Thursday, May 15, 2014

Happy Mercuralia!

Today is Mercuralia, the ancient Roman festival of the god Mercury. Mercury, like his Greek cousin Hermes, is the god of the Mind: mathematics, writing, fast-talk, inventors, commerce, travel, crossroads, dreams, etc. Edith Hamilton calls Mercury the god of "mathematicians, thieves and other ne'erdowells"

In honor of the festival of the god of puzzles, here's a favorite puzzle of mine. One thing I like about it is that is comes with a legend. Here's the story:

Far off, in the misty Himalayas, is a secret and ancient monastery. Built into the side of a mountain, it appears to have been carved out of the rock by the hand of the gods. In the central courtyard, there stand three massive and antediluvian stone pillars, as tall as the temple's peaked roof, stretching upward to the sky like great granite trees. About the pillars are golden disks, carved with the holy symbol of the Sun, Moon, the Stars, and the Planets. There are 64 disks in total, of various sizes. The largest is as far across as 3 men, laid head to foot, and the smallest is the size of a teacup.

When the world was new, say the monks, the gods arranged all the disks on the easternmost pole, with the largest on the bottom and the smallest on the top. Every day, the gods commanded, the monks must work together to move one disk. By holy decree, a larger disk can never be placed on top of a smaller one. This teaches us that the strong must always support the weak. And so, every day, the monks come together to move one of the disks. The young strong monks struggle together, with elaborate systems of ropes and pulleys, to move the heaviest of the golden, coins. This teaches us the value of dedication and team work. The older, wiser monks spend all their time thinking and calculating, deciding which disk to put where. This teaches, say the monks, the value of careful planning, and collaborating to solve hard problems.
It is the movement of the disks, say the monks, that drives all progress in the world. As the disks move slowly from the east to the west, people are born, civilizations rise, humans learn and grow and prosper. We create art, and discover truths, and invent medicines. Sometimes, however, disks must temporarily move backwards, and then there is war and famine and plague and death. When the disks are all on the western pillar, the world will be perfected, and all beings will attain nirvana.
This ancient order of monks, secret and hidden, has been moving the disks as long as anyone can remember, thousands and thousands of years, perhaps, as the monks themselves claim, since the very day he world was made.

The First Puzzle: Play the game with fewer disks. You can try it here: The drop down box in the center bottom lets you choose how many disks to use. Three is too easy and seven is probably too hard. Press the green button to start over.

The Second Puzzle: If the monks have been moving the disks, one per day, how long until we all reach nirvana? (Assume the monks play perfectly, that is, they solve the puzzle in the fastest way possible,and never make a mistake.) Hint: try playing the game with various numbers of disks, and see if you can develop a strategy. Then, examine your strategy to get a formula for the number of moves it takes to solve.

If you'd like to learn more about the math behind this puzzle (or you want spoilers) google "The Towers of Hanoi".

Happy Mercuralia!

Ask The Witch: Ookey Spooky, Oogie Boogie

The student from yesterday wrote back with a bunch more questions...
Reminder: these answers were written for a specific 17 year old Jew whom I knew well (because I had him in math class every day for several years in a private Jewish high school) YMMV.

1) Is that story legit? Nothing added dramatic flare? Because that's actually awesome.

Hand to G-d, that's what happened, as best as I remember it. However, that story takes place over at least an hour, maybe more like an hour and a half, and I left out the boring parts. And, I'm a freak, and weird shit happens around me. Also, the area where I grew up is widely understood to be among the most "haunted" counties in the country. I find Connecticut much harder to get results in, but that might be because I'm not used to it. I don't "know the land" here.  YMMV

2) Are there "bad" spirits, like in horror movies and shit? I guess I mean to ask if there are ones that are malicious.

Are there bad people? Like serial-killer movies and shit? Yes, but they're rare, and mostly they're not gunning for for you. Unless you go looking for trouble, it's unlikely to come looking for you. Moreover, few spirits are "bad" in the sense of actually intentionally out-to-get-you malicious. They're more like hurricanes; bad for you, when you're in their way, but still important, natural phenomena.

3) The times with the lightbulbs, candles and table cloth, etc., were those "bad" spirits?

I don't think so; they weren't really dangerous at all (even the candle pretty much just went out as soon as it fell over). I think it was too much energy (from the human participants, mostly me) poorly focused and contained. Magic that comes with "special effects" is cool, but it's often a sign of sloppiness and bad form. It's energetically really inefficient, and doing it a lot can make you sick. It's more likely under certain specific circumstances. In particular, that kind of thing happens most in the presence of "liminality"; things, times, places, and people that are midway through some kind of state-change. Dawn, twilight, equinoxes, solstices, cliffs, shorelines, kilns, weddings, births, deathbeds, infants, adolescents, old folks, season-change, etc, etc...

I have some experience with "bad" spirits, and there's no mistaking it. You feel cold, and upset, and the air smells and tastes bad. However, even the few times I've been "attacked" (and I really did go looking for trouble before that's happened. I not only tracked down bad spirits, but then I poked them with a pointy stick over and over until they paid attention to me), it's never been anything I couldn't handle. But, I understand I'm unusually blessed; all the gods adore me. It's very unfair. I try to use my blessedness privilege for good. The worst that I've ever seen happy to someone who was generally mentally and physically and spiritually healthy, is they'll be sad/angry for a while, or you might get kind of sick for a couple of days. Like a cold or a stomach flu kind of sick. Not cancer or anything. A lot of the old warnings hark back to a time when people lived in cold and filth, and ate one bowl of semi-rotten food a day. You're healthy and strong. If you get vamped, take a shower, turn up the heat, eat a hamburger, take a nap, and you'll be fine.

4) If I ask for a certain spirit, one that's not a dick, like Gabriel, or a relative, will I actually get that spirit? Is there a chance I'll one that's a dick?

Spirits aren't as "separate" and "individual" as people are. While a spirit like Grandma is close, and recently-human, and still relatively individual, the less "terrestrial" a spirit is, the less like a person and the more like a collective it is. When you call Gabriel, you're probably not going to get the same Gabriel I do. Rather, you're likely to get a nameless spirit who is generally aligned with Gabriel, who "works for" the loose collection of ideas we call "Gabriel". Think of it this way; if you write a letter to Ronald McDonald, some random McDonalds employee writes you back, but they can only say things about which they're authorized to "speak for the company". However, if you're friends with a high-level McDonalds executive, you're likely to get more traction talking to them, even if your question isn't really "their department". If it makes you feel better, you can think of spirits as aspects of your unconscious. Many people do. There's a saying among magicians... "It's all in your head, but your head is much bigger than you think it is." Here's some stuff I wrote before about a similar question:

5) If I do get a "good" spirit, is the thank-you gift very important? If I didn't do that, would he/she/they/it be pissed?

It's tacky and rude to call someone out of the blue, ask for a favor, and then not even say thank you. I'd be pissed if you did that to me. But I wouldn't eat your soul or anything. In almost all cases, the worst thing that will happen is they'll stop taking your calls. That's why ancestors are good. Your grandma already knows that you're an spoiled, ungrateful jerk, and she loves you anyway. That being said, it's obnoxious. With spirits, just like with people, always err on the side of saying please and thank you. They really are magic words. Certain classes of spirits (such as Kindly Ones) it's important to go REALLY out of your way to be EXTRA polite, because they tend to be kind of pissy and uptight about ettiquette. It's why we call them "kindly ones" or "good neighbors"; because we want to stay on their good side, and they do not care for the f-word.

6) Is it okay to ask about NSFW things like sex or drugs or something? What if it's like, my grandma or something?

It depends on the spirit, and your relationship to them. I wouldn't talk to my Grandma about sex, but I'm not one to judge. In my experience, if you talk to a spirit about things they don't want to hear, they'll just leave. Much like, I suspect, if you started to ask your living Grandma for sex advice, she'll probably hang up on you. In many traditions, they teach that it's not good to get too aroused or have sex around the spirits of the dead, because when you're having sex, you're very energetically "opened up" and vulnerable, and they'll "latch on" and "vampire" it out of you. It's not that they want to eat you, or are even doing it on purpose, it's just that heat moves from hot objects to cold objects. I don't have enough first hand experience to really comment on that, but it doesn't seem like bad advice. My instinct is that it's a bigger problem for men than for women (because, for most men, the natural flow of energy during sex is outward, while for most women, it's inward. but, that varies from person to person and time to time)

I know you didn't ask this, but I'm going to warn you anyway. DON'T MIX SEX, DRUGS, and MAGIC!! Any combination of those is likely to go badly for you (because you are a beginner who doesn't know what you're doing). They dramatically amp up the "potency" of each other.  I know that sounds exciting (and it is) but it can turn dangerous very quickly. Anyhow, if you do that at 17, what will you have left when you're old and jaded like me? :) Magic is fun/useful/exciting/dangerous the same way driving is.  If you're a sober, responsible adult, and you know what you're doing, and you do it under controlled circumstances, then it's fun and awesome. You're might have some small fender benders while you're learning. But, if you do it recklessly, or intoxicated, or as a stunt or a game, or when you're out-of-control, you can get badly hurt, or hurt someone else.

7) I sort of wanted to ask you if you knew anything about a certain spirit, but he (sometimes known as a she) is known to be a total douche. Can I still ask about him? Will saying aloud or typing his name call him, or something? Did even mentioning him vaguely do anything bad? Sorry in advance if I just doomed us both.

It's difficult for spirits to manifest in the world. It's difficult to get a spirit to "hover" around you, and even more difficult to "tune in" to them even once they are there. If you want that (and there are good reasons you might), you need to regularly spend time paying attention to them. It's easier for us to manifest in the "spirit world" than it is for spirits to manifest here. (because we have spirits and bodies, and they mostly only have spirits, the same way rocks mostly only have bodies) Ask away. I promise I won't let them eat you. ;)

Ok, that spirit/body thing was a VERY BAD oversimplification. It's much more complicated than that, because spirits and bodies aren't really different sorts of things, and they're all epiphenomena of eachother and The All, and etc, etc. But, it was a useful gloss for that particular point. Don't think about it too hard.

8) If i tried any of this, would any Ouija board do? Even the cheapo ones that are made out of cardboard and have a shitty sticker on them?

I'm of the opinion that beautiful, well-made tools inspire better results (in magic,in art,in craft, and in life) but anything will work. You can do it with anything. I do it with a pen and paper (instructions for that here) Higher quality tools, ones that you or someone else has invested a lot of time and love into, sometimes work better than ugly machine-made crap, but anything will work. The only downside of the cardboard ones is that it's hard to get the blood stains out. (kidding!)

9) If i tried any of this, is it likely something bad would happen? I watch way too many horror movies...

Very unlikely. In fact, it's relatively unlikely that anything at all will happen. However, if you're scared, it does increase the chances something unpleasant will happen.  That being said, even if it does go wrong, it will be unpleasant, not dangerous. There are steps you can take to make it less likely. Wash yourself, the area, and the board. B'shem Hashem is a really good all-purpose protective prayer, which you could certainly pray before and after if you're worried. Fortune favors the bold. Worst case scenario, I'm actually a pretty badass grownup witch, who is also your math teacher, and, in extremity, I will stand between you and any demon that dares to come for one of mine, because that's what good teachers do.

10) Do demons exist?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: Depends what you mean by ""demons" and "exist". Longer answer: Yes, tho.

11) This one's a bit more abstract and I feel a little silly for asking it, but: Am I safe to think whatever I naturally think in my head? Can spirits or demons see that shit? Example: Let's say there's a demon named "Super Mario" and Super Mario is pretty damn bad. If i think something disrespectful about Super Mario that Super Mario wouldn't like, can Super Mario hear/see what I thought? Can Super Mario only hear/see what I thought if I've invited Super Mario to? What's the word on that? At what point would Super Mario find out?

Short answer: Think whatever you want. Super Mario can go fuck himself; I'll say it right to his face. Long answer: If you find yourself becoming obsessed with a certain spirit, thinking about them all the time, having repeated unpleasant dreams about them, that's not a good sign. If this is the case, come talk to me, or someone else who knows what they're doing. You could also (not instead, in ADDITION) do any of the following:

1) Take a plain white egg, and write the spirit's name (if you know it, otherwise, any kind of picture or description is fine, even just "bad spirit") on it. Slowly, run the egg all over your body, starting at your head and continuing down to your feet. Imagine the spirit being drawn from you into the egg. Then, go bury the egg outside. Try not to break it when you bury it, but it's ok if you do. You could also throw it over a cliff into a body of water. If it breaks, pour some salt over the burial spot, just in case. then, take a long, hot shower, washing throughly with soap.

2) Make mikveh, preferably in a natural body of water, but a regular mikveh is also fine. You can also collect rainwater in a pitcher and pour that over yourself at the end of a shower instead, but it's not as good as proper mikveh.

3) Get some thyme, and brew it into a very strong tea, at least a bowl full. Let it cool. Read the 51st Psalm, preferably in Hebrew, but English is also fine. Take a long shower, washing with soap very thoroughly. Sandalwood scented soap (which is easy to get at any drugstore; I'm partial to a brand called "Bee & Flower") is a great choice for this, but any soap is fine. At the end of your shower, pour the thyme water over you.

Any of these are almost certainly overkill, and are bound to leave you very, very psychically/spiritually "clean" (which is not entirely desirable). Again, if you are troubled with obsessive thoughts about a specific spirit, come talk to me, and I'll decide if you need a psychiatrist or an exorcism or both. :)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ask The Witch: Ouija Boards

As most readers know, I [used to] teach math at a very awesome, very progressive Jewish high school.  Sometimes students ask me witchy questions. A 17 year old student emailed me shortly after school today:

"Hey, would you mind if I ask you a question about not-school stuff? I was just wondering what your opinion on Ouija boards are. Just like if you've had any experience either way, or if you have anything to say about them. Are they total bullshit? Is it possible that they aren't? My opinion is that they're total malarkey, but I'm not really well informed and now I'm curious because it came up in conversation. Do you have anything to say on the subject?"

So, welcome to Ouija 101.

The short version: Ouija boards, like any other magical tool, are just a tool. It's the skill of the person using it that matters. So, most of the time they're bullshit, but a skilled operator can certainly get quality answers from a ouija board (but she can also get them from a candle flame, or from the rustling of a tree's leaves, or just by closing her eyes and being quiet for a while). In general, tools (like ouija boards, or tarot cards, or whatever) are easier than less mediated methods (like flame or wind or silence), but they can produce less sophisticated/detailed answers.  In my experience, its best to use a combination; begin with a highly formalized method (like tarot or ouija or I Ching or whatever) and let that guide you into a more subtle "listening".  Personally, I think ouija is a far inferior method for spirit communication compared to something like tarot or automatic writing.  The only benefit of ouija boards is the "party game" aspect, which is kind of fun (until someone gets freaked out, and then it's REALLY fun).

Long Answer:

Ouija boards are generally used for two different things:  (1) To receive communications from a specific spirit that has been intentionally called and (2) To receive communication from whatever spirit happens to be "in the area".   The ouija board differs from most other forms of spirit communication in that it's often done as a group, rather than by an individual. When they're used by an individual, often a pendulum (a weight on a string) is used instead of the planchette.  

In my experience, ouija boards are pretty much only used at parties.  I don't think I've used one in at least 15 years, but we played with them a lot in high school, and I still own that one, although I mostly use it as a bookshelf these days.   Although I don't remember when I did so, I must have enchanted it at some point, because there's writing on the back.  In the top left corner, an aleph.  In the top left, the rune for fire.  In the bottom right, an infinity symbol.  In the bottom left, the rune for ice.  In the middle are some complicated sigils I don't recognize, which might be badly drawn kanji characters. I haven't looked at it in years;maybe I'll play with it later. In any case...

My own experiences might not be very representative.  Obviously, I've never used a ouija board without at least one witch in the room.  While I'm not particularly skilled, I'm not a terrible medium (spirit-communicator).  More relevantly, my bff is a crazy-talented natural witch, and almost all my high school ouija board experience includes her as well, and took place at an extremely haunted cabin in the woods, by a river, which all my magical colleagues agree is one of the most magically potent places anyone has ever been.  (She and I own that cabin now!  We bought it from her grandmother.  I cannot tell you how very under-rated being a grown up is.)  So, while I'm going to tell you a story, you have to understand, this is just my experience, and I'm told that I'm not normal.  :)  Probably this is not how it goes for most people.

I had spoken to spirits many times as a kid.  As I got older, I understood this was not a thing that happened to most people (although my mother's position was that "G-d speaks to everyone, but some people just aren't listening."), and that it was better to not really bring it up with people I didn't know very well.

The first time I remember using a Ouija board, I was about 13, and at was at the house of a colleague of my parents.   They had twin daughters who were then 12ish.  After dinner, the grown ups were playing cards (or something) in the main room.  The girls, my brother (then 11ish), and I were in the twins' room.  They asked my brother and I if we wanted to try a ouija board, and we agreed.  While we'd never had one, we knew what they were, as they were heavily advertised on TV.  We all gathered around in a circle, and the girls explained how it worked.  I recall thinking it was weird that you just talked to whoever showed up, instead of "placing a call", like they did in old movies of seances.  (I still think it's kind of stupid; beginners should call in someone specific.)  Because I'm bossy, and a bit of an attention whore, I said something that sounded like a wizard in the movie.  Something like "Spirits of this place, attend to me now!  I call you forth by the sacred names of power!  Adonai!  Elohim!  Yod-Heh-Vuv-Heh!  Answer our questions and tell us your secrets!".  There being four of us, I then explained that I thought we should call the elements in a circle around us, which I probably learned from a TV show.  Maybe Gargoyles?  I learned a lot of magic from Gargoyles.  (Why didn't I do that BEFORE I called the spirits?  Because I was 13 and learning magic from cartoons, that's why.)  In any case, we then called the four elements.

We then placed our hands on the planchette and dove in.  It moved quite strongly and rapidly,which the girls seemed to think was unusual, and they accused me of cheating.  They did it again without me, and it still moved fast and clear.  We then, at my insistence, experimented with each pairing, but the quality of the movements didn't really change.  We asked, and got answers to, some insipid middle schooler questions (Does this boy like me?  Will I get straight As? etc, etc.  I learned my future husband's name is Michael (which was also my late father's name and my late maternal grandfather's name); a thing I've since been told by many other sources as well.  Most of whom I hadn't asked.  I AM NOT THE MARRYING TYPE I say, but no one listens.)  
I asked some "verifiable" questions, and got reasonable although somewhat cryptic answers, and insisted everyone else do so too.  They also got true answers.  The girls were a bit weirded out, and wanted to quit, but I insisted we keep playing.  This was exciting!  We had to continue experimenting!  For Science!  Eventually, I thought to ask "Spirit!  What else do you want to tell us?".

At that point, the radio turned itself on:  "Stop!  Collaborate and listen!  Ice is back with a brand new invention!  Something grabs a hold of me tightly," and then one of the girls screamed and backed away from the board.  The music was still playing.  "...  Will it ever stop?  Yo!  I don't know.  Turn off the lights and I'll glow."  And then the lightbulb exploded and the room went black.  [note to young people, in olden times when I was young, incandescent lights blew much more frequently and easily than the modern compact fluorescent kinds do] And then everyone who wasn't me freaked the fuck out.  I, however, was elated.  Magic was realI had always known it was!!  AND IT IS AWESOME!  All four parents then came in the see why everyone was screaming, and we were taken home very shortly there after.  We were not invited back.

A few of my experiences with ouija boards in high school were also like that.  I have had radios and televisions spontaneously turn on many times, and I've popped at least 3 or 4 lightbulbs, and once I scorched a tablecloth when a candle fell over.  Admittedly, we were sometimes quite drunk for those events.  However, most of the time, there's none of that poltergeist-y activity, and I've never experienced anything that seemed dangerous or malicious.

I've never seen the planchette move without anyone touching it (although I've heard stories about that; I'm not sure if I believe them or not.) In my experience, the movement of the planchette always originate with the operators, whether they know it or not.  I'm completely convinced the the movement is due to ideomotor effect, but that doesn't make them unreliable as divinatory tools.  Instead of thinking of it as communicating with an external spirit, think of it as communicating with your own unconscious if it makes you feel better.  Until you're a pretty sophisticated magician, there's really very little difference, because, hen you communicate with any spirit, including other humans, it's pretty much always mediated through your unconscious.  That's how communication works.

If I were going to use a Ouija board today, as a somewhat experienced witch, here's what I'd do:

1) Wash the board and planchette with soap and water.  
2) Pray over the board, asking a Power being entreated to empower it as a creature of revelation.
3) Have a cup of clean, cool water and a lit white candle nearby.  For reasons I don't really understand, the combination of water and fire seems to help spirits manifest.  
4) Explain to everyone present that I really do expect spirits to show up when I call. For really real; I'm about to haunt this place all up.  Anyone who isn't down for that should leave.
5) Call a specific spirit and ask it to communicate with me. For a beginner looking for all-purpose revelations and truth-telling, a specific beloved ancestor or the angel Gabriel would be good choices.
6) When finished, thank the spirit, and pour out some wine, milk, honey, or an egg at the base of a tree as a "thank you" gift.