Imbolc – Sacred Inspiration

To continue my series on the sacred within Wicca, I would like to concentrate on learning to cultivate a connection with the divine, or sacred inspiration. Imbolc is a time of celebrating Brigid, and one of her specialties is inspiration, especially the inspiration that gives voice to poetry. I am not a good enough poet to begin to express the beauty of her inspiration, but I would like to try my meager hand at encouraging you to try experiencing divine inspiration yourself.

Many cultures have seen inspiration as something that comes from the divine; in some Hellenistic cultures it would be the Muses who brought artistic or scholarly inspiration, and that role has come down to us today in our language, although usually diminished in sense. Being a muse today is often seen as a passive role, while the original sense, and the kind of inspiration I want to discuss here, is very much a function of active engagement on divinity’s part.

There are different ways to experience different degrees of inspiration. Here I am not talking about full-blown possession, but rather something more gentle (which can shade into possession if you learn that style of work), more about a sensed connection with the divine which leads to new information, ideas, or emotions arising within you.

In Judy Harrow’s essential book Spiritual Mentoring, she names the divine collectively as the Entheoi, meaning the deities who are within us. This is a lovely revisioning that emphasizes the immanent nature of deity rather than the transcendent, and it normalizes the connection with the divine, emphasizing that the divine is present within each of us, something we only have to become aware of rather than create from scratch.

Even with those features in mind, though, it can still be difficult to access this kind of awareness; just because the divine is within us doesn’t mean it’s automatically easy to talk with them, because they are still vastly different from us. Think – and feel if you can – how different our awareness is than that of a wild animal, or a plant, especially a long-lived one like a tree. If we are so different from these living beings with whom we share our form of being, then how much more different must be the metaphysical beings we know as the deities? They are as far away from us as we are from the sun and the Moon, yet as close as our own heartbeat, our own breath.

That difference in being but closeness in spirit is why I refer to the relationship that leads to sacred inspiration as a connection that needs to be cultivated, because it is through practice and repeated attention – which, after all, is what we really mean by devotion – that this connection or mode of awareness becomes stronger and more reliable.

Cultivating a connection which will support inspiration requires a particular kind of devotion, though, because this is not the aggressive devotion of an athlete constantly pushing herself harder; nor is it an empty passivity that negates the self; this is a devotion very much like wooing a beloved, with regular attention and an open curiosity that delights in the presence of another.

I learned to cultivate this through trance work first; for me, that was a safer place to have these beyond-normal experiences; the real wonder for me is when we create the conditions to let that awareness flourish while maintaining connection with the outside world so that our different types of awareness can inspire and augment each other.

I believe that one of the highest goals of ritual and the work we do in general is to put people in touch with the sacred more directly, helping each and every person who wishes to do so to open that connection a little bit wider, helping them learn to use it on a regular basis.

The first place to start building this connection is usually with your primary deities – your matron or patron. And having an existing relationship with your matron or patron makes this whole process much easier, because you have someone to guide you, someone you trust, someone you know has your best interests at heart, which makes it much easier to accept the kind of closeness that is necessary for successful inspiration to be communicated.

The more I study, and the more I practice, the more I come to the conclusion that Wicca is a religion of relationship, and the relationship with the divine is one of the most beautiful parts. So once again, begin with relationship, begin with devotion. Begin with the simple act of being present. Be present for yourself, and then expand your awareness to begin to be present for those others who are so near and yet so different, whose wisdom we crave and whose closeness we cultivate.

May your presence be blessed with the awareness of their presence.

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An herbal example – chamomile

Today I’m teaching my intro to herbs class at the Magical Druid, but for those of you who can’t be there in person, I thought I would demonstrate one small aspect of what I’m teaching today. (By the way, I also offer this as a correspondence course, for which I’m currently developing more material; if you’re interested, email me at literatahurley@gmail.com.)

I encourage students to begin their journey into herbalism by creating their own notes on each herb they study; this journal becomes a place to organize research as well as one’s own thoughts and intuitions, and becomes the foundation for future work. I provide an example from my own notebook, which is very much a work in progress, and discuss why I have arranged the parts of each entry the way I have.

My entry on each herb is broken up into the following sections:

  • Names – here I describe any common names and also list the scientific name(s) for the species of plants they describe. Scientific names are an important way to be able to be sure you’re talking about the same plant, since common names are many and varied, and have changed over time and from region to region.
  • Warnings and contraindications – This is an absolute must. Potential allergies, pregnancy warnings, drug interactions, and more should all be noted here. Even things that are regularly used in food can have medically important interactions. Please note that none of my information is a substitute for consulting a trained medical professional!
  • Parts used – I find this a useful way to describe how different parts of the same plant are used in different contexts. This can actually help me come up with new ideas for magical workings by encouraging me to think more broadly about an herb I’m already familiar with.
  • Uses – Here I describe major purposes that the herb is used for, along with its important correspondences and any other magical information, such as what other materials it works well with. This is really the heart of the entry, so I go into more detail here, although I don’t usually include specific spells or recipes (as described below). I tend to note historical uses only when they influence how I tend to use the herb in a present context.

For example, my notes on chamomile read as follows:

Names:
Chamomile
name of multiple plants in the Asteraceae family

German chamomile – most common species used
(Matricaria recutita)

Roman chamomile, noble chamomile, English chamomile
(Chamaemelum nobile)

Warnings, contraindications:

Do not use Roman chamomile during pregnancy
People with ragweed allergy may be allergic to chamomile
May cause drowsiness

Parts used: flowers, dried and used in sachets, infusions

Uses:

Magically associated with the sun, can be used for prosperity.

Main use is for calming, relieving anxiety, and promoting healing. Can cause drowsiness and be used to induce sleep. Infusion is very good for this.

Try combining with peppermint (especially for digestive upset) or valerian for extra anxiety reduction.

Infusion can also be used topically on irritated skin, has mildly anti-inflammatory effects.

Personally, I organize these notes alphabetically by common name, and keep an index that helps me cross-reference plants that I might know by multiple common names.

In a separate space, I keep “recipe cards” for combinations of herbs, oils, incenses, or other nifty concoctions I’m working on or might want to try in the future.

Finally, in my working magical journal I record spells that I’ve actually performed, and reflect on the results of the spell. Then I will update my other two resources with notes if important.

I find it really helps to keep my notes separated this way so that I know where to find what I’m looking for – if it’s information about an herb, I go to my notebook; if it’s a particular recipe, I to go my recipe cards; and if it’s details of how I implemented a particular spell, I go to my magical journal. When I’m coming up with a new spell or recipe, I might use all three in combination, but usually I just need one of them.

What are your favorite resources for studying herbs? How do you organize your information about a broad topic like this? I’d love to know!

Posted in herbs plants oils, materia magica, tools & techniques | Tagged

High Priestess and duality

Two is where we come to a place of relationship, to the possibility of duality and interchange between different forms of being, and in the Tarot the two is the card titled the High Priestess, also known as the Papesse. This is where things start to get complicated, and that complicatedness is reflected in the way that the High Priestess has to do with wisdom that is not obvious, wisdom that may be obscured or hidden.

“Obscured” is the original meaning of the word “occult,” and the High Priestess is definitely involved with wisdom that is occult in this sense. I like to use the word esoteric to describe her wisdom, in contrast to the exoteric, or obvious on the exterior, kinds of knowledge that most people rely on.

Most images of the High Priestess have some kind of closed symbology about them, whether it is the traditional veil in front of which she sits or an example of making her book or scroll a closed one. It is important to understand that this does not mean the wisdom she is working with is inaccessible; it only means that it is up to us to use nonstandard ways of knowing to access that awareness, to see through the veil or to be able to interpret the hidden words.

The domain of the High Priestess is mystery, the occult or esoteric, and thus it is appropriate that I have questions about this card which are not easily answered. I think it is appropriate to see the High Priestess as part of a duality, but to me it remains an open question who is her appropriate partner in duality.

The High Priestess can be seen as part of a duality with either the Magician or the Hierophant as her partner. She is placed next to the Magician and Robin Wood renames him the High Priest to make the partnership explicit, but I think in part this is due to Wood’s overt antipathy to the Hierophant; if you read her book she makes it quite clear that she simply detests the Hierophant and everything he stands for. I think that is a bit of an overreaction, and I’ll have more to say about it when we get to that card. It is worth noting that Wood also gives the High Priestess an open book, making her less about the traditional esoteric wisdom, but situating her in a natural setting to emphasize that her wisdom is her connection with nature instead.

For those who do not share Wood’s antipathy to the Hierophant, it is also possible to see the High Priestess as a counterpart to him, especially when she is described as the Papesse. I was just re-exposed to this idea, and it has a certain intrigue. I certainly remember now that my first Tarot deck suggested that the Papesse was a counterpart to the Hierophant or Pope card, but then I started working with the Robin Wood deck and it became my go-to deck for several years, so I pretty much forgot that interpretation. (This is a great example of how useful it is to compare different decks!) Robert Place is the most recent author I’ve read who brought this alternative interpretation back to mind. In his Alchemical Tarot he suggests that the Magician is more of a hermaphroditic figure, and as a result the High Priestess is paired with the Hierophant. The more I think about it, the more this approach has to recommend it.

Historically the Tarot trumps may have reflected the medieval practice of having a triumphal parade where each successive stage in the parade was seen as overcoming or “trumping” the previous stage. Place makes several arguments about this view of the trump cards, and it makes a certain amount of sense in this sequence; first comes the fool, who is overcome by the one who seeks magical power, who is overcome by female spiritual insight, who is overcome by female temporal power, who is overcome by male temporal power, who is overcome by male spiritual authority. Each of these successions could have seemed natural in the medieval context, especially since males had authority over females and the Pope held spiritual authority over the Holy Roman Emperor.

Thinking of the High Priestess in duality with the Pope or Hierophant card makes explicit the contrast between her esoteric ways of knowing and worshipping and his exoteric approach. I am sure that for some people this only heightens the distaste for the Hierophant’s structured systems, but for me it somehow softens his image a little, as I can better appreciate his methods by understanding that he is trying to reach a similar goal.

In some ways the essence of this question comes down to how we gender the cards; the High Priestess’ proximity to the Magician makes their duality seem natural if we see the magician as male. Of course, reducing everything to male-female polarities is a vast oversimplification and is part of the problem; that’s why I appreciate the view of the magician as neither strictly male nor female.

At any rate, the High Priestess introduces the idea of duality and mystery, regardless of how you understand her relationships to the other Major Arcana. The ultimate answer may be that the reader has to use her intuition, especially depending on the way the High Priestess and any other cards show up in a reading, and that ability to use intuition is really what the High Priestess symbolizes in the first place.

Posted in Tarot | 2 Comments

Crochet bags for Tarot decks

I was delighted to get a couple of new Tarot decks recently, and I decided to be a little crafty in making my own bags for them. This is just a simple pattern, but I think it’s special to make your own containers for Tarot decks. This is also the first time I’ve tried to write a pattern, so please excuse any mistakes. It is in US crochet notation.

There are two versions, one for a bag I did recently and a more generalized version (metapattern) so that you can customize it to fit whatever deck you’re working with.

Materials:

worsted weight yarn, approximately 35 grams
crochet hook size H
yarn needle
scissors
optional: button and yarn or contrasting string for closure (see end)

Pattern:

Row 1: Chain 16
Row 2: starting in second loop, single crochet in back loop of foundation chain – sc 15 and ch 1 for turning chain
Row 3: turn and sc 15, ch 1
Rows 4-50: repeat row 3
Row 51: sc2tog, sc across until only two stitches left, sc2tog
Repeat row 51 until reduced to a single stitch, then end

Example:

crochet-bag-laid-out

Fold over and use needle to whipstitch both sides of bag together, weave in ends
Turn right side out

Example:

IMG_2083

Optional: Add a button to the point of the flap and add a drawstring to the front of the bag, either in the same yarn or in contrasting thread.

Example:

IMG_2084

I probably should have crocheted another two or three rows on this particular bag before starting the decreases so that the flap would lay over more completely, but it works. The drawstring closure is just threaded through the fabric of the front side to make a loop that will hold the button down and the flap closed. Here I’ve just used a simple button and tied the ends of the string in a knot, but you could get creative with fun buttons and beads or other decorations for the drawstring.

Metapattern:

for a Tarot deck with dimensions L x W x H (dimensions from largest to smallest)

Chain enough stitches to measure W + H + two or three stitches, depending on how snug you want your bag to be
Starting in second loop, single crochet in back loop of foundation chain plus ch 1 for turning chain
Turn, sc across, ch1
Repeat rows of sc until fabric length measures 2L+2H
Begin decreasing: sc2tog, sc across until only two stitches left, sc2tog
Repeat until flap comes to a point, then end
Fold, stitch sides together, weave in ends
Turn right side out
Attach button and drawstring closure if desired

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Review: Blair-Hunt, Tarot Prediction & Divination

Blair-Hunt, Susyn. Tarot prediction & divination: unveiling 3 layers of meaning. Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN. 2011. 283 pages.

This book essentially provides numerous case studies as a way to help the reader learn different spreads. The author has designed fifteen different spreads, divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced groupings, and gives three sample readings for each spread. My favorite thing about this book is that it provides a wealth of examples of interpreting cards in context, in spreads where they interact with each other, which is one of the challenges that beginning readers face in moving from remembering isolated card meanings to doing actual readings. The variety of spreads provided would also be useful to many beginning to intermediate readers.

The subtitle refers to three different ways to interpret the card that the author sees as running along a spectrum from the concrete to the abstract. She refers to these as the divinatory, therapeutic, and spiritual. (p2 ff) She uses “divinatory” to mean specific information about concrete future happenings. Since I see divination as embracing all three of the areas she lays out, I think she would have done better to name this realm of interpretation the “practical” or “predictive” area. She contrasts this concrete level with two more abstract areas: “Therapeutic” is a level of meaning that I would describe as primarily concerned with psychological occurrences and related symbolic interpretations. For her, “spiritual” is the most advanced and/or abstract level of meaning, where the cards are related to generalized statements about Spirit, the Universe, possibly karma, and the overall meaning of one’s life.

Breaking up interpretation into those three levels is an interesting way of getting readers to think about more possible meanings of their cards, especially for those who tend to fall into one type of interpretation too often. Throughout the case studies, Blair-Hunt tries to interpret each reading on all three levels, but she often falls into the problem of the psychological and spiritual blending into each other. Nevertheless, readers interested in seeing different types of interpretation applied to the same cards and spread would find this book valuable.

Blair-Hunt never explicates any particular religious perspective within which she is working, nor does she discuss the way a religious perspective would influence the “spiritual” interpretation of the cards, which is a tremendous weakness in her work. She seems to be coming from a generalized “spiritual” background which includes belief in channeling, past lives, and being able to contact the deceased, but she never addresses either the Christian origin of cards’ symbolism or their more common use among Neopagans today. The author’s perspective on spirit is that the universe is a place where everything is working for our good and that difficulties or challenges are just lessons on the way to a better experience; her optimism on this front can come across as deeply naive.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the text stems from a similar source: she suggests that if the reader has difficulty dealing with the potential meanings of some cards, especially Death, that the reader just remove them from her deck. This suggestion is followed by reassurance that removing cards will not change the interpretive power of the readings. (16) This reassurance strikes me as frankly ridiculous, because removing cards inherently reduces the range of possible outcomes in a reading, and the point of removing “difficult” cards is specifically to avoid having to think about or interpret their images. The way she writes about it really implies that she sympathizes with readers who themselves have a hard time dealing with the potential meanings of the Death card and other cards with potentially negative meanings, as she repeats this advice more than once, and suggests that it may apply to cards such as the Three of Swords and others. (15) I can sympathize with those who have a difficult time thinking about death, but anyone who intends to read meaningfully for herself or others should be willing to spend time and energy grappling with the shadow issues represented in some cards. Trying to make the deck all sweetness and light – or worse, pretending that life itself is all sweetness and light – is willful blindness and likely to lead to all sorts of significant problems.

In more practical terms, the book is difficult to use because the reproductions of the tarot cards in the spreads are tiny – only three-quarters of an inch high (less than 2cm). The author makes a point of using three different decks (the Gilded Tarot, the Lo Scarabeo Tarot, and the Universal Tarot) but the details of the cards can barely be made out in the minute black and white illustrations. In all but a couple cases there is clearly space on the page for the illustrations to be made larger, making the source of this problem truly a mystery.

In addition to the main text, there are five appendices which contain different types of correspondences for the Tarot cards. The first one is a fairly standard set of keywords for the entire deck. The second discusses choosing significators, relying largely on astrological and personal characteristics. Perhaps the most interesting appendix is one on card combinations, where Blair-Hunt lists specific divinatory meanings for certain cards and combinations in a variety of situations that readers are likely to encounter. I was disappointed that she didn’t discuss whether these interpretations come from some other source, her own inspiration, her concrete experience reading, or a combination of all three.

The last two appendices are about the timing that cards can represent and an “empowerment guide” to the Major Arcana. In discussing the timing indicated in cards she uses astrological attributions of the cards that stem from the Golden Dawn without discussing where they come from. But then she creates a timing chart that is completely separate from the Golden Dawn system of attributing the pips to the decans of the zodiac, and doesn’t say where she gets that from either. I am led to believe that she may be unfamiliar with the roots of some of the information she is propagating or that she simply doesn’t care about the historical background of her material. Finally the empowerment guide has color, gemstone, incense, and other correspondences for the Major Arcana, and again she doesn’t cite any sources or explain any background.

If someone learned all fifteen spreads in this book they would be a very well prepared reader for just about any kind of reading someone could ask for, and I really do think this book has a lot to offer in terms of case studies of cards in context. As long as the reader does not fall into the trap of trying to alter the deck to make their understanding of the world sufficiently easy and comfortable, there are some good examples of useful spreads here. If the information in this book is combined with a broader perspective on the Tarot and its history and meanings the reader will have a good resource to help them apply a basic understanding of the deck to its actual workings in real, live readings.

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Yule – Element of Earth

There is a lovely phrase that I have incorporated in my devotions: that the divine is the “source and ground” of all that is. I think Yule and the season of the Element of Earth are the perfect time to contemplate this perspective, the importance of the ground itself.

In Wicca, our practice of grounding and centering acknowledges and makes use of our intimate connection with the earth as an aspect of the divine. The metaphor of grounding draws partially on an image of electricity, in terms of grounding as removing excessive energy, but much more often the imagery used in actual visualizations is that of living things, plants or trees, making grounding more of an exchange, a chance to both release what is no longer needed and an opportunity to draw in the nutrients that are needed to refresh your own organism.

This is the sense in which I understand the idea of “source and ground,” meaning that the Earth, the planet, is the source of our physical being, and it is what we ground into throughout our lives, and it is what our physical parts return to when our lives are ended. Thus the Element of Earth, although it is the most stable and least active of all Elements, is perhaps the mother of all the Elements, as the planet is the embodiment of our experiences of all of them together.

In Wicca, when we cast circles, we start from the north, the direction of Earth, and we return there to complete the circle. Many Wiccans place their altars facing north, seeing it as appropriate because that is the direction of darkness and mystery, and thus our altars face into the mysteries, the unseen, the place of starlight vision that we need to see beyond (or within) the everyday realities around us. And although we speak to the East first when calling the Elements, we end with the North, always returning to our ground, our source of being in this embodied existence.

As I wrote in the Story of Sif, even the wonders that we know of come from the ground, ultimately, because this is a physical existence, where the physical defines and, yes, delimits the possible. It is up to us to discover and enjoy the wonders possible within those limits. Wicca is not a religion that seeks transcendence or escape from reality above all other things; there is no liberation from the physical world within Wicca, nor a promise of escape into a better, easier paradigm. Instead there is the promise of the transcendent that emerges within the world as we discover it to be, and especially within the world as we can shape it to be more full of love, more full of beauty, and more full of meaning.

In Tarot, the Element of Earth is represented in the suit of coins, also called disks or pentacles in some decks. This suit has to do with the physical, and yes, it has to do with money, and all the things related to money, especially work and possessions. But I don’t think the Tarot has to represent or assume a capitalist relationship with the world; I think it can represent these things as simply energy embodied, and thus it can represent a relationship of love and of exchange, the natural give and take, within the context of that love.

May this Yule be a time for you and yours to connect to your source and ground and face the return of the light refreshed.

Posted in theaology | Tagged , ,

The Magician and Identity

Since the Fool is numbered zero, the Magician is numbered one. One is the identity element for multiplication. In math, an identity element is the number that doesn’t change other numbers (when multiplied, in this case). This is why it is called the identity element: other numbers keep their identity, their same value, when multiplied by one. Their nature remains unchanged by the operation. So what is it that one is doing when it interacts with other numbers?

At the same time, every number keeps coming back to the identity element. In multiplication, every number except zero has a counterpart, and when you multiply a number times its counterpart (also called its multiplicative inverse) you get 1. So you can always come back to this identity element. In some sense, it contains the seeds of all the other numbers, or the potential to take on the identity of any other number multiplied by it.

I think there’s a resonance between the nature of the identity element and the symbolism of the Magician card. The Magician works with the natural forces represented by the tools shown in the card, but she doesn’t fundamentally change those forces; she uses them as tools to accomplish her own goals. She doesn’t change the nature of Air or Water, or restrict the burning passion of the flame she lights, but by working with them she creates change around herself. Or perhaps she creates the change within herself…

And so we are brought back to the paradoxical heart of magic. We create change by starting that change within ourselves. And yet, somehow, we retain a coherent identity. In fact, for many of us, the kinds of change that we create are a lynchpin of our identities. Think about it this way: our skills and abilities are one of the major components of our identities. What are those skills and abilities besides the ability to create change in particular ways? I go to work, and I change the world. It’s only a tiny bit, but I think it matters. Tomorrow I’ll do it again. The changes we make are something we depend on for our very sense of self.

In this sense the Magician is very much about identity because the Magician is one who makes change possible and thus creates identity, and who really has an independent identity, as opposed to the kind of blank canvas that the Fool represents. The Magician has her tools to hand: she is holding all the aces of the Tarot deck, the potential power of each suit, and beginning to use them to create something new, something that could be almost anything.

At the same time, she must balance the opposites within herself, both the opposites contained in the different qualities of the suits and natural powers and the contrasts between what is and what might be. These inverses keep looping back to her, as the infinity symbol on her card keeps crossing through its own center. Out of that central point, out of her identity as an element of change, comes a realm of nearly infinite possibility, with the potential for so many different outcomes that points to the rest of the deck as an unfolding exploration.

NB: For those who are interested, zero is the additive identity – and zero also “breaks” multiplication by not having a multiplicative inverse. In many ways everything I say here about one is also true about zero under addition, but with much stranger overtones because of the way it behaves under multiplication. I chose to emphasize the properties of the numbers this way because I think it teaches more about the meanings of the cards.

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