Not so long ago, the stereotypical witch’s prayer would be thought to run something like this: ’Great Demon, please give me lots of money. And the chance to go to bed with—I will kill three black hens and light black candles.’ Or some variation on that theme.
Nowadays, it is recognized that non-Christian prayers, even witches’ prayers, are not necessarily greedy or manipulative. Nevertheless, the subject of prayer is a loaded one. If you are a hedge witch or any other kind of Pagan, then you are clearly not praying to Jesus or the biblical God, but to the kind of deities described in the preceding chapter. Thanks, as I have said, to the legacy of the witch hunts, and today’s cult of horror movies, this can still be regarded as a daring and possibly dangerous thing to do. It is as though people feel that a little mild use of magic is one thing, but actually praying to Pagan deities is a serious, religious, spiritual matter. It shows a genuine stepping outside of the Christian fold. The making of another religious commitment. Scary!
At the other end of the spectrum is a totally different reaction. To many people, prayer is associated with a sanctimonious smugness that is unpleasant. We have the Victorian Church to thank for this, along with present-day hypocrisy. Though most people do pray, in moments of crisis, piety is just not sexy. In fact, most people would rather be caught having sex in public than saying a prayer!
Perhaps these two problems might cancel each other out for those considering the path of the wildwood mystic? Pagan prayers are very reverent, but on the other hand (having a flash of rebellion and addressing the deities of nature) they are, indeed, sexy.
Joking apart, the aim of this book is to show how a wildwood mystic prays and how she or he then works magic from that basis. For it is a path of entry into the Pagan realms of deep enchantment.
The word ’pray’ can be defined as the action of making a devout supplication to God, or an object of worship, to beseech earnestly or to summon to one’s support. ’Prayer’ can be defined as a solemn request to God, or an object of worship or an entreaty to a person.
This makes it sound as if all prayer is about saying ’Can I have’ or ’I want’ or ’Give me’. Even within the terms of a conventional or mainstream view of prayer, this is obviously too narrow a definition. For while most prayers are motivated by, and built around, a request for a healing or beneficial change, there are other strands. To begin with, there is an invocation of a deity, with a view to achieving a sense of communion (a healing and magical experience, in itself). There may be a celebration of a deity: that is, a joyful response, a sort of ’inner singing’. Again, this in itself is magical. There may be a thanksgiving, a grace. Or a verbal offering: that is, a spiritual vow. Blessings may even be conferred upon others, in the deity’s name. Almost all prayers contain more than one of these diverse themes. Magical prayers always do.
Having said this, the prayer that is probably most usual of all among human beings, is a supplication, a beseeching: ’HELP. If you’re there, show me what to do. Help me survive this!’ I would bet that, worldwide, this is the most common prayer, sadly.
So how do the more varied prayers of the wildwood mystic develop? One description of Pagan prayer came to me from one of my familiars, a British ’cunning man’ (a village wiseman), who was last incarnate in the ninth century. What follows is a transcript of the dialogue I had with him, using a type of automatic writing (which is to say, writing which is directed by a spirit presence — a written mediumship).
’Did you pray much when you were alive?’ I asked him.
’Surely, there is not a cunning man who does not pray?’ was his shocked reply.
’Did you have any special, particular prayers to say?’
’There is one that I say but it is secret. It is the heart of my power to bring healing.’
’Who taught it to you?’
’The spirits. I found it with their help. My sister found hers beneath a wind that was like a long, light blanket. But mine was underneath water.’
’How do you mean, it was under the water?’
’I swam and was under a long time, without breath, until it came to me, from the water spirits.’
’Can you tell it to me?’
’No, I have said it is secret. There are prayers to be said aloud and shared, and prayers to be held in silence.’
’How can the prayers that are most healing be found by today’s wisewoman and cunning men?’
’First, you must know the reality of death. You must feel in your spirit your own body’s mortality. That is what must be. But that is not all it takes. You must open your spirit to the prayers that are being said by all created things. Then let one claim you. With a light heart, you must be prepared to be possessed by the prayer.’
’Possessed? That’s a word most people find frightening. What does it mean, to be possessed by a prayer?’
’To let the prayer take command of your destiny.’
’How would we know if it was the right prayer, or not?’
’By its effect. By whether or not you could heal and bless with power. By the charms and songs you made, having said it. By whether or not your life had good purpose.’
’To whom should we pray?’
’To the powers of creation in all, from the star spaces to the worm belly. To the spirit of recovery from ill. To the spirit that brings wisdom through time. To these, or any other faces of what is good. To the Lady. Or to the Lord.’
’Why should a prayer be secret?’
’Most prayers are not. Most are to be shared. Hillsides are good places to pluck out prayers that are meant to be anyone’s to say. These can be said alone, or with many others. The spirits will tell you if a prayer is just for you to know, secretly.’
The cunning man went on to say that not all prayers have words — they can be enacted. A prayer can be a movement, a dance, the making of a picture, the placing of flowers in a room, some music, a herb potion.
Secret prayers — like Rumpelstiltskin’s name, or like certain Eastern mantras — depend for their power upon being told to nobody else. Secrecy remains an acknowledged aspect of modern witchcraft (in spite of the many books, like my own previously published ones, that have shared witches’ practices with the world). For there is an old tradition that when you have cast a spell, you should never speak of it to anyone — except, perhaps, to another witch. And amongst witches, there is the dictum that we must be able ’to know, to will, to dare and to keep silent’. You must know how to cast a spell, be determined to achieve your goal, have the courage to undertake the magic and, just as importantly, refuse to speak about it. The roots of a spell must always be concealed, like the roots of a plant, or nothing can grow. A magical prayer must be hidden, too. Or, at least, the one which is the heart of your power must be hidden. The cunning man’s secret prayer seems to be connected with these themes, and perhaps with the wish not to dissipate the power of his innermost spiritual commitment (the prayer he is ’possessed by’) by exposing it to everyone’s comments. Certain aspects of prayer have been, and remain, a private matter. However, the cunning man would always share in community prayer, or group ritual.
For today’s wildwood mystic, these distinctions still seem to be valid. However, since we are not practising a mainstream religion, our prayers are more likely to remain private, for the most part. In any case, wildwood mysticism, like hedge witchcraft, is mainly a solitary pursuit.
Likewise, the finding of the one secret prayer that is the heart of an increased magical power, is a solitary matter. It consists of being open to ’the prayers that are being said by all created things’: being able to hear what trees, rocks and hills might pray; knowing what prayers a hawk or badger or wren might say. In other words, to let nature spirits be our guides. This was the cunning man’s way, as he described it. The present day wildwood mystic may find his or her own most heartfelt prayer in some other manner. One thing is certain: it is not revealed to any of us until we are ready. Such prayers do not come immediately upon this path, but as a culmination of years of faithful exploration and experimentation.
The concept of the personal secret prayer is not, so far as I know, a recognized Pagan tradition. I only know of it myself because of the cunning man’s guidance, received psychically — but it is worth considering, if only because the search may be as worthwhile and interesting as the finding. Simply by keeping this quest in mind, we may make many magical discoveries and gain much mystical insight. At any time that you may have found such a prayer, then record it, say it regularly and study it’s meaning. It is able, spiritually, to set the tone of your whole life. It could change your destiny, because your spirit and soul and mind, and then circumstances, will be coloured by it (or so the Cunning Man tells me). A tantalising and exciting idea!
Within this book, I will explain how to design any hedge witch’s prayer, whether secret or shared openly. By sharing many of my own prayers, I hope to teach by example. The prayers in this book are all effective, in spite of being made public, but also I shall explain how to create fresh prayers, with the help of a familiar spirit. I shall unravel the technical aspect of prayers and their construction. However, you do not always have to write your own new prayers. It is fine to use any in this book, if they feel right to you, since all are based on traditional ideas. In any case, they may make a good starting point if you are new to wildwood mysticism and hedge witchcraft.
There is no hierarchy of prayer. The secret prayer is not better than the public or shared one, nor a new one necessarily better than one that has been tried and tested (or vice versa). They simply serve different functions.
Superstition has always surrounded the entire subject of prayer. For instance, the Egyptian Book of the Dead conveys the idea that repetition of certain prayers could ensure the favour of the Gods in the afterlife. Roman Catholics have tended to believe in a very similar theory: that the recitation of ’Our Father’ and ’Hail Mary’ a prescribed number of times is enough to get you back in God’s good books, after a wrongdoing. This is, of course, ridiculous. It is obviously changed behaviour that counts, not a mindless chanting of certain words, like a schoolchild doing ’lines’.
However, the repetition of prayers can have a part to play, for the genuine mystic. This is because it is rhythmic and semi-hypnotic and so can induce a light trance state, in which we may achieve communion with realms of spirit. Rhythmic chanting of a prayer can lull the everyday mind into quietness, in which a dreamier, more psychic state of mind can arise. Many witches use the chanting of Goddess names for this purpose — the prayer of invocation as a mantra.
But whatever kind of prayer we say, and whether repeated or not, to pray is to address mystery. For the wildwood mystic, this means to psychically enter the realm of the world tree.