Breaking the Magic Spell

Ever notice how all of our stories seem to arc together somehow? Everyone you talk to riding-out similar waves of prosperity or conflict at the same time? Communication difficulties strangely manifest in different ways for different reasons in different people all at once? Your personal growth or deep shadow work coincides with that of your closest friends and family and so on, like we’re all cast about floating on the surface of a collective ocean of emotion - rising and falling in time with the waves and in search of something to hang on to. Of course we see that happening socially as a people right now - requiring us to take great care with our self-care. This has kept me up thinking about Baneful Herbs, plant allies that are poisonous if ingested in quantity, but also posses medicines for the heart and soul if used topically, homeopathically or as flower essences.

Baneful Herb stencils on slipcast ceramic Witch Bottles: Mugwort, Amanita and Poppy. 10 altogether, below are Belladonna, Blue Lotus, Datura, Hemlock, Henbane, Mandrake and Wolfbane. Witch bottles migrated with witches of Celtic descent to the East coast and Appalachia in the 1600’s, beginning as countermagical devices used to protect against other witchcraft and conjure.

Baneful Herb stencils on slipcast ceramic Witch Bottles: Mugwort, Amanita and Poppy. 10 altogether, below are Belladonna, Blue Lotus, Datura, Hemlock, Henbane, Mandrake and Wolfbane. Witch bottles migrated with witches of Celtic descent to the East coast and Appalachia in the 1600’s, beginning as countermagical devices used to protect against other witchcraft and conjure.

This series of slipcast vessels comes on the heels of some huuuge self-work undertaken this Spring. All the emotional heavy lifting has slowed me down some, but also clarified a lot of things that I’ve been fuzzy on for a lifetime, such as healthy boundary setting. Like the baneful herbs, sometimes a little bit of poison in our lives can do us good if care is taken with how it is used. This brings me to a transformative read that has been helping to put all of this new self-knowing into perspective; Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk & Fairy Tales by Jack Zipes. Albeit on the academic side as a series of essays, this book traces the origins of Germanic folk tales back to before the Ice Age. Shaping beliefs that ordered the cosmos, folktales evolved over aeons, allowing us to imagine what a just society should look like while rooting in actual circumstances. Hastened by the advent of the printing press, oral folk traditions were later recorded and changed by the bourgeoisie into a different kind of morality tale designed to instrumentalize the imagination for instilling social values in the industrial age.

The fairy tale is an entirely different literary tradition from the folktale, supporting the aims of the wealthy and acting to stifle the imagined possibilities for a utopian future. This is what gave rise to the ‘Disnification’ of fairy tales as we know them in the 20th century, and the explosion of the fantasy genre in works like the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, which while popular, are still lacking the radical function that folktales originally possessed. Folktales derived from direct experiences with natural settings and diffused through co-creative storytelling is needed today to reorient our priorities toward care of local ecology and away from anthropocentrism. Another essay in the book talks about how personal (and cultural) traumas can be better understood and digested with the help of a fantastical narrative. We do this intuitively as children, but rarely have reason to think about the utility of this practice in adulthood.

Using the same kinds of symbols as visual folk art forms, oral and literary tales are intended to work their subtle magic on the subconscious. How we use language builds our context, frames our attention and determines what elements are important to the story. Where does power resides in the universe - externally or internally? What is valued and what is discarded? Who’s interests are served - the few or the many? Ecology as a whole or humans alone? Zipes writes about the radical function of folktales to help restore ‘non-alienating conditions’ to the human experience. Our imagination, the literal power to ‘see’ and manipulate a symbolic reality within the mind and then externalize that vision, is our greatest power.

We personify positive and negative forces as the giants, witches, fairy godmothers and kings of old. In so doing, can we develop meaningful narratives to help us imagine a way past seemingly insurmountable obstacles? Simply as storytellers, we have the power to project a non-linear, non-alienating utopia into a regenerative future with the right combination of symbols sculpting the shape of our truth. With regard to these thoughts, I would like to invite you to participate in an exercise that I am developing for an artist residency at the Pillsbury House and Theater this Fall. My hope is to gather stories from the community in several ways.

In working with spoken words translated into generalized ideograms, I hope to distill common visual themes from a diverse community. In working in the round, I hope to get outside of linear thinking, moving toward cyclical and regenerative storytelling. I would love to hear how this experiment went for you if you try it. Three things to try:

  1. Using a magnetic board, the participant arranges pictographic tiles symbolizing needs and the landscape into a visual story, somewhat like a cave painting.

  2. With willing participation from neighbors, a recorder draws/paints mandala-like ‘hex signs’ based on oral stories being shared in real time to act as a focal point of reflection afterward.

  3. If participants are willing to draw/paint, they are asked to start with a bullseye pattern with 3 rings. In the center ring is the space to visually describe the physical place or setting where the story takes place, in the next ring outward is a visual representation of the characters involved and in the outer ring are images that indicate the transformation that takes place within the story. Again, intended to be used for reflection afterward.

Bonus points if you write your own personal fairy tale narrative to make sense of challenges in your own story.

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