Tree City Witch: Soul Retrieval & The Search for Home

I write for the orphans, by choice or not. Those who have been left or those who had to leave. I write to help you live your life now because as I write now, the Sun is in Cancer, and the New Moon in Cancer was last night, and Mercury is in Cancer, and so is Mars.

Home, family, mother, memory, milk, belly: these are the words of Cancer.

Cancer: Signs of the Zodiac, from WikiMedia via Welcome Images.
Cancer: Signs of the Zodiac, from WikiMedia via Welcome Images.

SATURN IN THE 4th HOUSE

In astrology, the transits are where the planets are now and how they affecting us.

Our natal charts, our birth charts, do not change, but the planets keep on moving. The moon moves fast, changing sign every couple of days. Compare this with Saturn who takes 29 years or so to return to the sign it was in at your birth. That’s what the Saturn Return is, a rite of passage, from childhood to adulthood (maybe) and it can take a couple years to complete.

Saturn is currently in the sign of teacher-preacher Sagittarius (Saturn stays in a sign about two and half years) and is transiting, moving through my 4th House.

Every astrological house (there are 12) is associated with at least one sign and, the 4th House is associated with the sign of Cancer and its ruler, the moon.

It is no surprise then that these days I am mostly living in the past. If you were to ask me how I am, I may respond with a story (Sagittarius) or a memory (Cancer) and how it makes me feel (Cancer). I may tell (Sagittarius) you about my mother (Cancer) and how I miss her, recalling out loud when her yartzeit is. The yartzeit (a Yiddish word) is the anniversary of a death. Saturn “rules” death, among other things. But as someone once said to me, all the planets do.

NEW MOON INTENTIONS

Did you set a New Moon intention?

This is something we astrologers and astrology lovers tend to talk about at New Moon time.

It can be magick lite or it can be a full on elaborate ritual as we often see for Full Moons. I keep it in my head mostly, lately, but sometimes it falls out of my head, and I am inspired to action or to creating a new Tarot spread, like this one which I shared with my students:

Card One: last summer
Card Two: right now
Card three: this summer
Card four: set this intention
Card five: do this to nurture yourself
Card six: your helping spirit at this time

Cancer Season is particularly intense this year because we have slow moving, outer planets in the other cardinal signs, Libra, Aries, and Capricorn. This means that the Sun in Cancer and Mercury and Mars (and Venus, later) will make hard “aspects” to those planets. This causes tension, crisis. This is part of our summer backdrop, summer landscape (I am writing to you from the Northern hemisphere).

Thing is this though: the body and spirit like tension. It’s creative. Without tension, without creation, we die. Every story is a creation story.

Cancer Illustration from 1320, via WikiMedia.
Cancer Illustration from 1320, via WikiMedia.

WHAT IS HOME?

Cancer keyword: home. There really is no other, no better keyword. Those four letters. That’s it.

In Hebrew, the word for home or house is “bayit” or “bet” which is the 2nd letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The letter “bet” is also the first letter of the first word in the Torah. You can imagine the holy Sages having endless conversations about this, about why not begin with aleph, the first letter.

In the Tarot, the High Priestess is “bet,” is two, is the second Major Arcana card. The Magician is One and the Fool is Zero (and placed at the beginning, middle, or end, depending on the deck).

When I think of the High Priestess, I think of mystery and secrets and trusting intuition, and because the High Priestess is a TWO, she is a “bet” a “bayit” and thus she is a home for those who seek her.

The High Priestess is your mother, some would say, but if your mother died or abandoned you, then what? Then what? Do you ignore her? Do you connect to some general “divine feminine.” These are questions for you to answer. This is your homework. I”m here to help you live.

If I were to ask you, what does home mean to you, what would you say? If I were to ask you where it is, could you find it? Is it on a map? Do you need a map to find the map?

If I were to ask you to go back in time and retrieve that one split second childhood moment that was not full of terror, but soaked in undifferentiated joy, could you do it? Could you bring her or him back? This is witchcraft too.

MY BEST ADVICE

My best advice for when the Sun is in Cancer is to go with the flow.

I do believe that we tend to take on the qualities of the current sky, and thus at this time we will be more emotional, more moody, more psychic, more deep, more mothering, more hungry, more creative, more living in the past, more concerned with food and home and privacy and safety. We may retreat to the crab shell. We may not emerge until the Sun enters Leo in late July.

Honey, there’s no point in trying to dam up the feelings and the flow. It will burst through anyway. Try swimming in the springs instead. In the words of poet Stevie Smith, waving not drowning. Do not die. Do not die for the water is the water of life, and there’s fish and plants and hell I’m a city girl so I don’t know what else is going on in there, but I do know this: you didn’t come all this way through ALL the wildernesses and ALL the incarnations, and ALL the bad transits, to not find your home in this life. If you are here, reading this letter, then know it is your task too, and the Sun in Cancer will help you find it.

Come hang out with me on my Facebook! We talk astrology, tarot, and other fun stuff :)

The Other Side of the Hedge: The Boline

The Old, Odd, and Very Cool Origins of That Other Knife

If you’ve been hanging out in witchcraft circles for a while, you’ve probably heard of the boline. What you’ve seen is probably a crescent-shaped knife that brings to mind the agricultural sickle.

The sickle and the boline aren’t terribly different. The sickle is designed to efficiently cut grains and other grasses. Both tools have one-handed, curved blades. The boline sometimes gets stylized so that the shape of the blade is exactly like a crescent moon.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

As much as the boline was a tool for harvesting, it was also used to maintain hedges between fields. And for all that they are simply tools, in the hands of the magus or witch, these tools take on a dual symbolic value. In addition to being tied to the history of the land, they are reminders of the inextricable link between life and death. If the Grim Reaper carries a scythe, those who walk the boundaries of the world carry the boline.

In recent times, the boline’s use has been mixed with that of the kirfane [1], even though their origins and symbolism are wildly different. The kirfane is a white-handled, single-edge knife used for mundane cutting tasks. Often it is referred to it as the white-handled knife.

Worse, it seems likely that the name “boline” was a misattribution of a name for another knife that looked like a needle, or bolino in Italian. Whether a mistake was made, and when the tool was named, are rather beside the point. Today, the curved knife of Wicca is generally referred to as the boline.

Bolines and Billhooks
Boline is usually pronounced “bow-leen” as in “I like to shoot my BOW, but I also like to LEAN on walls and do nothing.” Sometimes (and this is the pronunciation I prefer) the second syllable is pronounced more like it’s spelled – as “LINE.”

The curved knife commonly called the boline is a descendant of an agricultural cutting tool used throughout Europe and throughout the world. In England, the birthland of both the Golden Dawn and Wicca, these tools have long been associated with farming.

Yet not every curved farming implement is the same. In England, the tradition of local variation so strong that the different types often simply bear the names of the towns in which they were forged. The general class of implements were called “billhooks.”

But billhooks are part of something larger. Tools of similar purpose and often shape can be found around the world.

From "The Key of Solomon."
From “The Key of Solomon.”

Think Global, Chop Local

In order to understand the origin and importance of the boline, we need to take a step back from England, and from Europe, and look at edged tools from a global perspective. Rather than looking at the magical history of this specific knife, it’s worth examining the ways that similar tools are used and understood.

All over the agricultural world, there is a class of tool that’s part of everyday life. It’s not a weapon, though often it has doubled as one. It is, instead, a tool for clearing brush, working with plants, and generally assisting in farm labor. It’s a bladed tool that isn’t a sword, usually doesn’t have a hilt, and is adapted for local farm activity.

These tools vary from place to place, all with their own rich histories. As an example, if you are a knife aficionado or up on your British military history, you might know the kukri, the famous sidearm of the Gurkha warriors of Nepal. Though these distinctive knives come in many sizes, the kukri is commonly a foot-and-a-half long knife with a forward-angled bend.

The idea that the kukri is primarily a weapon is odd. It’s fetishization is part and parcel of the colonial British relationship with the Gurkha, who continue to enlist as mercenaries in regiments to this day. Because the Gurkha have the reputation of being as strong as the mountains from which they come, their traditional weapon-tool carries some of this toughness through the law of contagion.

Similar large working knives exist all over Asia, always with local variations. You might know the kama from Japanese martial arts. This is again a variation of the same class of tool. The parang of the Philippines is another example. There are too many to name, and too many variations to collect them all. But this isn’t simply a tool of Asia. It’s a feature of farming life and found all over the world.

If you live in the Americas (and probably even if you don’t), you have heard of the machete. The machete is another tool of this class. While it can be used as a fearsome weapon, it is primarily an agricultural tool, useful in growing and harvesting sugar cane.

Photo by Trew Trewornan via WikiMedia.  GNU License.
“Devon Billhook” Photo by Trew Trewornan via WikiMedia. GNU License.

It’s a Chopper

Similar tools can be found all over the world. Just about anywhere there’s a class of agriculturalists who have developed specialized equipment for performing their work, you’ll find some variation of these bladed tools. England is no exception.

In England, the equivalent tool is generally called the billhook. The word billhook itself is an old term that means, more or less, “hacker” or “cleaver.”

In addition to its agricultural uses, the billhook took on a dual use of pruning gardens and maintaining hedges. There have long been regional variations of billhooks in England. Town by town, these styles were maintained by local smiths.

The specialization was so great that some argue it’s possible to know where a billhook was forged from its shape. This was a pattern that more-or-less ended only in the second half of the twentieth century, with the advent of truly centralized production.

The tool that witches traditionally call a “boline” has long been associated with the tradition of the land, agricultural production, and harvest. And perhaps just as importantly, it has also been long associated with building and maintaining hedges.

The Importance of the Boline

When the author Jason Mankey writes of using a boline in pruning and harvesting his garden, this is exactly the tool that was once the billhook. Though the boline is linked by purpose to agricultural and gardening tools around the world, its Pagan relevance is that it ties us to our history, as people who are part of the land.

The boline represents the agricultural assemblage of our presumed Wiccan ancestors, the “timeless” (and yet very 19th century) agricultural people whose way of life was endangered by the coming of the Industrial Revolution. As much as Wicca can romanticize the bucolic country life, it is not ignorant of the hard facts. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that life and death are inseparable, but our ancestors knew.

Unlike the double-bladed knife, the boline is not a weapon; first, it’s a tool. Further, it reminds us of the necessary harvest and the simple truth that good hedges make good neighbors. But more than that, through its links to the harvest, the boline represents cyclical death. It represents the agricultural understanding of death as necessary to life. It also represents pruning, as a necessity for the health of the whole.

Akin to the scythe carried by the Grim Reaper, the boline is a tool that can represent death. But the boline is also the descendant of blades that have long been used to maintain hedges. In that sense, they represent both the opening of the barrier to the land of the dead, but also the maintenance of the barrier itself.

NOTES

[1] See The Witch’s Athame by Jason Mankey for a discussion on this history. Also, I suspect but cannot prove that the kirfane is linguistically related to the kirpan, a knife traditionally carried by members of the Sikh religion.

Tree City Witch: Breaking up With Santa Muerte

1

I used to ride the subway a lot, when I lived in New York City. I used to have a lot of feelings on the subway. Every season had a soundtrack, but I can’t remember what was playing when I first laid eyes on Santa Muerte. Maybe I was watching something on YouTube. Maybe I wasn’t on the subway at all.

2

I was unhappy then, but I’ll spare you the details. And I wouldn’t say I ghosted her. I never asked her for anything. Truth is, I gave. Truth is, we were just getting to know each other. Truth is, she was the only one for me. And I don’t mean to pick on Staten Island, but my advice to you is this: do not live on Staten Island unless you are in walking distance of the bodega that will sell you two kinds of Santa Muerte candles in all her colors. Trust me. You’ll need it. If living on Staten Island doesn’t make you a witch, then nothing will.

Image by Issa via Flickr.  CC License.  (Slightly edited by editor of Agora.)
Image by Issa via Flickr. CC License. (Slightly edited by editor of Agora.)

3

That I occupied the back bedroom of the long railroad apartment. Third floor. Looked like nothing from the outside. Less than nothing. Bedroom window faced the street which was a crossroads (bonus points for Witches). I slept on a mattress on the floor, never bothering to put the metal futon frame back together. Kitchen window that faced the high school courtyard, well-lit at night. The smoking window. The somewhat popular pizza store next door where i got my chicken parmesan that never failed to give me diarrhea.

But about the bedroom. It contained or tried to contain one of my many (moveable) altars, which included Miss Santa Muerte, and this was a mistake. To presume this level of intimacy with her. I had earned this? Who was I to think I could absorb/tolerate/handle her? In my BEDROOM of all places. She required her own third floor walk-up perhaps. An entire city block.

Months later, not long before I left the city, I “entertained” a Taurus in that bedroom, ten years older than me. Army man and the most gorgeous human I had ever seen (perhaps on par with a Taurus I met in Florida a year later).

4

It is neither Taurus Season nor Scorpio Season (Taurus’ opposite sign) as I write to you. The Sun is in Gemini which is a good time for memory lane. Gemini is “ruled” by Mercury and Mercury rules communication, writers and writing, messages and messengers. Mars, desire, is in the sign of Cancer and Cancers have famously good memories. I am just now starting to unpack some of 2015 from my memory including writing about Santa Muerte for the first time. Lay out the memories like clothes from a suitcase after two years of travel. Wrestle it all to the ground like Jacob and the Angel.

5

My leave from New York City was an exodus of the spirit, an exodus of the rapid sort, faster than the 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 subway lines put together, and I took what I could carry. I remember telling people that New York belched me out. It was a heavy, fermented leave.

I can’t remember if there was a moment when I decided that we couldn’t go any further, me and Santa Muerte, that I couldn’t take her with me, that I had to leave her behind. That we had done everything we could.

Part of me thinks that life just got busy, but I wonder if I’m rationalizing. Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie the Big Chill says that none of us get through the day without at least one juicy rationalization. Fall 2015 was hard. It was cold. I was alone. I kept drawing Tarot cards about the Taurus, and Saturn, newly in Sagittarius, was killing me softly. But I swear I never asked her for anything. Never summoned, never asked.

6

Flash forward to Florida. I’m with Mary now. That Mary. Our Lady. She’s my candle now, my saint (paraphrasing Wallace Stevens).

I never thought for a moment that this is Santa Muerte in a different dress until this moment. Santa Muerte trying to find me, Santa Muerte not letting me go, Santa Muerte letting me know that I belong to her, and she will disguise herself if need be. Shape shifter. Protector. Hunter. Lover.

And a little zanier than some would give her credit. Yes, I said zany. She is misunderstood, she tells me. She has a sense of humor, she tells me. It’s not all death and dark land and drug lords. I have a sense of humor (she repeats) and then lowers her voice to whisper in my ear like an ASMR video with binaural microphones.

I’m not saying nobody understand but you, but I am saying that YOU understand me. She says this in Spanish and English. Her voice covers me like the old oaks and canopies of spanish moss of my current neighborhood, the land I mean to write about but never find the words.

Who do you think brought you that Taurus, she says, and smiles like a girl with Shirley Temple curls sitting on a stoop in a cute little dress, Goldilocks-ish. She sounds a little like God from the Book of Job: who created the heavens? Who created the seas? What made the fish? Who created the this and the that? You, Job? I think not.

Santa Muerte shrine in New Orleans.  Photo by Mankey.
Santa Muerte shrine in New Orleans. Photo by Mankey.

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So that’s the story of me and Santa Muerte. Part of the story. You bet I left huge tasty wedges out, much left unsaid today, and sometimes the best way to tell a story is NOT to tell the story. Or to talk around it.

See, you can tell a story about love, or lust, by talking about Santa Muerte. And you can tell a story about betrayal, or heartbreak, by talking about Santa Muerte. And you can tell a story, a good long story, about the end and the beginning and the death and the rebirth and the exodus of the spirit and the humid Florida redemption by talking about Santa Muerte. And you can tell a very plain simple story about sex with a hungry Taurus in the very same way.

To be continued…

The Other Side of the Hedge: Practical Idolatry

In the West, people think idolatry is the worst. It’s considered so terrible, and so obviously terrible, that people hate it unthinkingly. The very mention of the word causes nervousness and emotional outbursts.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines idolatry as “the worship of a physical object as a god.” If that definition doesn’t seem to be complete that’s because, like most religious terms, it has layer after layer of meaning and history.

It would be closer to the ordinary understanding to say that “idolatry” is the worship of anything that isn’t a god, whether it be a rock, an idea, or a “false” god (in the eye of the beholder). But that understanding doesn’t go far enough. Since the rise of monotheism, idolatry has been a straw man in Western thought. It’s considered a proverbial punching bag with nothing to offer.

When we examine it, idolatry ends up being few of the things people claim it is. Its tenets aren’t so wild and crazy at all. For the animist, the kneejerk critiques are misunderstandings of “worship” and “sacred” and “path.”

"Mammon and His Slave" by Sascha Schneider.  From WikiMedia.
“Mammon and His Slave” by Sascha Schneider. From WikiMedia.

Why the West (Traditionally) Hates Idolatry

There are two main avenues of critique cast at idolatry. One is religious in nature, the other is scientific.

In broad strokes, monotheists hate idolatry for being a false path to the sacred and for challenging their understanding of the order of the universe. The materialists hate it for being an irrational belief in the spiritual and for challenging their understanding of the order of the universe. While the monotheists and the materialists don’t agree on much, they’re both firmly in agreement that those dirty, primitive, ignorant idolaters are just plain wrong.

The images of idolatry in the West conjure up a disdained primitivism that combines a failure of both faith and rationality. Idolatry harks back to a time before we were all saved, enlightened, and civilized. That’s what we’re led to believe.

There’s something else that harks back to a time before we were all saved, enlightened, and civilized: Modern Western Paganism.

Idolatry and Monotheism

For monotheists, the premise of idolatry beats against Western cultural underpinnings. The West has been more or less monotheistic since the rise of the Neoplatonists and the Christians.

While there’s a lot of variation among individual believers, both the Neoplatonists and the Christians who were influenced by them saw (and see) the world as existing on a hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being.

At the top of the hierarchy is the One, or God. At the very bottom is the dross, the lifeless physical world. One becomes a better being by serving those who are up the ladder, or even by simply entering into their presence.

As it turns out, the Great Chain of Being is also a handy tool for explaining and reinforcing hierarchy. For the monotheist, to confuse the dross for God would be to completely misunderstand the order of the universe. And that is exactly the mistake claimed of “idolaters.”

"The Great Chain of Being" by Didacus Valades.  From WikiMedia.
“The Great Chain of Being” by Didacus Valades. From WikiMedia.

If, the monotheists argue, there is only One (God) who can only be reached through one path, then any other path to the divine must be false. Their premise is that all other representations of deities are false idols, metaphorically or literally empty clay. To the true monotheist, all false belief is idolatry.

The root of their argument is that the only worthwhile action in our lives is to raise ourselves up the chain, and to help others raise themselves up that chain as well. Reductio ad absurdum, nothing in life matters but drawing closer to God – a position of quite a few monotheistic sects.

The very thought of seeking the divine through an “idol” – literal or metaphorical – is anathema to their theological approach. To them, no act should be practiced “religiously” except the one act of pursuing their monotheistic deity on a singular path.

Idolatry and Materialism

For the materialist, idolatry is a philosophical category mistake. It challenges their underlying assumption – a belief that the spiritual, if it exists at all, is separate from the physical. For the materialist, the definition of “exist” is quite narrow.

Even for the non-materialist, materialism is useful as a tool of analysis. It has been spectacularly useful in shrugging off a multitude of explanations of the horrors of the world, from poverty to sexism to disease, as “God’s will.” Materialist approaches have driven the growing wealth of the world, and few wish to give that up.

But materialism doesn’t answer all of the questions of life. In my experience as an animist, it fails at explaining all of the experiential data. Aberrations are explained away with non-explanations. At its most simple, “I saw a ghost” is resolved by casting doubt on the viewer, rather than an actual examination of the data followed by a shrug of “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio.”

In the West, traditional materialists are certain that any crossover between the physical and spiritual can only be a direct result of the meddling of a transcendent deity. And they are equally certain that the last time that might have happened was about two millennia ago. Or Never. Preferably never.

The idea that there might be any interplay between the spiritual and the physical, let alone an expression of the sacred embodied in the physical, is considered ludicrous. Beliefs in the spiritual and sacred are held up as unevolved. This has been a pattern in the West at least since the time of E. B. Tylor, who first proposed the theory of the evolution of religion in 1871.

"Mammon" by George Frederic Watts (detail).  From WikiMedia.
“Mammon” by George Frederic Watts (detail). From WikiMedia.

Redefining Idolatry

In short, “idolatry” is a slur word for beliefs and practices that challenge both of these so-called truths: monotheism and materialism. But when we realize that “primitives” are actually our ancestors – smart, practical people – this explanation falls by the wayside.

While there are materialist Pagans and monotheistic Pagans, the broad bulk of Paganism transgresses these two basic Western truths. And they are right to do so.

Paganism itself is assembled from multiple “paths” such as Wicca, Kabala, Hermeticism, and Druidry. What makes these paths interesting is their lack of devotion to being the one and only true way. And while we might think of Kabala and Hermeticism as “monotheistic” and thus against idolatry, we would stumble as soon as the first magical tool has been made to manipulate the world.

“Idolatry” is not really about worship in the Western sense. It’s about awakening to the sacred in the self, in the world, and in the universe. Our cultural ancestors, the ancient Greeks and Romans we Westerners hold in such high esteem? Idolaters.

Anyone who believes that spirit can affect the everyday world, or that the sacred can be reached along many paths, is an “idolater.” In truth, it’s such a common idea that it seems crazy to castigate the believers.

Pagans, and especially animists, know experientially that the physical and the spiritual are closer to each other than most suspect. In fact, when we talk about the broader Pagan community, this might in be the common thread that binds us together.

Modern Paganism is not a belief in some straw-man version of idolatry. We are not ignorant people worshiping a dead statue. We are the people who know that the worlds of the physical and the spiritual are not in contention. They both exist, and we can learn to stand with a foot in each.

The Cartomancer: Fear of Words, Love of Labels

camelia elias, otto tragy
Otto Tragy Jugend Spielkarten, Ver. Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik, 1910 (Camelia Elias)

I watch a youtube video for my cartomancy students that can prove a point I was making in class last week.

The point was rather a bold claim that if you’re afraid of words, you won’t make it as a card reader. This was offered in a discussion of why precisely we can ditch all card ‘meanings’ and simply go with what we see.

This is easier said than done, however, as most of what we see is actually the result of habitual patterns of thinking. Seeing is an actual art, especially when it’s based on displacing the idea that there’s meaning.

And this is exactly what we do when we read cards: We displace meaning, not co-create it in our own image. 

There is no such thing as meaning. Meaning is not in the cards. Meaning is not in a secret encoded in the cards that only you, the reader, have access to.

From a cultural history point of view, I can see why the cartomantic world, and for that matter the pagan world too, has been invested in meaning, insisting on it too.

If you can’t make it as a male Harvard graduate, then you must find meaning in being a witch, in being a healer, a shaman, or a 6-figure entrepreneur dealing in the magical arts.

If you’re denied being a woman, the time comes when you will want to reclaim your power. You must have meaning. All these centuries of men having meaning… Now it’s your turn. You think.

In reality, just as the Harvard graduate is nothing but a concept, so are all the other societally non-consecrated and non-endorsed professions. Concepts are not reality. This is both a scientific and a ‘spiritual’ fact.

So we can relax.

But why do we insist on clinging to labels? Saying that you are this or that presupposes a reference point that doesn’t exist.

My theory is that it’s because we’re afraid of words.

We’re afraid that if we lost the ‘meaning’ of ‘I love you,’ or ‘I love myself’, all would be lost entirely. But why are we afraid of what we all know already is reality?

The ritual of ‘I do’ today can turn as easily into a ritual of ‘I don’t anymore’, with domestic war declared. The house wins. The courthouse, that is.

We know what words ‘mean’ and what fictions they create.

‘I love’ myself’ presupposes a body, or a body of beliefs about my value as a human being. But are these concepts not as shifting as the clouds? What body? What value?

‘I am a witch’ presupposes a reference that goes back to ritual, costume, and worship. But is sorcery not also a concept? If anything, the philosopher witch already knows that what she operates with at all times is a game of make-belief.

The magic of RE

When I hear people telling others to love themselves, what I hear is a game of ‘change your metaphor.’ Yesterday you were shit, today you can love yourself, empower yourself and be something else.

What this promise holds, however, is nothing but a game of re-naming, re-framing, re-labeling, re-calibrating. Now you’re empowered, you take no shit, give no fucks… and you’re still miserable.

Of course you’re miserable. You’re miserable because you buy the idea of hope. Hope that by changing your metaphors things will get better.

The only trouble is that the *I* is already a metaphor. The ‘meaning’ of the *I* is always postponed, deferred to a next station.

In the game of make-belief, it’s actually quite entertaining to watch yourself going from station to station. Yet, this position is dangerous, of course, because it’s a position that renders you completely beyond desire.

Not having any desires, ambitions, and self-improvement projects is rather bad news for culture. What ideologies of the self, redeeming the self, goods and stuff will culture sell us? The answer to this is zero.

The point is, to also go back to the idea I started out with, that in order for divination to function at its highest, it needs to place itself beyond labels, beyond the fear of words.

Divination by eyes

In the video I was watching, a young man of 33 approaches gypsies at a market. He wants to know if anyone can read his fortunes. No one admits that they can’t.

One of the gypsies offers instead an instant tirade: ‘You’re a fortunate man, this year is filled with fortunes for you, you’ll travel too, abroad, I think, yes, you’ll travel abroad, this year you’re so lucky.’

The young man wants to know: ‘And you can tell me all this, how?’ referring to the obvious fact that this spontaneous act of divination has no tools, no cards to look at, no palm in exchange for a glance, no crystals.

The gypsy then says: ‘This is called divination by eyes. I can tell you all this because I’m looking at your eyes. Ah, yes, I forgot to tell you, you’ll live to be 83, and you’ll have a boy and a girl. How much are you going to give me?’

Now, while we may think that this exchange is hilarious and completely beyond making any sense, what I see happening here is something of the highest: This, probably illiterate gypsy, realizes something about words and their power that the highest educated don’t.

After all, one gets a Harvard education because one believes that such an education will validate one’s sense of worth. One proclaims to be a witch because one believes that such a label will validate one’s sitting on the hedge, being radical and ‘against’.

But this gypsy here just knows that words mean absolutely nothing. She lives according to the highest principle of seeing WHAT IS: If it happens, it happens (in this case here, her palm being crossed with silver), and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. This gypsy goes with what IS, not with what she imagines is the case.

You know what?

I offered this in my classroom that others here might find worth pondering on: ‘Who is the *I* thinking that I’m thinking?’

In light of the fact that this question places us right there with the absolute and the limitless, what sense does it make to still be fascinated with the liminal, in-betweenness, and the hedge position often associated with cartomancers, witches, cunning-folk and other good folk?

I like the limitless. No labels. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

What the cards say? They are in agreement.

I went for a quick reading of 40 cards on the table, so there’s no temptation to look at center cards as being more significant than the others. For the mechanics of reading this particular spread with 40 playing cards on the table, I refer you to my essay: Kill your Neighbor’s Children.

Suffice to say that the method consists entirely in seeing what you see, assessing color and number progression at the most basic level – the reds are OK, the blacks not, and 1 is little and 7 is a lot. So the game of make-belief here is one that asks you to stretch your elastic of observing nothing other than the play between expansion and contraction, with the clubs marking the full stop.

Photo 08-06-17 11.48.15
Otto Tragy Jugend Spielkarten, Ver. Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik, 1910 (Camelia Elias)

Who is the *I* thinking that I’m thinking?

Not what you think it is. The first card presents itself with this message: The path you take to the self is the wrong one. You’re not what you think you are.

You learn stuff at home, until your father actually opens your eyes by saying NO. Full stop.

‘Oh,’ you think, ‘let me run to the brainy woman,’ but she also says NO. Actually she takes no prisoners. She hems you in at all your painful corners.

Otto Tragy Jugend Spielkarten, Ver. Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik, 1910 (Camelia Elias)
Otto Tragy Jugend Spielkarten, Ver. Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik, 1910 (Camelia Elias)

But this is good for you. Lots of value in her teaching, your pleasure corners are covered and you start believing in your own brilliance. That is to say, until the diamond crone hands you over to the mean one who says: ‘Not this desk-related notion of the self.’ Full stop.

‘Ah’, you go, glimpsing something about this ‘not this’. Full stop raised to the power of two. This is serious business. The interval unsettles you.

You cry. Your investigations amount to little when you realize your dependency on others and what they think. It’s your body against the world. Full stop.

You inhale. You exhale. Who are you between the 1 and the 7?

After the last full stop, the many that come into the picture are redundant.

What does that tell you about yourself? And the others ‘dropped off’ the big picture? And what picture is that?

Chop wood and carry water.

The Ace of Clubs followed by the 7 Clubs – the first and the last in the suit – tell you that whatever is comprised in between the 1 and the 7 is a whole lot of nothing.

You can’t in all honesty see what’s between the 1 and the 7. There’s only empty space. You can guess. But that would rest entirely on yet another set of abstractions. Not reality.

The ‘better’ fortuneteller

The point is that we are the better fortunetellers if we’re not afraid of ‘a whole lot of nothing’ in between our words.

We’re the better fortunetellers when we don’t hold any promises of revelation of truth, of accurate ‘this will come’ simply because ‘only I know what the cards mean, I read it on the internet – but this I don’t tell anybody’ – or because ‘I imagine I have vampire blood, or gypsy blood, or Jewish blood, or Sumerian blood, or psychic blood,’ ad nauseam – ‘but this I tell, all according to what framing I’m after.’

You are not what you think you are. Hallelujah.

Stay in the loop. Read like the Devil.

Otto Tragy Jugend Spielkarten, Ver. Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik, 1910 (Camelia Elias)
Otto Tragy Jugend Spielkarten, Ver. Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik, 1910 (Camelia Elias)

 

 

Tree City Witch: The Queen of Swords & Instructions For Your Exorcism

I received a letter the other day and decided to answer the querent in my column here. May it be helpful . . . . .

DEAR MISS X

There are times in life when an exorcism is not only possible, but recommended, and I’m not just talking about demons. I’m not. There is more to life than demons. There is grief. There is sorrow. And I’ve done it. I’ve cast their sorrows to the crows like so many breadcrumbs.

On the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, there is a ritual called Tashlich when we throw our “sins,” in the form of tiny pieces of bread, into a moving body of water. I did this when I lived in Iowa City. Sin, like exorcism, is sometimes a metaphor.

The Queen of Hearts from the  Visconti-Sforza and Visconti Tarot Decks.  From WikiMedia.
The Queen of Swords from the Visconti-Sforza and Visconti Tarot Decks. From WikiMedia.

QUEEN OF SORROW

The other morning I was up to all kinds of hijinks as usual on my social media, and I had drawn the Queen of Swords, among other cards, and shared this:

If you keep up with my Instagram then you know that your “Do Not” card today is the Sorrow Queen. Beloved, mourn not.
Beloved, have you married your sorrow? Who were you before grief?

Recently, while preparing for a local Tarot workshop, I found myself looking more deeply into many of the Minor Arcana cards, like small mirrors. I was well aware of the stark feeling of the Swords without ever picking apart the images. It was like seeing the suit for the first time. I recommend this exercise if you read cards like I read cards, more by feel than by sight.

The other suits are so lush in comparison, have you noticed? All fruit and greenery, robust figures. LIFE.

But there appeared before my eyes, that morning, the Queen of Wisdom from Sorrow, Queen of Turbulent Stark Clouds.

And yet. There’s a tree. In the Rider-Waite-Smith, there’s a tree. Look at her open hand. What might she have for you? She could stand up from that heavy throne if she wanted. Fly away from her cloud cloak.

MORE NEW YORK STORIES

Years ago I lived on Staten Island. Okay, it wasn’t that many years ago, but it was a lifetime, and once upon a time I was on my way to the emergency room.

I had been to the emergency room at least twice during my short stay on the island, and on this taxi ride there, or maybe it was the taxi ride home, I heard a song by a famous pop star, and it changed my life. I had never heard anything like it. I was in the back of that car forever, going nowhere. She blew my mind.

Split screen to another moment in that Staten Island life, not far from the ferry, a short walk, and I’m listening to this techno track and suddenly realize that although this song was also not written to exorcise demons that’s EXACTLY WHAT IT IS.

Which demons? Whichever ones you want. Cast them out. Isn’t this what music is for? Now, I’m well aware in some witchcrafty circles that demons are welcome and honored guests, but I like my coffee sweet and light, not dark and cold like the grave. I should also add that these were the days before I broke up with my altar (and Santa Muerte). I had all kinds of workings going on, back in the days of unintended magickal consequences.

INSTRUCTION FOR YOUR EXORCISM

You can do it yourself, but if you want an expert you need someone you trust and that this someone trusts they can do this work. You need to have faith in this person. And this person needs compassion for you.

It may sound obvious to say, but this person cannot hate you. This is something you likely can intuit. The work will be ineffective otherwise. Temporary. The stitches will break. Your demon will return. You also, and this is key, must be certain you want him, or her, gone. The work will be ineffective otherwise.

Exorcism is not quite the same thing as space clearing. That is exorcism “lite.” A substantial home or office clear can be accomplished by a good broom, some salt, and the intention to send out any negativity. Really. Maybe I underplay the laser beam focus that is required. Probably. Back in the day, I was a big fan of bodily fluids in my magickal workings and let me tell you it is effective. Just be careful what you wish for. But I digress.

Exorcism requires that same very clear intention, like a broth with the fat skimmed off the top, plus compassion, and strong arms. As an exorcist, you will see the possessed shed their skin in front of you, emerge like out of a cocoon in a violent wind. They may lurch and you must hold them, whether or not you physically touch them. There may be, to quote Jerry Lee Lewis, a whole lot of shakin‘ going on, until your friend is free. Oh. A strong stomach. That’s the other thing your exorcist must have.

"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli.  From WikiMedia.
“The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli. From WikiMedia.

MOURNING AND MEANING

“Mourning” was the first keyword I ever learned for the Queen of Swords. It’s one of her traditional meanings. It’s my go-to. I’ve written about this before.

Sure, she’s smart and strong and a manager of people and projects, funny (and a good dancer, I remember reading somewhere) but her wisdom and sadness stuck with me. Is she your exorcist? Maybe you should ask all four of the Tarot queens to stand by. The Queen of Wands to lend you courage, the Queen of Cups to press a compress to your head, the Queen of Pentacles to brew a cauldron of chicken soup for afterwards. It takes a village.

LOVE DEMONS

I think it was my knees. That night to the emergency room. I had fallen in Chelsea, a week prior, somewhere around 8th Avenue and 20th Street, after having dinner with an old boyfriend.

I believe I had missed a step, the curb, and I remember old boyfriend looking down at me, and I looking up at him, and him asking if I was okay. It was a stranger passing by who stopped, gave me his hand, and helped me up.

Yes, Miss X, you can exorcise an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. You can exorcise pieces of your past entirely, although I’m not sure I recommend it. Integration is a far better approach although integration includes actually feeling, and feeling includes Queen of Swords feelings like hate and envy and sadness and coldness, clarity like bright light. Are you sure you want that?

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

And I’ll tell you something else: I find hard exercise can mimic some of the intensity of an exorcism. It’s what I imagine a shred of childbirth might be like, as seen on television: JUST ONE MORE PUSH(up). We’ve all seen these scenes and then New Mother collapses in sweat and tears and other gore. That’s the best exercise anyway, the kind that ends in sweat and tears and gore, because the physical has made a direct connect INSIDE YOU and is cleaning out the wound, whether or not you know what the wound is, or how it came about.

The Queen of Swords cuts, and she knows just what to cut, if you let her.

IN CLOSING

Dear Miss X, I hope I have sufficiently answered your questions and that you feel confident moving forward with your plans. If not, please do not hesitate in contacting me again.

Yours truly,
A.

The Other Side of the Hedge: Living With Fear

Fear. We all live with it. We all know the prickle along the spine when we think we’re being followed. We’ve all felt the drop in the pit of our stomachs when we hear terrible news. We’ve all fought the desire to curl into a ball and wish for it all to be over.

Detail from Edvard Munch's "The Scream." From WikiMedia.
Detail from Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” From WikiMedia.

We all have had to bow under the weight of fear. We’re all human.

The world tells us we must always be afraid. Fear your neighbor. Fear your future. Fear your death. We are told we must fear. It is natural to fear. Fear is good. Fear serves us.

It’s all a lie.

COWARDLY NEW WORLD

People who are afraid are easy to control. Whether it’s the screaming of talking heads on TV, the titillation of clickbait, or the sexy curves of models selling cars with promises of satisfaction and power, these are all whispers that come with a wink, a bait, and a switch.

People spend their lives training themselves to find our weaknesses so they can better lead us where they want us to go. That pancake mix won’t really make your family happy. That toothpaste won’t make you sexier than the other three leading brands. That beer won’t make you cooler. Those clothes won’t make you skinnier. Those workout clothes won’t get you to the gym more than twice.

There are whole industries aimed at messing with your instincts. The attention economy rests on it. We’re all complicit in it. Our culture never gave us much choice. And in a time of instant communication, we can’t imagine a way to escape.

DEATH IS COMING

The fearmongers are the worst. Even when our minds tell us that that there is no danger, our hearts still race and our defenses go up. Ready to fight or flee, we look for enemies and escape routes.

All we can hear is people screaming that the sky is falling, that we’re losing, that we’re all going to die, that we’re all in terrible danger, right now.

Death. Public Domain Image from WikiMedia.
Death. Public Domain Image from WikiMedia.

Not all the threats are false ones. But we’re so overloaded with warnings that we can hardly tell real danger from a fake one anymore. To paraphrase The Incredibles, ‘if everything is a danger, then nothing is.’ And every threat cuts past the rational mind and digs right into the body.

THE WAY OUT

The same people who taught us that the animal mind is powerful and beyond our control also taught everyone in marketing and business and government how to instill fear with a word, a gesture, or a veiled threat. They’re all in the fear business, deepening our conditioned responses and making sure that they can control us at will.

We have been taught not only to fear danger, but to fear fear itself. And until we have learned to face that fear, we are easily led.

What these purveyors of fear have lost is that there is a part of us that is deeper than our thought, deeper than our trained responses, deeper than our instincts. Call it the connection to the divine, the core star, or the soul. Call it what you want; it is beyond their reach.

You might imagine that if it’s beyond their grasp, it’s beyond yours, too. But I promise, it’s not impossible; it just looks that way from here.

The soul is the connection to the root of existence. It is deeper than anything else. When you touch your soul, belief leaves off and faith begins. To find it, begin by strengthening your body and expanding your spirit. I can’t explain why, but it helps.

THE FIRST STEPS TO FREEDOM

On a sunny day twenty years ago, I was sitting outside on the grass, writing. A tiny, pale spider crawled up on my notebook. The creature wasn’t much bigger than the head of a pencil. I really don’t like spiders, so I went to brush it off. And I paused.

I swear that thing stared at me with its black little eyes. Fearless, it stood up to me. It just cocked its head, as if daring me. That spider stared at something the size of a mountain and dared me to do my worst.

I carefully let it crawl from the notebook to a blade of grass.

"Porch of Maidens," image by Thermos. CC 2.5 License
“Porch of Maidens,” image by Thermos. CC 2.5 License

In facing the immensities of life, we can do no better than that spider. Only when we face overwhelming odds and true challenges will we learn to dig deeper into ourselves and draw forth our own power.

We’re never going to live entirely free of fear. It isn’t some trick foisted on us. Fear has a very real place in the world and in our lives.

Honestly, there are scary things out there. We’re right to be respectful of fire and storms and nature, to be afraid of people who might want to do us harm, and to be wary of the consequences of foolish actions. That’s not cowardice, it’s just maturity.

Worse, as we train our spirits and explore a larger world, we are certain to run into things that truly should terrify us. Not everything in the universe is friendly, or even disinterested. It’s best to be careful.

That doesn’t mean that we have to cower in fear at the threats of our fellow men, the immensity of the universe, or the inevitabilities of life. Fear will come and at times it will overwhelm us. We will bow under its weight. But do not kneel to it. Allow your fear to serve you, but never be its servant.

Tree City Witch: Walking Witches & the Ghosts of New York

I admit I can be a little bossy sometimes. I think I know what’s best. I do xyz so everyone should try xyz. Blame it on my very Virgo chart. Although I am not a Virgo Sun, I have my moon there and a bunch of other stuff. We like to give advice.

Now of course I know that you are a unique little cumquat with your own preferences and lack of time and who am I to prescribe en masse? And yet.

"Old City Hall Station" photo by Julian Dunn via WikiMedia.  CC License.
“Old City Hall Station” photo by Julian Dunn via WikiMedia. CC License.

I lived in New York City for 15 years and moving there was a dream come true. Since I was a kid, I had wanted to live in a city where people walked — not car culture, not mall culture, not the hot Miami humid weather horror of my youth. I wasn’t beachy or outdoorsy — I’m still not, unless you mean New York City outdoorsy (despite my living in Florida again).

I dreamt of whatever I had seen in the movies, the New York City of the 1970s and 80s. Well, by the time I got there it was less gritty and more moneyed and the way I finally got to New York was because of my spiritual life. I was becoming Hasidic, and I was Crown Heights, Brooklyn bound in search of roots, home, mysticism, city streets, and my beshert.

In some ways, New York didn’t let me down. I would walk for hours. And hours. And hours. Just to find a diner. Just like my father. The story goes he would walk all day in search of the perfect egg cream.

After a couple years of sporadic employment and unemployment, I started a small pet sitting business and thus I got paid for walking, got paid for jumping from subway to subway, from rent controlled apartment to overpriced studio, to visit kitties missing their people and dogs happy for their mid afternoon stroll. Upper West, Upper East, Chelsea, the Village, Downtown Manhattan, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Park Slope, those were just a few of my neighborhoods.

I would go anywhere but the Bronx and Queens (too far) although even in my early days, I recall as I write this, I did go to Queens to cat sit. I remember the subway strike. I remember hurricanes and blizzards. I remember the blackout. I remember getting to those animals no matter what. I remember walking from Crown Heights to Bed Stuy without a map during the subway strike (how did I do that? I didn’t know the streets so well at the time).

The other day on my Facebook I proclaimed (something I tend to do on there so yes you should follow me on Facebook) that if you did not go for walks then you cannot possibly be in touch with where you are, the land where you are, the spirit of the land where you are. How can you hear what she is saying? How can you hear what she wants from you? How can you love her? How can she love you? How can you marry if you do not touch her? You must touch her. Cars are not enough. Even bikes are not enough. The energy has to come up through your feet and hands and I don’t even mean parks and specific curtailed nature spots. I mean the street where you live, right outside your door. Don’t you want to know how it feels? Don’t you want to know who is there?

And this is exceptionally important for witches, whether or not you are a nature-loving witch, hedgewitch, low magick witch, natural magick witch covering your body, soul, and altar in herbs and oils.

If you aren’t IN your body and connecting your body to where you are, the land, the street, the road or river that runs right outside your door, how can you create?

I hear you saying: of course I can. That’s not my jam, Aliza. I do my thing and you do yours. I create just fine .Don’t tell me what to do.

Understood. But still. Try it. Go for a walk.

"Walking in the Rain" by Paul Sawyier.  Public Domain image via WikiMedia.
“Walking in the Rain” by Paul Sawyier. Public Domain image via WikiMedia.

The Walking Witch

So I do go for walks. Aimless walks, walks with a purpose, often with a purpose. There’s often a meal or a coffee or a whiskey (only after 5pm please!) at the end of it (I have my Sun, Mercury and Mars in Cancer. Food is a motivator!) Sometimes an errand must be completed. The store. I like going to the store.

I remember when I first got to town, I would walk the short stretch (30 min?) from my house to the big university and back no matter how hot and humid it was. I lived here 25 years ago so it was interesting to see what changed. I also was fresh from New York and felt a compulsion to move my body that way.

Sometimes the walks felt spiritually satisfying and sometimes they felt stale: is this all there is? This stretch of land? Eh. Who cares. I’ll call an Uber.

I had to make my eyes different, so to speak. I had to make my mind different, smaller. And yet bigger. I had to see an entire world in a blade of grass or in some huge gorgeous oak or porch swing because it wasn’t going to be like New York: skyscraper skyscraper skyscraper cafe cafe cafe. Everyone from everywhere on earth with a story to tell. That’s New York. Looking back, I wish I had taken more cabs even though I loved the subway. So many ways to see the city besides on foot and yet I walked every day.

The ghosts of New York can’t find me here in Florida except in the wee hours when I cannot sleep or when the cat has woken up or when I wonder why things are the way they are (and yeah that pretty much covers every hour of my life). I have to take care of the ghosts of Florida now. I have to be HERE. I am here.

Are you there, dear reader? Are you in your body? Can you bear it, can you stand it? Presence. This blog post is about presence and how we become humdrum to our lives and our magick when we don’t have it. Can you be right where you are? This is easier said than done. Becoming a walking witch can help.

The Other Side of the Hedge: How to Build Your Magical Altar

If a religious altar is a doorway for the gods and spirits to come to our world, a magical altar is a doorway for us to enter theirs. Every altar is a physical expression of the spiritual and sacred worlds. That’s what makes it different from a table. And as much as it’s for storage, it also works as a door between worlds.

A magical altar is a personal altar for magical workings and the like. Many pagan homes have religious shrines that are more-or-less open to the public. It could be a shrine to the genius loci. It could be be a family shrine with pictures of deceased family members. It might just be a small but meaningful collection of religiously significant items.

A magical altar is something different. It’s a personal altar used for magical work, and it fulfills several roles. On one level, it’s simply a workbench. Just like a traditional workbench, it’s both where you store your tools and where you do your work. But it’s not simply a work surface, because if it were then you could just as easily use the kitchen table.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

The magical altar is more than a simple surface to craft on. For one thing, the work is different. Instead of making handy-dandy repairs and whipping up DIY projects, you’ll be doing your Great Work. Rather than making a birdhouse, you’ll be building your connection to the spirit world. By seeking out guides, mentors, and patrons, you’ll be training yourself for the perilous crossing of the abyss.

Your altar can also be a fortress. There will be times in your spiritual journey when you’re going to get trashed. Life will deal out blows that you can’t imagine withstanding. And even though you fall, you’ll have to get back up. A strong and well-built magic altar can provide some ballast for that.

When you have a place where you’ve stored a couple of decades of magical journals, the results of dozens of projects, and a ridiculous number of tools you’ve graduated from or replaced but don’t have the heart to discard, the altar will provide significant protection. While the journals alone might carry your thoughts and ideas, the altar itself holds much more.

ProTip: Every tool on your altar has its own history with you. The things on, and in, your altar are your magical history, written in objects that transcend the physical and the spiritual. Everything that resides there should have a purpose.

“cymbals” – ©2011 Polly Peterson – used with permission
“cymbals” – ©2011 Polly Peterson – used with permission

At some level, your altar is part of you. Have you ever noticed how some people get very sensitive about certain possessions and don’t want you to mess with them? Whether its books, a car, a comic-book collection, or something else, it’s almost like those things are an extension of the person. And magically speaking, that’s dead on.

For the magus, it’s the same thing, only with altars. You can’t go too far wrong by treating someone else’s altar as part of them – and a private part, at that. Generally, it’s best not to touch without permission. And for goodness sake, don’t leave things on it like it’s any other side-table, and don’t use the magic mirror to fix your hair!

But the same thing holds true with how you treat your own altar. It’s best to keep it clean and of neat appearance. Remember to dust it occasionally, and never let someone else do it unless there’s no other choice. Part of the altar’s role is to separate the sacred and the spiritual from the everyday. And part of your role must be to care for that relationship personally, even its outer trappings.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

I’ve used three different approaches to my personal magical altar. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages. The first option is the bookcase, the second is the trunk, and the third is the sideboard.

Since I’m a big fan of books, I’m also a big fan of the altar-bookcase. If you have just a few magical tools but a lot of research material, this is the perfect choice. For the space-conscious magician, the small footprint is a real bonus.

For a decent price, you can probably find a half-bookcase between three and three-and-a-half feet tall, two feet across, and less than a foot deep. I know Target used to sell one made from particle board for about twenty dollars. While it’s not pretty, it’s also not a hefty investment.

On the downside, the bookcase option offers somewhat less than two feet of workspace, isn’t exactly cat-proof-able, and invites people to pick through your books and leave their sunglasses on your altar top.

ProTip: If you’re trading up for a better altar, you might want to perform a spell to move any magical history, spiritual awakening, or other esoteric aspects from your old altar to the new one. Once you’ve done that, a ritual cleaning of the old one would be polite before you leave it curbside or move it to the living room for its new life as a coffee table.

A flat-top trunk is a great choice for an altar. One of its best features is that it’s lockable. If you live with people who are likely to go through your things, then I recommend going for this option. Half of getting along is avoiding awkward conversations. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a lock is worth a million.

There are two disadvantages to using a trunk for an altar. The first is accessibility. Every time you want to get something from inside the trunk, you’ll end up spending ten minutes moving everything that’s on top, finding what you need, and then putting it all back just the way you want it. The second is limited space. A trunk might seem like it has a lot of space, but they usually aren’t that big.

ProTip: It’s hard to Marie Kondo your magical space. These are not your socks; your tools are parts of your magical experience and each one is connected to you. Each item is a link to your memories and a connection to a deeper world. Putting things away can be a tricky balancing act of intuition, more akin to conflict mediation than putting away the dishes in the kitchen.

If you have the space, my favorite option is the sideboard altar. With plenty of room to lay out your tools on top, they also have practical storage. Mine has both shelves and drawers. Some sideboards come with locks as well. If you’re willing to shell out the money, there are some wonderful options available.

Unfortunately, sideboards are relatively expensive and immobile. Speaking from experience, if you live somewhere where space is at a premium, it’s an intense sacrifice to make.

ProTip: When setting up my altar, I almost always end up using the wall space as well. The first thing I ever bought for my altar was a Glen Loates lithograph. I also have a framed copy of my personal synthesis of the Emerald Tablet and a spirit mirror on the wall.

THE SECRET INGREDIENT

The secret ingredient of any altar is that it keeps your practice in mind rather than hiding it away. That can mean a few different things. One thing to keep track of is the direction that the altar faces. Remember, it’s not just a storage space – it’s also a doorway to other worlds. In some traditions, direction is key.

Generally, it’s a bad idea to put your altar in a well-used hallway or similar space. A nook, whether built-in or created by a screen, is a good place to keep your ritual space. Maybe it sounds silly, but people crossing in front of it and ignoring it all the time might be considered rude.

However you choose to set up your altar, try to make it part of your daily practice. Spending a few minutes each day performing a simple act of magic before your magical altar can keep you connected to that side of yourself. It’s worth the effort and builds momentum over time.

Hills of the Horizon: The Past is Another Country

One of the standing problems of reconstruction is this notion of trying to figure out what would have happened with the religion in question had other forces not intervened. This is not an actually solvable problem; any extrapolation is going to be someone making some stuff up, and it will not resemble a natural evolution. Dealing with the cognitive dissonance from this is one of the essentialities of reconstructionist religion.

(My go-to example on “You cannot predict how a religion would have evolved” is part and parcel of my own heritage. Imagine, if you would, a person interested in reconstructing Puritan religion from colonial Massachusetts. There is a grand wealth of data on this, rituals and beliefs and liturgies. That person might well make a lot of progress on that, and try to figure out how to update that stuff for the modern day. But then they’d run aground on the fact that those Congregational churches evolved into the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Hence my occasional joke that I have returned to the religion of my ancestors.)

Picture by KathleenPirroArts via Pixabay.  CC0 License.
Picture by KathleenPirroArts via Pixabay. CC0 License.

Over the course of Egyptian history, the idea of accessibility to religious texts and rituals shifted and transformed. The divisions were always complex and class-based, but notably more porous than they appeared on the surface. Even if the temples were usually closed to the common people, many of the priests only worked a few months out of the year, and had other jobs the rest of the time, which might well include sharing their knowledge. The scribal jobs and the formal magicians were probably the day jobs of people who worked a shift as priests.

So there was this idea called the “democratization of the afterlife”, originally formulated as the notion that only the king, and later the royal elites, had access to the afterlife in Egyptian theology, and that this over time filtered out to the rest of the community. There are various reasons that this is implausible as a full explanation, but it was certainly the case that over time the display of royal iconography and images became more acceptable. Further, as literacy became more common, more people could make use of those texts.

The mere job of priest, moreover, was a part of the process of transformation. Strictly speaking, according to the theology, only the king could perform rituals, as the son of the sun. In reality, the rituals in the temples not only required teams of priests to perform, but also were conducted in multiple locations simultaneously. The king’s power to connect the divine world with the mortal one was delegated out to those priests, who did the work of maintaining those temples on the vast majority of occasions. For their troubles, meanwhile, almost all of the portrayals of the rituals on temple walls were pictures of the king.

"The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat" by John Reinhard Weguelin.  From WikiMedia.
“The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat” by John Reinhard Weguelin. From WikiMedia.

The Amarna period disrupted these patterns substantially, and attempted to establish a near-monotheism in which the king was the only true ritualist. Unsurprisingly, Akhenaten’s Egyptian theology did not long survive him. In the aftermath of the Amarna disruption, traditional Egyptian forms returned to the artistic world – but additional illustrations appeared as well, such as the journey of the night barque through the body of Nut. These feminine mysteries were not new ideas in Egyptian thought, but their portrayals suddenly emerged, as if in reaction to and denial of the sun-soaked night-denying Amarna theology. Akhenaten’s apparent fear of the dark brought forth the blossoming of acknowledgement of the night.

By the time Egypt was an occupied territory, the priests and the kingship had a very uneasy relationship. The Ptolemies sought to largely allow the native religion to continue its ritual work, in the hopes of keeping the nation peaceful. However, the priests did not always approve of the current kings, and one of the ways that this may have manifested was the well-preserved late ritual of the investiture of the Sacred Falcon. In this ceremony from Edfu, the yearly re-crowning of the king as an incarnation of Heru (Horus) included an oracle rejecting every human who came before it seeking the crown. Every priest and official who presented himself as a possible representative of Heru on earth was turned away, and eventually the office was bestowed upon an actual hawk raised on the temple grounds. There are many ways of understanding this ritual, but one of them is certainly as an act of resistance to a government that dismissed some aspects of Egyptian religion as no more than primitive animal cults.

Each of these disruptions and transformations (and many others unstated) make any certain statement about the natural evolution of ancient religion questionable. Does the democratization process make for a sort of decentralised small-community or home practice, in the end, or does the symbolism of the divinised state reassert itself to become dominant once more? Does a human ever embody governance, or is that whole question for the birds? What pieces of theology do we emphasise in the response to massive social traumas? What things get set aside, or change, or become more exclusive, or less?

None of these questions have answers.

We always have to decide for ourselves.

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Pagan