The Heart of Brazil

December 9, 2015 at 4:40 pm (Interesting stories, Magical Places, Sacred Sites, Serene's articles) (, , , , )

inspirit_articleThis is an article I wrote for InSpirit Magazine, which appeared in their January 2015 issue. Someone was asking me about it the other day, so here it is…

I believe the earth is sacred and nature is healing, and I’ve learned a little about myself, and gained some kind of healing, from every place I’ve travelled to. From plant medicine ceremonies in the jungles of the Amazon and pagan rituals in the English countryside to meditations inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid and spiritual pilgrimages along the leylines of Spain, I’ve long appreciated the magic of the earth itself to heal us.

The South American country of Brazil is no different. It’s a place of powerful crystals, ancient magic, exotic spirituality, lush rainforests, dramatic waterfalls, potent energy and intense vibrations. My journey began in the hot, dry north, a place of sun-soaked, primal energy. Salvador is the centre of Afro-Brasilian culture and of Candomble, a spiritual tradition developed from the rituals introduced by African slaves, the Catholicism they hid their practices within, and the animistic beliefs of the Amerindian people native to this land. I was so grateful to be able to attend a Candomble ritual in the home of a priestess, which was fascinating, with its primitive drum beats, trance dancing and channeling of messages from their deities.

inSpirit-Healing-Cover-231x300I felt more at home in the south though, at Iguazu Falls, the sacred meeting point of air, land and water (and three separate countries – Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay), and a place of rainbows and wild nature. The thermal resort of Caxambu was also deeply healing, and I felt refreshed and renewed as I soaked in the heated mineral waters of one spring and drank from a cooler source. The twelve different springs all have a different mineral composition (and a different taste!), and are recommended for the treatment of various different ailments, from kidney stones to eye problems, high blood pressure and infertility.

Spiritual travellers also flock to the village of Sao Thome das Letras, which is located on a bed of quartz rock in the mountains and is famous for the number of UFO sightings that have taken place there, as well as for the entrance to a tunnel claimed to burrow all the way to Machu Picchu in Peru, which is kind of spooky to climb down into. Some claim it is one of the seven energy points of the planet, and the vibration of the area is palpable.

paintingBut my most profound healing experience took place in the centre of Brazil, the heart of the country, where the energy is nurturing and gentle. Joao Teixeira de Faria, known as John of God, has been healing people for decades in the tiny village of Abadiania. He was guided to build his healing centre, the Casa de Dom Inacio (the House of Saint Ignatius), here because it’s located on one of the largest quartz crystal deposits in the world, and quartz amplifies healing vibrations. You can certainly feel the energy of the land here. The gardens surrounding the buildings are a place of immense peace and power, and it’s wonderful to just relax under the trees, meditating on the wooden benches, talking to other pilgrims and soaking up the sunshine and the leylines of the earth.

Nearby is a sacred waterfall, and a visit is often prescribed as part of people’s treatment. An underground stream flows through the crystal beds beneath the Casa and is purified and charged with energy before splashing down into the waterfall. It’s wonderful to submerge yourself in its (refreshingly cold and) healing waters, gazing up at the sky through the green canopy overhead, absorbing the ancient power of nature, and of the crystals and the earth itself. Some people have visions there; others feel physically, emotionally or spiritually cleansed, and it’s considered a sacred place for direct communication with Spirit.

The incredible healing energy of the land in this area is an important part of Joao’s work, but so are the visible operations, psychic surgeries and energy work he performs at the Casa. He has cut tumours out of bodies, got wheelchair-bound people walking, cured cancer, blindness and HIV, and facilitated spiritual and emotional healing from grief, depression and psychological disorders. Yet the seventy-three-year-old dubbed the Miracle Man can’t read or write and has no medical training. Instead he is a medium, channelling thirty-three different entities, many of them deceased Brazilian doctors and surgeons, as well as the founder of the Jesuits the Casa is named after. It is they who diagnose the thousands of people who flock to Abadiania every week, prescribe the herbal medicines and perform the surgeries. Joao doesn’t even remember what he’s done at the end of a session – he’s an “unconscious medium”, giving his body over while he channels the medical experts through. Staff at the Casa can tell which being he is incorporating by his mannerisms, voice and even eye colour, which changes depending on which entity is working through him on a particular day.

I don’t know how or why it seems to work; certainly it defies logical explanation and understanding. Joao has been studied by doctors and scientists from around the world, but no one has been able to explain what he does or prove him a fake. He has his sceptics, but it’s hard to doubt when you’ve experienced it yourself and seen it with your own eyes. I witnessed some visible surgeries – which I struggled with because I am squeamish and their gruesome vividness was confronting – and was astounded by the quick recovery and effectiveness for those who had them.

I took my mum in the hope Joao could cure her diabetes, so I was surprised, when I went before the entity on my first day, to be told I’d be having an operation that afternoon. Terrified by the prospect of an eye scraping or scissors up the nose, his most common treatment, the whole time I waited to go in I prayed for it to be an invisible surgery. Thankfully, it was. I filed in to a small room with several others and sat in meditation, then Joao came in and said a prayer in Portuguese, asking the entities to heal us. I felt a sensation below my chest – not pain exactly, but discomfort, as though something was being done there. When I went back to my room, where I was instructed to rest for 24 hours, the area was swollen and sore. If I was imagining it, it would not have been there that I pictured something being done. I also felt dazed and vague, much like the after-effects of anaesthesia. In scientific tests of Joao’s patients, x-rays have discovered incisions and internal stitches in people who’ve had invisible operations.

After resting, I spent the next day and a half in current – when visitors are not having an operation, they sit in the surrounding room, meditating in order to raise the vibration and send energy to Joao and the entities. I went back for revision the following week and sat in the current room again, spent time at the sacred waterfall, had a crystal bed session, and went before Joao with a photo of a sick friend, who was prescribed herbal medicine. I was also prescribed herbs for 55 days, along with slight dietary changes.

My migraines did improve for a while, although I was not cured. Nor, unfortunately, was my mum. But we met people who had been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and dramatically cured by Joao, including a woman who was riddled with cancer and told she would soon die – she’s since dedicated her life to helping him as a volunteer – an American man crippled with arthritis, who was slowly beginning to walk again, the woman who ran our pousada, who was cured of a brain tumour, and an Aussie healed of a near-fatal heart murmur. We also met an amazing Brazilian woman who’d travelled to the Casa in search of both emotional and physical healing. When she saw Joao he told her to start painting for him. She replied that she had no artistic talent, but he insisted she did now – and she could suddenly paint the most beautiful healing artworks, which gave her an income as well as a purpose.

Meeting fellow pilgrims is definitely a huge part of the experience, and a wonderful sense of camaraderie develops with the other people who are there hoping to be healed. Visitors swap stories, share experiences, and lend support as each person goes through their individual process. The healings here are not always what you would expect. Some are far more subtle, or address a different issue, but just being in the energy of this place, in this land, with these people, is an experience I will always treasure.

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A beautiful review of Seven Sacred Sites…

January 23, 2015 at 1:31 am (Book reviews, Magical Places, Sacred Sites, Wheel of the Year) (, , )

So touched by a lovely review for Seven Sacred Sites: Magical Journeys That Will Change Your Life in inSpirit magazine.

Cover_SevenSacredSitesSerene Conneeley’s book Seven Sacred Sites is a powerhouse of memories, ancient knowledge and wisdom, and will take you on a personal journey of discovery.
As you turn through each page in this magical book, Serene paints the landscape as only she can; her pen is the artist’s paintbrush and her words are the scholars of ancient times’ teaching.

As you take a journey around the world exploring Machu Picchu in Peru, monuments of ancient Egypt, Stonehenge, The Camino in Northern Spain, Hawaii, Avalon in England and Uluru in Australia, your soul will refuel itself and leave you wanting to journey there in person. Each site you visit imparts its wisdom, ancient knowledge and traditions upon you. I found myself being drawn back in time, back to truth and beauty when I read this book. From the moment I picked it up my travel plans for the future expanded as I yearned to step foot on the sacred ground.

inSpirit-Healing-Cover-231x300If you are travelling to any of these areas this book is a must, but even if not, this book is perfect for anyone wishing to gain the understanding of forgotten culture and traditions. The history included in the book gives credit to Serene’s meticulous attention to detail, and allows the reader to immerse themselves fully.

Beautiful seems too simple a word to describe this book, yet it describes perfectly all that Serene captures and conveys to the reader as they journey with their mind, body and soul to seven Sacred Sites.

You can read more about Seven Sacred SItes: Magical Journeys That Will Change Your Life at SereneConneeley.com.

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A Magical Interview…

July 4, 2014 at 1:35 am (Interesting stories, Interviews, Magic, Magical Places, Sacred Sites)

Cover_SevenSacredSitesWhen I was in Scotland late last year, an English journalist emailed me to request an interview, and to review Seven Sacred Sites. My mum sent off a copy of the book for me, and we emailed back and forth quite a bit, and I later sent my other books for review as well.

I was really touched this week to read the interview that resulted…

Serene Conneeley’s chronicles of magic

By Huria Choudhari, Ravenhawks Magazine.

Huria Choudhari
Huria Choudhari

For the contemporary witch nothing serves as a better introduction to the craft of magic and spells than the books of Serene Conneeley.

An investigation into sacred sites, largely fed by my own quest for magical knowledge, led me to ‘Seven Sacred Sites’. ‘Seven Sacred Sites’ is Conneeley’s captivating and inspiring book that chronicles the “vibrational essence, beauty, tranquillity and history” of seven of the world’s most magical places including the old Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru; the pyramids of Egypt; Uluru, the ancient monolith in Central Australia; the magically placed stone circles of Stonehenge; and the volcanoes, mountains and oceans of Hawaii.

In ‘Seven Sacred Sites’, Conneeley’s adventures see her take sacred plant medicine with shamans in the Amazon jungle; explore her inner priestess in the Serene Conneeleymystical isle of Avalon in Glastonbury; meditate in Egypt’s Great Pyramid on the morning of the summer solstice; connect with the volcano goddess in the island paradise of Hawaii; dance within the sacred circle of Stonehenge in the British Isles; walk in the footsteps of kings and queens on the Camino pilgrimage across Spain; and explore the powerful earth energy of Uluru with Anangu elders.

Having visited some of these places myself, ‘Seven Sacred Sites’, for me, served as the missing piece of the jigsaw in my understanding, awareness, insight and connection to these sites which at the time of visiting I was “in the dark” about, largely due to my own reticence about the magical abilities inherent within me.

One book down and the Australian writer, healer and witch had not only whet my appetite for delving into more magic but her writings and knowledge of the craft had most significantly managed to open up my own internal blocks around being a magic user and being fearful of my powers.

Far from being a reluctant witch, Conneeley’s own interest in magic started at a young age. “Magic has always been with me,” she says. Born in Sydney but raised in a small town on the West Australian coast, Conneeley’s parents were adamant that she and her sister not grow up in the city.

“My childhood was spent amongst the trees of our bush property. It sounds grander than it was – for several years the ‘bedroom’ my sister and I shared was a tent attached to the one-room wooden cabin that was our home, and we had no electricity or hot water,” Conneeley recalls.

“I played amongst the trees, watched the seasons unfold, crossed a fallen log to the state forest across the river from us, swam at the beach by day, admired the stars at night – and was a vegetarian whose earaches were soothed by a baked onion tied to my head, and illnesses were treated by a naturopath and chiropractor rather than a GP. So I guess my hippie upbringing helped instill in me an appreciation for nature and a connection to the natural world.”

Conneeley’s journey as a teenage witch saw her borrowing her mother’s holistic health books by the likes of Louise Hay and Wayne Dyer and doing courses in the Japanese healing method of reiki. She would also connect with crystals and “fall in love” with the healing tools. But it was the time that followed when Conneeley would embrace the witch within. “I attended some pagan full moon circles, met some lovely women at a Witchy Reiki course and joined their coven for a time, studied magical and medicinal herbalism, travelled to many sacred places around the world and immersed myself in those energies – and finally realised that everything I had always felt and believed made me a witch,” she adds.

Incorporating magic into her daily life comes naturally to Conneeley who draws “inspiration from the moon” and “strength from the sun”. “To me, magic is about intent, and it is within every one of us, rather than an external thing we must labour to harness,” Conneeley adds. “It’s about connecting to the earth, celebrating the turning of the seasons, being in tune with the cycles of the moon and honouring the God and the Goddess, not as literal beings, but as archetypes of masculine and feminine and the balance of the two within us and within nature. It’s also – just as importantly, for me at least – about taking responsibility for my actions, realising the consequences of all that I do, choosing to be happy, deciding what kind of life I want to lead and working to create it, and recognising the sacred in all things.

“Practically, I have an altar and beautiful blessed tools that help me work magic. I celebrate the Sabbats with ritual and dance on a hill with other pagans under the full moon of the Esbats. I cast spells to let go of pain, fear and guilt. I draw on the energy of the earth and nature to heal myself and others. I honour the seasons of the earth and the phases of the moon, and always endeavour to include some form of nature conservation in my writing.”

Sharing her knowledge of the craft is something that Serene Conneeley is clearly destined to do. In addition to ‘Seven Sacred Sites’, she has written several books on magic as well as a novel, ‘Into the Mists’. And with her friend and fellow magic user, Lucy Cavendish, she has co-authored three books – ‘Witchy Magic’, ‘Mermaid Magic’ and ‘The Book of Faery Magic’.

‘Witchy Magic’ explores the wisdom of witchcraft, offering clear guidance on how you can access this ancient knowledge to create the life you desire. It explores how to create your own magic through connecting with nature; craft and cast trusted spells for love, health, joy, wisdom, success and authenticity; weave magic with the seasons, the moon cycles and the elements of the natural world; cast circles and create an altar; tap into your own healing powers; and determine your destiny through divination methods.

‘Mermaid Magic’ looks into the healing powers of mermaids, magic and the marine environment. While ‘The Book of Faery Magic’ delves into tradition, history and faery lore, providing whimsical accounts of interaction with the fae, grounded guidance on working with them, and beautiful ideas for reconnection with the magical realms.

‘The Book of Faery Magic’ was the first book that the two friends embarked on together. Conneeley says that in spite of some challenges, the pair had fun writing together. “We wrote well together, inspiring each other to look deeper into the aspects we each chose to write about, and had a lot of fun doing it,” she explains. “Lucy wrote more about the spiritual side – connecting with faeries, her experiences with Otherworld beings, how to find them and speak to them – while I focused on faeries as a personification of nature – how to use the faeries as inspiration to take better care of the planet and become an environmental activist, the magical properties of herbs and flowers, how to create your own fae garden, how to connect with your inner faery, places connected to the fae and more.”

The research process involved gathering knowledge from books, courses and interviews. “

“I researched a great deal through books, both old and new, did courses on magical and medicinal herbalism, drew on my interactions from travelling to sacred places, interviewed many people, from magical writer Juliet Marillier to environmentalist Cara Walker, druid priestess Cassandra Eason, faery artist Jessica Galbreth and author and healer Doreen Virtue,” Conneeley describes.

“For Mermaid Magic I submerged myself even deeper into the research, again focusing on the environmental aspects of the ocean as well as how you can connect with yourSerene Conneeley inner mermaid and use their archetypes for your own healing and growth – I did chapters on whales and dolphins and their conservation, swimming with them in the wild, the healing power of water, both wells and the ocean, crystals connected with the sea, connecting with mer myths and legends – and interviewed many people, from writers, artists, professors and environmentalists to healers, surfers, conservationists and an Indigenous woman whose people are connected to the ocean.”

Last year Mermaid Magic was published in Japanese by a Japanese publisher, which for Serene Conneeley was a major achievement “especially given the sadness of the dolphin hunts and whaling industry in that country – as well as the resistance to both by so many of the people of that land”, she states.

Healing is also at the heart of Conneeley’s books, a practice that she has embraced wholeheartedly in her work not just as an author and journalist but as a reconnective healing practitioner too. Reconnective Healing is a non-touch approach to energy healing. When you are trained and reconnected, you gain access to spiritual energy in the universe that you can pass to others and heal them of all kinds of ills. “I’ve been honoured to see some incredible results from it, from a brain tumour shocking doctors by its shrinking to emotional breakthroughs that have been incredibly healing,” she says. “I also feel that words have power, and that they can inspire and uplift people – although equally they can wound, so care needs to be taken. It means a great deal to me when people write to me to say that one of my books helped them through a tough time or inspired them to make some changes in their lives.”

Conneeley’s next magical adventure is currently underway as she writes her second novel and seventh book, a sequel to ‘Into The Mists’, which was published last year. Her first novel followed the tale of a young Australian girl whose parents die, which results in her being sent to England to live with a grandmother she never knew existed. There’s magic, and several mysteries, as she journeys through grief and anger and tries to make sense of her life and discover a future that will have meaning for her. “It sounds a little grimmer than it really is – there’s fun and laughter and magical rituals too, and a cottage that may or may not exist, and a couple of adorable black cats,” she says.

As far as wanderlust goes and the need to feed her fascination with history, myth and magic, Serene Conneeley hopes to expand her adventure pool in the future. “I would love to visit Greece one day and experience its ruined temples, and really get a feel for their history and culture,” she says. “And I’d definitely like to spend more time in New Zealand, and explore its countryside.”

For more information on Serene Conneeley and her books, visit: SereneConneeley.com

Huria Choudhari is a journalist, stylist, digital guru and creative coach. She writes about music, fashion and lifestyle for Life & Soul Magazine (www.lifeandsoulmagazine.com). Hones her stylist skills to building and designing websites, and helps people discover and embrace their creativity.

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Harry Potter’s London

August 14, 2011 at 9:42 pm (Magic, Magical Places, Sacred Sites) (, , , )

Harry Potter’s London

Written for Spheres magazine

London Calling – by Owl! Serene Conneeley takes a tour with JK Rowling and Harry Potter.

They say that to make money you should follow your heart and your passion, and writer Joanne “JK” Rowling is the perfect example of this wisdom. In crafting her magical series of books about the boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends, she inspired a generation of children to start reading, captured the imagination of real-life witches of all ages, and became the most successful author of all time.
But it didn’t come easily. While writing the first book she was a young single mum struggling to survive on welfare, and battled crippling doubt over whether she should give up and get a “real job” for her daughter’s sake or continue with the inspiration that had gripped her in 1990, when her train to London was delayed and the idea for Harry Potter came to her fully formed.
“I can’t describe the excitement to someone who doesn’t write books, except to say it was that incredibly elated feeling you get when you’ve just met someone with whom you might eventually fall in love,” Joanne says. “That kind of elation, that light headedness and excitement. So I got back to my flat in London and started writing, and kept writing for 15 years.”
When, after several years, she finished the first book, she faced an avalanche of rejections that would make most people give up, but Joanne stuck to her guns, determined to see her dream realised. Finally a publisher gave her a chance, but she was paid a measly advance of 2500 pounds and told to get a day job, because no one believed she would ever make a living as a writer or her story would be a success.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book, was published in July 1997, and they printed just a thousand copies. A decade later, in July 2007, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final adventure, became the fastest-selling book of all time, with more than 11 million copies sold in the first 24 hours.
Today Joanne has sold more than 400 million books, launched one of the most successful film franchises of all time – with the new one, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, just released – been awarded an OBE, and become one of the few billionaire authors in the world. Some reports claim her fortune increases by $200 a minute, but whatever the figures, her hard-earned wealth has allowed her to contribute substantially to the charities closest to her heart, and proves that sticking to your guns and following your dreams can definitely pay off.
While Joanne created an enchanted world inhabited by moving staircases, goblin banks and flying cars, she followed the most common piece of advice for authors – she wrote about what she knew. The world Harry Potter inhabits may be magical, but it’s based on real places that are dear to her heart, from the villages of her childhood to the city haunts she loved when she lived in London and the wild Scottish castles and highlands she fell in love with when she moved to Edinburgh in the mid-90s.
Joanne was born in the Cotswolds village of Yate near Bristol, England – not far from Glastonbury – and spent her early childhood in the nearby village of Winterbourne. At the age of nine she and her family moved the short distance to Tutshill, a village in the Forest of Dean near Wales, which is where Harry, Ron and Hermione camp in the final book while searching for the sword of Gryffindor that Snape has hidden. She also used the names of villages in her area, such as Weasley and Dursley, for people in her books, and the descriptions of the places her magical families live in reflect the tiny towns where she grew up.
After university Joanne moved to London, where she lived in a flat in Clapham Junction – in the Borough of Wandsworth, cutely enough! – and worked for Amnesty International. Many of the streets, landmarks and buildings of this historic city ended up as locations in her books, and they’re easy, and fun, to visit. I did a Harry Potter walking tour to learn about some of them, and visited others on my own.
The River Thames snakes through London and is one of the most obvious locations – it’s the glittering body of water the Order of the Phoenix soar along on their broomsticks as they accompany Harry to 12 Grimmauld Place early in the fifth book. They fly past incredible landmarks like Tower Bridge, which was considered one of the engineering marvels of its time when it was constructed in 1894, and swoop under London, Southwark and Blackfriars Bridges, almost crashing into the Golden Salamander, a pleasure boat that’s still there, offering cruises up the Thames, which has also been used in the odd James Bond flick.
They also pass the stunning Houses of Parliament, situated on the north bank of the river. This iconic part of the city skyline is truly magical, especially as the sun sets and the street lights flicker on. The Houses of Parliament are also known as the Palace of Westminster, because a thousand years ago the compound was a royal residence. Today it’s made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, as well as several ornate towers.
The most famous of these is the 96 metre-high Clock Tower and its Great Clock of Westminster, better known as Big Ben, although this is actually the name of its main bell, not the tower. The most striking view of the Parliament buildings is from across the river as twilight descends. Walk across Westminster Bridge, which Harry and the gang flew under, and down the stairs opposite for the perfect photo opportunity, and be sure to check out the next bridge along, Lambeth, which is where the Knight Bus squeezed between the two muggle buses in Prisoner of Azkaban.
Across the road from the Houses of Parliament is Westminster Station, part of the underground train network known as the Tube. This is the stop Harry travels to with Mr Weasley on their way to the Ministry of Magic. To continue your tour you can catch the Tube from here to Temple Station – although if you go in, try not to get confused at the ticket barrier like Ron’s dad did! – or walk there along the river’s embankment, past the statue of Boadicca and Cleopatra’s Needle towards Blackfriars Bridge.
From Temple it’s just a short walk to Australia House, on the corner of Aldwych and The Strand. This is the location of the Australian High Commission in London, where the interior scenes in the wizard bank Gringotts were filmed. This was the first Harry Potter location I visited, and it was exciting to realise there’s an Aussie connection to the canon! Sadly Australia House isn’t open to the public – although if any of lose our passport we have to go there! – but you can peek inside to the amazingly sumptuous marble interior and chandeliers you’ll recognise from the movies. The vaults beneath the floor, where Harry’s money, the philosopher’s stone and all the wizarding world’s precious belongings are kept, were once used by the Commonwealth Bank to store money interchanged between the British and Australian governments. Construction on this gorgeous old building, set on a strange triangular piece of land, began a century ago, although it looks much older and more historic.
A little further down the road is the Lyceum Theatre, just off The Strand on Wellington Street It’s in the heart of the West End theatre district, right by Covent Garden, Drury Lane and other famous names. This also has links to Harry Potter, as it was the place where the legend of the vampire – which appears in the books – was truly born. For 20 years in the late 19th century, Bram Stoker worked there as the business manager and personal assistant of London’s most famous actor, Henry Irving, who was the inspiration for the vampiric count in his classic novel Dracula. Bram wrote the book while he was at the Lyceum, and a memorial on the back wall of the theatre commemorates his influence.
Continuing along The Strand you come to Charing Cross police station, on the corner of Agar Street opposite Zimbabwe House, which was Joanne’s inspiration for the Ministry of Magic. There’s even the red phone box on the corner – the visitors entrance – which is a popular place for photos and, on the walking tour, magic tricks. In the movie however they used the nearby junction of Scotland Place and Great Scotland Yard to shoot the scene where Harry and Mr Weasley enter the Ministry, some of the real places not being particularly conducive to filming (such as a real-life police station!).
On the other side of The Strand is the famous, and luxuriously fancy, Savoy Hotel, where the story of the Invisibility Cloak was sown in the 1930s. Writer Dylan Thomas used to drink in the bar downstairs, and told friends about a strange encounter he had there with magician Aleister Crowley. The influential occultist was shocked when Dylan addressed him one night, as he claimed to be wearing his invisibility cloak, and decided that the poet must also have magical powers. When Dylan asked him what he meant, Aleister said no one ever addressed him when he was wearing the cloak because it made him invisible. According to Dylan however, it wasn’t a cloak of any kind that made this happen – people avoided making eye contact with Aleister because he was so scary!
From The Strand it’s just a short walk through a maze of tiny alleyways to one of the most magical parts of London. Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road, was the inspiration for Diagon Alley, “London’s finest source for a wizard’s every need.” Entering this narrow laneway is like being transported back to the 18th century, with gas-style lamps providing the lighting, mystical carved figures peering down at passersby, and old-fashioned hand-painted signs creaking eerily above the shops. The wares on offer are also straight from Harry Potter’s world, with stores like The Witch Ball, Unsworth’s and Tindley & Chapman stocking old and rare books, esoteric tomes and antiquarian maps, as well as stamps, theatre memorabilia and special magic money emblazoned with Harry and Co’s faces. Watkins Books, at number 19, claims to be the oldest occult and mystical bookshop in the world.
There are even stories of a ghost, harking back to a murder in the antique shop at number 23 half a century ago, when sales assistant Elsie May Batten was murdered with a dagger (or an athame?). Cecil Court, a picturesque pedestrianised thoroughfare, runs between Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, and is located close to both Leicester Square and Charing Cross Tube stations, so it’s easy to get to from anywhere in London.
Keeping to the magical theme, just across from Charing Cross Station is Davenports Magic Shop, acclaimed as the oldest family-run magic business in the world, and today one of London’s finest sources for a wizard’s every need. While they stock lots of sleight of hand trickery, there are also old books, tarot cards and real magical supplies, so it’s a Diagon Alley for the modern witch. This whole area is magical, with crooked alleys, antique shops, dusty parchments in storefronts, gargoyles as doorknockers, strange stone beasts glaring down from roofs, as well as plenty of old pubs and inns to have inspired the Leaky Cauldron.
Another dimension to Diagon Alley is further east along the Thames, towards the spooky Tower of London. In the first movie, they used Leadenhall Market, a beautiful covered marketplace with cobbled floors that dates back to the fourteenth century, as the area around the wizarding centre. This ornate Victorian-style market is full of vendors selling flowers and various fresh foods, and has been a centre of commerce since Roman times.
Walking around London is like walking across a Monopoly board, and Kings Cross Station is another place that’s worth a visit. In Harry’s world, it’s the location of Platform 9 3/4, the secret platform the Hogwarts Express departs from. “For me, Kings Cross is a very, very romantic place, purely because my parents met there,” Joanne reveals. “They met on the train pulling out of Kings Cross, so I wanted Harry to go to Hogwarts by train, and obviously therefore it had to be Kings Cross.” She has since admitted that when she was writing the description of the station in the book, she was picturing the layout of nearby Euston Station, so the platform directions don’t match Kings Cross exactly.
But rail workers have created the cutest thing ever for the hundreds of fans who traipse there every day in search of the place the young wizards set off from. Between Platforms 9 and 10, and freely accessible without having to buy a ticket, is a cast-iron sign saying Platform 9 3/4, with a luggage trolley protruding from the brick wall, as though it was caught while a Hogwarts student was halfway through. It’s the perfect place for a Harry Potter photo, and the staff are very friendly too. I felt a little silly as I wandered around trying to find it, but when I finally asked someone, he just smiled and pointed me in the right direction, used to fans trying to recapture the magic of the books.
In the movies they shot the Hogwarts Express scenes inside Kings Cross Station, but they used Platforms 4 and 5, renumbered to match the book, as they fit the description better. And for the exterior scenes, like the one in The Chamber of Secrets where Harry and Ron can’t get through to the platform and end up flying the Weasleys’s Ford Anglia car to school, they used the station across the road, St Pancras, as its grand old Gothic style is so much more impressive than the real thing. At the moment though this station is undergoing major refurbishment, so you can’t see much of the old building’s beautiful façade under the scaffolding.
Not far from Euston Station and Kings Cross is London Zoo, the world’s oldest scientific zoo, where Harry accidentally sets the Burmese Python free from the Reptile House in the first book, trapping Dudley behind the glass. There’s a plaque next to the snake’s enclosure that commemorates the filming. London Zoo is located in beautiful Regent’s Park, one of the many expanses of grassland in the city, complete with large lake, playing fields and canal.
With or without the magic of Harry Potter, London is a beautiful city, full of history and charm, and names that are so much a part of our consciousness through books, movies, nursery rhymes and real-life events. And with Harry Potter and his world added, it becomes one of the most enchanting cities ever.

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Walking the Camino: Article for Women’s Health

August 6, 2011 at 9:16 pm (Magical Places, Sacred Sites) (, , , , )

Go Walkabout – The Camino

Written for Women’s Health magazine

THE CAMINO
I never do anything by halves, so when my inner-city share house gets too intense and I need time alone, I decide to walk a stretch of the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James – an 800km pilgrimage that stretches across the north of Spain. Thousands of years ago the Celts walked this route to absorb the leylines (energy) that flow through the earth here; later the Romans followed in their footsteps in homage to their sun god. In the ninth century it became a Christian endeavour after a hermit found the tomb of Saint James – the discovery of holy relics being big business back then – and the town of Santiago de Compostela was built on the site.
Today, spiritual seekers of all kinds lace up their hiking boots and set off on a quest for enlightenment. An English guy I meet is trying to get over a divorce. A German girl is deciding whether to get married. Some set out to communicate with their god, do penance or sample the amazing food and wines of the region. Me? I’m drawn by the solitude, by days on my own, walking through gorgeous countryside, reflecting on my life. Of course so much solitude can drive you crazy, and I have many moments on the edge of hysteria, talking to myself, laughing so hard I’m worried I’ll fall off the mountain. It’s all part of the Camino adventure.

KEEP IT SIMPLE
I start in Saint Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Spanish border, a tiny medieval village filled with character – and characters! – and a beauty that soothes my soul. From here the Camino winds up and down dramatic mountain peaks, through cool green forests and fields of fruit and flowers, past historical monuments and grand cathedrals, along tiny dirt tracks and massive freeways and across harsh desert plains. The sun is merciless – although in winter people encounter snow – and there are times I think I’ll pass out. I greet each rounded haystack with excitement, pressing myself against it in desperate hope of a little shade. I must be quite a sight, although some people hallucinate and imagine these mounds of hay are castles or cathedrals, and at least I don’t try to walk inside any of them!
For this reason it’s best to set out early to get to the next town by midday, and the refuges (hostels) start emptying in the starry pre-dawn darkness. I feel like a little snail as I begin my walk with my backpack on, glad it’s not weighing me down like those of some pilgrims, who struggle up the street with the weight of the world – and too many possessions – on their shoulders. The best advice? Pack light, then halve it, then halve it again. The path is littered with discarded clothes, shoes and books as people try to lighten their load. Working out how to simplify your life, here and at home, is one of the lessons of the Camino.

LETTING GO
More letting go occurs at the Iron Cross, on the summit of Monte Irago on the way to Molinaseca. The cross extends from a huge cairn of stones, and it’s a Camino tradition that you bring a pebble from home and spend your journey pouring your grief, pain, guilt, regret or sins into it, then, when you get to the Iron Cross, you leave it on the pile with all the others, symbolically releasing your emotional burdens.
I feel noticeably lighter and happier after this ritual, and walk jauntily onwards. But by the time I make it to the place I’m staying that night, I’m slightly crippled from that day’s 45km hike. Muscles I didn’t know existed are aching, and not for the first time I wonder what on earth I’m doing.
I hobble painfully up the stairs, desperate for a long soak in a hot bath. Instead I find myself in a space not much bigger than a bucket, knees tucked up under my chin, barely able to wash myself, let alone stretch out and soak. Bathtubs in Spain are such a disappointment!
There are more tears as I try to negotiate the language barrier (what I thought was a green salad was a bowl of tuna and mayonnaise!), as I struggle with the heat and my aching body, and as I realise just how ugly, blistered, blackened and mashed up feet can get after a few days trekking.

LIFE CHANGING
But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Walking the Camino is an incredible journey within. It gives me the time and space to gain a new perspective on myself and what I want from life. I feel my heart soar and my soul stir as I walk through some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. I connect with my inner child as I leap about in fountains, laugh at the bobbing sunflowers and skip through a fairytale forest. I giggle at the wine fountain flowing with free vino provided by a local vineyard in Irache, and realise I’m all grown up when I ignore it in favour of water in the 40C heat. I listen, intrigued, to the tales of angels, devils and miracles associated with the pilgrimage, like the saint who kept an innocent boy from being hanged in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
Most importantly, I confront my fears as I walk alone across the country, communicate in stilted Spanish with complete strangers, face the famous wild dogs in the ghost town of Foncebadon – and face myself. Physically I’m filled with a sense of accomplishment and a new respect for my body and all it’s capable of, while emotionally I’m empowered with a new understanding of my self and my place in the world.

TRIP NOTES
Getting there: Fly to Madrid then bus to Roncesvalles via Pamplona – yep, of Running with the Bulls fame! – or fly to Paris then get the train down to Saint Jean Pied de Port. Allow four to six weeks to complete the walk.
The cost: Once you’re on the path, it’s cheap as chips. The pilgrim refuges are just a few euros a night, and your pilgrim passport entitles you to discounted meals and some attractions.
When to go: The best times are spring (March to May) and autumn (September to December), to avoid the intense heat and crowds of summer and the icy cold of winter, but many pilgrims endure sunburn to arrive in Santiago de Compostela by July 25, the feast day of Saint James, which is a major festival with entertainment, fireworks and celebrations, and others go when they have time to spare, regardless of the weather.
Before you go: The Confraternity of Saint James has info about the route, provides pilgrim passports (credencials) and has Australian pages with local contacts and a great online store for Camino guides. Their laminated A5 booklets are brilliant, focusing on essential details such as refuges, bed numbers, distance to the next shelter, food info and prices of necessities along specific routes.

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Oxford: Alice’s Real-Life Wonderland

August 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm (Magic, Magical Places, Sacred Sites) (, , , )

Alice’s Real-Life Wonderland

Written for Spellcraft magazine

It was in and around the English town of Oxford that Lewis Carroll created a magical world for his young friend Alice, and a story that turned into one of the most loved books – and now movies! – ever.

The beautiful town of Oxford, a 90-minute drive north of London, has inspired some of the greatest stories of all time, from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to Alice In Wonderland. Known as the City of Dreaming Spires for its beautiful skyline of gothic churches and historical college buildings, it is like a place from a fairytale, all old stone buildings, cobbled streets and rounded archways that lead onto sunny green squares.
It’s a university town, so there are students riding bicycles along the narrow streets and filling the quaint little pubs, and constant debate, lectures and learning. Twenty-five British prime ministers – and three Australian ones – were educated there, as well as scientists Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 86 Archbishops of Canterbury, and writers including Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien and Phillip Pullman.
It was to here that 19-year-old Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – later known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice In Wonderland – moved in 1851. He was a student at Christ Church College, one of the largest and prettiest of the 38 colleges that make up the University of Oxford, and remained there as a professor of mathematics until his death almost 50 years later. Features of the college buildings ended up in his stories – the scene where Alice’s neck “rises like a stalk” was inspired by the brass fire dogs in the Great Hall, which featured ornamental heads on long necks, the door she demands be opened for her was modelled on the college’s Chapter House, and the Rabbit Hole she fell down was born from the stairs at the back of the main hall. Even the lion in the sequel Through the Looking Glass spoke in a voice inspired by the huge bell in Tom Tower, one of the entrances to the college, which goes into Tom Quad, which the author’s room overlooked.
Lewis’s fellow teachers, staff and friends also inhabited his stories (look for the academic sleeves on the Caterpillar, the Dodo and others), but it was the children of Henry Liddell, the head of Christ Church, who inspired and starred in them. Young Alice and her sisters Edith and Lorina were often bored living amongst the serious academics, so they hung around Lewis, who would entertain them, and amuse himself, by making up fantastical tales. He also took them on outings around Oxford – to the Botanic Gardens; to watch a royal parade; to the museum where the remains of a dodo that inspired a character were housed; and to run around on Christ Church Meadow. This open pastureland between the college and the Rivers Cherwell and Thames is still a popular picnic spot today, alive with people, sunshine, sport and laughter, and punts are rowed along the river next to it as they were in Lewis’s day. We walked along the river and through the Meadow at dawn, enchanted by the rising mist, the cheeky squirrels, the amazing geese and their babies, and the commitment of the students training as oarsmen on the cold but sparkling water.
The most significant outings for Alice and her sisters were the days Lewis took them rowing from Christ Church up to Port Meadow and the ruins of Godstow Nunnery, during which he regaled the girls with stories he concocted about them. He incorporated the people and places they knew, with each girl as the heroine of her own story, and they were different every time. It was on one such outing, on July 4, 1862, that he came up with the tale that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The only thing unique about this story was that 10-year-old Alice begged him to write it down for her, to capture forever their golden afternoon, and thus the classic book was born.
Today people still make their way up to beautiful Port Meadow, either by boat or along the tiny canal path beside the water, for a picnic on the grassland or a beer at the Trout Inn that overlooks it. The walk is further than expected but beautiful, with trees shading the dirt track, flowers scenting the air, sunlight streaming through the leaves and cute baby ducklings swimming alongside. There are gypsy boats moored along canals, in various states of opulent luxury or faded disrepair, which adds a touch of intrigue.
After pausing for a pot of tea in a charming pub in the village of Binsey, the location of the Treacle Well mentioned at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, we finally reached Port Meadow, and it was breathtaking in the late afternoon sunshine. Swans and geese floated gently on the water, cows grazed nonchalantly on the lush green grass, and the light turned the whole place into a magical new world. This was the site of Lewis’s “golden afternoon”, and it was particularly enchanting to know that right here was where “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and having nothing to do, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.”
Across the narrow river, the pretty ruins of Godstow Nunnery are not much changed from when Alice and her sisters ran amongst them, as the 12th century Abbey was badly damaged in the Civil War of the mid-1600s, two centuries before Lewis took the Liddell children there to play amongst the fallen buildings. Pretty flowers and tangled vines now cover the walls, and you can almost see the etheric imprint of small children and hear their laughter echoing around the piles of broken stone.
Later, walking back to town, a racing boat flashed by, filled with oar-weilding students in training for a regatta, and the modern world imposed itself back on our senses. This is primarily a modern university town, and there are fascinating tours of the many colleges that define Oxford. We took one with a man who hates students and academics (which makes his profession of university tour guide a strange choice!), but he was funny and incredibly knowledgeable, and shared the history of the place, interspersed with hilarious anecdotes and colourful tales, and lists of the luminaries who attended each college. It started at the Radcliffe Camera, a gorgous circular building that was the sanitarium in Harry Potter, and went through Merton, All Souls, Brasenose, New and Exeter Colleges, the latter the location of the His Dark Materials series, complete with carved gargoyles and beautiful old stone buildings. In each we admired the beautiful courtyards, huge chestnut trees and grassy quadrangles like church cloisters. Sadly Christ Church always seemed to be closed to visitors when we went past, for choir practice, exams, church services, meals and several other reasons, but you can book an Alice tour in advance (email tourism@chch.ox.ac.uk) and go within the famous walls, peering through doorways, along thousand-year-old cloisters and into the Great Hall that inspired the Rabbit Hole in Alice’s story as well as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
Another wonderfully Alice in Wonderland place to visit is Alice’s Shop, opposite Christ Church. This is the grocery store where Alice and her sisters bought their lollies in the 1850s, and Lewis wrote it into Through the Looking Glass as the Old Sheep Shop (because the shopkeeper was an old lady with a bleating voice). In the story, the shop is both wondrous and bizarre, “full of all manner of curious things”, which it remains so today. It’s filled with Alice memorabilia, from the gorgeous teapot and tea cups I bought for my own Mad Hatter Tea Party, to Cheshire Cat tea cosies, White Rabbit pocket watches, jewellery, trinket boxes, games, toys, books, stationery, artwork and lollies. You can even buy online at http://www.sheepshop.com. Oxford also has a few dedicated Alice experiences, from the Café Loco tea shop, with its Mad Hatter murals on all the walls, to walks to the related sites and art inspired by the story.
And although it became famous after Lewis Carroll’s time, another significant literary piece of Oxford is the quaint Eagle and Child Pub. During the 1930s and 40s it was home to the writers group The Inklings, which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They would read each other their unfinished works and discuss, debate, criticise and encourage each other with their writing and the creation of their magical worlds. The Lord of the Rings by Tolkein and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis were two of the first to be read there, and Tolkein based his story The Notion Club Papers (which was published after his death in Sauron Defeated) on The Inklings group. It was amazing to have dinner there and think about my own books, knowing that 60 odd years ago these giants of literature were sitting in the same spot discussing their writing.
Whether you love history, nightlife, rowing on a peaceful river or the magic and mystery of Alice In Wonderland, a visit to Oxford will fill you with wonder and the gentle delights of the English countryside.

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Magical Rituals in Brasil

July 28, 2011 at 9:12 pm (Magic, Magical Places, Sacred Sites) (, , , , )

Magical Rituals in Brasil

Written for Spheres magazine

Brasil is the fifth biggest country in the world, covering a large chunk of South America, and an ancient, primal form of spirituality still thrives there.

When most people think of Brasil, they picture colourful Mardi Gras parades and gorgeous girls in g-strings on endless stretches of golden sand, exotic cocktails, all night carnivals and sexy, steamy dances. It does have all that, but it’s also a country of deep spirituality. It’s the largest Catholic nation in the world, after the Portuguese colonised it in 1500 and forced their religion on the inhabitants, and the famous Christ the Redeemer statue towers over the beautiful city of Rio as a symbol of Brasilian Christianity.
It is also a place of mystical beliefs, traditional rituals and goddess worship. In the lush jungles, shamans continue their ancient practices and reverence for nature. People flock to the village of Sao Thome das Letras, located on a bed of quartz rock in the mountains and famous for the number of UFO sightings, to communicate with aliens. Near the political centre of Brasilia, in a compound built near a sacred waterfall, Saint John of God performs miracle healings, pulling tumours out of people with his bare hands.
And in the state of Bahia, in north-east Brasil, the mysterious practice of Candomble flourishes. It’s a spiritual tradition based on primal African rituals, the animistic beliefs of the Amerindian people native to this land, and the worship of orixas (pronounced orishas), a pantheon of deities with qualities not unlike the pagan gods and goddesses. Some of the primary ones include Exu, the god of fire and crossroads; Ogun, the divinity of war and agriculture; Ossaim, who rules healing and herbs; Oxala, father of the orixas and god of creation; and Iemanja, mother of the orixas and goddess of the sea and childbirth.
Candomble was brought to Brasil by African slaves, but like voodoo in New Orleans, it has absorbed elements of Catholicism because it had to hide its deities within the saints of the enforced religion, and entwined with local practices to create a unique form of worship. It incorporates healing, herbal lore, offerings and trance communication with the deities, and is now practised throughout South America and in Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain.
Candomble’s centre is in Salvador, the capital of Bahia and one of the oldest cities in the New World. More than 80 per cent of the population has Black African ancestry, and it is a vibrant, artistic, sun-drenched town, recognised as the centre of Afro-Brasilian culture.
Salvador is split dramatically by an escarpment that divides it in two, with the Cidade Alta (upper town) located 85 metres above the Cidade Baixa (lower town). They are linked by the Lacerda, which was built in 1873 and was Brasil’s first elevator. The lower town is the industrial section, with the commercial and residential areas up above. I stayed for a week in Salvador’s historic Pelhourino district, an area of cobbled streets renowned as a cultural melting pot of music, museums, colourful colonial architecture and historical monuments. Its pretty town squares are alive with sound, heat and light, with sparkling fountains, women in traditional costumes selling artwork, young children in bright clothes trying to tie ribbons around your wrist (for a fee!), and demonstrations of capoeira, the Afro-Brasilian dance form that merges martial arts, music, history and warfare.
At night the area comes alive, with bands playing, people eating late in outdoor cafes, aromatic corner stalls dishing up traditional delicacies, snatches of Natalie Imbruglia songs mingling with traditional music, kids running around with fairy floss and the rich scent of dende (palm) oil in the clear night air. It’s amazing to walk amongst it all – the vitality and energy is infectious, and every night there seems to be an outdoor party or street carnival.
If you tire of wandering around the fascinating streets, peering into old churches – there are 365 in Salvador – and sampling the traditional foods, there are lots of other activities, from learning to salsa dance and Portuguese language classes to gemstone tours with crystal experts. One day I got up at dawn to drive north to the Tamar Turtle Sanctuary, on one of the beaches Mick Jagger and his friends famously cavorted on in the 60s, where the habitat is protected so these beautiful creatures can come ashore to feed and lay eggs in safety. Tamar is shortened from Tartaruga Marinha, Portuguese for sea turtles, and the project combines research, scientific and technical knowledge with practical breeding programs and community awareness. It’s open to the public, so you can pop by and see the turtles up close and personal.
Another day I sailed around the islands in Salvador’s bay, serenaded by three musicians playing traditional music. We docked at one island to swim in the crystal clear coves and admire the goddess sculptures along the sea front, then at Ilha Itaparica, the large island the sun sets behind during the stunning Salvador sunsets, for a tour that included the Fonte da Bica, fountain of the waters of life, a mineral water fountain with reputed healing powers.
One of my favourite places in Salvador was Dique do Tororo, a picturesque, landscaped lake filled with 12 huge, awesome sculptures of the orixas, each more than seven metres tall and two tons heavy. Erected in a sacred circle, they seem to be part of their own unique ritual, looming out of the water and filling the city with some of the ancient, primal magic of Candomble. There are more statues lining the paths around the lake, intimidating yet beautiful manifestations of this old religion.
Another interesting site is the historic Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, the most famous of Salvador’s many Catholic churches, which is also significant to those who practice Candomble. The Christ aspect it’s dedicated to, Our Lord of Bonfim, is associated with Oxala, the father of the orixas and creator of humankind, and the church’s special feast days combine both spiritual traditions. I went to visit its shrine of miracle cures, where people leave representations of the condition they claim was fixed through prayer. The room is a bit creepy, like a Marilyn Manson video, filled with wax legs, heads, arms, body parts, crutches, photos and letters. Upstairs in the museum there are further examples, with cases full of jewellery body parts like little silver hearts, ceramic eyes and gemstone lungs.
However the reason I went to Salvador was to experience a Candomble ritual. So, as the sun began to set one night, I gathered in the square with a few other curious travellers, and was driven to the outskirts of town for the hottest, sweatiest experience of my life. The ritual takes place in a terreiro, the house of a priestess, which was down a dark, winding alleyway, marked with a white flag. They are open to the neighbourhood, and to a few tourists, but the preparation of offerings is done in the afternoon, in secrecy. We walked up the steep stairs off the street, and were welcomed by a candle for fire and different plants for purification. It was very squishy and very hot inside the house – an Italian lady in our group was angry at how “unorganised” it was, but this wasn’t being run for our benefit, we’d merely been granted permission to watch, so the steamy room, heat and lack of water was just part of the experience.
There were about 20 people involved in the ceremony, mostly women, all dressed in elaborate white costumes and ranging in age from a young girl to a beautiful teenager, to a motherly figure and a wizened old crone. The ritual began with three male drummers, who don’t go into trance, banging out a primal rhythm. Then the chanting began, with the participants dancing anticlockwise as they spoke, sang and prayed to their gods. After about 45 minutes of dancing, the first of the participants went into trance, followed at intervals by the others. A young girl looked after them, wiping the sweat from their faces and guiding them if they needed it, as they had their eyes closed and seemed totally unaware of their surroundings.
In Candomble, worshippers communicate with their gods by allowing them to possess them in such rituals. After a participant had been taken over they were led to an altar, where they knelt to recover before rejoining the swirl of chanting and dance. It was fascinating to watch, and I’m so grateful they allowed us to be there, and to experience this tiny insight into their beliefs.

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The Magic of Ireland

July 26, 2011 at 9:20 pm (Magic, Magical Places, Sacred Sites) (, , , , , , )

The Magic of Ireland

Written for Spheres magazine

While the phrase “the luck of the Irish” signifies magic and wonder to the rest of the world, and conjures images of leprechauns and pots of gold, it’s actually a sarcastic and ironic one to those who live in the Emerald Isle, a reference to their unfortunate and troubled past. Yet in many ways – politics and the economy aside – Ireland is a lucky country, blessed with beautiful landscapes, an enchanted history, inspired people (authors, bands, humanitarians), and a richness of spirituality that touches the whole world.
I spent three months travelling around Ireland, dancing in stone circles, wandering across green fields, performing ancient rituals in sacred places, and experiencing the sheer joy and magic of nature in this land of faeries and goddesses. Many Australians have ancestral roots there – it moved me deeply to visit the village of Ballyconneely, literally “home of the Conneelys”, and drink a pint of Guinness in honour of my grandfather – while any who follow a pagan or magical path will also feel a very deep connection to this land that breathes with the energy and power of the gods.

The faeries of Ireland
Ireland has long been associated with magical creatures – deities, faeries, leprechauns, nature sprites and elementals who flitted through the forests, sometimes helping humanity, sometimes playing tricks on them. Legends tell of fiery, fiesty faery tribes – the Fir Bolg (the Shining Ones), the Daoine Sidhe (the Good Folk), the enchanted Tuatha de Danann (the people of the Goddess Danu) – who inhabited this magical land long before humans arrived, and who still live within its ancient mounds and forests. There are round banked enclosures known as raths, or faery forts, around the country, and they also constructed temples such as the Dingle Diamond in the hills of the Dingle Peninsula, West Kerry, a stone structure aligned with the summer solstice sunrise to recreate the mystical marriage of sun and earth.
But my favourite Otherworld place is Maeve’s Tomb, also known as the Hill of the Moon, atop the sacred mountain of Knocknarea in County Sligo, in the north west. This is WB Yeats country, a beautiful, dramatic landscape of green mountains and black lakes and wild ocean. It’s the legendary resting place of Queen Maeve, a Celtic deity and the lover of kings, who was reimagined as a mortal queen by the Christians and as Mab, queen of the faeries, in modern retellings. She was the goddess of Ireland’s sovereignty and its mystic heart, and helps people recognise their own inner queen and awaken their authentic self.
This enormous cairn – a mound of stones piled up as a memorial, often over a stone burial chamber – is 55 metres in diameter by 10 metres high, and dates back to 3000BCE. It’s covered in stones of varying sizes, and traditionally people bring one on their pilgrimage up the hill and add it to the pile, as an offering to Maeve and to bring luck and love. You can see the cairn – as a tiny bump on top of the hill – from down below in the town of Sligo, but the day I climbed up to visit the burial mound, a misty, thick rain had started to fall, and I was having trouble even seeing the mountain, let alone the tiny mound on top!
I finally found the carpark at the bottom of the hill and leaped out, trying to get my bearings. I found the little hedgerow-lined rocky laneway and started to climb upwards, in the pale light of a completely grey sky. The atmosphere was thick and wet, and the fog was swirling around me, but I paid it no heed (perhaps a little foolishly – people do get lost on these misty mountains, and these are obviously the conditions they say not to climb in, with heavy mists that obscure vision, but I trusted I would be safe). The path, lined with rocks and blackthorn hedges, got steeper and narrower, and a tiny stream rushed down over the crevices, making me gasp as the cold water seeped in to my heavy boots. The laneway finally ended and I passed through an old-fashioned turnstile and started climbing straight up through the paddock. And then a moment of fear touched me – I had absolutely no idea where I was going or how far it was, because suddenly the mists descended like a cloak, or I walked into them, and I could see only a few feet in front of me. It’s the strangest sensation, walking into this swirling thickness. It didn’t feel like it was raining, and I didn’t feel wet, but my jumper was really damp, and the air was wet and thick. So mysterious and mystical and Otherworldly. I could imagine the mists clearing and finding myself in the land of the fairies – it’s like a space between the worlds has opened up and I’m moving through this other dimension.
I couldn’t see up or down, or even see my hand if I held it out in front of me, so I climbed tentatively, unsure of how much further I had to go (and hoping I wouldn’t unknowingly reach the top and fall off the mountain) because I couldn’t see anything.
Finally a shape loomed out of the mist and I stumbled upon the cairn – 40,000 tonnes of rocks right in front of me. I climbed it clumsily, staggering a little, until I reached the grassy bit on the top, which had a tiny stone pile on it, like a model cairn, where I put my pebble and said a prayer for peace in this land.
For a moment I wished it was clear, so I could have seen the amazing views I know are there – out west over the ocean, north into Leitrim, south to the mountains – but it was perfect just the way it was. The swirling mists had their own special charm, and all I could see was whiteness, like I’d walked into a cloud. It was so beautifully ethereal. I breathed in the clean, wet, thick air, and felt proud that I’d made it up to the top – but also a bit nervous about getting down again!
At the bottom of the hill is Carrowmore megalithic cemetery, circa 4000BCE, which is also a place of magic. Wild yet easily accessible, it’s a field of stone circles, ancient burial mounds, passage tombs, dolmens and primrose yellow buttercups, which is open to the public and maintained by the country’s heritage board. I wandered barefoot through the grass, marvelling at the stones, listening to the sound of the bees and the flight of the birds. There’s a big cairn which was being excavated, so I could see inside it, which was very cool. Unearthing ancient secrets, unleashing a new truth and wisdom for those who are willing to listen. The entire Carrowmore complex is laid out in a spiral pattern, with most of the sites pointing to a giant dolmen – some think it’s a portal – in the centre. Signs of ancient bonefires, where they cremated the dead, have been found by archaeologists, which evokes wonderful images of primeval religious ceremonies and earth rituals.
In the surrounding landscape there are more stone circles and dolmens, in people’s backyards and paddocks! Can you imagine what it would be like to live with such a powerful and spiritual monument in your garden, outside your kitchen window? A connection to ancient wisdom and traditions, a constant reminder of what has been before…

Stone circles
There are hundreds of stone circles and other ancient monuments scattered around Ireland, but one of my favourites is Lios na Grainsi, “Stones of the Sun”, near Loch Gur in County Limerick, also known as Grange Stone Circle. It’s the largest in the country, and not far from Limerick, a major city, yet it is still so quiet and peaceful, and located so casually, on the side of the road, without a big sign or any fuss. There’s a tiny spot where three cars could pull in, and a little box near the gate asking for contributions for the farmer who maintains the circle and keeps the fences in good repair. I love that people are so respectful of their history and heritage here, that they are happy to share access to the ancient monuments on their land, and keep them intact and cared for, after the sad medieval practice of tearing them down to build houses and churches.
Grange is amazing – it’s made up of 113 contiguous stones, all touching, and the biggest one is more than four metres high and weighs 40 tonnes! Twelve of these massive stones are distributed at key points around the circle, with two of them flanking the imposing entranceway on the northeast side. Here you walk down a narrow stone-lined passage to a break in the surrounding embankment, where the two guardians stand, and you’re overcome with a sense of the majesty of the monument as you walk respectfully through and into the circle. The ring of stones is set low within a large embankment, making it even more impressive, so you climb up a slope to get to the circle, and then move downwards into its centre, which is all level, and filled with rich and fragrant grass. One pair of stones and the entranceway were aligned with sunset on the cross-quarter day of Samhain, which falls in early November in Ireland, and another stone is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, all indicating its importance as a ritual site for people in the Neolithic period. The site is also known as the Lios, or “Fort of the Fairies”, and is believed to have been a gateway to the Otherworld. In Ireland ancient monuments are often associated with the fae, and many are said to be portals to the their realm, where they withdrew when they could no longer deal with humans.
The first time I visited Grange, in a misty sprinkle of soothing rain, the tiny grassy area between the road and the circle was swarming with a herd of sweet little black and white calves, all standing between me and it. I was a bit nervous about walking through them, but they didn’t seem to mind me (although one didn’t want me to leave when I was going, and kept standing between me and the gate so I couldn’t!). And there was one right next to the stone circle, who just stood there eating, chewing his grass and regarding me with a slightly puzzled expression. He stayed there the whole time I was there, and didn’t even run away when I took a photo of him and the flash went off. There’s an Irish goddess of cows, Bo – Boanna – so maybe they feel her presence and felt comfortable.
I spent hours there in the misty almost-rain, walking slowly past each of the stones, laying my hands on each one, feeling the wet earth and its vibrant energy with my bare feet, and marvelling at the eastern entrance – where the sunlight streams through on the morning of the summer solstice to illuminate the centre of the circle. The next day, a sunny, hot, blue sky day, I returned to see it in the sparkling sunshine, and it was so beautiful all lit up with rays of light and dancing sunbeams. There were no creatures on this day, so I sat down and meditated in the middle of the circle, closing my eyes and revelling in the feel of the warmth on my arms and the solar energy I was breathing in along with the fresh air and the heady scent of grass and nature. I don’t know how long I sat there, daydreaming, connecting to nature, but suddenly I felt a strange sensation on my arm. I snapped my eyes open and looked up, and it was one of the calves, licking me and staring at me with those huge gentle eyes.
Another beautiful ancient stone structure is Poulnabrone Dolmen in the Burren region of County Clare. It’s the most famous postcard image of Ireland, and is truly breathtaking as the sun sets behind it, sinking into the western ocean and colouring the sky a hundred shades of pink, gold, purple, madder rose, blue and orange. It’s so dramatic against the golden pinky clouds, with the rays sparkling and dancing through the cracks of the rock. When the dolmen was excavated in 1989 the remains of 25 people were found beneath it, along with pottery and jewellery, and they discovered they had been buried in 3800BCE. The dolmen was originally covered with a mound of earth, and green grass, but this has worn away, leaving just the stone chamber, which looks like a strange lumbering prehistoric beast. Poll na bro means hole of the grinding stone, so maybe the wise women of long ago used to grind their herbs and whip up their potions here…

Witches
Throughout time Ireland has been home to magical practitioners, wise women and witches, people who worshipped the gods and goddesses, communed with the unseen world and honoured the turning of the seasons. Clonegal Castle, in the southeast of County Carlow, is the family home of Olivia Robertson, a modern witch and priestess who started the Fellowship of Isis, a multi-faithed organisation dedicated to honouring the goddess, in 1976. She has converted the old dungeons into the most beautiful goddess temple, which serves as the centrepoint of the international group, and she also allows tours through the castle and temple, and holds seasonal rituals and ceremonies there.
The grounds are beautiful, in a dark kind of way, with a 700-year-old avenue of 120 yew trees, planted by monks, and gorgeous old gardens. The castle too is fascinating, with a history entwined with centuries of politics, and the ghost of a bishop in one of the bedrooms (I felt a presence weighing down on me as I stood near the old four-poster long before I found out that particular legend). It would have been so much fun to grow up there – there are 40 rooms with different additions added in different periods so it’s all higgeldy piggeldy, with stairs coming off each other and spiralling in different directions, and rooms on different levels and angles. The original round keep (inner stronghold) has been built onto, so there are rooms that curve with that, and a covered porchy type room that has an 1800s grape vine growing up through the floor from the temple and up along the roof.
But it is the Temple of Isis underneath the castle that is the main reason to visit. Walking down the stone steps into this sanctuary is like descending to the underworld in a dream, going deep within the earth to a place of such ancient energy it is hard to even describe. Many different shrines dedicated to different goddesses wind through the sanctuary, as well as one each marking the signs of the zodiac, and each of the elements. There is also a chapel of Bridie, the Irish goddess of inspiration and fire who became interwoven with Saint Bridget, and a Neolithic healing well in her name that has been attributed with miraculous healing properties. Central to the whole temple is the space dedicated to Isis, the mother goddess who inspires the healing rites, meditations, attunements and initiations that take place here.
When I walked down into the temple I felt teary, and a little faint. I walked through the different rooms, to the different altars, in a kind of trance, oblivious to Olivia’s nephew gently explaining each part. When he left me there alone I was overwhelmed. I felt I was breathing in a living presence, and I cried for ages, overcome with emotion that wasn’t sadness so much as immense feeling. I just felt so much, and was overwhelmed by emotion and a kind of joy-pain.
There is so much here – spirits and energies and emotions grounded (I thought trapped) in the earth, in the walls. It intrigued me that the ghost of a bishop haunts the room above the goddess temple, but perhaps he is anchoring the energy there, balancing the masculine and feminine, the god and the goddess. Afterwards I sat for hours in the garden, grounding myself, breathing deeply, surrounded by the immense peace of the massive trees that were illuminated by the gentle sunlight filtering gently through their canopy, listening to the fountain gurgling and absorbing the mystical air and the ancient spirits of this ancient land that permeates this place.

Northern Ireland
The religious and political struggles of Ireland have always affected me deeply, and being in Northern Ireland was heartbreaking. The reminders of the Troubles are devastating and ever present – memorials to hunger strikers and murder victims, constant helicopter surveillance and hidden cameras, and prison-like police stations, almost obscured behind barbed wire and metal cages. This is the reality of life in Northern Ireland; real-life war and strife, battle lines drawn. The Bloody Sunday memorial in Derry, which commemorates the events of January 30, 1972, in which 14 unarmed civil rights protesters were shot dead by the British Army, broke my heart, and the murals and artwork in both Derry and Belfast are so touchingly evocative of pain, suffering and despair as well as hope. I never felt unsafe there, despite Mum’s terror when I rang to say I was in Belfast, but I was emotionally affected the whole time I was there. It’s such a dramatic place, and the threatening air of the towns, buildings and people are such a contrast to the immense beauty of the countryside.
Along the stunning North Antrim Coast is the Giant’s Causeway, an impressive series of ocean rock formations, with legends connecting it to the Western Isles of Scotland. Further south is the ancient monument of Navan Fort, Emain Macha, the legendary seat of the kings of Ulster. The spiritual, political and cultural centre of its day, circa 5000BCE, this massive circular earthwork and its sacred pool has similarities to the Hill of Tara, and was the home of the mythical King Conor and the site of the battle between the great warrior CuChulainn and Queen Maeve of Connaught. It’s a cross between the Tor in Glastonbury, the Hill of Tara and Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland – a grassy mound that was a ceremonial area on top of a beautiful hill in some gorgeous wooded countryside. There’s still the indentation in the very centre where the massive oak pole was, which linked the Underworld with the earth plane and the heavens. It feels so peaceful and spiritual there, and there are lots of references and legends to twins and the goddess there.
My favourite site though was the Beaghmore Stone Circles, a Bronze Age complex of seven stone circles, each with its own cairn and stone row, which is nestled in the glorious Sperrin Mountains of County Tyrone. They record the movements of the sun and moon and mark particular lunar, solar and stellar events, with three of the stone rows pointing to sunrise at the summer solstice, and another aligned towards moonrise at the same period. It’s also believed the site was built as an attempt to restore fertility to the area by enticing back the fading sun.
Due to the number of cairns it could also have had a secondary function as a burial site, although only some of them held cremated human remains, making it even more mysterious…
I visited on the full moon, and it was so magical, mystical and peaceful – so powerful and full of possibility, even in the sprinkling rain. As I walked amongst this field of circles in the misty rain, it felt like a clean slate, a new clean world, and was so beautiful and powerful and ancient, full of spirit and of spirits. There are seven circles – three pairs and then a single one of slightly larger stones filled with more than 800 tiny jagged rocks called dragons teeth. There are heaps of alignment stone rows too, coming off the circles at tangents, and 12 cairns, frequently covering a cremation burial, one with each paired circle then quite a few around and within the single bigger circle. This lone circle is beautiful and strange, full of the mysterious little rocks. The whole site used to be surrounded by forests of oak and rowan and birch and hazel – magical groves – although now it’s all fields. The complex was built around 2000BCE, so it is ancient, like the land, constructed millennia before there was a Northern Ireland. It’s such a beautiful spot, with the mountains in the background and the misty fog keeping other people away. And later, as twilight fell and the full moon rose slowly over the stones, it was a breathtaking moment I’ll always remember.

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Travelling to Faeryland… an article about faery sites…

June 12, 2011 at 9:02 pm (Magic, Magical Places, Sacred Sites) (, , , , )

Travelling to Faeryland

Written for Goddess magazine

Faeryland seems to exist in another dimension, yet there are towns, forests and even whole countries that have long been associated with the fae.

The enchanted forest of Broceliande
In Brittany in the west of France, there is an ancient darkened forest shrouded in mystery and magic, long considered a place of faeries and Otherworldly beings. Thousand-year-old beech, oak and chestnut trees lean in close to each other to whisper their secrets and protect their inhabitants, while lush green ivy curls around wide tree trunks, and intricately twisted tree roots covered in moss provide hiding places for tiny creatures. It is a shadowy realm of mists, myth and legends, where druids once worshipped, Morgaine of the Faeries, King Arthur’s fae half-sister, retreated, and the faery Viviane trapped the wizard Merlin so they could be together forever.
Broceliande Forest, called Paimpont on modern maps, is so eerily quiet and desolate, despite its acclaim as the site of the Grail Quests and the magical court of Arthur, that you can easily believe it was bewitched by a vengeful faery, and still harbours magical beings who can thin the veils between our world and theirs. I rode a bicycle beneath the looming trees, then wandered down narrow paths overgrown with twining vines you have to crouch down to walk through. One led to Tombeau de Merlin (Merlin’s Tomb), a stone dolmen believed to be an entrance to Faeryland, where people leave offerings of flowers, bracelets, babies booties, poems and crystals to petition for wisdom, love and health. Another path led to Viviane’s tranquil Fontaine de Jouvence (Fountain of Youth), which promises immortality to those who drink from it.
Further through the forest is the dramatic Val sans Retour (Valley of No Return), where it is said Morgaine used spells to imprison knights in revenge for her broken heart. At the entrance is the lake called Le Miroir aux Fées (the Mirror of the Faeries), where the Lady of the Lake is believed to reside, and within is a stunning landscape, with a small rocky cliff covered in wildflowers you can clamour up for sweeping views of the valley below.
There are chateaus within the forest’s borders too, and lords who still hunt stags, wild boar and deer, but you can walk for miles without seeing a single person as you tiptoe through this ancient and oh-so-magical enchanted forest, which remains a place of pilgrimage for nature lovers and those lured by its secretive beauty and the possibility of an encounter with the fae.

Visit it: The village of Paimpont lies on the edge of a lake within the forest, and can be reached by bus from the nearby city of Rennes. With its streets named for faeries, stores selling fae artwork, quaint little bars and 13th century abbey, Paimpont is a good starting point for exploring Broceliande.

Read about it: Broceliande appears in many stories, from French writer Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th century Arthurian romance Le Chevalier au Lion to British fantasy author Robert Holdstock’s more recent novel Merlin’s Wood.

Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland
The beautiful Hill of Tara, just outside Dublin, is a grassy landscape dotted with earthworks, mounds and ceremonial enclosures. It has a magical, mysterious air to it, and a weight of history that adds power. Considered the spiritual and historic heart of Ireland, there are Neolithic monuments dating back 6000 years, and more recently it was associated with high kings and royalty, becoming the political centre of a thriving civilisation. It’s also where Ireland’s faery race, the Tuatha de Danaan, are thought to have retreated when the Celts invaded Ireland and they withdrew from the world of man into the Otherworld dimension. The passage tomb Dumha na nGiall (Mound of the Hostages), with its tiny gated entrance into the mound of earth, looks like a faery place – and such monuments are still seen as portals to Faeryland today. It’s also aligned to sunrise on the mornings of Samhain and Imbolc, the first days of winter and spring respectively, so it has layers of magical significance.
Within this archaeological complex is a hill fort surrounding two ring forts, and the Lia Fáil (the Stone of Destiny), a one-metre-high standing stone brought to Ireland as one of the sacred objects of the Tuatha. It is considered by some to be a fertility symbol, and others a part of the inauguration of the high kings – according to legend, if the ruler was worthy the stone would roar its approval. There is also a faery tree, where people tie ribbons to request blessings, and two wells with Otherworld connotations.
Today there is an environmental battle raging as activists try to prevent a motorway being constructed through the Hill of Tara, and the Smithsonian Institute has listed it as one of the 15 Must-See Endangered Cultural Treasures in the world. Tara is one of Ireland’s most sacred sites (and that’s saying something!), so I decided to spend Lughnasadh there. I stayed in a little B&B a few miles away, and walked there through fields of corn and hay bales, exploring the enclosure and daydreaming of magical worlds by day, then doing my ritual of thanksgiving as the sun set. Hours later I walked home in the darkness, slightly tipsy from mead, guided by the radiant beauty of the moon and the magical guardian spirits and faeries of this amazing land.

Visit it: The Hill of Tara is 50km northwest of Dublin. Nearby is the wonderful Bru na Boinne complex, which includes the Neolithic passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth

Read about it: In OR Melling’s enchanting Chronicles of Faerie novels, two girls sleep within the Mound of the Hostages in the hope that it will act as a doorway to Faeryland (and it does!).

More faery sites

Glastonbury: This pretty town in southwest England, also known as Avalon, is a place of deep magic. Home to the priestesses and druids of old, the sacred oak trees Gog and Magog and an ancient holy well, it is centred around the Tor, a huge grassy hill that has been described as a faery mound, grail castle and gateway to Annwn, the Otherworld ruled over by the faery king Gwyn ap Nudd.

Findhorn: In northeast Scotland, not far from Inverness and its Loch Ness Monster, is the spiritual community and ecovillage of Findhorn, where people communicate with the faeries and nature spirits to grow lush gardens with larger than normal vegetables and tropical plants not native to the area, despite the stormy, bleak weather and barren, sandy soil.

New Zealand: This beautiful country is filled with faery sites, as the world discovered when it became the location of the Lord of the Rings films, with its dramatic mountain peaks, grassy hobbit mounds and mysterious woodlands of the elven folk. In the South Island, magical Fjordland National Park was the location of Fangorn Forest, and the faery mountain Takitimu has legends of the Wee Folk who have resided there for centuries.

The Black Forest: The home of so many faerytales, as well as the famous Black Forest chocolate cake, this stunning wooded mountain range has long been rumoured to host a race of faeries and elves. Covering the southwest of Germany, the trees in this sprawling ancient forest grow so closely together that they block out the sun, hence the name.

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