Jo lives, works and writes from her home in Wisconsin.
“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” - Milan Kundera
the names of things
and can recover them entire
from the obscuration, and
forever dwelling fog
From the couldn’t quite hear,
couldn’t quite bear to see;
the nearly murdered,
and still suffering;
the urgings into being
and the stampings out
(the way it’s always come about)?
Even now – notice:
The penumbra of an eclipsed sun;
the remains of a fallen moment;
the four extinctions that occurred today
of species not yet named.
Well (and of course),
who cares to consort
with those who
Driving through the deserts of New Mexico recently I was moved to pick up a book titled “Witchcraft in the Southwest” by Marc Simmons. In my ignorance I expected to find a story of Christianity’s conflict with “pagan” religion, and descriptions of Native people’s wisdom traditions persecuted as “witchcraft” by European colonizers. Instead I found a portrait of the windy path of human identification with one or the other dualistic extreme of “good” or “evil” and the subsequent compensation of the collective psyche, seeking balance and wholeness. The tracery of either pole is impossible to track as it inverts itself over and over, and winds in turn over the terrain of cultures variously blending through migration, colonization & war. The story proved to be anything but straight forward, at least through the lens of this particular piece of anthropological research. Most aspects of the history ring familiar in the echoes emanating now from contemporary political landscapes - if not in fact, definitely in motif: Scapegoating and projection, fear, subversion, persecution, retribution. The familiar dichotomies spring to life: fundamentalism vs wisdom; superstition & demands to conform to collective understanding vs discernment and growth. Other subtler themes arise: When does resistance, subversion and wisdom itself begin to revert to unseeing collectivism? What exactly is “evil?” What is supernatural? What is the role of sorcery and its apprentices? When does their work degenerate into its own clinging to power, greed and violence? At what point in these processes does the call to awaken, to become more conscious, to grow & discern, become THE fundamental call. How do we do the work of transforming injustice and inhumanity while protecting that call and resisting the fall into the obscuration of forgetting?
Joanna Macy holds three pillars of action in her understanding of the work of social transformation:
- Holding Actions are the activities of resistance and protest – putting bodies in the way of injustice.
- Structural Change is the work of building new collective models and building movements of support and education.
- Shift in Consciousness is the Inner Work of Wisdom which undergirds it all.
Maybe the work of Jung, of Apple Farm, and of similar havens, stand firmly in this third pillar. With the coming of this new dark era, many of us are feeling the urgency for work in all three pillars dramatically increasing. I am surprised to feel within myself, the volume of the call to inner work is high now, and not in any way eclipsed by the call of the myriad outer needs as can often happen during times of collective crisis. This surprises me. I wonder if others are feeling the same. During the recent reading of witch lore I begin to understand why the call to inner work is sustained: to stave off forgetting, to wage the struggle of remembrance, to stand wide eyed and with a cultivation of courage to withstand the truth of humanity, and the truth of wholeness.
I am heartened and inspired by Jung’s processing of his premonitions of World War I in concert with the escalating images of his own individuation. He was able to understand the collective psychological processes at work, and though terrifying, to know them for what they were – an expression of an underlying unconscious compensation towards wholeness. I can’t help but feel we are in a time of even greater precariousness now, with humanity’s ability to destroy not just the lives of individuals and empires, but the life of the planet as well. Still, the service of awakening consciousness calls. What of the end anyway; what is the end? Where exactly do we sit in the vast grandness of creation?
I return to Mary Oliver’s words frequently:
“What we must do
is to hope the world
keeps its balance.
what we are to do, however,
with our hearts
waiting and watching – truly
I do not know.”
(from The Owl Who Comes)
Rio Grande witch lore contains many variants of a story in which an unsuspecting, and sometimes “simple minded” village person happens upon, or is invited to, a witch gathering. It is illustrative of one pivot point of the cultural milieu that gave rise to witch lore on this continent:
“That night about eight o’clock José came for me, and we started walking across the plain. After a half hour we found ten thousand mesquite bushes and on each one hung a rosary. I was often there before but never saw a single mesquite… At that moment we came to a great door with an iron lock… the door opened and we went into a room so large I could not see the end of it. There was a bright light and I saw hundreds of people, the men on one side and the women on the other. Many of them I knew from Socorro and other places. In the middle were dozens of musicians with all classes of instruments and when they played very fine music, the men and women danced together.
“Such fine dancers I have never seen. Then a very large goat came in and spoke to all, and everybody had to kiss him. And when the goat had gone there was a snake – of larger body than mine – that came in upright. And it moved to every man and wound itself around him and put its tongue in his mouth, and the same to every woman. And when he did so, they talked words that I could not understand. But when he came to me and put his face before mine, my heart left me, and I cried. ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph, save me!’ And at that instant I was standing alone in the plain. The snake, José and the people were gone, and there remained only a strong smell of Sulphur. I walked home a long way very much alarmed.
“Next day I saw José and he said ‘Fool! The snake was ready to give you the tongue of wisdom, but you called the holy name and ruined it all.” (P42-43 Witchcraft in the Southwest by Marc Simmons).
Often there is an additional celebration motif: the eating of a cadaver.
Notable, to my reading, is the sorcery required to right the imbalance of each swing from wholeness. The ceremonial witch lore vanquishes the bonds of colonization & Christianity through the embrace of realms forbidden by the colonizer’s religion – instinct (goat), gnostic wisdom & healing (serpent), and the re-incorporation of death, in opposition to eternal life. (Perhaps there is also a bit of political maneuvering via the befriending of one’s enemy’s enemy by the use of Christian images representative of the devil?) In turn the Christian tradition offers “antidotes” of its own: the invoking of the holy name, the physical presence of the quaternity of the cross, the entrapment of the witches in a circle, or the rubbing of one’s body with an egg. The last three being clear invocations of transformation and wholeness.
In line with this bivalent arrow of compensation is the deep ambiguity of the designations of good and evil. Throughout these stories, especially from the uncomfortable hindsight of modernity, it is anything but clear who the protagonist is. The unsuspecting witness usually finds many of his friends and neighbors, if not his whole family, at this gathering of sorcerers. There is light, wisdom, knowledge, revelry and a deep if terrifying harmony on display. The frightened onlooker is later chastised by some friend or family member for losing courage and fleeing. But certainly the conscious moral of said story is the ubiquity and danger of evil, much like the biblical genesis story. The only true respite from the near constant danger of the two poles are the brief respites offered by the compensations back to wholeness via the transformative images.
As the collective battles rage, may we keep seeking our images of wholeness and transformation. May we never stop seeking remembrance, discernment, consciousness, awakening. In that way may we help this world keep its balance.