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Book Review: Way of the Druid by Graeme K. Talboys

I’ll admit it, the subtitle of ‘The Renaissance of a Celtic Religion and its Relevance for Today’ gave me pause since, to put it politely, a great many books purporting to illustrate ‘Celtic’ beliefs, practices and cultures have only a cursory relationship to trivial matters like history, evidence or, in fact, reality. I was therefore very relieved to find that the author dealt with such concerns very early on and with much the same frame of mind, leaving me free to ungrit my teeth and enjoy the rest of the book.

And I did enjoy the rest of the book, very much so. This is not a foofy new-age manual about where to stand in stone circles at what time of year with this chant and invoking those mystic symbols. This book is not really at all about what a druid does, it’s about what a druid is – by no means an easy topic to address. Part history, part philosophy, part spirituality, Talboys looks (very acutely) at what we really know of the Celtic way of life as well as what we can infer; the myths, preconceptions and misconceptions about druid orders, and the extent to which these have been helped and hindered by modern reconstruction; and the advantages and limitations of adopting such a world view in contemporary society.

It’s not always an easy read, but in the best possible way. Many of the concepts and ideas are challenging and thought-provoking, even to someone (me, specifically) familiar with varied pagan ethos’. However the author neither panders nor patronises and is refreshingly honest and unsentimental while still conveying the wonder, beauty and insight that can be discovered as part of a druidic journey.

BUY NOW

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Something’s In The Air

When I started considering this week’s blog it occurred to me that, given tomorrow’s date, from a social relevance point of view I should probably write something about love spells or sex magic or self-appreciation or similar, but I don’t want to, so I’m not going to*.

Not because I have issues or reservations about any of these topics. Far from it. As you will hopefully all now be aware, as long as individuals are approaching things with the right precautions for the right reasons (myself included) I’m very non-judgey about the means, preferences or paths involved in that pursuit (though admittedly there’s lots of other things I am very judgey about).

It’s also not any kind of Anti-Hallmark-Holiday sentiment. While it’s possible to try and shoehorn it into a kind of reclaimed Pagan calendar under the auspices of Lupercalia, or claim it as some kind of quasi-legitimate festival worthy of note based on historic/mythic/folkloric references, I actually have no issue with it being an engineered, fluffy, frivolous annual landmark that encourages people to show regard to the ones we love. Commercial pressure I have an issue with – acts of appreciation needn’t come with a price tag – but if it gives a few folks a boot up the backside to proactively proffer genuine recognition and affection then I don’t see anything wrong with it. We can all use more of that, even (especially?) it it’s only once a year!

So rather than getting all overly analytical assessing, exploring or explaining a particular aspect of magic, or worse ending up a bit crass about all the ‘stuff’ in the shop that could be useful for said aspect of magic, I’m just going to SHARE THE LOVE TO ALL OTHERWORLDERS – wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, I wish you all the love and joy in the world no matter what day it is.

And as an added bonus, remember there’s a distinct possibility of loads of discounted chocolate from Thursday onwards…

*However if you want advice, recommendations or discussion on any of these, pop on by, I’ll be more than happy to chat!

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Fact & Fiction

Our fascination with history is not new, but the inundation of contemporary media productions (whether books, film or television), their scale, scope and detail mean they are now subject to greater expectation – and critique – than perhaps ever before. This is heightened by the fact that information on these periods, insofar as we have any at all, is more widely accessible than ever before, although the quality of said ‘information’ on the internet varies greatly compared to a reliable, well-researched academic text. Needless to say that in order to bring history to life, writers, producers and their ilk need to make it accessible, palatable and above all entertaining, and frequently some degree of accuracy and historical integrity has to be sacrificed to make that possible.

It frequently surprises me when there is so much outcry when it’s perceived that a book, a show or a movie doesn’t achieve the right ‘balance’ between fact and fiction, intentionally or otherwise (especially since it’s fair to say that we don’t even represent modern ‘real life’ accurately in contemporary media, it’s all high drama, bottomless resources despite never working and improbable revelations).

Don’t get me wrong, as a fact-lover, bibliophile and out-and-out pedant it makes me literally cringe when narratives play fast and loose for no apparent reason. But, and it’s a significant BUT, as a lover of fiction the imperative of the story – where it’s a good story – is often a valid enough reason, particularly where it’s so immersive that you’re not conscious of any dissonance or discrepancy at the time (only to be barraged by an army of a nitpickers after the fact). It’s in the greatest tradition of bards and storytellers to embellish, entrance and invent so as to better enchant their audience, combining both information and imagination, ensuring the stories were/are remembered and passed on.

More than that, where it’s suitably engaging and engrossing it has often been the springboard that’s led me to go out an really get involved in a topic for myself, to look at the academic works, the analysis, the theories, the mysteries and really try to understand it myself rather than simply accept what either the proponents or critics are trying to tell me is the ‘truth’.

So as with everything else, I’d encourage you to make up your own minds, judge things on their own merits based on your own interests and preferences; don’t be told what you should or shouldn’t enjoy and always try to take the opportunity to expand your knowledge and horizons, even if it means having to do some of the homework and hard thinking for yourself!

Notable Caveat: I want to be clear here that I’m talking about discrepancies and inaccuracies in historical or cultural observation, in narrative or in character. Instances that perpetuate, normalise or even glorify unacceptable themes, stereotypes or behaviours are a very different thing, and not justifiable purely in the name of entertainment (nor do they tend to qualify as good storytelling) – but that’s another topic all of its own!

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Unnatural

Possibly a bit controversial this week, but it’s been niggling at me for a while now so I’m going for it!

For many paganism is about earth based spirituality and reverence for nature, which in turn manifests as a drive to live more naturally or, for some, return to nature. In the latter case, I’ve seen a great deal of utopian ideological rhetoric over what this might entail, but little realistic or practical strategy about how this could / should be achieved en masse*. There is also a notable tendency to lambast anything and everything that is considered sufficiently unnatural, another area where definitions vary greatly. I find this disturbing and perplexing since this same cry – “it’s just not natural” – has been used to prejudicially stigmatise people and practices across history. Gender fluidity. Homosexuality. Women reading. Women thinking.

A few weeks ago I saw a debate topic posted suggesting that, given the current overpopulation crisis, as pagans we ought to consider whether we should advocate against the administration of medical vaccinations – which are not natural – and allow people’s lives to run their (mostly shorter) course thus reducing the strain on our resources.

Gulp.

Well, setting aside the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and ‘slippery slope’ (or similar metaphor of your choice) arguments, it’s true to say that death is a natural part of life, possible the defining one since it’s about the only aspect we’re all guaranteed to share, and not something to be afraid of (unless of course you subscribe to a belief system that mandates it’s only the beginning of your judgement, punishment, and all the woes to follow). Certainly having a growing elderly population has created demands that we are increasingly unprepared to cope with. And filling our systems with chemical substances is still so relatively new that we cannot have certainty around all the consequences, immediate or long-term – sometimes things go wrong (unpredictability of reaction can be equally true of herbal remedies too though).

All fine and practical. Death is natural. If we go on historical statistics then living past the age of about 40 is not (excluding the Old Testament of course). And not so long ago that was our reality (and in some places still very much is). Now, though, we are not talking about accepting the inevitable. We would be talking about watching family, friends, the elderly, children and everyone else die of preventable causes. And not just die. Suffer. Potentially endure long, drawn-out illnesses with debilitating symptoms and degenerating capacity. Or surviving, and having their lives perhaps blighted by ongoing infirmity. Presumably, if we’re not giving them the chemicals to prevent the conditions we’re also not administering the chemicals that will alleviate them. And why? So we can get back to ‘how things are supposed to be’?

To me, the “if nature hasn’t provided it we weren’t meant to have it” refrain starts to sound like the “if God had meant us to fly He’d have given us wings” type of argument. The reality is that most of the drive of humanity’s creation and invention (including both art and science) has been to improve things for ourselves and each other. Homes, energy, transport, medicine, all so that we can have safe, healthy, more comfortable lives. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve made a ghastly mess of most of it for one reason or another – good intentions are rarely precaution enough. But we should be using everything we’ve learned and discovered to mitigate, or undo, the mistakes we’ve made rather than throwing it all away so that we can die a slow horrible death in a dark cave somewhere “as nature intended”**.

I think that working with the world around us needs to be about working with the world as it is, about redressing the imbalances that have been created or developed and not just ignoring or cauterising the parts that are not as we might wish them to be. Our very natures ARE what make us scientists and explorers and engineers as much as shamans and bards and witches and for me any viewpoint that is too extremist or exclusionary or prescriptive risks sacrificing as much of what makes us magical as what makes us a bane to the world around us. Unfortunately it’s unlikely that we can fix all our mistakes without making new ones along the way, but we should be very careful about what we purport to do for the sake of nature and what is natural.

*In utopian, or in fact dystopian, fiction, any sort of wholesale restructuring usually has to follow some cataclysmic event which neatly clears the way, usually involving extended chaos, casualties and destruction which is, presumably, not going to be a desirable route to paradise.
** Which I’m not sure about either – surely there’s just as much of an argument that we are as we are for a reason?

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Book Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front is the first in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series which follows the adventures of a Chicago based private detective who happens to be a wizard (or a wizard who happens to be a private detective, whichever you prefer). In addition to his private work, he also consults with Chicago PD on their ‘weird’ cases. Despite how it may initially sound this is not a ‘high fantasy’ world and he’s treated with much the same combination of scepticism, derision and outright suspicion that we see in reported cases where police have worked with psychics, mediums and clairvoyants.

I’m not going to go into the particular plot of this book or the overall arc of the series (since the point is to read it for yourselves!) so I guess I’m really reviewing the concept and premise, all of which I loved from the get-go.

To classify it as cross-genre is a gross understatement. Clearly the detective element has tipped you to the fact that it covers mystery and crime aspects which, when you incorporate the magical and supernatural inevitably throws up interesting questions about morality, legality, culpability, rules, processes and the ongoing discrepancies between the ideals of justice and the practicalities of law (Marvel’s The Gifted is provoking some interesting thought on that sort of thing at the moment too).

Then you have the fantasy side. The arc (and there is an arc, a really good one) is full of what I would consider classic concepts and symbolism, with each title in the series creating a good balance between dealing with the case / plot in hand while adding to the bigger picture. It’s also very good at introducing the wider world at a steady but digestible pace so that you get a comfortable understanding about how this slightly-alternate (or is it?) reality looks, feels and works before being led into ever more complex relationships and machinations, all without feeling patronised or spoon-fed.

The fact that it’s NOT high fantasy and relatively contemporary (Storm Front was first published in 2000) the extensive geek references, dry humour and witty banter are exactly in my wheelhouse, making it eminently entertaining and readable (alongside all the little sidetrips, foibles and frustrations where magic and modernity don’t quite mix).

And last, but by no means least, the system of magic itself has been very well thought out (I would guess probably having been very well researched) so that the practices, the possibilities, the limitations and the failings all feel like they make sense, like that’s how they would ‘really’ work. The magic it takes effort and work and sometimes you get lucky but it doesn’t always just happen like, well, magic… (there’s a flaw in that logic there, but you get my meaning.

While by no means for everyone (then again, what is?) the Dresden Files has a pretty broad scope of appeal and is thoroughly enjoyable to boot – Storm Front is your starting point.

 

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The Prospect of Snow

I once attended a philosophy lecture about the principle of induction, the idea that we can only really function by making assumptions about most of the world around us, usually (and ideally) based on experience, because if we had to question and establish everything from first principles all day every day, we’d never get anything done. Why do we not question or worry whether the coffee in the cafeteria today, is in fact, poison and not coffee? Why do we not ponder whether tomorrow we will wake up to find the world has turned into jam? If either of these things DID ever happen we would start to ask the question, but because they never have, we never do (these were two of the examples within the lecture – the consensus was that while the coffee in the uni ref may never have turned out to be poison, there were many occasions when it didn’t bear much resemblance to actual coffee either – as a tea-drinker that was never an issue for me though. I digress)

So what does this have to do with snow? Well, while our assumptions and inductions are all fine and good, as a species we’ve spent a great amount of time and energy trying to exact certainty from the world around us (and exert control over it, but that’s a different topic). One of the areas we have a passable degree of success is in weather forecasting, albeit only moderately passable in Scotland, particularly on such days as it changes on an hourly basis. This week predicted snow and so, based on our experiences of snow in the past, individually and collectively we put in measures to prepare as best we can.

And I couldn’t help thinking about it in magical terms. Even in the midst of shared practice our experience of magic tends to be unique, subjective, individual. What works, even repeatedly, for one practitioner may not work well or at all for another, even within the same discipline. Is magic ever predictable? And if not can we ever really prepare*? Can the results ever be certain? We may convince ourselves that something will work because it has worked before, and I suppose that makes it true – right up until the point it doesn’t, of course. And even assuming it could be certain and predictable, is that what we would want? A mechanical process of cause and effect – this chant + this sigil = that result. Would it diminish the experience? Because there’s nothing quite like an unexpected snowfall to inspire beauty and wonder…

(*The answer is, up to a point, yes. Just practice safely, always carry your towel and, just in case the world does turn to jam tomorrow, possibly a spoon as well)

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New Year – New Start?

Ah yes, that time of year again. As we all, weary and impoverished to a greater or lesser extent, try to drag ourselves back into some semblance of post-festive ‘normal’ life despite the mostly cold, dark and dismal conditions (in the UK, anyway!) we are supposed to be investing our energy, intellect and willpower into ‘bettering ourselves’. Start as you mean to go on and all that. Personally I can think of few worse times for taking on the added burden of deep and meaningful personal development but there are now a slew of multimedia campaigns encouraging us to Do The Right Thing and Make Our Lives Better whether it’s giving up alcohol, becoming vegan, joining a gym or starting a qualification.

Now, don’t get me wrong, none of these are bad things in and of themselves (even where commercially driven!) and I’m a big fan of self-improvement where it’s done for the right reasons. Last year, around spring time (firstly because it was the shop anniversary and secondly because spring really is a time of new beginnings) I kicked off the concept of the Otherworld Challenge. Not a challenge to Otherworlders, but for Otherworlders to challenge themselves – find something they might want to know more about and commit to a book a month, a chapter a month, a topic a month, a workshop a month, whatever they were comfortable with so that by the end of a year they could be much further forward toward that goal.

The main distinction for me is that instead of choosing something that you SHOULD be doing (losing weight, drinking less, eating healthily, saving the world etc) you choose the result you want and start working towards it, slowly but surely (which there’s obviously a lot of psycho-babble to support, SMART goals and all that, often easier said than done!) While true catharsis, reinvention, motivation and so on can be affirming and amazing and insightful, it’s not something that can be forced or engineered, certainly not because of an arbitrary date on a calendar. In magical practice we are continually encouraged to reflect, to cleanse, to commit and to re-evaluate – it will always be an ongoing process of setting goals, working towards them, knowing they will probably move about a bit in the meantime but valuing everything you can learn and achieve as part of the process.

So by all means take some time to consider where you might want to be by this time next year, and what you might have to do to get there, but don’t be overwhelmed by excessive external pressures or tempted by near-impossible goals. Remember that this is the time of year when we have to work harder than ever just to maintain physical and mental equilibrium instead of adding to the existing demands on our precious resources. Plus, you’re much more likely to find your reflections on the past year more palatable if you haven’t set yourself up for failure in the first place!

Wishing you warmth, love and inspiration as we embark into 2018!

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Yuletide Blessings

There seems to be a lot of general despondency around at the moment. I don’t suppose this is particularly surprising given current social, economic, political (et cetera, et cetera) circumstances and the almost unavoidable media deluge continuously highlighting everything that goes wrong in the world. Whether or not ignorance is bliss, or possible, or even desirable is a topic for another day, but certainly vast arrays of ‘information’ are now readily available and not easy to avoid.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of any opportunity we can muster for festivity, and merriment, and words ending in -olly. If we let ourselves believe it’s about who buys what presents with what money, or doesn’t, we lose. If we let ourselves believe we shouldn’t celebrate our blessings and be happy because of the crap going on around us, we lose. If we let ourselves believe we can’t be, even marginally, blessed and happy because of the crap going on around us, we lose.

Yule and Christmas both are about the light in the darkness, about hope, about renewal, about pushing on through the deepest night towards dawn. It’s important to find reasons to celebrate; to celebrate achievements, friends, family and even yourself. To have belief, spiritual or otherwise, that who you are and what you have can be enough, and that even the smallest of acknowledgements, gestures and considerations can make things better.

Hope and belief are important. It’s the difference between the sun rising and a mere ball of flaming gas illuminating the earth.*

So to all Otherworlders, whatever your status or circumstances or beliefs or traditions, I wish you an excessively merry Yuletide and frivolous festivities replete with all the blessings, boons and benisons that will fill your season with light, laughter and love.

*READ HOGFATHER BY TERRY PRATCHETT!!!

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Tomorrow, Tomorrow

Deadlines have a palpable effect on people, the frantic frenzy that escalates when the to do list is increasing but the number of tomorrow’s in which to address it is rapidly decreasing. At this time every year it’s much more of a shared experience on a much grander scale than is normally the case (exams, house moves, holidays, work commitments). You can exchange meaningful looks (usually involving eye-rolling) with others in the queues and the crowds, wordlessly sympathising with mutual frustrations. And so, if out of necessity if not actual commitment, we do in fact get things done, partly because particularly in the commercial context of supply and demand, tomorrow might be too late.

It’s a big contrast to all the the things that we are forever going to do tomorrow but don’t because, trite but true, tomorrow never actually comes. Then again, tomorrow isn’t always there. Not necessarily in the ultimately grim, depressing sense (although that is of course also a possibility). But the person you want to spend time with may have moved away. The place may no longer be as it was. The book may no longer be in print (that’s one from my personal list, in case you were wondering!)

There will, of course, always be things that have to be done today and therefore things that have to be pushed back to tomorrow; even more that have to be planned for further on, or moved to a tomorrow after that. In two weeks time it will, in this specific context, ‘all be over’ and through a mix of exhaustion, relief and practicality much of the motivated organisation that got as all to that point will evaporate, and we’ll be more than glad to be able to put a few things off until tomorrow, or the day after – or February! But in the meantime, try to find a bit of every single today to do something that isn’t purely about getting through the next fortnight, that’s about indulging yourself, your loved ones, your passions and your pursuits in a really meaningful way. Despite many of the inconveniences this is also a truly beautiful season, and the shared spirit isn’t only one of frustration (or isn’t meant to be anyway) so make sure you have something worthwhile to you at the end of it – even if it’s only your sanity!

(This may involve visiting a bookshop. It’s just an idea  😉 )

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Winter Wonderlands

Winter is a natural time for storytelling, for reflection and introspection, sharing wisdom, truths and tales (preferably somewhere cosy and comfy with good company and good cheer). The stark beauty of the season itself provides the perfect backdrop to stories of adventure, particularly in the UK where frosts and fogs and blankets of snow can quickly turn the surroundings into dazzling – and treacherous – new landscapes, both familiar and disconcerting at once.

It’s little surprise then that winter itself is sometimes treated as an other world, as not only the setting but the reason and manifestation for a journey of self-discovery. Many stories are about defeating winter itself, or at least its avatar. It is both enchantment and hardship, enticement and obstacle, eternal and fleeting. We must use all of our wits and skills to endure, to survive. It can never be truly overcome, but we can take comfort in what we have gained from the experience – knowledge, values, lessons, learnings.

Fortunately, you don’t need to go to the trouble of sourcing any ancient furniture, mirror fragments, unicorn horns or abandoned sleighs for your very own winter adventure – whether you’re looking for exciting new stories or challenging new ideas this Otherworld is as little as a click away (and with much more reliable opening times)! As the temperature drops (and drops, and drops) consider what you would like your winter’s tale to be, and what you want to have achieved at its close…

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