Harrowing of Hell

Twice each year, as the sun traverses across the sky crossing the Earth’s equator resulting in a celestial alignment we call the Equinox – a day with light and dark of nearly equal length. In the prevailing over-culture the Sunday following the ecclesiastical full moon after the northern Vernal Equinox has been used since medieval times to calculate the date of the celebration of Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus and bringing conclusion to the forty day period of penance and fasting which symbolically marks the biblical account of Christ’s temptation found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. For those who fall outside the Christian over-culture, today also marks Eostre – one of the four cardinal festivals in the Wiccan-derived Wheel of the Year and a strange syncretism of a syncretism of many other minor syncretisms.

Apocryphally Eostre derives from a Germanic goddess celebration attested only by the seventh century English monk Bede and further fleshed out by the nineteenth century linguist and folklorist Jakob Grimm. Whether or not there was a goddess called Ostara as supposed is up to debate, especially since pre-Christian polytheism was anything but universal and based more in smaller regional cult practices only rarely intersecting with other cultic practices except where cultural cross-pollination happens. Drawing on Frazer, this holiday is often connected to a sort of mono-myth theme of death and resurrection that, while problematic, is convenient for those of us who have apostatized and still hold onto the memories of a golden, youthful time that may or may not have existed to begin with.

Stripped of symbol, we’re left with a celebration of youth: an observation of the heat of the Earth giving rise to plant life, the start of the human and non-human animal mating season, and the return of light causing the specter of seasonal deprivation of pleasure-giving fat-soluble secosteroids responsible for increasing intestinal absorption of calcium, magnesium, and phosphates. The cult of youth is an old one. There’s a paradox here and useful for meditating on the symbolism of this celebration, especially since it is directly related to the sexual theme of this day. When I say “sexual” I’m not referring to the physical act explicitly – though it’s implied – rather the acknowledgement of vitality and finding ways to generate and transmit knowledge across culture and time.

In one of the traditions of which I’m part, we celebrate this festival with the acknowledgement of the archetypal “corn maiden” of which Frazer writes in his Golden Bough:

“[The] corn-spirit is personified in double form as male and female. But sometimes the spirit appears in a double female form as both old and young, corresponding exactly to the Greek Demeter and Persephone, if my interpretation of these goddesses is right…  Amongst the marks of a primitive ritual we may note the following: 1. No special class of persons is set apart for the performance of the rites; in other words, there are no priests. The rites may be performed by any one, as occasion demands.  2. No special places are set apart for the performance of the rites; in other words, there are no temples. The rites may be performed anywhere, as occasion demands. 3. Spirits, not gods, are recognised. (a) As distinguished from gods, spirits are restricted in their operations to definite departments of nature. Their names are general, not proper. Their attributes are generic, rather than individual; in other words, there is an indefinite number of spirits of each class, and the individuals of a class are all much alike; they have no definitely marked individuality; no accepted traditions are current as to their origin, life, adventures, and character. (b) On the other hand gods, as distinguished from spirits, are not restricted to definite departments of nature. It is true that there is generally some one department over which they preside as their special province; but they are not rigorously confined to it; they can exert their power for good or evil in many other spheres of nature and life.”

Far from the infantilization or sexual fetishism of the maiden, she is viewed as most sovereign and coming into her own power. This, I find, is an important twist on the fertility narrative as in this tradition it’s about power and agency. It’s about the power of youth and wisdom of basic human goodness and the process of sharing this fierce power across time and space with a kind of cautious vulnerability. It’s purgative as we realize that we ourselves are sovereign and whole – something at which our culture seems to be at odds – and learn to share our power and goodness and allow it to be planted and grown in others. It’s ecstatic, a realization that through sharing this power it only grows and is not diminished and is out of the control of even the gods themselves.

In a twist on the themes of the prevailing mythic narrative of this time, it’s also a time of sacrifice – sacrificing that which we’ve held onto in the past as once useful and casting it into the furrows of the field. Symbolically this is done with the last sheaves of wheat from the last harvest, but here it can be the experiences we carry that no longer serve us, the traumas with which we’ve defined our lives, the rituals and gods that now hold us back from full expression. It’s harrowing – it is Hell – to let go of these things, but willingly sacrificing them upon the altars of ourselves we own our own power over the narratives of our lives and are able to find our salvation and joys in this life, on earth, here and now.

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Observance

When I woke up this morning, the Sun had yet to rise above the horizon. I stepped outside looking at a vague horizon and was greeted by a robust, balmy breeze.  I began my morning prayer, “I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation…”

It is a beautiful morning.

Sitting down to my coffee, I survey the grounds that I’ve spent the past couple days landscaping off and on with my family. It looks beautiful and is indeed well-manicured, but is missing something – a certain kind of wildness, despite itself being surrounded by forest, farmland, and wildlife. This, I think, is a good metaphor for humanity itself. We’re no longer fully wild, but can be rugged; we manicure ourselves, but like to get dirty; we’re dark, but capable of enlightenment.

For many, to be human is to try and balance one or two of these dichotomies, but the reality of our experience is much more complex and dynamic. Lately I’ve been fortunate to examine myself, as best I can being given the tools I have, to look at myself in all my parts. I’m not perfect, but I pray I may be perfected by this meditation and discover my inner wholeness – my own personal strength and invocation of my own trinity and oneness as a creator of creation.

We are all unfortunately children of Descartes in a similar felix culpa as we are children of Plato. The order of examination and reflection is typically reflected in the supposition that ordinary experience is an observation that can be made by the unskilled observer in acquaintance with natural phenomena independent of our own interference or control over their occurrence. This is objectively true in a sense. As Victor H. Anderson is said to have remarked, “Perceive first, believe later.” This is the problem of belief in the current dialogue of American or Anglophonic (either way, conventionally Christian) discussion of the matter.

Understood from the Greek in which the New Testament was written, belief wasn’t an abstract set of bullet points that one had to agree with, rather reliable inferences based on falsifiable evidence. Unfortunately, Cartesian observation falls apart when it comes to non-ordinary observations which depend on circumstances that are so special and detailed that it’s difficult to notice them – this I think is the “sin” of the current level of discourse of belief since it starts with a presupposition of a thing in abstraction – an ideal thing – without looking at its observable reality. God ceases being God; rather an idea of a God that requires bullet points and the soul becomes tokens in a great gamble in the marketplace of ideas.

This is a great gamble, and one I’m not willing to make.

Watching the Sun rise today, I’m able to affirm a mighty strength, and through that strength am able to affirm the beauty of a good day based on the nobility of presence within myself that I am conscious of the Threeness and Oneness of my creation. Beauty is a way of affirming that, it’s a kind of nobility and power that is simultaneously intrinsic as it is extrinsic – the Sun then is a symbol of that power and an affirmation of the reality of my own inner powers of creation and destruction. I know God is there as She always is, lurking in dark between the stars that are the molecules of my being as much as I am a molecule myself in the body of God.

If the result of knowledge is power then with knowledge must come responsibility. This conception of great power is threatening precisely because it destroys the need for belief, and that power is invisible which in turn makes it so threatening because fire cannot consume the one who is possessed by it. It’s beautiful, wild, and free; but must be tempered, analyzed with the same precision as a swordsmith, and exercised in order to be useful. It’s also for this very reason that the gamble of believers is so great and why, as technicians of the sacred and holders of the great power, those who enter into the Craft from whatever angle need to be observant.

Observation is a sacred act precisely because it allows us to delicately look at the spaces between and truly feel things out: ourselves, our bodies, our environments, and our relationships between one another. It’s no surprise, then, that it also has a dual meaning related to religion because it has the ability to draw things together (Lat. religare “to bind fast”) This shouldn’t be forced, especially between individuals, as it sets an unsteady precedent for not only how we relate to others but ourselves as well. This, I think, is the danger faced in the midst of the patriarchal religious thought – we are taught to believe first, then when we fail to feel or perceive that abstract, we become gas-lit into believing a whole number of silly things to the point of losing our faith in ourselves and then with others.

Looking at the Sun, I feel the balmy breeze and look forward to planting. According to the Old Famer’s Almanack, I see that a comparative analysis of weather trends shows the likelihood that there may still be a threat of frost around the end of the month. While not optimum for planting, the weather is still good for aerating the soil and laying the foundations for soil that will be receptive to the plants I intend on putting in it to be nurtured and grow.

This felix culpa also is at least corroborated by waning crescent moon in the current lunar mansion (25. Sa’d al-Akhbiyah) about which Warnock opines we must, “[Proceed] according to the dictates of Nature, rather than those of men, machines and artifice.” Agrippa, on the other hand, has a more sinister opinion, stating that, “It helps besieging and revenge, it destroys enemies, makes divorce, confirms prisons and buildings, hastens messengers, it conduces to spells against copulation, and so binds every member of man, that it cannot perform his duty.”

Entering into the planting season, then, let us meditate on our own good intrinsic natures and sacrifice the inorganic ideas and beliefs impressed upon our souls, for goodness’ sake. Grounding our experience in the sensible, the sensual, that which brings us together and planting the seeds for that in the hearts of others may be more beneficial than merely believing the good we’re told to by a society and false God who is more interested in serving a never ending chasm instead of feeding and allowing us to be apologetically whole and natural. May our own sacrifices this season fill that gulf with nothing except the chains and mechanations that no longer serve our own powers.

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Salt

To this point I’ve primarily written about what could be described as a theoretical manifesto of magic, in particular that which could broadly be considered witchcraft. Coming from a largely scholastic background informed by the liberal arts, it’s inevitable that one would rely on the comfort of what one knows in order to convey things that are very much a process. One of the difficulties here, and for my own personal explorations, is the hesitance of being too circumscriptive at the cost of descriptive and personalized narrative experience. This, I feel, is also a dynamic that is present in the various intersections of the Pagan and Occult revivals of the 20th and 21st centuries especially for my experience being a participant in both, while not wanting to really identify with one over the other. In this mercurial state, however, I feel there’s a paradoxical lesson to learn and that is in stability.

Having been given the opportunity of a significant amount of leisure time, I’ve taken much of my spare time toward study and practice in the lessons given me by my dear friend and mentor under whom I’m training toward. Benefitting from the privileges and socialization associated with being assigned male and living as a male identified person in a particular culture that values rationalism and scientific detachment from experience, I never thought I’d find myself stepping away from the rigid proscriptions of Western Ceremonial loftiness and into a disorienting tradition that radically challenges my daily life and for that I am profoundly thankful.

The privileges above make it very easy for many of us to want to talk about complex matters and, for those of us who ‘do magic’ talk about the particular complexities of the tools we use. Being a species whose many achievements have hinged on our complex ability to make tools and narratives, one of the logical places to start a personalized narrative is to talk about the many complex methods of interfacing with spirit and the tools we hold dear – and I will – but first let me sing the praises of a “tool” that has long been underappreciated and overlooked that I had a dream about recently:

 “I dreamt I was standing in a rose-hedge enclosed garden by the sea next to a tall fountain. From the sea a woman clothed in red approached me carrying a golden casket who announced herself handmaiden to Venus. ‘Salt is purification, but cleanliness is only the outward sign of an inward grace. The inner mystery of Salt is the same of that of Love and purity of Spirit.”

She opened the casket revealing inside an oyster shell which had been gilded before continuing, “Salt is required by the human body for the ability to transmit the senses – Taste, Feeling, Touch, Smell, Vision – all are products of the body’s ability to process this humble element. For this reason as well it is claimed that Salt is abhorrent to the wicked spirits. In excess, salt aids in the process of bodily desiccation which is abhorrent to those spirits who bemoan the loss of their senses. It reminds them of life and the pain of separation.”

Handing me the small shell, she offered me a taste under my tongue, suddenly causing the whole experience to transform as though I were awake. I could smell, taste, touch, and see things fully saturated in my senses.

She drew closer and took back the shell explaining, “All elements are pure in their natural states, and Salt is pure because of its simplicity. For this reason the gods gifted it to your race for laboring in their vineyards and fields that you might savor the union of Body and Spirit in union.”

Salt. A simple compound that is as commonplace as it finds itself on nearly every table and altar at one point or another, yet one that often goes unnoticed in the maelstrom of ritual conjuration, heady incense, candlelight, and the feelings of the descent of the numinous in our midst. At the start of many rituals, salt is frequently cast into water with certain formulae implying that the dissolution of the physical appearance of salt in water creates a medium of purification which is able to sanctify sacred space through the union of ‘passive’ philosophical earth and water, as is commonly explained in many contemporary ceremonial traditions, frequently contrasted with the ‘active’ fire and air.

While the majority of salts can be said to be stable elements, pure sodium is in contrast quite active. A common demonstration given in classrooms demonstrating its volatile and explosive abilities is to drop a small portion of the silvery-white metal into a container of water and wait for the resultant incendiary interactions with combined hydrogen and oxygen molecules. A stable molecule itself, sodium does easily bind with other molecules and so we have to depart from the ‘earthy’ symbolism of Salt as merely a passive element and examine the active lessons given by the mysterious handmaiden of my dream and ask the deeper questions of Salt as a mediatrix.

In order to explore these connections, it might be important for some salutatory for us to look at the word itself is expressed in various European from etymological origins: Proto-Indo-European *sāl- (*sēl-) reflected directly in Latin as sal, ‘salt, salt water, brine; intellectual savor, wit’, Greek hals, ‘salt, sea’. To further the symbolism, we also find sal in certain revealing cognates: Saltus, saltum, ‘leap’, derives from the verb salio, ‘leap, jump, leap sexually’, whence Saliī, ‘priests of Mars’ from the ‘primitive rites (practically universal) of dancing or leaping for the encouragement of crops’. Far from static, we find Salt to be quite dynamic – in fact ecstatic – which is important as it relates to the particular expression of traditional witchcraft in which I’m pursuing initiation but also to my original vision of the handmaid of Venus who is the source of the Power of the witch and philosopher alike.

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Perhaps no other image of the Roman deity of love is more immediately recognizable Nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus) by Botticelli showing the goddess rising from the sea attended by Zephyrus and Aurora, and being greeted by Flora. In mythology, the marriage of Venus and Mars has inspired frequent philosophical musing, especially for the external circumstances of infidelity and violence between the polarization of their perceived roles as instigator of love and arbiter of war. Yet, in his De Amore, Ficino muses it is Venus who is always dominant over Mars. “For this reason, “as Plutarch notes (Table Talk, IV, 10, 684-5.), “feminine beauty is called ‘salty’ and ‘piquant’ when it is not passive, nor unyielding, but has charm and provocativeness. I imagine that the poets called Aphrodite ‘born of brine’ […] by way of alluding to the generative property of salt.” It is also from the union of Mars and Venus we also receive a dialectical third person – Concordia, or ‘Peace’.

Alchemically, Salt along with Sulphur and Mercury, constitute the tria prima or three primal elemental states found in all organic matter. In Paracelsian medicine, it is believed when these three states are in balance in the human body, there is homeostasis however this homeostasis can be interrupted by an excess of one or more of the states or even external states such as planetary alignments and intelligences. Philosophical Salt in this sense, refers to the essential ‘body’ of organic matter after being subject to calcination – dead matter, but still containing the essential elemental basis of the original being both volatile and fixed, conscious and unconscious, bound by passion and being the basis of transcendence when quickened by loving breath of Aurora and enlivened by the moisture of Venus’ kiss.

Entering into the forest, you are greeted by a robed figure whose form seemingly blends in with the trees in front of a clearing, through which trees you see the glow of firelight and other figures moving in unison. You came to this liminal place of your own free will and judgement and are greeted with a knife to your throat by the robed figure, “Verily, it were better to rush on my blade and perish, than make the attempt with fear in thy heart. How do you enter the Circle?” You respond, “I bear two symbols, perfect Love and perfect Trust.”

This scene, familiar to moviegoers and initiates of certain traditions of witchcraft is a familiar one and illustrates the mystery of Salt and the pragmatic considerations of its importance in magical praxis: a lesson of the purity of intention and longing for connection with the infinite. It is the intentional division and between the common and mundane that exemplifies the experience of the contemporary practitioner with our spiritual ancestry in a way that unites division between the sensory and suprasensory life in loving union that we can start the exploration of witchcraft less an eccentricity solely beholden to a fringe religiosity, rather it includes the absurd and rational as a comprehensive Naturwissenschaft carrying on wisdom through ritual and myth as assuredly the salt in your body connects all tissues beyond the grail and into the kiss of the infinite.

Fire Walk With Me

“Ye who are poor suffer with hunger keen, / And toll in wretchedness, and suffer too/ Full oft imprisonment; yet with it all/   Ye have a soul, and for your sufferings/   Ye shall be happy in the other world,/   But ill the fate of all who do ye wrong!”  – LeLand, Charles Godfrey. Aradia: or The Gospel of Witches

On October 20th, 2000, the longest and deadliest hunger strike in modern history was initiated by leftists and radicals throughout Turkey in response to the government’s plans to develop and construct new so-called ‘F-type’ prisons – in which prisoners are isolated from one another, from legal advocates and from family members. In preparation for the hunger strike, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party and Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist–Leninist issued a communiqué stating, “We have nothing to lose but our bodies. We have a great world to win. We are revolutionaries, we are right, and we will eventually win. We state that no massacre, attack, maneuver, or psychological warfare can stop us from being the conductors of our rightful struggle.”

For anyone familiar with narratives of the witch trials of early modern Europe and beyond, few themes are as recurrent as that of hunger. In whatever variant over time, the nocturnal flights of witches to the Sabbat with its various delicacies; accusations of stealing grains or dairy products, poisoning the livestock of gentry, to indulging in sexual cravings otherwise held contrary to social and gender roles, the origin of witchcraft in a very real way finds its origins in hunger – it is precisely this kind of hunger born from the excesses of social and economic inequality that lead the escaped slaves to the eponymous witch Aradia (Herodias) who teaches them methods of overcoming their oppressors and satiate their desires.

In biological and social sciences hunger is defined as a condition in which a person, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient food to meet basic nutritional needs. The physical sensation of hunger is related to contractions of the stomach muscles, the release of hormones, and fluctuation in blood sugar levels resulting in feelings of physical, psychological, and emotional discomfort. The hunger of the witch is much less one of the physical needs for nutrition, but is existential at its core. While historically recourse to witchcraft has been the purview of the socially marginalized, the hunger of the witch for an amorphous “something more” and the ferocious pursuit of it above and beyond conventional means beyond the pain and suffering of the present. The witch becomes revolutionary.

While we may be a few hundred years removed from the feudal land baron who would forbid the serf to turn a clod of dirt in exchange for a portion of the produce, or the priest selling indulgences to save the souls of the dirty unwashed masses for their future in an uncertain afterlife and mark on them as barbarous, the only thing that has changed is the time and not the relations. Yet, relationality is the key identifier of the witch and what separates hir from other magicians. Misha Magdalene, in their essay Stations of the Day, defines witchcraft as, “[a]category of magical practice rooted in, and derived from, a cosmological schema defined in part by the network of relationship(s) between the practitioner and the forces with which the practitioner treats, including the natural world.” Radical relationality both between witches and the cultures of which they are marginally part becomes the key vector in the transmission of maleficium against systems of oppression.  One method of this transmission is through enchantment.

In the official music video to Hozier’s hit song Take Me to Church, artist, in an explicit and sarcastic attack on legalistic churches and their excesses, mocks their sanctimony singing, “That’s a fine looking high horse/ What you got in the stable?/ We’ve a lot of starving faithful/ That looks tasty/That looks plenty/ This is hungry work.” This is the same hunger that feeds the witch, having been cast out to the margins, she calls from the souls of the land and the countless souls encased in the earth for the establishment of equilibrium. In another time this could have been the refrain of persecuted Waldensians in their exodus who were subsequently accused of witchcraft and heresy, in our contemporary age as in Hozier’s video; it could also be the flight of homosexuals from the tyranny of religiously-aided political persecution or the detention of United States undocumented immigrants. It is also the flight of the strix to the Sabbat, denying the oppressors their thirst for power.

The witch has nothing but their body – their hunger. The nocturnal flight to the Sabbat differs from the disembodied ecstasies of the mystic in that it is the one place that cannot be reached by the sanctimonious, but rather the person who is truly able to feel suffering for all its worth and transmute it into power. This is a paradoxical reversal of the methods employed by political dissidents engaging in hunger strikes but comes from the same dynamic of the contradictory amalgamation of sovereignty and biopolitics. Isobel Gowdie, likely starved and tortured prior to making her numerous confessions, claimed to have transformed herself into the likeness of a crow, slipping into the cellars and kitchens of local castles and houses to eat good meal, and steal ale from the wealthy. While it is unlikely that she had physically pilfered any of these things, the threat of the covetous witch being able to take that which is deemed unfit for them – denied by arbitrary opinion and circumstance – is threat enough to systems of power to unexpectedly fall under the spell of the witch.

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Dreams from Above

Since Ginzburg’s pioneering efforts in his study of early modern accounts of witchcraft in Night Battles and subsequent analysis of the shamanic and visionary nature of witchcraft later expanded on by scholastic luminaries Klaniczay, Lecouteux, Wilby and others, we’ve found a fertile field for the analysis of the intersubjectivity of magic in relation to the shared experiences of the Wise Ones over time and crossways through cultures. This is important as the common themes explored cross culturally lend credence to a very material reality of the Sabbat in the experiences of the Wise Ones with eschatological implications for their descendants.

Discussed in my previous exploration, evolutionary psychology posits the origin of dreaming as a form of form of threat rehearsal manifesting in our present species as processes of anxiety and wish fulfillment. The fantastic landscape of the early modern Wise One differs from that of the ecstatic mystic only in content and context. While numerous mystics have exhibited their share of hellish visionary experience, the hell of the Wise One was frequently that of the social landscape in which they lived. This is not to say that the lives of individual Wise Ones were necessarily traumatic, rather once called from below the difference between the Wise One and the mystic was that the Wise One was changed and transformed, often physically but definitely cognitively, in their sudden gnōsis of the paradoxical insufficiency and fullness of the world in which they lived armed with the ability to change the world in turn.

Beckoned from the dream below, the Wise One experiences a radical shift in temporalization – a shift in orientation from transcendence of lived experiences in waking life to an inverse experience of immanence of multiple identities along a transferential maelstrom of desire and the first meeting of the Other. The Other is legion, as attested in the historical narrative, and multivalent including objects, other subjects: animals, persons, non-human and non-human entities, the experienced world, and the whole world external to one’s own locus of self. Here the reality of the Other becomes a complicated matter as it seems to bypass the subjectives of transcendental schematism, into an embodied identification with the antagonistic narrative. In order to explore this further, comparative analysis of this process metanarrative becomes necessary.

The individual is typically met with an anomalous visionary experience, either while asleep or liminal state that causes them a shift of perspective and subtle confusion of identity in relation to their peers. Historically, the majority of documentation we have of those who had been first called from the Dream below has been accounts of rural, illiterate women and young adults which makes for comprehensive generalizations about the frequency of the call difficult however it seems that either due to initial marginalization due to socioeconomic status or discrimination based on age or other criteria, receptivity to the Dream seems to be increased. It is also noteworthy here that this is not necessarily a new observation based in critical analysis, but seems to have been acknowledged as early as the 16th century Agrippa attests to this generalization in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (III., 32).

The second stage, should the individual answer the Dream or survive the turmoil and feelings of personal alienation characterize the previous stage, is marked by a tentative commitment to the changed self and identification with the Dream experience along with the adoption of a new form of expression of their experiences that typically takes on a mythopoetic quality blending sensory reality with the embodiment of their liminal hypnogogic experience. Unique here is how even outsiders at this stage begin to participate with the Wise One in the narrative experience of reality and ascribe some validity to the internal reality. In Daemonologie, King James VI – ostensibly an outsider – on one occasion validates a degree of reality to the experience to the senses of magical practitioners despite the fact that they are ‘dulled, and as it were a sleepe’ [with] the Devil [conjuring] ‘such hilles & houses within them, such glistering courts and traines … And in the meane time their bodies being senselesse.’

The sense of alienation and estrangement is heightened by the Wise One and the dreamscape, the Other is sought out to alleviate feelings of aloneness. It seems here that the appearance of the Other reflects the processes experienced during the second stage, the Wise One may convince themselves this is a temporary identity or experience, or they may blame someone else so as to maintain the integrity of their previous personal personality. A response to the incongruence seems to heighten the sense of initial antagonism between the Wise One and the Other – it is for this reason that susceptibility to demonic or aggressive manifestations of the Other appear so frequently in the historical record. If one perceives one’s identity as set apart as undesirable, a positive experience in this stage can lead to a reevaluation of the negative societal perception.

It is important here to note that there is nuance here as the Wise One may exist within a constellation of related identities even in a shared location such as the differences between the fairy healers and those of the folkloric witch who is either “converted” into their identity through “temptation” or one who actively seeks out the Other out of a sudden shift in which the conventional no longer serves their dive into the Dream.

The most notable manifestation of the Other according to European and New World trial accounts is invariably that of the Devil, but is not the sole manifestation as many accounts and operative texts used by the Wise Ones seem to also seem to include congress with other-than-human beings which could collectively be called fairies – in English accounts specifically taking on the form of a multi-valent female being called the Queen of Elphame. The critical factor in this stage is the emotional quality of the contact with the Other –both as it manifests as a discrete subjective such as the Devil or the Queen of Elphame but also the psychotopography of the Sabbat or Fairyland. Borrowing an image from Breck Eisner’s fantastic folk horror film The Witch: A New-England Folktale, this is point where Thomasin steps into the dizzying circle of the formerly obscene and fantastical clearing in the woods and begins her own self-possessed journey to the eternal sabbat.

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Dreams from Below

Transitioning from the hypnogogic narrative of the origin of magic, we find ourselves back with where we began with dreaming. In his spectacular manifesto Apocalyptic Witchcraft, Peter Grey writes, “[Witchcraft] is intimately connected with dreaming… Yet it is a mistake to simply believe that dreaming is a landscape that is an untracked wilderness, that our visions are any more substantial than the gauzy projections of Prospero. We must ask what and who created such bewitching visions for us.” The inability to study the effects of dreams on mental functioning has forced many researchers to view dreams as the result of random neural activity, yet the role dreaming has played throughout human civilization is undeniably very real and a very tangible abstraction.

The highly subjective nature of the landscape of dreaming, with all its twists and turns, has made the scientific study of dreaming difficult at best and largely prohibitive beyond analyzing the physical processes of the brain and changes in the affects of those experiencing observable dream states. Even more difficult than the analysis of dreaming in the present-day is the study of the evolutionary of dreaming from our earliest human ancestors and the lack of empirical data on how dreaming occurred among early humans and influenced their cognitive processes.  We know everyone dreams, Freud even postulates despite certain individuals’ reports of not having dreams, the process occurs nonetheless. Evolutionary psychology suggests the origin of dreaming as a form of threat rehearsal common across species, yet it is only in humans that dreaming seems to take on meaning and the abstraction takes on meaning and reality.

For early humanity, as Durkheim discusses in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, “[the] idea of soul was suggested to man by the poorly understood spectacle of the double life that he normally leads, on the one hand while awake, on the other while asleep.” Resembling the world we experience in waking life, it is in the world of dream that we encounter the “other” – a place that is not a place, people that are not people, animals that are not animals, yet all recognizably are accepted as such by the dreamer.
For our early ancestors this forced or superimposed perspective led to the objectification of dreams and, from here, the world became populated with spirits and the beginnings of animism, humanity’s earliest form of religious expression. It is also in this place that is not a place that early humanity met the wholly other – the numinous.

If, as some scholars of evolutionary psychology suggest, dreaming is reflective of a cross species form of threat rehearsal, the dominant concerns of the landscape of dream among our early ancestors would naturally include those phenomena of concern and draw upon the impressions and concerns related to the physiological, safety and social needs of human survival. Expressions of this are found across the world in Paleolithic art. Figural depictions from the Timpuseng cave in Sulawesi to the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France provide evidence of these concerns, and perhaps insight into early ritual enacted as an embodiment of something taken back to the waking world from the world of dream. Beyond the primary and elementary concerns of daily existence, it is in dream that we confront the existential other as a sense of personal insufficiency and impotence, a consciousness of being determined by circumstances and environment.

The double-life experienced in dream and interfaced with during ritual establishes dream as the an eschatological ground of being in that for early humanity in that the experience of the double in relation to ourselves and others – human and non-human – established a complex unconscious world that could be shared and experienced even beyond death. Grave findings in both Homo sapiens and neanderthalensis attest to a shared understanding of this reality which continues through the early modern period in northern Europe as reflective of grave mounds being points of connectivity between the living and the dead. This, then, becomes the first stage of our experience of the numinous since once an individual has ceased to exist in an animate state the double, or soul, transforms from merely being an extension of life to being spirit – unbound by life and surpassing death.

Owing to the physical reality of dream and its connection to the world of the dead, magic then becomes possible as a form of transpower when the living are forced to make a journey to the world of the dead and there interact with the spirits. It is here that the experience of the numinous becomes all too real owing to the conscious effort of engaging with the chthonic numinous through the medium of dream. In contrast, then, to Wundt’s hypothesis in Investigation of the Laws of Development of Language, Myth, and Morals that the rituals of death and burial were intended to free the soul from the body, the evidence of post burial ritual and active engagement with the dead indicates the necessity of anchoring the dead to the world of the living if we are to contain access to the world of dream and thus magic.

This concept is finally elucidated by Durkheim who says, “man found himself in an even more obvious state of dependence than vis-a-vis the wandering doubles of his ancestors. With the ancestors, he could only have ideal and imaginary relations, but he really does depend upon things. Since he needs their cooperation in order to live, man came to believe that he also needed the spirits that were held to animate those things and control their various manifestations. He implored their help through offerings and prayers.” (Elementary Forms of Religious Life. p 50) As magic is transformative, then the individual who interfaces with the world of dream and the dead becomes the other which they have experienced due to contagion with the inhabitants of the worlds they’re able to consciously interface. Magic remembers the dreamer and transforms them.

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When Angels Fall

“We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams, / Wandering by lone sea-breakers, / And sitting by desolate streams;—/ World-losers and world-forsakers,/ On whom the pale moon gleams:/ Yet we are the movers and shakers/ Of the world for ever, it seems.” 

– Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Ode

There is a story half-remembered by each and every one of us, whether or not we acknowledge it cognitively. This is understandable – it’s a dream, a memory superimposed upon memories, superimposed upon memories, going back to time immemorial. Whenever we open a book of inspirational fiction, whenever we adjust our eyes to the interplay of darkness and light in the cinema, whenever we try to remember our first kiss, we remember bits and pieces of this memory – if only temporarily – and are able to immerse ourselves in a world of awe and wonder, fear and trembling, love and loss. Then the dream is folded up, the screen dims, the lights come on, and like every other dream it fades away as we go about our day –to-day lives. But sometimes we don’t forget, sometimes the dream doesn’t stop but unfolds in new directions and uncertain corridors where the lines between consciousness and unconscious slowly lose their boundaries. The story hasn’t forgotten us.

This essay however, is not about dreams; rather it is about the origin of magic.

The subject of magic has been a perennial thorn in the side of discursive sociological inquiry since Durkheim, Weber, and Marx precisely because it represents an intangible construct that can only be experienced as a meta-narrative instead of function, communicating only in the subjective. In short, magic is known only after the fact it has happened and only by those who have been affected or can diagnose or direct its course when it’s occurring – it is a process beginning and ending in song (enchantment) and recognized during the process of or after the transformation of the narrative has taken place within the individual – a function of what author and historian April DeConick refers to as “transpower.” While this seemingly contradicts the performative interpretation of magic as a function of ritual, I argue here that magic is the dialectical process whereby ritual enacts (or enforces) meaning.

Magic is a dream more real than reality, remembering its dreamers.

Finding a consistent name for practitioners (or participants) in magic is always fraught with difficulty lest one step on the toes of one sacred technician or another at the most polite or veer into the errors of colonial appropriation and indigenous fetishization. For the purposes of this essay I’ll use the romantic “Wise One” owing to its gender neutrality and evocative entendre for my target audience. The name of the first Wise One is long effaced  from human memory, the dust of their feet now dispersed around the world in a million directions, but their magic enchants us to this day as the most effective spell ever wrought and their dream has become the dream of Wise Ones ever since. Though for a moment I met her.

Summer 2017 I attended Many Gods West, a conference founded two years earlier bringing together polytheists and neo-pagans from different groups for discussion, learning, sharing, and community building. One of the most memorable programs I attended was led by somatic herbalist, poet, and initiate of Anderson Feri witchcraft, Sean Donahue titled, “Rattling at the Gates: The Dead as Allies in Resistance.” As he spoke, his voice deep with a cadence appropriate for a state funeral or sacral procession of kingship, I fell into a trance and met the first Wise One (witch) – the first Paleolithic hominid who, having mastered fire and weaponry, stepped out of the circle of safety that the nighttime fire brought protecting them and their tribe, and went out into the darkness amidst the wild animals of the savanna naked, defenseless, and unafraid.

What called her back?

The Ancient Greeks tended to distinguish between two categories of dreams:  those that are insignificant, caused by hopes, daily anxieties, metabolisms, and other conscious residues of the day, and those having particular significance. These dreams could be roughly categorized as visionary prophecy, symbolic prophecy frequently requiring a specialist for interpretation, and visitations by the dead, non-deific spirits, and the gods.

The belief in the reality of dreams beyond the purely psychological pathos was once shared nearly universally well into the Industrial era reflecting the anxieties of and galvanizing the values of cultures from East to West – still today memorialized most notably among Americans of African descent, “I have a dream”, showing the preserved cultural values of indigenous African spirituality and culture even beyond the atrocities of colonialism. While we’ll never know what the dream was that drew the first witch back into the wilderness was, the archeological records of transitions from early tool-users, to hunters and gatherers, to semi-nomadic hunters-planters, and finally established agricultural practices may give us a clue as to what occurred to draw her back into the wilderness and risk her life for her small community on the fringes of survival.

If, as Otto states in The Idea of the Holy, “[an] object that can thus be thought conceptually may be termed rational”, and dreams, mythology, and language for the divine are considered rational by quality or attribute; then anything that transgresses any one of these or all cumulatively create an existential crisis and shift in paradigm toward the irrational because the experience itself is that of the ineffable. The failure to comprehend in full or in part the contents of an experience is deeply unsettling and often traumatic. The shift from one experience to another, especially shifts that occur rapidly, create a semiotic rift which is simultaneously real and unreal – the mysterium tremendum – requiring a shift into “otherness” with where angels fall between the fissures of the rift and are hopefully inclined to give assistance.

Perhaps it was this experience that made this first witch and gnōstikos.

Whatever she saw in the darkness there profoundly altered her conception of reality through every fiber of her being. Current epigenomic studies have made some very promising studies in the transmission of susceptibility of stress and trauma in individuals through genetic predisposition and specific characteristics of the stress itself. She survived and managed to transmit her experience to her community and possibly through her community genetically which was then diffused throughout neighboring populations across millennia, continents, oceans, cultures, religions, and language.

In order to do this she imparted something that was perhaps useful to the community of which she was part: she was given a craft. She was able to make. To forge. To fashion. To transmit with skill something magical and traces of that may still survive in her descendants which, at this point, could be a highly representative portion of humanity if not the entirety of surviving species of Homo sapiens. Dame Fate, the first mother and mother of necessity, is fickle however and how and when she shows up, let alone where, is about as inscrutable as the likelihood as the once in two million years’ experience that created her.

And so, through time, her descendants still walk the earth with her blood in their veins across continents and time.  Few know of her anymore, even though she’s taken on a thousand names since she first walked back into the power from which she was sent forth. Nowadays her children looking up at the moon at night with her gleaming light on their naked bodies. She was the first and the last. She is the honored and the scorned one. She is the whore and the holy one. She is the mother and the daughter. The barren one and many are her sons. She is the one whom they call life, and whom others have called death. She no longer keeps any festivals, but she is one whose festivals are many. Give heed then, you hearers, angels and those who have been sent, for you will live and never die again.

African Sunset. Tanzania, Africa