Archive for the ‘Shakespeare’ Category

Gods for the Ungodded — and Vice-versa   Leave a comment

With the pervasive influence of belief-religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism on many of the readers of this blog, we tend to think of the dividing line between “who’s in” and “who’s out” as something marked by beliefwhen there are numerous other options available. It’s not just “paper or plastic?” There’s canvas bags, and boxes, and carry-it-out-in-my-hands-without-any-container-needed-thank-you, to name a few. And if we look over some of the terms available to describe this range of approaches and objects of our attention and intention — terms like atheist — they often bring way too many non-useful associations with them. Often atheist really isn’t a particularly useful term for many who just don’t bother with deity, as deity has never bothered with them. Hence the term ungodded in the title of this post, an awkward attempt to get at this phenomenon.

After all, orthodox Hindus aren’t normally labelled a-carnists, non-meat-eaters, though most are vegetarian. It’s simply their default setting. If I’ve never paid any particular attention to deity at all, I’m not so much an atheist as an alter-cosmist — I live in a different cosmos, where the question doesn’t arise, or hasn’t done so recently. At least until the door-to-door folks come calling with their pocket sermons and their flyers and leaflets and their “either you’re in or you’re out”-trips. Binarists, every one of ’em, devotees of a binary black-white, either-or world that ignores an immense and uncharted middle ground. Worshipers of Binaria, goddess of absolute distinctions in a world of shaded and subtle continuum inherent in almost everything.

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Marduk and his dragon Mushkhushshu — public domain/Wikipedia

Or to take another tack, I don’t believe in my ancestors so much as understand they exist(ed), from the evidence of my own existence right now, though many of their names and faces are lost in time. (The same happens to gods. Marduk, son of Enki, anyone? Does your non-belief make you an a-Mardukist?! Or can we concur that most of us check the box marked N.A. — “not applicable”?)

Some ancestors contribute to my genes and bloodline directly, while the others subside into the background, distant cousins, every one of them. Imagine — and I mean imagine — that god/desses fill some of those same spaces. Powers that made and are making a difference, even though I never meet them directly. Imagine the cosmos filled with nothing else than cousins. My counterpart in Azerbaijan gets along perfectly well without my knowledge or belief, and he’s a mortal man. What of god/desses? Can’t they do at least as much?

“Oh brave new world, that has such people [deities?] in it!” — Miranda, Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.186-187.

Gravity existed long before anyone believed in it. We could call it a goddess, except that we (mostly) haven’t conceptualized that Power in such a way. And no, I’m not suggesting that we pray to Gravitas at her altars — although doing so would doubtless reveal some world-widening insights we haven’t yet reached. Any scientist worth her training knows that dedication to her field reveals secrets obtainable in no other way. What else is devotion, after all, but a means of contact, a chance to widen the world and make use of the divine gift of our imagination and creativity? What else, you might ask, are we for? (Try that out as a subject for meditation and practice for a month of days, in any way you like, and get back to us with what you discover.)

R. J. Stewart offers an “American Goddesses Meditation” as a way to explore deity that you might connect to quite naturally. (Why not use what’s nearby first?! If you’re not an inhabitant of the States, adapt to your locale — who’s a goddess in your area? There might be rivers, mountains, and so on that deserve attention, if only for experimental devotion. Who gets represented in statues, names, images — even and especially if they don’t at first come across as goddesses? And you can try the same with gods, if you’re so inclined. Many deities are partly or proximally incarnate — they have a physical form you can use to approach them, much as the Orthodox in some traditions have icons, statues, etc. Looked at one way, some of the most seemingly Protestant and Evangelical among Americans are polytheists, also worshiping a hard, metallic and martial war-god, carrying around his talismans and charms in the form of AK-47s, Glocks, etc.)

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Liberty — Wikipedia/public domain

If, on the other hand, you do practice devotion or dedication to some form of deity, it behooves you to try out non-belief, for what it can offer you that nothing else can. By that I mean, among other things, rather than fearing doubt, to harness it as a tool for insight and exploration. One of my teachers exhausted doubt as a factor when he finally pursued it to its deepest ends — ran it to earth, so to speak — and realized that for him it no longer exerted power. Doubt became merely boring, not worth the time (like chewing gum you’ve worked on for hours). Doubt no longer offered an illicit thrill, or troubled his inner worlds. As far as doubt is concerned, then, he’s now an atheist.

Can I be an atheist towards fear, or anger, or some other Power that asks for my worship and energy and attention? Who and what else do I worship that doesn’t deserve it, or that I’ve outgrown? (And to turn the wheel another quarter turn, who and what might I be overlooking or ignoring that merits more attention than I grant today? Chances are great there’s something more I can discover about this endlessly amazing universe.)

[“Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison, of all places?” — Rumi.]

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Working the Tool-kit: Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3] Edited/updated 2019-8-6

Earth is in some ways our default setting: we wake again and again to this world each morning, lift the body from bed, feed it, bathe it, put it through its paces, flex its muscles, rub its sorenesses, tend its scrapes and bruises, touch other beings in affection, and send it to bed at last, reasonably confident we’ll do the same tomorrow and next week.

Air has become among other things the elemental energy much schooling expects us to focus on, to the exclusion of other energies and Elements, along with arbitrary rules that regiment the body, keeping Earth at bay: regulated times for things that could occur naturally, like eating and movement and bodily functions; permissible and prohibited interactions with those around us (who sits where? who can speak now? who gets the crayons, chalk, paper? who can move around the classroom or step outside it? who can sing, shout, be silent, dance, sleep? who can opt out of the activities altogether right now?), allowable and discouraged behaviors, as when we daydream with clouds, or birdsong, or the shadows of leaves on the classroom window.

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. — William Blake, Letter to Rev. John Trusler.

Even specifically Air functions may be permitted or forbidden: we do or don’t talk about certain topics; we may or may not say certain words; we’re required to participate in certain rituals (in the U.S., that peculiarly American patriotic/ propagandistic exercise of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance); we follow a clock, that airiest of Air abstractions; we’re mostly discouraged from asking dangerous meta-questions like “Why do we have to study this?” or “How do you know?” or “What really matters?” or “What do you really think?”

Little wonder, therefore, that many of us learn to actively detest Air functions — we have to be taught not to enjoy or ever master what is called “critical thinking”, or make a lifetime practice of “giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”, as Shakespeare calls it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is, we don’t attempt to earth our thoughts, put them into forms for others to perceive and learn from, to create and explore thought-worlds as much as we do physical ones. As a consequence, we frequently misunderstand myth and metaphor, confuse symbolic and literal, and generally neglect and abuse the stores of wisdom we’ve inherited from the past, from the Ancestors who strive to leave us with their accumulated wisdom. We forsake the power of thought and Air, and in doing so we abandon a rich heritage and treasure-house that could alleviate much of our present suffering, fear and sense of helplessness, all the while as we flail about and wonder why we feel forsaken, abandoned, victimized by an indifferent universe. We’ve abandoned parts of ourselves — but the deep remedies lie all around us, where we have left them (sometimes buried under mounds of mental, and physical, plastic packaging).

Thought and emotion often blend — the “tricks of strong imagination”, more properly a Water function, but also one of thought, which we clothe in forms we can understand. Many of us think in images; we then feel them strongly, and confuse what we feel with what we think, or see no reason to distinguish the two.

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Explore Air with my preconceptions reined in even a little, though, and I get a sense of vast expanses and possibilities, rather than the indoctrination or thought-bubbles plaguing so much of the planet. Even more difficult is to perceive one’s own thought-bubbles: we all have them, and we may live all our decades without ever seeing our own thought tracks and furrows and ruts, imagining that such things limit and circumscribe everyone around us, but never ourselves.

Our cultures teach us how to think — that’s their purpose, to pass along a traditional means of survival; one way to step outside this teaching and thought-shaping in order to examine its shape and dimension and influence, is to enter another culture and explore it. Such an action is simultaneously freeing and disconcerting: what I thought was “normal” or “natural” turns out to be merely what my culture taught me, an arbitrary though admittedly useful way to organize human behavior, and the humans performing it.

Can I move beyond “Why do they DO that?” to “What does it feel like to do this from inside the culture?” When we meet, we shake hands. No, we bow, the depth of the bow showing the respect we grant the other person. No, we kiss each other on both cheeks. No, we press palms together, saluting the other person. No, we rub noses. These are the merest of surface behaviors, some of the more obvious “proper” ways to behave: these manifestations of thought may indeed begin here, but they go so much deeper than this.

Druids, like other truth-seekers and spiritual explorers, ideally seek out and welcome such opportunities to enter and travel through multiple thought- and culture-worlds. “Pilgrim on earth, thy home is the heavens. Stranger, thou art the guest of gods”.

At least some of the time!

Likewise, one measure of relative freedom from a particular (limiting) thought-bubble is the sense not of self-justification or righteousness of “my” way of thinking (as if any one way is the only or best way), along with criticism of anyone else’s way, but of the hugeness of still-unexplored regions, of the vastness of the elemental world of Air and the quickness of thought towards its targets, like the arrows, lances, javelins and other flashing projectiles we’ve used in metaphorical attempts to describe how speedy thought can be. And to see all of this not with fear, or other rigid conditioning or reaction, but with a child-like excitement and openness at possibilities of discovery, of expanding beyond what one knows now to what one may come to know.

Give a child this chance, and often the body stills naturally, a repose that Earth grants in the presence of engaging Air. Or it may well get up and dance in delight. Either reaction, or still others, are wonderful harmonies of the elements and their blessed conjunctions in hallowed human consciousness and experience. Likewise the asanas of yoga are ideally a harmony of Elements, the Earth of the body following the Air of thought and the guidance of Spirit.

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After I attempt to look at Fire and Water in the next two posts, in the fifth in this series I want to look at the applications and parameters of the spiritual tools I listed in the first post, and how we might begin to mix and match, and try out variations-on-a-theme for as many tools as I can.

Until then, and always, may your Elements blend and uphold and guide you to excellent discoveries and to joy.

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Ritual Rummaging   Leave a comment

John Beckett (6 January 2019) writes:

A ritual is a series of interrelated actions designed to accomplish a spiritual goal. It may be a celebration, but it’s more than a party. It may honor certain spiritual persons, but it’s more than singing praises. It may work magic, but it’s more than a spell.

Couple this succinct overview of ritual with OBOD founder Ross Nichols’ “Ritual is poetry in the world of acts” and you’ve got a fair bit to go on, if you want to do some rummaging about in ritual spaces and energies.

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Ross Nichols leading a procession of the Cornish Gorseth in the 1970s. Wikipedia Creative commons.

For starters, form matters. What makes a lively seasonal festival ritual more than a party? After all, some parties also have a form. If it’s a birthday, maybe there’s a welcome period for everyone to assemble, settle in and get something to drink. Then food — a buffet or even a formal sit-down meal — followed by presents, and then games, or dancing, or some other group activity. Or maybe the whole evening is food, mingling and music, with presents dropped off on a designated table. There may be formal start and ending times, or apart from one announced activity — often, the food — there’s no set beginning or close. “Show up when you can”. Still, people often know what “birthday party” typically means. There’s some kind of loose format in most people’s expectations, unless the invitation says otherwise.

If a ritual has assigned roles, it can begin when all the participants have assembled. Beckett talks about how ritual ideally doesn’t have an “audience”. While it’s a performance, no one should be so detached as to be merely a spectator. At our most recent Vermont OBOD seed group celebration of Winter Solstice, we held a ritual “post-mortem” discussion as some dishes for our potluck dinner were warming in the oven. With just enough members attending that foggy evening to carry out the ritual-as-written, it’s true each of us “had a part”. But more importantly, as one member observed afterward, it’s what we do with and for other participants during the ritual that makes the difference. “I support them”, she said. While one person is assigned to speak the words that “call North”, for instance, everyone else can do so, too. Add your intention. Feel the direction. Visualize, sense it on your skin. Imagine the participant serving as North to be garbed appropriately for the direction, crowned and armed with symbols of earth. In fact, if we expect North or any of the other directions to manifest and be a palpable presence, just such group energy and support are essential. Otherwise, what are we doing calling the directions?

I’ve queried the opening words of the standard OBOD ritual format before, in previous posts. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, welcome to this Rite of …” Lovely, but what IS “the power of star and stone”? And if I don’t know, then how do I know I want to call on it, invoke it, welcome the assembled group with and by it? Is it the same as “the power of the land within and without”? Do either of these have anything to add to our rite?

Or let’s say I chose to forego seeking and supplying a merely intellectual equation: “power of land = X”. I let the words move me wherever and however they’re meant to, trusting the ritual and relying on our group’s reverent and “heart-ful” performing of it to answer such questions in due time, if at all. Let the intention and the energy of the assembled members carry me over any rough spots, and all will be well. OK, but then how do I support the herald who proclaims these opening words, if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing? If we all imagine different things on hearing the words, we generate a diffuse generic energy (or nothing much at all) that may not come anywhere near to what the “power of star and stone” could do, if we knew what we were about.

Mean clearly, and you can carry people with you.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

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Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of the play.

Listen to an informed performance of Romeo and Juliet and when Juliet says these words, it’s the third “Romeo” that she stresses: “O, why do you have to be Romeo? Any other name would be fine. But no: you turn out to belong to my family’s enemies!” If you don’t know what you’re saying, you can’t mean what you need to mean. The words won’t mean what they could. Understand what Juliet says, and her next lines make perfect sense:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy …

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Dionysus in ’69. Photo by Brett Brookshire.

Because drama is a component of ritual, films and plays have something to teach us about owning the words and actions of ritual in deep and creative ways. Ancient Greek drama was sacred to Dionysus. In Athens, no weapons were allowed in the theater precinct during the Dionysia Festival of tragedies and comedies. The ritual of theater was an act of worship, a sacred thing dedicated to the god.

Serious about addressing ritual glitches, the crew of MAGUS ’17 asked participants to memorize their parts. Come ready to speak with intention, since you won’t need a piece of paper in front of you. Improvise, once you know the energy of the traditional words. Call North, and let us hear and feel North. I was North, a small but important part. I did call North, with original words and images I’d been composing orally — I felt their power myself — then flubbed a short line North says a page or two later that I couldn’t remember and couldn’t for the life of me find, for an ungodly amount of time, as I pawed through the printed ritual in my hand. Ritual flow broken, I finally found my place and shamefacedly read off my line.

Fortunately, Druids are forgiving folks. It both did and didn’t matter. Ritual isn’t made or marred by a single person. Smiles and laughter heal many a weak line reading, dropped candle, overenthusiastic blessing with water. It took time before I could laugh, because I was so annoyed at myself — all the more reason I needed to.

Contrast this with my Ovate self-initiation: my wife away for the weekend, all lights in the house extinguished except for a single small candle. I sit on the floor in a dim and flickering circle of light, words of the open and closing ritual at hand, but foremost in my awareness a dedication I speak as the words come to me, along with a palpable sense of witnesses around me as I proceed. The ritual pacing my pace, the words my words, the experience my own and that of those who, I sense, share it with me. Powerful, personal, memorable, unscripted at its peak, and especially potent for that reason.

The two poles of ritual? Both valid, necessary — and each distinct.

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Images: Ross Nichols; Juliet; Dionysus in 69.

Days of Solstice   Leave a comment

On the first day of Solstice, the Goddess said to me …

I go looking for words, sometimes, to make do for deeds. But as I practice over these short midwinter days, as I celebrate them — the same thing, if I hold space for the desire to make it so — I find words coming both before and after the actions.

Slowly I start looking for guidance in more places, rather than shutting it down before it ever has a chance to reach me, wing of a bird-thought across the cheek, merest touch of feather-feeling brushing away dullness and lighting the heart to wonder, if I don’t turn away out of fear, or doubt, or — worst of all — busy-ness. Guest-guidance, I might call it, the stranger knocking, briefest word from a passer-by, bird across the sky, squirrel darting over the drifts in the backyard, woolly-bear caterpillar sluggish in the cold, clinging to the wood I carry in for the fire. Two fires today, for main house and weaving studio.

Josephine McCarthy wryly remarks, “Most of the jobs of a magician [I substitute “person” here, my fellow magicians, readers all] are about restoring balance — very simple, very unglamorous and not very useful if you want to get laid or have a new car”*. Gods know we need re-balancing almost everywhere. We’ve got our work cut out for the new year.

I reach for a natwanpi, lovely Hopi word, “instrument of preparation”, tool or implement or aid. [Go here for a post from 5 months back that talks a little about natwanpi.] For my wife, often, her natwanpi-of-the-moment is in the kitchen, whisk or blender or saute-pan. Much of her magic is a love of cooking, paired with an exquisite sense of taste that can detect herbs and spices in almost anything we eat, from our own kitchen or another’s. Other natwanpis at hand? Her looms, her warping mills, her heddles and stocks of fiber. And further out: her gift for friendship, her generosity. A wide and rich palette, a set of living natwanpi she cares for and delights in and deploys regularly.

I reach for a natwanpi, so many of them it’s an embarrassment of riches, though a bout of melancholy or seasonal affective disorder or depression can seem to raid memory of the treasure-house and make me forget or deny all I have to draw on. Google “natwanpi” and images come up from this blog, a hint of what I carry around, but also of what we each have our own versions of, and that’s just the treasure-house of images. Add in memories of people, places, animals, experiences that rest in other senses, smell and touch, sound and emotion.

McCarthy writes:

My deepest personal experience of that is with the lighting and tuning of the candle flame. The intent to light a candle to prepare the space for a ritual act developed from that simple stance, to an act of bringing into physical manifestation an elemental expression that lights through all worlds and all times: it becomes the light of divinity within everything (Magical Knowledge, pg. 70).

IMG_1936Or what seems almost the opposite to flame: I reach for a stone to hold in hand, door to memory, cool to the touch, scented with earth and mud and time, piece of the planet in my palm. The same, not the same: I build our house- or studio-fire, humming quietly to Brighid, the path of the act of building the fire paralleling the path the fire itself takes through the wood. I kindle, but whether it’s my spirit or the wood that’s burning starts to matter less: it’s both.

Oh, how to say these things we all know so intimately, yet often lack the words for? How to get at them? Much of magic is activating what and who we are already, what sloughs off with time if not renewed, what we can re-ignite with intention and love.

Or this, appropriately enough from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale: “Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born”. What he doesn’t say is this: they’re the same things. What’s different is me.

Here for you is a spark of Solstice light: the vocal group Antiphony, singing “Solstice Carol”:

And here’s the original version by the Weird Sisters — some slight difference in lyrics and arrangment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T0i4akX5a8

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*McCarthy, Josephine. Magical Knowledge Book 1: Foundations. Mandrake of Oxford, 2012, pg. 57.

 

Fire — Druid & Christian Theme 3   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?

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Deborah Lipp notes in her The Way of Four Spellbook (Llewellyn, 2006):

Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).

Now Lipp’s observation both captures the nature of fire and also feeds our stereotypes about impulse, passion, strong feeling. How often we may long — or fear — to be out of control, fearless, spontaneous! Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point? Why would the Australian-inspired Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain opt for its advertising slogan “No rules. Just right”? Because there is indeed a rightness to fire — it can only flame up where there’s something to burn, after all. And most of us have been storing combustible material for a long time. How else to explain our explosions, outbursts, flares of temper? Even our language about these things draws on fire for metaphor.

Following the theme from the last post, we can speak of a fire baptism. You’re wholly in it when that happens. The full experience, nothing held back.

John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor, explains to those asking, “I indeed baptize you in water … but he that cometh after me is mightier than I … he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”. We sense the power in fire, of all the elements closest in so many ways to Spirit. It can purify, transform, forge and anneal. Its extreme heat can also scorch, char, consume and destroy. Each element transforms its own way. “We didn’t start the fire”, sings Billy Joel. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning”. But he goes on: “We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. And sometimes we even try to “fight fire with fire”. Yet we also long for fire to kindle cold hearts, to heat a flagging will, to spark the spirit deepest in us. We yearn to be fire.

“O! for a muse of fire”, cries Shakespeare’s Chorus in the first line of Henry V, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. We long to blaze, because we feel in fire something native and free. We are both it and other, too, as with all the elements. “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”, says Jose Luis Borges. The elements are natural sacraments, folds and garments for Spirit all around us. For fire, we light candles in so many traditions, for so many reasons, the flame cheering to the eye and heart.

I both am and am not fire. Self and other: the quest of our days, the distinction we cherish and also long to cast away. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, shaman, through all these experiences and intuitions we still ask ourselves, each other and the world: “What makes a good burn?”

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Maybe the purest ritual Druids and Christians might share is one which seeks not to fill our ears with answers, but that gives us space and silence to listen to and ponder the questions. In some ways, the long, slow burn of Spirit in us is fire in its most potent form of all.

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Beltane approaches, that festival of fire. The Edinburgh-based Beltane Fire Society celebrates 30 years this year of a dramatic festival of thousands, from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am. Here’s the “Drums of Beltane” subpage of the Society’s website. As the page notes,

Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988.

Looking for a fix of Beltane energy to get you launched? Here’s a video of the Drum Club which will be among the groups performing this year for the event. Just the first five minutes will give you a fine taste of Beltane fire in sound form. We can spark from anything, but sound and rhythm are powerful keys.

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Image: fire.

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