The Mysteria, Interlude: The Witches' Flight
"Call this dreaming, though remember: dream has power."
This is an essay in my series, The Mysteria. Research for this essay series — as well as for my next manuscript — is being provided by my many generous founding supporters, including Stephan Wrede, Annika Mongan, Harrison Preusse, Rebecca White, and 17 others.
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The previous strategy of “thou shalt not have unauthorised dreams” has been superseded by a more terrible strategy. It is not simply dream that has been derided as meaningless, but every aspect of our lives.
… We are pitted against an industrial industry which fabricates our dreams for us and insinuates them through our culture and our language. How can we dream when our vocabulary of symbols has only the nuance of newspeak?
Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft
“But I Was Just Sitting On This Lettuce…”
My writing has been quite sparse here since for several weeks, as you’ve no doubt noticed. Four weeks ago, I announced I intended to begin a new book. Some very kind readers offered me a significant sum of money to fund my initial research, and I started reading immediately.
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I still don’t. Things…happened. Things are still happening. Things will keep happening. And I don’t know how to make sense of any of it yet.
After receiving those gifts, I immediately began reading, purchasing some shockingly expensive books. Academic knowledge is often locked away behind extraordinarily high prices to keep the rest of us out. Sometimes, rogues help the knowledge escape digitally on clandestine pdf sites. Sometimes, it’s the authors themselves who abscond with their own writing, secreting it out from the ivory towers since, anyway, the publisher’s not paying them shit.
That underground of distribution is hardly a new thing, preceding the internet by hundreds if not thousands of years. Much of the magical knowledge we have in “the west” was copied and preserved by monastics, the “literate” medieval class. Before the printing presses, the scriptoria in the monasteries and abbeys were really the only places you could find paper and ink and people who knew how to read and copy the old texts.
What was a little more paper filled, a little more ink used, to copy something a little less canonical?
It’s from them, what’s been called by historians the “clerical underground,” that most of what we know about magic in medieval Europe survived. Men and boys, huddled over wooden tables in candlelight, copying scriptures and spells, rites to exorcise demons and rites to summon them. Priests, some bishops, and even a scattering of archbishops read and then copied these works, and added to them, so others could read what else was possible between humans and the unseen.
I started my research with witches, then found myself with werewolves, and am now chasing down preserved magical practices in Frankish lands. There are demons everywhere, including ones sitting on lettuces, waiting for nuns to eat them because they forgot to make the sign of the cross. According to Gregory of Tours (“Gregory the Great,”) a nun once ate such a lettuce without first signing herself. Because of that, she actually also ate a demon, which later, when exorcised, said, “but what did I do wrong? I was just sitting innocently on the lettuce, and the nun ate me.”
The “sign of the cross” is likely much older than Christianity, by the way. It appears to work for demons on lettuces, and for other demons, the good and the bad. There are other signs that work for other things, but the Christians didn’t — maybe couldn’t — work those into their magical system.
And that’s the thing. The more you read these old works, the more you realize that Christianity is a magical system. No, of course it’s also a religion, but it’s only Christian exceptionalism, the narrating of Christianity as a “true” religion and all others as “false,” that allows anyone to pretend it wasn’t also a magical order.
We can start with the obvious here, the Eucharist. Sacred mystery feasts were of course hardly invented by the Christians, but were rather a common feature of pagan mystery cults. The transubstantiation is incidentally a later medieval idea, one which arose in response to a Christian need to redefine what sort of magic was allowed as miraculous and what sort of magic was forbidden as sorcery.
It’s not that the earlier conception of the bread and wine was merely symbolic (as the Protestants would have it), but rather that earlier Christians still held onto the pagan idea of mysteries and multiple existences. Just as a forest could be a group of trees and also the body of a goddess, the bread and wine could be what they were and also the body and blood of a god. There was no initial need to “explain” how it happened, it just was.
The doctrine of transubstantiation was needed later as early materialist thinking began to redefine Christian cosmology. Because a forest could no longer also be a goddess, bread could no longer also be body without some new explanation. Transubstantiation was the solution for this, but it had the laughable consequence of turning holy wafers into a magical commodity.
The trick for the Christians was that they called all their own magic “miracles.” It was a miracle when a saint flew through the air or banished a spirit, and malefica when it was someone else doing those things. Brand it with “Jesus” or “the Queen of Heaven” or “The Holy Spirit” and you could speak with the dead, transfer demons and diseases to passers-by, call lightning down from the heavens, divine with severed heads, and travel to wondrous lands and meet long-dead people just like the sorcerers did, and then pretend you weren’t doing sorcery at all.
All this magic was older than them, and merely re-labeled, just as many of the religious rituals were older and merely transferred to the new order. The easiest way to see this is to think of all the orthodox icons of Mary venerated by hermits and monks in caves to this day. Before the new order, the devoted venerated nymphs in those caves. The names changes, and so did the magical order, but the veneration continued otherwise unchanged.
Likewise, Pagans venerated the bones of their ancestors in shrines. Christians outlawed this, burned down the shrines, slaughtered the pagans, and then filled the cathedrals and chapels they built over those shrines with the bones of ancestors they called saints. The order changed, but the magical and religious rituals which upheld it didn’t.
The Christian order accumulated unto itself all the magic it could use to increase itself and its power, while punishing with death any who threatened their monopoly.
Dreams in the House of Wheeling Flames
Since I began reading for this book, I’ve suddenly found myself haunted by early childhood memories I could never make much sense of. When I’d think of them before, I’d shake them off as soon as I could, because some of them were really quite terrifying. They still are, but I’m slowly finding myself at least able to look at them for a little longer.
All these memories are from my time in Appalachia, where I was born. I lived there for the first two years of my life, and then again from six or seven until I was 12. I remember almost nothing of those first two years, but the strange things which happened to me in that later part are seared deeply into my memory.
I’ve written of one of these memories already, the “man from the stars.” That one is a memory still unfolding, and never one of terror. Others, on the other hand, still make me shudder.
I met something when I was seven or eight, and I’d very much like never to do so again. I remember the feeling of utter horror, muscles frozen in bed. I don’t know if my eyes were open or closed, but regardless they were staring at what seemed a spinning chandelier of tiny bicycles, ridden by flaming candles, all upon a field of unearthly white.
I struggle with a metaphor for the feeling I had. The closest I can come up with is the sense you get when you’re staring at your reflection in a shop window and then suddenly realize the people inside think you’re looking at them. You were looking directly at them but didn’t realize they were looking back. Once you see them seeing you, you feel a chill, shudder for an instant and then quickly look away.
Now, imagine you couldn’t look away. Instead, their gaze, initially invisible to you, now held you paralyzed, and in that moment you suddenly feel as if it was you inside the shop window. The entire world turned not upside-down, but inside-out.
Worst of the experience, though, was the silence. What regarded me was a devouring silence, a cannibal silence glutting itself on all other silences. It was a still-born scream engorged and gorging upon all other stillnesses. It was a silence that felt like sound, a chittering void, a cacophonous vacuum.