Gods of place? Religion in pre-Roman Britain in light of Shinto

Were pre-Roman British god/desses tied to places or landforms? If so, does this make them not gods but something else (e.g., genii loci, spirits)? What does one’s answer mean for one’s practice of Brythonic-flavored polytheism, or for how we understand polytheism in general?

Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan
Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan (photo by yours truly). The rope (shimenawa) and paper streamers (shide) mark the tree as ritually pure and inspirited. I like to think of it as the Otherworld’s velvet rope.

I’m not sure if the subject matter of this post will be controversial or a whole lotta so-what. I don’t have enough (embodied) people to discuss this sort of thing with so perhaps I’m just reinventing a wheel that has already been worn down to the rim. But the conversation isn’t over until I weigh in, right? (Right?)

Speaking purely from gut instinct, intuition, opinion, and UPG, I have this persistent feeling that 20th-21st century polytheists are much too  limited in how they/we define “god/desses.” And at the same time, not nearly limited enough.

This idea was ratting around and then today I came upon this (in internet terms very old) discussion on the Caer Feddwyd forum. Thematically, it’s consistent with many others I’ve seen there and in other polytheist theological discussions. This particular iteration of the theme revolves around author Dorothy Watts’ (Religion in Late Roman Britain, Routledge 1998) argument that pre-Roman religion in Britain was animistic and tied to local places and landforms, and it was only after the Romans came around naming things and trying to make them equivalent to Roman deities that the British gods came to be represented as human (-ish). User Heron, who opened the topic, writes:

“There has been much debate in the past on this forum about the distinction between gods and spirits of place. I’m not sure that the early Romans, before they absorbed the Greek pantheon, made the distinction in a particularly hard and fast way. But what about all the named gods? Watts suggests, for example, that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring.”

Another user then opines:

“If the comparative evidence is of any use at all, I think all of our core gods must be fairly human. Okay, Lugus was born from an egg, Belgios was a giant serpentine cyclops, and Rigantona occasionally turns into a horse, but the essential nature of the gods is human.”

And finally a third adds:

If the pre-Roman populations did not tie identity strongly with the individual because the survival strategy relied on the communal tribal identity, then I would suggest that the synopsis presented would have a very good basis to take it forward.”

(All emphases mine.) I don’t mean to reduce these forum users’ entire polytheistic lives to these three quotes, but I do think there are assumptions underlying these quotes that deserve to be, as the academics like to say, “unpacked.” Regarding this topic, religion in pre-Roman Britain, or “Celtic” religion as some like to think of it, I think we can learn a lot from Shinto. I’m not alleging a prehistoric connection between Britain and Japan, nor am I arguing that Shinto can somehow be a stand-in for all ancient religions. Rather, I believe that as a thriving, non-diasporic, non-colonized*, never-Christianized, polytheistic religion**, one which has been around in some form for a good 2000+ years and possibly since the Upper Palaeolithic if Japanese opinion is to be believed, Shinto may be the only comparand we have for understanding the lived experience of a pre-Christian polytheism. (There might be others, and if you know of one I would love to hear about it.) For me, Shinto is doubly useful because it’s a religion I have some personal experience of.

View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Shinto is a religion such as Dorothy Watts described–animistic, and focused on local landforms that are recognized as embodying spiritual power. Once when I was visiting friends and doing research in Japan, my friend’s mom, knowing my interest in Shinto, pointed to a mountain and said what I took to mean, “There’s a kami on that mountain.” Kami can be translated “god” or “spirit,” but Shinto makes no distinction between the two. I asked where the kami was; I could see the vermilion torii gate that denotes a sacred shrine precinct in Shinto but didn’t see a shrine. “No,” she said, “the mountain is the kami.” I don’t know exactly where we were–we were on the road at the time–nor the name of the mountain, but the story stuck with me because it was the first time I realized what kami are.

How does this relate to pre-Roman British religion? Well, note that the first user brings up named gods specifically, evidently presuming a contrast between animated places in the landscape and gods with  names. I don’t understand where the perceived dichotomy comes from. Major landmarks typically have names. Heck, even tiny hills and creeks have names. In Appalachia, where my maternal family is from, every “holler” (hollow) has a name. In Shinto, the landform and the kami are coterminous and consubstantial; naturally they share the same name because they are the same thing. So when we read that “Watts suggests…that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring,” in reference to our comparand Shinto, we might speculate that “Coventina” was the name of the sacred spring who was the goddess/spirit. Not a water goddess, but water-as-goddess. Much in the way that Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji) is the name (one of the names, actually) of the kami who is that mountain.

Shinto does have more universal kami, who are linked less to landforms than to natural things or processes which exist throughout Japan: for example, Amaterasu (embodied in the sun), Susano-o (a god of plague and storms), and Inari (god/dess–gender varies by region–of growing rice plants). Whether or not these deities are viewed as greater, higher, or more powerful than the local kami depends on where you live and what your goal is. Though Shinto doesn’t distinguish, as outsiders we might draw a distinction between the deities of myth (such as Amaterasu, Susano-o, Izanami and Izanagi) and those represented and honored only in local practice. The mythic deities appear in cosmological stories such as the creation of the Japanese archipelago and of other deities (as recorded in Nihon shoki and the Kojiki), but we would do well to bear in mind that the only reason these myths were written down, and not others, is because they served the hegemonic purposes of the ruling dynasty. They were, in effect, the royal family’s genealogy and ancestor stories. As far as I know there is zero basis for assuming that these myths were widely held, or these deities widely worshiped, throughout ancient Japan. This reminded me of Lewis Spence’s hypothesis regarding druids (in The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain), viz. that they were the priests of a cult of divine kingship, and not representative of the religion or practices of your ordinary Brython or Irish farmer. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to substantiate that hypothesis, but given that all the extant “Celtic” myths pertain to royal and/or divine lineages, I think it’s pretty darn plausible. It might be that pre-Roman British religion “on-the-ground” was a more animistic, idiosyncratic, shamanistic affair.

Supposing that there were local landform deities in pre-Roman Britain; would they have been “human”? I am of the opinion that no deity is human except insofar as this is our frame of reference for them. A human, or partly-human, shape makes a good interface allowing us to relate to beings that are ultimately beyond our ken. In Shinto, some deities are represented in human form (e.g., Amaterasu, Susano-o), others are indicated by the presence of their representatives or images thereof, usually animals such as deer or foxes, while still others have no physical form other than their shape in the landscape, but may temporarily occupy objects called go-shintai 神体 (literally “god/spirit-bodies”). Go-shintai are seen only by priests but during annual festivals are carried around outside the shrine on palanquins.  Amaterasu is represented by/embodied in mirrors. All of these various representations or symbols are designed to facilitate contact and communion between the kami and the human community. They are a way of making mountains, diseases, thunderstorms, and trees relatable for humans. In return, the kami get attention, honor, music and dance, and offerings. Without these, my understanding is that a kami can degenerate into a “monster” or demon, or even die. Sometimes, one community’s kami is the next town’s monster***.

I find that last bit interesting given the fate of the Romano-British temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, which survived for quite a while after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, but once the Romans had left Britain, came to be regarded as the abode of scary faeries and goblins.

The notion that gods/spirits embodied in an animated landscape would be predicated on a prioritization of group vs. individual identity is intriguing, but I don’t see any evidence for it. I mean, even societies that strongly emphasize the individual’s communal context (Japan being an oft-cited example) don’t lack a concept of individuality, or of individual deities. I have no doubt that pre-Roman British concepts of the individual were different from ours, but in ways we’ll never fully know, and I don’t think it’s relevant to the question at hand. However, in this brief article on the Green Shinto blog, the author speculates that the much vaunted Japanese consideration for others might derive from the values of Shinto. As the author puts it, kami is the word for “mirror” (kagami), minus the ga (“ego”). (The Japanese language elevates puns to an art form.) In a world amply populated with spirits, on whom the people’s dependence is recognized and performed daily, mutual respect and responsibility is a high priority.

I do think it likely that the Romans introduced a new way of relating to deities, specifically, through representing them in human form. Iron Age Europeans had the technological chops to create representations of deities had they so desired (and maybe they did, only we don’t recognize them as such). Especially in the metallurgical domain, the La Tène culture’s skills were unrivaled at the time. We must therefore conclude that the dearth of human forms represented before the arrival of the Romans was due to a lack of interest in them. Evidently, however they related to their deities was good enough without statues and carvings. (And after all, how would you make a statue of a river? Why sculpt a mountain when the mountain is right there before you?) Instead, we see a preference for swirling, ambiguous curves that morph into any number of shapes depending on the light and the angle and the state of consciousness the viewer brings to them. This ambiguity is so prevalent, so clearly intentional, that I find it unsurprising that we still get confused trying to imagine how these peoples might have related to the natural and numinous worlds. But the peoples of the Mediterranean region all seemed to share a love of representing their deities and interacting with those representations, and clearly that practice was so essential to their religious practice that the Romans (and Christians) took it with them wherever they went.

Torii, Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan
Torii at the entrance to Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan

I think what we are seeing here is the difficulty that people raised on a 19th-20th-century model of the Greek model of polytheism within a Christian milieu have wrapping their/our minds around other polytheisms. I think for most of us in the West, our first encounters with gods other than Yahweh or Allah are stories from Greek mythology, which portray the gods in very human terms (unflatteringly so, even). We think of deities as characters. We imagine them as gods of–goddess of love, god of music, etc. I very much doubt that the Greeks understood their gods in this way, but I certainly don’t think it’s representative of what other cultures did and thought. For one thing, we might consider the possibility that the reason we have no surviving “Celtic” cosmologies is not only due to Christianity and colonization, but possibly because their stories never fit neatly into that package to begin with. I have always considered the assignments of figures from Welsh and Irish myth as gods of to be extremely tenuous, generally based on very reaching interpretations; now I think it’s time we chuck them and start over with radically different polytheisms. Ones where the gods aren’t characters, but presences; ones where the gods aren’t human, but, well, gods; ones where the distinctions among “god/dess” and “spirit” and “land” and “animal” and “ancestor” are porous at best; ones that are deeply, intensely local and consubstantial with place–and simultaneously, the land is equal parts animate, ensouled, inspirited, haunted, magical, genealogical, numinous, and mundane. There will still be room for universal deities, but even then they will have local interfaces. More importantly, they will be understood as part of a complex but more immanent network of relationships rather than as the default deity model.

Consider the huge number of Celtic deity names that are only attested in one inscription (e.g., Cernunnos), or in one region, and/or which we know are cognate with the name of a single landform. There are others that appear in different regional variations across a broad territory where Celtic-family languages were spoken, such as Dôn/Danu. What if the deities we so long to make universal, to render gods of abstract notions like “nature”and “sovereignty” are local landforms? What if the wide distribution of names like Nodens (and cognates thereof) and Danu is as much, or more, due to the habits of Roman soldiers and scribes as it is to some putative pan-Celtic (or Gaulo-Brythonic, or Germano-Celtic, etc.) belief, as we know was the case with Epona? Or what if these more widely-distributed deities are those claimed as ancestors by royal families, like Amaterasu in Japan? My point is not that any of these is the answer but that there are many answers, some of which haven’t gotten enough airtime. Similarly, one doesn’t have to approach polytheism via Shinto–light can come from other directions too. My questions are intended as food for thought.

This is not just anthropological navel-gazing. It’s not just about more closely approximating how our ancestors may have seen their relationship to deity. It’s about setting our own relationship to the land and cosmos in better order, evolving our “religious sensibility” (sensu Greer) to something less ontologically reductionist and abstract. I think what Shinto as a comparand can teach us about polytheism is:

  1. There need be no dichotomy between gods and spirits, or named gods and ensouled landforms, or animism and polytheism. We maybe should question why we like those dichotomies so much.
  2. Universality and the hyper-local, the abstract and the super-specific, both have roles to play in polytheism and their relationship is not necessarily a hierarchical one.
  3. Social machinations of elites, cultural contact, movements of armies, and many other less-than-divine processes are formative in the evolution of a religion and put the lie to culturally-essentialist notions of spirituality. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded of it and sometimes it’s easier to see clearly when you are an outsider looking in.
  4. Although I didn’t get into details of Shinto practice, it gives us a model for ways of relating to deities that are different from what most Western, non-African-diasporic polytheists know. For instance, belief is very much secondary to participation, and who a kami was “originally” is less important than what they do now. It’s not that we should replicate these ways of relating–and we couldn’t, because in the West we don’t have a widespread network of temples and professional priests and shrine attendants, but I think it’s refreshing to see a flourishing polytheism that isn’t consigned to “alternative religion” status.
  5. There are few gods of. Rather there are gods as, gods in, and gods who. Kami are phenomenological. For me at least, this makes their presence and nature more immediate and more intimate, though thoroughly ineffable.

*Shinto and Buddhism have influenced one another in Japan, and to some extent been syncretized, but the arrival of Buddhism in Japan and its subsequent spread was not so much a result of colonization as royal dynastic strategy and diplomatic relations with Chinese and Korean kingdoms. It’s interesting, but too big a topic for one blog post.

**It depends how you define “religion,” but here I’m defining it on the basis of participation in community rituals that are aimed at communing with numinous, supernatural, or divine presences.

***Sorry, I know it’s bad form but I can’t give you a source on that. It may have been personal communication from an acquaintance who is a particularly devout Shintoist, whom I once helped with translating a presentation on kami and concepts of spiritual purity and pollution. Or possibly it was in A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine by John K. Nelson?

Revisiting appropriation and authenticity

Muscogee war bonnet

I keep thinking about these topics, which tells me that I’ve probably missed something important. This post is me thinking aloud, as it were. I think part of the reason why discussions of appropriation in magic leave me cold (including my own, if I’m honest) is that it makes us talk about magic as if it were like putting on and taking off a feather headdress. I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about the issue and figure out what is and isn’t honorable and ethical. But when the conclusion ultimately comes down to “Just don’t be a jerk,” I feel like I shouldn’t really have to say that. I’m pretty sure you already know, so if you are being a jerk, it’s probably because you sincerely made a mistake, or you don’t mind being a jerk. In which case, you know what to do. Good talk.

But magic isn’t just a hat. Indeed, the very fact that we can discuss it that way could be a disturbing sign of what Io calls “the market sweeping into the sacred.” While we don’t consciously regard it so, unconsciously, we speak about magical practices as if they were commodities. We talk often about whether this or that method gets results, and that’s an important rubric, but we don’t talk as much about dangers. I mean sure, we all know magic is dangerous, but it’s much rarer to find someone who will talk specifics. I’m arguably guilty of that too, since this isn’t a post about specific dangers of magic, but then I’m new to this path so I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about. No, my point here is that when it comes to magical tech, before we think about whether we are being offensive or even full-on racist assholes, we have to think about efficacy, the wishes and needs of Other parties involved, and safety.

This all dovetails into my argument that the vitality of a given magical tech or tradition might be more important than authenticity per se. To give a personal example, I don’t know much about African Diasporic religions or magic. I know more than the Hollywood version, but I’ve never lived in a part of the world where those traditions flourished, so I’ve had virtually no direct exposure. Also, I have no African ancestry myself (well, not within the last 25,000 years anyway), so there’s no family lore about it. So ATR traditions could not be more culturally foreign to me, and since I don’t feel motivated to go to a place with deep ATR roots and learn from the masters, I feel it would be a little approriatey of me to try and use their methods. But I do find these traditions interesting and appealing because they strike me as very vital indeed. It’s precisely because of this vitality that I am convinced that if I do become seriously interested in ATR, I should probably seek proper instruction. It is clear to me that there is a current there which couldn’t be captured in books, as well as fraught political relationships between me as a white American and peoples of African diasporic descent. Moreover, if I as a dilettante were to go around encouraging spirits to possess me, I might get some decidedly undesirable results. Josephine McCarthy’s advice (in a comment here) is sound: “Learn how to put yourself back together before you attempt to blow yourself up.”

Then too we have to consider the wishes of those on the Other side. I  am not going to turn away Hathor, Oshun, or Xi Wangmu just because we don’t happen to come from the same place. And I don’t assume that Nodens or Llyr want to work with me just because we may share some spiritual DNA. If some spirit is in need of aid and there’s no extant tradition (gods, can we have another word for this? I feel like I’m beating this one to death but I can’t find a good synonym) that deals with the issue, then I’ll have to seek elsewhere. And I will.

If our only worry with regard to the magic of other cultures is appropriation, then not only do we trivialize the magic and the entities involved, but we also hamper ourselves in ridiculous ways. If, say, becoming a houngan is off-limits to me because I’m not of African descent, then goetia and theurgy should also be off-limits because I’m not of Greek or Egyptian descent. There are lots of us in this world whose ancestors’ traditions were lost through colonization; are we just supposed to (once again) take our lumps and accept the diktat of cultural essentialism and imperialism? Hell no. I just have to quote again from Disrupt & Repair because Io says this elegantly and succinctly whereas my own attempts amount to only the most pitiful of verbal fumblings. He is referring specifically to Jake Stratton-Kent’s essay “What Is Goetia?” but I think what he says applies equally to our issues with authenticity and my own prioritization of vitality:

“The attitude/potency Stratton-Kent claims as ‘goetic’ [substitute here whatever attitude/potency you want] isn’t a special aspect of the Western magical tradition [substitute here whatever tradition you want]. It is more basic, resting in our humanity. When it manifests, it manifests in a magpie fashion, laying hold of whatever it can to anchor itself into the fabric of the visible world. Trying to establish a historical lineage for it misses the point that it has an allegiance to the atemporal. Throw away every book with the word ‘goetia’ [or whatever system] and the potency would manifest again and again in some other avenue….We don’t need a continuous tradition to approach that human birthright. What we need to appreciate is that the diversity of manifestations are an essential part of the process, not an accident to be erased by a return to a primal root. The diversity of negotiations being done by people all over the world, in all kinds of cultural context, forms the basis for understanding how profound the unity that joins them is.…A proper tradition needs more intimacy than that, it belongs closer to the level of kinship than to the level of the nation-state.”

(My emphasis.) Whichever end of the telescope you look through, whether you focus on diversity of practice/tradition or on unity, you inevitably come back to this: the diversity is a feature, not a bug. And the same could be said, I think, for whatever it is about human consciousness or neurology that inclines us to repeatedly interface with the numinous in certain ways.

Liar, Liar, pants on fire: more death

Paris Montmarte cemetery

Ok, so I lied. I said I was going to give you all a break on the ghoulish 8th-house, deathy stuff, but it turns out I’m not ready yet.

See, other people keep contributing awesome stuff that gives me all kinds of new nuances and angles to think about, and I can’t think without writing (can’t stop won’t stop). The synchronicity, or maybe more accurately the circularity, of blogging about these topics while others are also thinking and writing about it–see this post from Deb Castellano and this one from Stacey–both on the same day!…well, it feels really magical actually. And reassuring. All the feels!

I mean there are so many feels that it’s really hard to process. It’s like being underwater and not knowing which way is up anymore, your lungs ache, scarily empty, and your arms are tired and helpless, and you desperately need to swim for the surface but you have no idea where that is. All you can do is stop struggling and let yourself float, and hope you make it back to air before you run out, though you know you might not. You are basically asking a panicked animal to make a calm, conscious, counterintuitive decision.

But then at the same time, there’s this bizarre beauty to the experience. Or, I don’t know, maybe I’m just a sicko, but I think Stacey hit the nail bang on the head when she says:

“This also forces me to notice that I . . . kind of like? . . . being around people who are processing grief. I worry that this is horribly morbid, and what the hell is wrong with me, but this is the great mystery and I think there’s something holy about the grieving process.”

Yes. That.

The Japanese (of course it would be the Japanese) have a name for that sense of mystery, holiness, and melancholy-with-a-soupçon-of-ennui: mono no aware 物の哀れ. A non-literal translation that captures the feeling might go something like, “Alas! Everything ends…” In this point of view, that intensifies the beauty and preciousness of life. We will always be longing to plumb the mysteries of existence, and we’ll die before we get there…but the longing itself adds savor and depth.

I wish I could say I just sit here and bask in the poignant autumnal glory of it all, but the truth is this brings out the bitch in me. There’s nothing romantic about this, dear readers. Caring for someone who’s dying involves such an abundance of bodily fluids and excreta and whining and tantrums and pain…and that’s just me. (Buh dum CHING!) Seriously though, death is not for the squeamish, lemme tell ya. There’s a reason I never became a nurse. It’s called “emptying bedpans” and “cleaning up vomit.” Of all the seven deadly sins, the one I struggle with most is Pride. It’s not that I’m arrogant, but rather that I have an inflated sense of my own dignity and cleanliness. The number one thing this gig has taught me is humility, and it’s a lesson that I have to learn the hard way, over and over.

(For my fellow astro-nerds, transiting Saturn is going through my 8th house (death) until November of this year, squaring my natal Saturn in the 6th (caregiving), and has just moved off my progressed Moon (feelings, mothers) in the 8th–and this is a balsamic moon, the last phase of the lunation cycle and the one associated with death. Meanwhile, until Spring 2017 transiting Pluto (god of death) is running back and forth over my progressed Sun (identity) as it goes from direct, to retrograde, to direct again. Jupiter (more! more! more!) is also in my 6th house of caregiving and service right now. Now all that death would sound totally badass if I were a goth kid, but Saturn is slopping a big steaming glob of middle-aged responsibility, filial duty, and life-evaluation on my plate.)

There are a lot of weird effects of getting this up-close-and-personal with death. For the past couple months I’ve been unable to do any magic. I want to, I’m just unable to muster up the energy and focus. And my gut says I need to let it be for now. On the other hand, a few days ago I saw a ghost for the first time since I was like three years old. In the interim, I have heard ghosts stomping around, had them temporarily steal my keys, seen them in my mind’s eye during hynogogic states, and felt them clairsentiently (is that a word?), but I haven’t seen them with my actual physical eyes. A few days ago I was walking my dog and saw an elderly lady in a pink chenille bathrobe walking up, only to find when I looked straight on that she wasn’t there, at least, not in a corporeal sense. This is a huge deal for me since it could mean the restoration of an ability I lost long ago.

Is it weird that I’m talking so much about this? I don’t want to bore you, but I feel like death, and the deeply personal experiences surrounding death, need to be brought into the light. Maybe it’s a sort of calling for me right now, and it’s part of the Shiva current that keeps popping up. This shit isn’t glamorous or exciting–least of all as it manifests in my life–but it’s real. I very much look forward to Deb’s forthcoming Books of the Dead blog series, which she predicts will be “one part research, two parts personal sharing, one part witchcraft and one part folklore/mythos.  What will bind all of this chaos together will be actual Books of the Dead.” See, because that’s what we need more of. It’s a kind of psychopompery (another word I made up). (Maybe I should have called this blog Psychopomp and Circumstance lolz.) I know I can’t do it justice by myself, but now there are more voices in the chorus, and as Stacey says, it’s like death is in the air right now. I hope that makes for one hell of a Halloween.

So I retract my promise of no more death talk, though don’t worry, I am going to mix things up a bit.

Death and taxes: or, how capitalism harshed my morbid mellow

memento mori

Sorry for all the death stuff, dear readers. I hope I’m not bringing you down. Still, it’s something we all must deal with, for in the end, we all come to dust.

My grandma told me that when she was a kid in Appalachia, “funerarials,” as she called them, lasted three days. On the first day, the living sat in overnight vigil at home with the deceased. On the second day, the deceased was embalmed, and on the third was the burial followed by a memorial feast. I always thought that sounded nice, minus the embalming part. I’ve always loved the idea of wakes. I used to say I didn’t want any kind of funeral for myself, because I felt like I wouldn’t need it (being dead) and I didn’t want to put the burden of the cost and organizing all the details on my bereaved loved ones (though I can only assume there would be throngs and throngs of them).

My mom says she doesn’t want any funeral or memorial service, and in one sense that’s a relief because I rather doubt I would be capable of organizing such a thing. Plus almost all her friends are dead already. But as I think about it, it makes me really sad that a good person who lived an interesting life should be sent away without a celebration of that life. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the rest of the family cannot wait for my mom to die. It’s not because my mom was a difficult or cruel or obnoxious person, nor is it because they want to get their hands on a big inheritance. No, it’s for one simple reason: she’s inconvenient. They don’t want to be bothered with her. And they aren’t. I do everything that needs doing, I pay for everything that needs paying. They live in the same city and they cannot even be bothered to call my mom, let alone come visit her.

This is an injustice to my mom and to me. Do I even need to say that these people have some serious *issues* when it comes to death? That’s what it really comes down to. Seeing my mom, even thinking about her, is inconvenient because it would force them to face up to not only mortality itself but all the gross bodily deterioration, loneliness, and fear that leads up to it.

Unfortunately if our family has a legacy it is The Grudge. Very small offenses can get you blacklisted for life. There are two parts of my family–each descended from one of my mom’s sisters–that haven’t spoken to each other or even so much as exchanged Christmas cards for decades. While her sisters were alive, my mom managed to be a bridge between them, but after my aunts died and my mom got sick, the family fissioned. Although my relatives can be surprisingly generous at times (mostly with stuff you don’t need), suffice to say if you stumble along the road they don’t stop to lend a hand. I’ve survived this long because I stay innocuous and don’t get sick much.

My ancestors and I have a lot to talk about.

So anyway, I found out about The Order of the Good Death via Blood & Coffee and it’s a great concept. (Check out the blog, there are some very interesting articles there.) Modern Western society has a seriously messed up relationship to death, which is to say, really no relationship at all. I was struck by this post by Anne Crossey: Whereas she and I agree that many societal ills can be laid at the doorstep of what she calls “death-denying ideologies,” she attributes them to deluded belief in a nonexistent afterlife, while I think it’s the fear that there is no afterlife that leads to death-denial. After about 200 centuries of increasingly reductionist, scientistic, atheist materialism, I think most people alive today have thoroughly absorbed the idea that there is no afterlife. They may be struggling with it, they may have faith in spite of their fears, but the people of magic know the cognitive dissonance that comes with the fight to keep hold of knowledge–even empirical, directly-experienced knowledge–while being constantly bombarded and mocked by contrary messages. I wouldn’t say that an unchallenged, hegemonic belief in an afterlife would remove all death’s fear or grief, but it is quite clear to me that our death-denial derives from our materialism, and not vice versa. Regardless of whether or how you conceive of an afterlife, dying, that most liminal of places, is inevitably and immanently numinous. But if your worldview cannot admit the numinous, then death is just rot and failure and the end of our dearest illusions, Forward Progress and Productivity and Ever Greater Acquisition. Not something your average American can handle. I think every person who waits in line for the latest iToy should have to spend at least a month in corpse meditation and hospice work.

Moving on. (No pun intended.)

I know my mom wants to be cremated, but I would prefer to biodegrade if possible, so I clicked on the OGD’s natural burial link. There I noticed (as I have elsewhere since I started researching this stuff) that cemeteries, the Neptune Society, basically any organization that deals with dead bodies, seem very loath to talk prices. I suppose this is viewed as crass, but I’ve also observed that any product or service where they don’t tell you the price up front is going to be more than you can afford.

And so it is with death.

funeral industry

And it pisses me off.

It’s a good thing my mom wants to be cremated, because I can’t afford anything else. My mom isn’t leaving behind any estate, any estate she did have would be taken by Medicare as reimbursement anyway. I have no problem with morticians or other death professionals (deathfessionals?) being recompensed for their time, effort, skill, and expertise, except in the larger sense that I am not a fan of capitalist exchange dynamics and the monetization of human relationships. Unfortunately, we live in a society where you gotta make money to live, and deathfessionals deserve to live too. I suspect–call me crazy here, but I suspect–that deathfessionals don’t get into that biz full of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But as I think about some of the efficient, green, time-honored ways to facilitate a body’s decomposition, or touching stories about honoring the dead and faring-them-well, I realize that I and countless other Americans can’t afford any of these things. In the US, a cemetery plot is real estate, and priced accordingly. A coffin can cost you as much as a downpayment on a house. According to the New York Times, the average cost of an American funeral is $6,000. That article I linked makes it sound like it’s super cheap to bury someone at home, but think about it–Are you going to be able to dig the burial yourself, or will you need to hire help? Will you need legal advice on how to obtain the necessary permits? Are you going to have to refrigerate the body while you get the permits and dig the hole, and do you have the facilities (or, e.g., dry ice)? Do you own rural or semi-rural land on which to bury your loved one?

And don’t lets forget that the State and the “funeral industry” have to get their grubby paws in on the matter:

“Recently [this article was written in 2009], some states, with the backing of the funeral industry, have considered restricting the practice of home funerals. Oregon legislators last month passed a bill that would require death midwives to be licensed, something no state currently does.”

(I have learned through my experience with herbalism that we must be very, very grateful for those few vocations that don’t require licensure and regulation.)

At the beginning of this post I apologized for talking so much about death. But you know, it’s something we could all stand to talk about a little more. As I’ve worked through the process of stewarding my mom into death, I realize that not only do I need to talk much more with her about what a good death means to her, but I also need to talk to my friends–my family of choice and, for all the reasons I mentioned above, the only family I could hope to depend on to send me off well–about my own good death. Let’s not end up as hungry ghosts. Let’s all have the good deaths we deserve.

A steward into death

St. Brynach's, Nevern, Wales
St. Brynach’s churchyard, Nevern, Wales

How do you steward someone into death? (Warning: rambling, maudlin navel gazing ahead.)

I’ve always been attracted to psychopomps, whether we are talking about deities or the mythic symbolism attached to animals. I don’t know when that started. When I was a little kid, I saw ghosts and could communicate with them. Then at some point, I became terrified of them. I stopped seeing them, though I could still sense their presence sometimes. I was also terrified of mummies and skeletons. I had repeating nightmares where I was being hunted by revenant mummies and skeletons. Even when I was a teenager, I couldn’t go into the Egyptian wing of the British Museum for fear of seeing mummies. (Talk about a wasted opportunity!)

Old colorized postcard of Mary's Chapel, outside Woodland, California
Old colorized postcard of Mary’s Chapel, outside Woodland, California (courtesy of CAGenWeb). They’ve refurbished, unattractively, the inside since I was there, and something tells me they probably got rid of the old outhouse charmingly graffittoed “Mary’s Crapper.”

It was weird because I wasn’t bothered at all by the idea of death, maybe because I was still young enough to believe myself immortal. I remember when I first found out about death. My dad and I were talking a walk down a country lane near our house. My parents were still together, so I was younger than 4. We found a dead black cat on the road; I asked my dad what had happened to it, and he explained how it had probably been hit by a car and killed. When I was around 8 or 9, some kids found another dead cat in the street. A grey tabby kitten. I don’t know how it was possible, anatomically speaking, but the entire skull, eyeballs still in situ, had come out of the skin through the mouth. We poked it with sticks. I wasn’t a baby sociopath. I was sad when pets died. I empathized with grieving survivors. I was just matter-of-fact in the way little kids are when they haven’t been traumatized yet.

St. Brynach's churchyard, Nevern, Wales
St. Brynach’s churchyard, Nevern, Wales

From a pretty early age my mom took me walking in graveyards, a hobby of hers since her own childhood. Years later my grandmother shyly confessed that walking in cemeteries had been a hobby of hers since she was a girl. She had never told my mother that. Sharing stories of our ancestors has always been very important in my maternal family and many an entertaining evening of my childhood was passed in fond reminiscences of our Beloved Dead. I still love visiting graveyards, feeling the unique vibes that each one has. (The photos here are from some of my favorite cemeteries. All photos are by me unless otherwise indicated.)

Yet at the same time I had these insane nightmares. After my parents divorced, my dad got remarried and I had to spend weekends at my stepmonster’s house. I would lie awake in the dark listening to the hall clock ticking outside my room, paralyzed with terror that a skeleton would come out of the closet and turn me into a skeleton too. I’m quite comfortable around skeletons now, but to this day I cannot be in a room with a ticking clock.

Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England
Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England

I am completely baffled as to what might have happened to stop me seeing ghosts and start me being terrified of reanimated corpses (and note this was way before zombies got popular). If I had the money I think I might go get hypnotically regressed to see what might turn up. I have always just assumed I absorbed the death-phobic messages of our culture, and maybe that’s all it was.

When I went to college, I was considering majoring in archaeology. I decided to take a course in human osteology (the analysis of skeletal materials) because (1) I thought it might desensitize me to my fear of skeletons, and whether or not this experiment worked would determine whether archaeology was a viable career path; and (2) it counted toward the math and science distribution requirements, sparing me from having to take something even more frightening. To my surprise, I wasn’t the least bothered by the bones and in fact I loved working with them. I ended up taking all the human skeletal-themed classes offered, as well as gross anatomy. In my time as an archaeologist I excavated various burials, analyzed many bones in the lab, even butchered (predeceased) animals with stone tools. Sometime during my 15 or so years of working with bits of dead persons, it occurred to me that I Worked With the Dead, and that this was a Very Serious and Important Thing.

(Please don’t judge my youthful naïveté too harshly. We were all dumb in our 20s.)

Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England
Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England

Only later did I realize that in these early forays, the dead were made to serve my ends, and not the other way around. Oh, I was always respectful, humble, and completely honored to be there “analyzing” these Dead Ones, but it did not occur to me that my ends might not be their ends.

Sometimes when Native American/First Nations people want to bring home to whites how it feels to have their ancestors’ burials excavated and analyzed, they say some version of, “How would you feel if someone came and dug up your grandmother’s bones?” I’ve always thought this question perfectly encapsulated the difference in worldview between Natives and modern Western white people–because I would be truly surprised if your average modern Western white person gave one damn about whether their grandmother’s bones were dug up (as long as they personally don’t have to see them, because ew). I know I didn’t. First, I grew up in a New Age-Christian milieu that said that once you are dead, you shuffle off your mortal coil and have no further need of it. (I realize this has not always been the prevailing attitude among Christians, but it’s pretty de rigeur for all the 20th-century American Christians that I ever encountered.) Certainly that’s what my grandma believed. Second, it was all for the good of Science and Knowledge. Surely no one would mind donating their physical remains to that cause? I mean, since they weren’t using them and all? And third, not to put too fine a point on it, who cares about old people or even worse, old dead people? (I didn’t share that last opinion, at least, but I do think it’s pretty common.)

(I’m so embarrassed.)

My philosophical and spiritual views on the dead have evolved over the years, as middle age inevitably brings infinite shades of grey. In fact by the time I finished my dissertation, I wanted to throw the whole thing away because of the unsophisticated views of death and the spirit world that I was forced to assume due to the nature of academia. But for the past four years I have been truly Working with Death, in ways silly self-important 20-year-old me could never have imagined. I have been working on my genealogy, a family tree that now contains several thousand nuts people and stretches back beyond the end of the Roman Empire. I’ve always been ambivalent about having children, as if I could afford them, because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of bringing new people into this world in this time; but now I feel equally uncomfortable with the idea that when I die, there may be no one to whom I can pass on the family lore or blood. (Also the genes for excellent teeth. I have my genetic shortcomings, but they are non-dental in nature. Never had a cavity, have all my wisdom teeth, and am blessed with a diastema at least as good as Lauren Hutton’s. And, pro tip: When civilization crashes and burns, your teeth may be all that stands between you and certain death.) I suffer from eschatological dissonance.

Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

More immediately, I am trying to consciously steward my mother into death. (Unsurprisingly, Saturn–duty, responsibility–is currently transiting my 8th house and conjoining my progressed Moon–family, roots, one’s mother, emotional sensibility.) I debated about how detailed and how honest to be or whether I should write about this at all. I don’t want to seem self-pitying and I’m not looking for pity, sympathy, or anything else. But I feel like the topic is important; and I know there are others facing the same situation. And for those of us who aren’t members of the dominant religions and/or don’t hold with dominant worldviews, there is no community to provide the sort of naturalized, taken-for-granted rationales and explanations that can be so comforting.We have to work it out for ourselves, making it up as we go, and then fight hard to hold onto what we find in the face of overwhelming naysaying.

When I came here my mom was in an induced coma in intensive care and I thought her death was imminent. I managed to pack all my belongings in three days–a minor miracle–threw them into storage, and drove halfway across the US in four days (for those of you not from the US, that is fast), hoping she would hold out long enough for me to get there before she died.

Four years later, she is still alive. And my feelings about it are so mixed, I sometimes think they will tear me apart. Caregiving is physically and psycologically grueling work. Every day I walk a mile and a half to two miles, just crisscrossing this tiny apartment doing chores (or so says my pedometer). It is way too tiny an apartment for two adults, but my mom is too frail to move. That’s also why I had to move in with her instead of vice versa. There is no privacy, no alone time, no respite from the 24/7 hum and rumble of various machines keeping her tethered to the world. I can’t leave the house for more than a few hours at a time (and even that is a rare luxury), so there are no vacations either. I don’t know if she’s afraid to die–she’d never admit it if she were–but I know that the way she is dying is a painful and terrifying way, suffocating slowly. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

I am thankful for these “extra” four years I have had with my mom. Dropping my barely-begun career to come here had the unexpected benefit of allowing me to see it wasn’t right for me and giving me a chance to explore things that may be. We have no extra money, but we get by, which is more than many Americans can say these days. I even have very (very) rudimentary health insurance.

But I won’t be free to have my own adult life again–you know, with friends, and socializing, and living in a part of the world that doesn’t make me miserable, and uninterrupted sleep at night, and sweet, sweet, precious alone time–until she dies. I had some chronic low-level health problems that have grown into scary health problems, most of which boil down to the stress of watching someone you love in agony and fear, yet not really wanting to die, yet always seeming as if they might die any moment, for years. And the rock-and-a-hard-place bind of knowing you can’t be free until your loved one dies, yet not wanting to be the kind of person who wishes a loved one dead, which you don’t, but you want to be free. I get irritable and bitchy and then feel ashamed of myself.

The most important thing to me now is to ensure my mom gets the best death possible, whenever it may come. Modern medicine saved her from a bad death in her youth, but has cheated her of a good death in her old age. Like many a caregiver before me I lament that our social and medical systems are all about increasing quantity of life at the expense of quality. I am grateful beyond what words can express to the hospice nurses who are (fingers crossed) making it possible for my mom to die at home, in relative comfort, but she will not go gently into that good night, oh no, she will fight tooth and nail to hold on because that’s her nature. She’s hell-bent on survival no matter how miserable it makes her.

I lack the magical chops to be an effective psychopomp myself. I can, and do, ask for help from the real deal and from my ancestors–some of whom are themselves psychopomps if legend is to be believed. Happily my aunts, my mom’s sisters who are already dead, have appeared in my dreams several times to assure me they are on it. It’s still important to me, ethically, personally, and spiritually, to step up and do my part as a steward while my mom is still alive–preferably without measurably shortening my own life or flying into a homicidal rage or indigo depression in the process. I am mostly making a mess of it. I am not a practical person and even if I weren’t always exhausted I would still be a terrible procrastinator.

I welcome any thoughts on this. Have you ever stewarded someone into a good death? How did you conceive your role and responsibilities?

Chrysanthemum Festival


For the past couple days, this date–9 September–has been nagging at me. I knew it was supposed to be significant, but couldn’t remember why. Maybe it’s just because I know that in East Asian cultures, when the day and month are the same number, and especially when that number is odd, it’s a festival day. The 5th day of the 5th month is Boys’ Day/Dragon Boat Festival, the 7th day of the 7th Month is the Star Festival, and so on. But although I’ve visited Japan and Korea quite a bit, it has always been in summer, so I haven’t had the opportunity to experience most of the seasonal festivals, including this one; I have a sort of vague sense that they exist is all. But I had a strong urge to find out what 9/9 might be about.

Turns out today is the celebration of the Chrysanthemum Festival in Japan. The festival properly belongs to the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, but whereas in China lunar dates are still observed, in Japan they have been shifted to the Gregorian solar calendar. In China it is more commonly known as the Double Ninth Festival or Double Yang Festival. Odd numbers are associated with yang (and even numbers with yin), and as 9 is the highest single-digit yang number, yang energy is thought to be at a peak on this day. This year, the lunar date of the festival is 21 October–which is proper autumn, unlike today in Southern California where it is 103 degrees and most definitely still summer.

For wealthy Chinese, the festival seems to have grown increasingly aesthetically elaborate, with displays of assorted chrysanthemum cultivars, mountain- or hill-top picnics, drinking of crysanthemum wine with toasts to the celebrants’ longevity, and composing and reciting poems.


However, I suspect the festival came to my attention, whether it was some long-buried subconscious memory surfacing or something more synchronicitous, because of its ancestor- and mortality-themed aspects. I don’t know if I’m becoming especially ancestor-oriented lately, or if my ancestors are clamoring for attention. I think, due to life circumstances which I will touch on in my next couple of posts, it’s a little of both. It is interesting that the chrysanthemum is associated with death in both Western and Eastern cultures; perhaps because, “Blooming late in autumn, the chrysanthemum signals the coming of winter, and death…” (Casal 1967: 102). I suppose it’s equally possible that Europeans simply imported the Asian symbolic associations of mums along with the flowers themselves.

Casal (op. cit.) speculates that in its original form, prior to being co-opted for rich people’s poetry parties, the chrysanthemum festival was a solar ritual focused on the mutual preservation of the sun’s and people’s vitality through the winter. I’m not sure I buy the solar hypothesis per se, but I do think that the complex symbolism of the chrysanthemum–mourning and melancholy, good health and longevity (it’s an important herbal medicine in Asia), protection and purification–make the most sense in the context of the contemplation of and encounter with our own mortality. And although I couldn’t find a single decently-cited internet source* (not even on Google Scholar) with much information on the Chrysanthemum or Double Ninth Festivals, I did find repeated references to it being a day to honor ancestors and the elderly. Note that there are other festivals and ceremonies in honor of the dead at other times of year, which might be why this aspect of the Chrysanthemum Festival has been downplayed over the years.

*This is why I didn’t bother putting in many links. If you’re interested, google Double Ninth and Chrysanthemum Festival and you will easily find the few crummy sources available. They mostly just repeat each other.

A discourse on the 8th and 9th…houses, that is

I think about danger a lot lately. I suppose its only when you are stewarding a loved one into death, and you are getting lessons in destruction. Inevitably, I can’t help also thinking about how dumb and short-sighted most humans’ response to danger is. It has been said that we evolved to recognize and respond to immediate threats–the leopard slinking through the savanna grass–but not more abstract or distant threats. This, it is said, is why it’s so difficult to get people to take meaningful action to mitigate long-term, transpersonal threats like climate change or threats based far away like war or economic collapse in some country you don’t live in.

If that’s true, it bodes ill for us, insulated as we are in our air-conditioned civilization. Statistics show that the richer someone gets, the less empathetic they are, and that makes sense if you can only focus on your immediate environment. The neighborhoods you drive through with your doors locked would become increasingly irrelevant and ultimately unreal, and you would feel more worried about, say, a poorly performing stock than about the collapsing highways and bridges in your county, let alone whether someone else has enough to eat. Your behavior would be more motivated by the convenience of buying a bottle of water than by the fact that said bottle is being sold at a many-thousands-percent markup and was produced at the expense of the economy, environment, and health of literally your entire state. Wealth and centralization buffer one from natural selective pressures that less affluent people confront on a daily basis (e.g., famine, lack of access to health care) and consequently, the “threats” perceived by the wealthy person in their immediate environment are, not to put too fine a point on it, inane. Yet, unbeknownst to the comfortable, their (our) position is dangerously fragile.

Obviously some of us occupy, shall we say, a deeper, more diverse, and frankly frightening ecology. And what could be a better way of introducing the 8th and 9th houses of the zodiac?

Do you use astrology, lovely readers? I find I use it more as a map than for prediction or planetary magic. Experience tells me that it absolutely does work as a way of modeling the landscape (or really, the cosmiscape, to coin a word) of a person’s life and character. It’s not that I think the position of a particular planet or constellation determines a person’s fate–anyway, tropical astrology doesn’t use the actual positions of constellations anymore, it’s largely symbolic–but it can certainly tell you where to look out for high and low points, strengths and weaknesses. Beyond that, I have no explanation for why it works, except that the universe is magical and weird shit is weird.

A brief aside for those who may not have much familiarity with astrology, the houses are a 12-part division of the 360-degree circle of the zodiac. Each house represents a domain of activity or experience, and their condition by sign varies from person to person depending on your Ascendant. A lot of planets or an important transit in a given house puts emphasis on the matters it rules. I think a lot about the 7th, 8th, and 9th houses because they are the most populated in my birth chart, especially the latter two. And at the moment my progressed Moon is illuminating the 8th house, so I am seeing it very clearly…

The 8th

Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau
Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau

You will usually see the 8th house oversimplified as the house of sex and death, but that’s only half right. It is the house of Death. Specifically, it represents a descent into the underworld, the encounter with its denizens, and the total personal transformation that results. It is the journey of Orpheus and of Persephone. An initiation into the mysteries. It can be interesting to dip your toe into the 8th house life, but it’s not a fun place to spend a lot of time. There is infinite wisdom to be gained there, but it carries high risk and a heavy price.

8th house experiences can’t really be put into words, for they can only be understood through gnosis and direct encounter. You either survive, stronger but much altered, or die. Sometimes, this happens through sex, though not all sex. Some sex is very much a matter of the 5th house (fun), or the 6th (service), or even the 10th (career). It only becomes an 8th house affair when it unravels you. Pluto rules the 8th house, and Pluto will break you to remake you.

Sometimes the 8th house is also associated with shared resources, but it really involves inherited resources. The distinction there, I would argue, is that inheritance always entails the death of an ancestor, which in turn forces us to confront mortality.

Needless to say, the 8th house is a “place” that magicians and occultists find ourselves visiting a lot. But as with all the houses, and as you can see from the example of sex above, any activity or life event can manifest through any house; and equally, any house can manifest itself in any area of life.

For me, for example, some of my most powerful 8th house experiences came through studying anthropology. Anthropology is subject to all the limitations inherent in 21st-century academia, but more than any other discipline except philosophy, it has radical implications. Ninety-nine percent of people who take anthropology classes or even go on to careers in anthropology will never realize these implications, but in its best form, the encounter with alternate ontologies yanks the rug out from under yours. At first, you as a student are just collecting trivia about how other cultures do things (a 3rd house activity), but it becomes an 8th house experience when it totally blows your worldview and self-conception to smithereens and there’s nothing to replace it with. You then have to assemble a new version of reality from the ground up, trying to, in the words of Terence McKenna, “triangulate a sufficiently large number of data points in your sets of experience so that you can make a model of the world that is not imprisoning.” Until, in time, that model too is exploded.

Typical of the 8th house, this isn’t something you can plan for or arrange or will to happen. You don’t get it until you get it.

The 9th

The Hierophant, artist unknown
The Hierophant, artist unknown

Every zodiacal house bleeds into and informs its neighbors. So for example, the 7th house–the encounter with the Other–leads to the 8th house of initiation, which in turn is followed by the 9th–the hierophant. In the 9th house, the initiate, now transformed by direct experience of mortality and the chthonic forces of the underworld, returns to society and becomes a guide into the mysteries, one who brings others into the presence of the sacred.

If you look up a cookbook definition of the 9th house, you will see a rather disjointed collection of topics: foreign-language study, higher (post-secondary) learning, philosophy, law, religion, travel,  experiencing other cultures, and broadening one’s horizons. I used to struggle to tease out the common theme. The fact that Jupiter rules the 9th did nothing to clarify things for me. And then finally it clicked–the 9th house doesn’t make sense except in the context of what was learned in the 8th. The common theme of the 9th–the sacred–has been lost in most modern astrological interpretation. The “higher learning” of the 9th house is not post-secondary education, but gnosis; philosophy and law are not academic disciplines, but the theory and practice of ethics, respectively; travel, foreign languages, meeting other cultures, and the broadening of one’s horizons are, metaphorically, the skills acquired by the sage. And religion, well, that’s self-explanatory.

The negative qualities of the Hierophant of the tarot (Card V of the Major Arcana) also apply to the 9th house: dogmatic, orthodox, pompous, holier-than-thou. Now the associations with Jupiter, king of the gods, should be clear! These are the pitfalls that surround every organized form of religion and magic, and the inevitable signal loss that comes with trying to put into words and share the ineffable mysteries of the 8th house. Yet a well-balanced 9th house embodies a truly generous and idealistic calling to bring justice, peace, dignity, and awe into the lives of all. In this consideration of the role of mystics in social revolution, the characterization of “social mysticism” applies equally well to the 9th house:

“Because it imbues human relationships with the power of the divine, social mysticism generates great potential for change and creativity. It supports the formation of new perspectives, builds communities that embody them, and nurtures a particular style of interaction that’s capable of doing something quite profound: redistributing emotional energy from those who have more resources to those who have less. In these ways, mysticism can play a crucial role in creating critiques and sustaining active resistance to the prevailing social order.”

It is through the 9th house that the wisdom of the 8th is put into action and integrated into the community and into an individual’s own daily life. It is impossible to live in the 8th house–it would grind us to dust or  reduce us to gibbering madness, for one thing, but more importantly, one cannot stay forever in any one zodiacal house. The 8th house experiences have to be integrated into the individual psyche and find a way to survive re-entry into the social atmosphere. That is the work of the 9th.

8 + 9, the ambidextrous path

Understanding the natures of the 8th and 9th houses, I think, puts the lie to the false dichotomy of left- and right-hand paths. Superficially, the 8th house is decidedly left-hand, while the 9th is right-hand, but neither house exists in isolation. A given individual may feel more comfortable with the experiences of one or the other house, may find the experiences come more naturally or easily, but magic never lets us stay where we’re comfortable. Besides, if comfort is the goal, why bother with magic at all? You are barking up the wrong world-tree if you came here for an easy time. That way lies fragility.

Not only are the houses not isolated from one another, they are in fact inextricably intertwined, each flowing from the previous and into the next, each drawing meaning, purpose, and clarity from its neighbors. Similarly, if you abandon the dogma about path-handedness, you see right in the left and left in the right almost everywhere you look. Indeed it was arbitrary of me to section off the 8th and the 9th, but I can’t do the whole zodiac in one post. Hopefully in future there will be time to consider the other houses.