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Journal archives: August

March 16, 2005

a magical link

What makes an object 'magical'? This is something I've been reflecting on for some time since reading a thread on some magical bbs or other, on 'charging' objects in order to make them 'magical'.

Not long ago I was reading an ethnologist's account of documenting folk magic traditions in India. Looking into a man's hut, he saw a stone on which was painted an intricate diagram. He asked if he could photograph it. The man declined, and the researcher asked if the stone could be taken outside so he could photograph it. The man complied, and the researcher comments that he felt, once the stone was outside its 'sacred setting' that he shouldn't have asked it to be removed as he was 'disturbing' it. To his surprise, the man said he could always get another stone to replace it. The researcher comments that he expected that particular stone to be 'magical', when it was the context in which it was situated which was more significant.

I have on one of my altars at home a few inches of pink ribbon. Perfectly ordinary in its outward appearence. Yet for me, its 'magical'. How so? Last year I attended a 'wounded warrior' workshop at Queer Pagan Camp. What started out as a discussion of what the notion of wounded warrior/healer meant, suddenly shifted into those present sharing their stories of pain/wounding - it was a tremendous experience of mutual unburdening and sharing - particularly as for some people (myself included) 'coping' on a day-to-day basis means keeping all that raw hurt in check. At the 'end', one of the people present brought out this winding of pink ribbon (it was actually the ribbon used to 'open' Brighton's Pride celebrations) and we cut it into strips and wound it around each other's wrists. A simple gesture of connection, of solidarity. Someone joked we'd look like we'd all joined a cult. Whenever I need to remind myself, I can touch it. Sometimes just a glance in passing is enough. And I don't believe the ribbon is a 'container' for energy either. I don't 'need' it to be present for the connection to be made. Writing this now, I can feel tears pricking at the corners of my eyes, and I'm starting to shake...

So here's an object which has personal significance and meaning for me, both in terms of a shared historical experience with others, personal history, and a sense of commitment to dealing with all the stuff around it - so it's in one sense a 'marker' in an unfolding process. Of course, the fact that it's a pink ribbon means that it also has numerous wider significances. Its these layers of emotional, historical and cultural nuances that classifying an object as purely "inanimate" misses entirely.

March 08, 2005

The Peacock's dance

Not long ago I was drawn into a contremps with another occultist on a discussion board over a particular subject. Gradually, as we both posted arguments, it emerged that although we were using the same term that we each had totally different meanings in mind, and it was not until we'd recognised this that we were able to move onto some degree of common resolution on the matter. It reminded me of a pub conversation some years back. I spent a couple of hours extolling the virtues of "The Magus" with a punter over the counter of the bar I was working in. Since we were both speaking in generalities, it was some time before I discovered that he was referring to John Fowles novel "The Magus" and I was talking about the grimoire by Francis Barrett of the same name.

A commonly-held trope about occultism is that it is 'scientific' in the same way that physics or biology or engineering is 'scientific', and a consequence of that is the tendency to assume that when one writes about a specific occult term - be it egregore, aeon or chakra, that anyone who encounters the term is going to understand it in the same way that the writer does. In my experience at least, that's usually not the case. Scientists go to great lengths to define precisely their terms of reference. Occultists tend not to. Yet there is the common assumption that a term, when it appears, has the same meaning for everyone. Worse yet, to my mind, there's a tendency to reduce words to a single meaning. This becomes particularly apparent when words are lifted from other languages, and placed in a different context.

Take the Sanskrit term "chakra" for instance. I did a quick Google search for the meaning of this term and found it being defined as "wheel", "disk", "circle", "vortex", "spinning wheel of energy", "whirling vortices of light" - and most of the pages I looked at then went on to describe in various ways, the familiar 6-7-chakra system. Now if one thinks about chakras purely in terms of the popular idea of seven force centers in the body, then understanding the meaning of the term as "spinning wheel of energy" makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, chakra, like many other Sanskrit words, has a wide variety of meanings. For instance, 'chakra' can denote a cycle of time, a period of duration (hence kalachakra - wheel of time); it can also refer to a grouping of practitioners (as implied in the term chakrapuja) or divinities. Further, if we begin to probe actual Indian texts, we find that in for example "The Yogini Hridaya", a text belonging to the Sri Vidya lineage, the term chakra is used in such a manner as to imply that it is synonymous with the term Yantra. In the Puranas, 'chakra' is sometimes used to refer to the disc-weapon carried by Vishnu. In Indian Sidereal astrology, 'chakra' can refer to a zodiacal cycle. In the Mahabharata, one finds references to the Chakravyuha (circular array of forces) - actually a military term denoting a particular defensive arrangement of troops. Still further, we sometimes encounter the term chakravartin a metaphor for the Sun (vartin can be tranlated as 'ruler') and I have even encountered it being used to to describe the tail of a peacock.

How is all this useful? We learn about words by grasping the context in which they are used. So to follow through with the example of chakra, based on its various usages as noted above I would say that the translation of Chakra as 'circle' (with the implication that it refers to a circle of 'something') is more accurate than just saying it means a "spinning wheel of energy". Aha, but "spinning wheel of energy" sounds more 'scientific' doesn't it, whereas if, for example, I said that a chakra like is the tail of a peacock, I'd be in the realm of the poetic, which is a lot more fuzzy. Curiously enough though, if you read pre-twentieth century tantrik texts you won't find any references to "spinning wheels of energy", but you will find references to the various deities who reside within the chakras mounted on peacocks (such as Lakshmi, Skanda or Sarasvati) or like Kamadhenu (the 'wish-fulfilling cow') having a peacock's tail, and the Tamil Siddhar poet Ramalingar describes his meditation experience as follows:

"Up in the sky
I saw the peacock's dance
The peacock became a cuckoo, sister.
The peacock became a cuckoo."