In which I attempt to articulate my worldview

The thoughts that follow are provisional and tentative: I think of them as operating assumptions and working models undergoing beta testing. They’re based on my personal engagement with and experience of the world, my UPG, and are not meant to be anyone else’s model. I have a great interest in the work of philosophy (I take the Ph in my degree seriously) but I don’t claim to be trained in the academic discipline. If I sound like I’m parroting some specific philosopher but don’t attribute it, it’s probably because I didn’t know that person said it first. At the same time, I’m not claiming to be the first to think these things. None came from a vacuum. Some of this, such as the metaphor of Indra’s Net, I already outlined in my post on karma. I’m assured that my worldview, by conventional standards, is “weird,” “crazy,” and “stupid,” and some have found it quite alarming, so I guess that means it’s pretty challenging to the ontological status quo. It feels only obvious to me, which makes it difficult to express; but I’ll do my best. I reserve the right to change my mind…indeed, I think that’s the whole point.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Painting by Leonora Carrington

1 – Dreamworlds with no access to objectivity

We’re not able to get out of our own “heads” to observe whatever objective, independent reality might exist. By that I mean, everything we know comes to us through some sense or own mind and there’s simply no way for us to gauge whether those senses are in any way accurate. We are, as it were, trapped in a totally subjective dreamworld which I suspect is co-created by all conscious beings. I think all sentient/conscious beings have a spirit or soul (perhaps more than one, some perhaps shared), which is not the same as the ego/self. The ego/self is conditional and ever-changing according to stimuli filtered through the physical senses and the mind and memory. Thus each individual self lives within a particular iteration of the co-created dreamworld, and while hypothetically we might captain our own dream-ship, in reality most of us are not lucid dreamers. We are absorbed by and largely passive within the dream, and our ego/selves are at least as much a product of the dreamworld as it is of us.  I would agree with the Buddhists that our ego/selves are, in that sense, illusory. The spirit or soul(s) is something which I imagine to be essential and permanent, but what it is exactly and how it relates to the ego/self I am not sure.

For some reason, our dreamworlds seem to be filled with suffering. If you buy the metaphor of Indra’s Net for the sake of argument, once suffering first got started it inevitably spread through the whole web. But why it is there in the first place I don’t know. In the New Thought/New Age, it’s believed to simply be a mistake, a delusion, limited to our dreamworlds but not a part of ultimate reality. But that doesn’t explain how and why it exists in the first place.

The fact that our dreamworlds are subjective and illusory does not justify people’s horrid behavior. You can’t simply say, no matter, it’s not really real, because it is real as long as you are dreaming. (As real as anything else, anyway.)

2- Intersubjectivity

Our relationships with other sentient/conscious beings are nexus points where our private worlds link up to and reflect each other, Indra’s-Net-style, and we get a glimpse of others’ worlds. Based on these glimpses we modify (and are further modified by) our own dreamworlds. Our subjectivity is thus an intersubjectivity. Maybe our spirit-selves transcend this dreamworld, or maybe they move into a different dreamworld (like the bardo?) when our physical bodies die. Maybe we are in the bardo now, that has certainly been suggested. The dreamworlds seem to be able to take virtually infinite forms, just like the ordinary dreams of sleep (dreams within dreams), as evidenced by some of the Bosch– or Carrington-like surreality one can experience during shamanic-type journeys. The forms are clearly not bound by earthly physics or biological evolution. As far as I can tell, the laws of physics and biology only obtain within certain dreamworlds. I guess this could be considered a form of idealism, but a better fit are the concepts of maya as used in Advaita Vedanta and sunyata as used in certain schools of Buddhism. I see this as a form of Skepticism (in the Classical sense) as well.

EDIT: I guess this could also be considered a soft form of subjective idealism, in that I’m not stating that the non-mental doesn’t exist, only that we have no means of knowing whether it exists. And you could say, well in that case, it might as well not exist as that is a purely academic distinction. But I think the distinction is meaningful. 

If they aren’t completely solipsistic, our dreamworlds do overlap. We just can’t be sure how much or in exactly what ways. We are interacting with other sentient beings at all times, but (1) we may or not be aware of that, (2) we may or may not be able to perceive them within our dream, and (3) we just don’t have an objective rubric by which to determine how much they are filtered through our dream. It’s sort of like when you’re sleeping and the telephone rings, so you dream that you answer the phone. In this metaphor, an external phone exists, but the one you answer is only in your mind.

3 – Gnosis

Gnosis is something like waking up from our private dream, possibly into a bigger more widely shared dream, possibly into some kind of objective, independent, transcendent reality (if such exists). While we are embodied, at least, it seems to be exceedingly rare for a person to be able to stay in this state of enlightenment all the time, but with dedication we can learn ways to visit it and to stay there longer. Cultural opinions vary on the best means and ends (there are more than one of each).

ANOTHER EDIT: I often hear idealism bashed as mere navel gazing and a pointless waste of time because ultimately you get to a point of having to say “who knows?” and apparently, not generating a conclusive answer is a failure. I would counter that nothing (that I can think of) that we ever experience has a conclusive answer. Everything that enters our consciousness is so inextricably bound into our intersubjective dreamworld that any “thing” is inevitably many “things” and no “thing.” I would also point out that adopting a “who knows?” attitude can be a great boon to mental health, the foundation of establishing truly compassionate and non-judgmental relations with other beings, and–this is important in terms of praxis–a radical opening to gnosis.

On a personal note, I find it very interesting that when I have tried discussing these ideas with Americans and I couch it as a discussion of, say, Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Yogacara or Madhyamaka), my interlocutor will often receive it with a certain amount of respect and curiosity, if not agreement. But if I made the same arguments but described them as my own opinions, the reaction is generally a mix of derision and worry about my sanity. 

4 – Magic

Magic, in my humble opinion (actually humble for once), is pert night useless if it doesn’t help us at least understand that our private reality is a kind of dreamworld among many dreamworlds (“jailbreak your mind”). I see magic as akin to lucid dreaming in the sense that it lets us change the rules, manipulate the architecture, of our dreamworlds as well as peek into other dreamworlds and achieve or receive gnosis. In this sense I think Dion Fortune’s definition of magic as “a change in consciousness in accordance with will” is quite accurate. The New Age notion of “creation of reality” is thus both true and untrue–yes, we are co-creating it, but so is everyone else. No one has full control over or clear perception of their own dreamworld, let alone anyone else’s. You have to be a boss wizard to even put your hands on the steering wheel. Yet knowing it’s a dream gets you that much closer to waking up. The more cognizant you become that it’s a dream, the more dreamlike your dreamworld starts to behave, with time getting more wibbley-wobbley and timey-wimey and non-linear and synchronicities multiplying and strangely allegorical and symbolic events happening. Stuff gets weird. At the same time, this is why magic actually does work. Magic is simply how dreams work.

One implication of this is that we don’t actually need any ritual trappings or spells, and I suspect that is true, but perhaps you have to get way more lucid to do it reliably without the props.

5 – A singular, panpsychic, fractal-ish universe (monism)

I find the notion of a multiverse entirely unpersuasive. I mean, there’s not even any proof of it (nor can there be, as I understand it) within physics–it’s purely a hypothetical thought experiment designed to try and wiggle out of the otherwise-inexplicable. “Universe” by definition means all things, so if we found another one, we’d have to subsume both of those in a greater universe, and so on ad infinitum. In that sense, I am a monist and non-dualist. This could be considered a form of pantheism, but I guess that depends on how you define a theos. However, I suppose there might be other dreamworlds in which you have other egos/selves. That would be cool. I’ll have to think more about that.

I like the idea that the Monad possesses, or better yet is, some form of consciousness (panpsychism in the broad sense, not the ridiculous version some materialists are trying to palm off on us). I find the concept of lila in Indian philosophies to be a very appealing way of modeling creation and existence (a sort of outflowing of pure divine bliss). My experiences of gnosis so far have been blissful, but ultimately I guess I don’t have any way to know.

It could be argued that, insofar as I’m in a dream, I can’t really know who is actually sentient/conscious and whom I merely dream to be so. I have to concede it. Skepticism (in the Classical sense) ultimately leads on to solipsism, and there’s really no way to argue your way out of that. I believe others to be real because if I am real, it only makes sense that others are too; however, it’s possible that I only ever interact with/relate to my dream-versions of others. Regardless, I think the best operating assumption is that everything else is as much a sentient, agentic, in/spirited entity as I am and that we are all part of a Monad/Universe which I would prefer to believe is conscious. I mean why not? Consciousness exists, it has to come from somewhere. If it exists somewhere, it is at the very least part of the Monad/Universe. Does this mean that we are one and the same as the Monad, or are we derivative yet within it? Damned if I know. How would you even divide a monad, isn’t that an oxymoron? I think it might just be a question of your scale of analysis, fractal-like. It’s turtles all the way down.

In my dreamworld, I have had experience with sentient/conscious non-embodied beings just as I have with embodied ones. So from my experience, at least in my dreamworld, consciousness is not consubstantial with nor confined to physical matter. And I have felt/sensed what seemed to be consciousness or maybe something like mana in ostensibly inanimate “things” such as stones, water, and so on. Of course, though we may identify these as single entities, like us they are full of smaller beings–bacteria, fungi, moss, algae, etc. Their consciousness may be manifold, and so might ours. Again, it is fractal and a matter of scale. As above, so below. In “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology” (Current Anthropology 40:S1, 1999), Bird-David proposes the concept of the “dividual.” Unlike an individual, the dividual is not atomistic but constituted within and by his/her relationships. This is one reason why ego/selves are contingent and illusory and not bounded or permanent.

If spirits can be without physical bodies, I suppose one could make the argument that there could be physical bodies without spirits and without consciousness (i.e., inanimate things), but as I said I think best practice is to treat “everybody” as “somebody.” Just in case. I can’t see any a priori reason to assume that a rock, say, or a tree, or the entire Earth, or the Sun, etc. etc. don’t have sentience/consciousness. In order to make such a claim, I feel I’d have to fully understand all the possible dimensions and manifestations of consciousness, which I don’t. Not even within my own particular dreamworld. Perhaps all consciousness is just a fractal iteration of the Monad? If that’s true “we” (the Monad) would be effectively looking in a mirror whenever we perceive or interact with “other” consciousnesses.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Another one by Carrington

6 – A few practical implications

As I said, I think best practice is to err on the side of compassion and treat all the “others” in our dreamworlds as objectively real, conscious/sentient, and intertwined with ourselves. Dreamworlds are best viewed as interpenetrating. I honestly believe that’s as good an approximation of reality as my brain is likely to ever get to, but I also think it’s a major part of just not being a jerk. To paraphrase Uncle Al, Love is the Law–or might as well be. Everyone else is suffering already, let’s make an effort to not add to it and even to alleviate some of it.

In my view, given the nature of karma as previously described, every time a being realizes the impermanence, illusion (maya), and emptiness (sunyata) of their dreamworld it benefits every other being. Waking up is a legitimate way to help alleviate the suffering of all.

Speaking of which, this seems like a good point to correct what I think is a misapprehension of Buddhist philosophy, with the inevitable caveat that there are many schools of Buddhism. It’s a big, big tent. But all the schools I know anything about are united in this: Buddhism is not about resigning yourself to your place within the status quo and learning to be happy with it. Like Gnosticism, Buddhism is a set of techniques for lucid dreaming and ultimately awakening. It was, and remains, radical because it doesn’t require gods, gurus, lineages, monasteries or temples, marriage or celibacy, poverty or wealth–but it also doesn’t preclude them. It doesn’t even require that you accept a single article of faith except for the possibility that if you try the techniques, they might reduce your suffering. Reducing pain is just the entry point, though. Now like every religion, or set of techniques that evolved into a religion, Buddhism as we know it has all those lineages and temples and hierarchies and so on that its own teachings emphasize you don’t need. I don’t think that invalidates the teachings. (I would say the same of Christianity.)

Seeing this all spelled out in writing, I ask myself (yet again), why magic? Honestly, I go back and forth with magic. We have an on-again, off-again relationship. Magic is a lot of work, much of it dull as dirt, for very unpredictable, strange results. It’s rarely the shortest or simplest method to get from Point A to Point B. I would argue that the reason magic has the weird results it does is because that is how dreams work. Dreams are a mysterious combination of the inappropriately and inconsistently logical leading to the totally absurd, coupled with liberal symbolism, allegory, and analogy. Magic makes connections bizarrely in the same way our minds make connections bizarrely.

However, if you’re only using magic to manipulate the dream, without realizing that it is a dream, I would respectfully ask why you bother. For example, in my dreamworld, you have to have money to eat, and I like to eat, so I need to acquire and use money. I don’t see any reason not to use magic to hack the dream so that becomes easier, and lord knows it is more interesting than the drudgery that is known as “earning” a living. If magic reduces that drudgery and adds a little color, that’s reason enough. But only because I also am learning to dream lucidly and even awaken entirely, if that is indeed possible. Of the two, I put the greater emphasis on the latter set of methods, because otherwise I would just be magically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Returning to the topic of animism, I think the metaphor of Indra’s Net, taken to its logical conclusion, presupposes animism (sensu lato) because literally nothing exists which is not in the net and no one jewel on the net is ultimately different in nature from the others. Therefore if any one is animate, all are. And in this sense, I can call myself an animist–but I’m no longer sure if that is the most useful descriptor.

Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology

Britannia

Among the many, many–MANY–thoughts and feels rattling around my head at the moment, I decided to pick out one thread and brain dump it here to see if it amounts to anything. I had actually planned to write about this a couple posts ago but, you know, life.

This thread has to do with deities and/of hierarchy, our moral stance on that, and neo-Gnosticism. It’s a big topic. Not gonna lie, this could get long.

Hierarchy is understandably very unpopular with those of us who are not at the top of it, and we Americans like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. Not long ago a little debate about Jupiter flared up online (I already opined on it here), and currently I seem to be hearing about Gnosticism all over the place (this is but one example and this is another). Gnosticism is a pretty eclectic umbrella, though–the currently popular belief is basically that everyone bigger than us is out to get us. In a nutshell: The world is a horrible place for us, mostly due to “control systems” that are at minimum imposed by earthly archons and perhaps by nonphysical, even transcendental, ones as well. Knowing this is the first stage in becoming liberated from the control systems, but we also have to take actions to avoid control and resist/destroy it where possible.

I have to admit I’m a little…alarmed is maybe too strong a word, certainly a bit concerned…by this rhetoric. I don’t deny that life as we know it is full of suffering and drudgery, nor that earthly (at least) control systems exist in which murder, oppression, and exploitation are a feature not a bug. The past couple months I’ve been experiencing a sort of slow-burning existential horror at the thought of how much of my too-short life I am expected to devote to people, organizations, and causes I at best am indifferent to, and at worst actively despise, in the name of “earning a living.” So I mean, I get where the original Gnostics that held this belief were coming from, and why it’s relevant again today. What bothers me is that I’m not hearing any real philosophical engagement with it. If you believe that humans are essentially prey/slaves/farm animals, that implies a certain ontology which, I think, deserves to be more than implied but actually made explicit and critically examined. Inquiring minds want to know. (This goes for animism too, by the way. It’s not enough to say everything is alive–woopty-doo.)

Though I have ample personal experience of the earthly control systems, I haven’t seen any evidence to persuade me either way as to whether any transcendental archons exist, and whether or not any or all deities should be classed as such, let alone what exactly they do.

I have been listening to podcasts as I do my (control-system mandated) chores such as mowing the lawn, and my favorite continues to be Story Archaeology, which ticks so many of my interest boxes, including folklore, Irish culture, language, and mythology, etymology, landscape, storytelling, and women in all of those things. Though it’s not a pagan podcast, I think it’s absolutely essential listening for those interested in Gaelic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism, because the research presented helps to blast through all those crusty unhelpful concepts like “sovereignty goddesses.” It is one of the only places where new information about these deities is being produced in English, and not just the same old-same old that circulates, citationless, around the internets.

So here’s my case study/thought exercise. The latest podcast about Brig a.k.a. Brigid (see also this earlier one) got some wheels turning in my head, as I heard it around the same time the Great Gnostic Jupiter Debate was in full swing. I knew that the name Brig refers to a high place in the landscape, and is probably linguistically related to the continental form Brigantia which is attested in many inscriptions and possibly place names and, through syncretization with the Roman Minerva and Victoria, has come down to us in the form of Britannia. But (stupidly, as it now seems to me) I had not made the connection between high places and the hillforts or oppida which are widespread throughout the “Celtic” regions of temperate Europe. (In fact, that’s why it’s impossible to really say whether the place names are derived from the goddess or simply refer to a hillfort.) Connections between Brig and Brigantia are only conjectural at this point, but taken together there is very suggestive evidence that Britain and continental Western Europe had a victory-cum-warrior goddess who was a patroness of hillforts and the people who made them. Oppida are not really urban centers, though they might be classed as proto-urban; there were some residences inside but most people in a given region would have lived on isolated farmsteads outside the hillfort. Archaeologically we know that they were centers of iron-working and were heavily defended, and we speculate that elites resided there. Ireland doesn’t have hillforts proper but does have hilltop elite settlements. If the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy is to be believed, there was an entire (large) tribe in Britain called the Brigantes, and the name of the Roman province derives from the word/name.

oppida distribution map
Source

So taken all together it looks likely that what we have in Brigantia is a goddess of the rulers, those who inhabit castles, essentially. People who live in castles generally go around oppressing people who live outside of castles. It makes sense that her name should appear in so many places and inscriptions, since castle-dwellers usually get to name all the things. But regardless of how Brigantia was perceived (or used) in the Iron Age, as Britannia she became a symbol of conquest and dominion right round the world. “Britannia rule the waves” indeed.

Brigantia

Now it’s true, Brigantia might not be Brig, and both might not have come down to us as St. Brigid, to be re-deified as Brighid. But there are some possible links: According to the 9th-century Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic)–and it is the only source for this–there were originally three goddesses named Brigid, one a goddess of poetry, one of smithcraft, and one of healing. Brig only appears as more than a name check in one Irish story, in which she invents keening (a form of mourning poetry) as she laments the death of her son at the hands of a smith in a forge. (Her son couldn’t be healed because his people had just got done destroying the only healing well. If Brig had any healing powers, evidently they weren’t of any use on this occasion.) For her part, St. Brigid is associated with healing wells and holy virgins who keep an eternal flame.

Bear with me as I tease that out. As much as we think of holy wells as a quintessentially Celtic phenomenon, Mallery (2010) argues that the Irish cult of the holy well was adopted from Roman Britain, and that those Romano-British wells that evidence deposition are all located near Iron Age and early medieval “royal sites.” So (1) maybe Brigantia came to Ireland from Britain like Nodens/Nuada and the holy well cult, or direct from the continent like Lugus/Lug and Ogmios/Ogma. Ptolemy does say there were Brigantes in what is now Leinster, and while the Romans never conquered Ireland, archaeological evidence does suggest some Romans went there. After all, St. Patrick himself was a Romano-Briton. And (2) maybe holy wells were an elite phenomenon. (I’m reminded of Lewis Spence‘s suggestion that druids were specifically priests of a cult of divine kingship, not the religion of the Celtic everyman.)

Next, you have the holy virgins keeping an eternal flame. One can’t help but think of the Vestal virgins, and certainly the Irish medieval chroniclers would have known about them–Ireland was the center of European learning at the time, after all, and that included Classical learning. My point is that while these nuns and their flame could have been an indigenous development, or even something harking back to extremely ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, there’s no way we can be sure it didn’t come over from Roman Britain along with other things that we know did.

As for the smithcraft, archaeologically we know that iron-working was performed at industrial scale at some of the larger oppida. The abundance of ordinary iron agricultural implements shows that iron wasn’t restricted to elites, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t control manufacture and distribution. There’s really no way it could happen at an industrial scale, at the probable site of elite residence, without elite patronage and oversight. That isn’t to say that iron-working didn’t go on at a smaller scale, it certainly did; but there was likely also an elite-dominated production scale. And one of the main categories of things produced was weapons. Indeed, the Iron Age in Europe saw the first emergence (so far as can be determined from archaeological evidence) of standing armies and full-time professional warriors. It was also the first time metal became widely available–bronze was scarce and monopolized by elites–and there are a plethora of magical beliefs related to iron and iron-working from many cultures. In short, smiths were magical people who made necessary war tools for rulers–there’s every reason to think the rulers would want to keep tabs on them.

I could try to get even more hypothetical and point out that poetry was something “Celtic” and Irish elites were hugely preoccupied with (indeed only the very wealthy could afford a professional keener for their dead), and that the stories associating St. Brigid with livestock and agricultural fertility link her to the source of those elites’ wealth, and her much-vaunted hospitality to the competitive display of that wealth. But I think there’s enough material here already to hypothesize that Brighid/St. Brigid has her origins as (and, as Britannia, still is) a goddess of warlike imperialists and their archonic control systems. The meaning of her name alone is sufficient to convince me that she is a goddess of rulers (yeah, I know that link is Wikipedia, but this article is as good as they get over there; contrast it with the page on Brigid which is pure dreck). We know that Jupiter was a god of emperors; we have forgotten that about Brigantia.

None of this is intended to tarnish the reputation of Brighid/St. Brigid. Elites write the histories and inscriptions in which their gods and goddesses are going to be prominent, so statistically, there’s a much better chance that after the attrition of thousands of years, those are the gods and goddesses who will make their way down to us. The priests of divine kingship are the ones we’re mostly going to know about. The pastimes and concerns of the elites are going to become our idea of what was important to the whole damn culture. You see the same thing with some of the Shinto kami, e.g., the only mythological texts in existence were written to legitimize imperial hegemony; Amaterasu is the best-known and most powerful kami because she is the royal ancestress. Nonetheless, everything evolves, including the tiny facets of deities that we can look at and comprehend. I put it to you that there will probably never be a form, or stratum, of human society that can’t find a relevant facet of Brighid/Brigid/Brigantia with which to connect.

So going back to the quasi-Gnostic worldview I mentioned at the beginning (never trust anything bigger than you), and its manifestation via the Jupiter debate (don’t trust anyone the elites like), I guess one could argue that Brighid does not have our best interests at heart and should be chucked out along with all other archons. For all I know, maybe that’s true; but there sure are a lot of people–including poor, marginalized people–in the Irish, pagan, Christian, and Vodou religious communities that love their manifestation of Brighid/Brigid/Brigitte. For me to assume they are all mistaken or selling out to the enemy feels too much like those fundamentalist Christians who say that when your dear granny visits you from beyond the grave it’s really Satan trying to deceive you. Or skeptics convinced that all the thousands upon thousands of people who report seeing ghosts or UFOs are ignorant green-teeth hillbillies and deluded victims of pseudoscience.

I don’t care whether you worship Brighid or any deities–that’s between you and them. But I do want to see these neo-Gnostic and animistic ontologies really opened up and explored. What happens to our ontology of predator/prey relations if we accept another common Gnostic belief, that reality as we perceive it is illusory and subjective and we are ill-equipped to recognize, let alone understand, it? To extend William James’ metaphor, just because we cats are miserable in the library, does that tell us anything about the library, let alone what’s in the books, let alone the librarians? Could it be that at least some of that misery stems from the fact that we fundamentally can’t conceive of a library, rather than it being malevolent? What if we are not even cats in the library, what if we are more like bacteria?

The entire concept of gnosis (as I understand it) was to connect with the real reality that is hidden by the sham reality we experience through ordinary consciousness. That can’t be done by reason alone, nor by faith alone, nor by observation of “the facts” we can perceive. If it were that easy, everybody would be enlightened. We will not succeed in (to borrow a phrase from Circle Thrice) “jailbreaking our minds” through clumsy, cat-specific predator/prey or pseudo-Marxist magical-class-war models of reality. If our models, or our deity worship, aren’t helping us see beyond cat-world, they are really not much use.

A glimmer of coagula

For the past year or so, it’s been all solve and no coagula for me, but I think I’m finally beginning to get a vague sense of solidity. I imagine it like the first dream of the benben stone coalescing within the chaos of Nun, just a slightly denser bit of void, or a twinkle in Atum’s eye. I don’t yet know what shape it will take or whether I will alight upon it, and whatever I write about it at this early stage will probably be embarrassingly rambling, clumsy, and naive. Yet it seems like a good time to try and thrash it out.

At this moment peace of mind is hard to come by, and I look back on easier times and think what I wouldn’t give for a little equanimity. (“Serenity now!”) But just realizing that I want peace of mind actually gets me a little closer to it. Meanwhile, I think magic is becoming more of an ontology for me than a practice per se. Being such a newbie, I never had what you’d call an intensive or adept magical practice, but at any rate, right now simply living magically in an entangled universe is enough. Spells, rituals, offerings, incantations, what have you are all complications I can’t deal with.

serenity now

A question has been bouncing around in my head, not really a question so much as a contrast, between seeking to experience and be in the world with as little abstraction or analytical overlay as possible (i.e., gnosis as I understand it) and seeking to actively participate in the shaping of the world according to one’s desires through magic. Far be it from me to tell you your business, but for me the latter is dependent on the former. My biggest struggle when it comes to magic (as a practice) is that I perceive the universe to be thoroughly entagled, an Indra’s Web, and my mind as I have always known it is a pitifully inadequate tool for navigating such a reality. When I have taken action to improve the circumstances of my current incarnation I get a lot of synchronicities in response that suggest my tiny actions are having bigger effects, and yet I suspect that it may be more due to the change in my consciousness than to the specific actions themselves. (Paging Dion Fortune…) Which is not to say that magic is only about intent or (gods forbid) vibrational level; but perhaps in spite of myself I leveled up in terms of gnosis. It’s just one metaphysical proposition among many, but the only ontology that has ever really made sense to me is that embodied human life as we know it is a virtual reality, or a dream. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the programmers’ code, or half wake up for a moment, but mostly we mistake it for the only and ultimate reality. I see no reason not to dream lucidly and make your incarnational circumstances as enjoyable as possible, but after glimpsing that code (mixing metaphors, sorry), I don’t know…it just feels a little hollow. (Cats in libraries indeed.)

I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, in case it gives me any idea of where I’ll end up next. I often read that the practice of magic is all about power, or at least about self-determination, but what brought me to this point was just the desire to see more of that Code. From an early age I sensed aspects of reality that I felt certain were real but which I couldn’t quite grasp or directly interact with. One form this took was ghosts, another was some kind of mental communication with someone or something who knew things I didn’t, another was apparently feeling others’ emotions. Mainstream ontologies insisted this unseen world didn’t exist, but I knew that was bullshit and became convinced that the unseen was realer than “reality.” I read a lot of mythology and folklore trying to learn more about this elusive Otherworld. When I was about 12 I started making an active effort to communicate with it. I got my first tarot deck. Come to think of it, it might have been some other unique cartomantic deck. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, but it had Egyptian deities and the backs of the cards were orange. I saw it behind the counter at Tower Books (aging myself) and eyed it furtively for a long time before finally getting up the courage to ask the cashier to get it out for me, and my mom for money to buy it. In the end I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I had been bitten by the divination bug. I tried my hand at runes, and had especially good success with Yijing (I Ching) casting. A few years later I started with astrology.

We moved to a part of the country with a mostly Latino population and I became interested in curanderismo, but didn’t have any obvious way into that community. At the same time my aunt and cousin kind of got into Wicca. It was all intriguing but I remained an outsider looking in. In retrospect I realize that what I wanted, and what I needed in order to commit, was some kind of incontrovertible response from the Other side. I guess ghosts weren’t enough. I didn’t want power, what I wanted was to have faith. All I knew was, I sure as hell didn’t want to be in the driver’s seat, but I was desperately hoping somebody was. The reality I knew as a teenager was not something I dreamed of controlling, but of escaping. Had I known more about Gnosticism at the time, I probably would have gotten really into it, as I understood the Black Iron Prison at a visceral level.

Anyway, fast forward, I found a copy of The Teachings of Buddha in the nightstand drawer in a Los Angeles hotel and kept it, delved into Buddhist and Advaita philosophy for several years, and had my first encounters with Shinto, got disenchanted by science, made a decision to re-enchant. But now I didn’t want to escape the world but to engage with it more fully. I was still trying to read the code but coming at it from a different angle. Strangely, the virtual world became more poignantly beautiful to me once I had had some incontrovertibly real experiences of the Otherworld.

Would (neo-)paganism get me closer to it? I wondered. No. It lacked an ontology/cosmology/theology that was as concrete as my experiences of the Other, and all these pantheons of gods and goddesses of this or that abstraction, or worse yet “the” God and “the” Goddess, just didn’t feel real. While I’ve always accepted polytheism as the most likely scenario, I struggle with understanding what a theos is. Even now, my experiences with “deities” take two forms–either I have a sense of something like a manner-of-being-or-doing-with-its-own-awareness, or of a very specific and usually very localized powerful noncorporeal entity, similar to the concept of kami in Shinto, which is why Shinto appeals to me so much.

To take a concrete example, Hermes. There’s much talk across these magical internets about trickster deities, among them Hermes, and if you look at his list of attributions he’s certainly a god for the modern age. But the only Hermes I have ever experienced I can sort of approximate as a conscious liminality which is also an Axis Mundi that can be traveled between worlds. Hermes to me is (for lack of a better term) a state of awareness, a mode of experience and of being-in-the-world. Not a god of thresholds, but a conscious Thresholdness. It’s very hard for me to think of making offerings or petitions to Thresholdness, to Liminality. I can’t dial “him” up like a person (I tried); the closest analogy I can think of is it would be more like temporarily plugging into another dimension. It’s that vast. This being doesn’t speak to me in words; “he” simply is present or not present in any given quality of experience. I can’t help but think that maybe people in antiquity had a similar experience, given that, as I understand it, Hermes basically means “Boundary-Marker.” Although not the same being, my experience of Shiva has been very similar in type. I realize the irony as I type this, because language forces me to render this in terms of the very abstractions I’m trying to avoid, yet the experiences are quite concrete.

This way of relating to powers feels very primitive (in the phylogenetic sense of ancestral, of the root) to me, free-form and highly individual in a way that we commonly shorthand as “shamanistic.” However, absent the community service part of the job description, I can’t call myself a shaman. Still, I find this freedom and individuality really appealing, and authentic, and grounded in a way that, for the moment, requires further exploration. It feels like Code. So in practical terms I find myself cycling back to my entry point into magic, meditation. But instead of a discipline it’s now a reprieve.

Ghost forest

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Near my house.

I’m on my way back home after three weeks of Too Much Christmas out west with friends and family. I was homesick the whole time and so spent a lot of time thinking about the house I live in, the landscape, and the many spirits therein.

Along the way a penny dropped and I think I understand why I keep thinking of my home as in the woods when in fact it’s in the middle of fallow fields. I mean yes, there are stands of trees all over, some are even quite old I suspect, but they are discontinuous patches along the side of the road, the riverbanks, the edge of the creek (or “run” in local parlance)–they aren’t the old-growth, undisturbed deciduous woodlands I have in mind when I think of “our” 40 acres.

It’s a ghost forest.

Once it hit me the haunted feeling of that landscape started to take on more dimension, to be less a question mark and more a comma. There are human ghosts there, yes, but there are non-human ghosts as well, and things that never had bodies at all.

Around the same time, I finally succeeded in digging up a little information about the family who built the house I live in. The patriarch and matriarch are buried on what used to be part of their property, which now belongs to a separate parcel of land (luckily our neighbors are cool and let my housemate and me go up and check out the gravesite). I even found a picture of the patriarch, who looked just like I had imagined him. Now I can put a name to him when I talk to him.

I say “ghost” forest but maybe that’s not quite the right word, or rather, it only captures part of the phenomenon. It might be best understood as overlapping worlds, much as the human and faery worlds were conceived in the “Celtic” countries: immanent to each other, interpenetrating, on separate timelines and yet inextricably connected. This ghost forest may also be a foretaste of a forest yet to be. Maybe this forest is in the underworld; maybe the underworld is just closer, where I live.

Mor Rigain, Elen, and thoughts on modern “Celtic” paganism

Elen of the Ways from John Matthews' Celtic Shaman's Pack
Elen of the Ways from John Matthews’ Celtic Shaman’s Pack

Following are just some thoughts I’ve been working with. They’re probably not very coherent, and they’re certainly not intended as the last word on anything.

First of all, I suppose some might wonder why I write “Celtic” in quotes. In the field of archaeology, there are those who believe that there was sufficient cultural unity among the Iron Age peoples who lived in the area between the Mediterranean region in the south, Scandinavia in the north, and the Scythians in the east to call them by a single cultural name, which is Celts. The name is ultimately derived from the Greek name Keltoi, but no one knows if they used such a name for themselves, and anyway Keltoi went out of vogue along with Greek hegemony. The Roman version of the word was Gaul, but they applied it more specifically (e.g., for the Romans, people from east of the Rhine were Germans, not Gauls–even though archaeologically they look the same as their neighbors west of the river). The name Celts came out of 19th-century linguistics, when languages were being categorized and placed onto phylogenetic trees; a linguist (can’t remember his name off the top of my head, sorry) grouped Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Breton together and called them “Celtic,” figuring they were representative of the languages spoken by that particular flavor of barbarian the Greeks called Keltoi. So anyway, the archaeologists in this camp argue that these Celtic-speaking people’s commonalities outweighed their local differences, and they would have all recognized one another as belonging to a semi-coherent group relative to outsider groups (Romans, Scythians, what have you), so we can safely call them all by one general name.

There is another camp who believe that, while there is evidence from placenames to suggest that languages belonging to the so-called Celtic branch of Indo-European were spoken within the region described, and a decorative style (La Tène) which became widespread (notwithstanding local variations) there, that is not sufficient evidence to conclude that everyone in temperate Europe would have identified with one another. And if they didn’t, then there’s no reason we should. For this group of scholars, use of the term Celts requires that they define the term anew every time they use it, with the literature review and the dozens of citations, the arguments for and against basing cultural ascriptions on language, etc., that inevitably would require–so it’s just not worth the effort. It’s much easier to use a more specific term like “the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age population of Lower-Humpton-on-Doodle” for example, since academic papers always tend to be focused on one narrow little time and place anyway.

I find the second argument more persuasive–and would apply it equally to other putative unified groups like Scythians and Germans and Native Americans–but I recognize that Celts has a certain meaning for most people today: that is, Celtic-speaking people living in temperate Europe from the Iron Age up through the early middle ages, who made La Tène- or medieval Irish-style art. In modern times, people from Ireland, Wales, and Scotland and their American descendants have found common cause in Celtic identity, which in part has enabled resistance to British (English) colonialism, and that shared identity has been retrojected into the past. That’s problematic, if understandable, and if I were writing for an academic journal I wouldn’t use the term Celtic at all; but I use it since it has meaning for people today, though I put it in quotes to show the word has issues.

Wow, that digression was rather longer than I intended. But in a way, it’s emblematic of the entire problem that has been bothering me, which is:

We need to stop trying to shoehorn the past into our modern categories. And we need to get more rigorous about our epistemology.

I’ll be honest. There’s a side of me that is really bothered by historical inaccuracy. There is another side of me that is aware of all the myriad problems with “history” and “accuracy” but just doesn’t want to go there right now. I know how to keep my historical-reactionary side in her place but she is right that this need to apply modern categories to the past, or for that matter human categories to the divine, and the inability to recognize why these categories are irrelevant, have led to a lot of BS in paganism. By BS I don’t just mean trivial historical inaccuracies; I mean a complete unmooring from context. In the first Rune Soup podcast, an interview with Peter Grey from Scarlet Imprint, Gordon opines that if the current magical renaissance can be said to have a unique form or trajectory, it is the restoration of context to magic. That stuck with me because I have talked before about the pitfalls of loss of context, but to sum up my view, we don’t need to worry so much about accurate replication of some ritual practice or magical tech, but rather why we are doing it, why it even exists in the first place. And this should be an ongoing dialogue with ourselves and our spiritually significant others.

It’s cool to see people working to restore context to magic; is that happening within paganism too? I honestly don’t know as I’m not really a pagan. And the main reason I’m not is because of this lack of context.

What specifically do I mean when I say lack of context? In my last post as I was singing the praises of the Story Archaeology podcast, I mentioned (not quite in so many words) that the hosts have basically demolished the notion that Mór Rígain (a.k.a., the Morrigan) was a war or death goddess. Yet this is the prevailing view of her in modern paganism even/especially among devotees of Irish deities. (See the Wikipedia article if you don’t believe me. It is terrible even by Wikipedia standards.) Now I’m not going to tell the Great Queen what she can and can’t do; perhaps she’s happy to be addressed as a war goddess. But we can only see her that way by essentially ignoring everything she does and says in the extant texts, and what kind of devotion or scholarship is that?

Almost everything in this description is wrong.
With all due respect to the artist, almost everything in this description is wrong.

Is our psycho-cultural need to shoehorn Mór Rígain into a war goddess role so great that we are going to let it blind us (1) to everything else she actually is and (2) everything we could learn about ancient Irish/”Celtic” society/beliefs/values through a better understanding of her? And if our need is so great, what effect does that have on our personal gnosis of Mór Rígain?

This gets to my point about having a more rigorous approach to epistemology. On the one hand, we must learn to content ourselves with the fact that very little is known about the “Celtic” deities–in most cases we don’t even know who is a deity! This makes it all the more tempting to try and force a modern (usually Classically-inspired) framework onto them, to create a pantheon and categorize them according to what they are god/desses “of.”On the other, we really need to interrogate the assumptions and psycho-cultural needs we are bringing to the table and how they limit our experiences of these deities.

I think the case of “Elen of the Ways” is one of the most egregious examples of lack of context leading us into neopagan fantasyland. Like a lot of people with British ancestors, I’m a descendant of Elen Luyddog, or Elen “of the Hosts,” a Romano-British ancestrix saint to whom–or rather, to whose putative husband, the 4th-century Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus–many families trace their descent. We don’t know much about her from history, she could even be a historical fabrication or pure legend; much as I would like to claim descent from her as a goddess, it is a leap too far to ascribe divine status to her. Elen is also called “of the Ways,” because according to one medieval text, “Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made.”

This article is a thorough and concise explanation of this epistemological quagmire. Elen appears in the tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion, in which Magnus Maximus (Macsen) is totally mythologized; there’s no reason to assume Elen didn’t get the same treatment. No one argues Magnus was a god, yet the magical elements of Elen’s part in the story are taken at face value:

“…which has led many modern pagans to proclaim her as a goddess of roads, ley lines, shamanic journeying etc….a goddess presiding over ‘dream pathways’ and the ‘Guardian of all who journey’….Some modern pagans see Elen Luyddog as a ‘goddess of sovereignty’…”

Oh boy. But wait, it gets better:

“…the modern pagan goddess Elen is often visualised or encountered as an antlered woman, often wearing deer hides or possessing fur herself. This image is as far from a cultured Romano-British Empress as is possible. Now, to take a sceptical view, this may be a chicken and egg situation. It happens that the Bulgarian word for reindeer is ‘elen’, and I wonder if someone has put two and two together and made five. To take a generous view, there is a remote possibility that Elen was originally a reindeer goddess whose name has miraculously survived into a modern language, and that she was the original ‘Elen of the Ways’ who later became conflated with Elen of the Hosts….For those looking for the oldest of the old religions, Elen becomes perfect. Not only does she appear to be a goddess of sovereignty, whom Macsen Wledig weds to gain the kingship of Britain, she also becomes a goddess of ancient pathways walked by a species of deer not seen in Britain since the end of the last ice age.

“This image of Elen, as far as I can gather, originates with Caroline Wise in the 1980’s…”

I think “someone has put two and two together and made five” sums this story up perfectly. Not only do we have the leap from politically powerful Romano-British woman to pre-Roman goddess of sovereignty, we also have the leap from commissioner of roads to primeval goddess of all forms of journeying. Now as far as that goes, it just seems to be a case of assuming every person in legend must be a god/dess and proceeding to inflate the case accordingly. A classic case of de-contextualization. But there is a weirder, more interesting, and potentially more problematic issue at stake:

“…it remains true that Someone out there, and possibly more than one Someone, is answering to the name ‘Elen’. This may be the ancestral spirit of Elen Luyddog, or it may be something else altogether….It is not unlikely that a goddess, perhaps because she likes the offerings being given, or because she is a powerful being in that particular locality, chooses to answer when a name is called. [It is not unlikely that a hungry ghost would answer, either.]…I have no problem believing that she could be a powerful ancestral being that has become attached to the roads that she has been associated with for at least eight hundred years, or that another entity interested in these roads has begun answering to the name of Elen.”

It’s that “another entity” that bothers me. We can never be completely certain, when we dial the Other side, who is going to pick up. To some extent that may even be a-feature-not-a-bug of the connection. But on a purely practical level, as a descendant of Elen, I want to know that when I call, it’s my 46th great-grandma who is answering and not some random stranger with no vested interest in my wellbeing. And if I reach out and touch someone who shows up as a reindeer goddess, I want to know who that being is–I don’t want to force a square peg into an Elen-shaped hole.

Improving signal strength and fidelity, however, is supposed to be part of what we are doing here, part of the whole point of magic. For those who are drawn to “Celtic” paganism, this all begs the question, do you want to know your deities (bearing in mind you’ll never have all the organizational details you would for Greek, Roman or Egyptian ones) or would you rather just play with Celtic deity paper dolls? And for all of us, what are we going to do to improve signal strength and fidelity? How are we going to improve our spiritual scholarship? How are we going to return context to what has been de-contextualized for 1000+ years? Are we really struggling down this old crooked path just to see our own psychodramas reflected back at us, or are we trying to do something greater here?

Reality is a moving target

I couldn't think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here's a puppy.
I couldn’t think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here’s a puppy.

In his latest post on The Well of Galabes blog, John Michael Greer poses a question that, to judge from the comments, resonated with a lot of people–myself included.

“Abstract verbal thought…is a waste of time in operative magic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s of the highest importance when you’re outside the temple; a solid grasp of occult philosophy, which functions at a high degree of intellectual abstraction, is essential for success in ceremonial magic…but once you set foot inside the temple, raise your hands, and begin the opening ritual, how well you succeed will depend on how well you can set aside abstract thinking for the time being and participate fully, nonverbally, emotionally and sensuously in each moment of the work.

“That recognition leads into deep waters, which will have to wait for some other time. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out—as I’ve pointed out here before—that abstract concepts are further from reality than the experiences they attempt to describe and explain. In moving from thinking to experience, in magical practice or out of it, we’re moving closer to what’s real, and getting closer to what’s real seems to be essential to the effective practice of operative magic. I’ll close with a question: what does it imply about the universe if getting closer to reality makes reality more open to change?

(Emphasis mine.) I couldn’t resist replying to the post by comment but there are so many implications relevant to this here blog that I decided to expand that comment into a post.

For the purposes of this post, I am accepting a priori that it is accurate to say that reality is more open to change as we get closer to it. That requires that I define what I mean by reality. The only problem there is that I actually have no idea what reality is. Whatever it is, we interface with it through our physical senses (and through other, less well-understood senses) and then take the perceptual data, filter it through our expectations and preconceptions, and use whatever comes out the other end to construct scenarios (with our imagination?) that we think of as “real,” objective, and outside ourselves. Even when we know or suspect that this “reality” is more a subjective creation of our own mind, shadows on a cave wall are all most people will ever experience, so they’re real by consensus.

Of course, dear readers, we wouldn’t be drawn to magic, mysticism, and etc. if we were content to accept consensus reality. So we have to ask, what is causing those signals we perceive with our senses? Maybe it’s waves and particles. Or maybe the waves and particles are themselves phenomena of our perceptive apparatus. Who knows? I sure as hell don’t, and I don’t trust or respect anyone who says they do. So let us just accept for the sake of discussion that some kind of objective reality exists, which we are part of, but which we don’t fully experience or understand.

Now our starting premise is, (1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience; while we get further away from it when we try to name, describe, represent, or evaluate experience via abstraction and verbalization. (2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

So indulge me as I wax loquacious on the possibilities…

(1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience.

If this is true, then we need better models of reality than the popular ones produced by scientistic-materialism. At first blush, our premise and those of scientistic-materialism might not seem mutually contradictory, but if you think about it, scientistic-materialist models of reality are actually extremely abstract. Which is totally ironic since materialists are convinced matter is the only thing that exists and that everything else is merely mental abstraction (though usually they don’t put it that politely). But I ask you, what is more abstract than the formal scientific method? I don’t mean the process of forming a hypothesis and seeing if it stands up to experience–that’s an ordinary part of human life, also known as trial and error. I mean the notions that an observer can stand outside of what they are observing, that what is real is measurable and what is measurable must be real, that subjectivity is a mark of either unreality or lack of utility/value, and that relevant variables can be controlled or independent. Those are all essentially metaphysical propositions, ones that, in my experience, do not stand up very well to real-world tests. The entire method depends on a central proposition, which is that objective reality exists independent of the observer and the more observer and observed can be separated, the more accurate observations of reality will be. That is basically like saying that you can best understand something by not directly experiencing it.

I mean…what? That doesn’t…I don’t even.

I don’t mean to throw science in the crapper, because if you accept its foundational principles as givens, from within the paradigm you can actually generate some interesting descriptions of our imagined “realities.” Things that work perfectly well for navigating entirely within the imagined “reality,” though obviously they begin to break down once you start to question the underlying assumptions. But I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you don’t fully buy into scientistic-materialism and its wacky epistemology. At least you don’t accept it as given. So what does our premise mean with regard to magic? In terms of practical action, Greer says:

“Everything that makes for effective magic serves to focus the mage’s awareness on the wordless. Physical actions do that, especially if they’re actions that have strong biological resonances; scents, colors, rhythms, chanted words that don’t instantly communicate meaning to the mind all do the same thing; so does the deliberate cultivation of emotional states—for example, the practice of love and devotion in religious ritual, or the generation of emotions corresponding to the seven traditional planets in planetary magic.”

That is pretty consistent with opinions I have seen expressed by other occult practitioners–namely, that you have to find some way to blast past your abstracting mind in order for magic to work optimally. I mean, that’s the whole theory behind sigils. (And it actually adds another interesting dimension to my last post with regard to “named deities” vs. spirits or gods that are immanent in a place.) Interestingly though, there is another school of thought within the magical community, to wit that magic works because of intention. Check out this article on self-proclaimed witches in Seattle; assuming it isn’t just selection bias on the part of the author (which frankly I rather doubt), magic is all about “intentionality.”I’m not even sure what is mean by intention, nor am I convinced the witches in the article know either, but what I do understand is that intention comes from the abstracting mind.

Now if magic really were all/only about intention, I would say stop reading this blog right now and go out and buy yourself a copy of The Secret and get to wishing your way to a richer, thinner, sexier you. (Please don’t do that.)

Nevertheless, the issue of intention brings up some questions. It seems that our functional magical guidelines predicate that we select some goal (or if you must, intention) with our abstracting minds, then some activity is undertaken in order to get away from that abstraction in order to make it happen. It seems a little…overcomplicated? Perhaps more importantly, we know the (abstract) map is not the (real) territory; so why are we letting the abstracting mind steer the ship?

I don’t have a ready answer but it would seem that the first order of business is to cultivate the ability to more effectively silence the abstracting mind, which is why our elders are always nagging us to meditate more. (Sigh.) The second order of business would be to spend as much time in direct experience mode as possible in order to make a map that better approximates where the real shoals and islands and sea monsters are.

Could it be that our spells and rituals are just tawdry baubles that lure us toward a greater prize, rapprochement with reality? Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but just as a thought experiment, read this passage from one of Io’s recent posts on Disrupt & Repair, but imagine he is talking about ceremonial instead of science, and that “practice” here specifically refers to magical practice:

“The ability to interface with those systems of practice easily is one of the key features of expertise in any field, but it is important to highlight that…with that expertise comes a certain kind of blindness. Behind each of those techniques are decisions as to what is valuable and important for the practice.

“Those [abstract] value decisions start to become invisible, too, in ways that alienate the expert from a more complex network of experiential possibility. It is amazing what we can do technically, but it can sometimes strand us in dead ends, where the technique and its habits become less and less suited to a concrete situation. The application of such abstracted techniques can quickly turn into a sort of mutilation, as when a doctor subjects a patient to extreme medical procedures with little hope of success because it’s just what a doctor does, or when well-meaning scientists ‘modernize’ traditional agriculture in entirely unsustainable, resource-intensive, ways.”

(My emphasis.) I am beginning to think that direct experience–of whatever–may have a transcendent aspect that all too often goes unrecognized. And that it’s during our moments of direct experience, the physicality or the powerful emotion, the altered state of consciousness, that the magic happens–not in the intention. Though that then begs the question of how we get what we enchant for (in letter, if not in spirit sometimes). Whatever the case may be, I have to say that from where I’m sitting, it looks like magical-mystic-philosophical models better approximate reality than anything on offer in today’s mainstream culture. They’re certainly more parsimonious than the many-worlds interpretation.

(2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

But what about the other part of our premise, that getting closer to reality actually changes reality, or at least creates the potential to change it? Why might that be? Here again, I like where Io’s mind is at (and I’m not just saying that because he gave me a shout-out, I actually quoted him before I even saw that):

“Spiritual practices don’t just make certain experiences possible, they generate certain experiences by transforming the world into which the practice projects itself.”

Of course we have all the anecdotal evidence of magic that works, and our own gnosis, telling us that change occurs. Even if it remains subjective and can’t ever be completely communicated to someone else, we know it worked. It’s late and I’m tired, so maybe I’m missing something really obvious, but at the moment I only see two ways for reality to change as we approach it. Either there truly is no objective reality, and it’s all inside our heads–in which case I’d be tempted to doubt even your existence, dear readers, and think that all of us, including me, are just figments of my own imagination, which is so recursive that I don’t even want to try to follow that line of thought; or reality is meeting our efforts halfway. As in any relationship, one changes and is changed in return, simply through knowing an Other.

It suggests that reality has its own consciousness, its own will. Now that’s not a novel idea in magical or philosophical circles, and I admit this has been my opinion of the matter for years. I just never came at the problem from this direction before. As I mentioned in my comment to Greer, I used to think that Dion Fortune was weaseling out when she added “in consciousness” to Crowley’s maxim that magic effects change in accordance to will. I thought she was just psychologizing, which isn’t an unreasonable assumption given her interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. But from within a conscious-universe framework, her statement is actually much more radical and comprehensive than Crowley’s. Of course, the will must inevitably also change. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

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.