The Red Magic of Lammas

The British archipelago, that cluster of islands off the European mainland on which I live, is changing colour. The sky, while still sometimes blessed with the bright blue of summer, now fills with the grey of anvil headed thunder clouds, gravid with rain. The green of the land, with trees magnificent in their full leaf, tips over into the gold of harvest time. Rolls, bales, and here in North Devon even stooks of grain, stand sculptural in the fields. This is the time of Lammas, a time associated with Red Magic in the Chaos Craft interpretation of The Wheel of the Year.

In Liber Kaos Peter J. Carroll describes Red Magic as ‘war magic’. Inspired perhaps by his father’s military experiences Carroll often uses combative metaphors in his work. However, there are many other approaches to understanding Red Magic. My perception of this ‘ray’ or ‘sephira’, to use older nomenclature, is similarly influenced by my father. When my Dad did his National Service, or more accurately was conscripted, he did so as a medic. Perhaps this is a reason why my perception of Red Magic is, in part, refracted through the lens not of war but of medicine. Healing and war do of course have much in common. For instance, it can sometimes be useful to describe biological processes in martial terms: a virus can ‘invade’ the body and ‘attack’ our cells whereupon ‘guard’ cells and other ‘defenders’ begin the ‘counter-attack’ etc etc. However the essence of chaos magic, as a philosophical practice, is to recognize that this vocabulary, like any series of metaphorical statements, inevitably reveals certain truths while concealing others. For example, the military narrative of ‘viral attack’ if taken literally would seem to be quite incompatible with the processes by which viruses become part of our genome

On both the battlefield and in the context of healing one of the virtues of Red Magic is that of courage. This courage is the bravery of the child resolving to rip off a sticking plaster in one swift movement, or the courage to face a devastating diagnosis and find ways to live as well as one can, not only to ‘fight’ an illness, but also to open to the experience and to learn from it. This courage can be quiet and unassuming, such as the social courage to live with illnesses that cannot be seen as signs by others, but only reported as symptoms. There is the courage to face rehabilitative exercises and surgical procedures, the courage of seeking to heal our trauma, and the courage of reaching out for help. 

magnetic hematite ally

There’s also the courage to wait before we act; to be patient until the time is right before we scythe the crop or the determination to endure the swelling boil until it is ripe for the lancet. In combative terms – for indeed one important aspect of Red Magic is how we deal with adversaries as well as adversity – we bide our time so that when make our move there is a swift and comprehensive effect.

When we work with Red Magic the emphasis on cultivating virtues, such as courage, can be helpful to stop us battling with monsters and thereby becoming monsters ourselves. It is also important to remember that while violent conflict (war) is part of the human repertoire – and arguably that of some other species too – the realist knows that beneath the thin veneer of civilization (with all its exploitative characteristics) human nature is fundamentally kind and collaborative (check out the excellent Humankind; A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman for more on this).

These processes of endurance, of breaking, of cutting, of drawing lines in the sand, are central to the iconography of Lammas. This is the time of the dying god, the cutting of the Corn King who gives us our daily bread and becomes, in the words of the Wiccan ceremony of Cakes & Wine ‘The Body of our Harvest Lord’. The agricultural tools of this time of the year are the blade, the flail, and the grindstone. The Red Magic gods are deities of warfare as well as gods of agriculture and self-sacrifice. Týr, for example, from the Norse pantheon, who gives us our day-name ‘Tuesday’ , bravely gives up his hand in the process of binding the wolf Fenrir. Týr is a deity suitably invoked by Pagan practitioners who are serving members of the armed forces and emergency services in these difficult times, and by those seeking justice.

The mythology of Lammas, that speaks of the courage to cut and be transformed, to fall and rise again, to give up power and so find it, is deliciously captured in the folk ballad John Barleycorn:

There were three men came out of the West

Their fortunes for to try,

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn must die.

They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in

Throwing clods upon his head,

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time

Till the rains from heaven did fall,

Then little Sir John’s sprung up his head

And so amazed them all!

They let him stand till the Midsummer Day

Till he grew both pale and wan,

Then little Sir John’s grew a great long beard

And so become a man.

They hire’d men with scythes so sharp

To cut him off at the knee.

They bound and tied him around the waist

Serving him most barb’rously.

They hire’d men with their sharp pitch-forks

To prick him to the heart

But the drover served him worse than that

For he bound him to a cart.

They drove him around and around the field

Till they came unto a barn

And these three men made a solemn vow

On poor John Barleycorn

They hire’d men with crab-tree sticks

To strip him skin from bone,

But the miller, he served him worse than that,

For he ground him between two stones.

There’s Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl

And brandy in the glass

But Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl

Proved the stronger man at last.

For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox

Nor loudly blow his horn

And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle or pot

Without a little Barleycorn.

(I recommend Damh the Bard’s version of this tune as well as his seasonal celebratory Lughnasadh and the dialogue ballad of Green and Grey.)

In this season of Red Magic it is time to take aim, to swing, and cut with skill and clear intention. This is the time to take control of processes, to consider how and what we might need to change in our lives. What needs to be harvested, what cut down and, if necessary, incinerated to make fertile ash and space for new growth.

Along with Samhain, Lammas is a time when we consider endings and death, including our own mortality. What have we achieved in our lives, what nourishment for the future will be left by our ashes? What are the fruits of our labours? As the Norse folk would ask; what will be our renown? What stories, if any, will be told of us by future generations?

As ye sow…

As we age, and enter our golden years, we are drawn by necessity to focus attention on our own mortality, our health and our vigour. In my case, aged 52, I find myself in what Victor Hugo calls ‘the youth of old age’. I’m aware that I need to actively invest more energy in caring for my bodymind. There are only so many times you can copy a file before glitches inevitably start to happen and – until one gets to re-spawn (to continue the gaming metaphor) – it makes sense to aim for compression of morbidity. This means actively working to be as well as we can be so that, when our death process arrives, it is as easy as possible. My tai chi teacher puts this brilliantly, quipping; “the purpose of tai chi is to live a long, happy and productive life and then die quickly and easily so as not to be a burden on your family and friends’. Tai chi chuan is a great example of the multivalent nature of Red Magic. With the Chinese name of this ‘martial art’ being commonly translated as ‘supreme ultimate boxing’, in one sense tai chi is clearly a species of ‘war magic’. But to see it only in those terms would be to ignore its many other aspects, such as its value as a means to cultivate good health, and as an approach to spiritual illumination.

The daylight draws in, and as the apples swell on the trees, the temperature drops while swifts circle frantically overhead before beginning their long migration to Africa. For my friends in the Southern Hemisphere the spring rises and the light grows. But for all of us on the planet, as we move through this shared experience of pandemic together, may we find skilful ways to connect with the spirit of these times, the courage to face our fears, and the opportunity to be transformed.

Julian Vayne


Coming up next…

Breaking Convention

– The Intermission –

14th August

You are invited to join other psychedelic-curious people at this unique day of talks. Our focus this year is very much on ethics, especially in relation to indigenous reciprocity and psychedelic capitalism. News of scientific research comes direct from the source, courtesy of a couple of luminaries from Imperial College London. We are honoured to host a lecture from Robin Carhart-Harris, Founder and Visiting Professor of Imperial’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, in his last public appearance before moving to America, and we are very pleased to welcome David Erritzoe, their Clinical Director, who will be telling us of their current and future research.

We start the day with the words and powerful presence of Don Eugenio Lopez Carilloo (Uru Muile), a Mara’akame in the Wixarika Laguna community, accompanied by Eusebio Lopez and Rodrigo Rurawe. We at Breaking Convention acknowledge the gratitude we owe to all those people who have kept the knowledge and practices of plant medicines alive for so long, in incredibly difficult circumstances.

Also on our stage will be several people with expertise and experience in the field of ethical engagement with psychedelics; from Canada, Andrea Langlois (activism and indigenous rights), and from closer to home our own Alexander Beiner (psychedelic capitalism) and Ashleigh Murphy-Beiner (ethics of the therapeutic process). Timmy Davis, of CDPRG, speaks about their current campaign for rescheduling psilocybin. There will be an in-depth panel discussion around these areas of ethical consideration.

https://www.breakingconvention.co.uk/events.html

In the Dark’s Early Light

In the Northern Hemisphere we are emerging from the darkness of winter. Blinking into the cold, clear, even cruel light of the Imbolc season. This year, we initiates emerge from the long vigil of the pandemic night and now, as the seasons turn, we can begin to imagine what comes next.

What sort of rebirth will this be?

We need to appreciate that for many people the last year has been the most challenging of times. Some have been working to save the lives of others. Some have fallen down lonely rabbit holes of conspiracy fetishism, holes that have become yawning chasms in culture, where legitimate fears are conflated with concerns of a much less well-evidenced sort. Some have found themselves with several months off work on full pay, a delicious time in which they have been rediscovering their local area and exploring their creativity. Others have been holed up for months in difficult or even dangerous situations. Healthcare workers have been living through a time of tremendous stress. A friend of mine spent several weeks holding up iPads to the faces of prone and dying patients with Covid-19 so their families could say goodbye.

The range of experiences within this one great, shared, global crisis are legion. But for all of us there is now the challenge of finding good ways to remake our connection with others. There is both danger and opportunity in this delicate time.

One practice I’ve developed to help deal with isolation is contained in the guided meditation below. This is a practice to help us connect with our sacred magical places. Special places we may not have visited for some considerable time. We know that a lack of connection is commonly at the root of both depression and addiction. By using our imaginal skills to reconnect with those places we love, we help ourselves be well and better prepared for the challenges to come.

This meditation was one of the practices that Nikki Wyrd and I shared in our recent online ritual hosted by The Psychedelic Society. For the rite Nikki also wrote a beautiful text about the spirits of the time which you can read in its entirety at the end of this article.

Imbolc or Candlemas is closely associated with the Goddess (or Saint) Brigid, the archetypal skilful woman. A skilful woman who received a long overdue celebration of her work this month is the artist and occultist Rosaleen Norton. A beautifully realized film documentary telling her story, The Witch of King’s Cross, is now available on Vimeo and Amazon. If you find yourself entranced by Norton’s work and story then your next stop has got to be Pan’s Daughter, an excellent biography by Nevill Drury. I’ve been a fan of Norton’s work for many years, and the new film includes some stanzas of her ritual poetry. Below, I’ve recorded in full a poem quoted in part in the film. The image I’ve chosen is the one originally published alongside the poem in her banned occult art book The Art of Rosaleen Norton (published in 1952, just one year after the repeal of the witchcraft act in Britain).

As we in the North emerge from the winter and into reconnection with others beyond Zoomland, in physical space, there are going be lots of issues to negotiate, many of which will cluster around our ability to trust. It is lack of trust that fuels the conspiratorial mindset. This is quite understandable. The hesitancy to be vaccinated as demonstrated by some communities is perfectly intelligible given the very real abuses of trust they have suffered in the past where people, generally the more excluded members of our societies, have indeed found themselves the unwitting guinea pigs of appalling unethical scientifically mediated interventions, such as the infamous Tuskegee Study. Sure, the whole notion of ‘the state’ is problematic, orientated as it generally is around a monopoly on violence. Simply put; some guy comes along and tells you you have to give a percentage of your crops to The King, if you don’t his knights will make things difficult, or terminal, for you and your family. Later The King explains that he is protecting you from other Kings and other knights, and so the great protection racket begins. It is therefore explicable that, in the face of this pandemic, the state narrative (for some nations) is voiced in the language of fear, protection by authority, othering and ‘reasonable’ draconian measures.

However, that is not to say that letting the state control pendulum swing totally in the other direction would have been any better; some people fail to understand that, especially in a pandemic, it’s not just one’s own health that matters but rather the health of the nation, or indeed the species. Such an individualistic attitude would have let the pandemic rip through our society, which would have been most unkind; nor would it have necessarily have led to less suffering than that caused by lockdowns, social distancing and the other strategies. We might for example think back to some early news coverage of the pandemic which suggested that a large percentage of the British workforce could be off sick all at once. This could realistically have led to many kinds of problems in maintaining even basic infrastructure like water and power, leading to potentially catastrophic domino effects. The point about the pandemic is that we are dealing with dis-ease, an experience that, by definition, is not easy. Life is often like this, there are some situations in which there is no good option, Whatever we do it’s going to hurt. (I should mention here other models of the nation state, or more broadly collective action, that don’t originate in totalitarian oppression which in turn gives rise to the shadow of the ‘sovereign individual’ as an apparently isolated and autonomous self. Alternative systems based on compassionate collective action and personal integrity are possible, as exemplified in this excellent documentary Gather.)

Meanwhile, the number of people I know who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 is increasing. Thus far none of them have been taken over by Bill Gates’ nanobots or whatever, so that augurs well for my own chances when the time comes! Personally, I rather like vaccination as a concept, the idea of limited exposure to disease which primes the body to better manage the actual infection has a somewhat alchemical or even initiatory quality to it.

In initiation rituals we go down into the darkness, recapitulating the experience of our intrauterine existence and our birth. We do this in a limited, controlled but authentic way. Initiation is a little death, a death that doesn’t kill the bodymind but instead enables us to experience a managed crisis of psychic dismemberment and physical tests. In passing through these rites we discover a new appreciation for life just as those who experience near-death events do. Moreover, we acquire enhanced resilience in the face of challenges posed by the human condition.

Over the last few months I, like many people, have spent quite a bit of time online and I know for myself that it’s going to be a curious journey re-making and re-joining collective physical space. While we have all experienced a pandemic, the differences in our narratives will be very significant, as will our experiences of coming back into social space. There are going to be lots of people, notably those in the medical profession, who will be carrying with them deep wounds and trauma. I hope very much that as a community we can find good ways to help each other, and as the year turns, to re-emerge together into the light. Let’s spring clean, shaking out the dust of the wintertime, and make space for the year to come.

Julian Vayne


St Brigid’s crosses (the three-armed variation!) made by Nikki Wyrd
A Call to Brigid and the Spirits of Imbolc

We call in the spirits of the technology that connects us, electronic wizardry conjuring deep magic spells through wires drawn from deep in the ground. 
Flowing electrons, rising sap, leaves budding, fluid birdsong, surge across landscapes. 
We feel the life force stirring beneath the earth. 
Feel the quickening in the belly of the year.
Start to see glimmers of sunlit days ahead. 
The clean clear white light reminds us of the Shining Emptiness at the centre of the psychedelic experience. 
Place of creation, forge of identity, lit by sparks of aspiration from the hammer that beats, and beats with passion for the making of love. 

Imbolc, the time of emerging from the dark of winter days, the time of emerging from under the ground.  
Green shoots with white bells, push up through the snow. 
Pale primrose yellow signals the opening of the season for flowers: Golden trumpets herald the sun’s return. 
Make way, make space! 
For new shoots, springing from old roots. 
Clear the ground, clear your mind, hear the beginning of life from way, way down.  
Make room to breathe, room to forge ahead, room to grow. 

Brigid, goddess of smithing, of fire, of the bright, of wells, of healing and fertility, of poetry, of love, of brilliance. 
Crowned with candles, the saint walks through the land, stirring our hearts with a touch of her wand, soothing away the cares of the winter with a touch of her hand. 
Milk flows from sheep, from mothers, they give life to those that are just born, ancestors nurturing and nourishing what were twinkles in last year’s eyes. 

Brigid, Brid, you who were born as the sun rose, exalted one, blessings on those who celebrate you on this holy day! 
You, who know what we need, wise goddess, we ask for visions, for words, for you to show us what is hidden within! 

The pulse of the year, as the wheel turns again; the beat of the heart, as the smith’s hammer beats time into shape. 
Sparks fly up, tiny lights glimmer, the sun glints from ice crystals as the daylight grows. 
Tiny bright sparks, catch them in your mind’s eye. Breathe with the bellows breath and see the light glow. 

Brigid, inspire us, as our thoughts rise up, like a spring bubbles forth from the ground, overflowing with inspiration long held, deep within our hearts. 
Seed sparks, giving rise to bright flames, flowers blooming on the anvil of Earth as the season of creation arrives.

Nikki Wyrd

Coming up this spring