Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Preponderance of the Dead

It's been a dark week and I feel drawn to offer some minor reflections on death. The horrors of three mass shootings in one day certainly makes its contribution to the darkness, but even before that there was a weight and shadow to this week that left me consistently a little breathless and disturbed. Teaching was difficult, I was distracted, there were voices on the wind. Then, this morning, I awoke to find this truly breathtaking piece by Rhyd Wildermuth over at the Wild Hunt: Gates of the Abyss:
"But under this all is Death, the pale voiceless corpse, our lost stories, our tales tapering off into silence not for lack of words but absence of tongue. What meaning can we derive from death, when it is itself the Abyss into which all meaning leaks out?" 
Historical image, Brown Lady Ghost photo. Originally taken in 1936 by Captain Hubert C. Provand (Indre Shire Inc.), and published in the magazine 'Countrylife' in the same year.  

I spent the week writing about the concept of the Chthonian and the vital role the dead have to play in any occult practice respecting the chthonian aspects of both reality and the gods. Specifically, the dead are the bridge between us and the Other. No longer human, yet not as foreign as the gods and spirits of the underworld, the dead are our mediators to the Beyond. In losing this, losing the dead, magic has for a long time been crippled. I hope to write more on this soon.

Last night I sat in the backroom of Catland Books and listened to the incomparable Al Cummings and Jesse Hathaway discuss necromancy and the dead as the night chill leaked into the room. The dead were there to listen as well. They demanded libations, knocking over glasses of wine so that they might drink. I heard some things I didn't know (for example, I was unaware of the fascinating practice of "Sin Eating" which Al discussed) and was provoked to think once again about things I thought I already knew (the occult role that graveyard dirt and the plants which grow upon graves must play in a culture when actual human remains are so hard to come by; the interesting way in which spirits of the dead continue to evolve and change, or can even be combined into new entities, in many Afro-Caribbean traditions; the mixed nature of saints which was so brilliantly discussed by Jesse).

Outside the bookstore while chatting with Jesse's partner at Wolf and Goat, Troy Chambers, a dead rat on the sidewalk joined our circle and I was reminded for some reason of one of the first acts of intentional ceremonial magic I had performed - it was an act of necromancy and a rather dark one at that.

A young boy had been killed in the town bordering mine a few days before Samhain. They had found a slightly older boy who they had decided had committed the murder while going door to door selling candy. But things didn't sit right with me, though I am not entire sure why. There may have been details of the case that I don't remember, or I may have just had some sort of intuition, but I was worried the accused was being used as a scapegoat.

So, come the night of Samhain, I decided I would find out for myself what happened. I set up a magical circle in my backyard after my parents had gone to bed and I called forth the spirit of the murdered young boy. If I remember right I used Gwyn ap Nudd and Ceridwen to offer me guidance, protection, and to bring forth the desired spirit.

The spirit came. Standing beyond my one small candle, illuminated only where the candle flame touched him, the image of the young boy and his voice were clear in my mind. I asked who killed him, and received both an answer and a lesson that has stayed with me:

"Why do you care? It doesn't make a difference to me anymore. Punishing the one who killed me won't change anything. Just leave it alone."   

So I was left unsatisfied. The dead are as different from each other as the living, but one thing was clear - the dead often have concerns very different from our own.

I don't have a conclusion to these reflections, nor do I think they necessarily have a purpose other than tarrying for a time with the dead. And so I will end with words not my own, words of another who was living thinking of the dead and is now dead perhaps thinking of the living:

"Though the living
all make the error of drawing too sharp a distinction.
Angels (they say) would often not know whether
they moved among living or dead."
Rilke Duino Elegies, Elegy One 

World War I Memorial, Prospect Park Brooklyn, featuring the Angel of Death 

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