On Poetry: A Conversation

by Sarah Sadie and Yvonne Aburrow

Sarah and Yvonne decided to write a different kind of blogpost – a conversation. Since we are both poets, we had a conversation about poetry.

Seagrass

Seagrass by ADD on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain

Yvonne: For me, a poem starts to build up like a pressure inside me, and then it bursts like a bubble and I get the first few lines and start writing, and then it all comes out in a big rush. Later, I start to refine it, rearranging the lines here and there – but most of my editing is pretty light after the first rush.
What’s your experience?

Sarah: This is what I love about conversations–my process is almost completely different from yours! For me, I will sense a moment–almost like a scent or texture to the day, the hour, that brushes my skin like a spider web…and I have to try to catch at whatever that moment is, put it down on the page in language. It really does feel like having a seventh or eighth sense, in a way. A poem can be just one of those–or sometimes it is a series or combination, that I build over time ,editing lines, switching stanzas around. I work it along for a number of days or weeks…and when I can’t take it any further (Plath: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to”) I set the draft aside for a couple of months. By the time I pull it out I’ve mostly forgotten it and the fresh reading shows me where the trouble spots, the faultlines are.

Do you try to write poetry regularly, to keep yourself searching for that sense of “pressure” or do you wait for it to come to you?

Yvonne: That’s a fascinating process. I often write small pieces of prose in response to the beauty I see all around me, and I suppose those could get turned into poems, and I think that’s my “poetic eye” responding to the world. I used to write poetry more frequently – but lately I’ve been more focused on writing prose. I once wrote a poem about my process where I likened it to the bends – bubbles rising from the depths. Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is.

I do write poetry for ritual and that tends to be more “written to order” (and create spoken poetry extempore in ritual) but even that has waned of late. Maybe I should stop waiting for it to come to me, and seek out the Muse a bit more actively. I have a fairly strong image of my muse – a dark man who lives in a cave (probably also my animus).

Do you feel that you have a Muse?

Sarah: Before I answer that question… ūüėČ

I really like the word you use above : response. Because poetry (by extension, any art) is a response, it is part of a conversation between the writer and the larger world–and just writing that I realize how much our writing is a form of listening. And we have a response-ability that can grow, shift, change as we do over the years. When you say “Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is” I shout YES–with two new books out this year, I feel I’ve tapped out a bit. Need to open to the next thing.

A book of poems feels like an album to me–Prince’s death (and Bowie’s, before that) have me thinking about similarities between how I feel about creating a book and how they created albums. There are the individual songs, and then there is the overall vision–the sum is greater than the individual parts. Beyonce’s Lemonade is an immediate contemporary example as well. (btw, isn’t it fascinating how people are picking up on the polytheist content of Lemonade).

In the years that I was Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin, I also wrote poems to order and I found it–at that time in my writing life–a welcome challenge. The City gave awesome and random writing prompts (the rededication of a replica Statue of Liberty; a poem to introduce a political scientist who specializes in polling procedures; a poem for Obihiro, Japan among others)–and deadlines to boot!

Poems and spellwork are very closely related. Very, very closely, imo. So are poems and theology, for that matter.

As for my muse–yes, I have one. Also male (I would love to see an anthology of women (and men) writing about and to their male muses. It’s about time to balance the record on this). He is a reclusive character–I only catch glimpses once in a while. Just as often, I am writing to particular friends or family members–a poem sometimes (often) feels like an old-fashioned letter, to me.

I’m extremely restless with myself as a writer these days…to be a text artist in a visual age is not easy. I’m trying to understand where I go next–it feels very much like walking blind through thorns, at the moment.

What about you? Do you have a next writing project you’re launching into?

Yvonne: Yes, I’m currently working on a book about the inner work of witchcraft (that’s the working subtitle). There will be a fair amount about embodied spirituality and responding to Nature, as well as energy work, how the circle is a microcosm, visualisation, meditation, and so on.

I was interested by what you said about being a text writer in a visual age. I suppose we can take some comfort from the way that poetry is the most visual form of writing. I also know one poet who illustrates his work with photo-collages. And then there was Kahlil Gibran, who accompanied his poems with his own drawings. I was never quite sure how the drawing related to the poem, but it was interesting.

I completely agree that poetry is related to theology and magic; they use the same twilight mode of consciousness. Spells and ritual words often take the form of poetry – Doreen Valiente was very good at that. I wish people would study a little and find out about different meters and poetic devices such as assonance and the caesura though. And theology is sometimes poetic (and ought to be more often). Alison Leigh Lilly springs to mind as someone who writes poetic theology. I think also that poets, like comedians, see connections that others have missed. Both comedy and poetry are sacred arts, showing the world hidden connections and undercurrents.

Is that what you had in mind?

Sarah: Wasn’t it Victor Anderson who said that “White magic is poetry. Black magic is anything that works.” ? I agree completely that people who write spells and rituals as poetry would do well to study the craft–it is an aspect of craft like any other and the more adept you are, the stronger your ritual will be.

I also really like what Seamus Heaney wrote (I’m paraphrasing here and not doing it full justice, but the idea comes across): that a poem is like the paper bird we tape in the picture window–it’s not a real bird, but it causes the birds outside to veer their course. A poem isn’t “real life”–but it can cause us to swerve a bit. It has an effect. An impact.

It may be that poetry is as close to my religion as any recognized Pagan tradition. And I’m okay with that.

Great conversation–thank you!

Yvonne: Poetry as religion – I’ll drink to that! For me it is a sacred vocation, and one that no-one can take away from me. One is a witch in community, one has a job title conferred by an employer: but one can be a poet without approval or sanction from anyone else. Even a child writing their first poems may call themselves a poet. I love that.

And poetry as magic: definitely! A poem can transform your perspective and perceptions, it can be an incantation (did you ever hear Yeats reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree? It’s like he’s reading a spell), it can be an invocation to change the world.

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You’ll Never Walk Alone

I am not a football fan, personally, but I have always believed that the fans in the Hillsborough disaster were innocent.

For those who are not familiar with what happened, on 15 April 1989, there was a huge crush at the football stadium where Liverpool fans had gathered to watch their team in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Due to fears of football hooligans, the spectator areas were arranged in pens. In part because of the poor way that these had been constructed, and in part because of overcrowding, one of these pens collapsed and 96 people were killed.

I will never forget the time I was at Paddington Station in London, trying to get back to Bristol, and there had been a football match. Barriers were set up all along the platform, and the fans (and me) were herded along the platform, and had to queue for ages to get on the train. They were apparently used to this sort of treatment and responded with good humoured banter to the whole thing. I had not experienced this corralling before, and found it extremely frustrating, claustrophobic, and potentially panic-inducing. I was only calmed down by the good-natured chat of the football fans.

At the time of the Hillsborough disaster, police and politicians tried to pin the blame on the fans – but now, after the third judicial inquiry into what happened, it has been ruled that the fans were unlawfully killed.

As Jeremy Corbyn said in his statement,

Today, after 27 long years, the 96 victims of the Hillsborough tragedy – and their families – have finally received justice.

The youngest victim was just 10, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, and the oldest was 67 years old, Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron. These were fans that went to a football match, as so many of us do, on the 15th April 1989, but never returned to their loved ones.

I pay tribute to the families and friends of all the victims of the tragedy – as well as many others from the city of Liverpool – for the passionate and dignified campaign they have fought for almost three decades.

Today they received total vindication for their fight for the truth and for justice.

But what does all this tell us about the state of British society? In my opinion, it tells us that the ruling classes want to create a caricature of working class people as an unruly mob of workshy slobs who eat terrible food and behave badly at football matches. The authorities also made efforts to conceal the truth about what actually happened. The ruling classes fear the solidarity and organisation of the working classes, and have done their best to destroy it by undermining or destroying the power of the unions, and removing every social measure that creates an even playing-field for the less-well-off. Council houses were sold off, utilities privatised, and now they are trying to destroy the NHS. However, perhaps this victory for the Hillsborough families means that the tide is turning. I hope so.

It also tells us that you don’t get justice without struggling for it, campaigning for it, and organising together in solidarity to get it. It tells us that the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster pulled together, through thick and thin, for 27 years to get their victory. As the Liverpool football anthem has it, “You’ll never walk alone”.

By Linksfuss - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7337412

Liverpool fans unfurl a banner displaying the names of the deceased on the twentieth anniversary of the disaster. Photo by LinksfussOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I congratulate the Hillsborough families for their victory. Justice at last. The names of the victims are no longer besmirched Рmay they rest in peace. As The Hávamál puts it:

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.

That is why posthumous reputation is so important. Now that the Hillsborough victims’ good names are restored, perhaps they can rest a little easier.

These victories¬†(small or great) for social justice are won by real people getting together in solidarity, setting aside their differences, to campaign for truth and justice. Yes, we must change ourselves, but we can and will change the world by working together. We cannot sit idly by, arguing about how many gods can dance on the head of a pin, in the face of climate change and social injustice and environmental destruction. My theological musings tend to be of a mostly practical nature: how to put our values into practice, and how our theology underpins the struggle for social justice. I chose my values (of democracy, fairness, justice, equality for all, environmentalism) on the basis that¬†all life is sacred. The gods I am in relationship¬†with also seem to share these values – otherwise I wouldn’t be in relationship with them.

How to Become a Naturalist

Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.

I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.

Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.

The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?

Step 1 Рlearn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.

Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).

Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae¬†have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.

A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.

Why classify?

If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.

Go for a walk

Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Snake’s head fritillaries. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and¬†only take part of a plant¬†if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).

One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.

I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

White snake’s head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Folklore of plants

It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.

Recommended books

Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.

  • Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
  • Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.

Folklore and natural history

Useful websites

Related posts

Plain Speaking on Polytheism

That’s enough apple pie metaphors… let’s get down to brass tacks.

It’s good to have descriptions of what a word means, so that labels are mutually comprehensible. It’s also quite nice when the meaning of a word bears some vague resemblance to its etymology. But there’s a conflict between creating a meaning that¬†is inclusive enough to include the majority of people who want to identify as that label, and making a word completely meaningless.

A definition is a fairly precise meaning or set of meanings that are generally agreed usage(s) of a word and what it denotes.

However, language usage is fluid and changeable, and different groups of people use words differently in different contexts. That’s why it is a good idea to examine the connotations of a word, so that we can describe how it is used in different contexts.

Examples of words that have highly fluid ‚ÄĒ and thus highly disputed ‚ÄĒ meanings: Pagan, polytheist, and Wiccan.

Part of the reason that these words are disputed is because the dictionary definitions are largely unhelpful and out of date.

Why are the meanings disputed?

If a group of people wants to describe its practice, beliefs, and values as distinct from those of another group, it becomes helpful to have a name that describes only that group, and is not in use by another group. This is why the various denominations of Christianity have created labels to distinguish themselves from each other. It’s why there are umpteen different varieties of witchcraft, Druidry, and Heathenry. You can recognise some common factor that makes them fit in their respective categories; but there’s enough difference between them that it is worth adding a qualifier to the label.

Wicca

The word “Wiccan” has a fairly chequered history. Gerald Gardner referred to all witches as “the Wica“. Charles Cardell described his group¬†as¬†“Wiccens“. Gradually, in the USA, Wicca came to refer to any Wiccan or “Wiccanish” tradition. In the UK, it tends to refer to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans ‚ÄĒ but many people identify as Wiccan who have never been initiated into those traditions. (Part of the reason for this is that it became very difficult to identify as a witch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Wiccan became a handy euphemism for witch.) The word “Wicca” has become so broad and confusing that it may be impossible to restrict its meaning to¬†Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans.

There are also other witchcraft traditions (in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the USA) such as the 1734 tradition, the Clan of Tubal Cain, Feri, Reclaiming, and so on. Most¬†of them are initiatory. Fortunately, hardly anyone disputes that the word “witch” applies to all these different traditions.

It is also worth noting that uniformity of belief is not the prime focus of witchcraft traditions. You can be a polytheist witch, a duotheist witch, a pantheist witch, an atheist witch, an animist witch, or some combination of these. (Some readers of All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca were surprised that I said that you can be an atheist witch. It’s more difficult¬†to be a materialist witch, not believing in or experiencing energies; but not believing in gods is not a barrier.)

Polytheism

To my mind, polytheism just means “many gods” or “belief in many gods”. It doesn’t say anything about how you worship them, or what type of rituals you perform to get in touch with them. Some people want to define polytheism as “religious regard for many gods” (in order to exclude those who acknowledge that gods exist but don’t have any truck with them – but I think that is redundant, as even if a Christian acknowledges that our gods exist in some way, they don’t acknowledge them as gods, so their view is irrelevant to the definition of the term).

If you want to describe a particular way that people interact with the gods, or a particular concept of what they are, then I would argue that you need a qualifying adjective. Various qualifying adjectives have been suggested (hard polytheism, soft polytheism, devotional polytheism, relational polytheism, Jungian or archetypalist polytheism, monistic polytheism, henotheistic polytheism, mystical polytheism), not in order to split polytheism as a whole, but to provide more accurate descriptions of how people relate to the gods.

Various people have different understandings of what polytheism means in their religious context. If someone else’s meaning of polytheism conflicts with your meaning, then you have two possible options:

  • claim that their¬†meaning / usage / understanding is wrong;
  • add a qualifying adjective to distinguish your usage of the term from theirs.

Over recent years, there have been various online arguments about how to do polytheism “properly”, such as:

What’s really going on?

It is probably not possible to “win” one of these arguments, or answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is always someone who wants their definition of a concept to be the only valid definition, and to be a gatekeeper of who gets to identify as a particular label. Being a gatekeeper or the person who gets to define a term is a position of power and control, potentially with authority attached to it.

Whoever gets to define or describe what polytheism is will have a huge influence on its future development. If it is a broad-brush movement with many different ways to be polytheist, it will become large, nebulous, and hard to control. If it is narrowly defined, it will be much smaller, but possibly easier to control. And it will end up excluding people whose insights, ideas, and practices might have been valuable to it.

My own position is that I ¬†don’t want to control anything. I am inherently distrustful of authority (including any authority that I myself may accidentally have acquired). Any authority should have checks and balances with it. If you are the high priestess of a coven, or the leader of a religious tradition, there should be a process for consultation and establishing consensus, and in large groups, for democracy and accountability. For example, in the Inclusive Wicca Discussion Group that I founded¬†on Facebook, I created a set of group guidelines and invited members to vote on them and add to them; and there is more than one moderator for the group.¬†In my coven, we take it in turns to write rituals, so everyone gets the kind of ritual they like; and whoever has written the ritual is the facilitator for that ritual. Whilst I am the most experienced witch in the coven, so the buck does tend to stop with me, I do try to empower others. The process of teaching and learning that we use is all about sharing ideas.

If you want to create a sub-tradition of polytheism that has a set of beliefs, practices, and values that meet your expectations and requirements, that’s fine. But don’t try to label it as the One True Way of polytheism. You will need to give it a more specific name. Some have argued that if polytheism is seen as a catch-all term that includes soft polytheists, archetypalists, and so on, then it becomes a less useful term. Maybe so, but that’s just how language and terminology work.

That’s why Niki Whiting proposed the term ‘relational polytheism’, and others have proposed other qualifying adjectives: to be clear about how our polytheism works out in practice and in context. Similarly, there are different flavours of Wicca and witchcraft, each with their own label, to enable people to find a flavour of Wicca that’s right for them.

People are confusing denotation with connotation, as often happens when the meaning of a term is contested. The term polytheism denotes ‘many gods’. To a devotional polytheist, that has connotations of devotion, religious regard, and so on. To a relational polytheist, the connotations are forming relationships with the gods. In order for different groups of people to find the polytheists they want to hang out with, we need those qualifying adjectives so that everyone who honours¬†many gods can call themselves polytheists, without insisting on a particular definition of a god, but if you want to be more precise about how you want to honour the gods, or what you think gods are, then use a qualifying adjective.

The alternative is that a tiny group of people get to define what polytheism is and who gets to call themselves polytheist, till the whole thing turns into a clique and everyone else loses interest.

Polytheism isn’t yours

As Bekah Evie Bel points out, polytheism isn’t yours. And it’s not mine either. It belongs to everyone.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.  © Copyright Pip Rolls and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

May Morning in Oxford

May Day is coming. This year, May Day falls on a Sunday, which is great because it means that getting up in time to hear the May morning song from the top of Magdalen Tower in Oxford won’t be quite so difficult (because instead of going to work afterwards, I can go back to bed).

Since moving to Oxford in 2011, I have rolled out of bed well before dawn on May morning to go and hear the singers from the top of Magdalen Tower, singing Hymnus Eucharisticus.

By William Holman Hunt - bg-gallery.ru, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6387999

May Morning on Magdalen Tower, by William Holman Huntbg-gallery.ru, Public Domain.

Of course, Magdalen Tower is so tall that hardly anyone gets to see the choir on the top of the tower, so it was helpful of Holman Hunt to paint this picture. One year, I overheard someone in the crowd say “Nah, it’s a recording” – but no, it’s a real live choir, and they have been singing from the top on May morning since the 16th century, though records only begin in the late 17th century, referring to it as an ancient tradition even then.

After the singing and the prayer from the top of the tower (which references “Our Mother, the Earth”), it’s time to watch the Morris dancers and The Hurly Burly Whirly Earl-i in the Morning¬†Band in Broad Street. The Whirly Band are a group of local musicians and bands who get together just for May morning. Dressed in green, they play on the steps of the Clarendon Building, and most of the local Pagans can be found among the crowd dancing to their tunes. Here are some photos of May Day 2014.

Here’s a video of May Day 2013:

This year, because May morning is on a weekend, up to 15,000 people are expected to turn up for the festivities – so get there early if you’re going, and whatever you do, don’t try driving to Oxford.

Last year, I was sad at Beltane, because my beloved was away in Canada; this year, he will be among the Morris dancers on Broad Street. Lots of local Morris sides will be there, and among them will be the Green Man. One year, I met a guy who said he was the Green Man in the 1960s (or was it the 1950s, I forget).

After working up a good appetite from all the dancing, it’s time for a slap-up breakfast in one of the many caf√©s in Oxford, which fortunately open to cater for May Day revellers.

There will also be a celebration of socialism with a march through the city, which will be on Saturday 30th. 1 May was chosen as International Workers’ Day for other reasons, but plenty of people have noted the focus of both Paganism and socialism on equality. The links between the Pagan revival and the early socialist movement are fascinating and well worth exploring. It was not only Edward Carpenter who was interested in both socialism and Nature, but others too. 25 April is the 84th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout – an important anniversary which commemorates the invasion of hitherto “private” land by ramblers from the nearby mill towns, determined to get access to the moors which they could see soaring above the grimy streets.

“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.” Edward Carpenter (1889),¬†Civilisation: its cause and cure

Happy Earth Day

I am delighted to see that EarthDay is trending on Twitter. That means people care about the planet, which is encouraging.

Have you signed A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, and acted on some of its recommendations?

Have you checked your ecological footprint lately?

We only have one Earth – this beautiful planet with so many amazing life-forms on board. This pale blue dot lost in a sea of space, as Carl Sagan wrote:

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

It is time to act on climate change, pollution, the loss of species, the loss of habitats, the loss of forests.

It is time for a change of perspective.

By Moeedayazbutt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40246333

Dandelion at Shogran. Photo by MoeedayazbuttOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We need to stop seeing humans as the pinnacle of existence; stop thinking that something from outside ourselves will save us from the consequences of our destructive habits.

We need to stop thinking that capitalism is the only possible economic paradigm: there are alternatives.

We must change ourselves; and we must do everything in our power to change the world. It’s a two-pronged approach. It’s not true that we cannot change the world; that is a counsel of despair. People campaigned long and hard to end slavery, get votes for women, make marital rape illegal, legalise same-sex marriage, get¬†the recent climate accords in Paris signed by the countries of the world, and for many other changes. Those changes didn’t happen all by themselves, or because the ruling classes suddenly woke up one day and realised what they had been getting wrong all this time.

Progressive social and environmental change happens because ordinary people come together to campaign for it.

Happy Earth Day. Smell the flowers, appreciate the beauty of the green Earth. Let’s get to work.

The Brewery of the Gods!

It is well known from the lore that the gods actually have a brewery, not a bakery.

It’s true that I√įunn’s golden apples keep the Aesir ever-young… but on Mount Olympos, the tipple of choice is nectar and ambrosia. The devas of Hindu mythology drink Amrita, a related substance.

There is no shortage of alcohol in mythology:

Norse mythology tells of Aegir, the ale brewer of the gods, who held a big party for honored guests every winter. The party was held inside a great hall whose floor was littered with glittering gold, providing enough light that no fires were necessary for illumination.¬† The special beer for the event was brewed in a giant cauldron given to him by Thor and served in magical cups that refilled as soon as they were empty. He even had a couple of loyal servants who distributed food and otherwise cared for the guests’ needs. The shindig was the highlight of the social season and all the gods attended. However, like so many off-campus college parties, alcohol and animosity could sometimes spoil a perfectly good evening.

In Greek mythology, Bacchus was the god of wine; in Roman mythology, Dionysos had that role.

640px-Dyonisos_Paphos_mosaic

Hellenistic mosaics discovered in 1962 close to the city of Paphos depicting Dionysos, god of wine. РPhoto by Georgeg, Public Domain.

There was also the time when O√įinn stole the mead brewed from the blood of Kvasir from under the mountain where it had been hidden by Suttung.

Alcohol was clearly important and sacred to our ancestors. It’s a shame that we merely abuse it, instead of using it in a sacred manner (like other drugs that ought to be used as a sacrament).

By unforth - http://www.flickr.com/photos/unforth/2686728373/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11188549

The Taplow drinking horns. Photo by unforthFlickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The brewing of alcohol seems rather magical – taking some ingredients that are not intoxicating, mixing them together, leaving them to ferment, and thereby producing a drink that can transform your perceptions – if used carefully and sparingly.

It’s quite exciting to put fruit, sugar, water, and yeast in a demijohn and watch it blooping and bubbling away as it ferments. There’s nothing quite like the taste of home-made wine, especially if you gathered the ingredients yourself from the hedgerows. It’s like alchemy!

And interestingly, both alcohol and alchemy are derived from Arabic words

Alcohol in ritual

Many people maintain that alcohol is sacred because it has yeast in it and has been fermented, which makes it alive somehow.

If you have some form of alcoholic sacrament¬†at the end of your ritual (cakes and wine if you’re Wiccan, or a sharing of mead if you’re a Heathen), there may be some people who are recovering alcoholics who cannot partake. Maybe you could share¬†some other fermented drink, like drinkable yoghurt? (Personally I don’t think this is cultural appropriation unless you steal the ritual that goes with it. YMMV.) Other solutions to this that have been suggested are having a non-alcoholic alternative (but some people prefer the symbolism of everyone drinking from the same cup / horn / chalice).

Wine

Wine (Pixabay, CC0, Public Domain)

Alcohol as metaphor

(everything up to this point has been blessedly free of any metaphorical subtext – but¬†if you’re fed up with¬†metaphors, you can skip this section)

Alcohol is sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of alcohol available. Some people prefer mead; others prefer wine, or cider, or beer, or lager. Some people say “I don’t like beer”, but do not realise the huge variety of beers that are available. Some people call alcoholic drinks by different names – cider in the UK, hard cider in the US; ale, beer, lager, porter, stout… If you ask me what my favourite drink is, I’d have to say, all of the above, depending on the day and my mood.

Religion is also sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of religion available. Some people prefer Heathenry; others prefer Wicca, or Druidry, or eclectic Paganism, or Asatru. Some people say “I don’t like religion” but don’t realise the huge variety of religious experiences that are available. And some people call religious experiences by different names – polytheism, hard polytheism, relational polytheism, devotional polytheism, pantheism, mysticism, and so on. Some people, when presented with a list of theological perspectives, will say, “all of the above, depending on the context, the day, and my mood”.

Always read the ingredients list

As this excellent post by Bekah Evie Bel, Polytheism Isn’t Yours, points out, you could just ask people what they mean by the label they are using, instead of assuming that they mean the same by it as you do, and then being disappointed when it turns out that they don’t.

So if someone shares their surface with you and they say, “I am a polytheist” try not to make any assumptions. ¬†Ask for clarification if you are interested by this surface, move on if you aren’t interested. ¬†Clarification (usually expanded labels) will tell you how much deeper you want to go. ¬†But if you don’t ask for clarification, if you don’t seek to go even a bit below the surface then it’s not that persons fault if you make a stupid assumption.

Just like you read the list of ingredients on food and drink to make sure there’s nothing that you’re allergic to.

Thing is, it’s in the nature of language that people will use words to mean something slightly different, or even wildly different – so labels should be used as a way to start a conversation, not as a substitute for a conversation.


This post was inspired by a comment by Bekah Evie Bel on my previous post which mentioned (hard) cider. The metaphorical aspect of it is entirely my fault.

Hail Eris!

The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed¬†an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.

What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.

Confetti by Andreas Graulund

Throwing it all up in the air to see where it lands…
Confetti by Andreas Graulund on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

Metaphor and Analogy

Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.

  • A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
  • An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
I see John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods as a metaphor, not as an analogy.

What’s wrong with chocolate cake?

I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may¬†not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix¬†polytheism and Wicca.

 

Many flavours are available

If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people¬†like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie;¬†some people¬†maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).

None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.

We don’t all like the same flavours

The only way to discover whether¬†one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.

And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make¬†apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.

 


 

Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far

Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.

Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.

 

Polytheism and Apple Pie

John Beckett has a witty and amusing post up about apple pie, vanilla pudding, and other kinds of dessert. He’s got practically the entire readership of Patheos Pagan going “I want apple pie”.

But he missed out all the people who are saying that only their apple pie is the real apple pie. (John himself acknowledges that there are many kinds of apple pie.)

Your apple pie is not my apple pie

I am horrified that John¬†puts cinnamon in his¬†apple pie, and nothing would persuade me to eat it. That’s just wrong. Also, I am willing to bet there is too much sugar in his¬†apple pie (I like mine really tart). And I bet he¬†doesn’t put cheese with it either, because he’s¬†not from Yorkshire.

And if you are a British reader, you will not be tasting the same apple pie on your mind’s tongue as an American reader. The poor benighted Americans don’t even have Bramley apples, apparently. This recipe article outlines the difference between a British apple pie and an American apple pie.

But it’s still apple pie

However, I would have to grudgingly acknowledge that his¬†apple pie is a kind of apple pie (despite the presence of cinnamon and too much sugar) because his¬†pie has apples and pastry in it, and therefore it meets the minimum criteria for being described as apple pie. I hope he¬†would acknowledge that my apple pie is also apple pie, even if he¬†doesn’t like it.

And my Bramley apple pie is definitely better than apple pie made with the wrong kind of apples¬†and with cinnamon and extra sugar…. for me.

The same applies to polytheism. You might not like relational polytheism, or mystical polytheism, or devotional polytheism, or polytheistic monism, or anything else that can be described as polytheism because it involves many gods… but it’s still polytheism.

By Marcin Floryan - Own work (own photo), CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1310749

Bramley Apples: the food of the gods. Photo by Marcin Floryan – own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Creative Endarkenment: Embracing Silence

By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A cup of tea.
By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I have a friend who is at the start of a new relationship. We get together for coffee every once in a while so I can live vicariously through her. Yesterday I was impatiently sipping at my dark roast. ‚ÄúSo‚Ķhow was the date last night?‚ÄĚ

She looked down as she poured her tea. ‚ÄúIt was‚Ķ‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúNot good?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúOh, no,‚ÄĚ she said quickly. ‚ÄúReally good. Really good. Just‚Ķdifferent. Than what I expected. What I know.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúOkay girlfriend, you‚Äôre gonna have to explain,‚ÄĚ I said, laughing and burning my tongue again.

She went on to tell me that when she had arrived at her date’s place, she was feeling really low. ‚ÄúJust down. Not feeling it. At all.‚ÄĚ At first, her new honey had tried to suss out what was going on, asking her why she was upset, what she was feeling. ‚ÄúI couldn‚Äôt even find words,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI was just‚Ķdown. You know? But then‚Ķhe stopped asking. And he just‚Ķheld me. There. On the couch. So I could curl up in the dark of him, in the silence, and move into the feeling.‚ÄĚ She looked at me, eyes wide with the wonder of it. ‚ÄúAnd he just stayed there, with me, not saying anything, letting me feel however I needed to feel.‚ÄĚ

She leaned back and sighed.¬†‚ÄúOh my god it was incredible.‚ÄĚ

***

Experience exists before we put it into words. Language is translation. Sometimes we jump to expression quickly, reflexively, as a way to navigate through life. As my friend experienced it the other night, silence can be a gift we give each other that allows us to more fully feel. A loving silence can nurture tentative growth which might freeze or fizzle under a barrage of questions and suggestions.

Mostly we move in the opposite direction. We do our best to push silence away with noise. We exist in a time, in a culture (in an election season) of blare and scare, of too many words. Incessant speech flattens and cheapens language. Without silence, we have no choice but to turn up the volume on what we say, in order to be heard.

Daring to hold silent and listen to experiences not our own, beliefs not our own, anger and pain not our own…this is scary stuff, agreed. Eat a good breakfast before you set out. But imagine, just for a moment,  if we waited an extra day or three before posting that meme or responding to that blog. Imagine if we could dare a few minutes of silent meditation before entering the fray.

As a place to start to consider for yourself the power of silence, may I suggest finding the nearest copy of Karina BlackHeart bookBlackHeart’s A Witch’s Book of Silence. (*note for my non-witchy readers: you don’t have to be a witch to read this book and distill some awesome peace and power from it. I promise.)

BlackHeart approaches silence from many perspectives‚ÄĒshe explores her theme through many lenses but this passage speaks directly to our moment:

 In silence, we study words. We develop the capacity to choose our words with care, sifting and sorting them, measuring them for truth, honor and effectiveness. We learn to withhold negative, irresponsible speech, conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors.

“Conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors…” Doesn‚Äôt that sound‚Ķgood?

Integrity involves knowing not only when to speak, but when to remain silent.

***

It’s important to note here that there are many flavors and versions of silence. I am specifically NOT talking about silence that is coerced, forced or threatened. Keeping secrets against one’s will, or to the harm of ourselves or another, cannot increase our power nor our integrity. There are times to break silence. There are times to support and act as witness to the breaking of silence.

Most of the time, though, we merely talk and talk to push silence and the scarier gifts it brings away. BlackHeart understands all too well why we fear silence and fill up the void with 24/7 news cycles, noise, chatter, with tell alls and listicles and grumpy cats and bullet points. Silence, she writes, has to do with

the powers of the north, the deep earth, the dark moon and death itself. We must be willing to name and openly confront our fear of these dark powers.

We recoil because what lies within and beyond them exists in the Mystery. Maps are useless. Check lists disintegrate. When we step off the well worn path without flashlight or trail guide, we are left to our own devices: Instinct, intuition, and the Wild Soul’s starlit vision.

There is no avoiding this truth: Silence is the path to the self. As Howard Thurman said,

 There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

It takes courage to listen for that true guide. BlackHeart acknowledges this.

In silence we seek knowledge of our true will. In silence, we gather courage so we might dare utter that truth into being. In silence we await our words return to us made fully manifest.

To listen for the genuine in yourself is to learn to discern, there in the dark, the gleam of your own unique gifts and power. And this is to dare a radically creative life. Creative endarkenment exists in the cauldron of that silence that turns truth into being. Brainstorming, workshopping, sharing and publishing are all good and necessary parts of the creative life. But at heart, at root, at some point the creative soul closes the door and returns again to her own deep well.

And, in silence, the work begins once more.

 

mama owl

 

 

(Looks like I could be on to something here.)