Tuesday, November 27, 2018

What is a spell?

In the ongoing series of long answers to frequent questions. Pardon my formatting difficulties, please:

 The word ‘spell’ travels with a lot of baggage, and is used with very little technical consideration. It has been redefined especially by fantasy writers in so many ways that sorting nonsense from tradition, and determining a useful technical definition for our modern magic art is a project worth doing.

Linguistically the word means 'a spoken charm or incantation', and so we could limit its meaning to 'the spoken component of a magical rite'. That isn't what people mean, these days, though.

Allow me to begin at the end, and attempt a definition of a spell – we’ll see whether it’s the same at the end.:
“A spell is magical or spiritual work with a specific intended effect and usually a specific target”

In traditional magical literature ‘spells’ are most often small ritual patterns, involving a combination of natural objects, spoken words, proper timing, ‘occult’ symbols and often the aid of specific gods or spirits. Folk magic tends to quietly bury these elements in traditional rules, that often don’t accompany the transmission of spoken charms – one is supposed to know the rules. More formal ritual magic instructions may make a spell seem like a complex working of its own, by listing the work in detail and sequence. Both of these approaches can be practical and correct. I tend toward the latter.

The whole business of using magic to obtain a specific goal may involve multiple smaller sub-rituals, offerings etc. All these ‘spells’ together are often described as a ‘working’.

In our post-European, post-Christian USA there is that tendency to want products neatly packaged and labelled with instructions. So many who ask for ‘spells’ in internet forums seem to want the proverbial ‘magic words’, that make things change in the blink of an eye. This is, in fact no more likely in magic than in medicine, and spellcraft can involve multiple ‘appointments’ to accomplish a goal. 

Here it may be useful to quote and discuss my favorite definition of ‘magic’. It comes from the Greater Key of Solomon

“Magic is the Highest, most Absolute, and most Divine Knowledge of Natural Philosophy, advanced in its works and wonderful operations by a right understanding of the inward and occult virtue of things; so that true Agents being applied to proper Patients, strange and admirable effects will thereby be produced. Whence magicians are profound and diligent searchers into Nature; they, because of their skill, know how to anticipate an effort, the which to the vulgar shall seem to be a miracle.”

Allow me to paraphrase:
“Magic is the study of the secret and spiritual forces of nature, their character and powers, so that by applying proper force at the proper place and time effects can be produced which have been called ‘magical’. So magicians learn to predict effects by knowing cause, which makes them seem to be wizards.”

Can I tighten it up?:
“magic is the knowledge of the hidden (occult) powers of things, and of the spirits, and the application of those powers to produce effects.”

So spells are a specific application of this principle – the application of the occult powers of natural and spiritual things to work personal will.

Spellcraft Inside Polytheist Religions
In many world traditions of polytheism and animism the use of religious symbols, rituals and skills for the immediate personal gain of worshipers and their families is a normal part of the work. These traditions teach rites for prosperity, health, fertility and inspiration, much the same as the desires of modern magic-users.

A symbolic arrangement for a sadhana
            The Sanskrit term ‘sadhana’ can be translated as ‘a specific practice or form’. In dharmic religions the term is used both for the prescribed spiritual practice a teacher might set for their student, and also for specific sets of practices intended to produce results. The latter are patterns that may include proper herbs, proper colors and numbers of candles, proper offerings of incenses, flowers, etc and of course a proper spoken incantation (i.e. ‘mantra’ in Sanskrit). These patterns are often transmitted through what amount to spellbooks, and are an orthodox part of Hindu and some Buddhist religion
Offering array for an Ebbo
            In the post-African religions of the New World ‘Ebbo’ is a word meaning offering or sacrifice. It can be applied generally to religious offerings to the spirits, but it also refers to specific patterns of practice intended to produce specific outcome – i.e. spells. The forms of some such ritual offering are determined by the spirits themselves, but there are also specific traditional forms, including arrangements of specific numbers, types of fruits, colors of candles, etc., arranged in the proper way, place and time, with the proper invocations. Again, by the terms of western magic, this amounts to a ‘spell’.
Late Classical Paganism
Remnants of traditional Euro-middle-eastern polytheism and spiritism were preserved in the important proto-grimoire called the Picatrix. This ritual manual focuses primarily on the Planetary powers, themselves remnants or reflections of Olympian Gods. The rites usually center around an image or idol of the spirit, and then use number, color, type, etc, to determine a proper set of offerings. This style of offering-ritual, preserved for us in text over the past 2,000 years or so, bears a remarkable resemblance to other forms of spirit-based devotional spellcraft.
A planetary rite of offering

This style of devotional, offering-based ritual seems ready to introduce into our modern polytheist efforts. Drawing on lore, tradition and the inspiration of the spirits rites of this style could be devised in nearly any ethnic system. Of course ethnicities will each have their distinct customs, which can add to the depth of such designs.

Folkloric and Popular Spellcraft
Offering-based spells that draw on the spiritual power of core cultural gods and spirits are one side of the coin of traditional spellcraft. The other is the vast body of lore that employs the ‘occult' (i.e. hidden or little-known)  powers of natural things’, along with the basic principles of mechanistic spellcraft.

The latter were defined by Frasier as “sympathy” –like affects like; and “contagion” – that which has been in contact continues to influence the contact. These are not so much the actions of spirits but natural principles, which operate regardless of the spiritual environment in which they are used. These techniques, plainly called ‘tricks’ in some traditions, become dressed in the mythology of whatever culture takes them up.

For instance, the ‘packet talisman’ – a small bag or wrapped packet containing herbs, stones, seals etc. can be identified in the 16th century scholastic occultism of Agrippa, yet it also arrives in the New World through Congo ethnic custom, producing the ‘gris-gris’ or mojo-bag of the hoodoo tradition. Such a charm-bag employs sympathy by using herbs and stones of the proper resonance, and employs contagion by the wearing of such a charm next to the user’s skin. Charm-bags are made with prayers to saints, invocations of the polytheistic gods, or even animistic address to the aggregated spirit of the charm itself. This is icing on the basic mix that makes the spell.
Crystal 'grids' use the powers of semi-precious stones
to accomplish specific goals.

Colored candles or lights, proper incenses and perfumes, traditional or discovered magical sigils and seals, all of these are part of this category of spellcraft. Image-magic, the old hair-and-fingernails gag, the use of photographs, drawings or even the written name of a target, all of these use sympathy and contagion to ‘transmit’ the intention of a practical spiritual work. Often these methods are employed along with offering and invocation to direct the power of whatever spirit is offered to.

Wrapping Up
So, then, a spell is a ritual or set of rituals intended to employ spiritual or occult power for a specific practical goal. This sort of practice may exist as part and parcel of a religion or spiritual tradition. If it doesn’t it almost certainly exists just outside of it, relegated to some category like ‘witchcraft’. In my opinion our Neopagan religions, as we construct them, can benefit from making such techniques integral to our spiritual work.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Pagan Family Dinner-Table Rite

Output from the prayer-a-Day challenge continues, and I manage to rack up some posts for the annual count on el bloggo. Hopefully this might be useful for families over the holidays

A Family Table Rite of Blessing

In addition to service for the food, arrange the Center of the table, as desired, with four good candles, one shorter than the others, and an attractive bowl of clean water. If desired a decorative Tree symbol completes the array. A piece of silver or quartz crystal might be present to drop into the water, and incense is good, if tolerable for a meal-table. Also have present a preferred beverage, or two, to receive the Blessing.

• With all prepared, the kin join hands, and breathe together in silence for a moment.
The Head of the Table lights the short candle, drops the silver into the Water, and speaks:
Let us seek blessing.

• All recite:
The Fire, the Well, the Sacred Tree
Flow and Flame and Grow in me
By Land, Sea and Sky
Below and On High
Let the Water be blessed and the Fire be hallowed.

• It is good to formally cleanse all if the company wills it – pass the water, or sprinkle all – pass incense if do-able; this may be light-hearted. One simple charm (spoken three times) is:
By the Might of the Waters and the Light of the Fire
Let this meal/table/gathering be blessed!

• The Head, or another, lights the three tall candles in turn as all recite:

Oh all you Holy Beings of the Worlds
In all your might
We call you, whether unnamed or by name
By these three lights

(light one tall candle)
Beloved Dead, you travelers, gone before
To you in love
(light one tall candle)
Oh wond’rous spirits of this land we call
To you in awe
(light one tall candle)
And every shining god, in every heart
To you in honor true
Love, awe and honor, these we light
With these three flames here, burning bright
And bid the spirits bide with us in peace.

• Any readings or songs the family enjoys might be done.
• A daring and confident host might choose to draw an omen at this time. Many will be happy simply to proceed to the Blessing:
• The Head of the Table, or another recites:

The lights are lit, and the feast is spread. Let the blessing be poured for us all.
The prepared drinks are poured, and a single passing-cup is raised, or everyone raises their cup, and recites: 
Let this be blessing, poured for us
From Holy Powers true
Let it be wisdom, Let it be strength
Let it be love, between us, true.
Let this meal be blessed!

• The Head concludes, saying:
Let us keep gratitude in our hearts for this blessing, for this labor, for this good food we are about to eat, in the light of the Holy Ones.
Holy Ones, we thank you (all repeat)
Let’s Eat!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Three Charms to Open Vision-Doors

Hot-diggity-doggerel, here are three rhyming charms meant to set one's course for the Underworld, Heavens and the back-side of the Middle-world. Real text article coming before month's end...

Friday, November 16, 2018

Prayer-a-Day Project, Pt 3

A few from week 2. These tend a bit toward 'high church' - formal invocations for formal occasions.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

How Do I Become A Pagan?

A direct question, from a Facebook Pagan group. Let me just fizz about it for a minute, and I’ll offer some direct answers.

Of course the fashionable answer, among all those who imagine themselves woke from the yoke of “religion”, is that one may do as one pleases and call that Paganism. Sigh… 

In my opinion there is simply no real thing in the world that can be whatever one decides it should be. To start at that point is simply to assume that one’s spiritual work is not real, but rather a game or fancy, devised by a whim. While I suppose that might be enough for some people, I assume that when someone asks how to ‘become’ a Pagan, they mean more.

Several answers seemed to recommend a set of “beliefs” as definitive of being Pagan. Often these were very general – “believe in the Earth”, etc. Nobody seemed prepared to offer any systematic set of ‘beliefs’, which I suppose is just as well.

My own opinion is that Pagan religious participation is not defined by beliefs. Beliefs, in religion, are mandatory opinions, and modern Pagan religion has very few of them. Some specific sects may have their own little lists, but even that seems the exception rather than the rule in Pagan sub-groups. There is no organized agreement among Pagans about what ideas must be a part of a system in order for it to be Pagan.

My opinion is that in order to “be Pagan” one must be doing Pagan religious activity. Ancient Paganism was defined by participation in traditional action – in the sacrifices, and festivals and events of the local community. In ancient ways nobody seems to have asked one another what they though the Gods “really were”, nobody tried to exclude (or include) other people based on their enshrined opinions (i.e. beliefs) about the gods and spirits, or about the old stories. Myths and old tales were not mandatory objects of belief, nor taken as literal fact. Many such things would have had the unspoken presumption of fact in the local culture – e.g. “of course there are spirits – we’re just talking about what kind…”. Skepticism of cultural norms is seldom popular, but those norms were not usually codified into scripture or statements of belief.

Practice was another matter. Many ancient polytheist traditions kept ‘scriptures’ that were essentially records of hymns, invocations, spells and other specific ritual elements. The Indic Vedas are the most famous of these, but examples are found in Persia, Greece, and Rome, as well as from the city states long prior to those nations. Some ritual traditions were as tightly-regulated as any modern ideology. In Rome if an error in the traditional work was made, or a bad omen occurred one simply cancelled the rite and tried again another time.

While most modern Pagan systems don’t take such a formal approach to ritual, our ways are often defined by the practice of formal rites, in which words, symbols and natural forces combine to seek a spiritual effect. In many formal sects of neopaganism, such as traditional initiatory Wicca, or some forms of Druidry, a formal outline of ritual has been developed, that defines the sects the way a colors of a bird’s wing define its family. One becomes a part of that tradition by being taught the ritual form, and learning to do it effectively.

Like many elements of tradition this emphasis on ritual and deliberate religious action has been greatly watered-down in the post-internet Pagan world. The same hipster-philosophers will explain that we do not ‘need’ formal practice in order to interact with spirit, and that we can do ‘whatever feels right’ as we develop our personal practice. While these assertions may be true in some circumstances and for some people, I find them to be very bad advice for new students. Spiritual practice is a set of skills, and it is sensible to approach learning any new skill by following the instruction of a skilled teacher.

Both ancient and modern Pagan religious tradition is characterized by a variety of teachers, schools and methods. Modern schools tend to descend from two or three major styles of ritual work, but local groups often have major variations and specific customs. This too directly resembles the ways of the ancients. At the most individual end every household, every private altar, may have our special ways and specific beings. The gods are not jealous, and our own home ways never need stop us from joining with our neighbors for community practice.

So – How does one become a Pagan? 
My short answer is:
By learning how to keep ways of Pagan spirituality, and then keeping them.

This means that it is a bit of work to actually become Pagan. You can’t do it (in any meaningful way) while reading this, simply by deciding to apply a new label to yourself. Instead you must take up the work as you would any skill, whether guitar-playing or spiritual devotion.

For some people it can be a short-cut to choose one of the public Pagan teaching groups and simply practice their ways for a year or three. Groups with long-time, tried and fixed methods can prevent wasted time by providing a coherent outline of learning. There are a number of such schools, allowing students to find which of them best suits. Some traditions of ritual and practice are also well-preserved in modern published materials.

Many modern people seem to have been conditioned against ‘joining’. For those who demand to do-it-themselves there are a number of activities that I think add up to actually doing Pagan ways. Being Pagan means, to me, actually doing Pagan ways.

Here’s a list of categories of work that can add up to a Pagan-style spiritual practice.

1: Good Reading. Popular Pagan publishing has a very hit-and-miss record of providing real information about the ancient ways. Find some good academic reading lists from on-line resources, and commit yourself to reading whole big, dry books, cover to cover. Look, Paganism will almost never ask you to fast for days, or crawl up a mountain on your knees… read some books!
2: Spend time in Nature. This needn’t be any fancier than you like. Simply getting yourself out of the straight lines and machine hum of human life is a teacher about Pagan spirit.
3: Choose a simple ritual form. There are choices – learn to cast a circle, learn to bless the Sacred Center, or any of a dozen similar methods in print. Simply find one you like, or write one, then learn to do it smoothly and with a sense of inspiration. Having simple ‘start and finish’ prayers can be enough, though the fact is that tradition usually prefers complexity.
3a: Consider keeping a Calendar: Setting yourself to do ritual work based on the course of the moon or the turning of the seasons can help provide an ‘excuse’ for actual practice.
4: Learn Simple Trance & Meditation. Oh yes you can. It’s like exercise – you can’t do it until you’ve done it a while. You have to just do it. If you don’t do it, you end up a couch-potato warrior.
5: Find a Local Pagan Temple. These days there are often public organizations making worship and teaching available to the general interested community. Attendance at such rites can help a solitary Pagan meet community, and work the seasonal blessings on a scale often unavailable at home. 

So, life is busy, and very few people really manage to keep busy with all five of these all the time. But if your goal is to have a Pagan spirituality then trying to keep at two or three of these going in your life will keep you developing and growing. In time you will probably come to have close feelings for some Gods, perhaps know the affection and protection of your Ancestors, and deepen your wonder at the non-human beings of the spiritual worlds. In that way we hope to walk in harmony with all things, without strife.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Prayer-a-Day Challenge Pt2

More prayer-graphics (the rest of week 1) from the November project:

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Prayer-a-Day Challenge, Pt 1

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and many intrepid writers are attempting 50,000 narrative words this month. Not me. Maybe some year...

However in ADF the custom has arisen of writing a prayer or charm or such each day in the month. So far we haven't done group prompts, but let each of us locate them for ourselves. So far I have found that the most difficult thing, and we're only eight days in.

In any case here are some items from week one...