Theurgic Binding: A Response

For the past couple of days, I’ve been mulling over whether to post some kind of response to Morpheus Ravenna’s post on dedication to a deity. But whenever I begin drafting something, I get frustrated and delete it. Nothing seems to quite get at what I feel needs to be expressed.

Then, today, a friend of mine linked to a post contrasting the Buddha’s “Parable of the Raft” to Mormon Teachings. Here’s the parable:

A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty – but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.

The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’” The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.

The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?”

The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.

The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with — not for seizing hold of.”

I find online conversations about the Morrigan to be very strange and not much like the practices I see in real life. If you read something about her and find it frightening, or if you find it leaves you with guilt and shame and a sense that you thought you were okay but now you feel like a total fuck-up and you think you’d better let an expert tell you what to do before you get hurt or worse, then take a breath.

Take another.

And one more.

Dear one, you’re doing okay.

This is me, a mother and an educator and a priestess who may or may not have a little more experience than you, promising you that you’re doing okay. Maybe you flew headlong into a formal dedication because it just felt right. Maybe you’ve had a good relationship with a god but now it’s starting to go sour. Maybe your practice is just in a rut right now and you’re discouraged and anxious that some all-powerful being has it out for you.

You’re still doing okay.

You didn’t sign away the next nine generations of your family by telling a god you wanted to be close to them. You’re not going to meet some disaster because you followed your gut and not a contract. If the Morrigan or any other deity is putting other people through those kinds of tests, then it’s because that’s what they need in their lives at this moment. You’re your own person, with your own needs and strengths.

Maybe you know for a fact that the gods are real and powerful. Maybe you know for a fact that they’re just archetypes. Maybe you know for a fact that they’re all aspects of one divine reality. Maybe, like me, you have absolutely no idea and you feel your way along, day by day, wanting only to live an authentic life of service and gratitude.

Whatever the case, gods can’t hurt you unless you continually give them that power. And no, you didn’t already sign that power away by lighting a candle and saying some words. Did the god give you any indication at all of what they wanted to take from you? No? Not even a hint? Then they’re not entitled to it unless you consent.

And even if you did knowingly sign away your life and your house and your dog and your Playstation 4 and now you’re losing sleep because it was a huge mistake, then simply tell the god you need to terminate that contract. Figure out a good compromise. Maybe they get the Wii instead. Tell them you’ll throw in Smash Brothers. Our spiritual lives aren’t mortgages. Put down the raft; you were never meant to carry it forever.

But above all, let me reiterate: no matter what scary things you read on blogs, you’re doing okay. As we say in the Reclaiming Tradition, you are your own spiritual authority.

Always.

No exceptions.

Blessed be.

Morrigan Hymn #7

Behind the teeth of nightmare there is knowledge.

Within the monster’s chambered heart is love.

Your fear can be a threshold to the sweetest wisdom,

Your mind a mirror of the earth.

Go in, go in, go in.

Tantrum (A Prayer to Badb and Nemain)

Tonight my daughter happily emptied three baskets of toys onto the floor. Before her bath, we asked her to clean them up. But she didn’t want to clean up–she was busy drawing. I gently took the marker out of her hand. The tantrum started.

This was her second day of preschool and, for the second day in a row, she was fragile and exhausted on the ride home. I was reminded of days that I spend walking through busy city streets or ploughing through projects at work. Those days when my physical exertion is minimal, but I finish the day unable to move, my brain putting all its energy into processing the stimuli to which I was subjected.

Which is to say, this tantrum was a landmark on a very clear map.

#

Before I found a good treatment plan, I had days so bad that I cried my throat raw. I had days so bad that I hurt myself just to relieve the pressure. I had days so bad that I wanted to tear myself out of my own head. This is what depression and anxiety feel like. I lost weeks, months, to the lowest periods.

By the time she was in the bath, my daughter was jerking and catching her breath from crying so hard. She screamed and screamed, her voice hoarse. “Are you all done with the bath?” my husband asked. “NO!” she shrieked. “Do you want to stay in longer?” I asked. “NO!” she wailed. In a tantrum, a toddler no longer knows what she wants. She’s a slave to her most primal self, the part of the brain that squirt cortisol into her blood and make her writhe with rage. My daughter flailed her arms and screamed piercing, staccato screams.

In her agony, I saw myself. I saw those days before I found the right medication, when anxiety would send me over the edge and I would curl up on the floor and grab my hair, wanting anything in the world except to be conscious. I saw those days when I really, truly believed things would never get better. I saw the hell my brain created for me.

I felt such sharp compassion for my screaming girl.

#

While my husband toweled her off, I went downstairs to get a binky. By the time I got back up, the tantrum had subsided, and glassy-eyed, she opened her mouth to let me pop it in. “Medicine,” I whispered.

Then I knelt in front of her and stroked her hair. “I’ve been there,” I said. “I know how it feels to be sad and mad. I know, sweetie. I’ve been there. I know.” She watched me wordlessly. “Do you want to go put on your nightgown?” I asked. She nodded and when I held out my hand, she took it.

I thought of my own mother, brushing me off when I was upset, snapping at me when I was suicidal. If I hadn’t had my own experiences with emotional horror–and if I had never learned to navigate through it and come out the other side–I would have never been able to give my daughter what she needed at that moment.

“Dismemberment…is a universal shamanic symbol of initiation,” writes Peter Grey in Apocalyptic Witchcraft. “The initiate is often seized by a flying creature and torn by talons and beak.” One might be tempted to believe that a Witch can only achieve this kind of initiation through deep trance or flying ointment or a carefully rehearsed ritual. Those initiations absolutely have their place in our practice, but to chase after them will only ever make it brittle and shallow. If you live a life of any meaning at all, you will be destroyed more times than you can count.

#

I made my daughter’s nightgown do a dance and she laughed. I asked her if she wanted a hug and she said yes. Then, when we took her downstairs for her snack, she cleaned up her toys.

I recognized in her the deep, wrung-out peace that comes after the catharsis of weeping. I saw in her that good soreness that comes when you realize you made it through the dark tunnel.

Hail to Badb, the dismantler. Hail to Nemain, who brings chaos. Hail to the Morrigan, dark lady of the deepest self. When I hold my little daughter, I know why you chose me.

Morrigan Hymn #6

Sacred lover,

Your menstrual blood the wine of warriors,

Your breath that which shudders the earth into flower–

Come to me, proud queen,

And, quaking, I will accept your gifts.

Shrieking one, whispering one,

Bathe me in the bliss of knowing you.

Let me embrace you in the dew of dawn

So that I may smile at your perfect love.

Morrigan Hymn #5

Dark lady, you whisper in my ear.

Witch queen, you whisper:

Weave magic into the wind

And carry it to the far places.

Feel the lamia writhing in your blood.

At night she becomes your power.

Warrior queen, you whisper:

Bare your teeth and howl to the sky.

Let the land mold you

Into a glinting knife,

Ready to slice through greed

And banish the invaders.

Prophetess, you whisper:

Be shrewd and thoughtful.

Look to the far future.

Let the battle-frenzy take you

And let it fade like incense.

 

Lady, you speak for the rivers and meadows.

You speak for the spirits whose voices are soft.

You call to the thousand goddesses and say,

See, sisters, the world swells to reclaim itself.

This is my age, stripped bare by my anger,

Molded by my wisdom.

 

Lady, the world shivers around me,

Watchful and awake.

I will listen, O shadow.

Stillness within, Power Without

I have depression, and I’m under treatment. Luckily, my current (and hopefully permanent) treatment is very good: Wellbutrin, mindfulness meditation, and a kickass therapist. Nowadays, when I enter a low period, I can recognize it for what it is instead of being destroyed by it. I can recognize that it’s biochemical and that it’ll pass.

But it still hovers around me like a fog. I fight thoughts that I’m a bad Witch and a bad Pagan because of it. Because if I really were such a magical and intuitive and connected being, if I really did have a couple of deities that cared about me, then I would feel fantastic all the time, right?

Right? the depression says. Right? If anyone loved you, you would feel perfect all the time.

* * *

I had a power candle and Hermes took it away.

The long version of the story would give me carpal tunnel, so the short version: I was called, possibly by the Morrigan, to burn a candle to foster personal power. I turned the specific types of power I needed into a sigil and dressed the candle with mugwort and juniper and cinnamon. It was a big purple pillar candle. I was going to burn it for a few minutes each night and re-dress it each Monday. I knew a candle isn’t how you get power, but I liked the ritual of it, the way the sigil looked underneath the herbs. I was doing it because it was beautiful. And for a week, while I burned it, it worked.

Then I asked Hermes for a favor. I burned him some incense in thanks, but he decided to take the candle, too. Or, to put it mundanely: that night I lit it and forgot about it, and the whole thing burned down to a puddle of wax.

What’s interesting is that technically, the spell is complete. It wasn’t interrupted–it was expedited by the god of speed. I know enough about magic not to expect instant results. I’m not incredibly upset that the spell ended this way. But I do miss my pretty candle.

* * *

I had an insight a few days ago:

Power within, stillness without.

Stillness within, power without.

I know I’m not the first person to ever have this insight, but I liked the way it was phrased. Power and stillness go together. Power and turmoil do not. If someone is screaming and yelling and hissing and spitting, they are revealing how little power they have. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just an opportunity to look at oneself honestly.

* * *

A few weeks ago I was attacked by a tiny handful of very loud people for offering an interpretation of the Morrigan’s pre-battle shriek as an act of nonviolence. I felt like I loaded the interpretation with as many disclaimers as I could, and I thought it would be obvious that I wasn’t denying the Morrigan’s more bloodthirsty aspects. I really thought I was just offering an interesting reinterpretation of one aspect of a complex goddess.

If my crime was not being clear enough in my writing, then I take full responsibility for that crime. I come from the Jewish tradition, in which unconventional interpretations are tossed around all the time because experimentation is how you come to understand a text, but of course I’m not writing for a Jewish audience.

Here’s the thing, though–

The level of vitriol leveled at me seemed to suggest that people found the idea of a nonviolence-practicing Morrigan offensive. I found myself put in the ludicrous position of feeling like I had to praise violence. “Don’t get me wrong,” I was supposed to say. “Violence is awesome! I’m no fuzzy-wuzzy gaia-worshiper! Gimme blood and death any day of the week! Yeah, baby!”

I don’t know exactly what Peter Grey means when he refers to “dark fluff,” but that term feels apt here. Here’s some truth: despite its lovey-dovey reputation, nonviolence is infinitely scarier and more difficult than violence. It is so easy to punch someone in the face or lash out at them on a blog. It is so easy to shout someone down, call them names, shoot them in the chest, drop a bomb on their city. It is not easy to defend yourself and your community without perpetuating a cycle of bloodshed and misery. It is not easy to calm your impulses and dig to the root of a problem.

Does that mean the Morrigan isn’t violent? No. The Morrigan embodies both our highest acts of bravery and our darkest acts of horror. Because she is war and that’s what war does; she is battle-frenzy and that’s what battle-frenzy is. If a human warrior can nonviolently resolve a conflict one day and lose control and slaughter another person the next day and go wild with grief and guilt the day after that, why wouldn’t a goddess be capable of the same multitudes? A deity embodies their sphere of influence, and any sphere that’s reducible to three or four simple attributes is a sphere that isn’t really worth its own deity. Yes, deities are usually summed up with a short list of keywords, but each of those words is a map of a vast landscape.

Or, to look at it from a different angle: if, let’s say, the body of a deity is made up of their followers, then those followers must necessarily be diverse. If everyone engages with a deity in exactly the same way, then that is a deity with a thousand left feet and nothing else. What the hell is the use of such a deity?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most vicious commenter shrugged off issues like Gaza and Ferguson as irrelevant to spiritual work and too big to take on. That, to me, is the pinnacle of dark fluff. I suspect that the people who are the most excited about the Morrigan’s bloodiest aspects are the very people who would turn and run from any real fight.

I am a devotee of the Morrigan, and the language she speaks to me is the language of nonviolence and eco-justice. That doesn’t mean I feel worthy of the title warrior every day, or even most days. But she has her reasons for reaching out to a Reclaiming Witch, and denying the messages she’s giving me is a disservice and an insult to her. If you can’t handle my practice, if you think a deity has to speak the same language to every devotee, then you are a child with too much time on your hands. If you call yourself a warrior but are uninterested in fighting any battle of consequence, then shame on you.

* * *

That’s all been festering for weeks, but I’ve finally released it. I’m done.

Power within, stillness without. Stillness within, power without. I know I snapped at at least one person during the fiasco because I felt like a cornered animal. I wrote the above partly so that I wouldn’t have to silently carry it anymore, but I know parts of it are harsh and I don’t claim to feel very powerful. It’s liberating to know that you don’t have to be perfect, no matter what the demons in your head and the voices on the Internet tell you.

* * *

I did save the wax from the power candle. The sigil and the dressing are still in there somewhere. I have votive molds and wicks. Maybe the spell isn’t over yet; maybe it won’t be complete until I burn all of the wax. In the end, it doesn’t matter all that much. I’m really doing this spell because I love doing spells.

Here in Los Angeles, the campaign for a $15 minimum wage has moved to the petition stage. I plan on volunteering and I’m gearing myself up for a long, hard fight. I don’t relish the thought of getting yelled at on the street. I’m not sure how I’m going to fit this into my already-bursting schedule. I’m dealing with the inner conflict of knowing that, in the face of global Capitalism, a higher minimum wage is a tiny band-aid on a mutilated body. I know the fight for a higher minimum wage is one battle in a vast war. But here, in my city, it’s an important one.

Writing helps lift my depressive episodes. I feel better having written this post. These words are one moment in time, a blip in my lifespan.

Back into the fray. Be well, be loved, be powerful.


 

A quick note: I’m closing comments on this post because I don’t want to revive any of the arguments that took place on and around the original post. If you need to respond, please feel free to do so on your own blog. If you’re bothered by the fact that I’m not allowing you to criticize me or defend yourself in this space, take solace in the fact that I’m not allowing any praise, either.

Morrigan Hymn #4

O Angry Earth,

We have relinquished our claim to you.

How patient you were! How lovely your face, young maiden!

How many blessings you gave us!

Now, crone, your storm clouds roil

And your teeth are bared.

You prepare to expel us, your arrogant tenants,

In search of a new people

To be crowned your consort.

 

O Goddess, help us become that people.

Seep into our minds and hearts;

Fertilize the grass with the work of our hands.

Allow our bodies to become sacred things.

Help us love you once again.

Morrigan Hymn #3

Lady of Peace!
Lady of Power!
Lady of Sweetness!
Lady of Honey!
Lady of Bloodlust!
Lady of Entrails!
Lady of Agony!
Lady of Sorrow!

Terrible hag and beautiful maiden!
Carrion crow and life-giving cow!
Why would the Shapeshifter be only one thing?
Eel becomes wolf becomes heifer becomes raven.
Daughter becomes lover becomes warrior becomes god.

Does my body contain you, O goddess?
Can my mind comprehend you, old queen?
I see you in the grass that waves in the wind.
I know you in the quiet of my land and my heart.

Embodying the Wild, Confronting Death

I was just pointed, by way of Rhyd Wildermuth’s post on climate change, to Peter Gray’s “Rewilding Witchcraft.” Here are a couple of the best quotes:

We are living in a mass extinction event. This is not a theory. Over half the species on earth will be extinct by 2050. Let me repeat that fact: over half the species on earth will be extinct by 2050….If your witchcraft, like mine, speaks with animal spirits, is made from plants and flowers and roots and bark and seeds, it cannot continue to pretend that we are not suffering. It has to speak. It has to lament, it has to cry, it has to then be unreasonable. We need to be intimately acquainted with death, as these are the rites over which our witchcraft presides, not some nudist holiday camp capers predicated on a glut of cheap oil.

Some will be afraid of this knowledge; witchcraft should be liberated by it, liberated from petty concerns to pursue lives of beauty, liberated from the sleepwalking into death that our culture has made for us and our children. So I counsel, confront death. For witchcraft to be anything other than the empty escapism of the socially dysfunctional or nostalgia for bygone ages, it needs to feel the shape of its skull, venerate the dead and the sacred art of living and dying with meaning. We are all on the fierce path now.

Please, please read the rest.

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Coru Cathubodua, the Morrigan priesthood, talks about the Morrigan’s call taking the form of “an unusual number of corvids (crows and ravens) in your waking life.” When I first read that, I laughed. Los Angeles is filled with crows. Our soundscape is crows cawing over the din of the freeways. Vast swaths of our coastline will disappear with the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets. We currently have enough water to last the next 12-18 months. The crow is LA’s power animal: the image of my city’s impending decay.

2. Tomorrow I’m flying, with my husband and daughter, to New Hampshire for my husband’s family reunion. It’s an utterly ridiculous journey–we leave tomorrow morning, spend the entire day flying and then driving to a resort in the forest, and we’ll stay for two full days before returning on Monday. Yes, we are flying across the country for a weekend trip. I didn’t want to go; I dreaded the stress of traveling with a toddler for a “reunion” that happens every two years, but I never said anything to my husband. I thought that his desire to take part in the reunion trumped my desire to obey common sense and stay home. I traded my sovereignty for what looked like superficial peace. Later it turned out that he felt roped into it, too.

If we didn’t live in an age of gluttony, where even the most outrageous whims must be accommodated and a trip like this looks tame in comparison, there would have been no question of us going.

3. My witchcraft ebbs and flows. Sometimes I get it. I sense the spirits of my plants. I see gods in the sunset. My dreams contain premonitions.

Other times, I do nothing but read Pagan blogs. Skip my devotionals. Look at brooms on Etsy. I feel gross and uninspired. I want to rewild myself, but I need to overcome the obstacles of my job, my urban landscape, and the lethargy they encourage.

4. On the Morrigan again: as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Morrigan presents herself to me primarily as a goddess of the land–particularly the wilderness–and I’ve been having trouble making my perception of her fit into her established domains of sovereignty, battle, and prophecy. But now I think I understand. Sovereignty, as we know from the myths, is bestowed by the spirits of the land. The land chooses its occupants, even if its time scale is so slow that it looks to us like the bad guys won. We’re killing our habitats, killing ourselves, and thus relinquishing our sovereignty as a civilization, and the Morrigan is meeting us in the liminal space we now inhabit. Just as she guided the souls of warriors to the realm of the dead after battle, perhaps she’s guiding our civilization to its next iteration. People say they hear her call because a battle is coming. I agree up to a point: I think the battle began decades ago, and we should be prepared for what comes next.

5. With that said, I don’t think things are hopeless. I go on raising my child and planning for the future. I don’t think humanity is doomed to extinction–but our way of life certainly is. Who knows what the earth and its inhabitants will look like in five hundred years?