The sun muscled manticore

Parental love, chaos magic, and a reason to run.

When I was younger, I believed that adulthood meant escaping any emotional reliance I had on my biological parents. I thought I would outgrow a need for parental love, guidance and approval. I was wrong on both counts; this need isn’t something that one sheds with age, and you can’t outgrow something you never had in the first place.

This lack of positive parental/familial guidance has been a real shackle on my personal development and is something I continue to work through. But how? It’s awful hard to get adopted when you’re in your 30’s, which left me with a dilemma. I don’t have many strong community ties and the AIDS crisis eliminated most of my chances at having access to a supportive network of elders.

What I do have is my magical practice and a certain narrative malleability with regard to my own life. I am part of a house and legion; the boundaries of my body and self defy scientific materialism. I’m a jumble of metaphors that defy easy classification as figurative or literal. I thrive on ambiguity.
My grandmother and my son were both housecats, and one of my mothers is the sea.
I recently discovered an aspect of the Earth is another maternal figure for me. She appears to me as a Venus of Willendorf-like figure. She is nurturing and full of love, cradle comfort and simple safety. She is not an empowered earth-goddess-mother figure for me as I am neither a woman nor a birth-parent, but a powerful grounding force of warmth, forgiveness and acceptance, and I am loved. Love like being hugged tight and safe, words of wisdom so practical and grounded they are cunning and sly, warm food and solid ground. She asks little in return but goodness, to walk softly and with the bravery to be kind.

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Venus of Willendorf figurine from the Paleolithic era. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

While the Earth provides me a well from which to draw this love, I still lacked a positive fatherly influence. I needed fierce protective love, rationality, teaching through demonstration, expressions of pride and uplifting frameworks. Trust, capability and responsibility. None of the masculine deities/beings I already have an established relationship with fit this role.

Depictions of the sun as a masculine, fatherly figure in real-world mythology aren’t unfamiliar to me but none of them ever struck me as being personally relevant. Luckily for me, practicing chaos/pop culture magic I’m not restricted to the trappings of eclectic witchcraft-I can cast a wider net for inspiration than traditional mythology.

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“The sun is a wondrous body. Like a magnificent father! If only I could be so grossly incandescent.” Solaire from Dark Souls, Namco Bandai Games 2011.

Playing Dark Souls and meeting Solaire of Astora was something of a watershed moment for me. In that simultaneously delicious and maddeningly cryptic way of all Souls series characters, he tells you he has deliberately become a member of the undead in order to undertake a journey to find his own sun. This in turn this reminded me of these two songs by SJ Tucker, featuring the writing of Catherynne M. Valente:

I recommend giving these two tracks a listen, one after the other. Manticore’s lullaby punches me so hard in the feelings I cry every time I hear it. Like Grotteschi, I was denied the exaltations of a good and proper childhood. I’m doing my best to catch up but I’ll carry some wounds forever.

The manticores in this story, naturally, see the sun as a glorious, shining manticore, their father. I adore the fantasy trope of the equivalent of anthropomorphism for creatures that aren’t human.

My favourite forms of pop culture magic are those that can be ported/carried over to our world with a little creativity and tweaking. While manticores exist in the mythology of our world, their depictions are relatively scant. They are nonetheless symbolically important to me with deep personal connections. With this in mind I’ve decided to engage with the sun in the form of a glorious golden manticore, lover of the Upas tree and father of the manticore fruit-and me.

Left to my own devices, I tend to become almost wholly nocturnal, both literally and otherwise. I can be prone to detachment, anhedonia, stagnation and feelings that I do not deserve happiness or pleasure. I do not feast gladly or sink my sharp teeth into offered fruits but decline, cringe, shy away, refuse. It’s not humbleness and piety but a harmful self-flagellation.

Not leaving my cave in the daylight hours has a lot of negative effects for a person prone to depression and withdrawal from the world.
To worship the sun is to tend to my little garden of potted plants; weeding out the oxalis, gently brushing away harmful bugs, to water and prune. To take my vitamin-D pills, as like many pasty Australians worried about skin cancer I’m terrifically deficient. To burn Frankincense, which has a beautiful golden scent, using homemade beeswax tealights.

And lastly; exercise. I’m doughy and unfit and I struggle with various ailments that make sticking to exercise regimes difficult. Lions, and thus also manticores, are fabulously muscled creatures. Making exercise an act of devotion is likely to give me the fortitude to reach the goals that I’ve so far failed to reach or sustain.

I wish to steep my life in magic, to revel in it, to live it.
In the past I’ve taken up running as a way to deal with pent-up anger. While my rage is a renewable resource, I’d prefer to run for joy, satisfaction and glory. From now on I’ll run for the manticore of the sun.

Devotional cooking: Koresh Fesenjan for Hekate

Suffering chronic fatigue, I usually don’t have the energy for big, flashy ritual. Once a month on the day of the new moon, I clean my house as best I can in service to Hekate, and we share the evening meal. If I’m able, I try to incorporate relevant foods such as egg, garlic, leek, honey, and pomegranate.

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Last month I made Koresh Fesenjan-a Persian chicken, walnut, and pomegranate stew.

Ingredients:
(I don’t measure things when I cook; it’s why I’m terrible at baking)
2 spoonfuls of honey
Sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper
Salt-I don’t normally add salt to my food but Hekate requested extra after I’d plated it up
Chicken tenders, cut into small strips
Cup of chopped walnuts
Liquid chicken stock
White rice
Olive oil
Pomegranate molasses

Process:
1. Toast the walnuts in a pan for a few minutes until golden brown and fragrant.
Lightly crush with a mortar and pestle. When cooking for two, using a food processor isn’t worth the effort it takes to clean.
2. Cook the rice.
3. Lightly brown the chicken in a pan and toss in the spring onions with a dash of oil.
4. Add chicken stock, and bring to a boil.
5. Add spices, honey, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses.
6. Simmer until the stew is no longer watery.
7. Serve with rice, garnish with walnut, parsley or pomegranate arils.

It’s a very sweet and sour, rich tasting dish.
I lit a candle and served it with a cup of fruit tea. Hekate seems to have a penchant for dark chocolate as well, which we had for dessert, although she seems insistent on sharing whatever I’m eating. Afterwards, I take her portion to my three-way crossroads altar, as well as a customary offering to the restless dead which I do not eat from.

Some months I’m not able to cook the food myself or make anything quite as elaborate as this, but it is my duty to share this meal and to remember the dead.

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.

Necromancy and the Queens of Death

Red Death is for the living. Green Death is for the already gone. White Death is for us all.

Death is a heady subject among pagans. It’s large. It’s divisive. It’s inevitable.
As a necromancer, how do I approach death, my own mortality and that of my loved ones?

This is my framework for conceptualizing death.These aren’t gods or regents but anthropomorphic personifications of natural phenomena. A symbolic representation, but powerful forces nonetheless. 

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Death as depicted in the Rider-Waite tarot.

The Three Monarchs of Death:

The Red Queen of Death is for the living.
She’s sexy, provocative, reckless and impatient. She tastes like the blood in your mouth from a kick in the teeth.
If you get too close to her she’ll burn your fingertips. The wounds will either cauterize and make you numb, or hurt worse than anything you’ve ever felt. They always scar, but sometimes the scars fade with time-time you have because you’re still alive. She’s a gushing, ragged wound; roses and rotting meat. You can hear her laughing when a speeding car misses you by an inch. She claws into your chest and squeezes your heart when you watch a loved one slip away in their sleep. She’s pain and violence, fear and finality.

The Red Queen is always with me. Sometimes she steps behind me and out of my field of immediate focus, but she is always there-trauma, mental illness and chronic ill health see to that.
My relationship with her is intimate and deeply personal; my perpetual dance partner in a tango.

The Green Queen of Death is for the already dead.
She’s motherly, patient and persistent. She tastes like forest mushrooms. She’s the roots of a tree cracking open a skull with slow but inexorable force. She’s a bountiful feast for smaller animals, insects and organisms. She’s silence carrying an ellipses into a promise…of something more. She’s the softness of rotting wood and the hardness of fossilized bone. She’s the serene marble statue of a saint in the vaulted halls of the church of nature.
The Green Death is where I do most of my necromancy work.

I love all of my specimens. However, I knew none of the numerous preserved animals in my collection before they died.
To love them as they were once alive would be to grieve for them in passing. Sadness is too sticky; I can’t flush it out effectively and it lingers. I’ve opted out of preserving anything I’ve had the misfortune of needing to help ease from this world. If I knew them in life, I couldn’t sever their connection to the Red Queen. If possible, I bury them, so they may rest and heal.

It is better for me to love my specimens as I first met them; already dead, belonging to the Queen of the Green Death. In my necromancy practices, I do my best to serve their modest demands. They require a pauper’s supper.
The Red Queen on the other hand, is ravenous for blood. Like fire, she’ll consume everything you let her.

“…Man’s heart is a ditch full of blood. The loved ones who have died throw themselves down on the bank of this ditch to drink the blood and so come to life again; the dearer they are to you, the more of your blood they drink.”

―Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis

What to do then, when a beloved, close family member dies? In most instances in my life, it has not been my decision to make.
When it is, due to their connection with the Red Death, my regular preservation techniques would be too personally traumatizing.

Skulls are spiritually weighty objects which require no context. The spirits which inhabit dead remains have also been irrevocably transformed from their living selves.
Cremains themselves are only as meaningful as that which is ascribed to them by the living; given to a stranger, ashes may as well be a box of dirt.
For this reason, I had my cat-grandmother and cat-son cremated. This process creates a symbolic abstraction of their whole physical bodies without the removal of soft tissue usually associated with preservation.
This way I can continue to carry them with me in my life and in my heart-at least until my own death-as I remember them, as they were. The two boxes of ashes sit upon the mantel at the heart of our home. Their spirits are part of the household itself; friendly shadows slinking around corners just out of sight.

 

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It was much harder to take selfies 15 years ago

 

There is also a third monarch, The White Death, the Grim Reaper. This psychopomp has a single appointment to keep with every living thing and serves as a reminder not to take it all too seriously; because it’ll all be over soon enough.

A return

I enjoy walking as a form of simple, aimless meditation.
Last night I went for walk along an unfamiliar path, and got thoroughly lost deep in the suburbs.
After some time, I met a cat. A beautiful, muscular and trusting black and white feline, who meowed at me until I noticed it; I was listening to music and may have tripped over it otherwise.
The cat had a message for me.
After I dispensed a payment of ear-scratches, it wandered off.

I sat down on the ground and felt so overwhelmed with fatigue, slipping into a light trance was unavoidable.

In this trance state I was transported to a scene I recognized as one I had painted many years ago, when She was the subject of many of my artistic endeavours.
Lilith, with grey skin, pointed ears, silver hair, and a featureless face except for her large, solid red almond eyes.
In this instance, a long serpent-like tail coiled behind her instead of legs. The way she appeared to me when I was younger was not always consistent, but always easily recognizable.
Before her, She held a brass bowl, filled with blood. She was pouring it on the sand. The bowl never emptied. Behind us, in the distance was a silent, still sea.

I’ve got bad RSI pains in my hands at the moment from overindulging in PC use.
I put my hands under the blood flowing from her bowl, letting it wash over my hands, and the pain disappeared for as long as the blood covered them.

We had a conversation without words.
I don’t remember what happened to our relationship. We had been close when I was a teen. Perhaps I had drifted away from her, thinking I needed to, because of my gender transition. She put that notion aside, reminding me my body is filled with blood, plump with it.

My concentration slipped and the pain returned. I got up and after over an hour of listening for trains and main roads, managed to find my way back to my house.

Altered states, and defenestrating Cartesian dualism

I had a pretty unhappy youth.
Was this really all there was to reality? When it wasn’t busy being traumatizing, it was agonizingly dull.
For more insight into what this was like, I recommend giving a listen to this recording of Peggy Lee’s ‘is that all there is?’.
As a cynical young teen I began to feel the white, suburban world I lived in was culturally and spiritually bankrupt, with most people around me only paying half-hearted lipservice to Christianity. I was deeply unhappy, culturally disconnected and spiritually unfulfilled. I was also a bit of a teen-goth cliche.
This disenchantment was likely one of the things that pushed me towards a pagan path-particularly one that heavily uses shamanic techniques.

Being able to escape into stories, games, meditation, dancing or anything else resembling altered states wasn’t just a tool for survival, but something that has made my world much richer. I’ve never been a fan of recreational drug use as my perception of reality is weird enough already and I don’t want to endanger my tenuous mental stability.

As I matured I began to notice and appreciate parallels in the culture I was immersed in to those supposedly more magically inclined ones from the distant and romanticized past I’d only read about in books. AFL football could be conceptualized as ritualized battle between clans; contemporary dance a form of shapeshifter magic; BDSM play spaces a way of inducing altered states of consciousness. People I’ve encountered participating in the rave scene would often talk about transcendent experiences beyond what could be explained by recreational drug use. Many of us know a born storyteller, someone able to spin engrossing tales whenever they feel the inclination. Art of all forms often utilizes the power of bringing about altered states. Much of the art and media I have consumed, created or participated in has been powerfully transformative. I’ve read many books that have changed me forever.

A few years ago I attended an avant-garde theater performance with a group of friends. The audience awaited direction outside in the cool night air, at the corner of an inner city alley. At the appointed time, a Charon-like figure appeared to usher us to the nearby ‘secret’ location of the performance; a dimly lit and intimate bar.
The outcome of the story depended on the reaction and participation of the audience. The performers wandered about and mingled with the people in attendance. The lighting, mystery and anticipation quickly created a liminal space. There was magic afoot.
One of the performers, who had taken on the role of Lilith was particularly compelling; but there was something deeper at play here than dedicated and immersive acting. It was her. We all felt it.
Myself and my friends were all deeply emotionally/spiritually impacted by what transpired. It was on my mind for several weeks afterwards.

More recently, Friday night was a particularly special night for the LARP group I semi-regularly attend. The warband the Briarwolf Pact was disbanding, and this was honored with some role-play and ceremony.
Within the fantasy universe Swordcraft takes place in, the Briarwolves are ancestor revering, wild warriors whose tenets include the importance of balance, and of family. During the battle, we were lead by the ancestors themselves-members of the warband dressed with garlands of blue glowing lights as a representation of their otherworldly nature.
Somebody on the field on the opposing side was playing the bagpipes and people were beating their shields to the rhythm of war. I have just enough Scottish ancestry in my blood to love the sound of bagpipes. It was a thrilling experience and emotions ran high. I dare say, it was magical.

As an animist, my view of the world is one that makes no material distinction between the ‘mundane’ and the ‘spiritual’; it rejects Cartesian dualism. Daily life however, is a grind. Ennui and suffering make losing the childlike wonder at the beauty of the universe all too easy. Making time for structured magical ritual isn’t always possible.

But sometimes magic seeps through into any spaces which invoke liminality and cannot be ignored, no matter how secular; those of artistic or emotional expression especially.

If you look for it, you might find it in some unexpected places too.

Why I don’t work with dead babies

Skinning, dressing or otherwise prepping a once-living being is an intimate procedure. The body is not decontextualized, wrapped in plastic and lit with fluorescent lighting like the most common experience of meat in urban areas.

It’s not for everyone.

The infant mortality rate for many non-human animals is extremely high; finding that bodies are very young is a common experience among those who seek them out. Many people I’ve spoken with are dispassionate over, or unconcerned by working with baby animals. Some find the experience distressing, but persevere nonetheless.

It’s common in the Vulture Culture community to have no qualms about processing the bodies of infants or juveniles.
Newborn or foetal animals are often prized to be processed into wet specimens (a whole specimen preserved in fluid, sealed in a jar). Some anomalies such as cyclopic calves, attractive to collectors, rarely live beyond infancy, making it a necessity.

Preserving bodies of the young dead has its own set of challenges.
Baby birds don’t have feathers worth preserving, and the skin of smaller mammals is very thin and fragile.
The skulls of infants are not yet fully fused; this allows them to grow rapidly in life, but easily fall apart in death. They can be re-constructed later, but this requires patience, time and skill. Young bones are delicate, sometimes even almost spongy.

I don’t collect wet specimens because my interest in keeping remains is less scientifically motivated than some. I prefer the tactile experience of being able to hold my specimens-keeping dead things in jars is too clinical for my taste.
Less rationally, I’m also nervous they might get broken-like little unexploded biohazard grenades.

But I also have a more personal reason for passing over infant dead bodies when I find them.

Deceased babies may have stronger ties to the spirit world than this one; they haven’t inhabited their bodies for very long, after all. A newborn rat may or may not have as much knowledge of the fundamental state of Ratness, and what it is to be a rat, and live as a rat, than an older one.
Perhaps Rat, or any other Archetype Spirit progenitors are impartial towards the age of their children when they pass on. Perhaps not-I don’t claim to know.
But since I work with ‘skin spirits’, it makes sense to avoid ones who were badly mistreated in life (including violent deaths and fur farms), or infants.

An experience I had many years ago, early in my practice, solidified this rule. I found a baby bird that had fallen onto the ground and died. I hadn’t been collecting remains for long, so I was a little over-eager in processing things that I’d pass over today.
I went into a meditative journey/trance state to ask permission of the baby bird if I could take its body, and to perform my usual funerary rites when doing so.
The young bird was very wobbly, probably only a few days past hatching, but agreed that I could keep its bones.
The mother of the baby bird swooped me repeatedly, making frantic distress calls. She was upset and grieving, and I ended the meditation. I did not keep any of those remains, and the experience is one I’ll never forget. Consent and caring for the dead, and respecting their wishes are important aspects of spirit work. As animals all develop at different rates, I don’t have any strict guidelines for age, but it’s something to consider when bringing home a new specimen.

This experience set me on a path of a deeper  understanding of consent and the proper care of the dead; a simple yes/no answer is not sufficient. The circumstances that surround the question need to be delicately examined, and personal responsibility must be taken. After all, these are not simple objects and should not be treated as such; they deserve all the reverence and care one can provide.

On trusting yourself-featuring Fox and Coyote

I’m very prone to self-doubt; a self doubt beyond a healthy skepticism and desire to keep ego in check, at that.

To me, Fox is illusive, the secret keeper, the shadow trickster, hunter and prey. I have never once gotten a clear, good look at a living wild fox.

As a teen living on the Mornington Peninsula, a gang of them would slink across our front lawn, activating the motion-sensor porch light. My mother often saw them, but no matter how fast I rushed to the window, I never did.

I’ve skinned and tanned foxes killed by hunters, and seen unfortunate souls crumpled up on roadsides aplenty. Sometimes I’ve witnessed a blurry, fleeting glimpse of one out of the corner of my eye, so swift that I began to doubt it was real immediately after.

Early in my practice, I worked with Fox energy extensively. I found a very old antique fox tail, inhabited by a lively skin-spirit that loved to dance. I’d wear it on my belt for special occasions and public rituals.

A few years later a companion of mine gifted me with the face skin of a coyote. It was badly crumpled up and it’s skin-spirit grumpy (years later, reshaping it improved his disposition significantly). Knowing Coyote’s reputation I was somewhat aghast. I wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility. I packed it away and largely forgot about it-it wasn’t the right time.

I went on a hiatus from spirit-work.

Later on, I acquired three much more personable Coyote skin-spirits. A skull, who sits on my altar, a tail, and another face skin. I have no doubt they chose me.

I began to wear at least one of my two tails as part of my regular attire. For a short time I wore both-on opposite sides of my body-as Fox and Coyote have an antagonistic relationship, with Coyote nipping at Fox’s heels.

The fox skin-spirit expressed a desire to retire from being worn; I’d had it for over a decade, and it must be older than that by several more. This was the moment that Fox energy slipped off the main stage of my life.

Enter, in force, the coyotes.

They have much to teach me, and I appreciate the company as they trot along by my side. Coyotes are generally warm, playful and chatty. A different kind of trickster; the bold, brash type that will encourage you to build a tower, only to push you off it so you learn humility.

Now, thinking about the past, that ever-present sense of doubt began to creep in.

I began to wonder if the connection I had with Fox was genuine. Did I simply want to work with foxes because I thought they were glamorous, alluring? Did I never see one because I had chosen them, and not the other way around? In my practice, cooperation is vital-the strongest bonds are the ones we don’t choose/initiate.

In a dream, ever the realm of mysteries, a handsome red fox appeared, very deliberately letting me get a good look at it before disappearing back into the scrub, going about its fox business. A sign that our connection was real, that I shouldn’t doubt it’s validity.

Fox taught me to keep chasing the intangible, to trust my intuition. To keep reaching for that goal, the one it’s too dark to see and just out of reach, but to keep stretching until I can brush it with my fingertips.

I best not forget it.