Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Library of Dreams - publishing for charity

Today I'm sharing with you two excerpts from the short story anthology Library of Dreams, a lovely collection whose entire profits go to charity. These dream-themed tales were concocted by a writers' group I'm a part of; I donated my time as an editor and I can tell you, I really enjoyed these stories. All profits from the sale of this collection will go to LitWorld, a 501(c)3 non-profit literacy organization fostering resilience, hope, and joy through the power of story. Library of Dreams is available in both paperback and e-book format. What a great way to give yourself, or someone you love, a holiday gift while also doing good in the world.

Click on the book cover for more information

From Ribbon Chasers by Len Webster:

It was a dream he had every night, a dream that made his heart pump, his sweat drip and his head hurt. The same damn dream every night. He remembered the squeal and then the gunshot. He watched those brown eyes flash before he heard her final scream, and then silence.

He tried. As much as he tried to change the outcome of his dream, it was always the same. He couldn’t fix the ending. It was set, though he tried desperately to save her. He remembered the day he took the case. Sometimes he wished he hadn’t. Maybe another agent could have saved her.

“You’re talking like you’re not going to do these things,” Patrick said. He could see it all for her. He could see her in university and he saw her living her life. He had to make sure she lived. “Sadie, they aren’t going to get you. Dawson and I will make sure you get to the trial safely and become Rachel Sims. You will become a psychologist, and even if you don’t want to be one after all of this, you can be whatever you want. You will live a long and happy life, Sadie.” Silent tears fell down her cheeks and she gave him a tight smile.

“You weren’t there,” she whispered. Patrick kept quiet and his silence gave her the cue to continue.

“Dad and I, we were talking about my upcoming final exams. We were out for lunch and I already had an early acceptance into Melbourne University. I hadn’t told him because I thought I’d save the good news for when he was down. But I never got the chance, because the moment we hit the corner a car stopped in front of us. I felt Dad try to push me back, but then shots were fired and I felt blood hit my hand. He was shot five times. Five. Dad fell backwards on the concrete and I just stood there. That gangster pointed the gun at me and smiled. Told me that he’d get me when he was good and ready. For being the daughter of the crown prosecutor, I had to die as well. My death would be slow and torturous because I was pretty and innocent-looking. He’d enjoy killing me. Bring me back to life if he had to, until I got to the edge of death again. He promised I’d be begging him to kill me.”

From Lovers' Fugue by Charlotte Ashley:

It had been twenty-two hours and six minutes since Evie Lancaster had gone off the Dimorphazine. So far, she hadn't noticed anything different.

“The symphony is over three hours long,” Rochelle said, waving Evie's concerns away dismissively, “you'll peak sometime in the second movement. Relax, sweetie. Even if you are only half Awakened by then, you'll pick up the projections on display tonight. Believe me, this is gonna be wild.”

Evie tried to affect an edgy, carefree grin and failed. She didn't really want wild. She was pretty sure she was too tightly-laced to appreciate wild. She was so terrified of not just the psychological, but the legal consequences of what might go on tonight, she wasn't sure she was going to enjoy herself at all.

Evie glanced nervously down the road. They couldn't enter the Opera House for another half-hour. She, Dex and Rochelle were slouched on a street corner, sticking out like a trio of lizards in an egg carton. Dex and Rochelle, veterans of the Opera House, were dressed to the nines in slick black corsets over neon blouses with pagoda sleeves and elaborately embroidered silk pantaloons, with brightly-dyed wigs sculpted precariously around Rococo headpieces featuring birds, fish, glass balls, and the guts of scavenged twenty-first century electronics.

Evie was, herself, dressed in a skin-tight, deep-purple dress studded with the remains of a shattered mirror, a flowing starscape over which her bare shoulders and blonde hair rose like the sun. She felt ridiculously exposed, but Rochelle assured her the best projections came when you gave the imagination something to work with. 

For more information about buying a copy (paperback or e-book) anywhere in the world, have a look at the PSG Publishing website. You can also enter to win a free copy through Goodreads, but hurry - the contest ends December 22. Happy reading!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Winter Solstice Blog Hop: Healing Midwinter Ritual

Today I’m sharing with you a healing Winter Solstice ritual. The holidays can be a hard time for many of us. You may feel stressed out by unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) expectations, or be upset by unpleasant memories of past holidays, or be missing loved ones who have passed on. It’s hard to enjoy the season when something heavy weighs on your heart. This ritual is simple but it’s powerful. I hope it helps you find a way to feel more comfortable and more whole through this time of the year.

Read through to the bottom of this post to find out how to enter a giveaway for one of two signed copies of my latest book and to find more participants in the Blog Hop and more giveaways!

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Winter Solstice Healing Rite

What you will need:

- Small pieces of paper or card you can write on. Old holiday cards, cut into pieces the size of the palm of your hand, are a good choice. Have at least a dozen of these on hand.

- A pen, pencil or other writing instrument in a color and style that remind you of the holidays.

- Earth. If you have access to an outdoor area where you can dig in the ground, and the ground isn’t frozen solid or inaccessible because it’s covered with several feet of snow, that’s your best choice. But the dirt in a potted plant will work just fine, as will a bucket or bowl full of potting soil. The important thing to remember is that, once you have completed the ritual, the soil needs to remain undisturbed until the holidays are over, preferably until Spring Equinox (watering the potted plant is fine but digging in the soil around it is not). You will also need a tool with which to dig a small hole – a trowel will do but you can get away with using a large spoon if your Earth resides in a potted plant or a container of loose potting soil.

- A time and place where you can be undisturbed and can feel safe and private. Turn off your phone, shut the door, ask family or roommates to go out for a while, whatever it takes so you can feel comfortable. If you wish, light candles and incense, turn on soft music or whatever else will help you relax and focus on the task at hand. You can perform the first part of the ritual indoors and then go outdoors to complete it if you’re using an outdoor area for access to Earth, or you can do the whole thing outdoors, provided the weather is agreeable.

The ritual:

Set the pieces of card and the pen out in front of you. If you feel a connection with deity you may call on that Power now, either aloud or silently. Earth gods and goddesses in particular can be very helpful for this ritual. You may also ask your higher self, guides, guardians and the universe itself to aid you. Take a few deep breaths, relax, and allow your mind to roam over the subject of the winter holidays. Let the feelings, thoughts and memories come up as they may. Do not judge them but just observe them. 

After a few minutes of this, begin to focus on the aspects of the holidays that bring up feelings of sadness, discomfort, anxiety or anger. As each aspect defines itself in your mind, write it down on a piece of card. Be very specific here. Name names, include dates and locations, and specify the emotion that accompanies each one. Teasing out exactly which sentiments each aspect triggers can be difficult but it is also a healing act just to define and acknowledge how you really feel.

It may take a while for you to define the activities and memories about the holidays that make you feel bad or they may come tumbling out faster than you can write them down. There is no wrong way to do this. Allow yourself as much time as it takes and also give yourself the freedom to feel whatever you feel. Often we make ourselves even more miserable by trying to live up to other people’s expectations about our emotions (You shouldn’t feel that way! or Aren’t you over that yet?). While actions can certainly be right or wrong under various circumstances, emotions just ARE. However you feel is however you feel. Give your emotions some room, then legitimate them by writing them down.

Once you have written down your uncomfortable and distressing feelings about the holidays, look back over the cards. Read each one. Acknowledge that is how you honestly feel. When thoughts pop up telling you to judge your emotions or to blame them on yourself or others, allow these notions to pass on through your mind and dissolve away. This ritual is not about judgment or blame. It is simply about your feelings and giving yourself the opportunity to heal.

This time of year the Earth is dormant, quiet and peaceful. This is the most grounding season of all, the time when the Earth swallows up discordant energy and dissipates it, gifting us the serenity and calmness to move through our lives from day to day in peace. Now take the cards on which you have inscribed your emotions and carry them to the Earth you have chosen to use. Place your hand on the soil and feel its steadiness. We are of the Earth. It provides our firm foundation, our grounding. Offer thoughts and words of gratitude to the Earth as you dig a hole just large enough to hold your stack of cards. Lay the cards in the hole and cover them up, giving those emotions to the Earth, grounding them. Allow the feeling of peace to settle over you. Thank any deities or Powers you have asked for aid and put away your tools.

This ritual will not magically erase all those uncomfortable emotions but it will give you some space, some peaceful room in which you can just be. That, all by itself, is healing. Strong emotions are like live electrical wires, sparking on everything they touch. Electrical circuits have ground wires for a reason. The Earth is our ground wire. Allow it to drain off the excess so you don’t ‘fry’ this holiday season.

I bid you peace.

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This post is a participant in the Winter Solstice Blog Hop. As part of the festivities, I’m holding a giveaway of TWO signed copies of my latest book, Ariadne’s Thread: Awakening the Wonders of the Ancient Minoans in Our Modern LivesIn Ariadne’s Thread you will find, among others, a more complex Midwinter ritual that is also very healing.

Ariadne's Thread

If you would like to be entered into the giveaway, please  make sure you have liked my Facebook page then leave a comment on this blog post no later than December 13 (and please make sure there's a way for me to contact you so I can let you know if you won). I will use to choose the winner on December 14.

Once you’ve left your comment on this post, you can follow the Hop to another blog where you’ll find more interesting seasonal posts and fun giveaways.

Hop on over to another participating blog:

Click on the bookshelf to find all my available titles:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Journey to Your Spirit Animal

Many different traditions, from around the world and across time, involve a guide or helper in the form of a spirit animal. This guided visualization is a meditative tool you can use to meet an animal spirit helper and learn from it. Once you have met the spirit animal, you will have a connection with it and can interact with it during everyday meditations without having to go through the guided visualization again. At different times during your life, different animals may appear to help and guide you; you can use this journey more than once, to meet those different spirit helpers.

You can record this meditation and play it back as you relax and do the visualization, or you can have someone read it to you. This journey is my original work, so if you choose to share it with anyone else, please be sure to include proper credit.

Journey to Your Spirit Animal
by Laura Perry

Today you will journey to a place where you can meet your spirit animal and learn its energy and purpose in your life. Once you have reached your spirit animal, spoken with it and learned about it, you may make its energy and purpose part of your life.

Choose a time and place where you will be undisturbed while undertaking this visualization. Loosen any tight clothing and sit or lie down in a comfortable position. A sitting position is the better choice if you tend to fall asleep during meditations.

Let us begin.

Relax your body and feel your weight upon the Earth. Feel your breath and your heartbeat slow as you sink down into the Earth, growing heavier and heavier. You become one with the Earth beneath you.

You see before you in your mind’s eye a great darkness. Look into this darkness. Feel the warmth and closeness of a cave, the security of the womb of the Earth. You are in a dark cave. You can see nothing at all. But you can feel the warm, moist air and smell the deep, rich earth. All sound is muffled by the still air deep in the cave.

As you try to look around you see a pale light far ahead. This is the mouth of the cave. You begin to move toward the cave mouth, toward the light of the outside. You must climb up, out of the depths of the Earth, to get to the cave mouth. It is a long climb. When you reach the opening you look out on a lush countryside, green and alive, with all the things you find beautiful in the outdoors.

Step out of the cave and into the fresh air. Look around you and see the beauty, the energy, the life. Smell the scent of plants and flowers and Earth. Feel the warm sun on your skin, the soil beneath your feet. This is a good place, a safe place, a place full of life.

Explore the countryside around you. Feel its energy, the abundance of moving, living, growing energy. As you explore you hear the sound of a babbling brook. Follow this sound through the land until you find the brook.

It is a small, shallow creek but you know that it is a token of a much greater boundary. It extends in either direction farther than you can see. As you look across the brook you see that on the far bank is the animal whose spirit you have called upon: your spirit animal. It awaits you, ready to answer your questions and lend its energies to your life path.

To reach your spirit animal you must cross the brook. Where your spirit animal stands, the land on the other side of the brook, there is only truth. Any questions you ask will be answered in full truth. Do not cross the creek if you seek other than the deepest truth for your life path. Now it is time to cross the water.

Stand on the bank in front of the creek. It is narrow; you will cross it with three steps. Set one foot into the water on this side of the creek. With this step you leave behind your preconceptions about your spirit animal. Set the other foot in the water on the far side of the stream. With this step you leave behind your preconceptions about your life path. Step out onto the bank on the other side. You have crossed the border from your domain to that of purest truth. Before you is the animal you have called. Before you waits your spirit animal.

You may now speak to your spirit animal. Ask of it anything you wish to know. It will answer fully and in truth. But especially, ask how its energies and purpose pertain to your life path. Begin by asking it why you chose it and why it chose you. When you have done with speaking to your spirit animal, say so and you will continue on your journey.


You are now familiar with your spirit animal’s energies. You know why it calls to you and how it can be a part of your life path. You may now make your spirit animal’s energies and purpose a part of you as well. This is a mating of spirits, a merging of energies. From this mating will be born a new you, a fresh approach to your life’s activities and a renewed sense of purpose on your path. Ask your spirit animal and it will show you how. When you are done, say so and you will continue on your journey.


Feel now the energies within you, merging and emerging. You are your spirit animal. You know the way into this place. Should you ever wish to do so, you can come here again. Now it is time to leave, bringing back with you all that you have learned and all that you have become on this journey. Say your goodbyes to your spirit animal, knowing that you carry its spirit with you now and always. You have a connection now; you can call upon your spirit animal any time without having to make the full journey back here.


Look around you at the beautiful countryside until you find the brook again. Once again you will cross it in three steps, but the steps have new meaning now. Set one foot into the creek on this side. With this step you bring the truth of this place into you and hence into the rest of your life. Set the other foot into the water on the far side. With this step you bring the energies of your spirit animal to your consciousness where you can use them in all your life. Step out onto the bank of the creek, on the side where you began earlier. With this step you bring the realization that you are the only one who truly has the power to direct your life path; you walk your own walk; you choose your own life.

Stroll across the beautiful countryside taking in the sights, sounds, smells, sensations. This beauty is all within you. This much life, vitality, strength, and abundance is within you. You know where it is now and how to reach it. When you are in need of beauty, of great richness of life, seek out this place within you. It is always here.

Now as you move across the landscape you see the mouth of the cave, the opening whence you were born into this place. Enter the cave now, knowing that this is the portal to your inner self, to tranquility, beauty and strength. Through this cave you are reborn to yourself, to your own life.

Feel the warm, secure darkness around you as you move deep into the cave. Feel the energy within you: your new knowledge, the energy of your spirit animal, the spark of life within you. This is who you truly are: what can be seen only with the heart. Look inside you now and see your beauty, your strength, your purpose. You carry these with you now and always. Remember them well.

The air in the cave grows gently and gradually cooler as you move toward the far end, toward the surface of the earth. You feel the weight of your body in the earth. You grow slowly and gently lighter as the earth releases you, as you return to your starting place. Feel your breath and your heartbeat as you center yourself once again in your body.

You have returned from a great journey, a pilgrimage within yourself. Awake, arise and refresh yourself as a traveler might do. But remember that you are only at rest; you have not yet reached your journey’s end. Allow the spirit animal's energy to enter your daily life, that it may help you along the way.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Thunder Meditation

When you need to raise energy for a purpose - healing, moving forward, achieving a goal - this meditation is an effective tool. Always make sure you clarify your purpose and focus on it before raising energy; send the collected energy to its purpose then ground yourself well to release any stray energy.

You can record this meditation and play it back as you relax and do the visualization, or you can have someone read it to you. This meditation is my original work, so if you choose to share it with anyone else, please be sure to include proper credit.

Lightning on the Columbia River by Ian Boggs
Accessed via Wikimedia Commons
Thunder Meditation
by Laura Perry

You are standing outside in a field at the base of a grassy hill. Feel the soft air around you, the warm sun on your skin, the damp earth beneath your bare feet.

Before you stands a square stone as high as your chest, rough on the sides but smooth and flat on top. You know this great stone is an altar. You walk up to the monolith, reaching out toward it. You feel the magic here and know this place has been special time out of mind. You know, too, that here you can gather the energy to fulfill your purpose.

Place your hands on top of the stone, palms down, and feel its smooth, cool surface. Speak to the stone through your hands; tell it why you are here, why you must raise energy. Feel the stone acknowledge your thoughts, your needs. The energy of your body connects with the energy of the stone and of the earth beneath it through the palms of your hands. You sense the great depth and weight of the stone, the immensity of the earth’s energy beneath you.

As you become aware of this connection you look up towards the hill. Storm-clouds begin to roll in around the top of the rise and the breeze picks up. An inner urge compels you to leave the altar and climb the hill. As you remove your hands from the stone you retain the energetic connection with the earth, sensing it all through your body. You begin to walk up the hill.

Under your bare feet you feel the smooth grass and the damp earth as you climb upwards. The cool wind brushes your skin, tugs at your hair. You taste the mist in the air as you breathe deeply, filling your lungs. As you approach the summit of the hill the storm clouds converge and the sky darkens. The electricity in the air makes your skin tingle and the earth vibrates beneath your feet.

When you reach the hilltop you lie down on your back in the grass, the earth pressing against your body as you settle down onto the ground. The wind whips across your bare skin, raising goosebumps all over you. The air crackles with electricity as the storm gathers. Thunder rumbles in the distance. The smell of ozone lies heavy around you.

The storm moves steadily toward the hill, toward you. Your body tingles more and more as the storm approaches, from your scalp all the way down to your toes. The energy swirls through you, centering in your belly. You see the core of power glow within you.

Suddenly the thunder cracks above you and the rain begins to pour. You feel the raindrops slap your skin, light and soft at first but thumping harder and harder as the rain pours down. The water runs in little rivulets across the earth, snaking along your arms and legs, soaking the ground around you.

The driving rain stings your skin all over. Lightning strikes the hilltop beside you, thrusting electricity through the earth. You tingle and the core of power within you grows stronger, glowing and pulsing in time with your heartbeat. The thunder cracks and rumbles, shaking the earth. Lightning strikes all around you, lighting up the storm-dark sky. With each blazing bolt the energy grows stronger within you, seeping into you from the ground below, passing into you through the air.

The storm continues until you have absorbed all the energy you can hold; you are filled with glowing energy, full of power and purpose. What you cannot contain is safely absorbed by the earth beneath you. You revel in the power - the thunder, the lightning, the howling wind, the driving rain. You are one with the wild.

As the storm begins to abate you feel the energy still glowing and pulsing within you. The thunder and lightning cease. The rain slackens to a drizzle then a gentle mist. The clouds begin to drift away. You feel the ground warm beneath you and you feel your body energized and full of power, ready to move to a purpose. You stand up, feeling the now warm air against your damp skin as you begin the walk back down the hillside.

You step over to the stone, to the place you stood before the storm. You feel a tension in the air as if the stone were waiting for you to take action. You feel the core of power pulsing within you as you once again place your hands on the surface of the stone. The stone remembers what you told it before and reminds you of your purpose here. As you focus your mind on this purpose you open the energy flow through your palms and into the stone, connecting with it and through it, with the earth.

You picture clearly in your mind the purpose for which you need the energy and once again instruct the stone about that purpose, speaking through your touch. When the goal is focused within your mind, you gather up the energy in your belly and send it out through your hands into the stone, into the earth, to the purpose for which you intend it. You empty out all your energy to this purpose knowing it will go where you choose to send it and nowhere else. Picture now in your mind the purpose completed, the goal fulfilled.

Now feel your hands on the stone, your palms on the smooth, cool surface. Feel the earth beneath your bare feet, the soft breeze and the warm sun on your skin. You are done here, your purpose fulfilled. You thank the stone and the earth and the energies of this place for their help. Take your hands off the stone and experience your body as whole and separate, relaxed and at peace. You have done what you needed to do. Now you turn to go, knowing you can find your way here again whenever you have need.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Divine the Divine

This is the last in a series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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What is divination?

Basically, divination is a way of discovering information not normally available to us in our everyday lives.  It is a way of getting in touch with the divine, that which is beyond our normal reach; some people conceptualize this as our higher selves or the ultimate source of all.  The divine, being ‘bigger’ than we are, has access to greater information than we do - information about possible futures, about other people and times.  Thus, if we can access the divine, we can ask for information which we cannot normally obtain on our own.

Under what circumstances might you want to use divination?  Under what circumstances would you be willing to perform a divination for another person?  Under what circumstances would you not be willing?  Do you think divination for self or divination for others is more accurate, and why?

Why do we use divination?

There are a number of different methods of divination.  They vary from culture to culture and age to age, but they have one thing in common - the transformation of randomness into pattern.  In each method, the tools are arranged apparently randomly while the user concentrates on his/her connection to the divine and the question at hand.  Once the tools are arranged, the user focuses on them in a meditative state of mind, concentrating on being open to whatever message the divine might send.  If the divination is successful, the user will discover a meaningful pattern in the arrangement of the tools.  This pattern is then interpreted according to the rules, if any, associated with that particular method of divination.

The explanation of how this works is that the arrangement of the tools is not actually random, just apparently so.  The user opens his/her mind to the divine, allowing information to flow into his/her actions as the tools are arranged.  The user does not purposely arrange the tools in a pattern, but rather attempts to arrange them randomly.  The information flowing from the divine subconsciously alters the user’s actions, integrating pattern where there was none.

Peasant girls using chicken for divination (no kidding). Russian lubok, 19th century.

Could you be a little more specific, please?

Let’s look at some of the more common forms of divination and how they are used.  The first two methods involve interpretations based on a fixed set of rules.  While some use of intuition is allowed, for the most part the interpretations are fixed.

Tarot: This divination tool consists of a deck of cards, usually 56 cards in 4 suits much like our modern playing cards (the Minor Arcana) and another 22 face cards with various archetypal meanings and symbology (the Major Arcana).  The origin of the Tarot deck is unclear.  Some texts trace the Tarot back to Egypt.  Although some of the symbology may have originated there, the cards certainly did not since, although Egyptians made paper, they did not make playing cards.  The Tarot is probably a medieval European invention incorporating beliefs and symbology from the Middle East and Egypt.

To use the Tarot, the person asking the question shuffles the cards (the randomizing part of the divination) and the diviner lays them out in set designs.  The placements of the various cards is interpreted according to a set collection of meanings.  There are versions of Tarot divination using a modern deck of playing cards, without the Major Arcana.  In this case the meanings of the cards match the meanings of the corresponding Minor Arcana cards in the Tarot deck.  There are numerous versions of the classic Tarot deck, each with a different symbol set.  In most cases, the symbols and artwork represent the same archetypes from deck to deck. There are even electronic Tarot programs in which the virtual cards are displayed on the computer screen. Presumably, the forces of the divine or higher self influence the random generator within the software to provide meaningful card spreads.

Originally, Tarot cards incorporated a great deal of Judeo-Christian symbology. In recent years many decks have come onto the market that center around pagan or non-Christian symbol sets. Though anyone can learn to read Tarot with any deck, it is helpful to choose a deck whose symbology feels comfortable to you and fits with your worldview. For instance, I am in the process of creating a Minoan-themed Tarot deck to accompany Ariadne's Thread.

Runes: Originating in Scandinavia and Germany, runes are a form of alphabet used to write magical content and inscriptions.  Each symbol also carries deeper meanings associated with its sound and shape.  To divine with runes, the user holds them in his/her hands while concentrating on the subject in question.  Then he or she casts the runes, scattering them on a flat surface (the randomization part of the divination).  The meaning of the divination is interpreted according to the placement of the runes: which ones are adjacent or on top of each other, which ones are turned upside down, and so forth.  Each version of runes (there are at least 5 known alphabets) has its own set of rules for interpretation.

The set of runes I made for myself from hazel wood

Interpretation of the following divination methods involves the intuition and impressions of the user rather than a set of rules for interpretation.

Scrying: In this method of divination, the user employs a reflective or random surface (water, a mirror, flames, the end grain of wood) as a focal point.  Focusing his or her gaze on the surface, the user concentrates on the subject in question.  There is no active randomization on the part of the user since the tool itself provides a random image.  As the user gazes at the focal point, the random pattern may resolve into a specific image or series of images which can then be interpreted in terms of the subject of the divination.  Can you think of any more tools for scrying besides the ones I have listed? How about smoke or clouds? What else?

Rorschach method: The reading of tea leaves, entrails, birds in flight and other such divination methods rely on the impression of the user to interpret the sight.  In the case of tea leaves and entrails, the user provides the randomization him or herself.  This is similar to the Druidic method of picking up a handful of stones and casting them down again, then reading the pattern.  In the case of natural formations - flocks of birds, schools of fish - nature provides the randomization and it is up to the user to interpret what is presented.

Why might you choose a divination method with set rules of interpretation?  Why might you choose an intuitive method?  Would you phrase your question differently for different methods?

What other methods of divination have you used or heard of? How about crystal ball gazing or I Ching? If you had to make up your own divination method rather than use one of the above, how would you do it?

What are the effects of divination?

We most often use divination to see into the future, to discover what might be.  This raises a set of philosophical questions.  Is the future set?  Is there only one path or are there many possibilities?  If there is only one path, then divination allows us to see our fate but not to change it.  If there are many possible paths, then divination allows us to see them and choose among them.  What are the implications of this question in terms of free will and fate?  Do you think there is one best or right path for each person or does that change over time?

If you believe we can change the path of the future, then what criteria would you use to determine any changes?  Does the end justify the means, or the other way around?  What are the karmic implications of changing your path, since everything you do affects those around you?  Exactly who are you responsible for and at what level?

In addition to discovering possible future paths, all divination methods can be used as focuses for meditation and reflection. This type of contemplation, while focusing on a particular life situation, allows us to access deeper levels of our own intuition as well as higher self and the divine. It can offer greater insight into current circumstances and allow us to clarify our own desires, fears and biases. It can show us how we got to the place we are currently in, and thus offer opportunities for improvement as we move forward. I find this use of divination tools to be far more profound than simple see-the-probable-future divination.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Music in Ritual, Music as Ritual

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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Music in its many forms has long been an integral part of ritual in many cultures and traditions. From the earliest shaman’s drum to the latest digital recordings, people have used music to alter their energy and change their consciousness. How does music affect you in your daily life? Do you use music to change your mood? To cheer you up on a bad day or calm you down at the end of a stressful one? Does music distract you from some activities or help you concentrate on others?

Music in daily life affects the conscious and subconscious mind. Ritual strengthens these effects because the setting encourages us to open our hearts and minds to experiences beyond the ordinary. The setting of a ceremony primes us to internalize any symbolism we encounter and to match our energy with that created by our surroundings. Let’s look at some of the ways we can incorporate music into ritual, both for enjoyment and to enhance the effect of the rite itself.

C minor cadence

A Simple Beat

One of the most basic forms of ritual music is drumming. It is easy for anyone to do and requires little equipment; even an empty oatmeal box will do, in a pinch. Drumming can provide a background for other types of music or for dancing. It can also function as a sound effect - a heartbeat drumbeat, for example, to slow down or speed up the energy. A drum circle is, in itself, a ritual, the communion of the drummers with the fire and with the dancers who move in concert with the energy of the drum-sound. Drumming is also the physical-world focus of shamanic journey rituals, providing the link back here for those who travel to the Otherworld.

When might you want to incorporate drumming into a ritual? Consider the different effects of the following: drumming while the participants chant; drumming while the participants dance; drumming to aid or lead a meditation or visualization; drumming as background sound during a speech. When would you want many people to take part in the drumming? When would you want the drumming reserved for a few specific people? When would drumming be inappropriate or detrimental to the atmosphere of the ritual?

An extension of drumming is any kind of rhythmic, non-melodic instrument - shakers, rattles, sticks, bones and so forth. Any of these types of instruments can be substituted for drums or included along with them. A fun addition to a casual ritual is the activity of making simple rattles and shakers then using them as part of the rite. What kind of effect might the different sounds have on the energy of the circle? Consider, among others, the boom of a djembe, the hiss of a sistrum, the click of bones or sticks.

Wooden Darbouka

Adding a Few Words

One of the most common types of music in modern ritual is chanting. Chants have few words, repetitive style and simple melodies that most people can learn quickly and easily. They can be made up on the spot for particular occasions or magical workings or they can be tried-and-true favorites that everyone knows.

Unlike drumming, chanting does not lend itself easily to the creation of an entire ritual. Rather, chants are used to reinforce an activity or raise energy within the ritual. Can you think of a chant that can be used to acknowledge the elements? How about one for invoking some aspect of deity? There are many popular chants that can be used to enact various parts of ritual - marking the sacred space, invoking elementals and deities, celebrating the Great Rite, sharing food and drink, ending the ritual. How might the energy be different if various portions of a ritual are performed by chanting rather than by ordinary speech? How would the energy differ if only the ritual leader performed the chant, or if the entire group participated in the chant?

Prayers are commonly chanted in many religions around the world. Can you think of a prayer you have heard chanted or sung? How does this feel different from a prayer that is simply spoken? Prayer in itself is a ritual. It includes a beginning, an identification of deity or higher power, praise and thanks to the deity or higher power, an asking for favors or gifts, and a formal ending. A prayer can be offered as a ritual complete in itself or it can be incorporated into a larger ritual, echoing the greater framework (a ritual within a ritual). Prayers can be chanted or sung by the ritual leader or by the entire group of participants. When might you choose to have everyone offer a chanted prayer together? When might you have only the officiant chant or sing the prayer, and why?

Music has an interesting effect on the brain: it allows us to remember things better than we normally can. If you’re near my age, I bet you can still sing the Preamble to the Constitution as performed on Schoolhouse Rock all those Saturday mornings ago. If you had simply memorized the words, you probably would have forgotten it by now. Any piece of ritual performed to music rather than simply spoken will make a deeper impression on your memory, creating a more powerful overall impression. How would the effect of a chant or song you already know differ from one you are presented with for the first time in ritual? What if it is repeated until you learn it?

What about chants we make up on the spot? Do they have the same effect? Does it depend on how easily they are learned? There are moments in magical working when the sudden desire for a chant becomes overwhelming. That is the time to make something up. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can have the same melody as another chant or song. You can use just a few words, repeated over and over, and the effect can be powerful. Have you ever made up a chant on the spot or participated in a ritual when someone else did? How did the chant make you feel? Children are especially talented at on-the-spot composition, since they do not feel the adult social constraints to make everything turn out perfect the first time. The chants we voice do not have to be perfect, just useful and enjoyable.

Cat Halloween Song

Instrumental Music

Instrumental music, alone or as an accompaniment to singing, can add a deeper dimension to ceremonies. Drumming is one kind of instrumental music, but melodic instrumentals add a different kind of energy to the ritual environment. Have you ever participated in a ritual which included instrumental music? We are used to thinking of the pipe organs in churches, but a guitar or flute can add a great deal of texture. What kind of instrument would you use to evoke the energy of Spring? Of Winter? How about calling the deities with music -- what sort of instrument would you use to call Pan or Epona or Grandmother Spider?

We are not all musicians but we can all still incorporate instrumental music into our rituals thanks to the wonderful modern convenience of recorded music. Used as the background for part of a ritual, recorded music can be surprisingly effective in setting the tone and fine-tuning the energy.  Recorded music is also useful for chanting and singing when no one in the group feels confident enough to lead an a capella version. Since the music is recorded, its inclusion in ritual does not add the performance anxiety that live music sometimes can. All you have to do is pop CD into the boom box or dial up the title on your MP3 player and turn it on at the appropriate time. When might you want to use recorded instrumental music in a ritual? What type of music would you choose? When might you want recorded vocal music? How would you incorporate it into a ritual without having it overwhelm or distract?

Victorian Harpist

By Action or by Use

Most pagans consecrate items they plan to use in ritual before they enter the sacred space. This usually includes any implements to be placed on the altar as well as personal magical tools - the wand, the blade, and so forth. What about musical instruments, and especially electronic devices such as boom boxes and MP3 players? This question goes back to the discussion of the fact that all space is sacred. How do you treat items that you don’t normally use for ritual but which you will bring into a ceremony on one or two occasions? Why?

Regardless of the type of music you choose, whether it is live or recorded, whether you perform it or someone else does, give it a try in your next ritual. The drumbeat and the melody can lead you to places you can’t reach any other way.

Recommended Reading and Listening

Chants: Ritual Music by the Reclaiming Community

Circle of the Seasons by Lisa Thiel

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Celtic Chakras by Elen Sentier

I have to admit, I was skeptical about this book before I began reading it. The title suggests it’s yet another fluffy New Age volume that randomly and superficially connects the spiritual practices from one part of the world with those from another, with no real ‘meat’ to it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Celtic Chakras by Elen Sentier

Celtic Chakras demonstrates that an amazing amount of information is hidden in the folklore and magical traditions of the West. No, the Celts, their predecessors and neighbors did not use the term 'chakras' but they were intimately familiar with the subtle energy system associated with the human body. This book takes the reader on a journey through this energy system, teaching how to approach and understand it through both explanation and meditative activities. It is obvious Ms. Sentier practices her subject and is intimately familiar with the workings, and dangers, of the body’s system of energy centers. She gives clear directions and warnings where appropriate, leading even the novice through the guided visualizations and rituals with confidence. I was fascinated to read about the spiral path through the body's energy centers (chakras). I have intuitively used a spiral path in my work as a Reiki master for a number of years; I must have been hooking into some ancestral knowledge and am gratified to have this practice affirmed.

This book brings together the threads of tradition and symbolism for three goddesses: Elen of the Ways, Arianrhod and Ceridwen and relates them to the body’s energy system in a way that makes sense. If you are familiar with any of these goddesses, or interested in them, you will find a deeper layer of meaning in their mythology after reading Celtic Chakras. Ms. Sentier’s journeys (guided visualizations/meditations) to the realms of the goddesses are inspired and inspiring. And her activities involving the Cauldrons of Poesy are deeply moving. I do wish the section about Brighid had been longer and more thorough, with more deep insights; it seemed to end abruptly compared to the chapters about the other two goddesses. However, I am grateful that Ms. Sentier chose not to pad out that section with repetition and meaningless fluff simply to reach a particular page count. Every page of this book is packed with real, meaningful information. It is easily approachable for the beginner but also gives the advanced practitioner something solid to chew on. And there’s nothing else like it out there.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Animals in Pagan Spiritual Practice

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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We are all familiar with the conventional image of the old witch with her black cat. But wild and domestic animals play a much larger and more subtle role in paganism than this stereotype would suggest. Let’s look at some ways in which animals, real and symbolic, enrich spiritual practice in a number of different traditions.

In what capacity do animals participate as part of pagan spiritual tradition and practice? Certainly as familiars, like the old witch with her cat. But they also function as symbols or incarnations of deities.  And in some instances they are part of a deity’s menagerie or following, the creatures that deity protects. In each case the animals’ relation to the gods and to humanity differs somewhat, but regardless, these sacred animals are a way for humans to connect with deity and move along a spiritual path.


A familiar is a physical animal a person actively works with in their spiritual practice. The cat is the most widely-known form of familiar, and indeed many people’s pet cats assist them in working energy and magick and connecting to deity. Over the years I have had several cats who took an active part in rituals and spellwork. But the animal need not be a cat; in fact, it need not even be a domestic animal.

In medieval Europe the term grimalkin came into popular use (thanks to the Inquisition) to describe or name a witch’s familiar. The name literally means “grey cat” in Old English, but as often as not it referred to a rabbit or other small, wild creature who assisted the witch in working magick. People who feel a connection with a particular type of animal, wild or domestic, may be able to use that animal as a familiar. Often, a person who works mostly or exclusively with a particular deity will feel drawn toward the animals associated with that deity.

The concept of animal familiars stems from the belief that animals, like children, are more innocent than adults. Their psyches are not loaded down with the artificialities of civilization, the constraints of “ought to” and “should” and concerns about appearance over substance. Therefore they are closer to the gods, more in touch with REALITY as opposed to adults who operate from beneath a veneer of social rules. How do you think the familiar relationship works in magick? Does the animal provide a channel to the deity with which it is associated, or to the divine in general? Does its innocence help the person move to a more innocent energy themselves, and hence closer to deity?

Do you have a familiar? If you do, why did you choose that type of animal, if it was a conscious choice? If you do not have a familiar, would you consider using one? If you would, which animal or animals would you choose and why?

One of my sweet furbabies who has a magic all his own

Animal and Deity, Animal as Deity

A number of deities have animals associated with them. Some cultures represent gods and goddesses as animals or as having animal characteristics. Egyptian deities, for example, are often depicted with an animal head and a human body, reflective of the animal-head masks their priests and priestesses wore as well as the combination of traits associated with each god or goddess. But wild animals are also representative of the divine. What do cats (large and small, wild and domestic), hawks, eagles, wild boars and bulls have in common? Can you think of a deity associated with a quiet, passive, timid animal? Why do you think these animals are connected with these goddesses and gods? Were the animals’ traits ascribed to the deity, or was the deity defined first and then an animal chosen to match the deity’s traits? Perhaps the association did not happen in such definite steps.

Consider the following deities and their associated animals. How do the images of the animals affect how we think of each god or goddess? How do deities from different cultures compare when they are associated with the same or similar animal? Does seeing the deity’s animal and interacting with it make you feel closer to that god or goddess? Would you consider an animal associated with a deity to be that deity’s familiar?

Anansi = spider
Arachne = spider
Asclepius = cock
Athena = owl
Bastet = cat
Freya = hawk
Freyr = wild boar
Hathor = cow
Horus = hawk
Lugh = wild boar
Poseidon = bull/horse
Sekhmet = lion

Some deities are so closely connected with their representative animal that they are called by that animal’s name and given its full form. Native American traditions include Coyote and Grandmother Spider. Mayan deities name the Macaw, Jaguar and Monkey. We find Serphant in Europe, Dragon in the Orient and Br’er Rabbit in the African-inspired American South. How do you think these deities developed? They are not anthropomorphic, although some are said to speak or walk upright like humans.

We have already seen that deities from one culture to another represent similar facets of the human psyche. Many cultures have deities which represent mother, father, creator, grain deity, trickster and so forth. How do the animal representations of these classes of deity vary from culture to culture? What types of animals are typically associated with the following aspects of deity, and why?

FEMALE: Crone/grandmother, mother, maiden, goddess of the green, Earth, Fate, women’s work (spinner, weaver, cook), wife

MALE: Father, lord of the animals, underworld king, Sky, warrior, men’s work (hunter, smith), husband

EITHER/NEITHER: Creator, trickster, lover, grain deity, sun, moon, child, death, sea, giver-of-all, fire-source, healer

A Cooper's hawk, native to North America

Lord of the Animals

Some deities are considered to be protectors of animals, especially wild animals. Herne and Cernunnos are both called Lord of the Animals, as is Myrddin on occasion. These gods protect the wild animals of the forest, especially the larger ones like the deer. They are often depicted as human but with some characteristics of the animals they are associated with, such as horns or antlers. But Herne and Cernunnos are both described as hunters as well. How do you reconcile these two attitudes toward the animals, that of protector of the animals and hunter of them as well? How would the hunter/protector disparity be seen differently in societies earlier than ours?

The Greek goddess Artemis is also a protector of wild animals, and also a hunter. Artemis, as a virgin (unmarried) goddess, takes on roles that were usually reserved for men in Greek society. Can you think of any other female deities that are considered protectors or hunters of animals?

How would your impression of a deity whose animal is hunted differ from that of a deity whose animal is never hunted? How does your impression of a deity associated with a wild animal differ from that of a deity associated with a domesticated animal? Do you use animal representations or symbols for the deities you work with? Why or why not?

A mama and baby deer in my back yard - what a blessing!

Animal Totems and Spirit Guides

Some traditions use animals as representations of spirit without associating them with individual gods or goddesses. In some cases the animal itself is considered the guardian or ancestor spirit of a tribe or clan. These animals are often referred to as totems. Many pre-industrial societies use animal totems, both as a spiritual focus and as a defining factor for inclusion in the family, clan or tribe. We are familiar with the totem animals of the Native Americans, but there are many other societies that link (or linked, in the past) themselves to animals in a totemic fashion. 

In the British Isles, the tale of the rise of King Arthur is a thinly-veiled myth regarding the shift of the Pictish tribes from a serpent or dragon totem (Arthur’s father Pendragon) to a bear totem (Arthur means bear). This myth also reflects a long-term astrological shift of the pole star from within the constellation Draco to Ursa Major. Called the Big Dipper in America, the constellation of the Great She-Bear is known in Britain as Arthur’s Wain (wagon).

The Norse deities Freyr and Freya, commonly considered part of the Valhalla-based Norse pantheon, were originally tribal totem deities. The god Freyr grew out of a boar totem-spirit that belonged to a Scandinavian tribe. Freya came from a clan whose totem animal was the hawk. As Norse spiritual practice became more ritualized, the totem spirits gradually metamorphosed into deities. When the regions of Scandinavia joined under a more centralized leadership, its religion was united and all the local deities joined the central ruling deities in Valhalla.

Does your ancestry suggest any totem animals to you? What parts of the world does your family come from and what animals live there?

Some pagans follow a shamanic path and use animal spirits as guides or spirit familiars when journeying in the Otherworld. Sometimes these animal spirits simply appear to the shamanic practitioner and sometimes the person chooses the animal and calls it to him or her. In many ways, animal spirit guides function in the Otherworld the same way physical animal familiars do in the material world. They help the shaman “tune in” to that which is greater than human. Often, animal spirit guides act in human-like ways, speaking to the practitioner, walking upright, and so forth.

Have you ever met an animal spirit on a journey or during a meditation? Did you summon the animal or did it simply appear to you? How might the qualities associated with different animals in the physical world be amplified or changed in the Otherworld?

I offer you a friendly challenge: Spend some time today thinking about the ways in which animals (physical or otherwise) impact your spiritual practice. Call to the world of the other animals (yes, we're animals, too!) and ask them to teach you what they can about your individual spiritual path. Offer them friendship and respect, and see where the journey leads.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: A Deed Without a Name

A Deed Without a Name: Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional Witchcraft by Lee Morgan

A Deed Without a Name by Lee Morgan

If you are interested in European traditional witchcraft (which is not the same as Wicca) this book is an excellent starting point. It bridges the gap between the scholarly study of Renaissance-era and earlier magical works and actual practice as it comes down to us through blurred and broken traditions. As author Lee Morgan writes,

“To access what some people call the ‘tradition’ of witchcraft we need to first understand that witchcraft as we know it today is a myth. But this is not to say it doesn’t exist. The ‘nameless deed’ that lies behind that myth is part of the eternal nature of mankind. But it is also universally part of human nature to experience the divine and the transcendent through the conduit of myth.”

Morgan addresses not only the better-known aspects of the Craft such as the Mark, fetches, hedge-riding, and ritual work but also the psychological and emotional implications of approaching the Powers in traditional fashion. This is not a voyage for the merely curious, a fact this book makes clear. Setting foot along the path of the Cunning Craft will change you deeply and irretrievably. But if you feel called, this volume is an excellent starting point. There is no fluff in it but real, practical information gleaned from time-honored texts, interviews with modern practitioners and the author’s personal experience.

As I read through the text, I was impressed with the way Morgan has brought the basics of the Craft into the modern day without losing the mystery and timelessness of the practice. I have heard the complaint that this book does too much of the ‘hard work’ novices are expected to attempt by themselves – digging through arcane texts, connecting the dots among obscure and obsolete practices – and I must disagree. The true hard work of the Craft comes in the journeying, the Work itself, the times when we meet the Mystery head-on and in person and are transformed. All Morgan does is organize the material in a sensible manner and provide stepping stones to set the reader on his or her way. He leaves the real work for us to do ourselves. His writing is both realistic and inspirational; I expect it will give many readers the push they need to move forward along this path.

Though I do recommend A Deed Without a Name, I must add my own disclaimer here: Reading a book does not make you a witch. Walking the Path every day of your life does. So yes, read the book – it’s wonderful and I’m sure you’ll refer back to it time and again. But do the Work as well. The serious student of witchcraft will also apply themselves to the Further Reading list at the end of the book in order to move deeper into the material and the experience. And of course, no book can substitute for the guidance of a good teacher.

I wish you well on your journeys.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tools and Accessories

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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We’ve all seen them; perhaps we've even been one of these people ourselves at one time or another - the colorful characters of the pagan community with their velvet robes, satin capes, 57 different silver necklaces, three matching knives in graduated sizes on their color-coordinated belt, 4 rings on each finger, dramatic makeup for both day and nightime wear. Of course, their altars match their outfits - chased silver goblets, carved brass and rosewood incense holder (with five kinds of incense burning at once), incised bronze pentagram inlaid with multiple different sacred stones, gold lame altarcloth embroidered with sacred symbols draped over a velvet cloth draped over an elaborately carved table, two-foot-tall deity statue, and so on.

This might be overkill or it might not; I won't argue personal tastes here - if it works for you, then do it. My point is that these people do make an impression, and that’s what ritual and ceremony are all about: making an impression. Yes, you can do everything in your head in a meditative state with just as effective an outcome, if you have the necessary mental control from years of practice. But when you’re doing ritual with other people you have to keep everyone on the same wavelength. Remember the post about symbolism in ritual? The easiest way to use symbols is with theatrics. Of course your words, the rituals you compose, will have an impact. But the visual images you use have even more power, for they are constantly present throughout the ritual, beaming themselves into everyone's brain every time they look. So it is with ritual tools.

Tools are just that: items used to accomplish a purpose. In ritual, whether private or public, tools help you focus on the task at hand. Their presence keeps your mind on the topic of the ceremony. Used correctly, your tools and accessories will reinforce the effect of your ritual. Chosen poorly, they can distract you from your purpose and hinder your energy.

Norse Yule altar with deity images, food offerings and tools
Setting the Stage

Think of the circle (or whatever shape your sacred space happens to be) as your stage. Your altar, then, is your biggest prop. If the presiding priest or priestess is the primary focus in the circle, then the altar is number two. How you set up your altar will affect how people respond to your ritual. What materials do you put on it - fancy cut crystal goblets and candlesticks or handmade ceramic ones? The gold lame altarcloth mentioned above, or a burlap one, or none at all? You don’t have to do anything elaborate; just be mindful of the impression you create when you choose what you use. Think of the overall feeling and effect you want and go from there.

The tools you place on your altar or carry on your person will, to some degree, be dictated by the type of ritual you perform and the rules of any tradition you follow. There are some standards - cups and goblets, blades, candles - that appear at most pagan rituals. There are others which you will choose according to the season and the occasion. Let’s look at some types of tools and accessories and how you might use them.

Feminine Imagery: The Womb and the Earth

Like it or not, every cup and bowl you bring into circle is a womb image. Across cultures and time, any round container which will hold liquid has been a womb symbol and hence a symbol of woman and the goddess. The bowl of salt water on your altar is a symbol of the sea, the womb of the earth. The cup of wine you share around the circle represents the life of the earth poured forth from the womb of the goddess. The cauldron in the center of your circle contains the fire-in-the-belly. Consider this imagery when choosing the type, number and prominence of cups and bowls for your ritual. For which occasions might you want multiple, large round containers? When might you want to eliminate them altogether, and why? Many tools have an individual and a collective version, one that belongs to a person and one that belongs to or symbolizes that aspect of the coven, clan or tribe. The cup is the personal womb symbol; the cauldron or other large round vessel is the group symbol.

The other basically female-symbolic tool is the pentagram, especially when drawn inside a circle, in which case it is called a pentacle. Note that while cups and bowls are female symbols cross-culturally, the pentagram is an exclusively European symbol. Its presence on the altar represents the earth and hence the goddess. The five points of the pentacle represent the elements which make up the world and which influence our lives. The pentagram as jewelry is an individual symbol; the pentagram on the altar or otherwise displayed in the ritual area is a group symbol. What tools do non-European traditions use to symbolize earth for the individual and the group?

Pagan altar with chalice, small cauldron and bowl-shaped censer
From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pink Pasty)
Long, Pointy Freudian Things

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar . . . but never in ritual. If it’s long and narrow, it’s a male symbol. The blade, the wand and the staff represent, in a very basic sense, the male and the god. Dipping the blade into the cup during the symbolic Great Rite symbolizes not only sexual union but also the union of the two halves of universal being. The blade symbolizes its owner’s will as well, their desire and purpose extended into the material world. In this sense it is still a masculine symbol even when the owner is a woman. We all carry the both masculine and the feminine within us; the will is, in many traditions, a masculine component of one’s being. Why do you think this might be? Do you agree with this interpretation? The small blade (called an athame in some traditions) is the personal tool; the sword is the collective tool, wielded by the group’s representative or leader.

The wand is also a masculine symbol, though not usually as powerful an image as the blade. Some traditions connect the blade with the metaphysical element of air and the wand with fire; some do it the other way round. Regardless, both are masculine symbols connected with elements held to be masculine in the European tradition. The wand is an extension of the hand and arm, a way to direct and focus energy, hence the stereotype of the witch pointing her magic wand at the unlucky prince, er, frog. You can direct energy just as easily by pointing your finger (ever wonder why your mom insisted it was rude to point?) but a wand is a much more visible sign of your action and intent. In this case the wand and the staff are both individual tools, though the staff can also be a group symbol when it is used as a sign of leadership. Shamans and other indigenous spiritual leaders often use staffs as symbols of their position in the community.

If long, pointy objects are male symbols and round containers are female symbols, how would you classify the smoking pipe? An interesting note: Native American pipes, as well as many older European models, have the bowl and stem as separate, interlocking pieces. Most Native American nations consider pipes to be a combination of masculine and feminine, and often store the pieces separately, only inserting the stem into the bowl immediately before use.

Norse pagan altar with phallic figurine of the god Freyr
Let There Be Light

Flame. What a marvelous tool. It is a symbol of life, power, magic, inspiration, passion, individual and collective will. And it looks so lovely. We often use candles as tools during ritual but we do not always consciously consider the impact of flame on a ritual (never mind burning witches). Lighting the god and goddess candles represents the moment at which their energies enter the ritual. A central fire represents the spark of life at the center of all things.  Many traditions describe spiritual awakening or possession by deity as a flame or fire emanating from the head. When would you choose candles, a cauldron containing a small fire, a giant bonfire? If you use candles, what color and size would you choose, and why? A white taper in a crystal candlestick gives a completely different impression than a sandcast black pillar candle set in the dirt. When would you choose not to use flame at all? When might you use flame as an active part of the ritual, either extinguishing it or lighting it to symbolize some aspect of the occasion?

Wiccan Imbolc Altar with many candles
From the Reading Pagan's & Witches Imbolc Gathering & Expo

Fashion Show

The items and objects you wear and carry on your person counts as tools. A casual family ritual whose primary focus is building community can be performed in jeans and T-shirts. But a formal Sabbat with 40 attendees and an altar the size of a megalith requires appropriate costuming. Just as in good literature, in good ritual nothing is inconsequential. Every detail has an effect on the participants. This includes what you wear. You choose your workday clothing to project a particular image; select your ritual clothing with this in mind as well. What sorts of garments do you feel comfortable wearing in ritual? When would you want all the participants to dress similarly to the priest or priestess and when would you want them to dress differently? Why? When would you want to enact a ritual skyclad and why?

The Tie that Binds

Rope. Cord. Ribbon. Some traditions require their adherents to wear a cingulum, a piece of cord measured against certain parts of the owner’s body. Yes, it’s a good way to keep from tripping on your robe’s hem, but that cord is also a powerful tool. What might the cingulum symbolize when worn around the waist? When hung up or laid on the altar? Anything that can be tied into a knot or that can tie two things together is a tool of union and binding. We bind two people’s hands together when they get married, that is, we make their hands fast together to symbolize the binding of their lives. At Beltane we weave ribbon around the Maypole. Originally the Maypole dance involved binding the May King and Queen to the Maypole, binding them to each other and their union to the land. In what other ways might you use cord or ribbon in ritual? How about weaving a web of community? Or defining the circle?

Sniff. Sniff. Ding! Munch.

All the tools I have mentioned so far produce visual effects, but what about the other senses? Scent can be a powerful ritual tool; the olfactory nerve reaches directly into the brain from the back of the nose. Incense and perfume oils lend their own energies to sacred space, enhancing and reinforcing the visual symbolism. A common way of welcoming participants into a ritual is through smudging with incense or anointing with scented oil. Let the choice of scent reflect the occasion - gardenia oil for Spring Equinox, sage and sweetgrass for Harvest, menthol for the cold of winter. Burn incense on the altar, around the circle or in the sacred fire. What scents might you choose for Midsummer? Midwinter? A wedding? A funeral?

We speak words and sing chants in ritual, but there are other ways to 'fill up our ears' as well. Be aware of background sounds when you choose the site for a ceremony. A babbling brook and insect nightnoise can be a lovely addition but traffic sounds or loud neighbors will probably be a distraction. Make sure phones are turned off and preferably left outside the ritual area before beginning. Recorded music chosen to reflect the theme of your activities can add to the ambience of the event. Remember, everything the participants encounter in a ritual affects their perception of it.

Many rituals include a food component - cakes and wine, a blot, or other sharing of food and/or drink. In addition to the practical considerations of food allergies and legal drinking age, take the time to determine how the food choices affect the feel of your ritual. Your tradition may require the use of particular recipes or beverages, but if it does not, consider the appearance and flavor of any food you use. Does it enhance the intended feeling of the ritual? Does it help the participants focus on the energy of the season or the purpose of the ceremony? It may seem like a small thing, but strawberries and May wine at Beltane or oat cakes and mead at Lammas can make a much stronger impression than you might think.

My own Autumn Equinox altar
The cakes-and-ale portion of this ritual was pomegranate juice
and apples sliced equatorially to show off the pentagram of seeds inside
The Big Picture

Some rituals just beg for really big props. Consider when you might want a really imposing image in your sacred space - a huge solar disk, a massive bonfire, a large altar overflowing with fruits and grains. Not every ritual needs something that dramatic. In fact, sometimes a large prop can detract from the focus, but at other times it intensifies the energy. It can become the visual focus of the ritual. Of course, sometimes you don’t want your props to compete with some other focus in your ritual, such as the couple getting married or the child being presented to the community. But at other times the focus is more abstract (harvest, death) and a big prop helps to focus the participants’ concentration and energy in one place. If you had to choose one occasion during the year to include a really imposing prop in your ritual, when would it be and why?

And So Forth

What tools and accessories have you used in ritual, either alone or in a group? Why did you choose them for that particular occasion? Do you feel they added to the psychological impact of the ceremonry or detracted from it? What tools might you like to try that you have never used before? Remember, anything you use is a tool. Sure, the traditional blade, cup, pentacle, candle and incense are always available. But what about something different? Consider when you might use the following in a ritual: dirt, rainwater, toilet paper, a hubcap, a tube of lipstick. Yes, I have used all of these items in ritual at various times.

We have discussed the use of ritual tools mainly for their effect when perfoming rituals with others. But tools carry their symbology regardless of the number of people participating in the ritual. Do you use tools of any sort when doing ritual alone or with just one partner? Why? Are there occasions when you use tools and occasions when you don’t? If so, how do you choose whether or not you need them?

A small piece of advice: Don’t get too complicated and don't focus more on the tools and accessories than on the ritual itself. Life is the greatest magic show of all. Our tools should serve to remind us of that. If the focus becomes the tools and props rather than the greater concepts they represent, it’s time to adjust our focus.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

To Celebrate the Moon

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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The Greater and Lesser Sabbats mark out the turning of the year, the seasons and the flow of power from Goddess to God and back again. These holy days occur on more-or-less set dates coinciding with the solar calendar; Beltaine is always May 1 (or thereabouts) and Mabon is always around September 21. But there is another cycle that affects the seasons, the agricultural year, the tides, and our bodies:  the cycle of the Moon.

Finding the Moon

You have to do more than just look up at the sky. 

The lunar year consists of 13 complete cycles of the moon. A lunar cycle (lunar month) begins at the new moon and goes through the full moon to end at the next new moon. A lunar month is 29-1/2 days long if you count from the hour of one new moon to the hour of the next. For practical purposes a lunar month appears 29 to 30 days long on the solar calendar. There are four generally recognized phases of the moon, or distinguishing points during each lunar cycle: the first quarter, the full moon, the last quarter and the new moon. Most pagans mark the full moon, and occasionally the new moon, with celebratory ritual but many points throughout the moon's monthly cycle are used for ceremonial magic.

These days, thanks to scientific measurements, we calculate each moon cycle from the exact point of one new moon to the next. Our ancestors, however, had only their eyes and a great deal of time and patience to work with. They counted each moon cycle beginning with the night when the first thin sliver of silvery moon appeared, after the three days' darkness of the new moon. In some regions this first sliver is called Diana's Bow, a reference to the goddess of that name.

Since a lunar year is actually a little shorter than a solar year the dates for the new and full moons spiral backwards through the solar calendar. And since the dates are not fixed according to the solar calendar our society follows, you must consult an almanac or specially-made lunar calendar to check the dates for the moons. The Hebrew and Islamic calendars even today follow the lunar cycle rather than the solar cycle. This is why the dates for such holy times as Yom Kippur and Ramadan vary from year to year.

A good basic reference guide is the Old Farmer’s Almanac. It is inexpensive and readily available, sometimes even in supermarket magazine racks. The Old Farmer's Almanac website also has a moon phase calendar as well as other useful and interesting information. Another source for lunar cycle information is The Witches' Almanac which is available at metaphysical bookstores and online. Or you can use a lunar calendar, also available at specialty bookstores and online; having a year-long moon phase calendar on the wall to look at can be helpful in understanding the ebb and flow of the energies associated with the lunar cycle. Googling the phrase 'moon phases' or 'lunar phases' will also net you some helpful information.

The pagan rituals performed at the new and full moons are called Esbats, in contrast to the eight solar Sabbats. Some traditions consider only the full moon to be an Esbat while others include both the new and the full. I suggest not picking a fight about terminology.

If your life allows for such flexibility, you can perform your moon rituals at the actual hour and minute of the new or full moon. However, very few people have this luxury. Most people enact moon circles the night of the new or full moon. Of course, there are many sides to the debate over which night to do these rituals. If the moon goes full in the early hours of the morning, do you perform the ritual the night before or the night after it goes full?

To avoid this sort of argument altogether just remember that a new or full moon is an astrological, as well as astronomical, event and each astrological event has an orb. The orb is the event’s sphere of influence, the time the energy from the event has a direct effect in the world. The orb for a new or full moon is three days. This means the day before and the day after are still within its sphere of influence. If you go outside each night around the new or full moon you will see there is no apparent change in the moon for three days. It looks full for three days and is dark for three days.

The Ups and Downs

As the moon moves from new to full it is said to be waxing or growing. From full to new the moon is said to be waning. These cycles affect the kinds of ritual work we do and when we choose to do it.

The new moon is just that: new, open, a clean slate. This time in the moon’s cycle is usually used for rituals that involve new beginnings or releasing the old in order to move on. This is the time for cleansing and banishing, and also for initiation in many traditions.  It is no coincidence that for thousands, perhaps millions, of years women’s cycles followed the moon, with menstruation at the new moon and ovulation at the full moon. Electric lights put a stop to that kind of synchronicity, but we can still feel a connection with those cycles if we pay attention.

The energy of the moon’s cycle builds toward the full moon, the culmination or peak in the cycle. The full moon is the highest point of energy, the time for doing strong workings, for cast spells, for raising energy. If the new moon is the time for letting things go, the full moon is the time for bringing things to you.

The new and full moon are the zenith and nadir in the cycle and therefore are the traditional points for performing ritual. These are the times when groups usually gather for circle. Remember, though, that the calendar does not hold still between the moons. The cycle continues to flow and ebb. The times between the moons have traditionally been used for personal rituals, especially those that continue for several days, and for ceremonial magic associated with particular points in the cycle.

The waxing moon energy from the new until the full is similar to full moon energy in that it is growing and gaining strength. The waning moon energy from the full down to the new is similar to new moon energy in that it is fading, releasing strength. Keep in mind where you are in the cycle when determining the timing and purpose of your rituals.

'Venus of Laussel' carving from southwestern France

A Few Other Tidbits

In addition to the basic energy of the moon’s cycle, there are a number of other factors you can include in setting up your rituals or determining when to perform them. Of course, you do not have to use all of these factors each time, but they add an extra dimension of symbolism, energy and meaning to ritual times.

The Moon’s Astrological Sign: You can find this information in the Old Farmer’s Almanac under 'Gardening by the Moon’s Sign.' Or in The Witches' Almanac. Or in an ephemeris. Or by Googling the phrase 'moon astrological sign calculator.' If you are interested in astrology you can bring in all the aspects of the moon's sign: whether it is cardinal, fixed or mutable, what its attributes are, and so on. If you are not so much into astrology you can ponder the significance of the element associated with the sign. Think, for instance, how the moon’s being in a water sign could influence the kind of ritual you choose to perform.

The Sun’s Astrological Sign: This means the standard zodiacal sign for the time of year it is, just like when you determine what sign you are according to your birthday. For instance, for a full moon on May 15 the sun is in Taurus. A new moon on October 26 finds the sun in Scorpio. You can bring in all the same kinds of information as for the moon’s astrological sign, also keeping in mind whether the sun and moon are characterized as having masculine or feminine energy in your tradition.

The Time of Year: This can be anything from the fact that it is summer to the fact that it is two days after Lammas. Keep in mind the kind of energy in the earth around you: Are things sprouting, growing, dying or dormant? Is it wet or dry? Hot or cold? It sounds simplistic, but paying attention to the earth’s cycles can add a great deal of power to your rituals. So can focusing on the Sabbat cycle. Think about whether god energy or goddess energy is stronger. Think about which two Sabbats you are between and what they mean.

Ritual Lunar Calendars: There are a number of moon-cycle calendars devised for ritual use.  Some are based on agricultural or hunting cycles while others are based on ancient symbol sets such as the Druid grove. You can find more information on these calendars in my post about the Wheel of the Year. You can bring in any of this information to add depth to your rituals.

And So Forth: If you are interested in various kinds of symbolism, numerology or sacred alphabets, you can even take into account the numbers and letters in the date and time of day. Or the day of the week or solar month, all of which have certain energies and deities associated with them. Anything that has meaning to you will add depth to your ritual. Just look around you.