by Jesper Toad
The Cauldron of Rebirth
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…”
~William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII
She gathers them up, all the broken threads, frayed, unremembered, unraveled, placing every small bit of fiber into her great cauldron. They spin and swirl in the immense darkness, remembering and forgetting what they were, dreaming of what they will be. At some point the spinning twists these fibers together into a new thread, a new life, to be measured and cut. A new thread, vibrant with possibility, waits to be woven across the creation in a new pattern. So it is with the world: nothing is ever wasted, nothing is ever lost.
Between Death and Life
It is an undiscovered country, the territory that lies between our final breath and whatever comes after. No one has definitively returned from that great unknown to elucidate us. Everything beyond the shroud remains a mystery we are all destined to discover for ourselves, and we fear that at that moment of discovery we will find that we have attended to the wrong tasks, that our values were out of step with the larger narrative of which we are a part, that we have simply wasted the time of our incarnation, or that there is only nothing after life and we merely cease to exist.
But this lacuna between death and life is intolerable, and demands filling. Various systems of belief—we call them religion and spirituality, although they are no more than variations in our theory on how the world works—have arisen to fill this narrative void. Some of these points of view are based on observations of the natural world. Others are dictated by angels, devils, and spirits. None of them can be verified for accuracy.
Consequently, hold lightly any information on what happens in the afterlife. No matter how much we fervently believe in the Gates of Heaven, the narrow sword-bridge of As-Sirāt leading to the Hall of Abundance, or the eternal return of reincarnation, they are metaphors for what comes after, not concrete realities. That being said, what follows is the metaphor I have come to believe concerning the souls’ existence between death and life, and the happenings of that invisible, undiscovered county.
Every culture, every religion, every system of belief, posits an idea of an afterlife. In the majority of them the spirits or souls of the deceased go into an otherworld that is tenuously connected to our concrete, physical world, and pass time in an existence that resembles the station of the deceased during life. Usually this afterlife is idyllic, without pain, hunger, or suffering, although some cultures believe that the evil actions during an incarnation meet with punishment, and the good deeds merit reward. Other belief systems encompass a return of the soul in a new body, sometimes within the family that they had left behind at the advent of their death.
The Eternal Return
The word reincarnation comes to us from the Latin, and means “entering the flesh again.” The older term, metempsychosis originates with the Pythagoreans. The notion in reincarnation was probably part of most ancient pre-literate human cultures, and it typical of the shamanic beliefs of hunting and gathering peoples (Mills, 1994, p. 18). Beliefs systems that include notions of rebirth appear to have spontaneously arisen across the world, and have been document not only in India, but in East Africa, China, among the indigenous tribal peoples of North America, and in Europe, notable among the Greeks and the Celts. Plato most probably believed in reincarnation. Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor, writing about the Gauls in the first century, claimed that they believed that their souls were immortal, and that these souls would return after a number of years, reincarnated into new bodies. Julius Caesar also attributed a belief in metempsychosis to the Celts.
The notion that the souls of the deceased would be reborn may have started with the observations of the seasons. As the sun ran its course across the vault of the heavens the days would lengthen and shorten. The world alternated between the warmth of summer, autumns cooling, the dark of winter, and the spring’s thaw. In time with the changing seasons, seeds gave way to green shoots emerging from the soul, to stems and leaves and eventually flowers, to fruit, and again to seeds in an eternal agricultural round of life and dying. The young of many animals appeared in the spring, and birds built nests and laid their many colored eggs, from which new life also emerged. Fish, fowl, and four legged creatures proliferated, and during the warmer months fattened themselves to survive the oncoming winter, when many of them would perish. Living close to the seasonal renewal of the land, the people of the past did not perceive themselves as separate from the world, but rather as a presence embedded in nature, following the same cycles of birth, death and rebirth.
Respiration is another biological observation that may have led to the development of the idea of metempsychosis. The people once believed that the newborn drew the invisible, vital soul into a body with the first wailing breaths. Respiration signaled that a body was ensouled, alive. Upon the drawing of the final breath life fled, returning the soul back to its element, back into the air, the atmosphere, the wind. These souls, then, were free to seek out new human bodies to animate. Alternatively, in the case of the transmigration of souls, any animal or plant that breath imbues with life can house the soul (Wall, 1919, p. 584). The relationship between the words spirit, respiration, and inspiration are intimately connected in this breathing in and out of the soul. Additionally, folklore across the world contains descriptions of witches and other magical workers leaving their bodies by way of the mouth, like a departing breath, when they traveled in spirit form.
Many early cultures throughout Europe held to a doctrine of reincarnation, in which the soul returns after death incarnated in a new body. With the encroachment of the Church, these beliefs conflicted with the tenets of Christianity, and eventually were disallowed and considered heretical. Current research suggests the founder or the Theosophist Society Helena Blavatsky re-introduced the doctrine of reincarnation in the west, where it becomes a part of the Western Mystery Tradition (Hutton, 2001, p. 20). Later, Gerald Gardner adopts the notion of reincarnation into the cannon of contemporary witchcraft belief. The Goddess Arrives (1940), a fictional novel in which we begin to see the elements of Gardner’s Wicca beginning to crystallize, concludes with a theory of group reincarnation that appears heavily influenced by the theosophy of Rudolph Steiner (Hutton, 2001, p. 223). Later, Gardner (1954) lists reincarnation with the activities and beliefs of the Witches outlined in Witchcraft Today (Hutton, 2001, p. 206).
Summerland and Witchdom
The writings of early contemporary witches, such as Gardner and Valiente, propose that when shrug off our mortal coil we continue existence in an idyllic place with those people with which we had lived in our corporeal lives. This Summerland, as it is sometimes called, is conceived as being located not above, as in the Christian and Islamic afterworlds, but somehow beyond or between, in a world that those of us incarnate cannot detect with our mortal senses, although Valiente (1973) suggests that psychically gifted individuals such as witches can visit that far realm in dreams and visions (p. 36). As to the nature of the soul’s sojourn in the idyllic afterworld, Rudolf Steiner (1913), the founder of Anthroposophy, taught that after crossing over in death the soul focuses upon the memories and connections it has left behind, reflecting on the most recent incarnation.
Personally, I hold that the location of all afterlives—Heaven, Hell, Summerland, or what have you—have their existence in the Imaginal Realm: that place that co-exists with the physical world of flesh and bone, a habitation of thought and emotion and mind that some occultists refer to as the astral. Souls recently deceased dwell there for a time (decades if we are to believe Steiner) continuing an existence much like what they experienced in life. Doreen Valiente’s (1989) experiences with altered consciousness and her encounters with John “Nicholas” Breakspear, a witch that supposedly lived in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, appears to parallel this notion of the disincarnate continuing their existence in the Imaginal Realm1. During Valiente’s interactions, Breakspear refers to a place called Witchdom, located in the Inner Planes or Other World, and describes the delights of the sabbat, replete with music and dances (pp. 100-114).
The research into folklore and the European witch trials by Ginzberg (1991), Pócs (1999), and Wilby (2019) suggest that the experience of the Witches’ Sabbat takes place while the practitioner is in an altered consciousness or trance state. If we take a metaphysical view of these altered states of consciousness that includes experiences described as out of body, then where is the spirit traveling when it attends the nighttime revelries of the Witches? From the metaphysical standpoint, we might locate Witchdom and the Sabbat in the Imaginal Realm. The disembodied spirits traveling upon the wind recalls the narrative of the sabbat, with souls flying on straws, brooms, stangs, and goats to the great gathering of witches where they dance, feast, engage in acts of carnal love, and revel in the presence of the greater witch-spirits.
But the souls of the dead don’t stay in this idyllic epilogue forever.
Recycling the Materials of the Soul
My first experience with reincarnation was intense, and that intensity made a believer of me. In my early twenties I attended a workshop in reincarnation at a local shop, facilitated by a woman who was a hypnotist specializing in past-life regression. Personally, I was skeptical as to the existence of reincarnation, but I was taking the class so that I could make a more informed opinion. The instructor began the workshop with general information that I was already familiar with, and then give us a pre-hypnotic suggestion before she started the work of regressing us into our long forgotten past lives. I went under more easily than I expects, and found myself in a dark Elizabethan inn, with a low ceiling and the timbers painted black (a detail I would not discover was authentic until two decades later). I was a pale thin young woman, with dishwater hair and hands that had seen too much work for their age. It was late, and I was cleaning up after the inn had closed for the evening, when a man burst from where he had been hiding in the shadows and assaulted me. I watched as the person I was in the past was ravaged and raped and left half-conscious on the floor. This woman died the next morning: a broken rib had punctured her lung. When the workshop facilitator brought us out of our altered states of consciousness I was in shock, although otherwise unharmed. The experience had impressed upon me that some there was something to this concept of reincarnation.
The remembrance of this one life opened a floodgate, and I had several more experiences with recalling past lives. One thing I noted, however, was that the past lives that I could recover were always fragmentary, and that the incidents remembered were always emotionally charged in some way: rape, the pain of childbirth, the intense wonder and anticipation of a child about to board an ocean liner, the shock of recognition, fear, devotion, anger, and regret. It was as if each of the lives remembers had eroded in some way, leaving only those moments welded together through the force of intense emotion. This observation would prove integral to my understanding of the process of reincarnation as not a continuation of a discrete individual personality—the classic understanding of metempsychosis in the west—but rather a recycling of the imaginal divine stuff of which the invisible portion which composes each individual. The remembered parts, recalled to the conscious mind of the individual through dreams, artistic creations, through trance work, and meditation, are those portions of our earthly experience that have been crystallized into the soul’s memory through an intensity of emotion. All of the experiences of a life that are not fixed by emotion remain fluid, and forget themselves after a time in the otherworld, flowing together into some great sea of soul, punctuated in places by frozen experiences—triumphs and traumas—floating like ice in the ocean. Some witches refer to this as the Cosmic Soup, with the soul losing its individuality as it breaks down and flows into this collective sea of soul, much as the physical body breaks down into chemical components that are recycled and reused.
In short, I believe our death ushers our soul into an imaginal spirit word, but I do not think that this existence is for eternity. The souls spend time in this imaginal landscape, the stuff of the mundus imaginalis shaping itself to the memory of the discarnate individual. The dead exist within this pleasant or miserable experience, reflected in and reflecting on their past incarnation, until they slowly forget themselves: the ego boundaries fade, releasing the contents of the soul into some great reservoir. Witches hold the great Cauldron of Death and Rebirth as the image for this unknowable pool, deep in the mundus imaginalis. In time a portion of the contents of this great cauldron of rebirth will be allocated to a new incarnation. That portion includes some memory of the soul, including those experiences that have been frozen or crystallized into the soul material by intense negative or positive emotion. These insoluble elements float free from one another, no longer bound together. In time a new individual is formed from this soul stuff, incorporating material from multiple individuals, often including those insoluble elements.
“You belonged to us in the past”
What is it that draws the soul materials toward incarnation? Perhaps it is these insoluble elements, soul-stuff knit together around moments of joy, love, grief, and terror, which are drawn toward one another and into the flesh to act out the next chapter of their drama. Many cultures believe that their forebears reincarnate in their descendants, or within the same kin group. From the perspective of a tribal people, this return of the ancestors might be seen as a favorable occurrence, preferable to giving birth to strangers or outsiders. Feminist Archeologist Marija Gimbutas suggests that at Neolith subterranean Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum of Malta, a necropolis replete with the remains of thousands of individuals, pregnant women would sleep among the bones of the dead, hoping to allow the incarnation of one of the ancestors (Borg, 2001, p. 57; Noble, 2003, p. 72). Many indigenous Native American tribes believed that the features of newborn children echoed those of some deceased grandparent (Krickeberg, Walter et al, 1968, p. 161, quoted in Varner, 2010, p. 77). Some tribes believed that a single soul might reincarnate simultaneously in several descendants (Mills, 2000, quoted in Varner, 2010, p. 78). Charles Leland (1892) reports it as an esoteric doctrine of death and rebirth among the Romagna witches. When those of the Strega or witch families die, they reappear again, reincarnating in their descendants. Leland tells us that this belief is known but rarely discussed outside of the witch families. When any child is born it is examined for some sign that it is an incarnation of a deceased relative (pp. 244-248).
As mentioned above, this belief in the metempsychosis of the soul is woven into the cannon of Contemporary Witchcrafts. Gardner, in the Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), informs us that reincarnation is a basic tenet of how witches understand the mysteries of life and death, and this belief in reincarnation extends into a conviction that those that have been a witch in a past incarnation will return as a witch, even if they have no conscious knowledge of that previous incarnation (p. 14). Valiente tells us that many members of the witch cult—presumably individuals with whom she was personally acquainted—feel as if they have been witches in past lives. The belief gives rise to the expression “Once a witch, always a witch” (Gardner, 1959, p. 14; Valiente, 1973, p. xvi). Gardner himself records that the witches that performed his initiation said, “You belonged to us in the past. You are of the blood. Come back to where you belong” (Gardner, 1959, p. 11). He later reports that witches past and present believed that they would return to their own people to be among those that they had loved and who had loved them, and that they would “remember, know, and love them again” (p. 25).
The Mighty Dead
The Mighty Ones are occasionally mentioned in the writings of Wicca and Witchcraft, but rarely elucidated upon in such a way to bring about a clear understanding of their nature. Gardner (1954) remarks the Mighty Ones briefly, suggesting that the Mighty Dead are a result of the evolution of the soul through myriad incarnations (Gardner, p. 16). Leland’s (1892) research into Witchcraft in Italy encounters folkloric stories in which the souls pass through successive lifetimes as a sorcerer or witch, gaining in might with each successive incarnation (pp. 104-148). After a number of cycles of death and rebirth these souls cease to incarnate and become powerful spirits, wandering the earth in the guise of mortals, or traveling on the winds (p. 244). Wall (1919) writes that the Gnostics believed gnosis in some part entailed the remembering of past incarnations, and that those individuals that could recall lifetimes of past experience broke past the bonds of conformity and attained mystical powers (p. 585). Some occultists believe that individuals become part of this cavalcade through acts of heroism or though great leadership. However, I think it is more accurate to understand the road leading to this existence as a powerful soul independent of physical form is more in the nature of an evolutionary step, one that takes time and the accrual of experience through repeated incarnations.
The French historian Lecouteux (2015) finds evidence in European folklore supporting the belief that the souls of the dead live on as tutelary spirits, benefitting those with whom they have a positive relationship. These invisible ancestral spirits sometimes find residence to specific locations in the landscape. Over the centuries, the memory of such spirits may have merged with the belief in elves and local land spirits. Medieval agrarian households regarded these spirits as potentially beneficial or baneful and approached them with veneration. The Church demonized the in all such spirit, although they the belief in them lingers on in the world, serving as a connection between the human and numinous powers (pp. 59-61).
The end point of the souls’ evolution, if believe that we can evolve into spirits capable of slipping the fetters of death and rebirth, is beyond right and wrong, good or bad, or dark and light. It is an immoral, immortal existence—like that of the fairy folk—no longer enslaved to social, religious, or even spiritual strictures. These souls have entered into the company of the dii animals—“spirit gods,” or literally translated: “the gods-animal.” This state of being is, in my practice, one of the objectives of Witchcraft: the practices of gaining the sight, the manipulation of spirament, and traveling in the spirit body prepare us for this existence independent of the physical body.
This musing upon the survival of the soul through cycles of incarnations or the evolution into a non-physical entity is not an idle exercise: this framework of belief allows us, as magical folk, to make sense of the strange events that we witness in the course of our crooked spiritual path. At the beginning of my own journey, I encountered a being that I have only been able to make sense of by relating it to the idea of the Mighty Dead. I was sitting and doing my level best to meditate when I was startled by a figure in a white robe emerging through the corner of the room. I could make out no features: the cowl of the hood completely shrouded the face, and the overlong sleeves covered the hands. So occluded was the figure that I could not make out even the sex of the visitor. The spirit—for so it must be—glided silently across the floor to where I sat on the floor, back against a chair. It came to a stop in front of me, grasped me with its hidden hands on either side of my head, and bending forward put its head in mine. What followed was a blaze of white bliss that seemed to go on for hours, but was certainly only a few seconds. The figure pulled its head out of mine and floated back to the corner, where it disappeared, leaving behind questions as to its identity and purpose. I flatter myself by thinking that the intensity of my curiosity, fueled by studies into psychic phenomena and witchcraft, had caught this being’s attention; conversely, it may have been waiting for me to progress to a certain point in my development to receive whatever gift it placed within my boney skull.
Jesper Toad is a Georgian and a Gardnerian initiate, and studied the Feri Tradition with T. Thorn Coyle. His personal practice of three decades blends elements of all these traditions, as well incorporating spiritualist, shamanic and depth psychological perspectives. Jesper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Enchiridion Magistellus: A Visual Handbook of the Witches’ Art is a collection of eighty-four images blending concepts and practices drawn from several Witchcraft traditions and academic sources. Each image is shaped by the artist’s dreams, reverie, meditations, and journeys in the imaginal realm. This deck of cards serves as a visual lesson plan to the practice of Witchcraft. The Enchiridion Magistellus: A Visual Handbook of the Witche
s’ Art can be purchased at https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/the-enchiridion-magistellus.
 Mark Carter (2012) in Stalking the Goddess suggests that and the information gleaned from Valiente’s experiences consists of a composite of material that Valiente herself was familiar with from her own studies. However, if we give credence to the existence of the Breakspear entity, engaging in conversation using elements with which Valiente is familiar with to present instruction makes a certain pedagogical sense.
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