Month: May 2011

Western Mysteries and gummy worms

Lately, I’ve been reading Caitlin and John Matthews’ Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus. My goal was to understand a bit more of the roots of ceremonial magic, which seems far removed from what I do as a ban-drui and trance-seer. The latter is a term I’ll use rather than shaman, because I consider the latter word culturally linked to Siberia and the cultures there.

I tend to lack good words for what I am, and I’m sensitive about cultural appropriation. There is, of course, the argument that I am stealing from the ancient Celts by using the word Druid and representing myself inaccurately; to quote Spinal Tap’s recitative to “Stonehenge”: “no one knows who they were or what they were doing.” The term, however, aligns me with Keltria and, prior to that, ADF, from which I get my current spiritual identity. Prior to that, I would’ve identified myself as a Reclaiming Witch. It’s not that those terms encapsulate the totality of my spiritual self, but they’re good shorthand.

As a basic history of Hermetic magic, the book is decent. What bothers me, however, is the first part, which covers what many would call natural magick and what the authors call the Native Tradition.

At the core, I have a problem with the concept of an Ur-religion that all cultures took part of. Not that this is explicit exactly, but I’ve seen that in quite a few overview texts. I also disagree with the assumption of euhemerism; some Gods — most specifically demigods — may be deified ancestors, but I doubt all or even most Gods are. What the Shining Ones are is worth a whole ‘nother entry, and a question that will never be answered by the living. They’re among the true Mysteries, if not the Mystery.

I also have difficulty with the idea of the Western Mysteries as a whole — a tapestry weaving together ceremonial magicians with shamans, cunning men with Christian priests. Is there a commonality between all groups who seek to engage the sacred? Perhaps. But I’m not sure all paths seek to engage the sacred in quite the same spirit. For magicians, it appears to be about control — of powers, spirits, the cosmos. For a priestess or a shaman, it’s about right relationship; there’s a limit to human power, and rightfully so. Forgive the over-simplification or the inexactitude of the terms.

“Mystery” implies there’s something hidden; the Greek term “musterion” means secret rites. And indeed, Mysteries are about secret rites, when you come down to it: they define the initiated (which stems from a term meaning “beginning”) from the uninitiated. For the rites to retain their meaning, their specialness, they must remain hidden.

Ultimately, however, this defines Mystery as an entirely human phenomena. The mysteries of the nature, the cosmos, even the Otherworld aren’t necessarily hidden; they’re out there for anyone with eyes to see and an open mind and heart. Granted, some would argue that initiation is required to point your eyes in the right direction. I can agree with this; quite a few people in the world learn best from the instruction of others. They don’t trust themselves enough to open their eyes, wonder and engage.

But the mystic — the word comes from a Greek term for an initiate into the Mysteries — doesn’t always require initiation into human-formulated ceremonies. There is a subset that’s just, well, born that way. The born-that-way type may not “play well” with members of an initiatory group, or be willing to submit themselves to all the restrictions, traditions and definitions of the group, which are really formulated for human social cohesion rather than sacred import.

Maybe there is a vast tapestry that these many mystics, groups, cultures and experiences are part of. It’s part of my nature, however, to look at the specificity — of culture, time, individual personality — than merge them all into one mega concept, kind of like how gummy worms melt into a giant pancake in a hot car. I’m still looking at the smiling gummy worm faces and seeing them as individuals, albeit merged into one mass of sweet goo.

Oh my. That’s a really awful metaphor.

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Otters

In light of my recent sightings of otters and a mink, here’s a poem I wrote in 1994 and revised in 1996.

otters — you have forgotten otters
with sleek tube torsos
and stubby little legs
with handy clenched claw-paws
tiny child fingers
fickle pink-tongue satin
or more a wet sea towel

slinky serpent-silly
tumble down slick slopes
rose-nose silly-whiskered —
and you —
i see you have forgotten otters.

Endings and beginnings

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

— T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Today is Armageddon, again. Millerites and Mayans — whether you set your date in 1843, 2000, 2011 or 2012, the world always seems to end. Quite simply, it’s the inheritance of a faith whose cosmology hinges on a Judgment Day, final war and ultimate reckoning. It may seem odd to include the Mayan Y2K in this, but we don’t know exactly what their interpretation of the date would have been prior to contact with Christians; today’s Mayans are quite familiar with Christian culture. Heck, maybe it was a day for tech support to chisel a new calendar.

As a Pagan, I find the endlessly ending world a source of amusement and perplexity. Granted, there are some Pagan myths of the world’s end; the Norse Gotterdamerung is the prime example, but even that was the likely result of Christian contact. I tend to think of the negative second half of the Morrigan’s Prophecy in that light as well; it doesn’t seem to fit the tenor of Celtic culture, but meshes quite nicely with that of the Christian scribes writing down the myths.

The idea of the Gold, Silver and Iron ages does have resonance in Pagan culture, but it seems linked to the very human concept of “What are these kids coming to?” The impression I get from Pagan myth is that the universe is cyclic — a Day of Brahma, so to speak, in which the universe bursts outward, expends, contracts and then falls back to its original state, only to continue the same process on the dawning of the next Day.  The other concept that interests me comes from the Navajo. In Navajo tradition, humans have dwelt on four previous worlds before reaching the Fifth World, the one in which we now dwell (or, perhaps more accurately, the land in which the Navajo — the people — now reside). There are multiple worlds, universes, states of existence — and we travel between them.

Quite a few Pagan cultures seem to have multiple creation myths. In ancient Greece, for example, you have the initial creation stemming from Nyx and Eros, and then the creation of life involving Gaia and Uranus, their multiple children and ultimately to the molding of mankind at the hands of Prometheus. There is also the myth of Eurynome, the primal goddess with her serpent-consort Ophion, dancing on the surface of the deep.  While any true Celtic creation myth has been lost, hints of it remain in the Book of Invasions, in which waves of beings come to inhabit and change the land of Ireland, perhaps a stand-in for the earth itself. At any rate, creation is a complex business, involving multiple phases, deities, peoples — and unanswered questions.

Just like real life, I suppose.

The universe is a dazzlingly complex place. There isn’t just one be-all, end-all creation. Such a thing would involve agreeing on a starting point. What is it? The origin of galaxies? The formation of our solar system? The advent of the first single-cell organisms on earth, or of humans?

If the “beginning” is complex and multiple, why not the “end”? It spawns the same questions. What is the ending point? The extinction of humanity, of life on earth, of the earth itself and the sun? Of the universe, reversing course and returning to its original state? But it the Big Bang occurs all over again, is even that truly The End?

The universe and the planet herself don’t have One Beginning and One End. That’s forcing the cosmos to the template of human life, or at least one interpretation of it. Our consciousness — as far as we understand or interpret, and we don’t understand all that much — is wedged between the two bookends of Life and Death. We are or we are not, at least when considering the sense of individual self that comes with this particular incarnation. And so, we assume the cosmos must have the same bookends.

Except it’s not so simple, is it? Microorganisms feast on our corpses, giving rise to new and different forms of life. The compost of our flesh or ashes feeds the earth. Our souls go on to other things; our chi/prana/life force returns to the system. (I’m certainly no atheist, so I beg your pardon while I speak that “flaky soul-talk.” It’s what I believe.)

When we die to the world, we may think that the world dies with us — but it doesn’t; it goes merrily on its way. The earth continues the dance of revolutions, the dance that gives us night and day and ultimately the seasons. Whales migrate, birds flock, humans give birth to other humans. Another little girl giggles at the shelter as she adopts her first cat. Someone else is hired for the job left unfinished at your death, and mulls its problems and challenges over another cup of half-chilled coffee. Your country dissolves as another people invades, but those people intermarry with yours and the cities shift shape under the tides of time. A species dies off and another springs up, or fills the niche of the lost species, more adapted to this round of changes.

Ultimately, I think the end times obsession is a way to deny our mortality, our inherent temporality. Only the sinners die! We will be saved, unchanged and unchanging! But that’s not how the universe works. It’s a pretty complex place. Why would the “end” and the “beginning” be any different?

So, on today’s Armageddon, I’m going to buy some plants and contemplate complexity.

Stuff I like

This isn’t the typical sort of post for me, but I’ve been wanting to do it for a while. As someone who creates music, I know that creators of any sort of art or object can find it tough to get the word out. So, here are two artisan products I particularly love.

Green Haven Soaps are Druid-made, but that’s not the only reason I love them. They are all-natural and smell wonderful; I’m particularly partial to the wide variety of earthy/woodsy-themed soaps they have, but I’ve also jonesed over rosy Medieval Maiden and perky peppermint Leprechaun. Unlike a lot of artisan soaps, these are normal size bars, not those little slivers you usually get. Try ’em!

I’m a fan of Esmeralda Littleflame’s Temple of the Twelve series, which has been described as a Wiccan fairytale. I think the description is apt, and it’s one of the reasons I read it: it’s gentle and kind, like the author herself. At any rate, in the Chroinia universe, the gods — the Twelve — are colors.

The perfumer behind the The Misery Love Company also loves the Twelve and has created a series of color-themed perfume oils that I’m slowly but surely acquiring.

Some thoughts: Black: sexy, dark and deep, perfect with that slinky dress for an evening out. Pink: sweet and girly, strawberries in spring. Silver: smells a bit like sandalwood to me, misty and amorphous. Blue: blueberries! One of my faves. Red: sweet red berries in summer, mingled with a Jolly Rancher. Green: foliage and flowers. Orange: those ice cream bars with the pale orange on the outside and vanilla on the inside. Or orange-flavored Italian ice. Purple: an exact replica of the perfume my mom used to wear, called Poison. And lots of grape juice and Manischevitz. Brown: Caramel and baked goods! Yum. White: An extra heavy dose of vanilla. Double-yum. Gold: the only one I haven’t sampled yet, alas. Yellow: totally bananas! And very cheerful.

Otters and others

We see a lot of neat critters passing through our oak wood here at Forest House. A coyote made his determined way through our yard on New Year’s, likely looking for a mate. My husband has seen bears, although I haven’t. There are deer galore, woodpeckers of all description and hummingbirds. In the neighborhood, we rousted a sleeping bobcat and saw red fox traipsing across the street.

The latest visitation came from an otter. I first saw him driving to work around dawn, leaping across the road in that sinuous weasel way. Some neighbors outside the wood have old farm ponds they stock with fish, and I figured he was out for a meal. And then he made another appearance, running across our hilltop — likely a young male looking for love (in all the wrong places; we don’t have a stream in our neck of the woods).

Is there meaning behind the appearance of native flora and fauna? The typical Pagan and magical answer is yes. Authors such as Ted Andrews and Jamie Sams provide manuals ascribing meanings to animals, akin to the symbols encountered in dreams. But for me, the situation isn’t so simple.

If you live in the woods, you see critters all the time. What sets an encounter apart as special comes down to several factors. One, an animal outside its accustomed environment. In the case of the otter, his appearance on a wooded hilltop without a stream may indicate spiritual significance. Secondly, the rarity of the animal involved; a raccoon or even a bear rooting through your trash may not signify anything in and of itself, other than you should keep your trash in the garage. A final factor is ritual context. If you’re conducting a ritual and a hawk cries after you ask for an omen (as happened with the grove this last Beltane), that’s significant. If you enter the woods or even go on a walk while engaged in a spiritual quest, an animal’s appearance may give you insight or an answer.

I’m leery, however, of books that relegate animals to esoteric symbols. Animals, as with dream images, mean different things to different people. I’ve had periodic nightmares about dogs, for example, because I’m afraid of them in my waking life; someone who has dogs in their household probably has more pleasant experiences, spiritual and otherwise, to drawn on.

Rendering animals into symbol also objectifies them, which is a concept I struggle with. The otter was on a mission, so to speak; he is an individual creature with a will, needs, desires. Is viewing his appearance as reflective of my own spiritual journey a symptom of anthropocentric narcissism? And is the totem system another excuse to view the world in entirely human terms, with animals as fashionable spiritual accessories?

The classic view — based upon the Christian concept of dominion over the natural world, later combined with atheistic scientism — holds that animals are essentially furry machines devoid of authentic thought or feeling. Hence, we conduct experiments and are surprised to find that dogs exhibit conceptions of justice or even that fish feel pain. The gulf between human and animal is as wide as that between Self and Other, subject and object. The underlying assumption is that we alone feel, think and do, since we alone are the image of God and hence his lords on an inanimate earth.

How terrifying, that utter alienation.

Anyone who has shared a household with animal companions sees firsthand that they think, feel and act of their own volition. My cats exhibit jealousy when I spend time with one but not the other. They complain when they feel the other has received more treats, denoting some sort of concept of justice. Missy in particular figures out ways to communicate with the monkeys — including scratching around an ill-favored brand of food to indicate that it’s shit, and hitting a gong to wake us up.

Do they think in the exact way we do? Of course not. They’re adapted for a different way of living, as are the deer outside our window. The deer think, too. My mother-in-law has seen a mother deer teach a fawn how to lift canvas and eat the tender shoots protected beneath. Just because their thoughts, actions and systems of communication aren’t human — a particular variety of simian — doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

As a friend once said: “Cats are people. They’re just not human people.”

And so. The otter does have spiritual significance to me: Take notice of the beauty around you. And another: It’s Beltane and the world’s looking for love. His presence made me smile — weasel-running amuses me to no end — and surrender to awe, a deep appreciation of my fellow creatures and the Earth that nurtures us all.

And I think, in the end, that’s significance enough.

Enemies and adversaries

A worthy enemy. An adversary with virtue, even valor. How strange such a concept seems to us now, in these times punctuated by the cry of the carnival-barker.

Enemy simply stems from a Latin term meaning “unfriendly” ; foe, from Old English roots, is connected to an Old High German term meaning “at war.” Hostile stems from the Latin “hostis,” or enemy, which also means stranger and, oddly enough, guest.

An enemy, then, is simply the Other: the stranger, the foreigner, the out-rider and the outlaw, dwellers in waste and fen, dwellers in forest and hedge. They have their own interests and not that of the tribe.

But rules — dharma, rta, firinne — dictate how one deals with these strangers, according to different types. There is the noble enemy, the foreign king or “legitimate” soldier who fights according to accepted rules of engagement. Agreements even today ostensibly keep the Tribe from torturing these noble enemies, since torture and abuse fall outside the rules of engagement. If they’re not followed to the letter …. Well, notice that I use the word “ostensibly.”

In warrior cultures, there is the sense of a worthy adversary — one who is like oneself but in the employ of the Other side. For warriors, whose allegiance changes with power structures and even the prospect of gold, the changing of sides doesn’t necessarily impart or negate one’s worth.

In Celtic myth, consider the old friends and current enemies CuChulainn and Ferdiad. The tribes dictate the enmity, but they fight fairly — in accordance with the rules — and CuChulainn honors his foe in death.

Contrast this with Achilles’ defilement of Hector’s body in the Iliad. Achilles is considered insane for his actions, perceived as shameful. His reason? Rage over the loss of his lover, although the Greeks wouldn’t have  acted any differently if given the opportunity; killing a warrior on the Other side falls squarely within the rules of engagement. Typically, warriors will give the enemy time at the end of a battle to bury or burn their dead, at least if the old accounts are to be believed.

Dragging an enemy warrior’s body behind a chariot may be seen as dishonorable, but raping their women or killing their children is not. In the Iliad, the Greeks smash the head of Hector’s infant son, for example. The Trojan women are raped and sold into slavery.

Which leads us into the second type of enemies, which I’ll simply call collateral. Those are the peasants, the commoners, the women and children. Their death and suffering may be tangentially addressed in the rules of engagement, but aren’t considered of prime importance. And so, warriors slay the innocent who are in the way out of confusion, expediency or blood lust — whether you’re talking about modern soldiers or ancient armies. The enemy’s women are almost universally raped and the peasants have their goods stolen. On the plus side, we don’t sell people into slavery anymore in the way of the ancients. Collateral enemies end up as chattel, slaves or meat; warriors don’t identify with them to any great degree, although they undoubtedly have mothers, sisters and friends who would fall into this type back home.

The last form of enemy isn’t quite an enemy at all; those are the slaves, named after my ancestors because so many of them ended up in Viking chains. The Norse term is thrall and the Celtic mog. Slaves are people, yes, but commodities first; they cannot be part of the Tribe and so their actions and motivations are discounted. There is a certain consciousness, however mild, concerning war’s impact on collateral; slaves merit no thought at all. They are considered no more dangerous than a draft animal —

— except when they’re not. Slave uprisings provoke the utmost brutality from the conquering culture because they are decidedly unworthy enemies. The rules of engagement don’t apply. As historian Robert Ferguson puts it in The Vikings: “…no credit at all must be given to the slave as the killer of a free man. The rigidity of the codification was complete: in Egils Saga a slave who dares to treat a free man as an equal by challenging him to a fight is killed while bending to tie his shoelaces. Codes of honourable behaviour simply did not apply between the free and the enslaved.” Consider the fate of Spartacus and his cohorts.

Worthiness in an enemy, then, is based on class or caste. Warriors/soldiers/combatants recognize their own, the backbone of the rules of engagement. Third- and fourth-function groups of people merit no more thought than, say, cattle or a house.

The inspiration from this, in a tangential way, is Osama bin Laden. Was he a worthy adversary or a rebellious slave? A solemn burial at sea — or at least the claim thereof — would seem to indicate that he was viewed as a noble enemy. The cries of the people to show his death photos or even drag his body through the street would indicate otherwise.

He was an enemy and therefore his death or capture was a necessary act, at least in terms of security and protection. But classifications aren’t so simple. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

This is the dark side of virtue, particularly virtue as defined by warriors and war. We need a set of virtues outside of the Dumezilian second function — a virtue born of the collateral, who are simply People, the producers, the continuance of life, humanity as a whole outside the artificial boundaries of warrior-driven nationalism.

Otherwise, virtue is just an excuse to keep upping the body count.