As the old saying that goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun…or not”. Since Hekate came into my life a year ago… with a bang… I can say I have experienced both. 

In My Journey With Hekate, I talked about how I decided to shut down my business after 39 years last January. Looking back at that dark period in my life, I was stressed. I didn’t know where to turn. It was like I was just marking time, with nothing to really look forward to. Plodding forward? Yes. I went to events and Full Moon Rituals at Circle Sanctuary, but I couldn’t get into any of it. Depression, maybe? I didn’t want to admit that!

Image by traumfaenger, CC.0 License.

When Hekate came actively into my life, a year ago, things started to turn around. Last March, I was paying more attention to the business shutting down, and not on the Ostara ritual at Circle Sanctuary. It was mostly about me. Was I feeling sorry for myself? Probably. 

However, this year, I was at Circle Sanctuary, helping with our Welcome Spring event coming up on the 24th. It was a completely different feeling. I was so happy and felt so in touch with myself.

What had happened in the past 12 months? Why did this year feel so different? It dawned on me that I was seeing more clearly this year. I realized I had been pre-occupied with the past — only plodding along. I was healthy, had been smiling, and thought I was doing ok. That wasn’t the case. 

I believe my turning point was due to Hekate coming with me on my Journey at the Crossroads. By unconditionally accepting Her as my Goddess and letting myself be guided by Her, I found a peace within myself that I had never known before. Self love…what a concept! By being able to accept myself, and love myself for what I am, not what other people think I should or shouldn’t be, I didn’t have to be authentic to anybody but me and Her. 

With this new mindset, it didn’t matter anymore what people thought about me. It didn’t matter anymore when I got mis-gendered. It didn’t matter when somebody said, “what exactly are you? Are you a man in a dress? Do you have a male part? What’s in your pants?” 

My answer since then? I was able to smile and move on. Being a Transwoman somedays is a bitch! Somedays it’s not. 

How did this change happen? When you give yourself over to loving yourself, and with Her at your side, those comments aren’t relevant in your life anymore. Having a totally accepting community has also helped. Before Her coming into my life, I had several communities, but they all take a backseat to my Pagan Community. When I’m in my mundane communities, some may be accepting, up to a point. With the business gone, that community went away, and now I’m surrounded by more love than ever before. Thank you! 

When you’re coming out to people, it all comes down to the communities you think are accepting and those communities that actually are. I only have one very accepting community in my life — my Pagan community. Even though I have known Selena Fox for over 30 years, I hadn’t actually walked into Circle Sanctuary until Welcome Summer in June of 2016. Hekate wasn’t even a blip on my radar then. I just knew I had to go there to help with something.

When I walked into the Temple Room that day, I hadn’t met anyone there before. That was where I heard two words that really told me that I was accepted unconditionally — Welcome Home. I wrote about it in my first article, Finding Home. I now know that Hekate was with me then, but I didn’t have a clue back then.

This year, on Ostara, I had thought, well ok, so Hekate goes down to the Underworld with Demeter to bring Persephone up for another six months. Ok, spring ahead. Warm weather, spring flowers, and more hiking opportunities. I also realized I needed to get rid of the garbage from my past. I needed to do a lot of spring cleaning, and not just in my apartment, but in my life. One of Her keys is to lead a virtuous life. That is now my mantra going forward, not looking back.

I borrowed this message from a recent post by Cyndi Brannen. “Wisdom: Tend your own field and hoe your own row.” I know that with Hekate with me, all things are possible, with Her help and wisdom. My garden is about helping as much as I can and am able, tending my field with my Pagan Community. Hoeing my row, is my responsibility to keep the weeds out of it.

Mighty Hekate, Queen of the Witches,
Blessed am I,
To call myself one of Your chosen.

(Above used with permission from Cyndi Brannen..with many thanks and love)

There is a saying you may hear sometimes in modern paganism which comes to us from the writings of the mid-20th century poet Robert Graves: “dead, mad, or a poet”. On my last blog I talked about this phrase and how it is rooted in Welsh folklore but also has echoes in Irish and Scottish belief. To sleep in a place that belongs to the Other Crowd was to risk their anger but also to possibly earn a blessing from them, and there are some who see this in a modern context as a type of initiation practice. I thought today I’d look at it more from that angle, and then try to unpack the layers of risk, reward, and obligation that come from seeking – or at least finding – initiation through a sí.

An Cheathrú Chaol, 2016, Photo by the author.

Initiation Rites

Initiation rites are a complicated thing and when we see them discussed we are mostly looking at human designed and based rites that acknowledge a person gaining rank or acceptance into a group. Effectively then initiation marks a person’s transition from one state to another with a ritual and community acceptance. We can see a wide range of examples of this, from school graduations to ceremonies welcoming people into groups.

In some other cases however the ritual is designed to create a situation in which this transition may or may not occur, perhaps hinging on the completion of tasks or in this case on the responsiveness and response of the Gentry. The key difference, I would argue, between most types of initiations and those that might be based in seeking out the Fair Folk is that the second kind of ritual is out of human control; as with the Gods the Good People cannot be forced to give us what we want or even to show up when we want them to.

Folklore

When we look at stories of this process with the Fair Folk several things stand out immediately. Firstly, in the Irish and Scottish stories they appear to happen spontaneously, usually when a person has wandered unwittingly into (or onto) one of their places and remained into a liminal time, usually crossing the threshold of day and night. Secondly the initiation isn’t asked for or expected, in fact at least in the folklore examples when people go with the intent of getting gifts it tends to end badly.

In the Welsh material the intent is there, but with the understanding that asking to be made a poet means the very real risk of death or madness instead. This isn’t metaphor but genuine danger, and as we saw last time with the Maen Du Yr Arrdu example two were required to go in and one was promised to go mad for it. Thirdly initiation through the fairy mounds means a lifelong – perhaps longer – connection to the beings who live in those places* and it seems that they choose who they are willing to have that connection to, for their own obscure reasons.

The symbolism of the act itself is very powerful, and may perhaps be likened to a type of death and rebirth, with the person either falling asleep – and certainly sleep and death have been compared before now – or else going bodily into a place of the aos sí which is often also a place of the ancient dead. You go in as one person and that person dies in the darkness there either symbolically, psychologically, or literally. The person who emerges from the other side of this sort of initiation is someone else, someone touched directly and deeply by the Otherworld for good or ill.

Rathcroghan, image copyright Aileen Paul, used with permission, copyright 2016.

Value and Risk

Why would a person seek out this kind of initiation, or accept it if it seemed to be happening spontaneously? In the folklore we see people who were granted physical healing or great gifts afterwards, particularly poetic or musical skill, or even the gift of prophecy. For witches who are already on a path that is closely aligned with or connected to the Fair Folk there may also be some appeal in this idea, and we see examples in books like Willby’s Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits of those witches who swore themselves to the fairies being taught herbal information, healing skills, and magical knowledge.

Usually these are people who have nothing to lose or are in times of crisis, people already outside society in some way, or people who are chosen by the Gentry for their own reasons. It might be argued that those who were willing to risk death or madness saw the danger as no worse than what they already faced in daily life, and the reward as worth any risk.

A Modern Initiation Through the Sidhe

Let me tell you a story about a modern person and an initiation in and through a sí.

This person didn’t choose to set these things in motion – just the opposite in fact. They had intended something else entirely. But the Daoine Uaisle have their own agenda and sometimes all it takes to begin a thing is to set foot in a place, and so that is where our story begins, with a person walking up to the top of an iron age fort, one foot after another.

They walked up with a group of people, following a guide, to the top of a place that once belonged to Queen Medb of Connacht. The grass of the hill was white-green, coated with innumerable tiny spiderwebs, and here and there among the webs brown mushrooms jutted up. At the top of the mound the group was meant to meditate to connect to Queen Medb but that is not what happened for this person, and they found themselves instead connecting to the sí. And when it came time to leave the mound they found that the way down, what the guide described as the path of the living, was physically barred to them and they had to go down a different way, alone, following the path of the dead. And that was the beginning of their initiation, although they didn’t know it yet.

entrance to the sidhe of Cruachan, 2016, photo by the author.

From there they went immediately to the sí of Cruachan, known now by a different name; a triangular hole within the earth that can be entered and crawled through, then walked in. Stone and earth and clay and water, and most of all a consuming darkness when the torches are turned off. The group the person was with had all gone into the cave, and by chance or not they went in at sunset, as the day went down to night. The person moved down the passage until it opened up in the main chamber then crossed the sucking mud and climbed to perch at the far end, up above the floor of the enclosure and closest to the now collapsed end that, stories say, had once gone back further. In that darkness there was only the drip of water and the shifting sounds of bodies and breathing, and then the person had an aisling, a vision.

They saw the sí of Cruachan opening up behind them, a great golden hall full of music and laughter and warmth. And what happened after that really can’t be relayed in words without sounding trite or foolish, but it can be said that the person was willing to die to reach that shining hall and they would have tried despite the darkness and the rocks slick with wet clay. They would have gladly broken their neck because in that moment death was a meaningless thing and all that had value in the world was that golden entrance and the promise of that light and laughter. But everything has a price and the price this time was remaining in the mortal world to do the work that needed to be done.

Emerging from the sí, from the cave, the person was definitely changed but they still didn’t understand the nature of this change. Understanding didn’t come until the next night, which – again by chance or design – was both the dark moon and Samhain. Then they stood in human ritual space in a third sacred place, surrounded now by firelight and stars, and a human priestess who knew nothing of what had been going on publicly gave them a title that acknowledged this initiation.

Everything that had been set in motion came full circle without the guidance of any human hand. This initiation though was more than just a symbolic acknowledgement of a rite of passage and although the person didn’t come out the other side ‘dead, mad, or a poet‘ they did emerge deeply and profoundly changed, carrying geasa*, and with their entire spiritual life re-routed. On the other hand, perhaps we could say in a way they did die, as the person they were before they entered that sidhe never emerged again, and perhaps we could argue that madness is in the eye of the beholder as is poetry.

Rathcroghan, image copyright Sara Lewis, used with permission, copyright 2016

Counting the Cost

And so in this story we see a confluence of timing and places, and of an initiation through the agency of the aos sí and not through human planning. This is only one modern example of this kind of initiation and there are other stories that could be told of similar ones that ended less well, because we can’t forget that emerging alive and successful – by any measure – is only one possible outcome. Could such an initiation be planned and attempted? There’s no reason why not, but it should be remembered that simply going to a sí at a liminal time or day isn’t any guarantee that anything will occur. It might be fair to say that rather than the neat trifecta of ‘dead, mad, or a poet’ that Graves gave us it would be more accurate to say that seeking such gifts through the aos sí could result in death, madness, inspiration, transformation, or nothing at all. And perhaps the nothing at all would be the most painful.

It should also be kept in mind that all things to do with the Daoine Uaisle have a price, whether that price is the risk of death and madness, being haunted forever by the sound of fairy music, or living a life bound to their service. This is not the sort of initiation one pursues lightly or without fully grasping the risks and the cost, which of course you won’t know until you are already given over to the cold ground and the spirits housed there.

Life long connections to these beings is a serious matter that should not be entered into by choice without some serious consideration, although as we’ve established sometimes our choice isn’t what begins the process. Death and madness are real consequences of seeking this out, but even if the third option is successfully gained one should not underestimate the way it will change you. And it will change you – not just in some slight ephemeral way, not just deeply and profoundly, but literally, physically change you. It takes courage to brave the dying light of sunset and risk giving one’s self over to the aos sí in the darkness, but it also takes courage to step back out into the light again afterwards and move forward into a life that will never entirely belong to you again.

I’d like to end this article with this, a link to a song by a band called Green Mistletoe. The song – ‘Fairies’ Reward‘ – is something that I collaborated with the band on; I wrote the lyrics based on the subject matter we’ve been discussing here and the band turned those words into a song. I think it encapsulates my feelings on this subject very well, through the medium of Green Mistletoe’s talent.

*I have discussed this before of course but it bears repeating that the aos sí are not twee little garden fairies as the Victorian imagination would paint them. Healthy fear of them is wise.

*Geasa – singular geis – are a type of sacred prohibition, actions that either must be taken or must not be taken to ensure a person’s luck. To break a geis is to invite Otherworldy retribution and doom.

I was down at the local metaphysical shop, browsing with some friends, when I ran across a deck of cards purporting to talk about “animal wisdom.” Sure, yeah, our cute (and not so cute) animal “friends” have a lot to teach us. Sadly, that isn’t a sign of their wisdom so much as a sign of our disconnection.

We can say that wolves mean loyalty, and rabbits symbolize fecundity, and so on. But setting that aside, it is better to focus on the animal that we have most to learn from: humans.

“A rat in a cage” by sipa. CC0 License.

Despite All My Rage, I Am Still Just a Rat in a Cage

Animal wisdom is a strange misnomer; it is nothing of the sort. In English, when we want to talk about the knowledge that animals have, knowledge that exists in a non-verbal world beyond everyday human experience, we use the word instinct.

Our ancestors lived in the geography of nature. A storm could kill them, an unlucky hunt could injure them, and drought or cold weather could starve their whole people. They could not imagine the world we live in now, and did nothing to prepare us for it.

The everyday person in Western culture works a job in one box, lives in a different box that marks their social status, drives a third box that marks their mating status, and eats food bought in a fourth box that describes their tribal affiliation. We get most of what we know from a series of smaller boxes.

So for the everyday person, yes, animals certainly seem wise. They have not forgotten the geography of the real. And they know things that we either can’t remember or force ourselves to forget.

Eat when you’re hungry. Sleep when you’re tired. Have sex when you can. Fight when you must.

Many of us have forgotten that we, too, are animals. We have our own “animal wisdom” – our own instincts. They are powerful and meaningful. And mostly, we suppress them just to get along.

“Cat Eating Cat Grass” by LisaSympson. CC 3.0 License.

Eat When You Are Hungry

Living in this weird world of boxes, we have little understanding of hunger. Yes, there are people who go hungry. But for many people (especially around where I live), food has become entertainment. We don’t so much eat to live as eat to feel something.

While sometimes we don’t eat when we’re hungry, just as often we eat when we’re not. We find ourselves eating because we smell food, or see a commercial with symbolic food literally designed to set us off. But we’re hardly in touch with the instincts that drive this.

When I was in the hospital, dying by inches, I learned the flip side of this: eating is not about pleasure, it’s about life. And while it’s one thing to be able to spout this aphorism, it’s a much harder thing to actually live by it.

Our ancestors lived in a world of scarcity, and human instinct will always be to eat when there is food. Whether it’s commercials with their tantalizing images, or burger places with their fried-food smells, they’re communicating here is food and working to bypass your forebrain and lure you into feeling something that isn’t really there.

Animal instinct is to eat when there’s food. Human wisdom is to understand that other humans are baiting a trap for you. Remember to eat when you’re hungry, but only when you’re hungry.

Letting sleeping dogs lie, by Eugene0126jp, CC 3.0 License.

Sleep When You Are Tired

Especially just after the beginning of Daylight Savings Time(1), it’s pretty easy to see the wisdom in listening to our instincts. When I was younger, the cycle of television used to lure me into staying up late. The 24 hour news-cycle does worse by keeping us in a constant state of near-panic.

Humans aren’t pack animals, who band together for the hunt. We aren’t herd animals, who come together for defense. We’re band(2) animals, and we work together for comfort as much as anything else. And that means always being with the group.

While our parents may have mocked us for giving in to peer pressure, that desire to be with the group is an instinct, not just some immature need. There are some people who don’t need others, but by and large people band together to live their lives. That is the way of humans.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to listen to every instinct, every time. Feeling your own needs is an instinct, too. When we’re tired, we must rest. And when others tell us that we can’t, because we might miss something, it’s time to tell them to wake us up if it’s actually important.

Have Sex When You Can

For humans, sex is complicated. It is powerful. Driven by instinct, it connects to every other part of our lives. Yes, there are people who can treat it with impunity. I’m not one of them.

I am neither for nor against the endless variety of gender and relationship configurations that humans exhibit. Not to put too fine a point on it, I mostly vacillate between not caring one whit and finding the variation intellectually interesting.

What is important, however, is self-knowledge. I am a strong believer that people should not tie themselves in knots over what they “should” do. The world is a more harmonious place if we find relationships that work for us.(3)

“Animal wisdom” shows us that, for different animals, “have sex when you can” means different things. For wolves it can mean relative monogamy, and for bonobos it means sex as a social activity. For different people it means different things, too.

We don’t have to be slaves to instinct, but we also can’t afford to be divorced from them either. Being an adult means being able to repress our instincts. But as with all forms of repression, the energy we push down slips out in other ways. It’s always better to harness who we are than try to kill it.

Goats! I thought I’d upset someone if I showed animals having sex. From Max Pixel. CC License

Fight When You Must

Living in a world of plenty, but being grade-A primates, we humans love our conflict. It isn’t always to-the-death, winner-take-all, toe-to-toe brutality. Everyday human conflict is mostly socially constrained fighting for status, rank, and power.

In other words, dominance-play is a huge part of all our relationships with other people. While society is seemingly infinitely complex, at its core it is a distribution system for resources and power. We engage in struggle to improve and protect our position in the hierarchy.

But when it comes down to instinct, it is best for us to fight only when we must. Dominance-play aside, life and death fighting is for people who don’t have any other choice. Most of the martial artists I have known understand this. They have been interested in gathering power, but have little interest in expending it willy-nilly to show off.

ProTip: It’s one thing to talk about instincts, but an entirely different one to access them. But fear not, your instincts are already shaping your life. The trick is to recognize them.

In order to understand hunger, you might consider some fasting. While we usually think of fasting as being about food, it can be used with any need.

This type of fasting isn’t about exerting control and suppressing need. It’s about feeling the effects and changes in the self while experiencing want.

You don’t even have to wait a whole day to feel the effects of a fast. You can begin, here and now, by drawing a breath and holding it. Fifteen seconds and you’re fine. Thirty and you begin to feel the buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood. Panic will start. That’s instinct, kicking in. Breathe.(4)

See, your instincts work fine. And now you’ve begun to listen to them. Well done.

Throughout the day, look to see what else happens. Maybe keep some notes in your personal journal. You’ll find that your instincts are very much alive and well, and ready to serve you as best they can.

Eat when you are hungry. Sleep when you are tired. Have sex when you can. Fight when you must. Your life will be better for understanding who you are.


(1) Daylight Savings Time is a thing we do in the United States where we move the clock ahead an hour in Spring so that sleeping times and clock times are more closely aligned. The transition period after the switch, each year, is a reminder that clocks are terrible monsters whom we should not let rule our lives.

(2) In sociopolitical typology, a band is a group of humans that ranges up to about a hundred and fifty people, as marked off by Dunbar’s number. Mostly, when people refer to “tribes” of hunter-gatherers they are actually referring to bands.

(3) All human societies have marriage, though the variations are nearly endless. Family is a natural human social structure, but what that means is (more or less) whatever we can manage.

It is key when talking about relationships, to distinguish between what we can imagine and what we can accomplish. When I was much younger, and mostly under the influence of the author Robert Heinlein, I thought that people should be able to manage polygamy.

What I have discovered, as an adult, is that some people are wired for it and some aren’t. I’m in the latter category and happy there. I found someone else equally interested in monogamy, and that works for us.

At the same time, I have friends who range across the spectrum of gender and a number of marriage and relationship configurations. The trick is to figure out what works for you, and do that.

(4) Don’t go around holding your breath if you have a medical condition that means it will harm you. ‘Nuff said.

Racism, Misogyny, and Heathenry: Why I don’t subscribe to the a-holes in My Community

I want to start off by saying that I hate labels in general. I think that they are society’s greatest invention to divide and separate any community. But from birth we are taught the social and mental construct to label everything that we see before us. Boy, Girl, Black, White, Pink, Blue, Gay, or Straight. It gets to a point these days were you can’t introduce yourself without saying some type of label.

When I first decided that I was going to break away and become a follower of the Nordic Pantheon. I wanted to find a place where I belonged. So I looked for people and found that followers of the Nordic Pantheon weren’t all kosher with everyone. A lot of white supremacists would use our gods, our symbols, and “historical evidence” to claim that we were superior, etc. Which if you know any archeology, genealogy, or anthropology regarding the Vikings you know that’s completely wrong.

“Valkyrien” by Peter Nicolai Arbo, from WikiMedia.

So I found a large online group that subscribed to that fact that we should be inclusive of everyone and practiced a path called Asatru. Only to find out that they were absolute children. If it wasn’t Asatru it was wrong. If it wasn’t exactly how they wanted it to be it was wrong. If you didn’t want to give them above and beyond, it was wrong. If you asked too many questions it was wrong. I honestly couldn’t handle the labels, at all. It was terrible.

I decided then and there I wasn’t going to abide by their labels. I had to refuse to do it. I was going to have my own label. I would forge my own path and be my own person. I would reclaim a title that belonged to me. I would become Viking. I have the spirit of a warrior and that is what I am going to be. People look at me and go, you aren’t warrior, you can’t be you’re a girl.

The most prominent Viking Warrior that they have discovered to date was female. Mis-gendered for years because men thought that in that time frame women didn’t fight, but genetics and DNA prove them wrong, yet again. There are scrolls in the Middle East that would talk about the blond traders with the tattooed faces. So we also know they traveled.

Anthropological evidence points to the fact that they intermingled. Were they slavers? Yes. They took breeding stock, slaves, and holy men. If you were either born or captured into slavery were you condemned to be a slave the rest of your life? No. You could become a free man just like anyone else if you proved yourself worthy. With the locations that they traveled to, the people that they could bring back to their homes they wouldn’t see differences, they would see a person’s strength and weaknesses as an individual.

“Ingeborg” by Peter Nicolai Arbo, from WikiMedia.

If you were good for the community you were good for the community and there were no questions asked. You stayed and helped and lived and worked with your community. If you were not good for your community you were shunned at best and killed at worst. When you have no qualms about death and dying like the Vikings did according to their stories and legends you do your best day by day and you live by your reputation and your word.

I guess what I’m trying to put delicately here is I don’t subscribe to the whole Vikings were all about cultural purity, racial superiority, and Male power. That is something that is put out there by scared white men who only want to feel like they have power. Vikings would base their judgements on the contents of an individual’s character and the needs of the community prior to anything else. I strive to base my choices on the contents of my reputation, another’s character, and the love I have for my community.

Together as a whole we can become something stronger and something greater. However, only those that are great will rise and drown the voices of those scream and shout. We as a community cannot sink to their level, we have to rise past what we see and become the beacon of hope. We live and die by our personal reputation. I refuse to be an a-hole, who will stand with me?

Sometimes we have to explore the past to move on towards the future.

These past few days, I’ve stood at the powerful center of the crossroads. My past was down one path, and my future another. I realized I had to explore the past to move on towards the future.

“Crossroads” by Carsten Tolkmit via WikiMedia. CC 2.0 License.

I have felt that in my past lives, I was a two spirit, in many older, sometimes ancient, indigenous cultures. Had I ever seriously explored this aspect of my previous lives? No, I hadn’t. You might ask me, why haven’t you? My answer would be, referencing part of a letter I wrote to my primary care provider years ago: “My mother caught me several times when I was younger walking in her heels, and once wearing an old pair of earrings. When my father came home, she would tell him, and of course, “I’ll beat it out of you”. Didn’t work. I just got better at hiding it.

Growing up, knowing that I was different, with no name for it back then, made my early life very difficult. As most of you know now, I am a Transwoman. I knew I was a girl at the age of five. No Internet, no social media, no support systems at all. But I knew I believed in nature, like I’ve referenced in past articles. And, I just knew, somehow, that I’d been here before. But fear had played a major role in not wanting to visit that part of this life.

At the Past Life Journeys Full Moon Circle on February 28th, we had a guided meditation exploring past lives. As with other meditations on past lives, I really wanted to find out about mine. I am always afraid of going back to when I was very young. I keep getting triggered by the experience, and not moving past that part of my life. During this meditation, I found myself visualizing where I wanted to be, not where I really was in any past life. Afterwards, Selena mentioned that sometimes it’s better to do the past lives regression with a therapist that’s skilled in it. I Now I feel that with proper guided meditation, and recording what I see, feel, and hear, the fear shouldn’t be an issue.

Image by geralt, CC License

So what does my future with Hekate hold for me? I’m a bit of a physic, but I can’t tell the future. I have reasonably good female intuition. Will Tarot readings work? Or, do I really want to know exactly what the future will bring? Hmmmm….very good question. Two nights, two Full Moon Rituals. Since I attended the first a day before the actual Full Moon, and had some really wonderful news happen March 1st in the afternoon, I felt that I should honor Hekate because of Her help.

On March 1, 2018, I met with a surgeon to discuss the operation that would change my body forever. I wasn’t nervous at all going in to see the doctor. I just knew that Hekate was with me, taking away any fears or doubts. We discussed the options for several procedures, and settled on what would be best for me. I was approved for surgery! What a relief after all these years, knowing that there was finally a solution to what I needed. All I needed now was a letter from my primary care provider that I’d be physically able to have the surgery. Then the surgery could be scheduled to proceed. As I was walking out of the hospital clinic, I gave thanks to Her that had made it happen.

Being a Transwoman has certainly had its challenges. Any of you that have read my articles, have found out that I’m not shy about talking about my experiences. On line and in real time in all three of my worlds. Three worlds you say. Yes. My Trans life world, my mundane world, and my Pagan world. You see, my Trans life has always coincided with my mundane world, and also with my Pagan world.

Three very distinctly separate worlds, until now. This time around, since I was born male, am transitioning to female, I will go to Summerland as a woman. That’s what Between Two Worlds is all about. My journey from the past into the future. The afternoon of March 1st, on the actual Full Moon, I was finally able to meet with a surgeon to have a consultation about me having Gender Reassignment Surgery. I will not go into details here. Too much information. If you’re curious, Google vaginoplasty, as it refers to Transgender health.

Image by Fitze, CC License.

Since I was approved to go forward with surgery, on the actual day of the Full Moon, it was important for me to honor Hekate with a Full Moon Ritual devoted to Her. I do my daily prayers to Hekate and my other Goddesses, but I’m not great at writing specific Full Moon Blessings. Learning yes, there yet, no. Sometimes I use The Charge of the Goddess, but I didn’t have a specific one for Hekate. And I felt that it was very important to do so on this special night.

But thanks to Cyndi Brannen, with her permission, I did use this:

Drawing Down Hekate’s Moon
Hail Hekate, Goddess of the Moon!
Divine intervener and mediator!
I call upon You to attend my rite!

And I felt that She was there, watching over me like She has been. When I lit the candle, and then the Full Moon incense, I read Drawing Down Hekate’s Moon. I knew it was Magickal when the incense smoke drifted right over the statue of Hekate I have on my altar, and stayed all around Her. That night I slept better than I had in a very long time, and so did Natasha, my special little black cat. I don’t know, since I live physically by myself, if I snore, but Natasha did off and on. And the sun was shining when I woke up early in the morning. I gave thanks again to Her.

The path to where my future will go, starts with the surgery. A permanent change to my body. Finally getting rid of that male part, so that I will finally totally feel like a woman. I’m very excited about what will happen after that. Just where will the next crossroads with Hekate take me? I’ll let you know…in the future! Blessed Be!!! )0(

Mighty Hekate, Queen of the Witches,
Blessed am I,
To call myself one of Your chosen.

(Above used with permission from Cyndi Brannen..with many thanks and love)

Whatever discipline we study, the challenges we face are the same. We give meaning to our lives through struggle and work. We explore the depths of who we are. And in the end, we are one family, bound together in the fight against our limitations.

Whether we study magic, martial arts, or meditation, we belong to a larger group I usually refer to as “practitioners.” Many disciplines can provide paths to mastery. And while no list could be exhaustive, everything from dance to tea ceremonies has been used.

Image by Kalhh via Pixabay. CC0 License.

It doesn’t matter what path you choose, or chooses you. There is no easier path or harder path. There are just paths that are more appealing to us, as individuals.

What binds all of these paths together is not some common bond like hard work, but the way they lead us to the ineffable. Each of these paths, each discipline, can lead us beyond ourselves to something more.

Mastery is a transcendent(1) experience that we cultivate in every discipline. Paths of self-cultivation lead not just to social growth or athletic prowess, but to a more complete self. While in the beginning, we cross the old boundaries of the self and become somehow more, as we progress we truly do find that our discipline grows beyond us.

Whether we understand it or not, as disciples we seek the fundamental ground of reality. Some disciplines are really clear about this. In others, you yourself might well be the first to forge that path. But just as all trees grow in the earth, all disciplines are rooted in the reality beyond the everyday world.

Yes, there are a thousand other things we must accomplish – taking care of novices, making a living, growing knowledge of your discipline in the world. All are worthwhile, but all are only parts of the path.

Master of One Thing, Master of Everything

At this point in my life, I don’t expect that any of the obvious skills I learned in the martial arts will ever serve me directly. Now in middle age, I feel pretty confident that I will never need to punch my way out a bad situation.

But all those years of training were not wasted. Beneath all the skills, all the exercise, all the time and money, all the sweat and blood and injury and pain, frustration and exhaustion, there was a priceless lesson that I could not have learned any other way.(2)

Beyond it all, there is mastery. Not just mastering(3) a technique or a form, but a mastery of the self. Mastery is reached when we touch the root of all things. And when we master something (anything!) completely, we discover that, in some sense, we have mastered everything. It is a key mystical experience that not only exists across disciplines and cultures, but lies hidden within each of us.

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

How to Begin

The path to that mastery can be summed up in a formula that is both simple and obvious. The words themselves are so plain that we’d rather call them impossible. One more time.

We must follow this formula to its inevitable end. These aren’t magic words to be repeated. Instead, we must take heart and follow them. One more time.

Whether with ritual, a kata, or internal alchemy, we will fail ten thousand times on the path to mastery. We will feel discouraged. But mastery will come when, against everything, we persist. One more time.

Hearing the Call

What we need most is often the exact same thing that is hardest for us to learn. It is easy to spend our lives following our talents and inclinations. We could just do what we were taught and see the world in the simple ways we absorbed from our schools and parents and jobs and relationships.

Yet there is always some deeper, half-forgotten part of ourselves that calls us to be more. What we might refer to as our vocation is within us and all around us. To drown out the call, we surround ourselves with fantasies that it is already true.

Action movies are fantasies designed to relieve stress by siphoning off the desire for actual power that burns within us. Every romantic comedy is a band-aid on our longing for true connection. Fantasy substitutes for real spiritual development. Commercials are sleight-of-hand telling us that, instead of fulfilling our true needs, we can substitute some product and it will be just the same.

But simply understanding these tricks does not help. It just makes us feel powerless. And we allow this, because it takes away our culpability. Yet such a terrible perspective does nothing to free us. Until we can admit that we have done this to ourselves, we will not have the self-mastery to loose the chains that hold us to our path.

The world is not bad, or out to get us, or full of meanies.(4) We are not tied to the paths of our lives; we cling to them with mindless ferocity. How do we let go? There’s always more than one way to skin a cat, but the easiest is to find a teacher who has already walked that path.

Photo by Polly Peterson. Used with permission.

First Lesson

The path to mastery is long. I began studying martial arts when I was thirteen years old. It was the mid-80s, and my fantasies were alive with the magic-like power of these mystical paths of knowledge from far-off lands.

Coming of age is never easy; that is why there are so many books and movies about it. Growing up in New Jersey at a time of great cultural stress and flux, everyday reality just plain sucked for a weird, bookish kid like me.

Though materially I wanted for nothing, it was the height of the Cold War and no one knew what the next day would bring. I was too young to be able to inure myself from propaganda so (like so many people do) I just shut myself off from the world. I applied myself to what I could learn. Though my teen self could not have articulated it, I focused on what I could control.

Sure, maybe I fantasized a little too much about awesome ninja skills. But on some level I also recognized that there was something “real” underneath the fantasy. I devoted myself not just to learning a martial art as a path to power, but to new ways of seeing the world that were broader, and more hopeful, than those sold on television and in books.

Applying myself, I sought to learn things that I had little talent for. I was friends with kids who were good athletes, but I never was myself. Every accomplishment I had, I earned the hard way. It was then that I first learned (and studiously ignored) the simple formula of mastery. One more time.

One More Time

In all my years of training, I couldn’t say how many times I have heard a teacher tell me, “one more time.” When we begin to train, we are a thousand miles from mastery, and yet we are told, “one more step.” And of course, that is true. We only have to take one step at a time.

As students, we used to laugh at it. We learned quickly that “one more time” does not mean once more. But what took longer to reveal itself was the deeper meaning. “All you need to do is focus on the next step.” We thought “one more time” was a false promise. It was the first lesson.

All training, especially at the beginning, is a battle. We’re not yet fighting against the limitations of the body or the mind. The first enemy is the ego. We are more likely to give up from frustration than exhaustion. And so our teachers must play games with us. We start as fools, and so we must all be fooled to progress.

Spiral Galaxy by NASA, via WikiMedia.

Getting Started

It is a paradox. In order to set ourselves free, we need teachers who have the wisdom not just to teach us what we want to learn, but also what we need to know. And to do that, we need to accept that we don’t already know those answers.

The everyday world teaches us that allowing anyone else to have power over us is a sign of weakness. It plays to our vanity and tell us that we are already free and strong and need no one. By accepting that we are strong and free, we keep ourselves weak and bound.

The path forward is to cultivate a deeper self. And in order to do that well, we often need teachers. While we long for freedom in our hearts, we probably have no idea what that would mean in reality. What we know of the broader, deeper world comes from anecdotes and movies and myths. We think that being free means being disconnected.

In order to break past this illusion, we need to know that there is a way out. So, even before we have a teacher, long before the secrets of the universe open themselves to us, there is something we can do.

If you long to be free, to be your truest self, then you likely have many teachers ahead of you on your path. But to begin, find anywhere to start. Find a daily practice that you can grasp. Whether it is thirty seconds of meditation, a cleansing ritual, or a nightly prayer, commit to it.

Commit to your practice with all of the will you can summon. Practice each day. And when your will gets weak, or your attention flags, tell yourself “one more time.” And do it. And then do the same the next day.

The unending challenge of mastery is the struggle to refine ourselves. The path alone will make you a more virtuous person. It will make you a stronger person. It will take you places you cannot yet imagine. But don’t panic. You don’t have to know the goal, only the next step.


(1) The word transcendent is often used in misleading ways. Mostly under the impact of Christian theology, it has come to mean “separate from the universe as we know it.” Such definitions pose challenges in that we can rarely or never agree on what this world is. When describing transcendence, it if important to remember that (to wax grammar-y in a footnote) the verb is transitive. Always and forever, we must answer the question “transcend what?”

(2) My path is not for everyone, or really anyone, else. My path was mine. Find yours!

(3) For an excellent discussion on the diverse meanings of “mastery” it is worth taking a look at Forrest E. Morgan’s book, Living the Martial Way.

(4) Admittedly, there are plenty of people in the world who will happily take our share. But I am arguing that such behavior is not personal. The fox doesn’t hate the hare. He’s just being a fox.

Sometimes we take a road to a pre-determined destination, and sometimes we get a surprise.

I find that the more I try to set my own path, and do what I want to do, Hekate lets me know She has other plans. Yesterday was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm, about 55 degrees, sunny with a clear blue sky. I hadn’t been out hiking in a week, and thought, I need to get out, get some exercise and fresh air.

Photo by the author.

A week before, I had been snowshoeing at Blackhawk Ridge, fairly close to where I live. The last few days the weather had been really warm, I had the time, so I set out to hike the same trails as before. A lot of snow had melted, but there were still icy spots out there. Well, I’m going to hike to the top again! So I thought…surprise!

I started out on a different trail, but knowing that this trail led into the trail going up to the top of the ridge, my destination. I had hiked it before, but not for awhile. Because of the icy spots, I was taking it a bit slow. No problem, I’ll just get to the top, hike around for an hour or so, and come back to the van.

Right away, this hike turned into a walk. I heard sandhill cranes along the backwaters of the Wisconsin River. They had just returned. I heard squirrels, crows, and the rustling of branches as I walked along. It dawned on me then that She wanted me to just commune with Gaia. I was all by myself out there, just Her, me and all the beauty of pre-spring nature. The fragrant smell of the pines, the musty scent of decaying leaves, deer, raccoon, and squirrel tracks in the mud, green grass starting to appear, and all set against a bright blue sky. Yes, spring is coming.

Photo by the author.

A short walk later, I came to where the trail merged into the one going to the top of the ridge. So up I started. About 75 yards in, all of a sudden a grouse, without warning, calmly walked across the trail, taking its sweet time. Now I knew for sure I had a companion. Hekate was walking with me. There wasn’t anyone else on the trail, nice and quiet, just the sounds of nature. At the top of the first part going up, I was prepared to turn right. No, without thinking I turned left onto an abandoned, almost unseen farm road covered with down trees and brush.

I had kind of noticed it before, but there were always no trespassing signs, private property, on the tree nearest the trail. This time, no signs, so I took it. I thought it was my intuition, but it was Hekate’s guidance leading me toward something much different from before. New path, new journey. I saw views I hadn’t seen before, through the trees I saw farm buildings, fields, and livestock in the barnyard. Quite a long ways away. I kept on going down this old road, and suddenly stopped. The road had veered left a bit, and I was standing on the edge of a steep ravine. I heard water rushing, along with the branches rustling overhead. There was spring melt, coming down the ravine like a little creek. To fill up little natural reservoirs along the way. Natural dams, small, but effectively slowing the flow of the water.

Photo by the author.

Coming back to the main trail, I was determined to go to the top. Nope, it was not to be. Ahead was a lot of ice that hadn’t melted. I didn’t feel like risking it, and slipping. So, shrugging my shoulders, I went back down to where I had started up. Again, another crossroads. No snow on the lateral trail, except for really small patches of ice. I still wanted to be outside, so off I went. This trail went up and down gradually, so I stopped to listen along the way. It was refreshing to take my time to really commune with Her and Gaia. Going slow, I was able to see lots of things I normally don’t see.

As the trail started to go up, I saw a pock marked sandstone bluff. I had seen it before, but had I really SEEN it. No. I was taking the time to notice little things I had rushed by before. The afternoon sun was shining right on the bluff, and I was seeing details that I had never noticed. Almost pure white sand. I stopped, and right ahead of me I saw what appeared to be a path up to the bottom of the bluff, off to the right. So, taking my time, I carefully went through the brambles and brush. As I went around a fallen tree, the little path opened up, and She pointed me to the very bottom of the bluff. A narrow natural path that was where the sand stopped and acted as a buffer against the deeper part below the bluff.

photo by the author.

Wow…no more brambles, and what a view. I had thought it might have been a deer trail, but it ended abruptly at a large rock. Well, that made me stop and observe what was there. Since this bluff was sandstone, nature had eroded parts of it away over the years, leaving small pockets where birds could nest. I saw small, shallow caves where small animals could find protection from the elements. A couple I couldn’t get to, but they seemed to go into the bluff quite a ways. Gaia really does take care of her charges. I took a few photos with my Phone to share this wonder on Instagram so others could see what I had seen.

Photo by the author.

I stayed at the bluff quite some time, trying not to miss anything. Finally, on the way out to the van, with Her by my side, I started to reflect on the not quite a year that She has been with me. I really took my time going back, meditating, and reflecting on how Blessed I’ve been on this wonderful journey I’m on. Taking this time, all by myself, made me realize how precious all life is. I saw how we all need to sometimes stop rushing so much, and take the time to really SEE how Gaia makes it all come together.”

Poco a Poco a friend once told me. Little by little, we have to move forward, slowly now for me!

     Mighty Hekate, Queen of the Witches,
     Blessed am I,
     To call myself one of Your chosen.
(Above used with permission from Cyndi Brannen..with many thanks and love)

I’ve been anthologized over the years and it’s always such a thrill when I receive notice that my work is going to be included in a book of collected writings. There’s usually a fairly hefty chunk of time that passes between submission, notification and actual publication, so it’s a surprise and thrill all over again when I finally receive the notice, and yet another surprise and thrill when I at last see the finished product. “Oh yes, THAT,” I think, “Look what I did! I had forgotten. How wonderful!”

It’s the same when I say “yes” to writing lyrics for the composers I work with. I tend to be extremely timely (read: obsessed with a self-imposed deadline of NOW NOW NOW) when I take on a writing project, and usually produce text within a couple of weeks of the composer’s request. Generally, the composer either likes the text as written, or asks if I will make some minor changes, or (having first secured permission) makes minor changes in the text independently during the composition process. Because so much of my work is conducted via the internet (that is, I am not in regular contact or close physical proximity to the composers) I usually have a “set it and forget it” mentality after the proposed lyrics have been accepted. They go back and do their music thing, and I go back and do my writer-drummer-caregiver-witch-minister’s spouse thing.

“Dragonfly” by Martha Kirby Capo.

Ten years ago I wrote an audition text for a composer to a tune he’d had rattling around for a few months. It’s an elegant little text that has oblique yet easily recognizable references to Yule, the Wheel of the Year, and the Christ Child mythos. The composer went on to present the finished piece at a couple of conferences, and it’s since been sung in some American Unitarian Universalist churches. How many? How often? Where, exactly? I don’t know; I rarely hear anything about these compositions once I’ve done my part. The composer becomes the main point of contact.

A few months ago I was surprised to be included in an email about this little piece. Turns out that last Fall an arranger had asked the composer for permission to write a new arrangement of the original tune, which was then presented as part of the Christmas Eve services of her church. I was able to hear a recording of the anthem (again, something I rarely get to do), and thought again, “Oh yes, THAT. Look what they did with what I did! How wonderful!” At present, the arranger is shopping it to a music publishing company.

I suppose there’s a lesson in the idea of saying “yes” to something in some form or fashion and then living into the ramifications of that “yes” as the sequence of events you’ve initiated by your assent begins to unfold. Perhaps a “yes” is like Lorenz’s butterfly effect. Perhaps your “yes” (or “no”, for that matter) sets into motion a whole series of actions that—while they seem tiny or unimportant or unrelated at the time—eventually land you in a place where a wonderful surprise happens.

Within the chaos of Becoming are embedded countless instances of Un-Becoming, a state or action of little tearing downs of self-perceptions as new experiences or data or knowledge comes our way, filters through, and generates some sort of change. Granted, sometimes those tear-downs are not so little—they’re foundation-shaking, instantly life-altering. We know in that moment that our Path has been irrevocably redirected. But what of the tiny tear-downs, the ones that happen 24/7/365, so small as to be almost imperceptible? Not every change is a Tower-level cataclysm. Not every Becoming is the result of an epiphany.

When I’m deep into writing essays I forget I’m a lyricist until something—a query for text or an update on a finished piece—pops up and reminds me. When I’m digging into a particular metrical pattern and rhyme scheme that must express the designated subject matter and must match up to a pre-existing tune, I forget that I’m a liturgist until someone asks that a Healing Ritual be added to the next Esbat being celebrated. When I’m crafting invocations and prayers I forget that I’m a poet until an acceptance (or rejection—it happens) email drops into my inbox. When I’m writing a letter to my prison pen-pal, I forget I’m an essayist until I write a paragraph and think, “wow, that would be a good jumping-off place for an essay.”

Image by skeez, via Pixabay. CC0 License.

I’m reminded of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game”. She wrote “And the seasons they go round and round/And the painted ponies go up and down/We’re captive on the carousel of time/We can’t return we can only look behind/From where we came/And go round and round and round/In the circle game.”

Each new interaction—each new pony on my internal carousel–reminds Forgetful Me not to fall into the all-to-easy habit of boxing myself in, of limiting myself, of experiencing myself as only “this” or “that”. The world kaleidoscopes around me on her Path—her Wheel—and I must remind myself not to perch too long on one pony. Not to stay where I’m most comfortable at the moment. I have to be mindful when I dismount (after all, the world is whirling at her own pace, not mine; I’m just caught up in it), but if I am using all of my senses and moving intentionally, I can travel across the Wheel at my own pace and on my own trajectory to mount a different pony—or tiger! Or dragonfly!—and experience the world from that point of view for a while.

Might I stumble and fall? Inevitable. Might I gain a few scratches and bruises along the Path? More than likely. Might it be difficult to synch up with whatever new “pony” I try to ride? Perhaps, at least at first. But even if I am brought to my hands and knees—especially when I am on my hands and knees—the deep rhythms of Earth will help to steady me, will continue to support me as I seek to realign my rhythms with Hers until I can get my feet back under me and rise again. I’m not so much “captive on the carousel of time” as I am eternally partnered with the carousel of Life, in all Her permutations, in a constant state of Becoming and Un-Becoming.

Oh yes, THAT. I had forgotten. How wonderful!

‘Dead, mad, or a poet’ is a phrase we hear sometimes in various branches of Celtic-inspired paganism. Having heard it repeatedly I began to wonder where exactly the phrase came from and how it related to folk belief, and this led me on a quest to see if I could find out. Like so many things the answer turned out to be both simple and complicated.

The exact quote itself is from Robert Graves’ 1948 book The White Goddess. Page 19: “There is a stone seat at the top of Cader Idris , ‘the Chair of Idris’, where, according to the local legend, whoever spends the night is found in the morning either dead, mad, or a poet.” Now Graves has a reputation for being quite inventive with the source material – let us not forget his creation whole cloth of the ‘Druidic goddess’ Druantia or the tree calendar – so once I realized the quote came from Graves my next question, logically, was: did Graves make this up himself or was he repeating something older?

“Cadair Idris in 1818” Lithograph by Daniel Havell, From WikiMedia.

Folklore

There’s certainly a lot of folklore backing up the wider concept of going to a sacred place, often one associated with the Good People, and sleeping there to acquire inspiration or to be driven mad for one’s hubris. We see this in some versions of the story of the Brahan Seer, Coinneach Odhar, a Scottish seer who may have been given his gift after sleeping on a fairy howe and waking to find a holed stone resting on his chest. In the same way Turlough O’Carolan, a famous blind Irish musician of the 17th century, was supposed to have gained his skill and many of his songs by sleeping on a fairy hill.

Duma na nGaill, Teamhair, 2016. Photo by the author.

In the folktale of Lus Mór [Foxglove] the eponymous main character was a man with a hunched back who fell asleep on a fairy hill and woke to hear the inhabitants of the hill signing; when he joined the song at the exact right moment with a new line for the song the delighted Fair Folk healed his back. However when another man with a similar hunched back tried the same thing but interrupted the song rudely mid-verse he was punished by having his back twisted twice as badly. These are only a few examples of the substance behind the concept, the idea that risking everything by being vulnerable in the Good People’s places can bring either great reward or great danger, sometimes both. I might suggest, from my own perspective, that there seem to be potential hints here of what could be initiatory rites relating to the practice of sleeping on or going into the sí, but that’s a topic that would take a whole other article to unpack.

Welsh Sources

Now I knew that the concept was genuine, but that the quote itself came from a mid 20th century source of questionable integrity. That led me to keep digging to see what else I could find. In researching the roots of ‘dead, mad’ or a poet’ and trying to find Graves unnamed source I found an 1874 entry discussing Cader Idris in the 1884 book ‘Bye-Gones, Relating to Wales and the Border Countries‘ which says: “There is a popular Welsh tradition that on the summit of Cader Idris is an excavation in the rock resembling a couch and that whoever should pass a night in that seat would be found in the morning either dead, raving mad, or endowed with supernatural genius.” It would seem likely from the similarity in wording that this or another identical such source from Welsh folklore influenced Graves’ later writing.

the Hag’s Chair, Sliabh na Caillighe, 2016. Photo by the author.

The same text mentions that this idea was not unique to Cader Idris but was found in other areas of Wales as well, and offers the example of Maen Du Yr Arddu [black stone of Arddu] where it was said if two people slept on the eponymous stone one would go mad and the other become a poet. The Maen Du Yr Arrdu example is particularly interesting to me, because while Cader Idris offers three possibilities for a single person Maen Du Yr Arrdu implies that two people must go in and one is guaranteed inspiration and the other madness. The Welsh material differs from the above mentioned Scottish and Irish folklore only in that there is no explicit connection with the fairies there, however if we look elsewhere in Welsh folklore we do find that Cader Idris was known as a habitation of the fairies and Maen Du Yr Arrdu is near a lake, Llyn Du Yr Arrdu [Black lake of Arrdu] associated with the Tylweth Teg [Fair Family aka fairies].

Graves was a controversial figure in many ways, inspired and far more influential for modern paganism than many people give him credit for but also prone to invention that he freely attributed to non-existent historic sources. His legacy is a muddle of his own poetic license: new material born of his imagination and genuinely older material re-dressed and re-told in his words. In this case however we see an example of Graves repeating genuine folklore and as a poet with a way with words doing so in a very evocative way. ‘Dead, mad, or a poet’ is not only concise but beautiful, certainly more so than ‘dead, raving mad, or endowed with supernatural genius’. That second one hardly rolls off the tongue. And in this case he manages to convey both the potential gain and genuine risk that comes from engaging with these Otherworldly powers.

So if you are feeling brave and you are willing to risk your life and your sanity to gain the gift of prophecy and magical speech, you might consider going out and sleeping in the sacred space of the Fair Folk – just remember that no one can truly tell you what they will ask of you in trade. And in the morning you will wake, if you wake at all, ‘dead, mad, or a poet’.

Duma na nGaill, Teamhair, 2016. Photo by the author.

References:

Mackenzie, A., (1899) The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer
Askew, R., (1884) Bye-Gones, Relating to Wales and the Border Countries
Graves, R., (1948) The White Goddess
Pennick, N., (2015) Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition
Thomas, J., (1908) The Welsh Fairy Book
Halliwell-Phillips, J., (1860) Notes of Family Excursions in North Wales
Rhys, J., (1907) Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx

 

On a recent journey through highways and byways (and the occasional bucolic country lane) of the Internet, I went in search of an understanding of “dignity.” It’s a word associated with refinement, nobility, and power. It’s also something that is sorely lacking in this day and age.

As I searched for a “Dignity for Dummies” guide, it quickly became apparent that no such thing existed on the Internet. Instead of “how to be dignified” or even “how to act dignified” everything I ran into seemed to be about treating the sick and dying with dignity.(1) There wasn’t much beyond that.

From “Nursery Novelties for Little Masters and Misses” 1820, via WikiMedia.

Over and over, I ran into the phrase “dignity and respect.” As in, “we should treat others with dignity and respect.” The phrase itself made me pause and wonder what the difference between the two is.

The Quest for Dignity and Respect

So I was worse off than when I started. Not only could I not really put a finger on the meaning of dignity, I couldn’t even distinguish between dignity and respect. Honestly, at first I thought the two were the same thing. It makes sense, right? We treat people with “dignity and respect.”

But at the same time, we can also act “with dignity,” and that means somehow noble and refined and self-sacrificing. So there had to be more.

Research ensued. Thoughts were thunk. Past-participles were plundered. Sources were plumbed and plumbers were sourced. Okay, not really, but you get the idea. I pondered and pondered until suddenly, something that should have been obvious bit me in the derriere.

I have to admit, sometimes my understandings of words aren’t in words, like dictionary definitions. Instead, I see little movies in my head. The image I have for “dignity” is a deposed queen walking calmly to her execution. Grim? Sure. But it gets the point across. Dignity has something to do with self-restraint. Dignity is about self-possession.

What I unearthed in my research was that pretty much no one else knows what dignity is anymore, either. Most people around us don’t know the difference. The West, and especially America, have lost any sense of dignity. We don’t know what it is, what it means, where to find it, or why we would even want it.

Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793, Artist Unknown, from WikiMedia.

Two Sides, One Coin

Dignity and respect. Respect and dignity. Turning them over and over in my head, I came to see that they were two sides of the same coin. No, they are not the same thing, but they both exist in service of the same ideal: harmonious relations.

The difference between dignity and respect is striking and important. Dignity and respect go (or should go) hand in hand, working in balance to harmonize our relationships.

The West, especially America, has thrown dignity to the wind as a unnecessary. We tossed it aside in pursuit of respect, but in the end we can’t have one without the other.

What we didn’t know, perhaps couldn’t have known, was that when we threw out dignity, we destabilized all of our relationships, from the everyday to the sacred. By not recognizing the social obligations of power, we threw our world into disarray.

Respect and Dignity

Respect is how we treat people because they have power. Oh, we can go on about character (another word pretty much no one understands these days), and people earning our respect by treating us with respect. But none of that gets us away from the basic nature of respect: respect is contextual. Respect is earned.

When we talk about someone having to earn our respect, it is usually about them performing actions that establish their power – power in the sense of being able to control themselves and act in appropriate ways. They earn respect with the ability to get things done.

The corollary of respect is dignity. Dignity is how we treat others when we have power, if we want to maintain harmonious social relationships. Dignity is the restraint we show on the use of power so that its use doesn’t destabilize society.

“Treating people with dignity” doesn’t mean treating them like they have dignity. It means treating them in a manner that shows that I have dignity. It means understanding our own power in a situation, and not being a jerk about it. These days, the kids use a catchphrase for it – “check your privilege” – a phrase amazingly close in meaning to “have a little dignity” or “show some restraint.”

Image from the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, via WikiMedia.

Dignity during Disruption

When we can finally see that dignity comes from self-knowledge and restraint, a lot of things come clear. These days, we’re not not sure of our own safety and position; it’s a perfect recipe for not treating others with dignity. And there’s nothing like a massive technological (and concomitant social) revolution to make everyone and their mother feel like their social position is under constant challenge.

Treating people with respect is about recognizing their power and treating them in such a way that the relationship stays harmonious. Treating people with dignity is about recognizing our own power, and treating others in such a way that the relationship stays harmonious.

ProTip: In order to be treated with respect, we need to cultivate dignity. If we have power and no one thinks we have the wisdom to use it, they will constantly act to take it away. The solution to this, however, is not to cling more tightly to power.

Admittedly, to get respect we need to cultivate power. To maintain respect, rather than frittering it away against a million challengers, we need to show restraint in using it.

What does that mean, in practice? It means not taking the bait when we’re offered easy chances to put someone down. Fighting in your own weight class. When offered respect, be gracious about it.

Without harmony in our lives and our relationships, there will never be enough clarity to make real progress on anything important. Unless those in power who demand respect also behave with requisite self-restraint, their ascent will only breed disharmony and destruction.

By the same token, if we want to have more than naked power, and earn the respect of others, we must cultivate not only power but also dignity. This pattern is as true for magicians and pagans as it is for politicians and corporations. We can do no more than live this ourselves and demand it of those who would seek to rule us.


(1) I just wanted to add a footnote on this topic, dignity and dying. Speaking from experience, those who know that death is coming are often overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness. It seems only polite not to shove this in their face by exerting unnecessary power over them. Treating the dying with dignity means showing restraint as they face the inevitable and recognizing that our needs are secondary.

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