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.

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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.

Maxim Monday: Choose What is Divine

With this Maxim I immediately want to know what the ancient Greeks considered divine! From what little I understand, ancient Greeks did not consider their gods omnipotent or omniscient. There is a very different understanding of divinity between ancient polytheistic beliefs and current monotheistic (particularly mainstream Christian) beliefs. But I’m going to leave the ancient Greek parsing of this Maxim to people who actually know something about ancient Greece.

I’ve been sitting here in front of my screen for the last 20 minutes asking myself, “What do I consider divine? What does it mean to me to ‘choose what is divine’?”

For me, tonight, choosing what is divine is choosing what is filled with or furthers Life Force and my triple Soul. What fosters connection among all my parts, the people around me, and the non-human entities with whom I interact? What promotes health and vibrancy and joy in me right now?

Right now, that means connecting with you, the reader. It means eating more of the celery sticks in front of me, because they taste good and I’m craving them (no, really). It means getting another big glass of water and kissing my kids on the way to the kitchen. (Hold on, I’ll be right back.) It means getting off my laptop once this post is written and snuggling with the kids, connecting with my family over dinner, and resting this evening. It’s been a busy weekend and I’m grateful my mother-in-law is cooking dinner tonight.

Other times choosing the divine means delaying breakfast to sit in front of my altar, to align myself, light some incense, and offer thanks and devotion. Choosing the divine means making sure I’m checking in with my parts, practicing excellent self-care, and reaching out to my gods and allies (both human and non-human allies). Sometimes choosing the divine is simple: just go outside and breathe deeply, raising my arms to the bright sun. Other times it’s challenging: setting aside time for ritual, or skills practice, or designing workings.

What does divine mean to you? Are you choosing what is divine?

Maxim Monday: Despise Insolence

Insolence is defined as rudeness and acts of disrespect. I always picture uptight old ladies clutching their pearls about the insolence of The Youth. I also remember myself at 12, talking back to my parents, and I have my 5-year-old practicing insolence with the best – “Mama, you don’t know anything! You’re wrong about EVERYTHING!”

I find it hard to despise insolence, because that means rejecting myself and my kid. Insolence may be unacceptable in my house, but it certainly is worthy of despising.

When it comes to raising my kids, I find that sometimes if I can probe beneath the insolence, there is something else going on. Five year olds are still learning what they’re feeling and how to express that. My son has a hard time being told what to do all the time (takes after his mother). If I can give him freedom to do his own thing and/or tell stories his own way, that often alleviates his outbursts of insolence. Thankfully, he knows full well that expressing frustration and anger doesn’t mean that love is absent. He also knows that mean spiritedness and name calling (two expressions of his particular brand of insolence) are not acceptable in our house.

There is a place for acts of disrespect, for children and for grown ups. I am thinking of acts of civil disobedience, self-preservation, and some forms of protest. The difference is knowing what is deliberately disobedient (which I suppose shows a measure of respect to what is being pushed against) and what is blatant disregard and often times mere provocation.

One of the areas I am personally working on in this area is not taking the name of Christ ‘in vain.’ He isn’t my god, but he’s a god nonetheless and one that is precious to billions. It is deeply disrespectful to shout ‘Jesus Christ!’ I also don’t want to yell ‘goddamnit’ because – which god? damn the coffee table for getting in my way?

This may seem minor, and also very silly, especially to those who know me. I have the mouth of a sailor. I adore the F word. I use it liberally. But using the names of the gods in this way feels like an egregious act of disrespect.

Mercurial

I don’t know a lot about astrology. Most of the time I don’t find it scientific or accurately reflecting my experience. Occasionally, it is eerily precise.

Today Mercury goes retrograde for three weeks. I’d like to blame this starry shift on the mess I made with a friend on Monday. I am a strong and confident communicator in many mediums. I’m even pretty good at public speaking! But throw in volatile emotions and I can turn defensive, terse, and sometimes mean. I definitely have a few things to work on. So I’m not thrilled about a major shift in the astrological sign that governs clear communication.

One wise and witchy friend of mine always reminds people when Mercury is about to go retrograde. He embraces these periods, reminding me to use caution, to go deeper with friends, allow for slow and intimate communication, to use this time period to be more intentional about how and what we communicate. Given that I am coming out of a rough month with my husband and just stuck my foot in it with a dear friend, I am taking his advice to heart much more seriously. I have three trips coming up – one over each of the next three weekends, each trip designed to strengthen a set of relationships. Any reminder to be cautious, intentional, intimate, and deep is welcome.

Beyond astrological observation, for several months now I have been honoring Hermes/Mercury/Thoth/Hermes Trismegistus on Wednesdays, his day. Greek Reconstructionists and Hermeticists may roll their eyes at my weak efforts and limited understanding. As a Gemini, ruled by Mercury, and as a person who uses the internet for much of my communication, relationships, and livelihood, I think making friends with Hermes is a good idea. It’s an unfolding relationship. I don’t know much about him, beyond basic mythology and associations. I said some prayers today mostly along the lines of “oh, please don’t let me be an ass.” (No, the words were more poetic, even if that was the gist.) Right now, I’m burning a green candle as I type this.

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In other news, I am heartened, though not satisfied, with the US Supreme Court’s overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act and striking down of California’s Proposition 8. In light of this news and my blog post from last week, I would like to direct you to two excellent blog posts by my wise former teacher, T Thorn Coyle.

Love Will Out and Stand for Love Both are excellent posts about love, the law, and how the current decision is only the tip of the iceberg.

Sacrifice

The ever provocative Sam Webster posted about sacrifice this week at his biweekly blog on Patheos. Many people seemed off put at the idea of animal sacrifice, but Mr Webster spoke about the many different kinds of offerings and sacrifices that can be made. I think sacrifice is important – especially for modern Western people.

What is sacrifice? It is a giving of something precious, something that ‘feeds’ the gods or spirits, but I also view it as a gift. A simple gift might be on par with taking flowers or a bottle of wine to a friend’s house for dinner. A complicated offering might be akin to saving all year for your beloved’s birthday present.

In Hindu ritual there are many sacrifices: oil, lamps, spices, incense, fruit, flowers, breath (in the form of mantras and japa), etc. Many Pagans offer wine, food, candles, and incense. I don’t think most people think of lighting candles and incense as sacrifice, but it is. All offerings are sacrifice.

Cain and Abel Offering their sacrifices - Gustav Doré

Cain and Abel Offering their sacrifices – Gustav Doré

And then there’s blood sacrifice. Many people today seem to equate this with a barbaric past. Most of those same people eat meat. Even the strictest of vegans kill things to eat. They sacrifice carrots and grains for their own well-being. We all kill in order to live. There is a baffling hypocrisy in most people’s food politics. How is eating factory farmed meat and cheese more acceptable than sacrificing a goat or a chicken or a fish and offering part of that to one’s gods? I think when we start to kill things with our hands we gain a greater appreciation of what our food means.

We eat a lot of meat in our house and most times as I prepare it I verbally offer up thanks to the animal, the land, and the hands that made it possible for my family to eat. I am cognizant that other lives died and other hands worked hard so that my family (and yours) could be fed. This is sacrifice.

There is sacrifice in choosing to spend money on food that is healthy and ethical. Financially, cleaner, more sustainable food options cost more, but it is a sacrifice my family chooses to make (as we can). Donating to a charity or cause is also an act of sacrifice. Perhaps if we are very wealthy a $20 donation is no hardship at all; perhaps that $20 is a huge sacrifice.

My family donates money every month to the local food bank. Food is a big theme in our house; we eat well and believe that is a form of justice, health care and comfort, and we want to help others have those things too. We have a set donation range monthly, if things are tight I donate at the lower end, if things are easier I chose the higher end. But every month we donate. It’s easier these days, but for much of our first year here it was often a true test of my dedication. We haven’t told the food bank, but our donations are in honor of Ganesh (I may make a notation in my donation soon to make this honor more formal). He has assisted us tremendously and is our household patron ‘saint.’ I believe donating to others is an act of ‘repayment’ for our blessings. It is also an act that cultivates generosity.

Burning nag champa, by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons

Burning nag champa, by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us are blessed with so much: food, shelter, access to internet, etc. I believe that a practice of offerings to our gods, our Ancestors, and the spirits of the Lands we inhabit, be it a blood sacrifice, a first portion of our meal, regular burning of incense, or even a hair from our heads, helps create a spirit of generosity in ourselves, forge relationship and trust between us and the spirits, and yes, actually feeds the spirits.

I’ve written about fasting before and it too is a form of sacrifice. I don’t think it ‘feeds’ the spirits so much as feeds our own souls. Of course, the devotion and dedication present in a fast can bring us closer to those things for which we fasted.

Our spiritual life is about connection. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for greater connection. Even with our loved ones. I know that sometimes I really don’t want to say sorry; I might feel it is unwarranted or I’m still angry, but I know that a simple ‘I’m sorry I said X’ or ‘I’m sorry I was a rude about how I felt’ etc can bring healing and closeness. That stingy extraction feels like it costs me (pride?), but it feeds the relationship and strengthens connection.

In my own devotions I always light candles and burn incense. At various other times, I offer sweets, flowers, money, wine, food…. Occasionally I’ve offered my own blood and hair. I offer it all. Just as I offer up all of me to my partner and children and closest friends, I do the same for my gods.

The weekend’s Harvest Moon

You might have noticed the full moon over the weekend. In this corner of the world it was hard to ignore. Big and bright, making puffy clouds shine silver one night, glowing gold and orange in a clear, starlit sky the next.

According to many sources around me, this full moon was especially powerful. I don’t often make magic at full moons; I usually reserve that for the dark moon. Full moons usually make me spacey and a touch giddy. But all weekend long I had a strong urge to make magic.

Saturday night, at the peak of the fullness, I was on my own with the kids at bedtime. I hoped to sit outside once they were asleep and soak up the sights. What I most wanted to do was walk off into the woods by myself, but that was not an option. The neighbors were hosting a party, complete with a person singing the entire works of U2 on guitar. Thankfully, the musician was really good. Unfortunately, my kids couldn’t fall asleep for all the noise. Magic making ended up being ten minutes outside soaking up the moonlight before I myself fell into bed.

But Sunday night was my night. After putting the kids to bed I went into my office and sat in meditation….. for five minutes before my son wandered in. “Mama, I have a message for you: I love you.” And then again, “Mama, I have something to tell you: I love you, but not Papa.” And then finally, “Mama, look at me dancing in the candle light!” My office shares a door that doesn’t lock with his bedroom.

Yet, the sitting was surprisingly effective. I got centered. I sunk down. I felt Ana whoosh in and wrap me up as in a shawl. I took some dark chocolate outside as an offering to the fey and I felt it again: the season turned, something shifted, the Dark Season was upon us, upon me.

Ana and Arddu, two crone-esque gods, of bones and dark, are the only two gods I have distinctly felt. I experienced them in Wales for the first time; geography is clearly no obstacle to them finding their own. I felt their presence again. While I may have had faint brushes with Kali, Ganesh, and Hermes, and while I have a lot more to grab hold intellectually with those other gods, Ana and Arddu are the ones that have shown up, creeped up, into my life. I dare not ignore them.

I took a glass of wine, a candle and my red cord and sat on the porch in the light of the moon and chanted, welcoming Ana, calling on her wisdom. Cars drove past. People came and went from the house across the street. I don’t think any of my neighbors noticed me. I felt ever so cheeky, so boldly making magic – but my front porch faces east and it’s the only good place for moon watching.

After casting my ‘spell’ I went inside and sat at my dining table to read tarot. For myself I drew cards regarding a broken relationship, then I looked at what the fall holds for me. For Adam I did a reading regarding his business (our livelihood). None of the readings were surprising. All hopeful, all for the time being.

Evenings like this make me feel like a magical life is indeed possible with children, that patience and a later bedtime pay off in the end.

How did you experience the moon?