It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?
This 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
- 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.
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
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.
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
- 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.
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: http://inhumandecency.org/christine/eisler.html
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
- 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.
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.)
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%
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
Title of book for review
Final Project Question
Final Project Proposal
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) (http://witchesandpagans.com/tags/tag/pagan-kosher.html)
- 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
I am a lucky woman, and much gifted. Four gifts in particular I received this year:
a perfect July peach
a knife that fits my hand
a heartmeant compliment from a teenage son
and an argument for which I did not apologize
These things exist in our world, but they are exceeding rare. I know their value and will wear them forged and braided as adornment and strength. I am a lucky woman.
A woman grown so quiet here, in this space where just a year or two ago I was all enthusiasm. For a while my silence worried me. A theologian, I’ve had to learn trust over the months as my thought moves down, into the body. Into my body. A poet, I’ve had to face the fact that language flattens and distorts when tossed about too quickly. A woman, I’ve had to find a way to understand my silences as active and alive, rather than passive and inert.
All the myths and stories tell us the gift exists to be transformed and passed on, or it loses its power.
A Poem for Women with Birthdays
It has taken me decades to learn to love
the way I pour each night into bed like a Midwestern river,
soft and insistent and ripe, effulgent with summer rain,
here and there paused and pooled
with minnows, with trout. Then too I am the voracious,
toothy carp jumping into the next boat that passes.
I was taught to play my breath out with care,
To run it over and through the knotted cords of my throat
like wind through a young grove of aspen,
to sing and laugh like the spring breeze that flirts
and lifts the hair playfully on a hopeful morning.
It’s a gift, that grace, but there are other gifts too.
By now I know we are equal parts joke and broken,
luscious bluster and blister, so very unspoken,
so very real. Silver and gilt. Sisters, tell me
how will you exult
in your gristle, the meat and fat of your flesh,
how will you rest in the mud of your marrow,
where important and ephemeral things go to be born?
Nameless and slippery, crunched and wiggling,
dark in the sockets of bone,
against all odds and cultural narratives,
we have time yet to locate each element and ore, here,
and here, and here again. Come closer.
Language holds clues.
When my son was very small, he used to spontaneously burst into tears and tantrums at random moments. It took us a long time to figure out what set him off. When we had simply been talking over our day, or reading a book together, or planning dinner, why was he so triggered? After some months, I finally had a breakthrough—or at least, I think I did. To this day I don’t know if I was right (but the crying did get better, so something helped).
It turns out he was upset by the words “up” and “down.”
They’re such slippery little words. We use them in so many figurative ways. Try making a list sometime of all the common phrases that use either of those words. For my literal minded son, at age two, it was simply overwhelming and confusing, to hear these directional words used in contexts where they became nonsensical. (Look something up in a book? Write it down? What do those things mean?)
For those of us who have managed to reconcile ourselves to the idiom-soaked nature of English, language holds clues. And the phrase “slowing down” is the one I want to focus on here.
I already wrote about the downward motion that is (to me) inherent in endarkenment. But there is also a slowing, almost to stillness. One cannot seek endarkenment with the clock ticking or the timer going off. And the very phrase, “slow down” suggests there is a relation between the movement downward and the loss of velocity. We come to rest. We land (we ground). The earth offers enough resistance that we pause for a bit before burrowing under the surface of things.
In the dark one feels one’s way forward, fingers splayed out, sensing. It’s necessary to move slowly. We are learning to trust new senses.
It may be necessary. But it isn’t comfortable. I am restless, impatient with myself, always frustrated at my own lack of progress, whatever the work at hand. There is so much to do, so far to go—and I am not nearly where I ought to be, say the voices in my head. Hurry. Push it. The end of the school year push brings a breathlessness and exhaustion with it.
I recently heard this bit of wisdom: We overestimate how much we can get done in a day, but always underestimate how much we can get done in a year. Thinking about this, I know it is true. At the end of any given day, my to-do list is mostly only half crossed off—but if I think back to where I was one year ago, I’m astonished.
Even when we feel stalled or stuck…we are actually moving. Things are happening at levels we can’t consciously navigate.
To engage creatively, we have to learn to trust ourselves.
This is true in writing poetry, as Yvonne and I wrote about. It’s true in any writing, including this blog entry. (I had to start four times before I found my way with this one. I had to walk away and come back, after days.) But more than that, too. I have friends who are grieving. Friends who are fighting. Friends who are searching their lives for what comes next. In all of these cases, creativity, and slow living, are called for to avoid flammable reactions or settling into the easiest, but not best, solution.
Living well, living fully, listening into the dark is an ongoing creative process that takes courage. For some of us, art is one byproduct of a life deeply dared and lived. (This is one of my ongoing arguments with Yeats, who claimed in “The Choice” that we must choose “perfection of the life, or of the work.” I see no choice to be made.)
And, importantly, we need to find strength enough to slow the pace of our lives down and let those deeper processes have the time they need to do their work on us. Growing, healing, changing takes energy. The temptation (culturally reinforced) to keep busy, to pack in more to every hour, to multitask, to squeeze in an extra errand, to fit one more thing into our already overly crowded schedule—this temptation must be fought off. With our claws. With our teeth. Because more often than not, not only is it antithetical to our growth as individuals, it is one way we actively build up walls to keep ourselves from facing the mess.
It is healthy, and necessary, to occasionally sit and look out the window on a rainy day. To stroll, rather than jog. To read a novel, rather than a blog post. To graze on fresh picked berries and herbs, rather than throw something in the microwave. Even just to sit in the sun and soak up the spring warmth and the scent of flowering trees. Above all, to put away the screens and turn the phones off for a while.
Something happens to time when we choose the slower path. It becomes more fluid. The minutes no longer tick second by second, rather they pour into each other, flowing and ebbing as our breathing shifts, as our thoughts slide and skitter and slide. We become a little more fluid, opening to change in ways we can hardly articulate. In such moments, it may feel to our restless, sensing brains as though nothing is happening. We certainly can’t point to evidence of being productive. And yet, a year of this, or even a month, or maybe even a good rich weekend of retreat, I can’t help but believe, would be life-altering.
This sort of slow motion living is how the deeper wells of being get stirred.
Are you ready? On your marks…get set…slow.
by Sarah Sadie and Yvonne Aburrow
Sarah and Yvonne decided to write a different kind of blogpost – a conversation. Since we are both poets, we had a conversation about poetry.
Yvonne: For me, a poem starts to build up like a pressure inside me, and then it bursts like a bubble and I get the first few lines and start writing, and then it all comes out in a big rush. Later, I start to refine it, rearranging the lines here and there – but most of my editing is pretty light after the first rush.
What’s your experience?
Sarah: This is what I love about conversations–my process is almost completely different from yours! For me, I will sense a moment–almost like a scent or texture to the day, the hour, that brushes my skin like a spider web…and I have to try to catch at whatever that moment is, put it down on the page in language. It really does feel like having a seventh or eighth sense, in a way. A poem can be just one of those–or sometimes it is a series or combination, that I build over time ,editing lines, switching stanzas around. I work it along for a number of days or weeks…and when I can’t take it any further (Plath: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to”) I set the draft aside for a couple of months. By the time I pull it out I’ve mostly forgotten it and the fresh reading shows me where the trouble spots, the faultlines are.
Do you try to write poetry regularly, to keep yourself searching for that sense of “pressure” or do you wait for it to come to you?
Yvonne: That’s a fascinating process. I often write small pieces of prose in response to the beauty I see all around me, and I suppose those could get turned into poems, and I think that’s my “poetic eye” responding to the world. I used to write poetry more frequently – but lately I’ve been more focused on writing prose. I once wrote a poem about my process where I likened it to the bends – bubbles rising from the depths. Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is.
I do write poetry for ritual and that tends to be more “written to order” (and create spoken poetry extempore in ritual) but even that has waned of late. Maybe I should stop waiting for it to come to me, and seek out the Muse a bit more actively. I have a fairly strong image of my muse – a dark man who lives in a cave (probably also my animus).
Do you feel that you have a Muse?
Sarah: Before I answer that question… 😉
I really like the word you use above : response. Because poetry (by extension, any art) is a response, it is part of a conversation between the writer and the larger world–and just writing that I realize how much our writing is a form of listening. And we have a response-ability that can grow, shift, change as we do over the years. When you say “Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is” I shout YES–with two new books out this year, I feel I’ve tapped out a bit. Need to open to the next thing.
A book of poems feels like an album to me–Prince’s death (and Bowie’s, before that) have me thinking about similarities between how I feel about creating a book and how they created albums. There are the individual songs, and then there is the overall vision–the sum is greater than the individual parts. Beyonce’s Lemonade is an immediate contemporary example as well. (btw, isn’t it fascinating how people are picking up on the polytheist content of Lemonade).
In the years that I was Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin, I also wrote poems to order and I found it–at that time in my writing life–a welcome challenge. The City gave awesome and random writing prompts (the rededication of a replica Statue of Liberty; a poem to introduce a political scientist who specializes in polling procedures; a poem for Obihiro, Japan among others)–and deadlines to boot!
Poems and spellwork are very closely related. Very, very closely, imo. So are poems and theology, for that matter.
As for my muse–yes, I have one. Also male (I would love to see an anthology of women (and men) writing about and to their male muses. It’s about time to balance the record on this). He is a reclusive character–I only catch glimpses once in a while. Just as often, I am writing to particular friends or family members–a poem sometimes (often) feels like an old-fashioned letter, to me.
I’m extremely restless with myself as a writer these days…to be a text artist in a visual age is not easy. I’m trying to understand where I go next–it feels very much like walking blind through thorns, at the moment.
What about you? Do you have a next writing project you’re launching into?
Yvonne: Yes, I’m currently working on a book about the inner work of witchcraft (that’s the working subtitle). There will be a fair amount about embodied spirituality and responding to Nature, as well as energy work, how the circle is a microcosm, visualisation, meditation, and so on.
I was interested by what you said about being a text writer in a visual age. I suppose we can take some comfort from the way that poetry is the most visual form of writing. I also know one poet who illustrates his work with photo-collages. And then there was Kahlil Gibran, who accompanied his poems with his own drawings. I was never quite sure how the drawing related to the poem, but it was interesting.
I completely agree that poetry is related to theology and magic; they use the same twilight mode of consciousness. Spells and ritual words often take the form of poetry – Doreen Valiente was very good at that. I wish people would study a little and find out about different meters and poetic devices such as assonance and the caesura though. And theology is sometimes poetic (and ought to be more often). Alison Leigh Lilly springs to mind as someone who writes poetic theology. I think also that poets, like comedians, see connections that others have missed. Both comedy and poetry are sacred arts, showing the world hidden connections and undercurrents.
Is that what you had in mind?
Sarah: Wasn’t it Victor Anderson who said that “White magic is poetry. Black magic is anything that works.” ? I agree completely that people who write spells and rituals as poetry would do well to study the craft–it is an aspect of craft like any other and the more adept you are, the stronger your ritual will be.
I also really like what Seamus Heaney wrote (I’m paraphrasing here and not doing it full justice, but the idea comes across): that a poem is like the paper bird we tape in the picture window–it’s not a real bird, but it causes the birds outside to veer their course. A poem isn’t “real life”–but it can cause us to swerve a bit. It has an effect. An impact.
It may be that poetry is as close to my religion as any recognized Pagan tradition. And I’m okay with that.
Great conversation–thank you!
Yvonne: Poetry as religion – I’ll drink to that! For me it is a sacred vocation, and one that no-one can take away from me. One is a witch in community, one has a job title conferred by an employer: but one can be a poet without approval or sanction from anyone else. Even a child writing their first poems may call themselves a poet. I love that.
And poetry as magic: definitely! A poem can transform your perspective and perceptions, it can be an incantation (did you ever hear Yeats reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree? It’s like he’s reading a spell), it can be an invocation to change the world.
Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.
I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.
Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.
The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?
Step 1 – learn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.
Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).
Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.
A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.
If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.
Go for a walk
Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.
Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and only take part of a plant if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).
One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.
I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.
Folklore of plants
It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.
Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.
- Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
- Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.
Folklore and natural history
- Giles Watson, A Witch’s Natural History – a wonderful book with reflections on the various animals and birds associated with witches – bats, crows, insects, toads, and many more. Meditations on what it’s like to be a caddis fly or a dragonfly larva. Marvellous folklore and stories.
- Barry Patterson, The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci – reflections on place and spirit of place. Life seen from the perspective of a mouse. How to relate to your local geology, history, and landscape.
- Richard Mabey, Food for Free – how to recognise, gather, and prepare food from the hedgerows of Britain.
- Yvonne Aburrow, The Magical Lore of Animals, Capall Bann Publishing, 2000
- Yvonne Aburrow, A little book of serpents, Birdberry Books, 2012.
- Yvonne Aburrow, Auguries and Omens: the magical lore of birds, Capall Bann Publishing, 1994
- Yvonne Aburrow, The Sacred Grove: mysteries of the forest, Capall Bann Publishing, 1994.
- Yvonne Aburrow, The Enchanted Forest: the magical lore of trees, Capall Bann Publishing, 1993.
- Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica.
- Stefan Buczacki, Fauna Britannica.
- RSPB online bird identifier – I just used this to identify that I saw a Blackcap on Sunday, and it was really easy to use.
- Giles Watson – a full list of his books, poetry, and lots of online articles
- Barry Patterson – blog, book list. Embodiment, landscape.
- Creeping Toad / Gordon MacLellan – many wonderful ideas for how to relate to the land in a magical way.
Effort lay in us
at pond bottom
All things move toward
that freely work down
to oceans’ black depths
In us an impulse tests
(Click on the link and read the whole poem, with correct formatting. Seriously, I keep losing the formatting when I type it in here and it is wounding my poet soul.)
When we discussed changing the name of our blog to “Dowsing for Divinity,” that word “dowsing” resonated for all of us immediately. As Christine put it,
When the three of us started brainstorming a new name together, once someone tossed out the word “dowsing,” we kept circling back to it.
And Yvonne added,
…we kept coming back to dowsing imagery, with its connotations of looking for hidden currents, connections with the unseen, hidden waters, and hidden patterns.
Tonight, I keep coming back to the physical feel of the dowsing stick, held loosely in the hands, and how it tugs the attention…I’m arrested by the simple motion. Downward. We are dowsing, and that means we seek to be pulled, downward.
The opposite of light is dark…but another opposite, in our language, is heavy.
In Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning,” he ends with an image of birds at sunset, flocking “Downward to darkness on extended wings.” Darkness brings a sense of release, of letting go, of drift, the ceasing of struggle…eventually: death. There is a falling and fallen quality to endarkenment. We sigh, and let our guard and our defenses down. We can loosen the ties of the day. We can be a little more vulnerable.
But the wisdom of the dowsing stick isn’t a relaxing and drifting and letting go. Stay out here long enough in the dark, and there comes a time when we feel the tug in our gut, the impulse to nose our way down a little further into the murk.
Something in us wants to descend.
“In us an impulse tests/ the unknown” Niedecker writes. Moving our awareness down into the body takes us to the soft messy areas: to gut, to sex, to the muscled thighs. Our largest muscle groups. Our deepest instincts. To all that stuff we want to pretend we’re above. Camille Maureen, in Meditation Secrets for Women, agrees and builds on the idea:
“There are times…when the call downward is a transformative journey, a summons to the depths of the soul. People tend to think of spirituality as rising upward into the sky. In the traditional (male) teachings, enlightenment is often described as a flight from the lower centers of the body, the instinctive and sexual places, to the upper centers in the head and then out. …Everyone fears this descent, this sinking down. Yet sinking down connects us with the earth, with our personal ground, with our foundation.”
There are many journeys we’re called on, through our lives. The concept of “enlightenment” (and the hero’s story) encourage us to venture “up and out”…might it also be true that there are times to adventure down and in? The concept of endarkenment takes us not only into the dark but also down, towards (and into) the body, and the earth.
The rhubarb pushes its nubbly red thumbs up through the leaf litter. Lawns turn squishy with melt, worms once again emerge. There’s water everywhere suddenly, and with it, the muck of life, stirring, down at the roots.
When I posted my recent post about making a meditation hut, a friend posted a link to an article in The New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.” It shows that Thoreau was the worst kind of misanthrope, and had not an iota of compassion for his fellow human beings. He remained unmoved by the sight of drowned bodies from a shipwreck. He only advocated the end of slavery because it
violated his belief in self-governance. He clearly advocated disappearing into the woods, not so one could emerge refreshed and renewed for the struggle against oppression, but because he really didn’t like or care about other people at all.
I wasn’t advocating building a meditation hut as a sturdy structure for keeping the world at bay – more a place where you could meditate when it’s raining, perhaps spend a few hours or days living the simple life, not a permanent retreat from the world. If you go into the woods, the aim is to be more connected with the whole of Nature, including humans, not to become detached from all other beings. The point is for those of us who are a bit introverted to recharge our batteries by spending some time alone, so we can be companionable and compassionate when we emerge.
Spirituality – embodied or otherwise – is merely narcissism and self-indulgence when it doesn’t involve compassion – literally, feeling with others. I regard embodied spirituality as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys. We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a group setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.
I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the “divine” (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.
We cannot really expect others to be convinced that we are “mystical” or “spiritual” unless we put compassion into practice by helping others. The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the life of a mystic can be barren and unproductive.
Pagan views of compassion
In a Pagan context, we might view the theological underpinnings of compassion as our view that divinity is immanent in the world, and everything carries a spark of divinity within it. Alternatively, we could take a naturalistic approach and recognise that everything on Earth shares at least 60% of our DNA – we really are all related. And we could combine these two ideas.
My theological basis for compassion is a religious basis, but it is also a naturalistic basis. Intuitively, we feel an obligation to help those who help us, first of all the families who give us life and who support us when we are young and vulnerable. We feel an obligation to help our close relatives, our neighbors, and our families of choice. We are social animals and we know we cannot survive alone – we need the help of others, and they need our help.
But beyond the practical aspects of compassion lies the recognition of kinship, of looking into the face of another and seeing ourselves. That person is like me, therefore she feels pain and joy just as I do, therefore I should help her feel joy and prevent her from feeling pain.
I would argue that compassion for beings beyond our immediate kinship group is what makes us human and humane. If you cannot feel kinship for the suffering of other beings, that isn’t very “spiritual”. I find it horrific that Thoreau could walk along a beach full of drowned corpses and not see fellow human beings, only a “spectacle”. I find it horrific that people can look on the sufferings of Syrian refugees and see only ‘flotsam and jetsam’, or the threat of the Other.
For me, one of the great things about being manifest in the physical world is the giving and receiving of love in physical form: hugs and caresses, and making love. And whilst it is true that love means that you will suffer when the loved one dies, I feel it’s true that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Love and reciprocity are the basis of all of existence, because it’s all about creating connections between beings. In the Feri creation myth, the universe came into being because the Great Goddess looked into the mirror of the void and fell in love, and the love created the Other. So love is the origin of the universe, and love is part of the fabric of existence.
How is compassion embodied?
We experience feelings (grief, love, dread, joy, fear) in our bodies. We talk about “a gut feeling”. Compassion is embodied like other feelings. It turns out that this has a neurological basis in mirror neurons – we quite literally empathise with other people’s pain because our mirror neurons respond to them.
Physical existence entails a certain amount of suffering (bodily pains, the loss of loved ones) and also a certain amount of joy. The Pagan response to this is to celebrate the joy and accept the suffering as part of embodied existence, whilst trying to relieve suffering.
It’s not much use being compassionate unless you put it into practice, of course. Unless we actually help people, merely empathising with them is not enough.
How far does compassion extend?
Compassion is not only fellow-feeling for other humans, but also for animals and birds: all our relations.
The Charter for Compassion would benefit from a “green clause” to emphasise caring for the Earth and our fellow creatures. Although there is a section on their website about treating the Earth with compassion, it hits a discordant note for me, as we need to recognise that we are part of the Earth, not regard it as a separate system from ourselves.
Another charter, the Earth Charter, drafted back in 1968, placed caring for the planet at the heart of its ideas.
And A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment also placed the Earth at the heart of its concerns.
In my view, social and environmental justice are inextricably bound up with each other: you can’t have one without the other.
The other day, I saw a meme which said that you don’t need magical tools, initiation, or a Book of Shadows to be a Wiccan. Well, maybe you don’t need these things, but they are what people think of when they think of Wicca. They are among the things that get you recognised as being part of the Wiccan community, because they are symbols and experiences and ideas that we all share. They are also useful. You don’t need a knife and fork to eat your dinner, but it makes it a lot easier. You don’t need an address book to write your friends’ addresses in – but it makes it a lot easier to remember where they live and post them Yule cards. And you don’t need a rite of passage to help you feel like an adult – but it makes it easier if a definite transition has been marked.
I would like there to be as broad an interpretation of the term “Wiccan” as possible, and an even broader interpretation of the term “witch”, because that is how they were originally intended to be used (the term Wiccan was not coined exclusively for the use of Gardnerian Wiccans, or even Alexandrian plus Gardnerian – it was intended to refer to all witches, as Ethan Doyle White has shown from his historical research). I am okay with people identifying as Wiccan without initiation – but if you want to be part of the initiatory Wiccan community, or another initiatory community such as Feri, then you need initiation. Initiation is a powerful transformational ritual.
The purpose of a Book of Shadows is not to prescribe how you should do your rituals, but to record powerful rituals that you have done, and to transmit powerful rituals written by past Wiccans. Each witch’s book should be unique to them, although it will also contain the rituals that have been passed down to them. A Book of Shadows is a magical tool for recording and transmitting good rituals.
What about tools such as wands, athames, swords, chalices, and so on? There are several reasons why they are helpful. I do think that a good witch should be able to do a spell or ritual without any tools in an emergency – but I still use tools when they are available.
Humans are tool-using animals. One of the things that helps us to think and solve problems is our tool-using propensities. Look at other animals who use tools. We tend to think they are cleverer than animals who don’t use tools, because they can manipulate more of their environment.
According to Tool Use in Animals: Cognition and Ecology:
The last decade has witnessed remarkable discoveries and advances in our understanding of the tool using behaviour of animals. Wild populations of capuchin monkeys have been observed to crack open nuts with stone tools, similar to the skills of chimpanzees and humans. Corvids have been observed to use and make tools that rival in complexity the behaviours exhibited by the great apes. Excavations of the nut cracking sites of chimpanzees have been dated to around 4-5 thousand years ago.
Think about how we use physical tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, brooms, milk-frothers, egg-stiffeners, paint-stirrers, and so on, and how difficult life would be without those tools. Think about how chimpanzees have been seen getting ants out of ant-hills with a straw, or cracking nuts open with a rock. Frequently, tool use involves remembering that you saw a useful-looking rock, or a hollow blade of grass, going to fetch it, and bringing it to where the food is. So tool use involves the use of cognitive skills such as memory, comparison, and visualisation.
My partner Bob pointed out that it is much is easier to do a task (magical or mundane) without a tool when you have learnt to do it with a tool.
Tools are levers for affecting the world. You can’t tighten a screw without a screwdriver. You need a wooden spoon to stir a pan of soup or stew, otherwise you would burn your fingers. You can cast a magical circle without a sword or a wand – but it feels like a better and more magical circle when it has been cast with the appropriate tool. The subtle energies involved in magic are affected by physical tools in much the same way as denser matter is affected by tools.
Magic is not all in the mind – the body is part of it too. The people who claim you don’t need tools also tend to claim that doing magic is a purely mental process. The conceptual separation of mind and body, spirit and matter, is a Western phenomenon which has been a disaster for our civilisation in so many ways, involving the denigration of sexuality and sensuality, the denial of the pleasures of the flesh, a dysfunctional relationship with food, and behaving as if the Earth, the other animals, birds, and plants with whom we share it are expendable. Using magical tools helps to remind us that magic is an embodied spirituality, and to involve our bodies in the process of creating magical energy. Indeed, some of the tools used in Wicca have specific uses for enhancing the sense of being in the body.
Tools are powerful symbols. Much of magic and ritual is about engaging with and awakening the poetic and symbolic aspects of the mind (the “right-brain” functions). The use of tools as symbols speaks to these aspects of the mind (sometimes referred to as “Younger Self”). Tools are part of a complex set of magical associations involving directions, elements, planets, deities, trees, and so on, all of which speak to the poetic, mystical, and symbolic side of our natures. They are part of a poetic language of witchcraft. The process of getting into the twilight consciousness required for ritual is assisted and enhanced by the use of familiar words, tools, imagery, and physical movements, evoking muscle memory and awareness of space.
So, maybe you don’t need tools, but why would you want to do without them?