Serpent Songs, A Review

By now you probably know that I am an unrepentant fan of Scarlet Imprint, publishing house of fine occult books. For my birthday at the beginning of June, my husband gifted me with Serpent Songs, a collection of essays whose central theme is traditional witchcraft. I squeed with delight. The book is beautiful to behold, as I expected. The textures of the paper feel good in the hand; the color and printing are a delight to the eye.

Image taken from Scarlet Imprint's web page.

Image taken from Scarlet Imprint’s web page.

That said, I found this collection to be very hit and miss. Several of the essays I loved. Some I found entirely uninteresting. One essay in particular made me so upset that I wanted to hurl the book across the room. And not in ‘intellectually stimulated and challenged’ upset sort of way.

Let’s start with the awful and get it out of the way. Shani Oates, Maid of the Clan of Tubal Cain, has written a bloated essay in the purplest of prose. I read it three times, hoping that it was me and not her. Alas. Ms Oates writes as though she has mined a thesaurus for the most beautiful words she can find. There are lovely phrases, yet nothing seems to have any meaning. I suspect that she may have been writing in code. Many Craft practitioners do this, so as not to reveal secrets or break oaths. But some authors, like Serpent Song‘s editor, Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, are gifted at both writing in code, yet giving non-members plenty to chew on without condescension. Ms Oates essay reeked of outsider exclusion. Given that Scarlet Imprint writes for the smart occultist, without an emphasis on a particular tradition, I am stumped as to how this essay was included.

There are also some rather dull essays, ones I thought only marginally interesting. They reminded me of things I read in graduate school. I thought they might have been more at home in a decidedly academic collection.

But then there were several essays that more than made up for the others. I enjoyed Johannes Gårdbäck’s essay, ‘Trolldom.’ It’s a subject I don’t know much about. Gårdbäck, a Swede, used the tale of assisting a couple to inform the reader of many aspects of Trolldom, Swedish folk magic. It was interesting story telling and informative, too.

Several of the essays are ones I will come back to again. I was particularly impressed with the two contributions from Basque sorcerers, Arkaitz Urbeltz and Xabier Bakaikoa Urbeltz. This is a tradition I knew nothing about until reading these two essays. The way the home and hearth are central to their tradition, way of life and understanding of their world spoke to me in a deep way; I related and felt challenged to think more deeply about connection to home and place. One essay discusses Mari, a goddess I had heard stems from the Basque tradition, and is only found outside of it in the Feri/Faery tradition I practice. I felt these two authors did a beautiful job communicating their beliefs and practices in poetic, yet clear ways.

Sarah Lawless contributed a beautiful article on the ‘Mysteries of Beast, Blood and Bone’ which ends the volume. It is animistic in tone and practical in focus. It was a delightful ending to a mixed bag of essays, ranging from incredibly annoying to boring to possibly practice altering to profound.

Overall this book is, as are all Scarlet Imprint’s tomes, for the serious collector or practitioner. This book contains some of the worst writing I’ve yet to see them publish and some of the most beautiful and interesting. As always, there are several versions of this text, finely bound and digital.

What I Do

Earlier in the week a friend on Facebook linked to a great blog post on a blog I’d never read before. The post is called The Keys to Success in Magic. It makes a great point, that most witches/magicians/sorcerers worth their salt don’t do magic most of the time. I’d say that’s true!

Midway through the post the author has a ‘flow chart’ of his practice. If I had to make a chart, this would be pretty close.

If we’re not making magic, what do we do?

I can’t speak for most other people, but clearly this gentleman and myself – and many of my magical and/or Pagan friends – are similar in our approaches. Let’s walk through this flow chart together.

The foundation of all practice is some form of meditative practice. I learned mine primarily from yoga, but it was in my training with T Thorn Coyle where I was pushed to incorporate meditation into a daily practice. Before I had kids I would do 20-30 minutes of sitting practice every morning. I sat, checked in with all my parts – my body, my emotions, and various souls – and breathed through whatever came up. It was during this time that I finally got a handle on my anxiety issues, all through a daily sitting practice.

Now that I have kids, my practice isn’t so extensive or regular, but there is some form of breathing exercise every day. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say I sit before my altar three to four days out of 7 in the week, but there is some form of conscious breathing moment every day. It truly is the foundation of all else.

Why is breathing so important? In my experience it is useful in several ways. It teaches us to connect with all of our parts. I am learning to listen. What is going on with myself, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually? I am getting better at listening to others, both human and non-human. I am learning that my thoughts might not be the truth of the matter, nor might they be the most important information in any given moment.

Mostly what happens when I sit in meditation is that my brain hits me with every task I need to keep track of: grocery lists, appointments, blog post ideas, etc. My ears strain to hear the kids in the other rooms. What I do is I thank my brain for taking care of all that information and I let it go, just focusing on the breath. One of these days I’ll get back to the deeper levels of meditation. It happened before, so I know it can happen again. But this tool, this ability to slow down and quiet the mind is invaluable. Being able to step outside my reactive thought processing and learn to listen with other parts of myself has been the key to my mental and spiritual health.

The creator of the above flow chart has listed devotions, offerings and energy work next. Again, I think these three things are the next most important acts, after meditation and before magical work.

Devotions and offerings are perhaps one and the same in my mind and practice. Every dark moon I replace the offerings of water. sometimes I offer special incenses. Sometimes I buy flowers for a certain god. Every Tuesday I do Kali puja. It was not until I delved into a three-month Hindu practice, back at the beginning of this blog, that I learned how important and powerful devotions could be. Elaborate or simple, they are a way to build connection with deities and spirits. I learn something new each time I do it. Occasionally I do something a puja for Shiva on Monday, sometimes something formal for the Red Goddess on Friday. But always, every Tuesday for Kali.

sometimes these rituals yield immediate results, and by that I mean, felt connection or certain blessings later in the day. Some days there’s no felt connection. Never do I feel it was a waste of my time.

Lastly, I would call the lessons I am doing for my Feri training my energy work. Right now we are working through the Iron Pentacle, a form of energy and value system, that is unique to the Feri tradition. Making kala, a form of purification, also falls into energy work. I make kala at least once a week, sometimes more as needed.

Lastly comes making magic. I include reading the tarot in this category, as well as spells or ritual. I don’t often read for myself. If I read it is usually for others. I go in phases, sometimes pulling a card every day, sometimes doing a reading on each full moon. For the last year I’ve been rather inactive with my cards.

When I do make magic, use spell work, or construct a larger ritual, there is always a specific need. I spend several days giving the purpose much thought, and once the intent and/or goal is clear, I figure out what course of action is most appropriate. I want to make sure the timing is right, that I have the items needed for whatever working I’m doing, and that I’ll have uninterrupted time and space to complete the working.

My experience is that, while I don’t make magic often, when I do, it is effective. I don’t think I’m any more innately gifted, psychic, or touched by the gods than anyone else. What I am is deliberate. I think the scaffolding of my practice also sets me up for success. Before magic comes gaining strength in skills and forging relationship with others, gods and spirit allies and the world around me. But before even that comes getting centered within myself and letting go of the chatter in my mind as much as possible.

If I could sum up in a less wordy way an answer to the question ‘if not magic, what do you do?’ the answer is basically: I breathe.

Passing Down the Trad

There’s a series of blog posts over at Patheos on passing along one’s faith to kids or a younger generation. I’ve really enjoyed reading the different perspectives. As I’ve got two kids of my own, ages 5 and 2.5, here are my two cents.

My husband, Adam, and I are raising our kids in a Pagan household. I don’t say that we are raising the kids as Pagans, or to be Pagans, but Adam and I run our house in a certain way, practice in a certain way, and celebrate in a certain way – a rather hodge podge, but decidedly Pagan way. The kids see us and hear us, and kids absorb what surrounds them.

Many Pagans were raised Christian and have issues with the indoctrination of their upbringing. Adam was raised Christian and it’s certainly had a detrimental impact on his life. I was raised secular, with no religion of any sort, really. My kids get the best of all worlds, I think. They get the knowledge and respect of world religions (thanks to having a religions studies scholar for a mother); they get the flexibility and ‘hands off’ attitude that worked for me; they get the guidance that their parents can provide and can witness in their parents’ practices; they get some semblance of tradition that they can either hang on to or choose to reject as they grow older.

Adam and I have no faith to pass down. It’s not about faith. We are passing along tools, values, and lore (as it is appropriate, and much of Feri lore is not at this point). Does this mean that we talk about the gods as archetypes or myths? No. As P Sufenas Virius Lupus suggests, if the gods are good enough for the grown ups, surely they are good enough for the kids? I agree. The kids see that mama and papa honor Ganesh (we have statues in nearly every room!). The kids know of several of mama’s gods and several of papa’s. They are welcome to honor – or not – as they see fit.

Ganesh, Remover of All Obstacles

Ganesh, Remover of All Obstacles

Much of what we pass down is based on expediency: does it work? do you experience it? Why worship a deity if you don’t feel like you’ve got a relationship? We talk about this and we talk about how to forge relationship with deity, the Land, or other spirits. If our kids grow up and feel that they’ve experienced nothing of meaning, so be it. Maybe they grow up and Jesus speaks to them, so be it.

Right now, at 5, we’re working on ‘controlling all our parts.’ This involves a lot of listening: what does your body tell you? What do you need? How are you feeling? What else do you sense? I use the word ‘control’ here, not because our triple souls need to be controlled, but because my 5-year-old struggles to keep his hands to himself (and every other body part) and keeping his parts in check is part of controlling his hands. We have worked on meditation and deep breathing. It’s something we started with both kids when they were around 18 months, with limited success, but you have to start young! Sometimes my son sits for 90 seconds at a time and practices his meditation. You gotta start somewhere!

We’ve also worked on raising energy while meditating. I’ve walked him through a couple of very short guided meditations. Then we talk about what he experienced. It’s fascinating to hear what he’s experiencing and how he connects that his regular day existence. For example, after one of the first meditations on raising a ball of light in his center, he then asked if he could create a spirit outside himself that would do his bidding. Could I teach him that?? I was floored at that connection, because yes, it is possible! However, I’ve never done that, and he needs to master sitting still first.

The kids see their parents sitting regularly, sometimes chanting, sometimes giving offerings, lighting candles and incense, and sometimes creating spells or reading tarot. Occasionally I’ll let one or both of the kids watch – sometimes because I’m doing something very simple that they won’t disrupt and sometimes because if I don’t have them with me I won’t get another chance that day to do my offering or whatnot. I’ve embraced that I may have pujas that are more chaotic than others, and that sometimes there just won’t be meditation, only a bow and an offering.

by Janko Hoener, via creative commons

by Janko Hoener, via creative commons

Adam and I are slowly creating holidays that reflect our deities, our experiences with Place and the Wheel of the Year, and the rhythms of our family. So far, Samhain/Halloween and Yule/Christmas are the big holidays of the year. There are other ones, scattered through out the year. Sometimes the kids are really interested and other times they couldn’t be bothered. I think that’s pretty normal, and there is very little pressure for them to be involved. But they see the grown ups doing it.

Can you see the theme here? The kids see what we do and can participate as they desire. There is no coercion, but I won’t say there isn’t any indoctrination. The kids hear what the grown ups talk about, and in our house it is not unusual to hear an hour-long discussion on tarot in a car ride to Seattle, or hear discussions of magic at the dinner table, or how different branches of Buddhism have different meditation techniques as we’re getting ready for bed.

These actions reflect our values. We support these values – of experience, of practice, of finding ways to communicate with others (whether human, spirit or other), of creativity – by surrounding ourselves with others who share similar values, even if they express them differently. We read and watch things* that encourage these values as well, and we talk about them.

So yeah, we are passing along our traditions, but they are traditions that are unfolding. Neither Adam nor I are initiated into anything. We’re both learning as we go. This too is valuable for our kids to witness. Not all of our tools or practices are appropriate for little kids. We are treading each age and stage carefully as we come to it. Ask me in another 5 years how we’re passing along our traditions and I’m sure I’ll have a different set of answers.

A woodcut by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

A woodcut by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

*Books and things that we particularly love for our kids:

Novels: The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
The Sea of Trolls – Nancy Farmer
Loads of fairy tales

Comic books and cartoons:
Avatar: The Last Airbender
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Adventure Time
Any and everything by Hiyao Miyazaki (holding off on Princess Mononoke until the kids are older)

Winners!

Adam drew a cartoon of our process.

Adam drew a cartoon of our proces

 

Don’t worry, you’re all winners to me.

Thanks to everyone for entering my first ‘contest.’ It was fun to do!

I wrote out all the names and put them in my pretty silver salad bowl.

My son drew names for two of the books and my daughter drew for one.

Without further ado the winners are:

Ambaa wins Make Magic of Your Life by T Thorn Coyle

Jody Marx wins Seeking the Mystery by Christine Hoff Kraemer

Rhiannon Mackey Dacono from Colorado wins Kali by Elizabeth U Harding

Congrats! Please send me an email with your name and address to myownashram at gmail dot com.

My daughter doesn't want to let the books go.

My daughter doesn’t want to let the books go.

 

Win some books!

Winsome books that can be won.

I have three books to give away!

Make Magic of Your Life by T. Thorn Coyle. make magicIf you are a student of Feri or of Thorn’s this book may be a bit rudimentary for you. You’ve probably already heard her say these things many times before. For those not familiar with Thorn’s work or for those looking for a fresh perspective on integrating their passions into their lives, regardless of their spiritual tradition, I think this book could be very helpful. Thorn has a conversational tone to her writing, but don’t let that lull you into complacency! Thorn expects that you put in the work of self-reflection and commitment to your self. I think this book could be appropriate for a person from any liberal spiritual tradition (I’m guessing readers of this blog fall into that category). Thorn is using a pagan framework to support her ideas, but again, I think any lover of religious tradition will be able to connect with the wisdom here.

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies by Christine Hoff-Kraemer. This is a small, introductory level book on the many kinds of pagan theologies (yes, plural) currently in use. It is by no means comprehensive, but is a rock solid start for the student of religions, for pagans wanting to dive deeper into their own tradition, for a professor who needs a text for their religions studies class, or for any person who thinks that paganism is just worshiping the devil and/or dancing naked in the forest. Whereas Thorn’s book above is written at a very simple level (I think a bright middle school student could easily read it), this book is written for the undergraduate student or very bright high school student. I highly recommend this book, and I helped edit it!

Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar by Elizabeth U. Harding. This is a fantastic book on Kali, her cult, her symbols, as well as the history and practices of a specific temple devoted to Kali. While this book is written by some one with a deep love of Kali, it is not a ‘how-to’ worship book. However, I think it is essential for Western lovers of Kali.

All three books are like brand new.

How to enter: comment below or on the blog’s Facebook page. I’ll need a name/handle and which book or books you’d like (yes, you can enter for more than one). If you are willing, I’d love to know where in the world you are. I’m a geography nerd and I think it’d be cool to see from where in the world you are reading. You can enter only once and I’ll stop taking entries at 8 am PST on Friday. Sometime Friday afternoon I’ll draw names out of a bowl for each book and will post winners that evening. I will send the books anywhere in the world, so anyone (including my family and friends; except you, Adam) from anywhere can enter. I will send books the way that is least expensive for me. I assume no responsibility for the quality or reliability of any postal service.

Yay books!

The Stories We Tell

Attempting to process one’s life in public is difficult. It’s challenging to avoid details that risk exposing other less public people, or details that get too intimate for my comfort. Yet how to explain my story? I fear I might have misrepresented myself in my last post. The likelier occurrence is that in attempting to present my experience safely, I actually created A Story.

What’s a ‘Story’? It’s a narrative of events that we tell ourselves to make the confusion neater and tidier, to wrap up loose ends, to put one’s self in the best possible light, and to make more comfortable the uncomfortable.

Recently the wise John Beckett wrote a post called Change Your Story, Change Your Life. We have the power to reframe the stories in our lives. For example, in May I realized that I’m actually an introvert. This realization reframes every awkward party and sleep over I’ve had. This reframes group dynamics for me. When I look back on my first marriage, I used to tell a story about how I was really a lesbian, you see. Only that’s not true. At the time it was the best way I could make sense of my experience. The story I now tell about that marriage’s demise is one I think is more truthful: an ill-fitted match of two people with no tools to deal with conflict or communication, and one party (me) deep into the throes of major depression.

Our stories evolve over time, and I’ve no doubt that my understanding of what I’ve been experiencing this summer will evolve as well.

The problem is that we try to create Stories at all. How often do we cling to a narrative that may or may not be true? I realize that creating a narrative is but one way we can process our experiences, and it can certainly be a necessary part of communicating that experience to others. However, in the last few years, and especially in the last few months, I’ve seen how limiting clinging to those stories can be. My experience is my own, but it may not be the ‘truth’ of the matter.

In writing my previous post it seems that a few people saw some victim mentality in what I wrote. That was not my intent at all. Yes, I used the word ‘hazing.’ That certainly implies a victim being bullied. I chose that word because that’s how I feel about only a small part of my recent experience, not because I think that is the truth of the situation. I would never be in relationship with any bullying entity – lover, friend, or god.

I also do not think that either my Feri training or the Feri Current are to blame for what is clearly a situation made all the worse due to my personal failings. And yet, I do think both of those things play a role.

First, any intensive spiritual work is bound to facilitate conflicts. Why? Not because chaos is cool, but because facing our fears and realigning our patterns causes chaos. Using the tools we’re given to stand taller, speak truth more boldly, move more strongly, create firmer boundaries, love more deeply, etc, will cause conflict with those that expect us to be just as we always were. And then there’s the general awkwardness of learning to function more healthily. This summer has exposed some major weak spots of mine and highlighted patterns of mine that need some serious realignment.

Secondly, I think the Feri Current is a living entity. It isn’t in my control, but is part of a grand give and take. I certainly don’t think it’s out to get me. Nor do I believe that tapping into a living Current absolves me of my free will. It’s a dance, where I feel the wave and choose and respond. Maybe the Current isn’t a singular entity, maybe it’s more a conglomeration of the various Feri gods. I don’t know. There’s some theology to unpack here; I’ve been focusing on my experience of it, rather than trying to nail it down in concepts and fancy words.

I’m no victim. I’m just a flawed person, working out my patterns in a somewhat semi-public fashion, in relationship with other flawed people, who are also working on their issues, all the while we try to connect with our gods, spirits, and communities. It’s really uncomfortable and exposing. Being vulnerable and held accountable by my partner, friends, teachers, and gods isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Hopefully those two things, vulnerability and accountability, will keep me from being paralyzed by my Stories.

Feri Freshman Hazing

I talk about the Magic a lot. I also call it the Current. You might call it Flow, God, the Divine, the still small voice within, serendipity – there are many names. Over the years, I have developed a sense of it, when I think I’m pulled by the Current, rather than by just my own whims. Usually what happens is an Idea comes into my or my husband’s head, an idea previously unconsidered. Or an opportunity is presented to me and I am faced with having to choose Yes or No. Most of the time these decisions are not life altering, but when the Magic is involved I know that a Yes or a No will take me down a new and usually unfamiliar path.

The biggest example I have of this in my life was when my husband and I decided to move to Wales. The idea came to him out of the blue. Yes, my graduate adviser was there, but I didn’t have to be. We knew we wanted to leave Oakland to raise our son, who at the time of this decision was only 7 months old. The idea came to us and we said YES. When we started looking into the requirements we were told to expect at least a year to get everything in place. Nine months later we were not just on our way to Wales – we were there. Doors opened. Pieces fell into place. In my experience, this happens when we’re tapped into the Current.

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this spring I was faced with an opportunity and I chose Yes, knowing full well there would be consequences. I felt the Magic, it was strong, and I trusted it.

Oh there were consequences all right.

The last two months have been turmoil. I’ve been distracted, obsessed. My relationship with my husband, Adam, has been taxed, pulled to extremes. In an intimate relationship, large leaps into the Current don’t just affect me, they affect my partner too. What happens when one person says Yes! and the other partner doesn’t even know the opportunity was presented? Chaos. That’s what happens. Lots of tears and fighting.

Just as Adam and I had touched a tip of reprieve my situation blew up again, a gigantic nuclear explosion, with toxic fall out tainting all that came before. It was ugly. I felt used, confused, lied to. Several people were involved. It was drama of the most salacious kind. I didn’t know whom to trust. My reason said one thing one day, and something else the next. My intuition flipped and flopped. I didn’t trust the players involved, I didn’t trust myself, and for the first time ever, I didn’t trust the Magic either.

I was angry. Angry that I was caught in the middle of something so ugly. Angry that other people were unable to work out their own issues. Angry that the situation was provoking my sorest and weakest spots: I take people at their word. Once I choose to trust I often ignore yellow and red flags, a tendency that hurt me deeply over the winter. I am stubborn. I trust myself and my choices – to exclusion of others. I do not tend to take others’ counsel. I ask for forgiveness, rather than permission. All of those things can be positives, but, in situations like the one I was in, all of those things were painful liabilities.

I reached out to a Feri initiate friend. She wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into, but offered compassion. ‘You are on a Feri ride,’ she said. Her words rang true, but filled me with dread. How am I to trust the Current if it is so fickle and hurtful? It’s like I’ve been doing trust falls with the Current, only to have it step away and not catch me on fall #5. Not fair! Not kind! How do I trust it again?

This is the first time I’ve faced a choice of this magnitude since my Feri dedication (not the same as initiation) in January. I wonder if the Current decided to test me. I feel like I’m being hazed. I feel like I’m a freshman who mistakenly signed up for a graduate course and realized it only after taking the first test. Or the beginning swimming student who has been thrown into the open ocean. Sink or swim.

My initiate friend (and every Feri initiate I’ve ever talked to) has a story about getting beaten up by the Current. Relationships ended, friendships broken, jobs lost, families isolated, households moved, and on and on. I relayed this reminder to Adam and he said if this is what we have to look forward to, he’d rather I quit Feri. But I won’t. I never choose the easy path, for better and for worse.

After all that has been said and done, I feel like I’m back to myself. I’ve come up for air. I’m no longer sucked into the undertow. I’m clinging to my basic tools, as to a life raft: sitting meditation, the exercises my teachers have given me, small devotions, and making kala.

Looking at the silver lining in such a dark and stormy time, I see that my choice was a catalyst for deep personal work that was needed. Adam and I are in couples counseling, working out some of the deepest, more stubborn vestiges of our issues.

Personally, I have chosen to let go of my need to understand just what exactly happened in that nuclear explosion. I can’t know and as uncomfortable as that makes me, I’m moving on. I’ve made a commitment to myself and to Adam that I will reach out more often to more people. I will not keep my own counsel, but seek out the advice and accountability of trusted allies. Somehow I will align my reason and intuition, not over privileging one to the detriment of the other. I’m not sure how this is going to happen, but I’m committed to finding a way.

This Magic stuff ain’t for the faint of heart.