Tuesday 5 April 2016

Interview: Rebecca Beattie on Books and Paganism

I love Rebecca Beattie's book Pagan Portals - Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism, so I was delighted when she agreed to be interviewed for A Bad Witch's Blog about the fiction that inspires her and her spiritual path.

Q: Nature Mystics looks at the life and work of writers who contributed to the rise of Modern Paganism, highlighting Mary Webb in particular. I also saw that you are researching Mary Webb and the Occult Landscape for a PhD. What is it about Mary Webb and her books that particularly interests you?
RB: I guess the answer is rooted in my upbringing. I grew up on the highest point of Dartmoor, and had nature all around me on all four sides of the family home. Most of my time as a child was spent either roaming the moors with my dog, or with my nose stuck firmly in a book. When I was 15, I fell in love with Kester Woodseaves. He was everything a young girl could look for in a man - he was kind, wise, generous and, sadly for me, a fictional character in Mary Webb's novel, Precious Bane.The book was one I returned to again and again over the years. It's the story of a woman called Prue Sarn, who is scarred from birth by a cleft lip. As the community she loves in is one absorbed in folklore (a bit like my own home village), they believe that she was cursed when her mother crossed paths with a hare during pregnancy, and being thus scarred, she must be a witch.

At a time when I didn't have much idea about Modern Paganism, the book was deeply significant for me, as it was the first time that I had come across someone who described Nature and the Divine in a way that I could understand at a very deep level. Webb's landscapes are immersed in folklore, and carry a sense of agency, as well as being her organising structure for her work - the landscape is alive and is a living, breathing, element of her novels. This is how I experienced Dartmoor. As time went on, my love of her novels never left me, and my own first novel, The Lychway,was written in homage to her, and my own sacred landscape of Dartmoor.

When I started studying for my MA a few years ago, it seemed very natural to me to make Mary Webb the topic of my dissertation, and then when I had finished, I didn't want to stop, and chose to continue on to do a PhD. My PhD thesis is a novel about Mary Webb's life, and begins with the discovery of her (fictional) diaries.

Q: When and how did you become aware of Modern Paganism?
RB: It's something I was always aware of, in the background, but it took me some time to find my way in - which I guess is also about priorities, and also understanding that through this process I was becoming more of myself. I knew what I was, without really having a conscious understanding of the language (or the politics!) In my 20s I had a number of life changes - I split from a significant relationship and went on a Theatre in Education tour of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth was to become my best friend for the next 20 years, and she introduced me to the idea that what I was had a label. (I just thought I was plain weird!) Then I spent a number of years being a committed solitary witch, and did an awful lot of reading.

I read every book I could get my hands on about Modern Paganism, until I reached a point where I knew I needed a teacher in order to progress further. This brought another life change - when I shed the acting life. I realised I had reached a point where I was very unhappy as an actor - I was largely unpaid, frequently felt I was being exploited and had the sense there had to be more to life than this. I decided to take a year off from acting and put 'the call out' to ask for a teacher. The teacher arrived, which had two unexpected (and beautiful) outcomes - one was the path towards coven based Wicca, and the second was in becoming a writer as I underwent that process. I have been with my teacher (and High Priestess) for about 13 years now and it is always a journey of learning. As she often told me in the early days, in this life we all die beginners...

Q: What other books were particularly significant to you in becoming a Modern Pagan?
RB: During my years as a solitary practitioner, I would probably say that two authors were particularly significant. I loved Book of Shadowsby Phyllis Curott, which charted her journey towards initiation. I found that really inspiring, and there were some interesting parallels. The other author I devoured was Scott Cunningham - he had such an amazing knowledge of stones, herbs, oils and brews which came from working with them daily, and it really appealed to the practical witch in me. I think he is still undervalued and was the best thing since Nicky Culpepper. Once I was training for the first degree, the books became a bit more scholarly - we studied traditional grimoires and history, and also researched folklore, and folk magic. The most influential book from that time was probably Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraftas it helped me understand our cultural and historical context.

Q: How do you describe your spirituality now?
RB: It's always a little eclectic, but I think the spiritual journey has been characterised by seeking outside myself, and then finding what I needed was always there on the inside. ('And if that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without'.)

For me, everything I do is an embodiment of that spiritual path - my day job (in a charity that supports people affected by addictions) speaks to my belief that the priesthood is a life of service to the community. My writing and other creative work speaks to my belief that creativity is my other main reason for being in this life.

I still continue to be part of a thriving coven, and my HPS was always very clear that coven life needed to be supported by a strong solitary practice as well. Following the second degree, I spent some years outside the coven, reconnecting with my solitary practice, but now I do both, and it is very important for my sense of equilibrium to have both paths. I think I am witch down to my very DNA and beyond.

Q: One more question. What book, fiction or non-fiction, would you now most recommend to someone starting out as a seeker on a pagan spiritual path? (If narrowing it down to one book is too tough, what two or three books would you recommend?)
RB: I think I would have to opt for the three books that I really couldn't be without (and I am trying not to be too Wicca-centric!):

1. The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brewsby Scott Cunningham - Uncle Scott really gets you on the track to getting in there and making your own stuff. Under his virtual tutelage I ended up running my own traditional soaps and sacred baths company (until I met academia and ran out of time!)

2. The Triumph of the Moonby Ronald Hutton. Whichever of the pagan paths you are following, it's helpful to cut through the mythology and understand out cultural history and our context.

3. Paganism 101: An Introduction to Paganism by 101 Pagansedited by Trevor Greenfield - the reason I love this book is that it gives a taste of all the myriad ways a person can live the pagan path these days. Hearing it straight from the practitioners themselves is a great way of understanding some of the options and the issues that face is today.

You can order Pagan Portals - Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganismvia Amazon or from Treadwell's Bookshop in London.

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