Monthly Archives: May 2011
The Western Dragon
Unlike the beneficent Easter Dragon, The Western Dragon is a symbol of totally unleashed destructive power that is set upon anyone who crosses the Dragon’s path. The Western Dragon also hordes treasures that should rightfully be ours, and whose absence deprives us from being complete. The challenges set before us by the Western Dragon are truly prodigious, because they denote a force whose sole intent is not simply to keep us from moving forward in our lives, but to usurp all that we have previously gained as well. What is even more disturbing about the force behind the Western Dragon is that it may well indicate primal forces in ourselves so powerful that they do in fact turn us into our own worst enemy.
As a daily card, The Western Dragon is a powerful negative force intent upon thwarting your progress. In such a short time frame it is most likely you’re being undermined by an external force–someone who wants what you have gained or gains your are near realizing. While formidable, this bellicose entity does have vulnerabilities. First, there is nothing subtle about the forces represented by The Western Dragon, so the source will be easy for you to identify. Secondly, The Western Dragon represents undisciplined, primal energies that aren’t easy to control, so they are susceptible to logical responses steeped in self control. In short, don’t panic, act deliberately and decisively, and you will weather this storm.
I’m not bashing coven practice here – It’s a wonderful spiritual path and way of learning and it works for lots of people. Those people have my blessings and all my best wishes. There are plenty of teens that someday want to be part of a coven, and there are dozens of adults who warn against teen groups (and even several of articles on Witchvox about it) . But if solitary practice is so wonderful, I have to ask myself why no one advocates it, at least not until asked or provoked. That’s what I will attempt to do, to go over some of the things that solitaries have the opportunity for, and even solitary fundamentals that anyone can use.
After all, you are an individual. In the end, you are solitary. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in the most glorious way possible. At the end of the day, the Divinity shines down on YOU and recognizes YOU for what YOU are, and takes you into their arms as their child with your own uniqueness and respects you for every ounce of it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are many people who consider themselves to be solitary Wiccans or solitary Witches. I almost want to say there is a majority – but I don’t have the statistics on hand to back that up, just my observation.
Most practitioners consider it a long-term goal to be able to get into a coven or other pagan group. Even though there are sometimes degree systems in place for covens, being a solitary is usually considered being “at the bottom of the food chain”, so to speak.
Some people are solitary because they choose to be, they know it is the best for their learning and they know it is better to study alone then with people that have the potential to delay your spiritual definition. Others are solitary simply because they have to be, there are no covens around, they are too young to join a ‘real’ coven, they do not have enough experience, or what have you.
I personally am some blend of the two. I began really studying and dedicating myself to “this path” a few years ago. I knew that I needed to study; I believed I had to have every rule memorized if I was ever to reach the glorious rank of a coven member.
However, since that time I have come to realize many things. First, I am not only a Wiccan. I am also Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Shinto, and a multitude of other things…so joining a group of strict Wiccans would probably drive several of us mad!
Second, I know how I learn. That’s not to say I do everything right, but being a solitary has taught me a lot of things about how to self teach, how to remember, and how to adapt that I don’t think I would get if I was being taught by another sole person (or group of teachers) .
Third, I don’t fit into a category that any degree system or standardized test can put me into. I consider myself to be very well-rounded in many types of practice; I meditate at least once a day, I am very accomplished in divination, plus some alternative and spiritual healing…but at the same time, I had forgotten what a “boline” was a few weeks ago and had to Google search it. You might find some of these apply to you and you may find they do not.
My point here is that self-exploration is essential to your learning. I have been self-exploring and self-coaching myself for long enough that I think if I were to join a coven, it would have to be very flexible at the least. And that’s fine with me.
However, most solitaries, including myself…no matter how much we love our individual practice, we want some sort of structure, some group or support system. This is not a bad thing, if anything it shows us that we are realistic. I myself have daydreamed about starting a teen Pagan study group (notice I did not say ‘teen coven’) before…leading group meditations and having workshops to carve our own wands and such…sounds glorious doesn’t it? But I know that in the end that is not what a group is for.
I have joined many Pagan forums and websites…some of which are like my own online Grimoire. I say almost nothing to members but comb through hundreds of information pages and topics, completely in awe. On others, I have a group of elders or mentors that I ask for help quite often, whether it’s “Can I use this pretty dish my mom gave me instead of a chalice?” or “Who can tell me in detail the exact workings of the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram?” (And to be fair…some of the websites out there are total B.S.) . Many casual groups have the potential to help you.
This is the first rule of being a solitary. Solitary does not equate to being alone. I like knowing that I can plan my own rituals, or re-schedule a Sabbat, and that I can adapt coven rituals to my practice. But I also know that there are always people I can turn to. I might talk to my non-Wiccan parents about finding spirituality in ‘everyday’, or ‘mundane’ life (as I found out in recent months, my sort-of-ex-hippie Dad and New-Age-Spiritual Mum are great for those kinds of things) . I might go on the Internet if I want to construct my own ritual. I might ask some online Elders for their book recommendations or good websites.
The thing about being a solitary is, instead of having a coven Priest or Priestess as your teacher, the whole world is your teacher. You usually have to ask several people about one question and go through each answer until you can combine the facts you need and get your own. You may find spiritual answers in simple social contacts or in the workings of nature.
Not to say that coven members “miss out” on this, but it is often unrecognized. I suspect that since Covens are a quick resource, that problem solving may not be emphasized as much, especially with limited resources.
One of my mottos that I have come to revisit often is this: everyone has something to teach, everyone has something to learn, and everyone is sacred. So even if you’re in a coven, a solitary might be a good person to ask about making up your own rituals. Maybe that seemingly fluffy teenager over there really does have some good books to lend you. If you have no one teacher, you have to branch out to anyone that has the potential to give you knowledge – that means you have to find that potential in everyone.
There are pros and cons to every kind of practice. If you’re in a coven, you still need to be willing to branch out and seek information from people who don’t have the label of a third degree high priestess. Maybe those with less experience do have things to offer you. If you’re solitary, don’t assume that you’re 100% on your own, there are Pagan festivals and new age shops everywhere that are likely to have people willing to teach you a thing or two, and there are plenty of online communities or websites that list meet ups and moots in your area.
In the end, we all have to do our own self-teaching of a few things. No matter what path we’re on it’s always nice to have some sort of mentor to turn to, but keep in mind in the end it is you who decides what is best for your learning, and you are responsible for comparing and gathering information, and adapting to your learning needs.
A good example is taking a hike in a mountain forest. You can take an experienced Guide, or you can go in with your supplies and a map. If you take a guide, you’ll probably get where you want to be without wasting time, and you’ll learn a lot – maybe you’ll be able to become a guide for someone else someday if it’s really your shtick. However… You might go through the path with your backpack, flashlight, and map. This is riskier, because you have less experience. You have tools at your disposal and you need to know how to use them. You might get turned around. You might take longer than the tour group. But there is a potential for you to learn a lot of things that the tour guide will overlook.
Okay, so you might not get the mountain path right off, and that’s okay. But maybe you can learn a lot more about forests in general. You’ll learn the skills in how to find your way through the thick forests, and you might discover wildlife the guides will walk right past. Maybe you don’t know the mountain path so well, even by the time you’re done with your hike. But, by the end of it, you probably know a lot about finding your way when your lost, telling directions without a compass, using your resources, marking your paths, and you’ll even know your own strengths and weaknesses better.
Not to say that the tour group missed out, I mean hey, they had their fun too, and they get to do all kinds of stuff in groups that you simply don’t have the energy/time/resources for. But ultimately, it depends on what’s best for you.
In keeping with the metaphor, forests can be dangerous. Some more than others. Some places you simply shouldn’t tread without a guide, at least for a while. And never go in alone without supplies in the dark, when no one knows where you are to a place you’ve never been. You can ask a guide every now and then even if you aren’t in a tour group. And there is no reason members of that tour group can’t go on their own hikes.
Back to spiritual paths, that translates to this: go at it alone, if it suits your fancy. You will learn a ton, I guarantee you. You might not learn as much about traditional paths, but you will learn a lot about what your spirituality means. You will have the chance to dissect it, analyze each piece and synthesize it along with the paths of others. But be wary of where you go, and always be safe. You will need to learn to self evaluate, and other life skills.
Coven members may have these skills and they might be better at it than you, but you still have the chance to grow and explore your own self-definition.
I admit whole-heartedly that I have no coven experience to back this up. I have let several coven members read this and give me their thoughts, and I have spoken to many about coven practice. I am not bashing anyone who is in a coven – it is a wonderful way to learn, and I hope to have a similar experience someday. But I feel the need to stress that somewhere along the line we all need to self teach and self-explore. And if you make that self-teaching and solitary practice part of your everyday life, it gives you a lot of potential in the long run. You can learn things in unlikely places, and I think solitaries know that lesson quite well.
Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach, and everyone is sacred.
Author: Mary Sharratt
In 2002, I moved to East Lancashire in northern England—the rugged Pennine landscape that borders the West Yorkshire Dales. My study window looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received the ecstatic vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652.
But Pendle Hill is also steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches. Everywhere you go in the surrounding countryside, you see images of witches: on buses, pub signs, road signs, and bumper stickers. Visiting friends found this all quite unnerving. “Mary, why are there witches everywhere?” they’d ask me.
In the beginning, I made the mistake of thinking that these witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and folklore, but no. They were real people. The stark truth, when I took the time to learn it, would change me forever.
In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were executed, condemned on “evidence” provided by a nine-year-old girl and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. The trial itself might never have happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. His book Daemonologie—required reading for local magistrates—warned of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.
But just who were these witches of Pendle Forest?
Of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns aka Mother Demdike, had the most infamous reputation. According to the primary sources, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated the others into witchcraft. Mother Demdike was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly. This is how Court Clerk Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, his account of the 1612 trials:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.
Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! Although she died in prison before she could even come to trial, Potts pays a great deal of attention to her, going out of his way to convince his readers that she was a dangerous witch of long-standing repute. Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written expressly to vilify her.
Mother Demdike freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. Her neighbours called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Mother Demdike was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive life. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.
Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was illegal—sorcery was a hanging offence—but most of them didn’t get arrested for it. The need for the services they provided was too great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury—your local village healer with her herbal charms was far less likely to kill you.
Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated.
A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods could turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. Ultimately, the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder.
Intriguingly, Mother Demdike’s family’s charms recorded in the trial transcripts mirror the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, demonised and driven underground by the Reformation. Her incantation to cure a bewitched person, quoted by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical magic, is a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. This text is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580.
It appears that Mother Demdike, born in Henry VIII’s reign, at the cusp of the Reformation, was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace in earlier generations. The Old Church embraced many practices that seemed magical and mystical. People believed in miracles. They used holy water and communion bread for healing. Candles blessed at the Feast of Candlemas warded the faithful from demons and disease. People left offerings at holy wells and invoked the saints in their folk charms.
Some rituals such as the blessing of wells and fields may have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it seems difficult to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief that had become so tightly interwoven. Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.
But it would be an oversimplification to say that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood Catholic. Although her charms drew on the mystical imagery of the pre-Reformation Church, Mother Demdike and her sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, accused each other of using clay figures to curse their enemies. Both women freely confessed, even bragged about their familiar spirits who appeared to them in the guise of beautiful young men. Mother Demdike’s description of her decades-long partnership with Tibb, her familiar spirit, seems to reveal something much older than Christianity.
In traditional English cunning craft, the familiar spirit took centre stage: this was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form. Mother Demdike described how Tibb could appear as a golden-haired young man, a hare, or a brown dog. In traditional English folk magic, it seemed that no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their familiar spirit—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.
So how did Mother Demdike, a woman so fierce that none dared meddle with her, come to ruin? The triggering incident reads like the most tragic of coincidences. On March 18, 1612, her young granddaughter, Alizon Device, had a bitter confrontation with John Law, a pedlar from Halifax in Yorkshire.
Moments after their blistering argument, the pedlar collapsed and suddenly went stiff and lame on one half of his body and lost the power of speech. Today we would clearly recognise this as a stroke. But the pedlar and several witnesses were convinced that Alizon had lamed her victim with witchcraft. Even she seemed to believe this herself, falling to her knees and begging his forgiveness. This unfortunate event resulted in the arrest of Alizon and her grandmother. Alizon wasted no time in implicating Chattox, her grandmother’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne. Before long, further arrests of family and friends followed. The rest belongs to the tragic history that ended at Lancaster Gallows in August, 1612.
Although first to be arrested, Alizon was the last to be tried at the Lancaster Assizes. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft were a passionate vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a healer.
Roger Nowell, the prosecutor, brought John Law, the pedlar Alizon had allegedly lamed, before her. Again Alizon begged the man’s forgiveness for her perceived crime against him. John Law, in return, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to heal him. Alizon regrettably told him that she wasn’t able to, but if her grandmother, Old Demdike had lived, she could and would have healed him.
Long after their demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow Pendle Witches endure, their spirit woven into the living landscape, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. No one in this region can remain untouched by their legacy. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished.
Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (Hambledon Continuum)
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale)
Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (John Murray)
John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore (Kessinger Publishing)
King James I, Daemonologie, available online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/kjd/
Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze (Carnegie)
Edgar Peel and Pat Southern, The Trials of the Lancashire Witches (Nelson)
Robert Poole, ed., The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press)
Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=230481
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (Ams Pr Inc)
Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (Sussex Academic Press)
Author: Belladonna SilverRayne