In search of authenticity

What is “authentic” in magic? In religion? Should we seek it, and if so, where can it be found?

This post was inspired by a conversation in the comments on my karma post. The topic turned to authenticity, and I was rightly challenged to define what I mean by that. So I thought about it for a while and this is what I came up with–other perspectives are welcome. I tried to keep it succinct, but failed.

Totes magical.
They are, like, totes magical.

First let me state that I am just as disgusted by hipsters buying Virgin of Guadalupe prayer candles and mustache wax at Urban Outfitters, or setting up booths to read tarot badly, or selling spells on Etsy to attract a succubus who will think you are soooo hot, as the rest of you are. But then, I’m disgusted by hipsters generally because, in my experience, to be a hipster is to be a hyper-materialist. It is a subculture based on simulacra, on authenticity-posturing. For example, during the decade I lived in a large American city famously crawling with hipsters, I observed that the same people who would only drink crap beer at biker bars because anything else was “bourgeois,” who would pride themselves on riding a fixie or taking the bus to show how eco-friendly they were, but would fly to the other end of the country (America is a big country btw) just to get a tattoo. The very fact that so much energy is expended on aping blue collar Americana (e.g., western or denim shirts, hand-knitted scarves, caps sporting tractor or trucking company names) demonstrates how acutely status-conscious hipsters are. What is more bourgeois than slumming? In my book, that is called hypocrisy. It is doubly annoying and depressing now that, for the past three or four years, they have turned their predatory attentions toward the occult and its paraphernalia.

But I’m betting I don’t need to give you more reasons to be annoyed by hipsters. (And don’t worry, they’ll get bored with it soon.) Sadly, as easy as it is to point the finger at them, they are a natural outgrowth of the current values and priorities of the (post-)modern Western monoculture to which so many of us are unwilling, but nevertheless habitual, contributors. Or as Gordon so astutely put it, “Blaming hipsters for ‘special snowflake’ syndrome is egregiously unfair as we are the snowclouds.” Hipsters are irritating because they are so utterly unconcerned with authenticity or meaning, except when they are working hard to create a pretense of it. They somehow manage to appropriate from within their own cultures.

But why does it make us so uncomfortable? Why do we care about authenticity, and in particular, why do we feel the need to police others’ authenticity, or lack thereof?

To begin with a basic definition, the dictionary gives one meaning as “having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship” (in other words, something is what it purports to be) while another is “conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, and belief” (in other words, accurate and actual). So basically something that is honest about itself, and which has a known provenance.

Any particular magical technique or tradition can meet one of these criteria without meeting both. For example, a given claim could be faithful to its origin either in history or in UPG, yet never amount to more than religious dogma, abstract symbolism, or just plain BS. (Spirits say the darndest things.) Conversely, a claim could be erroneously represented as, say, “druidic” or “shamanic” yet still produce the desired and expected results. (The Virgin of Guadalupe might answer your prayer, even if you bought your prayer candle at Urban Outfitters.)

I propose:

  1. Hipsters make us feel yucky because they are distorting mirrors. They exaggerate practices that many of us are implicated in, and by doing so, bring them uncomfortably into our awareness. At the same time, they represent values of a monoculture we desperately want to escape and resist. So in a sense, the quest for authenticity is a quest to be liberated as victims/perpetrators of the monoculture.
  2. Authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable, and perhaps of dubious utility anyway.
  3. Authenticity-as-functionality is useful though subjective.
  4. Integrity is the promise of authenticity, and dogma is the pitfall. We have to shoot for the former while escaping the latter. I think we might need more specific vocabulary for this issue.

Allow me to elaborate…

Authenticity as liberation

Don’t you hate it when your nips get chafed by your appropriated Native American garb?

First and foremost we need to question why we even seek after authenticity. I am certain there are many factors intertwined in this subject and I doubt I could come up with a comprehensive list. I’d rather focus on one: I suspect that worries about legitimacy are a smokescreen obscuring a deeper need to both escape the world of simulacra and escape our own complicity in it. That is to say, the need to escape–or more proactively, to reject–the simulacra of the monoculture is very real and very worthwhile. It is arguably the first, though ongoing, task of the magician. But when the focus comes off the goal of liberation and shifts to controlling the terms of engagement, “authenticity” has turned into “policing.” For the apprentice wizard, it’s like just as you are breathing a sigh of relief at having finally broken with the monoculture, having passed the first gate, Fear of Attack, and the second gate, Fear of Being Silly, you hit the third gate, Judgy Fellow Magicians.

I know that many if not most people within the magical community oppose the monoculture. How could we not, when it opposes us? But so often we find ourselves caught in a bind, forced to choose the lesser of evils, operating half-blind without enough information (and that’s even when we use divination). Maybe I’m generalizing too much from my own experience but I think the very first obstacle we come to as baby wizards is our fear of going against the monoculture. Anyone who doesn’t experience at least a frisson of terror at the potential repercussions of disengaging from The System isn’t using their imagination. Disengaging from the monoculture entails very real costs, and it doesn’t have to be something as grotesque as burning at the stake, beaten to death with sticks, tortured to death, or being dismembered with machetes so your body parts can be sold on the black market. The subtler punishments can be a death of a thousand cuts.

Not surprisingly, the people talking a good game about sticking it to The Man greatly outnumber those who actually try to do so. I’ve always kind of gotten a kick out of hearing Western cultures described as individualistic, because I see plenty of demand for conformity in the US. Granted, our laws do provide for a certain degree of personal freedom relative to other places in the world–though you never know when those freedoms are going to be arbitrarily violated by law enforcement or intelligence agencies, especially if you aren’t white or rich–but this is not some El Dorado of unfettered personal expression. Here as in other parts of the world subject to the monoculture, there are people at every level and in every corner of society waiting to judge and condemn your every failure to live and endorse the capitalist dream.

No matter what the topic under discussion, those who set themselves up as gatekeepers of correctness are the ones who are feeling the most threatened by change and debate. Gatekeeping is self-aggrandizement, and a distraction from the hard work and loneliness of introspection. I see this little drama absurdly reenacted all the time here in the US. Certain jerks think that the freedom of religion inscribed in our Constitution means they should get to persecute anyone who goes against the jerk’s religious beliefs. In fact it merely means that, e.g., if an individual’s religion says they can’t marry a person of the same sex, then the individual can’t be forced to do so. It doesn’t give that individual the right to circumscribe the rights of others, on religious or any other grounds. Unfortunately, as currently interpreted in America, freedom means “I get to do whatever I want and everyone else can get fucked.”I guess that does look individualistic, but I think it’s more defensive. In fact a self-defensive attitude is so pervasive that anything that contradicts some interest group’s values is declared a “war” on those values. If certain conservative news networks are to be believed, the mere existence of people who aren’t Christian is a “war on Christianity.” I mention this as an example of the desire to gatekeep taken to extremes.

But I can’t help but think there’s an element of “you damn kids!” in our need for authenticity too. I remember reading a blog post once–sadly I can’t remember where, but it had nothing to do with magic, just life in general–where the author was talking about how hard it can be to make friends as an adult, especially in middle age. Sometimes one ends up with seemingly incongruous friends, with whom one has little in common, simply because hey, they showed up. Back in the late 20th century, Jason Miller assures me, it was similar with magic:

“We didn’t have social media then either. No Facebook. No Yahoogroups. No MySpace. Not even fucking Friendster. You couldn’t find the other people in the world with the exact same myopic opinions and interests that you have. No groups for just for Celtic Taoists, Thelemic Palo Mayomberas, or people following the Key Of Solomon to the letter. You just had to form a study group, cabal, or coven and put up with whoever showed up. You had Setians participating in Wiccan Circles, Tantrikas going to OTO meetings, Chaos Magicians showing up for Modern Magic practice sessions because that is all there was in your area, and at least it was something.

I wasn’t actively involved in the occult back then, but I was a young adult and I remember those heady days, getting dizzy from photocopier toner fumes, desperately hoping I had enough coins to finish the job, so psyched because I found some book in the library with one chapter on whatever I was interested in. Pre-internet and social media, college was the time when you got to surround and insulate yourself with others who shared your beliefs and opinions–once you graduated, you had to grow up and be nice to humanity’s irritating diversity. Nowadays, a whole slew of cultural factors, social media among them, have led to the ridiculous expectation that we should be surrounded by others just like us, and the perception that those who don’t think just like us are a threat. It’s as if the filtering algorithms Facebook and Google use to decide what should be important to you have bled out into the culture at large, and it may benefit someone, but it ain’t us. Gordon again, much more succinctly than my rambling diatribe:

“When did we all become such massive dicks? The instant we find something that isn’t a 100% confirmation of our existing worldview, we all take to facestalk and fizz with impotent consternation….If you have enough time to only consume stuff you agree with and then even more time to overreact to anything that slightly deviates from it then, humbly, you need to look at how you are spending your incarnation.”

You are in charge of you; why worry so much about what others are doing? It’s their business and moreover it’s out of your control. If you think a given practice is inauthentic, don’t use it and don’t teach it. Simple as that. Yes, poseurs–who by definition must call attention to themselves–will make the rest of us look bad in the eyes of the monoculture. Since when do we need the monoculture’s approval? Yes, they will do things we regard as dorky, lame, tacky, and just plain wrong. Ironically, they will even try to set themselves up as the arbiters of authenticity (they were into magic before it was cool, you see). All very annoying, most of all when our own behavior starts to converge on theirs, hmm? It’s not that I’m above tsk-tsking at others (you read the first part of this post, right?), but it’s precisely because it’s so hard for me to stay focused on my own path that I feel it’s necessary to do.

Magic is “occult” for a reason. Actually more than one reason: (1) to protect its users from negative social repercussions, (2) to allow sufficient solitude and freedom from distraction for practice and introspection, and (3) due to signal loss, the inevitable impossibility of putting any of this into words, and the fact that some don’t have ears to hear. I want to be clear that when I criticize the gatekeeping impulse, I am not talking about protective secrecy. To know, to will, to dare, to keep secret does not require the addition of “to demand the right to determine the terms of engagement and censure those who don’t comply.”

Authenticity as historicity

If you suspect there is a kind of crust of fossilized ideas and practices that has adhered to the occult–and I’m sure there is, because humans–you might figure that a worthwhile project is to cut through it to get to the juicy meat. From what I have seen, that crust is composed of a mix of things that once worked but whose purposes have long been forgotten; formal gestures that never worked but maybe made sense within a long-gone social, philosophical, and/or religious context; zany pronouncements from the less…er, enlightened?…denizens of the spirit world; blurry transmissions from the beyond and the inevitable losses-in-translation; dogma; and insertions by self-aggrandizers (both embodied and not).

How do you remove that cortex of bunk? Some try to go back to a time when the tradition was not yet corrupted by these accretions. I don’t really think that’s possible, for reasons I explain below, and moreover I think some of that junk has always been in magic–again, because humans. Another method is to largely ignore what anyone else has ever said and do it the hard way, figuring that the proof of your success or failure will be in the pudding, which I get to in the next section.

As has probably become painfully obvious to you, lovely readers, I think history and archaeology are extremely interesting, academically. If I had it in me to do a second Ph.D., it would probably be on the archaeology of the WMT (or rather, some tiny picayune aspect thereof, because such is the nature of dissertations). But from an experiential and practical point of view, what does historicity really matter? I mean, there is no reason to throw away the hard-earned knowledge of our forebears; but on the other hand, there’s no reason not to put it to the test, either.

We can’t ever really walk in our ancestors’ shoes because our consciousness and our cognition are different. For the purpose of my argument, let me define a culture as a set of more-or-less formalized mental models of the universe, plus behavioral guidelines for negotiating that universe, which together make up a worldview. It forms part of the context for a developing mind and brain, along with things like the mother’s health during pregnancy, nutrition, genetics, traumatic injury, inner dimensions of reality, and so on. Our brains are plastic, forming and eliminating neural pathways according to the stimuli presented to them and the uses they are put to, but the range of potential stimuli and uses is limited by prevailing mental models of what is “real” and “possible” (i.e., the culture). Although the mind is not the same thing as the brain, the mind does use the brain to interface (somewhat inadequately) with our material realities.

As for our own prevailing system of mental models, we latched onto reductionist materialism as our guiding philosophical paradigm, only to realize about 200 years down the line that it feels hollow and yucky and we were tricked into conspiring in our own enslavement and destruction. In the meantime, we let all the elders die without bothering to record their wisdom, and now that old-timey skills suddenly look a lot like the sort of thing one needs to know for survival when the proverbial shit hits the fan, we are rightly sad and scared. We want to jettison the façade and find something that actually works and doesn’t make us want to slit our wrists. There are a few left who can teach us how to make stone tools, thatch a cottage, or make a dugout canoe, but not as many who can teach us how to eat sin, or what charms to sing over a foundered horse.

So one way to look at magic is as forgotten knowledge that can be partially recovered through surviving texts and oral tradition, and partially through experimentation and personal gnosis. But as the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” They don’t do things different, they see and think differently too. I suspect John Michael Greer is on the right track when he proposes that it isn’t simply that we have forgotten certain skills; the bigger problem is that we have so narrowed our mental models that we have dulled our brain-tools and rendered them useless in non-human-created environments. And so, he argues, most of us are literally unable to think our way out of the box we made for ourselves, and keep doubling down on stupid decisions like, say, fracking:

“…civilizations by and large don’t have to be dragged down the slope of decline and fall; instead, they take that route with yells of triumph, convinced that the road to ruin will infallibly lead them to heaven on earth, and attempts to turn them aside from that trajectory typically get reactions ranging from blank incomprehension to furious anger. It’s not just the elites who fall into this sort of self-destructive groupthink, either: it’s not hard to find, in a falling civilization, people who claim to disagree with the ideology that’s driving the collapse, but people who take their disagreement to the point of making choices that differ from those of their more orthodox neighbors are much scarcer.”

Outside of our created buffer zone, when our ideas about how the world works are wrong, we tend to get dead, and cultural models get updated accordingly. Within the buffer zone, we are protected enough to generally stay alive and keep breeding. So we don’t learn when our mental models are a poor fit with reality because reality as we have come to know it is our mental models. Thanks to fossil fuels, modern Western society more completely shelters its adherents than any civilization before (think air conditioning), so the implication of Greer’s speculation is that we have not merely forgotten some stuff, but those of us alive today are now too stupid to learn it again. Now we must wait until natural selection has a chance to impose some negative feedback on our descendants’ worldviews.

Summerisle wicker man

My point with all this is that you can build a wicker man, but because the social, cultural, cognitive, and religious context for druidic human sacrifice is gone (outside of Summerisle anyway), you would arguably just be murdering people. This is the sense in which I mean that authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable. If the question is merely one of historical interest, then obviously accuracy is desirable–and yes, there are plenty of people out there making factually erroneous claims about the historicity of their magic–but that only bothers me (admittedly, it bothers me a lot) in an academic sense.

I think if we cannot fully replicate or reconstruct the past, we are released from the obligation to try. The primacy of ancient wisdom is just one among many metaphysical assertions that demand to be questioned if we are not just to accept them as dogma. Why should we think that the Western Magical Tradition is univalent, or that it stopped evolving?

Authenticity as functionality

This picture captions itself, really.
This picture captions itself, really.

When I was a kid my aunt used to laugh at me and say that I always had to do everything the hard way. I would never take advice. So if you are one of those people who must reinvent the wheel, I feel you. Mind you, I messed up a lot because of my unwillingness to listen to my elders.

Does a given method work without too many unintended undesirable effects? That’s always the most fundamental question in magical practice. I could tell…well, anyone…that a “haunted unicorn pegasus telepathy intuition spirit talisman” is probably not going to achieve anything but the emptying of their wallet, but I guess it depends on what effect the benighted purchaser is going for. Here again, those mental/cultural models are in play: If the ends were all the same, we could compare which means work best; but the ends are not all the same.

Look, I admit that if I were part of a lodge or coven, and the other members were hipsters doing Fauxhemian tarot readings, or if they were New Agers seeking crystal children to help them bring about the Ascension, I would be super annoyed and leave because I would not be getting what I’m looking for. I really hope I’m not coming off here as though I am above being judgy, because heck, judging is one of my hobbies. (I’m sure that will become apparent in due time if it hasn’t already.) And I don’t mean this as some can’t-we-all-just-get-along tolerance talk. There is also the question of appropriation, which I address separately. Relativism has its benefits, but the magical path is lonely enough without having to do everything by yourself from scratch. It’s kind of crazy not to take advantage of the human ability to learn vicariously. At some point, you have to take someone else’s method or metaphysical proposition and try it on for size. And it should not be dismissed simply because it makes you uncomfortable. I would have gotten exactly nowhere–and granted, I’m barely even onto the path at this point, but I wouldn’t be on it at all–if I hadn’t ultimately swallowed my pride and decided to work through my uneasiness.

On the other hand, UPG can result in some frankly bizarre stuff. I used to contribute to an internet forum that was mostly made up of New Agers. There were a couple other people more of my own metaphysical stripe, enough to keep me coming back and thinking I had something of value to contribute. But I finally gave up after I encountered (1) a woman who claimed to channel angels. One type of angels were the “Chantilly angels,” who told her that God’s ideal society was 1950s America, and these angels were here to return us to that golden age. (2) Someone who claimed to channel an extremely racist Archangel Michael. (3) A dude who thought the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization had flying cars and nuclear weapons (I have been hearing this lately from some Hindu Vedic fundamentalists; not sure if he was one). And (4) another person who claimed to have channeled an Atlantean who said that if you suck on seeds before planting them, the plants will absorb your DNA and then produce exactly the nutrients you personally need. (I am not making this up.) I also saw (virtually speaking) some people who were obviously being munched on by noncorporeal parasites, and were being told whatever they needed to hear to keep them compliant. In short there is a lot of crazy out there, and there are apparently plenty of individuals (embodied and not) who really, really want to share it with you. (I am a year late but I just found out about this book on the subject of channeled weirdness via Disrupt & Repair and cannot wait to read it.)

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of gnosis. I avidly seek it myself because there seem to be certain categories of universal esoteric knowledge that can only be obtained through gnosis. I just don’t think I can use my subjective experiences as a metric of authenticity that can be applied to everyone else. In this sense, we are like the blind men and the elephant. We grasp the truth, but never the whole truth.

Parting thoughts

I’m starting to wonder if, rather than authenticity, what we should seek in a spiritual and/or magical method is vitality. By that I mean does the practice or tradition not only function (accomplish one’s goals) but does it put one in touch with the numinous? Does it deepen and broaden our experience of life? Does it facilitate communion with other living beings, embodied and otherwise? Does it help liberate us? In my view, magical natural selection will ensure that, over time, what survives is what is vital and powerful. If you take a snapshot of any given slice of time, of course, there will still be a few fossils that have outlived their usefulness. By all means, abandon–or better yet, compost or combust–that shit. But help the strong survive. Our choices are part of the forces that will select the fittest, most adaptable magics. But, just as natural selection doesn’t work on individual organisms but on variants of genes (as one of my professors used to say, “fitness is a property of alleles!”), so we must expect that it’s not magical systems that will survive but smaller elements such as techniques and myths. I think that is reflected in the magic and mythology of street kids. The life-and-death selective pressures those kids face are far more intense than what most of us encounter, so you can be sure that whatever magics survive in their world have been honed to a knife-edge. They have to work. We may be perturbed by the remixed versions of magic that are espoused by the next two or three generations, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that Hollywood and hipsters will eventually get bored and leave us alone.

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Dancing with life and death

Shiva
Lord of the Dance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coywolf.
Coywolf.

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

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

extinction is foreverKeep-calm-and-carry-on

To arms, to arms

True story: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.
Fun fact: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.

Recently there have been a handful of calls to arms in the magical blogosphere, which have stuck in my memory because they resonate with an urgency I’ve been feeling. It’s time to get to work.

The first place I encountered the call (other than in my own mind and heart) was Josephine McCarthy’s blog. You may know that she has been developing an entire course in magic called Quareia. Back in February she wrote:

“…I was not planning originally to have [Quareia] apprentices working on anything but themselves and their immediate surroundings. But over this last year, powers that are out in the world have gathered to polarise heavily and this is playing out through the barbarity we see in the near east, the corruption of our own officials, and the general blights of poverty and cruelty that are marching across our planet with such power and speed.

“So maybe it is time while writing the last module, to put the apprentices to work magically. Through the module on destruction, the apprentice will learn first how to spot real destructive power (it is not as simple as it sounds) and then they will learn to take action. No one magician can stop what is happening, but collectively, small but powerful magical actions done in a focused and knowledgeable way can start to halt and then turn the tide.”

Hmm, interesting. Then in June, Rachel Izabella counter-cursed a transphobic preacher who declared his intention to basically psalm-magic Caitlyn Jenner to death (which, by extension, is a threat to other trans* people who, if they crossed this preacher’s radar, would likely get the same treatment). The counter-curse is an ongoing project. This preacher may just be one guy, but if he is calling his fellows to the fight, then maybe it’s time we started mustering our fellows against their ilk.

Clearly, that post has gotten others thinking about their own line in the sand, the crossing of which would prompt them to action. Just a couple days ago, Kalagni wondered why it is that more magical folk don’t seem to put their magic to work on the big issues?

“…I challenge all of you, to find some injustice in the world, something big, something beyond your life, your neighbourhood, your city, something so big you’d never think of trying to fix it. Then make a plan, find a specific element in this injustice, and make a magickal plan, figure out how to attack it, how to shift it, how to heal it. Piece by piece we nudge the world toward a better place, we make change more possible, we make it easier for those of us working on the mundane to succeed to improve these things.

“…this is raw, desperate, but targeted magick, trying to throw a wrench in the gears of a systemically corrupt status quo, and bring some good into the world.”

Now, I am all for rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, though at this point I don’t have much skill or knowledge to bring to bear. Still, it has often been commented that when one is planning a magical working, it often seems that the “effects” start manifesting before the “cause” has been enacted. So maybe even just bringing our minds to bear on magical action for a better world starts the wheels spinning. Or even more likely, the wheels are already spinning, and that works on our minds.

But there’s one thing that has often stopped me from applying magic in what is customarily called “practical” ways, and that is the fact of limited vision. We as embodied humans cannot see all the pieces in play in any situation. It’s not that I just trust “higher” powers to take care of me without me doing any work, but even just from my human perspective, I can look back on my life so far and see many episodes where my limited view caused me to make a really dumb decision or would have, had it been in my power to decide.

Mistakes are part of magic, like anything else. And you don’t get on this path because it’s easy, safe, or secure. But if one habitually acts from a relatively short-term and narrow point of view, one gets caught in an unending cycle of screwing up and then scrambling to clean up the mess, in the process only screwing it up even more. (This is pretty much the story of civilization, by the way, which is why I don’t believe in “progress.” But that’s a tale for another day.) If one is lucky, it only effects you and not the rest of the planet.  The potential of getting trapped in that cycle is always there. To break free of it and change things at a level where it really counts, it seems to me we need a bigger perspective. That, I presume, is why there has always been a mystical current in magic, and also why we practice divination. Otherwise magic would be like giving guns to a bunch of toddlers. So, you know, about like 21st century America.


I woke up early this morning, not by choice. It is a rare luxury for me to have time by myself to think, so there I was, thinking hard about this issue of well-directed magical action. Or at least, I thought I was awake and thinking. As it turns out, I wasn’t really fully awake. When I did wake up I realized I had been in a hypnogogic state all along…and as is so often the case in that state, some weird shit went down.

I found myself, uh, thinking? dreaming? about how nice it would be if the magical community could cut some evildoers–say, the Koch Brothers–off at the knees. As I was imagining? (dreaming?) what that might be like and what bad dudes those guys are, I heard in my mind’s ear a sort of combined roar-growl, something like the sound an angry big cat makes. At the same time in my mind’s eye, something flew at me. It only lasted a split second, but the message was clear: Do not go there. I have no idea who sent the message. Was it my guardian angel or an ancestor saying, do not even think about it, grasshopper? Maybe it was my own better judgment. Maybe I had slipped into pure dreaming for a moment. Hell, I wouldn’t put it past the Koch Brothers to have magical wards up to keep out even the wandering minds of half-asleep apprentice sorceresses. (They wouldn’t be the first corporate bad guys to do that, from what I hear.)

So make of that what you will, but it sent my mind off in a different direction. I then thought, what if the Koch Brothers and their ilk are part of a necessary balancing destructive force? (I strongly doubt this by the way, but I still think it’s a useful thought exercise.)

(Sidebar. This line of thinking would probably make more sense if I told you the background context, but it’s a long story so I think I’ll save it for the next post. So if you’re especially interested in my new acquaintance with universal destructive powers, or if this post sounds crazy, you might want to read the next one.)

In light of these questions about magical action for the general betterment, I thought the latest post at Circle Thrice was interesting. Ivy writes (my emphasis):

“I’ve heard it suggested that the reason there are copycat crimes is that the original criminal gives other’s [sic] ideas. But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s that evil is contagious, just the same way that violence or panic is contagious in a mob. There are currents of violence and destruction just as there are currents of cooperation and love. When someone taps into a particular current, others find it easier to tap in as well.

Destruction always seems cruel when you’re on the pointy end of the stick. I don’t like seeing baby antelopes die, but I know lions gotta eat. How does one know when the destruction is part of establishing natural balance at a scale too big for a mortal to perceive or understand, or even just an inevitable cyclical eschaton, versus when it is out of place and time and, to put it in Kemetic terms, contrary to ma’at? (Or as I like to call it, wrong or bad.) And even when one is confident of the need to take action against evil, where does one best apply force?

These are questions I am not qualified to answer. I am still learning to walk in magical terms, and any effect I could have on the abundant nastiness in the world today would be pretty small. In a way I get a chuckle out of me asking these questions at all, because I swear I came into this world banging a gavel with one hand and pointing the finger of shame with the other.* When I was a little kid I had few friends because I was a narc. I was not only a tattle-tale, but a self-righteous one at that. If I couldn’t stop someone from wrongdoing, I took it straight up the chain of authority to someone who (I thought) could and would. I mean, I thought that’s what adults were for. Bullying particularly pissed (pisses) me off. When my mom suggested that maybe I might want to dial it back a little, I said in high dudgeon, “But how are they supposed to face the consequences of their actions?!” I was six. My name, in the more popular translation, means “Defender of Men” (as in humans; the Greek is gendered like the English). The less popular, but I’m told more accurate, translation means “She Who Wards Off Men.” Most of the stuff in my horoscope is in the 8th and 9th houses and my whole chart is ruled by Jupiter, the planet of Justice.

Point is, I’ve never been able to identify with the white-lighter crowd because my own experience tells me some people are born to walk right up to badness and slap it across the face with a glove. It doesn’t go away because you turn your back on it–we’ve tried that. But we have to work smart, not just hard–and it’s never too early to start the reconnaissance mission.

*Technically I came into this world asleep.