Storymaking, Artmaking, and the Work of the Soul

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Last week I posted a story, suggesting that we can understand our interior spiritual landscapes through the telling of a tale. Story acts as map—at least some of the time, was my idea.

 

I’ve been thinking about how to expand on this idea. I pieced that story together from experiences in my own life. It took some years to write, because it took some years to live. When I read it over now, in its purposeful abstraction, its folk tale feel, it feels to me like a supple fabric that flows through my hands, able (I hope) to be fit and shaped to different forms, depending on the reader’s own experience and requirement.

But the point I want to make today is: it is a pieced together thing.

 

Photo by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photo by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

One of my childhood friends just moved a lot closer to me, here in Wisconsin. She’s a visual artist, a photographer. It’s her images that grace this brief essay today.

Some photographers take their cameras out into the world and try to frame what they see, catching a moment for the viewer. (John Beckett has some good things to say about that here.)

That is not my friend’s way. She composes her pictures in her studio or on location, artfully placing the various pieces and props to make the image she wants.

To use my own trope: she pieces together her images.

 

I’m taking a class on soul work right now and we’re encouraged in these first weeks to read widely what others say and begin to define “soul” for ourselves. It’s common for people to use the image of a candle’s flame, or a small interior voice, when talking about soul…but today I’m wondering if maybe soul something we piece together for ourselves, through our lives. If it’s a lifework, this business, to (choose your verb) stitch/cobble/paste/weld the soul from the scraps and bits. We all go down, again and again, to what Yeats names “the foul rag-and-bone shop” and we use what we find there, because it is all we have to work with.

We don’t control how life rips us apart or subtly erodes us down over time…but we do make choices about what to do in response, and how to live. It could be that art, and story, and the process of art and story making, point us in the direction of the important interior work we have to do, as well.

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

 

Thanks to Heather Atkinson for the glorious art. You can find more of her work at heatheratkinson.com

This is my home, the country where my heart is

Thistle, emblem of Scotland

Thistle, emblem of Scotland (Wikipedia)

Loving one thing doesn’t automatically mean you hate something else. Being critical of something does not necessarily mean you hate it. You might love it very much, but still want to reform it. This came to mind the other day when I was unfriended by someone on Facebook because I supported the Scottish campaign for independence, or at least for self-determination, and the person who unfriended me had mistaken me for a right-winger, because they took the view that the Scottish National Party was like the various extreme fascist groups in England.

In an excellent article in The Guardian, Billy Bragg explains that Scottish nationalism and British nationalism are not the same. There may be many Scots who are nationalist in a narrow and xenophobic way, but in my experience, they are in a minority. When I lived in Scotland (from 1994 to 1996), I did occasionally find myself on the receiving end of anti-English comments, but they were perpetrated by a small minority.

I love England, but I am not blind to its faults as a nation. I love the rolling English hills, the English sense of humour, the hedgerows, the fields, the market towns, the quirky pubs, the red buses and postboxes, the dry-stone walls of the North, the sweeping moorland, the rivers, the history (especially the history of dissent and social justice). I love Marmite and tea and English beer. I love the fact that England produced Wicca. I love chalk hill-figures and standing stones and barrows and stone circles.

Of course England has plenty of faults – its anti-intellectualism, its imperial and colonial past (not least the colonisation of neighbouring countries, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland), its lager louts, the Bullingdon Club and their ilk, the inequalities of the class system, snobbery, inverted snobbery, the appalling way that asylum seekers get treated, the list goes on.

Just because I love England, does not mean that I hate Scotland, Ireland, or Wales – in fact, I love them too, and wish them well. And that means that if they wanted independence, they should have it. My friend Mel put it really well: “Just because I love my house, doesn’t mean I hate my next-door neighbours.” But even though I am very friendly with my next-door neighbours, I am a guest when I visit their house, and vice versa.  I don’t help myself to the apples from their tree or the herbs in their garden unless explicitly invited to do so.  Their house is not my home; my house is not their home.

Just because I love England, does not mean that I am anti-immigration, either. (Illegal immigration began in 1066, when the Normans invaded.)  I think we should be welcoming to asylum seekers, the way Sweden is (and the way that Scotland was planning to be if they had got independence).  My definition of English identity – you are English if you think you are.

And because I love England, that means I can understand why people of other nations love their homelands. I love several other countries very much, but they are not home. As Lloyd Stone wrote in 1934:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

It is quite natural to love the place where you come from, and want it to flourish.  Obviously you don’t want it to flourish at the expense of another place. As we have discovered in this era of the global village, everything is interconnected, and harming other places harms the planetary ecosystem as a whole. There is only one spaceship Earth: our blue boat home.

People on the left may long for social justice, and we may want to see changes in government and economic systems; but I love the fact that there are many different cultures and religions on this planet, and I don’t think you will ever get rid of people’s urge to connect with the land where they are, and the culture and traditions of their homeland. The way forward, it seems to me, is to promote a progressive love of country, which does not involve hating other countries and cultures.

I suspect many people voted ‘No’ in the Scottish referendum because they feared that voting ‘Yes’ implied anti-English feelings. However, the many Yes voters that I know are not anti-English – they just want self-determination for Scotland, which is a distinct country with its own traditions, culture, laws, language (in parts of the Highlands) and dialect. And, however benign the United Kingdom may be, it is still the case that Scotland, Ireland, and Wales are regions that were colonised by England. People would not argue that Canada, Australia, and New Zealand should not be independent – why shouldn’t Scotland be independent?  Just as the people of Finland in the nineteenth century wanted independence from Sweden, so Scotland should be independent.

Of course, a 55% vote for staying in the United Kingdom is a comfortable majority, but it does mean that 45% of Scots were disappointed by the outcome. I guess a referendum is the only way to settle questions like this; but I suspect the question is not going to go away. There will probably be other referendums in the future. But that is not the main point of this article; the main point is that it is possible to love your country without hating other countries, and it is possible to be highly critical of your country, and still love it.

Internationalism and global consciousness is a great thing, and clearly a great impulse for peace and sustainability; but it is only natural for humans to feel connected to their local and regional places, and love the landscape and culture of home.

Storytime: Spiritual Geography as Story

Map with Dragons (courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

Map with Dragons (courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

First we draw the map.

 

 

Then we ask, who lives there?

Then we ask, who goes there?

Sometimes the map is a story.

 

 

 

 

Here is a Story, to be told when the night grows long:

 

Once there was a woman who every day walked a well-worn path between her house and the town center, taking her basket of work and wares to sell or trade. Her path led through a woods, but was so well-used that where she walked was quite well lit and without hazard.

 

One afternoon, however, she tripped on an unseen stone and fell off the path, hard, to the ground. For a moment she lay stunned on the forest floor. As she lifted herself to a sitting position, head ringing, she saw all her goods scattered around, broken and shattered, her basket torn asunder and smashed in. “Oh no,” she cried. Her work was for naught, broken and destroyed. But it was clear there was no time for crying. The woods were growing fast dark with night and, having fallen, she could no longer see the path.

 

“If I’m to get home, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Up she rose, to make her way back as best she could but thorns caught at her clothing, tearing at it and shredding it. The sharp branches snagged at her face and hands. Disoriented by the fall, the dark, the stinging thorns, she could make no easy or quick progress, but held her hands up to protect herself from the briars and moved forward through the dark as best she could. It took some time.

 

Moon over water (shutterstock)

shutterstock.com

By the time she emerged, she was left with only a simple shift. The rest of her clothes had fallen away, snagged on the bushes and briars. She looked around, bruised, bleeding lightly and tired. The moon had risen in the sky, a full moon, giving her light to see by. She found herself on the shore of a lake so large she could not see across. The sand was smooth and white in the moonlight. She realized how quiet the night was, now that she was out of the thorns. The only sound was the water, gently lapping at the shore in small ripples and waves. Looking to left and right, she saw the beach was quite a small clearing. The woods came right down to the water to her left and right, and there was no path to be seen. She sighed, “If I’m to swim, I’d better be doing it.” Shrugging, she stripped off the shift she wore and entered the water, naked.

 

It was a calm night, and the water flowed around her easily. She was surprised to find that the swimming, although it tired her, was not difficult. As she moved farther from the shore, she became aware of a strange light rising up from beneath her in the water, eerie blue and green. It scared her a little, and she determined to swim past it as quickly as possible. But swim as she might, she could not move beyond the light flickering up from under.

 

“Oh very well,” she thought to herself. “If I’m to dive, I’d better be doing it.” So, tucking her legs up, down she went.


The light emanated from a cave on the lake’s bottom, and from that same cave came a sweet, unearthly singing. As she neared it, she was surprised to find she could breathe in this new element. Landing on the sandy floor outside the cave, well lit by the light that spilled out around the entrance, she walked in.


She saw first a large black pot, sitting on a fire, though how there could be fire at the bottom of the lake she did not know. The flames burned green, then blue. Someone was stirring the pot, she saw, and lifting her eyes, she saw a woman returning her gaze and smiling. It was this person that was singing as she stirred the giant black cauldron. It was impossible to tell if she was young or old. The light—blue, green, fire-filled and watery by turns—was all around, emanating from the fire, or possibly from the rock walls of the cave, it was impossible to discern. It might even have been coming from the pot, or from the singer herself. It flickered and bounced through the cave, off the surfaces and through the water in a kind of dance.

 

The cave was warm, and strangely comfortable, and, very tired from her long walk through the woods and her swim, the woman fell asleep before she could help herself. When she woke, she was marvelously refreshed and found herself wearing a new simple garment. The singer, still at the pot, smiled to see her awake. “You must learn my songs,” she told the woman. “And you must take a turn, stirring my pot.” And so, the woman took over at the fireside and the singer taught her, line by line, the songs to sing.

 

Without sunlight, it was impossible for the woman to tell how much time had passed. It might have been hours, or days, a year or a hundred years. But after she had learned the singer’s songs, she knew she must be going. She was oddly reluctant to leave, and the singer seemed to know this. “You may stay with me, if you like, sister” she offered. “There is plenty of room here for two and you are a good help to me.” The woman was very tempted. It was so peaceful there, and so simple. The light that reflected through the cave was so joyful and so refreshing. She took a long breath, considering. Then she thought of her family, waiting for her in the house up above. She remembered the path she was trying to find. Regretfully, she shook her head. “Thank you, no. There is a part of me that would love to stay, but I know I must go back to the surface. And if I must go—”


“You had better be doing it,” the Singer finished for her, smiling.


The Singer acknowledged her decision with a nod, then said, “At least I can give you a gift, before you go.” And leaning close, she whispered a word to the woman and handed her a large pearl. The woman put the pearl in her pocket and kicked off up through the water once again. When she surfaced, she found she was closer than she thought to the opposite shore. Swimming hard and fast now, she gave a final push and, exhausted by the effort, crawled up onto the rocks.

 

After catching her breath and drying out a bit, she looked around. It was early morning. The sun was just clearing the tree tops and mist was rising off the lake. She stood up, facing the rocks she must climb over to make her way. Looking down, she was astonished to see she cast no shadow. “What is this,” she cried. “Have I died? Am I transformed to something fearful?” She fell down frightened and wept, not knowing what to do or what she was.

 

A small bird fluttered around her head. “Do not weep,” chirped the bird. “I have seen your shadow. It runs ahead of you, hiding in those tall rocks.” “Then I must catch it,” said the woman, and up she jumped, clambering over the rocks. To the bird, she said, “Fly ahead, and tell my shadow to wait for me.” The bird flew off as the woman climbed and scrambled.


Soon it flew back, fluttering just above her again. “Your shadow runs ahead of you. It says it fears you too much to wait for you.” “Little friend, beg it to wait. Tell it there is nothing to fear from me.” The woman said, breathless as she climbed.


The next time the bird came back, it perched on a branch while the woman caught her breath. Very quietly, the bird chirped in her ear, “Your shadow waits just behind this rock right here.” And indeed, the woman could see it peeking out around at her. Slowly, so as not to fright the slip of a thing further, so slowly she rose to face it, and said, “You have nothing to fear from, me, Shadow. Come out, and tell me why you run.”


Equally slowly, the dark shape emerged from its hiding place, pouring out larger than she had thought it. “I run from you because I am afraid of you. I remember you too well and how you kept me caged.”


The woman laughed. “But I am not myself as you remember me. You need not fear. The Singer gave me a new name.” And she spoke the whispered word, her own new name, out clear.


The Shadow relaxed. “That is the name I was waiting to hear,” and lifting on the breeze, the dark shape flew straight into the woman’s open mouth and wiggled down through her fingers.
Ink Day 12-3-13


The woman danced a small step, happy to have her shadow back. “Small bird, I would thank you,” said the woman, “but I do not know how.”


The little bird rose from the branch to her shoulder. “If you would thank me, there is a task I need done. My nest is over a stream, but the stream has dried up,” said the bird. “If you would help clear the stream and start it flowing again, I would be grateful.”


“I owe you much. Show me the way,” said the woman.

 

When they arrived at the stream bed she saw it indeed was dry, choked at the source with dead wood and murky bracken. “What shall I do now,” she wept. “For this job is too big for me alone. I have no blade to clear the wood and weed, to help you, friend.”


The bird whistled a quiet song and said, “Along this path there is a Smith. Follow your way to his forge, and give him that pearl you carry and he may help you.”


The woman was loathe to lose the pearl, but she had promised to help, she knew. So, drying her eyes, she made her way through the woods. Soon, she heard the sound of a hammer hitting iron, the roar of the forge, and the hiss as hot metal met water. Approaching, she saw a low building, open to the road. In front was a clearing, and at the clearing’s center roared a large hot fire. Anvils large and small stood around. A Lady waited at the clearing’s edge with her horse, which was being shod by the smith. He was a broad man, his face ruddy from the heat, and his face, arms, hands all showed scars from his work. But his eyes were kind. The woman watched quietly as he fixed the last shoe onto the horse. Then he turned to her and said, “Hello, good woman. What brings you here this bright morning?”

 

The woman curtsied to the smith and Lady, both, and explained “I promised my friend the bird I would help clear the stream bed and start the water flowing again, but I have no blade to cut away the choking weeds and grass. I thought perhaps, if I paid you with this pearl, you might have some aid for me.”

 

The Lady nodded at her as she mounted her horse. “Friend Smith, we are done here. I thank you,” and then to the woman she said, “That stream bed is on my land as it happens. You will do me a kindness by clearing it too. You have my thanks.” So saying, she rode off into the trees.

 

The Smith chuckled to himself, then turned and glanced at the pearl the woman was holding. He took in his breath, then his eyes bored curious and deep into the woman’s. “This is no payment for me but the thing itself,” he said. “And I ask no payment for this work.” “If there is work to be done you had better be doing it,” she whispered, reluctantly giving her pearl to him. And taking it, he placed it on the largest anvil and with one blow he crushed it.

 

The woman cried out in fear at the sound, closing her eyes. When she opened them, she was astonished to see the smith held out to her a sword of steel with pearl shine and inlay. “You carried this the whole time, and never knew it,” he told her. “It’s a rare gift, and a rare one who carries such a thing. Now go you back to your bird. And know, you are welcome here any time.” And saying that, he turned his back and went to the bellows to urge the fire hotter.

 

The woman, marveling, went back to the stream bed. And indeed, from then the work was easy. Within a day she had wrestled the overgrowth and the dead wood away from the spring’s source, and freed the water to flow again. The little bird trilled happily to see it. “You have repaid my favor amply, thank you kind woman. Your way lies past the spring’s source, up the hill. Come back to see me any time.” And happily chirruping to herself, the little bird began constructing a new nest out of bits of saved string and twigs and other little sundry items.

 

The woman went on her way, tying her sword around her waist, happy to have it. And indeed, it was just as the bird said, her path did lie up on the hill over the spring, as clear as ever. With great relief, she began walking in a direction she knew would take her home. The afternoon was warm and clear, butterflies and bees hummed and fluttered in the grass and flowers, and she enjoyed herself in the fresh breeze, knowing she was headed home at last.


To her surprise, as night came on, she saw that the path led into a dark opening in a hillside.  “What is this,” she thought. But clearly, there was nothing for it but to enter, for the path was broad and well-cleared. “Well, if I must enter the hill, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Just to be safe, the woman pulled out her sword, and, a little fearfully, entered into the hill.

 

She was surprised to find herself in a long passageway that seemed to go through the hill entirely. Torches lined either side, so the whole thing was lit up with the warmth of the flames, and shadows danced. Lining either side of the hall were all manner of thing—chests of treasure, dusty with time, dim pictures and forgotten oddments so old and strange it was impossible to know their value. And all along the walls were all manner of masks. In the light of the torches, the features of the masks moved, growing larger and smaller, brighter and darker. “What place is this,” the woman breathed to herself. Curiosity and awe filled her.

 

This is the hall of the ancestors, said a chorus of voices in her head. There was no sound to be heard with the ears except the quiet padding of her footsteps, the occasional clink as her sword knocked against something accidentally. You will find this hall open to you, should you want to return. Until then, you may take one torch to light your way, for when you emerge it will be night once more.

 

“Well, this will certainly be an easier passage than those thorny woods I started out in,” thought the woman to herself. “And… I might come back to see my friend the bird again.” So she curtsied to the spirits of the place and said, “I thank you, good folk. One torch will I take.  And when I come back I will bring you a gift as well.” And, putting her sword back in her belt, she lifted the torch closest to her and made her way forward.

 

Soon enough, she emerged out into the world once more and found herself in her own back yard and garden. Her family welcomed her into the house with open arms, curious and delighted to hear her story. “But mother, we are confused,” said her daughter, after she finished. “You say you have a sword, and a torch, but where are they?” And sure enough, astonished, the woman saw that the hand that had carried the torch held it no longer, and instead there gleamed a ring on her finger, fiery in the night. And as for her sword, it had melted into a pearl handled pen in her pocket. Laughing, she pulled it out to show her children, and promptly wrote down this story.

 

And now, a good night to you all. My story is done.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

 

Gardnerians, Sacred Lands, Climate Marches, and Other News of Note

Friends, rather than an essay, today’s post rounds up a number of different news items related to Pagans and Pagan studies. Books, marches, and websites, oh my!


The People’s March Against Climate Change is occurring in cities around the world this weekend. The march planned in New York City is particularly massive — so much so that marchers are being divided into sections. These sections will create a narrative for the march’s complex message around climate change awareness and action.

pcm-route-lineup-v6

It breaks my heart that due to family commitments and physical limitations, I will not be marching with my friends in NYC this weekend. Climate change is a reality that will affect us all, and it is already having an impact on vulnerable people. If you cannot attend a march near you this weekend, consider donating to the NYC or another march or to an organization such as the Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC (there are only 10 hours left on their Indiegogo campaign! Act now!).


sacredlandsADF Publishing recently released a book based on the 2012 Cherry Hill Seminary conference on Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes. The collection brings together academics and practitioners on topics including the Glastonbury Goddess conference, Southern Witchery, the lesbian land movement, and an industrial band from Britain — quite a fascinating lineup! The collection is bookended with an introduction by Ronald Hutton and commentary by Chas Clifton, then tied together with the editorial talents of Wendy Griffin — all major names within Pagan studies. What a wonderful achievement for CHS!


Pentacle_background_white. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.This month also marks the launch of a new website on Gardnerian Wicca, British-Wicca.com. It is always a pleasure to find a Pagan website that is intelligent and well-written without being intimidatingly scholarly; British-Wicca.com fits the bill perfectly with essays on ethics, initiation, differences in Wiccan practice between the UK and US, and more. Our own Yvonne Aburrow has contributed a number of essays, along with Irish Wiccan Sophia Boann and a number of others. The site is sure to be useful to those seeking a credible, ethical Internet source for the best-known thread of initiatory Wicca.


Finally, I am salivating over two recent scholarly releases relating to sexuality and gender in contemporary Paganism.

First, check out the latest issue of The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies (vol. 15, no. 1-2). Here’s a sneak peek of the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Gender in Contemporary Paganism and Esotericism
Manon Hedenborg-White, Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen

Gender in Russian Rodnoverie
Kaarina Aitamurto

‘God Giving Birth’ – Connecting British Wicca with Radical Feminism and Goddess Spirituality during the 1970s-1980s: The Case Study of Monica Sjöö
Shai Feraro

Gender and Paganism in Census and Survey Data
James R. Lewis, Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen

A Lokian Family: Queer and Pagan Agency in Montreal
Martin Lepage

To Him the Winged Secret Flame, To Her the Stooping Starlight: The Social Construction of Gender in Contemporary Ordo Templi Orientis
Manon Hedenborg-White

Dancing in a Universe of Lights and Shadows
Nikki Bado

An Intersubjective Critique of A Critique of Pagan Scholarship
Michael York

Navigating Praxis: Pagan Studies vs. Esoteric Studies
Amy Hale

Response to the Panel, “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies? Critiquing Methodologies”: Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Baltimore, Maryland, November 24, 2013
Shawn Arthur

Pagan Prayer and Worship: A Qualitative Study of Perceptions
Janet Goodall, Emyr Williams, Catherine Goodall

Orientalism in Iamblichus’ The Mysteries
Sarah Lynn Veale

Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors among Pagans
Deirdre Sommerlad-Rogers

The Transvaluation of “Soul” and “Spirit”: Platonism and Paulism in H.P. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled
Christopher A Plaisance

Beyond Hogwarts: Higher Education and Contemporary Pagans
James R. Lewis, Sverre Andreas Fekjan

Second, here’s the summary of Douglas Ezzy’s new book, Sex, Death, and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival.

Faunalia is a controversial Pagan festival with a reputation for being wild and emotionally intense. It lasts five days, eighty people attend, and the two main rituals run most of the night. In the tantalisingly erotic Baphomet rite, participants encounter a hermaphroditic deity, enter a state of trance and dance naked around a bonfire. In the Underworld rite participants role play their own death, confronting grief and suffering. These rituals are understood as “shadow work” – a Jungian term that refers to practices that creatively engage repressed or hidden aspects of the self. 

Sex, Death and Witchcraft is a powerful application of relational theory to the study of religion and contemporary culture. It analyses Faunalia’s rituals in terms of recent innovations in the sociology of religion and religious studies that focus on relational etiquette, lived religion, embodiment and performance. The sensuous and emotionally intense ritual performances at Faunalia transform both moral orientations and self-understandings. Participants develop an ethical practice that is individualistic, but also relational, and aesthetically mediated. Extensive extracts from interviews describe the rituals in participants’ own words. The book combines rich and evocative description of the rituals with careful analysis of the social processes that shape people’s experiences at this controversial Pagan festival.


So much to read, so little time. And if you’re reading what I’m reading, I’ll be interested to hear what you think — let me know in the comments.

Happy Equinox!

Why I am a polytheist

I have always been drawn to Pagan deities, even before I knew what they were. When I was a child, my parents told me that some Christians do not celebrate Christmas because it is an overlay on the Winter Solstice, when ancient people would go to the tops of hills and light bonfires as sympathetic magic to make the Sun come back. I wanted to go to those hilltops and dance round those bonfires. I used to have dreams of a king in a cave under a hill. I discovered my own personal goddess, and drew images of her. I read Greek mythology. I talked to trees. I read Puck of Pook’s Hill and loved Pertinax and Parnesius, who built an altar to Pan somewhere in the lowlands of Scotland, and worshipped Mithras by night. I read about witches, and wanted to be a witch.

The Prose Edda

An 18th century copy of the Prose Edda, one of the key literary sources for Norse mythology. (Source: Wikipedia)

When I was older and started thinking theologically, I wondered why, if there was a single all-powerful deity, he or she does not intervene in the great and terrible injustices of the world. So it made sense to me to think of many deities, with finite power and spheres of influence. I do not believe that the universe was created by a deity. I believe that the universe is divine, but I do not believe in a single overarching deity. I believe that deities emerged from the unfolding universe, seeds of consciousness blossoming into identities.

I also wondered why that alleged single all-powerful deity would reject any worship not offered through one particular religion. And when I started thinking about gender in relation to deity, I wondered why the concept of a single all-powerful deity is usually envisaged as male.

When I encountered contemporary Paganism for the first time, I was already a polytheist, and was surprised to encounter duotheism (the idea of a single God and a single Goddess). It makes no sense to me to say “all the gods are one God, and all the goddesses are one Goddess”. How can Bastet be the same as Hera, or Oðinn be the same as Zeus? And what about genderqueer deities?

My polytheism is eclectic. I have relationships with several deities from different pantheons and cultures. Being of mixed ethnicity (Celtic and Saxon, i.e. English), I have never been able to settle on a single ethnic pantheon. I answer the call of the deities that speak to me. This eclecticism is one of the many reasons that I am a Wiccan. Wicca offers a framework within which I can honour many deities.

I am also bisexual and genderqueer, so my practice of Wicca does not focus on the interaction of “male energy” and “female energy”, but on the multiplicity of energies available. The multiplicity of deities, each with a different gender identity, can provide varied models of how to be a human being. My Wheel of the Year does not revolve around a duotheist paradigm, but honours specific individual deities and their stories associated with each festival.

My theory of what deities are is that they are personalities or identities that have emerged from the complexity of different forces interacting. Human contact with deities has also shaped them, just as humans shape each other through social interaction. I also think that deities can evolve and change, as in the story of Indra and the Ants. But I do think that deities are just as much distinct identities as humans are.

Finally, I celebrate biodiversity in the natural world, and diversity among humans, so it makes sense to me to celebrate the glorious multiplicity of deities too.

Systemic racism, othering, and alienation

I can’t imagine killing another human being. Can you?

I can imagine the circumstances where I might do so, if it was kill or be killed. But I don’t want to dwell on the details.

Research has shown that soldiers have to be trained to kill, otherwise they shoot to maim rather than to kill. The deep instinct of a human being is not to kill another human being.

So how did we get to a situation where, almost every week it seems, another young Black man gets shot by a police officer in the USA? How did we get to a situation of Israelis slaughtering Palestinians in Gaza, war in Syria, ISIL murdering Yezidis and Christians?

I believe that the answer is that the killers must be trained to see their victims as not human. They see them as other, as being of less worth than a person of the same ethnic group or the same religion as themselves. We can see this in white supremacist ideology and in the deadly rhetoric about the Palestinians, the Yezidis, and Christians in the Middle East.

The situation with the Palestinians, the Yezidis, and Ferguson, Missouri are all linked in my mind – not just because they were all happening at the same time, but because the root cause of all three situations seems quite similar: two distinct groups (ethnic and/or religious) occupying the same space, one of them more powerful than the other, and desiring the elimination or subjugation of the other.

I am not arguing for assimilation of one group into another – assimilation is just as violent and destructive as elimination (look at the effects of such policies on Australian Aborigines and First Nations peoples). I am saying that we need to respect and value diversity as a healthy way for a community to be.

There are many processes by which one group comes to regard another group as “not human”. One of these is the alienation produced by capitalism, in which we are divided from ourselves, divided from the work of our hands, separated from Nature, and separated from each other. Instead of seeing other people as people, capitalism sees them as commodities, resources, units of work and cost.

But the practice of othering is far older than capitalism. Look at the mass slaughter of the Crusades, the persecution of heretics and alleged witches, the pogroms against the Jews throughout medieval Europe. In each of these, the targeted group was seen as less than human. There was even a medieval legend that Jews had tails. Jews were made to dress differently so as to be easily identifiable, and to live in separate enclaves (ghettos and shtetls). They were only allowed to work at certain occupations, such as moneylending.

Now compare these with the systemic racism against Black people. Black people are regarded as other; they are discriminated against in employment and education; they are treated as potential criminals wherever they go; their hairstyles referred to as “unkempt”. It is only a generation or two since the end of segregation in the United States. But the attitudes that gave rise to segregation are still widespread.

Combine that with routinely giving guns to the police, and the authoritarian and white supremacist attitudes of many police officers, and it is hardly surprising that so many Black men and women are getting killed, just for “walking while Black”. Even in the United Kingdom, where access to guns for the general population is far more restricted and the police do not routinely carry guns, more Black and minority ethnic people get arrested or stopped and searched than white people. And there are still shootings of Black and minority ethnic people: Mark Duggan, Jean Charles de Menezes.

Many white people seemingly cannot understand the legitimate anger and frustration of Black people. Try to imagine being afraid just to walk down the street, in case you get arrested and killed. Try to imagine being afraid just to send your son to school, in case his walking out the door in the morning is the last time you see him alive. Try to imagine being turned down for employment just because of the colour of your skin. Try to imagine people asking where you’re from, and not accepting the answer of a place in the same country, because you must be from somewhere else, right? Try to imagine being someone’s token Black friend. Read about the experiences of Black people in being confronted with systemic racism, ingrained in the very institutions that we take for granted will treat us as equals (unless we are female or LGBT, but that’s a different blogpost).

This is a quote from Pam Duggan, Mark Duggan’s mother:

Mark was a peacemaker. He had a soft heart and he loved life. I have to be strong for the sake of Mark’s children, my grandchildren, and the rest of my family. But my life has changed so much since the police shot Mark. Sometimes I’m scared to go out. And if I see a police car driving down the street my whole body starts to shake. I think that the officer who killed Mark could be in that car or that they’ve got guns and might do to someone else what they did to Mark.

A Huffington Post article compared the scenes in Ferguson with the street battles of the Civil Rights era. The only difference was that the Ferguson photos were in colour and the police were more heavily armed.

Even middle-class Black people are not immune: look what happened to Charles Belk and Henry Louis Gates. And it is not just Black men who are targeted: many Black women have also been killed by police.

Recently I posted some UK government statistics on my Facebook wall, comparing the numbers of arrests and convictions of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain, and asked whether people thought that they represented racism in the justice system. One person shared the following anecdote:

A doctor driving a blood sample to the lab late at night, in his own car. Stopped by the police, who want to give him a breathalyser test, check his licence, and want to know what’s in the bottle. They give him a very hard time while he repeatedly tells them: he’s a doctor, he works *here*, he’s driving the blood to *here*, yes, this is his car, no, he is sober, he is on call, he doesn’t drink when on call…. Eventually a phone call from the lab wanting to know where the blood sample was convinces the police he really is who he says he is, and they let him go suspiciously. White lab staff find this bewildering and inexplicable, they’ve never heard of the police bothering doctors on call before. Black doctor doesn’t, and notes that this is why he wears a respectable suit-and-tie at all times when driving his expensive car.

That is institutional racism. The assumption that a Black person is more likely to be a criminal, that the expensive car they are driving must be stolen, that they are involved in a gang, or shoplifting, or that they have a gun or a knife.

The Macpherson Report defines institutional racism as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

Systemic racism is a similar concept to institutional racism, but it occurs when the way a society is structured systematically ends up giving advantages to some and disadvantages to others. Individual racists are a problem, but it is when the system gives them a free pass to act out their violent supremacist views that we have a systemic problem. Consider the difference in response to the Ferguson protests and the Bundy protests. Benjamin Corey writes:

The piece that completely tipped the scale for me was this piece which illustrates the response to protestors in Ferguson compared to protesters at the Bundy Ranch. At the Bundy Ranch, armed whites confronted the government to stand along side a rancher who’s been stealing from the government. They went as far as having weapons drawn on the police– and the response? The government backed down.

Compare that to Ferguson, where protesters have been met with police who were more armed up than the folks I served next to in Operation Allied Force (and I’m not even kidding).

If you do not believe in systemic or institutionalised racism, have a look at these statistics. Black people are systemically discriminated against in housing, schooling, and employment, from preschool onwards. Black children are more likely to be suspended from school, punished more harshly for misdemeanours, and regarded as less innocent than white children. African American job candidates are less likely to be hired on the assumption that “they do drugs”, and more likely to be arrested on suspicion of drug possession, despite the fact that white people take more drugs than Black people. Black people are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, and more harshly treated by the system than white people. Frankly, I am not surprised that the people of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets in protest. I am surprised that they didn’t start a revolution.

August 15 protests in Ferguson. Photo by Loavesofbread

August 15 protests in Ferguson – a peaceful protest. Photo by Loavesofbread

So what can we do about systemic racism? I honestly don’t know, apart from the usual suggestions of education and cultural change. But I do know that we need to acknowledge its existence and start working to bring about change.

One very striking example of the transformation of a racist society is that of South Africa, and its Truth and Reconciliation process. South Africa is still a society with large economic and social injustices, but it is a lot less racist than it was.

The first step to rectifying the situation is to acknowledge the endemic racism in the system. We need to stop seeing a specific group of people as being of less worth than other people. We need to stop being frightened of people who dress differently, walk differently, or talk differently. Instead of trying to force people into a dehumanised mass of work units, we need to see every human being as having inherent worth and dignity.

Dancing and Dowsing: Moving Into Polytheism

 

Music is the exaltation of poetry, composer Henry Purcell said some few hundred years ago.

Then dance must be the exaltation of music, I reply.

One of the unfortunate messages of my childhood was that I could not be a dancer. One of the parts of myself I gave up as I moved into parenthood was singing. Here I am, left with poetry.

**

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

I went to a dance class for the first time in years a few days ago.

It was a very low-key affair: a drop-in gathering at my local UU church for “expressive movement” or something like that. There were five of us, plus the teacher, a tiny woman with a generous wide mouth and a big, bubbly laugh.

Coming in a minute or two late, she sat down on the floor and proceeded to cut a wire coat hanger into pieces. She picked up the two corner pieces and said, “Today I’m going to dowse your auras.” Debussy’s Claire de lune was on the CD player.

**

When she got around to me, the only newcomer, she asked, “Is this too out there for you? Because I’m really fine with people who just don’t want to do this kind of thing. It’s okay.”

“I blog as a polytheist on a pagan website,” I told her. “I just finished taking a shapeshifting class. Trust me, I’m fine with this.”

**

There is no one, no one in my family that I can think of, and very, very few people among my friends, who would be able and willing to stand with me in this room while someone holds two ends of a coat hanger up and walks around me in a slow circle, feeling for my aura. How did I get here, anyway?

In his book Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte writes:

Freedom is perhaps the ultimate spiritual longing of an individual human being, but freedom is only really appreciated when it falls within the parameters of a larger sense of belonging. In freedom is the wish to belong to structure in our own particular way.

**

We often think of freedom as a surficial, horizontal motion that aims for the horizon, and belonging as a depth dimension (to put down roots somewhere). But I have come to believe that there can be such a thing as “deep freedom” too. I think it may be true that no life is fully lived that doesn’t dare those depths: to ask the largest questions… and risk the answers.

So, swimming in a deeper element, I named myself anew and started writing again. I admitted that I feel spirits in the corners, that the universe may be shaped like a tree and that I would love it if it was, so why not, that deity is approachable (at least some of them) and real and multiple. And here I am, alone with these women I don’t yet know, as the piano music continues to unspool from the CD player.

Turns out my aura is not so big as some, but remarkably evenly distributed.

**

What do I believe?

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

I believe to do this work, to do any work, takes time, sensitivity, practice, and the right tools. I’m skeptical of the coathangers. I’m skeptical this can be effective, given that we’re all shuffling around this too-small room in the corner of the church while she tries to isolate the aura of each of us. But even as I allow those doubts to surface, I’m completely willing to join in the exercise if it gets us thinking about personal space, personal boundaries, self-expression through the body and how our personalities, confidence, fatigue levels, etc. etc. influence our impact on others. Influence how we move into and through the hours of the day. I’m willing to use words like “aura” to talk about these things.

**

At this moment, I can say that apparently my own particular way of living in the world includes dowsing for auras with coat hangers, if that’s what is available. Using what is at hand, being open to the possible and the ridiculous all at once, and the living, unique, prickly and amazing beings all around us (whether human or other than human)…that’s a pretty good description of my religion, whatever you want to call it. Over at the new site, www.polytheist.com, Julian Betkowski offers this passage:

If we are in love with difference, in love with the individual and unique, and if we allow love to reveal reality to us, then we must accept the multiform and various as innate features of the world. We must be willing to see the experiences of others as profoundly True in a way that we, perhaps, may never fully comprehend. If we really love others as they themselves are, then we realize just how necessary they are for us to understand the complexity and richness of the world. Through love, Truth shatters apart, and its single center opens up to reveal an endless array. Truth, in fact, becomes a process, and open ended procedure: the practice of love.

So that’s what I’m doing here, with my metaphorical coathangers, as I sashay and spin and stretch my way into the music. I’m using my body, my senses, and my pen—all the tools at my disposal—to dowse not only for auras, but for the quickpoints of truth, of love, the zany and breathtaking and completely unbelievable (and yet it really happens) ways this world unfolds each minute. This is my practice of love.

 

 

Polytheist.com

View of mountain lakes in the Albanian Alps, by Lenar Musin

The Albanian Alps. Photo by Lenar Musin, courtesy of shutterstock.com

The arrival of Polytheist.com on the Pagan scene is a welcome addition to the various blogs, news sites, and informative sites about different Pagan traditions and philosophies.

Because Western culture is steeped in monotheist, naturalistic, and monist outlooks, it is great that there is now a platform for expressing and articulating full-blown polytheistic ideas.  As a polytheist myself (and yes, it is possible to be a polytheist Gardnerian Wiccan), I am really looking forward to reading the articles on the site.

The site has gathered together an exciting collection of well-known writers on polytheism from a number of different polytheist traditions, including Julian Betkowski, Aine Llewellyn, Niki Whiting, and P Sufenas Virius Lupus. It is well-designed and organised, and has a Facebook page connected to it so you can see new posts in your Facebook news feed.

There are many reasons why polytheism is an exciting and vibrant theology that solves many contemporary theological conundrums (such as the diversity of gender and sexuality, the problem of evil, and the diversity of religious expression) and I expect many of these will be explored by contributors to the site.

In his first article, The New World, Julian Betkowski describes the excitement he feels about polytheism:

I see polytheism, then, as a framework for this complex, ongoing truth procedure. Polytheism encourages us to see the world as a place full of splendor, of incredible experiences, of wonderful surprises and variations. Polytheism encourages us to affirm the possibilities that surround us, to embrace life and explore its richness. Polytheism expands and opens Truth, and recognizes innately that it can derive from many simultaneous sources. As I see it, polytheism is the theological expression of love.

Understanding polytheism as being engaged with process means that it is constantly unfolding, expanding, and developing. While it binds tradition and history into itself, it is also powerfully oriented toward the future, toward the unknown and the possible. Guided by love, polytheism recognizes the necessity of individuals, and the irreducibility of individual experiences. Individuality and discrete experience become key features, absolutely necessary for our understanding of the world.

That certainly makes me want to read more!

Congratulations to all involved in the new project – may it go from strength to strength.

Guest post: A Field Guide to Pagan Leadership

A guest post by An Elder Apprentice

This post originated as a comment to Yvonne Aburrow’s post on Pagan Leadership. Yvonne began that post with the following questions, “Does the Pagan movement have leaders? Do we need them? What is a good model of leadership?”

chess pieces on a chess board

Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

There are so many types of leadership manifest in any religious culture. Perhaps identifying and acknowledging the importance of the many categories of Pagan leadership will allow for an appropriate expansion in the definition of leadership and thus allow for a move toward an appropriate division of labor and acknowledgment of each participant’s leadership in their own sphere of excellence? Of course while one person can excel in multiple areas of leadership, identifying the ‘best person for the particular job’, may help resolve the on-going predicaments with Pagan leadership. Below are some of the varieties of leader that I have identified in the Pagan world in my two years as an elder apprentice.

The visionary pathfinder and guide – This person blazes the trail through an unexplored territory and can talk about it coherently and with such passion that others want to follow and perhaps more importantly others are enabled to follow that path. After all every tradition was started by one or a very small group of such people. With respect to Wicca, Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner are such visionary pathfinders. However, each coven, grove, or whatever was similarly founded by one or small group of people with a vision and desire to share it. This role continues to be critical in any viable tradition, and in each group, as guides on the way forward always are required if a tradition or group is to live and grow.

The Executive Organizer – This is the role most people envision when they hear the word, ‘leader’. Regardless of a group’s governance, e.g. consensus, democratic, a military or Catholic hierarchy, or whatever, these people enable the group to become and stay organized. In any group the buck must stop somewhere or the group can chase its own tail forever. This may role may be performed by one person or by a process, but it must happen somehow. I personally believe Selena Fox is an exemplar in the Pagan community of this quality of executive leadership.

The Patron – A patron provides resources, typically money, though use of land is a non-monetary example of a patron’s support, required to allow a group to exist and move forward. The skillful patron understands that while others may perform the more visible leadership roles, they are also leaders as their choice of where to place their resources or not will change the direction of any organization, even if they defer to others in terms of the more tangible areas of leadership. Knowing how to invest resources well and to invest those resources in ways that empower others to achieve maximum benefit is itself an important leadership quality. Yvonne’s post showed a picture of Moina Mathers. According to the book Women of the Golden Dawn, she and the entire Golden Dawn organization were supported by funds given by Annie Horniman, a wealthy heiress.

The Priest/ess – The Priestess leads in the spiritual and magical activities of a group. Not everybody has such priestessing skills and among its other qualities, when skilfully performed, the priestly role frees others to get the benefit of entering the land of the spirit together. Moina Mathers is certainly a fine example of a priestess as leader. However, from reading Women of the Golden Dawn, it appears she may have been sorely lacking in other dimensions of leadership.

The Teacher – A teacher passes on tradition and skills required to be part of a tradition. This person is perhaps is an exemplar of the practice, someone who others emulate even if the teaching role is informal or even unacknowledged. If the teacher truly has teaching skill they know how to make it easy to emulate what they hold. The ability to teach successfully is a rare and difficult skill; ask anyone who has ever worked, successfully or not, as a schoolteacher knows how hard that job is. Perhaps in the larger Pagan community most of the “Big Name Pagans” (in my personal view, the better ones) are primarily teachers as their writings and classes serve as the exemplars of practice that others want to and often can emulate.

I am sure that others can identify other leadership roles that are required to make their groups succeed and their traditions vibrant. However it is clear that the Pagan movement has leaders, requires leadership, and the models of leadership are as varied as Paganism itself.

_________________

An Elder Apprentice was gifted with an unexpected call to study Anderson Feri one week after his sixtieth birthday; taking up the offer, he has been a dedicated student for over two years. He lives in a suburb of a large Midwestern city with his wife and a small white cockatiel.

My Three R’s: Running, wRiting, and Resiliency

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com. This is not me. I wear more rings than that.

Yesterday I put on my running shoes after a month off and hit the trail. I cried as I ran. After a month off, a summer less active than I hoped it would be,  I had to face my failure as a runner, and all my other failures—there are so many, and they are so variegated and glorious with their floaty trains and bangles—seemed caught up as well in my faltering ankles, my thick body, my huffing and puffing lungs. Everything I just wrote about running, I could write about sitting here trying to write this blog post. I’m here. It’s September. I’m wearing my writing shoes at the moment and my failures and faults are once again in attendence. It was not my plan to disappear from this blogspace for the month of August. It was “a happen,” in the phrasing of Lavinia Dickinson. Summer is tough for me, with the kids at home, with the lack of routine. This year was no exception and August, filled to overflowing with all good and bounteous gifts (family, travel, parties, more family, family again) saw me sinking into my all-too-familiar summer cycles of lethargy, depression, desperation, numbness, alcohol and anger. It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly why summer is so hard for me…especially when in our cultural imagination it’s all about swimming pools and beaches and ice cream and barbecue and fireworks and fireflies and all good things. And I do love those things…except maybe for swimming pools. But reading late last night I came across this quote from Joseph Campbell. I have some issues with Campbell, but this rings true:

You must have a place to which you can go, in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not know what you owe anyone or what anyone owes you. You must have a place you can go to where you do not know what your work is or who you work for, where you do not know who you are married to or who your children are. –as quoted by David Whyte in Crossing the Unknown Sea

It’s a pretty extreme statement. And in our rule-bound and fearful society, it can sound like he’s advocating solipsism and license. Forget who we’re married to? Forget our responsibilities? Heh heh, wink wink. We know what THAT leads to. I don’t think he’s advocating in that direction at all. Rather, as Whyte goes on to say,

To find the roots of our responsibilities, we must go to the roots of our abilities, a journey into a core sense of ourselves…

This is a challenge to us all. Campbell sounds to me like he is advocating for the state some creative types refer to as “the flow.” Entering fully the state of active creative agency, where we forget ourselves in the larger and more intimate work at hand. Such journeying takes space, time, freedom from even our own most dear conceptions of ourselves. We must slip temporarily free of who we are in the daylight, in order that we remain authentic to that inner small light and whisper. And there’s the crux of my exhaustion. So often in summer, I lose myself amid all my outward facing public selves and roles. In mid-August, at a rather desperate moment, I turned around and faced the roots of my own abilities. Don’t think it is easy to hit rock bottom, turn around and say, Okay, again, who am I and what am I supposed to be doing…and risk the answer.

The answer came. Listen to thistle. Plant an oak tree. Clear the stream.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Who knows what that means… To find out, I promised myself five handwritten pages a day. No matter the content, so long as I find the edge, face the shadows, and write. As Julia Cameron puts it, I promised to take care of the quantity, and for the time being, left the question of quality unanswered. Today finds me in the midst of the third week of this. It’s terrifying and deeply life-giving. Each day I press right up to the blank white page and say to myself and the universe at large, Forget what you know. Ignore what you’ve been told. Where is the edge today? Some days I describe the view. Some days I steer away quickly to avoid crashing against the rocks. Some days I leap. But something happened that gives me faith in the process, in the daily work of it (if not in myself). After a week, on day 8 (about 35 pages in, if you’re counting), I sat down and in one fell swoop wrote a story that serves as heart and spine. It took two hours. It took eight days. It took seven years. And now I sit here on Day 16, and though I’m not sobbing I could be because I’ve been away from this blogrhythm and blogspace for a month, because I’ve lost track of another part of myself I have to try to find again. Because this space is noisier than I remembered and I wonder how much real work gets done in here, and how much is just noise and sparks flying and not a lot of real generative heat and light. And I admit I do not yet know how to balance my own larger projects, bubbling away in the soup of their cauldron, with the blogwork, which is so much more immediate, more outwardly focused. Stanley Kunitz said, before you can write the poem, you must invent the self that will write the poem. My self and the work I am embarking on are in a wombstate. We need protecting. We need the room to grow, to shift, to dream ourselves into strange new appearances and echoes that only darkness and privacy provide. But to come back into this space is also important because here is community. Here is accountability. Here are ideas, discussion, laughter. Even if it is a little loud at first. You all are really noisy today. So after I post this, I’m going back out to the trail again. It isn’t easy to get back into a groove, with the running or the writing. But what’s a month off now and again, in a lifetime?