Photo Dick Daniels.

Photo Dick Daniels.

You come for answers and don’t even know
what the questions are.

But you ask questions.

Vague and general; specific and focused. You have questions questions questions and
can’t decide which questions to ask first. The questions

spew like the chip chip chip of the chipping
sparrow, gathering momentum, each chip meaning nothing

on its own.
The best oracles
also know the questions.


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Non-Hierarchy in Covens

Photo Oxfordian Kissuth

Photo Oxfordian Kissuth

I was discussing hierarchies with a friend of mine last week: where the ideal of the nonhierarchical group comes from, why it usually doesn’t work, what women mean when they promote the idea of the nonhierarchical coven.

In my experience the woman with the most urgent need for a “nonhierarchical” women’s group, and the type of woman who promotes the idea most emphatically, is the woman with highly controlling tendencies who is uncomfortable with her need to control and wishes to change. She will declare the group “nonhierarchical” and proceed to run it, insisting to herself and others that there is an equality of leadership. Needless to say, this is a recipe for a series of power struggles down the line.

The other type of woman who emphatically promotes the concept of a nonhierarchical group is the highly controlling woman who finds herself in a group where another woman is in charge. If she perceives this woman as a strong leader she will accept the situation or go elsewhere; if she perceives her to be a weak leader she will attempt to wrest power without admitting to herself or others that this is going on. “Non-hierarchy” provides a means of self deception. Usually other group members are under no illusions about what is happening, but since they do not hold power in the group they remain silent and resentments simmer under the surface.

The nonhierarchical controller commands a women’s spirituality group in a number of subtle ways. The first controlling gesture is to declare the group nonhierarchical without discussion. No group can be nonhierarchical without a common understanding of what this means and a discussion of the pros and cons of this arrangement. The nonhierarchical controller also decides what is nonhierarchically to be decided and what is just the natural correct way for the group to flow. Another classic way of controlling the group is for the non-leader to be habitually inflexible about her schedule, expecting others to bend and accommodate when arranging meeting times. Of course, job schedules, parenting, and other responsibilities often dictate the amount of flexibility a woman has, but maintaining inflexibility about scheduling is still a common way of asserting dominance. The non-leader will often control under the guise of “taking care of my needs.” It is true that we all have the responsibility to assess and assert our needs, but if a group is habitually adjusting to the needs of one particular person, that person is running the group. In a truly nonhierarchical group, members sometimes have to put their own needs secondary on minor matters and make compromises. This brings up another telling characteristic of the nonhierarchical controller: there are no minor issues. If another member challenges a point or seeks to do something a different way, the nonhierarchical leader digs in her heels and argues for her way. When she inevitably wins the point, she tells herself that she is not dominating, but in the right.

Once the nonhierarchical controller has decided the meeting time, the place, and how long the ceremony will be, she characteristically stands back and asks for group consensus on how the directions will be called, where the altar will be, which deities to invoke, and other details. The problem with this arrangement is not so much that one person is running the show, but that there is deception around what is happening: a person cannot control a group outside of the formal ritual structure without holding the energy in ritual space as well. In this situation there can be no equality, only dishonest leadership.

The root of this challenging dynamic is not really with one particular personality, no matter how controlling. Where there is strong leadership in place, the woman with a high need to control will either accept the situation or go elsewhere. The core issue is that humans are herd animals, who like any other herd animals do not function well outside of hierarchical structures. Only in a limited set of situations do nonhierarchical power structures work. Where there is no clear leadership, stronger personalities usually step in to fill the vacuum, sometimes causing the group to suffer as they jockey for position. In large groups a more stable form of supposedly non-hierarchical control will sometimes be established by unacknowledged agreement. This happens in some social activist groups where power on the basis of economic or educational background is consciously eschewed, only to be replaced with a power system based on political correctness.

In my observations, I have found the covens in which a nonhierarchical structure works best to be those which are small, those which are all women, those in which all members are willing to do an equal amount of work, those in which all members have known each other for some time and get along well outside of coven activities, and those in which all members have a similar amount of experience doing magical work. There’s a lot of ifs here; the stars have to be exactly right. If the coven is strongly dependent on one woman, rather than many, a truly nonhierarchical situation cannot be established. This would be the case if one woman has a great deal more experience, if the group believes they cannot function without meeting on property held by one particular woman, or if one woman holds prestige that the group relies on for attracting new members or holding power in the larger religious community.

Must a women’s spirituality group be nonhierarchical? Our ideal of this type of group is usually based on the early Neolithic matriarchies, where based on the size of houses and the distribution of grave goods it appears that resources were more or less equally shared. For those of us today who have only known a world of class-based patriarchy, these matriarchal societies can easily be characterized as nonhierarchical. But perhaps we should re-examine this assumption. In the matriarchal aboriginal societies that have survived into historical times, there is always, to my knowledge, a clear structure of leadership. One man explained it this way: “We are led by the old women, because they listen to the people and can tell the chief about the desires of the group.” This provides some insight into the nature of the problem. Perhaps we need to stop promoting the abolishment of hierarchy and instead examine better group power structures and models of leadership.

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Nut a Sow Goddess?

Egyptian pig amulet in blue-glaze faience. Raised area on back is probably meant to signify erect bristles, emphasizing sow’s ferocity. 600 b.c.e. Drawing HMR.

Egyptian pig amulet in blue-glaze faience. Raised area on back is probably meant to signify erect bristles, emphasizing sow’s ferocity. 600 b.c.e. Drawing HMR.

My Sow Goddess essay part 2 is now posted at Return to Mago. These essays are intended to stand on their own, but if you want to read the first Sow Goddess article it’s here.

This second piece talks about Mediterranean porcine deities, including those in Egypt. The dietary prejudice against the pig that developed throughout the Middle East is touched upon here and will be explored again in a later article.

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Witchcraft Today: 60 Years On (Review)

This anthology, published today, is a look at the major branches of witchcraft that have emerged since the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today 60 years ago. The branches examined in this book have been heavily influenced by Gardner, reflecting to varying degrees not only the practices of the coven he was initiated into, but Gardner’s own reflections and innovations.

The first section of the book explains many of the most popular traditions, while the second section is a collection of personal reflections by practicing witches. There is also a brief biography of Gerald Gardner and a discussion of the climate from which his groundbreaking book emerged. You do not need to have read any of Gardner’s work to follow the articles. This book aims to give an overview of what “witchcraft today” has become and how it has matured.

I have written the chapter on Dianic Witchcraft for this anthology. It is not surprising that the Dianic tradition is included here – we usually are mentioned in any overview of Paganism and Witchcraft – but this is the first time to my knowledge that the section on Dianic Witchcraft in an overview has been written by a Dianic priestess. There has been so much misinformation propagated by those outside the Dianic tradition over the years that I think it is an important read not only for women who may be considering finding a Dianic coven, but for all witches. I think this background on Dianic Witchcraft is also important for all feminists, even those who do not consider themselves spiritual. Like it or not, a large part of the battle for women’s rights is occurring within religious institutions and frameworks.

Witchcraft Today: 60 Years On is edited by Trevor Greenfield and published by Moon Books. It can be purchased in bookstores or on Amazon.

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What are the women’s mysteries?

Statue of Greek mother goddess Demeter from the British Museum, 4th century b.c.e. Demeter had her own women's mystery cult in ancient Greece. It is hard to find an intact statue of this beloved goddess because the Christians were particularly zealous in their destruction of her statues and religion.

Statue of Greek mother goddess Demeter from the British Museum, 4th century b.c.e. Demeter had her own women’s mystery cult in ancient Greece. It is hard to find an intact statue of this beloved goddess because the Christians were particularly zealous in their destruction of her statues and religion.

No, we’re not talking about Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky here. Women’s mysteries echo back to the Greek mystery schools, which were religious groups centered around a deity or group of deities connected by an epic story. To become a member of the mystery school a person had to study and undergo a complex initiation ceremony. The mystery schools emphasized knowledge that could not be comprehended solely by intellect but could only be understood through certain religious experiences–these were the mysteries.

The most famous of the mystery schools was the Eleusinian mysteries, which flourished well into Christian times and had initiates of many ethnicities from across the Mediterranean world. Other mysteries were more obscure, and it was possible to be an initiate in more than one school. There were separate mystery schools for women and men as well as schools open to all. Probably there were schools that had other requirements for admission. While the word mystery has a Greek origin and our knowledge of the mystery schools comes from the Greeks, the concept of mystery schools itself is much older and more universal.

Today women’s mysteries refers to Goddess-focused ritual that acknowledges women’s bodies and life cycle. This is expressed as the stages of maiden-mother-crone. Maidens have not yet taken on the burdens of adult responsibilities, but are preparing for the important mother phase that comes next. Mothers bring forth physical life or use their womb-energies to nurture in other ways. Crones accept greater responsibility for leadership in the community, as their wombs are no longer constantly preparing for conception and childbirth and this energy is freed to move in other directions.

Women often ask how hysterectomy impacts participation in women’s mysteries. Removal of an organ from the physical body does not remove it from the etheric body and women are still able to participate in the mysteries post-hysterectomy. Cessation of menses is a necessary requirement for cronehood but age is also important, and a woman who experiences early menopause does not automatically become a crone. However, cessation of menses, whether through hysterectomy or natural means, is a critical life event that is honored through ritual within women’s mysteries. Mystery schools are experiential, and our religion is closed to males because the experience of “bleeding for days without dying” is integral to the knowledge we carry.

Some women say, what if I don’t like my body? What if I hate my period? Women’s mysteries are especially important for women who dislike their bodies or women who have difficulty coming out of their minds to fully inhabit their bodies. We are spirits who have chosen to occupy this women’s body that is such a source of pleasure and pain. We don’t have to always like it, but the goal of women’s mysteries is to gather wisdom from it.

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Lady Slipper

A Lady Slipper is an orchid that grows throughout the northern hemisphere. There are several species, and all of them are rare to uncommon depending on the country. This beautiful orchid is difficult to cultivate, even as orchids go. It requires a special soil fungus for seeds to germinate, and the Lady Slipper does not transplant well. To make matters worse, there is a special demand for this orchid, and not just from gardeners who feel they must have one. The root stock has calming, pain relieving, and hallucinogenic qualities that have prompted overharvesting of the plant, which is never abundant even under ideal circumstances.

I have had the good fortune of stumbling across this flower on occasion, ever since I was a girl in Ohio. Last week I was hiking on a popular mountain path when I spied two blooms right next to the trail. I decided to come back early the next day to take a picture, crossing my fingers that no one would arrive before me and take the plants. Sure enough, when I returned the next morning they were gone. I scouted around the area, however, and I found a nice specimen that was slightly better hidden.


In researching this post I discovered that one variety of Lady Slipper does indeed look like a shoe. I had always assumed from looking at the flower that the name referred to a different kind of “slipper.” What would you think?


Before heading down the mountain with my photographic trophy, I decided to bushwhack to an open ledge for a snapshot of the view, and I came across a whole clump of Lady Slipper plants. There were seven blooms, one for each of the Seven Sisters (Pleiades). These nymph siblings are priestesses of Artemis.



Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.

McGhan, Patricia J. Ruta. “Pink ladies slipper (Cypripedium acule Ait.)” US Dept. of Agriculture.


Looking at the Sow Goddess

Photo Ben Salter.

Photo Ben Salter.

The Return to Mago blog is running a series of articles I have written about the Sow Goddess, entitled The Old Sow. There will be four articles, which I believe each stand on their own.

The research for this series was more arduous than any I have undertaken in a long time. In my experience when research becomes time consuming it is either because there is a huge amount of information about the subject–or very little. In this case, it was both. The archeological record for worship of the sow goddess is quite large, and the information available in myth and folklore is substantial as well. However, this information is also very scattered considering the amount of it, and I had to pull data together from many sources. Robert Graves in the 1949 book The White Goddess emphasized the importance of the sow in pre-patriarchal religion. This book has always been controversial, but Graves is correct on this point. It’s quite amazing that no one has taken on an extensive study of the topic. Though my series of four short articles is hardly exhaustive, I urge everyone to follow these articles and become more familiar with the Sow Goddess. I will be posting updated links to the articles as they are published.

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Song of Khepri

In the beginning the beginning began
In the becoming the becoming became
I have come into being in the coming of my being
as I came into being in beginning time

To the ancient Egyptians, the animating force Khepri was best exemplified by the scarab, also known as the Dung Beetle. This little critter descends on the scat of herbivores in droves to consume undigested nutrients. To consume a meal in peace, the scarab pats a piece of dung into a ball and rolls the scat some distance away, sometimes hiding the trophy in an underground niche. The Dung Beetle lays her eggs in concealed dung balls, which the larvae subsist on. The young adult emerges from the dung ball seemingly self-created.

By pushing his large dung ball over the sand the scarab illustrated to the Egyptians the force pushing the sun across the sky in the daytime, then pushing the sun under the earth through the night. The scarab was not merely a symbol of this force, named Khepri, but an incarnation of a pervasive presence which manifested through this insect in a pure form.

This scarab pectoral is from Tutankhamun's tomb. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera.

This scarab pectoral is from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera.

Egyptians wore scarab jewelry and carried scarab amulets. The deceased often had a scarab ornament resting over the heart. Egyptians saw the heart as the seat of consciousness in the body and believed it was paramount to meet death in a pure state of heart. Scarabs themselves were sometimes entombed in the little scarab sarcophagi.

The hymn above is from a rather obscure third century papyrus called “Knowing the Modes of Ra” and is part of the Egyptian Hermetic tradition. This is my own interpretation – I won’t call it a translation because I don’t read hieroglyph. The original goes

Kheper-i kheper kheperu kheper-kuy n kheperu m khepra kheperu m sep tepy.

I first heard this in 1987 at the Isis Oasis in Geyserville, California and it has always stayed with me. More information can be found in a book called Eternal Egypt: Ancient Rituals for a Modern World by Richard J. Reidy and at the website for a group called House of Keperu.

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Key of Magic

I’ve always thought that witchcraft is the best path for spiritual materialists, because we get to play with so many toys (only we call them tools). I have assembled most of the common implements of magic such as broom, cauldron, crystal ball, wand, athame, white handled knife, girdle, sword, chalice, pentacle necklace, and holey stone. I have materials to make a scrying mirror and staff, but have never gotten around to it. Still, I think the typical discussion of witch tools has some glaring omissions. One important tool seldom mentioned is the comb. Another is the distaff. At one point I speculated that our magical arsenal should be updated to include the key, such an important part of everyday life and filled with so much spiritual symbolism. Naturally when I began to research the subject I found that actual keys, as well as symbolic ones, have long held an important place in Pagan magic.

Boar head key

Boar head key

The earliest locking mechanisms date back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and it is speculated that they were originally contrived to guard the treasures in the temples. It was not until the Roman Empire that anything resembling the modern key arrived. There are two important deities that are often pictured holding keys: the Roman god Janus and the continental Celtic triple goddess The Matrones. Barbara Walker writes in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects:

Keys had so many occult connotations that medieval magicians made great use of real keys as magic tools whenever any sort of opening, releasing, or letting go was wanted. Iron keys were buried with the dead in Ionia, to unlock the gates of the underworld. Germans kept a key in a baby’s cradle so the fairies would not be able to seize and kidnap the child.

Key with image of goddess Minerva.

Key with image of Roman goddess Minerva.

I often use keys in my magical practice. I prefer a blank key that you can get at a hardware or hobby craft store, though I have cleaned and recycled a few. That way it’s not holding old vibrations and not fitted for a specific lock. Charge it like you would any other magical tool. You already know how to use it.


Bourg, Rain. “History of Keys.” Historical Keys.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.


Blue Jay Communique

Photo Amos Oliver Doyle

Photo Amos Oliver Doyle

The jarring cry of the Blue Jay echoes in my skull like a radio song repeating itself in an endless loop. It’s like this every spring, when the Jays return to roost in the cedar outside my meditation room window. The only thing to do is to meditate on the Jay.

Many birders don’t like Blue Jays. They complain that Jays chase smaller birds away from feeders. Blue Jays can mimic hawks with surprising verisimilitude, making it more difficult to identify birds in the field. Suburbanites find the Blue Jay’s typical cry loud, harsh, and raucous. Homeowners do not appreciate the Blue Jay’s penchant for chipping away house paint, a behavior more characteristic of Blue Jays residing in the Northeast, where sparse sources of organic calcium make calcium-rich paint attractive from a nutritional standpoint. Setting out large numbers of chicken eggs will extinguish this behavior, but this will mean more Blue Jays hanging around your property. I myself don’t mind Blue Jays hanging around. I find it difficult to feel rancor toward any creature so handsome, which has probably been my undoing in life.

Photo Ken Thomas

Photo Ken Thomas

When humans and animals find ourselves in conflict, it’s usually because we have some sort of commonality. In the case of the Blue Jay, it’s a commonality of habitat. Blue Jays like open areas at the edge of woodlands, and suburban tracts, farmlands, and even large yards within forested regions meet this requirement. People who put out birdseed are calling the Jay, even though the seed is meant for the nice birds who play well with others. Objections to the aggressive territorial behavior of the Jay are interesting, considering humans are the most territorial species on the planet. Another way of looking at this behavior is to see the Jay clearing other birds off the window stage so we can pay more attention to him. His distinctive coloring, pushy behavior, and loud voice say “Listen to me! I’m important!”

A territorial inclination is not the only trait we share with the Blue Jay. We plan ahead and stockpile food reserves, going to great lengths to secure our supply. The Jay needs sufficient provisions to last the winter, which is the motivation behind the apparent greediness that some object to. The Blue Jay carries seeds in an esophageal or “gular” pouch, and he is very sneaky and creative in secreting his cache. There are many “trickster” qualities to this bird. As mentioned before, he mimics other birds, especially hawks, and his Red Shouldered Hawk imitation is particularly fine. Actually the Blue Jay has a varied collection of calls, which can make identification difficult. Differentiation between male and female birds can also be challenging. All Blue Jays have subtle differences in pattern, but both sexes look similar, except when they don’t. Occasionally the female will be slightly more drab in color, but this cannot be depended on.

Photo Frank Miles

Photo Frank Miles

Migration is another area where the Blue Jay mystifies those who try to study him. Blue Jays tend to be permanent inhabitants throughout their range, but some Blue Jays migrate; yet not all of them migrate from the same area, and the ones who migrate one year may decide to overwinter the next. There is doubtless a logical explanation for this puzzling behavior, but humans have been unable to discern it. Another Blue Jay behavior in the trickster category is theft. Jays steal from humans and from other animals. Squirrels do not bother to cache acorns when they hear Jays in the vicinity, because they expect to be robbed. In the context of criminality, it’s interesting that Jays are sometimes called jaybirds, while the pejorative “J-bird” (short for jailbird) is used to denote a person who has been incarcerated.

Trickster behavior teaches us discernment. The Jay’s mimicry and variety of calls make us sharpen our ears and our memories. Blue Jays themselves are masters of discernment, as the paint chipping example shows. A major component of this bird’s diet is acorns, and while Blue Jays receive nourishment from a nice bug infested acorn, they know enough not to store a weevily acorn for winter consumption, and they are able to discern with high accuracy whether an acorn has been compromised. Oak trees are more dependent on Blue Jays than on squirrels for disbursement, since a Blue Jay can carry an acorn a mile or two away.

Photo Dawn.

Photo Dawn.

Blue Jays are members of the Corvide family, which includes not only other Jays but also Magpies, Crows and Ravens. Like Crows, Blue Jays are intelligent, curious, and full of surprises. Whether they find us similarly baffling cannot be known, but Corvides study humans more closely then we study them, and consequently they have our behaviors better catalogued.

Ravens and Crows frequently appear in myth to impart oracular insight to the plot. In the ancient art of augury a Crow or Raven appearance held important significance. As a fellow Corvide, the Blue Jay can be seen as a herald, especially since the wild Jay is more talkative and has a greater range of sounds. Blue is the color associated with the throat chakra, which strengthens the link with prophecy. However, the blue coloration means that the Jay does not carry a shadow symbolism like the inward seeking Raven or Crow. The Blue Jay is more extroverted.

The Blue Jay’s messages cannot be catalogued for symbolic reference—the cries are too voluminous for that—but he’s definitely got information to unload. He is alert, interested in his environment, and more perceptive than you or I. We can dismiss him as noisy, pushy, and common, but these are the very qualities that call out for our attention. The Blue Jay knows his business—and everyone else’s, too.
Photo Manjith Kainickara.

Photo Manjith Kainickara.


Bessette, Alan E. et al. Birds of the Adirondacks: A Field Guide. Utica, NY: North Country Books, 1993.

Hilton Jr., B. “Boisterous Blue Jays.” Hilton Pond Center.

Marzluff, John M. and Tony Angell. In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Seriously Science. “The Blue Jays are Coming! Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Nuts!” Discover Magazine.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Blue Jay.”

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