Archive for the ‘mantra’ Tag

The Name’s the Thing

Updated 24 April 2020

[Part 1 | Part 2| Part 3]

Novelist M. M. Kaye, who wrote so vividly about Indian life in the days of Her Majesty’s Raj, opens her novel Shadow of the Moon with this exchange about the name of one of her main characters:

Winter! Who ever heard of such a name? It is not a name at all. Do pray be sensible, my dear Marcos. You cannot call the poor mite anything so absurd”.

“She will be christened Winter”.

“Then at least let her have some suitable second name. There are so many pretty and unexceptionable names to choose from”.

“No. Only Winter”.


Time change, as they used to say with less irony. These days, when we have actors with names like River Phoenix, and singers like Lady Gaga and Madonna and Prince, and thousands of Pagans named Raven, a name like Winter no longer stands out. (Here in southern Vermont lives the writer Crescent Dragonwagon.)

If like me you’ve puzzled at times over other people’s choices for religious or magical or craft or “inward-facing” names, we need look no further for diverse examples than the venerable tradition in many of the major religions for often unusual religious names. From Catholicism alone we get less-than-common saints’ names like Adjutor, Drogo and Lidwina. Buddhists also have cultural names to choose from, with Tibetan Chogden and Lobsang, and on to possibly multiple dharma names, if they practice in the Mahayana tradition.

Give yourself an unusual name and it sticks out, making you stick out, at least a little more. Not letting yourself be just a number, not permitting yourself to disappear into the background. You live with a chosen name differently than with one someone else gave you. More so when other people also know it and use it. More so when it bears rich associations, or ideals you now accept as goals to live up to. (For some useful insight, try chanting your own name for ten minutes. No one else needs to hear you. What do you discover?)


Camellia, April 2019, Charleston, NC. Flower names are popular for obvious reasons!

If like me and other Druids you look to the languages of your tradition for inspiration and examples, you happen on names like Welsh Twrch for the wild boar, one of the animals I work with. And since most people don’t know Welsh spelling conventions, they end up reading it something like twertch — decidedly not “the magical name I was looking for”. Yes, Twrch (with -ch as in Bach, something like toorkh) remains a name I might use in ritual, but not otherwise. The spiritual realm, I’ve discovered, can track me down well enough whatever my name is.

If we want to see the inverse of this, we need look no further than some people’s obsession over the pronouns others use for them. “My pronouns” only extend as far as other people’s willingness to indulge me. How far do I expect that to reach? Will my government legalize my choice of identity and pronouns? Perhaps. But why would I want to put one more piece of my freedom and identity into others’ hands? As head of the Anglesey Druid order Kris Hughes likes to say, “What other people think of you is none of your business”. You’ve got far better, more worthwhile and fun-ner things to do than beat your head against centuries of arbitrary linguistic habit.

Yes, of course oppression can often be encoded in language, but many languages that lack gender distinctions in their pronouns belong to cultures far more repressive than those in the West, where we may indulge superficial linguistic variations in the name of political correctness and identity politics. To offer just one example, Chinese has the invariant syllable ta* meaning either “he” or “she”: anyone who seriously imagines their identity will be respected and accommodated better in the People’s Republic of China is welcome to go live there and find out how far a unitary pronoun changes things on the ground.

(*As Bogatyr points out in his comment, the written language does distinguish between the characters 他 “he” and 她 “she” — both pronounced the same, but visually distinct.)

It is for these reasons that some people create an entire magical language to encode the meanings they desire, rather than merely accept those they inherit. For one (in)famous example of this, see the Enochian language and alphabet. Better still is an understanding of egregores and the work necessary to avoid their undue influence — see the previous post.

If in language we encode energies of oppression, can we also encode energies of liberation?

Among other ways, we do this with mantra, with holy words and names. Instead of troubling yourself that you “don’t or can’t believe” in a particular deity, try chanting that deity’s name one thousand times. (A rosary of some kind helps with the count.) After the fifteen or so minutes that this practice asks (depending on the name or word, and your rhythm), if you attempt it with even a moderate intention for true discovery, you will very likely come into a different understanding of “belief”, one more rooted in experience and less in mental formulation. Mantric power affects us in much the same way as music. We take the vibration into our atoms, and probably echo with it for some time after finishing the chant. Those of you with clairvoyant and clairaudient abilities may be in a position to confirm this.

What is your best name? (Do you have more than one?) How can you invite it into your awareness most beneficially? What reminders of it can you build into your days? The next post will take up these and similar topics.

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Doing the Work

I don’t talk directly about the other path I follow, and that’s principally for my own benefit, so I can keep clear about where I am and what I’m doing at the moment. Obviously I can’t keep them separate, and there’s no reason to try. They feed each other constantly anyway, and often unexpectedly, too. Like when a teacher from the other path shows up as a Druid guide in a dream or meditation. Or an exercise originating in OBOD does nothing Druidy, but opens a door I thought was locked tight, or didn’t realize was a door in the first place, and shows me a new landscape I couldn’t even have imagined in my understanding of the other path. And that’s the short version of why I keep practicing both. Do the work, say both paths.


Louisiana Live Oak near Gulf Coast Gathering, 1200+ years old

One of the practices of the other path, nothing particularly unique or esoteric in itself, is writing a monthly letter to one’s teacher surveying the past 30 days, noting discoveries and setbacks, places for focus, requests for help, dreams, encounters, insights from reading and study, and so on. It doesn’t have to get (e)mailed (though that can be its own practice), because the value is in the doing. No surprise, we receive in direct measure as we give.

I talk often here about the value of a daily practice, whatever form it may take. Certainly weekly and monthly cycles grow and build on that daily rhythm, whatever it is. (Start small, and with what feels appropriate.) Lapse in my daily discipline, and I see the larger cycles become more challenging. They have to pick up my slack. The weekly fast, physical or mental, that can be so cleansing, simply has more to clear away, and that can make it harder to move through. If it’s physical, food calls with an imperative clamor you would not believe unless you’ve tried it. If mental, every weakness seems to arrive and bid for attention. Or they take turns. And sitting to begin that monthly letter, which you might think would welcome such experiences as ready-made material to incorporate, instead throws up formidable writer’s block. I am called to do the work. Otherwise I sit still, and stagnate. No fun there.

Along with the letter, of immense value is working with a personal word or mantra. Many know and use traditional words and phrases — OM, amen, nam myoho renge kyo, allah hu akbar, and so on. And these practices prove their own worth, in groups and alone. But the personal word is a spiritual key, and it can unlock many doors, simply because it is tuned to my present consciousness. It echoes where I am today. And that means that if my current word wears down, as they do over time, asking for a new one is part of the practice.

Watching and listening for the new word is an exercise in itself. Sometimes it will present itself in contemplation, as if dropped in place like a stone in a pond. It may be an existing English word, or a non-English syllable or two or three. I try it out, the vibration engages, and I’m off. Testing it is an important part of using it. If I feel a habit loosen, a mood lift, an energy or pulse that shifts things usefully, I know it’s working. Other times, it appears in a newspaper headline, or on a billboard, or in casual conversation. A small inward chime goes off, and I recognize it. Or it comes calling multiple times, till I catch on and at last wake up to its persistent knocking.

These are just two of what we might call foundational practices, the kinds of things that can sustain a spiritual life, that less commonly examined flooring for ritual and ceremony, the underpinnings of magic for whatever is the next in the round of seasonal festivals, in this case Yule or the Alban Arthan rite at winter solstice, now less than a month away. Take on a daily practice and it usually will come to consist of a set of such foundations and supports, mini-rites or prayers or practices, recitations or visualizations, exercises or devotions that may range from lighting incense to offerings made to the four directions, to presenting oneself as a ready servant to a patron god or goddess, to community service, volunteer work, and so on.

A living practice evolves and shifts over time. This is a good thing. For some years because of my cancer, I couldn’t prudently practice a physical fast, so the mental one taught me something of what it has to teach. And teaching adolescents in a boarding school, while it was a job, also allowed me chances to serve, to listen, rather than fill other heads with my chatter all the time.

Doing the work each of us is called to do readies us for working together. (Is it any wonder we face such division and partisanship in the U.S. these days? How many of us if we’re filled with anger and distrust and fear are doing the work?) A wise OBOD Druid recently remarked, “When we commune together in song and revelry, we become friends. When we rise together in ritual, we become allies. When we take time and heart to initiate members into the order together, we become family”. Slowly I’m seeing more and more how friends, allies, family all depend on each of us doing the work.

I’m getting closer, though, to a place where fewer boundaries exist between my two paths.  It used to be that tempera paint, egg-based, stayed separate from oil painting, till someone with sufficient mastery thought to combine them. I can see such a point in what one might call the future, though if I can see it at all, the future in some sense has already arrived. I just have to catch up to what is inwardly waiting. Isn’t that the story of our lives, the ongoing possibility of manifesting what already dances across the River, on the other side of the moonlight?

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Talking Old

Sometimes when I grow weary of one particular voice, my own, the one chattering in my head, I “talk old.”  For me that means to use words from Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed mother tongue of a hundred languages, ranging from Irish in the West to Hindi in the East.  It means to play, to sing, to delight in the most lasting, the most insubstantial, intangible human artifacts we have.

Words like *deiwos “god (divine),” *ogni “fire (ignite),” *udor “water” are mantras for me, songs I sing to myself when no else is listening.  (The * means the word is reconstructed.  For me, the * means “Pay attention!  Talking old is going on!”) Words no one speaks now, unless it’s some historical linguist, a professional muttering over a journal article she’s writing, or an amateur and word-mystic like me who gets lost in the shape and sound of “talking old.”  Here are words our ancestors used, to talk to each other and to name their world.  *kolnos, mountain … and I’m off, among moss and trees floating into view and disappearing again in the mist.  *wlkwos, almost unpronounceable: the wolf, vilkas, ulf, vrka, lupa, lobo, those shapes of gray fur with fierce teeth that flash into view around a fire at night, only to vanish again, and then those unearthly howls echo from the hills and up and down our spines.  We say unearthly — yet the only place we hear them is on earth.  Home that is not home forever.

Individual words come fairly easily.  There are whole dictionaries of Indo-European you can pore over, lists of cognates from a range of languages, the vowels and consonants shifting, the resemblances still striking, like at a family reunion where maybe a generation will skip, and then a nose or line of eyebrow or chin will reappear on a toddler asleep in the lap of her grandmother, and the kinship shows clear again.  Blood will tell.

Sentences are harder, but still possible.  The best we can do now often feels like speaking with a strong accent.  We can get close enough we’d probably be understood here and there, across the six thousand years that separate the present from early Proto-Indo-European times, simple things the best, reaching the furthest across the miles and millennia.  *Twom ognibyo wikyo, “I hallow you with fire,” and instantly I’m present at the rite, the flames dancing in our eyes, the smoke drifting and clearing.  *Nomen bhero, “I carry a name,” I bear it, like a beloved cup that has passed down several generations, the edges softened, a few chips around the rim, the color or design worn in places.

Or maybe it’s been renewed, lovingly reworked so that its energy and substance will last a few more generations, the way we can still trace the meanings of so many names, handed on like heirlooms through a family.  “That was your great-grandfather’s name, that was your aunt’s, you and your cousin both have the same middle name from your grandmother’s family.”  *mater, *bhrater, *swesor, *pater, *sunu, *dhugater: mother, brother, sister, father, son, daughter — across thousands of years the family persists, its names still holding their old shapes and sounds, recognizable across a score of languages, the human links we share.  *oinos, *dwou, *treyes, *kwetwores — one, two, three, four, and I count minutes, the pleasures of being alive, the four directions, the four seasons.

I “talk old” to the point that I’ve created several simplified forms of Indo-European as a constructed language or conlang, and used it to write simple prayers and poems.  I “talk old” whenever English gets diluted by advertisers and politicians and careless speakers who squander its beauty and significance in talk that’s literally cheap, of little value.  Poetry saves language because it always is trying to mean more, sometimes straining a language to its limits.  Though paradoxically (signpost of how many truths!) the best poetry comes effortlessly, as if the universe speaks English, or Urdu, or Swahili, and everyone everywhere could understand the words, if they wanted to, if they just happened to be listening.  Then “talking old” is simply speech, the human voice shaping experience, in love with possibility, the universe surprising us still, once again, always.

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