Paganism and the Body Class Sneak Peek

Eros and Touch from a Pagan PerspectiveThis Fall I’m offering Paganism and the Body, a 14-week graduate-level online class in body theology and sexual ethics, at Cherry Hill Seminary. Some of you may have already heard about CHS’s uncertain future, so this may be the last time a class like this is available for some years. If you’re thinking about signing up, please do it soon! We start Sept. 12.

Additionally, I just noticed that the price of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has popped up again to its retail price on Amazon. (There are some copies from third-party sellers still available for around $50.) If the price of the book is a problem, don’t worry; talk to me and we’ll make other arrangements.

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at the syllabus! And here’s where you can register. [Write me at chkraemer13 at gmail dot com if you haven’t taken a CHS class before — I believe you’ll need instructor permission.]

 


Note: This syllabus is subject to change.

Course Number and Title:  N6650 Paganism and the Body

Semester:  Spring 2016

Class meeting time: Mondays, 9pm ET

Instructor(s): Christine Hoff Kraemer, PhD

 

 

Description of the Course

For most Pagans, the human body and the manifest world are sacred centers of religious practice. But what are the consequences of that belief for our daily lives? What do our Pagan theologies of the body call us to do in terms of justice work? Because of the significant percentage of gender and sexual minorities in the Pagan movement, this class will have a special focus on sexual ethics and alternative sexualities and gender expressions. We will also explore other important aspects of embodiment such as health and disability; race; relationship with food, water, and the natural environment; and more.

Prerequisite:  C5121 Contemporary Global Paganisms OR C5141 Introduction to Pagan Theology OR written permission of the instructor

 

Required Texts

  • Jennifer Hunter, Rites of Pleasure: Sexuality in Wicca and NeoPaganism, Citadel Press, 2004
  • Christine Hoff Kraemer, Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake, Routledge, 2013
  • A book of your choice on embodiment issues

Other readings will be posted as PDFs or links to web pages in the Moodle classroom.

 

Course Objectives

This course is intended to provide you with an introduction to contemporary thought examining embodiment issues in a Pagan religious context.  Our study will include both academic peer-reviewed articles and personal or journalistic accounts by Pagan practitioners and others. These goals will be achieved through regular reading, discussion, and writing.  You will also need to demonstrate your engagement and understanding of the material through a final project.

By the end of this class, you should be able to:

  • Articulate your own religious beliefs about bodies and embodiment
  • Reflect critically and constructively on existing theologies of embodiment
  • Have the foundation to deal sensitively and knowledgeably with both Pagans and non-Pagans around issues of the body

 

 General Expectations

 Paganism and the Body is a graduate-level course. Students will be expected to digest difficult written material and attend discussions prepared with their own observations and questions. The instructor’s role in the course is primarily as a facilitator and knowledge resource; it is the students who will decide what elements of the assigned readings we will explore most deeply.

Forum posts may be written conversationally. For formal written assignments, students are expected to adhere to academic writing conventions, including the use of proper citation format (Chicago, MLA, or another academic style). The Office of Assertion by Scott F. Crider is recommended as a good basic text on academic writing.

Because clear and mechanically correct writing is essential for effective communication, grammar and organization will be considered in the evaluation process. If successful academic writing has been a challenge for you in the past, it is recommended that you submit a rough draft to the instructor a week before the assignment is due so that she may assist you in revisions.

Plagiarism is a serious violation of ethics, and its consequences may include failing this class. Check with your instructor if you are unclear on how to quote or cite work that is not your own.

See the Catalog for details about additional issues of policy.

 

 Participation

 If you attend and participate in at least eight class chats, you will receive an 85 or above for participation. In order to receive a participation grade in the A range, students should participate in additional chats and engage in discussion in the forums. Participation grades will be assigned at the discretion of the instructor.

During each class chat, we will discuss the readings assigned during the previous week.

 

Weekly Homework

 For Week 1, you will briefly define a list of key terms for the study of theologies of embodiment. One- or two-sentence answers are sufficient. Many of these terms can be found in your Week 1 readings. For additional information, Wikipedia is a sufficiently reliable resource for this assignment and (due to how frequently it is updated) may even be superior to standard encyclopedias and dictionaries. Please note, however, that Wikipedia is not an appropriate resource to cite for a research paper.

 Other weekly homework assignments will include reflective responses, summaries, or summary/responses in a specific format (see below). Each week, you will be asked to post one of your written assignments to the Forum by Thursday for group discussion; the rest are due by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student post before the next chat.

Students are encouraged to use the Forums for any additional questions, reflections, or reactions that come up in the course of the class.

 

Summary/Response

Your weekly homework is due by the end of the day on Wednesday. Each reading summary should be around 200-250 words. You will not be penalized for additional length, but it will make the best use of your time and the instructor’s time if your writing is dense and to the point.

In addition to submitting your assignment through the assignment link, choose one reading summary to post in the Forum by the end of Thursday. Turn in the remainder of your homework by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student Forum post before the following week’s chat.

In paragraphs or in outline form, summarize the reading and then respond to it both analytically and personally.

Below is an example of a student reading summary in this format, from a chapter of Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many.

Jordan Paper states:

  • that when we depend on wild plants and animals, we see them as numinous/deities
  • that when we domesticate the plants and animals on which we still depend, we see them as gifts of the numinous/deities rather than as the numinous/deities themselves
  • that plant and animal deities have powers humans need in our lives
  • that humans are weak in relation to wild animals
  • that we know about deities because they communicate with us

I affirm:

  • that my life is dependent on the deaths – the sacrifices – of plants and animals, as well as the gifts of plants and animals (mammals do not have to die to give milk, or fowl to give eggs, for example)
  • my respect for and gratitude to the plants and animals whose deaths sustain my life
  • that I recognize the plant and animal beings I encounter each day as Sacred, and strive to do so more consciously
  • my bird feeding as a sacrifice of appreciation to some of the bird deities in my new location, as a freely-chosen religious/spiritual obligation during certain seasons
  • that the conscious cultivation of relationship with plants and animals may restore a numinous quality that supermarket culture has removed

Assignments that receive a grade in the A range will:

  • be specific
  • go beyond mere description and begin to ask/answer “why?”, “how?”, and “so what?”
  • pick up on nuances in the readings that require more than skimming to grasp
  • present students’ most controversial, radical, or challenging personal theologies
  • present statements from students’ experience that are likely to be unique

The instructor may choose a few particularly insightful or provocative excerpts from these assignments to share anonymously with the class as springboards for further discussion.

 

Term Assignments

Book Review: This assignment gives you an opportunity to read an additional book related to theology and embodiment. Suggestions for acceptable books will be provided by the instructor; other choices must be approved. This assignment is due at the end of Week 5.

Your book review will contain the following elements:

  • Summary of the book’s contents and main argument(s)
  • Evaluation of the book’s effectiveness with its intended audience
  • Reflective response on how this book might be useful in your ministry or personally

Assume that your reader is an educated fellow student who has not read the book. Your summary must give the reader enough information to understand your evaluation of it. Make sure your review is more than summary, however! Your job is to present an educated opinion about the book you read; summary is a tool in this process and is not a sufficient end product by itself. Your thoughts and reflections should make up at least half of the review.

Consider questions such as these as you take notes for your review.

  • What is the topic?
  • What are the author’s subjects?
  • To whom is the author writing?
  • What is the author’s opinion of her subject and what tone does she use?
  • How does the author support her statements?
  • Is the argument convincing? If not, why not?
  • How am I reacting to the text?
  • How does this text fit into what I already know about the subject?
  • Who would benefit most from reading this text?

Your review should contain a minimum of 750 double-spaced words. Organization, grammar, clarity, and the use of proper citation format (MLA, Chicago, or another academic format) will be considered in the evaluation of your essay.

A sample book review: http://inhumandecency.org/christine/eisler.html

 

Autobiography: You will compose an approximately 1000-word personal reflection and account considering the role of the body in your religious and spiritual life. In order to focus your narrative, you may wish to choose a specific incident from your life and contextualize it using the theological ideas and issues that we will study in class. These narratives will be shared with the class in a non-judgmental environment, so students are encouraged to share as openly as they feel comfortable. Potential starting places for beginning such narratives include:

  • experiences of the body’s limits, such as while running a marathon or dealing with a serious illness
  • memories of the onset of puberty or menstruation
  • reflections on one’s personal relationship to traditional gender roles, particularly during life transitions such as marriage or parenthood
  • aging
  • growing, preparing, and eating one’s own food
  • coming out regarding sexual orientation or gender identity
  • sacred experiences of touch (with human or other-than-human persons)
  • experiences of the body while recovering from abuse
  • experiences of the body in “natural” environments

Questions you may wish to address in order to link your personal experiences with class materials:

  • How did I experience divinity (or the absence of divinity) in this incident or period of my life?
  • How did my spiritual practice and beliefs at the time shape this experience?
  • How has this experience shaped my spiritual practice and beliefs?
  • What are the ethical issues that are relevant to my experience?
  • How did I relate to my community and my loved ones with regard to this issue? How did they relate to me?
  • What did my experiences teach me about the nature of the body?

Assignments will be graded for clarity, originality, and their success in framing a personal experience within a theological framework. Students may wish to consider carefully before writing about an issue that is emotionally volatile for them, as it may be difficult to submit such experiences to theological analysis. A successful autobiography assignment will balance emotional engagement with thoughtful, well-reasoned theological reflections.

This assignment is due at the end of Week 8, and the writing process should be considered part of the preparation for your Final Project Question, described below.

 

Final Project Question: By the end of Week 8, you will have developed a sense of what you are curious about and how that might become a project. Your project question may still be broad and open-ended, but it should also be provocative and express a real area of curiosity and concern for you.

Post your question to the Final Project Questions forum for instructor and student feedback. There, we will begin to narrow your field of inquiry so that it can be tackled in a final project.

Examples of viable project questions:

  • What is the role of a religious community in supporting its members around coming-out issues?
  • Why was ritual sex important in early twentieth-century occultism?
  • How can Pagan beliefs about the body support food and water justice work?
  • How can large Pagan groups balance disability accommodation with the desire to offer ritual in wild or out of the way natural settings?
  • How can Pagans best represent the sexual and gender diversity of the Pagan community in an interfaith context?
  • How do Pagan beliefs inform our ethics about reproductive rights?
  • What do children need to know about their bodies in order to understand them as sacred?
  • What education does my community need around racial justice, and how does its existing beliefs about the religious role of ancestry help or hinder that effort?

 

Final Project: You will design, implement as is appropriate, and present a project based on your personal learning goals, readings, autobiography, reading responses, and your final project question.

This project is not necessarily a research paper, although you may write a paper if research is the best format in which to address your question.  You might choose to outline a workshop, create a game, design a ritual, prepare a speech, develop a meditation series, or any other creative and useful vehicle for your project.  The project will be presented to the class during one of the two final chats.

Written materials should be 12-15 pages long. Other types of projects should involve about as much work as a 15-page paper and must include a verbal or written component that contextualizes the project for the class (or other intended audience). If you are choosing to work in an artistic medium, speak to the instructor about how substantial the written or verbal presentation should be.

Project Proposal

Your project proposal of approximately 250 words is due by the end of Week 9 and must be approved by the instructor. It should include:

  • A description of the project, including your (brief) anticipated answer to your Project Question (your “thesis sentence”)
  • A rationale for the project – why this topic? Why this approach?
  • Whom you intend the project to serve
  • How you see this project as serving this population
  • Logistical considerations, including how you will present the project for grading and to the class
  • A list of the resources you will draw on to complete the project (books, websites, people, etc.)

Project Presentation

You will present your project or excerpts from it to the class at the end of the semester. During Week 13, post an approximately 200-word summary of your project (an abstract such as you might provide for a conference presentation) to the Final Projects forum.

The written part of your project is due at the end of Week 13. Project materials may be posted to the Forum, or you may share a link to Dropbox or another service if they are very large.

Presentations may be made verbally via Skype, with Powerpoint, via recorded MP3, and/or by another instructor-approved method.  Your presentation of the project to the class should be no more than 10 minutes long. Each student will take questions and comments after their presentation.

Note that you will certainly not be able to cover every aspect of your project in ten minutes, so come prepared to adequately summarize and point out the highlights of your paper or project for the class. The effectiveness with which you present the project will be considered in grading.

 

 Grading

Grades will be given according to the rubric described in the Student Handbook. Please note that in a graduate-level class, a B is given for solid, above-average work. Grades in the A range require substantial analytical thinking and creativity. Contact the instructor if you need clarification on what “analysis” means in the study of theology.

Book Review                                      15%

Weekly Homework                         15%

Participation                                       15%

Autobiography                                  20%

Project Question                              5%

Final Project Proposal                    5%

Final Project                                       20%

Final Project Presentation            5%

 

Summary of Assignments

 Forum posts are due by Thursday of the week assigned. All other assignments should be submitted by the Sunday of the week they are due.  Late assignments may receive a grade penalty, up to one letter grade per week, at the discretion of the instructor.

If you find you need an extension on an assignment, contact the instructor immediately.

Weekly

Definitions, 200-word reflective responses, or summary/responses

Forum posts and replies

Assigned readings

Week 2

Title of book for review

Week 5

Book Review

Week 8

Autobiography

Final Project Question

Week 9

Final Project Proposal

Week 13-14

Final Projects

 

Schedule

 Week 1:  Defining Terms

  • Kraemer, “Pagan Traditions: Sacralizing the Body” (2016)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch (2013), Introduction and Conclusion
  • Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh (2008), Introduction and Conclusion

Week 2: Theologies of the Embodied Self/Soul(s)

  • Kraemer, Seeking the Mystery (2012) Chp 4, 83-85; 91-94
  • Weidenbaum, “You Have to Take It With You” (2008)
  • Abram, “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia” (1990)
  • Whiting, “On Being a Holy Mother” (2011)

Week 3: Pain, Illness, and Disability

  • Fuller, Spirituality In the Flesh, Chp 6
  • Matthews, “Rooted in This Body: Learning Pantheism from Chronic Illness” (2013)
  • Pearson, “Disabled Rites?: Ritual and Disability in Wicca” (2011)
  • Pearson, “Embracing the Lash: Pain and Ritual as Spiritual Tools” (2011)
  • Aldag, “How to Include the Physically Challenged in Group Rituals”

Week 4: Pleasure, Healing, and Touch

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 1 & 4
  • Kirner, “Healing Community” (2014)
  • Brown, “Touch and American Religions” (2009)

Week 5: Food and Water Justice

  • Harvey, Animism (2005) Chp 6
  • Rifkin, “Pagan Kosher” series (2013) (http://witchesandpagans.com/tags/tag/pagan-kosher.html)
  • Larson, “Holy Water and Human Rights” (2011)
  • UUA, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”
  • Clifton, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” (1993)
  • Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast (1995) excerpts

Week 6:  Sexual and Erotic Diversity

  • Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984/1992)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 3

Week 7:  Erotic Justice

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 2
  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 90-118, 142-146
  • Kraemer and Aburrow, Pagan Consent Culture Introduction (2016)
  • Betkowski, “Seeking a Morality of Difference” (2016)

Week 8: Race, Rac(ial)ism, and Ancestry

  • Gallagher, “Weaving a Tangled Web? Pagan Ethics and Issues of History, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Pagan Identity” (2009)
  • Bel, “Ancestors and Heritage in Paganism” (2016)
  • Blanton, “Understanding the Definition of Racism” (2015)
  • Skallagrimsson, “Racism in Asatru”
  • Hale, “Marketing Rad Trad” (2015)
  • Theurer, “Ancestor Work and Anti-Racism” (2015)

Week 9: Sexuality and Gender

  • Kraemer, “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism” (2012)
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006) Chp 6
  • Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism (2002) Chp 7
  • Blain and Wallis, “The Ergi Seidman” (2001)

Week 10: Queer and Transgender Issues

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 119-142
  • Eller, Am I a Woman? (2003) Chp 1 & 2
  • Kaldera, “The Third Voice” (2012)
  • Stover, “When Pan Met Wendy: Gendered Membership Debates Among the Radical Faeries” (2008)
  • Greene, “Transgender Inclusion Debates Reignite in Pagan Community” (2016)

Week 11:  BDSM and Alternative Relationship Structures

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 64-89, 147-173
  • Henkin, “Counseling Bisexuals on BDSM Lifestyle Issues” (2005)
  • Kaldera, “Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context” (2016)
  • Hoff and Sprott, “Therapy Experiences of Clients with BDSM Sexualities” (2009)
  • Zell, “A Bouquet of Lovers” (1990)
  • Weitzman, “Counseling Bisexuals in Polyamorous Relationships” (2005)
  • Hutchins, “Playing with Sacred Fire: Building Erotic Communities” (2005)

Week 12: The Myth of the Temple Prostitute and the Contemporary “Sacred Harlot”

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 174-194
  • Hutchins, “Bisexual Women as Emblematic Sexual Healers and the Problematics of the Embodied Sacred Whore” (2002)
  • Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution (2008) Introduction, Chp 11
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006), Conclusion

Week 13:  Final Projects

Week 14:  Final Projects

 

 

Gods in disguise

Every time an advance is made in people actually respecting and accommodating others’ bodily autonomy, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, or other difference, you are sure to hear the cry “it’s political correctness gone mad!”. A similar cry, of “Alphabet Soup!”, goes up whenever a new letter is added to the LGBT+ acronym.

What you are hearing is the sound of the privileged complaining about a loss of privilege (otherwise known as ‘playing the game of life on a lower difficulty setting than other people‘, or ‘getting away with stuff that minority groups would not get away with’, e.g. Ryan Lochte, Brock Turner, and many other similar cases).

Examples of advances in respect for others include the word cisgender being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, having gender-neutral toilets, labelling food for allergens, providing food for people with special requirements (halal, vegan, vegetarian, coeliac, etc), providing electricity for disabled people to recharge their wheelchairs, implementing consent policies at Pagan events… the list goes on. You name it, someone will probably have exclaimed “it’s political correctness gone mad!” (or something very similar) in response to every social advance that has ever been made, right back to that dangerously radical innovation of giving the vote to women, or perhaps even further back than that.

Where does this insidious phrase come from? Its history is quite convoluted, but it has often been used as a pejorative term, and was fairly obscure (and a left-wing in-joke) until it was taken up by conservatives who were opposed to progressive educational policies. After George Bush Snr used it at a commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan in 1991, its use became widespread among conservatives to refer to anything they regarded as an “imposition of liberal orthodoxy”. It use rapidly spread to the UK, where it is used every time someone wants to do something inclusive and someone else perceives that their privilege will be eroded by being more inclusive.

One example of privilege is that non-disabled Pagans don’t have to worry about wheelchair access to venues, and expect public Pagan events to be low-cost or free, so when event organisers book a venue, they are constrained by these expectations to look for lower-cost venues, which often don’t have wheelchair access. When it is suggested that all public Pagan events should be wheelchair-accessible, even if it costs more, you are sure to hear cries of “it’s political correctness gone mad” – despite the fact that accessibility is actually a legal requirement for public events.

Similarly, inclusive Wicca advocates an expanded understanding of concepts like polarity, and a few tweaks to Wiccan rituals, to accommodate a more up-to-date concept of gender and sexuality. To hear the howls of protest from some quarters, you would have thought that inclusive Wiccans had advocated abolishing the whole of Wiccan liturgy, or something. (Meanwhile, many people outside Wicca are baffled that we are still having a conversation about this in the early 21st century.)

As Neil Gaiman wrote, however:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”

(Yet another reason to love Neil Gaiman.) He goes on to suggest that people should try replacing the phrase “politically correct” wherever we can with “treating other people with respect”. And now, thanks to a New Zealander called Byron Clark, there’s actually a Google Chrome extension that does exactly that.

The latest version of “it’s political correctness gone mad” has emerged from some sections of polytheism: the accusation of “putting politics before gods”. It is particularly insidious because it implies that those of us who care about respecting the rights of our fellow humans (and of other animals) are somehow impious.

The central tenet of my religion is “only connect”: connect with other beings, respect their autonomy, honour their dreams and aspirations, and recognise the divinity within them.

I believe that divinity is immanent in everything; every being has the seeds of godhood within them. Some choose to trample on the seed, others choose to nurture it towards growth – but divinity is everywhere, however dimly reflected.

If I deny the divinity immanent in my fellow beings, then I am also denying the divinity of gods, who are expressions of the same divinity.

Therefore, in my world, treating other people with respect is honouring the gods. The ancient stories of gods and angels visiting humans disguised as mortals are metaphors to express this idea. You never know whether the stranger to whom you showed hospitality and respect was a god in disguise – so you may as well behave as if everyone you meet is a god in disguise. Because actually, they are.

 

My Polytheism

Syren Nagakyrie asked…

How do the gods move with and through you? How do you live your life as a polytheist? Where do you walk the knife’s edge and where do the labels blur so much as to be unrecognizable? That is where our power is found.

Gods move in mysterious ways

Some days I am flat and empty and feel disconnected from the gods. These are the days when I most need the solace of their touch. The days when I despair at social injustice, at the slaughter of Black, LGBT, and indigenous people, at the destruction of the environment, the loss of solidarity, and all the ills with which humanity plagues itself.

When I stop and remember to breathe, to be in the presence of the gods, to reach out for them, then they come to me. Some days I sit in the presence of a specific deity; other days, I wait to see who shows up. The other night, when I was wrestling with something particularly difficult, an unexpected deity showed up. I have felt that he wanted to contact me for a while but nothing definite has happened until now. I installed a small statue of him on my shrine and waited.

In Wicca, we invoke deities, and this can be a really powerful experience, as they inhabit your body and speak through you. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world.

Life as a polytheist

One of the things I really like about polytheism is its inherent plurality. Gods and spirits are not one single entity, but a multiplicity of identities, local and finite and specific and particular. They can be the consciousness of rocks and trees and water; or deified humans; or forces of Nature, spirits of place, emerging from the complexity of the universe (or multiverse).

I am a mystical polytheist, and as such, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about defining or describing the gods or indeed polytheism. The gods have managed to look after themselves all this time, so I am pretty sure I don’t need to defend them from people who think they are all one, or don’t believe in them at all. They speak to those who are listening, and sometimes to people who weren’t listening.

Walking the knife’s edge

It is in liminal spaces and places that we can find power. The interstices between day and night, between civilisation and wildness.

There are people who say you can’t be a Wiccan and a polytheist, because Wicca is supposedly duotheist. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, so they are wrong.

There are people who say you can’t be committed to social justice and be a polytheist – but for me, gods and politics are the warp and the weft of my polytheism.

Things are frequently not either/or, not simple binaries – often they are both/and, or a multiplicity of choices: a spectrum, or a scatter-plot.

The knife of the witch cuts away illusion, enabling us to see into the heart of things. If we do not walk the knife’s edge, we will never enter the castle of the mysteries.

By NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar ObservatoryThe science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) - http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2004/20/image/a/, Public Domain.

The Pleiades, by NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory. The science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) – Hubble, Public Domain.

Find out more

See more posts exploring the glorious diversity of polytheism at MyPolytheism.com

 

Hospitality for the Stranger

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Immigration and Refugees. Read other perspectives here.

What does your faith perspective teach you about refugees? How do your politics and your religious convictions come together to inform policy and shape your attitude?

Every ancient pagan culture had very strong traditions of hospitality. These were often reinforced by telling stories of gods, goddesses, and angels disguised as mortals visiting people.

The Greeks had a strong tradition of xenia care for the stranger. This carried its own obligations and traditions. When Nausica found Odysseus washed up on the shore, her care for him was very much in the tradition of xenia.

Jacob_van_Oost_(I)_-_Mercury_and_Jupiter_in_the_House_of_Philemon_and_Baucis

Mercury and Jupiter in the House of Philemon and Baucis, by Jacob van Oost (I)Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Public Domain.

The Hávamál, which means ‘the speech of the High One’ (Odinn) also contains stanzas about hospitality, and the duties of both host and guest.

Ultimately, the two words, host and guest, are derived from the same Indo-European root word, and so imply that they were viewed as inseparable parts of the same relationship. I like to think of them as the two halves of a hinge. The relationship of guest and host is reciprocal, with sacred obligations on both sides.

The concept and practice of hospitality are very important in India too, which suggests that the practice is very ancient indeed. Both Pakistan and Germany (and other places too) have the tradition of the guest-gift, where a guest will give you a gift the first time they visit your home. People from Latvia have a tradition of giving bead and salt as a gift when you have a new house. The sharing of bread and salt are considered sacred in many cultures. Once they have been shared, the relationship of guest and host is established and sacred.

If we think back to the times when small villages were scattered among great forests, the arrival of a stranger with news from other places, new stories, new songs, and new jokes, maybe even new farming or weaving or metalworking techniques, must have been very welcome.

There were also great movements of people in ancient times: Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Alans; settlers from the rest of Europe and North Africa who came with the Romans; Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who fled the rising waters of the North Sea and settled in Britain. More recently, there were silver miners from Germany who settled in the Mendips; many African and Middle Eastern people; the Huguenots fleeing persecution in France; Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, who began to arrive after the interdict against Jews was lifted in 1654 (it was put in place by King John in 1290 because he didn’t want to repay loans from Jewish bankers – who were forced to enter banking as other professions were closed to them).

Everyone in Britain probably has a refugee or an economic migrant in their ancestry somewhere, if you go back far enough. Even Kate Middleton is related to a prominent Huguenot family. And both refugees and economic migrants have contributed hugely to the UK by creating jobs and boosting the economy with their spending power and tax contributions (and if they are not from the EU, they have “no recourse to public funds” stamped in their visa – so they receive no benefits and no free NHS).

And in the US and Canada of course, unless you are 100% Native, you are an immigrant or descended from immigrants.

I feel instinctively that openness to other cultures, and welcoming the stranger and the refugee, are good things. What kind of civilisation would we be if we were not open and hospitable? One that was both ethically and culturally impoverished, would be my answer.

But I think that the gods and goddesses of Paganism – who frequently come to Earth to test the hospitality of mortals, and reward those who are hospitable, and punish those who are not – would agree that hospitality is a sacred practice and should be held in high honour.

Of course, in the case of migration to other lands, there is the point of transition from guest to resident. Here again, we see the process of reciprocity at work. The migrant has paid their tax, contributed work and money to the system, and in many cases their food style and folk customs to the culture, and so after a time they become a member of the community. In societies that welcome immigrants, such as Canada, this is expected and encouraged; and education has been geared towards welcoming diversity for the last 25 years. More xenophobic countries (such as the UK) go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the transition from guest to resident.

Both hospitality and reciprocity are Pagan virtues and have been since ancient times. Honour is also important in many Pagan traditions, and I think the honourable thing to do is to welcome the stranger. Hoarding wealth was frowned upon in ancient societies; wealth was displayed by the generosity of the ‘ring-giving lord’ who gave gold arm rings to his thegns, and the loaf-giver (hlaf-diga, the origin of the word lady). The social fabric was woven through the sacred practices of hospitality, fosterage, gift exchange, and reciprocity. We would do well to cultivate these virtues instead of xenophobia and suspicion. So I would definitely say that Pagan religions encourage us to show hospitality towards migrants and compassion for refugees.

See also:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2015/09/welcoming-the-stranger-and-the-refugee/
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2012/12/pagan-ethic-of-reciprocity/