Images in Magic : inner and outer

OK… a few thoughts. Maybe it’s the new wonderful artwork by Mike for MOTO’s header, maybe it’s the season, maybe it’s something else, but I have been thinking a lot about images recently. In the GD and magic we use images extensively to connect us with the divine beings and powers – so really I have been thinking more about imagery.

Though I am likely to invoke the wrath of a few anti-Christian nutters out there, it is quite clear that the sources for modern western magic developed within the Christian milieu. The background and backbone of many modern traditions, Rosicrucianism was started by heterodox Christians and is replete with Christian imagery and mysteries. This is a different thing to saying modern western magic is Christian.

One of the features that distinguishes  Christianity from its main parent, Judaism is its use of religious imagery. Judaic (and Islamic) aversion to representations of divinity and divine presences, technically aniconism, is absent in most (modern) Christian traditions. This difference is often explained in terms of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, the ultimate Godhead taking physical form, therefore the physical icon being a fit and holy representation and method to connect with Christ as the One.

Magic with its heterodox Christian, Hermetic and Pagan inspirations often uses images with gay abandon and nary a thought for the spiritual principles behind aniconism. The main applicable principle is that any representation of the divine, the One Thing, must be incomplete and therefore inaccurate and misleading, even offensive. The Hermetic, Christian and pagan approach is different, viewing the images as links to the mystery. Just as a Godform is both limiting the unknowable One and a method of connecting to the One, so too are representations of the Gods and divine beings. This explains the use of magical images associated with Sephiroth in Hermetic Qabalah, something that marks its break from traditional Jewish Kabbalah.

All well and good. However, one of the other concerns of aniconism is that any image, any representation must by necessity involve the human imagination, effort and mind. Since these are limited, the representations are limited and therefore can limit the observers of these images. A specific example is this image of ‘the Horned Lord’.

Love the modern beard.

Now the deity in question has only been around a couple of hundred years at best, being a modern western expression of an eternal reality and presence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, it is clear that this image is temporal in nature, extolling those virtues of masculinity – rugged good looks, a six pack abdomen and sculpted muscles – found in those stereotypes of ideal manhood beloved of Hollywood and men’s magazines. There is no doubt he’s well hung too.

Look also at these images of Isis and other divine or spiritual female beings. They represent modern sexual and physical fantasies of the ideal woman, thin waisted, size 8 with non-saggy tits, as much as they do the Goddess.

Isis with modern sexy underwear

Diana – after Weight Watchers?

A Cat Goddess, apparently (apologies to Bastet)

When we worship and commune with eternal mysteries and presences via temporal images that are pretty much (apart from the horns and embellishments) the same as we see in sexualised magazines, I think there may be problems. This is not because sex is a problem, not because physical beauty is a problem, or even the abs. It is because we mix the realms – being conditioned to respond in a certain way to sexualised and perfect images of the human body, we will respond in the same way when we worship via these images.

Now we can argue it is fine to be sexually aroused and interested during our worship, and that is all right. However, the point is that the sexual impetus is instigated from culturally and temporally conditioned factors, not from a personal and inner connection with the divine. There is a big difference; one locks us into a limited time-space approach to the divine, and the other allows the Gods to inform and inspire our reactions. We should remember that what we see as beautiful and sexy today was not so throughout all history. Ancient Greek depictions of penises were often small because a large penis was considered a sign of barbarianism and a small penis a sign of civility. Skinny women were not considered sexy only a hundred years ago.

I am not only saying that divine images date themselves, but that if we are not careful we make the gods in our own image. Of course, as I mentioned with the Horned Lord, we as a culture do that, and have always done that. However, to use images, attributes and ideas associates with sexual attraction and beauty we are risking making the Gods simply larger, divine images of our pin-up models. There is a (now old) joke that it is telling that Wiccans refer to their deities by the same title they give to their priesthood, Lord and Lady. This is not having a go at Wiccans, simply pointing out how we need to consider our images of the divine very carefully.

The Hebrew word translated as ‘holy’, QDSh or Qodosh has roots that mean to ‘keep separate’, ‘apart’, to ‘make holy’. This is a principle I personally use in my practice. Any images of the divine are separate from those I see in my daily life. The words I use for Christ are Hebrew and Aramaic, to avoid linkage with jokes and blasphemy about ‘Jesus’. This Qodosh principle is used extensively in western magic and modern Neo-paganism, apart from it seems our images of the divine. Why do we keep our tools, robes and talismans separate from the herd, but not our images? Now, I know there are some traditions that use ‘what’s at hand’, and seeing a traditional cunning man literally pick up what’s in the kitchen and work the deepest magic, I understand this. But this is a completely different approach from magic and modern paganism.

Representing the Image

The images we have of divinity naturally affect how we imitate, represent and worship divinity. Traditional religious dress is almost uniformly, regardless of culture and time, a uniform itself. Tibetan monks wear the same robes as other monks. Christian priests wear the same outfit as others of their sect and/or order. Nuns all looked, once upon a time, a little like penguins. The idea of course is to transmute and translate individuality towards a universal transcendent reality, be that God or enlightenment. This is not to say the robes and clothes themselves do not have meaning and symbolism, they most certainly do, only that the meaning is determined by the collective, not the individual.

Again, this is something that many modern Neo-pagans and some magicians have moved away from. Individual robes are often well, just that – individual. Heck, I once wore a paisley satin robe to a Wiccan conference (don’t ask why) 🙂 This expression of individualism is probably very good … I think… in some ways. However, I do worry about it, as the cult of the individual in the west has all sorts of nasty side effects. I am sure we can surrender and transmute our individual nature wearing individually chosen togs, but if they are chosen for lower self reasons, I think we hamper ourselves.

I once participated in wonderful weekend workshop with the Druid Priestess Emma Restall-Orr. I loved the workshop and learned a lot. During the weekend she referred more than once to how she would start her discussions on paganism, with groups like schoolchildren, by writing the question ‘do you think religion should be sexy?’ on the blackboard.  Naturally this would get the audience’s attention and deliver a winning blow to any vicar she was competing against. All very good, but when she arrived on the last night for the main ritual she was dressed in robes clearly chosen for their glamour and sex appeal. She walked past, swirling her skirts/robes in a very powerful gesture.  My Druid friend, a straight man, was obviously effected and later said for him this display meant ‘the Priestess had arrived’. So, a good thing, I guess … but I still wonder if a mature Dion Fortunethe Priestess of the 20th century, had ambled by, if the same affect would occur. And on that note, take a look at two other Priestesses whose power could roast chestnuts…

DAN and CCT – Priestesses and more

It seems in some way that where Neo-Paganism has gone, the Church may be following. How else do we explain this report on the latest clerical fashions for the Church of England, allowing Vicars to personalise at will? :). It all seems like a bit of window dressing to me, just like making the pulpits ready to dock the Vicar’s iPad. Give me an old fashioned cassock and King James Bible any day 🙂 Thanks for listening…

The Church of England – we’ll try anything!


Wicca, Ronald Hutton and a mystical experience

I am terribly busy at present, hence the paucity of MOTO posts. However, Caroline Tully’s excellent interview of Prof Ronald Hutton (previous post) and some subsequent reactions have moved me to pen this quick, personal piece.

Despite the occasional burst of negativity and misinformed spite chucked at Prof Hutton, he remains a figure of respect and admiration in most pagan and Wiccan circles, at least in the UK. Why? Because he is a great supporter of the Pagan movement, having helped progressed its field of study into legitimacy within academia, placing it alongside the other world religions. He has defended pagans in court and helped official recognition of the pagan religions by the various UK authorities. And, of course he provided the first comprehensive history of Wicca, Triumph of the Moon, giving Wiccans a history and showing their place in the religious scheme of things.

It is important to note that the subtitle to this wonderful book is “a history of modern pagan witchcraft” not “the history”. Hutton’s assistance to and introduction of  works by amateur Wiccan historians, like Philip Hesleton, shows he is more than ready to read and accept other histories than his own. This is the mark of the true academic and the true scholar.

Hutton’s work lives and breathes a rare combination of accurate and scholarly accepted method and engagement of the lay audience. Those who have not read much academic work may not realize just how rare this is. Another of my favourite academics, Bart D. Ehrman, sums it up: “most academics, just don’t know how to talk to real people”.

Whilst there have been occasional snipes at Prof Hutton’s academic qualifications and the Academy itself, I have to say I am impressed by his qualifications. I am impressed by his full membership of learned societies. I am impressed by his list of refereed articles and books.

I have only an undergraduate degree but have helped edit friends’ MA and PhD theses. Successfully obtaining a doctorate is impressive. Period. And those of us accustomed to bashing out a new blog post before bed may have little idea what researching, writing, submitting, editing, correcting and finally publishing a refereed article means. It is no small accomplishment in itself.

Finally, those people who see Prof Hutton as attacking paganism and Wicca, or even being a Christian sent in to undermine and destroy it, must by now be being willfully ignorant. Read his own words, his own motivations for study and writing. Caroline has done a lovely job in getting this all accessible and easy. The facts are clear: Hutton’s work is supportive of paganism and Wicca. He is supportive of Paganism and Wicca.

A personal anecdote may help me express this better. I first read Triumph of the Moon shortly after it was released during a weekend away from my young son. I did little else besides, practice, pray and read that glorious weekend. Hutton showed clearly what I always knew, and had argued since 1989: Wicca had no direct lineage connection to either medieval Witchcraft or any mythic pre-historic duo-theistic paganism.

At the time of my reading I was more involved in paganism than I am now, and still within a leadership role of EarthDreaming Coven. However, Hutton’s painstakingly outlined history did not detract or hinder my pagan practice or “faith” but rather enhanced it. I remember clearly reading a passage from chapter 14, where Hutton reviews the popular fiction of Rosemary Sutcliffe as a “compelling fusion” of the imagined pagan histories of Frazer, Graves and Murray:

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, many individuals who adopted a self-consciously Pagan identity said that to do so felt like coming home. Perhaps this was due to memories of past lives, or acknowledgement of long-established contacts with the divine, or simply the discovery of a spirituality which perfectly corresponded to their own instincts and needs. It is also, however, possible that much of this feeling was due to the fact that such people had spent their youth reading books of the sort described above.

As I read this I was startled. As a kid I had read Sutcliffe, just as Hutton described. As this sank in, time stopped, I disappeared and entered the Eternal. The book was gone, the concepts were gone, I was gone, there was simply Goddess.

Afterwards, I realized this experience had opened me not to despair or questioning my pagan spiritual connections, but to the realization that I was practicing a true and bone fide religion of the modern era. The divine was real and solid and Wicca was the perfect modern approach to this Mystery. Wicca was, as Hutton describes, formed by modern people to express modern myth, real, beautiful and transformational myth. I was touched in the literary sphere by the myth as a child, and now as an adult I was embracing it in the religious sphere. The myth may be historically inaccurate, but it is true.

Goddess moves in many ways, even through the Oxford University Press 🙂

Short rough and ready thoughts on Wicca and Christianity

Recently Gnostic Priest, author and all-round good guy, Jordan Stratford linked to this very interesting article, How a ‘teen witch’ found the Church. Like him, I thought it was one of the better examples of the genre, so linked it myself on Facebook, did a few searches and read some responses. The result was the drafting of these rough and ready thoughts 🙂 Wish I had thought more clearly on these issues back in the early 90s when regional councillor and editor for the Pagan Alliance. 

Any constructive Wiccan-Pagan dialogue has to start with honest acceptance of each other’s faith.

On the Wiccan side, we will get nowhere unless we recognise and respect that many or most Christians honestly believe that (a) Christianity and the Incarnation are different to other religions, and (b) the Great Commission impels them to evangelize for the faith (even if only through their daily life). We may not accept these views, we may not like them, but we have to respect that Christians hold them dearly. They are sacred tenants of the faith.

Wiccans simply cannot approach Christians in the same way they would another faith, like Asatru, Druidry, Neo-Buddhism, where all are seen as valid paths to the mystery. This is not how many Christians see reality and to expect them to do so is to impose our views upon theirs, which of course is what irks most Wiccans about Christians themselves 🙂

The whole question about Christians writing about the dangers of Wicca and Paganism has to be placed in context. The vast majority of this material is based on ignorance, fear and prejudice. However, some is motivated by genuine concern and love. If we accept some Christians really believe the two principles above – Christianity as the Way and Evangelism, the production of such material is inevitable. It is the only compassionate response available. And really, let’s face it, internally within Wicca there is certainly plenty of discussion and analysis of the shortcomings of Christianity as an organised faith. The only reason there are not Wiccan tracts on the ‘dangers of Christianity’ is because Wicca has no Great Commission and evangelism is anathema to most of its adherents.

On the Christian side, we need to recognise and respect that Wicca is an enlightenment based faith embracing modernity and its values. Wiccans have no concept of Salvation and no concept of scriptural Revelation. Christian dialogue based on scripture is offensive to many Wiccans as it assumes they place the same value on scripture as Revelation as Christians do, and is therefore imposing an alien reality upon them.

Additionally, coming from a soteriological point of view is meaningless. Salvation simply does not exist for Wiccans, as the faith is at roots monist, where there is no break between utmost divinity and humanity. Many Wiccans are deeply offended by evangelistic approaches. They find the root assumption of most evangelists that Christianity is a clearer truth than their own faith problematic to say the least. Wiccan theology holds that divinity is found fully within each human and each human is both blessed by their existence and can by their own efforts know divinity. This is a sacred conception. It is every bit as solid, real, sacred and precious to Wiccans as Christ is to Christians.

Since Wicca partakes of and grew out of modernity it values individuality, pluralism and diversity. These values are almost as sacred to Wiccans as any other tenants of their faith. Attempts to present traditional conceptions of sodality, unity and conformity in practice and belief will be found alien and offensive. We may not accept these views, we may not like them, but we have to respect that Wiccans hold them dearly. They are sacred tenants of the faith.

So, somehow we need to find a balance where we can honestly accept the right of each other to hold these contradictory views. More on that later, maybe 🙂