The Simple Facts About Imbolc

The Simple Facts About Imbolc
Candlemas: Imbolic (Celtic), Imbollgc Brigantia (Caledonii), Lupercus (Strega) Candlemas involves celebrations of banishing the winter and welcoming the spring.
Light a candle in each room of the house or turn on all the ligts for a moment or two to welcome back the Sun. Imbolc is a celebration of the end of winter and the return of the light.
At the time of Candlemas, the newborn Sun God is seen as a small child nursing from his Mother.
At this phase of the cycle, winter is swept away and new beginnings are nurtured. Some Wiccan groups favor this time of year for initiations into the Craft. It is traditional at Candlemas to light every lamp in the house for a few minutes in honor of the Sun’s rebirth.
The Goddess becomes the “Maiden” again as the wheel turns toward Spring. It is a celebration of the coming Spring and the new life it represents

Imbolc Is The Season for Cleansing

This Sabbat is a time of cleansing and newborn lambs, a good time for the Blessing of seeds. It is a festival of the Maiden in preparation for growth and renewal. Imbolc is a time to honor the Virgin Goddesses, along with the first signs of returning life in a frozen Winterland. In many places, the crocus flower is one of the first to show itself popping up through the snow, and so it is also a symbol of this Sabbat. Candlemas is a Festival of Light and is therefore celebrated by the use of many candles.



Symbolically, many Pagans choose to represent Imbolc by the use of Candle Wheels, Grain Dollies, and Sun Wheels – these may be used in ritual or simply as decoration. Candle Wheels are generally round decorated “crowns” made of straw or some type of natural woven substance which is ringed with either eight or thirteen red, pink or white candles and decorated with colored ribbons. In many Imbolc rituals, it is traditional for the High Priestess or the Maiden to wear this “crown” during the ritual at some point.

Imbolc and Grain Dollies

Grain Dollies can be made many different ways, and need not take on human shape unless you desire. They are made of wheat or sheaves of other grains such as straw, corn or barley. The sheaves are formed into some semblance of a “dolly” by folding, tucking and tying here and there. They can then be “dressed” in white cotton or satin and lace to represent the bride. You may even choose to create a “bed” (from a basket usually) for your grain dolly, commonly called a “Bride’s Bed”. There are many Pagan books available on how to create Candle Wheels, Grain Dollies, and Sun Wheels. Imbolc is also represented by burrowing animals, and the bride. Some other altar decorations may include a besom (Witch’s broom) to symbolize the sweeping out of the old, a sprig of evergreen, or a small Goddess statue representing Her in the Maiden aspect.

Brighid’s Fires Burn High

Brighid’s Fires Burn High

by Miriam Harline


Imbolc is a white time, a time of ice and fire. In many places, snow still sheets the ground. The fire is traditional: Europe observes this day, February 2, the Christian Candlemas, with candlelight processions, parades that go back to ancient torchlight ceremonies for purifying and reviving the fields at early sowing, according to Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.At Candlemas, the people of ancient Europe made candles for the coming year, having saved the fat from meat eaten through the winter. Mexico, too, observes February 2, the Aztec New Year, with renewed fires and a festival that echoes agricultural rituals of early spring.

At Imbolc, the earth begins to wake from winter sleep. As Starhawk writes in The Spiral Dance, at Imbolc “what was born at the Solstice begins to manifest, and we who were midwives to the infant year now see the Child Sun grow strong as the days grow visibly longer.” At night the Wild Moon shines, illuminating the earth’s initial quickening. Seeds sown in autumn begin to stir; nature is potential waiting to be fulfilled. The Goddess too is changing: from crone to maiden, from winter to spring.

To Banish Winter

In The Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, Pauline Campanelli writes, “Now is the time for the banishing of Winter. On the first night of February, the eve of Imbolc, gather together all of the greens that adorned the house throughout the Yuletide season, including a branch or two of the fir tree that was hung with holiday ornaments. Then, as a part of the Imbolc Sabbat rite, add these greens to the Sabbat Fire (a little at a time, and carefully, because by now they are hazardously dry), dancing and chanting all the while with words like:

“Now we banish Winter!

“Now we welcome Spring!”

Of Brighid and Her Realms

Today’s witches take many of their Imbolc associations from pagan Ireland. There, Imbolc belonged to the goddess Brighid or Bride (either is pronounced Breed), mother of poetry, smithcraft and healing.

In their Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Caitlin and John Matthews quote the tenth century Cormac’s Glossary: Brighid is “a poetess… the female sage, woman of wisdom, or Brighid the Goddess whom poets venerated because very great and famous for her protecting care.”Cormac’s Glossary gives Brighid the poetess two sisters, Brighid the smith and Brighid the “female physician”; Brighid thus occurs threefold, called by the Celts the Three Blessed Ladies.

The three Brighids multiply, to three times three: Caitlin and John Matthews call Brighid “a being who has nine separate spiritual appearances and blessings, which are ubiquitously invoked through Celtic lore.” Hers are the “nine gifts of the cauldron” mentioned in Amergin’s “Song of the Three Cauldrons”: poetry, reflection, meditation, lore, research, great knowledge, intelligence, understanding and wisdom. The Christianized St. Bridget had nine priestesses, the “Ingheau Anndagha,” or Daughters of the Flame, who lived inside her shrine and tended her fire, whom no man could look upon, according to Kisma K. Stepanich in Faery Wicca, Book One. Brighid is also a midwife and protector, a war-goddess and a teacher of the arts of battle.

Celtic lore makes Brighid the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God, and marries her to Bres of the Fomors, by whom she bears a son Ruadan. But, as Janet and Stewart Farrar write in The Witches’ Goddess, “The fact that Dana, though goddess/ancestress of the Tuatha, is sometimes referred to (like Brighid) as the Dagda’s daughter; the hints… that the Dagda was originally the son of this primordial goddess, then her husband, then her father; the dynastic marriage between Brighid and Bres – all these reflect a long process of integration of the pantheons of neighboring tribes, or of conquerors and conquered, and also of patriarchalization.” Like many goddesses, Brighid probably once birthed the god later called her father. Brighid’s name can be derived from the Gaelic “breo-aigit” or “fiery arrow,” but the Matthewses prefer a derivation from Sanskrit, “Brahti,” or “high one.”

The entire Celtic world worshipped Brighid. She was Brigantia in Britain, the patron goddess of the tribe of the Brigantines in northern England and of the Brigindo in eastern France, Stepanich says. The Celts continued to worship her in Christian times as St. Ffaid in Wales, St. Bride in Scotland and St. Bridget or Bride in Ireland. St. Bridget was said to be the midwife and foster mother of Christ, the helper and friend of Mary.

Making Bride’s Bed

Long before she befriended the Mother of God, Brighid was the Mother herself, her agricultural roots going back to the Neolithic. Campanelli describes an Imbolc ritual for creating Bride’s bed, drawn from ancient rituals in which harvesters at the Autumn Equinox would bring the last sheaf of wheat or other grain into the house, believing the Goddess of the Grain lived within. The harvesters often made this last sheaf into a woman’s shape, the Corn Bride or Maiden, dressing her in white.

If you have autumn harvest left, say a sheaf of Indian corn, as part of your Imbolc ritual you can create a Bride’s bed. Dress her in white and decorate her as you like, then place her in a basket or on a square of white cloth. Across her, lay a priapic wand – an acorn-tipped wand of oak – twined with ribbon, so that wand and bride form an X. Then place lit candles to either side, and chant to her something like, “Blessed be the Corn Bride! Blessed be the Great Mother!” At the height of the chant, extinguish the candles. Then, at sunrise the next morning, place the bride without her dress on your front door. There she forms an amulet of prosperity, fertility and protection, which can remain till after Samhain. Campanelli suggests you return her to earth before Yule, perhaps scattering her in the fields for birds.

Brighid the Midwife

Brighid is midwife as well as harvest mother. As late as 100 years ago in the west Scottish Highlands, the Matthewses write, the midwife traditionally blessed a newborn with fire and water in Brighid’s name. She passed the child across the fire three times, carried the baby around the fire three times deosil, then performed “the midwife’s baptism” with water, saying:

A small wave for your form

A small wave for your voice

A small wave for your speech

A small wave for your means

A small wave for your generosity

A small wave for your appetite

A small wave for your wealth

A small wave for your life

A small wave for your health

Nine waves of grace upon you,

Waves of the Giver of Health.

Brighid also protects and heals adults. She is a goddess of healing wells and streams; in her honor, Bridewell is one of the two most common well-names in Ireland, the other being St. Anne’s Well, remembering Anu, or Dana, the mother of the gods – a goddess sometimes conflated with Brighid. With Aengus Og, Brighid performs the role of soul-guardian, wrapping worshippers in her mantle of protection.

Making a “caim”

To protect themselves in Brighid’s name, the traditional Irish would recite a “caim,” the Matthewses write; “caim” means “loop” or “bend,” thus a protective circle. A caim would always name Brighid and the beings, household or body-parts to be protected.

Traditionally, you place a caim by stretching out your right forefinger and keeping that finger pointed toward the subject while walking about the subject deosil, reciting the caim. You can also say a caim for yourself. A caim can be made in all seasons and circumstances; it traditionally encircles people, houses, animals or the household fire. The Matthewses write:

“As her family prepared to sleep, the Gaelic mother would breathe these words (the caim) over the fire as she banked it in for the night…. As she said this, she would spread the embers into a circle, and divide it into three equal heaps with a central heap. To make the holy name of the foster mother (Brighid), she placed three turfs of peat between the three heaps, each one touching the center, and covered it all with ash. Such smooring customs and invocations are still performed in the West of Ireland. And so the protection of Brighid is wrapped about the house and its occupants.”

Augury in Brighid’s Name

Brighid is also a seer; the Matthewses describe her as “the central figure of the Celtic vision world.” She presided over a special type of augury, called a “frith,” performed on the first Monday in a year’s quarter to predict what that quarter would bring. The ancient Celts divided the year by Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain, so the first Monday after Imbolc is appropriate for frithing.

To perform a frith, a traditional frithir would first fast. Then, at sunrise, barefoot and bareheaded, the frithir would say prayers to the Virgin Mary and St. Bridget and walk deosil around the household fire three times. Then with closed or blindfolded eyes, the frithir went to the house door’s threshold, placed a hand on either jamb and said additional prayers asking that the specific question about the coming quarter be answered. Then the frithir opened his or her eyes and looked steadfastly ahead, noting everything seen.

Frithing signs can be “rathadach” (lucky) or “rosadach” (unlucky). A man or beast getting up means improving health, lying down ill health or death. A cock coming toward the frithir brings luck, a duck safety for sailors, a raven death. About the significance of horses, a rhyme survives: “A white horse for land, a gray horse for sea, a bay horse for burial, a brown horse for sorrow.” The role of frithir passed down from generation to generation; according to the Matthewses, the name survives in the surname Freer, “held to be the title of the astrologers of the kings of Scotland.”

To perform a pagan version of frithing, fast the Sunday night before the first Monday after Imbolc and that night formulate your chief question about the coming three months. Monday morning at sunrise, say a prayer to Brighid and barefoot and bareheaded walk deosil around whatever seems the central fire of your house – maybe your kitchen stove, or if you’re not a cook your fireplace or heater. Then go to your doorway, put your hands to either side, and closing your eyes pray your question be answered. Then open your eyes, and note the first action you see. That action probably won’t be found in the traditional frithir’s lexicon, so the interpretation is up to you.

In another frithing technique, you curl the palms to form a “seeing-tube”; frithirs used such a tube to discover lost people or animals and to divine the health of someone absent. Frithirs also sometimes used divinatory stones; the Matthewses describe a “little stone of the quests” made of red quartz.

Imbolc Spells and Workings

Whether or not you try frithing, Imbolc is good for psychic work: still the dark time of the year, but looking toward spring. It’s also a good time to make your space hospitable for such work, banishing old energy to clear the way for new. Traditionally, witches purify themselves and their space at Imbolc. Any kind of cleansing or banishing will do, but consider ones that include fire and water, sacred to Brighid. Once purified, you’re ready to go further; at Imbolc, covens initiate new witches.

The spark of summer dances in the future now; Imbolc is a good time to seek inspiration, especially for healers and smiths of words or metal. To do so, try the following spell.

Bring to your ritual space a cauldron or chalice filled with earth or sand; a white, silver, green, purple or rainbow-colored candle; a candleholder; oil to anoint the candle; paper; and a pen you like or with appropriately colored ink. Ground and center, cast a circle and ask for Brighid’s presence. Then anoint your candle in Brighid’s name, and lighting it write on the paper the aspects of your work in which you want inspiration. When you’re done, raise energy and put it into the paper, then light the paper with the candle flame. Drop the burning paper into the cauldron, making sure the entire paper is blackened. Then thank Brighid and bid her farewell, and take down your circle.

The next day, relight the candle and by its light rub some significant tools of your work with the ashes. Then either sprinkle the remaining ashes onto your garden or houseplants or drop them in a park in a place that feels inspiring or pleasant.

Imbolc is a white time, burning with inspiration and protection, cool with healing and purification. Prophesy flares, painting luster on the dark. Light your candle, call on Brighid, and know that under the snow the seeds of spring stir.

In Your Dreams

In Your Dreams

What Are These Vision You See in the Dark?

by Miriam Harline


I am traveling with my grandmother. We have stopped at a restaurant. Neither of us know this restaurant; we’re somewhere new, nowhere we’ve ever been before.

We wait in the lobby. It is late afternoon, and the restaurant is empty. I peer into the dining room; it is shadowy, peaceful and very ornate: white tablecloths, sterling silver laid out. The hostess sees us, greets us graciously, but disappears. We don’t mind waiting; we are not in a hurry. We feel that the wait won’t be long.

My grandmother worries the place is too expensive for us. I feel that she is being overconservative because she fears she will not know how to conduct herself. I plan to talk her into staying. I really want to eat in this mysterious, luxurious place. It has an almost supernatural glamour.

In the shadowy lobby hangs a crystal chandelier. The crystals are long, extraordinary delicate, fairylike. I’ve never seen anything like this chandelier. I notice there are many, all down the long lobby. They must be very expensive, but they don’t seem unwelcomingly ostentatious. I point them out to my grandmother; like me, she is entranced.

We continue to wait.

I once worked with a woman who confessed that formerly she’d preferred her dream life to her waking one. She’d been living a cramped existence, with a job she hated, very few friends and no lover; her most significant relationship was with her cat. Yet when she fell asleep she was transported into a world of rich landscapes, of heady loves and angers, where everything revolved around her. Her dreams then were consecutive; the same plot would carry from one to the next. The experience was better than a movie or novel, because for the length of the dream, she was inside it.

Since that time, this woman’s daytime life had improved: she had moved; she had begun therapy and an exercise program; she had a better job and new friends. But the dreams had stopped. I could tell from the wistful way she spoke she didn’t always feel the trade was worth it.

Dreams play a part, large or small, in everyone’s life. For me, they are messages from the unconscious, coded into symbol, a theory I’ve filtered from psychology and dreamwork books. On and off since I was 13, I have recorded to my dreams and interpreted them, seeking feedback about my life. Sometimes I found things I already knew; sometimes I found things I didn’t know, strange and hard to interpret.

I have also drawn from dreams creative inspiration; characters in my fiction owe much to dreams. I’m not the only one to have drawn such inspiration. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein based on a dream, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed he had dreamed 200 or 300 lines of the poem Kubla Khanbut only was able to get 54 onto paper before interruption. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed scenes for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.According to Robert L. Van de Castle in Our Dreaming Mind, writer Graham Greene started his novel It’s a Battlefield based on a dream. Greene’s dream diary has recently been published. An entire artistic movement, surrealism, was based on the attempt to merge the world of dreams with the world of waking reality.

Science and mathematics have also drawn inspiration from dreams. Probably the most famous scientific dream was that of chemist Friedrich A. von Kekule, who had been trying to figure out the structure of the benzene molecule when he fell asleep and dreamed of floating atoms forming themselves into patterns. A long, snakelike row of atoms then formed a circle and began to spin. Based on his dream, Kekule created a ring model of the benzene molecule, which testing later confirmed. Van de Castle reports that the chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev settled the structure of the periodic table of the elements based on a dream, and the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan repeatedly dreamed mathematical formulas, which he later confirmed. In my own acquaintance, a computer-programmer friend dreamed of bits throwing themselves together off a cliff, which helped him solve a problem on memory usage during file erasure.

Spiritual journeys and changes are classically dream-inspired. The beginning of Islam was inspired by a dream, as was the beginning of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Many Old and New Testament characters changed their lives according to dreams.

Spiritual dreaming continues to this day. One of this paper’s writers, NightOwl, came to the Craft as the result of a dream in which she was told to follow the Goddess. In my own life, I’ve made a major spiritual transition thanks to a dream. That dream (which, writing as Asherah, I detailed in the Lammas 1995 issue) showed me fearfully participating in goddess worship that included human sacrifice. I’d been attending an informal goddess-worship circle, considering whether I should follow the Craft, and the dream made clear to me I had fears of goddess worship I needed to resolve. The upshot was that I faced those fears in counseling before further pursuing the Craft, which I believe gave me a more stable psychic foundation later on.

The dream had another spiritual legacy for me. Asking in meditation to see the goddess of my dream, I received a benign image: a gracious lady in flounced skirts, with many ornaments. This image describes Inanna, a goddess I later dedicated to.

I am a young woman in high school. During class, I throw a concrete ball out the window, but luckily miss everyone outside. Later, I cut class, wandering outside the school and then onto the roof of a one-story addition that juts from the main school at a 90-degree angle. I find that crossing this roof are hoses filled with toxic waste. I want to warn people, but before I can, I accidentally pull one hose loose, so that fluorescent green sludge spews all over me. I wake in the hospital.

Some people cannot remember their dreams. However, sleep studies have shown that almost everyone does have dreams. Nearly everyone studied experiences rapid eye movement (REM) cycles during sleep, and if sleepers are wakened during such a cycle, even people who normally don’t remember dreams recall dreams in progress more than 80 percent of the time.

Studies indicate REM cycles occur, on the average, every 92 minutes and last longer in the later stages of sleep. REM sleep is more frequent in infants; newborns spend about 50 percent of their sleep time in the REM stage. REM sleep drops to the normal adult level of about 18 percent of sleep by the age of four. Elderly adults spend slightly less time in REM sleep.

REM cycles usually indicate dreaming, but this does not mean dreams can necessarily be reduced to REM cycles. Some Indian philosophers believe the dream life is the true life of the self, the waking world an illusion. The Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu, waking from a dream where he fluttered, a happy and self-satisfied butterfly, debated whether he was a man who’d dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Australian aborigines’ mythos states the whole world was created through dream, with song, by different totemic ancestors, who now sleep again and dream. The aborigines map paths across the land according to different dreamings: Lizard Dreaming, Caterpillar Dreaming.

Some scholars have said the ancient Egyptians believed dreams were the soul’s travels out of the body, a theory shared by some South American and African cultures. Theorists on astral projection hold that some dreams can still be read so. Other scholars say the Egyptians merely found the sleeper preternaturally sensitive to outside influence. This theory is similar to one of the 19th century, expressed by Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; he believed the ghosts of his dreams reflected a bit of undigested mustard or potato, the merely physical transmogrified. A sleeper’s physical sensations do manifest themselves in dreams when dream researchers ran cold or warm water through dreamers’ sleeping pads, 25 percent of dreams were affected but few dream researchers now restrict interpretation to reflecting the physical.

However, Nobel-winning biologist Francis Crick and others have hypothesized a physically oriented dream theory based on neural network theory. This hypothesis posits that dreaming serves to clear our minds of spurious mental associations; by dreaming a weird sequence of events, we purge our minds of the unnecessary connections between them. As a result, these theorists believe, it is actually valuable not to remember dreams.

Psychologists prefer us to remember. Three of the most influential 20th-century schools of dream interpretation are linked, respectively, to Freudian, Jungian and Gestalt psychology.

Sigmund Freud’s dream theory, put forward in The Interpretation of Dreams, distinguishes between dreams’ manifest content, which one is consciously able to remember, and their latent content, unconscious wishes denied gratification in waking life. The manifest content expresses latent desires symbolically; in dreams, Freud theorized, the inner censor can be circumvented by symbol. Freud thought what seems important in a dream may not be what is really important among repressed desires; this shifting of importance is called displacement. The motivating force for dreams Freud saw as wish fulfillment. In dreams that show fear and punishment, the wish fulfillment has failed. (Unless, of course, you like punishment.)

To interpret dreams, Freud used free association, repeating back different dream pieces to the dreamer to see what associations they elicited. Though Freud had some interest in telepathic dreams and admitted their possibility, they didn’t fit his theory.

Freud viewed most dream symbols as sexual: “All elongated objects, such as sticks, tree-trunks and umbrellas (the opening of the last being comparable to an erection) may stand for the male organ…. Boxes, cases, chests, cupboards and ovens represent the uterus, and also hollow objects, ships and vessels of all kinds. Rooms in dreams are usually women…. In men’s dreams a neck-tie often appears as a symbol for the penis…. Nor is there any doubt that all weapons and tools are used as symbols for the male organ…. Children in dreams often stand for the genitals…. The genitals can also be represented in dreams in other parts of the body: the male organ by a hand or a foot and the female genital orifice by the mouth or an ear or even an eye.”

Freud made dream interpretation scientifically presentable, even though his own work has none of the statistical and quantification methods associated with science. Later dream theorists criticized that he interpreted dream imagery as almost entirely sexual. He blasted through Victorian sexual hypocrisy, but his resulting theory was so tilted it denied nonsexual unconscious motivations much importance.

Later psychologists presented a more balanced view of dreams. Carl Jung interpreted dream content in many ways, not only sexual, and saw dreams’ own emphasized imagery as important. Jung did not propound a specific theory of dreams but, by his estimate, performed an average of 2000 dream interpretations a year.

Jung’s dream work relied on his concepts of the collective unconscious, mental remnants from the prehistory of the species, and archetypes, components of the collective unconscious that parallel physical organs and express themselves as symbols. An archetype works in life like a magnet, drawing experiences that fit its pattern; as the self works toward wholeness, Jung felt, archetypes appear in dreams to symbolize what parts of ourselves, or what integration of these parts, we’re working on.

Jung interpreted dreams by means of amplification, working toward a single core interpretation of each dream symbol. He saw dreams as both potentially objective, reflecting on someone the dreamer knows, and subjective, focusing on the dreamer. Jung encouraged subjects to work with dream images through active imagination, meditating on a dream image and noting how it changes. In contrast to Freud, Jung believed dreams could be telepathic.

Jung’s work with subjective dreams bears a strong resemblance to Fritz Perls’ Gestalt dream work. Gestalt, an intense short-term therapy, sees dreams as rejected or disowned parts of the personality. Gestalt dream work is not standardized, but some techniques are consistent: Each part of the dream is seen as part of the self of the dreamer. Nothing in the dream is exterior; every symbol relates back to the self. During therapy, the therapist encourages the dreamer to act out and engage in dialogue with different parts of the dream, and thereby to learn more about the unconscious motivations of the self.

Of these theories, my own probably most resembles Jung’s. I believe that dreams provide a unique form of divination. In dreams, your unconscious, rather than manipulating omens or Tarot cards handed to it, creates its own symbols for the things that currently concern it. Dreams are one of the most direct ways the unconscious has of communicating with the consciousness.

I am in the city in which I grew up, on the edge of a shopping district that straddles a wide creek. A flood has knocked out all the bridges. Buildings have fallen. I am with a young woman I have just met.

One bridge is in use, but dangerous. I cross the creek on it and on the other side clamber in a fallen building; in its basement, now exposed, lie great rusted steel beams, bricks showing through dirty plaster. A wall shakes and a metal pipe trembles, as if about to fall, but I extricate myself before it does.

The young woman I am with points out a formerly sleek tan pyramidal building, only three years old, that has fallen down. She sneers a little. It is a sunny, windy day, and the mood is holiday-like.

Another type of dream work, recognized as early as the fourth century, is lucid dreaming. In lucid dreaming, the dreamer recognizes that he or she is dreaming and attempts to influence the dream. Those who dream lucidly can make their dreams more coherent and pleasant and can plan their dreams, a process related to dream incubation, described later. Thus, lucid dreams can be used as a laboratory to work through troubles and fears. If in a lucid dream you meet an unacceptable or unrecognized part of yourself, you can enter a dialogue with it to reach better understanding. Some people have used lucid dreaming to overcome phobias.

Lucid dreamers often describe their dreams as “other-worldly,” and lucid dreams have often been associated with high spiritual attainment. Eighth century Tibetan monks considered lucid dreaming a prerequisite for attaining enlightenment; as dreamers recognized the illusory nature of dreams, so too would they recognize the illusory nature of reality. Lucid dreamers have made spiritual explorations, seeking and finding what they described as the divine. Lucid dreams have also been used as astral projection; the British parapsychologist Celia Green describes a mother and son who agreed to seek each other one night in lucid dreams and the next day agreed on what the mother had said when they met.

Dreamers can achieve greater lucidity in dreams over time. In 1867, according to Van de Castle, Marquis Hervey de Saint-Denys wrote that, over a span of 15 months, he was able to go from occasional to near-nightly lucidity. To achieve lucidity, dream researcher Stephen LaBerge created the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD) technique. In this process, dreamers are awakened in the middle of their dreams, visualize themselves back in their dreams, see themselves dreaming lucidly and tell themselves that the next time they’re dreaming they want to recognize it. Users report the technique effective.

Lucid dreaming still deals mostly with the world of symbols, but there are other ways of looking at dreams. As mentioned above, the ancient Egyptians, and others since, have seen dreams as a form of astral projection.

At one point, reports Sylvana SilverWitch, an editor for this paper, her sister had disappeared. She set herself one night to astrally project in dream to seek her. Going to sleep, Sylvana dreamed she found her sister, miserable and poor, holed up in a tiny trailer; her sister, frightened at the apparition, saw her and recognized her. Next day, Sylvana reported to her mother her sister’s state, saying she thought her sister would soon make contact. Her sister called within a few days, telling of Sylvana’s astral visit.

“Astral projection is relatively easy,” says Sylvana, “at least in my experience.” To astrally project, she says, before going to sleep she meditates strongly on the place or person she wants to visit. “If you’re looking for a person, you don’t have to know where they are,” she says. If you have a strong emotional attachment to the person, that attachment will draw you to him or her; similarly, if you’re strongly attached to a place, that attachment will draw you there. “The attachment can be in this life or another,” she notes.

Meditating on the place or person, with her purpose of astral travel firmly in mind, she allows herself to drift to sleep. “I’m successful at astral travel 90 percent of the time or so,” she says. Things that tend to prevent success include being overly tired or not clearly focused on the goal.

Known psychic ability is not a prerequisite for astral projection. “Everybody is psychic,” Sylvana says. “I think anybody can accomplish astral travel if they can let go of their fear around it, which is mostly what gets in people’s way.” Fears surrounding astral travel include fear of the unknown, fear of loss of control, fear of not being able to return and fear of other worlds peopled with demons and devils. To circumvent such fears, she suggests working in meditation to create positive psychic structures. “Meditate so that you learn that you can create what is out there,” she says, “rather than other way around.”

Once people surmount their fears, she says, “my experience is that as long as people have a reasonable expectation, they’re generally successful. But a lot of people want to have the ultimate experience, see fireworks, hear waves crash, movie kinds of things.” Instead, astral travelers usually encounter everyday scenes, since, as Sylvana points out, “there are many more everyday things in life than spectacular ones.” Most people can tell an astral travel dream by just this lack of surrealism. “I usually tell people if they dream of their mother’s house, and it looks like their mother’s house, with the correct people in it, they’re probably astrally projecting.”

Another nonsymbolic form is precognitive dreams, of which hundreds have been recorded and confirmed. Before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln reported that he dreamed he saw his body lying in state in the White House. A former tutor of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Bishop Joseph Lanyi, wrote down a dream in which he foresaw the Archduke’s murder before the fact. In 1966, the Welsh mining village of Aberfan was engulfed by an accidentally released slide of coal. Van de Castle reports that two days beforehand, a young girl, Eryl Mai Jones, told her mother a dream in which she went to school but there was no school to be seen: “Something black has come down all over it.” She added, “I’m not afraid to die, Mommy. I’ll be with Peter and June.”

Sylvana has had precognitive dreams since early childhood. “I had a couple of precognitive dreams when I was really young, of people dying,” she says, “and then they died. That’s what made me start telling people about my dreams.”

When Sylvana was 11, she dreamed of a car accident. “The details of the accident were not really clear,” she says. “The feeling of it was what I remembered. I kept having this peculiar sensation. But I knew that there was an accident, that I was in the car and that somebody got hurt really badly.” She told her mother about the dream. “It was a really strong dream,” she says.

About three weeks later, her family took a camping trip. They drove an old-fashioned Jeep, hauling behind it a trailer with a small, home-made camper unit on it, which made the trailer top-heavy.

“On our way home,” Sylvana says, “somebody pulled out in front of my mother, and she slammed on the brakes, and the trailer jackknifed and flipped the Jeep, making it roll three times.

“I was sitting in the front seat, holding my brother in my lap; he was a little under a year old. Back then, nobody had seatbelts or car seats. I remember the feeling of going over and over. I felt as if the top of my head was being ground off, and there was this horrible noise.” The Jeep had a home-made cover of fabricated sheet metal, and her head kept landing on this cover.

The Jeep ended up half on its side, with its front in the air. Its steering wheel was bent, and tire chains that had been under her mother’s seat wrapped around her mother’s legs, trapping her. Sylvana, the eldest of six, says, “I got out and started running around trying to find my brothers and sisters. I remember tearing up diapers; a couple of my sisters had long cuts on their arms from the windows. Then it dawned on me I didn’t know where my brother was.

“He was lying in the road in his snowsuit. He had been thrown out of the window and run over by the trailer. When I picked him up, I saw the whole side of his head was caved in, and you could see his brain.” He lived, but required four brain operations and had to relearn to walk.

Each thing Sylvana’s dream predicted had thus come true: There was a bad car accident, she was in it and someone was badly hurt. Unfortunately, the dream sent Sylvana into a tailspin. “I’d already had the idea that I was somehow responsible for the things that I saw in my dreams, and the dream followed by the accident really freaked me out. I wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on. I didn’t want to go to sleep. It seemed like my ability was a bad thing.” She had been having some form of dream precognition almost daily, “but it’s the bad things you really remember.”

After some counseling and her discovery of books on ESP, Sylvana says, “I finally came to terms with it. But I almost let my fears turn off my psychic abilities.”

Since then, Sylvana has had other precognitive dreams, including one in which she dreamed about the eruption of a string of volcanoes in the Northwest and Alaska, and related earthquakes. Several volcanoes she saw erupting have done so since the dream, including Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams in Alaska, each in the order in which she saw them erupt. Her dream also seemed to predict the recent activity of Mount Rainier and that by Crater Lake in Oregon. Sylvana reports, however, “I did some trance work about the dream and was told that not all of what I saw has to happen.”

Sylvana finds her precognitive dreams not always crystal clear. “I don’t always get the exact details. And sometimes when I get specific details, some of them might be wrong.” She believes dreams are partly censored by ordinary consciousness, which filters out things it finds impossible.

All in all, Sylvana says, “It’s different than you think it would be. You think that if you have a dream about something, it’s telling you you can do something about it. But my experience is that there’s nothing you can do.

“Every time I’ve had a dream and told someone to be careful, it didn’t make any difference. It makes you wonder what is the point. But I keep telling people.

“Of course,” she says, “if something doesn’t happen, you don’t know whether telling your dream prevented it.”

My brother has turned into a black lion, and my family is chasing him around the house. He is more childlike than usual, frustrated and angry, but appealing. Still, he is dangerous. My father is helping, but I am the bait; we think he will come to me. I am getting frustrated no one will call a professional to help, but none of us can get away to call.

At the beginning of the chase, I hide in the basement, but then the lion, my brother, comes straight at me. Toward the end of the chase, a minister comes to help, but I don’t like him. When, later, the minister and I throw ourselves together onto the ground in exhaustion, I toss a glass of water meant for the lion in his face.

Most dreams can be classified as symbolic, images woven by our unconscious. The unconscious throws up these images to us, I believe, in an attempt to tell the conscious mind what goes on underneath.

To be understood, dream symbols must be interpreted. But before you can interpret dreams, you must remember them. If you don’t ordinarily remember your dreams, or if you remember them patchily, remembering takes some commitment and concentration.

The best way to fully remember a dream is to wake at its end and write it down. To enable this, NightOwl, a counselor and dream-worker, recommends keeping a notebook and penlight by your bed. Then, before you go to sleep, she suggests you sit up in bed a few minutes and meditate on this idea: “I will dream tonight, and when I dream, I will wake up and write my dream down. Then I will go easily back to sleep.” It may take a few nights to get results, but if you go to sleep night after night with this idea in mind, your unconscious should get the message.

If you find this practice doesn’t work for you, you can try more intrusive measures. Set your alarm for an hour and a half after you go to sleep, or if this doesn’t work, at random times during your sleep time. At some point, your alarm should wake you in the middle of a dream in progress. However, for most people, simply concentrating on waking at dream’s end gets results.

If you already find it easy to remember dreams, you may be able to dispense with waking in the middle of the night. Waking at a dream’s end, however, means you retrieve the most details. Balancing how much you want to remember versus how much you want to sleep through the night is up to you.

For the most thorough dream recall, as soon as you wake, go over the dream or dreams in your mind, trying to bring back all details. I find it’s usually easiest to remember the last dream images first; you tend to remember dreams backward, drawing each image from that chronologically following, pulling them toward you as if on a string. Often, having gotten to the beginning of a dream, you’ll be able to remember a previous dream, or several previous dreams.

Once, going backward, you’ve garnered all the dream pieces, write them down. Don’t skip any details nuances can be important. Be sure to write down the feeling or feelings in the dream; this is often some of the most significant information.

Having the dream written out, you’re ready to start interpreting.

First, if you have any dream dictionaries at hand throw them out. Their symbolism may work for you in the most general fashion, in that some symbols are common to our society: for example, we learn early the heart stands for emotions. (However, if you were an ancient Greek, it would be the liver.) Similarly, I was told a long time ago that a house symbolizes a person’s psychological being, the basement being the unconscious, the attic spiritual or mental regions and everything else between ordered accordingly.

This symbolism works for me. But dream symbols are very personal. If you’re a building contractor, houses may mean something very different to you. Your dream symbolism is very much your own. A railroad could have positive associations for me, negative for you, and either of our associations might be different from those of someone who works for the railroad, or whose parent did.

A few generalizations can be made about dream symbols. They are often visual or aural puns. If you’re having problems at work with a Mr. Brown, you might well have a dream suffused with a muddy brown fog that impedes your progress: Brown is standing in your way. Also, the feeling surrounding a symbol is very important. If you feel affection for a table, that links it to one set of associations, while if it troubles you, it’s linked to another set.

If any dream symbol seems opaque, or if you feel you might have more to draw from it, you might try Jung’s technique of active imagination. Meditate on the symbol, and see what it does or tells you. This process should help elucidate the symbol and may help connect it to the other symbols in the dream.

To interpret my own dreams, I write out all the pieces of a dream in a list. My list for the dream at the beginning of the article would go like this (I’ve juggled the list a little to aid in interpretation):

  • Traveling.
  • Late afternoon.
  • New restaurant: elegant, empty, fairylike, glamorous.
  • Grandmother.
  • Grandmother worries the restaurant is too expensive.
  • Grandmother fears she won’t know how to conduct herself.
  • I plan to talk her into it.
  • Entrancing crystal chandeliers, with delicate crystals: charming, welcoming, though expensive.
  • I notice one, then see a whole line.
  • My grandmother likes them too.
  • Waiting.

Once you have the list, take each item on it and see what associations each elicits. Aristotle wrote “The most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances,” and this remains true. As Jung did, I tend to strive for one central, core association, keeping in mind others that come up.

For the dream pieces listed, my associations are as follows. Traveling for me tends to be exciting: journeying, adventure, quest. The dream had an enchanted quality that jibes with this interpretation. Late afternoon is a mellow time of day for me: still daylight, but golden, tending toward nostalgia. I love going to new restaurants, and for me this one symbolizes treating myself, a pleasant indulgence. This restaurant has a fairylike feeling: a gift of the elves. For me, this fairylike glamour is associated with the unconscious itself. Desire and glamour are aspects of the unconscious: You cannot summon desire; it comes to you of its own choice, from the depths of your being. The restaurant would thus be a gift, a gift gratifying my desires, given to me by myself.

Grandmother is the elder female, the parental censor, perhaps (here I draw on psychology) the feminine superego. My grandmother worries the restaurant will be too expensive this gift from the subconscious will somehow cost me too much to accept. She is worried, too, she won’t know how to conduct herself; perhaps the gift involves going into unknown territory. She is merely worried, however, not censorious. I, my self or conscious or ego, plan to talk her into letting me accept the gift.

The crystal chandeliers are beautiful things, works of art: specific items that reflect the glamour that is part of the restaurant. Also, a crystal chandelier to me is precious and symbolizes richness, being rich. They are, in effect, gilding on the gift, or indicate the gift is one that includes wealth or is appropriate to the wealthy. I think in this context of supernatural glamour the wealth would be spiritual or psychic rather than material.

First there is one such symbol of richness; then I see many, stretching almost into infinity. The psychic richness offered is great and helps mollify the grandmother-censor.

At the end of the dream, we are still waiting for the hostess. The dream’s gift is a promise for the future.

So, by my interpretation, my unconscious is offering me a rich gift, which attracts me, but my superego is not sure whether to accept it. Still, the psychic wealth of the gift tempts even the superego. But I am waiting for it; it hasn’t come to me yet.

This dream, several years old, came to me at a time when I was intensely considering my love life and what sort of man I should date. Three months after this dream, I met my future husband. Ours is a relationship new in my experience, where at several points I’ve been at a loss how to conduct myself as the dream predicted.

One benefit of keeping a dream journal is that you can go back to your dreams. If you track your dreams over time, you’ll find themes emerging, which in retrospect can be linked to events in your life. The following dream I also dreamed around the same time as that about the restaurant. It also includes a restaurant, this time a diner, and it’s interesting to note it’s set at Christmas, a traditional time of gift-giving. The dream, it seems to me, is again about accepting or rejecting change. Note the aural pun.

It is Christmas, and I have three parties to go to, including one with my family. I start out from my family’s house, where everyone is getting along pretty well, joshing each other.

With some trouble, I make my way to a diner I like for dinner. It is very busy. I manage to get served, but I have a hard time getting the waitress to take my money. I pay her mostly in change; so I may do this, a harried older woman and I pass change back and forth. Finally, when the restaurant is nearly empty, with half the lights out and only three people left, I am able to pay and leave.

I go to one of the parties, a transvestite ball, in a hall around the corner from the diner. I walk in, down a ramp and up another; a man behind a podium seems to be taking tickets. I go up to him. Though I can see plenty of people dancing in the main room, past the shadowy front lobby, the man taking tickets tells me the ball is nearly over. I think this is ridiculous. But then I reflect perhaps he is right, and I don’t want to argue with him. I decide to go back home, to the family party, where I want to go at least as much.

If the divinations your dreams bring you unbidden don’t address the questions you’re concerned with consciously, you can incubate a dream.

Dream incubation has been practiced since the beginning of recorded history. According to Van de Castle, the people of Sumer and Akkad went to special temples to incubate dreams, offering a prayer to the god or goddess of the shrine to send a favorable and true dream. Those serving at the temple would interpret the dreamer’s dream, and if the dream seemed unclear, the dreamer could dream again, asking for more clarity. The Mesopotamians feared evil dreams, which they believed sent by demons; for disturbing dreams, they performed a ritual wherein the dreamer would rub a lump of clay over his or her body to infuse it with his or her essence, tell the clay the disturbing dream, then with ritual words cast it into water so the dream’s evil consequences would dissolve with the clay.

The Egyptians also practiced dream incubation; sometimes an Egyptian would even send a proxy to the temple to dream in his or her place. Egyptians seeking dreams would fast, pray, study drawings and perform rituals to draw the proper dream to them. The Greeks too practiced dream incubation, particularly in temples of the healing god Asklepios. Those who wanted healing would follow a specific regime, usually involving cold baths, a special diet and abstention from sex, then perform animal sacrifice and sleep on the skin of their offering. In their dreams, they would receive hints and symbols that the priests would interpret for the best means of healing.

To incubate a dream, you need only slightly modify the dream remembrance process described earlier. Before you go to sleep, NightOwl suggests you meditate on the question or issue about which you want to dream, saying to your unconscious, “I want to dream tonight about (the issue), and I will have a dream which will give me insight into it.” Again, you can instruct yourself to wake at the dream’s end, or wait till morning, though waiting till morning gives you more chance to lose or forget the important dream.

As with remembering other dreams, incubating a particular dream may take a few nights. However, if you give it a little time, you should find yourself dreaming an answer to your question.

Dreams are a great resource, images from the fertile land of the unconscious, whence come our hopes and desires. You may not spend all your time mining this fertility at this point in my life, I only record and interpret those dreams my unconscious makes a point of my remembering. But dreams have been for me a source of advice and boundless inspiration. If you have questions, or seek to know what deeply concerns you, go to your dreams.

Washed in the Water

Washed in the Water

by Prudence Priest


Prudence Priest leads Freya’s Folk, a coven with a Norse focus that has been together for more than 20 years.

Although baptism is most often considered a Christian custom, the use of water as a purification is much more ancient. The Greeks, Romans, Aryans, Ugro-Finnics and the Teutons associated it with some form of initiation as well.

Ceremonial use of water can be both simple and complex. Children are born of the water of the mother; a parallel of washing away the old and beginning fresh becomes evident. Why do people wash their hands? This simple ritual cleans them from contact with dirt, and by extension, disease, death, even guilt. And as this process of purification is built on, the simple act of cleansing assumes ever more complex symbolism and meaning, and even becomes associated with the giving of a name as civilization becomes more sophisticated.

The four elements of classical times, among those who believe they have a life of their own or who are animistic, have often been venerated in their own right. Sacred wells or springs and lakes with reputed healing powers have outlasted all attempts to Christianize them if not to co-opt them.

Superstitious Romans believed that water could purge them of all sins. Many Indians today believe that immersion in the Ganges will wash away all the past sins of a lifetime. If water can wash away dirt and contamination on a physical level, then it follows that it is possible that water can purify one on an emotional, spiritual, moral and even psychic level as well. Such was the current of thought of the ancients. It is still prevalent among some pagan peoples today.

Teutonic peoples had a custom of baptism observed by Roman writers as early as 200 B(efore) the C(onfusion). Among the Scandinavians, it was called an “ausa vatni” (water sprinkling), and signified acceptance into the family. Until the ausa vatni had been performed, a child had no legal rights or standing within the community and was not even considered a human being. Even in Christian times, the wergeld for killing an unbaptized child was half that paid for the death of a baptized one.

On the ninth day after birth, the baby was brought to the father (or closest male relative) for the public performance of the ausa vatni, and at that time was also given a name. The Norwegians, Lapps and Finns performed the ceremony on a Thorsday. It was often accompanied with a feast given by all the blood relatives. The name chosen was usually that of a parent or an ancestor, usually a deceased grandparent on the mother’s side, conferred so that the qualities of that person could live again in the child. Giving the parent’s name granted one immortality in one’s own lifetime.

When a child was born, it was first laid upon the ground to reverence the earth as the source of all life. The Scandinavian term for midwife, “jordemoder,” means earth mother. The midwife then lifted the child up and presented it to the father, who had the power of life or death over it. This power was nullified, however, if the child had partaken of milk or honey, or if it had been washed. If any of these had happened, a child was considered to have rights equal to those of any member of its family. If the father were unavailable, the mother had the right to acknowledge or expose the infant. Another important custom was the planting of a tree on the day of birth. This tree became the child’s tree of life, and they mirrored each other’s growth. This custom has a lot more going for it than passing out cigars.

As water is elemental in nature, an ausa vatni is a Vanic rite (that is, a rite having to do with the Vanir). The new member of the community was thrice sprinkled with water by the father: once in the name of Thor, again in the name of Freyr and lastly in the name of Njord. By sprinkling the babe with water, it was believed, the beneficial forces of water could be brought to bear in their various powers for good and healing for the newborn. This attunement of the child with the element of water was also thought to protect it from the harmful effects of water.

Among the Finns and Lapps, baptismal names were bestowed by the “wash mother” (laugo-edme). Then, according to E.J. Jessen in Afhandling om de norske Finners og Lappers Hedenske Religion, the following ceremony was performed: “Warm water was poured into a trough, and two birch twigs one in its natural condition, the other bent into a ring were laid in it. At the same time, the child was thus addressed: ‘Thou shalt be as fertile, sound and strong as the birch from which this twig was taken.’ Then a copper (or silver) talisman was cast into the water, with the words: ‘I cast the namba-skiello (talisman) into the water, to wash thee; be as melodious and fair as this brass (or silver).’ Then came the formula: ‘I baptize thee with a new name, N.N. Thou shalt thrive better from this water, of which we make thee a partaker, than from the water wherewith the priest baptized thee. I call thee up by baptism, deceased N.N. Thou shalt now rise again to life and health and receive new limbs. Thou, child, shalt have the same happiness and joy which the deceased enjoyed in this world.’ As she uttered these words, the baptizer poured water three times on the head of the child, and then washed its whole body. Finally she said: ‘Now art thou baptized adde-namba (underworld name), with the name of the deceased, and I will see that with this name thou wilt enjoy good health.'”

Specific legal rights were conferred at an ausa vatni as well. Both the Eddas and Heimskringla have reference to the custom. In the Havamal (Dasent’s translation), the master magician states: “This I can make sure when I suffuse a man-child with water he shall not fall when he fights in the host; no sword shall bring him low.” In the Heimskringla, we are told that at the birth of Harald Gráfeld, “Eirikr and Gunnhild had a son whom Haraldr Haarfager suffused with water, and to whom he gave the name, ordaining that he should be king after his father Eirik.”

By naming and claiming a child as his own, according to the Teutonic peoples, a father granted the child protection, provision and the right of inheritance and succession to his estate. An ausa vatni is an important rite of passage in Asatru. As many people have never had one, it is a custom in Freya’s Folk when a new member joins and takes a new name. Why not try the cleansing, healing and purging power of water for yourself?

May the gods direct you to the best.

An Intimate Look at Ritual Pain

An Intimate Look at Ritual Pain

by Amanda Silvers


“A person can’t be creative and conformist at the same time,” J.A. Meyer, “Brick Wall”

The night is dark when we set out, with a cool silver moon the only illumination. I am blindfolded and bound as soon as we begin. I wonder where we are going, for one of the rules is that I must not know until after (and if) I endure the ordeal. It is a cold clear evening, and I can think of nothing save the knot in my stomach and the shaking of my knees.

We arrive at the appointed site; it smells slightly of hay, cows maybe. It is frigid and crisp, and I am beginning to chill; I should have dressed more warmly.

We enter some type of building; the blindfold is scratchy on my face, and I can’t see, but it is warmer, and I sense other people. I hear the crackling of a fire. My bonds are removed, and my coat and gloves come off; the others are silent except for the terse instructions, “Take off your clothes!” I am wishing I were anywhere but here right at this moment. I am freezing, and they want me naked? I vaguely remember them telling me this ritual was skyclad, but I’d forgotten.

I am naked now, and warmer, but still feel as though I can’t get warm enough. I kneel on the floor, which seems to be made of hard and uneven boards. My knees hurt, my shins hurt, my arms hurt, and there is a pain in my back that gets worse as the seconds fly by. I am cold and colder, and the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stands up like a dog’s hackles. I sense movement as they come for me.

I am afraid. I am inclined to say forget it, I don’t really want this. I have no idea what to expect and all of my worst fears flash before my eyes, as someone helps me to my feet. My stiff legs protest with loud cracks and pops, as I attempt to put my weight on them. I hope that I have used good judgment; all of my father’s warnings come back to me, scenes from Rosemary’s Baby and all of the stories about “Satanists” fly before my eyes. Can I trust these people? Do I know them well enough? I guess at this point I really have no choice. So I follow where they lead, carefully instructing me on where to step and when to stop.

I am in the circle now; no… not yet, I am nearby. I can feel the proximity of maybe a dozen people. I can feel their breathing, their excitement. I am still frightened, I am fidgeting and shaking like a leaf. I hear the priestess’s voice; it is familiar, and it comforts me. I hear her ask me if I wish to continue. I pause, then answer feebly “Yes,” and I am brought in. I can tell I have entered the circle because it’s so much warmer, and I feel it close around me. I feel momentarily safe; then I remember what I’m here for.

The ritual continues; some parts are familiar, and I pass each test. I say the right things by some miracle of my memory or subconscious, and then the time arrives for the ordeal. I am asked to kneel again on the hard uneven floor; my hands are bound behind me; I am bent over in supplication when I feel the lash of the whip.

The whip goes up with a whooshing sound and comes down with a crack that slices the skin on my back as if it were butter, and it feels as if I am bleeding. I feel the pain, and the pain from my childhood comes up with it, up from deep inside of me. It comes bubbling to the surface as I count the lashes and hope each is the last. I feel tears squeezing out through my clenched eyelids under the rough blindfold. A thought about whether they will see me cry passes though my mind just as another lash follows on its heels chasing it away. I allow the tears to come. I let the feelings surface, and I wail with the sound of an animal, a cat. I growl, and I resist moving away even as I feel my body grow warmer and warmer still. I think that blood must be running out of me at this point, and I pray to the Goddess that they will stop, as each of them lashes me with the cruel whip. I feel myself beginning to slip out of my body, and I hear my priestess say, “Stay with us, dear one, it is for naught if you go away.” So I try to focus my energy as I shift my weight on my knees, and the lash continues.

I don’t know how many times I was lashed that night. I do know I was really surprised that there was no blood at the end. It felt as if the whip was cutting me. There were some welts that went away in a day or two; I wore them as a badge of courage. Maybe it was the fear that made it seem so bad, or maybe something more happened that night than I can explain.

When this ritual took place, I was very young and full of myself; I thought I knew everything. I didn’t, of course, and the important thing is that this initiation served to point that fact out to me. I had begun in the Craft not taking it seriously, and after the ritual I felt charged, changed; I was a different person from the girl who set out that night. I knew I had endured, and my childhood pain had been spent like so many coins as payment for my innocence.

Humans have utilized, and continue to utilize, pain in ritual to accomplish different goals: as a ceremony of purification, as a means to an altered state of mind, as a technique to travel astrally, as a healing for past pain and as an ordeal to suffer and endure before being allowed to move from one level to another, as in my first initiation. Why do we use pain in this fashion? As Doreen Valiente said, “The reason we use the scourge, is that it works!” Pain stands as a proven technique for reaching the subconscious, raising energy and achieving altered states.

Pain is used as a marker for rites of passage. “The Olmec, Mesoamerica’s oldest civilization, provides the earliest, and one of the most graphic illustrations of genital sacrifice,” according to Wes Christensen. “A remarkable mural found inside a cave in the modern Mexican state of Guerrero, shows a crouching jaguar, symbol of the priest-king in later times, emerging from the stylized jaws of a serpent whose body, in turn, reveals itself to be the greatly enlarged penis of a human figure. The obligation of ritual blood sacrifice was one the Maya later shared with the other cultures that inherited Olmec patterns of ceremonialism.”

A similar rite of passage that continues today, circumcision is a religious ritual that has been practiced in both ancient and modern times to mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. Circumcision is practiced today in Jewish culture as the religious ceremony it is. Modern-day mainstream medical circumcision is one example of how society can embrace a religious ritual and change it into a medical procedure.

E. Royston Pike states: “Circumcision was practiced by the ancient Egyptians as far back as the Fourth Dynasty, or 3000 B.C., and probably long before that. The ceremony is clearly portrayed on a temple at Thebes. Circumcision is to be regarded as a ritual tribal mark or badge.”

Tribal or “gang” tattoos are popular with young people as a mark of their allegiance; they also use pain as a ritual to enter into the gang. Called being “jumped in,” the gang challenges and beats the initiate till they either give up, or until they can’t move. Some people die as a result of this initiation. It shows their level of commitment to the gang, as well as how tough they are. They wear the tattoos of the gang proudly, to show who they are.

The body’s ability to override the sensation of pain is incredible; when we are in pain, we manufacture natural substances much more powerful than most drugs. Some people get almost addicted to pain and body modification, as if it were a drug. Fakir Musafar is one of the most extreme body players that I have seen; he has been experimenting with all manner of body modification and ritual since the ’50s. At one point, he whittled his waist to a mere 14 inches in a reenactment of the rituals of the Ibitoe from New Guinea, who use the itiburi (wide waist belt) as a sign of manhood. Fakir says he “became an Ibitoe to see what it was like, and fell in love with the practice…. The tight waist training of the Ibitoe teaches them that you are not your body, you just live in it.” He adds, “Times have changed, people have changed. The way I see it is, people need these rituals so desperately; that’s why piercing and tattooing have blossomed. People need physical rituals, tribalism…. They’ve got to have it, one way or another.”

The majority of the rituals Fakir does are reconstructions of tribal rituals that have been acted out for hundreds of years, like those of the Indian sadhus who sew coconuts all over their bodies, stitch fruit with chains to their backs or hang by hooks from their backs. Fakir hangs weights from hooks in his skin, puts clothespins all over himself, dangles a large weight from his penis and lies on a bed of razor-sharp blades. He has accomplished numerous enactments of these practices, which he has documented with pictures.

When asked why he would want to do these extreme things, Fakir says, “We’re suffering from a lot of repressive conditioning, which you can’t undo in just a mental way. Most of it has to do with sexuality and sexual energy. If you get into any practices of other cultures, you’re bound to be involved with a lot of sexuality in other states and guises that aren’t even acknowledged as being in existence in this culture. And a good shamanistic answer to why do these things is because it’s fun!… I mean, what’s wrong with that? Is there a law against having fun?”

Fakir is also one of only a few white men who have performed the O-Kee-Pa Sundance ceremony, wherein the person pierces the flesh on his chest and puts claws, horns or hooks through it and hangs from the Sundance tree till the skin rips and he falls down, the duration of which may be many hours.

This ceremony was illegal and relatively unknown to the white man until the film A Man Called Horse; then Fakir and famous body piercer Jim Ward made the film Dances Sacred and Profane in 1985, in which they included an O-Kee-Pa ceremony.

George Caitlin in O-Kee-Pa: A Religious Ceremony, and Other Customs of the Mandans, published in 1867, writes; “An inch or more of the flesh on each shoulder, or each breast, was taken up between thumb and finger by the man who held the knife, and the knife had been hacked and notched to make it produce as much pain as possible, was forced through the flesh below the fingers, and was followed by a skewer which the other attendant forced through the wounds (underneath the muscles, to keep them from being torn out), as they were hacked. There were two cords lowered from the top of the lodge, which were fastened to these skewers, and they immediately began to haul him up. He was thus raised until his body was just suspended from the ground…. The fortitude with which every one of them bore this part of the torture surpassed credulity.” The ceremony used to be illegal; the government tried to outlaw the Indians’ rights to their religious rituals. Some of those rights were not regained in court until 1967.

The assemblage is held each year at the summer gathering or Sundance to take part in the ritual, you must be an Indian, and each year they change the location where it is held. I have spoken of the Sundance with several people who have performed it, and I have seen the cruel scars the skewers leave where they tear the skin. The scarification is a badge worn by those who do the sacred rituals, a reminder of the experience, a medal of courage, an imprint in their skin of the climacteric of their life.

When I questioned Bear-dreamer why he does the Sundance ceremony, he related his experience: “Our selves are the only thing we have to sacrifice. Everything else we offer to the gods has come from the earth; this is a way to give back to the Mother something which we did not get from Her. This way you spill your blood and endure the pain as your offering to Her.”

Everything comes back around; there is nothing new under the sun. In many cultures, we find people inflicting pain on themselves and others; with sadomasochism (SM) recently become a cultural phenomenon, this sexual/sensual practice seems to have reevolved. It has even progressed into a bizarre fad in the last 10 years. In the ’70s and ’80s, you had to really search for fetish clothing; these days, Madonna has made it a mainstream fashion statement. Studded black leather and chains appear on the runways of French clothing designers almost as often as in some gay bars. If it were merely a vogue, I wouldn’t be all that interested, but SM has grown as a sexual penchant for people from the hip to the middle class.

No matter what class or educational background you hail from, enduring pain can give you an incredible feeling of power: power over your own body, power over your circumstances. If you can refuse to feel the pain, or to react to it, you can control your life.

There is an exchange of power that happens in SM that I have yet to find in many other places. Some SM activity may be understood as a ritual “sacrifice,” the person being tortured sacrificing their power, pain or blood to the person doing the beating, cutting or piercing. Some people are in SM for the endorphins and the “high” produced by the person on the bottom (the one being beaten or whatever), which is empathed by the top, who then gets a contact high. This may also be true for many others in situations where they are inflicting pain, like phlebotomists, physical therapists and so forth.

What is the enchantment of pain? Why are young people nowadays piercing everything visible as well as many of the unmentionable parts? What about tattoos? Talk about pain! I am also a tattoo artist, and I get wonderfully high from the pain I visit on my customers with the tattoo machine it’s unavoidable. I ride their energy, their endorphins, for as long as they want to or can take it. It is a lot of fun, a harmless way to experience that high, and they gain something from it too. It’s far superior to drugs; I actually get paid for it, and it’s desirable all of a sudden, in a kinky sort of way! A tattoo as a rite of passage marker is a wonderful experience, as you may suffer from real pain as an ordeal, which is not unbearable, and it leaves a beautiful reminder of your process and transition.

The Craft has its own interpretation of pain in ritual; there are a number of traditions that employ flagellation. Doreen Valiente said, “Rumors and allegations have been frequent, that present day witches make use of ritual flagellation in their ceremonies. The truth is that some covens do make use of this, and others do not. Those which do, however, have the warrant of a good deal of antiquity behind them; the truth of which has hitherto been obscured by the difficulties encountered by anthropologists and students of comparative religion, in the frank discussion of this subject. The reason for this seems to be that, while strict moralists have no objection, indeed all are in favour, of flagellation being used for penance and punishment, to inflict pain and suffering; nevertheless, the idea of this very ancient folk rite being used in a magickal way, not to inflict pain but as part of a fertility ritual, for some reason upsets them very much.”

To learn, you must suffer and be purified. Are you willing to suffer to learn?

The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft states that “Religious mystics have used flagellation for centuries. In witchcraft, it is ideally light, slow and steady. Not all (witchcraft) traditions use scourging. Its use in those that do has declined since the 1960s.” The reason the scourging is ideally slow and steady is that it should build energy. It begins slowly and softly, in my experience, and builds over time in rhythm and intensity, so as to mount the neophyte’s rapture. Think of a musical piece that starts soft and slow and builds into a crescendo of power. It feels something like that.

In traditional Gardnerian and Alexandrian rituals, the scourge is employed quite readily to raise energy; there are numerous examples of this in diverse types of rites where this is apropos, for example during a third degree initiation. Gardner’s Great Rite includes three sequential scourgings. Some observe that he was a bit too taken with the ritual asceticism and hint that he was “kinky.”

Doreen Valiente replied to this, “What old Gerald had described is a very practical way of making magick. I speak from experience when I say that it does what he claimed it to do, and I don’t care about what anyone says about being ‘kinky’ or whatever. Perhaps it has become associated with ‘kinky’ sexual matters, but long before that it was part of a very ancient mystical and magickal practice. You can find mention of it in ancient Egypt and from ancient Greece; and no doubt you are familiar with the famous scene from the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii which shows a new initiate being scourged a point which Gerald referred to in Witchcraft Today.” Doreen added, “I disliked the elements of flagellation and bondage in the rituals at first, but I came to accept it for one good reason it worked. It genuinely raised a cone of power and enabled one to have flashes of clairvoyant vision.”

In my tradition, Sylvan, we used to practice ritual scourging as a suasion to dance the circle round, faster and faster. The high priest and priestess would stand bordering the circle of dancers and flail us with cats o’ nine, to make us step in a more frenzied manner, so as to elevate the energy. We were then a skyclad tradition, and when the dance climaxed, the priestess would motion and we would all fall to the floor as she funneled the cone of power. We don’t perform skyclad very frequently any more, and we don’t dance the frenzied circle as we once did. We do continue to use various methods involving pain as tools to an end, such as an ordeal in an initiation.

I find it fascinating that more and more people are finding the tool of pain an appropriate one to use, whether they be modern primitives, native American Indians, SM dykes or witches. We, as a national culture, seem to be attempting to reclaim our lost rituals. Humankind is beginning to reinvent many rites and customs, some including pain.

Pain can act as a doorway to other realms; it can take you places you have never been. It is one thing that can definitely move you from one place inside yourself to another; in the initiation I related, it moved me from my childhood to being a true believer. It has moved me in many ways at other times in other places; if you can endure, you can triumph. I have used pain as a tool for growth, for sensory overload, to achieve states of bliss, as a tool for illumination, for achieving astral travel, for inner exploration, as a tool for dramatic personal growth and for reliving and healing my past. These ceremonies have existed since the beginning; humans have a deep need for them, and to deny them is to deny our gods.

In the center of the circle stands a man; he has been challenged, has made the promises. He is asked if he desires the purification and the mark. He says “Yes” solidly, assuredly. People approach from three sides, a man and a woman go behind and beside him, to sustain him, to support him.

“By the fire that gives you strength, by the water that quenches your thirst, by the earth that holds the secrets of being, by the air that inspires you, by the fey that share their magic, the last stage of your purification has arrived…. You must call upon your strength to help you attain the center.”

The third woman stands before him with a glowing scarlet firebrand; the star blazes for a moment before she presses it to his chest. The smell of burning hair, a whiff of melting flesh, and it’s over. He does not cry out. He is transported; you can see it; he has a foolish smile smutched across his face that he can’t wipe off.

He is positively in the center now, of the gods. It is a night he will remember always, and particularly any time he notices the star-shaped scar the brand left over his heart.

For a moment, in pain, he was one with the gods. If pain can assist you in attaining the center, why not use it? I say it can’t hurt!

True Initiation Comes from Within

True Initiation Comes from Within

by Maren M. Ulberg


Walk into any pagan or progressive bookstore and count the number of books available on the subject of magick, paganism and witchcraft: more than a few. Less than 20 years ago, even 15, for the most part this would’ve been a rare occurrence, and yet magickal and pagan “textbooks” are now a hot commodity with the purported wisdom of the ages available to anyone who can crack a wallet. Myself, I love it; I remember the thirsty, lonely years. I admit I’m a little overwhelmed at times by the sheer multiplicity of it all, but I’m pleased that it’s there: so neat and tidy, so bright and shiny it’s a wonder we can call anything esoteric anymore.

Something bothers me, though: Where did this smorgasbord of expertise in the paranormal sciences come from, aside from acknowledged elders and scholars? And, is my uneasy sense valid that many seekers (of the Crafts) are going to consume instruction indiscriminate of the source, and worse, without serious self-insight? Why does it bother me? Why do I think that there is a problem?

Well, since I know that I don’t feel particularly territorial about the subject of magick, perhaps I’m concerned with the result via the methods. I’m concerned that a shallow survey of magick, instead of the complexities of formal study, could result in a belief that magick based in the empirical is necessarily more effective than magick based in the intuitive. I believe this has derived from a twofold influence, on the reliance on scientific methodology as the “right” way to approach a discussion and study of magick, and on the comfort of formula-based magick, which has come to rely on a complex of correspondences, spell-scripts and tools. Ideally, these are meant to focus the will of the magician into activity and entice the attention of the powers that be. At the worst, they certainly have effectiveness as imitative magick. They still fit a standard witch’s definition of magick: “the ability to bring about change in the world through an act of will.” Unfortunately, is there a danger of losing our ability to employ an act of will by relying on pedestrian brands of magick without any personal investigation of the self?

As witches, we most certainly will undergo some form of initiation or initiations in the course of our lives. I propose to briefly discuss initiation as it has been used in the classic sense, and then discuss a theory of the mystic, or transcendent initiate, aiming to return the power of the intuition to the realm of the magician.

Magick by its very nature is boundless and difficult to describe or define much the same as our notions of spirit, soul, love, the sacred or the mind; each culture and person acquires their own definition, while some do not desire to contemplate the concept at all. As a witch formally trained in the studies of anthropology, comparative philosophy, art and medicine, I have some skills that help me describe such weighty topics, and yet when I make the attempt to codify the concept, I feel something is lost. Something vital, something inexplicable. This is the same dilemma and result experienced by anyone, no matter what their professorialship, dedication, theory, census, fecundity of data or the quantity of profundity applied to the subject. Some things defy our logic and control. For these things, only the arts come close to conveying the subtlety and depth required of their subjects. Art, like magick, derives from the use of skill (by learning and experience) and becomes true through creative intuition.

Ed Fitch, of the Feraferia tradition, describes magick as “that which is beyond our casual knowledge,” or esoteric. His definition embraces both concepts of esoteric knowledge, received through study, training and the physical initiation into a magickal circle or society, and intuitive or mystic knowledge.

Initiation is a metaphor for rebirth after a simulation of death. It is a lesson of sacrifice: the willing participation in the holy mystery of existence, of life consuming and begetting life. At times, according to Frazier, its purpose within animistic cultures was the temporary transfer of the initiate’s soul or essence outside his or her body into an object or totem animal as a safeguard during the powerful changes occurring in coming to sexual maturity. This had the effect of introducing the totem animal to the initiate and ushering in the person as a full, adult member of society. Manly P. Hall, in his workThe Secret Teachings of All Ages, relates the achievement of initiation into the Mysteries (here he refers to those of classical Greece): that man becomes aware of and reunited with the anthropos, or overself, without physical death, “the inevitable Initiator.” The physical body was considered to be only one-third of one’s immortal self, a periodic descent of spirit into matter. Through a process known as “operative theology,” the law of birth and death was transcended momentarily to awaken and reunite all parts of the self and connect with the whole of existence.

Forms of initiation, or rites of passage, occur at the many critical phases of a person’s life and development, such as marriage, induction into age sets and societies, professional inductions such as taking the Hippocratic Oath, onset of a woman’s menses or conference of status or degree. Themes common to formal initiations include:

  • Aspects of secrecy (initiation performed only by other initiates)
  • Conveyance of knowledge, revelation of mysteries
  • Physical change (scarring, tattooing, piercing, the onset of menses, circumcision, taking sacramental drugs, loss of a tooth or clothing and so on)
  • Passing of certain tests
  • Advancement into age sets, societies, degrees, orders and so on
  • Purification (leaving off the “old” person)
  • Concept of death of the old self and the birth of a new, with a new name
  • Ritual binding, kidnapping, killing, laying in a tomb
  • Existing in a liminal phase

The “liminal” is an anthropological term devised by Van Gennep and Turner in Rites of Passage, which describes “that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both.” Those in liminal phase are statusless, sexless and outside secular space and time in a sense, they occupy the limitless existence before birth. “The liminal subject experiences ‘communitas,’ a comradeship among equals.” T.M. Luhrmann writes inPersuasions of the Witches Craft: “The techniques of the liminal [phase] can be used to make that-which-is-not persuasively more realistic,” resulting in a profound experience when the initiate has an extensive period in which to move into a state of “not-being.”

A Persian mystical writer and thinker, Azizi-Al Muhhamed Nasifi, relates a form of initiation as mystical transcendence, a form I propose can deepen and further magickal work. In his work Tanzil ur arwah, dated 1360 C.E., he describes the necessary “vita purgativa” (inner death) to move through the arenas of spiritual progress to “ghayat” (freedom):

“The essence of purification is separation while the essence of prayer is connection. A form of initiation relates as a mystical transcendence, an aspect I propose that can contribute to deeper progress in magickal arts. Where connection in a moral stage creates out of one’s self, purification in the act of escaping the fetters of the old self.”

At what point this transformation was to be recognized is unclear, but perhaps it was a state of the heart instead of a condition of the intellect. Although the light of the intellect is sharp-sighted and farsighted, he says, “the fire of love is even more sharp-sighted and farsighted.” Therein Nasifi has combined intellect and love as the question requires for spiritual transcendence. He felt the path of the mystic could reflect clearer insight by freeing the heart and mind of preconscious beliefs (dogma) and the mundane practices of the theologian. He writes, “Wherein the theologian, he who travels the path of religious dogma, learns each day something he did not know before, the mystic, he who travels the path of the initiate, forgets each day something that he knew.” Yet both strive for knowledge, for ignorance plays no part in this path of forgetfulness.

Magick in the witch’s Craft relies on the theory of immanence and the knowledge that it can be directly contacted and influenced or directed through the will of the witch, an act that requires a change of consciousness. Imman describes where there is no split between spirit and matter, magick or immanence in an ever-present quality, like a river one lives beside, draws life from and can enter at will.

If magick is a reflection of that which is possible beyond our casual knowledge, then the mystic initiate would seem to be in a position of greater strength through transcendence (intuition) as a magician than one who relies on esoteric learning alone.

When Nasifi exhorts us to polish our heart as if it were a shining mirror in order to reflect the world as it is, I can imagine that in my chest is a great crystalline globe, and rather than filling it with bits of paper inked with the interpretations of others, I leave room and shine it to allow the immanence to flow within me. To fill me so that I may dip into the pool of the sacred. The magick.