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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Holy Shit

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

It's a curse word. It's the ultimate bad comparison: “Smells like....” “Tastes like....” To the poisoning of our waters and the impoverishment of our fields, we flush it away so we can pretend it doesn't exist. Frequently enough our collective aversion seems to take on a moral tone. Bad shit.

I think we've got it wrong. The opprobrium in which we hold shit is a mistaken opprobrium. I don't think this is how pagans think.

Old English scîtan, “to defecate.” We didn't have fancy Latinisms back then to describe an everyday bodily function and its product. Same with Old Norse skíta and Old High German skîzzan. We've been talking shit for a long time, it would seem. All the offspring of Common Germanic *skîtan, “to separate, defecate.” Separate and defecate. Where's the opprobrium?

The Kalasha of Pakistan are the last remaining pagans of the Hindu Kush. The greatest festival of their year is Chaumos, the winter solstice. To decorate their houses and temples for the holiday, the children whitewash the walls and cover them with good luck paintings for the coming year: sun-wheels, trees, pastures, hunters, and goats, goats, goats. (The goat is central to the Kalasha economy.)

An anthropologist observing while the children painted these designs noticed that many of them were surrounded by dots; in many of the paintings, the lines of dots actually served to unify the compositions visually. She asked the kids what the dots were.

“Oh, that's dung,” the kids explained. To the Kalasha, dung is a valuable commodity because it fertilizes the fields. Lots of dung is a desideratum because it means lots of herds to drop it, and lots of crops to be nourished by it. Dung = fertility.

May Day is the Mardi Gras of pagan Minneapolis, our city's signature celebration. Every year on the first Sunday in May, the In the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theater sponsors a huge parade and day-long celebration. Tens of thousands of people, of all religions and ethnicities, dance down Bloomington Avenue in an explosion of collective joy that Winter is finally over. (I always say that until I moved to Minnesota, I never understood why "Mayday" is the international distress call.)


A few years ago, the theme was Seeds. Dancing down the street along with the floats and giant puppets were 7-foot piles of—ohmigods, I can't believe I'm actually seeing this—shit, cleverly crafted from chicken wire, papier mâché, and paint. There were ten or twelve of them. At first I couldn't quite believe my eyes, but then I noticed a couple of piles complete with giant—foot-long—corn kernels embedded in them. Gods bless Heart of the Beast. Only they'd have the balls/ovaries to speak such a truth so baldly, so graphically. Even, so beautifully.

It's only shit, folks, a necessary part of the cycle: food, shit, fertilizer, food. It's only when we break the cycle that we go wrong.

We are not yet the pagans that we need to become. We're still learning how to think (and act) in  Pagan. Fortunately, we've got tens of thousands of years of history--and some great contemporary examples--to learn from.

Those Kalasha kids amaze me, though. Dung as Yule decoration. In the temple, no less.



For more on In the Heart of the Beast and their amazing May Day celebration:


Photo: Kevin Gurr


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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.


  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Saturday, 21 February 2015

    Some of the best Indian incense includes cow dung, for exactly the reason those kids said. Also, I find it instructive that the word 'dirt' used to mean shit but now that's what we call the Earth we walk on. I think that says something about how much we (don't) value Her.

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