Book Review: Empty Cauldrons
Terrence P. Ward's book "Empty Cauldrons" is a highly valuable work that looks at depression through Pagan eyes.
I'm currently reading Terrence P. Ward's book, Empty Cauldrons; Navigating Depression through Magic and Ritual (2022). As the title suggests, the book addresses depression, an illness that is pervasive in Western society.
Since Ward interviewed several Pagans from different traditions and backgrounds, the book contains a very well-rounded view of how those traditions have historically viewed and named depression.
A few of those perspectives really spoke to me, especially the Norwegian concepts of hug and huglaus, the Greek concepts of acedia and melancholia, the Chinese medicine view of depression as chi blockage that correlates to the element of wood, a modern scientific medical hypothesis that depression may be autoimmune, and a comparison between depression and crossed conditions - i.e. feeling as if one is living under the negative influence of an external curse. I won't go into all of them, since that would make this post way too long, but I'll touch on the three that spoke to me most deeply.
The Norwegian concepts of hug and huglaus are, perhaps, the most intriguing for me on a personal level, since I work closely with the Norse gods. As explained by Karl Tauring in her interview with Ward, hug can be loosely translated to the English concept of "heart-mind-soul" while huglaus is a word that depicts depression. As Tauring explained, "It's the mind, heart, and spirit loosened, not in alignment, that is what creates depression" (26). Depression occurs when the three components of hug - the heart, the mind, and the spirit - drift away from one another and create spaces that shouldn't exist. Depression exists in the spaces between the three components, making it difficult for them to draw together and reunite again to create the wholeness of hug.
The concept of existing in a huglaus state is echoed in the modern hypothesis that suggests depression may be autoimmune. Ward references the book The New Mind-Body Science of Depression whose authors argue that depression and autoimmune response are connected (34). Interviewee Siobhan Johnson states, "I think that a lot of mental illness is kind of an autoimmune disease of the mind - it's the mind overreacting to an initial trauma, however big or small, and then finding more and more triggers to react to" (34). This is an intriguing perspective and one that warrants more research, so I'll be keeping a lookout for scientific medical evidence of the connection between depression and autoimmune response.
The third concept that really stuck out to me was that, within Chinese medicine, depression is viewed as a blockage of chi - chi is associated with the element of wood - and might be understood, as Kirk White explained, as "an inability to manifest" (25). This correlates with Ivo Dominguez, Jr.'s explanation that depression is a sort of "spiritual hijacking" that resembles crossed conditions (25). As Dominguez, Jr. explained, "Your own powers of manifestation, turned against yourself, [bring] into being the worst outcomes" (25). In other words, the ability to manifest externally becomes inhibited and stuck inside, which leads to an external reality of the lack or loss of the things you are most focused on manifesting. At least, that's the way I understand it.
That actually resonates with the experience I had last night because I've been dealing with situational depression caused by the grief of losing my grandmother in early 2021. She was 98 when she passed, so she lived a long and vibrant life. Still, she was my rock - she was more of a mother to me than my own mother ever was, and the weight of grief has been difficult for me. Grief and depression aren't quite the same, but grief and depression are intricately linked for me because my mother passed when I was 15, which created - alongside other factors - a trauma complex that revolves around death and loss.
Since grief and depression are concurrent for me, I deal with situational depression and not chronic depression. My sister, on the other hand, has dealt with chronic depression for as long as I can remember. Because of that, it took me a long time to understand that I was dealing with situational depression because I expected depression to present the same way for me as it does for my sister. We experience depression in vastly different ways, however, and it took people external to me recognizing that I was dealing with depression before I understood that depression, for me, always accompanies grief due to the trauma complex I have that centers around loss and the fear of abandonment.
Last night, I felt despondent and heavy and I had a hard time identifying why. I felt purposeless and like I didn't know what I wanted from life, and I didn't understand why I was feeling that way because I have pretty clear goals as to what I want in certain areas of life. But I couldn't figure out what I wanted emotionally from life, so I started with a meditation to try to figure that out. And that led to the realization of wanting support that I had lost when my grandmother passed, which allowed me to identify and name the weight as grief. Which helped me start the process of releasing it.
Because I have C-PTSD, I often feel emotions that I can't identify or have emotional flashbacks unaccompanied by memory, so I have a hard time understanding why I'm feeling why I feel certain things at certain times. It usually takes someone outside of me who knows my history to recognize the patterns I fall into when I start to spiral to even recognize that I'm having a trauma flashback. So, it helps me to concentrate on the way my body feels in order to identify what my emotions are doing. If I concentrate on my thoughts, that just energizes the cycle of traumatic feedback looping. Learning to move out of my head into my body has been one of the best teachings I've ever received because the sensations of my body guide me to what I'm really feeling in a way that a trauma-besieged mind cannot do.
So, having identified the cause of the weight as loss, I was able to start releasing it by confronting and engaging with it. When I was doing that, I realized how many of the struggles I've faced since my grandmother passed was loss manifested outward because it wasn't being confronted inwardly. The comparison between depression and crossed conditions immediately resonated with me, as did the idea that depression inhibits the ability to manifest. I remember thinking last night that of course I hadn't been able to manifest properly what I wanted because there was room only for loss. Since all I inwardly had room for was loss, and I wasn't properly facing myself to engage, name, and release that loss, my subconscious was turning that loss external as a means of attempting to get me to face what I was avoiding inside of myself.
I'm sure I'm not the only one whose grief manifests as situational depression or who has trauma complexes that revolve around loss. That is why I highly recommend Ward's book, Empty Cauldrons, as it confronts depression through Pagan eyes. Considering the prominence of many of those that Ward interviewed within the Pagan community, the book helps bring to light the seriousness and pervasiveness of depression that many Pagans face.