Magical arts and sacred geographies

A few weeks ago I read an article by Maranda Elizabeth called: How Magic Helps Me Live With Pain And Trauma (read here). The article directly inspired the reflections below, as I want to highlight the importance of magical and artistic geographies when it comes to both magic and creativity.

Before I dive into the magic of geographies, I want to start with the importance of creating meaning, specifically with stories:

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. —Ursula K. Le Guin

The aliveness of story is essential to me. Art creates life. Through the magic of stories I learned that, hidden in mundane and ubiquitous objects are infinitesimal possibilities of interpretation. The first time I read the fragments of Sappho, the Anne Carson If Not, Winter interpretation, revealed to me the power of even the most broken and lost relics of literary archeology and antiquity. Sappho, an ancient lyric poet and musician, lived on the isle of Lesbos around 630 B.C. Her fragments, all that remains of her music and poetry not lost to history, “are of two kinds: those preserved on papyrus and those derived from citation in ancient authors.” (Carson xi) Yet those fragments, some extremely brief, evoke powerful insights into the past, the present, and the lives of the poet and her poems’ subjects. No matter how ephemeral, Sappho’s work, translated and untranslated, fragmented and less fragmented, has a life and power that continues to mesmerize authors, historians, poets and readers today:

yes! radiant lyre speak to me
become a voice (118)

messenger of spring
nightingale with a voice of longing (136)

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time (147)

Whether it’s music, writing, and even the most fragmented poetry, art creates powerful evocations, bringing the immaterial into existence through an experience with the material. It’s not only a process defined by reading, viewing, or experiencing the art as a “finished product”, the act of making art, the act of creation, is also infused with aliveness. We might learn to glimpse the making of art or magic in the landscapes around us, with or without obvious “authorship”. For instance, one could see magic in the delicacy of a lone wild iris, hidden away from sight, sheltered and nurtured by the shadows of a nondescript, graffiti-clad toolshed within an urban park.

doodling by Gersande La Flèche on 500px.com

The importance of landscapes to magic and creativity cannot be overstated, where the aliveness of stories meets the magic of place. As Tim Robinson wrote about his literary cartography:

These images I am offering you—the wild-goose chase of the alphabet in the sky, the waves whispering to each other under the currach, the donkey uttering seanchas from the well—are little myths, to tempt you to hear the language as if it were being spoken by the landscape. For me it was so from the beginning, as I shall explain. But is there any more defensible, objective truth in the idea of a deep connection between landscape and its language?

The names, languages and stories we use to describe landscapes around us are intrinsic to those landscapes, or at least our relationships with them. Maranda Elizabeth’s writing on magic as resistance and healing speaks emphatically of the magic of the city and the beings that inhabit them. When I use the word beings I mean those creatures, plants, objects, things, and locations— man-made or not— that end up forming the basis of the geography around us. An important such being in Maranda Elizabeth’s geography is their cane:

My first cane was black like tourmaline, a crystal used as an aid against jealousy, negative thoughts, destructive forces, and internal conflicts; I’d adorned it with Hello Kitty stickers. When I brought it home, I adjusted it to a comfortable height, anointed it with oils and prayers, and welcomed it into my life. It was a live creature come to help me out, lend me a hand, give me access to the spaces and activities that were slipping away. I used to walk for hours at a time, no destination in mind. I’m a city witch, I believe in city magic. I found signs of magic in plants growing through sidewalk cracks, symbols of encouragement in graffiti, charms and rocks found in alleyways, the sound of squirrels scurrying up old trees with fallen acorns, tiny free libraries on quiet streets. —Maranda Elizabeth

Through story, magic, and everyday use, the cane takes on a life of its own. The cane becomes a vehicle for artistic and magical expression. The cane transforms into a sword, a shield and a wand—in Maranda Elizabeth’s own words: a “magical object pressed to my palm, holding my body, giving me strength to move through the world when my bones and muscles are no longer enough.”

By creating stories and relationships, magical and artistic, with the cane, Maranda Elizabeth simultaneously creates or builds upon a relationship with their environment. Art and magic intertwine with place. Maranda Elizabeth’s article is full of magical and artistic cartography: naming and mapping their space and the myriad beings within.

The milk-crate furniture of my bachelor apartment contains jars filled with found objects from the city walks I can no longer take: petals and stones, pinecones, dried leaves. There’s a magic to these objects, too; they are reminders, tangible proof that I felt okay in the world for just a moment. —Maranda Elizabeth

The magical collection and curation that Maranda Elizabeth describes is not only a form of magical and artistic cartography, it’s also an artistic project that consists of creating art and meaning out of place and with place. This is a kind of magical artform that Anne Morris calls the expression of “a rare sacred geography that consists of a complex knowledge of place and sacred terrain”. (175) Maranda Elizabeth describe themselves as a city witch, and their love of city magic. This is extremely important to me, as I feel so many discussions about bioregional animism or relationships with the land prioritize those places that are described as rural or “natural”. The work of creating relationships with sacred geographies through art and magic should not be limited to the realms of the wild woods or faraway mountains, or even the dreamscape. These sacred geographies occur everywhere there is life and decay and being—especially in urban and domestic spaces. The material, mundane details of human life in the city influence art-making and storytelling. Though it is a landscape of a different kind, it’s no less powerful or significant, and comes with its own baggage, history, and terms of engagement.

The ecosystem, urban or rural, that we create relationships with not only directly shape our lives and art practices, but they also influence spiritual or magical workings, as Stuart Inman and Jane Sparks write about in their essay on Traditional Witchcraft: “A Gathering of Light and Shadows”, in the section “The Mythic Landscape”.

[T]he land becomes hallowed through working with it and new relationships, between the practitioner and the land, and its spirits, develops.

Choosing to consciously develop a working relationship with the environment that we inhabit can change our worldview in small but significant ways. We can reject misleading dialectics such as the opposition of “pristine” nature versus urban landscapes in order to hold more nuanced approaches and knowledge. Our artistic and magical practices, hopefully, become part of the landscape themselves and help us build towards more sustainable futures. The relationship-building between artist and earth, between magician and landscape, changes the way we view geography as something outside of ourselves and can bring us to accept that geography is a part of us, and we can accept that we are also a part of the environment we live in. As Becca Tarnas expressed recently with regards to environmental ethics: we are of this earth, and we are meant to be here. In creating relationships with spaces, land, and environments, we start thinking as creatures within an ecosystem rather than as higher-ups on a hierarchical chain of being. We also might, perhaps, move away from individualistic practices and seek to build community practices. It’s up to us, as the community as much as the individual, to find ways of healing, creating art, and practicing magic in a way that is constructive and coherent with the landscapes and geographies that surround us.


References & Further Reading

  • Anne Carson If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho 2002
  • Maranda Elizabeth How Magic Helps Me Live With Pain And Trauma The Establishment 16 April 2016
  • Stuart Inman and Jane Sparks, “A Gathering of Light and Shadows” Serpent Songs 1 May 2013, 40-58
  • Isabelle Stengers “Reclaiming Animism” e-flux journal #36 July 2012
  • Anne Morris “But to Assist the Soul’s Interior Revolution” Serpent Songs 1 May 2013, 173-182
  • Tim Robinson “Listening to the Landscape” Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara & Other Writings 5 May 1997, 151-164
  • Becca Tarnas Talking Tolkien and Jung on Rune Soup 30 April 2016

Cover image is mine, a photograph of a shrine on a beach on Tancook Island taken in summer 2015.

This essay was originally posted at http://gersande.com/blog/magical-arts-and-sacred-geographies/.