Editor, teacher and Pagan priestess Elizabeth Barrette writes articles, essays, short stories, reviews, interviews, and poetry. She’s the author of the reference book, Composing Magic, a must-read for fantasy authors. In this interview she talks about magic spells, Paganism, and writing fantasy, among other things.
Welcome to the Dark Phantom Review, Elizabeth. For those readers who are new at this, I’d like first to start with the basics. What is a magic spell?
A “magic spell” is a combination of tools, actions, and words by which the caster seeks to influence reality. It provides a better grasp on subtle energies, so that they may be directed with greater precision and power to achieve the desired effect, much as the handle of a hammer increases the usefulness of the striking surface. As such, a magic spell is a working of human Will.
“Magic spell” has been defined above.
In magical/spiritual context, a “ritual” is a formal activity with specifically prescribed steps (often repeated identically on subsequent occasions) used as a frame for magical or spiritual processes. A ritual can involve casting a spell, but can also involve other goals such as worship, rites of passage, meditation, etc.
In a “blessing,” someone calls on a Higher Power to bestow some benefit(s) upon a person, place, goal, or other recipient. Usually the person giving a blessing is a priest or priestess, but can be a parent or someone else. Typical blessings include health, fertility, prosperity, happiness, and good fortune. This is a request for divine energy, not an application of human Will.
A “chant” is a heavily rhythmic, usually rhymed vocal performance which may be spoken, declaimed, or sung. Chants have many purposes, from timing oar strokes to worship to raising or directing energy in a spell.
A “prayer” is any communication addressed from a mortal person to a divine recipient. Types include daily, thanksgiving, propitiatory, and intercessory prayers.
A key difference between magic spells vs. prayers and blessings is that they are two separate ways of producing change. Magical workings such as spells require the caster to control and direct energy through force of Will. Spiritual workings such as prayers and blessings require the priest/ess to keep their Will out of the way so that divine energy can flow through them to work divine Will (hopefully in accord with the human request).
What is the difference between Wicca, Paganism, and witchcraft?
Wicca is a specific denomination of the wider religious family of Paganism, with its own subdivisions including Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Dianic, and others. Wicca descends from European Pagan traditions; it remains one of the most popular and structured Pagan religions. Wiccan beliefs include honoring the Goddess and the God, celebrating the passage of seasons, protecting the Earth as sacred, and rejoicing in human sexuality as a sacred gift of life and love. “The Charge of the Goddess” and “The Wiccan Rede” are widely held liturgies.
Paganism is an umbrella term for Earth-based belief systems and nature religions in general, although it most often refers to such systems descending from European or contemporary American origins. Pagan religions are typically polytheistic, often animistic, with beliefs in the sanctity of the Earth, human fertility, and personal experience of the divine. Pagan religions include Asatru, Druidry, Eclectic Paganism, and Wicca.
Witchcraft can be either a synonym for “Wicca” as a religion (when capitalized as religions are: Witchcraft) or the name of a magical system (when not capitalized: witchcraft) used by Wiccans and other Pagans. The latter use includes the casting of spells, charging of magical artifacts with energy, creation of protective barriers, and other beneficial applications of subtle energies. Wicca and some other Pagan religions prohibit the use of magic for destructive purposes. Some other traditions have different rules which allow magic in combat and other offensive uses considered appropriate by their home culture.
What is the origin of Paganism?
Paganism in general originates from the Earth, its plants and animals, its cycles, and its natural processes. This is a religion which honors life and the world around us. Most religions commonly considered Pagan have their roots in ancient Europe or modern America. Indigenous religions in the Americas, Australia, Africa and elsewhere share many similar tenets and practices; but those religions often don’t describe themselves as Pagan. The term “pagan” comes from Latin, originally meaning “rustic;” Paganism thus referred to the old nature religions surviving in rural areas, while the newly fashionable Christianity swept through the cities.
When did you first become involved with Paganism?
I’ve always practiced Paganism of one form or another. I discovered the modern Pagan community in 1988 or thereabouts.
I found your book, Composing Magic, to be a wonderful reference work for those authors who write fantasy. When you read fantasy novels, or other works of fiction with Pagan elements, do you encounter a lot of mistakes as far as the ‘real’ magic goes?
That depends a lot on the author, the magic, and the Pagan content. Some authors are excellent. Jean M. Auel, Mercedes Lackey, Anne Bishop, and M.R. Sellars have all written stories with different, respectful portrayals of Pagan or similarly flavored religion and/or magic. Other authors are less respectful and accurate. Frequent flaws include equating Paganism with devil worship and using magic to cover deficiencies in plot, characterization, or worldbuilding. Magic has its own parameters, but is not devoid of consistent behavior.
For fantasy authors (or game masters) wishing to present a plausible, realistic, and plot-solid system of magic, the essential sourcebook is Authentic Thaumaturgy by Isaac Bonewits. His mastery of nonfiction in the magical field allowed him to explain the many different types of magic, magical laws, techniques, and so forth in terms useful for creative applications. However, this is also one of the secondary audiences for my book, because I’ve had writer-friends ask me for help in devising a prophecy or other important tidbit of poetry to support their fiction. If your characters are casting incantations or bestowing blessings, and you want them to sound like experts, reading Composing Magic can help you understand how those things work and figure out what your characters would say.
What compelled you to write this book?
There was a gap in available materials; I have a knack for spotting such things. The Pagan/magical books widely recommended writing your own spells and rituals, but none of them explained in detail how to do that. The writing books detailed many types of writing, but few spiritual types and no magical types. I’m good at figuring out how I do what I’m doing, and explaining things step-by-step so someone else can follow suit; so I wanted to fill the gap. It wasn’t until I saw the reviews for Composing Magic that I realized this is apparently not that common a skill. I’m trying to make more deliberate and frequent use of it, now that I know how high the demand is.
How important is the power of words in a magic ritual?
First, the space must be reasonably safe and comfortable. Precarious footing, bloodthirsty insects, etc. reliably kidnap people’s attention.
Second, you must create a powerfully moving effect – that means it excites people’s sense of wonder and gets the energy moving as desired.
Words are among the most powerful tools for doing that. Some rituals don’t have words, relying instead on music or dance or other nonverbal methods. But almost all rituals do use words, and for them, words are vital. The right words can make a ritual that people will remember forever; the wrong words can bore or offend people. Worse yet, poorly chosen words can make the ritual misfire or cause undesired side effects. If you talk about “the rains of the West,” don’t complain if you get wet!
Harry Potter created a lot of controversy, with many people wanting to ban the film. Why do you think some people are afraid of portraying young protagonists in children’s books as witches or wizards?
Some people follow a religion or philosophy that discourages free thinking in favor of faith and obedience; that inclines towards child-raising practices which maximize control. If people want their children to be like them, and they believe that magic and/or other religions are evil – and they know that many children enjoy reading those kinds of books, and that reading encourages thought in general – their best bet is to attack the books and keep children from reading them. Adults are free to believe what they wish, but it is harmful to force their beliefs on children who cannot freely choose otherwise. Children should be free to learn and explore and read. Adults should be grateful that children are eagerly reading anything in an age more given to video games and television.
What are your favorite Pagan authors or novels?
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
The Pillars of the World by Anne Bishop
Harm None by M.R. Sellars
I understand you’re a student of obscure languages. What languages are those?
First, I’m a hobby-linguist, and thus a student of all languages. I have some formal education in Spanish, Russian, and Japanese. Privately I’ve browsed Gaelic, Cherokee, Lakota, Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Tlingit, Quechua Mayan, and many others. I’m especially interested in Native American, Australian, and African languages.
Second, I’m a xenolinguist. I study and invent artificial languages – model languages made for fun, auxiliary languages of sizable construction, alien and fantasy languages in fiction. There I’ve gone through Klingon, Tenctonese, Sindarin, Láadan, Esperanto, and many others. Of those, I probably know Láadan (from Native Tongue and A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan by Suzette Haden Elgin) the best, having written a class about it … though there’s also Ai-Naidari, and I’ve done three classes on its contextual fiction (The Aphorisms of Kherishdar by M.C.A. Hogarth), which contains a handful of very enlightening alien vocabulary.
I’ve also constructed numerous alien and fantasy languages of my own. Seshaa is the oldest and largest of those; I’ve been writing about it and its home culture, the Whispering Sands desert, since I was in junior high or high school. Glimpses of it appear in my story “Peacock Hour” slated for publication in the anthology Taking Flight. I’ve also posted some samples of Seshaa on my blog and in the LiveJournal community “conlangs,” where it’s very popular. Other languages have smaller files – the tongues of elves, centaurs, aliens, and other folk.
Do you have a website and/or blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
The best option is my blog, “The Wordsmith’s Forge,” where I talk about writing, Paganism, magic, speculative fiction, gender studies, gardening, nature, current events, and many other topics: http://ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
My old website, “PenUltimate Productions,” is no longer updated but still visible; it contains archives of my earlier work. There’s a lot of Pagan poetry and articles, some speculative fiction, and other things.
For the editing half of my wordsmith work, see “Academic & Clerical Editing.” The ACE site is here: http://www.acediting.com
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
1) I host a poetry fishbowl every month on my blog. Drop by “The Wordsmith’s Forge” and give me ideas for writing poetry. The next one will be June 11 with a theme of language, linguistics, and linguists.
I collect quotes. I also make my own, and I’m a memetic engineer interested in building and promoting healthy memes. Here are a few of mine:
“You can’t keep spending water like money.”
“Meditation isn’t something you do when your mind is quiet. It’s something you do to make your mind more quiet.”
“Don’t borrow trouble. The interest is a killer.”
“If you’re not making any mistakes, then you’re not learning, you’re coasting.”
Thanks for the interview, Elizabeth! It was very enlightning!