BIPOC Pagan Reading List

A reading list of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) authors covering Paganism, the occult, astrology, Tarot, and Indigenous spirituality.

Note that the deities of African diaspora religions can only be contacted through those religions and not via other religions. And that Indigenous life ways and spiritual practices are specific to their cultures and should not be culturally appropriated.

I’ve put out a call on Twitter and Instagram for more books to add to this list, and I will post updates (as I do with the Queer Pagan Reading List).

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Folklore Against Fascism

One of the highlights of my week is the Folklore Thursday hashtag on Twitter. I’ve not had time to look at it for a few weeks though, so it seems I missed the occasion when some völkisch fascists tried to hijack it, much to the horror of the regular participants.

One of them accordingly started a second hashtag, Folklore Against Fascism, and several participants tweeted about their opposition to fascism and commitment to inclusive folklore.

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Embodied Spirituality: The Hearth

The hearth is the heart of the home. A home without a hearth lacks focus (or perhaps the focal point of the living room becomes the television). This is interesting because the word focus is Latin for hearth.

focus (n.)
1640s, “point of convergence,” from Latin focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), which is of unknown origin. Used in post-classical times for “fire” itself; taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

Online Etymology Dictionary

So the concepts of hearth and home were linked in Roman thought too. In ancient times, the hearth, as the sole source of heat in the home, would have been massively important. Now that we have radiators and central heating, we tend to forget about the importance of the hearth. But in ancient cultures, the hearth was the place where you made offerings to the family gods and spirits, the lares and penates (household spirits in Roman religion). The notion of ‘familiar spirits’ originally meant the deities and spirits honoured by your family. In Vedic culture, the making of the sacred fire was a very important ritual.

The hearth - photo by Yvonne Aburrow

The hearth – photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Several cultures have domestic spirits, often associated with ancestors, such as the Cofgodas (cove-gods) of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The English and Scots believed in house Brownies, also known as urisk in Lowland Scots.  Slavic cultures believed in Domovoi, which were originally ancestral spirits in Slavic paganism. There are also Aitvaras (Lithuania), Dimstipatis (Lithuania), Ev iyesi (Turkey – known as  Sahab or Kimsene in Anatolia), Hob (North and Midlands of England), Kikimora, aka Shishimora (Russia), Kobold (Germany – possibly related to the Anglo-Saxon cofgod), Olys’ (a hearth spirit of the Komi people of northern Russia), Lares (Ancient Rome), Pūkis (Latvia), Pukys (Lithuania), Tomte (Scandinavia), and Zashiki-warashi (Japan).

In cultures that use stoves, they have also acquired resident spirits and folklore as well. Domovoi live in stoves. In Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll novels, there is an ancestor who lives in the stove. In Swedish, he is called Förfadern, similar to the English word forefather.

So, from this brief survey of the folklore, we can see that the hearth is traditionally the place where you honour your ancestors and household gods and spirits, usually by making offerings to them. The fire would have been kept burning all the time, so it would be a good place to make offerings.

hearth (n.)
Old English heorð “hearth, fireplace, part of a floor on which a fire is made,” also in transferred use “house, home, fireside,” from West Germanic *hertho “burning place” (cognates: Old Saxon and Old Frisian herth, Middle Dutch hert, Dutch haard, German Herd “floor, ground, fireplace”), from PIE *kerta-, from root *ker- (4) “heat, fire” (see carbon). Hearth-rug is from 1824. Hearth-stone is from early 14c.

Online Etymology Dictionary

The hearth was the heart of the home, and the spirits that were honoured at the hearth were at the heart of the family’s ritual observance. For example, the Lares and Penates were very important in ancient Roman culture:

Lares (/ˈlɑːrz/LatinLarēs[ˈɫa.reːs], archaic Lases, singular Lar), were guardian deities in ancient Roman religion. Their origin is uncertain; they may have been hero-ancestors, guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries or fruitfulness, or an amalgam of these.

Lares were believed to observe, protect and influence all that happened within the boundaries of their location or function. The statues of domestic Lares were placed at the table during family meals; their presence, cult and blessing seem to have been required at all important family events. Roman writers sometimes identify or conflate them with ancestor-deities, domestic Penates and the hearth. Because of these associations, Lares are sometimes categorised as household gods but some had much broader domains. Roadways, seaways, agriculture, livestock, towns, cities, the state and its military were all under the protection of their particular Lar or Lares. Those who protected local neighbourhoods (vici) were housed in the crossroad shrines (Compitales) which served as a focus for the religious, social and political life of their local, overwhelmingly plebeian communities.  (Wikipedia)

The offerings made to these spirits were usually a part of whatever food was being prepared. In Ancient Rome, both Lares and Penates were associated with the hearth, and were offered food. These customs continted long into the Christian era, and in some places, were never eradicated.   In 1703, John Brand wrote about the people of Shetland making offerings to the house brownie:

 when they churned their milk, they took a part thereof, and sprinkled every corner of the house with it, for Brownie’s use; likewise, when they brewed, they had a stone which they called “Brownie’s stane”, wherein there was a little hole into which they poured some wort for a sacrifice to Brownie.  (Wikipedia)

So, if you want to recreate these customs but you don’t have a hearth, you could have a chimenea or a firepit in your garden, or a shrine with candles in your house. If you do have a fireplace with a real fire, or perhaps a wood-burning stove, then you could have a bowl for offerings on the hearth, and set aside food from your meals for the ancestors. You can also make offerings in the fire itself.

The poem To Lar, by Robert Herrick, gives a glimpse of the variety of offerings that may be made to hearth spirits:

NO more shall I, since I am driven hence,
Devote to thee my grains of frankincense ;
No more shall I from mantle-trees hang down,
To honour thee, my little parsley crown ;
No more shall I (I fear me) to thee bring
My chives of garlic for an offering ;
No more shall I from henceforth hear a choir
Of merry crickets by my country fire.
Go where I will, thou lucky Lar stay here,
Warm by a glitt’ring chimney all the year.

Samhain and Remembrance

Poppies in the sunset on Lake Geneva

Poppies in the sunset on Lake Geneva (Wikipedia)

The Pagan festivals are less about a single day when we reflect on or celebrate a particular aspect of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and more about the the high watermark of the ebb and flow of a tide of energy.

The build up to Samhain has been intense this year, with the Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project, and I really enjoyed dialoguing with Aliza Worthington from the Jewish channel, and hope that other similar collaborations between Patheos writers can happen in the future.

Aliza’s final post on the theme of ancestors and remembering her grandpa was about dreams. I have also dreamed of my grandparents. I dreamt of them in the mountains of the Summerlands (the Wiccan afterlife). They seemed happy. Aliza reflected on how dreams of one’s beloved dead seem like extra time with them. It certainly felt that way when I dreamt about my cat Harry, who died in 2011. In the dream, he rubbed his head on my hand, just like he did in life, and it was a really special dream.

This year I had the privilege of attending a friend’s Samhain ritual, and one very powerful aspect of it was going alone to the ancestor altar to commune with our beloved dead. Mine came rushing to meet me and I found it very moving. Afterwards there was a shared meal and we all put food on a plate for the ancestors, who had their own place at the table.

I didn’t make my own ancestor altar in the end, or visit the graves of any of my beloved dead, but I did focus on them and think about them.

I am glad to see that the Wiccan community is currently fundraising for a gravestone for one of our beloved dead and founders, Eleanor Bone. This is particularly appropriate since it was Eleanor who raised funds to ensure that Gerald Gardner had a gravestone (he is buried in Tunis).

Eleanor “Ray” Bone is a prominent figure in the history of Wicca. She was an initiate of Gerald B. Gardner and for many decades Eleanor was the High Priestess of a coven in London. She is often known as the Matriarch of European Wicca, because most Gardnerian initiates in Europe trace their roots to Ray Bone’s coven.

Remembering and honouring the dead is really important in a number of religious traditions. These are the people that made us who we are, shaping our lives and the world around us. If it wasn’t for the pioneers of Wicca, there would be no Wiccan tradition.

But the season of remembrance is not at an end. The tide of Samhain ebbs until it rises again as the tide of rebirth at Yule. And on the way to the turning of the tide, there is Remembrance Day on 11 November. I don’t know how many Pagans actually do ritual for 11 November, but I am sure many of us will be wearing poppies – red, white, or mauve, or all three.  The red poppy focuses on remembering veterans, though some fear that it is being used to glorify war. The white poppy focuses on promoting peace. The mauve poppy is in remembrance of animals killed in war. I was glad to find, a few years ago, a memorial to animals killed in war on Park Lane in London.

A few years ago I had the privilege of leading a service for Remembrance Sunday in a Unitarian church, and I focused on the sorrow of war, and the need to work for peace, but also the paradox that war can give rise to heroism too.

I wonder why we as Pagans don’t create rituals for remembrance of the victims of war? Is it because Samhain is such an intense experience that we don’t feel the need? Is it because some remembrance services seem to glorify war? Or is it because we don’t have the confidence (or the opportunity) to create public rituals for the whole community?


Ancestor Work: It’s Not Always About “Honoring”

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Happy Samhain and Happy Halloween to those who celebrate them! Here on the Patheos Pagan channel, we’re just wrapping up a month-long series on ancestor remembrance. Our Pagan writers produced dozens of thoughtful articles on connecting with ancestors. Additionally, some of our writers teamed up with writers from the Progressive Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Spirituality channels to do ancestor remembrance practices in tandem. I hope in the future we can do more projects like this to form meaningful cross-channel relationships. (The Patheos Public Square focused on remembering the dead this month too — check it out!)

In listening to all these conversations about ancestor work, I wanted to address an objection that often comes up around this topic.

“I don’t like my ancestors. Some of them, in fact, were execreble human beings — rapists and abusers, slaveholders and architects of genocide. I don’t want to honor them, or remember them, or acknowledge their existence at all.”

This is a fair and valid objection. Some of us need to set boundaries between ourselves and our ancestors in the same way that we might need to set boundaries between ourselves and abusive family members. Not all of us will be reconciled with estranged families in our lifetimes, and sometimes keeping distance is the best possible strategy for managing the trauma of the past and the ongoing danger of the present.

Many Pagans who prefer not to honor ancestors of blood focus on ancestors of spirit — mentors or historical figures with whom they have affinity — or beloved dead, friends or adoptive family who have crossed over. Some also honor ancestors of place, those who lived on the land where they now live (and these ancestors may be animal, not human). Our ancestor remembrance project includes several examples of these kinds of ancestors; I’ve particularly enjoyed Nornoriel Lokason’s memorializing of Harvey Milk and Helen Keller and Lupa Greenwolf’s letter to her non-human ancestors.

Other Pagans approach their ancestors of blood by accepting their flaws and focusing on their strengths. This can feel like a more authentic way to honor a dead family member with whom the relationship was conflicted and difficult. Although the article deals with a spiritual ancestor rather than one of blood, Cat Chapin-Bishop’s remembrance of Ann Putnam is a good example of how one might work with a problematic ancestor around themes of redemption.

These kinds of ancestor work still focus on honoring the dead, however; and for anyone who is just beginning ancestor work, honoring is the best and easiest place to start. But ancestor work is not always about remembering the positive. Sometimes, it can be about demanding justice, making reparations, or healing wounds.

My line of witchcraft considers itself “traditional” — a slippery and much-contested word, but here meaning something like “witchcraft that deals primarily in relationships with the land and its inhabitants in various states of embodiment.” As I was taught witchcraft, deepening relationship with the ancestral line is a key element of our work — and if no relationship exists, we must restore it to come fully into our power. So what do we do if the ancestral line is blood-soaked, broken, twisted with hatred, wounded?

The short answer is that we engage the ancestral line where we have direct access to it — beginning with its endpoint, our own embodied selves. Whatever we have inherited from our ancestors that burdens or wounds us, we work to make it right: to atone for our ancestors’ wrongdoing with just action, or to heal grief that our grandmothers and grandfathers carried to their graves. It’s slow work, often painful; and it is not work I would recommend to everyone. There are a thousand ways to deepen spiritually and serve community, and not everyone’s path will lead them to dig into the past this way.

For those who are called to work with their ancestors, especially those who are trying to resolve an inherited spiritual burden, I can recommend an excellent mundane tool. If you have access to family stories, either through family members or through genealogical research, it can be enormously helpful to make a genogram, a tool often used in family systems therapy. A genogram is a kind of family tree that also records major life events (such as illnesses, career changes, etc.) and important aspects of family relationships (strained or very close connections, for example). The results can reveal a pattern that persists over generations, or behaviors in later generations that represent clear reactions to events that occurred before they were born. A genogram can help uncover issues that need to be addressed, and it may even identify specific ancestors who need help in healing, who need to be confronted for crimes, or who may be of aid in either process.

The process of healing one’s ancestral line will be different based on the situation, and it is probably best undertaken for the first time under the guidance of someone experienced in ancestor work. Readers may also find Laura Patsouris’ short book Weaving Memory to be helpful. From personal experience, I can say that to successfully resolve an issue in one’s ancestral line can be an enormous relief that reverberates throughout one’s life. Ancestor work allowed me to shift complexes that years of other spiritual practices and healing modalities had failed to touch.

Ancestor practice that goes beyond honoring can be heavy work. Happily, not every Samhain celebration needs to be about confronting family traumas. My ancestor practice tonight will be to dress up my little one in an adorable monster costume and take him to hand out candy to local trick-or-treaters, as my parents and grandparents did. Whether the Samhain season calls you to deep healing or simple celebration, I wish you all the blessings of the dark time of the year.