Friday, January 27, 2012

Abandoning the Magickal K

During the dawn of the 20th century, a group of spiritualists and occult scholars joined together into what we know today as the Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. It didn't last very long, but it produced studies and principles that would shake the very idea of what we believed made up the world. Though many witches before them knew of it, the GD introduced into a more mainstream arena the idea of an divine energetic world - one built of an immeasurable stuff called aether - that exists beneath everything we can see, touch, hear, taste or smell. More importantly, this group revealed that human beings had the power to work with this stuff to make changes happen in the world.

One particularly charismatic, albeit flaky, member of the GD was named Aliester Crowley. He worked extensively with the idea of manipulating this energy and coined a word for the process. The use of the unseen energy to cause changes in accordance with one's will he called "magick," spelled with a "k" to distinguish it from showmanship illusions worked for entertainment. Personally, I think the use of this word was a grand mistake.

Since that time, witchcraft has become vastly more public and mainstream. In recent decades, we are seeing numerous books and video presentations of the magick of spell-work. Unfortunately, the magick that is being represented in the media is still not accurate. It still looks too much like showmanship.  The magick done by contemporary pagans does not require the twitching of a nose or cause sparks to fly from magic wands. It is an invisible power functioning behind the scenes. It is no different than praying for something and finding the result occurring by "mysterious ways." The media magick stands as a bridge between the magic of an illusionist and the magick of a contemporary pagan. It has the flash of the former, but the mechanism of the latter. It takes fiction and represents it in the robes of our religion. Though this is a fun experience, in the long run, I feel it damages our credibility as a religion.

If the world were still as it was in the year 1212, instead of 2012, we might not have this problem. We would be able to live in the woods, working our cunning ways in harmony with the forest and with little care what others thought of us. Those who considered us from the sparse villages nearby would say, "That's where the healer lives." They would not only believe in our magick the way we do, but also seek us out to work it on their behalf. One would have a valid reputation among the local community, for those who needed our help.

But we no longer have the isolation of villages and forests. Instead, we live in an age where the community is becoming the whole globe. Some of us are happy to be private witches, but many others feel it is important to be public - to gain approval and acceptance as an equal in a global community full of other valid religions. We live in a world where our nation's leader (President Bush, so I use the title loosely) stated that he doesn't believe we are a religion. I don't need lawmakers to believe in me to make my beliefs real, but I do need their validity to afford my religion the same rights as those of others. We don't have to face any more inquisitions. We don't have to accept that an unstoppable government or religious force can torture us to say things that will validate their hatred of us. We have options open to us - laws on our side, techniques at our disposal. The media is one such technique, but we have been allowing it to misrepresent us as a band of flaky schizophrenics who think our wands will fire off sparks on command, or at the very least, simple-minded people who like to play pretend and can't grow up.

If we are to maintain the validity of our ways in a world that is increasingly driven by the media, I feel we must give up such a silly word as magick, which summons up ideas of fantasy movies and dragon-fighting adventures.

When one thinks about what is really happening, it isn't even close to magic at all, because it doesn't require tools, it doesn't require an audience and it doesn't require that much skill. All that is required is belief that one can do it. The key word in that last sentence is "do." The magick of pagans is an action; it is a process; it is a solemn task on which we focus. More appropriately, it is work - defined as, exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; productive or operative activity.

The power of magick is the power of gods; it is the power used by the gods to create the universe and all things in it. One example could come from Christian myth; when the Christian God created the heavens and the earth in six days, he rested on the seventh from the work he had done. Sounds like working so much magick really took it out of him!

And so, from now on, I'd like to stop using the word "magick" at all, as well as "spells," unless I'm talking about David Copperfield or Harry Potter. When I talk about using magick in a contemporary pagan context, or the powers of gods, I will instead call it Work (and "spells" will instead be Workings), capitalized to elevate this divine process above the mundane kind of work. As above (Work) so below (work).

If you consider that creativity may well be communication from the gods, the two words are not very different at all. .

Friday, January 20, 2012

Candle Blow Out

Many neo-pagan traditions espouse the belief that candles should never be blown out - they should only be snuffed or pinched out. The idea is that overpowering them with the breath (being either the element of Air or the breath of life force) is disrespectful to the the element of Fire. This never really measured well on my truth-o-meter so I decided to dig up whatever I could find about it.

Since we relish blowing out birthday candles, I started there. The tradition of putting candles on birthday cakes started with the Ancient Greeks, who put candles on offering breads in ceremonies to the Goddess Artemis so the breads would glow like the moon. This also allowed prayers to be carried up to the Goddess in the smoke of the candles. There is no indication of how these candles were extinguished and no lasting tradition that demands a ceremonial breath to do the job.

Since the 3rd century BC, candles were typically used to keep time. As candle clocks, weights were cast into the sides of candles so that the weights would fall into a metal bowl as the candle burned down, thus marking the time with a chime. But candles didn't only mark the hours of the day. In Germany, where candle-making became a highly developed art and science,  a single "life candle" was placed in the center of sweet bread to symbolize the light of life. At this point, the lines between what was pagan (the fire of life) and Christian (Jesus is the light of the world) were becoming blurred. These life candles had marks on them, usually 12, and were saved for many years so that one mark could be burned every year on each birthday. Those familiar with candle magick will see the significance of this ritual. Perhaps we blow out a birthday candle to signify that we have burned up our candle mark for that year and are officially one year older. Again, there is no indication of how the candle was extinguished in this tradition. However, since blowing out a candle is a natural, reflexive action when a candle has to be put out, it seems probable that any ceremonial deviation to that natural response would have been more likely to survive as part of the tradition. But this was not the case. In fact, finding prohibitions to blowing out a candle is rather difficult. I found only one claim that there is a superstition in Bulgaria and Romania: blowing out a candle causes a sailor to die.

Blowing out candles when making a wish seems to be a relatively modern tradition. Many of us these days believe that blowing out all of the flames with one breath poses just the challenge that the person of honor must accomplish to win the manifestation of their wish. We say, "If you don't blow them all out, your wish won't come true." Joke candles that will not blow out are made to thwart the efforts of this superstition. This bit of  mundane magic actually glorifies the act of blowing out the candle. Since the Church has pushed many "paganisms" into being simply superstitions, I am confused how the idea that we must blow out candles has survived, despite that many Pagans are saying one should not.

Except in very specific occasions, many Jews do not blow out a candle flame because it represents the soul. There are numerous bulletin board entries of worried Jewish mommies asking if they should allow their children to blow out birthday candles, and numerous responses by people, who claim to know all about Paganism, saying the practice is Avoda Zarah, "foreign worship." Doing so threatens to recognize the rituals of other faiths; it amounts to idolatry. Frankly, I've found that most Judeo-Christian people enjoy working way too hard to find as much dogma as possible to structure their lives, but I commend the strong drive to be true to one's faith. If their souls are truly in danger, I ultimately don't see how snuffing out a soul is any different than blowing out a soul.

Conversely and because of the same symbolism, Buddhists prefer to blow out their candles. The idea is that extinguishing a flame hastens reincarnation because it represents helping a spirit to move out of this incarnation.

Gerald Gardner made no mention of a blow-out prohibition in the fiction work High Magics Aid (1949) or in the nonfiction classics Witchcraft Today (1954) or The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) that began much of contemporary Wicca.  I also found no mention of it in any of the works on my shelf by Buckland or the Farrars, so it seems that it is an element that is not a part of Garderian Wicca, but that trail may simply be beyond my current research.  Certainly possible is that this may be something that was only part of the oral tradition - told from teacher to student. This would make it a great way to identify an inexperienced or false witch.

The earliest mention I could find was by Scott Cunningham in his 1991 book Earth, Air, Fire & Water in which he states that he (personally) doesn't like to blow out candles because he feels it is an affront to Fire (102). Based on his word choice, it seems that Cunningham invented the prohibition. But why?

Cunningham actually received his witch training from Raven Grimassi, a practioner of Italian witchcraft known as Strega. The Strege place enormous emphasis on the hearth and the fire within it because of what it meant to the pagan family, village and people. They have moved a symbol of the hearth to the center of their altar in the form of the "spirit flame," which is a bowl of alcohol burning blue to represent the spirit of the old ways, the power of life, and the presence of the Deity.  Great reverence is given to the spirit flame and it is never extinguished - it must be allowed to burn out. I believe that Cunningham's contact with Grimassi infused him with this reverence for fire and led to his unwillingness to blow out any flame.

Since all candles have to be put out somehow, here are my thoughts on the topic.
1. Blowing out a candle sometimes disperses drops of molten wax around. Not only is this a pain around carpet and altar cloths, this also leaves a trace that a candle was burned - a bad thing if you wanted to keep a ceremony secret. If you want to operate in a manner that honors "the burning times," you might choose to snuf.
2. Snuffing out a candle requires an extra tool on the altar, or you must run the risk of finger-snuffing incorrectly such that you burn yourself. If you are a minimalist or pragmatist, you might choose to blow.
3. The idea that the element of Fire would be disrespected by being overpowered by the element of Air is a stretch (sorry, Scott). Firstly, since the elements make up all things, even snuffing would be an affront to Fire by overpowering it with water or earth. So what's the difference?  Secondly, fire can't exist without earth (the candle wax) or air - the flame is a harmony of fire, earth, and air.
4. If you really think that blowing out a candle blows away the magic, then you don't believe your magic to be very powerful. How will you possibly defend against any curse when your magic can be so easily overcome by a puff of air? Is that much doubt present in your mind?
5. Here's a fair compromise: candles that are for illumination or that represent deities or powers can be extinguished in any way. Candles that are anointed or empowered as a component of a magical working should be capped out (without disturbing the wick) if they are not going to be completely burned at one time. This allows the magic in the candle to radiate out to do its work without any symbolic interruptions or disturbances, though I don't really think it makes that much difference.

UPDATE: April 28, 2015
Adonis Merlin, a very respected reader and teacher, discovered some information recently that might make this topic a bit more understood.

In 1942, Henri Gamache wrote a pamphlet revealing some Hoodoo candle burning practices, which he titled "The Master Book of Candle Burning: How to Burn Candles for Every Purpose." In this short missive, he discussed that many Hoodoo candle spells are done in parts, during which a section of a candle is burned at intervals over the course of a day, several days, or nights. It is imperative during these intervals that a candle be snuffed out, not blown out, because blowing out a candle signals the conclusion of the spell.

Similarly, James Frazer's "The Golden Bough," which is taken as one of the most important and guiding works to pagans of the last century, reviews the use of "perpetual flames" by classical pagan cults. These were flames that were either fed by devotees or by a natural source such that they would never extinguish from lack of fuel. In those cults, the act of letting such flames go out was considered a very malevolent omen and so great lengths were taken to avoid losing the flame.

It should be noted that some older Wiccan spells (those written before all this angst over puckering up and blowing) actually indicate that their candles should be extinguished specifically by blowing them out.

I stand by my previous "compromise" above: those candles used for spells that do not conclude in a single session, or are novenas for saintly or spiritual prayers, should be snuffed out. All others can be blown out. Perpetual flames, of course, should be allowed to burn at all times.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Out and In

In recent years I've noticed a kind of witch becoming more and more prevalent. I have dubbed them "indoor pagans," though they really are just witches. Their ability to operate as a pagan would (should?) in our modern world leave much to be desired.

These are people who have been searching for some spirituality that is other than the dominant triumvirate that currently exists. They want more drama, more mystery, more glamour, and maybe even more deviancy than the others provide. So they find and study witchcraft or one of the traditions of Wicca. Many of them started as people trying to make sense of a world with little apparent morality. Maybe they just wanted a community that allowed them to be a little morally ambiguous themselves from time to time. Let's face it, many of us have our trashy moments, and what's really wrong with that?

My point is that they may be witches, but they are not pagans. They don't enjoy being outdoors, unless its a brief nature walk on a paved path with no hills in good weather. They don't spend time observing the cycles unless its collected for them and published in an almanac. They kill spiders that get in their way; they treat their bodies like hell by smoking, frequently drinking excessive booze or caffeine and they have no desire to look after their diet. I guess "An it harm none" only works when it's convenient. They buy all manner of witchy supplies with no idea how they came to be. I once met a witch who had a tall and gnarled staff carved to her specifications and she paid quite a bit of money to have a small diamond set in the head. I asked her if she knew if it was a blood diamond and she said to me, "No, it's a white diamond."

I don't really care if witches are pagans any more than if I care if Jews or Buddhists are pagans. I just wish they would stop calling themselves pagans. If you want to be a Martha-Stewart-Witch rather than a nature-based homesteader, that's fine. Please, just own it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


It has become pretty clear that I need some help, and I don't mean help with the shaman thing.

I've spent the last few decades labeling myself a solitary pagan and witch. Bully for me. In all of that time, despite starting a few esoteric books, I've found that I'm really not giving my spiritual health very much energy. Of all of the beginners' exercises that are typically recommended, I rarely do any of them. I am prone to starting something and then losing interest and motivation before it's finished, including books, exercises, classes, and projects. This is a real problem.

Lately I've allied myself with a couple of online witch "schools." They are providing a structure to people who want to study the esoteric arts. I think that's just what I need -- structure. I'm willing to start at whatever these schools claim to be the beginning. I want no claims of previous study to place me out of any classes. I want to do the entire program from start to finish. That word "finish" is such a daunting one to my mind. It comes with so much pressure that it need not come. I give it that power and I just need to chill out.

And so I'm going to change the nature of this blog. Instead of being just about shamanism, it is going to be about my whole Wiccan school journey. All of the book reviews, insights, lessons and work that pops into my head will go here. My hope is that it will help me to record where I started and how far I'm developing.

One of the first exercises that nearly every witch is asked to do is just to meditate. Meditation helps the mind to learn focus, opens the intuitive energies of the mind and prepares one to be magical. I was worried that I wouldn't be any good at it, or that I wouldn't be patient enough to do it. Recently, I was able to find some very short meditations for each of the chakras. Each one is around 5 minutes or less and provides the appropriate tones from crystal singing bowls for balancing each chakra. So I figure I will play one of the seven meditations -- one on each day of the week -- and just deal with one chakra for five minutes. At the end of a week, I will have done my meditations and helped to balance my chakras. I hope this does the trick.

If I'm going to start my pagan training at the very beginning, then I'm a "first degree" again, and that means I have a first degree challenge. My challenge is to learn to finish what I start. When I have done my year and a day as a first degree, I will feel more accomplished and validated as a witch, and my justification will be real, not just something I tell myself. As a solitary, it's very easy to create your own justifications because you don't have to answer to anyone or any standard.

I will do the shamanic work, but not until I'm better at meditating. I think quieting my mind will help me to slip into whatever altered state I may need, whether that be for shamanism, for astral projections, for simple magic working, or whatever becomes my forte as a witch. I also expect that my forte will change.