Across the Genders

It’s been a while since I dug into the roots of a word. I think I’m overdue.

Gender

First, what does it mean?
As of 1300, the English language noun meant kind or sort or class. No implicit or explicit reference to biological or physiological nature of the thing referenced. Its root word, unsurprisingly, is the Old French gendre or genre (a hint* for those paying attention) which meant kind or species or character. And that Old French word in turn comes from the Latin stem genus meaning race or stock or family or kind or rank or order or species.

*Genre, straight from the Modern French, is now used as an entirely different word in English…but it still means kind or sort or class.

Wowzer. Look at that! Gender is a means of classifying things into groupings. Later, it added the specific grouping of “is it male or female”—much later (I call 200 years later, compared to life spans of 30-70 years…).

Before we ever get to bringing individuals in to our circles, bringing them between the worlds, we tend to cover the term “polarity” in discussing the theoretical underpinnings of what it is that we—those weird-ass Wicca—do. But, y’know, I don’t believe that theoretical underpinnings are what the Wicca had in mind when they wanted to prevent Hitler from invading and defeating Britain. Or five generations (see there, there’s that genera—plural of genus—again) before that, when witches wanted to keep the Little Corsican on the continental side of the channel, and sent an entire summer of uncoöperative winds for the purpose. Or another six generations before that, when the Armada of Spain was already in English waters when it succumbed to the Atlantic gales called up to protect the folk who preferred “Good Queen Bess” over her predecessor “Bloody Mary” (no swearing involved).

In other simple words, witches—the Wicca—do what is needed because it works. We teach and pass and spread our tradition across gender. And for the most part, that means woman to man to woman to man to woman to…

And…

Who are we to say that gender always and forever and only means biological sex? When it did not mean that, in our own language, in the first place. (Remember? two hundred years from sorting into groups, before it also mean sorted by “gender”?)

I don’t see a need to argue about it. I certainly don’t see a need to snipe at equally qualified and trained and experienced witches using apple-pie analogies, as if there were only ever one KIND (sort? class?? gender???) of apple pie. All too often, we elders can show ourselves human and imperfect in oh-so-many ways. Not least of which is telling each other that we have the sole truth when every one of us knows that no one has the sole truth—except as it relates to that particular entity.

Metals, Makers, and Magic

 

hematite-bubble

hematite iron ore

Iron. It’s the first metal that comes to mind for most folk. Hardly surprising—we humans developed iron smelting and tools contemporarily with the alphabetic writing that enabled the bulk of our earliest human histories, and consequently name that era of human proto-history the Iron Age—a macroscopic example of iron in human existence. There’s also the microscopic example of iron in human existence—blood chemistry. Iron and its affinity for oxygen form the foundation of animal life on our planet.

 

Lodestone, that natural variant of magnetite (a naturally occurring ore of iron) is innately magnetic; modern geologists believe lodestones, routinely unearthed close to the surface, to have been permanently magnetized by lightning. Lodestones are, by definition, magnets— drawing to themselves small iron objects, or clinging readily to large ones. It must be magic, this movement without aid…

lodestone-magnet

magnetite iron ore: lodestone

 

These days, it is well known that if you spin a magnet, you get electricity, and if you coil a wire running electric current, you get magnetism. The two are, in essence, dimensional aspects of the other. That’s modern knowledge. What first our ancestors knew, millennia ago, was that a lodestone indicated north, and thus gave guidance when neither sun nor stars provided any. Hence its name in Old English lode + stan = lodestone, the stone that guides the way, a parallel to lodestar, an ancient name for the pole star that guided seafarers. A most practical magic, this, the magic of iron and magnets and north…

 

BLADE

1992 hand-forged athamé with heavy leather sheath

Smith. Blacksmith, metal-worker, skilled crafter—each one a maker of ploughshares and swords, hasps and hinges. Early European tales feature smiths of myth and legend: Hæphestus of Attica and Vulcan of Ætna, Wayland of Albion  or Völund of Jutland, plying skills that created storied blades and magical armor and household wonders. Their work survives everywhere—

 

Rocam_durandal

replica Durandal in château wall

a medieval castle in France holds fast in its wall a sword reputed to be Wayland’s work that dates from Charlegmagne (7th century)—the sword Durandal (or a replica thereof).

 

 

 

1850sIronNails

square iron nails c. 1850

While still a teen, I recall picking out rusty old square nails doing garden work  (given that was northern California, I can be pretty sure they were 19th century, or late 18th). Ironmongery lasts; another magical quality…

 

Makers. The human ability to create, dream up, envision some thing…and then make that thing, create that object, that ability is magical. It is no wonder humans have long revered those of us who achieve those common miracles of making. Out of thin air!…and not all of those makers are human. Rooks and ravens, baboons and bonobos…for all I know, the cetaceæ. It’s all magic, this making.…

Magic. Somewhere in the Western “Enlightenment,” came a disdain for magic, a separation from those who worked the magic of science and observation and experiment, and those who worked the magic of tradition and tales and contagion. We of the twenty-first century struggle to bridge both magics…the whiles we discover the new magics of transisters and quanta and quarks, and feud about how we may weave the new magics into the old. So sad, that the “one true way”—which has never existed despite Abrahamic religious clams throughout the past 1500 years—prevents the simple magic of emotion, of community, of love, from being recognized by all those who prefer to make their own world, and make it better. Yet even Carl Sagan himself, that quintessential materialist, came to recognize the magic of the universe…

 

No one here gets out alive…

A very wise woman shared simple insights with me many years ago, on a day when it was widely reported in broadcast and print media that heart attack & heart disease were no longer the number one cause of death in the USA. She said, “That only rearranges the mortality statistics. Everyone dies of something.” Further along in that conversation, which ranged across probability theory, Mark Twain, and basic statistics, she gave me an example of just how one can make a true statement that gives a completely accurate single statistic which nonetheless implies a huge lie:

Very few people die over the age of 100.

Yep. Very few do. Very few live to the age of 100, either. But it’s a clear instance of the truth in Mark Twain’s famous quote:

There’s lies, damn lies, and statistics.

What brings all this up, you may ask? Simple—the intersection of two events: the recent celebration of Candlemas, one of the Traditional Wiccan fire festivals overseen by our Horned Lord of Death and Rebirth—January 31–February 2; and, the annual World Cancer Day on February 4 together with its media coverage on assorted outlets.*
*Compounded by the possibility that my companion animal and retired service dog Molly was reaching her virtual expiry date. More on that below.

About 45 years ago, I wrote a matched pair of epigrams:

Life is a death sentence.   Death is a life sentence.

Think about it. Everyone dies. Humans have the dubious honor of consciousness and foresight, so that they may know, and perhaps fear, what happens to them in the next moment or day or year or century. Thus, being alive is to have been sentenced to death from the outset. That’s the first sentence.

The second sentence? We live our lives with death. The death of others we do not know, the death of others we do know, and the death, eventually, of our own being.

Decisions, decisions…

About Molly. She’s a 14-year-old Bichon Frisé, my long-retired service dog, and sufferer of Cushing’s disease (people get it too, look it up if you care). And rather slowly, in the past four months, she has been reducing her activity and changing some habits and demanding more of me…and being less able to tolerate any absence of *me* from being the Molly-mommy. When she first had to retire as service dog (illness), she’d pine when I left her for a few days’ travel, but would begin eating after the first 24 hours or so. Last fall, when I spent a three-day visit with Craft family, she would not eat for my entire absence. Which meant she didn’t get her medication either, given it’s routinely dispensed atop her meals. Other behaviors stressed me (and I’m still recovering from a surgerythree months back) as well as her. I was preparing myself to decide that the kindest thing would to be to put her down (I travel out of state for a week mid-month)—because she is painful even asleep, by the yips and whimpers.

But.

When awake, Molly still enjoys her food, processes it appropriately, solicits tummy rubs from her occasional visitors, and spends a lot of time on our ever-shorter walks being noseblind while she “reads the bulletin boards” at every tree, telephone pole, lamppost, and rock garden along our way. Tail-wagging still happens a couple of times a day. And her personality is still pretty durn perky. Ouch.

Yesterday, a wonderful woman who loves her, too, has volunteered for the caretaking—whimpers and meds and pee pads and all—enabling me to attend the conference I was forced to miss a year ago. And today her vet says if doubling up on the current arthritis med doesn’t improve matters, Molly can have an actual pain scrip…and recommended fish oil (equal EPA & DHA) for her to improve the joints and maybe her mild dottiness…subtle stuff like forgetting how to unwind from those poles and trees on our ever-shorter walks.

So. My friends have been told that “the governor called, and Molly’s been reprieved.” And I slowly recover from the stress of believing that the only way out, this time, was final. No one here gets out alive, her nor me, but both of us have time together for a while yet.

Candlemas

Now that we Northern Hemisphere types have recovered from the mundane stresses of the winter solstice, and—one hopes—from any inconvenient infections encountered during the annual shop/spend/socialize season, we wander into the depths of January (named, appropriately enough, for Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, of transitions and doorways and portals).

The success of our efforts over the Yuletide season to turn the Wheel of the Year with our festivities—from Solstice through Hogmanay (Twelfth Night)  has proven itself, with the evidently later sunsets that now give us a good 20 minutes of additional daylight. Said daylight tends to expose the soggy, chilly, frigid conditions that go with northern temperate climates at this season. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is an actual affliction; however most humans find the shrunken solar exposure of life in the higher latitudes a challenge that reminds us all that depression is real.

From the perspective of the Wicca, the Candlemas sabbat is one that reminds us all of the benefits of light. During the dark days of January, preparing some or all of one’s ritual candles for the next turn of the Wheel is an activity suited to cheer. Historically, at this season fires were never allowed to extinguish, providing the heat needed to render fats, purify oils, make soap, and dip or mold candles. The stores of autumn’s harvest and Hallowmas’ culling of herd or hunted provided the ingredients for those oils and waxes, and another year’s supply of lighting materials could take advantage of the precious fuel needed to maintain life, and provide some light—so necessary when when the feeble sunlight wanes to a handful of hours out of every twenty-four.

When a flick of a switch provides us substitute sunlight, it’s easy to overlook the importance of Candlemas, that celebration during the depths of winter, or midwinter as the old term has it. Making one or a few special candles at this season to bless by His light and Her grace echoes tradition rooted in need and practicality. And doing something towards our practice cheers the spirit—in these long nights and short days when students and workers and homebodies still wake in the dark and see the light disappear before supper.

Any means of candle-making works. I prefer natural beeswax, both for its innate scent and because paraffin is a distillate of petroleum. Soy waxes are available, but some near universal percentage of soy grown today is genetically engineered, a practice I consider folly. And besides…bees are sacred to Queen Mab.

Brothers and Sisters of the Art

In the context of initiation, as one encounters for the first time the phrase, brothers and sisters of the Art, one experiences the sense of kinfolk, of being reunited with one’s people. The feeling warms one, and produces a sense of the larger connected tribe, often evoking that sense of coming home that many of us feel. And down the road, depending on the preferences of your elders, as well as your own, you may come to wish to participate in the larger family.

Certainly brothers and sisters of the Art are, indeed, a family, far-flung, widespread, and funky. Alas, they also act the same as does any other family. They support, they bitch, they hug, they gossip, they wound, they heal, they backstab, and sometimes, they reconcile.

They hold reunions for family…but limit the guest lists.

Some may create lines of communication specific to a particular part of the family—email lists or Facebook groups—for Gardnerians, or Alexandrians, or members of other traditions of British Traditional Wicca, or sub-groups of the same, for Johnsonites or Olwenites or Chthonoi or LI line or Kentucky line or Dogpatch line. It is likely that any given such list will exclude a sizable portion of the family you know to be Wicca.

The concept that any single guest list or elist or roster is both open to all of a particular British tradition of Witchcraft while being firmly closed to any not of the Wicca? Delusional.

To use a Potteresque term, anyone holding the belief that they are purebloods to the Nth degree…is like to to find a mudblood in every closet. Some less than more, some much more than not. Humans have been as like themselves as they continue to be.

Coven autonomy is an idea that we’re taught is true. Respect for coven autonomy, however, lasts only about as long as it takes any one of the Wicca to become infected with the fundamentalist* principle that there is only one true Wicca.

*Dictionaries will tell you that the very term “fundamentalist” is  a Christian concept.

and She said…

When She speaks, I wonder how it is that the hearts of the Wiccæ do not resound whene’er they step between the worlds….

Beneath the moon, an ye have need,
Call thy queen in secret mead,
Learn My casting, new and old,
Dance ye there our joy untold.

Hold ye fast thy beau ideal.
Let thy purpose ne’er dispel.
Past My portal, secret ways
Lead to youth and wine of days–
Joy and knowledge, freedom, peace,
Reunion after life’s surcease–
Cup and cauldron, life, rebirth;
Love, I bore the living earth.

Green the earth, and white the moon,
Deep the waters rise eftsoon,
Desire grows, enrapt thy heart.
Heed My call and know thy part:
Love and pleasure, beauty, strength,
Power, compassion, go thy length;
Mirth and reverence, honor bright,
Know ye rapture infinite.

Seeker yearning after Me,
Look thou only within thee:
Nought within; then, nought without,
For I am, all ways, all about.

The Wiccæ are the Wiccæ. Brothers and sisters of the Art Magical, of the Craft. In perfect love and perfect trust are we saluted at the very outset of our journey into Their mysteries, where we swear to Their service and the highest of ideals. Our gods, our Lady and our Lord, speak to us and through us at Their will.

Alas, some few of the Wiccæ do choose paths and actions that serve only to shrivel the spirit and serve none any good at all, not our gods, nor the mighty ones, nor any other of the Wiccæ, living or dead, to the ill repute of the Wiccæ among those persons who may yet seek and find and mayhap even come to serve our gods.

Take ye heed, O thou who wouldst fain learn all sorceries,
that thine every effort be not doomed to failure.

It is the great good fortune of the Wiccæ, by Their grace and the greatness of minds that we of the Wiccæ may share, that many others of the Wiccæ do choose to enrich the spirit. These true Children of the Goddess bring honor & humility, power & compassion, love & laughter, mirth & reverence, as She charges us, and thus do enlarge the numbers of Her hidden children, that the Craft may ever survive.

When She speaks, His power underscoring Her words throughout the magic circle that is now and always between the worlds, I wonder how it is that the heart of any of the Wiccæ does not resound with those words when next they step between the worlds of men and the dread lords of the outer spaces.

May this never again be needed.

So mote it be!

In the midst of life…

Once upon a time, I studied core shamanic practice, as a means of adding possible additional skills to my witchy toolkit. It happened that the place where I attended the course sessions was a lovely Pagan shop located in Roseburg, Oregon. And during that course, we partnered with another student several times in order to perform various exercises in shamanic journeying. It was towards the end of that course that I partnered with a lovely woman of my age and musical British accent in an exercise in soul retrieval.

The journey I took evaporated from my memory when it was no longer needed. Our exchange after the retrieval, however, remains vivid in my recall. When we roused and sat up, I sang her a familiar ditty I’d learned as a tot at my mother’s knee:

“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green;
When I am king, dilly dilly, you’ll be my queen.”
“Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?”
” ‘Twas my own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so!”

I sang the whole thing; she flooded with tears by the second “dilly dilly”, and I offered embrace, and shoulder, which she accepted while I completed the song. In our debriefing after the little cloudburst, she told me that her father had sung the first couplet to her when she was small (five or thereabouts). And she asked me what the rest of the words were, and I sang them again, and then we sung them together. Because she’d never known more than the first two lines, and the second couplet moved her, and completed some old unfinished emotional business for her. She thanked me profoundly…and that was the last time I saw her. I could not have told you her name, after several years, but I recall clearly her generous spirit, her loving aura, her sweetness of countenance, and the music of her speech.

I took away from that course a confidence in my own witchy skills, and a very precious memory of that connection between us.  And still I could not have told you her name.

Today I learned that the Umpqua Community College shooter took her life with his sociopathic actions. Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, whose static image flashed briefly on my TV screen less than 24 hours ago, giving me a nervous tummy and a search to try to confirm or deny my momentary quease. The Wild Hunt‘s Heather Greene has answered my uncertainty for me with her post of October 3, 2015 and its photo that connects her spirit to her image…

Another addition to my western altar of beloved dead.
Another unspeakable insanity bred of our hate-filled airwaves and fear-filled fundamentalists.
Another instance of rage against the system (the “establishment,” the “powers that be,”…)

The purpose of the system is to perpetuate the system. 

I wrote that in my collection of insights during my sophomore year of high school. It seems self-explanatory, but I will explain. I was frustrated (as are all children of any intelligence subjected to the drone of lock-step schooling) by the means and methods and mundanities of public high school. (I’d attended private school through fourth grade, and spent the next few years learning to keep my head down in public ones). I don’t remember the immediate cause of my anger and frustration, merely that whatever it was, the rules and regimens seemed absolutely contradictory to the stated purpose of high school, or any school, to provide its students with an education. And then, hey, presto!, I had my insight, and realized that nothing about the public high school system was truly about education, it was about maintaining its own continuity. Even a system has a survival instinct!

If I seem, in this post, to have turned a very dramatic corner, no, I haven’t. The Umpqua Community College attack reminds me all too forcibly of the Kip Kinkel murders, that 15-year-old spree killer who, a year before Columbine, murdered his parents, then went to the school that expelled him (Thurston High, Springfield, Oregon) and shot 27 people, two of whom died. My mother went to church with a psychiatrist who had treated the boy, and who had attempted to give his parents appropriate warning…

“In the midst of life, we are in death.”
translated from the Latin original, by Anonymous, ~750 CE, France
“No one here gets out alive.”
lyrics from the song “Five to One” by The Doors, 1969 CE
“Life is a death sentence.  Death is a life sentence.
paired epigrams by Deborah Snavely, ~1972

No one at all is “safe.” The price of life is death, whether you’re a single-celled organism, a giant blue star,  or the complex and multifarious hierarchy of ecosystems that make up a single mammal. It so happens I believe there is more, much more. That is not why I’m a witch, it’s one of the simple facts that tie into my practice. In a universe where every physical thing (matter) transforms into other physical or energetic things, and energy similarly transforms into matter, the spirit (or soul or mind or consciousness) that is each and every one of those things including humans and cats and redwoods and cacti does not simply dissolve into vacuum when the associated organism with which it is linked, or imbued, begins the transformation from what we call life to what we call death…

So, Kim, wherever your soul now rests and recovers from the shock of sudden death,
I sing you one last chorus…

“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green;
When I am king, dilly dilly, you’ll be my queen.”
“Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?”
” ‘Twas my own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so!”

I ask of my deities, that you be aided in your crossing by the Hornéd Lord of Death & Rebirth, and in His care, that of the Comforter, the Consoler, may you rest in the Summerlands until, by the grace of the Great Mother, you are born again into a new body. And may that be at the same time and same place as your loved ones, and may you meet, and know, and remember, and love them again…