I’m an atheist, not a pagan, but as Pratchett points out there are advantages to belief: “When you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it’s nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, ‘Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!’ or ‘Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!’” So I’m an atheist with a creativity altar, a well-used deck of tarot cards, a shelf of occult books, and a wealth of Wiccan info – mostly thanks to writing The Ten Visions. What I can’t believe, I can write.
Paganisim or Wicca (I won’t go into the denominational differences) are all about the rhythms of nature – which sounds as floaty as a wannabe-witch dress, until you realise how much counting it involves. (Sex also involves counting, and not just the good old one-two – at least, not if you’re trying to trick nature by taking the prize and not paying your due.) Planning my heroine’s life around moon phases, the name of the moon, the sun sign, the sunrise and sunset times, her own cycle, the Esbats, and of course the Oxford terms, not to mention the Qabbalic chapters, quickly became as complex as organising the Prime Minister’s diary:
“No, I’m afraid Ms Kirkson won’t be able to have sex on the 17th – yes, it’s in Netzach with a waxing Snow moon, but new moon energy is still dominant, she has her period, and the Scorpio energy is too negative… how about the 1st, under Saggitarius? It’s a full moon, so I’ll have to squeeze you in with any ghostly visitors…”
Sarah quickly learns how events are governed.
She felt sick, stubbed out the cigarette on the chilled, pocked stone next to her feet, and immediately lit another. When had she seen Jo?
She’d met him when she was walking back from dinner with her supervisor. She’d felt an odd urge for a cigarette, and asked him for one. She’d wanted one because her supervisor’s rudeness had upset her. Well, his rudeness and his attractiveness, to be honest, but the attractiveness didn’t count because she’d been ovulating. It had been dark – no, not quite dark; she remembered the clouds whipping past the full moon, a ghostly galleon indeed.
She’d seen him the night of the All Soul’s party; he’d persuaded her to run away from the party and convinced her that she’d been talking to the devil, just because she’d been horny enough to find an old man sexy. They had dashed home in the bright moonlight. He said she’d been fed a lust potion. She’d counted afterwards, and realised she’d just been ovulating; the lust potion was nonsense.
She’d been ovulating. She ovulated with the full moon. She hadn’t wanted sex last night; something in her body had felt calm, quiet, and safe; something in her had said wait. Wait until you’re fertile. When was full moon?
Welcome to the Wheel of the Year. Paganism means patience. The year is carved into the twelve sun signs of the Zodiac and the thirteen moons. Each month’s moon has its own name and energies and the full moon is the Sabbat. (One month gets two full moons – so the second is the Blue Moon, as in “once in a…”) The eight Esbats are the major festivals: two solstices, two equinoxes, and four other special occasions: Ostara (Easter), Beltane (May Day), Lammas (31 July, still celebrated with corn sheaves in many churches) and of course Samhain – Halloween, Feast of the Dead, All Souls, call it what you will.
Most of the Esbats are what we politely call “fertility rites”, from the Imbolc planting of seeds (phner phner) through the Ostara eggs & bunnies (nudge nudge) to Beltane’s giant phallus round which the merry maidens dance, all the way to the Lammas fairs and tumbling in haystacks. Not so Samhain.
The only pagan festival to hold tight to its occult origins, it’s not a time for sex or magic – it’s the beginning of the time which is not a time. The Ten Visions has ritual sex scenes and Samhain scenes, but not the two in combination: that would be dark magic and the good Wiccan Sarah (an’ it harm none, do what ye will) doesn’t do that. (Her professor, on the other hand…)
Samhain is the day that Jo accuses Sarah of being a witch, after the eerie Halloween party in the graveyard of St Mary's. As sensible as her author, she doesn’t believe him.
She shook her head in disbelief. ‘This is the twenty-first century. No-one believes in witches. They don’t exist. Well, some silly little pagan-wannabes do, but they get it all wrong, I’ve read the manuscripts and they haven’t and –’
‘What do the manuscripts say, then?’
‘Witches joined covens – they were invited in, by female relatives or close friends – and the devil appeared, a local devil usually, and they all drank and danced around widdershins and naked, and sometimes the devil had sex with them. Every evidence suggests he was just a man from a nearby region, in a mask.’
‘Evidence taken down in witch trials?’ asked Jo, pointedly.
‘That’s the only written evidence, yes, –’
‘And what does your knowledge of Church doctrine, and interrogation methods, and manuscript-making, tell you about these manuscripts?’
‘That they’re unreliable!’ Sarah snapped. ‘That it was confessions taken from tortured prisoners, stupid ordinary women terrified of the Church’s power!’
‘So the devil really did come and sleep with them?’
‘The devil doesn’t exist,’ began Sarah.
‘Then would it surprise you to learn that earlier tonight you sat next to him, drank with him, and considered having sex with him?’
Thus begins the time which is no time, the dark hinterlands of the year. From Samhain to Yule, the wheel doesn’t turn. The veil is thin. The world lies dead, and the dead walk. This is where we now stand poised in the Wheel of the Year and here’s a snapshot of the wheel’s energies…
At Samhain, light candles for the dead, set food out for them, leave honey and cakes for the fey, and leave windows open on both sides for the roaming souls to enter and leave freely. Better that than that they rattle the panes and rush down the chimney flus. Leave a candle burning all night. We’re under the Blood Moon, making vivid the cycle between life and death, hunter and hunted. It reached its zenith on 26 October and is now waning – the only spells to perform are for cleansing and banishment; rather learn and meditate. The sun in Scorpio is also suited to study – its smouldering, dark and ruthless energy peels back mysteries. Its sexual pleasure is intense and ruthless. Today is ruled by Mars but Samhain, on Wednesday, will be ruled by Mercury – the messenger, the trickster, the ancient Alchemical tease. For the next fifty-one days, the rhythms of life recede and the world belongs to the others – until Yule.
She lay, drained and sated, feeling the warm weight of his body upon her, staring dreamily at the uneven ceiling above her. She thought of the stars and planets spinning beyond them, unimaginable distances away but really there, held in orbit by gravity, imposing their strange forces as they swung past.
‘The ritual said for seven days…’ she murmured quietly into his ear. Her voice was soft, half-lost in thought. ‘In two days time we move from Sagittarius to Capricorn… Fire to Earth…’ she added. ‘And it’ll be Yule, and we can marry for a year and a day…’
His warm arms clasped her close to him.