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Friday, 31 October 2008

Finding the Real Magic

Eurik and I have been studying ADF druidrism for the last year, and so when we heard that the founder of the organisation Isaac Bonewits was touring Europe giving weekend seminars with his wife Phaedra, it didn't seem as if this was a chance we could turn down. So we took our little silver car on the longest drive of its life, all the way to an ecological centre near Dortmund in Germany, to meet the two legendary figures of Neo-Paganism, and hear what they had to say.

As we stumbled stiff-legged from the car we had our first glimpse of Isaac and Phaedra, walking through the yellow beech trees to the house. Both of them are silver-haired, Isaac was walking with a stick and leaning on Phaedra's arm. He seemed to me frail and elderly, yet this was an impression which was soon to be eliminated as we gathered in the seminar room to hear him speak. Wearing a bright white polar neck, and numerous druid and pagan pendants, with a curly grey beard and massy white hair, and looking absolutely relaxed, his presence seemed to exude around the room. Almost before we were sitting down, clutching our cups of tea, he had dived into an explanation of the laws of magic.

When I had pulled my attention from my breakfaast of squashed gingerbread and focused on what was happening around me, they seemed to be talking about crystals and magic; or more specifically, the fact that crystals don't have any. They don't have any intrinsic magic power, said Isaac, their power comes from their colour – or, as Phaedra put it, crystals are shiny, and, just like magpies, humankind is drawn to glittery things. Crystals are no better or worse a magical system than Tarot, or Astrology. All of these things work, according to Isaac, because they trigger within us different psychic states, and thus allow us to tap into that energy, ch'i or lifeforce which is all around us. Indeed beauty; beautiful objects, beautiful dance, poetry, words, or pictures, seems to be a key to magic, in the Bonewits' formulation. More on that later.

What immediately caught my attention as we relaxed into the lecture was Isaac's idea that paradox is at the heart of magic. We all move in different realities; we all exist in a network of different values and truths, but because these different truths may seem to clash, doesn't mean that they aren't all true. An eighty year old lives in a different universe from an eighteen year old, but both lives are real. Reality is not single or simple; in fact reality, in Isaac's words, is 'a crutch for people who can't handle magic'. To do magic, you need to be aware that reality is multiple, and that if something works for you then you can use it, whether that be a room full of rose quartz crystals or an evocation of the dread Cthulu. This is the Law of Pragmatism: If something works, it is real.

He went on then to outline a theory of the Spheres of Comprehension, which is essentially that the world can be understood through different spheres, the sphere of art, the sphere of science, and the sphere of religion. Long ago, back when human life began and we started to understand what was going on around us, the three spheres were overlapping - we understood science through art and art through religion. As we have evolved, the three spheres have separated; scientists leave religion for the priests, and artists leave science for the geeks ;-) But in the centre of these globes, in the space that still overlaps - where science can be art can be God – that is where magic happens. Magic, he seemed to be suggesting, is that state where everything is possible, and where opposites are one; the point where the Ouroboros comes back to swallow its tail.

To develop his point he continued in talking about the history of faith and magic, and the history of dualistic thinking. An idea he repeated throughout the weekend was that the history of our culture, all the way from Zoroastra and the idea of a good and evil god, through the gnostic division of spirit and matter, to the adoption and adaptation of these ideas in Christianity, has turned us into dualistic thinkers. Even though many of us no longer hold to the view that life, morality, or even gods, divide into black and white, this split thinking still pervades our culture and our brains: 'it's the original poisoned water that we are swimming around in', as Isaac put it. Incredibly important, he kept stressing, is to develop a pleuralistic viewpoint: understanding that the universe, rather than being black/white, light/dark, right/wrong, is 'complicated, ambiguous and messy.'

After this he continued talking about ritual skills, and ADF ritual style. I say 'he', yet although Isaac was doing most of the talking, Phaedra interrupted throughout with a fluidity that made a duet of their lecture; either supporting with examples or restraining with qualifications when Isaac seemed to be getting carried away in his own conceptions. She also supervised group work, and we were all struck by her demonstration of group energy. After a few hours of sitting we were asked us to observe the feelings in our body. We were then told to stand, and cross arms, letting our palms rest one above the other. Immediately my hands began to tingle: without having done any visualisation or meditation, but with the simplest of arm movements we had dramatically altered the energy of the room. When we sat down again, I not only felt buzzing with energy, but far more open to a group which, up to that point, I had not felt particularly comfortable in. It made me think about how significant it is in a ritual to think not just about the individual energies or invocations of the participants, but really get the energy moving around the group as a whole.

After discussing ritual style for the afternoon, the evening consisted of the much-awaited ritual itself, lead by Isaac and Phaedra, with contributions from those who wanted; Eurik and I were quick to volunteer – how, after all, could we pass up the chance to work in an ADF ritual with the Bonewits'? It was fascinating to view their style in leading a ritual, and it was certainly a very powerful and enjoyable one, particularly Isaac's incredible sung invocations to the Morrigan and Dagda.

Afterwards, we all sat around and prepared ourselves to relax and drink beer: thus were somewhat taken aback when Isaac and Phaedra commanded a 'bardic circle': moving around the group clockwise, each person had to recite a poem, story, joke, or sing a song. Despite being initially alarmed at such a request (I can't sing to save my life and jokes slip out of my head like fish): it was a truly beautiful evening, and a wonderful way to maintain the energy of the night, and keep things somewhat Pagan, and spiritual, and truly shared, rather than allowing the conversation to slip off into more general topics. We heard verse, stories, and all types of songs from German to English folk to the Beatles. The highlight for me was when Phaedra sang the old English folk song 'green grow the rushes' – the new, Neo-Pagan version, of course. Since she hadn't sung it, she told us, for twenty years, and only gave it a go on somebody's request, she was helped somewhat haphazardly by the rest of the group when she forgot the words. This did mean we ended up with lines like – '11 something somethings with Crowley', but we certainly kept the tune and spirit going. One of the runic blessings of the ritual had been the blessing of community, and siting in the recreation room, all of us fumbling to get the correct words of an old folksong, translated into a hymn of modern paganism, typified, for me, precisely this blessing.

The next morning, we got up to a critique of last night's ritual, and then moved to what was certainly the most controversial part of the weekend, which was Isaac's comparison of Wicca and ADF druidrism. When describing modern Wicca, about which he was scathingly, and, many of us thought, unnecessarily critical, Isaac suggested essentially that Wicca was Gerald Gardener's version of Tantra for the Western world. In a Wiccan ritual, according to Isaac, the primary form of power raising is sexual energy, either explicit or implicit. However, since British people tend to be much more repressed than those in the East and not so comfortable with dancing about naked etc, Wiccan rituals, from their very beginnnings, found people trying to raise power through an energy with which they were neither comfortable nor familiar. In contrast, according to Isaac, ADF druidism uses art for its power-raising. Sacrifices to the gods in the form of poetry or dance, or vividly written invocations. I love the very idea of creating art to give to the gods, but as far as the Wicca/ADF comparison goes, I, as many of the others there, remained unconvinced. As one high priestess of a German Wiccan coven pointed out, Wicca has evolved a great deal from whatever Gerald Gardner meant, or didn't mean, it once to be.

I also cannot accept that Wicca doesn't use 'art' to raise energy, or, in fact, that you can so easily separate the two methods of power raising to such an extent. Just because a ritual doesn't include reading poems which are then given into the flames, doesn't mean that the participants aren't praising the gods, offering to the gods, with the craft of their imagination. Isn't the ritual form itself an artwork? A piece of sacred drama? A Wiccan ritual which re-enacts a myth, for example Persephone's journey to the Underworld, certainly works with the Persephone/Hades energy, which is sexual on one level, but only on one. Indeed, Isaac himself pointed out to us a number of times that body and spirit are not separate – this is only a misconception of dualism. So if body and spirit are not separate, then, how can sex and art be so mutually exclusive? A Wiccan myth-working ritual is a re-enactment of an imaginary or mythical experience in the material plane, and if that isn't art, then I don't know what is.

During this part of the seminar I was far more convinced by Phaedra than Isaac; who herself, as far as I understood it, has been a significant figure in the American Wiccan community. She pointed out that ADF and Wicca are not mutually exclusive, and that they still do a number of Wiccan rituals. She also made the interesting suggestion that ADF work is more appropriate for large public rituals, and a Wiccan ritual, which tends to be more intense, better for private work. Considering the number of wonderful open ADF rituals Eurik and I have experienced while working with it, this idea thoroughly resonated with me.

One might think that all of this was enough for one weekend, but certainly not. Isaac ended the day with an intensive two hour lecture about the twenty six laws of magic: more information can be found here, for those who are interested. http://www.neopagan.net/AT_Laws.html I'm fascinated to see, now that I look at the webpage, that he first formulated this as a guide for players of RPGs. All the more fascinating because these laws don't seem to belong to the fantasy world; but also have a perfectly practical application to everyday life. Even the more 'magical' seeming laws, such as the Law of Contagion, that objects or beings in physical contact with one another continue to interact after separation, has, as Isaac pointed out, recent backing from quantum physics. It just goes to show that there really are different, but equally valid, realities, as well as prove my own personal theory that the magic of fairy tales and fiction is not so far from 'real' magic after all.

In summary, it was a fantastic weekend, both rich and enriching. We wended our way back to Liberec buzzing with all of the new ideas we had come out with. I feel truly lucky that we had a chance to meet such venerable Pagan elders in the setting of the beautiful German countryside, and experience some magic with them.

1 comment:

Noira said...

Great article! I share a lot of your impressions.