Creative Endarkenment: Pausing to Get Acquainted with Darkness

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

–Robert Frost

Lately, thanks in part to my colleague Yvonne’s excellent writing around embodied spirituality, I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment, endarkenment, and creativity, and how intertwined all these concepts are. I’ve even (finally) invented a phrase for how I ground my own work in the world: creative endarkenment. After all, creativity roots itself in the dark, no matter how small or large the idea…but before anyone can explore that truth, we have to get comfortable with the idea of darkness.

I belong squarely in Generation X, which means when I was in college many of us gathered and marched and
shouted and sang songs by the Indigo Girls in order to Take Back the Night. We petitioned and argued to install emergency phones and more lighting around the darkest spaces on campus. Back then, we thought if we lit up the shadows, rape culture would suffer a serious blow. And I remember wondering at the time if I was strange, in that darkness felt so much safer to me than being pinned and spotlit by the newly installed lights. Their glare made me so obviously single and alone as I walked back to my room through the Minnesota dark.

Maybe we were safer from some kinds of violence, I don’t know. But I do know we blamed the wrong thing. Darkness was never the root cause. Social media has proved convincingly that rape culture is all too happy to go public with acts of abusive power and violence.

And yet it isn’t any surprise we feared and blamed the dark. We grow up in a culture that assigns so many negative qualities to “darkness”—labels so many bad things “dark” and blames “darkness” for them: ignorance, fear, anger, violence, to name only the first few that spring to mind. And this has inevitable repercussions in a society that labels and separates people as “white” “black” and “brown.”

Now we wheel past the spring equinox into the season of light. We rake off our garden beds, poke seeds, pile on mulch and remember darkness can be kind, can be nurturing, and is certainly crucial. As Molly Meade (Remer) writes, “In darkness, things germinate and grow. The dark is a calm, holding, safe, welcoming place—we come from darkness and that is where we return.”
Light pushes always out against the dark…and yet any light source is eternally nestled within that deep embrace, no matter how bright it shines. We can feel this truth as threatening, if we are scared of the dark, of what lives in the shadows.

On the other hand, wisuper moon by Katrin Talbot 2015thout darkness, we are left with the glare of brutal interrogation and too rigid certainty. There remains no mystery to seek. It is impossible to imagine a fluid dreaming without darkness. And what would we be without dreams? What would it mean if our shapes could never shift?

Of course, dreams are not only happy cuddly things. The phrase “the dark night of the soul” resonates in the bone because it feels true. Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night” knows that just as there is room for light within the embrace of darkness, there is room for much else too. Our deep depressions, our sorrows, our angers, can take us to places that are psychically quite dark. As Carl Jung knew (and as our therapists tell us on a regular basis and we pay them for it), it is at times necessary to rest in the presence of such discomfort. To stop pushing the dark away long enough to listen to what lives there.

Fortunately, there are people to help us on the path. I had the pleasure and good fortune to interview Danica Swanson recently for a class assignment. You can find the entire interview posted at her blog, but today these words are in my mind:

Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on.  …  Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation…

I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work.  In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path.  Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.

 

Swanson gets it right: too much positivity results in “failures of empathy” and “errors in perception” and that my friends gets us into a mess. Welcoming the dark with all its unknowns and locating the tender spots is necessary for any fruitful germination, including our own. In our fearful, angry moment of history  I can’t help thinking that it’s as good a time as any for us to face our own personal and cultural shadows, to begin to sit with our histories of violence, oppression, guilt, fear, resentment. To learn stillness.

That’s a big ask. And more than I can take on this morning. A good place to start might be just getting a little more comfortable sitting together, here in the dark.  Over the next few days and weeks, I want to explore the idea of endarkenment, to think about how and why we might want to wander out once in a while past the fire’s light and peer into the shadows. I hope you’ll join me.

fire in fall

 

 

 

 

Combinations of Difficult Questions #PinkOut

What if Planned Parenthood is defunded and shut down– where should women and men go for the other 97% of funded services PP currently provides?

What if we notice a dropped stitch? What if we don’t?

What if Persephone eats that pomegranate on purpose?

What if we’re all more genderfluid than we admit?

What if sexuality isn’t a wound?

What if the nuclear family is not the only available model? What if it isn’t the best?

What if Black lives matter?

What if a question mark is a fish hook?

What if abortion is allowed to be an ambivalent and uneasy act, safe and legal?

What if women live into their sexualities as a source of power with, not power over?

What if men do that too?

What if you could say how unhappy you are?

What if a woman’s voice is the tree falling in the forest?

 

What if women’s voices weave another forest?

 

Epistemology of Mother, A Cloud of Permeable or #PinkOut

Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Sadie

 

Few topics have stirred as much passionate response

now there is a plank in the platform of the Republican party denying any place

in the short time I’ve belonged to this listserv as the one that exploded over the seemingly innocuous color pink, and

for abortion even in cases of rape or incest. This feels like the final thundering chord (although I know

although I didn’t join the discussion, I, too, feel strongly about the subject. Reading the posts on the color

it’s not—there is so much more they could try to do, try to take from us) of their grand crescendo,

and its associations—Cinderella, Barbies, stickers,

building for a year now. A year when

I was surprised by the emotional and political

terms such as “birth control”

connotations it carries

“sluts” “vaginal ultrasounds” “vaginas” have been bandied about

for so many of us and disturbed by the way

we debate the difference between “legitimate” and “forcible” as applied to

pink got tossed back and forth as if it were some uniform monolith

the act of rape.

when a moment’s reflection serves to demonstrate this obvious fact: pink is not one color.

What other qualifiers shall we hear?

My pinks are mostly dark, vivid, intense, like the other hues that fill the house of a recovering depressive

At last now we have it out: all abortion, any abortion, is never to be condoned, never to be pardoned,

avoiding medication. Color like exercise gives me a lift, so I have it everywhere and in unlikely combinations

never to be considered and never to be allowed. All of this has me walking in a cloud of permeable

that would probably overwhelm many people. Pink in multiple manifestations happens to be a favorite,

sadness, like a mist. It plunges me back to a time a few years ago

although I don’t like the pale variety by  itself, any more than large doses of other pastels. I do feel nostalgic

when these questions were live for me on a very personal level. One summer evening, blue sky endless,

looking at 1960s’ hot pink—my mother wouldn’t paint my bedroom that color decades ago,

my husband and I were out for a neighborhood walk. It was

attempting to satisfy me with a bright pink velvet pillow for my orange bedspread. Years later I painted

the sort of weather, the sort of evening, that draws people out of their homes and out into their yards

my dining room an intense sockeye-salmon swirled with orange, a nod to the years my husband and I lived

and the streets and sidewalks. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but

in Seattle, and saved my favorite deep pink for the kitchen,

for a number of days I had been wrestling with

patterning walls and cabinets with combinations of

difficult questions. Finally, I turned to him in the middle of the

fuchsia, yellow, lavender and deep red-violet. Dabbling in textiles I’ve paired pink with navy and turquoise, and

sidewalk, stopped for a moment, and said “I have come to a decision. If I ever were to get

lavender, blue, and red in hand-woven table-runners. I’ve sewn curtains, pillow covers, and clothes that include its different shades and echo those

pregnant again, I would abort the baby.” And then I broke down crying, there on the street.

in my great-grandmothers’ quilts hanging on the living room walls.

 

This piece was written in collaboration with my colleague and friend, Wendy Vardaman. I am so grateful for her ideas, her example and her friendship.Busse and Vardaman 2012 - 1

 

 

 

Why is Hate More Newsworthy Than Love?

Recently, Icelandmag reported that Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and the members of the Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) had received hate mail from a few vocal homophobic and racist bigots for their intention to conduct same-sex marriages in their new Heathen temple, and their view that a person of any ethnicity can be a Heathen.

“Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. -

Þingblót 2009” by Photograph by Lenka Kovářová. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. –

So I decided to launch a page where people could sign to show their support. A petition site seemed wrong, as we were thanking them for being inclusive, rather than asking them to do anything, so initially I launched a page on 38 degrees – but quickly discovered that only people in the UK could sign it. So I launched a change.org page as well: Thank you for supporting same-sex marriage and inclusiveness. At the same time, Haimo Grebenstein created a Facebook event in solidarity: “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” The event is sponsored by Asatru-EU, an informal group of people of Germanic Heathen background, most of them members of associations from many European countries. They have been active since 2006 and are hosting the International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), which starts on 25 July in Sweden.

The Facebook event has 2400 people supporting it, from many different Pagan and polytheist religions; the change.org petition has 640 signatories, and the 38 degrees petition has 124 signatories.

Meanwhile, if you can see the Facebook social plugin on the Icelandmag article (I can’t see it on a PC or an iPhone, and only intermittently on my iPad, but I am getting notifications of who has replied to my comment on there), then you will see that the haters appear to be in a tiny minority compared to the people who support inclusivity towards both LGBT people and people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Icelandmag ran a follow-up story about the messages of support, but again focused on the original hate-mail rather than on the messages of support:

Over the weekend we will be publishing an exclusive interview with Hilmar Örn, about the honourable and respectful nature of Ásatrú as it is practiced in Iceland, his interaction with foreign pagans and the disturbing messages he has received from foreign pagans.

The Wild Hunt also did an article, Ásatrúarfélagið Threatened with Vandalism over LGBTQ Support– also focusing somewhat more on the hate-mail than the outpouring of support, though kindly linking to Haimo’s Facebook event and my petitions. I am glad that the issue has been covered, but concerned that what I believe to be a small minority of haters is getting more coverage than the overwhelming number of people who support inclusivity. Maybe it is because hate and bigotry (despite what you might think from reading the newspapers) are actually the exception rather than the norm? Or is it because the mainstream media wants to make us feel small and isolated and powerless in the face of all this bad news?

The same thing happens with Christian bigotry against LGBT people. Granted that there are some loud voices of hate, but there are also many Christians who support same-sex marriage and regard same-sex love as natural, and are welcoming towards LGBT people. In the UK, Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group, did a survey of attitudes of religious people, and found that 58% were in support of same-sex marriage (as compared to 68% of the general population). So the difference in support between the religious population and the general population is 10%. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but given the focus on religious bigotry by the media, most people would probably be surprised by how small the difference is. It is also noticeable that church leadership (who are often the ones making the bigoted pronouncements) are seriously out of step with the laity on this. Not only that, but the list of religious groups where leaders and laity alike support LGBT equality is quite long and impressive, and some groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews, and Pagans) have supported and campaigned for LGBT equality for decades.

It is also noticeable that Heathens, Polytheists, Wiccans, Druids, Kemetics, and Pagans from all over the world have signed the change.org petition. There are so many awesome comments, I urge you to go and read all of them – it is very heart-warming.

So here are a few of the signatories of the thank you petition, and why they signed:

Kurt Hoogstraat ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL

I’m gay and a heathen. My husband and I have been together 25 years, raised a daughter and have two grandchildren. Family is very important to us, and I live the practices of my religion every day with my family. Besides, the Gods communicate with me and protect my family every day — they don’t seem to mind I’m gay!

 

Dale Overman WEST VALLEY CITY, UT

Our ancestors were far more open minded than many modern heathen in some parts of the world. The world and its religions and deeply divided as it is. We modern heathen and Asatruar need a bit of common unity and respect. Inclusiveness and hospitality is part of a decent human community.

 

Wendell Christenson CLOVIS, CA

I know in the news reports when they said that “foreign practitioners” of Asatru are sending hate mail, that “foreign practitioners” really means “American Heathens.” It is embarrassing! Not all American Heathens are simply Protestant Christians who grew up to drink mead and “play Viking” on the weekends! Thank you, Ásatrúarfélagið, for building a modern-day temple and providing services to all.

 

Dieter Tussing GERMANY

Celtoi and Gaulish Polytheists say thanks. We are in complete agreement with you.

 

Carl Guldbrand LINDESBERG, SWEDEN

Bröder och Systar, jag står med er.

 

Reverend Janet Farrar CLOGHRAN, IRELAND

They truly represent the old Gods of their land.

 

Elma O’Callaghan BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM

Basically, some people are so full of hate when they see others being happy. They need to know that Paganism is all encompassing and inclusive of equality and human rights. Well done Iceland and Hilmar for showing the true face of humanity.

 

Heather Demarest WANCHESE, NC

I honor these same deities and know that deep wisdom is its truth, that our souls are equal and even Odin supposedly dressed as a woman. Once you get past all the chest-thumping, Heathenry has deep and profound and beautiful wisdom that can empower all of us, regardless of gender, sexual preference or race.

 

Mike Stygal LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

There should indeed be no room for racism or homophobia or transphobia in Heathenry, Druidry, Wicca, witchcraft, Paganism, polytheism, and kindred traditions.

 

Alexander ter Haar ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS

The Asatruarfelagid give an example of how heathenism can be: tolerant and open-minded, hospitable and respectful. It is saddening to hear that they receive hate-mails because of that. And at the same time it is wonderful to see how many people stand with them. I am proud to count myself amongst them.

 

Rev. Selena Fox BARNEVELD, WI

Appreciation, Well-Wishes, Support to You for your support of same sex marriage.

 

Jay Friedlander ANDOVER, ENGLAND

As British Heathen I support equal rights for same-sex marriage. Homophobia and transphobia has no place in modern heathenry or modern society either! I support inclusivity of all regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, social class or any other ‘difference’ and believe tolerance of all is the only way forwards in a modern multi-cultural world.

 

Freya Aswynn CóMPETA

I am Asatru.

 

Wayne Sievers

The Icelandic Asatru Association conducted my marriage last year.

A Queer Pagan Reading List

Here are a bunch of books for the LGBTQ Pagan reader. I have either read these and can recommend them, or I have read another book by the same author, and can therefore recommend the ones on this list.

Collection of some Contemporary Pagan & Male Nude Sculptures created by Malcolm Lidbury

Collection of some Contemporary Pagan & Male Nude Sculptures created by Malcolm Lidbury (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gay

Inclusive

Kink

Lesbian

LGBT

Polyamory

Queer

Transgender

Other people’s lists of recommended books

Online resources

Summer Solstice, and the gender-stereotyping is easy

Relief showing Helios, sun god in Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy).

Relief showing Helios, sun god in Greco-Roman mythology. From the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Circa 325 to 390 BCE. Pergamon-Museum, Berlin, Germany. [Public domain, via Wikipedia]

Many people think of a Sun god when they think of the Sun, and a Moon goddess when they think of the Moon, and these ideas play into our ideas about of different qualities being associated with specific genders.

The Sun is hot and fiery and bright, so people associate it with maleness, the active/penetrative principle, yang, warriors, and intellect. The Moon is cool and reflective and represents intuition and dreams, so people associate it with the feminine, dreamy, receptive, and watery side of things.

We then go on to ascribe these qualities to actual men and women, or regard them as the “ideal” masculine and feminine qualities.

Of course we know that real Moon goddesses are not dreamy, pretty, airy-fairy, and harmless at all. But that doesn’t stop people from depicting them that way. And that real Sun gods have a sensitive and emotional side. Don’t we?

We tend to associate Summer Solstice with the Sun being at the height of its power, and it is at this time of year that a lot of archetypal material about the Sun god gets wheeled out for presentation at Pagan rituals.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

"Diana Reposing", by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry [Public domain], Walters Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

“Diana Reposing”, by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry [Public domain], Walters Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

Many cultures have a Moon god and a Sun goddess. It’s also possible that these cultures had some different ideas about qualities being associated with one gender or another. It’s worth looking at Sun goddesses and Moon gods, because we can learn a lot about the mythology of the Sun and the Moon, and begin to deconstruct gender stereotypes at the same time as finding out some great stories.

Moon gods

In Hinduism, there is Chandra. The Mesopotamians worshipped the Moon god Sin. The Germanic tribes worshipped Mani. The Japanese worshipped Tsukuyomi. These cultures often featured female Sun goddesses

According to Wikipedia,

the original Proto-Indo-European lunar deity appears to have been a male god. In subsequent traditions, the number of male moon deities (or words for “moon” with a male gender) seem to vastly outnumber female ones, which appear to be an exclusively eastern Mediterranean invention. Several goddesses, like Hecate or Artemis, did not originally have lunar aspects, and only acquired them late in antiquity, due to syncretism with Selene/Luna, the de facto Greco-Latin lunar deity. In traditions with male gods, there is little evidence of such syncretism, though the Greco-Roman Hermes has been equated with male Egyptian lunar gods like Thoth. In Greece proper, remnants of male moon gods are also seen with Menelaus.

Sun goddesses

Practitioners of  Dievturība, the revived traditional religion of Latvia, celebrate the Sun goddessSaulė. Saulė is a goddess with a fairly detailed story and attributes. She is the goddess of life, fertility, warmth, and health, and is patroness of the unfortunate, especially orphans. The Lithuanian and Latvian words for “the world” (pasaulis and pasaule) mean as “[a place] under the Sun”. The summer solstice is the feast of Saulė, and the winter solstice is celebrated as her return.

Amaterasu is the Japanese sun goddess, who is seen as the goddess of the sun and of the universe. The name Amaterasu derived from Amateru meaning “shining in heaven.” Her full name, Amaterasu-ōmikami, means “the great august kami (god) who shines in the heaven”. She hid in a cave after her brother Susa-no-o went on a rampage.

Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a Cave,"ORIGIN OF IWATO KAGURA DANCE"

Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a Cave,”ORIGIN OF IWATO KAGURA DANCE” – public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Ancient Egypt, the earliest deities associated with the sun were all goddesses: Wadjet, Sekhmet, HathorNut, Bast, Bat, and Menhit.  There were also Moon gods, such as Thoth and Khonsu.

Ancient Heathens worshipped Sol and Mani. Sol was the goddess of the Sun, and her brother Mani was the goddess of the Moon. The horse’s of Sol’s chariot are called Árvakr (“Early Riser”) and Alsviðr (“Swift”). They are pursued across the sky by a wolf called Sköll, and the Moon is pursued by her brother Hati.

Dan McCoy writes:

According to one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, a figure named Svalinn rides in the sun’s chariot and holds a shield between her and the earth below. If he didn’t do this, both the land and the sea would be consumed in flames. Elsewhere, the father of Sol and Mani is named as “Mundilfari,” about whom we know nothing. His name might mean “The One Who Moves According to Particular Times.”

In runic lore, the gentle warmth of Sol is contrasted with the heat of the rune Sowelu, but it seems as if this might be a misattribution.

Deities in ritual

When I am writing rituals, I try not to always go for the “obvious”. I like to challenge people’s assumptions, and introduce deities that look a bit different. One year, I wrote a ritual to Saulė. Another summer solstice, I wrote a ritual all about the arrival of Parsifal at the Grail Castle.

It’s also a good idea to work with a deity you have some sort of connection with, or to try to establish a connection with the deity you are working with before the ritual. There’s nothing worse than a ritual falling flat because you didn’t make a connection with the deity. What does the deity’s story mean for you personally? How does it link in with the festival you are celebrating?

If the deity is not very well-known, I find out as much as I can about them, and email all the ritual participants their story beforehand, and/or build in a meditation about that deity.

Summer solstice

At this time of the year, the days are at their longest, so the Sun is said to be at the height of its power. However, after Midsummer, the days will get shorter, so the Sun is said (symbolically) to descend into the underworld. The Sun is a metaphor for consciousness; as we descend into the depths of winter, the self is said to go inward and become more introspective.

Whilst the summer solstice is the moment at which the days get shorter, and the Sun starts rising further south again, there is still plenty of summer left after the solstice. Some people regard 21 June as Midsummer, others regard it as the start of summer.

Summer is always associated with warmth and plenty and long lazy sunny days – until you get to the harvest, when it’s all hands to fields to bring in the crop before a summer rainstorm comes and trashes it.

The word solstice literally means “Sun stands still” as the Sun seems to rise at the same point on the horizon for a few days. So the solstice is a moment to pause, and take stock, as well as to enjoy the longest day.

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

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


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

pcm-route-lineup-v6

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


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


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


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

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

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

Gender in Russian Rodnoverie
Kaarina Aitamurto

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

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

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

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

Dancing in a Universe of Lights and Shadows
Nikki Bado

An Intersubjective Critique of A Critique of Pagan Scholarship
Michael York

Navigating Praxis: Pagan Studies vs. Esoteric Studies
Amy Hale

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

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

Orientalism in Iamblichus’ The Mysteries
Sarah Lynn Veale

Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors among Pagans
Deirdre Sommerlad-Rogers

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

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

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

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

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


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

Happy Equinox!

Metaphors can kill

In a ground-breaking book called Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson pointed out the underlying metaphors used in many figures of speech. For example, the underlying metaphor “Argument is War” has us talking about winning an argument, wiping the floor with our opponents, and so on. Imagine how different arguments might be if the underlying metaphor was “Argument is Dance”. Another example they give is “A Relationship is a Ship”, where we talk about marriages foundering, being on the rocks, and breaking up.

Similarly, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Myth as Metaphor and as Religion, Joseph Campbell explored some of the bodily metaphors underlying religious symbolism and mythology.

Metaphors are a very powerful thing. They can dictate how we we see the world, and therefore how we behave. They can constrain our expectations of what will happen, and how it will happen. The metaphorical connotations of an idea shape and limit what can be said about it.

In a comment on an earlier post, C Brachyrhynchos wrote:

Many of those metaphors involve a fair bit of projection of human cultural ideas onto things that are distinctly non-human and incomprehensible, or even human diversity. Take for example the idea of masculine and feminine as broadly applicable metaphors. That metaphor breaks as applied to many human beings who don’t experience gender that way, much less fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species.

And that’s not even touching the equally complex realms of the non-biological, formal, or philosophical. To say that being is Being is one thing. To say that it’s *a person* with likes and dislikes, prophetic speech, children (mortal or immortal), and a relationship is another thing altogether.

None of this is beyond the pale for religion. If it’s reasonable to consider deus a metaphor then it’s reasonable to doubt (which is the essence of atheism, not denial) the relationship between signifier and signified in that metaphor. Negative theology, the stripping away of those metaphors until you’re left with questions and uncertainty is an ancient practice.

I have written before (and so has Christine) about the limitations and negative effects of the gender binary in much of Pagan mythology. I have also argued for a more nuanced view of gender. I see that in my previous attempts to write about this, I didn’t actually move that far from the binary model, but I think I have moved further away from it now.

I also agree that the practice of stripping away metaphors until you are left with questions and uncertainty is ancient, and is a very good thing. It is known as apophatic theology or the via negativa, and it is a very important part of my spirituality. I think we need more apophatic theology in Paganism. However, according to Matthew Fox, there are four ways to engage with spirituality, of which the via negativa is only one. The others are via positiva, via creativa and via transformativa.

However, saying something is “only a metaphor” is a bit disingenuous, because we live by metaphors and they shape our thoughts.

There is hope, though, because the power of metaphors is such that if you create a new metaphor to live by, you can create a new reality. For instance, many Pagans have adopted the eightfold wheel of the year (eight seasonal festivals), and this metaphor, which expresses sacred time, has shaped our relationship with the cosmos and with Nature. So if we want to change the binary model of gender, we could create a more powerful metaphor to replace the gender binary. We can use the examples of “fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species” as a metaphor for the diversity we wish to celebrate in human sexuality.

Stories are very powerful. Many years ago, I saw a made-for-TV film which had the resounding slogan “Folklore can kill” (which inspired the title of this post). In the film, weird things start happening to a folklorist who is investigating urban legends – the legends are happening right in front of him, but he is in denial, insisting that folklore can’t come true… but it does.

If you attend a Pagan camp, or a UU or Unitarian church service, there will very likely be stories. What will be the bit you remember? The talks and workshops you attended, the sermon you heard, or the stories? I can guarantee that the thing you will remember will be the stories. Stories speak directly to both hemispheres of the brain,  and that’s probably why they are remembered. Jack Cohen has suggested that Homo sapiens should be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape. People like stories.

So if you take all the metaphors away, then you’ll have to take away all the stories. That doesn’t just mean an absence of fairy tales and folk tales and mythology; it also means an absence of inspiring stories about science, or stories from history or literature. And even in this story-free vacuum, people would instinctively create more stories.

So, given that you can’t have a metaphor-free vacuum; and given that stories and metaphors are so powerful that they can actually kill (and make no mistake, the gender binary claims a victim every time a transgender person is murdered or commits suicide) — given this, we had better make sure to choose liberating and inclusive metaphors to express our religion. And if a metaphor (such as the gender binary) is broken, then we need to fix it.

Further reading on metaphor

Further reading on sexuality and gender

Yvonne Aburrow Joins “Sermons”; Gender and Sexuality Article

Two pieces of exciting news today:

First, Yvonne Aburrow is joining Sermons from the Mound as a contributor! Yvonne is the longtime editor of the Pagan theology wiki Theologies of ImmanenceHer recent book, Many Namesis a collection of earth-centered prayer and liturgy for Unitarian Universalists Pagans and others working in a multi-faith environment. She has also published several books of folklore and a poetry anthology focusing on place, the seasons, and the sacred. I’m excited to bring her perspective to this blog.

Second, I have a new academic article available on gender and sexuality in contemporary Paganism. It’s a summary of (almost) everything scholarly that has been published on the topic so far — including an article by Yvonne on queer theologies. If you have university library access, please check it out at the Religion Compass site here:

Kraemer, Christine Hoff. “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism.” Religion Compass 6:8 (2012): 390-401.

Otherwise, it is available through my profile at Academia.edu.