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The Urban Pagan

This article was written by Thomas Polkinghorne
posted under Pagan

There is a tendency among modern Pagans—many of whom live in cities—to revere the wilderness as a source of magical power and dismiss the cities in which they live as spiritually dead places. The city is simply a place where they live and work, while the countryside is a sacred place to travel to and perform rituals. The idea that magic can be performed in the city using tools and ingredients native to that environment is one often ignored by many spiritually-inclined Pagans. But spells can still be cast while doing the washing up, and Pagans can still revere their Gods from the city.

Pagans and the City
Pagans are often predisposed to romanticize the countryside, while shunning the city. There is a good example of this in an anecdote from the introduction of Urban Primitive by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartztein. Schwartztein recalls spending time at a camp listening to a fellow Pagan praise the countryside while simultaneously dismissing the city as a dead, cold place. I believe that this dismal view of the city is partly a result of the stressful pace of modern life. Life in the city can also feel alienating, which is a problem for Pagans especially. Many Pagans seek to overcome feelings of alienation by joining covens and reenacting ancient rituals, signaling a desire to return to the communal values of agricultural society. In these practices, the patriarchal values of the city are often attacked and the rejected feminine is exalted.

This, I believe, is where a rose-tinted view of the country comes from—despite the fact that living from the land is not always as idyllic as it is often presented. The natural setting is merely serving as a ritual backdrop—one as symbolic as the items placed upon the altar. To many Pagans, the city represents repressed aspects of human nature; the rejected feminine; repressive patriarchal values; monotheistic religion; and the soul-destroying aspects of modern life. The country is the antithesis of these negative concepts, and is idealized for it.

Few Pagans actually take this reverence for nature a step further and go out to live in the countryside, or even become activists. There are groups who seek to unite their reverence for nature with magical practice. For example, the Dragon Network is an organization of Pagans who practice magic as a form of ecological protest. But the majority of neo-Pagans consists of urban dwellers, so it is not surprising that many Pagans are distant from rural life. While it is commendable to try to get out to the country, protest on behalf of the environment, or live off the land, it does not mean the city should be shunned as a source of magical power.

What some members of the neo-Pagan scene forget is that many of the ancient Pagans from whom they draw inspiration from were city-dwellers. Whole cities in Ancient Egypt and Greece were built around temples dedicated to Gods and Goddesses before the advent of monotheistic religions. The Egyptians built Karnak around the the temple of Amun, that city’s patron god. In ancient Greece, legend stated that deities would often compete over the patronage of cities. Athena and Poseidon were said to compete for the patronage of the city of Athens. These and countless other examples show that the practice of Paganism was not restricted to the country by our ancestors. The use of the country as a ritual backdrop is a modern invention, and we do not have to stick to it for fear of breaking tradition. In fact, breaking tradition may be necessary at times for practicality, especially for the urban Pagan.

Urban Primitive encourages a shift in attitude in the neo-Pagan scene by depicting the city as a spiritual being in itself. While Paganism has traditionally personified the Earth as a sacred Mother figure, Kaldera and Schwartztein’s recommend viewing the city in the same way. The city is spoken to as a living entity in itself. Buildings are addressed in the same manner that some Pagans would address or perform rituals around trees or stone circles. Spirits inhabit inner city areas, just as faeries live in woods and forests. The shades of the dead crowd our hospitals. Subways become entrances to the Underworld.

The authors do not go as far as romanticizing the city. Kaldera compares his time living in the city to a prison sentence. Cities are regarded as "boils upon the ass of Gaea," being a major source of pollution. In this way, reverence for nature is not dispensed with. But despite acknowledging the often soul-destroying nature of city life, Urban Primitive shows how a magical life can be led anywhere.

Magic can be used for survival, utilizing whatever tools are available in your environment. This can be seen as a shamanic approach; our ancestors often resorted to using whatever means they had at their disposal to survive. At a time when the science and technology had not yet been developed to make things comfortable for humans, the shamans improvised.

Spells and Divination
Casting spells for mundane purposes is frowned-upon in some circles as "low magic" or even "black magic." Those who practice what is known as "High Magic" regard magic as something that should only be performed for moral or pure purposes—such as spiritual evolution. But in Urban Primitive, spells are cast for everyday objectives such as getting a job. Using magic for the practicalities of modern living is important to the modern Pagan or magician. Our worries differ from those of the ancients; we no longer have to be wary about being mauled by vicious animals, attacked by neighboring tribes. But modern living provides its own set of difficulties to accompany its comforts. We have employers to appease, livelihoods to maintain, kids to feed. When practical solutions are hard to come by, then what is the harm in casting a spell?

Urban Primitive describes a range of simple spells that can be cast with everything from simple household items to things to you can find in a trashcan. Chapter Eight categorizes certain kinds of trash you find in cities into the four traditional elements of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. Broken glass can be used as a simple athame. Gum wrappers and bird feathers can be incorporated into spells.

A Bottle Spell
The book also describes various uses for bottles in spells, ranging from protection to getting someone to look favorably upon you to communing with spirits. I have used bottle spells in the past for improving relationships. The suggested technique is simple. It involves taking a piece of paper and drawing a picture or a representative symbol of the person you’re having trouble with. Even their name or initials will do if you are stuck for inspiration. You will also need a sealable bottle filled with water and a handful of sugar (or something just as sweet).

  1. Perform your usual ritual opening and focus on that piece of paper as containing your conflict-person's essence. It might help if you have a small photograph, piece of clothing, or a similar link to accompany the paper as an aid to concentration.
  2. Once you have finished concentrating on the symbolic representation of your target, place it within the bottle. Then take a handful of sugar (or whatever substitute you are using) and pour it inside the bottle.
  3. Seal the bottle and then shake it while chanting your intent, which could be a simplified statement of intent such as: "[insert name of person] loves me." Or you can make a whole song out of it. Do whatever inspires you.
  4. Once you feel the spell to have reached its maximum intensity through the shaking and chanting, put down the bottle and end the ritual.
  5. Hide the bottle in a dark place, like a cupboard or under your bed.

I have used this simple technique to good effect with certain friends or colleagues. This is just one of many examples of how spells can be cast from the materials that can be found in your home, probably waiting to be thrown in the bin.

Divination is another practice that can be performed with items you can find in the city. Traditional divination techniques provide convenient sets of symbols that can answer questions or make predictions about future events. The Tarot has the major and minor arcana, the I Ching has 64 Hexagrams. Systems such as these divide life experience into segments, and create symbolic images associated with each segment. These images are things that our subconscious minds understand, and divination has its source in these unconscious impulses. Our subconscious communicates to us in the language of symbols. Once a symbol is firmly entrenched in the unconscious through repeated association with an aspect of our experience, the subconscious can communicate with us through those symbols. This is often the case with dreams. If you associate a person you know with something negative—say anger or depression—then that person may crop up in your dreams as a symbol of a negative aspect of yourself. And if you repeatedly associate the Tarot’s Tower Card with conflict, it might just mean that when the card turns up in a reading.

There is a mention in Urban Primitive of trash divination, which is something I have practiced in my own way. Each time I head for the bus stop every day before work, I treat the journey as an "omen walk." Just as the Druids made predictions from weather conditions, so it is possible to find symbolism in random objects that catch your eye in the road, or in the sky. This can be a natural phenomenon, like an unusual cloud formation or the behavior of local wildlife. Or it can be man-made, like an advertisement on the side of a bus giving you the answer to something you've had on your mind, or a song on the radio that tells if you are going to have a good night out or not. A design on an empty bag of chips that drifts your way may tell you if you're going to get a promotion or get fired at work. It is simply a matter of keeping your mind open to these things.

As soon as you leave the house, simply tell yourself that you will be open to any omens that come your way. Do not look for them—that is something you should be doing on a subconscious level, not a conscious one. The conscious mind is not very good at these things. Keep your mind focused on reaching the bus stop on time, or a problem that has been bothering you. If you can, silence your thoughts completely as you walk. Once you see something that you feel might be an omen, ponder its meaning if you do not know what that meaning is. This method is very freeform—it’s similar to traditional divination techniques such as scrying and dream interpretation. The form it takes may be different from how it was performed in older agricultural societies, but the principles behind it remain.

Magical Living
Another way in which the city can take on a more magical appearance is through seeing the different areas and places as being associated with the elements, or any other system you use to structure your magical universe. Kaldera and Schwartzstein conceptualize phone lines, modems, and gas lines as being homes for Air elementals. Power stations house Fire elementals. City trees and parks house Earth elementals. Water elementals live in the plumbing. By making offerings to them, seeking to commune with them and working magic by enlisting their aid, the city can become magical. If you like, you don't have to work with the simple Four/Five element scheme. You can attribute the spheres from the Kabalistic Tree of Life to certain areas of the city. Even the traditional symbolism of the seven planets can be used in this manner. The possibilities are endless. Any environment you live in can take on a magical tinge—it simply depends on how you look at it.

Magic is more than a mere interest or hobby to those who actually practice it, although it may start that way. It is not something do on the weekend—an excuse to drive off to the country to dance around a bonfire, and then forget about it when you return to the office. Even if you do not take a religious attitude to it, magic is something that informs your whole worldview and lifestyle. It is a paradigm in itself, and affects the practitioner's worldview in the same way that the thought-processes of religious fundamentalists and atheists affect theirs. Spells and rituals have an even more important use to the urban practitioner with difficulties on the domestic or career front and can see no practical way to deal with them. Magic should not simply be left to the sacred grove—it has just as much validity in an inner-city studio apartment, or whatever environment you happen to be occupying.

In regards to our environment as sacred and learning to recognize the magical currents that underlie it, we are doing the same things our ancestors did anyway. Although we live in a wilderness of steel and stone rather than plant and tree, the principles behind human need and desire remain more or less the same. The same ideas that motivated ancient Pagans motivate modern Pagans—survival in a potentially hostile place, and the need for something sacred in their lives.


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