Upon the Astral Plane and the Afterlife
Author: Grey Glamer
In their role as walkers between the worlds, Witches and Heathens are creatures born from apparent paradox. While the individual practitioner may emphasize one or the other, most Neopagans simultaneously honor both the multiplicity and the fundamental unity of All That Is. Meaning no disrespect to the true polytheists among us, I myself find deepest inspiration when I acknowledge one immanent Holy One who wears many masks.
As human beings, though, we’re decidedly prone to losing sight of the forest for the trees, and thus I find beneficial the practice of returning to our most basic beliefs from time to time. My purpose in writing this essay isn’t to resolve all the apparent dualities in our world, or any such herculean task. Rather, I want to focus upon one particular duality that profoundly shapes the quest shared by mystics and magicians, the observed gap between the realms of matter and of spirit, and the ways by which that divide shapes our sense of life, death, and rebirth.
Employing the term in the contemporary, non-Siberian sense, contemporary Witchcraft is a shamanic path. While many Witches and Heathens prefer to conceptualize and discuss magic via the language of energies and vibrations, at some point within our developing quest we encounter some non-physical entity that’s sentient in roughly the same sense that we are sentient. Whether we meet them during our astral journeys or perceive their physical manifestations upon our own material realm, they are undeniably real, possessing strangely familiar feelings and motivations.
Speaking from my own admittedly limited experience, some spiritual beings are beneficent, while some leave morality to be desired. Most are somewhere in the middle, neither angels nor demons. In fact, for all their whimsicality, the average spirit seems very, very human. They have needs and desires, dreams and fears, just like you and me.
This class of being, which impresses itself primarily upon our intuitive sense yet with occasional physical manifestations, I define as spiritual, as opposed to material creatures like ourselves who, generally speaking, prove more intensely cognizant of the physical. Of course, there exists no creature exclusively material or spiritual. Every material creature maintains an aspect within the spiritual realms, and every spiritual being produces some resonance upon the material plane. With precious few exceptions, however, most entities favor one aspect over the other, and only when the Mists between worlds serendipitously grow thin do we even acknowledge the multifaceted nature of our cosmos.
As walkers between the worlds, Witches and Heathens learn how to step lightly from the material into the spiritual and back again. Every Circle that we conjure creates a sanctuary where the material and the spiritual may intertwine. Every spell that we cast draws the two worlds closer together. Viewed from this perspective, magic becomes the awareness of how these two realms – material and spiritual – interact with one another.
Whenever we exercise our awareness of the spiritual, however, we encounter the possibility that we will misinterpret or overvalue the experience. Just looking around, it’s not difficult to conclude that creatures within the material realm are deeply flawed, vulnerable to entropy wearing the twin guises of decay and suffering. Faced with our own decline and eventual demise, we often cast about for something beyond our finite existence, something eternal and incorruptible. We reflect upon the turbulent swirl that is our life, turning towards religion or philosophy for solace.
So when the novice Witch first encounters the spirit world, they often harbor a predisposition to believe that here rests the incorruptible something they’ve been seeking. After all, the spirit realm’s inhabitants don’t appear to be bound by the same fixed life cycles that define our physical existence. Moreover, I suspect our culture’s mythos concerning ghosts and the restless dead fuels a prejudice that says our need for something beyond the grave can be filled by the spirit world.
In my humble opinion, I believe that seeking out eternal life within the spirit world is misguided, although there are certainly worse ways by which one can err. (I’m fully aware the above statement will contradict the beliefs held by many readers, and where that happens, please understand that I don’t consider myself any sort of authority on Truth. I draw upon my experiences and my reflections to generate my unique magical paradigm. Your experiences, your reflections, and your paradigm doubtless will differ from my own, and that’s a Good Thing!)
My intention isn’t to question whether we are eternal, because I believe we are. Nor do I question the existence of the Summer Lands, that blessed abode wherein the ghost recuperates and regroups before returning to the ever-turning wheel. The Summer Lands figure within my own paradigm. Still, I question the nature of the Summer Lands, and especially their connection to realms defined as spiritual or astral.
My interest concerning the Summer Lands took on fresh significance with two recent events. The first episode occurred while I was visiting my astral sanctum around Mothers’ Day. One of the spirits who accompanied me had observed the thoughtforms that people generated as the holiday approached, and asked me whether he himself had a mother. (Spirits, like kids, say the darnedest things.) I was surprised by the question, and since then I’ve delved into path working in hopes of discovering the answer to his question. (It’s material for another essay, yet for those who wonder, I believe the answer is yes.)
The second episode occurred during an otherwise unremarkable walk around my neighborhood a couple months ago. During that walk two spirits that share my home accompanied me. The ground was still drying out from rain the previous night, and we happened upon a dead frog. Not an unusual sight where I live; there are several lakes and rivers here, and when the clouds bring rain the frogs wander up into the streets, where they’re struck by passing motorists.
The “younger” spirit could sense where the frog had been killed, and I could feel her became alarmed that the same fate could befall her. Instinctively, I reached out with what comforting energies I could, communicating the sense of safety, yet after the encounter I found myself wondering: Are spirits in some sense mortal?
To borrow from the Venerable Bede, our own finite lifespan can be compared with the sparrow, which flies from the winter storm into the king’s fire-lit hall, before returning to the storm. That is, we are conscious about our own personal history for one short span, with the vast expanse of the unknown looming large upon either side. The metaphor aptly describes our condition as material beings, yet here I was confronted with two spiritual creatures that professed ignorance regarding the darkness before and after their own existence.
Based on these encounters, I believe spirits also wonder where they originate, and what lies beyond their apparent end. Ergo, spirits don’t possess the solution for the riddle of our own mortality, because they themselves are bound by the same entropic forces.
If the spiritual realms are not immortal, then either the Summer Lands are equally liable to destruction, or else the Summer Lands somehow transcend both the material and the spiritual planes. Because I believe our cosmos, and all things that inhabit this great web of existence, are intrinsically eternal, I must take up the latter argument, that the Summer Lands are neither material nor spiritual in nature, but rather transcend both categories of existence.
To develop an accurate cosmology, which properly honors the Summer Lands, we must first inquire about the planes where finite existence, both material and spiritual, plays itself out. The pantheistic philosopher Benedict Spinoza proposed that all things in existence are but modes that have their being within a unitary, self-caused Substance, simultaneously identified with God and with the cosmos. According to Spinoza’s ontology, this Substance remains unknowable except by its attributes, two of which fall within human detection: extension and thought.
In broad strokes, these two attributes are equivalent to what I term the material and the spiritual, and like Spinoza, I regard these realms as facets of one single, otherwise unknowable (upper-case) Truth.
Eternal life may be found, not among the spiritual realm, but rather within the deeper reality towards which both the material and the spiritual point; therein we learn the true import of our astral journeys. Spirits appear human precisely because they are driven by the same mortality that defines our existence. Certain spirits are heirs to ancient wisdom, but then, some material beings teach crucial truths, as well.
Rather than seeking a spirit world with all the answers, we must prepare ourselves to encounter beings with the same hopes and fears, and we must engage those creatures with the same empathy and compassion, which we would expect.
With the sharing of mutual respect, we acquire insight into the (upper-case) Truth wherein we may discover the Summer Lands and our own incorruptible nature. While spiritual beings don’t enjoy the complete picture, they do view the puzzle from angles that we seldom adopt.
Conversely, as material creatures we grasp certain aspects of reality more readily than most spirits can. Just like the proverbial blind people who grasp different parts of the elephant, we each hold crucial parts belonging to the most sublime puzzle. Only by building bridges of mutual cooperation with our astral cousins can we hope to remember our shared immortality.
May we walk lightly and with compassion.
Spinoza, Benedict. “The Ethics.” The Rationalists. New York: Anchor Books, 1974.