Monthly Archives: October 2013

Season of the Witch

It won’t have escaped most of you that this week, Samhain – or as most people call it, Halloween – is upon us again, and I couldn’t let it pass without writing about the festival and what it involves. And for many people, probably more than at any other time of year, it involves dressing up.

The Magpie lives in the UK, which has tended to resist Halloween as an American festival. And Americans do go for Halloween in a very big way. Round here, where we have three USAFE bases, the night reveals all manner of oddities. Adults dressed as fairies, kids dressed as zombies, dogs dressed as Star Wars characters…all (occasionally) human life is indeed here.

But while trick-or-treating is a term from across the pond, the tradition’s been going on here for centuries. Punkie Night and Souling, to give just two names, are very old and very British. All that’s happened recently is that supermarkets have cottoned on to their ability to sell glittery witch outfits, plastic devil horns and a bizarre variety of sugary treats to the UK public.

I miss the days when you, or your parents, had to construct a costume out of sheets or curtains or anything you could lay hands on. In vintage photos from the early 20th century, homemade Halloween costumes have an eerie, primitive quality given by their very simplicity. The kids in these photos look as if they’re about to conduct arcane rituals under the local gallows, not go round the village dobbing toffees off the neighbours.

This leads to the question: Why do we dress up on Halloween? Given the assumption that some things about human nature don’t change much over time, here’s a possibility.

In the most concrete, obvious way, Halloween is about the beginning of winter, and about entering darkness. Which makes it all about the unknown, more so back in the days when we weren’t so cushioned from the elements. Would the food stores last out, would the livestock survive, would we make it to spring? Because death – when, how, and whether there’s anything afterwards – is the biggest unknown of all. And whether you believe in an afterlife or not, the idea that we’ll one day no longer exist in a physical form is scary.

We have different ways to deal with our fear of death. You can stick your head in the sand and hope it goes away. You can propitiate the powers that be to save you from it. You can get reassurance from people who’ve already made the transition – which is why this is a time to commune with the ancestors. Or… if you can’t beat them, join them. If you dress up as a ghost, or a skeleton, or a vampire or zombie or any of the scary death archetypes, you’re acknowledging the fact that you’ll one day be a ghost. You embody the dark and unknown, and by doing so, defuse the fear of its power over you.

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Costumes these days often focus less on spookiness than on wit and creativity. Sometimes, they poke fun at notable events and people of the past year. (I’m betting this time round, a few Americans will come up with costumes related to the recent Congress debacle.) This is in the best tradition of satire, always an art form that mocked the powerful. It’s the tradition of the court jester, whose job was to let the king know that he was only human after all. In ancient Ireland, a bard could write a satirical poem that would literally bring a stingy chief out in boils (now there’s a handy power to have!).

Some costumes, though, are more problematic. ‘Sexy Indians’ (‘sexy’ anything for women), geishas, fat people or ‘mental patient’ costumes may be funny to some, but people who fall into any of those groups in real life may not see it that way. This is another kind of darkness, to do with fear and mistrust of racial differences, or fat, or mental health issues, or female sexuality; brought out at this time, but not dealt with – unknown because people don’t want to bother knowing – so it comes out in stereotypes. It’s not ‘edgy’, it’s just lazy. What would be edgy would be if people within those groups were to come up with costumes that subverted the stereotypes and forced other people to come face to face with the darkness of their own prejudices.

Perhaps one of the commonest Halloween costumes is a stereotype I haven’t yet mentioned, For some years I identified as Wiccan. You know… a witch. I have no facial warts, my nose is a perfectly normal shape, I don’t own a black cat (although I’m trying to persuade my husband that we should adopt another one) and my usual mode of transport is not a broomstick, but a Renault Clio.

So, the clincher question: do I find the traditional Halloween witch offensive? Personally, no (although some other pagans’ and Wiccans’ mileage may vary on this one, and I can ‘t speak for anyone else.) This is my take on it.

The stereotype comes from the years when ‘witches’ were persecuted, peaking in the 16th to 17th centuries. Professor Ronald Hutton’s excellent books on the history of witchcraft have debunked a lot of the common mythology around witchcraft in this era. But the ‘traditional’ image of a witch has persisted: by day, an ugly old woman, living alone and isolated but for her animal companions; by night, flying off to meet her evil cohorts, dance with the Devil and brew up potions to blight crops and render men impotent.

Wiccans have fought long and hard to get away from this stereotype, and the more recent ones: the baby-killing Satanist (far more insidious, as any pagan who was around in the late 1980s knows), and the glamorous, sexy ‘teen witch’ of The Craft and Sabrina and recently, American Horror Story. But I wonder if – especially in response to the latter image – the old witch doesn’t still provide a necessary archetype.

Consider all the things our culture wants women to be. Young. Sexy. Cute and complying, especially to men. Sociable. And if we have any power, it has to come from our looks and our sexuality – but those powers are granted only to the few who fit the male-defined image. (It’s telling that the word glamour, once the term for a spell of delusion, now means the allure of a particular kind of high-maintenance, female appearance.)

Now look at our traditional Halloween witch again. She’s old. She’s ugly. She doesn’t take kindly to anyone telling her what to do. She lives alone, answering to nobody. And she has a lot of power, to use as she pleases. She’s done a deal with the Devil – traded acceptance by her community and her religion. her traditional role, her femininity, if you like, for the ability to bend reality to her will. But is it possible that she got the better end of the deal?

I leave you to ponder that one, and with a suggestion: Maybe this is a good time to face those sides of yourself that you don’t normally bring out, the things you’re afraid of. Take a look at the emotions and characteristics you try to hide – the messy, angry, hungry, horny, awkward screwed-upness of being human – and ask whether there isn’t some positive power in them, some way they could be transformed by bringing them out into the light.

Then, make something of them. Dress up as your inner witch or demon or other bogey-creature. If there’s anything about you that society already finds scary or threatening – age, sexuality, belief, any kind of failure to fit in or refusal to back down – let ’em have it at full force. As gender outlaw Kate Bornstein says: ‘Become a more frightening monster than the one they think you are.’

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If you haven’t the time, funds, or chutzpah for a full costume, try a mask – mask bases are available from many craft stores, or cut a basic mask shape out of card, and embellish it with paint, yarn, beads, feathers…anything that expresses that hidden side. Even if you don’t actually wear it, it can serve as a reminder that you’re not just the ‘you’ everyone thinks they know. And that the universe itself – at any time, but especially in this season – isn’t always what it appears to be…

Paws for breath

Just dropping in briefly to say that the follow-on posts you may have been expecting from last time will be a little delayed. Because, the Festival of Orange Plastic is upon us!

Seriously… I have a couple of posts relating to Samhain, death, and dressing up, that needed to be shared this week, or end up out of synch with the season. So please bear with me – the rest of the Images of Spirit post will follow shortly…

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Images of Spirit, part 1: Introduction

As I said in an earlier post, Spirit – Deity, God/dess, Ultimate Meaning, whatever term you feel comfortable with – can’t be completely grasped by the human mind. But we put names and faces to it, because we’re used to relating to names and faces.

When those names are hallowed by time and tradition, religions call them goddesses and gods. You’ve met a few of the ‘official’ ones I feel close to, on my altar, but we all have an inner picture of Spirit that’s bigger than any of these could individually express.

These pictures can be useful to us, provided we don’t, as Zen says, mistake the finger for the Moon. That is, mistake our own individual view of Spirit for the One True Way, declare anyone with another view to be wrong and evil, and start treating them accordingly. Which, given that it’s caused way more trouble in human history than actual bowing down to statues (which is relatively harmless, unless the statue falls on top of you!), may well be the real root of some religions’ warnings against graven images.

But you can also experience problems with your inner image of Spirit if it doesn’t tally with your life and who you are. How you relate to Deity has a knock-on effect on how you relate to the rest of the world, and if that’s tainted with guilt, arrogance, perfectionism or prejudice, it’ll harm you and others as much as any human relationship marred by those problems would.

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Where do we get our ideas of Deity from? Parents, first and foremost. Our peers. Books, TV and other media. Personal experience, sadly, gets demoted way down the list, because we haven’t generally been encouraged to trust our own experiences. Of anything, sometimes, but especially of this most intimate of realities.

Later in life, as our ideas of the world change, we may find our image of Spirit changing too. For some people this is a crisis, as they struggle to squeeze back into last year’s ideas. For others, it leads them to search beyond their own tradition. Some abandon spirituality, as much as any human ever can.

But we can also consciously take a look at the vision of Spirit we were given and ask ourselves if it’s working for us. Is it helping us to be happier, kinder, stronger, more loving, more creative, more determined to make the world a better place? And if not, what needs changing?

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I’ve already shared a collage of more general spiritual influences, but the next exploration – from a suggestion in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – is about more specifically looking at the picture of Spirit you have tucked away in your head. What, consciously or not, were you taught about God in the tradition you were raised in? Is it still valid for you, and if not, what kind of God would be?

As mine is the only head I have access to, I’ll take a rummage around in there and talk about the sort of ideas I was given. Then, I’ll take a look at the way I see Spirit now. What I’ve been shown or deduced or come to know about Deity, in the world and in my own life, and how it contrasts with that older image. And perhaps, through this, offer some guidelines as to how, if your own residual ideas of Spirit are unhelpful or damaging, you can go about finding a healthier vision. I’ll also be looking at expressing this new idea of Deity through visual imagery.

Since this is going to be a long exploration, I’m dividing it over the next two posts. Watch this space…

Beginning ritual

I left off last time with the question of what you do with an altar. Well, what do you do?

Ritual, is one possible answer.

If altars and shrines are about meaningful places, ritual is about meaningful actions. The word ritual comes from the root rei-, ‘to count’, going back to when we first learned to measure time by the heavenly bodies. That allowed us to predict – and celebrate – seasonal events like the migration of animals and the ripening of crops, and personal ones like the imminent birth of a baby. Repetitive events, and the rituals that went with them, gave us a sense of structure and security.

We haven’t lost that sense, either. Mention the song, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, to the frazzled parent of a toddler, and observe the kill me now! look on their face. They know all about how small humans still find repetition comforting. Bigger ones do too; much as some of us hate to admit it, we like routine.

Some routines – morning yoga stretches, writing in a journal before bed, a contemplative cup of tea – are basically ways of saying, ‘Hey, stop, pay attention – this is important!’ Symbolic actions, no matter how small, make us focus on the moment. On a wider social scale, so do the rituals we use to welcome babies, get married, and mourn the dead. Wider still, our culture has holidays on which you send anonymous love tokens, hunt for eggs, or hang up stockings, because everyone knows that’s what you do.

As I write, we’re coming up for what Christians call All Hallows’, pagans call Samhain, and my husband calls the Festival of Orange Plastic. Which begs the question: what do you do when rituals either grow less relevant, or get co-opted by the cult of the Almighty Dollar? The answer is that ritual is a flexible tool, and there’s no law that says you can’t tweak existing traditions, or create your own. A great Jewish storyteller once pointed out that rituals and the rules around them were made for people, not the other way round, and rituals, however time-honoured, are no use if they don’t speak to you and your situation.

I’ll come back to ritual in this blog, but for now, here’s an example of a basic, simple ritual that’s about paying attention to yourself, your place in the universe, your creative powers and your intent to use them. It’s based on the altar setup I mentioned in my last post, but you can easily adapt it to whatever setup you happen to have.

Before starting, make sure you have privacy and won’t be disturbed.

Stand or sit (whichever is easiest) in front of your altar. Close your eyes for a moment, and take a few deep breaths to relax yourself. Be aware of your body and its position in space.

Open your eyes and say something like:
I am here. I am safe. All is well.

Light a candle, for Fire. Look at its light. Remember those times when you’ve had the first spark of an idea and how it felt. Say something like:
Power of Fire, power of inspiration, help me to be open to the spark that gives life to my art.

Dip your fingers into the bowl of water. Sprinkle some, or dab a little on your forehead. Think about the feelings you express through your artwork. Say something like:
Power of Water, power of emotion, help me to express deep feelings, and to touch the hearts of others.

Now light the incense. Watch the smoke rise, smell the scent, and think about how you use your powers of logic, reason and research to your creativity. Say something like:
Power of Air, power of thought, help me find ways to put across my ideas, and let them be understood.

Pick up the symbol of Earth (in this case, a stone) and hold it in your hand. Feel the weight and solidity of it. Think of the materials you might use to make something, of the actual physical process of creation. Say something like:
Power of Earth, power of the senses, help me to shape my art and bring it into being.

Look at your representation of Spirit. Clear your mind and be open. Say something like:
Power of Spirit, Source of all creativity, help me to show your power and beauty to the world.

If you have images on your altar of particular gods or spiritual beings, you may want to honour them briefly by name. If you have pictures up of any of the artists who inspire you, feel free to address them too. (They’ll listen.)

Stay at your altar for as long as you want to.

To finish, say something like:
Spirit, gods, goddesses, powers of the universe, guides, guardians, muses and mentors, thank you for being here with me. Inspire, guide and and protect me, now and always, here and everywhere. Thank you, and blessings to you.

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After this or any ritual, first, and most importantly, make sure your incense and/or candle(s) are safely extinguished. Then go get yourself something to eat and drink, for grounding – a cup of tea and a biscuit will do. If you have any reflections, ideas or insights arising from the ritual, write them down before you forget them. (And trust me, if you don’t write them down, you will forget them.). You might want to keep a special notebook for this purpose.

How often should you carry out this ritual, or your version of it? Daily would be nice, but we live in the real world, and we have jobs and families and a trillion and one other things that need doing – and anyway, the best answer is that there’s no ‘should’ about it. This is about checking in with your creative powers, and whatever frequency you feel is right for you, is right.

Basically, pay attention…and see what happens.

Altars 101

If you believe Spirit is everywhere, all places are sacred. That’s the enlightened viewpoint. Meanwhile, in the real world, we techno-monkeys need to give things a local habitation and a name, as Shakespeare put it. So we find places that feel connected to the sacred. Or we make them. Or, we do a bit of both.

Altars (or shrines – technically there’s not much difference between them) are the most personal sacred spaces, and the oldest, going back at least to the Neolithic. The altars of organised religions tend to be the territory of the clergy, but ordinary folks have always gone off and done their own thing, which is why you find household altars in traditions from Hindu to Catholic, Buddhist to Wiccan, Shinto to Santeria and many paths in between.

(You also find them being made almost instinctively, without so much as a whiff of spirituality being involved. That corner of your desk where you keep family photos and vacation souvenirs, is an altar, of sorts. So are those piles of flowers and toys that spring up at the site of tragic crimes or accidents. And the collections of photos, graffiti, cigarettes and booze left by fans at places associated with the fallen stars of rock. Cynics may call it weird, messy, or sentimental, but it’s a very basic human impulse.)

Altars are basically about connecting to what’s meaningful in our lives. That can be for various purposes – to celebrate a seasonal or personal passage; to honour a specific deity, person or group; to promote a quality, like peace or justice; to give energy to a project…there are lots of possibilities. Since my own altar, in the spare bedroom, was long overdue for a revamp (because the mundane forces technically known as Life And Stuff do have a habit of getting in the way of this kind of thing if you’re not careful), I decided to use it as an example of one way to set up a personal altar.

A shelf or the top of a bookcase, as here, is a good place to start. You can leave it ‘as is’ or give it some sort of covering; for altars of this size, a scarf makes a pretty good altar cloth. (Hint: the Magpie finds thrift stores a great source of miscellaneous altar gear.). I also covered an area of the wall behind with self-adhesive cork tiles, which make a good base for pinning up fabric, paper, postcards and other light objects.

Next, you need some representation of Spirit. This can be an abstract symbol, a personalised figure, or anything in between. I have a cluster of deity/spirit pictures and statues that includes Brighid, Persephone, Kuan Yin, Tara, Saraswatiji, Thoth and Ganesh, which represent those aspects of Deity that feel most relevant to me and my creativity.

With the spiritual goes the material, which, in pagan traditions is symbolised by the four ancient elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire. While you won’t find them in the periodic table, they stand for the four functions in the human psyche – sensation, feeling, thinking and intuition (if you’re into the Myers-Briggs system of personality analysis, this will sound familiar). To invoke the elements is to aim for balance in yourself and the cosmos, which is no bad thing. As with anything here, it’s not an obligatory feature, but here’s how I’ve done it:

Earth: various crystals and stones. I have aquamarine for clear communication and guidance, Botswana agate for creativity, lapis lazuli for connecting with the Divine, raw emerald for hope and insight, moonstone for intuition and imagination, and ammonite fossils for growth and development.

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Water: bowl of water for snuffing out candles, and a shell given to me at a ritual art workshop.

Air: incense – I use the stick type. I also have peacock feathers (for vision), and a string of Tibetan prayer flags.

Fire: candles. I like plain white tealights – the colour serves any purpose, plus, they’re harder to knock over. (Safety warning: use fireproof candle holders, and never leave a lit candle unattended!). If you can’t have naked flames around, some form of electric light will do – purists may sniff, but hey, you do what you can, and it’s the symbolism that counts.

What else you have on your altar depends on its purpose. This being a general creative altar, here’s what I chose:
Images of some of the art I love and the artists who inspire me.
Tools of the trade – pencils, brushes, and an assortment of guitar picks.
Tarot and other divination/inspiration cards. I have Crowley’s version of the Temperance card, which is actually called ‘Art’).
Inspiring quotes and messages.
Representations of animal allies (spot the magpies!).
Bits of my own art – collages, a print and a brooch I made.
It’s also OK to have stuff you just happen to like. The Magpie likes Shiny Things, of course, and has to be restrained from buying quantities of festive bling in the New Year sales, so a few of those finds have made their way on there. And hearts, stars and angel wings have their own meaning beyond anything Christmassy.

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Remember, this is just one example of how to ‘do’ an altar – there are many other ways to do it, and I’ll be looking at a few of them later on.

So, what do you do with, or at, a personal altar? There are many answers to that one, too…but I’ll take that one up in the next post.