Category Archives: Magic

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.

The curious magic of childhood fear

If you breathe very quietly, they won’t hear you, and you will be safe. It is essential that you keep your eyes shut because even though you know this doesn’t work in other circumstances, if you can’t see them, they can’t see you. If you see them, they will become able to act. Keep still and pretend to be asleep, because then they will leave you alone. Don’t be tempted to get up and look under the bed, or in the wardrobe, because that’s how they get you. If you have to go to the loo, there will be a magic thing you can do to stay safe in transit. Hold your breath. Be back before the flush does that thing…

These rules are widely shared, and I was reminded of them the other night when a poet I didn’t know mentioned the whole not breathing too loudly thing. Where do these rules come from, and why do so many of us have them in childhood?

It’s something I remember fairly well. It wasn’t always an issue, but some nights… some nights it was important to get under the covers and not move a muscle. Some nights I did not feel at all alone in my room, and what was there felt hostile. And I find myself wondering what I knew as a child that I cannot explain as an adult.


Reclaiming my intuition

The trouble with intuition, is that some people will use it to replace evidence in a way that cannot be argued with. The experience of people magically ‘knowing’ things that from where I was standing, looked like utter bullshit, left me reluctant to use my own for many years. I’m equally troubled by the way we use confirmation on social media ‘I have a bad feeling about today, does anyone else?’ Of course someone else does – the internet has a lot of people on it. I’m wary of how we can all use ‘intuition’ to tell us the things we want to hear, to affirm our biases, prejudices, personal insanity…

But life without intuition is thinner, paler and missing a lot of tricks. We absorb far more information than we can consciously process, and what emerges as a ‘gut feeling’ may not be ‘magic’ but instead the result of unconscious processing. If I let myself, then some of my best thinking happens this way.

How do you tell if what you’ve got is intuition, self indulgence, or madness? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. It’s especially loaded for me, because depression and anxiety create feelings of doom and misery, and I can persuade myself that I must be psychically knowing that something dreadful is going to happen, and spiral down into it, and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or I can attribute it to dodgy brain chemistry and let it go… How do I tell which is which?

The only thing I’ve got as a method of testing, is whether I can use it to make fair models of what will happen. If my gut feel about a person, or a situation, fits in fairly well with what happens, then regardless of whether that’s psychic-ness or unconscious processing, I’ve got something I can use. If my impressions don’t relate to reality, then something less helpful is going on. It requires an uneasy amount of self-honesty. Who doesn’t want to be magical, intuitive and special? It’s hard to look at a gut feeling and say ‘you aren’t real, my brain chemistry is playing up’ but sometimes that’s the path to sanity.

Then there’s the question of how we use intuitive insights in social situations. Some people are assholes. If that’s where you’re coming from, then aggressively asserting intuition as a means to power, to subdue or impress others, is just asshattery. It’s not good to go deliberately trying to poke around in other people’s heads and lives, either. It’s an invasion of privacy. If insight just turns up, then there’s a responsibility to use that kindly, and not as some kind of power trip.

I’ve spent some years now trying to be more open to my unconscious mind, to insight and intuition and at the same time to not let my depressive and anxious tendencies latch onto it. I’ve got a way to go, and I’m a long way from entirely trusting myself, but overall I like the trajectory.

Bardic: Performance and the Awen

The awen (a Welsh word) is invoked by Druids in ritual, usually by chanting it. This is one of the traditions we owe to revivalists, not to ancient history. However, the experience of flowing inspiration is something that can and does happen – during periods of creativity, but also sometimes when performing.

For me, it’s a sensation of being completely taken over by what I’m doing and being able to do it in a totally different way – with more drama, intensity and depth than usual. On rare occasions, it’s had some very odd effects indeed. I recall a ritual when three of us spontaneously improvised music together, and another ritual where I re-wrote one of my own songs as I went to better fit the situation. I had no real memory afterwards of what I’d sung.

Awen is something that turns up when it does – it cannot be summoned by force or will. You have to be open to it, welcoming of it, ready for it, and also perfectly able to keep going if that other level of magic doesn’t happen. Sometimes it comes as a trickle, adding a sparkle to what you were doing. Sometimes it’s a tidal wave that will wash you away.

When it comes, it is best to let that flow direct things rather than trying to control it. If you want the kind of magic controlled by will and personal intent, this is not something to try and court. If you are willing to be a flute the awen can play its own tunes through, it may do just that.