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Community Conundrums

I’m still sad that the Tribes & Tribulations blog has been forever lost in what shall hereafter be known as the Great IT Blitz of ’18, but it by no means exhausted the topic of community and it’s an area that continues to inspire and exasperate me in equal measure, not least given the level of almost daily shenanigans that proliferate social media.

I worry that in our fierce determination to find and follow our own paths we have become too quick to dismiss anything that does not meet with our expectations as irrelevant, or worse.

I worry that we have become so focused on proclaiming the things that set us apart that we are no longer able to celebrate commonality.

I worry that in the absolute mission to stay true to our own agenda we have lost all that can be gained through compromise.

I worry that in our individual quests for higher meaning and purpose we are losing sight of the roots and ties that irrevocably bind us.

I worry that in our dedication to becoming witches, druids, shamans, occultists, magicians, heathens (etc) we have neglected how to be friends, companions and supporters.

And most of all I worry that if we do not re-learn how to be a community of people rather than an assembly of individuals then we will continue to lose out on opportunities to share and to grow and to enrich in favour of petty spats and pointless divisions.

Real community requires effort, sacrifice, concessions and contributions but, when it works, the benefits are significantly greater than the costs. It feels like something we should be good at (or at least capable of!) but with a few (usually localised) exceptions it’s not something I see a lot of evidence of in reality and I think it’s much to our detriment. I would love to say I have the solution.

But I don’t.

So I worry.

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Pagan Whispers

Back when I was growing up it was the done thing to be forced into formalised peer social groups, because apparently by the time we become adults we have completely forgotten what it’s like to be kids and become convinced that it’s lovely to see children ‘playing’ together (preferably with an added element of ‘education’). So I was regularly pried away from my various piles of books (the public, school and van libraries would only let me have four each at a time, respectively, my protestations that they would barely last me a week) to ‘enjoy’ the Brownies, Sunday School, camps, picnics and so on.

Invariably this would involve games, one of which was Chinese Whispers. I hated this game. The whole thing was a setup designed to pervert language and meaning, ideally with hilarious (?) consequences, and that’s before you take account of the one or two who would invariably mutilate the message on purpose.
But yes, it did serve to show how easily even the simple and benign could become warped in transmission, and some recent conversations have shown me just how easily that continues to happen in pagan and similar traditions.

As previous blogs have hopefully outlined, there are a multitude of paths, and variations on paths, and little detours of paths, and it’s a subjective enough area that there are rarely any particular rights or wrongs. However we are also living in an age of ‘experts’ a world where a individuals can and do set themselves up as the foremost authority on this or that tradition or practice. Assuming they’re even quasi-legit, the chances are they will have pieced together this expertise through bits of reading and research, participation in various groups or communities and a healthy dose of self-exploration and practical discovery. What they are presenting though is THEIR path, THEIR interpretation, THEIR truth, and how much that does or does not resemble the origins, history or development of the tradition(s) it claims to be a part of is, like in Chinese Whispers, dependent on the reliability, quality and provenance of the information it is based on.

Let me be clear, this does not automatically or necessarily make it Bad, Wrong or Inferior. But it’s important to remember that when you are reading or hearing about a particular tradition you are only being exposed to one version of it – there may be many additional, and quite different, interpretations, so to dismiss, denounce and denigrate an entire segment without doing your own diligence on something that might open up a world of valuable possibilities to you would be a mistake.

(But remember that an open mind works best with a healthy crap-o-meter in operation!)

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Book Review: Uprooted by Nina Lyon

Subtitled “On the Trail of the Green Man”. While I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say this is misleading, this is a book about the Green Man in about the same way that Life of Pi is about a tiger on a boat. Rather than being the summary of facts, findings and insights discovered as a result of pursuing Green Man imagery and archetypes it relates the pursuit itself and is, to an extent, more like a journal than the anthropological academia or folklore I had been expecting.

This is not at all to its detriment. The book veers wildly from pure (and entertaining) storytelling to sometimes seemingly random (but fascinating) tangents, meandering from diligent fact-finding to deep philosophy, personal opinion to political analysis and historical appraisal to future trajectories. There is A LOT going on in the 280-odd pages, some of which was familiar territory, some of which prompted new ideas or different perspectives and a reasonable chunk that I would definitely have to revisit to get a proper understanding of.

Whenever I consider it objectively I’m conscious that the disparate segments and short fragments are the sort of style that normally puts me off and that I struggle to stick with – what I usually term as being “too bitty” – but for whatever reason (certainly one I’ve yet to determine) I didn’t feel like this when I was actually reading it; each section was interesting and compelling in its own right and intriguing me to find out what might – completely unpredictably – bubble up next.

Just to be clear, the Green Man is not by any means absent or ignored but he is principally the catalyst, the sometimes elusive but ever-present escort, beckoning you further along but never quite directing your path.

This is a book about the journey rather than the destination, and it was one heck of a trip.

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Technical Wizardry

Having been mired in myriad technical difficulties the entirety of this past week I came to the realisation around the small hours (needless to say sleep has been scarce while I try to get it all sorted out) that for the most part working with technology is not so different to working with magic.

There are some experts who know, or claim to know, how everything works (at least within a particular field) but the vast majority are just muddling through, learning and picking things up as and when we need them, sometimes proactively and sometimes reactively!

Starting out the whole thing can seem extremely overwhelming and intimidating, especially if you don’t know where to start. Aptitude and familiarity with one aspect does not mean that other, even related, pursuits are going to come easily or naturally and every new endeavour, variation or change is sometimes the start of a whole new learning curve.

After a while of working with the same thing we become familiar, comfortable, even complacent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – pursuing change for its own sake can be counter-productive. But at the same time the world moves on around us, and it’s important that we’re able to adapt and adjust.

However on the rare occasions when things go wrong it can become almost impossible to determine the why’s and wherefore’s; sometimes there will be obvious answers, mistakes or misjudgments that can be corrected or revised. Other times things just crash. You might even be able to hazard an educated guess as to the reasons, but you might also just have to accept that it’s not something you can fix. These can be hard lessons – whether it’s a year’s worth of photographic memories or a month’s worth of careful preparation and casting – but they are lessons nonetheless, even if it’s only our resilience that grows from the experience.

This has been an incredibly hard week, full of moments of gut-wrenching desperation, endless hours of painstaking (if impatient) processing and not a few tears, cusses and exhortations to any entity that would care to listen (and huge gratitude to those who have borne the brunt of all my rants and ravings). As of JUST THIS MINUTE it looks like the website is back up and running (albeit very slowly) but is backdated to the end of April – so a couple of lost blogs and a bit of reconstruction to do, but I can live with that. This time yesterday I was facing a year’s worth of lost data, and before that potentially having to start the whole thing from scratch. Not-so-small mercies! But I know SO MUCH more than I did this time last week and while I genuinely don’t know if there was anything I could have done to avoid my predicament, I have to believe that I’ve gained something from the ordeal!

So next time it all looks like it’s going horribly wrong, magically, technically or otherwise, please don’t give up – persevere, persist and flourish (and if you need a sympathetic ear, you know where to find me!)

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Accepting What’s Due

One of my favourite parts of being the shop is hearing people’s tales of how they were drawn into or by this field – in a few instances making their first tentative steps by venturing into the shop in the first place! (Don’t worry, you won’t automatically be subjected to inquisition or interrogation if you do come in, but if you fancy a blether I’m usually more than happy to oblige…)

For some, it will be a passing interest, dabbling and dipping in as the mood and current takes them. For others it will be a deep and abiding pursuit, continuously seeking out new strands, new aspects, new perspectives to inform their own knowledge and views. And then there will be those who find something that forms an intrinsic part of their lives, their beliefs, their philosophies and their practices.

In truth, most of us will belong to all of those categories at some point, depending on prevailing circumstances. Particularly early on in discovery it’s easy to get swept up and carried away by novel notions and ideals, only to find that over time priorities change, life intervenes, or simply something shinier and newer comes along.

I want to say that any and all of that is OK. Better than OK. As admirable as it is to dedicate your entire being and self to a particular field, discipline or calling not everyone is suited to that kind of life; even those who are will have setbacks, tangents and detours and will likely be the richer for it. As fantastic as it might be to be a master, an adept, an expert, finding that your journey leads to a different outcome is NOT A FAILING.

Each and every little step you take, every piece of knowledge and wisdom you acquire, every revelation and insight and discovery you make no matter how you come by it is an important achievement, and deserves to be recognised as such. It doesn’t always come easily – it’s easy to focus on how far you still have to go and forget how far you’ve already come, to underestimate and undermine what has been gained because of the endless parade of what might still be possible.

Your own successes, victories, progress and gains are subjective, and simply can’t be measured against some kind of tick list. Celebrate your accomplishments, all of them, no matter how insignificant you (or worse, others [who should be ignored]) might deem them to be. Even the smallest are the seeds that will bear greater fruit in time.

OK, I’m gonna stop being smushy now and go try to fix the website. DO IT THOUGH. SERIOUSLY.

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Book Review(s): Norse Mythology and The Gospel of Loki

Popular media tends to take a theme and run with it until it’s been pretty much done to death, whether it’s cowboys and indians, aliens, witches, vampires or serial killers. The recent fascination with Norse / Viking history and lore is likely to fare no differently and I’ll confess I’ve been following the (fairly mixed but overall positive) output with interest.

So when Neil Gaiman published his Norse Mythology title last year (now available in paperback as well as hardback) it was promoted to the top of the reading list and rapidly devoured for a number of reasons (not least my love of so much of his existing writing). Fast forward to a couple of month’s ago when I was paid forward Joanne M. Harris’ (of Chocolat fame) The Gospel of Loki to read (and then sell on second hand with proceeds to charity). This did not inspire quite the same alacrity, partly because of the timing and partly because, well, frankly what more could it really add for me?

I’m quite struck by the similarity of the two titles. They should not be confused with modern re-tellings, or really re-tellings at all, but instead are accounts of selected Norse myths using contemporary language and characterisation. I’ll admit that I’m used to reading ‘old-style’ myths, legends and fairy tales which were largely documented by academics, historians and researchers rather than storytellers, and it took my brain a little while to adjust to the differences in style and tone, but not in a bad way and I certainly think it’s a benefit in opening the tales up to new audiences).

Loki naturally features heavily in the Harris title being that the whole book is his telling of the tales he was involved in from his own perspective, but unsurprisingly is also prominent in the Gaiman book – of the Norse myths that are known to us many of the most well known star the Trickster, he’s one of the easier archetypes to relate through and of course he’s a major player in the overall ‘arc’. Much of the rest of the pantheon is also portrayed similarly but, given these are extrapolations of the same source material, this probably isn’t remarkable either.

And finally both are composed in fairly short chapters, meaning you can dip in and out and get through each separate myth in fairly short order. I struggled to get into the Harris’ a bit in this regards, I found it a little stilted for me to get really absorbed but then again this could easily be a positive depending on your preferred reading style.

Overall the Gaiman probably tips it for me if for no other reason than it includes a wider array of the myths – naturally The Gospel of Loki is dedicated to those where the titular god is prominent – but I would have no qualms in recommending either, particularly to anyone looking for a less dry but thoroughly well researched and represented exploration of the Norse myths than previously available.

(Note: I’m not planning to stock The Gospel of Loki as standard until it is available in paperback format, but am of course happy to specifically order the hardback version for anyone who wants it)

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A Blether Blog

I’m going for stream of consciousness and random ramblings today, because my brain is just far too full of bits and pieces (or possibly in bits and pieces) to come up with something particularly deep and meaningful this week.

Why so? Well, there’s the normally baseline daily, weekly, monthly and ad hoc tasks and tribulations that demand time and attention regardless of my brain’s varying capacity to deal with them – this can be exertion enough if my brain is mushy from lack of sleep and insufficient spoonage (which I think everyone goes through from time to time!)

More specifically though this weekend is the annual Scottish Pagan Federation Conference, the one Saturday a year when the shop is closed and instead a haul a selection of titles along as stall fodder. It’s an AMAZING day and a brilliant opportunity to catch up with people I often don’t see from one year to the next, but it’s also a MASSIVE logistical exercise for me that (especially given my need for organisation!) is weeks in the planning and preparation.

And of course the monthly workshop, Crystal Clear Guide to Grids, falls just after it so – again with the planning – I need to feel comfortable that I’m where I need to be with that too, or I get too hung up and forget to balance everything out the way it needs to be.

Ah, balance. Sometimes the very process of trying to achieve it – work, play, rest, respite – is enough to cause an unwarranted amount of effort and consternation, soundly defeating the purpose. It can be a hard cycle to break. I wouldn’t like to guess how much time I’ve expended in the last couple of weeks just trying to figure out when I can scrape together some time for myself! But the good thing is that I have, and if I can focus on the enjoyment aspect amidst all the work then that will help make it all worthwhile. Small moments here and there. Sometimes you have to take what you can get!

So I’m going to stop blethering now – hope to see some of at the conference, or the workshop as well is in general visits into the shop, and if I seem a little frayed or frantic don’t worry – it’s actually quite a thrilling energy to have from time to time, as long as I allow the time and space to pick myself back up after it’s run its course!

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Elphaba, Eglantine, Mildred & Me

I’m not quite sure whether to be fascinated or frustrated by the ongoing battle for the symbolic significance of ‘witch’ that seems to continue to rage on – on the one hand, those who are ‘reclaiming’ the  moniker and all those ever (rightly or wrongly) associated with it as embodiments of feminist empowerment, and those desperately trying to distance it from any previous historical associations to pioneer it as a shiny new classification free of political, social, gender and any other inequalities that plague other philosophies.

Neither of these fits with my perception of witches. For the purposes of this I refer to witches, since it’s accessible and relevant in this context, and similarly most of my references are to women but this is in terms of illustration only as I genuinely feel the overall principles encompass all magic users of all sorts.

I grew up surrounded by fictional witches – Simon’s witch, Dorrie the apprentice, Samantha Stephens, the women of the Owens’ family. None of these were the villainous crone stereotypes, and in fact if you remove Disney from the equation there were very few sorcerous hags featured at all.

Some of the most notable that have stayed with me are those from the title – Elphaba (from Wicked, specifically the book version), Miss Eglantine Price (Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch, who studied spells, potions and broomstick riding at Miss Cackle’s in the days long before Harry Potter and Hogwarts). These people (and yes, it probably did matter to me that they were female at a time when most protagonists and heroes were male) were not blessed with innate powers and propelled on some prophetic, destined quest for the benefit of all humanity. Naturally in the interests of storytelling they were faced with trials and tribulations, but they dealt with the problems that were in front of them at the time, they did what was needed not because of some objectively noble cause (even if it ultimately was) but because it was the right and important thing – subjectively – to do. Not to score points or win abstract arguments or for power or prestige, but to make things just a bit better where they could.

And, perhaps most compelling for me, magic was something they learned. They studied, and practised, and tried and failed and often in the end magic wasn’t the real solution at all, but it was something that was within everyone’s grasp if they wanted it to be. You didn’t have to be born into it, or wait to be singled out by a mystical mentor, or have a random birthmark or hope an owl started throwing itself at your bedroom window. You could go out and do it for yourself.

And to me that’s empowerment. I don’t need to connect myself to or distinguish myself from historical, media, cultural, New Age or spiritual connotations of what it means to be a witch, a wizard, a magician, a pagan, a priest(ess). I get to find out for myself, taking account of as much or as little of what those sources contribute as I like. Before I jump on any bandwagon I have to feel pretty strongly about the tune I’m being asked to dance to. And it’s by far the way I recommend because taking that journey yourself gives you the information, the confidence and the grounding in whatever you ultimately choose to stand for.

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Disenchantment

Even magic can lose its thrill. The seasons don’t act like they should, the rituals don’t go to plan, the spells don’t take – the novelty wears off.

A similar phenomenon is currently very much in evidence in relation to our current inclement weather. The staunchest supporters of the cold season (which, while not one myself, I know a few of), who revel in the frigid temperatures, brisk winds, icy excursions and picturesque snowfalls are thoroughly – and vocally – as sick as the rest of us of winter’s continued reluctance to bow out graciously. Being continuously cold and soggy is exhausting, and the amount of energy expended just to stay moderately warm and dry starts to feel like an uneven exchange.

Magic can feel like a similarly unrewarding enterprise. You shore up all of your reserves of knowledge, research, experience, experimentation, dedication and commitment, putting your heart and soul into your practice and sometimes are left with not much to show for it. Not every undertaking will result in a ‘threshold of revelation’ moment. Not every venture will leave you feeling more wise, more fulfilled, more whole. Not every effort will provide the answers you were seeking, or even any answers at all.

So what’s to be done ‘in the face of all aridity and disenchantment’? (*Desiderata, a personal favourite).

Well, the first thing is to acknowledge that it’s completely normal. Anything worthy of work, effort and endurance will almost certainly result in setbacks, and almost certainly more than once. As the maxim goes, if it was easy then everyone would be doing it. And it’s OK to feel disappointed, to feel lost, to question, to doubt, to challenge. At the risk of sounding twee, those are all important parts of any journey.

Try to remember what attracted you, motivated you, enchanted you in the first place. See the beauty in the paths that don’t lead anywhere, the arcs that don’t end and the loops that never quite close. There won’t be big life lessons in everything, or even little ones –  carrying on regardless is enough.

A life full of magic does not mean a life devoid of the mundane. All of the same trials and tribulations can, and will, apply. What you do in spite of magic will aid you just as much as what you do for and because of it.

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Book Review: Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles

Subtitled ‘The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes’ the book aims to trace ‘the esoteric roots of many a comic book story’. So far, so geeky.

I never really read comics growing up – I was already in a devoted relationship with books of which there were a great many to get through, and I kind of liked the pictures my own head made up for me. Later, I began to develop an inkling of the sort of stories and worlds I’d been missing out on, but I’ve never quite got round to backfilling the gap. The media frenzy of films and shows, particularly over the past decade or so, has gone a long way to addressing this oversight so while I can’t make any really legitimate claim to avid fandom (certainly not in the true sense) I do have a reasonable familiarity and appreciation of the main, popularised iterations. A book combining this with magical motifs is a pretty compelling proposition.

Some general notes worthy of consideration. The book is written by an American author and much of the focus is on the US trends and influences however, as the US drove much of the comic culture discussed in the book, this is perfectly reasonable and suitable attention is given to wider considerations where appropriate. The second is that it was published in 2007, right around the time the current superhero media frenzy was just picking up pace and in fact provides some fascinating insights into why now, perhaps more than ever, we continue to be mesmerised by super-powered action and adventure (and not because of psychic mind control, I should add).

The book is absolutely crammed with information: histories, philosophies, mythologies, psychologies, economics, politics, factors and forces relating to both the fictional and real world characters, organisations and events that have shaped the comic book phenomenon since inception. Clearly a devotee of both aspects, Knowles covers each segment with enthusiasm and insight and it is as much an examination of the evolution of this particular type of storytelling as it is the specific subject matter. The style is clear, concise and eminently readable.

My sole reservation is that in taking on such a comprehensive scope, the various sections were a little light on detail or analysis, particularly on the occult side. All of the usual suspects make an appearance (Fortune, Crowley, Parsons, Blavatsky) with succinct and accurate summary information, but I felt a bit like the significance and influence aspect never really got explored, or at least not to a sufficient depth for my liking.

That being said, it was an interesting read, particularly as someone who’s only really seen the film and TV incarnations and interpretations of superhero symbolism and lore and I’d actually be genuinely interested to read an updated volume examining the recent frenzy, increasingly diverse cultural influences (particularly anime and manga) and of course the extent to which occult trends and developments continue (or not) to inspire this genre of storyteller.

A good solid read for anyone with even a passing interest in superhero-occult fusion.

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