Putting the “P” Back In UPG

druidcraft_minor_swords_10Amongst some circles of polytheists, the term UPG (Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, for those just joining the party) has long been a dirty word, particularly for those with a more reconstructionist bent.  UPG is “fluffy bunny” or “just so Wiccan” or “unscientific”. (Yup.  That’s because we’re practicing a spirituality, not conducting an empirical experiment.)

Anyway, for much of the past 10 years or so, in an effort to legitimize UPG in the face of the lore-thumpers, there was a move towards PCPG (Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis) or SPG (Substantiated Personal Gnosis) as a solution.  The premise is that if a bunch of people are experiencing similar things when interacting with the gods, then maybe those experiences can be used to build modern lore around these beings.

To be blunt, this led to a lot of oversharing.

Remember the old chestnut of “to know, to will, to dare, to keep silence“?  There are some very good reasons why keeping one’s own council is important, and why it is rarely, if ever, appropriate to make any sort of UPG the basis for group policy.

Spirits Lie
Unfortunately, humans aren’t the only ones with agendas. Not every spirit is going to be benevolent, nor is every spirit going to have the same goals as you.  Plus, spirit communication–true spirit communication, not just mental masturbation–is often very unclear.  Even when talking to another human we can have trouble understanding each other.  When the other person doesn’t have a body and may have a completely different ethical structure, things can get sticky.  What we would call a lie, a fae may simply see as stretching the truth. This isn’t the spirit’s fault, it’s ours for not understanding what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

When dealing with spirits, it takes patience to sort out what they’re trying to tell us.  They often have a very different time-scale from humans, and what we perceive as something that has to be acted upon RIGHT NOW may in fact benefit from taking a step back and sitting with the information for weeks, or even months.  Getting independent confirmation from a diviner outside your group or a priest in the service of that entity can help, but ultimately, you have to use your own discernment as to the veracity of what the spirit or god is telling you.

And until you’ve figured that out, keep it to yourself.

People Lie
The next layer of complication occurs when the person sharing the UPG lies, whether knowingly or not.  Let’s start off with the old glass/light analogy for communicating with the gods and spirits. Ideally, when we listen to the gods, we are as if a clear, flat piece of glass which flawlessly (ha!) lets the light of the spirits pass through us.

In reality, however, we are imperfect. We all have things we carry with us that change the color and shape of that glass. As those imperfections or lies-to-self creep in, instead of us being that piece of clear glass through which the light of the gods and spirits can pass, those fibs and half-truths warp and silver the glass. We end up experiencing a reflection of our own psyches rather than the messages of the spirits–or worse, some mix of the two.

I experienced this first hand when I was part of an online pagan echo-chamber (I refuse to give it the dignity of calling it a “community”) in the late 2000s. It screwed up my spirituality big time because I listened to what my peers were saying instead of heeding my own heart; the influence was insidious.  What started out as a genuine desire to share information and experience of the gods slowly became a fap-circle of delusion and fantasy.  People would subconsciously begin ever so slightly changing their stories so that they lined up with the larger narrative of the group-think–it wasn’t so much outright lying as it was fibbing to ourselves about our experiences in order to fit in.  Before we knew it, there was one “gatekeeper” of the official narrative and anyone who stepped out of line with the PCPG was slandered and shunned.

Now, that is an extreme example.  The kicker is, most people really don’t mean to lie to themselves,  but even these small untruths can have a huge impact on others when they are shared in the context of being divine messages. What we expect to happen in our journeys and meditations warps to fit the expectations of the established gnosis. If the line between personal visions and public revelation becomes blurred, it is shockingly easy for good folks to get sucked into a maelstrom of drama.  Which brings us to…

Power Over
Someone may start out thinking they’re doing the right thing by passing along messages that they believe have been given to them by their gods or landwights or whatever. However, our experience of any spirit will always be tinted by the state of our own minds and hearts. The temptation to manipulate social situations to our advantage is strong and often driven by a subconscious fear for survival. Four times out of five when someone has shared UPG with me about our past lives together it’s been an attempt to place themselves into a position of power on the basis of the past–it’s not done maliciously, but out of insecurity and a desire to define the current relationship.

This is the crux of the problem with PCPG. You take that same insecurity about one’s place in the group and then multiply it by the number of people involved in the shared gnosis.  Inevitably, one or two people will share their UPG to make themselves look more important or to gain status in their community.  If they are the ones with the only true connection to the land or the gods, you’re swiftly moving into cult territory (ask me how I know).

It comes down to this: PCPG can feel wonderful, and even bolster a group’s cohesion for a time.  Nevertheless, “spirit” drama is intoxicating in its excitement.  Increasingly, people feel a false sense of importance, aka ego inflation, rather than focusing on their own growth and healing. Anyone who won’t tow the party line, well, they usually either try to slip quietly away or are actively cast out of the ever-dwindling inner circle.  It’s heartbreaking and it’s entirely avoidable if it’s caught early enough.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it’s this: don’t cede your power to someone who claims to speak for the gods, the land, or the spirits. Forge your own connections. Listen. Breathe. Trust the land itself, trust your ancestors, trust your gods. And question every. single. thing. they tell you.


In Search of the Holey

honeycomb_2People who do magic, who really roll up their sleeves and have altar dust under their nails, know that is not a certain thing. I’ve been searching for a holey stone since I first heard of them over seven years ago. The are primal talismans, formed by wind and water cutting a perfect window into living stone. Lucky is the Druid who can find one.  Like any magical geegaw, they can be bought online, but that seemed like cheating. Power comes from rarity and from the effort in acquiring an object.

Push finally came to shove, and I needed some sort of holey stone for a particular piece of magical tech that I have been hankering to craft for nearly a year. That stone was the only thing holding me back from having quite a useful little ally in the ol’ esoteric toolbox. I’d been feeling called to visit Salem, and have found many strange and wonderful items along the beach and quay where the period ship is docked. And indeed I had seared for a holey stone there before, but never had any luck. This time I decided to prime the metaphysical gears thoroughly before I even set out on the journey.

I did a full Hekate supper in preparation that morning, calling upon the Fates, making offerings of eggs, honey, and incense. I asked the Weavers to help me find a holey stone in Salem, whether it be on the beach, in a shop, from a friend, or from a stranger–any (legal!) way they could deliver it into my hands.

What followed was a serendipitous series of events. Salem is always crazy this time of year, with the Halloween season bringing in witches and occultists of all shades of black white and gray. Despite arriving shortly after lunch on a Friday, there was no place to park. I crawled the car all the way to the top of a four-story garage and found nothing. Puffing out a sigh I began to creep my way back down and no sooner had I turned the first corner than I found not one, but two cars pulling out!

c18b63a5-155d-451f-674602e0ff3db01c-largeI headed for the Friendship of Salem, a replica ship that docks in the old harbor, but it sadly was out of its harbor for repairs. The New England sun cast four o’clock shadows though it was only 1 PM. I began making my way to the gravel and storm debris that lined the sides of the quay. I began on the eastern side, chanting “holey stone, holey stone, holey stone” in my head as my eyes scanned the deposits of rocks from the last summer storm. I had the image in my head of a thumb-sized rock, the hole perfectly centered, just laying there in the afternoon sun, begging for me to snatch it up. The angle of the light made it easy to see possible candidates, as any divots cast shadows across the surface of the pebbles.

Time and again I was disappointed. I did find a chunk of chert, an anomaly in the extreme. The only chert deposits in Massachusetts are far out to the west. Could it have washed up from down in Alabama? Could it have been carried across the Atlantic from the rich deposits in England? An eerie feeling stole over me as flint/chert nodules are one of the symbols I associate with closely with Gwynn ap Nudd. The piece in my hand had a deep groove and I wondered if perhaps I would have to make my own holey stone after all? But I kept going, finding pockmarked pebbles galore, but none with holes that went all the way through.

Reaching the lighthouse at the end of the quay, I paused to feel the water and wind. A busload of teenagers raced by, trying to push each other over the edge, arms wheeling and shirts grabbed. The water was cold, and, I fancied, hungry. I enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my back, the wind rough on my cheeks. Though I still had the beach proper to comb, I was getting anxious. Hekate’s rosary thumped on my hip as I walked; I still stopped occasionally but was no longer under the trance that had propelled me to the lighthouse.

Almost to the beach, a low patch of mugwort, young and green, called.  Picking some, I asked her to help me in my search.

Sister Mugwort, open my eyes,
help me find the hidden prize.

I inhaled her chrysanthemummy scent and felt myself slipping back into that walking, seeking trance. There were some long bones, maybe from a pig, and some smaller ones, likely from the chicken. Scattered all over the beach were these little round thin cardboard washers. I feared that perhaps the spirits had mistaken these for true holey stones. Or, perhaps they were just screwing with me.

I made three passes up and down the moon curve of the beach, and it was on the fourth that I spied an acorn resting atop a mat of seaweed.

That, right there, is what you call a sign.

It was the only terrestrial seed I had seen on the entire beach. I felt like I was being hit with the proverbial clue-by-four. Her voice said, “Dig deep, little druid, dig deep for what you seek. An acorn marks the spot.”

I scooped up the acorn and began sifting though the flotsam until I reached a layer of pebbles. I worked methodically, like I had been trained–though without the benefit of a GPS-sighted 10 m x 10 m grid system. Minutes passed. Breathe in the mugwort. Breath in, breathe out, dig deeper, dig wider.

I picked up yet another cratered pebble like the scores I had uncovered before it. This time, light shone all the way through near the very edge. But when I held it up to my eye, I couldn’t see anything. The angle was such that the light could pass through but I still couldn’t see through the hole.

“Not good enough,” I muttered, reburied it.

I shuffled further into the setting sun, shoved aside another patch of seaweed, dug down to the stone layer. More time passed, ankles sore, back hunched. Another dozen pockmarked rejects fly away from my frustrated fingers. Then.

A tiny, black pebble in my palm, a small hole board through and through its side, perfect in its asymmetry. I held it up to my eye, just to make sure. The tiny aperture warped the sun-striped beach, wavering my vision with the wind. A window to the Otherworld. He was not at all what I had imagined, but he was perfectly suited to the task.

Body stiff and cracking, I walked pack towards the low stone seawall.  I poured out an offering of water, scattered some nuts for the birds.  Ate some chocolate and fruit leather to bring myself back from that place where I dug into the Otherworld and with the spirits’ blessings, pulled a little piece of it back into my own.

Magic isn’t an easy thing. It’s rarely certain. At best it can tip Fortune’s wheel a bit more in our favor. At worst it leads to delusions and insanity. But when it works, when you have that bone-deep certainty that the Others have your back, nothing is more beautiful.

The Mabon, the Awen, and Turtle Island

ECG 2017.jpg

The animals of Turtle Island, the Guardians of the Order…and a few extras. Credit: Bruce L’huillier

This is the tale that Mystic River Grove presented at the opening ritual for the 2017 OBOD East Coast Gathering.  Instead of meeting the traditional guardians of the order, the Mabon carries out her (yes, her–our Mabon was a woman) quest for the Awen among the creatures of Turtle Island.

Many know the tale of Mabon ap Modron, how Arthur and his knights rescued the youth with the aid of the oldest animals in Albion, and how the Mabon in turn helped the High King slay the great boar Twrch Trwyth.  Now, Mabon’s tale does not end there, for she was a great hunter and wandered throughout the land in search of game.  Eventually, she grew bored as there was nothing left to challenge her.

So, as many youths do, she complained to her mother, Modron, about how bored she was.  And as many mothers do, Modron told her to go outside and quit pestering her. And so Mabon did as she bid. She walked and walked, and eventually came to the sea, where she met her old friend, the Salmon. She complained to the Salmon of her woes and the Salmon said, “Swim far–far beyond the ninth wave. Swim until you reach a new land, and there you must seek the Awen.  It is the ultimate prize for poet, king, and hunter alike.  Once you have caught it, you will understand.”

And so Mabon, daughter of Modron, heeded the Salmon’s counsel and swam beyond the ninth wave, until she came to that new land.  So much was strange about this place, different birds, and trees that looked as if they were on fire.

As she made her way to the southeast she came upon a sun-drenched glade, with a creature that looked much like a badger, with black and white stripes, but with a full bushy tail.  Thinking it might make a fine meal, she stole up behind it, but the creature lifted its tail and began to stomp its hind feet in an odd sort of dance.  Mabon heard it say, “Keep back, or I’ll spray you!”

“So?” said Mabon.

“You’ll smell worse than a decaying carcass.  And you’ll smell that way for WEEKS.”

Mabon sheathed her knife and backed away.  “I guess you won’t make a very good meal.  What is your name?  Do you know where the Awen resides?”

Skunk sniffed, sizing up the youth. “I am Skunk, if you must know.  Searching for the Awen are we?  I don’t know where you’ll find it, it’s different for every person.  You’ll need to find your own dance and know your own worth to court the Awen.”  Again the skunk stamped its feet and raised its tail.  “The other animals are always making fun of my dance, but I don’t care–it’s fabulous and it’s all mine.  Good luck and make your journey a tale worth telling!”

And so Mabon set out to the northwest, finding the forest growing darker and damper.  Before long, she heard a soft chuffing noise and following it, came to an enormous creature.  It had to be the largest beast she had ever seen, even larger than the wild aurochs, with a great rack of antlers and noble bearing.  Again she drew her knife, though this time her heart fluttered with fear and uncertainty.

“Put away your knife, little Mabon. Though I am sure you could slay me, it would not further you in your quest for the Awen.”

“How do you know of my quest?” asked Mabon, still refusing to sheath her blade.

“Stories of adventure travel quickly–and wise Salmon swims far. Her waters connect us all,” replied the beast.

“Well then, what manner of creature are you?  Do you know where I can find the Awen?” she challenged.

“I am Moose, little Mabon.  It seems to me–in our short acquaintance–you are used to hunting alone, making your own way.  I think, if I may be so bold, that you must seek help from others, learn to listen before you draw your blade.  The Awen is fostered in peace and humility.  Know when to ask for help and you may find yourself closer than ever.  Might I suggest a visit to the Turkey Vulture?  She holds the secrets to many things.”

Thus Mabon set off to the northeast, heeding the wise Moose’s advice.  The land became rocky and steep.  Circling above her were wide-winged birds, marked out in black and white.  When one alighted in front of her to tear at the corpse of some unfortunate animal, she recoiled in disgust.

“Oh?” said the bird. “Moose thought you had some potential.  I can clearly see you don’t have the guts to attain the Awen.”  Again the bird buried her head in the rotting flesh.

“Ugh!” said Mabon, holding her nose. “You must be Turkey Vulture. What can such an ugly creature possibly know about the Awen?”

“More than you, that’s for certain!  I know that you have to be hungry for it–hungry beyond measure. You must feast upon your failures, choke them down until Awen itself bursts forth from your wounds. You have to court madness, perhaps death, for the slim chance that you’ll be one of the lucky ones who wakes with a fire in their head.”

“That…doesn’t sound so pleasant,” muttered Mabon.  “But I’m hungry.  I’m the hungriest I’ve ever been!”

“Indeed,” replied the Turkey Vulture.  Before returning to her feast, she cocked her head to the side and said, “If you find you have the stomach to continue your hunt, seek out the Snapping Turtle. But I doubt you’ll get that far.”

Leaving Turkey Vulture to her meal, and having quite lost her own appetite, the Mabon set off to the southwest.  Soon she came to a swamp, dark and humid and steamy.  Insects bit and strung, and she futilely tried to swat them away.  Before long, something that looked like a large turtle was shuffling its way across the path.

“Are you Snapping Turtle then?” called out Mabon.  “Do you know where the Awen lies? And,” she added sheepishly, “do you have anything to eat?”

The turtle turned slowly.  “I know how it comes to me,” he replied. “It flashes before me when I’m sitting in the depths of the swamp, surrounded by the silence of the water. Whether your quarry is fish or Awen, you need patience and tenacity.  Come, I will show you.”

The Snapping Turtle handed Mabon a hollow reed to breathe through and the two of them sank into the dark, warm waters of the swamp.  The sat, and sat, and sat some more, the turtle completely still with his mouth wide open, Mabon barely able to see or hear anything in the dim waters.  The youth soon lost all track of time.  Had mere moments passed?  Or was dusk going to be upon them?  Suddenly, she saw a glimmer of three lines through the water–the Awen, was that it?

And just as suddenly, the turtle’s jaws snapped shut around a wriggling fish.

“You see?” the Snapping Turtle asked around a mouthful of fish. “THAT is how you catch the Awen.  Still all your senses and you will begin to see it shining before you.”

“That’s the closest I’ve been yet,” murmured Mabon, gratefully taking a portion of fish from the turtle.  “I think I’m finally beginning to understand.  All of you, Skunk and Moose, Vulture and Turtle, have given me pieces of your maps to Awen.  But now I have to seek out the mystery for myself and chart my own way.”

And so, Mabon turned within, and with the blessings of the animals of Turtle Island, she began to write her own tale, and seek her own inspiration.

Now that you have heard this story, we pose to you a question…and a challenge: Will you dare to taste the Awen?  Not by accident, but as conscious seekers?

This quest is not safe, it is not tame.  Yet with the aid of your tribe and the blessings of the spirits, that risk can be lessened–that’s a fancy way of saying no permanent death, dismemberment, or insanity allowed this weekend, yes?

But here, in this circle and at this camp, we will each court the Awen in our own way.  Some will dance.  Some will sing.  Some will retreat deep within the forest of their souls and return with untold treasure.  And when we meet again here, in three days time, we will share that creative wealth with our brothers and sisters in the Grove.