Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster

Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster
"Sorry guys...you haven't seen a small metal ball with wings flapping around by chance, have you?""

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shout out to the Rogue Priest

I just wanted to tell everyone to check out the blog and website of Drew Jacob, aka, the Rogue Priest.  

He has a very interesting life story that in formal terms includes initiation in New Orleans Voudou and is a full priesthood status vis-a-vis the Irish gods, with the rank of rank of clí in draíocht (druidic practices).  Although he doesn't tend to describe himself that way (and thankfully so, because it falls quite short of explaining who he is).  On his blog, The Rogue Priest, the description he gives is:

Rogue Priest, philosopher, and writer. I follow the Heroic Life: the idea that the highest goal is to live gloriously, to distinguish yourself through your deeds, to leave a lasting and worthy impression on the world. I'm walking 8,000 miles to try it out. 

 I came to find out about Drew through his various contributions on Humanistic Paganism, including an interview about a book as well as a project he was starting called Magic to the People, aimed at providing magical services to people even if they are unable to afford it.  (He takes donations, but charges no fees.)  I was very impressed by the idea and by his overall approach.  He rightfully says that people have often depended on magic in times of trouble, and that this has helped them to survive and was inspired to offer this service on an as-need basis.  There was still controversy on Humanistic Paganism, however, about the ethics of even receiving money for magical services without empirical proof of its effectiveness.  I contributed my post about embracing mystery, which Drew not only liked and commented upon, but highlighted in his own blog. 

So I'd like to return the favor by encouraging everyone to read his blog and other websites, and to support his cause because I think it's worthwhile.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cultural appropriation: how to be a heretic without being a jerk

Thanks to Erica at Cultural Appropriation Cat

Greetings everyone.

For a while I've wanted to talk about cultural appropriation--the use of another culture's symbols, traditional knowledge, or folklore by someone who is not a member of that culture without the culture's permission.  This is particularly an issue when the "appropriated" culture has been historically marginalized, excluded, or conquered by the "appropriating" culture.

So this is the point where as an oppressed black and gay man, I'm supposed to tell haughty, clueless rich white people that they can't have my Gods and traditions and that they have no business representing my experience.  Or maybe instead, as a privileged, educated person in a first world country not living in poverty, I'm supposed to say that as long as my heart is the right place, I can do whatever I want because it's all "universal".

What I actually will say is something slightly different.  This subject is both simpler and more complicated than it seems.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Modern Herbalist - Yerbero Moderno Celia Cruz

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to share a song that I really like from Celia Cruz about a modern herbalist.  (sigh).  RIP Celia.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

To initiate or not to initaite; this is the question

Hi everyone.

I thought it might be a good idea to talk about something which is very topical and controversial among self-identified witches--namely the idea of initiation.  Just before I give my opinion, I should say very clearly that I am not initiated in any coven, group, spiritual house or religion.

There are few issues in the wider Pagan/Witch community that are more controversial.  

My personal answer, which I will explain, is that the answer to the question depends on what you want and who you are.

If what you want is to practice as a member of the priesthood in an initiatory religion or be a part of a group, then you do need to be initiated.   This should go without saying, but surprisingly it is very common for people to think that you can be part of the priesthood of an initiatory tradition such as Wicca, Lucumi/Santería, or Palo Mayombé without being initiated.  Or worse, people believe that their "self-initiations" bring them into the faith.  Saying you have self-initiated is like crashing a party and saying that you self-invited.  It's an oxymoron.

That being said, maybe you should ask yourself why you want to be initiated in the first place.

There are many potential advantages.  Initiations can introduce you to a wonderful, solid community that constitute a great source of strength, healing and support.  Obviously a community like this is forged by a give-and-take from members, so any group worth its salt will not just let anyone in.  It takes time, effort and a vetting process for a potential initiate to be accepted in the group and for the potential initiate him/herself to decide whether the group meets their needs.  This process can be a strong incentive for spiritual growth and therefore result in a higher level of self-mastery, and therefore power.  Those are all very good reasons to get initiated.

But let us not confuse the means with the end. 

You do not have to be an initiate to be a witch, for exampleAs I have said in previous posts, a witch is fundamentally a heretic.  Wicca is the first initiatory tradition that ever called its adepts "witches".  Most other initiatory traditions (not to mention mainstream religions) that had existed before often considered "witchcraft" to be negative magic which was not officially sanctioned.  Being a witch means that you regularly practice magic outside of the mainstream or official spiritual framework.   So assuming that you need to be initiated to be a witch is quite naive.  It also shows how contextual the designation "witch" is.  Someone might be considered a "witch" in one culture and not in another. 

Similarly, you do not have to be an initiate to be spiritual, to practice magic, to grow in personal power and understanding of the world or to self-improve.  All of these are frankly your rights as a human being.  Universals and self-knowledge are just that, regardless of what any group or religious hierarchy says. If doing or obtaining any or all of these is your goal, I think the question is to ask is what will help you do that?  If you're an extroverted, "people person" maybe a good group will encourage you to do that.  If you're someone who has an excellent record of self-teaching in other areas of life, maybe the solitary path is the way to go for you.  

Regardless of which path you choose, the only essential is to have a strong sense of self and be true to it.    By this I mean, have a sense of your identity as a human being, and believe you have limits that deserve respect.  Although Western society attaches negative connotations to the word, limits actually are what gives anything meaning.  A person who has no sense of self ironically is what justifies the common criticisms of both those who endeavor to be solitaries and those who endevor to join groups.   We've all heard stories of groups gone horribly wrong; everything from fake clergy offering expensive (and suspiciously short) initiations to groups perpetrating sexual and physical abuse on their potential initiates, or even ritual sacrifice (Kool-Aid anyone?).   On the other hand, we've heard of solitaries who seem to be as grounded as a cloud on a windy day....they change their underlying practice and philosophy more often than most of us change our underwear without ever achieving any self-actualization.   These are people who could have stood to know or remember that no spiritual fad nor enlightened group will ever make you more than who you are.  And that's how it should be.  

So in conclusion, my thoughts can be summarized as follows. Initiate if you want to be part of group.  Don't initiate if you don't.  Be who you are either way; the rest is window dressing. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Practical Magic: Cheap and subtle subsitutions for the poor or closeted witch

I've spoken before about simplifying one's practice and saving money and I decided to go further into this concept.
I'm going to give just a few  very simple, practical, low-cost solutions.  This is not meant to be an exhaustive list; it's just to give some ideas.  As I've said before, you (or I) are/am the only absolute essential in your/my practice.  All of the ritual tools, crystals, herbs can be a lot of fun and stimulate the senses, but none of them are truly necessary.  Witchcraft has its roots in resourcefulness...using what you have even when you don't have a lot.  It's not a bad idea to do a barebones practice for a while, just to remind oneself of that.

Huge altar with all the bells and whistles (literally)
Substitute: Candle, Glass of water, flower
Reason it works: 
The point of an altar is to have a visual representation of your craft, a place upon which to concentrate your focus and something to which to tend in order to keep your practice alive.  You can do all of this with just the few items above.  Furthermore, it is very discrete.  If you live with other people who you do not wish to know about your practice, this is the way to do it. No one has to know it is anything but a decoration.   Tools such as swords and wands can be replaced by one's finger.
Blessing oil for dressing candles, etc.
Substitute: Olive oil
Reason it works:
Olive oil, according to mythology, comes from the tree which won Athena the patronage of the city of Athens because its citizens judged it to be more useful than Poseidon's well. It has also been used in rites of the major Abrahamic religions as a blessing and healing oil.  This shouldn't be a surprise given the multiple demonstrated health benefits of olive oil which include lower cholesterol, improved coronary health, and possible prevention of certain types of cancer.  Olive oil, therefore, is just as good as any to be a blessing oil if more complicated solutions are not available or practical.

Store-bought preserved herbs for incense
Substitute:  Decorative herbs on meals and herbal teabags
Reason it works:
I remembered the year I realized that it was a shame to let the rosemary sprig on the Christmas turkey go to waste.  It had barely been touched by the sauce and would have otherwise been thrown away.  Why not wash it, save it, and use it for spell casting? Also, I find that herbal teabags tend to be less expensive than dried, preserved herbs.  If one does not have a huge budget for herbs, it's a good idea to use herbs that can be given multiple uses either because of their medical properties or their lore and symbolism.   Rosemary and Vervain are both good examples.  If you have an incense burner, you can simply place herbs on burning charcoal to make incense.
Ancient grimoire 
Substitute: Hebrew or Christian Bible, Quran
Reason it works: Some people do not like to use ancient grimoires at all, but others do and find them hard to come by and expensive when they do.  Well, if you like ancient grimoires and do not have a fortune to spend, than you have only to look at some of the most easily-accessible ancient spell books in the world: the Bible(s) and the Quran.  The Psalms, for example, have a very long tradition of magical use for purposes such as protection, healing, and court cases. 

Full ancestor's altar
Substitute: Picture of a departed relative, with an offering behind it
Reason it works: 
Similar to the simplified devotional altar above, it's very cheap and no one has to be the wiser.  The offering can be very simple; a glass of water or alcohol, something that represents them or that they enjoyed in life.

Decorations and full ceremonies for Holy Days
Substitute: Food
Reason it works:
Everyone likes food.  You can't put all kinds of candles around the house for the 1st of February? Burn one candle and make some kind of milk pastry for desert. If not, eat ice cream.  You can't hold a full moon ceremony without people looking at you weird? Say you've decided to try your hand at Asian cuisine and make mooncakes instead.  If you cook well and you share your food, no one will ask you why you made it. 

Ritual broom and some other ritual tools
Substitute:  Household broom (and other double-duty tools)
Reason it works:
...Because there's no reason it shouldn't.  Many people have the idea that having separate tools and clothing is required for one's magic to be effective.  While they may help you get into a different state of mind for ritual, it is by no means a requirement.  The whole reason many of these tools have magical symbolism is specifically due to their mundane usage, so why would mundane usage necessarily profane them?  If you cannot afford a broom from a broom squire, use your household broom.
Tarot Cards or other ready-made divination cards
Substitute: Playing cards
Reason it works:
As I've said before, cards work by your insight being triggered by images.  There are many images on playing cards that can be used to this effect, including the suits, the royal cards, and the numbers.  All of those can be significant.  Of course, one then has to go about figuring out those symbols for oneself, but this should be relatively easy if you come from a culture where those images are very common. 

 Statues of deities or animals
Substitute: Print-out, drawing with cardboard or photo paper as a support
Reason it works: 
If you cannot buy statues of your favorite mythological deities or saints, then either draw them or print them out from the Internet.  Once you have the physical representation, making a "stand" is fairly easy.  Just cut out two pieces of photo paper or card board and glue them to the back so as to make them stand up.  Or, make them wall photos.  This achieves the purpose of having statues; namely ensuring a physical representation of whatever or whomever you are trying to honor or manifest.

And if all else fails...words.  One's words are only limited by one's imagination, so use them to their full effect.

These are just a few ideas; if you have others, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Embracing mystery to have certainty

What attracted me to the label "atheist" to begin with was what I perceived as a certain level of intellectual honesty. On one hand, you had people who claimed to know very specific things about all kinds of invisible beings that they called Gods. People could tell you their personality traits, what foods they liked and what drinks they would reject, their favorite numbers, their superpowers and with whom they thought we should or should not sleep.   I admired the atheists' movement for saying, "How do you know any of this?" and for having the courage to admit that we have no known basis to believe in any of that.

My my, how things have changed.   Recently I have wondered if I should continue with the "atheist" label. Not because I feel that my outlook is no longer atheist. (And not because of the so-called Atheist+ controversy.) It's just that, to be honest, some attitudes among many self-proclaimed atheists and naturalists are starting to annoy me. I feel as if we are often guilty of the same dogmatism that we criticize in many versions of literal monotheistic or polytheistic faith, and often for the same reasons.

Many dogmatic monotheists who claim to take the Bible or Qur'an or other holy book reject phenomena such as evolution of life forms, for example. They do this because they do not want to deal with the emotional consequences of accepting a truth in the world that contradicts their established worldview. There is emotional attachment to the certainty of knowing what one knows, and the identity and social connections one forms around it which gives them an incentive to exclude information.

As it turns out, many so-called atheists or naturalists are the same way. I say this not because atheists and naturalists loudly defend science--science is a very good thing and has given much to humanity. However, science answers only three things to any question asked of it: yes, no, or I don't know. Whether magical practices can have an effect on the outside world fall into the third category, although many atheists would attribute it to the second. If someone casts a money spell, and they note no change in their finances, many atheists would smugly deride him or her for believing in irrational non-sense. If a change was noted, many atheists would chalk it up to coincidence. And if the person consistently has success in money spells, many atheists would either consider the person to be delusional or imply that the psychological effect trained the subject to make more sound financial decisions, hence increasing his or her revenue. Those are all good hypotheses, and they may be true. However, it doesn't change the fact that there is insufficient data to draw a definitive conclusion. I think that part of the reason many atheists decide not to leave it at that is because it produces emotional discomfort in a similar fashion that evolution does for some religious fundamentalists.

This world is more complicated than any of us have understood and possibly will ever understand.  For proof of that, we have only to look at ourselves. Most, if not all of us, are at some point troubled by our own inner worlds. We do not know why or how we feel certain emotions, which are often conflicting and contradictory. We have crises of conscience and identity. We either hesitate to act or leap into action, often against our conscious will. If consequences arise out of our behavior, we do our best to explain it to ourselves after the fact, all the while knowing that we still might repeat the same behavior that got us into trouble in the first place. Our scientific understanding of our own consciousness and memories is still  limited, despite the lifelong experience we all have with them and their undisputed interest. So is it really a surprise that comprehensive scientific explanations of dark matter, dark energy, abiogenesis and quantum mechanics continue to elude us? We still can't explain ourselves.

Some respond to this dilemma by claiming that we will certainly one day explain all of human experience through our existing scientific conceptual frameworks. Some deny the reality of any experience or belief that cannot explained (but not disproved) through existing scientific frameworks, and assume anyone claiming otherwise to be either delusional, ignorant or lying. They would justify this by claiming that many people have been proven to be just that while highlighting the dangers of sacrificing "rationality" for the emotional comfort of religion.

What is ironic about this stance is that it actually shows a lot of emotionality and subjectivity.  With such pending mysteries in areas which are so fundamental, it seems silly to not even be open to the possibility of even very fundamental ideas that we have about the universe being completely turned on their head in the future.  It is also seems risky to attempt to usurp "rationality" or "objectivity".    Whether we like it or not, none of us are completely objective.  We are all influenced and limited by a lifetime of subjective experiences.   

Some people would say that we should still strive to be as objective as possible in all circumstances.  But there's a tiny problem with that stance as well.  It's not tenable for any human being; it doesn't work. There's a reason why Descartes said "I think, therefore I am" to explain consciousness.  It may technically be a non-explanation, but it's a hell of a lot more satisfying than "No double-blind study shows that I think, so who knows if I am?".  My thoughts, my feelings, my experience are as real to me as anything else in the external world.  So I have to find a way to fit them into my conscious worldview.  An explanation of the world that completely excluded them would be pretty useless to me. 

So I think that the most tenable stance is to accept the truth---there is mystery out there, and subjectivity is a source of workable truth.  Objectivity doesn't assign a purpose to life? Well, I guess my subjectivity will have to make one.  But not in opposition to objectivity, even though it may seem that way.  It's simultaneously holding two ideas, even contradictory ideas, that leads to truth. It leads to mystery, which leads to certainty at the same time.

So are you a polytheist, an atheist, a pantheist, an agnostic or a monotheist? You could be them all at the same time.  That's how you understand the universe.  Just like a 3-dimensional object can look different from different angles or perspectives, the universe can be validly understood from different perspectives which are all valid and all limited at the same time. Realizing that it can validly be understood in many ways leads to greater understanding.  Not understanding makes you understand. 

You know, I think I'll keep the "atheist witchcraft" label.   It's contradictory, but it highlights that simultaneous contradiction can lead to truth.  And I'm cool with that.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Happy New Year and a prayer for the ancestors


Happy 2013 everyone!!!  May this year bring you as much peace, prosperity and knowledge as desirable.

Let me start the year out by sharing a prayer that I now say before my ancestral altar, before giving my offering.

Dear ancestors, known and unknown to me
From my closest blood relatives  (possible names) all the way to abiogenisis
To my intellectual idols, to my dearly departed animals

Thank you for giving me the gift of existence
Thank you for the examples of your lives

Thank you for the love shown by those of you who shared your life with mine
Please take this offering [incense, food, alcohol, flowers] as a symbol
of my devotion
May you enjoy it and find nourishment 

and may my memory of you live on

More to come soon.