07 October 2015

Santa Muerte and Cultural Appropriation

Possibly the most popular folk saint in Mexico, Santa Muerte is rapidly gaining popularity in the US.  As you might imagine, the spread of her popularity amongst non-Mexicans has brought up the issue of cultural appropriation. 

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of giving a lecture on Santa Muerte down at the Spooked in Seattle Metaphysical market.  I opened my lecture by clearly stating that while I am Latina, I am not Mexican and am in no way an authority on Santa Muerte.  The only leg up I've got on anybody else coming from the US is that I understand Spanish well enough to read primary sources on her.  I've been working with her on and off for about five years now and have been working with her heavily for the at least the last two.  I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how to work with her respectfully and without being culturally appropriative.  

Santa Muerte is a uniquely Mexican figure.  While her origin myths vary pretty substantially depending on who's doing the telling, they all agree that she is 100% indigenous to Mexico.  She is very much "of the people."  She is also the ultimate in egalitarianism - death comes to us all.  It is for this reason she has essentially become the patron of the marginalized, forgotten, and reviled.  She's a saint for working days.  For many of Mexico's underclasses she is the only sacred figure they feel they can come to in their times of need, the only one that will listen to them.  As you might imagine, Santa Muerte's followers sometimes feel rather possessive of her.

In many respects Santa Muerte belongs to the Mexican people, but that doesn't mean you have to be Mexican to work with her.  It does mean that you have to be extremely respectful of her cultural context.  Santa Muerte is a folk saint.  As such, much of her established liturgy is made of variants to traditional Catholic worship: rosaries, novenas, masses, etc.  If you're comfortable with Christian iconography you can go ahead and use the published prayers that you can easily find for her online (try SantaMuerte.org).  If Hail Marys and Our Fathers aren't really your thing (and boy howdy are they NOT my thing), you can probably find variants on the traditional prayers that will work for you.  If you understand Spanish I highly recommend performing any prayers/petitions/etc in Spanish. 

What I do not recommend is taking Santa Muerte out of her traditional context and plugging her into an existing Pagan framework.  If you do your homework before trying to work with Santa Muerte you will learn that she doesn't really work with others.  She likes to have her own altar, her own workings, and she likes things a certain way.  Just because other Death figures you may work with are partial to offerings of rotting meat does not mean such offerings are suitable for Santa Muerte. 

Further, do not - under ANY circumstances - syncretize Santa Muerte with other death spirits or deities.  While there are certainly mythological similarities between Santa Muerte, Hecate, Hel, and other underworld figures does not mean you can exchange them for one another.  Gods, spirits, saints, and other metaphysical personalities are unique beings and cannot simply be substituted for one another.  All such figures deserve the respect of you doing your homework on them and figuring out what they like and how they want you to work with them.  Don't be the horrible uncle that always gives you presents that your big sister would like because, "Hey you're both girls, so you must like the same things right?"  Don't be that guy.

If you want to work with Santa Muerte take the time to do your research beforehand.  Be respectful of the culture she comes from and the established liturgies and workings that are already in use.  Be sincere in your workings with her.  Don't make assumptions about her based on how similar figures from other pantheons would behave.  Treat her right and Santa Muerte will be an amazing ally.  Fuck around with her at your peril.

30 August 2015

Scary Gods

In recent days I've come to the conclusion that a lot of people don't really know what to do with scary deities.  When I say scary deities I mean Gods that are generally known for being harsh, deceptive, dangerous, petty, violent, or even cruel.  As someone who works, almost exclusively, with scary deities I have rather strong feelings about how these deities should be treated by those that want to work with them. 

This whole thought process was kicked off last month at Many Gods West.  I went to an amazing workshop called "Winning the War," presented by Sobekneferu.  The presentation was about looking at deities whose stories are told by their antagonists and how that has skewed our perceptions of them.  The main ideas boiled down to the necessity of being aware of the cultural filters through which the stories of the old Gods have been passed down to us.  A lot of the villains in our mythologies were actually the Gods of cultures that were antagonistic to the ones that told the stories, and thus were demonized - often for political reasons.  For example, I work with Cailleach who is the rather nasty Goddess of winter and death in Celtic mythology.  However, looking deeper into her history one finds that she was actually the predominant Goddess of an earlier Celtic culture that was conquered by the one whose stories have come down to us.  By being aware of this one can better approach her as she really is (blunt, decisive, unforgiving, but also protective and loving in her own way), rather than as she is often perceived (cruel, nasty, and petty).  As you might imagine, this particular presentation really resonated with me and it's been percolating in my brain ever since.

Since then I've observed some interesting and slightly troubling things about the way some of the folks I've encountered work with such deities.  I've noticed that we Pagans just love to reclaim things that have been shunned by others.  Maybe it's because Pagans and polytheists of various shades tend to be outsiders and misfits to varying degrees, but if something is rejected by "the majority" we tend to pick it up, buff it to a high shine, and make it our own.  In and of itself there's nothing wrong with that, but when it's done without any discernment as to why that thing was rejected or feared in the first place we tend to get ourselves into trouble. 

Some scary deities are scary because their antagonists made them look way scarier than they really are; other scary deities were demonized by their antagonists but are also genuinely dangerous to work with if you're not careful.  A few years ago I went to a ritual that called upon Kali as the great, kind mother who gives succor to us all.  Now, I don't know what version of Kali these folks were working with - but the Kali I know would smack me right in the mouth if I ever neutered her ferocity.  Some deities have earned their reputations.  If you want to work with scary Gods go for it, but you need to set up strong boundaries.  Do not call Loki and Eris into a public circle filled with neophytes without laying out some pretty strict ground rules about how you want things to go (and a reasonable belief that you can actually enforce those rules if need be).  Just because they aren't the abject evil that they're often made out to be doesn't mean they're not gonna wreak havoc upon the unwise and then laugh their godly asses off.  By all means work with scary deities, but don't think that just because somebody badmouthed them that they're really just fluffy kittens with spiked collars.

It really all boils down to this: do your homework before working with scary deities.  Some of them are really quite lovely when you get to know them, others will be utterly terrifying no matter how much they like you (and some are much, much scarier if they like you...trust me on this one).  Take the time to get to know the mythology; learn where the myths came from; think; use your common sense.  Be cautious and take reasonable precautions before trying to work with deities with bad reputations. 

I've had some of the most rewarding spiritual experiences of my life working with very frightening deities.  No, they were not as mean or spiteful as most of their myths would make you think, but they were still scary and would have no problem putting me down like a dog if I pissed them off.  Many, if not most, scary deities did something to earn at least part of their reputation.  Don't demonize a deity just because one faction thinks they're evil, but don't neuter them into benevolent balls of love and light either.  Deities are complex beings with long histories that can be seen from many different viewpoints.  Be respectful of their complexities.  Take the time to really get to know a deity before calling on it.  You'll rarely be sorry that you took the time to know what you were getting yourself into before hand, but you might really regret the lack of that preparation.   

TL;DR - Don't be an idiot.  Do your homework before working with scary Gods.

28 August 2015

Central Puget Sound Pagan Pride 2015

Yes folks, this weekend is Central Puget Sound Pagan Pride 2015!  It's going to be an amazing weekend and I am presenting both days.

  • Saturday 8/29 at 3pm "Conflict Resolution for Magickal Communities"
  • Sunday 8/30 at 2pm "Pop-Up Ritual"
For folks who are unable to attend or just want a little more information on these workshops I am posting the basic information below.

Conflict Resolution for Magickal Communities

Identifying positions vs. underlying interests.
  • Positions are a person's assertion of opinion about what they want.
  • Positions are often "my" statements. E.g. "My way is 'x'" or "I need you to do 'y'."
  • Underlying interests are the needs and desires that motivate people. E.g. Safety or validation.
  • Ask "why"? If there is more than one possible answer to "why do you want that?," then that is not the underlying interest - it's a position.

Check your understanding.
  • If you want to be listened to, you must be willing to listen.
  • Make sure you really understand what is being said - don't assume.
  • Reflect back, paraphrase, and ask if you got it right.
  • Restate what appear to be the most important points to the speaker, not what is important to you.

Validate and respect emotions without buying into them.
  • The experience of emotion is always valid and genuine, even if the reasons they are being experienced doesn't seem to be.
  • Empathize with the speaker's experience, but remain objective.
  • Excessive buy-in (over identification) clouds judgment.
Pop-Up Ritual

The purpose of Pop-Up Ritual is to be a flexible and responsive alternative to formal planned ritual. The point is not to replace formal ritual, but to supplement it and to hone your ritual skills so that you can adapt when things don't go as planned.

  • Know 3-5 different ritual formats from different traditions
  • Keep a Ritual Toolkit
    • Items that represent elements, dieties, spirits, etc.
    • LED candles
    • Smokeless incense, cleansing spritzes, salt water, etc.
    • Duct tape
    • Other fun items that you find inspiring
  • Have a collection of ritual appropriate poetry, evocations, incantations, etc.
  • Have a variety of ritual music on an MP3 player and a set of wireless speakers
  • Be proficient in several quick and dirty magickal techniques that can be deployed in a ritual setting and performed by a group including novices
    • It can help to have a mechanism on standby for the most common magickal needs: healing, prosperity, protection, devotions, etc.
 Before the Ritual
  • Know your attendees
    • What traditions are represented in your participants?  
    • What belief systems? 
    • How able are they?
      • If you've got several attendees with movement impairment, perhaps a spiraldance is not the best idea.  
      • Have you accounted for any sight or hearing impaired attendees?  Etc.
    • Ask them if you're not sure
  • Ask if anyone has any pressing magickal needs
    • If several people have sick relatives it might be time for a healing ritual, if many people are concerned about wildfire then perhaps a weather working would be best, etc.
  • Once you've decided on a goal for your ritual ask if anyone has a particular technique they'd like to use to achieve it
    • Your attendees are your best resource.  Let them be as active participants as they'd like to be (within reason).
During the Ritual
  •  Be flexible
    • Weather, bystanders, and sometimes participants can throw a monkey wrench in your plans.  If one plan seems to go off the rails, just go with another idea.  
  • Pay attention to your participants
    • Your ritual isn't just for you - keep an eye on participant energy levels, attention, and of course safety.  Adapt accordingly.
  • Have fun
    • Ritual is supposed to be enjoyable and satisfying.  Don't take yourself too seriously and allow things to unfold (within the bounds of safety, sanity, and reasonable timing).
After the Ritual
  • Be sure to ground!
  • Set up social time to allow participants to decompress
  • Get feedback from participants.  How else are you supposed to get better?

A previous post on Pop-Up Ritual


18 July 2015

Book Review: Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Life

I am firm in the belief that effective communication skills are vital to the successful practice of magick.  The way I see it, if you cannot articulate what you truly want to another person how can you articulate it with your magick?  Due to this belief I've spent a fair amount of time honing my ability to listen and communicate well.  I'd heard a lot about nonviolent communication in recent months so I decided to check it out.  I picked up the Kindle version of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg.  Never in my life have I had a harder time deciding if I liked a book or not. 

TL; DR - Recommended with reservations. See below for why.

The raison d'etre of Nonviolent Communication is teaching people to speak effectively and to listen well - a worthy goal.  Rosenberg does a good job at giving readers the tools necessary to do so.  The book is very well written and easy to understand.  It's formatted beautifully for both skimming and referring back to it later without needed to highlight and mark it up.  As someone who likes to reread books for their salient points I thoroughly appreciate this.

Some of the most important ideas from the book revolve around learning to how to separate the observation of facts from the drawing of moralistic conclusions.  A huge number of the conflicts in our lives stem from the difference between the judgments we make and what is actually happening around us - particularly when it comes to inferring the thoughts and motivations of others from what we see them do and hear them say.  The book does a great job helping the reader to learn to see their own though process more clearly and be more objective.

The book then goes on to try to teach the reader how to better understand their own needs and desires and how to articulate themselves so that they can actually have their needs filled - also a worthy goal.  This is where the book begins to stumble a bit.  Rosenberg makes it seem like being able to clearly articulate what you want to others is some kind of magic bullet for getting what you want.  While there are undercurrents that can be inferred as saying, "if what you want is selfish and irrational you really need to reevaluate whether you should really get it," it's glossed over.  In fairness, if the book were to delve deeply into all the concerns about understanding our own desires it would be a multi-volume tome rather than a slim, readable book. Rosenberg does about as much as he can within the framework he's designed for himself, but I found this section a bit lacking in reality checks.

Then the book goes on to chapters on listening and empathy.  This is where I really had a hard time, not so much with the tools and techniques described, but in the examples given.  Rosenberg talks about the importance of sincere and attentive listening and having empathy for others and making sure that you've understood what they're trying to communicate rather than whatever your brain turned it into when you heard it.  This is probably the single most important skill anyone can develop in terms of improving your interactions with other people.  It is absolutely critical.  However, in the example scenarios Rosenberg seems to make a lot of assumptions about what other people are feeling rather than letting them tell him.  I think it stems from the fact that Rosenberg is a psychologist and thus has been trained to help teach people about their feelings.  It comes across as arrogant and really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  In mediation folks are taught to never, ever presume they understand what someone wants or feels unless that understanding is specifically validated by the person who's actually doing the thinking/feeling. 

Overall I think that Rosenberg communicates some really important ideas about communication and human understanding.  I don't always like the way he demonstrates his techniques, but I do like the techniques themselves.  Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life has some really good ideas that I think just about everyone who has to interact with other people (aka everyone) can benefit from learning.  Just keep an eye on how much you buy in to how the author demonstrates his techniques and you'll get a lot out of it.

03 July 2015

Exoteric Magick

Those of you that are interested in Pop Culture Magick should check out my new blog over at Pagan Square - Exoteric Magick.  It's focused on approachable pop culture magick for people from any path and at any skill level.
My first post, Finding Pop Culture Magick, talks about the circumstances that brought me to pop culture magick and gives some insight into the strange cauldron that is my brain.  I hope you like it!

Magickal Defense Without Permission

One of the most debated issues in magickal defense is whether or not you should do magickal defense for someone else without their permission.  In this post I'll take a look at a few of the situations where you might be tempted to do defensive work for another without their permission and the various issues they entail.
A general protection sigil.
A little disclaimer: I'm coming at this from a mainstream Pagan perspective in which one always wants to get consent before doing magick of any kind on another person.  I know there are other traditions out there that don't really take issue with doing defensive work without permission and I respect that.  This post is my personal perspective based on my own ethics – take it as you will.

Due to my education (code for "law school warped my brain"), I tend to see any issue of consent and defense in a legal light.  This means that, for me, there are two circumstances in which I can pretty much always do defensive magick without getting express permission from the person I'm defending: 1) there is an imminent threat of non-trivial harm to the target, and 2) the target of the magick lacks the capacity to give consent.

The first situation in which I’m comfortable doing defensive work without permission when there’s a non-trivial imminent threat to the target.  An imminent threat is something immediate, something that will happen in a matter of moments if it isn’t stopped – think of an out of control car careening towards someone.  It’s the kind of situation where there really isn’t time to ask permission, so I really don’t feel bad acting on instinct.  In terms of defensive magick I always have to add a “non-trivial” qualification to the situation before I act.  Most situations that necessitate the use of defensive magick are actually fairly mild in the short term – sure an attachment will do a lot of harm over time, but it’s not going to be any more dangerous or difficult to remove if I wait the few minutes to get permission to act.  For me a situation needs to be a serious threat to life, limb, or sanity before I act without permission.  While I have no problem warding someone when an infernal comes into the room whether they ask me to or not, I wouldn’t do that for a pixie’s arrival.  If something is actually dangerous and needs to be acted upon quickly, then do what you’ve got to do and ask for forgiveness later.

The second situation is where the person needing the defensive work lacks the capacity to give me permission.  When I say "the target lacks capacity" I mean that the person you want to defend is unable to give consent either because they're too young to understand the situation, they're drunk, extremely ill, unconscious, mentally unsound, etc.  Under those circumstances I try to get a hold of someone with the authority to give consent for the target (e.g. a parent, spouse, sibling, etc.).  If I can't, then I'll use my own knowledge of the person I want to defend to decide what I think they'd want.  For example, if you have a relative that is in a coma and you want to ward that person you can feel good about doing so, as long as that person wouldn't have religious objections (I'll talk more about that in a minute).  However, as soon as that person came out of the coma you should take down the wards and ask permission before putting them up again.
Deciding to do magick without permission when you can’t really ask them is fairly easy.  But what about when you ask and you get turned down?  That’s a different and much trickier situation.  If you think someone is in danger there is often an intrinsic need to help that person – whether they want your help or not – particularly if it’s someone you care about.  Here are a few situations to think about that you might find yourself in.

What do you do when you feel that someone needs a defensive working but that person does not believe in magick or any type of metaphysical threat?  If you’re anything like me, you probably have friends and relatives that do not believe in what you do.  If you’re lucky these folks will give you permission to do magick on them just to make you feel better.  If you’re not so lucky then you’ve got a difficult choice to make.  For me the deciding factor would be just how bad things could get without a working.  If we’re talking about a violent poltergeist in someone’s attic do you wait until someone gets hurt and your friend comes crawling back for help, or do you so some subtle preemptive work?  What if the target itself needs a serious cleansing due to possession or oppression?  I’m more likely to do magick surrounding a person (e.g. warding their attic) than anything directly to a person (e.g. a cleansing or banishing) who doesn’t want it.  Further, there would have to be some pretty dire consequences to staying my hand before I’d do magick on someone when they’ve told me not to, just as a matter of personal respect.  In fact, this is the kind of situation where I would call in a second or third opinion before moving forward with any magickal working.  When in doubt, don’t act alone.

An even trickier, if sadly common, situation is when the target has a religious opposition to magick of any kind.  I have some friends whose religion is strictly opposed to magick (to the point where I occasionally marvel at them for being friends with me in the first place) and I would never perform magick on them without their express permission unless I thought it was a life or death situation – and that’s seriously unlikely to occur.  I know I wouldn’t want them trying to “pray” evil away from me so I will respect them by not doing the same magickally.  The strictly religious almost always have “proper” channels they can go through for paranormal issues.  If you sense something happening, encourage these folks to seek the help of their priest/pastor/exorcist/etc.  Give their religious beliefs the same respect you want them to give yours – even if you secretly think they’re nuts, I’m sure they feel the same way about you.

The issue of permission becomes that much more difficult when the person in question is a roommate/housemate.  Someone who shares your personal space has a significantly greater effect on your safety and wellbeing than anyone else.  If you share a dorm room with someone who is being haunted or oppressed by a spirit it is going to have a huge negative impact on your life.  If you’re in a situation where you share living space with someone (and moving out isn’t feasible) then doing some pretty heavy workings, even if you’re denied permission to do so, might be warranted.  At that point you’re really working in self-defense due to the target’s proximity to what should be your safe space.  If you don’t feel energetically safe in your own bed because of your roommate’s paranormal problems, then you’re probably justified in doing something about it.  The closer the proximity of the target to your personal space the easier it is to justify doing defensive work.  If it’s someone you share a bed or a room with you can pretty much do what you need to in order to be safe.  (Note – if you’re sharing a bed with someone who’s being haunted or oppressed and they refuse to allow you to help them you might want to rethink your relationship.  I’m just saying.)  If it’s a housemate that you don’t share a room with, then it should depend on the impact the other person’s problem has on you and the amount of harm being done to the person.  If it’s someone who’s just down the hall or in the building, then you should probably stay out of things.  Basically, use proximity and the likelihood of serious harm to make your choice.

Now, there is a bit of a loophole with this whole permission thing.  It’s not exactly the most upright thing to do, but just because someone doesn’t want you to do magick on them doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do magick to address the source of the problem.  If someone is being haunted you can, more or less, do whatever magick you want on the entity doing the haunting.  You can theoretically dissolve the magick of a curse without magickally touching the target of that curse.  You can make healing energy available to someone without forcing them to take it.  You can ward the exterior boundaries of a property without doing anything to someone’s home.  These little loopholes can allow you to address the source of many metaphysical issues without technically doing magick on someone who doesn’t want it.  Does this sort of thing go against the spirit of honoring someone’s refusal? Yes, absolutely.  Exploiting loopholes may be a bit underhanded, but if it’s a matter of being trixy or watching a friend suffer unnecessarily I will chose trixy every time.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether or not a situation warrants doing defensive magick on someone without their permission.  I look at the immediacy and severity of the situation along with how personal the magick involved needs to be and then weight those factors with the strength of the target’s opposition to the work in order to decide what to do.  If I feel strongly that magick is necessary in the situation I’ll use my loopholes before I go disregarding someone else’s will.  Respecting the autonomy of others is very important to me, so things need to be pretty bad before I’ll go disregarding it.  In the end your ethics are up to you.

24 June 2015

Summer Solstice Prosperity Ritual

This year I had a very low key Summer Solstice, doing an impromptu prosperity ritual rather than a more elaborate full Sabbat.  I’d had grand plans for going out to a big public ritual, but in the end plans fell through.  Things have been rather busy lately and my brain really wanted to just listen to some Debussy and read a nice frivolous novel rather than stress out about driving the hour out to the ritual site and celebrating with a group I’m not all that familiar with.  I went with my instincts and stayed home.

So there I was home alone on the Summer Solstice with no responsibilities other than doing whatever working my heart felt compelled to do.  Not so bad eh?  The day before I’d picked up some chocolate coins at the store with the thought that they’d be great to use in a prosperity ritual.  The coins were sitting on my kitchen counter in front of a half-empty jar of homemade almond granola and an almost dead jar of honey.  As I stood there I realized that I had all the makings of a prosperity spell sitting right in front of me.  I looked outside at the gloriously blue and warm morning and decided to go with it. 

Still in my PJs, I scooped up the honey, granola, and chocolate coins and headed into the yard – followed by my fuzzy familiar, Cleo.  I sat down in the grass by our enormous rhododendrons and took a few minutes to listen to the birds (and my neighbor’s weed whacker) and enjoy the sunshine.  Cleo took the opportunity to hop into my lap and get fur on absolutely everything – gotta love kitties. 

After a few minutes of meditation I kicked Cleo out of my lap and cast my circle.  I felt that all of the elements and deities of the day were already present, so I didn’t bother doing any formal calling or invoking.  I said a few words on the nature of the solstice and asked that the energies of the day allow my prosperity working.  I poured the granola in a half circle in front of me and offered it to nature, particularly to the birds and insects that call my backyard home.  I poured the honey on the ground just beyond the granola and offered it to the earth, in gratitude for the sweetness of the summer season.  Then I held the bag of chocolate coins in my hands and raised them towards the sun.  I asked that the power of the Summer Solstice enter and infuse the chocolate, so that as I consumed them in the days to come I would be consuming the potent positive summer energy.  I asked that they be infused with the energies of prosperity, healthy, wealth, happiness, and comfort.  When I felt that the coins were sufficiently energized (and before they could start melting) and placed them in the shade behind me and gave thanks to the energies that attended and aided me.  I dispelled my circle and then headed back inside.

Now I’ve got a bag of magickally charged organic chocolate coins sitting on my earth altar.  I’ve been eating one a day and am absolutely enjoying it.  There’s something luxurious and rich about good dark chocolate that make it particularly apropos for prosperity work.  That it’s delicious doesn’t hurt either ;)

I do love simple, heartfelt ritual.  There’s something about doing what you feel just when you feel it’s right that it’s hard for more rigidly planned rituals to replicate.  As much as I love a good formal ritual, for my personal work I think I’ll stick to going with the flow.
Cleo says Hi