Erotic Religion: The Body and Sex for Wiccans and Pagans

This post is part of the October Patheos Public Square on “The Spirituality of Sex.” Every religious tradition has rules—spoken and unspoken—around sexuality, and sacred texts come into play as these rules are navigated in dating and marriage. What does your faith tradition really say about the meaning of our sexuality and sexual activity? What role does sex play in the life of the spirit?


Witchcraft traditions such as Wicca are highly visible in the Pagan movement when it comes to sexuality and sexual activity. Though Pagan traditions in general see the body as a blessing, they hold a variety of views on what the proper relationship is between sexuality and spirituality. Wiccans and other witches, however, embrace the holiness of sexuality as a central religious principle.

“The Charge of the Goddess,” penned by Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), is a piece of liturgy so powerful that its influence has reached far outside Wicca into spiritual feminism, the sex-positive community, and contemporary Paganism as a whole. When used in ritual, the Charge is spoken by a priestess who is embodying the presence of the Goddess. She says:

And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.…

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. (DoreenValiente.org)

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. (CC-BY 2.5)

Many Wiccans and witches believe that all things contain a primal energy or vital life force that moves within and among them. This energy is most easily experienced through sexual activity, especially when it is raised with spiritual intent. Through their sexual intimacy, practitioners can participate in a primal moment of creation: a moment when two divine forces or beings—imagined as a many-gendered God/dess making love with her mirror reflection; or a lunar Goddess and a solar God; or a genderless yin and yang, nothing and something—communed together in an erotic union whose vibrations continue to animate the universe.

Sexuality is a particularly dramatic way to experience the flow of life force, but for some Wiccans and witches, it is not the only way. Sensual communion with nature and nonsexual touch are also places where spiritual energy can flow between two or more beings. To emphasize that this embodied, intimate flow of life force contains sexuality but is broader than sexuality, I use the term eros or the erotic.

I first encountered the idea of the erotic as a spiritual force in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979). In the 1980s, this important book of ecofeminist witchcraft was many Pagans’ introduction to Paganism and Goddess religion, as well as to the idea that the body and sexuality are holy. In her introduction to the 1999 edition of the book, Starhawk emphasized that the erotic should not be understood solely in terms of heterosexual or reproductive sexuality, nor necessarily always in terms of pairs (as opposed to individuals or groups). Instead, eros is a relational force that is found throughout nature and within the self. She writes:

Sexual reproduction is an elegant method of ensuring maximum biological diversity. […] But to take one particular form of sexual union as the model for the whole is to limit ourselves unfairly. If we could, instead, take the whole as the model for the part, then whomever or whatever we choose to love, even if it ourselves in our solitude, all our acts of love and pleasure could reflect the union of leaf and sun, the wheeling dance of galaxies, or the slow swelling of bud to fruit. (The Spiral Dance 1999, 20-21)

Starhawk is in good company in understanding eros as both an individual and a cosmic principle. Her idea of the erotic echoes other the views of other theologians and spiritual writers of the twentieth century. To name just a few: psychologist and mystic C.G. Jung saw eros as the foundational principle of all relationship; feminist visionary Audre Lorde characterized the erotic an embodied impulse toward pleasure and holistic community flourishing; and progressive Christian theologians Carter Heyward and Marvin Ellison understand eros as a divine principle of desirous connection that motivates justice-making.

Perhaps because of the theology that “all acts of love and pleasure are [Her] rituals,” Wiccans, witches, and many other Pagans are often more accepting of sexual minorities and unusual sexual behaviors than is society at large. When sociologist Helen Berger surveyed American Pagans in the early 2000s, about 28% of Pagans identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—a much larger percentage than in the United States overall. LGBTQ Pagans can be found in positions of religious leadership in many different Pagan traditions today, and many traditions have rituals to celebrate same-sex partnerships and even group marriages (for Pagans who practice polyamory, a form of ethical nonmonogamy). Such rituals may sacralize temporary partnerships—for example, for a year and a day, at the end of which the commitment may be renewed—while other rituals formalize a lifetime partnership, or even a commitment to seek one another in a future life.

Pagans usually consider sexual activity to be ethical if it is consensual, between adults, and does no harm. Today, Pagans are having important conversations about how to ensure valid consent to sexual activity, as well as exploring the impact of individuals’ sexual behavior on their communities. Because inequality—based on race, class, gender, gender identity, and other factors—is an unavoidable part of living in our society, Pagans struggle with questions about how to best navigate power differentials in romantic and sexual relationships.

Pagan traditions challenge religious traditions that see the body as sinful or as a prison for the soul. Although celebration of sexuality is most central for Wiccans and other witches, sexual freedom and community harmony are important values for many Pagans. Accordingly, the Pagan movement continues to welcome LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities who find themselves unwelcome in their birth religions. For Pagans of many paths, the body is an important site of religious practice, a place in which we can meet divinity flesh to flesh and heart to heart.

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Poem on a Birthday

Brigit Rest Goddess Grove. photo credit: Sadie

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.

one sunflower 2016

photo credit: Sadie

 

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.

 

photo credit: Vardaman

photo credit: Vardaman

 

Woman with the Pen: Five Moments On My Way Back to Patheos

I suppose, if I want to be orderly about this, I should outline the reasons I took an extended leave first.

But I don’t want to be orderly…
I’m sure I don’t remember them all…
Maybe I wasn’t even there at the time…

So I’m skipping ahead to what brought me back to this space. We’ll fill in the backstory another time.

 

One…

A nice thing happened this week—Junoesq, an online magazine from Singapore, published this interview with me, along withself portrait in five lines a handful of
new poems (one of which, “Small But Real,” was inspired by conversation with Niki Whiting of Witch’s Ashram). The compliment was welcome. This year I’ve wondered deeply about the worth of my own voice—others speak so much more immediately and profoundly to current events and crises.

But…Junoesq’s editor, Grace Chia, reached out to me for the interview after I sent her a few poems out of the blue. They struck an immediate chord with her, as another writer trying to balance motherhood, profession, the nature of a literary calling, and public vs. private persona. Halfway around the world, and yet…same old, same old story. Sigh.

 

Two…

And then, checking out the 1988 book Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, edited by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, I’m struck by how many things have not changed. Women (and men) still struggle to place value on domesticity. We still struggle to love our bodies as they age, thicken, change. We still struggle to insist that our lives have worth, as individuals, as women, no matter our work, our size, our appearance, our voice, or the money we make (or do not make).

So—yes, there are many radical and beloved and ferocious warriors whose voices I treasure above my own. And that doesn’t absolve me from writing my truth. Both. And.

 

Three…

Then, too, I’m writing a novel. Trying to. Daring myself. This is a new adventure and it has me thinking about different kinds of writing, what they are useful for, how they work. Poetry vs. prose. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Where are the fissures and faultlines between “fact” and “truth.” As I work along on my fictional endeavor, it brings me back to this blog. Blogging is even another form of writing, after all, which I have only begun to explore. Writing in here offers its own strengths, its own opportunities.

 

 

Four…

Did I mention I’m working on a novel? At least partly because of one book: The Priestess and the Pen. “Give me blood and magic,” author Sonja Sadovsky writes in the opening pages. I have to agree. In this space, I don’t have to pretend the blood isn’t real. I don’t have to apologize for the term “magic.” No animals will be harmed in the writing of this column, I promise—although I make a special exception for mosquitoes. (Bonus: Jason Mankey interviews Sadovsky at Raise the Horns!)

 

Five…

A fox showed up in our backyard the other day. I want to find a place once again among people who know 1) the fox doesn’t care about my work and 2) the fox is telling me to get cracking.

 

So here I am, returned. As Sadovsky writes:

Ultimately, the woman with the sword is the woman with the pen; the one who wields it creates her reality.

I took the time I needed. And I remembered that for me, the answer is almost always both/and. Yes.

The question is courage.

office 2015

 

Elections, Politics, Consent, and #sexyvoterhaiku

 

Yesterday I was a crap mom.

Yesterday I got nothing done on my to-do list. My house remained a mess. I sat in a chair the entire day, almost.

I burned dinner. We ate bread.

I burned my eyes out staring at the computer screen.

Yesterday was an election day.

Yesterday over the course of eight hours I wrote a series of 69 haiku and published them on facebook and twitter. It was a completely improvisatory performance, unfolding in real time, exploring the metaphor of elections and politics as sexy, as seduction, as the whole damntangle.

 

It wasn’t something I planned. I just started noodling around in the morning with the idea that “voting is sexy” and before I knew it I was composing Sexy Voter Haiku one after another, and posting on facebook until the polls closed at 8 PM. Sometimes it happens that way.

Your name’s on the list.
You would be missed. Show up.
Tell me what you want.

Sexy Voter Haiku. As a friend and political scientist commented, “Never before have those three words been used together in the English language.” Of course it is ridiculous. Politics is not sex.

And yet, it is.

 

(consent edition)

Say what you want to
happen. It can’t happen if
you don’t say it, first.

In my opinion, last night the bad guys won. These are the goons who brought us mandatory transvaginal probes. If they (continue to) have their way over the next 2-4-6-10 years, the land will be gutted and fracked, waters polluted, public schools decimated, and cities and towns starved of funding. I think it’s pretty clear what is going on here.

Hold the pen, hold the
paper with its questions. Press.
Turn this poet on.

When is consensus like consent? How about compromise? That old idea that we keep talking til everyone verbally agrees and partners with each other.

These guys don’t work that way.

My colleagues here at the Mound, Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow are working on an anthology around the theme of consent in the pagan community(ies). It’s on my mind this morning, as I process the election results.

so many fingers
press so many buttons and then
watch the results

And this is what Sexy Voter Haiku gives us: a(nother) form of poetry that engages directly with political action and the public sphere.

Because in the face of powerlessness and defeat, Sexy Voter Haiku responds not with anger or despair, but with…joy. Delight. Silliness. This is life loving and life giving.

You do not need an
ID. And the cab is free.
Wisconsin quickie.

These are dark times, but we don’t have to feel defeated by them. Creation stands opposite to war, destruction, and indifference. And after all, good things can happen in the dark: secrets whispered, revolutions begun, seeds planted, babies made.

Moved my pen again
and again. Then the ballot
machine swallowed it.

So here is my series of 69 Sexy Voter Haiku, written on 11/4/14 from about 8 in the morning to 8 at night. They respond to my own experiences throughout the hours, the articles I was reading, the errands I was running. Some of them were written in direct response to comments or requests from friends, but I trust they all make sense, more or less, here in this context.

Now I want to see yours. Already I see a few appearing from my friends, here and there. This morning Wisconsin’s Secretary of State had a beauty, although he didn’t know it:

“This has been a ve-
ry wild and sad night. Final
results not in yet.”

There are people who are well-organized, well-funded, well-scripted who are winning right now. But…they are not sexy or juicy people. They don’t play very much or very well.

That is one of our advantages.

And, it should be clear, what I’m looking for and asking for doesn’t have to be haiku. It doesn’t have to be poetry. The challenge is to find that action that feels creative and joyful and life-giving to you, and use that to engage with the political, the community, the moment. 

The revolution may or may not be televised. But it will be joyful through the dark, if I have anything to say about it. And it turns out, I do.

 

this kiss courtesy of Shutterstock.com

this kiss courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Sexy Voter Haiku

Sarah Sadie

November 4, 2014

 

1

Your name’s on the list.
You would be missed. Show up.
Tell us what you want.

2 (consent edition)

Say what you want to
happen. It can’t happen if
you don’t say it, first.

3

Hold the pen, hold the
paper with its questions. Press.
Turn this poet on.

4

so many fingers
press so many buttons and then
watch the results

5

You do not need an
ID. And the cab is free.
Wisconsin quickie.

6

Moved my pen again
and again. Then the ballot
machine swallowed it.

7 (literati edition)

Uppity women
wearing badges with honor
me and Hester Prynne

8 (bake sale edition)

Afterwards something
sugary to eat because
it makes me hungry.

9 (on being #360 to vote at my ward)

You spin me right round,
baby right round like a record
baby Rock the vote.

10

Politicians put
themselves in my bedroom, so
here I am. In bed.

11

Because when it comes
to turnout size does matter.
Please please me. Vote.

12

If I’m missing
a syllable, that’s where
you take a breath.

13

or maybe today
we have more important things
to count

14 (fb feed edition)

so far the porn one
has the most “likes”…oh Zuck, what
will you do with me

15

Vote. The cold shower
can wait. I want to be with
you when you go…vote.

16

Just think: from seven
this morning to eight tonight.
A woman can dream.

17

More and more of us
voting: how else to upset
Republicans…hmmm….

18 (phone bank edition)

Mine is the low voice
calling to say this is it,
today, now, please…

19

Why did I think I
would get anything else done
on election day

20

If what they’re doing
doesn’t make you hot and bothered
maybe I can. vote.

21

It steams up tonight
after polling closes. All
this is just build up.

22 (on voter education)

Know before you go.
I can tell you a little
learning goes a long way.

23

Buildup or foreplay
which is sexier…who cares,
open turns me on.

24

Women’s disenfran-
chisement was never sexy.
Go vote.

25

How long are the lines?
Not nearly long enough. I
am not satisfied.

26

Who says politics
and poetry don’t mix. Strange
bedfellows, but fun.

27

My presentation
on poems and civic engagement
is writing itself.

28

Wearing my sticker
to the grocery store…oh,
and a new bra, too.

29 (married edition)

“If you don’t vote, no
conjugal anything.”…(sly
smile, back home) “Long lines…”

30

You think I’m done? I
haven’t even mentioned the
word “tight.” We’re good, peeps.

31

Today it is tight
in many places. Insert
yourself. Vote.

32

Who needs a ride to
the polls? I’m ready to take
you where you want to go.

33 (early afternoon, strong turnout reported so far)

This is about the
time a woman hopes you will
keep going just keep…

34 (regarding voter fraud and difficulty)
We need to talk a-
bout protection. Be smart. Be
assertive. Own it.

35

Voting is far more
effective than Viagra.
Let’s end impotence.

36

Tweeting every one.
Because who wouldn’t want a
repeat performance?

37

Tell me you’ll be here
tonight. I don’t want to be
alone at the close.

38 (Poet Laureate edition)

Public poet is
a strange position but I
think it works for us.

39 (more about turnout)

When is big big
enough? Asked no woman
ever. Go vote.

40 (Rock the vote, 2)

U2 in my head
“You take me higher…” Now you, too,
take me higher. Vote.

41

To do this, you must
trust. You must be a grownup.
You must show up.

42 (on the rule that tablets and phones may prove residence)

Battery operated
devices are accepted
in this state I’m in.

43 (seeing pictures of suffragettes)

all these pictures of
women doing it must make
you want to, too.

44

Midterm, midlife, I’m
not hard to please and not too proud:
show me your sticker.

45

Me and the pumpkin
spice latte “Keeping fall spicy”
Spice up your night: vote.

46

Just when I start to
feel tired, the post work voters
tell me “You’re not done.”

47

Let’s try something new.
Because aren’t you too bored with
the same old same old?

48

This is what third wave
Sex positive feminism
Sounds like. Turned on? Vote.

49 (about 5 PM)

We still have hours to
go which in almost any game
is more than enough.

50 (if you’re in line when the polls close)

don’t let anyone
tell you differently:
if you’re in you’re in

51

no one calls it yet:
we’re not done here and you’re not
allowed to fake it

52

ask their history
before you consent and they
should ask your consent. Vote.

53

How am I doing this?
Four long years of frustration,
people. Long enough.

54

Nothing is sexier
than a first time voter I
don’t care your age. Vote.

55

Oh my one track mind
burned the hell out of dinner.
Bread it is, kids.

56

Right wing pundits say
we shouldn’t vote our gender?
So not getting any.

57

I know the only
reason you haven’t voted yet:
to hear me beg. Please.

58

Quadruple digits
at many wards. Take me to
eleven, people.

59

By night’s end I will
be exhausted. But satisfied?
Remains to be seen.

60

If nothing else by
midnight there will be a new
poetic form

61

tonight and to-
morrow I expect a little
pillow talk, friends

62

to all of you who
have been my muses: it takes
two to do it right.

63

This is what happens
when I stop baking cupcakes
Complaints, anyone?

64 (On the rule that if you are in line at 8 PM, you can still vote if you stay in line)

Even better than
last time: if you’re in, stay in.
Please. Do this for me.

65

Now when people ask
What does a poet laureate do
I’ll have an answer

66

Thirty minutes left
Plenty of time for the
Wisconsin quickie

67

Stay with me just stay
with me a little longer
don’t roll over yet

68

do the talking heads
not know we like it slow and
steady? Counting votes is sexy.

69

I hope it was good
for you, friends. Whether it will
be good for us …we’ll see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listening Is an Act of Dilation

This day is crushing me.

 

I’m overcaffeinated, hanging at the library while my son attends a class. My kids have been bickering for what seems like days on end and I am no Mary Poppins. My daughter’s bored and keeps interrupting my work.  I doodle and draw random arrows shooting at the margins of the page.

And this is random too but last night I went to the Madison Community Foundation dinner and heard Dan Rather give a keynote address on “philanthropy” and “community” and he mentioned the importance of being a good listener, in our communities and in the leaders we elect.

Which was a little strange, because today I planned to say something in here about listening as creative act. How it’s sacred, even, to listen fully to another being. How we’re co-creative not just with our gods and gardens, but with each other.

And how that gets lost too often here in the online world. It gets lost too often in general, because we’re trained by our education system and our sports heroes to zero in on weakness, on flaw. We object, deny, challenge. Christine Hoff Kraemer recently wrote about  the harmfulness of negative comments, but even at our best, it seems dialogue becomes a sport.

I suck at sports.

I don’t want to cancel debate team but shouldn’t there be other models of discourse too?

I was going to write about how listening is at its best a form of compassion, and then I was going to bring in Milan Kundera’s beautiful words on the subject:  how com-passion is “suffering with,” a radical empathy with another, much different from pity. He goes into this in The Unbearable Lightness of Beingdiscussing Tomas’s character. Which used to be my almost favorite book in the world. Then I got a little older and realized that Immortalityjust may be better, even without Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin.

And anyway the book is missing from the shelf.

I was going to write how, instead of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, I try to stretch myself into a gigantic diaphanous tympanic membrane every morning, just barely quivering against the surfaces of the day, trembling at the slightest fricative. Because I tremble.

Not that we shouldn’t call out bigotry, blindspots, assumption, privilege when we hear it or see it, but we may be failing each other if that is all we do. We can hear each other to our best selves. I’m convinced of this.

Listening is a creative act. This I believe. It is the poet’s first act, before pen ever touches paper. What I hear says a lot about who I am—what you read when you read my poem or my paragraph here says a lot about you and not maybe so much about me. In a strange transformation I don’t really understand, the poem becomes the mirror, the still pond. The poet becomes that non-paradox that is paradoxical only because our go go go yangsoaked extroverted culture doesn’t recognize active and interactive receptivity. In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson “My Business is Circumference.” I see my work as dilation, opening.

If that sounds sexy, it’s supposed to.

As a mirror shows not just your face but whatever or whoever is behind you, over your shoulder, so active listening hears a comment and tries to suss out what is behind the words. Listening not so much for ulterior motive as for ghost. Mind, I’m not saying I do it well.

I was going to write all this, and it was going to be lyrical and pensive, persuasive and if I got lucky maybe even provocative. But…it’s summer. Humidity and heat, lawnmower drone. These days even the squirrels take some hours out just to hang, stretched out flat on a branch.

Maybe they’re listening too.

 

 

If you’re interested in thinking and learning more about sacred listening, try The Listening Center. I haven’t taken any classes but I did listen to one of her lectures. Good stuff. 

 

 

 

“The New Face I Turn Up to You”

The windchime outside my window sings to the breeze. Lawnmowers drone. It’s a mazy, lazy day, this last day before the adventure of summer begins for my family. I should be productive, but I’m distracted by a poem I’ve had in my head for a few days now, Alice Walker’s “New Face.”  I’m not the hugest Walker fan out there—love The Color Purple and In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens but not every book, right? But this poem. This poem. It’s wise.

It’s wise to know we have twin and triple selves. We can, and we do. It’s wise to know we need the freedom to explore those multiple selves—to face them. That somehow, we can’t love fully and grow into ourselves if life locks us into a repeating pattern.

But there’s the rub. Because life sure does try its hardest to lock us in, shut us down, keep us traveling well-worn ruts. Maybe not “life”…when I look out at summer coming in, when I watch my kids grow into themselves, I see how in this universe creativity wells up and spills over. No, it’s something about the systems and societies we find ourselves in. A system wants to perpetuate itself, and it will use us (and use us up) to maintain.

Are you in healthy systems? Is it working for you? Is it working for your neighbor?

When I look at headlines, at news, at what is going on, I feel trapped, and fearful. Don’t you?

People talk about “imagination” and “creativity” as though these are qualities of childhood, somehow lost as we grow older. When I admit to people I am a writer (a poet, even!) I’ll hear a sigh in response, “It’s so wonderful that you are creative.” This is the same response that children get, on coloring a sky pink or green or a horse polka dotted, “What a great imagination you must have.” But imagination, creativity, are qualities we all have and can tap into, if we have the courage to do so. I find it’s mostly courage we lack, though we find excuses to explain it away in other terms.

I wonder if we have an ethical responsibility to develop creativity and imagination within ourselves, to encourage it in others. To be willing to see new faces in those we love. I’m talking about radical engagement. With each other. With life. Are. You. Happy.

I’m thinking again about that last post I wrote on ergodic literature. Paths not taken…voices not heard… Eventually, I hope these pieces I write will link into and between each other, forming a textual labyrinth, a maze of more than three dimensions. Any maze becomes a mirror, the better to see ourselves. And that makes me think of something I wanted to ask Wayland.

You were imprisoned and flew away on wings
of your own devising, like Daedalus.

There are similarities, yes.

Then what can you tell me of mazes?

I can tell you how the smith folds and hammers steel
over itself, again and again. The layers give strength.

Every once in a while it would be nice
to get a straight answer.

Straight lines are hard for us.

Layering. Curving back around. Digressions, diversions, paths, choices. Creating a maze. Creating amaze. This is how to stay sharp. To live awake to the world, you have to find your own happiness, choose your own way, accept your own power and responsibility. And when I write “you” I mean me, too. This is inviting the wound. We may have to find new faces for ourselves. That can be…awkward.

Once in my life I was too afraid to dare happiness. Maybe it is equally true to write, once upon a time I did not know myself. One time, I turned away from the proffered mirror. And for a while, all my gods deserted me. I swore then I would never again fear where life might take me.

If that sounds like a dare, it is. The same dare the Fool makes every time she steps off the cliff and trusts the path will meet her foot.

How better to enter summer?

 

 

“That Which You Hate and Try to Destroy is Sacred”

In a time when hate towards women seems at a fever pitch, do we not need to answer with: that which you hate and try to destroy is sacred. That which you try to control is beyond your control. That which you try to define and shame is beyond your definition or judgement.


–Jason Pitzl-Waters, from “Goddess in Times of Horror,”
The Wild Hunt

What could be less sexy than
a woman writing down plain truth
about her body and her marriage?

Putting this poem before you is more revolutionary than it should be.

This body is stretchmarked
from my shoulders to my knees,
as though a thousand pearl-eyed fish
had shivered kisses as I surfaced
through time’s suck and whinge. …

People who hate women—the culture(s) that hate women—insist that we smooth ourselves into a sort of plastic perfection, or hide our imperfect selves in shame and embarrassment, enduring ridicule, taunt, insult, oppression.

 

Rucks and pockets and sprouted hair,
brought on by pregnancies and arguments
and weird hormonal shifts…

But the Goddesses are not merely  Arthur Rackham or Dante Gabriel Rossetti pasty-face dames trailing their robes in the water, nor are they only the scantily clad, t and a flaunting fantasies of (too many) comic books–and I’m certainly a far cry from those ladies fair. I insist upon myself: female, full, rounded and loud, complicated, desirous, furious, silly or thoughtful, confused or effusive or sexy as hell by turns. I insist on finding language to embody that woman. Me.

 

…now my skin
looks like the skin of a lake
when a chilly breeze ripples across…

Embodiment. Radical love for oneself as a way of loving world, loving creation. Pagan religions insist on immanence: finding god(s) in the world–in science, in nature, among people, and by embracing our own bodies. Deity as manifest, infusing our daily lives. Woman hating, body hating (and many, many women also hate the female body) goes directly against the idea of immanence. This is an old argument, an old duality, played out today through social media, movies, omnipresent advertising images and in the languages we inherit.

Some people claim that writing about oneself in a poem is narcissistic and/or tacky. Never mind that for now. If women don’t write ourselves, who will write us? How will we be portrayed? We know the answers to those questions. We know the language others will find.

I want every woman to insist on herself—and to be free and able to do so— whoever she is, intensely and immediately and forever and get to the work she must do in the world, without fear. To be in her body without having to wade a river and breathe an atmosphere of sludge and hate and violence. And we should look twice, and three times, even, at how female deities are portrayed in our own traditions.

We love and embrace sensual, sensory experiences as part of worship. What images do we find on our altars, in our gatherings, posted on our pages?

…Or skin of ocean.
(I have come to believe
life and love are questions of dilation.)

It shouldn’t be so crazy to want women to be able to laugh loud and move free. To be loved and admired and celebrated for who we are, as we are. But it still is, damn it, so here I am.

Against the shiny minor goddesses
I set moles, gray hair,
and crows feet…

Lots of people have written lots of good words about this—here, and here, and here and many places more–and how we cannot continue to live in and with such hate. How our daughters and our mothers and our sisters and our wives and we ourselves ourselves– deserve better. I’m thankful for all the good words. I’m thankful for all the anger and the love and the people working for change.

…signs of good humor,
of pain endured and pain’s release.

Meanwhile I try to stand tall, walk straight, laugh outright when I feel joy, shout from my belly when I feel anger, and weep on the ground when I feel sorrow. To live life fully and unafraid, to live embodied, jiggly and giggly and wiping up the jam spilled in the kitchen, and to help others do the same. Because I insist on you, and your wildness, too.

This is more revolutionary than it should be.

Lupercalia

It seems that Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated around the world, despite many cultures having their own festivals of love. In some countries, public displays of affection (whether same or opposite sex) are frowned upon, which is rather sad.

As you celebrate Valentine’s Day with your significant other, remember that in many places, it is still not safe for same-sex couples to hold hands in public. And remember that V-Day is also devoted to stopping violence against women. It’s also the day when Eve Ensler’s stage show, The Vagina Monologues, is often staged.

However, it is quite possible that Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love should actually be on 3 May. Chaucer wrote a poem celebrating  the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, mentioning Valentine’s Day. The engagement took place on 2 May, the eve of the festival of St Valentine of Genoa. The Pagan festival of May Day (now generally referred to among Pagans as Beltane), which celebrates love and springtime, is on 1 May, and May day revellers were known to take to the woods to make love, gather may blossom, and wash their faces in the dew. (We know about these customs because Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes railed against them in The Anatomie of Abuses.) Chilly February hardly seems a good time to be celebrating romantic and/or erotic love – expansive and blooming May seems like a much better time.

Whatever the origins and timing of Valentine’s Day, 14 February was originally the eve of a very different festival – the festival of Lupercalia on 15th February. This was a fertility festival honouring the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. It also honoured Lupercus, god of shepherds. The festivities were presided over by the priesthood of the Luperci, who were dedicated to Faunus. They sacrificed two goats and a dog. There was then a sacrificial feast, and the Luperci cut thongs called februa from the skins of the animals, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city. They struck all those who came near with the thongs. Young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from the thongs. This was reputed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility, and ease the pains of childbirth.

There seem to be several themes running through Lupercalia:

  • a celebration of wildness in the form of the wolf;
  • male bonding (whether in the form of friendship or same-sex love);
  • purification and cleansing;
  • a celebration of Spring, fertility, new life, and childbirth (though fertility doesn’t have to mean producing children – it can also mean creating new ideas and projects);
  • the celebration of the founding of Rome (which could be extended to the founding of all cities);
  • the relationship of city and countryside;
  • and a celebration of consensual kink.

In an article from 2004, Robin Herne has some suggestions for how to adapt Lupercalia for contemporary Pagan celebrations.

The Pagan Library suggests that the festival was originally dedicated to Rumina, the founding she-wolf of Rome. It also points out that “The name of the month comes from the februa, anything used in purifying including wool (used for cleaning), brooms, pine boughs (which make the air sweet and pure), etc.”  So if the other aspects of Lupercalia do not appeal to you, you could always celebrate Lupercalia by giving your house a thorough spring-cleaning.

The wolf was, until the late twentieth century, mostly a symbol of the ultimate predator. It was associated with desolate wilderness and the fear of being eaten by wild animals. More recently, as civilisation encroaches on the wilderness, and with the rise of deep ecology and animistic understandings of the rights of non-human beings, wolves have been celebrated as a symbol of wildness and freedom. They are highly social animals, and there are accounts of them taking in and caring for lost human children. The excellent book by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves, emphasises the importance of wildness and instinct for both women and men. The importance of connecting with Nature and the wild was also emphasised by Thoreau:

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

The wildness aspect of Lupercalia reminds us that each of us is an unfathomable mystery, that we have the right to sovereignty over our own bodies, and above all, the right to consent, or to refuse consent. If only everyone was taught about what “enthusiastic consent” means. If only millions of Valentine’s cards were not inscribed with the phrase “be mine”. People are not possessions. Misogyny and violence against women is intimately connected with the notion that women are possessions, that men have a right to sex, and that men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable. Misogyny and the subjugation of women are also connected with the patriarchal idea of controlling, subduing, and taming Nature, often personified as a woman. The Pagan reverence for Nature is aligned with promoting the equality of women.

As humanity’s relationship with our environment is flawed, we need to recover the sense that the city and the countryside are both ecosystems, and need to operate in harmony with each other. The recent floods have shown that cities are not isolated from their surrounding river systems, and that we need to exist in harmony with Nature, not trying to conquer and subdue it. So perhaps we need to rediscover Lupercalia as an exploration of the relationship between city and countryside. Cities can be beautiful places, and need not be a blot on the landscape or a drain on natural resources.

The kink and fertility aspects of Lupercalia can teach us about embodiment and being aware of physical sensations and what they mean. Many people don’t listen to their bodies and dismiss physical symptoms and sensations. The very physical aspects of Lupercalia remind us to be in our bodies.

UPDATE: corrected the post because Lupercalia was on 15 February, not 14 February. Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus, expert on all things Roman.

The argument from desire

I am currently reading a biography of C S Lewis by Alister McGrath. In the chapter on Lewis’ Christian faith, McGrath argues that Lewis came to believe in God because he recognised that there was something he desired that was always out of reach. This “argument from desire” occurs in Lewis’ well-known sermon The Weight of Glory; in his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress; and in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. This desire is not simply a want, or a need for wish-fulfilment; it is not a craving for a particular transitory experience; indeed, it can be occasioned by a fleeting glimpse of beauty or transcendence. It is a desire for connection with, or experience of, the divine (which, for Lewis, came to mean the Christian God). The “argument from desire” is that we all have a “God-shaped hole” in consciousness, which can only be filled by the divine. Lewis writes (in The Weight of Glory):

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them.

Can this concept have any meaning in a Pagan context? What is it that Pagans desire? For one thing, most Pagans believe that the divine (whether it is perceived as a single underlying energy, or as many deities) is immanent in the world, and therefore available to our experience in the here and now. So that is a key point where we differ from Lewis, who may well have seen the divine as both immanent and transcendent, but certainly thought that a full experience of it would only be available after death.

For many of us, Nature does not merely reflect the divine glory: she is the Divine glory – in all her contrary moods and states. And we can experience the divine directly. As we have only finite and local consciousness, we cannot fully apprehend the (presumed) infinite and non-local consciousness of deities, but we can participate in it. That is one of the purposes of magic (in my opinion). I believe that the goal of existence is not to divorce spirit from matter, but to awaken matter to its full potential; to divinize it, if you like.

The aim of my personal Pagan path is to become divine, to achieve apotheosis (not to merge with the underlying divine energy, but to be infused with it). I think this will take several lifetimes, but I believe it is possible. The only obstacle on this path is one of perception. As Blake put it, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.”

I do think that the “argument from desire” is quite a good argument for the existence of deities – but I do not think it is a desire for a realm that is beyond the world (ontological transcendence); rather I think it is a desire to connect with something beyond the ego, something larger, deeper, broader that already exists in our own depths and connects with all that is (epistemological transcendence).

Lewis argues (in The Weight of Glory) that every activity has its proper reward, and every desire has its fulfilment. It is mercenary to desire “the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things”; but it is not mercenary to desire the proper reward of the action. The example he gives is that if someone marries for money, that is mercenary; but if they marry for love, it is not – because marriage is the proper reward of love.

In the same way, the fulfilment proper to existence is to encounter it fully; to experience it as the divine beloved. From my personal Pagan perspective, this does not mean to dissolve the self in the great all, but to experience the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) in one’s own depths, between the finite and the infinite, between manifest and unmanifest, matter and spirit.

From a polytheist perspective, even if one believes (as I do) in a single substance or energy from which all other entities (deities, spirits, humans and other animals, genii loci, etc) emerge, the underlying energy is plural and diverse, and so we cannot dissolve into it, and nor would it be desirable to do so (and interestingly, this is not the goal of Christian spirituality either). Becoming infused with it is not the same as losing our identity within it.

So yes, we desire meaning, joy, fulfilment, and the sacred marriage; and we can have them in the here and now, and they can be found through many spiritual traditions. But it does seem that there must be something (however we perceive it) that our desire is fixed upon – the goal of our desire is not merely imaginary.

Religion and humour

Part of the function of humour is to subvert the accepted order of things. Whenever an individual or a group take themselves too seriously, humour — especially satire — cut them down to size. For example, humour was really important for subverting the Puritan hegemony in 17th century England.

In ancient paganism, there were feasts and processions which inverted the accepted order. Men wore large fish-shaped penises in one ancient Greek procession. The Roman festival of Saturnalia had an element of misrule, and masters were expected to serve their slaves for one day. This was a sort of safety-valve to let off steam and prevent revolution.

In the Middle Ages, the whole 12 days of Christmas were given over to feasting and merriment, and a Lord of Misrule was chosen at random. In Northern France, there was a church service at Christmas dedicated to the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, and everyone brayed like donkeys as part of the liturgy. Churches elected boy bishops to perform a similar function to the Lord of Misrule. As with the ancient custom of Saturnalia, this temporary inversion acted to relieve societal tensions.

Kings kept a fool because they needed one person who would tell them what they actually thought, instead of sucking up to them and telling them what they thought they wanted to hear.

I would not join any religion that couldn’t laugh at itself. In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, written by Doreen Valiente, it says, “Therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you”. I think the inclusion of mirth in this list of virtues is really important.

It is quite noticeable that liberal religions spend a lot of time laughing at themselves. I used to have a book of Jewish jokes, written by Jews, and they were brilliant. If you visit any Unitarian Universalist church website, they pretty much all have a UU jokes page. Pagans are no exception – search for Pagan humour and you will find a lot of it. I would even go so far as to say that the sign that a religion is liberal is its ability to laugh at itself.

Pagan mythologies were probably intended to include humour. One use of humour that springs to mind is the story of Baubo, who found Demeter weeping and wailing for her lost daughter Persephone, and by dancing lewdly and making fun, got Demeter out of her depression and got her to do something.

The novelist Tom Holt has suggested that what Prometheus stole from the gods was not fire, but humour. In his novel Ye Gods, there are many parallel worlds, some where humour has been discovered, and some where it hasn’t. In the worlds where there is no humour, the people are oppressed and miserable.

I actually think that religions that are sex-positive, inclusive, don’t take texts literally, and can laugh at themselves, are a different kind of thing than the religions that don’t. This is especially true of Paganism with its esoteric components of initiation and magic, and its celebration of the body and the erotic. But the main point here is that you cannot be completely oppressed if you have the weapon of satire at your disposal.

The belly-laugh and the orgasm both involve loss of control, release into Dionysiac pleasure and union with the Divine – something that the more legalistic religions actually seek to prevent. That is perhaps why Baubo is both sexual and funny, because she represents the Dionysiac side of life.