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From the Circle to the Spiral

The Magickal Perspective on Death

previously published as a feature in issue 21 of WitchCraft magazine

As a society that is essentially in denial about dying and death, we have become imprisoned by them. Most people's attitude towards death seems to be not so much the fear of dying, as an all-consuming fear of actually living, of accepting the power and responsibility of free choice. Why else would we struggle year after year to sustain dead relationships and meaningless jobs?

To develop your own understanding of death, beyond your received ideas, one valuable rehearsal and meditation is the "Do-It-Yourself Obituary". Besides evaluating your achievements and failures, an acute awareness of your own mortality often helps you make the life-changes now, rather than reap regrets on your deathbed. Death reminds us that time runs out - there are no more chances to get it right. Now is the only time we ever have to live from our deepest truth in the relationships that matter.

Most people die at the end of a period of illness. Whether at home or in a hospital, we can still make a free, spacious place for our own dying, or sharing in the dying of someone we love. When we can no longer control the circumstances of our living or our dying, we can still choose our attitude about them. If the letting go of resistance comes from our philosophical heart-centre, the seat of the higher astral body, the tension and fear can be released from our lower astral body, our "survival personality". When we choose to openly receive life as it really is, we are free. Whether we can change things or not, when we are free, we are in control.

Some very good resources for death and dying are available online, including the Natural Death Handbook which is somewhat dated, but a very good starting point as well as a comprehensive booklists for Grief and Bereavement.

How do we address the problem of the fear of death? As Pagans or Witches, there can be no blind faith. The Old Religion is a Magickal Religion, which demands that we participate in the Mystery, actively co-create in Oneness with the Universe. The practice of Magickal Religion demands that we combine two polarities of working: the mystical/religious, involving meditation, concentration and receptive psychic development, and the operative/magickal, involving ritual skills and spellcraft for practical purposes, the active projection of psychic energies.

This means that we do not have to blindly believe, because within our Rites we experience the Mystery of Rebirth, in the Circle and the Spiral of the Wheel. At the Sabbats of Samhain and Midwinter, we are healing those Rites of Passage most neglected by contemporary culture - Death and Birth. These are the two sides of the same Door, as Death is also a Birth, a seeding into the metaphysical dimensions. Once we have experienced the expansion of our astral/psychic senses through the disciplines of Ritual, especially some form of astral projection - we are "hatched" out of the old physical shell forever, and nothing can pack us back into it ever again. The "Out-of-Body" state becomes experiential proof that consciousness survives beyond the physical body.

Looking into the face of our mortality, we meet the steady gaze of the Witchesí God, "the Lord of Death and what lies beyond it, the Comforter and the Consoler, the Giver of Peace and Rest" who gives us the knowledge that we can choose to return, to be reborn again, "in the same place and in the same time as our beloved ones". This is no less an achievement than conscious reincarnation, a goal of Witchcraft tradition held in common with the sacred practices of India and Tibet.


The Buddhists say that the mind creates joy or suffering in our outer visible life through our waking, dreaming and sleeping states. While living in the "house" created from these mind-states, we are also divine, immortal, and infinite beings who exist beyond mortal limitations. The Buddhist "liberation from suffering", and the Western Magickal ideal of "freedom from external circumstances", are won by awakening from our illusion that we are little, separate beings and remembering our divine, unbounded Nature.

We are never separate from Spirit - we are actually "beaming down" into Matter in every moment. What keeps us focussed in the earth plane is the activity of our physical brain, which protects us from being bombarded by non-physical cosmic energies. When we incarnate into physical existence, we go into a "powering-down" process so that the vibrational intensity of our true spiritual essence can integrate with the physical without burning it up.

The embodied Spirit dwells in "subtle bodies" or "energy-vehicles" of different vibrational frequencies, which correspond to the Four Elements: the etheric or vital body, which is very close to the physical (Earth); the lower astral body, of sensory thinking and feeling, the critical mind (Air); the higher astral body, of abstract thinking and feeling, the creative, intuitive mind (Water); the spiritual body, of "higher self" or infinite, divine mind (Fire).

Altered states are naturally experienced every day, but without the magickal discipline of self-awareness through the practice of Meditation, one is usually oblivious to them. On rising, we are alert in our physical body, the waking or conscious state, which has a fast frequency beta brainwave (14-22 cycles per second), and a breathing rate of 18 breaths per minute. When we first go to sleep, breathing about 10 breaths per minute, we move into the lower astral body and the colourful subconscious dream-state of the alpha frequency (14-7 cycles). Astral activity at this level is connected with the sensory or physical personality. As we enter our "higher astral" body with its deeper, more subtle states of inspired and creative dreaming, the brain frequency drops to the theta frequency, (7-4 cycles).

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When this dream state has also been crossed, you enter the deep sleep state of the very slow delta brainwave (1-3 cycles) and the causal, or spirit "body of light". Research has shown that the human mind is active even under anaesthetic or in coma conditions, when brain waves are nearly absent. For most people, this state is deeply unconscious, but those few individuals, such as yogic adepts, miracle-healers, etc, who can maintain awareness at this level achieve that super-consciousness which transcends space and time. The true body of light is the "transformation body" which is the pure embodiment of Spirit linked to the attainment of physical immortality.

Except that they are interpenetrating, our auric bodies are like those Russian dolls that fit one over the other, the higher, more subtle levels are "brooding over" or over-lighting the lower and denser levels. Altered states of consciousness and the corresponding energy-vehicles we experience them in, are intimately involved with our birth and death.

When you are awake, (and grounded) you are in the physical body. Under surgical anaesthesia you do not feel the cutting of your physical body, because you are in a different body. In order to progressively free our consciousness from being protectively held earth-bound, we need to slow down our brain-wave frequency. By relaxing your physical body, calming the judgemental perceptions of the body-mind, deepening your creative inner vision and focussing your will, you will steadily quicken your energy into its more fluid astral form. You will begin not only to awaken "out of the body", but also wake up from the collective dream that most people accept as the only reality. This is known as "dying while still alive", which in magickal terms is the willed disintegration of the limited ego-mind.

The true Rite of Passing that is our final Healing or Initiation will take place beyond the noisy labyrinth of our energy-bodies. As we progressively release the cords of toxic energy linking us to past life-patterns, and heal the auric patterns that entrap us, our Journey ultimately takes us out beyond all these astral "cul de sacs" and into our true divine Nature. For the advanced magickal Adept it is possible to achieve this without having to jettison the physical body, which means that he or she would develop what is known as the immortal or "transformation body".

The parallels between dying and giving birth are very strong. Conscious dying is to death what natural childbirth is to the birth process. Anya Foos-Graber in her book "Deathing" urges us to "Look at death's counterpart - fertilization, pregnancy and birth! Knowing the process, whether of birth or death, means you can positively utilise it."


From ancient times the Wise have understood that sleep is a glimpse of death. A dying person moves from waking state into a light hypnagogic state, then from a deeper dream state he enters the deep sleep state. This is the only state in which death can happen. In deep sleep, you lose all perception, even of the pain of death. The anaesthetic required for surgery forces you into the deep sleep state. Because life itself is removed from the body, death is the greatest surgical operation there is. You donít remember your birth because it too takes place in deep sleep. The profound state of deep sleep between two lifetimes, between death and rebirth, accounts for our lack of past-life memory. Most of it is lost at both ends.

In Tibet, they try to stop the dying person from slipping into deep sleep, not only keeping them awake, with light, music, chanting and singing, but they also induce a conscious dream-state, a guided Pathworking called a "Bardo" which continues on through the point of death and into the next life. With all the memories from the previous lifetime intact, death can no longer be buried into unconsciousness out of fear and ignorance. No longer able to repeat the old patterns, the individualís effort to transform their life will become more intense.

In her "Celtic Book of the Dead", Caitlin Matthews presents Pathworkings based on the mythic voyages of Mael Duin, which describe "imramma" or journeys to the Many-Coloured Lands/Islands. Voyages generally indicate shamanistic journeys to the Otherworld/Underworld. These Islands serve as astral "way-stations", heavens or realms of learning for the travelling soul, whether leaving the body behind in death, or, like the shaman, dreamer or astral explorer, returning to the world with healing, knowledge or rediscovered power.

Dying in the awake state is the ultimate goal, because you can become one with existence and choose whether to be reborn or not. Hindus believe that a person born fully awakened is an avatar, an incarnation of the divine.

In a reversal of the birth process, during death the energy-bodies "telescope back", one by one: the physical/etheric body withdraws into the sensory dream-body, which then accumulates into the higher-astral body, and then all is assimilated into the sleep-state or causal body (the Will, which is the Cause or Seed-Fire of the Tree of Life). After the physical body fades, the sensory memory dwindles, and the deeper dreaming dissolves, death will come in the sleep state. The sleep‑state body also fades - but does not end. Motivated by past lives and the desire to have all the bodies again, the sleep‑state body, the causal body, will set out again on its journey.


In the new birth, the same patterns are unfurled again, and the Seed-Consciousness of life becomes more of itself, striving to awaken into its own divine Light. In the Western Mysteries, initiates often identify themselves with the Victorious Sun, the ever-burning, ever-returning, Eternal Light, circling the Wheel of the days, years and lifetimes, descending into the Autumn twilight, dying into Mother Earth, and reborn in every Spring and sunrise, until the Circle becomes the Spiral and the soul returns to the Stars.

When all the bodies and "dreamings" have fully unfolded and ended, and we are finally freed from the veils of illusion, we enter into the fifth state, from which there is no coming or going. The goal of Meditation and the completion of the cycles of life and death, are both called enlightenment, "awakenment" or Initiation. The Mighty Dead, those great Witch-Adepts who have gone into the very fabric of Nature to guide and guard the Witch-Clans from the Inner Planes, are probably of this order of Initiation. Their Journey on the Wheel has now moved into the eternal Spiral, where there is no birth, no death, but life, and more life.

Accepting that life and death are part of each-other, one powerful Eastern viewpoint is that we are "already dead". Recognizing that we, and our loved ones are inherently dead, means that every moment of life becomes precious. Fear and doubt can no longer separate us from what we truly love. (The primary importance of love is the commonest element reported by Near Death returnees.) Life takes on a new meaning, revealing its miraculous nature. Living and dying are of the same infinite continuum of existence and Love, Death and Birth are the same primordial Magick. From the moment of birth, we have been dying. The mirror-twin of birth, Death the Gate-Guardian is here, not only as friend and Ally, but also as God/dess of Initiation beyond birth and death, our first Love and our last.


The Circle-casting for this Rite can be very free-form and expressive, with both the boundary and Quarter Guardians called by dancing and singing, and the God and Goddess drawn down by both spontaneous and memorized invocation.

At Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") or Halloween, the Death Tide of the Year, we are at the peak of the Underworld Journey which begins at Autumn Equinox and continues until Midwinter, which is the completion of the process, death on one side, birth on the other. The Wild Hunt is a haunting of shape-shifting Nature-Beings led by the Horned God with ghostly horse and hounds...At Beltane the Wild Hunt brings souls into incarnation; with the Death-tide at Samhain, the Ancestors often ride with the elemental forces as they gather up all the old shapes and shells of life and take the Dead back to the underworld for rest and renewal. It is a great astral clearing of body, house and land, which can pull the "soul" out of the body for either physical death or the metaphysical death of Initiatory transformation, if you are ready.

In the Underworld dreaming of Nature, this is an Elemental storm that empties its harvest into the spiral-maze of the Goddess. As the Dark Mother of Death and Change, womb-gate of Rebirth, she is symbolized by the Cauldron in the Centre of the Circle. We invoke this un-shaping, and un-weaving by dancing in a widdershins spiral (clockwise) to the Cauldron of Transformation.

All the stories of the Rites of Passage that were never granted us with true honour and love - we now let go of them - allowing the fertile Dark Star-Mother - Black Hole, Dark Moon, and Womb of Stars - to transform us. She knows very well that these stories are not who we really are, that they are merely temporary shapes for us to learn from. So we honour these drama-Masks for their often painful life-lessons, but we release them into the transforming Cauldron-Goddess, in whom our real divine Being is sustained. In this Ritual we ride with the Ghost-God of the Wild Hunt to take those forms that have power for us (or over us, as the case may be) and free the energy contained in them for the creative power of our divine inner Being.

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We do this by chanting the key phrases of whatever disempowering story we donít need any more. This is best achieved in a group of people who can trust each-other with intimate issues like grieving, betrayal, abuse or failure. As each individual gives expression to these things, the group can join in and improvise with sounds of howling and mourning, letting the releasing rise and fall, then continue around the Circle. When all have made their own inward Spiral, then the whole group make the Spiral Dance in a serpentine line to the Centre, chanting: "Out harrow, out sorrow, be banished, banished, gone !"

At the Centre, the leader calls "Still!" and a period of silence is observed. Through the star-flecked Dark Mirror-Gate of Space, see and feel the ancient Spiral Goddess of Death and Rebirth communicating her blessing and wisdom. Next, the group says, three times: "I am a Storm, gathering my forces. At my empty Centre I reap the whirlwind without fear." "Listen", says the leader. Feel the vortex of the Wild Huntís power building under your feet, and begin the "Out harrow" chant again, stamping out the rhythm, and alternating with "One thing becomes another, in the Mother, in the Mother...". On the leaderís signal, the line of the Spiral Dance doubles back upon itself and moves out (deosil/anticlockwise) into a Circle, with great force and joy. The dance now moves into a Cone of Power using the "Witchesí Rune" or similar chant. (See "The Witchesí Bible" by Janet & Stewart Farrar). At this point the Work can be grounded by blessing and sharing the Cakes and Wine, feasting and making merry!


In a powerful visionary dream, right on the Autumn Equinox, I received an uncanny forewarning of this yearís Dark Tide. Finding myself out in space, far above the blue atmosphere of the earth, I became aware of a gigantic Angel just behind me to my left, with the classic feathery wings, but in surreal, luminous form. I realized later that this must be the Planetary Angel of Earth. Before me I beheld a large human foetus, almost full term, reminiscent of "2001, a Space Odyssey", except that I perceived it with the same "inner X-ray vision" that I have when I do distance healing. It appeared to be lit from inside, and I could see its organs down to almost the cellular level.

Further to my right, and just behind me, I could see four or five, indescribably beautiful angels, almost as huge as the Earth Angel, all hovering near the Child. As I watched the glowing foetus, I could see that each organ inside it was starting to become necrotic, I could see cells dying off before my eyes. Somehow this did not seem to be cause for concern. Next, I realized with a shock that the group of angels were pulling the Light out of the foetus, which I sensed was its real divine Being and Essence. As the dream faded, I knew that the Childís body was being absorbed into the starry universe.

When I awoke and remembered the dream, a huge force of revelation hit my heart, making me very emotional. I knew beyond words that I had witnessed an Initiatory healing of great grace. The damaged Inner Child of all humanity, watched over by the Earth Angel, was being delivered out of its wounded state, as pure Light, right into the arms of the angels! This child was being born, not into another body, but into Light - the ultimate Initiation beyond birth and death. Flower A. Newhouse, writing extensively on angels earlier this century, considers these "midwives" of both Birth and Death to be a higher order of angel known as "the Powers". Depicted in ancient art as lightning bolts, they are said to be surrounded by intense brilliance, using an electrical charge to bring the soul into the body at birth and release it at death. Many nurses report this flash of light occurring at the point of death.

Life is inseparable from Death, they are the two polarities of the same substance or energy. Being in or out of the embodied state is just a matter of coming and going. When you know there is no death in the sense of a final ending, you just live life in the understanding that we go on infinitely.

Blessed Be.

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