In the Valley of Your Hunger
Think on a time when you were sick with love and lust for someone. He didn’t know that you existed, but all you could think about all the time was him. You tried to will him to just love you back or at least kiss you until your heel popped like a starlet in an old movie, but he never even spoke directly to you and probably never even knew your name.
Remember when you were in love with your best friend and she would hold your hand sometimes or brush the hair out of your eyes and smile at you like she wanted to kiss you forever and your heart would feel like it would become uncaged from your ribcage. You would stay up all night talking and get ready for the party together, and you knew everything about each other except that you were desperately in love with her. You had moments here and there where you thought maybe she knew, maybe she would do something about it, but you were too paralyzed to ruin everything. She never breathed a word that she knew how you felt until you drifted apart, and now you’re not even social media friends.
Evoke the memory of when you were in love with your sister’s boyfriend and how he smelled when you would hug each other, both holding on for just a few moments too long and how you would always fight with each other about the dumbest things so neither of you would have to face how you felt for each other, your sister unknowing that when she fell asleep on the couch you both would nearly set each other’s heads on fire with the intensity of your unblinking staring into each other’s eyes until she woke up. The one time he invited you over because your sister was at a band rehearsal and he wanted to show you a meteor shower with his telescope in his backyard and when you felt his breath on your ear, your knees went weak but you said you had to go home. They broke up a couple months later, he started dating someone else, and you never spoke of it.
Whatever iteration this forbidden attraction manifested in your life, think about how it made you feel. The way your pupils would dilate, your breath would catch, the acceleration of your heartbeat, the thrill that would pulse through your veins from the forbidden and unconsummated and what that felt like.
Austerity Is for Everyone
Austerity can do that for you. Austerity can take that anguish, that burning and yearning and make it into a blaze for your Great Work. It can make you hollow, beautiful, and glorious. On its surface, austerity may seem like something that is at a cross-purpose to glamour, but that’s a very shallow reading of both austerity and glamour. Glamour is the tool you are using in your Great Work, and austerity is the whetstone you are honing your weapon against. Suffering for one’s art has long been considered erotic, agonizing for one’s lover, spirit, or goddess even more so. There’s something about that combination of pain and ecstasy that has fascinated the average human long before Secretary.
Anchorites were the epitome of austerity in the early Middle Ages, and almost every village in England had one. As an anchorite, your only concerns would be to be engaged in prayer regularly, fasting and other devotions, offering makeshift confessions, eating the food that was given to you, and reading a lot. An anchorite would be given her last rites before entering her anchorhold as it would be expected that as she was sealed up into her anchorhold, she would first spiritually die and be spiritually reborn a living saint in her hold and then eventually bodily die in her anchorhold.
Her hold would be sealed up and she would be entombed in it. An anchorhold was attached to a church most of the time. It had to have three small windows: one facing out into the street where people would come and visit the anchoress and receive wisdom and guidance from her, an internal window facing the church altar, and a window for the anchorite’s caregivers to tend to her bodily needs. Her hold would be about fifteen feet square unless it was part of a private estate. If you got to dictate the terms of the building of your hold, it was permitted by church law that it could hold up to two servants. Anchorite life was typically reserved for women (and men) of education as they were supposed to spend more time reading than in prayer.
It was a heady combination of being completely enmeshed in secular life and completely set apart by it. For a woman, this was an especially excellent opportunity as it meant that you would not be subjected to your husband’s whims, or death in childbirth (though plague was still possible), and be allow to read and be left alone for most of your time while still engaging with the outside world. Anchorites were told to be careful not to put on airs, as they would have access to all the juicy local townie gossip as well as a special standing in the church, especially if they were female anchorites.
There was a rather liberal policy about male visitors and hands would creep through the window from the street for you to decide to dismiss immediately or clutch onto. You weren’t even a nun, necessarily, and the only person you had to take orders from was your bishop who entombed you. Your confessor would oversee your decision-making process as an anchorite and keep you set on your path of various devotions and services, when you weren’t literally digging your own grave with your hands for sport in your spare time. Depending on who you were betrothed to, this would still often be a more enjoyable life for many.
Despite (or perhaps because of) being walled in, it was a very freeing life for many anchorites. Your food would be taken care of for you, men were constantly trying to seduce you through the window, and you’d have a lot of time to write and mend clothing as well as command appearances from important people in your community when you weren’t busy fasting, committing austerities, and receiving holy visions. This was an exciting amount of power for women especially to access. If you weren’t leading revolutions as an abbess or plotting civil war as a courtly lady or queen, this was a good path to power and influence as a woman in the Middle Ages. It was however, a fairly limited path; even for upwardly mobile Middle Ages power girls there were only so many anchorholds to accommodate budding anchorites.
The Reluctant Wife and Prioress
While it is not known if Heloïse wanted to be an anchorite, it is certainly within the realm of possibility, given her desire to eschew marriage and family, stopping only for her passion for her lover. Heloïse knew what it was like to burn for her lover and lead an austere life. She fell in love with her tutor, Peter Abelard, when he moved into her uncle’s home where she resided in France. Already the most famous female scholar in France, Heloïse was likely not too much younger than Peter and their mutual intellect inspired a flurry of passionate love letters between the two as they conducted a scorching illicit love affair under Heloïse’s uncle’s nose.
Birth control was not really on the table in the twelfth century, so all that love-making eventually resulted in Heloïse becoming pregnant. Peter sends Heloïse to his sister’s home in Brittany where Heloïse gives birth and then likely foists off their child, Astrolabe, on Peter’s family as her thoughts on children aren’t especially enthusiastic when she wrote, What man, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children … ? And what woman will be able to bear the constant filth and squalor of babies?
When her uncle learns of their doings, he is furious. Getting knocked up as an unmarried young woman has started many hand-wringing reality television shows in the twenty-first century, you can imagine how well it was received in the twelfth century, especially since both parties were nobility and unmarried. Heloïse’s uncle demands they get married, and Peter, feeling bad about the situation, agrees.
It is actually our budding twelfth-century radical (even by today’s standards) feminist Heloïse who is completely disgusted at the prospect of marriage. She later writes to Peter, I never sought anything in you except yourself … I looked for no marriage bond … if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore. Peter is very persuasive, however, and she is in love with him, so she reluctantly agrees.
Here is where things start to become interesting. Once everyone’s on board, Peter essentially says, “Oh hey, this is totes a secret marriage. That’s cool, right?” As we have learned from Elizabeth Woodville previously, that is completely uncool, Peter. In the Middle Ages, it meant you were up to some shady business. Heloïse responds with something like, “ … Okay. I guess. As previously discussed, I, like, don’t even want to marry you to begin with, so whatever.” Peter comes back with, “Great! So, um, I’m just going to hide you away in an abbey until things with your uncle calm down.” Heloïse is not particularly into this idea but wants them to eventually live like normal people and grudgingly consents. No one knows what Peter’s intent was—it could have been to shield Heloïse, it could have been to make sure his reputation wasn’t damaged (something he will personally set fire to himself a bit later), or it could have been he was feeling done with Heloïse and her uncle, trying to slither out the back door to parts unknown to continue being a philosopher.
We’ve already established that Heloïse’s uncle has anger management issues. When he sees that Peter is potentially trying to dodge his husbandly duties, he gathers up a bunch of his bros and decides to attack Peter in his studio apartment. Heloïse’s uncle castrates Peter, as one does in this situation, I suppose. Peter is now overcome with shame and remorse about his illicit affair, his crummy husbanding, his lovechild, and now has a physical reminder about why he was a bad pony.
He decides to take holy orders and decides Heloïse should do the same. Again, Heloïse is not very into this, but Peter has run off to a monastery anyway so what the hell, may as well become a prioress because she is still super brilliant. She likely figures they will see each other once in a while and will tongue kiss and continue their letters, a reasonable compromise for their situation.
For his part, Peter decides to not speak to her for twelve long years while he is busy nearly getting excommunicated for heresy (likely only saved from that due to his family’s importance) and alienating every other monk he lives with until he’s convinced that they are trying to poison him. He is a pain to live with and very self-righteous, so maybe. That said, he’s still completely brilliant, and eventually Heloïse finds a document he wrote called Historia Calamitatum, wherein he has decided he forced himself on Heloïse and now feels super sorry about it. Heloïse writes him to remind him how passionate and awesome their love is, but Peter is having none of it, even when Heloïse (truly!) writes to him in detail about thinking about their sex life during Mass.
Completely annoyed, as she wanted neither to be married nor a nun but has only done both for Peter due to how crazy in love with him she is, Heloïse thinks to herself something along the line of:
“He doesn’t want to get all Thornbirds with me, fine. But I’ll be goddamned if he thinks he can ignore me. I have not put up with all of this nonsense at the abbey for twelve years doing everything that is boring and terrible for Peter to simply self-flagellate for the rest of our lives and be completely unbearable as a correspondent to add insult to my injury. I will politely tell him that he’s a jerk and has caused me nothing but sorrow for the last twelve years while I’ve been doing nothing but thinking about him while living in this dump with these psychotic women, and tell him I will no longer speak of this to him. Instead, I will change the rules of engagement and remind him that I’m capable of speaking about all of this tedious God stuff, too. I will ask his opinion about every difficult detail of the Bible that I can think about so he pulls himself together and has some more impressive writing to show for it, at least. Meanwhile, I guess I’m stuck managing this nightmare so I guess I’ll get good at it.”
They exchange long, thoughtful letters about the mysteries of Christianity, and Peter writes some really great things inspired by Heloïse. As they both were aging, he wrote to her to ask to be buried beside her, which made enduring all of this garbage at least somewhat palatable to Heloïse, who now feels content to have served as his muse and secure in the knowledge that his life was completely meaningless without her and they died, happily ever after.
Lessons from Hel
You may still be dismissive of austerity as a Witch; understandably so. Heloïse sure wasn’t into it by choice, though she learned to lean in. If you had decided to cast off the shackles of sin and run toward debauchery as you embraced Witchcraft, it sounds terrible. If you felt oppressed by other people in power telling you what to do as often they told you what not to do as well, nothing about austerity sounds appealing when you could be engaging in the more enjoyable worldly pursuits such as dancing naked around a bonfire; engaging in hot sexual affairs with whomever(s) you have chosen; and consuming a decadent amount of red meat, cheese, and chocolate while drinking and smoking everything that isn’t nailed down. It’s understandable that you are not eager to voluntarily give these things up. Most of us don’t like being told what to do.
However, here is where real austerity (instead of rote austerity you are performing to please others) gets sexy. No one is telling you what to do. You are telling you what to do. You are deciding what to set aside, for how long, and to what purpose. This is an excellent use of your time for many reasons: if you are constantly engaging in blood orgies or sloth or whatever your worldly pursuit of choice may be, you start to become jaded to it. The more cynical you become about your excesses, the less interesting they are to you as a person. You will hopefully lead a very long life, so having periods of voluntary abstention will assist you to not become tired of everything you once enjoyed. Too much in the world will also leave you satiated, slow, and lazy. Austerity will burn away that slowness, especially if you are willing to dig into those vices that give you the most trouble.
In Hinduism, a religion that pre-dates Christianity by about fifteen hundred years, austerity is called tapas. When you are performing tapas in Hinduism either by choosing to refrain from specific vices or performing specific difficult tasks such as sitting in front of a bonfire at noon in summer, sitting naked in the snow at night in the winter, standing on one foot for an extended amount of time, meditating for extended amounts of time, performing japa (mantra using prayer beads) for long periods of time, and other difficult tasks, you are raising heat to either burn off previous wrongdoings or to possibly end the universe if you are so inclined. This is why the Hindu goddesses do their best to distract you with material gain, so that you can’t ask for favors that will cause nothing but problems but they will be honor bound to give you. Hindu lore is filled with examples where people and demons did extensive amounts of tapas and nearly broke the universe. It’s also filled with stories of devotion and how tapas can bring you your passion, even if you want to marry a god.
Parvati Likes a Boy (God)
In her first incarnation, she was Sati. Sati was to marry Shiva, but Shiva runs with a really rough crowd of cremation ground dudes that look like they were part of a Guillermo del Toro movie. As you can imagine, this goes over about as well as you would expect it would with a very traditional father. Sati’s dad is horrified and immediately begins to talk to anyone who would listen about how horribly behaved Shiva and his crew are. Sati is so ridiculously in love with Shiva and is so embarrassed by her father, she chooses to sets herself on fire.
Shiva goes completely crazy because he was desperately in love with Sati. He goes on a rampage, refusing to willingly part with her body and destroying everything in his wake. Eventually, Vishnu is able to take Sati’s body for burial and talks Shiva down. Shiva doesn’t want anything to do with the world anymore, so he goes into a catatonic meditative state.
Parvati’s parents wanted her to marry someone who wasn’t in a coma with really poorly-kempt dreads. Like … anyone else. But Parvati was determined to marry Shiva and wouldn’t hear of anything else. She starts performing tapas to get his attention. Her parents figure she’ll grow out of it. But Parvati is so determined to marry Shiva that nothing can stop her. She launches into a full training/tapas montage, determined to get his attention through the heat of her intention. She stops eating meat, rice, and even leaves until all she eats is air. She sits nude in the snow and wears her winter clothes in the summer in front of a blazing bonfire. Look at me. Look. At. Me.
Years go by and her austerities become more and more intense until the heat she is generating, the strength of her devotion, and her beauty awaken him and he realizes she was Sati and now has come back as Parvati. He immediately rejoins the world and falls in love with her. They get married and spend an eternity together laughing, fighting, making up, making love, and keeping the world moving.
Lessons from Parvati
Austerity demonstrates to your goddesses, spirits, and people around you that you are serious about your intention with your Great Work; it’s how Parvati managed to snag Shiva. It demands attention as it shows your dedication. It’s why it’s part of just about every world religion—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Much like our other weapons we’ve discussed that are less enjoyable than simply buying a new lip gloss and calling it a day, it is still a tool you have the ability to use and should not be tossed on the ground, dismissed out of hand. Giving up vices for specified periods of time creates space inside yourself so you can become hollow enough to make room for new concepts, dreams, and ideas to take root inside your inner terrarium.
Austerity Is Both Revelatory and Tedious
With enough devotion, ideas will become flora and fauna that you never knew existed inside yourself. You will find strength and energy you never knew you had. You will first feel the heady toddler rush of saying no to something you wanted to say yes to. You will feel the longing and burning for that thing you have chosen to forsake. You will be able to taste, see, touch, and smell it without actually imbibing in it. It will be a mystical time of grand revelations and endorphins when anything feels possible and nothing scares you anymore. But then you will be tired, angry, sad, and you will feel like your austerity is meaningless because the contact high has worn off. No one around you seems to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it, and you have begun to lose sight of it yourself. Your austerity has started to feel like endless toil and drudgery. You start looking for ways to cheat your intention. It’s not really a second portion if it’s different food that didn’t fit on the plate. Drinking vodka is okay because you gave up wine. It’s not sex if you are sceneing at an S & M club. What will it matter if you just cheat once? You know that you know better; you know that your goddesses and spirits will know better too. So you burn in misery, without any of the rush, sometimes quibbling over the specifics for relief. But you keep working at it.
Sound familiar? Like your Great Work, perhaps? Austerity is one of the hardest kinds of glamour you can perform: one part opera, one part performance art, and one part interpretive dance. It showcases how much you are Other, how much you’ve chosen to set yourself apart, it shows that you are in a staring contest with the universe and you’re starting to feel lucky. It’s tedious and difficult but when you aren’t making traction in your Great Work, it can open doors that were previously closed to you and help you find secret passages you didn’t know existed. It requires you to be brave, motivated, and true. It also requires some serious thinking because you should never, ever make a vow to your goddesses and spirits and then break it. Why? If you think you had problems before, well, a vow is a serious thing and they take them very seriously. Failure to hold up your side of the bargain will likely result in crossed conditions and even less progress in your Great Work. Don’t overpromise, just deliver.
Esoteric Experiment No. 16
Objective: Undertake an austerity.
Dress for the black ops mission that you are about to undertake. Write your intended austerity in exact detail, including any exceptions and the length of time you are undertaking this for. Your missive should be sealed in red wax with something from your person that matters to you—a braid or a lock of hair, blood drawn from your finger, or a jeweled piercing. At midnight, go to a crossroad. Bring offerings of your austerities and your letter. Use your glamour to give an invocation to the universe, your goddesses, and spirits about what you will be giving up so that they will notice you. Give an impassioned cry for all that you desire. Leave your offerings and your desire at the crossroads, and don’t look back. Embark on your austerity as you let the world burn inside you.
Glamour and Great Work Final Check-In
1. 1. How will you work with others to achieve your Great Work?
2. 2. How will you use your glamour to influence others?
3. 3. How will you overcome hurdles to achieve your Great Work?
4. 4. How will you use glamour to keep yourself inspired?
5. 5. How will you use your glamour and practical work when you are in uncomfortable situations?
6. 6. How will you manage failure in your Great Work? How will you manage success in your Great Work?
7. 7. How will you make austerity part of your glamour?
8. 8. If you have not achieved your Great Work yet, what do you need to work on to get there?