So. Full disclosure. I received an ARC on the expectation that I’d give an honest review of Deborah Castellano’s Magic for Troubled Times, AND I’ve been following Deb’s work for 20 years. She’s the Ms Sugar whose New Year, New You blog challenge of yore continues to be a go-to for me any time I need to kick my own ass. So it’s safe to say I was expecting great things when I opened up my eBook and got reading.
More accurately, what I was expecting was a book-length version of the “failure” chapter in her previous book, Glamour Magic. Something that recognized with warmth and sardonic humour that failure is always an option, and then gave you the kick in the pants you needed to take action rather than wallowing in self pity.
That’s not what this is.
The warmth, the sardonic humour, and the Grind ‘Til You Own It are still there. But the magic presented is shadow work (not as sexy as it sounds) and refuge work. It’s creating your own sanctuary, making allies by showing you’re serious, and spinning the thread that will lead you out of your personal labyrinth.
Magic for Troubled Times is a book to help you find your way through your own personal underworld (and maybe make things a little easier on yourself while you’re stuck there).
Deb shows you how to ground when the ground under your feet is shaking, and how to shield when your rights are under attack, with stops along the way to talk about doing money magic (because so many people’s Troubled Times involve job losses, health crises, and unexpected bills) and literally hexing the patriarchy to create social change at will.
Having done my initial read-through, I’m looking forward to digging more deeply into the rituals and practices she suggests, joining the associated Workbook group, and seeing what magic I can cook up to help improve my general life situation.
Maybe it’s not surprising that I finally got around to doing the most intense of the Activities for Chapter Four of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies during a lunar eclipse in Scorpio.
Flower moon has been beautiful, and living up to its name to such a degree that I’m afraid all the apple, cherry, serviceberry, and pear blossoms will have passed before my girlfriend arrives next week. My garden in thriving – and, thanks to a couple of friends being willing to chauffeur me around – received both an influx of compost and a variety of new plant starts and seeds a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to the lovely, heavy, steady rains we’ve had for the past few days, I’ve got seeds germinating and poking their heads out of the soil – fava beans, allysum and creeping soapwort, borage, nasturtiums, anise, dill, and cilantro, for a start – and the raspberry canes a neighbour offered to anyone who wanted to come and dig some up appear to be Actually Taking Root and transplanting effectively.
I’ve made rhubarb curd (for Beltane – using store-bought rhubarb because mine was just barely poking through the soil) and, from there, rhubarb frozen yoghurt (which is amazing – highly recommended). I’ve harvested lovage, goutweed, and chives from my garden and picked several bouquets of garlic mustard from along Pinecrest creek to use in meals and in making hazelnut pesto. It’s been wonderful to have the windows open, to listen to the rain, to sit in the hot, hot sunshine and feel my bones thaw out.
Which is as apt a segue as anything.
Chapter Four offers a very brief overview of sacred sexuality / erotic theology, pagan perspectives on gender, the nature of the soul, and ancestor veneration.
It feels appropriate to be covering this during Beltane season, a period where the erotic – in the Lordean sense, of fully experiential, active connection, as the opposite of numbness, as the freedom found in, and built of, embodied joy – is invited, invoked, and palpable as life wakes up in late spring and the early summer heat makes it so much easier to breathe, rest, slow down, and feel like thriving is actually possible.
It feels appropriate, too, to be covering this during a lunar eclipse in Scorpio – all that shadow stuff, death stuff, hidden stuff, avoided stuff getting dredged up to the surface and asking to be acknowledged.
The activities included:
Asking how we can honour our bodies, and reframing taking care of ourselves as “giving our bodies gifts” (like opportunities to dance or soak in a tub)
Getting in touch with your ancestors and older relatives and/or deepening the connections you already have with them
Making a will, living will, or other “end of life” document
Whoooooooooooooooo. No pressure.
Since, for the moment, I have some extra time on my hands, I’ve been taking care of my garden, taking long, ambling walks, and soaking up the heat. Which feels like honouring my body – or at least my embodiedness? – to some degree.
I’m not sure that doing (proto) push-ups every night, plus small sets of weight lifting, as a way to honour the Amazons counts as “honouring my body” but it is exciting to see my arms getting a little bit stronger.
Also related to Chapter Three’s “add more devotions to your practice” activity, and in part because my wife gets twitchy around lit candles, but I want to make some kind of a weekly offering, I’ve started making a tiny cup of coffee and a tiny cup of orange pekoe tea for my ancestors, in particular, every week. I use little hand-painted demi-tasse cups that came through my Dad’s Mom for them.
And, today, I made a living will and a “last” (probably not actually last) will & testament.
At it’s most basic (and I was using the free templates available at CanadaWills, and own no property, so it was very basic) it’s a quick run-down of who has decision-making power if you’re hospitalized and can’t make decisions about your care at that time, and what you want to happen to your body and your stuff (“stuff” being a separate document that you date earlier than the will itself), and who gets to handle making sure that happens, after you die.
It was not comfortable deciding how much medical intervention I actually want in the event of me being in a Really Bad Way.
I don’t want to die.
But I don’t exactly want to linger, trapped in a shell, either, you know?
I didn’t enjoy having to think about it.
It was kind of a relief to be able to list both of my partners though.
But. I’ve done it now.
If, and as, I want to go back and make changes – if one of my (currently all under age 10) nibblings comes out as a leather dyke, thus determining who gets the Inherited Leather in the next generation, for example, or if I suddenly decide that I don’t want to donate any organs, or that I *do* want Heroic Measures done to save my life – I can do that.
But, for the moment, it’s done – pending (and this is important) my signature and that of two witnesses. Important.
But it’s done.
So that was Chapter Four. “Chapter Five: Ethics and Justice” is up next.
I’m one of those people who, when I shuffle the deck for a general check-in, gets the “Wow, girl, you’re really in a situation right now. You okay?” instead of any actual advice. (TBH, I’ve started just putting the cards away when they do this, because if I’m not in a state to read anything useful out of them, I probably shouldn’t be exacerbating what my Jerk Brain is telling me).
But: The Sun!
Which: The actual sun did just come out from behind the clouds, so: Literal Meaning Confirmed.
Tarot meaning / things to keep in mind: Enjoy the day. Do something pleasurable. Soak up some Vitamin D. Use your magic (that erotic as power again) to make your dreams and goals reality. Enjoy being who you fully are.
Movement: Proto-push-ups every night. Some weights (not every night, but most nights). Long walks around the neighbourhood, or by the river or the nearby creek.
Attention: Watching my health. Watching my email (waiting on the results of a recent job interview – fingers crossed). Watching the weather. Paying tonnes of attention to my garden and to what’s blooming around the neighbourhood (there is a serviceberry in the nearby park! Woohoo!)
Gratitude: Thankful for the hot weather. Thankful for the rain. Thankful for getting to eat lunch with my wife yesterday. Thankful my girlfriend will be visiting soon. Thankful for coffee with a friend yesterday. Thankful for evening walks with my wife. Thankful for family dinners. Thankful for friends who jump at the chance to visit a garden centre. Thankful for rhubarb. Thankful for plants waking up again. Thankful for so many beautiful flowers. Thankful for sandal weather. Thankful for rainbow umbrellas. Thankful for laundry machines that we own. Thankful for my 2gl watering can. Thankful for home made ice cream. Thankful for warm blankets, coffee on the couch, waking up with the women I love.
Creation: I’ve been writing poetry again. Hurrah! Years ago, I wanted to write a full-length manuscript looking at polyamoury and queer chosen family through the metaphor of local plants, gardening, and seasonal food. Having been talking up squash on twitter recently, I ended up with a couple of poetry prompts that, while very different, could fit into that theme with some wiggling. So I’m revisiting the idea and trying to write a microchap or two playing with those themes.
 Including touching on a certain theological foremother persistently making an ass of herself. For the record: We don’t get to have “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes” as a major tenant of faith and then turn around and go “Except you. You have to stay in a box someone else put you in.” That’s not just being a jerk, it’s blasphemy. Let’s not.
 “those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us…the passions of love, in its deepest meanings…the self-connection shared…the measure of joy” (from Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power” in Sister Outsider).
Okay. So the final Activity for Chapter Three of Seeking the Mystery is to read one or more of the recommended essays and blog posts provided by the author and to explore how the writers’ experiences and values relate to your own. I’m not 100% sure I’ve done this one right, but here we go.
The writers’ experiences were both familiar. More-so Gus’s, since I’ve never experienced spirit-possession “from the inside”, the way Lydia does, but I’m familiar with Aspecting (having Someone “along for the ride” without them doing the driving), know a LOT of god-touched people, and have been lucky in my practice to have found a rag-tag bunch of people for-whom deities are part of the community and sometimes part of the literal family.
Gus’ statement that Gods Exist, whether or not specific individuals experience their presence or want to interact with them feels very Granny Weatherwax. It reminds me of how one of my nearest and dearest approaches the presence of her own Lady in her life and it feels very in line with the matter-of-fact ways that my other extended queer-pagan community talks about interacting with various deities. “So-and-So has been sniffing around”, “I checked in with _______________ the other day”, “[Deity] told me to tell you she wants Boiled Water”.
I kind of love it, I don’t mind telling you.
I have “gods in law” in that both of my partners have very direct (not romantic, but direct) relationships with specific deities. But also – while I do, sometimes, wonder if my… pretty casual way of relating to the divine, in their many forms, is… disrespectful? Like, if they’re hanging out on the other side of the veil and rolling their eyes at the way I lean around the corner to inform All And Sundry on someone else’s altar that “It’s gonna be delicious!” like they’re my aunties and uncles in another room – I want that kind of casual, friendly, familial relationship with the holy. Possibly because of how frighteningly powerful they actually are.
I do want to be safe in these interactions. To know that my circuits won’t be fried (to use a phrase from “Becoming a Horse”) and that what sacrifices are required of me are ones I can withstand and get through without regretting them. Plus, in the way pre-Christian kings in what is now England traced their family lines through deities and how Romans used familial terms like “Grandfather” when addressing their gods, there is a kind of doting, loving respect built into “Auntie” that makes “Ma’am” feel inappropriate?
I don’t know. Maybe that’s weird.
I, too, was surprised – although maybe I shouldn’t have been, particularly as a not-that-sensitive-to-this-stuff human – to find out that lots of people who are Pagan have NOT had direct interactions with deities or other non-corporeal/multi-corporeal People. That surprises me.
Maybe that surprise is due to my having become a baby witchlet in the mid-1990s, when “Pagan” was equal parts joke and threat to the culturally (and sometimes religiously practicing) Christian status quo. Why would someone convert away from their religion of origin, to a marginalized and often maligned faith, with NOTHING to go on, when they could just be a secular humanist or a Unitarian and not have to worry about rocks being thrown through your windows or staying religiously closeted.
As far as things that felt off-putting or “repelling”… really, only the instance in “Becoming A Horse” where the author implies that a body is kind of disposable. Which she may not have even been doing. But the “body as vehicle” rather than “body as self” thing is jarring for me. My body is as much “me” as my multi-part soul is “me” and the whole “wearing a meat suit” thing has never really sat well with me.
Outside of that, things like up pretty okay with my own values and expectations through both essays. I appreciate the pluralism, the “anyone can do this (mostly)”, how both essays present direct interaction with deities and other non-corporeal/multi-corporeal People as accessible and desirable while leaving room for people to kind of choose their own adventure and making it clear that going deep into this stuff… can be hard on your body, rewire your brain, and you would probably benefit from having guidance/training from someone who’s been doing the same thing for longer and has more experience.
Like: Don’t be College Giles. Don’t get high on demon possession without having a babysitter who knows how to kick them out if things get weird.
Maybe I’m reading a lot into that.
Anyway. I wrote a whole, long, rambling thing (as is not unusual for me) where I was basically just reacting to the essays and: TBH, I think the reason I chose the ones I did was because they looked like they would be familiar and dovetail well with my own cosmology. But I look at the various options presented, and I think they all would have done so.
I think the only way they really differ, if they differ at all, is the degree of “exercise caution when getting in touch with deities” that’s in there. Which isn’t even that much. It’s more of a “know your limit, play within it” kind of thing.
The second Activity at the end of Chapter 3 is… in the book, which is back at home (I’m visiting my girlfriend – everything is in flower here, and it’s beautiful). So I’m saving that for Part Three. But the third Activity, provided I’m remembering it right, is the suggestion that readers/students add more devotion – in the sense of altar-building, ritual action, prayer – to their days and… see what that’s like.
I do a (roughly) daily ritual of Moon Salutation. It accomplishes a bunch of things – stretching out my hips before bed so that I can get up and walk easily the next morning, yes, but also giving me a couple of minutes to (try to) focus my mind on my Lady of Song, Poetry, and Queerness, and to take a little bit of time to reach out and say hello and thank you to my recent (actually met them in life) ancestors, my Godself, my Fetch, and the Neighbours with-whom I share my house and who collectively provide for me and mine as a Bioregion.
Partially in response to this activity prompt, and partly just because I’ve been wondering since August 2020 how best I can honour the Amazons given that I’m not likely to take up HEMA any time soon. I made a necklace – amazonite and moonstone – last summer, as something that I could touch or wear that would make me think of them. But I wanted to do something else. Throwing money at a trans-inclusive org that promotes girls’ athletics was one option I considered, and may revisit, but what I decided would work better as… as a thing that I’m not just doing on automatic, a thing that isn’t just “fix it and forget it” the way a lot of money donations can be… I decided to incorporate doing a push-up into my regular Moon Salutations specifically because making my body stronger is a way to honour these very strong women who claimed me. My queer aunties of blood and spirit.
Now: To be clear: I’m not actually able to do even one push-up. Yet. Right now it’s more like moving from Heart Melting Pose to something between Sphinx Pose and a knee push-up – shins and forearms on the ground, everything else up – and then bending my arms and keeping my core as solid as I can until my nose touches my fists, or gets as close to that as I can do that particular day.
It’s not a real push-up. It is something I’m actually capable of that adds a little tiny bit more strength to my arms and core every time I do it. And when I do it, I say Hi. It’s a very small thing, but it’s a thing that I do on the regular, and I’m glad I’ve added it to the daily devotionals that I already do.
Something that is less daily, but that still feels good to do, and that I’m really glad to have the option to do it, is that I started (last Beltane, after my lovely wife found the first of them and pointed it out to me) visiting my local seasonal alters at the quarter and cross-quarter days. Sometimes I bring one or both of my partners. Often, I just pop down by myself. Sometimes I dress fancy, other times I just wear whatever is weather appropriate. But I tend to bring home-baking and fancy drinks and I take a minute to drop my roots down and say Hi again.
It feels a little bit like that scene in My Neighbour Totoro where they go to pay their respects to the Forest in the formal and formalized, but also very matter-of-fact way. Something that’s a little out of the way, but not terribly so, and not something that takes a lot of prep or a long time to do. You just have to bother.
So I bother. And it feels good to do.
Some stuff I want to bring up around this:
I stopped beating myself up for missing a day (or a week or, in the case of my wrecking my knee trying to skateboard a few weeks before last Midsummer, six entire freaking months) because I figured out years ago that feeling guilty about it just made me avoid doing The Thing for longer. So all of this stuff – including, for example, making an offering of apple velvet galette and red wine at the Spring Stone for Equinox but NOT doing the same thing on my own house altar because: about to get on a plane and not wanting to leave something out that would attract fruit flies – is very much a “Start fresh every day” kind of deal.
I only very rarely FEEL the presence of the People I’m reaching out to when I’m doing this stuff. And, most of the time that I do pick up on something, it’s an unspecified “rocking in the spirit” situation rather than a very specific Person getting in touch, reaching back to connect. Sometimes that feels a little bit sad, or like “What am I doing wrong”. But, at this point, I’ve just figured out that this is how this stuff works most of the time, when you are a Very Grounded bunker like I am. I still think it’s important to do, and I’m still glad that I do it.
Which… doesn’t mean that I don’t get All The Feels when I’m actively trying to do stuff, or invite People in, or what have you, and I don’t experience much of anything, or when I’m trying to enter a trance (or semi-trance?) state and just kind of failing. I definitely also do that. But:
On the subject of “add more devotional practices” as an activity prompt: It’s something that I definitely like doing. We’re a meaning-making species (look at the whole Dadaist movement, for example), and doing these small, easy-to-maintain little rituals on a regular, reliable basis, gives a little more shape to my days and my years which – especially two years into a pandemic where time has largely lost all meaning – is helpful in terms of structuring my life, but also helpful in terms of letting me touch on Something More in a way that’s… kind of scheduled, almost? Like I can’t just forget about it, because it’s built in and, tbh, because if I don’t do it – at least with the Moon Salutations – my body will remind me very loudly of why it’s a good idea to go through the physical motions and, at that point, since I’m already making the time to do the thing, I might as well do all the non-physical bits, too. And so I do.
Have I managed to turn every Sunday into a day of religious contemplation in the past six months? No. But I’m doing it considerably more frequently than I was when I first twigged to how much I liked making that time and space. Do I manage to quiet my brain and actually focus on my Gods during Moon Salutation every night? Not by a long shot. There’s usually a song in my head, or some kind of distracting thoughts swirling around for at least part of it. But I’m still doing it. I can still bring my brain back to “think of the moon in the sky” and focus on Her for a little bit, and then a little bit more. And that little bit more, and then a little bit more than that, is kind of how you build a practice. Even twenty-five years in.
Woops. I thought I’d posted this a month+ ago, and it turns out it was still in my drafts. So here we go:
So Chapter Three is called “Knowledge and Devotion” but, while it definitely covers things like initiatory & mystery traditions vs not-so-much, Personal Gnosis (verified or otherwise), and various kinds of devotional activities, the author also spends some time talking about community and the internet.
Look. I have to admit, I had some Feelings about the part of the chapter that touched on “learning from a book” and “The Internet” vs multi-generational religious communities.
The book was published 10 years ago. Long form blogging was still a big deal and social media As We Know It Now was just ramping up (I am so wondering what she makes of Witchtok…). She wasn’t wrong about people preferring their online communications to come in forms they could tightly control due to the hostility of the environment. Like, the block button is definitely My Friend. And I see the generational siloing that happens in, e.g., queer communities, and I can understand why this is a concern for her.
At the same time… part of me is just like: Okay, but almost all of my teachers have been people I found thanks to online communities, including the local people who I’m still in touch with, who I first met in the mid-1990s, during the internet’s infancy. The ritual group I’ve practiced with for the longest, I’m able to practice with at all thanks to them broadcasting their rituals over the internet.
There are plenty of days where I crave that community, where I want to be able to “go to church” in person / locally (and not be the only one who gave 2 minutes thought to what would go on the altar or what the ritual was about – why am I reading theology books again?), and to have immersive, communal religious experiences that don’t require me to sleep in a tent for a week surrounded by relentless drumming and mosquitos.
I know that paganism – in the sense of a giant faith-umbrella with a LOT of religions under it that have enough overlapping reads on the world(s) that they can hang out together – is still largely made up of converts, even though there are definitely multi-generational pagan families out there. I can’t help thinking of Christianity, which has been around for thousands of years, and wondering about their first few centuries, before one Roman emperor converted and made it politically fashionable/expedient to be Christian (let alone another emperor, a hundred or so years later, making it illegal to be anything else). I mean, it was an apocalyptic cult that was expecting the end of the world Any Day Now and kind of discouraging its membership from having kids on that basis.
So I find it a little… almost alarmist, maybe? When someone – and Christine Hoff Kraemer isn’t “Some Boomer” who came up in the 1970s’ counter culture, lamenting about Ye Goode Olde Days before the internet existed, she looks about my age, if not slightly younger and manages the Pagan section of Patheos.com – is Having Concerns about the neopagan movement’s sustainability, given that it hasn’t been around for very long.
If we decide to trace the lineage of Anglophone Neopaganism back to Gerald Gardner’s British Traditional Wicca, then “neopaganism” as a movement is only about a hundred years old. And the first sixty of those – kind of arbitrary, again, but I’m thinking of the 1979-82 explosion of goddess spirituality literature that made stuff like this available through something other than word-of-mouth – were done entirely on the quiet. (How did anyone find a Coven to join, when nobody used their real names to practice their faith, and you had to be very sure someone was both trustworthy and into it before you invited them to a ceremony? Like, Outer Courts are a thing, but don’t actually know how this was accomplished. I could probably look it up – maybe in Drawing Down the Moon – but I don’t know off the top of my head). I don’t think it’s particularly odd that Neopaganism, having been available outside of some pretty closed circles for only ~40 years, is still in its infancy as a developing, multi-generational community.
I don’t think she’s wrong to say that having some reliable Processes Of Discernment would be good for us, as a cluster of very experiential religious groups. And she’s not wrong, either, when she says that generational siloing can lead to a lot of reinventing the wheel, so to speak, that doesn’t have to happen, or that relying on the internet can make for a fragmented, very far-flung community that – because we don’t all live in the same area – can’t necessarily show up to help each other move, muster a meal train, facilitate rites of passage, or otherwise be a community the way, say, my mom’s church is a community.
I do wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a large pagan religious community that included my parents and grandparents and a couple of centuries of habit, folk symbolism, and social games. To have had the opportunity to do the Pagan equivalent of a Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation ceremony where I got to talk shop and baby-steps theology with peers and older advisor/teacher types on subject matter that felt meaningful to me, rather than awkward and ill-fitting, and then got some level of community celebration a few months later when I did the ceremony proper. To not have to rely on luck and The Algorithm to make sure I found out that local and wider-than-local religious-community-meetings were happening, because someone at the temple would make an announcement about it for a couple of weeks leading up to whatever-it-is.
But, at the same time, I don’t think it’s hurt me to have learned things out of books, or by reading blogs or going to (often, though not always online) mostly non-religious workshops run by other queer, kinky, polytheists – to have found religious community at all thanks to my far-flung but accessible-via-the-internet peer group.
In Chapter Three, the author mentions David Abram and how, upon returning to his… call it a “typical white guy life”(?) he started to lose the “profound sense of intimacy with the natural world” that he’d experienced while immersed in communities where that sense of intimacy was a normal part of “typical life”. She draws on Sherry Turkles’s Alone Together, commenting that it’s harder to form intimate human relationships – all the Brene Brown vulnerability stuff – when so many of our interactions (Oh, hai, pandemic) are done in a milieu like twitter where there’s not a lot of room for nuance (or vulnerability), and asking how one can form intimate relationships with non-human people if one doesn’t have a lot of experience forming them with other humans.
And that… is not how that works.
Sorry not sorry.
Lots of people who never had the opportunity to form healthy intimate relationships with other humans (and that is a LOT of pagans, friends) due to a plethora of Bad Childhood Situations – including abuse, neglect, and the subtle-and-unsubtle societal messages that being queer and/or trans are things to be secretive and ashamed about – learned how to experience intimacy first by emotionally connecting with pets or houseplants. Humans are so, SO wired for intimacy and connection. And gods are not without agency and know how to get noticed when they need to.
So while, yes, it’s much EASIER to cultivate and maintain those senses of connection – to understand that the sewing machine has a name (which she told me) because she’s old enough and complicated enough to have developed one; to understand that the chard in the garden is a person who I’m cutting, and hurting, every time I harvest their leaves for dinner, so I’d better appreciate their resilience and continued presence in my yard and should also make sure to feed them and give them enough water so that they heal well and stay strong – when I’m surrounded by, and interacting with, people who share those same understandings (this is one of the big reasons why I date other pagans)… But it’s not a requirement. You may have to get the hang of shrugging it off when people look at you like you have two heads, and you may (still) have to fit your religious observances in around the edges of the rest of your life, but you can still cultivate that understanding.
Anyway. This is rapidly approaching 1500 words, so I will talk about the Chapter Three Activities in Part Two.
 This is why I talk about being influenced by Feri, but not being a Feri practitioner – I’m not an initiate into their mysteries, and the elements of their practices and cosmology that have found their way into my own are things that are free to share with outsiders/laity.
 Which… sure, it’s kind of arbitrary. But I’m a 90s kid and I remember when Chapters started carrying whole shelves full of books on Wicca – and it was Wicca, or at least elements there-of, that was most readily available, especially if you didn’t have a local occult bookstore or know how to find out if such a thing existed. So We’re going through Wicca (sort of) for the purposes of this post.
Okay, so the second part of the Chapter Two Activities is “meditate on your chosen myth for ten minutes a day, every day, for a week, and journal about what comes up”.
I haven’t been doing this. Or, I have been, but not with that degree of consistency.
I think I’ve done 4/7 times at this point?
The first night, I got a big response.
I closed my eyes, imagined myself in the deep woods, the desert woods. I started rocking side to side (which is… not how that usually goes. Usually I rock back and forth).
I thought of the woman in her besieged castle and asked:
What do you owe the land you inherit?
Images that came up:
Three silver coins slipped into the river, close to shore but the water was moving.
Hawthorne and yew (saw yew, heard “rue”)
Heard “Walking the bounds”
Short, thorny shrubs/trees (Hawthorne? Sloe? But with white bark) that woolen clothes caught on
Slow walking (observation? Witnessing?)
Rocks close under and poking through the ground’s surface
So… I guess she – or someone – wanted to talk.
The second night, I tried to talk to Peredur’s mother. I imagined myself back in the deep woods, and I asked:
Who lives here?
And… oof. I saw a woman with a green pig’s head and tusks (who was not me) and a long dress, and she was not happy. I heard:
“I do!” in this very aggressive, fuck-off voice, accompanied by the sounds of distressed horses, galloping hooves, and the sound of metal-on-metal.
So I left, because it sounded like she did NOT want me in there.
I have no idea if that was Peredur’s mom – possible, given the whole “stay away from me, I’m traumatized by war and its accompanying grief” situation – or if it was somebody else. Still a big response, but not a welcoming one.
Which: The other two times I’ve done this, I haven’t had much come up. Possibly this is because I’m trying to steer clear of the Deep Woods – where most of this story takes place (er… sort of?). But also possibly just because I’m tired and feeling under the weather. I’ve been asking about the requirements of hospitality and not getting tonnes of a response.
Continuing with the end-of-chapter Activities offered in Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, it’s time for Chapter Two.
Chapter Two is about mythology and its roles in contemporary pagan faiths. I appreciate that this chapter includes a discussion of ways that we can conflate mythology with history – like The Burning Times as a period when actual practitioners of The Craft were being hunted out and killed, rather than a period when various types of Christians were hunting out and killing each other for being The Wrong Kind of Christian; or the theory of a Pan-European Matriarchal Prehistory that requires a LOT of conjecture and, like most conjecture about prehisotry, says more about the contemporary storytellers than it does about the people the story is ostensibly about (this is why I like Ron Hutton, tbh). I also appreciate how the author talks about cultural appropriation and the need for contemporary pagans, as a predominantly white population, to tread carefully and respectfully when (if) engaging with the living traditions of racialized people, while also avoiding falling into the trap of “someone can ONLY engage with a tradition/pantheon/practice if they have that cultural heritage or ancestry” which can, and does, get used to bolster white n*tion*list narratives. The author also talked about how contemporary pagans are engaging in myth-making that incorporates both contemporary science and UPG, while also engaging with pre-existing texts and interpreting them – sometimes with difficulty – in ways that are relevant to our 21st century lives. It was a good chapter.
The Activities presented at the end of the chapter all revolve around a myth with-which the reader chooses to engage. So. Part 1:
Choose a myth, read it, then analyze it to answer the following:
What does this myth tell you about the people who wrote it?
In what ways is this myth relevant to you and your life today?
What does this myth tell me about the people who wrote it?
First, I have to recognize that this is a probably Victorian lady, and a Christian, doing the translation of a story that was written down by Christians in the middle ages as a (likewise very Christian) King Arthur legend. I gather it’s probably older, and less Christian, than that. But this is what I have available.
As far as what it says, more broadly, about the Brithonic culture at large, in terms of what the Christians who wrote it down opted to keep, this is what it tells me:
Peredur, who is known as “the Son of Evrawc” is, none the less, constantly running into, and gaining both honour and hospitality through, the brothers of his MOTHER. All of whom seem to live in big-ass castles within the wild “desert” wood.
So… I sort of think this implies a Matrilineal society shifting towards Patrilineage at the time of the writing-down? Maybe?
I also wonder if Peredur’s Mother was one of the Fair Folk, once upon a time, as all of her brothers appear to live in what’s described as the wild “desert” wood.
I’m wondering, too, if “desert” here is just… look, hypothetically, the Forest of ancient England would have been more like a savanna than like the deep, Beech forests of Germany, as described in The Hidden Life of Trees. None the less, I’m wondering if those deep forests – the Wild Wood of high, thick canopies, wind pollination, and mostly non-existent understory, far from the forest edge of insect-pollinated, annually-fruiting trees (hazel, chestnut, hawthorn, sloe, apple, a zillion bramble berries) and the related abundance of small and mid-sized game, where humans can thrive – were thought of as either “wasteland” – meaning “you are not going to find a lot of food, easily, if you’re stuck here” – or as “wilds” (like, in the biblical sense of various people wandering in the desert for forty days/years to indicate a long period of being removed from civilization and its related ills, dangers, and distractions)
Hiding out in the Deep Woods was definitely a thing one could do, but you had to pack in a lot of livelystock… so maybe my Deep Woods theory is accurate? (No idea)
Question: Is “The Lord of the Glade” Gwyn ap Nudd? Or Arywn?
Kingship (or earlship, etc) was won, and maintained, by Might Of Arms
This is also how you made a name for yourself
Women could inherit land and rulership but, given the whole Might Of Arms situation, they weren’t always in a position to defend that which they’d inherited if they didn’t have brothers or foster-brothers or other fighting-fit male relatives around to do the defending.
If someone was under your parents’ protection – I am not sure if I’m stretching things here or reading them right – and those parents died or were otherwise indisposed, you inherited that duty to protect them.
Hospitality was a BIG DEAL – like if someone turned up on your doorstep, it wasn’t just “Hey. Welcome. Come in and have some food and rest”. It was “Hey. Welcome. GOOD TO SEE YOU! Come in and have some food and rest” and then introducing yourselves after the meal was done. Feed your guest first, ask questions later.
Also, apparently, if you had a guest and they were like “Nice jewelry!” you had to give it to them happily?
Being someone’s guest also came with responsibilities. Like, sure, you could eat people out of house and home and take their stuff just by asking for it. But you also had to return the favour via significant acts of service.
I’m assuming that Peredur is opting for acts of heroism because he’s a Knight (or wants to be one), but in a less legendary situation, maybe it’s things like doing the washing up, showing up with a hostess gift, and not making a total mess of someone else’s home.
Which, I guess, brings me to question two: How is this myth relevant to me, as a person living today?
Family ties (for a given definition of family that’s broader than the one implied by the story) being how you keep yourself safe, fed, etc
How can I strengthen my own family ties?
Am I looking after the people in my extended family? In what ways?
How to be a Good Guest when one’s status as “guest” is a polite euphemism for “colonizer” or “invader”.
What services can I do for the people whose territory I’m in?
What services can I do for the territory itself?
What can I do in order to NOT continue eating them out of house and home and taking all their stuff?
If these are stories about boundaries and boundary-crossings… how do I stay in my own lane, so to speak? How do I behave respectfully and respectably when I’m out and about, interacting with other human and other-than-human people, and so on?
Part Two of Chapter Two’s Activities requires meditating on one’s myth of choice, for ten minutes every day, for a week. So: Having only done one day worth of this so far, I’m going to follow up on this bit a little while.
Following up on this post with the second Homework Question asked by the author at the end of Chapter One. The author asks:
“What would it be like to honour the differently? Consider experimenting with a practice that is different from the beliefs that you hold. Can a hard polytheist meditate on Atman with a group of Hindus? Can a monotheist make offerings to the spirits of the land, understanding them as aspects of the divine? Can a soft polytheist, or nontheist, call upon a deity and speak with them as a person rather than an archetype? Sit with the feelings of discomfort that may arise from this thought experiment. Is it important to continue to believe as you do now? Why or why not?”
I started to touch on this very briefly in my previous post. That, when trying to find points of relation with monotheists and panentheists, I lean into the idea of numerous individual godsouls – including those of actual deities – making up a giant, composite, universe-soul who is, at the same time, an entity unto themselves, but that doing this is not entirely comfortable.
I feel like I’m lying. Or being rude to my gods. Or both. Which is one of the reasons I mostly practice as a Solitary.
Uh. More on that, even though I’ll be touching on it again in a few chapters:
I “go to church” with my girlfriend, and her ritual group, and it’s LOVELY. I’m very glad that I get to do this – or got to do this when they were doing ritual online, and may get to do this again if in-person stuff is available while I’m visiting DC – and it’s been really… really special and important for to be able to do that. I’ve talked before – if not on this blog, then with my friends – about “missing church”. Which has meant a couple of things for me. I miss the… laziness? Of just being able to show up at a ritual and follow the directions, rather than having to come up with the ritual myself.
Like, yes, I’m definitely down to create my own rituals, they’re personally meaningful and let me connect with my gods, my ancestors, my godself, my fetch, the spirits of my micro-bioregion. All of that. But it’s also really nice to be able to who up and immerse myself in a ritual without having to also make sure I remember what step comes next.
But I also miss “church” in the sense of “having a community of shared values and… heavily overlapping(?) cosmology with-whom I can do personally meaning woo-woo stuff on a reliable and consistent basis”. And there are local ritual groups, public ones, that I could be part of. Or there were, a few years ago. But it feels really weird to sort of “play at” penentheism, or at duotheistic poly pantheism, in a long term way. Like, she who is the white moon among the stars is actually NOT the same person as the one who’s the green earth. Heck the Green and the Earth are two different people. And that’s just on my personal altar, before you get to the specific individuals who make up the Green ad the Earth who I call to when I do quarter calls. You know?
So, to drag this back to the author’s question:
While I’m able to consider the soul of the universe, of which I (and/as my tripartite soul) am just a tiny, TINY part:
I’m not thinking of Atman – my rudimentary understanding of All That Is, the connections between, and ultimate unity of, All That Is, is not likely to be the same understanding that someone who’s been a practicing Hindu for 25 years is going to have via the lens of their faith.
I’m going to feel like I’m oversimplifying things if that’s the part I focus on. Like I’m smoothing the edges off my cosmology to make it easier and more palatable for a largely monotheistic “over-culture” to wrap their collective heads around
I’m going to worry that I will forget both the complexity and the embodied immediacy of The Divine qua numerous individual deities, spirits of place, etc, if I spend too much time focusing on that broader, harder-to-have-relationships-with (harder to relate to? – There’s probably something worth digging into there) all-encompassing Universe Soul at the expense of naming and honouring and relating to those individual entities-unto-themselves who are my gods, who are the gods-who-aren’t-mine, who are the local Neighbours, who are my specific ancestors of blood and spirit, who is my own godself… all of them.
So, yes. I think it’s important for me to continue worshiping as I do, and… cosmology-ing as I do. While I get that my practice and understanding are going to keep evolving over time, I don’t think I’d be doing right by my gods or my Other People, if I changed that up substantially or suddenly or, possibly, at all.
So I got myself a copy of this book. It’s one of the ones that’s on the reading list for Cherry Hill Seminary’s Community Ministry Certificate. I figure, if I can’t take the courses (…yet), I can at least start doing the readings. So I’ve made a start of it. It’s absolutely an intro book – a bit of a light survey with a solid bibliography to go hunting up further stuff. Short, but it’s chewy none the less. I appreciate how the author has made a point of drawing on examples from a lot of different traditions, and from writers/thinkers/theologians who were both well-established (Starhawk, Graham Harvey, Carol Christ, the Andersons, the Farrars, Judy Harrow, John Casey, Margot Adler) and those who, at the time of this book’s publication (2012) were much more recent additions to the Pagan theological… canon? Can I call it a canon? Let’s go with that. Think Sarah Kate Istra Winter, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, Katherine MacDowell, Raven Kaldera, Ivo Dominguez Jr, and Emma Restall Orr, if we want to split that particular hair at roughly the Millennium line). I’m hopeful that, as we head into 2022, she’s got a 10 year anniversary follow-up in the works. Time will tell.
Anyway. The book has Activities at the end of each chapter. And I thought I’d give some of them a go.
Chapter one, which is kind of an introduction of theological terms like “Monism” and “Animism”, “Process Theology” and “Polytheism” (both hard and soft), asks the reader to think on their own theological position(s) and how that position has changed, if it has, over the course of their life.
I would start by saying that my theology was experiential before I ever heard the word “theology” let alone started using it in sentences. Part of why I stopped being christian is that… there wasn’t anything there. Or at least that who was there was definitely not answering my phone calls.
I was about fifteen when I concluded that “Christian” no-longer described me, and that it was time to figure out what I did believe, and ideally to find a faith that could match it.
I was sixteen when I met a God for the first time.
For the first few years – years when I was interacting with mostly Wiccan practitioners, mostly on the proto-internet of the mid-1990s – I probably qualified as either a soft polytheist or a duotheistic polypantheist (one of my profs used that term to describe the embodied, “all the gods are one god and all the goddesses one goddess” theology of Wicca, which she practiced). I’m not sure if I was an animist yet, though I knew that Ancestors were part of my reality pretty much immediately. I met my first (out) hard polytheist when I was in my very early twenties and that, as they say, Really Gave Me Something To Think About.
I think I was probably hitting on my own hard polytheism inside of five years later. Basically, I started meeting other gods (and then meeting other humans who had very specific relationships with specific other gods) and it felt increasingly… rude? to act like they were interchangeable. It was also around this point that I started thinking about the nature of souls and came to my own conclusion that there are multiple parts to a soul, or multiple souls, in a given person (not just human people, fyi, so: definitely an animist by this point). What I think is that, since reincarnation is a thing, and since ancestors who stick around and with-whom you can interact, are also a thing… There must be a spark that jumps from life to life, reincarnating over and over and picking up experiences, as well as a “self” or “memory” soul that develops over the course of a given lifetime and becomes an Ancestor (and sometimes a restless ghost, tbh) upon death.
That said: A lot of the theology I’ve read has been by Feri initiates, even if they were presenting stuff that was okay for laypeople to know. Lee Harrington. T Thorn Coyle. Starhawk. Gede Parma. Orion Foxwood. So maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve picked up.
Everything seems to be built in a series of nested layers – I am an entity unto myself. But I’m also part of the entity that is my micro-bioregion and, from there, my planet. I’m also made up of entities-unto-themselves that are the myriad folk of my gut biota, for example. My planet is made up of all those micro-bioregional entities, and is part of the entity that is my solar system.
And I think that souls must be a bit like that. I am an entity until myself – and so I go to the land of the Ancestors when I die. But I’m also part of the soul of All That Is – the universe has a soul made up of a zillion parts, because the universe is made up of a zillion parts. I think this is a little related to the Feri tradition’s Star Goddess. But it’s also a little related to the Vedic tradition’s Prajapati. It just seems to fit, given how the universe works (by our current understanding of How The Universe Works). All those land spirits, all those Gods of place. They are entities unto themselves. And I think, on some quiet level they are, like me, part of the All That Is.
I’ve met my Godself, my Deep Self, my Shard of the Universe Herself – to use three different ways of referring to Her – I know She’s real, and is an entity unto Herself. But I also know that She is, at the same time, both part of ME – this human body, this human life enlivened by a leaping, experiencing, ever-renewing Spark (is this Fetch? Maybe?) and remembered by/as an Ancestor (is this Talking Self? Maybe?) in times to come – and part of the swimming, blending, universe-soul, All That Is.
So… my Hard Polytheism and my Animism are underpinned by something like Pantheism? Maybe? But it’s a quiet, background pantheism rather than the Pantheism or Panenthism that my Unitarian clients, or the uh… Pananimist Nontheism(?) that my Buddhist clients for that matter, tend to lean towards. It’s what I lean into when I’m trying to find points of theological relating with people who are just weirded out by the reality of “Gods, Plural” and give me funny looks when I want to talk shop. It’s fine, but it feels a bit like hitting a wall, sometimes. It’s much easier to tell people that “my church is in my back yard” or “I take a walk in the woods when I need to commune with the divine” because that sounds hippie-pantheist enough to be non-threatening (I say, presuming that people are likely to be off-put by polytheism and hard animism) than to get into the nitty-gritty of seasonal offerings, deities turning up in the living room (and the bedroom), messages being passed along through humans who are More Sensitive To This Stuff than I am, using an imaginary legal pad to talk to my Godself, and how old an appliance has to be before it starts talking (I think the youngest machine who every told me her name is Janice, my wife’s the sewing machine who would have been… between 40 and 45 at the time? So younger than the Tsukumogami by a substantial margin. I’m kind of… trepedatious about what will happen in 10-20 years when my library starts hitting that age…)
… And that’s kind of where things stand right now.
I’m sure things will continue to evolve – particularly around Animism regarding things like “I am a mammal that eats… at all” and “So much plastic packaging… What do I do with this??” – but I like where my cosmology/theology are at right now. I think, at this point, it’s more likely to deepen than to change direction. I hope that’s how it goes.
So, as I said in an earlier post, I recently designed a guided meditation for myself so that I could go and meet my Fetch in person.
I’m not an initiate into Feri or Reclaiming. But the work of Starhawk, T Thorn Coyle, Lee Harrington, and Gede Parma have all informed my own understanding of ritual and magical work, so Feri and Reclaiming have influenced my own work, albeit in an indirect way. As such, when I talk about Fetch, I’m using the term in roughly the way that it gets used in Feri (and, apparently, Wildwood?) or the way Reclaiming talks about “Child Self”. Sometimes this part of you is also called the “Id” or the “Unconscious”, just to throw some psych 101 terms into the mix.
Essentially, Fetch is your animal self, your little-kid self, the part of your soul-makeup that’s most intimately connected with being a body – so all the stuff that relates to food, touch, sleep, sex, movement, work (as in: force times distance equals), pain, rest, pleasure, and play.
Fetch is your skin hunger, your belly-hunger, and your tongue hunger. They’re the part of you that wants, that needs, that desires, that demands… and also the part of you where a lot of the rejected parts of yourself kind of get shoved in order to push them out of the way (so… Fetch may have a lot of your Shadow Stuff kind of clogging up their system, and may be lonely or self-protective when you first meet them – just a heads-up, your Fetch and my Fetch aren’t going to be the same people, so yours may also be super keen to drag you on adventures despite it being a school night. YMMV).
Fetch is also not likely to use words.
This is relevant, especially if you’re like, y’know, me and are All About The Feelings, but also are all about putting words around your emotions to explain and understand them. (This is why I find tarot so helpful, because it lets my chatty, explainy, words-using self and my non-verbal, images and sensory experiences self communicate with each other in ways they can both understand. Looking for visual omens and learning how to interpret the emotional stuff behind physical sensations (think: somatic experiencing) in your own body can do this, too.
All of my internal-astral wanderings start out by taking the rainbow staircase (or sometimes elevator) downwards. It’s a technique I was introduced to… 15 or so years ago? And at this point it’s a really effective visual/mental cue that “We’re Visiting The Interior Now”.
I followed my own directions and eventually came to the location where I was expecting to meet my Fetch.
It wasn’t the night club I’d been expecting to find.
Instead, it was a high school gym with most of the lights out.
There was 100% something big, mammalian, and predatory just sort of… hanging out around the edges. I never really saw it, but I got the impression of lion/tiger paws and some kind of tusks. Which… Is fine. I was actually expecting that bit.
What I wasn’t expecting was to see my 13-year-old self, even skinnier and taller (6’8”, at a guess) than I was at that actual age, wearing my/her dad’s basketball uniform and shooting baskets.
She also had tusks. Which… is not shocking.
A long time ago, I went on an astral bus trip, if you will, and got to have a look at who-all my talking self was sharing space with, and there was somebody on there with boar tusks or ram/bull horns or something. I think that maybe that kind of hazy somebody, in their soft-butch tank top and jeans, may have been a related aspect of this big wee girl I’ve met in the gym.
But the part where my Fetch is a tomboy and a tiny bit of a jock? That’s unexpected.
Maybe it shouldn’t be.
But here we are.
It felt like it took a long time for her to turn around and look at me.
I got a general impression of flinching, which is kind of heart-breaking.
We spent a lot of time sitting on the bleachers. She tucked her head into the crook of my neck, and one of her tusks kind of poked me, and she freaked out a little when I tried to adjust things which…
How do I talk to a teenager who is scared I’m going to leave again? Especially one who doesn’t really do words?
So we sat in the dark and I held onto her, this big little girl who is teenager me, with all the emotional bruises of grades 5-8 riding on her shoulders.
The second part of the meditation… didn’t exactly happen?
She pressed something into my hands, but I don’t really know what it was. Something robins-egg blue or powder blue, and boxy. Like a cross between a little transistor radio and a really clunky games console?
Anyway. I think she might be saying “Play with me”?
So I need to go back and play with her.
One thing that I really, really noticed was that I could feel her in my thighs. That meeting her made my legs burn like I’d just hiked up five or six flights of stairs, or a very long, very steep hill. This was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I tend to read Butches as carrying their energy in their thighs – in much the same way as I tend to read Femmes as carrying our energy strung across our shoulders and collarbones – so this physical feeling was part of my interpretation of my Fetch as being… call it “more masculine than the rest of me”, if you want to start there. The other reason it was interesting is because I associate that feeling with running. With the way I feel after having to sprint for a bus. I got the impression that she’d been running, or had been poised to run away, for a very long time.
I kind of hope I can get us to a point where that feeling – of big, powerful muscles that have been working hard – is associated with “We sure DID dance until midnight / hang upside down in an aerials class / play HORSE all afternoon / take a gorgeous walk through the arboretum for a couple of hours” rather than with something that feels like fear and flight.
Anyway. That was how meeting my Fetch went.
If any of you reading this want to talk about meeting your own Fetches, please feel free to tell me all about them in the comments.