The Crow’s Nest: Hexing for a Good Cause

Pagans view the Earth as a sentient Being. We often define our spirituality as “Earth-Based.”  All around the world, Pagans take up social and environmental causes. We express our views through social media sites and peaceful demonstrations. We call our government representatives. We vote. We garden. We recycle. We take action on a daily basis to honor and mend our Mother, Planet Earth.

What additional action can we take when our voices are not heard by those in power? What else can we do? For those like myself, hexing is an option.

Photo from pxhere, public domain image, CC0 License.
Photo from pxhere, public domain image, CC0 License.

Hexing, Curses and Jinxing

Magical practices such as Hexing, Cursing and Jinxing are often viewed in a negative manner. Visions of “Witch Wars” or the use of witchcraft to settle personal grudges often comes to people’s minds when the words are mentioned. There are Traditions such as Wicca that discourage or forbid the practice of hexing under the tenant of “Harm None” or the ‘Rule of Three”.  For other Traditions hexing or cursing is a recognized part of the practice of the Craft.

Merriam-Webster defines hex as “to affect as if by an evil spell.”   A Curse is defined as “a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one” and Jinx as “to foredoom to failure or misfortune :bring bad luck to”.

I believe these terms are oversimplified and demonstrate the overall lack of knowledge and understanding of Witchcraft and its varied Traditions by the mainstream population.

Hexing is a tool that can be used when all mundane options have been exhausted in a situation.  There is a long history of people employing Hexes when they had no other way to obtain justice.

A Brief History of Hexes and Curses

In Ancient Egypt curses were often used as a means of protection in tombs. One of the most famous curses of all times is known as “The Mummy’s Curse.” The following inscription was placed on a stone of the pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, “Death Shall Come on Swift Wings to Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King.” This curse was thought to be responsible for the death of several people associated with the discovery of the tomb in the 1920’s.

The Curse of Tippecanoe, cast upon the American Presidency by Native American Leader Tecumseh during William Henry Harrison’s time in office, was credited for causing the deaths of every President elected in the year ending in zero. The curse was said to be lifted after former President Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt.

Objects can be the origin of curses as well. The Hope Diamond was stolen from a Hindu statue by a French merchant in India. It is said to have a curse attached to it. The large blue diamond is credited with the mysterious deaths of several of its former owners.

A Modern Case for Hexing: Pipelines

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline Projects are two current pipeline projects impacting my home state of Virginia. The DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) protests were highly publicized but have been ineffective at halting the project at this time.  Pipeline projects cut through vast lands and water sources. Personal properties rights are being eroded due to Eminent Domain laws. Despite numerous protests, legal battles, and even opposition from local governments, the projects are being pushed through. FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) recently gave its approval to both the ACP and MVP pipeline projects.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline will cut through properties that have been in my family for generations. I took this as a call to action on my part. After attending local meetings and protests to no avail, I hexed the pipeline project. Specifically, that it will never come to fruition. At this time, construction has not begun on the pipeline, but it does seem to be looming in the near future.

I will continue to express my views against the pipeline projects by attending meetings and protests. I will also continue hexing with the intent to delay the projects forever.

Hexing for a Higher Cause

Hexes and Curses are not a part of everyone’s path. And while most of us practice the Craft on a small level from day to day, I encourage everyone to consider the world around them and how they can be of help. Being of service to our community magically and mundanely should be a central part of all our paths.

The Corner Crone: Firestorm Wind

I slipped two intentions into the cauldron during the last Full Moon Circle: the first, a fervent desire to release the generalized low-level anxiety I had been feeling over the past several weeks. (The second, I’ll write about in another post.)

Perhaps I could blame my mild hyper-vigilance on the Trump Effect, “an uptick in harassment and violence against racial and religious minorities after Trump’s election victory.” Or maybe my sense of unease had been a side-effect of the social-emotional punches several members of our Kindred had been enduring—suicidal ideations, hospitalizations, closings of businesses, significant injury, losses of jobs, terminations of marriages . . . the year seemed to have left no stone unturned—or friend unscarred—in our community.

Photo by Jeremy Perkins via Pexels.  Public Domain Image.
Photo by Jeremy Perkins via Pexels. Public Domain Image.

I returned to my place in the Circle, listening to the flames as they licked up the energies we had fed them. There was no crackling or popping, only a continual hiss, like a slowly indrawn breath softly whistling through a wind cavern. “When the flames die down,” I thought to myself, “my anxiety will change; it will be released.”

Except, that’s not what happened. I had forgotten that when transformation is invited, you’re no longer in control of what happens during the visit.

The flames did not die down; instead, they spurted higher, swirling several inches above the illusory boundary of the cauldron’s lip. I started to worry about how close the altar was to the back window of the Sanctuary, wondering how I was going to explain sooty glass to the church Board members. I fretted about how hot the tripod legs of the cast iron cauldron might be getting as they dug in to the altar cloth, and the table beneath it. Would the cloth smolder? Begin to flame? Would the table then catch fire? I had been granted what I had asked for: my anxiety had changed, but in the wrong direction!

“Well,” I thought, “this Ritual is lost on me.”

Except, it wasn’t. The meaning I made wasn’t in the moment; insight seeped into me afterward, after the flames had accepted and consumed our intentions, after they had tucked themselves back into their warm blanket of glowing ash and smoldering possibilities.

The experience of personal transformation generally contains an element, much like fire, that is only just under control, and when transformation enkindles—sometimes after much huffing and puffing and fiddling about with the kindling—it can roar into fierce and fearsome Being. One moment you are face-to-the-fire, blowing on scraps of paper, twigs, sharp sticks of Self resistant to change; the next instant you are set back on your haunches as sudden flames, with a deeply indrawn breath, leap out with greedy tongues to consume any- and everything they can gorge themselves upon.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

That moment—that spark—between latent potential and fiery metamorphosis can seem instantaneous, but the flames of personal transformation, once fed, take as long as they need to consume the fuel you’ve given up to them. Sometimes they take longer than the time you had thought to allot. Sometimes the flames consume a fuel—a sharp stick of Self—that you hadn’t realized you had offered until you watch it transmute into something you cannot recognize as having been a part of you. Too late for take-it-backs now; you’ve invited change into your life. Time to reap the firestorm wind, My Friend.

And sometimes, perhaps more often than we’d care to acknowledge, we can’t recognize—we don’t understand—what we are left with after our intentions have been offered to and accepted by the fires of personal transformation. We are different, changed, and—being not quite as we once knew ourselves—we don’t quite know how to move and live and have our being in the sameness of the world, in the predictability of our communities. We’ve been tempered, annealed . . . but into what, exactly? And how best to care for, to nurture our new and tender Selves while yet maintaining our commitments, meeting our obligations of family, of community?

I opened myself to personal transformation, and offered my old way of Being to her flames. I sought release, and instead was offered purpose. I sought control, and instead was set aloft. I sought a quick spark of change, and instead was given a slow-burning field of embers that even now is changing the landscape of my interior world, licking up the energies I released and transmuting them into something new.

Ground fires can smolder unseen beneath the surface of a forest floor, and so, too, has it been with me after our Full Moon Circle was opened last month. Threaded under the convivial post-Ritual chatter I heard a tentative new song of my Self testing out its emergent melodies. Some of the phrasings are yet forming, still in the composition process, but they have integrity. Some of the inflections seem to be harmonies I’ve never heard before; they are strange, but compelling. Unsettling, but comforting.

They sound like slowly indrawn breaths softly whistling through a wind cavern, catching me unaware, as entrancing as Circe herself.

The Other Side of the Hedge: Defining Paganism

Do you know the old saying, “Be open-minded, but not so much your brains fall out”? Though the skeptics who tout this quip might not be super-friendly toward the religious in general and Pagans in particular, there’s a certain amount of truth to the saying when it comes to defining Paganism itself.

"An Alchemist in His Laboratory" by David Teniers the Younger. F rom WikiMedia.
“An Alchemist in His Laboratory” by David Teniers the Younger. F rom WikiMedia.

Over the past years, in an attempt to be inclusive, the definition of Pagan has been broadened time and time again. To a certain extent, this is reasonable; some of this redefinition reflects growth and innovation in our community. Paganism is relatively new and still developing, and the definition needs to change with our understanding.

But there is a separate problem with this constant redefinition of Paganism. We mostly have come to rely on an operational definition of Paganism. It is commonly argued that “Pagan” is whatever people we recognize as Pagans say it is.

At that point, we have to admit that this definition of “Pagan” is no longer theoretical, it is simply a social construct. On the face of it, that is technically true of every word and symbol. However, this is a rhetorical position and not a productive one. (1)

When we decide that “Pagan” is a socially-defined grouping rather than a religious one, we quickly reach the point that, as Jason Mankey explores here, the term Pagan itself becomes “inadequate” – though I would go further to say irrelevant – as a means of describing our spiritual and religious activity.

Revitalization Movement

It sometimes seems Paganism has gone from being a revitalization movement (2) to a social movement. When we reach the point where Pagan membership is simply through self-ascription – “I’m Pagan and you can’t tell me I’m not!” – we’ve lost something important.

As a reaction to that trend of defining Pagan socially, I have developed a theoretical definition of “Pagan” religion that will allow me to at least think clearly about what is Pagan, and what is not.

While formally studying anthropology of religion, I examined the social structures that exist around religion. As scientific research, my observations were necessarily divorced from any discussion of actual religious experiences. That is, statements about religious experience were considered to be “social facts” and not examined spiritually, but only socially.

As to whether the religious practitioners were describing something real, imaginary, or in between, it was necessary for me to remain intentionally and willfully agnostic. Anthropology is science, and while we can observe and describe the social structures around religious experience, science cannot delve into those actual experiences in any effective manner. There is a gentleman’s agreement not to try.

My role now has changed; as a member of the Pagan community, I have a different seat from which to observe. As a group member, I am privy to insider views, have access to different kinds of evidence, and an welcome in different (and deeper) conversations.

From this very specific perspective, I have attempted to form a definition of Paganism that is an honest reflection on Pagan experience. Such a definition, while not scientifically admissible, is at least informed by the academy.

“The Great Sphinx” by David Roberts (1839).
“The Great Sphinx” by David Roberts (1839).

Religion Defined

The first boundary we need is to define religion. A religion is a cultural structure that regulates interaction with the spiritual and sacred other.(3) This is slightly different from the definition that you might find in a textbook. Here we admit that there is an actual ‘other’ to contact. I think we can take it a bit further and say that we are so constantly in contact with it that we need tools to manage relations.

This defines religion pretty broad. Through this lens, Christianity is a religion, but so is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Spiritualism would be a religion, and so would Shinto.

This definition lacks many of the standard Western hallmarks of religion. It lacks specific reference to deities, dodges explanatory functions (4),ignores the creation of the universe, and ditches the metaphysical underpinnings of the social order. While these things can and do exist in religions, I believe it is key to realize that they are not the point of religion.

By common Western understandings of religion, the spiritual and sacred “other” is strictly defined. This makes sense when we realize that the purpose of religion is to put a name and face on something that is otherwise beyond description. It is through what we call religion that we extend ourselves from the everyday world to reach for something out there.

With that behind us, let’s see if we can get to describing what Paganism is.

"The Firmament "(illustration from Camille Flammarion's 1888 L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire)  From WikiMedia.
“The Firmament “(illustration from Camille Flammarion’s 1888 L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire) From WikiMedia.

Paganism Is Western

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, everything is understood in a relation to a single deity. They have texts that define and shape those relationships. When questions arise, it is to sacred texts, their commentaries, and the long history that members turn. Experiences outside of that framework are at best considered dangerous.

Because of the Judeo-Christian influence on Western thought, we have long attempted to understand other religions (and the religious “other”) through this same lens. We ask, what do they believe? who are their gods? who told them these things?

However, both Paganism and the New Age are variations from (or rebellions against) these Western norms. Neither gives strict definitions of the spiritual or sacred “other.” They are more a collection of sects and loose beliefs, a collection of practices and a broad field of experiences.

For Paganism and the New Age (I’ll differentiate them later), the first part of the definition is simple: they are Western. Paganism and the New Age are both Western religious phenomena. Non-Western religions are not part of the New Age or Paganism.

Non-Western practices studied under traditional authority and practiced within their original context simply are what they are. When they inform New Age or Pagan thought, they are being incorporated into something wholly different.

No matter how similar to a Pagan or New Age belief a non-Western practice is, it is neither part of the the New Age nor Paganism by the simple fact that it is not Western in origin or by tradition. For example, an American Shintoist is not a Pagan (5), but a Japanese Wiccan would be.

Pagans Are Not Judeo-Christians

The second part of the definition of Pagan is where we have to define what it is not. Paganism is not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Paganism might at times be shaped by Christianity and informed by its history, but that same truth can be said of just about every aspect of Western culture. (6)

While I understand John Beckett’s proposition that it is rhetorically problematic to define our Paganism by what it is not, I think it is necessary in a theoretical definition.

Certainly, we should not depend on being defined from the outside. On the other hand, within the Western context – which is by default set in some variety of Judeo-Christianity – we have little choice but to make this distinction.


Seeking the Spiritual and Sacred Other

Paganism is certainly more than simply what it is not. This broad field of “Western and not Judeo-Christian” is not a whole definition. We can take this still-broad field of practices and experience and divide it further.

While both Paganism and the New Age are attempts to recapture the spiritual and sacred other, Pagans attempt to unearth an “other” in a cultural or historical past. The New Age, by contrast, attempts to capture a different kind of “other” – one defined by geography and culture.

We can never know what the lost Western paganisms truly looked like. And without engaging non-Western beliefs in their original context, Westerners will forever try and fail to grasp non-Western beliefs in attempts to revitalize our own spirituality.

Still, at their best, these two – Paganism and the New Age – are honest attempts to grasp a spiritual and sacred other outside the realm of Judeo-Christianity. Western Paganism is a way of encountering and interacting with the spiritual and sacred “other” through a prism of a past that is Western but not Christian. It is, at its root, a revitalization movement.

Paganism is an attempt to recapture something thought long lost in the West. The impetus to do so is, I believe, a visceral and necessary one. After two millennia of religious monoculture, the West lost access to some of the wonder of the spiritual and sacred universe. Paganism is an attempt to get it back.

(1) The position that words mean whatever we want them to mean is technically true, for some definitions of “we.” This observation, while clever, is as useful as any sentence that begins with the word “technically,” as described in the web comic XKCD here.

(2) In short a revitalization movement is a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture”.

(3) I use the phrase “spiritual and sacred other” consistently in this post, and in line with my other posts, as a replacement for “the numinous.” I have been looking for a replacement for “numinous” since reading Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.

Otto’s conception of the wholly (and holy) other is completely bound with the notion of a transcendent other. It is inconsistent with my experience of non-transcendent spirituality. In short, the term numinous works perfectly for Christianity. Its utility for Pagans is limited unless we redefine its underlying assumptions. I would rather avoid the term entirely, distinguishing between the spirit and the sacred soul.

(4) E.B. Tylor, the founder of both anthropology and the first evolutionary model of religion, argued that the primary purpose of all religion is as an explanatory system for the world around us. For him, all religion was proto-science, to eventually be replaced by science itself.

(5) A Shintoist might be considered a (lowercase “p”) pagan in some circumstances, and in addition could be a Pagan separately. For numerous examples of the latter, see Megan Mason’s blog, Paga-Tama.

(6) I am not trying to wipe away any consideration of Christian/Pagan hybrid religious sects. Most of these syncretistic beliefs are meaningful in their own context and culturally interesting and informative. But to lump them into Western Paganism is to avoid deeper divisions that I suspect these practitioners are attempting to resolve.

Hearth of Hellenism: Why is Mythology Mocked?

       “[W]hy the myths are divine it is the duty of philosophy to inquire.”
        -Sallustius On the Gods and the World

Mythology is often the first exposure to Paganism that we experience. I can recall being exposed to Greek myths throughout my career in school. From elementary to college, mythology has been there. There is one problem with the way myth is dealt with in and outside of academia: it is not treated as a living tradition.

A living tradition by my definition is a tradition which is (a) functional and (b) meaningful for use as a way of life and understanding life. The functionality of a living tradition means that the tradition does something and it works for the followers of that tradition. Functionality leads to meaningfulness, which is the sense of purpose, wisdom, and knowledge.

"Nyx" by Henri Fantin-Latour.  From WikiMedia.
“Nyx” by Henri Fantin-Latour. From WikiMedia.

Functionality and meaningfulness are the two criteria I use when evaluating a tradition for their incorporation into my spiritual practices. Qabalah is a good example of this. Qabalah as a knowledge system provides function and meaning. It is a system that does something and works. Does that mean Qabalah is “true?” Maybe not in the way scientists think of what is true or not. But it is true if it works for you as a system of understanding and wisdom.

In academia, mythology does not receive the same treatment as world religions because of the notion that mythology is dead religion. While classicists do treat myth seriously, they only do so as an artifact of ancient culture. Myth functions as a means to understand a past culture, not as a means for living today, or understanding a current culture, or as a knowledge system for relating to the divine and the world.

The distinction between how we approach and understanding mythology in and outside of academia is obvious to me. The Crash Course series is a contemporary example of this. Crash Course offers free educational videos on various topics on YouTube. Among their various series, they include World Religions and Mythology. When you compare the discourse and evaluation of the two topics, you will notice they are dealt with differently. There is a more serious tone with World Religions compared to the comical treatment of Mythology, which often includes mocking and jokes.

Why is mythology treated like this? Why do we mock myth? Mythology is mocked because society views myth as primitive stories attempting to explain the unknown. Mythology is mocked for being thought of as false stories, fantasies, immoral, violent, and so on. Much of this comes from Christian culture which directed how we viewed the world. There were “pagan” critics of mythology, but I think we take those criticism to have more importance than they really had in their time, or maybe that we are not understanding the sense those criticisms had in their own context.

The mocking of myth is deeply rooted in our consciousness. On a visit to Poughkeepsie this year, I stopped into the local Barnes and Noble to muse around. I came across a book in the bargain section, Classical Mythology by British historian H.A. Guerber. It looked to be a solid book, comprehensive with many myths. I bought it, $8 was not a lot anyway.

As I read this book, the Judeo-Christian bias was apparent right from page one. The opening chapter addresses creation. The author writes that “among all the nations of the earth, the Hebrews alone were instructed by God, who gave them not only a full account of the creation of the world and of all living creatures, but also a code of laws to regulate their conduct.” Further on, Guerber writes that the other nations lacked such instruction and revelation by the Hebrew god. The Greeks and Romans lacked “definite knowledge which we obtained from Scriptures, and still anxious to know everything, were forced to construct, in part their own theory.”

Further in, when addressing the creation stories of Greece, Guerber recounts the story of Chaos and Nyx, the first two divinities to appear. From them are generated Erebus, Aether, and Hemera. Erebus dethrones his father Chaos and marries his mother Nyx. The author comments on this saying, “with our present views, this marriage was a heinous sin; but the ancients, who at first had no fixed laws, did not consider this union unsuitable.”

Reading three pages into the book and the author has disparaged the myths of Greece as immoral and ignorant. Greco-Roman polytheism is argued to be inferior to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Such an attitude and evaluation of myth reflects poor scholarship. The author’s attitude stems from improper understanding on Greco-Roman religion. Guerber reads the myths literally, a grievous error that many still fall into when reading myths. Many believers in the Christian tradition approach their texts with a literal eye. The Virgin Birth was literally a virgin birth. Jesus literally walked on water, raised the dead and would later be resurrected after his crucifixion. Applying this mindset to myths, with the presumption that the myths are untrue, will lead the reader to think one thing, how silly and crazy these stories are, how could anyone actually believe them?

"Perseus and the Graiae" by  Edward Burne-Jones.  From WikiMedia.
“Perseus and the Graiae” by Edward Burne-Jones. From WikiMedia.

       “It is requisite that those who are willing to hear concerning the gods should have been well informed from their childhood, and not nourished with foolish opinions.”
        -Sallustius On the Gods and the World

Literalism in myth plagues paganism today, as a carry-over from our exposure to monotheism. We tend to treat mythology as evidence for how the gods literally behave. In one of my first posts here on Patheos, “We Don’t Have Relationships with the Gods, or Do We?” – I questioned the assumption that relationships with gods were possible. The rebuttals I received cited myth as evidence of relationships between mortals and humans.

This brings us to two approaches to myth, the poetic and philosophic. The poetic approach views mythology as literal/concrete while the philosophic approach views myth as having deeper meaning. The latter requires little analysis while the former requires contemplation. Sallustius, writing in the 4th century of the common era, shows us the philosophic approach. In his On the Gods and the World, Sallustius explains that myths can be theological, psychical, physical, and sometimes material in their content.

If you are familiar with the story of Kronos swallowing his children, those without the theological understanding will simply be baffled by this tale. How immoral and evil Kronos must be to eat his own children! How could Greeks believe in this myth? It must be nonsense! Sallustius comments on this myth, and explains the theological teaching that “[s]ince god is intellectual, and all intellect returns into itself, this myth expresses in allegory the essence of god.”

Essentially what I am arguing here is that because “pagan” culture was effectively killed off, the seriousness and meaning of mythology was lost. Mythology and the gods are thus treated as subservient to monotheism, because either society won’t allow it to be equal, or we assume it cannot be equal. I think it is both.

Pop culture reveals our attitudes and how we play with things like religion and myth. Reflect back on the shows and movies you have watched that had to do with mythology in some way. How was it portrayed? You’ll notice a theme in how mythology is used.

Supernatural on the CW is one of my favorite shows because of its involvement with myth and religion. In this show, Dean and Sam are hunters, who travel around the United States killing monsters. Throughout the series they sometimes encounter gods. The gods are always causing trouble and doing harm, and Dean and Sam end up killing many of these gods. There is one episode where Dean and Sam end up at the Elysian Fields Hotel, where various gods are meeting to deal the oncoming Judeo-Christian Apocalypse that was started by Lucifer. Lucifer arrives at the hotel, confronts Mercury, calling him and the other gods “petty little things, worse than humans, worse than demons, yet you claim to be gods.” Lucifer goes on a rampage where he kills off almost all the gods in the hotel.

Only in our monotheistic world would such a plot happen. All of this stems from our loss of paganism as a legitimate living tradition. The divine mythology is degraded to fairy tales, shrugged off as irrational stories from primitive society. For mythology to be treated seriously once again, we must treat them seriously. Mythological hermeneutics needs to return. I ask that you revisit your myths and contemplate on their deeper meaning(s), dig beneath the surface of the story, you’ll find gold of wisdom underneath.

Tree City Witch: A Jewish Ghost Story For Halloween

I am a Jew, and when I was little we were, at the very least, traditional, in terms of our religious observance. Our habits changed though as my parents changed, divorced, and changed. I always went to Jewish school (except one dismal year and a half, but then all of school until I got to 9th grade was dismal).

The kind of Jewish we were included not only keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, going to shul every Saturday (driving because it was too far to walk), but also celebrating the American holidays, like Halloween and Thanksgiving.

From StockSnap at Pixabay, Public Domain Image.
From StockSnap at Pixabay, Public Domain Image.

I loved Halloween. It was my favorite. This was the 1970s and trick or treating was relatively safe then although I do remember getting a lecture in fifth grade about how we should throw away any apples we received because there could be a razor blade tucked inside.

Despite any poison apples, we bravely went from door to door, in groups, costumed, silly. On our block was another Jewish family who had the biggest and best Halloween gathering of all: spooky ghost and cobweb decorations on their patio, including the much beloved mummy hand reaching out of a potted plant. Donuts and candy apples inside, cider too, for tired children and parents who wanted to schmooze.

One year, Halloween fell on a Friday and I remember my father taking me around the block in the late afternoon to trick or treat, before it got dark, before sundown, before the Sabbath would begin. I was dressed as a ballerina, pink tutu and tights, and embarrassed to be the only one. It was somehow always a little embarrassing to be Jewish.

Otherwise the memories are all sweet candy corn and circus peanuts. My brother and I heading out again after hearing about the neighbor who was giving out multiple boxes of cracker jacks. The end of the night counting and catagorizing the little candy bars. Wandering the streets in a pack of ghosts. Darkness, freedom, hiding, escape. No one knew I was Jewish under that ghostly bedsheet with holes cut out for eyes.

And then there was that one time that I hesitate even to mention because I question whether I am remembering correctly. Was it my imagination? Did I dream it? Had I gone mad? Had I eaten a poison apple or debauched donut? Maybe I was an 8-year-old tipsy on grown-up cider. But no. What happened was the whole truth.

They had a number of clocks, this other Jewish family on the block that I mentioned above, cukoo clocks, grandfather clocks, and they were always ticking. It was like a scene from a movie when no one is talking and no other sound but the sound of the clocks. That’s what it was like at their house, even on Halloween, which also had the sounds of a dinner party and adults drinking Sanka. Clinking of teaspoon against saucer.

Tick tock: I remember being there with my best friend. Tick tock: it was not a Friday night. Tick tock: quite late, many stars. And this house was always the last stop because we would gobble up the sweets and sit and touch the decorations but something about this night was different and not just because of the late hour and the warmer than usual October Miami weather.

My best friend, who also knew this family, had told me the week before about a ghost in their house, a very mischevious ghost and how on Halloween this ghost was at his most frisky, pushing plates off the dinner table, adjusting the zombie hand on the patio, and generally, so it seemed, revelling in the party atmosphere and the comings and goings of the honored guests, us children.

But my friend had seen it. Her brother had seen it. Her other brother had seen it.

What had you seen? I asked, eyes wide. And she described again the falling planes and zombie hand and various other mishaps blamed on the wind or a child running past. And how the day after Halloween, it was gone.

We need a plan, she said.
What kind of plan? I said.
I don’t know, she said.
I do, I said.

And that was how we set out to lay a “trap” for this ghost, to catch it in the act with our polaroid cameras. Truth is we didn’t have any plan in mind other than watching and waiting.

Finally Halloween arrived and my friend and I showed up in the afternoon to pretend to help Mrs. P., but really we were on a mission. She was busy setting the table with best and brightest Dixie plates and cups on the planet. The table was a buffet of Doritos, corn chips, M & Ms, homemade cookies and candy apples, celery and some kind of thick yellow dip probably made from soup mix. Ginger ale and seltzer. Tick tock, said the clock.

We waited. Hours passed. We waited. Nightfall. We missed our trick or treating. And nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing fell off the table. No candy apples eaten by invisible guests. No gasps from the grown-ups at the mysterious and unexplained. We had been sitting under the table for hours, our fort. Long tablecloth like curtains. It had seemed the perfect place for a stake-out, surrounded by the knees of grown ups and the idea that at any moment something out of the ordinary would happen.

And then my friend finally admitted it. It was all a joke. Trick or treat. Tick tock.

It was almost midnight when my mother came from down the street to collect me, and as she took my hand and we were about to leave by the patio door, I saw it then out of the corner of my eye, barely perceptible, and yet I saw it, that undead fake-blood zombie hand. It moved. No wind. No child or cat rushing by. No puppeteer. It moved. Again.

I have to tell my friend I have to tell my friend NOW, I cried out. But my mother wouldn’t have it. It was late, it was time for bed, and she scooped me up and carried me the rest of the way home.

I never told my friend what I saw that night, that her story wasn’t a story at all, but truth. And for every year after that, until we moved away, I spent my whole Halloween at that house, watching and waiting. Everything else I saw? I’ll never tell.

Irish-American Witchcraft: Elf-Locks, Tangled Hair, Ill-Luck, and Appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is often a hot button topic these days in paganism, and certainly it is an issue that deserves discussion. Generally speaking I try to focus this blog more on specific topics relating to Irish-American witchcraft, fairylore, and the like but in this specific case I’m making a bit of an exception for one particular thing that touches a bit on these areas. For a while now I’ve run across people using the term or idea of ‘elf-locks’ or ‘fairy-locks’ to justify people of Celtic descent wearing dreadlocks in their hair. I’ve always personally found this odd, given the cultural associations of elf-locks, so I wanted to take a look at that here today.

elf lock in a horse's mane, Tsaag Valren,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, wikimedia commons
elf lock in a horse’s mane, Tsaag Valren, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, wikimedia commons


also called fairy-locks or witches-locks are inexplicable* tangles or mats in a person’s hair that appear overnight while the person is sleeping and are believed to be caused by the fairies (or in some cases witches). They also happens to animals, particularly horses. Although some modern stories try to give them a twee backstory of fairies playing in the hair older folklore attributes them to either the person or animal being ridden at night by the fairies or else intentional knotting by fairies apparently as a punishment of some sort, possibly for laziness or dirtiness. As Shakespeare put it when describing the activity of Queen Mab: “That plaits the manes of horses in the night; And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish [slovenly] hairs“. An essay in The Good People: New Fairylore Essays discusses an anecdote wherein a man talks about the Lutin [French fairies] harassing his mare by tangling her mane at night, tangles he could not undo no matter how he tried.

Shakespeare is the oldest English language reference to elf-locks and even his use of the term implies hair that is ill-kept and possible a person of questionable sanity. In King Lear the character Edward, after being declared an outlaw and fleeing to the woods, says: “My face I’ll grime with filth; Blanket my loins; Elf my hair in knots“, planning to pass as a madman while in hiding. A footnote in Shakespeare’s Works, volume 5 which defines elflocks as matted or knotted hair that is the result of neglect or disease also quotes a 1596 work by Lodge which says: “His hairs are curled and full of elves’ locks, and nitty for want of combing“. Both of these reinforce the connection between elf-locks and lack of grooming as well as possible madness, something which itself was often attributed to fairies’ displeasure with a person.

Ill Luck:

A sign of supernatural attention, it was very unlucky to have elf-locks but also unlucky to untangle them.  There are some divided opinions about whether it was bad luck to brush them out but allowable to work them out with the fingers. Most often they must be cut out, as they could be both painful and distracting. People experiencing elf-locks are usually advised to sleep with protective measures, particularly iron, at hand to ward off the fairies and prevent further such attention. I have never yet read about or talked to anyone in a culture for whom elf-locks are a belief who see them as anything but an ill omen or something to be prevented as much as possible. Even people like myself who make a habit of working with and connecting to the fairies see elf-locks as a bad omen, a sign of fairy attention in the night with malicious overtones.

Although it has become more common in modern views disconnected from actual folklore to see fairies as small pleasant little beings who are helpful and kind, or as nature spirits, fairies in folklore – even the ‘good’ ones – are dangerous, mercurial beings who can help or harm. Traditional fairies, the ones associated with elf-locks in the past, might torment people for their own amusement or punish human transgressions with illness, madness, or even death. All fairies were not necessarily malicious, but should they be tangling your hair in your sleep the belief was that their intention was not kind. People who had elf-locks might be viewed as having been fairy ridden the night before, especially if they woke up exhausted or aching, or as being influenced by the fairies in dangerous ways. As Shakespeare alludes to in King Lear, elf-locks when left to run rampant were associated with madness.

Arrest of Christ from the Book of Kells, public domain
Arrest of Christ from the Book of Kells, public domain

Historic Irish Hairstyles:

In Celtic belief the head is the seat of personal power. The heads of enemies or rivals who were defeated in battle could be taken as trophies, symbolizing the taking of that person’s power. Related to that a defeated enemy’s hair might be cut short to represent their loss of power; short hair was considered shameful.  Matted hair when it appears in descriptions in mythology and folklore is associated with madness and wild people; in contrast clean, neatly combed hair was a sign of nobility. In Ireland both men and women wore their hair long and loose, and women with long hair were considered particularly beautiful. Bathing was, ideally, done daily or at least as often as possible and combing out the hair was a daily practice. As Joyce tells us in his book ‘A Smaller Social History of Ireland’ hairstyles were often complex and carefully worked out, involving both curling the hair as well as plaiting it; the hair was often arranged in elaborate styles that involved dividing it into multiple sections in both front and back. The references to such complex hairstyles are supported by various depictions of the same in statuary and illustrations.


I’d  gently point out that people who may suggest that ‘elf-locks’ or ‘fairy-locks’ was a term used by the Celts and/or Irish for intentionally matted or tangled hair are in error. Firstly the terms as they stand now are English language terms and date no further back than the 16th century. There is no directly correlating term in Old or Middle Irish, the closest term in older forms of Irish that I know of is “fa chochlaibh a ciabh” [under a hood of his hair, i.e. matted hair] involves a Latin loan word and translate to a ‘hood of hair’ or ‘cowl of hair’; in no way does this term involve the Good People. Secondly such fey attention to one’s head would never be seen as anything but ill luck, and something to be warded against. Thirdly all indications are that the Celts/Irish pagans were extremely proud of their appearance and hair which was carefully combed out and styled daily. Applying the term elf-locks to a deliberate hairstyle is a misuse of the term which was only ever meant to be used for tangled hair with no earthly explanation. The current and on-going debate about the appropriation of dreadlocks has directly led to this crossover with fairylore in some areas, something that I believe is compounding one issue with another.  However much one might want to find a cultural link here when we look to historic Irish hairstyles we see no intentional matting of hair – just the opposite in fact – and when we look to fairylore we see nothing but negative associations there. To call any modern intentional matting of hair ‘elf-locks’ is, in its own way, appropriating that term from its own rightful context.

Fairies by H J ford, public domain
Fairies by H J ford, public domain

Don’t get me wrong I’m not telling anyone what to do with their hair. Do what you want, it’s your hair. Just be realistic about the history and associations, and don’t try to twist a folkloric expression around to justify a hairstyle you want to wear – accept that some people will call you out for cultural appropriation of an ethnicity, whether you agree with that judgment or not. I would strongly urge anyone considering using elf-locks as a term for what would otherwise be called dreadlocks to seriously think about the folklore implications of that, as elf-locks have nothing but negative connotations. As we discussed historically elf-locks have two particularly negative associations: it was used as a term for the hair of people or animals knotted overnight by fairies, which was not a good thing to have happen; also as we see in Shakespeare’s use of it, it was associated with insanity (possibly caused by fairies) and dirtiness. This is in stark contrast to the history and cultural associations of dreadlocks in various other cultures. Conflating the two is highly problematic. If you want to wear dreadlocks, call them what they are, and embrace their history for what it is.

Ultimately we cannot look to Irish culture or fairylore for a way to feel better about wearing this hairstyle.


Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet & King Lear
electronic Dictionary of the Celtic Language
Narvaez, The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Irish Fireside All about that Celtic hair.
Joyce, P. A smaller social history of Ireland.

*obviously none of this applies if you know why the hair is tangling or simply have hair that naturally does so. The point of elf-locks is that they are unexplainable by other means.

The Crow’s Nest: Honoring the Dead with Offerings at Samhain

Pagans around the world are preparing to celebrate Samhain, one of the most popular Pagan holidays of the year. Samhain marks the beginning of Winter and the Dark Half of the Year. The tradition of presenting the Dead offerings during this time is an ancient one.  What is an “Offering”? Why even give offerings in the first place? What constitutes an offering? Let’s take a closer look at the subject of offerings.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin, From Pexels, Public Domain Image.
Photo by Artem Beliaikin, From Pexels, Public Domain Image.

What is an offering? defines “Offering” as:

“Something offered in worship or devotion, as to a deity; an oblation or sacrifice.”

Archaeological evidence tells us that humanity has been making offerings to the Dead since the beginning of our existence.  People from various cultures and religions all over the world today still give offerings on a regular basis. The origins of offerings is ancient and rooted in Pagan Traditions.

“Pagan” is a broad term under which many traditions, beliefs and practices are included. As such, offerings and the reasons for them among pagan practices today vary widely. Offerings can be a way to “honor” the Dead or as a part of “Ancestor Worship”.

Offerings can be given throughout the year for various reasons and purposes. Samhain is an excellent time of year to explore what kind of offerings may be appropriate for the Dead in particular. The next section highlights some of the most popular forms of offerings.

Types of Offerings


Lighting a candle is one of the most popular forms of offering. The light of a candle signifies a light in the darkness. Candles lit this time of year to honor the dead and can be one of the simplest and powerful of rituals. The type of candle used is up to the individual. Vigil candles are glass-encased and meant to be burned over a specific period of time. I burn a vigil candle each night from the first day of October until the first of November as a part of my own practice. Votive candles are also a popular choice. I do recommend, no matter what type of candle you choose, to “dress” or “charge” the candle with oil and/or herbs before burning it. And please remember never to leave a candle burning unattended.

Herbs and Flowers

Dried herbs and flowers burned as an incense is a popular way to honor the Dead. Fresh herbs and flowers placed on an altar dedicated to the ancestors is appropriate. Rosemary, mint, mugwort and heather are commonly used as offerings to the Dead. Marigolds and Chrysanthemums are in season during this time of year and excellent choices for fresh floral offerings.

Food and Drink

A Meal is central to most Pagan celebrations. A portion of the meal is often set aside as an offering. Fruits associated with the dead and Samhain include pomegranates and apples. Liquid offerings can consist of alcoholic beverages, juice or water.  A few tips on food and drink offerings: Set aside the first portion of a dish or drink for the offering. When selecting fresh fruit or juice, try to source locally and organic. Use well or spring water. Select a good quality alcohol. Do not eat or drink the offering. Dispose of offerings by fire or placing outdoors and letting nature take its course. Be mindful of any laws or ordinances in your area, if fire or placing outdoors in not an option, simply place the offering in the trash.

Non-traditional Offerings

Offerings do not have to be material in nature. By offering our time and effort in service to others, we can honor those who came before us. Volunteering at local a charity is a wonderful offering. Designing and holding a ritual or crafting a magical object are other options for honoring the Dead this time of year.  The possibilities are endless.

Choosing the right offering

Selecting the right kind of offering may seem like an intimidating task.  Determine your intention in regards to the offering. What goal do you seek to accomplish by making an offering to the Dead?  Remember that reverence is an essential factor.  I encourage everyone to learn more about offerings and how you can utilize them in your own practice. A safe and Blessed Samhain to everyone!

Book of Blackbirds: Teachers

He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.”

~ Confucius

I am a pagan and a faerie, though I don’t necessarily believe in literal gods of any sort outside my own psyche. I do believe we all individually possess a higher consciousness, which might be considered a higher power. I also believe in real Magic, and this belief comes not from superstition or wishful thinking but from lifelong personal experience. I think that requiring Atheo-Paganism to be accompanied by the categorical denial of anything that anyone might even remotely consider supernatural (whether it is or not) is a mistake. This to me smacks of the same narrowly focused exclusivism I found in the Christian church of my youth.

"The Shepherd's Dream" by John Henry Fuseli.  From WikiMedia.
“The Shepherd’s Dream” by John Henry Fuseli. From WikiMedia.

That is, you aren’t allowed to have your own beliefs, or even your own experiences, if they do not fall into line with the accepted dogma as expressed by the accepted vocabulary, period. Now I won’t deny my own experiences in order to fit in anywhere, though I will admit to having tried to do so in the past. I won’t even pretend any more that my interpretation of those experiences could be flawed or somehow mistaken to satisfy someone else’s inability to comprehend them, for doing so would be disingenuous. Our experiences, all of them, inform our life choices and help make us into who we are becoming, day by day.

I have had what would be termed psychic experiences since I was a child. I have dreamed of future events, I have had out-of-body experiences or OBE’s, I have while awake remembered things before they happened, and I have witnesses who can attest to at least some of these events. There have been times I have somehow been able to know things that were impossible for me to know, such as when I was visiting another country halfway around the world and dreamed in detail about my house burning, right down to the exact cause (faulty wiring at the junction box – in my dream I saw the flames come dancing down the wires and into my house).

I even dreamed the precise words that the insurance inventory person would say to me later while standing back in my destroyed kitchen when he handed me the exact item I saw him hand to me in my dream. At the time of my dream there was a +17 hour time zone difference between my house and where I was visiting, but accounting for this my dream occurred approximately one day before it happened. I remarked about it that morning to my friend at whose house I was staying, and so had a witness to this prescience when the dreadful news finally reached us the next day. As a side effect of these experiences I can no longer view time in the same way as most, but rather in a more holistic manner where concepts like cause and effect are merely two sides of the same whole coin.

For years growing up in a strict fundamentalist church environment I kept mostly silent about my psychic occurrences for fear of being labelled a witch (a moniker I now wear proudly), or worse. In short, I may now be a godless Taoist faerie pagan but would say to some strictly materialistic atheists I know that I can no longer be concerned about world views that will not allow themselves to be wrapped around those concepts I have described, even though I do understand the denial of them. To accept the existence of perceptions beyond the conventional senses challenges deeply held beliefs, but that is no more reason to dismiss them out of hand than it is to assume other, more nefarious explanations.

In younger days I often wrestled with the idea that perhaps I was demon possessed, fearing that what the particular church denomination I then belonged to had to say about such things was true and I was damned to eternal hellfire along with Satan and his Minions of Darkness for practicing these talents, though they were involuntary to me in any case. Thanks to my upbringing, as these unconventional abilities developed further and I considered their real world implications, this eventually began to frighten me quite profoundly. I worried that even if I weren’t somehow being controlled by demonic forces then at best I was just plain out and out bat$#!+ crazy. Either way, my prognosis seemed bleak.

"Demon Seated" by Mikhail Vrubel.  From WikiMedia.
“Demon Seated” by Mikhail Vrubel. From WikiMedia.

In a fit of anguish when I was in my late teens after one particularly disturbing excursion out beyond the hedge for which I had no conventional explanation, I reached out to a Christian psychologist whom I had sought out through a local church. I set up an appointment and tried to prepare how I was going to relate my fears and concerns in such a way as to not sound completely mad and so be institutionalized on the spot as a danger to myself and others. I got the man’s address and went to my appointment.

It was after dark when I arrived, and the office was situated in a side addition to an old Victorian style house in an older part of town. This occurred in Winter when the trees were bare, and a cold wind whistled through the naked limbs (creepy, right?) I almost turned away, but then gathered up my courage, pulled my coat collar up tight, and knocked on the outer door. I heard a weak voice asking me to come in.

When I walked into the smallish office there was a nice cheery fire going in the fireplace and it was quite warm inside. I met a frail looking older gentleman sitting in a rocking chair atop a well worn Persian rug on an otherwise bare wooden floor. A battered old desk and another mismatched chair rounded out the room’s meagre furnishings. The most striking part of the scene was the fact that this man was obviously completely blind, his bright open eyes nevertheless obscured by milky cataracts.

He sat with a Braille Bible opened in his lap, and invited me to sit down in the chair opposite him and tell him what was troubling me. I related my experiences to him, divulging to him my fears of demons and madness. It was like talking to a kindly grandfather figure and I began to open up more to him as I talked, though internally I was still sceptical of just how much help this old blind guy was actually going to be to my situation.

Rather than demanding that I immediately repent of my wickedness and denounce witchcraft in the name of Jesus however, his words surprised me by presenting a refreshingly alternative point of view. He explained that his Bible was full of such stories, and almost always these were good and used to the purpose of helping others. He suggested that rather than assuming my unconventional talents were demon-sourced or the result of a deranged mind, perhaps I should instead consider them as holy gifts.

"Braille" from Pixababy.  CC0 License.
“Braille” from Pixabay. CC0 License.

He then asked me if I had any desire to use my abilities to cause suffering or pain to others, and of course this was something I would never even remotely consider. After quoting from memory some relevant passages of scripture, the old man bowed his head and uttered a prayer to his God that I find peace in my heart and learn to not be fearful of my experiences but rather to cherish them as talents bestowed from on high. He asked for no money, but I thanked him and tipped him the little bit of cash I had brought with me and walked back out into the Winter night, now somehow less cold and frightening than it had been when I first arrived.

Although I have been pagan for many years since and don’t particularly care for what I perceive as the many evils historically perpetrated on humanity in the name of organized religion, neither will I limit the higher powers if you will to only working through specific, pagan-atheist, scientifically approved channels. We can learn as much from anywhere as long as our hearts are open to receive it, and to deny this fact is to miss out on so much more that this life has to offer us. Even if I don’t believe the gods are literally real there are those whom I admire and I study their stories, finding comfort and wisdom in their age-old tales. Gods it turns out, whether real or not, make excellent teachers.

So I know it is to my advantage to remember that teachers are everywhere, and to be mindful to recognize them when they appear. This elderly, blind Christian had given me a valuable lesson and ironically, a way of seeing psychic abilities in a different light. These abilities are not something to be fearful or ashamed of, but a true spiritual blessing. For this reason I will no longer deny my own heart in order to be liked or accepted into any group. If someone has a problem with this then it is their problem, not mine. I know what I have seen is real, maybe even more real than the mundane world within which so many seem to find such safe and plodding comfort, and these days I’m perfectly okay with that.

“Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

~ Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince

Hermes Resurrected: What Hermetic Literature Reveals to Contemporary Seekers

Does Hermetic literature hold any meaning for today’s seekers?

I sometimes suspect that we deploy the word “Hermetic”—a term for late ancient Greek-Egyptian mystical texts attributed to the mythical man-god Hermes Trismegistus, or thrice-greatest Hermes—as a kind of marker, intended to connote a venerable ancestor to modern mysticism, and thus giving our current spiritual pursuits the weight of historical gravitas.

"Dream of Aesculapius" by Sebastiano Ricci (1710).
“Dream of Aesculapius” by Sebastiano Ricci (1710).

But, the truth is, Hermeticism is a living philosophy, which ought to be read, debated, and engaged in. The Hermetic texts, mostly those found in the Corpus Hermeticum and the dialogue called Asclepius, can serve the needs of a twenty-first century person in search of metaphysical ideas and clarity.

Hermeticism is of immediate value much like the more arcane books of the Old Testament. Although certain Hebrew rites, rituals, and genealogical recordkeeping may seem period-bound, or of little more than liturgical significance to any but the religiously orthodox, such passages provide a framework for luminous ethical and spiritual insights. Similarly, elements of the late-Egyptian Hermetic books also reflect traditions of formalism, ritual, and recital—and these elements likewise frame passages of penetrating relevance to current seekers. This fact has not always been apparent due the longstanding paucity of quality translations, a deficit that is thankfully being redressed in our time. (1)

The central and most enduring theme of the Hermetic literature—and one that left its mark on the ancient and Renaissance worlds, and, indirectly, on our contemporary culture of New Thought and mind metaphysics—is that the human mind is an extension and imitation of Nous, the Higher Mind, which serves as the divine creative force behind all that is.

This perspective finds particular resonance in books I and XI of the seventeen tracts that make up the Corpus Hermeticum. In book I, sometimes called the Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus, we learn of the mind’s causative abilities: “. . . your mind is god the father; they are not divided from one another for their union is life.” (2) As we come to realize our creative capacities, we grow closer in nature and perspective to the Eternal: ” . . he who has understood himself advances toward god.”

Book XI goes further in urging man’s awareness of how his mind, through its abilities to visualize all things, originate new concepts, and surpass physical boundaries, reflects innate divinity:

See what power you have, what quickness! If you can do these things, can god not do them? So you must think of god in this way, as having everything—the cosmos, himself, (the) universe—like thoughts within himself. Thus, unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god; like is understood by like. Make yourself grow to immeasurable immensity, outleap all body, outstrip all time, become eternity and you will understand god. Having conceived that nothing is impossible to you, consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything, all art, all learning, the temper of every living thing.

In the student-teacher dialogue called Asclepius, which is often grouped as an adjunct to the Corpus Hermeticum, man’s estimate is even further elevated. We first learn that “one who has joined himself to the gods in divine reverence, using the mind that joins him to the gods, almost attains divinity.” Using a variant of the famous Hermetic formula, “as above, so below” (enunciated in another text called the Emerald Tablet), this dialogue counsels: “Forms of all things follow kinds … Thus, the kind made up of gods will produce from itself the forms of gods.” This adds a deeper resonance to man being made in God’s image, as found in Hebrew scripture.

Trismegistos from 1610 via WikiMedia.
Trismegistos from 1610 via WikiMedia.

Hermes goes on to teach his disciple Asclepius that man, at his highest, is actually on par with the gods: “Because of this, Asclepius, a human being is a great wonder, a living thing to be worshipped and honored: for he changes his nature into a god’s…” Hermes ultimately evaluates man as even greater than the gods because, while a god’s nature is fixed in immorality, the striving and aware man is ever in process of becoming and fulfilling his highest nature: “In short, god made mankind good and capable of immortality through his two natures, divine and mortal, and so god willed the arrangement whereby mankind was ordained to be better than the gods, who were formed only from the immortal nature…”

Moreover, man in his reverence and worship, performs necessary acts of caretaking of the gods: “He not only advances toward god; he also makes the gods strong.”

In considering man’s potential, the modern reader of Hermetic literature may find himself facing a question that also faces contemporary students of New Thought: Given the causative powers ascribed to our minds, and the manner in which thought relates to the highest source of creation, why do we suffer physical decline, illness, and bodily death? Indeed, the most Hermetic of all New Thought teachers, Neville Goddard (1905-1972), instructed that your mind is God, and all that you experience is the product of your imagination—so, again, why must we “die as princes?” as the psalmist puts it?

The Corpus Hermetic offers a reconciling response. Man, for all his potential greatness, is nonetheless conscripted to dwell within a “cosmic framework,” where physical laws must be suffered and limitations experienced. “The master of eternity,” Hermes tells Asclepius, “is the first god, the world”—or great nature—“is second, mankind is the third.” Man may be the greatest of beings in God’s schema of creation, but he nonetheless remains bound to other aspects of the creative order.

In book I we learn: “mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate”—fate being a term for nature’s governance—“thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within in.”

These views of man’s greatness and weakness, the forces in which he functions, and his higher possibilities are considered with surprising adroitness in the 1908 occult classic, The Kybalion. Published under the tantalizingly Hermetic pseudonym “Three Initiates,” the slender but powerful book is a reasonable iteration of certain Hermetic concepts, as well its author’s personal insights into New Thought psychology.

In essence, The Kybalion adds specific techniques to the overarching Hermetic principle that the mind of the individual is an adjunct to the Mind of God, through which man may not only create but also aspire to his eventual return to the source from which he was created.

For those seeking a guiding, cosmic philosophy, as well as the reconciliation of certain vexing ideas within New Thought and other modern mystical schools, I recommend reading the Hermetic literature hand in hand with Neville, The Kybalion, and other mature New Thought works.

You will also discover within the Hermetic texts, particularly Asclepius, a poignant and, incidentally, accurate prophecy of Ancient Egypt’s decline, and the demise of its lexicon of gods. But with today’s renewed interested in Hermeticism, and the arrival of a new generation of supple translations, we may be entering a phase of Hermetic rebirth. This renewal, however, comes with a caveat, one deeply grounded in Hermetic tradition: If Hermes is to be resurrected, such an operation must occur within you.


Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and publisher, and the author of books including Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, which was recently censored in China. His new book The Miracle Club: How Thoughts Become Reality comes out in fall 2018. Follow him @MitchHorowitz.


1. Of particular note are Hermetica translated by Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge University Press, 1992), and The Way of Hermes translated by Clement Salaman, Dorine van Oyen, and Jean Pierre-Mahé (Inner Traditions, 1999, 2000).

2. In this essay, I use Copenhaver’s translation.

The Other Side of the Hedge: Four Hundred Days

Tonight is the night. Every day, for the last four hundred days, I have performed the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, commonly referred to as the LBRP, and around my house, the “EL-BURP.” Mostly, I perform it right around eleven PM — that’s what works for me.

Four hundred isn’t some mystical or meaningful number. This isn’t the last time I will do it. So why even mention it? It seemed important somehow.


Since July 8, 2016 I have performed this ritual four hundred and forty-seven times. Though I aimed to do it every day, I missed a few. On the other hand, the last time I missed a day was September 5, 2016.

So why do this ritual over and over? I’m not looking for miracles. Honestly, performing the LBRP each day probably has about the same prophylactic power as the proverbial “apple a day.” Oh, it might help…a little…in some way. But it’s not anything to rely on, so why bother?

Choose Your Own Adventure

Have you ever heard about people who accomplish amazing things, and been jealous? I know I have. There are many ways to be successful. I’m not the prettiest, not the smartest, and definitely not the most talented or luckiest. But the one thing I have always been is as stubborn as the day is long – not in some petty way (mostly), but in the kind of way that makes me get up when life knocks me down.

I’m not the fair-haired hero. I’ve never been the chosen one. I’m that other guy. My power isn’t born of charm or good looks. I was born to wear a t-shirt that says, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”(1)

We live in a cynical age where our fair-haired heroes have revealed themselves as paper cutouts, our leaders have sold themselves to the highest bidder, and the world gets less friendly every day. We wake up and go through the motions and wonder if there’s a damn thing we can do about it.

And you know what? There is.

Image by Pfeilgiftfeder, via PIxabay.  Public Domain.
Image by Pfeilgiftfeder, via PIxabay. Public Domain.

We Have to Start from Where We Are

One of the hardest lessons of my life is a ground-in humility, the knowledge that I really am not special. The idea that we are all special and deserving is a necessary lie. It is not that we are undeserving; rather that the whole conversation around “deserve” is a mock-up of value that keeps culture running.

For the everyday person, there’s nothing wrong with accepting the rules of culture at face value. For those few who seek to truly delve past the surface of things, and who are willing to live with the consequences, we have to unshackle ourselves as best we can.

That doesn’t mean unshackling ourselves wholly from culture. I don’t know about you, but I keep my food, shelter, and healthcare there – things I literally cannot live without.

Culture is a necessity; if we somehow did get rid of it, we would just have to go ahead and build a new one, anyway. I have no interest in reinventing the wheel, and no longer suffer from the hubris of youth that leads many of us to think that we could do it all better.

That being said, we are not raised to really know ourselves. When the everyday person looks in the mirror, they can only see what everyone else sees.

It is not a limitation of the world, but of the self. To fit the everyday world better, we have had to cut off parts of ourselves, parts of our spirits and parts of our lives. And to paraphrase Beatrix Kiddo, they are things you will miss.

To regain who we are, we don’t have to fight the shackles of the world. The real wall we beat ourselves against are the shackles of the self. The change we’re seeking isn’t out there, it’s inside us.

Unfortunately, this has a certain “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” quality – by which I mean that it is nearly impossible to use the everyday self to expand itself. Such a change in who we are is inconceivable.

And so we come to the most basic problems. How can we begin not only to move, but to build momentum in a direction we cannot see, cannot conceive, and only have the vaguest intuition might exist?

"Chronus and His Child" by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli.  From WikiMedia.
“Chronus and His Child” by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. From WikiMedia.

Daily Practice

There are a number of ways to begin, and we don’t usually have the first idea about how or what to pick. Back when I was getting started, the standard method was to learn whatever was available and go from there. These days, with a multitude of available resources available, it gets more complicated.

We can join a group, find a teacher, or seek a vision. Or we can wait passively for the mystical to find us as we go about our daily lives. Whatever we choose, we imagine that the only path forward is somehow out there. Of course, it’s not. We know it’s not. But that doesn’t stop us from looking.

There comes a time in our journey when we have to get serious about things, or move on. At that moment, most people will back down, find something else to do, realize that this awakening isn’t for them. And that’s a valid choice. Frankly, it’s often the wiser choice.

Whether by choice or calling, a few always step forward, put on their game-faces, and get serious. That’s when we stop playing at magic, and start becoming it. It is a transformative process.

How do we take these first steps? It is easier to ask how we can grow strong enough to choose, or be chosen by, this path. And there are many answers. But if you’re not lucky enough to have someone else give you a hand up, then the answer I have found is a simple one: daily practice.

To make your commitment, begin with daily practice. Pick something, any little thing, and make it your thing. Every time you do it, make a mark in your calendar. At first, it will be an exciting new project. Then it will be a game. Then it will be a point of pride.

But eventually it will just become a part of who you are. And when that happens, it will grow. It will stop being a quirk, and become a virtue, a source of power that is yours and yours alone.


(1) A famous line from Mark Twain. It is amazing that I have written this long and this is the first time I have quoted him.

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