Book review: Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Melusine Draco, Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival: A Magical Anthropology. Moon Books, 2013

I’m not a witch, and witchcraft has never been my spiritual path, although I know that for many people Wicca is their first exposure to Paganism. However, I have always seen Druidry and witchcraft as cousins, or as different branches on the same tree, and I have a passing interest in the practices and history of witchcraft, ancient and modern. So when my amazing wife came back from a trip to the library with a copy of Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival, I knew I was in for a treat.

The back-cover blurb of the book says:

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival takes us on a journey int the past, along the highways and byways of our pagan heritage to discover when the different aspects of magical influence entered traditional witchcraft. It will appeal to everyone with an interest in magic, witchcraft and paganism – from grass roots to the more advanced levels of Wicca – who wish to learn more about the different traditions and their antecedents.

In just under 200 pages, Melusine Draco, herself a traditional witch, takes us from stone age pre-history through the Celts and Druids, the Romans and the imposition of Christianity, to the witch-hunts, the Elizabethan revival of Ceremonial Magic and the construction (or reconstruction) of modern Wicca and Paganism.

While there is a lot of misinformation out there about the history of witchcraft, Draco admirably uses real scholarship, real history and real archaeology to piece together what we actually know or can infer about how practices we now know as “witchcraft” may have developed over the centuries. She is bluntly (and rightly) dismissive of what she refers to as “fake-lore and fantasy” in modern Paganism and takes a refreshingly factual approach to figuring out what is real history, what is folklore and what is modern invention.

Where Draco does tend to speculation, for instance about the survival of “Old Craft” practices through to the modern age, or the intriguing proposal that faery legends “may have evolved from far-off memories of a Stone Age race that once lived in these [British] islands”, she is clear in letting the reader know that this is one possible interpretation and that the evidence is ambiguous at best.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival is a well-structured book, not only in that it proceeds chronologically but each chapter is also connected thematically, and one nice device which ties the different themes and time periods together is a summary at the end of each chapter showing the “Story so Far”, which recaps what we have learned and connects ideas across chapters.

Draco does argue for some survivals of ancient Pagan practices, but makes no grand claims about modern witchcraft being transmitted unchanged for thousands of years.She writes that we should not be “fooled by a tradition that claims to trace its antecedents back to medieval or even pre-historic times…In all reality, the tracing of any genuine Old Craft coven back more than 150 years is a challenge in itself.”

The book’s style is easy to read and, while clearly well-researched, wears its scholarship lightly, never becoming “dry” as some history books can tend to be. For me personally, Draco’s discussion of the Druids was obviously of interest, and the way that Druidry both connects to and is independent of witchcraft practices is probably worthy of a book in itself.

I found one comment in Draco’s introductory chapter very interesting. After a discussion of animism, syncretism and eclecticism she writes about the various Pagan gods, saying:

“It is also important to accept that Names of Power do not represent real people, semi-divine or otherwise: this is a Christian concept that God is sitting there just waiting for our call. It is also detrimental to effective magical thinking. In magic, we use these mind-pictures, or correspondences, as a means of invoking (or evoking) the conceptualised power of individual energy-sources. In ancient times the priesthood understood this – even if the common man did not.” (Emphasis in the original).

This seems very close to a non-theistic, archetypal, understanding of the Pagan gods, which ties in with Draco’s repeated references to the Jungian idea of the “collective unconscious” throughout the book and hints at a non-literal form of Paganism as being not a modern abberation, but one line of thought that may have ancient roots.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism and want to tease out the real history from the “fake-lore and fantasy” out there. Draco also has a range of books on practicing traditional witchcraft in different locations, from forests to cities, and I am definitely planning on giving some of those a read too.

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Paganism and Politics

Sigil of the Warriors' Call: Pagans United Against Fracking. Image from druidry.org

Sigil of the Warriors’ Call: Pagans United Against Fracking. Image from druidry.org

I haven’t really been following the Pagan blogosphere as much as usual lately, which to be honest has been good for my sanity and good for my Druidry as I’ve been able to focus instead on daily practice. However, I have noticed that there’s been a bit of discussion of late about the relationship between Paganism and politics. In the wake of the disaster that is Brexit, the new Tory government, and my recent decision to join the Green Party, this got me thinking.

Of course, other writers have spoken far more eloquently than I can about these issues. For a good look at both “sides” of the debate, read John Beckett’s article Why the Gods come before politics which argues that Paganism is a set of religions without a “political test” for membership, and where the gods should take priority over politics; and John Halstead’s rebuttal How “Gods before politics” perpetuates privilege, which argues that being non-political is only an option for people who are not already marginalised by contemporary politics, and so is a statement of privilege.

For what it’s worth, I lean more to John Halstead’s view (I know, shocking, right?), but I also see John Beckett’s point about wanting to keep the *religion(s)* of Paganism separate from the *politics* of Paganism. Yet, as John H. points out, when John B. says there is no room for racism or transphobia in his Paganism, that is a political viewpoint. Conversely, ignoring racism and transphobia so we cal all get along as Pagans is also a political stance.

In general, I am a pretty passionate secularist, up to being a fully subscribed member of the National Secular Society. Secularism in this context is not, despite the misuse of the term by religious apologists, the same as atheism. The NSS defines secularism as “a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”

This secular separation of religion and politics not only protects non-religious folk, but “seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.”

So as a secularist, I want to keep my Druidry and Paganism separate from my politics. I don’t want to see people in government making political decisions based on their interpretation of the Barddas any more than I would want to have politicians legislate based on their interpretation of the Bible or Qu’ran.

Yet, the problem with this strict secular separation is that life is not so simple. You can’t compartmentalise aspects of your worldview neatly into boxes marked “religion” and “politics”. Especially when both religion and politics are concerned with how we should live, what is morally right, how to create a good society, what are our ultimate concerns etc.

A person’s religion will, if they take it seriously, influence their politics. And a person’s politics will, if they take it seriously, influence their religion.

I can’t deny that my first decision to look into Druidry was inspired by my own environmentalist (political) leanings. Likewise my Druidry (religious for want of a better word) has inspired my environmentalism and also led me to be more concerned with issues of freedom, equality and social justice that has directly led to me being more involved in political activism.

Where I think that both the Johns (narrowly) miss the mark is in the suggestion that one or the other, gods or politics, must “come first”. I would assert that rather than a hierarchy, what we see here is a spiral, or a turning wheel. At times, it is important for politics to come to the fore and to speak out against inequality, injustice and environmental devastation. At other times, it is right for religion (or spirituality, or whatever your preferred term is) to take priority, and to focus on the fundamentals and practices of your path.

In neither case are you putting one before the other, or ignoring the influence each have on the other. It’s like how we can’t fight all the battles at once. Sometimes we need to focus on LGBT rights, sometimes on poverty, sometimes on anti-fracking campaigns, and sometimes, yes, we need to recognise what we can’t (immediately) change and focus on our Pagan paths, our spiritual community, our rituals and the Sacred.

All that said, I do think that when we are talking politics in the public sphere (as opposed to on a private blog etc.) we should leave Paganism out of it, unless we’re specifically dealing with issues of minority religions and freedom of worship. No MP is going to be persuaded to back down on, say, a road being built through a wood because a Druid thinks it’s sacred space. But they might be persuaded by secular arguments and evidence of rare ecosystems, the value of the wood to local communities, the effect of the trees and roots on soil erosion and flooding etc. We need solid, secular, reasons for our political views, reasons which are understandable by everyone and support everyone regardless of religion.

If in our private practice we see the wood as sacred and do a protection ritual for it as well, that’s up to us. But to expect the religion to work, to make change in the world, without the politics is naive. And to expect the political to inspire our hearts to work for change without a “religious” sense of the Sacred is perhaps equally so.

Image from Joanna Van Der Hoeven.

Image from Joanna Van Der Hoeven.

*Note: in this post, I use the word “religion” in the broadest sense, without narrow reference to theistic belief. I normally don’t like the word, but as both John Halstead and John Beckett use it in their blogs, it made sense for me to speak in those terms. Feel free to substitute “religion” for “spirituality” or “life-way” or whichever term you prefer throughout.

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Down to the sea

Norfolk coast, image by me

Norfolk coast, image by me

Has it really been over a fortnight since I posted here? Blimey! Truth be told, I’ve not had time for blogging because the past couple of weeks have been pretty busy. I’m still looking for a job, but now I’ve started doing some volunteering in local museums to pass the time and gain some new skills, and I’m taking on a couple of online short courses as well.

Combine that with my OBOD coursework, learning guitar, working through my ever-increasing reading list, and trying to squeeze in something like a social life, I wonder how I ever had time for a full-time job as well!

So to take a break from taking a break, I went (with my wonderful wife) to the seaside for a short getaway. Whenever I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, the sea is always my refuge. There is something magical about the liminal space of a seashore, the place where the land meets the sea and the sky, where the three realms join together.

Sunset, image by me

Sunset, image by me

I’m incredibly lucky that I live in a part of the world where I can hop on a train or bus and be at the coast in just over a couple of hours, and I try to get away there as often as time and money allows.

The sound of the waves on the pebble beach is like a meditative breath, and it’s surprisingly easy to just sit on the seashore and gaze out to the water, then check your watch and find that an hour or more has passed by.

While I rarely do any formal Druid/Pagan rituals or meditations while on holiday, I always find that simply sitting and being in the presence of Nature and the Sacred is more authentically “spiritual” than saying scripted words.

As always, I collected a couple of small stones from the beach (including one with a self-bored hole in the middle) which now sit on my Home Shrine as a reminder of my connection to this special place.

Land, sea and sky. Image by me

Land, sea and sky. Image by me

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Book review: Rewilding our Hearts

Rewilding our Hearts, and Marc Bekoff with a wolf. Image from "Read the Spirit".

Rewilding our Hearts, and Marc Bekoff with a wolf. Image from “Read the Spirit”.

Bekoff, Marc. Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.  Novato, CA., New World Library, 2014.

“When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world – which is saying the same thing. Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time that they destroy one another. From that perspective, healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world” -Chogyam Trungpa.

This quote opens Marc Bekoff’s Rewilding our Hearts, and it sums up the central theme and argument of the book: that our current ecological crisis is a personal crisis, and that the solution to our society’s imbalanced relationship with nature has to involve changing our mind-set and how we interact with it.

In wildlife conservation, the term “Rewilding” refers to restoring habitats and creating “corridors” between preserved areas to allow declining species populations to recover.

Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, takes this concept and applies it to ourselves, suggesting that we can heal our disordered relationship with the natural world by “Rewilding our hearts” at a personal, community and broader sociological level.

Bekoff says that “Rewilding our hearts is about becoming re-enchanted with nature. It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism”.

By contrast, much of society today is the result of “unwilding”: “the process by which we become alienated from nature and non-human animals; it’s how we deny our impacts and refuse to take responsibility for them; and it’s how we become discouraged and overwhelmed, and thus fail to act despite the problems we see”.

Rewilding our Hearts is a short book, only 150 pages (followed by a large amount of references, bibliographies and endnotes) and it only took me two days to read through it. But it is vast in its scope, taking a “big-picture” look at the problems facing our world today, including climate change, overpopulation, loss of biodiversity and ecological devastation, and proposes a way to begin to fix them.

Bekoff does not dwell on the negatives. While he sets out in no uncertain terms the severity of the problems we face, he remains an optimist, and sees Rewilding, both in the ecological sense and in the sense of Rewilding our hearts, as the key solution, a way of returning to a deep, even spiritual, sense of connection and interdependence with nature.

Rewilding our hearts fundamentally takes place at a personal level: by spending time in nature, immersing ourselves in it, learning its ways and adapting to it, we can be filled with a love of the natural world and non-human species that can inspire us to work for change, great or small, and start Rewilding our world as well.

This is not a task for governments or politicians alone, this is a task for us all.

Rewilding our Hearts is a clarion call to action, and to deeper contemplation as well. While by no means a Pagan book, it is one I would recommend to anyone on a nature-centred spiritual path such as Druidry or Paganism.

Bekoff concludes by saying:

“We live in a magnificent and wounded world. Despite all of the rampant destruction and abuse, it remains a magnificent world filled with awe and wonder. If you’re not in awe, you’re not paying attention. So let’s get on with it. Open your heart to nature and rewild as you go through your daily routines and rituals. The beginning is now.”

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Flying Witch

Flying-Witch-12-15-700x385If you want a peaceful, relaxing escape from the political chaos at the moment (and remember, self-care is important, especially at times like this), you could do a lot worse than checking out the new anime series Flying Witch.

I first came across this via a post by David Pollard on Nature’s Path over at Patheos Pagan, and it seemed like an interesting enough prospect to give it a watch. David describes it as being “a modern-day version of Kiki’s Delivery Service“, one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films.

The official synopsis of Flying Witch says:

flying-witch-broomFlying Witch is a simple and relaxing “slice of life” anime, in the genre known as iyashikei, “healing”, which aims to create a sense of calm. Anime Evo describe Flying Witch as “a show without plot”, where “plot” is defined as “a succession of events revolving around a central conflict”. And this is key to why Flying Witch is, for me, such a beautiful show.

There are no villains, demons, evil magicians or monsters-of-the-week to battle against, and this makes it a welcome break from the usual supernatural/magic dramas you see everywhere.

Rather, Flying Witch is utterly and wonderfully ordinary. There is very little flashy magic, and where it is used it is done sparingly. Most episodes focus more on daily life in rural Japan than on witchcraft, and simple things like picking herbs, growing vegetables, cooking, relaxing, going to school and even following a cat around the village (this takes up half an episode: nothing happens, and it’s wonderful), are depicted in such a way as to seem magical in their ordinariness. It reminds us that the real magic of life, and its real richness, is in the day-to-day details.

Flying-Witch-10-Farewell-483x276The magical and mundane elements are entwined in such a way that both seem perfectly natural alongside each other, and most of the characters take a matter-of-fact view of the fact that Makoto is a witch, and this isn’t seen as anything to be scared of.

Anime Evo says:

“One of the more interesting things that came to the foreground regarding the series was how it showed a beginning sketch of sorts of how many different types of witches there are out there. We have Makoto, a very earthy, nature-oriented, green thumb sort; then there is her older sister Akane, who is a great practitioner of the magic arts (and a bit of a genius mad scientist sort with regards to casting); we have Inukai, who specializes in fortune telling; we have the the owner of Cafe Concrucio (unnamed at the moment); we have the latter’s daughter Anzu, who is also in high school, loves archeology and is a history buff … there is a huge variety.”

As befits a show set in a rural town, the natural world is always at the centre of life. Many of the magical beings have a connection to nature, such as the Harbinger of Spring and the Veil of Darkness (who brings the night), as well as magical animals and plants. As well, we see traditional farming and orchard-keeping, foraging for food in the woods, visiting the cherry blossom festival, and plenty of good cooking (much of which is refreshingly done by Kei, Makoto’s male cousin).

Flying-Witch-10-Header-490x276Flying Witch reminds me of what life as a nature-centred Pagan, or Druid, could be like. Gentle, simple, in harmony with nature and with each other.

And above all else, the artwork is simply beautiful throughout. The fact that the town is based on a real place gives it a verisimilitude that brings it to life, and now I really want to visit!

So if you want 20-30 minutes of utter bliss, give it a go.

Flying-Witch-02-06-490x276All images from Anime Evo (http://www.anime-evo.net/2016/06/27/flying-witch-review/).

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The situation

Image from Al Jazeera.

Image from Al Jazeera.

Disclaimer: The following post is my personal opinion, and does not represent the wider community of Druids, Pagans etc.

I know I’ve been quiet lately, but I really didn’t want to write for a bit after the national disaster that was the EU referendum. There were just too many emotions, on both sides, to give me breathing space to think and put those thoughts into words.

I don’t like to write about politics on this blog, but this is such a huge decision, such a major geopolitical shift that I can’t ignore it and pretend nothing has changed. It has. The country I woke up in on Friday morning is not the country I went to sleep in on Thursday night, and it never will be again.

Already there is talk of Scotland leaving the UK and Northern Ireland facing partition. My home, the “United Kingdom” is looking a lot less united these days.

For what it’s worth, I voted to remain in the EU, because I feel that we are all stronger and better if we work together, across nations and cultures, on issues that affect us all. As an Irish citizen as well as a UK one, I am European.

I understand that the Leave camp won, by a small majority. And as much as the referendum is not legally binding, I know that the next government (whoever ends up leading it) are bound to put the so-called “will of the people” to effect.

But is it the will of the people? 51% of a 75% turnout is only 37% of the population, and even now Leave voters are starting to regret their decision.

In terms of demographics, 75% of young people voted Remain, making it clear that they see their future as part of Europe, as part of something greater than themselves.

There is a portion (by no means all) of the Leave voters that also genuinely scare me. Polls show that Leave voters are more likely to see Feminism, Social Liberalism, the Green Movement and the Internet (!) as social evils. Nationalistic and racialist messages to stop immigration and “take our country back” were prominent in the Leave campaign, an eerie echo of Trump’s “make America great again”.

Is it any wonder that racist attacks and hate-speech have risen over just the past few days? The Huffington Post has collected some shocking examples of post-referendum racism, including, I am saddened to say, my own local paper reporting that flyers saying “No More Polish Vermin” have been put through people’s letterboxes.

I myself witnessed a Leave campaigner shouting racial abuse at Asian tourists, and EU nationals I know have said that they don’t feel safe in Britain any more.

This is not the country I know, and love, and I am angry. At a time like this, we need to reach out and build bridges, but we also need to speak “Truth against the World” as the Druid saying has it.

I am angry that lying politicians with sub-Enoch Powell racist propaganda have led otherwise well-meaning people with genuine concerns for their country to vote to dismantle one of the world’s great noble international experiments in cooperation.

I am angry that my friends don’t feel safe in their own towns and cities.

I am angry that young people’s futures have been gambled with to score political points.

I am angry that fear has won over hope.

I am angry beyond words that an MP was murdered by a racist calling himself “death to traitors, freedom for Britain” and that Leave campaigner Nigel Farage then said the battle was won “without a single bullet being fired“.

As a Druidic Pagan, I believe that all things and all people are connected. We are one, and we must stand as one and not give in to division, fear and xenophobia.

So what can I do? I don’t expect to reverse the referendum’s decision, and I agree that it would be undemocratic to do so. But I can still write to my MP demanding a good deal for the future of Britain, with free trade and movement for UK and EU nationals across Europe, with guaranteed human rights for all, with robust environmental protection for our now-threatened wild spaces. I can join protests and show through sheer numbers that the decision is far from unanimous, and almost half the country don’t want this.

And I can try, in whatever small way I can, to bring peace, as Druids of old were known to do. I can show non-UK nationals that they are appreciated and that they are welcome. I can speak out against racism, and work for a better future. To that end, I have joined the Green Party, the one party to consistently and clearly articulate a pro-Europe, pro-immigrant, pro-environmentalist stance.

I leave you with the words of the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas:

Please note that due to the likelihood of controversy or abuse, comments have been closed on this post. Anyone making racist, xenophobic or threatening comments on other posts on this blog will be blocked and reported to WordPress Admin.

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Peace of the Solstice

Image from livescience

Image from livescience

The Summer Solstice occurs on or around 21 June, and marks the point where the sun appears highest in the sky. This is due to the axial tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun throughout the year. On the Summer Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is most inclined to the sun, and therefore receives the most light, making it the longest day and shortest night of the year.

The word “solstice” comes from the Latin sol sistere, meaning “the sun stands still”, as it indeed appears to do in the sky, leading to up to 15 hours of daylight. The Summer Solstice is celebrated by cultures around the world, from Scandinavia to Japan, and is perhaps the most prominent festival in modern Paganism.

This year, there will be a full moon on the same night as the Summer Solstice (20 June), a very rare event last seen in 1948. The combination of the longest day and the bright full moon will mean that the night (barring cloud cover) should hardly get dark at all. For many below the Arctic circle, this might be the closest we get to the “midnight sun” experienced by those in more Northern lands.

In some forms of Druidry, the full moon is a time for meditating on peace. The Druid Network has a full moon peace meditation on their website, which you can add into your usual Summer Solstice ritual, or do as a separate meditation.

In light of increasingly tense social and political events around the world, from the rise of the right-wing in the UK and US, to the horrific shooting in Orlando and the murder of MP Jo Cox, peace is much needed in the world today, and is an appropriate wish to meditate or pray about this Solstice.

May this moment of the bright sun remind us, as Megan Manson of the blog Pagan Tama says, “despite our differences in race, culture and religion, we are all truly children of the Sun, that same Sun that rises and sets over every nation, and gives light, warmth and life to all peoples and all creatures of Earth.”

Deep within the still centre of my being, may I find peace.

Silently within the quiet of the Grove, may I share peace.

Gently within the wider circle of humankind, may I radiate peace. (OBOD peace prayer)

Image from the Farmer's Almanac.

Image from the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

 

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