Thursday, May 27, 2010

Religion, Magic, Consent and the Gods 1.a: The Nature of the Gods and Our Relationship to Them

On the Yahoo group Witch Essentials, Gaia made an interesting observation on my earlier post:
[I]n Wiccan theology we are not a "lower" life-form than the Gods; we are in fact considered to be of the same species as They -- a very often-used and much-beloved Wiccan Ritual saying is, "Thou art God/dess".
The idea that the Gods "existed before our ancestors were born and which will exist long after our descendants have returned to the dust" seems to ignore the idea that many of us have -- that we ourselves are Eternal, and though we may incarnate in many successive lives/ bodies, we DO re-incarnate, and therefore though our bodies "turn to dust", we ourselves do NOT.

I think it 's well and good and entirely appropriate to have awe for the Gods -- but not because they are "greater" than us; for we are of the same Species as They.
"Thou art God/dess" is a very interesting theological statement. On one hand I can see it being used as the impetus for greater accomplishments i.e. "since I am God/dess I had best behave accordingly." But I can also see it degenerating into narcissism and even solipsism.  ("Since I am God/dess, I deserve to be treated like God/dess.") Combined with a structure that distinguishes between the Court and the Cowans or the Wizards and the Muggles, this could lead to a back-patting society that never really accomplishes much of anything save ego-stroking talk about how much more enlightened they are than those poor non-divine fools.  I should hasten to add that this is NOT the case in all, or even most, Wiccan or Pagan groups with whom I have interacted.  But I've definitely run into this issue on more than one occasion.

I've heard from some practitioners of Lukumi that "the Orisha who owns your head" can be interpreted as "the Orisha whose spark you carry" - in other words, an Omo Obatala is an incarnation of Obatala, an Omo Oshun is an incarnation of Oshun, etc.  On a deep metaphysical level this makes sense: if we are all roads of the Orisha then we are all directly involved in Their work in this Material world. I also like Orion Foxwood's idea that we are "co-Creators" who work with the Gods and the Spirits in this manifestation.  I think these are theologically rich ideas which emphasize both our connection with the Divine and our divine responsibilities. 

I would tend to agree that there is an eternal spark within us which survives our bodily death: I'm even inclined to believe in reincarnation, since I've had a few experiences which strongly suggest I've retained at least a few past life memories.  But I think that our incarnations are temporary while the Gods are closer to eternity. I may be embodied in a thousand different forms before I reach my final destination: during all that time, Legba will remain at the crossroads and Loki will continue commenting sarcastically on the foibles of the incarnate, discarnate and transcarnate alike.

Perhaps one day I shall reach the place where They are, or shall awaken to discover that I was always a God who chose to incarnate for My own reasons.  (It's been done before...).  But for now I see myself as something quite different from those who have attained to or been born into Godhood.  And one of the lessons which I need to learn in this incarnation is to recognize my limitations and act within them.

(As an aside, I apologize for recent delays in responding and posting. We are in the midst of an enormous painting project at my house and my time has been limited. Hopefully things will return to normal over the next few days).

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Thousands of years after their deaths, perfectly preserved wooly mammoth corpses can be found in the permafrost of the Siberian tundra.  Antarctic ice cores have provided insight into the earth's climate over the last 740,000 years.  Cold can be a great destroyer:  the "Little Ice Age" of 1250-1850 CE killed millions through famine and disease. But it is also a great preserver, protecting those it embraces from decay. Both these qualities, and more, can be found in the Ice-Rune, Isa.

While it is frequently identified with stasis, Isa is far from inert. Glaciers move slowly but they can wear down mountains and carry boulders and trees as if they were pebbles and twigs. Isa does not have to move quickly: it is inexorable as an oncoming ice age. It knows that sooner or later our fires must die and our green lands must succumb to the frost. 

Isa's sense of time and place is very different than our own: there is something Lovecraftian about its enormity and its immense age. Where we measure in days and moments, Isa contemplates aeons. If things are moving too quickly for our liking, Isa can provide us with a respite. It can cool heated tempers and help bring calm to potentially explosive situations. It can also provide us with a broader perspective: that which seems important at this moment may be of little consequence in the context of geologic eras. Isa can provide a sharp, cold focus which will serve you well in combat (metaphorical or actual). It can help you to be in the moment without being of the moment, to rise above the petty distractions and concentrate on that which is eternal.

Like water, ice takes the shape of its container: Isa's flexibility allows it to work well in many different bindrunes. Combined with a faster-moving rune like Uruz or Hagalaz, Isa can become a devouring avalanche. Formed into a bindrune with Othila, it can become an impenetrable defense which protects you and yours from your enemies. (Consider how the brutal Russian winters repelled the forces of Napoleon and Hitler or how the snowy passes of the Hindu Kush have helped make Afghanistan the "Graveyard of Empires"). Combined with a healing rune like Berkana Isa can help still fevers and slow the progress of infections or cancers: bound with Ear it can sap the target's vitality and bring on the chill of the grave.

Isa is often used to block an opponent's way. Yet it can also be used to remove obstacles .Ice expands as it freeze: it can seep between cracks and shatter granite. Combined with Laguz and Thurisaz, Isa can become an irresistible force that  will send the thickest walls tumbling down. The Water-Rune makes its way into the smallest chinks and crevices: the Ice-rune then expands and the Thorn breaks down the barrier. Isa can also be used to distract your pursuers and make their path slippery, or combined with Sowilo to turn illumination into snow-blindness.

And Isa's ability to preserve can be used to cement the gains achieved with other runes whose effect can be more fleeting. Combined with Ansuz, it might ensure that your words were remembered long after they were spoken. But this should be done with caution: that which is frozen often loses its vitality even though it does not decay. Isa can stave off corruption but it cannot give life to that which is dead. Although it may seem a timeless rune of eternal winter, Isa is tied to the cycle of the seasons. While the frost must have its season, so too must the thaw.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Religion, Magic and Consent pt. 1: Gods

I've recently noticed a number of discussions concerning the role which consent plays in magic and spirituality.  Two popular assertions are "You should never do any spell which interferes with the will of another" and "The Gods cannot interfere in your life unless you let them." The idea that we might not be free to avoid the divine - or spells cast on us by a superior magician - fills some with terror and others with anger.  It smacks of groveling and idolatry, and what's more it's not fair.
      American culture places a great premium on free will. Our admiration of "Freedom" could put Japanese emperor veneration to shame. This attitude has spread throughout much of the "Free World."  Internet arguments regularly degenerate into accusations of fascism and Nazism: politicians seek increasingly restrictive regulations on travel and speech in the name of "preserving democracy."  By the tenets of this Cult of Liberty, it is a great sin to seek control over another and a great injustice if you are controlled by another.  Where Freedom is worshiped, we must all have the agency to create our own destiny and we must grant that same agency to our fellows. 

      Despite frequent complaints about "Christo-fascists," much of this stems from the Protestant Reformation.  Protestantism sought to wrest control over spirituality from the bishops and cardinals and place it in the hands of the individual. Instead of pledging obedience the Holy Mother Church, one was encouraged to develop a personal relationship with Jesus through prayer and individual study of Scripture.  In America, revivalism placed an emphasis on choosing to follow Jesus: God could wash away your sins and make you a new person in Christ, but only if you allowed Him into your life. (Of course, this called God's omnipotence into question - but taking a Calvinist approach, it was generally assumed that those who chose God were predestined to do so... ).

      Compare this to the worldview of Homer or the anonymous author of Gautrek's Saga. Pre-Christian Northern and Southern Europe were united in a belief in inescapable fates.  You could meet your destiny with bravery or cowardice, but you would meet it nonetheless. The Gods did not ask for man's consent, any more than kings asked for the consent of peasants.  Compare it also to religious practices which arose in less democratic surroundings. Haitian Vodou has never had taboos against controlling love spells. Neither do they have the idea that the lwa must first get permission before entering your life: there are many stories of Houngans and Mambos who unsuccessfully tried to escape their date with the djevo by joining an Evangelical church.  (Ten percent of your income is a less onerous burden than the cost of a kanzo and the continuing responsibilities of the priesthood). 

      The idea that one might have "free will" before Gods or governments is a very modern one.  Certainly one has room to negotiate with the Gods: there are many stories of people putting off their obligations with a promise or an alternative service. But ultimately there are limits to our freedom: sooner or later, we may well run into the Divine "Because I Said So, That's Why."  We will then have to face the limits of our power. We will have to realize that we are in the presence of Something Greater than ourselves, Something which existed before our ancestors were born and which will exist long after our descendants have returned to the dust. And, if we are fortunate, we will experience something of the holy awe and terror which mystics have always felt in the presence of the Ineffable: we will know the Divine not only in its love and its wisdom but also in its power.

      (Coming up in pt. 2: the ethics of non-consensual spellwork).

      Sunday, May 16, 2010


      Newton's First Law of Motion states that no object at rest will begin moving unless some outside force acts upon it. Raido is that outside force. It is the rune which upends stasis. It is the impetus which drives the deer in search of fertile fields and sends the wanderer off in search of excitement and adventure. Raido is the restlessness that ensures our lives and our society will not stagnate: it is the burning curiosity which sends us off in search of new horizons and discoveries. 

      While Jera is cyclical and travels over a fixed path, Raido is linear and free-ranging. Travelers may arrive at their goal by many paths. Their experiences on the road and upon arrival are unpredictable - and indeed, that unpredictability is part of the point! Raido wants to be surprised and challenged: it grows restless in safe and predictable surroundings and heads off in search of excitement. 

      Raido has been called the "journey-rune" and that is certainly one of its most important aspects.  When it appears in a layout it often means the querent will be traveling soon.  The nature of this trip and the final destination may be gleaned from the surrounding runes. It can signify a time to charge forward or a time to retreat: whatever form it may take, you can be sure that some kind of motion will be required as standing still is not an option when Raido is ascendant.  Most often some kind of literal travel and movement will be involved: Raido is rarely content to confine its manifestations to the metaphorical realm. 

      Raido can be called upon when you have fallen into a rut and need a change in your life. But as with any of the runes, caution is advised before calling on it.  Raido may give you a new adventure, but it may also give you a deeper understanding of the Chinese curse about "interesting times." Risk and danger are as integral to Raido as movement.  Before Raido has finished working itself through your situation, you are likely to find yourself yearning for the security and comfort you left behind. After all, homesickness is as much a part of the traveler's life as wanderlust.

      If you are facing opposition from enemies or unwanted attention from persistent suitors, Raido can be used like Hoodoo's famous Hot Foot Powder. It can make a target uncomfortable in your presence and give them the urge to get far away from you. Combined with Thurisaz in a bind-rune, it can make your enemy unable to settle down or commit to anything: at its worst it can lead to a terrifying akathisia that may result in death or insanity.  Conversely, it can be reversed and combined with Isa to block an enemy's movement and hinder any efforts at escape.

      But Raido also has many more benevolent uses.  As part of a bind-rune it can provide intense kinetic power to a spell.  It can be called upon to bless a trip or voyage and ensure that the roads are smooth and that the journey is a profitable one.  Combined with Chalc, it can send you on a spiritual quest that will be rich with both danger and reward.  (This may be a good choice if you are going to be going on a pilgrimage or vision quest: it is not something to be undertaken lightly, but it will repay amply those who are brave enough to seek the Chapel Perilous).  Chalc can provide the Grail vision: Raido can help ensure that the details of the trip go smoothly.  While Raido enjoys adventure, like any seasoned traveler it knows the value of packing appropriately and getting one's documents in order.  It may be an easily bored rune, but it is not a scattered or impractical one.

      Friday, May 14, 2010


      Before the Worlds began there was Audhumbla, the great cow who licked the salt from the primal ice and freed/formed Búri, father of the Gods. The myth of the primal ox appears in other cultures: Zoroastrians have a Great Bull whose blood waters the barren earth and brings it to life, while the Rig Veda says of the cow, "She is like the mother of the cosmic Forces, the daughter of the cosmic Matter, the sister of cosmic Energy, the centre of the ambrosia." That great and ancient mystery is at the heart of Uruz, the Rune of the Wild Ox.

      Uruz does not represent the domesticated cattle (they would be covered under Fehu), but the Auroch, the great wild ox who once roamed throughout Europe. This massive beast stood over 6.5 feet (2 meters) at the shoulder and weighed over 1,000 kilos (2,200 pounds): it was known for its razor-sharp horns, great speed, and foul temper. The aurochs were the progenitors of modern-day domesticated cattle: hunted to extinction in the early 17th century, in their heyday they ranged from India throughout Europe and northern Africa.

      Uruz represents the deep roots of our psyche. The animal drives and "primitive" urges hard-wired into our brain are the base on which our "civilized" ego and superego rest. We cannot understand our humanity without engaging with our animal selves: we cannot be tamed until we address that which is wild within us.  For those who spend a great deal of time "up in their heads" or who suffer from dissociative disorders, Uruz can be a powerful grounding and centering rune. By meditating on Uruz, you can come home to your body and recognize your place in the material world.

      Uruz is not a rune which communicates in words or even in elaborate images. You understand Uruz in your gut, not in your mind. You can experience it by stripping away all the illusions and all the pretty lies you tell yourself. It is the force which drives all animal life, the basic responses to hunger and danger. When you get to the core of your being, when you realize what you will do to survive and to protect your herd -  that is when you are in touch with Uruz.  This is a rune which must be felt rather than explained.

      Some have called Uruz a rune of initiation. For me, this initiation would be like the initiation of the Abramelin ritual or the Greater Arcana card The Chariot. Coming to an understanding with one's animal self is an important part of magical or mystical development. Many modern spiritual practices seek to tame or kill the inner beast: as Anton LaVey wisely said, this animal needs to be exercised rather than exorcised.  Learning when you can let Uruz run free and when you must call on a more controlled and controllable rune will teach you when you can rely on passion and that which underpins passion and when you must call on forethought and forebrain functions.

      This is a powerful rune for both offensive and defensive magic.  Uruz can charge with an unstoppable fury and gore the stoutest opponents. It can also form a near-unbreakable circle around you like a ring of wild bulls protecting their calves.  Uruz can also help you to establish a kinship between man and beast: instead of Disneyfied anthropomorphism, it can help you to find common ground between yourself and your animal companion.  It is not a sentimental rune - sentimentalism is a vice which animals can ill afford - but neither is it savage or bloodthirsty.  Uruz accepts the world as it is and responds appropriately to food or threat without dithering or moralizing. By calling on it you can learn to do the same.

      Wednesday, May 12, 2010

      From PanGaia #46 - "The Notorious N-Word"

      To a savvy Magician, words of power are not limited to Barbarous Names of Evocation, Aeonic Utterances or Holy Names. Words which manipulate the group-mind can be far more effective -- and dangerous -- than anything you will read in a grimoire. The words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood) set the French revolution in motion. By creating a demon and naming it “Weltjüden” (World Jewry), Hitler was able to produce one of history’s nastiest genocides.

      Every culture has Words of Power. They can be loved (“Freedom”) or hated (“Terrorist”), but they cannot be ignored. To understand a culture, you must first have some idea of the Words of Power which act as flashpoints in that culture. And for the English-speaking world few words are quite so powerful or evocative as “nigger.”

      You probably flinched as you read the previous sentence. I suspect a few will complain to my editors because we dared put such a vile word in print. Indeed, most publications treat it like one of George Carlin’s Seven Words you Can’t Say on Television. Rather than shock their readers with its presence, they delete consonants (n----r), or refer in appropriately outraged tones to “the N-word.” Even homonyms aren’t safe.  In 1999 David Howard was forced to resign temporarily as aide to Washington DC’s mayor after he referred to a budget as “niggardly” – a word which comes from the Old Norse for “petty and miserly” and which has nothing to do with the racial slur.1

      Our ancestors feared speaking the Devil’s name lest he appear: we treat the N-word with similar trepidation. It is as if by uttering those syllables we will evoke once again the worst parts of our history. The word reminds us of police dogs and bullwhips, of plantations and lynchings. By calling it into being, we put ourselves on the side of the Klansmen and church bombers. But in suppressing the word, have we defanged it – or does it still retain its venom? As any magician will tell you, Words of Power retain their magic -- and often become even more magical -- when they are silenced.

      The History of a Epithet
      Once upon a time “nigger” was no more shocking than “Russian” or “Czech” is today. Derived from the Latin niger (black), it was a simple description of dark-skinned people. (While typically used to refer to Africans, the term was also applied to Indians, Polynesians and other colonial subjects). There was certainly an implication that those so named were less intelligent and less “civilized” than Europeans. But that was taken for granted, and so there was no need for special words to reinforce the fact.
      By the early 19th century, however, the term was firmly established in the American lexicon as an insulting slur. “Niggers” were lazy (but the hardest, most demanding labor was deemed “nigger work” since it was fit only for Blacks). They were shiftless and impoverished; whenever they got their hands on money through gambling or theft they became “nigger-rich” and squandered it. Those Whites who disagreed with this worldview were scorned as “nigger-lovers” while those of questionable heritage like the Irish were derided as “white niggers.” The message was clear. Being a nigger meant being an outsider, a barely civilized savage. The word was a chain by which people of color were kept at the social pecking order, despite the best efforts of some “uppity niggers” to escape their caste. Money, education, religion: none of these could change a Black person’ s essential nature. Magicians will recognize this immediately as a very powerful and effective Binding. The N-word created a role, then forced the target to live within the confines of said role.

      From Commonplace to Silence
      As early as 1837, Black minister and writer Hosea Easton observed that the N-word was “employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race…The term itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class from another; but it is not used with that intent…it flows from the fountain of purpose to injure.”2 By the 1840s abolitionists and others were using the terms “Negro” and “colored” in place of the N-word. Later these terms would be deprecated in favor of “African-American,” “Black” and “person of Color.”
      It took a while for the N-word to fall out of fashion. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century children could store their coins in “Jolly Nigger” mechanical banks: their parents could enjoy a cigarette rolled from “Nigger Hair smoking tobacco.” In 1939 Agatha Christie wrote a mystery novel entitled Ten Little Niggers. Although it was later retitled Ten Little Indians (a victory for Black activists, if not for Native Americans), editions with the original title were released as late as 1978.3
      But slowly things changed. Where once the N-word could be heard in palatial estates and humble shacks, it has now became connected with low-class “white trash.” In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was a social and business organization on a par with today’s Rotary Club or Kiwanis. Now overt White racists are scorned as “rednecks,” “hicks” and “inbreds” – frequently by self-proclaimed Marxists and Socialists whose love for the proletariat and the working poor leaves something to be desired. Many avoid the N-word not because they have any great love for Black people, but because they consider its use akin to breaking wind at the dinner table.
      Others have come to equate racism with “using the N-word.” By this standard, one can avoid being a racist merely by avoiding the use of the “N-word,” along with a few other epithets aimed at various minority groups. (If you complain when you heard others use inappropriate words, you even got extra points for being an activist and Working to Stop Racism). You needn’t question the ways in which you benefit from the systematic oppression of people of color. You needn’t stop and think about your internalized preconceptions and prejudices. All you need do is refrain from a few words and you are immediately forgiven for the sins of your ancestors and your fellow men.

      But amidst this polite silence, a few Black people decided to reclaim the N-word for themselves. In 1963 Black activist and comedian Dick Gregory released a best-selling autobiography entitled Nigger. (In the forward of the book, he explained to his mother, “Whenever you hear the word … you’ll know (they’re) advertising my book.”)4  Richard Pryor released comedy albums entitled That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) and Bicentennial Nigger (1976). Later, he would go on to do a famous Saturday Night Live skit entitled “Word Association.” As Dan Akroyd offers synonyms for “Black” like “coon” and “spearchucker,” Pryor repeats “honky” over and over. Finally Akroyd says the N-word … to which Pryor replies “DEAD honky.” By using the N-word and laughing at it, Pryor and Gregory forced people to confront the reality of being Black in America and offered education along with entertainment.
      This technique should be familiar to magicians. Gregory and Pryor tried to illuminate what the N-word meant to its users and to the people at whom it was directed. They did not allow their users the soft path of meaningless words. Folks who would never use the N-word in public had to hear it. They had to understand the prejudices which fueled the word – and had to ask how many of those prejudices they still held. By using the Word of Power against itself, they hoped to uproot the ignorance which fed it.
      Still other Black men chose to redefine the N-word for themselves. Instead of emulating the degrading “servile darky” stereotypes, they looked to the image of the “Savage Black Brute.” Blaxploitation films like The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and Boss Nigger (1974) presented the Nigger as a hero who stuck it to the [White] Man. The Darky was servile: the Nigger was in charge of his life and unafraid to assert his authority. The Darky was powerless, at the mercy of the White masters; the Nigger could enforce his will with fist or weapon. The Darky was a reassuring caricature created by Whites. The Nigger was a White Bogeyman and a Black Lone Ranger, a cultural hero who rode into town to right wrongs, avenge the powerless and kick some bigoted ass. 
      By the 1990s the “Nigga” (also known as the “Thug” or “Gangsta”) had become a familiar figure to music fans. He combined the Blaxploitation hero with a cartoonish brutality. MCs battled among each other to gain the title of “most real Nigga,” regaling their listeners with tales of rape, drive-by shootings, drug dealing and generally unacceptable behavior alone and in the company of “my Niggaz.” Like much punk rock, heavy metal, Gangsta Rap reveled in being shocking and profane. And like those musical styles, it found a ready audience among bored adolescents of all ages. The Nigga did not appear in every hip-hop or rap song, any more than the Cowboy appears in every country tune or Fairies appears in every traditional folk ballad.  But he became one of the figures most closely associated with the genre, a cliché recognized by even the most rap-ignorant. 
      Magicians will also recognize this: using your opponent’s fear to your advantage. Lynching a shuffling, lazy old man is one thing: starting trouble with a few large, armed and aggressive Gangstas is quite another. And of course it is usually easier to find common ground with people who share your oppression. If you are all feared and loathed, it is probably in your best interest to band together against your common oppressor. But that fear can also cause problems for you later. Much as many equate all of Norse culture with the feared Berserkers, many people reduced the Black experience to “Niggas” living the “Thug Life.”

      … and Appropriation
      Above all else, the Nigga is a social pose. A Nigga gains power only in being accepted by his fellow Niggas as “the real thing.”  And as hiphop became increasingly popular, a growing number of non-Black youths took up that pose. They smoked blunts, drank 40s and engaged in stereotypically “Black” behavior along with “their Niggas.” Much as the Beatniks of the 1950s had emulated the “Cool Negroes” who frequented in jazz clubs, these “Whiggers” took on the dress, mannerisms and slang of favorite rappers. In doing so, they claimed they had transcended racism. Not only did they see Black people as equal -- they saw them as role models to be emulated.

      All too often their “emulation” descended into a bastard cross between a live action roleplaying game and a minstrel show. They paid tribute to gang-bangers and drug dealers while ignoring Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and other strong, positive Black leaders. When called on this, they often responded with charges of “political correctness” or, if their accuser was Black, “reverse racism.” Sure, they were using the N-word – but they didn’t mean to offend anyone, and besides, Black people use it sometimes. Avoiding the word would seem easy enough ... but for some, even that was too much of a burden!

      The White folks who have put on this mantle forget one very important thing: they have the option of taking it off. In “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger,” Patti Smith explained: “Outside of society/that’s where I want to be.”5 And therein lies the rub: she is outside of society because she wants to be there. A Black American growing up in an inner city does not have that option. S/he cannot take off the baggy pants and gold jewelry and pass unnoticed as a White person. Their role is not chosen so much as thrust upon them.

      And While We Were Arguing…
      We have made the “N-word” an unutterable obscenity, or we have battled for our right to use it. Some have placed it in a deep dark closet next to the Confederate flag and the Pickaninny salt shaker. Others have put it on their mantelpieces as a sign that the underlying hatred which gave it power no longer exists. And as we wasted our breath and our keystrokes the status quo has remained blissfully undisturbed. Today more Black men have done time in prison than have served in the military or earned a college degree: more than 50% of Black men without a high school diploma have been or currently are incarcerated.6  Thanks to poverty and inadequate medical care, American mortality rates for Black babies are more than twice as high as the rates for White babies.7 Nationally, the median income of a Black household is about $30,000, compared with $48,000 for White households.8

      In paying attention to a vile and provocative word, we neglect far more pressing issues. Instead of fighting racial profiling or inadequate public schooling -- issues which have a real-time, real-world effect on Black people -- we argue with “White Power” types seeking an attention fix. We try to shield our children from “Nigger Jim” even though Huckleberry Finn is one of the most profoundly anti-racist books ever written. And we complain about “Gangsta rap” and the deleterious effects of “hiphop culture” instead of tackling real social issues. Those magicians who are familiar with sleight-of-hand tricks will recognize the fine art of misdirection applied on a grand scale.

      It is as if we tried losing weight by refraining from saying “cake” and “sugar” -- or by declaring that food no longer has any calories. We can hardly be surprised to discover that our efforts have not been so successful as we might have hoped. By and large, we have stopped calling Black people niggers – but have we stopped treating them that way? The evidence suggests we have a long way to go.

      So What Can We Do?
      If we accept the N-Word as a Word of Power, we must also find ways to engage with it. A Word of Power may be accepted, rejected, questioned or affirmed – but it cannot be ignored. But Words of Power are very slippery things. Like most magic, they can delude us, leading us down a garden path in pursuit of shadows and phantasms.

      If you have eliminated this word from your vocabulary, ask yourself what it means to you. Why are you so afraid of using the N-word? Is it because you have a deep and abiding loathing of the word and all it stands for – or because of social pressures. Be honest with yourself. If you are only avoiding the word because you find it impolite, that’s fine. There are many bad things which we avoid because of etiquette. But then ask yourself what you would do if overt racism were to become fashionable again? Would you stand up against it – or would you go along with the crowd?

      If you are one of those people who use the N-word for whatever reason, ask “what do I gain from this?” If you are a White person who chooses to refer to your friends as “my Niggas,” you certainly have a right to do this. But try to remember that 150 years ago that phrase was used to mean “my property,” not “my friends.” And if you feel that using the “N-word” regularly helps to take away some of its power, try to explain how this happens? Are the lives of Black people going to improve in some measurable way because you feel comfortable with using a vile obscenity? You may also wish to consider that, after a 1979 trip to Kenya, Richard Pryor declared “There are no niggers here. The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride,” and left Africa “regretting ever having uttered the word ‘nigger’ on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren't funny, even when people laughed… So I vowed never to say it again.” 9
      And if you are a Black person, I cannot and will not address your use or lack thereof of this term. I am not Black and hence it is not my place to speak to your life choices. I have not been initiated into the experience of Blackness. No matter how much I read, no matter how much I sympathize, no matter how many of my best friends are Black, I will never know in my gut and in my bones what it means to be Black in America. I can examine a word and some of its meanings in our society. But there are things which transcend words, and life experience is often one of these. Those who want to take on the mantle of the N-word for their own purposes are advised to keep this in mind.


      1.   Yolanda Woodlee. “D.C. Mayor Acted ‘Hastily,’ Will Rehire Aide.” Washington Post, Thursday, February 4, 1999, Page A1.  Accessed June 20, 2006.

      2.   Randall Kennedy. “A Note on the Word ‘Nigger.’” Accessed June 20, 2006.

      3.   Dr. David Pilgrim. “Nigger and Caricatures.” Accessed June 20, 2006.

      4.   “A Dialogue with Dick Gregory.” Accessed June 21, 2006.

      5.   Patti Smith. “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger.” Easter. (Arista Records, 1978).

      6.   “More Young Black Men Have Done Prison Time Than Have Served in the Military or Earned a College Degree, Study Shows” Accessed June 19, 2006.

      7.   “Infant Mortality and Low Birth Weight Among Black and White Infants --- United States, 1980—2000.” Accessed June 19, 2006.

      8.   “Demos - A Network for Ideas & Action - “Disparities revealed in black & white.” Accessed June 19, 2006.

      9.   Derrick Z. Jackson.  “Epithet Stung, even for Pryor.” Boston Globe, December 14, 2005.  Accessed June 22, 2006.

      Tuesday, May 11, 2010

      Race and Afro-Caribbean Religions Part 2: (Not) Talking About Race

      A recent post on Dionysian Atavism inspired me to throw in my $.02 about race and racial discussions. This is rather a live topic for me. I'm a white practitioner of a religion whose practitioners are largely black Haitians. I also am active on several mailing lists dedicated to Vodou and African Diaspora religions and have written several books on the subject.  This means that I have many opportunities to discuss race, racism and the role it has played in the development of Vodou and other Afro-Caribbean faiths. But in talking about race, I've noticed there are certain "conversational jiu-jitsu moves" which are frequently used to derail the discussion.

      One which I've seen on many occasions (and which I have blogged about previously) is "what about my suffering?" Discussions of black suffering and black oppression get met with comments about how badly X has been treated for being overweight, disabled, a member of an alternative subculture, etc. Certainly there are many forms of oppression. But keep in mind that these discussions are generally taking place on Vodou-related forums.  Is it unreasonable to suggest that discussions of racism are on topic in this context whereas discussions of i.e. biphobia, size acceptance, Goth-bashing and Ye Burning Times might be better suited to other lists?  And is it unreasonable to ask that people who wish to explore a majority black religion give some thought to what it means to be black in Western culture?

      Yet another favorite trope is to claim that any white person who wants to talk about racism suffers from "white guilt."  I had this one pulled on me on a forum where I dared to suggest that the infamous "Obama Food Stamp" put out by a California Republican organization was racist.  I took pains to note that harsh and even unfair criticism of the President comes with the office.  I noted that while I felt that the "Obama as the Joker" and "Obama as Hitler" posters were unoriginal and stupid, I would admit that they were not in and of themselves inherently racist.  But criticizing a black man's face slapped on a "food stamp" between a watermelon and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is enought to prove my "white guilt."  I suppose I should be thankful for progress: fifty years ago I would have been a nigger-lover, but now I'm just a self-loathing white person. 

      Were I black, I wouldn't be suffering from "white guilt" but from "reverse racism." (Remember Glenn Beck's comment about Obama's "hatred of white people?") Any time I tried to talk about being black in America, it would be proof that I was "militant." The discussion might even degenerate into arguments about how "nobody ever gave ME any handouts just because I'm white," and "my ancestors never owned slaves so why do I owe you anything?" Before long we might even start hearing how "the white male is the most persecuted minority in America today" (This presumably explains why so few Fortune 500 executives and high-ranking American political figures are white men).

      Other strategies I've noted are "we all come from Africa" (yes, but some of us have more problem hailing a cab than others) or "race means nothing to me" (because you have a privilege which non-white Americans don't have).  This is typically accompanied by comments that "racism is stupid" or "why do we spend so much time talking about race anyway?" The idea is that we give the enemy power by speaking its name. Unfortunately,  as survivors of childhood sexual abuse will tell us, we can also give the enemy power by remaining silent. 

      In "The Notorious N-Word," an article I wrote for PanGaia 46, I lamented how "racism" had been redefined from a pervasive system of oppression into the usage of racial epithets and noted 
      By this standard, one can avoid being a racist merely by avoiding the use of the “N-word,” along with a few other epithets aimed at various minority groups. (If you complain when you heard others use inappropriate words, you even got extra points for being an activist and Working to Stop Racism). You needn’t question the ways in which you benefit from the systematic oppression of people of color. You needn’t stop and think about your internalized preconceptions and prejudices. All you need do is refrain from a few words and you are immediately forgiven for the sins of your ancestors and your fellow men.
      In paying attention to a vile and provocative word, we neglect far more pressing issues. Instead of fighting racial profiling or inadequate public schooling -- issues which have a real-time, real-world effect on Black people -- we argue with “White Power” types seeking an attention fix. We try to shield our children from “Nigger Jim” even though Huckleberry Finn is one of the most profoundly anti-racist books ever written. And we complain about “Gangsta rap” and the deleterious effects of “hiphop culture” instead of tackling real social issues. Those magicians who are familiar with sleight-of-hand tricks will recognize the fine art of misdirection applied on a grand scale.
      It is as if we tried losing weight by refraining from saying “cake” and “sugar” -- or by declaring that food no longer has any calories. We can hardly be surprised to discover that our efforts have not been so successful as we might have hoped. By and large, we have stopped calling Black people niggers – but have we stopped treating them that way? The evidence suggests we have a long way to go.


      Thanks to their tiny airborne seeds, birch trees can advance into abandoned fields and reclaim clearings.   After the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, the birches were among the first trees to return to the barren landscape. When a fire clears a forest, the birches will restore themselves from cloned "root suckers" which spring up around the charred trunk.

      This fecundity is reflected in the Birch-Rune, Berkana. The organic power of Berkana is as implacable as the forces of death and entropy. Berkana reminds us that life can be found beneath Antarctic ice, in the pitch blackness of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and on the salt-choked soils of high Andean plateaus. There are few environments so harsh as to be sterile: Berkana will manifest and adapt in almost any condition. It will raise up its children despite any obstacles which may stand in its way and find a way for them to not only survive but thrive.

      Berkana can also be a rune of communication. The name "birch" comes from the Sanskrit bhurj (paper), since its bark has long been used for writing paper. Birch wood is also an excellent carrier of sound and is used in making drums and speaker cabinets. If you want to convey a message, Berkana can ensure that it is received favorably and that it spreads to a wider audience.   (For added effect, combine it in a bindrune with Ansuz and Chalc).  Berkana is not just about organic life. Many postmodern theorists have postulated that memes take on a form of life, and the Neoplatonists long before them spoke of Ideals and Forms as sentient beings. By tapping into that power we can help bring our ideas to fruition in the form best suited for their environment.

      Birch is also an important healing plant. Derivatives from the betulin contained in its bark have powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-parasitic properties: they have also shown promise in treating cancer and HIV. Native Americans wrapped wet birch bark around broken limbs: when it dried it became stiff and served as a very effective cast. In Siberia and Russia birch was used to alleviate the pain of arthritis: other herbalists have found its oil effective for treating psoriasis and eczema. Birch leaves contain diuretics which can help in passing kidney stones or clearing bladder infections. Berkana can push us towards life and health and give us the strength to recover from wounds and diseases. It is one of the most powerful healing-runes, and can be used to treat many medical conditions. (As always, rune-work is an adjunct to professional medical treatment, not a substitute for it!)

      As it can heal physical ills, Berkana can also treat unpleasant spiritual conditions. In the Finnish sauna and the Russian banya bathers strike themselves with birch twigs to induce sweating and cleanse their bodies and skin. Berkana can help you to "sweat out" negativity which has become attached to you and purify you of psychic toxins. It can also encourage optimum conditions for growth and development. If you face difficult situations at work or at home, Berkana can work to pacify the angry and bring an air of peace and serenity to your area.  If necessary, it can even do this in a firm way: birch switches were the weapon of choice for those applying the rod of correction to a wayward child. Berkana is not a violent rune, but do not mistake its gentleness for weakness. Like any loving mother it can be stern and, if circumstances require, implacable in its anger.

      Sunday, May 9, 2010


      Divination attempts to find order through chaos. It works on the idea that the patterns formed by yarrow stalks, cards, or other tools reflect the shapes within which past, present and future take form. By seeing the forms which randomness takes on a small scale, we can get some idea of its manifestations in the larger world.  This can allow us to take advantage of opportunities we would otherwise miss, and avoid or minimize catastrophes which might have caught us unawares.

      It is easy for diviners (and their clients!) to start believing that they are seeing not that which Might Be but that which Must Be.  The idea of implacable, inescapable Destiny can be a comforting one: it frees us from taking responsibility for our own actions.  To counter this misconception, one can meditate upon one of the most difficult yet most important of the Runes - Perthro, the Dice-Cup and Rune of Possibilities.

      Gar, the final rune in the Futhorc (the 33 Anglo-Saxon runes) represents a foregone event which is yet to be revealed.  Perthro symbolizes a future which has not yet been created: it is not a hidden inevitability but rather a multitude of possibilities, any of which might manifest.  It is like the Magic 8 Ball's "Ask Again Later" - perhaps then the answer will be available as a number of variables are defined by forces within and outside your control.  The runes which appear around Perthro can give you some clue as to what other factors may come into play and some things you might do to make things work out in your favor. But wherever Perthro appears there will always be some uncertainty: you are asking about Wyrd which has not yet been woven.

      What is unknown and unmanifest is also a tabula rasa. Perthro reflects the dizzying freedom of Existentialist philosophy: instead of Being, we are faced with Becoming.  It reminds us that we are not just passengers on our life's journey: we also help to create our future. There are things which we cannot avoid and issues which we must address, but we also have a great deal of leeway in the way we handle our situation. And yet along with our freedom Perthro reminds us of our limitations. We are not fated to follow some script, but neither are we shielded from the vagaries of fortune. In the theology of pre-Christian northern Europe, even the Gods had to throw the dice and take their chances with fate. 

      Perthro can also come up in situations where you need to let go and take a chance.  It symbolizes a real chance for both gain and loss: you will not know which will occur until you have placed your bet.  But it is important that you accept that risk. If you have been playing it safe, Perthro encourages you to go beyond your comfort zones. The forces of chaos and uncertainty keep the universe from falling into stagnation: the same fate will befall you if you do not give them their proper place. 

      Galina Krasskova has compared Perthro to Mimir's Well: for a draught of the waters contained therein, Odin sacrificed an eye. Those who will drink from Perthro must sacrifice possibilities in exchange for actuality.  In choosing to follow a path, they choose to turn away from another.  Each Will Be ends a multitude of Might Have Beens. Wisdom comes in understanding that loss, and in making the best of what you have chosen in the face of that which you have not.

      Wednesday, May 5, 2010

      The Evil Eye

      I was angry with my friend:
      I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
      I was angry with my foe:
      I told it not, my wrath did grow.

      And I watered it in fears,
      Night and morning with my tears;
      And I sunnèd it with smiles,
      And with soft deceitful wiles.

      And it grew both day and night,
      Till it bore an apple bright;
      And my foe beheld it shine,
      And he knew that it was mine,

      And into my garden stole
      When the night had veiled the pole:
      In the morning glad I see
      My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

                      - William Blake, "A Poison Tree," 1794
      My friend and co-author Sophie Reicher has just posted an excellent piece on a topic which has not received much coverage of late - the Malocchio, or "evil eye."  The Evil Eye is one of the more unsettling concepts of traditional witchcraft. The idea that someone can cause you psychic and physical harm with a dirty look is bad enough.  Someone who has this gift doesn't have to burn a candle, sprinkle powder on your doorstep or sacrifice the neighbor's cat to the Prince of Darkness: a good (or bad) gaze is all they need. But to make matters worse, they don't even have to hex you deliberately. They might see you as a dear friend and be outraged at the idea they would wish you harm.  Like most magic, the Evil eye is fueled by the subconscious: it operates not on the lies we tell ourselves but on the truths we wish to keep hidden.

      Many Chaos Magic workings attempt to tap into the subconscious. Anyone who has ever worked with sigils knows they are to be charged with intense emotional and/or sexual energy, then left to ferment in the deepest parts of the magician's mind.  In time the forgotten sigil will blossom forth to work changes in the magician's consciousness and in the surrounding world. It is a way to tap into the immense power of the hidden mind and to reorder Chaos in a shape more suitable to our needs. 

      Austin Osman Spare and disciples like Kenneth Grant and Peter Carroll have explored techniques by which we may introduce specific symbols into our subconscious.  Another great scholar of the psychosphere, Sigmund Freud, explored the non-consensual ways in which our subconscious can be reprogrammed.  His name for one major impetus for this involuntary sigilization - repression - bears careful consideration. The process of adjusting ourselves to our culture and becoming a functioning member of society involves repressing many of our natural drives and instincts. Freud concentrated most of his efforts on exploring the suppression of lust and the sexual drive.  He might have done well to explore the ways we try to distance ourselves from anger, avarice, envy or other states which were once classed as "deadly sins" and are today scorned as "unevolved emotions."

      I've run into many New Agers and spiritually-inclined folks who work desperately to avoid any kind of "negativity." They rule over their psyches like a Victorian schoolmaster trying to save his charges from the evils of masturbation. Any hint of anger is greeted with a cold shower of mantras and a bland diet of affirmations and channeled transmissions.  Expressing honest objections and setting boundaries is replaced by passive-aggression and the condescending smug superiority that masks itself as "tolerance and acceptance."  After reading Sophie's report, I'm not surprised to see that some of these people are also manifesting the ability to cast malocchio.  If you don't own your shit, it gets backed up and sooner or later it explodes in a fecal volcano. And those who are trying to tamp down anger and jealousy with sparkly crystals and soothing music are most certainly not owning it.

      Many cultures have come up with traditional amulets, incantations and spells designed to ward off the Evil Eye. If you are spending a lot of time dealing with Highly Evolved Passive-Aggressive types, you may want to invest in some of these. At the very least you may want to pick up a holy symbol or other means of protection and wear it as a shield.  If you have been zapped by someone who has been letting their jealousy and rage cook in a cauldron of benevolence, some of the remedies Sophie mentioned in her post may prove efficacious.  Do not underestimate the power of the Evil Eye. If you can empower a sigil with a couple minutes of autoerotic asphyxia, imagine what kind of a charge you can get out of locking your shadow away for a decade or a lifetime. 

      Monday, May 3, 2010


      Also Frey, the regent of the gods, took his abode not far from Upsala, where he exchanged for a ghastly and infamous sin-offering the old custom of prayer by sacrifice, which had been used by so many ages and generations. For he paid to the gods abominable offerings, by beginning to slaughter human victims. - Gesta Danorum 3
      Today Freyr is considered by many to be one of the Norse pantheon's most gentle and benevolent gods. But a close look at the surviving lore and folk-customs suggests that once upon a time the golden lord of Vanaheim was honored with human sacrifice. The old folk songs about John Barleycorn cut down so that the grain would grow may hearken back to a time when the fields were fed with the blood of a sanctified victim.

      Before we scream about the barbarism of this practice we may wish to consider it within its cultural context. For our ancestors, the fertility of the land was all-important: a failed crop could mean slow death for an entire village. They offered up life so that life would continue: by giving of their best, they hoped to ensure that Frey would give of his best. The lessons contained within that holy sacrifice can help us to understand His rune, Inguz.

      We should remember that the food we eat died so that we might live. We may avoid shedding blood and eating flesh but we cannot avoid consuming life.  The crops on our farms partake of the same vital force which quickens our being - and if you don't believe they have spirits and even sentience, you may want to speak to your local shaman.  The sacrifice of John Barleycorn and the Sacred King is re-enacted with every meal you eat. Rather than treating it as a nasty relic of our primitive past, you may do better to see it as a holy mystery.  Inguz fattens the animals so they may be slaughtered and brings the crops to fruition that they may be mowed down.

      Inguz is shaped like the vulva through which we make our appearance into this world.  Yet it is worth remembering that the day we are born is the day we begin dying. To become embodied is to become mortal: the flowers which blossom in spring must wither with the coming of the frost.  But where Ear speaks of death as a grim finality, to Inguz it is just another doorway. The seed buried beneath the frost will send out new life after the ground has thawed.  Every end gives rise to a new beginning: every birth is really a rebirth.  Meditating upon Inguz can help you focus upon that which you wish to pass down to your descendants and the reasons for which you took on flesh and sinew.  (And for those seeking to conceive, Inguz can help put you in touch with a spirit seeking birth and give you the means to carry your pregnancy to fruition).

      Since He is also Lord of Alfheim, Frey's rune can help us in contacting the Alfar and their kindred.  In many ways the Eternal Ones, who know neither age nor sickness, are the purest expression of the force of Inguz. The Elves can bless those they favor with prosperity and fertility and curse those who displease them by withdrawing those gifts.  By contemplating the mystery of life and its continuation which is contained within Inguz, we can avoid falling into the trap of sentimentalizing them: we can know that their world contains beauty and terror, both of which are equally necessary and equally holy.

      Saturday, May 1, 2010

      45 and counting

      Today I celebrated my 45th birthday with a trip to the Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, followed by a leisurely stroll through Ft. Greene with my wife and a trip back home. It was a quiet day in honor of a life which has become a bit more sedate but no less interesting.  While age has its drawbacks - I am still getting used to my new bifocals and find all-nighters a much greater challenge than in the days of my misspent youth - it also has its rewards. 

      I wanted to take this moment to thank my wife Kathy for a decade of love, support and organizational skills: my life is much the better because of her and I couldn't ask for a better spouse and life partner. We've been together since the last century and I would gladly spend the next hundred years with her if the fates allow.

      I'd also like to thank my fellow denizens of this little corner of the blogosphere. The exchanges I've had on here have helped to sharpen my thoughts and strengthen my ideas.  Respectful disagreement and scholarly debate may be dying arts for many, but my readers haven't yet received the death notice.  I am blessed by those who agree with me and by those who offer intelligent arguments and alternatives to some of my conclusions.  Thank you all for everything.

      As the Grateful Dead once said, "What a long, strange trip it's been." Here's hoping the longest and strangest part is yet to come.