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Witchcraft, Soul-Making & Psychic Initiation

Call the world, if you please,
the vale of Soul-making
Then you will find out the use
of the world.

―John Keats

There is a thread in this world that too few seem to notice, much less take up and weave with, yet it is the heart and substance of the very experience of being truly alive. It is variously called soul-work, soul-craft, or soul-making by those who know it, and it is the secret path of alchemy, ripening, maturing, becoming initiated, becoming an elder, and as Stephen Jenkinson might say in his so-named book, it is the path upon which we undertake to “Die Wise.”

To understand it is to know how mysterious it is. As the soul-teacher Francis Weller might say, this is murky ground. When we enter into the realm of soul, we enter a realm where things become (or are revealed to be) irrational, contrary, and otherwise profoundly enigmatic. The aim of soul is not to wreck us, though, but to reclaim us, to make us into something real. The soul-teacher James Hillman, likens the path of soul to the plan of the acorn to become the oak. Soul is that process of unfolding, and it will use anything at its disposal to make it happen.

Soul is not something we can objectify. In this context, we are not considered souls who incarnate into bodies as commonly discussed. Spiritual traditions say we are souls born into this world in this way. But this is not the view of soul. This is the view of spirit, which thrives on structure, order, certainty and definition. Soul moves in the opposite directions of spirit, de-structuring, disordering, opening to uncertainty and breaking the continuum. To this end, it can be helpful, to a point, to contrast the views of spirit and soul in order to tease out better just what we mean by soul and to help see how each moves in the world, inside and out.

Spirit is ascending, perfecting, idealizing and focused. Soul is descending, humbling, disorienting and uncertain. Soul is not the wrecker of lives by design but often does so when our lives become so contrived that they get off course from our soul’s purpose. Soul does not play nice; it plays for keeps. It takes the notion of becoming who we truly are with total sincerity and a ruthless love of life that means it will never abandon us, no matter how we might be trained or entrained, to try and avoid it.

Our world has gotten away from soul and has addicted itself to spirit. Yet neither of this great pair, soul and spirit, can thrive without the other to balance it in equal measure. I believe it was Jung who said something akin to: go to spirit for structure and go to soul for energy, for the fuel. Our spiritual ascent, which our social orders, technologies and hero-worshiping self-development ideologies map themselves to, will always unravel if they are not deeply met, deeply rooted in the depths of soul.

Soul will get in how it can, coming in through the seams and working them to create openings, even cracks. In the light of a spirit-dominated mentality, soul is mistaken as the enemy. From this simple, adolescent misunderstanding, we have arrived at our modern notions of heaven and hell, a sky god and demonic evil. These overly simplified caricatures of the depth and breadth of human experience leave us living in a perpetual immaturity field, where no one reaches elderhood from which stance they might lead the way. We live locked in what Robert Bly calls the “Sibling Society” or hypnotized in the horizontal self-importance that arises from what Gabor Maté calls peer orientation, rather than the depths and heights, the vertical threads of elders, mentors and aspirants that truly create humans.

Our cultures have us wound so tightly to the ideals of spirit, of being ordered and controlled, that soul must sometimes shock in order to awaken. Because of this, we often only come to an awareness of soul through crisis and loss. Because of the thickness of our spiritual sleep, soul must too often come as a blade. To our spirit-addled senses, this blade at first appears as tragedy, as it takes the shapes of death, illness, violence and other forms of loss. But to the soul-skilled who learn to attune to such initiations, it becomes the blade of awakening, with which we learn to cut away the false from our lives to walk the path of the initiated, the liberated and knowing.

In our modern era, soul-making comes to us through the guise of psychology (or “soul-knowledge”). While most in this field allow their views of it to be tainted with the spiritual ideals that do not serve here, some few manage to stay true to the heart of the matter, and from them, we hear clear voices on these shadowy matters. Yet soul work must not be left to reside only in the oft over-intellectualized and educationally-privileged realms of psychology. We must jail-break psychology, the true psyche-knowledge, and return it to the folk, which is where it belongs and comes from.

While there are many ways in which this soul revival can return to us, I see great promise in the exploding subcultures of what I will call witchcraft. The witch’s craft is forged of the psyche with its usual trappings of the atavistic; ritual, trance, dreaming and communion with nature and all manner of spirits are the substance of the path. While some would argue there are no genuinely existent lineages of witchcraft that come to us from antiquity, thinking in such a way is to misunderstand the nature of the witch’s lineage entirely. Witchcraft is a dreaming tradition, a soul tradition, and as such, it does not play by the rules of spirit’s insistence on linear, rational structure to maintain its coherency. It wouldn’t be effective in its aim if it did.

Amongst the numerous gods and goddesses at play in modern witchcraft forms, the goddess Hekate stands out to me as the pre-eminent representative of soul-making. As a goddess of the liminal, thresholds and crossroads, she is one who can teach us the ways between and beyond that are the paths of soul. As the goddess of wailing through graveyards, she knows much of the arts of loss and grief that, through wisdom, can reveal to us their soul-making promise. She can help us to learn to speak with the shadows and reconcile our differences found within them. She is even known as the World Soul or All Soul herself and, as such, is the prime-mover of soul-making, both the substance and the hands we work it with in our crafting.

“And one of the things I find most moving is the way people with infirmities manage to embrace Life, and from the cool flowers by the wayside reach conclusions about the vast splendour of its great gardens. They can, if their souls’ strings are finely tuned, arrive with much less effort at the feeling of eternity; for everything we do, they may dream. And precisely where our deeds end, theirs begin to bear fruit.”

Of the numerous connections I can find within the epiphanies of Hekate to soul-making, one stands out from the rest. Hekate is seen as the one who cares for the marginalized, and we always find soul in this realm of the rejected. In ancient times people would make offerings of their leftover meals, their garbage, to Hekate, which the poor would then receive. She has a soft spot for the lost, whether alive or dead and welcomes them into her tending. In my own words, I would say she takes care of the outcast, marginalized, victimized, villainized, lost, forgotten, dispossessed and denied. You know, the very soul of the world kind of stuff.

We treat our lost and our old like garbage, locking them up in literal or pharmaceutical cages, hiding them from the eyes who need to see them to know the wholeness of life. We also hide and imprison our dead, locking them in toxic boxes or burning them into poisoned ash so the earth can’t healthfully receive them again. We hide the process of death away in back rooms, painkillers, and our minds by donning a stoic bypassing positivity in the face of demise. Shadow spirit seeks the jewel in the lotus and the mud from which that lotus grew can go to hell.

Literally, shadow-spirit has created our modern notions of hell purely to have somewhere to hide all that it doesn’t know how to deal with. But Soul not only knows how to deal with this refuse. It knows how to welcome it, heal it, yield from it the earthy, alchemical gold, and turn it into the fertile soil only from which the truly succulent fruit can ripen. Shadow spirit only wants to dwell in the final result of alchemy. Soul wants to know how to get there.

There is a lot of growing up that witchcraft has to do. At present, it is mired, deeply mired, in toxic identity-aesthetic addiction, commercialization, gate-keeping hierarchy and all the other forms shadow-spirit tries to take while Soul is locked in denial. But in the very roots of witchcraft, in its Goetic, grief-howling, necromantic, earth-tending roots, I see the promise of a new Western paradigm of soul makers, soul bringers, and world changers. I see a possibility of a reclaiming of the true spiritual, soulful, dignity of the West.

We must give it time, for Soul works on us through the long tale. We need to reclaim our understanding of depth and our patience, perseverance, and humility from the modern discord of instant gratification. If we can but marry these elements together within ourselves, we might again learn to learn and once again find our savoring of the journey beyond. Ever beyond.