Spirit Possession, Deities, and Gnats.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Western discourse about spirit possession emerged from a long history of Christian demonology.  After the Enlightenment it came to be regarded as ‘one of the key markers of the primitive stage in the evolution of human civilization’, and, thanks to E.B.Tylor’s late nineteenth century theory of animism, became ‘a founding term in the discipline of anthropology’.  Tylor’s observation that “to the minds of the lower races it seems that nature is possessed, pervaded, crowded, with spiritual beings” expresses the sense that, for animists the spirit world was (and still is) inhabited by all manner of other-than-human beings.(1)

A recent review of spirit possession encompasses both ‘the belief that spirits can involuntarily occupy the body of an individual, causing illness’, and ‘the voluntary incorporation of spirits, ancestors, and deities, for social and ritual reasons’.  Although traditions vary considerably, the use of altered states to communicate with a spirit world and the divine is still recognised as a global phenomenon.(2)  For present purposes, I want to set aside questions about the dualistic origin of the terminology of ‘spirits’ and ‘deities’ in order to ponder lived experience.

The recent proliferation of neo-Shamanic practices has encouraged many Westerners to become the kind of animists Tylor denounced as primitive.  Re-reading some passages from Michael Harner’s influential book The Way of the Shaman I was struck by some implausible statements.  For instance: “the guardian animal spirit resident in the mind-body of a person wants to have the enjoyment of once again existing in material form.  It is a trade off, for the person gets the power of the whole genus or species of animals represented by that guardian spirit“.(my italics).(3)  That kind of claim makes me wonder about the appeal of core shamanism, about how it perceives illness and disability, and about its therapeutic approach.

Critics have argued that, unlike most traditional shamans, Harner emphasises the controllability of shamanic experience, and that this plays on Western stereotypes that devalue practices such as trance and spirit possession that involve a temporary suspension of control and rationality.  Against this, however, Harner has been concerned for the safety of vulnerable workshop attendees.(4)  He also believes that we can have ‘power animals’ without being aware of their presence, or knowing when they go AWOL.  In that sense, shamanic consciousness could be seen as restoring a degree of much needed agency.

In The Way  of the Shaman Harner writes that a patient’s power animal is hardly ever an insect.  Whilst we might agree that swarming insects are best left alone, whether materially embodied or in spirit form, others have pointed out that insects such as spiders, butterflies, or bees, may have considerable cultural or personal significance.  Experience suggests that, like birds and mammals, insects are occasionally willing to help humans by appearing, in the flesh, at times of need, or as divinatory messengers.  I’ve personally seen, read, or been reliably told about, instances involving butterflies, moths, ants, and wasps.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

In his 1967 poem Gnat Psalm, Ted Hughes, an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, gleefully describes dancing gnats in angelic and cosmic terms, and declares God to be ‘an Almighty Gnat’.  This, of course, graphically highlights the anthropocentric nature of most deities venerated by humans.  It also invites us to wonder why other-than-human beings have so often been demonised, or portrayed as machines.  Since much of the work of traditional shamans entails inter-species mediation in situations where predation or control of other animals by humans becomes unavoidable, we should not be surprised that many writers on spirit possession discuss the potential dangerousness of some spirit beings.(5)

Where Harner has been criticised for sanitising shamanism, American neo-Pagans Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, who describe their own experiences of possession vividly, have been taken to task for popularising a dangerously intense form of practice.  Kaldera, who has always seen auras, tells us that from the age of sixteen “my vision would blur, I would feel as though I was falling, and then I would hear through a fog a distant voice speaking to the friend next to me.  It was my voice, but it didn’t sound like me”.  On one occasion he was surprised to be told that he had addressed her using a secret name know only to herself.  “Another presence had moved into my body and shoved me aside.  I could only flounder as it used me and moved on”.

At the age of seventeen he left home and found acceptance at a Voudou Umband House where he was shown ‘the practicalities of god possession’.  Watching participants possessed by deities he saw their auras shrink away to almost nothing before “Something Else blossomed in their place -something with an aura that reached out across the room, bright and powerful like nothing I’d seen in a body before”.  He then realised that he too had a ‘gift/curse’ that could not be unchosen.  His own experiences of trance possession also begin with a sense of ‘receding’ from one’s own body and senses, followed by the arrival of the Spirit ‘in a rush of colour, image, and pure feeling, much larger than oneself’.(6)  Once again this does seems to be about power of some kind coming through.

I recognise enough of the elements here to trust this account of the phenomenology of the further reaches of spirit possession.  My younger self would certainly have benefited from some first hand practical information.  Given that I also had visionary experiences at a time of existential crisis, and given the long history of medicalising both madness and spirit possession, however, I hope the authors of this book -who are clearly well intentioned and informed about other political sensibilities- will reconsider their uncritical use of biomedical psychiatric labels (‘mental illness’, ‘florid schizophrenia’, ‘psychosis’ etc).  Sadly they’re not alone among neo-Pagan authors in appearing not to have noticed many decades of struggle and writing by the psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements (e.g. around hearing voices).  Stanislav and Christina Grof’s notion of ‘spiritual emergency’ also offers an alternative to psychiatric diagnosis in such situations and has received favourable attention within psychiatry.(7)

Filan and Kaldera do point out that in traditional societies people often fear and resist the call to shamanism, and emphasise the need to avoid romanticising the gift/curse of spirit-work, especially where it involves full blown possession rather than mediumship (a.k.a. channelling, or co-consciousness).  Personally I’ve not been convinced of the advantage of spirit possession as distinct from less intrusive, less dramatic, more dialogical forms of contact, as a means of providing help, healing, guidance, or divinatory knowledge -which, hopefully, is what all of this is about.  That said though, there’s clearly a need to discuss a phenomenon that some people evidently have no option but to engage with, and for the kinds of peer support amongst spirit-workers that these authors call for.

B.T. 2/3/15 (re-edited 3/3/15).


(1) Paul Christopher Johnson, Whence Spirit Possession?, in Graham Harvey ed. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism’, quoting from E.B.Tylor’s Primitive Culture.  Johnson discusses spirit posession as a response to slavery and colonialism.

(2) Jack Hunter, Folk Models of Mind and Matter, in Jack Hunter and David Luke, Talking with the Spirits, Ethnographies from Between the Worlds, Daily Grail, 2014.

(3) Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, Harper and Row, 1980/1990, p68.

(4) Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Paganisms, Routledge, 2003, p54.

(5) Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, 2003, or Wodwo, 1967, Faber and Faber.

(6) Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, Drawing Down the Spirits; the Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Posession, Destiny Books, 2009.

(7) Nicki Crowley, Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? -Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry 2006.

Rufus May and Elanor Longdon Hearing Voices and Self Help.

U.K. Spiritual Crisis Network.

Mad in America website.

Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe?

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

As well as being a poet of the highest order, Ted Hughes was an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, an environmental campaigner, a pagan animist, and an astrologer.  He is celebrated as an influential eco-poet whose work combines exquisite naturalistic observation with an encyclopedic knowledge of lore, mythology, and esoteric traditions.  He also happens to be an important ancestral presence here in the Calder Valley, where I’ve spent the whole of my adult life.  So I often find myself walking in places he wrote powerfully about.

Ted Hughes’ life story has, of course, been tangled in controversy since the suicides of Sylvia Plath, and then of his subsequent partner, Assia Wevill.  When I worked for a psychiatric survivor led voluntary organisation I had a copy of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Hanging Man’ on the wall behind my desk.  Ted Hughes endorsed her description of her encounter with modernist psychiatry as a grotesque parody of shamanic initiation, refused to medicalise her distress and madness, and supported her through the night terrors of its long aftermath.  I count myself amongst those readers who empathise with both Hughes and Plath, whilst recognising that both were human-all-too-human.  The hubbub of partisan biography shouldn’t distract us from appreciating and critically responding to Ted Hughes’s considerable achievements as an eco-animist poet.(1)  Nor should it prevent us from acknowledging that not all of his enormous ouvre is wonderful, and that there are a few problematic moments.

In her recent book The Bioregional Economy, Molly Scott Cato uses Max Weber’s influential critique of the disenchantment of the world.  After the protestant reformation God became wholly transcendent and otherworldly, and magic was banished from everyday life.  Once the world had been constructed as mechanical it could be rendered as raw material for capitalist exploitation.(2)  Reviewing Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution in 1970, Ted Hughes made much the same argument.  “The fundamental guiding ideas of our Western Civilization … are based on the assumption that the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use.  The creepy crawlies which infest it are devils of dirt and without a soul, also put there for his exclusive profit and use.  By the skin of her teeth woman escaped the same role”.  The mediumistic artist, however, may be able to see ‘the draughty radiant paradise of the animals’, even Pan, ‘the vital, somewhat terrible spirit of natural life, which is new in every second.”  Some of what he wrote in that review, more than forty years ago, could easily be mistaken for the work of a contemporary animist: “…while the mice in the field are listening to the Universe, and moving in the body of nature, where every living cell is sacred to every other, and all are interdependent, the Developer is peering at the field through a visor …”.(3)

Not surprisingly, many critics describe Ted Hughes’ work as biocentric, and discuss his belief in ‘the shamanic healing power of poetry for a species alienated from its natural home’.(4)  When Hughes was appointed poet Laureate, his friend Seamus Heaney proclaimed him ‘shaman of the tribe’.  As a young man, Hughes had a visionary dream in which a theriomorphic fox figure came to him.  He recounted this experience in The Thought Fox, and may well have understood it as a threshold call.

The remarkable Cave Birds sequence evokes a male protagonist’s spirit journey through an underworld where he’s confronted by his own past, experiences judgement and dismemberment, marries a female figure who is both his ‘anima’ and the Goddess as Nature, and is eventually reborn.  The extra-ordinary power and beauty of these poems came into focus for me when I read some of them to my friend Peter during the last year of his life.  Terry Gifford regards Cave Birds as an exemplar of post-pastoral poetry, a key feature of which is that it attends, with a sense of awe, to the destructive as well as the creative aspect of Nature.  This perspective contrasts with that of some earlier critics who discuss shamanism in transcendental and dualistic terms.(5).  I’ve been re-reading Ted Hughes’s poems to see whether some of his underlying assumptions, notably his adoption of Jung’s essentialist conception of generic feminine and masculine principles, and his veneration of a Gravesian Goddess, get in the way.  For me, they mostly don’t seem to.

Ted Hughes said that angling connected him with ‘the stuff of the Earth, the whole of life’.(6)  Leonard Scigaj talks about Hughes’s ‘ecological animism’ in relation to the hydrological cycle.(7).  If you read Flesh of Light, The River, or October Salmon, you’ll see why.  Although Hughes may have been influenced by Mircea Eliade, his take on shamanism was always grounded by his fascination with, and respect for, flesh and blood animals, and by his concern with human healing.  His belief in the ‘real summoning force’ of poems, the capacity of carefully charged words to reach out and connect with non-human animals, resonates closely with David Abram’s account of shamanism as a process of relationship with more-than-human worlds.(8)

From my own practice I can confirm that such ‘showings’, as I like to call them, do happen from time to time.  Hughes may have exaggerated the power of poetry per se, but he was certainly not succumbing to the ‘pathetic fallacy’ (falsely imagining that Nature was responding to his inner states).  His own poetry drew upon an exceptional pool of life experience, and was often crafted with specific ‘spiritual’ and/or magical intent.  Ann Skea refers to his shamanic poetic magic, and locates him in the British bardic tradition.(9)  Jeanette Winterson writes: “the wild creature circling the tamed world comes as unknown energy, sensed but not seen.  The bound of the animal out of instinct and into consciousness, its ‘hot stink’, is what makes the poem happen.  For Hughes, poems happen in this meeting/mating between very different measures of energy – the raw feral of the instinctual life, and the channelled potency of consciousness.”(10)

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes’s poems can be difficult, sometimes because of their complexity, sometimes because of their unflinching directness.  Alice Oswald comments “the disruption of comfort, the chance to concentrate utterly on what’s there, to see it in its own way and to say so without disturbing its strangeness is what Hughes’ offers”.(11)  Terry Gifford reports that he’s seen people in the audience faint when February 17th is read.  Transcribed from Ted Hughes’s farming notes, it records an occasion when he had to cut the head from a lamb that had been strangled during birth, in order to save the mother.  I’m reminded of Graham Harvey’s pointed query as to why, when there are so many urban workshops on shamanism, there are none on Pennine shepherding, or its associated religion.(12)

I recently went to an event in Ilkley commemorating the inaugural performance of Cave Birds there in 1975.  Keith Sagar, a literary critic and friend of Ted Hughes, who had been in dialogue with him during the writing of Cave Birds, and who was to have given the talk, had just died, so the event became a fitting tribute to him.

I’d been wondering whether the 1975 performance might have been, in some sense, a shamanic event.  Michael Dawson, who had commissioned Cave Birds, explained that the poems were read by actors who picked the running order ‘randomly’ from a box on the stage.  When a recording was played, I found that their declamatory Thespian style, booming across the years, didn’t work for me.  Something seems to have worked for one audience member at the time though.  Suddenly the reading was interrupted by a protracted and full blooded scream, emitted by a woman at the back of the auditorium, who, we were told, also vomited in the foyer.  The performers on stage assumed this had been a theatrical stunt, so continued as though nothing had happened.

The woman in question, who turned out to be one of Keith Sagar’s adult education pupils, reportedly laughed about it afterwards, and said the ‘involuntary howling’ that came upon her gradually had been triggered by one of the Leonard Baskin bird figures that were being projected on stage.  Ted Hughes later wrote about Baskin’s prints that it was ‘as though a calligraphy had been improvised from the knotted sigils and clavicles used for conjuring spirits’.  This trace element in his draughtsmanship suggested a psychic proclivity, ‘a passport between worlds usually kept closed to each other’.(13)  It also seems likely that the text of Cave Birds, evoking, as it does, the primal mysteries of birth, embodiment, death, and an afterlife, and our attendant human fears and disorientations, contributed to her reaction.  Strangely, the opening poem in the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds is called The Scream, and ends with a vomited screamThe poem had already been written at the time of the 1975 performance (14), but I’m not sure whether it was read on stage at Ilkley that evening.

Whilst this occurrence undoubtedly attests to the potential power of the poems and images, the event clearly hadn’t been, and almost certainly couldn’t have been, conceived as a shamanic performance (where provision would have been made to assist participants in negotiating their experience).  Following the 1970 publication of Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream, ‘therapeutic’ screaming was in the Zeitgeist at the time.  As someone who used to faint in cinemas, and on one occasion (in the late 60’s) refused an invitation to stay and discuss my needle-phobic reaction with an entire audience of film-goers, I have some sense of the difference between artistic and therapeutic environments, and of the ethical considerations that arise in respect of the latter.  Whatever happened that night in Ilkley, I can vouch for the consciousness-deepening and healing effect of many of Ted Hughes’s poems, when read in conducive circumstances to the right person.  When my friend died last year, I read A Green Mother, over and over.  It had been one his favourite poems.  Often tears came before they’re mentioned in the last line.   I was, of course, reading it from an earth-centred animist viewpoint, for someone who would have been excited to become a flower, a bird, or a worm.

B.T 7/11/13.

Here is a link to the final draft of Shaman of the Tribe, Ted Hughes and Contemporary Animism that appeared in the Journal of the Ted Hughes Society in 2014.

See also a series of posts entitled Notes From the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley.

Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2003.

Christopher Reid, ed. The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 2007.

Ted Hughes, Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama, Viking Press, 1978, with drawings by Leonard Baskin.

Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes, Gaudete, Cave Birds, and the 1975 Ilkley Festival.

Other Sources:

1) Neil Roberts, The Plath Wars, in Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

2) Molly Scott-Cato, The Bioregional Economy, Earthscan/Routledge, 2013.

3) Ted Hughes, The Environmental Revolution, (1970) in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose,, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

4) Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

5) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Routledge, 1999.

6) quoted in Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

7) Leonard Scigaj, Ted Hughes, 1991, quoted in Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

8) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage, 1997.

9) Ann Skea Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994, and website.

10) Jeanette Winterson, Foreword to Great Poets of the Twentieth Century, No 5, Ted Hughes, The Guardian / Faber and Faber, 2008.

11) Alice Oswald, Guardian, 3/12/05, quoted by Terry Gifford, ibid.

12) Graham Harvey, Listening People, Speaking Earth, Contemporary Paganism, Hurst and Co, 2007.

13) Ted Hughes, The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, Note for a Panegyric Ode on Leonard Baskin’s Collected Prints, in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

14) Ann Skea, pers comm.

Relational Magic? Thoughts Prompted by Susan Greenwood’s Anthropology of Magic

In a previous post I expressed concern about an instrumental and anthropocentric approach to natural magic, and wondered whether alternative conceptions of magic, enchantment, and divination might feel more compatible with postmodern animism.

My unease with the term magic (however spelt), stems from a long felt ambivalence about neo-Pagan/contemporary Pagan* sub-cultures.  Most of the people I’ve shared or practiced Nature based spirituality with had long involvements (in the eighties or before) in community action, the voluntary sector, feminism, anti-sexist men’s groups, radical self-help therapy, or the peace/anti-nuclear movement, all of which had strong traditions of democratic practice.

Although I shared much common ground with Paganism, I (and no doubt many others) felt wary of (i) an apparent fondness for hierarchical structures (grades, initiations, priests, Chosen Chiefs, etc), (ii) an individualistic ethic, with, it seemed, little concern for social realities, (iii) a tendency towards naïve identification with warrior deities, (iv) an insufficiently critical attitude towards highly problematic sources such as Crowley, or Freemasonry, and (v) the widespread adoption of Jungian (essentialist, binary) assumptions about gender (i.e. that there is a universal set of ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ qualities).  I would now add the familiar animist complaint that Pagans (other than eco-pagans) revere nature in the abstract but often seem uninterested in the ecology of their local pagus, district, region, or place (c.f. French Pays) after which Paganism is named.  Along with my friends and peers, I was, in any case, much less oriented towards anthropomorphic deities than most Pagans.  We therefore kept our distance from organised ‘religious’ Paganism, and celebrated the seasonal festivals in an autonomous local non-hierarchical group.  I do remember being impressed, however, by Starhawk’s politically engaged Goddess centred spirituality.

Writing as an outsider in relation to capital-P Paganism, then, I was interested to read recently that many Pagans are now talking about animism in the context of questioning the need to follow a particular path.  Does this mean that my younger self’s concerns are being addressed, and that understandings of magic have been shifting in a broadly ‘new’ animist direction?  How do its practitioners relate to other human and non-human becomings?


‘Toadlet’ (Juvenile Common Toad, Bufo bufo) on a Human Road, July 2007.  

In the hope of finding out I turned to some of Susan Greenwood’s writings, and soon found some important areas of common ground.  Citing New Animism’s ancestral foe Edward Tylor, for whom magic was ‘the most pernicious delusion that ever vexed mankind’, Greenwood sets out to re-establish the legitimacy of a marginalised tradition.  Based on her research she contrasts the tradition of High Magic -with its emphasis on transcendence, and apolitical perspective, with Feminist Witchcraft, which is Goddess centred, nature based, and politically engaged.  In the former, magic is seen as a means of reaching human perfection in the search for Ultimate Being.  In the latter, shamanistic methods (such as dancing and drumming) are used primarily for therapeutic purposes or for changing society.  I was less comfortable, however, with her adoption of a fairly conventional psychological framework.  She talks in Freudian terms about ‘the creative use of imagination … to urge the unconscious into consciousness’.  Following Michel Foucault, and others, who have critiqued psychoanalysis, I would be much more circumspect about using its language and practices.  Where these are found useful, I prefer to follow those who talk, for instance, about ‘unconscious processes’ rather than ‘the unconscious’, and would question the Jungian sounding notion of a ‘true self’, even in the context of holistic spirituality.

In keeping with her feminist orientation, Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic alternates between personal narrative and theoretical discussionThere’s a welcome sense that this is a collaborative exploratory project, and that plural understandings are possible.  The downside of such an approach, perhaps, is that it can be difficult to find a settled definition of magic in the book.  The author acknowledges the influence of her friend and informant, a British shaman called Jo Crow, who in turn appears to have been influenced by Michael Harner’s neo-shamanism.  Greenwood therefore talks about ‘journeying’ in an ‘altered state of consciousness’, about harmful and helping spirits, and soul loss.  This strand of experience has clearly shaped her understanding of what she calls ‘magical consciousness’, a ‘mythopoetic expanded aspect of awareness’ that anyone can potentially experience.  The term is used inclusively to cover a multiplicity of intuitive or associative mental processes and ways of knowing.

One of the criticisms leveled at Harner is that his method reduces shamanism to the dis-located individualism of a New Age psychotherapy; that it is orientated towards self-discovery and empowerment at the expense of ecological relationship, community development, or political activism.  Susan Greenwood’s project -to reclaim magic from reductive anthropological explanations in terms of its social or psychological functions (which she helpfully reviews)- seems to have taken her to a place where social realities are by-passed altogether.  I hope I’m wrong about this, since, in my view, there’s a pressing need to link healing work with an understanding of social forces and power relations that cause harm.  Although Greenwood explicitly asks whether magic can lead to an ‘ecological worldview’, cites Rachel Carson on the importance of childlike wonder in reply to those who dismiss animism as childish delusion, and defines magic as relational, her emphasis still seems to be on inner journeys rather external realities.

So much so that she describes Richard Mabey’s encounter with a Nightingale -when he experienced the bird as ‘a shaman’, whose ‘song seemed to become solid, to be doing odd things to the light’, and who  momentarily entered his head, so that he became the singing bird- as ‘the sort of experience that anyone can have through empathising with another creature in the imagination‘. (my italics).  She then compares this with something similar that happened to her at a shamanic workshop, during an inner journey to find a spirit guide.  The dreamlike visionary experience she recounts involved passing through frighteningly tight labyrinthine tunnels, and seeing imagery of dismemberment in which a large Crow picked over her bones before turning into a ‘white snow owl’.  An obvious point of similarity with Mabey’s experience was that she too briefly had a sense of becoming the flying Owl.  It would be inappropriate to speculate about the subjective importance of these two events, but they were, surely -monist understandings of a conscious universe, and the reality of ‘spirits’ notwithstanding- fundamentally different in one key respect.  Richard Mabey was not empathising ‘in his imagination’, he was relatingas one of our most experienced, sensitive, and articulate naturalists- to a materially embodied and co-present member of a species he had long felt a passionate connection with.  Susan Greenwood was ‘journeying’ in inner space, through imaginal worlds, where she met what others would call a spirit helper, and what she prefers simply to call a friend.

If Mabey was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to find words to categorise his own experience, that’s fine by me.  Susan Greenwood, however, claims it as example of ‘magical consciousness’.  (I would have been happier had she said what I call magical consciousness).  Aside from the issue of categorizing another person’s experiences, I’m not sure whether such a broad term gets us very far.  Frustratingly, we are told very little about the author’s subsequent relationship with Owls as ‘friends’, or how this relates to the lives of flesh-and-blood Owl-people.

Returning to the question of magical agency, the extent to which magic is about turning or shaping events, or consciousness, by acts of will, Susan Greenwood introduces the concept of participation, as developed by Lucien Lévy Bruhl in relation to mystical thought, and contrasts this with causality.  She associates participation with altered states, holistic language, a metaphorical mode that makes emotional, sensory, and psychic connections; with mythology, story-telling, and engagement with an ‘enspirited world’.  I very much welcome the suggestion of dialogue here, but once again, Greenwood’s actual practice (as reflected in what I’ve been able to read) appears to be individualistic and psychologically oriented.  Commenting (in ‘Of Worms …) on her auto-ethnographic research, she writes ‘I’ve found that magic involves looking deeply into the self and facing the subconscious and unconscious’.  Although accounts of shamanic healing give a sense of ‘magical consciousness’ in practice, I would like to have seen more discussion of the quite complex ethical and practical questions that inevitably arise about therapeutic uses of ‘magic’ in the context of a world in which many people people experience extreme states of distress or madness.  Susan Greenwood’s observation that, paradoxically, we need to be strong within ourselves in order to ‘ride the dragon’ -to open ourselves up to, and make creative spiritual use of, magical consciousness, might make a good starting point.  She also touches upon some of the pitfalls, such as ‘magical charisma’.

A concluding discussion in The Anthropology of Magic reframes the issue of the reality of spirits in the context of a monist universe in which consciousness is wider than individual minds.  During the experience of magic, spirits -beings that have a different order of existence, but are nonetheless real- ‘may share a degree of corporeal materiality, and possess mind’.  Imagination is proposed as an important doorway to expanded awareness, including potentially very powerful experiences, but we must bracket disbelief and act ‘as if’, in order to enter into participatory relationship with an enspirited world.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

One of the risks with insider research is that identification with (or advocacy for) the subjects of the research can blunt our critical faculties.  I wondered whether this had happened when the author took part in a ‘Wild Hunt Challenge’ in a Norfolk wood, at night, at Samhain (Halloween).  During this mythos based event participants were invited to ‘confront death’ in the form of spectral beings, in a timed challenge emphasising ‘competition, sport, and mastery'(!?!).  In the process one participant reportedly may have seen a black dog, whilst another claims to have seen a medieval knight on a horse.  We are told that the Wild Hunt ‘restores reciprocity between humans and nature’.  How, I wondered, did the flesh and blood other-than-human residents of that wood feel about this?

Although I found Susan Greenwood’s writings thought provoking, and quite like the notion of magical consciousness, I’m not, at present, convinced by her widening of the definition of magic to cover many phenomena that most people would describe in other ways.

In another post I hope to ruminate on Barry Patterson’s take on participatory magic, and Patrick Curry’s animist perspective on divination.


*As the U.K 2011 census findings remind us, terms such as neo-Pagan, (contemporary or postmodern) Pagan,  Post-pagan, or of course, Heathen, Druid, etc. are preferred by different groups of people.  I have no strong feelings about this.  One objection to neo-Pagan is that “no-one refers to neo-Christian”.  Perhaps they should?  Post-Christian might be more appropriate though as a description of some expressions of  feminist/’earthen’ Christianity.  Since neo-Pagan simply means ‘new’ Pagan some see it (like postmodern Pagan) as usefully distancing us from the less attractive aspects of pre-modern patriarchal chiefdoms.


Starhawk, Towards an Activist Spirituality, in Ly de Angeles, et al, Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future, Llewellyn, 2005.

Susan Greenwood, “Of Worms, Snakes, and Dragons”; Can Magic Lead to an Ecological World View, in Ly de Angeles, Ibid.

Susan Greenwood, Feminist Witchcraft; A Transformative Politics, in Nickie Charles and Felicia Hughes-Freeland, Practicing Feminism; Identity, Difference, Power, Routledge, 1996.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.

Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Natural Magic


The Common Bluebell ( Hyacinthoides non-scripta ).

Natural magic sounds as though it should be compatible with animism.  Marian Green, in her introduction to the subject, writes that Nature, our mother, ‘mistress of arcane alchemy’, has all the answers.  ‘We are the stuff of stars … every tree, plant, animal, jewel, and other person shares this ancient heritage’.  Natural magic reconnects us with natural cycles.  Likewise, Nigel Pennick writes that natural magic teaches us we’re not separate from nature, and that we have no special privileges.  The earth, plants, and animals, have as much right to exist as we do.  ‘To practice natural magic is to respect one’s fellow humans as well as all sentient beings in the Cosmos’.  So far, so very good.  Why then, despite being an astrologer, benefiting from herbal medicine, meditating, working with dreams, dowsing, and so forth, have I never wanted to describe what I do as magic?  Why does Nigel Pennick’s account of natural magic, in particular, not feel more compatible with animism, as I understand it?

Historically, natural magic engaged directly with the powers and properties of substances ( planets, stones, metals, herbs, resins etc ), whereas ceremonial magic called upon the assistance of discarnate spirits.  Natural magic can therefore be seen as a disowned ancestral relative of natural science (think of astrology/astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, herbalism/botany).  Despite attempting to master material circumstances however, Renaissance magic was unambiguously transcendental.  It was preoccupied with spiritual ascent.  Patrick Curry observes, for example, that Pico della Mirandola’s magical philosophy was ‘masculinist, will-oriented, anthropocentric … contemptuous of the dark, the feminine, the ensouled let alone embodied, the earth, and all its limits’.  These values, personified in the figure of the Magus, were a major formative influence on Francis Bacon, and hence early science.

The notion of cosmic sympathy, that all divine and material phenomena are connected by ‘sympathetic’ powers or energies within a ‘Great Chain of Being’, emanated from the Stoics, and appears in Plato and Aristotle.  Within this magical paradigm, each animal, plant, or part of the human body, corresponds to a planet or god that can be invoked in order to influence change.  Nick Campion argues that Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (gnostic texts from the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE) turned the Renaissance in a pagan direction and ‘laid the foundations for Western esotericism and occultism’.  Unfortunately, the Hermetic view of humanity was grimly pessimistic.  Salvation entailed focusing on the inner divine, and returning to the Light by means of the planetary spheres.  The material world, the Platonic world of becoming, was regarded as illusory.  Only the absolute, unchanging, disembodied ‘Good’ was real.  How far, then, do neo-Platonic assumptions underpin today’s natural magic?

An Animist Response to Nigel Pennick’s ‘Natural Magic’.

Having liked Nigel Pennick’s Celtic Sacred Landscapes, and noticed that he was once a biologist, I looked forward to reading his Natural Magic.  Because he draws upon the nameless artthe magical tradition of East Anglia, which also happens to be the heartland of contemporary English nature writing, my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high.  This is, after all, a brief introductory guide written over a decade ago.  In the event I found myself arguing with the author’s approach, and provoked into reflecting upon my own ideas and practices.  I therefore want to respond by focusing on differences in perspective, and points of concern.

Chapter One opens with an epigraph from the medieval alchemist Basilius Valentinus.  ‘The Earth is not an inanimate body … All created things draw their strength from the Earth Spirit …’.  For Valentinus, the Earth is maternal because it is animated by a nourishing and sheltering spirit, life.  Nigel Pennick, by contrast, describes a unitary ‘creative force within all things, including us’, which is neutral, and goes on to define natural magic as the right use of this force within nature ‘for the good of all beings, without subverting the free will of others’.  For him, magic is ‘a spiritual, not a material, technology’, whose primary purpose is to ‘uphold our free will and direct it towards personal understanding and spiritual growth’.  It is ‘first and foremost aimed at the spiritual empowerment and development of the individual’.

Like magic, animism is inherently pluralistic, but I suspect that the above differs from most contemporary animism in several respects.  Firstly, this is an emphatically dualist project; the spiritual/material divide is firmly drawn.  Secondly, the emphasis on human will, and intervention based upon human moral agency (stewardship?) rather than dialogue and/or reciprocity, would appear anthropocentric to many ecologists, let alone animists.  How is the natural magician to know what is good for all beings?  Thirdly, the use of magic primarily as a means of personal development is vulnerable to the same critique that has been leveled at therapeutic neo-Shamanism, insofar as the latter internalises and individualises realities that might be more fruitfully understood in social, ecological, and political terms.

Do our working assumptions really matter?  I think they do.  Nigel Pennick’s magical philosophy is inevitably reflected in the content of his book.  I was surprised to find that only fourteen of its ninety pages are devoted to working with plants, birds, or animals.  The difference between ‘magical’ and animist approaches becomes clear in relation to ‘Bird and Animal Magic’.  There is a brief discussion of the process of obtaining an animal helper According to Pennick animal helpers symbolize a part of ourselves that we need in order to survive a crisis, and may already be within us in the form of an inner image.  This can be used to connect with their power, or projected on to real animals as a way of maintaining contact.  An external part of our being, our fetch, ‘a projective spirit’ or guardian angel, may appear as an animal.

Phenomena as complex and subtle as this don’t lend themselves to brief summation, but animist readers will note that Nigel Pennick describes the process of contacting animal helpers entirely in terms of human initiative, and may be surprised that he thinks its ‘not too difficult’.  If you’re on a path of wisdom, for instance, you simply look for a ‘perceptive beast’.  After learning about, and observing, your chosen helper, various spiritual exercises (visualising yourself as the animal, and going on an inner journey in that form) purportedly enable you to become familiar with animal’s inner life.  Judging by the difficulty most humans have understanding domestic cats, I’m somewhat sceptical about this claim.  Anyway, at this point, ‘you will be … able to call upon (your helper’s) power at will when you need it’.

Responding to this from an animist perspective I worry about (i) the focus being entirely on human experience, (ii) the tone being dry and technical; the heart doesn’t appear to be involved, (iii) that a lack of guidance around ethics and etiquette is likely to encourage an exploitative attitude, and (iv) that interaction with flesh and blood other-than-human animals is approached instrumentally, as a mere stepping stone towards acquiring the capacity to undertake implicitly more meaningful magical/psychic work in the service of human need.  These worries are greatly compounded by what comes next; a neo-Platonic sounding injunction about going native.  If, when working with animals, we forget that we are human and regress to ‘a sub-human state’, this may impair our ‘spiritual progress towards a state of higher consciousness’.  In numerous shamanistic and animistic traditions, of course, other-than-human animals offer assistance to humans as spiritual teachers, guides, and messengers.

So to an example of the art.  The Toad, is said to be important in natural magic.  A certain bone from a dead toad is traditionally claimed to confer various superhuman powers.  Well, I’ve just come back from a toading trip.  Last night we rescued sixty of these beautiful little animals from a lane where they were in danger of being run over.  I’m sure Nigel Pennick doesn’t want natural magicians to harvest the grisly remains of road kills, but in contrast with various neo-Shamanic/new animist texts (e.g Gordon ‘the Toad’ MacLellan, 1989), no mention is made of the ethical responsibility incurred when collecting the tools of what, at this point, begins to sound like a very odd trade.  We are not even urged to ask permission for the use of body parts.  Once again there is no sense of dialogue or reciprocity.  No sense of the beauty of other-than-human beings, or affection for them.  They are simply there to be used when we need them.

Another claim that animists are likely to raise an eyebrow at, is that certain kinds of trees are more likely to be enspirited than others.  These turn out to be trees that attract human attention in various ways; by their shape, location, rarity, or ceremonial/folkloric associations.  The Wild Wood is a place we can go to for psychic renewal, without apparently incurring any obligation to reciprocate.  Having heard reports of Pagans stumbling into woods at night, heedless of the needs of non-human residents or the sensibilities of place, in order to conduct loud ceremonies, or seek psychic stimulation, I worry about this too.  There may be a good case for making inner journeys instead.

One of the difficulties I have with the M-word is that it confers a patina of authority on truth claims.  When Robert Bly introduced us to Iron John, the Grimm Brothers’ hairy Wild Man, John Rowan pointed out that for unreconstructed men this was hardly a helpful story.  Rowan argued that because Bly’s Jungian fairy tale says nothing about Iron John’s attitude towards women, he’s not a culturally transformative figure. (see also Robert Connell).  Critical responses notwithstanding, variants of the Wild Man seem to be alive and well in Pagan circles as an image of ‘our natural instincts’.  Nigel Pennick suggests that ‘we’ enter the Wild Wood ‘either in reality or on an inner journey’, in order to contact the ‘Wild Man’ within us, and find our ‘true natural selves’.

From a postmodern animist perspective many question arise here, such as: Who is this all-inclusive ‘we’?  Why should our ‘natural selves’ be more worthwhile than the cultivated selves we have grown through decades of relationship and social participation?  Are we talking about ecological selfhood, and if so wouldn’t that entail relating to other species?  Can there be such a thing as a ‘true’ (pre- or a- social) instinctual response, separate from cultural performance?  Should psychological discourse be dressed up as magic?

As exemplars of ‘the sheer energy of wildness’, Bears and Wolves get a raw deal from Nigel Pennick.  They are only considered in relation to martial arts and the battle frenzy of warrior cults.  The Viking Beserkers, who ‘took their power from the Bear’, apparently often lost control and became ‘possessed’, running amok and killing friends and family.  Likewise, werewolves were said to be more dangerous than real wolves.  Well quite.  I would suggest that stories like this need to be evaluated in the context of a discussion of militaristic masculinities.  The notion that co-operative social animals such as Wolves live lives of unconstrained instinctual spontaneity is surely a product of human discourse, concocted for all-too-human purposes.

No-one has a monopoly on the M-word, of course.  Susan Greenwood, for instance, -who, in contrast to Nigel Pennick illustrates and tests her developing ideas about magic against personal experience- talks about magical consciousness.  She draws upon Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s participation mystique, as indeed do some of those currently writing about enchantment and divination.  In another post I want to consider whether these ideas offer a conception of magic, enchantment, and divination, that feels more compatible with postmodern animism.

to be continued ….


Marian Green, The Elements of Natural Magic, Element Books, 1989.

Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books 2005.

Roy Willis and Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology, Vol 1: The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008.

Robert Wallis,  Shamans/Neo-Shamans, Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Gordon MacLellan, Sacred Animals, Capall Bann, 1997.

Robert Bly, Iron John, A Book About Men, Element, 1990.

John Rowan, The Horned God, Feminism and Men as Wounding and Healing, Routledge, 1987.

R.W. Connell, Masculinities, Polity Press, 1995.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.