On Being European and Scottish

Guest post by John Macintyre

Dear Friends,

The debate over UK membership of the European Union is drawing towards an end, or more likely to a very short interval. We vote on Thursday. It’s been a short and thoroughly depressing campaign in which the main issues seem to have been money, paranoia and xenophobia. An energetic, capable and downright admirable young MP, Labour’s Jo Cox, has just been murdered in what appears to be a politically motivated killing. I’d like to hope things can’t get any worse but that would seem to be tempting fate.

Though I don’t belong to any political party, I’ve always been interested in politics, hence these thoughts on the matter. Polling just now is hard to interpret in detail because the methodologies keep changing but the direction over the last few weeks looks consistent. If accurate and sustained it looks as though, across the four countries of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland will vote to Remain in the EU while England and Wales vote to Leave.

I’m strongly in favour of all the countries of the UK remaining in the EU. I respect the fact that some folk feel differently. I know there are good people on both sides for I’ve a lot of friends who’ll be voting Remain and a few who’ll be voting Leave. My feelings towards the leaderships of both the official UK Remain and Leave campaigns are, I confess, somewhat less open-hearted than that.

Harebells (the "Bluebells of Scotland"), by Chilepine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Harebells (the “Bluebells of Scotland”, also known as “witch’s bells”), by Chilepine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Like most people I know, I’ve chosen how I’ll vote for many different emotional and rational reasons. The heart-reasons are simple and straightforward. While the European Union is not synonymous with Europe, nearly every European country outwith the Russian Federation either is a member, is in the process of becoming a member, or has other strong and formal connections through the EEA or EFTA. So I’ll be voting Remain because I’m a Scot and a European, because Scotland is and always has been a European country. The village I happen to have been born and raised in was founded by Flemish merchants & craftsmen under charter from the Scottish Crown, and Fleming is still a common local name. The old Burgh Muir our house is built on once provided fleeces for the Flanders wool trade.

The North Sea has always connected people far more than it divided them, and the marks of these connections to the rest of Europe are everywhere in Scotland’s history, language, culture, place names, educational system, architecture and law. As I sit typing this, I know that a few miles walk in one direction would bring me to the remains of the old Dane’s Dyke. A few miles the other way and I’d be where the first translation into any of the English family of languages of one of the foundational works of European literature, Gavin Douglas’s 16th Century Scots translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, was written.

Long before we were diverted into the British Empire (an enterprise we were at least as guilty of as England, and arguably more so), the Scottish Diaspora spread out across Scandinavia, Ireland, the Low Countries, France, Germany, Poland, the Baltic States, Russia and virtually everywhere else on this continent that an energetic, well-educated and not particularly scrupulous people could find an easier living. We have very deep, historical connections to the rest of Europe that are of even longer standing than our close, friendly ties to England and Wales. If you want to wax mythopoeic about it, and I’m prone to that even without drink taken, then for all our wonderfully diverse nations and cultures across this continent, and wherever we came from to end up here, and however tangled the skein of heritage, co-option, bastardy or adoption that holds us here, and with the greatest familial respect to all the many other parents we may rightly honour, we are all of us the children of Europa and Zeus. I think that matters.

As with any political campaign, Leave and Remain have been busily drawing up lists of prominent supporters to endorse their claims. I couldn’t care less about them because there are other lists of names that matter a great deal more to me, and I’m sure to many others. I’m a child of the 1950s & 60s. I remember the annual Remembrance parades at the Kirk gates, and the long lists of names on those gates. Names of all those from this one small Scottish village that died in the two Great Wars with Germany, and the same everywhere else across this island and beyond. We can now travel freely across Europe, working, studying, exploring, forging friendships and falling in love. Our young people embrace this even more enthusiastically than we do. These freedoms are not only good in themselves, they are a very real security in an increasingly fragile world.

It would be wrong to say that the European Union alone has kept the peace in Western and Central Europe since 1945, for there have been many other convergent factors contributing to that. But the EU has certainly been one of the major factors in maintaining peace and for that reason alone it is worth supporting. I do not think there has ever been a period of peace for as long as seventy years here before, and it is surely a welcome change. Given the bloody, fratricidal mess of our collective histories, it seems only common sense for all the sovereign, independent, states of Europe to pool some of their sovereignty in strengthening joint economic, political and environmental strategies, developing some shared educational, cultural, scientific and legal institutions, extending basic reciprocal rights to each others citizens, and generally deepening social ties. The EU has many faults but it is the closest Europe has come to this yet, and I hope and pray this beloved Scotland will become part it in our own right some day.

It would be understandable if many of us here in Scotland thought the EU referendum had little to do with us. In a country where every significant politician in every significant political party, all the trade unions, civic institutions and third sector bodies, all the universities and most business interests have lined up solidly behind Remain, and polling suggests most of us will too, it would be easy to grow complacent. I don’t think we should be at all complacent.

Over recent weeks, some leading figures in the Leave campaign – notably Michael Gove – have begun hinting that Brexit would mean more powers for the Scottish Parliament. This seems wildly implausible. The Leave campaign is led by politicians who campaigned against the restoration of the Scottish Parliament and have relentlessly sought to undermine and minimise its role ever since. They also fought tooth and nail against the increased powers negotiated in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum. If we vote to leave, we are granting them even more power than they have already and it would be astonishing if they suddenly decided to use it for our benefit.

These people believe unquestioningly in the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. They are opposed to the EU for exactly the same reason they are opposed to any recognition of Scotland as a semi-autonomous country within the UK, and that’s because both the EU and our Parliament potentially challenge the sovereignty of the Crown in the Westminster Parliament.

A slightly more contentious way of saying the same thing would be that they see both the EU and the Scottish Parliament as an outrageously impertinent restriction on the right of themselves and their class to rule all the countries of the UK as they see fit and in their interest. I strongly suspect that if they win a majority in the referendum, both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are likely to be high on their list of follow-on targets.

I didn’t mention the Northern Irish Assembly there and there’s a reason for that. If the UK withdraws from the EU, that has very serious implications for Northern Ireland where the relative peace and stability following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is underpinned by common EU membership on both sides of the border. The politicians who lead the Leave campaign may not care about that but we should.

I know that some comrades from the 2014 Yes Campaign are still angry with the EU for its, and particularly for the EU Commissions’, support for “Project Fear” in the run up to our 2014 referendum. Please let that go. It was merely another aspect of the political knockabout that saw David Cameron begging just about every “world leader” from Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin downwards to speak out against Scottish Independence. As circumstances change, so do political opinions and the next few months are likely to be no exception.

If, as polling currently suggests (see previous caveats), Scotland and Northern Ireland vote to Remain in the EU but England and Wales vote for Leave, with the overall UK vote being for leave, that will create a very difficult situation. I hope this doesn’t happen because as several Scottish politicians have pointed out, the aftermath of a potentially very serious mistake by the countries that are our nearest neighbours and best friends would be a challenging time for us to be trying to negotiate for our own security and international relationships.

I don’t see another Scottish independence referendum happening any time soon in those circumstances. The Independence movement wouldn’t really want one because we couldn’t be sure we’d win. The polls haven’t moved significantly since 2014 and it’s probably going to take a lot more time to move them. The Unionist movement wouldn’t really want one either because they couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t lose. We did after all cut their initial 35% lead to 10% in 2014. The Long Game offers other possibilities.

Despite the impression given by the gutter press, the EU is pretty flexible when it feels it needs to be. Our Danish neighbours are a sovereign member state within the EU; yet Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, both of which are part of the sovereign Kingdom of Denmark, are not part of the EU and the sky hasn’t fallen, nor do hard borders cut across Danish territory. If Scotland votes strongly for Remain, then even if England votes to leave – and I truly hope they don’t – that would certainly strengthen the hand of the Scottish Government and Parliament in trying to negotiate with both the UK and the EU to organise some kind of “Reverse Danish Faroes-Greenland” arrangement under which Scotland (and probably Northern Ireland) remained in the EU while still under UK sovereignty. I rather suspect that significant English interests both economic and social/internationalist would see such an arrangement as very much in their interest, though far from their – or our – first choice.

One crucial difference between this referendum and the Scottish one is that in 2014, each side put forward a plan. The No side predictably wanted no change. For the Yes side, the Scottish Government put forward an outline (with strong confederal elements) of what domestic and international objectives it would aim to negotiate for in the aftermath of an independence vote. Each side had both a declared strategy for the future and a government capable of seeking to implement it if their side won. In stark contrast today, while the official Remain side may only have a rather insipid vision of the status quo, the Leave side has put forward no coherent, or even incoherent, plan for what it intends to do if it wins the referendum beyond a rather complacent assumption that on leaving the EU, all existing economic agreements will be rapidly renegotiated on more favorable terms for the UK and immigration will be cut to a fraction of its current level without any retaliatory expulsion of UK immigrants in other countries, nor is it at all clear what the composition of the UK government trying to negotiate all this would be.

If you’re concerned about immigration, ask yourself this. Slightly over half of present immigration into the UK comes from outside the EU. Successive UK Governments have always had the sovereign right to further restrict that if they wish. If they haven’t done so when they’ve always had the power to do so inside the EU, why do you think they’d choose to do so outside the EU?

If you’re concerned about the Scottish Fisheries within the EU CFP, please bear in mind that it was Margaret Thatcher’s UK Government that traded away potential Scottish fish quotas under the Common Fisheries Policy in exchange for other concessions that were of greater benefit to her party’s supporters. As with many other controversies surrounding EU membership, what many people blame the EU for turns out to have as much or more to do with the decisions of successive UK governments as it does with any EU institutions.

The European Union is not less democratic than the UK, and that is not intended as a compliment to either. Yes, there are legitimate issues with the EU Commission and some other aspects of the EU. To set against that, more than two thirds of UK voters voted against the party that won the UK general election last year yet it still gained an overall majority in the House of Commons and, barring internal dissent, can force through any measures it likes over this parliamentary term. The majority of Westminster politicians are members of the still-expanding House of Lords who are not elected by anyone. They are chosen through Establishment patronage, aristocratic birth or religious privilege, and while many are decent and capable individuals just as many HoC MPs are, their actual influence goes far beyond advice and revision. The House of Lords, the lack of proportional representation, the shadowy influence of the Crown in Parliament, and numerous other dubious practices make the UK ill placed to lecture the EU on its “democratic deficit”.

The politicians who run the EU are neither better nor worse than those who run the UK, and please remember that we contribute to electing both sets of them. With the UK in the EU, tensions between the two create opportunities for progressive movements to protect gains that have already been made and even to edge forward sometimes. Please remember that if Brexit wins on Thursday, then it will be an in-house revision of the present Conservative government that will have greatest immediate influence on how the UK adjusts to that. If you think Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove are the harbingers of a fairer, more egalitarian, compassionate, inclusive, prosperous and environmentally responsible society then I do have to respectfully ask how you can possibly have arrived at that conclusion.


John Macintyre is a Scottish Pagan with an interest in history & politics. He is a former President of both the Pagan Federation England & Wales and of the Scottish Pagan Federation, currently in his second term of the latter. He has previously featured in an interview on this blog.

Externalising/Internalising: Talking About The Pain

A guest post by the Low Priestess

‘The shooter was gay’. On Tuesday when I arrived at an LGBT community group I was told this and it was as if the bottom dropped out of my head. I think the extremity of my shock and upset was because I had been here before:  with Brian Copeland who murdered 3 people and maimed more at the Admiral Duncan in Soho, who tried to bomb Brick Lane and set a bomb in Brixton Market that put nails into a baby’s head. (Later working with older LGBTs I met someone whose life had fallen apart that night of the Admiral Duncan attack.) I was out in London that night in 1999, and roadblocks made it hard to get home. It was very frightening,  few of us had mobiles then and I couldn’t get any news or ring my partner. I was trying to get to the Glass Bar (a lesbian bar) to get off the street and I even got frightened that fascists were going round planting bombs in all the LGBT bars that night. A week later we marched from Brixton, through Old Compton Street to Brick Lane. Then, a year or so later, when Copeland was sentenced I was by chance in The Naz restaurant in Brick Lane, listening to the radio they had on. I had hoped Copeland’s attacks had at least brought the Brixton, Brick Lane and LGBT communities closer together. The Brick Lane bomb which had not gone off, due to the incredible bravery of a South Asian man, had been close to the Naz. Now on the radio I heard people discussing that Copeland was ‘really gay’ and I imagined the supposed solidarity evaporating as waiters and diners heard it. No, we were not victims, it seemed to say, we were the perpetrators.

So this time I argued about ‘the shooter was gay’. I was upset. I said ‘having same sex attractions doesn’t make you gay. Same sex attraction is a very ordinary human experience for a fairly large proportion of the population if they don’t manage to repress it. What makes you gay or bi is embracing that and identifying as gay or bisexual.’

Later that day, though I stood with that,  and stand with it still, I had to come to terms with the fact Omar Mateen may have been strongly attracted to men. I did more thinking about internalised murderous homophobia and its causes, which I believe lie in the pervasive homophobia and transphobia still rampant in society. It doesn’t really matter what culture someone has in their background, he could have come from one of many that nurture homophobia and push same sex attractions into hate. Same sex marriage doesn’t cut it for me, I don’t experience this as the cherry on the top of a raft of equality protections that have made it safer to be LGBTQIA. Oh no, nothing so good as that. I am not safe till all my LGBTQIA siblings are safe (and especially LGB and trans people of colour, who are disproportionately targeted in hate crime). What matters to me is what people are taught about homosexuality (if it is mentioned at all) and how they are supported, and by whom, if their orientation turns out to be at odds with the views of their family or community.

Mostly I am very concerned that much of straight society may take even less responsibility for the way heterosexism and homophobia led to this horror: as if it were only a psychological problem of people who cannot accept their own sexuality. So it could all be made ‘other’ by the majority white, cisgendered, heterosexual society, the society Mateen grew up in. So much ‘other’.   I can imagine some thinking, generalising, othering: ‘Well he was gay, and he was Muslim and they are so anti gay aren’t they? He must have had mental health problems. Nothing to do with us. Nothing to see here, let’s move on’.

However Mateen’s hatred and anger were part of a widespread problem of bigotry and uncontrolled blame of othered groups which society does too little to address. He was not only homophobic, apparently. As well as being violent and controlling to his first wife, on her evidence, he seems to have been bigoted in many ways: he was reportedly a racist and misogynist too. The fact he targeted the Latin night of Pulse nightclub in Orlando and killed Latinx and Black clubbers is part of the toxic mix.      If you have read their names and seen their photos, this becomes clear.  (I read in the Evening Standard that many of the victims were of Latin origin.   ‘Many’ is not enough – all but one or two seem to have been Latinx people or appear to be Black or mixed race).

According to a former colleague in G4S, David Gilroy,  who was quoted in the New York Times on Sunday 12 June :

“I complained multiple times [to G4S] that he was dangerous, that he didn’t like blacks, women, lesbians and Jews,”

Ah, so Mateen might also perhaps, given his apparently constant anger, have targeted any of these groups.

But of course it is still all speculative and everything about motive serves someone’s agenda. Even mine.

Yes, I have an agenda.  I crave a widespread programme in response to this massacre, to all the other massacres of children and teenagers and college students, of women who had not been sexually available to a shooter, of LGB people and of the vast numbers of trans people killed. I would like it to be not only in the USA, not only to be a response to gun availability (crucial as that is) for we have homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynist murders all over the world. I don’t want to see them happen serially, in  the night, either, in areas where guns are not available.  I would like the programme to look at systemic bigotry in all kinds of services, and in government, and to institute urgently needed educational programmes in schools. There it is, my agenda.

In the meanwhile I would like to see respect for grief and loss and fear, for as long as it takes, in the communities affected by this, those from whence the victims came and those who have something in common with the shooter.  As indeed I have myself. I would have liked minutes of silence in workplaces, few I believe have happened. I have not been calling for the rainbow flag on people’s profiles or cries of ‘Je Suis Pulse!’. But the difference in response from this one to other massacres can be startling for those of us, whatever our orientation, who have continued through the week to grieve and fear and hold each other for comfort, and search, sometimes hopelessly (but never really giving up) for hope.


 

The Low Priestess came out in 1965 and has been a queer activist since 1972, assisted by her animist, pantheist and polytheist beliefs, and a highly skilled series of cats.

After Orlando: “Stay Proud, Stay Visible”

Can love win? Is there any hope?

After a tragedy like the Orlando shooting, it is really hard to believe in love, or hope for a better future. It is all too tempting to despair, to think that after each previous mass shooting, the calls for gun control went unheeded, and to give up on working for change. It is easy to despair when gun sales increase after every mass shooting, and the gun that was used by the shooter is “gun of the week”, and it only takes seven minutes to buy one. It is easy to give up when we know that every shooting done by a person claiming to be a Muslim will result in more anti-Muslim rhetoric, and every shooting done by a person claiming to be a Christian will be regarded as “just a lone nutter”.

We are tired of being vilified, tired of being erased, tired of being targeted, tired of hate preachers. It’s horrible when people who have previously vilified everything about LGBTQ people are suddenly horrified when so many LGBTQ people are murdered – as if their hate-filled rhetoric hadn’t contributed to their deaths.

And we must be clear that this was an attack on Latinx LGBTQ people, and was a product of violent rhetoric, homophobia, and racism. As Black Lives Matter wrote:

Homegrown terror is the product of a long history of colonialism, including state and vigilante violence. It is the product of white supremacy and capitalism, which deforms the spirit and fuels interpersonal violence. We especially hold space for our Latinx family now, knowing that the vast majority of those murdered were Latinx, and many were specifically Puerto Rican. From the forced migration of thousands of young people from the island of Puerto Rico to Orlando, to the deadly forced migration throughout Latin America and the Caribbean — we know this is not the first time in history our families have been mowed down with malice, and we stand with you.

Religious extremism is not new to America and is not unique to Islam. For centuries, religion has been used to subjugate queer people of color and lay the groundwork for our deaths. We live in a society that gasps at mass murder but does little to produce the policies or radical ideological shift needed to keep LGBTQ people and our families alive and safe.

But there is hope. There have been terrible injustices, horrific murders, and all the rest. But when these things happen, there are always people reaching out in love, and trying to help others. In the attack on the World Trade Center, people helped others, went back up the stairs to rescue others, called their loved ones to say goodbye. After the Pulse shooting, when emergency workers went in to retrieve the dead and the wounded, the cell-phones of the victims were ringing as anxious loved ones tried to contact them. The next day, 600 people queued around the block to give blood to help the survivors.

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All around the world, vigils have have taken place in memory of the dead of Orlando. I attended the Oxford (UK) vigil for Orlando last night with two friends. It was beautiful. There were poetry readings, candles, flowers, speeches, and a silence. LGBTQIA people and our allies came together in a shared moment of grieving. Hertford College was flying a rainbow flag at half-mast. The person leading the Oxford vigil for Orlando was Muslim and LGBT. There is a huge number of LGBT Muslims around the world, and they are in mourning too.

It was also noticeable how many of the families of the dead loved them unconditionally, and that the families of one of the couples that were killed – Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher “Drew” Leinonen – have arranged a joint funeral for them. They had planned to be married, but now they will be buried side-by-side.

This is in stark contrast to the sad story of the funeral of Tom Bridegroom, which his partner, Shane Bitney Crone, was not allowed by the Bridegroom family to attend – they threatened violence towards him.

In the face of such an appalling tragedy, it is all too easy to assume the world is full of hate. Yet every day, millions of small acts of kindness and love go unnoticed and unreported. People helping refugees, building community, reaching out to each other in friendship and love.

Sadly, as with any social progress, it’s a case of one step forward and two steps backwards. The unsightly rash of ‘bathroom bills’ currently disfiguring the legislatures of America are evidence of that. The horrific murders of 49 people are evidence of that. The fact that demagogues are all too ready to spout anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ hate is sadly still with us. And we must not forget that being LGBTQ is still illegal and subject to the death penalty in far too many countries around the world.

There is some good news today – that Democrat Senators held the floor of the Senate for nearly 15 hours in a push to get some gun control bills heard. They have put forward bills that would institute universal background checks and bar suspected terrorists from buying guns. Such legislation might have prevented some of the recent spate of mass shootings.

But what this tragedy has done is to show the love that the LGBTQ community has for one another. The solidarity represented by the many vigils around the world is beautiful. We have survived centuries of persecution and hate, and we are still here. As Owen Jones said:

The terrorist who carried out America’s worst ever shooting in Orlando will fail just as a neo-Nazi terrorist did 17 years ago in London when he detonated a nail bomb outside the Admiral Duncan pub. The LGBT community will mourn, will cry and will rage but ultimately we will win and the love of LGBT people all over this planet will burn even brighter because of what he did.

Earlier this month, my husband and I went to Oxford Pride. On our way there, we met a grandma who was also going. She expressed regret that she couldn’t get a rainbow bandanna for her little dog (she had ordered it online but it hadn’t turned up). She was going to Pride (to meet up with her entire family) to support her lesbian grand-daughter. My husband was going to Pride to do some morris-dancing with Oxford City Morris to entertain Pride-goers. Both of these things would have been extremely surprising twenty years ago.

Below are some photos from the Oxford (UK) vigil. The one that really sums things up for me is the placard that reads “Stay Proud. Stay Visible”.

As Pat Mosley wrote in a blogpost, Pride is the Answer:

Pride is the way attitudes change. Refusing to live in the shame assigned to us defuses the power of that myth for others being raised in it.

I have anger. But I also have Pride. As an atheist, as a fat diabetic Queer, as a sex-positive, socialist, gender resisting, sober/recovering addict, and occultnik weirdo. I refuse to let the dominant paradigm’s shame narrative closet me. And I refuse to do their work for them by hating the others who join me in living our Queer utopian consciousness.

The LGBT+ community is one that is born from pride and resistance, but also from love. It is our love that marginalizes us and yet draws us together. It is our love that informs our politics and challenges the world around us.

My heart hurts for the loss of so many beautiful lives. And yet I am aware that there is still beauty and grace in the world. Hope and despair, love and loss, joy and sorrow, live side-by-side in our hearts. Life is always renewing itself in the face of death. And the beauty of love is always present, even in the midst of fear and terror.

Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Flowers. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Flowers. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Rose petals for the dead. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Rose petals for the dead. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Rainbow flag. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Rainbow flag. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

"Love is not gender, race, or religion: it's just love". Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

“Love is not gender, race, or religion: it’s just love”. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Candles. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Candles. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Sign: "Stay proud. Stay visible". Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Sign: “Stay proud. Stay visible”. Oxford, UK vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Rest in Power: names of the 49 victims of the Orlando Shooting. A placard at the Oxford vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow

Rest in Power: names of the 49 victims of the Orlando Shooting. A placard at the Oxford vigil for Orlando. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow [CC-BY-SA 4.0]

Further reading

These are all the Orlando-related articles that I linked to in the blogpost.

Philly: I bought a semi-automatic rifle in seven minutes – by Helen Ubinas

http://maddisonwood.com/im-tired/

Elle Dowd: Biphobia and the Pulse Massacre (Medium.com)

Daily Life: What it means to ignore the LGBTQ identity of the victims

9NewsThe chilling sound of victims’ phones ringing

http://www.sabinabecker.com/2016/06/the-predictable-outcome-of-god-guns-and-gays.html

http://blacklivesmatter.com/in-honor-of-our-dead-queer-trans-muslim-black-we-will-be-free/

 

Oxford Mail: Orlando Shooting Vigil (photos)

http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2016/06/13/3787881/lgbt-muslims-orlando/

Orlando Shooting Victims (Buzzfeed)

http://time.com/4366957/orlando-shooting-juan-guerrero-christopher-drew-leinonen/

https://patmosley.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/pride-is-the-answer/

Grace is the Time, is the Place, is the Motion

On Sunday night I went for a walk with my beloved in the beautiful evening light. The rain had cleared, and the low summer sun was illuminating everything in a lovely dreamy gold. The sort of light that makes everything look as if it is lit from within. And because everything was freshly washed, it all looked brighter. The scent of roses and mock-orange filled the air, and the birds were singing. The trees hung over the path and formed a tunnel of green leaves.

At moments like that, when divinity shines within all things, I feel reconnected, refreshed, renewed. You might call it a moment of grace.

Grass Illuminated by the Setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher. CC0 Public Domain.

Grass illuminated by the setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain.

Reclaiming Grace

Can we reclaim the word “grace” from its Christian connotations? Certainly. Grace means something to be thankful for, something that is praiseworthy, desirable, elegant, right, and fitting.

grace (n.) late 12c., “God’s unmerited favor, love, or help,” from Old French grace “pardon, divine grace, mercy; favor, thanks; elegance, virtue” (12c., Modern French grâce), from Latin gratia “favor, esteem, regard; pleasing quality, good will, gratitude” (source of Italian grazia, Spanish gracia; in Church use translating Greek kharisma), from gratus “pleasing, agreeable,” from PIE *gwreto-, suffixed form of root *gwere (3) “to favor” (source also of Sanskrit grnati “sings, praises, announces,” Lithuanian giriu “to praise, celebrate,” Avestan gar “to praise”).

Sense of “virtue” is early 14c., that of “beauty of form or movement, pleasing quality” is mid-14c. In classical sense, “one of the three sister goddesses (Latin Gratiæ, Greek Kharites), bestowers of beauty and charm,” it is first recorded in English 1579 in Spenser. In music, “an embellishment not essential to the melody or harmony,” 1650s. As the name of the short prayer that is said before or after a meal (early 13c.; until 16c. usually graces) it has a sense of “gratitude.” As a title of honor, c. 1500.

The etymology of the word grace includes Greek charisma:

charisma (n.) “gift of leadership, power of authority,” c. 1930, from German, used in this sense by Max Weber (1864-1920) in “Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft” (1922), from Greek kharisma “favor, divine gift,” from kharizesthai “to show favor to,” from kharis “grace, beauty, kindness” (Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite) related to khairein “to rejoice at,” from PIE root *gher- (5) “to desire, like” (see hortatory). More mundane sense of “personal charm” recorded by 1959.

Earlier, the word had been used in English with a sense of “grace, talent from God” (1875), directly from Latinized Greek; and in the form charism (plural charismata) it is attested with this sense in English from 1640s. Middle English, meanwhile, had karisme “spiritual gift, divine grace” (c. 1500).

And Charis was one of the three attendants of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. These attendants were known as the Three Graces:

In Greek mythology, a Charis (/ˈkrɪs/; Greek: Χάρις, pronounced [kʰáris]) or Grace is one of three or more minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility, together known as the Charites /ˈkærtz/ (Χάριτες [kʰáritɛːs]) or Graces. The usual list, from youngest to oldest is Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the “Graces”. In some variants, Charis was one of the Graces and was not the singular form of their name.

Grace is also related to renewal and a sense of being right with the world and the divine. It isn’t on a list of ancient Roman virtues – the nearest concept is Laetitia, meaning “Joy, Gladness, The celebration of thanksgiving, often of the resolution of crisis.” I could certainly settle for Laetitia as a name for the feeling I was having.

But I am reassured by the idea that the Three Graces or Charites were definitely pagan. Among the Lacedaemonians, there were two Graces, Cleta (“Sound” or “Renowned”) and Phaenna (“Light” or “Bright”). The fact that a feeling of grace can be created by harmonious sounds and soothing light makes these names seem particularly apt. Splendor, Good Cheer, and Mirth also seem apt descriptors. And the more modern meaning of elegance and harmony also fits in with these ancient concepts of grace. I can think of several people whom I think of as being graceful in the way they interact with others.

So I think we can reclaim the word grace to mean the beauty and harmony and radiance of Nature and the feelings of awe and gratitude, wonder and joy and healing evoked by that beauty.

And we need these moments of blessing and grace to rest and renew when the magic runs out, when we are heartbroken by senseless slaughter, when sections of the Pagan community are being disappointing about gender.

 

Let’s Talk About Gender

Gender is a difficult concept. I literally have no idea why some activities, clothing styles, thoughts, and behaviours are labelled “masculine” and others are labelled “feminine”. It all seems very arbitrary to me. In some languages, objects are assigned a grammatical gender. The designation of assertiveness as a “masculine” trait, or receptiveness as a “feminine” trait,  seems just as arbitrary to me as saying that a car is “masculine” and a table is “feminine”.

Initially I found the concept of a spectrum of gender and sexuality quite helpful as a tool to think with, but even that reinforces the idea of a binary, and treats the concepts of biology, identity, and expression as distinct and essential traits which can be classified as “masculine” or “feminine”. I just read a critique of the genderbread person which explains very effectively what’s wrong with thinking about gender as a spectrum: it assumes that “male” and “female” are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that genderqueer is somewhere in the middle. You could also have a spectrum from zero gender to 100% gender – but all of these are meaningless unless you accept that personality traits are somehow gendered (which I don’t). Certainly personality traits are often regarded as being associated with a particular gender, but they are not essentially or inherently gendered. Here’s an identity-bread person and a GSM diagram which doesn’t present identity or anything else as a spectrum (my only criticism would be that the line for sexual attraction points to genitalia, and I am attracted to the whole person, not just what they’ve got in their pants). Gender is more of a random scatter plot than a spectrum. So I apologise if my previous efforts to describe gender as a spectrum were actually reinforcing a cisnormative model.

Social Constructs

The thing is that both biological sex and gender identity are social constructs. However, a social construct can have real effects and correlates in the way the world is constructed. Consider the effects of dividing toilets up into toilets for people designated male and toilets for people designated female, for example.

Our society arbitrarily assigns gender at birth based on physical characteristics (usually, having a penis or a vagina). If a child’s genitalia are different, the medical establishment reconstructs them to be more like either a penis or a vagina, and the child is then assigned a gender based on the modified genitalia. A person who accepts the gender they were assigned at birth, and who lives according to the social expectations attached to their assigned gender, is cisgender. A person who does not accept the gender they were assigned at birth, and does not live according to the social expectations attached to their assigned gender, is transgender. Some transgender people want to be the other side of the gender binary. Many transgender people are genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, metagender, etc. (The “etc” at the end of that list is not meant to be dismissive of other identities, but inclusive of them.)

How gender is socially constructed

As a child grows up, they are treated differently based on their assigned and perceived gender, both by their families and society in general. Parents who have tried to break out of this binary by giving their child a gender-neutral name and not revealing the gender on the child’s birth certificate have had varying degrees of success, due to lack of co-operation from people around them.

I was fortunate in that, although I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl, my parents encouraged me to choose hobbies and interests and clothing based on my preferences, rather than because of my assigned gender. I have also spent most of my life hanging out with people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.

I was a bit surprised when I joined the lesbian society at my first university in the late 1980s and found it included many lesbian separatists. I suspect they frowned on my bisexuality. I asked why we didn’t hang out with the gay society. “They’re still men” was the reply. Nowadays every university has a LGBT society, thank goodness.

Gender essentialism in the Pagan movement

When I first got involved in Pagan groups (in the late eighties and early nineties), I remember discussions about whether there were gender stereotypes in the kinds of magical or Pagan groups people chose. Perhaps Wicca was a “girls’ subject” and chaos magic was a “boys’ subject”? (The people who were asking these questions wanted to do away with these gender stereotypes.)

Then I started reading second-wave feminist books, many of which were gender-essentialist. Women were nurturing and peaceful, according to these books, whereas men were warlike and aggressive. I didn’t really buy into these stereotypes, but they were insidious because there were a lot of them about.

In the 1990s, people started organising women’s circles and men’s circles within Pagan groups. (Maybe they existed before this in some groups, but in Wicca, I think it started around the mid-nineties.) To my eternal shame, for a short time (maybe six months) I was one of the people who wanted to deny trans women access to women-only circles. I am totally embarrassed about this now, but I mention it as evidence that people can change.

Around this time I also encountered people who made claims like “you’re not a real woman unless you have given birth”. This is easily dismissed by the fact that many trans men have given birth, and many cisgender women haven’t. Many people who have spent a lot of time in gender-essentialist women’s circles report that women who have given birth get extra kudos in these circles, and even more kudos if they gave birth to a girl. This sort of attitude has always seemed to me to be the mirror image of the kind of extreme patriarchy which only values women as potential carriers for sons.

At the same time, because I don’t see gender as being an “essence”, I was worried that the existence of transgender people made the distinction between male and female a hard boundary that could be crossed by a change in physical characteristics, rather than a fuzzy boundary that could eventually be abolished. Thinking of both gender and biology as a spectrum (from masculine to feminine, and from male-bodied to female-bodied) helped me to get over that worry. I reasoned that a person who is physically at one end of the spectrum but mentally at the other would naturally want their physical characteristics to match their gender identity. I accept now that this is still overly binary, but it helped me to get my head around it. If people have still got their ideas firmly attached to the notion of a gender binary, shifting them to the concept of a spectrum is still an improvement on a dualistic binary. We are also up against a huge backlash from people who actually think that the gender binary is real, so things like thinking of gender and sex as a spectrum are what we might call “baby steps” in moving away from binary thinking on this. But we still have to remember that it is only a model.

Energy doesn’t have a gender

Another deeply entrenched concept in many Pagan groups is the concept of “male energy” and “female energy”. Personally, whilst I have been able to experience energy, I have never experienced it as gendered. I have found that energy can be created in a variety of ways with different people. We could label these ways polarity (making energy with someone based on the tension of opposites), resonance (making energy with someone based on the alignment of similarity), and synergy (bringing the energies of a group of people together) – but I think this is probably too simplistic as well. Sometimes the creation of energy relies on erotic tension (which could occur between any two people); sometimes it is created by friendship, or trust, or just the coming together of two or more people and a moment of openness between or among them. The problem is that we as a species like to label and categorise – it is how our brains work. Problems occur when we forget that the map is not the territory.

I don’t think sexual and social attraction has as much to do with gender as people think, either. For me, attraction is based on a person’s competence and confidence and integrity, as well as physical attraction (and a person doesn’t have to be conventionally good-looking for me to find them attractive).

Polarity can definitely be made in other ways than the coming together of a male-assigned person and a female-assigned person. At Witchfest 2015, I ran a workshop/ritual on gender and sexuality, and I mentioned various pairings that could make polarity: morning people and evening people, tea-drinkers and coffee-drinkers, people who love Marmite and people who don’t. The one that got the biggest reaction was the mention of Marmite, so that was the one we chose for the ritual. The room divided up into people who liked Marmite, and a group of people who didn’t. We decided they needed something nice to focus on, rather than hating Marmite, so they chose chocolate. A few people defected from the Marmite group to the chocolate group at this point (splitters!). The Marmite group focussed on the yumminess of Marmite on toast with butter, and the chocolate group focussed on the yumminess of chocolate. During the whole focussing session, a car alarm was going off in the car park. As soon as we brought the polarised energies together, the car alarm stopped. We sent the energy raised in the ritual to empower trans people, as it was around the time of the Transgender Rite of Elevation and Transgender Day of Remembrance.

There are many polarities (spirit and matter, inner and outer, life and death being among those we might consider “ultimate” in some way) but it is not particularly helpful to think of “male” and “female” as being opposites, nor as ultimate or cosmic. It certainly isn’t helpful to think of them as being mutually exclusive, or essentially constituted in a particular way. It may be useful to think about yin and yang instead, as long as you don’t think of them being essentially masculine or feminine, but rather more like hot and cold, or expansive and contracting. The thing is that one person may be more yang than another person, but less yang than a third person; so they are yang in relation to the first person, but yin in relation to the second person. Further, this can vary on any given day and in any given situation. It is not a fixed characteristic. Some days, you might be in the mood for Marmite and butter on toast; other days, you might really want chocolate. But there are people who always prefer chocolate, and others who always prefer Marmite.

“Women-only” groups

It is understandable that sometimes, people would want to come together on the basis of shared experience, such as having given birth, menstruating, or the menopause. But to then claim that these experiences somehow represent the essence of “femaleness” or of what it means to be a woman, is to reduce identity to biology. Trans men and genderqueer people can also menstruate and give birth.

I don’t quite understand the need to only talk about menstruation in front of other people who menstruate, or have menstruated. For various misogynistic reasons, menstruation is regarded as taboo in our society – so wouldn’t it be better to break down that taboo by talking about menstruation with everyone, rather than only among people who menstruate? I guess we might need to talk about it in menstruating-people-only spaces to start with, to help break down our internalised taboos about it, but after that, why not talk about it openly? (I suppose the not-menstruating people might feel excluded, but only if it is talked about in an excluding way.)

The same applies to talking about giving birth. I have experienced this kind of talk as excluding when it veers towards “you’re only a real woman if you’ve given birth” but I don’t mind if people want to talk about it. I do mind if they get all superior about it. Not having done it myself, I can’t contribute much to the conversation, but it’s OK.

Another excuse for cisgender-women-only groups is often that they are safe spaces for rape survivors, and that a rape survivor may be re-traumatised if she sees a woman with a penis. The people making these claims tend to forget that LGBTI people, including trans women, may also be survivors of sexual violence. And most women with a penis are aware that other people may be confused by their penis. Here are some helpful suggestions from Zinnia Jones for what to do with your penis if you are in that category. She writes:

People like to assume that our bodies are still essentially men’s bodies, and therefore work the same way. However, as any trans woman can tell you, this just isn’t the case. From social situations to sex to surgery, the standard dudely dick dilemmas simply aren’t all that relevant to our lives. So, for the sake of my fellow trans ladies (but mostly for any confused cis onlookers), I’ve assembled my own 10 semi-serious tips for wrangling a girl penis.

Take particular note of points 7 and 8: if a trans woman is taking oestrogen, then it is very difficult to get an erection.

The truth is that running estrogen on unlicensed hardware can scramble almost every aspect of sexual response. Things just don’t work the way they used to: orgasms change or disappear, your whole body reacts to touch in different ways, and the entire structure of arousal-erection-climax may break down. Traditional techniques might not cut it any more, and new approaches can be non-obvious.

So a trans woman with a penis is quite literally not a threat. I can understand rape survivors not wanting to see any penises at all during the immediate aftermath of the rape, and that the trauma could last for a long time, but I doubt that it would last for the rest of one’s life.

Another key point in all of this is that if you want to create a group or a ritual that is only for a particular category of people, try to do it in a non-essentialist way. Many marginalised and oppressed groups want to create a space for empowerment (people of colour, LGBTQIA people, and women, among others) but if you create these spaces in a public setting in a way that marginalises another oppressed group, then that is oppressive. If you want to create a ritual for people who menstruate, that seems reasonable, but don’t insist that only people who menstruate are women, or that all people who menstruate are women, because that is essentialist. I menstruate; I am genderqueer.

And if you do a rebirthing ritual (where people crawl between the legs of other people in a symbolic rebirth), have everyone in the group crawl between everyone else’s legs, regardless of gender.

Gender identity

What about the people who do identify as male or female? Good for them. No-one is stopping them from doing so, but it would be better if they acknowledge that other genders are available, and that your genitalia and socialisation process do not determine your gender. However, even cisgender identity is fluid and changeable, and not fixed to a specific mode of being or social interaction, so don’t assume that a masculine-looking person automatically likes stereotypically “masculine” pastimes and topics of conversation, or that a feminine-looking person wouldn’t be interested in them.

Since gender is all a bit of a mystery to me, I am happy to use whatever pronoun anyone prefers for their gender identity. (But as a grammar nerd, I do want to know how to use it in all grammatical contexts. And yes, you can use ‘they’ as a singular word; people have been doing so to refer to an unknown person of unknown gender for decades; and pronouns have often changed from singular to plural and back again, as in the use of Sie in German to mean they plural and the polite form of you singular; and the use of vous in French to mean you in both the singular and plural forms; and you in English to mean both singular and plural. Anyone claiming to be a grammar nerd should know this; so anyone claiming to be unable to use singular ‘they’ for reasons of grammar nerdiness is just a bigot.)

Some sort of conclusion

I guess some sort of conclusion is expected at this point. I guess what I am trying to say is, can we all listen to and respect each other’s unique experiences and identities, and not put them in some grand overarching category? Categories are only useful insofar as they help us to find other people with similar experiences, and help us to communicate our experiences and intersecting identities to other people using a word or phrase; beyond that, they are confining and constricting. The more we regard categories as monolithic and unchanging, and somehow representing an essence, the harder it is to see the individual person and their lived experience. In short, can’t we all be nice to each other for a change?

Hex The System, Bind The Perpetrator

Regarding the hexing of the perpetrator of the Stanford rape case. I am not sure why the Steubenville rape case didn’t provoke a similar response, but maybe it did and we just didn’t hear about it. I am saddened that many articles failed to report that the people doing the hexing also sent healing to the victim.

My preferred method in such cases is to bind the person not to cause harm again, by placing a mirror around a poppet of them. If they cause harm it will rebound on them; if they do good, it will bless them. So the binding acts as a way of reinforcing good behaviour. I guess it is still a hex in some ways, but it is about limiting the harm that the person can cause.

The rapist is a complete arsehole and so is his father, and they both need to realise the consequences of their behaviour and attitudes, but they are the end result of a system of white privilege and male privilege and rape culture and failing to teach kids what consent culture looks like. We need to start work on tearing down that system. Fine, so you have hexed a rapist. Are you working to help transform the culture that created his apparent lack of awareness that what he was doing was wrong?

Others have pointed out that claiming that the Goddess, or the gods, endorse your actions is somewhat hubristic, and arrogates the vision and judgement of the gods to your own finite perspective.  Your actions, the consequences of your actions, and your views, are your responsibility.

Erin Lund Johnson’s comment on Erick Dupree’s article is an excellent suggestion:

I read the letter written by the rape victim. She was appalled at the light sentence, but even more so by her attacker’s continued defiance, even in the face of his guilty verdict. She mostly wished for him to “get it.” I would hex him with that–the burden of fully understanding what he’d done, and the impact he’d had, of experiencing her inner experience. That would enlighten him more than anything, and change his attitude and behavior. For those who haven’t read this letter yet, please do. Her voice, above all else in this, needs to be heard and honored.

http://www.independent.co.uk/n…

In this particular case, the moving testimony of the victim has shocked many people into thinking about what it is like to be raped, perhaps for the first time. Many of my male friends have said that they cried while reading her testimony. Thank you for your compassion, my friends. Personally, I have read too many such accounts to shed tears any more. I feel a huge and sickened void inside me, numb and paralysed. I suspect that my female friends have also read, or heard, too many such accounts already.

The one bright spot in all of this is the two Swedish guys who stopped to help the victim and bring the perpetrator to justice. Their names are Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson. It is very good to know that they were paying attention and that they intervened. It’s possible that they actually saved her life.

If you don’t think that white privilege is involved in this case, read what happened to Brian Banks, who also had a promising sporting career, but is Black, so was sentenced to six years in prison – despite being innocent.

If you think that “nice” people don’t commit rape and sexual assault, think again.

photo by Sundaram Ramaswamy, CC-BY-SA

The shadow. [photo by Sundaram Ramaswamy, CC-BY-SA]

A system that still tries to blame a woman for being sexually assaulted is deeply flawed. That is rape culture, right there. The fact that a judge who went to the same university as the perpetrator can judge the case without it occurring to anyone that there is a conflict of interest there, and then give the rapist only six months in jail – words fail me. The fact that his “promising sporting career” was taken into account: ugh. He ruined his prospects: no-one else did that. A system that sends a Black guy to prison for six years, but sends a white guy to prison for six months: deeply flawed. A system that encourages young men to think they are entitled to sex, that’s it’s OK, or that it’s not rape, to put your penis or your fingers into an unconscious woman: deeply flawed. As Emlyn Pearce has pointed out, there is a culture of toxic masculinity that needs to be challenged:

You can’t fix this situation, but you are young, and you can fix yourself. You NEED to fix yourself, Brock: those around you still seem to claim that your conviction has damaged you, but you were already damaged when you took a valuable, much-loved human being behind a trash can and raped her in the dirt. What you are seeing now is the consequences of your damage, not its cause.

That is why we need to hex rape culture, and white privilege, and male entitlement. We need to bring about the realisation, once and for all, that rape and sexual assault are the end result of a failure to teach people about consent, a failure to create a culture of consent, and respect, and sovereignty. Sure, we need to make this rapist feel and understand the consequences of his actions – but we need to get all men to understand that women are not property.

It’s not enough to hex a rapist. There are conversations to be had about how women are blamed for being raped while drunk, and men are excused for perpetrating rape while drunk. There are many difficult conversations to be had where we explore together what a consent culture looks like – because we are currently living in a rape culture, and we have to work out how to create a consent culture.

The other day, I fended a man off who wanted to kiss me on the cheek and got snitty when I said no. Another man asked me for a hug (good that he asked). Then he asked my husband if that was OK. GRRR!!! A hug is not sexual, and it is up to me who I hug, not my husband. I am not his property.  This kind of incident happens too frequently for me to dismiss it as merely one person being an idiot. I see examples of male assumptions of entitlement being discussed very frequently on social media. That’s why I think rape culture is deeply ingrained, and we need to do some serious work to uproot it. And the same applies to deeply ingrained racism. It’s not enough to be not openly sexist and not openly racist: you actually have to actively work to uproot internalised misogyny, internalised homophobia, and internalised racism, as well as working to uproot systemic racism, systemic misogyny, and systemic homophobia and transphobia. Yes, it is hard work. Anything worthwhile is hard work.

If a man assumes he is entitled to physical contact (sexual or otherwise) with a woman, do you challenge this assumption? If another man treats your partner as your property, do you challenge that behaviour? If you saw a woman (unconscious or otherwise) being raped, would you intervene? If you saw a woman in a hijab being vilified and attacked, would you intervene?

 

Heresy is Good

heresy (n.) “doctrine or opinion at variance with established standards” (or, as Johnson defines it, “an opinion of private men different from that of the catholick and orthodox church”), c. 1200, from Old French heresie, eresie “heresy,” and by extension “sodomy, immorality” (12c.), from Latin hæresis, “school of thought, philosophical sect.” The Latin word is from Greek hairesis “a taking or choosing for oneself, a choice, a means of taking; a deliberate plan, purpose; philosophical sect, school,” from haireisthai “take, seize,” middle voice of hairein “to choose,” a word of unknown origin, perhaps from PIE *ser- (5) “to seize” (source of Hittite šaru “booty,” Welsh herw “booty”).

I have always found it very striking that, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, a haeresis was a school of thought, but under Christianity, a heresy became a departure from orthodox opinion. In the Hindu dharma, there are many different theological viewpoints, spiritual techniques, and modes of devotion. The same applies in the Pagan movement. We know that we do not know exactly what the nature of reality is, so action is more important than what theory about the gods you happen to hold.

The School of Athens (1509), Raphael

The School of Athens (1509), Raphael. Public Domain image

In her excellent post, “Not a Real Pagan“, Bekah Evie Bel neatly skewers the view that to be a Real Pagan TM, you have to do or believe certain things. Many of the things are generally assumed to be “what Wiccans believe” – however, many of them are popular distortions of Wiccan ideas. I added in my comments on her post:

“Harm none” is a misinterpretation of the Rede anyway. What the Rede is pointing out is that since it is impossible not to harm anyone, you can’t actually do what you like, you have to think about the consequences of all your actions.

The so-called law of threefold return is actually a misinterpretation of Wiccan liturgy – so I don’t believe in that either. The rule is actually to return good threefold when you receive good.

I don’t believe in the Triple Goddess either. I am a polytheist.

And I am a Gardnerian Wiccan.

And for good measure, I added:

The full Wiccan Rede is “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”.

And the silly 70s poem that contains that text is NOT the Wiccan Rede either.

At this point you can pretty much tell that the “Harm none” and “threefold return” brigade are not initiated Wiccans 🙂

And don’t forget about us polytheist Wiccans either 🙂

Before anyone who really likes the 1970s poem jumps on my head: fine if you like it, but don’t refer to it as the Wiccan Rede. It is a poem about the Rede, it is not the Rede itself.

As someone for whom polarity is not the centre of my practice and duotheism doesn’t even get a look in, I’m probably a heretic in many people’s eyes. I like to think of myself as being in creative tension with my tradition – and in any case traditions evolve,  they are not set in stone.

But heresy means choosing a path, and isn’t that what Paganism is meant to be all about?

As the poem Outwitted by Edwin Markham puts it:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

So the next time someone calls you “not a real Pagan”, say proudly that yes, you are a heretic. You will be in excellent company with all the freethinkers and dissenters and mystics down the ages.

The Sacred Fool

Fools are more compassionate than tricksters; tricksters exploit human frailty, fools send it up, to release the healing power of laughter. The fool carries a bladder, perhaps as a symbol of pomposity, whose puffed-up balloon the wit of the fool will pop.

I wrote about the Fool a little bit in my post on elders:

Always be prepared to take the piss out of yourself and your delusions of grandeur. This is why kings would license a fool or jester: so that when they were about to do something stupid, there was one person who was not afraid to tell them it was stupid. I have a small posse of people whom I have encouraged to kick me up the arse if I ever start getting too big for my boots. I hope their arse-kicking services will never be needed, but I feel it’s wise to be prepared.

The wisest and most compassionate character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is Feste, the fool – quite possibly my favourite Shakespeare character of all. He skewers the pomposity of Malvolio, the drama of Orsino, and the self-pity of Olivia, but when the other characters (Maria and Sir Toby) turn the jest into cruelty, he takes pity on Malvolio. He also sings beautiful and poignant songs.

The fool was and is an ambivalent figure. Are they truly mad, or are they saner than the rest of us, having seen through the charade of maintaining the status quo, where all the most humane values are scorned in favour of turning a quick profit?

The Fool in Jan Matejko’s painting is the only person at a 1514 royal ball who is troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. His is a deeper wisdom than the superficial people around him.

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko The jester is the only person at a 1514 royal ball troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. (Public domain image)

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko [Public Domain]

I am also reminded of the Welsh story of the three causeless blows, also known as The Lady of the Lake. A faery woman married a human, and said that she would leave him when he had struck her three times without cause. The first time was when she left her gloves behind; the second time was when she cried at a christening; the third time was when she laughed at a funeral. Each time it was because she knew something that the others present did not.  Her wisdom ran contrary to that of the world, and so she was deemed a fool.

Witches, fools, and harlots were often seen as being in league with the Devil and the Fair Folk. The song Tom o’ Bedlam makes this connection:

I went down to Satan’s kitchen, for to beg me food one morning
There I got souls piping hot, all on the spit a turning.

There I picked up a cauldron, Where boiled ten thousand harlots
Though full of flame I drank the same, to the health of all such varlets.

My staff has murdered giants, my bag a long knife carries
For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs, with which to feed the fairies.

To be “in league with the Devil” is to celebrate wildness and sexuality, queerness and quirks, unbridled lust, rising up against authority.

Humour skewers the powerful and the pompous, pricking their bubble of self-importance. That’s why authoritarians don’t like humour and seek to control it, to turn it as a weapon against the powerless. But the joyous wildness always breaks through the cracks, like ivy and creepers bringing down stone and concrete.

The authorities want us to remain divided, frightened, and alone. They want to establish hierarchies, keep the poor downtrodden and enslaved by debt, crush the possibility of love and joy. They want women to be seen merely as walking wombs, and men as drones that fight and fuck. But we are more than that: half angel, half animal. The animal in us demands to be loved, to feel the wind on our faces, to snuggle with our beloved, and to laugh and dance and make love. That’s why Rhyd growls in his sleep.  The angel in us is a messenger, a communicator, a poet, a transformer, who yearns for the connection of minds.

The Fool calls us to our full humanity, both animal and angel, lover and beloved, dreamer and maker.

That’s why being open to the queer, the wild, the exuberant, is inherently dangerous. It endangers the status quo, the drab everyday reality, and threatens to replace it will full colour and radiance and overflowing exuberance. So rejoice!

Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.

 

Respect, Memory, and Human Remains

In 2008, I founded a group, Pagans for Archaeology. I did that because I believe that without archaeology, we would know considerably less about ancient pagans and polytheists than we do today. I even wonder if the Pagan revival would have happened the same way without input from archaeological research.

The Pagans for Archaeology Facebook page now has around 15,000 likes – so even if many of those people haven’t read the “manifesto” of the group, that shows a very big interest in archaeology among Pagans.

place

Bryn Celli Ddu – “The Mound in a Dark Grove”. Originally a Neolithic burial chamber, later a passage grave. © Copyright Paul Allison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

What Pagans for Archaeology stands for

  • We’re Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past.
  • Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved frequent human sacrifice.
  • In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone.
  • Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.
  • We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.
  • We are also vehemently opposed to people leaving tealights, candles, crystals and other non-biodegradable “offerings” at sacred sites. Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Follow the Country Code.

The case for retaining human remains

The case for studying remains

  • Osteoarchaeology can tell us a great deal about past people, both populations and individuals: what they ate, what diseases they had, where they lived, how far they travelled, what they worked at, where they were born. Putting all this information together for a large number of people gives us a picture of a whole society and the lives of individuals within it.
  • Associated grave goods can also give us a picture of what mattered to the individual who was buried there. Grave goods should remain with the skeleton where possible, as they are an integral part of the assemblage, and may have been intended to accompany them into the afterlife.
  • The more knowledge we gain about people of the past, the more it perpetuates their memory. People of the past wanted to be remembered, that’s why they built monuments in the landscape. Also, ancient texts such as the Hávamál talk about a person’s name living on after they die (another indication that people in the past wanted to be remembered).
  • There was a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity in the past, and because human remains can tell us where people came from, this prevents fascists from claiming that Britain was ever inhabited solely by one particular ethnic group.

The case for displaying them in museums

  • Neolithic long-barrows were not private; people interacted ritually with the remains after they had been placed in the mound.
  • It helps to perpetuate the memory of the dead person.
  • Museums are Pagan shrines; the name means “temple of the Muses” (okay so the proprietors of the museums may not see it that way, but we can choose to do so).
  • It helps us to understand their culture and connect with them.
  • It might help us to come to terms with death.

The case for not reburying

  • In many cases, the original burial context may have been lost or destroyed. The Zuni (or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves in their own language) people of New Mexico see no point in reburying remains, because disinterring them destroys the sacred context of the original burial
  • Looters might steal the grave-goods or the bones
  • We don’t know what ritual the dead person might have preferred
  • The remains should be stored for future study (analytical techniques are improving all the time)
  • Reburial means that we will no longer have access to the knowledge and memory of the person, and will quickly forget them
  • It is difficult to know which group of contemporary Pagans should receive remains for reburial, since we do not have cultural continuity with pagans of the past (who may well have had very different beliefs from us about the soul and the afterlife, and definitely had different practices from us).

Remains from other cultures

I think that human remains from indigenous cultures (such as Native Americans / First Nations and Australian Aborigines) are a different situation than that of British prehistory.

One of the ways in which indigenous peoples have gained political and cultural leverage is by campaigning for the return of their ancestors’ human remains (and British reburial campaigns often appropriate the narratives of indigenous campaigns). Very often, these remains are more recent than prehistoric British remains, and the indigenous people still have cultural continuity with the cultures that buried these remains. The people excavating these remains are usually from a different culture which has a history of colonial oppression towards the indigenous people.

In the case of British prehistoric remains, everyone in Britain is culturally (and genetically) descended from them, including the archaeologists doing the excavating. In the case of indigenous human remains, only the indigenous people are culturally (and genetically) descended from them.

Why archaeology is important

Archaeology matters to us because:

Archaeology means the difference between fantasy ideas and facts to me, okay they don’t always get it right, but they do try.
History is something we need to learn things from, in my opinion, not because I have this vision of some sort of golden age of yore, but that there are skills and mistakes that we need to learn from.
Many of the basic skills we all once would have had are gone and are now only known to a few, fire-making for one instance. Society might not require those skills right now, not with all the technology we have, but that does not mean they should be lost totally and that’s what archaeology means to me, the saving and keeping of our past, because one day we may need that knowledge again.
~ Blu, PFA member

I find archaeology fascinating, like a little kid in a candy shop discovering new and exciting pieces of our evolution and our history.

Whilst I haven’t formally studied archaeology at university, I have always found it interesting and particularly in high school studying art my interest was piqued by Ancient Egyptian and Roman crafts and ideals, and now especially as a Witch and a Pagan the Gods and Goddesses and the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians.

It is amazing to see how we have developed from those times in each little piece we discover. I am in awe of prehistoric times and little pieces of skeletons of dinosaurs that form the now extinct creatures.
The evolution and growth of plant life and animals, and of humans…

I love hearing about medieval times and the discovery of beautiful pieces of silverware, pottery and jewellery which ties into the history of the Celts and Avalonian times, a magical period that really resonates with me.

History is an important part of our development, our past, our present and the future in both advancing technology and in terms of our spiritual development as we can call on our history, our Gods and Goddesses to help with our present and our future…
~ Kali Cox, PFA member

Part of my Pagan outlook is a respect for the wisdom of the past, and the people of the past, so I think we need to know the real stories of past people. Not the history that was written by the winners. The only way we can do that is through archaeology, because ordinary people did not often leave written records (the exciting exceptions being the Paston letters, the Vindolanda Letters, the Book of Margery Kempe, and not much else that I can think of).

I also think that as Pagans we draw on the cultures of the past, and archaeology can really help us make sense of those cultures.
~ Yvonne, PFA member

For me, it adds to my understanding of the present. By studying the past I get a better sense of why and how we came to be as we are now.
~ Kim Hunter, PFA member