explore.

As they walked the perimeter of the meadow to the bridge, we widened our hearts to whatever wisdom might be offered to us; much like e.e. cummings, “[…] the ears of [our] ears [had awakened and […] the eyes of [our] eyes [had] opened.” She led on the trail; I followed, the river several feet below us down the embankment on our left, the forest rustling and whispering before us and on our right.

One hundred yards in, she stopped, picked up something nestled in the moss.

An acorn, split and sprouting a soft, determined tendril of shimmering green, its leaf tightly furled, pulsing with energy. With life. With potential.

In every end, a beginning.

The Hearth of Hellenism: Paganism & the End of Religious Extremism

What captivates my mind at the moment is contemplating the future of religion. Where will religion be by the end of this century? What will religion be like in the next century? How will monotheism change? What does the future look like for paganism? How will paganism evolve? Will paganism grow? I think it will grow, as paganism is a religion for our future.

When it comes to religion it appears true that everything old is new and vice versa. When Christianity came onto the scene, it was a new religion. The traditional religions of the Greco-Roman world had been around for centuries and well entrenched into the cultures of empire. Christianity was new, it was “oriental” and with that brought some people to it out of curiosity. Some willingly converted, but by in large Christianity was overwhelming forced onto the empire, out of fear, or political expediency people converted. Much like the new age wave of the late 20th century, Christianity was different and provided something new for people who were possibly experiencing religious fatigue.

"The Triumph of Civilization" by Jacques Réattu.  From WikiMedia.
“The Triumph of Civilization” by Jacques Réattu. From WikiMedia.

Religious fatigue is causing the religious landscape to change once more. Christianity is old. It is not the new religion it once was to attract the curious; it is also losing power to secular governments, thankfully. Another important observation, they are not producing enough new Christians via births to retain their dominance. Globally, monotheism is not dying out, Islam is positioned to become the largest religion by the second half this century.[1]Americans are also becoming more spiritual but less religious; Pew Research reports that over a quarter of adults identify as spiritual but not religious, up 8% from five years ago.[2] Atheism is also seeing growth, especially with millennials.[3]

What about paganism? Our Hindu friends are and will continue to face challenges from the onslaught of monotheism. For Christianity to secure its dominance (population wise), they will have to convert in large numbers. The number one target of Christian conversation is India, the last largest polytheistic population with an estimated one billion adherents. Project Thessalonica, a Christian missionary effort, is working to evangelize India. A sub-project of the Joshua Project II, they report that in India the “evangelical annual growth” is at 3.9%[4] It was reported earlier this summer that ten people were arrested for allegedly trying to convert tribal children of Jhabau and Alirapur region to Christianity.[5] There are also the reports of temple vandalism from Muslims.[6]

Every pagan should be mindful of the missionary activates around the world. Their goal is the eradication of indigenous (pagan) traditions, all done in the name of their god in the attempt to “save souls.” If such missionary organizations are to be truly successful, Hindus will become a minority in their homeland. They will then disappear like the Hellenes, Romans, Heathens and countless others.

While paganism faces challenges around the world, there is hope for continued growth and advancement. What is old is new again, paganism is new again. It is fresh and different while at the same time familiar. Paganism might seem obsolete to those outside of our big tent, it is relevant.

Because of the religious fatigue experienced by many, often caused by dissatisfaction with organized religion, paganism is providing fulfillment for people who were lacking spiritual satisfaction. Paganism is satisfying people; it is rewarding. For religion to be successful, it needs to be functional and meaningful. The religion has to mean something and do something for the adherent. People tend to leave Christianity, or whatever religion they followed because it lost these two essential qualities. Their birth religion did not provide meaning, fulfillment and left them wanting.

Paganism is a religion for our future because it provides fulfillment on the individual level and is productive on a societal level. Monotheism, while it can be fulfilling on the individual level, on a societal level, it proves to be a detriment. Religious extremism is one clear societal determent that is systemic within monotheism. Paganism, in my opinion, can eliminate this.

"The Pleiades" (1885) by  Elihu Vedder.  From WikiMedia.
“The Pleiades” (1885) by Elihu Vedder. From WikiMedia.

On the individual level, paganism offers personal religion that many people crave. One of the reasons Christianity is popular with people is the relationship with Jesus that many claims to have. Christians do not have exclusive claims to divine relationships, pagans also claim to have relationships with their god(s). The personal nature of paganism removes the need for an intermediary like a priest. People coming to paganism generally express dissatisfaction with organized religion, paganism provides direct access to divinity people want.

On the societal level, paganism is the best path that protects and advances multi-culturalism. The beauty of paganism’ polytheistic nature, is the diverse pantheons of various cultures. Every culture’s religion is seen as special and equally truthful. Within monotheism, however, this is not the case. Monotheism does not see other religions as equal in truth or worthy of protection. Historically, Christians persecuted pagans because the pagan religions were seen as evil. According to the early Christians, the gods were actually demons, the fallen angels from heaven. How can a religious system that views outside religions as demonic be an advocate for religious diversity and religious equality?

Monotheism also creates mono-culturalism, it does not defend diversity because diversity means different opinions and views from the “correct” views, which leads to conflict. Having different denominations of the same religion is not real diversity. Different cultural appearances of one religion do not create real diversity. True diversity is found in diverse cultures, expressing unique traditions, philosophies, pantheons, and literature. True diversity, a real multi-cultural society views these difference worthy of respect and preservation.

"Jonah and the Whale" by Pieter Lastman.  From WikiMedia.
“Jonah and the Whale” by Pieter Lastman. From WikiMedia.

If we want to end religious extremism, then paganism is the way forward. Religious extremism is fueled by monotheism’s claim of Absolute Truth in knowing God, his will, and what is proper for mankind. No deviation is allowed away from what is viewed as orthodox. This breeds violence and intolerance towards anyone or anything different.

If the world accepted a pagan mindset, in which religion is relegated to a culture’s tradition instead of the universal, we could end the fight of religious absolutism. In other words, religious relativism places Yahweh on the same level as any other god. Yahweh is not the supreme creator of the world, he is not anything special. Instead, he would just be seen as another god among many other gods. His “will” would be limited in reach, not a universal law.

Making Yahweh relative again, scaling him down from the lofting highest as the only one god would free humanity from their blind allegiance to him. A god which most of the world owes nothing to and does not really need. Unbinding the world from Yahweh can end religious extremism and restore harmony in the world.

NOTES

[1] “Why Muslims Are the World’s Fastest-growing Religious Group,” Pew Research Center, last modified April 6, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/06/why-muslims-are-the-worlds-fastest-growing-religious-group/.

[2] “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious,” Pew Research Center, last modified September 6, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.

[3] “Religious Landscape Study,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, last modified May 11, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-family/atheist/.

[4] Joshua Project, “India | Joshua Project,” Joshua Project, accessed October 29, 2017, https://joshuaproject.net/countries/IN.

[5] 71 Tribal Children Rescued in MP En Route to ‘Bible Camp’; Missionaries Claim Persecution -,” Hindu Post – Truth Alone Triumphs, Not Untruth, last modified June 11, 2017, http://www.hindupost.in/politics/71-tribal-children-rescued-mp-en-route-bible-camp-missionaries-claim-persecution/.

[6] Mauritius: 9 Goddess Kali Temples Attacked,” CT, last modified November 2, 2017, http://www.currentriggers.com/world/mauritius-goddess-kali-temples-attacked/.

Book of Blackbirds: Pumpkins, Squashes, and Witchettys

I have an orange Jack O’ Lantern pumpkin plant now growing in my garden, so fingers crossed it makes it to harvest. I wish we could get those pretty ornamental gourds here in Australia like we have back in Tennessee, or even the plain kind we used to use for water dippers and making blackbird houses. Some gourds are good for decorating up and making rattles and drums out of, too. They have so many uses; there’s just something about squashes and pumpkins and gourds that I find magical and always have.

Photo by  Umberto Cancedda via Pexels.  CC0 License.
Photo by
Umberto Cancedda via Pexels. CC0 License.

Pumpkin is one of those staple foods you find here in Australia and all the grocery stores are full of them, but not the big orange pumpkins– you only see them at Halloween, as recently past, after which they evidently go back behind the mystic veil and don’t come out again until next year when the veil thins and witching time rolls back around. The rest of the time the pumpkins here are mostly all butternuts and kents and grayskins, more rightly winter squashes than true pumpkins – good eating, but not quite the same. The only other squashes we have are the little button shaped ones called pattypans, hardly what I’d call a proper Southern squash, but we scrape by with them as best we can.

I accidentally smuggled a yummy yellow crookneck summer squash back from the States in my carry-on bag after my recent trip there. Hardly anybody here has ever heard of them. I had bought it for a crunchy lunchtime snack on my last day in the country and then forgot all about it being in my satchel bag. Of course you aren’t allowed to bring back anything like plants or seeds or anything alive or that might become alive on account of this being an island and all, and lord knows we have enough invasive species here already. But somehow it slipped right past and I ended up at home with it without ever recollecting it was there until I unpacked. Even though it was immature, I tore it all apart and got all the seeds out and planted them anyway, but nothing ever came out of those seeds but sore disappointment and so I didn’t get to eat that last pretty crookneck squash neither. :(

So now we have Australian brush turkeys scratching up the whole garden, digging holes and looking for witchetty grubs as they are called, while making a pure havoc out of my veggies and witchy herbs. I’m not sure why they call them witchetty; they don’t seem especially witchy to me or of any use in making potions, although the original custodians of this land loved to eat them and they are supposed to be full of protein and quite delicious when fried up, a regular crunchy snack of a more Australian flavour. Probably tastes like fried chicken. They are pretty good eating raw right out of the ground too I guess, if you’re a brush turkey.

Now I need to figure out how to run those turkeys off from my garden, and all without offending their delicate poultry sensibilities seeing as how they are a protected species and all. And they know they’re protected, too. I saw one the other day walk right out into the street pretty as you please, just knowing nobody would dare to run him over, although he did look both ways before crossing. All in all I reckon those brush turkeys ain’t quite as bird-brained as you might first think.

Anyways, being a bit of an invasive species here myself I’d be much obliged if anybody has a good spell for keeping brush turkeys out of your garden while at the same time making them think it’s their own idea to leave and go looking for their witchetty snacks somewhere else. They are protected after all, unlike the poor dug up veggies in my garden.

The Corner Crone: When the Gods Fell Silent

For weeks, my morning Tarot meditation had yielded nothing but an annoyingly redundant, increasingly frustrating insight: “You’re stuck.” “I know I am,” I snapped snarkily at the layout, “but what are YOU!?”

Maybe it was time to give up the Old Gods, and begin again.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

A year earlier I had spent several days in and around Athens, Greece, exploring The Agora and its remarkably preserved Temple of Hephaestus (my husband’s favorite), as well as the Acropolis and its Museum, which happened to be hosting a temporary exhibit on the oracular site of Dodona.

In ancient days, Dodona was almost as important as the oracular site of Delphi. Nestled at the foot of Mount Tomaros, it was surrounded by fields and trees. Prophecies were interpreted by listening to the sound of the wind soughing through the branches and leaves of the oak trees, and by hearing the pinging patterns of acorns as they fell into the great kettle-like receptacles placed underneath. Dodona, which common folk visited to make personal petitions and prayers, was dedicated to Zeus and Dione. “Dione was described as ‘the temple associate’ of Zeus . . . [h]er name is simply the feminine form of Zeus (Dios).”

We were also fortunate to visit Delphi, site of prophecies that were of State-level importance. The site was held at one point by the Titan goddess Phoibe. Again, from www.theoi.com: “Phoibe was the third goddess to hold the great oracle of Delphoi (Delphi) which she in turn bestowed upon her grandson Apollon. Her name was derived from the Greek words phoibos ‘bright’ or ‘radiant’, phoibazô ‘to prophesy’ and phoibaô ‘to purify.’”

Returning home, I decided to add invocations to Dione and Phoibe to my daily Practice. Because I am very drawn to sets of three, I hesitantly added Hekate to the line-up. Thus, part of my incantation as I shuffled the cards became, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart always be acceptable to You, Ancient Mother, Dione, Oracle of Dodona; Phoibe of the Bright Intellect, Oracle of Delphi; and Hekate, Guardian of the Crossroads and Keeper of the Keys.”

Weeks passed and I felt a growing confidence in my connection to these Goddesses. I continued to study (and note this word, “study”, for it becomes important later in this Telling), and to learn more about the archeological sites associated with them. I bought a new Tarot deck by Lisa de St. Croix to celebrate my progress. My readings, which had already been fairly insightful, became more nuanced. Yup, things were just clicking right along. Until they weren’t.

Slowly, more Swords started showing up in my daily four-card spreads. The suits of Cups and Pentacles disappeared almost completely, though they would still make an appearance when I read for other people. Reversals became common. The Devil and The Tower made regular appearances. I felt increasingly disconnected from myself and the Goddesses I continued to call upon. Still, I maintained my daily Practice even though I did not perceive that I was getting anything out of it, knowing that daily Practices are not about having daily “aha!” moments. Instead, they are about cultivating Mindfulness and sharpening self-awareness. Almost a year after my “Come to Goddess” moments in Greece, though, I finally had to admit that This Wasn’t Working Anymore.

I put the cards on the shelf for a few days, then a week, and then a couple of months had gone by. Every now and again I would sit at table with one of my decks, just to see if my spiritual logjam had cracked free—the answer, with disheartening consistency, was “no.”

“Maybe,” I told my friend Andrea, “I’m studying the wrong gods.” “You mean praying to“, she replied. Uhm, no.

And there it was. I realized I hadn’t been venerating Dione or Phoibe (or Hekate) at all; I’d been asking that they help me out during Tarot card readings. I had researched their histories and knew all sorts of facts about the archeological sites associated with Dione and Phoibe, but I hadn’t been trying to connect with their Essences . . . and I had never truly opened my heart up to Hekate, which—it turns out—had a lot to do with me not opening my heart up to myself. After waiting about a year for me to get my spiritual rear in gear, they were giving me the message, “Guess what? The words of your mouth and the mediations of your heart are NOT acceptable to us!”

Ouch.

Altar, photo by the author.
Altar, photo by the author.

“Where do you feel most in touch with the Divine?” continued Andrea. “Forests,” I promptly responded. And so, the next morning I began to think about opening myself up to The Green Man as I shuffled my cards and cradled them in my palms.

I visualized an altar we had once created on an old bench of weathered grey stone set deep in an otherworldly grove of Norwegian spruce at the local Arboretum. We had limned the edges of the bench with fallen spruce fronds, and used what was at hand as icons of the elements. Slender cylindrical pine cones, their brown scales as tightly compacted as snakeskin, represented Earth. Desiccated maple leaves that had once danced in the passing breezes had been collected from an adjacent copse and now symbolized Air. Cooled charcoal from a controlled burn in the East Woods stood for Fire, and Water poured from my bottle completed our offering of thanksgiving. There, in the shadows of giants, we felt a momentary stillness steal upon us as we meditated on the altar we had created.

Focusing on the image of our rough-hewn, rustic altar, I thanked Dione, Phoibe and Hekate for the time they had spent with me and said a respectful goodbye, at least for the time being. I reminded myself that a relationship with the Divine is more than book-learning and research; it is a learning of the heart, a sinuous, sensuous intertwining of the soul with All That Is. A grounding of Self in the Holy.

I drew my one card.

It was the Knight of Pentacles which is, in the de St. Croix deck, The Green Man.

I resumed my daily mediation spreads—only two-card this time—and as the days spun into weeks my focus once again sharpened. I rededicated myself to spending regular, weekly time wandering the nearby woodlands. I resisted my natural inclination to immediately intellectualize experiences and instead leaned into being in and of the moment. Less talking. More listening. Less pridefulness, and so much more humility.

And eventually, the Gods were no longer silent.

Irish-American Witchcraft: My Witchcraft Heresy

This started out as a bit of a joke in a conversation on social media, but like many such things there’s some truth to it as well so I decided it was worth writing about here. I was discussing something in witchcraft and paganism that is a widespread belief but that I myself do not believe in and joked that I must be some sort of pagan heretic. Obviously this was a bit tongue in cheek as there isn’t any literal witchcraft-wide orthodoxy but on the other hand (or maybe the same one) there are several things that tend to be so common across wider neopagan witchcraft communities as to often be assumed of everyone.

What I mean by that is when out and about socializing with other people who consider themselves witches of the neopagan variety there are certain general beliefs that tend to simply be assumed as universal, even though they aren’t. Obviously it’s fine either way, to believe what many people do or to believe differently, but I have found there can be some serious push back when you are expressing beliefs at odds with most other people in a religious community. Hence the joke about heresy.

So, that all said, here’s a short list of a handful of my own heresies. It’s definitely not an exhaustive list.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

-Veil Between the Worlds: This was actually the topic that began everything. I do not believe in a veil between the worlds. I understand that it is a very popular idea and one that has become nearly ubiquitous among neopagans, but it is not a concept that works for me. Mat Auryn wrote a good article about the history of the term and in discussion I did get that there’s two different views out there: one which sees the veil as an actual separation between worlds and one that sees the veil as something within a person that occludes perception of the numinous.

Ultimately while I can intellectually grasp both concepts it just isn’t something that works for me on a personal level so I don’t use it. I see the worlds as separate and closely connected like two sides to a piece of paper, but with a lot of crossover, the way ink bleeds through from one side to another. Its just a more permeable barrier than a veil, for me, so the analogy of veil doesn’t work.

-Rule of Three: I hear this one a lot from people, especially when I’m talking about cursing. The knee-jerk response from people seems to be to warn me about the rule of three – this includes people I consider extremely good friends so I’m not judging those who do believe this in any way. The things is though, I don’t believe in any iteration of the rule of three.

I believe that actions have consequences and that we need to be prepared to deal with the consequences of what we do, certainly, but not that what we do has some instant moral judgement attached that brings back magnified good or bad. That idea, for me, would hinge on the universe itself having sentience and an immediate vested interest in judging and punishing every living person within it for each action. And my paradigm just doesn’t support that understanding of how things work. I’ll grant you that the universe is sentient, but not that level of vested personal interest.

"A Knight, Death, and the Devil" allegedly by Cornelis van Dalem.  From WikiMedia.
“A Knight, Death, and the Devil” allegedly by Cornelis van Dalem. From WikiMedia.

-The Devil: One of the single most common things I hear from neopagan witches is the claim that they don’t believe in the Christian Devil.  Okay. As it happens I do believe in the Devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or whatever we’re calling him. I also believe in Yahweh, and Jesus, and Mohamed, and pretty much all the Gods and demi-Gods of every pantheon or culture out there. I believe they exist. But that belief in no way compels me to acknowledge or honour them, and therein I suspect lies the crux of the issue. I have my deities and spirits and I stick to them; but in no way do I deny the deities and spirits of other people, monotheism included. Yes I do understand that monotheism hinges on a belief that their deities and spirits are the only real ones, but I don’t believe in the tenets of those religions so it doesn’t bother me.

I believe the Japanese Kami exist without thinking that obligates me to follow any religion attached to them. I believe the Hindu Gods exist without believing that I must be Hindu or strive for Moksha. So yes, I believe that the Judeo-Christian God’s great adversary exists, but in no way do I feel obligated to buy the attached p.r. or follow the rules those beings lay down.

And before anyone decides to chime in and ask how I can believe in them and not be afraid of them on some level, I’ll say two things. Firstly my own Gods are who I deal with first and foremost and I have never had an issue with an ‘outside’ deity unless I inserted myself into something I didn’t belong in. Secondly having not been raised Christian I have no ingrained fear around this deity or spirit and I can think of a variety of pagan Gods and spirits that are just as scary or more so, but that doesn’t dissuade me from being pagan either.

-Fairies: In my experience many pagan witches view fairies as either nature spirits/elementals or a kind of Tinkerbell like spirit guide. I do not. For me fairies are, in all their dizzying diversity, what folklore has always described them to be. Sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful, entirely inhuman and sometimes inhumane, with their own agendas and purposes. This comes from my own experiences since childhood, my reading of preserved folklore, and my discussions with other people in cultures who still actively believe in these beings. This particular heresy has gotten me more criticism than you might expect (or maybe not) and I have heard a very, very wide range of criticisms for not holding to the modern pagan view. Still I persist because I  can’t see the logic of ignoring my own experiences as well as lived cultures beliefs on the subject.

Neopagan witchcraft is a hugely diverse group with a wide range of beliefs, yet there will always be those who form a kind of mainstream and those who are outliers. I am decidedly an outlier on these issues, and that’s okay. I’m comfortable with my heresies. I think we need heretics to keep us on our toes, to keep challenging the mainstream as it forms, even here in our niche minority religion. We need that challenge to orthodoxy of belief to keep people thinking and to challenge the wider community to keep striving to develop well articulated theology. And most of all we need heretics among our ranks to remind us that we are all heretics to the over-culture we belong to, so that we don’t become complacent and start to assume that there is homogeny and conformity. We are witches and we should be diverse in our beliefs and practices, not identical.

I hope we resist taming and choose to stay wild.

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