Magick, Mortality, and the Roots of Meaning
As the turn toward Autumn acts as hemispheric memento mori to those of us in Northern climes–especially in a year such as 2020–I’m coming to appreciate the roots of my spiritual journey as decidedly chthonic. Staring down the reality that, for me, it truly does boil down to blood, breath, and bone, is a tough pill to swallow. However, it comes with hidden blessings.
As far as my living memory is to be trusted, it all started for me in a cemetery in the Rocky Mountains, at about the age of 4. It was a common weekend pastime to take rides out into the mountains with my mother, and she loved to take me to cemeteries. Naturally, I would ask questions about these places, and she would give frank, no-nonsense answers about corpses and what we do with them. Late at night, as I lay in bed attempting sleep, I would be haunted by the thought that I would one day end up in the ground just like everyone in the cemeteries we visited. It was a sobering, troubling, terrifying thought for me. I couldn’t imagine one day “ending.” I rejected the notion that all of life, even as new to me as it was, served that purpose–depending on how you look at it, no purpose at all. Combine this with the “happy accident” that Ghostbusters was all the rage when I was a kid, and I was pretty well-primed to believe in, investigate, and explore the possibilities of life after death.
Every spiritual experience I’ve ever had can be traced back to a fear of mortality, at least potentially. As I would learn later in life, the symbolism of trees pervades spiritual teachings all across the world, with one of its inherent lessons being that the greatest spiritual heights are supported by deep roots–every spiritual journey has them, and the truth is that roots find their home in darkness. My spiritual roots are surrounded and fed by dead bodies. Whether or not anyone else perceives this to be true for themselves, I perceive it to be true, in a sense, for everyone.
I began having the first experiences I would describe as “paranormal” at a young age; feeling presences around me at night, like some kind of “psychic sonar” that I always took for granted, was among the first and most common. I now know that many of these sensations could be purely physiological and psychological reactions to darkness itself, and so I have to ask: Did I interpret them as “spirits” at the time–as many bewildering doors as that might open–because fear of death made me want to believe? It’s a chicken-or-egg question that I would wager haunts people other than me.
Life and proximity to death have taught me that on a primal level, mortality drives humankind’s search for meaning. This is true whether we believe in spirits or not. We tend to be preoccupied, on some level, with our legacy and what comes after our time on earth, and this drives most of what we do. Whatever we believe, we leave most of our visible marks on the world in the arena of history and/or our relationship to it. History, in one view, is simply the story of relationships writ large; so it stands to reason that in consequence of mortality, ancestry and relationships become the tapestry for that meaning we spend our lives weaving. Fields full of headstones engraved with names and arranged by relationship are testament to this, if to nothing else. It’s unavoidable. It’s true even if you spend your life running from it.
My mother was always a history buff, while I was always more future-oriented. She grew up in a large family, one of many children in a multi-generational Chicago home, and I grew up a spoiled, suburban, only child. A Cancer Sun native with an Aries moon, she always placed important others before herself, sacrificing in heroic ways. I was born an Aries with a Cancer Moon. I am wired quite a bit differently, but whether by happenstance or astrology, we do reflect each other in all of the ways suggested; I express the same energies with an opposite emphasis. I am moved to use my skills and my courage in ways that benefit myself and others; harm someone I care about and you’ll regret it.
I have always felt tension resulting from the vast difference in perspective and lived experience between my mother and I, and I always felt this most acutely in terms of a sense of “belonging” within a family. Put simply: It’s something I never felt naturally. I can feel it now, but I had to fight for it, whereas it was always taken for granted by my mother and extended family. I have always been a black sheep. My antics in life have sometimes been self-destructive and isolating, tearing at the fabric of these relationships that are so important to us all whether we can see it or not. Like roots wrapped in rich soil, I saw most of the people around me deriving so much meaning, security, and satisfaction from these simple relationships while I struggled to manifest the same, like a transplant in foreign soil. I was forced to seek meaning in other ways. It took decades, but wouldn’t you know it–the journey ended up bringing me inevitably back to reckon with relationship, time after time. We can try, but there is no meaning in a vacuum unless we can cultivate it ourselves. I’ve come to suspect that even if we can do that, it comes to nothing without rootedness in others.
You’ll never catch my mother calling herself a “witch,” but I can point to her (and to the family that surrounds her) as evidence that something like “natural witches” are a thing–we need not get elitist about it, but there are people who are simply born magickal and my mother is one of them. Taking her son on childhood visits to cemeteries was only the first sign. While other mothers gave their kids board games (and my mom did that, too), my mother was handing me her Rider Waite tarot deck to play with as I crawled on the floor. She’s the one who exposed me to astrology. She always felt a deep connection to Anglo-Saxon and Celtic lore which she saw as an extension of her interest in her ancestry, but which I always saw as magickal. She started many a morning with a cup of Earl Grey and a divinatory reading via playing cards.
She has always been highly intuitive and psychic. She’s the one who will always pick up the phone and call you just when you were thinking of her, and don’t think of lying to her. I spent an entire childhood trying to refine the craft and it just never worked out well. She knows what you’re thinking before you do, without even realizing it.
My mother’s witch-like evolution continues apace even as she settles into retirement; in recent years, she has taken to re-decorating the mantle above her fireplace on a consistent basis–first quarterly, and then monthly–and I can’t help but notice every time I visit that the objects and themes tend to follow the current moon or astrology. When I pointed this out to her, she was incredulous. I had to run it by her several times before she warmed up to the idea: Mom, you’re totally a witch.
As I have walked my own magickal and spiritual path, some of this same natural aptitude has been pointed out in me, but I will always re-direct such credit to my mother. None of this happens without her, and in ways I am only now coming to grasp in middle age, none of that happens without family roots.
All of the threads explored above come together at the juncture of witchcraft, especially as the latter applies to the world situation. In today’s world, large segments of people are increasingly cut off from their roots, with disastrous consequences. My own life is one example of this, but the planet is filled with similar stories, and a planet full of humans living that way has produced global calamity. Many are addressing these problems in direct and straightforward ways, and this is to be applauded; there is much work to be done out there. As I survey the respective landscapes of my life and that of the planet, it seems appropriate that, for the time being, witchcraft be my activism.
How do I reckon?
Defining “witchcraft” is a delicate, tangled matter that I’m not trying to get wrapped up in here, but it bears pointing out that as touchy as definition can be, there’s no point having and using a word if we don’t acknowledge that it does have definition. I think we can all agree that witches practice magick, and that when we are talking about witchcraft, that magick tends to be rooted in folk traditions of one form or another. When I feel compelled to describe someone with the word “witch,” it also implies a certain holistic philosophy about magick, akin to Taoism, that recognizes a balance and knows this balance should be worked with rather than against. A witch holds this relationship as central to their craft and thus recognizes that, as a microcosm, one must align one’s actions and inner work to the needs and vagaries of the macrocosm, or there will be no harmony.
As a white male witch living in a world falling apart due to the legacies of other white males, I reckon the deepest and most meaningful way I can contribute to healing the woes of the world is to start by coming to terms with that whiteness, that maleness, that privilege–and the ways in which I continue to be a carrier of the more infectious aspects of those identities. I am a feminist, an advocate of equality and diversity, but I’m still a product of a dysfunctional culture, I still have blind spots aplenty, and I still perpetuate negative expressions of masculinity. I still hold vestiges of attitudes I recognize as inferior, and still have to work very hard to keep my actions aligned with my ideals. I have lifelong, learned behaviors rooted in a rootless family culture where the loudest male voice called the shots. I can make signs and protest, I can join activist groups and organize direct actions, I can clean up litter or save animals, but if I don’t do the painful work of acknowledging and addressing the inner dysfunction that I see as reflective of everything that is wrong with the world, I will continue to be part of the problem. If I want to heal the world, the greatest magickal path to that goal is to do the healing within.
We can define “witchcraft” however we want, but everything I just said, in my opinion, has everything to do with being a witch.
The Way of Witch is a community rooted in the power of witchcraft to heal even the most grievous wounds life has to throw our way, and I wrote this piece because The Way of Witch community has played an important and much-appreciated role in understanding the work I’ve just written about. Many view magick as a thing apart from the dirty, gritty soilwork of day-to-day living, but others know that there is no separating magick from the roots of necessity. In order to grow, we have come to learn, we must “stand our ground” in the soil in which our seeds have been cast, for our greatest hope lies in our connections to the detritus of the past and its potentials for the future. As we re-establish this community of the spirit, bound by ethereal threads, let us remember that our roots are our reason. It is from them we come forth, from them we derive nourishment, from them that our meaning grows tall and majestic.
Let us remember that a tree without roots is a dead one.