WitchCamp Stories

Written by Ravyn Stanfield

Drinking in the Divine: Speaking with their VoicesRavyn

In the Reclaiming tradition, we believe that everyone has access to the mystery, that each of us can touch the Great Goddess and all the infinite faces of the divine.  Humans have always worshipped forces we perceive to be greater than ourselves and witches often call them into our circles and rituals and spell workings to formally assist us or to celebrate our relationship to them.

When we practice witchcraft, we develop camaraderie with the elements of life: air, fire, water, earth and spirit.  We attempt to live in harmony with the earth and know our allies who share the elements with us: animals, plants and nature spirits.  We also work with ancestors and divine beings, whom many of us worship as gods.  Many Reclaiming witches and Feri practitioners also believe that we come from the orgasm of the Star Goddess, through whom the entire universe came into being.  It gets difficult to pin down a very specific cosmology that we could all consense upon but these are some tenets that are shared by many, if not most of us.

Because the powers that we worship can feel abstract and far away, in our rites, we sometimes want to feel the energies with whom we are communing, to touch the gods personally, to hear their voices and to ‘see’ them.  Divination and oracular work are ways that we as a tradition have learned to do this and these have become priestessing skills that we have begun to train people to practice.

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Most of us are familiar with divination, the art of using omens or tools to reveal previously unknown information about the past, present or the future.  Sometimes, the practice of a form of divination is a doorway to witchcraft for many.  Common examples are tarot cards, runes, tea leaves, I Ching coins or yarrow stalks, weather, stars and planets, palmistry, psychic readings and patterns of animals and plants.  This is one way of tapping into larger energies and getting a wider perspective.  Although allies and other entities may be called upon for assistance in courting a greater truth, priestesses generally stay completely present in the divination process.

The specific word “oracle” was developed in ancient Greece when priests and priestesses would live and work in temples and interpret messages from the gods for seekers.  A very famous oracle was at the temple of Apollo in Delphi.  Oracles have an ability to listen beyond the everyday to meanings/dreams/symbols and bring that information back to the human realm.  Oracular work is more focused on hearing divine energy, whether in the natural world or to ancestors and deities.  Sometimes, priestesses have the ability to ‘channel’ or speak the messages from these entities.  Aspecting is a more specific kind of oracular work where a priestess takes the energy within themselves. In Reclaiming, we practice aspecting from time to time in order to bring the gods or other entities closer and converse with them.

I have a love/hate relationship with oracular work, divination and aspecting.  On one hand, I too, feel the deep need to connect with vast forces beyond the left brain rational perspective that can be so limiting and linear.  I sense these beings and teachings outside of our intellect and I respect them and welcome their influence on our work in the world.  I appreciate the friendship, power and support that they offer us, the ways that we collaborate to bring about change, art and healing.

These tools can also give priestesses the platform to exhibit terrible behavior.  People can use divination to manipulate others.  History and literature are rife with examples of corrupted oracles.  People with inflated egos have edited the oracular information and used it to hurt or control outcomes.  Priestesses in aspect have said cruel things or shamed people for things they have done or not done and threatened them with punishment.  I wish I could say that this has only happened in ancient times or other traditions but unfortunately, it has happened in Reclaiming as recently as the last decade.

OracleWe have a joke in many of the WitchCamp cultures: “The Goddess made me do it is not a valid excuse for your bad behavior.”  This has come from years of people trying to use their divine information from the gods to tell others what to do.  Even in aspect, if a priestess hears a piece of information from a divine being or nature spirit that they feel is desperately crucial, it is good to take it with a grain of salt (so to speak) before preaching it to the community or coven as the one true way.  One of the side effects of NOT having priests to interpret the sacred for us is that the gods tell us all different things!  In keeping with our Principles of Unity, we are always invited to question for ourselves anything we hear from the entities whom we aspect and certainly, by another priestess in aspect.  We can live by the motto: “Just because the gods tell you to do it, doesn’t mean you have to do it,” while still listening to these divine messages.

Another very prevalent teaching in Reclaiming and Feri is that when we connect with our own divinity, we can negotiate with the gods.  We too are divine and we have piece of us that is god.  In this tradition, we work with deity in a way that is more about devotional partnership than indentured servitude.

Reya Mellicker, a Reclaiming witch who has since left the tradition, posted an article to our Reclaiming list many years ago that I have never forgotten and I often use when I teach aspecting classes.  She lists five reasons that she is for and against aspecting as a practice.

PROS OF ASPECTING

  1. It is awesome to be touched by the divine.
  2. It helps humans understand our place in the web.
  3. It is polite to say “yes” sometimes when we know that these entities want to be embodied and we are always calling them to help with our work.
  4. We have thousands of years of experience doing this.
  5. We gain valuable information by doing so.


CONS OF ASPECTING

  1. It is hard on our human bodies, the gods sometimes want to do more than what our bodies can actually do.
  2. It gives us more identity problems than we already have.
  3. It can be used as manipulation, consciously or unconsciously.
  4. It can emphasize our battle with the pendulum swing of our inflated/deflated egos.
  5. It reinforces that humans are not powerful.


Starhawk writes about aspecting in Twelve Wild Swans and describes several ways to work with it, including calling the aspect or energy of the deity into a cloak or another object.  She taught me the method that I learned in Reclaiming which is to divide your body into percentages and allow your consciousness to sink down into the lower half of your body.  If you want to be lightly inspired by divine energy, you might ask the spirit with whom you are working to float above your head or rest on your shoulders.  If you want to do more intense oracular work, you could allow the deity to come into your head and speak with your voice, hear with your ears and see with your eyes.  If you want to permit the divinity to come in more deeply, you could allow them to take 50% of your body and be able to move about within you.  If we do 50% or more, we generally have a priestess ‘tending’ the person in aspect to make sure that the human priestesses are comfortable and safe.  In Reclaiming, we do not offer the kind of formal training to work with full trance possession, the way that many of the Afro Cuban traditions do.  We do not do 100% in our rituals.  Our experience has been that when folks attempt this, it can be far less powerful for participants in the ritual, and often more a difficult recovery for the person aspecting.

We find it useful for people to be able to retain at least some of their human priestessing skills when embodying deity and it is hard to do this if we have fully emptied our consciousness.  For instance, through trial and error, we have learned that even very skilled drummers have a hard time keeping a beat if they go too deeply into aspect!  A word to the wise would be to not expect someone to take on an important priestessing role while in aspect!

In preparation for aspecting, there are some steps that many practitioners would probably agree are best practices.  We generally do aspecting work with deity whom we have already developed some kind of relationship.  We prepare our bodies in advance, sometimes eating or not eating certain foods, sometimes abstaining from tobacco or alcohol or other practices for a period of time.  The preparation work for our vessel will be very individual, but is likely about cleansing and clearing.

We make a contract with our entity that clearly defines what we are offering and sets our human limits.  Examples of our negotiations might be:

* Amount of body filled by the deity
* Length of time for the aspecting
* What kinds of behavior the deity will be able to do, eg. Speaking, Touching people, Energy work
* Clothing, comfort needs
* Intention for the ritual (what is being asked of the entity)

We also might talk with the trusted person that we have selected to ‘tend’ us and let them know what our process is to go into the aspect.  Often this tender is also the one who invokes the deity into our body and helps us drop our consciousness.  We would also tell them what we need when we release the deity, often food and water and a quiet place to rest.  Some people will give their tender a piece of jewelry or clothing that feels familiar to help them come back to themselves fully.  The tender may need to do a firm devocation of the energy and be a soothing voice to restore our consciousness to our own bodies, minds and spirits, our own lives.  However, it is the responsibility of the priestess to release the deity and shift consciousness back to what is normal.  Just as we drop our consciousness down to the lower parts of our body, we release the divine energy and allow our own awareness to rise up and refill our body fully.

Folks who have a difficult time ‘coming back’ from altered states would do well to practice going out and returning from trance states for a long time before they attempt aspecting.  Many priestesses also decide that deeper aspecting is not for them and they prefer divination, prayer or another kind of devotional work, including tending other folks who go into aspect and receiving an audience with the deity in this way.  We all have different gifts.

In Reclaiming, we are generally compassionate but very firm when someone says that they have a hard time “coming back”.  I have heard another teacher tell someone that if she was not able to release the deity in her body, they would have to dunk her in a very cold river!  That person suddenly seemed able to come out of the aspect in a hurry!  Our expectations of skill and maturity are high in this tradition; we appreciate priestesses who can commune with deity and then change consciousness at will (perhaps with a little help from their tenders) to be able to talk with friends at supper after the ritual.  It is not useful in any rite to have priestesses who send their consciousness down so far that they can’t get it back with ease.  Our work with Iron Pentacle, personal practice and trance strengthen our psychic muscles so that we can gracefully go deeply into the mystical realms and rise out of them.

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Ivo Dominguez is a spiritual author and teacher who has written a book about aspecting for the intermediate magical practitioner with the recognition that few contemporary pagans have access to formal training.  In his 2001 book Of Spirits, he describes the way that we use aspecting in Reclaiming: “Exactly what they mean by aspecting and how they do it has as many explanations as there are Reclaiming witches…Reclaiming leans more towards the way of Art and is often ecstatic and spontaneous.  My experience of their aspecting affirms the mutability.  Their aspecting often resembles Drawing Down with a dash of shamanic trance work.  I have also seen it act more like a form of Assumption wherein the Form is expanded by a sort of turning of the Self until only that facet of the Self which resembles the Great One that is being called is prominent.  Moreover, it is other combinations of methods as well.  The uniting thread in what I have seen is that it is protean, primal and still in flux as a method.  It does work, don’t mistake my comments as disparagement, it is just not my place to impose the assertion of a patterns on a method that is still unfolding.

I agree with his conclusions; we have not ‘settled’ on a specific aspecting methodology in our tradition though we are discussing best practices more and more.  Ivo came to Portland to teach a class about aspecting to our teaching cell in 2005 and introduced a process that was new to me.  He had us choose a symbol for the deity with whom we wanted to work and pull the symbol into the envelope of our auric field, the energy body around our physical body.  His process was more complex than I describe here but I found that it was much less hard on my body and emotions while giving me as much access to divine energy as the embodied levels of consciousness method that I learned from Star.  I recommend his book for this reason; it’s great to have options.

In the classes I teach about aspecting, people often mention that either they have much too easy of a time opening their consciousness to other beings or a more difficult time than they would like.  If you are someone who is very psychically open, you might have to practice setting firm boundaries with the spirits and gods.  Think about it as somewhat similar to dating.  You get to say how the relationship goes.  You decide how close you want that other being’s energy to be.  No one can do it except for you.

If you are someone who is incredibly sensitive, practicing divination might be a way to begin developing working relationship with spirits.  You may want to keep yourself present on some level while conversing with deity in trance or meditation, seeing what it is like to *not* go all the way out to the furthest reaches of a trance state.  You might wait a while before aspecting and/or only do this work with divine beings that you trust implicitly.  (Some deities are kinder than others!)  There is no reason for anyone or anything to take over your body without permission.  At the very least, we might consider that quite rude.  We can stop “drive by” aspecting by defining our own edges and limits, just as we would have to do this with any humans who tried to take advantage of us.

If you are someone who has a harder time opening to divine energy, there are ways to stretch your abilities as well.  If you feel called to try aspecting someday, you might do some exercises to increase your intuition or adopt some ecstatic practices that help your rational brain relax.  Drumming, dancing, singing, meditation, yoga and so many more are time honored ways to help us get out of our own minds and touch something bigger.  Art is another way to let our primal selves have more space and we can invoke the gods to inspire us with creative projects, getting to know them this way.  You could do some research about the deity that you want to know better, let your intellect become part of the process rather than a hindrance.  You could also volunteer to take the role of a tender and spend time with divinity.  You could try aspecting in a group or have a go at the exercise from Twelve Wild Swans with calling a deity into a cloak or veil.  There are numerous ways to understand the gods and there is no hurry or pressure to ever take them into our bodies.

I know that our bodies and minds are made to do this kind of divination and oracular work because humans have engaged in it for so long.  It is a beautiful relationship and a boon to witches to connect into this kind of expansive wisdom at whatever level we feel comfortable.  We are never alone in this mysterious universe and speaking and listening to the gods is a strong reminder of that majestic truth.

Ravyn Stanfield

This article has been reproduced with permission of the author.

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