Archive for the ‘Druidry’ Tag

Review of J. M. Greer’s The Mysteries of Merlin   Leave a comment

myst-merl

image: Amazon.com. Fair use.

Greer, John Michael. The Mysteries of Merlin: Ceremonial Magic for the Druid Path. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2020.

Let me be clear up front that I’m reviewing this book as an interested reader, obviously not as someone who’s tried out over time the specific rituals Greer presents and can speak from that perspective. After all, the book just appeared in print this month. If you’ve already worked with the materials in his Celtic Golden Dawn, you’re well on your way to intuiting and valuing what he is doing here.

That means I’m reading and responding as sensitively as I can out of my own experiences with comparable ritual and magical practices. The best “review” of such a book, of course, is applying the rituals and techniques in the manner Greer recommends, over time, and only then assessing the results for oneself.

A mystery, as I need to remind myself as much as anybody, is something that simultaneously deepens and opens with steady practice. It emphatically does not mean something that remains obscure or inaccessible despite our best efforts. The Mysteries of Merlin as Greer presents them here are a comprehensive and cohesive set of rituals and techniques that point us toward discovery. Mysteries in the older sense of the word, as Greer points out, are “the traditional name for rituals of initiation linked to seasonal cycles and based on the mythic narratives of Pagan gods and goddesses” (pg. 2). Greer’s Mysteries of Merlin are founded on a variety of sources that he names and discusses. Chief among these are Medieval authors like the 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Brittaniae) and of the stranger Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini).

Vortigern-Dragons

15th-century illustration for an edition of Geoffrey’s History. King Vortigern and the dragons. Lambeth Palace Library MS 6. Wikipedia public domain image.

The book, as Greer sets out in the very first sentence, presents what may seem an unusual marriage of practices: “a system of self-initiation that is based on ancient Celtic Pagan spirituality but uses the tools of modern ceremonial magic. That combination, though it has roots going back many centuries, may startle readers familiar with the attitudes of today’s Pagan and occult communities” (pg. 1) about magic. And Druidry, more than most revivals, has aroused suspicion in some quarters for its “awkward” (Greer’s word) position that straddles both worlds, incorporating elements from a variety of sources, magical and Pagan both. Furthermore, self-initiation, which has come under attack as a modern invention and a contradiction in terms, is something Greer reminds us was a valid and established ancient practice as well.

The proof, as always, lies in practice: quite simply, does it work? This is an experimental question, not one which armchair debate can answer. Work through the three grades of material, for Ovate, Bard and Druid (Greer prefers this older sequence) over the course of three years of seasonal practice with the “Great Eight” holy days of the Pagan year, and anyone can answer that question for themselves.

A book like this also necessarily relies on intelligent and wise reconstruction and improvisation. And that leads me to one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Greer’s writing: how he contextualizes what he writes, while suggesting directions for further study and exploration. Rather than merely springing a new magical system on readers as if full-grown from the brow of Zeus, he clearly acknowledges its origins, and notes where he has “back-engineered” aspects of his material from documents or from intelligent surmise. This is an honesty rare in many modern books on magic. One of the advantages of working with the Merlin material is that interest in Arthur and the Matter of Britain has led to good translations of many original Medieval sources. Greer directs interested readers in many cases toward specific editions of these, as a way to deepen the engagement with and the effects of the rituals he has provided, as well as to build on them.

In this book, more than his earlier ones, Greer also suggests promising avenues of exploration for ways other sets of rituals could be developed. Much of this perspective arises from his earlier work in The Celtic Golden Dawn, which meshes very well with this one. Greer plainly reminds readers about what they are practicing, and in the process answers the criticisms by some Reconstructionists of Revival Druidry:

It’s probably necessary to state in so many words that the rituals, meditations and other practices that will be presented in the chapters that follow are not the same as the ones that were practiced on Bryn Myrddin in the waning years of Roman Britain. The mysteries of that time are lost forever. Even if somehow it became possible to recover the words and ritual actions that once made up the mysteries of the god Moridunos [explained earlier], for that matter, their meanings have passed beyond recovery. Like all meanings, spiritual and otherwise, they unfold from a context in which language, culture, and history all take part. No one alive today can possibly experience the world in the same way as a Roman Briton of the fifth century CE, and for exactly the same reason — even if the ancient mysteries of Moridunos were available in their original form — no one alive today could possibly experience those mysteries in the same way that a Roman Briton would have done in the fifth century CE.

Times change, and so do the mysteries. The Eleusinian mysteries themselves underwent countless changes, major and minor, over the period of more than a thousand years that they were celebrated. The transformations that apparently turned the mysteries of Merlin Caledonius into the Master Mason degree of modern Freemasonry are, as we’ve seen, far from unusual in the history of initiatory rites. What’s more, just as there were many different mysteries in ancient Greece that centered on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, using different rituals to do so, the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book are only one of many possibilities. In the work of initiation, there is no such thing as “only one right way” (pgs. 45-46).

Some specific details of Greer’s book that deserve brief mention:

+ complete rituals for each of the eight yearly holy days, for each of the grades of Ovate, Bard and Druid — pages 103-175.

+ the suggestion that Christian mysteries could be developed along similar lines (and that such a start has indeed already begun, citing John Plummer’s The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement).

+ the development of “The Rite of the Rays”, an awen mini-ritual, using the shape of the three-rayed awen /|\ for gesture and affirmation as part of the larger ritual for each holy day. On a personal note, this informs and confirms work I’ve been doing with the awen and its symbolism, as participants at Gulf Coast Gathering 2017 and MAGUS 2019 will discern.

+ Arthurian-themed visualizations and readings for inclusion in each of the seasonal rituals and for meditation and path-working. These seem to pair up well, I suggest, with Celtic and Arthurian tarot decks.

+ the use of a symbolic octagram throughout the eight seasonal rituals, and at the Druid level, an entire Octagram Ritual, with a detailed correspondence to a Celtic-themed and -named version of the universal Tree of Life.

+ the recognition that different levels of devotion and commitment to engagement and practice will naturally exist among practitioners, that this is a good and normal phenomenon, and that provision and recommendations for each level can help practitioners find what works best for them.

+ the flexibility of the ritual format provided here for both solitary and group practice. The focus is on solitary practice, but the rituals lend themselves to adaptation for group work if desired.

+ the value of continued working after having passed through all three grades. Practitioners can

decide whether to go on to become one of the epoptai, the initiates who continue to participate in the ceremonies after their initiation and gain the deeper dimensions of initiation that come with that experience. If you do, you will find — as the epoptai of the Eleusinian mysteries found in ancient times, and as members of other initiatory orders have found over and over again since that time — that repeated participation in a set of initiatory rites opens up portal after portal. Still, you and you alone can decide whether this choice is right for you (pg. 151).

+ the Appendix — “Other Mysteries, Other Gods”, which though clocking in at just seven pages, deserves careful meditation. Here again are humility and natural authority combined — something I savor! Greer observes,

The same process of revival and reworking I have applied to the legends of Merlin can, in fact, be applied to any suitable body of myth or legend to create a system of seasonal mysteries suited to regular performance by individuals or groups. Whatever deities or sacred figures you revere, whatever tradition of spirituality and magic you happen to practice, you can craft a set of mystery rituals suited to your own needs. If you’re prepared to put in the necessary work, the following steps will bring you to that goal (pg. 189).

+ the closing two sentences, which appear at the end of the Appendix just mentioned. Though Greer obviously completed the book before the virus launched on its current trajectory, the encouragement and value of his words in bolstering our spiritual effort is all the keener for its applicability in a time of choice, despair, distraction and spiritual need:

As you celebrate the mysteries, whether you choose the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book or a set of ceremonies you create yourself, you are participating in one of the great spiritual transformations of history: the rebirth of Pagan spirituality after more than sixteen centuries of violent suppression and persecution. The hard work and flexibility needed to make the mysteries you celebrate as rich and rewarding as they can be is a fitting contribution to that project (pg. 196).

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Romuva Update   Leave a comment

jonas-trinkunas

Jonas Trinkunas, modern founder/reviver of Romuva

I’ve written before about Romuva, the native Pagan faith of Lithuania and the Baltic region [see here]. While there’s not a lot of information available in English, there’s some, and it’s worth looking at for several reasons. I’ve included two images from that previous post because they speak to the spirit.

First, Lithuania was Pagan until the late 1300s, far longer than other European nations. Many old songs remain, and a few sacred spots survived, notably the paleo-astronomical observatory with reconstructed wooden pillars at the Sanctuary of Žemaičių Alkas in the resort town of Šventoji. The names of many Romuvan gods have also survived: Perkūnas, Aušrinė, Žemyna, Austėja, Ondenis, Patrimpas, Patulas, Velnias, Leda, Saulė and Mėnulis.

Second, in spite of obstacles like the refusal of the Lithuanian parliament to recognize the faith, Romuva persists. Anyone interested in North American Romuva can find English translations of a few articles by Trinkunas and contact info here [alert — the Tripod site brings annoying pop-up ads unless you have an ad blocker].

Third, with the help of supporters with means, the related Latvian faith of Dievturība (“people who live in harmony with Diev”, the Baltic supreme deity) has made substantial gains, establishing a beautiful island sanctuary, the Lokstene Shrine of Dievturi, pictured below.

ルアクステネ神社(Lokstenes svētnīca).jpg

Lokstene Shrine/Wikipedia image

Here’s a video in Latvian with some stunning pictures of the interior and exterior of the Lokstene shrine during a holiday celebration, with the Latvian caption Priecīgus svētkus! “Happy Holidays!” After some commentary by one of the Dievturi elders (also worth watching for the sound of the language and the images interspersed throughout), around the 1:30 mark the celebration begins. You begin to get a marvelous sense of what such revivals can mean.

 

Finally, like many revivalist faiths and practices, Dievturi also has hidden resources in its people. Here’s an April 2020 video of Dievturi practitioners singing a short (40-sec) chant of strength.

 

A somewhat awkward Google translation of the Latvian lyrics:

All roads are full of fire
All roads are locked
We’ll pass right through them all
With a little help from a friend
We’ll pass through the fire
We’ll break the locks in half.

/|\ /|\ /|\

 

Blessed Beltane!   3 comments

redmaple

red maple coming into leaf

beltanefire

Welcome, Fires of Beltane!

Posted 1 May 2020 by adruidway in Beltane, Druidry

Tagged with ,

A Beltane Solo Rite   Leave a comment

[Updated 19:55 EST 30 April 2020]
calendulaThe following is meant merely as a ritual template. With practice, we naturally reshape what we do. There’s no particular advantage to holding on to a tradition, or to any ritual expressions of it, that don’t nourish and sustain us. If the language feels too formal in places, or just isn’t you, change it to fit. Like a new pair of jeans or shoes, you’ll work them in.

[For a contrasting Beltane rite, see John Beckett’s 2015 blogpost.]

Read through your rite aloud at least once. You can begin to approximate the sound and flow of the ritual in this way, visualizing, as you read, the space where you will perform it, the objects and actions you choose to include, any ritual gestures, and the central part, where your intentions, prayers, songs, etc. will come from your circumstances and choices and intention. If you have one or two other people joining you, experiment with ways of dividing up the lines among you. Rehearse that ritual!

Time spent in meditation, or in the space where you’ll hold the rite, as well as time gathering the materials you will need, are all part of the larger ritual we perform. In some senses, ritual is simply an intermittent and concentrated reminder of the greater temple of sacred time and space we inhabit all our days.

Ritual Preparations: bathe beforehand. Alternatively, if you have a ritual fire space, use the ash to mark yourself before your ritual. A particular piece of jewelry, a sash or headband, a musical accompaniment like a bell, chime, drum or rattle, can help make your rite more vivid. Perhaps you have a special incense, or herbal tincture to use.

Materials: flat space, table or rock for altar; container of earth, sand or a pinch of salt for North; a container of water for West, a feather, fan or incense for East; a torch, candle or lamp for South; any gifts, offerings, objects for blessing, poems, songs, etc.; matches or lighter; ritual objects to decorate the space; ritual jewelry or clothing; musical instruments or playback devices.

The Rite

[Choose where you will stand to begin. Many ancient rites position the celebrant in the West, facing East. Your location may suggest other possibilities.]

Earth below me and in my bones,
Sky above me and in my breath,
Seas around me and in my blood,
by the Power of these holy Three,
I proclaim this to be sacred time and space.
[Strike a bell, gong, or drum
or make some other ritual gesture to mark this moment.]

Here the deep dark of Annwn* [AHN-noon],
here the shining of Gwynvid [GWIN-veed],
Here also Abred [AH-bred], middle realm, and mortal —
I stand in all three worlds.

I welcome all of good will,
bird and bug, beast and bough,
friends, teachers, ancestors of blood and spirit,
Guardians of this Land.

[With forefinger and middle finger extended outward
as the wand we always carry, walk (or turn) clockwise and imagine,
or feel, a shining circle appear as you turn, saying these words]
For the good of all beings, I call on your aid
as I cast the Circle of this rite.

[Turning clockwise to face the North]
With this earth [or salt] I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the North.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the North.]

[Turning clockwise to face the South]
With this fire, I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the South.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the South.]

[Turning clockwise to face the East]
With this feather/fan/incense, I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the East.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the East.]

[Turning clockwise to face the West]
With this water I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the West.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the West.]

[Depending on the time of day, turn East (early), South middle part of day), or West (afternoon/evening). Slowly open your arms as you say the words]
With the blessings of all, I open the Beltane Gates of Fire!

[Here belongs the heart of your rite, and so it is fitting to speak and act from the heart: any prayers, offerings, remembrances, songs, poems. You may wish to dedicate yourself, announce an intention, bless an object, burn a symbol of something that no longer sustains you in your life, and so forth. Perhaps it is now that you light your Beltane fire. You may wish to thank ancestors, teachers, mentors. You may want to make offerings in gratitude, to share in good things you have received. You can include the Druids’ Prayer, the Peace Prayer, the Druid Vow**, or some other formal recitation, as it feels right to do.]

[The close of the rite reverses the opening.]
Now is the time of return. [Pause.]

[Turn West.]
Power of the West, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[Turn East.]
Power of the East, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[Turn South.]
Power of the South, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[Turn North.]
Power of the North, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[With forefinger and middle finger extended outward, walk (or turn) counter-clockwise and imagine, or feel, the shining circle disappear as you turn.]
As I uncast the Circle, let goodwill go forth and outward to all beings.

May there be blessings and balance in all three realms, Annwn [AHN-noon], Gwynvid [GWIN-veed], and Abred [AH-bred].

By the Power of these holy Three,
Seas around me and in my blood,
Sky above me and in my breath,
Earth below me and in my bones [stomp once],
It is complete and whole!

/|\ /|\ /|\

*For an interesting take on these realms of existence, see this link: Annwn, Gwynvid, Abred.

**The Druid Vow

We swear by peace and love to stand,
Heart to heart and hand in hand.
Mark, O Spirit, and hear us now,
Confirming this, our sacred vow.

 

As Above, So Below: Really?!   3 comments

[Edited/updated 2 May 2020]

Ye Gods, what does that say about the Above right now?!

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backyard pond, Monday afternoon

The direction of flow, as I’m still learning, is pretty much from Above to Below. What we experience here is a mix of what we’ve been working on for a while and what’s shaping to come through now. We’re quarantined in our physical bodies in RSM — the Realm of Slow Manifestation — even as we sense realms of faster manifestation — RFMs.

Which is why this realm can be so amazingly frustrating, difficult, resistant at times. It’s sluggish, a world of inertia and equilibrium. It takes at least some effort to manifest (though we’ve all had those glorious moments where spirit dances through us and we’re not a separate thing from what’s taking on form). If you’ve ever edited a Wiki article, we’re in the Sandbox. It’s rough draft, workshop, not-yet-beta-version. It’s penciled in, a sketch. We tap into RFM in imagination, dream, vision, hunch, ritual, prayer, inspiration — then run straight back into the denser world of RSM when we work on bringing the vision into form, in a world of time and space. Creativity, like any ritual, asks me to ground and center.

squash

old newspaper makes great ready-to-plant seed starters

The natural world generously sweeps me up into the possibilities of manifestation. The marvel is that it does this every year, in every season, regardless of whether I’m paying attention.

In the Northern hemisphere, spring’s taking center stage now. Trees put out new leaves, seed becomes sprout — the squash seedlings I started a few weeks ago from some hoarded three-year-old seed are rising to greet the light. Sometimes you can almost hear the nature spirits hovering over each green thing whispering Grow, grow.

Like you, I come back each morning into this world of manifestation, and depending on how the previous day went, what foods I took into my body, what thoughts I cherished, what memories glowed, what emotions I encouraged to spark through me, I may or may not look much more than a day older.

selfportHere I am late last night, a bit zombified and stretched after a long day and too much coffee. We wake up each morning to resume this project of physical existence, so immersed in it that we forget nearly everything else that’s going on.

But even the surprise of coming back every day diminishes and leaves us after a while. (You can still see something of that astonishment in the faces of babies and young children.)

By our early teens, most of us take such arrivals for granted, a foundation we presume and build on, forgetting how astonishing it is that each new day things are pretty much as we left them. We’re only surprised when they aren’t, not when they are.

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old year — maple leaves and pine needles

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dandelions in spite of night-time frosts

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lichens on pine stump

Moving my altar stone, even after asking the rock if wanted to move, is a matter of thirty minutes’ labor, counting breaks.

altarstone

stages of manifestation 1 — the rock was too heavy to skid on a sheet of metal roofing

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stages of manifestation 2

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stages of manifestation 3

One advantage of this physical realm of weight, inertia, gravity, resistance, and so on is that things (mostly) stay put. I won’t have to re-imagine and re-visualize the rock in place tomorrow. In all likelihood, it will still be where I lugged it. (A magical postulate: car keys and cell phones are apparently exempt from this cosmic law.)

A disadvantage of this physical realm: because of that same weight, inertia, gravity and resistance, I may rush to conclude that things have to stay as they are, that they can only be as they currently manifest. That’s one reason I’m here (I don’t know about you): I’m still learning all the pieces of the art of manifestation, how to do it with grace and love and passion.

/|\ /|\ /|\

 

Aladdin — Parts 2 and 3   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Parts 2 and 3]

This post really combines two sections, Parts 2 and 3 of a series, so it’s longer than usual. But I wrote them as a single document, so for now they’re staying together, because they feel closely linked.

Depending on your interest, you might want to focus on one section and skim the other. The first looks at a specific mini Aladdin-ritual I’ve been exploring, as I draft larger rituals. The second examines the remarkable wider cultural context and background of Aladdin.

ONE

https://i0.wp.com/www.robertphoenix.com/content/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/alchemicalmoon.jpgAll magic is polarity magic, intone some Mages who should know better. On the evidence of her novels The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, Dion Fortune could easily rank among that magical fraternity. (Popularizations of the idea include Berg and Harris’s 2003 Polarity Magic: The Secret History of Western Religion.) It is true that much magic can manifest through working with polarities of many kinds — it resembles electricity in this regard.

The idea of mystical marriage, of two balancing figures, is an ancient and pervasive one. Christians speak of Christ as groom and the Church as bride. Alchemy is replete with images of kings and queens, marriages and dissolutions symbolizing alchemical and spiritual transformations.

Red King and White Queen: the Rosarium PhilosophorumThe 1550 Rosarium Philosophorum “Rosary of the Philosophers” includes images like the one to the right of the Red King and the White Queen, often used to represent sulfur and mercury, energizing and potential forces or modes. But polarities alone can settle into an equilibrium, or stasis. (We experience this in ourselves;  though expressing both forces at least in potential, we may fear or favor one or the other. In some sense, then, we often short-circuit ourselves on our way to manifestation.) The needed third principle, here represented by the dove of Spirit, energizes the alchemical pair. For this reason among others, Druidry develops the principle of the Triad, sometimes represented in ritual as earth, sea and sky, as a reminder that Three are needed for manifestation. (Polarity, by itself, isn’t enough.)

jasminewj

One pole of a polarity learning to trust the other.

We can see in Aladdin a marriage of such magical currents. The Princess and Aladdin both catalyze each other. Aladdin’s “chance” meeting with Jasmine in the Agrabah market inspires him to pursue the connection they both experienced there. And Jasmine is able to demonstrate full Sultana authority through her association with this other “diamond in the rough” — she activates his potential, helping him become Prince Ali. As some critics have noted, in many ways the story of Aladdin, especially in the 2019 version, has become Princess Jasmine’s story. For she is the real center and heroine of the drama — a further manifestation and unfolding of the archetype.

Each character mirrors for the other the opportunity to transform and manifest who they already are. Aladdin would never have agreed to seek out the lamp for Jafar had the motivation to impress Jasmine not prodded him to act. And Jasmine would never have claimed her rightful identity without the unmasking of Jafar which Aladdin helps her achieve. Aladdin the skillful liar and “street rat” might never be able to tell the real story of himself without Jasmine. And Jasmine might remain “speechless”, without an equal and partner to help her be heard, to speak with the innate authority and force she already possesses.

57

The Princess summoning both the movie character and also her Inner Hakim

Check out the double and related meanings of the Arabic word/name hakim: “physician, wise man”; “ruler”. Jasmine summons these forces after the song “Speechless” which confirms she will be heard.

I’ve been exploring a simple mini-ritual that appears to catalyze this on a subtle level. It involves the hands, those magical implements ready to distribute energy, which feature in all manner of social interactions, theater, and human technology, as well as magic. Think of all the idioms in every human language that involve the hands …

Simply put, using the magical understanding of physical polarity in the human body, I can work with the currents of energy that flow through the hands. The right hand is typically charged opposite to the left, so that a circuit of force exists when we take the hands of a person standing opposite us, my right in the other’s left, my left in the other’s right. We can align this way because we mirror each other, irrespective of biological gender.

The mini-ritual I’m practicing involves that link-up with archetypes from the Aladdin story: manifest a connection with those energies through visualization of such a polarity connection. (Versions of this ritual involving another person assuming the identity of another character archetype from the Aladdin story are something I’m still developing.)

I sit, breathing to center and ground myself. Welcoming the particular figure I wish to work with, I hold out my right hand palm downward, imagining the Other’s left hand in mine, palm up. Likewise, I hold out my left hand palm upward, imagining the Other’s right hand in mine, palm down. Together we form a magical circuit, into which I place my intention, spending equal parts of the ritual listening and visualizing. At the close, I offer the “praying hands” gesture of palm to palm as a salute and closing of the ritual. A further visualization and ritual detail: here I join my polarities into a single gesture, acknowledging how I’ve added to my capacity, however subtly, for manifesting the spiritual wholeness that is my true identity.

This mini-ritual has already proven useful in manifesting changes in behavior I have been seeking, including a break with an old habit that no longer serves me as I age. Having “initialized” the gesture as a magical one with a specific intent, I can now make the gesture whenever I find old thought-forms in my awareness, and tap into the magical transformation associated with the gesture to break down the habits of thought and emotion that accompanied the behavior.

TWO

Even as the magical potential of the Aladdin story took hold of my interest and imagination, some obvious questions came with it. Why look outside the Celtic/Northern European world for magical imagery and practices, when that world is so rich and still not fully explored?

Several reasons. First, the Aladdin story is very widely known in the West — its imagery and symbolism are readily available. Beneath the Eastern setting, the story is one already familiar in the West, because it reflects universal elements found worldwide: the Poor Boy Who Makes Good, rising to the level of his inner qualities, the Quest, the Ruler Constrained by Tradition, the Animal Helpers, the Prince-and-Princess love story, the Evil Sorcerer, the Spirit Guide or Teacher, the Magical Object.

In other words, we’re dealing with archetypes.

Second, one of the strengths of Druidry is how we can adapt it to the land where we’re living. Or more accurately, how the Land teaches us to adapt, if we’re listening. This is one of the signal characteristics of Earth Spirituality. British Druidry isn’t the same as American Druidry, which isn’t identical with Australian or New Zealand practice. Names and places change. The seasons often don’t match up from region to region, the land itself has a different history, with different memories, presences, energies, patterns. No reason to keep a practice that doesn’t fit. Good reasons to adapt practices that do.

Building on the previous point, because Aladdin has Middle Eastern and Asian origins, aren’t these posts also instances of cultural appropriation?

In a 2018 Vox.com interview with Susan Scafidi,  who authored Who Owns Culture?, Scafidi notes “there’s a spectrum of cultural appropriation, from harmful misappropriation to creative and often collaborative inspiration”. The interview offers several excellent examples and links, including controversies surrounding pop stars like Beyonce, Madonna and Bruno Mars that, not surprisingly, were sometimes misinterpreted, misreported, sensationalized and politicized.

Scafidi continues: “Source communities themselves are the best arbiters of what is or is not misappropriation … We would never [be able to] taste others’ traditional dishes, buy unfamiliar ingredients, or create fusion cuisines without this kind of permissive exchange”.

And that brings us to a most curious feature of the Aladdin story: the original 1001 Nights didn’t include the most famous stories associated with it — Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad — until the first translation into a European language in 1704 by Frenchman Antoine Galland. Did Galland invent his own stories to add to the collection? Were his claims to hearing additional stories like Aladdin from the Maronite Christian Hanna Diyab truthful?

You can read historian Arafat Razzaque’s 2017 “Who Wrote Aladdin?”, one study of this fascinating history, here. And more generally, the stories that were mostly gathered into The Arabian Nights, or One Thousand and One Nights, have origins, antecedents and versions in Arabic, Chinese, Pali, Sanskrit, Farsi, etc., as well as a history dotted with forgeries, back-translations, reinterpretations, cultural exchanges between Europe and the Mediterranean, and all manner of intrigue, mysterious informants, lost and recovered manuscripts, and so forth.

Razzaque observes:

It is a shameful legacy of authorship that Galland never once bothered to name Hanna Diyab in his publications. In our haste to dismiss Aladdin as an Orientalist construct, we risk further perpetuating this erasure of someone who has been described as “probably the greatest modern storyteller known by name” (Marzolph 2012).

No doubt, it is important to see “the Arabian Nights as an Orientalist text,” as in Rana Kabbani’s classic critique, and to interrogate the ways in which the 1001 Nights has long been used to uphold absurd stereotypes, not least by Disney. Likewise, as even its Arabic printing history suggests, we must remember how the text’s modern production was often tied up in the power dynamics of European colonialism.

But these necessary critiques should not be at the cost of negating the agency and creative imagination of “Orientals” themselves.

For a racier take, here’s Ha-Aretz‘s click-baity titled but still worthwhile “1001 Lies: Everything You Know About Aladdin Is Wrong“.

If you’re interested in still more, consider the soon-to-be-published book cited at the end of this post. (Its price as listed is well beyond my means, but it should be available through interlibrary loans.)

Akel, Ibrahim, and William Grannara. The Thousand and One Nights: Sources and Transformations in Literature, Art, and Science (Studies on Performing Arts & Literature of the Islamicate World). Brill, 2020.

Publisher’s note: “The Thousand and One Nights does not fall into a scholarly canon or into the category of popular literature. It takes its place within a middle literature that circulated widely in medieval times. The Nights gradually entered world literature through the great novels of the day and through music, cinema and other art forms. Material inspired by the Nights has continued to emerge from many different countries, periods, disciplines and languages, and the scope of the Nights has continued to widen, making the collection a universal work from every point of view. The essays in this volume scrutinize the expanse of sources for this monumental work of Arabic literature and follow the trajectory of the Nights’ texts, the creative, scholarly commentaries, artistic encounters and relations to science. Contributors: Ibrahim Akel, Rasoul Aliakbari, Daniel Behar, Aboubakr Chraèibi, Anne E. Duggan, William Granara, Rafika Hammoudi, Dominique Jullien, Abdelfattah Kilito, Magdalena Kubarek, Michael James Lundell, Ulrich Marzolph, Adam Mestyan, Eyup Ozveren, Marina Paino, Daniela Potenza, Arafat Abdur Razzaque, Ahmed Saidy, Johannes Thomann and Ilaria Vitali”.

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Images: Princess Jasmine from Aladdin; fair use for commentary/derived work; copyright Walt Disney Corporation, 2019.

Aladdin as a Source of Magical Practice — Part 1   Leave a comment

[Updated 27 April 2020]
[Part 1 | Parts 2 and 3]

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Princess Jasmine as archetype and spiritual guide

In this post, I’ll be looking at the 2019 version of Aladdin as a source for magical images and practices. [WARNING: Spoilers abound!] On the surface, that may seem a strange and doubtful choice as a source for any kind of magical practice. You may well be asking the same question Jasmine asks in the screen capture above, just a few minutes into the film: Where are we, exactly?

After all, both the 1992 cartoon and the 2019 live-action remake issue from what Wikipedia calls an “American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios complex in Burbank, California”. On the face of it, you can’t get much less Druidic. Trees, introspection, fire circles and reverence for the Land would all seem to fall away before such a commercial and capitalist onslaught.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you start to discover remarkable things.

A–First Level: Questions and contemplation seeds from the script.

Even if you can’t bring yourself to consider a cartoon and then its subsequent commercial remake (what cynics term one instance in a series of blatant cash-grabs as Disney mines its old hits for reboots) as a source of powerful images and prompts for spiritual practice, it still contains some remarkable lines that deserve repeated attention. Here’s an obvious sampling, making up a symbolic initial set of Nine:

1. How do you find (and polish) – a “diamond in the rough”? (The Cave of Wonders during the opening, and later, and also Jafar’s obsession. Of course, he never applies it to himself. Can I?)
2. Where am I, exactly? (Princess Jasmine, on the walk to Aladdin’s ruined tower after they meet in the Market. How would I answer?)
3. Can you be bought? (Aladdin/Prince Ali’s fumbling suggestion in the Palace scene that he can buy the Princess — or her affection — with the gifts the Genie provides.)
4. Have you lost your country? (Jasmine’s provocative challenge to Aladdin/Prince Ali when Ababwa doesn’t show up on her maps. What is my “native land”? Where am I most “at home”?)
5. Are you who you say you are? (Jafar and Aladdin trade versions of this. Is Aladdin’s attempt to be Prince Ali a deception or an inspired piece of self-invention?)
6. Who/what is worthy of your admiration and sacrifice? (From Jasmine’s speech to Jafar and the assembled Court, and her challenge to Hakim.)
7. Where does your loyalty lie? (Jasmine’s direct challenge to Hakim, as Jafar seizes power. A revealing question!)
8. When did you last let your heart decide? (Aladdin’s famous question to Jasmine in the song “A Whole New World”. Can I answer this?)
9. How could I not recognize you? (Jasmine’s vulnerable — and valuable! — question to Aladdin near the end of their carpet ride, when he convinces her he is indeed “Prince Ali”. Is he? A question also to ask of our experiences: do we recognize them for what they actually are? How can we begin to do so? Being able to ask such questions is in itself a wonderful sign of readiness to grow.)

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Princess Jasmine as a figure of transformation

If I take any one of these for a spin, applying it to myself, I have material for rich reflection and insight. These questions can also form hinge-points in a magical rite, offering ritual challenges for participants, opportunities for ritual responses and actions, and thus cues for writing and shaping ritual that leads outward from where I am right now.

B–Second Level: Companions and Doubles

Each of the three principal human characters has an animal familiar — Jasmine and Rajah, Aladdin and Abu, Jafar and Iago. Jasmine and Aladdin each have a further human counterpart or double: Dalia and the Genie, respectively. Their companions, human and animal, mirror their natures. Rajah channels Jasmine’s regal nature, her unexpected capacity for affection (Rajah stalks Aladdin, but then unexpectedly licks his face), and her fierceness. Abu reflects Aladdin’s own capacity for agility, thievery, initiative and improvisation. And Iago is cynical and sneering, as well as clever and observant. As a creature of Air, he goes up against the Carpet, Aladdin’s magical implement granting him the freedom and mobility of Air. The Carpet is torn, then repaired; Jafar-as-Genie sweeps Iago into confinement in his lamp.

Dalia is a servant to the Princess; Jasmine herself is a servant or captive to inflexible tradition, but also aspires to serve her kingdom as its compassionate leader. The Genie expresses (among many other things) the magical nature of imagination, the power of desire, the importance of openness to wonder and the imagination, and the magical riches available when we begin to explore our own diamond-in-the-roughness. He too is a servant, and like Dalia, in the end he is released from servitude — and made human in the bargain.

C–Third Level: Ritual Assumption, Interaction, Pathworking

(For an “auditory overview” of Pathworking, in case you’re not familiar with it, check out Damh the Bard’s current Druidcast episode 157, and the first interview with Peter Jennings.)

With some time spent in contemplation, divination, imaginative practice and experimentation, it’s possible to derive multiple rituals we can name for the principal characters: Agrabah itself, Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie, Jafar and Sultan. What follows are condensed notes on each one of these.

For elemental balance within rituals, Agrabah as a port city representing and invoking Water (or Earth and Water), the stage and setting for a spiritual drama of transformation; the Genie/Jinni as a spirit of Fire; the Carpet as a vehicle and implement of Air; the Cave of Wonders, the markets, and the desert surrounding Agrabah as Earth.

Aladdin: Invoking the element of Air for inspiration, clarity, lightness and improvisation, I work with seeing these things as external to myself, and needing vehicles like lamp, carpet and Genie to manifest what I lack. Then a ritual transition and manifestation, where I can begin to express these things as aspects of myself, no longer props outside me that I need to acquire.

Jasmine: Invoking any one of the elements — perhaps in a series of Jasmine rites — for the stability of Earth against forces that would minimize, discount and dispossess her; Air for the inspiration and imagination to lead, and the vision that leadership asks; Fire for passion and will — things she reveals most powerfully in the staging of the new song written specifically for the 2019 film, “Speechless” (link to official video featuring Naomi Scott), that has earned over 170 million views since its release less than a year ago. (Still think Aladdin is nothing more than a commercial grab? What need does the song respond to?); Water for the port city and country, and for emotional balance and intuition in handling the new power and love that are coming into her life.

Genie: in early versions of the Aladdin story, there is no limit imposed on the number of wishes the Genie grants: own the lamp and the Genie’s magic is yours for the duration. Likewise, in earlier versions the Genie has no desire to escape limits on his existence and action — he doesn’t yearn to no longer be a Genie, or to become human, or to earn his freedom. He simply does what he is. How can I transform my assumptions and expectations and self-imposed limits on my magical nature? What is my Genie ritual? What would my three wishes be? (Or nine, or some other number?)

Jafar: as another figure representing a stage on the spiritual journey, Jafar is also me. Where can I claim power appropriate to my needs and purposes? Alternatively, Jafar could feature in a “Diamond in the Rough” ritual. How does my animal companion mirror to me what I am doing right now? Where am I imprisoned? What are the lamps that now contain me? What is my Shirabad, the city that made me suffer, and where I long to take my revenge? Is my marriage or linking up with other persons, things or attitudes an opportunity to demonstrate something other than the bonds of love (like Jafar’s almost-marriage to Jasmine would have done)?

Sultan: as a figure of maturity and renunciation, the Sultan is an excellent ritual figure for seeing to the heart, for renouncing power that has passed from me but which I may still be clinging to; for recognizing and honoring the emerging feminine forces in my life; for resistance to manipulation, magical or otherwise.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at some wider issues that touch on magicking something like Aladdin, including cultural appropriation and Orientalism, casting, character names, and additional pieces of the surprising background of the Aladdin story.

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Images: Princess Jasmine from Aladdin; fair use for commentary/derived work; copyright Walt Disney Corporation, 2019.

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