Tag Archives: pagan

Stealing the surfaces

Back when I was at school, a girl in my class returned to the sixth form with a new wardrobe of alternative, goth and hippy clothing. She’d decided to reinvent herself over the summer and had the money to spend on getting the look. As far as I could make out, she didn’t have an alternative bone in her body. She just thought it would be cool to look that way. I have no idea if she got what she wanted from the experience.

They turn up everywhere. Witchcraft is especially prone to people who want the look and not much else. All forms of creativity attract people who want to be seen as arty but turn out not to be willing to put in the time and effort it actually takes to make stuff. I don’t know if this is because the people doing it never realise there’s more involved than the surface appearance. It’s probably about a desire for attention and wanting to be more interesting than they consider themselves to truly be.

Superficial lifestylers can be deeply annoying when you’re trying to really invest in something. People who can swing in and buy the appearance of your culture without really caring what that culture is. But at the same time, for most of us – if we are white, western, and not being oppressed in some way – we can afford to shrug and ignore it. Next year, these folk will re-invent themselves and become someone else’s problem. If your Pagan path is about getting online and trying to put straight the Pagans who aren’t Pagan enough or otherwise aren’t doing it right – well, that can become another superficial exercise in wanting attention and trying to look the part.

Wanting attention is very normal, very human. From our earliest school days we learn about cool kids and outsiders. We learn about group membership, and the importance of looking the part. We’ve got a celebrity culture based entirely on appearances and many of us grow up with little reason to think that depth of care and involvement are even a thing. Sometimes, when we do want to be taken seriously, we try too hard to look the part and to seem more than we are. The desire to be taken seriously by people who are doing it for real can prompt some daft behaviour. But again, our wider western culture doesn’t encourage us to rock up humble, admitting what we don’t know and showing respect to those who have done it for longer and gone to greater lengths.

For most humans, attention functions as a reward. What kind of attention it is can be less of an issue. So if you see someone buying their way in, being superficial, focusing on the bling and not the study and so forth, the best thing to do is make little comment or fuss about it. If they are someone who yearns for more than this, eventually they will figure out how to ask for guidance, or they’ll get moving on their own. If they aren’t serious, they will drift away. It’s when we pour energy into it and make drama around it that we reinforce being superficial. We’re rewarding it with attention and energy. Quiet disinterest can be a good way of guarding your own resources, and a simple, quiet way of teaching people to up their game.

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Sacrificing Virgins

Having been ‘out’ as a Pagan since my teens, I have always attracted questions from people who know nothing. “Do you dance naked?” and “Do you sacrifice virgins?” (no, and no).

My guess is that the idea of Pagans sacrificing virgins comes from bad horror films, B movie Satanists and the lurid dreams of people who want to shut Paganism down. I think for a long time, Paganism functioned as a kind of shadow self for Christianity – if you think about the ways people imagined witches, for example. Naked, having orgies, smearing themselves with strange substances, snogging devils and so forth. The idea of witchcraft has created an emotional space in which incredibly repressed people could think about sexy things without having to feel guilty, so long as they kept telling themselves they were horrified by it.

I see similar patterns today in tabloid ‘news’.

The obsession with virginity is a Christian thing, not a Pagan one. I think many of our more permissive Pagan ancestors divided women up only in terms of whether they had birthed a child or not – no child makes you a maiden. This is a pretty easy state for an observer to figure out, and making mistakes about it doesn’t matter when it’s not especially loaded with cultural implications anyway.

Virginity is a concept deeply linked to patriarchy. It is woman as property, unspoiled by the touch of another ‘owner’. It is reproduction as the property of the man, and female inexperience enables male ownership. Virginity is a construct, not a reality, and for many young people, gaining experience is a process, not an event. The idea of virginity tends to be focused on straight penetration and to miss out the experiences of gay and lesbian people. Sexual experience should be about exploration, not focused on this antiquated notion of ‘deflowering’. Virginity itself is a concept that doesn’t reliably hold up well in a Pagan context.

Human sacrifice has always been a popular thing to accuse your enemies of. It’s also been something many cultures have practiced. The Romans were deeply opposed to human sacrifice, considering it a barbaric custom and a reason to conquer a tribe. At the same time, Romans crucified people to make political points, and celebrated the deaths of countless people in the gladiatorial arenas, with death as a popular spectacle. Christians who burned/hanged Pagans and heretics did so ostensibly for the good of the sinner’s soul, but it still looks a lot like human sacrifice to me. The lines between punishment, ritual and spectacle are often blurred and uneasy when we look at the past.

Sacrificing virginity when it means the taking it for ritual or magical purpose just makes no sense in this context. People who practice sex magic are looking for the power and energy that can be raised through the act and for that, you need confidence and experience.

Why do people think Pagans want this kind of thing? I think it says far more about the people who ask the questions than it does about us.


Short reviews for magic-laden fiction

The Naked Witch

This is a charming witch lit novel. The main character – Lizzie – is a single mum to a teenage daughter and a practicing witch. As the book opens, she’s dealing with a relatively new job, and may have some romance entering her life – so far so chick-lit. What follows is a modern set story with all the plot twists and power games of a gothic novel! I had no idea where it was going – a quality I greatly appreciate in a book. It’s not the magic the provides the drive for the strangeness, either. Magic is what Lizzie does to cope, stay sane and hold on to a sense of self. Communing with nature and performing rituals are part of her life, but there’s no impossibly magical solutions to life problems here. She’s a very plausible actual Pagan dealing with some bat shit crazy real life issues. I rather liked that as a mix. It was a very entertaining read, and quite the page turner with a lot to say about relationships between people.

More here – https://wendysteele.com/wendy-woo-witch-lit/

 

 

The Axe, the Elf and the Werewolf – volume 1

I’ve read a fair bit of paranormal and urban fantasy, and all too often what it does is to disenchant. In worlds where faeries show up at the office and your best friend is a werewolf, it’s all too easy to wind up with something a bit banal, and to lose the magic. Alexa Duir has written a book full of paranormal beings in the mundane world, and it is truly magical writing. It no doubt helps that Alexa has a deep understanding of myths and folklore. Bringing heathenry into werewolf culture is genius and works incredibly well. Magical characters hold onto enough mystery to stay magical, even though the story takes us into a murder mystery, and a world of arcane bureaucracy and politics. There were times, I admit, when I wondered if some of it was a metaphor for The Pagan Federation… A really entertaining read, I had trouble putting it down.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Axe-Elf-Werewolf-Wyrdwolf/dp/1477612653

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirror Dead

This is an unusual ghost story to say the least. It involves ghostly siblings who haunt the bodies of their surviving twins. The central ghost – Gray – is very much your hungry ghost. He’s entirely toxic and seems determined to ruin his host’s life. Host Simon is a mess, living on painkillers, alcohol, weed and Valium,  full of grief, pain and fear caused by his history with Gray. Of course there are times when you wonder if it is all Simon, and if all the voices in his head are entirely his own. However, as Simon struggles with life and flirts with death, another narrative line unfolds with a set of potential rescuers who might turn out to be more problematic than the ghost himself. This an intense story, dark, violent and yet often funny in a twisted sort of way. The author has a brilliant way with words, with lots of neat and insightful turns of phrase that made me chuckle as I went along. The story is utterly engaging. The characters are flawed, failing, sometimes terrible, but aside from Gray are never completely irretrievable or preposterously grotesque. It’s a story that demonstrates the scope for human compassion and warmth even in situations of utter shit and misery. There’s hope here, but nothing so straightforward as redemption. A great piece of paranormal writing that will keep you guessing right up to the end. Highly recommended.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mirror-Dead-Magda-McQueen-ebook/dp/B0759N81TK 


Belief, self and Paganism

‘Know thyself’ might be one of the most ancient Pagan instructions out there. Let’s look at the interplay between faith, and who we believe we are.

To be a witch and to put your will into the world, you have to believe that your will is powerful enough to change what’s around you. You also have to trust that your judgement is good enough to make those changes wise.

To work with any spiritual entity – Gods, faeries, ancestors, totems, guides, not only do you have to believe in them, but you also have to believe in yourself. You have to believe you are someone a Goddess or others would want to work with. You have to believe that your experiences represent something valid and profound. You have to be confident it isn’t the voice of ego or wishful thinking in your head. You have to be confident that what you experience is not madness.

To work with intuition you need that same confidence that you aren’t just perceiving your own fantasies. If you suffer from anxiety or depression it is much harder to trust your perceptions, much less your intuition. You need to be able to believe in your capacity to see clearly, un-muddled by fear, over-optimism, desire or distress.

Often in Paganism, you need to be able to hold the belief that your individual action matters on a bigger scale than your own life. You may need to believe that the universe has a benevolent attitude to you. For almost all magical practice you need to believe that you are worth having things changed for. Sometimes by extension it becomes necessary to believe there are reasons why other people aren’t as valued, protected and blessed. It can lead you to a place where you have to do some really interesting thinking to explain when you do all the things and aren’t protected or blessed.

You won’t go looking for Goddesses if you do not believe that a Goddess would be interested in finding you. You won’t do magic if you don’t believe your circumstances could change. You won’t pray for intervention if you truly don’t believe you deserve any better. You won’t undertake rituals unless you believe those rituals have some kind of effect. What we believe about ourselves can be as influential on our spiritual lives as any belief we have about how the rest of the universe functions.


Fickleness, loyalty and virtue

Loyalty is generally seen as a virtue. In heroic cultures, loyalty to your leader is much prized – loyalty makes it to the list of nine Heathen virtues for this reason. It is key to cooperation, and is woven into marriage vows as well – we often pledge to love each other in sickness and in health, for better or worse – to be loyal regardless of adverse circumstances or better offers. To stick with someone, or something when the going gets tough, can take courage and determination as well as generosity. Loyalty is something to treasure.

However, like all ideas, it has its limits. Staying loyal to the person who has abused your loyalty stops looking like virtue and starts looking like self harm. If people are not loyal to us in return, it may be ill advised to remain faithful and devoted to them. Staying loyal to someone who has behaved dishonourably is also questionable. JK Rowling’s loyalty to Johnny Depp, for example, does not inspire confidence in her, and strikes me as a rather dishonourable choice. There can be no honour in loyally sticking up for the cheat, the abuser, or the exploiter.

Loyalty can get us stuck places to no one’s benefit. Sometimes you just need to come in, and do the things, and when the things are done, move on. Staying out of a sense of loyalty can keep something going that is no longer use or ornament. As Pagans we recognise that death and decay are part of the natural cycle. Everything has its seasons, its lifespan. To loyally cling on and not give up on something that needs to be allowed to die may feel like virtue, without having the consequences of virtue.

Truly virtuous behaviour, from a Pagan perspective, makes more good happen. It enables, it causes self and/or others to flourish. Virtue promotes health and wellbeing, and enables us to have good lives in all the sense of that word. Anything taken to excess won’t do that. Loyalty taken to excess becomes limiting and harmful.

We all need room to experiment and to change. What made sense for us at one life stage may stop making sense as we age. Our needs shift. Sometimes we all need the freedom to flit between projects, jobs, friends, lovers, belief systems, in order to figure out who we are and where we fit. Sometimes we need to be fickle, to change our minds, to pull away from what we once enthusiastically embraced. If loyalty must be absolute, and commitment must be unconditional and for always, we stifle ourselves.


A Steampunk Manifesto

Something cheering today, I thought! I first heard this piece in Lincoln last summer, and it was a wild blast of a performance full of mirth and enthusiasm. What’s below is A steampunk manifesto, not a definitive work. It’s more of an invitation, I feel, for people to go away and think about what their own steampunk manifesto would look like. Or their Pagan manifesto, or anything else they wanted to write an impassioned declaration about.

 

 

You can find Kevan Manwaring over here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com

And you can find the manifesto on Tom’s Etsy page, along with other originals and posters that we will send to you in exchange for money.  https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/583729847/steampunk-manifesto?ref=shop_home_active_2

(We will later exchange said money for foodstuffs, art supplies, coffee and a steady supply of presentable trousers).


My life with books

One of my many hats, is that of book publicist. It’s work I’m proud of, and also work I think it might be useful to talk about. As an author, and as a person with lots of friends who are authors, I know quite a lot about the publishing industry. The bigger a company you deal with, the more they look for a sure fire win. They want books that are an easy sell. Most Pagan authors would not be able to get their non-fiction work picked up by a major publisher. Or their Pagan fiction for that matter.

For me, it’s always been a case of trying to identify really good books and then get those books in front of the people who would appreciate them. I think this is what the publishing industry should be about – getting great reads to people. Most of the time it isn’t. My friends Phil and Jacqui can’t get a deal – editors love their work, but Matlock the Hare is about a talking hare, and talking animals are children’s books and these are not children’s books and therefore it cannot be done. They are one example among many.

The average book sells three thousand copies in its lifetime. A bestseller is a book that sells more than five thousand copies. Over at Moon Books, Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess – a book about ritual descent and shadow work, has sold over ten thousand copies. This is not the sort of book that many publishers would have taken forward, and yet, the numbers tell a different story. Some time next year Morgan Daimler’s introduction to The Morrigan is also going to pass the ten thousand mark for sales. I take great pride in helping promote these books. What really sells them is that they are excellent and needed.

I’ve seen repeatedly that an original book in a definable niche can actually do better than something that looked like a box ticking crowd pleasing sure fire thing. Forgive me if I don’t name names and ask you to take that on trust.

The author who knows who, specifically they are writing for can do a lot better than the one who imagines they are writing for everyone.

For folk on the literary side, there can be something distasteful about having to consider the lowly business of actually selling the books. The book is published, and then by magic, should sell itself by dint of its obvious literary merit. Again, I’ve seen it done and I won’t name names. The kinds of books that get listed for literary prizes have often only sold a few hundred copies before they make the list. This frustrates and annoys me. If you believe something is good, surely it makes sense to do everything you can to get it in front of people who will appreciate it?

I can say with confidence that when good books sell, good things happen for the authors who created them. The morale boost of a few thousand sales versus a few hundred is considerable.

Moon Books has proved repeatedly that a book doesn’t have to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, or an obvious easy sell in order to be massively successful. All you have to do is figure out who is going to want to read a book and get it in front of them. I see my comics publisher – Sloth Comics – doing the same thing. Sloth publishes quirky comics, and then gets out there and sells them to people. That’s not a quick or an easy process, but it is possible. I think the same must be true of anything else good, well made, beautiful, thoughtful, or worth having.

We live in a world where the norm is to make cheap throwaway things, pile them high, sell them as fast as you can and move onto the next one. I know, because I’m part of a company that does it, that other ways are available. I know there are plenty enough people out there who want substance and quality, originality and beauty. I feel no shame in trying to sell to those people so that good authors are paid for their work and encouraged to keep going.


Pagan Prayer

This is an excerpt from When a Pagan Prays. I started out exploring prayer as an intellectual idea, and discovered that the only way I was going to make any sense of it was by doing it. The book was a result of more than a year of exploration. It was a really interesting process that had a huge impact on me. It also made me realise that I didn’t want to continue shaping my personal practice around things I might later be able to write a book about.

“First and foremost, to stand before the unknown is to recognise the existence of the unknown. That which is bigger than we are. That which transcends our understanding. Prayer is an act of opening awareness that puts our small lives into important perspective. Most of the time we need to protect these fragile, human minds by not letting them be swamped with how much there is outside of us. We tune out far more sensory information than we allow into our conscious awareness. However, it benefits us to drop that defence now and then, to consider the terrifying, glorious enormity of it all. Death. Infinity. Eternity. You might call it deity, you might not. Of course our human natures want the enormity to wear a friendly face, pat us gently on the head and say, “Well done, keep up the good work.” Of course we want mystery to be on a manageable, human scale. This is why we like to give bits of it names, beards, clothing preferences and stories. Religion is all about making the unimaginable possible to engage with. Prayer is all about letting go of those stories again to try to encounter what we cannot hope to
comprehend,

I cannot tell you what it means to stand in that place of awareness for a few seemingly bright seconds. I’d love to say it’s like this familiar thing, or that other thing you do, and bring it down to a more mundane level. If I did that, I wouldn’t be telling you what it is like. We go there for ourselves, or not at all.

I’m conscious that I am barely skimming the surface of mystery and that many others will have gone far deeper in their quests. I have only deliberately worked with prayer for about a year now. I have an advantage in that nearly two decades’ worth of meditation work have given me some mental discipline and I know how to open my mind a bit. I can be still and quiet. It also helps that I can shift fairly easily from dealing with the mundane, to states of mind appropriate for ritual and trance. I find those same sorts of mental states are necessary for prayer.

What I struggle to do, is to remain in that place of openness to mystery for more than very short bursts. My psyche simply cannot maintain it, and I recognise there may be very good reasons not to go too far, anyway. Practice is no doubt key here, returning over and over to a deliberate opening up, and listening, to glimpse some fleeting thing and fall away again. It feels very much as though I am breaking my mind open. Perhaps if I managed to do this all at once, my reason would not survive the experience. I am here to live in this world, not to gaze continuously at something else. It is absolutely essential therefore that I crack myself open gently, slowly and with care. Not just to avoid madness, but because I think there are other processes happening here and I suspect time is needed for those.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays


Excerpts, dreaming and a winter break

Over the coming few weeks I’m going to be sprinkling the blog with book excerpts. This is because in order to spend half a week with a stall on the Stroud Christmas market, and to have any hope of a week off, I need to set up the blog in advance, and I need that not to be excessively hard work! Yes, I could stop doing a post a day, but then the hits on the blog fall away and it makes me sad, so, you get book excerpts!

Here’s the first one, taken from Pagan Dreaming, and here we get into why I think dream dictionaries are questionable…

“Why should we accept the authority of a dream dictionary, when we would not accept the authority of an official priesthood?

There’s an additional issue here that in ancestral cultures, interpreter and dreamer could be assumed to have exactly the same background, history, symbols and beliefs. A shared symbolic language makes it more likely that one person can meaningfully comment on another person’s dreams. A glance at human history will show you that symbols are not universal. The swastika has been both a sun sign and a fascist emblem. Some cultures consider black cats to be good luck signs, others find them unlucky. All symbols are culturally specific in their meanings. So for ancestors who shared culture and symbolism, the priest might well be able to help the dreamer make sense of things. These days it is less likely that any two people will entirely share a symbolic language, making interpretation necessarily a more personal business.

We have a very diverse and fractured culture, exciting in its lack of hegemony, but in which we can no longer make assumptions about shared icons and archetypes. My symbols may well not be your symbols. Thanks to technology, we have access to a wide ranging culture that gives us new stories, imagery, metaphors and concepts on a daily basis as well as access to all of the available mythology and culture of the world. The speed and
quantity of material we are exposed to also undermines our scope for having a shared symbolic language. What I read yesterday may inform me, and you have no way of knowing what I tapped into. The dreamer’s associations can therefore be radically different to the ideas an interpreter brings to them. How can we possibly assume the existence of a universal language in this context? Furthermore, with such breadth and richness to draw on for potential symbols, how can a book of a few hundred pages hope to cover all possible symbols and meanings, or deal with the speed at which pop culture icons change?

Culture not only informs our symbols, it also tells us what is important. In materialistic western culture, we might be more motivated to look for insight into our careers and financial prospects, than into the condition of our morals and virtue, for example. This will direct us to pay more attention to some dream details than to others, and probably shape what we dream about in the first place. We are unlikely to dwell on things we truly consider to be irrelevant. Thus we cannot think about dreams without also bringing into consideration our relationship with our culture.

It is worth being cynical and considering that writing dream interpretations is really easy. You can make correlations with anything that takes your fancy, and no one can objectively prove that you are wrong. You might find it amusing and instructing to invent a few dream definitions of your own. Or, take some focus that pertains to the human experience (sex, ambition, frustration, depression) and work out how every dream you can remember
having can be made to fit that interpretation. You will find that anything can be made to seem like a symbol of anything you want it to. If you intend to work with symbols, then understanding how innately malleable they are, and how vulnerable to our desires they can be, is really important. Any attempt at working with symbols has to at least try to budget in the impact of human desire – conscious and unconscious. All too often we see what we want, or what we fear may be true, not what is actually before us.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-dreaming

 


Darkest Part – a review

Darkest Part is a ten track album by Madeleine Harwood. Madeleine won Bard of Hawkwood last year, and has gone on to do all sorts of exciting things since – this album being one of those.

Darkest Part is a really unusual piece of work. The songs are all original, and are sung unaccompanied. There aren’t many people who could pull off an entire album of unaccompanied singing, but Madeleine makes this absolute focus on voice and words work for her.

I’m not confident saying what kind of genre of music this is. There’s a folk influence, there’s also blues, jazz, gospel, and moments that put me in mind of many different female singer songwriters who don’t play by the rules. This is something unique, which has grown out of roots music. It is music as art, but it isn’t like contemporary art music. It is voice as instrument, but the words aren’t secondary. The tunes are powerful, soaring, making use of Madeleine’s vast range and vocal power. They are also earworms, I find they follow me around and snatches of song replay in my head at unexpected moments.

In terms of the lyrics, again this is really unusual stuff. The Darkest Part that the title refers to, is being bi-polar. A number of the songs are very much about living with mental health problems. It is intense, beautiful stuff, and there’s much in what’s said here about depression and anxiety that really resonates with me. There’s also a gorgeous overtly Pagan song about Bablon, which gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. The lyrics are in the CD case so you can read them separately – and they certainly reward the person who does that.

I’ve known Madeleine a long time. We were at school together. I was reading her poetry when we were in early adulthood, and I loved her work then, and I love it now. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit with her in pub back rooms and heard some of these songs when they were first written. The amazing voice that emerges from the CD is simply how she sounds any time she sings. You can hear when you listen that this is a voice presented naturally, because nothing needs tinkering with. If you get a chance to hear her singing live, I heartily recommend that you do.

You can find Darkest Part lots of places, here’s the Amazon link – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B074Y9CKJ8/