Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Symbolism?

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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Why Symbolism?

symbol: 1. a material object representing something...immaterial.  2. a letter, figure, or combination of letters used to represent an object or idea.

connotation: the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression

--The Random House Dictionary, Concise Edition

Explain Yourself!

Why does this article begin with a question? What might this type of title indicate about its purpose? The question-form of the title is, in itself, a symbol. You are reading this because you seek knowledge and insight, and in your seeking you question many things. What further symbolism does the question-form contain?

In order to discuss symbolism we must first understand two terms: denotation and connotation. Denotation is simply the dictionary definition of a word or phrase - its explicit meaning. The denotation for the word circle is “a closed plane curve of which all points are at an equal distance from the center.” Connotation, in contrast, is the meaning which goes beyond the definition. Connotations are usually ascribed to words, objects and figures by the culture or society that uses them. In the pagan realm, the connotation for circle includes the connectedness of all people (such as when they join hands in a circle) and the never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth.

The Flower of Life

Consider the denotations and connotations of the following images and items:

pentagram           eagle           snow

black           wine           moon

U.S. flag           fountain pen           yardstick

As you can see, a simple word can carry multiple, often contradictory connotations. Remember: a word is a power. There is great power in words because of their connotations, not because of their dictionary definitions. A word or image that takes on a great deal of power and whose connotations become so thoroughly ingrained as to be almost subconscious has become a symbol. A symbol, then, is the image or word which embodies a concept on a very basic psychological and cultural level.

The difference between symbol and connotation lies in the level at which we perceive the meaning. A connotation is a mostly conscious perception of the secondary meaning of a word or image. We recognize on a conscious level the connotations of the words and images we see displayed in advertising, scrawled on city walls, and bandied about by politicians. But we perceive symbolism on a nearly subconscious level. We don’t often think consciously about what the pentagram or cross or Thor’s hammer means. But we FEEL what it means. The level or place of perception is what makes symbolism such a powerful tool.

Inverted pentagram from  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's Libri tres de occulta philosophia

You’re Only as Jung as You Feel

An object or image used in the same context over and over again becomes numinous, that is, charged with emotional meaning and significance. This emotional significance distinguishes a symbol from the mere image from which it derives.

The most powerful symbols of all are those that appeal to the subconscious and which tend to evoke the same reaction across many different cultures. The philosopher/psychologist Carl Jung termed these symbols archetypes, from the Greek (arkhe = principal or basic + tupiai = pattern or concept). St. Augustine describes his ideae principales (principal ideas=archetypes) in the following terms: “For the principal ideas are certain forms, or stable and unchangeable reasons for things, themselves not formed, and so continuing eternal and always after the same manner, which are contained in the divine understanding.” (St. Augustine, Liber de Diversis Quaestionibus, trans. Alan Glover)

Jung suggested that the archetypes are symbols whose inherent meaning and significance remains the same throughout all generations of the human race. Each individual inherits the same archetypes, deeply rooted in his or her psyche, and these archetypes remain the same regardless of culture, religion or family influence. Since Jung expressed his ideas far better than I can, let me quote here his introduction to Esther Harding’s book Woman’s Mysteries:
“The term archetype is not meant to denote an inherited idea, but rather an inherited mode of psychic other words, it is a ‘pattern of behavior.’ This aspect of the archetype is the biological one - it is the concern of scientific psychology. But the picture changes at once when looked at from the inside, that is from within the realm of the subjective psyche. Here the archetype presents itself as numinous, that is, it appears as an experience of fundamental importance. Whenever it clothes itself with adequate takes hold of the individual in a startling way, creating a condition of “being deeply moved” the consequences of which may be immeasurable. It is for this reason that the archetype is so important for the psychology of religion. All religions and all metaphysical concepts rest upon archetypal foundations and, to the extent that we are able to explore them, we succeed in gaining at least a superficial glance behind the scenes of world history, and can lift a little the veil of mystery which hides the meaning of metaphysical ideas.”
Triple spiral based on carvings at Newgrange, Ireland

Answer the Bloody Question, Already

Jung’s description of the archetype touches on the title question for this class: Why symbolism? Symbolism in religion is both a process and a tool. With symbols we can reach a part of the psyche that daily life never touches. We achieve, almost effortlessly, a deeper level of understanding and meaning with the symbols of a religious service. How often have you been deeply moved by a symbol? What sort of symbol was it - a flag, a photo, a wedding ring, a cup of wine, car keys, a lighted candle? Often these images and items are part of a ritual, formalized or not, overtly religious or not. Let us consider a few of the more common neo-pagan symbols and their various levels of meaning.

The Sacred Blade: This tool (referred to in some traditions as the athame) is usually seen as an extension of the individual’s will. As with so many neo-Pagan symbols, its elemental and gender affiliations change from one tradition to another. It is usually interpreted as a masculine symbol/tool, both because of its shape and because of its association with the classical elements of Fire and Air. The actual object is a personal tool so the symbolism surrounding the blade is that of personal power and initiative. We can contrast this level of personal symbolism with the communal symbolism embodied in the sword.

The Sword: The sword is most often a Wiccan tool and symbol. When it is used, its presence suggests the power of the officiant (priest or priestess) and/or the power of the group as a whole. In Wiccan ceremonies the placement and use of the sword also shows the participants whether the male or female deity holds the greater power, given the time of year. In this way the sword carries both gender associations, as opposed to the solely masculine symbolism of the sacred blade. How does this level of symbolism provide a different effect on ritual participants than the personal symbolism of an athame?

Flame: The flame of a single candle or a blazing bonfire has a marked effect on those doing reverence in its presence. Fire as a metaphysical element is a powerful symbol, perhaps residing in the psyche at an archetypal level. It represents, among other things, life, power, passion, enlightenment....what else can you think of? It is interesting to note which traditions and cultures consider fire masculine and which consider it feminine. What is your experience with these associations?

The Cup or Bowl: This is the quintessential cross-cultural womb symbol. Thus it also symbolizes fertility, generation, the feminine and creativity. It appears on Tarot cards, in school and university emblems, and in religious services around the world. Some of its many forms include the chalice and the cauldron. Which versions are you familiar with and what traditions or cultures do they come from? How do the different image forms alter your response to the overall symbol? Compare your gut reaction to the Catholic communion chalice and the goddess' cauldron of rebirth.

The Tree: The long-lived, ever-growing tree is a powerful symbol in many varieties of neo-paganism. For the Druids the tree, and often specific species of trees, carries magickal meaning and power relating to the cycles of the solar and lunar year. The Norse envision a tree (the great ash Yggdrassil) as the “backbone” of worldly creation, linking the heavens at the treetop through the earth to the underworld at its roots. In modern pagan meditation the tree can symbolize the human spinal column and its flow of energy, as we saw in the grounding and centering meditation.

What other symbols are common to various neo-pagan traditions and practices? How have you experienced these symbols and how did their use affect you?

Grave chalice of bishop Adalvard the Elder of Skara (died c.1064)


The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images by The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them by Hans Biedermann

Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by J.C. Cooper

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Grounding and Centering and Meditation

This is the first 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.


Grounding and Centering and Meditation

Rule Number One: Always ground and center before you begin any meditation or ritual work. Why? First you have to know what it means to ground and center.

In spite of the usual idiom “ground and center,” you need to center first before you can effectively ground. In order to direct your energy flow anywhere, first you have to concentrate it. Have you ever felt ‘scattered’ at the end of a long day? Your energy is literally all over the place, away from your center. Centering brings your energy into focus within you so that you can use it effectively for whatever purpose you choose. Centering can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths and feeling the energy flow within your body or it can be as complicated as a complete set of T’ai Chi postures. Do whatever it takes to get back into your body and center your consciousness there. Then you are ready to ground.

Some people refer to grounding as “earthing.” That is exactly what grounding is: directing your energy flow into the Earth, the ground. Grounding can also be a simple act: stamping your bare feet on the ground, for example, or kneeling and leaning over to touch your forehead to the floor. Or it can involve a series of visualizations.

Real Energy

Before we get too far into the discussion of grounding and centering, let’s look at how the body’s energy flow works.

Your body is a complex electrochemical reaction which produces a strong electrical field every moment of your life, awake or asleep. The core of your energy rests in a series of vortices or chakras located along your spine, from the base of your tailbone to the crown of your head. The usual visualization for the chakras is variously colored spinning wheels or disks. The important part of the visualization is the movement: you are alive and so is your energy. So where is your energy moving to? Guess what: you get to choose where it moves. That’s why you need to ground and center. Center and ground.

You can’t throw a sheet of paper very easily. It flutters around and loses momentum and gets caught up in the slightest air current. But wad it up into a tight ball and you can bean someone pretty effectively. You can do the same thing with your energy. Focus it within yourself so you can more easily aim it where you want it to go. If you are new to working energy you may not be able to feel your body’s forces very strongly. So as you begin, concentrate on the mental images; make them as strong and clear as you can. Use your imagination. Eventually you will begin to feel the energy within you. Just remember: the part of you that is made of energy rather than matter is called the subtle body. The feelings are subtle, too. Tapping into your own energy doesn’t feel like sticking your finger into an electrical socket (thank the gods!). But what you do with your energy can produce some powerful effects.

This is why you need to ground. You need for that column of energy along your spine to be in contact with the earth, to flow into it, just as an electrical appliance needs to be grounded into something bigger than it, something that can handle a power surge. Just as ungrounded energy from a household gadget can cause injury, ungrounded energy from ritual or even just from a really cruddy mood can be bad news. A number of common activities are particularly grounding: a close hug with someone you trust; a good belly laugh; playing in the dirt (gardening, for you grown-ups out there); a good cry. Children instinctively know how to ground but adults often have to re-learn how.

The World Tree Visualization

What follows is a simple visualization for grounding and centering. Once you have practiced it a few times you should be able to ground and center quickly just by conjuring the main image in your mind. An effective method of practicing is to record your own voice as you read the visualization. Listen to the recording each time you want to ground and center. It is NOT necessary to sit directly on the ground, though it’s certainly acceptable to do so. You need to be upright for this, either sitting comfortably on the floor or seated in a chair. It is OK to lean back in the chair to relax, but please do not lie down to do this visualization. You don’t want to be a fallen tree, but an upright one. Here we go:

Close your eyes. Feel your body as you sit. Your spine is upright like the trunk of a tree. It is the core of your body. Feel the energy inside you flow up and down your spine. Feel it tingle and warm you. As you sit, feel the Earth beneath you, at the base of your spine, just like the Earth the tree stands in. Feel its solidity, its density. Feel your own weight on the Earth.

Now picture the energy flowing up and down your spine: see it moving within you, shifting and flowing. Now it begins to flow all in the same direction, down, toward the Earth. See it flow downward within you, down your spine, through your body and into the Earth, like the roots of a tree. Feel the energy flow into the Earth -- feel your roots reach out into the Earth beneath you. See your energy rooting into the ground, flowing through you and down into the Earth. The flow continues, smooth and constant, connecting you to the Earth beneath you.

You see the energy flow down your spine into the ground like the roots of a tree. Now your mental image develops a new aspect: your energy also flows up your spine, at the same time, smoothly and constantly flowing up as well as down. A two-way street. As the energy moves up your spine it reaches the top of your head and flows out like the branches of a great tree, arching upward and outward and back down to the ground, like the branches of a huge tree that reach out and bend to gently brush the Earth. Feel your energy flow up and out and then arch back down to the Earth.

Now picture this complete flow within and around you. The energy flows up and down your spine, reaching downward into the Earth like roots, reaching upward and outward like branches that bow back down to the Earth. Feel how connected you are to the Earth. As you return to your daily activities remember this feeling of connection, of grounding, and keep it with you as you go. The Earth is always beneath your feet no matter where you are.


Guess what? You just did a meditation. The World Tree Visualization is a type of concentrative meditation, that is, a type of mental working which focuses on a central activity (creating an image). The yoga practice of focusing on your breathing is another type of concentrative meditation, as is the use of a mantra (focal word or sound). The point is to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all outside activities -- to concentrate. Obviously concentration is a useful tool in many of life’s activities, but it is absolutely crucial in ritual. Through this type of meditation you can train yourself to “turn off” extraneous thoughts and outside distractions. Then your inner self can do what it needs to without stopping to worry about your bad day at work or whether your favorite pants still fit.

Quite often the most difficult part of this type of meditation is stopping the constant train of miscellaneous thoughts that wander through your head. A preliminary visualization you might use to help control these stray thoughts is a candle-flame visualization. Picture a single flame surrounded by complete darkness. Concentrate on the flame. As stray thoughts wander through your mind, feed them to the flame. It grows brighter as it consumes them and then it dims again. Eventually the stray thoughts will stop. Then there will be nothing left to feed to the flame and it will go out, leaving you with darkness and a clear, calm mind. By the way, another example of this type of meditation is counting sheep to get to sleep. If you don’t like sheep, try tennis shoes.

Another type of meditation, though it is not often labeled as such, is called receptive meditation. Among the more common and enjoyable varieties are staring at clouds or stars, listening to the babble of a brook or the hum of insects. The point here is to purposely NOT THINK about anything and let the sensory input be your universe for a little while. Sometimes this is hard to do. But when it is hardest to do is probably when you need to do it most. So “vegging” on purpose on a regular basis can be good for your mental health. Just don’t do it while you’re driving.

The whole reason for doing meditation of any sort is to train your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on. We all have times when we just can’t seem to keep our minds on what we need to. The mind is a muscle (sort of) and needs to be exercised to stay in shape. Meditation can be a valuable tool for stress relief, for grounding, and for creative visualization.

Practical Applications

Practice meditation on a regular basis, preferably daily. Try a simple one: get comfortable, clear your mind, and focus on a positive mental image (“Think happy thoughts,” as Mom used to say). It doesn’t matter if this mental image is a butterfly, a pizza, or a bright sunny day. As you learn to focus on an image and exclude all the thoughts that intrude from other areas of your mind, you are strengthening your ability to concentrate, an essential tool for magic.

Thought forms are another kind of energy. As you learn to focus your thoughts tightly on one idea you can begin to work toward visualizing changes. Meditation can be a tool for healing, reflection, relaxation, and ritual. Explore some of the guided meditation recordings currently available. Make some of your own. Try different visualizations, different relaxation techniques until you find the ones that work best for you. Then do them often. It will be time well spent.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Lammas: Time for the Watermelon King

John Barleycorn is dead! That’s the call at Lammas, the European pagan festival of first harvest celebrated at the beginning of August each year. The grain, personified as the God of Harvest, is cut down with scythes, a sacrifice that provides food and therefore life for the people for the coming year. The god dies that we may live.

Many pagan groups make grain dollies and decorate their Lammas ritual areas with sheaves of wheat. But how many of you are really familiar with the sight of grain growing in the fields near your homes? How many of you have actually wielded a scythe or even know someone who has? All right, I’ll admit that I have, but I’m a living history demonstrator, so that sets me well outside the norm for the modern world.

If a grain harvest isn’t a regular part of your late summer life, how strongly does the image of the Harvest King resonate with you? Sure, you understand the concept of harvest and you know that certain crops become available at certain times of the year. But in modern life, with 24-hour supermarkets and food trucked, shipped or flown in from around the globe, what does harvest time really mean any more?

I live in Georgia, in the southeastern United States, and I can tell you what harvest time here means to me: watermelon. Huge stacks of them at roadside stands and farmer’s markets, and yes, even at the chain grocery stores. While it’s possible to get watermelon out of season, shipped in from southern Florida or California, in-season watermelon is a delight without compare. Its juicy red meat has a flavor and a perfume that simply speaks of hot days in late summer, of air so thick with humidity that stepping outside feels like walking into a wet blanket, of cicadas buzzing and clouds drifting slowly by. It is the taste of bounty, of Nature providing for us. To me, that’s what harvest is all about.

So this year, as we have done in the past, my friends and I will not call to John Barleycorn at Lammas. Instead, we will invoke the Watermelon King. We will not stride out into the grain fields with scythes in hand. Instead, we will crown the Watermelon King and sacrifice him with a sharp knife, cutting into his flesh and watching the red liquid drip, knowing that for us to live, something must die. This is the way of things.

As the wheel turns toward harvest time in the northern hemisphere, I encourage you to look to your local environment. What speaks to you, from the gardens and the fields, telling you that the bounty of harvest is nigh? What taste, what scent, what food has meaning for you? Focus on this, for it is the embodiment of the Harvest King, who dies that you may live.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Today I'm sharing an invocation I wrote to Oberon, the Faery King. I have found his energy to be much older and darker than his portrayal in Victorian art and writing. If you use this invocation, please share your experience of him as well.

By Laura Perry

Lord Oberon, fly now to me
From Faery Land where you do dwell.
Come to my light from out the mists
And touch me, hold me oh so well
That I may know your darkest face
And love you as the tales do tell.

For I am Lady of the Woods
And I would have you dance with me,
Dark Oberon, in full moonlight
Beneath the sacred white oak tree,
For though I shine when She is full,
Full darksome may I also be.

Come lie with me and in me know
The fire that rages in the wood,
That holds the Wild Things in its thrall,
That burns through both the bad and good
To find the altar in us all,
To honor power in the blood.

So let us dance and let us love
In dark woods deep from dusk to day
And let us show the Old Ones here
That we still keep the sacred way,
For while we walk in both the worlds
We hold the emptiness at bay.