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Posts Tagged ‘wicca’

Recently read:

  1. Magical Knowledge Book I: Foundations by Josephine McCarthy
  2. An Encounter with Venus by Elizabeth Mansfield
  3. Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, V. 2: From Witch Cult to Wicca by Philip Heselton
  4. The Witches’ Sabbats by Mike Nichols
  5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Currently Reading:

  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Theodyssies and Paradoxologies, collected poems of Aidan Kelly
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker (have not tried reading it since I was a teenager; like it better now than I did then)
  • an inordinate amount of Sherlock fanfiction

Currently watching:

  • the first five episodes of series seven of Doctor Who (verdict: Good so far, but I’m gonna miss the Ponds!)
  • series five of Merlin (verdict after one episode: Pretty, stupid, lovable as ever)

Recent events of note:

  • My dear stepdaughter got married, with vast quantities of High Anglican ceremony and the performance of the Time Warp at the reception.
  • A dear friend came down with a serious infection and spent a good deal of her recuperation in our back bedroom.

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Another holy day, and it snuck up on me while I wasn’t looking. I’m abashed to see that I haven’t posted since the sixth, and now here it is the autumn equinox: Mabon to many Wiccans and Neopagans, Alban Elfed or Elved or Elued to Druids, a week shy of Michaelmas in the Christian calendar, and sometimes I just call it Harvest.

Signs of the season: A live ovenbird foraging beneath the bushes outside my door; a dead warbler spotted on my route to work, green back and fulvous belly, probably collapsed while it was migrating. Ovenbirds are quite rare in Maryland, or so I’ve been told, yet every fall a few of them drop by on their way southward. Once an ovenbird hopped through my open front door and took refuge under the dining table.

Last Sunday my beloved stepdaughter was married to her beloved of seven years in a full-scale church ceremony that included the Eucharist and the best choral music her choirmaster father could provide. The reception afterward included cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and a sit-down dinner served buffet style. The newlyweds led off the dancing with a solo dance to “The Best Is Yet to Come”, inspired by its appearance in a Deep Space Nine episode, immediately followed by the Time Warp: They met in college when my daughter auditioned for the Rocky Horror performance troupe. They are in New Orleans right now on their honeymoon.

The week before the wedding, it was all I could think about. Immediately afterward, a dear friend of mine was laid low by a severe infection and crashed with my husband and me for a few days. The two days I had scheduled off to recover from the wedding, plus one extra, were devoted to getting her on the road to recovery. I returned to work yesterday and touched bases with my boss before she departed on her own delayed honeymoon.

I’m pretty well exhausted now and the change of season has somehow taken me by surprise. But I expect to refill my personal well over the weekend and celebrate the holy day in ritual on Sunday. I hope to return to regular posting next week–one reason I feel utterly drained is that I haven’t written very much in the past two weeks, not even in my notebook journal.

A happy feast of the autumnal equinox to all my readers.

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I hate to admit it, but I suck at writing book reviews. Whenever I finish a religion- or magic-related  book, I make enthusiastic resolutions to review it… just as soon as I think it over. And then I think about it for six or eight months, and the review never gets written.

So I’m going to try a different approach here. I’m going to give you progress reports on some books of interest that I’m still reading. I offer this disclaimer: I haven’t finished reading any of these books, but I’m not at all the sort of person who feels obliged to finish a book just because they started it. If I’m mentioning a book at all, chances are very good that a) I will finish it eventually and b) I will have positive things to say about it.

Here we go!

I’m on the second volume of Philip Heselton‘s Witchfather, a biography of Gerald Brosseau Gardner. Heselton’s book is written in a chatty, informal style, but it is extensively researched and annotated, with lots of references to primary sources such as Gardner’s correspondence with friends and the author’s correspondence to people who knew Gardner. I don’t think I ever really grasped before that Gardner’s whole involvement in what he initially called “the witch-cult” began after his retirement, when he was in his fifties. He spent much of his childhood abroad because he was asthmatic and sickly and warmer climes were considered the only cure; he spent most of his adult working life abroad because he had no resistance to English weather. He continued to winter abroad for the rest of his life. He becomes a typical eccentric Englishman by spending very little time actually living in England.  In addition, his peripatetic childhood deprived him of any kind of formal schooling. I don’t think one needs to speculate that Gardner was dyslexic to explain his bad spelling; I consider it sufficiently explained by his never having had a teacher who insisted on good spelling.

Sadly, the Kindle edition of the book is very clumsily formatted. Instead of compiling all the citations into one list with links in the text, as most e-books have, the little blocks of footnotes appear on their own separate pages within the run of the text, so that you “turn the page” on your Kindle and find, instead of the rest of the sentence you were just reading, three or four footnotes, and you have to “turn” again to pick up the thread of the text. There was also a section from which semicolons were entirely absent, and I’m pretty sure Heselton had been using them correctly for a whole volume, so I attribute their disappearance to the editor rather than the author. Notwithstanding, Witchfather is a very entertaining book, which I recommend to anyone interested in the history of 20th-century witchcraft.

Closely connected with Witchfather is Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess. Other biographies of Gerald Gardner have been published, and other histories of Wicca, but I don’t think anyone else has attempted what Carter does in this book. He takes one of the crucial texts of 20th-century witchcraft and paganism, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and slowly, carefully, takes it apart–so slowly and carefully that his analysis is almost as tough a read as its subject.

I’m only about a third of the way into Stalking, but I’m determined to read the whole thing. The White Goddess is, I think, as important to 20th-century Druidry as it is to 20-century Craft, if only because of its extensive use of the Ogham alphabet and of certain poems associated with the legendary (and also historical) Welsh bard Taliesin. While more Reconstructionist pagans tend to dismiss Graves for his treatment of Celtic topics, Aidan Kelly recommends that anyone who takes the Craft seriously ought to read Graves as theology, and I would tend to agree. Carter looks carefully at what Graves’s argument is, what he says about the origins of his own book, and what are his (mostly not specified) sources for his facts. He wrote a guest post on his work for the Wild Hunt recently–check it out.

And now, two titles from Raven Kaldera. The first, which I purchased as a PDF from Lulu.com, is Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. I have actually skimmed this once and am now re-reading it with greater attention. I wish devoutly (pun intended) that I had had this book to refer to when I first began to make contacts with deities (and yes, I did promise to write about them and have not done so yet). Kaldera is one of the clearest, most straightforward writers in Pagan publishing; he writes clean prose, pulls no punches, and never muddies the distinctions between his experience, shared experience, and scholarly opinion. Best of all, this is not just clear thinking but, indeed, practical thinking: Given that we have this theology about multiple deities, now what do we do with it? Just to have it spelled out that one’s relationship with the gods may range from a novice who’s just learning about them, through being a regular devotee or even clergy, to being a god-slave, a horse for spirit-possession, or an actual embodiment of a deity–and that it’s not necessary to try for a gold medal in God-Botheredness, it’s okay just to be a worshipper–is immensely helpful to me, and probably to a lot of other readers.

Kaldera’s collaboration with blogger Kenaz Filan, Drawing Down the Spirits, is sort of the graduate-level text, whereas Dealing with Deities is the 101 book (or even the remedial textbook). Drawing Down the Spirits is about possession, carrying deities or spirits in one’s body, being a “horse” for their presence in the world. While this is not something I think I am called to do, beyond maybe “assumption of god-forms” in the Hermetic sense, the book is fascinating and makes me want to read other books by Filan and to anticipate the authors’ forthcoming collaboration, Talking to the Spirits: Personal Gnosis in Pagan Religion.

I’m coming to terms with what should be a very simple idea: That just because I call myself a Druid, and think of my path as Druidry and Druidry as my path, does not mean I am not going to be interested in other paths, other religions. I can be interested in just about any religion if someone writes a book that grabs me. Frankly, I can be interested in just about any topic if I pick up the right book. So there’s my progress report.

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For as long as I’ve been able to read, I’ve loved to read about religion. Whether it was my own religion, Protestant (Episcopal) Christianity, or the more exotic forms of Christianity in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, or other religions entirely, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, it was all interesting. I started with picture-heavy tomes on Religions of the World, went on to children’s retellings of Greek and Norse myths, and branched out into adult books on archaeology, mythology, and comparative religion. For most of my life (I could already read when I entered kindergarten), religion has been for me one of the most fascinating things in the world.

When I discovered The Spiral Dance at thirteen, the same year it was published, what I discovered was not just that some people believed in a Goddess, or The Goddess, or gods and goddesses. I discovered that people like me believed in them, worshipped them, took them seriously, right now today. People who were Americans, who were brought up as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who weren’t ethnic or exotic or distant from in time or space. People like me.

As soon as I finished the book, I was quite certain I was actually a Witch, or at least a Pagan, and that I always would be. My observance took the form of writing a lot of bad poetry about spring and fall and my two favorite deities, Athena and Dionysus. Well, I was only thirteen. Then when I was sixteen, my grandmother died, after no illness and a massive heart attack and on my birthday, and within two years, I was back at my little Episcopal church, because there was a new priest there and absolutely no community, no support, in my solitary poetry-writing paganism.

In the last twenty years, I have identified variously as a Neopagan, an Anglican, a Druid, a Magician, and a Buddhist. I have been a member of two different druid organizations, trained in a Hermetic magical system, flirted with Greco-Egyptian syncretism, and taken refuge and bodhisattva vows. I have kept and abandoned and restarted this blog multiple times. I have read not only on Druidry, magic and occultism, and Tibetan Buddhism, but on Zen, Santeria, Wicca, Feri, Reclaiming, Asatru and the Northern Tradition, and Thelema.

In that same period of time, I have been happily monogamously married to one man, my husband, my best friend, my lover. Being sexually and emotional faithful, being true to the traditional Christian wedding vows we made, has not been difficult or challenging in the slightest. Admiring beautiful people and swooning over beautiful, talented actors has not interfered with my commitment to one person and our life together.

A lot of people find long-term sexual/romantic commitment difficult, even impossible. They cheat on spouses, adopt serial monogamy, or try the path of polyamory. Yet they might not have a problem adopting one spiritual path, one system of practice, and sticking to it. I know people who have been Wiccan or Heathen or Buddhist for decades, as contentedly as I have been married. If someone asked me for relationship advice, as somebody with a successful marriage, I would have no hesitation in giving it. But if someone asked me for spiritual advice, well, I have to admit, finally, that I remain in many ways a beginner, because I have never stayed the course and gone deep with anything.

Right now I’m reading Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire by Thuri Calafia. In the introduction, she describes her system of study in the Craft as a circle of five stages corresponding to the elements: Seeker (Air), Dedicant (Fire), Initiate (Water), Adept (Earth), and Master (Spirit). The Initiate, Adept, and Master stages correspond to the First, Second, and Third Degrees of coven-based Craft. Here is how Calafia describes the Dedicant:

The Dedicant becomes very passionate and fired up about this religion, and begins by learning to use his will as he learns about himself and the Craft.

And the Initiate:

The Initiate (in traditional Wicca, the first-degree) falls in love in a whole new way with her religion as she comes to understand how deep she must go to truly know and love herself and her gods.

Somehow, I have never crossed the threshold from the enthusiasm of the Dedicant to the commitment of the Initiate. I’ve gotten engaged a lot of times but never made it to the altar.

Why is it that a sexual, relationship commitment has been easy for me to make and maintain, but a spiritual commitment nearly impossible? Why does the grass always look greener to me in somebody else’s circle? I don’t have an answer, but this is a question I am going to be exploring for a while.

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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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