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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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Book Review – The Witches’ Ointment by Thomas Hatsis

I was thoroughly taken by this title when I was first researching my stock list and even more so when it arrived – I have a particular soft spot for clean, simple, olde worlde cover designs. However at a little over 200 pages (excluding notes, bibliography and so on) it struck me as fairly dense for such a specific subject and, assuming it would therefore be fairly academic, detailed and, well, dry I postponed tackling it until I was in a position to give it the due time and attention. Ah, assumptions. Shame on me.

It is detailed, and it is academic (in the sense of being well researched and factually informative) but the approach, style and tone are engaging, accessible and diverting. Hatsis looks at various recorded cases, stories, records and anecdotes featuring the preparation, use or sale of substances that were or could have been so-called witches’ ointments (whether actually referred to as such or not) alongside the relevant social, political and religious influences in play to assess (insofar as possible) the likely truth behind the tales.

Perhaps one of the more interesting things for me was in relation to cases and accounts from the witch trials – understandably most works tackling that subject matter are specific to the time period, locations and issues directly involved. However seeing accounts across a much broader timeline and incorporating other elements and considerations put it in new context for me, and certainly challenged me to rethink some of my previous understandings of the topic.

Perhaps most importantly though, this book was a genuine delight to read – the author’s wit, humour and wordplay throughout elevated it from the fascinating to the sublime and, as it incorporates elements of historical, legal and medical as well as social, political, religious and occult aspects, far from being niche I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in any of the above.

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Happy Endings

The last of the leaves have vanished from the Otherworld trees, and the first of the icicles have appeared. The sparse silhouette of bare branches without colour and adornment will probably seem barren compared to the spew of colours and sparkles and gaudy glitter adorning other windows at this time of year but there is just enough light to hold the darkness at bay, and there is beauty in stark simplicity.

I’ve had a great many beginnings and endings of late – of course much of the time one automatically follows from the other. It’s probably my temperament (or maybe I’m just getting old-minded!) but even in the best of circumstances I find there’s always a melancholy, a sense of what has slipped away that tinges my mood. On the one hand it would be easy to dismiss it as frivolity – certainly in the case of the leaves, they’ll be back next year after all. And it definitely doesn’t do to let such feelings take over, to lose sight of the new beginning by focusing too much on what has passed (although often this is easier said than done, particularly if the change wasn’t of your own choosing or making).

But I think there is also often a great deal too much impetus on ‘what’s next’ as well (for instance, I’m assuming mainstream shops will have their Easter eggs in from next week) rather than acknowledging and accepting the past – or even the present for that matter. A beginning that follows from an ending is part of a journey, and failing to acknowledge that could mean missing a vital lesson – how you get there can be just as important as where you end up. I think it can be especially true on a magical path, particularly when you stumble on something fresh and exciting. The temptation can be to reinvent yourself, renouncing all former ties in favour of the shiny new path you’re travelling, forgetting it was the original course that got you there in the first place.

And, while it’s sensible to put away the things you no longer need, and to move on from them, it doesn’t mean you have to denounce or dismiss them entirely. Learning and growing from them can turn even the most bittersweet of finalities into a happy ending.

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Remember, Remember

I’m not sure I’ve ever really connected before that there are two such significant ‘remembering’ events so close together, until this weekend when I saw a poppy and started chanting to myself ‘remember, remember’ only to realise the two had got crossed over in my head.

Of course my pedant brain kicked in at that point to qualify that, for most of us now at any rate, ‘remembering’ isn’t really the right concept for either occsasion so much as learning, understanding and honouring what has gone before so that we do not find ourselves there again.

While increased distance in time from such things is of course a good thing (if only such turmoil could become entirely a relic of the past!) and can bring benefits in the context of perspective and objectivity, there is also a risk that we lose something in the process. Memory can be a tricky thing. Remembering, real remembering, is (or at least can be) visceral, consuming, compelling. Strong memories are very often linked to strong emotion, and why you can more easily and vividly remember significant events from decades ago but not where you left the keys this morning. This can be problematic in its own way – the same subjectivity that creates the poignancy of association makes it more difficult to be, well, objective, or rational, to distinguish fact and reality from point of view and feeling.

This is not a bad thing. There are so many things that SHOULD be subjective, that are about feelings over analysis, experience over rationale, effect over cause. Minimising, disregarding or neglecting the actual tangible impact to actual tangible people in favour of objective analysis, facts, figures or any other quantifiable measure (particularly if that measure relates to what is ‘rational’ or, worse, ‘normal’) means losing a valuable learning opportunity, the chance to connect, the chance to understand, the chance to change.

Balancing the ability to acknowledge and comprehend your own memories, experiences, thoughts and feelings and to then question them, to challenge them and to objectively assess them is a massive part of any path or practice, not least in your dealings with others. I hark on about journalling a lot (certainly in the workshops) but this is another area where it can be an invaluable tool – faithfully relating your feelings about something without editorialising will not only provide you with a reliable point of reference and future aid (as I said earlier, memory can be a tricky thing) it will also serve as a starting point for ongoing understanding and learning, preserving and honouring the poignancy, the feelings and the emotion which recollection might otherwise dilute while acting as a foundation for development and growth.

(Or, if nothing else, as something to laugh and / or cry about as needed!)

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Perchance to Dream

Well, this is it, the run-up to that time of year again. So much to do and so few hours of daylight to do it in. It’s full of positives – gatherings, experiences, adventures – but it can be a massive drain and not just on the finances.

My relationship with sleep has always been complicated and, between the full moon, the fireworks and the frenzy of overthinking I struggle to manage my snooze levels have been seriously depleted of late, spurred to a dubious low of around only four hours last night what with one thing and another. This is heightened by the fact that, even when I do sleep, I dream very intensely so neither quality or quantity are achieved. Of course, the more wound up I get about how I need my sleep (physical, mental and emotional resilience all suffer when overtired) the harder it is to achieve either!

The good news is that I do, from previous experience, know how to turn it around. When the clocks went back I posted about using ‘The Magic Hour’ – reclaiming a solid chunk of time to really understand and prioritise your needs and choose to do something about them. This is something that should really be done on a regular basis, not just once a year when time mystically reappears! The other thing is journalling – pouring out everything that’s uppermost in my mind before I try to get some rest, without editing organising or rationalising (although it’s often a good exercise to do that at a later stage) as well as recording everything that’s interrupting my rest whether through dreams or wakefulness, acknowledging the parts my conscious, busy brain might not be picking up on and working through any unresolved deliberations my unconscious (or other relevant force) is screaming at me to deal with whenever it gets a chance.

Finally, for me a escaping into a good novel is a great way to distract myself productively while letting my mind work through whatever it has to in the background, but for some people and in some circumstances I know this can be counter-productive (and for me can often lead to even more intense, albeit varied, dreaming – sometimes it takes a different way of looking at things to nudge something into perspective!)

The phenomenon of dreaming is an endlessly fascinating one in terms of scientific, mental and even magical understanding (check out Nimue Brown’s Pagan Dreaming) and while, like any other area, I’m cautious over encouraging anyone to get too fixated on their nocturnal cogitations a little bit of consideration can be a great way of checking in with yourself and, perhaps more importantly during the season of busyness and bugs, promoting better rest and resilience!

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Samhain: Dark Matters

Merry Samhain to all! I say that quite deliberately – it may not be the most obvious seasonal festival for merry-making but I think it should always be an integral aspect of any seasonal consideration. We refer to them as seasonal celebrations for a reason!

All over people will be celebrating in their own way (and special wave to the other hemisphere where it’s Beltane rather than Samhain). Those following slightly older traditions will be out guising, others will be pursuing its more contemporary cousin trick-or-treating, and many more will be indulging in the complementary “shut the curtains, turn the lights out and pretend we’re not home” method.
Does it matter that these are frivolities whose meaning has largely been either lost or warped?

The more magically minded may be acknowledging the turning season, the death of the oak king and ascent of the holly king; others will be remembering those that have passed and looking to what can be learned and gained from loss; while yet others treat it as an occasion for honouring all who have gone before, whole bloodlines and the essence of ancestral spirits.
Does it matter whether the provenance for these practices may be based in romantic reinvention rather than ancient mystery? Is it important which, and how, and why you opt to pursue?

Others still, probably lesser in number, will channel Samhain as a time to reach for the darkness, truly parting the veil, the narrow window when the darkness reaches back. Many of the practices that have often been deemed taboo, illicit, immoral (or at least questionable) in the New Age spiritual rebranding of magic, but whose roots go the deepest in the dark and are increasingly being rediscovered and explored…
Does it matter if we court controversy, whether we are drawn in by morbid curiousity, sensationalism or academic enquiry rather than an all-encompassing divine mandate?

Yes, it matters. It absolutely matters. It matters that when we choose to acknowledge, to honour, to celebrate that we understand, on a personal level, the what and the how and the why as it relates to us. Whether it’s something you’ve adopted (perfectly legitimate) or something you’ve devised yourself (equally legitimate!) the essential driving force should be that it adds meaning and value to your path and your practice, not something undertaken by rote based on a blog post you read somewhere (even if it’s mine).

For me Samhain is an exceptionally special time of year – I will indulge the guisers (but not the trick-or-treaters, no party piece means no reward at mine I’m afraid) for a bit, (hopefully) dash off to the Beltane Fire Society torchlit parade to acknowledge the turning of the year and then, assuming I’m not completely wiped, take some time when I get home to honour what Samhain truly means for me*.

*As a matter of metaphorical reference I tend to take a Granny Weatherwax approach to this – stand on the threshold and face the darkness, accept all that it stands for and means, turn towards the light and step back

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Backwards and Forwards

I had a very odd, but very wonderful, weekend at the beginning of the month. It involved revisiting a lot of old memories, prompted through a combination of conversation, physical ‘stuff’ and environment. I couldn’t tell you which was the most poignant – being in a setting and a place that is at once strange and familiar, revisiting recollections of special people and circumstances or rifling through the memorabilia of, well, my life (certainly academically).

I’m a little baffled by those who so easily walk away from the detritus and accumulation of the past, but more wondering than critical or envious. Objectively, I would be the first to advocate that you don’t need ‘stuff’ to inspire a connection, to re-visit, re-live or re-experience a point or place in time. And yet personally, subjectively, I find the tactile experience of it undeniably compelling, and it takes considerably more effort to achieve the same evocation without ‘props’ (though from a certain point of view is all the more worthwhile for it). And it’s so easy to forget, little things, that the slightest prompt can once more release. At this time of year, on the cusp of Samhain, the ability to look to the past (my discernible roots, not a romanticised ancestral construct) has always helped to give me perspective, context and insight to inform my ideas and aspirations for the cycle to come. Anything that helps me do that – most especially family and friends, but also ‘stuff’ – is something I value highly and while it’s not healthy to live in the past, it’s nice to visit sometimes.

On Sunday, the clocks will go back and, just like magic, we get a second shot at the last (as in previous, not final!) hour of our lives. For a lot of people, it equates to nothing more or less than an extra hour in bed (and no shame in that, as far as I’m concerned). But in the approach to Samhain, the New Year of the neo-pagan calendar and ethereal passing place of what-has-been and what’s-to-come, it’s perhaps the perfect opportunity to take time back for yourself, wield it with purpose, put it to use – the thoughts, reflections, plans and priorities that never reach the surface during its normal hourly, daily, weekly passage.

What will you do with your magic hour?

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Book Review – The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton

I love Hallowe’en. And I love Samhain. To me, they are distinct but complementary things, and I can merrily enjoy the frivolity of one without compromising the integrity of the other (and vice versa, depending on how you look at it). However this time of year, albeit not uniquely, brings with it an abundance of articles, posts and ‘guides’ that have my (not-so) inner pedant twitching at the distortions, inaccuracies and downright fallacies perpetuated about the origins of the festival(s) (usually relating to ‘recreating ancient Celtic tradition by honouring the ancestral dead’), which has prompted this month’s choice of book review.

For those who don’t know, Ronald Hutton is a historian with a distinguished body of work on both historical and contemporary paganism, particularly in Britain. The Stations of the Sun is an extensive and thorough examination of the various festivals, festivities and holidays throughout the calendar year, tracing their origins, evolution and practices, providing evidence, insight and analysis and, inevitably dispelling some of the myths, assumptions and falsehoods that have crept in over time (not least due to their ‘reclamation’ by modern traditions, however well-meaning the reasons).

Not going to lie, it’s very much at the academic end of the spectrum and can be hard going in places. As each entry is traced from its earliest records through to the present any substantial political, social or religious upheavals that impacted on multiple festivals are addressed as relevant to each section which, while understandable, can be repetitive (although if you’re inclined to space your reading out rather than devour it cover it to cover this is probably less noticeable and less trying).

However in terms of arming yourself with a sound basis on which to understand, inform and enlighten your knowledge of the Wheel of the Year it is an unparalleled and invaluable resource, and one I would highly recommend everyone and anyone invest in (albeit perhaps not all in one go time-wise!)

Buy Stations of the Sun

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Things That Go Bump

Are scary monsters a thing of the past? Or just something I’ve grown out of?

I have to say right off that I’m not a particular fan of horror, not for it’s own sake, but the stories of my childhood were full of dark creatures, strange entities with the sole and absolute purpose of doing terrible things (usually to naughty children). Between myths and legends and folk and fairy stories it was a landscape of giants and demons and beasts and, yes, witches, with recognisable appetites but unquenchable hungers. And there were rules, always rules… follow them and you’ll be safe, stray from the (typically moral) path and pay a heavy price…

By the time I was a teenager the monsters were being defanged, declawed and dispelled. Vampires were misunderstood time-weary travellers who secretly craved a vegetarian lifestyle, werewolves were cursed critters who would much rather be chained up than risk disembowelling someone and witches were misguided youths in too much black or aging hippies bedecked in too many crystals.

These were not the things to be scared of. The things to be scared of looked just like everyone else  And didn’t have any rules…

It’s supposed to make us cautious. Thoughtful. Vigilant. Instead it makes us fearful. Distrustful. Irrational. We look instead to those who will give us back the rules, show us the path we must stay on, the precautions we must take. We forget everything we learned from those who broke the rules, stepped off the path, found the answers. The ones who fought the monsters, who outwitted them, who paid the price, found their wisdom and truth and lived to tell the tale. Because the stories are never really about what is lost, but what is found.

I miss the days of scary monsters.

(And in case you’re wondering what’s brought all this on, this month’s workshop is Dark Dealings, a look at the magic from off the beaten track…)

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Beautiful Inconvenience

Have I mentioned I’m ambivalent about autumn? It’s mostly the temperature drop, having to accommodate from hot to cold environments from one minute to the next. Clothing has to be carefully layered to provide the extra warmth without conflicting with each other (I’m talking in terms of comfort and practicality, not exactly a slave to fashion here!) The falling leaves are similarly confounding – they make the ground more treacherous (slippery when wet and hiding all manner of dips and holes in the ground) and, in my mum’s case, are a permanent source of frustration in terms of keeping her front garden neat and tidy (although I’m not so domesticated and unlikely to be troubled by such a thing). Some activities need to take account of the encroaching darkness, particularly when it gets to the stage that daylight is something that only happens while you’re at work. And once you’re soggy there’s a solid chance you’re going to remain that way until you can get direct physical contact with a heater.

All of this tends to inspire a certain degree of grumpiness in me which, actually, would have been ideal as I’m trying to ’embrace the darkness’ in preparation for this month’s workshop. However it’s just not happening. In spite of, or maybe because of, all the horribleness that’s going on in the wider world right now, I can’t get over just how beautiful everything is. The foliage goes without saying but we’ve had amazing rainstorms, the air is wonderfully crisp and people are starting to come together again now that the adventures of summer are fading away.

It got me thinking about a lot of the things I avoid because of potential added hassle, whether actual or perceived. Things I grouch about because of a bit of minor inconvenience that is quite possibly all in my head in the first place. Things that I don’t even explore because I’ve already convinced myself it’s going to be too much effort.

So – threshold of revelation – my aim this autumn is to look for the beauty in things, even where they may not be as obvious as the stunningly transitioning leaves, and to make it a bigger factor in my decision making. Recognising the possibilities and not just the logistics. And maybe becoming a little the better off for it…

(… at least until the grumpiness finally kicks in!)

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