Practice & Place

Urban Pagan iconThis topic was designed to get people talking about Paganism around the world – the Southern hemisphere and its different seasons, the native religions of different countries but instead we ended up talking about closer to home – our experiences of London vs. our experiences of the rural.

So where is the best place to be Pagan?

Some of the reasons we came up with for the meaning behind practising witchcraft and Paganism in the country:

  • Peace and quiet – an aid to reflection and feeling at unity with nature, the removal of distraction and sense barriers such as noise and pollution.
  • More space and opportunity to work outdoors
  • Historical spaces – forests, hills etc. with a history of magic, the power built up by the repeated use of a space for magic.
  • And what it means to be Pagan in the city:
  • More effort goes into outdoor workings – planning, travelling, an escape from the mundane into a different environment (but then maybe this shouldn’t be?)
  • Appreciation of nature is heightened when its features are less obvious – the increased beauty of a green space nestling among buildings.
  • Urban magic – transport nodal points as the ‘new’ crossroads and liminal spaces, traffic as a city spirit, city-dweller traditions and rituals, moving magic into modernity.
  • Our own Ellie wrote an article about being an urban witch in the esoteric journal Abraxas – look it up!

We did talk about world Paganism though, and how it can remain unified in such diversity. People adapt their practices to their local deities, the sabbats they mark to their own real life seasonal shifts. The calendar is not the chief of accuracy!

The conclusion we came to is that Paganism is above all, pluralistic. It allows for different paths and accepts that these all co-exist. It must allow for adaptation to circumstances. It is by definition by the organic spirituality that sprung up from the world with no single source and developed into the religions of the world, and if it has no single source, it becomes the product of whatever sources influence its followers – your Paganism is borne of your influences, wherever you may be.

 

Lammas

Discussing Lammas was pretty useful for some of us at the moot this month – it’s a crucial point on the wheel – it is the time to take a plunge and turn the work of the summer into what will sustain you through winter and this requires sacrifice. It’s a harvest festival and a celebration of abundance and yet at the same time it is the first confrontation with death after the growth of light and life ever since the winter ended.

Lammas is the first of three harvest festivals. They’re three overhauls of cycles, all involving sacrifice to make way for new growth – the corn harvest, the fruit harvest and the meat harvest. Speaking in non-agricultural terms, they’re a good time to make over our lives. Lammas is a good time to sacrifice the things in our lives that are weighing us down, that will drain us if we try to keep them over the winter. A time to evaluate, then make brutal cuts – by working out what is important we can focus our efforts into preserving that over the winter.

A useful model which emerged was to assign areas of life to each harvest:

LAMMAS — AUTUMN EQUINOX — SAMHAIN

Body          —        Mind   —       Spirit

Going by the wheel of the year myths that have come to dominate in modern Pagan witchcraft in the UK, Lammas is when the God is cut down and sacrificed – the corn is cut down so that food can be made, and new crops can be sown in the next season. It is a practical, physical act. The fruit harvest is when we reap the fruits of our labours – in this day and age these are usually intellectual labours, done in libraries and behind desks – a time to re-evaulate careers and personal endeavours. At Samhain intense forces of life and death can be channelled and we can call on guidance in our spirituals paths…

What can we learn from Lammas? That losses from sacrifices are always replenished. When we cut something which has become negative out, it is to make room for something positive to take its place, be it a relationship stagnating, a task going nowhere or an interference in a situation which shows no signs of improvement. We invite in new opportunities when we make room for them.

Links to deities and traditions are strong in our imaginations for this sabbat. The corn harvest is linked with the most interesting sacrifice myths. The imagery is of a mature Goddess (such as Ceres) wielding a scythe, showing strength, while a God shows bravery and a sense of duty in accepting his fate – his strength over the summer is what is reaped in order to sustain the winter. Lammas is about maturity, the opposite of what is celebrated at Imbolc, youth. In Lammas we find the strength to make decisions.

The Goddess figures are changing a life stage at Lammas – slowly transitioning from mother to crone. The mother is at her bravest in the loss of her consort but her grieving is delayed as she must remain strong to see through what must be done. We went slightly into some more feminine issues… the Goddess is not yet a crone here, she still bleeds – power and life cornlinked to blood, blood represents life and death and she has the control over these events in these stories.

The harvest – a time of making offerings and tributes. Folk traditions about the corn harvest always feature something happening to the last sheaf of corn – it is not eaten but offered up to the Gods in some way – whether lucky or unlucky, it is not to be taken along with the rest. This could be an inspiration to celebrate practically? Throw out what is weighing you down, and make an offering to welcome in the new.

Midsummer Solstice

For June Midsummer Solstice proved a popular festival, crowding the moot with contributions and associations – here are some of them:

  • A masculine festival, associations with Sun Gods such as Apollo. The male principle here is at its most powerful, in a regal, wise and controlled kind of way as opposed to the wild Dionysian aspect.
  • The height of the sun and the height of personal strength and activity, permitted by so many productive hours of light! The solstice and its surrounding weeks are bright and tending towards a full and energetic life without the need for artificial light.
  • A feeling of safety – we celebrate the solar cycle as stable, it is a much longer cycle than the lunar cycle – the cycle of the sun is strongly associated with agriculture, the patterns we rely on to sustain the harvest and ongoing survival.
  • The turning point of the year – an excuse to party all day, since the night is so short (at Pagan Threads we always look for why to celebrate and how!)
  • We also talked a lot about stone circles like Stonehenge, and other sacred sites. These stand out at Midsummer as Pagan things that have pervaded popular culture, that a vast range of people of various beliefs or lack of, are prepared to celebrate as ancient and part of their heritage even if they don’t know the meanings of why they may have been there.
  • So maybe a good way to celebrate Midsummer is to visit somewhere special? Our moot-goers recommended some of their own favourite places of power:
Avebury Stone Circle
Avebury Stone Circle

 

  • Avebury Stone Circle
  • The New Forest
  • Glastonbury Chalice Well
  • Uffington White Horse
  • The Long Man of Wilmington
  • Burnham Beaches
  • Whitby Bay

Our first Pagan Threads Skills Swap Day!

On Sunday 9th May we planned a Skills Swap Picnic. Rain, however, altered our plans and we convened to the downstairs of a nearby pub, taking over a large cave-like section of its basement and talking about bizarre things. Pagans are used to freaking out pub staff. We gathered to talk to each other about things we specialised in – what we’d read most about or tried out, to share advice and questions – some notes from what people talked about:

Francesco Dimitri on Pathworkings

Pathworkings as they are currently thought of in the UK stem from the English 19th Century Kabbalistic traditions (Jewish mysticism) of ceremonial magic as developed by magicians such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Other famous names associated with writing about the technique are people like Israel Regardie and Dion Fortune. Carl Jung (the famous psychologist who studied with Freud) often came back to the idea of pathworking when studying diverse occult systems from around the world. As far as this context is concerned, the name refers to the “path” which Kabbalah mystics tread, ascending to different points on the ‘Tree of Life’, which is essentially a diagram representing different levels of spiritual understanding which the mage aims to reach.

American influences (eg. the concept of shamanic journeying) did not come in until the end of the 20th Century. Reasons to do pathworking: – To ascend an initiatory level within a system such as a coven or circle of magicians – To find an answer to a question – To gain knowledge. Knowledge and answers are to be found in a pathworking in the form of symbols, as this is the language of the unconscious mind. A symbol could be a colour, an animal, a word, an object… something you encounter in your journey which is a clue which you can interpret to answer your question or to guide you towards a goal. This symbols might be of help to you both spiritually and/or practically. A pathworking can be thought of in different ways – for some it means travelling a dream-like plane in an Astral Body (a form which is not physical like a real body but is your self travelling outside of your body). Alternatively it is seen by others as a mental exercise occurring within your imagination (which is nevertheless an active force and experiences within it are as real as any other experience in reality). These views could be seen as a magical vs. psychological view of what is happening during a pathworking, but the effect is what matters, however you characterise the process. This is discussed by Phil Hine in his books on Chaos Magic such as Prime Chaos and Condensed Chaos. Symbols bridge the gap between the conscious and the unconscious, the magical and the mundane, and maybe the difference between your everyday self and your magical self? Symbols you encounter can surpise you, they aren’t something you control because they come from your unconscious and are intuitive and instinctive, stronger than your rational impressions.

Shadowing is a technique you can use to align yourself with a deity, concept, idea, etc. Instead of an invocation of the deity or spirit of something to yourself, you can ‘invoke yourself to them’. If you don’t feel comfortable calling something to you, you can explore it by shadowing it and observing, picking up whatever you need to align yourself with by following it. You can use these concepts as doorways into astral worlds, or inspirations or starting points for a pathworking (like the tree doorways from A Nightmare before Christmas!) You can explore the world of symbolic associations stemming from a God, a tarot card, a personality quality, whatever you are trying to gain knowledge about. To make the pathworking vivid and effective, work with parts of your imagination you have the strongest flexibility with – if you are very visual imagine the environment in great visual detail to help you feel as much there (rather than in the mundane world as possible). If you are less visual imagine the sounds and smells and temperature of the place you are trying to travel to, to get a sensual grasp on it.

Structure of a pathworking: Have a purpose before you start – specific enough not to be wandering aimlessly, but open enough for there to be opportunities to let symbols and answers come to you. Gathering information can be enough of a goal. A pathworking is a story you tell yourself, and needs a narrative. Art – expression – creativity. Structure the journey in three parts:

1. Setting the scene – immerse yourself in the place you are putting yourself in – the environment and any guides you have already planned to go and meet with. A lot of people use an induction to enter this world, such as visualising a tunnel or a set of steps leading there.
2. A working – plan a series of events – maybe working from one place to another (a forest path leading to a clearing, a tunnel to a cave, a river to the sea, etc.), or a progression of times of day, or a series of meetings. Write in opportunities for symbols or answers to make themselves known to you. Often this can be in the form of encountering a surface to scry in – a body of water such as a lake or pond or basin – a symbol may appear to you as a vision in such a surface.
3. Conclusion – make sure ‘loose ends’ in your story are tied up, don’t just wake up abruptly. Conclude your journey in a way that makes sense – you may want the end to mirror the beginning, eg. emerging from the same tunnel, coming back up stairs. Return with the information you have gained – you can interpret what it might mean upon your return.

Paola Filotico on Wandmaking

How to make a wand!

1. Decide on the type of wood you want if you want the specific associations – some types of wood are also simply more practical so look up its magical and non-magical properties! Only cut wood from a tree which can afford to lose it ie. from a healthy tree with plenty of other branches.

2. Right time, right place. You might decide the wood will be more powerful if you have gathered it at the full moon. If you have your heart set on certain associations, be patient and don’t compromise. If you have decided what you want, only that will do! It might take a very long time to find the right material at the right moment in the right place but there’s no rush.

3. Leave an offering to the tree you take wood from – leave something behind that feels appropriate – chanting, poetry, perform a rite of some kind (can be a sexual one!), leave a physical offering… give something back for what you have taken.

4. Once you have the wood, trim it to the right length – the length of your forearm.

5. Cut off the bark and dry it – how long this takes will depend on the season! At UK temperatures maybe a week or two indoors.

6. Sand it smooth – use very rough sandpaper or even a knife to get rid of lumps and bumps. It’s an instrument for channelling your will, so it can’t be rough and messy. Use finer sandpaper and finer again to make it as smooth as possible.

7. At this point carve any sigils into the wood that you require. Plan a design – make it realistic to make sure you can follow it through. Don’t change your mind halfway, as you need to embody the wand with the concept that what you will DOES come to pass, including the design you planned!

8. Varnish with transparent varnish.

9. Add any decorative extras – ribbon, wire, some people tip the end with a crystal. Make sure you know why you’re adding what you are adding, what does that colour ribbon / that crystal mean to you?

10. Consecrate the wand – some people pass it through the four elements to bless it or do some kind of small ritual. Most importantly, USE IT! It becomes a tool when it is used as a tool. It needs to acquire its identity through being used for its purpose – even if it doesn’t feel like it is doing anything at first, it needs to learn its role through being used. It will become better at its function through practice.

Zoe Bidgood on Poetry for Sorcery

Learning the basic structure of various poetic forms is incredibly useful, especially if you don’t consider yourself to be very poetically gifted. The more rules you have to adhere to to fulfil a set pattern, the fewer choices you have and the easier it is to narrow down what you want to say, and because the structures are tried and tested the results will generally create the aural and emotional effect which that form is associated with (eg. sonnets are traditionally used for love poems).

For chants, spells, invocations etc. a very rigid rhyming or rhythmic scheme is likely to make the words sound authoritative or just more aesthetically pleasing or magical – if you want to write texts for yourself that you can easily learn off by heart or use regularly a regular rhythm/rhyme scheme certainly helps.

Rhythms:
Foot (or metrical foot) – group of syllables, usually 2 or 3 (eg. an iam)
Iam – two syllables, second one stressed. The natural speech rhythm of English is said to be iambic, and the most ‘natural’ speech pattern iambic pentameter.
Trochee – two syllables, first one stressed.
Spondee – two syllables of equal weight.
Anapest – three syllables, two unstressed and the third stressed.
Meter – measures of how long lines of verse are, depending on feet/syllables.
Tetrameter – 4 feet per line
Pentameter – 5 feet per line
Sestameter – 6 feet per line
Heptameter – 7 feet per line (usually fourteen or twenty-one syllables per line).
Couplet – two lines (if they rhyme with each other, a rhyming couplet)
Tercet – three line stanza
Quatrain – four line stanza
Sestet – six line stanza
Octet – eight line stanza

Wikipedia is a good resource for the official names of poetic meters and features!

Forms:
Sonnet: Shakespearean – Iambic Pentameter Quatrain (A-B-A-B), Quatrain (C-D-C-D), Quatrain (E-F-E-F), Rhyming Couplet (G-G). Sonnet: Petrarchan Iambic Pentameter Quatrain (A-B-B-A), Quatrain (A-B-B-A), Sestet (C-D-E-C-D-E).
Sonnet: Spenserian – Iambic Pentameter Quatrain (A-B-A-B), Quatrain (B-C-B-C), Quatrain (C-D-C-D), Rhyming Couplet (E-E).
Ballad Form – Iambic Pentameter Quatrains (?-A-?-A, ?-B-?-B, ?-C-?-C… repeat as required) – every other line rhymes, strong rhythms.
Something written in this form can be as long as you need it to be – at the height of its popularity entire epics could be written in ballad form!

Anaphora: Various structures – Anaphoras are often used for devotional poetry, and involve beginning multiple lines with the same word, eg. ‘and’ or ‘I remember’, or ‘when’, ‘still’, ‘that’, etc. etc. Anaphora create a driving rhythm by the recurrence of the same sound, it can also intensify the emotion of the poem.

Haiku – 17 syllables, 3 lines: 5 – 7 – 5. No rhyme scheme necessary but can force you to be concise! Longer / more advanced forms for poetry’s sake…

Villainelle – This might seem a bit longer and more complicated, but as it’s one of my favourite forms I thought I’d throw it in – it’s not too long and takes less time to write than you’d think because lines are repeated so often – this means you can create something which sounds amazing simply because of its structure when only having actually crafted a few raw lines. A nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.

The best way to demonstrate how it works is with an example eg. Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Sestina – If the method of working around compulsory repeated fragments appeals to you also look up “Sestina” – a longer poem where each six-line verse ends with the same six words, in different orders – most of the structure is in place for you since there is a set pattern, you just work around it! It has six stanzas of six lines and ends in a tercet.

Eva Roussou on Dreamworking

Remembering dreams takes practice. Unless you consciously try to remember them upon waking they will disappear as you wake up – try to write them down as soon as possible in as much detail as possible. The act of writing things down will help you not to forget them and may bring back extra details. Fragments may be more meaningful than the main storyline of what happened in the dream!

If you want to record dreams keep a dream diary next to you by your bed. Try to record the content of the dream separately to any immediate impressions or interpretations – these may be biased and cloud your later analyis. From a psychotherapy point of view dreams give you information about your own inner issues. From a magical point of view they might be giving you information about your magical path and things you could focus on. Levels of dream content: 1st level – trivia from the day 2nd level – your relationships with yourself and with others 3rd level – archetypes, symbols from the unconscious 4th level (alleged!) – prophetic dreams… dreams with a Lovecraftian quality, a bizarre atmosphere, an odd serenity, a feeling that is different to usual dreams – important to record one of these if experienced! Also watch out for recurring dreams, and symbols – animals (real and mythical), places… if a building, could it represent a temple of some kind? Draw things as well as describe them if you want to record and remember. If you think about these symbols when you’re awake you might be more likely to come across them again when dreaming. Look for: archetypes, themes (eg. transformation), metamorphoses. Smaller things: repeated motifs – we all have our own personal ‘dictionary’ of meanings associated to small things in our own lives, be aware of specifically personal correspondances/symbols.

Nightmares: try to turn them into lucid dreams and resolve them. If you cannot change their outcome, try to let go of fear by facing it and letting the dream-disaster happen. Nightmares are our unconscious trying to send us a message. Dreams without a conclusion are considered more therapeutically beneficial as they leave your options open. Interpretation methods: Freudian – start with keywords from your dream and allow free association in a linear way – these associations may stray from the initial topic of the dream. Jungian – more of a ‘spider diagram’ of word association – start with one or two central keywords describing feelings from your dream and associate anything else you think of back to these central themes. What additional words/themes/ideas arise from this?

Zaq Hawkes on Incense-making

The basics – Incenses have a gum base – commonly used are frankincense, myrhh, copal (cheap), dragon’s blood (from dragon’s fern) and sandalwood. The most convenient form to get them in is ground but no powdered (rice grain size). Along with the base you add herbs you have chosen. You can also add oil.

Some tips from experience:

  • If you add sandalwood oil to loose incense just before you burn it, it burns much more slowly.
  • Loose incense keeps better dry, so don’t add oil until it’s going to be used.
  • Borax on loose incense makes the smell travel further.
  • Borax added to paraffin makes the flame burn green!Watch out for the effects of smells and whether they match what you’re trying to achieve – chamomile and lavender will make you sleepy! Also, CHECK FOR TOXIC PLANTS! Poisoning yourself not a good idea.Gathering your own herbs from outdoors (as long as it’s not someone else’s garden!) is free, fun and makes your results feel more special.In terms of magic, the key features of herbs are their planetary correspondences – these can be found in herbals (books), online or just felt by instinct! Idea – note the planetary association where you store your herbs!
  • Recommended shops – 8 Market Place, Brixton Market (voodoo shop), Baldwins in Kennington.

Spring Equinox

Just as its precedent, Imbolc, seemed the hardest of the major sabbats to understand, Spring Equinox called up the fewest obvious associations of the solar festivals.

Spring is much more clearly here at this time. Bolder daffodils emerge from the thawing earth, and here is the tipping point of the days and nights – the light takes over and promises the return of summer. Another beginning to take up where the endings in winter left off.

What interested us in this discussion was what form its celebrating of fertility came. The imagery is largely animal-related – rabbits, eggs, lambs.

BunnyWe talked about some of the deities associated with the time of year – the traditions. A lot of Goddesses came up (mingled in with Christian saints and other adopted patron names and characters), and a lot of maiden figures. However, it is a solar equinox, something many of couldn’t help but see as masculine, and if trying to find symmetry in the wheel of the year, then maybe this is a companion festival to Imbolc and maturing of the feminine divine? If a Goddess comes to maturity followed by a God, surely the preparations are done for the approaching sexual festival of Beltane…

Magic & Ritual

February’s moot topic drew a predictably large crowd, with the wonderfully huge topic and magic and ritual. We wanted to talk about its place within, or alongside, depending on your point of view, spirituality, and hopefully share tales of our own magical practices (or lack of) and why we had come to do the things we do, or what we were hoping to do.

Something we all recognised in the term ritual was an implication of structure. Whether this meant the casting of a circle or similar boundary (or at least the marking out of a working space), it seemed to us that ritual was something that happens in a different space to ordinary life, whether physically or mentally.

Cleansing the space or banishing from it first was a common theme, although whether or not this is done does seem to vary with circumstances, how much the person feels it needs doing.

Another most important component according the group was your own state of mind, if not somehow ‘altered’, then at least calm, cleared or focussed. ‘Clearing your mind’ and ‘trying to focus on something’ are not the most straightforward of activities! It was suggested that doing one could help achieve the other! (So can certain substances, it was also mentioned, but whether that was a good idea was all in the context ;-))

Helpful techniques suggested by attendees:

  • counting, breathing, listening to a regular beat (drumbeat, heartbeat) – a rhythm can help focus the mind and drown out the irregular background noise of distractions
  • an activity that focuses you – stirring, grinding, kneading (ties into if you are making something magical)

One of the most magical offerings made in ritual is speech – the power of words. Words have always carried power. A few of us were bilingual and we talked about choices of language. Sometimes a local language can make someone feel closer to a local spirit or deity… when writing our own words or using others’, we talked about knowing the meaning of what we were saying and focussing on the intent behind them. However alternatively we talked a lot about words in archaic languages, or words that we didn’t understand. On the one hand it takes extra concentration to learn or say them, but on the other hand is that just distracting more than devoted?  Perhaps they hold more power from a history of magical usage? Does speaking them transport the speaker to a more transcendent frame of mind, from not being everyday words with mundane meanings?

Ritual

Repetition, repetition, repetition. This was not so much a speculation as an observation, but from the combined experiences of our moot-goers, the more an intent was repeated the more successfully it seemed to fare. This brings us back to the word ritual – one of its meanings being “any practice or pattern of behaviour regularly performed in a set manner” – doing anything regularly gives it a life of its own, power and meaning of its own. To be the one performing it is to be the one shaping that meaning.

Imbolc

What we realised when we came to discuss Imbolc, in January, is that it seems to be the most elusive of the major Sabbats to understand. It is the first festival of Spring happening in an environment (2nd February) that is still very much immersed in Winter, and suggests new growth without the blatant connotations of celebrating fertility as the festivals immediately following it do, so how do we pin down the occasion we’re marking?

For those at the moot this month, Imbolc seems to represent a strange liminal period between winter and spring. A time to prepare to emerge from hibernation, but not quite come out yet. A time of planning and preparation – in agricultural terms, for planting and nurturing, not being hasty about results but instead being thorough in assuring they will happen. A focus on potential, and hope.

Practically it is when we have a tendency towards spring-cleaning, and decluttering – reassessing the basics and seeing and appreciating your environment anew, leaving the darkness of the winter behind. In that vein, we all seemed to call up personal reminders of a lot of fire imagery – not the blazing bonfires of Beltane, but candle light, sparks, the beginnings of warmth, and a sense of purification.

Also mentioned was the pre-Roman (possibly rooted in ancient Greek) festival of the Lupercalia, once celebrated in early February to purify the city to allow in new health and fertility. Pan or his equivalent was worshipped and the carnival-esque traditions included the priests of Pan wearing goatskins and enacting playful scourging/flagellations (a long-held symbol of purification) on those celebrating… it is suspected by some that such behaviour may have been the origin of the legends of the werewolf!

Modern Pagan understandings among us at the moot however were largely Goddess-centric. Most of us saw it as a quite gentle but feminine festival, with the female principle truly in a maiden aspect – deities we associated with it tended to be virgin goddesses, and ifSnowdrops understanding the sabbats as times for different rites of passage for the dual divinities, then perhaps an association to menarche? One stage of preparation towards impending fertility and impending Spring promise.

As far as observing the season, early February did seem to have an uncanny synchronicity with the appearance of snowdrops – nature’s calendar reminder?

 

Midwinter Solstice

For our 4th moot, festivity was in the (dark, cold) air and we elected to have a talk about Yule – arguably the most widely observed festival worldwide under its different guises:

This is the part of the solar year’s cycle most difficult to ignore, at least by the Northern hemisphere’s standards – the longest night, the shortest day, the time of year where nature seems to be advising you to stay indoors and snuggle up with a hot drink. We observe the point in the wheel by being up and awake as the sun rises latest in the morning and seeing it go down again soon after. We can literally see the wheel turning at this point as the sun sets earlier and earlier each day through December… this is part of what makes most people feel so attuned to the celebration of this festival.

So what’s to celebrate? Well in such times of darkness we want to create light through celebration, take stock of our blessings and what we have saved up for this time with feasting and the domestic comforts of hearth and familial bonds – these feelings add up to a feeling of safety to contract with the risks of cold and darkness outside.

Yule chimney

We also talked a lot about midwinter as a festival of birth or rebirth. As well as Christian religions placing the birth of Jesus at this time (much like the Queen’s official birthday is placed at a more culturally convenient time in sunny June than her real one in rainy April), it is also the birth of Mithras, of the Greek mystery cult, and in modern Pagan witchcraft come the myths of the rebirth of the God form the Goddess, the start of the cycle for the male principle. The deaths of what has been harvested after summer’s growth and the leaves that departed the trees in Autumn are now come full circle back to being reborn – here begins the promise of Spring.

Gods and Worship

Downright theism, or something more subtle? That is the question for November’s moot.

For many Pagans, personal connection to the deity that has always called to them is the very reason they practise, the reason they may have rejected traditions or background that sought to tell them such Gods were just myths, just out of date stories long since replaced by something else. Yet for others theism holds no answers, that swapping one God for another, no matter how old or how new, does not help them understand the world whereas seeing divinity in an entirely different way opens all the doors to knowledge that they have always been seeking.

So what are our options?

Monotheism: belief in one deity. Not really all the rage among Pagans, although some identify with or work with simply ‘Spirit’, the fifth point of the pentacle, the missing element which is not material.

Duotheism: belief in two deities. Many branches of modern Paganism give a lot of attention to characterising the polarity and balance found in the natural world (day and night, sun and moon, summer and winter, the + and – of the earth’s magnetic field) with two complementing deities, often characterised as a God and Goddess, a male and female principle.

Polytheism: Like the classical Greeks or the Romans or the ancient Egyptians, a polytheist’s world is rich in deities with their own names, personalities, interactions, stories and family trees. Many eclectic Pagans don’t even restrict themselves to the Gods of one region, maybe worshipping Isis and Thor in the same week. Others might be Hellenic polytheists and just stick with the deities of the Greeks, for example. But to the polytheist, these Gods are distinct, individual and very real.

Pantheism: the belief that divinity is nature and nature is the divine, plain and simple. Someone once asked the author known as Starhawk if she believed in the Goddess, to which she shrugged, pointed and said, “Do you believe in that rock?” Pantheists worship nature itself, as directly as possible, without the need to name and anthropomorphise the landscape any further than perhaps ‘mother earth’. For pantheists, the divine doesn’t need arms or legs or speech or gender to be the subject of celebration and honouring.

Panentheism (consulting the almighty wikipedia for help with this one): “(from Greek πᾶν (pân) “all”; ἐν (en) “in”; and θεός (theós) “God”; “all-in-God”) A belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well. Panentheism is distinguished from pantheism, which holds that God is synonymous with the material universe.”

  • Gender was one of our key issues when talking about deity. Flowers have male and female parts and we think of them as neither, so why not divinity?
  • Humans are social creatures and our minds and emotions geared towards interacting with each other, over and above our relations with anything else. When trying to develop an emotional and personal connection with divinity is it any wonder that we tend towards making people of our Gods?
  • With so many enjoying their expression of one gender, whether biological or adopted, and so few perceived as androgynous, it is hard for us to imagine something at once genderless and anthropomorphic, our brains are not well-practised at imagining or seeing such a thing, it is not as easily imagined as ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ or ‘a mother’ or even the animals or part animals that Gods are often depicted as. Bizarre as it may seem there appear to be more depictions of creatures that are half horse and half man in our combined history and culture than truly androgynous people!
  • Archetypes – an unavoidable topic. People like to identify with ideas, with identities, with imagery that inspires them. Archetypes (the warrior, the teachers, the lover, the mother, the father, the magician) – they evolve, they represent different practical experiences, but the imagery doesn’t change and the deities continue.
  • Identity – in a time when everyone’s identity is so complex, archetypes are concepts we reach for reset, to get back to a basic, to focus something within ourselves – with this we can explain why we call upon a Goddess of hunting when we don’t hunt, a God of war when we are not soldiers and the Gods of nature when we live in cities.

Samhain

Our second moot attracted yet more interested parties – gathering to talk about the craft’s most famous festival, Samhain. What was said…

Samhain is a time for many things.

As the third harvest – the meat harvest, it has a raw and real connection with death and the necessity of it for life to go on. It is in direct opposition to the festival of Beltane, the year’s biggest celebration of sex, death’s opposite, the perfect balance of the two that is needed to keep things in equilibrium. Accepting death is part of celebrating life fully, and death, like its tarot card is also the ultimate metaphor for change – and accepting change as progress. Regaining purpose in the face of loss.

Samhain is also the time of folklore, where the veil between the world of reality and the world of spirits is at its thinnest – a liminal time, a time for divination (a good time to incorporate this into magical work, perhaps? Setting up and planning over the winter for the hopes of what will emerge from its hibernation). A time to look back on the past and those that have gone before. For those traditions or individuals attaching particular importance to ancestors, whether personal or as a unified concept, it is a time of honour and tribute, valuing what we can learn from elders.

The end of a cycle. Many think of Samhain as the Pagan New Year – it is certainly the last sabbat before Yule, the festival of rebirth. At Samhain death comes, and we welcome it with Jack-O’-lanterns, lighting its way and grasping it with both hands as a crucial part of the cycle.

Jack O Lantern