A Magician in Residence at The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

For a while, before the office opens, I’m sitting in a hollow on the cliffs, overlooking the sea. I plan to meditate and sing and do some yoga for an hour or so. This will ensure that I’ll be in the right frame of mind for work. Below me is Boscastle harbour. I am sitting on the eastern side of that long inlet, a snaking chasm of rock, half barred by two gently curving sea walls (built in the 16th century). Behind this there are a few boats, some sand and seaweed. On the seaward side there are great cliffs. In undercut hollows, carved by the restless waves, blow-holes form, squirting jets of spray back over the rising tide. This is a deeply magical place, for me and many others. Boscastle is the beautiful, sometimes dangerous confluence of the River Valency and River Jordan. It is one of those deep wooded valleys (‘coombes’ we calls ’em in Devon) that are typical of the north Atlantic coastline. It is also the setting for the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, where for one week in June I was the ‘Magician in Residence‘.

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Beautiful Boscastle

The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic (MWM) is a collection that is locally adored and internationally recognized. If you’re not already familiar with the amazing range of things they do (from supporting international academic research, to commissioning new artworks) then please take some time to look around their online presence.

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Lurid old skool Baphomet

I’d been aware of the Museum for many years (if nothing else through those brilliantly lurid photos of Baphomet in occult coffee table books of the 1970s). But it wasn’t until fifteen or so years ago I went there for the first time. These days I’m closely involved with the Museum, including as Chair of The Friends of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, a registered charity that supports the museum, in particular with its mission to educate and engage people. One aspect of engagement is to encouraging people to visit spaces like MWM. Visiting museums, especially places of the quality of MWM, can be a powerful, authentic, moving experience. Sure you can see many items from the MWM collection using their online database. However the physical experience of walking down the path, towards the wild Cornish sea, turning right and there, nestled against the rock, is the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic – that embodied experience takes some beating!

MWM’s work includes supporting the increasing appreciation, in academia and wider culture, of the influence of occultism (as I mentioned here). They’ve recently loaned objects to some internationally important shows, such as Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution. There are the many ways in which the MWM collection is relevant to wider culture. One of my own interests in this field is in the social phenomena of witch hunting as a form of scapegoating. The way in which communities, of many different sorts, go about hunting and killing ‘witches’ says something very important to all of us. In order to understand, mitigate and perhaps transform our scapegoating behaviour, we have to understand how it happens. Collections such as that at MWM can directly help us do this by bringing us up close and personal with objects that are the anchors for stories of prejudice, misunderstanding and punishment. (You can see some examples of the educational resources I helped to create, enabling young people to explore these issues on the MWM website.  If you’re a teacher, especially of teenagers, you may like to check these out).

Inside MWM there are many wonderful things; the material traces of many expression of occulture. The galleries themselves are a cunning interplay of dark and secret with bold and well-lit spaces. The standard of presentation is second to none (and I’ve worked in many museums over the past 15 years). This excellent curation isn’t surprising given that museum director Simon Costin is something of a creative genius.

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Tasteful modern Baphomet

(Talking of Baphomets, it was also during this week that I helped transport a rather famous Baphomet mask from London to its new home at the Museum. But more of that later…)

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Baphomet, last seen in public on The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square

For my week in residency I got to hang out in the library. This is, as you might imagine, another wonderful space. There are wooden desks, a gigantic witches ball in the window to repel the evil eye, and many, many books. I set up my office here; runes, two decks of tarot cards, crystal ball, special magic A4 white paper for sigils, sage smudge, some magical pointy things from the Himalayas – and we are good to go!

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In residence

I’d imagined that I could spend much of the week writing and maybe doing a spot of research. In addition to an amazing range of books in the MWM library it houses hundreds of files containing everything from facsimile editions of Gerald Gardner’s original Book of Shadows, through to collections of obscure short-run occult ‘zines from the 1980s. However my research plan was not to be. Rather than reading the books I spent most of my time that week doing tarot readings for visitors.

This was both enjoyable and an honour. People often open up in a divination session and place their trust, to some degree, in the diviner. I encourage this, as an important benefit of having a reading is the confidential, candid, even confessional opportunity that this setting provides.

When people come to me for a reading I explain that I can’t divine the future with any great certainty. I usually joke that were this one of my special powers I’d divine six numbers, win the lottery and spend all my time on holiday. (Actually the problem with this analogy is I do generally to get to spend my time doing what I love, but anyhow…). Instead I explain that my role is primarily to work with clients to explore how things are for them, and to look at what possible futures and courses of action might emerge from their present circumstances. This makes the whole process about discovery; the reading becomes a space for mutual investigation and reflection. The querent is not the passive recipient of advice, but an active agent in their own narrative. For while there may be some circumstances where our options are limited. we do usually possess some degree of freedom; this realization is often a key outcome. Cultivating this awareness of freedom, in a realistic way, and exploring the options for change, are for me what tarot readings are all about.

Now I won’t lie, even within this broadly psychological paradigm of divination things with a distinctly parapsychological flavor do happen. For example, my usual practice is ask the querent to draw three cards. On the basis of these I begin a story, then together we explore how this might relate to their situation. Sometimes, especially when I’m on a roll and have been doing lots of readings over a short period of time, I say things in this opening section that the client responds to with surprise. ‘How could you have known that?’ they say. Then there are moments, perhaps halfway through reading (sometimes accompanied by a sense of having something speak through me, or some sense of ‘absence’) where a rush of words comes out. Again the querent may be impressed; I’ve perhaps articulated the problem we’ve been discussing in a radically new way that helps them see a totally new picture, or perhaps I’ve revealed how one character may be acting and what can be done to make things better. These intuitive insights may be surprising, including to me. But however spot on my words are I always bracket what I say. I explain that one reason we call this stuff ‘magic’ is because none of us (perhaps least of all magicians) really known how any of it works. I acknowledge that this is how things may appear in this moment, in this reading, but that the future is uncertain and new information and possibilities may well arise. I may be ‘inspired’ but I’m also quite clear that my impressions may be wrong or incomplete in any number of ways. Sure listen to the oracle, but take it all with a pinch of salt.

I’m pleased to say that I got really nice feedback from some of the folk I read for during my residency and I’m glad they found the sessions useful. For me whether a reading is heavy on the psychological exploration, or has significant parapsychological moments, isn’t what matters. What is important is that the consultation provides an opportunity to empower the querent; allowing them to find their own way in the world. This is the magic of it.

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In the magicians chair

An additional delight of this week was to be able to spend time with many of the members of my extended family, enjoying this magical landscape and each other’s company. (Which is why each morning on those rocks I gave thanks to the Great Spirit – whom I call Baphomet – for those lovely people and the magic in my life.)

I’ve  recorded a few thoughts towards the end of my residency about the role of the proverbial village witch on my Youtube channel too.

Many thanks to the wonderful people at the Museum for welcoming and supporting me during that week, and to all those people who came to see me over those days; may the royal road rise to meet you!

Blessed Be

Julian Vayne

 

 

 

An Audience with Christina Oakley Harrington

I was fortunate to catch up with the wonderful Christina Oakley Harrington while at Treadwell’s Books for my second Psychogeography workshop.

Christina is Treadwell’s founder and presiding spirit. She was voraciously interested in spirituality and magic since childhood, and grew up in West Africa, Burma, and Chile, only moving to the West at the age of 15. In her early twenties she was heartened to discover Europe’s own native religious traditions, and has been a pagan ever since. A former academic, she left university life in 2001 to establish Treadwell’s. These days she serves as a consultant for programmes and projects but is usually at the shop somewhere during the week.

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Christina presents Golden Dawn magician Florence Farr

Here you can listen to the conversation that Christina and I had which ranges across the subjects of women in magic, the importance (or not) of visualization, the use of mescaline in witchcraft, the feminist history of psychedelics, post-modern (or metamodernist) magical paradigms and other stuff!

Enjoy!

Julian Vayne

Schumacher College – Where Ecology and Spirituality Meet

Set in the South Devon countryside on the Dartington Hall Estate (famed as place of radical socialist ideas) stands Schumacher College. The College takes it name from the environmentalist, educator and ecomomist Ernst Schumacher, author of the ground breaking book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. This May I was invited by Andy Letcher (author of the seminal Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom) to teach a module on the MA in Spirituality and Ecology; my area of expertise being the history, theory and practice of British Paganism and occulture.

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Schumacher in the Summertime

The academic study of what is usually called ‘Western Esotericism’ has been growing apace over recent years. For instance, the vital role of magic in the work of many artists is today being recovered and celebrated in the academy (whereas mention of occultism was strictly forbidden within the prevailing materialist vocabulary of late 20th century artistic criticism). Meanwhile the relationship between esotericism and many other domains of culture are now seen as legitimate territory for scholarly engagement.

In teaching at Schumacher I was joining  an august list of former lecturers including  Fritjof CapraStanislav GrofJames LovelockLynn MargulisArne NaessRupert Sheldrake, StarhawkVandana Shiva, etc etc. This was a great honour especially since my qualifications are primarily those of esoteric practitioner and writer rather than those of academia. It was a residential week, so I was invited to stay in the beautiful college building and eat wonderful food, much of it grown and prepared by the students. Each day I would come into work, walking past a quote from Goethe, writ large at the college entrance: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

The week’s teaching began with a brief overview of British history, focusing on the previous 200 or so years. It’s hard to understand the emergence of British paganisms (such as Wicca, Thelema, Druidry, Chaos Magic et al) unless one appreciates something of the history of the British Empire and the social impact of the Industrial Revolution.

Thereafter we plunged into the story of various forms of pagan spirituality; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelema, Wicca and witchcraft, Druidry and, towards the end of the week, chaos magic, Discordianism and neo-shamanism.

Each day started with a seminar to provide context, explore origins, key concepts, characters and events.

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Fabulous history

As you can see from the (incomplete) diagram above, the general history of modern British paganism is deeply indebted to the Romantic movement. The Romantics initiated a reappraisal of all those groups of people considered inimicable to the then dominant (religious) discourse. The Romantics looked to the witches, the druids, the heathens and the magicians, re-imagining these groups in powerful ways; seen by some as standing against (repressive) Christian culture. They (witches, druids et al) were more authentic, more spiritual, more in touch with the land, more magical, more matrifocal etc etc than people are today (‘today’ being the 18th and 19th centuries). Thus the devils of the dominant religion become the heroes of the new.  And this process has a powerful magic in it. Druidry, for instance, is successfully re-imagined by the Romantics and antiquarians into inhabited reality. That is, there are people who start to call themselves ‘Druids’ and claim some form of lineage, spiritual or cultural connection with the Druids that Tacitus writes about. As this re-imagination unfolds polymorphously through time, making all kinds of twists and turns. Druidry becomes both a form of LARPing for Anglican ministers and an identity for protest (at Seahenge and Stonehenge) and for a sporting nation (at the Olympics and Paralympics).

Magical history is full of such wyrd transformations: one of my favorites being the way that Margaret Murray sacrifices her academic standing on the altar of Gerald Gardner’s (supposedly ancient) Wicca (by writing the Introduction to Gardner’s Witchcraft Today) and, in doing so, helps to give rise to an actual religion of pagan witchcraft. (A curious historical artefact observed by Wiccan practitioner and scholar Melissa Harrington.)

The afternoons at Schumacher were given over to practical exercises (from Hermetic pathworking through to eclectic-shamanic-style ritual). Through embodied practice I aimed to demonstrate that the techniques of imagination, of ceremony and of attention, that get grouped together as ‘magic’ actually underpin many (apparently non-magical). things. Identity, marketing, economics, religion, all pivot, not on the material stuff of the world, but primarily on our ideas about the world and ourselves. Therefore the fact that we can use these ‘magical’ approaches to stir up and change our awareness is deeply relevant to how culture happens, especially when we consider how our beliefs (our spirituality) relates to the communities and planet we inhabit (ecology). Magic also rests on the axiom ‘As Above, So Below’, or more generally that ‘everything is interconnected’. Such a world view is natural to the ecologist. With that in mind it is important to equip those studying ecology and related disciplines not only with ideas, but with embodied practices by which they can modify awareness so that this ‘holistic’ world-view becomes a deeply felt experience.

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At the Entrance to the Underworld, shrine space decorated by students on the Spirituality & Ecology MA programme.

Naturally I learnt lots as a teacher at Schumacher. One insight was a renewed appreciation of how the history of British occultism can initially appear like a tiny (irrelevant) scene, a cul-de-sac of culture. But dig a little deeper and it is soon becomes apparent that, not only does magic respond to and reflect wider culture, but it also acts to change it; often in far reaching ways. Another lesson was something I’m often reminded of when I teach magical techniques and that is this; the process of doing ritual, of creating ceremony, is a deeply human need. It’s a process which, for many people, is linked to experiences of orthodox religion and its associated oppressions, and so they (understandably) distrust it. But ritual need not be like this; empowering ourselves to understand and use this approach for purposes such as spiritual exploration, group bonding and social transformation, on our own terms, is essential.

My heartfelt thanks to Andy Letcher and the staff at Schumacher, and to the students for being up for everything from constructing the Qabalah from tarot cards through to rune singing and the gnostic pentagram rite! I look forward to my next visit 😀

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Exploring the Tarot and the Tree

Use this link find out more about the MA in Spiritual and Ecology.

Julian Vayne

Swimming in a Sea of Black Light

“The passing from the “black light”’ from the “luminous night”, to the brilliance of the emerald vision will be a sign…of the completed growth of the subtle organism, the “resurrection body” hidden in the physical body.”

Henry Corbin The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism

To bring work with the body into the magical circle almost always entails risk. Those neat, finely honed borders that we think we have constructed within our minds are threatened by dissolution when we dare to dance, move and touch. Our attempts to manage the raw heart of emotion via the brute force of cognition feel fragile and dusty when our magic asks that we tune in to where the weight of life sits in the body.

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Tidal forces

Whether our emotions are connected to joy or grief so many of us dump portions of these experiences into the unconscious due to the threat of feeling overwhelmed. When faced with the terrifying flood of these tidal forces, we often disconnect in order to survive. While such a strategy provides us with a valid short-term solution, most of us know that at a deeper level attempts to suppress or even deny can ultimately endanger our health. As magicians seeking to engage with the body, our work allows us the realization that however our clever minds might seek to dodge the impacts of life, our flesh and frame are persistent in pursuing the alchemy of feeling and processing.

My own journey into this territory has taken a number of different forms over the past 40 years-Hatha Yoga as an adventurous 10 year old, Holy Ghost writhing as a petulant teenage Pentecostal and the Shamanic dance/shaking of my current Queer-Gnostic Witchcraft. Beyond my sometimes tortured attempts to capture certainty via belief and communal belonging, I found myself returning again and again to a magic in and through my body. My connection to these methods feels located in their ability to express something that felt both profoundly visceral and immanent, while allowing my sense of self to open to an otherness that I often experience as alien and transcendent. Beyond the occultural expectations to know more and to authenticate my chosen path, the Magic that I find myself doing is one in which the messages of deep intuition are felt as much as thought.

Over the last 6 months I have been making some tentative explorations of various Martial Arts and in addition to the new challenges that this has provided both socially and kinetically, it also catalysed a process of reflection about masculinity and my own experience of grief. While I had been somewhat familiar with western sword fencing and Yang style Tai Chi, these recent forays into Kick-Boxing and Krav Maga caused me to ponder the way in which I used my body to attack and defend in a dojo or gym that predominantly in habited by male-identified humans.

In thinking and writing a lot recently about the experiences of Queerness and androgyny, I started to ponder whether my explorations of Martial Arts were an attempt to explore the expressions of masculinity that I often experience as difficult. From previous experience I knew that such explorations would be challenging for me, but I was unprepared for how they would affect me when, after a short-illness, my Dad passed away.

Grief can do many things to us, but I was truly unprepared for how the engagement in body work via Martial Arts proved to be far too much for me in the midst of such a profound loss. Grief can take on many forms, but for me it felt as though I was carrying around a concrete block that I simply wasn’t ready to put down. In talking with friends (especially those who had lost a parent), I am aware of how complex the process is of making sense of who this person was and is to you following their physical death. This process of internalising his image and memory within me demanded a degree of energy that required quiet incubation rather than an energetic surging outwards.

My experience of loss hit me at a profoundly somatic level and I would often find myself staring off into space as my body tried to manage the waves of tiredness that washed over me. Emotion inevitably found expression through my body: slow stretches and shadow boxing providing a way to connect to the complex amalgam of gratitude and sadness that I feel.

My work with the body is allowing me to swim in the black light of grief. Lessons from surfing provide rich material as I try to make sense of what the heck is going on. Often when held down by the impact of a wave, we can become overwhelmed by panic as we struggle to know which way is up and we are all too aware that we are running out of air. The key in such situations is to relax as much as possible so that with eyes open you can see the direction of light once the waves force has passed. So this is what I’m doing: letting myself feel what I’m feeling, trying not to force myself to struggle against the weight of what has happened. I keep tuning into my body because my training and experience have taught me that it so often the best barometer for where I need to be and the form of self-care I need to invest in.

Steve Dee

 

Magical Words and Images

I hope you’re having a wonderful May! Having not long got back from running the very first retreat at St.Nectan’s Glen I’ve now got the opportunity to share some really excellent books that I’ve recently added to my library.

Heart Vision
Tarot’s Inner Path
Michael Orlando Yaccarino

Book ended with a foreword by tarot guru Rachel Pollack, and afterword by novelist and Egyptologist Normandi Ellis, Heart Vision comes with an impressive pedigree. Michael Orlando Yaccarino is perhaps best known for his engaging and exhaustive biographical works on the life of Luisa Casati (written in collaboration with Scot D.Ryersson, who also created illustrations for Heart Vision)). As per his books on The Marchesa, in Heart Vision Michael draws our attention to the work of another, sometimes overlooked, female creative. In this case it is Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist responsible for producing the compelling designs of the so-called Rider-Waite tarot deck. It is through the imagery of this quintessential deck that Yaccarino explores each of the arcana.

As Heart Vision unfolds Michael skillfully guides us through the deck, deftly bringing our attention to the hidden, the background imagery and the ‘veiled aspects’ of each card. But it’s not all about the iconography: A comprehensive range of spreads are given, with some very interesting variations. There are also examples of readings that demonstrate how the interpretative process unfolds.

Little gems of wisdom are scattered through the pages, culled from Yaccarino’s clearly extensive reading and conversations with contemporary practitioners. This is an excellent introduction to the tarot, and an enjoyable and illuminating text for the seasoned reader too. Available from Mandrake of Oxford.

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They Shimmer Within
Cognitive-Evolutionary Perspectives on Visionary Beings
Bruce Rimell

This is a very cogent, well cited exploration of why it is that we humans see things; things like ghosts and pixies, spirits and aliens, gods and, of course, entities when we are high (especially when we are high on Salvia, NN DMT and ayahuasca).

This book is grounded in both personal experience with visionary psychedelics and contemporary scientific models of neurological evolution. They Shimmer Within builds up the case that the beings we see (whether we are high on drugs or anxiously wandering round a haunted house) arise because our minds are primed for the detection of intelligent agents.

As well as exploring the wider lore of disembodied entities this volume also engages with topics such as those invasive alien surgeons summoned by DMT (frequently encountered when the psychonaut is injected by Dr Strassman in a hospital setting, weird eh?) and the nice summary of those ‘are the machine elves real?’ discussions as articulated by David Luke. The deep phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience (Shanon) and the modular nature of the mind (Mithen) also have a role to play in this masterful exploration of this curious and contested territory. My own copy is now full of marginalia (some of Bruce’s ideas are very similar to those I’ve written about previously) I’ve certainly been informed and inspired by this excellent text. Available via Amazon.

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3 Essays on Virtual Reality
Overlords, Civilization and Escape
Eliott Edge

It is true that in every age people have used technology to frame their thoughts about how things work. The human mind for example has been variously imagined as a loom, a hydraulic engine, a radio antenna, and of course, a computer. Elliott Edge’s book stands within that tradition, here virtual reality (VR) is the cutting edge metaphor of choice through which we may (virtually) peer at ‘the wiring under the board’ of the universe.

Discussions about whether we are living in a (computer) simulation have existed in occulture for a number of years (notably in the work of Lionel Snell aka Ramsey Dukes) and years later exploded into mainstream society in the movie The Matrix. What Edge does in his work is move the conversation on, with a range of nice thought experiments and observations delivered in an engagingly rigorous yet conversational style.

For each generation there are those who who remind us that ‘the map is not the territory’. Using the language of VR Edge analyses the world-views or reality tunnels we inhabit and reminds of this perennial (multiple) truth. 3 Essays on Virtual Reality does not fall prey to solipsism but instead addresses the very real consequences of simulated reality theory. Edge points us to paranormal studies, shamanism and magic (as well as psychedelic drugs) as agents that may allow us to examine the architecture of the reality studio, and perhaps even reconfigure the inevitable VRs in which we live. Download these essays into your VR helmet here.

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The Devon & Cornwall Pagan Federation Conference

A delightful conference that has been going for 20 years was held again in March of this year. I was invited to make the first presentation of the day on the theme of Paganism past, present and future. I had to pack my talk into less time that I initially thought available but still managed to get a few gags in.

The key point of my  presentation was that while there may be a slow down in the number of people who identify as ‘Pagan’ (at least in UK census data) there are many, many more people who do pagan things – paganing as a verb as it were.

The great increase in the numbers of people creating autonomous spiritualities, of those involved in entheogenics and many others paths, perhaps means that the practices of Paganism have gone beyond the limits of identities such as ‘witch’, ‘heathen’ and all the rest.

Next year this conference will be back, but this time as part of the Pagan Phoenix South West. More details as these unfold but for now, enjoy!

(With thanks to the wonderful Damh the Bard for his contributions to this talk and to our own Steve Dee for the metaphor of the ‘Monsters of Rock’.)

If you want to check out details of forthcoming events please have a look at this page.

Hail the Queen of the May!

Julian Vayne

PS Don’t worry if you can’t access the article Keeping the Doors of Perception Open, all will be revealed soon…;)

Keeping the Doors of Perception Open

For many years, me and Greg Humphries—artist, magician and woodsman—have been rambling over the Devon and Cornwall landscape, exploring the hidden psychogeographical, mythical and mystical aspects of the place in which we live. On the 16th of April 2018, the 75th anniversary of the day that Albert Hofmann first accidentally ingested LSD-25, we took one of our walks along the Cornish coast; our mission, to hide a psychedelic treasure.

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Bring me my bow of burning gold…

Greg recently exhibited some of his art at the Penwith Gallery in St.Ives, Cornwall. On show was the The Bow of Albion: For The Herald Of The New Aeon, an exquisite longbow, complete with arrows, quiver and magnificent leather case—all made by hand. Also on show were three of The Doorstops of Perception (well, once the doors of perception are opened, one might well require something to stop them banging shut!). One of these beautifully hand-carved doorstops is the principle object contained in the ‘time capsule’ we have buried.

Along with the Doorstop is a badge showing the iconic Albert Hofmann blotter art (the rest of the badges were given away at a ceremony three days later).

Also in the magical box was a picture of the artist, actress and magician Pamela Coleman Smith. The monogram signature ‘PCS’ can be found on each of tarot cards she designed. Just as there is a great (and not before time) reappraisal of female occultist artists such as Ithell Colquhoun, I hope it will not be long before ‘Pixie’, as Coleman Smith was known, gets a proper retrospective.

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Consulting Pixie’s tarot by her graveside, and giving thanks for her work

Why do this kind of stuff? In some ways it’s a continuity of the kind of psychogeographical projects that Greg and I have found ourselves doing throughout our longstanding friendship. (One of these is documented in our book, Walking Backwards, Or The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography, available here, for a limited period with full-colour pictures—until summer solstice 2018—after which it will only be on sale as a monochrome version). In other respects this is a new process: to directly (re)enchant the magical landscape of our place through our art.  Like our ancestors, we are making offerings to the spirits of the land, and in our own small way enchanting for the rediscovery of magic in all our lives.

Unlike the days of yore, when Greg and I recorded our walks with occasional photography, the ubiquitous magical tool of the mobile phone allows us to capture and share the digital traces of our adventures.

So, as per the reading above, our wand-waving knights set off toward the Tower…

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On the skyline The Tower of the Winds

There to sing with the wind…

Greg charges, prepares and blesses The Doorstop of Perception…

Artworks are created…

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Greg reflects on the nature and practice of psychogeography within the animist paradigm…

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Carefully setting the turf back,

Leaving no visible trace

On this power spot,

The spell is cast.

 

Ahoy!

Julian Vayne

 

Walking Backwards, Or The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography is reviewed here and here.

 

 

Our Heroic Selves

In recently reflecting on the way in which Punk has inspired my own process of awakening and self-understanding, I’ve also been prompted to consider how such self-actualization also asks us to question the norms and rules we inherit. Whether via my exploration of the Gnostics or the Thelemic-Tantra of the AMOOKOS work, the path of magic for me has always been linked to a project of self-sovereignty and a desire to explore what “Peace, Freedom and Happiness” mean as I live this life.

In our pursuit of occult heroism it can be easy to imagine that any sense of progress will inevitably entail some form if icy, isolate uber-human state. While our insights will often require that we question those norms adopted by both family and wider society, the deeper challenge may be to consider how we can radically reimagine and express our relationship with others.

One of the most helpful books that I’ve encountered in recent years that reflects on our connections to others is Rewriting the Rules by Meg-John Barker. As the second edition of this book is about to hit the marketplace, I thought I’d share with you a review I wrote for the first edition that I published on Phil Hine’s fantastic blog…

“All of us inherit sets of rules and scripts about how we think we should behave and who we should be in relationships. Such beliefs often have their genesis in our families of origin, the cultural trends we imbibe and the shaping provided by our own experience and emerging sense of identity. In the process of trying to make sense of the pain and dislocation that many of us experience in seeking closeness and relationship, it can be tempting to “buy into” a set of apparent certainties. Recent trends in self-help literature have tried to make of the confusion by playing “The Game”, “The Rules” or by mapping gender difference according to planetary allegiance. While I can understand the impulse of such books in trying to find a cure to what ails us, I must confess to being highly unconvinced by their over-simplicity and gender stereotyping.

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Rule book

In their book Re-writing the Rules Meg-John Barker provides a refreshing antidote to such works and a highly thoughtful and compassionate book that they describes as an “anti-self-help book”. For Barker the starting point in developing more healthy relationships comes not via seconding guessing the maneuvers of the desired “other”, rather it comes via a relationship with self in all its complexity. Self is presented as both an on-going process of change and also as a plurality of differing aspects that dialogue with each other. Barker’s insights are offered in spirit of openness and wondering-an attempt to explore the right questions rather than providing pat answers.

Part of the helpfulness of this work lies in the way in which the author focuses in on the nature of human relationships and current dominance of discourses around romantic intimacy. Barker skillfully weaves in both contemporary cultural references and philosophical acumen in critiquing the centrality of both heterosexuality and genitally focused intimacy. We are invited to move from a position of certainty and polarity, to one in which we seek to cultivate sensitivity to nuances and subtlety. Sexual minorities are not exempted from the danger of losing touch with our desires; the demands of identity politics often asking for a degree of labeling and certainty that some may feel less than comfortable about.

The structure of each chapter begins with a thoughtful reflection on the issues under consideration e.g. the rules of attraction, the rules of gender and then moves on to an exploration of the current set of beliefs that many of us find ourselves operating under e.g. “Relationships should be sexually and emotionally monogamous.” Barker then gently begins a process of questioning and deconstruction that ask us to re-evaluate. Meg-John’s own background in mindfulness practice and existential psychotherapy seem very evident during this process given the acute sense of awareness they display and the degree of compassion towards self and others that runs throughout.

The richness of this work defies detailed description in this context, but the chapters on sex, gender and monogamy resonated deeply with some of my own personal exploration. The chapter on sex examines the way in which insights from the Queer and Kink communities have challenged not only the linearity of “foreplay as a starter, intercourse as the main event”, but also the centrality of genital sexuality itself. In thinking about how gender effects how we do relationships together, Barker artfully unpacks Judith Butler’s thinking on the performance of gender and how we might loosen the tyranny of binary thinking.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the depth of its meditation on the nature of friendship. The chapters on the nature of love and commitment rightly question the qualitative distinction that we make between how we relate to “Friends” and “Lovers”. How might our relationships improve if we let go of the assumptions we make and unrealistic expectations that we often demand of those we have sex with?

Given the centrality of existential psychology within the book, themes regarding endings, loss and transition are thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed. Barker is highly aware that in times of pain we may naturally seek to retreat and defend ourselves, with this in mind they provide many helpful exercises and strategies with a view to developing greater presence, flexibility and compassion. As with the other discussions in the book, the aim of such work is not to prescribe a new “hipper”, queerer orthodoxy, rather it seeks to explore how we might experience a greater sense of freedom, both for ourselves and those to whom we are connected.

I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in a philosophically and spiritually engaging examination in how we challenge and re-write the stories that we have inherited about how we “do” intimacy. Meg-John has managed to produce a book that is at once contemporary, engaging and entertaining, while at the same time providing depth and vivid insight.”

Steve Dee