Sunday 9 July 2017

Q&A Otherworld Books

Otherworld Books is a newly established Pagan and Occult bookshop based near the centre of Edinburgh, Scotland. The shop aims to offer all books to all paths, whatever your experience level. They even supply book prescriptions if you're not sure what to read next. You can also find them on Twitter and Facebook, and they have an extensive online store. Founder, Claire Proctor, talks about the inspiration for the bookshop.

How did the idea for Otherworld Books come about?

It was about three years ago at the annual Scottish Pagan Federation Conference. Christina Oakley Harrington, who runs Treadwell's in London, was the keynote speaker, as well as hosting a workshop. There were various conversations throughout the day about what a shame it was that we only got the opportunity to do these kinds of things once a year and how poor the selections in some of the more mainstream bookshops had become. Most of the remaining occult shops couldn't really support a wide range of books and didn’t have the capacity for events, and we couldn’t think of a single 'dedicated' bookshop in Scotland at all. At the time, I was vaguely considering a change in direction but, while the idea intrigued me, I didn’t really think of it as a serious notion. However, the more time went on, the more I found myself doodling ideas, checking things out and discussing it with people until one day I came to the realisation that  it was something I absolutely wanted to do without really noticing! After that, I threw myself into it and the shop opened on 1st March 2016.

How do you choose what to stock?

It varies greatly. There’s a huge chunk of ‘recommended reading,’ those existing works that by general consensus you should make a point of getting through at some point. So, for instance, most of Hutton’s works on the academic side, Philip Carr-Gomm and Emma Restall Orr on Druidry, the Farrars, Vivianne Crowley and Doreen Valiente on Wicca, Rae Beth and Marian Green on solitary witchcraft. The same is true on the occult end of the spectrum – works by Aleister Crowley, William G. Gray, Israel Regardie, Dion Fortune and so on.

It’s trickier when it comes to newer works. I feel like if you’re investing your time in reading a book it needs to add value – it should be well researched, considered and offer ideas or practical guidance that will help you on your path.

Sadly, there’s still a lot of what I consider commercialised nonsense doing the rounds. I try to avoid things that are simply repackaging the same material with little added value. There are a great many brilliant titles coming out at the moment though, particularly the Moon Books' Pagan Portals and Shaman Pathways series, which I think are the ideal blend of being informative and useful. They are written by authors who really know their stuff. Personally, I have a major soft spot for fiction and quirky titles. The ones that really challenge your thinking about your own beliefs and practice by presenting it in a different context or framework. Anything by Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, or random offerings like Our Gods Wear Spandex and Cat Magic.

You’re based in Edinburgh, which is a city with a lot of history and folklore. Has anything spooky ever happened at the shop?

I used to joke that there was a poltergeist in the shop. During the first few months, I’d come in to find random individual books had fallen off display shelves with no apparent rhyme or reason. Then, equally as inexplicably, it just stopped. So, I began to wonder! It happened again just the other day, for the first time in ages. One of my regular customers was in and it took us right to a book she had been looking for on behalf of a friend.

Do you think your location helps business?

I think being in Edinburgh helps insofar as it’s an amazing place to be. Somewhere that draws people who are potentially interested in diverse paths. The fact that I’m reasonably central and easy to find doesn’t hurt, but just as important to me is to be a trusted resource for the community wherever they are, which is why I always wanted to have the online side available too.

We love your book prescription idea, where people tell you a bit about themselves and their interests, and you recommend a book to them. What’s the most recent book you've recommended?

Thank you. There are many people who come into the shop looking for assistance, no matter how new to the subject or experienced. There are a lot of books available, after all! I wanted a simple way to be able to offer that assistance further afield.

Sadly, I’ve had no takers for the prescription service yet, though admittedly it’s only been up a few weeks and not extensively marketed.

Where’s the furthest place you have sent a book?

So far, California. Santa Clarita, to be exact, which I’ll probably always remember because my media-junkie brain automatically thought, “Oh, where the diet’s from.”

Is there a strong Pagan community in Edinburgh? Any events you’d recommend during the year?

I would say that there’s an extremely strong Pagan presence in Edinburgh, and Scotland more generally. Perhaps not the strongest community, in the sense of lots of regular groups and events. I don’t think that’s anything negative, just a combination of the demands of modern life and that many who are drawn to paganism actually prefer a solitary path. We have great links as part of the local Interfaith community, though. We have representation as part of the Edinburgh Uni Chaplaincy and, as previously mentioned, the annual Scottish PF conference is held here. The Beltane Fire Society produce their spectacular parades at Beltane and Samhain and, with so much during the August festivals, there’s usually something pagan-themed available. There’s a monthly informal moot group, and I’ve been running monthly workshops since the start of the year. I'm always open to hosting more!

Can you offer up three recommendations on Scottish Paganism, occultism or folklore for people who would like an introduction?

I would say that the best books on the subject allow you to work with your landscape, wherever that may be. While there’s nothing particularly Scottish that I would recommend on that score, as general introductions go, you can’t go too far wrong with: 

Who is the most memorable customer to ever walk in off the street?

I’ve actually had the privilege of meeting the only person ever to achieve enlightenment! Apparently, Buddha didn’t actually manage it, or, at least, he’s never seen him on any of the spiritual planes.

He had seen Brian Copenhaver’s Magic: Antiquity to Enlightenment in the window and, while he had apparently misunderstood the meaning of the title, he wanted to afford me the opportunity of arranging workshops for him, so that he could share the truth with the good people of Edinburgh. In fact, he’s the person who invented adult colouring books but, because everything he thinks of is automatically shared to the universal consciousness, it was stolen and commercialised before he could do anything with it. Despite an extensive letter writing campaign, he has yet to receive any royalties.

I explained that it might be counter-intuitive to hold events proclaiming One Truth in a shop dedicated to the pursuit of lots of different paths and pursuits, but he seemed to lose interest around then – it could have been because he had finished his can of cider.

In all seriousness though, while the above is all true, I’ve had some genuinely amazing conversations with truly wonderful people in the relatively short time I’ve been here. From the sublime to the ridiculous - the best are usually a combination of both - and I love that anyone of any path can come in, share their ideas, find new ones and hopefully leave richer for the experience.

Monday 26 June 2017

Guest Post: David Halpin

David Halpin is a writer originally from Dublin, now living in Carlow. He presents the YouTube series The Occult Book Review and regularly writes articled on esoteric history, Gnosticism and mythology for publications including Ancient Origins, The Wild Hunt and Occultum. He has also appeared as a guest speaker at the Irish Festival of Magic and Spirituality, Féile Draíochta. His children’s book, The Girl Who Spoke to the Wind, has been optioned for film by Irish director Maurice Joyce. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter             

 The Witch is Dead, Long Live the Witch
David Halpin

She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The Final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars. She was a pagan chorus. An older song. - The Good People by Hannah Kent.

During a recent conversation it was suggested to me by a prominent pagan spokesperson that in light of human carelessness and recent American environmental decisions, that perhaps it would be best for the planet if human beings destroyed themselves and allowed the earth to evolve without us.
While one part of me understood what this person meant: the overwhelming fatalistic dismay at what our world is becoming, another part was disturbed at what I was hearing. I felt compelled to ask whether or not everyone had a collective responsibility to the next generation, even if they didn’t have children themselves. As a parent, I want to believe that human beings have an instinctual compassion that extends not just to their own families but to all human beings.
The response from this person was that even if the world was destroyed, everything is connected and so ultimately all would be well and destruction would not be such a bad thing.

For days after I tried to reconcile this person’s outlook to what I understood paganism to mean. I know that the current rise of eco-scepticism and the influence of the fossil fuel industries can be disheartening, for example. I also know, however, that there is a tremendous effort by pagans and non-pagans alike to bring attention to the pollution of planet. Surely this should motivate and engage us, another part of me argued, not dishearten and create a spiralling sense of complacency.
A bigger question for me was the ethical and moral responsibility that comes with being a pagan and witch in the first place. Don’t we believe that all life is part of something bigger than ourselves and that we are not only connected to that which we know and love but also those we do not know but still have a responsibility to help?
As the father of two daughters, experiencing an attitude that can lethargically accept the extinction of millions of children as being inevitable and not worth fighting for seems just as psychotic as the actions and policy decisions that have created our catastrophic environmental predicament in the first place.
In fact, as a pagan, rightly or wrongly, I expect my community to feel more empathy and connection with life outside of our immediate circle and personal environment. Surprisingly, as I sought out opposing viewpoints and a more hopeful and inclusive response from pagan influencers and speakers, I instead began to notice a very insular outlook. I began to see a trend which was the opposite of everything I believed paganism to represent.

In an attempt to dispel my growing fears, I began to examine the most immediate window into the current state of witchcraft and paganism, namely the various social media platforms I was connected to. I felt that I would be able to gauge, through observation, the contemporary and evolving attitudes and interpretations of paganism. I believed I could find others, like myself, who did not want to walk away from the future, but to protect it.
What I found instead were pages and pages of ‘selfies’, blogs focusing on ‘Witch’ apparel and a surprising lack of differentiation between being a pagan as opposed to being seen to be a pagan. I also discovered a trench mentality which seemed to redefine paganism to the extent that it was normal to have little to no connection with the environment or communities outside of one particular tribe or culture. There seemed to be no awareness that by creating a ‘new’ witchcraft imbedded in monoculture and superficial symbolism there was a cutting off from the roots and actual practice of witchcraft and paganism in the first place.
I was reminded of what Peter Grey wrote about rebellion as a marketing device in his ground-breaking work, Lucifer: Princeps

It is part of a deliberate strategy to create consumers, subverting the drives of social and sexual dissatisfaction by channelling them into brand loyalty and consumption, rather than questioning the values of the corporate state. It avoids the crisis of initiation to keep the population dependent and uncertain in an extended ‘kidulthood’, whilst simultaneously breaking social cohesion in favour of the individual as production/ consumption unit rather than as sovereign.

This extended ‘kidulthood’, as Grey writes, is more devastating in consequence than might first seem. By attaching such importance to youth-image and clinging to one stage only in the cycle of life we are destabilising the very wheel itself. Renewal comes only from the passing of the old. Refusing to acknowledge the wisdom and further initiations which come with later life also abdicates the responsibility to the future and from this an attitude of apathy and selfishness is born.      

Today, there is often a knee-jerk reaction to a non-indigenous pagan of one particular culture pointing out commonalities with another, which is a shame, considering the common roots of archetypes once we go back far enough in history and time. The fear of being seen to ‘commit appropriation’ might account for some of this, of course.
But there is another effect when we are bound by psychological and cultural borders and when we are pressured to keep only to our own gods and goddess forms, and this is the growing racism within contemporary paganism and witchcraft. It is ironic that those most willing to (with usually good intentions) call out appropriation might also be contributing to the resulting insular and xenophobic conditioning that can often follow.
Paganism has passed through many crossroads. Moving further into the 21st century we are perhaps approaching another which might have the greatest consequences of all. Never in human history has it been so easy to destroy ourselves and yet never in history have there been so many available avenues of escapism in order to avoid facing up to this. 

The path we end up taking will be directly influenced by how many pagans and witches begin to take responsibility for an integrated future. The sooner we understand that this involves more than our own life-spans and more than our own specific cultures the better chance of survival we will give the next generation.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Q&A Trevor Greenfield

Trevor Greenfield is Editorial Manager for John Hunt Publishing, and founder of Moon Books, a subsidiary press of JHP focused on Pagan nonfiction. Trevor holds an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Sussex, and an MA in English Literature from the University of Southampton. He is also the author of An Introduction to Radical Theology and teaches Religious Studies for the Open University.

Hi Trevor. Thanks for taking the time to speak to us about Moon Books, we see your titles regularly on Twitter and Facebook. It's nice to get the chance to learn more about the publishing house and your role there.

How did you get involved with Moon Books?

I published a book with John Hunt Publishing, the company that owns Moon Books, and I had just taken early retirement from an IT multi-national company, so I started doing some copy editing for them. I was asked to take over the management of copy editing and then I was asked to manage editorial and production. We’re a small publisher, it’s not as grand as it sounds! Back then we only had two imprints, O-Books and Zero Books. However, the number and variety of titles we were publishing forced us to consider breaking up into a number of specialist imprints. I asked if I could start a Pagan/Shaman imprint, which I called Moon Books. We opened for business in 2012 and since then we have published over 150 books.

What do you most enjoy reading?

I mainly read nonfiction history books, especially ancient history. I don’t read much fiction but I do like the novels of Robert Goddard. What’s life without an unexpected plot twist?

You work on the publishing side for Moon Books's imprint. Can you talk us through the process of how a book goes from submission to shelf?

An author sends in an online proposal and attaches the manuscript or part of it. If we like the look of it, we ask the author to send in a more detailed submission, which includes the usual things: book description, market plan, competing books, possible endorsers, etc. The submission and the manuscript are then looked at by three readers who comment on whether it’s  suitable for us and say yes or no to offering a contract. These reports are sent to our publishing director, who makes a final decision. The process takes a little over a week.

Can you tell us a bit about your own work?

I wrote a book about radical theology and I’ve contributed to a few anthologies, but as publisher of Moon Books I see my role as more creating an environment where writers of all levels can contribute. So, as well as publishing established and new authors, and there’s huge pleasure in seeing a new author develop into a best-selling one, Moon Books also has a writers group and we publish anthologies of their work. Our most successful anthologies to date have been Paganism 101, which had contributions from 101 Pagan writers and practitioners, and Naming the Goddess which had contributions from over 80 Goddess writers and followers, and which was well received throughout the Goddess community.

You teach religious studies for the Open University and you have studied this field at post-graduate level. Can we ask a bit about your own beliefs? What drew you to study this subject, and has it influenced your work at Moon Books?

I’ve always liked religion. I liked the stories I was taught in Sunday school about Noah and Job and Moses. All the old sword-and-sandal movies from the 1960s, Greek mythology. I always thought the past was more interesting than the present, and the past as I imagined it was pretty much battles and kings and interfering gods. How exciting is that! At eighteen I studied Religion at A Level and then went on to university to study Religion. I encountered other religions there such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

I can’t really tell you about my own beliefs as they’re a perpetual work in progress. I became a Christian at university, but there’s only a certain amount of times you can say the Nicene Creed in church on a Sunday before you start to question it. Anyway, I came to the conclusion that it was something you could only really believe if you had a first-century worldview and I ended up drifting away. 

By chance, I heard Philip Carr-Gomm was talking about Druidry at my college, so I went along. Up until listening to Philip, I had assumed Druids were people who liked dressing up and keeping old customs alive, and who probably had friends who were Morris dancers. Well, I got that wrong! I discovered that Druidry is a non-dogmatic, subjective and deeply creative spiritual worldview. What else should religion be? So, for the last few years I have identified myself as Pagan. But, well, you know, what’s life if not a journey? Recently my daughter wanted to find out about Christianity and so I went along with her to an Alpha course. I wouldn’t say it felt like home, but I didn’t feel out of place, so I’m thinking about writing a book on Christo-Paganism, perhaps that’s the next step, exploring the creative fusion between both traditions.

Is there any aspect of Paganism that is strongly underrepresented on the market? Any books you would like to see written?

I’d be interesting in publishing books that are contemporary political and social critiques. I personally think you can view the prophetic and wisdom religious traditions as temporary expressions, interruptions, if you like, in the hundred thousand year old tradition of Earth Religion. It would be interesting to understand what appears to be people's developing cynicism towards all things corporate and global as a modern expression of Earth Religion - the past and the future as Pagan. Similarly, I think contemporary activism, eco-activism, animal activism, etc. can be seen as expressions that bespeak a re-visioning of nature.
Can you tell us about some of the best books you've worked on? What would you recommend reading?
Interesting question. What would I recommend? Well, I’d recommend you read a Moon Book! But going on beyond that, I think Paganism lacks a narrative, a story, a sacred literature. Some people I speak to think that's a good thing because literature equates to doctrine, narrative results in dogma. I disagree. I think the sharing of foundational mythologies, codes of conduct, expressions of belief alongside new expressions and rituals would be a great thing for Paganism to achieve. So, I’m not going to suggest we get together and read something. I’m going to suggest that we get together and write something. Share our myths and our aspirations. Create a sacred text for the Pagan peoples.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Q&A Emma Restall Orr

Emma Restall Orr is one of the best-known names in British Druidry. Joint chief of the The British Druid Order for nine years and founder of The Druid Network, Emma has published more than a dozen books on Druidry and Paganism. She now focuses much of her time on Honouring the Ancient Dead, a project promoting the respectful treatment of ancestral remains. Find out more about her on her website.

Hi Emma. Many people know you from your work with the British Druid Order, the Druid Network, and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. In your biography, you say that you no longer term yourself a Druid. Would you mind talking a little about that?

Thank you for starting with such a sharp question: straight to the heart of it. To state publicly that I no longer consider myself a Druid took serious thought, and I have received responses from some whom it upset and unsettled. The majority of responses were, however, from people eager to understand. The truth is that it was not about a change in my beliefs. My spiritual, my religious and my philosophical perspective is no different from what it was. Indeed, I would say that my beliefs are deeper than ever, my practice more profound.

However, for me, the word Druidry does not describe a specific belief system. My beliefs are animistic, pantheistic, deep green, polytheistic, and I have met Druids who are Christian, who are wholly polytheistic, who are anthropocentric. Druidry, I think, describes instead a path of service. The work of the Druid is to be a teacher, a priest, a leader, a guide. You cannot decide one day to be a Druid. It not only takes years of serious study, but also the acknowledgement and acceptance of your peers and your community before a person should consider taking the word to describe oneself. Of course, we can study Druidry, and practice within the traditions of Druidry, without ever taking the word Druid, but I was known as a Druid. I worked as a priest and teacher for some twenty years. When I stepped away from those roles, I laid down the word as well.

The reason I stepped away has another answer. The deeper mysteries were pulling apart the structure of my being. The universe was breathing its dark emptiness into my soul, calling me to explore places that are formless, wordless, timeless. My ability to hold space, gently and with wakeful responsibility, was eroding. Furthermore, as a person who was widely known as a writer and teacher, the sense of my self was becoming unbearably uncomfortable. People wanted me to be who I had been, who they needed me to be, who they expected me to be, rather than what I was becoming. In the end I had no choice but to let go, to run with the wind on soft paws, into a silence where there was no I.

Now that you no longer term yourself a Druid, how do you feel towards your earlier works, such as Living Druidry and Druid Priestess?

Now and then, someone will ask me about some particular point that I wrote in one of my earlier books, and I will dig out a copy to reread it. “On page 127 you said… What did you mean by…”.  More often than not, I am surprised at how much I am still wholly in tune with what I wrote, albeit 10 or 15 years ago. Of course, you must give me the possibility of having matured in my thinking, and at times the perspective does seem to hum with a youthful energy and naiveté that I may no longer have; at times embarrassingly so. I don’t know how much of that is obvious to the reader!  Certainly, the anecdotes that are scattered throughout those two books are from a life I no longer live, but that isn’t to say that I don’t have warm feelings about those days. The stories make me smile, reminding me of people and places I knew, many of which I loved deeply.

A direct answer to your question would be: yes, I am still the person who wrote those early books – just a little wrinklier, quieter, more peaceful; a little further down the same old track.

The London 2012 Paralympics included a reading from a gorsedd ritual written by yourself and Philip Shallcrass. Did you know about that at the time, and how do you feel about it now?

Yes, we knew.  I was contacted some months before by one of the team creating the closing ceremony, and asked if they might use the gorsedd ritual. We spoke about options and I went to Philip to see what he thought. It was important to me that the magical spirit of the ritual was allowed to feed into the ceremony they created, so that – performed as a piece of community art, not a religious ritual – it retained that magic. However, in the end, Philip and I signed the forms to allow them to use it without knowing what the end product would be. We had to have faith that our words would hold their power, and in many ways I think they did.

It was an honour to be involved in the event. The Paralympics are such an expression of human strength; individuals rising through and above such tangling challenges. Furthermore, Philip and I had worked so very closely for so long with the British Druid Order, it felt like a wonderful gift to that magical relationship, and I am grateful for that. I believe he is too.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Where do you write, do you enjoy writing, and how organised are you?

I love writing. Words fill me with delight and wonder, in the same way that others are delighted by little children or butterflies. As an animist, I perceive words as creatures: spirits, patterns within nature, coherences within the whole that have evolved over time, that arrive in moments then slip away, leaving the world quite changed. As powerful creatures with the power to affect relationships, they need to be respected. I write in part to play with words, as we might blow bubbles on a summer’s day, or splash paint upon a canvas, but far more importantly I write to explore the bridges of communication. Not all of my words are set down, or offered as communication to other human beings. If not, they are still part of the experience of communication, as I converse with the gods, my ancestors, the spirits of the landscape around me.

When I am writing a book, I tend to write for an hour or two a day, often on a laptop, on the sofa, on my bed, or outside; seldom at a desk. I have prepared the structure of the book carefully in advance, and sketched the structure of each chapter in a dozen lines or so – then I write. I may sit for twenty minutes, finding a word or sentence, but I don’t edit much. Once a book is finished, I might rewrite the first few thousand words, bringing it in line with the character of the completed text, but otherwise I don’t edit. I’ll give it to a few key readers, and take note of their suggestions. Usually there are sentences that sound archaic which I bring into modern English.

I wholly detest the marketing process. When I worked as a Druid I did book tours and lectures, TV and radio. Now I tend to hand a book over to the publisher and let them do what they wish. The occasional talk or interview is all I concede to. Once a book is done, my soul moves on fairly quickly, immersing myself in the next project.

In your article This Much I Know for The Guardian, you mentioned that Asterix first sparked your interest in Druidry as a child. Do you still look back on Asterix with fondness? Do you think the things that fascinate us as children often shape what we pursue as adults?

I still love the Asterix books.  My brother was given them as a child and we’d sit and read them together for hours on end, not just in English – I’m quite sure we had versions in French, Spanish, Latin. As a child, I was fascinated by the Getafix/Panoramix character. As for how much childhood heroes shape us, I would guess that would depend on the individual and their hero. For myself, I was not strong physically as a child and I loved to read about this funny old man who kept the whole Roman Empire at bay with nothing more than, what seemed to me to be, soup.  I can make a pretty good soup…

In the write-up for your book Kissing the Hag, it says that it brings us face to face with the raw elements of womankind, and ‘all that makes [women] unacceptable and badly behaved.’ Do you consider yourself badly behaved, and has writing this book changed your own relationship with the Hag?

Badly behaved? - not any more. I was an angry soul through my teens and into my twenties, dealing with physical pain, but the study of nature that is at the heart of Druidic practice includes human nature, our own nature. I find it almost impossible to behave badly now, when I have the slightest inkling that it may be so. I tend to freeze until I can reconfigure my perspective. As human beings, the emotional and instinctive drives can be so powerful, it is a task to learn what these are, how they rise within us and propel us into action, and how not to allow ourselves to be flooded, behaving badly as a result. Emotion should be a guide, another source of information, not a decision-maker. I think most bad behaviour is based on emotionally-fuelled reaction.

Unacceptable is another matter, though. In terms of social conventions, there are still a good many elements of my life that are unacceptable. In many ways the book, Kissing the Hag, is about understanding the distinctions between social rules, human woman nature, honourable interaction and disrespectful actions. The lines can be fine at times.

Of all the ancient places you have visited, do you have a favourite?

The places that inspire me most are those where human impact is minimal or absent. Being in the Amazon rainforest, with untouched forest for many hundreds of miles in every direction, was a formative experience. Of human-made ancient places, as I pause to consider an answer, dozens of images and memories slip into my conscious mind, of many places across Britain: chanting in trance through the night at West Kennett Long Barrow, at Stonehenge, at Rollright, at standing stones in Dartmoor, glorious moments, and so many of them. Then there are places rich with history where I have spent time around the world, ancient Shinto shrines in Japan, Mayan temples in Guatemala. I have no favourite, just a fat pocketful of memories.

What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you during a ritual? (That you are willing to share).

Your parenthesis helps me answer, because most ritual is private and to share stories would be to break confidences. Having said that, the elements of ritual that I have most enjoyed for the unexpected have mainly been moments of divine presence. I’m sure most of your readers will have experience of ritual where gods are invoked, and nothing happens. In most open ritual the prayers are of appreciation not invitation, and there are many whose prayers of invitation are never answered.

I recall being at Stonehenge at a Christian Pagan Druid ceremony.  I had brought with me two friends, a Druid who worked with the dark gods of the Welsh tradition, and an evangelical Christian. It was delicious to feel their invocations, both empowered by utter devotion and sincerity. To stand in that old temple with Yahweh and Ceridwen was rather cool. Not so cool was the conference, the organisers of which I will not disclose, where a roomful of people were asked to invoke their own particular deities to bless some aspect of the event. Most people called out their liturgy, then sat down in ignorance, but some invoked their gods effectively as if it were an almighty contest of strength.  The room was suddenly seething with gods of every era and pantheon, most of whom had no desire for peace. I left, along with a fair few others.

The strangest, however, was perhaps a public rite held in the middle of a large English city. I had been asked to create an opening rite for an event that was to showcase different kinds of Paganism.  Not knowing many in the crowd, I was guided by locals, and found four different groups, each of whom would honour a cardinal direction. I don’t recall the details, but I seem to remember that there were fairly traditional Wiccans to honour the west, sturdy great Asatru to honour the north, a shamanic band in feathers and fur to honour the south, and in the east a group who followed Star Trek. I shrugged and agreed, keen not to offend the locals. There were a few hundred at the rite, and there was an awkward moment when the police, who were roaming the perimeter, were somewhat unsettled by the well-armed Heathens assuring their gods of their commitment to feasting and fornicating. What unsettled me, though, were the Trekkies. They made their prayers in Klingon, and they had more of a magical vibrational response that any of the others. I might emphasise that I had requested no one invoke anything, but simply honour with appreciation. I don’t know what these silver-painted folk said, but they called upon something, and that something arrived.

There are so many stories, and many are far more strange than amusing. There was drumming up power at a concrete Stonehenge replica on the Columbia River gorge in Washington, there was an event with Brian Blessed and a helicopter, there was Blackpool - but the Klingon always makes me smile.

Are you still involved in organising festivals? Have you noticed any difference in the types of people attending over the years, or has the community stayed fairly steady?

No, I no longer organise festivals, nor do I attend many. My journey has taken me from those huge people-full gatherings to quieter paths of service. However, from what I have attended, and news I hear from others, it seems a key difference is that there were many more youngsters in years gone by.  It seems that those who were young have grown and remained faithful, but there is no longer such an inflow of new youth coming into the traditions as there was. Where are they? Playing make-believe on the internet, perhaps. I think the truth is that most come into spiritual and religious traditions for the community, not the mystery. The mystery requires hard work, commitment, devotion, and that means the ordinary things of life are set aside. Few are willing or able to make the necessary sacrifices. The majority who came to gatherings, festivals, public rituals and gorseddau, came to be with other like-minded souls, to share all the fun of the fair within a magical Pagan context – they didn’t come for the intense ecstasy of mind-blowing communion with the gods. Young folk now get their community online, and those that want it can find the magical element in games written with those realities. Who knows, perhaps the would-be priests amongst them are finding their divine encounters in digital ways that I am not versed in.

No doubt, when this younger generation are in their fifties and sixties, they will be wondering what on earth their children are doing...

In the Philosophy section of your website, you talk about ‘wakeful respect without prejudice or assumption.’ Are you particularly engaged with politics in Britain at the moment? Do you have any thoughts on the current climate which seems to favour disrespect and prejudice towards others? Is this a storm we will weather, or a sign of something deeper and harder to remedy?

Politics is a fascinating aspect of human nature, of human culture.  Politics entered into my awareness in the mid 1970s, having been brought up in fascist Spain, coming to England as punk exploded, developing a strong socialist belief, which in turn has gently fragmented into a co-operative anarchism. What troubles me most is bullying. It seems to me that there is a tide rising once again.  The US has just voted in a capitalist thug as president, Russia is led by another capitalist bully. Such thugs run pharmaceutical, energy, media, financial and other vast corporations. Broad human society is captivated by its various screens. People witness such bullying in factual and fictional stories, day by day in a thousand contexts: in the news, on social media, in movies and TV shows. It becomes increasingly more normal to bully.  It becomes easier to bully.  It becomes common. It becomes OK.  And it becomes OK for the victim to respond by becoming the bully themselves.

The question is, how should one face a bully?  How can we honourably respond to someone who expresses their own fears and a consequent need for power by stirring up fear, anger and hatred in others? How can we communicate with someone unwilling to listen or reason? It is often easier to give in, just adapt, bruised and disempowered but still alive.  The reasoned path of peaceful resistance can be far harder.

We know that Asterix was a big influence as a child, but what have been the three most important books, or authors, in your adult life?

It is not possible to choose three. I can give you a scattered list of books that come to mind. Books that I have most loved and valued through my life:

Ethics by Spinoza
Ethics by Peter Singer
Walden by Thoreau
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius 
Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu
Confessions by St Augustine
Anarchism by Peter Kropotkin 

Not to mention Kant, Schopenhauer, Seneca, Chomsky, Bergson, David Abram, Whitehead, Mary Midgely, the poetry of Yeats, Emily Bronte and Wordsworth.

If you had a magic pen capable of forming your lost thoughts into a story, what would you like to write about that you haven’t already?


Could you tell us a bit about Honouring the Ancient Dead?

HAD is an organisation that asserts a very clear and simple perspective: that there should be no difference in the way we treat someone who has died whom we have personally known and loved, and someone who died many years ago. Whether a Saxon skull exhumed in a road development, a medieval king searched and found, a body preserved in peat, a box of bones found in a collector’s attic, an ancient thigh bone or urn of ashes, a soldier from 20th century Ypres or 14th century Crecy, whether the individual’s name is known or not, each and every ancestor is no less a person than our own mother, spouse or child. We should treat each with no less respect than we would treat the body and bones of our immediate family, of those we ourselves dearly love. For HAD, that means allowing each person to be laid to rest in peace, and remain at peace.

There are hundreds of thousands of ‘human remains’ in museums and other organisations, boxes of bones with no associated information, bones on display as if they were simply sherds of pottery, skeletons manipulated into poses for gory exhibitions, bones held in store for scientific research for which no funding is ever likely to be found. Of course, there are some who simply don’t care, whose metaphysical standpoint is such that they would be happy for this to happen to someone they love most profoundly. HAD’s remit is not to judge or attack others people's beliefs, but to work for those whose values and interests in the dead accord with its own. From that position, it calls for consultation about ancestors when decisions need to be made. It gives guidance where asked to those whose path brings them into contact with ancestors. It creates best practice guidelines for reburial, for display, for the housing of ancestral bones, and it has what we believe is the most comprehensive current list of ancestors in museums across Britain. Like many charities, its aims far exceed its funding and capacity, but it tries!

What are you working on at the moment?

My day to day work is the creation of a nature reserve and natural burial ground. Like many whose work is with nature, it’s a full-time job, seven days a week, all year through. As a writer, I have spent a year documenting the natural history of the nature reserve; a gentle book of daily observations that will be published online with photographs in time. My hope is that it will be a book that inspires others to notice the moments of beauty, and do more to care for this precious planet.

My next writing adventure, however, is one I’ve been thinking about for some time. A book that follows on from my Pagan ethics, Living With Honour, and my animist metaphysics, The Wakeful World. It explores the politics of human society and religion, how decisions are made and societies formed. Essentially, it is a book about god and anarchy from an animist perspective. However, at the moment, the call of silence is often far stronger, so it may take some time.  

Friday 13 January 2017

New Year Reflections

After posting a link to a New Year autobiography exercise, we invited PWC members to share their own reminiscences of 2016. River Mourningstar answered that call.

And Then, She Stepped Off of the Edge

It was high summer, last year, when my life took a ninety degree turn and I, not expecting it, stepped gleefully over the edge of the sheer cliff face and into free fall. His easy manner and kind eyes tripped me up in the most beautiful manner and I found myself having to trust my all too broken wings.

We had been friends for some time, years.  We enjoyed each other’s company tremendously, but life never allowed us to have time alone, until that point. He believes in being a gentleman. He believes life is to be explored.  He believes the unknown should become the known. He believes to be fully human is to live fully. He believes that he is not human, but other.

The two of us, coming together, two halves of a whole, yet complete unto ourselves created ripples in the aether.  Without a word spoken, we know what the other needs. Without a painful word, we know what the other thinks.  We came together last summer, two children of the night, recognizing in the other that kindred spirit.

Our hearts had been shattered by others.  Our souls splintered and afraid of what was to come.  Our bad days outnumbered our good days. Our lives were full of people, yet we stood on the periphery, watching, listening. Individually, we stood and looked at those we loved and admired and we looked at those who loved and admired us.  We couldn’t understand why.  We couldn’t understand why they loved us, why they insisted upon being in our company. As individuals, we could see and feel just how different we were from them, but we wanted to belong. We wanted the friendship. We wanted the camaraderie. We wanted to be seen and appreciated for who and what we were.

It wasn’t until our coming together did we understand that what makes us different also makes us a beacon for others.  It wasn’t until our coming together did we understand that we do not, necessarily, need those around us, at least no in the same way that they seem to need us.

Our romance was whirlwind.  In two months, we spent nearly every spare moment together.  We gave to each other the things we knew, instinctively, the other needed. He brought me gifts unlike any I’d ever received: incense, robes, a sword. I gifted him body jewelry and (my pride as a southern woman) hearty, home cooked meals. We shared knowledge we had gained on our individual spiritual paths. We opened up latent gifts within each other.

As children of the night, we peered curiously into each others abyss. We gazed into that darkness, always the same, yet different, and embraced it. We looked into each others oft tortured souls and acknowledged the pain and hurt there, soothed it with the balm we each so terribly needed. Without judgment, we opened ourselves to each other.

In another month, we began planning a wedding. A month after that, we wed.  In less than six months time we realized that each other was what our life had been missing.

Becoming the Sacred Fool, stepping over the edge of the cliff, has opened a great many doors. The only trouble now has become deciding which door to walk through.  No matter the shadows, no matter the light, no matter the obstacle, we work as a team. Life is not easy by any means, but it is easier because we work together.

I let my demons out to play with his and they began a dark and macabre dance. He and I reveled in their joy. We reveled in their happiness. We reveled in their bloodletting. We still do. We stand in awe of each other, flanked by our demons, accepting each other for who we are. Oh, we still butt heads. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. Yet, when our demons decide to not play nicely together, we manage to find a way to tame them.

The last year of my life, 2016, did not even begin until June. My own eyes were closed to life and living until that moment. It was only when my darkness touched a kindred dark did I begin to see.  When I began to see became the moment I began to live again. It took another child of the night to remind me that sometimes we must waltz with the shadows to be fully awake.


River Mourningstar is a writer, wife, and Priestess of the Craft, among other things. She has been writing most of her life because the people in her head just won't shut up. She tends to be a jack of all trades, prankster, and a mystery to those who meet her. She lives in the Midwestern US with her husband, cat, and an aquarium of aquatic oddities. You can find her on her blogs Waltzing with Shadows and Ramblings of a Confused Muse, and on Facebook.