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.

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The Worst Maypole Dance I Ever Saw

To begin with, real Maypoles don't have streamers.

Oh, they may have ribbons: brightly-colored ones, along with the garlands of flowers and fresh greenery.

But “wrapping the Maypole,” now: that's a 19th century import from Bavaria—where the two highest points in any given town are usually the steeple and the Maypole—that educators loved because it was such a “pretty” custom. Ugh.

(In Bavaria, the streamer dance is performed as a show of skill. The point is not to wrap the maypole, but to wrap and then unwrap it. Now that shows prowess.)

Nope; when it comes to Maypoles, the real thing is a real, live tree, fresh-cut that morning and borne rejoicing from the woods (the original magic here is to bring home the vitality of the Wild) by the young folks of the village, who probably did a little early-morning rejoicing of their own in the woods. You lop off all the branches except the ones at the very top, deck it with the flowers and greenery that you gathered in the woods, and set it up as the centerpiece of the May Day merriment.

(In the Rites of May, the Maypole presides only over the Day festivities, the centerpiece of the Night revels being, of course, the Fire of Nine Woods.)

Real Maypole dances don't have anything to do with streamers. They're ring dances performed around the Maypole.

The worst Maypole dance that I ever saw—fortunately I was a musician that year and hence not criminally liable—was perpetrated by an enthusiastic crew with lots of Wiccan training under their cinctures, each one just brimming with magical Intent.

Unfortunately, they all had different Intents.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    And thank Goddess for greenhouses! How the ancestors would have loved them.
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Some years we have to make do with box and holly. Oh, well. In Scandinavia, the "May Stang" goes up at Midsummer's. All paganism i
  • JudithAnn
    JudithAnn says #
    Great piece on traditional Beltane. Now only if I lived in a place where flowers and greenery might be gathered on May first. At l
'The Union of the Gods Renews the World'

Paganistan was born from an act of love.

Beltane 1976. For the first time, on May Eve the Minnesota Church of the Wicca (MCoW) selects, by lot, a woman and a man who, while the rest dance and sing to raise the power, retire to the May bower to enact the Great Marriage of the Gods.

It was the making of our community.

We've enacted the rite ever since. This year marks the 43th annual May Marriage, the local community's oldest ongoing tradition. It's a record that any New Pagan community could envy.

The tradition is currently carried by the Wiccan Church of Minnesota, MCoW's daughter organization, but has worked its way out into the community at large. “The Union of the Gods renews the world,” wrote local priestess Hillary Pell (herself a May Queen emerita) in 1998.

Last year, winter lingered late. A freak mid-April blizzard paralyzed growth and, two weeks later, there was still nary a sign of Spring to be seen.

In the dusk of May Eve, we kindled the Beltane Fire. Our newest member led her partner off to the May bower. As they made love, we sang and danced the sacred dances.

Now, whether or not it had anything to do with what we—or they—did that night, I don't claim to know. (I rather doubt it.) But this much I can tell you.

By the next day, there was green everywhere. Overnight, the buds had broken. Between the setting and the rising of the “ithyphallic adolescent Sun” (to quote Feraferia's Fred Adams), Spring—in amazing chloroplast explosion—had sprung.

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Does Modern Skyclad Actually Derive from Christianity?

Posch, you've lost it. Are you actually saying that skyclad in the modern Craft derives from Christianity?

Well, yes: yes I am. At least in part.

Modern ritual nudity is a cord plaited from many strands, among them Christian thought and iconography. Among these strands, we may number the following:

Naturism. The period between the First and Second World Wars saw a massive rise in movements advocating cultural alternatives, the logic being: obviously the old ways aren't working; let's try something new. Modern Nudism/Naturism first arose in Germany, and spread rapidly.

The Heroic Nudity of Antiquity. The art of antiquity is replete with naked gods and heroes, which of course reentered European consciousness in a big way during the Renaissance. It's fully possible that the heroic nudity of Classical antiquity has its ultimate roots in the martial nudity of the ancient Indo-Europeans, and that the tradition of Greco-Roman heroic nudity is thus genetically akin both to the naked warriors of the Keltic world, and to the ascetic nudity of the jinas and gymnosophers of the Indian Subcontinent (as “spirit warriors”), from which, of course, the term “skyclad” itself derives.

Folk Magic. As Ron Hutton discusses in his seminal essay “A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity,” nakedness figures prominently in European folk magic, a function, essentially, of inversion: raising power by doing things backwards. Witches being quintessential magic workers, ergo naked witches.

Renaissance Art. The iconography of the naked witch first arose among Renaissance print-makers. The Renaissance saw the rise of print-making, the first modern art-form that regular people could afford and, as we all know, nudity sells. Classically-derived nudity was already big in Renaissance art, and it was the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages, which saw the worst of the Great Persecution. If the witch is popular, and nudity is popular, the naked witch has got to be a winning combination.

The Renaissance's naked witch has deeper roots, however. With the rise of the concept of the Witch's Sabbat in the 15th and 16th centuries, print-makers quickly adopted the inverted world of the Sabbat, in which nudity figured prominently, as a favorite motif. Although there is as of yet no definitive study of the development of the Sabbat motif in art, to my eyes it clearly derives from Medieval precedents: the Last Judgment and the fate of the Damned in Hell.

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  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton says #
    The idea of "Edenic" nudity carried forward into some heretical Christian movements, such as the Brethren of the Free Spirit and o

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The Inner Life of Gods

At the heart of the paganisms lies the grand drama of the seasons.*

In the unfolding of the year, before our eyes, the gods live out their eternal stories.

In ritual, we encounter these gods.

In ritual, we participate in these stories.

In ritual, we enter into the inner life of the gods.

This is what ritual can do for us.

This is what ritual should be doing for us.

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My First Skyclad Wedding

I'd been to my share of skyclad rituals before, but this was to be my first among non-pagans.

Both the bride and the groom had grown up in the naturist movement, and wanted to get married at their naturist club.

“What about your parents?” I asked, curious.

Their parents were members, too.

“Grandparents?”

Turns out Grandma also belonged.

Together the three of us planned a nice, tight little ceremony. Finally I popped the obvious question.

“Uh—did you want me to be naked too?”

“That's up to you,” they say.

The day of the wedding came: beautiful, sunny. What the heck? I thought. When at home, do as the homos do. I stripped off with the rest, and the ceremony went swimmingly.

(Feeling that, naked or not, I needed something to mark me off as the officiant, I settled for my biggest, showiest torque. It did the job very nicely.)

Afterward, I stood around with the rest having a cocktail. The groom sidled up to me and slipped an envelope into my hand.

“Hey, we're going to start taking photos,” he says. “Would you like to be in them?”

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The Thrice-Bent God

Do you know what torques me off most* in contemporary depictions of the Horned God?

When the artist gets the legs wrong.

He's called the Thrice-Bent for a reason. In the arms, one bend. In the legs, two.

Check out the picture of the goat leg shown above. Note that the hind legs feature two bends: one pointing forward, one pointing back.

The forward bend is called the knee. The backward bend is called the hock.

When the Horned is shown with the rear legs of an animal (he isn't always), he should have both.

If you love the Horned well enough to depict him, you should love him well enough to look.

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To the Antlered: A Prayer

O thou

Betorqued Betined,

sitting cross-legged

on the altar:

in thy broad lap, O lord,

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