Holly and Oak

I’ve thought some on the Oak and the Holly Kings, quasi-mythological figures within parts of modern Pagan Witchcraft, figures that may in fact not be so old and have more to do with Robert Graves than ancient times, but figures with poetic meaning nonetheless.

The popular modern stories told of the Oak and Holly Kings have them as rivals for the hand of the Goddess, defeating each other at the Solstices, the Holly King gaining ascendency at Summer Solstice, the Oak King at mid Winter. For some this works, but it has never resonated for me. I can understand them as faces of the Horned God, but the endless rivalry, battle, death and rebirth leaves me queasily unmoved. I will quietly beg to differ.

The most striking thing for me is of course that Oak is deciduous, while Holly is evergreen. The Oak does appear to die and revive, while the Holly remains constant. While the Oak goes through the cycle of manifest becoming and decline and re-becoming, the Holly for me represents that which is not born and does not die.

I see these two as brothers, looking into each other’s eyes, and I cannot tell which is dying and which is living, for in the richness of life is the process of ripening and transformation that gives way to the gateway of death, while in the eternal otherworld that we associate with death is found the infinite abundance of shining life.

These two brothers entwine with each other in the single reality of Life.  To realize one in the other is one of our mysteries.

Not battle, but astounding love.

photo credit: Tom Murphy VII

Intention, Higher Self and Full Moon

I’m reminded at Full Moon that this is a time for focussing on clear intention. I realized years ago that intention was a key to “coping” with the Full Moon (I say this as that was often a hard time to get through for me), that positive intention at the time of the Full Moon could and did transform a day.

Intention is certainly one of the keys of magic. I was taught that will and imagination were the cornerstones of this discipline when I was younger, but I do find “intention” more nuanced as a term than “will”, which can give us erroneous images of determined concentration, Nietzschean supermen, and a kind of straining for something, which is so far from the reality of will. Will it is, but intention describes the actual process more clearly for me with less baggage. Intention (and will) is light and subtle, and therein lies its immense power. Intention is possible with choice and awareness, awareness is its quality and choice is its pure action. It does not need resistance or force to manifest, only choice and awareness. The lightness and simplicity of its process is its key.

The Full Moon is also a time that many Witches make a special connection with their gods and goddesses, with Deity. The Full Moon is also understood as a time when the “psychic gates” are open to the Astral realm, and so this process can be facilitated. The Full Moon can be both beautiful and difficult for people, and I believe in part this is due to the opening of this gate, for the Astral can be both like a mirror for our mental and emotional states, and a conduit for the Higher and greater Wholeness, according to our work and intention. The energy at Full Moon in circle is deeply meditative and peaceful I find, yet a very high level of energy which seems to be asking to be used for work. I believe this is a time when we have a special opportunity to have connection and oneness with our Higher Self, our sacred, luminous Self. According to our work, and our clarity and purity of intention, we may have this communion with the Divine, and manifest this quality of luminous connectedness.

photo credit Kabir Bakie – image under creative commons license

“Man seeking Man”

Yesterday I found what I thought was a little gem of a short film. A curtailed version of it showed up on YouTube and I was very impressed by it. It’s a Finnish 12 minute film with a thoughtful, affecting and difficult theme. It contains some nudity which is completely in context and “non-gratuitous” (though I wonder what gratuitous nudity is meant to be, as opposed to say gratuitous clothing?). The film came out in 2004, directed by Matti Harju with a wonderful performance from Asko Sahlman. All I’ll say is that themes of estranged fatherhood and gayness come up. It’s a brave little film.

What was so strange was that the only full version of it that I could find online was on a porn site, even though it is not in any sense pornography. For that reason I have not given a link to the online film, as the page it’s on is plastered with professional porn images and graphics. Now what does that say about where the subject of the film gets filed in our cultural mind set?

3rd July 2015 – you can now view the film here.

screen capture from video


Esotericism – how we laughed and cried

I had quite a nice time yesterday and today, reading through online writings of the astrologer Dane Rudhyar, and indeed I had picked up an old book recently on the Sabian Symbols by him. Dane Rudhyar produced some very interesting writings and was himself a Theosophist with many interests, and a long and active life.

I enjoyed reading through some of his stuff and may well return to it, there are real insights in his work, but eventually I just had to come to a halt and sit outside and shake it off. It wasn’t the man or his obvious talents, but the spiritual edifice of early twentieth century esotericism that did it. It recalled for me what it used to be like reading occult literature at one time, with its spiritual hierarchies and avatars, it’s immutable laws and ineffable planes, and its sour moral undertone (though Dane is more sweet than sour, I have to add). Madame Blavatsky rattled her chains, Alice Bailey and Dion Fortune put on their rubber gloves to barely mention homosexuality and similar “vices” that would soil your evolution (not to mention Bishop Leadbeater). Dane Rudhyar was a modernising and open-minded saint compared to this, but the terminology and the inherited structure just brought it all back somehow. It just leaves a kind of chill. A gay youngster reading through any of the old stuff had to take a deep breath and be ready for the standard objectified condemnation, pathologizing, or complete silence on anything beyond the holy heterosexual couple in occult teaching. It’s a good thing that youth is resilient.

But just to show a little of what Dane Rudhyar was capable of, see this quote:

“Scorpio is usually considered to be related to sexual activity and to all passions connected with sex (for instance, jealousy). But actually we must differentiate clearly between two aspects of sex. Sex as a strictly biological and procreative function of the human animal is expressed in the zodiacal sign, Taurus — the sign of fertility. The sign, Scorpio (its opposite in the zodiac) refers, on the other hand, to what I might call ‘personalized’ sex. And it is with this latter that Freudian theories and the Kinsey Report deal primarily.

“Psychological problems related to sex, sexual behavior as an indication of psychological attitudes and of inner pressures, fear or desires — and all sexual abnormalities, sex rituals, and religion induced frustrations — should be referred to the sign, Scorpio. The intentional prevention of birth, either as a social measure, or for personal reasons, comes also under Scorpio. Scorpio opposes Taurus; the more “personalized” the approach to sex, the less it tends to result in fertility”.

Astrology and the Kinsey Report

January 1954

Elsewhere he goes a little into the needlessly negative associations attached to Scorpio on account of this, associations which ought to be changing with a changing world (which indeed they have in a lot of quarters). It’s interesting stuff worth reflecting on.

You can see from this how gay sexuality would feed straight into this Scorpionic association, for it truly fits the bill as non-procreative sexuality. It is also apparent from this how the linkage with the “personalization” of sex would lead an outdated culture to completely misjudge gayness as a “lifestyle choice” (which it is not, any more than heterosexuality is). Yet the central thing that this spiritual ideology fails to address is that non-procreative sexuality is entirely natural. It’s right there in the “Taurean” realm in that sense.

The transpersonal aspects of Taurean sexuality relate to different realms than Scorpio, realms which are readily visible and apparent. The transpersonal aspects of Scorpio relate more to the invisible undercurrents of life. Maybe this is also why Scorpionic sexuality was seen as more personalized, as the collectivity of Taurus is more physically obvious. But it is also a question of what we see as normative – that sex has an almost ordained function as reproduction, or that this is not necessarily so. Nature would seem to indicate the latter, as I think did many cultures older than Victorian and Edwardian Christianity.

Gay folks might fit the Scorpio model in this discourse (though gay people are found in all types in fact), and Dane Rudhyar’s characterisation of the sign by the zoomorphic image of the Phoenix rather than the Scorpion fits the experience of the modern gay movement rising from the ashes of patriarchal, monotheistic culture (the bisexual D H Lawrence also identified with this symbol) quite poetically. From my early teenage years my sense of sex and sexuality as something sacred was overpowering. But the association can become something of an imprisoning cliché.

A gay person is not born opposed to Nature, but as a less common manifestation of its diversity. We experience sexuality maybe in a more Scorpionic way on balance, by virtue of where society puts us in its scheme of things, but there’s a great deal which is the same, both ways. Take away the imposition of social values, and would a “barren” heterosexual couple’s sex be seen as “personalised”? There seems to be a whole battery of value judgements surrounding this scheme.

Separating nature and nurture, and data and social judgement, is not always simple, but at times the old esotericism appeared to have a great investment in the separation and the question not even being looked at. This is one of the problems of unexamined tradition, and of sacrosanct “teachings”. This very attitude seemed to feed into the popular approach to Jungian psychology as well.

The occult and the esoteric are immensely rich areas, with deep roots and multiple flowerings. The output of the Victorian and Edwardian eras are not necessarily characteristic of these things as a whole either, and imposed their own blue print of values and selective perception upon the occult, as I’m sure all eras do. I think it was only during the 20th century that a freer and more self reflective perception slowly grew, though who knows what the distant past sheltered in obscurity? For now though, it is neither relativism nor dogmatism, but a more flexible open-mindedness in this area that is most interestingly offered.

For LGBT people vis-a-vis the occult interpretation of sexuality, I think there is little doubt that we are still stationed in the realm of Scorpionic experience by society and our history. The question is how do we get out, and how do others come in to find what is theirs too. Or put another way, how do we realise that when it comes down to it, we are all pretty much the same.

Our commonality is the gift we all receive, and the means by which we may give back our little bit of transformation to the world, that in the mirror of each others experience and loves, we see that we are each other.

Black is Beautiful

The Devil Chills Out

As anyone reading my blog will know, me and my husband are neopagan Witches, and we have a God with horns, a God we love very much. I view modern Witchcraft as a modern spirituality movement, though people used to think that it was a survival of an underground pre-Christian European religion. However, I am not going to do a “our God isn’t the Devil, we’re not Satanists!” post, that’s kinda boring and there are an awful lot of them about. I’d actually like to argue that we owe a little debt to the idea of the Devil as a repository of a sense of the mysterious, the magical, the wild, the sexual, the liberating, the earthy, the nocturnal and Dionysian and the hidden, and the paradoxically enlightening – though not to the whole negative monotheistic package.

Many of us read books like Margaret Murray’s “The God of the Witches” and “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe” and ate them up. We responded with feelings of devotion for the God we saw in those books, which tried to make the case for the afore-mentioned survival of an underground pre-Christian religion. Those who came to neopaganism later may not appreciate just how central the God was to our sense of Witchcraft. The popular movement has got much more Goddess centred with the rise of feminist spirituality, but the Horned One was an irreplaceable and magnetic figure for Witchcraft in the mid twentieth century.

As it turned out, Margaret Murray’s research was not that reliable, and there is little to indicate that such a survival existed in the way described. What she came up with was derived partly from accounts generated by the witch hunt craze, and from her own interpretation of folklore and folk customs. The witch hunts were an appalling episode in history, amongst many other appalling episodes, and their destructive power was in part driven by the psychological potency they held for the culture that bore them. They led to the torture and death of thousands (who were probably rarely “witches” in any sense of the word), which their persecutors turned into a seemingly sadomasochistic hallucination in their forced confessions. What Margaret Murray in part did was look into this bad trip and snatch from it a cleansed vision, a naturalised version of what she hoped underlay the nightmare. I think she attempted to redeem the tragedy unconsciously, and give these victims their own Lord, an earthy, noble and loving one, older than Christ and crowned with horns. Without knowing it, she was trying to heal a cultural split in the modern world, and one not unrelated to those that underlay the demonizations involved in the witch craze itself. One thing Margaret Murray asserted seems very reasonable though, and it is that the gods of the conquered old religion become the devils of the victorious new religion. In the case of monotheisms this seems quite credible, and borne out to this day.

It’s quite true that most people’s idea of the Devil was far closer in appearance to the cloven hoofed Pan than to any documented Judeo-Christian figure. With the waning of Church power it seemed that the association with sex and sensuality was more to the fore than the shop of horrors propounded in earlier times, and the wickedness became more ironic. That’s one of the reasons why the “Satanic panic” hysteria of the 1980’s and after was so shocking and unexpected, and the fact that “professionals” joined in and organised around this delusion (and largely got off scot-free) is a sobering indictment of our supposedly modern societies.

The association with the supernatural and magic also survived, and with forbidden and “occult” knowledge. It’s true that there generally had to be a sinister twist in the tale to add a moral, and the horror genre has continued to throw up stunningly Catholic superstitious burlesques from The Exorcist onwards, but I think it is also apparent that the image of the Devil was carrying foreign cargo along with all that. Some of that cargo was Pagan – the residue of the gods of an older, conquered world; remembrances entwined with denied desires and longings. In this sense I feel that Margaret Murray was mistaken, but poetically she divined something in her misinterpretations, if not about the past then about the present.

Modern Pagans have tried to find out what historical Paganism was really like, how real witches would actually have been, and even who the Horned God was as a definitely identifiable, historically worshipped deity. There are some fruitful lines of enquiry, and a good deal to be gained from research, but none really captures the magic and the mystery, and none less so than with the Horned God when he is pinned to a single instance. Kernunnos, about whom we know so little? Frey, whose name means “Lord”, a god of peace and fertility? Herne, who was a ghostly legend in the Windsor area? Some have proclaimed that there simply was no Horned God, only various separate horned deities, and not always in convenient locations and with appropriate associations. And Murray’s thesis has receded, having failed as academia, and not been fully considered as counter cultural process.

But those who have sensed His presence have not felt mistaken in finding Him real, palpable, immense. And we will search and not find Him in a historical figure, indeed we lose him in the search, because He’s just where we are not looking, and where we found him all along. A benevolent devil, a great power natural and supernatural both, a poetry fully naked and animal from the waist down, a Sun at midnight, a common man’s god, our shadow and our light, the promise and the fear of our inner most selves, a swarthy redeemer, a different story.

We lose so much when we approach the sacred, and our own inner processes, with a sense of the literal. I feel this has been the mistake of modern Paganism from the old approach to the witch craze through to the search for historical authenticity in reconstruction. We got the wrong end of the stick, and then kept hold of it, when it seems to me that what the Horned God really points to is something within ourselves.

Of course he’s not the Devil, that belongs to the whole dualistic line of theology which is so profoundly alien to neopaganism, even as it is to many forms of mysticism, and neopaganism is a spirituality, not a negation of someone else’s religion . But before we trash the old boy completely I think we should wise up to how images and associations do actually grow and break free of the intentions and definitions of their masters when we enter the folk life of humanity. The Devil, with his bad boy supernatural power of Nature, his mirror to our alienation, and his strange imagined patronage of self-willed women, rebels, heretics, homosexuals and all that the totalitarian Church judged as “perversion” and subversion, he couldn’t help but be a significant symbol, not in our cleaned up retrospective view, but in the underground psychic life that was so suppressed, and in this corner or that always continues to be.

The Devil of folk lore was an “un-god” that invited us to outgrow and see beyond him, to what he might actually be, beyond the schizoid ravings of the respectable. And think on this:

The Church took Pagan motifs to shape the comely form of their Devil, a form more powerful and resonant than the twisted messages they intended to imbue it with. If this was an attempt to separate people from Paganism then it boomeranged eventually, because the psyche is a sensually responsive creature, and reads forms more directly than it does religious ideology. That’s one reason repressive religions seek to condemn and control art in so many manifestations.

When Paganism returned at a popular level in the western world (by which I mean in the 20th century and in a truly popular sense) I believe it did so in the guise of Pagan Witchcraft initially, and the god who exemplified the soul’s beloved more than any other was the goat footed, horned one. I feel this is attested to in the Romantic idealization and repeated referencing to Pan in literature and painting. Ronald Hutton likened him in his analysis of the roots of modern British Witchcraft to a “green Christ”.

Not the Devil, but one hell of an ironic twist ;0)

Satyr and Farmer – Johann Liss

August 2013 – very minor edit done to last two paragraphs without change to meaning.

September 2015 – since writing this piece I have in fact become a Satanist, but remain a polytheist.


With something like spirituality it’s not always easy for people to relate. Religion has given it such a bad name at times, sometimes people just need to find what for them is a less tainted language. For me though it runs pretty well as a word I’ve come to embrace in my own way.

If I drift off into a reflection on it, I think of various points in my life, oases where it was clear, lucid and peacefully “right” and meaningful. Free of a sense of prohibition and rules, in step with a sense of intuited place and balance, though not without the occasional need to get outta Dodge and make some discriminating calls on things. The real sense of it has always been positive rather than negatory, a real good experience rather than an avoidance of bad stuff.

I must have grown up with some sense of spirituality as a kid, maybe due to the innate sense that I feel all children originally have  within them of peace, love and beauty, but also probably due to my mother’s influence. My mother was a not very religious Christian, quite non-doctrinaire but very strong on honesty. She had a good deal of frailty to her, but I remember her as a courageous woman when it came to defending the vulnerable in front of her, and standing by right, certainly when I was a child. She was delicate and troubled, but she had a luminous quality, and yes, I could only describe that as spiritual. I was a pacifist as a kid, and I mean committedly so, and if I had a sense of  Jesus it wasn’t of crosses and suffering, but of this hippie dude who talked about love and exemplified peace as powerful. I was, in a lot of senses, a child of the sixties.

For my teens and twenties though, it was very different. The heady and sometimes bizarre mix of influences and currents in my (counter) cultural life formed a backdrop to much of what I went through, along with a wacky and disrupted family life that I learned to cut out of emotionally as a teen. Spiritual influence would surface at times and glimmer with serene  clarity, only to dive from view and attention, as other streams of culture rolled on to compete more noisily. Some of the compelling philosophies of the counter culture had a strongly materialistic bent;  leftism, existentialism, hedonism and demands for revolution and liberation. Psychedelicism straddled and weaved between the spiritual and freeing, and the materialistic. Pour that through adolescent minds and you can see what you’d get. It’s not that there wasn’t spirit amidst all that, the sense of the shared dream which dissolved barriers and boundaries was overwhelming at times, but the flinty, steely demand of some of the static could whip the mind and heart into some distorted forms, forms that were shared and became a consensus.

That was the counter culture, but I see similar themes differently expressed in the wider world. The mixing of the spiritual and the materialistic or power oriented. The mixing and tugging of the freeing and the conformist, the freeing of consciousness on the one hand, and then the demand to pull it back into the standard, shared script.

What I never did see before my psycho-spiritual crisis of about 20 years ago, was how ubiquitous the conditioning of materialism was, and how mistaken as perception. And I don’t mean materialistic values, I mean basic materialistic perception. Our sense of causality and the nature of time and space, and separative being, and our valuation of where and in what power and consciousness necessarily lies.

Spiritual reality and power is a real thing. Real – like when a picture you’ve always looked at and accepted gets turned upside down, and you suddenly see that is the plain picture, and the whole edifice of upside down disappears, because it was just a mistake, an error of perception. Plain and simple. That kind of real.

One of my favourite tarot cards is called “Strength”. It shows a woman in a flowing robe bending down over a lion. She has flowers in her hair and the sign of infinity above her head. With a serene expression on her face she places her hands on the lion’s jaws and effortlessly closes the lion’s mouth, who resists her not at all. It is a picture of spiritual power.

We find ourselves faced with many things in our lives, many apparent sources of pain, conflict, turmoil or destructiveness. We are conditioned to think that power and security resides in things that take away this or that person’s choice; violence, manipulation, cruelty, paranoia, ignorance (or at least control of opinion), glamour, conformity. These are artefacts in the vision of materialism, and of separative bodily identification. We are even conditioned to think that the answer to these things lies in the same vocabulary. But that is  an unconscious edifice built on an upside down picture. The extraordinary thing is that they are not necessary, and only seem so (or at least apparently inescapable) through being accepted and asserted as a common reality. But as faulty perception they are anything but necessary.

When we get faced with trouble, there is a reaction to fall back on conditioning, fear and shutting down. But with time there comes a response to see beyond it and recall a deeper reality. We can gently awaken, and live from somewhere different, peaceful, powerful.

This is the power of spirituality, and real magic is an expression of that.

Tarot artwork by Pamela Colman Smith

hooves in the sky

In 1977 the nature of modern astrology changed, and in ways which astrologers maybe wouldn’t have expected. This wasn’t an earth shattering event, but a shift which would only unfold with time.

Since the discovery of the “outer planets”, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto our view of astrology got extended beyond the classical scheme of the seven planets (which for the purpose of astrology include the Sun and Moon). These outer planets were biggies, and were understood as powerful influences. In fact, if any planet was considered the epitome of powerful and heavy, it was tiny little Pluto which was only discovered in the 1930s.

None of these discoveries changed our modern sense of expecting to find the next big one though, orbiting beyond the last big one we found. It was really a very settled, ordered scheme, circling like a clock mechanism, and the building interpretative school of psychological astrology knitted the new planets into its scheme once it came on the scene.

When the next one came it wasn’t quite what the paradigm expected though (even if the new planet was predicted by some astrologers), and it wandered in much nearer than the cold wastes beyond Pluto. Which brings us to 1977. In November of that year Chiron was discovered. Between Saturn and Uranus, with an eccentric orbit swinging between these two planets, smaller than Pluto and a lot closer, people didn’t know if this was a large asteroid, some kind of comet or a small planet. Science settled on the term “planetoid”.

But the “next one” wasn’t a one at all, it was a key unlocking a multitude, a far more complex sky. More such bodies have been discovered since, and these bodies that resemble Chiron are all termed (along with Chiron himself) centaurs, after their mythological name sakes’ forms.

I feel Chiron and the centaurs are tremendously important, and fascinating, but their possible meanings and functions in astrology aren’t what I want to try and address in this blog post directly. Chiron elicited tremendous interest from the astrological community, and with good reason. But there was also resistance to this “new planet”. The classical scheme, even with the added triumvirate of modern outer planets, was neat and elegant. Chiron’s addition wasn’t. It was almost as unresolved as real life. And he was so small, and he wasn’t really a planet, and we didn’t yet know what he meant, and he wasn’t trans-plutonian (wasn’t that somehow cheating?), and yeah, he was really small. But Chiron got his due all the same, just not the kind of due we got used to expecting, not the singular due we are used to understanding. And so, I’ll wager, will the other centaurs. Chiron was a lesson that what you expect isn’t necessarily what’s happening.

Small and multiple is a funny thing for astrologers to focus on. It’s not the narrative we usually chose. To borrow some phrases from the author Starhawk, it takes starlight vision to notice it, rather than the flash light vision of linear, rational awareness. Astrology had for a while been trying for that “we’re a science dammit” line of credibility, like Canute starring into the gloriously unscientific sea. And somewhere in there “small” and “myriad” was all too much. The clue should have been that poster bad boy for psychological astrology himself, Pluto. He’s tiny, and he turns out to be a binary anyway, but we didn’t used to know that either. We could take that when there was just one of him.

After almost 29 years of living with Chiron though, the ground had moved, and it moved under Pluto’s feet. Imagine that. In 2006 Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet, along with other comparable bodies. It was now seen to have its greatest kinship with other bodies in the Kuiper belt, a whole swarm of objects out there, similar to Pluto in broad composition and orbital characteristics. Wailing and gnashing of teeth! Heresy! How dare they demote Pluto?!

But of course they hadn’t.

Pluto hadn’t got any less powerful or meaningful. What had been said in effect for astrology was that something as powerful as Pluto turns out to be small, complex and part of an enormous number of similar objects that we have so little idea about. The pattern suddenly opened out, and that was a totally different sense of power. The door on dynamic, patterned complexity had been opened, and poetically enough, Chiron’s symbol looks very much like a key.

This isn’t all that Chiron is about, but it is one of the things we have learned since we started hearing the sound of hooves in the celestial night.

painting of Chiron and Achilles by Eugène Delacroix – image in public domain