Friday, October 28, 2011

Mastering Witchcraft Bandwagon

I just can't resist chiming in on the ongoing discussion, begun at The Used Key Is Always Bright on the classic manual of practical Pagan magic, Mastering Witchcraft.
MW became available in my hometown in 1971, in its hardback original release. I was sixteen years old, and the discussion with my parents about my growing interest in occultism occasionally reached high volumes. I used birthday money, bought the book, and quickly scrawled my name across the front leaf so that it couldn't be returned. Despite more loud discussion, I retained the book, and from it I began to learn ritual magic.

Huson claimed to reveal the true names of the witches' Goddess and God, a tidbit that seems hackneyed now, but was rather monumental in those days. Gardner, Valiente and all the first-wave public witches made rather a show of concealing what are now openly worshipped names. He taught a simple, elemental ritual system using the tools based on the grimoiric tool-set, plus other minor tools. All this was presented in classical magical style, everything properly consecrated and devoted to the art. No Kitchen-witchy, using your turnip-knife for spells for our Paul. I had already found "The Black Arts", and was pleased to find ritual witchcraft that conformed to the description of magic in the souces I was reading.

MW doesn't exactly teach 'worship' of the gods, but it does teach effective techniques for invocation. While Huson pays a little lip-service to duotheism his actual system is based on the aid of a specific group of deities, arranged in roughly elemental style. Thus Habondia for Water, the chalice and love-spells; Hermes-Mercury for Air, the wand and divination; Cernunnos for Fire, the dagger (he says athame) and cursing; And Nocticula-Saturnus for Earth and bindings. Protective magic is given to the Elemental Spirits, arranged in the usual way in the four-quartered circle. A thread that runs throughout his witchcraft mythology is that of the "Watchers" - the Nephelim, ancient spiritual beaings that are said to have taught mortals sorcery. It's far from clear whether the gods that are actually invoked are to be thought of as Watchers, or what. The fact is, folk myth doesn't care, and neither does Huson.
One of Huson's great skills is the ability to take snippets of medieval lore and reframe them in working rituals. Every so-often I run across another piece of stuff quoted as a fragment or remnant that i recognize from Huson's work. His approach to crafting spells is still a major guide for me. He's also had a huge influence on the Pagan and quasi-Pagan magical scene. I doubt there are many performances of the Dumb Supper that don't rely on MW for their basic form, and the conjuration of Vassago is one of the earliest modern rethinkings of grimoiric ritual. The set of magical goals is thoroughly urban and personal. There are no 'fertility' spells, nor workings to recognize or support seasonal changes.
The chapter on 'The Coven and How to Form One' has been one of the most influential pieces in Neopagan history. Huson skips theology, for the most part, to give solid advice on how to organize a small magical group. He does recommend keeping the eight 'Sabbats', but gives no seasonal scripts. The little checklist of organization items (coven name, symbols, etc) have remained a basic guide, and were vital to the way new covens formed in the 70s and 80s. Rather than outline a hierarchy huson provides a pile of lore and ideas, encouraging readers to make of them what they will. By the time that the festival movement brought together the North American covens and working groups of the 70s it was very difficult to find a bootstrap coven or tradition that had not either been organized directly from that chapter or been directly influenced by MW. Sometimes I refer to MW as the "'Spiral Dance' of the seventies" because it both synthesized the magical feel of the moment, and provided practical support that allowed new groups to grow.
There's some dispute as to whether Huson had a connection with non-Gardnerian 'Traditional Craft' in Britain. Huson claims that his occult training came from post Golden Dawn sources, along with a personal curiosity about folklore and historic witchcraft. I did ask him a specific question in a personal correspondence, and he again said that he had no connection with craft lineage. At this moment I'm inclined to believe him.

That makes him rather a genius. He created a synthesis of traditional medieval magic with practical energy-work and visualization, reinvented the material tools and taught a generation how to cast spells and summon the Old Gods. Oh, also, he can draw rather nicely. The book is illustrated by the author, and his images of Cernunnos and Aradia have remained in circulation in the Pagan community ever since.

If there are ten books on magic that should be remembered from the 20th century, this should be one of them.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

To Mention the Dead

'Tis the seaon, here at Tredara.

This past week my father passed out of mortal life. I was blessed to be able to attend his bedside, a first in my boomer life. His passing was comfortable and quiet, with his family around him.

A conventional, quietly Christian man, my dad was also open-hearted enough to accept my Pagan ways (after twenty years made it clear that it wasn't a phase...), and he leaves several families the better for his presence.

We also honored the spirit of one of our old coven-mates, scattering some of her ash here on the land where she so often worshipped. Another first for me... hands in corpse-ash...

As we approach this season of the Dead, I'll preach just a little, and remind us all to hold fast to memory, to give honor to your own forebearers, whether of blood or of heart. Heroes or Saints, we give honor to you all.

This year I'll quote a colleague, Rev. Michael Dangler. I love this piece:

When you were born,

The earth became your body,

The stone became your bone,

The sea became your blood,

The sun became your eye,

The moon became your mind,

The wind became your breath.

When you passed to the Otherworld,

Your breath became the wind,

Your mind became the moon,

Your eye became the sun,

Your blood became the sea,

Your bone became the stone,

Your body became the earth.

When we were born, you did the same for us:

You called forth the earth and rocks;

The sea arose and the sun descended;

The moon shone down and the winds sang.

For those who come after, we shall do as you did for us

When we are gone, we shall do as you did before.

Ancestors, we honour you.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Three Books for the Dead

Recent Books Reviewed

Here in this Season of the Veil, the good news is that the Pagan and magical movement is beginning to pay some attention to the spirits of the Ancestors and the Dead. A combination of European lore with African diaspora and indigenous North American lore is seeping into both the actual practices of self-described Witches and Pagans. Our Druidry has been at the forefront of this gradual change. We began including the honoring of the Ancestors in every major rite some 20 years ago. However it is fair to say that more detailed work with the Dead is much more recent and we too are being influenced by current trends in ritual and devotion.

Here are three books that both reflect and contribute to the growing interest in spiritual work with the Dead. One is very Neopagan, though it is this year’s Neopaganism. One is of a more reconstructionist bent, though still quite eclectic in its way. The third is a more in-depth study of a living animist and polytheist tradition.

The Witch’s Book of the Dead
Christian Day
Weiser Books, 2011
If you’re a modern Neopagan who has never approached the idea of a cult of the Dead, or of directly honoring your ancestors, or if you teach folks like that, this book could be the place to start. It presents a simple background and introductory set of techniques that could help anyone begin their practice. However those good bits are rather smothered in a lot of additional text.

I’ll admit to not caring a great deal for autobiographical material in occult writing. I prefer an emphasis on ideas, not anecdote, and don’t feel a need to know that an author is impressive in order to be impressed by their magical work. So the Witch’s Book of the Dead had a lot of dead pages for me, as the author tells tales. Christian Day is a well-known entrepreneur and showman from Salem, Mass. He’s the fellow who ‘cursed’ Charlie Sheen over his ‘warlock’ comments, but only a little of that comes through here. He has plenty of tales to tell, about organizing and about practical sorcery, as well as a whole chapter on ‘ghost-hunting’ and paranormal work. Some of this was engaging, but there was rather a lot of it, compared to actual instruction.

The actual material on the Dead in Pagan ways and how to begin a practice is well-presented and concise. Day does a pretty good job of summarizing material from scholastic sources on the Dead in classical Witchcraft, usually presenting lore in snippets mixed in with the practical instructions. The book includes basics for establishing a shrine or altar for the Dead and assembling a set of tools. Proper attention is given to cleansings and dealing with difficult spirits, and classic methods of speaking with spirits, such as the pendulum and a chapter on mediumship. These amount to good, basic introductions.

Being a user of trance and spirit-vision myself, I was pleased to see attention given to the formal process of inducing trance for spirit work. I thought the methods given for inducing an oracular state were a trifle sketchy. More attention could have been paid to learning the basics of altering consciousness. (I *do* know the problem of deciding how much space to give to those methods in a book that isn’t primarily about trance.) However the actual rites and techniques that he provides are well-written and interesting examples of classical tropes like mirror vision and the skull-ally. Hopefully students will have some additional trance training to make them work.

I can recommend this book for those learning or teaching the basics of working with the Ancestors and the Dead, and who don’t mind a bit of bluster with their instruction. It is almost completely free of cultural or traditional baggage, drawing on African and western methods free of specific mythic content. While that may rob it of a bit of depth it also makes it easy to apply to whatever Pagan system one is working.

Weaving Memory
Laura Patsouris
Asphodel Press, 2010

This small book is an excellent introduction to building an ancestral practice. The author is a Northern Heathen, interested in Scandinavian and Germanic heritage, and has family connections with Afro-Cuban tradition as well. This provides a perspective that seems quite useful to those of us rebuilding a northern European Paganism.

Weaving Memory is heavily focused on family lineage, and the spirits of the generations immediately before our own. The first section addresses the lines of the mother and father in individual chapters, gives the basics of setting up an ancestral altar and beginning simple devotional practice. There is a good chapter on ‘Toxic Ancestors’, a topic frequently discussed in Druidry as we begin to work with family spirits. Later the author teaches a method of aiding and ‘rectifying’ a toxic ancestor, a thing I had never seen before.

The second section deals with the details of work with the Dead, including building the sacrificial relationship and learning the strengths of the specific allies made. There are chapters on working with the Dead for spellcraft or intentions, and some speculation on what Ancestral cults may mean about the ‘afterlife’ and reincarnation. Nice chapters on accessing ancient knowledge and the notion of community dead round it out.

Throughout, the author focuses on knowing the real spirits of individual ancestors and dealing with them through love and devotion. Few ritual forms are given, most of the work being framed as advice, leaving students to construct their own practices. The entire book is a modest 105 pages, so most chapters are short essays conveying pithy ideas in both warm and direct ways.

The final section offers guest essays, including a good piece on transgender and intersex Ancestors by Raven Kaldera. The entire book is focused on a message that the west has forgotten the Dead, and one thing that Paganism can do to restore the balance of the world is to restore our relationship with our Ancestors. I recommend Weaving Memory as a fine introduction to the work of building the ways of the dead in our Paganism today.

Palo Mayombe – The Garden of Blood & Bones
Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold
Scarlet Imprint, 2010

In Palo Mayombe, we have the first authoritative survey of a system of Afro-Caribbean sorcery and spiritism that has been the object of fear and fascination for over 100 years. While there have been shorter works and pamphlets on Palo no other source offers the level of understanding that is available to readers in this book. The author (I’ll refer to him as NdMF) is both an initiate of a Palo system, and brings a scholastic perspective that combine to provide an excellent perspective on the subject.

Palo Mayombe is an initiatory sect built on principles brought to the New World by slaves of Bantu and Kongo ethnicity. In Cuba, and later throughout Latin America, it has remained underground and inwardly-focused but also has provided working magic-users for the Afro-diaspora. Palo sorcerers are respected and feared among those who live in a culture that accepts magical arts. The author often, in fact, refers to Palo as a ‘sorcerer’s sect’ in that to be a working Palero is to have pacts with the spirits, and various magical skills.

Palo traditions are bound by oaths, and so no book can be a how-to of the authentic tradition. The author makes clear that any specific expression of the path – each ‘House’ or initiatory lineage – is unique, and its members work with specific spirits unique to that lineage. However there are cultural universals and vocabulary that allow us to understand the background principles of the system. These principles are presented here in such a way as to be very suggestive indeed to those with some training in Theurgy or western magical arts.

In the first section of Palo Mayombe there is certainly vocabulary to be learned, and a background in Yoruba symbols will be of little help. The Kongo and other African concepts are presented clearly, but the author gives us one or two shots at remembering what an mpungo is before continuing to use the term technically. The first section of the book is quite a serious download of information for those new to the terminology.

Along with a thorough introduction of the Palo order of spirits and beings there is also a fine review of the historical origins of central-African syncretism. I was surprised to be shown (despite knowing all the factoids) that Christian proselytization had begun in Africa, with Roman Catholic symbolism and theologies influencing Kongo culture well before the beginning of the slave trade. Through this intercourse with Mediterranean Europe NdMF suggests that some European magical concepts may have become mixed with African ways, again long before the current New World synthesis.

The second part of the book concerns the reputation and reality of Palo as a cult of necromancy. This reputation rests primarily on the central magical talisman of the system, a cauldron or vessel filled with soil, sticks (‘palos’ in Spanish), symbols and, most notably, a human skull and bones. This is called the Nganga, or the Fundamento. NdMF dives directly into Greek and Roman sources on necromancy, skull-magic and the sacred head to wrap again into the Palo system:
“In the vocabulary of the Kongo, it could be about the relationship between bakulu (ancestor/spirit/ghost), mvumbi (cadaver) and nkisi (spirit) in relation to the idea of ndoki (power, usually with a nightside flavor)”

The creation and maintenance of the Nganga are covered in as much detail as the author’s oaths allow. Every specific Palo lineage is different, but there are also many similarities, and we learn of the meaning of the vessel itself, of the materials that fill it – sacred woods and worked iron. Each Fundamento is made under a specific spirit-power (NdMF seems to avoid the term ‘gods’ in favor of the Kongo term nkisi) and twelve of these are discussed in detail, giving their distinctive sigils and songs (if only we could hear the melodies) and various details and stories. Each of these includes specific methods of dealing with the bones of the dead, incorporating a specific living spirit into the vessel, while connecting it with a specific divine power. Again while oath-bound detail is withheld the magician will find this all quite instructive.

“The Palero is not only one of the walking dead he is also a spiritual warrior” writes NdMF in the third section, in which he describes the ongoing work of the system, initiation, and the concept of the sacred temple, or ‘house’. This section includes a chapter on divination which reveals similarities to other Afro-Caribbean practices.

Finally the book provides an herbarium of Palo lore, including the various woods used in the Nganga and many other herbs and items. At various places throughout are smaller spells, customs and ritual works that attend the greater mysteries of the system.

I should take a few lines to mention the wonderful editions from Scarlet Imprint. SI is one of the leading small occult presses of the decade, and all of their hardback editions are collectible volumes that are simply a delight to hold and read for book-geeks like me. For those who can’t manage the price of those editions SI also offers their works, including this one, in reasonably-priced paperback editions.

In the work of rebuilding polytheism, we Neopagans should make every effort to learn from existing magical and spiritist systems. The African Diaspora offers us a very clear window, when someone like NdMF takes pains to wipe it clean for us. In Palo we don’t see the plain village religion of New World, post-Yoruba practices, but a more esoteric lineage of necromantic sorcery, in which practitioners become empowered by their relationship with the gods, the dead and the spirits of the forest. There’s a great deal to be learned…

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Dance of Silver

A Spirit Contact Rite

In early October I had a chance to once again apply the basic spirit-arte methods I’ve been developing. Our ADF Clergy met in retreat, with about 21 of our 27 or so ordained folks able to make the event. On Saturday evening of the retreat we worked a rite intended to begin to establish an alliance between our Clergy Order and the beings who we sometimes call the Third Kindred, or the Nature Spirits.

When we began our round of Clergy Retreats, some six years ago, we begin building an inner locale from which we could work. In doing so we arrived at a relationship with two deities – the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates – who we have come to identify as the patrons of our Druidic order’s work, since they are who we invoke in every liturgy. A little later we established a contact with a category of spirit we call the Ancient Wise – ancestral or former-mortal spirits who in life were Pagan priests, poets, mages etc. From those we have sought instruction about our Druidic work in modern times.

That has left us without a formal alliance with the Third Kindred. This category of spirits is always somewhat difficult for us. It becomes a catch-all for ‘everybody else’ who isn’t the human Dead or one of the great Shining Ones. This has made it more difficult to build a model by which our multi-regional gang of clergy can make alliances that are both powerful and applicable in any ecosystem. The moist green land of the temple where we hold our retreats won’t produce the same spirits that our priests in the desert or the western mountains might meet in their land. Even winds and clouds vary widely in their local natures. As we thought it through, it seemed to us that spirits of the Sky, especially of the Great Lights, might be a proper target.

In looking at the Sun, Moon and Stars, we began by setting aside the highest and strangest first. The multiple stars offer too many kinds of power, too many flavors of spirit, to be our first wave of allies. We discussed sun-spirits a lot, but even the sun has many feels and faces around the globe. Also there’s a basic distinction in Indo-European symbolism in which the sun refers to exoteric, warrior-based power, while the moon is associated with mind, mystery and magic – i.e. the priesthood or magical class. For us white-robed, sickle-bearing Druids it eventually seemed entirely proper to begin our ‘nature spirits’ work by evoking lunar spirits.

We spent a good bit of time discussing just what we meant by lunar spirits. I wanted to point us toward the most terrestrial possible kind of being, with the sense of seeking the spirits who might appear in or as the rays of the moon’s light touching and affecting the land itself. In a hierarchical sense, I sought to contact ‘sublunar’ spirits of the ‘Court of the Moon’. At this level I expected to find beings sufficiently manifest and connected to organic life to be able to treat sensibly with mortals.

Incidentally, our intent in making this alliance was dual. First we meant to find spirits that could be always available to us as ‘heralds’ that could help our priests make further contacts with the Others wherever they might be. Second we were looking for ‘familiars’ – spirits who would actively work as agents for us. It might be that the second goal wasn’t as well served as the first in the type of spirits we chose to call, but only time will tell.

The working was done on a Saturday night, under the eleventh night of the waxing moon, in perfect, still, warm conditions. Actually, it was the very best ritual night weather we’ve had in six years of early October retreats. The combination of moonlight on the meadows of the land and still, warm air was ideal. We didn’t do much in the way of preparatory ritual, though we had done a full liturgy of general offering the evening before. However, between the ritualists present we probably had aggregated some 300 years of consistently making offerings to the spirits. In my opinion we were well-prepared, and well-bestowed with the authority to call the spirits for the intent we had in mind.

One of the delights of working with this crew is that we never need scripts. The ordinary of the rite was accomplished smoothly, the hallowings and purifications done nicely, with some extra protective bits added for the sake of the special work at hand. I’ve gotten to where I dislike doing complex rituals for a group entirely by myself, or even just with L, and having the various parts done by the many skilled ritualists present was a blessing. Since I’m still the one developing the tech we’re using it fell to me to do the actual calling of the spirits.

I used impromptu invocations with forms based on the work from Book of Summoning. Having just used a fully scripted version for the Court of Brigid I felt pretty fresh, and the incantations seemed to flow well. I think we could have been more specific and correspondent with the offerings, but I also think that the years of offerings to the Noble Ones, asking nothing more than general blessing and good will, stood this group in good stead. Once the actual callings were done I used the three-fold “Stay if you will abide by these terms” form of oath and/or binding (See the Court of Brigid rite for an example). After a welcome and final offering, I sat to the vision, along with the rest of the crew.

For me the vision came swift and immediate. Opening the Inner Eye, I saw a dance of silver beings on the green in the rays of moonlight, and a small crowd of them approached when I called to them. From these I received only one name and set of abilities. I must say that I simply hadn’t been thinking about gossamer moon-maidens when I had contemplated this work, but that’s who I got.

The visions were remarkably coherent among the crew. The Silver Dance, the female-ish nature of the set of beings, their tenuous connection to form and manifest reality. We Despite the focus of the work being on the Third Kindred we had avoided discussing this as connection with ‘the Sidhe’, focusing instead on the specific ‘nature spirit’ contact with the lower spirits of the Court of the Moon. Nevertheless we received very traditional Sidhe images – the Shining Folk dancing on the meadow, with their dark partners, birds and rays of the moon.

Several other names and powers were received – these I intend to keep for the Clergy Order, unlike the published names from the CoB. In this way we mean to make compacts and alliances unique to our Priestly Order, just as we have done with specific members of the Ancient Wise. The general message from the spirits was that they offered us methods of seership, distant viewing and speech, and prophecy, as well as serving as heralds to the rest of the Noble Courts.

One week later, we have before us the task of integrating these new contacts into our work. We agreed that this contact was entirely more strange and inhuman than the fairly warm contact with the Dead. We’ll go slowly and individually, and compare notes. However we are surely one step closer to have a Book of Spirits unique to our work.

Realism Check

OK, so, at one point I said I'd be finishing a novel this year. You'll note, it's October. I'm about 20K words in, writing each scene as it occurs to me, still framing and reframing the order of events and plot elements. Just as I've expected, it's creating an engaging and reasonable sequence of events that is slowing me down.

Yet, I persist and I am moving forward. When I make the next plot decision I believe it will allow me to roll ahead for another 10K or 15K words. Of course, since I don't know what comes between there and the final scenes...

Any road, it ain't be gonna be done this year. Next year a draft, for sure! Watch for another excerpt as soon as something cool happens ;) Also watch for The Book of Visions this winter, with a developed system of trancework and energy-sorcery.