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.


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.


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!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Introduction to the Moon Calendar

Month: a measure of time corresponding nearly to the period of the moon's revolution and amounting to approximately 4 weeks or 30 days or 1⁄12 of a year.

Wicca recognises both Male and Female aspects in the Divine. The Goddess, the Female aspect, is symbolised and represented by the Moon while the God, the Male aspect, is symbolised and represented by the Sun.

A Solar year usually encompasses 12 full Moons, though roughly every 3rd year a Solar year will have a 13th full Moon. Many cultures originally worked with a Lunar-Solar calendar, with the Moon as the leading element. The Jewish Calendar still works with this system, inserting a leap Moon month of Adar II into the year when needed to keep the Months on track with the seasons.
The origin of the word Month is the Moon and many countries either have an agricultural naming system for each full moon. Most European countries have abandoned the agricultural names and adopted the Roman names for their official calendar. Those countries that haven't adopted them still use the agricultural names – Poland is a good example of this.

The moon calendar I work with is based on the English agricultural names. I live in Ireland, but since it is not far from England I feel that the agricultural Moon names are very relevant. Like the Jewish Calendar, this Moon calendar also adds an extra leap Moon into the pattern every three years, continuing to balance the Moon cycle with the seasons. Nowadays, it is easy for us to know when the old Moon ends and the new Moon begins: it is the time of the New Moon, or Dark Moon, and this point in the Moon cycle can simply be calculated. There is something to be said for the old system, when the new Moon began when it was first seen in the sky. If the weather was cloudy, a 'Month' would simply last an extra day. Really looking at the Moon and being aware of its cycle by going out each evening to see the changes can help to enhance your own connection to the rhythm of the Moon.

The Moons for 2013 are as follows:

Moon cycle New moon Full moon
Snow Moon Friday January 11th Sunday January 27th
Death Moon Sunday February 10th Monday February 25th
Awakening Moon Monday March 11th Wednesday March 27th
Grass Moon Wednesday April 10th Thursday April 25th
Planting Moon Friday May 10th Saturday May 25th
Rose Moon Saturday June 8th Sunday June 23th
Lightning Moon Monday July 8th Monday July 22th
Harvest Moon Tuesday August 6th Wednesday August 21th
Hunters Moon Thursday September 5th Thursday September 19th
Blood Moon Saturday October 5th Saturday October 19th
Tree Moon Sunday November 3rd Sunday November 17th
Long Night Moon Tuesday December 3rd Tuesday December 17th

So how can this Moon Calendar be used in Wicca and Paganism?

Even though it is not an 'official' part of Wicca, quite a few covens work with some form of Moon Calendar. The Wicca strive to connect with Nature and its cycle. One way of doing that is by celebrating the 8 seasonal festivals. We also gather during the phases of the Moon: Full moon is the most obvious phase (called an Esbat) though some covens also get together to celebrate the other Moon phases (waning, waxing and dark moon). The agricultural names of the Moon reflect what is going on outside in nature at the time of that month, and can be very useful to use as a thread within the ritual.

If you are on your own you could do an associative meditation on the name of the Moon. Close your eyes and start by finding that quiet space within yourself where you feel relaxed and safe. Say the name of the Moon to yourself: Snow Moon. The first image that comes to you could be your starting point. If it is a snow flake, look at it with your minds eye and see what the next association is that comes to you. This could for example be a field covered with snow. Follow on from there until you feel you have come to a point where you feel you have covered everything or until you lose concentration. Write down as many of the associations as you can remember, and see if you can find a pattern that can lead you to a deeper understanding of nature at this point in its cycle.

If you work within a group, you could use the above exercise as a starting point for a guided visualisation (pathworking). I will be giving starting points and ideas on what you could use in pathworkings in the blog articles that will follow this one.  

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Path of the Hearth Fire

Many years ago, my mentor and friend Merlin Sythove wrote a wonderful article about the path of the Hearth Fire. When he wrote the article he was a stay-at-home dad and was looking after his 1 year old daughter. In it he explains how you can walk a spiritual path while still being able to spend most of your energy on the daily grind of life.

In many ways it was a prediction to what would be the work of his life – the Wiccan Rede magazine and the Silver Circle website and forum. He had already began publishing Wiccan Rede magazine many years earlier, but it was in the years to follow that he would be most prolific. He wrote many articles, developed his views on his moon calendar, moderated email lists and a forum and taught workshops for beginners and advanced students. In general inspired everybody who was active in the Pagan community in the Netherlands as well as abroad. If he had not chosen to walk his path of the Hearth Fire, he would not have made such a lasting impression on our community. I would not be the person I am today if I hadn't met him and his wife Morgana.
Sadly, Merlin passed away on the 3rd of January 2012 after a short but hard struggle with cancer. Thanks to his path on the hearth fire, much of his inspiring work is still with us.

Staying in touch with our spiritual side is a problem that many of us encounter, and I am one of those people. I am a single mother of four children (between age 1 and 8) and I live in a country where I have no family to help me with the kids. My Brothers and Sisters in the Craft either live on the other side of the country or abroad. It isn't easy to find a connection with the Gods or the Land in between washing nappies and making the children do their homework. I have started this blog in an attempt to follow in my friend's footsteps: by writing, I hope deepen my connecting with my Craft, Gods and the Land.

I will be starting with a project. It is an homage to Merlin's work with the moon calendar. For each moon in the coming year, I intend write an entry with my thoughts on the moon, the different names and the connection with what is going on in Nature.
Years ago, I did a similar project by writing a pathworking (guided visualisation) for each moon of the year. When I did that project, I mostly did it on my own. This time I am lucky enough to be able to start my ambulation through the moon year with one of my dear coven members, and I am grateful for her company.

For those of you interested in reading the article by Merlin on his Path of the Hearth fire:
The way in which Merlin developed his moon calendar can be found here:

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Who am I?

The name I was given at birth is Sophia, named after the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. Boann is the name of an Irish Goddess who has called me to her service.

I am half Dutch/Half English, single mother of 4 younglings and have been involved with Gardnerian Wicca for over 2 decades. I am a Gardnerian High Priestess and a Jewitch (Jewish Witch). I am a member of OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovids and Druids) and I have an interest in Celtic Reconstructionism.

I studied History at college, but chose to work in the IT industry for over a decade before becoming a stay-at-home mother. I have a love for blacksmithing, making music and exploring foreign countries. I have lived in the Netherlands, England, Portugal and Poland, but am currently slowly growing roots in the South of Ireland.

I facilitate a monthly Pagan Study Circle in Cork. If you are interested in what I am doing in Cork, you can find more information on the Well of Wisdom Facebook page.

Trailing the Well of Wisdom

Well of Wisdom: The source of Magic and Knowledge in Irish Mythology. It is located in the Otherworld and is surrounded by nine hazel trees. When all the trees drop their hazelnuts in the Well, they were eaten by the Salmon of Knowledge. Eventually the Salmon was caught and eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill who gained the Imbas Forosnai, the stuff that gives the powers of clairvoyance, magic and  poetry. The Well is called Tobar Segais in Irish. Similar stories can be found in Irish mythology for Connla's Well.

Trailing: To follow a trail.

Boann: Irish Goddess of the Cows and wife of Nechtan. Nechtan was the keeper of the Well of Wisdom, which only Nechtan and his cup bearers were allowed to access. Boann disobeyed him and released the Well of Wisdom unto the world, creating the river Boyne. In some stories Boann was swallowed up by the river, in others she lost only part of her body. She gave her (part of) her essence to create the sacred river.

Sophia: Greek Goddess of Wisdom. I was named after her by my parents, the name I was given at birth.

This blog is an attempt at following the trail of the Well of Wisdom. I do not expect to arrive at its Source, but I hope that some of the articles here will give myself and those who read them a small glimpse of the Well and its potential.