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The cover of Modern Wicca by Michael HowardYesterday I finished reading Modern Wicca: A History from Gerald Gardner to the Present by Michael Howard. I found it a bit rambly and non-linear, especially in the earlier chapters when Howard is reporting information given to him by people he knew personally in the 1960s, when he was a newcomer to the Wiccan scene. However, it was engrossing enough that I dropped a couple of other things I was reading and finished it in two days.

One thing I learned from Howard’s book is that News of the World did not wait for the digital age to engage in skeevy, privacy-violating investigative tactics. No, they were tapping phones, hiring private eyes, and generally smearing people involved in the witchcraft movement long before cell phones were commonly available. Good to know.

Unfortunately, another thing I learned from Howard’s book is that many of the most prominent figures in the history of modern witchcraft were… how can I put this delicately? Oh well–they were lying liars who lie. I have never seen in one place so many examples of deliberate falsification: Half-truths or outright lies about the origins of Wiccan practice, underhanded plots to get someone else’s Book of Shadows and then pass it off as a hand-me-down from dear old Granny, memoirs full of colorful incidents that never actually happened, and enough conflicting stories given to different people on different occasions to fill the holds of the Titanic.

Now, before you start yelling at me for disrespecting the Craft, let me remind you that I am a member of a Revival Druid group that makes absolutely no bones about tracing its origins to some eccentric English and Welsh guys in the 1700s. Plus, I grew up an Episcopalian, but I learned long before Bart Ehrman started publishing that no, most of the books of the Bible were not actually written by the people whose names are on the title pages, and isn’t it funny that four supposedly eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus are so very different? That is to say, I am not invested in the idea that authenticity equals validity. My practice as a Druid has very little to do with what the ancient druids did: The sole connecting link is that the gentlemen who created the Revival were interested in the ancients (if mostly mistaken about them).

So whether or not Gardner lied about his sources, or falsified them in the interests of creating a better myth, or made it all up out of the Key of Solomon and his own sexual kinks, or as you please, it doesn’t matter: Wicca works, or else people wouldn’t be practicing, studying, writing, and talking about it sixty years later. Still, it’s kind of disturbing that there’s so much self-inflation and backstabbing in this early history, and that the involvement of many of the first witches of the twentieth century ends with them burning their ritual gear and walking away from the Craft more or less permanently.

Then again, it’s also disturbing that so many people who were close to Aleister Crowley for any length of time wound up committing suicide. It’s disturbing that Macgregor Mathers, who claimed to have given the world the most pure Rosicrucian doctrine in the teachings of the Golden Dawn, also seems to have been an egotistical shit. And reading a couple of Bart Ehrman’s books on the early Church will show that it was not Wiccans who invented the flame war, but possibly the followers of the crucified and risen Christ who taught, “Turn the other cheek”. He didn’t add, “Except if the other dude is the wrong kind of Christian”, but you’d think he did.

Is it perhaps inevitable that new religious movements spring up out of lying and infighting and go on to transcend those origins? As the Buddhists say, the pure lotus has its roots in the mud and the dung, but without them, it cannot flower and spread toward the sun.

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Well, apparently I am not a druid.  Again.

My attempts back in November to fulfill the requirements for NaBloPoMo and to make Druid spirituality my primary path both failed.  Since then I have wrestled repeatedly with the angelic conundrum of being attracted to a number of religious paths that I simply can not practice, or can not practice simply.

I’ve been attracted to Druidry since the early 1990s.  Back then I longed to join OBOD, but the cost was prohibitive; while my income has increased since those days, so has the cost of OBOD’s famous correspondence course.  Whatever the exchange rates between the pound and the U.S. dollar might be, the Atlantic has not gotten any smaller, and packets from OBOD will always have to cross it to get to prospective druids in the States.

I discovered the Ancient Order of Druids in America at the end of 2004, and I managed to achieve the first degree, Apprentice Druid, within a couple of years.  I’ve tried repeatedly to advance to second degree, but no matter my intentions, I repeatedly found myself not doing the work.  I am still a First Degree member in good standing, but the work for further degrees is not, I think, going to get done.

I learned today that there has been a big blow-up in another pagan tradition to which I’ve been attracted for years, the Feri or Faery tradition stemming from Victor and Cora Anderson.  Like many people, I think, I first heard of it through Starhawk’s mentions in The Spiral Dance, which I first read when I was thirteen and the book was brand new.  I was thrilled to discover that people actually worshipped the old gods whose stories I’d read throughout my childhood, and practiced a kind of magic, another topic I’d read about precociously.  I was enchanted, and I use the word in the fullest sense, with her descriptions of Victor’s Faery teachings, though that enchantment translated into lots of bad poetry rather than into trying the magical exercises or even performing rituals.

I still rather miss being an Anglican, particularly around Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  The Incarnation was and is far more important to me as a doctrine than the Atonement; the Atonement, for me, makes little sense without a stress on the Incarnation and has everything to do with Divine Love revealing itself in extremity and nothing to do with a wrathful Deity being bought off somehow by the torture of his Son.

Buddhism, especially the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet, is the thing that has been the most helpful and illuminating for me over the past five years or so.  Its philosophy explained so much of Western magic and religion in a newly coherent way, and the practices and community I found helped me deal with stress, train my mind, look at the big picture.  But I don’t live in circumstances where I have regular access to a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and I’m not willing to make huge changes in my life–such as relocating to another city or learning to drive and buying a car for the first time–in order to do so.  I can’t help but feel that makes me a bad Buddhist, a half-assed practitioner, but I’m insistent that my spiritual practice reduce chaos and stress in my life (give or take a few necessary crises) rather than increase it, and moving or buying a car would definitely count as an increase in stress.  I can’t even switch tracks and practice with a Zen lineage, which might not be a bad thing; again, there’s no sangha with a teacher that’s accessible to me in time and place.

There’s a saying that is often useful even though it sounds ditzy: “Bloom where you’re planted.”  I prefer metaphors like, “Go through the door that’s open, or out the window if the door is locked.”  Or, “Deal with what lands in your lap.”  Recently two things have opened up for me or landed in my lap: The chance to take yoga classes and develop a practice, and the chance to study further with Jason Augustus Newcomb in the New Hermetics system.

I’ve been interested in yoga since I was a teenager (hm, along with Witchcraft and Druidry and what not else), and right before Christmas I discovered I was living a few blocks away from a thriving yoga studio.  I registered for their five-class beginners’ workshop, which started anew on December 23rd, and started attending regular beginner-level classes alongside my equally interested husband. The improvement we have both felt in strength, flexibility, pain relief, and overall well-being has been enormous, in a relatively short time. I can do things with my body that six weeks ago I would have sworn were impossible for me, and that’s after little more than a month of classes.  Those really terrifying postures you see on yoga calendars now look to me like a difference of quality, not of kind–like the difference between my own fiction and [insert Great Novel here] rather than like the difference between my body and an invertebrate’s.  Even now I’m looking forward to sweating through tomorrow night’s class and hoping that the mix of snow, sleet, and rain we’re predicted to get won’t cause a cancellation or make walking too treacherous.

Back in 2005, I was one of the first students to take the course that Jason based on his then-new book, The New Hermetics, and one of a few to make it through the whole program and go on to take the Advanced work two years later.  Jason’s system of mental and magical training worked better for me, in terms of both daily life management and of working big changes in my life, than any other spiritual practice had worked before.  It also led me to the Mahayana ideals of bodhichitta and dedicating the merit of one’s practice to the benefit of all beings, and thus to investigating Buddhism afresh and finding new answers and inspiration there.  When Jason recently announced that he was going to teach a beta version of a revised course, available to previous students at a hefty discount, I was right there like all the bad metaphors for being right there that you can think of–white on rice, ugly date, cheap suit, the works.

Actual work with the new program is starting in February, at Imbolc.  I’ll be lighting some candles for the Star Goddess again and asking for a blessing on the work.  My overriding goal for this re-training is to bring everything that I’ve learned, from Feri, Druidry, the Church, Buddhism, and wherever, and use the New Hermetics to contain it.  To put it another way, my goal is to cross-fertilize the New Hermetics, which comes out of a specific tradition of Western magic, with everything else that has worked for me.  I have, after all, spent over twenty years seeking, studying, learning, in a variety of traditions; perhaps it’s time for me to stop envying people who have spent as many years identifying by one name, one tradition (whilst no doubt studying many things), and start taking seriously what I’ve learned and bringing it to bear on the practice that I know I can work, and that will work for me.

To that end, I would like to stop posting here and renew posting at A Comfortable Oxymoron, to give myself a wider context in which to talk about walking the Path and undertaking the Great Work.  I will likely be cross-posting a version of this entry to that blog.  See you at the new URL, I hope.

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I was baptized Methodist and confirmed Episcopalian.  I discovered paganism when The Spiral Dance was published and waffled back and forth between Christian and pagan for the better part of twenty years, until I began practicing a form of Hermetic magic that pointed me to Buddhism, and I took refuge.
I am an Anglican, a Druid, a witch, a priestess, an Advanced Adept of the New Hermetics, an upasika of the Dharma.
I am not an Anglican, or a Druid, or a witch, or a magician, or a Buddhist.
“This also is Thou; neither is this Thou,” said Charles Williams, who was himself an Anglican, a magician, and a writer.  All beings are images and sacraments of God, yet God is beyond being and not-being and escapes, transcends, defies all definition or description.  This is as true of individual, contingent beings, perhaps, as it is of the Absolute.
Two weeks ago, on Good Friday evening, as it happened, I had the good fortune to hear Thorn Coyle give a talk.  Thorn published her second book in March, Kissing the Limitless: Deep Magic and the Great Work of Transforming Yourself and the World, and did a promotional tour, bringing copies of both her books, of her CD Songs for the Waning Year, in collaboration with Sharon Knight, and her Devotional Dance DVD.  I’ve been following Thorn on Livejournal for several years; one of my online friends apprenticed with her, and I was eager to hear her speak.
Thorn stood up in front of a hot, crowded room, a tall slim fortysomething wearing big stompy boots and fetching red spectacles, and led us in a chant from her CD, calling on the Elements.  We sang a simple ground while she tapped out the rhythm on a frame drum and sang the melody over us.  Most of us in the audience were between forty-five and sixty-five, though there were a few folks in their twenties whose appearance was coded “Edgy and queer Feri apprentice”; the singing was considerably more robust than what I normally hear at my husband’s church.
Thorn is not as glamorous in person as she appears in photo shoots, but still photographs cannot convey the aura of someone who is really present, right where she’s standing, who occupies her body completely and knows where her energy is and how to move it.  She spoke simply, freely, spontaneously, after reading an excerpt from the new book, then fielded questions, then rounded things off with the elemental chant to close before signing books for another hour or so.  What she said was nothing I hadn’t heard before, read before, perhaps written myself, in my journal.  But she said it from that state of presence, with energy and eloquence, and it is still resonating for me, like the last chord lingering in the vault after the anthem is sung.
What has stayed with me most were her words on integration.  On including and accepting all of our parts rather than transcending something–ignoring it, renouncing it, even cutting it off–because it seems not to be working for us.
“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” says Jesus, in the Authorised Version.  “If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut it off.”  No, says Thorn: Include. Accept.  Know Thyself.  Love Thyself.
I found myself, in the week following her talk (which was also the week following Easter Day, when I had time to think), realizing how consistently I practice transcendence, how I renounce things that aren’t working for me and dramatically push them away.  On the most practical level, this means that there are books I have owned three or four copies of, buying them and renouncing them.  On a deeper level, I don’t know what parts of me are hiding out so deep I can’t find them, afraid to speak up or show their faces lest they be cut off and shoved away.
I am able to do this, at least: To renounce renunciation.  To give up cutting things out or cutting them off and pushing them away.  To renounce labels and definitions and also to renounce discarding labels and definitions.  Yes, I am still an Anglican.  I will always carry that sensibility, the idea that Truth is more reliably found in music, poetry, and story than in dogmas, prescriptions, and propositions.  Yes, I am a Druid, a Revival Druid, for whom Arthurian legend and Welsh poetry echo with Truth even where their facts are wrong.  I am an Advanced Adept of the New Hermetics; I earned that title with nine months of daily work and a workshop in Florida that was my first time travelling alone.  My default setting for witchcraft and paganism is still Reclaiming and Feri rather than British Traditional Wicca or Reconstructionist movements.  And yes, I am a Buddhist; the Dharma is the great canopy under which everything fits, the mandala where everything has a place.
You can call me any of those things, or call me nothing.  You can call me eclectic or syncretic or both.  Maybe the best thing to call me is a Mahayanist: I have come to believe that the Mahayana perspective of the bodhisattva, the one who seeks freedom and enlightenment in order to help others do the same, is the truest perspective on the spiritual life.  I’ve also come to believe that magic is the Vajrayana of the West, the accelerated method of attaining buddhahood in this lifetime so as to benefit all beings.
Some days I don’t feel like a daily spiritual practice is worth it.  Right now I have set myself the goal of learning the traditional pentagram and hexagram rituals that come out of the Golden Dawn tradition, starting with one month of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.  It’s a struggle to pull myself together after dinner, put on the robe and the Rose Cross lamen, and buzz out those Hebrew Names. What am I doing this for? What good does it do me, or anyone?  At least the morning exercise practice has made me feel noticeably, significantly better.
But I do it, because I’ve decided to take myself seriously as an Adept, someone who has taken that bodhisattva vow to save all others, one for all and all for one, someone who has training and experience and dedication and intention and a clear vision of what’s necessary.  I see that motivation of wisdom and compassion, what Buddhism calls bodhicitta, spreading amongst neopagans and magical practitioners, and I am happy.  In a few hundred years we will have a truly American Buddhism, and it will be pagan as much as Christian as much as Buddhist, just as the Dharma became Tibetan and Chinese and Japanese.
The Work is there to be done.  Some of us will do it as teachers and public figures, and some of us, like me, will do it as solitaries, even hermits (hermits in the Tarot sense).  Some of us will do it with religious labels, and some without; some of us will do it as Pagans, some as Christians, some as Buddhists, some as humanists, some as witches.  There is enough Work for all of us; there is a proper Work for each of us.  I show up for my day job, read and write, and try to do my share.  You can, too.

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I came back from lunch to find this entry on Livejournal from Feri witch Thorn Coyle:

Note to Self:

Do not believe anything – even personal revelation – that you have not brought into your practice.

Do not believe anything – even sacred text – that you have not brought into your practice.

Practice changes us. Practice gives us context. Practice moves us and moves through us. Practice makes space, acting as a container for the blinding light and umbrous shadow.

Do not believe until you have swallowed the truth whole, digested it, and let it seep through your pores. Do not believe until the truth affects the way you walk, talk, sit, laugh, and dance. Do not believe until the truth has shattered and rebuilt your heart and resurfaced the landscape of your mind and soul.

Until that happens, hold a spot of reservation. Set forth a time of testing. Continue to ask questions. Sink into your practice…

By the time belief arrives, it should feel a lot like Knowledge.

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I don’t know about anybody else, but my Amazon recommendations are not often very useful to me.  I used to be a great reader of fantasy and science fiction, for example; now, however, my tastes are very limited, and I follow only a few authors.  I have no idea why, when I buy a new book by Lois McMaster Bujold, Amazon assures me cheerfully that I will like novels by half a dozen sf authors I have never heard of, but I cheerfully ignore them.  There may be lots of military space operas out there, but only Bujold’s books have Miles Naismith Vorkosigan in them, and I’m interested in him, his family, and his friends, not military space opera as such.

Once in a while, though, Amazon hits the nail on the head and tosses me a pitch I whack right out of the park.  (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?)  It did so a few weeks ago when I purchased a Halloween-themed Rankin-Bass video I’d never seen, and it reminded me of the Saturday morning cartoon show The Groovie Goolies, a spin-off of Archie & Friends that featured lively pop songs in each episode.  And it did so the other day when I was searching for… something I can’t remember now, and it offered me a book called The Forge of Tubal Cain by Ann Finnin.

I had read enough about the first stirrings of witchcraft in mid-twentieth-century England for the name of “Tubal Cain” to ring a bell, so I took advantage of Amazon’s Look Inside! function and perused the table of contents and the excerpts.  I was instantly hooked and indulged in some instant gratification–as instant as Amazon could give me: I ordered the book with next-day shipping.

I was not disappointed when it arrived.  Finnin’s book falls neatly into two parts: One, a memoir of her and her husband David’s discovery of the 1734 Witchcraft tradition, how they formed the Roebuck tradition on that basis, and how it connects with the Clan of Tubal Cain established in England by the late Robert Cochrane; the other, a sample of Roebuck training procedures and workings.  At this writing, I have read the first part and am well into the second. What makes the book so fascinating is Finnin’s utter frankness.  Without pointing fingers or naming names, she exposes both the good and bad sides of paganism and the Craft, giving a history of its development from the 1970 to the present day through the lens of the Roebuck.  Writers who have been in the Neopagan movement for a long day often sound nostalgic about the Good Old Days when people danced around the bonfires and made love in the woods and touched the gods for the first time.  Finnin is unsparingly frank about the dangers of getting high, sleeping with everybody in your coven, and then attempting to hold magical ritual that actually gets things done.  She’s unsentimental about the extent to which magic and pagan religion attract both wounded waifs and predators, people who can’t function in mundane life and expect The Circle to solve all their problems, and operators who want to take sexual, emotional, or financial advantage of just that sort of victim.  And she’s not impressed with Gardnerian high priestesses who were given all three degrees in one weekend, assured that they now had The Mojo, and then tossed into the drink to swim–or to sink and take their covens down with them.

She’s also immensely informative about what group magical training has to do and how to do it: How to create a group mind which will think in a chosen set of symbols and plug into particular sources of spiritual power.  And while she is not, I am sure, giving away any true secrets of her tradition, she does give the reader a taste of a kind of witchcraft far different from that which Gerald Gardner offered the world–a kind which has remained relatively obscure and strong and not gotten diluted into endless “Wicca 101” books.

Philip Carr-Gomm, the head of OBOD, has written of combining the strengths of Wicca and Druidry into DruidCraft.  Having started to work with the DruidCraft Tarot, and now having read this book and been reminded of Cochrane’s influence on modern Craft, I find myself intrigued by the possibility of weaving together Druidry and the kind of Craft he represented–something both simpler and more sophisticated than Gardner’s system.  I’ve got more reading to do–and then some experimenting.

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