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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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Book Review – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Book reviews are another one of those things I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while but, rather than try to add another additional activity onto my to do list a good compromise for the time being seems to use the occasional blog post to fulfil the function.

The Night Circus might seem an odd choice to start with – it’s not a new book, it’s not a particularly pagan book and it doesn’t lend itself readily to any particular genre or classification (other than ‘fiction’; probably ‘fantasy’). I had been peripherally aware of it, and heard amazing reviews of it, but it was just another on a very long list of books I intended to get around to reading at some point, until this time last year when a customer (who overall has broadly similar fiction tastes as me) insisted vociferously not only did I have to read it, I had to read it right away because it was absolutely an autumn book (we had been talking synaesthesia books, those of you following the blog will remember it coming up in that context previously).

Well, I was convinced (or terrified) enough to comply and I will be forever grateful that I did. It’s a genuinely beautiful book, satisfying a myriad of different fanatasy, historical, magical, steampunk and all-out-geek-friendly elements that made my little heart swoon throughout. There’s a remoteness to the central characters that’s intriguing without being off-putting, and as endearing a supporting cast as you could hope for. The unfolding of the story itself is equally well balanced – enough mystery to be engaging but enough drive to keep it from becoming infuriatingly stilted and drawn out (a particular peeve of mine, especially in crime stories). But yes, I think perhaps the most compelling aspect is the way it captures the atmosphere, the sights, the smells, the sounds, crisp autumn nights full of wonder and sensation, the energy of this time of year complementing the poignancy of the tale wonderfully.

I’ve never been the sort of person who wanted to run away to the circus, but I would follow this one to the ends of the earth.

(And even my mum, who’s ‘not really into that sort of thing’ also ‘quite enjoyed’ it which is about as resounding an endorsement as you’re likely to get!)

(And I would totally get behind a campaign to get the Phantomwise tarot into publication, I think it would be amazing)

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Warmth & Wisdom

The autumn foliage has started to appear in Otherworld’s trees and thoughts turn inevitably to the coming chill. As someone who tends to (physically) run a bit on  the cold side at the best of times, I have mixed feelings about this time of year (although I know plenty for whom it comes as an unparalleled relief!)

Only 42 days to Samhain (not that I’m counting, or have a particular predilection for the number 42…) which has always been a personal favourite on multiple levels.

If excuse was ever needed, it supplies ample justification for curling up with duvets, hot water bottles, fires (indoor or outdoor) and warm beverages (spiced fruit drinks and hot chocolates, with added ‘warmers’ for those who like that sort of thing) and, of course, a good book or five.

Fireworks and falling leaves, crafts and considerations  – I’ll stop before I start to sound like a bad Julie Andrews parody, but suffice to say that despite not being my favourite, there’s still plenty in this season that calls out to me appealing to the romantic, the practical and the magical.

I’ve mentioned before that every festival and cycle incorporates some element of reflection but I feel it’s more true at this time of year than any other – the mood always strikes me as one of more mature consideration, quiet preparations in contrast to the busy flurries of spring, mellow acceptance as opposed to the jubilant pursuits of summer. Acquiring wisdom rather than just accumulating knowledge.

I’m thrilled that I’ve managed to sustain the regular workshops, and naturally thinking how this might evolve in the future (especially now the 2018 diaries and planners are in and there’s no reason for procrastination) but before that I’m going to take some time to embrace the autumn, to wrap myself in cosiness and contemplation, warmth and wisdom.

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Best Laid Plans

I am an organised person. I’m kind of known for it. Whether it’s colour-coded festival spreadsheets, online calendar synchronisation or comprehensive lists of, well, everything, task me with just about any activity or information set and in short order I’ll probably have built some kind of process and administration around effectively managing it. I do it because it makes my life easier, especially during periods when I’ve been juggling disparate appointments, commitments and workloads.

I’m in a very different situation now – it’s less a case of juggling day-to-day or week-to-week activities and now thinking about longer-term publication dates, projections, accounts, orders, invoices and so on. I had to start thinking about things a bit differently too (I suppose ‘big picture’ would be a good way of describing it, though I’m largely averse to that kind of terminology after years of unfortunate exposure). I have to think a lot more about the negatives, about the ‘what ifs’ – the things that are completely and utterly out of my control but that I still somehow have to account for and be prepared for. Whereas objectively this is true of everyone’s lives all the time, introducing and being highly conscious of it in my everyday reality feels heightened somehow.

It’s something that doesn’t often get discussed in terms of practising magic, insofar as I have seen anyway. How often, when we’re planning a particular working, do we come up with a contingency plan? Would I know what to do if I started to notice unintended consequences or, worst case scenario, everything went completely wrong? Would I be able to reverse the effects if I wanted to? How do I stop something I’ve put in motion? Can I? Should I?

I tend to cover this a bit in workshops now too – most magical pursuits (although there are exceptions) emphasise principles of personal accountability which means whatever you attempt is ultimately on you. This isn’t intended as a scaremongering tactic, and I very much believe it’s important that before you attempt any kind of practical magic that you consider the aim, all of the potential consequences and are prepared to accept whatever may come as a result since ignorance is often not a valid get-out-card you can play. I also think it’s good to have looked into protection (safety first, always) and reversal options. It’s really just about giving yourself the best possible chance of achieving your goals while being able to respond to, and deal with, anything else that happens as a result.

It doesn’t have to be complicated (although if you want to design a colour-coded spreadsheet for the purpose I’m all for that), just a bit of extra time and consideration. If nothing else it will enrich and focus your practice, and maybe challenge assumptions – it’s often only when we think about what something might cost us that we give it the value it deserves.

(And, while we’re on the subject, for more mundane planning and organisational considerations I’m expecting the first of the datebooks and calendars in this week, hopefully today or tomorrow – as ever if you want to reserve / order please get in touch)

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Magic and Science

As advertised, this month’s workshop is going to be on the elements. I’ve known about the elements as long as I can remember – growing up they were featured in the films I saw (Flight of Dragons), the cartoons I watched (Captain Planet) and the books I read (pretty much every other Point Fantasy I devoured). Needless to say the periodic table came as a bit of a shock to the system but since I more or less approached Chemistry as a potions class (in a pre-Harry Potter world mind you, and much to the amusement of my teacher) I did alright on that side of things. I never really wanted or needed to reconcile the two – school was school, and magic was magic.

Theory and Practice
Since then I’ve known plenty of scientists who were on spiritual paths incorporating magic (or the other way around, depending on how you look at it) with no deep-seated conflict between the two. The go-to argument for most in the magical community when challenged with ye olde “magic can’t be proved scientifically” line is ye equally olde faithful “maybe magic is just something science can’t explain yet“. Objectively this makes total sense – after all, the earth was once flat and the sun went around it and sickness was caused by ill humours (or possibly foul demons). And I’ve been spieling it off by rote myself for years. “Think of what we knew 100 years ago, and then think about what we might know 100 years from now”.

In the last couple of weeks though I finally got round to watching the adaptation of Genius, a biography of Albert Einstein – not my normal fare, but the cast was too delectable to resist. And I have to say that, aside from the comprehensively outstanding performances (Samantha Colley really stole it for me, exceptional) the thing that most struck me was the realisation of how much of the scientific fact I had been taught as a given was nothing but wild (and very unpopular) speculation not so long ago. That a lot of the truths we base our ongoing pursuit of (scientific) knowledge on were inferred, unproven and considered unprovable, glimpsed only fleetingly and intangibly through their effect on other more observable dynamics. Just enough to cause question, to inspire faith, to drive discovery. Eerily familiar, no?

The quest for knowledge comes in all shapes and forms, but I think has more in common than in difference. I would love to see a day, a world, where we can harmonise all our truths, but in the meantime I think accepting that all of our journeys are uniquely important and learning from our mutual discoveries can only be of benefit.

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Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Well, it’s been a funny ol’ week (and a bit), that’s for sure. Last Monday I had the unusual but undeniably enjoyable delight of making huge batches of play-doh (and a lot of mess) for Thursday’s Talismania workshop. As mentioned in previous blogs, practical crafty stuff has a tendency to not work out particularly well for me but fortunately this was largely fool-proof (or, at least I had the sense to wear a pinny and have a wet cloth to hand). The point is, we were all going to have a go at making a very basic talisman of some variety at the end and, since I’d be putting everyone on the spot a bit, I would need to have a clear idea of what I wanted to make, and how, and why, as an accessible example based on all the aspects we’d be discussing. This put me in a quandary – I’m very selective about my own practical magic, but at the same time I did want to do something ‘real’ and meaningful, not just a throwaway token gesture. What was I going to do? What did I want to fix? Make better? Attract? Repel? Normally of course this wouldn’t be a forced process, you would have the inspiration in order to want to make the talisman and not the other way around. But the more I started thinking about it (and something that was raised as a cautionary note in the workshop) I realised that I could pretty easily think of at least half a dozen things I could quite happily want or need a talisman for at any given time. It would be very easy to get carried away.

The day after the workshop, on Friday, my spidey-senses were tingling. It happens intermittently and, while I frequently don’t know the cause, I know enough to pay attention to it. It was fairly persistent and unsettling so I drew a tarot card to try to get to the bottom of it, again, something else I very rarely do as it can quickly become habit-forming.

…But Deliver Us From Ignorance

In this case, it gave me just enough to put my mind at rest a bit and let me get on with my day feeling a little more settled. It was a good thing. This time. Surrounded by all of this knowledge, all of these options, all of these practices and paths it would be very easy to want to ‘fix’ things with magic all the time – daily readings, weekly castings, monthly rituals ‘just because’ (something else I’ve touched on before). I was also particularly taken by Nimue Brown’s blog on the implications of the notion of magically fixing things. For myself, I worry that once magic stops becoming a tool (for want of a better term) and starts becoming a crutch it stops being effective (which is not the same as to say it necessarily stops working). I worry about reducing it to a series of actions only used to achieve narrow, specific objectives, rather than as a rich and diverse exploration of ideas and information and, yes, spirituality which will provide much greater overall benefit than any incantation or charm.

So while I’m always happy to help, and advise, and discuss, I will almost always advocate the path over the practice – finding your own way, which can sometimes just as much be about what you choose not to apply as what you do and learning as much as you can even where the relevance does not seem obvious – revelations can come from the strangest of places and it’s not always a case of better the devil you know!

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Bring on the Apocalypse

Last week I squeeeeee’d with delight (repeatedly, at length and at a pitch painful to human hearing) about the speculation and subsequent confirmation that the lead roles of Aziraphale and Crowley for the forthcoming adaptation of Good Omens had been filled by Michael Sheen and David Tennant respectively.

There’s always a degree of apprehension about adaptations – time and again we’ve seen that even with the ‘right’ team in place it can all go horribly wrong or, even if objectively brilliant, if it doesn’t quite meet your own internalised picture of ‘how it should be’; it can feel a bit off, a bit uncomfortable, not quite perfect.

I think one of the key things that Good Omens has going for it in this respect is that different parts are already different things to the same person, never mind different people. There’s the different styles contributed by the two authors of course, but beyond that there’s a substantial cast of characters careening across multiple scenarios that move between the sublime and the ridiculous (and many that manage to be both at the same time!) It’s part fantasy, part sci-fi, part comedy, satire, drama, philosophy – and a whole lot of insightful social observation and commentary.

Reading it, there may well be parts, or characters, or other elements that you don’t like as much as the others, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who didn’t have a lot they loved about it. Most people re-read it. And re-read it. And re-read it. I think studies have shown it’s just about the most “borrowed” and “redistributed” book ever (it’s certainly anecdotally true).

Now, I could at this point draw lots of analogies about how this aligns with my philosophy of magic – trying different combinations, incorporating different influences, keeping an open mind and learning new things. But instead I’m just going to say READ THE BOOK*. As soon as you can. Definitely before the adaptation. Or re-read it (to whatever exponential you’re currently up to). It’ll be worth it, trust me.

*And I currently don’t have any, probably precisely because I tell this to anyone who’ll listen (and, in fact, also those who won’t) but will be getting more soon, if you want one specifically ordered just drop me a line

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Hooked on a Feeling

I love the way the sunshine makes me feel. I particularly love it if it’s properly warm out and I can absorb all the tingly, deep-down cosiness of it (slathered in factor 50+ of course) but even just bright-golden-lit-goodness is enough to inspire the same feelings. More than that, it has a knock on effect – it makes me want to listen to particular songs, smell particular scents, wear particular clothes and, yes, revisit particular books. For a long time it was a fairly unconscious process, and one I was largely oblivious to, until I was introduced to the term for it (at the book festival, as a matter of fact, and subsequently through the Lush massage!): synaesthesia.

Making Connections
I think even a bit before this, I’d started to make conscious choices. I started making a point of listening to certain albums when I knew I was going to get the full benefit of a beautiful day – I thought of it as ‘charging up’ the effect so that, when I needed to feel that way again, I’d have as recent an association as possible to evoke (invoke? either way) the same feelings if I was ever a bit low and feeling in need. It’s not dissimilar to going to your favourite whatever when seeking comfort, but kind of the next step along; creating something that you know you can fall back on if you need it.

Magic Moments
In magical practice of course many do this consciously or unconsciously anyway; using a particular incense, set words or ceremony or ritual, music, drumming and so on to get ourselves into the ‘right’ headspace. It’s basically the same thing and it’s easy to elevate to some sort of ‘sacred’ or ‘special’ status, and to forget that it can also have a simpler, broader application that can benefit us more generally. A sunshine-y day is a particularly easy one to start with because the associations are fairly obvious, easy to assimilate, to build on and very likely to be much needed through the deep dark to come!

So pick a song, a smell, a book and use it to anchor an experience, a sensation so it’s there for you next time you’re in need of a boost!

(And on a related note, two amazing synaesthesia books that really evoke strong feelings are Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane [particularly if you were a bookish kid growing up in the UK] and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern [which is perfectly suited to the autumn months])