The Magical Biography (Pt. 1)

In my book, Paganistan, I document the magical biography of Harley Joe, one of our elders: “I went to the store, bought a book, a rock, and a candle, went home, sat down and went, “Now what the hell do I do?”

I think it’s the best magical biography ever.

In a subculture where people consistently felt compelled to justify their magical existence by trotting out training by whomever poobah, lineage to someone famous, initiation into some artfully named tradition, family members who have aaaaaaalways been magical, being gifted after some angel hit them with a wand  >PRANG!!<  while they were in the womb, or being anyone from the King of Atlantis to the Queen of Sheba in a past life… Joe’s very real story of his introduction to magic — and Paganism —  is refreshingly honest and humble.

It’s not complete, of course. It leaves out his youth as a Hell’s Angel, his past time served as a felon, his recovery from drug addiction, his finding support in both recovery communities and Pagan ones, and his work counseling recovering drug addicts. He shared all this while tattooing my arm, and this was the stuff I was interested in hearing. The earthbound, growing-up-human stories of discovery, cultivating an interest, and culture are the pieces of the magical biography that interest me as an anthropologist of weirdos.

But that’s not people want to hear when they ask you, so how did you get into the occult? Magic? Psychic work?

What people generally want to hear is that you were visited by an entity in the middle of the night that gave you your special powers; that your house is haunted; that your gifts and skills are inherent; that you possess abilities like Doctor Strange or Harry Potter or the Witches of Eastwick. They want to be told that magic is the stuff of fantasy works, and that the stuff of fantasy works is real.  

Well, sorry — quidditch isn’t real or possible and never will be.

But magic is. It’s viscerally, sensorially, amazingly real. And real magic, the real spirit world, real psychic gifts are not the stuff of fantasy.

And it’s always funny to watch how crestfallen and disappointed people become when you say that. People want you to be an angel-guided superbeing — and then either want to look up to you and wait for you to give instructions, or they become afraid of you and run.

Depending on the kind of perspective a magician employs, they either immediately begin to cultivate a sense of their own giftedness as their identity, as a person better-than or more-right-than-most, as someone positioned to gain and deserve fans and followers and acolytes — or they get humble really quickly, as they know their gifts and acumen are not their own, and they have no problem saying  “I’m not better or different than you, and you can learn what I know, too.”

And it’s up to people to decide what counsel they wish to follow. It’s frequently down to what a person thinks of magic and magical people. If you want to be in the camp of a charismatic teacher whose performative surety comforts you — or if you want to be in the company of peers who will challenge you. Some perspectives posit that magic is for a special gifted class of human, and difficult to dangerous work best left to an expert. In others, magic is as much a part of human life as grocery shopping or mowing the lawn. (A former coven sib of mine said she was relieved that others thought of magic more like plain old life — this sage-on-a-stage business just wasn’t her experience in her family.)

So, all that said — I’m a firm observer of the magical biography being informed as much by everyday existence as it is notions of giftedness. I am eyeball deep in a beautiful grant-funded project where I am collecting the oral histories of Minnesota’s Witches, Druids, Heathens, Polyaffiliates, and occultists, and when I am asking them to share their stories of coming to magical religion… there aren’t any whizbang moments or family recognitions of inherent giftedness. They spoke of dissatisfaction with the religion of their upbringing; of being rejected by the same or by family; of reading, reading, reading books on magick and occultism and sci-fi/ fantasy; of camping trips with family and with scouting; of making art; of hippie commune living; of meeting cool people at weird parties; of running an occult bookstore and tending to clientele. Magic was tried, learned, and taught. Rituals transcended human experiences and also went blooey and left a mess. There were experiences that were transformative and life changing, some that were just good old fun, and some that were never again attempted because, well… they didn’t do anything. Sensory details — like drums in the night, seeds in the soil, ribbons in the wind, the smell of frankincense, the howling of baby coyotes and hooting owls in the distance, the deer that walked out of the brush during circle — are what are shared about living a magical life.

Well, so was cleaning an entire Nebraska County of any spiritual presences by calling on the Olympic Spirit of Mars, but that was just one person.

So… since my latest assignment in Miss Cat’s course is an abbreviated biography of me as a magician, and since I’m collecting the stories of the Pagans of Minnesota, including their magical biographies — it’s time to look more deeply into my own experiences. These occasional forays into my own magical life — and a Pagan one, I’ll stress, of a folk practitioner and venerator of this blessed existence on this miraculous planet — will come in chunks and bits. So will a notebook of the magic cultivated here in Paganistan — much of which never made my book, as that was an anthropological study of community.

I don’t know a single thing about mentalism, sleight of hand, or the art of illusion. I didn’t dig fantasy or sci-fi as a kid, and never was interested in Dungeons and Dragons. I stopped reading comic books when I was ten. I kept my childhood love of the Greek gods tucked away in my heart when I put that children’s book away, too. And, until a college course on world religions that changed everything, I had had it with religion, particularly the one I was raised in, and watching how its hypocrisy ruined people’s lives.

My path toward Paganism, and toward the occult and magic, is not an escape, nor an exercise in escapism (those things are different). It’s a path toward a life so real that it changes me.

It all started twenty-some years ago, on a winter day over semester break, when the threats and screaming and toxicity got so bad in my family’s home that I packed everything I had brought home and called my friend, who drove over, picked me up, and took me to stay at her family’s house, no questions asked, never again returning to mine …

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