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

A Witch on the Front Line

It’s 07:40 am as I arrive at the hospital. I walk through empty, silent corridors that just a few months earlier bustled with relatives, patients arriving early for procedures, teams heading into handover and porters keeping the hospital in motion. This morning I hear only my own feet and the acceleration of my breath as I reach the unit door and swipe my ID card to gain access. I walk past the next set of doors, behind which the beeps of cardiac monitors and infusion pumps form the soundtrack I know so well. I head to the staff room and change into my uniform, rubbing a herbal anti-viral balm into my skin and drawing a protective sigil across my heart before I zip up my blue dress. The air is heavy, though now, several weeks into the pandemic, we pretend that it isn’t. 

I head towards the unit, pausing at the doors to pull on the mask that I have become so used to wearing. Next, the eye protection. I open the doors into the high dependency unit I have spent years working in. On first inspection it looks like it always has, occupied beds and the organised chaos that is this kind of nursing. The siderooms are closed, with isolation signs up. Outside the doors are the trolleys I have come to expect. Upon them lie extra personal protective equipment (PPE). The patients are suspected COVID-19 patients. 

We sit in handover, masked, chairs 2 metres apart—ironic seeing as when we are all working together for a critically sick patient, there is no option to distance. It is then time to allocate patients. I am allocated one of the siderooms, a man in his seventies, admitted for a number of symptoms, some of which match the disease pattern we read about each day in the news. He has been tested, but the results have not come back yet, and therefore he is to be treated as a suspected case. Being a nurse is a part of me, I’ve nursed so many types of patients, seen so many different cases, and many times in my life I have been afraid, but I’m not used to being this afraid at work. 

I prepare to meet and assess my patient. Outside his room, I dress into the next level of PPE. It isn’t like armour. Unlike the language used outside of the hospital, this doesn’t feel like a war. It feels like a very treacherous path to walk. The mask sits tight and hot on my face as the visor comes down in front of it. The tighter it feels the safer it feels—this kit is my protection as I work in a closed room with a probably contagious patient. I cannot wash him from 2 metres away, I cannot set up his intravenous medication from 2 metres away, or dress a wound, or hold his hand, or comfort him whilst he is unable to see any of his loved ones in his time of need. The PPE however is not my only protection. The sigil I drew earlier is one of protection and solidarity with fellow practitioners of the craft and I am wearing it on my heart underneath these layers. It goes by the name of Hearty, and within that circle of practitioners, and with Hearty I am held. With my hand on the door, I pause to give thanks to all those practitioners, many I have never met and I call the sigil into my mind, take a deep breath and push open the door. 

He is so very sick, yet like so often, his spirit is so fiery that he’s sitting up talking to me through strained breaths and watching me through red, tired eyes. We talk about how he is feeling and he asks if his test results are back yet. He is desperate to know if he has it. The results are not back yet, but I feel sure that I know. None of us know COVID-19 well enough to know its presentation from experience, the disease is still new to us. But I know its energy and I know spirit and I know my job. I know that what is in that room with us is new. It doesn’t feel like any of the patients I am used to nursing, but it is there, heavy, brazen and full of sorrow. I spend a lot of time listening to the landscape, learning to navigate it or hear it. It is a crucial part of the spiritual path I walk. In many ways, clinically, the patient was not a textbook case but as I took a break I explained to my colleague that I felt sure he had it. I nursed him for my 12-hour shift. The next morning my colleagues informed me that he had tested positive. 

As the pandemic began to take hold in the UK I had worked hard with divination to try to understand what I would be meeting, how it would manifest. I had worked with other practitioners who shared this divination work and we talked at length about this new addition to our world. Now, in its presence, so much of our work felt precious and full of depth. 

At first as we prepared to nurse our first COVID-19 patients, I thought this virus was malevolent, arrogant—a bully. As the months went on, I met more patients with the virus and started to learn the nature of this new presence. It still felt like a powerful bully, but a wounded one, as all bullies are. A week later I was working a shift in intensive care. I was in a sealed bay of four COVID-19 positive ventilated patients. In a quiet moment as I sat next to my patient to write his notes, I stopped, closed my eyes, and from behind that tight mask I began some breath work. I focused on breath—the thing these patients were fighting for, as the lungs take the brunt of the disease—and on my own longing for a breath of fresh clean air from under the kit. I remember thinking of the recent forest fires, as the lungs of our planet burned in Australia and Brazil. I thought of the sounds of the ventilators all working to breathe for the patients. Breath is a part of my practice, but in that moment I truly felt how sacred it is to breathe, how connected we are in that exchange between the internal and the external, the delicate balance of the atmosphere, the biosphere, the everything. I wrote and shared a Hearty practice centred around breath and I hope this story serves it well. 

Being a nurse means sitting with suffering. Sitting with the dark times, the things that many avoid. It means listening and understanding that which is unseen but that is very much there, forming the stories of people’s lives, loves and losses. For me, the craft is similar—it comes from a great love and connection to those I share my existence with, in all their forms, on all their levels. It is about holding that sacred space with compassion, being prepared to ask the bully why it is sad, what does it want to say? It is the love, the hope, the joy and the sadness of that space. It is playing it out on the drum, sending on that which must leave and holding safe that which must be protected. For me it has included the comfort of kind herbs on the days my heart is heavy from the last few months, the soft light of the moon and my bare feet on the belly of the earth. It has been the comfort and love of other practitioners, across the globe working with Hearty or their own practices, to hold the space for better times. 

There is much yet for our craft to give and I have so much gratitude to all my brothers and sisters on this path. Merry Meet, albeit from afar. 

The Heretic Nurse


Keep dancing!

It’s essential to keep the people dancing in this time of pandemic. Big respect and thanks to Quarantine Dance Specials 2020 and to Social DisDance for doing just that! Aho!