Archive for the ‘Josephine McCarthy’ Tag

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.

 

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Living Enchantment   Leave a comment

“Who’s been here before you?”

Josephine McCarthy, whose Magic of the North Gate I reviewed here, writes about magic with the instinctive feel as well as insight of someone who practices it.

Among the many ways to conceive magic, she suggests one useful way is as an

interface of the land and divinity; it is the power of the elements around you, the power of the Sun and Moon, the air that you breathe and the language of the unseen beings … living alongside you. With all that in mind, how valid is it to then try and interface with this power by using a foreign language, foreign deities, and directional powers that have no relevance to the actual land upon which you live? The systems [of magic] will work, and sometimes very powerfully, but how does it affect the land and ourselves? I’m not saying that to use these systems is wrong; I use them in various ways myself. But I think it is important to be very mindful of where and what you are, and to build on that foundation (Josephine McCarthy, Magical Knowledge Book 1: Foundations, pgs. 19-20) .

Lest all this seem confusing (and it can be), recall again the prayer that reflexively acknowledges “… these human limitations … these forms and prayers”. The great challenge of spiritual-but-not-religious is precisely this — to find a worthy form. Find the forms that work for you, respect them and your interactions with them, and listen also for nudges and hints (the shoves you won’t need to listen for — that’s the point of a shove) to change, modify, adapt, expand, and try something new. A spiritual practice, like the human that applies it, will change or die. Sometimes, like the shell the hermit crab uses for shelter and carries around with it for a time, we need to leave a home because we’ve outgrown it — no shame to the shell, or to the person abandoning that form of shelter.

mossrock2

Besides, this sort of debate — about which deities and wights to work with, which elemental and directional associations remain valid and which have shifted, and so forth — while perhaps more acute for those inhabiting former colonies of European powers because of cultural inheritances and influences — resolves itself fairly quickly in practice. It’s best treated, in my experience, individually, and case by case, rather than in any dogmatic way applicable for everyone. Stay alert, practice respect and common sense, and work with what comes.

What does this have to do with Brighid?

I’ve written of intimations I’ve received from one who’s apparently a central European deity, Thecu Stormbringer. The second time I visited Serpent Mound in Ohio, I heard in meditation a name I’ve been working with: cheh-gwahn-hah. Deity, ancestor, land wight? Don’t know yet. Does this name or being somehow remove or downgrade Brighid from my practice, because it has the stronger and more local claim, emerging from the continent where I live? Could it in the future? Certainly it’s possible. But in my experience, while other beings assert their wishes and claims, it’s up to us to choose how we respond.  We, too, are beings with choice and freedom. That’s much of our value to each other and to gods and goddesses. We have the stories from the major religions of great leaders answering a call. Sometimes they also went into retreat, wilderness, seclusion, etc. to catalyze just such an experience. All these means are still available for us.

For me, then, part of the Enchantment of Brighid is openness to possibility. The goddess “specializes” in healing, poetry and smithcraft — arts and skills of change, transformation and receptivity to powerful energies to fuel those changes and transformations. We seek inspiration and know sometimes it runs at high tide and sometimes low. As this month moves forward, we have a moon waxing to full, an aid from the planets and the elements to kindle enchantments, transformations, shifts in awareness.

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A Prayer, a Gesture, a Star Unseen   2 comments

I cherish my Druid family, but like all our families can, they sometimes drive me crazy. Very often I cringe when I see their online appeals for assistance with jobs, health, relationships — the usual sources of our suffering and joy. Don’t misunderstand: I want to help. But that impulse immediately finds itself in combat with a question: do I really know what even I myself need in a given situation? Not what I want, but what I need? Is it any kindness to send energy to a situation that does not serve a friend’s best interests?

Such appeals typically elicit a round of quick replies from well-meaning readers. A ritual performed, a prayer said, a visualization completed. Done, done, done.

What to pray for? The obvious, the thing the other person is requesting, seems dogged with problems. Divination can help, of course, and dreams, or that conversation with friends when a word or phrase lights up with brighter meaning. There’s an omen or coincidence, a gift of chance, the natural world revealing a clue, or that sudden intuition while I’m doing something truly mystical like … the laundry. You know — the human ways the gods speak to us. And I think — how rarely I know what’s best. Not false modesty here: fact. Often I ask for clarity and wisdom, rarely for a specific outcome. Because prayers do get answered. I’ve prayed myself squarely into disaster more than once.

So when I encountered the following passage recently, near the end of The Last of the Wine, one of Mary Renault‘s splendid evocations of ancient Greece, it jumped out at me. In its intent it resembles how I try to pray for others in difficulty. Also it’s more eloquent than I can usually manage to be.

Here a friend of the main character Alexias is speaking, near the tail end of the suffering that much of Greece experienced during the three brutal decades of the Peloponnesian War:

We have entreated many things of the gods, Alexias. Sometimes they gave and sometimes they saw it otherwise. So today I petitioned them as Sokrates once taught us: ‘All-knowing Zeus, give me what is best for me. Avert evil from me, though it be the thing I prayed for; and give the good which from ignorance I do not ask.’ — Mary Renault. The Last of the Wine. Pantheon Books, 1964, pg. 344.

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In addition to prayer, we have other tools in our kit, of course. Magic, like prayer, is much misunderstood, practiced in all sorts of ways reckless and marvelous, and deserves careful study, like any art.

candle-gazing

I’ve mentioned British author and magician Josephine McCarthy before, and she has down-to-earth and useful insight here, too:

The simple vision or ritual often gets cast to one side in search of something more powerful and interesting, and such action is a dead end that pulls the prospective magician off the tracks. Some of the simplest rituals are the most powerful once the magician has learned the deeper frequency of the ritual and can interact with it. For me the most powerful ritual of all is the lighting of the candle. It opens all worlds, all times and gives me access to focused power that is unfiltered. — Josephine McCarthy. Magical Knowledge  Book 1: Foundations – The Lone Practitioner. Mandrake, 2012, pgs. 51-52.

What? you say. (I can hear the growing outrage in your voice.) Light a candle and just like that, problem solved? No.

One of the keys is deeper frequency. Disciplined practice reveals such insight and will yield results possible in no other way. Thus the question for the Druid is less “What do you believe?” and more “What do you do?” Belief matters, praxis matters more.

All well and good, you say. But what about right now, when I’m hurting?

Friend, I hear and pray the best prayer I can make out of my practice. I promise to keep on practicing. Any one of us can be the channel for Spirit to manifest in this moment. In the meantime, a meal, a listening ear, a hug, a backrub, a good night’s sleep, are some of the best magics we have. Love has found you yet again.

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Image: candle-gazing

“Selfies with Trilithons” and Our Longing for (Re)connection   Leave a comment

Selfless trilithons

Selfless trilithons

Will Self’s June ’14 article in The Guardian (“Has English Heritage Ruined Stonehenge?“) has recently been (re)making the rounds on Facebook groups I frequent, and the author’s lively reportage offers generous “blog-bites” to quote (starting with that title), so it’s ready grist for the mill of A Druid Way.

In fact, if you just jump straight to his article, read it and — in the way of our Net-lives, surf on to the Next Interesting Thing (a NIT to pick, if there ever was one) — if you neglect to return here, I’ll not only not be hurt but will rest content that I’ve served one of my purposes.

Will Self visits Stonehenge

“Selfies with Trilithons”: Will Self visits Stonehenge. Image Mike Pitts, The Guardian.com

I admit to a fondness for titles that use questions.They successfully play on our inherent OCD, setting themselves up like an itch begging to be scratched. They’re Zen koans for the non-Zen types among us. You read them to find out the answer, or at least what the author thinks is the answer, and so you relieve the itch, even if the particular scratch the article provides ultimately irritates you further.

New, worse itch? No problem. The latest diet, scandal, must-see series, sex technique, disaster or investment opportunity all await you, just a click away, and many will use questions to draw you in. The “Top 10” list relies on a similar strategy: human experience boiled down to a concentrate. Just add water! Maybe at best our lives are indeed “selfies with trilithons” and everything else slips downhill from there. Or so a great part of the Western world’s surface culture would have you believe.

The article byline asks, “The summer solstice, King Arthur, the Holy Grail … Stonehenge is supposed to be a site of myths and mystery. But with timed tickets and a £27m visitor centre, does it herald a rampant commercialisation of our heritage?”

You’re being wholly reasonable if you guess Self’s answer is “yes.”

English Heritage earns decidedly mixed reviews here. It’s the U.K. organization that oversees such sites as Stonehenge, and for Self it serves a very mixed role as an institution whose “very raison d’etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old – so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.”

“Stonehenge snow globe” works fine as an alternative title for this post.

Self’s wit attacks a range of easy targets besides English Heritage. It’s little surprise Druidry comes in for a smackdown, too. “As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful.” Except that unlike Stonehenge, all modern forms of Druidry that expect to be taken seriously assert precisely the opposite. They’re comparatively new on the scene, and they dispense with bogusness.  They’re no older than the Druid revival of the past few centuries because that’s their real origin story — and this revival coincides point-for-point with rediscovering and wondering about and valuing things like Stonehenge and Avebury and Newgrange. You know — those Neolithic things that have always lurked in the neighborhood and have been with us for a very long time. We just never paid them much attention.

Until we did.

[Even Reconstructionist Pagan groups — who point with some justifiable pride at archaeological and other scholarly evidence to back up their practices and who sometimes sniff disdainfully at groups like OBOD, which draw on both legend and myth and on Druid Revival writings — benefit in the end from the scientific investigations ultimately launched by those same enthusiasms and, yes, those initial misconceptions of the Revival.]

We like our monuments and religions old, though we want our gossip and news “live, local and late-breaking” and our technology to be version X.X + 1 — whatever’s one higher than last week’s version (unless it’s Windows). “Selfie with a trilithon” pretty much sums it up.

But if modern Druids are the philosophical and spiritual equivalent of “the childish public … chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old,” then what is it that we “cart off” from it? A reflected glory from old things? A fine wild-goose-chase for the ego? The illusion of connection with something larger and more lasting? (“All this and more for twelve easy payments of just $39/month! Our representatives are standing by for your call now!”)

These are the surface manifestations of vital and unquenchable hungers that have wakened in large numbers of people, however much a passel of hucksters manages to package and market empty and pricey facsimiles of them. Self does concede that “in important ways the [P]agans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it’s in radically different ways.”

Self also contrasts Stonehenge at present with ancient sites:

Midhowe broch

Midhowe broch

… in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 – I’ve returned many times since – Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there’s the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there’s a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that’s dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn’t detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.

During my times in Orkney I’ve visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I’ve sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset – whether individual or collective – that’s implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder – felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you’ll see scarcely another human being.

If, as Self notes, “archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge’s design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta‑ancestor worship,” then we can also see, in our longing to (re)connect, a “degraded” form of magic. “I don’t want anything to do with magic,” we often say, as we unwittingly absorb endless hours of advertising and political language which constantly attempt to manipulate our desires and emotions with crude magical techniques. We let ourselves be “magicked” but refuse to learn how to practice any “defense against the Dark Arts” — or learn how to do magic well and for our benefit rather than someone else’s.

“No magic — that’s for kids,” we say, as our lives propel us willy-nilly along a path of magical initiation tailor-made for us out of the circumstances of our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our choices. Fate, or freedom? Yes! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.

“I don’t believe in magic,” we say, all the while daydreaming and planning, imagining and remembering — magical techniques in embryo, every one of them. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Pagan, SBNR, or “those who just don’t roll that way” — we all make our ways through these mortal lives which are also lives of manifestation and transformation, the essence of magic.

Author and practicing magician Josephine McCarthy, whose book “Magic of the North Gate” I reviewed here, notes that people react variously to the relative powerlessness that life in Western culture urges onto so many. But often a (paradoxically) powerful personal experience, an abrupt break with the past or the every-day world, sets some of them on a journey. In the first book of her Magical Knowledge series, McCarthy observes:

When a person chooses not to play a part in that circus, they look elsewhere. Some people begin … in search of their own power, some begin in search of knowledge, and some approach that path from a sense of deep instinct.

The beginning of the path … is very much about personal development, be it spiritual, intellectual or self-determination … This is the first rung of the ladder and has many dead ends woven into it … designed to trap and teach them a lesson that is needful for their development … The ‘dead ends’ … are often related to our relationship to power, glamour and ego. We all go through it in one form or another and most climb out of it with a very red face, ready to move on, lesson well learned. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes and doing silly things, it is all part of the learning process. The first rung teaches us about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths, our true desires and fears, and the real extent of our ability to be honest with ourselves. Remember the words over the door to the temple: Man, know thyself.* The threshold of the temple must be crossed with the intention to be willing to look in the mirror with an open mind and see what is really there. (McCarthy, Magical Knowledge: Book 1, pgs. 30-31)

In the end you cannot study “men,” as C. S. Lewis once observed. “You can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” And current trends notwithstanding, we very much need each other’s compassion along the way, given the difficulties and joys of life. That’s an act of High Magic. Given how we all will face death, it’s fair to say we also deserve that compassion from each other. And death? Death is one more potential magical initiation.

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 Image: selfless trilithon; Midhowe broch.

*Translation of the sign over the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece that read “gnothi seauton.” [Gno- related to English know, Latin cognitio, Greek gnosis. Seauton related to English and Greek auto- meaning “self.”]

McCarthy, Josephine. (2013). Magical Knowledge: Book 1 — Foundations. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.

Updated 9 August 2015

Retrospective   4 comments

It’s the end of the year, and like you may be, I’m taking a look back. If A Druid Way inspires or helps or informs others, I’m grateful. My intent is to be a witness to the journey – quite as quirky as yours is, I imagine – opinionated, cranky, full of starts and stops, false steps and helpful insights, along with the odd cul-de-sac, or three, where the unexpected rots, or blooms. That’s where I want to keep my focus.

That’s said, if others opt to read what you write (and why else do people blog, rather than keep a private journal?), you’re no longer talking only to yourself. Obsessing about how to increase your page views isn’t normally conducive to the flowering of intuition and creativity. But knowing what others find interesting can serve as a guide for future topics that may still have some juice in them.

Here, then, counting down to number 1, are the ten most popular posts since I started this blog over three years ago in October 2011.

10. Voices of Modern Druidry. “Druidry is a lively and growing phenomenon, so the following list is by its nature incomplete … Included in the roster of people below are references and links to several of the most visible and influential Druid organizations active today.”

9. DRL – A Druid Ritual Language, Part 1. “Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes … The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.”

8. The Fires of May, Green Dragons and Talking Peas. “Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism.  Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises.”

7. Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate. McCarthy’s book is “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.”

6. The Four Powers – Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent – Part One. “‘All I know is a door into the dark,’ says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin. At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?”

5. East Coast Gathering 2012. A good Gathering or Festival “offers a chance for Druids to walk among friends, attend workshops, and” — in our case — “(re)connect with a beloved landscape in northeastern Pennsylvania.”

4. A Portable Altar, a Handful of Stones. “An altar is an important element of very many spiritualities around the world.  It gives a structure to space, and orients the practitioner, the worshiper, the participant (and any observers) to objects, symbols and energies.  It’s a spiritual signpost, a landmark for identifying and entering sacred space. It accomplishes this without words, simply by existing.”

3. About Initiation. “With energies flowing around us from so many end-of-year holidays and celebrations, it seemed fitting to think and write about initiation. It’s one more piece of a Religious Operating System (ROS), it’s an important key to Druidry and — most importantly — it’s something we all experience.  For good reason, then, the subject cuts a large swath through spiritual, religious and magical thought and practice.  As author Isaac Bashevis Singer opens his book The Chosen, ‘Beginnings are difficult times.’  That’s one reason New Year’s resolutions often end up on the cutting room floor of the film version of our lives.  (Some ways to keep them alive and well and not merely part of the special extended version of our lives that may not see wide release into the “real” world will be the subject of a post upcoming in the next few days.)”

2. Shinto—Way of the Gods. “Almost two decades ago now, in the early 1990s, my wife and I lived for a year in Hikone, a medium-sized city in central Japan, about an hour’s train ride north of Kyoto.  The city’s most visible claim to fame is Hikone Castle, a 380-year-old wooden fortress that dominates the downtown skyline.  But the most  enduring memory I took from Japan and have never forgotten is the profound impression of its many Shinto shrines — roughly 80,000 of them, according to various sources — that dot the landscape and invite the casual visitor as well as the reverent worshiper.”

1. Fake Druidry and OGRELD. “I’m a fake Druid.  So is everyone else who names Druidry as the path they walk.  And I’ve come to love it.”

Thank you, everyone, for reading and following, for your comments, for over 21,000 page views and 500 likes, and for the encouragement these give me to keep exploring.  (Early) Happy New Year to you all!

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Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate   Leave a comment

jmccarthy(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.

Earth Religion and What We’ll Miss   Leave a comment

blueberry-pie-cut-2-smIn I Remember Nothing*, one of the last things screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote before her death in June 2012, the final short chapter is titled “What I Will Miss.”  It’s simply a list, tinged with an anticipatory nostalgia that became clear in retrospect after her passing — and testimony to a life in which the most memorable things aren’t really things (unless you count people as mere objects — if you do, go away) so much as experiences.  Here’s the entire list:

My kids
Nick [her husband of twenty years, Nicolas Pileggi]
Spring
Fall
Waffles
The concept of waffles
Bacon
A walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
Fireworks
Laughs
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Butter
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Paris
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie

The wonder and beauty of this list is that however different your list is, you get the love here.   Yes, Ephron’s financial success means that among her items are Paris and Istanbul and more dining out than many of us can afford.  But there’s no disagreeing about what should or shouldn’t be on Ephron’s list, because we each have our own list.  Her list doesn’t negate mine.  It celebrates her life while it leaves room for everyone else’s — it positively invites me, in fact, to celebrate mine, just by being a list, a tally, a memoir of pleasure.

Earth religion calls us to celebrate and cherish the things of this world because this is where and when we live.  The brute acid irony of the present age, filled as it is with increasing numbers of people who say this life is the only one we get, is that it is also an age of the greatest ongoing and criminal destruction of the planet.  If we will miss the things on our lists, and the quality of our fondness, if not the exact identity of our items, closely resembles that of everyone else alive now, it should make the same kind of deep visceral sense that a warm breeze on the skin or a cool drink in the throat does to help each other increase our fondness and spread the capacity for delight, and to preserve their sources, instead of denying joy to others while simultaneously pissing in the common well.  If we were even one tenth the materialists we think we are, we’d worship the material, revere the physical, treating it lovingly and respectfully, rather than bitch-slapping it like an abusive spouse.

Now it’s true that if my wife and I indulged more often in even some of the things on our own lists, we’d be what her grandmother used to say of others with a sniff: “fat and happy.”  And the sum of earth religion doesn’t mean merely to stuff ourselves silly with everything Dr. Oz says is bad for us,  or vacuum up experiences like we’re snorting coke.  But not enjoying the world is along the lines of holding your breath to get what you want.  After you wake with a touch of headache, you may be no closer to getting what you want, and you’ll have missed out on pie, or butter, or bacon, or time spent with friends, or whatever your pleasure of the moment was, while you went ahead and had your tantrum.  And you’ll have denied pleasure and joy to others, one of the cheapest and deepest forms of joy out there.

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When I consider what if anything may survive my death (yes, even here the possessive creeps in, as though I own my death, one among the many other objects to bequeath to my heirs and assigns), it’s very likely that a love of these things won’t be among them.  While I adore blueberries, and that love connects me to a weekend when I was five and I stayed with my grandmother who fed them to me while my parents attended the World’s Fair in New York City, it’s not an essential piece of me.  Even my love of silence, which we might reasonably expect to run deeper, is in part a reaction to the noise of nearly two decades of working with adolescents in groups.  So what IS essential?

A leap and a turn:  stay with me.  Much is made of finding one’s True Will in magic, the Hermetic equivalent of salvation or realization or enlightenment people seek elsewhere.  As Frater Acher remarks in his introduction to Josephine McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate, “Isn’t peeling away layer after layer of ego-driven wishes and desires to finally find and fulfill my True Will what drove mages for at least … well, at least since Crowley succeeded in establishing the highly ambiguous term “True Will” as the most successful fig leaf since the philosophy of hedonism to turn your life into a self-centered journey of narcissism?”**  We can take a clue from Blake (as long-time readers know, one of my go-to figures among the Wise) who said “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  This life matters.  It’s not a rehearsal, though it is practice, in the sense that musicians and artists practice to keep growing and to continually refine their art.  Infinity in the palms of our hands, eternity in our hours:  we’ve all had a taste, a hint, the briefest glimpse, though it slips away again into yesterday and tomorrow.  Here and now is where and when we always begin again.

In his poem “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur echoes St. Augustine, who with Christian diffidence in his love of the physical, exclaims of his awareness of the divine, “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all.” (Book X, paragraph 27), trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin.  Augustine struggles to reconcile the paradox of the physical as both distraction and divine presence — incarnation.  Here is Wilbur’s poem in response, in conversation, a fine coda for this entry:

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Image:  blueberry pie.

*Ephron, Nora.  I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2010, pp. 134-5.

**McCarthy, Josephine.  Magic of the North Gate.  Oxford, UK: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013, pp. 7-8.

Updated 5 October 2013; corrected works to productions in Blake quotation “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  Same idea, faulty memory for exact wording.

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