PaganSquare is a community blog space where Pagans can discuss topics relevant to the life and spiritual practice of all Pagans.
Last month, I wrote about the psychological dynamics behind the sacred spaces we create together and the ways we might utilize the power of sacred space to create a better world. This month, I'll be writing about what happens when the people to whom we have given power abuse it, and in doing so weaken both the internal and external cultures of the imagination we've worked so hard to build. Specifically, I'll be writing about the work of Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB), its influence upon a generation of Pagan women and the destructive effects of the recent pedophilia allegations against her.
The younger Pagans among you might not recognize the name, but if you're a Pagan woman of a certain age, you'll remember that MZB is the author of a much-beloved novel called The Mists of Avalon. This novel tells the Arthurian story from the point of view of its women and follows the life of Morgaine, otherwise known as Morgan le Fay. It was released in 1983, just a few years before I left an abusive family of Jehovah's Witnesses to live with my grandmother, who was also a Christian conservative. An avid reader, I found the novel in 1986, and it changed my life in ways that echo even now. It was the world I wanted to live in; a place where women existed in community with one another, where they wielded the ancient power of the divine feminine, where the sacred was protected from the mundane. Because of that book, I was drawn to Western European Paganism, and then to Celtic Pagan spirituality, and then to a degree in Celtic Studies, and then to Cape Breton. In a very real sense, The Mists of Avalon shaped my own culture of the imagination and helped make me the woman I am now.
Last month, I wrote about hiraeth, the cultures of the imagination we create as a Pagan community and the empowerment that occurs when we cultivate sacred spaces together. This month, I'll be expanding upon that theme with a discussion of the psychological dynamics behind this process and some suggestions about what we might do with the power inherent in it.
"I think the search for community, be it within the traditional cultures in Alba Nuadh1 or the various pagan cultural communities, is the proof of how crazy global consumerist culture has made us and, indeed, how wrong it is for us. We are instinctively looking for what felt right. I don't think that a homeland of the imagination is better than an actual community of people who see and speak to each other, but perhaps it can form a useful bridge to sustain isolated cultural thoughtful pagans during this period of global cultural and environmental decline." - Sylvain Grandcerf...
Recently, I saw a photo of an old, Pagan friend on Facebook. He was wearing a great kilt and a body full of blue paint, likely woad. His arms were crossed, and he was laughing at something off-camera. Behind him, a woman in jeans and a sweater walked down a garden path with a sword in her hand. There were tents and green trees in the background. I remembered his laughter as it had been when I knew him and missed the days when I could sit with kilted friends on American hillsides and talk of a Scotland that never was.
Two years ago, I was visiting Toronto for the World Fantasy Convention and met with another friend in Dundas square; a Pagan Celt and hospital chaplain who wears a torc I don't believe he ever takes off. Like me, he's a graduate of the Celtic Studies program at the University of Toronto, and he introduced me to two other graduates who went with us for chips and a pitcher of beer. We talked about the intersections of our educations and our spiritualities alongside a liberal smattering of pre-Christian references in early texts. It was an evening with people for whom no explanation was necessary, and I remember it fondly.
There is a Welsh word, 'hiraeth', which has no direct English translation but refers to a deep longing for homeland that might not exist or have ever existed. Dion Fortune surely touched on this idea when she referred to Glastonbury as the 'Avalon of the Heart'. Some feel this longing more deeply than others, and I think many who do find their way to Paganism, where there is a sympathetic welcome for refugees of places none of us can ever visit in our bodies. I'm certainly one of them, having felt this longing since I was in my early twenties, having built my life upon it, having earned a Bachelor of Celtic Studies, traveled to Ireland, immigrated to Canada and settled in a Gàidhealtachd of the Scottish Gaelic language because of it.
I still haven't found that homeland, by the way. It wasn't at the University of Toronto, though I did find many of the old stories there. It wasn't in Ireland, though the bones of that place played me like the instrument I am. And least of all, it isn't here in Cape Breton, where there is Gàidhlig culture aplenty steeped in the Catholic and Presbyterian religious ideologies of insular Celts who have less interest in enthusiastic newcomers than they claim1. Do I still support their efforts to preserve their unique heritage? Of course. Do I feel at home here?
I felt at home in the world of my friend's photograph. I felt at home in the pub where I sat with fellow Pagan Celts and sacralized the histories we love. I have felt at home wherever there were people like me, answering the call of similar places in their souls. Together, we've created a culture of the imagination, where we could recognize in each other what we had not found in the world, what may never have existed in the world until we created it. There are those who would belittle that culture because of its origins in us, but I think it's useful to remember that all cultures are products of the imagination. Some are just older or perhaps have a better established lineage than others.
And this culture nourishes us, doesn't it? When we come together, we create a home for each other where we can explore what it means to be human in the contexts of our Pagan spiritualities. For awhile, no explanations are necessary, and there is power in that. So I'm a great fan of circles, covens, groves, festivals and conventions; where we share the meals, rituals and realities we have created. Yes, there is conflict in those places sometimes, but the good we can do for each other and for the world far outweighs the potential for negativity. For my part, I'll be attending the Aegis Pagan Gathering and Spiritual Retreat later this summer, and I'm really looking forward to it. I hope you'll take the time to connect in person with your community as well. Pitch a tent, build a fire, cook a feast and invite your fellow Pagans to help create a culture that empowers you all.
Next time, I'll write a bit about what we might do with all that power.
1. 06/01/2014 19:19 ADT: I've been thinking about this sentence all afternoon, and I really feel I need to qualify it. Every word is true, but I realize it's possible to misconstrue what I've written as a condemnation of the Gàidhlig community here. That isn't my intention at all. I do have many Gàidhlig friends and acquaintances in Nova Scotia, and I value them greatly. However, integration into an insular, minority community is a complex process, and my own journey has certainly reflected that complexity. It's worth noting that many of us here who 'come from away' have similar stories to tell.
Who gets the right to define you? To label you? Is that right solely your own, or does it belong in some measure to the culture with which you identify? I've considered this question for a long time, and I've concluded that there's no easy answer.
I've long been an advocate for the principle of self-identification: If you choose to identify yourself in specific terms, who are others to challenge it? But things really aren't that simple, are they? What about frauds who have ulterior motives for adopting a label? What about people who don't really understand what the label means?...