Henbane Moon: Art & Magic

First version of Henbane Moon

I’ve been working on a painting I’m calling Henbane Moon, since it features a branch of henbane with some dried pods on it. It’s based on a photo I took of some of my henbane in the summer of 2013, but I’ve modified it quite a bit, because for one thing, I don’t believe in tracing photos or even imitating photographic effects, and for another, modifying a picture is what makes it art, IMO. And not just in my opinion, but also in the opinion of others. I read a pretty good book on painting landscapes called Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, written in the 1928. Carlson won a lot of awards as a painter but also taught landscape painting. His paintings are fairly traditional, so it is all the more striking when he says that beginners tend to copy everything they see in a scene in front of them. As we become artists, we begin to leave out or put in elements that bring out the essence of the scene for us as individual artists. This leaving out and putting in is what makes an artist an artist. Technique is just a tool for the expression of the artist’s personality, he says.

This makes such perfect sense to me, and now I think of it every time I make sketches for paintings or work on the paintings themselves. With the sketch I made from my henbane photos, I exaggerated the characteristics of the henbane pods to make them seem more like henbane pods, I shifted their position so that they were more symmetrical, I deleted the true background, I removed a couple dead leaves, and I completely changed the lighting. I did all of this to make my depiction of these pods more of a depiction of these pods as I see them–their henbaney quintessence. ¬†Although I am considering this my first version of this painting because I am not happy with the way the sky came out (and I still have to experiment with putting a mist around the Moon, which is why the Moon is not perfectly round–it wasn’t important since it is going to be covered with mist), I am satisfied with it in terms of my depiction of the pods themselves. The painting gives information about the plant in a pleasing way, but IMO, it is not pleasing enough, so I will work on the sky more.

But I have thought of this whole putting in and leaving out as a manifestation of maturity of vision in terms of magic as well.

Lately a kind of nostalgic orthodoxy seems to have overwhelmed all sorts of spheres of our culture. I see it in art in people who get their undies in a huge twist about abstract art, like it is killing their babies and making them live on the street. These same folks believe that “real” art is done with the methods of centuries ago or at any rate is realistic. Abstract or non-representational art makes their blood pressure go up and they snarl about how such artists can’t draw. The same reheated orthodoxy is popular in magic nowadays as well. Folks assert that we must follow the rules of grimoires exactly, that if we are not for instance drawing a sigil with real dove’s blood on calf skin parchment as opposed to using a red ink on paper, that we are not making authentic magic. We are informed that if we don’t actually SEE a spirit we are working with, the experience is not real and instead we are suffering from terminal New Age fluff-bunnyism. Others insist that anyone who is not part of a tradition that allegedly goes back to angels who got kicked out of heaven–or at least goes back to Pagan times–is not a real witch. Etc.

For example: After I put up the herbal codes page I have on my shop site, I saw a link from a traditional witchcraft group about how my info was so New Age and laughable really and that REAL witches kill animals for spellwork and use their blood and bones and anyone who doesn’t think so is a Wiccan, which word is used as a term of abuse for someone they disrespect and has nothing whatsoever to do with real Wicca. I frowned when I read this, partly because the tone reminded me of grade school but also because I thought I had seen herbal codes mentioned as far back as the Middle Ages, so having four planets in Scorpio, I decided to research it. Well, herbal codes go back to the Greek Magical Papyrus, which is the late ancient world. And that is a hell of a lot older than any traditional witchcraft. So using some sap or resin instead of some animal blood is perfectly authentic. It just does not fit into the new orthodoxy of magic.

Orthodoxy, shmorthodoxy. Like art, the bottom line is whether magic works. I can testify that using ordinary ink on paper does indeed work, and so can thousands of other magic workers in the course of history. I am sure you have had similar experiences in your magical practice. Sometimes the simplest magic that was never a part of any big huge impressive tradition is the most powerful, and sometimes the most orthodox magic that has the best and most props and cool ingredients and secret words is a huge flop. Partly that’s because of the skill of the practitioner, but partly it’s also a question of the spirits or the energy or the will of the gods or whatever we want to call it. Sometimes the universe works with us and sometimes it works against us.

But what’s all this got to do with my henbane painting? Only this: just like as artists become more skilled, we learn what to leave in and what to take out to make the best image, to make art instead of just a picture, so as witches we learn which rules we can bend or break or even invent in order to make the best magic. And what is the best magic? It is the magic that works. Not the antique magic, not the magic with the best props or seekrit sauce, not the magic with the big names, but the magic that just plain works. That is real magic. We can learn this by doing, by seeing what happens when we take things out or add other things in. Yes, I have heard all the dire warnings about the spooky & ‘orrible things that will happen to someone if they don’t follow the orthodox rules of magic exactly. But IME such folks are far more likely to be spurned by the orthodox people around them than to be injured by pissed-off spirits or karma, which is otherwise absent from our world.

This is not to say that I think following some tradition or book magic is needless. But it is like the list of properties of pigments for the artist. That is basic knowledge that then must be of use to the artist’s own personal expression of the world. But a list of pigment properties is not art, just like the rules of a tradition or a grimoire are not magic. The magic–and the art–is in the synthesis that the artist or witch creates from their knowledge, intuition, gut, and practice. Magic should be no less an expression of the witch’s personal vision than a painting should be the expression of the artist’s personal vision. That perspective makes a hash of magical orthodoxy or of slavishly imitating the Old Masters of painting.

And with that, I am off to start my foxglove seeds. Because spring will come eventually.

5 comments to Henbane Moon: Art & Magic

  • Very well said, Harold. The proof is in the pudding…

  • Invidosa

    I couldn’t agree more! I find such infighting reprehensible. We as a group have more then enough people telling us that our spirituality is somehow “wrong” that we don’t need other pagans giving each other a hard time on top of it. I for one am tired of being told that my hedge witchery is “low” vs their “high” ceremonial workings.its the same kind of crap we see regularly in the christian sphere regarding denomination and I feel we should be above that. I think we should take each other at our word and accept that whatever works for an individual works for them. To do otherwise is hypocrisy.

  • Well, it might mean I’m old (at 35) or hypocritical or a terrible person, but as a natural “Perceiver” as opposed to a “Judge” I have resolved to make more decisions to bring my life into better balance, so this morning, here it is: I pass judgement.

    (Almost always) blood sacrifice is worse than BS ineffective magic, it is counter-productive to developing the magic vision you allude to above. (I like what you have written before about sacrificing one’s own blood if necessary.)


    The process of transcending our mundane vision is the quest of cutting through the lies we tell to ourselves that taint our view of what is truly a magical world. We paint over the magic with grey banality.

    One such lie I learned as I grew from a child of magic to boring, blind and unempowered adulthood was “just animals.” “Just trees, just flowers, just a river, just a mountain….”

    When we commit violence against animals, or destroy a forest, pollute a river, mine a mountain, we strengthen the psychic barrier we erect between ourselves and this world of magic. We must close our eyes to the truth in order to justify our actions.

    We must lie to ourselves. We shut ourselves off to a whole realm of magic.

    A mountain is not a man. I do not suggest anthropomorphism. But a mountain is not “just a mountain.” The more we can experience animals as what they truly are, the more we begin to see and experience subtle forces around us, to see these forces as animals do… to see in everyday life that this world is inhabited by profoundly magical beings.

    This is no small magic. In fact, in our human mythology and imagination, this is often represented as the greatest, most profound magic there is! If one can achieve the vision that is deeply in touch with this reality, every moment becomes ritual, the single move of a finger can have profound magical impact.

    It’s apparent that the main effect of blood sacrifice is to INTENTIONALLY raise a psychical/metaphysical barrier between the spellcaster and the magical world of which I speak. In fact, that is the underlying purpose of bloodwork in any spell or ritual. Simply put, there are things that cannot easily be done when exposed to that realm, which amplifies natural magical force, the flow, the “Tao,” including the force which is often called karma.

    Furthermore, these forces may not care about your job, your human relationships or helping you with your human goals. They may even laugh at your priorities.

    And yes, at the same time there are certain forces that will not work with a spellcaster who is grounded in that realm, or not properly shielded from it.

    In this way, bloodwork IS very powerful magic. Just one act, performed with ritual intention, can create a powerful wall between you and this world, one that would take YEARS of work to undo. In fact, because of cognitive dissonance, trying to undo it may only make it stronger.

    But this is a very poor trade-off. One closes oneself off to the magic of the broad natural world that effects all, for small gains in the magic of petty human desires. What does our human mythology say about the forces that one bargains with in blood sacrifice? There’s a reason they are usually represented as childish, self-centered, unreliable, and even feeble.

    And why is it that these forces are always so concerned about what equipment you have or what “level” of initiation and stuff like that. It’s like the Jr. High School of the Spirit Realm.

    The only reason the modern “orthodoxy” has come to its views of “high” magic is that it can’t see the outside world through the thick walls of its Jr. High School gymnasium.

    But if you look at our human mythology, you see that hedgewitchery is indeed high magic.

  • faustianbargain

    henbane moon is gorgeous!

  • Oh, and yes, henbane moon is gorgeous, as all the recent paintings have been. Will some of this new work show up in your shop?

    I forgot to mention that because I was (apparently) grumpy from hobbling around on a busted up ankle. I also forgot to say, “hi, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for sometime now, so thanks!”



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