August 30, 2013

What has been around billions of years, yet is less than a month old?

Back when I was doing child psychotherapy, I liked to read a “Mickey Mouse Joke Book” with a child I was getting to know. It contained a lot of riddles and silly puns that the children usually enjoyed. I would pretend not to “get” the joke and let the child explain it to me, and in this way I discovered something about the child’s cognitive development.

Riddles are an effective teaching tool because they thoroughly engage the mind. Most advanced spiritual paths and systems of magic employ riddles as well as puns and metaphors. They aid with memory and concentration and enliven understanding.

Recently I acquired a book on Home Games and Parties, first published in 1891, that has some interesting flower riddles. What flower or plant:

Is a Roman numeral?

Is a very gay and ferocious animal?

Is its own doctor?

Has fragrant letters?

Is a sunny physician?

Flies in the air but is part of a boot?

Another form of the riddle is the story that on the surface makes no sense. When Cormac mac Airt travels to the Land of Promise, he meets a party that is roasting a pig without any visible source of flame. The group tells him that a quarter of the pig will be cooked for every truth that is told. The anecdote naturally sets the mind to ponder on the nature of truth.

Often the riddle is in the form of a poem, such as the famous Song of Amergin, which begins in the Robert Graves translation

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

Riddles can also be nonverbal. The most famous visual riddle is the “Three Hares” picture. (Hint: Look at the ears.)

Photo by Zefram.
Photo by Zefram.


Graves, Robert.The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Matthews, Caitlin and John. Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom.Shaftesbury, UK: Element, 1994.

Mott, Mrs. Hamilton.Home Games and Parties.Cambridge, MA: The Curtis Publishing Company, 1891.

Quintessential Pagan: An Interview with Hearth on North Country Public Radio

August 23, 2013

1. the pure and concentrated essence of a substance.
2. the most perfect embodiment of something.
3. (in ancient and medieval philosophy) the fifth essence or element, ether, supposed to be the constituent of the heavenly bodies, the others being air, fire, earth, and water.
–Random House Dictionary

In this short (seven and half minute) interview Todd Moe asks the basic questions, What is Paganism? What is animal magic? How does it relate to shamanism?

Review: Occult America by Mitch Horowitz

August 16, 2013

Occult America could have more accurately been titled Occult Roots of the New Age. The focus of this book is on identifying progenitors of phenomena familiar to the mainstream, such as Ouija boards and the daily newspaper horoscope, rather than linking true twenty-first century occult to any historical American perspective. The expected cast of characters appears, including Joseph Smith, Mme. Blavatsky and Edgar Cayce, along with less familiar names such as mail order mystic Frank B. Robinson or scholar of ancient sciences Manly P. Hall.

The foundation of the book is an in-depth look at the Burned-Over District, a swathe across New York State from Albany to Buffalo that was a magnet for unorthodox religious study for about 100 years, starting in the late eighteenth century. So many prophets, mystics, spiritualists, and firebrand preachers traveled through this area that it was said to be “burned over” with religious fervor. I recently made a brief foray into the Burned-Over District while publicizing my own book and I will probably at some point devote an entire post to the history of this fascinating area.

Occult America also explores the occult influence in government, and it seems in this regard there is always something new to learn. Many people are aware that some of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons, and that Ronald Reagan took the advice of his astrological advisors very seriously, but the occult influence on the Lincoln and Roosevelt White House is less well known.

Horowitz does not shrink from describing the unsavory side of spiritualist movements, especially the pro-fascist Silver Shirts of the Depression and World War II era. He gives a balanced view of Edgar Cayce, acknowledging the typically enlightened yet at times prejudiced nature of the material that came through him.

In a chapter on the African American influence on New Age, Horowitz mentions the practice of hoodoo and nearly veers into actual discussion of the occult, but he pulls himself back in time. A person who can walk into an occult store and understand the uses of the various herbs and implements sold there might very well wonder what, if anything, this book has to do with them. The magical legacies of the Pennsylvania Dutch, or New Orleans Voodoo, or Southwestern curanderos are not discussed. The role of America in the popularization of witchcraft is dealt with in one dismissive page. The Goddess Movement is ignored completely. Horowitz is concerned with how the occult shaped conservative and mainstream America. The value of this book for someone with a more sophisticated understanding of the occult is that it shows some common roots to very disparate twenty-first century spiritual philosophies. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. Though Witches, Pentecostals and New Agers see themselves as very different, they seem to have branched from the same tree.

Review: Paradise of the Birders

August 9, 2013

Miriam Supuma
Miriam Supuma

The Nature program “Birds of the Gods,” narrated by David Attenborough, is about birds-of-paradise in New Guinea. Although separated by wide geography and culture, not to mention a different purpose and mindset, this video validates something I have been saying about Pagan magic for some time: that practitioners need to get out of the library and spend more time in the field. The 2011 documentary follows a team of biologists headed by Miriam Supuma as they study various bird-of-paradise species and interview tribal religious leaders on ways these leaders harvest, store and utilize bird-of-paradise feathers. Supuma is interested in determining the stability of bird numbers, studying the more rare bird-of-paradise species, and promoting sustainable cultural practices.

Blue Bird of Paradise, drawing by Richard Bowdler Sharpe
Blue Bird of Paradise, drawing by Richard Bowdler Sharpe
Toward that end, the scientists, all natives of New Guinea, bring video and recording equipment to an area infused with strong trespassing taboos, where most hunters fear to venture. The team reasons that chances of encountering rare birds are higher in this area. It would be interesting to know if those who ventured into this area voluntarily brought, or were pressed to accept, talismans of protection, or if special rites were performed before the trip. If this were the case, however, it is unlikely that participants would have volunteered this information, as scientific culture frowns so greatly on their own members harboring beliefs about the supernatural.

The documentary shows rare footage of beautiful bird plumage, intricate courtship dances, and interesting vocalizations, but for me the high point is a moment where Supuma is observing a courtship dance and makes an important connection. A look of recognition moves across her face as she realizes this bird-of-paradise display is as a traditional dance within her own tribal culture. The documentary cuts away to old footage of the dance being performed by a group, and the similarity is striking and undeniable. For me this was an exciting yet familiar moment, as I have felt this same spark many times while observing animals in their natural habitats. A moment of recognition occurs where the logic behind an arcane piece of folklore becomes clear. It was touching to witness someone else having that Aha! moment.

By directly studying animals and plants, folklore becomes more immediate and easier to remember and connect with. Other magical secrets that have not been written down become accessible. The value of studying nature for practitioners of a nature religion is unfortunately not understood by many, yet it cannot be over emphasized.

Birds of the Gods PBS Nature epidsode.

Watch Blue Bird of Paradise on PBS. See more from Nature.


August 2, 2013

Photo Mike Baird
Photo Mike Baird

Happy Lammas!

Very enjoyable book events in Keene Valley and Lake Placid last week, with some interesting discussion. This week I am off to Rochester for a book event at Psychic’s Thyme on August 1st, then I will be at Mystic Side in Syracuse for a signing at 6 o’clock on Friday, August 2nd. Mid-August I will again be traveling to the Lenape Festival.

More events scheduled for September in Plattsburgh, Albany, and Manhattan. Stay tuned.

Part two of my book excerpt, “The Animal Mother Goddess,” is at Return to Mago.

Chapel Pond
Chapel Pond