Real Magic

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An Amazing Display by Rachael Fountain of Finders Keepers Crafts

It was a pleasure and an honor to contribute to the Bristol City Museum’s “Real Magic” night at the Museum. As with most good esoteric-occult events in this city, the problem wasn’t selling all 750 tickets, but the disappointment of the hundreds of disappointed witches, druids, heathens, and pagan-friendly folk who couldn’t get in. What a great way to start the Samhain weekend!

There were too many performers, speakers, and exhibition-makers to name.

Adrian Rooke, Druid (and Much Else Besides)

I didn’t get to see most of them, since I was in the hall with the speakers throughout most of the evening. We did manage to drop in on our old friend Adrian Rooke, who commented afterward that it was difficult to advise visitors which ogham to choose for (name your wish) with such a queue!

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Faye Stoeser performs a piece by Richard Chappell

Also very much enjoyed Faye Stoeser’s extraordinary shamanic dance ritual, which debuted this evening.

But ultimately, like my colleagues Esther Eidinow and Ronald Hutton, I was there to offer something of my own. Since I had only fifteen minutes and a large but unknown crowd, anything participatory (like the Cube ritual) was out of the question. Recently I did a little ritual around Heilung’s song “Othan,” so I decided to build a short provocation around that. This also gave me an excuse to play some great music before offering my own interpretive comments. What is “magical thinking,” I asked, and why aren’t I embarrassed to admit that I do it all the time?

This blog post is getting too long, so I won’t try to summarize what I said. The teaser is that (a) Othan’s lyrics, in proto-Nordic and old Norse, amount to a spell for healing and protection, and (b) I used it as such about ten days ago.

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my colleague Esther explains Roman curse tablets

The first bit is apparent to anyone who has looked into these things; I’m not the first to notice where they got their lyrics. There are a lot of learned neo-Nordic pagans! The second bit is obviously personal to me, and was designed to ground my claims about what we are and are not doing when we cultivate “magical thinking” like this. We aren’t ignoring the normal parameters of practical reasoning (though we may supplement them in subtle ways), and we aren’t acting on the basis of far-fetched or “pre-scientific” beliefs. We are changing our ways of being-in-the-world in a manner that makes the world more beautiful and fun. Whether we also succeed in influencing events — well, I suspend judgment on that question.

Descent of Inanna

This Sunday the Bristol Goddess Temple welcomed a group of academics and community members from various backgrounds for the last in this year’s series of shared experiences and reflective discussions. Like the other events in this series, this one was supported by assistance from the Brigstow Institute at the University of Bristol. 

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Bristol Goddess Temple premises (Warmley Clocktower)

I asked an experienced Druid (whom I’ll call “Q”) to collaborate with one of the founding members of the BGT (whom I’ll call “RC”) in designing the ceremony, and they decided to recreate the Sumerian descent of Inanna. The story involves the descent to the underworld by a goddess of sovereignty, love, war, and fertility, where she is stripped of all her insignia, condemned, and hung as a corpse on a hook for three days and three nights. Eventually she is able to ascend, thanks to the intercession of various gods and their emissaries. But our ritualists chose to focus solely on Inanna and her dark double in the underworld, Ereshkigal.

After we donned special clothing and were prepared mentally by RC, the BGT’s glorious old building allowed us to literally descent a steep stone staircase to a large, dark room with a hard floor.

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Setting up an Underworld

There Q, with two assistants, orchestrated our passage through a series of gates, at each of which we surrendered something. After a long period of “trying really hard” to step outside of everyday consciousness, I was surprised–after about the “third gate”–to discover I no longer felt like I was lying on a linoleum floor in an old building in Warmley. CandlesThe darkness, the repetitive action, and the prolonged silence had put me in a mild trance. I really enjoyed climbing the stairs back up “into the light” of the Temple proper, which was extremely well lit. There RC set a different musical and visual tone, leading an idyllic and dreamy meditation involving an encounter with a healing but mystical power. By then we were drained, hungry, and thirsty, so as we emerged from the meditation, the immediate sensory effect of cherries and warm dates (the “body of the goddess”) was a powerful one.

Temple (the “upper world”)

We concluded the ritual and then enjoyed a hearty lunch of frittatas and fruit salad!

Afterward some of the participants were kind enough to stay around for a discussion of their experience. Next year I hope to write up some research on this theme, so for now I’ll just mention one issue that interests me. To what extent do people intuitively frame their experience of a ceremony like this in terms of (1) encountering some aspects of themselves, which might be described as “unconscious”; (2) feeling more or differently attuned to their co-participants, which could also be expressed as becoming part of a shared “thing” or community; (3) or encountering something outside themselves–a projection, a goddess, or whatever? Of course these three options can interact in all sorts of ways.

Anyways, interpretive questions aside, it was a really enjoyable activity. I’m thankful to everyone who came out on a Sunday morning in midsummer!

The Sumerican text for the Descent of Inanna can be read here.  Sumerian  religion is well outside my area of specialization, so I’m in not in a good position to cite scholarship on this post. The Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley notes in Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford, 1998, p. 154) that both the Sumerian and Akkadian versions appear to be associated with annual festivals involving the death of the god Dumuzi/Tammuz. The details of those festivals would undoubtedly be crucial to grasping the historical meaning and effect of the myth in its time and place. By coincidence, I also heard Catriona Miller of Glasgow University offer a Jungian reading of this myth at the Katabasis conference at the Freud Museum last weekend; that should eventually be published in a book to which I also will contribute, on the motif of “Katabasis.”