There Is No Such Thing as a Free Resource

As some of you may know, I’ve made the decision recently to pull back from my TikTok and put more energy into other outlets for my knowledge and creativity. In particularly, I’ve been working on growing my Patreon. This has left some people understandably disappointed, as my TikTok is a source of free information. But I want you, dear reader, to know that there is no such thing as a free resource, and if the only material you are consuming as you research your path are materials that are ostensibly free to you, you should understand the trade-off.

First of all, I’m sure everyone has heard the social media adage — if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. This means that if you are consuming media “for free” on social media, you’re not the customer. Customers pay. If you are consuming media on social media, you are the product. The customers are the advertisers that keep social media sites in business by advertising to you while they collect your information to keep refining the ads they target at you. And, honestly, part of this is why I’ve pulled away from TikTok. Yes, I recognize that every social media platform is going to have this problem, unless they charge users to use it, which would obviously limit their audience. But TikTok in particular has some very troubling and mysterious algorithm elements that actively suppress necessary content in favor of pushing out seemingly light-hearted, “unpolitical” content. But all content is inherently political — “avoiding politics” is in itself a political statement. So if you get most of your content from social media sites, you are “paying” for it in bias. You aren’t getting the full picture.

Beyond social media, where content is in pre-digested chunks ready for the baby birds of our audience, there are books. And while I do not condone pirating in-print books by living authors, I do use public domain references quite often in my research. But there are two costs to public domain references, both of them somewhat related to time. It is important to remember that time is a form of cost — I spend my time searching for references and reading them (sometimes in facsimile format or even in other languages, where necessary and/or possible for me). But beyond that, public domain references are generally rather old and might be out-of-date, both in terms of information that has been updated recently and in terms of philosophical values. In fact, my next folk magic course lesson will be able to learning how to recognize problematic language and themes in older references. And it takes time (and mental/emotional energy) to both sift through that rhetoric and to even learn how to recognize it in the first place. So from now on, when I do that work, I’m going to prioritize it for my paid content, through Patreon.

Because of the inherent bias in all references, and the platform-specific biases for references on social media sites. So I urge you all to find other forms of reference for your practice. No, not everyone has the financial resources to build a library of texts, but putting in the work to seek out content creators who share their lived experiences with dogwhistles and then using that to vet public domain resources available will serve you better than letting an algorithm choose what witchcraft content is put in front of you.

And if you happen to be interested, you can find my Patreon here.

On Teaching

Hildegard von Bingen

Despite the fact that I started this space as a place to share what I’ve learned in my two decades as a pagan and magical practitioner, I have never considered myself a teacher. I am just a person who has had experiences in the craft that might be different from what you have experienced and telling you about them might help you come to new realizations about your own practice. But as this space has gone in directions I never anticipated, I’ve found myself increasingly asked to teach, to act as an authority.

And when my spiritual guides entered the mix, I knew it was only a matter of time before I found a way to teach in earnest.

I think I’ve found that way, and this Friday, I will be launching “Auntie Eobha’s Folk Magic Course” on my Patreon at the Apprentice tier. You can find more information here, but I thought I would talk a bit here about my teaching philosophy and how I see the teaching of magical craft.

It is no secret that I post most of my content to TikTok, where I have the largest following. And on TikTok, there are certain creators who have obviously made their pages educational spaces. They present information and post references in the comments and field questions from their audience. It’s very similar to a college class, especially a smaller lecture, where the professor has time to address most of the questions from the group, but the primary format is presenting information formally. But these videos are necessarily able to be viewed as one-off snippets of information, for the most part, because there is no telling what the TikTok algorithm will decide to push out widely and it would be counter-productive to expect casual scrollers to go back through a profile to find the context of a given video.

And, unfortunately, the information I have to present is a bit more nuanced and does, to some extent, require a cumulative amount of background information. I have practiced since adolescence and every twist and turn of my own personal journey is part of the development of my current craft. There is no shortcut. And in some cases, there are aspects of folk craft that I need to communicate before getting into the “fun” aspects, like spells and tools. Folk craft is context-heavy and nuanced and not at all suited to a platform where an external algorithm rule all. In fact, it’s not even suited to this space where a single post could be indexed and searched through a search engine without context.

And so I’ve chosen to go through Patreon, where I can have a smaller group of serious students who are interested enough in the topic that they will put in the work to learn the context before the exciting stuff. We’re not just going to learn about candles, herbs, and spells. We’re going to learn about context. The first module of my course is about the historical and cultural context of both magic and the sources we have about it. We’re going to learn how to read sources critically and how to talk about magical practice in a way that doesn’t alienate marginalized people. And, yes, we will also learn some fun stuff.

Cycles in Life and in Craft

There is a lot going around social media and Witchtok about how other people’s craft or practice might not look like yours and that’s okay. But I think it is also important to talk about how your craft might not always look the same from day to day. In addition to developing over the years, your craft may fluctuate in a cyclic faction, just like everything else does. Though I am no adherent to the Wiccan “Wheel of the Year,” I do recognize the inherent cyclic nature of our lives and how that can affect the craft.

In my practice, I am very seasonal. I recognize the seasonal landmarks — the cross-quarter days that were marked with fire festivals in the ancient worlds, the natural events that signified important events both physically and metaphysically, and the changes in weather that can affect the energies present in my practice. And recently, I was made aware of a very strong cyclic influence in my practice: I am a dark-half-of-the-year practitioner.

Now, Samhain and Bealltainn are the two festivals that influenced Wicca that I honor the most regularly, along with Brigid’s Day, because they are important in Scottish folk tradition. And Samhain/Bealltainn specifically mark a transition point. People talk about “the veil being thin” at Samhain, but forget that Bealltainn is the other side of that coin. Charms are made at both festivals and divination is performed traditionally. And for me, a lot of their importance comes from their places at opposite sides of the year — Samhain is where the world feels like it is cooling down and darkening, while Bealltainn is where the world is warming up and brightening.

And I am very much a lover of the cold and dark. My primary deity is a storm goddess who is associated with winter in much of folklore. She is also sometimes oversimplified in modern neopaganism as a “dark goddess” because of her association with aging, winter, and the cycles of life and death, though the Cailleach is more than just a dark or death goddess. But I definitely feel her influence much more strongly in the time following Samhain and then feel it wane as we approach Bealltainn.

Well, recently, I got a birth chart reading where the astrologer (a fantastic friend of mine, Joshua Maria Garcia) pointed out that my chart is very one-sided and that my yearly cyclic influences will show a strong sense of rootedness in the winter months with growing feelings of disconnection during the height of summer. And I think this is part of why I have felt slightly disconnected from my practice in recent weeks and months.

And that’s okay. Our practices will not be the same from year to year, month to month, or day to day. The idea of a “daily practice” doesn’t mean you have to get up and do the same thing every day. It’s more of a daily check in. So now my “daily practice” consists of passive things like wearing devotional jewelry and maybe lighting a candle or reading some folklore. But my real workings will start back up with the colder weather.

A Witch or a Spae-Wife?

My friend Ash made a thoroughly enlightening video on IGTV the other day in which he explained the difference among the different kinds of Scottish folk practitioners. It was a delightfully succinct-yet-informative video, and it reminded me that Gaelic is not the only language of Scotland because he made sure to give Scots names for practitioners as well. It echoed the sentiments behind this piece from Cailleach’s Herbarium, in which Scott reminds us that “witches” were and are something quite specific in Scottish folk practice and that the idea that any practitioner of magical craft is a “witch” is a relatively new idea.

But Ash’s exploration of the differences among wise or canny folk and other practitioners of magic has led me down a research rabbit hole as I grapple with my own personal craft. I’ve spoken before about how I’m not really a witch (blighting cattle and consorting with the De’il isn’t really my cup of tea), and I had settled on the term “wise woman” as a way to describe what I do — a little wort cunning and herb lore, a little charm work, a little spirit travel, and a little divination. But my research is bringing me to the conclusion that my practice might be more akin to that of a spae-wife (or spey-wife), the diviner and seer of Scottish folk practice.

Because whenever I think about the conversation around the word “witch” and how it doesn’t really describe my practice, I also need to think about what words I do like to use for my practice, and “spae-wife” was a new word to me, learned from Ash’s video. And I like new words.

The word comes from the Old Norse word “spa,” which means to prophesy or foretell the future and was adapted into the Scots language to describe a woman who specialized in fortune-telling magic, although some accounts of the spae-wife painted her as similar to a wise woman, with aspects of medicinal or healing arts at her disposal. She might have been consulted for folk remedies, charms, or to help women in childbirth. In particular, though, the spae-wife specialized in divination, whether by dreams, cards, bones or stones, omens, or the traditional frith ceremony. The role seems to have been more common in the Orkney Islands, and the name “spae-wife” as opposed to “taibhsear” indicated that this was primarily a lowland role for magical practitioners.

And I love this. As I move through my practice, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to divination, seership, and my connection to the spirit world. It doesn’t hurt that my patron deity is a psychopomp of sorts, bridging the physical world and the world of the ancestors. So I am sampling this word, rolling it around in my mouth and brain and seeing if this might be a good word for my practice.

Part of coming into my own as a practitioner has been accepting that I am meant to share my craft with others. And part of that has been clearly revealed to me by doing a bit of a soft-opening of my divination services to my closer friends on social media. But this piece is also an announcement of sorts that I do offer divination services. I primarily use cards right now. I’m not really a medium, in that I cannot consistently and consciously channel spirits, though I get messages now and then, but I enjoy performing divination and passing messages along to those who seek them. If you are interested in a card reading, you can see more information on my Divination page. And hopefully, I can try to figure out how to offer remote readings of other kinds soon.

For now, I’ll remain an obscure online spae-wife, casting my stones and reading my cards, and waiting. Beannachd leat!

What is a Pagan?

This is an argument I’ve been following and I thought I would wade in because I have a different perspective. As a former classics student, my starting point with this question would not be to consult Google or a dictionary, but instead my Wheelock’s Latin textbook, where the word “paganus” is described as “a countryman, peasant.” It is also used as an adjective to mean someone that is from the country.

And this is where the word “pagan” comes from. But what did it actually mean? Like any language, words have connotations as well as denotations, and the connotation of “paganus” was more akin to “bumpkin” than simply “someone who happens to live outside the city.” Pagani were differentiated from the urban elites who considered themselves more intelligent, more educated, more cultured, and more worthy, and therefore when urban Romans referred to a “paganus,” it was not a complimentary word. And when they used the word to refer to religious worship, they likely referred to specific deities or epithets that were honored more by the country folk than by those in the cities, or specific practices and rites that differed from the “proper” urban practice.

So saying that “pagans” are defined by a nature-based religion isn’t exactly correct because by most modern definitions, they were all pagans before the 4th century CE. Of course, when Emperor Constantine began the process of legitimizing Christianity and pulling it into mainstream Roman society, and later Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire, “pagan” would refer to anyone who wasn’t Christian, which was mostly outlying rural areas and those areas newly conquered by Rome. It more akin to the difference between Episcopalians and Baptists than Christians and polytheists.

But this word “paganus” didn’t refer to Jews, not because the Roman Christians felt any kinship with the Jews — in fact, most of Constantine’s contribution to the early Christian church was to explicitly separate it from Jewish tradition. It was simply that Judaism predates the founding of Rome by a thousand years (at least) and therefore was just considered separate from the issues related to Romans. Jews weren’t considered Romans, so it didn’t make sense to divide them into urban or pagan. And, of course, the word “paganus” didn’t include Muslims because they wouldn’t exist for another couple hundred years after the adoption of Christianity as the official Roman religion. So the distinction of “pagan” as “non-Abrahamic” is meaningless in the context of the original word, since there was no such thing (and really, still isn’t) a concept of unified “Abrahamic” religions. There were the ruling Christians and the peasant or conquered Christians.

Then, there is the fact that using the word “pagan,” which derives from an empire that primarily focused its rule on modern-day Europe, western Asia, and a little bit of northern Africa does not take into account a large swath of the earth’s population. The word “paganus” didn’t refer to Hindus, Buddhists, or Taoists, despite the fact that they absolutely existed at the same time as the Roman Empire because they were never conquered by the Romans, and so were not part of the dichotomy of ruling urban elites vs. country bumpkins. It didn’t include a large portion of traditional African religions, and it certainly wouldn’t include any of the practices of what we now call the Americas. So why do we cling to a naming convention that is defined in relation to an empire that fell over a thousand years before the modern pagan revival?

Well, a lot of that has to do with the European Enlightenment era idolization of classical Rome, and by extension classical Greece. Because they grew disillusioned with medieval Church domination of knowledge and philosophy, they sought to return to pre-Christian traditions, and of course looked to ancient Rome and Greece for philosophical guidance. And in their minds, reclaiming the word “pagan” further separated them from medieval Christianity, which had stuck to its Roman roots by using the word “pagan” pejoratively to refer to any non-Christian.

So where does that leave us with the word today? Dictionaries will say that “pagan” is anyone who holds beliefs “outside those of the main world religions,” which is a laughably broad definition, since there is no indication what constitutes a “major” world religion. Many define it as Abrahamic religions, which is both a false conflation of three religions that have historically been at odds, as well as inappropriate on a strictly statistical level, since there are more Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs than Jews in the world. Plus, there are many religions with non-European origins that would be frankly offended to be called “pagan.”

Here is my suggestion: a pagan is someone who identifies as a pagan.

I see no reason to insist upon labeling someone else’s religion in a way that is contrary to how they label themselves. If someone wants to call themselves an animist, but not a pagan, that is their business. And, after all, this was originally used as a pejorative, and reclamation of a pejorative should be up to the population reclaiming it. We don’t insist women appreciate being called bimbos simply because some women have reclaimed the word. And we should not insist on calling others pagans who haven’t claimed that word for themselves.

And if you meet someone who seems to have the exact same worship as you, but doesn’t want to be called a pagan when you do? That isn’t your problem, or theirs. In fact, it isn’t a problem. Their identification has nothing to do with you. So, while it may differ from the dictionary and many “official” sources, there is my definition of a pagn.

But am I a pagan? I call myself that, as it suits me. I call myself witch as it suits me. I call myself animist as it suits me. Honestly, in my personal belief system, spirituality is something personal, a relationship between myself and the powers I believe in and honor. I hope that satisfies you, but if it doesn’t, I don’t know what to tell you.

The Kinship of Magic and Herbalism

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One of the earliest written accounts of the use of herbs in European history is the Physica of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun, mystic, and scholar of natural science from Germany. From her writings, it is clear that herbal healing and knowledge of natural remedies was intimately linked to concepts of magic and spirituality. From the introduction of her chapter on plant lore, she says that different plants have the ability to not only affect the physical body, but the spiritual one as well.

From there, we can look at Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician (later retitled The Complete Herbal) and see how, in his descriptions of plants and their preparation and use, he takes into account not only the physical properties of each plant, but the metaphysical. He discusses the astrological correspondences of plants alongside the physical effects in the body.

This is why I am so insistent upon studying the history of my paths. While in the modern day, herbalism has take steps to become “more scientific” in an attempt to gain legitimacy among the world of “modern” medicine, the fact remains that the earliest roots of herbalism are entwined with the roots of magic, witchcraft, and metaphysical study.

And so much of medicine and healing, in any tradition, is intuitive and undefined. When I was being treated for migraine headaches, the doctor told me that there is not as much science behind treating migraines because it’s not entirely known what treatments will work for which people. He started me out with a medication that I knew worked for my mother because those sympathies often exist, but it was a guess. In the same way, how often have you heard a story of a medical issue where the doctor “had a feeling” they should try something, despite not seeing clear signs outwardly in tests?

In the same way, herbalism embraces this vagueness and uncertainty. The herbalist strives to treat the whole person. In a similar way, my experience with acupuncture showed me the benefit of treating the whole person, not just the specific complaint. I had gone to the acupuncturist for help conceiving, but found that the most fruitful sessions we had were those in which he treated my past grief. Medical science is only recently catching up to the ways in which the body is interconnected and seemingly distinct issues are part of a whole.

So in the same way that modern medicine grew out of the herbalism that was intimately interconnected with folk magic, we are still learning and expanding that story in ways that we don’t yet understand. We know these connections are there, but we don’t know exactly what they are. They are like the explanations for the cycles of eclipses or the changing of the seasons before we had observed them through space exploration. The human body will always be that which is most familiar and yet often most foreign to us. And what else is that which we know exists but don’t yet understand but magic?

Thoughts on The Triple Goddess

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When I first discovered paganism and witchcraft, like many children in the ’90s, I first found Wicca. There, I learned of the divine feminine and the Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, which represented the three phases of a woman’s life. Since then, I’ve experienced living as a woman, for nearly forty years, and I realize that this framework is needlessly reductive.

Wicca grew out of the neopagan revival of the 19th century, and with that, Victorian-era gender politics bled in. It was in the mid-19th century that “The Angel in the House” was published and popularized the ideal of the woman as ruler of the domestic sphere. The Triple Goddess, while created in an attempt to subvert patriarchal Christian Trinity, actually reinforces the idea that women are defined by their relationship to their reproductive system.

As I grew up and grew older, I realized there was more to it than that. It was many years before I decided I even wanted to have children, so I spent over a decade in a liminal space where I was neither Maiden, nor ever likely (in my mind) to become the Mother. What is a woman in between?

Since then, I’ve turned to more folkloric-driven paganism and witchcraft and have found that the neopagan idea of the Triple Goddess is new indeed. There are three-part or three-fold deities in folklore, but they rarely follow the archetypes of Maiden-Mother-Crone. One that comes to mind readily is Hekate, who is a goddess of liminal spaces and crossroads, symbolized by a three-faced form, with a face to watch each of the roads at a three-way crossroads.

In Celtic folklore, the Morrigan is often used as the example of a “triple goddess,” because she is often described as a composite goddess, made up of three sisters. But this might have less to do with an inherent three-fold nature and more to do with the fact that “Mor Rigan” is a title, not a name, and the various deities that are considered “part of the Morrigan” are simply those who have held this title, similarly to how the Cailleach is often considered a title that has been variously associated with different deities.

Brigid is another who has been considered to fit the mold of Triple Goddess, with various aspects of Brigid associated with various things that she is supposed to rule. But those aspects don’t follow the Maiden-Mother-Crone model of the neopagan Triple Goddess. Instead, they give a picture of Brigid as a well-rounded deity of many interests — poetry, smithing, midwifery — rather than reducing her to her biological functions.

And that is the trouble with the neopagan Triple Goddess: it is exclusionary and reductive. It not only reduces women to their biological functioning, but it excludes those women who don’t necessarily have those functions inherent in their bodies. Trans women, nonbinary people who wish to interact with their goddess nature, women who don’t have a reproductive system at all. And women who don’t find fulfillment in the Victorian ideal of womanhood.

But Trinity is something that exists cross-culturally. Not all trinity is the Holy Trinity of Son, Father, and Spirit (which the neopagan trinity mirrors). In many cultures, there is an idea of the trinity being male, female, and neutral. In many cultures, the first three colors named are black, white, and red, usually representing dark, light, and blood, or birth, death, and life.

So in that vein, I like to think of trinity as the necessary result of trying to define a binary. Two points define a line, but in between is the line. And so, rather than trying to explicitly define three points or three phases, that trinity becomes the two points and the infinite possibility in between.

In my own practice, this comes up primarily in my own form of candle magic. I generally use three colors of candles: white (or raw beeswax), black, and red. While there are rough correspondences to the three main deities I honor currently, these are also colors that, to me, can represent any goal I might have in my magic or prayer. White for healing and nurture, red for action, black for internal work. These do not have to correspond to any particular phase of my life. And they go beyond the Maiden-Mother-Crone framework.

If you identify with the neopagan Triple Goddess, that is wonderful. But if you’ve ever felt like there was some disconnect, I encourage you to explore the idea of trinity outside of the rigidly defined rules of neopaganism. Because, honestly, trinity is simply the recognition of a world outside the binary.