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.


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!


Julian Vayne

Surreal Witchcraft

While scholars and practitioners may continue to debate the degree to which the transcripts of the Witch trials can be viewed as axiomatic in relation to what Witches actually did, they do seem to highlight the centrality of dreaming to the Witches’ path.

To travel to the Sabbat was to enter the realm of dreams. We might to choose to frame this as a form of astral travel or a salve-induced hypnopompic experience, but it seems that to be a Witch meant that the nighttime became a liminal zone in which the fuzzy edges of consciousness were utilized for the work of magic.

The nocturnal dream journeys of the Witch embody a cognitive liberty that refuses to be imprisoned, despite the efforts of the authoritarian oppressor. However they might seek to enforce their orthodoxies or to harm and torture the body, the spirit of the Witch struggled hard in refusing the limitation of their chains. For me these heretical heroes were seen as threatening due to the way in which they embodied a more authentic and visceral humanity more connected to the sexual and the wild.

The sabbatic revelries of the Witch were almost certainly located as much in the projections of their oppressors as they were in actual practice, and yet even here we can sense the potency and strangeness of the unconscious realm. The fevered imaginings of Malleus Maleficarum with its violent suppression, reflect a sadism born of suppression. I cannot help but see the reports of the inquisitors as a distorted mirror image of the type of freedom that they secretly longed for.

The depictions of the Witches’ Sabbat are often simultaneously sensual and grotesque. They are at once conclaves of perversity and yet in their depiction they often unconsciously capture a male gaze that holds both disgust and longing. Such images seem to reflect the sense of internal conflict at work in the inquisitorial eye, and the potentially queering, alchemical impact that such perceptions of perversity can induce. In her work Queer Phenomenology, Sarah Ahmed observes:

Perversion is also a spatial term, which can refer to the wilful determination to counter or go against orthodoxy, but also to what is wayward and thus “turned away from what is right, good and proper.” For some queer theorists, this is what makes “the perverse” a useful starting point for thinking about the “disorientations” of queer, and how it can contest not only heternormative assumptions, but also social conventions and orthodoxies in general. Page 78.

For me the archetype of the Witch is innately bonded to the queer, the twisted and the perverse. In its raw nocturnal sensuality, it challenges attempts at control, and it organises itself into cells of practice for those bold enough to seek their own power and self-definition outside of the bounds of convention. The possible/partial etymology of Wicce being “to twist or bend”, for me points toward the willful pursuit of a non-straight and less linear approach.

The Witch is the dream dweller par excellence and as such they provide us (whether Witch identified or not) with a form of surreal inspiration that when embraced allows the possibility of greater queerness and greater self-transformation. To gain access to this realm, we must dare the lucid sleep where we utilize the less-filtered reality of our dreams.

The character of the Witch within the Surrealist canon is probably embodied most vividly in the work of Leonora Carrington. We have already considered the centrality of her work in manifesting that strange space between dreams and waking, male and female, real and surreal. For me her work pushes hard against the attempts of orthodoxy to contain and control the power of the female imagination.

For Carrington, the Witch embodies the figure willing to bend and distort the known and the orthodox. The richness of her many years in Mexico provided her with a vibrant example of how to meld the Catholicism of her upbringing with her own, deeper magical impulses. Her time spent with Curandera and in exploring the mythology of pre-conquest beliefs of the Maya, inspired her own journey in synthesising both Catholic and Celtic/Native British currents; as Susan Aberth observes:

This combination of the heretical with the orthodox exemplifies the multiplicity of belief systems the artist is dedicated to preserving as part of the suppressed history of female spirituality. Page 126, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art.

Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen

Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975

In exploring the power of the Witch, Carrington depicts the magical circle and the Kitchen as being able to sit within the same space. For Carrington it feels that her work as a magician dissolves any dualism between artistic creation, nurture and sorcerous realms. When pursuing such integration the visible and invisible, the known and the occult inter-penetrate each other as a manifestation of a truly earthed divinity:

By transforming the domestic table into a sacramental altar Carrington creates a feminine sacred space that links worlds, providing access to multiple states of consciousness while collapsing the hierarchies that have prevented a more inclusive vision of spiritual possibilities. Ibid.

The nocturnal realm of the Witch is one in which the quiet of night’s darkness allows us more space to tune in. With day’s labour done, the hearth invites us to rest, engage and feel the edges of the coming dream-sleep. This is the place that the Witch beckons to; a place where the busy cognitions of bright sunlight are left to simmer.

Carrington’s work depicts a form of alchemy truly plugged in to chthonic power. Her Witchcraft rejects a false dichotomy between folk-magical practice and the depths of spiritual transformation. For her the Celtic Sidhe that inhabit much of her work are both the spirits of the earth and the holders of alchemy’s secrets. With the incoming of a Roman Christianity hell-bent on homogenization, the old gods choose to go underground and inhabit those mounds or “Sid” that still hold such allure for those drawn to the serpentine energy of the land. If we risk reconnection to such power, transformation becomes possible in a way that rejects false dualities, and allows creation from a place of deep rootedness.





Heretic Heroes part 3: Cathars, Witches and Rebel Voices

Reading is good. Reading does all sorts of great stuff to us, it provides stimulus, transports us to new worlds and at best promotes curiosity. In my last post I had the pleasure of reviewing Andrew Phillip Smith’s excellent The Lost Teachings of the Cathars and like many a good book it left me with as many questions as it provided answers.

The Cathars have always proved to be something of an enigma. While on one level they provide a vivid example of how Gnostic religion survived into the medieval period, it can still be problematic trying to discern what they did and did not believe. This is partly due to history often belonging to the most powerful, i.e. the Church and the Inquisition, but it may also reflect a religious tradition more focused on a living encounter with mystery, rather than codifying a systematic theology.


Cathar cross

What does seem clear about them, is that they were incredibly courageous in being willing to question the orthodoxies that the Church and State were hugely invested in maintaining. As with the Gnostics of antiquity, Cathar theology seems to have been derived from an encounter with a God who seemed irreconcilable with the material realm. The stark realities of human pain and impermanence led to them adopting a worldview that was a radical inversion of Church teaching.

The Cathars’ dualism meant a rejection of the creator God. By extension they rejected the Church teaching that the project of marriage and reproduction was actually a good idea. If your view is that the material realm needs to be escaped from, then the entrapment of even more spiritual beings tends to not be viewed positively. Not only were the Cathar Perfecti clear in their rejection of sexual activity that could lead to childbirth, they viewed marriage itself as negative and were accused by the church as advocating abortion.

The historic connection between the Cathars and the Bulgarian Bogomils is fairly well attested, and the accusation of the latter engaging in “buggery” and other forms of non-reproductive sexual activity may have some credence beyond mere slander. The terms Bogomil originally meant “Friend of God”, but those threatened by their Gnostic teachings were so persistent in their accusations of sodomy, that the group became synonymous with anal activity. It may well be difficult to ascertain whether the Perfecti themselves were absolute celibates, but it seems probable that an engagement in non-penis in vagina sex in the wider Cathar church was consistent with their desire to avoid pregnancy.

Whatever one makes of their dualism, it’s fascinating to consider how these themes of inversion and the unnatural became central to not only the persecution of heretical groups such as the Beginues, Cathars and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, but also how such themes contributed to the perception of Medieval Witchcraft. As Norman Cohn has rightly highlighted, the accusations brought against the alleged practitioners of Witchcraft are as old as time its self. Accusations of sexual depravity, cannibalism and abortion are the stock-in-trade for those in power wanting to depict a religious minority as being the hidden cause of societal unrest. Jews, Christians, Gnostics and practitioners of Magic have all been persecuted on the basis that they engaged in such activities and that their practice of such unnatural inversions is a direct threat to the well being of the masses. Such acts of depravity either promoted the presence of disorder and disease e.g. the Black Death, or they invited divine retribution due to the failure to eradicate such miscreants.

What seems fairly clear is the manner in which minority groups such the Cathars and those accused of Witchcraft became a location onto which the fantasies and fears of those in power could projected. Whether it was the imagined orgies of Witches at the Sabbat or Cathars having tonnes of Queer sex, their status as outsiders, without real power and recourse to stable judicial process, made them highly vulnerable to persecution. Sadly, history confirms that such strategies of distancing and demonising only make it easier for the powerful to view such minority communities as dangerous, threatening and therefore disposable and warranting of savagery.
In light of the recent traumas inflicted by both the UK’s Brexit vote and the US presidential elections this can seem like decidedly bleak reading. Indeed those of us seeking to avoid such catastrophes must know, understand and promote awareness concerning such saddening examples of powers’ misuse. But dear friends, be of stout heart! These heretic heroes provide us with some keys for reclaiming both power and the magics of conscious subversion.


Never again the burning times

While some occultists may sneer at the way that the Witch as truth-teller has been co-opted by the so-called “liberal agenda” (like that’s such a bad thing?) recent events in Poland provide us with a powerful example of liberation. In being faced with a parliament hell-bent on implementing draconian laws aimed at further restricting Women’s access to safe and legal abortions; the Witches took to the streets. Thousands of black-clad (predominantly women) activists downed tools and protested as a potent and defiant “fuck you” to those who sought to further their control. While the battle for religious and reproductive liberty is ongoing, I couldn’t help but smile and be inspired at a social media post by a Polish friend of mine who had taken part:

“We are the granddaughters of all the Witches you were never able to burn.”

For most of us, the pursuit of spiritual paths that involve magic and gnosis entails a direct challenge to the forms of reality that the mainstream wants us to accept. We are the inverts, the Queer and the outsiders seeking to push forward the liminal edge of our cultures, so that they may evolve and that we may have space to thrive. I do not reject nature and the wild beauty of our world, but I continue to question concepts of what it means to be “natural” within it. Concepts of fixity and desires for a romantic stone age should be open to questioning and as a heretical freethinker I will continue to do so.

Hail to those seeking liberty, diversity, kindness and freedom! May we be inspired to new levels of wisdom and action, by those heretical heroes who have come before us.


Witchhunts and drawings

Witches and Wicked Bodies: This exhibition explores the relationship between witches, sorcery and the artistic imagination. Prints and drawings are used to convey how the female gender has been key to the depiction of witches, sirens and harpies in western art. These enduring images reveal how witches have been seen as harbingers of misfortune and horror, objects of misogyny and sexual fantasy, as well as figures of ridicule and caricature.

I was going to be in London for a meeting last month, so on my way there I stopped off at this little show high up on Level 4 at the rear of the British Museum in London. It is on for a few more days, until the 11th January 2015. Go if you can!

Starting at the end of my experience, I left with my head in a whirl, understanding the way that the raw female body served/serves as the projection for all sorts of unacceptable desires on the behalf of society. Feelings of lust, animal sensuality, rejection of the status quo (whether political, cultural or other), become anchored in the fevered imaginings of repressed men, who seek out salacious graphic pictures depicting those acts they declare sinful:

Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.” HG Wells

Witches have long been portrayed as temptresses, similar iconography accompanies them as the portrayals of sirens, spells cast by wicked women are used to excuse the viewers’ obsessions; with the agency taken away from the bewitched viewers,  they cannot be blamed for their fascination with these pendulous breasts, muscular arms and bare behinds.

Witches' Sabbath, 1510 (Hans Baldung) Showing an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality.

Witches’ Sabbath, 1510 (Hans Baldung)

One label, on Hans Baldung’s 1510 woodcut Witches’ Sabbath, stated; “This print… shows an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality… It is likely [it] found a ready market… in the affluent city of Strasbourg… The violent Witches’ Hammer, … was first published in this city in 1487; by 1520 it had been reprinted fourteen times.

Similarly to the prurient outrage of readers of the News of the World poring over pictures of wrong-doers, ‘abnormal’ sexuality is displayed in great detail in many of these 15th/16th century engravings, presumably in part to titillate the purchasers. Obviously it is more nuanced than JUST this, but the prominence of nakedness, same-sex interactions, and generally non-reproductive sex acts depicted does seem to point towards voyeuristic motivations of the sexually curious/repressed. Nakedness itself was used in art of the time to show the people concerned were outside the realm of contemporary cultural mores, and those who practise magick (amongst other marginalised groups) have often had accusations of unacceptable behaviours projected upon them. It is generally agreed that tales of secret meetings where all kinds of bizarre activities take place, are often more revealing of the phantasies of the person ‘revealing’ them, rather than the actuality of what went on.

In my experience most meetings of any group, whether anarchists, community gardeners, magicians, musicians, writers, scientists, or academics, tend to centre around the quality of the coffee and biscuits, with the administrative structure of the group, and when/where to hold the next meeting, as the top three items on the agenda.

Conspiracy theorists existed then as now, as people of limited power and knowledge construct elaborate hidden rationales to explain that forces are arrayed against their own missions, thus thwarting the easy path that Others have to privileged positions in our societies. What other reason could there be for virtuous persons’ lives being imperfect?! Surely, some kind of judgement from an ineffable source.

In reality of course there are many problems with this vision of Those Other people messing up our nice world, and who are adversarial towards us (thus legitimising our defending ourselves against Them). Whilst this dualistic perspective provides emotional comfort, and a strong way of identifying as a group which exists in contrast to Them, it does not help with a constructive approach to mutual understanding of the multiplicity of ways of life, and finding possible common ground to moving forwards together in partnership into the future.

The mindset of the inquisitors of the witchhunts still exists today too, luckily not so often directed in so many places towards those of a non-mainstream religious lifestyle, but couched in terms of race, sexuality, or dress style. Tribal affiliations are often based upon the observable differences rather than the more important basic behavioural and ethical values we tend towards such as being nice to one’s fellow humans, trying to take care of the land we inhabit and lifeforms we interact with, and generally living in a way that maximises good feelings for oneself and others.

I know this is a rather rose tinted view of the state of affairs and that economic/social constraints affect and limit the reification of these ideals into daily practices, but if you take a broad view of all human societies as they actually function, these kinds of values remain core to what would be considered a good life.

Although homosexuality was not featured in the exhibition (well, not that between two males… the bestial lusts of women for women are portrayed as existing within the general depravity of these harlots, out of control and with insatiable physical bodies…) we know that many of those persecuted in the heresy/purification frenzy of the 15th and 16th centuries were executed for the crime of sodomy. Fear of the temptations of female flesh were bad enough (let alone anything worse!) and injunctions in the various holy books of all the Abrahamic religions against all that sinful ‘lying with another man’ business meant that a person’s basic desires were one avenue used to justify murder and torture. [NB ‘Sodomy’ grouped together homosexual and heterosexual anal sex as equivalent to bestiality, amongst other unspecified unnatural acts, but a large proportion of those prosecuted were men who had sex with men consensually. The term and concept of a ‘homosexual’, and also the notion of a ‘heterosexual’, does not appear until relatively recently in our culture.]

This is relevant to our witches because their desire, to have power over their own spheres of influence, were similarly seen as aberrant to the simplistic top down power hierarchy of the time. In the monolithic One Priest above all else pyramid structure, anyone opting out, especially one who opted out in open defiance of the ruling elite, had to be labelled as dangerous, as Other [to the status quo], and destroyed as publically as possible. A mandate from God (whichever one gets named on the contract) cannot withstand the threat from a person who claims to have direct access to supernal connections. Heaven forfend, where would we be with such a world?! Anarchy!!!

Chaos magicians, I suspect, would have little truck with this as a sensible attitude; warfare and throwing insults based upon mere paradigmatical clothing has little to offer in the way of results, apart from a waste of time and energy; and leads at best to an impasse (or, very occasionally to some witty observational comedy), instead of constructive dialogue. There are of course exceptions that prove any rule, and some situations it could be argued do need people to receive a swift blow to the head (e.g. someone materially attacking me, or invading my home).

These thoughts and other musings upon the way those holding political views Other to one’s own tend to be portrayed in mass media cartoons as witches or similar despicable (visually accessible) stereotypes, showed me as in a mirror darkly how this example of a culture’s treatment of magick makers holds deep clues to the ecosystem of paradigms which jostle for position upon the stage of our awareness, and in particular in the media led portrayals of what we the people are allegedly thinking.

Mass confusion over the argument of how to answer that age old question, ‘How does one properly worship God?’, must have unsettled the church authorities mightily once Christianity had won as the dominant religion with power over Europeans. A new collection of Others who could be banded against had to arise, in order to close ranks and enforce conformism amongst what was a ramifying and diversifying series of cults.

In the times of the witch persecutions, some of these Others included rumours of Jews and lepers poisoning wells, rumours which undoubtedly led to thousands of people from these easily identifiable (and already disliked) groups dying horribly by being burned alive. This primal need of humans to know which tribe they are in, so they can feel fine about violence towards Others, is the same cultural fear that the witch pictures, and the depictions of women in particular as malefic, tapped into. They exacerbated social prejudices, by encouraging stereotypical views of those Others upon whom the ‘normal’ populace could vent their anger at whatever the complaints of the day were. Today in western culture we still suffer the presence of the descendants of these cultural depictions of the evil female, which deny female’s any power except via a route of sexually manipulative agency, showing us as physical objectified entities, compared with the proactive self-determined agency of the ‘successful’ male (see representations in advertising and mass media drama etc.). Women were without souls, the carriers of Original Sin, and a scapegoat group par excellence for use by a divisive ruling elite.

That goes beyond what I wanted to write here though; what this exhibition revealed to me, which I knew, but was brought home in a most moving way, is the impact words and pictures can have upon the collective psyche.

The pit of Acheron, or the birth of the plagues of England, 1784 (Thomas Rowlandson)  A satirical comment on the failure of the Fox-North Coalition and the India Bill

The pit of Acheron, or the birth of the plagues of England, 1784 (Thomas Rowlandson)
A satirical comment on the failure of the Fox-North Coalition and the India Bill, reusing the witches from that tour de force of ‘blaming of Other’ propaganda piece which James VI of Scotland commisioned, Macbeth.

As I finish this blogpost, it is the day after the shooting in Paris of some people who used words and pictures to laugh at religious stereotypes. We would do well to try to understand better how prejudices can flourish in cultural atmospheres of fear and anger, which can in turn then lead to flimsy excuses for nasty acts of violence by individuals who I suspect would probably be best understood as unhappily deranged and dysfunctional. Very angry people with issues do not tend to think things through, whether attacking cartoonists or mosques.

Grouping together Those Other people on grounds of whatever arbitrary attribute happens to be the flavour of the decade does not often prove useful in building a nicer world. As a strategy it offers merely a simplistic and easy to point at a group of scapegoats, upon which to load all sorts of emotional baggage. Thinking about the folly and wisdom of this strategy will be the basis of my next blogpost, which examines mechanisms of simplistic vs complex decision making strategies.

Magicians, especially chaos magicians, consciously choose tools of belief in various situations; in order to do this effectively we could do worse than consider how those choices play out, albeit unconsciously, in wider society, even for those of us primarily interested in the internal clamour of our own psyche’s internal society of voices and opinions.

We should listen to the various discussions prompted by this attack, and learn from our approval (or not) of what they say to learn of our own prejudices, through which we cannot help but lens all we hear. Perhaps, like addictions, prejudices can also be chosen wisely…


What We Find Ourselves Doing…

A good friend of my once observed that we should pay more attention to what we find ourselves doing rather than what we think we should be doing. What my friend (who is both a therapist and magician) was pointing towards was that we often cause ourselves suffering through the endless cycle of searching, aspiration and acquisition. “If I just gain mastery of x, acquire this book or undertake this training then I will know who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing here!” Sadly this doesn’t really work does it? We might gain a temporary sugar-high from rebranding ourselves or spending far too much on fine books (or wines), but if your anything like me we end up caught in a solipsistic loop where we end up exhausted (and frankly bored) by our endless self-narrative.

My friend’s theory was that if we pause for a moment and reflect on the things that we actually do and enjoy doing (hence why we keep doing them), then we are probably getting close to understanding something about what we really desire. Desire often gets a bad press, but personally I feel that our problems with distraction and consumerism are often our attempts to flee from the cost that our real heart-longings might ask of us. The quick-fix is really no fix at all and contrasts radically with the type of awakening and attentive self-listening that will allow us to look down to the soil in which are personal roots are really bedded.

Such self-reflection is rarely easy and in making the effort to “tune-in” to these realities, we may have to turn-down or reject the versions of ourselves that others may want us to buy into. This willed antinomianism allows the creation of a space in which we might experience a greater sense of cognitive liberty in experimenting with our dreams. This is the demarcation of the magical circle – a lab in which we create the optimal conditions for self-examination. In waking up to “what we find ourselves doing” I have often opted for a period of elective self-limitation. In a world where endless choice and speed are valued, a period of monastic retreat often allows the cultivation of clarity.

Getting up to stuff in the magic laboratory

Getting up to stuff in the magic laboratory

As we push our hands down into the dark soil of our unconscious, we risk the possibility of contacting some of the core aspects of what drives us and those things that cause us to feel most alive. The discovery of this “dark matter” is rarely linear and the value of art, dreams and synchronicities should not be underestimated. Often the untidy syncretism of our altar spaces, reveal more to us than our ordered book shelves.

One of my personal routes to accessing such gnosis has been through the use of dance and shaking states. In seeking to loosen the tensions and defences that often get located in what Wilhelm Reich described as “body armour”; I often have a sense of a deeper instinctive knowing emerging in and through the body. When I move in response to the music my self-consciousness slowly melts away. This type of “shape –shifting” may well relate to the way in which the body allows us to process aspects of the self that the conscious mind struggles to make sense of. Interesting research is beginning to explore this territory, and it may be the “darker” more instinctive drivers of the early or “reptilian” brain get processed more effectively when we actively engage the body. As I dance I often feel that in my messy embodiment, I am making sense of my early and deepest drives (for more on this see “The Compassionate Mind” by Paul Gilbert and Peter Levine’s work on trauma).

In reconnecting to the “what is” of the moment, rather than becoming stuck we create the possibility of emergence coming from a place of depth. Stirred by the memory of some conversations with a Setian Priest, I keep returning   to the concept of how important “need-fire” is in the pursuit of my own initiatory work. Whether one self-defines as a magician or not, one of the primary indicators of whether a goal will reach fruition relates to the degree to which we are motivated by burning need. To follow a path of the basis of whim or fashion may provide a temporary distraction, but it is unlikely to adequately fuel significant transformation.

fuelling transformation

fuelling transformation

In many ways these observations connect to the “Chaos Craft” project (and forthcoming book) mentioned on this blog. In contrast to the often hyper-accelerated go-getting that one might associate with Chaos Magic, this project has sought to integrate the inescapability of the moment made manifest in time and the spirit of place. We make no claims to lineage or secrets shared on Grandma’s knee, rather this is a Witchcraft born of a connection to a raw coastline, the beating of drums and a desire to awaken. This is the Witchcraft we found ourselves doing.

To look into the mirror and truly see ourselves requires real bravery. To let go of the script of how it should be and to ask “What is it that I find myself doing…?” is truly revelatory. It may reveal the nature and extent of our current desires and also our need to escape from the current constraints that block our unfolding. There are no simple answers but it is a beginning.