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/.

On the Wings of Birds

The phrase ‘Gods & Radicals’, was something of a koan to me when I first considered submitting material to this journal. I’m wary of the term ‘radical’ which so often slips from its original meaning of ‘seeking change from the root up’ into the values-empty ‘change by whatever means necessary’. On a recent walk, however, I found the two words ‘Gods’ and ‘Radicals’ suddenly coming together very naturally …

'Nature Reserve' by Accipiter Nisus (C)
‘Nature Reserve’ by Accipiter Nisus (C)

Making Space for the Other-s

Sometime ago I made a small contribution to a fund-raising campaign to save a gravel pit near my home from commercial development; the intention being to turn it into a wildlife reserve and public space. Amazingly, even in this time of economic austerity, the appeal raised the full amount needed; including £90,000 ($13,7228) from the local community. Then, within mere months of the local Wildlife Trust carrying out the initial habitat creation work, many previously unrecorded or rare species quickly began to arrive; including over a 1000 spiritually iconic and critically endangered northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). That, I realised, is radical! And the fact that so many lapwing arrived so quickly got me to thinking about the status of other displaced beings, including gods, and how they may be wandering and dwindling for want of a place. 

Diversity is a hallmark of Gods & Radicals, and a happy one, but I suspect that a common value we may well all share is the certainty that just as we are embodied beings in need of a tangible life-world, so too – in a different but parallel sense – are the gods. One of the definitive phases in the history of disenchantment was surely when people were successfully sold the idea that we need only make a shrine for the sacred ‘in our hearts’.

'Nature Reserve' by Accipiter Nisus (C)
‘Nature Reserve’ by Accipiter Nisus (C)

Not only is there now a new place for a much wider-diversity of beings to exist in my immediate area but local people have gained access to a 115 acre space were they can interact with those beings and with the elements. This again is radical since nearly every other sizeable green space in the area is a private golf course (and our one public local wood is threatened by development). You could say that it is a win for local people’s mental health as much as it is for wildlife.

From a polytheistic point of view it is also, I believe, a small strategic victory in the long-term project of acknowledging the gods and Other-s. A 2014 BBC survey found that two thirds of the British public could not identify the songs of common garden birds such as blackbirds, sparrows or robins. Another 2014 survey by the British Wildlife Centre found that 95 per cent of young children were unable to identify UK animals such as squirrels and otters. If people are unable to identify, are unaware of, or fail to pay attention to other beings such as these; how will they ever apprehend the gods and spirits (especially those which are elusive and reticent after centuries of neglect)? Gradually extending people’s opportunities to encounter the Other-s is a vital step in the process of reenchantment.

What could be an agalma for today?

I think that my comments above make a pretty strong case, but consider this also  …

In many historical polytheistic religions, and some modern ones, we find the concept of making gifts or forms to attract and woo the attention of the gods and Other-s. In Hellenic polytheism – at one time – such a gift, often a votive statue, was called an agalma (άγαλμα).

Back then producing something like a bronze statue would have demanded a considerable sacrifice from an individual or community and so it was a highly meaningful gift. [1] While I am not claiming that producing such an item would be cheap nowadays, the fact remains that what constitutes a sacrifice to us now is very different. Although I’m currently between contracts, the public servant’s wage that I earnt for a decade (which was several thousand pounds below the national average salary) put me in the richest 4% of the world population. In such circumstances, for many of us, what constitutes scarcity is not material goods but space and so-called ‘free time’. These are the two things that are hard for us to access and therefore some of the most precious things we can give.

Another illuminating thing about the history of the agalma is that Lacanian theory borrowed and psychologised this term, allowing Slavoj Žižek to make the striking observation that:

‘What characterizes European civilization […] is precisely its ex-centered character—the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object-cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of our own civilization.’ [2]

Considering what might constitute an agalma for today, I’ve suggested that this is time and space. Bearing Žižek’s comment in mind, it then becomes clear why we fall so easily into the activity of colonisation, and it also becomes clear why the careful creation of common spaces within our own societies is so important as an anti-colonial activity.

Equally important to note is that when engaged in both of these activities, colonialism or anti-colonialism, we tend to fill the spaces and time that we claim or reclaim so as to constitute what we – in our loss and yearning – imagine would be a suitable divine lure. In other words we are impatient and assume too much, creating a mirror of our own wants rather than a habitat for the Other-s. As such, excited though I am about what beings I may encounter, I’ll not be preemptively anticipating the presence or attention of any specific deities at the site of the new nature reserve; instead heeding the advice of the poet and anarchist Gary Snyder who says in his book The Practice of the Wild:

‘There’s no rush about calling things sacred. I think we should be patient, and give the land a lot of time to tell us or the people of the future. The cry of a Flicker, the funny urgent chatter of a Grey Squirrel, the acorn whack on a barn roof – are signs enough.’ [3]

Given time and space – both reclaimed in an ethical way – displaced gods may return and new ones arrive; their coming heralded by the wings of birds.

~ Accipiter Nisus

Sources:

  • I could not find an average cost for an agalma type image but Judith Swaddling states on a BBC history article that “Statues of bronze or marble [commissioned by Olympic athletes] could cost up to ten years’ wages for the average worker” (and would often have to be sponsored by the state). Today a 21 cm tall lost-wax bronze statue imported from Nepal via an ethical company costs around one to two months average UK discretionary income (what’s left after paying for food, utilities and travel).
  • Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, (Counterpoint: Berkeley 1990, pp.102-103)
  • Slavoj Žižek, From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism (Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001)

The Wild Hunt is Riding

“As far as practitioners of nature spiritualities are concerned, the Wild Hunt offers an initiation into the wild and an opening up of the senses; a sense of dissolution of self in confrontation with fear and death, an exposure to a ‘whirlwind pulse that runs through life’. In short, engagement with the Hunt is a bid to restore a reciprocity and harmony between humans and nature.”

— Anthropologist Susan Greenwood
Åsgårdsreien (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Åsgårdsreien (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The word has spread around the blogosphere; the Wild Hunt is riding.

It’s early.  Really early. For me, they rode in to BC and the Pacific Northwest US on the night of the last full moon, riding with the great storm.

Some say they’re riding against Daesh for their desecration of ancient Pagan religious sites.  Some say they’re riding for something else.  I think there’s a lot of reasons for them to be out riding.

The leader of the hunt depends greatly on the pantheon, and has been named as Odin, Holda, Berchta, Gwydion, Gwynn ap Nudd, King Arthur, Nuada, King Herla, Woden, Freya, Frigg, the Devil, Krampus, the Faery King, the Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab, the Morrigan, Fionn MacCumhaill, Arawn, Artemis, Diana, Cernunnos, Herne the Hunter, and a variety of historical figures that have been slightly mythologized.  The Steeds are nightmares or faery horses, winged horses, faery deer or skeletal beasts; the Hounds are hellhounds, Dandy Hounds, faery hounds, yeth hounds, greyhounds, wolves, winged wolves, ravens, raptors, transformed sparrows, Gabriel Ratchets, the Cwn Annwn and the Fianna.  When I See visions of the Hunt, I see the Huntsman as Herne, because He’s the deity I follow and He and I have a “thing.”  But Beth Wodanis Sees Odin, since she is a godspouse married to Him.  Others will See the Hunt differently.

Some call them the Wild Army, the Furious Army or the Furious Ride.  They are also called by the names of the Hounds; the Cwn Annwn and the Fianna of Fionn.  In some myths they are the Unseelie Faery Ride, the Sidhe or the Faery Calvacade; in others they are the unquiet dead; in still others they are simply the Witches Sabbath.  They might sweep along anyone in their path; or they might ride against the forces of darkness to take them up into the Ride.  In his classic medieval book The Art of Courtly Love, Andreas Capellanus wrote of how the King and Queen of Love rode out in the autumn to strike down all faithless lovers.  In a manner of speaking, Robin Hood and his band of merry men could be seen as another manifestation of the Wild Hunt, riding to protect the land and its people from the depredations of the wealthy elite.

I can think of a few “forces of darkness” I’d like to see swept along in the Ride; can’t you?

I, too, have been dreaming of the Hunt.  Last night, I instead dreamed of the Round Table.  King Arthur, who wore a Horned Crown, said, “All those who would take up arms against the foe; draw your swords and ride out with me!” And I reached out to draw one of the swords of the Round Table knights (or Kings, depending on your interpretation,) knowing I would not be able to draw it if I was not meant to, just as Excalibur can only be drawn by the true King.  But it came away easily in my hand, with no resistance at all, and it felt as though it had been made for me.

Let us take a cue from Dion Fortune’s magickal experiment, and visualize the Wild Hunt riding against the true enemy we all know is out there, scouring the darkness from the land and taking them up into the Ride!  Who will take up arms against the foe?  Who will ride out with us?

The Magick: Tomorrow night is the full harvest supermoon in Aries, and a lunar eclipse.  Visualize the Wild Hunt as you see it.  Find the Leader of the Hunt and fly beside Hir for a while.  Ask who the quarry is.  Think about the “forces of darkness” as you understand them — the Kyriarchy, the Banksters, the CEOs of the large monopoly corporations, corrupt officials who do the bidding of their corporate masters, etc. — and ask the Hunter if E will help to scour them from the land.  The Hunter may ask you to perform a task in return.  Listen for guidance.  If you are willing to agree to take on the task, do so.  Visualize the Hunt riding against the quarry you’ve requested, riding them down or sweeping them up into the Hunt’s ranks, as appropriate.  Return to your body and make an appropriate offering.

Footnote: I had not yet read Lee’s article The Hunt and the Hound, Part 1 (published Sept. 13) when I wrote this; however, I think this Working may work well in conjunction with his Working, and I will be creating my canine spirit house as part of this full moon rite. A canine skull mysteriously found its way into my compost pile; I have been cleaning it and wondering what to do with it.  It seems I have an answer. 

The Path as a Fissure

A small contribution toward an animist ethics

By Accipiter Nisus

Many of us who are concerned with reclaiming alternative visions of, and access to, our local landscapes regularly practice some form of path-forging; whether that be through the dérive or drift, urbexing, hiking, mushrooming, or foraging. And, naturally, practitioners of most of these discourses or activities have gradually developed ethical codes such as the urbexer’s ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’, or the mushroom hunter’s ‘Don’t over-harvest’. It strikes me though that such ethics – though not without merit – are primarily concerned with materially and outwardly focused considerations; such as ‘the law of the land’, common sense, conservation, and basic courtesy. What is lacking, from the animist perspective, is a consideration of the relationship between space and form, and the land as body.

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This subject came to mind recently when I re-visited a spinney which runs along two edges of the local municipal park. A few years back when I was working in a rather dull but stressful job, detouring through the park on my way to and from the office was a precious time of rebalancing and healing. As I put it in my diary after a particularly trying day; ‘Received back my sanity from the trees-wind-greenlight-birdsong matrix.’ Yet this ‘matrix’ wasn’t something I knew intimately from the start when it was more of a ‘green space’ within which I noticed occasional events and changes; the movements of a woodpecker or the fall of beech mast. It only deeply opened up to me on the day that I noticed a person or people had cleared away a bramble entanglement around the edge of the park and forged a path between the trees. Curious I walked down this new trail and found myself suddenly secluded in a world of fine detail; wide cushions of wild violets, the spiral shells of white-lipped snails on tree trunks, and snake’s head fritillaries emerging ghost-like from the leaf litter.

tumblr_mx6bhfemUN1resmcxo1_1280In the past decade the park has twice been shrunk by the local council in order to create car-parking for a new supermarket and other commercial premises. The path through the spinney, it turned out, was a reaction to this and part of a wider local grassroots initiative to reclaim the park as a place of commun-ity; which also included the creation of a guide to the park’s trees and wildlife, and the construction of an outdoor ‘story-telling area’ at the boundary between the library and the park itself.

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Eventually a change of job curtailed my regular walks in the spinney but I managed to visit again twice this summer and found the place sadly changed. On the first occasion, in June, I noticed a pile of woodchip had been left at the entrance to the park but didn’t think much of it. The wood itself seemed unfriendly and darkly brooding in a way I had never felt before. A month later I returned and discovered why. The local council, taking a good idea and running with it in the wrong direction, had spread woodchip throughout the spinney; ostensibly to make a less muddy trail. The single path through the undergrowth had been replaced by a sprawling multi-tentacled space in which all the undergrowth was erased and the trees marooned in small, isolated stands. The ground was strewn with litter and people had been lighting fires with the dead wood intended as insect habitat. There was no atmosphere and no presence. The spinney was a coherent being no more – it was literally de-spirited.

tumblr_mn50kgHqD21resmcxo1_1280This was the moment I realised that a path is a fissure. This sounds rather negative but it needn’t be. In many cases fissures are what allow life and communication to happen; orifices facilitate respiration, consumption and excretion; the air in the spaces between us allows sound – songs, signals, calls and words – to travel from one being to another; and so on. In that sense spaces and passages are necessary to our existence, and certainly essential to animist practice which is about developing communication and intimacy with the Other-s. But still, a path is a fissure. This means that if we create a path without due care and reflection, or if we create too many paths, we can unduly fragment a landscape or land-being such that it can become vulnerable to damaging incursions or infections. In the worst-case scenario an excess of fissuring can even amount to butchery.

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A single narrow path had opened up the spinney just enough for it to become a place of communion and communication between local people and the Other-s (trees, plants, birds, spirits), yet many paths – forged only with utility in mind – had dispirited it. I am only just starting to process the implications of this experience but when out in the landscape I already find myself asking questions such as, ‘If there is no path here now, what are your motives for making one, and what might be the implications?’ Among other things it has changed how I physically approach the being-fields of local genius loci, and it has altered how I approach the practice of drift-walking.

20150825_122033This week I found myself at the boundary between a cemetery and a wood. There was no path between the two but there was the possibility of forging one. Usually I let drift-walking take me along without self-consciousness as much as possible, but in this case I paused. It is hard to describe what I felt but it was a little like that sensation when you are swimming in a lake and your feet contact a colder layer of water than the rest of your body is feeling. I could have used my body to draw one side through to mingle with the other, but to what end and with what consequences? In this case it felt wrong and I held back, turning my footsteps in another direction.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, there is the famous passage; “there was only one Road […] like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door’”. There is considerable value in recognising the inter-connectedness of existence. Much damage has been done in my local area by the false notion that you can place ‘nature’ in a box and expect it to survive. To slightly belabour Tolkien’s metaphor, however, the water-cycle is far more complex than springs, tributaries and rivers. There are puddles, standing-pools, marshes and deep aquifers, all of which behave and interact in different ways and within radically different timeframes. A pond in the woods, though ultimately part of the whole water-cycle, may on a day-to-day basis effectively be a distinct being and not a tributary at all. As such to create a passage between it and another water-body might be to drain it or to fill it until it became an entirely different type of entity. ‘Going out of your door’ then is not simply dangerous to the self but also to the Other-s. This is not to say we shouldn’t do it – as I’ve said creating pathways is existentially necessary and desirable – but it asks of us (especially those devoted to the cultivation of relationship and intimacy with the Other-s) to exercise a certain ethic of attention and care.

As for the spinney … even if it recovers its structure I don’t know if it will recover its spirit-s. On a visit this morning I noticed fruiting bodies of fungi dying on an unused pile of woodchip and was lost between sadness and hope.

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Accipiter Nisus, 26th August 2015

Reclaiming Narnia: Walking Trees, Talking Beasts, Divine Waters

By Jonathan Woolley

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Image by Skullb3at

I – Radical Voices from the Lantern Waste – Opinions That Won’t Be Chronicled by Prof. Lewis.

“Narnia is a realm dominated by one voice – the roaring caterwauling of Aslan of the East. He has cried out many times in our history, drowning out all other truths. Sometimes in love, sometimes in anger. Sometimes with great cause. But only ever when it has suited him.”

“There is a deep magic, unknown to most. There is a deeper magic, unknown even to the wise. Then there is the deepest magic – known to everyone.”

“Aslan, or the White Witch? The messianic agent of some foreign emperor, or some despot from a dead world? Are those our only choices?!”

“Susan was the best of them, really. The High King was never here; more interested in fighting foreign wars and chasing valour than government. Edmund was clever, yes – but you couldn’t trust him. He’d say one thing, and do quite another, if he thought it “just”. As for Lucy, she was all play and passing fancies. She barely had any time in between all her “romps” – as she called them – to think of anything else. But Susan had common sense, and a kind heart – and wore the burden of governance well. And she also knew the awful game of Power that Aslan had set before her, and how it was to be played. She knew what a marriage – her marriage – could mean for Narnia; Peace, and safety from our enemies. Enemies Peter and his lot never wanted to stop fighting.”

II – To Narnia, and the North

I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was six. The triple volume we had in our house contained the first three books in the series – The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy. I can still remember the front cover now; a thick, starry-blue border, edging around a rolling green landscape that swept up to high mountains beneath a clear sky. In the foreground stood the Great Lion himself; Aslan looking gold and glorious as always. It was an evocative image, and it drew me in.

My parents were surprised and overjoyed when I started reading such a long set of novels, all on my own. I devoured the books; first reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, then The Horse and his Boy, and finally The Magicians Nephew. I remember whisking my way through pages and pages of text, whilst my friends at school were still stumbling through books that were mostly pictures, and way-big typefacing. Words like “gifted” were bandied about over my head in hushed tones.

I didn’t care about that, though. I was worlds away – dancing with fauns, fleeing from wolves and fording the Great River. I was in love. In love with Narnia, its people, its places, its culture. It was a vision of a totally animate world; and yet, one that was still earthy – it wasn’t some ethereal Neverwhere, hard to imagine separately to its bookish casings – it felt like (what I now call) ethnography; a thick description of a real place with realistic people. There are plenty of less-than-pleasant parts of Lewis’ vision – the sexism towards adult women, the blatant xenophobia, the authoritarian glint in Aslan’s leonine eye – but I didn’t notice any of it. To my six-year-old mind, the nasty hobby-horses of Lewis’ rode past unnoticed; the Christian allegory, 1950s imperialism and 1930s misogyny moving over my head, perhaps written at a level only older children could reach.

What did stick with me was the obvious Paganism upon which Lewis drew – the walking trees, the speaking beasts, the divine waters. I recognized them at once as friends and true gods, following them into the wild, forgotten places of the text, whilst Lewis played his Game of Thrones in the wide, open country of chapter upon chapter.

III – A lamentable surfeit of Pevensies

Bparavelecause Lewis did focus upon heroes. Heroes, by and large, I didn’t really care about. Peter, Edmund, Eustace, Jill, and even Lucy seemed rather old-fashioned to the millennial me. I was frustrated by how I was expected to only empathise with a person if they hailed from my own world. I felt patronized even at age six by this authorial choice. It was for this reason that my favourite in the series was The Horse and His Boy; here was a book where those irritating Pevensies and their fellow travelers only got involved at the edges. This book is also, incidentally, populated by characters who have the least interest in Aslan – Shasta and Hwin barely know who he is, Aravis doesn’t care, Bree doesn’t get him at all despite using him as something of a battle-standard.

But what I really loved about Horse was that it gave a precious insight into ordinary Narnia. Towards the end of the book, Shasta, on his way to the capital of Archenland, manages to find his way into Narnia proper. There, he meets a community of everyday Narnians – dwarves, fauns, talking beasts. Simple people, leading their uneventful, happy lives in the forest. Shasta spends a-few short hours amongst them, eating bacon and seeing what he’s been missing all those years in the south, before rushing off to save the day. The narrative follows him, but my heart remained in those quiet woods. I read that chapter again and again, wishing the pages would open up and lower me down gently onto a bower of golden leaves and celandines; only to be greeted by a band of dwarves with a kettle on the boil.

I read the rest of the books only later, receiving them a couple of Christmases later. I loved Prince Caspian – the trees and awakening gods avenging themselves on dull Telmarine Narnia struck a chord that still sounds in my heart today. As The Voyage of the Dawn Treader didn’t actually take place in Narnia, and ended in what seemed at the time to be a sort of fuzziness I couldn’t pierce (i.e. Christian allegory) so I didn’t much care for it. The Silver Chair, overwhelmingly bleak, had brief points of relief for me in shedding light on the irascible marsh-wiggles and a positively Bosch-esque winter celebration when Eustace, Jill and co. return to Narnia.

IV – Crying from onions

Snarling_lionAnd then I read The Last Battle. Each page left me feeling worse and worse. Here was the land I loved being torn to pieces. The trees being felled, the waters stilled, the animals broken as dumb beasts. Things got worse, and worse. And then, when all seemed darkest, Lewis rewarded me with the utter annihilation of Narnia, and most of its people, in fire and death.

What replaced it? A heroes reunion. Christian Allegory. More Pevensies. In short, everything I cared least about, was assured salvation!

The Narnia I loved – that magical Arcadia half-way between dreaming and waking – was replaced by something I found utterly incomprehensible. “Like an onion, but bigger on the inside” – what utter madness, I remember thinking, that doesn’t make sense at all! My visual imagination struggled to grasp this eschatological bulb, trying to imagine it as simultaneously England-and-Narnia-and-Everywhere all at once. I failed. The Christian intention of the books, once entirely invisible to me, had now become all there was to see. Aslan’s Country was an entirely foreign land to me.

I was nine or ten at the time, and I cried. I cried because I didn’t understand why Narnia had gone, or if it had gone, at all. I cried because I felt that all those nice, ordinary Narnians – simple people, who asked for nothing except a peaceful life – must’ve been exactly the sort to be tricked by Shift and his idiotic donkey-lion, Puzzle. Puzzle (and I really couldn’t believe this part) was allowed into this post-Narnia place, despite the fact that he had shown exactly the same level of ignorance that the others had done. they had been damned, yet he had not. I cried because I knew the Narnia I had believed in, was, in the eyes of the author, gone. And what’s more, he felt that was a good thing.

Now I am older. I ended up converting to the faith that Lewis himself followed – Anglican Christianity – in the vain hope of recovering some of the mystery I had felt close to in reading those first books, and that had been thoroughly banished by The Last Battle. I now realize that it was at around the time that I read that damn book that the rot to set in – the gradual loss of innocence that was less about becoming interested in stockings and lipstick and boys, as Lewis might have it, and was more about believing the world didn’t actually have any magic in it at all. Lewis successfully broke the spells woven through my Pagan heart, by shattering it in two – for a while, anyway. In the depression that followed, I was vulnerable in precisely the way that Christianity is so adept at exploiting. As such, I became a Christian.

In the end, Christianity did little for me. It energized the worst parts of my character – the self-righteous, self-hating, self-denying tendency that I still have trouble with – and left me feeling harrowed and guilty over my sexuality, my body, and my philosophical outlook. I spent years worrying about being gay and about possibly doing something that would get me sent to hell. The voices I heard on the wind told me I was safe. But the angry words of other Christians told me something different. I doubted.

Gradually, though, I was guided back into Paganism. Those voices in the wind revealed themselves as gods, not one God and his saintly minions. Those angry words were shown to be vacuous and fearful by plenty of good education and reflection. At Cambridge and through Druidry, I found my community – my Narnia. And now, after all these years, I’ve found myself again too. Now, when I look back upon Narnia, I can understand its less pleasant side.

V – Laying siege to Cair Paravel

Although it is fair to extoll Lewis’ oevre as a seamless work of genius, you can see two very distinct sides to the land he envisioned. One, embodied by the central stronghold of the monarchy at Cair Paravel – is deeply Christian in nature; focussed around noble, exemplary people, who do great things for the sake of their faith in Aslan, and can be ranked according to their relative power and sanctity. Its enemies – represented by various other castles, from the giant’s playground at Harfang, to the visciously racist Tashbaan, and the glittering misogynist edifice of the White Witch’s House – rather than being the opposite of Narnia, are more like parodies of Aslan and his power base. The hierarchy imposed through Cair Paravel remains strictly consistent across the canon; coordinated by the Emperor Beyond the Sea through Aslan, his proxy. By contrast, the forces of evil are totally divided. The White Witch. Tash. The Lady of the Green Kirtle. Shift. All move largely independently of one another, whereas Aslan exerts complete and magisterial control over all his agents.

But this axis of united good and disparate evil in a Christian vein is balanced by Narnia’s other side: its Pagan face. Mostly represented by various genius loci (naiads, dryads, hamadryads), fauns, satyrs, centaurs, dwarves, and of course, talking beasts, here is the lived existence of Narnia, between the moments where Aslan (or his enemies) appear and fight it out for supremecy. Because the story turns about the axis of the good and bad castles, we hear about this other aspect to Lewis’ world only in fragments; night dances led by Bacchus, a river god who prefers to be unshackled by bridges. These beings distinguish themselves from the enemies of the Lion, because they all submit to the Emperor, and accept that they live better under his rule. But they nonetheless sit apart from the castle lot – the reason being, that they are disbarred from sitting in government. It is only Sons of Adam, and Daughters of Eve (i.e. humans) who have that right. Just as the gods of Narnia all submit to Aslan, so all Narnia’s other-than-human inhabitants, must submit to human authority. Their diversity is harmless, because it is disempowered.

This is a fudge; a bit of theological fancy footwork, by which Lewis does a cut and shut of Pagan and Christian theology. The Pagan world – of gods, speaking beasts, talking trees, divine waters and so on – is permitted to exist, but only insofar as it submits to the authority of the preordinant Christian cosmos, populated by humans as God’s agents. What’s more, the idea that Paganism can exist independently is not even treated as a possibility; you either fall under the shadow of Cair Paravel, or that of her many enemies.

VI – There, but for the Grace of the Gods

Arnold_Böcklin_-_Faun_einer_Amsel_zupfeifendI have a personal theory about Lewis. As a young man, he expressed a deep and abiding love of the myths and stories of Old Europe. He felt keenly aware of this indefinable quality of “Northerness”, that he attempted to capture in Narnia. But as he grew older, he embraced first atheism and then Christianity. Paganism became, for him, a sort of “gateway drug” to Christian belief – in his view, people needed to become good Pagans, before they could be made good Christians. Although in later life he firmly classed Christianity as superior, this was not always how he viewed the world. Personally, I wonder about this theological journey – I suspect that, had Lewis been born some fifty years later or so, he would have happily embraced Paganism from the beginning. Had I lived in the time that he had, I would probably have remained an unhappy Christian – a faun in exile.

Lewis’ vision of Paganism – as the proletarian, lower stratum of a universe over which the Christian God and his chosen followers ride triumphant – is a powerful parable for how we, as Pagans, choose to see ourselves. For contemporary Paganism is like the ordinary Narnia of Lewis’ imagining. We as a society play in our glades, groves, and meads; singing with trees and rivers; feasting and drinking, celebrating with our merry gods without tiring. And yet, all the while, a war is going on: a war between the Ruling Power of our world and His vicious reflections. According to the apologists of Capital, there is no alternative to their glowing vision of a world powered by growth and money. The pitiless extremism of Islamic State, the ruthless despotism of Putin’s Russia – all are every bit as evil as Witches or Telmarines. And so, many of us – like ordinary Narnians – put their trust in a regime that promises to fight for us, rather than fight ourselves for a world where such regimes of threat and counter-threat are no longer necessary.

And what fate awaited such Narnians in The Last Battle? Most of them, confused and frightened, were swallowed up in a world-ending cataclysm, arising not simply from the misdeeds of the Evil Others against whom their Emperor rallied, but from the war itself. Only a precious few – “heroes”, in the eyes of the elite, and not ordinary Narnians at all – survive their world being overturned in fire and water, in time and the wrath of dragons.

The sad fate of the ordinary Narnians is what ultimately awaits us, should we allow the hegemonic forces of our world to set our discourse for us. What we must do is learn how to reclaim Narnia for its people; so that the bucolic vision of joy it inspires is not merely a happy sideshow to the real End of History playing out around it. We are the speaking beasts, the walking trees, the divine waters – Narnia and the North, and all they represent, are our birthright; we must reclaim them from those who would dominate them. Is it possible to live in a world without castles, without the war, without lions and witches? In my heart, there sits a little six year old boy, who dreams of sunny fields and quiet woods where dryads and dwarves dwell untroubled; who knows the answer must be yes.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Why are you here?

Farewell now my sister
Up ahead there lies your road
And your conscience walks beside you
It’s the best friend you will ever know
And the past is now your future
It bears witness to your soul

Because when I was a child, I realized everything is connected, and that was joyous and it felt important but I didn’t tell anyone, because somewhere I had picked up on the notion that was silly, or meaningless, or something.

Because I have always loved the sky and the mountains and the fish and the insects and the quiet stillness of a landscape covered with snow and the crashing of waves and the distant yet so close grandeur of the Milky Way and to see any of that harmed or lost to us is like losing a beloved friend, like losing touch with one’s gods, like having part of your own heart removed.

Because I spent several years reading a lot of liberal, feminist political sites, and got educated on the systemic harm being done to humans by other humans in the name of domination, and then I got burned out, because it was always the same stuff, with different details, and positive change was too rare and infrequent.

Because after 30-some years of atheism, I got an unshakeable notion in my head that an ancient Norse god with a reputation for shaking up the status quo might somehow, inexplicably, have an interest in me, and then I got around to asking Him if that was true, and the answer meant I had to leave a lot of old beliefs behind.

Because for reasons I will never be able to articulate, I realized as a young adult that what I really wanted to do was to help heal the Earth, and I’ve tried to change as much of my life as possible to live in accordance with that.

Because in seventh grade, my biology teacher taught us more about ecological devastation going on than I had already been aware of, and it hit me really hard, and with pre-teen angst, I wrote “The human race is going down the drain” on the inside back cover of my TrapperKeeper, and I am not yet convinced my younger self was wrong but I really hope she is.

Because one of my much-loved feminist blogs introduced me to the term “kyriarchy” and suddenly so much of the shit I was reading about cohered into one big thing; the system still sucked, but at least it made some sense.

Because shit is fucked up and bullshit and I’ve never been able to stand being a part of a system that is fucked up and bullshit without either trying to change it, or deciding to leave, and the latter isn’t an option I’m currently willing to consider.

Because I hate how other living things are considered “less than” us, and less important than “job creation,” and this justifies their abuse and – too often – their utter oblivion.

Because at every turn, asking “But why are they doing this harmful thing?!” seems to come down to one of two things: 1) greater profits-for-profits’-sake for whoever is in already control or 2) a need to keep someone else down; two sides of the same tainted coin.

Because during the worst year of my life, while getting some much-needed rest at my childhood home, the Occupy movement started, and they didn’t get beaten and jailed and run off in 24 hours, or 48, or even a week, and for the first time in years, I felt a little faith in humanity restored, along with some actual hope for the future.

Because if we don’t stop harming the biosphere, we’re going to hurt ourselves very, very badly, along with billions of utter innocents who share the planet with us.

Because reciprocity and sharing are vital to support life and healthy relationships, and I see that in the ecology of wild systems and I see that in lessons from religious lore but I do not see that in the dominant culture.

Because thanks to a variety of interactions with various gods, I got back into reading lots of news – focused on ecological, environmental topics this time – and I now see everything through the lens of ecology, interconnected systems, webs of relationships that feed each other in one complex beautiful system-of-systems of life creation and re-creation.

Because our human-made systems form a kind of perverse ecology of their own, so much of it ecocidal and life-denying, dealing death without the possibility for new life to arise.

Because I believe a good life is all about living in right relationship with others, whether those others are your family, coworkers, gods, marshlands, songbirds, or food crops, and the dominant culture does not teach people how to do that; in fact it feeds on the opposite.

Because my involvement with Occupy got me exposed to some actual anarchist and anti-capitalist writing and I realized that they were saying an awful lot of things about the world that I had concluded already, and – that awkward moment when you realize you’re way leftier than you thought.

Because my polytheism came along with animism, which gave additional weight to my belief that the other-than-human ought to be treated as people and with respect.

Because as a bookish 14-year-old, I had my life changed by a novel – not The Lord of the Rings or Atlas Shrugged, as the famous quote would have it, but the Illuminatus! trilogy (thanks, Dad!), and I’ve come to consider the Principia Discordia a sacred, guiding text.

Because science says that we’re related to other life on earth and that our bodies and other living things and the planet itself are all made from the remains of ancient stars, and my animism say that thus, we are all kin here, and this means the kyriarchy is literally destroying my very vast and diverse and weird and wonderful family and this cannot stand.

Make sure that the love you offer up
Does not fall on barren soil.
For the wind cries of late
In the whispering grass.
Our way of life is held
In the spinning wheels of chance.
I believe in a way of long ago
And the sounds I believe rose our glow

And we are changing our ways
Yes we are taking on different roads
Tell me more about the forest
That you once called home.

Because I am horrified, on a spiritual level, at so much of what is being done so thoughtlessly to the ancient dead: their remains disinterred without regard for them or the surrounding land and then converted into choking poisons in the air and land and sea.

Because I opened my life and my heart to a god, and He gave me a bigger, more deeply interconnected world than I had dreamed possible, and He gave me back joy of life and hope for positive change, and I can’t not use this incredible gift to aid others.

Because I’m angry that the dominant culture has convinced us – forced us – to exist in a system where we trade our time for money, allowing us to buy “happiness” in the form of material goods (assuming we even have enough after paying for basic needs) while restricting our means to achieve a fuller well-being through expressing creativity, developing stronger, healthier social networks, and engaging in other deeply meaningful pursuits, and then tells us, “You ought to be grateful you have a job at all.”

Because I am inordinately fond of birds.

Because in the early stages of my conversion, I discovered there were people who worshiped the Giants of Norse myth, as gods of the primal forces of nature, and I knew, as an undeniable heart truth, that these were my gods, this was home, and I had found something I had always (unknowingly) been looking for.

Because the monarchs are dying so the tiny minority of Monsanto and its ilk can make even more money to control even more of our food supply and to keep pressuring people with law-changing power to stay on the side of profit-oriented poisoners.

For the wind cries of late
In the whispering leaves
And the sun will turn to waste
The heavens we build above.
Father teach your children
To treat our mother well
If we give her back her diamonds
She will offer up her pearl.

Because for years I’ve felt a need to use the tag “Western civilization has a lot to answer for.”

Because I am part of the land. It feeds my body and my soul; perhaps it is a part of my soul, or I am a part of its, or both, or we’re parts of some bigger soul, I don’t know, souls are complicated, but that we are inextricably connected is undeniable (you are where you eat) and I love it like I love nothing else.

Because as a white person born, raised, and living in the United States, I have inherited many great benefits at absolutely horrific costs, and I believe it is therefore necessary and right to try to remediate what harm I can and help create a better world than what my many “ancestors” left for me.

Because capitalism is very good at taking all the many fears and angers bound up in other forms of abuse and oppression and convincing people to very literally buy into them and thus support the whole grotesque “ecology” of dominance and anti-life destruction it feeds on.

Because I can’t not question authority and “common wisdom” and if they say “But we must have progress! We must keep growing! And we can’t go back to that old stuff” instead of changing harmful behaviors, well that’s just not good enough.

Because I’ve been tired of not finding like-minded people – there are lots of pagans, and lots of environmentalists, and lots of radicals, but I’ve run into sadly few at the intersection of those interests.

Because everything IS connected, and to truly solve one of these problems, one of these systems of dominance, to stop oppressive, abusive behaviors (remove, replace with something better, as my beloved ancient Norse change-causing, gift-bringing god would do), we must cease all of them.

Because I believe another world is possible and I want a hand in helping it exist.

Because of Love.

The Blue Marble. Photo of the Earth taken December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17.
The Blue Marble. Photo of the Earth taken December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17.

We must sing her creation song
Jeune du monde
Invoke the spirits that feed us
This dreaming takes too long
But I’m not bitter, no, I’m surviving
To face the world, to raise the future
So why don’t you tell me, come on and tell me
About the world you left behind
Can you tell me?


 

[lines in italics quoted from “Tell Me About the Forest (You Once Called Home)” by Dead Can Dance]



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