Towards a Companie of Aradia

Title page of Aradia by Charles Leland, 1899

A couple of years ago, and with an impeccable sense of timing – just a few weeks before we were struck by a global pandemic – I was inspired with an idea that I named “the Companie of Aradia” (for reasons that I hope will become clear, below). Through lockdowns and social distancing, the concept has had to remain on ice. But now that Bojo the Buffoon and his Clown Car Cabinet have decided that covid is over (it really isn’t), perhaps it is time to take a delayed project or two out of cold storage. This is my first real attempt to give some detail on what the Companie of Aradia is intended to be, and to be for; and to begin outlining a process that hopefully makes it all possible.

Way back in ancient history, otherwise known as 1992, I conceived the idea that eventually became Wolf’s Head & Vixen Morris. WH&V has evolved and changed somewhat over the years, so it’s worth restating the original intention; I wanted to create a group that would be explicitly Pagan, and that would be committed to ritual performance. And that, really, sums up part of the intention behind the Companie of Aradia. The concept is for a group that defines itself as Pagan, that develops and performs ritual actions – using techniques derived from theatre, dance and performance art (for instance, but not limited to those) along with specifically magical arts – often in predominantly public spaces, and often with wider community engagement.

But why Aradia?

Charles Leland’s 1899 book Aradia: Gospel of the Witches is among the roots of the modern neo-Pagan revival. One of the (allegedly) ancient folk tales that Leland includes in the book – an exploration of a (again, allegedly) surviving tradition of pagan witchcraft in rural Tuscany – tells the story of Aradia as “the Beautiful Pilgrim”. I won’t expend a lot of words to paraphrase the story here; long out of copyright, it’s easy enough to find a copy of Aradia: Gospel of the Witches on the internet, these days. But it does define Aradia as a rebel against the establishment of Church and State, and a leader both in symbol and in practice of the lower classes in defiance and rebellion against oppression.

Over the past few years, Aradia has been making her presence felt once more among the Pagan community. She has, in fact, become a bit of a trend. There’s a book that draws on her as an inspiration, The New Aradia, and a social media hashtag #wearearadia that might, just might, gain enough momentum to develop into a movement-within-a-movement. Because this freshly woken Aradia is very much tied into the movement demanding action on climate change, and for social justice. She is a figurehead of sorts for magick-as-activism, and for witchcraft as a radical, counter-cultural, liberatory commitment.

The Companie of Aradia is conceived as being very much a part of that movement. It would be engaging in ritual actions with radical purpose. For example, linking into campaigns for action on climate change, against despotism and war, against bigotry and discrimination, for community and solidarity.

There’s a fine tradition of such magical work in the Pagan community. We could arguably regard the legendary “magical Battle of Britain” (described by Dion Fortune in her book of that title) as a part of it, along with the “political ritual” that was central to the activity of Paganlink in the 1980s, and also the Reclaiming Tradition. In a world increasingly threatened by catastrophes, from war to genocide and extreme weather events, that’s a thread that needs to be taken up once more in our hands.

The question that obviously arises is one of appropriate training or preparation. In order to be effective, the Companie of Aradia would need people who not only hold Pagan beliefs and a certain level of training in magical practices, but alongside that a range of creative skills and talents from storytelling to costume-making. That’s a tall order, really. The key, I think, is to regard the Companie as a group in development – and perhaps the development will never be finished, as such – and to consider training as an ongoing process integral to the group’s internal life.

That’s been true of WH&V, through all the years of the Morris side’s existence. The weekly practice evenings have always been about creating a spirit of community and solidarity within the group, as much as they’ve been about learning the dances. And if that spirit can’t be built within the prospective Companie of Aradia, we won’t be able to project it into our communities and into the wider world.

So anyway, that’s the basic outline. And this is, in effect, the first real call for people to get in touch if interested in being part of such a project, and especially if local enough to me (in Kent, and possibly in London) to make the connection practical. It might take a little time to develop. But no worries, it’s taken two years to come this far…

“What do you do?”

It’s a question that comes up quite often. It’s been asked frequently of me, by potential employers, by friends, by my joyously inquisitive grandchildren. Like most people in a society that defines us by a recognisable job title, and most often in terms of what we produce, I tend to blurt out the quick and easy response. I’m a writer, a storyteller, an artist, an adult education tutor – see, here’s the evidence, a list of my books, a photograph I took of a painting…

The trouble is that such an answer is inadequate. Of course it is. Capitalism in the era of mass production functions through the division of labour, which might be all very well when making pins or motor cars, for the production of things, but it’s less useful when we’re trying to understand other processes. Even on my own website, I’ve ended up trying to explain myself by breaking myself down into component parts – writer, storyteller, dancer, martial artist, whatever – which might be necessary and functional but is at the same time dehumanising. Even at its best, it’s a rough form of curation, a narrative that leaves out at least as much as it includes. We are more than the sum of our parts.

A memory that I keep going back to, and that in a sense has helped define my path for the past thirty years, is of a one-day conference on storytelling that was organised by South East Arts in, I think, 1993. Unfortunately I can’t recall the name of the South Asian storyteller who talked of the sutradhar; in her telling of it, a person who blended the roles of storyteller, poet, counsellor, healer, local historian, expert on myth and folklore, sorcerer, and much else besides. I don’t remember much else from the day, if I’m honest (aside from a friend’s pithy observation that, “The definition of a fool is a storyteller who believes their own publicity”). I’ve looked the term up on Google, and nothing there confirms what was said – the sutradhar being described variously as a particular Hindu caste associated with carpentry, a stage manager and narrator in the traditional Indian theatre, even an “anchor person” like a team captain or news presenter.

It seems that the word itself derives from Sanskrit roots, sutra meaning a thread and dhar with the meaning of holding or wielding. We could perhaps translate sutradhar, then, as “weaver of threads”; and that brings us close to the meaning I think that South Asian storyteller had in mind when she spoke of the term.

And that is what I aim for in “what I do”. Yes, I could write out a (long) list of arts and skills and knowledge that form individual threads within the whole. Surrealist, poet, writer of fiction and non-fiction, diarist, painter, collagist, performance artist, storyteller in the oral tradition, ritualist, Witch, storyteller, martial artist, revolutionary socialist, Reiki “Master”, dancer, counsellor, community organiser, blah blah blah.

But such a list, however complete it might be made, only conceals at the same time as it informs. It would be more accurate to say, “I am a weaver of threads, and I am walking a path that has no destination”. Make of that whatever you will.

New Creative Writing course

It’s taken a while but at long last here are the details of the new Creative Writing course that’s due to begin at Rochester Adult Education Centre, in October. One reason for the delay is that we’ve been so careful ensuring that classes can take place safely at a time when the coronavirus pandemic remains a serious concern. All appropriate measures have been put in place, including a significant reduction in maximum class numbers, to safeguard everyone’s health and safety. The Creative Writing classes are being strictly limited to just 10 participants at most, so it’s quite possible that spaces will run out quickly. I’d recommend enrolling as soon as possible, if you’re thinking of enrolling at all.

If you’re unsure about the value of these classes…I’ve been teaching them for the past 20 years, and many past learners have gone on from the course to be published writers, to edit magazines and to win awards.

The entire Creative Writing course lasts a full academic year, but it’s divided into three parts, each of which can be taken as a “standalone” course so you don’t have to commit to the whole year at once. They’re all open for enrolment (and, most importantly, the payment!) individually so if you do want to carry on beyond Creative Writing 1 it means that you won’t need to make any sort of commitment to the second part until mid-January at the earliest.

Details are:

Creative Writing 1. Course code Q000110A.

11 Monday evening sessions (with break for the winter holidays, obviously). 7pm till 9pm each session, from 12th October 2020 until 11th January 2021 . Full price is £113, but concessions are available.

Enrol online at https://ebsontrackprospect-medway.tribal-ebs.com/Page/Prospectus_CourseOverview?uio_id=7848 or by phone 01634 338400.

Walking the path

This week’s practical exercise requires physical movement. While we’re in lockdown conditions thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, you’ll most likely need to fit it into your period of daily exercise, so you may find that you have to perform the exercise in a park or similar space if you can’t easily escape into the open countryside. This would be true in any case for a lot of people living in an urban environment, so the exercise is made flexible enough to allow for that. You should be able to work through it without looking too eccentric to bystanders – which is a useful skill to have even in normal times, of course!

Also, to get the best from this, make sure you’ve gone through the earlier “Stepping onto the path” exercise at least once, as that will help to open up your Inner senses.

You’ll need to find an actual path, perhaps a footpath out in the countryside, that you can follow. If the path happens to follow the course of an ancient trackway, then so much the better. But that isn’t essential. You can work this exercise on any path that feels right to you. It’s important to start listening to your intuitions and emotional responses.

Once at your chosen path, begin to walk. It doesn’t really matter which way you go. But as you walk, begin to observe your physical surroundings. Try to reach out with your mind to the natural world around you. Can you seem to sense anything from the trees, the plants, the wildlife nearby?

See the natural contours all around you, the physical contours of the Land, and consider them as contours of the body of the Earth Goddess. Think on this, on its implications. Consider the contours of your own body. How do they feel to you? How do you feel about your own physical nature? How are such feelings reflected in your approach to the natural environment?

Try experimenting with different ways of moving. For instance, how does your movement alter when you make your body more tense? When you make your body more relaxed?

After a while, try to imagine that your nose is closer to the earth than it is to the sky (don’t actually lower your head, simply imagine). How does this affect your perceptions? What can you see? Hear? Smell? How do you feel about yourself? About your surroundings? What is your movement like? Visualise meeting somebody else on the path; what do you feel about them? Imagine that person offers you a gift; how do you feel about this?

Now change attitude. Imagine that your nose is closer to the sky than it is to the earth (again, don’t physically raise your head in the process). Ask yourself the same questions as before. Be aware of any differences in your answers, and in your feelings. What might be the implications of all this, for you?

If possible, find a good place to pause for a while, somewhere that feels peaceful and comfortable for you. Sit down on the earth if you can; under current circumstances this might be difficult, so you may prefer to make this the beginning of a separate exercise in a private space such as your own garden. Place both hands, palms down, flat on the earth to your sides. Close your eyes, let your body and your mind relax. Feel the earth; its texture, its consistency, its temperature, its stability. Reach deeper with your mind, seeking the pulse that beats under the earth’s skin.

Let your mind, your Inner perceptions, search through the layers of the earth beneath you until you find that pulse. Feel it vibrate through the earth. Feel it vibrate through your own body. What effect does this have on your breathing, and on your sense of your own internal rhythms?

When ready, open your eyes, stand up and resume walking. Be aware of your connection to the earth through your feet. See if you can expand that awareness of connection so that you feel it with your entire body, as if the entire surface of your skin is in direct contact with the Land.

When you’ve walked far enough, return and  make notes of anything you’ve experienced during this exercise.

Wolf’s Head, Vixen, and me

I didn’t set out to be a Morris dancer. For a start, when I was growing up, men never danced unless at weddings, and then badly. Traditions in this country, too, were meant to be all pomp and circumstance, the Queen and the Last Night of the Proms, that kind of thing. Certainly not a bunch of middle-aged blokes, bearded and beer-bellied, prancing around with hankies and dainty jingling bells. Morris dancing was both obscure and ridiculous, and definitely, absolutely, not something I would ever do.

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At least, that was the case until I met them. “Them” being Long Barrow and the Lost Women, a group of Morris dancers swathed in black, wielding big sticks instead of hankies and dancing with a primeval energy that could send a shiver up the spine. From the first day I saw them dance, I knew I was going to be one of them.

As fate would have it, I was a member of Long Barrow Morris for little more than a year, and then we broke up. Long story, and a matter of external pressures rather than any rift in the group, but brief as the experience was it served as a crucial apprenticeship in the mysteries of the Morris.

I spent the next year or so researching, studying, imagining. Where had the Morris come from? Where could it go next? What could be added, subtracted, transformed?

Long Barrow had introduced me to a style of traditional dance known as Border Morris. Different forms of Morris dancing are derived from, and known by, their regional roots. The stereotypical hankies-and-bells dances come from the Cotswolds. There is North West Clog. The Border Morris originates from counties strung along the border between England and Wales.

I felt that the future of Morris dancing, its dynamism, lay with the pounding and percussive Border style. I looked in some depth at dance as a form of ritual, as an art with a shamanic element. I explored traditions of masking (or “guising”). I took the Long Barrow dances apart until I understood them as a process of ritual pattern making. I felt that there was a need to break from staid old standards in the repertoire of the Morris and draw on other sources of inspiration as well.

The consequence of all that was, in 1995, the launch of Wolf’s Head Morris. Vixen, our women’s side, came into being very shortly after. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris ranks as one of the most important cultural artefacts to emerge from Medway during the past couple of decades. We’ve performed all over the country, been featured in the Independent on Sunday (which described us as “extraordinary”); we have simultaneously wowed and scared audiences from major festivals to a fashionable London book launch. We are proud of what we are and of where we come from.

I didn’t set out to be a Morris dancer. But I’m glad that I have grown into being one.

First published in Wow Medway, April 2011.

The Night Queen

This short essay was originally published in the Moon Books anthology Naming the Goddess and is republished here with kind permission of the editor and publisher.

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“…the divine is not separate from the beast…” (Lenore Kandel, Hard Core Love).

How should I write of the Night Queen?

She is a fleeting shadow in our dreams, ineffable, touching our world in the darkness, the light of distant stars caught in Her cloak and in Her hair.

How should I write of the Night Queen?

She is a Goddess like no other, and yet She is all Goddesses. She is ecstasy. She is Rapture. She is the creative essence of all that has been, that is, that will be.

How should I write of the Night Queen?

She is.

The Goddess known simply as the Night Queen is at the heart of a little-known method of sex magic called, at least in modern times, Amg Ada. The method was initially developed – reputedly on the foundations of much older material – during the 1960s by Jane Hurley, who was a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine alongside her diverse interests in the occult arts. Others, since, have made a point of stripping away any accretions from Chinese medical practice, and of studying more deeply with the Inner contacts of the Amg Ada system, so that working with it now brings us closer to the original source, to the Night Queen Herself.

Because the Night Queen is Amg Ada. The method uses ritualised sexuality in order to bring the practitioners into direct contact with the Divine, which is manifested through dream and through contact with the Night Queen in the realm of dreams.

Of the Night Queen as a “character”, as an individuated deity, little is written. She may take on many visible forms. It has been said that Her truest form, Her “self” as it were, is as a dark woman with long black hair and jet black eyes. But She is a deity who must be directly experienced, a Goddess who is in a genuine sense a Mystery, and hence She cannot be understood intellectually. Like the experience of sex itself, writing or talking about it, and actually doing and feeling it, are two very different things!

This experiential nature of the Night Queen is reflected in the practice of Amg Ada’s rites, in which the use of normal language is considered a breach of sacred space, and ritual communication must be by way of various chants, physical gestures, the physical senses and the intuition of the participants.

How should I write of the Night Queen?

She is not of the classic trinity of Goddesses, She is not the Maiden, She is not the Mother, She is not the Crone. Yet She is all of them.

How should I write of the Night Queen?

She is the Goddess of desire and lust and pleasure. She knows and nurtures the divine animal that is restless within each and every one of us.

How should I write of the Night Queen?

As a poet, for as with poetry Her innermost truths are hidden and not hidden, in the spaces between the words.

Perhaps the most powerful insights into Her true nature are contained in a lengthy series of poetic verses that have been preserved within the Amg Ada corpus. Attributed to one of the Night Queen’s known, otherworldly and discarnate, attendants, The Songs of Volvizia constitute both praise and wisdom teaching.

They can function as a set of keys, for those whose desire may lead them to the very outermost gates of the Night Queen’s realm. They may work as the seeds of meditation, and as pathways that can be followed in the creative imagination.

 

Perhaps you have heard my footfall in the forests?

I sing among the alders and the may.

The Chant of Spring!

The Chant of Spring lives within the rocks, the soil.

The murmuring forests of the Dark Age.

Distant abandon!

The cry of a broken mare!

You have heard me, yes?

You understood?

Many men have heard my song but who in his heart

sings the song of Spring as the rocks and soil?

There are inner songs.

Songs from the inside of Being.

Caught in the Rapture of Being!

 

A thousand years ago a temple stood, or the memory of a temple, a temple of flesh, a temple of light, a temple of dreams, a temple filled with violent sobbing, filled with anguish, filled with ecstasy, purple robes, white robes, scintillating shadows crossing between you and I. A thousand years before a thousand years ago, in a memory, in a hushed whisper in the winds, she stood here, standing naked, crying, making signs of lust and wonder.

 

There is an ancient path for us to follow,

into the lost worlds,

worlds forgotten,

worlds condemned.

We are together there forever.

In my dreams I meet you there.

On a cliff.

I undress for you.

On the edge of an abyss.

(lines excerpted from The Songs of Volvizia).

Take a breath

A week ago I posted a Back to Basics that highlighted six essential skill areas for the esoteric practitioner to work on. There’s a seventh area that is just as fundamental, but that I didn’t include with them because I feel it needs the emphasis of a separate post all to itself. And it’s something not only essential to magic, but to life itself – the breath.

Breathing is something we generally take for granted. After all, most people don’t think about it – they don’t need to, it’s a natural function – unless and until they have some kind of health issue, like asthma or, horribly at this present time, Covid-19. Yet specific breathing techniques, a degree of training in breathwork as a magical practice, should be part of every esoteric student’s foundation.

This is an understanding that crosses cultural boundaries. It’s central in traditions originating from China and Japan as the life energy of qi (most often Anglicised as ki from the Japanese), in yoga as prana, and to the Polynesians as mana. It’s also a key part of the formal training in most Western mystery schools. One reason why I’m devoting a whole blog post to it is that it’s a vast area of study, and even in this way I can only skim over the surface lightly.

In my Tradition (in common with some others, for instance the Feri/Reclaiming lineages), the act of intentional breathwork is central to certain kinds of working. It’s also a vital part of training for serious trancework. So I can’t really understate the importance of breathwork for the serious student. What I’ll give here, this week, are a couple of very basic exercises that you can work with, just as an introduction. I’ll also add a couple of book titles at the end that I can recommend for anyone who wants to explore further.

Exercise 1

“The men of old breathed clear down to their heels.” Chuang Tzu.

Begin by sitting comfortably. You can sit on the floor cross-legged, or in a straight-backed chair if you prefer, as a preference but as long as you can maintain a straight yet relaxed spine (don’t sit stiffly!) it will be fine. Make sure that you are not constricted around your waist and belly by belts, tight waistbands, etc. You might want to actually loosen some clothes for this exercise, so bear that in mind if you’re in a public place! Locate your lower tan t’ien energy centre about three fingers’ width below your navel. Put one or both hands over that point. Place the tip of your tongue against your upper palate, just slightly behind your top teeth, to connect up the meridian circuits.

Now, breathe in deeply through your nose, using the tan t’ien to press out so that you feel the pressure of the breath build in your belly with enough strength to push your hand(s). Breathe in like this for a count of four. Hold the breath for another count of four. And reverse the process, pulling the tan t’ien (not your hands!) back in, to push the breath out through your mouth with a very slight hissing sound on a further count of four. The out breath should feel as if it empties your lungs. Hold in that state for a count of four again. And then repeat the cycle, as many times as you feel able.

Once you’re familiar enough with this breathing pattern to use it without thinking too much about it, try varying it by performing the exercise while standing, and while lying down. Assess how the breathing pattern has an effect on you physically, mentally and emotionally. Do you feel calmer, more relaxed, more tense? Be sure to take notes!

Exercise 2

Once you feel reasonably comfortable with that first exercise, we can add further aspects to the process. This second exercise is meant specifically as an attunement to the element of Earth.

Begin as with Exercise 1. Be sure to keep your tongue up. Breathe using the tan t’ien. This time, however, breathe in through the nose for a count of eight, and without holding it in you immediately breathe back out again through your mouth also on a count of eight. Again, don’t hold your breath, repeat the in breath straight away. And keep this cycle repeating as long as you feel able.

As you breathe, imagine your body interior is a cave, into which the breath rushes, and then emerges from. Close your eyes. Imagine you are sitting on the very peak of a mountain, a peak so narrow that your legs dangle over the sides, as if you were riding a horse. Feel the way your inner thighs are gripped by the solid power of the mountain, feel your lower body rooted as if it is part of the mountain, strong and immovable.

This is a good, practical breathing technique to reinforce feelings of calm and stability, whenever you need those qualities.

Further reading

Eric Franklin, Breathing for Peak Performance. While the cover of this short book suggests it’s aimed at practitioners of dance, yoga and Pilates, this is an excellent short introductory text on breathwork; and also teaches the use of imagery to support the physical exercises.

Tylluan Penry, Magic on the Breath. An excellent introduction to breathwork as magic. Don’t be misled by the author’s homely, easy-to-read style; the techniques here can be taken to quite an advanced level.

Laverna

This short essay was originally published in the Moon Books anthology Naming the Goddess and is republished here with kind permission of the editor and publisher.

Etruscan

The trickster is a character who seems to appear within every culture and every pantheon. Whether Loki, Gwydion, Coyote, Mr. Fox, Ananse or Brer Rabbit, these tricksters generally play a catalytic role within mythic and folk traditions, acting as a kind of fulcrum around which change takes place.

The Goddess wears many disguises, and it’s no surprise to find her appearing, too, as just such a trickster. The tale of Laverna, an obscure Roman goddess of thieves, is recounted in Leland’s Aradia, considered to be one of the primary sources for the modern Witchcraft revival.

In the story, Laverna disguised herself as the priestess of some Goddess or other, then approached a priest, offering to buy an estate from him in order to build a new temple on it. She swore upon her own body that she would pay him in full for the land within a year. With that assurance, the priest transferred the land into her ownership.

Within a very short space of time, Laverna had sold off everything. Crops, cattle, poultry, timber, the buildings, the whole lot, until there was nothing left that was worth even a couple of sesterces.

However, a year having passed, and the day for Laverna to hold true to her promise and pay the priest for his land having come around, she was nowhere to be found.

At the same time as she perpetrated that fraud, Laverna also went to a great nobleman and played much the same trick, swearing upon her own head that she would pay him in full within six months. Of course when the payment was due, and Laverna having sold off every stick and stone of the noble’s former estate for profit, she had disappeared.

Both the priest and the nobleman, realising they had been cheated, appealed to the Gods for help.

When the assembled Gods demanded to know why Laverna had broken her oath to the priest, having sworn on her own body, she made her body disappear leaving only her head visible, saying, “Behold, I have no body!” And when they put to her that she had broken an oath upon her own head, in the case of the nobleman, she made her head disappear so that only her body remained, saying, “Behold, I have no head!”

Consequently Jupiter himself appointed her, from then onward, as the patroness of all rogues, whether thieves or dishonest tradesmen.

Laverna is thus represented as a mistress of cunning, a deceiver, and an immoral twister of words. But I suspect that the real Laverna is even darker, much darker. She probably originated as an Etruscan goddess of the Underworld. The Romans, linking Underworld darkness with furtiveness and thieves, adopted and adapted her when they came to overwhelm and absorb the Etruscan culture. We know little else for certain about her place in the Roman pantheon, other than that there was apparently a shrine dedicated to her on the Aventine Hill in Rome, close to the Porta Lavernalis (Gate of Laverna); and that she also had a sacred grove on the Via Saleria, a highway that linked Rome to the Adriatic coast.

What’s left to us beyond this is speculation, at least so far as the historical picture of Laverna can be drawn. But we can perhaps sketch out some general outlines for her continued role and relevance.

Relevance, because the truth is that life can be harsh, and even cruel. It often seems as though the Otherworld is playing tricks upon we mere mortals, tormenting us and deceiving us. The Lady of Thieves reflects these unpleasant realities in her own nature.

Yet there are situations – particularly, situations where the demands of survival may override questions of abstract morality – when particular aspects of the trickster and the thief, such as the capacities for deception and camouflage, are both useful and appropriate. Even thieving itself can be justifiable. For example, if the only way you could feed your children were to steal food for them, would that be wrong? Was it immoral for the Robin Hood of folklore to steal from the rich in order to give to the poor? Is it wrong to steal the dangerous and revealing secrets of the powerful?

At the same time, and as importantly, Laverna is among those Goddesses who may set obstacles and challenges on the Path, and one who teaches the vital lesson that everything has its price, even (or especially) when it comes to relationships with Goddesses. For instance, if Her assistance is sought for some nefarious venture, She will always demand Her cut of any ill-gotten gains. She may also lay traps, trip us up in the shadows, or play any number of devious, and even downright malicious, tricks to divert and confuse the unwary, the foolish and the naïve.

In the end, Laverna’s characteristics, and her roles, however uncomfortable at times, are born out of necessity. The Goddess of Thieves, with all her deceptions, is an equal and essential player alongside the maidens and mothers in Goddess traditions.

The influence of New Age “philosophies” on modern Paganism has tended to obscure the influence of darker powers alongside the Light. The consequence is often a tipping of the balance to a point that the spiritual path is perceived as being always a gentle, easy and straightforward one. In fact, it can also be challenging, testing, fierce and even cruel. There are Goddesses (and Gods) who will set the tests and demand real sacrifices.

This is vital. On any spiritual path, and most especially on one that is simultaneously a path of magical practice, our real progress and growth is measurable largely in the capacity to pass the challenges that are set before us. The easy parts of the journey are not the most important.

Back to basics

It’s merely a brief and quite sketchy post, this Monday, but it’s quite an important one; for anyone who is actually following the practical exercises that I’m publishing here, at any rate. One issue that has cropped up is – to put it rather bluntly – the lack of basic training among swathes of contemporary pagans. I received a number of comments, following last Monday’s exercise, that some people “didn’t know how to get into it”, or had trouble focusing, or felt anxiety about the safety of working with even a simple pathworking. And so on.

So let’s rewind a little, for the time being, and take a glance at some areas of basic training for anyone who wants to seriously undertake any sort of Inner work. I won’t cover these in detail, here, partly because I think most of them really need some degree of face-to-face teaching, but also partly because (if I’m honest) I’m having a busy day. I will try to cover each area in more depth, at a later point, and to include some actual techniques and practices for folk to work with. Also, some references for further reading and research.

An important point to bear in mind, by the way, is that these are not things to do once and then tick off from a list. Think of the expert concert pianist who can play fantastically difficult pieces, but every day sits at the piano and practises the basic scales. The practitioner of esoteric skills has to maintain a similar attitude with these fundamental building blocks. There are no safe shortcuts! Anyway…

Relaxation. There’s a mantra, of sorts, that is worth memorising. All genuine magic is embodied. That has several layers of meaning, but for current purposes we can take it as stating that all magical work begins from the physical body, rather than from some airy-fairy realm of “the spirit”. Physical tension inhibits the flow of energy, or qi; it also has an inhibiting effect on the mind and the imagination, because we are an organic totality of mind-body. The way human bodies function means that there is always a degree of trade-off, or ideally of balance, between tension and relaxation. Too tense and you seize up, too relaxed and you fall down. There are a lot of relaxation techniques that work to develop that balance. Personally, I’m very keen on the Feldenkrais method, but different approaches work best for different individuals. Probably the best-known technique is to tighten then relax each group of muscles in turn (starting from the toes and working slowly up to the scalp), but it’s worth researching and experimenting to find the methods that work best for you. The more seriously interested will find it valuable to study the methods used in modern dance.

Meditation. There’s more than one type of meditation. And the magical practitioner needs to work on three, primarily. First, the mind-clearing form, or zazen. Second, the meditation that concentrates on a specific image, word or perhaps phrase to open up its symbolism and deeper meanings. Third, the form of meditation that could be thought of as a kind of focused thinking, concentrating the mind on a question or statement in order to unravel it.

Centring. The techniques of focusing the mind-body, and then of bringing the focus to your own centre. Effective magic requires concentration of the mind and the will, and we can’t manage that if our thoughts are scattered in all directions.

Grounding. This could be summed up as “connection to the earth”. Simple techniques that improve our stability and avoid the danger of “qi burning”.

Shielding. Basic protection magic. Yes, there is some degree of danger involved in much magical work, but it’s like DIY (aka home improvement to my readers in the US). During the lockdown there’s been a significant rise in cases of eye injury being treated at hospital A&E departments, due to people not wearing eye protection while drilling holes or whatever. All they had to do to avoid that was to wear safety goggles. Shielding is rather similar. We’re not talking about “defence against the dark arts” Potteresque dramatics, here, but simple precautions. Magical safety goggles, in a sense.

Visualisation. Which is a misleading term really, as what we’re trying to achieve is the engagement of all the senses in the process of using our creative imagination.

As I mentioned earlier, over the next few weeks I’ll try to cover these subjects in more detail and include practical exercises for each of them. I also have a few essays I want to publish here, so I may end up with more than the one post a week!

Stepping onto the path

This week’s exercise is a pathworking – that term has a particular history, but without delving into that for now it’s easy enough to think of it simply as a form of guided meditation. As with the ‘Blossom in the Spring’ meditation last week, you may find it best to have someone read out the text for you, or perhaps record it and play it back, at least for the first few sessions in which you work this, until the imagery is familiar enough that you can do it without aid. There is a second part to this exercise, which I’ll post here in a couple of weeks’ time, when everyone has had a chance to work with this first instalment.

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Sit comfortably. The best place is in a straight-backed chair in which you can sit without slumping. Your spine should be as straight as possible but your body relaxed, your head in a balanced and centred position. Rest your hands, palms down, on your thighs.

Take four deep breaths through your nose, and settle.

Rest the tip of your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth, just behind your upper teeth. This connects the energy meridians that run up the length of your spine and down the front of your torso, making a circuit. Close your eyes. Now take four deep breaths – inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth making a very slight hissing sound. Then breathe naturally.

In your mind’s eye, you see in front of you a door, set into a high wall. Imagine yourself standing up from your chair and walking towards the door, which swings silently open as you approach it. Through the opening, you see a landscape of fields and woodlands. You step over the threshold into that landscape, and the door closes softly behind you.

Ahead of you, a path runs between two hedgerows. You walk forward on this path. There’s a slight autumnal chill in the air, although the sky is clear and blue, and there is still some warmth in the sunlight. There are some smaller species of tree here and there along the hedges – hawthorns with their red berries, blackthorns with ripe purple sloes hanging from their branches – and you can see blackberries where brambles have tangled through the branches. There is the sound of birdsong nearby, and occasionally a rustling in the hedges as some small animal scurries on its way.

The path begins to slope upwards a little. It’s a gentle climb, but as you go further the hedgerow on your right comes to an end, revealing open meadows and a slope down into a valley. There are patches of woodland and you see the silver ribbon of a river weaving along the valley floor.

As you reach the top of the slope, you find yourself entering a stand of trees, formed into a natural circle. In the centre of this circle, there is a low grassy mound. You feel drawn towards it, and walk across to make the easy climb up the side of it and stand on the mound to look around. If you face back the way you have come, you can see that the sun is high in the sky above the path you have followed, and knowing that it is midday you realise that the valley is to your east.

Take a few minutes to orientate yourself. Face south, then west, then north; see what lies in each direction. Then turn and look the east. Your view is framed by two birch trees, silvery in the sunlight and their hundreds of small leaves turned yellow like parchment. Some have fallen already to carpet the earth beneath them. Gazing between these trees, you can see that directly opposite you, on the other side of the valley, the land rises abruptly to the wooded summit of a high, steep hill. You can see the shapes of large grey stones there, in the distance.

Quietly, in your mind, ask if you are permitted to come here again in future, and to explore this place, this side of the valley, further. Whether or not you feel that the answer is “yes”, give your thanks to the other beings who belong here, as you realise it is time for you to return to your own world for now.

Walk down from the grassy mound, through the ring of trees, and head back down the path between the hedgerows. When you come back to the high wall, the door set into it swings open silently, and beyond it you can see your own room and your chair waiting for you. Step across the threshold, be aware that the door has closed firmly again, and sit down on the chair.

Take four deep breaths – inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth making a very slight hissing sound. Then breathe naturally. Open your eyes, and take a few moments to adjust back to the world around you.

Make a hot drink and something light to eat, like a biscuit. Write up your notes about what you have experienced on the path today.