A guest blog from Chris Mole
Category Archives: Guest Blogger
Deathwalking is a new anthology edited by Laura Perry. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
Deathwalking. Psychopomping. You may not have heard these terms before you picked up this book, but they mean the same thing: helping the spirits of the deceased move on from this world to the next. This is a practice that goes back millennia, if not eons, but one that is barely known in mainstream modern Western society. Our culture puts a lot of effort into keeping people alive but then many of us are left not knowing what to do when a loved one passes on, or when a natural disaster occurs and hundreds or thousands of people die. What happens to their souls? Can they find their way to wherever they belong on their own or do they need help? As it happens, many of them do need assistance. Fortunately, there are still people who know how to help them.
In this anthology, a dozen authors share their views on psychopomping in a variety of different Pagan and shamanic traditions, in terms of both personal experience and traditional ritual and myth. This book aims to educate the community about this vital practice, one that is still very much a necessary function. The word psychopomp comes from Greek roots meaning “soul conductor,” and that’s exactly what happens in this kind of work: the practitioner helps the spirit of the deceased find its way. The term deathwalking refers to the fact that shamans walk “between the worlds” and can help the spirits of the deceased journey onward as well. The actual practice goes by different names in different traditions, but the work is ultimately the same, and it’s a loving, caring endeavor.
In modern society we tend to feel a bit mystified by death and spirits, perhaps even afraid of the whole kit-and-caboodle. Spirit workers (shamans and others who do this sort of work) have developed a relationship with the spirit world, journeying among the different realms, so to them it’s familiar territory, as is death. We modern folk generally aren’t close to death anymore; we die in hospitals and our bodies are whisked away to funeral homes, only to magically reappear, embalmed and made up, as if still alive. Even if someone else takes care of the nitty-gritty material details for us, though, death is still a part of our reality, albeit a more abstract one.
We’re taught that death is off -putting and scary, but children are naturally curious about it and not generally afraid. Perhaps we adults could rekindle some of that gentle, loving curiosity and allow ourselves to learn about death and deathwalking, even if only in a small way. Some of the chapters in this collection include tales of closeness to death that the contributors have experienced in their own lives. Others share rituals, mythology, and traditions around the process of ensuring the spirit of the deceased gets to where it needs to go. It is our hope that these ideas and information will add meaning to your life and your spirituality, and perhaps lead you down new roads that you find fulfilling.
Some of you will simply enjoy the stories in this collection, learning about the various ways in which we’re able to help the spirits of the dead move on. Others will want to learn more, perhaps get some training and join those who do this kind of work. Many of the chapters in this book end with recommendations of people and programs who offer instruction in psychopomp work. If you’re interested, please investigate these resources and take your training seriously. This is one of those “don’t try this at home” kinds of things; shamanic work of any sort requires the knowledge and safeguards that come with good education.
But especially, please accept our collection of information and anecdotes for what it ultimately is: a devotional of a sort, an offering to the spirits of all those who have gone before and all those who will come after. May they journey onward well.
You can find the anthology on Book Depository,
And pretty much anywhere else that sells books!
A Guest Blog from Aspasίa S. Bissas
Experiencing community is one of the more rewarding aspects of life, especially when you find it in unexpected places. In my last guest post on Druid Life I wrote about my wildlife community; in this post I thought I’d share some tips on how you can forge a relationship with your local wildlife and create your own, perhaps unexpected, community.
Learn About Wildlife: If you want to get along with wildlife, you need to know how. What do you do if you come across a nest of baby bunnies? Is it okay to feed birds bread? How should you react if you come face to face with a coyote? A great source of information are wildlife rescue organizations. Find the one(s) in your general area and check out their websites or follow them on social media. Here in Toronto we have a fantastic group, the Toronto Wildlife Centre. Wildlife conservation groups are another good option, but be careful—some of them are little more than advocates for hunters.
Provide Habitat: Once you learn what kind of wildlife live in your area and what sorts of needs they have, you can help them by providing habitat. If you have a yard, you’ve got habitat, and it can be as simple as not removing dead plants and leaves from your garden in autumn, or as elaborate as planting specifically for wildlife and adding a pond. You can even make your garden an official Certified Wildlife Habitat.
Provide Food: First, find out which animals can be fed and are likely to need the help (as well as which ones should never be fed). Once you’re informed and are committed to providing food—whether a pot of flowers for bees, or feeding stations for different species—it’s important to always be consistent with the frequency and amount of food offered. It can be disastrous for wildlife if the food supply they’ve come to depend on suddenly stops. Providing water year-round is also a big help.
Protect Them: One of the best ways to keep wildlife safe is to keep your cats indoors (or, if you must let them out, use an enclosed space like a catio). Not only is it better for wildlife, but your cats will also live longer, happier, healthier lives. Outdoor cats decimate wildlife, in some cases wiping out entire species of birds. It’s not their fault—all cats have a strong instinct to hunt, which is why it’s important to give indoor cats toys and playtime. Being outside puts cats at risk from disease, cars, other animals, and unkind humans. They can also get lost, and contrary to a common myth, pet cats don’t do well when they have to fend for themselves. To quote The Little Prince: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
Other ways you can protect wildlife include never using glue traps (they’re inhumane and tend to catch everything, not just rodents), checking your lawn for small creatures before cutting the grass, and making sure water features are shallow enough for small birds and animals to get out easily if they’ve fallen in (you can put large stones in deeper water to give them something to climb onto).
Be Respectful: Show wildlife respect by keeping your distance, not allowing pets or children to chase or harass them, and not making a lot of noise or big movements. Prey animals like rabbits appreciate not being stared at. Sometimes when I’m out walking I’ll cross paths with wildlife. If they’re in the middle of crossing the road I’ll back off to let them finish so they’re not stuck waiting in the street, potentially putting themselves at risk. Sometimes they retreat until I’ve passed. I do always say hello, though; it’s only polite.
Help Wildlife: If you’re on social media, spread the word—share posts by wildlife rescue organizations, tell your followers what they can do, and talk about conservation issues. If you’ve got time or money, consider volunteering or donating. Some wildlife groups ask people to help with research, usually by recording what animals they spot in their local area—consider taking part. Keep an eye out for orphaned or injured animals, and if you find any get them to your local rescue (don’t try to take care of them yourself—animals need specialized care that the untrained simply can’t provide).
Get to Know Them: Chances are if you have habitat, food, and water, you’ll be seeing a lot of wildlife, and often the same animals will keep returning. If you pay attention, you should be able to start telling who’s who. If you can wear the same type or colour of clothing whenever you fill the feeder or work in your garden it’ll help them get to know you too. Once they feel they can trust you they’ll still be wary, but you may be rewarded with memorable encounters.
As long as we live in proximity to wildlife, we’re already part of a community. But if we want to be good members of that community we need to make an effort. Given the negative impact humans have made, and continue to make, on the world around us, taking the time to help your community can make all the difference.
Aspasía S. Bissas is a seeker of everyday magic, and is the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding. She can be reached via her website, or her Facebook page. https://AspasiaSBissas.com, https://www.facebook.com/AspasiaSBissas
The second installment of Nils Visser’s guest blog.
In Part One of this guest blog, I delved into my own past to explain how the spiritual elements in the Wyrde Woods books (Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd) came about, focusing specifically on the religions I encountered as a child when I lived in Thailand and Nepal.
My stay in Nepal was not to be the last foreign sojourn, followed as it was by extended stays in East Africa, the United States, England, Egypt, and France. Much of the rest of my adolescence (Africa and the US) was mostly focused on the hopeless pursuit of romantic interests and drinking too much beer, though there were times when I would have a spell of fascination with local shamanic traditions, mostly African (with its emphasis on honouring your ancestors) and Native American, specifically Lakotan culture, which has remarkable similarities to the Anglo-Saxon Wyrd.
Real interest was rekindled in my early twenties when I was living in Canterbury, England. Recalling the words of the Lama, I looked beyond the relatively new Christian traditions to discover the far older religions of the British Isles. As you can probably imagine, with my spirituality much influenced by the colourful myriad of Gods and Goddesses, spirits and demons of the Buddhist, Hindu, and shamanic beliefs in Asia, I was much taken by Celtic Britain and what is known of Celtic religion. I began to read on the subject, which led me to the Arthurian Cycle soon enough, and for years after I devoured everything I could find: Fiction, non-fiction, serious studies, conspiracy-theory-esque stuff…you name it, I read it. The Mabinogion and works by John and Caitlin Matthews became my constant companions. I went on pilgrimages to Glastonbury, not the town, but the sacred wells and the Tor. I even started writing the beginning of a novel, my own take on Arthur, which I never completed.
Back in Kent, at full moon on clear nights, I would wander off into the woods, much to the delight of my border collie, and we would roam all night. I delighted in the connections I felt with the land on nights like that. Twice, I saw those connections very clearly, in the form of a multitude of coloured strands which formed complex webs between trees, rocks, hillocks. These coloured lines weren’t solid threads, rather they seemed to be made of energy, with a slight flicker and electrical aura. It’s hard to describe, and it might sound a bit crazy, but they were there, clearly so for spells of some ten minutes. I also messed with some stuff I was unprepared for and had been warned to avoid until I was truly ready, after which I distanced myself from the spiritual world somewhat, having become wary of the potential dangers – something I really should have known given my experiences in Asia.
I found myself in the Netherlands again, and the next two decades were more or less committed to career and long-term relationship, worries about bills and the mortgage taking precedence over more abstract matters, other than a few incidents – always on holiday in England – during which I was keenly aware of presences, both benevolent and malevolent…reminders of that other world (some of which made it into the Wyrde Woods years later).
Life had become rather mundane, but I was content until everything began to fall apart. After twenty-one years, the relationship died, I got depressed, lost my job and – seemingly in the blink of an eye –, found myself alone, without a job, homeless, and generally without any sense of purpose. I couldn’t get my head around it, I couldn’t comprehend the sudden change in fortune, couldn’t fathom why I should draw another breath.
Clutching at straws, I decided to make my way to Glastonbury…to Avalon, which I had continued to visit throughout the years, and where something magical always seemed to happen…and I was in need of some magic, believe you me.
I touched down in Kent, but before heading west, I stopped by Whitstable, to visit C.J. Stone, an author whose writing I much admire, and whom I knew from my previous residential spell in Kent.
When we were talking about his books over a pint in the pub, I dropped that I had been playing around with the notion of rekindling my own writing ambitions. CJ’s reaction was lack-lustre, which I now understand better because whenever I tell people I write books, usually the first thing I hear is that they too might write a book one day.
I stumbled and fumbled when CJ asked what my book might be about, because I hadn’t really thought it through, other than that I wanted something that touched upon the undercurrent of the English psyche.
His advice was short and didn’t make any sense to me at the time. “Find the Wyrd,” he said. “Find the Wyrd, and the rest will come to you.”
I continued my journey to Glastonbury, increasingly dubious about my fervent hope that I would find answers, or anything at all to help me climb out of that deep, dark pit I had ended up in. I had already learned not to go actively looking for Avalon’s magic. If it happened, it would be unexpected. So it was this time.
Wandering about the town, I passed an esoteric bookshop, and decided to go in to see if there was anything on Arthur or Merlin which I hadn’t read before. It was a feeble attempt, for over the years I had lost much of my passion on this subject. No matter how hard I tried, the Celtic world, fascinating as it is, always seemed to elude me somehow, as if I couldn’t grasp it properly and make it mine, the way I had done with Thai and Nepali culture in my youth. So much for the Lama’s advice to look for wisdom at home, had become my cynical conclusion.
It quickly became clear that I had come to the right place. There were scores of books on Arthur and Merlin, and hundreds of books on Celtic history, spirituality, and culture, not to mention reams of fiction with firm Celtic roots. However, my eye fell on a single book: The Way of the Wyrd, by Brian Bates.
“Find the Wyrd,” CJ had said, and lo and behold… coincidence or synchronicity?
Studying the book, I reflected on the irony of being in an English bookshop which had hundreds of books reflecting the culture of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and seemingly just the one book related to the Anglo-Saxon culture. To be sure, I asked the shop owner if he stocked anything else to do with the Anglo-Saxons – other than as bearded, ale-chugging, fur-clad, and rowdy enemies of the Dux Bellorum and his warriors of Camelot. He looked at me as if I was crazy, which was answer enough.
All sorts of realisations struck me at once. The first was that I had rejected the Lama’s words too hastily. “Look at home,” he had said. I believe that there is some kind of ancestral memory in all of us, but never really considered that I am descended from Frisian and Flemish stock, the Folk of Wotan, branches of which had settled in England not even all that long ago. That was the ‘home’ I should have looked into, instead of becoming obsessed with the neighbours, the Celts, and then becoming disappointed because that culture somehow remained elusive. I still love the Celtic tales, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland…but my deepest attachment has always been to England. There is no place where I have ever felt so fully at home (and I’ve lived in a fair few places), and felt so…connected.
I bought Way of the Wyrd, climbed the Tor, and read it up there in one sitting. By the time I came down, I knew that I was going to write a book, and, because so few other people seemed to be doing so, place the story in an Anglo-Saxon context. It wasn’t much of a plan, but I had nothing to lose, and nothing else to be gunning for, and for the first time in some years, I felt a spark of hope, as well as a sense of homecoming, so why not? I had nothing to lose, for I had nothing, and for the first time I perceived that as a blessing of sorts. That was the beginning of the Wyrde Woods, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, the beginning of a new life (I now live in Sussex).
Back in the Netherlands, I started researching the old Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as the wider Folk of Wotan context, for I truly knew very little about my own cultural heritage, other than they had been opponents of my hero Arthur – often portrayed as brutal barbarians.
Looking into the word ‘Wyrd’, I ran into a similar word, ‘Wyrde’, which is Anglo-Saxon for ‘word’. Struck by the similarity between the two words, I coined the name Wyrde Woods, for I liked the notion of a fictional woods existing only within a story, i.e. made real by words, and thus called Word Woods, with the Wyrd playing a large part in it.
I also read a lot of old folk tales, and I was struck by a sense of loss. So much has been displaced, by a combination of the Victorian cutification of the Fair Folk, focus on Celtic tales, a staple diet of the Brothers Grimm, and further simplification by Disney movies. Dig a little, however, and there is a rich mine of Anglo-Saxon folklore waiting to be (re)discovered. Go for a walk and it won’t be long before you run into a hill, copse, stream, or vale that is home to an almost forgotten dragon, witch, faery, or giant.
I wanted the Wyrde Woods to reflect that. There would be ‘fairies’, but none of the cute stuff. Instead, I wanted the Saxon Pucan, or Pooks, sometimes called Pharisee/Farisee in the Broad Sussex dialect. These were the capricious Fae that folk were warned to stay well clear of, the ones with a mean streak. Feeling audacious, I ‘borrowed’ Oberon, Titania, and Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because they are my favourite characters in my favourite play, feature in my favourite Blake painting, and to me represented that far older Fae tradition before contemporary cutification.
I selected a lot of Sussex locations and folklore, and casually moved it all into my fictional Wyrde Woods in the Sussex Weald, adding elements from Kent, Somerset, Cornwall, and the Isle of Skye for good measure. I then changed bits and pieces around to suit my narrative or invented wholly new elements.
Way of the Wyrd was my main source for understanding Anglo-Saxon magic. I liked the notion of wise women and wise men who weren’t necessarily all-powerful wizards, but who were able to see a different world than most, the kind of world teeming with spirits, Pooks, demons, and other supernatural elements. In short, I returned to the animistic shamanism which had formed my own understanding of the spiritual world in my childhood. Noting how important healing and herbalism was, I inserted elements of that into the story as well. The Anglo-Saxon notion that a human life is temporary and therefore land is not so much owned as taken care of for the benefit of future generations has been worked into the Wyrde Woods as well.
I refrained from signposting everything in Neverland and Dance, to prevent the whole thing becoming a pedantic lecture. There is a sense that the Pooks and other beings are there, but not quite there in the story. They might well be lurking around the corner to appear any minute, or then again, they might not. Some events may have been partially caused by magical interference, or perhaps not. If you have read the books, you may, or may not, be surprised to find out that Wenn’s mum makes an appearance on two occasions. One reader was disappointed that the promised Fair Folk seemed to be missing, much to my surprise, because they play a major part in the story. There’s usually one or two of them present just about continuously, but don’t go looking for pointy ears.
The mythical tale of the wedding of the Green Man and the Red Queen is enacted around a fire on a hilltop, much as would happen in the old days. The ceremony is described, but there is no reference to this being an ancient and important Anglo-Saxon ritual, just as something that happened in the story. Readers with knowledge of the old festivals are likely to recognise it, but there is no harm done if they don’t. Herne’s Hunt, on the other hand, receives a bit more contextual background, as do rituals entirely of my own devising – but rooted in my personal experiences of shamanist beliefs around the world.
So is it Wicca? Not quite, but I’m reasonably confident that most Wiccans would recognise a great deal in the story, although they may be left puzzled because sometimes things might seem almost right, but not quite, simply because there could be faint echoes of Thailand and Nepal in there, or simply make-believe elements which I believed furthered the story. After all, Neverland and Dance are meant to be works of fiction, not accurate non-fictional treatises.
What I can tell you, is that there is something strangely magical about the books. I have mentioned that I blatantly stole a great many parts of the Wyrde Woods from England and Scotland. Not every corner of the Wyrde Woods though, some places came from my imagination as I was writing, such as the Whychmaze and the ruins of Tuckersham Church…
…or so I thought at the time…
There have been a few occasions over the past few years, during which I visited places in Sussex where I had never been before, only to come to a dead stop, Goosebumps all over, and a shiver running down my spine. I recognised these places instantly as Wyrde Woods locations which I had previously assumed to be products of my weird mind, only to find out that they were there all the time, for real.
I can only assume that I’ve found the Wyrd, or else the Wyrd has found me. Welcome to the Wyrde Woods.
This is a short story from Penny Blake’s beautiful collection Mahrime.
Once upon a time, when you and I were naught but pips in the core of the great cosmic apple, there lived a painter. You might chance to meet him still, wandering the shore line as the sun rises over the blushing surf, counting the grains of sand or shuffling the streets at dusk, studying the cracks in the paving stones, calling down and listening for a voice.
Back in his studio, his tumbledown beach hut, he paints each grain, each echo. He paints the light and the shadow, the rising and the setting, the dance and sparkle and the soaking up and the deep. His eyes are full of dreams and his dreams are full of shades and glamour.
One day, the painter’s daughter bare-foot tip-toed into that secret space.
And gazed at all the many muchness of towers of tins of tangy turp-scented rainbows.
And wondered what it would be – to touch, to taste, to take in and become such wonders.
In goes a flinger, smooth and slick.
Gloopy and gorgeful.
Smick smuck smack.
Blue, yellow, indigo,
She tasted blue – A taste of salt sea and pillow cases, stained glass and new slippers, skinned knees and berryjams and Monday mornings and shaggy hillsides damp in November fog.
She tasted yellow – A taste of custard of course. And a taste of bathrooms and tiled floors and a caravan holiday in 1975, old stiff newspapers and curled up cats, the dust that gathers on lampshades and dims the whole room and a taste of skin and bone and the streets of Rome in July.
She tasted green – A taste of coal and iron, old sandals and ploughed up earth, toadstools and pine woods and rain low down in the valley of the Dove.
Every colour in the universe she drank it down. She gorged on glamour and shade, on dances and sparkles, on things soaked up and deep. She swallowed down the soul of every colour until her limbs felt clogged and cloyed with the weight of them.
One small pot of black she saved for last, – a taste of burning and drowning, of being squeezed out and sucked up and exploded into stars, a taste of being held for eternity and the aching emptiness of an eggshell cracked too soon.
This black, she smuggled it away in her pocket, off to her little box bed beside the woodstove. There, when she was feeling dizzy with the reel of the rainbows spinning through her veins, she would sip
At the comforting black.
From that day on, every time the painter’s daughter opened her mouth, out spilled thick , oily paint in puddles and spewks that stained the folks and the things all around her in violent assaults of crimson, viridian, amaranth and egg yolk.
She stopped opening her mouth.
Her limbs dragged heavy as a rag doll and every breath, every step, every heart beat was a drudge and a drain. So much colour inside. So much sparkle and depth. So much echo and shade.
Walking, talking, even breathing seemed mountains too steep to climb with all this weight inside.
She sat on her bed, day in day out, and sip
At the comforting black
Until it spilled out of her eyes in puddles that pooled upon the patchwork quilt and cast back mocking rainbows.
That is how the little bird found her one day. He hopped upon her window sill and cocked his shining eye – the way the bird folk do – and then he fluttered down onto the eiderdown and whistled.
“Go away,” the painter’s daughter hissed, “do you think I care to see your coloured plumes? Do you think I am impressed? What if I told you that I am so full with the light and dark of every colour in the universe that I ache with it and to look at you does not fill me with joy or wonder, only regret and fatigue until I am sick of it.”
The little bird cocked his eye again – infuriating it is when they do that, y’know? – and he reached his yellow bill in deep amongst his tail feathers and plucked out a needle sharp quill the colour of every blue-green under the sea.
The painter’s daughter shrugged in scorn of him and made to turn away when
The little demon jabbed the quill spike hard into the soft, pale flesh of her arm.
Out leapt a tiny spurt of paint.
Then slowly, and with the girl in thrall,
He dragged the rainbow colours out
In swirls and spirals, tree cassyn pathways to guide the flow of all that weary weight into traces of beauty and scope.
Here was a dream in flesh.
Here was pointillized pain.
Here was inside out for all to see and staining no one but herself; surely, no words would be needed now . The world would smile and nod its head at her, as they knocked shoulders in the street, and whisper
‘ah, so, that is how it is with her, mm, we understand now why she walks so slow and dares not speak. How could a child do otherwise, with so much colour inside?’
So she stepped out.
With the bird quill tucked behind one ear
And bold, without fear,
Into a forest of fingers who pointed and blamed and waggled and shamed and prodded and poked and jostled and joked and fat cold palms that pushed her far away.
The painter’s daughter ran.
She ran on and on.
She began to feel very proud of her running.
One dark night, she came to a cave, above a river, above a pool, beside a village and into that cave she crept and lay down to sleep.
When she woke up the smell of sweet meat cooking down in the green valley filled her with hunger and the longing for all the things that human company ought to bring but seldom does.
So she spent the morning gathering leaves, the afternoon stitching them together and by evening she had made for herself a fine long cloak that hid the patterns on her arms, and a hat with a broad brim to cover her face.
Under the stars, she took out the bird quill from behind her ear and dug it deep into her skin until it was slathed in colour, then she found a broad, flat stone and she began to paint
In swirls and spirals, tree cassyn pathways to guide the flow of all that weary weight into illuminated forms both wild and wonderful.
Here was a dream on stone.
Here was pain projected, disembodied, disowned.
Here was inside out for all to see and staining nothing but this unfeeling earth. And the world would smile and nod and never know where all the colours came from.
As the sun rose over the valley, the painter’s daughter stepped down from her cave, down and down and into the village and by that afternoon the tongues were wagging like wild fire flames; who was the stranger in the cloak of leaves who traded her marvellous paintings for table scraps? Some had seen her return to the cave – a hermit then? An anchorite? A holy one, certainly, a wise healer, a cleric, a teacher, a goddess in the flesh… ?
Every day, more and more villagers made the trek up to the painter’s cave. They wondered at her work – colours and patterns that seemed to describe the deepest parts of themselves. The parts they never let show. How? They asked, with tears in their eyes, how can she know?
They bought canvases. They paid in gold.
Inside her cave, hidden from sight, the painter took her feather quill and emptied herself out for them.
Day after day.
Night after night.
Slowly, as time went by, she began to grow old and paper thin. She had to coax out the paint in crusted oozes from her gummed up veins. Sometimes finding the strength and the will would take hours. Often there was not enough. Not enough colour, not enough energy and too much pain of the flesh and the bone to finish the work. ‘One day,’ thought the painter, ‘one day I will dry up. There will be no way of getting these crusted up colours out of my dried up body any longer. And what will happen then? Will the world understand when I can no longer paint their pain for them?’
The painter smiled and shook her head. She stuck the feather quill behind her ear and pulled off her cloak and hat of leaves. Clotheless under the silver moon, she walked down to the lake pool and stepped right into the comforting black.
The next morning, when the people came up to the cave the painter was gone, but the waters of the lake below, as they looked down into the valley, were snaked with rainbows.
A guest blog from Nils Visser
“Is this Wicca?” Somebody asked me at the Steampunk Asylum in Lincoln, to which I had brought my Wyrde Woods books Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd.
“Erm, yes, no, maybe…” I was left fumbling as per usual.
Truth be told, both Neverland and Dance (the both forming one story) have defied easy categorisation since their conception. I didn’t know this when I wrote them, knowing next to nothing about publishing fiction, but I was defying all conventional wisdom by producing works which are hard to squeeze into a clearly defined genre. Had I known, I would have probably ignored it anyway, because I mostly wrote Wenn Twyner’s story as part of self-therapy at a time when I was stuck in a deep, dark pit.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many Wyrde Woods readers cared enough about the story to make it their own, describing it to me as a love story, or books about coming-of-age, mental health issues, ecological conservation, road protests, magical childhood kingdoms, spirituality, regional (Sussex) culture, or witchcraft. I am not about to argue with people’s personal reading experiences, and it’s quite magnificent to have conceived a tale about which readers really care, so their insights are much welcomed. However, if you asked me to tell you what Wenn Twyner’s story is about, I would mention all the above as being essential ingredients, but subordinate themes to the main one, which is one person’s journey from trauma to recovery – something that is by very definition a highly personal and unique experience.
Is the magic and witchcraft in the books Wicca? Yes. No. Maybe. It wasn’t written specifically to be presented as a Wicca book. If I were to claim it was, I’m quite sure even a mediocre pedantic could easily find fault with it, for I have relied on a wide range of experiences, insights, and personal preferences to construct the magic of the Wyrde Woods. Much of that overlaps, but not all.
So how did it all come about?
It begins with my own concept of spirituality, which is quite a melting pot and goes way back to the 70s. I was born in the Netherlands in 1970, but apart from a few fragments, my first memories are of another country altogether. When I was three years old, my father was due to write his anthropology PhD thesis. This included a lengthy stay amongst the people he wanted to observe, so the entire family moved from the Netherlands to a tiny village in the central plains of Thailand.
This wasn’t the luxurious ex-pat existence more common these days, but total immersion. We lived in a hut on stilts near a big river, without any mod cons, just like everybody else in the village. I saw elephants on a daily basis, cars not so much, maybe one would pass by every fortnight or so, at snail’s pace because all of us village children would crowd around it to marvel at the shiny contraption. Not that modern technology passed us by entirely, for we frequently saw US Airforce bombers heading for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to give you a bit of historical context. We didn’t have a bathroom. We washed ourselves with water from a bucket, and relieved ourselves in the banana plantation behind the cluster of huts which was home to several extended families as well as our own smaller one. Upon our return to the Netherlands, after close to three years in Thailand, my younger brother and myself caused occasional consternation at home or visiting relatives and friends for a year or so, because we would happily wander into tiny suburban gardens to squat and do a poo, not quite appreciating the Dutch fondness for tiny, cramped, and claustrophobic indoor closets for such purposes.
I attended the village school and – with that knack young children have – managed to learn to speak and read Thai. This is a complex language, with a great many ways of pronouncing vowels, each pronunciation denoting a different meaning. My father wrestled with Thai. One day he was asked to repeat his compliments of a market seller’s watermelons again and again, as more and more villagers were invited to hear him speak, to collective delight, because he was actually mistakenly complimenting the market seller’s wife’s breasts…very nice…round and juicy…you get the drift. He solved this by appointing me as his translator. I was around four years old at the time, and already an anthropology research assistant, my first job!
Part of the research involved religious beliefs, because spirituality pervades everyday life in Thailand to a considerable extent. Although Buddhism forms the central core of Thai religion, it is infused with an old (Brah-maist) Hindu tradition, shamanic animist roots, and ancient folklorist beliefs. The spirit world is closely interwoven with the living world, and everyone in our village had a ‘spirit house’, a shrine where offerings can be made to appease ghosts to prevent them from becoming malevolent. I maintain the custom of keeping a spirit house to this day, by the way, usually one of the first things I set up when moving into a new place.
The generic name for spirits is phi, but this covers a very wide range of beings, from ghosts, to benevolent nature spirits, to an impressively grotesque array of demons. I recall visiting temples, where drawings on delicate rice paper were produced, illustrations of demonic Yamatoots (in the service of Yama, the Lord of Hell) tormenting humans in ways that make your average Hieronymus Bosch depiction of hell seem like a pleasant countryside picnic. Translating all of this for my father, I built up an impressive knowledge of the Yaksha, both the good guardian variety as the evil ones who haunt wild places and devour unwary passer-by’s. I also learned the stories of the Garuda, the Naga, Hanuman, Thotsakan, Maiyarap, Phi Krasue, Phi Krahang, Phi Braed, Phi Lok, Mae Nak Phra Kanong, and many others.
I have vivid memories of a visit to our village by a demon specialised in the abduction of naughty children. With hindsight, it may have been a cautionary appearance by a villager dressed up and wearing a demon’s mask, but that is not how we experienced it. My playmates and I were terrified, but also fascinated, so we stalked the demon as it stalked us, and I remember the whole thing being horrifically realistic and tremendously exciting.
The Christian beliefs back in the Netherlands, generally cleansed of doom and hellfire, seemed tame and lame when I returned, and failed to capture my imagination the way Thai spiritualism had, apart from a few old testament stories like Jonah and the Whale.
A few years after our return to the Netherlands, my father got a job as administrator of a Dutch NGO Third World Development service in Kathmandu, Nepal, and once more we left the Netherlands to live abroad. I lived in Kathmandu for four glorious years, from age ten to fourteen, and could often be found wandering about the magnificent temple complexes of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, Patan, Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath, Bouddhanath, and Pashupatinath.
In contrast to Thailand, Hinduism was the main religion here, with a very royal dose of Buddhism thrown in for good measure, the whole influenced by deeply rooted shamanic beliefs. Akin to Thailand, spirituality was interwoven into daily life, rather than compartmentalised into something you might do on a Sunday. It was not at all uncommon for a Nepali to use his lunch break to eat at a local temple whilst communing with his (deceased) parents, and to come back to say that his father or mother had said this, that, or the other. Amongst other things, I paid a rupee to behold Kumari, the Living Goddess whose feet must not touch the ground, developed a personal affinity to Parvati and Ganesh, witnessed the ritual sacrifice of more goats and buffalo than I care to remember, watched (and smelled!) open funeral pyres, visited a shamanic witch doctor seeking cures for a wide variety of Delhi-Belly, participated in religious festivals, and collected colourful masks of my favourite gods and goddesses.
Towards the end of our stay, I also became fascinated by the Goddess of Lightning who provided some of my earliest sex-ed. Temples needed to be protected from lightning, you see, and this was achieved by elaborate carvings on the struts supporting the tiers of temples, depicting just about every sexual act you can imagine (men and women, men and men, women and women, threesomes, foursomes, tensomes, a lot of bestiality involving dogs, monkeys, donkeys etc.). The reasoning was that the Goddess of Lightning was a virgin who would naturally shy away from graphic erotica.
One of the most profound experiences I had in Nepal was when I was eleven, on a trek somewhere in the Himalayas. We were high up, above the tree line, so probably about three-and-a-half thousand meters, and took a brief detour to a Tibetan monastery perched atop a ridge of craggy rocks, at the centre of a vast web of colourful prayer flags. The backdrop was formed by the Himalayas, snow-covered giants which towered another three, four thousand meters over our heads, reducing us to insignificant particles with a comparable life-span of a mayfly. Just the sort of thing to put you in a state of mind in which you contemplate the mysteries of life.
We went into the monastery, purchased silk scarves and incense, prostrated ourselves in front of a statue of the Buddha, and then presented the scarves and incense to the Head Lama, who took the incense and blessed the scarves before laying these around our shoulders. As was customary, he then shared some wisdom. Hindsight tells me that he had a standard spiel for this, based mostly on young Westerners on a semi-spiritual walkabout in exotic destinations, but that is not how I experienced it as a wide-eyed eleven-year-old.
The Lama started by explaining the prayer flags we had seen. They are delicate squares of cloth, coloured white, yellow, green, blue, and red, with prayers printed on them. They are unravelled by the wind, and the strands worked loose blow from the Himalayas – the roof of the world –, to the rest of the planet, thus ensuring that the prayers are spread widely. The Lama added that this was a good thing, because it didn’t matter what people called the God(s) they worshipped, or the religion they adhered to, since it was “all the same Light, or the same Darkness, regardless of the shape or name given to the eternal balance between Good and Evil, and the choices people must make between them.”
Those words have formed the firm cornerstone of my personal beliefs ever since.
The Lama followed with a rebuke of sorts, saying that he admired us for travelling so far to seek enlightenment, but that the best place to seek such knowledge was at home. This puzzled the eleven-year-old me, as we weren’t all that far from Kathmandu, which I considered home. It wasn’t until later, that I realised he was really just rattling off a standard speech intended mostly for young twenty-somethings on their (almost mandatory) magical mystery tour before settling down. I think it was a warning, not to consider spiritual enlightenment as something that was just a part of a grand tour of the East, but to see it as something which should be sought for at home, infusing everyday life as it did in Asia.
At any rate, those words too, took root in my mind, and will lead us to the Wyrde Woods in Sussex many years later.
(Part two of this will be along in a few weeks, as will my review of Nils’ brilliant Wyrde Wood books).
A guest blog from Aspasía S. Bissas
I’ve been pondering the idea of community lately. It’s nearly impossible for anyone not to be part of at least one community of humans. Most would also agree that pets are family and an integral part of one’s closest community (those who don’t agree hopefully don’t have pets). But it didn’t occur to me until recently that the local wildlife was my community too.
I live in Toronto: Canada’s first bee city, home of Canada’s first National Urban Park, host to an impressive tree canopy (with plans to expand it even more), and habitat of hundreds of species of wildlife.
Although I’ve yet to see many of the animals who share this city with me, including owls, deer, or the river otter my partner once saw slinking down our street, looking somewhat confused, I have had many memorable encounters with our wildlife. I’ve seen foxes trotting along the streets; been dive-bombed in my yard by a red-tailed hawk, before watching a flock of grackles chase it away; and was treated to the adorable sight of a nest of baby chipmunks.
At our last place we had a family of rabbits living in our yard. We would give them the courtesy of moving slowly and not looking directly at them (as prey animals permanently on edge, we didn’t want to stress them further by acting like predators). They never really relaxed around us, but they also never helped themselves to my garden, not even the tender rose canes in winter.
Also at our last place, we kept a bird feeder. The hedges surrounding the yard would erupt into excited chirping whenever we went out to refill the food. There was something very fairytale about being greeted by a chorus of birdsong. We don’t have a feeder where we are now but we do leave seeds outside on the deck railings. Here we’re on the third or fourth generation of cardinals that have learned to chirp at us while we’re inside to get us to come out and feed them. If we can’t get to them right away one of the males will fly back and forth in front of the windows until we get the hint.
Groundhogs frequent our yard via a tunnel under the shed. Usually we see just the one, but sometimes there are two at a time. They’re mostly content to eat weeds in the yard, although last year they weren’t shy about coming onto the deck and helping themselves to the peppers and tomatoes I was trying to grow. This year I didn’t grow much, so they’ve only ventured onto the deck a few times to sun themselves.
Our deck seems to attract everyone at some point. Back in April we had an opossum visiting at the same time as a skunk. I don’t know if they were companions or whether it was purely coincidental that they were both here at the same time, but that was the first and last time we had either one on the deck (we occasionally spot—or smell—skunks and opossums in the yard).
Our most interesting and regular visitors are Toronto’s ubiquitous raccoons (the unofficial mascots of the city). This year we had a mother and her four babies move in. We know we shouldn’t but the mom looked so scrawny when she first arrived that we couldn’t not feed her. We spent the summer watching her fill out and her babies grow up. We don’t feed them anymore, although it turns out they love bird seed and will show up at all times of the day to get it (the birds and squirrels have learned to move fast if they want to eat). Sometimes a “trash panda” will come up to the window for a peek inside, probably wondering why the “raccoons” (our cats) staring back at them get to live in the house.
(As I was writing this I was interrupted by knocking at the back door. When I went to look I saw several cardinals and sparrows on the deck while a woodpecker “knocked” one last time before hopping away. I dutifully refreshed the seed supply.)
Do these experiences count as community? We share space and resources with the wildlife, even when we don’t encounter them often, or at all. They affect the environment we all share, sometimes, as when opossums decimate the tick population, to everyone’s benefit. Occasionally, like members of any community, they can be loud or rude (anyone who’s had their garbage strewn across the sidewalk by raccoons can attest to this). They also make me happy just knowing they’re around. Nearly every encounter feels magical. They might not understand me when I say hello, but I hope they get the sense that this human is an ally; this human is part of my world. Just as they are part of mine.
Toronto is the first bee city in Canada! http://toronto.beecitycanada.org/
Canada’s First National Urban Park https://trca.ca/parks/rouge-park/
Every Tree Counts: Toronto’s Tree Planting Strategy http://www.projectyu.ca/everytreecountstorontostreeplantingstrategy/
Aspasía S. Bissas is a seeker of everyday magic, and is the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding. She can be reached via her website https://aspasiasbissas.com, or her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AspasiaSBissas.
Quiet, by Susan Cain, reviewed by Guest Blogger Stephen Palmer
There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.
This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.
“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”
When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.
“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”
Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:
“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.
The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.
This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:
“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”
“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”
Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:
“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”
In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.
“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”
This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.
A guest post from Christopher Blackwell
I have lived in The Great House almost all of my life since I was a young man and now I am very very old and will soon die. Another young man will inherit the house for that is how it has always been done though I have no idea whom it will be. It is not necessary for me to know. I have always had a thing for a odd house, in my case a medieval house that built at different levels, using different types of measurements in each room, and different building material, often with step between different rooms, various stairs that go oddly to unexpected to unknown levels.
A house that sprawls, and seem to go on and on. A house where inside, you never can quite determine where you are in the house, or how to get to where you would like to be. Consider it something like a A Four-Dimensional Maze. Yet unknowingly you could always get to wherever you wished to go, or somewhere much like it. Every type if room was repeated in other wings of the house, but designed uniquely different. But any dining room would have a full meal set out as needed. Any book that you could ever want to read would be easy to find in any of the libraries, even if you had just suddenly decided on a particular book. Wardrobe , closet, or set of drawers, would have whatever clothes that you needed at a time, always a perfect fit, storage always had what was needed at the time. There would be no servants or builders, but the house was always perfectly maintained, except for portions what would be in decay or near ruin, and new parts of the house continued to build, though the sound of construction was never heard.
Always when one owner died, usually at great age, and new young person would discover that they had just inherited the house, though they were never aware of being related to the last owner. All they had to do was live in the house for one year and their title of ownership was solid and legal. Of course leaving the house was never possible throughout their long life, nor did anyone ever turn down the chance to inherit The Great House. Somethings just had to be. with no reason or explanation.
I know Sheena Cundy through Moon Books – she’s a massively creative person – a fiction writer singer, songwriter, and now she interviews people in a tree…
In this video, Tim Gwyn Clay talks to Sheena in the Treehouse about his transition from 20yrs of C of E ministry into Druidism, the issue of hierarchy in religion and his call to serve Andraste, British Goddess of the Iceni.
In this video, Imelda tells the story behind her book, Natural Born Shamans – inspired by her spirit-led work with young people – and the importance of the shamanic perspective when dealing with the challenges of life today.