Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Steven Posch

Steven Posch

Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Does Electric Incense “Count”?

Who would expect to be confronted with a theological conundrum upon walking into a supermarket? Welcome to the Wonderful World of Paganism.

I've gone over to my neighborhood Asian market to pick up some tofu. (At a buck-fifteen per cake, it's still the best deal in town.) Just inside the door, in his little shrine on the floor, sits Weng Shen the Door God. Flanked by electric candles, he scowls as good door-wards do. Before him burns a bowl of electric incense.

The porcelain bowl filled with gravel looks just like a real incense bowl, if you ignore the electric cord that runs through a hole at the back of the shrine. Even the “sticks” of incense—I assume that they're plastic—could almost pass for the real thing, if it weren't for those uniform glowing red electric tips.

So here's the conundrum. Is a symbolic offering still an offering? Does electric incense “count”?

I suppose that the answer to this question depends upon what you mean by “count.”

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Does the Name Match the Claim? Using Historical Linguistics to Assess Claims of Pagan Continuity

Every word tells a story.

Unfortunately, it's not always the story that we want to tell.

Back at the end of the last century, it was not uncommon for pagan groups to claim unbroken continuity with the paganisms of the past. When someone makes such a claim, one way to test what they say is to look at the vocabulary that they're using to see if it matches their claims.

To take one preeminent example: in the 60s and 70s media witch Sybil Leek claimed to be high priestess of a Keltic tradition group in Hampshire's New Forest called Horsa Coven.

(Sorry, but after nearly 50 years in the Craft, I still cringe when I hear the term "high priestess." Talk about hokey.)

Now, “Horsa” has a pleasingly archaic sound to it: unsurprisingly, as it's an Anglo-Saxon/Old English name meaning “horse.” The fact that the name is Anglo-Saxon, however, sits uncomfortably with her claims of a “Keltic” tradition.

Horsa was the name of one of the two legendary Anglo-Saxon brothers who led their people to the Promised Land of England. (His brother was reputedly “Hengist,” which means “stallion”; the word survives into modern English as the first syllable of henchman.) The implication, I suppose, is that the tradition goes back to Anglo-Saxon times.

If so, the name itself disproves the claim. If the name had survived in continuous use since ancient days, it would automatically have modernized to "Horse." The fact that it didn't is proof that the name is a modern one, chosen for its archaic sound. Interestingly, one can say the same for the word “Wicca.”

Back in the early 90s, a group in the English Midlands calling itself Tuatha de Cornovii claimed to be a survival of the Iron Age Keltic tribe of the same name. Does the name match the claim?

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The Real Leys

Pagans can be a notoriously credulous lot, but me, I don't come from believing people, and I'm not a believer myself. Among the things that I don't believe in (astrology, an afterlife, Christian charity...) are leys.

I simply don't see the point of believing in ley-lines that exist only in imagination when, in fact, virtually all of us are surrounded by real-world lines on the landscape.

They're called trackways, or greenways.

I live on one such myself. These days it's paved over and called Lake Street, South Minneapolis' major east-west artery. But originally, it was an old Indian track that led from the summer village at Bde Maká Ska—White Earth Lake—down to the Mississippi River. And back again, of course.

Pretty much everywhere has old trackways of this sort, contouring along the Land from one important place to another. Probably most of them were old animal trails first and became human trails later.

“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road.” So begins Edward Thomas' lyrical book The Icknield Way, his biography of the ancient greenway that runs NE-SW across England from Norfolk to Wiltshire. Named for the Iceni—Boudicca's people—the Icknield way leads Thomas on a lyrical journey through history, lore, and Land. First published in 1930, it has never since been out of print.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Back in my angst-filled days as a teen warlock-in-training, I used to go down to the woods by Lake Erie and walk the deer-paths in
  • Kile Martz
    Kile Martz says #
    As it happens, the house I grew up in sits atop one of the highest points in the county on the farm my elders bought when they mov

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Are the Days of the Heroes Behind Us?

In the mail yesterday, my Covenant of the Goddess clergy credential renewal arrived, along with—I kid you not—my very own vial of Covenant of the Goddess lip balm.

Vanilla flavored, no less.

Well, I receive these gifts—as the ancestors used to say—with both hands, i.e. gratefully. Now I can continue to hatch, match, and legally dispatch in the eyes of the Great State of Minnesota, a Land where winter lip balm is pretty much a way of life.

Still.

In the old days, Christians used to fight (and sometimes kill) over whether the Spirit proceeded from the Father, or from the Father and the Son; or whether the Son was equal to, or lesser than, the Father. Substantive issues.

Now, of course, they fight about gay sex.

In the old days, witches used to make poisons, medicines, and flying ointment: pharmacopoeia.

Now we make lip balm.

I shake my head. Perhaps the days of the heroes and demigods are behind us. How are the mighty fallen.

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A Homeland More of Time Than Place: In Search of an Anthem for the Pagan Revival

Is there an anthem of the Pagan Revival?

Short answer: No, although it sure would be nice to have one.

Probably the closest we get to a New Pagan anthem is “Gwydion Pendderwen”'s 1981 We Won't Wait Any Longer:

We Won't Wait Any Longer

 

We won't wait any longer,

We are stronger than before;

We won't wait any longer,

We are stronger!

 

We have trusted no man's promise,

We have kept to just ourselves,

We have suffered from the lies

In all the books on all your shelves,

But our patience and endurance

Through the Burning Times til now

Have given us the strength to keep our vow.

 

Chorus

 

You have grazed away the heather,

You have razed the sacred grove,

You have driven native peoples

From the places that they love;

Though your greed has been unbounded,

You have felt the pangs of shame

Each time you trod upon the Mother's name.

 

Chorus

 

Though you thought you had destroyed

Each memory of the ancient ways,

Still the people light the balefire

Every year on Solstice day;

And on Beltane and at Samhain

You will find us on the hill,

Invoking once again the Triple Will!

 

Chorus

 

Through the ages many peoples

Have risen and have gone,

But dispersed among the nations

Of the world we linger on.

Now the time has come to take

The sacred Cauldron of Rebirth,

And fulfill our ancient pledges to the Earth!

 

Chorus

 

Kudos to Gwydion, who considered himself a Muse poet in the Gravesian tradition, for being the first to dream of a fine, rousing anthem for the New Old Religion(s). Alas that his aims generally outpaced his abilities.

As an anthem, We Won't Wait Any Longer hasn't aged well. The Pagan World has marched on in the last few decades, and the song's specifically Wiccan imagery reads more exclusively now than it did then.

Likewise, while fully endorsing the song's sentiments, I've always felt that it was weakened by the fact that it specifically addresses itself to...whom? Christianity? The Church? The non-pagan world in general? In any event, to them: the bad guys of our story.

To this, my attitude is: Why make our enemies the center of our discourse? F**k 'em! Let's direct our anthem to ourselves, or to our gods.

Well, there's no reason why, as New Pagans, we need an anthem, or—in what is, after all, the Wonderful World of the Many—anthems. Perhaps some day someone will write one that we can all get behind.

Until such a time (if any), my own nomination for New Pagan Anthem goes to Daniel Pemberton's We Shall Go Home/Song of Exile*, from the 2004 film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The Stinkies

“Steve, are you on AZT?”
It was a hot, steamy summer back at the beginning of AIDS. AZT was the first in the long line of drugs that the researchers cooked up to treat folks with HIV.

At festival after festival that summer, I'd been fielding indirect questions about my health from well-meaning people: “Steve, are you...OK?” Ah, the pagan rumor-mill. Well-known (and beloved) public gay guy, therefore, must have AIDS, right?

My current boyfriend was the last person from whom I expected to hear such a question, though.

“Gods, Don,” I say, a little miffed; I felt as though my integrity were being called into question. “We've been sleeping together for weeks. If I had HIV, don't you think I'd have told you by now?”

He apologizes handsomely. (He always was good at making up.) Still, it seemed an odd kind of question.

“Why do you ask?” I ask in turn.

“Your sweat smells like guys' on AZT,” he says.

Well, it was—as I'd said—a hot, steamy summer that year, and between the two of us we had indeed been working up a good deal of sweat. (“Is it possible for two men to have a baby together?” goes the world's oldest gay joke. Answer: “Theoretically no, but...they sure do keep on trying!”)

Still, it wasn't until long after the relationship was over that I finally puzzled out the answer to Don's question.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    I once read an article by an anthropologist who was interested in why Americans--of all people--should have invented deodorant. He
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    Salads just taste better if you chop up a slice on onion. Most dishes are improved with a couple of slices of onion and a couple

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
In Praise of Dicks

I don't normally watch much television, but a while back I saw three shows at a friend's house. What dismayed me so much was not to hear dicks mentioned on every single one of them—I'm gay, I enjoy talking about dicks—but to hear how they were mentioned.

Not once were dicks mentioned as a part of the body. In every single instance, they were used as metaphors. In every single instance, they were used as a metaphor for something bad.

Don't be a dick. Translation: Don't be a jerk.

Dick-measuring contest.Translation: Being needlessly competitive.

Dick-waving.Translation: Pulling rank to get what you want.

Now, using television as a cultural barometer is a fraught and risky enterprise. But all of these metaphors are in general, real-world use, and to my gay, pagan ear they suggest a culture that finds maleness problematic.

And that really is a problem.

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Recent comment in this post - Show all comments
  • Kile Martz
    Kile Martz says #
    Certainly referring to another as a taboo body part is one of the oldest forms of insult. Even today when you call a man a "dick,"

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