There is the giving of gifts and the receiving of gifts. There is the counting of how many who gave what and the reminders to say "thank you". Within the roots of holiday gift giving I find a lovely example of the Andean people of Peru's belief in "ayni" or sacred reciprocity. Ayni is the idea of the sacred balance of giving and receiving as the foundation of all life.
Different than the concept of fairness, ayni is not a dry calculation to balance the scales, but a living example of the Divine in action in our world. Gift giving, at its core, is the same. When we give gifts for the holidays there are certain social mores honored. We strive to choose gifts that will please the other person and show them our love. No matter what the content is of that next box we open, we plan to act delighted upon its unveiling because we care for the feelings of the person who gave it to us. Being a thoughtful giver is as important as being a gracious receiver.
In Peru, sacred reciprocity is not dependent on a holiday; it goes on in every moment. Every breath is considered a sacred exchange, taking in the One and letting out the One.
"Of the five principles, ayni is the single most important concept of the Andean way... it means the interchange of lovingkindness, knowledge, and the fruits of one’s labor between individuals, between humans and the environment, and between humans and nature spirits. Reciprocity implies that one’s labor is shared: I will help you today, and tomorrow you might help me. The purpose of reciprocity is the maintenance of life.
Ayni also implies respect for life... When we return the good that comes to us and show respect without judging the giver or what is received, it becomes benevolence in its highest form." - from The Shaman's Well
The act of holiday gift giving is meant to be a sacred act that is a demonstration of love and a celebration of the gifts of life. Ultimately, it is meant to be a ceremony revering the Divine no matter what religion or spirituality you practice. If that is always the case is another discussion and a hot debate in our avid consumerist society. However, for the sake of this line of inquiry, I am simply talking about the traditions at the heart of holiday gift giving.
When the holidays are over the cycle of giving ends in many of our lives. Any other times of year when we give gifts, the exchange is lop-sided or spread out over time. It is your friend's birthday. You give her a gift. She does not give you one until your birthday months later. The sacred act of giving and receiving at once is tucked away until next winter.
Already, by New Year's Day we have set aside reciprocity. We start out with our resolutions stating what we want for the year. It may be what we want of ourselves, what we'd like the universe to provide for us or what we'd like for the universe. Without taking a survey, I would say most resolutions are in the form of wishes which have us looking outward, waiting to receive.
What will we give this year?
A simple rephrasing of an already stated resolution may be all that's needed. How about changing "I'd like to be in better shape", to "I'm going to give my body fresh air and exercise"?
In 2015 as a way to work with the concept of ayni, I am formatting my resolutions differently. With a paired list, one column for giving and one column for receiving, I have the opportunity to see the sacred energy flowing in my life. By creating a balanced vision of what I'm putting out into the world and allowing in, I can pursue a deeper understanding of the Divine.
In setting a goal of keeping a meditation practice, I include channelling mystical love to those in need matched with opening up to grace that fuels my day. In resolving to continue nurturing my relationship with food, I commit to blessing my meals while accepting the nourishment they provide.
I will start each resolution with "I give..." or "I receive...", and at the end, I'll have a list with the same number of each.
This could end up looking like a way to bargain with the Divine if I am not careful. Bargaining prayers are a common default in our psyche, left over from childish maneuverings to get our way. It is important to remember that what is offered should be given for the sake of honest charity. On the other hand, what I receive must not be weighed against what I perceive to be my value. No asking, "Am I worth this?" here. This is about the outflow and inflow of grace regardless of the outcome. The goal, actually, becomes the mystical interchange that opens up correspondence with the spirits.
Setting the intention of each wish, each endeavor, as a sacred exchange with the world carries the idea of ayni out of the holidays and into the year ahead. In addition to these reciprocal resolutions, this year I would like to resolve to become a more skillful practitioner of sacred reciprocity. I plan to watch for how love moves out of and in to my life, how I receive and give kindness, and how the Beloved flows through all things.
Happy New Year to you. May you find all you wish for and more in 2015.
Moonhenge, in Cambridgeshire, is a brilliant example of new Pagan sacred spaces being created. With so much controversy over some of the megalithic stone circles and other sites around Britain, why should we not be creating more new spaces in which to celebrate, should we so wish?
Every Western Pagan knows about Stonehenge. They all know about the summer solstice celebration there. A loud and rowdy affair in which the public join in, it is more a rave than a sacred celebration. Though we cannot know for certain what the ancestors did in that ritual space, to me personally it just seems wrong to have people getting drunk and shouting loudly, climbing on stones and partying all night in a temple so closely linked to the dead as well as the sunrises throughout the year. I may be entirely wrong.
However, it just seems like sacrilege when the spirits of place are not honoured in a respectful way. To make something sacred is to honour and respect it – it is connected to such words as dedication, devotion and veneration, three things which most of the partygoers at the high point in summer are not terribly concerned with at Stonehenge.
The creation of sacred space is a key tenet of Druidry and many other Pagan religions. It is an invasion to have people that you do not know enter your sacred space and act out of accordance with the intention of the rite or ritual being performed. Out of hours access permits are available to those who wish to use the particular temple of Stonehenge for more private use, however, during the actual time of the sunrises and sunsets at various times of the year, this temple space must be shared with those who are not in tune with the intention.
Other sacred sites around the world do not seem to suffer as much from this intrusion. We would not party in Chartres Cathedral, for instance, or rave all night in the Temple of Athena.
There are other issues as well, such as the litter left by those who are not considering this sacred ground, which those dedicated and devoted Pagans must clean up afterwards. It can reflect badly upon the dedicated Pagans attending, as if they are contributing to the mess, when they might simply be there to do damage control, at the very least. What I would posit is that they should not have to do any sort of damage control at all. Respect for the place should be inherent in the site itself, and the caretakers – for Stonehenge, it would be English Heritage.
This is not to say that all the Pagans attending the Stonehenge open access celebrations are upstanding members of the community. There are some who have contributed to the litter, some who climb on the stones, some who get drunk in the temple alongside the secular people who are just there for a grand party and to say that “I was there at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice”. I recently visited the Rollright Stones and spent the first twenty minutes of my visit picking up litter in the form of starry glitter, ribbons and party popper wrappers that some ritual group had used during a solstice ceremony. Candles left in ancient barrows. Flowers left as offerings, still wrapped in their shiny plastic, bought from Tesco’s.
So, what is a Druid to do, when wanting to celebrate with the ancestors at sacred sites during special times of year and yet not wanting to participate in the sort of celebration and, dare I say it, desecration of such sacred space?
Most would simply say “Get out into the forest and celebrate then”. Yet, it should be every Pagan’s right to celebrate with the ancestors and their ancient monuments should they wish, right?
Maybe not. I have been in stone circles such as Stonehenge, where the vibe is very much “Go Away”. They hate being a tourist attraction, those stones. Some ancient monuments may love it. It all depends on the spirits of place. Out on the moors in Devon or in the wilds of the Lake District are stone circles that the nature spirits have taken over from the humans who originally built it. Their purpose has shifted.
So again, what is a Pagan to do? Well, inspiration can be found in Cambridgeshire, where a wooden henge, now called Moonhenge, was built. This structure was built by a farmer on his private land in honour of his wife, who was a spiritual healer. Though not open to the public, private access may be obtained for rituals and ceremonies. Perhaps this is the way forward, to keep such spaces sacred and away from those who are not in tune with the intention of the place.
It is my opinion that we, as modern Pagans, need to build new temples like Moonhenge to worship or gather in, to celebrate the turning of the seasons. Yet money is a big factor in this – the majority of Pagans are not financially wealthy, and just buying land can be expensive. Yet it is not impossible – look at Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground and Nature Reserve – just a few acres and a couple of devoted and dedicated people, and a space that is filled with sanctuary and the sacredness of being is created. Sinfield Trust Nature Reserve has incorporated holiday cottages on a part of their land, to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the nature reserve which nearly went bust. This site also hosts a treehenge and a turf labyrinth for those spiritual people who are in tune with the intention of the place and who respect it with every fibre of their being. It can be done.
It is my personal preference to head out into the woods myself, the heathland and the sea coast to celebrate the turning of the wheel. Yet I also feel a strong desire to build something in which Pagans from all areas and all traditions could gather to celebrate together, with respect, should they so wish. Thoughts are stewing, looking for ways forward in this area.
In the meantime, I would encourage each and every one of you who share this viewpoint to see what can be created in your own community.
Photo below from Stonehenge 2014, taken from The Sleepy Backpacker's blog HERE
It’s not a surprise that some people have a natural revulsion to the kind of blood sacrifice practiced in the religions of the ancient world, and in some branches Paganism and Afro-revival religions. We have little exposure to death in our industrial world, and what exposure we do have is from the media ie. news, film fiction, and video games. Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones concluded with a scene of violent and dishonorable death, and more than one person I know found it deeply disturbing and unnecessary. (For the record, so did I) I’m not sure how realistically GoT portrays a feudalistic society, but the version we see on HBO is certainly nasty and brutish.
And our industrial farming practices are no less horrendous. When the idea of animal sacrifice comes up, the miserable life of such animals may be the first thing that comes to mind. A visceral repulsion to keeping animals confined, and feeding them the wrong food while keeping them from anything resembling a descent life is – in my world – healthy.
But if this visceral reaction against animal sacrifice is more about a failure of exposure to good death, or a fear of death, then that is worth examining. No being gets out of here alive, and we are all food (at least if we don’t get embalmed). Sacrifice is a good death for an animal. The commenter on Sam’s essay that argued that apple tress get to live out their natural lives while still providing food, failed to address the reality of “natural” animal death. *trigger warning*
Animals not under human care don’t ever die nicely. Humans are the only predators on the planet that have some care about how their prey dies. Predators chase their prey down, and it is frightened and in pain by the time the end comes. And sometimes it’s not dead before the eating starts.
Contrast this with the death of the grass-fed cow I purchased a few years ago. I buy beef in this form yearly, and on this occasion, the cow in question was owned by a friend, so I asked if I could be there for the killing. The bull died cleanly with a single shot to the head. I did not do a full ritual, but was able to give a blessing to the process. He lived his life fully as a bovine, eating only grass and having the company of his own kind. He was treated with care by my friend and was having a treat of day old bread when he went down. The ease of death is an indicator of how well the animals have been treated. An animal that fears humans will not stand around waiting for the bullet. Kindness and care are necessary to a good death.
I know a number of people who raise livestock for sale to local people. They all say the slaughter process is hard. They care about the well-fare of their animals and even though they know their eventual end, they understand that the price of distancing is worse. None of them got into farming because they dislike animals and enjoy seeing them killed.
Religious animal sacrifice increases the level of care. Increasing the level of care increases the level of caring. To give what we care about is the very essence of sacrifice.
I am back to writing my blog after taking a break to take care of myself and the many lovely people in my life. My blog should be back on a weekly schedule, barring times when the priorities of my life are more pressing than an online presence. My heartfelt thanks to those that reached out to me and also to those who gave me space. I was also away at PantheaCon and will write about how it touched me next week.
In words we find how fleeting and changeable is the boundary between the sacred and secular. When we speak of sacred texts, the exalted utterances of prophets and seers, and the invocations of priestesses and priests, we have the expectation and the hope of sacred communication and communion. I think that in part it is the expectation of sacredness that evokes and in some cases creates the sacredness of the words we hear and read. Of themselves, I'm not sure that many sacred texts are actually sacred. The books, the scrolls, the carvings upon stone that are called holy and sacred were not written nor carved by the God/dess/es. All that we have has all been recorded by humans. Moreover, what we have is all written or spoken in human languages. The finite and granular nature of our languages can only capture a small portion of the vastness that is Divinity. To say that any written passage, any book, or collection of books can show us the Divine or higher truths is unsatisfactory. It is as unsatisfactory as showing someone a photo that you took of the Grand Canyon and using your smart phone as a way of transmitting your experience of walking in a place of beauty. If the beauty, the grandeur, is experienced by gazing upon the photo, it is because you have experienced the beauty before and have called it forth within yourself. Like the photo, the words in sacred texts only act as the trigger for the remembrance of the sacred.
As a clarification, I should point out that there are differences in what individuals or communities categorize as sacred communication or as sacred texts. For some, anything that is purported to represent the stories, the myths, the words, or the teachings of God/dess/es or divine emissaries constitutes sacred text. Does this also include books on Astrology, the Qabala, or perhaps even an inspirational novel? I personally don't have a need for a definitive description on what constitutes sacred text. What matters to me is how words have the power to call forth the sacred, or perhaps more accurately, how words can act as the medium to conduct divine emanations. The receiver is equally important; just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder so is sacredness in the heart and the mind of the listener or the reader.
The value in having a nuanced understanding of the mutable and shifting nature of what constitutes sacred words and sacred texts can help to encourage more flexibility in how we approach what others consider sacred. Because of who I am, when I hear the Charge of the Goddess I feel a shiver that announces the sacred presence more clearly than the words of the Charge itself. I have friends that respond in a similar way to the Hávamál, I do not feel it in myself. However because I am looking for the sacred response in them, I am assured that these words are sacred to them.There are myths, sagas, scriptures, stories, and the like that I respond to immediately and others that after study then will awaken the sacred within me.There are also some writings that may become more interesting with study or meditation, but never become hallowed for me. The experience of the sacred may be a universal human trait, but the numinous and the mystical are not inherent and integral to the words that we use to describe those encounters.
I believe that to a great degree, it is our personal history, our education, and our expectations that determine whether or not we are open to receive the mysteries encoded within sacred words. Bearing that in mind, when I encounter something new I make an effort to bring those expectations to the fore. I also strive to resist my urge to exclude those things that are not already part of the collection or the category of sacred in my heart and mind. This is even more important when I am in a ritual or a ceremony and the words are being uttered by someone who is speaking for the God/des/ses. I try even harder to listen for the sacred when it is someone who is speaking while in trance or engaging in divine embodiment.
The difference between an enlivened statute of a God/dess and a lifeless idol is what we have imbued into the statue and what powers it anchors into this world. The same is true for words. Words can be as silent as a dead idol, or they can sing, shine and pulse with the power behind all things. I encourage you to listen fully and deeply, with more than your ears. I encourage you to read deeply and to look for layers of meaning with more than your rational mind. This may deepen your practice and your connection to your spiritual work. This may also benefit all of us. These efforts allow us to make note of what is holy for others and why, even if it is not for us.Then through our efforts, perhaps sacred texts will become enlivened with the power to unify us rather than divide us.
The path towards what we consider Sacred, towards what we consider Magic, can vary greatly from Pagan to Pagan; for some, big altars make them feel connected and empowered, while others prefer a much simpler, zen-type reminder of their beliefs, or even no altar at all; some Pagans are truly transformed by wearing ritual clothing, while others worship in jeans and a t-shirt, and others don't consider worship a need at all; all of them can be equally true ways to grow as a human being, which I think, in the end, that it's the only important thing.
For me, the path towards Sacredness, towards growth, is creating. Through learning how things are made, from spinning a single thread of yarn to understanding how herbs work together to create a healing medicine, I get closer and closer to Spiritual balance, to inner peace, to my idea of serving Nature and the Spirits that live in it, to mysticism and unity.
My work is my life, and my life is my Spiritual Path. I don't believe in Religion, I have never belonged to any group that's even close to a church/coven, and I really dislike labels, because they always focus more on what is different between us than in what we share. I usually call myself a Witch because it seems to be the most general term, and to make communication with others easier, but what I do, what I really do, is simply Living Connected - connected to myself, to Nature, to the Spirits, to what is visible and to what is invisible.
And, there is never a time when I feel that connection to be stronger than when I am creating. I had a very early vocation, both as a spiritual being and as a creator; painting was the first media I explored because I come from a family of painters; but I also come from a mother who was very interested in the 1970's Spanish UFO scene, so my love for art and the devouring of paranormal-themed magazines were my favourites activities as a child. My two true devotions, Art and Magic, grew together as one inside me.
Today, many (many!) years later, Art and Magic are my profession and my way of life, creating items for worship and devotion. There is no difference if I am embroidering a dress for a doll that will be the centre of an altar, I am chopping wax to recycle it into new candles, or if I am grinding herbs to create a new blend of incense – everything is Sacred, everything is Art, and everything is Magic.
Through this blog, part of that journey into creating will be revealed – through my own work, and through the history of handmade and its relationship with Magic. Only part of this trip can be revealed, not because the other part is secret, but because the other part can only be experienced; with my writing, I would like to wake up the Sacred Creativity of the readers of PaganSquare – because I firmly believe that, when we create, the Divine in us shines, and heals, and restores balance. When we create, we find ourselves; when we share what we create, we find the connection that makes us all One.