Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster

Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster
"Sorry guys...you haven't seen a small metal ball with wings flapping around by chance, have you?""

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Winter Solstice Altar

This altar represents the winter solstice; the darkest point of the year after which the days become longer. The rebirth of the sun, if you will.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An atheist's magical practice in detail

In my previous post about magic, I talked about magic in fairly general terms.  I thought it might be useful to talk about the way I practice magic myself, in case that interests anyone.

Rational use of irrationality: As I have stated in other parts of this website, since the only defensible logical explanation for magic is the psychological effect it creates on a person, that is always the model I assume to be at play. Magic changes my mindset; my mindset changes my probabilities of successfully manifesting my will in my life.   It works by reconciling the rational and the irrational parts of myself.  Take a protection charm for instance.  A braid of garlic, a bag of herbs or a piece of metal, in and of itself, doesn't protect me from anything. But if I use it as a protection charm, it reminds my rational brain to be vigilant, which helps me avoid avoidable danger.  But it also appeases my irrational side by acting as if the piece of metal or bag of herbs will protect me from unavoidable danger.  My irrational side is an heirloom from some hairy caveman who screeched and ran when he heard the "angry" thunderstorm.  That irrational side is where uncontrollable emotional breakdowns come from.  With magic, I gave that irrational side a more productive job to do so that I don't have to simply repress it. That way all of me can work towards the same goal.    It's a virtuous cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, it only works as long as both the logical and the illogical are working together. I'm not going to
walk willingly into a lava pit wearing a talisman and expecting to emerge unscathed, for example.  I'll let go emotionally for the sake of a ritual, but if irrational and rational disagree fundamentally, I always go with the rational. (Rational does always have reasons, after all). I have a series of safeguards that I established for any spiritual practice that I will write a post on later. 

Symbolic representation of and reverential attitude towards nature: Nature is represented in my magical working, either literally through the use of herbs or plant life, etc. or figuratively through the use of symbols. In a full-blown ritual, I represent the sun and the moon and the four classic elements (earth, fire, water, and air). Firstly, as I feel that I and the majority of humans on this planet are too disconnected from nature, and representing it in that poetic way reminds me of its existence, our dependance on it, my impact on it and therefore my place in the world. Secondly, it also helps me to represent whatever issue I want to deal with in my rite in a more isolated and hopefully effective way. Me, the universe, and the issue to be dealt with. When I use herbs, I revel in the sensory experience of holding, smelling or tasting them and feel a sense of gratitude.  

Varied elements of folk and ceremonial magic: I use many of the tools and forms that are used in magical systems around the world, including candles, incense, herbs, symbols, oils, concoctions, little bags, bottles, knotted cords, talismans, chants, etc. applied in ways to make them ritually significant.   Some of my magical practices are extremely simple--just a rhyming couplet for example. Others involve full-blown ceremonies. I am always interested in learning about new types of practices, with a view to updating my system if I find something I like.  I feel like I know a lot about Wicca, both traditional and eclectic.  Now I am investigating hoodoo, North American shamanism, Mexican brujería, Cuban santería and other forms of traditional witchcraft.  One has to be exposed to many styles in order to adopt one's own style. 

Systemic use of correspondences: One of the ways to make workings "ritually significant" as I stated above is to use correspondences.  This means doing certain type of magical workings on certain days of the week, certain phases of the moon, using certain colors of candles, certain types of herbs, and so on.  My system establishes priorities for establishing correspondences:

1.) Proven medical or scientific properties  (i.e. White tea from China for weight loss, St. John's Wort for depression)
2.) Mythological Associations (i.e. Safe Travels potion on Wends. before trip, because Wends. or miércoles in Spanish corresponds to Mercury, who was the God of Travelers).

3.) Consistent use across many witchcraft or magical traditions  (i.e. sage is often used as a cleansing herb for smudge sticks in many types of magical systems, including virtually all traditions of Wicca and North American Shamanism.)
4.) Asthetics or personal inclination (i.e. hibiscus, I use for love magic. Beautiful flowers, bright colors, sweet smell evoke ideal love to me).   

Personal Adjustment:  My spells are rarely one-size-fits-all, suitable for all people and all occasions.  I think that any magic has to be adapted to the person practicing it. I readily draw inspiration from other people and established traditions in my spell-crafting.  But the final arbiter is always me. I say this because I find that some authors and some practitioners play games of psychological manipulation that imply that not doing it their way means that one is not initiated into the true "secrets" of magic.  Or worse, that one is exposing him or herself to harm by not doing it "the right way"=(their way).  Never mind that the person asserting this has no evidence for their way working beyond their own personal experience. And never mind that they don't prove that any negative consequences (i.e. evil spirits) are not coming from that person's own mind. They want you to be scared into following their way of doing things.  That doesn't work for me. These people also contradict themselves because they say that the more one puts his or her own "energy" into the practice, the greater the effect will be.  Other more traditional folk magicians (i.e. Hoodooists, Voodooists) talk about the need to have a "link" to the object of the spell in order to carry out work on them (i.e. hair, bodily fluids).  So personal involvement is paramount and in my opinion can never be delegated. 

Words, words, words: One of the easiest ways I ensure personal involvement in a spell is to use my own words, or to use words that are relevant to the target.  I subscribe fully to a quote from the very last Harry Potter movie which was uttered by Albus Dumbledore.
Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic. They are potent forms of enchantments, rich with the power to hurt or heal.
 Some of my most potent spells have also been simple recitations of words. If anything analogous to evil spirits exist, I believe they are mostly manifestations of one's own fears.  The best psychological abuse occurs when the abuser can make the abused participate in their own victimization.  Occasionally, when I read a very detailed account of someone who claims to have encountered evil spirits that have caused them physical harm, misfortune and financial ruin, my irrational side gets the best of me.  "What if it's true? Am I exposing myself to harm?", I wonder as the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up.  I came up with a very simple spell that I repeat as long as is necessary to feel better. 
Black magic I may have seen on TV, but it has no power over me.
  This helps rationality take control again.  Without exception, the fear has disappeared in a short period of time.  A post on evil spirits in the blog of  a Druid named Jeff Lilly pointed out that:
I do know a number of people who claim to have seen them. But interestingly, the only people who see them are the ones who somehow “expect” to see them — that is, people who already believe in supernatural entities. Evil spirits leave secular humanists alone....

I also read somewhere that the only reason that evil spirits don’t go around possessing people all over the world is that most people believe so strongly that evil spirits don’t exist, and that their bodies are inviolable, that the spirits can’t get in. Effectively, the disbelief itself is a powerful protective spell.

Divination as a projection screen for intuition: I like to think about “The Big Picture”. The way that different parts interact to make for a more congruent whole. I do this when I think about how any system I deal with can function better, from my body to my relationships, from my workplace to my planet. I have ideas about all of those things, but sometimes a little inspiration to help connect the dots doesn't hurt. So when I read cards about a particular situation, rather than expect to be given the answers by some hidden spirit, I can find a symbolic expression of the answers that are already inside of me.

Magical ethics = mundane ethics: The fact that magic seems to have purely psychological effects does not mean there are no ethical considerations to be taken into account. If magic is meant to facilitate the manifestation of real-world outcomes, then I shouldn't try to manifest a will that is unethical.  In practice, this is not necessarily that different from the ethical system of some witches who believe in the supernatural.  A Wiccan might say that it is unethical to try to cast a spell on someone so that they won't break up with you. If the spell works, one would be imposing their will on that person.  I also think it is unethical, but not because some supernatural force will be returned to me threefold.  To my way of thinking, if I ever feared that my partner would leave me and instead of talking to him I started lighting candles and incense, something would be seriously wrong. The equivalent in mundane action would be threatening to commit suicide to manipulate a partner from leaving. The first casualty of such an immoral action would be my own dignity and self-respect. The second would be any shot at a healthy relationship with that person, and the third would be the partner's well-being. So I evaluate the equivalent magical action in those terms.

Just as I am careful professionally to not claim that I can do things which I cannot, I am also very careful in what I claim to be able to do for other people magically.  I don't generally do spells for people unless I know them well.  When I did a ritual to help a friend lose weight, I made it clear that the ritual itself would not make him lose weight and that he would have to eat more healthily for that.  I would be extremely careful, or even declare an absolute prohibition, on doing something like a healing spell for the relative of an unconscious person in the hospital.  What if the unconscious person dies? Would the relative then feel guilty about invoking "unnatural forces"?  Would they blame me for what happened? Would I then feel guilty about the outcome? It could turn into a huge mess. The only circumstance I would even think about doing something like that would be if the person involved was a very well-known friend who knew that the ritual would be aimed ONLY at the friend feel better by allowing him or her to express his or her will for the relative's well-being.

That being said, whereas some Wiccans are completely against any kind of bindings or curses, I am more flexible.  I would call myself a "pragmatic pacifist". I try to believe that most people have mostly good intentions most of the time.  When someone's behavior annoys me, my first instinct is usually to not take it personally.  I also subscribe to Art. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

  Unfortunately, everyone does not play according to those rules. When it becomes clear that one is faced with an unavoidable high-stakes confrontation with people who are not acting in good faith, then I think one has to fight back.  In the words of the late Aaliyah in the movie Romeo Must Die,
When a girl is kicking your ass, you do not have to be a gentleman. 
Similarly, if a binding or a curse helps you deal with someone (i.e. an emotional abuser, a workplace harasser, etc.) in a way that will keep you from being completely and totally screwed over, than by all means, do it.  Just like physical violence, the defense has to be relatively proportional to the offense (i.e. you can't shoot someone for slapping you). 

Celebration of full moons and traditional nature festivals: Similar to the second characteristic of my practice as stated above, celebrating the 13 annual full moons and the eight dates commonly recognized as the “Wheel of the Year” is a way for me to feel more in tune with the rest of the natural world. I also consider those occasions to be good times for magical workings, if I happen to be so inclined.  

Well, there you have a summary of my magical practice.  Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or want to tell me about your practice, feel free.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Fluffy Bunnies"? Give me a break.

Fluffy bunny = "fake" Wiccan

I've taken both the Christians and the Atheists to task in previous postings and now it's the turn of the Wiccans (and perhaps Pagans in general). Wiccans, I'm talking to you. I'm going to refer to the "fluffy bunny" label.  "Fluffy bunny" is a name used to describe "fake Wiccans" who are supposedly into Wicca for the image, who have poor historical knowledge, who stress light and beauty and love to the exclusion of anything negative, and falsely claim persecution.  To describe my thoughts about this controversy,  I will mention a concept that I remember from a podcast I heard on sociolinguistics.

The concept comes from a renown researcher named Ana Celia Zentella, who mentioned it in a lecture she gave on Mexican-American young people who had grown up on both sides of the border, whom she calls transfronterizos. (Here is the podcast). The phenomenon she refers to is the idea of a "pecking order" being set up in ethnic groups.  On one hand, Mexicans from the Northern part of the country considered the transfronterizos to be unauthentic Mexicans, too influenced by American culture and English, unable to speak Spanish correctly, etc.  The interesting part was that then Mexicans from the center of the country also thought exactly the same thing about Northern Mexicans.  To me, it's a very interesting demonstration of the tendancy that humans have in defining themselves based on what they are not.  Ironically, whatever is chosen as grounds for exclusion is also more often than not what actually defines most members of the group.  The U.S. and Mexico are countries that have been in close cultural contact for centuries.  It would be strange for a citizen of either country to not have any cultural affinity whatsoever with the other.  None of these people care if the transfronterizos speak French, because French is not a part of their identity.  The fact that they deride the transfronterizos for speaking in English or Spanish respectively, is the clue that they actually deal with a lot of English and Spanish themselves. 

Similarly, "fluffy bunnies" are often derided by Wiccans (and especially more traditional adherents such a Gardenarians, Alexandrians, etc.) as overly emphasizing light and positivity, believing in historical inaccuracies, deriving elements of their practice from popular culture, and being superficial.  That all sounds familiar.  Who does that remind me of? Oh yes...Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca. I've read a great deal of his book The Meaning of Witchcraft

In one passage he writes:

Let's get this business of "bewitchment" and "putting curses on people" straight. There are two necessary prerequisites for "putting a curse on someone". The first is a genuine motive for doing so, and the second is the ability to do it.  When those two things come together, and they sometimes do, you get an indubitable result.  I know too many stories of this kind personally to say that it can never happen: but what I do say is that it is rare.  In the first place, to do a thing like this requires a considerable expenditure of psychic force, which no one with real knowledge would do upon trivial grounds.  Secondly, those who know about these things would not resort to such an act unless in exceptional circumstances. Consequently, ninety-nine per cent of the people who think they are being "bewitched" are cases of sheer auto-suggestion, and I believe that such cases have been enormously increased by the newspaper scare campaign. (Gardener, p. 226)

This is just one passage, but at least half the book seems dedicated to the sole purpose of convincing everyone of how nice witches are and how they do not worship Satan.  How is this different from emphasizing the positive and saying that the negative all but doesn't exist?   His book also insists that his is the religion of witchcraft, and repeatedly quoted the work of Margaret Murray.  Now "fluffy bunnies" are criticized for both of these activities, but it seems to be among the oldest of Wiccan traditions! 

I've already talked about how "The Charge of the Goddess" (various versions) is often considered Wiccan liturgy.  The version found in the Gardenarian Book of Shadows and attributed to Doreen Valiente begins by saying,
Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called Artemis; Astarte; Diana; Melusine; Aphrodite; Cerridwen; Dana; Arianrhod; Isis; Bride; and by many other names.
Nowadays, Wiccans consider it "fluffy" to simply "plug in" deities into rituals and say that you must build a relationship with a particular deity, recognize their cultural particularities and basically be "serious" about it.  It is also stressed that Wicca has two specific Gods--a horned God and a triple Goddess and that we cannot simply "choose" whatever Gods we want and then call it Wicca. But then, isn't plugging in deities without regard to their particularities and out of context exactly what Doreen Valiente is doing in this text? The idea that there was just one great maternal goddess whose names didn't really matter came from one of the most influential sacred texts of Wicca.  But now it's "fluffy" to conflate everything into one big Moon Momma without doing research. Go figure.

I could then go into the criticisms that some contemporary witches (i.e. Robert Cochrane) had of Gerald Gardener, and then expose each and every one of their inconsistencies (i.e. faulty history, claiming to speak for all of witchcraft, etc.), but it would be repetitive.   I think that instead, I'll suggest that the urge to call someone else a "fluffy bunny" is probably a clue that one needs a gut-check.
A few comments:

No religion is authentically historically practiced.  It is literally impossible to practice a religion, any religion, the way people of other times did. A religion cannot be divorced from its cultural context and remain fundamentally the same.  The only reason why Christianity has lasted so long is that it morphed into whatever the current cultural circumstances required.  Even though they might both be nominally Christian, the religious practice of an upper-class white American in California has very little to do with the religious practice of a Yoruba-descendant in modern Cuba.  Neither one of their practices have much to do with the way Christianity would have been practiced in the Roman Empire.  So let's not pretend like anyone believes what a relatively small group in England did fifty years ago without any adjustments to current times or one's personal circumstances. What this means is that, as much as you may have researched or studied Wicca, you and your group still adopted it to your own practice and circumstances.   So you don't have a leg to stand on when you harp on "fluffies" for doing the same thing.

Fluffies got you worried about the image of Wicca? Well, that if anything shows how insecure you are about your own religion.  So some teenagers dress in black and hold a crystal thinking world peace and calling themselves witches. Big deal! When I was a child, I imitated baptism by dunking my brother underwater in the swimming pool.  But that was hardly grounds for cranking up the Inquisition again (or whatever the Evangelical equivalent of the Inquisition would have been).  Why? Because Christians are secure enough in their beliefs not to be bothered by that kind of thing.  Those teenagers who today are decked out from head to toe in Pagan "bling" will eventually either develop a serious path, or they'll leave it behind.  Kids grow up or they move on.  Such is the way of the world.  By attaching so much importance to it, it's you who is making Wicca seem petty, frivolous and
shallow.  If you want to combat the perception that Wicca is shallow, the best thing you could do is focus on being a positive example of what you think Wicca should be 

Besides, imitation is the greatest possible compliment. The fact that there are fluffy bunnies is a symptom of the greater social acceptance that Wiccans have achieved.  People think Wicca is cool.  If people think Wicca is cool, then they don't think that you, Mr. or Ms. SuperWiccan, are a psycho if you decide to be public about your beliefs.  Hence your probability of social, workplace and romantic acceptance greatly increase. If Wicca had remained limited to a small, hidden group of initiates doing Fivefold Kisses in the forest, there might very well be no fluffy bunnies.  But you also probably wouldn't be in a position to say comfortably that you're a Wiccan in common society.  The fact that you often can (and without people running towards the exits no less) is due to the fact that the image of Wicca has become more benign and accessible. So perhaps you should be thankful for the existence of Fluffies, or at least what their existence represents.  (The same goes for the TradCrafters* who turn their nose up at Wiccans.  Wiccans have made great strides in making witchcraft acceptable for which TradCrafters can only be grateful.)

Also, please refer to my post about religions being made up and how every person who practices any religion needs to get a sense of humor.  Wiccans practice a religion which ostensibly is a type of witchcraft.  Witchcraft, in the modern developed world at least, is seen mostly as a fictional phenomenon. That's not a secret; all of you knew that when you became Wiccans.  If someone said they were any other fictional character, like a Smurf or Fred Flinstone, I might joke about it myself. So why is it that if you call yourself something that in many people's minds is associated with a fictional character that you should be so absolutely shocked, appalled, and offended that some people might think you're going to a costume party? Just laugh it off (and then explain your faith if you feel it's necessary).  Add some mirth to your reverence.

To summarize, I think you anti-Fluffy Wiccans need to chill out.  Besides being hypocritical in the nth degree, it's simply not worth getting so bent out of shape about.

*Traditional British Witchcraft practitioners.