Monthly Archives: October 2015

October 2015 Full Moon Esbat and Medway Pagans Samhain Moot

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My shrine to the gods of death

October Full Moon Esbat

Tuesday was the last Full Moon before Samhain. As Samhain falls on a Saturday this year, I suspect I will be out and about for the day and the evening so I decided to hold a Samhain ritual on this day instead.

It was raining, and so for the first time, I held the ritual in the “altar room” of our new house. I lit a large number of candles and turned off the lights, so the room was entirely candle-lit (the altar room is below ground level so there are no windows). I also burned some “opium” incense and played suitably Pagan music (Eye of the Aeon by Silver on the Tree, a very rare album). This generated an atmosphere that was both mystical and soothing, which was perfect as I was actually a little nervous about conducting a ritual alone in the dark cellar – it is quite creepy, and the season of Samhain is the time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, so anything can happen.

I intoned the names of various deities of death, and thanked them for being a companion to my departed friends and family when they pass over to the other side. I made offerings of sake and a miniature pumpkin and an apple to them in my “Death Shrine.”

I then focussed on the spirits of my departed friends and family, starting with our two family dogs whose deaths were recent quite close to each other (the second died in January this year). I thanked them for the many years of love and affection they gave us, and left an offering of water and dog treats at my main altar.

Next, I focussed on my relatives who had died long ago, but within my lifetime. I remembered each one in turn, and offered a chalice of sherry in their honour (I think most of the relatives I remembered enjoyed a tipple of sherry).

Finally, I gave my thoughts to my ancestors whom I have never met, but whose blood runs in my veins and whose life my own came from. I asked them to guide me to help me bring pride to their name.

I then had a brief period of meditation in which I invited these friends and relatives into my memories. I remembered what it was like to play with my dogs, and I could imagine them coming up to me and poking their noses under my arm like they often did when I sat on the floor. I remembered the way my maternal grandfather would give usually me a kiss while forcing a pound coin or five pound note into my hand when we said goodbye after visiting. I remembered how my paternal grandfather would smile and joke exactly the way my Dad does, and I remembered how grandmother would make incredible knitted toys for my sister and I (she was really skilled with her hands). I also had a “vision” of my grandfather and grandmother as a young couple, dancing together. It was really nice and I even teared up a little.

I was surprised at how emotional this ritual turned out to be. I thought it went much better than my solo ritual last Samhain, which felt rather hollow in comparison. Clearly, the steps I made to create the ritual space, and the focus on my family as well as the deities, worked well for me.

Medway Pagans Samhain Moot

The following day was the Samhain Moot with Medway Pagans, led by one of our members who identifies as a “Left Hand Practitioner.” The ritual turned out to be an intensely personal one, and for this reason, I do not feel it is appropriate for me to share the specifics here. It’s something I think that’s best left in the memories of those who were there, rather than shared with the world (which is different to how I feel about other Medway Pagan rituals, which are far more communal in nature). But I will share some photos of the altar, which I thought looked especially beautiful.

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“A Darker Shade of Burlesque” with Vintage TeasE

The hypnotic Coco Deville. I hope she doesn't mind me stealing this image, from her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ms.coco.deville?fref=ts

The hypnotic Coco Deville. I hope she doesn’t mind me stealing this image, from her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ms.coco.deville?fref=ts

Last night I went to a local Halloween-themed burlesque show, “A Darker Shade of Burlesque,” by Vintage TeasE. It was the first proper burlesque I’d attended, and it was a fantastic evening. The performers were all women with a wide range of body types, styles and talents, and the majority of the audience were women too. It’s interesting and encouraging to see performances that, although historically intended to titillate men, now seem to appeal very much to women through their glamour, costumes and sense of empowerment of seeing other women with bodies very much like their own looking confident and sexy as they bare all.

All the acts were very entertaining. It was headlined by a very beautifully gothic Bonnie Fleur, who had not one but two acts – as a seductive Morticia Addams in one of the earlier acts, and an intense, vampiric Red Queen at the close, who swooped around in Isis wings designed to look like a huge red cloak, and ended by pouring “blood” from a chalice over herself. There was also Jeanie Wishes, who performed a sexy pole dance in the persona of a spider queen; a bride who hacked off her own chastity belt with an angle grinder (sparks flying and all); and a bizarre “werewolfess” who at the end sported a wolf mask and very little else.

But for me, there was one act that really stood out above all others, and that was a voodoo-inspired dance by the award-winning Coco Deville. She made her entrance to The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” dressed in an incredible outfit of a feather headdress, feather skirt and trailing cloak made from different fake fur prints stitched together. She was carrying a skull, which she placed reverentially upon a table with a red and black cloth and a lit candelabra, and knelt before it as if praying to the spirits of death. She then began her dance, with slow, hypnotic movements reminding me of those used in tribal bellydance. As she stripped off each layer of clothing, from her cloak down to her skirt, she toyed with a riding crop, bringing an element of bondage into her dance. Right at the end, she took one of the candles and poured the wax all over her now mostly nude body.

What was incredible about this intense act was the effect upon the audience. Throughout the show, we were all encouraged to clap and cheer during the dances as each layer of clothing came off. But for Coco Deville, the audience was spellbound into a respectful hush. Most of the cries that came from the audience were the kind of ululations you might hear women make at events of particular ritual or religious significance in the Middle East and Asia. Everyone else simply gazed, mesmerised by Coco’s preternatural grace and captivating presence.

That’s when I realised that what we were watching somehow transcended mere performance and entered the realm of ritual. This young lady, part-voodoo priestess, part-dominatrix, part-goddess, with her supreme confidence and talent, had the entire audience under her spell. Erotic it certainly was, but in a manner that re-enforced the connection between sexuality and the divine.

As a Pagan observer, I would certainly call the effect of this performance magic. It was a reminder that magic does not need to be performed by self-identified witches within a coven, or practitioners of ritual occult – a simple dance in a cabaret show, through the combination of music, movement, costume and the energy of the dancer herself – can invoke just the same level of power.

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My thoughts on Good, Evil and the “False Gods”

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Pan, one of several Pagan deities later identified with the concept of the Devil in Christianity  By Brookie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I can appreciate that for followers of several faiths, accepting that those of other religions are not “wrong” can be challenging. It’s generally fairly easy for most Pagans – since we have no holy book and no hard-and-fast rules, and because many authorities on Paganism tend to stress on the universal nature of the Pagan deities, there is nothing there telling Pagans that other people are venerating the “wrong” deity, or indeed worshipping an “evil” deity. That’s not to say that all Pagans are completely open and tolerant of other beliefs – I’ve heard lots of Pagans express anti-Christian sentiments as well as criticisms against other religions. I’ve also met those who, although accepting of Christianity, say that it’s not possible to be a Christian-Pagan (I, who believe that all religions can be syncretised, think that Christianity and Paganism can work very well together, as demonstrated by the fact that historically, people in Britain did practise the two together). But there’s no specific teaching in Paganism to say that other religions are wrong, and indeed the majority of authorities on the subject seem keen to stress that all religions are essentially one.

But there are other religions that do have clear rules laid down, and yes, some of the texts of such religions seems to suggest that other religions are false and rooted in evil.  For followers of such faiths who believe in the teachings of their texts, how can they possibly participate in interfaith discussions, which must be based on the acceptance that there is no one “true” faith?

I think it is possible to follow the teachings of a religious text, even one that seems to suggest that other religions are false, and still accept that other people’s beliefs are just as valid, with a bit of open-mindedness and flexible interpretation of the text.

Firstly, I’d like to make clear that I do not really believe in the concepts of good and evil. This is because I hold that morality is relative; it is all to do with perspective. That’s one reason why different religions seem to have differing ideas as to what good and evil actually are.

But I do believe in love and hate. I believe that love and hate are demonstrably real phenomena that all human beings can experience and elicit. Love is when we care deeply about someone or something because it makes us feel good, and so and want to protect and enrich that person or thing’s existence. Hate is when we want to harm or destroy a person or thing because we want to be free of the negative emotions it generates in us.

This difference between love and hate is, to me, more important than good and evil, especially when it comes to defining what “false” religions and “false” gods are. I can easily see how true love is a positive force that brings out the best in people. But I cannot see what positive things hate can achieve. Due to its irrational nature, hate simply causes destruction and pain. Because of this, I see love and hate as far more clearly defined concepts than good and evil.

It is therefore my belief that every religion that has love at its core can be considered a “true” religion. For me, a “real” religion is one founded upon all the positivity that arises for love, whether that be love for God or gods, love of one’s fellow humans or love of nature. Even most Satanists seem to embrace love rather hate – in many forms of Satanism, the belief is based on love of the self, and the positive things that arise from self-love including confidence, self-respect, inner strength, freedom and empathy with others. I would also extend this to other non-religious ways of life that embrace love; all humanists, agnostics and atheists who act according to love rather than hate are following a “true” path.

But those who follow a path based on hate, whether that path can be considered religious or not, are in my opinion on a “false” path. This is because I do not believe there is any value that can lie in such a path. Religious terrorist groups such as Daesh/Isil are most definitely following this path of hate. So are those who live their lifestyle according to their hatred of a particular group of people, such as people of a different race, sexuality or gender.

When religious texts talk about false religions and false gods, I interpret them to mean the false religions of hate and the false “gods” of hate, rather than religions that are merely different to the one specific to the text. They are talking about paths that are not rooted in love, and warning us not to be tempted to live a life that is ruled by hate, because hate only leaves to pain and destruction for both the hater and the hated.

As long as religions and other ways of life are rooted in love, I believe their followers can be assured that yes, all those ways of life are valid and true.

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Reflections on “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint,” R. Andrew Chesnut

devotedtodeathWhy did I choose to read this book?

Ever since reading various internet articles about Santa Muerte, Mexico’s “Skeleton Saint,” I have been absolutely fascinated by this deity and her fast-growing cult. A personification of Death venerated by people who identify as Catholic, yet whose worship is condemned by the Catholic church? A saint who devotees routinely included the last people we would usually think of as “spiritual,” including drug barons, prostitutes and the police who incarcerate them alike? As a Goth, Pagan, ex-Catholic and someone who has a broad interest in folk religion in general, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.[Read more]

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An analysis of “Blessed Be”

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“Blessed Be” probably originates from similar biblical expressions related to “God Bless You,” but on analysis, particularly in comparison with “God Bless You,” it reveals some rather interesting things. [Read more]

 

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October 2015 New Moon Chinkon-gyo

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Last night was the New Moon, and so I held chinkon-gyo meditation in front of my Inari altar for the second time, after deciding to do this every New Moon back in September.

Before meditation, I took a shower. This functioned as a kind of o-misogi purification, although admittedly I didn’t do it with cold water as you’re supposed to do. The days are getting colder, and a warm shower is all I want. Eventually, I hope I can pluck up the courage to drench myself in cold water – perhaps then I’ll truly understand what o-misogi is all about.

Following this, I turned off the lights and lit candles in my Inari altar room. I also put on some traditional Japanese koto music, which has the dual function of putting me in the right frame of mind as well as making me feel less self-conscious about chanting; my husband was in the bedroom not far away and he’d be able to hear me chanting if it wasn’t for the music, which I still feel a bit self-conscious about (silly I know, but…).

My local supermarket is now stocking persimmon, a traditional autumn fruit in Japan, so I bought one to offer to Inari-sama before beginning. I also refreshed the other offerings, something I admittedly don’t do often enough. Although the offerings of water, rice and salt will be fine to leave out for a week, the sake goes mouldy very quickly because the altar gets a lot of light. I really need to be a little more mindful and refresh the offerings more often. I can’t imagine Inari-sama appreciates mouldy sake on His altar…

Finally I performed the furitama, prayers and gestures of the chinkon-gyo as prescribed in Llewellyn Evans’ Shinto Norito book. The main change I made was to substitute one of the longer prayers with the Inari Okami Norito, which naturally seems more appropriate. I feel I am getting better at Norito – I can recite the HI FU MI by heart easily now, and although I have not memorised the Inari Okami Norito, I can read it a lot more fluently than when I first started and I have parts of it memorised.

Once again, this felt more like learning a new skill than a real spiritual experience, but I know that as I get better and more practised at chinkon, the spiritual aspect will come. As some consolation, when I finished and came to join my husband in the bedroom, his mobile phone was randomly playing a track by BABYMETAL – a band whose members are all devotees of Inari Okami. I can only take that as a sign that Inari-sama was listening after all!

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Reflections on “Oriental Ghost Stories,” Lafcadio Hearn (compiled and edited by David Stuart Davies)

orientalghostWhy did I choose to read this book?

I really like the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural books, which are reprints of classic horror and gothic stories published cheaply by Wordsworth Editions. I have several of them – their collection of vampire short stories and their Edith Nesbit collection, to name a few – and I was delighted to see that they’d also released some of the works of Lafcadio Hearn. All erudite Japanese people, and a large percentage of people who’ve studied Japan, know the importance of Hearn – he emigrated to Japan in 1890 and was responsible for much of the West’s understanding of Japanese culture through his writings on Japanese customs and folklore. I’ve long been familiar with Hearn but have never owned a collection of his writings, and being a lover of all things Japanese, folky and ghostly, I knew I had to get this book. And with Samhain coming it, now felt like a perfect time to reflect on it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book compiles stories from Hearn’s books – Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan and Some Chinese Ghosts – into one volume, with a very nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. The stories are essentially folktales – old, spooky “urban legends” that Hearn came across during his time in Japan, as well as a few other writings about China and Europe. All the stories feature elements of the supernatural, from ghosts to demons to inexplicable magic.

What did I particularly like about it?

To begin with, I LOVE the idea of presenting Japanese ghost stories first and foremost as simply that – horror stories. All too often, East Asian writings (and writing from other non-European cultures) get pigeonholed into “East Asia” or “Oriental” as a genre in itself, as if their literature cannot be appreciated alongside or compared with similar literature from the West. This adds to the myth that Japan and other countries are “inscrutable.” Publishing Japanese ghost stories alongside those by European writers as part of the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series, in a cheap, almost pulpy, paperback format, is an excellent way of introducing Japanese stories to the masses who may not have any initial interest in Japan, which helps to shatter that “inscrutable” image.

Then there are the stories themselves. Hearn is a wonderful storyteller, who manages to keep a balance of making these stories appealing to the Western reader and retaining their eerie and mystical atmosphere without completely losing their sense of “Japaneseness.” Naturally, I liked some stories better than others; some of the highlights for me included:

  • “The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoiichi” – The opening story of the book, which has as its protagonist one of Japan’s most fascinating stock characters; a blind lute-player.
  • “Yuki-Onna” – The legends of the mysterious and potentially deadly “snow woman” are well-known to lovers of Japanese folklore, and this version is full of elegance and mystery.
  • Jiu-roku-zakura” – A short but moving tale of a man devoted to his cherry tree. It reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
  • The Dream of Akinosuke” – Something of a mystery story. The real meaning is revealed at the end, but clever readers might be able to guess what’s going on before then…
  • “A Story of Divination” – A neat and somewhat spooky tale exploring the idea of predestination.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Oriental Ghost Stories has a very eclectic feeling, with strange little essays and extracts included among the stories which add variety. Some people might be put off by this “jumbled” feeling, but I rather liked it. The rather archaic language (especially the old ways of romanising Japanese words) might be a bit jarring to some, but again, I thought this added to the book’s charm.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I actually learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know about Japanese religion from these stories (I suppose that’s not so surprising – folktales can sometimes offer the greatest insight into spiritual beliefs). Due to the nature of the stories, most of the religious elements described are Buddhist (as Buddhism is associated with funeral rites in Japan), which I liked because I am less familiar with Buddhism (especially on the popular level) than Shinto in Japan. I also learned a few things about Shinto that I didn’t know – for example, I had no idea that incense is considered “unclean” in Shinto and isn’t generally burned at Shinto shrines until reading this book! This made me re-consider my current practise of occasionally offering incense to Inari Okami.

Additionally, I was fascinated to read about the concept of “nazorareru.” Hearn claims that this word “…cannot be be adequately rendered by any English word” but describes it as “…to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result,” for example, laying a pebble before the image of Buddha instead of building a Buddhist temple in order to evoke the same feeling of piety. I immediately realised that what Hearn is describing is the very same “sympathetic magic” that forms the basis of the theories in The Golden Bough! I realised that the concept of sympathetic magic exists in Japan (as it does in all human cultures), but I had no idea that the Japanese had their own term for it. I was really excited to discover this.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – whether you want to read it to learn more about Japanese folklore, or simply want a good scare, I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

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My New Pagan Altar

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We’ve been in our new house for a couple of months now, and my new Pagan altar is finally starting to take shape.

We’re lucky enough to have an amazing cellar in the new house, which is being used as a wine cellar, entertainment room and my “altar room.” It’s great that I now have a whole room dedicated to Pagan worship! I also like the fact that it’s rather hidden, below ground level – it gives it a real feeling of mysticism, as well as having the practical advantage that it’s one of the most private rooms in the house, being very much blocked off from the other rooms.

The big Green Man scarf forming the backdrop of the altar is the one I bought from the local shop Impact. It’s actually hiding a really horrible Totteham Hotspur badge that the previous owners of the house had painted there beforehand!  (I will have to get round to painting over it eventually). It also has some of my most precious altar tools, including my athame, chalice and pentagram, as well as my tiny Goddess/God figurines that are so small they’re hard to see (I’ll have to get some larger ones some time). And for Samhain, I’ve added a skull, pumpkin, Grim Reaper and a male and female skeleton pair that represent the Death aspects of the Goddess and God.

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Below the main altar shelf is an alcove in which I keep some of my other tools, my Book of Shadows and my Pagan-related literature.

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Finally, there’s one more little alcove in the cellar, in which I have set up a tiny “Death” shrine, in honour of the spirits of Death. As a Goth, I feel very drawn to death deities and so it feels proper that I give them their due respect. This shrine was partly inspired by some of the skull shrines I saw in Naples on my holiday last year. The box actually contains graveyard dirt and a “vampire’s tooth” that my Dad bought from Romania! Whether it’s a real vampire tooth of not is of course debatable, but it is an incredibly interesting little artefact. I plan on leaving some offerings here at Samhain.

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The deities have something to teach us about diversity (plus a quiz!)

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There’s very often an assumption that diversity causes discord. The view that the more beliefs, cultures, opinions and ways of life exist in a society, the more likely it is that conflict and crime will arise. Several influential individuals and groups in the UK have come out saying that “multiculturalism has failed,” and have called for immigration to be drastically cut in order to retain the so-called “native” British culture. The UK’s certainly not the only country to have such views expressed; the situation is arguable worse in Japan, where the supposed homogeneity of society is very much celebrated and praised, and those of different ethnic backgrounds face daily discrimination for not being a part of this idealised homogeneity.

Naturally, I have a problem with this. [Read more]

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Autumn-themed Japanese Sweets

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I work for a Japanese organisation and very often we receive lovely gifts of sweets, as it is a Japanese custom to bring edible treats when a representative of one organisation visits another. Today we received these beautiful higashi, traditional sugar candies that are often served during the tea ceremony. These ones are mostly autumn-themed, in the shape of leaves (including maple and ginkgo), chestnuts, persimmons, apples and acorns. Interestingly for such traditional Japanese items, there’s a few non-Japanese autumn symbols in there, including depictions of hedgehogs and European squirrels, neither of which can be found in Japan. All of them are extremely cute – they look too good to eat! But as the Japanese say, you “eat with your eyes” (me de taberu) – in other words, how good food looks is just as important as how it tastes when it comes to enjoying it.

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