“Familiar Spirits”

Something light for a Wednesday…

Wikipedia: “In European folklore and folk-belief of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, familiar spirits (sometimes referred to simply as “familiars” or “animal guides“) were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist witches and cunning folks in their practice of magic. According to the records of the time, they would appear in numerous guises, often as an animal…”

If there is one thing that folklore seems to have gotten right about witches and pagans, it is that we like our animals. In some cases, LOTS of animals.

And why not? Having animals can ease depression, reduce sense of loneliness, lower blood pressure and even reduce the chance of stroke or heart attack (study sources on the last page).

The handsome girl above is Miri, the Very Soft Cat. She is named for a medieval song, “Miri It Is Wel Sumer Il Laugh With Fugheles Songe”, or “merry it is while summer laughs with birds’ song”.

Miri, like most cats, has an unerring sense of where attention is being paid, and makes a beeline to that spot. Typing? Cat wants to be on the keyboard. Ritualing? Cat wants to settle down right in the middle of any Focus I might create for my ritual work.

It’s just a thing. Like a box in the middle of the floor is apparently irresistible. I don’t claim to understand it.

Despite these near-universalities (and a brain the size of a walnut), each such creature has its own unique personality. They are individuals, and we love them for their idiosyncrasies.

Despite the not-so-occasional annoyance, the presence of M. the V.S.C. in my life is an unmitigated positive. There is something marvelous—and a little weird, when you think about it—about having a little animal that slinks about the house and makes itself a part of our household. And her affection, sparingly doled out as it is, adds to my life tremendously.

I think it speaks well of us Pagans, that so many of us have these “familiar spirits”. It speaks to our ability to give and receive love, which is the most potent form of magic there is.

What’s the most interesting thing about your “familiar spirits”?



Sifting for Gold

It’s a soft, rainy spring day. I’m grateful for the rain—we need it—and for the lush green it has brought to the hills and meadows, the vineyards carpeted with bright mustard flowers.

These are such challenging times. The circumstances of my personal life are stressful and frightening; the broader culture is caught in the nightmare of Donald Trump’s willful smashing of all that is decent and righteous. Friends are struggling to make ends meet; my area is still grappling with the incomprehensible shock of last October’s wildfires.

As I said: challenging.

I find times like these—although, to be fair. there have never been times as extreme as these in my lifetime—to seriously challenge my Atheopagan practice and living. “What’s the point?” is an easy place to land. And in times when dystopian futures seem to dominate our fiction and our cultural media, the idea of a better future just seems steadily to be receding away from us.

More than ever, though, this is when the restorative power of Atheopagan practice is what we need.

Get out into nature. Breathe clean air and see some green, some beauty. Beauty is restorative for us humans. It helps us to carry on.

Listen to music that moves and inspires you.

Dust off that Focus (altar); clean it and rearrange it. Light a candle. Burn some incense. Put on that piece of ritual jewelry and wear it under your clothes, carrying the special secret of your spiritual life with you. Murmur magic words. Get your practice going again: just do it.

Watch something uplifting and hopeful. Read a book that makes you cry with happiness. Go to an art museum…or a natural history museum, and revel in the marvels of the works of humanity and of nature.

Spend time with those you love. Tell them so. Talk about things that are real.

Do something for the world. Volunteer for a nonprofit, or a political campaign. Spend an hour writing postcards to voters in another state: it’s easy, personal, and effective.

Help someone.

No gold pan ever contained nothing but gold. We must swish and sift and have patience. We must do the work of reminding ourselves how amazing, how precious it is that we have this life, and of the glittering jewels that populate it even when so much is gray.

What we can’t do is sit and do nothing as our mood and sense of wonder and joy in living slowly collapse.

Consider the recently departed Dr. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), a man who overcame tremendous physical challenges to live a life filled with wonder, curiosity, love, discovery and adventure. The outpouring of love and appreciation following his death make it clear that his was a life richly and completely lived.

If he could do it, we all can.

We are not the kinds of people who age into bitterness. We have tools and strategies to keep that fate away from us, if we choose to use them. We understand the technologies of happiness and meaning. We know how to make them; we must simply choose to do so.

There is gold to be sifted from our days—even these days. It’s on us to find ways to be happy and functional even when circumstances conspire to make it hard.

Go get the joy, friends. Rediscover what makes you happy and excited.

Be happy. It’s contagious.




Woodland Dreaming: Missing Ancient Ways

I’m back from Pantheacon, and had a wonderful festival again. I was involved in three conference offerings—a ritual for activists (“Arming the Earth Warriors”), a mixer for non-theists, and the annual ritual by the Spark Collective, of which I sit on the Core group—and all were well-attended and received. Our non-theist ritual had nearly twice as many attendees as did last year, so things are growing.

As for the conference itself, it was a flurry of reconnecting with friends I rarely get to see, late-night parties (followed by early-morning work shifts), resultant sleep deprivation and diligent efforts to make sure I remained fed, hydrated and grounded. It’s an otherworldly environment where there is always a lot going on, and there is no possible way to be everywhere you would like to be at any given time.

I’m glad to be on staff at Pantheacon, which allows me to attend and have a room for free in exchange for hours of labor, and to be a part of producing it for the greater community. People come from all over the world to attend.

There used to be another gathering produced by the same people who put on Pantheacon. It was an outdoor festival that took place in the summer, and it was called Ancient Ways. I found myself thinking about it this weekend.

Ancient Ways had, in many ways, a similar format to Pantheacon: there were a schedule of workshops held in various gathering places, some large scheduled rituals, and an area where vendors set up pavilions to sell their wares.

That said, the atmosphere was completely different. Attendees camped in tents,  throughout a broad meadow or in the mixed oak/bay laurel/madrone woods surrounding it. A central building housed a space for workshops, a commercial kitchen and space where those who needed indoor accommodations could stay. And there were hot and warm pools for swimming and lounging, trails with magnificent vistas of the California coastal mountains, showers and bathrooms with flush toilets. It was a beautiful place, and it was clothing optional, so if you wished you could truly be out under the sun as Nature produced you.

All these places are gone or radically changed. Harbin Hot Springs, the venue, burned in the Valley fire that ravaged Lake County in 2016. It is rebuilding, but it will not be the same.

But that’s not why Ancient Ways is no longer held. It shut down long before that, with declining attendance even as Pantheacon, at an urban convention hotel, continued to grow. Ancient Ways ran from 1983 to 2008, and then, it was over.

What this says about the Pagan community is…complex. I believe that a part of what killed Ancient Ways was simply that many habitual attendees were aging. They were no longer comfortable camping on the ground, or they needed a place to plug in C-PAP machines, or the long windy drive to Harbin became too much for them. And what I have observed is that overall, Pagans—to their credit—have fewer children than non-Pagans, so a “replacement population” wasn’t really coming up.

The organizers, too, were getting older. They might not have wanted to camp, either. Or maybe it just didn’t make enough money to seem worth it.

But oh, to walk naked under a full moon, with the shadows of the trees dappling the ground! To loll in the warm water with friends, murmuring and laughing. To dance around a ritual fire in the wild, and not around electric candles in a hotel ballroom.

To my knowledge, there is no longer a Pagan festival on the West Coast in a natural setting which accommodates 300-500 people, as did Ancient Ways. We are in fire country, and it is exceedingly difficult to find a place where you can safely have a bonfire in California summer. The closest thing I have found is Ignite, a delightful Fire Circle community event, in July in the Santa Cruz mountains. Its capacity is about 75 attendees. (If you have a chance, I strongly urge you to join us for this joyous, meaningful, beautiful gathering.)

But Ancient Ways rituals were awe-inspiring. The sheer number of people involved in the rituals made for a primordial power, lit by the dancing flames, our feet in the good Earth’s dirt, tree branches arching into the light at the periphery. Together in our diversity, in our tribal sameness, under the winking stars.

It felt like what Paganism is supposed to be.

I miss it.