Book Review: Outside the Charmed Circle

Book cover of Outside the Charmed Circle.
Outside the Charmed Circle by Misha Magdalene

Outside the Charmed Circle: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in Magical Practice, by Misha Magdalene, is a challenge to review. That’s because the book is so deep, so rich, and so necessary, that in order to do it justice you almost have to quote great heaping gobs of text. I’ll try to not do that–I want you to read the book itself.

I was privileged and honored to read a PDF draft in advance. When the book was published I ordered two copies, one for me and one for a family member. This is the kind of book you want to talk about, the kind you want to give to others, the kind that makes you want to shout “YES!” into the oak groves at midnight or wave at passing motorists by day.

So why am I, a witchy person and a sexologist, so darned enthusiastic about what Misha Magdalene has to say? Well, it’s also that I’m kind of like that “over-enthusiastic PFLAG mom” meme that was going around a few years ago, only I’d be in a black t-shirt saying “My Transgender Witch Child Makes Me So Proud” and I’d be wearing less bracelets. So, the topic of “exploring gender & sexuality in magical practice” is deeply personal on several levels. I feel its urgency. At the core, I want my children (both cis and trans) to be respected and safe, and I want everyone else’s kids to be safe and respected too. It’s just basic human empathy and justice, qualities which are lacking in this world and sometimes this lack bashes into our spiritual lives, where we go to be strengthened, but are also frequently deeply vulnerable.

In spite of the topic’s complexity, this book is quite “user friendly.” Each chapter contains exercises to help the reader think through and experience the material. The appendices and bibliography are also wonderfully helpful.

In the introductory chapter, Misha Magdalene describes their book as “an exploration of magic through the lenses of gender and sexuality.” I think the reverse is also true. The book asks also us to examine gender and sexuality through the lenses of our magical practices and beliefs. Magdalene is extremely qualified to write from and through both (and several) perspectives. For me, in this book, intersectionality reveals its liminal nature, and liminal, magic practice reveals its intrinsic intersectional necessity. Circles and spaces, within and without, all are essentially “charmed.” If I’m interpreting correctly, I feel this may be one reason why Magdalene writes “magic is queer.”

The second chapter, “Getting Our Bearings, Knowing Our Terms,” is a helpful “101 and beyond” navigation through sex and gender terminology, which–as Magdalene points out–can and does change over time.

The book focuses next on the body, embodiment, and all the baggage that may be heaped upon bodies, often internalized. This third chapter is practically a body-positive “user’s manual,” a way to set ourselves up–not just conceptually but also physically–for the body’s ability to be “an instrument of magic.” For myself, as a person who is finding the physical and social transition to old age as bewildering as adolescence, this appreciative and mindful focus on the body as a location of self, wisdom, and power, provides a much needed reminder to take care of what I’ve got. I have a hunch other readers will appreciate these reminders (if not for the same reason).

The fourth chapter, “Gender Theory and Practice,” takes us deeper into considerations of this topic and how gender essentialism is incorporated and enacted in various magical traditions. (And now I find that these chapter descriptions are so simplified that it is almost embarrassing. Just…read…the…book…)

The next chapter moves powerfully into a discussion of queerness, queer deities, and more. I (cis, het, spectro-sexual, Lokean) particularly resonate Magdalene’s description of queerness as “a metaphysical yearning for something beyond the scope of our understanding” and also as a “pursuit” of potentiality. While I (cis, het, spectro-sexual, Lokean) don’t presume to the label of “queer,” this chapter helps me to understand my own allyship and the underpinings of my own spiritual quests.

My only quibble with this chapter (and it is a small one) is that an important aspect of Loki Laufeyjarson–the Norse trickster and shape-shifter–is overlooked. He was/is a mother not just once, but twice. In the Norse Voluspa en skamma, Loki ate a burnt woman’s heart (an offering?) and promptly gave birth to innumerable “troll women.” “Troll” was another word for witch. Loki, therefore, is a Mother of Witches, an important (gender-shifting) ancestor of magic practitioners. I would have liked to have seen this aspect acknowledged. But as I said, this is a minor criticism.

Chapter six brings us to one of my favorite topics. It’s called “Safer Sex Magic for Beginners (and Experts)” and I must say, this chapter is a thing of both sexological and magical beauty. I highly recommend the section called “How to Learn Sex Magic in Three Easy Steps” and the exercise for working solitary sex magic. In fact, I highly recommend the entire thing. Just…read…it!

The next two chapters on consent are also full of common sense and wisdom. The second one, chapter eight, concerns the process of negotiating consent with gods and…wow. Just wow. One of my professional interests, as well as personal/spiritual orientations, concerns spectrosexuality and god-spousing, and I can honestly say that so many people need the perspective and information contained in these chapters! These chapters are a stunning example of sex education at its best.

The last three chapters bring everything together in a context of individual magical practices and working within (or without) magic communities. Can I just say that even as I flip through these pages, as I write this review, I find myself wanting to swoon with admiration? So much common sense, so much compassion, so much inclusivity, so much impeccable information…

I believe this pioneering book is destined to be a classic. It is certainly one that I will take from my shelf again and again, and will continue to recommend whole-heartedly to all who are interested in such topics.

Well done, Misha Magdalene! I look forward to your next book!!!


Sex Magic

Sexology is my profession. Magic is a consuming “special interest.” Tantra has been (and is) a link between the two. So my bookshelves contain more (far more!) than first editions of the male and female Kinsey studies and The Guide to Getting It On. I’ve also got The Art of Sexual Magic (1995) by Margot Anand (tantric-inspired), Secrets of Western Sex Magic (2001) by Frater U.D., and the more recent Sex, Sorcery, and Spirit (2015) by Jason Miller. Here’s a review of Miller’s book by Donyae Coles and here’s an interview with Miller from Down at the Crossroads podcast (one of my favorite podcasts, by the way). I’ve also got tons of other books dealing with tantra, Taoist practices (though I gave a bunch of Healing Tao books away recently), sexual ecstasy and transcendence, magic, and so on.

The Beguiling of Merlin by Burne-Jones.

The “sex magic” umbrella is pretty big: there are energetic practices (e.g., tantric, Taoist) designed to refine and boost sexual energy, to be directed in whatever manner you please; practices which imbue sigils with orgasmic energy (again, use as you wish); sex with deities and spirits; and the creation of various sexual/spiritual “elixirs.” Really, with a little practice, a good time can be had by all!

The first time I came across mentions of “sex with spirits or gods” was prior to my sexology or tantra studies, actually. I was reading Polynesian Family Systems of Ka’u, Hawai’i by Mary Kawena Pukui and E.S. Craighill handy (back when Hawaiian culture was also a consuming special interest of mine), and was fascinated by various accounts of “spirits as mates” in the chapter called “The Psychic Phase of Relationship” (pp. 116-159). These spirits were called kane or wahine o ka po–men or women of the night–and did not seem to act in a manner that Western researchers would be likely to deem incubus, succubus, or “sleep paralysis” experiences. Nor will metal bands be named after them.

Nowadays it is common to come across “god spouses” on the internet, and I give ’em all due respect.

I find this topic massively interesting, having had a few inexplicable experiences myself. And as a sexologist, I’d really like to find a sexological or socio-cultural anthropological study of this phenomena. (I’d do it myself, but I don’t have access to research funds or an internal review board.)

If I plug “sex with spirits” into Google Scholar, the first relevant thing that pops up is Achieving Invisibility and Having Sex with Spirits: Six Operations from an English Magic Collection ca. 1600 (Klassen and Bens). It looks like a good read–I bookmarked it for later. And if I achieve invisibility beyond the usual “I’m old so no one notices me anymore” thing, I’ll be sure to blog about it.

There are also practices mentioned where one meditatively imagines oneself as the form of a deity or a deity’s partner, in order to evoke the desired energies.

As for links with magic and tantra, before I left Hawai’i a very accomplished tantra dude showed me how to use the “Tai Chi Sword” (first two fingers pointed, thumb closed over the last two fingers) to hook, twist, and pull a few lurking entities down and away from the ceiling of my home. There actually was a kind of freaky “haunting” there on Mano Street, and I felt it most the first night I slept in one of the guest bedrooms (I had already loaded most my furniture in the container for shipment back to California). It was a very unpleasant encounter and one of the first I’d ever had with a noxious entity! I really had to banish the “f” out of the thing. Now I know why a couple of houseguests refused to sleep in that room.

I hadn’t known at first that tantra was associated with magic. Like most Westerners who end up involved with Neo-Tantra, I assumed the main focus was sex and transcendence. I’ve been told–anecdotally–that the taboo associations with tantra in India have more to do with magic than they do with sex. But don’t quote me. This may not be accurate.

As I look through the stack of books on my table, I can see that symbols and sigils are a major topic. The idea is to use orgasmic energy to invest a sigil with magical power to affect change. The sigils are created with specific meaning and intention. In Anand’s book, this is covered in the chapters called “Creating Your Magic Vision” and “Sexual Alchemy: Charging Your Magic Symbol.” Miller’s book deals with sigils in the chapter called “Flying Solo.” (I honestly haven’t done more than skim through the Frater U.D. book, so I can’t comment on the content with accuracy.) Since I’m in need of a literary agent and publisher for my fantasy novel, I’m strongly considering the above method to draw the right agent to me (even as I do the copious research necessary to find and approach such people).

As a younger woman, I’d imagined I’d fill my declining years with cats, orchids, and a study of slime molds. Now that I’m well on my way to being what my oldest son fondly calls “a fruit bat,” I do have the cats and two orchids which manage to survive my lack of talent for plants, but sex and magic do seem to have replaced slime molds as my obsession of choice. So why not delve as deeply and powerfully as possible in these matters, while I still have life and breath and will?

This blog is part of that fun.

Are you a fellow traveler? Please comment and “like” below.