Ostara (Eostre) is the celebration of the Spring Equinox. This is the first time of the year when days and nights are of equal length (the other being Mabon - the Autumn Equinox). Ostara marks the move between the dark half of the year and the light. Starting at Ostara days will steadily grow in length and light until the Summer Solstice at Litha Midsummer - the longest day of the year.
Ostara is the festival of birth and new beginnings. Traditionally it would celebrate the birthing of the Spring lambs. It marks the start of the growing season, the planting of seeds and the beginnings of new life. In times of old a Pagan would be entering the months of hard work, preparing the earth, sowing the crops and rearing baby animals. Ostara marks the end of the resting months - as the sunlight increases so do the working hours and with them the work that has to be done.
Pagans of modern times may not work as closely with the land as their ancestors did and as a result their workload is spread more evenly across the year. But for modern Pagans Ostara still has an energy about it. It is a time to put plans in place, and to replace inertia with action.
It is also a time to celebrate the promise of the coming Summer.
Ostara is the second of the three fire festivals and the elements of flames and heat can be seen in the Sabbat's association with passion and fertility. The Ostara hare (the precurser to the Easter bunny of popular culture) is a fecund symbol of life renewing itself. The link with fertility is however perhaps most heavily symbolised through the egg. Decorated eggs were traditionally given as gifts at Ostara, a gift offering the blessing of prosperity and new beginnings to the recipient.
For witches both of old and modern times, Ostara is a time of balance, a time to work magic that require a balance of light and dark magic. It is also a good time to start magic that requires time to strengthen and grow as it will benefit from the steadily growing power of the
sun. The overtones of fertility also make this an ideal time of year to work magic in relation to conception or child birth.
As the wheel of the year turns, the Goddess becomes pregnant with the child of the Sun God. She will give birth to the new Sun God at Yule.
The politics surrounding the maintenance of the UK welfare state have been in the news a lot recently with feelings running high on both sides of the debate. I'm dedicating this week's blog to clarifying my own views on the matter and if this has little to do with Witchcraft per se, it has a good deal to do with old fashioned human integrity and that, to my mind, is an integral part of what it is to be a witch anyway.
The simplest way to explain the concept of the welfare state is to say that it exists to supply provision to those people who are either unable to work, unable to find work or unable to earn a living wage within work. Benefits are means tested and generally pay out more to families with children as a consideration of the expenses involved in raising a child.
The primary criticism levelled at the benefits paid to welfare state claimants is that the claimants are not making enough effort to look for work. This has led to popularist accusations
of there being an "underclass" of people who refuse to work and enjoy the benefits of...ahem benefits...while other people earn money to pay for the idle privileges of the unemployed.
Such hostility came to a head the other Monday when a televised debate was screened on Channel 4 exploring the views of people on both sides of the issue. The debate led to much shouting and little reasoned argument and few intelligent comments were made - though my hopes weren't high, we are talking about Daily Mail readers. My twitter feed went into orbit with a steady stream of contempt that I would not have believed my fellow man capable of. Claimants were even referred to as "scum" and "not fit to live." The vitriol was as shocking for its venom as it was for its entirely unsubstantiated political grounding.
The group of people most scathing of the way the welfare state is managed tend to be
the self righteous folk of middle aged England. You know the type - middle management, £30-£50k earning bracket, 3-4 bed house, some but limited education, holidays in Spain, links the size of their television to their general level of happiness, votes Conservative and thinks anybody with a tattoo is "up to no good." Generally the sort of person who doesn't read books (but thinks they do), starts a good many of their sentences with: "I'm not racist but.."
and worst of all believes everything that is printed in the Daily Mail. The reason this particular group of people tend to be the most critical is because they believe they have "made it" on their own merit and therefore so should everybody else.
But you know what - effort and personal motivation only play a small part in a person's overall chances of achieving worldly success. And I'll tell you why by using myself as an example. I was born in an age where school taught us that if we worked hard, we would get a job at the end of it. This was entirely true, there were plenty of jobs around, the internet was taking off, the economy was picking up and the future really was rosy for those about to embark on their first careers. I was born to parents who cared about my education and bothered to take the time to help me with the things I struggled with (maths!). I was born to parents who had a decent income and who could afford to give me the tools I needed for my education and then as I grew older, parents who were able (and willing) to pay for my years at University.
I was lucky enough to be born healthy with no physical or mental problems that may have impeded my ability to work for a living and I was also lucky enough to be born intelligent and articulate with (relatively) good social skills.
In short, I'd have had to screw it all up pretty royally not to get a good job.
So when I look at the advantages I have had, my respectable job with a good salary isn't actually my achievement at all. It is merely the product of a very positive and very lucky set of circumstances. Given the support from my parents, the education system, the political and social climate of the time and my own 'luck of the draw' natural attributes, getting a good job was entirely inevitable. And because it was inevitable rather than earned through hard work my moderate success doesn't give me the right to look at other people who haven't had my very lucky circumstances and blame them for not achieving what has quite naturally fallen into my lap.
The thing is, it's a tough world out there. Some people are on benefits because they haven't been given the skills to get a job. They've been let down by their parents and the education system. Others do have the skills to get a job but they have been let down by commerce
who seem determined to replace all the people facing jobs with machines (think self service tills). Others have genuine mental health problems and suffer from depression, making holding down a full time job impossible (they've been let down by the Government and the NHS cut backs with a view to privatising the health industry to generate profit). Physical health rules out another huge sector of people. It is no doubt easy to be scathing of those with injured backs from the perspective of your own healthy working body but for those living with pain on a daily basis, I'm not surprised they need to claim disability benefits.
And those people who do manage to get jobs are thwarted by an industry hell bent on handing out part time and zero hour contracts. Even the most diligent of workers would struggle to make ends meet with these levels of income. Why is anybody surprised that such people are forced to look to the government to increase their income to above starvation levels?
My point is that this situation is not indicative of an underclass who want to sit on their backside and not work, it's indicative of a society that is letting down those who live within it. The media feeds on the pomposity of the affluent middle classes, smug in the security of their own success, but such propaganda is painting the wrong picture. The truth is that those people on benefits are no different to you and I and the vast majority are decent people who want to work but simply cannot do so.
I think our pompous Daily Mail readers know that really. What I believe really inspires their hatred is not superiority but a sense of fear. Statistics show that the average worker in Britain would be eleven days from the breadline if their income was to stop. Our Daily Mail readers don't so much hate those they have cruelly labelled the underclass, they fear becoming part of them. It is easier to believe that people end up on welfare from a flaw in themselves rather than accepting that an unfortunate set of circumstances leading to job loss could happen to me, to you, to anyone. All I hear through the spouting and the name calling is the fear behind the voice, the fear that one day it might be them sitting on a threadbare sofa trying to make the decision between using the last tea bag tonight or tomorrow. It terrifies them and they lash out with the hatred in determination to set themselves aside, not from the people they despise but from the situation they fear.
There is of course some truth in the criticisms against the welfare state. A small amount of benefit payments are made to those not entitled to claim them. This is estimated by the government to be 1% of the total bill. I pay tax and the view I take on the tax that I pay is that I would rather contribute to the welfare of the 99% of genuine claimants and risk the fact that the odd fraudster slips through the net than stop welfare payments and see 99% of claimants suffer as a result. And if some of my tax does end up being spent on drink and drugs then in all honesty I'm not all that bothered. Because if I was sat in the abject poverty our government subjects our welfare claimants to I know I would be taking every pill and draining all the booze I could get my hands on. And so would you Mr Daily Mail reader, you've just got your head too far up your own backside to see it.
I sound bitter, I am bitter. I'm bitter because I hate watching people written off and condemned through no fault of their own. I hate the pomposity of those who mistake their natural advantages for the fruit of their own efforts and think they have a right to be so damn smug about it. I want a world where we don't judge people by what they earn and I want a world where instead of calling people scum for going through hard times, we offer a bit of sympathy and a helping hand while understanding the simple and sobering thought - that could be me one day.
The concept of the imaginary friend is usually associated with relationships that begin in childhood. Broaching the subject in polite society will usually result in the majority of adults present sharing fond memories of friends generated in their imagination during their tender years. Such friends are remembered warmly but usually acknowledged to have been discarded at a young age. Imaginary friends are almost universally considered to be the province of childhood.
However, it is not uncommon for the imaginary being to follow their friend into adulthood. This is spoken of far less often, perhaps understandably so, as the notion of seeing things that do not make themselves known to the outside world or hearing voices unheard by others are often taken to be signs of madness. Admitting to an imaginary friend in adulthood is likely to open yourself to ridicule and derision - and this would put a lot of people off doing so! The terminology itself also contributes to a confusion of the issue and perhaps a reluctance to acknowledge the inner relationship. Imagination itself is sadly all too closely linked with childhood and an individual who wishes to signify their transition into adulthood has little choice but to deny anything they ever had to do with imagination
The term "imaginary" also implies conscious creation of the individual. This negates the experiences that involve the dream companion and the fantasies of the adult day dreamer. If the imaginary friend has morphed into such a role it is possible that they are no longer recognised. To an adult dreaming is socially acceptable, having an imaginary friend is not.
The term "friend" negates the conscious creation of the adult writer who creates elaborate and often very real creations as part of his/her creative writing. An author would consider his characters to be his creation, not his friends. But as with the dreams, this could be simply the route that the imaginary friend has channelled him/herself down so as not to lose contact with the disbelieving adult. In this instance the relationship is still there, it has just changed into a form that the individual adult considers to be acceptable. It is interesting to note that none of these examples would constitute an experience accepted by a psychologist as having an "imaginary friend."
This all rather begs the question - what exactly is an imaginary friend? The view from various psychologists studying the subject differs but the basic accepted premise is usually that an imaginary friend is a construction of the mind of a (often intelligent) child devised to help deal with social situations and to provide a source of comfort and support. To the psychologist the imaginary friend is a fantasy, a creation of the individual. There is little consideration and certainly little credibility to the idea that the imaginary friend may have an existence beyond the imagination of the child.
Well that's all well and good as far as psychoanalysis goes. But as a witch, if I limited my thinking to only what science believes it can prove, I wouldn't be doing very much magic at all. Psychologists work within carefully defined clinical parameters, the nature of which refuses to accept the notion of consciousness beyond the human mind. But if we widen our view a little and consider the option that the imaginary friend may be less "imaginary" than psychologists are prepared to admit, we open up a whole new field for defining the imaginary friend.
If we allow ourselves to consider that an imaginary friend is not necessarily a construct or creation of the individual mind then, simply put, we allow for the possibility that the relationship between the adult and the friend with no physical presence relates to a genuine relationship with an actual external physical entity and not, as scientists would have it, to a product of the mind of the individual.
I am not very interested in adults with an imaginary friend who accept him/her on the terms offered by psychologists. Emotionally healthy as these people undoubtedly are they are not the subject of this blog. Either the individuals are lying to themselves and secretly believe their imaginary friend to be not so imaginary (in which case they are perhaps not so emotionally healthy) or they see the world in terms of science and accept the simple explanations offered by pop psychology for anything that comes their way or (If I'm to be fair) they are genuinely well adjusted people who retain a genuinely "imaginary" friend and have no problem with doing so.
I don't get many letters from the above if I'm honest. Few scientific minded types go around writing to witches. What interests me (and what inspired this blog) was a letter from a reader who was prepared to think beyond psychological constraints and consider the question as to whether he/her imaginary friend might actually be real.
When I say real, I mean genuinely external to the individual. I'm referring to a friendship with a separate external entity. This is entirely different to the adult individual who has an imaginary friend who knows/believes them to be imaginary. I will however offer my own opinion that neither type of person is "mad", "crazy" or "dysfunctional" and in answer to the input I've had from readers on this subject matter - having an imaginary friend in adulthood is not indicative of psychological issues. Ask yourself the question - Is it doing anybody any harm? Is it doing you any harm? Is your friend making it hard for you to function in the world? The gifts of the spirit are (in this case quite literally) recognised by their fruits. If having an imaginary friend makes your life easier and happier then that really can only be a good thing. Keep them, chances are they are very good for you.
Obviously if your imaginary friend traumatises you or causes you problems then that is a different matter and in those cases, a chat with a doctor may well be beneficial. The thing to grasp here is that it isn't the hard fact of having an imaginary friend that is in itself harmful or beneficial, it is the nature of your relationship with it and what you get out of it that matters. That answer lies in your own hands.
So moving beyond the "imaginary" I'll share my own experiences with you. My own imaginary friend turned up when I was aged about five. I wasn't going through any personal disturbance and in fact I had a very pleasant and drama free childhood (so get over the theory that imaginary friends are generated by trauma please). I had enjoyed the run of the mill imaginary friends that ("DON'T sit on Hippetty Hoppety!!) retained an obligatory and very annoying physical presence but this new imaginary friend was something different and more private
than anything that had gone before.
My imaginary friend - female - didn't disappear when I left school. In fact she chose to stick around through childhood, further education, various relationships, various jobs, my witchcraft, my marriage and my novel writing. (Expressing a voluble opinion on pretty much everything and everyone.)
The older I became, the closer we got. But equally, the older I became the more interested I became in understanding the nature of the relationship we shared. As a child, pretty much everything seems "normal" but as I reached adulthood and began to read various works of philosophy and psychology it did rather dawn on me that what I was experiencing was very different to what most other people had experienced (or at the very least what they admitted to experiencing). As I considered the nature and personality of my imaginary friend I was forced to finally conclude that she wasn't the product of my over active mind, she was in fact an entirely separate being who had decided to throw in her lot with me.
Fanciful as that sounds, I can substantiate it in three different ways. (I'll acknowledge openly that I would be very unlikely to be able to prove anything conclusively to the scientist or the sceptic but then I am less interested in proving my relationship than I am in enjoying the fruits of it. I'm fairly confident my friend won't disappear in a puff of smoke just because other people choose not to believe in her!)
So the proof I do offer is this: 1. She has a distinctive and contradictory personality to myself. She has her own viewpoints and opinions and she most certainly does not fulfil the function of validating my own views. She also has a real consistency. She doesn't agree/disagree on a whim - there is a rationality based on her own personality in the way we interact.
2. She has a separate memory and will often remind me of things I am personally unable to recall (e.g. Where did I put my keys? - On the hall table you dipstick). She can tell me things that in the moment I do not know or have forgotten.
3. She is capable of offering advice and perspectives that I have not consciously thought of myself. She can explain/clarify/elucidate beyond my own understanding.
(Her ability to impart hard facts incidentally is less clear cut and likely too easily confused with subconscious recall to be indicative of anything much).
Oh and 4 - She's pretty much always spot on. I've learned the hard way that her instinct is more attuned than mine even to the extent where her precognition has got me out of some tricky situations. Mind, I don't always listen...
On my journey into witchcraft when my own experiences with the Otherworld became more common place and I became better acquainted with those of a similiar (open) mindset I started to hear terms bandied about that might explain my relationship better than "imaginary friend." Witches speak of spirit guides, spiritualists talk of guardian angels... I can't tell you if my friend is either but what I can tell you is that there is a whole world of people out there experiencing far more than the traditional five senses could even begin to imagine. It is limiting indeed to view the world from the perception of sane/not sane.
My point from all this is not necessarily that I wish to convince you of my own experience. My point is rather to reassure those of you who write to me with similar experiences that no, you are not going mad and yes, there is a good more deal going on in both our world and in our heads than science would have you believe. And at the very least, if nothing else, I can reassure you that if you are mad, you're not out there on your own...The Degu Witch and her friend are right by your side...
There seems to be a lot of confusion on the subject of spirit animals so I thought this week I would concentrate on tackling some of the myths
clouding the issue as to what exactly is a spirit animal and how is it different to a totem, a familiar or a pet.
So before looking at what a spirit animal is, lets have a look at what it isn't by defining what the primary things is it most confused with being actually are.
The easiest to define of course is a pet. A pet is a creature you keep in your home, one that you bond with and share a relationship with. Pets are kept by both witches and non witches alike and a close relationship with your pet does not make it either your familiar or your spirit animal. A pet is likely to be considered a member of your family and a friend but that does not imply a magical connection. Don't make the mistake of confusing affection for your pet with a magical alignment.
The concept of the totem has its roots in Native American craft. The totem represents an intrinsic and unchanging part of the individual. A person does not find a totem, a person comes to recognise the totem that already lies within. An totem is an existing part of an identity symbolising the character of the individual. The search for the totem is the search for the core of the individual, it is the understanding of the self in its most primitive form. The totem reveals the truth of an individual's fundamental nature and also gives an indication of the lessons the individual is to learn in this lifetime. A totem animal will likely be kept a secret as to have knowledge of another person's totem is to have have deep knowledge of them and of course such knowledge in the wrong hands could give power over an individual. The journey and the quest inward to totem discovery is often used within Shamanistic practise.
Shamans also embrace the idea of the power animal. To meet a power animal is to have a non physical short term (often single occasion) encounter where the characteristics of a specific animal are drawn upon for a firm purpose. To give an example, a cat might be called upon for its ability to see the dark and therefore discern clarity from the clouded. A Shaman or a witch would call upon the animal, utilise the energies (with the consent of the guiding animal) and then likely part ways when the working or journey is complete. A power animal is not specifically linked to the individual - it is chosen for the individual circumstances. This differs greatly to the totem which is discovered, not chosen.
The idea of the familiar is very prevalent in Witchcraft (and you might be able to tell I'm back on home ground here after that quick trip into the foreign lands of Shamanism...). The idea of the familiar has three established concepts within the craft. The first is that the familiar is a demon or a spirit that has taken the place of an everyday animal and is sent forth to do the bidding of the witch. Cats of course have been traditionally identified within this role but this is perhaps unsurprising as cats are undoubtedly the most commonly kept domestic animal and have been throughout history.
The second concept of the familiar is that it is a vessel for the witch to send her own spirit out into the world. In this case the essence of the actual animal itself becomes unimportant, the animal is simply a second housing for the spirit of the witch. Some witches use this as a method of astral projection, projecting themselves into the animal to use the alternative body for their own purposes.
The third concept of the familiar is that the animal itself has a personal link with the witch and assists in her workings by intentionally lending its energies to her magic. This is the concept most often depicted in modern culture - the cat nodding away sagely as the witch mixes up a potion. Many witches will testify to having their pets lend energy to their spells. This interpretation also incompasses the idea of the physical animal forming a link to the spiritual essence associated with that animal. By this I mean - when the cat familiar focuses on a working with a witch she is not just bringing forward her own energies, she is acting as a bridge between the physical and spiritual world. She is bringing not just her own spirit but the
quintessential nature of the cat into the working.
So having determined what a spirit animal is not, we are now in a better position to look at what a spirit animal actually is. A spirit animal is generally a animal that comes to us in spirit (hence the name) to act as guide and teacher. This relationship can be inspired by interaction in the real world - it would be prudent to look at why you keep encountering a certain type of animal for example - or the animal could make itself known through the world of dreams. The spirit animal is not necessarily an animal you have a particular liking for or even an animal you have ever encountered in the flesh. It is very likely to be an animal that has a message for you which is why, hard as it might be, it is important to allow your spirit animal to find you rather than choosing an animal because you like it. Seeking a spirit animal through your dreams and more specifically through meditation is far more likely to yield the knowledge of the animal who has a lesson to teach you.
Many witches believe spirit animals provide protection, both in the physical world (through guidance, not through physical intervention) and on the astral plane or the world of the spirits.
Other witches see the spirit animal as the eventual escort to the land of the dead (perhaps not dissimilar to the Christian idea of the guardian angel.) Birds in particular are often viewed as a source of communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
It is of course important to make the distinction between a genuine spirit animal and a malicious spirit taking on a specific form for a purpose of its own.
A spirit animal can be a relationship for as long as you need the guidance of that animal. Unlike a totem a spirit animal is not with you for life. It will stay as long as you need the protection it can provide or until you have learned the lesson it can teach you. A witch may interact with different spirit animals through her life, possibly even having several at the same time.
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