Why I am a Wiccan (video)

This was an address at Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge, on 29 May 2016. In it, I explain what Wicca is, situating it in the context of other historical and cultural developments, and then talking about why I love Wicca.

Order of Service

What is Wicca?

Wicca is primarily a religion where the practitioners interact with the world on many levels – physical, spiritual, magical and emotional. Initiatory Wicca is essentially an esoteric mystery religion in which every practitioner is a priestess or priest. A mystery religion is one in which the dramas of the psyche are enacted by and for the benefit of its initiates, but because these mysteries often involve non-verbal concepts, they cannot be communicated.

There are three degrees in initiatory Wicca. After the first degree initiation, the initiate is responsible for their own spiritual development (a priest unto themselves); in some groups, the period between first and second is where the new initiate is helped to develop their spirituality by their Coven and High Priestess and High Priest; after the second, they may take on responsibility for assisting others’ development; after the third, their psyche is fully integrated with itself.

Modern initiatory Wicca has many variants (Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and offshoots of these) but all share an adherence to a similar ritual structure and the practice of initiation.

The contemporary Craft both draws upon its roots in the Western Mystery Tradition, and looks to traditional forms of folk magic, folklore, and the pagan traditions of the British Isles for inspiration. The structure of rituals remains reasonably constant, but the content varies quite a lot according to the inclinations and tastes of individual covens. Only initiations remain fairly standard, in order to ensure that they will be recognised across the whole Craft, should a covener wish to transfer to another coven.

Wicca is practised in a sacred circle, and most rituals have a structure broadly based upon the Western Mystery Tradition. This involves consecrating the space, orienting it to sacred geometry, raising some power, performing the ritual, sharing consecrated food and drink, and then closing the circle and bidding farewell to the beings and powers that have been called upon. Coveners usually bring a contribution to the feast.

The basic structure of a ritual is similar to that of a story. It has a beginning (the opening of the circle), a middle (the purpose for which the ritual is being conducted be it celebratory or magical), and an end (the closing of the circle).

There are eight festivals in the Wiccan year: Samhain or Hallowe’en (31st October); Yule (21st December); Imbolc (2nd February); Spring Equinox (21st March); Beltane (1st May); Midsummer or Litha (21st June); Lammas or Lughnasadh (1st August); and Autumn Equinox (21st September). The dates, practice and meaning of these vary according to where the coven is located, when particular plants actually come out, and the local traditions where the coven members live. 

Most Wiccans practice magic for healing and other ethical results. The intention behind the working of magic is not to impose one’s will on the universe, but to bend the currents of possibility somewhat to bring about a desired outcome.

The Wiccan attitude to ethics is mainly based on the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. I think this was originally meant to show that it is impossible to do anything without causing some harm, so it is necessary to consider carefully the consequences of one’s actions. To my mind, the most important aspect of Wiccan ethics is the list of the eight virtues which occurs in The Charge of the Goddess. These are beauty and strength, power and compassion, mirth and reverence, honour and humility. Each of these pairs of virtues points to the need for balance.

Most Wiccans believe in reincarnation, with the possibility of rest between lives in a region generally referred to as the Summerlands. Some believe that the spirit joins the Ancestors, whilst the soul is reincarnated.

My experience of Wicca

When I was about six, I had a series of visions, or maybe dreams, I am not sure, where I met with a god. It wasn’t clear to me at the time who he was, but I now think that he was Odin. He inhabited a rocky and hilly landscape which was fairly arid.

Later, I read the Narnia books, and all the Pagan elements – Talking Trees, Talking Animals, dryads, river gods, fauns – really stood out for me. I think I first tried talking to trees when I was twelve.

But the book that really made me realise that I’m a Pagan was Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling.  It turns out that Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, was also influenced by this book, as he included one of the poems from it in his Wiccan ritual for Beltane, the festival of spring, merriment, and love.

I decided that I am a Pagan some time in 1985. I was pondering my values – of celebrating life and pleasure and the Earth – and realised that Paganism was a good label for my value system.

I first discovered Wicca in my final year at university. I had read Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics, by Starhawk, and liked its message that darkness represents the rejected feminine side of life, and that darkness and light are equally sacred. I had always found the idea of the witch attractive – the idea of a healer, a shaman, and a woman who stood in her own power.

So, when I was introduced to a real Wiccan, and eventually got initiated into Wicca after I moved to Cambridge in 1991, I felt a sense of homecoming.

When I heard the words of The Charge of the Goddess for the first time, I found them overwhelmingly beautiful and resonant.

And whilst I have had moments over the years when I have disagreed with aspects of Wicca: especially the simplistic theology of a God and a Goddess embraced by some Wiccans, and the need for secrecy, and the way that some Wiccans are insufficiently inclusive towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people… I have always come back to that beauty, that sense of connection and homecoming, the feeling that I have found my tribe. A tribe of people who are individual and interesting, independent thinkers and wonderfully creative, who celebrate sexuality and wildness and the sheer joy of being alive.

I am also a polytheist, because I believe that divinity is manifested in many forms, and that the idea of an all-pervading single deity doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it. With polytheism, I can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. 

In ritual, we express our deepest yearnings towards what we hold to be of greatest worth. In Wicca, it’s possible for a polytheist and an atheist and a duotheist and an animist to circle together, if we share the same values and a similar practice. Our theology is fuzzy, and there is a greater focus on experience than on theology. There is plenty of room for mystery in Wicca. We don’t know what the nature of the gods is, so all our theorising is probably inadequate, and most Wiccans acknowledge that. We are aware that we don’t know everything about the gods, and that we only see the faces they choose to show us; that sometimes it may be more illuminating to say what the gods are not than to attempt to say what they are.

In a Wiccan ritual, the words, the energies, and the space are beautiful and resonant. We have crossed a threshold into a new realm, a realm that feels closer to the gods and goddesses. This is the place between the worlds, where we walk on the edge of time and space, with one foot in the otherworld. The circle is a space where you can commune with the universe, develop the self, engage in sacred play, and honour the divine with each other. There is freedom from unnecessary social constraint. We celebrate the beauty of the night and the human body, and the firelight flickering on the naked flesh. The ecstatic leaping across the fire, wild and free. The flames, symbolic of life and passion… The feeling of journeying together to other worlds, communing with the ancestors, the land, and the spirits of the land. Walking with gods and goddesses.

I have now been practising Wicca for twenty-five years. After that amount of time, the cycle of seasonal festivals becomes part of how you see the world, and everything is seen in a Pagan perspective – looking for the most life-enhancing option in any given situation, seeing everything as a spectrum rather than as two poles of a binary choice, trying to ensure balance, create harmony, and care for the Earth and all beings upon it. 

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Heresy is Good

heresy (n.) “doctrine or opinion at variance with established standards” (or, as Johnson defines it, “an opinion of private men different from that of the catholick and orthodox church”), c. 1200, from Old French heresie, eresie “heresy,” and by extension “sodomy, immorality” (12c.), from Latin hæresis, “school of thought, philosophical sect.” The Latin word is from Greek hairesis “a taking or choosing for oneself, a choice, a means of taking; a deliberate plan, purpose; philosophical sect, school,” from haireisthai “take, seize,” middle voice of hairein “to choose,” a word of unknown origin, perhaps from PIE *ser- (5) “to seize” (source of Hittite šaru “booty,” Welsh herw “booty”).

I have always found it very striking that, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, a haeresis was a school of thought, but under Christianity, a heresy became a departure from orthodox opinion. In the Hindu dharma, there are many different theological viewpoints, spiritual techniques, and modes of devotion. The same applies in the Pagan movement. We know that we do not know exactly what the nature of reality is, so action is more important than what theory about the gods you happen to hold.

The School of Athens (1509), Raphael

The School of Athens (1509), Raphael. Public Domain image

In her excellent post, “Not a Real Pagan“, Bekah Evie Bel neatly skewers the view that to be a Real Pagan TM, you have to do or believe certain things. Many of the things are generally assumed to be “what Wiccans believe” – however, many of them are popular distortions of Wiccan ideas. I added in my comments on her post:

“Harm none” is a misinterpretation of the Rede anyway. What the Rede is pointing out is that since it is impossible not to harm anyone, you can’t actually do what you like, you have to think about the consequences of all your actions.

The so-called law of threefold return is actually a misinterpretation of Wiccan liturgy – so I don’t believe in that either. The rule is actually to return good threefold when you receive good.

I don’t believe in the Triple Goddess either. I am a polytheist.

And I am a Gardnerian Wiccan.

And for good measure, I added:

The full Wiccan Rede is “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”.

And the silly 70s poem that contains that text is NOT the Wiccan Rede either.

At this point you can pretty much tell that the “Harm none” and “threefold return” brigade are not initiated Wiccans 🙂

And don’t forget about us polytheist Wiccans either 🙂

Before anyone who really likes the 1970s poem jumps on my head: fine if you like it, but don’t refer to it as the Wiccan Rede. It is a poem about the Rede, it is not the Rede itself.

As someone for whom polarity is not the centre of my practice and duotheism doesn’t even get a look in, I’m probably a heretic in many people’s eyes. I like to think of myself as being in creative tension with my tradition – and in any case traditions evolve,  they are not set in stone.

But heresy means choosing a path, and isn’t that what Paganism is meant to be all about?

As the poem Outwitted by Edwin Markham puts it:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

So the next time someone calls you “not a real Pagan”, say proudly that yes, you are a heretic. You will be in excellent company with all the freethinkers and dissenters and mystics down the ages.

Books for Kids

So, you want to share your Pagan world-view and values with your kids, without indoctrinating them into it? What better way than to give them the kind of books you loved as a kid, which may have influenced your own path to recognising that you are a Pagan?

Most Pagans believe that you cannot be converted to Paganism, in any case: it wells up from within as a response to the beauty of Nature: “the green Earth and the white Moon among the stars”.

Here are some books that I love and would recommend.

Illustrated books for younger children

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I love this book so much that I bought the French edition as well (it was originally written in French). It’s a poignant story of how an aviator who has crashed in the desert meets a traveller from another planet – the little prince who lives on the asteroid B612. The little prince tells of his travels from one asteroid to another. The story is quirky and charming, but also sad and wistful. It tells of how being a grown-up drains the enchantment from the world, whereas a child knows about seeing the magic and mystery in the world.

Google Books · Wikipedia


The Whales’ Song by Dyan Sheldon and Gary Blythe

This is a lovely book with beautiful illustrations and the evocative story of Lily, a small girl who lives with her grandmother. Her grandmother tells her stories about the whales, and how beautiful they are.

It is presumably meant to be read aloud to small children, but it is enjoyable for all ages.

Amazon.co.uk · GoodReads

The paintings from The Whales’ Song are very beautiful and won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1990.
Gary Blythe, paintings from "The Whales' Song". Photo by Plum Leaves on Flickr

Gary Blythe, paintings from The Whales’ Song. Photo by Plum Leaves on Flickr. [CC-BY-2.0]


Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

An absolute classic ever since it was published, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the story of a gull who is not like other gulls. He lives to fly rather than to eat. Eventually he is shunned by the other gulls, until some come to learn from him. This is a story of individuality and courage, beautifully illustrated with pictures of gulls in flight.

GoodReads says:

People who make their own rules when they know they’re right…people who get a special pleasure out of doing something well (even if only for themselves)…people who know there’s more to this whole living thing than meets the eye: they’ll be with Jonathan Seagull all the way. Others may simply escape into a delightful adventure about freedom and flight.


Longer books for older children

The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin

This is a wonderful series of books on how to use magic responsibly, with unforgettable characters, beautiful seascapes, and an excellent style of writing. The author is a Taoist, and the philosophy of Taoism is evident in the unfolding of the story (but never in a heavy-handed way).

Ged, a mage from a remote island, goes to wizard school on Roke, but one day when he is showing off his powers to the other students, he brings a terrible thing into the world: a gebbeth. He must go on a quest to track it down. On his journey, he has wonderful adventures and meets a dragon and an unhappy priestess.

Amazon.co.uk · Fantasy Book Review · Ursula K Le Guin


 Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling

This is the book that I always credit with making me realise that I am a Pagan. Puck, an ancient earth spirit who lives under Pook’s Hill, is accidentally summoned by Dan and Una when they perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer Eve. He introduces the children to a stream of historical characters and incidents. One of my favourites is the story of Parnesius and Pertniax, two Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall who makes friends with a Pict. The adventures of Sir Richard Dalyngridge with the Vikings are very exciting, too.


Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling

This is the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and has even more Pagan stuff in it. The story of the Marklake witches, and The Knife and the Naked Chalk, are outstanding. There is also a wonderful poem, The Way through the Woods, which is very evocative of lost things, and wistful. The book doesn’t have quite such a coherent theme as its prequel, but that may actually be a good thing.


Witch Child by Celia Rees

Aimed at teenagers, this is a story of a girl whose grandmother is hanged for witchcraft, and who must then make her own way in a world of fear and superstition. Celia Rees writes beautifully of landscapes and customs, but the book is gripping from start to finish.  There’s also a sequel, Sorceress.

“compelling and convincing.Rees has become a major writer for teenage readers.” Independent

“every now and then one reads a book which stirs up the deepest of feelings and continues to cause ripples and this book is just such a one” School Librarian Journal

Amazon.co.uk · Celia Rees


The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Lily is a lonely motherless girl who lives in South Carolina and is visited by bees. After her friend Rosaleen is beaten up for registering to vote, they run away and find happiness from an unexpected connection from the past.

This novel has also been made into a film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Amazon.co.uk · Sue Monk Kidd


 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is a story of an orphaned girl who discovers the beauty of the Yorkshire Moors, the value of friendship, and the magic of gardening. The main characters – Mary, the protagonist, Dickon the child of Nature, and Colin the intellectual are unforgettable; and the minor characters such as Ben the gruff gardener and Dickon’s mother, are beautifully drawn too. This has also been made into a film.


The Moomin series by Tove Jansson

Moominvalley is located on the edge of the Gulf of Finland, and the creatures that live there include Moomins, Hemulens, Fillyjonks and their friends. They have a series of adventures; the stories mostly focus on Moomintroll and his friendship with Snufkin, who is a wanderer who doesn’t like to have too many possessions, and is almost Zen Buddhist in his thinking. The whole series has a wistful and charming tone, a keen observation of Nature, and the books are beautifully illustrated.


The Iron Wolf by Richard Adams

This is a collection of folktales from all around the world, rewritten for children. One of my favourites is an Italian story about how the birds got their colours, but all the stories are well-written and enjoyable.

‘Authors need folk-tales,’ Richard Adams says, ‘in the same way as composers need folk-song. They’re the headspring of the narrator’s art, where the story stands forth at its simple, irreducible best. They don’t date, any more than dreams, for they are the collective dreams of humanity.’


Watership Down by Richard Adams

The gripping story of the journey of five rabbits who escape the destruction of their home warren after Fiver (a shaman-rabbit) has a vision of its impending doom. The friendship of the rabbits, the visionary experiences of Fiver, and the legends of El-Ahrairah, the trickster rabbit hero (who bears more than a passing resemblance to human trickster gods), make this a magical and unforgettable story.


 

Strandloper by Alan Garner

The story opens with a group of people holding a curiously pagan folk ritual in a church. One of them, William Buckley, has learnt to read, which is regarded as a subversive crime; and he is transported to Australia for blasphemy, where he escapes from the penal colony and goes to live with Aborigines. This is a very evocative look at the similarities and differences between English folk mythology and Australian Aborigine mythology, and the differences between folk religion and revealed religion. The English section of the story is based fairly closely on the facts.

The Sacred Fool

Fools are more compassionate than tricksters; tricksters exploit human frailty, fools send it up, to release the healing power of laughter. The fool carries a bladder, perhaps as a symbol of pomposity, whose puffed-up balloon the wit of the fool will pop.

I wrote about the Fool a little bit in my post on elders:

Always be prepared to take the piss out of yourself and your delusions of grandeur. This is why kings would license a fool or jester: so that when they were about to do something stupid, there was one person who was not afraid to tell them it was stupid. I have a small posse of people whom I have encouraged to kick me up the arse if I ever start getting too big for my boots. I hope their arse-kicking services will never be needed, but I feel it’s wise to be prepared.

The wisest and most compassionate character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is Feste, the fool – quite possibly my favourite Shakespeare character of all. He skewers the pomposity of Malvolio, the drama of Orsino, and the self-pity of Olivia, but when the other characters (Maria and Sir Toby) turn the jest into cruelty, he takes pity on Malvolio. He also sings beautiful and poignant songs.

The fool was and is an ambivalent figure. Are they truly mad, or are they saner than the rest of us, having seen through the charade of maintaining the status quo, where all the most humane values are scorned in favour of turning a quick profit?

The Fool in Jan Matejko’s painting is the only person at a 1514 royal ball who is troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. His is a deeper wisdom than the superficial people around him.

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko The jester is the only person at a 1514 royal ball troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. (Public domain image)

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko [Public Domain]

I am also reminded of the Welsh story of the three causeless blows, also known as The Lady of the Lake. A faery woman married a human, and said that she would leave him when he had struck her three times without cause. The first time was when she left her gloves behind; the second time was when she cried at a christening; the third time was when she laughed at a funeral. Each time it was because she knew something that the others present did not.  Her wisdom ran contrary to that of the world, and so she was deemed a fool.

Witches, fools, and harlots were often seen as being in league with the Devil and the Fair Folk. The song Tom o’ Bedlam makes this connection:

I went down to Satan’s kitchen, for to beg me food one morning
There I got souls piping hot, all on the spit a turning.

There I picked up a cauldron, Where boiled ten thousand harlots
Though full of flame I drank the same, to the health of all such varlets.

My staff has murdered giants, my bag a long knife carries
For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs, with which to feed the fairies.

To be “in league with the Devil” is to celebrate wildness and sexuality, queerness and quirks, unbridled lust, rising up against authority.

Humour skewers the powerful and the pompous, pricking their bubble of self-importance. That’s why authoritarians don’t like humour and seek to control it, to turn it as a weapon against the powerless. But the joyous wildness always breaks through the cracks, like ivy and creepers bringing down stone and concrete.

The authorities want us to remain divided, frightened, and alone. They want to establish hierarchies, keep the poor downtrodden and enslaved by debt, crush the possibility of love and joy. They want women to be seen merely as walking wombs, and men as drones that fight and fuck. But we are more than that: half angel, half animal. The animal in us demands to be loved, to feel the wind on our faces, to snuggle with our beloved, and to laugh and dance and make love. That’s why Rhyd growls in his sleep.  The angel in us is a messenger, a communicator, a poet, a transformer, who yearns for the connection of minds.

The Fool calls us to our full humanity, both animal and angel, lover and beloved, dreamer and maker.

That’s why being open to the queer, the wild, the exuberant, is inherently dangerous. It endangers the status quo, the drab everyday reality, and threatens to replace it will full colour and radiance and overflowing exuberance. So rejoice!

City of Refuge, by Starhawk (Book Review)

[Please note: spoilers ahead, especially for the prequel, The Fifth Sacred Thing.]

City of RefugeWhen I bought my copy of City of Refuge, I was trying to have low expectations. I can only imagine that writing a sequel to a well-received, bestselling book like The Fifth Sacred Thing more than twenty years after its initial publication must have been an intimidating task. Would the sequel remain true to the characters we loved the first time around? Would the story still resonate despite changes in our political climate? Would the book simply come off as too idealistic for me—now twenty years older myself—to take it seriously?

Well, I lost a lot of sleep the week I read it. I didn’t stay up all night, because I am the parent of a toddler and I value my sanity; but I stayed up till the wee hours four nights in a row because I was desperate to learn what happened next. Dare I say it? I could barely put it down.

Now, I’ll admit that neither City of Refuge nor The Fifth Sacred Thing is going to win prizes as literary fiction. The Fifth Sacred Thing suffers from the didactic, “teachy/preachy” quality that’s typical of utopian/dystopia sci-fi. The book’s setting is drawn in broad strokes: the United States government has collapsed and its remnants are controlled by a corrupt, fundamentalist, militaristic Christian sect. The land once known as California is in severe drought, and water is a scarce resource. But within the border of the former San Francisco, witches and other community-oriented, earth-loving people have formed a lovely but fragile consensus-based society that is harmoniously integrated into the local ecosystem.

Starhawk uses the metaphor of homeopathy to suggest that a tiny, representative fragment of a just society, when inserted into an unhealthy society at the right place and time, can have a healing effect that ripples out from the point of contact. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, this principle describes how the peaceful people of former San Francisco survive an army invasion and, after terrible and bloody loss of life through nonviolence resistance, convert the ill-treated soldiers to their side. In City of Refuge, this metaphor continues as main characters Bird and Madrone travel to the crumbling metropolis of former Los Angeles. There, while the converted army turns and marches on its former masters, they attempt to set up a safe place for refugees from the city who would otherwise be executed or slain.

City of Refuge is still a utopian/dystopian novel. It has parts where characters lecture each other in order to get across important background information about economics, permaculture, pedagogy, and other issues. Yet it does its teaching more smoothly and with more self-awareness than The Fifth Sacred Thing. The Fifth Sacred Thing was written by an activist in her forties whose daily work included regular direct action—no doubt an intense and polarizing place from which to write. City of Refuge was written by that same activist in her sixties, and seemingly from a place of greater reflection and humility.

At an American Academy of Religion conference I attended about five years ago, Starhawk spoke about her work with the Occupy movement. She remarked on the potentially insurmountable challenges that Occupy faced in its attempt to exclusively use a consensus-based decision-making process. As she wrote in her blog around the same time:

Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together.  When your own needs are overwhelming, and unfulfilled, it’s hard to see that other people might also have needs.  When you’ve had no voice, and somebody offers you a platform to speak and an audience, it can be hard to step back after your allotted two minutes and let others speak.  When you’ve dulled your pain for years with drink or drugs, you can’t easily go cold turkey and stop using. […Consensus] requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D.  When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration.  When the voices in your head compel you to tell the world about the impending arrival of the Space Brothers with the Mysterious Blue Geodes and you theory about how it all relates to the Mayan Calendar, being told you’re off topic just doesn’t cut it.

The idealism of City of Refuge is noticeably tempered with real-world experience. Consensus works pretty well in a well-fed group of people who have been trained their whole lives to use it; but what about on the streets with a group of starving strangers, some of whom are in poor mental and physical health and all of whom are scared and angry? There are moments when Bird and Madrone’s project simply goes off the rails, and there is no magical solution, no deus ex machina to make things right.

People die a lot in City of Refuge: adults and teenagers and children. The book presents problems to which there are no solutions, at least not in this storyline. And although there are moments of hope—perhaps even a “happy” ending—some threads are simply left unraveled.

The book also has moments of black humor that warn the audience against reading it or its prequels as strictly ideological. The Fifth Sacred Thing used nonviolent resistance as a central plot point, and many readers have assumed that Starhawk is rigidly committed to nonviolent protest. In City of Refuge, however, Maya—the character whose life story most resembles Starhawk’s—states firmly that she was never a pacifist. When challenged on her past advocacy for nonviolence as a response to invasion, she snaps, “That was a vision. I never claimed it was dogma for all occasions.”

Later, when a group of enslaved farmers is being liberated, we have what initially looks like a stereotypical utopian/dystopian teaching moment: a farmer asks how they will run the farm without hierarchy, and a member of the liberating army launches into an explanation of collective ownership. Rather than listening avidly, however—as one would expect if this were a typical scene in the genre—the starving, exhausted farmers talk amongst themselves, cry, or stare off into space in total shock. The lecture falls on deaf ears—a lesson, perhaps, in the need to give ideology second place behind compassionate response to human need.

This is what I mean when I say that City of Refuge is humble. It is not a book that present itself as knowing the answers to climate change, racism, classism, sexism, religious intolerance, or economic exploitation. Its beautiful witch heroes are compelling, but they are also sometimes naïve, wrong, or just plain foolish. Its villains, in turn, are not wholly evil, though some are quite bad; in fact, some apparent villains turn out to be needed allies for the liberating army. City of Refuge does not present situations or people in black and white terms. It acknowledges brokenness and does not always insist that that brokenness be fixed. Instead, it allows for love, and for uncertainty.

City of Refuge portrays earth-based spirituality, permaculture, sacred sexuality, nonhierarchical decision-making, collective ownership, and other politically-charged concepts. As an engaging novel, it is an enjoyable way to introduce yourself or a loved one to these ideas—and in that way, it serves an ideological purpose. However—and this is what makes City of Refuge so much better than many utopian/dystopian novels—it refuses to present these ideas rigidly or dogmatically. City of Refuge is deeper than a simple dramatization of Starhawk’s politics. For that reason, this book belongs not just in the hands of Pagans or activists, but in the hands of any reader who is struggling with the realities of this frightening historical moment. Humbly, City of Refuge offers us not simple answers, but instead a variety of ways forward to explore and perhaps make our own.

 

What Does An Inclusive Coven Look Like?

A lot of people seem to think that inclusive means “I’ve got some gay people in my coven”. That is certainly welcoming – but is it really inclusive? I think there’s a spectrum of inclusivity – so one coven might score 100% and another might score 80% – but I think we have to accept that different people will have different ideas and priorities. However, it would avoid a lot of heartbreak all round if people stated upfront how inclusive their coven actually is.

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

An inclusive coven ticks some or all of the following boxes:

  • Understands that diversity has a place in celebration, theology and cosmology.
  • Understands that gender identity, gender expression, sex/gender assigned at birth, and biological characteristics are distinct (when I say distinct, I mean noticeably different, but interpermeable and with fuzzy boundaries).
  • Understands that you can make energy through polarity (tension of opposites), resonance (two similar people), or synergy (joining the energies of the whole group).
  • Understands that polarity can be made by two or more people of any gender and sexual orientation, and by two or more people of the same gender, and that polarity exists on a spectrum where Person A may be yang in relation to Person B, but yin in relation to Person C.
  • Understands that you can make polarity with any pair of opposite qualities (e.g. morning people and evening people, cat lovers and dog lovers, tea drinkers and coffee drinkers, air signs and earth signs, fire signs and water signs).
  • Understands that fertility is not strictly biological and may refer to creativity (and that you don’t need a male body & a female body to produce fertility on a symbolic level – e.g. when blessing crops).
  • Allows invocation of any gender deity onto any gender human.
  • Allows gender fluidity in ritual roles & doesn’t make people stand boy/girl/boy/girl in circle.
  •  Does cakes & wine with reference to lover & beloved, or using two cups, or on the understanding that we all contain both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energies, or some other inclusive variation, and can be done by two people of any gender.
  •  Accommodates difference (e.g. neurodivergence, dyslexia, left-handedness, aphantasia) and disability. Bonus points for embracing the social model of disability.
  •  Is open to other cultures and ethnicities and does not insist on a genetic basis for culture (e.g. anyone can worship gods from any culture). Bonus points for being aware of the concept of systemic racism.
  •  Tries to avoid cultural appropriation.
  • Is accepting of kink, polyamory, and monogamy.
  • Promotes consent culture.
  • Welcomes members of all ages (over 18) and accommodates older members’ needs.
  • Does not automatically exclude people with mental health issues.
  •  Accommodates different theological perspectives (animism, atheism, pantheism, polytheism, duotheism etc).
  • Body-positive: does not allow fat-shaming or body-shaming.
  • Is prepared to accommodate coven members who are less well-off (by not organising expensive social activities, or having a massive and expensive reading list, for example).
  • Does not insist that its members reach a particular educational level or belong to a particular socio-economic class.
  • Listens to the views of all the members.
  • Values the contributions and ideas of all the members.

Summary

Inclusive Wicca is about being inclusive towards everyone.

There isn’t a competition over who is more oppressed, and there is no queue for liberation. We can work on small issues and large issues at the same time – I am not suggesting that all the categories mentioned in the list receive the same degree of oppression in society – they are included in the list because at some point, they have been excluded from some Wiccan circles for some reason.

Also, please note that inclusive Wicca is not a new or separate tradition; it is a tendency within existing Wiccan traditions. (Though just to confuse matters, in Australia, there actually is a tradition called Inclusive Wicca, which is unconnected to the inclusive tendency – though it may have similar goals.)

Double rainbow in Alaska

Double rainbow in Alaska. Photo by Eric Rolph at English Wikipedia – English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 


Thanks to Alder Lyncurium, Anna Hammarlund, Anya Read, Brian Paisley, Francois Schaut, Lirilin Lee, Susan Harper, for suggestions and comments on the first draft of this.

 

UPDATE: I have now created an inclusive Wicca website.

Creative Endarkenment: the Need to Ground and Shield

 

 

The common idea of “grounding” literally and figuratively sends us earthward. To the very real dirt we walk upon. Spirit is in the compost and in the leaf mulch, in the decay in the gutters and the dust under the couch. In the way things fall apart. To make new life, DNA breaks down and recombines. To make new families, households break up and recombine. It’s painful and messy and necessary.

This is not what most of us are taught. Re-visioning (human) nature as dynamic and always-changing helps us re-vision our own spirituality. Charles Eisenstein says in The Ascent of Humanity:

When we recognize that nature is itself dynamic, creative, and growing, then we need no longer transcend it, but simply participate in it more fully.

***

Participation takes a little precaution, however. Ground and shield. The advice is almost always applicable. desk

It’s difficult to remember to ground and shield when lives are busy and pressure is high, when people are shouting. When we are shouting. And that is also possibly when it is most important. Here is a simple technique that anyone can practice. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a bit. Feel the rhythm of your breathing.

Feel the breath of your body circulating. Feel the blood circulating.

Identify where the energy centers of your body are, at this moment. Where the tension is. Identify the emotions, the kinds of energy you are feeling.  Exist there, still breathing deeply and regularly.

Feel those tensions slowly begin to stretch. Feel the energy begin to circulate with the breath, the blood. Let the energy of your body root itself, streaming down through your feet, into the ground. Let it sink and reach down deeper into the earth under you. Feel the roots of your being stretch downward. You are connected to the earth by this stream of energy. You are secure.

Take a moment to breathe in that space of security and sure knowledge.

Then, when you are ready, draw the healing and protective energy of earth up, even as your energy continues to descend. Visualize that energy shimmering around you, a shield. Does it take the form of water? Pellets of ice? Braids of fire? Woven flowers or pure light? Whatever elemental or visual image feels personally right for you, allow your shield to grow and strengthen around you.

Know that within that shield you are safe from others’ negativity.

Breathe, feel the flow of energies down into the earth and up into the shield.

With gratitude, still feeling your shield around you, slowly rise into the day, centered, focused, rooted and protected.

***

There are many ways to do it of course. The need to ground and shield has been brought home to me recently in various contexts, everywhere from Facebook threads that disintegrate, to my son’s slammed door over my head. It’s a loud and reactive world these days, with an unending stream of stimulation at our fingertips. We lose track of ourselves.

All this energy–which could be put towards our work–expended in arguing and memes and othering. We have a long way to go. There are as many ways to go about the work as there are people going about it. Look around at where you are, figure what you can do from here. Then ground. Spend some time with the grasses and mosses. The roots of dilemmas and the roots of trees. This season,  bend close to the ground, focusing on the local, the small, the neighbors you can directly affect (and I mean neighbors in the most generous sense of the term: peoples and species and rocks in your immediate vicinity). The work is humble. Revolution starts where you are, with whatever size canvas you work with.

Creativity is by its nature radical (revolution and roots): poetry, justice advocacy, meal preparation, the crucial conversation with your high school son about how to get caught up on English homework—all of these have value, and dignity, and real worth in the world. Grounding and shielding helps us protect ourselves when the work gets messy, gets dangerous. And it will. As the poet Robert Frost said, creativity is “play for mortal stakes.”

The work looks different for each of us, but we each have work to do. Let’s try to honor each other as best we can, remembering the world needs our many diversities–and even our disagreements–to thrive.

dandies

 

 

The Moon and the Sea

For as long as I can remember, the Moon has seemed like a source of mystery and magic. I have always had a bit of a thing about the Moon, and everything associated with the lunar side of life: poetry, intuition, silver, water, dreams, and stars. I always assumed that cats were lunar until I discovered that dogs are lunar and cats are solar. But I still prefer cats. The Moon represents the twilight half of consciousness (memories, dreams, intuition, rhythm). And of course, witches have always been associated with the Moon, and with a whole cohort of animals and birds who are also associated with the Moon, especially hares, bats, and owls.

The Moon and the Sea

Full Moon, Sky, Sea, Waves. Pexel.com. CC0, Public Domain

The Moon in poetry

The silvery light of the Moon transforms the landscape into a mysterious deep twilight blue. The moonpath (the reflection of the Moon on the sea) may lead to mysterious other realms. It certainly did for Lucius Apuleius when the great goddess Isis appeared to him as the full Moon over the sea, and transformed him back into a human being, releasing him from the enchantment that had turned him into an ass.

“Behold Lucius I am come, thy weeping and prayers has moved me to succor thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine, Queen of heaven, the principal of the Gods celestial, the light of the goddesses: at my will the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell be disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, the mother of the Gods: the Athenians call me Cecropian Artemis: the Cyprians, Paphian Aphrodite: the Candians, Dictyanna: the Sicilians , Stygian Proserpine: and the Eleusians call me Mother of the Corn. Some call me Juno, others Bellona of the Battles, and still others Hecate. Principally the Ethiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the Egyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed to worship me, do call me Queen Isis.”

This theme was picked up by Dion Fortune in her wonderful book, The Sea Priestess:

I am that soundless, boundless, bitter sea.
All tides are mine, and answer unto me.
Tides of the airs, tides of the inner earth;
The secret, silent tides of death and birth.
Tides of men’s souls, and dreams, and destiny –
Isis Veiled, and Rhea, Binah, Ge.

The hour of the high full moon draws near;
I hear the invoking words, hear and appear —
Isis Unveiled, and Rhea, Binah, Ge.
I come unto the priest that calleth me.

There is a wonderful poem by Sylvia Plath, The Moon and the Yew Tree, which describes the contrast between the Moon, who is “bald and wild” and “terribly upset”, and Mary, who is “sweet”:

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.

Actually I rather suspect that Sylvia Plath’s poetry is a contributory factor in my being being a Pagan and a Wiccan. She also wrote a wonderful poem about the Horned God, called Faun, which also evokes the Moon:

Haunched like a faun, he hooed
From grove of moon-glint and fen-frost
Until all owls in the twigged forest
Flapped black to look and brood
On the call this man made.

sky, clouds, moon, horizon

Sky, Clouds, Moon, Horizon. Pexel.com. CC0, Public Domain.

Serious Moonlight

In times past, the moonlight was needed because of a lack of streetlights, and the Lunar Society (Erasmus Darwin, Watt, Bolton, Wedgwood, Priestley, etc) met on full moon nights in order to be able to travel at night. The Carmina Gadelica praises the Moon as ‘the glorious lamp of the poor’, and there are four prayers to the Moon in the collection.

There are many Moon deities, both male and female. In Wicca, we tend to regard the Moon as female and the Sun as male; in Heathenry, the Sun is female and the Moon is male. Many other cultures have a male Moon deity too – Chandra in India, Shin in Mesopotamia, Tsukuyomi in Japan.There are also many Moon goddesses: the Greek goddesses Phoebe, Artemis, Selene, and Hecate; and the Chinese goddess Chang’e. Some of these deities are associated with witches.

In ancient times, people would kiss their hand to the New Moon. (It’s mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Job 31: 26-28.) The Moon was believed to govern growth and fertility, so that planting should always be done at the New Moon, so that the plant would grow with the waxing Moon. Many plants are associated with the Moon, especially white flowers that give off a scent at night, and ones that are traditionally used in witchcraft.

For me, the Moon is the source and origin of witchcraft: the lunar energy, the mysterious qualities of the Moon, and the association with the night, wildness, freedom, spirituality, and sexuality:

O, my love
Come silently in the middle of the night
As gliding moonlight…
Nazrul Islam

Poets and mystics of all religions have praised the beauty of the Moon – especially the Sufis, who also have a mystical relationship with the night.

The phases of the Moon are also important. The Moon rules the tides of the sea; but she is also believed to rule the tides of the mind. Magic for increase should always be done on the waxing Moon; magic for decrease, on the waning Moon.

The Moon rules the twilight side of life, the wild, the uncanny, the preternatural. Civilisation tries to ignore the Moon, because she is the liberator of the oppressed and shines her light into the nooks and crannies, revealing the deeds that are done by night. But the Moon always returns with her messages from the subconscious, from the endless sea of dreams.

 

 

Finding a Compromise: Keeping Places

Respect For the Dead

In any discussion of what to do with human remains, I think we should start from the assumption that almost everyone respects the dead. But it is how that respect is expressed that is currently a source of conflict.

Some have argued that respect can only be expressed by not disturbing the dead; or if they are disturbed by accident or because of development work, then they must be reburied as soon as possible. This is, however, a view that was not necessarily held by our ancestors. It may also be a result of squeamishness about death, not wanting to see human remains on display. It is certainly true that many cultures prefer their remains not to be disturbed, and indeed the integrity of the burial is one of the duties we owe to the dead (de Baets, 2004), along with memory and justice. But if the resting place is long-forgotten, then the person has long since passed out of memory, and so archaeologists are at least benefiting the ancestors by perpetuating their memory.

Burial Practices

There are few burials from the Mesolithic, but one of them that is known is the remains of a man found near Tormarton in Gloucestershire, who appeared to have been murdered: he had an arrowhead in his spine, and was left in a ditch (to be discovered in the 1960s when a gas pipeline was cut through the site).

In the Neolithic, some of the dead were placed on wooden platforms on causewayed enclosures (such as Windmill Hill near Avebury) for the birds to pick the flesh off their bones. Some of the smaller bones would have been lost in the process. Any remaining flesh was scraped off, and then the bones were placed in a burial mound. In some cases the skeletons were disarticulated, all the thigh bones placed together in one section and all the skulls in another, and so on. Later, rituals were performed in the mound and with the bones.

In the Bronze Age, individual burial mounds started to appear, and some of the Neolithic barrows (such as West Kennett) were deliberately closed off. Nevertheless only high-status individuals received burials in mounds.

In the Iron Age, all sorts of bizarre burial practices were used. There were chariot burials in Yorkshire, bog bodies in Ireland (possibly victims of sacrifice or murder), bodies left in disused grain pits (at Danebury Rings, for example), and so on.

The Anglo-Saxons had individual burial mounds in their pagan period, and graves aligned east-west in their Christian period (though confusingly, some of these burials included grave goods, which is normally taken as a sign of a pagan burial). Also, some Anglo-Saxon pagans were buried in an east-west alignment; there is considerable variation in burial practices, and it is difficult to tell which graves are Christian and which are pagan.

All these burial practices presumably indicate different beliefs about the ontological status of the dead – whether they are things, quasi-persons, former persons, or persons (de Baets, 2004), different beliefs about the afterlife (where it is located, who presides over it, whether the dead need objects there that they needed in life, and so on) and the journey of the soul to that afterlife (whether or not the soul travels via some central omphalos or gateway, whether it requires a chariot or a horse to get there, and so on).

What do we Mean by Respect?

Most societies regard memory as a key factor in respecting the dead. The well-known saying “Mustn’t speak ill of the dead” indicates that most people feel that the good reputation of the dead person must not be undermined. Indeed, the Hávamál speaks of the individual’s reputation as more precious than material things:

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

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead

The Quiché Mayan poem Popol Vuh (quoted in de Baets, 2004) contains a plea from the dead to be remembered:

Our days are ended. Think, then, of us.
Do not erase us from your memory, nor forget us.

The building of funerary monuments in Pagan and other cultures around the world indicates a desire for the memory of the dead person to be perpetuated.

Many archaeologists speak of recovering the memory of the ancient dead as part of their motivation for excavating them and carrying out research to find out how they lived and died. Archaeological research has also brought about a deeper respect for the peoples of the past, since it has shown how they survived and flourished in an often hostile environment and how they created art and culture and tools and clothing to help them survive. The excavation of the “Ice Man” (a Bronze Age man discovered frozen at the edge of an Alpine glacier, also known as Ötzi after the valley where he was found) has shown that Bronze Age people had advanced tools and clothing, and that they had acupuncture and knowledge of herbs. Ötzi is now enshrined in a special museum. Another example of increasing respect for the ancient dead by rediscovering their stories is the TV programme Meet the Ancestors, which reconstructed the lives of people of the past, giving an insight into their experiences and feelings. Similarly, an archaeologist who excavates bog bodies spoke movingly of how she wants to create some form of restorative justice for the oppressed and marginalised – which some of the bog bodies may have been – by recovering their stories (Giles, 2006).

Others feel that respect for the dead primarily means not disturbing their place of rest, or returning them to the earth as soon as possible. Emma Restall Orr (2005) speaks movingly of the individual’s song being restored to the greater song of the earth:

Each individual’s song is made up of notes given them by the ancestors, by the tribe, by the landscape, by the wind and the food that is eaten, by the rain that falls, that is drunk and pissed. The physical body, then, is crafted of all these songs. It is the totality of experience, it is every single story of every relationship a person forges throughout their life. With each breath and footstep, in every cell, the body sings its relationships with the environment. With each heartbeat, the body is retelling the stories of its tribe, history and heritage, upon the land. … Slowly, given the opportunity through burial, the waters of that pool seep back into the earth, cell by cell dissolving. Even that which remains the longest – the bones, still holding those songs – silently lets go, whispering them into the mud and the flow of time.

This is a poetic vision of the process of decay after the body has been buried, but only mystics would be able to recover the individual stories from the greater song – and unfortunately, mystic visions are not verifiable, and whilst they may be psychologically and spiritually true, they are often not factually true. I do not mean to say that all visions are factually untrue, just that they generally need to be verified by other sources before we can act on them. So, in order to have genuine respect for and understanding of our ancestors, we need to remember them as well as honour their resting places.

But not all Pagans view people and landscape as a holistic unity in this way. Many subscribe to a dualistic view that the dead go to another plane of existence, and that the once the soul has left the body, it is no longer important. Many Pagans find archaeological research to be of immense significance to their sense of who they are and where they come from, and believe that perpetuating their memory is the most important form of respect we can give to the dead.

Practicalities

Sometimes it is impossible to return the dead to their original resting places, or to a nearby burial site, either because the landscape context has been destroyed, or because it is likely that the bones and grave goods would be stolen for nefarious purposes. Given the large amount of bones stored in museums, it would be a lengthy and expensive process to rebury them. It is also expensive to store them, and some museums are investigating the possibilities of reburial, and reviewing the remains that they have in store.

Also, in order to get reliable data, archaeologists require access to large populations in order to be able to ascertain movements of populations, what they ate, how they lived, what diseases they had, and so on(Slater, 2006). All of this information helps us to reconstruct a picture of ancient people’s lives, which arguably benefits modern people wanting to return to a life more in harmony with nature, as well as helping us to remember the ancestors.

A possible compromise solution to the various requirements for respecting the dead (perpetuating their memory and respecting their privacy) is the idea of a keeping place, which would also be in keeping with the Neolithic practice of allowing descendants access to the bones.

I put forward this idea in a letter to British Archaeology in 2004:

‘Perhaps the bones could be stored in a burial mound (a national repository), consecrated by Pagan priestesses and priests, but with temperature and humidity controls to ensure preservation and access for study.’

This idea has actually been implemented in Australia (Cantwell, 2004: 101), where special underground repositories have been created, with shared access for archaeologists and Aborigines. These are called keeping places. This idea has also been proposed by Melbourn Parish Council in Cambridgeshire.

Another way of achieving compromise is to proceed on a case-by-case basis, only reburying when the bones are no longer needed for archaeological study, or their context has been lost (this is the approach advocated by HAD). The idea that ancient human remains may be kept indefinitely without any scrutiny by an external body has clearly had its day, though.

It would be wonderful if a keeping place for the ancient British dead could be specially constructed, perhaps in the form of a very large Iron Age roundhouse, or a burial mound, where the dead could be kept in special shrines, with all the details known about them and their lives displayed near them, but still allowing archaeologists access for research.

Tiwi Island art gallery ceiling - By Satrina Brandt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Tiwi Island art gallery ceiling. Photo by Satrina Brandt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

As this dream is unlikely to be realised, other possible solutions are that museums, which should (according to new DCMS guidelines) already have specially designated spaces for storing human remains, could allow Pagans into the museum store to consecrate the space, perform rituals for the dead, and perhaps even paint sacred designs on the cardboard boxes in which they are stored. Where the remains are on display in public galleries, Pagans could be consulted about the way in which the remains are displayed (as has happened recently with the way Lindow Man is displayed at Manchester Museum) to ensure that this is respectful. One possible way for museums to ensure that displays are respectful is to make them feel like a shrine, perhaps using restricted visual access to heighten the sense of sacred space, and again, to allow Pagans to ritually consecrate the space in which the body is displayed.

Emma Restall-Orr and Piotr Bienkowski (2006) have also suggested that Pagans be allowed to perform brief rituals during excavation of human remains, and be involved in the whole process of transfer to museums, decisions about which human remains to retain and why, display, storage, and (in some cases) eventual reburial. They have outlined a series of guidelines for involving Pagans in the whole process.

Conclusion

There is by no means a consensus among either Pagans, archaeologists, museum curators or the general public on the subject of how to treat human remains, except that most are agreed that respect is important – but there is disagreement on what constitutes respect and how that respect should be expressed in practice. Discussions about this that I have seen on Pagan forums and mailing lists have generally been in favour of archaeology and continued study of human remains. Most Pagans recognise the value of archaeological research and remembering the dead. Even those who would like to see more remains reburied still acknowledge the need for research (or the majority of them do). Conflict between archaeologists and Pagans is not inevitable in this area, because museum curators and archaeologists themselves have been reflecting upon the ethical aspects of the storage and treatment of human remains (there have been two recent archaeological books with chapters on this issue).

It is a mistake to see either the archaeological community or the Pagan community as two discrete monolithic entities. There are significant overlaps between the two groups, and different factions within them, and cultural shifts occurring all the time. Both groups have become more aware of postmodernist thinking, which calls into question the notion of scientific objectivity. Archaeologists have also become interested in the phenomenology of landscape, something which was previously regarded as a fringe “earth mysteries” activity (Hutton, 2007). Pagans have learnt a lot from archaeology through TV programmes like Time Team and Meet the Ancestors, and magazines like 3rd Stone. It is also important to be aware that there are two strands in contemporary Paganisms (Hutton, 2007): the countercultural strand, which is epitomised by rave culture, for example; and the religious strand, which is more interested in developing spiritual and cultural forms associated with Paganisms (epitomised by organisations like the Pagan Federation, which seeks recognition for Paganisms by the existing establishment).

Therefore, we need to proceed carefully through the many complex questions raised by this issue, checking our assumptions and presuppositions, and listening to the multiplicity of voices in the discussion – not just assuming that we know what they are thinking. Consultation with all Pagans, the general public, archaeologists and museum curators will be necessary before we can assume that a consensus has been arrived at. It is necessary to examine what is meant in each cultural context by problematic terms such as ‘landscape’, ‘ancestors’, ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, ‘sacredness’ and ‘respect’, and to look at the philosophical basis of the arguments employed by all parties in the discussion.

Yvonne Aburrow
15 March 2007

This article was originally published on the Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) website.

Bibliography

Cantwell, Anne-Marie (2000), ‘ “Who Knows the Power of His Bones”: Reburial Redux’. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 925 (1), pp. 79-119. [online] available from: Blackwell Synergy (http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/) [accessed 18.10.2006]

De Baets, Antoon (2004), ‘A Declaration of the Responsibilities of Present Generations towards Past Generations.’ History and Theory, Theme Issue 43, pp. 130-164. [online] available from: Blackwell Synergy (http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/) [accessed 18.10.2006]

Giles, Melanie (2006), ‘Archaeology of Human Remains: Paradigm and Process.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) – available as a document or from  Manchester Museum.

Hutton, Ronald (2007), [title?] Leslie Grinsell Memorial Lecture, Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society.

Restall Orr, Emma (2005), ‘A Theology of Reburial.’ [online] available from: Honouring the Ancient Dead [accessed 27.10.2006]

Restall Orr, Emma and Bienkowski, Piotr (2006), ‘Respectful Treatment and Reburial: A Practical Guide.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) – unpublished

Slater, Elizabeth (2006), ‘The Benefits of Scientific Study and Analysis of Ancient Human Remains.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) ? unpublished

Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.