On Speaking and Not Speaking

Recently I’ve been thinking about what I make public and what I keep private. In the past I’ve scoffed, a bit, at the ‘keep silent’ answer of the Sphinx, that fourth bit of wisdom that Thelemics, Wiccans and others hold dear. I don’t hold with the late modern idea that religion should be kept out of the public sphere. Religion is culture. Religion is life. Many paganisms, and perhaps especially Gaelic polytheism, are woven into every aspect of life, both private and public. Singing prayers as you light fires in the morning; walking the bounds of your land to claim it as your own; Bealtaine fires to cleanse cattle and (today) ourselves.

But there are aspects of some paganisms that it may be better to keep silent about. I refuse to talk about magic, for example, except with people who are close to me (and then I’m careful). And sometimes, saying or doing anything puts you in the path of what the Irish called the Evil Eye – e.g. from people who don’t like it when others gain any kind of attention, and who might do things in response to that.

And then, some things need to be somewhat public. When you pray to St Expedite, it’s important that you share his name and spread his fame. People used to put his name in the paper. I pondered what the modern equivalent of that was, and came up with twitter and blogs – so here’s my acknowledgement of the generosity of St Expeditus (I hear that you never say his name the same way twice). He also likes flowers and pound cake – I had to substitute what we call Madeira Cake, as we don’t have that – but he seemed OK with the exchange. He came through for me. Blessings on you, St Expedite, who gets things done in a hurry.

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Image: improvised temporary shrine to St Expeditus, with his picture, flowers and sponge cake.

I’ve been doing some Work that’s definitely for my eyes only, recently. And pondering the paradox of how to write about that in places where it’s helpful to talk about what I’m doing, but where I know it will be seen, probably by those who don’t need to know what I’m doing… See, this is tricky :P I also got into some trouble not too long ago with some people who didn’t have the best of intentions, who (among other things) linked my public, academic profile with my personal, Pagan one. Their intention was to do me harm across all the spheres of my life. I don’t hide who I am – at the moment, it’s not difficult to get from here to my public persona. I’ve had to ponder how to address that. Password protected posts? Writing more in places where posts can be locked to a small audience? Neither of those sits very well with me, given the purposes of this blog.

No, I think the answer may be more related to the concept of ‘hiding in plain sight’. Which is again one that some Wiccans love, and that I’ve scoffed at a bit. But when I had important people over to the house recently, and had to look at what I was hiding in plain sight – Brighid’s cross above the door, altars that look like trinkets and pictures, my door sign a clear boundary between my place of Work and the rest of the house, and so on – it occurred to me that this, too, is Gaelic polytheist practice. The ordinary fire blessed in the quiet of dawn. The rowan cross that looks like decoration. The bit of butter left behind the house for the Good Folk. The whispered prayer as you craft an amulet that looks like a piece of thread.

It’s all important – especially for those who live in the liminal places.

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Image: door sign – “Away with the fairies”

31 Days of Offerings – Day 3: Offerings in Exchange

Saturday, and I’m at an old medical centre with completely beautiful grounds, a stream running through them at the bottom of the hill, an overgrown herb garden a home for whole microuniverses of life near the entrance, a delightfully happy rowan tree near the carpark. Urban and rural druids alike would fall in love with this place.

Photo: trees at the edge of a garden wall

Photo: trees at the edge of the garden wall

We were there for a day of contemplative druidry, trying out a range of techniques and practices, all of which I adored and will be trying out as part of my regular practice. Chanting; sitting in silence to invoke the Awen; contemplative reading of the book of nature; connection with the spirits of little things… Lots of fantastic, thought-provoking stuff.

I brought a handful of rowan berries in for one exercise, collected from a search in the long grass beneath the abundant rowan tree. Well, now what do I do with these? I wondered. In my meditation I saw them bouncing down the hill towards the rest of the world (something like in the Ribena Berry advert), delighted to be going somewhere new. I always find the rowan tree delightful. Abundant early autumn joy.

So after meditating with the berries, I did a few things. A few of the berries I threw into the river, an offering of thanks to the local goddess for hosting us with such grace. The rest I took home and they’re now on Cailleach Bhearra’s shrine. Some of these I’ll return to the earth, spreading them as far as I can take them from where they started, like the squirrels and the birds do. A few I’ll string on a rowan cross, as my ancestors did a long time ago — thinking, while I weave them, about why those who came before chose to bring a symbol of autumn life into the house to get them through the winter, and what that might mean for me.

Most offerings I treat in the Irish folk way, burying them. Their toradh, their essence, has been consumed by the gods, we Gaelic polytheists believe, and they are no longer good for us to consume. Yet if you separate that practice from the belief and look at the effect that that practice had on the world, in its time, in a more modern druid-y way, you can see it from the perspective of the nuts and berries. How sometimes the gods smiled on their offerings of rowan and juniper and there grew a sacred grove.

Do ut des – I give that you may give. We uphold rta. And the Xartus, the great tree that is the spine of the universe, continues to grow. Offerings in exchange for offerings.

Photo: Rowan tree. Image by Dave_S (CC, Flickr).

Photo: Rowan tree. Image by Dave_S (CC, Flickr).

Picture: Rowan berries

Photo: Rowan berries

Photo: gorgeously overgrown herb garden

Photo: gorgeously overgrown herb garden

Photo: stream running through the grounds

Photo: stream running through the grounds

Book Review: ‘Hoodoo: Folk Magic’, Rachel Patterson

Patterson, Rachel (2013), Hoodoo: Folk Magic (Pagan Portals series). Moon Books.

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On the whole, I would usually prefer to read about another culture’s folk magic from someone who is from that culture. Hoodoo, in particular, is one of those culturally-embedded practices (embedded in African-American culture, in this case) that it’s easy to misappropriate. Those of us outside of north America should be especially aware of this, since we don’t know all the history of oppression and suffering that is the cultural context of hoodoo. But there are ways to practice being a good guest when relating to another culture’s folk magic. However, it can be overwhleming to try and jump right in, and it’s often unwise to do so without a great deal more knowledge than most foreigners will have. That’s where a beginner’s book can be very helpful. Here, Rachel Patterson introduces the reader to hoodoo in a very accessible way. This is a book written by someone like you, working from a Pagan perspective in Britain. That makes this a good introduction for people without much experience of this particular form of folk magic or its wider culture.

Also called conjure or rootwork, hoodoo is an African-American folk magic practice, often with a strongly Christian flavour, and with influences from Africa, the southern United States, and beyond. This book introduces some of the key concepts and practices in hoodoo: working with roots, mojo bags and doll babies; foot track magic and candle/lamp magic; baths/washes, oils and powders; prayer and petitions; working at the crossroads; working with spirits, and many other ideas. It’s a really comprehensive overview of the practices, but at a beginner’s level.

Rachel Patterson is not afraid to admit that she isn’t as familiar with hoodoo as she would like to be, which is a refreshing change from writers who claim to be experts in something and then turn out… not to be. In places, this led me to wonder whether she could have done more research on one or two things. At the same time, it makes the subject much more accessible for her audience. For British readers in particular, Rachel’s relative unfamiliarity with American culture and history means she takes nothing for granted on the part of the reader – for example, she introduces terms and cultural concepts that a complete beginner will find very helpful.

This is a starting-point book. Start here – but then move on to more in-depth experiences of hoodoo. We live in a global world, and you don’t have to go to the USA to find out more (although it’s extremely helpful if you can!) There’s lots more information out there, from the Lucky Mojo podcast, to books written by conjure folk themselves, to histories of hoodoo and some of the people associated with it, and even anthropologies of American folk magic and hoodoo. The world is your crossroads. Enjoy!

U is for… Unsound Minds

The BBC recently published the results of a study into stress, mental health problems and rumination. Apparently, psychologists have long considered that rumination, or obsessive thoughts, is a cause of stress and depression. Now they have evidence of that based on experiments, apparently.

I wish I were capable of understanding the original study — not being a psychologist, I’m not. But I have a problem with this conclusion. For me at least, it’s the wrong way round. My experience makes me think there’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc situation here. Continue reading

(Catching up) S is for… Saints

I don’t talk much about the saints I work with. It’s totally outside my Gaelic tradition – and, indeed, outside my druidry path. I don’t have a detailed theology of what saints are, either. They’re my spiritual ancestors – an ongoing link to Christianity, which remains important to me as part of the history of my spiritual journey and the history of my culture – even if I can no longer support its theology (or host most of its practices) in my life. They are ancestors who are often very willing to help me with folk magic, and to receive prayers and attention in exchange for protection or provision.

In the Gaelic tradition, researching saints often becomes messy quite quickly. demonstrating the fluid boundaries between ancestors, gods and land spirits in Gaelic culture. Some of the saints-as-ancestors may also be gods. St Gobnait, in my UPG, definitely has something to do with Bhéarra – I’m just not sure what. (See my post on St Gobnait for more of my thoughts on that topic.) Studying the stories of the post-Christian saints has taught me as much about Gaelic culture as studying the myths. Both may well have pre-Christian roots – but regardless, I’m not sure the Christian/pagan dichotomy really works particularly well in terms of Gaelic reconstructionism. Gaelic culture has endured on through Christianity. The saints are a complex part of this, knotted into the threads of pagan and Christian Gaelic folk culture. Neopagans tend to have mixed, slightly confused responses to the Irish saints – St Patrick is vilified, but St Brigit is considered to carry survivals of the goddess Brighid in her stories. Keeping in mind how our views of the saints are socially constructed – in this case, by our social context of modern Paganism – could be useful here. My views are just as socially constructed as anyone else’s, but I try to approach the saints on their own terms, and ask what they can teach me.

Some of my saints are Gaelic. Some are not. Some may have pagan roots. Some do not. They are all my spiritual ancestors. They have all helped me, and many other people.

St Catherine, inspirer of scholars and strong women. St Gobnait, lady of the deer and the bees, from the Munster hills of my ancestors. St Francis, gentle brother to animals and to the land. St Cajetan, of social justice and concern for the poor and jobless. Mary, mother of a god, protector of the weak – in all her many aspects. Mary Magdalene, Gnostic avatar of Sophia, teacher of wisdom, whose story has been suppressed and lost, like the stories of so many women before her – and patroness of those whose brains and neurology don’t work too well. St Anthony, of the lost. And many others. They protect me, guide me and work with me. They are my ancestors, and I honour them. I don’t need much more theology than that, really. The rest is mere detail.

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Shrine areas for St Gobnait (well water and bee images) and St Catherine (spinning wheel), next to my general working area for folk magic

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Saints’ shrine – upper level (right to left: St Cajetan, Mary, St Expedite, St Anthony). The configuration changes depending on who I’m working with. Not all the saints want to be a constant presence on my shrine. Some do.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

– From the Breastplate of St Patrick

Life/Re-doing ADF stuff/30 Days of Paganism

So. I’ve been working through ADF’s ‘Wheel of the Year’ book, which takes you through the Dedicant Path a week at a time – but I’ve been quite scrappy about some weeks. I think I need to go back over the weeks I didn’t do in enough depth. And also start the five months of meditation in earnest – as near to daily meditation as I can get.

Continue reading

I is for… Incantation (and folk magic that uses it)

The Gaelic people really, really liked words. Spoken words – that’s what had power. Later, the written word arrives, with Ogham – which is about word-and-letter power, a lot like the runes. But it’s the spoken word that’s really powerful in Gaelic folklore.

We only have a few clues left about ancient druidic magic. Something that turns up in myth all the time is the rosc, which seems to get used for everything from healing to ensuring victory in battle[1]. That’s what the Morrigan’s prophecy is, at the Second Battle of Moy Tuireadh – a rosc. Blind druid Mogh Ruith speaks one, too, in his satire on his enemies before battle (which is awesome – he wishes them an infestation of midges in their piddling little forests). And talking of curses, one cursing ritual from Ireland was known as glam dicenn, and it had a reputation for causing serious harm via the magic of the spoken word. Some modern druids (and Gaelic-influenced witches) talk about glam dicenn as the whole of curse-related folk magic, with spellwork done with someone’s personal effects as well as using the spoken word. Incantations do seem to be the key thing, though.

So. Have a few examples…

Incantations in folk magic with European roots

This is a charm for healing a sprain, from the Carmina Gadelica. It seems to refer to St Brigid the healer:

Bride went out
In the morning early
With a pair of horses
One broke his leg
With much ado
That was apart

She put bone to bone
She put flesh to flesh
She put sinew to sinew
She put vein to vein
As she healed that
May I heal this

And this is where it gets interesting. Some scholars think that this charm has Indo-European roots. Because there are versions of it found in other places and other cultures, too. There are several Christian versions – here’s one from the Shetland Isles:

The Lord rade, [rode]
And the foal slade; [slid]
He lighted.
And he righted.
Set joint to joint,
Bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew.
Heal in the Holy Ghost’s Name!

Here’s a Germanic version that names pre-Christian deities:

Phol and Wodan rode into the woods,
There Balder’s foal sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:
Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,
Like limb-sprain:
Bone to bone; blood to blood;
Limb to limb — like they were glued.

And finally, here’s a very similar version from Braucherei, which is Christian folk magic from the Pennsylvania ‘Dutch’ (German) community in America[2]:

Our Lord rode, his foal’s foot slade,
Down he lighted, his foal’s foot righted,
Bone to bone,
Sinew to sinew,
Flesh to flesh,
Heal, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

And to go back to the Irish setting, a version of the charm is also found in the stories of the gods, the Mythological Cycle. Miach heals Nuada’s arm with the words “joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew”.

ADF is Indo-European Druidry. Charms like these, with possible roots in common, show the importance of the spoken, magical word in IE cultures. I’m not sure I use enough spoken word in my spiritual work, and I’d like to start to try. (I do like of the writing, yes I do.)

…And in American folk magic

Hoodoo, African American folk magic, uses scripture like the psalms for similar purposes (though the roots of the practice are culturally very different, and they would not recognise the term ‘incantation’ – but as a term for ‘magical spoken word’, it works for me). I recently spent a lot of time working on a hoodoo-style spell for justice. (I’m only discussing this because the spellwork is now done and dusted!) I know the psalms quite well, and I decided to have a go at using Psalms 129 and 130 as my spoken words for justice. It would work even better as a curse, as that’s what it’s intended as. Here’s a bit from Psalm 129:

Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.
Let them all be confounded and turned back…
Let them be as the grass upon the rooftops, which withereth before it groweth up.

Yeah. The Bible’s not all forgiveness and love. And it gets a lot stronger than that, in places.

“Why the Bible? Aren’t you a Pagan?” I hear my readers asking. Well, I think magical systems should be respected for what they are, rather than adapted wholesale to our own cultural needs. And hoodoo is Protestant magic. (From my observation, most folk magic is Christian.) I have a Bible that I bought and consecrated specifically for biblical magic, and it sits on my working altar when it’s set up for my (inexperienced, amateurish attempts at) hoodoo. There’s something very powerful about using the King James version of biblical passages in magic.

Here are some social reasons why Biblical Words Have Power:

1. It’s probably got a lot to do with the social power that our society has conferred upon biblical language, especially in its 17th-century English form – I never liked modern versions of the Bible very much.

2. For some of us, with Christian backgrounds, the Bible can also be what NLP calls an ‘anchor’ – a strong association that we have developed with something. I grew up hearing the Bible read from a distant, raised pulpit in sacred, ritual settings. Its words are literally associated with sacred power.

3. There’s also the symbolic value of psalms (and other passages) whose themes are about the concept that you’re working on, e.g. justice. Say the verses enough times, and they become a kind of mantra – where overall concept, not individual words, is the main thing.

4. And of course, hoodoo practitioners would say that the biblical words themselves have a sacred power inherent in them. I wouldn’t dispute that, myself, Pagan or not.

For me, even as a Pagan, it’s a combination of all of that. And, y’know, Christian esoteric practices do seem to keep calling me back.

Also? It works.

Incantation. Because Words Have Power.

I shall end with my favourite rosc – the Song of Amergin, where he announces himself to the land. (I am totally going to try doing that when I get off the plane in America in June.)

I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the eagle on the rock.
I am the flash from the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the word of knowledge.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
– Song of Amergin (mythical Irish invocation – from several translations)

Isn’t that just the most awesome, self-assured thing you have ever read? I’m off to announce myself to my garden…

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[1]  Woden’s Wandering Witch talks about the rosc in this excellent blog post on the subject.

[2] I never would have noticed this version if it hadn’t been for the wonderful folks at New World Witchery, who write and podcast about American folk magic traditions.