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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.


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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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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.


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)