Sunday, July 23, 2017

Neighbourhood walks. It still feels a little illicit and shameful to say this, but I have started getting into witchcraft. People (including me) have all sorts of negative cultural associations with the Craft: that it means you're a hippie, or a pagan, or a teenage girl going through a phase, or that you're superstitious and believe in silly made-up nonsense. That you're a bit of a dickhead. That you spend way too much time on Tumblr.

But what has attracted me to witchcraft (I feel very weird about identifying as 'a witch' but describe myself as someone who is 'interested in witchcraft' – emphasis on the practice, not the identity) is that it's basically just about being in the world in a mindful way, and about being honest with yourself about the things you want, and projecting this intention and will into the world. Witchcraft is interested in how different natural elements interact with each other: the phases of the moon; the days of the week; plants and minerals and colours and animals. It's also interested in ritual and symbolism.

I've always been interested in all these things. Indeed, my increasingly over-elaborate mummy novel, for which I've done obsessive amounts of research into the folklore of plants, has helped prepare me for witchcraft's interest in 'correspondences': that is, what kind of objects and timings go well with different kinds of spells.

I've also become more and more aware of ritual and magical thinking in the non-witching world: mainstream and acceptable things that are really witchy when you think of them. Consider the birthday cake ritual: what else is it but a candle spell for long life? A coven gathers around an altar on which is set a baked amulet, made from grains that symbolise growth, eggs that symbolise fertility, milk that symbolises nourishment, and sugar that symbolises energy. Combined with the magic of fire, these elements transubstantiate; they become something else.

Candles are lit, symbolising the spell-subject's number of cycles of the sun, then in the darkness the coven chants the spell, directing their energies into the baked amulet in the centre of their circle, and willing happiness to the spell-subject, who blows out the candles to activate the magic. The coven calls on the Sky spirits three times – "Hip, hip, hooray!" Then the baked amulet is ritually sliced with an athame, taking care not to touch the underlying plate, and if it is dirty when removed, the spell-subject must perform an additional fertility spell by kissing the nearest person of their attracted gender.

Another source of magical thinking is the haircare industry. Your hair is dead skin cells and these products are just chemicals – as all matter in the world is – that coat the surface of the hair, but they get fantastical names and properties attached to them. They will apparently make hair glossy, strong and voluminous. If you want curly hair they will help it curl up without frizzing; if you want straight hair they will help it relax silkily. Ultimately it's what you believe these products can do – and how much faith you place in other people's claims about them – that gives them their power.

Yet we don't treat haircare products with the contempt in which witchcraft is held. An entire genre of the media industry is devoted to discussing their use in all seriousness, and they're freely available in mainstream supermarkets, chemists and specialty shops. Even shops that host hair rituals, in which you submit yourself to particular processes and enter into other states of consciousness, are not dismissed as weird or kooky – they are 'barbershops' and 'hair salons', and the career of 'hairdresser' is respectable.

I have started walking around my neighbourhood in a mindful way, looking for magic. I constantly scan the ground as I walk, looking for objects to pick up and use in my rituals: feathers, interesting pebbles (anything mineral goes under the broad heading of ‘crystals’), seed pods and acorns. I notice flowers and crush leaves in my fingers to see if they release fragrance and hence can be surreptitiously harvested as ‘herbs’.

This witchy shit acts like a new navigational grid over my familiar streets and alleyways. I especially like traversing the alleyways, because they make me feel I have a knowledge of the inside of things, the interface side where their making is raw and obvious, because these ways weren’t designed for the nice bourgeois folks who first populated Carlton and North Carlton in the late Victorian era and built these terraces and villas. The laneways were meant for tradesmen and service staff: deliveries of coal, ice and groceries; removal of night soil from the outdoor dunnies at the backs of the properties.

It is a fanciful and privileged act for me to wander these spaces now in a witchy fugue, imagining myself the first person to feel this way about interstitial urban spaces. Is that the solipsism that sustains all flâneurie: the insistence that nobody has ever looked, really looked at these spaces quite like you; has never seen them with fresh eyes?

Yet isn’t witchcraft also alluring because it situates the individual within collective tradition? Unlike the mage or sorcerer who acts alone, mastering arcane powers for his own personal purposes, as if the world of knowledge itself culminated in his use of them, the witch works in covens, in sisterly solidarity. Or even if she’s a solitary practitioner, she recognises her own smallness within larger universes. Her practice helps her attune to natural cycles of daily, monthly and seasonal renewal: the same ones she feels exert themselves upon her body.

Power is not a tool she seizes and wields, but something she senses outside herself: a diffuse but overlapping series of forces embedded in nature. And her practice is about temporarily and partially surrendering her body, her consciousness, her subconscious, to these forces. I like to remember that a wand is just a pointing finger: it has no power of its own but merely focuses attention and intention on what the holder wants.

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