“Books have long been instruments of the divinatory arts.”
― Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night
Someone once said that books make for a poor introduction to life. Whether one’s quest involves true love or life’s purpose, one woman’s story is another’s fiction. And, so I have learned that the truth I am seeking purposely rests in stories, dreams, poetic fragments… If not through fairy tales, I could have learned my lessons by listening to songbirds along the barbed wire of an Indiana field. It is in lines of poems and the lilt of eveningsong I return, back in those fields, chasing the pure heart of life.
Years ago, I believed in humans. Or, rather I longed for them, for one―one true heart. I read the tempestuous tales of Miller, the response-prose of Nin in her coveted journals. I rose to the poems of Rilke, the farmer’s angel. I wept in closets, in schools, for something closer than the people I seemed to walk amongst, in the crude suicides of Berryman and Plath. I wore the golden threads of Marlowe;
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
Let the blaze of wheat and barn-dwellers carry me beyond. I never knew a common language. I spoke in spiral stairwells with Bachelard and whispered the name of the shaman’s poison to Eliade’s dreaming. I was tempted by the heavy common spells of Dylan Thomas―his literary yoke: the banal obsessions of the poor, the tangled vines. I was weighed down by words, pushed under the wet soil of the green home of isles. Living through words, it seemed, was more enchanted, possible.
Throughout my life I have been most drawn to the well-read vagabond, the dreamer of words. We misfits delve deep into the places only secret passages, scribbles, and verse could explain. The writers and especially, the poets translate the songs of life and make beauty out of death, an inevitable pain we carry with us.
But, books are not the only form of magic for a young girl (or an equally unsettled woman). Books are just the gateway to the ethereal. So, too, wilderness, or in my early years, the woodlands and fields surrounding my home became backdrop to the marvelous.
“There are demons in the trees,” my great aunt hissed. She loathed the sensibility of trees, the diamond light of stories that spilled from the laps of camping strangers.
“There a witches in them woods,” warned our neighbor, an old, blood-worn man who could have been equally despised. His cradled, misunderstood life lacked the love and children known to other homes.
Do you want to know a story?
Get out of your head, girl, before your family thinks you’re crazy.
I knew a man who kept thousands of books. So many books, his basement became impenetrable. When the rooms of his home filled, he then filled his garage. When the garage filled, the pasture became a tarp-covered library. He couldn’t stop reading.
In this man’s imagination, we could go to Chicago. “Like gangsters,” I asked? “Yes, yes, like gangsters, Bonnie.”
Other times, under the cloak of his books, he’d pull me close and breathe in my scent, mixed with the aged pages and dewy mold of damp Arial. “Lolita,” he’d whisper. My hands dropped the books. Paper cuts.
Who will I be when the book is closed?
On my great-grandfather’s lap, I learned to love the quiet of dusk and the grace of storytelling. I don’t remember his face; I remember the way he read with an intensity and seriousness of the most important of undertakings: Milton, Dostoevsky, Donne. He was the son of poor farmers ―his chance of leaving depended on the secrets of pages, portals of our longing. I was a child who recognized the bite of a hungry existence. I understood then as I do now the fear of being discovered for your dissatisfied, restless nature.
“There’s a world saved for us,” he’d whisper.
I remember, grandfather.
So many years have passed. I am not the girl of the teacher’s longing. I am not the woman carved from a loss, or a dreaming child.
Still, words haunt me.
As the smell of pine needles fills my nose and the sound of a curious jay follows me through the labyrinth of trees, I spread my books and papers on the ridge and look below at the lights of town. I am driven down to skin and bones by the city, sprawled like a monstrous blanket below the feet of this honorable chunk of rock. The mountain holds life, breath, time, and memory close to its heart.
I grew up with the woods as company, just as the stories. What 400 year old tree doesn’t have its stories to make the skin tingle, the electric pulse through the summer air?
My favorite books are old. They break with damp rot and broken spine. So, too, my problems seem trivial in comparison to these trees.
I wake to mockingbird song. I retire at night to her song. The song always changes, of course, because that is the nature of the mockingbird―to steal the pure melodies and make them her own.
Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
Before every great act of ceremony, words are read, poems recited. Spells are thrown into the air as the orator holds ancient verse. Even seasons bring a favorite book or passage to mind, a story to announce the coming rain, the Yule fire, or the bite of ripe, high-summer feasting.
To speak the words of the beloved, we make our intentions known. The spell of language takes hold of us in times when we must remain, and in times when we need the courage to go. Stories marvel, delight, and dance on the imagination. Imagination creates what is possible.
The light of the fire dances up as we remember, as we make the stories our own.
Today many NeoPagans first learn about our traditions from books or the internet. The net in particular has expanded easily available information about our religion but at a cost. That cost is to be severed from NeoPagan history and practice except as available through pixels or the printed word. Instead of starting with learning and practice with others and then studying written sources, many NeoPagans now go from the study of texts to practice. They hope to interpret experiences they anticipate having through the texts they have read rather than judging whether the text illuminates or contradicts the experiences they have had.
This modern text oriented approach is comfortable for most of us, and its dangers are hidden by this very comfort. It is a monotheistic way of seeking to learn a polytheistic religion. I think emphasizing the written word as a reliable guide to our practice is at odds with the logic ofPagan religion and carries a very real cost if we are not aware of the problem.
Historically Pagan religions focused on practice rather than texts, let alone theology. Texts were relatively unimportant and theology nonexistent for more than a tiny elite, if that. Plato, from whom philosophy and theology largely derive, emphasized he never wrote down his most important teachings. Socrates, the man he made famous, never wrote anything down. Many later philosophers participated in the popular practices of their day even while interpreting them differently from the average participant.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were held for about 2000 years. Many of the leading figures of Classical civilization were initiates, including Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, and many Roman emperors. Slaves and women were also allowed to participate. No one publicly discussed the rituals in any detail nor explored various interpretations of their meaning. No theology arose over them despite their probably being the longest practiced formal ritual in EuroPagan history. Their truth, a truth that powerfully attracted people for almost two millennia, was experiential and personal.
As with Paganism in general, the core of most NeoPagan religion is not grasped through dogma or theology. NeoPagans seek to connect with the more-than-human as it manifests in and through our world. To pick Wicca, the tradition I know best, the cycles of life to death and rebirth; the equivalent cycles of the seasons honored during the Wheel of the Year; the same cycle as manifested in the phases of the moon; and the basic sexual duality that dominates human existence; are the frameworks by which most Wiccans seek to participate in and honor the sacred. We do this through ritual, not reading or listening to sermons and talks about the Wheel or the Goddess.
These Wiccan themes are not universal. The Wiccan Wheel does not fit an arctic or tropic environment very well. Today the borders of what were once considered well defined sexual distinctions have become less so. But Wiccans have never claimed to provide the only way to honor the Sacred.
The other major stream within modern NeoPaganism consists of reconstructionist efforts to revive pre-monotheistic traditions driven into extinction or nearly so. Here scholarship plays a stronger role, but I suspect the truth of these efforts is not in reading good papers but in experiencing powerful rituals.
Within these generous limits NeoPagan practice flourishes in many directions, and each tradition is usually respected as valid by others within the broad NeoPagan umbrella.
Of course Pagan traditions have myths and myths can be written down, but mythology is not the same as theology. Myths often contradict themselves. This does not become a major problem because what they address ultimately cannot be put into words. They are more like poetry than prose.
Theology vs. practice
Today this primordial Pagan sensibility is being unintentionally challenged. Recently many of us have encountered Pagans claiming Wicca is “not polytheistic, it is duotheistic.” Some even argue a “true polytheist” can not recognize the reality of any divine unity of any sort. Some non-Wiccan Pagans have described how they were told Wicca is the authoritative Pagan voice for our time, and non-Wiccan traditions are inferior. When I encounter such views my first thought is “Where on earth did they pick this up?”
When these and other ideas are confined to personal interpretations of people’s Pagan practices they do not cause any problems. Pagans have always had personal interpretations of their religious and spiritual experiences. My first Gardnerian coven consisted of people who worked amicably together with markedly different ways of interpreting what we did. Some considered Gardnerian Wicca as Celtic. Others saw it as ultimately Classical. Some interpreted our deities as Jungian archetypes. Others treated them as independent entities. Some of us were interested in other religious traditions such as Santeria or Buddhism, others were not. Some of us had long experience in ceremonial magick, others had none. We almost never discussed theology, and when we did it was from curiosity about others’ views rather than an effort to “get it right” or correct the others’ errors. When conflicts arose among us they generally involved clashing personalities or styles, not matters of doctrine and belief.
Today among some Pagans something new is happening. Other traditions and other Pagan practices are being criticized from the outside. When this happens we find ourselves in the same swamp of feuding theologies that has been such an intractable problem for monotheists.
I think this development arises from importing transcendental monotheistic thinking into a immanent polytheistic context. Our culture encourages such styles of thinking. The problem is made worse when Pagans learn the basics of their religion through books or online because this reinforces cultural assumptions that on matters of religion, wisdom comes from the printed word.
We have grown up in a society where people usually regarded themselves as fundamentally separated from the sacred. In the Christian West the world was fallen and often seen as dominated by malign powers. Deception was everywhere and only certain texts could be trusted. Occasionally, we were taught, inspired prophets would write down their teachings, or Jesus arrived and his words were preserved. Our only access to spiritual truth was in reading and understanding these words of others.
While written teachings have their strengths, they tend to teach two destructive lessons. First, we can never rely on our personal experience if they do not confirm what the texts, say. Second, only some interpretations of the texts are correct.
The more we accept this framework the more hypnotized we became by the text and its claim to be a superior form of knowledge. We become blind to what the text does not say or what interpretations we regard as ‘authoritative’ ignore. Our expectations become blinders. Worse still, since all texts require interpretation, when we regard the interpretation we accept as correct we raise our judgment and will to equality with what we think is divine will. The results have been and continue to be horrible.
Fortunately we Pagans have no texts claiming to be sacred in the way the monotheists do, but we are still biased towards taking texts and the style of thinking they encourage very seriously. They get between us and our spiritual experience. As Joseph Campbell observed, such an approach is 'like diners going into a restaurant and eating the menu.”
They also encourage us to judge others’ religious practices and beliefs by the texts and interpretations we take as authoritative. Everyone should go to our restaurant and eat its menu.
The problem is inherent in the medium. The solution is not to stop reading, but to be aware of how the media fits monotheism far better than it fits Pagan religion, and so be forewarned about problems inherent in it. The best book is nothing more than a training wheel on a bicycle, and you are nowhere much until you have freed yourself from dependence on it because you have learned to ride.
“But diZerega, you write all the time.”
I am not criticizing book learning, I am criticizing relying it uncritically. I am criticizing those who use their favorite texts to criticize others' practice as insufficiently Wiccan or polytheist or whatever the issue of the day might be. I am criticizing treating it as more than an adjunct to other kinds of learning.
Written texts are vital to the modern world. Modern science in particular depends on publications and interpreting and investigating the meanings of those publications. But science differs from religion in that it requires those texts and papers to be rooted in repeatable explorations of the physical world. The texts are ultimately subordinate to scientists’ experience.
Even then texts can blind scientists for years as to what is in front of them. My favorite example is Eastern Washington’s “scablands,” where the largest floods ever to have happened in North America raced through a mountain valley to flow out onto the Columbia Plateau, carving strange canyons and leaving ripple lines of large boulders. These happened multiple times when a glacial dam that created a lake as large as one of the Great Lakes repeatedly broke, reformed, and broke again. People studied this strange landscape for decades wondering how it came to be, and almost unanimously denied floods had anything to do with it.
One maverick, Harlen Bretz, stood his ground, was ridiculed, and in his 90s finally recognized as having solved the puzzle. Now the evidence that spoke to Bretz is obvious to anyone who looks and knows how he interpreted it.
Modern science assumes the universe is open to human understanding, and seeks to take our understanding as far as it can. Competing interpretations are inevitable because we all bring different perspectives to studying these issues. At least all but one will be flawed. Being people, we often get it wrong, but insofar as we are scientists people can gradually whittle away the most visible errors. Science’s strongest point is its ability to eliminate faulty theories. Our understanding of physical phenomena will likely never be complete, but it gets progressively better. Wise scientists never claim to discover truth, but rather to have increased the reliability of our knowledge.
Religion is different. Religion deals with what is superior to human understanding. The assumption that the world is amenable to understanding by human minds, so basic to science, cannot apply to religion and spirituality and so tools suitable to one may be insufficient for the other. Myth, so central to religious traditions, is never a part of a scientific theory.
There is another problem with relying too much on the printed word, even in science. To pick a mundane example, we can never learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it. Instead we try to ride it, tip over, fall off, get back on, and eventually “get the hang of it.” In fact, keeping the formulas for balancing while riding in mind gets in the way. of learning. Better to try, tip over, fall off, and try again.
The same is true in doing science rather than reading about it. One becomes a scientist by working with other scientists, gradually learning how to use the instruments of the field, and getting a sense of how the field fits together.
This same insight holds for religions emphasizing spiritual immanence and personal contact with the Sacred, only much more so.
Texts separate us from the world. We focus on the words and what they reveal to our understanding and imagination. They interpose themselves between us and experience. This makes sense when the world is regarded as deceptive, fallen, or secondary to transcendental truths revealed by inspired writers. But when the world is regarded as a direct manifestation of the sacred it does not.
And so we encounter the silliness of long discussions about supposed Wiccan “duotheism” as opposed to polytheism, carried out mostly by non-Wiccans. Or arguments about what is "real" polytheism, carried out by people who put their experience above everyone else’s and assume their grasp of logic is equal to the task of grasping the super human. Or of Wiccans who treat other NeoPagan traditions as inferior or in extreme cases treat their Book of Shadows as divinely inspired instructions true for all time. All these attitudes arise from applying transcendental monotheistic approaches to religions that emphasize neither transcendence nor monotheism. The problem is made worse by Pagans learning their Paganism from books and the net, and so I think it needs explicit addressing.
What might the spiritual world be like if we put practice and experience ahead of dogma and logic? My next post will explore this.
I frequently find myself inspired by the books I read, and sometimes, a good memoir can even encourage my wanderlust. I wanted to share three titles with you today that have me itching to get up and go experience the goddesses of these places:
Savage Breast by Tim Ward
With a wonderful narrative voice, Ward blends myth and history with his own personal quest, pursuing the vestiges of goddess culture from the Minoans to the Anatolian plains. Each chapter focuses on a certain goddess and her culture, and Ward's work is richly informed by archaeology and Jungian principals. Ward is brutally honest in his writing, including pieces of his own fragile soul in the telling. What emerges is an excellent work, part research and part memoir, examining the widespread yet vastly different goddess of ancient times. Through his fiance and other women in his life, Ward also learns to see the ancient archetypes play out in the modern world.
You could plan countless trips after reading this book, but the location Ward visits that has skyrocketed to the top of my to-visit list is Santorini. So much beauty; so much power; I can't wait to have my own experience there some day!
Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
This mother-daughter travel memoir is a powerful, emotional read. When Ann and Sue first travel to Greece together, Ann is in the throes of a "quarter life crisis", feeling like she's lost herself somewhere along the way to her still new adulthood, and her mother is on the cusp on menopause. Their very different but shared experiences lead them to visit sites in Turkey and France which tap into the force of the divine feminine, and both women are transformed by their journeys. As soon as I finished this book, I passed it on to my mother, telling her that I not only wanted her to read the book; I wanted her to travel with me somewhere one day. Last year, we made that dream a reality (but that'sa post for another time).
Desert Priestess by Anne Key
In her memoir, Key recounts the three years that she served as the chief priestess at the Temple of Goddess Spirituality. This temple is dedicated to the Egyptian deity Sekhmet, and it sits in truly liminal space. Just outside of Las Vegas, bordered by a bombing range and a nuclear test facility, Key learned what Sekhmet's myths mean in the modern world. I can't wait to take a trip to Nevada and visit this temple!
What are some of the books which inspire your wanderings?
There are a number of resources available to those who are interested in Inanna, ranging from the densely academic to the poetic to children's books.**
In that first category can be found In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth by Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Controversial and iconoclastic, this text chronicles the gradual marginalization of Goddesses in the Sumerian and Akkadian pantheons, which Frymer-Kensky contrasts with the more egalitarian monotheism of very early Judaism. You may not agree with her conclusions, but the book will still make you stop and think.
The Book of the Goddess Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion, edited by Carl Olson, reads as a bit dated -- but, having been published in 1983, it was one of the first popular-scholarly texts on The Goddess/Goddesses. It includes Judith Ochshorn's essay "Ishtar and Her Cult." Similarly, the anthology Goddesses Who Rule includes Beverly Moon's fascinating article "Inanna: The Star Who Became Queen." David Kinsley's The Goddesses' Mirror covers a wide-range of Deities, including a chapter on "Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth." Similarly, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford's magnum opus The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image includes the lengthy chapter "Inanna-Ishtar: Mesopotamian Goddess of the Great Above and the Great Below." While Women and Goddess Traditions in Antiquity and Today, edited by Karen L King, does not include any essays specific to Inanna, it does include an entire section on the Near East; sometimes, a bit of cross-cultural comparison can be useful and insightful.***
If it is primary source material that interests you, consider Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer. A collaboration between Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer and poet-folklorist Diane Wolkstein, this text collects all the known tales, hymns, and poem fragments concerning or featuring Inanna. Adapted, reworked, and woven together by Wolkstein, they are passionate, lilting, wild tales of ambition, deception, lust, and devotion.
Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna by Betty De Shong Meador is another collection of translations -- here, though, Meador includes biographical and cultural information, helping to orient the reader in the Sumer of Enheduanna.
If you are looking for something more unusual in the poetry field, consider Humming the Blues: Inspired by Nin-me-sar-ra, Enheduanna's Song to Inanna by Cass Dalglish. This jazzy, hip-hop-y, feminist (re)interpretation of Enheduanna's praise-poems will have you tapping your feet and humming along. I can almost hear Aretha Franklin belting out some of these to a lively tune.
If you are looking for something more visual, check out Inanna's Tears by Rob Vollmar and mpmann. Originally a webcomic, then a single-issue comic book series, the entire story was eventually released as a hardcover. With its washed-out gray and brown color scheme, occasional flashes of frightening red, and thick-lined art, Inanna's Tears looks almost like someone took ink and tracing paper to an ancient Sumerian relief; the art works perfectly with the story. And said story includes everything from gender (de)construction and religious authoritarianiam, to political machinations and unrequited love, to natural disasters -- oh, and the invention of writing.
If your interest falls more along the lines of a devotional, consider Into the Great Below: A Devotional for Inanna and Ereshkigal, edited by Galina Krasskova. [Full disclosure: I do have a couple of poems in this volume.] There are plenty of short essays, poems and hymns here to enjoy yourself or use as part of a rite in Her honor.
Finally, there are a few children's books featuring Inanna; perfect gifts for the budding little Pagan in your life. One is The Revenge of Ishtar by Ludmila Zeman, the second volume of The Gilgamesh Trilogy. The Goddess here is no sweet and lovely maid; she is lusty, proud, and violent when crossed. A good book to read when discussing the value of Not Irking the Gods.
In contrast to the above, there is Ishtar and Tammuz: A Babylonian Myth of the Seasons by Christopher J Moore and Christina Balit. To put it mildly, Moore's rendition of the myth is ... odd. He plays fast and loose with the source material. On the other hand, Balit's illustrations are vibrant, brilliant and beautiful. Buy it for the artwork, and recite your own (more accurate) retelling to young audiences.
So, there you have them: a few of the books available about Inanna. I am sure that I missed quite a few good books, so please post a comment or shoot me an email. The world needs to know about good books -- especially books about Goddesses like Inanna.
*Yes, I know I am linking to a wikipedia article. Consider that your *starting* point.
** If you are in the mood for some good escapist Golden Age fantasy, look no further than A. Merrit's The Ship of Ishtar.
*** I would love to discuss Rosemary Radford Ruther's Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History at length here, but my copy seems to have gone poof. Most annoying.
Life is too short to waste on bad books. As such, here are my literary discoveries of 2012. Some are brand new books, just published; others are new to me; still others qualify as rediscoveries, books read many years ago and mislaid or forgotten.
The Jackal's Head by Elizabeth Peters definitely falls into that last category. As a teenager, I was at the library every week where I checked out one after another of Peters' mystery novels. While I was especially a fan of her turn of the century Amelia Peabody books, I also enjoyed her stand alone books. As a trained archaeologist, most of Peters' books deal in some way with lost treasure, lost artifacts, lost tombs, lost sacred texts -- you get the idea. It was a thrill to be carried along with her characters as they brought the villains to justice and brought lost history to light. Rereading The Jackal's Head (hint: Nefertiti) is the reminder I needed that old favorites are worth revisiting.
In the former category -- mislaid -- can be found The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation by Judy Chicago. I picked this book up many years ago at the campus book store. I devoured it for a few days, then stuck it on a shelf, where it remained forgotten until I started organizing and cataloging my book collection. Bad me. Chicago's monumental multimedia, multi-piece exhibit is a celebration of women and Goddesses, and our powers of creation. I would dearly like to see it in person.
The manga series Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki is another rediscovery. I saw the anime many many years ago, but didn't really understand what was going on. I got that the hero was a girl, she had a cool flying sled, and she was fighting to save the Earth; that was good enough for me. I was unaware that a manga even existed until I went to work at a comic shop -- and then I never got around to buying past the first two volumes. Happily, I have rectified that oversight.
Sword of Sorcery Featuring Amethyst (DC Comics) qualifies more as a rebirth than a rediscovery. As a kid, I was only ever able to collect a few scattered issues of Amethyst Princess of Gemworld. I mean, what little girl would not love the story of another little girl who discovers that she is really the long lost princess of a magical realm, and that she has super powers? As an adult, I made a point of tracking down the entire series, despite the cost. Apparently, I was not the only one pining for Amethyst, as DC Comics just relaunched the character in a new series -- though with notable differences. I plan to stick around for a few issues and see where this is going ....
While the first book in Kevin Hearne's The Iron Druid Chronicles was published in 2011, I only got around to reading Hounded this past month. On the one hand, I am rather glad I waited, since I can just rip through the series now, one book right after the other. On the other hand, I wish that I had had something this fun and unusual to read earlier. Ah, well. If you are looking for an urban fantasy series with a witty protagonist (Atticus Sullivan, 2000+ year-old Druid), some truly nasty bad guys (Polish witches, Bacchants, demons, you name it)*, and a healthy dose of well-researched mythology, look no further. The books are very polytheist friendly, with Atticus coming right out and saying that all the Gods are real.
Secondhand Spirits, the first book in Juliet Blackwell's San Francisco-based A Witchcraft Mystery series, was initially released back in 2009, but, again, it took me until this past year to discover it. I was delighted to find a cozy, relatively non-violent, magical series with a sympathetic protagonist (in this, a hereditary witch of mixed European and Aztec descent) and an eccentric cast of supporting characters. I am particularly fond of Lily's gargoyle familiar, Oscar, who assumes an adorable porcine form around the nonmagical.
Finally, two brand new books stand out for me. The first is Mermaids: The Myths, Legends and Lore by Skye Alexander. I have only recently become interested in mermaids, so I snatched up Alexander's book when I spotted it on the shelf at the book store. Lots of spot illustrations and lots and lots of fascinating stories, mythological tidbits, and assorted other odds and ends. I will be using this as a writing resource for many years.
The other is the brand new Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging NeoPagan Perspectives With a Progressive Vision of Christ, edited by Reverend Mark Townsend. This book has been much talked about in Pagan circles, so all I can really add to the discussion is my own opinion: this is an important book filled with a wealth of varied, sometimes complimentary, sometimes contrary, insights. If nothing else, it will make you think and question your own long-held beliefs, as it has my own -- and that is always a good thing.
The above are just a few of the books which I discovered in 2012. Have any literary discoveries of your own? Let me know what they are.
And I can't wait to see what 2013 has to bring.
*Fair warning to any Thor devotees out there: in The Iron Druid Chronicles, he is a "major asshat."
One of the most important virtues a magician can cultivate is curiosity. While the old saying that curiosity kills the cat comes to mind, we should consider that such a saying really is a response to curiosity that favors the status quo. It discourages exploration in favor of keeping things the same. Such an attitude should be an anathema to the magician.
Curiosity is at the core of my spiritual practice. When I was much younger I was a born again Christian and I left because I realized that I couldn't find all the answers in one book and that allowing myself to be limited to what I considered to be a narrow perspective of the universe was not good. So when I discovered that magic was real I voraciously began to read books and I allowed my curiosity to explore and experiment with what I learned. Curiosity motivates me to discover my questions and answers and it is an emotion that I couldn't imagine being without.
I think that to truly make magic your own you need to be curious. It is not enough to read books and do the practices in those books, nor is it enough to learn from others and only do what those others have instructed you to do. While both activities can be useful for building a foundation, at some point you need to leave the nest and learn to fly. You need to take your magical practice and personalize it, making it your own, and to do that, it necessarily must be reflective of your interests.
The key to developing your personalized magical practice is discovered through being curious and most notably through asking how you can take what you are interested in and apply it meaningfully to magical work. Ask yourself: "How can I apply my interest to magic?" You'll be surprised at how much you can apply to magic, as well as what you can learn as a result of the application. For example, I've applied my interests in rhetoric and language to my magical practice and used those interests to explore the role of definitions in magical practice. I've also applied my interests in pop culture to my magical practice, creating a sigil technique based off the principles of comic book designs. If I wasn't curious I couldn't have taken those interests and developed them into meaningful aspects of magical practice.
Learning to be curious involves recognizing that the status quo never has all the answers and what answers it does provide may not even be true answers. As such it behooves the practitioner to find his/her own truth or make it. This truth can only be discovered or made by being curious and not settling for what the status quo presents you. Curiosity prompts you to ask questions and have experiences that allows you to make your own judgments. This principle applies to spiritual practices, but also life in general.
When I read a book on magic, or hear someone offer a class, what's in the back of my mind is: How can I improve on what I am learning? What would I do differently from this person? How can I take what I know and apply it to what I'm learning? My answers won't be the same as someone else's. But my answers do allow me to make informed choices about my spiritual practice, and empower me to be a better person because I've chosen to use my curiosity to drive my practice. My answers aren't someone else's truth, but they are my truth arrived at through experience and the choice to personalize my magical practice.
Your curiosity is a virtue. Cultivate it, safeguard it and use it to help you become a better magician and person. Don't settle for the status quo or doing what others have done. Cultivate your spiritual practice by cultivating your curiosity. It will take you places no book and no other person can take you.
Some slightly more modern history and a slight indulgence: witches always end up in the news around this time of year. Suddenly every news paper or local news station wants to do a 'did you know there are real witches?!' story.
It all gets a bit tiresome.
I originally wrote this poem for my annual Halloween cards (a habit that has been lost to my gypsy ways and busyness). My father reminded me that he associated 'Devil's Night' with much more unpleasant memories: 1960s Michigan it was often a time of angry destruction. If you've seen the original Crow movie, they use it in a similar way -- an excuse for serious mayhem.
I am part of the last generation of what I think was a wild and free childhood; kids who ran around the neighbourhood all day unsupervised, who shouted 'just going for a bike ride!' over their shoulders as they pedaled away and didn't return home until the supper shout came at twilight -- and often went back out in the dark. We were mostly good kids; our mayhem was seldom more than high-spirited hijinks.
In memory of the time that's gone -- before cell phones and Amber alerts and 'stranger danger' -- I offer a little ditty.
It was called Devil’s Night in the town where I lived
That veiled night before Halloween,
When goblins came out and devils ran wild
And some said that witches were seen.
We kids stayed inside, safe in our beds
And whispered of what there might be—
But one year we intended to see for ourselves,
My sister, my black cat and me.
The sun had long set and the darkness had come
To wrap all the houses in black,
When we crawled out the window and crept ‘cross the lawn
And none of us even looked back.
Though the wind tapped our shoulders and played with our hair
And ran through the leaves with mad glee,
We were stalwart and true like the heroes we knew,
My sister, my black cat and me.
We had never quite said, but each knew in our heads
The goal of our late night foray;
There was only one house whose black shutters and spires
Cast long inky shadows by day.
The house of nightmares was the subject of dares
For children much older than we,
But we knew we must try to sneak in and spy,
My sister, my black cat and me.
As we walked on our own down the mist-shrouded lane
The goblin cries rang through the night.
My sister told me, with an air of disdain,
That I should not take any fright.
‘It’s only some kids wrapped in sheets that they hid,
That they took from their mothers laundry.’
And we continued along with much knocking of knees
By my sister, my black cat and me.
The house loomed ahead with its turrets like spikes
Aimed at a portentous sky
The old shutters rattled and the chimney howled doom
But the wind smelled like pumpkin pie.
‘An old witch lives here and she eats little kids,’
My sister heard from Katie Lee
And we were likely to die if we drew too near by
My sister, my black cat and me.
‘I’ll go up on the porch and ring her doorbell
then run—like the wind—quick away.
You go ‘round the back and give a sharp rat-a-tat,
Before she can come out this way.’
Her plans carefully laid, my sister then stayed
As I walked toward the back door slowly,
I’ll admit I was scared and I felt ill- prepared,
No sister, just black cat and me.
As I prowled through the gloom I saw a bright room
And an old woman dressed all in black.
‘It must be the witch,’ I said to my cat
And shivered and shook in my tracks.
I wanted to run but I heard the doorbell
And I knew that my sister’s safety
Was all in my hands, so we gathered our breaths,
Poor little black cat and me.
I made a small fist and raised up my arm
To deliver the thunderous tap
But I froze to the spot when I saw a dark shape
That opened the door with a snap.
‘I know what you want!’ I heard the witch say
But my feet would not move to flee
And she swept us inside the warm kitchen’s light,
Poor little black cat and me.
My tears trickled down and I begged for my life
And the life of my little kitty.
The old witch just smiled and patted my head
And said to me, ‘Don’t be silly.
I’ve got oodles of pie and candy and fudge
And a gingerbread house so pretty,
And I wish you would share all the food I’ve prepared—
It’s too much for my big cat and me!’
I looked all around and my fear dissipated
The kitchen was cheerful and clean
And the huge oaken table was filled ‘til it groaned
With more treats than I’d ever seen—
Pies of all kinds and cookies with chips
And a big steaming pot of green tea,
And in front of the fire a great big cat yawned
At my ravenous black cat and me.
I said, ‘Thank you ma’am!’ and plopped down in a chair
And she set a blue plate before me
And I piled it up high with some warm pumpkin pie
And a big taste of each sweet dainty.
I was feeding my face and telling the witch of our chase
When my sister’s gaze fell upon me.
But it took little time before we brought her inside
To eat with my black cat and me.
So when you see a witch and your knees start to shake
And you’re tempted to run to the hills,
Just remember the night that we wandered quite late
Seeking out Devil’s Night thrills.
Some witches are good, and some witches are bad
But they all make amazing candy!
If you’re sweet and not rude, they might share their food
With your sister, your black cat and thee.
Happy Halloween! Samhain maith! Wear iron and don’t talk to pookahs. Let us remember those who have gone and whom we miss and share the bright memories with those near us now. Be well.
Best hopes for a quick recovery to all in the path of Sandy; we were lucky in upstate NY.