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Modern Pagans Excerpt: Diane di Prima

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Diane di Prima
Diane di Prima: I have a root in some kind of Paganism like that which was also very deep in my grandmother’s Catholicism. There was a day when you ate no salt, a day when you ate no bread–St. Lucy or Santa Lucia’s day which is celebrated in Northern Europe, too, when Swedish women wear crowns of candles. The saint of light, Lucia, lux, Lucy–she was a very important figure in my grandmother’s world. Although nobody said, “This is Pagan,” there was a basic interest and awe in the things of the turning of the seasons and being on the planet, that were handed to me from way back.

When I was in high school, eight women in our writing group did a lot of experimenting with the paranormal–telepathy, trance, and seance. That all went away when I became just a writer and dropped out of college, but it came back with a big bang when I was about 31 and started to fool around with Tarot cards, and would have lucid dreams. I was living in New Mexico. In the afternoons when it was hot I would stare at one card and go to sleep. When I awoke I would always have had a dream about that card. It didn’t seem remarkable or strange–I didn’t have to work at it–it just happened.

Tibetan Buddhism is concerned with, at the least, the 31 major star systems that have Dzogchen. It’s not based in the material facts of life. It’s my main belief system, within which Paganism fits quite comfortably as regards how you deal with this earth and being on it.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is relative truth and absolute truth. Relative truth is about here, where we are, daily life, and the appearances of things. Absolute truth is about the emptiness (which isn’t empty) and the constant creative principle in that, which they call the dharmakaya. They fit comfortably together. In the same way, Tibetan Buddhism fits together with my Paganism and other kinds of ritual magic (I’m not talking about Judaic Kabalism; I’m talking about Kabalistic magic which grew out of the Renaissance, transmitted by Cornelius Agrippa and others). It’s a seamless fit with no problems. So I have my Tibetan Buddhist practice, but if my daughter has a question, I will go to the Tarot cards.

R/S: Paganism is definitely earth-based and grounded in very real practices in this world, but you overlay it with this other theory, if I can call it that, from Tibetan Buddhism, which is more concerned with causality, multiple dimensions of reality, and other cosmic theorizings. You can’t necessarily prove it scientifically–

D: No, but you can prove it experientially. It’s not easy–you don’t just go off and prove it, like in a laboratory. You have to do the groundwork, then find a teacher, then get pointing-out instruction, and actual experience of in-dwelling, void, creative principle, that is also the same as vast, timeless, and spaceless creative principle. So you can’t prove it scientifically, but you can prove it experientially. I’m reminded sometimes, when I am practicing, of that line in the Book of the Law by Crowley, “Certainty, not faith, while in life.”

R/S: “Certainty, not faith, while in life”?

D: It’s from the Book of the Law–another aspect of magic. So the Pagan movement is wonderful and I am still continuing its practices, but I hardly think about them–they’re just ingrained in my life. “Have you picked up the candles for the solstice?” Or, “Are you going to have time tomorrow for us to do something for Eve of May?” You know? I have a meditation room in the house which is wonderful, because I can roll out of bed, sleepy or sick, and do my practice, then come back to my daily life, because that room is not used for anything else.

I also have a magical altar in the healing room where Sheppard does his healing work (that’s his livelihood), and where I do occasional guided visualizations with my students, or a Tarot reading. And the magical altar is–how can I say–a landing place and a launching pad for spirits and energies and businesses of this world. It has an arrangement of things that represent the four elements, so I have, using the Tarot model, a cup, a disc, a sword, and a wand. And for the three principles from Alchemy, I have a vial of mercury, a big chunk of sulfur from Sicily, and a big crystal of solidified salt.

So Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt are the three principles of Alchemy. I integrate this with the Zodiac, too. All this is part of what I used to teach when I taught “Structures and Magic” at our magic school, the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts, which has been defunct since 1992.

For me, I started with just the simple notions I could get in Frazer’s Golden Bough about the solstices and equinoxes and cross-quarter days and how they used to be celebrated. The whole set of volumes is indexed, so you can find information about the practices of islands in the South Pacific in one volume, and information about Greece in another–with the index, you can find what you want. Then I would shamelessly make my own synthesis of what I wanted from all that, to use as a basic form, a ritual.

Solstices are easy. Equinoxes are more subtle, because you have that simple slight turning toward the light or toward the dark at that point. The cross-quarter days are wonderful–I was going to say divine in terms of earthly things–they’re earthly deities. So something comes up every six weeks that you try to at least commemorate in some little way, even if you’re very busy. I have this shrine downstairs that is the earth magic shrine set up for that, having the elements and the principles of alchemy. Salt is that which remains after the transformation, the dross is that which remains after the mercury flies away (unless you catch it and use it), and sulfur is what is consumed from the burning. Those three principles work in the four elements–here I’m going by Paracelsus. Even if you only have half an hour, you can go down and commemorate the occasion in some way. uR/S: Do you actually believe you can cross over to the land of the spirits of the dead–

D: Well, have you never met a ghost?

R/S: No.

D: Oh. I have. I’m not sure what part of a being does that. I believe in reincarnation. But I think there is a shell or some part of the persona that maybe hangs around, and it hangs around more if it’s remembered more. I honor people who do a lot for ceremonies like the Day of the Dead, but I don’t tend to do a lot of that. But after I do the Winter Solstice, I do a ceremony of cleansing the whole house, and then cleansing it again with sage and salt and so on and blessing each room, driving out any bad energy from the old year, and blessing it and calling in new energy, room by room…

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