Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Magic in the Grove

The Place of Magical Arts in ADF

This is a piece I was asked to write for the upcoming ADF Grove Organizer's Handbook revision. The editor felt it needed a basic position paper on 'magic' in adf. Comments welcome - this is very much a first draft.

The meaning and use of ‘magic’ (I will refrain from using the ‘k’ that some attach to the common spelling, since that has associations with specific schools of practice outside of our own) in our Druidic practice is an important issue. Throughout the Neopagan Movement the term magic is common, used with a variety of meanings. To some it refers to all the ‘occult’ methods involving spells, charms, spirits and divination. To some it refers to the intrinsic wonder and mystery of the cosmos, or to the ‘energy’ that underlies existence. Some say that magic is something you ‘are’, not something you do, while others that it is a skill as much as a talent. Some see magic and religion as nearly opposites; some see them as nearly identical. There is a simple reason why ‘magic’ has such a confusion of definitions – it has in fact no clear meaning in an Indo-European Pagan context.
In the process of building an ADF Grove you may find yourself dealing with issues surrounding ‘magic’. Your new members and guests from the broader Pagan community will bring their own assumptions and ideas, and you will need to have a Druidic answer or three ready. This article is meant both to introduce a few scholastic basics concerning magic in IE Paganism and some of the real uses of magical skills in a Druidic context.
Whence Magic?
The roots of the term ‘magic’ are in the culture of archaic Greece. The Greeks were cousins of the Persians, who’s traditional Fire-priests may have been called Magi (sing. Magu). The term is nearly lost in Persian, but occurs in Greek beginning roughly in the 500sbce. Indo-Iranian priestcraft seems to have included the performance of rites meant to provide individual clients with practical goals such as fertility, wealth or the removal of ill-luck. Whether it was wandering members of that caste or merely imitators cashing in on their mystique, by 500bce there were people known in Greek as magoi, practicing mageia or magike. These figures traded in spells, blessings, dealings with spirits and the offer of spiritual experiences through secret initiations. This complex seems to have appeared foreign to the Greeks and they came to view much of it as impious and suspect. What began (and continued) as plainly sacred practice in one Indo-European culture became a complex of marginal and suspect practice in another.
If the Greeks were suspicious of the use of spiritual arts for personal goals – that is, of magic – the Romans were more so, and that suspicion passed to the Christian empire in turn. Our modern default ideas about what categorizes magic remain based on the notions of the late classical Greeks and Romans. However when we examine other IE systems we find very different attitudes.
The basic skills of what has been called magic are identical to those that are used in Pagan religious practice. Invocation of the divine, the use of herbs and stones, signs and symbols, the consecration of objects with spiritual power, the knowledge of times and seasons, all are part and parcel of traditional Pagan ritual. While all of these skills are used in the service of the Gods and the folk they can also be readily applied to the needs and will of the individual. It is the varying attitudes of IE cultures toward the private use of spiritual arts that determines their attitude toward what we call magic.
If I were to offer a definition of magic it might be: “Specialized spiritual skills employed for personally willed goals.” The core elements of Pagan religion are those employed by magicians and priests alike, and often for the same goals. Within this basic definition we can look at a couple of important basic distinctions.
Theurgy and Thaumaturgy
One basic set of categories divides specialized spiritual arts according to intention. Theurgy (Gr. ‘divine working’) is the use of spiritual skills to produce personal and group religious or spiritual experience at will. Thaumaturgy (Gr. ‘wonder working’) is the use of spiritual skills to create specific effects in the world. Wealth, health, love, and all the common goals of ‘spells’ might result either from theurgy or thaumaturgy. Thaumaturgy would seek them directly – theurgy would offer them as a side benefit of spiritual progress.
In the ancient world theurgy was part of the work of any skilled priest. Knowledge of the symbols of and calls to the Gods, of the proper use of images and physical anchors for the spirits, of the uses of herbs and stones and the hidden powers of things, of oracles and seership were all integral with IE religion. In later classical times traditional religion was challenged by Christianity and other ‘mystery’ religions. In response the traditional skills were reformulated with a focus on solitary or small group ritual. Greek thinkers debated whether these practices belonged in the less-than-reputable category of magic, and the Christian authorities placed it firmly there.
Thaumaturgy has always had a distinctly less savory reputation, but has always been studied and practiced. While there were many honest purveyors of spells and spiritual support, marketplace fortunetellers and sellers of charms were probably more common than wise men in towers. Some IE systems seem to have allowed the priesthood to work such arts for individuals, while others forbid it. Of course when the community required thaumaturgy, such as rainmaking or the cure of blight on the cattle, the priesthood’s thaumaturgical skills would be expected to be up to snuff.
Public and Private
Another important set of categories describing spiritual arts is the distinction between public and private rites. Pagan religion was decentralized, and personal and household religion was often handled by the household members. There was, however, a suspicion of rites done in secret. Among the Romans one simple distinction between an invocation and a ‘spell’ was that one was spoken plainly aloud while the other was whispered in secret.
In some IE societies the learning of these specialized spiritual skills seems to have been fairly tightly regulated by societal norms. The Celtic Druids and Vedic Brahmins seem to have had a firm apprenticeship system in which learning was limited to those who could find a teacher to accept them. However cultures with literate records of the arts would certainly have had a degree of ‘leakage’, perhaps producing self-proclaimed wonderworkers and gurus. The limitation of higher-order spiritual skills to a trained elite probably contributed to the mythic image of the ‘wizard’. The leakage of the ‘secrets’ into less approved hands helped to produce the sense of ‘forbidden arts’, even before Christian dominance. Since these arts produce powerful effects they traveled widely in a way that tended to transcend caste and other proprieties that made them subject to the public disapproval of priests.
So we can say that in some sense magic is private spiritual practice outside the control of the social authorities. When these skills, often developed in private by priests, are brought into the public temple they are usually used quietly, while the folk sing the hymns and watch the offerings. However in our modern Pagan milieu it is much more common to involve even the casual congregation in the deeper spiritual work of the rites. Once again the distinction between magic and religions blurs almost to the vanishing point.
Magic in ADF
Most of the practice of magical arts in ADF is focused on the theurgic work of our Order of Ritual. The willed intention that we bring to our High Day rites is to create an environment where mortals and the Powers can see one another, and be seen, and we can gain the blessing of the Gods and spirits. We employ ritual, trance, symbolism and offerings – all the elements of theurgy – to draw the blessing of the spirits to our Fire.
Through this we mean to have an effect upon the participants. We bring the presence of the love and power and wisdom of the Gods closer to our mortal lives. We ask the Holy Ones to bless us with health, wealth and wisdom. Sometimes we choose to direct this blessing by our conscious will. Very often we simply rely on the proper turning of the Weave of Fate, with the power of the Gods and Spirits who wish us well, to bring us what we need. You won’t hear a lot of discussion in ADF about ‘trusting in the Gods’ but there is an element of that in our works of blessing.
So as you begin to develop your skills for ritual, remember that on one level your task is to help the folk make magic. Attend to your own practice of mental discipline, and to your own devotions to the Gods. When you approach a High Day rite, especially as one of the ritualists, consider doing preliminary offerings to the Gods at your Home Shrine. There are several instructions for the patterns of visualized Inner Work for our Order of Ritual. Practice those and make an effort to apply them when you celebrate public rites.
Thaumaturgy has gotten less attention than has theurgy in our sacrificial rites. The Order of Ritual has been variously adapted for spellbinding. One rite for group practical work (http://www.stonecreed.org/rituals/blessing.htm ) uses the standard Neopagan method of ‘power raising’. After receiving the Blessing the members present the candle or token they wish to bless, speaking their intention aloud. Chanting and drumming are then used to alter awareness and focus intention to ‘charge’ the tokens. My own work in my book “Sacred Fire, Holy Well” offers a full system of Druidic ‘spellwork’ and other magical skills. In general most of the methods in common use in traditional later-period magic grow from practices common in Indo-European cultures. Images, talismans, spoken and sung charms, the ‘conjuration’ of spirits all seem to extend far beyond the late classical world into the past.
The practical application of spiritual arts as ‘spells’ or ‘magical works’ has had a very limited role in ADF overall to this time. While all the elements of such work are available in our context our focus on receiving all good things through the Blessings of our rites has made the need for tinkering with events through spells a tertiary matter. That said, we are working to build the presence of practical magic in our work. Our Clergy and Initiate’s program requires all students to try their hand at practical work, and no doubt some of us will find a knack for one or another skill. By whatever name we seem to intend to train our Druids by giving them experience of invocation of the divine, of work with spirits, divination and spellcraft.
These skills of practical spiritual arts are inherent in ADF’s design and practice, but are just beginning to find expression. More generally, spiritual arts are applied in all well-worked rites. What western ‘occultism’ has sometimes referred to as ‘high magic’ is itself an inheritance from Pagan religion. Cleansing and purification, invocation, divination and consecration play a part in every Druidic rite of worship. These skills can also be applied in service to individual practical goals, but our work is more concerned with the Blessing of the Gods and Spirits, and the finding of harmony between the individual soul and the World Order. That is the heart of the magic of Our Druidry.

Monday, June 29, 2009

They like us, they really like us!

Here's a glowing review of Starwood, the festival I helped to found and have helped to organize for each of its 29 years. Always nice to get unsolicited praise, and also nice to see a mention in the Wild Hunt Blog as well.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Trance Vision & the Threshold Realm

Here's another excerpt from the in-progress Book of Nine Moons. This is an abridgement, but should give an idea where I'm headed with the effort of adjusting the folkloric and mythic perspective on the "Otherworld" to a more modern perspective.

Trance Vision and the Threshold of the Otherworld

Part 1 – Concepts of the Other
Throughout Celtic story we find humans meeting the spirits in ways and places outside of or beyond common life. Gods, messengers, allies and opponents arrive among mortals bringing tales of their homes, of strange halls and wild places both near and far. In turn the tales tell of mortals who visit Other Folk. It is from these tales that we begin to understand the nature of what we often simply call the Otherworld.
The tales describe the dwellings of the Other Clans as being both very near to our mortal world and very far from our common lands. The armies of the Sidhe ride out from beneath the land. Mortals enter the courts and feasts of the Lords of the Mound, leaving behind common time and place. Other tales tell of emissaries arriving from over the sea, or of mortals who voyage, and of the lands of wonder, danger and vision that lie beyond the ocean wave.
Your studies should offer plenty of chances to read these tales. It is useful to immerse your imagination in the motifs of Celtic story. These provide raw materials with which we can build an understanding of the Celtic Otherworld.
It may be that the ancient idea of the Otherworld bears a resemblance to various metaphysical models. Those familiar with western magical systems might compare the Otherworld with the ‘astral plane’ or the ‘etheric realm’. However, the Celtic spirit-lands don’t seem to be causal to the common world in the way the ‘astral’ is sometimes described to be. We might find a parallel with the Dreamtime of the Australian First Peoples – a mythic, storied and ritual reality in which mortals participate along with the Gods and spirits. Hindu cosmology presents a variety of ‘lokas’ – worlds – in which Gods, spirits, ancestors and daemons dwell. The Norse have a similar system of Nine Realms. Celtic lore is far less specific about the number and order of the realms or worlds, though a variety of environments are described.

Part 2 – Vision and the Threshold
In this month’s first exercises we will enter an imagined series of landscapes and environments. In some cases we will consciously select or design the spaces. In others we will enter visions that we do not deliberately create. We will consider this half-constructed, half-discovered imaginal world to be a Threshold, a place Between the common world and the independent reality of the Other Places. We can move our point of view, our ‘presence’, into this Threshold realm in a form we invent, and in the same way the Gods and spirits can create forms that move and live in that space. The forms we see (and make) in the Threshold may or may not be the ‘true’ forms of the spirits but that need not prevent us from speaking to them through those forms. The Threshold is a reflection both of our common world and of the Other realms beyond.
While we may consciously shape and influence it, the Threshold realm exists without our conscious making. Just as the landscapes of dream occur as if subjectively real so the places of Threshold are waiting for us when we arrive. Just as in a lucid dream we can shape events and places, but the life of the Threshold realm goes on, around or even without our conscious constructions.

Part 3 – First Steps in the Mist
The very first Threshold technique is to learn to rise and move within an imagined point-of-view. In some spiritual systems students are taught to develop a detailed, repeating and specific ‘body of vision’ which serves as the seer’s ‘vehicle’. This does have value, but we find it best to recommend a more natural approach. Each of us carries a basic self-image and it is in that form that we can most easily approach our vision journeys.
One important trick of basic journey-work is to train yourself to keep your point-of-view located ‘behind the eyes’ of your vision-self. By learning to keep your point of view firmly fixed in one place and in one direction at a time you create a sense of reality in your early visions that helps you move into the Threshold realm. Your point of view may move by drifting, flying or purposeful striding but you should be careful to keep it in one place at a time in most cases.
From that beginning you can move deeper into the Threshold in a variety of ways. We will use a symbol drawn directly from Celtic story – the Mist of the Between. By passing through the vision of the thick mist so common in the ancient forests you can emerge much deeper within the Threshold realm.
By passing the Mist we seek to enter a space in which we can both discover and create a greater, more ideal Sacred Grove. In next month’s lesson we will move on to the work of passing the Mist and beginning the Inner Grove. This will become a base of operations for many further visions and workings.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bloody Good Fun

Well, I haven't finished anything actually relevant for this blog, what with life, summer and all, but one reason I haven't was our trip across two counties to see Evil Dead - the Musical. Yes, that's right. A two-act hi-bleedin'-larious homage to Sam Raimi's classic horror-comedies. And I mean bleedin'. My totally good-sport wife and I were rained upon with the spurting blood of the various dismemberments, gun-shots and staggering headless and armless corpses. Fortunately we were wearing our handy $7 splatter-zone t-shirts, which we may never wash.

If you're as out of touch with pop culture as I know some of you are, you may have missed the 1981 classic blood-and-demon fest of The Evil Dead. Sam Raimi's first success (decades before Spiderman) was a pretty serious frightener, though you could see Raimi's sense of comic timing already working. It was also the premier film of Bruce Campbell, one of my favorite almost-a-leading-man actors. (See him old and grizzled in the cool spy TV thing Burn Notice).

In ED, five college-age friends head up to an old cabin in the woods for a weekend of booze and sex. There they discover that an Old Professor has found the Necronomicon and has awakened some Kandarian Demons. Hijinx ensue. If that sounds hackneyed just realize that Raimi did it first - lots of fanboys had their fist hearing of 'Necronomicon' in these flicks.
Evil Dead was made on a shoestring and made some money, which Raimi used to make Evil Dead 2 - a much more overt comedy, with Bruce Campbell in the first and still best Fight With Your Own Hand scene. The third flick (don't ask me how, just now) becomes a medieval fantasy, with Bruce's character, Ash, forced to brave the Army of Darkness to secure the Necronomicon.

The three movies are mashed up into the mere excuse of a plot in the musical comedy. The events of the first film are followed pretty closely, and some of the best stuff from the second film gets used. The third film mainly gives us some of the choice lines of Ash dialogue... "This is my boomstick!" But the story is really just an excuse for the musical numbers. It's all singing, all dancing as the kids and various other characters either become demons themselves or madly kill and dismember demons. The few remaining living people must save the world from the dancing demon revue, and of course they do, reciting the ancient Sumerian incantation after the climactic dance in which the demons reverence the Necronomicon in various popstar drag.

This little evening of theater had 400 performances in Canada, and has already had it's Cleveland run extended. Presented at the Beck Center, in Lakewood, we were in the Studio Theater, with about 120 seats. Good use was made of the little stage, with curtains to take us into the woods, etc, and the interior set of the cabin was nicely tricked out with special effects. All the singing voices were top-notch. I had gotten the soundtrack from the bigger Canadian production some time ago, and this local cast (with just one equity actor, as Ash) did the material nicely.
But it's the script and lyrics that keep the laughs coming. It's a cheek-buster, and even people who aren't geeked-out on the original movies will find plenty to laugh at. Totally profane, as well. Ash finds several occasions to exclaim 'fuckwaffle!'. If this comes near you, you should go out of your way to see it. A fine excuse to watch the flicks again first, too...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I've just added a new link to Erynn Laurie's core site about her version of Celtic mythopoetic practice, which she calls by the Irish name of Filidecht (of poets). I've posted a lot about the occult/sorcery angle here, and maybe not so much about Celtic reconstruction efforts (whether formal CR or not). Erynn is one of the founders of the modern Neo-Celtic spiritual movement, notable for her unearthing (or publicizing - not quite sure which) of the Celtic poetic piece "The Cauldron of Poesy", and for her very important recent work on the Ogam. Her site also offers a very cool ogam deck in pdf. I have the file but haven't made the cards yet...
So, I'll be posting more Celtic and Druidic links, just to flesh out the useful resources here on el bloggo. Look for that review of "The Flaming Circle" by Robin Artisson this weekend, if I can manage it, and a wellspring review...