Tag Archives: Elen Sentier

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!


Taleweaving: teaching tales

A guest post by Elen Sentier

Folk and fairy tales have come down to us through the ages. They continue to be birth themselves today with modern authors like Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife, and Patricia Wrede’s Talking to Dragons.

What is a folk tale? They can be hard to describe but one thing they all seem to have in common is that they’re teaching stories. They all have a point and teach how to be and work with otherworld through the actions of the characters. They show us how the world, the universe and everything works and have done since our ancient hunter-gatherer told tales and to help their younger folk to learn the ways of the world. They show us ordinary folk (show not tell!) how to be and behave when we meet otherworld.

And this is what I write, magic/mystery/romance. The novels are set in the present and involve ordinary people and revolve around a female protagonist. They also have an important male second-lead who also has to learn how to be with otherworld. Both the woman and the man have a relationship that needs lots of work from both of them if they’re going to make it. They have lives, problems, wants, needs, frustrations, all the usual stuff of life that we all have, but they also have connections to otherworld even if they’re not quite convinced about this! Sometimes they reject this otherness … and then have to backtrack in order to go forward. They find themselves asked to do something they don’t understand but which grabs them by the heart and the gut so they have to follow, do it.

My first two novels, Owl Woman & Moon Song, do just this. Both have female protagonists who both have to stretch themselves beyond their limits in order to achieve their quests. Both women have difficult relationships that they have to “grow into” … and so do the men! They have ordinary, everyday difficulties as well as otherworldly ones. Their challenges happen in both thisworld and otherworld at the same time, for this is how it is in real life! Magic intermingles with our everyday life but mostly we’re afraid to look, afraid to see it. Both Vicki in Owl Woman and Isolde in Moon Song manage to do this. They’re human, funny, annoying, daft, brave, and full of grit, guts and determination, they are strong women. They show you how to work with otherworld.

I’m working on the third novel – Whispering Bones – with another female protagonist and her difficult relationships with her father and lovers. She and they have to learn how to be, how to work with otherworld. It’s what our stories do and how we learn best for we are Taleweavers and we love to listen to them, hear them, and learn from them.

You can find out more about Elen and her books over at http://elensentier.co.uk/

The stories that keep hold

There are a number of stories about stories so powerful that they echo through time. Such tales speak to our belief in the power of myth, and our willingness to believe that a tale closely associated with a place, or events rooted in the distant past, can keep a hold that influences the present. Alan Garner’s ‘The Owl Service’ is one such tale, where Welsh myths keep replaying themselves in the same valley, drawing in new people to take on the three leading roles, usually with tragic consequences.

Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Castle D’Or’ does something similar with the Tristan and Isolde myth, capturing two young people in the same story, such that it overpowers their lives, and destroys them. These tales are distinctly different from updates and retellings, which play out the themes in different contexts. What’s important here is the way landscape and story combined are able to recreate themselves – perhaps because the original protagonists are fated to reincarnate in the same spot and keep playing it out, or because the story and place draw new players in.

Elen Sentier’s new novel – Owl Woman – makes a fascinating addition to this kind of tale. The characters in her story live in a village that is both protected and defined by some rather curious stories about where the water comes from. Here, the people are aware of their story, and are, for the greater part, active participants in a process of keeping the myth happy and well behaved. When that balance is lost, some of the darker and more dangerous parts of the story start to replay themselves, and there’s a real risk that it will take a number of deaths to restore the balance. Despite what the title may suggest, this is not a Blodeuwedd related myth, but something unique to the landscape in which it is set.

There’s a power in stories that are tied to landscapes in this way. What Elen’s novel suggests to me is that these stories exist because they represent something of how we are supposed to interact with the land. If we remember the stories about how to live in a place, we can live peacefully there. If we forget those stories, or ignore them, we can set off the cascade of bad things that happen when you don’t respect the place.

As a relevant aside, I listened to Neil Gaiman talking (on youtube) about experts trying to figure out how we could keep nuclear waste sites safe for the tens of thousands of years it would take for them to stop being dangerous. The verdict, was myths. The most enduring thing we might use to help distant descendants whose culture and language is not the same as ours, to deal with the dangers we leave, is to leave them stories. That said, given the total disinterest most modern humans have in stories about what it is a really bad idea to do, I’m not sure this would work.

Owl Woman is a really engaging tale with a large cast of characters, both heroic and less so. I greatly enjoyed it. On one level it’s a mug of cocoa and cold winter’s afternoon sort of book. On another level, it’s a passionate case for ancestral wisdom, for respecting what’s handed down and respecting the land you live on.

Meeting Elen Sentier

The interwebs are a strange country, where there are a great many people. I know what people choose to share with me, and there are many internet people I am very fond of. However, there is a whole different kind of knowing that comes from being with someone in person. Sometimes, tone of voice, and body language can make all the difference. Some people in person turn out to be exactly as you anticipated from their online self. Some of us are more honest than others.

I think, casting my mind back, that I first ran into Elen Sentier on facebook. The first exchange we had that left a lasting impression was around the release of her Celtic Chakras book. Now, I don’t do chakras, and was very clear about this, but I read the book, and found her very readable. I still don’t do chakras. Our paths are so different in some regards that her non-fiction work makes very little emotional sense to me. Her fiction I really like.

Yesterday we sat in a cafe and drank tea, talked about Steampunk, falconry, why we don’t like scripts in ritual and how dislocated many modern urban folk are from the natural world. We talked about non-dogmatic teaching methods and the importance of finding your own path. It was all very easy, as though we had been in the habit of drinking tea and talking about the work we do for decades, not minutes.

I don’t need anyone else to see the world exactly as I do, or follow the path that I follow. It can be delightful to walk beside someone for a while, but it certainly isn’t necessary. So long as the person I’m talking to is equally relaxed about me not seeing things their way, all of the differences of opinion cease to be reasons for conflict and become points of interest. There’s a lot to be learned from talking to someone who sees things differently but doesn’t need to convert you.

We talked about books, too – of course! There are a lot of people I have connected with through their books. Moon Books, which publishes both my work and Elen’s, has a vast array of Pagan authors. I read as much as I can, most of it isn’t close to my path, but there is always some scope for finding inspiration. I like knowing what other people are exploring and are interested in. It stops me getting any silly ‘one true way’ ideas for a start. We agreed that, however alien we find the content of other people’s books sometimes, the Moon Books writers, for the greater part, clearly have their hearts in the right places. (I don’t know all of them, so, no absolute claims here).

Tea with Elen Sentier confirmed a lot of that impression for me. People who meet open heartedly and as equals, with no desire to convert or compel each other can have incredibly valuable exchanges, without needing much common ground at all.

Second hand Graves

Elen Sentier’s guest blog got me thinking about my own relationship with Robert Graves, and the wider implications for Pagans. Like Elen, I first came to Graves through my family. I recall my father reading The White Goddess when I was a child. Ideas of maid, mother and crone entered my mind, uncritically. The sacrifice king, the oak and holly kings, all got into my mind. Only later did I find out where I’d picked all of that up. I didn’t acquire the Celtic Tree calendar or the issues of Ogham as a sacred, ancient and Druidic language as a child, but for second and third generation modern Pagans, that’s easily done.

When I finally read The White Goddess, and enough of the Golden Bough to develop an impression (I hated it, was mostly my impression…) it struck me that Graves was writing poetic truth. Taken on those terms, his work is amazing, awen-laden stuff and well worth your time. It suggests incredible magic just beyond your reach, and the desire to grasp that may keep you fruitfully questing for the rest of your life.

However, the trouble with Graves, is that a lot of people seem to have taken it as history. Ideas from The White Goddess have leached into Pagan writing to a remarkable degree. I’ve seen dashes of Graves all over the place. His interpretations of Ogham shape the consensus understanding now dominating modern Paganism. His tree calendar has gone distinctly feral while the sacrificial kings he acquired from Frazer are now so well established that we’ve all accepted the folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ as a religious expression. Having grown up with folk as well, Mr Barleycorn always struck me as being a personification and celebration of the beer – not ancient Paganism, but part of that innate human inclination to celebrate.

Most of us will first encounter the ideas of Robert Graves second hand and out of context. The odds are it will be the tree calendar. If you’re a Druid, you might get crane bags, the battle of the trees or the ogham interpretations. Drip fed the ideas of Graves, they become part of your world view, and if you get round to The White Goddess having internalised a few of these, it’s all too easy to read uncritically, miss the poetic, and invest in the idea of Graves as History.

We have made modern myths. Myths are in essence stuff people came up with, and the measure of a myth is not its age, but what it gives to us. In that regard, a modern myth can be just as helpful as an old one. How helpful is Graves? The idea of working closely with trees, and the possible pattern is definitely useful, but the dogmatic approach that ties trees to months regardless of what grows where you live, seems counterproductive to me. I have great personal dislike for his triple goddess archetype – maid mother and crone divides femininity into pre-kids, breeding and no longer breeding, trapping women into a restrictive identity story. I do not like his attitude to women, muses or goddesses. Woman as passive, inspiration giving muse/goddess, man as inspired creator and poet underpins his thinking. Stuff that! And then there’s the sacrifice kings, another narrative of heterosexual power exchange, male sovereignty, passive goddess overseeing…  it does not speak to me. I do not want a role in this story.

If you find Graves inspiring, as myth or as poetry then go for it, enjoy. My concern is that we’ve used his work to restrict ideas of goddess, femininity, gender roles and ideas about what it means to live this life as a Pagan.

Robert Graves – an anarchist’s perspective

a guest blog from Elen Sentier

As someone who is married to a scientist who used to work at the Rutherford-Appleton Lab in Oxfordshire, and is the daughter of an engineer I find the “arts-type” view of “facts” amusing and somewhat disquieting.

What is a fact?

How many real facts can you list – I’m not absolutely certain I can think of one!

Scientists work with hypotheses, that’s Greek for damn good guess that has been shown to fail yet. Well actually perhaps, that it only fails in certain cases which we know very little about yet such as relativity/quantum. And anyway, we have observed that light is both particles and waves – which seems to most ordinary mortals to be a pair of diametrically opposite things and therefore impossible. Yes … well … umm … growing up in a household where this kind of thing was normal breakfast conversation makes a difference to how you look at the academic Arts mind. And then marrying someone who was involved in experiments where the boss PhDs concluded that the only way to explain the experiment was a particle going backwards in time … I dare say you’re getting the idea *grin*.

Science and engineering work on the principles of observation – not on the priciples of footnotes and what people have said in the past.

I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Professor Eric Laithwaite (who invented the linear motor and explored the spin-energy of planets as an energy source we humans might use). He began one lecture at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London as follows …

‘I likes taking to school children. I don’t like the teachers, I like the children. Very often I begins by dropping me keys from one hand to another [he demonstrated]. Sooner or later some little tyke at the back says, “Hey, mister, what you’m droppin’ them keys for?” to which I reply, “I’m always hoping they’ll go ooop!”…’

And all this in his glorious Lancashire accent *smile*.

Laithwaite finished the lecture by putting up a cartoon; it showed a learner driver, a young woman, sat in a car beside a young man who was the instructor. It was a wee bit odd because the car was bowling along above the road at tree height! Laithwaite has the instructor saying to the young woman, “Now then Mrs Postlethwaite, don’t you worry none, but when we gets back to the ground just try and remember exactly what it was you did!”

It’s well worth looking here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Laithwaite – see more of what he did, he was a wizard, a real magic man … and he was a scientist.

What has all this to do with Robert Graves? For me, and for my dad who introduced me to Graves, and my husband who walks between the worlds of Boolean algebra and Graves as breakfast conversation, the point is about the tyranny of so-called “facts”. It is so, so easy to climb into the box of accepted wisdom and so many scholars do precisely that. Footnotes and end-notes and scholarly tomes were written by people, including Graves. People have their own axes to grind and their own additions, adaptations, and enhancements to make; many of them write from a political background – most of the Roman writers for instance. And, all history is written by the winners!

I used to be a senior project manager building computer systems for the MOD, back in the day some 25 years ago! It was fun, then, and we all had wonderfully cynical perspectives and sharp humour. We had a couple of perennial jokes that exactly illustrate my feelings for footnotes and tomes. The first is …

The battle commander needs to send a message. He tells his adjutant, ‘Send this message: send reinforcements, we’re going to advance.’ The adjutant passes it down to the lieutenant who passes it to the sergeant major, who passes it to the sergeant, who passes it to the corporal, who passes it to the squaddie who is the Sigs Op of the night. The Sigs Op sends the following message, ‘Send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance’ …

My point … things that have been written down ages ago and then translated many times from the original language can end up as Chinese whispers and very likely do. Add in that everyone has their own opinion of what the ancient writer means … As Clint Eastwood says in one of the Dirty Harry movies, ‘Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one!’

Our other perennial joke is …

Definition of an expert – an “ex” is a has-been, a “spurt” is a drip under pressure!

Yeah … well … LOL and who hasn’t felt that then? My point is that it is only to easy to feel oneself to be an expert, especially if you have alphabet soup after your name (and yes, I do too! I just never mention it!). And it is only to easy to act like a drip under pressure if you feel your academic standing is threatened!

Graves went round breaking rules and threatening everyone with his ideas and insights. That was right up my anarchical parents’ street and my hubby too and, of course, myself. I really learn things well when I observe, not when I try to learn from books. That always feels like learning someone else’s script to me and I’m really useless at living in someone else’s way … actually (with my psychotherapist hat on) so are most people. We do conform because if we don’t we find ourselves out of a job, with no money for rent or food or heating, and quite possibly out of friends too as we’re not doing what they think we should. Question … are such folk really friends?

So, back to Graves … he not only climbed out of the box he largely ripped it to shreds and turned the remains on its head and then set fire to it. For some of us a phoenix rose out of those ashes. For others he is anathema. And some ditz between the two *smile*.The scientific perspective will be that nothing is proven, ever, everything is always changing and growing and evolving, there are no tomes, no stone tablets, that cannot be broken. That feels like life to me; life is always changing and growing and evolving, it’s never the same from one moment to another … and I don’t want it to be. I’m reminded now of the Incredible String Band and their song “This Moment” … “this moment is different from any before it, this moment is different, it is now”. I think many folks forget this, quite possibly find it very scary and unsettling, they want a “stable base” from which to be. But we live on the third rock from the sun that’s hurtling through space like a ball on the end of a string at some 67,000 mph! Yikes! The Earth herself is spinning on her axis at about 1000 mph – double yikes! And we think we’re staying still ??? Umm …

I’ve always found Graves to be like contemplating all that, all those impossible things that are utterly real, like light being particles and waves, like we’re spinning at 1000 mph and flying through space at 67,000 mph, like wouldn’t it be fun if when I drop my keys they go up and gravity works backwards? Yay, all scary stuff … but wow is it exciting *big grin*.