Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Trouble with Gifts

Many years ago, I had a fundamentalist Christian tell me that she stuck to the 'Biblical' position of sex as gift; that statement struck me as having something wrong with it at the time and it has taken me over two decades to realise just what it was made me so uncomfortable about it.
For a start, you will notice that I have put inverted commas around her assertion that her opinion is of the Bible. If you actually read what the bible has to say about sex, it is presented as far more of a problem for humans, and there is much more concern to regulate humans' sexual behaviour. My humble opinion is that the actual Biblical position on sex is therefore that it is a base urge which is to be practiced only in certain ways, to be contained, and that this is the law of God. I'll probably get hate comments for saying this, but in my experience, when a Christian describes an opinion as 'Biblical', what they are actually saying is that it is their opinion and they have the backing of the Old Man Upstairs, who wrote it in this here book.
The other thing that made me uncomfortable about her position is that I don't like the idea of things being gifts, purely for the reason that it tends to put the emphasis on the giver, rather than the gift or the recipient. Anyone who has had any contact with Christian culture will have been struck by this dynamic - actually everything is God's gift and he is to be thanked. This idea takes us straight to the major problem at the heart of Christian theology - why bad things happen to good people, a question they get themselves in some incredible contortions to try to solve.
The problem of gift is illustrated by the picture which illustrates this post. It is the foundation stone of the library in Selly Oak, one of several 'Carnegie' libraries in Birmingham. Andrew Carnegie is recorded as the second wealithiest person in modern history (he made his money through industry) and made a practice of endowing libraries. His practice was only to give funds to places where the recipients would also put resources into the running and maintenance of the libraries, and so his incredible wealth meant that he not only has his name memorialised the world over, it means he also got to control the places to which he gave libraries, for time to come.
My problem therefore with gifts is that they glorify the giver but also allow the giver to retain the power over both the gift and the recipient. This goes for the matter of sex, wth which I started this post, just as much as it does for any Carnegie libraries. I had come across witchcraft at that point, although was very early in the series of traumatic events which propelled me into the craft, but even then I was uneasy with this top-down dynamic which I now recognise as reinforcing a dynamic of power and dependence.
How to alter the 'gift' dynamic? Naturally I don't have an easy answer to that one, but suffice to say you won't tend to catch the Hound thanking divinity for stuff. This may seem terribly ungrateful but that is because I don't see myself as her specially favoured recipient of favours, nor even see the things I have as coming from her. I don't have any easy answer to the question of why I have the things I do, but since I don't primarily see them as the gift of divinity, I have effectively ducked the question of why she doesn't give them to other people. Yes, I am relatively prosperous and privileged, but that is for an incredibly complicated set of reasons - to reduce these reasons to a gift of divinity is to negate the injustices that have led to where the world is today. To glorify the giver is a slap in the face to the people who have been disenfranchised to allow other people's prosperity.
At this point I am rather grinding to a halt with my original thought - which was why I am uncomfortable with the idea of things as gifts. What therefore is a witchy way to look on these things? I would like to propose a philiosophy at this point, which will synthesis all the difficult questions of rights, advantage, probably take account of several world religions, and end by creating a world where everybody gets on and there is world peace. But you've guessed it, that's way beyond me and everyone else throughout history. However, I'm a witch to my fingertips so wouldn't really claim to have the old man upstairs on my side, and also don't really want other people to do as I say. I am therefore going to steal a philosophy from Tristram Shandy: ''So long as a man ride his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the king's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, - pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?'
Image credit:

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Magic Messes With Your Head

This is another of those posts which has been running around unbidden in my head for ages, and resolutely refusing to take form in an actual publishable shape. Then I read something on someone's tumblr which very much echoed my own thoughts on the matter (needless to say I never troubled to bookmark so it so am unable to reference it here), but you see the trouble with magic is that it messes with your head.
This may seem a minor magical worry compared to those held by the majority of people who have been dead set against magic through the ages. Satan, now there's a body who doesn't give me any cause for worry at all. You see, I am a witch, and I've actually met him a couple of times. I'll tell you for a fact that he's nothing to be worried about, because in fact his promises really are false. Usurping the role of G*d - well, I suppose if this one bothers you, you're not terribly likely to have anything to do with magic. Being initiated into a cult - I can tell you being a Benedictine novice is a far more scary thing than belonging to the witch cult, so that one is kind of ruled out as well. The opponents of magic have to understand that their worries will never be shared by the actual practitioners of magic.
No, the real trouble with magic is that it changes those who practice it. Ever notice how despite ourselves we magical people always end up talking about magic in the third person? Despite being the operatives of it, magic tends to become a power in itself. Did *I* work that magic? Yes, I did, and it is the effect of doing that that is the experience I am referring to here. The reality of magic is that it works, and often works in far better ways than its worker could have expected. In many cultures the power to create and change is attributed only to the divinity, and the magician has the temerity to experience this for himself.
And then, you see, you can't go back. The way magic changes you is that everything is bound to be something of an anticlimax afterwards. Shopping? Meh. Sex? Whatever. To have been so close to such power for however short a period of time can only have the effect of messing with your head.
Hence the unsettledness associated with occultists, the relentless experimentation, and even self-destruction. Hence the seeking of different 'degrees', initiation into different traditions, the seeking of the one true magical tradition or coven, even the creation of self-aggrandising secrets, and what have you. Once you've experienced real magic there really is no going back, but it is the magician who is changed for life.
The answer to this problem? Well, I suppose the restlessness can always be harnessed. There is always something new for the witch to do. Some new idiot to be held back from pressing the button and some new sweet soul to be pushed in the direction which will lighten their load and help them get on with their life's work. Of course it is impossible to deal completely with the restlessness - being a magical person and an INFJ is a combination almost guaranteed to make you a rolling ball of unpredictable explosivity which can go off at any random time and place, for example. But perhaps realising that your head has been messed with is a good step towards having it not mess you up completely.
Oh - Inexplicable likes music while he is reading my witterings so here is a death metal cover of one of my favourite classical pieces  - John Cage's Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Witch As Mirror

Further reflections (ha!) on how the witch figure can function as a mirror to people and situations around her. I have commented before here on the folkloric nature of mirrors, but it is a subject which doesn't tend to go away.
The mirror as we know it today is a very recent inventions - only eighteenth century, I believe. These first glass mirrors were fantastically expensive and thus the preserve of the fantastically wealthy, who had the necessary means and also the relative leisure required to sit there looking at themselves. Even before that invention the efforts to polish stone and metals to make them reflective without distorting also involved great expense. Mirrors are therefore luxury items devoted to the beautification of the individual.
And yet...they don't show the objective truth, they reverse it. But that said, they will certainly show closer to the truth than the person looking into it might want to see. In today's world of heavily edited images, we can project the image we want to the outside world but when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning we still get the unvarnished truth.
And that sense of discomfort exactly relates to the witch figure in so many ways. I have been thinking about how the ambivalence and discomfort around the witch figure is related to the way the witch reveals the truth, faces people with what they are doing, and also has the power to change what is happening. No wonder people are never exactly comfortable around witches.
The person's response to what the witch shows her is an interesting part of this. We have all read folklore of entities who don't show up in mirrors, of how mirrors can steal people's souls, and I am reminded of how the narcissistic Narcissus was so enchanted by his own reflection he fell in love. THe ambivalence of response to our reflection is exactly mirrored by the ambivalent image of the witch.
The power to change what is being seen is another major element of this discomfort - just as many a person has wished their mirror would show something different, so what the witch reflects is frequently unwelcome, and one of the functions of the witch is to change what we have to show people. Well, I think more accurately, what we do is offer people an invitation to make their own changes. The encounter with the witch is merely the opportunity for the person to realise what they are doing and change their destiny. The witch is not the holder of the destiny, merely the displayer of it and the facilitator of change.
Nonetheless the mirror is such a powerful image that it has firmly found its place in the mythology of the modern witch cult. I particularly like the 1970s feminist ritual where you become a witch by sitting in front of a mirror and saying three times, 'I am a witch,' and THINK about it. Once again it is an invitation to turn the encounter with your own reflection into a turning point.
Reflections over for now - time for some cleaning. You would not believe the amount of glass cleaner I've got through since moving here because of the large mirrors in this flat!

Friday, July 7, 2017

80,000 Page Views Guest Post by Lady Addle

As usual a guest post to mark some significant number of page views of this blog. And this time I have prevailed upon someone who is, as Granny Weatherwax would put it, an old friend, and practically a witch. Here she is sharing some of her household hints from the war years, and if these may seem irrelevant to a witchcraft blog, well you only have to look at the domestic origin of most of the symbols of the witch: the cauldron and broomstick, and so on, to see that this is a subject very closely allied to witchcraft.
On Soup
'Game and chicken stock is wellnigh impossible. Beef and mutton stock often hard to come by. But is there not one species of game which the Government tells us to hunt, and hunt with a will? I refer to the rat.
'Rat stock (young and tender rats are best) is made on just the same principles as all other stocks. But be careful to skin your rat first. I omitted to do this the first few times, and I must confess that the soup did taste rather hairy in consequence. Now I flatter myself that I have brought my "Bisque d'Horreur," as I playfully call it - for who has not a horror of the live rat? - to a fine art. (Even Addle, the only time he ate it, complimented me on the title.) My evacuees take it with plenty of Worcester sauce, but that is of course a matter of taste.
'Sherry again is an impossibility to-day. But why be so conservative with your flavouring? Ginger-wine, lime-juice cordial, even a little coffee essence will make your soup distinctive and unforgettable.'
On Fish
'It has become a necessity during the war years, I know, tpo buy fish we would only have contemplated for our cats, even for the servants' hall of yore. Cod, hake, some upstart fish calling itself rock salmon, another one called husk, with a far from pleasant appearance. But the manner in which we cook them lies in our hands. The French, I have often thought, are so clever int he way they make the simplest fare appetizing, and perhaps I have inherited something of this flair from an ancestor in the eighteenth century who was, I believe, half French. At any rate I delight to experiment with such dishes as Dabs Dieppoise (with winkles and shrimps in a little custard, which looks very much like the original sauce, though it doesn't of course taste quite the same), Grade A Salmon meuniere, and Husk bonne femme.
'The last was the cause of an amusing incident. Sole bonne femme is, of course, cooked with a white wine sauce and sliced mushrooms. I was anxious to try this for I had been to a very interesting lecture at Harrods on the subject of Fungi, at which I had taken copious notes. All promised well. I gathered my fungi, sliced and cooked them, made my sauce with a little ginger ale I had by me and proudly served it up. My evacuees pulled rather long faces, I thought, but of course they were not used to French cooking and we English are very insular about such things. But in the middle of the night first I, then one by one, my guests, were suddenly taken violently ill. Wondering what on earth had happened, I staggered to my note-book and looked at it again. I then realised that I had stupidly neglected to read the word "not" in "These must not be eaten." My poor evacuees took it all in good part - I told them it was right to suffer in the cause of science! - but I was very ashamed of my silly mistake, and insisted on treating them all to a day in Watford, which they assured me would put them right sooner than anything.'
On Paper for Salvage
'Paper is the Salvage need which I feel most acutely. Indeed, I think the word 'paper' will be found graven on my heart when I die as 'Calais' was on poor Mary's. (A distant cousin of my mother's family.) I frequently write long letters to my friends calling for replies, so to add the answering epistles to my paper sack. I am also trying very hard to make my dear Mipsie part with some of the trunk loads of letters which she has ahd during her life, letters from the highest in the land, expressing their admiration and devotion to my beautiful sister. But so far I have had no success. 'My love letters are my capital, Blanche,' she says, smiling her roguish smile. 'There is many a letter in that trunk that is better than a five-pound note. You never know when a poor man will come into a fortune and you can never be sure when an old letter will produce a dividend.' Dear Mipsie. Friendship has always meant much to her, and it is like her to think of her letters as so many treatures.'
On Rabbit
'Game is no longer unfortunately our daily fare (though Mipsie tells me she gets plenty - but of course she is a brilliant housekeeper) so hints on cooking it seem out of place. But rabbits are still occasionally obtainable, so I will tackle them.
'The best way to skin a rabbit is to get your gardener to do so. If you have none, ask one of the tradespeople, who I find are always obliging and kind. But how to cook them when skinned? (The rabbits, I mean.) They are rather tactless creatures and don't go very far with feeding a large number. I will tell you how I got round this the other day.
'First, I jointed my rabbit and rolled each piece in powdered ginger. Then wrapped them in strips of tripe and baked them. It was a highly successful dish both from the culinary and the economical angle. For my evacuees ate every scrap of tripe, leaving only the rabbit, which I mined and served up later in the week as savoury mock chicken croquettes. What was left of these (quite a lot, it happened, because my evacuees had had baked beans for tea, they told me, so they weren't hungry) I put as a stuffing in a ginger sponge which I bought in a packet. Again, every bit of the sponge was eaten, and I was delighted to have the rabbit for my all too meatless pig bucket.'
From Some Memories of Breakfast
'Talking of breakfast habits reminds me of a distant cousin of Addle's, Sir Henry Hirsute, who insisted on a pair of kippers every morning of his life. As he lived at Cannes this sometimes presented no little difficulty, and his devoted chef used to spend long hours salting and colouring soles and inserting little kipper bones in them. One day, it struck the butler, who always had to remove the bones before Sir Henry started eating, that chef's labour was unnecessary. All that was needed was a plateful of bones on the side table in case their master happened to look there. This deception continued for years, until suddenly it occurred to Sir Henry that the soles did not taste like kippers. Somehow the whole story came out; he dismissed both servants instantly, but in later years appeared to repent of his action, for in his will he left both men a beautiful kipper bone in a glass case, a gold plate affixed to the spine commemorating his employees' devotion.'
Mary Dunn: Lady Addle at Home. Black Swan, London, 1986. Pp. 11-12; 25-6; 33; 39-40; 84-

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Time Travel: Glimpses of Life in Old Square

As befits a studious witch I spent some of this afternoon in the library, and amongst other things glanced at a little book called Memorials of the Old Square (by Joseph Hill and Robert K. Dent. Birmingham: Printed for and published by Achilles Taylor [what a marvellous name], at Caxton House, in the Old Square. MDCCCXCVII). In true Victorian fashion it is subtitled 'Being some Notices of the Priory of St. Thomas in Birmingham, and the Lands appertaining thereto; also of The Square built upon the Priory Close, known in later times as The Old Square; with notes concerning the dwellers in the sixteen houses thereof. and of some notable persons associated therewith'. In this post I want to give a few snap shots of life in the Old Square before it turned into the, well, traffic island it is now. The book is actually in commemoration of The Old Square: at the time of its publication the square were in the process of being demolished to build Corporation Street.
'Of No.1, familiarly known as "Hector's House," the first occupier was John Pemberton, the Quaker, the purchaser of the Priory lands and the originator of the Square, whilst the next house, No. 2, was tenanted by John Pemberton, described in the early rate books as "Gentleman." The contemporaneous existence in the town of two John Pembertons, both landowners and opulent men, has long been a source of difficulty in treating of this very important Birmingham family. The difficulty was increased when it was found that they were living next door to each other in the Square, and that the name disappeared from No.2, at the period of the death of John Pemberton, of No. 1, whilst it continues on the rate books for No. 1, until after the death of John, of No. 2.' (p.21) Well, that's that cleared up then. Despite these two gentleman being very confusing, the land for the Square was bought by one of them in 1701. It had previously been part of the close of the Priory.
The Hector of the Hector's House was a great friend of Dr Johnson, who used to stay with him before and after he lived in the Square, when he visited Birmingham. It was here that Johnson met one of his great loves, Mrs Carless, and Hector provided Boswell with much material for his life of Johnson. Hector's House was so beloved of Birmingham people that when it was demolished, the woodwork from one of the rooms was set up as a Johnson room in Aston Hall. Johnson used to walk from Lichfield to Birmingham to see Dr Swynfen, his physician, the The Square.
'[John Bingham] was the owner of the houses Nos. 3 and 4; these he was allowed to retain [i.e. after being financially ruined], and converting them into a commercial and private hotel, known as "The Stork Tavern," he thus recommenced life as a hotel keeper. The venture was successful, and the Stork became a well-known private posting house. About 1812 the whole was stone-fronted, and became the "Stork Hotel."
'At an early period of its history, May, 1802, the stableyard was utilised for a circus, and the following announcement appeared in Aris's Gazette:
"The Ladies and Gentlemen of Birmingham are respectfully informed that a very commodious portable Amphitheatre is fitting up on the premises of the Stork Hotel, and will open on Monday, the 31st May, with the greatest variety of Equestrian Feats ever exhibited in Birmingham by the most select Horsemen from Astley's and Jones' Amphitheatres in London."
'Four years later a new Burletta, Feats of Horsemanship and new Comic Pantomime and other attractions were announced for every evening until further notice, at the Amphitheatre, Stork Tavern Yard. Lectures were also frequently announced at the Stork Tavern. In 1805 Dr Birkbeck gave there a course of lectures on Electricity, Galvanism, and Pneumatic Chenistry.' (p.42)
'The last house of the [East] angle was, from its earliest days, held by Richard Baddeley, Birmingham's first patentee. In a town which has produced far more inventors and patentees than any other in the kingdom, which was, in fact, the nursery of invention, and had almost a monopoly of patents, this fact entitles Baddeley to a prominent and distinguished local position.' (p.61) His patent was for a new invention for making iron binding for cart wheels.
Doctors, manufacturers, entertainers...while perhaps not all as solid as we would like them to be, the inhabitants of the Square were all prominent citizens. I see that Samuel Galton (as in Smethwick Galton Bridge station) was expelled by the Society of Friends, thereby breaking a tradition that many of the Square's prominent residents were Quakers. It was also associated with banking:
'In 1765, Sampson Lloyd (the third), in conjunction with John Taylor, opened the first regular banking house in the town. [...] A few years later, 1770, as the bank began to pay, Sampson Lloyd and Oswald Hanbury, in conjunction with John Taylor and William Bowman, started a bank in Lombard Street, London. [...] The London Bank having, in 1887, absorbed Bosanquet's and Salt's Banks, an amalgamation took place with the Birmingham house, and in 1889 the whole were comprised under the shortened title of "Lloyds Bank, Limited."
'It was immediately after the founding of the London bank, ten years after his marriage, when he had seven children, and whilst still engaged with his half brothers in the lucrative business in Edgbaston Street that Sampson Lloyd settled in the Square. Hitherto the new Bank in Dale End had made little or no profit, but it was just beginning to prosper, and the convenience of living so near is manifest.
'In 1776 (Friday, March 22nd), occurred the remarkable visit of the great Dr. Samuel Johnson, which gave this house a local fame. According to Boswell, the pair travelled from Henley very early, breakfasted about nine o'clock at their inn, High Street, and proceeded to the Square. Hector had gone into the country, and the maid servant was unimpressed by the importance of the Doctor's name, which, says, Boswell, he roared at her, and he departed in a Johnsonian rage, proceeding to Mr Sampson Lloyd's house. Mr. Lloyd was, of course, at the Bank, and Mrs. Lloyd invited them to dinner. This restored the Doctor to good temper, and they walked about the town.' (pp. 101-2)
I could just wish that any encounter with Lloyd's bank had that effect on me nowadays. I hope that these few snapshots of life in the Old Square have given a taste of the spirit of place. Certainly next time I sit in the square (contemporary view included) I will not merely commune with Tony Hancock, but with Dr Johnson as well. And if one of the John Pembertons should happen to wander past I will ask him which he is.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Closeness of Magicians

Regular readers will know by now that I have no involvement with the local pagan community. I would say that they annoy me intensely but I think it is because more broadly magical people annoy each other. As Sir Terry so perceptively put it, the fact that magical people tend to be chronic loners, about as ready to co-operate as mother bears, is nature's way of deflecting what we could actually do if we got it together to co-operate.
When we do co-operate, extraordinary things happen. If the object of magic is always in some way the magician, then joint magical workings will affect the relationship between you. Repeated working together creates a psychic bond which cannot be broken. Those who use 'coven' as a disparaging term may even be picking up on the (not necessarily sexual) intimacy and loyalty a magical relationship builds. These are bonds which make a mafia cabal look like amateurs and there is nothing else like it. No wonder the muggles get scared.
There is another aspect to these relationships: we all have blood families but (I mean this quite seriously) family is as nothing compared to the loyalty created by magical working together. In fact as we know, this kind of family persists through lifetimes, across continents, and the bond is so strong we find each other again repeatedly.
You cannot be a witch alone.