Stuff in the news I thought was interesting

I love The Daily Grail’s news briefs. They dig up some weird and fascinating stuff. I thought this article was interesting in light of what Gordon has been saying about the state of intellectual inquiry today, i.e., academia no longer has a monopoly on it and holes are appearing in the walls of the cloister gardens of the disciplines. At the same time, it’s an example of what’s wrong with the scientistic-materialist thinking that dominates the West.

“Renowned classicist and linguist Susan Brind Morrow” has published a new translation of the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Whereas your typical scholar views the Texts as “merely a series of funeral prayers and magic spells”, Morrow opines:

“‘These are not magic spells at all….These are poetic verses constructed just like poetry today, sophisticated and filled with word play and puns….I realized I was looking at a very vivid, poetic description of the actual world’.”

The article elaborates:

“Instead of looking at the Pyramid Texts as something written by a primitive and superstitious people, as she claims many Egyptologists before her have done, Morrow put the texts in the context of Egypt’s vibrant literary tradition and its cultural connections to nature….In this earliest form of Egyptian philosophy, Morrow said she believes it’s not a goddess or a spiritual personality that the Egyptians worshipped, but the sky itself. It was nature itself that was sacred, and that held the promise of eternal life.”

So the assumptions are that (1) sophisticated written expression is beyond the meager capabilities of the sort of foolish primitives who believe in magic or pray. Also, (2) spells and prayers, and descriptions of nature and the “actual” (presumably material?) world are mutually exclusive. And (3), also mutually exclusive are a belief in the sacredness of nature and theism. Basically anyone stupid enough to believe in magic and gods simply cannot be astute enough to appreciate nature, let alone write about it in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I suppose Morrow would be horrified that her fellow writer, Jessa Crispin, just published a book about using tarot cards to inspire creative writing; and for her part, Crispin must have missed the memo about how the sort of benighted savages who would use tarot can’t write well anyway.

Morrow believes hieroglyphs are “very accessible to anybody” and we should all read the texts for ourselves. I applaud that sentiment, at least. But the Egyptological establishment isn’t taking that lying down.

“James P. Allen, an Egyptologist at Brown University who produced a 2005 translation of the texts, isn’t convinced. He likened her translation to the work of ‘amateurs’ and called it a ‘serious misrepresentation’ of the Pyramid Texts.”

Because you see, Morrow is not a professional academic, but a mere author. Gasp! The nerve of that peasant! Of course Allen might be right for the wrong reasons; Morrow’s translation might actually be bad. (I wouldn’t know, as I don’t read hieroglyphs–yet, anyway–and haven’t read her book.) Certainly I disagree with her a priori assumptions, but then similar assumptions are held by most academics and right thinking people nowadays. It just goes to show what happens when people who don’t practice magic try to understand the minds of people who did. It’s pretty ludicrous. That would be like me, I don’t know, telling an astronaut how to pilot a space shuttle. We have a word for mansplaining; would this be materialistsplaining? That’s something Gordon talks about in Star.Ships, but I’ll leave that for my forthcoming review (have to finish reading it first).


Meanwhile we have this piece which argues that

“…we are entering a time of new acceptance [of the paranormal]. Sharing mutual curiosities and otherworldly experiences is no longer unusual, or even unthinkable….Leave it to the Big Apple to sufficiently water a once-taboo seed of thought into a blooming tree of knowledge. The branches have stretched far and wide. I’ve overheard brilliant minds debating the paranormal at art shows throughout Brooklyn and Chelsea. I have partaken in conversations about apparitions and vortexes while sipping on my cucumber martini at the latest and greatest fancy-pants places.”

The author of the article has dubbed this sensibility “metrospiritual” (gag). One could argue this is not so much a watering of the tree of knowledge as a watering down of knowledge for popular audiences. But, says the author,

“It’s actually much deeper. It’s hope against feeling hopelessness while having faith around the faithless. Its inherently understanding things others insist you know nothing about.

(Emphasis added.) I hear that. Nihilism isn’t exactly an uplifting worldview, and to me this sounds like more and more people have gotten fed up with being materialistsplained to and are embracing the empirical validity of their own experiences. Hoist the colors high, fellow weirdos!


Speaking of hoisting the colors, rumor has it that there are real human skeletal remains in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Once upon a time, so they say, all the skeletons were real.

Pirates of the Caribbean

I wouldn’t be the least surprised, although for the record I disagree with those who think the skull and crossbones on the headboard of the pirate captain’s bed are real. First, bones don’t turn brown with age. Bones change color due to adsorption of minerals from their deposition matrix, e.g., soil, and that usually takes a long time. If some former Disneyland employee did indeed donate his skull and crossbones, they would likely not have had time to “age” to a brown color, that just so happens to exactly match the “wood” of the bed, even if they had been buried for a few years. Secondly, the texture just looks all wrong to me. There could very well be real bones in the ride, but nowadays skeletal casts look really authentic, so it’s unlikely you’d be able to tell the difference unless you handled them. And if you haven’t handled a lot of bone before and don’t know what it feels like, maybe not even then.

This story intrigues me because the Pirates ride is quite magical. At least, I have always  felt that, and I suspect a lot of people do, and that’s why it’s their favorite ride. Most people just don’t realize it’s magic they’re feeling. I’ve never been to Disneyworld, but a close friend of mine told me the Pirates ride there doesn’t have the je ne sais quois of the original. I’m betting that’s because it doesn’t have the juju.

What strikes me about the (human-constructed) magical spaces I’ve been in is that the magic is palpable even though your rational mind “knows” none of it is real. Disneyland rides are incredibly detailed, but you can easily tell the difference between animatronics and real people. Another magical space I experienced was at a Halloween puppet theater event put on by the Bare Bones theater group in St. Paul, MN in 2011. The play itself wasn’t memorable but the visual effects of the kill-time-while-people-find-their-seats part had tapped into a legit magic current. While walking to the seating area, you had to go down a path while dimly lit hobby horse-psychopomps with glitter-bedecked cardboard skulls flitted among the shrubbery and a distant gong rumbled. I remember thinking, Somebody read their Eliade. But was it accidental magic by someone who likes anthropology? Or did someone who knew what they were doing create that part? If I had known in advance I might have been able to enter into a state of consciousness where I could have seen what was going on “behind the scenes”, as it were; but then I think the element of surprise can be a power source for magic. If I had had any advance preparation, there might have been no magic at all.

Mari Lwyd
An actual hobby horse (Mari Lwyd). Not from the theater production but you get the idea.

Anyway, that is how Pirates the ride feels to me. It’s like a world unto itself. Going in there feels similar to entering a church–not that it’s holy, but there is that palpable shift in energy as you cross the threshold. Methodologically, magic uses mimesis and analogy such that relatively small and temporally-limited actions (e.g., a ritual, an altar) become entangled with…I don’t know, something…to produce bigger effects elsewhere or elsewhen. A lot of it is effectively mumming, in the sense that you put on the mask of a more powerful being to act as that being. Which is not necessarily the same thing as invocation or spirit possession. Anyway, I suspect that Pirates has somehow created a mimetic bridge to the mythic forms of pirates and of the Caribbean. When you into the ride, it’s like part of you goes somewhere or somewhen else. You know it’s not “real”, but it seems to leap right over the uncanny valley and have something real under the illusion, so you’re not creeped out but carried away.

But perhaps it has something to do with the human remains there, or the ones that were formerly there. Perhaps the place is full of ghosts, and what I’m feeling is that sensation  I get when I enter a cemetery. (Though it doesn’t feel like a haunted house.) Or perhaps the combination of the mimetic rendering of the Pirates of the Caribbean myth and the presence of the dead from other times and places has created some sort of necromantic thing. It would be really interesting to go there after hours alone and do a little experimentation. You could do some wicked chaos-style piratey magic at the very least. On the other hand, the place is nicknamed the Magic Kingdom, and maybe someone involved with Disneyland’s creation was a wizard. I mean, the place makes money hand over fist, so at the very least you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had done some strong prosperity magic there.

I feel more than a bit ridiculous saying all this about a ride at an amusement park. I realize how it sounds. But stranger things have happened, and in sillier places. If you’ve been on the ride and didn’t get any of this magical sense I’m talking about, I’d be curious to know–maybe it’s just me?

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Science cosmogony

Big Bang cosmogony
Artist’s conception of the Big Bang cosmogony.

You know how sometimes you make a connection, and in retrospect it is so obvious that you feel like an idiot for not having seen it before? I guess these things are only obvious when you’re ready to understand them, I don’t know.

That happened to me today when I read this article. Now, the actual subject matter of the article seems interesting (I’d have to see if I could get ahold of the original journal article because popular science writing is trash; but even if I could, I probably wouldn’t understand it), but the part that jumped out at me was this:

“In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a ‘Big Bang’ did the universe officially begin.”

You know what is a synonym for singularity? Monad. When I read this I realized that the scientifically-approved cosmogony basically says that a Monad expanded and in that act everything was created.

Hmm…where have I heard a story like that before?

Pretty much, like, everywhere.

The timing was interesting because last night John Michael Greer published a post on Western occult philosophy, outlining the elements common to all or almost all “schools” of Western occult practice. One of those elements is:

A Cosmogony of Emanation. That’s a fancy philosophical label for the idea that the universe as we know it came into being as an emanation—an outpouring of force, if you will—from a transcendent source: that is, a source that stands outside of all phenomena and can’t really be described in any of the terms we use for phenomena.”

I wonder, had I not read that passage just last night, whether I would have seen the obvious parallel in science’s Big Bang cosmogony.

I am not one of those who seeks for a scientific basis or explanation for magic, because (1) I don’t believe that all things we don’t understand now will one day be understood through science; in fact, I doubt science as we understand it will even be around that much longer given that, as I see it, people are increasingly turning from such grand intellectual projects and toward ideas and practices with a more direct impact on survival, and ones that can provide a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Things for which physics is very ill-suited. Whether I’m right or wrong about that trend, ultimately magic can’t be crammed into a materialist paradigm, and science can’t work without one, so they are at an impasse. And (2) I just don’t see any need for it. I’m actually quite ok with not understanding how magic works. I’m more interested in why it works, but even there, I’m ok with mystery. I think the main reason we have no unified theory of magic is because magic is the unified theory, and until we accept that, we can’t make much progress in understanding the hows. From where I sit, magic explains science, not the other way around (both historically and phenomenologically).

Nevertheless it’s interesting when science and magic, in spite of their different ontologies, converge on similar ideas. Perhaps one day we will remember that science has its own mythology, and it will be put in its rightful place among the world’s mythologies, in some Golden Bough of the future, and it will be obvious how much its myths had in common with those of other times and cultures.

Speaking of, I particularly like the Heliopolitan cosmogony–where Atum coalesces out of Nun, becomes Kheperer “the Becomer”, and Ra–because through the Egyptian mythology it is evident that this was not so much a sequence of events as an allegorical way of rendering emanation (somewhat) understandable to the puny human mind. Effectively, everything that is is Atum, but also Nun, and also Kheperer, and also Ra, and this eternally and coevally. (It becomes evident that Ra is more than just the sun god.) As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. Pretty sure the Egyptians had a waaaaaay more sophisticated understanding of time than we do, and actually, that physics article I cited might have come around to a non-theistic version of the same idea.

Compare it to this one, from the Manavadharmashastra, or “Laws of Manu”, “the most important work regarding dharma, i.e., the principles, laws, and rules governing both the cosmos and human society” (i.e., what we call “physics”). I have collapsed stanzas 5-9 and 11-13 into a couple paragraphs for brevity:

“This (universe) existed in the shape of Darkness, unperceived, destitute of distinctive marks, unattainable by reasoning, unknowable, wholly immersed, as it were, in deep sleep. Then the divine Self-existent indiscernible, (but) making (all) this, the great elements and the rest, discernible, appeared with irresistible (creative) power, dispelling the darkness. He who can be perceived by the internal organ (alone), who is subtle, indiscernible, and eternal, who contains all created beings and is inconceivable, shone forth of his own (will). He, desiring to produce beings of many kinds from his own body, first with a thought created the waters, and placed [his] seed in them. That (seed) became a golden egg, in brilliancy equal to the sun; in that (egg) he himself was born as Brahmin, the progenitor of the whole world….From that (first) cause, which is indiscernible, eternal, and both real and unreal, was produced that male (Purusha), who is famed in this world (under the appellation of) Brahmin.

“The divine one resided in that egg during a whole year, then he himself by his thought  (alone) divided it into two halves; And out of those two halves he formed heaven and earth, between them the middle sphere, the eight points of the horizon, and the eternal abode of the waters.”

We also have this, from Hymn CXXIX from the Rig-Veda:

“1. Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

“2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

“3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

“4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

“6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

“7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”

I love how this hymn seems to end with a shrug, like, “I don’t know, maybe nobody knows, whatever”. The parallels to the Heliopolitan cosmogony, including the creation of Shu, Tefnut, Nuit, and Geb are really striking (I went into a little more detail about it here if you didn’t see it).

Statue of Shiva Nataraja at CERN
Statue of Shiva at CERN.

It’s interesting that the authors of the paper are, respectively, an Egyptian and an Indian. It would be exciting to see the Egyptians and Indians resume their erstwhile places as the world’s foremost philosophers of cosmogony and cosmology.

Inevitably, noticing the Big Bang cosmogony is just another iteration of a story that people have told since it was first told to us sent me down a rabbit hole of philosophical speculation. In a sense, it’s very appropriate that there is a statue of Shiva Nataraja outside CERN, since, in Indian philosophical terms, they are researching the nature of dharma; they would be wise to invoke his patronage. The CERN bulletin explains the motivation thus:

“As a plaque alongside the statue explains, the belief is that Lord Shiva danced the Universe into existence, motivates it, and will eventually extinguish it. Carl Sagan drew the metaphor between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles.

(Emphasis added.) I never met my grandfather, a deeply religious man and a nuclear physicist, friend and colleague of Robert Oppenheimer, and one of the scientists drafted into working on the Manhattan Project, but from everything I’m told, I feel certain he was deeply disturbed by the use that research was put to. Later in his his career he researched potential applications of radiation in medicine, for which there is a scholarship in his name, which I think indicates how important it was to my grandfather that his work go toward promoting life rather than death. He lived and taught in India for a year and a half; perhaps he met Lord Shiva there. Oppenheimer, of course, is famous for saying the first atomic bomb detonation made him think of the line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Lo, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Here’s another bit of weird trivia–my grandmother, wife of the grandfather I describe here, and their daughter my aunt are both named Lela. Lela (or lila or leela) is, in Indian philosophy, a way of describing all of reality as divine, creative play. I doubt my Christian forebears had any knowledge of that. But that is synchronicity for you.

But while Indian philosophy weaves through physics in some unexpected ways, at the same time you can’t help but feel there’s a nudge and wink, and a whole lot of hubris, behind the CERN Shiva. Is Shiva there to remind them how puny we are in the divine play, lila, that is the cosmos? Or do they think we (humans) or they (scientists/physicists) are taking up his mantle?

One day we’ll remember that science is just one piece on the board, and not the game itself. In the meantime, thank Gods there are other weirdos to talk to about this stuff.

P.S. I have just ordered my copy of Gordon’s Star.Ships, so you can look forward to a review when I’m done reading it.

The sweetest holiday

beehives 14th century

Nope, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow (13 February) is the feast day of St. Modomnóc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Sorry, I never give you enough notice on these things, do I?

In case you were wondering, I consulted with an Irish scholar and confirmed that the name was probably pronounced MOTH-ov-nohg, with the first Os short like in sock, the last one long like in oats, and the TH as in there, not as in think. In modern Irish it would be spelled Modhomhnóc. The accent mark in Irish doesn’t indicate which syllable gets the stress, but lengthens the vowel. I’m told that although we can’t be sure which syllable was stressed in Old Irish, the first syllable is a good guess.

Modomnóc came from Ossory (Osraige) in southeastern Ireland. He traveled to Wales to study with St. David (a.k.a., Dewi Sant, patron saint of Wales, his feast day is 1 March) and live at the monastery where the lovely town of St. Davids now stands. Now, David was all about celebrating the magical in the everyday, the divinity immanent in all of creation. At his intentional living community monastery Modomnóc cared for the beehives, planting bee-beloved flowers and talking to the bees, who buzzed all around him and never stung. When Modomnóc returned to Ireland, three times the bees flew after him and swarmed on the ship’s mast, so they all went to Ireland together. Modomnóc established his own monastery, with a garden and hives for the bees. It’s clear that he walked the walk of David’s teaching, “be joyful and do the little things.” Real devotion, real love, is shown in humble, everyday acts, not in grand displays.

St. Ambrose of Milan is also considered a patron saint of bees and beekeeping, but in his case it was because of a legend that his father found his infant son’s face covered with bees, which of course didn’t sting, and that was taken as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence. That’s cool and all, but I think Modomnóc deserves all the credit, since he actually undertook to care for the bees. He loved the bees, and they loved him back. However, another patron of bees arguably worthy of that title is St. Gobnait (pronounced, I am thinking, GOV-nat*), a rough contemporary of Modomnóc’s. She charmed her bees into attacking invaders and thieves and driving them away, and like Modomnóc is said to have been a devoted bee-tender, as well as a healer. Her feast day is 11 February, so while we missed it this year, next year you could do a joint Modomnóc-Gobnait thing, if you so desire.

A friend of mine started his own tradition of celebrating St. Modomnóc’s Day rather than Valentine’s, and making bee- and honey-themed “modomnócs” rather than “valentines” to give to loved ones. I won’t bore you by repeating what I wrote before, but given the precarious situation that both bumblebees and honeybees face (maybe other types too), I wholeheartedly embraced this idea.

bees on clover

Every year on Modomnóc’s Day I think about what I will do to support bees’ work this year. It’s not just because bees have been harmed by human activities and now need us to realize the error of our ways and make amends; it’s also because bees are awesome and deserve to be loved and thanked just for being what they are and being part of our ecosystem. (That’s true for all living beings, I believe.) Add to that the fact that they sometimes share with us a gift of delicious, medicinal, beautiful honey, and I think it’s clear which saint’s holiday we should really be celebrating.

This year I will be:

  • Planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers in the meadow in front of our house. One of the varieties of flower seeds I bought are Phacelia tanacetifolia. I had always just heard it called “phacelia,” but in German its common name is Bienenfreund, “bee’s friend.” How cute is that? There will also be many bee favorites among the herbs I grow in my garden closer to the house.
  • Tomorrow I will be taking a Beekeeping for Beginners class and I joined our local beekeeping association. I don’t know whether I will be able to afford to start keeping bees this year, but if not this year, then next.
  • I checked out Rudolf Steiner’s Bees and a book on beekeeping from my local public library. I’ve also been doing internet research on bees and bee-friendly methods of apiculture.
  • I’m going to try my hand at pouring my own beeswax candles for ritual and household use.

What might one do magically on this day? Just brainstorming here:

  • Make or obtain beeswax candles and consecrate them for…whatever.
  • Bless the bees, the beekeepers, and the scientists doing research to solve Colony Collapse Disorder.
  • Do the opposite to the makers and purveyors of neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Meditate on bees.
  • Go talk or sing to the bees. Start a dialogue.
  • Do a honey jar spell, with special thanks to the bees.
  • Do some garden magic to promote flourishing flowers.
  • Set up an altar and make offerings, prayers, or petitions to Modomnóc, Gobnait, Ambrose if you’re into him, or any of the deities associated with bees. Consider doing something nice for bees as one of your offerings.
  • Give your ancestors some honey.
  • Do some food magic with honey.
  • Launch a “swarm” of sigils.

Now the vegans among us disagree with using the fruits of the bees’ labor, wax and honey (and propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, let’s not forget those). My own thoughts are that using these products–provided they are obtained from local, small-scale, ethical apiculturalists–helps ensure that small beekeepers can keep doing what they do. Some beekeeping is done at a virtually industrial level, and that’s another matter.

Locally produced raw unfiltered honey is usually rather expensive, which helps us treasure it and treat it like the medicine it is. Likewise, pure beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin, but they last longer and produce less soot, they smell nice, and some claim they purify the air (but I don’t know what the source of that claim is, so, grain of salt and all).

Small scale, ethical apiculture is one form of animal husbandry where humans can benefit from the animal products without actually harming the animals. It is, moreover, a step towards self-sufficiency for the humans involved. That is to say, we will never be “self-sufficient” independent of nature–nor, I would argue, should we try. But we can make it a goal to disconnect as much as possible from an inherently exploitative monetary system of value (yes, even though, for now, I am advocating giving money to beekeepers!) and instead (re)connect with our ecosytem and bioregion. My main motivation for keeping bees is not to pilfer their honey and resell it, but to enter into a relationship with a beehive. I want to make friends with bees and see what happens. Maybe they will give me some of their honey and wax, maybe not. I’ll be happy if they just hang around and bring their bee-ness.

Bees Attend Keeper's Funeral

For magnificent magical weirdos like us, there is even more to love about bees. Bees have been associated with resurrection and psychopompery, sometimes the soul is even envisioned as a bee; prophecy, as good omens and messengers of God/the gods; eloquence–the metaphor of a honeyed tongue, face, or mouth is seen in India and the Classical world, as well as in English, so may have deep Indo-European roots; and “mother” or “fertility” goddesses–e.g., Potnia (Minoan), Artemis (Greek/Anatolian), Demeter (Greek), Bhramani (Indian; a wrathful incarnation of Shakti), Hannahannah (Hittite) (as well as various gods, such as Ra, Telipinu, and Aristaios, but in my non-expert assessment it seems the male deities are usually either more associated with beekeeping as opposed to bees and honey, or are somewhat indirectly associated). And of course the beehive is often held up as a model for human society. Here’s a weird bit of trivia: bee boles with openings carved to look like flowers are built into the towers of Rosslyn Chapel. They were only discovered during restoration work and are way too high up for anyone to get into them to remove honey–they’re there just for the bees, it seems.  In Irish custom, bees must be told about major events in the family of the beekeeper, such as weddings and especially deaths–otherwise it is feared they will take offense at being left out of the loop and abandon the family or even cause more deaths in the family. Or, if the hives are not draped in black crepe, the bees themselves may die. In one account, “telling the bees” involved making offerings of sweet foods, shaking keys (very interesting, that), and saying:

“Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say. Your master, J.A., has passed away. But his wife now begs you will freely stay. And gather honey for many a day. Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.”

I like this recognition that bees can leave if they want; they are really not domestic animals, for all that they sweeten domestic life. I think there was some now-lost Irish metaphor or symbolism to do with bees, because the three extant medieval mnemonic glosses for the fourth ogham (corresponding to S**) are, respectively, “pallor of a lifeless one,” “sustenance of bees,” and “beginning of honey.” I don’t know if that speaks to some association between bees and death, or nectar or flowers (bees’ sustenance and metaphorically a “beginning” of honey) and a pale, perhaps light green or yellow color…there could have been a folk belief that bees subsisted on something other than nectar and honey.

The bee has filled our world with beautiful flowers (which may have evolved entirely because of bees–source), brightened it with candles lit against the dark, healed our wounds, and is directly responsible for at least a third of our food–and that’s not counting the honey. Yet these little marvels may well ask what we have done for them lately. On the feast of St. Modomnóc, let us give thanks for the sacred work, life, and messages of the bees. Let us be inspired to love them and not only to tell them, but to show that love everyday in joyful little acts of care toward them and the other members of our “hives.” And if you choose to also celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, just remember who pollinated those roses.

 

*The Wikipedia page (grain of salt) says that Gobnait was a patron of ironworking, and that archaeological remains of ironworking were found at the site of her church at Ballyvourney, County Cork, and her name is apparently the feminine form of Gobniu, the “god” of smithcraft. Gobnait is also associated with white deer, which smacks of faeries.

**Nowadays this few (the Anglicized term for an ogham character) is called Saille (willow), but it’s well to remember that the tree names were also mnemonics. Ogham is not really a “tree alphabet” any more than “A is for Apple” makes the Roman alphabet a “tree alphabet.” Though I admit I love the poetry of the tree names.

Baby magics

baby steps

I really like when people share their magical experiences. There are so many great blogs by people who are experienced magicians, which are very inspiring and educational, but you don’t hear much from the seekers and apprentices. That’s part of why I started this blog. Well, I started it because I felt pushed to do so; I didn’t really know what it would become, but if anything I imagined it as sort of a catalogue of interesting and wondrous things that would make us all think about how magical the universe really is.

As it became obvious that it was instead developing into a catalogue of my own musings, I thought maybe I’d be brave enough to share my own magical experiences. I do try to do that. But sometimes I just can’t find the words. Plus, I’m at an early enough phase in my learning that I don’t “do” a lot. I read, I study, I meditate, I ponder…but as far as what I do, I’m guessing you aren’t going to be losing any sleep over not hearing some vague, inane nattering about maybe, possibly, kinda feeling something. Actually in all seriousness, most of the stuff I experience is unintentional visual phenomena. I don’t even know if it’s clairvoyant or hallucinatory.

Anyway. So in Gordon’s podcast interviews, he asks his guests if they were weird kids. That’s easy for me to answer (Oh yeah. So weird.), but I started thinking about what my first magical experiences were. I don’t mean seeing ghosts, but actually doing magic. And in the spirit (heh heh) of full disclosure I thought I’d share.

When I was little, I used to sit on our front lawn under the birch tree and make “potions” in my mom’s very 1970s orange fondue pot. (It didn’t get much use otherwise.) The “potion” consisted of water, birch catkins, and probably dirt. I wasn’t sure whether I should include this since the potion most likely didn’t have any juju–though no one ever drank it, so we’ll never know–but clearly my heart was in the right place.

The next thing I remember doing–this is kind of embarrassing, but it makes me laugh, maybe it will make you laugh too–is creating an incantation to prevent the toilet from overflowing. It happened to me once and I was so horrified that from then on I had a neurosis about toilet overflowal. I know it sounds a liiiiiittle nuts, but it was tied in with my fears of getting in trouble with my evil stepmother. This incantation, as I recall, was sung (mentally) to the tune of the Dallas theme song. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would work, but then again the toilet didn’t overflow too often. It was a long time ago, but as I remember I thought of this more as a prayer (to the toilet gods?) than as “magic.”

The next bit of magic actually worked: I learned to make myself “invisible” in class when I didn’t want the teacher to call on me. That didn’t happen too often because I was a nerdy little Hermione Grangerish goody-two-shoes…but then there was algebra. By this age (high school) I had been indoctrinated with the idea that I shouldn’t believe in magic, but my mom was super New Agey and she believed (and told me) that “shielding” was legit. The end result is I willed myself to not be noticed, and as far as I can remember, I never was.

I got my first tarot deck when I was about 12, or maybe they were oracle cards, all I remember about them is that they were Egyptian-themed. I got into astrology sometime in my teens. I did both sporadically over the years, putting them away for a time but inevitably coming back to them. But I didn’t think of those as doing magic. I don’t know why, I guess I always thought of divination more in the “psychic” category than the “magic” category, probably because my mom was ok with the former but down on the latter. But in retrospect I think they belong on this list.

So those are all the baby magics I can remember. I would love to hear some of yours!

Priorities, not resolutions

prioritiesdemotivator

I’ve never been a big New Year’s resolution person. New Year’s was just never a thing in my family. I think it’s because we are all history buffs, some of us are or have been archaeologists, and we’re accustomed to thinking in long timelines. The passing of another 365 days isn’t all that interesting when you are habituated to, say, a 5000-year span, even if it does correspond to a trip around the sun. Another thing about a deep fascination with history and big cycles of time is that you learn there is no such thing as progress, and nothing new under the sun. It’s also hard to get excited about the New Year because it is totally divorced from the turn of the seasons in temperate zones of the northern hemisphere. The beginning of spring is super exciting! If it corresponded to the New Year, I could get into that…but no. So combine all that with the fact that I’m not much of a drinker, and basically I’m no fun at New Year’s parties. (I do like fireworks though. Shiny colors!)

I don’t make resolutions because there is nothing about the beginning of another arbitrary group of 365 days that makes me think I’ll have any more resolve this year than last. I don’t really set New Year goals either, because somehow the idea of tying the goal to a very abstract, arbitrary date makes me feel it’s bound to go unrealized, like a kind of enchantment for failure.

Instead I set priorities. Or rather, I have previously kind of vaguely imagined some nebulous guidelines that might have been priorities–but this year, I consciously articulated them so I can Work them.

It was necessary because I now have even more irons in the fire than ever. Even as I’m writing resumes and cover letters and trying to get paying work, I’m trying not to get too much work so that I can have enough time for the more important Work here on the farm. (Officially, the farm isn’t a farm, and doesn’t have a name; but my roommate and I have dubbed it Firefly Farm for the zillions of fireflies that light up the meadow in summer.) I regard this as capital-W Work–for reasons I’ll explain momentarily–but it has the potential to be income-generating down the line. It’s just there’s a lot to do to get to that point, and it turns out farming isn’t for the impatient. And I am very impatient.

By this point you are probably sick to death of hearing my random musings and feelings, so let’s get down to the brass tacks–maybe my method will work for someone else too, who knows?

First I realized there is a lot of Work to be done, and it feels like nowhere near enough time to do it. So I will have to get more organized. Organization is something I am not really good at. Actually, I’m great at organizing information, especially for other people, but my own life is a mess. So this will be a steep learning curve.

Second, I reminded myself that I have to start where I am and be willing to start small and slow. I have visions of glorious vegetable gardens and flourishing beehives, but when it comes to taking concrete steps to create them, I balk, worrying that I will mess up and they won’t be perfect, and then all that money and time and effort will be wasted… Even though I know it’s never a waste if you’re learning from it, and there’s no other way to learn but to try, I still allow perfectionism to hamstring me. This is another steep learning curve.

And so, I realized I would have to define and articulate my priorities. These do not have to be tied to calendar year 2016, and they don’t have to be forever, but they do have to start immediately and they do have to be long-term. Whatever they are, they have to be something that I would be ok with, if every single thing I did in 2016 had to relate to them in some way.

Now for those of you of a more earthy, practical bent, this will seem laughably simple if not downright inane. But for water-fire types like me, this is a huge deal and very difficult. If you too tend to juggle many projects at once, none of them receiving adequate time, attention, or effort to ever reach completion; or if you are torn between the things you want to do and the things you “should” do; or if you have a lot of great ideas that never seem to get off the ground, perhaps setting some priorities will help. (I also recommend checking out Ivy’s Practical Magic Project Management series.)

I debated about whether to share mine. I mean, I’m sure no one cares, right? And anyway, it’s very personal so it’s embarrassing. But I wanted to prove I do actually d0 some Work sometimes, I’m not all book learning and armchair theorizing. So without further ado, here are my priorities:

  1. Become a skilled magician. This is not about gaining power or material benefit for myself–though if that’s what you’re into, you do you. For me it’s obvious that magic is how the universe works, and I want to understand it better, experience it more fully, and work with it instead of against it.
  2. Become skilled at life-sustaining technologies. This means low-environmental-impact, relatively “low” tech such as making stuff you need by hand (sewing, knitting, woodworking…), harvesting energy and water, and growing and foraging food and medicine. Not only is my intention to support myself and my family, and to help support my community, but also to integrate harmoniously into the landscape and spiritscape. The key word here is life (I’m an animist after all). Most of the stuff related to the development of Firefly Farm fits under this heading. I am guided by two bits of wisdom in this, which I call my operating principles: First, use appropriate effort–as much as necessary, but only as much as necessary, only when and where necessary. (I “know” this but seem to require relearning it all the time.) Second, as you get older, work in a lower gear–slower, but with more power and focus. Now that I’m in my late 30s, my energy can no longer keep up with my impatience and tendency to constantly accrue new projects and goals, but I do have more wisdom, power, mental fortitude, and endurance.
  3. Become a skilled herbalist. Herbal medicine is something I love learning about and practicing, and is a way to give back to my community.

Now all of these are things you could spend a lifetime working on and never achieve to your satisfaction–that’s why they’re priorities and not goals. No doubt you will have noticed that #1 and #3 can actually be subsumed under #2. I could have collapsed them all together, but that would have made the single priority too big to deal with. Breaking it into subcategories was necessary to keep focused on specific activities, but I doubt I could handle more than 3. Your mileage may vary.

Once you’ve got your priorities defined, it becomes easier to see what actions each one requires, but also (perhaps more importantly) what actions don’t matter and aren’t useful. You can also easily identify two-birds-one-stone actions that fall under multiple priority headings, and thus should receive special emphasis. And it helps me deal with two things I struggle with: Procrastination–when I can see how an unpleasant activity (writing cover letters) contributes to something I deeply desire (money for seeds, yarn, and chicken feed), it’s easier to get myself motivated–letting my own needs, wishes, and expectations take a back seat to other people’s. Lest we forget, you can also enchant for your priorities, once they are defined, or make sigils to represent them as I like to do, pray for them, meditate on them… Obviously for enchantment purposes, you will need to define more concrete sub-goals, but you can see how the smaller goals slot into overarching, long-term workings related to the priorities.

Because organizing my time for greater efficiency is utterly alien to me and has always failed before, I am going to try a new method for scheduling and recording what I do: bullet journaling. It’s a simple, modular, analogue system that accommodates seemingly infinite creative tweaks. I’ve always been a journaler but hell, you’ve seen these blog posts–you can imagine what my journals are like. I can’t stand to look at them again once I’ve dumped my verbal diarrhea into them so they are basically just paper mind-toilets. Periodically I shred them all, and it’s impossible to find any useful information I’ve previously written down so I frequently have to re-invent the wheel. Now, everything is going to be recorded, in a consistent and organized format, in a single place, and archived for later reference. Will I be able to stick with it? Time will tell. But my chances are vastly improved by staying focused on how the journaling contributes to all three priorities. It sounds mundane but it’s actually one of the early steps in this Work.

As a final note I have to admit that “priorities” is kind of an inadequate name. I could also have titled them “values”, “ethics”, or “mission statements”. Activities that fall under these headings are ways of putting my spiritual and moral beliefs into practice, and I treat them as such. They are both devotional and organizational, and so far they are Working.

Like a boss.

Magic only ever seems to make sense in retrospect. I mean, how often do you even see it for what it is while it’s happening? And so it was with David Bowie’s death. On some level I always knew that he stood out from the crowd of even the rock’n’roll icons, but he has been famous my whole life: Until today, I have never lived in a world where David Bowie wasn’t a star. Indeed, as with many girls of my generation, you could say he had quite an impact on my development. But as is so often the case with something that’s just part of the foundation of your world (and magic in general) even when you think you get it, you don’t realize how important it was until afterwards.

No doubt like many of you, a couple days ago I read Gordon’s review of Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar, liked the music a lot, nodded along (nudge nudge wink wink) with the suggestion that there are–have always been–layers of occult meaning beneath Bowie’s lyrics and personae.

And then Bowie drops the mic and exits stage left like a fucking boss. A wizard boss. Leaving what you realize, in retrospect, is maybe the best and most humorous TTFN letter of all time.

For months I’ve been struggling with stupefying brain fog that makes it difficult to even have coherent thoughts, let alone remember them long enough to write them down, and I’m no brilliant cultural commentator in the best of times. So I don’t have anything clever or insightful to sum this up. It just felt like I had to mark the moment somehow, with people who would understand. I have a feeling I’ll be mulling this one over for a long time.

 

Mythic reality?

pareidolia-peppers-l

“Myths are things that never happened but always are.”

–Sallustius, 4th century AD

 

“A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than a scientific proposition.”

–Joseph Campbell

 

“If you think this is ‘mere’ fiction then fuck you, you’re already lost. It is Mythic, and Myth is probably the only eternal thing.”

Gordon White

I’ve always had a certain fondness for Gnostic philosophy–not that I’m any kind of expert on the subject–but I don’t hold with it 100%. I realize, in fact, that there was a lot of diversity among so-called Gnostics and their beliefs, so it may be that I am inadvertently reinventing a philosophical wheel that some fringe group of them wore down to the nub 2000 years ago. I imagine I could be down with a neo-Gnostic revival of some sort.

The points on which I diverge from the Gnostics are principally these: (1) though I like some other aspects of Neoplatonism, I don’t share the Neoplatonic cosmology of hierarchical emanations from the Monad; I think I’m just too antinomian to like anything hierarchical. (2) I don’t think spiritual = good and material = bad, for so many reasons. My understanding is that not all Gnostics held this opinion but it does seem to have been common. And (3) while I basically agree that what we perceive, or interpret, as “reality” is anything but, I don’t necessarily think it has to be viewed as an archonic prison. It certainly can be, and I think for those who never worry about the nature of reality, it becomes a prison by default. But, at least hypothetically, could it not also be a university, or a temple, depending on how one approaches it?

It’s this last point that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

For many years, I have felt that our “reality” is virtual, sort of like a flight simulator. I’m not sure where I came by the idea, but it was before The Matrix came out. It was really more an intuition than an idea, I guess. Who might be running the simulation, or why, I don’t know, and have always figured I wouldn’t be able to understand anyway. Ever since I was a kid there has been a “voice” that periodically drops a little mind-bomb on me that changes my way of thinking about reality, and I think this was one of them. (I don’t know who or what that voice is; I don’t hear it externally, and it sounds like my inner monologue except that it knows, or claims to know, things I don’t.) I imagine there is probably a real reality within which the virtual reality exists–which may be what we experience when we have numinous encounters–but I don’t think most people access it, and when we do, it’s pretty much ineffable.

These are working hypotheses, or operating assumptions. They’re in a state of perpetual beta testing. I know I’m only seeing shadows on a cave wall here, but at the same time, I have to admit that this model makes so much sense to me on a deep level, feels so right and natural, that I find it hard to get outside of it.

Another bit of information passed on to me by the voice in my head is that what’s most important about your life are your relationships. Not in the romantic sense, or at least, not only in that sense; but the way it was presented to me–if I can find the right words for it–is that the interactions with other conscious entities are the only thing in this virtual reality that is really real (albeit not necessarily in the way you perceive them to be from within virtual reality). Each of us has our own virtual reality, but our relationships are nexus points where our data set expands. These, then, are opportunities to break out of prison. This would also apply to our relationships with non-physical beings, of course, and those are arguably even better opportunities to break out of prison because when we experience the numinous or ineffable, it’s like we get a peek at the coding of the virtual reality program. When you recognize that code for what it is–a script, a text–it blasts you out of imprisoning concepts of reality.

Recently I was having what passes for a conversation on the internet, i.e., talking past each other, and I was finally able to put into words an idea that has been nagging at me lately. Our seeming realities are not so much virtual as mythic. I mean, I don’t know about you, but my “reality” behaves like an affect-symbol system. When I ask myself, for the sake of intellectual rigor, whether materialistic models of the universe might not be accurate, I cannot find any rational way for a purely material universe to produce the amount of meaningful patterns and coincidences that I experience.

In Chris Knowles’ latest two posts, he proposes that synchronicity is “misdiagnosed psi”:

“Now, ‘Synchronicity’ is a useful term in some settings– a kind of accepted shorthand for discussing unusual experience– but in others too often becomes the dinnerware we take out for guests but rarely use for ourselves. It’s a kind of quasi-scientific window dressing on a reality that our forebears understood as magic or religious phenomena….Hence you get the whole idea of acausality, a split-the-difference notion which tends to alienate both believers and skeptics. I don’t think meaningful coincidence is acausal, do you?

(Emphasis is original but I removed some bolding at the beginning.) Indeed I do not believe meaningful coincidence is acausal. Of course the inevitable counter-argument is that the coincidence is not meaningful; but after a while, it gets awfully hard to explain away even just the volume of coincidence in a human life, let alone what makes those coincidences feel meaningful. To quote Knowles again, “Coincidences happen all the time. They are the latticework that underlies the whole of Creation.”

Another thing I’ve been thinking about, and it’s something I want to write about in greater detail but the ideas aren’t quite ripe yet, is pareidolia. (That link goes to the Wikipedia page, and let me just take this opportunity to say I in no way endorse the opinions of Wikipedia editors, but they usually follow the latest hegemonic paradigms, so are a good summary of consensus reality.) Pareidolia is a skill that I have taken to practicing in order to hone the ability. The notion that pareidolic percepts–or pareidolica, as I call them–are generated from random data is an assumption that, as far as I know, has yet to be tested. I guess those data are as random as anything else in “reality,” which I suspect is not at all. Which is not to say that every percept is “real”–are those bell peppers really freaking out?–but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful skill to have in your magical toolkit.

silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.
Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.

Back in 2001, two Norwegian archaeologists, Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen, wrote an article that was very influential in helping me wrap my head around the cognitive and consciousness differences among cultures. The article’s central premise is that Migration Period animal-style art–the complex, interlaced beasts that adorned metalwork of the broadly Germanic and Nordic world during the so-called Dark Ages, including what we think of as “Celtic” knotwork–constitutes mythic hypertexts. These texts superficially look like visual gibberish but become legible, that is, their hidden pictures emerge, to a viewer in a light hypnotic or trance state. Those who were skilled in achieving such an altered state of consciousness could act as interpreters or mediators for less skilled viewers, or those not able to see the texts. (Not everyone could access the texts closely, because this style of metalwork is found on items limited to the very wealthy, primarily mature women of the chiefly class.) Conversely, contemplation of these representations also helped to induce the necessary state of consciousness, meaning these art objects were not only texts but tools. So an ability to achieve a trance state would have been a valorized talent among elite women, which fits with what we know about the social role of seiðr among Norse women.

Now, a trance state might indeed render animal-style art hypertexts legible–I really wonder whether Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen tried it themselves–but so would skill in pareidolia. From my own experiments, I can say that one’s ability to perceive pareidolica does improve with practice. It if were socially validated, e.g., if the person who spots Jesus in a tortilla is hailed as a seer, I can only imagine it would enhance one’s motivation to practice. In short, I think one gets better at spotting omens and synchronicities (and perhaps also other subtle environmental cues from animal tracks to facial expressions). In short, I suspect it is one of a number of skills including, but not limited to, lucid dreaming and meditation, that make one better at spotting the code that underlies “reality.”

Maybe it’s because of where my attention is focused that it seems there are just too many life events that look as if they are following a mythic script to be random. I know too well what the counter-arguments would be: that pareidolia is illusion, as is the meaning attached to coincidence; that myths are based on human behavior and perceptions and therefore of course human lives look mythic; that I shouldn’t be listening to the voices in my head. Am I reading into reality? Like all my other hypotheses about reality, these remain in perpetual beta. But I propose that pareidolica and synchronicity are also “affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies.” In my experience, there is a phase in magical learning where you have to accept everything as real before you can learn how to distinguish signal from noise, and learning to read and write mythic code is no different. It’s part of undrinking the Kool-Aid of materialism. But I have to say, if I may compare my life’s text to literature, my life pre-magic was Harriet-Carter-catalogue-beside-the-toilet and my life now is Shakespeare.