Archive for October, 2016


Posted: October 21, 2016 in Chat
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A book I’ve had hanging around for ages: there it was again, so this time I read it:
Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic – Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition, by Peter Kingsley.
It was published by Clarendon Press/ Oxford University Press, 1995.

Then there was a free FutureLearn course: Magic in the Middle Ages, run by Barcelona University. Lovely people, by the way.

Empedocles is the one who coined the four basic elements, building blocks of all things: earth, air, fire and water. Each was also connected with a god/goddess.
The hierarchy was:
Air – Zeus. It was aether intitially, a rarefied form of air.
Earth – Hera
Water – Nestis. She was a localised goddess, native to Sicily.
Fire – Hades.

Empedocles was a native of Sicily. It was to Sicily that Pythagoras came from Samos, Greece. This was all in the 4th centuryBCE.
Sicily, of course, has always been volcanic. Not just the presence of Etna, but Empedocles’ birth town was based on hot springs: the island is full of volcanic-related geography. Then there are the Liparan Islands off the north coast, connecting to Vesuvius.
Is it any wonder the Pythagorians had Fire as the centre of the universe? This was not just ordinary fire but the fire of Tartarus, where the Titans and rebellious gods were confined.
The Underworld, next, ‘as far above Hades as the Earth was above the Underworld’; it was was envisioned as a place of rivers of water, and of fire. Nestis was a localised name for Persephone, and she was partnered with Hades, as Hera was with Zeus. We see differences in nature and purpose of each couple in this.
Some initiates took all this later to Egypt. It found a home there, met eastern cults, and became interested in Alchemy (another fire-based ideology).
This was all big-concept stuff – compare it with the Eleusian Mysteries, with closely related Orphism, the mystery cults. They are all surrounded by ritual, initiation, even rebirth scenarios.

The online course was based on documented sources: Papal edicts, religious records, even Inquisition records.
Magic was either earth magic: herbology, charms and amulets, even star reading – and other: necromancy, prophecy etc. The first were accepted; the latter considered as due to demonic agencies.Then they all became classed as the latter kind: who gave you knowledge of these things? Why, demons, of course.
We touched on the Kabbalah: the course leader ruefully commented that this was only intended for those who had studied the Torah and The Old Testament, for at least 40 years. No one went straight into it, that would be seen as utterly stupid, pointless.

So, magic was either big-concept theory with rituals, orgies and bachanalian revels, or it was table-rapping, charms, astrology, and what we now know as spiritualism, automatic writing, dream visions etc.
That was about it.
There are no records outside of the Bible of the dead actually being raised, reinvigorated. There is the Witch of Endor who cured Saul/St Paul’s heaven-caused blindness. But there are no extant records anywhere of witches, say, throwing fire balls, of actually being seen riding broomsticks; or of spells compelling living people to do things supernatural. No great wizards with staffs; no actual records of demons raised, djinns released, or even angels on earth.
Curses and charms depend so much on coincidence and interpretation: you need narrow horizons and desperate lives to see the patterns, so to speak.

Everything else had been recorded; you can bet such weirdy stuff would certainly have been recorded too.

This bit you didn’t hear from me. OK?
Visions and vision quests.
In each case the person has to put themselves in mortal danger.
This is always played down, and tactfully forgotten.
The quester fasts and purges; the hallucinogenic user purposely imbibes toxic material. The sun-dancer puts his body through torments.
The aim in all cases is to get the body to react to the threat. This is not a conscious reaction, but a purely physiological one, way below awareness: the body pumps in its danger and panic chemicals, its point-of-death chemicals, that enhance the hallucinations, the visions.
The whole procedure is a literal life-and-death one.
The result is a glimpse of the death-life relationship, and where, if anywhere, the self fits in.
The problem is, you have to be conscious, and you have to come back intact (or more or less: even Odin lost an eye!).
Don’t Try This At Home!


William Shakespeare, Crime Scene Cleaner.
By F J McQueen. Urbane Publications, 2016.

Publication due; orders taken.

The best, most entertaining, gloriously funny, crazy, inventive, heart-warming, and well-written book, I have read for a long, long time.

Highly recommended.

We meet him as a junior doctor, and a whistle-blower on the NHS’s use of divination in medicine. His new career finds strange yet familiar crime-scenes: two teens dead in a crypt, and a mysterious friar; a Scottish noble wife and husband in a grand house, surrounded by a strange forest…. The crimes begin to fill his order-book.
Who is the perpetrator?
We blend Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, modern fantasy, and the darkest of dark humour (South Park in the background).

And then, when what the three oracles in the hospital cupboard said starts to come true….
What if you could clean so deep, if you could clean the whole world?
What would that world be?

WARNING: Contains big concept story-line, and huge metaphors.

See here for more on  F J McQueen:

see also What is Happiness/Wat Is Geluk?

Derren Brown, the magician, mentalist, entertainer, has recently published a new book: Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine, Bantam Press, September 2016.

A Sunday newspaper reviewer of the book that I read was being either deliberately obtuse, or just plain ignorant in his write-up.

If I was to ask you what you thought of happiness, 10 to 1 you would say something like I did: something to do with fun, friends, good times.
Lack of worries comes into it. Control of one’s life is not something occurs immediately, but it is what it mostly amounts to also.  And also, as the current mood has it, of giving up that control if the fun-factor is high enough.
In other words our ideas of happiness are mostly tied up in the life-style tropes that ads feed us. At the heart of the marketing is this equation:

Happiness = Wealth, Youth, Health
In that order.

We can only be happy if we have plenty of money.
We can only be happy if we are young.
Health, well, we need that to do and enjoy all the extreme sports, the trail hikes, the yachting? we see as necessary to be happy.
Because happiness is, to use a metaphor, about bungee jumping into excitement, extreme experiences. Preferably somewhere sunny, hot: a tropical setting.

So, what did Derren Brown say happiness is? The reviewer pinned it down as something like ‘constant contentment.’
Couldn’t be more different.
All excitement – slippers and cocoa.

Derren Brown wrote how he hates being a magician – he has seen the reception side of trickery and it’s no fun. He hates the big production showman deals. He admires the skill, the craft, oh yes, but it’s the message. Or the lack of message. The message is usually Admire Me! Or production-line entertainment.

Derren Brown is a thinker; for him everything must have a meaning, a purpose.
His latest shows in particular, have all been to do with empowerment. That is, empowerment of people, ordinary people: the passive audience, who have stumped up the money for the travel and the show.

In his latest show MIRACLE, he implores the audience to consider their moment in time, their uniqueness; to consider the miracle of their genetic heritage and the millions of risks and successes throughout millennia that have led from the beginnings of life itself, to themselves at that precise moment. How they are all part of that.
It is, he says, miracle on miracle we are here , and also here now in this theatre.

For Derren Brown happiness is not what we have been sold.
We desperately need another narrative than the one we have taken on board without realising, and on which we still base our ideas of fulfillment, success, happiness.
He wants to provide an alternative narrative.

His narrative is by no means The Answer.
His narrative is meant as a corrective to the Wealth,Youth, Health equation.

Happiness is not about spending loads of cash.
Happiness is not all about running around on tropical beaches.
Happiness is not about being a morally vacuous and patronising vacationer, in places where locals are in awe of out Western ways, our wealth. OK, that last bit’s mine.

The narrative he is putting across could well be the one we need most in post-Brexit Britain.
It is about valuing what we have, our uniqueness, our quirkiness, our ‘character.’
It is appreciating what is in front of us, around us, here, now.
And it is not about hopelessly, endlessly yearning  for that other that costs so much in money, air-pollution, and political and cultural harm to other countries. And that bit’s mine, too.

Derren Brown’s book is about the need to re-evaluate, re-think, re-consider ourselves, our lives, our communities, our world, and our places in the world.




The Blackden Trust has been set up to promote and facilitate education, history and culture. The Trust is based around the life, work and experience of the writer Alan Garner.

The site consists of two joined houses, in their own grounds, set well away from the village, and other houses, farms. The site itself abuts a railway line; on the other side of which and a mile or so to the north is The Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope and grounds.

The first house has been kept as the Garner family home, and is ruefully known as T’Owd Hall (The Old Hall). The other is an old reconstructed timber-frame building, known as The Medicine House. This house dates back to possibly the 15th Century. It was bought very cheaply from part of a road-widening demolition scheme, taken apart piece by piece, and three wagon loads then brought to the new site, and the whole house rebuilt.
That was in 1970; by 1972 the house had been reconstructed and was once again a livable space. There were a number of alterations to the structure, but the overall layout has been kept, and original timbers used wherever possible.


Griselda Garner and her team of volunteers take visiting parties around The Medicine House, and allow free access to most of the grounds. A semi-permanent marquee is erected at the back of the site for visitors (and to keep the hens company).

Alan Garner and family have enhanced the site with brought-in objects from nearby finds. The houses contain cabinets of objects dug up on site, nearby, or from further afield; these are neatly time-lined, and date from neolithic arrow heads, flint tools, a medieval seal, to pottery, Civil War musket shot, and much later objects. The Owl Service table-ware is on display here as well.
One of these brought-in objects is a stone obelisk, now sited in the garden: a carved monolith, like a standing stone, and is supposedly a boundary marker.


Indoors, in the joining passageway is another carved  object: a 10th century stone head.

The grounds have been planted out with many different varieties of apple trees and gooseberry bushes, a pear tree, and a damson tree. Not forgetting a small green-house bursting and festooned with bunches of small, sweet grapes.

When the timbers from the old Medicine House were stored for reconstruction on the front lawn, they left behind herb seeds. Since then many varieties of herbs have grown. These have been arranged into beds, and all labeled.

Alan Garner has been active in the restoration of many old properties in the area.

Griselda Garner showed us many interesting aspects and secrets of The Medicine House. It was once two houses, but now has been combined into one. The fireplace is the where the two join. Now that closed fireplace is an open fire area in the middle of the house, with the chimney open to the roof cowl.

Griselda told of objects found in a window space. They were owner-objects, a declaration of the house as space belonging to its owners. The house has also been provided with protective symbols in its most sensitive areas: doors, windows etc.

The most important of these found objects was a small squashed lead bottle. It had contained holy water, and was decorated with two interlocking V’s on one side, and on the other a daisy wheel.
The bottle was from the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. It would have contained water from the shrine.
This symbol of two interlocking V’s. spelling out the W for Walsingham (also Vivat?), when reversed also gives M, for Mary mother of Christ.

In post-Reformation, newly Protestant times, the house had been made safe by these hidden symbols on the beams. They are very hard to read among all the wear and tear and time’s ravages. Also, the beams were plastered over for some period.

Griselda showed how each corner of the main bedroom was marked on the beams with the scratched protective Walsingham initial. This is the only room to be marked out like this.
She suggested it may refer to a protective charm, with a spell attached. We have something like it still, in form of a Bedtime Prayer:

Matthew, Mark, Luke & John
Bless the bed I lay on.
Four corners around my bed
Four angels around my head.
1 to watch
1 to pray
2 to take my soul away.

There are older versions of this prayer, she said. One is Jewish:

In the name of Adonai the God of Israel;
May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael…
and above my head the Sh’khinah.

This one is particularly interesting.
I was thinking further on this. She mentioned the four corners of the room marked for protection, and with the ways of superstition and magic being to make use of everything from everywhere, this Jewish canopy-prayer could well be pertinent.
Visually it provides us with a square-based pyramid of protection in this room, connecting above with the Almighty, Sh’khinah, keeping watch

.A lot depends on whether there is a protective mark also, on the ceiling’s centre beam.

You can take this still further.
This pyramid symbol, is it also the alchemical symbol for fire? It may just be possible to imagine an invocation here of the archangel associated with fire (Michael), to protect the timber-framed house. This use of fire to protect from fire, is very much an example of what is termed ‘magical thinking.’

And yet, the symbol for fire is the tetrahedron: all triangles, base as well. The one in the house is a symbol that moves from square, that is, earth, to air and fire: it is a symbol of solidity plus power – Strength.

But then, why just this room? Why not the whole timber-framed house? It was once two houses, but is now combined at the fire section, providing an open central hearth and chimney. Even this is not a clean half-and-half division; neither was a four-square house.

Is it to protect the owners during sleep, childbirth, death even: all the most vulnerable times of one’s life?

I have to admit I became very fond of Griselda in the short time we were there. She is very generous with her time, and has boundless energy. Lovely woman.


And here below is the Trust’s own labyrinth, based on the site’s existing well. The alignment of the diagonal has some connection with the constellation of Orion. Maybe the angle of the belt?


For further on the writing of Alan Garner, see the chapter on The Stone Book, in my GIFTS OF RINGS AND GOLD, Amazon kindle, 2016.
Earlier version:

THE FLOATING CASTLE, by Karen Margolis, 2012. £3.59.


The Pretoria Castle

This ebook is a must.

I invite all to spend time with the wonderful, warm Litinsky family.
A modern Jewish family relocates from their early life in South Africa to London. It was the beginning of the 1960s: This country is no place to bring up children… after Sharpeville.
And already we see the bigger picture, the extra dimensions: we do not live our lives in isolation. Ever.

The book begins with the young family moving from Cape Town to the Transvaal. It ends with the family arriving in Portsmouth, and moving onto London.
They start new lives each time, with all the wrenching upheaval, the breaking away from years laid down in the memory, and to learn new ways of living, speaking, thinking even, this entails.
But more, the books begins and ends with the gathered family remembering itself and  celebrating the Passover ceremony in each new home. Who remains? Who has gone?

And what is the main prayer of the Passover? Next year, in Jerusalem.
One has to learn to fit in, integrate, yet all the time some part keeps one separate – we witness the attitudes of the new Church of England school in London belittling the Jewish holiday traditions, where a holiday  is indeed a holy day.
But there are also the challenges of new ideas and ideals as left wing politics, feminism, find homes in the hearts and minds of the growing children.

I would like to invite you  to meet, spend time with, Isaac and Verena Litinsky, their twin daughters Davida and Sarah, younger siblings spoilt Raphael, and Alicia. But then, of course, there are the extended families of both mother and father’s side, their own experiences of a shocking century.

The family unit is a wide and internationally based web of relationships.
The family unit touches the people they live among, with, beside. In the Transvaal there are the black Africans working in the household: Susan, the nanny, who cooks the specifically Jewish food, and lives by choice apart. Her wedding…. No, you must read for yourself.

Father Isaac flew to London earlier to find work and look for accommodation. The family followed later, by boat.
Here we see where book title, The Floating Castle, begins to throw wider and wider shadows and shapes on the canvas of our reading.
We see how the family arranges itself into at times autocratic, at times capitalist and democratic relationships; we see how other cultures, the travelling companions, the ship-board relationships, impinge, threaten the stability of the family unit: is Verena really taken with that other man? What of Davida’s developing relationships outside the family unit?

At times the Jewish ceremony can seem as strange to the children as the others around them. They visit a Christian Church in Johannesburg with their nanny. Sarah concludes that it’s bunk, if the messiah had really come then they would all be in paradise by now, and they are plainly not.
We see the characters from the inside, through unreliable narration like this. It gives us insights, it provokes empathy. The tone of voice is caught seemingly effortlessly

The background stories fill in, and we see the sense in madness, the folly in sense, as ordered and disordered lives worked themselves out to unforeseeable conclusions. Human, all so human.

The book shifts locale and time giving us the later stories of the character’s lives, and their earlier experiences. And how they reflect in each other.
It gives us, for instance: What does it cost to borrow a ride on a bike? Enough to say, Nanny Susan saved dignity, and the day.
We read into this how one learns bargaining; how the body can be a bargaining counter. Here is the beginning of gender politics, body consciousness; it shows how natural curiosity can devolve into objectification, given a background of gender inequality.

‘Faith’, we say easily, and yet we discern in this story, how the word goes deeper. We discern here how it can permeate every part of one’s being, one’s experiences, one’s interactions with the world. It can colour one’s whole view:
The London Jews… They’re not real Jews, not in the way we understand.’ was Isaac’s verdict.
But we also see Isaac’s Jewishness held up for examination, where the holes show through, and the patches.
We should have gone to Israel, he said, we have lost something staying too long in London, We have stretched the thread of tradition too far.
But Israel, itself, volatile, threatened, and threatening: was that a place for the children? We see Aunt Masha after her parent’s died, living perpetually alone. She was a constant fount of vitality, but duty and  tradition tied her heart, hand and foot.

And on the other hand there’s Molly. She was a member of the Black Sash Movement in South Africa, a fighter for black rights. Molly is a splendid character; she is full of the contradictions of her place and time: comfortable and white interloper fighting for the impoverished and black indigenous peoples. She is passionate, brave, puts herself on the line constantly.

The book is strong and yet flexible, the characters all well realised, warmly depicted, and all so likeable. For all their faults, short-comings. The writing is finely nuanced, crafted; a joy to read.

I have really enjoyed my time with the Litinsky family.

I really must go back and re-read from the beginning.