Archive for April, 2014

Interpreting the Old Ways

Week 18 (I): interpretation, or how to know when you’re putting modern meanings on ancient beliefs

While browsing one of the old pagan communities over on Livejournal, I came across a really excellent question (original thread here):

Some witches use traditional folk songs, stories, and legends to supplement their understanding of pre-Christian beliefs. My question is how do you prevent yourself from interpreting the material too much? How do you know that you are not projecting your bias into the material? Sometimes a wren is a bird and not the God.

In other words, how do you incorporate old material outside of the context in which it was first constructed? Full disclosure: I am not a reconstructionist* and have never been one. There are definitely other pagans who are, so I suspect their answers will be markedly different from mine.

I wouldn't do the same things within this stone circle that people would've done centuries ago

I wouldn’t do the same things within this stone circle that people would’ve done centuries ago

That said, I do use old symbols and gestures in my practice. One of my favorite songs for meditation and prayer dates back to the 1600s. But I have no illusions that I am using these things the way our ancestors did. The world is a different place, though aspects of it have remained the same. You can never step in the same river twice, but whenever you do step in it, the river is still made of moving water. While it may not be the same water that clung to your skin before, it’s still water. The elements may be the same but the details are disparate.

My interpretations of these songs, rituals, and gestures that are hundreds of years old are informed by the world in which I grew up. I am not the same witch I would be if I had been born in the 1700s, and I imagine I am not the same witch I would be had I been born in 2300. For me, context and time period matters. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate songs from past centuries, or like the way a particular form of antique ritual dancing looks. You can still use old things in your practice, but for me I see it as an homage to and appreciation of things past.

Put another way: I may dance at dawn on the summer solstice in a stone circle (fun fact: there’s actually a stone circle near my house), but I don’t think it’s the same way people danced at stone circles at dawn a thousand years ago. My dance is reminiscent, perhaps, and certainly an interpretation of their practices, but it’s a distinctly modern interpretation, not a perfect reconstruction.

* My own understanding of reconstructionist traditions is pretty basic. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article on it, but I would love to hear from readers about where I can find more info on what reconstructionist practices look like!


On Incense

Week 17 (I): incense

I started burning incense because Scott Cunningham told me to. The book that started me on my witchy path was Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and in it he recommends incense as an integral part of pagan ritual. Specifically, he said “the Goddess…can sometimes be seen in the curling, twisting smoke”. That’s the line that really stuck in my head.

Once my beliefs evolved beyond the bounds of Cunningham’s paganism, I found that I still liked incense as a part of my rituals. Smoke makes everything seem inherently more mystical. Picture the scene: the smoke from the incense spirals up, twisting around the dancing body of a woman. The light from the full moon turns the smoke silver, and turns her skin to a glowing jewel in the candlelight. Tell me that isn’t more magical than a woman dancing in the woods during a full moon*.

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I believe that incense carries prayers. Our desires are borne by the smoke and wafted into the waiting hands of the Goddess. I meditate best with a stick of incense smoldering next to me. The smoke makes every space sacred, and it has the capacity to delineate the boundaries of the sacred space in which I work. Unfortunately, I can only burn incense for my outdoor rituals. When I do get to use incense in my practice though, I plant smoldering sticks in the ground at intervals and it perfumes the entire circle. And it’s that smoky border that makes me crave the outdoors, particularly when the weather is like this: a delicate New England spring.

* Ok, ok, both are magical. Still, I maintain there’s something about incense that gives my rituals that je ne sais quoi.


The Value of Heuristic Belief

Week 16 (H): the value of heuristic belief

Heuristic:
adjective, from the Greek “find” or “discover”;
enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves;
a hands-on approach to learning

 

Learning is all about trial and error. So in learning what I believe in paganism, what works and what doesn’t, took some experimentation. My belief is firmly rooted in experience.

I learned early on that even the things you think are essential to your practice may not be so. Twelve years ago I burned incense for all my rituals, most of which were done indoors. I thought of incense as an indispensable witchy requirement. But then I discovered that the smoke made me develop a nasty cough that would hang around for months. As a result, I decided to forgo incense unless I’m outside. Calling out incantations sounding like a phlegm factory maybe isn’t as pleasing to the gods as having an acolyte that’s healthy.

often more error than trial

Yes it’s trial and error, but often more error than trial

There’s this great quote from Scrubs, where Turk grabs a gigantic needle and, showing no fear, plunges it into a patient. He then says “Learn by doing.” Learning by doing is exactly how I learn best. And with paganism, I think it’s really important to learn by trying it out. In the past, I’ve talked about how important practice and action are. Learning is a type of action. It’s a practice you should never think of as “beneath you”. There’s always more to learn.

Paganism, for me, has always been about discovery. It has allowed me to explore which beliefs work for me and which don’t. I have been able to learn about a huge variety of different traditions (thank you public library!). I’ve tried spells that didn’t work, which in turn inspired me to write better ones. If something doesn’t work, change it. Improve upon it. Do it better next time. Being a witch has allowed me to discover my own heart through an often-messy-but-never-boring continuous cycle.

An enduring sense of discovery is one of the reasons I chose an eclectic path. May you never stop being able to discover things in your own practice. Blessed Be.


How to Make a Home

Week 15 (H): on making a house a home with a house blessing bottle

my current house blessing jar

my current house blessing jar

I move a lot. In the past nine years, since I moved out of the dorms & my parent’s house, I’ve lived in nine different places. And in every one of these nine apartments, I have done some sort of house blessing. This type of ritual is a large part of making my new place really feel like home.

Writing your own rituals is excellent practice. But I also think that it can be very valuable to find inspiration in the rituals of others. Below is a ritual for a house blessing. I hope this gives you some inspiration for your own. And, if this one resonates with you, please use it. I only ask that you credit me with its creation, modifying as you desire (per my Creative Commons license for all the contents of this blog).

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This is a ritual that is preferably done before furniture is moved in, but it can also be done after you’ve moved everything in. Ideally you’ll have all the people who live in the house participating. My wonderful partner enthusiastically participated in the re-dedication when she moved in with me, but your mileage may vary.

You will need:

  • a glass bottle, whatever size you like (mine is a little bit shorter than the length of my hand)
  • herbs that represent all the things you want for your life in this house/apartment
  • a candle in a scent/color of your choice (I used Terra Essential Scents house warming candle)
  • a smudge stick (I like sage) or incense
  • rosemary or lavender oil (I picked lavender)

Decorate a house bottle. The purpose of this bottle is to protect, bless, and dedicate the space. I typically use a glass paint marker in cerulean and draw interlocking spirals that cover most of the bottle (see above). Bake to set the color. Once the bottle cools, I filled mine with the following potion:

  • a cinnamon stick (for luck, purification, and protection)
  • basil (harmony)
  • allspice & rosemary (vitality)
  • anise & rice (protection)
  • cloves (protection and love)
  • lavender (purification, love, protection, and to promote peace in the house)
  • sage (longevity, wisdom, and protection)
  • thyme (health and purification)
  • salt (purification)

I also added the following crystals to the herb mixture above:

Invoke your goddesses of choice (I called upon Brighid, for new endeavors, and Kali, for protection. They’re also my guardian goddesses. I know quite a few people who invoke Hestia for their house blessings.) Light the candle, to signal the start of the blessing: I used a candle specifically charged for house warming, which smelled utterly lovely (peppermint, vanilla, and lavender) and was embedded with a piece of blue agate.

Smudge the space with sage, taking care not to set off fire alarms. If possible, circle the perimeter of the building as well. Be discreet, but take your time, focusing on cleansing and blessing your new space. Use rosemary or lavender oil to draw an invoking pentagram* on the door or threshold. Alternatively (or perhaps additionally), plant rosemary by the door. I also hung this miniature broom on the door, with its bristles soaked in lavender oil. Folklore says that a broom on the door wards off negativity. Now if only I could remember where I’d read that!

I bought this handmade broom at a local farmer's market

I bought this handmade broom at a local farmer’s market

Once back inside, after finishing with the smudging, stand in a room or hallway with a view of the door through which you’ll enter most often. Fill your house bottle with the prepared potion of herbs and stones. As you put in the stopper, offer the following words to the Goddess:

Goddess of the home and hearth,
bless these walls and give them warmth.
Bless the windows, roof, and floor.
Bring joy to all who grace my door!

Grant to those who enter here
Relief from sorrow, pain, and fear.
Bring rest and comfort to the tired.
Turn rage to peace – quench its fire.

Make this home a happy place
Where friends feel welcomed by this space.
Please see that only good befalls
Those who dwell within these walls. 

Carry the bottle from room to room, asking the Goddess to bless each space. If you live in a studio or one big room, carry the bottle to all the corners of the room. Use this ritual in conjunction while chanting the house blessings below, if desired, or craft a spontaneous prayer for each individual room. I chanted the first continuously as I walked through the house, then said the second once for each room, but do what works for you.

Ever blessed
Ever harmonized
Ever protected

and

Protect this home
Cleanse this place
Goddess bless
this sacred space

Once you have gone through every room, place the house bottle in a central space where you will see it most days. Reaffirm this blessing as desired (particularly if someone moves in with you, or if you get a new pet). Blow out the candle and give thanks.

When you move, scatter the contents of the bottle, on the property if desired, and give thanks to the Goddess for having made your house a home.

* I thought I did my invoking pentagrams like most pagans, but upon further research that’s apparently not the case. Mine go from the top to the right-hand bottom point, across to the left-hand side point, over to the right-hand side point, then back down to the left-hand bottom point. In case you were curious.