Embarrassment and the urban panopticon

It’s hard to be your witchy self when you’re always being watched.

I live deep in the suburbs, and while I appreciate the convenience of having useful amenities within walking distance, I can never truly relax surrounded by so many people. I struggle to commit fully to trances as even in my own home I could be and have been interrupted.

Some time ago, when walking home late one night I paused to enjoy the quiet and warm darkness.
I sat on the pavement with my back resting on a fence, legs tucked up and out of the way. The street was empty. Walking around the suburbs, I rarely see another human soul outside cars.
A man passing by stopped and asked if I was ok. I said I was fine but declined from further justifying my behavior; thinking him to be a responsible, concerned citizen. I did not wish to either lie or engage in a lengthy explanation.
In the moment that followed I realized it wasn’t compassion for my welfare that stopped him, but scorn. I was breaking a social norm; a cause for moral outrage.
‘It’s very weird. Sitting there in the dark. Very weird.’ I was at a loss for words at his tone and just dumbly agreed with a ‘Yep. Sure is.’
When I refused to engage further, he left in a huff. I wondered if he’d call the police.
It was a tiny microcosmic reflection of how much pushback I receive from society for merely existing. Much of the time I just wish to be invisible, but being an outsider removes my right to privacy and autonomy in the minds of many. The social panopticon of the suburbs leaves me feeling watched, scrutinised and judged. In the city I can sometimes disappear in a crowd, but suburbs are stark, territorial and judgemental; not a hive of blinkered workers but a landscape of tiny anxious kingdoms.

More recently pokemon go motivated me to walk to a place I was only fleetingly familiar with. An old racetrack converted to a park, with a man-made lake and vast lawns. It’s a friendly and engaging spot, raucous with birds. As I walked my thoughts turned to community, my own poverty and the private ownership of land.
Coming up a gentle hill on the return trip, I received a view of the shops I often visit from a different angle-how perspective changes things.

I paused looking at the remains of a dead tree; pondering how much science fiction idealistically divorces man from nature. An extension of the lie of endless, perfect suburbs. The total eradication of the wild, the untamed, in favour of wholly servile machines. Manufactured food and fake wood. It’s deeply troubling and unrealistic. I’ve never seen a farm on Star Trek.

Approaching the tree carefully, I touched it, gentle and loving. It was very tall, straight and old. I listened. It spoke. Dropping into a light trance I saw it was a native hardwood, uppermost branches kissed by the sun and whispering like ocean waves in the wind. It mourned the red-blooded creatures who had sheltered in its branches, who had died when it had been cut down.

The sound of a rustling plastic bag rudely snapped me back. A person had just passed me by, carrying their groceries home.
What they would have seen in me is a strange-looking person hugging a telephone pole.
It took a few minutes of self-talk to convince myself that even if they did see me (it was dark and I was wearing all black) that it doesn’t matter. I should not be embarrassed and ashamed. I have a right to exist, no matter how odd. The dangers of oppression are real but the walls are imaginary.

Nonetheless, snapping out of a trance state involuntarily leaves me jittery, disorientated and even woozy. The feeling that had caused me to shy away from trance work after one too many interruptions.
Like most people with PTSD I have a heightened startle response. The conversation with the tree was over, abrupt and jarring, like the lives of the creatures who had once sheltered in its embrace.

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Sailing on Melbourne’s tall ship, Enterprize

The sea is a pivotal part of my paganism, so on the 10th of April I took a short voyage with some friends aboard the Enterprize from near my old home town on the Mornington Penninsula to the Docklands, to celebrate my birthday from a few weeks prior.

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The bow of the new Enterprize.

The original Enterprize was a timber two-masted, topsail schooner built in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1830. It was a coastal transport vessel and was used largely for coal, supplies and occasionally livestock.

Although Europeans had sailed up the Yarra river in 1803 on a surveying trip as far as Dights falls in Abbotsford, they did not return to begin the settlement of Melbourne until August of 1835, when the Enterprize was hauled upriver and moored at the site of what is now Williams street.

The original Enterprize disappeared off the Hobart shipping register due to being wrecked on the Richmond River in NSW in 1847, with the loss of two lives.

The new replica Enterprize was launched in 1997, constructed partly from reclaimed materials using traditional boat building techniques.  With an overall length of 27 meters, the rigging is hemp rope and the sails are hand-sewn flax cloth. The bulwarks are Cyprus pine grown on the Royal Melbourne Golf Course and the floor timbers are Jarrah wood salvaged from Melbourne’s old station pier. Below the waterline the hull timber once made up the floor joists of an old Freemantle wool store and the ship’s ribs include wood salvaged from New Zealand brewing vats. The heritage of these recycled materials gives her the feeling of being close in spirit to the original and not just an empty simulacra.

She’d been giving short passenger rides on the afternoon of the trip, so we got to watch her coming in to dock on Mornington pier from a distance as we walked down from the red sandy cliffs above.

After giving a quick offering of some whiskey to the boat and the sea off the end of the pier (I wasn’t able to get rum on short notice) it was time to go.

After a brief flurry of activity hoisting the sails where myself and my companions scampered about either trying to keep out of the way or be useful in helping pull rigging, we were off with a calm but favorable wind.

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The main mast.

Crewed by personable, good-humored volunteers, it’s a quiet ship that hums gently with a diesel engine. The crew love her and she seems happy to soak up their affection-especially the magnificently crafted solid wood steering tiller which happily invites touch. Constructed as faithfully as possible to the original ship, the Enterprize is a real Melbourne icon.

It was a peaceful voyage with a minimal crew and only a small handful of passengers. Although the bay was calm with only small waves, I was still stumbling about like a vodka-filled toddler for most of the trip.

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Port side rigging and bulwark.

Being a traditionally rigged vessel, after spending the afternoon and evening aboard I felt covered in a light coating of tar. The skies were clear and we were gifted with a beautiful sunset, and then a view of the clear night sky with far more stars than I’m accustomed to seeing deep in the light-polluted suburbs where I live.
The sea was playful and friendly as she usually is towards me and I felt content to simply enjoy the experience, staring out across Port Phillip and along the coast in the distance.

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Sunset.

After sunset, pulling in towards the city, Hobson’s bay glittered with sleepy, golden Sunday evening lights as we approached, the sky smudged with smoke and steam.

Cruising up the Yarra back to her home in Victoria Harbour highlighted the contrast of a Melbourne young and old as we passed the new shipping control tower then the old one, abandoned since 1985.

The busy shipping lanes were quiet and largely deserted and dormant; solitary human figures moving about on shore looked out of place, like the peculiar figures in a Jeffrey Smart painting. A lone man jogging along the wharf,  a hooded figure hunched over at the edge of a floating 24-hour boat refueling station.
A huge European freight ship stood silent in the distance; the vast temporary car lots used for moving imported cars off ship lit but empty.

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The Brutalist underside of the Bolte bridge.

The harbor is a vast and awe-inspiring vista of industry, huge machines and ships that are peculiarly alienating in their immensity, dwarfing any human.

We passed serenely under the Westgate Bridge while the crew folded the sails, then under the festively glowing Bolte bridge, until we were back on dry land all too soon.

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Cruising along the Yarra river with the Bolte bridge in the foreground.

The Enterprize runs regular trips of varying lengths (and prices) making it accessible to a broad range of people. I highly recommend the experience to anyone with an interest in Melbourne’s heritage, sailing or the sea to give it a try. She’s a gentle ship, but the capricious sea has caused her deck to see plenty of digestive carnage from seasick passengers. Be sure to take some ginger first.

The Animist Apocalypse-Mad Max and the importance of environmentalism

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”

-The First History of Man,  Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015

In post-apocalyptic fiction, signs of an animistic culture are often plentiful in the set dressing; from skull motifs to more subtle expressions of sympathetic magic, to taboos which define when it is safe to travel through an area due to unseen natural forces that demand respect-lest one perish. In these worlds people live in a reality strangled of meaning; stripped of all but the most basic diversions and amusements, choice, and even hope.

Isaac Marion’s post-zombie apocalypse novel Warm Bodies illustrates an America in which people survive by sheltering in huge sports stadiums. Supplementing their diets with vitamin pills and barricaded against outside forces; scouting parties must invade dangerous territory-the former cradle of suburbia, in order to extract supplies.

A sharp cultural contrast to this is the nuclear wasteland of Dimitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series, in which the last vestiges of humanity eke out an existence in Moscow’s vast and sprawling underground rail network. The people of the tunnels farm pigs and mushrooms and must forever remain vigilant against the mutant creatures that constantly test their defenses; an outwards force pushing inwards. Meanwhile political conflicts tear apart the communities within.

Apocalyptic fiction presents fears for the future unique to the inhabitants of the culture it was born from, but it also has a unifying philosophical theme; what does it mean to be human, and what is the point of being alive? People do not simply fight to live another day; they struggle to nourish their souls with scraps of beauty, love and meaning.

In these inhospitable worlds, the rules for survival have changed; nature is no longer abstracted and the ability for people to adapt the environment has become limited-a dire predicament for anyone from a wealthy post-industrialized culture.

One of the things that makes this genre so appealing to me is that this lifestyle shift usually brings with it a return to an animistic worldview of unity with the natural world.

The recent Mad Max: Fury Road has some beautiful examples of a fictional post-apocalyptic animist culture.
It’s a film in which a band of eco-feminists fight the forces of war, patriarchy and greed  against a post nuclear-exchange desert landscape. Also car chases. And explosions.

Between explosions, we get a glimpse of the social order of the War Boys. They ritually scar their bodies with engine schematics, and their medical professionals are referred to as ‘organic mechanics’, displaying an inextricable unity with their vehicles. They have an oral tradition of storytelling in which dying a good death is of utmost importance, combined with a belief in reincarnation and the need to be deemed worthy-a worth  which is determined by their usefulness to their master. A film lush with symbolism, this blending of human and machine is of vital importance-the tyranny of Immortan Joe positions this as a method of control and objectification-as a means to strip away autonomy. People are things, and things are disposable.

The skull motif is ever-present; the skeletal form of Furiosa’s missing arm is painted on the side of the war rig, the sickly war boys are hairless and white, and the very symbol of Immortan Joe’s rule is a blending of the steering wheel and the skull. Skeletons are things, and things do not deserve respect.

FCC-MAD-MAX-FURY-ROAD-Furiosa

When Furiosa learns of the destruction of her childhood haven, she rips off her prosthetic arm and howls in despair. This completes her symbolic rejection of her service to Immortan Joe, which had stripped her of agency and personhood. But just as we are now unable to colonize other planets, there is nowhere left to go; the salt flats extend eternally like the inhospitable emptiness of space.

So our heroes turn back to the Citadel to take back the world. The symbolic relationship between Furiosa and her arm has changed; when she straps it back on, she is reclaiming a right to live in the world cooperatively, interfacing with it with respect, and as a part of her. She is no longer a resource to be exploited.
As Nux’s war paint wears off, we see him as an enslaved child, made terminally ill by the folly of dictators. Finally, he is able to find his better self in service of a great and sincere sacrifice.
It’s no coincidence the Keeper of the Seeds, member of the resilient and free Vulvalini, tried to save as many plant species as she could-not just crop varieties directly useful to humans.
‘Who killed the world?’ asks Angharad, and the answer is damning.

In these fictional scenarios animism flourishes because there can be no disconnection from the land; it is an actor itself and not merely acted upon. The stakes are always high; the natural world must be respected. So fraught with danger, the apocalyptic landscape represents a world that humans have made almost uninhabitable for themselves as they stare down extinction. Be it over wealth inequality, war, climate change or resource scarcity, fictional apocalypses are almost singularly the result of human hubris.

For me, a core part of my modern pagan animist beliefs is respect, cooperation and balance. The importance of respecting the natural world, as a part of us and not an outside resource should be self evident-if we muddy up our biosphere, everyone suffers. My animism is inherently environmentalistic, but everyone should be concerned with the plight of the natural world, regardless of their spiritual alignment. 

Mass-scale, global environmental exploitation needs to be curbed. Let’s hope we can make it happen before the advent of a nuclear wasteland.

 

Kuda Lumping; intense trance, dance, ritual and spirit possession

This is a review/chronicle of my experiences at Kuda Lumping at Supersense Festival, feat. Padepokan Gunung Ukir.

Note on the date:

This post relates to something that happened last year, but due to a catastrophic tech failure I lost all the accompanying photos; it’s been kicking around in my drafts ever since.

Kuda-Lumping

Photograph by Tim Mummery

On the 7th August 2015 I attended the Arts Centre’s Supersense, which promised to be a ‘festival of the ecstatic’. Being a creature of liminal spaces, this tagline instantly caught my attention; I was not disappointed.
Upon arrival, the audience were ushered into the Arts Centre through mysteriously lit service corridors; pathways were created by a bath of coloured light; violet, teal and ochre-leading to the different colour-coded performance areas. Just by entering the building via these ordinarily off-limits routes, the audience was already traversing a boundary away from mundane reality.

Taking the teal path, I wandered onto the main stage of the State Theatre; a rare treat to look out over the theatre’s seating from the perspective of the stage itself, and a metaphor for Kuda Lumping’s difference from the usual Western notion of a strict audience/performer divide.
Situated at one side of the stage, across from a rope circle loosely partitioning the audience from the performers, was a stage platform covered in various musical instruments and offerings, including many bananas and coconuts. When I entered, a number of musicians were seated there, performing traditional Javanese music, surrounded by the intricate and lavish wooden platform which included a scaffold decorated in gold dragons holding up huge hide drums.
After a time, the man who appeared to be the master of the ceremony, who I assumed was the Dukan, the mystic Pak Ki Iswand, came forward to the centre of the circle to light incense and invoke the spirits. Unfortunately English is my sole language, and I’m unfamiliar with Javanese culture, so my interpretation of what was happening before me is heavily influenced by my own experiences with ecstatic ritual.
With a fantastic sense of showmanship, he began reciting prayers, negotiating with the spirit world and inviting magic into the space.

Large white stage curtains lit with the festival’s s signature creative use of coloured lighting descended downwards to just above head height, creating a border around us, and with them I could feel the energy in the space being raised-I’m normally not very energy sensitive, but this was hard to ignore. The magical ceremonies I’ve participated in generally don’t invite spectators, nor allow people to come and go freely; here however, people were casually milling about, coming and going already.

It was at this point I regretfully had to leave to go see Tao Dance Theater’s ‘5’, since several of the performances during the evening overlapped. The dancers had gracefully slid their bodies across one another to a contemporary ambient soundscape, appearing as one fluid, ever-shifting organism reminiscent to my mind of a sea anemone.

When I returned, the Kuda Lumping ceremony had increased dramatically in intensity. I found a comfortable spot on the floor near the edge of the rope circle and settled in to watch the rest. The musicians had increased the tempo, and the performance area was alive with a substantial number of people; both performers and those tasked with seeing to their welfare. Dancers were riding colourfully decorated woven bamboo horses with spectacular choreography, swirling around, seeming to reenact an important battle.

As the energy was raised by the music, dance and supervision from Pak Ki Iswand, the performers became more receptive to trance states. Once the ceremony had reached a fever pitch, it became easy to spot when and which of the performers had become possessed. The ritual lost it’s repetitive, twirling, rhythmic choreography as more and more succumbed.

When a spirit entered an individual (they appeared to my mind to be ancestral beings) the change was palpable. A fit young man, possessed by a child-like spirit fussed and demanded comfort, a demure young woman was possessed by a forceful warrior, her dancing movements whip-sharp and graceful. Another playfully offered to share bananas with audience members sitting by the rope border, insistent that they at least have a taste, using gesture to cross the language barrier. Another relished in impressing by chewing up and walking over an assortment of glass, seemingly immune to damage and fear.
Possessed individuals wandered about performing great feats of gymnastic athleticism, ate whole raw chilies, swallowed razor blades, chewed up glass fluorescent tube lights and ripped apart coconuts with their bare hands. All with an awe-inspiring ferocity and intensity, overseen by the mystic and his helpers, periodically cracking whips.

The performers were dressed in colourful traditional clothing, and sometimes large masks; the colour and motion and scent of incense alongside the music and skin-tingling energy created a powerful environment for all the senses.

When a spirit departed from it’s host, their body collapsed in exhaustion and they were quickly picked up and carried away out of sight, presumably to receive aftercare; they seemed to have been full black-out possessions and I doubt they remembered what had occurred.

Some of the musicians, who had been playing up to that moment, went limp with a loud crash and almost fell off the stage as spirits unexpectedly took hold of them; needing a moment to adjust to piloting their host bodies, stumbling an awkward for a short period.
At one point an audience member, an elderly Indonesian man suddenly joined the ceremony as a spirit leapt into him too.

It was spectacular, awe-inspiring and made me extraordinarily happy to see this ecstatic cultural tradition so very alive, contemporary and relevant.

The ceremony charged on in full force until there were few performers or helpers left, at which point it wound down fairly rapidly.

After it had closed, we were invited to stay and share a meal; my favourite method of grounding. An impressive, generous spread of traditional satays, curries, roasted chicken pieces, rice, salad and quite a few things I didn’t recognize were laid out on a mat of the woven horses on the floor.

I grabbed a plate of food and settled down out of the way on a lounge in the lobby, where I chatted briefly with an Indonesian woman about the experience. She asked if I found what I had seen confronting; I relayed that I simply felt extremely privileged to have seen what I did; not mentioning that as a pagan of many years the concept of possession was not especially shocking to me.

She related to me how this was the first time she had ever seen the ceremony performed from start to finish; back home she had watched it many times, but people usually wandered back and forth as the ritual is very long; taking place in a village setting amid people going about their daily business.

This made me feel better about having missed an hour or so to go see various other performances taking place simultaneously, as this was surely a once in a lifetime opportunity I’m not likely to have again.

I’m mildly allergic to ginger and I’m reasonably certain the food I ate was full of it. That evening and the following day I felt none of the usual adverse effects; if these powerful Indonesian spirits can shield their charges from harm when eating glass, I’m sure they can and did protect me from getting stomach cramps by sharing a meal with them.

Totems, tutelaries and the animal messengers of the gods

To start, what is a tutelar?

The Oxford dictionary defines a tutelary spirit or deity as ‘serving as a protector, guardian, or patron’. Wikipedia further expands this definition to include totems as a type of tutelary.

I prefer not to use the term ‘totem’-the reasons for this are elaborate enough that it would be best to keep them for another post.

In the past I have used tutelar and also totem, in the form it’s most commonly used in modern pagan circles, as almost interchangeable. As I delve further into committing my personal practice to writing, it has become apparent that an expansion of this terminology is needed.

The types of relationships one may create within a magical context vary quite significantly; tutelary alone could easily become confusing and vague.

On top of this, many deities have strong associations with non-human animals; if one works closely with both deities and animals, it can be difficult to untangle which direction the signal is coming from.

I have created a set of terms to categorize types of animal tutelars and their associations; That of Regent, Agent and Individual.

In the following explanation, I will be using the domestic cat as an example.

CAT-REGENT

Regent:

A deity-like figure that represents the gestalt of all cats, the parent of all cats, the archetypal essence of what it is to be a cat; the quintessential cat-ness. A nonphysical being, but one that in this case, currently does have living physical counterparts (Regents of extinct taxa would not, but are still relevant).

If I were to meditate with the goal of entering a trance state and communing with an archetypal being that identifies itself as Domestic Cat, this would be the Domestic Cat Regent.

Individual:

A single cat entity. May be a living cat, a spirit housed in remains of a once living cat, or the incorporeal spirit of a cat.

The feral cat skull I have on my mantle was untrusting of humans in life, and remains so in death. The spirit housed in this skull is generally uncommunicative, and is another example of a Cat Individual.

Agent:

An individual as above, that is acting on behalf of another being, such as a deity or a tutelary regent.

Once, while meditating in my bedroom, I attempted to contact Bast using a small statue of Her image, but I wasn’t able to make a connection.

My cat-son had been sprawled on my bed behind me, and we had been mutually ignoring each other as he didn’t usually involve himself in my magical practice.

This time however, Bast decided to use him as a vessel for communicating with me.

‘Why use a statue when there is a real live cat right here?’ She had chided me affectionately.

In this instance my cat-son was operating in the capacity of agent, albeit for Bast rather than Cat Regent-in this instance, the human equivalent could be deemed to be aspecting or possession.

In my previous post, I described how a living individual domestic cat had acted as a messenger for Lilith. This cat was also acting as an agent.

If I wished to communicate with Cat Regent, I may set up my feral cat skull on my altar to act as an agent.
If Eurasian Lynx Regent was keen to communicate with me, it may use this skull as an Agent. Note-I have had American Badger Regent send me messages through a raccoon skull, so the species don’t necessarily need to be closely related-however if one were attempting to make contact rather than receive, a closer connection may be more viable.

I chose these terms as they are reasonably self-explanatory with context; How would this play out in conversation for example? Someone, upon learning that I work primarily with nonhuman animal energies, may ask me ‘what is your spirit animal?’

I would answer ‘I’ve been working a lot with coyotes lately, but Ringtail Possum Regent has been looking after me for many years.’

This would be referring to the many individual coyotes I work with, but the more abstract nature of my relationship with Ringtail Possum.

If anyone has any thoughts on this method for labeling and classifying types of interactions with animistic spirits, I’d love to hear them.

Manticore magic-a meandering ramble through my pagan practice

What pagan paradigm do I work with is a question I’ve been asked many times in my life, and I’m never quite sure how to answer.

Eclectic, neopagan, animist, hedgewitch, void walker, shamanistic spirit worker, magic user, skin priest-these are all terms that I’ve used to describe myself, but none of them fit me comfortably. As soon as I find one that feels comfortable, I quickly grow out of it. Telling people I primarily work with animal spirits is usually enough for casual introductions, but it’s not enough for me. I want more, ever hungry, ever curious, ever expanding my world.

I have neither a solid historical pagan tradition backing me up, nor a cultural one. Pop culture provides my mythical epics, video games my warrior heroes, books my spiritual insight. I’m a product of the cultures I grew up in, here in Melbourne Australia, and continue to participate in.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to piece together a coherent enough framework that can be used as the basis of a new pagan spiritual paradigm.

At the very least, this will be my record. This is my path, the one I carve out for myself, making my own truth.