Grumpy Fae (by Steve Hewell)

[Originally published in Witch Eye #9; republished by permission of the author.]

At this point, I think we’re all pretty familiar with just how ornery and fractious we appear to be from the outside. We hear it often enough. And it’s true; we ain’t exactly sweetness and light. Not too long ago, someone remarked to me, “You Feri-types aren’t quite what I expected. I mean, most of the folks I come across in Witchcraft groups these days try to act like nothing ever goes wrong, like they’re too ‘spiritually evolved’ for anything like that. Y’all don’t seem to mind being, well, openly quick-tempered. You’re a pretty irascible bunch!” I thought that was putting it rather politely.

A couple of days later, a student of mine complained that when she worked with the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, she “felt irascible.”

Irascible. It’s a curious word; you don’t really hear it used in conversation very often. It’s a little archaic and old-fashioned.

Sometimes, I find myself caught by a word like that. Maybe I’ve never heard it before. Maybe I have, possibly quite often, but never really gave it much thought. Part of it is just the way a certain word feels in my mouth when I say it. There I was, with “irascible”. What did it mean, exactly? Where did it come from? Was its appearance in my little corner of the Universe just one of those things, or was there something to be learned here?

Words are magic. Words are something we humans use to create our world, carving packets of energy out of the universal froth, investing them with meanings and significance, and linking them up in webs and patterns of association and reflection. The magical power in words lies not only in their ability to focus our energy compactly, but also in their inherent fluidity. By changing our words around, we can change our inner perception of the world and thus how we experience it. Perceiver and perceived create each other; change the nature of the perceptions, and the ripple effect flows outward into the world and creates change there, too. Like I said: magic.

Looking into how words come to mean what they do is kind of psychic archaeology. The ways in which a particular word has evolved, adapted, and mutated reveals a lot about people and and how we try to understand the world and ourselves across large swathes of time. Working on “irascible” took me on an interesting little trip; it’s part of a whole constellation of words whose meanings are particularly curious in light of things Feri-esque.

The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, provided the following: “Prone to outbursts of temper, easily angered…” It originally entered Middle English via the Late Latin word “irascibilis”, from “ira-”, meaning “anger”. The root-source is in the Indo-European root “eis”.

All the words in Indo-European languages that grew from this little root have do with passion. As above, Latin got “ira-”, which gave English words like irate, ire, and, of course, irascible.

From a suffixed zero-grade form, *is(e)ro, it shows up in Greek as “hieros”, meaning “powerful, holy”. It denoted a state of being literally “filled up with the Divine.”

In Old High German, we find “isarn/isan”, which migrated into Old English as “isern”, eventually becoming “iren” — iron! Linguists believe that the source of this is a (possibly) Celtic word, *isarno-, meaning “holy metal”. Iron came from thunderstones, bolts of star-stuff that fell to Earth in a blaze of light and fury. Nowadays, we call them meteorites.

Another turn that “eis” took in Greek is a suffixed o-grade form, which replaced the initial “e” with an “o”; this gets us *ois-tro-, or “madness”, and gave English things like estrus and estrogen. Poke into ancient Greek religion a little bit, and you’ll find that the Greeks considered madness to be the touch of the Divine; the direct experience of divine power could be enough to send a person raving into the night, even if only temporarily. Among others, the Maenades, Bacchoi and Delphic Pythia spring to mind.

All this linguistic geekery aside, where does this leave us? Whatever the word’s history, people who call us irascible are not usually referring to how “filled with the holy” we seem! Why are we such grumpy Fae, so “prone to outbursts, easily angered”? What’s up with that?

First of all, anger has a bad reputation which it doesn’t really deserve. To be sure, out of control anger has caused an enormous amount of misery and suffering. That, however, has less to do with anger itself than with how we deal with it. Anger is innate, hardwired into our systems by millions of years of evolution. Anger is a response to having our boundaries, physical or otherwise, violated in some way. We tend to feel anger when someone crosses an important boundary in a way that makes us feel threatened, a way that we feel is an attempt to co-opt or diminish our autonomy as beings. In short, anger is a perfectly healthy response to an attempt to disempower us in some fashion.

There is nothing inherently wrong in feeling an anger-response. It’s the sentry that guards our physical and psychic integrity from attack. Healthy anger is never vicious or sadistic. Its energy is tremendously powerful. What makes the difference is what we choose to do with all that energy. Do we use it to strengthen and restore our violated boundaries in a way that is skillful and honorable, a way that reestablishes not only our own integrity, but also that of the person or persons with whom we are dealing? Or do we lash out far beyond our own energetic perimeter in a search-and-destroy mission, taking no prisoners and leaving a trail of carnage behind us?

When we are grounded and centered in the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, we are alert to the signals of anger and to what they mean. We can move quickly and surely to restore our boundaries; no more, no less. To people who habitually violate others and steal their energy, this is enormously frustrating. Trying to siphon energy out of a person with strong, healthy boundaries is an exercise in utter futility. More often than not, they may try a little word-magic of their own, and accuse their target of being difficult, touchy, defensive, or just plain ol’ mean. This often works; after all, we don’t want people to think we’re mean, do we? We humans are social animals, with an innate desire to be liked. Our survival depends on being part of a group and “getting along” with the other members. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how this can be used against us. How often has the admonishment to “be nice” really translated into “be controllable”?

granny-weatherwax-quoteIf you’re working in the Feri Tradition, being seen as “not very nice” isn’t going to keep you up at night. Our teachings place a very strong emphasis on guarding our own life-force. Our life-force is the presence of the Divine within us; to respect and honor it is to respect and honor God Herself. In the face of that, the opinions of users, crazy-makers, and energy-suckers tend to get short shrift.

When work on the Power Point really kicks in, it’s a tremendous release. We start to see the ways in which our lives have been shaped and molded into something not of our desire, something that our souls barely even recognize. It can be the revelation of a lifetime of having our boundaries violated as a matter of course. Anger is understandable. “Nice” isn’t going to be very high on our list of things to be. Once we begin to see how much of our power we have surrendered, or even had stolen from us outright, getting royally pissed is only natural. After spending so much of our time bound up in fear of isolation and ostracism, of having the life sucked out of us by a tangle of “shoulds” and “oughts”, the experience of severing those energetic bonds can be quite the rush. A period of enjoying this new-found ability is only to be expected. In Alchemy, this phase is called “Separation”, a process of cutting through attachments that don’t contribute anything to our lives. Its correspondences include the color orange-red, the planet Mars, and, interestingly, the metal iron. The individual in Separation is a warrior of heart and spirit, sifting through the layers of their identity, keeping what works and letting go of that which does not. It’s the first place I see most people go when they really begin to grasp the Power Point. It’s cathartic, caustic, and it can be really rough on the other people in our lives, if they have no idea where it’s coming from.

It’s also really easy to get stuck there. The sense of liberation, of lightening the load, is exhilarating and enlivening. So much more juice flowing through our system, so much more energy! It can be highly addictive. It’s also only one phase of the process; if we get hooked on it, it can quickly degenerate into paranoia and simple psychic blood lust. Human history is littered with examples of people who got caught up in this energetic slicing and dicing as an end in and of itself. Having strong, healthy boundaries is good magic. Disemboweling anything that moves is not. Skillfulness in the Power Point is knowing how and when to wield that magic knife.

Feris who live from a position of being grounded and centered in their own inner place of power are always going to seem a bit cantankerous. It’s not a flaw, no matter what the energy-thieves of this world might say about it. Their meat and drink are the doormats of this world; their bane, the people who own and keep their power. So, go ahead. Be irascible, and be proud of it. I know I am.