In 2019 I was invited to speak at an event organized by the Oxford Psychedelic Society. ‘The Odd Ball‘ turned out to be a fabulous occasion. An intense one day extravaganza featuring art, talks, food and music including a suitably cosmic performance by The Sun Ra Arkestra. Having chatted after the gig with the lovely organizers, we hatched a plan for me to return to Oxford and address members of the Psychedelic Society (composed largely of university students) the following year. Sadly 2020 saw my proposed return to the city of dreaming spires scuppered, although not for the usual pandemic reasons you might expect…
It proved unusually difficult for the Society to secure a room in the university in which I could speak. Very difficult in fact, strangely so. My contact investigated and it turned out that a minor official at the college in question had decided to ban me from speaking there!
Now this is very amusing to me for many reasons. Not least of which is the fact that 90 years earlier my cultural ancestor, occultist Aleister Crowley, was also banned from Oxford. In his case no reason seems to have been given by the university authorities, but in a statement to the press in 1930 Crowley speculated:
“Perhaps the refusal to let me lecture has come because Gilles de Rais [the subject of Crowley’s proposed lecture] is said to have killed 500 children in ritual murder and in some way this was connected with myself, since the accusation that I have not only killed but eaten children is one of the many false statements that have been circulated about me in the past.”
Same old story ninety years later eh? Well no, not quite. In an email that provided my own little slice of cancel culture, the university clerk explained “…we will not be able to accept this booking given your speakers statements on the record about illegal drug use and our duty of care towards our students.”
This story is delightfully bonkers in so many ways. For starters; I get banned from addressing a psychedelic society because I’ve taken psychedelic drugs – is that really a thing? Meanwhile several major surveys, as well as day-to-day experience of student life, suggests that many of those crazy kids are already using ‘illegal’ (more correctly ‘unlicensed’) drugs, even without my pernicious influence! And, as any fule kno, illegal drugs do not exist! Demonstrating any ‘duty of care’ would presumably include harm minimization education and open conversations rather than blanket banning of discussion. Something of particular relevance given the increasing numbers of young people using illicit drugs and the avowed free-speech policy of Oxford University itself. Finally, over the last decade, I’ve taught in a variety of other university settings and hold a position on an academic peer review publication. Oh, and that’s a journal about, er…psychedelic drugs!
Ninety years before me Crowley decided to stand up for free speech by publishing his banned lecture and donating the profits to the Poetry Society. I’ve done likewise by publishing The Banned Lecture of Getting Higher, available for pre-order now through Psychedelic Press, Copies will hit the streets – including those of Oxford – on November 16th.
And there’s another even more hilarious level of irony in our story. Something concerning the actual subject of my talk, which of course the administration didn’t have the wit to ask about… But no spoilers! All will be revealed in my introductory essay and the text of the lecture itself. You’re sure to find it highly amusing! Order your copy now before it’s er…
The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation(second edition) by Yvonne Aburrow
Most of the books that I have read on Witchcraft in the last five years have tended to be either focused on history (e.g. Ronald Hutton’s The Witch) or the spookier reimagining of its Traditional, non-Wiccan manifestations. In contrast The Night Journey offers something different in its radical re-visioning of initiatory Wicca as a path of personal and political liberation.
I first encountered Yvonne’s writing in their excellent All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca which I experienced as a vivid attempt at bringing inclusive and Queer perspectives to forms of Paganism that may have become stuck in our ableist and heteronormative views of human expression. This new work feels like an expansion of Inclusive Wicca; a conscious fleshing-out that provides a deeper, more theological appreciation of what Witchcraft has to offer as a contemporary religious path.
Yvonne has been an initiate of Gardnerian Wicca for almost 30 years and this work represents a distillation of their thinking regarding how Wicca can speak to the challenges of the 21st century. The structure of the book covers a range of themes regarding the validity of Wicca as a religious path and the way in which its initiatory structure helps manage issues such as ego-inflation and spiritual burn out.
The first section of the book, “Between the Worlds”, moves beyond a simple “how to” book and provides a rich theological reflection on how Wicca provides a living process of shared ritual work via which a relationship with divinity can be evolved. They provide a nuanced engagement with how Pagan magical paths can address our deepest psychological need for contrast and polarity, whether these are between darkness and light or silence and sound. Yvonne has a background in academic religious studies and this feels very present in her deep description of how her own spirituality and beliefs have evolved within the framework that Wicca has provided.
For Aburrow, Witchcraft is an innately Queer path. The Witch is one who inhabits “a liminal zone between the worlds”. This path offers us a shimmering multiplicity of sexual and gender expressions and the Witch by their very definition bends, shapes and adapts. Their theology is unapologetically one of immanence and this is one of the unique features that they believe Wicca (and Paganism more widely) has to offer in the spiritual marketplace.
In many ways Yvonne’s writing has many parallels with that of Starhawk in very consciously seeing the Witch as an adversarial figure that “endangers the status quo”. Aburrow explores the more Left-Hand Path adversarial dimensions of the Witch path, not as a preoccupation with Gothic aesthetics, but as the outlaw-tricksters who are “the eternal outsiders, the eternal critics”. The Night as the realm of dreams and the Sabbatic journey represents a need to work with ecstasy, wildness and even our own madness as a means of empowering our activism.
The second section, “Bringing it all back home”, provides us with an engaging set of reflections on Yvonne’s experience of running a coven, and these insights regarding ritual forms and working with power in leadership hold relevance across many spiritual paths. How do we seek to work towards more flattened hierarchies while retaining our awareness of the power that we hold via experience and time within a tradition?
Yvonne explores the differing ways that people learn and how we support people in plugging into an egregore while also allowing them to retain the rich individuality that will ultimately add to a tradition and allow it to evolve. For Aburrow, the ability to co-create and change is at the heart of their magic and their self-description as “a relational polytheist” evokes for me the image of a shared cauldron into which people bring their own unique contributions towards a common goal.
Toward the book’s conclusion, Yvonne returns to the theme of liberation in the longest essay “Challenging Oppression” in which they ask us to consider the implications of our Paganism:
“I became a Witch, a Pagan a Polytheist because I believe all life is interconnected, interwoven, interpermeable.”
If such connection is central to our religious identity, then it has to have implications for our ethics and how we pursue liberty at both a personal and collective level. Yvonne’s work is unapologetically anti-oppressive and anti-racist. Well-meaning inaction is no longer viable. In order to move forward we have to face the implications of racism and colonialism and it is inevitable that such unlearning will be deeply uncomfortable. The chapter also provides some really helpful reflections of the complexities of cultural appropriation and how we might integrate wider traditions in a slow, respectful syncretism.
The Night Journey never promises to be an easy one! As you would expect it can be both disturbing and challenging. At times I felt almost overwhelmed by the concentrated punch of Aburrow’s insights and I consciously chose to slow down to allow a more healthy process of digestion! Thankfully Yvonne provides a series of helpful reflective questions and exercises at the end of each chapter to allow us to consider the implications of these issues in our lives. The brew in this cauldron is a potent one and I could imagine myself spending a year and a day working with these chapters so as to allow the type of reflection, soul searching and deep change that Yvonne’s work is promoting.
For me there are few things more Punk Rock than a zine (short for magazine or fanzine). Although having their origin with 1940s sci-fi, for me they really took off as an art form during the heady, DIY culture of Punk and the myriad subcultures that it spawned. Zines at their best are a dynamic cut and paste that juxtaposes art, poetry and philosophy in a way that allow the reader a truly multifaceted take on the topic at hand.
This first edition of The Biscuit produced by Three Bones Society (www.threebonessociety.com) captures brilliantly the joyous chaos of a true zine. The contributors to this maiden edition are drawn from a rich intersect of visual artists, esoteric practitioners, psychotherapists and hedge-philosophers so there is little risk of boredom!
The Biscuit is the brainchild of Eric K Lerner, who is obviously a person of bold ambitions as this first edition is nothing less than a Queer-Feral reclamation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. The whole zine is an attempt to pull back Nietzsche’s work from the hands of fragile egotists and to place his powerful vision back within the current of the post-Christian esoteric tradition. Thus Spake… is the necessary antidote for our materialism and safe complacency:
“He strives to penetrate the reader’s very being like a virus that takes over the host’s physical essence. His language may bloom within the reader on a subconscious level as a trigger to reinvent him/herself as a higher being.”
David Rankine kicks things off with a concise but unsurprisingly erudite reflection on how Zarathustra has impacted upon Crowley and the evolution of Thelema. Rankine rightly argues that an appreciation of Zarathustra’s message is key to illuminating the Thelemic ideal that “every man and woman is a star”. Sean Woodward’s striking poetry and artwork similarly brings a vivid magical voice to the party.
The Biscuit is full of dynamic and iconoclastic visual art: Tightrope by Charlotte Rodgers provides us with a dancing bone creature whose toppled cruciform calls us to boldly embrace spiritual autonomy: “Thou has made danger thy calling: Therein there is nothing contemptible….” The woodcuts of Thomas van der Krogt, the collage of Vanessa Sinclair and the Gnostic icons of Dolorosa de la Cruz all provide visual sustenance that is both provocative and playful.
A good zine never promises linearity, and The Biscuit unapologetically shunts us between Ron Athey’s gritty performance art cut-ups and Eric K Lerner’s reflection on the challenges of translating Nietzsche from the German: “Gott Todi Ist” is as likely to be rendered “God death is” as it is the iconic “God is Dead!”
Given my own bent as a Queer therapist I greatly enjoyed Vanessa Sinclair’s psychoanalytic reflection on the parallels between compulsion to repeat and Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return i.e. through repeating patterns we often create the space for deeper, more subtle reflection. This edition ends on a bang as Paul Bee Hampshire provides us with a joyful “Zarathustra-the Sequel” and without spoiling the ending we get to see Zee grappling with the complexities of Queer theory ☺
Zines are rarely for the fainted hearted, but this is one of those really great ones that manages to convey more in 45 pages than many a dusty tome.