Review: Casting a Queer Circle

Thista Minai (2017), Casting a Queer Circle: Non-Binary Witchcraft. Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press.

Aimed at everyone who finds that binary and heterocentric approaches to witchcraft do not fit actual lived reality, this book is an outstanding guide to crafting an inclusive, non-binary approach to ritual. It contains a complete system of magic, ritual, symbolism, festivals, and ritual roles, all designed to be inclusive, safe, creative, and genuinely transformative.

Continue reading


Misconceptions about cultural appropriation

I have now written several articles on cultural appropriation. When people comment on articles on this topic, I have observed several recurring themes.


Silos, Acatlán, Hidalgo, México. Photo by Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cultural silos

Frequently, people assume that talk of cultural appropriation means that no-one can ever use an idea from another culture.  This would rule out situations of cultural fusion, where two cultures which are on an equal footing come together to create a new amalgam of ideas, music, cuisine, or ritual. It would also rule out cultural exchange, where two cultures on an equal footing acquire new ideas, practices, or rituals from each other. These situations are clearly not problematic, because the two cultures are on an equal footing. The key feature here is theequality of the cultures.

People also talk as if those who are trying to draw attention to the issue of cultural approppriation are behaving as though culture is a monolith or silo, where nothing can ever be transferred from one culture to another. Obviously, this is not the case, and offering examples of cultural fusion or cultural exchange between cultures which are on an equal footing is not an argument for dismissing claims of cultural appropriation.

What makes you part of a culture?

Some people claim that what makes you part of a culture is that you are genetically related to the people who produced that culture. On the basis of this claim, the idea of cultural appropriation has been distorted by people with a racist or alt-right agenda, who want to keep people of colour out of revived European religious traditions. We should strenuously resist the idea that culture is genetically trasnmitted, as it is legitimises racism.

Culture is transmitted through acculturation, via books, films, conversation, storytelling, dance, and traditional practices. People who immerse themselves in another culture can become part of it, and can legitimately take part in its practices and rituals, though if the culture is a living culture, then they should approach living representatives of that culture in order to become part of it.

Culture is specific to time and place

Another recurring theme is the idea that culture is universal and somehow open-source. This is derived from two particularly pernicious ideologies.

The first of these is colonialism, which has taken many forms over the centuries, and consists of the dominant or hegemonic culture assuming that it is superior to the conquered culture, and therefore has a right to the goods, services, resources, lands, and ideas of the conquered culture.

The second of these ideologies seems benign, but isn’t. It is sometimes called the perennial philosophy, and sometimes called universalism – the idea that there is a universal essence of every idea or practice that can be extracted from it and re-embedded in another context. This is the idea behind Michael Harner’s “core shamanism” – the idea that there is a universal shamanistic practice which can be extracted from Siberian shamanism, and re-clothed in the trappings of another culture, and thereby can become the shamanism of the new culture.

However, whilst ideas from one culture can be transferred to another if proper care is taken, quite often they are transferred with little appreciation or care for the original culture from which the idea came, or cherry-picked whilst ignoring other aspects of the source culture which are too ‘difficult’, and become distorted in the process of transfer. The transfer of ideas becomes problematic and culturally appropriative when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

Ignoring the power differential

Many people who struggle with the idea of cultural appropriation fail to see that it happens when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

What does it mean to say that one culture has more power than another? When a culture is seen as normative (in the current context white, European, heterosexual, male, and cisgender are the “norm” or unmarked default), it has more power than non-normative cultures.

Cultures acquire normative status by conquering other cultures. In the ancient world, the Graeco-Roman culture was the normative culture, against which other cultures were measured and found to be barbaric or exotic. In the modern world, the Western culture of Europe and America is the normative culture against which other cultures are seen as relatively exotic or even barbaric.

Paganism and the Body Class Sneak Peek

Eros and Touch from a Pagan PerspectiveThis Fall I’m offering Paganism and the Body, a 14-week graduate-level online class in body theology and sexual ethics, at Cherry Hill Seminary. Some of you may have already heard about CHS’s uncertain future, so this may be the last time a class like this is available for some years. If you’re thinking about signing up, please do it soon! We start Sept. 12.

Additionally, I just noticed that the price of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has popped up again to its retail price on Amazon. (There are some copies from third-party sellers still available for around $50.) If the price of the book is a problem, don’t worry; talk to me and we’ll make other arrangements.

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at the syllabus! And here’s where you can register. [Write me at chkraemer13 at gmail dot com if you haven’t taken a CHS class before — I believe you’ll need instructor permission.]


Note: This syllabus is subject to change.

Course Number and Title:  N6650 Paganism and the Body

Semester:  Spring 2016

Class meeting time: Mondays, 9pm ET

Instructor(s): Christine Hoff Kraemer, PhD



Description of the Course

For most Pagans, the human body and the manifest world are sacred centers of religious practice. But what are the consequences of that belief for our daily lives? What do our Pagan theologies of the body call us to do in terms of justice work? Because of the significant percentage of gender and sexual minorities in the Pagan movement, this class will have a special focus on sexual ethics and alternative sexualities and gender expressions. We will also explore other important aspects of embodiment such as health and disability; race; relationship with food, water, and the natural environment; and more.

Prerequisite:  C5121 Contemporary Global Paganisms OR C5141 Introduction to Pagan Theology OR written permission of the instructor


Required Texts

  • Jennifer Hunter, Rites of Pleasure: Sexuality in Wicca and NeoPaganism, Citadel Press, 2004
  • Christine Hoff Kraemer, Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake, Routledge, 2013
  • A book of your choice on embodiment issues

Other readings will be posted as PDFs or links to web pages in the Moodle classroom.


Course Objectives

This course is intended to provide you with an introduction to contemporary thought examining embodiment issues in a Pagan religious context.  Our study will include both academic peer-reviewed articles and personal or journalistic accounts by Pagan practitioners and others. These goals will be achieved through regular reading, discussion, and writing.  You will also need to demonstrate your engagement and understanding of the material through a final project.

By the end of this class, you should be able to:

  • Articulate your own religious beliefs about bodies and embodiment
  • Reflect critically and constructively on existing theologies of embodiment
  • Have the foundation to deal sensitively and knowledgeably with both Pagans and non-Pagans around issues of the body


 General Expectations

 Paganism and the Body is a graduate-level course. Students will be expected to digest difficult written material and attend discussions prepared with their own observations and questions. The instructor’s role in the course is primarily as a facilitator and knowledge resource; it is the students who will decide what elements of the assigned readings we will explore most deeply.

Forum posts may be written conversationally. For formal written assignments, students are expected to adhere to academic writing conventions, including the use of proper citation format (Chicago, MLA, or another academic style). The Office of Assertion by Scott F. Crider is recommended as a good basic text on academic writing.

Because clear and mechanically correct writing is essential for effective communication, grammar and organization will be considered in the evaluation process. If successful academic writing has been a challenge for you in the past, it is recommended that you submit a rough draft to the instructor a week before the assignment is due so that she may assist you in revisions.

Plagiarism is a serious violation of ethics, and its consequences may include failing this class. Check with your instructor if you are unclear on how to quote or cite work that is not your own.

See the Catalog for details about additional issues of policy.



 If you attend and participate in at least eight class chats, you will receive an 85 or above for participation. In order to receive a participation grade in the A range, students should participate in additional chats and engage in discussion in the forums. Participation grades will be assigned at the discretion of the instructor.

During each class chat, we will discuss the readings assigned during the previous week.


Weekly Homework

 For Week 1, you will briefly define a list of key terms for the study of theologies of embodiment. One- or two-sentence answers are sufficient. Many of these terms can be found in your Week 1 readings. For additional information, Wikipedia is a sufficiently reliable resource for this assignment and (due to how frequently it is updated) may even be superior to standard encyclopedias and dictionaries. Please note, however, that Wikipedia is not an appropriate resource to cite for a research paper.

 Other weekly homework assignments will include reflective responses, summaries, or summary/responses in a specific format (see below). Each week, you will be asked to post one of your written assignments to the Forum by Thursday for group discussion; the rest are due by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student post before the next chat.

Students are encouraged to use the Forums for any additional questions, reflections, or reactions that come up in the course of the class.



Your weekly homework is due by the end of the day on Wednesday. Each reading summary should be around 200-250 words. You will not be penalized for additional length, but it will make the best use of your time and the instructor’s time if your writing is dense and to the point.

In addition to submitting your assignment through the assignment link, choose one reading summary to post in the Forum by the end of Thursday. Turn in the remainder of your homework by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student Forum post before the following week’s chat.

In paragraphs or in outline form, summarize the reading and then respond to it both analytically and personally.

Below is an example of a student reading summary in this format, from a chapter of Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many.

Jordan Paper states:

  • that when we depend on wild plants and animals, we see them as numinous/deities
  • that when we domesticate the plants and animals on which we still depend, we see them as gifts of the numinous/deities rather than as the numinous/deities themselves
  • that plant and animal deities have powers humans need in our lives
  • that humans are weak in relation to wild animals
  • that we know about deities because they communicate with us

I affirm:

  • that my life is dependent on the deaths – the sacrifices – of plants and animals, as well as the gifts of plants and animals (mammals do not have to die to give milk, or fowl to give eggs, for example)
  • my respect for and gratitude to the plants and animals whose deaths sustain my life
  • that I recognize the plant and animal beings I encounter each day as Sacred, and strive to do so more consciously
  • my bird feeding as a sacrifice of appreciation to some of the bird deities in my new location, as a freely-chosen religious/spiritual obligation during certain seasons
  • that the conscious cultivation of relationship with plants and animals may restore a numinous quality that supermarket culture has removed

Assignments that receive a grade in the A range will:

  • be specific
  • go beyond mere description and begin to ask/answer “why?”, “how?”, and “so what?”
  • pick up on nuances in the readings that require more than skimming to grasp
  • present students’ most controversial, radical, or challenging personal theologies
  • present statements from students’ experience that are likely to be unique

The instructor may choose a few particularly insightful or provocative excerpts from these assignments to share anonymously with the class as springboards for further discussion.


Term Assignments

Book Review: This assignment gives you an opportunity to read an additional book related to theology and embodiment. Suggestions for acceptable books will be provided by the instructor; other choices must be approved. This assignment is due at the end of Week 5.

Your book review will contain the following elements:

  • Summary of the book’s contents and main argument(s)
  • Evaluation of the book’s effectiveness with its intended audience
  • Reflective response on how this book might be useful in your ministry or personally

Assume that your reader is an educated fellow student who has not read the book. Your summary must give the reader enough information to understand your evaluation of it. Make sure your review is more than summary, however! Your job is to present an educated opinion about the book you read; summary is a tool in this process and is not a sufficient end product by itself. Your thoughts and reflections should make up at least half of the review.

Consider questions such as these as you take notes for your review.

  • What is the topic?
  • What are the author’s subjects?
  • To whom is the author writing?
  • What is the author’s opinion of her subject and what tone does she use?
  • How does the author support her statements?
  • Is the argument convincing? If not, why not?
  • How am I reacting to the text?
  • How does this text fit into what I already know about the subject?
  • Who would benefit most from reading this text?

Your review should contain a minimum of 750 double-spaced words. Organization, grammar, clarity, and the use of proper citation format (MLA, Chicago, or another academic format) will be considered in the evaluation of your essay.

A sample book review:


Autobiography: You will compose an approximately 1000-word personal reflection and account considering the role of the body in your religious and spiritual life. In order to focus your narrative, you may wish to choose a specific incident from your life and contextualize it using the theological ideas and issues that we will study in class. These narratives will be shared with the class in a non-judgmental environment, so students are encouraged to share as openly as they feel comfortable. Potential starting places for beginning such narratives include:

  • experiences of the body’s limits, such as while running a marathon or dealing with a serious illness
  • memories of the onset of puberty or menstruation
  • reflections on one’s personal relationship to traditional gender roles, particularly during life transitions such as marriage or parenthood
  • aging
  • growing, preparing, and eating one’s own food
  • coming out regarding sexual orientation or gender identity
  • sacred experiences of touch (with human or other-than-human persons)
  • experiences of the body while recovering from abuse
  • experiences of the body in “natural” environments

Questions you may wish to address in order to link your personal experiences with class materials:

  • How did I experience divinity (or the absence of divinity) in this incident or period of my life?
  • How did my spiritual practice and beliefs at the time shape this experience?
  • How has this experience shaped my spiritual practice and beliefs?
  • What are the ethical issues that are relevant to my experience?
  • How did I relate to my community and my loved ones with regard to this issue? How did they relate to me?
  • What did my experiences teach me about the nature of the body?

Assignments will be graded for clarity, originality, and their success in framing a personal experience within a theological framework. Students may wish to consider carefully before writing about an issue that is emotionally volatile for them, as it may be difficult to submit such experiences to theological analysis. A successful autobiography assignment will balance emotional engagement with thoughtful, well-reasoned theological reflections.

This assignment is due at the end of Week 8, and the writing process should be considered part of the preparation for your Final Project Question, described below.


Final Project Question: By the end of Week 8, you will have developed a sense of what you are curious about and how that might become a project. Your project question may still be broad and open-ended, but it should also be provocative and express a real area of curiosity and concern for you.

Post your question to the Final Project Questions forum for instructor and student feedback. There, we will begin to narrow your field of inquiry so that it can be tackled in a final project.

Examples of viable project questions:

  • What is the role of a religious community in supporting its members around coming-out issues?
  • Why was ritual sex important in early twentieth-century occultism?
  • How can Pagan beliefs about the body support food and water justice work?
  • How can large Pagan groups balance disability accommodation with the desire to offer ritual in wild or out of the way natural settings?
  • How can Pagans best represent the sexual and gender diversity of the Pagan community in an interfaith context?
  • How do Pagan beliefs inform our ethics about reproductive rights?
  • What do children need to know about their bodies in order to understand them as sacred?
  • What education does my community need around racial justice, and how does its existing beliefs about the religious role of ancestry help or hinder that effort?


Final Project: You will design, implement as is appropriate, and present a project based on your personal learning goals, readings, autobiography, reading responses, and your final project question.

This project is not necessarily a research paper, although you may write a paper if research is the best format in which to address your question.  You might choose to outline a workshop, create a game, design a ritual, prepare a speech, develop a meditation series, or any other creative and useful vehicle for your project.  The project will be presented to the class during one of the two final chats.

Written materials should be 12-15 pages long. Other types of projects should involve about as much work as a 15-page paper and must include a verbal or written component that contextualizes the project for the class (or other intended audience). If you are choosing to work in an artistic medium, speak to the instructor about how substantial the written or verbal presentation should be.

Project Proposal

Your project proposal of approximately 250 words is due by the end of Week 9 and must be approved by the instructor. It should include:

  • A description of the project, including your (brief) anticipated answer to your Project Question (your “thesis sentence”)
  • A rationale for the project – why this topic? Why this approach?
  • Whom you intend the project to serve
  • How you see this project as serving this population
  • Logistical considerations, including how you will present the project for grading and to the class
  • A list of the resources you will draw on to complete the project (books, websites, people, etc.)

Project Presentation

You will present your project or excerpts from it to the class at the end of the semester. During Week 13, post an approximately 200-word summary of your project (an abstract such as you might provide for a conference presentation) to the Final Projects forum.

The written part of your project is due at the end of Week 13. Project materials may be posted to the Forum, or you may share a link to Dropbox or another service if they are very large.

Presentations may be made verbally via Skype, with Powerpoint, via recorded MP3, and/or by another instructor-approved method.  Your presentation of the project to the class should be no more than 10 minutes long. Each student will take questions and comments after their presentation.

Note that you will certainly not be able to cover every aspect of your project in ten minutes, so come prepared to adequately summarize and point out the highlights of your paper or project for the class. The effectiveness with which you present the project will be considered in grading.



Grades will be given according to the rubric described in the Student Handbook. Please note that in a graduate-level class, a B is given for solid, above-average work. Grades in the A range require substantial analytical thinking and creativity. Contact the instructor if you need clarification on what “analysis” means in the study of theology.

Book Review                                      15%

Weekly Homework                         15%

Participation                                       15%

Autobiography                                  20%

Project Question                              5%

Final Project Proposal                    5%

Final Project                                       20%

Final Project Presentation            5%


Summary of Assignments

 Forum posts are due by Thursday of the week assigned. All other assignments should be submitted by the Sunday of the week they are due.  Late assignments may receive a grade penalty, up to one letter grade per week, at the discretion of the instructor.

If you find you need an extension on an assignment, contact the instructor immediately.


Definitions, 200-word reflective responses, or summary/responses

Forum posts and replies

Assigned readings

Week 2

Title of book for review

Week 5

Book Review

Week 8


Final Project Question

Week 9

Final Project Proposal

Week 13-14

Final Projects



 Week 1:  Defining Terms

  • Kraemer, “Pagan Traditions: Sacralizing the Body” (2016)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch (2013), Introduction and Conclusion
  • Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh (2008), Introduction and Conclusion

Week 2: Theologies of the Embodied Self/Soul(s)

  • Kraemer, Seeking the Mystery (2012) Chp 4, 83-85; 91-94
  • Weidenbaum, “You Have to Take It With You” (2008)
  • Abram, “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia” (1990)
  • Whiting, “On Being a Holy Mother” (2011)

Week 3: Pain, Illness, and Disability

  • Fuller, Spirituality In the Flesh, Chp 6
  • Matthews, “Rooted in This Body: Learning Pantheism from Chronic Illness” (2013)
  • Pearson, “Disabled Rites?: Ritual and Disability in Wicca” (2011)
  • Pearson, “Embracing the Lash: Pain and Ritual as Spiritual Tools” (2011)
  • Aldag, “How to Include the Physically Challenged in Group Rituals”

Week 4: Pleasure, Healing, and Touch

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 1 & 4
  • Kirner, “Healing Community” (2014)
  • Brown, “Touch and American Religions” (2009)

Week 5: Food and Water Justice

  • Harvey, Animism (2005) Chp 6
  • Rifkin, “Pagan Kosher” series (2013) (
  • Larson, “Holy Water and Human Rights” (2011)
  • UUA, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”
  • Clifton, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” (1993)
  • Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast (1995) excerpts

Week 6:  Sexual and Erotic Diversity

  • Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984/1992)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 3

Week 7:  Erotic Justice

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 2
  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 90-118, 142-146
  • Kraemer and Aburrow, Pagan Consent Culture Introduction (2016)
  • Betkowski, “Seeking a Morality of Difference” (2016)

Week 8: Race, Rac(ial)ism, and Ancestry

  • Gallagher, “Weaving a Tangled Web? Pagan Ethics and Issues of History, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Pagan Identity” (2009)
  • Bel, “Ancestors and Heritage in Paganism” (2016)
  • Blanton, “Understanding the Definition of Racism” (2015)
  • Skallagrimsson, “Racism in Asatru”
  • Hale, “Marketing Rad Trad” (2015)
  • Theurer, “Ancestor Work and Anti-Racism” (2015)

Week 9: Sexuality and Gender

  • Kraemer, “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism” (2012)
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006) Chp 6
  • Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism (2002) Chp 7
  • Blain and Wallis, “The Ergi Seidman” (2001)

Week 10: Queer and Transgender Issues

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 119-142
  • Eller, Am I a Woman? (2003) Chp 1 & 2
  • Kaldera, “The Third Voice” (2012)
  • Stover, “When Pan Met Wendy: Gendered Membership Debates Among the Radical Faeries” (2008)
  • Greene, “Transgender Inclusion Debates Reignite in Pagan Community” (2016)

Week 11:  BDSM and Alternative Relationship Structures

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 64-89, 147-173
  • Henkin, “Counseling Bisexuals on BDSM Lifestyle Issues” (2005)
  • Kaldera, “Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context” (2016)
  • Hoff and Sprott, “Therapy Experiences of Clients with BDSM Sexualities” (2009)
  • Zell, “A Bouquet of Lovers” (1990)
  • Weitzman, “Counseling Bisexuals in Polyamorous Relationships” (2005)
  • Hutchins, “Playing with Sacred Fire: Building Erotic Communities” (2005)

Week 12: The Myth of the Temple Prostitute and the Contemporary “Sacred Harlot”

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 174-194
  • Hutchins, “Bisexual Women as Emblematic Sexual Healers and the Problematics of the Embodied Sacred Whore” (2002)
  • Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution (2008) Introduction, Chp 11
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006), Conclusion

Week 13:  Final Projects

Week 14:  Final Projects



Pagan and Pantheist Tendencies in Unitarianism

Slide 1: Introduction

Many people think that the Pagan or Earth Spirit element in Unitarianism started around 1980 with the first Unitarian Universalist Pagan ritual, or with the foundation of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) in America in 1986, or the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network in the UK, founded in 1990. In fact, it has its roots in some much earlier developments.

Slide 2: Unitarians and ancient pagan ideas

A notable pagan thinker of late antiquity was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who pleaded for religious tolerance for pagans in the face of Christian intolerance:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.

— Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)

Paganism is generally tolerant of different viewpoints because most Pagans believe that everyone has their own unique path to walk, and that there is a vast array of deities. Unitarians are tolerant because they tend to believe that everyone’s experience is unique and different religions are different perspectives on the same underlying reality.

Slide 3: Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (often regarded as the first Unitarian martyr) decided on the unity of God in part because he had been reading Hermetic texts, according to Earl Morse Wilbur, author of a history of Unitarianism in two volumes. The Hermetic texts were a loose compendium of Platonist and Neo-Platonist texts from late antiquity (the last days of the ancient pagan world). Some pagan thinkers of antiquity held that there was a divine unity.

Slide 4: Deism and Natural Religion (18th century)

Two key strands in Unitarian thought were Deism and Natural Religion.

Deism in the philosophy of religion is the standpoint that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that a supreme being created the universe. Further the term often implies that this supreme being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that is not to be altered by intervention in the affairs of human life. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on revealed religion, religious authority or holy books. … Deism became more prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment — especially in Britain, France, United States and Ireland — mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in supernatural miracles or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one God. The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophies, and it is generally believed that many of them were deists.

Most deists saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.

According to this world view, over time “priests” had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and “mysteries” – irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the “mysteries” on faith and on the priests’ authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical “mysteries”, confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as “priestcraft”, a highly derogatory term.

Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of “priestcraft” and “mysteries” from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition – simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion.


The original, simple and rational religion was known as the Urreligion or natural religion.

Many early Unitarians were Deists (particularly the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence) and were accused by their contemporaries of atheism. Deists believed that religion was natural to humanity, and that God was accessible to reason. They looked for an original form of religion from which all current forms had decayed or evolved. Hence many of them were interested in ancient Greek religion, and also in Druidry, believing it to be a form of the ancient Hebrew religion which had been brought to Britain by the Phoenicians.

Slide 5: Iolo Morgannwg

Hence, when Unitarianism in Britain officially began, it was not long before it attracted the attention of one Iolo Morganwg, who had earlier written a huge collection of material for the nascent Druid movement, and went on to become a Unitarian minister and to write many of the hymns used in the Welsh Unitarian hymnbook. At that time ancient druidry was thought to have been a debased form of the Hebrew religion, brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, so it is hardly surprising that Morganwg became interested in Unitarianism. Nevertheless, the Druid movement of which he was one of the founders has evolved into the modern Pagan Druid movement.

Ronald Hutton’s comprehensive work on the druids shows that there was hardly any evidence of what the druids were like; the only evidence available was from Roman sources, but there was hardly enough there to reconstruct a religion that looked anything like druidry.

Druids did not generally identify themselves as Pagans until the early 20th century. Before that, druid orders had names like the Universal Bond, and their views were universalist rather than pagan, in other words, they believed that there was an essential element in every religion that was the same – a mystical core of religion.

Contemporary Druidry is part of the Pagan revival. Druid and Pagan beliefs range from non-theism to animism to (neo-)shamanism to duotheism (a god and a goddess) to monism to polytheism. Most Pagans feel a sense of connection to the land, the Earth, and/or Nature. A number of Druid orders are drawn to ancient sites because they feel connected to their builders and former users. Some Druids consider themselves to be the successors of the ancient druids described by Julius Caesar and others, often using arguments of dubious intellectual provenance, as we know almost nothing about what ancient druids did or believed.

A key theme in Druidry (particularly at the festival of Samhain) is the connection with ancestors, usually defined as including one’s personal kin, the people who once dwelled in the place one lives in (house, village, town, region), and spiritual kindred, that is, inspirers.

There are two main strands of Druidry, the countercultural (associated with road protests and similar events, and sometimes clouded by a reputation for public drunkeness) and the more retiringly ‘spiritual’ (who tend to be more middle class). There is much overlap between the two strands.

Druidry and the Pagan revival are very diverse and cannot be easily pigeonholed. Contemporary Pagans are drawn from a range of backgrounds and include some professionals and scientists.

Slide 6: Rammohun Roy

Another non-Christian who became interested in Unitarianism – and became in the process a major influence upon it – was Raja Rammohun Roy. He had had encounters with various Christian missionaries in India, but found their arguments unconvincing. Tired of Hindu stories of half-human half-deities, he was not minded to accept the divinity of Jesus, and argued that Jesus was human and not divine. He founded the Unitarian Society of Calcutta and the Brahmo Samaj (One God Society). He also translated the Upanishads and Vedas (Hindu scriptures) into English, and it was probably he who coined the word “Hindu”. He corresponded with Unitarians in Britain and eventually travelled here to ensure that the government did not repeal the law banning widow-burning, which he and others had campaigned so hard to abolish. Sadly he died here and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetry in Bristol. His writings influenced many Unitarians.

Whilst he was in England, Roy toured the country and met many people of all walks of life, including George IV (whose coronation he attended) and Jeremy Bentham, who had Unitarian sympathies and many Unitarian friends. Roy presented three papers on the Revenue System of India, the Judicial System of India and the Material Condition of India to a committee of the House of Commons.

Religious and political thinkers sought him out to engage in spirited discussions, and Dissenting and Anglican clergymen vied with each other for the honor of his presence at their services. Prominent middle-class reformers were constantly at his side, their daughters or unmarried sisters often especially attentive to him. And, while in Manchester, a crowd of factory workers followed Rammohun about on his tour, the men and women insisting on shaking his hand or embracing him. (Zastoupil, 2002: 215)

He addressed the Unitarian annual meeting in London, and was invited to Bristol by the Reverend Lant Carpenter, where he stayed at Mary Carpenter’s home until his untimely death from meningitis on 27 September 1833. He was buried in Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol, and an annual service is held at his tomb, conducted by the Unitarian minister of Bristol. The Brahmo Samaj are regular attenders at this event.A statue of Rammohun Roy (paid for by the Indian government) was erected in central Bristol in 1997.

Roy’s visit also had political implications, in that there was some talk of him standing for Parliament, and his association with radical dissenters like the Unitarians was of considerable assistance in their agenda of reform and the disentanglement of church and state (Zastoupil, 2002: 220).

Roy’s deist views, his struggles with Hindu orthodoxy and debates with Baptist missionaries over the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, and the fact that his family was said to have disowned him for his views, all resonated strongly with the Unitarians of the 1820s and 1830s, who faced persecution by the authorities (the 1689 Toleration Act was not extended to them), legal disputes over chapels and endowments, frequent blasphemy charges, and public objections to their involvement in politics and campaigning (Zastoupil, 2002: 230).

Slide 7: Unitarians and Nature

Unitarians have often found Nature inspiring and viewed the Divine as immanent in Nature, perhaps drawing on Spinoza’s ideas of God as Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Slide 8: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge, the Romantic poet, was a Unitarian originally and preached in several Unitarian chapels. He also employed a lot of Nature imagery in his poems, and many of them were pantheist in tone.

He wrote about Liberty as a principle that ran through all Nature:

And there I felt thee!—on that sea-cliff’s verge,

Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,

Had made one murmur with the distant surge!

Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,

And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,

Possessing all things with intensest love,

O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.

He writes about God incarnate in humanity, and in Nature, in his poem, Religious Musings: a Desultory Poem. The influence of his Unitarian mentor Joseph Priestley is apparent in these lines:

‘Tis the sublime of man

Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves

Parts and proportions of one wondrous Whole!

This fraternises man, this constitutes

Our charities and bearings. But ’tis God

Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole . . .

James Martineau spoke for many other Unitarians when he included the works of Coleridge in a short listing of his personal ‘sacred guides’. And perhaps his famous view of the Incarnation could have been influenced by these Religious Musings.

“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.”

Slide 9: Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Transcendentalists

The most obvious way in which Unitarianism has influenced contemporary Paganism is through the Transcendentalists (a group of Unitarians from New England). Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began the Transcendentalist movement, had read the writings of Rammohun Roy, and was deeply influenced by them.

The Transcendentalists argued that true religion and spirituality transcend the dogmatic cultural forms of religion; they took their name from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The key players in the Transcendentalist movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden, an account of his attempt to return to Nature by living in a small hut by Walden Pond), and Bronson Alcott, educator and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.

Many of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas fed into modern Paganism; for example the idea of polarity (on which Emerson wrote an essay) is very important in Wicca; and the idea of retreating to a simple hut, as Thoreau did, influenced Ross Nicholls, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, to advocate retreating to a simple hut (perhaps he got the idea from the poem by WB Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, but that was inspired by Thoreau).

Emerson’s own writings were widely read, and he became friends with Walt Whitman, the gay poet of Nature, who corresponded with Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan socialist vegetarian whose writings were influential in the Pagan movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably because of the Transcendentalists that Paganism has so often been referred to as a “Nature religion” according to Chas Clifton, an American scholar of Pagan Studies. Most Pagans and many Unitarians believe that the Divine (or deities) is/are immanent in the world; an important prerequisite for treating the planet with respect.

Slide 10: Unitarians and the Goddess

Another very important idea in the contemporary Pagan revival, and for many Unitarians, is the worship of the Goddess or of Goddesses.

Unitarian feminists were vital in the process of exposing the patriarchal nature of religion. Names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of Theodore Parker’s congregation, who wrote The Woman’s Bible, and Frances Power Cobbe, who edited a 14 volume edition of his writings, are very important in feminist history.

  • The Goddess is immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother – this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.

Before there was the Earth Spirit Network, there were the feminist theology activists in Unitarianism who campaigned for more inclusive language; they included Ann Peart.

Slide 11: Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker was a Transcendentalist minister who was shunned by the more conservative Unitarians in the Boston area, but eventually gathered a congregation of about 300 in an old theatre; they included Barbara Bodichon, feminist and later a Pre-Raphaelite artist; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a famous American Unitarian feminist. Parker was a noted campaigner against slavery; but he also often referred to God as a Mother, and believed that God is immanent.

Slide 12: Norbert Čapek 

Norbert Čapek also viewed the Divine as immanent in humanity, and wrote the famous and much-loved hymn, Mother Spirit, Father Spirit. He also designed the Flower Communion, which was a radical expression of what it meant to be Unitarian in a country occupied by the Nazis, and a celebration of individuality, as well as a form of communion that his congregation, many of whom had rejected conventional Christianity, could celebrate.

Slide 13: The flaming chalice

During the Second World War, the Unitarian Service Committee was rescuing Jews from the Nazis, and needed an official symbol to put in their passports to show that they were under the protection of the Unitarian Service Committee. Rev Charles Joy, the leader of the USC, commissioned Hans Deutsch to produce a symbol, and wrote to the General Assembly back in America, that it was like a Greek or Roman chalice.

Slide 14: Conclusion

So, pagan and pantheist ideas have been in circulation in Unitarianism since it began; they are not a recent introduction, but an integral part of Unitarian engagement with the world, because both Paganism and Unitarianism are world-affirming.

~ Yvonne Aburrow

Creative Commons Licence

From Natural Religion to Nature Religion: Pagan and Pantheist tendencies in Unitarianism by Yvonne Aburrow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Note on names: In the UK, the movement is called Unitarian and Free Christian (Unitarianism for short); in the USA, it is Unitarian Universalism, as a result of the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961; in Canada, it is Unitarianism.

Paganism for Beginners: Things we care about

Pagans care about the same issues as everyone else – poverty, war, racism, homophobia, transphobia, the environment, saving indigenous lifeways, knowledge, and culture, women’s rights, cruelty to animals, and so on.  Like any other movement, there are many different opinions in the Pagan movement: some Pagans don’t care about these things; some take a different view of them; and  some care about them very much more than the average.

But there are some issues that are associated in people’s minds with being Pagan, the two most obvious ones being environmentalism and feminism. Many people have claimed that Paganism is a Nature religion (and many others have claimed that it’s not), and since Paganism and Nature-worship are synonymous in many people’s minds, caring for the Earth seems like an obvious thing for Pagans to want to do. And since the Earth is often viewed as a goddess, or as the Goddess, Paganism is an obvious choice for anyone who wonders why so many monotheists view their deity as exclusively male.


Pagans care about the environment for many and varied reasons. Some people became Pagans because they care about the environment; others began to care more about the environment after becoming a Pagan. Either way, Pagans recognise that the Earth is our mother, and if we don’t take care of her, we will all die, and so will many other species.

The earth is our mother,
we must take care of her.

Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yan yan.

Her sacred ground we walk upon,
with every step we take.

The earth is our mother,
she will take care of us.

Native American song (mp3)

The causes of our current destructive course are many and complex. Some people blame capitalism; others blame consumerism; and others blame the dominionist views of conservative Christianity.  I blame all three, and think they are historically interlinked.

Capitalism does not simply mean a market economy; it means the investment of surplus money in a business venture. This means that instead of being accountable to the whole community, a company becomes accountable to its shareholders, and shareholders generally want only one thing: a profit.

Consumerism is not simply wanting nice things; it is the view that only having nice things makes you happy, and the drive to acquire more and more nice things.

Dominionism is the view (derived from the book of Genesis) that God gave the Earth to humans for our use.

A major contrast with these views is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and argues that this requires a radical restructuring of modern human societies. This certainly chimes in well with the Pagan world-view, and I explored the ecological and embodied world-view in two previous posts, Eco-spirituality and theology and Eco-spirituality in practice.

The language of ecology can be problematic, especially when it gets co-opted by business trying to preserve the status quo. Sustainability used to mean living in a way that prevents damage to the environment and loss of species habitat; now it has been co-opted to mean something like ‘greenwashing‘ (paying lip-service to environmental concerns while actually continuing to act in a destructive way), or buying carbon credits and continuing to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The “environment” implies something that surrounds us, but which we are not necessarily part of. We are part of the environment and of ecosystems; we are not separate from our habitat.

A group of Pagans (of which I was one) have recently produced A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has been translated into several different languages and has now reached around 5000 signatures. Whilst a statement will not fix things on its own, what it does is articulate the principles and practices which will help to fix things, and signing up to the statement means a commitment to its principles and to doing something for the planet.


Some people became Pagans because they were feminists; others began to focus more on equality after becoming a Pagan. Either way, feminism is a natural bedfellow of Paganism, because most Pagan traditions worship a Goddess or goddesses, and value diversity and equality.

The roots of feminism lie in three simple premises:

  • that women are equal to men,
  • that women are not currently treated equally in society,
  • and that we should do something about it.

However, as with any other philosophy, there is more than one flavour of feminism, because not all feminists necessarily agree on the correct tactics for getting rid of inequality, or indeed on who counts as a woman.

Variants include: Amazon, Analytical, Anarchist, Atheist, Black, Chicana, Christian, Conservative, Cultural, Cyber, DifferenceEco, Equality, Equity, Fat, French, structuralist, Global, Individualist, Islamic, Jewish, Lesbian, LiberalLipstick,  MarxistMaterialMaternalMormonNeo, NewPostcolonialPostmodernPoststructuralPro-lifeProtoRadicalSeparatistSex-positiveSocialSocialistStandpointThird worldTransTransnational, and Womanism. There is even an online quiz for deciding what kind of feminist you are.

Here are some of the ones that share concerns with Paganism:

According to Wikipedia, “Anarcha-feminism, also called anarchist feminism and anarcho-feminism, combines anarchism with feminism. It generally views patriarchy as a manifestation of involuntary coercive hierarchy that should be replaced by decentralized free association. Anarcha-feminists believe that the struggle against patriarchy is an essential part of class struggle, and the anarchist struggle against the state. ” Historically, anarchist feminists included those who advocated free love and campaigned against marital rape and the subjugation of women. 

Black feminism: Black feminist theorists argue that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality has been adopted by many other feminists and social theorists. According to Barbara Omolade,  ”Black feminism is sometimes referred to as womanism because both are concerned with struggles against sexism and racism by black women who are themselves part of the black community’s efforts to achieve equity and liberty”.

Eco-feminism: According to Vandana Shiva,  women have a special connection to the environment through our daily interactions. She says that women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes.”

Obviously there are lots of other things that Pagans care about,  but these are two areas that are fairly central to why so many people have joined the Pagan movement.

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

The next post in the series will be on controversies in the Pagan community, where I attempt to summarise all the controversies of the last few years, including racism, transphobia, Wiccanate privilege, and more.

Transplanting from one culture to another – appropriation or exchange?

Many people do not understand what is and is not cultural appropriation because they assume that practices and techniques can be easily transplanted from one context to another, but this does not take into account the issues around the particularity of traditions to their culture, place, and history, and it does not recognise the impact of colonialism and the commodification and commercialisation of indigenous traditions.

Dandelion seeds in the morning sunlight blowing away in the wind across a clear blue sky

Cross-fertilisation: dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind. Photo by Brian A Jackson, courtesy of Shutterstock

Take for example the practice of calling the quarters. This is based on several assumptions: that circular space is the most sacred; that there are four cardinal directions, and four elements with a meaning that is embedded in a particular cultural context (the Western Mystery Tradition, or of several Native American traditions), and that making a connection with the four elements and the four sacred directions helps you to become more connected to Nature, or the universe, because we are the microcosm of the universe (an idea found in Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Swedenborgianism). If the practice of calling the quarters is transplanted to another tradition which does not have these assumptions, myths, and symbols, it will only be a shallow version of the practice, and will probably not even make sense in the context to which it has been transplanted.

People who charge money for the practices of others, without respect for their situatedness in a particular culture, history, tradition, and totally failing to notice the power relations involved in the colonialism of the very recent past, and the continued assertion by the West of the superiority of capitalism, consumerism, and the rationalist enlightenment is a big ethical issue. Spiritual traditions are not and cannot be divorced from context, and they are not automatically the property of all humanity. We need to approach other traditions with mindfulness and respect, and not assuming that everything is ours for the taking.

Spiritual traditions are rich with meaning, both mythological and historical, and taking a practice or a ritual out of the context within which it was created strips it of the rich associations that it had in its original context. If you take practices out of context, you are very likely to end up doing them superficially.  Respectful engagement with other traditions requires a reasonably in-depth engagement with them, and a certain amount of immersion, not just a brief encounter. I guess ‘respectful’ is the key word in all of that.

As a minor example, even copy-cat behaviour towards an individual can be problematic. A few years back, I had very specific labels in the religion and politics boxes on my Facebook profile, which I had arrived at through considerable soul-searching, angst, and upheaval, both social and personal. I was also recognised by other members of the groups I belonged to as a member of those groups. Imagine my horror when some eejit who did not even know what they meant (and I know he didn’t because I asked him) decided he was going to copy them for his profile. He was not even a member of either of the religious traditions concerned. I was furious. (And there was not even a history of colonial oppression in the history between him and me.) Now imagine how people from other cultures feel when that happens with their identities and culture.

However, say you have encountered a practice that really speaks to you, or that will significantly improve your health, and you want to borrow it respectfully. What should you do? Is it enough to ask someone who might be considered an authority in the tradition you want to borrow it from? The problem here is that there are many different people within a given tradition, and they do not all speak with one voice. So, what should be the criteria for whether or not a person can be considered the keeper of a tradition? Is it strength of belief? Is that they are a priest or recognised holy person? Many people would argue that the laity should have just as much say in the matter as the priesthood. Or should the criterion be the consensus view of many members of the tradition?

However, the construction of an argument around strength of belief as a possible criterion for being the keeper of a tradition, or the idea of a holy person as no more worthy than a secular person, is all grounded in a particularly Western and rationalist and Protestant view of how religion works. My argument has nothing to do with strength of belief, keepers of tradition, or any inherent ownership of ideas: it is about the historical and cultural context in which something arose, and (in the case of Native American spirituality in particular) the colonialist appropriation of ideas, artefacts, rituals, and the commodification of them. Cultures whose spiritual traditions have been appropriated are complaining about the commodification of their ideas, and the way they have been packaged and sold and marketed by fake gurus and shamans in the West.

A priest or shaman has been trained in the technique and the safeguards that go with it. Many popularisers of various meditation techniques forget to tell you the safeguards. The shaman or priest is steeped in the culture and the context and the meaning of the practice. A populariser (whether a lay person from the same culture, or someone from another culture) is not necessarily aware of the context, meaning, safeguards, etc. The people who don’t want their practices taken out of context are not doing it to protect the practice as a commodity which they could package and sell – as far as most of them are concerned, their practices are not for sale. They are very likely to be trying to protect us from bad / shallow / poorly understood versions of the practices. Because without the safeguards and correct techniques, and an understanding of the context, some practices are dangerous. The people doing the commodifying are the appropriaters, who often want to make a fast buck out of repackaging the practice for a Western audience, usually stripped of its sacred context and meaning.

All of this does not mean that you can never borrow a practice or a ritual from another culture – but it does mean that shallow engagement with it is not enough. You need to examine whether the practice fits within your own tradition, by looking at the religious, spiritual, and cultural assumptions which have gone into its construction.

There have been many fruitful and successful moments of syncretisation of different traditions, and some failed ones. The most successful ones seem to be when the two traditions met as equals, and engaged in genuine dialogue and exchange (as when Buddhism met Taoism and created Zen Buddhism, or when Buddhism met Shinto and created Ryobu Shinto). When an imperial and colonising tradition moved in, the indigenous religion was often either crushed (like when Christianity met ancient paganisms) or subsumed (like when Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity met indigenous religions).

Anyone studying the history of encounters between religions and cultures can easily see that cultures are not monolithic, intact, or impermeable. In fact, cultures are always exchanging ideas, inventions, material goods, books, food, recipes. There is clearly a lot of healthy and respectful cultural exchange. Hence the attempt to make a distinction between culturing borrowing and cultural appropriation, both in this article about decolonising your yoga practice, and in my previous attempt to write about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

Appropriation means claiming that you own something or have a right to it. Borrowing means acknowledging that the other party owns it. They are not synonymous.  Borrowing can be respectful. Appropriation is disrespectful. The trick is learning the difference.  However, if a person from another culture says, hands off, you cannot access this without going through the proper process – then proceeding to take it without their approval is theft.

If the culture which you had the misfortune to be born into goes around colonising other countries (both by conquest and via economic power) and you then come along and steal their spiritual traditions, despite them saying no: that makes you part of the colonisers.

If on the other hand you acknowledge them as the ones with expertise, and learn from them, and acknowledge their sovereignty, and they decide to give freely: that is respectful.

An obvious analogy is Wicca. There are practices in Wicca that I would not recommend to anyone uninitiated (because initiation prepares you for them) and that would not make sense outside of the symbolic framework of Wicca.  Although these practices are available from other spiritual traditions, invocation is also carefully situated within a symbolic framework and an initiatory process in those other traditions, too. It occurs in Buddhism, and they have a very elaborate system around it – with good reason. And the same with all the other practices.

I know there are things in Wicca that don’t quite fit in Druidry, and vice versa – and those two traditions are reasonably similar. Consider how difficult it is, then, to import a practice from a dissimilar tradition. I generally don’t do Buddhist practices because I disagree with the basic founding premise of Buddhism, that all is dukka (suffering) and that the only way to free yourself from suffering is to avoid attachment. If you don’t buy into this basic premise of Buddhism, then a lot of their meditation techniques don’t make sense.

In my previous post on this topic, I outlined some thoughts on what constitutes appropriation, and what constitutes respectful borrowing. When I wrote that post, I was largely unaware that sometimes people accuse non-Europeans of cultural appropriation when they try to join in with European forms of Paganism. I learnt this from reading the excellent book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend doing so.

Cultural appropriation cannot be properly understood unless you look at it in the context of colonialism, power, money, exploitation, and capitalism. Although Pagan religions are not part of the dominant paradigm of Western culture (which is predominantly Christian with an overlay of Enlightenment rationalism and a big dollop of capitalism), and are often relegated by the dominant discourse to the realms of the “primitive” – white practitioners of Pagan religions still benefit from being members of the dominant social group much of the time. Cultural appropriation is usually done from the dominant position in any encounter between two cultures. So if you are not in the dominant position in the encounter, it will be difficult to appropriate the culture of the other.

To sum up, then: ritual techniques and practices are not universal, and it is difficult to lift them from one context to another; doing so without consideration for their original meaning and context is disrespectful; and it is often a continuation of colonialism, capitalism, and commodification.


Ten Pagan Writers I Am Grateful For In a Troubled Season

photo 2 (4)On Thursday, my family gathered around a table so filled with plenties of food, of laughter, of love, that all I could do was pray that as we gather around this country, justice and compassion might arise from many such tables. That our love for each other, our willingness to share with each other, how we have learned over decades to be more honest with each other…that all of these might  extend beyond the walls of our houses, the walls of our communities, and spread across the continent like butter on a Parker House roll.

It isn’t easy to write about gratitude, in the face of Ferguson, in the acknowledged history of Thanksgiving itself, our nation’s grounding in racism, exploitation, genocide.

This is my first year writing for Patheos Pagan, and my stumbling early steps have been supported by the work of so many other writers in this community that to single any out feels a little odd. The Patheos Pagan front page is a great place to poke around for a while, when you have some time.

Among all the thoughtful and passionate voices, here are ten I am especially grateful for at the moment, in no particular order. Many of these writers have more than one blog or website online, and several of them have books as well. The links I provide are specific to Patheos Pagan but I encourage you to search for their work in other places as well:


Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow, my mates here in Sermons, whose enthusiasm and scholarship I aspire to, and who—amazingly, generously—offered me this platform.

John Beckett, Under the Ancient Oaks, whose willingness to engage and inform with reasoned and reasonable discourse always teaches me something.

Crystal Blanton, one of the authors at Daughters of Eve. I learn from her, among other things, how to braid the roles of mother, witness, and religious seeker together in my life.

Rhyd Wildermuth, one of the authors at A Sense of Place, whose passions and politics are rooted in the ecstatic experience of the visionary in a way that speaks very deeply to me.

Niki Whiting, A Witch’s Ashram, whose sheer energy and intellectual acumen are balanced by her sense of fun and delight.

Cat Chapin-Bishop, Quaker Pagan Reflections, whose writing always appealed to me for its balance between ecstatic vision and calm reflection. Her recent willingness to engage racism in act and word  inspire me to do better myself.

Alyxander Folmer, who writes Wyrd Words every other Thursday for the Agora column, whose friendly and humorous posts were some of the first words that helped me believe I could maybe do this thing.

John Halstead, The Allergic Pagan, whose intellectual gifts are balanced by his willingness to talk about his own history and the path(s) that have brought him to this place.

Finally, most recently, Nornoriel Lokason, Ride the Spiral, whose work as advocate does not take away from his willingness to engage with and welcome dialogue with enthusiastic newbies like myself.

All of these writers have been lights to me this year. They help me understand how to root my spiritual quest for personal meaning, understanding, and justice-making, both in words and in the world we are part of. I have learned much, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Patheos is a multi-faith site, with channels for everyone from Evangelicals to Atheists. I encourage any reader to click around and read a bit. The diversity and liveliness of the voices is a richness for our 21st century times.

And, importantly, thanks to you, readers who have gifted my words with your attention this year. Your comments and responses, here on the blog and in person when I see you, mean a great deal, and the time you spend with my words moves me.  May we continue to find our way forward, together or apart, on the paths before us.







The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle and the Forgotten Origins of Neopagan Theology

This week, we are pleased to once again host an original research article by Christopher Scott Thompson, exploring an alternative origin for the “maiden, mother, crone” Goddess theology that has been so influential in contemporary Paganism. Thanks, Christopher, for the intriguing argument!

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Three Brigits: Just Not the Three You’re Thinking Of

Any Brigidine pagan, on hearing the phrase “Three Brigits” would think immediately of the famous passage from Cormac’s Glossary:

Brigit, i.e., a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e., Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.[1]

Some would also be aware that there were other Brigits, women mentioned in passing in the medieval Irish lore. There’s been some debate about whether these women had anything to do with the goddess Brigit or not, and in any case they are very obscure figures. Because Brig means power, a woman with the prefix Brig in her name may be the power of a particular thing; for example, Brig Brethach could be read as “Brigit of the Judgments” or “Power of Judgment.”

The known Brig-figures include Brig Ambue (“Brigit of the Cowless”), Brig Euit (“Brigit of Piety”), Brig Briugu (“Brigit of Hospitality”), Brig Brethach (“Brigit of the Judgments”) and Great Brid of the Horses.[2]

The reference to Brig Euit makes it clear that she was actually St. Brigid. Brig Brethach is used several times as a nickname for Brig Ambue and at least once as another name for Brig Briugu, but there was also another Brig Brethach, the wife of Sencha MacAilella. Great Brid of the Horses is arguably a duplicate of this Brig Brethach. In a later era, the legendary (if not infamous) poet Senchan Torpeist had a wife named Brigit, who makes a brief appearance in “The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Assembly” and stars in its derivative tale “Great Brid of the Horses.”

Senchan Torpeist has deep links to the Ulster Cycle (he is the bard who recovered the Tain, among other things) and the name Senchan is obviously close to Sencha. This implies that Sechan and his wife Brigit are later reflexes of Sencha MacAilella and his wife Brig Brethach.

If we set aside Brig Euit and Great Brid of the Horses for now, we have three Brig figures: Brig Briugu, Brig Brethach and Brig Ambue, all of whom were sometimes referred to as Brig Brethach. However, these are not three random Irish women mentioned at disconnected points in the medieval lore. Instead, they are three generations of the same family!

According to a footnote by Eugene O’Curry:

Several women of the name of Brig are mentioned in. the ancient laws as female judges; some of them appear to have been connected with each other. The mother of Senchan, chief judge and poet of Ulster in the time of Conchobar Mac Nessa, was called Brig ban Brughad or Brig the female Brugad; his wife was called Brig Brethach or Brig of the judgments; and his daughter, the Brig A mbui alluded to in the text, was also it would appear called Brig “of the Judgments”, and was wife of Celtchoir Mac Uthichair, a renowned personage of the Tain Bo Chuailgne, and other heroic tales of that period. She is mentioned as one of the nine, or rather ten, women who accompanied Queen Mugan, wife of Conchobor Mac Nessa, at the Fled Bricrind or Bricriu’s Feast.[3]

Brig Ambue was the wife of Celtchar MacUthechair of the Ulster Cycle, but she was sometimes referred to as Brig Brethach or “Brigit of the Judgments,” supposedly because she gave a famous legal judgment in correction of her father Sencha mac Ailella, poet and judge to Conchobar MacNessa. The name Sencha is very similar to senchas, a word that means lore or tradition. This is especially significant because the references to Brig Ambue come from the Senchas Mor or “Great Tradition,” a medieval collection of Brehon law.

Brig Brethach was her mother, the wife of the same famous judge and poet.

Sencha’s mother was Brig Briugu or “Brigit of Hospitality,” but the glosses to a story called Din Techtugud identify this Brig as the Brig Brethach who corrected Sencha’s false judgment.[4]   

Three Brigits: the mother, wife and daughter of a famous poet whose name actually means Lore or Tradition, and who are known mostly from a book called the Great Tradition.

We are not dealing with scattered references to women named Brigit, but with a second trinity of Three Brigits. Unlike the more well-known trinity of three sisters from the Mythological Cycle, these three are from the Ulster Cycle. As such, they are described as being human women- but their connection to the goddess is now unmistakable, and they are probably best described as avatars.


Brig Briugu

O’Curry calls the grandmother Brig ban Brughad. According to the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, briugu means:

Landowner, hospitaller, in later sources also farmer, yeoman. In legal texts the b. is a rich landowner with a public function of dispensing unlimited hospitality to all persons in his hostel, which must be in an accessible position. For this he is given the same honour-price as the king of a túath… recognized as common intervener in disputes.[5]

According to eDIL, the word briugas means “function of a briugu; hospitality, riches, abundance:; plenty,” and briugaid is a form of this word.[6] All the other meanings of brugad are not relevant, so Brig ban Brughad must mean “Brigit the Female Hosteler,” a variation on the name Brig Briugu.

A hosteler in ancient Ireland was a wealthy peasant or successful farmer who could attain a semi-noble status by offering free hospitality to travelers. Hostels figure prominently in Irish lore, and especially in the lore of this particular family. A hostel was essentially an inn where you didn’t have to pay for food or lodging. So, Brig Briugu is connected with agriculture, hospitality and the Celtic ideal of open-handed generosity without thought of reward. It seems likely that anecdotes about St. Brigid’s generosity with food and drink derive from the lore about Brig Briugu.


Brig Brethach

Brig Brethach or “Brigit of the Judgments” is the wife of Sencha the judge and poet. The fili in ancient times combined both roles, so Brig Brethach was presumably a fili as well. Sencha was one of the men who volunteered to serve as foster-fathers for the hero Cuchulain. Sencha never became a full-time foster-father to Cuchulain, but did teach him the skill of eloquence — presumably with the assistance of his wife Brig Brethach. In Gaelic folklore, St. Bride is often referred to as Muime or “foster-mother,” referring to the legend that she was the foster-mother of Jesus Christ. Considering this fact, it seems significant that a pre-Christian Brigit was a foster-mother of sorts to Cuchulain, the son of the god Lugh.

Sencha’s role in the Ulster Cycle is that of peacemaker. Considering that this was a typical role of the briugu, he may have inherited this position from his mother. When the stubborn, vainglorious and recklessly violent warriors are about to lose their tempers, Sencha shakes his “branch of peace” and persuades them to either submit the matter to arbitration, talk it out instead of fighting or at least agree to a cooling-off period. He is described as having a voice as sweet as music, which must have helped him in his profession[7]. Although Sencha is described as reciting a rosc or battle-incitement poem by royal request on one occasion, he is essentially a professional deescalator, like the “violence interruptors” who try to prevent gang violence in modern Chicago.

Confusingly enough, Bretha for Conslechtaib states that the wife of Sencha was named Brig Ambue, so there is no clear distinction between the three members of this trinity. They are all, apparently, Brig Brethach.


Brig Ambue

Brig Ambue or “Brigit of the Cowless” is a complex figure. On the one hand, she was a famous female jurist (“the female expert of the men of Ireland in wisdom and prudence”) known for her role in defending the rights of women. On the other hand, she was a femme fatale, whose manipulations led to the deaths of her own husband Celtchar Mac Uthechair and the hosteler Blai Briugu.

Brig Ambue’s name implies a connection to the Ambue, a class of people with no property in old Irish society. As the granddaughter of a hosteler and the wife of a famous Ulster warrior she would have been quite wealthy, so she most likely earned this name by rendering legal judgments on behalf of the disenfranchized and powerless. P. Sufenus Virius Lupus, in the article The Hidden Imbolc, has suggested that Brig Ambue was connected to the purification and reintegration of “cowless” or outlaw Fian warriors around the time of Imbolc.[8]

Brig Ambue plays a role in two of the Ulster Cycle tales, although she is referred to as Brig Brethach in one and not mentioned by name in the other. We know the Brig Brethach in these stories is really Brig Ambue thanks to O’Curry’s footnote- Brig Ambue was the wife of Celtchar Mac Uthechair, not of Sencha Mac Ailella who was her father.

Her father Sencha is the wise counselor and peacemaker at Bricriu’s Feast who oversees the “War of Words of the Women of Ulster” after Bricriu incites the wives of the Ulster heroes against each other. As Brig Ambue’s husband Celtchar is mentioned as having been in attendance, she must have been one of the participants in the War of Words, although her speech is not given.

Sencha shows himself to be a misogynist in this tale by blaming all the trouble — and all warfare in general — on the women:

“It is through the fault of women the shields of men are broken, heroes go out to fight and struggle with one another in their anger… It is the folly of women brings men to do these things…”[9]

He received his comeuppance for this sort of attitude from his own daughter Brig, who earned her nickname Brig Brethach by correcting his judgment on a legal matter affecting the rights of women. Sencha had ruled unfairly, causing blotches to magically appear on his face. When Brig gave the correct judgment, his blotches disappeared.

Despite this obvious reference to Brig Ambue as a figure of justice, The Tragic Death of Celtchar mac Uthechair portrays her as either a ruthless schemer or a destructive embodiment of destiny, depending on how you interpet her role.

For whatever reason, Brig Ambue seems to have determined on the death of Blai Briugu, because she deliberately put him in one of the geasa traps beloved by old Irish storytellers. In the story, she travels alone to Blai’s hostel despite knowing that he has a geis or taboo requiring him to sleep with any unaccompanied woman under his roof. When he complains that she’s going to get him killed, she replies “It is a wretched man that violates his own geasa.” Blai has sex with her, and when her husband Celtchar hears about it he hunts Blai down.

Blai attempts to escape his fate by staying as near the king and Cuchulain as possible, but Celtchar comes up and stabs him dead with a spear while he’s watching his two protectors play a board game. The blood splatters on the board, but it’s a little bit closer to the king’s side so the duty of revenge for Blai’s death falls to him.

Celtchar flees south to Munster, but is lured back with guarantees of safety. His fine or “blood-price” for Blai’s murder is to protect Ulster from its three worst threats. He successfully disposes of a warrior with sword-proof skin by promising his daughter Niam to the man and then getting her to find out his weak point. He kills a giant, maneating mouse by ripping its heart out. However, the third monster Conchobar asks him to kill is his own dog, which is running wild and killing people. When Celtchar does so, a drop of the dog’s blood rolls down his spear and burns right through him, killing him instantly.[10]

The presence of a wild dog in this story may be significant, as outlaw warriors of the Ambue class referred to themselves as being wolves or werewolves, and there was no distinction in the Irish language between a wolf and a dog. According to Katherine Simms, the Irish law tracts refer to Brig Ambue as the first person ever to train a lapdog[11].

It could be that the dog in this story is no dog at all, but an Ambue warrior once loyal to Celtchar but now gone rogue- or simply carrying out Brig Ambue’s desire to see both Blai and her husband dead. The story gives no explanation for why she sets this destructive train of events in motion, but three possibilities come to mind.

One is that she could have been seeking retribution for some wrongdoing committed by both Blai and her husband.

Two is that the storytellers could have cast her in the role of the otherworld woman who forces a doomed man to violate his geasa  for no other reason than the fact that he is doomed.

Three is that her role in this myth is actually a metaphor for the nature of justice. Blai knows what he is supposed to do but he’s scared to do it; she reminds him of his obligations and he fulfills them – even at the cost of his own life.

Brig Ambue appears in another anecdote under the odd nickname Cúicthi or “Five,” again to correct her father’s judgment. In this case, a mysterious woman interrupts a duel between Conall Cernach and Láegaire Buadach to ask them to delay the fight and seek arbitration. They ask Sencha how long they should wait for, but he doesn’t know so they ask the woman. She tells them to wait five days, and they ask her name. She tells them her name is Cúicthi or “Five,” but a gloss on the manuscript says the woman was really Sencha’s daughter “Brighi”- in other words, Brig Ambue. Her father didn’t recognize her because of a magic veil. Strangely enough, it also says she was married to Cuchulain — perhaps after Celtchar’s death?[12]

In any case, this anecdote is used as precedent for setting the standard waiting period before distraint at five days. For instance, if a man lost a judgment and had to pay a fine of ten cows, the plaintiff would have to give him notice and then wait the required number of days before staging a cattle raid to recover the fine. The waiting period created space and time for the defendant to pay the fine, reducing the likelihood of violence. Distraint also applied to cases involving women, but the rules were different. This was the primary theme of the “judgments of Brig.”


The Judgments of Brig

Modern pagans often interpret Brigit as a goddess of social justice or even of activism, partly because of several stories that cast St. Brigid in this role and partly because of fragmentary references to the judgments of Brig Ambue or Brig Brethach.

According to Katharine Simms, references in the legal tracts to a work called Bretha Brígi Ambue or “The Judgments of Brig Ambue” do not mean that such a document ever actually existed. Instead, the Bretha Brígi Ambue was a mythical book, invoked when it was deemed necessary to make changes to established law. When the judges of medieval Ireland came to the conclusion that a particular law was unfair, they would make up an anecdote in which Brig Ambue or Brig Brethach gave a judgment on the matter.[13]

In culturally conservative traditional societies, change is managed by pretending it isn’t change in the first place. One way to do this is to invoke a fictional ancient precedent, so that the new law isn’t  described as being new but as an older and more authentic tradition more in line with what the Irish called firinne or universal Truth.

The blemishes on Sencha’s face were caused by his deviation from firinne, and they went away automatically when firinne was restored. If a medieval Irish judge had been around when Americans were debating about giving women the vote in 1920, he would have made up a story in which the first justice of the Supreme Court ruled against women’s suffrage and immediately got blisters on his face until his daughter Brigit corrected him. Then our time-traveling Irish judge could feel totally comfortable about his support for the 19th Amendment, because it would no longer be a radical new idea but an older and more traditional tradition.

So, the “Judgments of Brig” do not actually represent pre-Christian myths, but changes to early medieval law justified by reference to a shadowy pre-Christian figure called “Brigit of the Judgments.” The specific cases described as “Judgments of Brig” all have this characteristic.

Brig Ambue’s most famous judgment involved cases of distraint over inherited property. Under ancient Irish law, a man who inherited property but didn’t have physical posession of it was expected to follow a detailed procedure. First he had to bring two yoked horses and one witness over the boundary line to give legal notice of his claim on the land. If the current owner refused to acknowledge his claim he could return ten days later with four horses and let them graze for a little while. If he returned ten days later with eight horses he could move into the house and make a fire, at which point the land was his regardless of what the original owner said[14].

Acording to the story, a woman named Ciannachta asked Sencha whether she could use this process to press her claim to a piece of land. Sencha told her she couldn’t do so; it was only for men. While this was obviously a sexist law, the logic behind it was based on the clan mentality of ancient Ireland rather than on hatred for women per se. If a man inherited property it would remain within his fine or kinship group; if a woman inherited property the fine could lose it if she got married. In addition, property owners were expected to show up for military service at the king’s request, and while there may have been some female warriors most women were not trained as fighters.

Regardless of the logic behind Sencha’s sexist judgment, blisters appeared on his face overnight- it was a violation of firinne. He tried to get rid of the blisters by telling Ciannachta she could use the same process, but the blisters stayed.[15] This second attempt at a judgment was something of a cyncial ploy on Sencha’s part, as a man was a lot more likely to have access to eight horses than a woman was. If this judgment had been upheld, women would have had the right to inherit land in name only, because it would have been much harder for them to press a claim.

This is when Brig Ambue stepped in, ruling that Ciannachta could use a different procedure. All she had to do was bring two sheep and a witness, bring the sheep back to graze after eight days and move into the house after another eight days. As soon as she baked bread in her new house it was legally hers[16].

Although the legal logic involved is obviously specific to ancient Ireland, this law would clearly be considered “progressive” in modern terms, because it modifies an existing law to make it more just to women.

This anecdote was then used as precedent for similar changes in Irish law on distraint. Men were required to follow a variety of different procedures with different waiting periods depending on the urgency of the situation and the rank and gender of the defendant, but the law was reformed to allow women to give only two days notice regardless of the defendant.

Another “Judgment of Brig” gave women the right to pass down property to their daughters in some circumstances. This had previously been illegal, because it would cause the father’s kinship group to lose some of its land. However, there was apparently a custom in which a new husband pleased with how the wedding night had turned out could give his bride a piece of property as a gift. This was called “land of hand and thigh,” and Brig is supposed to have ruled that land of hand and thigh could be passed down to daughters. Leaving aside the several layers of archaic thought in this entire concept, this is once again a progressive law. Women previously could only hold life-interest in any land belonging to the clan and couldn’t own it outright, but after the law was changed it was possible for women to own some of this land outright.[17]

These examples suggest that the modern understanding of Brigit as a goddess of social justice and progressive reform is fully supported by the lore, since “Brigit of the Judgments” was invoked to validate progressive changes to medieval Irish law.

Mother, Wife and Daughter

Despite Sencha’s sexist tendencies, the man clearly had his good points, foremost of which was his role as a peacemaker and “violence interrupter.” Sencha’s use of verbal eloquence to deescalate and defuse potentially violent situations is in line with traditions that the goddess Brigit and her animals keened and mourned for any violent conflict.

If we think of Sencha not as a human being but as a personification of Tradition- which is what his name implies- then we get an interesting pattern. Brigit of Hospitality, a farmer and commoner as all hostelers were, is the mother of Tradition. Brigit of the Judgments is the wife of Tradition. Brigit of the Cowless, who challenges her father’s unfair judgments, is the daughter of Tradition.

This can be read as a kind of commentary: “The mother of Tradition is the wisdom of the common people, the wife of Tradition is good judgment and learning, and the daughter of Tradition is the willingness to challenge Tradition in the name of justice.”

All three of them are Brigit.


Nora Chesson’s Three Brigits

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle were virtually forgotten for many centuries before early Celtic scholars such as Eugene O’Curry and Henry O’Neill recorded their existence in passing. When O’Curry wrote On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish he didn’t draw any particular attention to the Three Brigits- his reference to them is only a footnote in a very large book. O’Neill’s reference is also quite short:

The right of women to inherit property was admitted at a very early period, certainly long before their exemption from war, if we can be sure that it really was St. Adamnan who secured their freedom from obligation to serve, and not some early pagan legislator of whose act this is merely a Christian echo. Tradition states that it was a learned woman who secured for women in Ireland a part of any succession, namely, a third part of the landed estate if there were no sons. Later the whole property went to the daughters in default of male heirs.

The one who reflected this change for women was Brig or Brigit Ambui, the daughter of Senchan, chief poet and judge to King Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster, and the third of her name. For her mother was Brig Brethach, or Brigit of the Judgments, and her grandmother Brig ban Brughad, or Brigit the Farmerwoman. The name recurring so often makes one suspect that we have to do with matters so far back that the name of Brig the goddess of learning has been varied to suit poetic treatment.[18]

However, these short references must have made a big impression on at least one person: the English poet, writer and mystic Nora Jane Hopper Chesson (1871-1906), whose Ballads in Prose was published in 1894.

Chesson was a dreamer of the Celtic Twilight type, and although she had an Anglo-Irish father and a Welsh mother she had no personal connection to Celtic folk traditions and never visited Ireland in her life. Despite this fact, she was surprisingly influential in the Irish literary renaissance, influencing Yeats among others. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Yeats was irritated by her mildly plagiaristic habits, but inspired enough by her version of Celtic mysticism that he considered founding his own occult order along Celtic lines.

Chesson created at least two new myths about Brigit, along with at least one poem. All three of them are overtly pagan, so Chesson could be considered the first Brigidine pagan of modern times.

Chesson herself claimed that all of her writing was nothing but “moonshine,” and told others she had based none of it on genuine Celtic lore[19]. However, this appears to have been false modesty on her part, as the following piece could only have been written by someone familiar with one of these passing references to the Three Brigits, and only someone very well-read in Celtic lore would have even stumbled on them:


From “Ballads in Prose” by Nora Chesson, 1894

They sat in the uncertain sunshine of a wintry day, the three Brigits: Brigit, the Farmer, old and brown and withered — her daughter, Brigit of the Judgments, a tall and comely woman ripened and sweetened by fifty autumns — and the grand-daughter Brigit, straight and slim as a rush, with all the beauty of her face folded and sleeping still.

Now the eldest Brigit sat nodding in her carved chair, with the sunlight warm on her blind eyes, but the house-mistress, Brigit of the Judgments, sat spinning busily, and her daughter stood in the open air under the blessed thorn, watching her busy mother, with a smile in her dreamy eyes. And as she dreamed, there came a step on the ringing road, and a shadow fell across the girl’s feet – the shadow of a tall woman with a face kind and sad and beautiful, who carried a sleeping boy in her arms.

“The gods save all here!” she said, softly, “and bless the work!”

“Come in, and welcome,” said Brigit of the Judgments, heartily. Then she raised her eyes to the stranger’s face, and her own grew white and strange, as does that face which looks on something that is not of this world.

“Who are you ?” she cried.

“My name,” said the woman, softly, “is Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan: and his — ” looking down with a smile in her grey eyes at the lad in her arms, “Oh, one may call him Aongus (Love), or Eireag (Beauty), or Aighneann (Lover), or Gort (Sourness); he has nigh as many names as he has faces. What will you call him, Brigit of the Judgments?”

Brigit of the Judgments turned a hungry face to meet her guest’s clear eyes.

“He is the child I lost long ago,” she muttered, “he is my little Culainn, and he has his father’s eyes — there never was a comelier lad than my Eoghan: and because his dead beauty kept the door of my heart I never kissed the lips of thy father, Brigit, good mate though he made me. Let me have the child, daughter of the stranger: he is mine.”

Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan smiled. “Told I not that he was Moran of the many names? Now,” turning to the youngest Brigit, ” tell me what he seemeth to thee, O little maiden of the yellow cool?” And the third Brigit drew back with a face that blossomed red as the leaves at a rose’s heart.

“I see –” she said, and put back the yellow hair that the wind blew in her face, “I see — Oh mother I see what you saw in Eoghan’s face – and now shall I say all that I see? I see short joy and long sorrow, shame and severance and suffering, patience and pride — and do I not also see that I would thole the sorrow for the sake of the short joy? Oh mother, hold me fast lest I gather the shame, too.”

“I said,” quoth Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, “that he was Moran of the many names. Aongus or Aighneann wouldst thou call him, O little one? and to thy mother is he her lost child and her lost husband: and what to me? Ah, when last I looked him in the face, I called him Conasg (War): for I saw a light in his eyes that was like the light of swords. And now, O old mother, rise up and say what thou seest in his face.”

“I am blind, Lady,” muttered Brigit the Farmer. “I am blind and I cannot see.”

“Rise up,” said Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, as if she had not heard, “and look on him, and say what thou seest in his face.”

So the old woman rose and came to her side, without help of either staff or guiding hand, and she fixed her blind eyes on the face asleep on the breast of Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan. Then to the watching mother and daughter it seemed that the blind eyes gathered colour and depth as they gazed: and last, the light that had left them. And then with a cry the grandmother fell back into Brigit of the Judgments’ arms, and women came from the house and bore her in, and laid her softly on her bed, seeing that she was stricken with death. And Brigit of the Judgments wept over the happy face of her gray mother, and never heeded that she hindered her soul from passing: and, outside in the winter sunshine, Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan waited with her back against the holy white-thorn. And beside her the youngest Brigit stood, dreaming, looking past bawn and barn away to the silvery ribbon of the Boyne running swiftly away to wooded Brugh where Aongus Oge was still thought to have his golden house. And Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan turned her eyes on the girl’s face, and, holding them there, again she turned back the mantle from the face of him she bore on her bosom. And softly she said, ” Look!” and Brigit obeyed her. And as she looked, there came a smile over the sleeping face, and the smile smote to the girl’s heart with sorrow as sharp as a spear: but Kathaleen’s look kept back the tears from her eyes and the cry from her lips: and for a little while the twain kept silence. And then Kathaleen covered the sleeping face, and with that Brigit’s tongue was loosed, and she cried out, sobbing, ” Oh! fair he is and dear he is, Dark Woman, and a while since would I have died to walk the world with him: and now it seems to be better to live and die without him – and that your frowns were dearer than his praising, Beauty of the World!”

“I am not she!” said Kathaleen NyHoulahan. “She passes away, and I can never die-for even when my own children stone me, I must rise again, and go on my road. And – oh! Flesh of my flesh, but you have stoned me often !” she cried. “And oh! but how good it were to feel the shamrocks growing over me!”

“But then the world would end, Pulse of our hearts,” said Brigit. “And must you go on your way again, you and Moran of the many names? Will you not stay a little – and we would serve you well?”

“It is for me to serve my people,” said Kathaleen. “But I must not stay: for I was born when the wandering wind met the wandering fire, and the twain are in my blood.”

“Then take me with you,” Brigit cried, “for I shall never be wife or mother, and what use is there for me in my mother’s house? Take me with you, Heart of hearts, and let me wander, too, till I die.”

“Brigit the Farmer served me well in her eighty years, and never she served me better than when she milked her kine in the byres of Conor the King. And well has Brigit your mother served me, and all the better for the loss of her fair Eoghan: and when your father Senchan sang before Conor MacNessa he was serving me, though he knew it not. And now,” said Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, “do you also serve me, Brigit. My daughters dwell in their father’s houses, and see the green lands pass to the thriftless man and the hard man: and are they better than hostages even in their husbands’ houses? Go out and cry shame till this thing cease, my Brigit: till the women that have no brothers take the wasted lands and deal gently by them. Cry out — and cry loudly, though every Brehon in the land say you nay: Conor MacNessa has ears to hear.”

Then she turned and went, and young Brigit stood alone under the thorn-tree, making ready for the task laid upon her: and from the house came the voice of women keening for the dead, but very softly, lest they should wake the dreadful hounds that lie in wait to catch the naked soul. But they might have shrieked their shrillest, for the soul of Brigit the Farmer walked safely in the shadow of Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan.

The flowery language of Chesson’s story makes her a little hard to follow, but the Three Brigits in this myth are clearly the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle. “Brigit the Farmer” is Brig Briugu, as every hosteler was a farmer. Brigit of the Judgments is Brig Brethach the wife of Sencha, as the story makes plain. The youngest Brigit is Brig Ambue, although Chesson makes her an idealistic maiden who chooses a life of chastity — a very different life than the one the Ulster Cycle gave her.

Chesson also makes Brig Ambue self-consciously feminist. Kathleen ni Houlihan (the personification of Ireland) describes women as “hostages even in their husbands’ houses” and directs the young Brigit to go out into the world and “cry shame till this thing cease.” The story refers directly to the specific laws Brig Ambue is credited with changing, so at least some of Chesson’s “moonshine” turns out to be genuine ancient lore of the sort the strictest reconstructionist would find congenial.

“TheThree Brigits” is a story about three human beings, but Chesson also wrote a myth about Brigit the goddess. In this second story, a starving boy named Maurice becomes a voluntary human sacrifice to Brigit to stop a famine, and his sister (betrayed in love as a teenager) spends the rest of her life as a virgin in Brigit’s service, later to become a ghostly specter who selects other girls for the same fate.


From “Ballads in Prose” by Nora Chesson, 1894

Fever and famine were in the country of Tirconnell, and betwixt these two fires the people forgot the gods: women turning their faces to the wall, and dying with never a prayer, while men held up accusing hands to the blank blue skies, and cursed Kasar among the gods of the Fomoroh, and Lug and Dagde of the De Dananns. Even the Shee were neglected, and everywhere the Vanitha (mistress of the house) forgot to scatter crumbs and spill drops of milk upon her threshold for Dark Joan and Oonah and Cleena and Donn of the Sandhills: and the little People went hungry past the closed doors at twilight, while within the famished human things made short work of the thin milk and the poor bread.

At last even the lights in the great House of Brighid went out one by one as, one by one, the holy women died of hunger or plague, till at last there was left alight only one of all the gold and silver lamps, and just as this one lamp had been refilled and lighted before the great carved image of Brighid, sitting with a huge golden book open on her knees – just as the scented oil gave out its odour of pine — the last recluse dropped her oil-cruse and fell dead at the feet of the holy statue. Some good women, coming to do hopeless worship to holy Brighid, found her lying there, and having done the last kind offices for her, and laid her with hurried prayers in the common grave of her sisters, went back to their hungry homes, leaving the door of the shrine wide open. Presently there came two small figures timidly across the threshold, and so into the deserted holy place — a boy and girl dressed in mere rags, for all the cold March wind that whistled outside, twin children whose dead mother had mocked at holy Brighid adying, and whose living father would have torn down her very shrine if his hands had been as strong as his hatred.

“Breed,” said the boy, lifting his gentle blind eyes from the ground, “where’s the wind that I feel blowing?”

“It comes from the open door,” Breed answered hurriedly, “and never a stir will it stir for all my pushing – bad cess to it for a stubborn door! And the blessed lamp will be blown out altogether, Maurice, unless we can do something to save it.”

“There’s the lamp at home,” Maurice said slowly, “and it’s full of oil, Breed. You might run and fetch it here, machree, and light it from the blessed lamp yonder. I’ll wait till you come.”

“Will you? It’s lonely here,” little Breed said, warningly. “‘Tis a mile home and a mile back, and the hunger makes me run slower than I used.”

“Set me close to the holy lady Brighid,” Maurice McCaura said, smiling, “where I can touch her with my hands: and then ye can go, Breed; I’ll be safe enough in Brighid’s own house.” Breed led him forward a step or two, and guided his hands till they touched the feet of Brighid’s image; then she turned and her bare feet pattered softly down the dusty aisle, across the threshold and out into the sparse pale sunshine outside. Her blind brother stood still where she had placed him, clinging to Brighid’s golden feet: and presently, when they began to quiver and move under his clinging fingers, he stood, if possible, even stiller than before.

“Who holds my feet?” said a deep sweet voice. “Who, of all my children?”

“It’s Maurice McCaura,” the boy said, faintly. “Lady Brighid, will you give us bread? Breed and Michael and my father are hungry, and baby Caitlin’s dead: and there’s the black Death in nearly every home in Munster.”

“And yourself, child?”

“I’m not so hungry now,” the boy whispered. “It’s Breed — and-and little Michael — and there’s no bread in the house, and no potatoes in the kish –”

‘”How many mouths to feed?” said the deep voice.

“Three, Lady Brighid. Will you feed them?” pleaded the blind lad.

“And yours is the fourth. Hark. — Now would you like to give bread to the children’s hungry mouths, and to your father’s? Will you give yourself to me to be my servant, child?”

“Yes,” said Maurice quietly. Two strong gentle arms closed round his slight body now and lifted him from the ground — lifted and held him breast-high, till he felt the goddess’s breath warm upon his blind eyes.

“Breed and Michael and your father shall have food this very day – and Breed shall not grieve long for you: I promise that,” Brighid said gently. “Now, child, let me seal you to my service.” She held him to her bosom and kissed his blind eyes with soft cold kisses, until the dull hunger pain and the fluttering heart stopped together; and Breed, come back and lighting her lamp from the sacred light, found only a dead boy awaiting her, at the feet of holy Brighid. There was but little moan made over Maurice McCaura; even Breed, who loved him better than herself, watched him buried in his mother’s grave with very few tears, and those not tears of bitterness. Smiles and tears were not plentiful with Breed henceforward: the moonlight quiet of her small white face was not disturbed for her drunken father, or Michael, rosy and romping when the fever and famine ceased as suddenly as they had come; her whole care was for the lamp she had lighted from the one which had long ago burned out in Brighid’s temple, and whose flame she nursed and tended, as other girls and women tended the fire of another Brighid, in a house under mighty oak-trees at Cill-dara. Days and weeks went by, and months merged into years: and old Michael McCaura dug a grave for young Michael in another year of famine: and Breed came to her seventeenth year.

And it fell to her lot to find a shadow at her side wherever she went, and to have a voice in her ears, that whispered of love and gladness: and Breed learned to blush and tremble like other girls, but still she was faithful to her chosen work of tending the holy fire of goddess Brighid. There came a day, however, when the lover turned from Breed’s moonlight to the lilies and roses of a better dowered maiden: and another day yet there came, when a fall of earth from the mountainside buried bride and groom and half a score of wedding guests in one common grave, to which came Breed with her lamp at dead of night, toiling with bleeding and bruised hands till she had cleared the earth from the two faces in the world that she most loved and most hated. Other hands drew them out and gave them holy burial, not Breed’s; she and her lamp vanished from the eyes of men when she had looked upon those two dead faces: and only now and then a dreamy colleen sees a slender figure gliding among the trees on a misty night with a lighted lamp of quaint shape held high in her hand. And the girl who sees this figure of Breed, however glad her love may be, and however true her lover, will never be wife or mother, but like Breed’s her life will be broken and sorrowful here, though it may be made beautiful and complete in Tir na n’Og, in the service of Brighid’s three, whose names are Law and Wisdom and Love.

Note that the second myth ends with a reference to the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle as “Law and Wisdom and Love,” and describes them as being resident in Tir na nOg.

Chesson also wrote a poem about Brig Brethach.

Brigit Of The Judgments

By Nora Chesson

I am Brigit-Wisdom, Light: yea, I am Bride.
I loosen all the knots that wrong has tied;
I knot all threads that should be woven in one.
I am the giver of laws; all evil done
Is on my heart until I may unravel
Its web with heavy tears and bitter travail.
My hair is coloured like the heather honey;
My brows are cloudy and my eyes are sunny.
Judgment I hold in one hand, in the other
Pity; I am both maiden and a mother.

I am the judgment-giver; but I give
Compassion to all burdened things that live,
Struggle, and prey, and so are preyed upon.
Because the work-girl’s hollow cheeks are wan,
Mine are so pale. Because the red ant dies
Under a careless foot my deathless eyes
Are dark with dool. Because the red fox went
Snarling to death, the lilies have no scent
That are amid my breast-knots tied, to show
I am the mother of all that fade and grow.

One man may call me Wisdom who has heard
Some darkling midnight stabbed through with my word.
One man will call me Light who, ere he dies,
Grasps at my hand and looks me in the eyes.
I am no Lianan-sidhe; I will not follow
The soul that seeks me even in the hollow
Lands where the moon is not or any sun,
No travail ended and no quest begun.
I slay the man who called me Law and strove
To slay me, but one name of mine is Love.


Maiden, Mother and Crone

Although many Wiccans and other neopagans accept the theology of the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone without question, this trinity actually has no clear precedent in ancient myth. For instance, the Matres or triple mother goddesses of ancient Gaul are always portrayed as being the same age or as one young woman with two older women. The three sisters named Brigit in Cormac’s Glossary are obviously not a maiden, a mother and a crone. Nor are the three Morrigans. Hutton suggests that the poet Robert Graves invented the Maiden, Mother and Crone trinity when he was writing The White Goddess, but Chesson’s story suggests otherwise.

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle are Sencha’s mother, wife and daughter, but the daughter Brig Ambue is definitely not a “maiden” in the original version. Chesson reimagined Brig Ambue as an idealistic girl who chooses a life of chastity so she can fight for the rights of women. Chesson’s story of “The Three Brigits” is about a maiden, a mother and a crone.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, one of the literary figures who “encouraged” Chesson in her research into Celtic lore was Alfred Perceval Graves, the father of Robert Graves. I believe Robert Graves must have read Chesson’s story of the Three Brigits, either through her acquaintance with his father or just because he was reading books about Celtic mythology. Chesson’s portrayal of the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle as maiden, mother and crone stuck with him and inspired the theology of The White Goddess. That book was so influential on the entire neopagan movement that Chesson’s version of the Three Brigits became the forgotten template for how neopagans conceive of their Triple Goddess.

I believe, after all these years, that she should get the credit for it.




[2]     From The Clann Bhride Book of Hours

[3]     O’Curry, Eugene, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, 1873

[4]     Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”



[7]     Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”




[11]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[12]    Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[13]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[14]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[15]    Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[16]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[17]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[18]    O’Neill, Henry, The Fine Arts and Civilization of Ancient Ireland, 1863

[19]     Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry for  ‘Hopper, Eleanor Jane (1871–1906)’

Christopher Scott ThompsonUnder the religious name of Gilbride or “Servant of Brighid,” Christopher Scott Thompson has been active in the pagan community for a number of years, serving as the vice president (and briefly the president) of Imbas, a board member of the Fellowship for Celtic Tradition, a flamekeeper of Ord Brighideach and now the Cauldron Cill, and a member of the Kin of the Old Gods temple. He is a member of Clann Bhride, an organization of Brigidine devotees, and writes the column “Loop of Brighid” at Patheos Pagan.

Gardnerians, Sacred Lands, Climate Marches, and Other News of Note

Friends, rather than an essay, today’s post rounds up a number of different news items related to Pagans and Pagan studies. Books, marches, and websites, oh my!

The People’s March Against Climate Change is occurring in cities around the world this weekend. The march planned in New York City is particularly massive — so much so that marchers are being divided into sections. These sections will create a narrative for the march’s complex message around climate change awareness and action.


It breaks my heart that due to family commitments and physical limitations, I will not be marching with my friends in NYC this weekend. Climate change is a reality that will affect us all, and it is already having an impact on vulnerable people. If you cannot attend a march near you this weekend, consider donating to the NYC or another march or to an organization such as the Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC (there are only 10 hours left on their Indiegogo campaign! Act now!).

sacredlandsADF Publishing recently released a book based on the 2012 Cherry Hill Seminary conference on Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes. The collection brings together academics and practitioners on topics including the Glastonbury Goddess conference, Southern Witchery, the lesbian land movement, and an industrial band from Britain — quite a fascinating lineup! The collection is bookended with an introduction by Ronald Hutton and commentary by Chas Clifton, then tied together with the editorial talents of Wendy Griffin — all major names within Pagan studies. What a wonderful achievement for CHS!

Pentacle_background_white. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.This month also marks the launch of a new website on Gardnerian Wicca, It is always a pleasure to find a Pagan website that is intelligent and well-written without being intimidatingly scholarly; fits the bill perfectly with essays on ethics, initiation, differences in Wiccan practice between the UK and US, and more. Our own Yvonne Aburrow has contributed a number of essays, along with Irish Wiccan Sophia Boann and a number of others. The site is sure to be useful to those seeking a credible, ethical Internet source for the best-known thread of initiatory Wicca.

Finally, I am salivating over two recent scholarly releases relating to sexuality and gender in contemporary Paganism.

First, check out the latest issue of The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies (vol. 15, no. 1-2). Here’s a sneak peek of the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Gender in Contemporary Paganism and Esotericism
Manon Hedenborg-White, Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen

Gender in Russian Rodnoverie
Kaarina Aitamurto

‘God Giving Birth’ – Connecting British Wicca with Radical Feminism and Goddess Spirituality during the 1970s-1980s: The Case Study of Monica Sjöö
Shai Feraro

Gender and Paganism in Census and Survey Data
James R. Lewis, Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen

A Lokian Family: Queer and Pagan Agency in Montreal
Martin Lepage

To Him the Winged Secret Flame, To Her the Stooping Starlight: The Social Construction of Gender in Contemporary Ordo Templi Orientis
Manon Hedenborg-White

Dancing in a Universe of Lights and Shadows
Nikki Bado

An Intersubjective Critique of A Critique of Pagan Scholarship
Michael York

Navigating Praxis: Pagan Studies vs. Esoteric Studies
Amy Hale

Response to the Panel, “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies? Critiquing Methodologies”: Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Baltimore, Maryland, November 24, 2013
Shawn Arthur

Pagan Prayer and Worship: A Qualitative Study of Perceptions
Janet Goodall, Emyr Williams, Catherine Goodall

Orientalism in Iamblichus’ The Mysteries
Sarah Lynn Veale

Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors among Pagans
Deirdre Sommerlad-Rogers

The Transvaluation of “Soul” and “Spirit”: Platonism and Paulism in H.P. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled
Christopher A Plaisance

Beyond Hogwarts: Higher Education and Contemporary Pagans
James R. Lewis, Sverre Andreas Fekjan

Second, here’s the summary of Douglas Ezzy’s new book, Sex, Death, and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival.

Faunalia is a controversial Pagan festival with a reputation for being wild and emotionally intense. It lasts five days, eighty people attend, and the two main rituals run most of the night. In the tantalisingly erotic Baphomet rite, participants encounter a hermaphroditic deity, enter a state of trance and dance naked around a bonfire. In the Underworld rite participants role play their own death, confronting grief and suffering. These rituals are understood as “shadow work” – a Jungian term that refers to practices that creatively engage repressed or hidden aspects of the self. 

Sex, Death and Witchcraft is a powerful application of relational theory to the study of religion and contemporary culture. It analyses Faunalia’s rituals in terms of recent innovations in the sociology of religion and religious studies that focus on relational etiquette, lived religion, embodiment and performance. The sensuous and emotionally intense ritual performances at Faunalia transform both moral orientations and self-understandings. Participants develop an ethical practice that is individualistic, but also relational, and aesthetically mediated. Extensive extracts from interviews describe the rituals in participants’ own words. The book combines rich and evocative description of the rituals with careful analysis of the social processes that shape people’s experiences at this controversial Pagan festival.

So much to read, so little time. And if you’re reading what I’m reading, I’ll be interested to hear what you think — let me know in the comments.

Happy Equinox!