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.
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 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.
Coming up next…
– The Intermission –
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.