The passing last month of Olivia Durdin-Robertson, author, painter, and priestess of Isis, was remarkably non-reported in the American press. The London Times (preview only) and Telegraph, and the Irish Times, however, all carried extensive obituaries. Colorful and delightfully eccentric, and co-founder with her late brother Lawrence of the international Fellowship of Isis in 1976, Robertson inspired many in a rediscovery of the feminine divine. Her writings, art, liturgies, rituals and personal example helped give a form to a widespread longing to experience the Goddess.
Robertson was a member of the Irish landed gentry, and the family’s splendid Huntington Castle in County Carlow became under her influence a devotional center and extended series of shrines to the Goddess.
I’m writing about Robertson not only because her life and work deserve to be known, but also for more personal reasons. As I’ve tried with varying success to record (Goddess and Human, Of Orders and Freedoms, Messing with Gods, Potest Dea-A Dream Vision), the Goddess is alive and on the move, even in my life. I say “even” because many trends often seem to pop up, flourish and fade before I even discover their existence. And I can be remarkably obtuse even when spirit knocks on the door.
But the Goddess, through Her grace, is no mere trend. Will we look back at the present as another period of renewed veneration for Her, similar to the century or so of inspiration behind the construction of over 100 glorious Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals dedicated to the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe? (The most famous is Chartres, which many know both for the cathedral and for its labyrinth.* The best website is in French, worth visiting for its images even if you don’t know the language. On the horizontal menu, click on “La Cathedral” and then on “Panoramiques 360″ — if you have sufficient bandwidth, the virtual tour is well worth your while.)
The most recent appearance of the Goddess (or a goddess — She/They may figure it all out someday) in my life is a series of meditation experiences this October over the span of a week. Isis called to me. The nature of the call wasn’t completely clear, and I also didn’t pay adequate attention. Goddesses aren’t really my thing, I might say, in an arrogant ignorance I intermittently see the extent of. As if the divine in any of its forms is something to dismiss as a matter of personal taste. But I have two color images of Isis I printed from the web (though they’re in a jumble of a side devotional area I haven’t finished ordering and dedicating), and I am continuing to work with meditation and vision to see what comes of it. I pulled a couple of her books** off my shelves, too — evidence she is a presence whether I attend to her well or not.
I mention this because now it feels more significant, in retrospect, with Robertson’s passing. Another reminder this life is finite, and that such opportunities, to the degree they manifest in time, do not wait forever, even if they may reoccur and reappear.
And if you can see from my admissions here how patient the divine can be with human slowness, indifference, ego, stubbornness and a few other choice weaknesses I’m probably missing at the moment, there’s really hope and encouragement for anyone at all.
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Images: Olivia Durdin-Robertson; Huntington Castle; labyrinth;
*A good starting point for learning more about labyrinths is the extensive site of the Labyrinth Society.
**M. Isidora Forrest’s excellent Isis Magic (Llewellyn, 2001, recently out in a second edition), and Rosemary Clarke’s The Sacred Magic of Ancient Egypt (Llewellyn, 1st ed., 2nd printing, 2008).
I’m sitting here in nerd rapture with an interlibrary loan copy of Ranko Matasovic’s Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic. There — I may just possibly have driven away 99% of my readership with a single sentence.
On the off-chance you’re still with me, let me explain. In “Talking Old” I tried to convey my delight in the sounds and shapes of our ancestral language — I say “our” because over half the planet speaks an Indo-European language, itself a pretty remarkable fact. Proto-Celtic is a daughter of Indo-European and mother of the six modern Celtic tongues: Manx, Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic. So Indo-European is our “grandmother tongue,” or maybe great-grandmother. Beyond the nerd appeal that only Celticists, conlangers and a few other assorted dweebish types can comprehend, Proto-Celtic is a window into Celtic history and culture, a fragment of our human past — and a potential source for a ritual-liturgical-magical language in the Celtic tradition.
The Celtic languages today are struggling. Manx has been brought back from the last edges of extinction — with the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell (image to the right) passing in 1974. Take a look-listen at this short video of Manx children and a couple of teachers talking in and about the language. Cornish died out about 200 years ago, but has been revived and has, depending on your source, a few thousand speakers, and along with the other Celtic languages, a cultural fire banked under it to keep it alive. Scottish Gaelic is threatened but has speakers in the tens of thousands, and Welsh and Irish are also at risk, but have active communities of speakers. Breton struggles against an official French-only policy, and retreats annually, as older speakers die, and younger people turn to French to get ahead. If you’re interested, check out these links to some short clips of speech in the these languages.*
The Etymological Dictionary I’m currently drooling over, confirming everyone’s worst impressions and stereotypes of nerds, provides linguistic reconstructions of Proto-Celtic words — something like a museum restoring missing portions of an old painting or piece of furniture. As the restoration proceeds, the face of one of your ancestors takes shape before your eyes, and you hear a whisper on the wind of a voice speaking a language gone for over a thousand years. That’s the closest I can come to the sensation of reading and pronouncing slowly to myself the restored words.
But while you shake your head at one more poor fool taken in by cultural seances and linguistic necromancy, I’m wandering mist-covered hills and listening to ghosts reincarnate in dream, as long as I hold the book open. I make my very own Samhain-on-the-spot, the veil between the worlds thins, and I converse with the dead, with the Otherworld, with the generations stored in my DNA and blood and bone. Perhaps you could call it racism in the best sense of the word — a celebration of all who have gone before me and who, by living, have delivered me to this moment of my own life, as I write these words. It doesn’t last, but it also endures forever.
As a linguist and conlanger it wouldn’t be hard for me to reconstruct a couple of different usable versions of a Celtic language. One version could be a somewhat simplified Proto-Celtic, another a sister tongue to Welsh, Breton and Cornish, ieth gelteg, a Celtic language. Would it be “authentic”? About as authentic as I am, descendant of so many bloodlines that like everyone else on the planet, I’m a mongrel. Who would want to speak such a mongrel tongue? That’s not my concern — I’d restore it for some of the same reasons a museum sets about a restoration: for what it can tell us about our past, and about ourselves as preservers of our past, and for its “thingliness,” its solidity and existence in our world. These are potent magical reasons on their own.
Why not learn a living and threatened Celtic language instead? Do something more practical! I can hear the critics and naysayers. Can’t you best connect with your supposed past through those alive today, speaking a descendant tongue just as you are a descendant person? Well, I have. I know a fair bit about the Celtic languages, as I do about some other endangered and dying languages. And I look at them as I look at the branch of my own ancestral line, destined to die out because my wife and I have no children. Half of all our current languages are destined to die before the end of this century, along with a comparable number of plant and animal species. Some have seen a reflection of one in the other. Given how closely tied human rights, tribal survival and environmental degradation are, it’s not a stretch to see human languages and ecosystems as mirrors for each other. ”What we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
The analogies of blood and speech start to break down, the Samhain door of linguistic reconstruction begins to shudder shut, and I’m back in my diminutive study, holding the hardbound book, more than an inch thick, and shivering a little. I stand up and step into the living room to stoke the fire in our soapstone woodstove which has subsided to embers during my extended reverie. And I wonder and remember and plan and dream again. Celtic twilight is not the same as Celtic dawn, though at any point the light level might look the same.
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Images: Welsh flag; Ned Mandrell; dictionary.
*Here are short Youtube clips of Irish (a 2-minute weather report), Welsh (a Welsh teenager talking in both languages), Cornish (a story in English and two varieties of Cornish, with a strong English accent), Irish again (4 minutes, this time showing how Manx and Irish speakers can understand each other), Scottish Gaelic (2:14; also a weather report) and Breton (2:10 — short interviews, subtitled in French, that you might mistake at first for French, so strong is the French influence on Breton pronunciation).
(Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared in the November issue.)
Magic of the North Gate is an intriguing book for those like me who have studied McCarthy’s previous works and might have expected another in the same vein. An inviting departure from her involvement in more temple-oriented magic, this book reflects a change of lifestyle as well for its author. A teacher, ritual magician and Hermeticist, McCarthy now resides in Dartmoor National Park in the southwest of the U.K. Think of a Golden Dawn mage taking up residence in Yellowstone or Yosemite. The book remains characteristically humble, wise, unexpectedly funny, and profound – qualities too often lacking in books on magic. Add to these its emphasis on being of service to the land, and it is altogether a valuable resource.
Throughout the book’s nine chapters, McCarthy recounts her rich experiences over the years of working with land spirits and nature magic. A resident for a time in the western U.S., she passes along many helpful observations in her stories and suggestions applicable both for the typically more settled inner and outer terrain of the United Kingdom, and the wilder landscapes of North America. To put it another way, her book often prompts a reader to meditate, reflect and then adapt her many ideas to the reader’s own landscape, circumstances, abilities and experience. No mere recipe book, this.
Nevertheless, along the way you discover that you’ve gained valuable insights on how to approach gardening and building outdoor shrines, advice on honoring the fairies and welcoming local deities, or strategies to deal with approaching storms and “death alleys” on infamous stretches of highways. She discusses ways of honoring old bones you may unearth, effecting a “deity transfer” to a statue, and interacting with Native American peoples, sanctuaries and spirits who will respect your heritage and ancestors if you own them outright, in keeping with how you respect theirs. The eighth chapter, “The Dead, the Living and the Living Dead,” offers much material for exploration and contemplation. As McCarthy observes, “A major skill to learn in life that has major bearing on the death of a magician is discipline of controlling wants and needs … it is a major tool” in making the transition through death (230).
The final chapter, “Weaving Power into Form,” likewise provides ample material to explore in one’s own practice. McCarthy’s Hermeticist training and experience re-emerge, particularly in her emphases and terminology in later chapters, to good effect, since she has contextualized what she says there by establishing a foundation in preceding chapters for her particular flavor of earth magic. Her insights into ways of working with the energies of the temples of the directions and elements are also helpful.
McCarthy’s writing style is both conversational and reflective. Her book reads in part like a journal and follows its own organic and occasionally circular order, though her nine chapters do deliver what their titles promise. Often, though not always, the points she makes are less a “how-to” – though she offers much advice clearly grounded in experience – than a “what-happens-when.” To give just a few for-instances across the chapters, here are some excerpts:
“Magic in its depth creates boundaries of energetic opposition and tension. This is part and parcel of how power works – it also protects the integrity of the inner worlds as well as beefing up the magician … It can also act as an idiot filter …” (17-18).
“If I had known about [the impact on the physical body] beforehand, I would still have explored, but would have looked after my body better and would have made a point of reaching for inner contacts to help teach me about how to handle my body through this work. Hence this part of the chapter” (39).
“Land spirits don’t do ‘sorry’; if you break a promise then the deal is off” (130).
“You may notice that your home or building does not appear upon the land, which is normal if it is a modern building. Buildings, unless they are consecrated spaces or temples, tend to take hundreds of years to fully appear in the inner landscape of the land” (133).
I will return to this book to re-consider and annotate the portions I’ve highlighted and queried in a different way than I will her other books, The Work of the Hierophant, and the Magical Knowledge trilogy (Foundations, The Initiate, and Adepts). The latter texts help fill in gaps in my more intellectual understanding of kinds of work I will very likely not pursue in this life, though there, too, McCarthy’s earned wisdom transfers to other kinds of practice. But Magic of the North Gate is a more immediate companion and touchstone for what I am exploring already, in my own way, on my handful of acres on the New England hilltop where I live and anywhere else I set foot.
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McCarthy, Josephine. Magic of the North Gate. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013.
Image: Josephine McCarthy.
Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared.
I mentioned OGRELD in an earlier post — acronym for that “One Genuine Real Live Druidry” that never existed. But for a non-existent thing, it’s proven surprisingly lively in my thoughts. Every time I scratch my head and say about somebody else, “How can you do that?” when they do or believe or say something that doesn’t match my quirky and partial understanding of the universe, OGRELD raises its fictitious head, pretty frisky for something that isn’t.
But then “existent” and “non-existent” together comprise a pretty useless category anyway, from what I can see. Hit a paradox, seek for a unifying truth behind it: basic tool in my toolkit. Do I really think that what became my mother and my father flashed into existence from nothing some eight decades ago, mucked around, made a life, made me (thank you!!), and disappeared again forever? That’s far less likely, far harder to believe — a major mismatch with my and others’ experience of the universe — than an alternative take on things: that what manifested as my parents, as me, as all the birds and animals and plants and everything here and there and everywhere, the Ten Thousand Things, is something the universe excels at doing.
Why? Because, first of all, it just keeps doing it. Blessedly, bountifully, provocatively, right under our noses, before our eyes, in our ears, right on hand, at the tips of our tongues. And that, more than anything, spells out my sense of any immortality that may be: this wonderful energy keeps changing form, so don’t get too attached to forms. Roll with it. Dance with it. See where it wants to go next, and follow. Get sufficiently intoxicated in the flow, and its apparent ending is just a wave against a rock, a splash in the endless current. Real? Definitely. Splashy and messy? Yup. But not the whole story by any means. The story goes on with the current. The form (the previous chapter, where we left our hero/ine dangling from a rope above the rapid or the ‘gators or the Rodents Of Unusual Size*) gets left behind. Life 101. What do they teach in schools nowadays?! Move along, move along. These aren’t the Druids you’re looking for.*
But our sneaking suspicion of a truth underlying things also brings with it an annoying tendency for us to think that anything out here, in the manifest world, equals that underlying truth completely, finally, once and for all. That’s a mistake in categories — doesn’t work that way. Instead, it arrives provisionally. Approximately. We encounter any “underlying truth” through time, not all at once. You get your piece, I get mine. For today. Tomorrow we need to reconnect, re-source, re-build. Not “two steps forward, one back,” but instead, keep moving or stagnate, bleed and breathe or fossilize, innovate or institutionalize. Where we are today is always somewhere on that continuum (and almost never at either pole, however much the shrillness of current headlines wants us to believe otherwise. Exhibit A: Anti-Christ Obama / Exhibit B: A New Hope).
So OGRELD can seduce us along every one of its points. ”One”? Unity is a tough one for human beings. We see it as a goal, but it usually happens intermittently, then we retreat to our local tribes. ”Genuine” and “Real”? Think of the money in both advertising and purchasing for whatever is “authentic, genuine, real.” But in spite of how those qualities have gotten cheapened, or rather because of it, we long for them more than ever. (The Velveteen Rabbit became real because he was loved. Could be we’ve been looking in the wrong places. ”Genuine” and “Real” aren’t in other things, but in ourselves, or nowhere. Whether that’s an improvement, a miracle, a discovery, a revelation, Good News, depends on where you’ve been spending your time and energy.)
Even “Live” can be problematic. (That’s one sign of human genius: we can make problems out of everything.) It’s a game — as long as we remember we agreed to play, and as long as we know that the solution or the victory or the endgame is a solution for today. Tomorrow the games reboots. We’re back with the starting pieces and our own ingenuity and creativity. If we know it’s a game, it’s delightful. If we take it too seriously, it’s pure and absolute Hell for everybody. Oh, we know these things. OGRELD (fill in your preferred means of deliverance here: god, sex, liquor, drugs, the Singularity, Progress, Apocalypse), lead us into your truth!
And “Druidry,” the final component? It’s just as problematic as the rest. It’s not for everyone — not because it excludes, tolerant** little sucker that it is — but because, as with most “solutions” we pose to the problems we created, we exclude ourselves from it. We’re better at no than yes. If you’re looking for an idol to worship (and we all have one or more already), make sure it’s the best damn idol money can’t buy.
So make a list: what do you want in your job/mate/religion/diet/life? Then interrogate that list. If you actually had X, what would that let you do or be? Keep going through a few more cycles of interrogation: if you then had Y, what would that let you do or be? stop when exhausted, or when you’ve arrived that the truth that underlies the “truth.” (If you don’t know what that is, there’s a project/problem for you. Have at it!)
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*There are times when an excess of pop-culture movie references can mar an otherwise perfectly decent blog post.
**Some brands of Druidry are more tolerant than others. In some forms of Druidry, you’re encouraged to invest your time and energy exploring almost any tradition and practice EXCEPT Christianity — shamanism, Egyptian polytheism, Reiki, permaculture, Hinduism, Voudon, veganism, Asatru, Wicca, Buddhism and onward to the ends of the earth. But not Christianity. (If you think Jesus didn’t also teach good Druid principles, you’ve missed substantial insights from both Druidry AND Christianity.) Not true for all flavors of Druidry by any means, but Christian Druids tend to hang out together, or practice solitary, or stay closeted, or drift away, from what I’ve seen. But see OBOD’s page on Christianity and Druidry.
Images: labyrinth – a fine instance of Druid (Pagan) and Christian imagery working synergistically; “Rodents Of Unusual Size”: photos and accompanying article at The Huffington Post, from an article from June ’13.
Updated 24 November 2013
We’ve read it, heard it, thought it, and many self-identify with it. It leaps faith boundaries; there are respectable atheists who lay claim to it. Meme, cop-out, canary in the mine, badge of honor, ticket to bad-ass-dom or philosopher status, tired PC label. High-mileage, time-to-change-the-tires, still-up-for-that-road-trip hippy van of the post-post-modern zeitgeist-fest that is for today what “finding yourself” was for a whole other lost generation not so long ago. You ask, and … there it comes, wait for it … “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not mocking the impulse, just the frequent obliviousness of people who think it’s original with them. According to a Gallup poll from over a decade ago, 33% of Americans apply the SBNR label to themselves. I doubt that that percentage has dropped at all in the interim. If anything, it’s probably risen.
The phrase annoyed United Church of Christ pastor and author Lillian Daniel enough that she wrote a 2011 guest blog entry for The Huffington Post: “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” Responses to the post helped supply enough material that the original page grew into a book-length collection of essays –When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough. [As a side note, only the first half of her book directly engages the topic of the title.]
The “enoughness” of Daniel’s title refers to the importance of community, without which she feels a private spirituality can slide too easily into laziness and self-indulgence. Of course that can happen. Who holds people accountable for slipping into bad habits, if they seek to find their own truth, in their own way? [Turns out there ARE some "forces at large" who can keep us in line; for that, keep reading.] How do we avoid a kind of heedless religion of gratitude, if you live in the West and are comfortably middle- or upper-class? After all, that life can be pretty good much of the time: no starvation, war, oppression, plague and so on. How do we escape a superficial enjoyment of nature as the whole of our easy religion? (In particular, Daniel inveighs against the “Aren’t sunsets glorious?” crowd who think that their love of beauty is both original and that it “covers all sins.”)
Yes, there’s a Puritanical streak present in Daniel’s irritation (Puritanism defined by H. L. Mencken as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time”). A fair portion of the SBNR’s may well come across as hedonist agnostics without a care (though I’ve yet to actually meet one), while the good people in congregations like Daniel’s engage each other in all their human imperfection, and are called to be better for it. But given the litany of ills the world faces, which any reflective person can see are attributable at least in part to the ongoing gluttony of first-world nations in their consumption of the planet’s resources, irritation is a perfectly reasonable response. Given the imperial overreach of those same nations in their attempt to bully and harangue the world so that their gullets remain as stuffed as possible, irritation might even be a good starting point for making an actual change — though Daniel goes nowhere near so far.
But there’s more of substance going on here, which Daniel is understandably reluctant to examine, since it cuts to the heart of her religion. Part of an “actual change” has already been going on for decades.
We can grasp one corner of the change in the words of now retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong notes in his Q & A for 11-7-2013 that those he terms the “non-religious” often are still spiritual:
Lots of people who do go to church are “non-religious.” Lots of people who say they don’t believe in God are profoundly spiritual and searching people.
What I seek to describe with the phrase “the non-religious” are those for whom the traditional religious images have lost their meaning. There is no God above the sky, keeping record books, ready to answer your prayers and come to your aid. There is no tribal deity lurking over your nation or any other nation as a protective presence. There is no God who will free the Jews from Egyptian slavery; put an end to the Inquisition or stop the Holocaust. If these goals are to be accomplished, human beings with expanded consciousness will have to be the ones to accomplish them. This means that the category we call “religious” is too narrow and limited to work for us in the 21st century.
The question I seek to answer is that when we move beyond the religious symbols of the past, as I believe our whole culture has already done, do we move beyond the meaning those outdated symbols once captured for us, or is the meaning still there looking for a way to be newly understood and newly symbolized? The word “God” is a human symbol. I believe though that the word God stands for a reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define. To worship God in our generation means not that we must move beyond God, but it does mean that we will have to move beyond all previous human definitions of God. So to be “non-religious” is just a way of saying that the religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning. That does not mean the search for God is over; it means the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged.
Some of what’s unintentionally ironic in Spong’s words here, intended to push against “Churchianity” and provoke mainstream Christians in its Pagan-like tolerance, is that many Christians would agree with him, and many Pagans and Druids in particular wouldn’t. For the polytheists among the latter, gods and goddesses are indeed real. Where Pagans and Druids do share common ground with Spong is in their conviction that there is a spiritual “reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define.” But while it may be that some specifically Christian “religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning,” Pagan symbols feel new again. Paganism is growing because “the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged”; that’s what makes Neo-Paganism: so much is new. Talk to a Druid who’s encountered Cernunnos or Morrigan, who serves either as priestess or priest. Talk to a Wiccan who draws down the Moon.
Finally, if the posts on blogs like those on my sidebar of links are any indication, Pagans and Druids who may be solitaries and practice alone (as often out of necessity as out of choice) face their fair share of profound challenges in their spiritual practice that foster growth and unfolding, deeper awareness, and an enriched capacity to love. After all, Christian saints over nearly two millennia who retreated to hermitages and isolation from human others in order to deepen their spirituality also frequently found what they sought. It betrays a misunderstanding of spirituality to think we can’t practice alone. Fools and sages are pretty evenly distributed across the planet and throughout spiritual traditions. The sage I seek may live, not on the other side of the planet, but next door in the trailer, the one with the Chevy up on cement blocks in the front yard. The fool is often standing in front of me when I look in the mirror.
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Daniel, Lillian. When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.
Images: Lillian Daniel; John Shelby Spong.
In this post I enthuse about an early and continuing inspiration in my practice, and inevitably drag in other more idiosyncratic but hopefully still relevant associations along the way. So first, the “old magician” of the title. Scottish-born R. J. Stewart (b. 1949), a composer and author, is among the handful of contemporary practicing magicians whose work has done much to clear away accumulated Medieval and Victorian superstition and obscurity from magic. Why, for instance, should I intone or vibrate a particular name during a ritual, unless I know what it is and what it’s meant to accomplish?
Inspired by Celtic tradition and the teachings of his mentor Ronald Heaver (1900-1980), Stewart has developed practices designed to heal both magician and environment, among other reasons Druids may be interested in him. (His website deserves a visit if you want to learn more about him and his magic.) Along the way, with his Inner Convocations and Inner Traditions practices, he’s also helped to articulate a comprehensible theory of how magic works and can be effectively practiced, reflected in workshops, audio projects, and books like Living Magical Arts (hereafter LMA). That book was my first deep introduction to magic more than two decades ago, and I sit with my dog-eared copy in front of me now.
I value LMA in part because in it Stewart states basic truths succinctly and clearly — truths I find I need to come back to again and again. His work derives from personal experience. That means that unlike too many texts on “magic,” it is no pastiche of the work of others, or a mere catalog of magical correspondences that do little by themselves to advance actual magical practice. On the page, correspondences may look nice (or scary, depending on your own personal fear factor) and decorative for the armchair magician — and who isn’t one of those, with all the books on magic you could read and leave lying around to impress or intimidate guests?! But anyone half-way into a serious first-year study of magic can (re)create from experience their own list of equally effective correspondences. That doesn’t render them somehow invalid or useless, but shows that they’re dependent variables rather than constants. I wanted the constants, “unrealist” that I can sometimes be.
The fact that magical traditions worldwide share much common ground in things like tables of correspondences, while annoyingly refusing to agree on some presumed “basics,” like which direction is associated with which element, should of course give us a clue about what “matters,” what’s convention, and what the difference is. (For more on this, see Mike Nichols’ wonderful “13 Reasons Why Air Should Be North,” now promoted to the status of a “Sacred Text” at ISTA, the Internet Sacred Text Archive, which if you don’t know, you should know, if only to “waste” large amounts of time exploring.)
In LMA, Stewart offers overviews, rationales, and a coherent and profound magical philosophy for what he presents. As he defines it, “magic is a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns.” Worked with consciously, these patterns can help catalyze a transformation: “the purpose of magical arts is to enable changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend further methods [of magic and transformation] inwardly.” This transformation can come about because “magic attempts to relate human consciousness to divine consciousness through patterns inherent in each.”
One reason for the magical dimension of human reality is simply that, as biologists have been discovering, we’re pattern-seekers and pattern-makers in profound ways. That’s how we make sense of the world, the “one great bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of things*. Find the pattern — or impose one, if nothing helpfully steps forward as a clue to whatever’s going on in front of our noses. Note that this predilection towards pattern-making is neither “good” or “bad” by itself — though it makes sense to assume, as at least a provisional view of reality, that if pattern-recognition is so successful as a survival strategy across so many species, it may actually have something to say about what “reality” is like, or how it comes across to consciousnesses still evolving to “grok” it.
For we share this “blueprint of consciousness” with other mammals, which is why I suspect we were ever able to domesticate animals like dogs, cats, sheep, geese, ducks, chickens, cows, horses, and pigs that have contributed so hugely to human civilization. They’ve served us as sources of food, clothing, transportation, power for machines, defense, pest control, and companionship. (Growing up, I remember a picture my dad displayed prominently in our house of five cows, each one representing a different breed of dairy cattle, with the caption “Foster Mothers of the Human Race.” We kept a herd of the familiar black and white Holsteins, the most common breed in the U.S., the breed most people think of when they think “cow,” but the other four breeds were still important enough to our farm family that as a child I also knew Brown Swiss, Jersey, Ayrshire and Guernsey cattle on sight.) If domestication isn’t a marvelous and far-reaching act of magic, what is?
So pattern-making is a “keeper” in our toolkit of magical strategies and techniques. I sense the shades of my born-again and otherwise Christian ancestors flinching and cringing and flagellating themselves. But magic is not a religion, and is certainly not anti-religion, but rather “a coherent set of traditions regarding human potential.” Or it’s becoming one, in the hands of competent modern magicians like Stewart. And he goes on to assert that the god and goddess images of religion are imaginative images “engineered to a high standard of performance.” What that means is that magicians, without ever denying the power or value of such images, work through and beyond them because they want to experience and work with the reality which lies behind images and which energizes them.
Stewart’s style both in LMA and later books is educated and not a breezy, colloquial one. If you’re hearing worship in my words, try again. I don’t expect everyone will (or should) agree with Stewart. I don’t always. But his common-sense, grounded, characteristically practical outlook is refreshing and unusual when you look at the sometimes careless, unscholarly, irresponsible and misleading books on the market which promise a lot and don’t deliver. Use your reason and intelligence fully, as Stewart would urge, because they’re tools too. He remarks late in the book, “if the intellect can be turned to prove to itself that conditioned life patterns are false, it becomes a useful tool towards liberation.” No quick fixes here (I’m usually suspicious of books which promise those anyway), but a path worthy of prolonged dedication.
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Stewart, R. J. Living Magical Arts. Blandford Press, U.K. 1987.
*attributed to author and psychologist William James (1842-1910)
Images: R J Stewart; magic; Hoard’s Dairyman “foster mothers”
Yes, I’ve once again* entered that artificial arena of neurotic constraint and gratuitous creativity sponsored by the good (though by now addled) folks at Nanowrimo. National (though it’s gone global) Novel Writing Month. A 50,000 word draft of novel in 30 days. Join nearly 300,000 other dreamers doing the same thing and keeping tabs on each other at the Nanowrimo website, its forums, messages, Q and A, and so on. Giving out free advice, titles, sympathy, inspiration, horror stories and pep talks. The whole project runs on a shoestring. You can read a little more about the details here.
I’m at 10,500-something words right now, some 6000 words short of where I should be, if we were keeping score. Which I am. But not. 1667 words a day is nothing more than many novelists write all year round, so do not take too seriously the self-pity and the indulgent whining heard from your marginally stable neighborhood ‘Wrimo. He or she need do only one thing: keep writing. Nothing else is acceptable. ”Someday I’m going to write a novel,” meet your moment (month?) of truth.
And, to tell the truth (available in good novels everywhere), I’m on my second plot, after severe crash-and-burn a few days ago, but at last words and ideas are flowing. All my strategies and tricks from three decades of writing went on strike and picketed my brain. But now I’m back (breakdown averted once again) and I’m on it. And that first story? Not stillborn, just arrested, delayed, challenged, developmentally disabled. ”Differently scripted.” I still have hopes for it. With surgery, therapy, time … ”Your children will disappoint you. Love them anyway.”
Novelist and blogger Chuck Wendig waxes vulgarly eloquent on the pitfalls of The Nanowrimo Simplification (sounds like a title for The Big Bang Theory) in this 2011 post, “25 things you should know about Nanowrimo.” For anyone interested, he’s dead on target, and the four-letter words underscore the realities of the writerly world.
Still, if you plant butt on chair and do the writing, in one month you will undeniably clutch in the form of hot little electrons what your dreaming-of-writing-a-novel-before-I die self did not have previously: material to work with, to cudgel and trim, exercise (exorcise) and massage into a draft of what could become a novel. With time and much more effort. O Grasshopper, the draft is only a beginning. But thou art now A Writer.
I’m off to drive my wife to a weaving workshop in Massachusetts. Then it’s back home to move the story forward another 500-1000 words before Sunday turns into Monday and its 1667 additional words. Wish me luck.
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Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.
*Here’s one of several posts from my 2011 Nanowrimo experience.