Posted in random thoughts, writing

Recapturing the Magick

As some of you know, I’ve had a long-standing love affair with all things ‘occult.’ This is an interest that blossomed in me back in the Mesozoic Era (yanno, when I was kid). Actually, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in anything that fell under the umbrella heading of “supernatural” or “occult.” Where did this interest come from? Who the hell knows? I think it’s somehow encoded in my DNA.

When I was growing up, the racks by the checkout stands in just about any store were full of little 3”x4” books on all manner of things: numerology, palmistry, astrology, ESP, etc., as well as other non-occult subjects. I must have had quite a collection, but they are long since gone. I read books like “The Occult Explosion” by Nat Freedland that were surveys of the entire metaphysical movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. What a revelation, I wasn’t alone, there were lots of other people feeling the same way. I got my first Tarot deck, a 1971 Rider-Waite, which I still have. I discovered Alexandrian Witchcraft through the writing of Stewart Farrar in “What Witches Do”. For years after that book was the gold standard to me in building my own practice.

I was absolutely mad for anything about the Salem Witch trials, which is silly since none of those people were witches (with the possible exception of the slave Tituba, but that’s conjecture). Also, please note, no one was burned at the stake in Salem. Nineteen people were hanged, and one man was pressed to death. This was a horrific death, with a board being placed on the victim’s chest, and stone after stone placed on top of it, causing the chest to be crushed. It was an attempt to extract a confession, but Giles Corey was mum and so went to his death without confessing to try to save himself. Don’t feel too bad for him, though. He’d been a witness against his own wife Martha Corey at her trial. She was one of the ones hanged on September 22, 1692. Others died in prison awaiting their trials, but the exact number is not known.

laurieLaurie Cabot, dubbed “The official witch of Salem”  and profiled on “In Search Of…” and written up in National Geographic Magazine was another source of inspiration. Sneer at her if you must, but she was an inspiration to me, and paved the way for many of the witches who came after her. She did a lot to raise the profile of Wiccans and made it easier for us to practice without persecution. Laurie long ago vowed to the Goddess that she would wear her ritual robes every day, so that’s why she dresses the way she does. I can hear the eye-rolling from here, but it’s her thing and I say bravo for being that brave. Society has never been kind to non-conformists. I can only imagine what she and her daughters went through.

The famous psychic and witch Sybil Leek, with her jackdaw familiar, Mr. Hotfoot Jackson, sybil06was another high profile witch of those days and another role model for me. She faced a lot of persecution, including having leases cancelled, and being hounded by the media. Even the tv show “Bewitched” got some good stuff in, like the Halloween episode when Samantha related how Endora used to take her out of the country every Halloween so she wouldn’t be subjected to the hideous hook-nosed warty hag stereotypes of witches for the season. The show didn’t have much truth in it, but there were a couple of episodes at least that painted witches in a much better light than any other show or movie had at that time.

I feel lucky to have been introduced to the Old Religion in those days. It was a heady time for the magickal and neo-pagan community as things became more open and information became readily available, occult shops sprang up to cater to the needs of practitioners. Just the sight of the full moon inspired feelings of excitement, like an electrical circuit switched on and I could feel the current surge through me. Ok, so I’m weird. So sue me.

What’s the point of all this? The point is, I’ve been trying to create that sense of wonder, mysticism, ‘otherness’ about the whole scene from those early days in my writing, and I’m not having a lot of success. Having been a part of the pagan community for so long and it being part and parcel of my daily life, seeing up close and first-hand the reality of life as a pagan . Not entirely, to be sure, or I wouldn’t still be in it.  I suppose this is the root of my general gothiness. I like the aura of mystery, the sense of magick, the feeling of connection to the Otherworld. There is a wonder and beauty to it, but trying to work that into my stories is proving to be an amazing challenge. Without falling back on stereotypes it’s a difficult atmosphere to create. Maybe not all stereotypes are  bad or to be avoided. It may be partly the new convert zeal that someone experiences when they stumble onto a path that speaks to them, but it’s more than that.

I wonder if being there in the early days of the neo-pagan movement was the same as being in on the early days of any endeavor. I can imagine those who participated in the early days of the space program at NASA felt much the same way about that. I think there’s a special excitement to something that’s new and groundbreaking, something that will affect the course of future events. Ok, so being a witch isn’t putting anyone on the moon or colonizing Mars, but it was a seismic shift in my world view. I’m not a very ‘out’ witch. I’m still largely ‘in the broom closet’ as we say. Most of the time I could more easily pass for a Sunday school teacher than a witch, and maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I’ve suppressed it to the point where even I can’t find it.

I have no idea what this song is about, but it always sounded to me like it was describing a bunch of witches out dancing around the esbat fire in the moonlight.

P.S. The spelling of ‘magick’ throughout is deliberate. Aleister Crowley is said to have added the ‘k’ on the end to distinguish esoteric practices from sleight-of-hand stage tricks. Since then, it’s gone into general use in the pagan world.

Posted in writing

Writing Witches

Every so often, a book I read as a child will pop back up in my memory. I was always a great reader, from the time I was eight or so and got my first library card. Back then, I didn’t understand why someone would check out more than one book at a time. I remember the first time I checked out three books at once. I took them home and rotated reading them, so I’m not sure I finished any, but started them all. I think at least one was a Nancy Drew book. I read many of those, along with “Little Women”, “Little Men”, “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew”… and so many others I can’t recall now.

Now that the weather has given us a preview of autumn, I’ve started scouting (no, that’s not true. I do this all year long) for new Halloween decorations. I treat myself to a couple new ones every year, and have a small collection of witch figurines that I want to keep adding to. From the time I was very young, eight or nine, I have always been fascinated with witches. Historical, fictional, present-day, I read anything that dealt with witchcraft, the supernatural, ghosts, and so on. One of my all-time favorite books was “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare. It’s set in the late 17th century, just as Salem Village was about to experience the witch hunts although there are in fact no witch characters in the book. Perhaps I was drawn to the character of Hannah Tupper, the old woman who lived on her own and was suspected of being a witch. I think part of me wanted to be her.

I read books about the actual witch trials, and at one time knew the names of most of the people who were accused and executed as witches in Salem. To this day I can rattle off that 19 people were hanged, and one man, Giles Cory, was pressed to death (this was accomplished by putting a board on his chest, and piling on more and more large stones in an effort to extract a confession of being a witch. He died rather than give such a confession). No one was burned at the stake in Salem, but others died in prison awaiting their trials.

Another favorite was “The Witch Family” by Eleanor Estes. Oh my, what a magical book. I think I read this when I was ten. At the time I’d never heard the name Malachi, so I pronounced the bumblebee’s name like “Ma-LATCH-ee”. Malachi, Malachi, the Bumblebee… These were spells and rhymes, magic coming to life. THIS was what witches were supposed to be! I think part of my head is still in that book.

Now as a grown-up, I’ve devoured the entire Harry Potter series, and am always on the lookout for more along these lines. I’m desperately hoping for a sequel to “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke, and if you haven’t read this yet, treat yourself. It’s wonderfully original and imaginative, even though there’s not a witch in sight. I thought I read somewhere that Clarke had a three-book contract with the publisher, but perhaps they were not all going to be Jonathan Strange novels.

So where am I wandering with all this? Well, I’m working on my own story about witches. Modern witches, less Hollywood, but a good dose of the supernatural. The problem I’m having is (no surprise here) I keep wandering off on tangents and can’t decide where I want to take the story. I’m sort of following the advice from Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I’m trying to write the kind of book I would read. I want to be able to create characters who become as real to me as my friends. When I read a book I love, I don’t want to finish it because it’s like having to say goodbye to dear friends with whom I can never spend enough time. Do I live too much in my head? That’s a scary thought. I’m not sure that’s the best neighborhood to be traveling through alone.