Salt of the Earth

Aug 22, 2006
When cleaning off my altar to move it, I discovered something of a problem. I'd set this particular altar up in a phase where I was quite into ceremonial magic, everything laid out properly according to all those Wicca 101 books I'd picked up in my first years. Candles, altar cloth, pentacle, goblet, check; some scattered pinecones and summer flowers, check; and...a bowl of salt. Okay, the good tools are obvious, pack them up and go. Most of the natural materials I returned to the garden. But the salt? I couldn't just throw it in the trash; it had been on my altar, and it deserved better than that. I couldn't bury it, as I did the other bits and pieces which wouldn't be coming with me; salted soil is barren, and that's hardly what I intended to leave behind. Eventually I washed it down the sink with water from the bowl on the altar, but it set me thinking.

Salt. Who the hell thought that one up? As a symbol of earth, it hasn't got a lot going for it, other than just sort of generally being a mineral. Lots of other things do that. It's a consumable, yes, and associated with hospitality, but the reason for that is also its rarity -- salt was expensive, for a long time, and it was a sign of hospitality because giving away something that expensive is damn impressive. (Come to think of it, looking at what I paid for the jar of sea salt I've kept on my altar, salt is still expensive.)

So it's supposed to represent Earth. In that case, why not Dirt's free. It's plentiful. And when you don't need it anymore, when you've cast something with it and it needs to be properly disposed of, when you just need something fresher, there's an obvious place to put it. This seemed so logical to me that I had to go look in all those Wicca 101 books that I'd kept around and see if they had really told me to put a bowl of salt on my altar. Except they were all packed already. Today I remembered that I was going to do that, so now that my books are all unpacked, I went and looked. And yes, that's exactly what they told me to do, universally and without explanation. (Although Cunningham's Wicca For The Solitary Practitioner says salt or earth can be used, it's salt in all the diagrams.)

Well, who really expected Wicca 101 books to have explanations anyway? Ephilias Levi was slightly more helpful -- in the conclusion to A History of Magic he devotes about a page to alchemical understandings of the elements, although they are other elements in question: alchemists, he tells us, associated spirit with sulphur, fire, and the Father; the 'mediator' (which I do not know enough alchemy to sufficiently explain) with mercury, change, and the Mother; and base matter with salt -- "because of the fixed salt which remains after combustion" -- and the Child, or that which is "subjected to education by nature." In a similar sort of vague Victorian language there is a tenuous connection to Earth mentioned in there as well, but hardly in the Four Elementals sense of the word. So. The Better Magick Through Chemistry crowd associated earth with salt because it's what's left over after you burn up sulphur. (Of course, I have no idea if these apocryphal alchemists did any such thing, but Levi thinks they did, and if a Victorian wrote about it you've probably found its origins in modern practice.)

A quick google through turns up the fact that Crowley and most other hermeticists also seem to follow the salt-for-earth rule, with a couple of glancing references (sadly unsourced) to the Sulphur-Mercury-Salt triad that seems to affirm my suspicion that the source for this practice is in alchemy. There's also a couple of references to anointing with earth and water in the form of salt water, which makes a little more sense, particularly if one lives in the sort of place where one doesn't have to manufacture salt water. In the American Midwest, well.

Unfortunately, that's about the limit of my useful research at the moment; not necessarily because I've run out of resources, but I'm not quite sure where else to look. (This has been my eternal frustration in researching modern Paganism; Llewellyn books don't have bibliographies, and while I'm moderately familiar with Victorian occultists, there's a huge gap in the middle there, not to mention trying to figure out where the Victorians got it in the first place.) Is there anyone out there with some experience or research in early Wicca who can help explain this somewhat baffling phenomenon?

Symbolism is all well and good, after all, and I'll steal drama and Latin and ripped-off yoga from the ceremonialists quite cheerfully, but as for me, the salt is going back in the kitchen cupboard and I'm digging up a piece of the back garden to put on my altar.

I'm Back! & Devotion part 3

Aug 18, 2006
Two weeks later and I'm finally all wired up again -- the move has been exciting, exhausting, overwhelming, all those things and more. I have job leads; I've found the grocery store, the post office, and the library; I've even been fairly successful at figuring out the bus system. My favorite thing about Madison so far, though? The gigantic year-round farmer's market. For the first time in my life, the hundred-mile diet seems not only feasable but very attractive, too.

So now that I've caught up on my Pagan blog reading, it's time to contribute to the pool again, with my continuing series on devotion. I started off this series by talking about the difference between magic and religion and last time went on to my literary expectations and disappointments in Paganism. Like I said last time, though, I am trying to move away from the idea that devotion has to be something that's done with words. After all, words hold all kinds of power, but in Western civilization the liturgial word has all too often been solely the property of the leader or priest, creating barriers between the divine and the people trying to access it. I certainly don't believe that this is the only way an authoritative text can work, but I respect the fact that modern Paganism has moved away from that idea in reaction to its misuse in other traditions (even while I continue to be confused and frustrated with the lack of coherence and external direction).

Modern Paganism is hardly unique in this respect. Last fall I took a religious studies class to fill out my senior-year schedule; it was a surprisingly fulfilling experience, focusing less on the facts and history of religions than I'm used to such classes doing and more on the experience of living within a religion. When we addressed Hinduism, we talked a lot about it being a religion of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Doctrines vary -- name and number of gods, nature of the universe, afterlife and how to best prepare yourself for it...all those things are negotiable. But everyone gives offerings. Offerings are huge. Everyone venerates images of the gods, because those images are a means of focusing and manifesting their power. Everyone, in other words, does something.

Which, hell, is one of the reasons I went for Paganism. It involves more doing than just going to church on Sunday. Unfortunately, the variability in Paganism is even bigger than that in Hinduism, and there isn't even any orthopraxy. There are no sutras to write as acts of merit. There are no scrolls to bind to your body in prayer. Especially when working with Irish/Celtic dieties as I usually am, there are no images to venerate or traditional offerings to make. There is no daily cycle of prayer -- no prayers, period.

It's one thing to decide, intellectually, that what you want out of the Universe is a mystery religion, like Paganism, where the scripture is not in a book but in your own experiences. It's another thing to struggle with finding ways of having those experiences when all you've learned how to do is the liturgy and structure of the United Methodist Church. I don't doubt the path I've chosen, and I don't doubt my need to continue as a Solitary before I try to find a group or coven to work with. But by the Gods it can be hard.

Which is, of course, why I've been running this devotion series in the first place; wandering around the idea of "how the hell do I get there from here?" I've always been a little surprised, actually, at the lack of Hindu-inspired traditions and practices in modern Paganism. After all, Hinduism is pantheistic, polytheistic, relatively uncentralized, and has endured for thousands of years. It's also almost entirely reliant on community structure, which might be one of the reasons it hasn't taken off in modern Paganism: we still lack that kind of community cohesion. Which means, really, that borrowing from the Hindu tradition might not be a bad idea right about now. (Besides, doesn't a devotional celebration this big look like a hell of a lot of fun?)

For myself, I've been experimenting with the idea of offerings. In our mostly European-inspired traditions, offerings outside of formal ritual are usually associated more with lesser spirits like the faerie than with the gods, but in Hinduism offerings, mostly of food, are the key to devotional practice. (Another offering is of clothing; statues of the gods are dressed in bright scarves and flowers. When I find the statuary I'm looking for, I'll be all over that one, too.) The wonderful thing about offerings of food is you'll never forget about them; you eat at least twice a day, and with a little mindfulness, the presence of food becomes a reminder that devotion is necessary, and stimulates mindfulness on its own. (To tell the truth, I started wandering down this line of thought with Alestair Crowley's list of devotions; he borrowed the Buddhist concept of mindfulness to inspire a great deal of his own tradition's requirements.) It's no different, truly, than the offering given in formal ritual, but if I waited to acknowledge the gods until I performed a formal ritual....well. Let's just say that technique hasn't been working well for me the past couple of years.

(Next time around: stealing borrowing from other traditions, the physicality of devotion, and Adventures with the Rosary.)