spirit of depression

I conceive of depression as a spirit, but that does not resonate with everyone. Whether or not depression feels like a spirit—a non-corporeal being with agency—it’s probably easier to agree that some of the symptoms of depression manifest in spirit directly. The whole idea of trying to categorize diseases and conditions based on whether they hit the mind, the body, or the spirit is not very helpful: these are different parts of the whole, and all health issues impact every part of the self. To me that seems especially obvious when it comes to depression. It’s categorized as a mental health problem, but the symptoms can cause physical pain. It’s categorized as a mental health problem, but the symptoms can cut off spiritual connection. In this case, we are limited by our language: since we have different words to describe these aspects of self, we conceive of our selves as fragmented. Sometimes it takes a serious condition like depression to teach us that this fragmentation is an illusion.

Depression can visit at any age.

The term “acedia” describes the spiritual dimension of depression, while “melancholia” the mental aspect. Acedia’s first use in written English was in 1607, while melancholia has been written about since at least 1553. That’s centuries of effort to reinforce this idea of fragmentation, that the mind controls the body and the body is not the seat of self, and perhaps more importantly that the spirit or soul is distinct from the other two—except that the actions of mind and body can impact that soul. We’ve been spending hundreds of years or more trying to put that square peg of an idea into the round hole of what we actually observe about human beings.

One of the ways that depression impacts spirit is to drain away our interest in spiritual matters. While maintaining a daily practice is in no way indicative that one is free of depression, dust collecting on the altar is certainly a clue that something might be up. No information should be interpreted out of its context, mind you; there are very spiritual people who simply do not dust, and there are others who might take the time to set up a nice altar and then move on to something new. I know that it’s a common belief that physical tidiness makes spiritual connection easier, but as hard as I pray to Hestia to help me dive into housecleaning as a sacred practice, I need a day’s notice if anyone other than one of my closest friends is coming by to visit. I am not a fastidious housekeeper—but I seem to be in the middle of the pack, based on the homes of others I’ve visited. An orderly home feels good and doubtless has spiritual benefits, but it seems that earth-worshipers generally don’t mind a little bit of dirt, either.

What dirt might indicate is that there is an accumulation of spiritual detritus, too. That can happen during a period of depression, but again, physical evidence of a spiritual condition must be considered in context. For example, if I look around at the dusty corners and hard-to-reach places where grime accumulates with revulsion not for the dirt but for myself, then I may be moving through a dark place. At another time, I might recall that I have chosen to make my home welcoming to spiders or other spirits, embodied and otherwise. The difference is internal: do I feel in relationship with other beings, or do I feel like smothered by the state of my own existence? The cause is also internal; the spirit of depression has joined the conversation in my head and tends to bring the mood down.

Depression is a powerful spirit; most humans lack the ability to truck with it at all, and I don’t know of anyone who has consciously invited it into their own life. Nevertheless, many of us are in relationship with this spirit. Know this: if you have walked with depression and lived, you are a spirit-worker of great power. You may be entirely untrained and lacking in focus, but you have raw strength. I am still trying to understand the nature of this spirit, but it could be that it’s drawn to that strength and is sustained by it. It could also be that this is a protective spirit that is doing harm in an attempt to prevent even greater harm. Perhaps both are true: depression might be protecting us or those around us from power we do not understand how to wield.

All I can say with confidence is that an encounter between a human spirit and a spirit of depression can be a difficult one. A common metaphor of the experience is that the world is drained of color. Color does not literally drain from the world; what happens is that we lose the ability to care about its vibrancy. During a period of depression we do not process micro-affections, we fail to interpret acts in a positive light, and our joyful memories are suppressed. There’s a spiritual pall surrounding anyone on such a journey, which may suppress the use of subtle senses even if it doesn’t make it harder to move subtle energy. If your cosmology includes spirit as an element, then it’s just as easy to see depression expressed as spirit as it is earth, and air, and fire, and water. Depression is all of these things, because depression grows in the shadow of human lives.

Depression makes spiritual matters less appealing. Courtney Weber, in an interview for my book Empty Cauldrons, may have said it best: “You should go to your altar every day, but if you’re in a bad place, go three times a day.” It’s dangerously easy to abandon practices during a period of depression, to become convinced that they have no value. Double down, despite not getting any validation. Pray. Meditate. Worship. Offer. Celebrate. Depression does not turn the gods away, but can make them difficult to notice. It’s routine that helps us push through, and faith that the world is every bit a magical and sacred place today as it was on a day before depression took root. The human spirit is resilient, and I am here to bear witness to the fact that there can be a time when that spirit is again free of this condition.

Never forget that one’s own spirit is far stronger than can be easily understood.

Darkest night

I do not need to be in depression to write about depression.

The words were carefully lettered onto a sticky note, which I affixed to the top of my old roll-top desk as the first step toward writing Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic and Ritual. If depression is a spirit, as I have come to believe, then invoking it by diving into research and interviews was a possibility against which I wanted to guard. If depression is a disease, which I also believe to be true, then the peril was in taking on the condition with the intention of healing it within in order to heal others, as well. This, my first opportunity to write a book for a major pagan publisher, in no way felt safe; inviting the forces of darkness into one’s life never should feel safe.

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

At no point did I believe that my life was at risk, however. Depression does kill, and it’s nearly killed me more than once, but we understand each other better now. This was nevertheless a crossroads, and depression could send me down the wrong path. I was risking becoming completely overwhelmed, crushed by the sense of obligation, and unable to fulfill my part of the contract. I was also risking the stress of this new venture exceeding my threshold, resulting in a short temper coupled with a sharp wit: such are the tools for destroying relationships personal and professional. My life would not be ended by trying to write a book about the worst suffering I and many others will ever experience, but it could be irrevocably changed for the worse by this willing plunge into darkness.

I do not need to be in depression to write about depression.

Using language is not the most efficient way to reach the deeper parts of the mind. Those words need to be digested, broken down into component symbols, and absorbed. Reading the same phrase dozens of times a day is needed. I did this, but there are better ways to reach the deep self.

It’s appropriate to write about this on the darkest night. Depression is likened to a form of spiritual darkness. It was also on a winter solstice night, not long too long before the turn of the century, that I was given the gift of a spell box capturing the light of the summer sun, the triumphant sun that was shining in full glory on the other side of the world. A dear friend had seen that spell, written by Silver Ravenwolf, and assembled it with care before having the members of our circle charge it for my use. It was the first magic I ever successfully used to shift my relationship with depression, and it’s my honor to be able to include that spell in this book.

Understanding comes in part from engagement, and engaging is difficult with depression, because it’s inside. It wasn’t until I was well into the research phase of my writing that I was guided to create a process to allow the separation of depression from the body, by inviting it into instead inhabit a totem. Rather than being some sort of cure, this is a means to allow depression to be appealed to and appeased, as one might do with any spirit. Walking beside depression rather than within it, I was thus able to foster dialogue between my deep self and this intense spirit, this depression. I do not need to be in depression to write about depression.

Now, there is darkness. There is cold. There is quiet. All of this is familiar, but also different: the darkness, the cold, the quiet is outside the walls of my home. They are outside the walls of my heart. The darkness of the world is a cycle of the seasons, not a metaphor of a hopeless existence. I have cycles as well: good days and bad, with spirit, body, and mind moving through peaks and troughs. My thinking self recognizes that cycles are the way of the world, and my deep self sings gratitude for the knowing.

Real money magic: investing in evil

It’s been six months since a veritable coup was staged in the Exxon Mobil board room. Three new directors that were seated over objections of company leaders are committed to addressing climate change as a business risk for a company that’s all about oil. This is a big deal, and highlights the power that shareholders have—but rarely exercise—over companies in which they have a stake.

Voting power at these annual meetings is based on shares of stock held. This is the one form of democracy in which votes are openly bought and sold in the market. Every share equals one vote, and company insiders often make it a point to hold enough shares to block any unpopular action—often, but not always. The activists who lead the hedge fund Engine No. 1 had just two-hundredths of a percent of all the outstanding Exxon shares, yet they were able to get the votes to pull this off. That’s even more impressive given how these decisions are framed: the proxy statement in which board candidates and other matters are laid out always have a board recommendation next to each choice. Any candidate or question supported by board members includes a recommendation to vote for the proposal, and it’s easy for an uninformed shareholder to assume that board recommendations are the way to go. That’s a lot of headwind to overcome, yet that’s what happened.

Forcing the addition of three outsiders to the Exxon Mobil board easily could go nowhere; these energy transition experts are just a quarter of the full board, after all. Convincing the other nine directors of this corporation to make such a big shift in course also faces stiff headwinds. Momentum seems still to be building, though; another investor group believes change must come faster. Energy is building.

Mostly, people think only of the money that can be made by investing in corporate stock. The fact that shareholders are owners of these companies, and as such have power to effect change, tends to be overlooked. Thankfully, that’s not the case now, because we need every tool at our disposal. Owning even fractional shares in companies like Exxon Mobil makes it possible to have a say. Directors will always resist change, saying that their first duty is to make money for shareholders; when shareholders are the ones asking for change, they are replying that profit isn’t everything.

I now have a tiny sliver of several companies with problematic histories in my portfolio, including Exxon Mobil, Volkswagen, and Microsoft. Whether those modest investments make or lose money does not matter to me. The dollars I spent are a component in larger spells to change the world. By my will, let it be done.

all my divination

I purchased my first divination system — the Sacred Rose tarot deck — as a young man, and it mostly sat on an altar, or in a drawer. Much like the stock market, the number of divination systems I have owned at one time has risen and fallen, but has always gotten larger over the long haul. Divination was part of my preparation for serving as an oracle to my community, which in turn was training for deeper work Poseidon asked of me when I came of age (which, in this case, was half a century). One of my life goals is to finalize a custom divination system for talking with me once I’m dead, in the belief that my desire for conversation with not be diminished by my discorporation. I have two that I’m working on right now.

For the heck of it, I’ve put together a list of the systems in my possession right now.

bones, coins, and cards
  1. Three coins: these are large, identical, copper coins that have a zombie Hermes head on the obverse. I use them for quick questions of my ancestors.
  2. depression coins: these are three pennies minted in the year of my birth and attuned to the spirit of depression. I talk about them in my upcoming book. Did I mention that I wrote a book?
  3. Morgan’s tarot, which I have had longer than any other system; I bought it in the 1980s. I have built a strong rapport with this deck, and its odd sense of humor often cuts to the quick during a reading. I’ve also have taken to coloring my set, little by little. My relationship with these cards is solid enough that I offered readings for pay for a time, but I was dissatisfied with the platform I had selected and haven’t had a chance to find someplace where I won’t be at risk of violating site rules for providing “fortune-telling” services. For now, my readings-for-hire remain a low-key affair without online marketing.
  4. tellstones, a system chronicled by Adam Byrn Tritt, who also fashioned the set I won in the silent auction at Pagan Spirit Gathering, 2004. I didn’t remember bidding, and was quite surprised to learn I had won. It’s an easy system to learn and, while the book is probably necessary just to learn the symbols, I quickly got the hang of how it works. This was the first cleromantic system I owned, and the only reason I don’t read tellstones for money is because I haven’t gotten around to promoting it yet.
  5. Zombie tarot, a Rider-Smith-Waite variant with undead flair which was given to me as a Yule gift some years ago. It’s got a stronger sense of duality about it than many tarot decks (which may be why the creators offer no commentary on meanings of reversed cards), plus a book which is really funny. I tend to read the card descriptions to my client if only because someone took a lot of time crafting them and it seems a waste not to share. This deck is also a Fool’s Dog app, meaning I can easily create and email an image of the reading. I read with the physical cards, but the app is really useful for working with clients at a distance for that reason alone.
  6. Lymerian oracle, a system of divination using the ancient Greek alphabet. It’s either ancient, or just copying from runic divination, depending on the scholarship one reads. Each month of my life includes the presence of a different god, and I often use this to get a sense of what I should expect of our time together.
  7. “Greek I-Ching,” a system for astragaloi (knuckle bones) with a terrible name but excellent provenance. The book by Kostas Dervenis is a marvelous resource, the best compilation of ancient Hellenic oracular information I’ve found for such a system. It is derived in part from the same sources used in the Lymerian oracle, but there are far more messages from multiple documented sources. Due to the depth of the information I expect to be using the book for a long time, if not forever; memorization is implausible. I was fortunate enough to receive an actual set of knuckle bones to use for this; they spent some months under my midden heap for cleaning but popped up again just before Samhain, 2018 and are now quite ready for use. While it’s often quite direct, discernment is sometimes needed to place the message in context.
  8. my own coin system, an eclectic collection which I’ve put together over time. For these, I have been letting the coins themselves teach me their meanings, and it’s a slow process. Well, I’m also not terribly patient.
  9. Marseilles trumps, the older design of tarot cards; I find how they differ from the more modern systems to be instructive. Eventually I want to master the “fool’s mirror” spread, which uses the whole shebang, because that’s what large tables are made for.
  10. Rider-Smith-Waite tarot, which I study, but do not use for divination. The deck I own is small enough for a card to fit into my spell box, but that in turn makes it hard to see all the detail in the images. With most available tarot decks being based on Waite’s research and Smith’s art, it’s worthwhile to understand the original in any case.
  11. cunning stones, a set of semi-precious polished stones which I assembled according to the instructions in Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic. The answers given by the stones are interpreted not by the specific mineral, but the color of the stone.
  12. Oseanna’s bones] are a system I’m naming for its creator, who to my knowledge isn’t actually using that name any longer at all and also just called them “bones.” This is another cleromancy system which came into my life. Oseanna was given the selection of bones and design of the casting area by spirits, and it’s a very robust system within the broader range of bone-reading. This is an ancestor-focused system and mine are willing to participate, but only when they feel that I am giving them enough attention otherwise. I’m also collecting my own pieces that may be included in this flexible system.
  13. Buckland’s gold coins: this was really just an idea Raymond Buckland tossed into his book on coin divination as something which would be cool to try. Creating this “golden oracle” is one of those “hold my beer” moments when an author suggests something without doing it, making me want to do it. The set is comprised of about a dozen small coins with animals on them. Most are from Singapore and comprise the Chinese zodiac. I don’t yet read with these, because I’m still taking the time to listen to the coins and learn their meanings.
  14. Wigomancy is what I’m calling a system I’ve developed in conjunction with a local ancestor, Ludwig Montesa, which is comprised of a selection of things this person said during a too-brief life. In 2017 I performed a public ritual elevating Montesa as a community ancestor, and I was later asked to commission this system. Thus far I have only used it in here in my hometown, but Ludwig’s spirit is also strong around Lake George and in Manhattan.
  15. I also own the Lenormand-inspired Hermes oracle deck; appropriately, it can also be used as deck of playing cards. If you cannot use the system for gambling, it might not be suitable for use with Hermes. It was created by Robert Place, and was also money I spent as the result of a journalism assignment.
  16. One of the systems I obtained early on was the Gypsy Witch oracle deck. I lost it somewhere along the way, and led to obtain another copy more recently. It’s a dicey system, not only for its design—there’s a text blurb on each of these Lenormand-style cards describing its meaning, making it feel clunky to use—but due to the name. “Gypsy” is considered a slur by some, and I’m sure this deck wouldn’t have been named that if created in recent years. Well, not sure, but it likely would receive backlash for cultural insensitivity. I was a bit surprised to learn it’s still on the market. Thus far, it seems to be in my collection just as a reminder that this kind of thinking is just below the surface in our culture, and perhaps even in ourselves.

Sing through my voice
play through my hands
let the way be open.

— Abby Spinner McBride

My ancestors are not remembered

I don’t remember my ancestors. I venerate them, but I have essentially no memories of them, just like everyone else. There are branches of my family tree that I can trace back to the 300s, and I could memorize those names and dates, but that’s not the same as have memories of the many generations of dead whose lives made my own possible. Even if those names and dates did count as memories, that scant information covers not even two thousand years out of six thousand that there have been human civilization. Just like everyone else, my ancestors stretch back much earlier than history: homo sapience have been around for 300,000 years, and evolved from other primates over the course of six million years before that.

No, I do not remember my ancestors. The definition of “ancestors” that I use actually specifically excludes the people that I remember, but discounting that, I knew and remember my parents and grandparents. That’s just six people, and one of my grandparents was reared by a different man than was the father, making it incredibly hard even to know tidbits like names, dates, and burial locations. Just like everyone else, I have barely a clue about my ancestors, and a lifetime of focused research probably wouldn’t reveal a lot more of the total picture of my ancestry.

Just another ancestor shrine

I venerate my ancestors. I maintain an ancestor shrine, and I bring offerings more days than not. I do not have any pictures of individuals on my ancestor shrine, because I don’t want my focus to be on those few individuals for whom I have photographs. Images of beloved dead can be affirming, but the tool that resonates with me is a black mirror, which I use to meditate on what of my ancestors is reflected in me. Whether they are of blood or choice, all of our ancestors are reflected in us to some extent. I want to venerate all of my ancestors: the Roman slaves, the Dutch soldiers, the English farmers, the Turkish merchants, and also the African nomads, the australopithecines, the therapsids, the bony fishes, and all the mysterious forms my ancestors assumed in times even earlier.

Having gaps in the family tree is inevitable, and it can feel anything from annoying to profound depending on how close that gap is to one’s own life. There’s a certain sense of belonging that is associated with knowing something about these people that contributed to our existence, but no living human has a complete understanding of how all those pieces fit together. Do not fret if there are not many people in your own tree that you can remember; venerate your ancestors. Venerate them all.