My Polytheism

Syren Nagakyrie asked…

How do the gods move with and through you? How do you live your life as a polytheist? Where do you walk the knife’s edge and where do the labels blur so much as to be unrecognizable? That is where our power is found.

Gods move in mysterious ways

Some days I am flat and empty and feel disconnected from the gods. These are the days when I most need the solace of their touch. The days when I despair at social injustice, at the slaughter of Black, LGBT, and indigenous people, at the destruction of the environment, the loss of solidarity, and all the ills with which humanity plagues itself.

When I stop and remember to breathe, to be in the presence of the gods, to reach out for them, then they come to me. Some days I sit in the presence of a specific deity; other days, I wait to see who shows up. The other night, when I was wrestling with something particularly difficult, an unexpected deity showed up. I have felt that he wanted to contact me for a while but nothing definite has happened until now. I installed a small statue of him on my shrine and waited.

In Wicca, we invoke deities, and this can be a really powerful experience, as they inhabit your body and speak through you. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world.

Life as a polytheist

One of the things I really like about polytheism is its inherent plurality. Gods and spirits are not one single entity, but a multiplicity of identities, local and finite and specific and particular. They can be the consciousness of rocks and trees and water; or deified humans; or forces of Nature, spirits of place, emerging from the complexity of the universe (or multiverse).

I am a mystical polytheist, and as such, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about defining or describing the gods or indeed polytheism. The gods have managed to look after themselves all this time, so I am pretty sure I don’t need to defend them from people who think they are all one, or don’t believe in them at all. They speak to those who are listening, and sometimes to people who weren’t listening.

Walking the knife’s edge

It is in liminal spaces and places that we can find power. The interstices between day and night, between civilisation and wildness.

There are people who say you can’t be a Wiccan and a polytheist, because Wicca is supposedly duotheist. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, so they are wrong.

There are people who say you can’t be committed to social justice and be a polytheist – but for me, gods and politics are the warp and the weft of my polytheism.

Things are frequently not either/or, not simple binaries – often they are both/and, or a multiplicity of choices: a spectrum, or a scatter-plot.

The knife of the witch cuts away illusion, enabling us to see into the heart of things. If we do not walk the knife’s edge, we will never enter the castle of the mysteries.

By NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar ObservatoryThe science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) - http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2004/20/image/a/, Public Domain.

The Pleiades, by NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory. The science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) – Hubble, Public Domain.

Find out more

See more posts exploring the glorious diversity of polytheism at MyPolytheism.com

 

A Tale of Two Britains

Others have written more eloquently than I about the political, social, and economic implications of all this. Laurie Penny, George Monbiot, Gary Younge, and others have all written about the social and economic tensions that led up to this, and the ways in which white privilege and colonialist nostalgia fed into the rhetoric around the vote (if you didn’t notice that the Leave campaign was racist, check your white privilege; if you did notice, but voted Leave anyway, check your white privilege). I am so angry and distraught about the way that rampant racism is spreading its vile poison. How did Great Britain become Little England?

It ought to be obvious to anyone that Tory-imposed austerity is responsible for the economic misery that has cut services and reduced jobs and rendered many areas  full of despair. Certainly, the brutal realities of capitalists accumulating wealth at everybody else’s expense also plays into this, causing division between the people they prey upon. Instead, people blame immigration and the EU.

So we have been led to the  brink by a group of irresponsible and out-of-touch upper class twits, as The New Yorker immediately grasped, with their “Silly Walk Off A Cliff” cover art.. And although the 17 million who voted to leave the EU didn’t all vote that way on the basis of anti-immigration, the racists who are currently committing vile acts of hate up and down the land have felt empowered to do so because they are assuming that the rest of the Leave voters agreed with them.

There are at least two Britains, maybe more.

My Britain is diverse and inclusive; my heritage is William Blake, William Cobbett, E M Forster, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Edward Carpenter, the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, the Cable Street fight against the fascists, the Suffragettes, the Dissenters, the poets, the trades unions, the solidarity of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, and the miners who showed up to support LGBT people in the struggle for our rights; the Britain that welcomed Rammohun Roy and Mohandas Gandhi, the Britain that boycotted the products of slavery, a diverse Britain that has always been there, as Deasy Bamford says, from Libyans and Ethiopians on Hadrian’s Wall under the Romans, to Black people in 16th century London, the Jews returning to England in 1650, and always being welcome in Scotland, to the working men’s clubs that welcomed Black jazz and blues musicians during the 1930s: a history of radicalism, solidarity, inclusion, and working together. This is a Britain which recognises the distinctness of the Scots, the Welsh, the English, and the Irish.  And it has wonderful food, enriched by many different cuisines from around the world. This Britain is part of Europe and part of the wider world.

Then there’s another Britain: it’s a grim place, where diversity of all kinds is shunned, where the music is all nationalist, where the kinds of people who are held up as heroes are Horatio Nelson (a slaughterer of revolutionaries) and the Duke of Wellington (a rampant xenophobe). This is the Britain of stiff upper lip, compulsory heterosexuality, football hooliganism, dreams of wall-to-wall whiteness, and eating stodgy and dull food. This is the Britain that put its wellington boot on the face of half the world, and then complained when the people who had been subjugated by the Empire wanted to come to Britain. The Britain that came to the fore in the film V for Vendetta.

Both Britains exist, and have existed side-by-side for centuries – now and again, one or the other has the upper hand. For a few decades, inclusive, vibrant, multicultural Britain has had the upper hand. We emerged from the ghastly uniformity of the 1950s, into the explosion of colour that was the 1960s. The 1970s were pretty grim (especially the overt homophobia, the vile racism, the dreadful food and the tasteless wallpaper), and the 1980s were not much better. Then the effects of the prosperity brought by the EU started to have an effect, and for a short while, it looked as if inclusive Britain would triumph, despite setbacks.

Rhyd Wildermuth writes, in A Storm at the Crossroads:

“Would it not be better if we were to stretch into ourselves like felines?” Peter Grey asks, and is that not also how anything grows? The muscle always tensed becomes useless, the heart defended by castle walls will never dare to love, the soul constantly defending borders will never take flight in travel, and the mind that entrenches will never learn to dance.

You know that story about the two wolves that live in the psyche – the friendly one and the vicious one – and it’s the one that you feed that gets the upper hand? Well, the combination of austerity and cutbacks and racist demagoguery has fed the wolf of nationalism in the British psyche – especially the English and Welsh bits of it (though Scotland is by no means immune). There has been a massive vote in favour of insularity, nationalism, and isolationism (and even if you didn’t mean your vote for Leave in that way, that is how it is being interpreted both by the racist thugs, and by the rest of the world).

I am also reminded of the bit in the stories of Arthur and Merlin, where Vortigern is trying to build a castle on a hill, but it keeps falling down. Merlin sees with his inner eye that this is because two dragons are fighting each other in a lake underneath the hill, and advises Vortigern to drain the lake. We are trying to build a beautiful city of inclusion and welcoming diversity, but the dragon of hate and intolerance is having a fight with the dragon of inclusion and diversity. But King Arthur won’t be coming back to fix things. It is up to us now to build the circle of Camelot, in the realm of Logres, the dream vision of Albion, the land of diversity and inclusion and hospitality.

By William Blake - William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8310345

Two forms of Los with Enitharmon, Plate 100 of Jerusalem. By William BlakeWilliam Blake Archive, Public Domain.

So what can we do?

  • Build and strengthen your links with your local community – other faith groups, people from other cultural backgrounds. Talk to your neighbours. Hold a local event to bring your community together.
  • If you can facilitate workshops, create a workshop on civil courage and standing up to racism.
  • If you are a Pagan organisation or group or an individual with any sort of platform, make a statement rejecting hate and racism.
  • Sign and share the inclusive Wicca statement rejecting racism, and the Pagan Federation statement against racism.
  • Wear a safety pin to show solidarity with diverse communities – but don’t stop there. Be prepared to intervene if you witness a racist incident or attack.
  • Report it – if you are the witness or the victim of a hate crime, please report it to the police.
  • Join Pagans Against Racism (UK) and work to make Paganisms more inclusive.
  • Do rituals and magic to support a positive outcome. We need all the allies we can get. If my vision of an inclusive and welcoming Albion, with the round table of Camelot at its heart, speaks to you, then you might want to focus on that in your rituals. Imagine the round table being filled with people of different colours, ages, genders., and sexual orientations.
  • Here’s some suggestions from The Guardian on six positive things to do. I especially like number 3: solidarity with immigrants.

We Are Rising

The Queer Ones are rising. We are rising out of the woods, out of the ocean, out of the cracks between the concrete. Genderqueer, transgender, glorious peacock-shimmering, rising out of the darkness, the healing and sacred darkness, into the many-hued light of day. Queer deities, genderqueer deities, transgender goddesses and gods. Inari the fox god/dess; Vertumnus the changeable and ever-changing; tricksters and healers, poets and seers and shamans.

Gender is not a binary, not even a spectrum, it is a vast glittering field of possibility, many gender, many hues, many different expressions of being and love.

We are rising, out of the silence, out of the hidden places, daring to be, to shine forth our glorious queer radiance, because we are the holy ones, the liminal ones, the dreamers and the creators of possibility.

Our freedom is frightening to some who want there to be a binary, a set of limitations. We call them out of their fear and into the radiant and glittering field of stars, into the joy of expressing all that you are – joy, magic, dreams, anger at injustice, diversity in unity, unity in diversity. We call them to embrace their humanity and ours, not to cling in fear and loathing to a diminished, fearful, restrictive, and destructive vision of womanhood, that excludes the childless as much as the transgender and the non-binary.

The glorious diversity of the human body, the glorious diversity of life journeys and intersecting identities, is to be enjoyed and celebrated. Different people have different journeys. The penis is not a symbol of the patriarchy. The gun is the symbol and the weapon of patriarchy and kyriarchy. The penis is a symbol of life, celebrated and venerated as such by many ancient cultures, along with the yoni, the vulva, the vagina. Both are fountains of life and creativity. The kyriarchy wants to distort and desecrate these sacred places, by turning the penis into a weapon and the vagina into its sheath, a place to be violated. But we reject and resist the violence of the kyriarchy, and affirm the sacred beauty of transgender, gender-fluid, and genderqueer in all their gentle and fierce beauty and glory. We embrace the witchery of genderblending.

Gender essentialism and separatism is the mirror image of patriarchy. We reject the patriarchy and the kyriarchy. We reject all binaries. There are men who reject rape culture and women who excuse rape. Let’s promote consent culture and gather our beautiful diverse tribe. Let us include people in, welcoming and celebrating and affirming diversity, not sowing hate and fear and division. Let’s create spaces that are safe for everyone of every gender. Pagan traditions (both ancient and contemporary) affirm the queer as sacred, as liminal, as being touched by the gods. All magic is magic. All love is love. All people are people.

We are all images of divinity. As a polytheist, I affirm trans and queer deities among the vast range of deities. The Sun is both fierce and hot, gentle and warming. The Ocean is both gentle, rocking the cradle of dreams, and destructive, storming and raging and destroying. Neither of these moods has any essential gender. The Moon is the lover of the hidden ones, calling to us of wildness and wilderness, dreams and intuition. These experiences are available to all genders – we all carry the tides of the Moon in our blood and in our bodies, regardless of whether we menstruate.  Let us celebrate the tides of our blood with all who venerate the body, regardless of their anatomy or ours.

Let us magnify and glorify the images of divinity within ourselves and each other. Show forth love and beauty and creativity; celebrate the radiance of the many-hued multiplicity of gender expression, sexuality, and the human body.

Radical Faeries parade at London Pride, Trafalgar Square. By Fæ - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10791440

Radical Faeries in London Pride procession, Trafalgar Square.. By Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Exciting new projects

Pat Mosley is organising an anthology, Arcane Perfection, which will be a collection of essays, poetry, art, rage, love, rituals, spells, and musings by, for, and about Queer, Trans, and Intersex Witches. Sounds totally awesome.

How have you overcome discrimination? How have you encountered the Divine? What are your experiences with magic as a Queer person? How has Witchcraft empowered your life as a Queer person? Can you tell the story of your transition through the Tarot? What is your relationship to the world, to Pagan community, to Queer community? Do you have a rant that needs to be screamed into publication? How are you uprooting heterocisnormativity in the Pagan community and beyond? How have you dealt with loss, invisibility, violence, disability, racism, power, capitalism, jealousy, change, and love?

Other exciting trans-inclusive projects are being discussed and planned.

Trans charities

In the UK, Gendered Intelligence, Action for Trans Health, and Mermaids have all been recommended to me as charities doing great work.

David Salisbury’s post lists some US trans charities that he plans to support: National Center for Transgender Equality and Gender Justice Los Angeles.

 

What Does An Inclusive Coven Look Like?

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

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

Inclusive Wicca (design by Yvonne Aburrow)

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

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

Summary

Inclusive Wicca is about being inclusive towards everyone.

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

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

Double rainbow in Alaska

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

 


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

 

UPDATE: I have now created an inclusive Wicca website.

Hail Eris!

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

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

Confetti by Andreas Graulund

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

Metaphor and Analogy

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

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

What’s wrong with chocolate cake?

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

 

Many flavours are available

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

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

We don’t all like the same flavours

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

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

 


 

Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far

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

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

 

Five Memorable Blogposts of 2015

I read loads of really awesome blogposts and articles in 2015. Bloggers on Patheos Pagan, Gods and Radicals, and elsewhere. The conversation is deepening. We are starting to wrestle with how we as Pagans respond to suffering, oppression, doubt, death, pain, and fear. We are starting to frame Pagan understandings of consent and community.

So it was hard to select five blogposts that were a “must-read”. The five blogposts listed here are some of the ones that really stood out for me. When I thought back over the year, these were the ones that I remembered reading and going, “wow, yes, this”. There were many other blogposts and bloggers that also made me go “wow” and “yes”. Thank you to all of them for some amazing and thought provoking reads. If you aren’t reading Niki Whiting, Crystal Blanton, T Thorn Coyle, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Annika Mongan, Laine Glaistig, Molly Khan, Alley Valkyrie, Nimue Brown, Jason Mankey, Thorn Mooney, John Beckett, Rhyd Wildermuth, Naomi Jacobs, and the articles at Gods and Radicals, you are missing a feast of great writing.

Here are five excellent and important posts that I remembered when I sat down to make a list.


Why racism is Paganism’s business – Cat Chapin-Bishop

Many Pagan bloggers have written urgently and well in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many Pagans, polytheists, and other people of faith have turned out to protests and shown up in solidarity. Cat has been doing this consistently, in her community, on Facebook, and on her blog. Here she gives a Pagan social and theological explanation of why we should support people of colour and challenge systemic racism and white supremacist ideology.

[Racism] it isn’t something that happens “out there”–and when Pagans of color draw it to our attention, if we white Pagans respond by minimizing what they’re saying, by calling it hand wringing or accusing Pagans of color of making too much of a fuss, we’re actually supporting the overculture’s lie that talking about racism is “divisive” or somehow the problem–that being “race blind” (which usually means white people being willfully blind to racism) is the way to support justice.


Editorial : Against Authority, Against Terror – Rhyd Wildermuth

There are so many quotable bits in this editorial, which shows the many ways in which terror and authority reinforce each other. The opening paragraph sums it up:

I don’t need to tell you what happened. You’ve seen it already, the images of carnage, the collective mourning, the shaking anger, vows for reprisals, calls for restraint. And then the near-simultaneous retaliations in multiple countries by anti-terror police, new crackdowns, increased arrests, tightened security.

Rhyd has written so much good stuff this year but this piece really stood out for me because I wanted to print it out and stick all the quotable bits on my wall and make everyone read it. I used a quote from it as a chapter heading quote in the book that I am writing.


Do We Act Justly? Disability, Mental Illness and Vulnerability – Naomi Jacobs

This piece offers a new model of disability and how society relates to disabled people. Instead of treating them as vulnerable and victims, which removes their agency and autonomy, we should be treating them equally. I think this is important because it challenges even those people who think they are being disability-friendly to challenge the assumptions on which their attempts at inclusion are based.

If you have to make special arrangements after the fact, you didn’t start by thinking about access for all. You thought of us as vulnerable people who need help, not as equal people whom you forgot about when designing your festival, or ritual, or meeting. And that’s a problem for all of us who want to live in a society where there is equity and justice for all. The social model of disability says that we are made more disabled, made vulnerable, by societies that are created for non-disabled people and that don’t want to change to include us.


Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods – Morpheus Ravenna

Not exactly a blogpost, as it was actually Morpheus’ keynote address at the Many Gods West conference, but I suspect it will come to be seen as one of those defining moments in polytheist history. What gods are and how we relate to them have been key themes in the Pagan blogosphere over the last year.

Morpheus offers a metaphor for understanding the relationship between the gods, the world, and us, and how we see the gods. Among many interesting points and insights, she explains how to understand archetypes in relation to gods.

Here’s a model I’ve used to illuminate this: Imagine being inside a church, and here is a stained glass window. The window contains an image in colored glass, and that image is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through the window.
Here, the image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, and as we experience it, it can be alive with light and power. But, in truth, it is not in itself alive or exerting force in the world; it is a kind of passive vessel which is being enlivened by the agency of a greater force. That force, the sun that is generating the light enlivening the image, is the Gods. The church, in this model, is the human mind.


Spiritual Buffets and the Value of Traditions – John Beckett

In this, and many other recent posts, John argues for deep engagement with the tradition you are in, instead of pick and mix spirituality that hasn’t been carefully thought through.

Doing fusion well – with food or with spirituality – requires a deep understanding of elements and themes, not just picking things at random because they look appetizing.
Without a tradition it’s hard to get started.  Without a tradition it’s even harder to movev beyond the basics.  If there’s nothing to tell you that crab legs are delicious, you’re not likely to ever try to eat them.  They look creepy and eating them is a lot of work!

There were loads of other good posts, and I am sure other bloggers will have lists of good ones.

Best wishes to all our readers for 2016, and may we continue to deepen our conversations and strengthen our community, both online and face to face.

In Praise of the Body

The witch-as-body is also the body-as-witch, the raw experience of the poor, the Necromancer cradling a skull and crying, the tired single-mother sipping coffee in mis-matched pajamas.  Herein is the secret that cannot be learned, cannot be understood, cannot be comprehended or dissected. It cannot be known. You can only become this truth, and it teaches you to become it.  It grows within you, it becomes you. It is the secret that cannot be bought, a wisdom that cannot be sold. And it’s what makes all witches dangerous. ~ Rhyd Wildermuth

In his excellent review of what sounds like a truly awful book, Rhyd Wildermuth explores the body-shaming and objectification engaged in by the author of the book under review, and her commodification of witch culture. Do read the whole review, it’s brilliant.

The secret of witchcraft is that is there is no secret, only the mystery which cannot be spoken: the ability to reside in one’s body without shame, without fear. (Actually, “reside in” is too dualistic, implying that the spirit “resides in” the body, like a person in a house – but this is a limitation of the English language. Witchcraft enables us to BE our bodies without shame or fear.)

He also quotes Silvia Federici:

Our struggle then must begin with the re-appropriation of our body, the revaluation and rediscovery of its capacity for resistance, and expansion and celebration of its powers, individual and collective.

Silvia Federici, In Praise of The Dancing Body

In response to all this, I feel the need to reaffirm the body-positive aspects of Pagan culture.

The patriarchal/kyriarchal/hegemonic culture seeks to regulate and control the body – especially women’s bodies, and especially black women’s bodies – because women, especially black women, are constructed as the Other, the site of resistance to the kyriarchy. Because our existence provokes fear of the Other, fear of wildness, fear of sexuality, fear of letting go – our bodies and our hair (traditionally hair is a source of magical power) must be controlled, groomed, reduced, covered, suppressed. If we cover too much, we are censured for prudery; if we don’t cover enough, there is slut-shaming. If our bodies are too hairy, they must be shaved; if they are too generously proportioned, they must be reduced in size.

The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. It displays one emaciated and one obese woman as a reaction to body fixation.

Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside the art museum, Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. [Photo by Lars Aronsson, CC-SA-1.0]

But the body manifests in many different shapes and sizes and colours. There are female bodies, male bodies, intersex bodies, modified bodies, disabled bodies, ebony-coloured bodies, tattooed bodies, scarred bodies, ivory-coloured bodies, pink bodies, caramel-coloured bodies, chocolate-coloured bodies, hairy bodies, smooth bodies, short bodies, tall bodies. There are bony bottoms, and bottoms that spread like the sheltering boughs of a chestnut tree. There are small breasts and large breasts, perky breasts and “pendulous” breasts, six-packs and beer-barrels. The body reflects our embodied histories as people. Gravity and age conspire to make breasts head south, but it doesn’t make them any less beautiful.

The body is not a commodity for positioning ourselves in some marketplace of attractiveness. The body is not a “vehicle” or an “overcoat” for the soul. Perhaps, in some mysterious way, it is the soul made manifest. (Your mileage may vary according to your theology.)

Bodies, whatever size and shape and colour they are, are beautiful. Especially when lit by candlelight or firelight. But most of all, a body is a person – it’s not just an appendage attached to a head, it is part of the person, and worthy of respect.

Throw away your pre-conceived ideas about slimness and muscle tone, and learn to appreciate bodies as people. Throw away the pre-packaged concepts of beauty imposed by the kyriarchy, and learn to look at bodies the way an artist would: as compositions of line and tone and form, of light and shadow.

Look at the Venus of Willendorf – really look at her. Look how the sculptor loved the generosity of her curves, the abundance of food that her body-fat represented.  Look at the sculpture of the Sleeping Lady of Hal Saflieni – another large woman celebrated by an ancient culture.  Look at the sculpture of the laughing Buddha. If deities can be fat, then people can be fat, and vice versa. There are also sculptures of thin deities. If deities can be thin, then people can be thin, and vice versa. Deities come in all shapes and sizes, and so do people.

Celebrate the curves of the land, and the hills and valleys, and see them reflected in the bodies of your cuddly friends. Look at the slender trees, and see them reflected in the bodies of your thin friends. Celebrate the beauty and diversity of the human body.


Photo credit: Lars Aronsson – Own work. This photo was taken during the joint Wikipedia photo/OpenStreetMap mapping weekend in Växjö. Licence: CC SA 1.0

 

Agreeing To Disagree

Different colours, by Gari

Different colours, by Gari [Pixabay] CC0 Public Domain

Arguments make some people uncomfortable. It is true that conflict can be divisive, but it can also be healthy, because it can help to clarify aims, goals, beliefs, and values. Trying to sweep conflict and arguments under the carpet and pretend they are not happening is counter-productive and just creates more conflict in the end.

I have been saying for a while that we are not all climbing the same mountain. As John Beckett points out, a fish is not just a fish: it might be a halibut or a hake, a a pike or a perch.

The Pagan umbrella (or big tent) is only a problematic concept if we try to define it too narrowly. The Hindus have many different sects, philosophies, and belief systems as part of the Hindu dharma. As a similarly pluralist religious movement, we should be able to do the  same.

In a previous post on the varieties of religious experience, I outlined Arne Naess’s model for different groups to collaborate on a shared project without compromising their core philosophies and values. Naess’s model shows how it is possible to agree on common goals for a particular project without necessarily agreeing entirely on goals for non-shared projects, or theology, or even the underlying reasons why you are pursuing the goals in the shared project.

If our focus on our particular values or beliefs gets in the way of the shared goals of the project, then our allies have a right to complain.

For example, many Pagans and polytheists agree that the environment and climate change are major priorities for humanity and for us. But – due to our different political and theological analyses – we might disagree on how best to tackle the problem, or what the underlying causes are. Many of us think that it is capitalism, or perhaps it goes deeper than that and is caused by the kyriarchy; others are unsure of the cause and just want to fix the problem. But rather than trying to align our philosophical perspectives completely, we can agree on shared goals without compromising our values and beliefs – but this requires being clear about what those values and beliefs are, how they inform our analysis of the issue, and what we believe the means to achieving our aims should be. So when it comes to actually working together to fix the problem, we don’t have to set our differences aside to achieve the desired outcome, but we do need to agree to differ, and allocate tasks and resources based on the interests and concerns of the members of the group.

Let’s look at Naess’s model again, and how it applies to wanting to save biodiversity without overly compromising our values.

Level 1, irreducible diversity, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions in the space labelled “Pagan movement”. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. 

Level 2, common platforms, where groups can form alliances. These can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common, but without sweeping differences under the carpet.

Level 3, planning, where the groups actually agree to act. Group A, informed by its commitment to anti-capitalism, believes that the destruction of habitat is caused by capitalism. Group B, informed by its intersectional feminist approach, believes that the kyriarchy is the cause. Group A decides that it should start by formulating alternative economic models to capitalism. Group B decides that it needs to work on dismantling kyriarchal structures and creating alternative social models. The two groups notice that despite their different philosophical approach, the alternative social models and the alternative economic models have some similar features and would work well together, so they pool their resources and ideas to see what the differences and similarities are.

Level 4, action, where the groups actually carry out their plans. In this example, because the alternative social models and the alternative economic models actually complement each other, a better outcome is achieved, because the two different philosophical approaches were allowed to inform each other and complement each other, but not merged into a single unified philosophy.

Where are we at?

At the moment, the Pagan / polytheist blogosphere is at multiple levels – some people are trying to plan; others are trying to identify the irreducible diversity; others are trying to identify common platforms; and there has even been some action (in the form of A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment and A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer). However, we need all of these activities – and it is great that they are happening.

Disagreement, discussion, and even argument are good – as long as they are civil and civilised – by which I mean that we don’t attack each other for thinking a certain way. I am not tone policing here – it is fine and perfectly understandable for people to get angry, but let’s get angry with ideas, not attack the people with the ideas (in other words, by all means say “that idea won’t work because x, y, z counter-arguments” but don’t say “you are stupid because you think that”).

Paganism for Beginners: Diversity

On encountering the phenomenon of the Pagan revival for the first time, some people ask why there are so many different Pagan traditions.

There are many different answers to this question – here are the ones I can think of.

"Ny nordisk mat (12)" by Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 dk via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ny_nordisk_mat_(12).jpg#/media/File:Ny_nordisk_mat_(12).jpg

Ny nordisk mat (12)” – a Smörgåsbord by Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 dk via Wikimedia Commons.

The varieties of religious experience

There are many different forms of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and so on, because different people have different values, different theologies, and different taste in ritual styles. Some people like solemn and liturgical rituals with quite a lot of formality, and where you can predict what will happen next. Others like a lot of room for experimentation and going with the flow.

Similarly, there are many different forms of Paganism, with different theologies, ritual styles, and values. And there is often as much variation within traditions as there is between traditions. For example, one Wiccan coven or individual might be animist or polytheist in their outlook; another might be more duotheist. Some Wiccan covens are more into ceremonial magic than others; some are more hierarchical, some are more consensus-based. The array of traditions on offer is quite a Smörgåsbord.

When choosing a group in whichever tradition you are attracted to, it is a good idea to attend some of their rituals and see if they fit with your values and tastes, and whether they are open to people with differing theological perspectives.

Ancient paganism was diverse

Ancient paganism probably didn’t have the concept of “religion” as a distinct tradition with a coherent set of beliefs, values, and rituals that we have nowadays as a result of the influence of Christianity and its norms.

However, each culture had its own deities and customs and values, and these form the basis of many of the Pagan and polytheist traditions that have been revived.

In Greek and Roman culture, it is well-documented that different deities had their own cults and that these were different in different regions. There were also many different schools of thought within classical paganism, such as the Stoics and the Epicureans. There were also sacred dining-clubs devoted to Bacchus, which I think we should revive. Anyone care to join me?

Contemporary Paganism is diverse

There are many different types of people with different tastes, values, and cultural backgrounds attracted to contemporary Paganism too. And accordingly there are many different traditions on offer, and varying styles of ritual within those traditions.

Being English, with some ancestors from Cornwall, I suspect it is a fair bet that I have both Celtic and Saxon ancestors, maybe even a Norman ancestor or two, so it would be hard for me to choose a particular ethnic religion such as Heathenry or Druidry. That, along with my interest in magic and ecstatic techniques, is one of the reasons I am a Wiccan. It also means I get to honour the other gods in my personal household shrine, who are from other cultures (Roman, Hindu, Sumerian, and so on).

Just plain Pagan?

However, if you are not attracted to any particular Pagan tradition, there’s no rush. You can always attend open rituals of various different traditions, or get together with like-minded others for eclectic Pagan ritual.

Just don’t feel railroaded into doing “Wicca-lite” – there are plenty of other ways of being eclectic. Observe what moves you, what you feel is sacred, and create rituals around that. They don’t have to be complicated – they may just be as simple as noticing beautiful experiences and acknowledging them as sacred.

Find out more

If you are attracted to a particular tradition, go along to any open rituals they offer, and read more about the tradition. Talk to practitioners, ask lots of questions. Have a look at the various different Pagan organisations, some of which represent specific traditions.


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. 

Religion, spirituality, and the big ball of mud

There is a tendency among the spiritual-but-not-religious  to regard religions as crusty old traditions that are hidebound, not evolving, and to contrast them with the spiritual people, who are free spirits who can pick and mix from the smorgasbord of religious offerings to create their own unique menu of tasty spiritual tidbits. Whereas what they are most likely to create, without some sort of roadmap, is a big ball of mud.

I saw this particularly irritating quote from Deepak Chopra the other day:

Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.

There is plenty of scope for individual spiritual experience in most religions, even in the ones we think of as quite conservative. You can have your own experience in religion – and the difference is that there will be a framework and a context and a mythology to help make sense of it and give it meaning, and a community of others who have had similar experiences to discuss it with, and to reassure you that you are not alone with your experience of the numinous.

It is all too easy to assume that all religions are merely cultural encrustations upon the “pure” mystic insight. There is a discourse that claims that there is a “pure” form of religion that could be identified if only once could scrape off the encrustations and accretions of culture, and get to the flawless diamond underneath. But this is a flawed analogy, because religions are not diamonds.

Religions are organic, they grow with and in culture – and if people rip the ideas out of context, they lose meaning and coherence. Religions are like languages – deeply embedded in culture and history; sometimes they have their own culture. Even religions that claim to be universally applicable arose at a particular time and place because of specific theological, philosophical, and spiritual concerns. Perhaps their parent religion was getting too bogged down in a particular concern, and a visionary group or individual started a new wave of ideas – sometimes this this resulted in a new religion, sometimes it resulted in a reformation of an existing one. Perhaps one day, people will look back at the early 21st century and say, that’s when Polytheism broke away from Paganism. Or perhaps they will refer to it as the Polytheist Reformation… who knows?

Religions are not all saying the same thing – they come from different philosophical and theological and cultural perspectives that cannot be reconciled without doing violence to the ideas and practices and rituals. An excellent analogy is regional cuisines – they have a set of tried and trusted recipes and techniques, using the spices and other ingredients that grow in their local area. Sometimes an exciting new ingredient arrives and transforms the cuisine (as happened when the potato arrived in England, or the chilli arrived in India). Sometimes a new cultural group arrives and brings with it a new recipe, that then gets prepared in the style of the local cuisine – did you know that the idea of fish and chips was brought to England by Sephardic Jews from Portugal? Or, some say, Huguenot refugees from France.  Or that pasta was possibly brought back to Italy by Marco Polo after eating noodles in China?  But the new dish gets brought within the repertoire of the existing cuisine, and altered to suit the tastes of the locals. The same thing happens with spiritual ideas and techniques – they inevitably take on the flavour of the religion into which they have been imported.

Different people have different preferences for ritual styles – that is why there are so many different styles on offer within religious traditions. There are those who prefer ecstatic ritual with dancing, those who prefer formal liturgical ritual, those who prefer spontaneity, and those who prefer their emotions to be engaged. The excellent Bill Darlison, Unitarian minister and astrologer, says that these worship styles correspond to the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. When I heard him give this talk, he suggested that Pagans are “earthy” but I pointed out that there are as many different preferences for ritual style among Pagans as there are among Unitarians, probably more. Different traditions offer different ritual styles – Druidry has a distinctive style, Wicca has another style, Heathenry another, Religio Romana another, African Traditional Religion is different again, and so on. There are variations between groups in the various traditions too. Some people find Wicca too intense; others find it a bit tame. I think it is just right – for me.

Different people have different tastes in music – some like heavy metal, some like Gregorian chant, some like reggae, funk, and soul, others like ambient New Agey electronica. (Fortunately, no-one has yet suggested that all musical styles should be munged together into one.) Different musical styles suit different moods too; and the same applies to ritual. Sometimes I am in the mood for the ritual equivalent of Gregorian chant; other times I want something ecstatic and dancey. If we munge everything together, we lose that diversity.

And if everyone goes off on an entirely individual path, with a mixture of influences from many different traditions, how will we ever create a shared web of meaning for communicating about our experiences? As John Beckett says in an excellent blogpost, 5 Reasons You Can’t Find the Right Spiritual Path, we need a certain depth of engagement and immersion to really understand and fully experience a tradition. As I wrote in a previous post:

[A] group name expresses a distinctive identity, philosophy, tradition, set of values, mythology, and community identity. These traditions are ways of being in the world. They are collective projects which explore the question of “How shall we live a good life?” (and what do we mean by ‘a good life’) in very different ways. They each have their own rich collection of source texts and rituals which try to answer that basic question, along with many of the other great existential questions, such as “Why are we here?”

When I was a little kid, I once mixed a lot of different colours of Plasticine (similar to Play-Doh) together. At first, they made a pleasing rainbow of colour – but the more they were mixed together, the more they merged into a rather disappointing olive-brown colour, until eventually there were no distinct colours, only the drab uniform olive-brown. People often think that if you mix religious traditions together, you will get the pure white light of the original ur-religion (if that ever existed). But quite often, you get brown putty instead. Of course, if you carefully mix two colours, you might get a lovely new colour. But the more colours you mix, the more likely you are to get drab olive-brown…

There is also a dangerous assumption mixed in with the idea that religions are reducible to each other: the assumption that there really is one universal religion that would suit everyone perfectly if only they let go of their adherence to their specific tradition. It is a dangerous idea because its adherents want to erase the boundaries of culture, tradition, and to eliminate diversity. They claim that it’s a very liberal idea, but actually it isn’t because it involves the imposition of ideas, a loss of context, massive cultural appropriation, and a loss of a sense of something to grapple with.

Those who advocate for pick and mix spirituality as opposed to religion fail to appreciate that tradition is organic and evolving. There is plenty of room for experimentation and innovation in most religious traditions. Sometimes the more conservative adherents resist these changes, especially if they involve LGBT people, but nevertheless religions do evolve and change.

Each religious tradition, and its various sub-traditions, has an unique and diverse perspective on the world. They have unique rituals and practices, which add to their interest and significance. These rituals often do not make sense outside of the context of the particular tradition in which they arose. Of course, there are some generic spiritual practices which can be exported from one religion to another, but I would argue they take on different meanings in their new context.

Religions are communities of people with a shared perspective, shared stories, and shared rituals. Sometimes religions can be oppressive and fanatical, but that is not the whole picture. The millions of peaceful, decent religious adherents – who are decent not in spite of their religion, but because that is how they practice their religion – deserve better than to be dismissed as hidebound traditionalists and bigots.