A lament

Mourner, thought to represent the goddess Isis mourning Osiris

Mourner, thought to represent the goddess Isis mourning Osiris,  by RamaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr via Wikimedia Commons.

I hear the lament coming from the gods
The people are crushed beneath the heel of the tyrants
I hear the lament coming from the trees
The birds cannot sing over the roar of monstrous engines
I hear the lament coming from the waters
The land is wounded and the waters are polluted
I hear the lament coming from the sea
Too many have drowned in the flight from oppression
I hear the lament coming from the land
The mills are grinding the animals and the fields
I hear the lament coming from the people
Our hearts are heavy and our eyes are full of tears
I hear the lament coming from the animals
Exploited and crushed beneath the wheels of progress
I hear the lament coming from the stones
Nothing is held sacred any more

Lamentation, lamentation, lamentation
Our tears are flowing and our hearts are heavy
We must turn away from destruction
Without destrying in our turn
We must turn away from seeing only things
And learn to see the sacred in everything
We must rise up against the oppressors
Without becoming oppressors ourselves
We must rise up against injustice
Without meting out injustice ourselves
We must turn toward the sacred
Without forgetting the joy of the profane
We must turn towards the way of the heart
And open our hearts to each other.

Blue Beltane

Blue Beltane

I love Beltane, it is a beautiful festival. The festival of spring, of lovers, of reawakening. The festival of unabashed sexuality, where people dance round a giant flower-bedecked phallic symbol, and leap naked over the Beltane fire, hand in hand with their beloved, or their lover of the moment. Lingering caresses in the woods, under the blossom and the boughs. The firelight playing on ecstatic dancing bodies, lost in the ecstasy of sexual abandon. The contemporary celebration of Beltane seems to have acquired quite a lot of its character from the Roman festival of Floralia (27/28 April), which also celebrated sexual pleasure, as well as flowers.

But spare a thought for those who don’t quite fit into this idyllic picture. What about people who are single? Being single at Beltane is such a downer… hanging around the Beltane fire, hoping that romance will be kindled by the energies of Beltane. Yep, been there, got the T-shirt. What about the widowed?  Those who have loved long and well, and have lost the ones they love? What about the divorced, the abused, and the traumatised? What about asexuals – what are they supposed to do with a festival that harps on and on about sex? And if the focus is mainly or exclusively on cisgender heterosexual lovers, spare a thought for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer people too, and enlarge the focus of the celebration to include same-sex love. What about the frequent portrayal of the God and Goddess of Beltane as white? How about some lovers of colour?   And what about people with disabilities? Other than physical or communication issues, they are no different from the rest of us in their sexual, emotional, and romantic desires.  Beltane, with its themes of excess and wild abandon, can also be difficult for people in recovery, who may feel the need to set boundaries.

Molly Khan, over at the Pagan Families blog, points out that the theme of sexual love is not understandable to children, and suggests other ways of celebrating Beltane if you have kids, and includes themes of creativity, being passionate about an activity or a cause, and talking about other kinds of love, not just the erotic or romantic variety. All excellent suggestions.

This year, I am alone at Beltane. My beloved is 3650 miles away, due to the bureaucratic nightmare of the visa application process. Luckily for us, we can afford flights and administration fees and all the rest of it, and we hope that the situation will be resolved soon. I hope we will be reunited soon, and then it will definitely be Beltane, even if a rather belated one.

However, with about ten days to go before Beltane, I find my thoughts turning wistful and sad, because my darling will not be here to celebrate with me. I love Beltane and its energy and joy, I think it is very fitting to have a festival of sexual love and erotic joy at this time of year, but this year (not for the first time), I find myself outside looking in at the bubble of happiness.

John Beckett has a suggested Beltane ritual for solitary practitioners, exploring the theme of passing between two fires for purification, and passing from winter into summer. In lands where people pastured animals, they would drive them between two fires for blessing and purification at Beltane, so this ritual is based on actual folklore.

I am also very sad because of the number of people who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross from Africa, and angry because their displacement was caused by wars fomented by governments propped up by the West, and angry because so little is being done or planned to save them from drowning. I am gutted because Pinakin Patel, a 33 year old man – a husband – collapsed and died in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre on Monday. He was detained there because he and his wife came to England on holiday and the immigration authorities did not believe that they were here on holiday, and carted them off to the detention centre from the airport.

With all this on my mind, it is hard to be all jolly and frolicksome about Beltane. I just can’t manage it. And I don’t suppose for a minute that I am the only one who feels this way. So I give you… Blue Beltane.

I don’t know who it was that came up with the idea of Blue Christmas – an excellent idea, where people who have lost loved ones at Christmas, or who feel excluded in some way from the general jollity of Christmas, can go and sit in a church and quietly share their sorrows.

Well, I feel there needs to be a similar thing at Beltane. Blue Beltane, for people who feel excluded by the general atmosphere of sexual exuberance, for whatever reason they may feel excluded. It might focus on the purificatory aspects of the Beltane fire, as suggested by John Beckett. It might focus on telling each other the stories of why we feel blue at Beltane. It might consist of a ritual to honour the sadness and grief, but gently open us to the possibility of joy – perhaps the walk between two fires suggested by John Beckett would fit this rather well.

One possibility might be building an altar to love, or to the goddesses Flora, Pomona, and/or Maia, or whichever goddesses represent Spring in your tradition. You may want to incorporate a photo of your beloved, or if you are looking for love, something to symbolise your openness to the possibility. (N.B. Love spells directed at a specific person are unethical, because they constrain the will of an individual.)

Another possibility would be to focus on purification and the transition from summer to winter, and moving into a new phase of life. Letting go of attachment to past hurts, and changing perspective. Working through the issues raised by painful experiences, not burying them or denying their importance.

If you are grieving, the grief never entirely diminishes. I read a really helpful thing somewhere, which was the idea that the grief for a lost loved one doesn’t get smaller; rather your soul enlarges to accommodate it.  So I am certainly not suggesting letting go of grief. It is also worth saying that everyone grieves differently. So don’t let anyone else tell you how to grieve, or how long you should grieve.

Of course, Samhain is usually the festival for honouring and connecting with loved ones who have died, so the focus of Beltane should be different, but I think it is no accident that the two festivals are directly opposite each other on the wheel of the year. In a way, they are mirror images of each other. Beltane represents the life force at its strongest, rising to a peak; Samhain represents death. But we cannot have life without death, so in the midst of celebrating the life force, we could also remember that there is a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Perhaps Samhain is for lingering lovingly with ancestors and the beloved dead, and Beltane is for welcoming new life – but we can still keep the memories of loved ones fresh in our hearts, and remember the happy times we shared with them.

I for one will be lighting a candle for all those whose lives were snuffed out untimely by war, drowning, racism, and injustice, and doing all I can to raise awareness and campaign for a compassionate approach to migration – the movement of people just like you and me, who just want a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

However you celebrate Beltane – as a festival of erotic exuberance, as a season of purification, or as a season of wistful longing – I wish you renewed joy and a bountiful summer.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

Re-Imagining the Hero’s Journey

I just got back a week ago from AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)’s annual conference. (You can check out the action at Twitter. Search on #AWP15) The Minneapolis hotel didn’t run out of alcohol (that has happened in the past) but they did have a run on the tabouleh in the first 24 hours. Well, with approximately 15,000 writers in town, you’re going to run out of something.

Maybe there’s something about being (lost) among that sea of writers that has me thinking about the Hero’s Journey. I could have used a clever animal sidekick or a pair of magic scissors or something. Or maybe it’s just another way for me to think about shaping this story I’m always trying to write. Or this life I’m trying to live. Living the life, writing the book…same project, as far as I can tell.


Joseph Campbell picked up where Jung left off and got us all thinking of the Hero’s Quest or Journey as an archetypal form we could overlay onto our own lives. He outlined the steps of the Journey. I’ve seen it stated slightly differently in different places, but here is one model:

  • Hero as outcast/outsider.
  • Hero called to adventure.
  • Hero refuses the call.
  • Hero meets mentor (supernatural aid, spirit guide, etc).
  • Hero “crosses the threshold,” embarks/leaves ordinary life behind.
  • Hero undergoes a series of tests on the path.
  • Hero meets the love that has greatest significance, is all-encompassing, all-meaningful. Campbell called this meeting the Goddess.
  • Hero meets the Temptress, in the temptation to fall from his Quest.
  • Hero faces ultimate challenge/greatest fear.
  • Hero gains the gift or treasure, the fulfillment of the Quest.
  • Hero returns home, with treasure.
  • Hero faces one final test.
  • Hero comes into his own, is crowned King or otherwise recognized in community.

Wikipedia tells me Campbell borrowed Joyce’s term “monomyth” for this. And like monotheism, the “monomyth” has a pronoun problem. Campbell wasn’t so great on the wimminfolk, as you can tell from the above steps. The Hero for him was always a boy or man. True love is represented by “the Goddess,” and tempation likewise takes the figure of a woman. Towards the end of his career (I read this anecdote from The Sound of a Silver Horn, by Kathleen Noble—a great book on women and the Hero’s Journey for anyone interested), a young woman asked him in class, “What about women?” Campbell answered, “Women are the Mother, the Goddess, the Beloved…what more do you want?” “I want to go on an adventure,” she said. “I’m glad I’m retiring,” was his reply.

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis

Let’s diversify the Journey.

What if the Hero is not an outcast? What if she is enmeshed in her community at the start of the story?  What launches her out of her comfort zone and onto the Path? Is there an archetypal moment of rejection, and would this come from within or from without? Or is she just bored? Is that enough? What if she has children? What if she has an older relative she’s taking care of? What if she is the head of the PTO?

And what happens to her at the end? A wise man may be a king. A wise woman is almost always a witch. Mind you, I’m down with that.  A woman (anyone) who listens to a wilder song and has truly gained wisdom from that will not be welcome back into a community structured by patriarchy. This is why the witch lives at the edge of town, or deep in the woods. This is an essential difference which does not have to be gender specific.

Stretching our imaginations to re-vision the Hero’s Journey is helpful to writers as we think about plots…but larger than that, if the Journey  is an archetype we all may follow in how we think about and understand our lives, there needs to be a diversity of possible paths. Not everyone wants to be king. Not everyone wants to end up married and happily ever after.

If we follow Jungian thought, archetypally, a “king” has been understood to represent someone who is healthily centered, who has embraced their own shadow and is able to rule themselves wisely. Maybe a “witch” is someone who purposefully and deliberately uncenters. Who pushes into the margins, the boundaries, who camps on the edge. Who insists there is still, ever, much of the self she doesn’t yet know.

What would it be to be both?

All my thinking is aswim. What stories can we tell? E with beret

Tradition and change

What is a tradition?

In English, we use the word ‘tradition’ in two distinct ways.

There is tradition in the sense of an entire set of practices, beliefs, and values – a cohesive religious tradition. Examples include the Wiccan tradition, the Mennonite tradition, and the Quaker tradition.

There is a tradition in the sense of a traditional practice or ritual, such as marriage, initiation, invocation, a Passover Seder, lighting lamps for Diwali, decorating a Christmas tree, and so on.

Image by JOAT, courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by JOAT, courtesy of Shutterstock

What is the function of tradition?

Traditional practices function to bring groups together by acting out their shared values, commemorating previous generations, acting out their mythology and stories, and reinforcing group identity. Examples include the Passover Seder – a beautiful and effective ritual for commemorating past generations, teaching the story of the Exodus from Egypt to future generations, reinforcing the identity and values of the group, and transmitting Jewish values and culture to the next generation.

Other traditional practices (such as marriage) function to make a connection between the individual and the tribe. When you get married, you affirm the relationship with your partner in front of your tribe (family and friends) and your deities or deity. When you undergo a rite of passage (e.g. Bat Mitzvah, Bar Mitzvah), you make the transition from child to adult, and your connection to your community or tribe is reaffirmed. When you get initiated into Wicca, you make the transition from uninitiated to initiated, and you become a full member of the Wiccan community.

Traditions that affirm identity and community can be a wonderful and life-affirming thing. They make us feel whole and loved and part of something bigger than ourselves.

Traditions can harm or heal

Some traditional practices are obviously harmful – examples include foot-binding, female genital mutilation, and so on. Other traditional practices are disputed, because they are regarded as harmful by one community, but helpful by another (e.g. male circumcision).

Other practices are widely regarded as desirable, but may exclude some categories of people – the obvious example being marriage. I would argue that a traditional practice that excludes a whole category of people is broken, and needs to change to include that category, provided that making that change harms no-one. (Clearly, a child or an animal cannot meaningfully consent to marriage, so that rules out underage spouses and bestiality, because being forced into an arrangement to which you cannot consent is obviously harmful).

In my video on Gender and Sexuality in Wicca, I said, “If a tradition is broken, then it needs fixing”. I was referring to harmful traditional practices, or practices that exclude entire categories of people, not to an entire religious tradition. However, if you equate a particular practice or set of practices with the whole of your tradition, or as the most important part of your tradition, and that set of practices excludes a whole category of people, then maybe your entire religious tradition does need re-examining.

In that video, I argued that certain traditional practices within Wicca, such as those that appear to value heterosexuality more than other sexual orientations, or that prevent LGBT people from doing certain magical activities together, harm LGBT people by excluding us from those practices. They also fail to represent the lived reality of gender and sexual diversity, and they may be preventing everyone within Wicca from experiencing the full spectrum of magical possibilities available to us.

Why might traditions change?

Traditions evolve and change all the time in response to the changing needs of the community. This applies both to religious traditions as a whole, and to traditional practices within them.

If a traditional practice excludes a whole category of people because of their core identity, then I would argue that it needs to be expanded to include them. There is no need to abolish the practice for the people for whom it works. The obvious example here is Wiccan initiation. For the vast majority of people, male / female initiation works just fine. If you are cisgender and heterosexual, there is no reason to change how you will be initiated.  But what if a person is transgender? Should they be initiated by someone of the opposite gender identity to themselves, or someone of the opposite physical sex? Or should they be allowed to choose? What about genderqueer people? What about those who are exclusively attracted to members of the same sex? This depends on whether you think initiation depends on polarity, and what you think polarity is, and how you think it is created. Is it created by erotic attraction, biological characteristics, or other differences?

What are valid criteria for changing a traditional practice?

If the traditional practice is actively harmful to a large group of people (examples include child marriage, genital mutilation, and footbinding) either physically or psychologically, then it needs to be modified or abolished.

If the traditional practice excludes a category of people because of their innate characteristics (e.g. not allowing same-sex couples to get married, or refusing Wiccan initiation to people with a disability), then it needs to be expanded to include that category, provided that it does not harm anyone else.

If the traditional practice affirms the identity of your group at the expense of making derogatory claims about other groups, then it needs to be changed so that it is not derogatory towards the identity of another group. An example might be a Christian affirmation that they are ‘not like the heathen’, or that they renounce ‘wicked idolatry’. The Vatican officially dropped a part of the Catholic liturgy that said something rude about the Jews, for example.

If it is claimed that the traditional practice excludes a category of people because of an acquired characteristic that is not part of their core identity, then we need to think a bit harder about modifying it. For example, I would argue strongly that the Wiccan practice of working skyclad is empowering and life-affirming and enhances group trust, but some people claim that it is harmful for people who have been raped or molested. I would certainly not want to add to their trauma by insisting that they work skyclad, but I would want to encourage them to work towards a state of trust and self-confidence where they felt able to work skyclad.

What are valid criteria for retaining a practice unchanged?

Is the practice life-affirming? Does everyone in your group or religious tradition feel included in it? Does it affirm the core identity of everyone in your group? Does it express and affirm the core values of your group or religious tradition? Does it help to transmit your values, beliefs, stories, and identity to new members of the group? Does it accurately describe a key magical or cosmological concept or experience? Does it help rather than harm? If the answer to all or most of these questions is yes, then congratulations, you have a really worthwhile traditional practice.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.