On Baltimore

There are a LOT of people talking about what’s going on in Baltimore. As they should be. I’ve been watching this develop, along with everyone else, and I’ve been doing my best to stay on top of the news as it comes in.

Here’s my take on Baltimore. I don’t live there, I’m a white girl, and I’m sure this will piss a bunch of people off. But here’s where I’m at regardless.

1) Violence is scary, and destruction of property is not ok. I understand why so many people are upset/angry/scared/sad about it.

2) There are WAY more peaceful protestors than violent ones, and we need to remember that. As Americans we have the right to peacefully assemble, and that right is being exercised. However, there are opportunists in every group who take things too far, and we can’t judge the whole by the fringe. It’s hard to keep that in mind, especially when that’s all we see on the news, but we need to try.

Peaceful protestors in Baltimore. Not a fire or toppled police car anywhere.

A sea of peaceful protestors in Baltimore. Not a fire or toppled police car in sight.

3) What happened to Freddie Gray is especially egregious, but IT IS NOT ISOLATED. Gray was the catalyst for action in Baltimore, but they’re protesting the same thing that Ferguson protested. And NYC protested. And cities across the US have protested. Every other day we’re hearing about Black men and women being injured or killed by people who are theoretically supposed to protect them, and it KEEPS HAPPENING. Every 28 hours a Black person is killed by law enforcement in the United States.

This is the third or fourth version of this I've seen floating around, all with different names. There should NOT be that many to choose from!

This is the third or fourth version of this I’ve seen floating around, all with different names. There should NOT be that many to choose from!

When the authorities who are supposed to protect you are the ones targeting you instead, you can point to reams of evidence supporting your fear, no one seems to listen to you when you talk about it, and you’re worried about your family and your friends and your home, actively rebelling against those authorities is pretty much the only option you’ve got left.

Thing is, racism and police brutality aren’t an alien invasion. There’s no one thing we can point at and say “This! This is the symbol of our oppression!” and take it out. There’s no clear target. All that rebellion has nowhere uniform to go. So it goes everywhere.

MLK Riots

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it MUCH better in 1968.

4) What surprises me about this – and it shouldn’t, but it DOES – is how often I’m seeing conservatives rail against the riots while, simultaneously, preparing themselves to violently revolt against an authoritarian government that targets them and rides roughshod over their rights. They don’t seem to realize that it’s ALREADY HAPPENING, that it’s BEEN happening. That this shit is proving them RIGHT. It’s just not happening to THEM, and it’s not based on faith or politics, so they don’t see it.

As a polytheist, I stand with the people of Baltimore. Because, as we keep needing to say again and again and again, #BlackLivesMatter. It is against my faith to support the oppression of any person or group, and silence equals consent.

I’ll close with this. If you’re in Baltimore, stay safe. And for everyone else, try to remember that this isn’t an isolated event but a response to a larger social issue we seem incapable of confronting any other way. If we were better at confronting it, we wouldn’t be seeing the violence.

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It’s the Most Uncomfortable Time of the Year*

Out of all the holidays, Beltane is by far the weirdest for me personally. Over the last few years I have developed my own way of conceptualizing it that works for me, and if I’m going solo or running a group ritual with that in mind it’s fine.

However, this year I’m attending a group ritual run by someone much more traditional, and I’m honestly kind of dreading it. Not because I don’t enjoy ritual, or even this person’s rituals, but because Beltane itself is all kinds of awkward for me. It kinda feels like I’m back in Christian church.

I am well aware that’s not a common response, especially to this holiday in particular, so I figured an explanation might be handy.

First off, what’s Beltane?

Beltane, or May 1st, is the absolute favorite holiday of a ton of people. Traditionally it’s the day when flocks and herds were returned to the fields after being cooped up all winter, and that aspect of things does play a part in the season. However, these days Beltane is more commonly considered the day the Goddess and God get together, or the day the Holly King fights the Oak King for the Goddess’s hand. The emphasis is heavy on sex, fertility, and marriage.

This type of image sums it up nicely, doesn’t it?

This type of image sums it up nicely.

Sure, there are other associations too – protection, community engagement, sensuality and self-appreciation – but most public rituals bypass them in favor of the sex/fertility/marriage triad. Makes sense, really, as it’s so easy to work with that in a ritual setting. It’s also a way of declaring, loud and proud, that sex is a holy thing and not something to freak out about in the dark. For many of us from more puritanical backgrounds that kind of reminder is incredibly welcome.

Like I said, it’s all perfectly understandable. I simply don’t really relate to it.

Why not?

I promise this isn’t just me being difficult. There are some pretty fundamental disconnects between me and the way Beltane is commonly celebrated.

Sex

The sexual focus of Beltane is fairly lost on me. *shrug* I’m asexual.

“Asexual” means I am rarely if ever sexually attracted to someone. I can appreciate pretty people, but it’s like appreciating a sunset or a piece of music. I have no visceral “damn I’d like to bang that!” going on. That doesn’t mean I’m celibate – orientation is based on attraction and not action, which is why a gay man having sex with a woman while fantasizing that he’s banging Channing Tatum is still a gay man – but it does mean that who I choose to have sex with is based on other factors. (Usually, for me, it’s either because I’ve seen them have sex with someone else and thought that looked like a good time or because they’re awesome people and I like their skin on mine.)

While sex is fun, it’s by no means required for my health and happiness. Roller coasters are fun too, and I don’t see many rituals devoted to those. Sex is the same way. Awesome if I can get it, but if not? Eh. Not exactly a crisis.

Touch my damn wifi, though, and we'll have issues! *growl*

Touch my damn wifi, though, and we’ll have issues! *growl*

A whole ritual focused on something I can take or leave honestly isn’t all that meaningful to me.

Fertility

The fertility of people and the land has been important for the entirety of human history. I absolutely get that. And I can appreciate the latter – it’s part of my own observance.

However, I am personally childfree. Militantly so. I have no children, I have no desire for children, and I find my life perfectly fulfilling without that. The idea of being pregnant makes me physically ill. I know I’m in the minority with this, and that’s fine, but just thinking about it is horrifying. I am unspeakably grateful, every day, that I am infertile (thanks PCOS!).

While I realize that fertility in all areas is part of this holiday, and that “all areas” includes things like my creativity, the ritual emphasis is almost always on physical fertility. Even if it’s not, that is still the metaphor most rituals run with. In order to relate to that personally I have to do a whole Cirque du Soleil routine in my head, mentally overcoming my revulsion at the idea of physical pregnancy and then substituting that idea with something I actually want fertile.

How many ways do I have to contort my brain to make these ideas relevant?

How many ways do I have to contort my brain to make these ideas relevant?

That, frankly, is a lot of damn work.

Marriage

Marriage and handfasting, the romantic union of self with another, is a large component of the traditional Beltane. And, again, this isn’t really my thing. I’m aromantic.

“Aromantic” means I have no desire for a romantic partner. None. I have close friendships, and I’ve had some cohousing situations where queerplatonic dynamics ruled the day, but no matter how intimate those friendships get they’re never romantic in nature.

That is wonderful when it comes to my spirituality and my creative projects. As I’ve discussed before, there are only so many hours in the day. All the time I’m not spending with a partner – and that is a lot of time – I can instead spend on other priorities. I can fall into a project for an entire weekend, as I am wont to do, and that’s fine. If someone calls me and needs my counsel I can take whatever time they need without short-changing the other people in my life. I can travel on a moment’s notice, and as long as I’m meeting my work obligations I don’t need to check in with anyone else about it.

I’m not saying that this is the best thing for everyone, because it’s not. But it is absolutely better for me.

There isn’t a lot of room for this viewpoint in a traditional Beltane ritual, though, and that’s a problem.

Observance vs. Ritual

So far I’ve covered how the three main ritual focuses of Beltane – sex, fertility, and marriage – are just not for me. But how those things are focused on is an issue too.

The “observance vs ritual” concept just came to my attention as that pretty recently. It figures in to all the sabbats I celebrate with more traditional Pagan people, and the issues I already have with Beltane just make it worse.

I approach each sabbat as an observance, and Beltane is no exception. For me Beltane is all about the Land. I invite the local land spirits (and anyone else who wants to honor Them) to attend a meal in Their honor, as an act of appreciation and connection, and that’s as far as it goes. If other people are present conversation stays focused on the land, on the seasons, on the physicality of our lives. The spoken invitation to the Land at the beginning of things and my farewell at the end are as formal as it gets.

Not exactly crying out for heels and a ballgown here.

Not exactly crying out for heels and a ballgown here.

That’s quite intentional on my part. I am a purpose-driven person, and I don’t often do something if there’s not a clear reason for it. That’s why nothing I do for a sabbat resembles a typical Pagan ritual. I’m not doing magick or raising energy because that’s not what I’m there for, so it doesn’t happen. Casting Circles and calling Quarters is completely superfluous, so I don’t do it. Beltane is not about honoring the Gods or the Ancestors (They have Their own days), so there are no invocations for Them (although my Lady is always welcome where I am, of course). My altar rarely has the traditional altar tools on it, and never has all of them, because they’re not being used. Since the entire thing is a picnic with offerings, Cakes and Ale has no point. Add that in with my complete lack of focus on sex and marriage, and fertility only being referenced as a seasonal energy increase for the land, and the disconnect between what I do and a more traditional Pagan ritual becomes blindingly obvious.

That’s why I find attending a Pagan Beltane to many times feel like attending a Christian church. I attend, I say the things, I do my best to engage, but it feels very “not me” when I do it almost all of the time. That’s what makes it uncomfortable. Of course, a traditional Pagan is likely to be just as uncomfortable attending my observance as I am attending their ritual. *shrug*

I’ll be doing both my personal observance and a much more traditional group ritual this year. After which this day passes for another year, and I can turn my focus to Midsummer – much more comfortable all around.

*For those who were wondering – yes, I sang the title. I’m not even a little bit shamed, either. *grin*

Building Woo Spaces – Working Altars (Pt. 3)

While shrines are the backbone of a devotional practice, altars are the place magick happens. They are a physical manifestation of the energies with which we work, and as such are comprised of the tokens and tools we need to facilitate that working.

Altars can be hugely elaborate or incredibly simple, depending on the use and the user. Some are temporary setups on the coffee table, and others are permanently-arranged spaces full of Very Magickal Objects and bling. No matter how they’re set up, however, they tend to be more rigid and logical in layout than a shrine.

Why is that?

A shrine is a space to honor and enjoy. Think of it as a beautifully decorated parlor in which you entertain your guests. The entire setup’s purpose is to be visually appealing and comfortable, designed to delight the senses and exude a sense of welcome. That’s artistic, creative, and pretty free-flow.

An altar, on the other hand, is a working space. It’s more like a laboratory than a parlor. Instead of entertaining guests we’re manipulating energy with the help of allies or colleagues. Like any lab, there are specific tools that help accomplish our goals, so those need to be present. Extraneous things that are not directly useful can be present, of course, but they’re often more of a hindrance than a help.

What specific tools are common?

There are many styles of magick, and each one seems to have specific tools associated with it that not everyone uses. However, here are the tools I personally see/use most often.

Altar Cloth: It’s a cloth. That covers the altar. The color usually corresponds to the purpose or the season. Getting wax out of them sucks. They really make things look more finished, though, and provide a nice base. If the altar itself cannot be permanent, using the same cloth or set of cloths every time can create a similar effect.

Elemental Representations: The exact forms vary quite a bit, but most altar setups tend to have a representation of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water on the altar. Air is often represented with incense or feathers, Fire with candles, Earth with pentacles and/or stones, and Water with a dish of water or wine.

Spirit Representation(s): Some traditions work with Spirit as a fifth element. Candles (or other items) representing the masculine and feminine principles, as seen through deity, are common. Specific deity representations are used too. I’ve also seen things like unicorn and phoenix figurines used for Spirit.

Athame: This is a ritual blade associated with the element of Air. The stereotype for this tends to be a smaller silver-colored double-bladed knife with a black handle and dull edges, but I’ve seen a wide variety that don’t look like that too. The dull edges reference the fact that this tool is used to cut energy only, and a separate tool (the bolline) is used to cut things like herbs. Some people, however, say “screw that” and ditch the bolline. Their athames are sharp. I’m in that camp.

Wand: Used to direct energy and associated with the element of Fire. Some people use these in preference to an athame, some people use an athame instead of a wand, and some people use both.

Bell: Bells are used to clear a space of energies not conducive to the working. They can also signal transitions in the ritual. Gongs fulfill a similar function. I use a tuning fork for this.

Cakes and Ale: This is food and drink shared among ritual participants to wrap things up. I see a ton of variation here, and I tend to skip it personally – to my mind that’s what after ritual space is for. Offerings are a different thing.

Circle Casting Mixture: This is a container of flower petals or seeds or confetti or whatever else someone sprinkles as they walk to create a magick circle around the altar.

Illuminator Candles: These candles are used strictly for light. Some people rely on them as the only light source, while others use them for ambiance only.

Working Tools: If you’re doing a candle spell you’ll need candles for that. Scrying? You’ll need crystals or water or whatever you’re using. This can be pretty much anything, as long as it’s used to accomplish the goal of the ritual.

As you can see, making sure all of that is present can limit creativity in designing the space. That doesn’t mean you can’t put your own spin on it, though! There are so many versions of each of those things that altars can look wildly different even with the similarities. Here are a few examples.

My Working Altar

In the last post I showed my altar/shrine space in its standard “shrine” set up. This is how I rearrange things if I need actual altar space.

photo(1)I leave the Land/Sea/Sky in place as usual above. However, here I’ve also hung my perpetual calendar in the space normally occupied by flowers. I use specific sounds for correspondence work, where almost everyone else uses herbs and stones, so my tuning forks and whistles are up there too. I have a central “working” candle in the center, flanked by crystals and stones and a small bottle of blessed oil. My athame is placed horizonally across the front center. The incense burner is at center right, a red striker and 4096 Hz fork (my version of a bell) at center left, a chalice with skull beads at far left, and my current tarot deck (until I finish the one I’m making anyway!) is at the far right. Other items present include my amber/jet ritual necklace (worn during ritual, but laid out as prep work), a lancet, a pendulum, prayer beads, and illuminator candles. If necessary I have other tools for other purposes, but I only pull out what is specific to the working at hand.

A Northern Tradition Working Altar

In my post on personal shrines I was privileged to show Ulfdis’s shrine space. Here is a picture of the entire shrine/altar combo.

UntitledThe wall shelf, and everything above it, is shrine space. Below the shelf is altar space. I really enjoy this layout, because it keeps the shrine near the altar but the spaces are easily distinguished.

One of the best features of this particular space, in my opinion, is the chalkboard. It’s used for reminders, runes, sigils, chants, affirmations, whatever might be needed at the time. I’ve never seen that before, and now I really want to incorporate that idea into my own space!

The base for this working altar looks to be a desk. The majority of the space is kept clear. Tools are placed to the back of the working surface, for accessibility, but they don’t overrun the space. The drawers provide additional storage. To quote Ulfdis, “that altar is my day to day meditation/divination/general witchery space”, and is a permanent installation.

An Egyptian-Themed Altar

This beautiful altar space is used by an eclectic practitioner with Khemetic influences.

10937481_796033367099405_302304743_nHere we can see a bowl for water, candle for fire, incense holders, a stone pendant, illuminator candles, and jewelry in addition to a goddess statue (Hathor), sunflowers in Her honor, and a lovely representation on the wall. Tucked underneath the table is a drum used during ritual. This is a simple set-up, but works for a wide variety of purposes.

An Eclectic Home Altar

This is a permanent altar on a mantle.

10937510_796033350432740_1079594303_nIn this shot it’s between rituals – during rituals it’s dressed up a bit. The plaques on the wall depict both Earth and Sky (Sky is also inclusive of all celestial phenomenon, like day/night, stars, and the sun and moon). In the center on the altar itself is a Goddess representation. Various tools are arranged in the rest of the space, and handfasting cords hang below.

An Altar for Divination

This is something I don’t see every day – a dedicated altar space for divination!

photo 1The Ouija board on the wall is vintage and for display purposes only. It’s flanked by illuminator candles. On the altar itself we have a chalice to represent Water that is also occasionally used for scrying, feathers for Air, a chrysalis and bone for Earth wisdom, and incense for Fire. The candles flanking the table are occasionally used for scrying but more often simply for light. There’s a Celtic Cross tarot spread in the center, with the deck to the right, and what looks to be a decorative strand of silver stars and beads across the front.

And that’s it! I will do an entry on travel altars and some point and wrap this up, but for now I’m going to focus on the other awesome projects I’ve got going.