To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Part 1: Post: 7: Tools and Symbols

This morning it was my turn to get up extra early and build up the fire and make coffee. We heat with wood, there's a combination heating and cooking stove in each of the four dorms, plus one on the ground floor and one on the top floor, so parts of the Mansion are warm and other parts are cold, and while we are asleep the fires die down and some mornings it's in the fifties before we get the stoves going again. It is really hard to get out of bed when it's cold and dark, so in my dorm we've decided that one yearling will get up every morning to build up the fire and make coffee for the others. I like this little tradition of ours, but I do not like being the one whose turn it is to get up.

I've been to a few more talks and seminars (a "talk" has a single meeting and is worth a quarter credit, and a "seminar" has two meetings and is worth half a credit). There's usually two or three to choose from at any time, and they seem to cover everything from candy-making to dream interpretation to the physics of snowflake formation. Sometimes I honestly can't figure out what the topic has to do with becoming an Earth-centered priest, but I'm told that there's actually lot of thought that goes into this--and of course, if I don't see the point of a talk, I'm free not to go.

I've just been to one that I have no doubt about--that does not mean it's been my favorite so far, because I'm still not sure what an Earth-centered priest is or why I want to be one. I think the tracking workshop was my favorite, so far, though I really liked dream interpretation, too. But this one was the most obviously, exotically, pagan. The subject was Wiccan ritual tools and basic symbols and we, all the yearlings, were "strongly encouraged" to attend.

Each of the three major moon phases has a symbolic value, mostly connected to the cycle of human life.

The instructor was Kit, the woman whose candle I lit at the assembly. She's a little, but very vibrant woman with a mane of almost afro-like red hair. She freely describes herself as a witch, which I understand a lot of Wiccans do, but it's still a bit shocking.

She said that symbols and symbolic objects are a kind of language, and while she doesn't care whether we are Wiccan, she recommends we learn the language so that classes and other school activities that use the language will make sense to us. I guess that since a lot of students are Wiccan, it makes sense that they use its "language."

She described what she called tools, objects used in Wiccan ritual and magic, and drew a mandala illustrating the four- and eight-part symbolic associations that underly Wiccan ritual design and the Wiccan sacred year. She had a white board and drew pictures to illustrate her talk, usually with her left hand, but sometimes with her right. I don't think she ever stopped moving.

Here is a copy of one of her pictures; it's a sort of mandala for Wiccan symbolism:

That lump in the north is meant to be a rock. It actually looks like a rock....or, like a potato, which, come to think of it, would work nearly as well, symbollically

When she was done, Kit invited us to select ritual tools to borrow. She had dozens and dozens of pieces laid out on tables. The idea was we could take whatever we wanted and return it, buy it, or replace it later. We didn't have to take anything at all, but Kit just suggested we at least get an athame and maybe a wand, if we didn't have our own already, since some activity leaders and instructors will assume we have these. An "athame" is a knife.

I looked around the tables. Everything was laid out on black or white cloths. There were cups, pentacles, and cauldrons of almost every description. There were small brooms, tiny devotional statues, and jewelry. There were dozens and dozens of wands, all of them straight and fairly smooth, anywhere from six inches to two feet long, most of them made of wood, but some were silver or pewter. Most had a crystal or a sort of acorn-shape at the tip, and some had semi-precious gems, colored glass, or symbols along their length. I wanted one, but I didn't know how to pick.

Next to the wands were the knives, the athames. A lot of them were simple but elegant little costume daggers with blades three to seven inches long and black handles of wood or leather. There were also some with handles of bone, deer antler, or rainbow-died wood. Some were single-edged, like kitchen knives. There were a number of fairly nice folding knives. But about a quarter of the selection was much more exotic. There were dirks almost as long as short swords and miniature knives set in silver rings. There were knives made entirely of wood or bone, blade included. There were letter-openers shaped like knives and swords from fantasy, some of them bejeweled or carved. Two had apparently solid amber handles bound with silver or gold wire. Three had blades of worked obsidian, two more had flint blades, and one had a blade of quartz. Two were made entirely of glass, blade and handle both, one of them entirely clear, the other shot with ribbons of color like a cat's eye marble.

"Be careful; they are very sharp," said a voice beside me. It was Kit. She didn't even come up as high as my arm-pit, let alone my shoulder, but she was strong and bright as a flame.

"How did you get all these?" I asked. "They must have cost--"

"Thousands and thousands of dollars. Yes, they would have if I'd bought them all myself. I only bought the more basic knives. The others are gifts. I have former students who make or collect knives, and witches tend to be lucky at garage sales."

"You give away gifts?"

"Sure, that's why they were given to me. And I frequently get nicer knives in return, later."

"I don't know how to pick one," I confessed. She smiled.

"How do you think you might? With a lot of these things, pick a technique and see if it works," she told me. Her voice was rich, deep, feminine. I turned away from that distracting voice and tried to focus. I moved my left hand over the table about two inches above each of the knives. I wanted to close my eyes, but I didn't want to touch any of them accidentally and get cut. Finally, one seemed warm under my hand. I picked it up, and faced Kit. She smiled at me, pleased.

"I'm not Wiccan," I told her, "and I don't think I'm going to be." I was afraid she'd be disappointed, but she still smiled.

"I told you, I don't care if you're Wiccan. Ideas are tools, and thoughts are skills that you can learn and use, just like the skills of your hands. Maybe these tools and skills will be useful to you. Maybe not. But you won't know until you acquire the skills and try them out. Having a skill does not obligate you to use it, and doesn't define who you are."

"You're asking me to accept Wiccan beliefs, though," I protested, "How is that not asking me to be Wiccan, even temporarily?"

"These," she gestured towards the mandala she had drawn in the other room, "these are not beliefs. They are just symbolic associations. A language. It's basically arbitrary, like all symbols and conventions are."

"Then what are your beliefs?" I asked, confused.

"In Wicca we don't have beliefs. We either know or we do not know, and if we don't know, we can find out."

An example of each of the major tools. The second knife is a bolline.

Next post; February 18th: why stage magic, with Allen

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