Steps Along the Path
The shape of the wildwood mystic’s path is not like that of a straight track, from a to b, in a linear progression. It is more of a spiral from a to be, on which we travel between the three realms. I cannot draw this symbol as a diagram, because it is not a straightforward winding up and down. The shape is more like that of a spiralling labyrinth, twisting and turning one way and then another, moving us towards the heart of one or other of the three realms — and then back out again.
There is an ancient glyph, the triple spiral, in which three flat spiral shapes are connected from a central point. It looks something like this.
This is a simplification, in which our labyrinthine spiral in and out of three realms is encapsulated.
Another symbol for us to meditate upon is that of the famous ’Cretan’ labyrinth — which shape is found carved on rock faces or standing stones from Greece to Britain to North America.
The labyrinth’s meaning is that turning inwards, to the underworld or upperworld, or the psychic dimension of middle Earth, is always followed by a return to the outer or everyday world, bearing the spiritual insights or psychic gifts which we have gained. This works in exactly the same way that sitting down to mull things over is followed by a decisive action. Therefore, the symbol describes a natural process which we have all experienced, in one form or another.
The point is that each time we go within, we are transformed, however slightly. We will have learned something and also been in communion with spirit, which will have altered our innermost being. The goal is to come into harmony within ourselves, with one another and with all life. The means by which we hope (however many lives it takes) to achieve this, is the development of wisdom. We journey in quest of that. The path is a labyrinthine spiral that stands up, vertically (luckily, we do not need to visualize that to be walking it!).
To a witch, the process of turning within is symbolized as an anticlockwise movement, called going ’widdershins’ or ’moonwise’. We can dance or twirl or circle widdershins, to help bring about the altered consciousness needed for inner work. On such a journey within, we may encounter obstacles like our own fears or prejudices, society’s phobias in the form of our conditioning, or various spirits, who test and challenge us. On arriving at the centre, some knowledge is gained, some monster faced out and/or some new magical ability attained. We then return (clockwise or deosil, as it is symbolized) into outer consciousness, stronger and richer in insight, more able to be creative with magic and in all ways.
In formal ritual, the widdershins dance or walk is often used to banish something, and the deosil (clockwise) dance to build power. Upon the wildwood mystic’s path, what we are banishing, when we turn widdershins, are the worldly distractions that prevent psychic communion with spirit realms. What we are aiming to build, on our deosil return, is a creative life, a wiser self, and a more harmonious world.
Deliberately undertaken spirit journeys are not the whole story. These open the three realms for us, in terms of understanding, and give us magical insights and assistance, as described in the previous chapter. But also, they mimic a much larger and more long-term process which is happening for us all, whether consciously using spiritual practices, or not. Wildwood mysticism is, after all, about natural spirituality, that which is simply endemic to everyone’s existence, and not optional. We all, whether witches or not, descend to the underworld at certain times in our lives, and in our dreams. Within this place, we struggle with our inner selves. Psychological tangles and distorted emotions must all be processed or healed in the underworld, however long it takes. As well as that, our souls gain in psychic richness down in the depths. It is here that we learn to respond to art and poetry, to be capable of passionate love and to experience the mystery of a birth or bereavement, as well as the risk or pain.
Sometimes, we can get stuck, uncomfortably, in the depths. Mental illnesses and depression can spring from avoiding the proffered insights and from confusion about which way to turn, to reach the centre (or the bottom) where the healing wisdom lies. I am sure we can all remember times when we have been stuck like this for long months or even years. That does not make it a bad place. In fact, I am tempted to say it is the most important of the three, or the one in which the most crucial work must be done, anyway.
To go back to our image of the tree, the world tree, if the roots were not healthy, the trunk, leaves and branches (all creation) would be doomed. The same goes for each one of us, as individual ’trees’. We cannot live creative, wise, environmentally sound lives unless, psychologically, we are reasonably healthy. We cannot get a full sense of life’s meaning and sacredness unless we are faerie-led into the realms of creative play, stories, make-believe and magic. Any child knows this but, as adults, we can forget. It is part of a witch’s job to remember it, for the world’s sake.
When we spiral inwards in middle Earth, we are learning the sacredness of nature, the presence of nature spirits, the holiness of the body, the consciousness-expanding properties of sexuality and many other wonderful things. Here, through contact with plants and creatures and elements, we gain much healing. Friendship with animals, talking to plants, daydreaming in woodland glades, and other similar often-mocked but valuable activities, are all a part of this process. Our struggle, as we turn outwards back into the world, is how to integrate an awareness of nature’s wisdom with our physical survival, our practicality. It may not be going too far to say that if, as a culture, we do not achieve this middle Earth initiation, we will not survive. It means living wisely and kindly upon the Earth, creatively, with respect for all species. The keyword here is ’environmentalism’, based in our actual spiritual experiences of being at one with all life, a child of Mother Earth. This is one reason that Paganism is currently what the world most needs to hear about.
In the upperworld, we turn within for our inspiration, in terms of ideals: the vision of the ideal life, and ideal world; the principles that we live by; transcendence of our own personal worries or desires, for the sake of our beliefs or the common good. The world’s mainstream or dominant religions have tended to focus most strongly on upperworld concerns, aiming straight for the top. This has meant relegating the realms of middle Earth and the underworld to an alleged dimension of evil — because both sensuality and magic dwell there, and because the underworld’s buried truths may be subversive to any hierarchical organization. My second book Lamp of the Goddess deals in some depth with these issues.
At present, we have a culture in which fixed and rigid ideologies too often take the place of visions that genuinely serve the common good. Aiming for the heights of academic qualification or successful commercial output can override true inspiration. We do not look at nor value the Earth that we are standing on, except as material to be exploited. We do not honour our deeply held feelings, nor the magic inherent in life, because we have been taught to regard these as sinister and dangerous. But, as the briefest glance round our world indicates, it is a mistake to go to the upperworld until we have explored both middle Earth and the underworld extremely thoroughly.
This point is recognized in organized Wicca. Within witches’ covens, there are three grades or initiations, available to all. The first degree initiation is that of middle Earth. Here, the neophyte witch learns something of nature’s wisdom and sacredness, comes to understand the cycle of seasons and the Moon’s phases, and also acquires some practical skills, like the making of incenses, wands and so on. She or he must also know something of the magical symbolism of plants and creatures. The development of some magical crafts — hands-on activities like the building of fires, the sewing of ritual robes and the making of bread or wine — might also be expected. This initiation is taken successfully when we understand that all objects and creatures and places — all beings — are spirit in a manifest form.
The second degree initiation is that of the underworld. The witch of this grade understands inner demons within the psyche, has met with faeries, can read the future and knows — or should — at least something about how to heal psychic pain, create a good psychic atmosphere, tell a healing story or create magical artwork. Strictly speaking, we cannot attain this grade without having faced inner truths — the truth of our own soul.
Third degree witches, the high priestesses or priests, understand — or should — about the connection between our personal magic and universal forces. They see the large picture, aware that sex magic and group dynamics can not only be harnessed to serve the common good and the land, but also to make connections of many kinds between the divine and the mundane.
We are all, whether in covens or not, taking and retaking various forms of these three initiations continually, throughout all our lives — whether witches of any kind or not, and whether we know it or not. Each time we take each one we learn something new, and take it on a different arc of our understanding. The point, in the end, is to achieve wisdom, that we might all live in creative harmony with one another and all beings.
As wildwood mystics, whether we are witches or any other type of Pagan magical practitioner, we work consciously with this process. We do this in order to gain understanding and wisdom more easily and swiftly, and to access psychic dimensions for magic and healing. But we should be under no illusion that the three realms are specially ours, because we do magic — they are everybody’s, all beings are within them. What is ours, especially, is knowledge of them; not just as theory, but as experience.
If all this seems too complicated, don’t worry. For one thing, it is in the nature of mystery to defy attempts to explain it. So I’ll repeat, because it’s important: wildwood mysticism is what we experience, rather than what we conceptualize, within the psychic dimensions of the world tree. It is a living thing — unwieldy, fertile, paradoxical, exciting, puzzling. It is mysterious.
So what do we actually do on this path? What are our disciplines and techniques. After all that theory, I think I should summarize the practices of a wildwood mystic, as outlined in this book. Where does the path begin and how do we keep on treading it? Well, of course it begins at a tree. Here is a list of nine steps on the path. Once you have taken those, you will be shown what the next ones are by your familiars.
1Initiation on the path of the wildwood mystic, using the ritual described in chapter five, or something similar.
2The building of a wildwood altar within your home. This need not be exactly as described. In fact, it is better if your own creativity and interests are represented. However all three realms around the world tree should be shown, in some form. The simple vase of twigs to symbolize the entire tree is a good start.
3Design a Pagan prayer routine that can be used daily. If this seems daunting, just start with one-liners, such as, Great Goddess, let me be true to your purposes and so to my innermost self, or Great God, please guide me to magical knowledge. If short prayers like this are all that you can say, then perhaps they are all that you need, for the time being. Keep the commitment to saying them and they will blossom or transform, eventually.
4Take the initiation of the hedge witch, so that your mysticism may be dedicated to the service of life, through magical practices designed to heal and assist others and yourself. Use the ritual in chapter seven, or something similar. Or, if you prefer a more formal rite, use the one from the book Hedge Witch, or something of that kind.
5Meet with your familiar spirit/s, as described in chapter twelve. With their help, begin to go upon inner journeys, as described in chapter thirteen. Here is where you will gain magical insights that transform and strengthen you. Here, also, you will gain assistance with healing magic.
6Go upon pilgrimages in the outer world, too, as often as you can. Visit wild places. A wildwood mystic is not confined to a town or city, even if living there. She or he should make the most of any wild places that can be found in the town, or any holy wells or sites of beauty.
When it comes to places exemplifying the mysteries of middle Earth, you can visit local woodlands, public gardens, riverbanks or hills. Say prayers there for healing, guidance and insight.
As for the underworld, have you ever been to a magical island? There are many of them: Iona, Lewes — the whole of the Hebrides, really — the Orkneys, Lindisfarne, the Scillies, Lundy, Caldey Island and Anglesey, to name a few. Where are your local ones, whether you live in Britain or not? Are there any lake islands close to you? Have you ever been on a boat to an island, as a deliberate Pagan pilgrimage? When you go to such a place, you can pray that the veils will be parted for you, so that you gain entry to the otherworldly dimension, and so that you may receive guidance and healing from the island’s faerie folk. Then explore the place and see what happens.
Caves are a rather more obvious approach to the underworld. Near where I live there are famous ones — Cheddar and Wookey Hole. Of course, the tour guides do babble away constantly, as you go through with them. Sometimes their spiel is in bad taste and quite irritating. Nevertheless, places like Wookey Hole are fantastically potent for the Pagan mystic. The river Axe, which flows through these caves, is a British equivalent of the Greek river Styx. To cross it, by the narrow bridge that exists there, is a very profound experience — or can be. Prayers can be said for an inner purification or psychic transformation of ourselves, so that the crossing is a dedicated act, a ritual. For example, you can say, As I cross the river, may I move from death to life, my psychic senses cleansed and reborn. Indeed, such a crossing can be dedicated to many aims e.g. connection with the realm of spirits, increased psychological understanding, a better knowledge of fate, a new way of life that is more magical. Needless to say, any river or stream can be used as a substitute for the river Axe, if you do not live near to Somerset. At the source, each of them rises from underground.
Then there is the upperworld. Have you ever been to the London Planetarium? Looked through a powerful telescope at the stars and planets? Or, most importantly of all, stood somewhere out in the country and looked at the night sky? To do so within a stone circle can be especially wonderful. You can ask to be shown the connection between the stars and Moon (or Sun) and our Earth. After all, that is the main reason for which stone circles are believed to have been built — to celebrate and to amplify the physical, and the subtle or spiritual, aspects of these relationships, which create obvious cycles like the year and the month, and other less obvious ones, too. Having asked, you may see visions, or simply feel the links, the power of the stars upon Earth.
7With the help of familiar spirits, and as a result of your mystical experiences, begin to cast spells for all kinds of creative and healing purposes. If in doubt as to how to construct a spell, ask to receive guidance. Write down the ideas that familiar spirits have suggested, plus any information gained in your trance journeying. Proceed from there.
8Ground wildwood mysticism in your daily life. This may mean unglamorous tasks, like picking up litter on a local beach or clearing out lager cans from a spring or woodland pool. It will undoubtedly mean honouring the natural, and nature’s laws, in how we dress, what we eat, what we do with our time, how we treat our illnesses, what we teach our children. As wildwood mystics, it is the nature spirits who help and heal and instruct us — and the faeries, whose home is the realm of nature’s deep soul — so our lives reflect this, by the offerings we make to nature.
9Begin to link many magical intentions with your creative tasks. As already stated in earlier chapters, you can dedicate many activities, like sewing, dancing, poetry, making love, cookery, gardening, making music or writing, to magic. In time-honoured fashion, this is what has always been done in traditional witchcraft. Crooning a magical charm over sewing or weaving is an ancient practice. Poetry easily becomes enchantment — the rhythmic use of words for spellcraft. The witch’s cauldron is just a cooking pot, really. Shamanic healers and witches have always danced ritually, and so on. From doll-making to candle-making to herb teas (magical potions), witches have always used arts and crafts to express and to work magic. Ask your familiar spirits for guidance about the best ways to use your own talents or develop new ones.
These nine steps outline the practices of any wildwood mystic and hedge witch. They can be done in ways that are quite formal, utilizing the discipline of a full magic circle as described in many books on the Craft, or they can be done informally, as described in this book. All witches develop their own distinctive style. What works for you? This becomes clear when you are experienced.
Wherever you are in your life process — on the underworld quest for deep healing, enjoying inspiration from upperworld sources, or engaged in bringing up children or building some project that is creative in middle Earth — you can still visit the spirit dimensions of any of the three realms (or all of them) at any time, and so assist yourself and others. Which one do you feel at home in? I believe most witches are underworld creatures by nature, with one foot in fairyland. But remember, the world tree is three in one. The Great Goddess and the God are triple but are one. The three realms inter-relate, and there is no sharp line dividing them, nor limiting their work: starlight shines on the sea, the underground spring flows out into middle Earth, and some of the faeries who live in the hollow hills can fly.
The mystery is three in one and points to integration — a potential alignment within ourselves of divine inspiration with natural creativity and profound magic, or of spirit, body and soul. This is the fabulous and ideal theme within Paganism, the treasure we look for.