X Marks the Spot

treasure-map-1
In magic we use symbols frequently: scrawled on a candle, a piece of paper, or even in dirt. The symbol X is a particularly versatile symbol that belongs in anyone’s bag of tricks.

I believe in general that a symbol, like a word, should have a clear definition, that it should mean something, but X is often the symbol for the unknown. In algebra, for example, it is used as the symbol for the unknown quantity and does not necessarily have a precise definition, which is not the same thing as saying it is undefined. It may be a real number, for instance, or a whole number, or a prime number less than 100. Likewise X in a magical equation can stand for a specific unknown – perhaps a manuscript that is sought whose title is unknown. In detective fiction, X often stands for an unknown person, either the person who commits the crime or some other enactor of an anonymous deed. You would not be using X in your magic to summon a criminal (at least I hope not), but X could stand for an unknown donor or other helper.

The X shaped rune gyfu means “A sign of hospitality and friendship, of joy and celebration.”* It may represent an offering to the gods or some other kind of gift. This interpretation of gyfu relates to another important intimation of the symbol X: as a mark on a map indicating the location of buried treasure. X can mean treasure or it can refer to the place that is sought, be it literal or metaphorical.

*D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes. (Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press), 1986.

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Wildcat Swipe

Wildcat illustration by A. Thorburn.

Wildcat illustration by A. Thorburn.


The persecution of cats in Western Europe during the Witch Craze is widely known. Under Christian influence cats were considered agents of the devil or witches in disguise. The terrifying specter of the cat may have pre-Christian antecedents in Celtic countries however. The legend of “King Arthur and the Cat,” though recorded well into Christian times, may reveal something about earlier Celtic attitudes toward the cat, attitudes possibly influenced by interactions with the indigenous wildcat.

The story begins with a fisherman alone in his boat making a vow to offer the first fish he catches to the Lord. But the first catch is unusually fine, so the fisherman hedges and says he will donate the second fish. The second fish is even bigger than the first, so the third catch is then offered. The third fish, however, is not a fish at all, but a small black kitten. The fishermen has need of a mouse catcher, so this third catch does not go to the Lord but is taken to the man’s home.

The kitten grows into a giant cat who eventually strangles the fisherman and his family, then escapes into the countryside where he wreaks havoc, taking many lives. The populace lives in terror and the land becomes desolate.

Eventually Merlin intervenes and enlists the aid of King Arthur. It takes both Merlin’s magic and Arthur’s courage to vanquish the cat, who attacks so persistently that the feet of the dead cat remain fastened to Arthur’s shield.

This fourteenth century French tale has parallels in the eleventh century Irish Voyage of Mael Duin and the sixteenth century English short story Beware the Cat. In all of these stories there is a fierce, implacable cat who takes human life. The cat in these cases does not follow the witch hunter’s narrative as a devilish seducer of the innocent: he is an agent of retribution for a serious offense against Celtic morality. In King Arthur and the Cat the sin is a broken vow, in Beware the Cat it is a brutal raid, and in Voyage of Mael Duin it is a violation of hospitality. The savage cat is not an expression of evil, but of justice.

The webinar “Magical History of the Cat” has been rescheduled for Monday, November 24th, so there’s still time to register. Details are at the webinar website.

Sources

“An Irish Odyssey: The Voyage of Mael Duin” in Celtic Mythology. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 1999.

Baldwin, William. Beware the Cat.

“Wilde, Lady Francesca Speranza. “King Arthur and the Cat” in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland.

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The Owner’s Handbook

Reminder: The Magical History of the Cat, a free webinar with yours truly, is this Monday November 10 at 7:00 Eastern Time. Here is the web page for the event. You may attend live or listen to the recording at your convenience. You must pre-register to attend or to stream the recording. You can register through the webinar webpage or through this link.

orangecat
They say you are a mystery
They say you have secrets you will not give up
I say they have not tried to understand

I will study you
Catalogue your movements
Write your words
Analyse your tastes
Cater to your preferences

I will let you decide whether we will pet or not pet
play or not play
I will let you hide in your solitude
I will accept chastisement when I leave the house
I will be the human you rely on
and I will apologize for being human

I will wonder why I am behaving so oddly
and friends will wonder when I became so strange

Then I can say with authority that you are mystery
Then I can speak honestly about secrets that cannot be known

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The Other Side of the Veil


Here is my interpretation of an ancient Egyptian poem from around 2000 B.C.E. The more literal translation comes from Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David.

The Goddess Maat

The Goddess Maat

Death is before me today
As a sick man recovering
returns to the out-of-doors

Death is before me today
As the myrhh-laden breeze
puffs the sails of ships along the river

Death is before me today
As the fragrance of lotus flowers
wafts over to the shore of drunkenness

Death is before me today
As a well-trodden path
leads a man home from war

Death is before me today
As a clearing sky
shows a man what he has forgotten

Death is before me today
As a man in captivity
pines for home

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Magical History of the Cat

Pregnant Lioness. Photo Robin Alasdair and Frederick Hutton.

Pregnant Lioness. Photo Robin Alasdair and Frederick Hutton.


Folk beliefs about the domestic cat have their roots in Egyptian lion worship. The famous cat goddess Bast was originally a lion goddess.

Registration is now open for the November 10 webinar “Magical History of the Cat.” The webinar will be happening at 7:00 pm Eastern Time. If you can’t make it then you can stream the webinar later, but you do have to register ahead of time.

I’ve made a website about the webinar that gives more information.

I will be at Barnes and Noble bookstore in Saratoga, New York on Sunday October 19th from 4:00 to 6:00 signing books.

Note to my regular readers: I have several more posts about postmodernism, but I’m currently backed up with material, so I’ll be posting the next one sometime next month. Posting postmodernism sounds like a postmodern poem, but I won’t be writing it.

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Ululations for the Departed


As the veil between the worlds grows thin and we reflect on those who have passed, I wanted to note the passing of three Pagan leaders since the last Hallow’s Eve. I hope this doesn’t become an annual column, but as our religions are maturing I fear that it will be.

Olivia Robertson. Source: Denns Murphy/Logic Reality

Olivia Robertson. Source: Denns Murphy/Logic Reality

Lady Olivia Robertson cofounded the Fellowship of Isis in 1976 with her brother Lawrence Durdin-Robertson and her sister-in-law Patricia Durdin-Robertson. She has been an active visionary guide of the Fellowship, which has a worldwide presence of about 26,000 people, and until recently kept an impressive travel schedule. Lady Olivia’s death was especially poignant since for over two decades she was the surviving cofounder of the Fellowship. Lady Olivia passed away on November 14, 2013 at the age of 96.

Lady Loreon Vigne. Photo: Eric Luse/SF Chronicle.

Lady Loreon Vigne. Photo: Eric Luse/SF Chronicle.

Those who have visited the Isis Oasis Sanctuary in Geyserville, California will remember founder Lady Loreon Vigne, who passed away on July 15. The Isis Oasis has been a Goddess affirming place for Pagans in Northern California to hold retreats and workshops. It is also the home of the Temple of Isis, where the Egyptian mysteries have been reestablished. Lady Loreon was known for her enthusiastic devotion to the goddess Isis. Though the Isis Oasis will continue on, Lady Loreon’s presence will be missed.

Margot Adler. Photo: Michael Para/NPR.

Margot Adler. Photo: Michael Para/NPR.

Margot Adler is known to millions as a popular journalist and radio personality for National Public Radio, but to Pagans she is recognized primarily for her 1979 book Drawing Down the Moon. This groundbreaking book introduced the world to the breadth and diversity of the modern Pagan movement and was especially important in connecting Pagans at a time when we were mostly hidden from each other. She died on July 28 in New York City.

Blessings and gratitude these important mothers of our religions.

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Truth and Postmodernism

beetsie

The point of postmodernism is to get as far away from anything real as possible.

–Catherine A. MacKinnon
Points Against Postmodernism


Over the past year or so I have made comments critical of postmodern philosophy on this blog and in private conversations with friends. I have referred people to the insightful feminist criticism on postmodernism that is available on the Internet, but I have realized belatedly that people who interact with me, virtually or in real life, would rather that I myself explained the concepts involved here and why they are problematic. In this series of articles I am going to explain what postmodern philosophy is and why I consider it incompatible with a spiritual path. If you do not care about philosophy or if the word “postmodern” causes your eyes to glaze over, this is an important article for you to read, because you have been affected (or infected) by postmodern ideas without realizing it.

We usually think of philosophy as belonging to an obscure and musty corner of academia having little to do with those of us in the real world. Philosophy is difficult and uses its own language, and philosophers for the most part are completely uninterested in making their ideas understandable to ordinary people. But while philosophy usually emerges from a rarefied and privileged atmosphere, it does not stay there. Eventually it moves into other academic disciplines, then into theology, pop psychology, art and politics. The postmodernism I am concerned with is the latter kind, the pervasive thinking inspired by postmodern philosophers (though not always faithful to them) that has bled into the mainstream and has taken people in some circles hostage. Unless we’re trying to show off, we do not call it postmodernism or any other name; we simply think of it as truth.

Postmodernism stands in opposition to the principle that complete and perfect truth exists and that it is useful. Whether it is attainable is a separate question; the premise of postmodernism is that any reality residing outside of an individual’s subjective mental state is not worth contemplating. My own belief is that truth exists and that it is endless and pervasive, bigger than any self or collective concept. The mother of all truth is time, and it is through time that truth reemerges from obscurity while falsehood dies and confusion disintegrates. Truth nourishes each individual through her umbilical cord, but the flow of her life blood can be constricted for a variety of reasons. Some have reduced the flow to a trickle by declaring that every half-baked idea that comes into their head is true. It is “their truth,” which is as good as any other thing labeled as “truth” because truth can only be understood by the individual through subjective reason. They may change and modify “their truth” after listening to others speak “their truth,” but they will do so only if this modification causes no discomfort or otherwise serves their own utilitarian purposes. There is no need to abandon self-serving views if all subjective truths are valid.

In the next post I will discuss the theoretical underpinnings for what results, in the real world, as the ultimate in rationalization.

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Some Announcements and My First Vlog

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Sheep Knuckles and Cylinder Seals


I’m blogging today about a piece of information about cylinder seals I ran across in a children’s nonfiction book on Mesopotamia. The book is Passport to the Past: Mesopotamia by Lorna Oakes.

Cylinder seals are small cylindrical carved pieces designed to make impressions in clay. They were used in Mesopotamia to sign documents and affix ownership. Kings, officials, and just about anyone with wealth or rank had their own unique seal which they guarded carefully. These seals might be carved of ivory, shell, bone, limestone, or lapis lazuli. According to Oakes, some believe these seals evolved from sheep knuckles used for the same purpose. The book has a picture of a seal with a knob in the shape of a sheep. I could not find a public domain photo of this cylinder, but I did find another cylinder pictured here that has sheep carved into its knob.

Cylinder seal. Top knob has a sheep design.

Cylinder seal. Top knob has a sheep design. Uruk 3200 b.c.e. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen.

The sheep knuckle is a small roughly square six-sided bone from the hind legs of the animal. This bone, or analogous bones from deer, antelope, and goats, has been ubiquitous in cultures all over the world. Most commonly it is used for playing games (knuckle bones were the prototype for gaming dice), but it is also used for divination and casting lots. Sheep knuckles have also been carved as amulets and votive offerings. Animal knuckles are often found in burial sites. I don’t know if the sheep knuckle could be used in forensics like fingerprints, but the pictures I’ve seen show considerable variation, so it’s plausible that indentations in clay from a sheep’s knuckle could have been used like a signature. A carved knuckle would have been even more recognizable.
Roman women throwing knuckles.

Roman women throwing knuckles.



I have quite a few books on Mesopotamia but none go into the evolution of cylinder seals. Oakes lists the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago as sources. If anyone has a written source about the role of sheep bones in the evolution of cylinder seals please let me know.

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