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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene

  So I am sitting here preparing to head out to Connecticut's pagan pride day, a great event that I think it's important to support. This year I am teaching a couple workshops at PPD as well as helping out by making posters of four of the neopagan wheel of the year holidays and an intro to Druidism poster. And you can't even imagine how hard it is to try to describe what Druidism is in a single poster, especially in a fair and objective manner, but that can wait for another I'm sitting here getting ready to head out in the back of my mind I'm thinking about Irene, the hurricane that's headed my way.
  We haven't had a hurricane (that amounts to anything) hit here since 1992, I think, with Hurricane Bob. In a practical sense I have bought supplies - water, batteries, non-perishable food - and come up with a Plan. Actually, being me, I have several Plans in a real practical sense of what I can do to keep myself and my family safe. I have done everything magically that I know how to ward and protect my home and strengthen what I already had in place. But still, I keep looking up at the large White Oaks that tower around my house and thinking that it won't hurt to appeal to powers beyond myself to help out here.
  This may be one of the few instances were my spiritual worlds collide, because I am making offerings to both sides of the aisle, as it were. I am asking Odin, who I often see as the Storm Rider, and Thor, God of Thunder, to ward the area of my home. I am asking Manannan to let the ocean be gentle here. And, of course, I am asking Macha to ward my home and family because I tend to ask either her or Odin, as the two I am dedicated to, for aid any time things get very serious. This time I don't think it's going to hurt to ask everybody....and of course I am asking the spirits of the land here to work with me in protecting my home and I am calling on my ancestors. My father especially has been very much in my mind with all of this; my whole childhood he used to spend each hurricane season with a dry erase map plotting the courses of each storm...
   At this point I feel as prepared as I can be, mundanely and spiritually, for this storm. It makes me wonder though for my other esoteric friends out there in Irene's path - are you doing anything "extra" to preapre for the storm?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book review - The 21 Lessons of Merlin

I've decided to dedicate Monday's blog to book reviews. These will be fairly short and to the point, and try to focus on books relating to CR Paganism, Druidism, and Heathenry.
  To start, here is a basic book review of the (notorious) 21 Lessons of Merlin  by Douglas Monroe:
   21 Lessons is allegedly based on the secret teachings of Merlin, as revealed through the Welsh Book of Pheryllt; however this is nothing but a ploy to draw the reader in - the Book of Pheryllt is a well known forgery and there aren't any existing "ancient" lessons of Merlin. Rather the author seems to use these claims to set up his own authenticity as a teacher of true ancient Druidry while actually inventing a system almost whole cloth. I say almost because the author does include at least one "ancient" chant stolen from the 1981 movie Excalibur; anyone familiar with the movie should recognize it right away.
   I found this book was not worth reading as well because it was poorly researched and is full of historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. There is little to no actual Celtic mythology or material in the book at all, which is clearly a problem. Monroe at various points asserts that the ancient Druids were vegetarians and that Easter was a Druidic festival to the Goddess Ishtar, neither of which is either true or even possible. He mentions pumpkins as if they were a native European plant when they aren't and also talks about using pumpkin flowers at Samhain, long after the plant has stopped flowering. Worse than all of that though is Monroe's deep-seated misogyny which is displayed throughout the book. For example in 21 Lessons the Druids are divided by gender based on the theory that men generate magical power but women can only gain it by taking it from a man, something that not only makes no sense but goes against basic Celtic cosmology which says that all beings have their own power and which tends to see women as specifically holding the keys to sovereignty and the power of the land.
   It may well have spiritual value for some people - as does The Mists of Avalon, another Arthurian novel - but it loses credibility with me for trying to pass itself off as nonfiction. The argument put forth by some supporters of the book that anyone who criticizes it is not enlightened enough to truly understand it is typical of books that can't back up what they claim - since there is no "ancient" document or tradition of Merlin's lessons, which are entirely the author's invention, the only possible defense is to denigrate the spirituality of the books detractors.  It might have been alright as an Arthurian novel except for the fact that by passing itself of as legitimate "ancient Druid" teachings I feel that it is actually hurting modern Druidry and Celtic spirituality by misleading people who are new to the spirituality. This book, in fact, has little to do with any actual ancient Druidry and even less to do with modern Druidry, and is worth reading only as a poorly written novel.
     If you like Arthurian fiction I'd recommend the The Mists of Avalon series and for studies on ancient Druidry try Hutton's the The Druids or his Blood and Mistletoe or Markale's  The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature. For modern Druidry Brendan Meyers' Mysteries of Druidry, Bonewit's Bonewits's Essential Guide to Druidism or Carr-Gomm's Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century would be a good start.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Familiars and why I don't believe in them

This is from a response I wrote to a question on an email group.

     Do Wiccans and neopagan witches have familiars? It really depends on who you ask. There are plenty of people that will say that a familiar is an animal who is bonded in some way with the witch and that helps them with their magic. Familiars are often beloved pets, are said to choose the witch, and seem drawn to magical workings ( It seems like everyone has a familiar these days and people will talk about theirs with little reason to - and show pictures. New witches will wring their hands and worry about why they don't have one and how to get one, and be offered sage advice from those who do claim to have them. Familiars are a hot commodity.
    In all honesty I am in the other camp, which is the minority; I do not believe that familiars exist in the sense of pets we bond with. The idea of familiars is medieval, based on accusations that "witches" were assigned a demon to serve them and that this demon took the form of a common animal to blend in - the word familiar itself is shortened from familiar spirit, as in "she hath a familiar spirit". Obviously since Wiccans don't make pacts with the Christian Devil or work with demons they don't have familiar spirits, ergo no familiars. There is a secondary approach that views familiars as faeries that attach themselves in animal form to specific people, especially those who practice cunning craft or are closely allied with the Fey, but this concept is not as well known or widespread and would apply on in very specific cases. In either case the historic views of what a familiar was are not often understood in a modern context.
    The modern idea tends to focus on familiars as closely bonded pets who are sensitive to magic workings, but historically a familiar would actually be used for a variety of magical purposes such as carrying messages, enhancing magic, delivering spells to their targets etc.,, effectively making the animal a source of magical energy and an energetic servant. How many of us actually want to use our beloved pet as a magical battery? Others will argue that a familiar is an animal that is not a normal animal but has a special spirit, sometimes even the spirit of a person or guide within it. Do you really want to believe your cat is possessed or overshadowed by a secondary spirit? Because the alternative is to believe that the spirit has permanently bound itself into flesh for the lifetime of the animal which is very limiting to the spirit and would reduce its ability to effectively guide you.
    To me it seems like some people who are very very close to a particular pet choose to view that pet as a "familiar" because it sounds special and important, not because the pet is actually serving the traditional role of a familiar. I would not want my cats to "serve" me magically, or to be possessed, or to be anything but happy kitties living happy kitty lives; maybe that's my bias showing ; )  I do think there may be certain cases where an animal actually is a familiar or at the least is bonded to the person in a way that is genuinely unusual, but I think these cases are far less common than the ones that are just pets. And there's nothing wrong with that. I can love my pets as they are without needing them to be anything but pets.

Davies, O., (2003). Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. London: Hambledon Continuum.    
Thomas, K., (1973). Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. London: Penguin. 
Wilby, E., (2005). Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press. 
Massello, R., (1996). Raising Hell: A Concise History of the Black Arts and Those Who Dared to Practice Them. Perigee Trade