Samhain ritual for ‘Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry’ launch at the Dead House
Sascha Akhtar attends a powerful sound-bathed alchemical ritual for the Samhain launch of Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, an anthology published by Ignota Books.
“Magical thinking is the point at which all things intersect. In the ritual space everything has meaning. Ritual is a technology to transform consciousness, taking us from the visible, rational and material to that which is only felt: to the source. Here inner and outer worlds can exist simultaneously without contradiction, catalysing a dissolution of the individual self. “
– Official text from launch for Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry
‘Nigredo’ Ritual: Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry launch. Somerset House. Oct 31st, 2018
Well, loves. It has been a particularly enchanted season o’ the witch, with full and billowing moons and that tang in the air of magic and manifestation. Now I don’t know what you were doing for that oh-so important night of, repeat after me: Sow-eeen… but I was in the bowels of Somerset House attending a rare occurrence in London; a public ritual.
A bit about moi. Grand Poetess. Casting spells with my poetics since oh 2006 (actually earlier, my darlings, but let’s not place me in dog years). Engaging in ritualistic renderings with transcendental soundscapes, wearing black eyeliner, often speaking in tongues – so naturally when I was alerted by my familiar that a book had been born… a book of poetry, purporting itself as SPELLS… well, you could have knocked me down with a stick of palo santo.
Fast forward (or back) to Oct 31st, 2018 – it scarcely matters since time is vast & non-linear – and me in the bowels, yes, the bowels of Somerset House… deep down in what is known as the Dead House.
The LightWells leading to the Dead Chamber. Photo: Katherine Angel
Spells. Photo: Katherine Angel
Somerset House itself is a superb neo-classical building situated between the Strand and the River Thames. The current Somerset House dates back to 1775.
The Dead House, then, is Somerset House’s secret chamber, clad with genuine headstones dating from the 1600s and authentic antique odour. There are no dead bodies, just gravestones placed here during the Georgian rebuilding. I must admit to being very pleased to be in here. I love a bit of pomp and circumstance, me.
The publishers of Spells want us to hear them when they say in the back o’ the anthology: Spells are poems; poetry is spelling/Spell-poems take us into a realm where words can influence the universe. Perfect!
I arrived at the appointed hour. Meaning, I had just got through the mobs (and the tunnels were mobbed) to most perfectly align myself with the ritual space. With all the gathering of beers and voddies done, the punters seemed wholly unprepared for the burst of ritual, me included. I adored the raw, not-standing-on-ceremony vibe of the onset.
I will admit, I did wonder about the title of the ritual, “Nigredo,” since this is actually the worst and darkest (it’s in the name) stage on the alchemical path. You have Rubedo, Aldedo and Nigredo… the latter being that last, horrible stage when you are ‘blackening,’ and possibly not sure you’ll make it…but the Nigredo stage is also the most powerful one. From this darkness comes GOLD.
For all intents & purposes this ritual then – on a night traditionally believed to be a time where the veil between worlds is thinnest – was intended to catalyse some kind of dissolution of the individual self, while being dragged through our inner muck?
As K.Chingonyi’s poem in the anthology says: Did no one tell you/naming is a magical act,/words giving shape/to life, life revived/by utterance,/so long as proper care/is taken to pronounce/the words correctly/thereby completing the spell?
Nicole Bettencourt, ritual facilitator. Photo: Ralph Pritchard
There were many ritual executors. There were many gongs set up. Large ones, which was impressive- I find that the willingness of a person to transport large gongs to a ceremony is indicative of their devotion to authenticity and the moment. It was funny because I briefly spoke to an unassuming but very beautiful woman at the door in a black turtleneck & red ankle-length skirt. Will I be ok to take photos? I says.
I’m sure they will be ok with that she says.
Me (thinks): I thought she was ‘they’. Who’s ‘they’. Puzzles.
This same woman, it turns out, was a wildly bewitching central figure in the ritual. Her voice compelled. It broke through and soothed all at once. From the moment the sounds came in and the ritual began, I was transported. I later learnt she is Lani Rocillo.
The lovely Lani Rocillo. Photo: Orlando
There was very thick smoke billowing from the incense burnt by the initial conductor of the ceremony. I liked that he was in a hoodie. I wondered what the materials in the incense were, because it was a pungent smoke, not entirely fragrant, slightly acrid even. I liked it. I enjoyed the drama of it and I remember hoping it was in fact what I trusted it to be, something natural and ceremonial and that I wasn’t inhaling a fuck-load of bad shit.
Because inhaling I was. Deeply. There is a distinct magic involved in holding ritual space for others. It involves a degree of presence. From my own work, I find stamping on the ground, something I learnt from my Butoh training (ostensibly, the teachers told us, to raise up the spirits) to be very effective in cultivating presence. There was a considerable amount of this. Stamping, movement, re-shuffling, exchanging of positions – an effective way to move energy.
I spoke to some people later, who were befuddled, wanted context, wanted to know “what it was about,” resented being thrown in like that. While I understood and respected where they were coming from and where they were at with the process, I also wondered about people’s willingness to allow for an experience such as this to subsume them.
Certainly, I have more practice. I am a healer and meditation teacher. Also a performer. I was willing to instantly be with the moment. Breathe with it. Love it. Allow it. I found the editor of the anthology had some insight into the matter,
“People are afraid to be vulnerable.”
Ritual space can open us up to vulnerability, if we are unprepared and not quite sure what to expect. And perhaps when a ritual such as this is an ‘event,’ there may well be some notion of a hipster-ish watered-down version of ritual? Yes, it did cross my mind. I’ll admit it.
However, in Nigredo, I found the executors to be far from watered-down. They had incredible focus. Their intentions were clear and the shift of energy they managed to attain was very effective in, at the very least, pulling me in. In this regard, though, my intention too was clear.
I wanted to be part of the ritual and be taken on a transformative journey, with an eye on my ancestors and yet be very much present in sound and journey. If, as they say, possession is 9/10ths of the law, then every practitioner of magic worth their salt knows that Intention is 9/10ths of Spelling, Magic, the Craft or the Way. Whatever you wish to call it. Just it.
Nicole Bettencourt Cohelo conducted the ceremony with authentic power. Fittingly, she is a musician engaged in hypnotherapy and sound healing practice.
I find that the term “witch” can be used as yet another label, even when we use it to reclaim a status or to re-establish ourselves. I have found in my experience it matters not if one calls oneself “witch”. Ritual practice if conducted with authenticity is magic, whether or not anyone calls themselves by any name. So I know not, if anyone in the ritual crew was a witch or not, but it scarcely mattered, for magic there clearly was, with an intention to heal.
They followed a clear script, with different voices assuming different parts. I appreciated the invocations of the elements and the moon, stars, sun et al. Within the writing was enfolded a great example of syncretic intersectional magic. There were many instances when the words reiterated that all branches of esoteric knowledge are essentially saying the same thing.
The ritual was also extremely generous, in that the last third was pure sound healing with a wonderful, compassionate gong bath. I remained enchanted with Lani Rocillo, my lady in the red skirt, throughout. Magic is about coming into one’s own power and learning how to use it and to what effect. I felt Lani Rocillo, Nicole Bettencourt and their crew, Martina Saorin, Mario Benedetti, Sim Gray, Kati Flo, Mary Grace, Caitlin McNamara and Annabelle Stapleton-Crittenden, were all present with their powers.
You Lead I Follow. Photo: Ralph Pritchard
We would have followed them anywhere. When the ritual came to a close they walked down one of the passageways in a ceremonial march. I and a number of people began to follow them, knowing not where it would lead.
That, loves is power & magic. That is poetry. As Poet Jen Calleja says: Casting occurs in the space where body and song harmonise.
The ritual conductors left us as they had arrived, unceremoniously walking out the swinging doors at the end of the tunnel with a loud bang. Sadly, the spell was broken. We all laughed very, very loudly.
As a poet and performer who utilises sound healing and having personally witnessed the power of spelling intended to affect change – I gotta say, there was no way to follow that act.
After the ritual, one of the editors of the anthology suggested we could utilise what the ritual space may have brought up for us to listen to the poetry to follow. I feel that kind of magic can open us up (if we are ourselves open to it), and this made for one of the most ‘present’ poetry readings I have attended. I heard every sound. I felt the ground beneath me, the cold brickwork around me. I noticed the poet Amy Key who performed her poem My narrative costume is a witch without reputation had the most amazing, fiery hair. I found poet Daisy Lafarge’s Incantation Against Mumsnet innovative (and boy am I glad I got to hear her read it out UNCODED… you’ll know what I mean if you see it in print) if not a little puzzling. MUMSNET saved my ass big-time when I found myself a solo mum with a 1.3 year old. I love anything to do with headless women, so hearing Rebecca Perry’s poems, derived from the story of Marie Antoinette, was grand. I was disappointed not to get the Banu Kapil Spectre experience…but into every poetry event a little tech gremlin must drop.
Miss Amy Key. Photo: Katherine Angel
Rebecca Perry Has The Floor. Photo: Alex Mcdonald
I noticed how many people were actually there.
I had never seen this many people at a poetry reading and I’ve been doing this a long time (as a promoter as well as an attendee). People are thirsty. Thirsty for the unknown. For magic. It’s fantastic!
I reflected on how, a decade ago, this was the kind of poetry reading I had longed for. In the right space, with the right energy, at the right time.
Many of my poetry-peers are in the Spells anthology. People I have come up with in the literary sphere – Sophie Robinson, Nia Davies, Dorothea Laskey & Francesca Lisette. Magical creatures, all of them, I can attest.
The road to this has been paved by poets such as Geraldine Monk, Marianne Morris, Ziba Karbassi, Frances Kruk, Zoe Skoulding. I, for one, am all for more ritual, more magic, more, more, more! Here’s to Us, whoever you are, coming into your authentic power.
Sascha Aurora Akhtar’s first collection of poetry was entitled The Grimoire of Grimalkin, and was called “a literary masterpiece”. Her third collection Only Dying Sparkles is out now in the form of a magical objeckt. She believes in poetry as what she calls a “love economy”. In March 2019 she is teaching Technicians of the Sacred: The Poem as a Magical Event at the Poetry School.
Order SPELLS: 21st Century Occult Poetry
SPELLS: 21st Century Occult Poetry is published by Ignota Books.