The man who taught me yoga was lean and stringy—the very image of a traditional yogi, except for his greying mullet and tendency to sound like a Baptist preacher. But today his voice was soft as he led 70 would-be yoga teachers in one of our last exercises: getting over ourselves.
Seated in pairs back to back, we each confessed the qualities of our “bad” self. Then we walked around as that self, eyeing the others from out of our darkness. Excruciating.
We repeated the exercise with our higher selves. Walking in their aura was less painful, but still uncomfortable.
Finally, we used two other students as “statues” to form a tableau of our bright and dark sides. “Walk around and look at your two selves,” came the instruction. I circled mine. One crouched in agony; the other reached out to console, but failed to connect. They saddened me.
“Now, remember. You are not the people in the centre. You are the one walking around them.”
If I was merely the one observing from the edge, that meant all I had was my own awareness. Everything else—what happened to me, how I reacted— was determined by causes and conditions stretching back before I was born. Even my most intimate thoughts were, in some sense, impersonal occurrences over which I had little control. Nonetheless, my ego had shaped it all all into a stirring novel starring me, saint and sinner, trapped in a narrative of defensiveness and blame. Until I crawled out from between the pages and held the book in my hands, I would never be free.
Years later, my pagan group did an exercise from Starhawk’s Twelve Wild Swans. We took turns to sit, veiled, while others made statements about us: “You’re creative,” “You’re shy,” etc. The veiled one’s response was always: “Perhaps, but I am so much more.” As we spoke the phrase over, we sensed the vastness of our unknown selves. It was strangely comforting. Perhaps we really were more than we knew.
More and less. Buddhism points to the mutability of all things, including what we think of as the self. We are all of us shape-shifters, actors, liars even, often ignorant of our true motivations. We’re not who we were five years ago, or even five minutes ago. Pagans worship many gods because reality is multifaceted and shifting, and so are we.
Events, sensations, thoughts, emotions interact on their own to create the kaleidoscope of our experience. Pagans and yogis see mystery within all this: the immanent Goddess, the divine Self. Buddhists more starkly call it “emptiness.” Emptiness, openness, mystery—there are many names for the terrifying truth that frees us. We honour it in the form of shape-shifting deities (like Odin, Dionysos, Hermes) who slip through boundaries and come from the edges.
Facebook urges us to find out what tarot card we are, self-help books offer to identify our “soul signature,” but the truth is we are everything and nothing and our true home is the edge of possibility, way beyond the centre of certainty.
That being said, I still have to live with what reality tosses up, the raw material for the novel of “me” that’s constantly writing itself. I have to dive beneath its wordy surface to witness the raw emotional core. That’s where I’ll learn to tolerate discomfort, take advantage of joy, be broken by pain and so find compassion. But to do this work I have to be outside the story, on the edge of the emptiness…and in the lap of the gods.
When they first appeared in the fields, the lambs were small and sprightly, curious about everything. They ran and leapt about, little bundles of wild enthusiasm. There comes a point in the year – and we’re about there now – when lambs stop being little bouncy things, and start noticing that they are in fact, sheep. They fill out, getting that barrel body. They eat grass rather than relying on milk, run less, get sensible, because this is what sheep do.
Some years ago I met a guy at a badger hide, who was talking about the badger group and how one of the young badgers was totally bonkers. He hadn’t figured out what being a badger was all about, and was still running round like a mad thing. It was speculated that eventually he would get this sorted out, and grow up, and become like a regular badger.
We arrive in the world full of enthusiasm and curiosity, with no idea who and what we are. We run around like mad things. For humans, there isn’t a specific time of year for settling down and honouring a sensible transition to proper, steady adult behaviour. If we did rites of passage for our young folk, perhaps this would be different. If we did those rites of passage, perhaps they should be at this time of year, when so many other young mammals are dealing with the transition into adulthood.
It is interesting at this time of year when you can watch the lambs figuring out that they’re turning into sheep, to consider what we have turned into, and whether that was what we expected. It probably isn’t what we initially hoped for or planned. Those of us who wanted to be wolves, but turned into sheep. Those of us who took off our princess dresses, hung up our fairy wings and got a proper job. Those of us who surrendered dreams for the sake of imagined security, only to find out nothing is as certain as we were told it would be. There are also the ugly ducklings who turn out to be swans, lost children who are really princes... there are many transformation stories to tell. Now that the lambs are no longer so small and bouncy, it is good to stop and remember them, and honour the change, while questioning our own.
* The Fields first appeared in the print Winter 2014 issue of Plant Healer Magazine
“The morning air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet… From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
“Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.”
― Willa Cather
It’s early morning. The sun has not yet ascended. I am in the field – a field of my own imagination and freedom. The night has meaning that I am not obliged to compose. The night is a terrible myth only the healing fields can erase. My siblings are asleep. My mother is nowhere. I don’t know her and she left years ago. My father is at work. I am only 16, but I know how to run a house. I know how to evade misery and I know how to dream.
The horses in the field are aware of my escape. They are sleepy with my visions. I come here to talk to them, to tell them how a girl will one day live in France. I am a wanderer, but I am always married to these woods, to the pond, to the strange flight of swallows and the pervasive faces of Black-Eyed Susans that lean in and surround my victim heart. They tell me I can bend in this. They tell me that the harshness of being alive will scatter my song into fields I can never dream of knowing. The Queen Anne’s lace agrees. She knows I look west – how can I not? The setting sun means that this day is over, and I wanted only just to get through the day then. I wanted the pull of tides and the warmth of the dry earth to tell me that it will be over… soon.
At night the sound of bullfrogs in unison keep me company – the earth’s drums. Fireflies light their way through paths of dogwood, sassafras, and walnut trees. Black walnuts, I will learn, are bitter but make wonderful stain for the bodies of guns and the hair of bold girls who hate their golden locks. All autumn I will watch the men of my family boil up the walnuts over an open fire, then use the stain on their muzzleloaders. It’s deer season. The trees are in full fall plumage and the odor of fireplaces and errant embers blankets the terrain. The fields are aglow with gold and bronze –between the black dots of cattle, the wheat and grasses burn across the landscape and rise into the outline of crows and trees, the somber shades of a darkening season.
The family, the home, doesn’t control everything that happens in childhood. I, being the oldest of so many children, never felt contained by the rooms and routines of the domestic life. I felt alone among my childhood walls. In the fields, I was with the world. The sun’s gracious warmth and the nocturnal ballads of screech owls and cicadas filled my young life with a social song of otherworldly friendship – of love that would not come with high price and cold reality.
During the summer months, I would climb over limestone boulders to swim in abandoned quarries filled with years of rain. There was a danger in those stones I knew in every step – the boys who would circle around us girls, staring at our breasts, groping for pleasure in the moonlight of expectation and longing. A fox sprite, I would scramble across each boulder, half-clothed, ignoring the admonitions of danger – the very real causalities of abandoned places where several wanton youth perished or injured themselves with a false step or an ill calculated dive. Still, I would not fear stone as I would fear the circling of humans, the risk of love.
Summers were spent on horseback, exploring the woods that surrounded the 40 acres of farmland I grew up within. My friends and I would spend hours lounging on the mossy earth, making pinwheels from the flowers of the giant tulip trees that lined the yard. Abandoned houses stood exposed in their brick and stone secrets where we found incredible gifts of the past: old school books, clothes, rotting trunks, fabric, discarded chairs…. Climbing the rotten steps and inching our way between holes in floorboards, we asked the Ouija board about our future. Would there be love? Would there be children? Even in asking, I knew I did not belong to the stories of these girls, my then friends. I knew the woods spoke to me of something else – and named me what I could not name myself.
Like a bell jar over these scenes, I uncover the sensory memory – this place belongs to me just as I remain there. I have trouble remembering the names of schools, teachers, and old friends. I cannot tell you one fond memory of high school, but I can walk you through every branch, every cornfield, and every sinkhole with its murky mystery with impeccable clarity – the use of every sense, the body-knowledge of a wolf.
As a child, I waited in fields for some salvation from the human world. As a child, I thought little of erroneous pop culture myths and urban pressures. I knew only these fields that carried a song across veins of stream beds. I collected arrowheads among clay and sandstone alcoves, high above rivers. There were ancient others who understood the seasons and gave voice to the living world. I longed to know these people. I dreamed they would come and find me, waiting there among the eroding banks.
There is something innately spiritual and mythical about land and water, plant and sky. The earth asks us to both dig deep into our roots and find peace but also to explore the limits of life on the surface – to know that life is harsh and lovely, unfair yet fully present. There is very little within me that did not directly grow from the pleasure of place. As the fog of violence entered in, I managed to remain truly connected to hope. Survival was all around me. The young of other species were not spared. They adapted or died. I took this lesson in and held on, used my wits, and stayed rooted in the brutal beauty of life.
I was a girl of fields. I was a girl forced to become a woman too soon. Yet I remember being in those apple orchards with the bees looming between my footsteps. I remember picking rhubarb for cobblers; hiding between grapevines to jump out and scare my brother… these were the memories that formed my identity.
If my writing has some greater purpose or some message to share, I want it to be with the desperate child who has no wild ally, the lost one who has no land to adore. This is one who – unless artificially protected – will not adapt and therefore stands a greater chance of passing the violent lineage on through commerce, procreation, and self-abasement. This is the dominance of a hopeless world of acquisition and subterfuge. This is the one who comes to a visual feast of delight with no eyes.
The last time I visited the hillsides and fields of Southern Indiana, I spent some time at the grave sites of my ancestors. The church cemetery, I couldn’t even begin to show you where it is on a map. I only know how to get there by the blood pulse of who I am, instinct. This is a resting place of farm families and Depression era babies, of Welsh and French miners. The place is thick with ferns and Virginia pines. Everything is tinged with moisture and I am still in love with the smell of damp earth, something my Southwestern home has never been able to provide.
Across from the cemetery, there is a field that has been used by farmers for several generations. Not one building has stood on that soil. I have my sleeping bag and a telescope. Under the barbed wire I slip and find a good place to bed down for the night. Already, the cold has settled in and the cicadas have descended. Grasshoppers share the warmth of my bag – the sky above: blackness and stars. Who can say what home truly is, what defines the domestic? Is it the family, children? Is it a house we work hard to buy? Or a lover to bring us into our own senses through touch and giving?
In these fields I was alone, but I was home. I did not care to run or spoil the moment with worries about my life. It did not occur to me to want to be protected, or in dreams of France or some other country. I nestled into my bag – where the girl met the hold of the earth – and slept like someone who has found genuine belonging.
I have written much about my feelings of the word "pagan" on my primary religious blog, Of Thespiae. I've written about how the use of the word in the pagan community has become so loose that it's meaningless for all practical purposes. I've written about how, in spite of regular protests from the pagan community, the implicit "positive definition" of "paganism" ("positive definition" meaning "defining what something is"; whereas "negative definitions" define by what a word is not) is incredibly Eurocentric . I've even mentioned how the "negative definition" of the word "pagan" isn't necessarily true, as the tradition of Christopaganism certainly makes it hard to say where the Christianity ends and the paganism begins. I've written about the incredibly secular climate of the pagan community in current culture.
The word "pagan" is not one I've been terribly fond of. Early on in my spiritual journey, earliest possible point being around either 1989 (when a nun at my old Catholic school gave me a copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths and, I swear, I felt touched by Apollon in ways that Jesus and El Shaddai just never really could) or 1993 (when I first really started exploring ostensibly "pagan" paths), the word "pagan" was practically interchangeable with "Wiccan" or "witchcraft", or so it seemed when trying to find any books on the topic; there was a minority of books about Heathenry, Celtic polytheism, and neo-Druidry, but there was no uncertainty to the dominance of witchcraft-based paganism, and frankly, that only barely interested me, and not enough to really look too deeply into it. For a very brief time in high school, I practised a hodgepodge "Celtic reconstruction" of my own design, but I eschewed the word "pagan" because this didn't fit the common idea that most people had of "pagans" in the modern days, which was pretty much synonymous with "witchcraft", even if one knew that religious witchcraft wasn't as phantasmagorical as scenes from The Craft or even Practical Magic, they didn't really conceptualise it as simply "worshipping the gods of the British Isles", which is what I did, then. Toward the end of high school, I just gave up on my self-made Panceltic religion, cos most of those gods barely seemed "real" to me, and I joined the Church of Satan briefly, which is adamantly not pagan, in its self-definition, and though most members describe Satanism under the definition of Anton LaVey as "atheistic", further reading into LaVey's later essays, and not to mention certain interpretations of passages in The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals, suggest that he himself was better defined as Maltheistic (a word of earliest use in print traced to Usenet in 1985, and defining one who ostensibly believes in one or more gods, but deems It/(S)He/Them as unfit for human worship; see LaVey's "God of the Assholes", which appears in Satan Speaks! ©1997, for the most clear evidence of LaVey's maltheistic, rather than atheistic beliefs). I was never a good atheist, somewhere in my head, I always believed in the gods of Hellas, and I was never maltheistic, either, because even if some deities don't want, need, or even deserve my worship, there are others that do, and by the time I was twenty-two, I basically outgrew the need for LaVey's church that I briefly had. But pagan? To see if that word fit, I put a toe in the on-line pagan community for the first time in six years when I was about twenty-four, and at that time, I'd discovered a vibrant and thriving community of Hellenic reconstructionists, most of whom had mixed feelings about the word "pagan". I pretty much only interacted with other recons for about another two or three years, and though I forget what ultimately teased me out, I had never really fully embraced "pagan" as a part of my religious identity.
Now, I say "religious identity". This is important. Though there are certainly a handful of people who describe their religion as simply "pagan" or "paganism", there is no single, positively-defined religion called "paganism". The word "pagan" is generally assumed to be a collection of religions, generally of European or Mediterranean (including the Near and Middle east and Northern Africa, specifically countried along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) origin, that either a) pre-date Christianity, b) attempt to reconstruct or revive said, or c) are newer religions that are at least somewhat influenced or inspired by said (like Wicca or Feri). Prior Christianity, none of the local religions of Europe and the Mediterranean called themselves "pagan"; indeed, one's religion was usually just a part of the local lifestyle and was, at most, simply the way of worshipping the local gods --the ancient Greek dialects don't even have a word for "religion", the closest being "ta hiera", which is often translated as "the sacred" or "sacred things". "Pagan" is a thoroughly modern religious identity; similarly, "gay" is a thoroughly modern sexual identity, as in ancient times, most cultures didn't compartmentalise human sexuality with terms like "heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual" and sexuality certainly had less to do with the gender ofthe person one was attracted to than it had to do with the activities one engaged their sexual partners with. These identities certainly exist, but they lose all meaning outside a modern context, and even within that context, are subject to change in their subtlety of meaning due to many factors, including time, location, implications by the speaker, and inference of the listener.
The Roman word "paganus", often translated as "of the countryside", was often a colloquialism roughly equivalent to the modern American English "hillbilly", with connotations of being "backwards" and ignorant. When early Roman Christianity adopted a militaristic means of enforcement, the "paganus", not necessarily of the countryside any-more, were those who held to the old ways. (Exactly how long those "old ways" were held to is still debated in some circles, but contrary to what some academic pagans may believe, the witch cult hypothesis hasn't been completely discredited.)
The first appearance of the word "neopagan" actually came in the 19th Century, in a critique of a wave of English poets and writers who were utterly fascinated with Greco-Roman pre-Christian literature, and so Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others were criticised as "neopagans". I can't think of a single one of those people who identified with the word "pagan"; Shelley described himself as Atheist, Oscar Wilde was a Catholic.
The words "pagan" and "neopagan" came to be reclaimed by the community of Wicca initiates, Dianics, and others by the 1970s. Then some time in the 1980s, Heathens decided that what they were doing was different enough, and made efforts to divorce their community from the pagan community, and nowadays, most Heathens (at least in my experiences) have nothing to do with the pagan community, no matter how many "pagan 101"-type books include Heathenry in a list of pagan religions. And that's just fine. People are certainly welcome to describe themselves in whatever words they like, especially when a community is very small (much smaller than it is today) and only people who are kind of similar are looking for common traits to band together under.
Since then, there have been a great many strides made for the pagan community --socially and legally-- even though there is clearly so much more to be done. One of the major improvements is that the pagan community no longer encompasses people practising Wicca or something based on it, and even fewer are "starting out Wiccan, first"; at one time, I was the only person I knew in the Hellenic community who was honestly never a Wiccan or something like it prior to Hellenismos, but of the people I actively engage with in the Hellenic community now, I can't think of a single person under the age of thirty who says they were previously practising Wicca. While Wicca still manages to dominate the mainstream media image of "paganism", it's no longer the unyielding monolith of the pagan community while us chimps standing around it struggle with rocks and sticks just in hopes of being seen.
So what does "pagan" mean, now, given the clear change to the landscape?
As best as I can say, "pagan" is an experience that one practising certain religions may face. The pagan experience includes, but might not be limited to:
Since ancient times, the word "pagan" has been used by a mainstream of society to "other" people who were different. It's been attached by urban and military Romans onto a rural population; it's been attached by Christians onto polytheists (including animists) and atheists alike. It's not our word, it's theirs, some of us have just reclaimed and repurposed it.
The trend to self-identify with the word "pagan" is a very new thing in recent years, and is a practise eschewed by most Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Shenists, Taoists (and others of Chinese religions), Native American / First Nations and Aboriginal Australian, Maori, and people of indigenous Polynesian peoples. The word has decreased in popularity among reconstructionists practising European and Mediterranean religions because in spite of clear growth in the pagan community, misunderstandings of what makes Eclectic Wiccans and, say, Kemeticists distinct continues to fall on deaf ears both outside and within the pagan community, as some people are still very insistent that the various religions under the alleged "pagan umbrella" share "common roots" when that hasn't been indisputably true since the Indo-European nations deviated from Sanskrit (or perhaps earlier).
I therefore posit that focusing on the idea of "pagan" as a religious grouping is all wrong. The better idea is to focus on the idea of "pagan" as a social experience, not unlike the social experiences of race, sexuality, and gender. To be "pagan" is less about how one relates to one's own religious path, and is more about how the ostensibly Judeo-Christian, or more broadly, Abrahamic society relates to religions that it decrees to be "pagan", and if we go to the sources of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, this experience of being "paganised" (to use the modern term) is one that pre-dates Roman dominance, and is as old as proto-Monotheistic/Monolateral Semetic religion. To be "pagan" is to be the "Other" of a society.
In my previous post, I discussed why I thought identity was an essential principle of magic and explored what magic as an ontological practice might look like. In this post, I want to unpack identity further so that we can learn what makes up identity and how we can work with it as a magical principle. Some of what I discuss below can also be found in my book Magical Identity.
Your Family is one of the foundational elements of your identity. Your mother and father, and siblings (if you have any) provide you the initial experience of the world, as well as modeling behaviors about how to interact with the world. They pass down both their functional and dysfunctional behaviors, both in terms of how they interact with you and around you. It's fair to say that your identity is shaped by them for your entire life. I'd argue that your family is one of the more influential elements of identity and one that needs to be carefully explored in order to change a lot of your own behaviors. Your family also models financial and health skills to you. Even if they never explicitly discuss finances or health, they nonetheless provide you with standards that impact how you handle both throughout your life.
Your Genetics are another element of identity. Your health is determined in part by your genetics and knowing your family's health history can help you plan accordingly. Many of the diseases we deal with seem to have a genetic component, which can also shape your identity and how you prepare to deal with those diseases. But beyond health, your genetics also plays a role in your overall appearance, which also creates a sense of identity that shapes your life.
The culture and subcultures you are part of also shape your identity. The cultural norms dictate what behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, as well as dictating what types of appearance is acceptable or unacceptable. But beyond that culture is formed by a shared discourse, with specific language and actions that determine who is part of a given culture/subculture and who isn't. High school is an excellent example of culture in action, with its various cliques which are actually subcultures, but you can see this at work in any kind of gathering of culture. Where you fit into culture shapes your identity and your interactions with others.
Ethnicity is another form of identity, which can be linked to culture. The ethnic background that a person has provides access to specific customs and behaviors and beliefs that are related to that ethnicity. Everyone has an ethnic heritage, but for some people it is more important or prevalent than others, because of the sense of identity and empowerment it provides them, or because it gives a shared identity which can be used to resist the hegemony of the dominant culture.
Class is also part of identity that is shaped by the economic status and opportunities a person has access to. If a person comes from a blue collar family for example, this shapes the identity of the person around the economic opportunities available to him/her. However class is also dictated by behavior. If you call someone a redneck, for instance, you are associating that person with a specific class, but also with specific behaviors.
Privilege is a part of identity that shapes the level of opportunities that has a person has access to. A person who is white and middle class and male, for example, will have a level of privilege in the U.S. that many other people don't have. If on the other hand you are a black woman your level of privilege will be different. In my opinion, privilege is one of the most overlooked aspects of identity, usually because people become uncomfortable when they realize that their level of privilege can either put them into a more advantageous or disadvantageous situation. Privilege demonstrates the inequity of identity, when identity is abused as a way of putting certain types of people into positions of advantage and opportunity that other people don't have access to.
Race is another part of identity. If you are an Asian that will provide a different identity than if you are a white or black person. I'd argue that race is separate from ethnicity. Just because someone is Asian, for example, doesn't mean that s/he is also Chinese or speaks the Chinese languages etc. However what it does mean is that there is a shared racial identity in a very general sense of the world that can shape how people treat someone.
Your gender is both a biological piece of identity, and a self conceptualization. It is a biological aspect of identity in terms of what genitals are between your legs, but it is also a self-conceptualization in terms of whether or not you identify yourself as male, female, or intersex. The self-conceptualization is an important distinction to make because even if you are biologically male, you may not think of yourself as male and may feel a need to change your biology to become the gender identity you feel yourself to be.
Sexuality is distinctly different from gender because it refers to your sexual desires and how they in turn inform your identity, both in seeking sexual partners, but also in how you relate to people in general, and how those people treat you as a result.
Your body is the physical representation of identity and how you treat yourself. Some people treat their bodies like a tool, while others treat it as a living universe. How you feel about your body and take care of it speaks to your identity on not just a physical level, but also an emotional, mental, and spiritual level.
I likely haven't covered every aspect of identity I could cover and what I've provided above are short definitions that provide a rough understanding of these elements of identity (We know that because of all the books that are available on each of these topics, plus all the conversations, etc.). I believe that some of these elements of identity can be changed, while others are fairly fixed. However, even the ones that can be changed usually involve change on a societal level, as well as a personal level. Working with identity as an element of magical can be useful both as a means of doing internal work, but also as a form of social inquiry and activism that prompts us to consider if we are really happy with the status quo of identity, or if we need to continue to push for change, so that identity becomes a form of liberation and empowerment instead of oppression (I'd argue it can be simultaneously both for people).
To work with identity as a magical principle involves exploring hard questions about respective places in the world and the level of opportunity that is available to a given person. But I think that integrating these aspects of identity into magical work can produce an opportunity for a spiritual and mundane journey that allows us to not only question the status quo, but also work toward a better world.
I arrived Friday night after a long solo drive from the SF Bay Area to Los Angeles, through rain and the hairy Grapevine Canyon through the Tehachapi Mountains, stressed and with intense pain between my shoulders. Cranky, in other words. Soon Lauren cheered me up.
Saturday morning's first session consisted of four speakers. Joseph Nichter, an Iraq war veteran, spoke of using Tarot in healing PTSD. I loved his ideas about what he calls "peripheral exploration," wherein the querent draws a single card, places it on a larger sheet of paper, and draws a scene that embeds the image in the card in a larger picture.