The Witch Within

I have been thinking a lot about my Witchy/Wiccan roots. As I have felt increasingly connected to my spiritual life again, I decided to perform a re-dedication ceremony as part of my Beltane ritual this year. I performed my first self-initiation ceremony at Imbolc  over 21 years ago and for years after I would rededicate every year at that time. I would rise just before dawn and go to woodland near my childhood home. I had a special place with a big old tree stump as my altar; it was always such a magical experience offering up my commitment to the elements, the spirits of place and my deities as the dawn chorus broke and the sun rose.

My initial self-initiation is still so vivid in my memory. After months of research and honouring the festivals, I had planned to go at sunrise to another special place of mine in a forest on the South Downs but that night I was restless with excitement and anticipation, and as I lay awake in the early hours, I got the strongest sense that I should do the ceremony in my garden.

At that time, I lived in a house-share with friends in a wonderful house that I loved. The area, although at the edge of a city, was surrounded by mature trees and was a fabulous place for wild-life. Our garden was like a little woodland grove (foxes would doze on the lawn in the middle of the day!)  and it turned out to be the perfect place to dedicate myself to my Wiccan path.

The night was the coldest of that year, minus six with a stunning star-filled sky. Standing in the dark shadow of the trees, a circle of sky above my head, as I cast circle, called in the quarters and the Goddess and God, the blackness beneath those trees seem to be filled with a watching presence that made my heart beat hard and fast. As I spoke those words, it genuinely felt as if  I was being listened to, and at the point in my ritual where I asked  the forces of nature and the Divine to accept my dedication, I gazed up and saw an enormous shooting star. It was such a perfect moment of synchronicity.

It had taken several years to get to that moment. I had first started to be drawn to Witchcraft in the late 80’s. Unlike today, sources to learn about this path were few and covens even fewer. I met a woman in the early 90’s who had been a coven witch in London and we became friends. She lent me books on the Western Mystery Tradition and we had some fantastic conversations which led me to tentatively explore. I had read books by the Farrars and knew there was something at the heart of it that called me, but the traditional forms of Wicca felt too formal for me. It wasn’t until the mid-90’s when at University I took a module on Goddess Spirituality – and with the publication of books like Rae Beth’s Hedgewitch, Scott Cunningham’s solitary Wicca series, Teresa Moorey’s fab little books and the discovery of StarHawk’s Spiral Dance – that I could begin to see a structure to this path that I could explore without having to find a group to work with.

This time saw a sudden inrush of new people to the path; this birth and rapid expansion of eclectic forms of Wicca and Witchcraft brought with it new resources and fresh inspiration. It was an exciting time. I joined the Pagan Federation, met others who I would celebrate ritual with for years after, and began to truly learn in earnest.

It is now fascinating to me to see how my path has developed and changed over time. The beauty of this spirituality is that it is free from dogma; you are required to really engage with your own experience, what this teaches you and where it leads you. Over the years I have witnessed others on the path try and enforce ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of practicing but this really is missing the point and seems to me a residue of some of the religious dogma of our Christian heritage. 21 years of practice has taught me that there is no ‘correct’ way; that the path evolves and changes as you do and that this is a strength to be celebrated.

When we are a newbie on the path, it is natural to look outside ourselves for examples of what our ‘witchiness’ is. But in time, I began to discovery who the witch within me was; I learnt exactly which practices strengthened my connection to nature, deity and self; I found the expressions of deity that spoke to me most strongly and I also gained the confidence to accept that these might well change over time; I learned that we will have moments of thrilling personal expansion but also the most fallow and stagnant phases where spiritual doubt and disconnection bring its own valuable lessons.

Committed long-term practice brings a confidence to discard or embrace as feels appropriate. I have rejected, questioned and adapted techniques and tools countless times along the way, discovering that the system really is just that, a method to help you connect. The real deal is the connection itself, and if what you practice isn’t getting you to that place, change it! Experiment and enjoy that process because everything on your path is an opportunity to learn and grow.

My re-dedication this year has brought with it a sense of gratitude for all those years of learning and exploring. Whatever the next 21 years brings – if I am granted that time, gods willing – that star burning its path across the heavens that I witnessed on that special night will stay with me.

 

The Ancient Bone Mother and the Hunter of Souls

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It is the time of Samhain: summer’s end. Here in the Northern hemisphere the mellow light of late autumn is sharpened by a growing chill. As the darkness grows, through the increasingly bare branches we catch glimpses of breath-taking stars; Orion the Hunter heralds the changing season. We let go of warmth like trees shedding leaves. We watch the radiant reds and oranges turn brown. Drying leaves are nature’s parchment; the year has written its story upon them and now it lets them fall; their wisdom is layered into the mulch that will fuel countless cycles of life, death and rebirth. Toadstools feed on the damp forest floors; life grown out of decay. The frosts wither and Grandmother Winter breathes upon us her mist and fog. Her wildness lashes us in strong winds and stinging rain, and in floods her cold fingers find their way into our lives to remind us of her power to shake us down to our core. And yet her light is the gold of the low set sun and her clarity as vast as the blue skies of autumn. As life withdraws, we too draw inward to sit at winter’s hearth and watch the future played out in flame and silent thought.

As Pagans, this festival sees many of us honouring the Goddess as Ancient Crone of the Earth’s Release. As Mother of Shadows, her wisdom is deep as the black of a raven’s wing; as sharp as the crow’s call; as mysterious as the veil of mist that shimmers between this and the otherworld. She is the timeless serpent who sloughs to bring healing. We call to her as infinitely wise Grandmother, she who knows us better than we know ourselves. By her we are swallowed, down into the still darkness of winter, down into her Sacred Cauldron of Rebirth, where peaceful release, transformation and renewal await us. She is the Ancient Bone Mother. When life’s harsh lessons weather our spirits, her strength and endurance fill us. Rugged and timeless, her wildness inspire journeys into the remote and lonely places of our souls, for it is here that we find her, her face bright in the darkness –  a torch through the moonless night; her knowing humour our sacred song of dark wisdom and mother wit.

Many also honour the God as Shadowed Lord of the Dead and Hunter of Souls. As all nature surrenders to the tides of release and the dying light, we recognise that he guides us to that dark place in the forest, that place where we let go of all we are; where the Earth Mother’s body opens to enfold us. We become yet another layer beneath the many layers, feeding the saplings that will grow upon the graves of leaf-fallen lives. Those who do not know him well can fear his shadowed face but there is deep compassion and tenderness beneath the seeming harshness. With him and through him we journey the cycle of the seasons – at Samhain he teaches us to trust in his season of release. As Lord of Death he serves the Goddess and all life in bringing us the perfect peace of surrender that leads to the ultimate renewal of life.

Samhain is the festival when we honour the Crone’s dark cloak of death. It is the time when its impenetrable blackness seems only a translucent veil; when the boundary between this world and the next is slight. We honour those who have passed over: those whom we have known and loved in this life but also those spirits, guides and ancestors who watch over us and bless our lives. We offer our hand to these loving ones that they might join us in our celebrations if they so wish. We feel ourselves most strongly a part of the greater mystery of life at this time.

There is a lovely prayer – written by Judith Anderson- that we use during our own Samhain ritual. We light an ancestor candle whilst someone speaks it. I really love it because it is written in the voice of the ancestors:

Re-member us, you who are living

Restore us, renew us

Speak for our silence

Continue our work

Bless the breath of life

Sing of the hidden patterns

Weave the web of peace.

Another image of the Goddess as Crone that, for me, strongly resonates with this time of year is the Sheela na Gig. Whatever her original meaning, for me she has become the Lady of the Sacred Gateway: Holy Womb and Tomb. She is the Ancient Ancestress who tirelessly births us all and takes us back into her Cauldron Belly. She dwells in all the liminal places and times: dawn and dusk; the edge of ocean and shore; the point between wakefulness and sleep; conscious and subconscious; between life and death; between this and the otherworld. At this time when the veil between the living and dead is so thin, she help us to stand in this in-between place; to learn something of her awesome mysteries; to feel the presence of those we love and know that they still dwell just beyond our senses. With her legs spread in humour and defiance, with her mischievous grin, she shows us the joy of paradox. She has one foot in this world and one foot in the mysterious other, teaching us that when we hold death and life within us, no longer seeing them as opposites, something in us cracks open, the waters break and flow and a new way of being and seeing can be born. She reminds me most powerfully that the Crone is the midwife of souls.

Samhain is a truly magical time. May this season of release tenderly transform each of us, preparing us for our coming renewal; tending us in our grieving and healing. May its lessons of surrender bring rest, peace and wisdom, a renewed strength and joy.