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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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Being The Change

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about various aspects of reinvention and reconstruction prompted by some posts I’d seen around depictions of witches and ‘reclaiming’ the moniker with a more contemporary portrayal. In brief, my feeling is that ascribing something a new or revised definition doesn’t – and shouldn’t – invalidate other portrayals and interpretations. Attempting to obliterate unpalatable historical associations rarely ends well.

I made a brief observation about the additional inherent challenge of trying to depict a ‘modern’ witch in the first place – I feel this would do little other than create ‘new’ inaccurate stereotypes, and it got me thinking a lot about not only how the world portrays modern pagans, but how we ourselves portray modern paganism, specifically in terms of imagery.

It troubles me. I would say about 95% of the images I see (magazines, adverts, posters) are scantily clad, young white waifs adorned with some token rustic/historic/romantic/mystic accessories (the rest tend to be stereotyped hags). This is especially true of memes – pair an eye-catching image with a brief insightful, inspirational or amusing caption, send it out into the world and watch it go round three times before the truth has got its boots on. And the pretty young things made up as fairies or shamans or viking shieldmaidens are certainly eye-catching. But where is the representation of diversity, of inclusion, of individualism, of reality that we purport to advocate for and champion?

And of course it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more that these images are seen to be popular the more these are the sorts of images that will continue to be produced. But we have no stake, no interest, no obligation and certainly no benefit in continuing that cycle, and every opportunity to step out of it.

So I would urge you – next time that pretty, witty, wise image box pops up in front of you, no matter how uplifting and meaningful the message*, look closely at what you’re being encouraged to propagate and think twice before sharing as to whether it really reflects the values and representation you believe in. Seek alternatives, or compose your own (it can actually be pretty easy when you get the hang of it!). We need to start being the changes we want to see.

*And if the text is an actual quote, try to make sure there’s the (correct) credit in place!

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Chasing Rainbows

Well, it’s been a strange old time of it weather-wise, that’s for sure. While it’s fair to say we have a largely ambivalent relationship with the weather here in Scotland (and the UK more generally) it’s actually pretty rare for us to be so resoundingly disrupted by it. (As an aside, major tributes to various individuals and organisation up and down the country who went above and beyond to keep communications and insofar as possible services running to the best of their abilities throughout!)

And now we are almost as abruptly back to normal, which around springtime in Scotland largely means various points along the sunny-and-soggy scale (although in contempt of my intended topic today it’s defiantly clear and dull – typical!) In the days since the snows dissipated a quick bus stop poll has shown it to be, variously; too bright; too wet; too windy; too chilly or too mild for any given value of whatever the weather purportedly should be like. I’m never quite sure whether we really are just that malcontent of whether it’s purely a nice safe topic of casual conversation – I rather hope it’s the latter!

What the sunny-soggy spectrum has given us this week though are beautiful rainbow spates, the kind that even as a (supposed) grown-up make me want to drop everything and see if I can’t finally get to the end of one. The kind where you can feel the tingle of change, and know it’s a transient moment that you have to capture or lose forever. The kind where you rejoice in sudden showers and blasts of blinding sunshine, and forget what an inconvenience the vagaries of nature are to our modern lives and commitments and infrastructure. The kind that reminds you what pure magic feels like.

It’s still far too soon to be entirely dispensing with wellies and waterproofs and windbreakers, but it’s the perfect time to don them for chasing rainbows…

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Build, Borrow, Steal

I’m a word geek. I think language is important. I know that sometimes this can appear to be sheer pedantry and that it’s often deemed more important to read between the lines (ironic pun intended) than get hung up on discrepancies of detail. I even agree in general principles. But at the same time there’s an extent to which others can only understand our beliefs, our practices, our truth based on how we convey them. When we give the wrong impression, perpetuating misconceptions, misunderstandings and outright fallacies – even without intending to – it can reflect poorly.

I therefore get a bit triggered whenever there’s chatter in the pagan community about ‘reclaiming’. In this particular scenario there was dismay that a Google image search for ‘witch’ principally pulled up the storybook crones and hags of fairy tale and popular media, and that we need to ‘reclaim’ the term. My first problem with this is that someone deciding to repurpose the word ‘witch’ a few decades ago doesn’t suddenly mean all the archetypes known by that moniker before that point, whether Maleficent or Baba Yaga, are no longer ‘witches’. What should it show instead? Wiccan High Priestesses? Herb gathering cunning folk? Circles of athame-wielding acolytes? What, exactly, does a modern witch look like anyway in terms of a keyword search?
The second is the apparent contradiction. Essentially ‘reclaiming’ would imply restoring something to it’s traditional, previously accepted definition, understanding and context. And, traditionally, witches were conventionally the mystical magical hags (sometimes shapeshifting to beautiful women or otherwise) from myths and folk tales as represented in popular media imagery. Putting a modern veneer or spin on something that has a longstanding, pre-existing accepted meaning is not reclaiming – repurposing, reconditioning, redefining perhaps. I suspect this is a symptom of an earlier need to legitimise terminology, principles and systems by claiming more robust historical, spiritual and cultural provenance (particularly anything that could be asserted to be pre-Christianity) but where it’s not actually based on reality and fact it really doesn’t do us any favours.

Reconstruction, on the other hand, is something I can really get behind. Taking the time to really understand the origins, meanings and roots of a myth, a belief system, a culture or a practice is no mean feat, particularly where there is often little to go on, and a learning curve which rarely ends. Choosing which parts are meaningful to you and how to incorporate them into your world view is a massive – but worthwhile – challenge. Acknowledging that it will be an ongoing work in progress, accepting responsibility for interim misconceptions, being brave enough to fill in the blanks for yourself and braver still to continuously revisit, question and revise them is a rewarding and admirable undertaking. It’s possibly much easier to claim you are perpetuating an ancient wisdom that has come to you down the ages as a gospel truth than to concede that you’re kind of making it up as you go along. But when you look, really look, at some of the ‘facts’, ‘history’ and ‘sources’ often cited across pagan channels there is far more legitimacy in trusting your own insight and experience than relying on third hand anecdotes that fall apart at the first sign of reasonable challenge. Take and use whatever inspirations feel right, but don’t pretend they’re something that they’re not.

Which brings me to the currently controversial topic of appropriation. I don’t quite understand how the desire to understand, experience or emulate aspects of another culture transitioned from being a sign of curiosity and respect to an unforgivable insult. Yes, even in the fashion and music industries, even where the underlying reasons might be commercial, surely promoting understanding and awareness across cultural lines has to be a good thing? I concede that many will not go to the lengths of understanding history and meaning, and that this can result in misrepresentation, but then I’m not even sure current generations bother with the cultural significance within their own traditions. There’s certainly plenty of UK ‘traditions’ that are followed religiously by people who have no idea about the why’s and wherefore’s of how they came about (and might well be shocked if they did!) So, as with reconstructionism, provided you are approaching any such incorporations with the right degree of information, respect and self-awareness I fail to see the benefit in restricting anyone to a narrow scope based on what they ‘should’ identify with based on the circumstances they were born into, any more than claiming some kind of lineage through a great-great-grandmother’s-second-cousin-twice-removed creates any sort of natural heritage, supremacy or validity over someone who has built their own understanding and forged their own path.

Amazing progress has been made in getting the various strands of paganism acknowledged, accepted and respected by the wider spiritual and secular communities, particularly in the UK. We have constructive working partnerships with interfaith, with government organisations, with outreach programmes. However as long as we see missives posted about how our chosen path is ‘better’, ‘older’, ‘truer’ and more valid than any other, based on only incomplete records and half-formed theories, it not only tends to undermine our legitimacy rather than add to it but also puts us on the slightly worrying level of unquestioning doctrine, propaganda and even proselytising that is simultaneously condemned in other religions and faiths.

Whether it’s yourself, your community, your peers or your leaders – always question, always challenge, always investigate, always explore, even – and especially – when it’s in your own head and for your own growth.

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The Placeholder Blog

I pretty much had this week’s blog topic, which was going to be a bit more on the serious and substantial side, nailed down but needless to say all plans have gone awry and I’m now not remotely in the right frame of mind to tackle anything with gravitas!

The derailment has nothing to do with the Beast from the East – who currently seems to be more in playful puppy mode hereabouts – or even the interminable roadworks that are a persistent and prevalent pestilence at this time of year. No Australian flu, no bird flu, no regular flu – not even a sniffle. Just one of those days where a series of completely unforeseeable circumstances come together and slow you down, and there’s nothing at all you can do about it.

A lot of the time I get frustrated in situations like that. If I’ve gone to all the trouble of properly thinking through a plan and having a list and a schedule (and on occasion a colour coded spreadsheet) then the least the universe can let me do is let me fulfil it, dagnammit!

But of course the universe doesn’t work like that. Instead, I blethered to some lovely people at bus stops, got a little bonus reading time (always a win!), had a bit of an impromptu wander and have been watching the snowflakes dance intermittently all day so far (now thankfully in the company of a lovely hot mug of lavender tea).

I think there probably will be a lot of disruption this week, whether due to actual, perceived or just potential weather hazards. I think it will cause frustration, inconvenience, and upheaval for many, requiring unwanted changes, compromises, workarounds and contingencies. Some of these folk will be able to plan and prepare for, many they won’t. Personally, having a book on hand and access to hot tea goes a long way towards dealing with whatever the world throws at me!

But I guess whatever the week (and beyond) has in store for us, if you can find a way of eking something of value out of your daily travails, even / especially when it’s not what you thought it would be, the unforeseeable can turn out to be exactly what you needed after all!

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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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