To all the writers and poets and editors out there, I offer you fair warning: you know all those how-to manuals that fill the writing and publishing sections at bookstores and libraries?
First, I want to thank all the folks who have posted kind words about my starting this blog. It is deeply encouraging to be so warmly received. Thank you!
Before turn to my topic for this post, I wish to reflect on the interesting conversation about the use of the term ‘pagan’ in this, its uncapitalized form. I’ve given my opinion already, in that I feel it has no referent, and that it represents a distortion of the past, but for that please see the original post and its comments. What is interesting to me is that folks would defend its use. It was and is an insult, as common in use as the ’n-word’ was at a time. By naming ourselves ‘Pagan’ we proudly turn that opprobrium into an honorable name for a new and defiant religion, ours. . . . . .
So, then, what is ‘religion’? I’ll start by citing a not-bad version of the dictionary definition for religion: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religion)
You will no doubt notice the primacy of ‘belief’ in this definition. Ritual also gets a mention, as does morality, but only as a optional quality.
It's the festival season and I just spent the weekend at Castlefest. Castlefest is not, exactly, a Pagan festival but it was--and probably still is, although they're fading to the background--the festival Pagans flocked to. There is a Pagan corner of the festival terrain, a wicker burning of which the Pagan gang is in charge and many Pagan supplies can be bought there. Incense, clothing, tools, you name it. Even statues of some Pagan Gods. It sounds like Pagan heaven and in a way it is. Yet, I don't feel at home there.
I wrote yesterday that the biggest difference between me and any other Pagan there, seems to be in our views about Deity and how to approach Them. As I said then, any Recon tradition forces you to actually believe in the Gods, not as just handy tools to get your own needs fulfilled. Cara Schulz, in the very post I went off on before, but explained why later, recognizes that very problem:
One of the key foundations of modern (and ancient) Paganism is also one of the most contentious. We find it very hard to talk about, it seems, and yet it's fairly key to many people's personal practice. When I've talked about it in the past, it almost seems like I'm breaking a taboo, with the words themselves being 'dirty' or embarrassing. And yet, learning from my passionate and heartfelt Heathen friends, that embarrassment is itself disrespectful, dishonourable and, ultimately, rather foolish.
Who are your Gods and Goddesses? What does Deity mean to you, and how does it influence and affect your Paganism? From the Platonic 'ultimate Male/Female' images (tallying with 'All Gods/Goddesses are One') to the pantheistic, international eclectic transference of pretty much any deity with any other no matter where you yourself live, talking about Deity is a tricky business. Especially because ultimately, nobody can really tell you you're wrong. Or right. Except, perhaps, those Gods themselves.
The Judgement of Paris (Classical)
Patheos has been in a bit of a kerfluffle this past week -- or, at least the Pagan Channel has been. It all started with Catholic blogger Mark Shea's post of his views on small-p paganism and neo-paganism. Patheos bloggers Star Foster and Jason Mankey counter-responded, and there were lots and lots of comments below each of those posts, ranging from the thoughtful to the angry to the wtf??
Considering the focus of this blog, and in the interests of interfaith dialogue (or, at least, interfaith not-screaming-past-one-another), a few literary suggestions. Each of these books in some way addresses the relationships between Jesus, the Christianities that rose out of his teachings, the ancient Paganisms, and modern Paganism. Hopefully, they will open a few eyes, broaden a few horizons, and allow for clearer dialogue.
(And, yes, I do mean Christianities, plural. Considering the vast theological differences between Catholicism, Mormonism, Unitarian Universalism, Valentinianism, the Cathars, and et cetera and so on, Christianity is as much an umbrella term as Pagan. Thus, Christianities.)...
Today is Lammas-tide, Lughnasadh, the festival of the grain harvest. Across the land, fields full of golden wheat, barley and numerous others have been growing tall, a feast for the eyes as they bend in the breeze, a feast for the birds, bees, mice and other creatures that run between the rows.
In centuries past, it would be entire communities who came out to help with the harvest, threshing, binding and preparing the crop to last them the winter. Fuel is needed for heat, nourishment and sustenance for livestock - without a successful harvest, a lean winter means walking the path between life and death.
These days, it's more the rumble of heavy-duty farming machinery at work that is heard as the harvest is gathered in - but it's no less valuable for that. Despite the knowledge that we can import food, fuel and whatever we need from other places, there's still the essential connection between us and the land as personified in the life of our fuel-stuffs. We celebrate it, we recognise and remember it. Children make corn-dollies, singers remember John Barleycorn.
Words are magic. Words have power. Unlike the octopus, which can communicate by subtle changes in the colors of its skin, or the lightening bug, attracting mates with its glowing tail, our major means of conveying our needs, our thoughts and our feelings are words. We use these to convey our intentions and desires not only to each other, and to our animal companions and familiars, but also to the elementals we call upon to aid us, and to the Gods/Goddesses we worship and serve. If these entities do not understand our meaning when we speak, what we hope might be a miracle could easily become a disaster!
In the Tarot card of the Chariot, a magician (evidently a Ceremonial Magician by his masonic apron, imbued with occult symbols) guides his chariot, which is drawn by two sphinxes without the use of reigns or harness. The charioteer must use only words to guide the mythical beasts: a wrong word, and the magical creatures will pull his conveyance apart. In Paul Foster Case's system of Tarot, based on Quaballah, the card is assigned to Cancer, the crab, a creature encased in a shell. The Hebrew letter assigned to the card, Cheth, means a fence. In essence, the figure, the fenced structure and the Zodiac sign embody the concept of words themselves: units of meaning encased in a shell, a unit of sound. Alter the meaning, and the shell of sound becomes useless. As much as I do not like to quote the Bible, you have the myth of the Tower Of Babel: words may have meaning to the speaker, but their meaning is lost to the listener....
If you know your fantasy history, you’ll spot that the title of this blog comes form the very first fantasy book written by William Morris in 1896. For the first time, Morris deviated from writing “reality” and ventured into another realm, one inhabited by otherworld creatures, like giants and wise hermits, a place governed by the laws of magic.
In Well at World’s End, Morris takes the reader into a mythical region where a magical well grants the drinker immortality. He quests with helpers to find the well, facing danger at every step. The story sounds familiar, because we’ve seen similar ones over the ages, like Percival who quests for the Holy Grail, or Ponce de León’s journey for the Fountain of Youth.
But if we go a little deeper we will find that even this road leads right back to Pagan origins. Morris, like Tolkien years later, saw that magic once held an integral part of daily life, but had slowly faded from the countryside. His book, if nothing else, is a reminder of what was, and more so what could be....
The unexpected death of a friend this week brought into sharp relief the differences between traditions around death and grief, not only between different communities but also between different generations. How we handle the dead and our sorrow shows a lot about our culture.
For the Anglo-Saxons, much of what we know of their material culture -- apart descriptions in poems and histories -- come from discovered burials. But burial wasn't always the norm. We have a magnificent pagan shipboard funeral of a king in the opening lines of Beowulf. For a long time people dismissed it as a rather fanciful thing....
I just returned from Sirius Rising, a festival held at Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, NY.
For me, festival is a liminal experience. That probably sounds rather cliche in this context (who doesn’t like to bring up liminality?), but every time I go to a festival, something life altering ends up happening.
After the last festival that I went to, I hit a young buck with my car coming home. The police officer who arrived to help me, told my father as I was sitting on the side of the road next to my completely shattered car, that I was lucky to be alive. At the time, with a full Mabon moon riding red and heavy in the night sky, I assumed that I hadn’t given enough of myself that Mabon and that some more blood needed to be offered.
Now, looking back on the events of that festival and what happened in my life around that period (all of which started right before that particular festival), I’m pretty sure a particular God was giving me a very clear message about a decision that I had just made, letting me know that I was going to have to change course to set myself back on the proper spiritual path.
I've returned today from performing a Handfasting with my partner - not unusual at this time of year. But this was our first on a beach.
Yes, this is Britain. Yes, we've just had semi-monsoon conditions for the last few months. Summer was rumoured to have been cancelled. So much could have gone wrong.
It was beautiful. Golden sands, blue sky, bright sun, lush green grasses and flowers on the path leading from the couple's home to the beach itself... everyone commented that you couldn't have wished for a better day.
Nota bene—I had planned to post this second part earlier in the week but have been drawn—lured!—down the tricky rabbit trails in our community. Some of you will understand this guilty pleasure: following link after link in a circuitous, riotous and ultimately informative research effort.
These are not issues exclusive to the Pagan/Heathen communities but—as with many other sticking points—it is writ large here. Sturm und drang—polished and deliberate language used as both weapon and shield. The bristling armed camps face each other across a wide gulf. After many months of observing, listening and analyzing, I did what any curious person would do. I went to the edge of that deep gap and simply looked in. It seemed the best way to understand the level of disconnect that I was encountering as I pondered the situations and the reactions to them.
Slick, clever, running both hot and cold, the talk (in person and on-line) surrounding some relatively simple questions of protocol belies the complexity of the times, the personalities and the issues involved.
The great scholar Gerda Lerner has often been my guide as I attempt to look through the lens/lenses of that construct we call “history.” Her work has been instrumental in revealing the hidden roots of ostensibly modern problems.
As the Green Solstice blew past us with threats of rain and humidity like a sauna, we began to contemplate the Long Dying of the Year. Yes, I do feel a bit like Marvin in Hitchhiker's Guide as I realize that the next holy day around these parts is in fact the first harvest festival.
What has been remarkable in those days since the Solstice is the fact that nothing seems easy, everything seems to require more effort than it ever did before. But there are also moments of such delight, of such brightness and joy.
Three interfaith adventures this week--all survived with varying degrees of success. The school superintendent's Faith-Based Leadership Advisory Council meeting was very long and I suspect we are coming close to the place where we will not get along and be forced to talk about what happens when my religion requires you to follow it. (Not that mine does, of course. I'm Wiccan.)
The charms of Anglo-Saxon England consisted of words, herbs and actions. The folks who lived in the period after the Roman era and before the Norman Invasion of 1066 believed that words had a magic of their own especially when spoken aloud, but that the application of the right herbs would help the healing processes along, too. Sometimes other actions were required to create the right atmosphere or to move bad luck along to someone else. All three techniques used together was simply magic.
Among the most common uses for magic was for healing. Lacking any kind of organized medical care system, they pieced together charms and poultices to take care of the common health problems. But they also used charms to protect, both themselves and their belongings. Chief amongst their property was cattle. The Anglo-Saxon word for "cattle" (feoh) is the same as the word for "wealth" which shows how important cattle were. Charms also came in handy to enhance good luck and increase one's bounty.