When the map draws the territory

Are there infinite parallel universes, and if so, do we move between them? Does the universe shape itself to meet our expectations? Does the territory determine the map, or the map the territory?

Thanks to The Daily Grail’s news briefs, I recently learned about something called the “Mandela Effect.” The term describes a phenomenon where large numbers of people remember past events that never happened, and takes its name from one of these alternate memories, that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s, prompting riots in Africa. What separates these alternate memories from just misremembering or being ignorant of history is (1) they are shared, down to the details, by thousands of people; and (2) for the people who have them, the memories are often embedded in the social matrix of their lives–they remember the discussions they had with others about the events, for example–and consequently, questioning these memories means questioning all the memories they are embedded in. It’s not easy for them to dismiss the memories as just an error.

Berenstain Bears

There are many of these alternative histories–here is a list–and it so happens that I share one of them. I remember having some children’s books featuring the The Berenstein Bears. I can remember my mom reading them to me, and I remember she pronounced the name Bear-en-steen. (She says she remembers it the same way. I specifically asked her to tell me how the name was spelled, and she said B-E-R-E-N-S-T-E-I-N.) Then I can remember, when I was a little older, wondering if it shouldn’t be pronounced Bear-en-STINE, since after all it appears to be a Germanic name. I started reading at age 3, I could read cursive from at least the 1st grade (the Berenst#in Bears name is always written in cursive script), was always a really good speller, and I read and re-read many times a Berenst#in Bears book in which the daughter has her first day at school. For some reason I really connected empathetically with that story. So I know I saw the word myself and am reasonably confident I would have remembered the spelling correctly. But as an adult I started hearing it pronounced Bear-en-STAIN, and assumed it was just an idiosyncratic pronunciation of Berenstein. When I first saw it written BerenstAin, I assumed it was a misspelling based on that idiosyncratic pronunciation. Later, I thought that, as implausible as it seemed, maybe I had just been mistaken in thinking it was spelled BerenstEin. Now I find out there are many, many other people out there who, like me, remember reading The BerenstEin Bears books as kids.

I am not the least bit surprised, with our incompetent educational system in the process of melting down and the shocking level of ignorance about history among the general public, that lots of people in the would be in error about many facts. Many of the alternative memories listed at Mandela Effect sound to me like things that might have been easily mis-heard, misspelled, etc.–for example, was the Sara Lee jingle “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” or “Nobody does it like Sara Lee”? I remember trying to figure out what that jingle was saying years ago when it was current. I couldn’t make out the words either way, I’m still not sure what it was supposed to be saying, so it’s easy to imagine people might have heard it one way only to find out later it was in fact the other wording all along. Reece, author of the Wood between Worlds blog, points out that many of these Mandela Effects center on things that happened far away. Americans are not exactly known for our in-depth knowledge of contemporary African cultures, so it’s not entirely surprising that a lot of us assumed Mandela died as soon as he stopped being talked about all the time on CNN. Besides, memory is notoriously unreliable (cf. the classic example of eyewitnesses in criminal cases). And sometimes there really are alternate versions of things. Maybe ten or twelve years ago, my mom and my aunt (separately) watched the movie How Green Was My Valley (1941) on TV. Neither had seen it in decades. They both were perplexed that it had a different ending than they remembered from when they saw it in the theater as kids. It turns out that two different endings were made, one bleak ending that follows the book, and one happy ending for 1940s American tastes which was shown in theaters when my mom and aunt were young. On TV a decade ago, they showed the depressing cut. But in that case, the existence of two endings is historically attested, so my mom’s and aunt’s confusion could be easily resolved.

Indeed, nothing would surprise me less than to find out that Hollywood would change their stories (e.g., the titles or endings of movies–the subject of many Mandela Effect claims) and then blatantly deny it. Same goes for Madison Avenue, politicians, 24-hour news networks, and sadly, a lot of scientists. What really blows my mind is that so many others (ostensibly half a million people in the case of the Berenst#in Bears) have the same seemingly mistaken memories, even in cases that don’t seem like simple misunderstandings, and that many of the memories revolve around the kind of trivial details that never make it into the history books. Needless to say (but I’m saying it), the implications for how we understand history, memory, magic, divination, and the entire nature of the universe are huge. Because if these alternative memories aren’t just mistakes, it means that the change happens retroactively, to rewrite history so that the bears were always BerenstAins all along.

I think all of us who are not reductionist-scientistic-materialists are pretty accustomed by the time we reach adulthood to constantly being told we’re wrong, and to never seeing our metaphysical perspectives represented in official statements on reality (e.g., in school, government, etc.). It’s annoying, but not exactly a surprise. I wonder if this makes us a little less easily convinced that we just remembered wrong? Maybe we’re just a little bit more likely to say, I know what I know. But the Mandela Effect doesn’t only happen to us weirdos.

The usual proposed explanations for the Mandela Effect include: (1) everyone with counterfactual memories is just wrong; (2) parallel universes, in which it is apparently possible to move from one universe to another and never realize it until somewhere down the road, some little detail doesn’t match up; and (3) paradox caused by time travel within the same universe (think Quantum Leap). I don’t find any of these remotely persuasive and I have my own hypothesis.

I suspect that the Mandela Effect is like synchronicity, in that the significance is all in how it affects the experiencer. In other words, it might look like coincidence (or ignorance, or credulity, or faulty memory…) to the outside observer, but the person having the experience knows what they saw and their world is a little unraveled when they find out they were “wrong.” They are forced to question not just the experience itself but the entire context they remember around the experience. I’m sure some people are just mistaken, probably 99 out of 100, but if even one of us is right, how do we explain it?

I am not impressed by the parallel universe model. That idea has a lot of currency in our culture because it’s such a standard sci-fi trope, and that’s why I think it’s easy (and lazy) to fall back on that explanation. But the multiverse model doesn’t actually explain anything (beyond apparent wave-function collapse) and it’s impossible to support or falsify because it makes no predictions that can be tested. Theoretically, these many ‘verses should be reducible to, subsumed within, some larger thing (megaverse?), and that then puts me right back to wondering what the unified theory might be that would explain both parallel universes and the apparent slipping between them. Not to mention, if people can slip between universes, why couldn’t some of the books that said BerenstEin? Over to Reece:

“As it is popularly understood, Everett’s model [the Many-Worlds hypothesis] seems more like what the Mandela Effect is describing.  They both revolve around these worlds of counterfactuals.  However, at a deeper level, Everett’s model isn’t like the Mandela Effect at all.  Everett’s model deals with quantum mechanical events.  The death of Nelson Mandela is not a quantum event, and seeing his death on TV is not a quantum observation.  The numbers are also hugely different.  The Mandela Effect’s universes focus on some specific key memories; they don’t even realize the entire space of anthropocentric counterfactuals (where is the universe where Plato never met Socrates?), but just a few specific Mandela events.  On the other hand, Everett’s universe splitting occurs essentially every time two or more particles are made to interact to a certain extent; this is way, way, way massively more universes than we can even begin to really fathom.”


“The many-worlds interpretation is a scientific theory, and the claims it makes about ‘alternate universes’ are very specific and take a very specific form, and they take a form that is at odds with the idea of jumping universes.  If Universe A were in fact a separate ‘universe’ in the many-worlds sense, then we can’t cross to it from Universe E.”

In other words, why aren’t there Mandela Effects for literally every human experience? I don’t buy the Quantum Leap argument either. (For those who didn’t grow up in America in the 1980s, Quantum Leap was a show about physicist Dr. Sam Beckett, who is bounced around to temporarily occupy other people’s bodies at different times and places, seemingly at the will of an unnamed omniscient force, “setting right what once went wrong.”) But there are a couple of glaring questions: Sam Beckett went back to save people from getting dead or discouraged so they could make Important Discoveries or find True Love and stuff. Why would anyone bother changing the spelling of some children’s books or the lyrics of commercial jingles? I mean I know about the Butterfly Effect but I have a hard time believing the spelling of the Berenst#in Bears had a huge bearing on the future. Our putative time traveler would have to have gone to Ellis Island in the 1890s to change how some immigration clerk transcribed the name of the Family Formerly Known as Berenstein to affect the spelling on the children’s books. It would require deliberate intent, not just an accidental typo (as has been suggested by supporters of this hypothesis). And why do some–but only some–people remember the pre-change version of reality? I literally cannot think of any reason why that would even be possible. It also presupposes either a lot of time travelers or one time traveler who jumps around a lot to make inane alterations, like inserting turkey legs into portraits of Henry VIII. This time traveler would be one jerk of a trickster. (Q, perhaps?) Not to mention, the possibility of time travel has yet to be demonstrated, let alone the creation of technology that would facilitate it.

blue sky

A much more interesting possibility, to my mind anyway, is that our universe–or rather, the parts of it we access with our embodied human minds–is a holographic or virtual reality, in which each person’s reality partly overlaps with that of every other person. (And of course I mean this in a metaphysical, gnostic sense, not in an aliens-created-a-fake-universe-all-for-us sense.) We know this latter part is effectively true because of the influence of subjective experience, and we also know that people from different cultures not only have different worldviews in the conceptual sense, but actually phenomenologically perceive the world differently.  Thus, some perceptions are influenced by consensus while others are not shareable and thus theoretically impervious to consensus. For example, by consensus we all agree that the color of the sky is called “blue,” however, we have know way of knowing whether what I perceive as “blue” is the same as what you perceive as “blue.” Consensus can affect the naming, and even to some extent the actual perception, but it will never be possible to know for sure if the perception is shared and thus it might be totally independent. When we think of consensus though, there is what we communicate through language (e.g., with other members of our culture), but perhaps there is also content communicated in other ways? Something like a Zeitgeist perhaps, or even a Volkgeist, if that’s a word. Is it possible that people “remember” things that did in fact happen, but which the perceiver could not have actually experienced at the time, accounting for experiences like remembering an alternate ending of a film seen in the theater, which alternate ending was never released in theaters but did appear later on the DVD release? Could counterfactual memories be contagious? Or, since time is not actually linear, could people be remembering things they actually haven’t experienced yet, but will in the future? Questions abound.

For my part, the consensus reality of the BerenstAin Bears has nearly got me believing that I really just remembered it wrong. This means that I have the rare opportunity of consciously witnessing the process of my memories being rewritten. Unless I resist it, in a few years I may not only be convinced that it was always BerenstAin, but have forgotten that I ever saw BerenstEin. It’s not only our present perceptions of sensory stimuli that are constrained by our mental models, but also our memories. The map is not the territory, but what’s on the map partly (though not, of course, completely) determines what parts of the territory can be perceived. Which is why it pays to have as big, as weird, and as diverse a map as possible. It also reaffirms that we need to be very careful about how much we let our reality be shaped by consensus, and choose our company wisely.

The Mandela Effect reveals itself to really be an internal Rashomon Effect. The Berenst#in Bears are not a glitch in The Matrix, a government conspiracy, a “John Titor” typo, or a universal switcheroo. They are a secret tunnel leading out of the Black Iron Prison. They are a rabbit hole inviting us to jump in. They rock our world out of all proportion to the significance of the memory because we need to see how easily rocked (because largely fictional and contingent) our worlds are.

The Paphos amulet: a reinterpretation

The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.
The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.

Have you all seen this amulet that made the news around the beginning of this year? There are many such “magical gems” from Greek Egypt, but this one is interesting because it was discovered at the site of the ancient agora in Paphos, Cyprus. The immediate context was dated to the late Roman (Byzantine) period, specifically the 5th-6th century AD. That means that the milieu was Christian, but the iconography on the amulet is clearly not.

Now, my opinions on this topic may not be taken seriously by anyone since I am not an Egyptologist nor a Classicist. But then, few archaeologists are experts in the Western Magical Tradition (not that I’m claiming to be one myself), and I suspect that a lack of familiarity with the WMT has hampered the archaeologists’ interpretations. Which is kind of ironic, because they explain all the amulet’s deviations from orthodox Egyptian style by concluding it was the the artist who didn’t know the subject matter well. I do think the archaeologists got a lot right, but unlike them I think that the unusual aspects of the amulet may represent a blending of mythic elements, as I will explain. And, since I have no professional reputation to ruin, I am free to speculate about what it all means.

In researching this topic, I discovered The Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database, which is awesome. Thanks to this resource, I was able to compare the Paphos amulet to other magical gems and find some actual evidence rather than just bloviating about it. I assume the database is not a comprehensive collection of all magical amulets, but it is a large sample.

But first, here is how the Paphos amulet is described in the official scholarly publication on the artifact, “Magical Amulet from Paphos with the ιαεω- Palindrome” (Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization Vol. 17, 2013), by Joachim Sliwa. You can download the article for free at this link, but I think you have to register with academia.edu to do so.

Going clockwise from top, the seated figure at the top is Harpocrates, seemingly wrapped in mummy bandages, seated on a stool and holding a nekhekh flail. To his right is a star and below it, a snake and a mummified cynocephalus. At the bottom is a mummy, identified as Osiris, in a papyrus boat sailing toward the right (as indicated by the direction of the oars at the stern), and below that a crocodile. Above and to the left is a rooster, and above that, a moon.

Sliwa identifies a couple of ways in which the composition differs from standard Egyptian iconography: (1) Harpocrates usually kneels on a lotus, rather than sitting on a stool with his feet down; he is never depicted as a mummy. (2) He is often accompanied by falcons, but it appears that here the falcon has been replaced by a rooster “with a rayed crown upon its head that was an aspect of Chnoubis or cock-headed Anguipedes…” (3) Cynocephali are normally shown with their hands raised in prayer or adoration toward Harpocrates, not with one hand to the mouth, which is Harpocrates’ customary gesture. These “mistakes” are attributed to the artist not understanding the source material. (4) Harpocrates is often shown in a boat surrounded by animals in triplicate–these include birds (usually falcons, sometimes ibises or herons), crocodiles, and snakes. Three of each animal was meant to signify all members of that animal type. The snakes and crocodiles represented vanquished powers of night. Below is a more typical depiction of Harpocrates:

Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: "A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas."
Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: “A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas.”

“Another issue is the considerable artistic ineptness….However, the fundamental context of solar ideas has not been lost. … Harpocrates…traverses the celestial ocean in a boat. The half-moon on the left symbolizes Thoth while the star on the right symbolizes Sirius. … [The] crocodile is…a symbol of chaos, the chthonic world and its powers, the West, the Night and the element of water. The snake depicted above, to the right of Harpocrates, also falls into this [evil] category.”

On the back of the amulet is a so-called ιαεω- palindrome (ιαεω is a variant of IAO) with two mistakes (ρ where it should have ν). The text has been translated as follows:

“Yahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

I have a somewhat different take on the scene: (1) I think that the heterodox depiction that Sliwa attributes to ineptness may instead be an adaptation to a different cultural context. (2) Related to that, I think Harpocrates is holding a torch here instead of the nekhekh flail. (3) Also related to that, I think the rooster may come from a non-Egyptian (Greek?) context. (4) While it is possible that the star represents Sirius and the moon represents Thoth, I think that those two together with Harpocrates are meant to represent the celestial lights in toto. (5) I don’t think that’s a cynocephalus next to the snake. (6) I suspect that the artist has conflated Ra, Osiris, Horus, and possibly a dead human, into the solar cycle.

Detail: Harpocrates.
Detail: Harpocrates.

I decided not to accept any of the identifications of the figures a priori, but to compare them to other representations. That said, I agree with the identification of the seated figure as Harpocrates because it has several of Harpocrates’ characteristic features. First, there is the finger-to-mouth gesture, representing childhood (though the Greeks misunderstood it as the “hush” gesture). Harpocrates is the Greek form of Heru-pa-khered (“the child Horus”), the embodiment of the newly risen sun. Second, Harpocrates is frequently depicted seated, although usually he is kneeling on a lotus. The lotus is often looks as if it is growing from a papyrus boat (31 out of 188 amulets in the CBMG database, or 16%). Third, Harpocrates frequently bears the nekhekh flail, which is how Sliwa has interpreted the object in the figure’s left hand. However, I think it represents a torch, another characteristic symbol of Baby Horus. Note the shape of the torch in the representation below and compare it to the shape on the Paphos amulet. In particular, I call your attention to the band that separates the flames from the top of the torch in the image below, and the line across the object on the Paphos amulet which divides the object transversely at approximately the same point. I suspect the torch may have been a Greek addition meant to symbolize his light-bringing nature (versus the Egyptian nekhekh). However, the Paphos depiction is sufficiently schematic that I wouldn’t bet the farm on any particular identification of the object in Harpocrates’ hand. It could also be a cornucopia, another of his symbols.

Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.
Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.

Finally, other Harpocrates amulets also show the god along with crocodiles (22/188, 12%), snakes (not counting ouroboroi, 22/188, 12%), birds (39/188, 21%), cynocephali (25/188, 13%), crescent moon and star (27/188, 14%), and even occasionally mummies (5/188, 3%), so the presence of all these elements on the Paphos amulet lends further credence that this is indeed Harpocrates.

I also looked at combinations of these elements.I found that 88% of the time, if both Harpocrates and a boat are present, there will also be some combination of the moon and star, birds, snakes, crocodiles, or cynocephali.

The mummy is a slightly different case. There are only five cases where Harpocrates appears along with a mummy that is clearly not Anubis, (which I treated as a separate case); of these, two of the five (40%) also feature a crocodile and a crescent moon and star. The remaining three feature, respectively: only a moon and star; only a falcon (though in this one the mummy seems to be blended with a papyrus boat); and nothing else.

So the Paphos amulet is not unusual (relatively speaking) in featuring Harpocrates, a mummy, crocodile(s), snake(s), bird(s), and a moon and star, and as far as that goes I think the archaeologists’ interpretation is good. As for the atypical aspects–Harpocrates being seated on a stool rather than a lotus, and apparently being mummified–none of the amulets in the CBMG database have these features. There is one amulet that shows Harpocrates holding a torch.

Detail: the "cynocephalus."
Detail: the “cynocephalus.”

But I am not as sold on the cynocephalus. The head of the figure is exactly the same round dot as the heads of Harpocrates and “Osiris”; there is nothing dog-like about it, whereas of the 19 amulets in the CBMG database with cynocephali on them, all have clear snouts. Moreover, the Paphos figure appears to be mummified when cynocephali were not (there are no cynocephali mummies in the CBMG database). As Sliwa details, the posture of the figure is not customary for depictions of cynocephali. So the only reason I can see for identifying this as a cynocephalus is that cynocephali were associated with Harpocrates in other images. Sliwa doesn’t state that in the work I quote above, but the connection was stated explicitly in some of the many articles I read in the popular press (for example, “the Greek god [Harpocrates] is usually depicted receiving the adoration of members of a dog-headed race of men, known as cynocephalus or cynocephali collectively…”, found here). There are 19 amulets in the CBMG database where Harpocrates is accompanied by one or more cynocephali (19/188, 10%). To me, 10% of the time is a far cry from “usually.”

It should be noted that in the context of Egyptian art, “cynocephalus” actually refers to baboons–specifically, the species known as Papio cynocephalus. Apparently, the Greeks thought they looked like dog-men, hence the appellation “dog-headed.” The baboon is one of the animals associated with Thoth. Of the 19 amulets with cynocephali, I found that 11 of them (58%) were clearly baboons. The remaining 42% were not identifiable beyond saying that they had snouts and were depicted in an otherwise-cynocephalus-like way (i.e., same posture). Interestingly, they usually feature raging erections.

In short, none of them looks anything like the figure on the Paphos amulet. Sliwa attributes the lack of similarity to recognizable cynocephali to the artist’s ignorance or lack of skill, and while I concede that might have been the case, when the differences so outnumber the similarities, I consider it pretty unlikely. I have an idea about this which I will come back to.

Detail: "Osiris" mummy in papyrus boat.
Detail: “Osiris” mummy in papyrus boat.

On to “Osiris” in the papyrus boat. It’s pretty clear what we have depicted here is indeed a mummy lying in a boat. It strikingly resembles this model from ca. 1900 BC:

mummy boat

We can clearly see the two steering oars at the stern, the body laid out in the middle, and the flat profile of the boat with high prow and stern.

But is the mummy Osiris? A boat with a crocodile underneath immediately brings to mind the solar barque, called Semektet, in which Ra passes through the Duat each night. The Semektet is attacked by Apep, the “Lord of Chaos,” depicted as a serpent or crocodile, who attempts to swallow Ra/the sun. Ra is assisted or attended by several other deities; for instance, in many representations, Set is the one shown destroying Apep.

Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.
Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.

Since Ra is mentioned in the inscription on the back of the Paphos amulet, that would seem to bolster this connection. However, Ra is always shown enthroned, and never as a mummy. Osiris on the other hand is commonly shown as a mummy, but usually standing up. There are plenty of pictures of recumbent mummies on boats, but most of these images seem to represent dead humans.

But the Graeco-Egyptian magical amulets differ from standard Egyptian iconography in certain respects, so could that be what is happening here? Interestingly, 4 out of 5 amulets (80%) in the CBMG database which show Harpocrates and a mummy show the mummy lying down. In the one below, the mummy and the boat actually seem to be merged:

Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?
Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?  The mummy’s feet seem to curl up like the prow of the papyrus boat, and there are falcons perched fore and aft, as is frequently the case on depictions of Harpocrates’ boat.

If a mummy and a boat could be blended, could something similar be going on with the Paphos amulet? I think to answer this question we first have to consider why Harpocrates was so often represented in a boat.

I could not find much supporting documentation, although see this analysis of another amulet, but it seems likely that this is a version of the solar barque. Ra, the mature sun, sails the boat into the west, where both pass into the Duat. There, he battles Apep each night, to emerge victorious as the morning sun, represented either as the scarab Kheperer, or as a child with identical iconography to that associated with Harpocrates in Ptolemaic times. Because both Ra and Horus were associated with the sun, they were sometimes fused into Ra-Heru-Akhety (“Ra who is Horus of the Horizons”), or Ra-Horakhty, in later Heliopolitan myth. So, we can connect Ra with Horus and Harpocrates, and all three with the theme of the daily sun cycle via the solar barque.

But the usual captain of the Semektet boat is enthroned and alive, not lying down “dead.” For the boat’s occupant to be dead would contradict the entire mythic message of the solar journey. However, there is another deity besides Horus who is associated with rebirth, and that of course is Osiris, or Serapis as he would have been to the Greeks. But Osiris is usually shown reanimated and standing. Then we have to consider the similarity of the recumbent mummy in a boat to depictions of dead humans (e.g., pharaohs), like the model above.

The theme of rebirth and the immortal soul is important to mortal humans, so it seems not unreasonable that a person commissioning or using an amulet such as this one might be interested in seeing a depiction of a rebirth in “human” terms. In other words, I wonder whether the usual iconography of Osiris and Harpocrates could have been blended with the iconography of dead kings in order to reinforce the theme of death/rebirth.

This ties in with the figure of the “cynocephalus.” Egyptologist María Rosa Valdesogo has drawn a connection between the djat ra (“the hand to the mouth,” referring to bringing food to the mouth) gesture, breastfeeding, and the resurrection of the dead. Specifically, she states (my emphasis):

“1) The deceased, assimilated to Osiris, became a new born and needed to nurse his mother Nut’s breast milk. This way he started his new life in the Hereafter.

“2) The image of Horus as a child suckling at Isis’ breast also granted the dead’s resurrection, since Horus was the avenger who eliminated the evil (Seth) and recovered the Udjat eye as a symbol of the final resurrection.”

The djat ra figured in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony “indicating that in some moment of that ancient Egyptian rite the dead’s mouth would symbolically be opened as a new born who needs to suckle.”

In the Opening of the Mouth ceremony (New Kingdom), the sem priest enacts a gesture of opening the mouth of the deceased with his little finger. At the (Old Kingdom) mastaba at Qar, the djat ra gesture is also made by a male embalmer and a female professional mourner. In the female’s case, the gesture could relate to breastfeeding, but what about the males? Valdesogo suggests the gesture was also tied to clearing mucus from a baby’s mouth at birth. Mind you, I suspect that action too would have been performed by women in the quotidian context; but I see no reason why “female” real-life activities could not be symbolized through formal ritual gestures performed by a male. Regardless, the gesture would be associated with life-giving actions performed toward a newborn.

So we have here a connection, or as Valdesogo puts it, an assimilation, between Osiris, the Child Horus (a.k.a., Harpocrates), and the deceased-and-resurrected individual. And, while Valdesogo’s ideas are speculative, they do give a rationale for why the Paphos amulet might depict a mummified person with their hand to their mouth in the “childhood” gesture, as well as why Harpocrates appears to be wearing mummy bandages. Could this figure be a deceased person, newly reborn and seeking the “food” or “breath” of new life?

Now, look at the direction the figures on the Paphos amulet are facing. From the position of the steering oars, we know the boat is sailing to the right. Above and to the right, the not-a-cynocephalus above it is facing left, and above that and to the left, Harpocrates is also facing left. Following their gazes, I see a counter-clockwise circle–from the deceased person in the boat, to the deceased now newly-reborn, to Harpocrates enthroned among the heavens, and so on. Admittedly, a counter-clockwise circle would be a little unusual for something associated with a solar cycle. I don’t have an explanation for that.

If I am correct, then the solar barque has been “assimilated” with the funerary barque. Which totally makes sense given that in tomb paintings, the resurrected pharaoh rides in the solar barque with Ra. After all, it’s due to these tomb paintings that we even have depictions of the solar barque, so it has a concrete association with funerary contexts.

Now for the animals. Given the ubiquity of animal triads including crocodiles, snakes, and birds in amulet representations of Harpocrates, it seems not unreasonable to think the animals on the Paphos amulet were meant to have more or less the same symbolism. But of course there’s no reason to suppose they only symbolized one thing. The bird is so schematic that while it does look rooster-like, I am not convinced that it couldn’t be a falcon, heron (the Bennu phoenix), or even a goose (a symbol of Amun-Ra, but Harpocrates is often shown riding a goose), another bird associated with Harpocrates. The rays around its head do look like some representations of Anguipes, better known as Abraxas. If it is a rooster though, I wonder if that could be a Graeco-Roman addition. Roosters have been associated with the morning in many cultures because of their morning crowing. (Not that they bother to wait until sunrise to crow. They crow whenever they damn well please. Jerks.)

Harpocrates moon star

Finally, we have the crescent moon and star. Sliwa suggests the star is Sirius, indicating an association between rebirth of Horus during the rise of Sirius that coincided with the annual Nile floods. That is of course possible. However, I observed on the gems in the CBMG database that 14% of the Harpocrates amulets had the same crescent moon and star (see image above). But interestingly, in between these was a solar disk on top of Harpocrates’ head. So in these amulets you have the moon, sun, and star(s) all in a row. In the Paphos amulet, the moon and star are slightly displaced, but Harpocrates himself is the sun, so the sun is still between the moon and star. Therefore I think these three have to be read as a suite that represents all the lights of heaven. I don’t know why a sun god is depicted with “nighttime” phenomena like the moon and stars except to say that his influence seemingly spread to all the heavens.

To conclude, yes, the artist of the Paphos amulet wasn’t the most skilled amulet-maker. And maybe they really didn’t understand the details of standard Egyptian iconography, but I think it’s more relevant to the amulet’s history that it was used in a context rather removed from Egypt. To me it looks like the meaning of the solar/resurrection myth has been kept intact and depicted quite thoroughly; but the elements have been even more explicitly tied to the human death/rebirth cycle, perhaps bringing it more into the fold of the Graeco-Roman mysteries. It could be that the artist was copying another amulet, but still none of the meaning was lost. I can only imagine it was used either by a closet pagan–the mysteries had actively been persecuted by Christians for at least a century–or a magician who would have had the occult knowledge to read the text and pictures. So while my interpretation doesn’t differ too greatly from Sliwa’s, I think that familiarity with the WMT and the mystery religions allows us to see it as a really fascinating artifact instead of just a kind of bastardized Egyptian scene.

Empathy and ethics

Is empathy a virtue? Can it be put to conscious use?

Frater Acher has a couple very interesting pieces “On Magic and Empathy” and “A string played from both ends: on Empathy and Magic,” which present some opinions that I think merit consideration. He regards empathy as a tool and not a virtue, which is a bold position considering it runs counter to the mainstream here in the West. Since this is a topic of major interest to me and I think it could benefit others, I want to address it.

The difference between sympathy and empathy has always been a bit vague to me. My understanding is that sympathy can be a matter of natural affinity (though not necessarily), while empathy is a conscious choice to try an experience a situation from another person’s perspective. It’s easy to see a conscious choice to empathize as a virtue, but we should consider that critically, rather than taking it as a given. Furthermore, what about when empathy isn’t a conscious choice?

Let me back up a bit. In Western cultures, between five and six senses are recognized: taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell, and sometimes, a “sixth sense” or “second sight.” But this sixth sense has in turn been broken down into various kinds of “psychic” ability. In parapsychology and paranormal research, it has been customary for the past century or so to refer to these abilities as clair-whatever. Clairvoyance, claircognizance, clairsentience, clairaudience, etc. Collectively, I call these the clairs. The idea is that these result in the same or similar kind of sense impressions as the other five senses, but are not mediated by the body’s sense organs. The information comes directly into consciousness, as it were.

Another category has been recognized in the past 25 years or so, that of the empath. An empath is someone who feels the emotions of other people, not in the ordinary way that humans, as social primates, read each other; not in the sense of inferring or imagining what another person feels, but actually feeling it exactly as if it were your own emotion, to the point that it is often difficult to determine with whom the emotion originated in the first place.This includes “feelings” in the sense of emotions, in the sense of physical sensations, and in the sense of “vibes.”

Counselor Troi feels your pain.
Counselor Troi feels your pain.

I am one of these people, but I don’t particularly like the term empath, for several reasons: (1) Note that “empath” refers to the person having the ability. What would the ability itself be called? Empathy? But empathy is a normal ability that pretty much everyone has and uses on a day-to-day basis. Those who don’t have it are typically regarded as mentally ill (e.g., sociopaths) because their behavior is so far outside the expected. How do we distinguish between the two? Are they qualitatively different, or merely a matter of degree? (2) I’m not sure where the term “empath” originated. I first encountered it in the person of Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fairly or unfairly, the pop-culture and sci-fi associations don’t enhance the credibility of the category when you come out of the fortune-teller’s closet to your friends and family. (3) There was already a term for this ability: clairsentience. (Some empaths dispute that it’s the same thing as clairsentience but I think it is, at best, splitting hairs.) (4) Though this would be a problem regardless of terminology, it deserves mention: There is confusing overlap with a category recognized by some (non-mainstream) psychologists, the “Highly Sensitive Person” or HSP, which in turn overlaps with what used to be called “neurosis” and with cultural factors such as how much empathy is rewarded or punished by one’s peers.

Does being clairsentient/empathic make me virtuous? It does make me painfully sensitive to others’ feelings, and I sincerely try not to cause suffering. But I’m not saying that I’ve never done anything to hurt someone else. In fact, I regret to say that in moments of rage I have a special talent for finding the exact most vicious and mean thing to say and blurting it out. It’s just that afterwards I feel beyond-horrible when I start to sense the other person’s feelings and realize that I caused that. Guilt and shame do not even begin to cover what that feels like.

super sniffer
I wish I could turn my super sniffer off. 😦

And lest you think that I am bragging, let me tell you clairsentient empathy is no bed of roses. My sensitivity is not only emotional, it seems to be part and parcel of my whole nervous system. I’m intensely bothered by certain sounds and all bright lights. I’m a supertaster and supersmeller. I get drunk practically just from looking at alcohol (possibly the best thing about this clairsentience gig is that I don’t actually have to buy booze, I can just hang around drunk people to get a buzz), get all the side effects of pharmaceuticals including the rare ones, and my skin is uncomfortably sensitive to certain materials (polyester does not touch this body). Highly-charged emotional situations are a problem, especially sex because it combines both emotional and physical stimulation. It is virtually impossible to sleep in the same bed with another person. I need a ton of alone time. I am a people-pleaser and over-nurturer and often despise that about myself. Perfectly ordinary situations make me want to scream and run away.

In fact, I regard uncontrolled clairsentience as bordering on a disability. Maybe not even bordering. It’s a pathological lack of boundaries and there are undesirable tendencies that frequently accompany strong clairsentience. I base this not only on my own experiences but on conversations with many other self-described empaths. They are generalizations, and of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this is what I’ve observed in broad strokes:

  • Most people are agreed that having boundaries is a good thing; empaths have next to none. This can lead to extreme emotional lability–imagine constant PMS-like moodiness.
  • With such raw senses, empaths frequently expect everyone to tiptoe around their triggers.
  • For those in relationships or sharing a residence with an empath, you can pretty much kiss your emotional privacy goodbye, but woe betide you if you lie, attempt to obfuscate, or trespass on the empath’s privacy.
  • Many empaths love the feeling of total merging with another person for a while, only to become super-irritated when that other person is “too close.”
  • Empaths often think they are attracted to another person when in fact they are picking up the other person’s attraction to the empath. Inevitably the empath realizes they aren’t really interested in their partner after all. Woops! Do they then abruptly break off the relationship? Or continue so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings?
  • Empaths can be manipulative without even realizing it, and though most will avoid a fight to the point of being passive-aggressive, when they want to, they know how to wound.
  • After a fight or break up, there is nothing an empath hates more than lack of closure or a solution, and they may hound the other person until they get it. Similarly, many empaths seem to feel it’s their mission to fix everything and everyone. But knowing what others are feeling does not mean understanding how and why they have come to feel that way, or what to do to fix it. Therefore the empath’s attempts to solve the problem can just make it worse.
  • Even when it comes to identifying emotions, empaths do sometimes get it wrong–they are just as subject as anyone else to errors of interpretation. As Ingo Swann has said, getting information psychically is one thing, but it is then subject to the mind’s “analytical overlay.” The more you think you know about something, the more likely you are to filter it through your preconceptions. Or as Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that get’s you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” After being right about others’ emotions for years, some empaths become convinced they are never wrong.
  • Some empaths develop an unconscious ability to shield themselves by becoming numb or closed off; they can be incredibly difficult to connect with.
  • Two words: martyr complex.
  • Finally, there are empaths who think they are the epitome of virtue and goodness.

Don’t strain yourself trying to pat yourself on the back while tooting your own horn, empaths. You need to get your shit together (says the voice of experience). Every empath needs two things: (1) to learn to modulate their sensitivity according to the context, and (2) a system of personal ethics and self-care. And although I won’t presume to tell you what your ethics should be, I will say that taking care of (1) takes care of most of (2). That’s why meditation is so essential to the Great Work. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that I said self-care–no one else is responsible for your sensitivity. But you also don’t have to be a sucker and give people a hundred chances because you can see the tiny seed of goodness somewhere within them. If you don’t have natural, instinctive barriers, perhaps try putting up some arbitrary ones just to see what it feels like.

And this brings me back to Fr. Acher and the question, is empathy a virtue? He argues that empathy has been fetishized as a “universal solvent” that can heal all ills, but such an extreme attitude risks making empathy “isolated, imbalanced and ultimately deformed–over time equally deforming its devotees.” He also worries, understandably, about the negative fallout that may happen to anyone who is perceived to not empathize correctly or enough. The command to empathize could all too easily become a demand for conformity, which is anathema to magic folk.

On this latter point I am 100% in agreement. Lately I can barely hear myself think for the din of well-meaning but lazy “progressive” speech-police jumping on each other and everyone else for innumerable perceived transgressions. As in so many other aspects of life nowadays, the pretense is what matters, not the actuality. Real compassion for others prompts you to make real change; pretend compassion prompts you to bloviate about everyone else’s failure to make cosmetic changes. This is an example of the deformed empathy Fr. Acher mentions.

But there are two claims I need to dispute. The first is that highly empathetic people are obnoxious and impose themselves on others. The second is that empathy is projection. Neither is one of Acher’s main points, but I still feel they need addressing.

First, he cites an example of a supposedly highly empathetic person who is lauded, but who obviously sets off Acher’s alarm bells*. The characteristics that are extolled as virtues strike Acher as invasive, manipulative, infantilizing, needy, and un-self-reflective.

His critiques are not entirely unfounded. I have to admit the way the person is described, she sounds irritating. And as you read above, there are pitfalls that go with extreme sensitivity. On the other hand, Acher’s reaction seems overly defensive. When empathy is working, one realizes when one is making others uncomfortable and, hopefully, changes one’s behavior. So it seems to me that what Acher is complaining about is a failure of empathy.

Secondly, Acher implies (in both articles linked above) that empathy is merely projection. For example:

“…what magicians need to function well in society can be described as a different kind of empathy: They need the ability to NOT conclude from their own inner states on other people. As magicians we need the skill to NOT project our own feelings and emotions onto other people.”

“So learning to be empathetic…requires us to being [sic] with a pretty counter-intuitive first step: that is to tame, to hold back and comtain [sic] our own emotions – so they do not cloud our ability to observe objectively and unbiased….only once we are ready to let go of our own needs and stop projecting them on beings around us that are essentially different to us, have we built a first maiden-fundament for future magical practice…”

I am not sure where this notion of empathy-as-projection comes from, but it makes little sense to me. I’m not denying projection happens, and that it’s undesirable. But what makes Acher think that it is specific to empathy? I have considered the following possibilities:

  • Perhaps what Acher means is that, when consensus pressures people, their attempts to achieve a higher level of empathy leads to projection.
  • Or perhaps there’s a difference in how “empathy” (or for that matter “virtue”) is conceived in Germany, which I believe is Acher’s native country, versus in the Anglophone world. For example, perhaps he is thinking of empathy in terms of the effort to feel from another’s perspective, rather than the process of actually doing so.
  • Or perhaps he is actually thinking of the “analytical overlay” that gets applied to empathy, that distorts the raw sensations.

I don’t know. I do know that in a social species living in large, complex groups–such as Homo sapiens–there is a major selective advantage in being able to accurately assess the emotional state of other members of your group. As any primatologist can tell you, even monkeys empathize. If all empathy were just a matter of projection, there would be a large number of false attributions of emotion that led to disastrous consequences, and the ability would never have come to be common in primates. In other words, empathy is a real process, and while projection is an ever-present human issue, I don’t think empathy predisposes anyone to it–in fact, it’s the cure for projection.

Acher’s ultimate argument seems to be that you have to turn your empathy off in order to become truly empathetic. I read this as meaning the process has to be brought under control and made subject to conscious application. As he puts it, in magic, empathy “is a tool and not a virtue.” Though I don’t think of it as a tool per se, I certainly wouldn’t call my empathy/clairsentience a virtue, any more than farting or burping is. It happens whether I want it to or not; I don’t have to work at it, in fact, I have to work at restraining it. Strongly empathetic/clairsentient people may have an extra hurdle to overcome in developing inner stillness and learning how and when to turn their sensitivity up or down (that’s certainly how it has been for me…sigh), but provided you are willing to put in the work, I don’t see why you can’t become a kick-ass magician. (Or whatever.) On the other hand, strongly empathetic people may find it easier to accept and experience the emptiness, in the Buddhist sense (sunyata), of the individual ego-self. I understand this comes in very handy as protection.

Suffice it to say, for those who are clairsentient empaths or strongly empathetic, it is imperative to get your sensitivity under control, because not only will it make you miserable otherwise, you will in turn make others miserable. Not to mention you won’t learn anything from it. I find the Thelemic motto, “Love is the Law. Love under Will.” to be a very useful mantra/mnemonic. If, on the other hand, we become absorbed in stroking our own egos for our supposed innate virtue, we will stray from the path faster than you can say “lightworker.” Fortunately, the very things that make you a better magician–meditation, solitude, exploring your shadows with compassion but also with discipline–will make you a better, and happier, person too.

*The example comes from The Science of Evil – on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen.

Trust is the hardest thing


I recently read Frater Acher’s series of articles on his “everyday” method of attaining the Knowledge and Conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel (K&C of the HGA). K&C of the HGA is seen by some as central to working within the Western Magical Tradition, yet there are many takes on how one should seek it.

“What all of them have in common though is that they require you to work on yourself first; only then do you encounter another higher being. The focus of work moves from inward to outward. The raw stone has to be finished first before it can shift into the space that has been left empty for it in the temple. Our journey towards communion with our Holy Guardian Angel is a journey towards fulfilling, towards becoming what we are meant to be…Achieving this is the first step in a long journey, not the finishing line.”

I was attracted to Acher’s approach because there is nothing about it that precludes also using other methods, such as invoking the Headless/Bornless One or the agathodaimon, should that be one’s persuasion; also because it seems like plain common sense; also because it’s something I can start work on now, even though I don’t feel “ready” for K&C.

It is a facet of my personality that I don’t ever feel ready for anything except dinner. I love to plan, research, and dream, and sometimes I find that having done all that, my desire is sated and I no longer feel the need to carry out the plan. Although it’s contrary to all received wisdom, and frankly a mystery even to me, rather than having defined, achievable goals, I seem to stick with things better when I feel like I am stepping into a stream that started before I came on the scene, will occupy my whole lifetime, and continue long after my incarnation has exited the building.* Rather than being pulled by the future, I seem to be more pushed by the accumulated force of the past (not that time is really linear like that, but it’ll do for a model for now). It is easier for me to commit to something when it feels bigger than myself, as opposed to manageable milestones that I ostensibly control. I have nothing but admiration for those earthy types whose magic is practical, but I’m all fire and water, and there is just nothing practical about anything I do. I am trying to learn to be practical temporarily for situations that require it, but alas, my success rate is not high.

K&C of the HGA can be a very long process, operationally speaking; and it has certainly been around a long time. So this project satisfies my need to step into a continuous current. The first stage of Acher’s everyday approach to K&C of the HGA is trust. He explains:

“…it all starts with a choice. A choice to trust or not to trust. In my humble opinion that choice depends on the fact wether [sic] we have a stable point to hang our trust onto. A fixed point, a guiding star, a hand that we trust to never let us down.

From my experience this is the real veil of Paroketh, this is the real guardian of the threshold – our fear to trust. Because before we can know anything about, long before we can commune with our Holy Guardian Angel we have to trust that it exists. We have to learn to believe. And the way we do this is by practice. By practice with the things that surround us, that we can touch, fear, feel, kiss, smell and breathe in. We practice on ourselves and with the people that surround us. Only then can we proceed to the things that we cannot touch, that are out of reach for our physical senses. So in order to lift this first veil we have to become experts in trusting.”

This is. So. Hard. I have a lot more trust in invisible, intangible things than I do in humans. Humans, in my experience, do not have a good track record of trustworthiness. Not only do we tend to let other humans down, we often stupidly put our trust in ephemeral and dangerous things, like emotions arising from post-coital hormone surges, cult leaders, elected officials, and banks. Maybe I am a particularly cynical, secretive, and mistrustful person. I have always prided myself on not having to get burned twice to learn my lesson. Yet at the same time, I have chided myself for my inability to trust. There have been times in the past when I have ignored my misgivings and given second, third, nth chances to someone just to defy my own prejudices. (The results never failed to disappoint.) I mistrust my own mistrust! I mistrust myself most of all.

angel icon

As you might infer from the above, I am not interested in magic as a path to worldly power or control. I have always been more mystically oriented, I guess that’s just how I roll. K&C of the HGA is one of the core mystical practices of the Western Magical Tradition, and though I don’t yet understand why, I trust that my predecessors in the Great Work were onto something.

Practice makes perfect. Practice lays the neural pathways that allow one kind of cognition and not another. Practice = learning. I learned to distinguish between intuition and imagination by trusting everything as if it were a true and correct intuition. I had to allow for the possibility that my perceptions could be accurate before I could determine which ones actually were. This is a process I am still working to refine, but refinement too comes through practice.

So I am now officially practicing trust. For me, this means that when I encounter something I fear, I choose instead to trust. In the past, I tried to overcome my mistrust through discipline and rationalization. That failed utterly. This time I am trying to approach it from a more sacred-playful perspective. This practice also requires me to sacrifice some things that have become precious to me, like my habit of secretiveness. This is perhaps all the harder because sacrifice is a devotional act, but I am not devoted to any specific path or deity. I have to be devoted to an alien feeling, i.e., trust, and an HGA about whose existence I am still rather skeptical.

This blog is one aspect of this project. I can already sense certain entrenched habits beginning to come unstuck, but only time will tell where it all leads.

*A little synchronicity: I had already written this post and was proofreading it. I decided I wanted a picture of an angel, and did an image search and found one that really jumped out at me. It turned out to be too small, but of all the hundreds of angel pictures, this one happened to link back to Josephine McCarthy’s blog, where she used the same fluvial analogy with regard to the HGA:

“…it is about who you are, your own unique deep connection with Divinity and your ability to think/feel like a river – a river does not rush from A to B in a predictable straight line… it meanders, races, stills, pushes boundaries, and swirls.”

On appropriation

What is appropriation? And what does it mean for magic?

Appropriation is a topic that circulated through the magical blogosphere a couple years ago, but it still gets referred to frequently in passing. Honestly, I am tired of it. But it seems de rigeur that one should articulate a position on the topic, and I kind of promised I would when I wrote about Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival. I hate to conform to trends, but on the other hand, the worries about appropriation are a reflection of wider social trends in the West and I do think it is useful to critically consider the issue, so here I go…generating more questions than answers.

I am not even going to address the ubiquitous hipster violations of good taste. I’m talking to, and about, people making respectful, good-faith efforts not to trespass on or steal from others.


Just to get straight to the point, my opinion is that the real problem is usually not appropriation per se, but alienation or de-contextualization. I guess you could say that I am turning the point of view around, from focusing on the alleged perpetrator to focusing on the implications for the relationships involved. There are two areas of concern: operational and ethical.

Appropriation means co-opting elements of other people’s culture without consent. There is a lot of hand-wringing about it in well-meaning, liberal or “progressive” circles, but mostly it stays in the realm of talk. Calling an injustice out as such is an important task and I don’t want to denigrate that or discourage anyone from doing that, but most of what I see nowadays, from all political sides, is more group-identity-signalling as opposed to any attempt to actually change anything. I don’t intend to go into all the ramifications of white privilege here, because I’m only addressing one aspect of that, I could not possibly hope to cover it comprehensively, and I feel it’s already been done more eloquently than I am capable of. This doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the issues involved. The only reason I am addressing this topic at all is that I want to bring up some points I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere, that I think are worth consideration.

Operational issues

We in the West are heavily invested in essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, gender, and race that developed along with our imperial ambitions. But contrary to our wishes, cultures are not bounded entities. They have always been permeable, negotiable, in flux–they form, separate, regroup, identify, and reinvent themselves with reference to other groups of people. Even when human population density was very low, due to Homo sapiens’ propensity to move around and covet shiny stuff, human communities were in direct and indirect contact with other groups, exchanging stuff, ideas, and bodily fluids. Yet for some reason, even though reality keeps slapping us in the face with the inadequacy of our models, we don’t easily let go of them.

Archaeologists call the spread of technologies, styles, and objects from group to group “diffusion.” Sometimes it happens through imitation of something seen at a distance; sometimes it happens through direct teaching. At what point does this normal human behavior become the dreaded appropriation?

Anyone active in the Western Magical Tradition is the beneficiary of cultural diffusion. Some major cultural threads in the WMT include Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian, just to name a few. The populace of Alexandria 2000 years ago don’t seem to have been too fussed about the potential ethical perils of syncretism–their focus was operational: Does this work, or doesn’t it?

Abraxas stone
Abraxas stone

These are the operational questions as I see them:

1. If you take X out of its original context, will it still work? Will there be undesirable blowback?

It’s in the magician’s best interest to tread carefully, since we may attract more than rolled eyes and tsk-tsking if we err. (Though–full disclosure–I have not yet been smitten by any wrathful beings. As far as I know.) Magic tends to bring one into the orbit of the sacred, or at least the uncanny. And though globalization is nothing new, its scale is certainly magnified compared to pre-steam engine days; so all of us are constantly within the orbit of other cultures, ethnicities, and identities. Safety requires knowing what you are doing, and more importantly, knowing when you don’t know. Working with magical “tech,” deities or spirits, or charged objects outside their original context means you are taking them into terra incognita. You won’t know how they are going to react until you try, and hopefully you understand there is risk attached to that. Then it’s a matter of pivoting and course correcting as necessary to avoid calamity.

Of course, not everyone is agreed as to what works: e.g., some have argued that deities from different pantheons can’t play nice together; others say it’s no big deal, and rightly point out that pantheons have been mixed since forever. Some have argued that you can’t cherry pick deities from a pantheon, but must work with an entire pantheon together (e.g., multiple posts on this blog); chaos magicians would beg to differ. If we assume that deities and spirits are sufficiently au courant to understand the workings of, e.g., cars, vaccinations, and paper money, why wouldn’t we think that they understand globalization?

2. Can X be known/have meaning outside its original context?

Every attempt to reconstruct or revive religions of old involves de-contextualization (and re-contextualization). Take druidry for example. What we really know about druidry in ancient times pretty much boils down to something something oak trees something something mistletoe something something wicker men. The rest is cobbled together from the testimony of lying and/or baffled Romans, de-contextualized interpretations of de-contextualized oral literature, and UPG. Authenticity is really unattainable, and every act that makes these religions more relatable for us probably alienates it from its original setting. This doesn’t make revived religions invalid, but these uncomfortable facts should not be allowed to go unrecognized. If results is your only metric of success, then the proof is in the pudding. If, on the other hand, your magic is theurgic or goetic, you would presumably care about the answer(s) to this question. Which brings me to the third issue…

3. Are the deities, or spirits, or ancestors, etc. ok with it?

When it comes to dealing with Otherworld beings, I’m not particularly swayed by humans’ dickering over legitimacy and authenticity. If I’m going to be working magically with an inner contact, deity, etc., it seems to me the only person who’s qualified to determine if that’s ok is the being in question. Of course, since my conversations with that being would be UPG, I wouldn’t presume to tell others that my way is the right way for all.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to serve a deity in a religious context, and that religion were still a living tradition, then it would only make sense to become initiated within that tradition. If that were not possible, I wouldn’t claim to be a priestess of that deity.

Ethical issues

The main ethical issue with appropriation in the modern context is whether an empowered group, by co-opting material culture or traditions from a disempowered group, is effectively using that theft as a club to further beat the subaltern down. (Intentionally or not.) Most complaints about appropriation–so far as I have seen–are triggered by the dominant group secularizing and commodifying something sacred to the marginalized group.

1. Is it possible to not appropriate from others?

I think it’s impossible not to appropriate, and that being the case, the term becomes useless. We need vocabulary to distinguish qualitative differences in “appropriation.” To my view, this complicates discussion of the topic. In cultural studies parlance, it’s impossible for, say, African-Americans to be “racist” towards whites, for for women to be “sexist” towards men, because African-Americans and women don’t have the power of an entire social system behind them. In other words, they can feel the bias, but they can’t enforce it.If we extend the same rationale to appropriation, then a disadvantaged group “borrowing” from the dominant culture is not appropriation; and conversely, no matter how innocent the intent, when the dominant group “borrows,” it is always appropriation. So you can see how neither “diffusion” nor “appropriation” really works to cover all aspects of the dynamic.

Globalization is nothing new, and neither are differential power dynamics. Like it or not, de- and re-contextualization are an inevitable part of the interaction of human communities. You don’t think Gravettian mammoth hunters were complaining about those tacky Neandertals appropriating their backed foliate side scrapers or whatever? Well maybe not, but I’ll wager it started up not too long after that.

Consent or permission seems like a pretty good rubric for what is ok to use and what isn’t, but what if we’re talking about the culture of dead ancestors? I mean, we can and undoubtedly should ask those ancestors, but the answer will always be UPG and thus not necessarily universally applicable. I look at this problem much as I do at eating: Since humans are not autotrophs, it’s impossible for us to eat without killing something; but it’s still possible to approach the issue consciously and conscientiously and define a system of personal ethics in light of one’s values. Similarly, viewed in the long duree, appropriation may be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we get free license to be dicks about it.

2. Does using X out of context cause unintentional harm? Who gets to determine that? And who then determines the appropriate remedial action or laws?

I know who should not determine those things: The privileged, young, white, liberal, “progressive” Westerners who would like to. As much as they like to think they have the moral high ground for calling attention to the evils of appropriation, there is danger inherent even in anti-appropriation stances: to wit, racial or cultural essentialism and white-guilt-as-noblesse-oblige. Declaring an anti-appropriation stance requires drawing unrealistic notional bounds around cultures–mistaking your abstract heuristic model for reality. This has always been a prerogative of the empowered. Another prerogative is the claim to speak for the disempowered. Even if my intentions are good, if I as a white American draw the boundaries, am I not just reasserting and reifying my own relatively more empowered status? It’s all fine and good to recognize one’s own privilege, but who gives me the right to be the appropriation police?

It is for the harmed to determine whether harm has been done; and yet I have seen claims of appropriation that I think are frankly a bit of a stretch. Just because you personally are offended by something does not mean it is systemic oppression.

In any event, the best remedy is probably going to be an honest assessment of just how much one doesn’t know, and then a respectful, kind, but wary approach to finding out more. A sincere effort not to be a jerk combined with willingness to take responsibility and make amends if necessary seems to me like a good general policy in human relations.

So that is my statement on that.

My 7 tips for students of anything (but especially magic)

Harry Potter charms class
Hmph. Teacher’s pet.

A couple of months ago there was a bit of a to-do regarding various attitudes toward teaching and students in the occult community, especially the WMT. (See for example here, here, here (and also the comments), here, here, and also here, although the last link doesn’t address the issue of the original proposed “ten tips.”) As a former teacher of academic subjects, now a student of the occult, I thought I’d turn the telescope around and offer a holistic point of view. I was inspired by the 10 tips format, but since some of the original points were redundant in my view, I have condensed my list to 7.

1. You know a lot of stuff. Your teacher knows more.

It’s not a matter of hierarchy or of your relative ages, grades, or statuses. Quite simply, there’s a reason you wanted a teacher–you wanted to be taught. By definition, if you accept someone as a teacher, you are accepting that they probably know a lot more about this subject than you do. But occult learning isn’t grade school–no one should force you to accept anyone as your teacher. A good teacher is an eternal student, and will learn from their students in a reciprocal exchange. At the same time you should respect the amount of time, energy, and work that has gone into forming their expertise. If you already knew the material, you wouldn’t be here.

2. When you ask a question, listen to the answer. That’s what you came here for.

Every student should feel comfortable asking any question, including ones that challenge the teacher. However, it should always be remembered that the goal of the question is to further learning. I once took an online free course about Mexican curanderismo. Venturing into the student discussion forum, I witnessed a display of immaturity that I found embarrassing as a fellow student. One student–a self-described Wiccan–had started a discussion to complain about one of the teachers using the word “witch” in what he took to be a pejorative manner. (The curandera had stated that curandero/as are not witches.) Now, from my point of view, the teachers were graciously offering–free of charge!–to share their knowledge with us. Since no one was forcing us to take this course, all of us students were presumably there by choice to seek that knowledge. To then try to control the teachers’ use of language seemed bullying and self-aggrandizing to me. Especially bearing in mind that because of the subject matter, the teachers were frequently moving back and forth from Spanish to English terminology, but also attempting to make concepts from Mexican, Spanish, and Southwest Native American cultural contexts intelligible to Americans. It would have been perfectly appropriate to ask for elaboration of what the concept of “witch” means within the context of curanderismo, to open a dialogue about differences in terminology and religious perspective. It also would have been an excellent opportunity for the Wiccan student to examine his own biases and “triggers.” But he only wanted to make himself the center of attention.

3. Not every question has an answer. Even when there is an answer, the teacher’s job is not necessarily to give it to you.

When I was teaching this was probably my biggest frustration. After 12 or more grades focused on passing standardized tests, my students came to me believing that teaching is all about giving students facts, and learning is the memorization and prompt forgetting of those facts. It is unfair to expect students to transition from that style of “learning” to the old-fashioned humanistic model of the university, but that’s what we have to deal with. I found that many of my students had effectively been cognitively hamstrung by never having developed the neural networks for basic critical thinking or logical inference. In school, they learned half-assed memorization and obedience to authority; outside school, they learned that accuracy is irrelevant, and what matters is what makes you feel good or who can shout their opinion the loudest. Coupled with their belief that teachers are service providers who work for the students’ parents (as taxpayers), late-20th century “special snowflake syndrome,” and our tl;dr culture, you have a recipe for misery for both teachers and students.

From a more empathetic standpoint, imagine how scary it is for a student who has never learned to make logical inferences to suddenly find themselves in a milieu where their grade depends on being able to weigh competing arguments and thoroughly explore material that may challenge their personal beliefs. To discover that life is full of questions without answers, leading only to more and more refined questions, must be utterly unnerving. No wonder most bury their heads in the sand and carry on pretending. That doesn’t mean this trend should be allowed to grow unchecked–what passes for civilization is already showing signs of disrepair due to these failures of the educational system.

When I was a kid, if I didn’t know what a word meant, my teachers told me to look it up in the dictionary. But I didn’t stop there. I didn’t just look up the meaning–I also learned the word’s etymology and its component parts (prefix, root, suffix, etc.). I did this because I always wanted to know more and understand better. As a result, whenever I encounter an unfamiliar word–sometimes even in foreign languages–I am frequently able to figure it out based on its components. If you have accepted the reality of magic, that attitude should sound familiar. You should already have experience with looking beneath the surface, doing your own research, and breaking with convention. You should have figured out that nothing worth having comes for free (it might not cost money, but it always involves work). You should regard pushing and stretching your abilities as fun, because magic requires a lot of it.

4. The student’s role is very important, and should be taken seriously.

Good teachers regard it as a solemn responsibility to guide the next generation. It’s such a big deal, it can lead to big egos. Students should never feel embarrassed by a relative lack of expertise but should recognize the gravity of the project they are undertaking and their role as the next generation of teachers.

When I was teaching university courses, I frequently heard that the problems of academia would be fixed if it were treated as a marketplace and the students as customers, with teachers forced to compete for their attention. In fact, this is the root of the meltdown of the Western educational system currently in process. The undergrad students I knew mostly regarded class as onerous, the teacher as a terribly boring burden to be endured. If the teacher had to cancel class for some reason, students were thrilled. When was the last time you went into a retail business looking for a good or service for which you had already paid an extravagant amount, and were happy that no one showed up to serve you? Exactly. University is not a “service,” teachers are not “knowledge-delivery solutions,” and students are not “customers.”

It is well to remember that undertaking magical learning is a great responsibility, but no one forced it on you. You wanted it–now embrace it.

5. Use discernment in choosing a teacher.

Since no one is forcing you to take on a particular teacher, make sure you choose a good one, who recognizes your unique gifts and wants to see you bloom to your full capacity. Make sure what they are teaching is worth learning. That said, nobody’s perfect.

6. Do the work.

You have to do the work, no one else can do it for you. It’s hard because it is by nature challenging. Anything worth learning will take you apart and put you back together again in a new configuration. Anything worth learning forces you to take a long hard look in the mirror.

7. Keep your sense of humor, fun, and adventure.

You’ll need them all.

Dancing with life and death

Lord of the Dance.

“But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.”
– W.B. Yeats

Apparently, someone thinks I need to learn about creation and destruction–especially destruction. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is the general context of my questions regarding how to overcome the limited vision inherent in the human condition in order to distinguish between true evil or wrongness, and larger cycles of destruction. (By the way, if you have come back for more, you are a discerning person of sophisticated tastes and I love you.)

So, about two weeks ago my attention started being called to the destructive side of balance, specifically in the form of Shiva. I am not quite sure what got me thinking about it; it just happened in the way it does when you are being directed to look into something. I started googling around and looking at images–my first stage of research–and the sense of direction and the push-pull to look deeper into the theology of Shiva got stronger and stronger. After some hours of this, I went to bed with not much more than an intuition that destruction, as embodied by Shiva, is inextricably bound with creation, and that the apparent duality obscures a deeper unity, although I don’t and probably will never fully understand how that works. Although I would certainly have said it was an interesting topic, it’s not something I ever felt called to delve into before, nor is it something that I would have said resonated really well with my personality. And yet, here I am and it seems here I am meant to be.

Shiva linga on Mt. Kailash.
Shiva linga on Mt. Kailash.

The day after beginning this research I woke bolt upright at 5:55 a.m. knowing with unshakable certainty that the Shiva linga is an axis mundi. I realized that there were even deeper cosmic dimensions to Shiva than I had read about. Content in this sudden understanding, I fell back asleep. As I later found out, that is not a novel assertion, but is well-known within Shiva theology/cosmology. But it was all new to me and the information hit me like a download from the Great Beyond. Incidentally, my research says five is a sacred number associated with Shiva, e.g., in some representations he wears five serpents, has five heads representing five elements, etc., so the timing seems synchronicitous.

Two days later, I was woken up by an earthquake–at 5:55 a.m. I’ve lived in earthquake country most of my life but this is the first time I can remember being woken by one. It wasn’t a huge one (4.2 on the Richter scale) but the epicenter was close by. If you’ve never experienced one, I only say that earthquakes are a very unsettling mix of fun and scary. I mean, on the one hand you’re being jiggled around like on a ride at the amusement park, and on the other you are wondering if this will be the Big One and should you be heading for the door? I cannot think of a better embodiment of the destructive power of nature than an earthquake, especially in this part of the world. (Is that a Ring of Fire surrounding Shiva in the picture? I’m pretty sure it is. I could be biased.)

Five days later I stumbled upon this fantastic post about W.B. Yeats. Yeats has been one of my favorite poets since I was a teenager, and so many of the lines quoted resonate with the themes of creation, destruction, inspiration, and the union of opposites which have been uppermost in my mind these days–clearly of a piece with the rest of the curriculum. So much so that one of these bits of mystic wisdom appears at the beginning of this post.

But I feel a little weird about it because Shiva is very much a part of a living religious tradition (Hinduism), of which I am mostly ignorant and not interested in joining, yet do not wish to appropriate. No disrespect intended–it’s just not my path. In fact, I am not quite sure how to articulate this, but at the moment, the Shiva current that I am tapped into feels…I guess I would say not exclusively Hindu. With any deity of course, the religion is a human-made interface for communicating with the deity. I have to assume that, through millennia of practice and dedication, members of that religion are the most familiar with the deity in question; but I am not the least bit impressed by religious leaders who claim the exclusive right to access or interpret for a deity. I guess to put it in Christian terms, I wouldn’t take communion because I’m not a baptized Catholic; but I wouldn’t see that as an impediment to getting to know Jesus or the Virgin Mary. It may be a moot point because I am not talking about entering into a devotional relationship with Shiva. If that looks like it’s going to happen at some point, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I think I’m just being called to shut up, listen, and learn.

And boy is there a lot to learn! I often lament that there is so little extant information about the Celtic deities of my ancestors (in fact, if genealogy can be believed, some of them are my ancestors) and their cosmology. But the downside with a deity that has a several-millennia-long relationship with a literate culture that has many esoteric religious and philosophical schools is that there is too much information. Personal gnosis is always the most direct route, but I do try to keep some intellectual rigor and do my research. I feel a little overwhelmed by this enormous body of knowledge and belief.

I’m also, I admit, a little scared of the lessons that may come with this particular course of learning. Destruction is not a concept humans are that comfortable with, even though we are so good at causing it–we don’t like when it comes calling at our own door. I see it every day around here at every scale, from caring for my dying mother at home to the climate of the entire planet rapidly changing. This year I got a plot in a community garden and have been diligently trying to grow some food and medicinal herbs. Partly I view this as a survival skill; partly as a way to connect with my forebears; partly it’s a way to save money; partly it’s a chance to get out of the house and get some sun and fresh air and exercise. I love gardening and it is located in a beautiful spot. The river is nearby, and in the evenings the snowy egrets come to feed. The bushes are full of little tittering birds, and the sunsets are amazing. Wild medicinal plants grow all around, the soil is fertile and drains well, and I swear the spot has its own microclimate that is several degrees cooler than the furnace where I live a couple miles away.

Unfortunately, almost everything gets eaten before I get to it. Because of the drought, the critters–in our case, grasshoppers, rabbits, tree and ground squirrels–are going way outside their usual haunts to find food. The garden is their supermarket and it has been a banner year for them, reproductively speaking. I’d be willing to share with them, but they like to eat half of every vegetable and leave the rest to rot. To make matters worse, in 2008 a container ship came into LA bearing an African insect called the bagrada bug. They prefer wild mustard and members of the Brassica family, but when those are gone they will happily eat everything else. And I do mean everything. There are so many of these bugs in the garden that you can hear a constant rustling as they climb over one another and drop to the ground. They reproduce at a rapid rate, and there are no organic methods for killing them.

When I went to the garden a couple days ago, I was heartbroken to find that half my plants had been ripped out. Although no one told me why, I’m pretty sure it is  because they were infested with bagrada bugs. (It obviously wasn’t random vandalism.) Mine was one of the first plots to be attacked this year. I was particularly saddened to lose two of my favorite native perennial medicinal plants, which happen to also be beautiful flowers. In time, the plethora of small mammals will attract more coyotes, snakes, feral cats, and maybe birds of prey, and the system will balance itself out; but in the meantime, no one is going to get much of a crop. If we were dependent on these gardens for subsistence, this would be a famine year.

Meanwhile, forests are being destroyed by bark beetles. With the warmer winters, the beetles (actually a variety of beetle species) are able to reproduce twice a year instead of once, and they are not going dormant for the winter. Also, drought-stressed trees are particularly vulnerable. The beetles introduce a fungus which they basically farm to feed their larvae (which admittedly is super cool), and the fungus kills the trees. In some areas, as many as 100,000 trees per day. And it’s not just forests, it also oaks and sycamores, even avocados (though honestly I wouldn’t mind fewer avocados, yuck). In turn, grizzly bears are threatened because they don’t have enough pinecones to eat. Eventually, natural selection will create more fungus-resistant varieties of trees, even entirely new species.

The bark beetles are just one example from a long list, the trees just one casualty from my little corner of the world; at this point I think we all know the stakes involved with climate change so I needn’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say, this area is becoming desert, and as such, it will not be habitable for human purposes for much longer. If there were unlimited sources of energy and water, it wouldn’t be an issue, but energy and water are limited and we are already running out of them. Many of us humans put our faith in future technology, even colonization of other planets, to save us. Well, there will soon be lots more sand for us to bury our heads in, because that isn’t going to happen (and if it did, it would only be for a wealthy few). I have no doubt our species will survive, but our numbers will decrease, and probably in the not too distant future. Loved ones will be lost, and if I sound blase it’s only because no one yet knows exactly how it will play out. It seems typical for us humans to be inordinately optimistic about our futures.


But even while civilizations meet their inevitable fall, life goes on, and so do we. We just don’t know what we may become. I read an article recently that was bemoaning the hybridization of coyotes and wolves. (It wasn’t this article, but it was the same argument.) Coywolves are so well adapted to their environment that they are “fitter” than wolves. The worry is that wolves could be out-competed by coywolves and go extinct. But it only looks that way if you look at a snapshot in time. At some point, long ago, wolves didn’t yet exist, and something else did. That something else adapted, and became the wolf (and other species too like the coyote and the jackal). Things change, in other words. We want to keep them just the way they are, just the way we like them, but is that ever if life’s best interest? So grieve the wolf, but welcome her beautiful child.

I see creation and destruction woven all through all these stories. In the long term, I see creation, but in the short term, only destruction. We trashed the garden of Eden and its renewal is not going to be quick or pleasant. Evolution has its tragic face. And yet this planet is still so achingly beautiful, I really can’t imagine any heavenly reward that could be better than Earth’s biosphere restored to harmonious functioning and Homo sapiens restored to sanity. Now is the time when we choose whether that happens in spite of us, or with our willing cooperation. Maybe that is why I hear Shiva calling. Maybe, if they had ears to hear, everyone on earth would be hearing that call.

extinction is foreverKeep-calm-and-carry-on