Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dreamcatchers, Witchbottles, Shamanic Initiations, oh my!

It's probably later at night and I am tireder than I should be when writing something for public consumption, and I'm not even sure why I'm doing this, except that my Writing Gene is restless. It's too late and the light is too bad to even take the photos that properly belong with what I'm thinking of writing about.
In recent days, a friend of mine, a lovely guy, taught me the mechanics of making a dreamcatcher. Dreamcatchers are traditionally made on untreated wooden hoops - we used steel. My companions used a variety of materials, but mine was made of unashamedly synthetic materials in unnatural and very vivid colours. I relish colour.
I've been aware of the presence of dreamcatchers in the world since around the middle nineteen eighties, perhaps a little earlier. I've certainly been aware of the fact that they are not a continent-wide Native American thing but traditional only to the Ojibwe people and that their elders placed a formal curse on all past and future dreamcatchers made for commercial purposes by whites, ever since I started hanging out with a Lakota family in 1986. And this is exactly why I've never bought one: no one has ever been able to give me enough provenance to demonstrate that the curse doesn't apply to any dreamcatchers I've seen for sale that I ever felt tempted to buy. I'm probably not all that afraid of the curse itself, but I have respect for it's having been cast, and the reasons why, and the community that cast it, and out of respect I have chosen not to buy commercially prepared dreamcatchers ever since I found out about it.
Nonetheless, John was teaching me the physical skills necessary out of the goodness of his heart, and my purposes were non-commercial, so I am entirely happy that the dreamcatcher I made for my own use is okay and not under a blanket curse.
Dreamcatchers are traditionally hung over beds and anywhere else you might sleep. They represent spider-webs, which are analogues of connection and communication, just as dreams are. The theory is that happy and beneficial dreams are small and lithe, and can slip through the hole traditionally left in the centre of the webbing so that the dreamer can enjoy them; whilst nightmares are not only terrifying but very large, so they get tangled up in the web and never make it to the sleepers. The beads, stones and shells incorporated in the webbing represent "dream-spiders", spiritual entities much like spiders that move around the web and kill and eat the bad dreams, disposing of them before the sleeper wakes.
So dreamcatchers are all about improving the quality of your dreaming-sleep. This leaves me bothered, though. Let's just say that hypothetically I accept the rightness of commercially made ones (I don't, at least not for myself) and that equally hypothetically I believe that a commercially made magical object might actually be effective when bought and not worked on or used magically by its new owner (I most emphatically don't).
Given that I'm pretending I believe these things, can anyone explain to me why someone might want a pair of small dreamcatchers as earrings to wear during the day, even to work? Is their intention to sleep during the day? And dreamcatchers hanging from the rear vision mirrors of cars - in my community I'm seeing them more and more often in cars, even the cards of two personal friends of mine, both of whom really should know better. What - they want to sleep really well and have nice dreams whilst on the road? Well, thank you but I won't accept a lift - I think I'll catch a bus. One that doesn't have a dreamcatcher hanging near the driver.
Before and after the making of my first dreamcatcher and still now, I'm working on a Magical Scarf for someone. I didn't start crocheting until I was in my early twenties, so some time in the early 1980s, after reading ... a Scott Cunningham book, perhaps, certainly one of the Pagan writers I was reading at the time whom I respected, who talked about incorporating your own magical energy into your household by trancing out when crocheting things like coverlets, cushion covers etc. Every crochet stitch except the joining stitch known as a slip-stich is a twisting and a pulling-through of the yarn, winding itself around itself in a series of small spirals or helixes, a very Pagan thing to do. It seemed to me that each stitch was a Magical Thing, and each group of stitches in very useful granny-squares reflected the Triple Goddess, and that colours and numbers of rows could be chosen magically. And in this scarf the numbers have been chosen magically for protection, health and happiness, even if the colours were chosen by its future owner for taste. And I'm pleased to report that it will have forty-two squares in it, the Answer to the Question, the Great Question, the Question of the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything.
My first magical crocheting project was an enormous one: a queen-sized bedspread that I made during my daughter's gestation from thick knitting-cotton. Knitting-cotton is heavier and warmer than the same thickness acrylic, heavier and warmer even than proper wool. The basic field of the bedspread was a soft dove-grey, and it took the form of a single granny-square worked  until it was the right size, then edged in a pretty pattern in the same grey. All the colours of the spectrum radiated out, and the numbers of rows of each colour, plus the number of rows of grey between them, plus the numbers of rows of each cycle of the whole spectrum, were magically chosen numbers. I was working in the city making money but doing essentially soul-destroying things by day - by night I'd rush home refusing all invitations, and crochet enthusiastically until it was bedtime. I loved that bedspread and slept under it all year round for fifteen years despite the protests of two consecutive live-in partners who thought crocheting was daggy. I gave it away to a Western Australian friend a few years ago before I moved here.
I immediately missed it, but I knew I'd miss it even more if I tried to make it all over again. The magic was in the focus, and in the years of sleeping under it. So a few years ago, I worked out a pattern based on squares of thirteen rows (a lovely magical number) with nine in the main colour of the square (a Goddess number), the tenth row (a round number) white, then more colour to the last row of white. I worked out how big each square would be, and how many squares I'd need to make a queen-sized cover. I was again working the colours of the spectrum and I wanted the squares running diagonally across the bed, so I worked out a map or pattern that would make that happen. And  got crocheting, made the right numbers of squares for each colour, then joined them. I was midway through doing the individual squares when my late flatmate moved in, and he used to be hugely amused by my sitting next to him at night pretending to watch TV but actually watching my fingers working. He had an emotional problem with one of the colours, so I considerately worked those squares in my room or out of the house.
I've slept under this bedspread for two or three years now, and I love it as much as I used to love the other one. The difference is that I'm not planning to cross the continent again, so I won't be stripping myself of all my property - I'll sleep under this cover for the rest of my life. I love the diagonals, meaning every colour rests over me. I love that the numbers of rows in each square plus the number of squares are an act of magic and a magical choice that nobody else in the world ever needs to know about, not even people I might invite to sleep under it. And I love that I had the discipline to do it all again, when I knew from the first time what a big job it was.
I made my first witchbottle not long after I moved into my first independent home in - what? - 1979? I was given some advice by a friend and former teacher, and it sounded like a fine idea to me. I've since done searches, and I can find no references to witchbottles much before 1940 in any of the literature, not even of witch trials which are quite detailed. That isn't to say that there aren't any, just that I personally couldn't find any.
What early references there are backed up what my friend said, that they were a way for a witch to remove bad energy from her home, and leave a coded message at her boundary that could only be understood by other witches, that the home was lived in by a witch. I made that first witchbottle and all its successors the old-fashioned way from the early literature without taking any short-cuts, which meant, as I was living alone, it took months. And as I made it, I learnt the thing that my teacher had deliberately not told me: that the finished artefact was almost beside the point, and that the making of it was the real magic. And because I learnt that lesson, I started making another witchbottle as soon as I finished the first, and over the decades I have always, always, quietly been making witchbottles. Some witchbottles are faster than others: when you have two heavy drinkers in your home with you who are always breaking plates and cups, the witchbottle will fill far quicker when if you live alone and are careful with crockery!
So how are they made? Well, you'll need to start with a transparent glass jar or bottle that has a sealable lid. Just leave it somewhere in your house. If you drop and break a plate, a mirror, a cup or anything else, by all means sweep it up and dispose of it normally - but take a single broken piece and pit it in the witchbottle. If you sew something and you cut off the leftover piece of cotton, place that cotton end in the witchbottle. If you knit or crochet, as evidently I'm doing at the moment, and you trim off a piece of yarn, place that in the witchbottle. Doing that you are symbolically ridding your home and life of "loose ends" and broken things (including, presumably, hearts).
My current witchbottle-under-construction has in it quite a lot of scrap-ends of yarn from the scarf I'm crocheting, a thread I pulled out of a sleeve of one of my tops, a broken needle-threader, a broken safety pin, a piece of a broken drinking glass, some leftover string from something and a few bent sewing pins. The materials going into it can't be any old waste: they must only be things that you actually broke yourself (bent pins or nails count as broken because they are unusable), or useless leftover scraps from creative projects that you would otherwise throw away. They represent the bad energy of unfinished things and unwanted things.
The big don't-do is to deliberately break things in order to have stuff to put into the witchbottle - it is about cleaning out the normal bad energy from the household, not creating more bad energy to clean out! With a busy family it might take you a couple of weeks to fill the witchbottle. Living alone and being reasonably careful with my things, it usually takes me many months. But, days, weeks or months notwithstanding, there will come that day when you press the last bit of string or nail-fished-out-of-the-compost into it, and you know you can't fit in any more. Now is the time to finish it off.
First you need to put your own energy-signature into it. This could be anything from toenail clippings to spitting in it, from urine to hair from your razor. The person who taught me about witchbottles all those years ago, said quite calmly that she used faeces once - that was real dedication. In honour of her and her bizarre faeces, several years ago I used tampons in one or two of my witchbottles. But honestly, fingernail clippings or that bandaid with your blood on it, or even a tissue full of your dried snot will do the job. The last one I finished before my flatmate passed on, contained a tissue that I had blown my nose in, and one from him as well, since we were both in the house and were both magical people.
Then you seal it. Personally, I don't care how good the jar is and how airtight it is. It doesn't really feel magically sealed to me until I have closed it, melted some wax, and used a paintbrush to paint the molten wax over the join with the lid so as to create an extra seal. Once you've sealed it, you take it out of your house. All those used things, all those broken things, should be taken out - they are a symbol of old, stale energy. Every time I take a freshly completed witchbottle out of my house, I feel the home immediately get lighter and breezier.
The older texts say place it on the boundary of your property, say on a fence, where passers-by will see it so that any passing witch will know a witch lives in the house. Around here, with the local vandals, that's just not practical. But it should be at the boundary of the property, somewhere that is not really your space and not really public space. Boundaries are intrinsically magical places. My boundary-of-choice in this house is the fence to my back yard. I used to wrap the witchbottle up in some fruit netting, then tie the netting up with string and loop that over the fence palings, but since I've started cage-tying things, I tend to cage-tie it and have the loop where I start the tying process large enough to loop over the fence palings.
I've lived here about six or seven years, I think, and there are four witchbottles hanging at my boundary, plus a couple that disappeared when a tradesman took down some of my fencing when I was away from home, plus the one currently under construction in my front room. The witchbottles outside feel inert, they feel as if their time is over, they are now only what I term "magical decoration" as their job is done. The one that feels alive and beneficial is the half-full one in my front room that I'm currently dropping things into. And when its time comes, I'll seal it off, too, and take it out to my boundary, off my territory.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: shamanism is not something you choose, it's something that happens to you whether you like it or not. You can do all the sweat-lodges you like and all the power animal meditations you like, and they will be of benefit in your own self-understanding, but you only become a shaman when shamanism claims you. And this is messy, traumatic, and often involves severe injury or illness. Even when it doesn't, it can be messy and traumatic: imagine doing a nice animal-centred meditation looking for nurturing and guidance, and having an Otherworldly animal-spirit suddenly turn on you and eat you! Tearing the flesh from your bones, swallowing your head. Seeing its bones and muscles around you as you descend into its flesh and into death. Feeling yourself being digested. Actually feeling the pain of all of that. Meeting the guardians of the afterlife. And somehow battling back to your body, forever scarred, forever changed. No, THAT is a shamanic initiation.
And shamanism isn't an end in-and-of itself. It is not a destination. It is not a nice thing you can feel pleased about, or tell people about. Along with the frightening spiritual knowledge that is its definitive hallmark, comes a lifelong commitment whether you're ready for it or not, whether you have time or not. You suddenly have to serve. You suddenly have things to do, things that if you avoid doing, will fester in you and slowly send you barking. If you feel shamanism taking a hold of you and turning your life inside out, you either need the help of an experienced person who knows exactly what's happening to you because it happened to them too who can teach you how to manage it, or you need heaps and heaps of courage and strength. I wasn't lucky enough to find the experienced person until thirty-five years after the event when I'd learnt to manage it the solitary way - it took twelve or fifteen years of battling through an irrevocably changed spiritual landscape and learning what the tasks I need to be continuously doing are, before I managed to pull my life into some semblance of order again, and we met as equals who could talk on a deep level in a way that we really couldn't around even our other magical friends.

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