Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Ethical spirit work

I was originally going to title this "Ethical ancestor work," but I think the topic needed expanded a little.  We often talk, in the Pagan community, about not taking our Gods for granted, about not only coming to them with requests and seeking help.  And while I have seen the topic of watching the tone in which we speak to spirits discussed, it is much rarer to see a discussion about making sure all our relationships are balanced and go both ways.

I think that things are getting a bit better, when it comes to ancestor work.  We are seeing a much bigger presence of ancestor altars and work in the Pagan community, something which wasn't talked about much a decade ago.  I think that honoring our ancestors is something that was much more prevalent in many ancient cultures, and somewhere along the lines it got a bit lost.  I sometimes wonder if this is tied into our expansion across the globe (sometimes abrupt and not under the best circumstances). 

It was much easier to keep deep roots to your ancestors when you lived where they lived, when you knew where they were buried, when everyone in your community knew them as well.  Today, many people don't know their family tree much beyond their grandparents, and they don't live where their family lived.  There is a loss of that line of continuity, and sometimes that makes connecting with our ancestors harder.

Some cultures still carry the idea of caring for our ancestors beyond the grave.  This was a concept I grew up with, making offerings and gifts to the dead so that they would be taken care of.  I don't remember any sense of asking for things in return, it was all about honoring and remembering them, and seeing to their needs.

I do think that many of us call upon our ancestors for advice or strength.  There are several chants I know of that speak of the 'strength of our ancestors' and the idea that we are built on the strength of generations is one that is known to many people. 

I think these two concepts (caring for the dead and drawing upon their strength) need to go hand in hand.  We shouldn't ask for help from ancestors who don't know us.  It's all nice and pretty to imagine that they all float around in the afterlife, watching over us, but if you really think about it, that's a horrible afterlife.  I wouldn't want my ancestors to be stuck just watching what their descendants were getting up to.  This assumption that their afterlife is centered around us is just super self-serving (not to mention that the further back you go, the more descendants they would have to watch grandmother has five grandkids, go back a few more generations and you are talking of hundreds of people)

I think of ancestor work much like deity work.  You build a relationship, and depending on the strength and closeness of that relationship, that limits what you can ask for help with.  You may have one or two ancestors you feel really drawn to, that you want to really bond with, but you may have others that you would like to honor in a less personal way. 

Keeping an ancestor altar is a great way to not only build up those specific relationships you are wanting to work on, but also to honor your ancestors in general.  You might have pictures of the ones you mostly work with, or things that were important to them.  I have a few items that belong to my father's mother, and those often find their way to my sacred spaces.

An ancestor altar also allows you to make general offerings, to all your ancestors.  Whether we know (or like) them or not, we are literally formed from them.  Without them, we would not be.  We can make offerings on our ancestor altar to recognize that ancestral line, even if we don't know all their names.

Now, I said at the start that I wanted to talk about not only ancestors, but also spirits.  Many Pagans, myself included work with a variety of spirits.  I call on the elements, I work with plant and animal spirits, I honor the spirit of my house and the land I live on.  And there can be a tendency to think of some of these relationships from a human-centric perspective.

A while back, there was a movement in the Pagan community, to change the language we use when we call the elements to our circles.  I have been using the phrase 'call the elements' and that was one phrase used, but "I summon you" was also another.  There is an implication of order, as if I am forcing the spirits to come to my circle and do my bidding.  A lot of the phrasing now is along the lines of invitation and request.

Pagans who work with the elements often invoke them for many different reasons, from casting circle and helping with spells to empowering change within ourselves.  Now, not all Pagans view the elements as spiritual beings, some work with the elements as flavors of energy...that is to say they aren't actual spirits, but more like electricity, a force that follows certain rules.

I split the difference.  I think that there is elemental energy, but I also feel like that energy has a presence, and I do work with beings that belong to the specific elements.  Whichever way you view the elements, much can be said for deepening your understanding of them.

If you view them as spirits, then it stands to reason that they would benefit from building a relationship, just like a deity or ancestor.  And if you view them as pure energy, then the more you work with them, the better you understand how that energy works, and the more capable you will be of working with it.

I really like working with the elements, and finding ways to tap into that elemental energy.  I play with fire (sometimes literally, sometimes in safer ways like by burning candles or gazing at a bonfire).  I pay attention to the difference between rain and bath water.  I taste air at different times in the year.  I touch the earth and feel the weight of my body.

All of these things help me recognize the elemental energy, but they also help me connect to the spirits involved.  I feel the spirit of the individual flame, and of the different types of water.  I find wind spirits in gusts and whirlwinds.  I seek out earth spirits in the plants and rocks and special places near my house.  And I leave them offerings (like most gift-giving, I try to think about what the other being might want or need).

Working with spirits of all kinds is really no different than working with people.  Some you will feel an instant bond to, and the relationship will be fun and easy and strong.  Others you may be forced to work with, and it's a struggle to find ways to smooth out the rough patches, but it's so worth it when you do.  Each relationship has it's own levels of give and take, it's own depth of sharing.  If you tip the balance too much, the relationship struggles.  But building these relationships bring all kinds of benefits to your life, sometimes in very surprising ways!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


When I say the word witch, everyone has images that comes to mind, normally both in terms of the appearance of the witch, but also their practice.  We often have conflicting images:  what society tells us versus what we aspire towards.

No matter what your aesthetic, you probably have some kind of 'this is what a witch looks like'.  Perhaps your witch is an edgy goth, with pointed hat and dozens of necklaces.  Maybe your witch is a hippy type, with flowing layered skirts and lots of prayer beads.  Or your witch might be more subtle, wearing jeans and a tee-shirt that has something astrological on it, with a few key jewelry pieces that aren't obviously witchy (but have meaning to those know know to look).

I love witchy jewelry.  I collect it, and I adore finding new pieces that I love.  I don't wear it nearly as much as I wish I did, mostly for practical reasons.  I am at the computer all day, so most bracelets get in my way after a short period of time.  I rub my face...a wearing rings on my pointers is pretty well out, and I already wear a ring on both ring fingers....adding rings to my middle/pinky means they rub against each other.  I think it looks awesome to have rings all over my fingers, but I find that it annoys me really quickly.  And I mostly forget to put on necklaces in the morning, especially since I stay home most days, it's something that is easily lost in my life.

For many people, their job requires them to dress a certain way, and that often means they can't wear what they might like to.  Even on their days off, we have to think about what other people might say, and being judged as being evil or dangerous is a very real concern for people.  Even if you don't get put into the 'bad' box, too much spiritual/mystical stuff makes some people wonder if you are sane.  It seems amusing, but this is the kind of thing that has been brought up in custody cases or when a promotion at work is considered.  No one wants to be thought of as a flake.

This may all seem sort of superficial, but we express our identity through our dress.  When we have these longings, it makes us feel like maybe we aren't being true to ourselves.  Every time we think about wearing something, but then decide not to because we are worried about what other people might think of us, we wonder if we maybe aren't as dedicated as we thought we were. 

But the often more devastating expectations are associated with our practice, with the kind of witchy stuff we do.  There is just SO much out there, so many things that are associated with being witchy.

Firstly you have your cyclic stuff.  There are yearly seasonal rhythms, moon cycles, daily repetitions.  And each of these often have whole practices centered around them.  These things all take time and effort.  Working through the cycles of the year may seem like you only have to do something 'once every month and a half' but really you are doing prep work and after work.  Sometimes ritual days are absolute all day (or all night) affairs, which means that you need to shift the rest of your life around them.

Working with the moon cycles sounds super witchy as well.  Simply tracking the moon cycle takes time every day, and adding in things like setting intentions, doing workings, blessing moon water, cleansing crystals, banishing,'s a lot.  If you work with a full 8 phase cycle, it means doing something every three to four days.  Even working just the big four means planning on doing things about every week...on a specific day often at a specific time.

I sometimes wonder where these expectations originated.  I can't imagine our ancestors followed all of these cycles (especially not all at once).  I also can't imagine our more recent predecessors (in the new age Wicca movement), when the focus was on working within a coven structure, managing to schedule group work for each and every occasion.

There are some suggestions that these weren't practices for every day witches, but rather for 'professional' witches:  people who made their entire living through being witchy.  Kind of like how some religious folk live their entire life doing rituals and observations...but they don't have to work a job and often don't have a family.  Most of us aren't this lucky!

There is this belief that if we were a proper witch we would find a way to weave all these things together.  I think this is the old "you can have a career and be a good wife and mother!!!" myth.  We are human people, and we only have so much time and energy.....and some of us may have more or less of both of these than other people.  I think you can weave your witchy life into your mundane life, but both sides have to be willing to give a little.

I would love to do full seasonal observances all year long.  I really enjoy ritual, and I like to pull out all the tools, all the bells and whistles and do long and involved rituals.  I absolutely don't have time for it...and I have time.  But functionally, I can't regularly set out whole days to do nothing but witchy stuff, because in the back of my head there is always some part of my brain that is reminding me of all the stuff I am not doing at that moment.  I can't really sink into the ritual, and I would much rather do a shorter ritual and really commit myself to it, than do a longer ritual but not really be present.

This compromise also shows up when it comes to witchy space.  I love the super witchy aesthetic:  with big wooden furniture, rows and rows of bottles containing any herb I might need, collections of crystals, huge elaborately illustrated books, space to keep all my tools organized, seasonal decorations...the whole nine yards.  I definitely don't have space (or money) for this!

Especially for people, like me, who live with others who don't share all our beliefs, it simply isn't always possible for our house to represent our witchy practice in all ways.  My hubby is very cool about a lot of things.  I have witchy spaces all over.  He likes a lot of the witchy stuff, from a decorating standpoint, so that is a big bonus.  But whereas I might organize more with a mind towards energy flow, he looks at pure living functionality.  There are things I wouldn't mind doing personally that would drive him up the wall..and that isn't something I want to do.

And then there is witchy study.  Witchcraft is definitely a study heavy practice.  There is a LOT we can be drawn to, that can make it's way into our practice, and that really requires time and dedication to master.  Things like: tarot, runes, astrology, crystals, herbs, deities, holidays, meditation, mythology...really there are any number of spiritual studies that one can engage in, and they all take focus.

I would love to be conversant or have a solid, regular practice in all of those things I listed (and more!)...I'm really bad at a few of them.  I know maybe a handful of herbs (most of which are also used for cooking), and I know my sun sign.  But in the hierarchy of "things I'm interested in" these are pretty low on the list.  There is interest, but if I have only one hour, I will almost always choose to read more on tarot than I would astrology.  If I have an extra couple of bucks at the witchy store, I will buy a crystal before I buy herbs. 

And sometimes, this does make me feel like I'm less of a witch.  Some things are just SO pervasive.  Herbs are a big one for me.  Almost every spell lists herbs.  They are many witches 'go-to'...but they just aren't my thing.  Same for astrology.  I know tons of witches who are constantly talking about how this person is such a perfect example of this sign...and I'm hard pressed to remember my husband and son's signs.

It's a constant struggle, to decide how to spend our time and focus.  There are so many expectations out there, many of which we build up in ourselves.  And we convince ourselves we aren't as good if we aren't doing/having/knowing all this stuff.  But really, the great thing about witchy practice is it is highly personal.  YOU are the master of what you need to know and what you need to focus on.  YOU decide what you should study, what you should buy, what you should set time aside for. 

So keep a solid hold on your witchpectations.  Don't let your brain bully you into belittling the stuff you do.  Know that every time you work on something witchy, you are practicing your craft.  And if, at the end of the day, you didn't get to do every witchy thing you wanted to...that's okay.  There is no measure of proper witchiness.  You do what you can do, and that in and of itself, makes you a witch.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Making Scary accessable!

We are fast approaching Samhain, and in full on Halloween season (I swear, once that calendar tipped to October, my Facebook feed was swarmed with Halloween themed memes!), and for many of us it is a time to delight in the dark and spooky.  But for others, these things are scary or disturbing, and not comfortable to work with.

There are many reasons why we find things scary.  We may have false-impressions, and associate benign things with their scarier cousins (like how daddy-long-legged spiders and black widows are sometimes treated the same), or we may have strong memories of something (like watching a scary movie as a child and now that one thing is seared into your brain), or it may just be an unconscious fear (something we shy away from, but aren't sure why).

There are levels of fear as well, both healthy and harmful.  The way we react to fear is often tied into our level of fear.  If we aren't very scared of something, we may get a surge of adrenaline, but if we are absolutely terrified of a thing it could freeze us in place, or cause us to loose our mind in panic...neither of which is a useful reaction!  We might also be lacking a fear response to a reasonable fear, and this could cause us to be reckless (like how little children haven't learned yet that the stove is hot, so they touch it and get burned).

For many of us, working through fear is part of our practice, and we want to come to know our fears so that they help us instead of hindering us.  If you are at an extreme level of fear, you may need to ease into the work, or work with a support system (people you trust to keep you safe when you aren't able to think properly).  How we work through fear is a very individual thing.  Some people need to ease into it, facing their fear in tiny ways until they can manage that and then going a bit further, while others find that it takes a big shock to open their eyes.

Fear is something that children often struggle with, and sometimes they are forced to deal with big issues (like sickness or death) that are extra scary to them because they don't have the experience or frame of reference to mitigate the fear factor.  But, there are lots of ways to soften ideas, so they are more palatable to children, and often these same methods work really well for adults trying to work through a deep fear.

Symbols are great, because symbols allow us to deal indirectly with things.  Take the skull picture at the top.  This is several layers of symbols all in one!  The skull itself represents death, something that can be quite scary for lots of people.  This skull has been rendered in a cartoon form, so it is stylized and less 'real'.  Think about the number of kids cartoons that have skulls or skeletons in them.  A child can watch the cartoon and not get freaked out, but if they saw a realistic skull in a tv show they might have nightmares about it.  On top of being a cartoon, this skull is decorated in the sugar skull fashion:  with bright colors and flowers and other pretty imagery.  This makes it even less disturbing, and is a pretty common tool for helping people deal with things that are scary to them.  You can go even further, and make skulls out of sugar, decorating them with bright colored frosting (or make skull shaped cookies and decorate them with frosting), and now the once scary image is associated with something delightful!

As a Pagan, I work with my shadow side regularly.  I have always been someone who goes poking around in the dark, who makes friends with their fears.  I learned early on that other people didn't always like to do this!  When I am working on my own, I can do things in whatever way I want, but I also work with a group, and when working with a group, you have to consider the comfort level of all involved.

Now, this isn't to say you can't do deep work with a group, but if you are going to be dealing with topics that might be fearful or disturbing to people, you need to let them know!  Samhain is coming up, and my local group does a Day of the Dead ritual.  My friends and I run the ritual, and we also have an ancestor table set up, where people can bring representations of their dead loved ones, who will be honored.

Being Samhain, death is a big topic.  It is a bigger (for us!) ritual, so we don't always know all the people attending super well, so we don't do a lot of really intense stuff, but we often share memories and talk about our dead.  It can be highly emotional!  We do let people know the rough idea of what will go on, so if it's not something they are comfortable with, they don't get an unpleasant surprise.

This year, we are opening up the afternoon as a child-friendly time (previous years it's been adult only).  So we have been brainstorming ideas that still touch on the main concept (of honoring our beloved dead), but in ways that aren't going to traumatize the littles.  So less skulls and more butterflies (who are seen by some cultures as messengers to the dead).

Even as someone who likes the scary stuff, I enjoy working with other versions of things.  I find that by looking at both the serious and the more symbolic side of things I get a more complex image of it.  By searching out the humor, that layers on even more meaning.  If you only look at something one way, you miss out on so much!

Live has a lot of big, scary stuff going on.  And sometimes we can't avoid it, no matter how much we like.  Things happen and we are left struggling to figure out how to make it through.  Learning how to make scary stuff more digestible is a skill that will serve you well, not only in your own practice, but also when working with others.  Sometimes you need to approach things sideways, and when you do you find you end up much closer than you could get trying to push straight through.