The Art of the Craft

Elizabeth Barrette
Impressions by Elizabeth Barrette, PanGaia editor.

The Art of the Craft
by Elizabeth Barrette


Click for full description.“It is in the gift for employing all the vicissitudes of life to one’s own advantage and to that of one’s craft that a large part of genius consists.” – Georg C. Lichtenberg

Everything that you create arises from some hidden place within you and emerges into the world through your actions. You put a little bit of your spirit into each thing that you make. You take the tools and supplies around you, and shape them into things of worth and beauty. Your experiences become part of your creations. That’s craft — and sometimes, that’s genius.

As Pagans, we believe that the world is alive. All things contain spirit. The stones, the metals, the woods, the fibers, the pigments, everything we work with — we understand that these things do not wholly belong to us. We did not cause them to exist. Yet when we take them into our hands and give them a new form, we create works of art.

We begin with raw materials and turn them into something unique, based on our own inner vision. Those creations belong to us, made as much with our time and our imagination as with the goods themselves. They are expressions of ourselves, and therefore sacred.

Why do we create things? It is part of what makes us human. Primates have existed for millions of years; even hominids are not very new. What’s new is this creative spark that emerged about 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. From that period onward, we have cave paintings, beads, statues, musical instruments, and other artifacts that demonstrate our ancestors’ love of beauty as well as practicality.

Many of the surviving examples are sacred crafts, things made for the glory of the gods, for magical or spiritual purposes. We see shamans and magicians working their magic. We see gods and goddesses, each with their unique symbols of fertility, might, wisdom, and other powers. We see abstract patterns that may represent “landmarks” in the realms where the spirit travels. Ceremonial containers give us hints of their uses, like the canopic jars of ancient Egypt. Murals and friezes on walls show us rites otherwise forgotten.

Sometimes all that we have left of a culture is its crafts. Stone and bone, ceramic and paint, even parchment and ink — these can outlive their artists by thousands of years. We are left with potshards and parts of statues, fading paint like footsteps where others have gone before us. These things survive the ravages of time. They tell us what our ancestors considered important, beautiful, holy.

Crafts are as diverse and ubiquitous as religions. This is because they both spring from the same source. Divinity is creative; therefore we are creative. Most religions posit that humans are created in the image (or at least an image) of the Divine. Since we were made by a Great Creator, we must naturally be creators ourselves. That divine spark burns within us all, demanding we let it shine forth.

Perhaps you whittle wood into wands, or mold clay into chalices and bowls. Perhaps you weave altar cloths, sew ritual robes, or embroider magical samplers. Perhaps you make flower arrangements or centerpieces for sabbat decorations. Maybe, though, you haven’t yet found the craft that calls to you, the one that lets your spirit spill out almost effortlessly through your fingers. Keep searching. You will find it — or more precisely, it will find you.

Sacred crafts characterize much of the contemporary Pagan community. Go to any Pagan festival and walk down the Merchants’ Row. There you will discover an amazing diversity of folk art. There will be ritual robes glittering with metallic embroidery, or quieter ones of homespun wool; candles in all colors and shapes; handmade soaps to cleanse your body before a ceremony; gold and silver jewelry set with sparkling gems, honoring dozens of deities. There will be all these things and more.

Sometimes people make fun of us for buying so much “stuff.” Magic, they say, lives in the magician and not in the tools. Religion, they say, lives in the soul and not in the altar trappings. Well, that’s true — as far as it goes. But the objects we make and use are special, even so. They speak to us. You’ve heard them, I’m sure. You’ve walked past a merchant’s table or squeezed through a dusty antique shop, and heard some treasure whisper your name or felt a gentle tug at your sleeve.

Certain objects evoke in us a sense of awe and reverence. They enchant us, making us more aware of the magic that flows around and through us all the time. They bless us with small symbols of divinity that our limited yet open minds can comprehend, making us more receptive to the vast and marvelous deities whose totality far exceeds our capacity. They are bridges between what was and what is, between what we are and what we could become. Touchstones. Mile markers. Signs along the way.

The crafts we choose send a message. They speak to everyone who sees them, touches them, interacts with them. There is the elemental balance of clay, earth and water fixed by air and fire into a permanent form. There is the delicacy of paper crafts, the sturdiness of stone. There is the indomitable will of iron, the flowing grace of silver, the richness of gold. There is a quilt woven of patience and pieced with love. The things we make, or acquire and keep around us, whisper who we are even when we are not there.

Looking around my room I can see examples: a wall hanging braided from brightly colored rags, sketches and paintings of characters from favorite stories, a dreamcatcher made from white leather and blue macaw feathers, brilliant skirts and blouses for dancing around bonfires, a copper cauldron still bearing hammer marks like dragon scales, and a goddess figurine made from clay that I dug and fired many years ago. Some of these I’ve made myself, others have been gifts from friends or things I’ve bought. All of them reflect a little of who I am.

What do people see of you in the things you’ve made or collected? What do the gods see, when you lay out your altar and dress for ritual?

In this issue, we celebrate “Sacred Crafts” — all manner of arts and crafts devoted to spiritual or magical expression. Our lead feature for this section is “Scrapbook of Shadows” by Michelle Benedicta and me. This article explains how to use scrapbook techniques to preserve memories and cultural material, so that people many years from now will know what the Pagan community was like in our time. Sidebars introduce useful tools, supplies, and vocabulary.

Next “Magical Scroll Beads” by Autumn Damiana describes the construction of beads from colored paper, as an aid in spellcasting.

In “Hoof and Horn: Working With Animal Parts,” Rebecca Lexa explores the uses of such materials as bone, antler, leather, fur, and feathers. She covers both the artistic and the ethical aspects. “Milagros: Little Miracles for All” by Joan Robinson-Blumit shares a piece of Latino culture. These tiny charms can represent fulfillment of a vow or acknowledgement of a miracle.

In “Crafting the Spiral,” Carol Haytko takes a look at creativity from the perspective of a noncrafty person. What does it mean when you love art, but seem to have no knack for making it?

We also have two features that introduce some Pagan artisans. “Faery Frond Quilting” is an interview with Cara Anam and Robe’. “Handcrafted Tools” is part interview and part photospread, covering the work of several Australian folks.

Our lead article for this issue is a timely discussion of politics and religion. Pagan scholar Diana Paxson presents “American Ancestors: Invoking the Founding Fathers to Guard Our Religious Freedoms.” This is accompanied by Kenaz Filan’s “Not Just the Red, White, and Blue,” a thoughtful sidebar on religious rights in Anglophone countries outside the United States. Back inside the states, Kenaz also explores the opportunities for “North Dakota Pagans.”

For “Point of View” this time, Georgie L. Schnobrich reveals “Why I Love the Halloween Witch.” I had the good fortune to sit on a panel presentation with the author, and I found her description of fairytale and Halloween witches so fascinating that I talked her into writing it down for me. There’s more to this archetype than meets the eye.

In “Toe to Toe” our debaters tackle the question, “Should Pagans Proselytize?” Don’t worry, nobody will be ringing your doorbell anytime soon … but maybe they should be.

A generous selection of poetry this issue includes “Birth of Fall,” “Nine Patch,” “Music in the Leaves,” “Craftwise,” “Casting Light,” and “Willing Sacrifice.”

It’s autumn. The year is winding down. Leaves turn colors and fall, casting a quilt over the cold ground. Ice feathers decorate the windowpanes. Now is the perfect season to spend some time indoors, learning a new craft or practicing an old favorite. You can get a head-start on the holiday gift season by making things for your loved ones. Just look through these pages for inspiration, and enjoy!

— Elizabeth Barrette is the Managing Editor of PanGaia. She lives in Charleston, Illinois.


» Originally appeared in PanGaia #45 - Religious Freedom

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