Category Archives: Magic

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.

The reality of omens

When looking for omens in the world around us, it is necessary to consider how reality works in the first place. One of the things I have rejected outright is that other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me. I have something of an animist outlook, and I do not think the universe is *that* into me.

At the same time, influenced by a number of spiritual traditions and myths, I have a sense of the universe as an unfolding thing – a river, a cloth – I don’t know. Something complex, flowing, and with the past informing the future. In that great flow, signs of the flow may emerge like ripples in the stream.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that the best place to look for such ripples is in random things that probably don’t have intent of their own. The behaviour of a moustache is a family favourite. The shape of a bird poo, the patterns made by random natural things, especially if they look a bit like something else. Clouds are great fun for this.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that an amazing encounter with nature can be read in other ways. I saw an otter in town recently. I think the otter was minding its own business, but I can read a number of things into the sighting. It tells me very clear things about the health of my local streams and rivers, it tells me I live in a good place, and that there are reasons to be hopeful. The otter was not bearing this message to me, it is simply what it means in this context, and anyone seeing it could infer the same.

I can however read something into my behaviour at this point. I was in the right place at the right time, and I think that tells me something about my relationship with the flow. I take exciting nature encounters as good omens not because I think nature is bringing me a special message, but because it means I was in just the right place, at exactly the right time, looking the right way and paying attention. That in turn means I am in tune, and would seem to bode well for anything else I’m doing

Worm Magic

To call someone a ‘worm’ is usually an insult. If you ‘worm your way’ into anything it tends to imply that you aren’t entitled to be there and that your method for getting in was dodgy. Linguistically, worms get a rough deal, but out there in nature they are tiny powerhouses and worthy of our respect.

In terms of the life of the soil, worms are essential. They aerate it as they pass through. They help break down debris, alongside the micro-organisms and fungi also at work. Worms will draw plant matter from the surface down into the soil, eat it, poo it out as soil, and thus add to the fertility of the land.

Worms provide food for a lot of other beings. They are eaten by a number of birds – although I always think of blackbirds as the main worm eater. Moles of course eat worms, and so, more curiously, do badgers. Given the size difference, it may seem like an odd menu choice, but scruffluing up worms to eat is a big part of what badgers get up to of an evening.

Taken as an individual, a worm isn’t much. It’s just a squishy, mobile stomach. Things go in one end, and come out the other. One worm more or less doesn’t change anything much. Taken collectively, the value of worms to the rest of the living world is vast.

As humans, we make up a lot of stories about the triumph of the lone individual. Most of us will never be the lone, standout hero, and condemn ourselves to a life of feeling jealous, mediocre, unsuccessful, irrelevant. We could learn a lot from worms. As with worms, small actions from large numbers of people have huge effects. Our one small bit, more or less, doesn’t seem very relevant, but what we do as a whole has considerable consequences. At the moment, those consequences are grim, but it need not be so.

If we all took ourselves a bit more seriously as one chewing worm amongst many, perhaps we’d be a bit more careful about what we put into the soil. If we learned to see the power of small things, like worms, we might better be able to see pour own power, and to use it effectively. We might be less afraid to worm our way in to places of power and influence rather than believing we don’t belong there. We might be less tolerant of the way those bigger humans, with power and resources, use labels like ‘worms’ to discount the masses. We might see the power in numbers, embrace our inner worms, and make some real changes.

Pigeon magic

I’m interested in re-enchantment – for me, I assume the world is plenty enchanted enough and that I’m just not always good at seeing it. Some things make it easy to feel awe, gratitude and enchantment – a fabulous sunset, a bat skimming low over your head, a close encounter with a fox. And then there’s pigeons. Not the brightest, or the prettiest, or the best singers. Numerous, foolish, occasionally shagging on the roof opposite my window. It’s hard to imagine anyone proudly announcing the pigeon as their spirit animal…

I like to challenge myself, to see the good in things, or the other dimensions of them, to see wonder in the mundane, and so on and so forth. So I set myself ‘pigeons’ as a challenge.

They are a challenge. They’re the noisiest things in the wood, the exact opposite of a ninja with their flappy, quirky flying. They panic each other, walk out in front of cyclists, forget they can fly away to safety, peck anything that might be food. In town they sidle up to anyone eating – not aggressive like seagulls, but optimists and opportunists. Sometimes they ‘sing’ loudly outside my window at first light, and it is hard to hear the beauty in their song, or to be charmed by it.

They have been loved, of course. There’s a history of pigeon racing, because they will find their way home, no matter what, and those same home-finding urges have been used to carry messages in the past. They, and their eggs were also an important part of the mediaeval diet, so far as I know. They have been more valued than they are now.

Mostly we meet the pigeon as an urban creature, more feral pigeon than woodpigeon, eating fast food and crapping on statues. It doesn’t cast them in the best possible light. I’ve also seen pigeons rise in a flock together, coming up out of the mist and bare branches of a winter wood. They had a majesty then, and it was hard to think, watching the flock, that these were the silly birds I am used to.

Which only goes to show how importance context is, and that most things aren’t very enchanting when you catch them in an urban setting with dodgy takeaways. Humans included.

Lark Magic

I go up the hill, where the larks nest in the long grasses, and soar to near invisibility in the sky, raining music down upon us. It does not matter how tired I am, or how melancholy. It does not matter what has hurt me, or how deeply. It does not matter if I am mired in anger or frustration. The lark song rains down benevolently from the sky, and everything is easier.

Water sounds affect me too – the rush and babble of a stream, the rhythm of waves, the patter of rain. Blackbird song enchants me. The cry of a hunting bird sends a thrill through my body.

Sound affects us all. It has the power to touch us emotionally, to inspire. Other sounds have their own effects. The roar of traffic. The sounds of sirens and alarms. The hums of technology. Music, and television bubble us in their own synthetic soundscapes. It’s worth thinking about how what we hear impacts on our bodies and souls.

Lark song is pure magic, as far as I am concerned. Endless traffic noise wears me down. What if we thought about the sounds in our lives as spells being cast upon us, designed to change how we feel and who we are? Which ones would we embrace, and which would we see as ‘bad magic’ and try to protect ourselves from?

Going to Granny’s House

Grandmother’s house in the woods – place of challenge and transformation, the place young women go to be turned into themselves. For me, Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and Baba Yaga are almost the same person. Neither of my biological grandmothers lived in cottages in the woods, but in my head, this is the place of grandmothers, and it has an archetypal force to it that I can’t resist.

This is why I’ve got two novels where Granny’s house in the woods features. When We Are Vanished (coming soon) has a grandmother house of transformation, and some uncertainty about whose grandmother actually owns the place! I’m currently chipping away at a novel where a deceased grandmother with a house in a valley plays a similar role – the house is a place of initiation and transformation.

My maternal grandmother’s house was a place of ghosts and cats, a place of hoarded things, where art was made, and cakes. It could be a refuge, or a place of argument and it featured heavily in my childhood. It is not the house I write about. My paternal grandmother lived in a small bungalow, and I don’t write about that space, either.

Grandmother’s house is a place of longing, and belonging. It has mythic and archetypal qualities. Perhaps we crave the fairytale granny who is all smiles and baking. Perhaps we need Mother Holle to teach us how to be women. Perhaps we need to go and ask Baba Yaga for fire.

And so when I write, I go into the woods inside my head in search of a grandmother figure. I’m writing significant absences – I don’t really know how to write this grandmother as a tangible presence, but perhaps that’s part of the point.

Grandmother’s house is somewhere around the next bend in the path. We can smell the woodsmoke. We’ve heard the chickens, although whether they will be cute, domestic chickens or something else, and whether grandmother is really a wolf, we’re still waiting to know. Perhaps we can only know when we become her.

Magical thinking for logical people

The trouble with magical thinking is that it can look distinctly irrational. Why would a few whispered words, a candle or a sprinkling of herbs change the outcome? And if there’s reason to think it did, there’s no way to prove it did.  However, to write magic off as irrational, is also to hold a set of assumptions about what reality is and how it works.

Cause and effect are not simple, mechanical procedures and we know this because the future is not predictable. Intention – human and other – is part of the mix. How we feel about things informs how we experience them. There are elements of unpredictability – weather systems being a fine case in point.  It’s the uncertainty that creates the feeling that other forces beyond our knowing could be involved, and with it the sense that we could take control.

We can take control of the insides of our heads, although most people don’t. Knowing what we want rather than being buffeted about by repressed desires and unconscious urges gives us a shot at being deliberate co-creators of our lives. We are shaped by our environments – to the degree of switching on and off genes. The person who deliberately shapes an environment has control of themselves and a significant influence on others. We become our choices. The more knowing and deliberate the choice is, the more control we have over who we become, how we feel, and how we experience life. Obviously the less control you have over a dreadful environment, and the less scope you have to escape it, the less true this becomes.

Intention shapes action. The clearer our intentions, the more able we are to deliberately follow through on them. The more open we’ll be to the things that take us in the right direction because we’re better placed to recognise them.

There is every reason to think that a spell operates inside the head of the caster – shaping, affirming, defining intent, clarifying, focusing, making way for possibilities. There’s nothing irrational about thinking we can use our thinking to change our lives – the conventional mental health intervention – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – is no different from this.

If we start from the belief that physical matter is the essence of reality, then the application of willpower is only relevant in so far as it lets us direct our bodies to interact with physical things. If you think about the nature and behaviour of atoms, the way forms of energy move, there’s certainly an argument for saying that energy and not matter, is the primary thing. Does matter lead to consciousness, or does conscious lead to matter? We can’t prove it either way, at the moment. Matter is certainly influenced by consciousness – you only have to look at what placebo effects (belief) and depression do to the body.

Of course if you do a spell, there are no guarantees, but that’s just as true of launching a marketing campaign or propositioning someone you fancy. Ours is never the only intention in the mix. Other intentions, other energies, other balances of probability are involved. If your magic aligns with a lot of other intentions and probabilities, your odds are better. The more unrealistic your magic, the less likely your chances. Again, this is just as true for the marketing pitch and the chat-up line.

Perhaps sometimes magic is better understood not as forcing your will upon the world, but being able to fit in with the world well enough to get what you want out of it. Akin to creating a product people may want to buy – always the easier sell, and chatting up the person who was already interested in you.

Mystic or Magician?

“The Mystic wants to be with God. The Magician wants to do with God.” This quote leapt out at me yesterday when I was listening to Penny Billington on The Druid Podcast.

Even though prayer, meditation, and contemplation are important to me and regular features of my life, I’ve never been attracted to the idea of mysticism. Until yesterday I could not have put the reason into words, but it has everything to do with doing.

I reflect and ponder, retreat and wonder with the intention of coming back, at some point, and doing something with that. I pause to make periods of action more feasible. I’ve never done the contemplative things purely for their own sake.

My life revolves around doing – plenty of people have suggested to me along the way that I probably need to spend more time being.  I like doing, and the more I explore this, the more I find for me, it’s about how I’m doing, and any pressures I’m under. I write and practice various handicrafts, I make music, and food, I walk, and work and colour for Camelot… but I don’t really do spells, and this has generally inclined me to feel that I’m not a magician either.

What is magic? Change. Transformation. Making something where before there was nothing. Changing hearts and minds. Healing. In Druidry, inspiration is called Awen, and understood to be a sacred force, so it would seem reasonable to think that the Druid Magician who wants to Do with God is working with divine inspiration to get stuff done. I found myself wondering, if the inspiration is divine, does the action have to be esoteric for the person to be a magician?

I’m not sure about God – there might well be gods, but I have never had any sense of them speaking to me. I have however often experienced the power of inspiration as a blessing, a lightning bolt of magic hitting the brain at just the right moment. I feel inspiration as a magical process, and I am certainly interested in aligning what I do with what is spiritual, soulful, in tune with the flows of the universe.

I also know what it feels like to ride, for a while, on one of the universe’s waves. To be so in tune with what else is moving that everything comes easily. Everything that’s needed falls into my path, as though other forces were cheerfully helping me on my way. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ve experienced it too often to doubt it. When you’re in tune with other things, magic happens.

How we frame our thoughts affects what we do and the outcomes we get. That’s an established tenet of magical thinking. What happens if I re-frame myself as a Druid Magician seeking to Do with God? (Whatever we suppose god to mean). I’ll wrap that unexpected gift of a conceptual cloak around my shoulders, and see what happens.