As the wheel turns into the dark half of the year, I fell to musing on what Halloween/Samhain means to me and how I shall celebrate it this year. Traditionally Samhain is the day of the dead, it is a time when we honour our ancestors and remember those who have left the earthly plane. It is a chance to celebrate their lives and to remember what those since departed gave us when they were here.
For me, speaking personally, I have been lucky enough so far in this life to not have lost anyone particularly close to me. I have seen some relatives pass on but to be honest they have all been old and I didn't know them very well. So Samhain doesn't have the personal link with my own past for me the way it does for some witches. For me, I have to look beyond the boundaries of my own experiences of death to find my meaning in this time of year.
Samhain is the last of the three harvest festivals celebrated by Pagans. It is the end of the harvest, the end of the light half of the year and it marks a rest for the earth after the fertility and productivity of the summer months. And this period of rest can be echoed in our own lives as well. At Mabon we took stock of our own personal harvests, we looked at what we had done in the preceding months, effectively we looked at what we had reaped from the seeds sown and grown into our own personal harvest. At Samhain we put the year to bed, we can stand back and evaluate what worked well for us and what changes we would like to make in the coming year. Samhain is a time for self honesty, the hustle and bustle of the year has slowed right down, the nights are drawing in, people feel tired, a little slower and a little lethargic. It is in this mindset that perhaps we are most vulnerable to the negativity in our lives. Samhain is a time for discerning what negativity lies in our hearts and for planning steps to take in the coming year to make our lives better. Just as the farmer in days of old may have changed his crop plans for the coming year, we too can decide to sow different seeds to bring happiness in the seasons and harvests ahead.
Just as Beltane is the time of year when the walls between the world and the world of faery are at their weaknest, Samhain is the night of the year when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. It is traditionally a time for communication with the spirits and divination. It presents the opportunity to dust off the ouija board and straddle that chasm between the worlds.
So what will I be doing? Well I've got grand plans and a cold, so Samhain could go either way for me. Plan A. I've got some super duper halloweeny spider earrings to wear to work tomorrow, then back home to home made pumpkin soup and husband baked bread - he will have carved my pumpkin into a spooky face for me and I'll dress my altar for the coming seasons and display the pumpkin proudly in my witch room. After dinner we will have a spirit contacting session on my ouija board and then drive off around midnight to my favourite standing stones where we will light lanterns and I will perform a short (it will be cold!) ritual to mark the occasion.
(Plan B is if the cold gets worse, I'll go home and go to bed. Even witches can't win all the time!)
Image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1234809 (PaulGeor)
Something that has come up a lot in conversation with various witches recently is the use of animal bones in magic. Animal bones have several uses to a witch. Probably primarily they are used for divination - the layout and positioning of the bones can be read in the same way as a tarot or a rune spread. The bones can also be used in spell casting to draw upon the energies of the animal and to invoke its spirit into the workings. Other witches may use animal bones as offerings or sacrifices to the deities. And there is also a very aesthetic appeal to animals, skulls in particular - many witches like to use them as decoration of a designated working area. Animal bones, as the symbol of death can also be of use in medium or ouija spirit work.
A quick glance at any of the witch forums will show different techniques for gutting and skinning animal corpses and how to clean the skeleton so the bones can be used in magical workings. Undoubtedly burial and retrieval is by far the best way to get a clean skeleton. I speak from experience after my disaster last year when I cleaned a dead badger's skull with the boiling method. It took eight hours, stank the house out, ruined the saucepan and I had dead badger brain, skin and hair over every work surface in the kitchen. Never again! I strongly suggest to anyone thinking of cleaning a skeleton that they either use burial and retrieval or use the bleaching method where you leave the bones in a bucket of bleach until only the skeleton is left undissolved. (And never, ever boil any part of a badger…..)
The use of animal bones does vary between witches. I was chatting to one the other day who was saying how sad she was that her dog had died and she had given him a burial in her back garden. She then went on to say quite matter of factly that she would probably give it six months before digging him up.... Now, call me squicky, but I have to admit I would find it hard to imagine any circumstances where I would dig up my own pet to use its bones. For me, it would feel wrong to use an animal I had personally known and loved. I lost my beloved Snickers degu at the end of last year and I buried her in the back garden. But I just cannot imagine digging her up again. It would feel too utilitarian and I would feel I was disturbing her rest. I wouldn’t push myself to do it either - yes it would be great to have a constant supply of animal bones from my expansive collection of pets – but my personal antipathy to using my pets for this purpose would negate any magic I tried to perform with them.
To the non witch I suppose this animal bone business probably sounds a bit macabre. But it really isn't. The witches who do use their own deceased pets for their parts don't see it as a lack of respect. It is simply something that can be used once the life has departed from the animal. Some even see the close connection they had with the animal when it was alive as adding another dimension into the magic.
It all just goes to show that there isn’t a one size fits all structure for the magical practitioner. It is important to respect what feels right to others and also what feels right to yourself. A witch who works outside her comfort zone will find her magic suffers, a witch who criticises the way others choose to work will find herself losing friends. In witchcraft, as in life, it comes down to finding your own way of doing things and being happy that the things you choose to do genuinely feel right for your own personal way of working. So to dig up Rover or not? Whatever feels right for you….
An inspiration of mine recently came to fruition and with positive results so I thought I'd share it with you.
About eighteen months ago I had a dream. This was a proper sleeping dream I hasten to add, not a Martin Luther/Brittas Empire type of dream. I dreamed about our solar system and how I kept going on space tourism flights to Neptune and popping into the gift shops beforehand to buy replicas of the planets. The planets had a real draw for me in the dream and I kept saving up thousands of pounds for these trans solar system trips.
I thought little of it, though I had several occurences of the same dream over a short period. Then, a few weeks later I was in one of my local new age shops looking at crystals and I found a lapis lazuli sphere that looked almost exactly like the earth. It was way out of my price range but working on the principle that that's what credit cards are for, I bought it. I thought it would be an excellent aid for grounding and centering and sending my energies back into the earth. It also had distinct possibilities as a healing stone or even to support my own little bit of magic toward world harmony. Anyway I didn't really think much at the time beyond these immediate areas of use, I bought the lapis lazuli and took it home. Then another few weeks later I went to York with my husband. And we were shopping in one of the occulty spooky shops, a little touristy for my tastes but all good fun, when I came across a crystal onyx sphere. This one was noticably bigger than my “earth” and the man in the shop commented how much he thought it looked like Jupiter. And it does, it even has the big red spot.
And I thought back to my dream and realised I was being thwacked round the head for whatever reason by a Goddess who really wanted me to create that vision of a mini solar system that she had taken the trouble to inspire me to dream about. Not being one to ignore a thwack from the Goddess, I set out to search out the other planets. It took about eight months to fully complete the collection, paying specific attention to the traditional visuals of each planet and also to the type of crystal used for the representation. Selentite was a given for the earth's moon, labradorite for Pluto (Pluto will always be a planet to me) and I liked the use of fiery tigers eye for Venus.
I expanded my collection to include the four main moons of Jupiter and key moons on Neptune, Uranus and Saturn. I also included a couple of trans neptunian objects namely Quaour (goldstone) and Sedna.
With the collection established (actually I'm still not completely happy with the sun and I'm keeping an eye out in case a better fit comes along) I had to find a magical use that would justify the faith of the Goddess and the time and cost invested in the project.
Each individual sphere has been invested with the energies and characteristics of the associated celestial body. Individually I use them to support my workings, for example I may use Mars when I want to add strength to my work, I may use Neptune when I want clarity and I use the Moon for peace and to connect with the Goddess. Collectively the spheres create a circle that I can use to draw upon the different powers in the universe. I can use this for potency in my spells or I can meditate inside the circle and use the energies to balance my peace of mind.
Sometimes I lend the spheres out, especially to my husband when he is feeling in need of support. I always charge them back up after being lent out by leaving them overnight on a bed of quartz. This was a tip I received from another witch a while ago and it has become my favourite method of replenishing crystals.
My solar system takes pride of place on my witch room. It is a thing of beauty as well as a powerful tool. But more than that it is a dedication to the creation inspired by the Goddess and that alone makes it a precious thing to me.
In a conversation the other day, a close friend said to me that I was a very lucky person because things always work out well and nothing bad has ever happened to me. The implication was that I have led a pretty charmed life. To be honest my instinctive reaction was to agree with them. But as I got to thinking about it, I realised that my life has probably not been that much different from anybody else’s, I’ve had the same ups and downs as the next person. The key difference is in how I view the things that happen to me.
Fundamentally I’m an optimist. I’m not a fatalist – I don’t believe things happen for a pre-ordained reason - but I do believe we can use our negative experiences to gain some good out of them. Earlier in the year my branch at work was closed down. I didn’t dwell on the prospect of potential redundancy, instead I looked for the opportunity in the situation and used the extra time and energy to write my first novel. I got something good out of a hard situation.
I believe we have the choice to view our lives in a positive or a negative light. If you choose to be a victim you will become a victim.
Take 2004 for example, I was thoroughly miserable in a job I hated so I applied for another job and got out. I could have viewed that situation in two very different ways. I could have said it was a miserable experience because I hated the job so much. OR I could say it was a happy experience because I managed to find another job and leave behind the miserable job. I chose not to become a victim of my circumstances. My friend said I was lucky because the new job came along at the right time. But it wasn’t just about luck, I wouldn’t have got that new job if I hadn’t kept slogging through the job applications or if I’d let the doctor sign me off on the sick. I had the optimism to believe that the situation could be turned around and I had the will to put in the effort to do it.
That sounds like I’m saying that we make our own luck. But I’m not. Really awful things do happen to people through no fault of their own. And when bad things happen we’ve just got to get on with it and hope the tide turns for the better. But more often than not there really is a silver lining to the cloud. That relationship that breaks up? Maybe you would have ended up making each other unhappy. That job you didn’t get? Maybe it would have caused you a lot of stress in the long run… Sometimes what seems bad at the time can actually turn out to be for the best. I try to hold on to that thought when times get tough.
And I do believe in applying a good healthy dose of perspective. I annoy a lot of people with my “It could be worse,” attitude. But you know what, it usually could be… As my husband said to me very recently when I was having a moan about our depleted finances; “At least you don’t have to walk four miles a day to fetch clean water….” We take a lot of what we have in the modern western world for granted. Sometimes that bit of perspective is all you need to realise just how good we do have it.
Having a positive attitude is what being a witch is all about. We believe we can change things through the way we work and we take control of our lives. When I go through hard times, I don’t hit the gin bottle (well just a little bit..) I think of what magical workings I can do to improve things and I take practical steps alongside the magic to make the situation better.
Image http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=866121 (elkfish)
As any of you who follow me on Twitter will know already, public transport is a subject close to my heart. You may perhaps recall the many times I have come close to delivering a hearty slap to a loud mobile phone user or you may remember the unfortunate occasions when a particularly smelly crisp eater nearly got his comeuppance... The whole public transport thing fills me with uncharacteristic train rage. It is only a matter of time before I pull a Michael Douglas and do something rash like throwing twenty mobile phones out of the emergency exit. Or I'll finally pull that ruddy cord that has a £50 fine for misuse....
But even the idiot who can't text without a series of slow and painful water torture beeps pales into a category of insignificant annoyance compared to the real menace of public transport....the first class train compartment.....
Nothing, just about nothing annoys me more than this antiquated anachronistic example of elitism and pretence. Possibly - if people really really feel the need to spend ghastly amounts of money to be segregated from the rest of us - possibly we should find them a broom cupboard or a spare loo and shove them in there. But we don't. We give them 50% capacity of the train. Yes that smug middle class double chinned chap pretending to read the Telegraph has half the train to himself. Admittedly he is probably fool enough to have paid an obscene for the dubious advantages of a first class seat. But what about you and me? Were our tickets free? I'll tell you for a fact, mine wasn't. I've paid £200 this month for the privilege of daily travel to the next stop on the line. You would think that would grant me the right of a seat? But no, more often than not I end up standing or squatting in that annoying alcove next to the buffet car where everyone tramples on you as they push past to buy an overpriced stale sandwich.
Now as far as a plump middle aged witch goes, I'm in good health. I will happily give up my seat for the elderly, the infirm, the pregnant or the disabled. I have no issue at all in letting these good people have a seat before me. What I do have an issue with is paying a pretty stupid amount of money for a train seat and then having to stand up despite the fact that there are free seats on the same train.
So why are rail companies doing nothing about it? Why on my six coach train are three coaches packed to overflowing and the other three have sixteen occupants between them? (yes, I walked through and counted). Why do we allow the railway operators to take huge sums of money off us and then force us to sit in piles of discarded chewing gum next to their badly ventilated chemical toilets (Virgin - your toilets are the worst, they stink. Get it sorted Branson.)
Why in this modern age of equality are we content to allow this class segregation to continue. And why why why are we happy to pay through the nose for a train ticket and then meekly sit on the floor for the duration of the journey?
Well I am not doing it any more. From today I am standing up for myself and I urge you all to do the same. If you can't get a seat (not even the seat next to the teenager playing loud rock music and ignoring your increasingly violent gesticulation to move his bag, and probably feet, off the chair next to him) you need to calmly walk into first class, plonk your bottom on the nearest comfy chair (don't drink the complementary tea, we're not freeloading here) and enjoy your journey in a seated position. And if anyone challenges your right to be there, point out if they had bothered to provide people paying 200 a month to travel on their services with the seat they had paid for, we would have left first class to the Telegraph readers and stayed in standard where the tea might not be free and our noses may still be assailed by the overpowering stench of Branson's toilets but at the very least our clothes would be free of chewing gum and we would have escaped being squashed by the buffet car visitors. On balance that would seem as much as we could dare hope for with the way things are with trains at the moment.
Image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1391867 (DavidMau)
The news over the last couple of weeks has been particularly distressing to follow. My sympathy goes out to the parents of missing April Jones, sadly now believed murdered. It beggars belief that a human being could be capable of such an act against an innocent child.
But in addition to the horrors in the headlines themselves, the thing that has really disturbed me this week has been the reaction of the public to the news. There seems to be developing a very unhealthy culture of shared grief in this country - a blurred confusion between sympathy and empathy. I’ve observed for some time now this trend where people are moving beyond feeling sympathy with the pain of those who suffer to wanting to be part of the actual grief itself. It is as if people don’t want to be a bystander to tragedy, they want recognition for suffering themselves.
And I find all this public grieving by people who are not directly involved to be, in all honesty, a bit ghoulish. It makes a mockery of the pain of those genuinely and personally affected. Unless you are directly involved, this is not your grief and not your tragedy.
There was an incident mid week where a newsreporter was accused of being “cruel” because she spoke with local members of the community and informed them that it was believed the little girl had most likely been murdered. Had this woman stormed into the home of the parents of the missing girl, I would agree that she had overstepped the mark. But to give information to people not related to the child, not personally affected by the tragedy… This was considered cruel? Well frankly I don’t think it was cruel, it was a woman trying to do her job in very difficult circumstances. The grief belongs to the parents not the bystanders. It wasn’t a personal tragedy for the bystanders and it wasn’t their grief. The bandwagon of grieving it would appear is an easy one to jump onto.
And I don’t like the way the media insist on glamorising the news and dressing it up as an interactive spectacle. The minute by minute blogs would be more in keeping with reality television than factual news updates. Again there is this sense of involvement, as if the personal tragedy belongs to all of us, as if we have a right to know everything as soon as it happens. We talk about how events like this unite us as communities and even as a national conscience, but perhaps we need to look for other ways to achieve that unity. This sensationalist reporting of the news trivialises and cheapens genuine tragedy. It makes it feel too much like a cliffhanger episode of Dallas and not something terrible that is happening to real people right now.
Beyond the grief hogs lurks an even worse kind of person, someone who tries to divert the public interest in the news story to suit their own twisted ends. One individual has been jailed what they have written about the missing child on Facebook. This person hijacked a private forum of respect to broadcast their ignorant and offensive comments in an attempt to snatch a feeble moment of media interest in themselves. Sickening. But yet becoming increasingly more common. These fame seekers crawl out of the woodwork and leech onto current news stories with inevitable and tedious regularity. Not so much jumping on the bandwagon of grief so much as hijacking it. Good to see the law taking action against such a pathetic specimen.
The law has been a bit of a contentious issue in itself though. In so far as why don’t we just let the law get on with its business? Across social media sites people are baying for blood and the return of the death penalty. The man accused of the child’s murder was tried, convicted and hanged before he even set foot in a courtroom. This isn’t justice, its vigilantism at its worst. It’s a product of small minded self righteous people who persist in judging somebody before any guilt has been lawfully established. It’s crossing that fine line between wanting to be part of the problem and wanting to be part of the solution. And it’s a sad indictment on a society that is too impatient to wait for justice to be served and too selfish to leave anybody alone to grieve in peace.
I’ve recently been using this website MegalithMap to identify standing stones, stone circles, holy wells and the like in the local area. Its very interesting to see just how many of these type of sites there are around. The big ones like Stonehenge or Avebury get all the publicity but away from the hype and the tourist trail are many little sites of Neolithic origin or ancient Pagan interest. Yesterday my husband and I went to a stone circle near Baslow in Derbyshire. It was a touch off the beaten track - about half a mile from the main road but the glorious autumn views of the heather clad Peak District saying its annual goodbye to Summer made the walk feel like a little pilgrimage through nature, a small spiritual journey in itself..
For me, these hidden away places have a real atmosphere of serenity, an almost other worldly feel to them. Out in the countryside away from the sounds of traffic and the background hum of the urban world ,you can imagine it as a place that time has forgotten, a secret sacred place sought out only by those looking for a little solace or the chance to step outside the world and be peaceful for a time.
At the site of the stones was evidence of recent pagan offerings – somebody had left a piece of rose quartz tucked against one of the stones, someone else had made an offering of pine cones and ribbons. These simple offerings showed that despite the age of the stones this is still a place very much alive and relevant to deity worshippers today.
The only other people around were a small group who, from their clothing, I would guess share similar ideology to my own. They treated the stones like we did, with a sense of reverence and respect. We moved between the stones, not exchanging any words but sharing that communal consciousness of shared belief and thought. Each person took the time to sit quietly, to reflect on why they had come, what they wanted to leave behind and what they wanted to take from the place.
I lay on my back on the stones in the fading late afternoon sun and I looked up at the sky. And as I lay there I thought of how much those stones had endured over the thousands of years they had stood there. How many people must have passed by them . How many people had come here for comfort, for purpose, for peace......?
And as I lay there I felt proud to belong to a faith and a tradition that can trace its roots so far back into the memories of mankind. A faith that is still honouring these stones for worship thousands of years after the circle was built by long forgotten distant ancestors. As these stones have endured, so has the spirit of Paganism endured. It needs no churches or temples. It needs no ornate structures to inspire the hearts and minds of those who choose to follow the Pagan path. All it took to create an enduring place of peace and worship was a small patch of earth, a few stones and a few thousand years of belief and believers.
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