Category Archives: Magic

Magic with Elen Sentier

A guest blog from Elen Sentier

Magic – such an evocative word! But what is it? There are probably as many definitions as there are people who talk about it.

There are many synonyms for the word magic – occult, enchanted, charmed, out of this world, supernatural, paranormal, mysterious, weird. I’ll bet many of you find some of those words very attractive. Magic’s opposite is the mundane and run of the mill. Those antonyms offer excellent clues why magic fascinates people, they want exciting and strange. Think holiday – going somewhere different, surprise is delightful, out of the everyday world for a couple of weeks. People think magic does this too.

Magic, for many, tends to be spells and rituals, dressing up, playing at being goddess or god, part of a theatre in which magic may happen. Theatre’s a Greek word and in ancient Greece it was sacred to the god Dyonisos, the god of wine, darkness, mystery, ecstasy, and madness in the sense of being out of the everyday mind. He’s shown as a sensuous, naked, androgynous youth and described as womanly or man-womanish – interesting thought for our times.

The dark womb is the place we can rebirth, get out of the box, free ourselves from the other-peoples’ scripts that have ruled our lives so far. Dionysian madness is necessary to break out of old ways and lifelong habits. It’s much easier to exchange one set of habits for another than to become naked, defenceless and vulnerable in order to discover one’s own true nature. But this is what magic can do – if we allow it. Getting to the point where we can allow ourselves to escape requires a kind of Dionysian madness, as I know from long years as a transpersonal psychotherapist and still know from helping my students enable themselves.

Like our own Merlin, Dyonisos is a fatherless child in the sense of not having a human father; he is a son of the god Zeus and the woman Semele. You find this all around the world. A boy-child has a human mother and an otherworldly father; a girl-child has a human father and an otherworldly mother, as does Merlin’s partner, Vivien, who was mothered by the huntress goddess Artemis, see Merlin: once & future wizard for more.

Most people find this weird and scary. Scariness added to weirdness is so attractive and secretly many people would like to have an otherworldly lover; some who work with otherworld actually do. For those still deep in the everyday that’s terrifying even though they likely want it in their secret hearts. Ordinary life is dull, boring, restricted, same-old-same-old, most people want different and excitement – like those holidays. Magic is shadowy, clouded, obscure, hidden, hard to comprehend and all that is so attractive; people want it, search for it, go on course after course to find it.

In my long experience magic is always there, in everything, hidden in plain sight. You don’t need to go to Glastonbury, Stonehenge or the Pyramids, it’s all around you, always. What you need to do is change how you look at things and that is just so difficult because it’s incredibly scary. We want scary … and we don’t. People go after “safe scary” and that’s always a mishmash of garbage dressed up in sequins and candles, it deludes the mind, gluts the emotions and takes the participant nowhere new at all. There is no such thing as safe magic, not in reality.

To practice magic you must risk all, go out on a limb, jump off a cliff, scare yourself shitless. I use that word advisedly. Until you scare the shit out of yourself there is no room for the magic to come in – because you are still full of shit!

Clearing and composting your shit is always painful and terrifying because it takes you out of your comfortable normal-box. People want excitement but they don’t want the frightening consequences, they want insurance policies and firm contracts that they won’t be hurt.

Not possible. If you go for magic you will be pulled inside-out and upside-down, your whole life will change irrevocably, and that word irrevocably is what stops people. You mean we can’t go back and be the same as we always were if we don’t like it? No, you can’t, not once you set off down that path. Dyonisos will find you and dance you into his mysteries amongst the pine woods.

He comes in many guises depending on the land spirit where you meet him. Here in Britain, he may come as Merlin, or Gwyn ap Nudd with his wild pack of red-eyed, red-eared hounds, or Pan. Always, he will come as the Trickster, the ultimate, most perfect teacher and shifter. Likely you will fall in love with him … then you will waken, look in the mirror and not recognise yourself any more. You will be changed.

Magic is magic. It’s wonderful, powerful, and in every single atom and particle of creation. You find it by opening your eyes, looking at everything without any expectations but full of expectancy, full of wonder. You let go of everything you’ve ever known and go in empty, never knowing first, never knowing best, you come to magic from a place of unknowing. Nothing you’ve ever read, known or heard will be like the reality you discover has always been there, quietly waiting for you to notice it. It will teach you how to remain still, how to ask useful questions, how to ask it to show you about itself.

Magic is learning to be empty, learning to un-know, learning to let go. As my Dad, who taught me to walk the old ways of our British magic, used to say, “Life/magic is so simple, but nobody said it was easy!” Right on, Dad!

 

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Magic and birthday blogging

Some years I write the blog for my birthday ahead of time, and take the day entirely off. It’s one of the perks of being self employed. I’m mostly not working today, but I thought I’d see where the mood took me for blogging. I note that in most ways, I feel much as I usually do on days when there’s not a great deal of work lined up.

As a child, I was hungry for magic. Christmas and birthdays were days I thought I ought to feel something special, something significant. I didn’t. What I got was a mix of longing and disappointment. We’re sold the idea of special magic times – especially as children, and it is easy to feel let down when you experience nothing out of the ordinary. Wedding days are supposed to be magical too – having been married twice now, those seem to be stressful, anxious events with a lot to sort out.

Why would magic show up on a designated day? Why would that day be filled with love and joy if the other days mostly aren’t?

What I’ve noticed over the years is that significant dates can bring into focus all the longing we have for things to be different. If a relationship is miserable, the anniversary and Valentine’s Day can be sources of longing where we try to make it all better with some kind of temporary magic. Christmas is a time to want all the love and support you aren’t getting from your birth family. A birthday may highlight the shortage of friends to have a party with.

On the other hand if things are good, the designated days seem less important. Yes, I’m going out tonight and tomorrow, I’ll see a lot of friends over the next few days – friends I typically see in the course of any given month. There will be good things because this is a good excuse for some silliness. I often find good excuses for silliness.

The desire for a specific day to somehow just bring magic is, in my experience, a desire born out of insufficiency. The better life is, the less important any specific day is, because they all of the potential to be good. The better life is, the less need a person has for a fantasy of something better. Also the less need there is to imagine a magic thing that just makes it all good. Wanting magic to manifest on a special day can be an expression of all that is missing and cannot easily be fixed.

When it comes to the days of our lives, the real magic isn’t a showy birthday thing, or the magic of Christmas, or the romantic powers of St Valentine. Real magic is what we make every day out of the relationships we have with other people, and all that we encounter. Real magic may be quieter and less self-announcing but it shows up, every day, adding a shine to life.


Magic, illness and discipline

Most forms of magical and spiritual practice depend to some degree on concentration. It is feasible to do contemplative meditation when you can’t concentrate – by having an object that you return your thoughts to, for example. It is feasible to undertake prayer or ritual with an unfocused mind, but it is probably less effective.

Spell based magic is all about your will. There’s nothing like pain or illness to reduce the power of your will, and to make that kind of focused intensity difficult to maintain. All of us will go through times when we don’t have what it takes to act magically. Some of us will be like that most of the time. So, what do you do if you want magic in your life, but can’t rely on having the attention span, the concentration, the focus or the willpower to work it?

Aim small. Ignore the useless advice that if you can’t meditate for half an hour you should meditate for an hour. Better to have five minutes of quality engagement than a longer stretch full of frustration and misery. Look for acts of magic and spirituality that operate on a scale you can handle. Look for ways of working that allow you to come back regularly and do a small thing. Don’t tie yourself to fixed times because you might not have the clarity at those times. Work when you can.

People who are hale and hearty can be very comfortable telling people who aren’t to try harder. If you are ill, the limits of what you can do are often a simple fact. Trying to push for more can often result in a backlash that lets you do even less. Only you can judge this. Experiment on your own terms and don’t feel pressured into doing things the way other people think you should.

Look for opportunities for magical experience and transformation rather than acts of deliberate change. Being in a ritual can be transformative. So can sitting out with access to trees and birds or water or sky. Having an altar and spending some time with it can make room for things to come in. So can creativity.

Pain and illness can make it hard to think that good things of any shape can happen. The longer it goes on, the more it can lock you down and make you feel limited. Looking for small moments of beauty and wonder can be a way to offset this a little. Sometimes there are blessing amongst the miseries. There don’t have to be, and it isn’t your job to be relentlessly cheerful or to find shiny blessings in a shit storm. But at the same time, there’s much to be said for making the best of what you’ve got in whatever way you can.


Hearing the voice of spirit

Back in my Midlands days, the call for peace in ritual often ended with the words ‘for without peace, the voice of spirit cannot be heard.’ What does it mean to hear the voice of spirit? It’s a gloriously open phrase that will mean different things depending on your belief. You might believe there’s an all pervading spirit in reality and that you can tune into it. If you believe in deities, then the voice of spirit will be the voices of those deities. It could mean totems, or guides, ancestors, angels, higher self, divine self, or in an animistic sense, the voices of spirits.

You don’t have to believe in anything outside of science to explore the voice of spirit – you can simply work with your own spirit, your own wisdom, your best self or however you prefer to frame it.

To hear the voice of spirit, you need a quiet, open but not disciplined mind. If you’re deeply involved in a spiritual or meditative practice, then you may tune out or dismiss the wandering thoughts that are some kind of magic happening. If you’re trying too hard to get a big important message, the odds are you’ll only hear your own need reflected back to you.

To gather inspiration as I write this blog, I’m pausing every few lines to gaze out of the window at the snow falling. I can do the same with clouds, small birds in the trees. I can do this listening to the stream, or the wind. Anything that absorbs me gently, engages me lightly, takes me a little bit out of myself but not entirely out of myself. Dance and drumming and chanting can play the same role. Here but not entirely here. Calm enough not to be entirely caught up in my own thoughts, making space for something else.

As a bare minimum, if I do this, my head will clear of irrelevant, boring things and I will become able to think more broadly, or deeply or randomly about something, and what I think will have significance. It may be useful. It may be the phrases to pull a blog post together.

Given time, luck, and a sprinkling of mystery, and I will start hearing something I recognise as myself. More a deeper self than a higher self – it’s not got authority or purity, but it is the voice that comes from the heart of me. The voice of my essence. It’s the voice I need to find if I’m going to answer big life questions, make radical changes, plan for the future or deal with the baggage of the past. It’s the slow moving cud chewing part of me. It isn’t super-wise or always right, but it knows who I am right now, and where I am, and what I want.

Sometimes, there are other voices. Small, soft voices. They seldom say much at all. Voices of inspiration, or land, or elements, or dreams or owls or… I don’t really know. I’m fine with not knowing, I don’t feel it’s productive to interrogate them. I don’t hear them very often. They do not ask things of me, or give me information about how to succeed. They drop small, odd thoughts into the little pool of my mind and there are ripples, and I do with that what I can. And while what comes is not a demand or a request, if I take up those words and explore them, work with them, inhabit them, they always change me and take me forward. Forward in the sense that starfish move forward, I tend to feel.

I don’t hear words of power or authority. I don’t get big, important messages for other people. I get small pokes and nudges, like being tipped off to the whereabouts of a tiny fairy door that you have to scrabble in the leaf litter to even see properly, and will sit outside for weeks, years, confident that you can’t possibly be going to go through that… and then maybe one day, some other insight will come along and the door will no longer seem so tiny, and off you go…


Seeking magic in the land

We all know of places that are officially important, magical and powerful. Stonehenge and Glastonbury being two obvious examples. Ancient sites, ancestral sites, places of extraordinary beauty. Places that attract people. Wonderful though these sites can be, they are also problematic. For a start, having lots of people in cars visiting a site will change it. Car parks, visitor centres, toilets, ice cream vans and the loss of peace and atmosphere that comes with a steady stream of tourists. The carbon footprint of your pilgrimage always needs considering.

Important sites can create political problems. They can cause tension between Pagan groups and people with authority – again there’s a long history of this at Stonehenge. Even a small, obscure site can become a source of tension if two different groups want to use it. If you undertake ritual in a place, it is easy to feel a sense of both ownership and entitlement. A desire to identify yourself as The Druid for the site, and try to see off other Druids who might want to make the same claim.

All of this can also have the consequence of encouraging most of us to feel that the important magical places are away. Somewhere else. A sense of magic as other and unavailable of course gives more power to anyone who has some influence at an important site.

All land has history. There are ancestors in the soil everywhere. There are stories connected to landscape in even the least promising of places. And if there aren’t, you can take the place names and land features and start making your own stories. Everything has to start somewhere.

Get an ordinance survey map and you’ll easily see where all the ancient sites are. Some areas are richer than others in this regard, but you may be surprised by how much there is. Ancient trees can be found sometimes in the corners of otherwise unremarkable fields. Stone formations, caves, springs, magical pools in streams, tiny waterfalls, owl haunts… there are many kinds of magical places to be found.

You don’t have to get out into the wilds for this, either. One of my favourite magical places as a child was a pool supplied by a drainpipe on the side of an old industrial building. It was covered in ferns, and it had a discernible atmosphere. More atmosphere in fact that the pool caused by a spring alongside a much prettier and more ancient building nearby.

Magical places can be secret, they can be hiding in plain sight, they can be right on your doorstep. I think it’s much more exciting and rewarding to have a personal relationship with a place not so many other people even know about. Or a place other people can’t see. I like to go to a spring with a fairy hawthorn. It’s somewhere that gets a lot of footfall, but it is even so a secret place, largely invisible to the passer-by.

Finding the magic that is with you and around you has so much more to offer than assuming that it must be somewhere else.


The study of power

To my mind, anyone interested in the idea of magic should be interested in the nature of power. Actual power as it manifests in the world. If you want to use power – however supernatural that aspiration might be, you need to know how power works. It is worth investing time in the study of real world power.

The ways in which some people have power over others are many, and often profoundly unethical. The power to make someone do something against their will is a pretty evil thing, when you stop to consider it. And yet, hard wired into many of our relationships with professional people is just such a power imbalance, because we accept that they know best what it is that we need.

When a child is first born, they need everything doing for them. They are absolutely vulnerable, and entirely at the mercy of those choosing on their behalf. As children grow, they become ever more able to take control of their lives. How long do adults keep telling them they know best? It’s not always a negotiated exchange, and it runs through to legal and political decisions that are made for children without their consent. Much the same can be said of power relationships with adults who are deemed unable to decide for themselves.

The power of money to influence us. The power of advertising to shape our desires and dreams. The power of television to tell us what kind of behaviour is normal. The power of the media to tell us what we should be angry about. The power of big business to shape our lives. The power of society around us to shame and exclude us if we stray too far from what TV has told us is normal and the papers have told us we should be angry about…

To study power is to study the language of power. It’s those who have the right words at their command who can work with the law. It’s those whose education gives them the right language who can access the best jobs. It is words that crawl into our heads from adverts, TVs, songs, films, newspapers to tell us who and how we are supposed to be.

And sometimes it is the absence of words, the silence when you can’t say you are gay, or a witch, or a vegan and so forth without fear of ridicule and worse. If you need to be silent to be safe, then there are things to know about how power works in your life.

The words you use, the words you are not allowed, the labels you wear, the titles you seek – these are all questions of power. If you want to use power on your own terms, it is as well to know how power already works within your life.


Bard Magic

Normally we talk about magic in terms of acts of will crafting deliberate change. For me, bardic magic has always had a distinctive flavour of its own, a very different form and highly unpredictable consequences.

For a start, bardic magic is something that happens as a consequence of doing bard stuff. It doesn’t always happen, it can be elusive, and is certainly not obedient. You can set out to be creative, and it often helps to be clear about what you want to make – be that a song, a story, a pie, a garden… The magic is not something you direct, but something you make room for. That room is made by the creative act itself, and it means what comes out at the end might not be as you intended.

For example… imagine a group of people getting together to share music. Often if the people are good, what you get is good. Sometimes, if the people doing the music are not just good, but open to each other and to inspiration, magic, awen, in just the right way, something else gets in. Something happens that changes the music into an experience of soul and wonder. What consequences that may have for each player, who can say? The music that comes out of such moments is often far more powerful and affecting than anything you can do by skill alone.

In regular magic, we draw our circles, put up our protection and steer things in the direction of our choosing. Bard magic is something you let in. You go to it vulnerable and exposed, and you let it come through you and into the world. It can break your heart, unsettle your mind, rearrange your priorities.

Try to tame inspiration as a force, try to keep it tidy, controlled and in line with your will, and you may never even glimpse it. Awen does not manifest on those terms. It does not come to do your bidding, although it may rise up at your call to sear its way through your soul and transform the lead of your plan into the gold of the sublimely unexpected.


Magic and ritual

In witchcraft traditions, ritual (as far as I can tell from the outside) is what you do in order that a group of people can do magic together. There’s also an aspect of celebrating the seasons and honouring deity and the natural world.

Ritual for Druids is often more about the celebration, and less about deliberate intent to perform magic. There are groups and individuals who approach Druid ritual for magical purposes, but my experience has been that the majority gather to celebrate, above and beyond all else. It’s one of the reasons Druid rituals are more family friendly, because there isn’t the same demand for deep focus and intensity that collective spellwork requires.

Having said that, Druid ritual has the capacity for magic. It is more likely to be an emergent property rather than something intentioned. I’ve seen that magic take many forms, here are a few examples.

A growing sense of connection and community that changes how people relate to each other.

Empowering participants such that they find their own voices and creativity and are able to stand in their own power.

Connecting people with the land and seasons in a way that radically impacts on who they are and what they do.

Giving power to vows, dedications, offerings and intentions such that a person is more inspired to see it through, more invested and more able. Bringing the sacred to our commitments.

Feeling witnessed, heard, seen and held in the context of ritual space can be an incredible and transformative experience for a person.

Inspiration / awen, shared or individual, arising within the ritual can lead to wild creativity and improvisation, and again can change people in all kinds of ways.

A sense of the numinous can be a consequence of ritual.

If you’ve got any other examples you’d like to add, do please pile into the comments section.


Do not ask what the universe can do for you…

Ask what you can do for the bits of the universe you encounter. This is a line of thought inspired by a recent comment on the blog (thank you). Rather than looking at how magic answers can be persuaded to come to us, why not look at how to be magic answers, for other people and for the planet?

Of course this depends on being sufficiently resourced, but many of the things I’m poised to advocate don’t require a person to be silly amounts of privileged. When we spend all our time asking the universe/the gods/angels/crystal dolphins to help us out, we may feel that we are loved by the universe etc. But we may also be teaching ourselves to feel powerless.

Give praise. It’s an easy way of uplifting people who are doing good things. Self esteem courses recommend praise giving because it empowers the giver, too.

Give away things you don’t need. Nothing creates a feeling of abundance like giving stuff away – so long as you can afford it. Even if it’s very occasional, passing something along gives a real sense of power, and solves a problem for someone else.

Listen. There’s a lot of distress that can be eased just by hearing, acknowledging and witnessing people. It costs time and emotional labour, but if we all spared a little of that, the world would be a kinder place.

Every charity out there could do with more volunteer support than it gets. The same is true for pretty much every volunteer organisation out there. The scope to be someone else’s miracle is vast.

A kind word, a small deed of assistance, a gesture of respect and friendship – these things can and do save lives. A little bit of taking care of each other goes a long way towards producing miraculous results.

Make things of beauty.

Speak up for that which has no voice – for creatures, landscapes and ecosystems. Help amplify people who are not heard. Education is essential for solving most problems.

Don’t be afraid to stand out, to go against the flow, or dispute the consensus.

It’s just a small flavour, not an exhaustive list. If you believe in magic – well, magic works better when you give it something tangible it can latch onto. If you believe that like attracts like, then what you do has to be in that equation. If you believe in karma, then your actions in the world have got to matter. If you think the universe loves everyone, be the vector by which some of that love gets out into the world. Be the change. Be the magic you want to see happening.

Personal privilege is not a measure of how spiritual we are. It’s not the advantages you have that count, it’s what you choose to do with them. And I promise, if you want to feel magical and powerful, then doing some discernible good will give you that far more than any ego massage ever could.


Bard Magic

We tend to talk about the modern bard path purely in the sense of creativity, inspiration and performance. If you start from the belief that magic means transformation, then bard craft has an enormous potential for magic.

In creating a piece, be that poem, song, sculpture or cake, a person is using their will to manifest something in the world. Something new. Like any manifestation of will, what you create as a bard has the power to change things.

Bards usually commit (if they undertake any of the Bardic initiations I’ve encountered) to working for the good of the land, their tribe, their gods or however else they may express their sense of sacredness. To be a bard is to set out to be inspired by the sacred and to share that inspiration. In essence, you offer to be a doorway through which things can enter the world.

When you put yourself forward as a bard, you can have an immediate impact on how other people feel – a bard can uplift, cheer and inspire, create empathy and understanding, foster a sense of the scared, of magic and possibility. A bard can change how people think about themselves, each other, the culture they live in…  In practice the lines between spells and songs, poems and prayers, is not a clear line. A story can be an invocation. Art can heal, it can make sayable what was unsaid.

Bards can challenge how we conventionally think about things, can satirise politics and mock the ethically bankrupt. It is a path that enables subversion, radical reimagining and changing the stories that shape how we think and act. We can give voices to the voiceless, we can empower, uplift and enable others.

You don’t have to think anything supernatural is going on for this to work, but if your world view includes that kind of magic, the bard path remains relevant. Bard craft can make a good focus for spell work. When we set out to enchant and inspire each other, the world is a much better sort of place.