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Worlds Within Worlds

It’s very easy, and very normal, to spend huge swathes of time within a few very specific, very defined communities. Some of these will be due to circumstances, such as the place you live, where you go to school or the people you work with, where you pretty much have little or no choice over who you engage with. Others will be due to interests or pursuits such as clubs, societies or peer groups, where you are drawn together by one shared thread but may have little else in common. Even in social situations we’re often not entirely at liberty to decide who we do or do not engage with – friends of friends, friends of partners, random people you end up sharing a table or bench with.

Each different community will have its own ecology – different hierarchies, different modes of language and different terminology, different ways of behaving and relating within them. There will be similarities and there may also be contradictions. What may be par for the course in one group (hugging, cussing, playing with candle wax) may be considered downright scandalous by another.

Navigating and juggling between different groups, and particularly entering new communities, can therefore be confusing, especially when you want to make a good impression but don’t know what the unwritten rules are. Within the pagan community we’re probably very fortunate because, overall, it’s more or less that we don’t have any, are generally all as confused and confounded as each other and therefore make everything up as we go on a case by case basis regardless. There’s a great deal more tolerance about what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ looks like when (for better or worse) it’s impossible to get any clear consensus on the issue!

But limiting our interactions to only those that are safe and familiar and comfortable is, well, limiting. Even failed social experiments give us new insight, help our understanding and open us up to new worlds. And perhaps help us define, shape or even build our own…

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The Magic Pill

I saw an article the other week suggesting (recommending?) various things the magically inclined could be doing in response to illness (principally mental health related in this instance) that might not occur to, or be available to, the wider masses.
Aside with having serious concerns about some of the specifics of the article, it raised an interesting question for me as to whether, as magical practitioners, we are in a better or worse predicament than others are if we get poorly? I mean, after all, we know about what herbs are good for a sore throat and what crystals are good for a sore head and what meditations are good for depression so shouldn’t we just, like, be able to magic ourselves better? Even more, with an entire arsenal of spell-lore at our disposal, combined with our own brand of self-aware spirituality and continuous working toward balance, how do we even get sick in the first place, right?

It is perhaps ironic (?) that – based purely on personal experience and observation – a significantly large proportion of the magical population suffer from serious and chronic ailments of some sort of another (my view is that seekers looking for alternative solutions tend to be those who find magical paths rather than anything to do with paganism or esotericism per se!). And it also has a high proportion of people who want to be helpful. While I do mean that in the best possible way, it’s not therefore uncommon to hear ‘but if you just try this remedy…’ or ‘you just use that stone…’ or ‘you just cast this spell’ with the guarantee that all your woes will be behind you, or at least substantially improved.

As I say, while well-meant, this is usually not very helpful. Recommending people to take on new stuff while they’re in mire of any illness can be entirely counter-productive, especially if energy and concentration are issues. Most magical workings, even ‘fluffy magic’ can take up a great amount of both, and some may have already had to give up their ‘normal’ practices while their body and mind try to continue coping with basic functioning. I worry that it also creates an unfortunate (if unintended) pressure and suggestion along the lines of ‘if you just did this then you wouldn’t be having these problems’, as if the condition and / or its continuation is somehow the sufferer’s fault, and that they’re clearly not trying hard enough if they’re not doing all of the zillion things they’ve been recommended at various points to improve their own situation.

Now, all this is not to say you should not use magical means in the prevention, mitigation and cure of various ailments, or that A.N. Other should not recommend or suggest possibilities that may work in the circumstances. But issuing prescriptions may not be the sort of support and TLC that’s needed, and the best help is often to understand what the ‘patient’ feels like they need, even if it doesn’t accord with your own experience.

So next time someone shuffles up to you with the latest bout of Aussie flu, insufficient spoons or general lurgy, consider offering a tissue and some chocolate* before an edict of “magician, heal thyself”.

*Subject to individual preference, I speak for myself here!

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Book Review: Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire

Continuing the mythology theme in line with this month’s featured books for this month’s review however, unlike some of the contemporary retellings highlighted, this title was originally published back in 1919. This is important to note because naturally it means the style, language and approach.

On the cautionary side, I would say this falls into the category of being fairly academic and therefore not always the most accessible. Squire steams through huge swathes of history, literature and analysis drawing from across his vast research, interpretation and conclusions. While it is utterly coherent throughout, it’s also a massive amount to digest all at once and there is no attempt to cut it into bitesize chunks and spoonfeed the reader. I suspect this is especially challenging for anyone not already familiar with the Celtic pantheon or stories as no sooner are you introduced to a particular deity or hero than you are given several other names and variations to compare and contrast them with or distinguish them from (and that’s just before you get into immediate and extended families, foster families, friendships, feuds and fates!)

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone can make a serious study of any mythology without getting caught up in the romance, adventure, symbolism and complexity of it and this more than comes through in the sheer poetry of the language used when discussing the great Celtic heroes and their deeds. This is the style in which I was used to reading mythology when I grew up and, as much as I have enjoyed some of the modern takes, experiencing them again in a ‘traditional’ (classical?) style only helped to add to the enchantment for me. There is a clear love and admiration that shines through and a desire to share these tales and their significance with the wider world.

Compared to more recent explorations this is a title that might take a little more effort in the reading, but I think the richness of both style and substance make it more than worth it.

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The Long and the Short of It

Another month, another excuse for a Pagan Party…
It can be a bit demanding, our calendar, between solar festivals and lunar festivals and extra bits on top of secular obligations. The whole basis of the Wheel of the Year of course is that it never stops turning. Not even when the sun stops in the sky, when day overcomes night and the light chases away the darkness. Any brief pause is temporary, illusory. There is no absolute, and the culmination of one aspect is the beginning of its own demise.

Put like that it possibly sounds a bit depressing, but somehow I find it comforting. There is no burden of now or never, of missing out, of failing to observe. Every single moment is an evolution of those before, and the commencement of those to follow, and it is possible to find nuance and significance in any and all – or just to watch in wonder as they stream by, filled with somethings and nothings and everythings.

The summer solstice*, the longest day of the year, gives us a shared pause, a common reference point, a clear and indisputable occurrence that is both visual and visceral to the magical and the mundane equally. It is a collective inhale, representing as it does the height of summer (symbolically anyway, such as it is) and, inextricably, the bittersweet acknowledgement that, from there on out, the darkness gains ground again – but only until the Wheel turns once more…

Enjoy your revels and reflections, whatever and whenever they may be!

*For those of us here in the Northern Hemisphere of course, although the same principles apply contextually to those for whom it is the shortest!

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Community Conundrums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I don’t.

So I worry.

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Pagan Whispers

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Uprooted by Nina Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

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Technical Wizardry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Accepting What’s Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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