Saturday, 11 May 2013

A Witch Abroad

The article below was meant to be published in the Imbolc edition of the Dutch/English Wiccan Rede online magazine. Unfortunately the site was hacked and it only just went back online. It describes some of my experiences with relating to the Land in Ireland, a country that I have only recently adopted as my home.

Follow this link to read the article: A Witch Abroad by Sophia Boann

'As a young witch, I developed a dislike of anything to do with Celtic mysticism. At the time it seemed that anybody who wanted to make a quick buck from Wicca, Paganism or New Age would dub their product ‘authentically Celtic’ and that would then turn it into a sure top-seller.' 

Monday, 25 February 2013

Death Moon

Death moon is upon us now. The Dark Moon started on Sunday February 10th and the Full Moon is on Monday February 25th. The Awakening Moon will begin its cycle on Monday March 11th.

Nature looks bare. The branches of the trees still hold on to their withered and brown leaves or are empty. Nature is at that point of stasis, frozen in time, conveying the dreadful feeling that life will never return and that the Sun will never warm the Earth again. Many people experience an 'energy dip' around this time of the year.

This time period used to be one of the hardest of the year. The last of the food in storage would be about to be eaten now and the cattle that wasn't essential for reproduction and milk in the light half of the year would need to be slaughtered and eaten now. If the harvest of the previous year had been running low there would not have been enough food to spare for everyone, let alone for the animals. First the animals would have died, followed by the Elderly and sick humans. This is also the time of Lent, which used to be a period when the more luxurious foods were restricted - and unavailable to the average citizen.

Death is a difficult subject for many but it is an essential part of the Craft. The Craft centres around the balance that can be found in nature. The balance between Male and Female, but also the balance between Death and Life. Growth, Life and Reproduction are an essential part of Nature and is usually seen as the 'Creative Force'. But like many things, Growth has a hidden dark side that can easily overlooked. Growth in itself is also a destructive force. Cancer in our bodies is an exponent of unbridled growth: cells multiply without knowing when to stop, destroying everything else in its surrounding. If humans continued to multiply without dying, we would probably destroy ourselves and much of the planet's ecosystem in the process.
To be able to make room for new Life, first there must be Death of the living. As a Priest, it is essential to be familiar with both sides and be able to recognise the importance of Death and Destruction.

One of the ways to familiarise yourself with Death is by planning your own funeral rites. This time of year can be a good time period to start thinking about what you would like your own funeral rites to be like, or to revisit the decisions you have previously made and see if they are still in line with your current wishes.
Would you like to be cremated or buried? Where would you like your ashes to be spread or your body to be laid to rest? Are there viable green burial options in your area? Do you want a shroud or a casket? Would it be important for your family to have a place where they could commemorate you and connect with you? Would you like a service and if so, what kind of music would you like and who would you like to give a speech?

There are many other questions that could be answered, but most importantly you should find a way of capturing your wishes so that it is clear to your loved ones what you would like to happen after you die. It could be a good thing to discuss your wishes with your loved ones now, so that they can ask questions and won't be surprised by your wishes during the already difficult time of your passing. If you have already made a will, you could include your wishes in it.

Associative Meditation

If you want to use a free associative meditation for this Moon, you could do the following exercise.

Sit down comfortably and close your eyes. Focus your thoughts on how your body sits on the chair of floor. Once you feel comfortable, shift your focus to your breathing. Slowly breath in and out, inhaling and exhaling deep, but in a comfortable way.
Clear your mind, and start by picturing a bone. Imagine holding it, feeling the texture and its weight in your hands. Picture it intensely, vividly. Then slowly let go of the image and see what your mind comes up with next. If your mind starts to wander too far off the subject, you can always bring your focus back to the starting point and come back to the image of the bone.

When you feel you have come as far as you would like to go, bring your focus back on your breathing. Slowly breathing in and out, and bring your attention back to your body. Feel how your body is making contact with the chair or ground. Then slowly open your eyes, wiggle your fingers and toes, and stretch out. Have something to drink or eat if you feel you need to.

You could use any of the following associations as a starting point instead of Bones. They are some of my own associations, my train of thought. Your associative meditation could (and probably should!) go in a completely different direction:
Bones, structure, famine, death, fear, white, brittle, fragile, fertile soil, rebirth.

Visualisation

Alternatively, you can also try this visualisation for Death Moon.

Sit down comfortably and close your eyes. Focus your thoughts on how your body sits on the chair of floor. Once you feel comfortable, shift your focus to your breathing. Slowly breath in and out, inhaling and exhaling deep, but in a comfortable way.

Imagine that you see a door in front of you. The door is made of wood. It looks old and when you look at it closely you see that a white circle with a round hole in it has been drawn on the door.

When you decide to open the door, you see a sea shore in front of you. It is a clear night and the Full Moon is high up in the sky. A cold breeze is playing with your hair. You hear the sound of the lapping waves and the salt of the sea spray tickles your nose. Somewhere in the distance you hear the screeching of seagulls.
You decide to step through the door onto the beach and you close the door behind you.

The light of the moon shines along the beach. You realise that the beach you are standing on is surrounded by high cliffs. The sand of the beach is covered by seaweed. Where the beach meets the cliffs, you see a light shining: it looks like the light of a fire. You suddenly realise that you feel quite cold, and you decide to make your way to the fire.
As you walk across the beach to the cliffs, you feel the seaweed crunch under your feet. The smell of the seaweed reaches your nose, and you can smell that the seaweed has been lying here for a while. It smells of rotting fish.

As you come closer to the light of the fire, you can make out the opening of a cave in the cliffs. The fire is right at the edge of the cave and a haunched figure is standing next to the fire. Shadows covers the person's face, but you can see that it is an old woman with black clothes and a dark shawl wrapped around her head. On the fire is a cooking pot, a large cauldron, and the old woman is stirring it with a large wooden spoon. The opening of the cave is covered with the bones of fish. The light of the fire casts strange shadows on the walls of the cave and the fish bones on the floor.

The woman has seen you approach and with her hand she indicates that you should come closer to the fire. When you come close enough to see her face, you can see that the features in her face are hard but not unfriendly.
You stand still just before the opening of the cave, close enough to the fire to give you some warmth. The old woman doesn't look up, she just stares at the cauldron while she stirs in it with her big wooden spoon. You look into the cauldron too, and see a dark, black, bubbling liquid in it. As your eyes follow the movement of the spoon going round and round the cauldron, the old woman starts to sing a hypnotic, wordless song.

While you continue to look at the liquid in the cauldron, images start to form. Maybe they are images from your past, or images of things that are still to come. Whatever they may be, let them come naturally, let them flow in front of your eyes. The song of the old woman leads you, and protects you at the same time. You know that you can look away from the cauldron whenever you want, but that you can gaze into it as long as you feel the need to.

Just you get the feeling that you have looked long enough into the cauldron, the song of the old woman comes to an end. You look in her direction, and she looks you straight in the eyes. She gives you one brief nod with her head, turns around and walks deeper into the cave, disappearing into the shadows.
The only sound that remains is the sound of the waves rushing on the the beach.

You realise that you have spend quite a bit of time in this place and that it is time to go back. You  turn around and you see that the door that you came through is still there. You follow the same path back where you came from. You walk back over the seaweed, until you come to the edge of the sea. You stand there for a moment, taking in the picture of the Full Moon high above the sea, the sounds of the waves and the smell of the salt spray. You thank this place for what you have experienced this night. You open the door, step through it and close it behind you again.

Bring your focus back to your breathing. Slowly breathing in and out, and bring your attention back to your body. Feel how your body is making contact with the chair or ground. Then slowly open your eyes, wiggle your fingers and toes, and stretch out. Have something to drink or eat if you feel you need to.

On visualisations

Visualisations should only be done when you feel stable and well balanced. Sometimes people feel a bit 'spaced out' after doing a meditation or a visualisation. If that is the case, please go for a long walk or take a nice hot shower, followed with a good meal. If there is anything you would like to ask or share with me after doing any of the visualisations on this site, feel free to contact me via email.


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The long fast - A story for Death Moon

Many years ago I took an anthropology class as part of my History degree at University. During that class I was told the story that follows below. I probably don't remember all of it correctly, and I have no idea where the original story came from or even if it is based on truth. It is a story I like telling during Wicca 101 classes though, because I feel it shows much about Humans and their relation to Nature.

Just before the start of the draught every year when there was very little food to be found, an African tribe would have a huge festival where they would eat, drink and make merry. After the festival almost all the food would be gone and the hunger times would begin, the period of the long fast. Every year during this time, several of the people from the tribe would die. The tribe continued to celebrate their festival because it was what their tribe had done since time immemorial.

The European colonisers enter the scene. After observing the festival just before the drought for several years, the colonisers decide that they should step in and help the African tribe. After all, these poor African people surely didn't realise that they should be frugal and save their food to get through the dry periods. So after much deliberation, the European colonisers decided to forcibly take the food away from the African tribe just before their annual festival. They rationed the food, and handed out portions of it on a daily basis. That year the people of the African tribe dropped like flies: many more people died than in previous years.

The European colonisers decided that it must have been a fluke, and continued withholding food the following year and handing out the rations. Again many of the African tribe died.
In the end, the European colonisers gave up and let the African tribe go back to their own tradition of eating all their food before the hunger months, and fasting during the dry period. People still died, but much less than during the time when the colonisers had been rationing the food.

Since taking that class in University, I have read several articles about food and fat preservation and those articles shed light on the story about the African Tribe. During times of hunger, your body's metabolism changes and manages to work at a much slower pace, enabling you to get through periods with very little food. By rationing the food and feeding the tribe small portions every day, the bodies of the people didn't get to this state where they had an altered body metabolism. As a result they were less able to cope with hunger and more people died.

This is exactly the stage in nature where we are at now. Our big festival before the start of the Hunger period is Yule / Christmas, and this is the time where food in Nature has become scarce. This would be the time that the last of the turnips and cabbages would be eaten, and the waiting game for the new harvest would begin. Nature is wonderful though, in that it has equipped our bodies to deal with this time period. For me the clearest message in the story is to learn trust our instincts, because our instincts are often more in tune with Nature than our brains are.


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Europe vs USA

For many years, the most outspoken voice about Wicca on the Internet were the people in the American Yahoo group called Amber and Jet. It has been running for over ten years and has quite a number of prominent American Craft members writing on it, such as Deborah Lipp (Gardnerian HPS/Author) and Dave Finnin (Roebuck Tradition / Author). They have done a great job, and the Wiccans on the list dedicated much time and energy to answering questions of the Yahoo group members.

The downside of the Yahoo group is that the views on Wicca in America and in Europe are not identical. We obviously have more in common that we have differences, but the differences are there and some of them are significant. Some of those differences are really only relevant for the Initiated, but this article is an attempt to highlight those areas that are relevant to the seeker.

First of all, Gardnerian Wicca was brought to the USA by Raymond Buckland and his wife Rosmary in the early sixties. In the beginning there was only one coven, with one Book of Shadows and one practise. There seems to be an emphasis in the USA to stay with this one practise, and not to deviate from it.
Around the same time, Gardner worked with several different covens and High Priestesses in Europe. Each of these High Priestesses had their own particular interpretation of the rituals and though the basic structure remained the same, the rituals were added to and expanded resulting in similar yet different Books of Shadows. Each particular 'down line' from these High Priestesses has its own flavour, its own emphasis. Many covens in Europe from different backgrounds work together, and celebrate the differences between the groups. European Gardnerians and Alexandrians frequently work together, and many people have been initiated in both traditions.

The Wicca across the pond are relatively small in numbers. The USA is a huge country, and there are considerably less of the Wicca in the USA than there are in Europe. The Wicca in the USA have also had to deal with the fact that the Goddess revival movement and the New Age movement have started using the name Wicca on a large scale. In the USA the words Wicca and Pagan seem to be used interchangeably. As a result, the Wicca in the USA have had to define themselves and their Craft much more explicitly to differentiate themselves from other groups.
The Wicca in the USA have started using the term 'British Traditional Wicca', also known as BTW. It is used to distinguish Wicca that can trace their initiation lineage back to Gardner and at the same time have not made major changes to the rituals. Strangely enough, some groups are considered BTW in the USA that wouldn't be classed as Wicca in Europe, while other groups who have left the BTW path would be happily designated Wicca by Europeans. In Europe, the term is not used at all - there is no confusion with large other groups who call themselves Wicca, and we all know that Wicca derives from Gardner in Britain.

Another striking difference is the way that the Gods are generally viewed in the USA. There seems to be the general opinion that the Wicca have their own God and Goddess, separate from all other religions, which you are only able to meet and serve after you have been initiated. Wicca is orthopraxic, so views of what and who the Gods are depend completely on the individual.  
Though some of the Wicca in Europe might share this view of Gods which are exclusively of the Wicca , the general accepted feeling is that people should have a connection and link with the Gods *before* they get initiated. Most people experience a calling well before they ever meet their coven, and feel they have been serving the Gods for years before being initiated in the Priesthood of the Wicca. The Wicca in Europe generally feel that anybody can connect with the Gods of the Craft, and that this connection is not exclusively dependant on initiation. Many Europeans even view this connection to the Gods of the Craft as a prerequisite to initiation so as to be sure that a candidate can connect with the Gods through similar symbols and associations that are used within the Craft.
The view in Europe seems to be that by entering the Priesthood the Wicca are Priests of all Gods, and the Divine energy that is part of all existence. Quite a few covens in Europe also work a lot with the local Gods that are connected to the Land rather than just the names of the Gods given in the Wicca Book of Shadows.

Many of the initiated people who write on Amber and Jet seem to be of the opinion that there has been some form of Wicca passed on through the centuries until Gardner came across it in the late forties in the the UK. Most of the Wicca in Europe think that Gardner came across something genuine, but that he and Doreen Valiente fleshed out the rituals and created a practical system: Wicca as we know it now didn't exist before Gardner. They also pretty much feel that it isn't relevant if any of Gardner's views and practices have historical value: it works in present time, and that is what counts.

Wicca in Europe is different from Wicca in the USA. Does that make one better than the other? Obviously not - Wicca is flexible because it is an orthopraxic belief system. We can and have learned things from each other. Over the last few years I have seen the Wicca in the USA become more flexible, more open to the diversity that comes from the European community. I've also seen the Wicca in Europe become more aware of their practices, lineages and what it is that defines us. Defining parameters can be very useful: it helps to realise who you are and possibly more importantly what you are not.
It is my hope that now that the virtual distance between the USA and Europe is much small and the exchange between the Wicca on Facebook has become more open and frequent, that the exchange between with our brothers and sisters across the big pond will lead to even more fruitful cooperation.

For those interested in Wicca on Facebook, some of the more useful groups that are:
Gardnerian Wicca
Wiccan
British Traditional Wicca (Seekers in the USA)

Monday, 28 January 2013

Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy


Orthodoxy: Correct Faith, the right doctrine (Greek).
Orthopraxy: Correct Practise, the right action (Greek). 

In Western society, people are generally only used to one viewpoint about religion: that of Christianity. Christianity in all its flavours is an orthopraxic and orthodox faith. This means that the religion itself is defined in every aspect. There are rules for how to worship, but there are also rules for how to think and feel about the way a person worships. As a result, discussions about personal interpretations of ritual and viewpoints such as the form or meaning of the Divine are discouraged apart from the upper echelons of the Church. The level responsibility that a person has within the creation is usually clearly set out, as is the reason for our existence on this planet. It makes for a relatively dualistic attitude: there is a right and a wrong in life for most situations, with very little room for a grey area.

Wicca is different. Wicca is an exclusively ortopraxic belief system. The way in which we work, in which we practise is defined, but the personal interpretation of the individual worshipper is undefined. The way in which the rituals are structured is written down, but what the rituals mean is not defined by anyone. It is one of the reasons why the book that holds the rituals is called the Book of Shadows: It holds the basis of the rituals, the text but it is impossible to write down the actual ritual because it is the personal experience that matters. Personal experience will obviously vary from person to person, so it simply cannot be written down.

This viewpoint was exactly the reason why I felt at home in the Craft from the beginning. I have a Jewish background, and Judaism is largely orthopraxic. The way things are done during service in the synagogue are written down, but vary greatly between communities and local traditions are freely incorporated. In Judaism questioning the Bible and the Tzadikim (wise men) is almost seen as a duty rather than as something that is wrong or inconvenient. The concept of Lernen (learning), where Jews sit down and discuss and argue the sacred texts, is an important foundation of our culture. And nobody in synagogue will ever ask what your viewpoint on the Divine is, as it is completely your own responsibility. There are actually many devout Jews who are atheist, but practise because it gives them a connection with their ancestors and culture. It is also the reason why I have no problem combining Jewish practise with a Wiccan belief system, though I am strict about not practising the two at the same time.

It is often a very big switch for people to make when they first come into contact with Wicca. I have spent many nights sitting up with frustrated students because I simply could not give them the 'right' answer. “But how do the Eight Festivals exactly relate to the Wheel of Life, because all these books give different answers?”  “But exactly how does the Goddess of Wicca relate to the local Goddesses?” All these questions were met with the same reply: “Well, that depends. How do you view it?”

Sometimes the fact that there are no 'right' answers is confused with the fact that you can do anything you like in Wicca. This is absolutely not the case. The fact that Wicca is orthopraxic means that there is a defined praxis, a defined way of working. For example, if a different ritual is used during initiation, the initiation could be just as effective but simply wouldn't be an initiation of the Wicca. Orthopraxy does not mean “anything goes” or that every time you do a ritual you need to adapt and change it.

I help students by giving them different possible viewpoints that others in the Craft have shared with me over the years. It isn't possible for me to give them the one, correct answer, because there simply isn't one. What is more, there shouldn't be one to begin with! One of the essential abilities of a Priest or Priestess is to find their own answers and interpretations of what the Gods and Life expects from them. These answers need to be well thought out and balanced – that is the main requirement. It is what we do as Priests: we recognise what needs to be done in our own lives, when to reach out to others and when not to, and to help others make their own interpretations of what is needed in their lives. These interpretations might even be diametrically opposed to their own answers, but can be just as true and valuable as any other answer.

It can be scary to end up in a realm where there is no right or wrong, no clear guidelines that give safety. It is an essential – if not the most essential – part of Wicca, and it is my opinion that before a person is considered for initiation, he or she should be completely comfortable with the concept.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

New Year for Trees

On the eve of the 25th of January 2013, the New Year for Trees will start in the Jewish Tradition. In Hebrew it is called Tu B'Shevat (Too Bishvaht). It marks the change of the direction of the saps of the trees: instead of going towards the roots, it is said that the saps start flowing towards the branches on this day.
The day is named after the Jewish calendar day and month, the 15th day of the month Shevat.
Originally it was a tax related day and it marked the start of the year for the tithes on fruit. Fruit picked before this day were part of the tax of the old year, but anything picked after would be marked as fruit for the new tax year. It was also a day where unmarried men and women met in the fields to court.

Under the influence of the Kabbalists in the 16th century, Tu B'Shevat became more mystical and a special meal was devised to celebrate the fruits of the land. The meal, which is called Tu B'Shevat Seder, is an expression of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The different types of fruit that are eaten and the wine that is drunk are symbolic ways to invoke the Cosmic Blessing and repair the Tree of Life. The meal is still partaken by many Jews in this day and age and it concludes with the beautiful blessing:  "May all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned and included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life."

In Israel it is now a day for environmental awareness but also a day for new beginnings, such as laying foundation stones for new buildings and planting new trees. Every year, six million trees are planted in commemoration of those who died in the Shoah (Holocaust). As a result, it is often referred to in the media as Israel's Arbour day.

As a Jewish Witch, it is one of the wonderful Jewish festivals that is linked to agriculture and nature in such a way that it seamlessly fits into my Pagan practise. On this day I will eat dried fruits from the last harvest and celebrate the promise of the return of abundance to the land of my ancestors. The image that is traditionally meditated on would fit right into any Pagan circle: "Man is a Tree of the Field".
It has many different interpretations, ranging from the connection of Man with the Earth, to the way we live both a visible external life and a hidden internal life. The text comes from Deuteronomy 20:19, but that simple sentence is just as pertinent today as it was those thousands of years ago when it was first written.

Happy New Year for the Trees!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow Moon

The Snow moon has started with the New Moon on Friday January 11th and the Full Moon will be on Sunday January 27th. The cycle will end with the next New Moon on Sunday February 10th, which will be the beginning of Death Moon.

In Western Europe we usually have two big cold spells. The first one takes place in late November, while the second one normally happens late January, early February. This is why this period is called the Snow Moon. It is an English name that has been used for this Moon since the 16th century, but apparently the same name is used by the Native Americans for this Moon.

It is a strange time. Just as you despair that the Winter will never be over and nature will never stir again, the bulbs start to show their heads, peeking out of the dark Earth. The first buds on the trees are visible, and the nature promises return of Life. Then it becomes cold and it starts to snow. The returning Life is covered with with a white blanket and disappears from sight again. In the days before the invention of the supermarket, it would also herald the time of hunger. The last food would have been eaten during the Midwinter festival, and the left over scraps would be finished at this stage. The waiting game was to about begin - who would make it through the Winter, who would die?

In spite of the cold, the snow and the disappearance of the signs of life returning to the vegetation, the first lambs are born in this time period. The Pagan festival of Imbolc - "In the Belly" in Irish - falls in this month, on the first of February. This festival celebrates the imminent return of Spring and with the birth of the lambs it also heralds the return of milk - which would have been an important part of people's diet, and has the same colour as the snow.

The Snow moon is that last period of time where Nature is waiting, holding it's breath. The first signs of Life have been seen, but are covered by a blanket of snow, hidden from the eye. If the bulbs and trees are viable, they will make it through the cold spell: otherwise the Death Moon will claim them.

Associative Meditation

If you want to use a free associative meditation for this Moon, you could do the following exercise.

Sit down comfortably and close your eyes. Focus your thoughts on how your body sits on the chair of floor. Once you feel comfortable, shift your focus to your breathing. Slowly breath in and out, inhaling and exhaling deep, but in a comfortable way.
Clear your mind, and start by picturing snow. Imagine the feel of it, the way is smells. Picture it intensely, vividly. Then slowly let go of the image and see what your mind comes up with next.

When you feel you have come as far as you would like to go, bring your focus back on your breathing. Slowly breathing in and out, and bring your attention back to your body. Feel how your body is making contact with the chair or ground. Then slowly open your eyes, wiggle your fingers and toes, and stretch out. Have something to drink or eat if you feel you need to.


You could use any of the following associations as a starting point instead of Snow. They are some of my own associations, my train of thought. Your associative meditation could (and probably should!) go in a completely different direction:
Snow, bulbs, budding branches, returning life, cold blanket, white, virginal, milk, lambs, surviving.

Visualisation

If you would like to use a more defined image for a meditation on the Snow Moon, here are some ideas on where and how to start.

Sit down comfortably and close your eyes. Focus your thoughts on how your body sits on the chair of floor. Once you feel comfortable, shift your focus to your breathing. Slowly breath in and out, inhaling and exhaling deep, but in a comfortable way.

Imagine yourself standing at the edge of a small forest. The trees and the ground surrounding the forest is covered in snow. It is a bright day, with the Sun shining and a small Moon sickle visible in the sky. Underneath the blanket of snow on the ground, you can see the green sprites of the bulbs reaching out for the light. The reflection of the Sun on the snow makes your eyes blink: it is bright, but very little warmth is coming from the sun. You smell the scent of the snow, and you can feel it crunching under your feet. You see a large branch that has broken off on the ground next to you. You decide to sit on the branch and  let yourself relax, soaking up the atmosphere. Maybe a bird or a deer will approach you, or one of the other creatures of the forest. It could be that nothing happens, and you just sit and relax. Maybe some thoughts will come to you that will bring you a greater understanding of what is going on in Nature. Either way,  don't force anything - just let the visualisation take it's course.

When you feel you have spent as much time in this place as you would like, say goodbye to the forest and thank it for whatever you have experienced there. Bring your focus back to your breathing. Slowly breathing in and out, and bring your attention back to your body. Feel how your body is making contact with the chair or ground. Then slowly open your eyes, wiggle your fingers and toes, and stretch out. Have something to drink or eat if you feel you need to.

Disclaimer


If you aren't used to this kind of meditation, it could help to set an alarm. Start by doing up to 5 minutes per session, once a day. Meditating is good, but too much of anything isn't!