Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!" The Risks and Rewards of Spirituality

Looking back over recent discussions, I've noticed some debate over the concept of spiritual danger.  There's an idea in some quarters that the spirit world is an entirely benevolent place that can only bring you wisdom and enlightenment. (This often goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the spirit world exists only in the head of the mystic, and hence is no more likely to damage you than any other dream that might be flickering between your ears). They believe that concerns about psychic self-defense, protection, banishing, cleansing, and such are superfluous at best and a holdover from primitive superstitions at worst.  Those pesky demonic entities will become angels of light if only we understand them and accept them with unconditional love rather than prejudiced fear.

This is contrasted by yet another worldview: there are demons lurking around every corner and they all want to eat you.  As spiritworker Silence Maestas says:
For some people, every spirit encounter (or supposed spirit encounter, or mental sockpuppet, or Disney ride animatronic, or whatever) is something to be regarded as a grave indication that Something Is Happening.  Whether it's a "haunting", a "demonic possession", or a "psychic attack", any and all such activity is perceived as a threat that has to be taken down.  Before long the stories these people tell sound more like a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sailor Moon
When you begin working with magic or spiritualism, it's very easy to stumble into this pitfall.  It's great for one's ego: being the center of a cosmic war between Good and Evil is more exciting than being a cashier at Hot Topic. And, to be fair, the unknown is a scary place. There's a reason our ancestors greeted the spirit world with a great deal of trepidation. Spirits don't seem to be bound by the laws of physics which govern our existence: what walls can keep out ghosts and what weapons can stop demons?

One thing we might do is try to establish clearer ideas of exactly what kind of damage a spirit can do to a human target. The Exorcist and Poltergeist are movies. While demonic possessions and moving furniture can happen, it is an exceedingly rare occurrence.  If you are expecting (or hoping for) spectacular spiritual attacks chances are you will either be relieved or disappointed.

But just because you're not vomiting pea soup or dodging airborne appliances doesn't mean you are in the clear.  Spiritual oppression - a target being attacked from the inside out like a caterpillar being eaten by wasp larvae - is far more common. So too is persistent ill health and bad luck caused by a parasitic entity attaching itself to a free lunch. If you've ever run into people who gave off an unpleasant "vibe" of decay, corruption and just plain wrongness you may have been sensing unwanted spiritual companions. And if you've ever lived near a bridge or precipice which drew an uncommonly high number of suicides, or a swimming hole with a regular history of drownings, you may have been near the home of a troll or a kelpie. Recognizing these dangers and taking basic precautions against them can save you a whole lot of suffering.

Thankfully, this doesn't require an enormous amount of effort. Picking up a few good books and putting their teachings into practice should prepare you for most negative spiritual encounters.  (I like Sophie Reicher's Basic Psychic Hygiene, Jason Miller's Protection & Reversal Magick and Dion Fortune's Psychic Self-Defense. I've also heard good things about Christopher Penczak's The Witch's Shield and Kerr Cuhulain's Magickal Self Defense: A Quantum Approach to Warding). Once you learn how to send negative energy away - and most negativity can be banished without too much effort - you'll become much less excited by its presence.

It is also helpful to remember the old Hermetic axiom, "as above, so below." We don't assume the material world is an entirely benevolent place which exists solely to lead us to enlightenment. (Well, some of us do. A few hard encounters with reality generally cures that notion).  There are spirits which are benevolently disposed toward us; there are spirits which dislike us; there are a far greater number which don't care one way or the other unless we get underfoot.

Another worthwhile axiom is Robert Heinlein's "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch."  Every spirit is communicating with us toward some end. That may be to lead us and the rest of the universe toward a higher enlightenment. It may be to get presents in exchange for services. It may even be to win a bet ("I told you I could get him to walk around Wal*Mart dressed like a Renfaire refugee!")  Figuring out what a spirit wants from your interactions can help you to judge whether you have made a productive contact or are being led down a primrose path.

Because in the end the greatest spiritual trap of all may be the wasting of time. As incarnate beings, we are subject to mortality: we have a finite amount of days and when they are gone so are we. The hours we waste chasing after shadows or listening to a lying spirit fill us with pious platitudes while feeding on our bliss can never be regained.  This is the great danger of Yesod, the first sephirah we counter on the Tree of Life: we can become so enraptured by our dreams or our nightmares that we never awaken.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Morality of the Gods

On the Yahoo Group One Eye (a Heathen list), we were discussing the morality of the Gods. I made a comment that sometimes the morality expected of Their followers is quite different than that which They live by.  As I put it, "I've known quite a few Hellenic Recon folks who honor Zeus: to the best of my knowledge none of them was a serial rapist." Understandably one Hellenic person took a bit of (polite) umbrage at my comment.  Certainly it seems disrespectful to call the All-Father and King of Olympus a "serial rapist." But if the available legends are any indication, it is not an inaccurate description of His behavior.  And there's no need to hold Zeus up for special scorn: the stories of most pantheons contain equally unpleasant tales of the Gods acting in ways which seem most ungodly indeed.

How do we deal with the less seemly aspects of our Lore: how do we reconcile our worship with the fact that our Gods sometimes do things which appear horrible to our moral codes? Do we gloss over those stories and sanitize our deities into something more palatable to modern tastes? Do we shrug our shoulders and say that might makes right?  Do we turn away from the Divine in terror and seek the comforts of atheism and anti-theism? Or do we engage with our Gods in their darkness as well as their light?

One possible answer might be found in Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. In that book, the great Danish philosopher examined the Biblical Myth of Abraham.  He pointed out, quite correctly, that by any reasonable standard Abraham was a madman who was ready to kill his only son and burn the corpse because a voice in his head told him to do so. But then he also noted that sometimes the Gods ask for things which go beyond what we consider "reasonable." Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac showed that he was willing to follow God when He asked for that which was absurd, even forbidden.  His journey to the mountaintop was not something to be emulated but a sign of the sheer strength of his faith.

I would not encourage people to commit sexual assault in the name of Zeus, Odin, or any of the other gods who sometimes forced their attention on unwilling maids. Neither would I encourage them to dismiss these gods for their "unworthy" behavior. Rather, I would say that Here There Be Mysteries, and warn that those who would swim here are venturing into very deep water indeed.  The Divine does not always fit into the happy boxes we'd like to squeeze it in. Sometimes when we encounter the Gods we will run into that which is beyond our comprehension, indeed beyond our capability to comprehend.  Turning these Mysteries into comfortable moral lessons is not the point: neither is treating them as a carte blanche to act upon our own failings.

Friday, April 23, 2010


The Gospel of John begins with "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Egyptians believed that Ptah dreamed creation in his heart, then spoke it into being. The Hopi believed that Tawa and Spider Woman brought the world into existence by singing their Creation Song. We embody our thoughts when we mold them into words and symbols: our speech, our singing, our communication is a reflection of the Great Shaping which brought order out of chaos and form out of formlessness.

Ansuz governs speech and communications: it holds the key to the relations between the worlds of the Sacred and Profane, and to the forces which enabled us to shape civilization and to transmit our knowledge to our community and our heirs. Ansuz is the rune which allows us to put our wisdom to use: we cannot learn without listening and we cannot teach without speaking. And in its highest form, Ansuz is also the Rune which contains the secret of all the other Runes.

When he hung on Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights, Odin gained knowledge of the primal forces which shaped the universe.  He also gained a way by which he could create bodies for them and speak with them directly. These bodies were the symbols which we call the Runes: by drawing them and reddening them with blood, we give form to the force. Much as Vodouisants will "tie a paket," a bundle of herbs and sacred objects which contains a spirit, the rune contains a living and sentient force which can allow us both to read the world and to make changes within it.  By his sacrifice Odin established communication between us and the formless forces of the Runes. Our use of language is a reflection in the lower realms of that holy sacrifice.

Ansuz reminds us that our words are sacred: they give life to our ideas and allow us to change the world.  Words can bring down empires and defeat armies: those who doubt this need only consider Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" and "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speeches. But words can also work powerful evil. The politician who deflects honest criticism with convincing lies; the priest raising an Easter pogrom against his congregation's Jewish neighbors; the smooth-talking pimp corrupting an innocent - all these draw upon the power of Ansuz.  Ansuz gives us the power to communicate and persuade: it also gives us the responsibility to choose our speech wisely.

Much as Odin spoke with the Runes, Ansuz allows us to speak with - and for - the Gods.  If Wunjo is the rune of the Mystic, Ansuz is the rune of the Prophet.  It allows us to act as the vessel by which the Divine speaks to mortals. (This is no easy path to follow: history shows that many a seer came to an unpleasant end and many hard prophecies were rejected in favor of soothing lies until they could no longer be ignored). Writers and artists can call on Ansuz for access to the Sacred Wisdom and the truths which elevate work from merely competent into divinely inspired.

On a more mundane level, Ansuz can help us to establish a connection with those we wish to persuade.  It can be called upon to alleviate misunderstandings and to find a diplomatic way to convey difficult information.  Those who work on computers may find it a useful ally in making sure bits and bytes are transmitted clearly: it can help you to find and fix the flaws in your network. And if you are being targeted by slander or gossip, Ansuz can help to ensure that both truth and lies are revealed. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010


For people living in the agrarian communities of pre-Christian Europe, hail in spring could mean a long and hungry winter ahead.  They knew their lives were in the fickle hands of fortune. The tender shoots which rose in their fields could be beaten down by a sudden storm and there was nothing they could do save hope for the best and set down stores in anticipation of the worst.

Today we are a bit more insulated from starvation, but not from the vicissitudes of fate. Our projects can go awry despite our best efforts thanks to a sudden turn of ill luck.  Hagalaz, the Hail-Rune, reminds us that all we do can be ripped asunder by a change in the weather. It reminds us to plan ahead, but also reminds us that there are disasters which are past all our planning. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said "into each life a little rain must fall." Hagalaz goes Longfellow one better: it reminds us that sometimes the rain will actually be fist-sized lumps of ice flung from the sky at high speeds. It is not a comforting rune: many runeworkers consider it the worst one of all when it comes up in a reading.

But Hagalaz nevertheless plays an important role in the functioning - indeed, in the creation - of the universe. When the fire of Muspelheim met the ice of Niflheim in the great abyss of Ginnungagap, the hail and storms of eitr (frozen poison) which arose gave birth to Ymir, the primal frost giant who would sire the entire race of jotuns (giants): later Ymir's bones and blood would be used to form the world of men.  Hagalaz may be one of the most baneful of the runes, but it is also one of the holiest.

Hagalaz teaches us humility: it reminds us of our mortality and our limitations. While we cannot avoid the storm, we can make preparations for the hard times to come.  And if we must be conquered by forces beyond our control, we can at least face defeat with honor, courage and dignity. As Hávamál 75-76 reminds us:

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
the doom on each one dead.
Used in magic, Hagalaz can cast a terrible curse on opponents, crushing their plans and destroying all their work and all they hold dear. It can also be used to destroy any magic sent against you: its icy hail can quench the fires which might burn you and transform the poison sent against you.  Many runesters use Hagalaz as a gateway to Helheim, land of the dead -- another realm associated with implacable change and destruction.  Others use it for journeys to Niflheim, realm of the Frost Giants. 

Today many who have faced tragedy or crisis are encouraged to "get over it," "forget about it" and "quit holding onto the past." (Of course, most would happily let go of their pain if only they could!)  While it is a destructive rune, Hagalaz can also be useful in healing those wounds it has caused. It can force us to face our loss, then give us the purifying grief which the Greeks called catharsis. It allows us to cast our poison into the void and let it bring forth new life.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


In France the orgasm is la petit mort, the Little Death. Indian Yogis spend decades in search of samadhi, the experience of the self dissolving into union with something else. Much as we may crow about our uniqueness and individuality, it seems that our greatest moments of happiness come when we forget ourselves. Wunjo is that blissful moment of forgetting, that instant when we escape the boundaries of our life, our body and our situation and surrender to joy.

One of Wunjo's highest and holiest manifestations is the mystic's ecstatic union with the Divine.  If you are willing to ascend to the heights and offer up all you have as a dowry, you may be found worthy of this mystical marriage. If Chalc is the Holy Grail, Wunjo is the draught contained therein, the wine which heals us so that we are fit to stand before the Gods. Those who have drank of it claim that it brings a bliss beyond any temporal treasures.

But even those who are not ready for a visit to the Castle Perilous can experience Wunjo. In fact, it's difficult to escape pleasure. Poverty, sickness, misfortune: none of these can stop you from finding moments of happiness amidst the gloom. The beauty of a sunrise, the enjoyment of a witty conversation, the pleasure of a good meal or a favorite radio program -- all these are Wunjo shining its light in the darkness.  Modern philosophers have spoken at length of existential angst and dread. They might do well to consider our equally strong tendency toward existential joy. Wunjo reminds us that feasting can be as sacred as asceticism and silk as holy as sackcloth.

Wunjo takes us outside ourselves. The joy we feel in the arms of a lover or the company of friends, the breathless wonder we experience before a magnificent waterfall or a glorious sunset, the happiness a chosen activity brings us - all those point to our relationship with our society and our world. Wunjo reminds us that we do not exist in isolation or a vacuum.It teaches us that we must look outside ourselves to find joy and that we must make ourselves ready to welcome it in.

Another clue to Wunjo's nature comes in its form: it is very similar to Thurisaz. At first glance it would seem that this happy rune shares little in common with the harsh and unforgiving Thorn. But both Wunjo and Thuirsaz represent an irresistible penetrating power that breaks down boundaries. Wunjo burns through all the dross that separates the soul from the Divine. The uplifting feeling of transcendence we experience in the presence of beauty is the recognition that we are in the presence of the Gods, the presence before which all else is absent. When Wunjo is in play there is no room for anything else: past and future melt away into the eternal Here and Now. Do not let its pleasures fool you: Wunjo is a demanding and unforgiving rune.

Those who have let themselves get caught up in pleasure have learned this lesson all too well. Earthly pleasures can devour the Self as surely as divine ones. But where the experience of the Gods can heal the barren land, intoxication and gluttony can only wound the king. Wunjo can provide us with a light that keeps us going when all hope seems futile: it can also become a will-o'-wisp that leads us astray. The slave to pleasure may wear golden fetters, but they are fetters nonetheless. As with all the runes, Wunjo is neither inherently good nor evil. It is the bringer of happiness, and it is up to us to determine whether that happiness leads us to wisdom or folly.

Monday, April 19, 2010


As Rhett Butler walked out of her life, Scarlett O'Hara said "Tara! Home. I'll go home. And I'll think of some way to get him back. After all... tomorrow is another day." Dagaz is the rune of that day. It is the fresh start, the new beginning, the dawn which marks the first day of the rest of your life.

Daybreak has always carried connotations of joy and renewal. (Grieg caught this beautifully in the "Daybreak" movement of his Peer Gynt: so too did Sibelius with his tone poem "Night Ride and Sunrise" and Wagner with his "Siegfried Idyll").  Dagaz is a joyful rune, one which is full of hope and promise. It is the sun which rises after a pitched battle, letting you know that you have made it through the worst of things and lived to fight another day. While it marks the close of a cycle, it is not the final ending of Ear or the eternal return of Jera.  Dagaz leaves you with that which you have already gained, then adds still more to your riches.

The Northern view of the world placed a great emphasis on wyrd,  the fate which you weave for yourself from the situation into which you were born and the hand you were dealt. Dagaz does not free us from our wyrd.  The dawn does not erase the debts we incurred the night before.  While we must still bear the consequences of our mistakes, we need not repeat them.  If you are struggling with addictions or compulsive behavior, Dagaz can help you find the strength to face them and overcome them. It can give you the clarity to recognize your failings and provide you with a way out of the thickets in which you have entangled yourself.  You may have failed a thousand times before: Dagaz tells you that you need not fail again.

If you have been struggling through a spiritual or material crisis, Dagaz can come as the light at the end of the tunnel.  The gloom is about to disperse: the dark night of the soul is giving way. This will typically happen quickly: the change will be less abrupt and shattering than Sowilo's lightning-strike but faster than the gradual developments of Jera. Used in healing magic, Dagaz can provide the strength to finally shake a lingering infection.  It can be an excellent rune for those seeking a new job: it can put you in touch with the employer who will notice your resume when hundreds have ignored it. And if you've been grappling for an answer to a thorny problem or struggling with a creative project, Dagaz can provide you with that moment of illumination when everything falls into place.

But these new beginnings may not be entirely pleasant. Like Sowilo, another rune connected with the sun, Dagaz is a bringer of light. That which was hidden in darkness may stand exposed in the cold light of day.  If you are not ready for the dawn, Dagaz can mark the "morning after" hangover.  For all its promise, Dagaz is implacable. Daybreak comes whether we plan for it or not. We cannot turn back time or stop the sun on its course. If we don't wake up and smell the coffee, we may be caught napping by those who were better prepared. In a reading Dagaz can function as an alarm clock, warning you that the Day of Reckoning is coming and you had best be ready.

The Sacred Responsibility of Cursing: for Noira

Recently one of my fans in the Czech Republic asked for my input on the subject of baneful magic.  This is, of course, one of the great controversies in modern magical thought. Some have claimed in the huffiest of terms that no REAL Witch would EVER cast any kind of curse on an opponent. Others, by contrast, say that the Witch who cannot hex cannot heal.

Whatever the case, few serious magicians will admit to casting a curse. Boast about it beforehand and you give your target time to formulate a defense. If your efforts fail you look like a blithering buffoon: if they succeed the skeptics will claim coincidence and the believers will think you're a sociopath. And if you tell people about the curse after the fact it looks like you are taking advantage of your opponent's misfortune to bolster your reputation as a Mighty Lord of Darkness. Like most magic, curse-work is best done in silence and secrecy. This, of course, means that nobody really knows how many modern magicians are doing baneful magic and what sort of success rate they have achieved.

But a quick look at the historical record suggests that "real Witches" had no problem with casting curses. Archaeologists have found many Greek and Roman curse tablets designed to afflict the troublesome with problems ranging from impotence and boils to slow and painful death.  In Norse legend Egil Skallagrimson used his knowledge of runes to curse the King and Queen of Norway: many Egyptian tombs were guarded by the promise that horrifying fates would befall tomb robbers in this world and the next. European witches used poppets made in the likeness of a target to inflict pain and suffering, while Hoodoo and other African Diaspora traditions have never hesitated to call the wrath of the spirits upon those who tormented their servants.

For those who were dispossessed and powerless (in other words, just about everybody in the pre-modern world and a goodly share of the people in contemporary times), curses offered a chance to level the playing field. In a feudal society the church and lords held absolute sway over the lives of the peasants.  If you were a serf, a noble could steal your crops, rape your wife and daughters, and send you off your lands on a whim. Should you protest too loudly, the instruments of church and state would punish you for your presumption.  Untrained field-hands armed with flails and clubs stood little chance of winning a battle with armored knights and professional soldiers. Those who tried were likely to meet their end by burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, drawing and quartering  or some other equally gory and creative doom.

But those who could not rise up in arms could call on magic for their vengeance. With a few forbidden imprecations that arrogant lord could be laid low. His fields and his wife could be made barren: he and his family could suffer as you and yours had suffered. The church and state sought to stamp out witchcraft because they feared the great equalizer by which the wicked might be cast down.  Of course, it could also be used for more prosaic ends, such as killing an obnoxious neighbor or a relative who had the temerity to be more successful than you. And so it was feared by rich and poor alike. Those who might have called on their cunning-men and sorcerers for liberation instead joined forces with their oppressors to kill those they suspected of trafficking with spirits.

(French historian Jules Michelet wrote at some length about this in his La Sorcière, a volume which has been translated into English as Satanism and Witchcraft: The Classic Study of Medieval Superstition. While some of his historical contentions are dubious, his thesis is thought-provoking and highly recommended).

I believe that every competent magician should know how to cast a curse on those who truly deserve it. That doesn't mean the girl who stole your boyfriend or the guy who flipped you the bird on the way home. But we all know that there are people who pollute the world by their very presence. Often they have the financial or cultural capital to get away with their misdeeds. We can sit back and wait for the universe to right itself, or we can take matters into our own hands and assist the universe in flushing the cosmic toilet.

If we have the power to neutralize these threats and we fail to do so, then what shame do we incur for our inaction? What role do we play in enabling their future misdeeds?  Does our "forgiveness" and "turning the other cheek" come from our higher evolution or our cowardice? What is more frightening, being powerless or powerful? All these questions must be addressed by those who will work curse magic - and by those who will not.  Cursing is not something to do for boasting or petty reasons. This is the magic we work in darkness and silence, the spells which we do to right the world. This is the responsibility that comes with wisdom.  The ability to cast curse magic gives us the power of Nietzsche's superman - the ability not only to suffer for our beliefs but to make others suffer for them as well.  It takes us down a dark, thorny and terrifying path. Real magic often does that.

(I am indebted to Clifford H. Low for many conversations on this topic. If you get a chance to attend one of his presentations on Black Magic, don't miss it. And keep bitching at him until he gets his notes into manuscript form suitable for publication).

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Today we keep our distance from death.  We buy our meat in cleanly wrapped packages in antiseptic supermarkets planted a safe distance from our slaughterhouses. Our ill draw their last breaths in hospices or hospitals: their corpses are then embalmed and painted before being put on display in special "funeral homes" where we exclaim "it's as if he were only sleeping!"

We do our best to scrub away the scent of decay, to rid ourselves of any reminders of our mortality. But despite all our efforts, death remains inevitable. No matter how much we try to cover up the rot, it keeps eating us away. We can order our lives all we like, but sooner or later everything falls back into entropy.

Ear, the Grave-Rune, reminds us of our mortality. It is the doom which comes to us all, the darkness which falls at the end of each day. Ear is not the cyclical transience of Jera: this is not the winter which will soon give way to spring but the end which is past all appeal. The snow may melt above the graves and new flowers may bloom around the monuments, but the corpses remain exactly where they were lain.

Ear often functions in a reading much as the Death card functions in Tarot. It marks something which passes and which will not return. That ex-lover is not coming back: that layoff is really a termination: that missed opportunity is gone forever.  It is time now to take stock in what remains and move on. There is no debating with Ear, only accepting your losses. The grave does not give up that which it has claimed.

Ear can also point to areas of corruption and decay. That which Ear points to is a weak spot, a place where the decadence has set in. It is a sign of that which has passed its prime, an outmoded idea which is holding you back from advancement. Ear shows that which is rotten and gives you a chance to cast it out before the mold spreads throughout your stores. Trying to keep that which has been marked by Ear is like refusing to amputate a gangrenous appendage. You may lose something or you may lose everything but there will be loss.

This is not a fast-moving rune: it is lingering decline rather than sudden death. Ear gives you a chance to put your affairs in order and prepare the legacy you wish to pass on to those who remain. It is in no hurry, but neither will it be put off. Ear is a memento mori, a reminder that you are mortal. Every hour you spend above the ground brings you closer to the time when you will be placed beneath it. Here and now is your hour of triumph and tragedy: in the end there is only what was, not what might have been.

Ear can also be used as a powerful attack-rune: it can give opponents a kind of spiritual leprosy, rotting them away from the inside - and from the outside as well. But the Grave-Rune can also be used to heal. Like maggots eating dead tissue from a wound, it can strip away that which is no longer necessary and free us from the past. Unsurprisingly, it is also a powerful rune for Necromantic work: Ear can help us to contact the souls of those it has reduced to their deeds and their bones.

By now you may be thinking that Ear is a thoroughly nasty and unpleasant rune. But while it encompasses a number of hard truths, it is by no means malevolent. Like all the other runes, it is what it is. Decay breaks down that which has outlived its usefulness.  It returns us to the elements from whence we came and allows them to be recast in new and different molds. And while our joys will one day crumble to dust, so too will our sorrows.  It is the great stasis which allows for change, the end without which there can be no beginning.


During the Scandinavian winter the sun appears only rarely, shedding wan rays over the fields of ice and snow. As its arc rises higher in the sky, the world reawakens and the burdens of winter give way to the promise of spring and the long warm white nights of summer. It is not surprising that Sunna, the sun was important to people who spent a good part of the year in twilight and another part in endless dawn.

Sowilo's warmth can drive away the chill of apathy or the fog of confusion. The ghosts and shadows of the past are chased off by the bright glow of its eternal here-and-now. It is a rune of what is and what will be rather than what has been, the force which through the green fuse drives the flower, the dawning that destroys the darkness and awakens us from sleep. 

This is a powerful healing rune which can be used to shake off infections and to rebuild one's strength after a long illness.  If you are weary and feel you can go no further, Sowilo can give you a "second wind" which will allow you to soldier on. It can also be used to strengthen the will and give courage and charisma: channeled through you, its force can make you burn bright as the sun.

Sowilo brings the blinding flash of mystical attainment: it is the knowledge which dazzles your senses and burns itself into your soul. But its fire is the Apollonian inspiration of poetry, science and strategy, not the Dionysian fury of madness and intoxication.  This is not the madness of Odin on the Wild Hunt or his Berserkers charging madly into battle. Rather, it is the "Aha!" which allows you to grasp the answer to a difficult problem.

Sowilo is often used as a victory-rune (and was co-opted in that capacity by the Third Reich's Schutzstaffel for their SS badge). In the Hávámal Odin says
An eleventh I know: if haply I lead
my old comrades out to war,
I sing 'neath the shields, and they fare forth mightily
safe into battle,
safe out of battle,
and safe return from the strife.
But Sowilo's victory is one gained through superior tactics and insight, not through brute strength or blind fury. There is a great elegance to this rune. Much as the sun rises and sets by a tight schedule and hews on its course along a well-mapped arc, Sowilo is a rune which combines power and precision. It is the sword-strike of the skilled warrior, the orderly advance of the well-trained legion.  If you are working on a project which requires that sort of discipline, you will do well to channel this rune's power and learn its lessons.

Sowilo is generally considered one of the most positive of the runes when it comes up in a reading. But, as always, this depends on the surrounding runes. Sowilo can illuminate the truth and show you the way out of the darkness.  But it can also bring to light things you might rather stay hidden. Like the other runes, Sowilo is neither benevolent nor cruel. The sun can expose your failings as well as your triumphs. It shows how far you have come and how far you still have to go: it may even reveal that you have lost your way entirely. You may profit from the knowledge it brings or scurry back into the shadows: what you do with its wisdom is entirely up to you.

Friday, April 16, 2010


The wheel of the year, the cycles of the tide, the phases of the moon,  the circling of the planets and the turning of the galaxies, the slow progression of the generations as we move from descendant to ancestor - all these things are encompassed in the rune Jera. Jera is simultaneously permanence and transience. It reminds us that the only constant is change, that we may never step in the same river twice, that the home we come back to after a long absence is not the one we left behind. But it also reminds us that if all our gains are transitory, so too are our losses. That which is gone will one day return, and the fields which lie barren beneath the snow will awaken once again to life with the spring.

Jera is one of the runes which cannot be inverted: like a circle, it has no top and bottom and always lands upright. While it symbolizes cycles, one will need to look at the nearby runes to determine whether those cycles will bring reward or misfortune.  Its interpretation also depends more than many runes on the querent's reaction. Jera involves things going on around you and within you. If you respond to those changes in an appropriate fashion, you will do well: if you ignore them or try to fight against them you will get swept along in the current.

This is not one of the faster-moving runes. The changes represented by Jera are generally slow and steady, but they are also inevitable. One cannot make the summer last beyond its days or keep away the winter: you can only take advantage of the good weather and prepare for the bad. Jera reminds us that we are part of a larger system that operates on its own schedule.  We will do well to remember that the universe does not revolve around us: rather, we revolve around the universe.

Jera reminds us "this too shall pass." Its opportunities which it brings must be plucked quickly lest they wither in the field. Its difficulties can be overcome if you can hunker down and outlast them.  Like time and the tides, Jera waits for no one.  It can teach us the folly of attachment while also reminding us to seize that which is precious and to hold on to that which we will need for the lean times ahead. In some ways Jera strikes me as a very Buddhist rune. It reminds us that what is here will one day be gone and that that-which-is must pass into that-which-was. But it also teaches us that this very impermanence is what makes it so precious.

For magical purposes Jera can be useful when you need to let go of something and move on. It can also be used to call in overdue debts or to bring a project to its final fruition. If you are stuck in a situation and unable to move forward, you can use Jera to break through the blockages and carry you through to the next phase of your life. (It will not function so quickly as Thurisaz might in this regard but it will be considerably more gentle for all concerned).  Meditating on Jera can help diviners to spot recurring patterns in their divination tools and in omens around them.  Finally, it can give a slow but terrible power to a bind-rune, putting the full force of time and the tides behind your request.

On Becoming a God

On Visionary Shamanism we were talking about deification and "rising to godhood." One poster commented on one of my earlier messages: my reply follows.
You list 4 conditions of rising to the level of deity
how is what you are doing with your life helping you to attain deity-hood? (1) Are you living as a great hero or a (2) saint: (3) have you attracted a following? (4) Have you lived in a manner which would cause people to tell stories about you after you are gone?
Are these the only paths? In my theology deity-hood is to burn off good karma, and demon-hood is to burn off negative karma. So any imbalance of good over evil leads to the heavenly planets, where one can enjoy life as a god.
My view on the subject is a bit different than yours. First, I'm not convinced the universe is particularly concerned with "good" or "negative" karma. Plagues and famine are evil to those unfortunates who get caught up in them, but they keep our ecosystem in balance. Pleasure is good but addiction to pleasure and avoidance of that which is painful yet necessary can be hugely destructive. 

Someone who was "great in wickedness" might well be elevated: I would expect to see Hitler or Stalin numbered among the Mighty Dead, for example, even though I would be very careful about seeking either of those gentlemen out for advice or assistance.  (Hitler would probably be in a cranky mood because he's tired of being invoked by every idiot who ever lost a flame war... ).  Power is pre-eminent: the direction in which that power is aimed is important in determining the nature of one's elevation or descent. It is not enough to be good: one must be mighty in their goodness. One must strive to excess in prayer, in good deeds and in charity: one must work overtime to avoid temptation and do what is right no matter what the personal cost.

If you look at the legends, being a god isn't all fun and pleasure. If the gods are greater than us in their power, so too are they greater than us in their sorrow and pain. Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus comes to mind immediately, as does Demeter weeping for her daughter, Jesus nailed to the cross and Odin hanging from Yggdrasil to gain the runes. Divinity is a ticket to power and wisdom, not to bliss. 

Frith, Race and the Building of Community

I recently read an interesting post on Frith, a Northern European concept which has variously been translated as "peace," "justice," "right order" and "security."  Matt, a Pagan legal services attorney, obviously has done his research and likely knows far more about Northern Tradition stuff than I do. He certainly provided me a great deal of food for thought, especially since questions of community have been so much on my mind of late.

I was particularly struck by his closing lines.
In our present state of historical development humanity cannot be defined in terms of tribal kinship. There are simply too many of us now and with advances in science we can be sure that all people are kin on one level or another. It makes no sense to limit frithful relations to an arbitrarily drawn innergarth. In a single day an average Westerner is liable to have contact with a more ethnically and socio-economically diverse group of people than someone in the Saga age would have in a lifetime. It is as necessary for us now to engender frith outside the clan as it was to do that inside the clan in the days before Egil. It is as unlikely now for us to have kinsman living next door or at the workplace as it was expected in the old days. To be whole, we must try to engender frith will all those we come in contact with. Any existential threat we face today comes not from a rival tribe, but primarily from irresponsible use of technology and misallocation of resources. The world has become small enough that we are all in the innergarth now, and our survival probably depends on us starting to really recognize that.
I can certainly understand his discomfort with the idea of a close-knit and exclusionary clan or tribe. In modern times this idea has often been used in defense of the idea that one "race" is superior or inferior to another "race." As tales to promote "racial unity," the Sagas and Lore make a lousy choice.  They generally focus on various tribes and clans - all of whom were of the same white race - waging bloody, decades-long wars with each other.  We should also remember that the longships carried far more merchants than pillagers. The Nordic tradesmen were happy to do business with southern Europeans, Africans, Indians, Asians and anyone else who was willing to trade goods. The colors which interested them most were not black and white, but gold and silver.

The main problem with "racial unity" comes from its very broadness.  Nobody was going to let a stranger into your innergarth, or treat him as the equal of your kinsmen or neighbors, just because he happened to have the appropriate complexion.  Skin, eyes and hair do not speak to an individual's moral character or worth.  One cannot build a community based solely on race: there must be something deeper than a common ancestor fishing in the Paleolithic fjords several hundred generations ago.

Matt thinks we should extend the concept of frith beyond the tribe to encompass all of humanity. I might argue that we would do better to narrow it to a chosen tribe.  We need not be concerned with accidents of genetics: instead, we should remember Theodore Sturgeon's axiom that "90% of everything is crud." Those who are worthy deserve our respect and our protection: the rest can be left to their own devices and their own tribes.

This is not to say we should seek the dissolution of government and replace it with a neotribal culture. I'm neither enough of an anarchist nor an idealist to think that would have any idea of working out well.  Besides, there's a long tradition of clans swearing homage to a vassal in exchange for mutual rights and responsibilities. But the obligations we owe our nation and humanity are one thing: the obligations we owe to our immediate community, our innergarth, are quite another. 

Unconditional, universal love is not a prerequisite for peaceful dealings with our fellow citizens (of our nation and our world).  Tolerance and mutual respect for those who return the favor will suffice. You cannot love all humanity in the same way you love those who are near and dear to you.  A tribe of those who care and are cared for by each other can provide a level of mutual support that cannot be offered by a larger grouping. A gathering of believers can provide each other with levels of care and nurturing that they would not find if they relied instead on the Brotherhood of Man or the tender mercies of the government.

Our obligations to humanity are the obligations we owe to strangers. It is in our best interest to treat them with tolerance and respect their boundaries.  Many of those gore-soaked sagas were intended at least in part as cautionary tales: steal your neighbor's cow and your kinsmen might burn your grandfather's homestead. This of course would obligate you and yours to seek revenge for the injury and trigger a long and unpleasant spiral of events that might span generations. Those strangers belong to a tribe as well: if you don't wish to make trade of goods or ideas with them it's best to leave them alone.  By establishing networks of exchange, you can ensure that their prosperity is shared with you and your wants are shared with them.  When the clans are at peace their cattle grow fat: when they are feuding the corpse-ravens feast. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Still More on Wicca, Neopaganism and the Mysteries

My earlier posting on Wicca, Neopaganism and the Mysteries has sparked some discussion on Mystic Wicks. I thought I would compile some of the more interesting points raised here regarding the role of the teacher and of the benefits of initiation. 

One poster, Heather, stated:  
Either way, there's not a human being out there who can reveal 'the Mysteries' to you, you have to do it for yourself. Like the Charge of the Goddess says, if you can not find it within, you will not find it without.
The idea that "no one can reveal 'the Mysteries' to you" is a comparatively modern one. Most traditional religions place a great deal of emphasis on learning from a teacher. A Yoruba proverb declares that "the knife cannot carve its own handle" -- in other words, the initiate must be assisted on the path. Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism both declare that one cannot become a guru without first receiving initiation and training from a guru. People traveled from all over the classical world to undergo the Rites of Eleusis and become initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

There is definitely precedent for people being "initiated by the spirits" and reaching a new state of being through spirit teachers: powerful life-changing events can also serve as initiations. I've heard recovering addicts describe their struggles as a rebirth experience - hell, MY recovery from alcoholism and mental illness was a rebirth. I've also heard people who had survived cancer, sexual assault or other traumas talk about how they had been reborn upon rebuilding themselves. But by and large these "solo initiations" were far more painful and traumatic than ceremonial ones. (I suspect the initiation ceremonies came about because the attrition rate for "spirit-taught" shamans was so high).

If you mean that the initiate must be an active participant in the initiation and that s/he must be prepared to accept the Mysteries, I would agree 100%. But I wouldn't underestimate the life-changing power of an initiatory ceremony for those who are ready to receive the initiation.

Another reader, Dio, said that
Having had a traditional initiation myself, within a traditional coven, I actually agree with the "no one can reveal the mysteries to you" concept. My opinion on traditional initiation may bother some, but my belief is that the rite itself is not the end-all "this is it" moment. The mysteries continue to reveal themselves to you as time goes by if you're diligent in learning and listening for them. No priest or priestess can do that for you, whether it be coven, tradition, or none at all. 
That being said, a traditional initiatory rite does give you a push along your path whether you are on your own or still within a practicing spiritual group. I've actually always thought that one must already be walking the path and the initiatory rite is merely a recognition of that. Whether a spiritual group acknowledges it, or just the gods or spirits, it's really up to the individual initiate to decipher what they are to be learning on their path. 
Not everyone can find a teacher. Sometimes teachers are taken away, and none are replaced. Yet the initiate and the initiatory path remains. It would *have* to, otherwise the initiatory rite means nothing at all.
Absolutely. A worthwhile initiatory group can also save you from reinventing the wheel and from wasting time wandering on unproductive paths. Having a structure within which to weigh and measure your visions and intuitions may stifle them -- but it may also stop you from mistaking wish-fulfillment and fantasy for genuine contact with Deity. It can give you relatively quick access to techniques and shortcuts you might never have figured out on your own.

Much as I hate to put it this way, there's also a bit of the "McDonald's effect" with established groups. McD's became a worldwide phenomenon because around the country and later around the world you knew exactly what you were getting when you ordered their Big Mac or their Cheeseburger and Fries. In a similar vein, you have a fair idea of what a recognized Gardnerian coven or Feri group has to offer: you can be sure that the HP and HPS have a certain amount of experience and that their rituals don't diverge too widely from those practiced by other Gardnerians or Feris. You know that the leader isn't preaching a heady blend of Silver Ravenwolf and J.K. Rowling with a sprinkling of Just F****g Nuts on top.

How to Close an Open Mind

You can come on Visionary Shamanism and explain that you are appropriating the teachings of [insert indigenous peoples here] and reframing them for bored suburbanites. You can relay messages from St. Michael and the Dolphin Brotherhood.  You can expound at length on the Zionist/Reptile Aliens connection. None of this will garner even a whiff of dissent. But claim that the gods might be real and might actually, you know, expect something from their followers? BLASPHEMY!!!! 
A pagan fundamentalist. Interesting. Where is the "hell", Galina, that you are sending me to for not becoming a "god-slave" such as yourself?
I find it interesting that neither Galina nor myself said that anyone on here would be sent to hell or punished by the Gods for their unbelief. Neither did we say that others should follow our beliefs or seek out converts. Yet you bring up images of "hell" and Dave brings up "proselytizing."  Apparently the idea that the Gods might exist as something other than a mental construct or a mild-mannered nebulous benevolence brings up some negative connections for some.

I wonder what is going on here. Are you frightened that someday, somewhere, you might encounter a Being which asked you to do something besides chant affirmations or gobble entheogens? Or does your "tolerance of all shamanic beliefs" only extend to those practiced by wealthy First Worlders who attend the right seminars and promise only to work for the Highest Good? It's interesting that on a list dedicated to "Visionary Shamanism" there would be so much horror of the very idea that there might actually be something behind those visions.

If you're really interested in Shamanic beliefs and practices, you may want to look into the tradition of Shamans being drafted involuntarily by the spirits. That's found in many cultures and traditions. When you are done with that look into the traditions of deities laying taboos or geases on their followers.  Consider that for most of recorded history the idea that the Divine required our permission to do anything wasn't even blasphemous - it was laughable. And when you're done contemplating that, ask yourself if you are really 100% certain that you have reached a higher pinnacle of civilization and knowledge which allows you to state categorically that there is nothing to those "primitive" beliefs.
I can see the universe where it is just a bunch of ego-maniac deities demanding worship - my god can kick your god's ass type of world. But these aren't the deities I prefer to play with. Mine are the adults watching your deities play in a sophomoric sandbox. Grow up in your worship and you will get grown up deities who do not demand their slaves to worship them. But this is not to say that my god can't whip your god's ass, since mine is the supreme deity, bow down to the great Almighty!
In other words, your god can kick her god's ass, but he is far too evolved to even consider doing so.

My Hard Polytheist Manifesto

One of the posters on Visionary Shamanism thought I was trying to shut down discussion when I stated that we should "agree to disagree" about some of our differences. My response follows: I think it's a reasonably good summation of what Polytheism and a belief in the Spirit World's objective reality mean to me.

Oh, we can have a discussion. In fact, I'd say we're in a better place to do so now that we've established some of the fundamental differences between our worldviews.  Instead of trying to convert each other to our respective ways of thinking (in other words, proselytizing), we might do better to talk about how our views of Spirit shape our interaction with the spiritual and material world.

For me, accepting the Gods as real means accepting that They may make demands of me and of others. It means accepting myself as a part of the universe, not the center of the universe.  It reminds me why humility and reverence have universally been considered virtues and that it is not "grovelling" to recognize one's superiors.

The spirit world doesn't just exist between my ears: it was here long before I came onto the scene and will be here long after I am gone. It is not a vague, nebulous place filled with white light that can be reshaped in any way I would like. It is an independent realm filled with beings which exist on their own terms and for their own reasons: they are not just there to lead me down the road to enlightenment. Some may look upon me favorably and some with hostility: most are just going about their business and don't care about me one way or the other unless I have something to offer them or unless I make myself a nuisance. (Those who have spent any time in a large city like New York, Paris or London will be quite familiar with this mindset).

Because I believe there are many Gods and many spirits, I believe that there are many different ways in which those Gods and spirits can be honored. I feel no need to turn everyone else's belief into a "slightly different reflection of the one true Divine" but instead can recognize it as a thing in itself.  Your practices are what your Gods want from you: mine are what my Gods want from me.

How do your beliefs shape your worldview?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Proselytizing, Interfaith Dialogue and the Courage of Convictions

From an interesting debate on Visionary Shamanism. I think this touches upon many of the issues which come up in spiritual conversations. There's a real desire to find common ground between different systems: people become a lot less comfortable when it comes to mapping out the differences between their visions of the divine. As a result we get bland platitudes aimed at the lowest common denominator of belief rather than honest discourse and critical inquiry.

That's the beauty of this group. I'm a follower of Spirit and view all Gods as the creations of men. This is based on personal experiences and visions both with and without the aid of plant substances.
And in the opinions of Galina and myself, you are mistaken. In your opinion Galina and myself are mistaken. That doesn't mean we need to have a holy war over it, mail each other anthrax spores, or advocate burning each other's books or hacking each other's websites. But let's have the courage of our convictions here. There's a difference between agreeing to disagree and agreeing that every belief is just as good and valid as every other. One is the cornerstone of civil society: the other is intellectual flabbiness and cowardice.

Nobody can "prove" that the gods exist independently, that they are all creations of men, that they are all emanations of Spirit, or that they are all silly myths which hold us back from Progress and Science (cue Thomas Dolby here).  But we can take our beliefs and draw them out to their logical conclusions, then examine the differences between Presupposition A and Presupposition B. We can point to the reasons we have arrived at our respective conclusions, and point to flaws or problems we see with the other person's conclusions.  In response the other person might point out places where we have misunderstood their beliefs or point out issues they have with ours.  This is an integral part of any honest interfaith dialogue: if beliefs are worth holding they are worth defending. 

For me, one of the big issues with a strong belief in the Gods is that people sometimes get the silly idea that they need to kill people who do not share their beliefs.  This is something that any Theist believer needs to address. Those who believe strongly in the Divine need to have in place a code of behavior for how you will deal with nonbelievers.  And one of the big issues with the idea that the gods don't exist save as human creations is it can cause religious belief to degenerate into a dog and pony show wherein gods and Spirits are called on to do tricks for bored suburbanites. The passion of St. Teresa of Avila or the Sufi Mystics is replaced by "I bought the makings of ayahuasca on eBay and saw some GREAT visions, man!" And I think that is a real loss: I'm not such a postmodernist that I believe there is no difference between Beethoven and Britney Spears.
One night, I was attending a Wiccan ritual and spoke with the others a phrase that bothered me as it praised a Deity that I don't follow. I thought to myself that I could not continue with the event but received the message from Spirits that were present that I should not worry because when it comes to religion, no-one has got it right yet. Not even me.
When we are dealing with other people and their beliefs, it behooves us to approach them with humility and respect. It could well be they have seen something we have not: as Bill Cosby used to say, "if you're not careful you just might learn something." There's a difference between  "I think my beliefs are a more accurate picture of reality than yours, but you may also have some valuable insights which I have missed" and "I am 100% correct and you are a blithering idiot."
If you belong to one of the "We're right and everyone else is wrong !" sects, then you really need to think about this being a suitable place to play. Dare not suggest that anyone is guilty of blasphemy here as that is offensive and something you are unable to prove
You find the term "blasphemy" to be offensive to your deeply-held moral beliefs - you think it's, dare I say, blasphemous ;).

Instead of seeing it as an attack, let's see it as a boundary marker between your beliefs and Galina's beliefs. Within her worldview there is no room for the idea that the gods are creations of men. Within your worldview there is no place for passionately held belief that those who say" the gods do not exist" are wrong.  At this point you have both done each other a great service: you have established a point where your worldviews are fundamentally incompatible. And you can't start establishing relations with the neighboring country until you've both ascertained where your boundary markers should lie.
The fact exists that if you talk to the followers of as many different beliefs as possible, everyone will ascertain that they have experienced events that support their faith. People of differing beliefs can witness the same event and both will claim that it supports or proves that they are right.
We are here to discuss and share not to try and convert others.
An honest discussion of the similarities and differences in spiritual beliefs is not the same thing as an attempt to convert others. Speaking for myself, I think that the gods are real - which means that their existence is not contingent on our belief or disbelief. I'm interested in discussing Polytheism, Monotheism and Atheism as they relate to Shamanic practices. I am not at all interested in convincing anyone to follow any One True Way, nor am I interested in a discussion which is reduced to bland platitudes about how we are all special snowflakes and everything we say and believe should be cherished as valuable. I'd rather have my ideas discussed in an honest, even a critical, fashion than have someone pat me on the head, give a gold star, and hang my finger painting on the refrigerator.
When I went for my medicine dream, I was shown that spirit resides in everything but that Spirit was not GOD in any way, shape or form. That is what the Spirits showed me and it is the foundation of MY path. I will share my path with others but only if they really want to walk it. There have been a few along the way who have tried to take my teachings and then attempt to convert me to their faith. It is something that can't happen because I am at peace within with my beliefs. That is the truth that is right but only for me because no-one else can see the world from behind my eyes through the filter of my life experiences.
Is your truth strong enough to survive someone saying "I disagree with this aspect of your belief?" and for you to offer reasons as to why that truth works for you?

Wicca, Neopaganism and The Mysteries

One of the members of Witch Essentials was commenting about a youth who showed up on another list demanding "The Mysteries." He was informed that The Mysteries must be experienced: they can only be transmitted through ritual, not through a mailing list. Unfortunately, our Adept-to-Be took this rather poorly: how dare those fascists withhold The Mysteries from him?!?!  The fact that he was unsure of what The Mysteries entailed and unable to tell the other listmembers exactly which of The Mysteries he wanted didn't phase him. He was sure that there were Mysteries out there and by God-and-Goddess, somebody was going to give them to him or he was going to stomp his feet and hold his breath until he turned blue.

It struck me that this went to the heart of a long-standing debate in the Pagan community: the value of initiation. In the mists of pre-Christian Europe (OK, in the mid-20th century when Gerald Gardner first started dancing naked in the woods with Mrs. Clutterbuck and company), Wicca was exclusively an initiatory tradition. There were no books on the subject: the only way to learn about the Craft was to find a teacher and become initiated into a coven.

Gardner peeked his head above the hedge a bit, releasing books like Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft. Later other authors would raise Aradia's veil even further. Paul Huson's 1970 Mastering Witchcraft presented a non-Gardnerian version of the Craft, while on Halloween of that same year over 1,000 people came to New York's Central Park for a "Witch-In" presided over by Strega priest and gay rights activist Leo Louis Martello. But the few books which were available were hard to find: typically one had to go to an "occult shop" or rely on mail order.  And even if you could find those precious tomes, they would still tell you that you needed to find a High Priestess and train at her feet.

Then in 1988 Scott Cunningham released Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  Cunningham knew that many people were unable to find a nearby coven and presented them with information which would allow them to honor the God and Goddess on their own. Cunningham did not present his material as a replacement for initiation: he was quite clear that the best way to learn Wicca was from an elder and the best way to practice was within a coven.  But the die was cast and the occult explosion of the 1970s became the mass-marketed witchcraft of the 1990s - a trend which only continued as the Internet allowed people from around the world to communicate and form magical orders, working groups, and online covens.

Cunningham gave the world books which they could use if they could not find an elder. This new generation wasn't so sure they needed elders at all. British Traditional Witchcraft had formed in England where the state-sponsored Anglican church retained many of the traditions of Catholicism, including apostolic succession. These new movements were largely centered in America, the land of the Puritans and other Protestant sects that favored a direct personal relationship with the Divine. Within the Wiccan mystery tradition there were no congregants, only clergy: this new Neopaganism followed that model, but it insisted that anyone could be a Priest/ess of the God and Goddess without all those pesky hierarchies and ordinations. 

Once magical books and supplies could be had only at a few select stores. Now anyone with a web browser could purchase their grimoires and tomes on Amazon and their athames and chalices on eBay. Thanks to free websites like Geocities and Angelfire, Books of Shadows and Guides to Wiccan Practice were now available within a few clicks. Once you could only join a coven after a year and a day as a dedicant (assuming you could find a coven that was accepting members, that is). Now many forums and mailing lists offered membership and the Secrets of the Craft to anyone who cared to join. 

But in this transition from a mystery religion to a mass movement the initiatory ceremonies disappeared, replaced by "self-dedication" and "self-initiation." The knife carved its own handle: the Priest/ess established the connection to the Gods and let them do the work. This neglected the historical accounts of shamans who actually were "trained by the spirits" -- generally the process was far more terrifying, arduous and dangerous than any initiatory ritual. 

I think that many people within Neopaganism are starting to feel the loss of the initiatory model and the mystery tradition. Solitary practice can certainly be meaningful, but it is no substitute for being part of a community: the Internet cannot replace the power of face to face teaching and group ritual. The  young folks are crying out for the Mysteries, even if they aren't sure what they are or how they can attain them. And I think the next generation of magical spirituality -- Neopaganism 2010 and beyond -- will move away from the freeform eclecticism which has been such a hallmark of late 20th and early 21st century American Neopaganism and back toward a more traditional, more hierarchical and more exclusive model.

I don't think the free-form be-your-own-High-Priestess model isn't going to go away any time soon (although John Michael Greer has suggested that within a few years Gardnerian-inspired Paganism may look as quaint and outdated as Theosophy, Spiritualism and Nehru jackets). But I think that there are going to be a growing number of Neopagans who want Something More, who want a spirituality which challenges them, one which declares that the Mysteries only reveal themselves to those who are willing to earn them.

(Apologies to those folks from non-Gardnerian traditions who feel slighted by my glossing over a topic which could easily rate several books.  I have concentrated on that which I know slightly and avoided that which I don't know at all).

Monday, April 12, 2010


In hunter-gatherer cultures the sharing of food helped ensure that everybody got something to eat. Those too old to hunt for game or search for edible plants could live to pass their knowledge and the tribe's history down to the next generations. In agricultural cultures today "barn raising" parties leverage the support of the community for the benefit of its individual members.  One of the pillars of Islam is zakat, giving alms to fellow Muslims in need: Proverbs 11:25 informs Jews and Christians that "A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." 

Gifting is one of the practices which helped humanity to become civilized and which helps maintain our culture and our standard of living. It reinforces our connections to our fellows and provides us with a safety net against inevitable bad times.  Fehu is the rune of commerce, the fee which workmen receive for their efforts. Gebo is the rune of gifts, those things which are given away. Yet like Fehu it represents obligations and exchanges - indeed, the demands of Gebo can be far more onerous than a simple bill for services rendered.

The gifts exchanged in marriage marked the joining of two families. Dowries and bride prices helped the young couple to establish their household and provided insurance to a surviving spouse.  It also helped to encourage the survival of the union: should the marriage fail, the gift immediately became due and payable to the givers. Other laws and customs described the passing down of a dowry or dower to heirs and the expectations incurred by those accepting the gift.

Under feudalism alliances were marked by gifting. A feudal lord might reward a vassal's service with land and the right to collect rents from the tenants thereon. The vassal could then pass this land down to heirs, who could hold it in "fee simple" (Fehu again!). They were entitled to the same privileges their ancestor held, but expected to provide loyalty and service in exchange for their freeholding. Should they betray that trust, their land could be taken away from them. 

In yet another manifestation of Gebo, tribute, a tribe or nation might provide a stronger power with regular gifts of gold, troops or other resources in exchange for peace. These tributes mark the defeated power as servants to the superior force. They help the stronger and weaker alike to avoid costly conflict. But those who give these gifts should know that they will only be accepted for so long as it benefits the stronger: they generally lead to ever-increasing demands and delay rather than avoid the day of reckoning. 

Gifting also marks the boundaries of a community and your relationship with its members. During the holiday season there are those who receive token presents and those who receive larger gifts. Your spouse may get diamond jewelry for Christmas while the paper boy receives $10 and your high school acquaintance in Peoria gets a card: at most workplaces gifts are given to subordinates, not to superiors.  And those who complain at length about "welfare states" reserve special horror for the fact that illegal aliens (i.e. those who are not an official part of Our Culture) might receive some benefit from social programs.

When Gebo shows up in a reading it marks an alliance of some kind: the runes which surround it will tell you more about the costs and rewards of that partnership.   They will tell whether you are the recipient or giver of the gift, and what responsibilities will come along with those benefits. You can then decide whether or not the obligation is worth the price... because Gebo teaches us that every gift has a price. Those who rely on charity are at the mercy of those who dispense it, and as Robert A. Heinlein reminds us, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Those who give expect, sooner or later, to receive.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Boundaries, Charlatans and Free Magic: still MORE about Money and Spirituality

On his excellent blog Rune Soup, Gordon has posted a thought-provoking piece on The Five Laws of Occult Economics: Why We Suck at Money.  I am only going to respond to one of the many salient points he made, but would urge you to read the article and learn from it.

In the section, "Price moves to the marginal cost of production," Gordon points out:
Books. Anything you write I can find for free. Legally. Because it costs nothing to produce and price moves to the marginal cost of production. So, if the cost of producing occult texts is free, what does that tell you about your ability to make money from it? You’re going to need to precisely locate the value of your text in my life. Are you a world famous race car driver? Did you discover Atlantis? Did you impregnate the daughter of the former governor of Alaska? Because if you are just some guy then this is not your golden ticket.
Being an Elder (?!). You want me to pay you money so you can talk at me? But that fat guy in the velvet cape on the other side of the festival is giving it away for free. I’ll have to think about it.
Having some experience on the subject, I can categorically state that there are indeed costs involved with producing a book.  Even a channeled transmission requires the time and effort to transcribe it, proofread for grammatical and spelling errors, typeset it (or code it to HTML for the web) and publish it online or offline.  When you're talking about writing an annotated text on a topic you have to add in the cost of research, which is significant both in terms of time and money. Scholarly journals and peer-reviewed books from academic publishers ain't cheap, nor do they generally make for easy reading.

Nor can just anyone write a coherent, useful and readable book (or website, or, for that matter, blog post) on a topic occult or otherwise. Writing is a skill which requires a certain facility with language, an interest in studying the subjects of which you write, and the ability to make them interesting and clear to your prospective audience. 

As far as the fat guy in the velvet cape goes, I'd say this is a perfect example of "free is often worth exactly what you paid for it."  There are thousands of free Pagan websites out there. Most of them have spinning pentagrams, tinny .wav files of bad music, damn-near-illegible fonts on sparkly backgrounds and content which was cut-and-pasted from other equally atrocious sites.  Sure, you can get to "Lady Dymwitte's And It Harme Nunne Site for thee Olde Religione" without spending anything. But how much use (in other words, how much value) will you get from it?

Pagan businesses might do well to focus on serious occultists who want something more than what they can get from a Google search and who already know what the fat guy in the velvet cape has to teach them how the Pumpkin-Eating Druids called the Quarters to the great goddess Isis-Astarte-Diana-Hecate-Demeter-Kali-Inanna.   (In other words, they realize he's full of something which isn't likely to be mistaken for unconditional love, light and wisdom any time soon). 

On other forums I've seen several people express concern about charlatans taking advantage of well-meaning innocents. I agree that there's definitely a risk of people playing variants of the old "you must bring me nine $100 bills to lift this horrible family curse" scam in the name of Wicca. But there are plenty of ways you can take advantage of people other than lightening their wallets.  I'm sure we've all run into "High Priests" whose primary interest in the Craft revolves around skyclad women who want to perform the Great Rite.  And then there are the folks who get into the religion for the power trip: just because you're not getting paid for your services doesn't mean you aren't getting something out of your teacher-student relationship.

Which brings us to a post that Frater POS made in his blog (although he has since modified his stance a bit):
RO posted something about teachers wanting to be taken care of in the pagan community. F*** them. If they got into spirituality to be paid by adoring acolytes then frankly they have little of value to teach.
"Being paid" and having "adoring acolytes" are two separate things. As I noted above, there are lots of bad reasons for someone setting up shop as a teacher. Money is just one of them: the desire to have acolytes who see you as powerful (or who will have sex with you, or at least let you see them naked) can be equally corrosive.

In fact, I might argue that "client/employer" is a healthier role for all concerned than "acolyte/devotee"  I have had a few fans try and draft me into service as their guru and spiritual leader. They figured I, like Jesus, could heal their ills if only they worshiped me hard enough.  Unfortunately, I have no aptitude for turning water into wine or feeding multitudes with loaves and fishes: neither do I have Mary Magdalene's personal e-mail address. And given the way things worked out for JC, I really have no interest in taking over his job anyway.

The exchange of money for services helps set boundaries and establish an appropriate relationship with a client. When you purchase a reading from me, I am your employee, not your savior. You know what you can expect - an honest divination given to the best of my abilities, and even some follow-up work to see how my suggestions are working out for you. You are not entitled to my infinite compassion, unconditional love and tireless labors on your behalf. I am obligated to treat your case seriously and read the cards honestly. I am not obligated to treat all of your problems as my problems, or to neglect my needs in order to take care of yours.

I think this is healthier for everyone concerned. It reinforces to the client that they are going to have to do their own work to solve their problems. It reinforces to the reader that their role and their abilities are limited. And it helps us avoid that ugly situation wherein we put someone on a pedestal only to knock them down when they don't live up to our unrealistic expectations. (Been there, done that, and from both ends of the equation too). One of the nicest things about being a professional is the ability and right to maintain a professional distance.