Where the Wild Things Are: The Limits of Labels

Originally posted to ‘BackWash: Where the Wild Things Are’ newsletter, June, 22, 2004.

A label is very limiting. When you label yourself a Wiccan, a Witch or even the more roomy Pagan, you are limiting yourself to certain acceptable/ acknowledged areas of belief.

I have never liked this aspect of being a Witch, Pagan, etc. There are times when I think I’m tired of being what others see as a Witch. I never quite fit in and my beliefs are definitely subject to change without notice.

But, there is no great alternative. When someone asks if you are Pagan or when you want to tell someone about your beliefs what do you say? It’s much easier to give them the known than to go into great and exacting detail about the unknown and all various details.

So, each time we call ourselves Wiccan, we limit ourselves. People take each other at face value too easily. They want to categorize everyone all neat and tidy. Perhaps it’s an organization fetish. But I think it’s something else, more selfish and primitive. When you can categorize someone you feel safe, think you know where they stand and what to expect from them.

Anyway, to myself I don’t call myself Pagan. But for others I allow them to go on believing I am. The drawback to that is that each time I say I’m Pagan I am reinforcing the idea that I actually am Pagan for myself as well as those around me. What you say will come true, one way or another. Words spoken can not be unspoken. Much like ghosts. I feel ghosts are remnants of emotions and words past. Lingering in the atmosphere, unable to dissipate once they have been created.

– Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

— Buddha

Book of Shadows

Originally written for The Crying Clown Zine (c. 1998)

The Book of Shadows could be called The Book of Life. Just the opposite of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (A series of spells to help the dead travel to and exist in the afterlife.) The Book of Shadows (BOS, for short) contains notes Wiccans have made along their journey of life and learning. Grimoire (A book of magickal spells and techniques) is more Medieval than Book of Shadows but they serve the same basic purpose.

Essentially, the Book of Shadows is a workbook containing ritual patterns, rules governing magick, instructions for circle casting and banishing, religious rituals, the consecration of tools, herbal lore, herbal recipes, dreams, divination results and personal thoughts and experiences. It is the Book of Shadows, which keeps the traditions of a solitary or coven alive. Without the Book, everything would be passed on from word of mouth with the chance of being forgotten, lost or misinterpreted.

A coven will keep a Book of Shadows so members can record and memorize the coven’s rituals in their own Books of Shadows. Some contain lists of the pantheon, training exercises and initiation ceremonies. Books can be passed from one Wiccan to another, usually on initiation. Often each individual Wiccan creates their Book and keeps it to themselves.

Until recently, a Book of Shadows was always hand written. With all the advances in multi-media today a Book of Shadows can be a Disk of Shadows. Some Books (or parts of them) are published on the Internet. Typed and photocopied Books are also common. You may choose to have more than one copy or form of your Book. One can be hand written, the other can be preserved on a disk or photocopied for safe keeping.

To make your own Book of Shadows begin with any blank book. It does not have to be something antique or beautiful, a notebook from the dollar store will do. The Book of Shadows gains its value from the amount of energy and effort used to create it and the positive energy surrounding it each time the book is used for magick and rituals. A binder with loose sheets will let you move your pages around and add new ones in the middle if you need to.

Simply write in this book any rituals and magickal information you have worked on, learned about or just read somewhere and want to remember. Keep it organized into sections for rituals, divination, herbs, and etc. Add your own personal touch with some poetry, a few pressed leaves from your first ritual, a drawing which inspired you, or anything else bookable (able to fit into a book, one way or another). Also, because this is your Book you can write any thoughts you are having at the time. You don’t have to write to impress anyone. Keep track of your feelings (both negative and positive), questions you want to find answers to, and any other personal information you would write into a journal or diary.

Keep your Book of Shadows in good repair. Some rituals may call for placing herbs in or on your Book of Shadows. Prepare for this by giving your book a fabric cover or tissue paper between its pages. Keep this in mind when or if you want to decorate your Book of Shadows. Watch for decorations that might damage your pages or make your ink run. Put some thought into your decorations of choice. Though macaroni art may have seemed “funky” at the time, it might not feel the same when the lumpy noodles won’t let you keep your book open on your altar. Remember, your Book of Shadows serves a purpose. Make sure its usable when you are trying to read it half way into a ritual and you just can’t remember the line you wanted to say as you sprinkle eye of newt into your cauldron.

Rede Magick

Originally written for The Crying Clown Zine (c. 1998)

Tis the season for ghosts to haunt, vampires to suck (blood that is), werewolves to howl,and witches to fly. Or is it? Most people have put Santa and the Easter Bunny away with the broken decorations and the egg you didn’t find till the next year. Yet the idea of a witch in black from head to toe, with a black cat, casting her spells with the twitch of an eyebrow is still around. I don’t cast spells, I don’t like to wear black but I do admit to a fondness for cats.

Oh the wonder and the power of being a witch able to whip out a spell to make your life simpler, easier and so much better… Put that idea away with dear old Santa. Wiccans do not take the powers they study that lightly. To weave your magick you have to carefully consider the many strings attached before you even begin creating neat little rhymes to conjure with.

The Wiccan Rede: If it harms none, do what you will. The Rede is the heart of Wicca, it is the theme song, the top icon on your screen and the apple of many a witchy eye. However, there are as many definitions for ‘harms none’ as there are Wiccan Paths. Harm none includes yourself, your neighbor who yells when you cross his lawn, the guy/ girl you desparately wish would give you more than a second glance, your pet lizard, the ant you stepped on last week and the planet you step on every day. It includes everything you can touch, see, feel, hear, smell and think. Did I leave anything out? It includes that too.

Harm none is a huge responsibility. At some point magick will infringe on free will. It is up to you to decide if it is harmful. Some Wiccans will use love spells. I see this as manipulation and that rubs my version of harms none the wrong way. Manipulation does not respect the free will and rights of another person and is harm to that person. Of course, the easiest harm none definition would be black magick. White magick: works in harmony with the life forces of the universe and harms no one. Its goals are spiritual such as self knowledge, and for the good of all such as healing. Black magick is: causing change (in reality or in consciousness) for the purpose of causing either physical or non-physical harm to yourself or others, and is done consciously or unconsciously.

Every action causes a reaction, a pull on the strings attached. This is the basis of the ‘threefold law’. Simply put, everything you do (negative or positive) will come back to you times three. This is all wrapped up in karma and other strings upon strings upon strings upon strings. Keep things simple with your own version of ‘harms none’. Judge carefully what strings you are pulling and tangling in the magick you choose to weave.

Black is almost considered a witch uniform but no where in any ‘rule book’ does it say Witches, Wiccans or any Pagans must wear black or be forever black balled, black listed or have their names blackened. (I just couldn’t resist). True black is a mystical colour but the wearer won’t suddenly have magickal powers or secret knowledge. Power and knowledge can be gained through study and work. As for the cat thing… I’m training him to be my familiar, of course!

Happy Halloween/ Merry Samhain!

The Endless Knot

Originally written for The Crying Clown Zine (c. 1998)

In whatever stray corner of the world you find yourself in you may have just found a Pagan or Wiccan if they are wearing a five pointed star with a solitary point up inside a circle. Being a solitary (Wiccan) myself I am partial to this view of the pentacle, I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with those nasty rumours of Satanism. Some Wiccans hang pentacles from their necks, some stab them through coats and sweaters and shirts and others go for something more permanent and painful and get it tattoed.

Pentacles should be worn on the front just before the heart, according the mystical tradition. Go all out and make your own but it should be prepared when the moon is rising in Virgo and only on a Saturday or Tuesday night in an atmosphere scented with alum, cedar wood, aloes and resinous gum.

Whatever your choice a pentacle is still a pentagram inside a circle. If it is genuine and not some factory-bred knockoff it should be one continuous line. No seams, stops and starts just one unending line. Though endless knot sounds like a great way to refer to your hair on those dreaded “hand me a hat” days it is also another name for the pentagram. Goblin’s Cross, witch’s foot, Blazing Star of White Magic are other fancy labels that could fool your friends and pester your enemies. Because I am really just a simple Dragon let’s stick with pentacle, I’m getting used to typing it now anyway.

There are endless theories and ideas of what the five points represent. Of course this is a biased article and all the following are appealing to me, there are dozens more out there in libraries and web pages. First, the elemental theory seems to be the most popular with Wiccans. Four points represent the elements: earth, air, fire and water and the fifth is the spirit. These are the basic necessities of life beyond food, clothing, shelter and taxes. The most romantic sounding idea is: a man standing upright with arms out stretched and the world behind him, a man in tune with the world around him. Some feel the pentacle represents the stages of humainty or life: babyhood, adolsence, adulthood, middle age and old age. Or birth, initiation, love, repose and death. Just about any other five things can be tossed in for consideration such as the five senses, the five fingers on the human hand…

The pentacle or pentagram is older than written characters. The five pointed star can be traced back to the Pharohs when it symbolized the rising up of the spirit to the heavens and the power of the Earth. Commonly associated with creation and spirituality, it is used as a symbol of protection and healing, considered to carry power for good and protecting not only the physical well being but the mental and spiritual too.

So much talk of the star but the circle is what makes a pentagram into a pentacle. The circle of the pentacle represents protection and is used often in magic. Inside the magic circle there is safety. The pentacle is an emblem of a happy homecoming and was and still is worn as an amulet.

The pentagram is a unicursal figure. Always drawn in one continuous unbroken line. Each of the five things represented are connected to one another, unless the line is broken. No one thing is any stronger or better or more important than the other, they are all dependent on each other. This is what the pentacle really symbolizes whatever variables are assigned to the five points. In magic the number five stands for the power of nature.

Pentacles ward off evil and you never know when you may need to do a little warding! It seems Eliphas Levi (1810 – 1875) was responisble for starting the whole upside down thing. Eliphas, drew the pentacle with two points up and added the goat’s head design denoting evil the devil and all the rest. Some Pagans believe this is the Horned God, the male God who is the counterpart of the Goddess. However all of that is kind of muddled by the Christian belief in the devil with his interesting set of horns and goatee. Wiccans do not believe in hell or the devil, though some would say we worship it. Just goes to show more people need to get to the library or at least watch less TV.

I have found a ritual called the Sign of the Pentacle, though how old this is I could not discover. Still, any ritual should not be taken at face value. Each should be screened by the user and judged according to their individual beliefs and feelings. Here is the ritual: Starting at the left breast move to the top of your head or third eye, down to right breast then up to left shoulder and acoross to right shoulder and back down to left breast again. This could have been designed as a Pagan/ Wiccan version of the Catholic signing of the cross. It is meant to be used to ward off danger, evil or whatever you feel you need to ward off.

Happy New Years to all my fellow Wiccans and everyone else who stopped to read here.

Altared Naturally

Originally written for The Crying Clown Zine (c. 1998)

Just picture yourself, in mid ritual, suddenly your Book of Shadows falls to the floor with an unpleasant sounding thud. Silly you, you forgot your altar!

The Wiccan/ Pagan altar is not just for eating your breakfast on anymore. Also, those looking forward to virgin sacrifices are in for a disappointment. But, look on the bright side, now you don’t have to save yourself for that big moment on the stone slab, just go out and have fun!

So, what should you know about constructing your very own altar? Start with all natural ingredients and assemble them inside a circle. Those are the basics. Your altar can be outdoors for all the little bugs and squirrels to see or it can be inside and easily pushed under your bed for those with parents who like to make room inspections still. An altar can even be made on your desk at work. Just use some creativity and no one will suspect you have brought Pagan influences to concrete jungle.

The altar itself can have a circular base or square, depending on how natural you want to go with it. Outdoors, a fire can substitute for an altar. Make sure you are prepared to safely extinguish it before you leave. Face your altar in a direction of power, generally that’s north, the direction associated with Earth. Some Wiccan use east and west, the direction the sun rises and sets. Lastly, everything on your altar is positioned in a pattern. The arrangement is very individual and can be kept track of in your Book of Shadows. (The Book of Shadows is a book or some other form of note keeping Wiccan use for their exploration and discoveries along their path of learning.)

Just raring to go and get Medieval, I mean creative? To dedicate your altar to the Goddess and God, something you can choose to do. Set up put the tools dedicated to the Goddess (pentacle, cup, bell, crystal, cauldron and others) on the left side of the altar. The tools dedicated to the God (athame, censer, white handled knife, etc) are placed on the right side. In the middle of the altar, you please yourself; at least that is how I see it.

If you don’t follow the ‘standard’ altar plan with God and Goddess on either ends you can fill those areas of your altar with things to represent the elements: Earth, Air, Water and Fire. The idea is to stick to natural ingredients but you can do a lot with those. A natural altar contains assorted leaves, stones, drawings/ pictures, candles, seashells, feathers, flowers/ herbs, a glass of water, your pet guppy, tissues (handy if you have a cold) and a pirate’s treasure map (assuming you can find one). Keep in mind the elements. The feather and leaves can represent Air. The candle and maybe some burnt offerings from breakfast can represent Fire. Water is easy with seashells or a glass of water. Earth can be represented by the stones or leaves (think compost, just don’t put it on your altar unless you are ready for the smell).

The altar is the physical centre of a ritual. Its a place of power and magick. To think it is mostly a flat surface to work at is a mistake. Some of your energy and magick will remain in your altar after each ritual. You will be bringing a lot from yourself to the ritual and your altar. Because of this, your altar must have special meaning to you. Use your own sense of style, things that are important, have meaning to you, and design your altar to suit yourself and your needs.

The Ancient Science of Folklore

Originally written for The Crying Clown Zine (c. 1998)

Folklore is not an old wives tale, mere superstition or fairy tale. It is more than that. Folklore is a way of doing things not based on scientific fact. People relied on folklore before the invention of science. Those who want to practice magick should begin with the study of folklore.

The word folklore literally means “the learning of the people”. W. J. Thoms coined the term folklore in 1846 replacing the old term popular antiquities. My definition of folklore is a habit or tradition based on knowledge from a less than official source, such as modern science.

Folklore covers a wide area including traditional beliefs, customs, stories, songs and sayings. Beliefs concerning nature (animal, plant and mineral), human nature and inanimate objects, magick, charms, luck and disease and death. Customs and rites such as marriage, childhood and adult life, festivals, warfare, hunting, farming, and fishing. Old myths, legends, folktales, ballads, songs, proverbs, nursery rhymes and riddles keep folklore passed along in cultures all over the world.

Folklore comes from every culture on the planet, current and extinct. However, folklore must be taken with a grain of salt. Look it with a slightly suspicious mind and a practical, scientific nature. Explore each custom and belief. Dig deeper and find the mechanics of the idea, what made it work, if it really worked at all. Some customs may have worked once and then just been taken as truth.

Pagan and Wiccan magick are rooted in folklore. Read about herbs, divination, tree magick, astrology, animal guides, weather magick and you are reading folklore. Any magick you look at will be full of old ideas which science is only recently looking at. Do some research and find which old wives tales are having a second wind and are already available at a drug store near you. Not enough for you? Look at a modern wedding ceremony and list the customs that do not seem based on logical scientific thought. Start with throwing rice or catching the bride’s bouquet. Does rice guarantee children? If it did over population would be a much bigger issue!

So, why throw rice? How and why did that custom start? Find out! To really understand and work your own magick you will need to know the thoughts and theories behind it, its roots. To step in and attempt to create magick without studying the how and why is like skipping the whole beginning of a book.

Divination is a good place to start looking at folklore. Divination is a belief/ custom based on folklore, early ideas of science. Every tradition from tarot, dowsing, crystal gazing, scrying to reading the bumps on a head can not be proven to work by science. Still, divination in all its varied forms is a very popular form of magick.

Of course, some folklore is truly a fable or superstition. It will be up to your own explorations and common sense to dig deeper and decide which are fable and which are facts. Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty when you get your feet wet, most of all, have fun!