The Magickal Year: A Pagan Perspective on the Natural World (Diana Ferguson)

Posted: February 1, 2018 in nonfiction
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This book took entirely too long to read. Ferguson’s writing is very similar to an encyclopedia: very clear, very informative, sort of dry and abrupt, and lacking in unity. She takes the eight major celebrations of the pagan year and analyzes their history, including the ways they have been absorbed into Christianity.

She starts with the winter solstice, and all the assorted Christmas associations. It’s the shortest day of the year, so we think about the death of the sun and plot ways to bring him back. Hence all the lights – drawing the sun back toward ourselves with light and heat.

Imbolc was this week – celebrating the return of the moon. This celebration is for the goddess Brigid (Christianized as St Brigid) – we leave out food, drink, and bedding for her to rest on as she comes around to everyone’s house. We also leave an article of clothing outside, which she will bless with healing and protective powers. Brigid is honored by a perpetually burning flame tended only by women – not having any women at my house, I had to light my own candle, but hopefully that’s okay. On February 1, we watch the weather. See, she gathered wood at the beginning of winter, and by Imbolc she’s run out. The aging fertility goddess has to get more wood if the winter is going to last longer, so the day will be bright and sunny. If spring is coming, she can sleep in, so the weather gets overcast and rainy. Today’s yucky weather may actually be a good sign.

The spring equinox celebrates day and night as equal halves – it’s often symbolized by the marriage of the masculine sun and the feminine moon. One of the things that bothered me in this book is the extreme heteronormativity. For a homosexual investigating the pagan community, this book makes it seem like the way is barred because all the religious traditions are about procreation and fertility: the Goddess is eternal, like the earth, and the sun-god is eternally dying and being reborn as a sort of husband-son, like the corn. He plants his own seed in the earth, and the result is himself again. The gendering is so heavy that the gays are pushed to the margins.

Beltane (May Day) celebrates the full moon. It’s like the spring equinox, but instead of focusing on marriage, this is a festival of sex. Some of the rituals seem to emphasize heterosexuality, but there’s a freedom to the day that creates possibilities for the rest of us.

At the summer solstice the sun is at its most powerful, but that also means that it begins its decline. More fires, because fire is cool.

Lughnasadh is the beginning of the harvest. It celebrates the waning moon – traditionally a good time for harvesting because this influence was believed to be dry, as opposed to the wet influence of the waxing moon. Plant when the moon is growing, pick when it’s declining.

The autumn equinox is another equally balanced day, but it’s also a continuation of the harvest celebration.

Samhain (Halloween) marks the beginning of the new year – days start when it gets dark, and so does the year. This celebration honors the dark moon, those few days of the month when it is completely obscured by the earth’s atmosphere. It’s also a time to celebrate the dead, because at the hinge of the year there’s an opportunity for the dead to return. That doorway is also open at Beltane, the other hinge of the year, but we’re generally too busy fucking to notice. But at Samhain you could be carried off to the Upside-Down, so keep your wits about you.

And then the book just sort of ends. Like any reference book, there’s not much of an effort at presenting a unified message or a meaningful conclusion; you get to the end and you run out of pages. There are some lovely photographs, not all of which contribute meaningfully to the text. The pictures make it seem more like a coffee-table book. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but this book was hard to get through. There’s a lot of information, but no help digesting it. It’s better as reference than as something you’d read through from beginning to end.

If the idea that Judaism and Christianity grew out of previously established Middle Eastern religions offends you, or if you’re upset by the acknowledgment that Christianity was transformed by the Celtic religions it sought to displace, then just stay away. Part of Ferguson’s goal is to present a tradition, one that incorporates elements from all over Europe and the Middle East in the last five or six thousand years. She also discusses the changes to the calendars and the effect that has had on our holidays, but there’s really not that much to say about that.

  1. cathcarter says:

    I don’t remember if I’ve said this before (probably), but my sense of things is that there isn’t really too much “the” pagan community. Some groups would accept Ferguson’s heteronormative and sun-and-moon based explanations with only minor caviling; some view it very differently. As far as I can tell, there are many covens and branches of paganism and witchcraft (kind of like all those different kinds of Baptists, but with a lot less orthodoxy) which are devoted to (and sometimes restricted to) one sex and have nothing heteronormative about them at all. You can read this as “gay people are pushed to the margins” or as “this is an incredibly loosely assorted group of incredibly loosely affiliated people who create for themselves what they can’t find.” The problem this creates, at least for people like us, is that pagans in general aren’t really People of the Book, like the Abrahamic traditions…but you and I are people who, when we want to know something, start with books. And then we read more books. And then we end with books. So there might be some kickass book out there about Faery and non-Faery traditions of gay Wicca in America, IF someone from that tradition has gotten around to writing such a book. But if none of the particular people most involved in those traditions or groups have yet gotten into taking up unpaid second jobs writing well-researched, thoughtful book-length screeds, then there probably isn’t one. And then you’d have to find out about those groups in ways much less congenial to your nature. 😦

    • theoccasionalman says:

      I agree with the lack of a unified community, and yet when people write books like this one, I feel like they’re setting themselves up as an authority figure, a voice for that loose assemblage of individuals. I don’t yet have enough experience with the individual voices and the responses to them to know who is speaking for a group and who is a lone howler in the wilderness (unless, like Alex Mar, they draw the readers’ attention to their outsider status).

      I know that I’m going to have to break away from books and find real people to talk to — I just want to be as prepared as possible when I take that step. And if I end up as a lone howler myself, that will be okay too.

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