Current Events, Holy Wild, peace, Poetry & Music

#WritersResist: Bring the Fire Down

Remember To Look Up

Bring the Fire Down

Move through the hills unrolling
dense and shifting green below the night,
touch earth — between justice
and mercy, between nakedness and warfare,
between all that you would not do
and all you have done, unknowing —
move through the water to the streambed,
move through the mountains to the heat,
move through the empty sky, crying.
To touch the slick, smooth rocks wet
with life and blood and water;
to walk the land; to kiss the deep
echoing heart of the offering well.
Move your compassion. Move your peace.
Move slow and solemn in darkness
and do not be afraid, though their power
burns to brightness, busy, churning
life upon life, grinding colors from their bones
to paint their eyes — move, you beauty,
move, you simple world. Reach up
with your remembering. Reach up with your
longing. Reach up with your being
and your making and your singing
strength into the storm; reach up with all
the detail of the in­between, the tragic
and the torn; reach up to touch the sacred
flame exalting in the midnight earth,
reach up to touch the sun as she is rising;
reach up to show your hands are empty;
reach up to leap your dance on holy ground,
the hills unrolling, the whole earth breathing
— reach up your love, and bring the fire down.


This post is part of #WritersResist. Thank you to Melanie, for spreading the word.
Photo Credit: “Remember to Look Up,” by Cat Burton (CC) [source]

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Theology

New Moon, Forever Maiden: Wild Worship in the Digital Age

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


When I was little, I used to wonder what the poets compared the moon to before there were street lamps and light bulbs. Before electricity buzzed through the netting of wires strung between houses along the suburban street where I grew up, criss-crossing in thin dark lines against the dome of the sky. Evenings in late summer, when the light seemed to linger so long, I would gaze out of my bedroom window watching the horizon blush above the roofs of the neighbors’ houses. And there, just above where that great gold beast of a sun laid down to tuck its head behind the townhouses, there it was — that sliver of moon, impossibly bright, pinned among the clouds. The waxing crescent moon.

raising_moon-Andrea

What had the poets called it? A bow pulled taut. A silver sickle, wet with evening dew. The curving wings of some mighty bird riding high winds. The opening wake of sunset. The lip of a crystal cup, moonlight like a balm poured out over a dusky land. A veil slipping from the round face of a mirror.

In the windowpane, the reflection of my desk lamp hovered like a watery, round reminder of the coming dark and the persistence of the electric, the artificial, as constant as the purr of the air conditioning. As dusk fell and the world past my window grew darker, even the moon would eventually sink below the line of rooftops, and instead of the suburban night all the smudged glass would offer back was the pale reflection of my own face, half in shadow, safe inside the cool, pink sanctuary of my bedroom.

~

We live in a time of amazing opportunities and heart-wrenching tragedies, a time when many of us live daily with the humming tension between wild enthusiasm and deep cynicism. At 29 years old, I am at the upper age limit of the generation that has come to be called the Millennials. The generation that saw the century turn over into the Internet Age, the Age of Information. A generation that grew up with PCs and cell phones, instant messaging and online dating, grassroots journalism, pop-up windows, Twitter trends, lolcat memes and cyber-bullying. GeoCities, LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook — the endless evolution of virtual space, the constant purr of news feeds and headline crawlers. Technology connects us instantly with people from all over the world, making it possible for us to exchange ideas, share inspiration and express our creativity in ways our great-grandparents could scarcely have imagined. But it can also lay us bare to some of the worst of human behavior: cruelty, ignorance, injustice and, ironically, a lingering sense of isolation amidst all the ringtones and white noise.

Women in particular face challenging contradictions in this brave new age. In a society that celebrates equality, we see before us endless opportunities to pursue our dreams. And yet in many ways, the glass ceiling seems thicker than ever, and the balancing act of gender equality forever remains a perilous one. Young women especially face dismal prospects in a struggling economy, saddled with an equal share of ballooning student debt but still burdened with persistent inequality in pay and employment opportunities. For a generation whose mothers took for granted access to birth control and family planning, we face the real possibility of seeing those options rolled back or revoked completely. Even the technologies that give us a voice — the online blogs, the websites and social media networks that help us forge communities of like-minded friends scattered across the globe — are designed and developed by engineers and computer programmers, professional fields that are still dominated almost exclusively by men despite the qualified success of education reform to close the gender gap in math and the sciences.

Like many women of my generation, I grew up believing I could do and be anything I wanted. And I wanted to write, with all my heart. I breezed through Calculus and AP Physics, bored to tears. It was the practice of poetry, the careful devotion I gave to the work of crafting secret refuges of spirit and song, that got me through my high school teen angst years fairly well intact. I blogged. I used the internet to find resources on how and where to publish, and to connect to other writers online who always had advice to share. One of those online friends introduced me to poets like Rumi and Omar Khayyám and first sparked my fascination with mysticism and the magic of the natural world, an enchantment that quickly grew into a roaring passion. In the midst of my small, conservative suburban world, a whole new universe was unfolding before my eyes.

light_through_murano_bowl-John_Lillis

By the time I graduated college with a degree in comparative religious studies, I was a valedictorian, a published poet, and a Pagan. I was also an intense, neurotic little ball of nerves that quickly spun out in graduate school before completing my degree. I found myself waiting tables on the midnight shift and living alone in the city, skirting below the poverty line and desperately lonely.

So I wrote. I lit candles and incense. I poured my heart into blog posts and half-finished novel manuscripts. I poured libations to the earth in the gravel lot behind my run-down apartment building, watching the water turn the sharp stones dark in erratic rivulets that disappeared into the dust. I oscillated between long bouts of writer’s block and periods of frenetic productivity that petered out into the ether of the huge, anonymous world-wide web. I felt trapped, claustrophobic, wild and free all at once, spinning around a center anchored firmly in devotion. Like Rumi, I was mad with the wandering moon.

I could have settled down, gotten a “real job,” some entry-level position in some office building somewhere. But I didn’t. A fierce idealism burned in me, a stubborn refusal to commit myself to work unless I could throw my soul into it. Waitressing was hard on my body, but the clatter of plates and the smell of coffee and the frantic multitasking of the after-hours rush made a kind of dance, a ritual of hunger and gratitude. I gave myself up to the mercy of the Gods of Good Tips, like a hunter laying offerings before carved images of his prey, that the fates might bring him a kill to last him through the winter. It was romantic, and naive.

That is the burden of the Maiden, the young beloved, the inexperienced youth casting herself out into the wild winds for the first time. To hold her idealism like a torch to light her way. To revel in the longing of her expectation, her potential becoming. And for all her daring, to risk being thought of as immature, foolish, sentimental, and naive. To have her parents fret that she isn’t saving for retirement, or that her tattoos might peek out above the collar of a respectable, office-appropriate blouse. It’s her task to scoff at such worries, too, because after all, cynicism is just the mask that hope wears when it ventures out at night.

ambience-jenny_downing

The Maiden is a goddess in many religious traditions. In the Catholicism of my childhood, the immaculate Mary was both Virgin and Mother. The Sunday school teacher explained to us delicately, as we sat wide-eyed and uncomprehending, that the Holy Spirit had entered into the young girl the way a ray from the sun penetrates a glass of water, without breaking it. I imagined a chalice, the smooth curve of its lip gleaming and its round belly beaded with condensation, suffused with light from within. The teacher told us how Mary had said yes.

Naive Mary. Poor, romantic, idealistic Mary, ready to throw away her social standing and her security, risking shame and ostracism, all to bear a child of God.

I think that this, too, is the burden and blessing of the Maiden: to say yes. The notion of virginity has a perplexing and complicated history. All too often, it is seen as a treasure to be hidden away, jealously safe-guarded — something that, once lost, is lost for good.

I see it differently. The purity and self-possession of the Maiden, the fierce joy that shines in her, cannot be contained, locked away. Stagnant water that does not flow soon grows cloudy and rife with gnats. The challenge that the Maiden presents to us is to remain open, porous and self-giving, willing to wander… and to do this without breaking.

But we live in a new world. The tendrils of the internet wind their way into every nook and cranny of our lives, seeping in through our computers and cell phones, even our television sets and the dashboards of our cars. Surrounded by the constant buzz and noise of the digital age, it can be hard to find a voice of our own. Demands for our time, energy and attention press in from all sides, and the urge to keep up with the pace of conversation can leave us grasping for inadequate language and flimsy metaphors. Like distracted adolescents, we can forgo a soul-felt, full-bodied YES! for the quick, clipped “Yeah. Fine. Whatever.”

To remain open, sometimes we need to craft a sanctuary for ourselves. The Maiden knows this lesson best of all, for her life is not only one of wild freedom but also limitation. She has not yet come into her full potential. She rubs up against the limits of her own self-becoming. She rides the contradiction of a wandering that remains anchored, a wildness held safe within the boundaries of innocence and sacred naivety.

Conjunction Without a Flash

As I write, the waxing crescent of the Claim Song Moon slips ever closer to the horizon in the west, trailing the sun like a little sister eager to follow in her big sister’s wake. Next month’s moon will dance through a new season, different in subtle ways, but always the same dance. I still don’t have a “real job,” one where I have to tuck in my shirt, go into the office and follow someone else’s rules. I make a living through my creative work, still the sharp-eyed, stalking hunter making my offerings to the sometimes fickle gods. I’ve learned to carve out a sacred space in which to do this work safely, using respectable language. I tell people I’m in online media production and web design. It sounds impressive. Many of the people my age I know do the same, cobbling together a resumé full of part-time work and creative side projects.

True, I haven’t lived with my parents for more than a decade. I have a husband now, which also sounds like a mature and grown-up thing to have, and I’m the stepmother to four delightful children (though I’ve always felt more like the crazy aunt). I will, through my own choice, never have children of my own, and to some that means that I will never really count as a “real woman,” either. Just a freewheeling flake who never quite got it together enough to settle down to the hard work of family life. Even in this age of opportunity and equality, there is still a stigma attached to women who choose not to have children, a belief that somehow we’ve failed, that we’ve become stuck. To some, I will forever be the maiden, naive and idealistic.

Yet we all have this Maiden in us, returning season after season like the crescent moon: the dusk-dreamer, the lover, the young creature who defends with fierce hope the belief that she can be anything she wants to be when she grows up.

In our quiet little apartment, I open up the windows and watch the moonset above the city skyline. I speak a prayer of naming, madly in love with all the things the moon might be.


This piece was originally published in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 83. (December 2012)


Photo Credits:
• “Raising Moon,” by Andrea (CC) [source]
• “Light Through Murano Bowl,” by John Lillis (CC) [source]
• “Ambience,” by Jenny Downing (CC) [source]
• “Conjunction Without a Flash,” by Distant Hill Gardens (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, Rite & Ritual

Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


“How do I pray without fire?”

– question asked once in a dream

Just the sound of the word reminds me of fire: adoration, the heart aflame.

This is the first kind of prayer I ever really learned. The prayer I come back to again and again.

burningwaxsticks_CaitlinDoe

The strike of the match on the box, the scrape, the hiss — and then the little wick of the candle catches and holds…

This moment, this motion — it is a word in itself, a softly-spoken mantra of devotion. Shivering there, changing a little from one second to the next. Sometimes wavering. Sometimes utterly still. Swaying around its center of gravity in the wake of my breathing-out and breathing-in again.

It is enough: to sit before the altar each morning, to light the single flame, to watch it catch and hold. It is enough to show up to this act of intention. Without the need to grasp what cannot be grasped. Without the need to name what cannot be named.

To hold my heart like a candle wick, steady, upright, held open to the presence of my gods.

To hold my heart like fruit, or a flower, or a handful of seeds in an open palm, that they might arrive — might alight so gently, their touch barely felt — enticed, invited, uncompelled. To be eaten as the earth will one day eat me, slowly, bone by bone…

But then: sometimes it’s not enough. All this gentility — this steady, quiet kind of praying. The little bent wick sunk in its pool of wax, rooted in place, giving itself only just a little at a time.

“Let us pray with a good fire,” the Druids say.*

And so I pile up the kindling, some of it still wet from the rain. Under its skin, sap hisses and snaps where the fire licks it clean. Smoke slithers out between the splinters, unwinding upwards like incense. The husky whispers of my more selfish desires. I give it all to the flame.

It can take a long time for the damp kindling of my life to catch fire. I might sit for an hour making my inadequate offerings, poking here and there, wincing when a bit of wood shifts and suddenly the flame sputters out, suffocated, all but lost.

It is a ritual of unwavering attention, this kind of prayer. Arranging and rearranging, gathering in, working with what I have, trying to make room — opening up space for the fire to breathe. In a world that insists we fill every spare moment with progress, or at the very least a busyness that approximates it. It can feel like a radical thing to make space in my life for waiting and failure and stillness, to open up my lungs in song to my gods and let them breathe me empty.

It is not as clean and easy as a candle flame. It is the kind of prayer driven by longing, by frustration, by unrealized vision…

Until finally, I have sat before the smoking embers long enough, watched the wood turn first charred black and then white with a loose skin of ash. Watched the flame slip along each thin twig as if along a twining labyrinth of praise and recrimination, watched it run its course and meet its end and flicker out again. Until my whole body, my whole being has grown quiet and raw and I think, This is it, I have given everything I have and it hasn’t been enough…

And then, the moment I realize I was wrong.

blueflame_TracyRhodes

Sometimes what I want is a wild fire. A fire that roars. A fire that beats at the air with its bright fists clenched. Sometimes I want prayer like a fire that claims everything it touches. Prayer that ripples out across the rough dark surface of the world like music spilling down endlessly from the night sky, carrying the stars with it. Prayer that rolls over the vaulted ceiling of the heavens with thrilling impossible lightness — a fire round and hot like laughter, dragging the lush purples of faraway galaxies in its wake.

Prayer that turns over into adoration — into a joy that burns so hot, it blossoms like a blue flower inside every thrumming ember, unfolding its quiet petals one by one. As still and steady as an open palm.

Sometimes what I want is to give my whole life over to this adoration, to the hunger of the ones I love.

To be so bright inside that you cannot look, and cannot look away.

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy…

You cannot get there with a candle flame. You cannot get there by wanting to be useful, reliable and tame.

You can only open your most secret heart like a furnace door, smoky-dark and so hot that to touch it — even for a moment — will leave a mark.

Only know that nothing is so precious it will not burn.

whatdoyousee_EileenMcFall


* Though they stole it from Hinduism.


Photo Credits:
• “burning waxsticks,” by Caitlin Doe (CC) [source]
• “Blue Flame,” by Tracy Rhodes (CC) [source]
• “what do you see in the flame?” by Eileen McFall (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

"Glastonbury, Chalice Well," by The Mask and Mirror
Conservation, Featured, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Bless the Waters Thrice: Making Environmentally Sustainable Offerings

In the days of the ancient Celts, a devotee might have honored the gods of her people with a votive object — a torc, a piece of intricately-wrought jewelry, a small statue of a god or goddess, a bent silver coin — given in offering to the clear-running waters of a river or wellspring, or deposited in the murky waters of a marsh at a dedicated sacred site. In the same way, a warrior might have offered up his sword or shield, ritually broken to render it useless or perhaps forged specially to be a sacrifice, never to be used in battle.

But those days are gone.Blessing the Waters, An Environmentally-Safe Method for Making Offerings, by Alison Leigh Lilly

"Glastonbury, Chalice Well," by The Mask and Mirror

Now, when I walk along the creek that runs through the city park near my house, it is the glint of discarded beer cans or the ripped foil from a cigarette carton that catches my eye, pressed into the muck of the streambed. On misty spring days, the smell of sewage is thick in the air. The water is polluted with urban runoff, the chemical waste from homes and businesses, fertilizers, pesticides and bacterial blooms, while oil slicks and other toxins leach into the surrounding soil. It has been almost one hundred years since the salmon who once overflowed the banks of this stream every autumn have been able to survive here.

These days, we are constantly confronted by the reality of how humans impact the planet. We cannot toss a piece of jewelry into the local stream without knowing that this is an act of pollution no less harmful than that of those who leave their beer cans behind. We cannot leave food or drink at an outdoor shrine without considering how it may endanger the health or safety of local wildlife. The ritual practice of “silvering the water” takes on a sinister, sickly meaning in a modern world where large-scale industrial mining for precious metals and minerals has caused serious, far-ranging environmental damage, including the release of toxic heavy metals into our already threatened waters.

As Pagans, we often have a love affair with the past that leads us to try to model the rituals and practices of ancient times as closely as possible. But we live in a different world today. Despite the ornate beauty of certain approaches to Druidic ritual, I wince if the officiating priest uses tiny single-serving bottles of whiskey or wine as an offering, pouring one for each of a half-dozen gods into an offering bowl (or worse, onto the ground). What else can we do at the end of the ritual, but dump that bowl of booze down the drain and toss all those little plastic bottles in the trash?

Can this really be what the gods want from us? Are we so busy trying to do ritual “correctly” that we fail to do it right?

"Burning Incencs," by Richard IJzermans

This question isn’t unique to modern Pagans. In China, Taoists and Buddhists face similar challenges as they grapple with the dire problem of air pollution, and how it impacts the traditional practice of burning incense, candles, paper and fireworks as propitiatory offerings to gain favor with the gods. The founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Martin Palmer explains:

[T]hey “were getting overwhelmed by the smoke—and were really offended by the gross consumerism of this.”

So the Daoists teamed up with the Buddhists and began the “Three Sticks Movement.” When people enter temples, they are urged (or, in the case of the Ling Yin temple in Hangzhou, required) to limit their incense to three sticks: “one for heaven, one for earth, one for you.” The movement has little impact on macro-level air pollution, but the revolution is intended to be a cultural one, Palmer says.

“What’s fundamental about that movement is that it’s saying ‘simplicity.’ It is saying that extravagance, that excess, has no place in a more compassionate, more spiritual world.”

Whether the Three Sticks Movement will have a wider cultural or environmental impact remains to be seen, but already some monks have begun to notice that only a few years after adopting the practice, “the curtain of smoke around temples was removed” and the birds had begun to return.

"Kenai Sunrise," by Eric

The ancient Celts held a special reverence for water. The mists that blew in off the sea, the wellsprings that rose up out of the earth, the rivers and streams that wound their way through the land providing fresh water and swift passage, the bogs and marshes that could be treacherous obstacles to the unwary and the lost — all of these were seen as liminal thresholds, doorways to the Otherworld. It was with good reason that votive objects were so often deposited in such bodies of water, given over to the realms of the gods, the fair folk and the beloved dead.

These days, this same reverence for the element of water compels me to rethink some of the ancient rituals that I seek to embody in my modern practice. Rather than deposit offerings in local waters, which are already strained by the heavy burden of human pollution, instead I make an offering of water itself. I use a minimal amount of clean water (no oils or other additives), blessing it three times — once for the ancestors, once for the spirits of the land, and once for the gods — before I pour it in libation:

By the warmth and work of my hands,
I bless this water
As an offering to my ancestors.

By the sound and song of my voice,
I bless this water
As an offering to the land.

By the breath that moves me and gives me life,
I bless this water
As an offering to my gods.

May this thrice-blessed water be accepted as an offering
of my love, gratitude and praise.

By the Three Sacred Realms,
by Land, Sea and Sky,
so may it be.

Like the proponents of the Three Sticks Movement, I believe that this compassionate simplicity is offering enough. I look for no other silver in the water than the salmon’s annual return.


Photo Credits:
• “Glastonbury, Chalice Well,” by The Mask and Mirror (CC) [source]
• “Burning Incense,” by Richard IJzermans (CC) [source]
• “Kenai Sunrise,” by Eric (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Q&A: Do you have a familiar?

This question comes from an anonymous user over on Tumblr, where a post about my cat, Cu Gwyn, that I wrote last year has been making the rounds. Anon asks:

Do you have a familiar?

I should probably answer this question with a modest, “No.” Especially if I don’t want to piss off any Trad Witches, some of whom no doubt have spent years studying various medieval texts detailing the practices of cunning-folk and witch-trial testimonies about various dealings with faery cats, demon rats and otherworldly toads. They’d be justifiably angry with me if I went around claiming to practice something that has so many serious books written about it, of which I’ve read exactly none. Aside from the usual stereotypes about witches and their black cat companions, all I know about the concept of the familiar is what a quick Google search can tell me. I don’t claim any extensive knowledge or experience about the use of familiars in magic, ancient or modern.

cu13-1024x1024

I’m also not really the New Age type who thinks, just because my cat happens to enjoy watching me wave incense around making a fool of myself in front of my altar, that he has any actual interest in my spiritual or magical development. If he is a wise old soul, he is of a relatively indifferent kind — I imagine that, of his nine lives or more, this incarnation must be his equivalent of retiring to Florida. (He is curled up on the couch next to me as I write this, and when I ask him his opinion, he barely deigns to twitch an ear, his eyes resolutely closed, as if to say: I’m well aware that you’re trying to disturb my nap, which is why I’m ignoring you.) He is much more interested in what time I feed him dinner, than he is in aiding me in my rituals or spellwork.

Still, there is something about my Cu Gwyn that borders on the magical at times. The night after I found him as a stray 6-week-old kitten hiding under our car, I had a bizarre dream about being attacked by a horrible beast with knives for fingers… The next day when I took him in for his first checkup, the vet discovered some half-healed wounds on his belly, probably inflicted by a dog or another feral feline he’d encountered. I could shrug that off as coincidence, the result of an overactive and overly-sympathetic imagination. Except that I’ve had what seem to be “psychic dreams” on many occasions since Cu joined our family — the most vivid of them almost always involving chasing mice, a signal that I was sure to wake up the next morning to find evidence of them in the kitchen. My husband has had similar dreams. I’m a skeptic by nature, though, so I tend to shrug these experiences off as the promptings of my subconscious, which must have picked up on some subtle sign my conscious mind failed to notice.

But there’s no arguing that Cu Gwyn positively exudes personality. I’m sure a lot of pet owners feel this way about their companion animals. I’m not ashamed of taking that feeling seriously, and treating our cat like a member of the family. Scientists may still argue over levels of consciousness and intelligence in non-human animals — coming to a grudging consensus recognizing non-human consciousness as recently as 2012 — but having lived with animals of various sorts all my life (including cats, dogs, fish, frogs, rats, mice and, on one occasion, a newborn wild rabbit), I have no doubt that these beings possess consciousness, intelligence and personalities all their own. (Hell, if even cockroaches have personalities, how can we doubt that our feline friends do?) It is not mere sentimentality that leads me to sense a wakeful, minded being before me when I look into my cat’s sleepy eyes.

This is why I joke about my cat being my “familiar.” Though he may not realize it, his very presence in my life is an abiding reminder to attend to the familiar things that I may otherwise overlook. Through his languid resistance to my requests for cuddles, he reminds me that the world is not made up solely of my own needs and desires. Cu Gwyn is my familiar when he reminds me:

It’s about the simple companionship of ordinary objects and creatures and beings, and the way their presence shapes our lives even when we think we’re not paying attention. A part of us is always paying attention. There is always something within us that is attending to the textures and contours of things.

Over the past few years as I’ve walked a path more and more shaped by animism, shamanism and totemic work, I’ve felt the pressing need to remain grounded in the real, physical beings that surround me and share the land with me. I attend to the birds in my neighborhood — not the idea of birds I read in some book, or the imagined experience of a bird in meditation — but these particular birds, here and now. The two finches, say, who return each year to nest in my front yard, whose quirks and calls and favorite perches become known to me the same way the habitual movements and muffled noises of my human neighbors do.

One of the challenges of totemic work, I think, is learning to resist the seductive call of the exotic, not to go rushing off towards some other cultural paradigm that seems more interesting than our own…. But instead, to stay rooted in the familiar landscapes and communities around us, which so desperately need us to wake up to our relationships with them. To truly awaken to these familiarities as fully as we can.

And there is nothing more familiar than the placid gaze of my cat beside me.

Do you work with familiars as part of your practice? Do you have a pet or companion animal who has shaped your spiritual path? (Are you a Trad Witch who would like an apology for how under-researched this post is?) Let me know!


Have another question for the Q&A series? Leave it in the comments below, ask me on Tumblr, or email me.