Monthly Archives: July 2018

Signs of the times

Symbols are powerful. Anyone who was at the Norwich Pride Parade last weekend – as I was – and witnessed a 50-metre rainbow banner being paraded through the streets, could tell you that. Anyone who’s been at a Trump rally and seen the sea of red baseball hats knows that that power can be used (and misused) in many ways.

But I’m also thinking here of more basic, graphic symbols.  We all use these every day,  You’re using them right now; the Roman alphabet, like its many fellow writing systems, is a series of symbols for vocal sounds, which in themselves are symbols for things or concepts. You use symbols in another form when you express your delight, disgust or disbelief on that Facebook post with an appropriate emoji. If you drive, you use the symbols on road signs to help you stay safe.  And again, there are some simple signs that have an immediate impact and power.  Think of the cross, the Star of David, the CND symbol.

Practitioners of magic, the esoteric art of changing reality, have long used symbols for their own purposes. One thing you can do to express an idea in a concise way is to make a sigil.

If you’ve ever tried to create a monogram, you already know what a sigil is. Basically, it turns a set of ideas, or a sequence of words (like your name), into one concrete, identifiable symbol. In magic, you do this with the letters of a phrase – like ‘find a new car’ or ‘smash the patriarchy’ – that represents your aim; you then remove duplicate letters and condense it down into a doodle-like design that embodies that aim.  You can then use the sigil as a focus for your mental and physical energy to bring it about.  The best known proponent of this method was the celebrated twentieth-century artist and occultist, Austin Osman Spare, but in recent times it’s been enthusiastically taken up and refined by the practitioners of the post-modern, eclectic field known as Chaos Magick.

You don’t have to use the regular alphabet. Prince, while not a magician in quite the usual sense, created a powerful sigil of his own philosophy on life and music in the symbol he used in place of his name.  Back in history, at a time when being able to write at all was esoteric, Norse and Saxon magic-makers combined the angular, incised letters of their own writing system, the runes, to create sigils – known as bindrunes – for various purposes. (In Iceland, where the most direct descendants of the Vikings live, they’re still popular – and still on a rock star theme, one Bjork Gudmundsdottir has a striking tattoo of one, a protective symbol known as the Vegvisir.)

You can also make sigils from basic symbolic shapes, and this is the method used by Laura Tempest Zakroff, a Pagan writer who blogs for the religious site Patheos. Zakroff recently created, with her workshop participants, a series of sigils designated to support the efforts of activists against the current US political regime and its abuses. She’s given permission for these sigils to be shared as widely as possible under a Creative Commons licence, and used in whatever ways anyone sees fit. This is her sigil for building community:

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She describes here how it was created, and exactly what the different components mean. There are also links to the other symbols and the story behind the series. (If you can get hold of it, her book on the subject, Sigil Witchery, is well worth a read.)

And here’s a version I copied and filled in with my own doodles and colours. This is one good way to empower a symbol, and it’s the simplest method to try yourself. (If you draw it on a postcard, you can always leave it in a library book or in another public place for someone to pick up.)

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There are lots of other ways to put the energy of a symbol out there. Here are some possibilities…

– Chalk it on a sidewalk or other flat public surface.
– Delineate it on the ground in flower petals (from the local area, and gathered, not plucked), twigs, or wild bird seed.
– If you have access to a garden or plot, sow flower seeds or bulbs in the shape of your symbol.
– Use makeup or body paint to draw it on your skin.
– If you’re near a beach, draw it on the sand and leave it for the waves to wash it away.
– Outline it in tea lights. (Never leave lit flames unattended! This one is more suitable for protests or other events where people will be constantly in attendance.)
– Get people to stand in the shape of the symbol. If you can, photograph this arrangement from a high vantage point and share it on social media.
– Cook food in the shape of the symbol – maybe ice it onto a cake or cookies. Then share it around so the energy can be consumed.

You can probably think of your own ideas.  Stay within the law, don’t harm the environment, but apart from that, use your imagination.   Because changing times demand new symbols, and new ways of expressing them.

A…country of one’s own?

So. We’re having one of the driest, hottest summers in living memory here in the UK. England got kicked out of the World Cup (kudos here to those lads, and to the dapper and personable Mr Gareth Southgate, who may have restored some of our collective faith in non-toxic masculinity).

And oh, yes, the political crud piles on in its monstrous, mostly orange with tinges of Russian red (which sounds like something you’d need to go to the ER with) and sometimes Brexit-coloured, viscosity. The sole relief being the scathing humour that the good people of Britain, and especially, of Scotland, put into their protests against the visit of the alleged POTUS the other week:

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In recent months, your Magpie has been pondering whether there’s anywhere in the world the average person can now go that isn’t a hotbed of fascism, misery, misogyny and scapegoating of the poor and vulnerable. By ‘average person’, I mean someone who doesn’t have an advanced degree and/or any specialised in-demand job skills, which are common requirements for entry to many countries. There’s also the small matter of disability or chronic health issues, which disqualify one from, for example, Canada. There really are depressingly few options when you look into it.

I’m tempted to side with Emily Brontë, who knew a bit about freedom, and whose poem, ‘To Imagination’, contains these lines:

So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou and I and Liberty
Have undisputed sovereignty.

Emily, her sisters Charlotte and Anne, and her brother Branwell, were connoisseurs of the ‘world within’; they worked on their fictional realms of Gondal and Angria well into adulthood. Many writers have not just invented fantasy kingdoms in childhood, but grown up to invent further imaginary realms, and turned them into books that have given millions of others an escape route: think of Middle Earth, Narnia, Oz, Earthsea, Westeros, the Discworld…

We could create a country in our heads, of course, and do all the things people do with such countries: draw maps of it, give its people languages (perhaps Tolkien’s ultimate motive for his books, and something he recognised in other writers as ‘the secret vice’), invent a history for it, devise lists of kings and battles and…But short of tornadoes or magic wardrobes, we can only live in that kind of country in our imaginations. And, important as imagination is, for hope’s sake, we want a country we can also actually inhabit in the here and now.

We could claim a little portion of the planet as our own and form a micronation. It’s been done before. But if we all did that, we’d just end up with a lot of tiny isolated spots of land. All the Magpie has at her disposal, territorially speaking, is a small piece of Norfolk mostly filled with books, paint, fabric and dust bunnies, which isn’t much to go on.

However, you can be a nation, or tribe, or clan, call it what you will, without a territory. The Kurds are the largest and best known group in this situation. But as many nations with territories show, you don’t have to be ethnically related to constitute a nation; you just have to share a common ethos, a set of goals and principles.

So I am creating a nation, an imagi-nation maybe, but a tool for playing with the idea of belonging. Let’s call it a ubiquitous nation. Not so much a utopia, which means ‘nowhere’, but a pantopia, which can exist anywhere. Meaning, if you’re a citizen, its territory is wherever you are.

I thought long and hard about what to name it. Countries with land generally get named after the races or tribes who inhabit them, or their ‘discoverer’ (generally the first white person to stumble on a country that people with other skin colours have been inhabiting for thousands of years), or the monarch who paid for that person’s boat. Or they’re named after the local fauna or flora, rivers or mountains, or the valuable loot said discoverer finds there, or hopes to (which is where we got Côte d’Ivoire and Argentina).

I wanted to take a different tack. I did a bit of digging around in Greek and Latin roots, since those tend to be where a lot of our country names derive from, and came across the Greek word perithoria. It means borders or margins.

I was actually vaguely looking for something that meant ‘without borders’. But this works. Creative misfits do inhabit the margins, along with a lot of other people often neglected by the chasers of wealth and prestige. Liminality is an important skill – if they can’t categorise you as one thing or the Other, you’re winning.

So, welcome to the nation of Perithoria. If you choose to belong, you are now a Perithorian. There’s no oath of allegiance, although you can make up your own ceremony if you feel it helps.

Neither do we have a ruler. I’m certainly not putting myself forward for that role, as I’m somewhat lacking in Royal dignity (and suitable hats), and I don’t fancy being a politician either. Nor should anyone else claim any sort of title, or at least, not the kind that gives you any power over other Perithorians. If we need to make any decisions about how to run this setup, they should probably involve talking sticks, food fights, or the fine Inuit art of singing insults at each other (which is as near as dammit what happens in some parliaments anyway).

The card that affirms your Perithorian nationality is available freely to anyone who wants one. But since we’re not that other country, ours is a Purple Card. Print this out, add your photo and details, and feel free to decorate it with paints, pens, glitter (eco-friendly, please), or whatever else you like.

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Are there laws you have to obey as citizens of this nation, then? Of course there are, because laws are essential to a civilised society. But Perithoria also recognises that if you’re a grown-up, you are capable of working out quite a lot of moral issues for yourself. So there are only two laws:
1. Do something creative every day. If it makes people smile or helps them feel better, that’s cool, but be creative anyway.
2. This one is best summed up by that fine Australian, comedian and disability advocate, Adam Hills:

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The national bird of Perithoria is, of course, the magpie. The national animal, I think, ought to be the raccoon. This adorable masked bandito makes its living by going through other people’s trash, which isn’t too far from what the outsiders and misfits of human society have to do – or in some cases choose to do, since the mainstream culture is profligate in what it throws away. It’s discarded some pretty important moral principles in the last few years, so we might as well fish them out, dust them down and see if we can’t put them to better use.

I haven’t yet decided whether or not we have a national flower, but I’m open to suggestions. Neither am I quite sure when our national day ought to be, so I’d appreciate input on that. Also, if you have any contributions to our joint folklore, ceremony, postage stamps, or any other accoutrement of a collective identity, ideas are welcome.

We do, I thought, need a flag, and this is what I came up with. Blue for truth, and for the precious planet we live on; a fiery heart for the passion that’s necessary to change anything. Simple but effective, I hope.

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I wasn’t sure what our national anthem should be, and then one night it was revealed to me. No, not by a man on a flaming pie, as John Lennon once said the name ‘Beatles’ came to him, but thanks to a long involved dream I can’t even remember, at the culmination of which I woke up with this 80s classic in my head. I was never sure of its meaning back in the day (apparently it’s a protest against anti-pogoing rules in clubs at the time), but I loved the song, and the rather jolly folk-pagan video. And I think it’s appropriate. Fascists don’t dance – they goose-step. And if they don’t dance, we probably should be suspicious of them.

So here is the national anthem of Perithoria – ‘The Safety Dance’, by Men Without Hats. You don’t have to stand for it, or even kneel, but dancing is of course encouraged. If you want to.