We Are Rising

The Queer Ones are rising. We are rising out of the woods, out of the ocean, out of the cracks between the concrete. Genderqueer, transgender, glorious peacock-shimmering, rising out of the darkness, the healing and sacred darkness, into the many-hued light of day. Queer deities, genderqueer deities, transgender goddesses and gods. Inari the fox god/dess; Vertumnus the changeable and ever-changing; tricksters and healers, poets and seers and shamans.

Gender is not a binary, not even a spectrum, it is a vast glittering field of possibility, many gender, many hues, many different expressions of being and love.

We are rising, out of the silence, out of the hidden places, daring to be, to shine forth our glorious queer radiance, because we are the holy ones, the liminal ones, the dreamers and the creators of possibility.

Our freedom is frightening to some who want there to be a binary, a set of limitations. We call them out of their fear and into the radiant and glittering field of stars, into the joy of expressing all that you are – joy, magic, dreams, anger at injustice, diversity in unity, unity in diversity. We call them to embrace their humanity and ours, not to cling in fear and loathing to a diminished, fearful, restrictive, and destructive vision of womanhood, that excludes the childless as much as the transgender and the non-binary.

The glorious diversity of the human body, the glorious diversity of life journeys and intersecting identities, is to be enjoyed and celebrated. Different people have different journeys. The penis is not a symbol of the patriarchy. The gun is the symbol and the weapon of patriarchy and kyriarchy. The penis is a symbol of life, celebrated and venerated as such by many ancient cultures, along with the yoni, the vulva, the vagina. Both are fountains of life and creativity. The kyriarchy wants to distort and desecrate these sacred places, by turning the penis into a weapon and the vagina into its sheath, a place to be violated. But we reject and resist the violence of the kyriarchy, and affirm the sacred beauty of transgender, gender-fluid, and genderqueer in all their gentle and fierce beauty and glory. We embrace the witchery of genderblending.

Gender essentialism and separatism is the mirror image of patriarchy. We reject the patriarchy and the kyriarchy. We reject all binaries. There are men who reject rape culture and women who excuse rape. Let’s promote consent culture and gather our beautiful diverse tribe. Let us include people in, welcoming and celebrating and affirming diversity, not sowing hate and fear and division. Let’s create spaces that are safe for everyone of every gender. Pagan traditions (both ancient and contemporary) affirm the queer as sacred, as liminal, as being touched by the gods. All magic is magic. All love is love. All people are people.

We are all images of divinity. As a polytheist, I affirm trans and queer deities among the vast range of deities. The Sun is both fierce and hot, gentle and warming. The Ocean is both gentle, rocking the cradle of dreams, and destructive, storming and raging and destroying. Neither of these moods has any essential gender. The Moon is the lover of the hidden ones, calling to us of wildness and wilderness, dreams and intuition. These experiences are available to all genders – we all carry the tides of the Moon in our blood and in our bodies, regardless of whether we menstruate.  Let us celebrate the tides of our blood with all who venerate the body, regardless of their anatomy or ours.

Let us magnify and glorify the images of divinity within ourselves and each other. Show forth love and beauty and creativity; celebrate the radiance of the many-hued multiplicity of gender expression, sexuality, and the human body.

Radical Faeries parade at London Pride, Trafalgar Square. By Fæ - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10791440

Radical Faeries in London Pride procession, Trafalgar Square.. By Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Exciting new projects

Pat Mosley is organising an anthology, Arcane Perfection, which will be a collection of essays, poetry, art, rage, love, rituals, spells, and musings by, for, and about Queer, Trans, and Intersex Witches. Sounds totally awesome.

How have you overcome discrimination? How have you encountered the Divine? What are your experiences with magic as a Queer person? How has Witchcraft empowered your life as a Queer person? Can you tell the story of your transition through the Tarot? What is your relationship to the world, to Pagan community, to Queer community? Do you have a rant that needs to be screamed into publication? How are you uprooting heterocisnormativity in the Pagan community and beyond? How have you dealt with loss, invisibility, violence, disability, racism, power, capitalism, jealousy, change, and love?

Other exciting trans-inclusive projects are being discussed and planned.

Trans charities

In the UK, Gendered Intelligence, Action for Trans Health, and Mermaids have all been recommended to me as charities doing great work.

David Salisbury’s post lists some US trans charities that he plans to support: National Center for Transgender Equality and Gender Justice Los Angeles.

 

The Sacred Fool

Fools are more compassionate than tricksters; tricksters exploit human frailty, fools send it up, to release the healing power of laughter. The fool carries a bladder, perhaps as a symbol of pomposity, whose puffed-up balloon the wit of the fool will pop.

I wrote about the Fool a little bit in my post on elders:

Always be prepared to take the piss out of yourself and your delusions of grandeur. This is why kings would license a fool or jester: so that when they were about to do something stupid, there was one person who was not afraid to tell them it was stupid. I have a small posse of people whom I have encouraged to kick me up the arse if I ever start getting too big for my boots. I hope their arse-kicking services will never be needed, but I feel it’s wise to be prepared.

The wisest and most compassionate character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is Feste, the fool – quite possibly my favourite Shakespeare character of all. He skewers the pomposity of Malvolio, the drama of Orsino, and the self-pity of Olivia, but when the other characters (Maria and Sir Toby) turn the jest into cruelty, he takes pity on Malvolio. He also sings beautiful and poignant songs.

The fool was and is an ambivalent figure. Are they truly mad, or are they saner than the rest of us, having seen through the charade of maintaining the status quo, where all the most humane values are scorned in favour of turning a quick profit?

The Fool in Jan Matejko’s painting is the only person at a 1514 royal ball who is troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. His is a deeper wisdom than the superficial people around him.

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko The jester is the only person at a 1514 royal ball troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. (Public domain image)

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko [Public Domain]

I am also reminded of the Welsh story of the three causeless blows, also known as The Lady of the Lake. A faery woman married a human, and said that she would leave him when he had struck her three times without cause. The first time was when she left her gloves behind; the second time was when she cried at a christening; the third time was when she laughed at a funeral. Each time it was because she knew something that the others present did not.  Her wisdom ran contrary to that of the world, and so she was deemed a fool.

Witches, fools, and harlots were often seen as being in league with the Devil and the Fair Folk. The song Tom o’ Bedlam makes this connection:

I went down to Satan’s kitchen, for to beg me food one morning
There I got souls piping hot, all on the spit a turning.

There I picked up a cauldron, Where boiled ten thousand harlots
Though full of flame I drank the same, to the health of all such varlets.

My staff has murdered giants, my bag a long knife carries
For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs, with which to feed the fairies.

To be “in league with the Devil” is to celebrate wildness and sexuality, queerness and quirks, unbridled lust, rising up against authority.

Humour skewers the powerful and the pompous, pricking their bubble of self-importance. That’s why authoritarians don’t like humour and seek to control it, to turn it as a weapon against the powerless. But the joyous wildness always breaks through the cracks, like ivy and creepers bringing down stone and concrete.

The authorities want us to remain divided, frightened, and alone. They want to establish hierarchies, keep the poor downtrodden and enslaved by debt, crush the possibility of love and joy. They want women to be seen merely as walking wombs, and men as drones that fight and fuck. But we are more than that: half angel, half animal. The animal in us demands to be loved, to feel the wind on our faces, to snuggle with our beloved, and to laugh and dance and make love. That’s why Rhyd growls in his sleep.  The angel in us is a messenger, a communicator, a poet, a transformer, who yearns for the connection of minds.

The Fool calls us to our full humanity, both animal and angel, lover and beloved, dreamer and maker.

That’s why being open to the queer, the wild, the exuberant, is inherently dangerous. It endangers the status quo, the drab everyday reality, and threatens to replace it will full colour and radiance and overflowing exuberance. So rejoice!

Creative Endarkenment: the Need to Ground and Shield

 

 

The common idea of “grounding” literally and figuratively sends us earthward. To the very real dirt we walk upon. Spirit is in the compost and in the leaf mulch, in the decay in the gutters and the dust under the couch. In the way things fall apart. To make new life, DNA breaks down and recombines. To make new families, households break up and recombine. It’s painful and messy and necessary.

This is not what most of us are taught. Re-visioning (human) nature as dynamic and always-changing helps us re-vision our own spirituality. Charles Eisenstein says in The Ascent of Humanity:

When we recognize that nature is itself dynamic, creative, and growing, then we need no longer transcend it, but simply participate in it more fully.

***

Participation takes a little precaution, however. Ground and shield. The advice is almost always applicable. desk

It’s difficult to remember to ground and shield when lives are busy and pressure is high, when people are shouting. When we are shouting. And that is also possibly when it is most important. Here is a simple technique that anyone can practice. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a bit. Feel the rhythm of your breathing.

Feel the breath of your body circulating. Feel the blood circulating.

Identify where the energy centers of your body are, at this moment. Where the tension is. Identify the emotions, the kinds of energy you are feeling.  Exist there, still breathing deeply and regularly.

Feel those tensions slowly begin to stretch. Feel the energy begin to circulate with the breath, the blood. Let the energy of your body root itself, streaming down through your feet, into the ground. Let it sink and reach down deeper into the earth under you. Feel the roots of your being stretch downward. You are connected to the earth by this stream of energy. You are secure.

Take a moment to breathe in that space of security and sure knowledge.

Then, when you are ready, draw the healing and protective energy of earth up, even as your energy continues to descend. Visualize that energy shimmering around you, a shield. Does it take the form of water? Pellets of ice? Braids of fire? Woven flowers or pure light? Whatever elemental or visual image feels personally right for you, allow your shield to grow and strengthen around you.

Know that within that shield you are safe from others’ negativity.

Breathe, feel the flow of energies down into the earth and up into the shield.

With gratitude, still feeling your shield around you, slowly rise into the day, centered, focused, rooted and protected.

***

There are many ways to do it of course. The need to ground and shield has been brought home to me recently in various contexts, everywhere from Facebook threads that disintegrate, to my son’s slammed door over my head. It’s a loud and reactive world these days, with an unending stream of stimulation at our fingertips. We lose track of ourselves.

All this energy–which could be put towards our work–expended in arguing and memes and othering. We have a long way to go. There are as many ways to go about the work as there are people going about it. Look around at where you are, figure what you can do from here. Then ground. Spend some time with the grasses and mosses. The roots of dilemmas and the roots of trees. This season,  bend close to the ground, focusing on the local, the small, the neighbors you can directly affect (and I mean neighbors in the most generous sense of the term: peoples and species and rocks in your immediate vicinity). The work is humble. Revolution starts where you are, with whatever size canvas you work with.

Creativity is by its nature radical (revolution and roots): poetry, justice advocacy, meal preparation, the crucial conversation with your high school son about how to get caught up on English homework—all of these have value, and dignity, and real worth in the world. Grounding and shielding helps us protect ourselves when the work gets messy, gets dangerous. And it will. As the poet Robert Frost said, creativity is “play for mortal stakes.”

The work looks different for each of us, but we each have work to do. Let’s try to honor each other as best we can, remembering the world needs our many diversities–and even our disagreements–to thrive.

dandies

 

 

How to Become a Naturalist

Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.

I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.

Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.

The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?

Step 1 – learn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.

Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).

Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.

A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.

Why classify?

If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.

Go for a walk

Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Snake’s head fritillaries. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and only take part of a plant if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).

One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.

I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

White snake’s head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Folklore of plants

It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.

Recommended books

Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.

  • Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
  • Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.

Folklore and natural history

Useful websites

Related posts

Creative Endarkenment: Downward to Darkness

super moon by Katrin Talbot 2015

Image of blood moon, Katrin Talbot, 2015

Effort lay in us
before religions
at pond bottom
All things move toward
the light
except those
that freely work down
to oceans’ black depths
In us an impulse tests
the unknown

Lorine Niedecker, from “Paean to Place”

(Click on the link and read the whole poem, with correct formatting. Seriously, I keep losing the formatting when I type it in here and it is wounding my poet soul.)

***

When we discussed changing the name of our blog to “Dowsing for Divinity,” that word “dowsing” resonated for all of us immediately. As Christine put it,

When the three of us started brainstorming a new name together, once someone tossed out the word “dowsing,” we kept circling back to it.

And Yvonne added,

…we kept coming back to dowsing imagery, with its connotations of looking for hidden currents, connections with the unseen, hidden waters, and hidden patterns.

Mandala Things Come TogetherTonight, I keep coming back to the physical feel of the dowsing stick, held loosely in the hands, and how it tugs the attention…I’m arrested by the simple motion. Downward. We are dowsing, and that means we seek to be pulled, downward.

The opposite of light is dark…but another opposite, in our language, is heavy.

In Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning,” he ends with an image of birds at sunset, flocking “Downward to darkness on extended wings.”  Darkness brings a sense of release, of letting go, of drift, the ceasing of struggle…eventually: death. There is a falling and fallen quality to endarkenment. We sigh, and let our guard and our defenses down. We can loosen the ties of the day. We can be a little more vulnerable.

But the wisdom of the dowsing stick isn’t a relaxing and drifting and letting go. Stay out here long enough in the dark, and there comes a time when we feel the tug in our gut, the impulse to nose our way down a little further into the murk.

Something in us wants to descend.

“In us an impulse tests/ the unknown” Niedecker writes. Moving our awareness down into the body takes us to the soft messy areas: to gut, to sex, to the muscled thighs. Our largest muscle groups. Our deepest instincts. To all that stuff we want to pretend we’re above. Camille Maureen, in Meditation Secrets for Women, agrees and builds on the idea:

“There are times…when the call downward is a transformative journey, a summons to the depths of the soul. People tend to think of spirituality as rising upward into the sky. In the traditional (male) teachings, enlightenment is often described as a flight from the lower centers of the body, the instinctive and sexual places, to the upper centers in the head and then out. …Everyone fears this descent, this sinking down. Yet sinking down connects us with the earth, with our personal ground, with our foundation.”

There are many journeys we’re called on, through our lives. The concept of “enlightenment” (and the hero’s story) encourage us to venture “up and out”…might it also be true that there are times to adventure down and in? The concept of endarkenment takes us not only into the dark but also down, towards (and into) the body, and the earth.

The rhubarb pushes its nubbly red thumbs up through the leaf litter. Lawns turn squishy with melt, worms once again emerge. There’s water everywhere suddenly, and with it, the muck of life, stirring, down at the roots.

 

Winter Creek Sky by David Graham

Winter Creek Sky by David Graham

 

 

 

Creative Endarkenment: Pausing to Get Acquainted with Darkness

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

–Robert Frost

Lately, thanks in part to my colleague Yvonne’s excellent writing around embodied spirituality, I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment, endarkenment, and creativity, and how intertwined all these concepts are. I’ve even (finally) invented a phrase for how I ground my own work in the world: creative endarkenment. After all, creativity roots itself in the dark, no matter how small or large the idea…but before anyone can explore that truth, we have to get comfortable with the idea of darkness.

I belong squarely in Generation X, which means when I was in college many of us gathered and marched and
shouted and sang songs by the Indigo Girls in order to Take Back the Night. We petitioned and argued to install emergency phones and more lighting around the darkest spaces on campus. Back then, we thought if we lit up the shadows, rape culture would suffer a serious blow. And I remember wondering at the time if I was strange, in that darkness felt so much safer to me than being pinned and spotlit by the newly installed lights. Their glare made me so obviously single and alone as I walked back to my room through the Minnesota dark.

Maybe we were safer from some kinds of violence, I don’t know. But I do know we blamed the wrong thing. Darkness was never the root cause. Social media has proved convincingly that rape culture is all too happy to go public with acts of abusive power and violence.

And yet it isn’t any surprise we feared and blamed the dark. We grow up in a culture that assigns so many negative qualities to “darkness”—labels so many bad things “dark” and blames “darkness” for them: ignorance, fear, anger, violence, to name only the first few that spring to mind. And this has inevitable repercussions in a society that labels and separates people as “white” “black” and “brown.”

Now we wheel past the spring equinox into the season of light. We rake off our garden beds, poke seeds, pile on mulch and remember darkness can be kind, can be nurturing, and is certainly crucial. As Molly Meade (Remer) writes, “In darkness, things germinate and grow. The dark is a calm, holding, safe, welcoming place—we come from darkness and that is where we return.”
Light pushes always out against the dark…and yet any light source is eternally nestled within that deep embrace, no matter how bright it shines. We can feel this truth as threatening, if we are scared of the dark, of what lives in the shadows.

On the other hand, wisuper moon by Katrin Talbot 2015thout darkness, we are left with the glare of brutal interrogation and too rigid certainty. There remains no mystery to seek. It is impossible to imagine a fluid dreaming without darkness. And what would we be without dreams? What would it mean if our shapes could never shift?

Of course, dreams are not only happy cuddly things. The phrase “the dark night of the soul” resonates in the bone because it feels true. Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night” knows that just as there is room for light within the embrace of darkness, there is room for much else too. Our deep depressions, our sorrows, our angers, can take us to places that are psychically quite dark. As Carl Jung knew (and as our therapists tell us on a regular basis and we pay them for it), it is at times necessary to rest in the presence of such discomfort. To stop pushing the dark away long enough to listen to what lives there.

Fortunately, there are people to help us on the path. I had the pleasure and good fortune to interview Danica Swanson recently for a class assignment. You can find the entire interview posted at her blog, but today these words are in my mind:

Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on.  …  Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation…

I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work.  In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path.  Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.

 

Swanson gets it right: too much positivity results in “failures of empathy” and “errors in perception” and that my friends gets us into a mess. Welcoming the dark with all its unknowns and locating the tender spots is necessary for any fruitful germination, including our own. In our fearful, angry moment of history  I can’t help thinking that it’s as good a time as any for us to face our own personal and cultural shadows, to begin to sit with our histories of violence, oppression, guilt, fear, resentment. To learn stillness.

That’s a big ask. And more than I can take on this morning. A good place to start might be just getting a little more comfortable sitting together, here in the dark.  Over the next few days and weeks, I want to explore the idea of endarkenment, to think about how and why we might want to wander out once in a while past the fire’s light and peer into the shadows. I hope you’ll join me.

fire in fall

 

 

 

 

Embodied Spirituality: Compassion

When I posted my recent post about making a meditation hut, a friend posted a link to an article in The New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.” It shows that Thoreau was the worst kind of misanthrope, and had not an iota of compassion for his fellow human beings. He remained unmoved by the sight of drowned bodies from a shipwreck. He only advocated the end of slavery because it violated his belief in self-governance. He clearly advocated disappearing into the woods, not so one could emerge refreshed and renewed for the struggle against oppression, but because he really didn’t like or care about other people at all.

I wasn’t advocating building a meditation hut as a sturdy structure for keeping the world at bay – more a place where you could meditate when it’s raining, perhaps spend a few hours or days living the simple life, not a permanent retreat from the world. If you go into the woods, the aim is to be more connected with the whole of Nature, including humans, not to become detached from all other beings. The point is for those of us who are a bit introverted to recharge our batteries by spending some time alone, so we can be companionable and compassionate when we emerge.

Only connect

Spirituality – embodied or otherwise – is merely narcissism and self-indulgence when it doesn’t involve compassion – literally, feeling with others. I regard embodied spirituality as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys. We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a group setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.

I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the “divine” (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.

We cannot really expect others to be convinced that we are “mystical” or “spiritual” unless we put compassion into practice by helping others. The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the life of a mystic can be barren and unproductive.

Pagan views of compassion

In a Pagan context, we might view the theological underpinnings of compassion as our view that divinity is immanent in the world, and everything carries a spark of divinity within it. Alternatively, we could take a naturalistic approach and recognise that everything on Earth shares at least 60% of our DNA – we really are all related. And we could combine these two ideas.

In 2013, reflecting on the Charter for Compassion, John Beckett wrote:

My theological basis for compassion is a religious basis, but it is also a naturalistic basis. Intuitively, we feel an obligation to help those who help us, first of all the families who give us life and who support us when we are young and vulnerable. We feel an obligation to help our close relatives, our neighbors, and our families of choice. We are social animals and we know we cannot survive alone – we need the help of others, and they need our help.

But beyond the practical aspects of compassion lies the recognition of kinship, of looking into the face of another and seeing ourselves. That person is like me, therefore she feels pain and joy just as I do, therefore I should help her feel joy and prevent her from feeling pain.

I would argue that compassion for beings beyond our immediate kinship group is what makes us human and humane. If you cannot feel kinship for the suffering of other beings, that isn’t very “spiritual”. I find it horrific that Thoreau could walk along a beach full of drowned corpses and not see fellow human beings, only a “spectacle”. I find it horrific that people can look on the sufferings of Syrian refugees and see only ‘flotsam and jetsam’, or the threat of the Other.

The ancient virtues of hospitality and reciprocity are core values for many Pagans, and these are, in many ways, related to compassion.

For me, one of the great things about being manifest in the physical world is the giving and receiving of love in physical form: hugs and caresses, and making love. And whilst it is true that love means that you will suffer when the loved one dies, I feel it’s true that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Love and reciprocity are the basis of all of existence, because it’s all about creating connections between beings. In the Feri creation myth, the universe came into being because the Great Goddess looked into the mirror of the void and fell in love, and the love created the Other. So love is the origin of the universe, and love is part of the fabric of existence.

How is compassion embodied?

We experience feelings (grief, love, dread, joy, fear) in our bodies. We talk about “a gut feeling”. Compassion is embodied like other feelings. It turns out that this has a neurological basis in mirror neurons – we quite literally empathise with other people’s pain because our mirror neurons respond to them.

Physical existence entails a certain amount of suffering (bodily pains, the loss of loved ones) and also a certain amount of joy. The Pagan response to this is to celebrate the joy and accept the suffering as part of embodied existence, whilst trying to relieve suffering.

It’s not much use being compassionate unless you put it into practice, of course. Unless we actually help people, merely empathising with them is not enough.

How far does compassion extend?

Compassion is not only fellow-feeling for other humans, but also for animals and birds: all our relations.

The Charter for Compassion would benefit from a “green clause” to emphasise caring for the Earth and our fellow creatures. Although there is a section on their website about treating the Earth with compassion, it hits a discordant note for me, as we need to recognise that we are part of the Earth, not regard it as a separate system from ourselves.

Another charter, the Earth Charter, drafted back in 1968, placed caring for the planet at the heart of its ideas.

And A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment also placed the Earth at the heart of its concerns.

In my view, social and environmental justice are inextricably bound up with each other: you can’t have one without the other.

Embodied Spirituality: Magical Tools

The other day, I saw a meme which said that you don’t need magical tools, initiation, or a Book of Shadows to be a Wiccan. Well, maybe you don’t need these things, but they are what people think of when they think of Wicca. They are among the things that get you recognised as being part of the Wiccan community, because they are symbols and experiences and ideas that we all share. They are also useful. You don’t need a knife and fork to eat your dinner, but it makes it a lot easier. You don’t need an address book to write your friends’ addresses in – but it makes it a lot easier to remember where they live and post them Yule cards.  And you don’t need a rite of passage to help you feel like an adult – but it makes it easier if a definite transition has been marked.

I would like there to be as broad an interpretation of the term “Wiccan” as possible, and an even broader interpretation of the term “witch”, because that is how they were originally intended to be used (the term Wiccan was not coined exclusively for the use of Gardnerian Wiccans, or even Alexandrian plus Gardnerian – it was intended to refer to all witches, as Ethan Doyle White has shown from his historical research). I am  okay with people identifying as Wiccan without initiation – but if you want to be part of the initiatory Wiccan community, or another initiatory community such as Feri, then you need initiation. Initiation is a powerful transformational ritual.

The purpose of a Book of Shadows is not to prescribe how you should do your rituals, but to record powerful rituals that you have done, and to transmit powerful rituals written by past Wiccans. Each witch’s book should be unique to them, although it will also contain the rituals that have been passed down to them. A Book of Shadows is a magical tool for recording and transmitting good rituals.

What about tools such as wands, athames, swords, chalices, and so on? There are several reasons why they are helpful. I do think that a good witch should be able to do a spell or ritual without any tools in an emergency – but I still use tools when they are available.

By Fer Doirich - Own work, CC0

Wiccan Altar, by Fer DoirichOwn work, CC0.

Humans are tool-using animals. One of the things that helps us to think and solve problems is our tool-using propensities. Look at other animals who use tools. We tend to think they are cleverer than animals who don’t use tools, because they can manipulate more of their environment.

According to Tool Use in Animals: Cognition and Ecology:

The last decade has witnessed remarkable discoveries and advances in our understanding of the tool using behaviour of animals. Wild populations of capuchin monkeys have been observed to crack open nuts with stone tools, similar to the skills of chimpanzees and humans. Corvids have been observed to use and make tools that rival in complexity the behaviours exhibited by the great apes. Excavations of the nut cracking sites of chimpanzees have been dated to around 4-5 thousand years ago.

Think about how we use physical tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, brooms, milk-frothers, egg-stiffeners, paint-stirrers, and so on, and how difficult life would be without those tools. Think about how chimpanzees have been seen getting ants out of ant-hills with a straw, or cracking nuts open with a rock. Frequently, tool use involves remembering that you saw a useful-looking rock, or a hollow blade of grass, going to fetch it, and bringing it to where the food is. So tool use involves the use of cognitive skills such as memory, comparison, and visualisation.

My partner Bob pointed out that it is much is easier to do a task (magical or mundane) without a tool when you have learnt to do it with a tool.

Tools are levers for affecting the world. You can’t tighten a screw without a screwdriver. You need a wooden spoon to stir a pan of soup or stew, otherwise you would burn your fingers.  You can cast a magical circle without a sword or a wand – but it feels like a better and more magical circle when it has been cast with the appropriate tool. The subtle energies involved in magic are affected by physical tools in much the same way as denser matter is affected by tools.

Magic is not all in the mind – the body is part of it too. The people who claim you don’t need tools also tend to claim that doing magic is a purely mental process. The conceptual separation of mind and body, spirit and matter, is a Western phenomenon which has been a disaster for our civilisation in so many ways, involving the denigration of sexuality and sensuality, the denial of the pleasures of the flesh, a dysfunctional relationship with food, and behaving as if the Earth, the other animals, birds, and plants with whom we share it are expendable. Using magical tools helps to remind us that magic is an embodied spirituality, and to involve our bodies in the process of creating magical energy. Indeed, some of the tools used in Wicca have specific uses for enhancing the sense of being in the body.

Tools are powerful symbols. Much of magic and ritual is about engaging with and awakening the poetic and symbolic aspects of the mind (the “right-brain” functions). The use of tools as symbols speaks to these aspects of the mind (sometimes referred to as “Younger Self”). Tools are part of a complex set of magical associations involving directions, elements, planets, deities, trees, and so on, all of which speak to the poetic, mystical, and symbolic side of our natures. They are part of a poetic language of witchcraft.  The process of getting into the twilight consciousness required for ritual is assisted and enhanced by the use of familiar words, tools, imagery, and physical movements, evoking muscle memory and awareness of space.

So, maybe you don’t need tools, but why would you want to do without them?

Embodied Spirituality: Archery

In 2014, I was able to get to an archery club to practice archery. Sadly I only got one opportunity for archery in 2015, but I love it.

When I am doing archery, I am totally in the moment, totally focussed on hitting the target, and how my body fits with the bow (though probably insufficiently focussed on the latter). I am not thinking of anything else. For me, archery is embodied spirituality in action. This probably applies to any skilled physical activity, such as martial arts, dance, massage, woodworking, crafts, and so on.

The interesting thing about archery, for me, is that it involves stillness and focus as well as action. You have to get your body to learn the correct posture, until it becomes instinctive to get your arms at the right angle, your legs in the correct position, and so on. It is also true that letting go of the outcome and focusing on the activity can bring success. At one point, I was given a Mongolian bow, with the aim of hitting a balloon. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to hit it, so I relaxed, and I did hit it.

Like Thorn Mooney, I hated sports at school, as I have terrible hand-eye co-ordination and am usually overweight, but I have always liked martial arts. Archery gets around those issues, and puts you in touch with your body. It also comes with a side order of historical geekiness, and a really interesting group of people to hang out with. As Thorn writes:

Becoming an archer was the realization of a childhood fantasy. What Tolkien-obsessed kid wouldn’t love to shoot a bow and arrow? … Realizing—at 30—that I could finally have that bow I always wanted was surreal and exciting. I taught myself out of a book and dove right in, joining an archery club the same month.

Longsword resulted from lots of time spent with traditional archers, who often double as history enthusiasts. And where archery helped me in developing a relationship with Herne the Hunter, I’m really curious to see where fencing will take me.

The classic work Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel describes how learning is initially a conscious process, but eventually the practice becomes something unconscious:

The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art …

In the medieval world, archery was not considered knightly, because you hit your target at a distance. But it could be used for hunting, and of course was used to devastating effect in the battle of Agincourt.

Robin Hood is one of the most famous archers in legend, and there are many stories of his accuracy. My favourite is the one where his opponent fired his arrow right into the centre of the target, but Robin split his opponent’s arrow in two.

Artemis and Diana, the virgin huntresses, are also associated with the bow. The crescent moon is often depicted as Diana’s bow.

Shen-I the Excellent Archer is a character in Chinese mythology. Once upon a time, all ten suns rose together in the sky. Shen feared that the Earth was in danger of drying up, so he took his bow and shot down nine of the suns.

Embodied Spirituality: The Hearth

The hearth is the heart of the home. A home without a hearth lacks focus (or perhaps the focal point of the living room becomes the television). This is interesting because the word focus is Latin for hearth.

focus (n.)
1640s, “point of convergence,” from Latin focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), which is of unknown origin. Used in post-classical times for “fire” itself; taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

Online Etymology Dictionary

So the concepts of hearth and home were linked in Roman thought too. In ancient times, the hearth, as the sole source of heat in the home, would have been massively important. Now that we have radiators and central heating, we tend to forget about the importance of the hearth. But in ancient cultures, the hearth was the place where you made offerings to the family gods and spirits, the lares and penates (household spirits in Roman religion). The notion of ‘familiar spirits’ originally meant the deities and spirits honoured by your family. In Vedic culture, the making of the sacred fire was a very important ritual.

The hearth - photo by Yvonne Aburrow

The hearth – photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Several cultures have domestic spirits, often associated with ancestors, such as the Cofgodas (cove-gods) of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The English and Scots believed in house Brownies, also known as urisk in Lowland Scots.  Slavic cultures believed in Domovoi, which were originally ancestral spirits in Slavic paganism. There are also Aitvaras (Lithuania), Dimstipatis (Lithuania), Ev iyesi (Turkey – known as  Sahab or Kimsene in Anatolia), Hob (North and Midlands of England), Kikimora, aka Shishimora (Russia), Kobold (Germany – possibly related to the Anglo-Saxon cofgod), Olys’ (a hearth spirit of the Komi people of northern Russia), Lares (Ancient Rome), Pūkis (Latvia), Pukys (Lithuania), Tomte (Scandinavia), and Zashiki-warashi (Japan).

In cultures that use stoves, they have also acquired resident spirits and folklore as well. Domovoi live in stoves. In Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll novels, there is an ancestor who lives in the stove. In Swedish, he is called Förfadern, similar to the English word forefather.

So, from this brief survey of the folklore, we can see that the hearth is traditionally the place where you honour your ancestors and household gods and spirits, usually by making offerings to them. The fire would have been kept burning all the time, so it would be a good place to make offerings.

hearth (n.)
Old English heorð “hearth, fireplace, part of a floor on which a fire is made,” also in transferred use “house, home, fireside,” from West Germanic *hertho “burning place” (cognates: Old Saxon and Old Frisian herth, Middle Dutch hert, Dutch haard, German Herd “floor, ground, fireplace”), from PIE *kerta-, from root *ker- (4) “heat, fire” (see carbon). Hearth-rug is from 1824. Hearth-stone is from early 14c.

Online Etymology Dictionary

The hearth was the heart of the home, and the spirits that were honoured at the hearth were at the heart of the family’s ritual observance. For example, the Lares and Penates were very important in ancient Roman culture:

Lares (/ˈlɑːrz/LatinLarēs[ˈɫa.reːs], archaic Lases, singular Lar), were guardian deities in ancient Roman religion. Their origin is uncertain; they may have been hero-ancestors, guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries or fruitfulness, or an amalgam of these.

Lares were believed to observe, protect and influence all that happened within the boundaries of their location or function. The statues of domestic Lares were placed at the table during family meals; their presence, cult and blessing seem to have been required at all important family events. Roman writers sometimes identify or conflate them with ancestor-deities, domestic Penates and the hearth. Because of these associations, Lares are sometimes categorised as household gods but some had much broader domains. Roadways, seaways, agriculture, livestock, towns, cities, the state and its military were all under the protection of their particular Lar or Lares. Those who protected local neighbourhoods (vici) were housed in the crossroad shrines (Compitales) which served as a focus for the religious, social and political life of their local, overwhelmingly plebeian communities.  (Wikipedia)

The offerings made to these spirits were usually a part of whatever food was being prepared. In Ancient Rome, both Lares and Penates were associated with the hearth, and were offered food. These customs continted long into the Christian era, and in some places, were never eradicated.   In 1703, John Brand wrote about the people of Shetland making offerings to the house brownie:

 when they churned their milk, they took a part thereof, and sprinkled every corner of the house with it, for Brownie’s use; likewise, when they brewed, they had a stone which they called “Brownie’s stane”, wherein there was a little hole into which they poured some wort for a sacrifice to Brownie.  (Wikipedia)

So, if you want to recreate these customs but you don’t have a hearth, you could have a chimenea or a firepit in your garden, or a shrine with candles in your house. If you do have a fireplace with a real fire, or perhaps a wood-burning stove, then you could have a bowl for offerings on the hearth, and set aside food from your meals for the ancestors. You can also make offerings in the fire itself.

The poem To Lar, by Robert Herrick, gives a glimpse of the variety of offerings that may be made to hearth spirits:

NO more shall I, since I am driven hence,
Devote to thee my grains of frankincense ;
No more shall I from mantle-trees hang down,
To honour thee, my little parsley crown ;
No more shall I (I fear me) to thee bring
My chives of garlic for an offering ;
No more shall I from henceforth hear a choir
Of merry crickets by my country fire.
Go where I will, thou lucky Lar stay here,
Warm by a glitt’ring chimney all the year.