In Praise of the Body

The witch-as-body is also the body-as-witch, the raw experience of the poor, the Necromancer cradling a skull and crying, the tired single-mother sipping coffee in mis-matched pajamas.  Herein is the secret that cannot be learned, cannot be understood, cannot be comprehended or dissected. It cannot be known. You can only become this truth, and it teaches you to become it.  It grows within you, it becomes you. It is the secret that cannot be bought, a wisdom that cannot be sold. And it’s what makes all witches dangerous. ~ Rhyd Wildermuth

In his excellent review of what sounds like a truly awful book, Rhyd Wildermuth explores the body-shaming and objectification engaged in by the author of the book under review, and her commodification of witch culture. Do read the whole review, it’s brilliant.

The secret of witchcraft is that is there is no secret, only the mystery which cannot be spoken: the ability to reside in one’s body without shame, without fear. (Actually, “reside in” is too dualistic, implying that the spirit “resides in” the body, like a person in a house – but this is a limitation of the English language. Witchcraft enables us to BE our bodies without shame or fear.)

He also quotes Silvia Federici:

Our struggle then must begin with the re-appropriation of our body, the revaluation and rediscovery of its capacity for resistance, and expansion and celebration of its powers, individual and collective.

Silvia Federici, In Praise of The Dancing Body

In response to all this, I feel the need to reaffirm the body-positive aspects of Pagan culture.

The patriarchal/kyriarchal/hegemonic culture seeks to regulate and control the body – especially women’s bodies, and especially black women’s bodies – because women, especially black women, are constructed as the Other, the site of resistance to the kyriarchy. Because our existence provokes fear of the Other, fear of wildness, fear of sexuality, fear of letting go – our bodies and our hair (traditionally hair is a source of magical power) must be controlled, groomed, reduced, covered, suppressed. If we cover too much, we are censured for prudery; if we don’t cover enough, there is slut-shaming. If our bodies are too hairy, they must be shaved; if they are too generously proportioned, they must be reduced in size.

The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. It displays one emaciated and one obese woman as a reaction to body fixation.

Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside the art museum, Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. [Photo by Lars Aronsson, CC-SA-1.0]

But the body manifests in many different shapes and sizes and colours. There are female bodies, male bodies, intersex bodies, modified bodies, disabled bodies, ebony-coloured bodies, tattooed bodies, scarred bodies, ivory-coloured bodies, pink bodies, caramel-coloured bodies, chocolate-coloured bodies, hairy bodies, smooth bodies, short bodies, tall bodies. There are bony bottoms, and bottoms that spread like the sheltering boughs of a chestnut tree. There are small breasts and large breasts, perky breasts and “pendulous” breasts, six-packs and beer-barrels. The body reflects our embodied histories as people. Gravity and age conspire to make breasts head south, but it doesn’t make them any less beautiful.

The body is not a commodity for positioning ourselves in some marketplace of attractiveness. The body is not a “vehicle” or an “overcoat” for the soul. Perhaps, in some mysterious way, it is the soul made manifest. (Your mileage may vary according to your theology.)

Bodies, whatever size and shape and colour they are, are beautiful. Especially when lit by candlelight or firelight. But most of all, a body is a person – it’s not just an appendage attached to a head, it is part of the person, and worthy of respect.

Throw away your pre-conceived ideas about slimness and muscle tone, and learn to appreciate bodies as people. Throw away the pre-packaged concepts of beauty imposed by the kyriarchy, and learn to look at bodies the way an artist would: as compositions of line and tone and form, of light and shadow.

Look at the Venus of Willendorf – really look at her. Look how the sculptor loved the generosity of her curves, the abundance of food that her body-fat represented.  Look at the sculpture of the Sleeping Lady of Hal Saflieni – another large woman celebrated by an ancient culture.  Look at the sculpture of the laughing Buddha. If deities can be fat, then people can be fat, and vice versa. There are also sculptures of thin deities. If deities can be thin, then people can be thin, and vice versa. Deities come in all shapes and sizes, and so do people.

Celebrate the curves of the land, and the hills and valleys, and see them reflected in the bodies of your cuddly friends. Look at the slender trees, and see them reflected in the bodies of your thin friends. Celebrate the beauty and diversity of the human body.


Photo credit: Lars Aronsson – Own work. This photo was taken during the joint Wikipedia photo/OpenStreetMap mapping weekend in Växjö. Licence: CC SA 1.0

 

Eros and Psyche

L’Amour et Psyché, by François-Édouard Picot, 1819

Pagan rituals are performed with the whole body as well as the mind and the heart. They have an erotic quality – not overtly, but sublimated and transmuted. Ritual is sensual, and involves all the senses. This erotic aspect of worship is frequently expressed by medieval Christian mystics, Sufis like the poet Rumi, as well as contemporary Pagans.

The mood-swing of Western culture against the body, women and sensuality is said by historians to have begun around 500 BCE and reached its height in about 500 CE. At its worst, it was profoundly anti-women. It had a lasting influence on the Christianity of later centuries.

Bound up with this fear of women, sexuality, and the body was the fear of the dark, which is connected with the feminine, nature, and wilderness and has been denigrated for most of Christian history.  In patriarchal culture, the assertive and sexually active female is regarded as dark, dangerous and malevolent, and characterised as a witch.  The passive female is elevated as the model for how women should be: quiet, virginal, and modest.  In order for patriarchy to function, female sexuality must be suppressed and controlled, and men must be taught to fear it and abuse it; and the wilderness must be conquered and tamed.

Fortunately for us, the mystics frequently rebelled against this anti-women worldview. Their writings were deeply sensual and erotic, and extolled the dazzling darkness of God, the ultimately unknowable and mysterious aspect of the Godhead.

Judaism, on the other hand, never entirely abandoned its respect for the body and for women, and making love remained an act of worship. It was and is obligatory in Judaism to make love on the Sabbath Eve, because making love reunites the exiled Shekhinah with the Godhead. According to many Jewish theologians, the Shekhinah, who is the immanent feminine aspect of the Divine, is exiled in the material world, and seeks to be reunited with the transcendent male Godhead. We can help her by making love and performing acts of kindness, which are known as Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.

Spirituality and sexuality are intertwined. The most profound sexual experiences involve an abandonment of the centrality of the ego and opening up to the beloved other; this can become an opening up to the Divine Beloved. This is reflected in the erotic and spiritual poetry of the Sufis. The Sufis loved the night, which was seen as the time when the soul was most open to the Divine Beloved.

Similarly, the deeply spiritual is also erotic, and opening up and self-abandonment to the Divine can resemble a relationship with a human partner. The ancient Greek story of Eros and Psyche represents the Divine visiting the soul. In India, the story of Krishnapleasuring a thousand cow-girls simultaneously also symbolises the erotic relationship with the Divine. Medieval mystical poetry is full of erotic yearning for the Divine. One meditation on the Song of Songs exclaims “Oh that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”. In the medieval period, among both Jewish and Christian thinkers, the Song of Songs was seen as an allegory of the soul’s relationship with God.

So, how can ritual be erotic without being overtly sexual? How do we entice Eros to visit Psyche?

The erotic can be sensual, involving all five senses. There can be visual elements to ritual: magical tools, the altar, flowers, candlelight, jewellery, pictures.

Ritual can include scent – the smell of flowers, incense, good moist earth, baking bread, wine, fruit. Smell is the most subtle and evocative of all the senses, and smells can transport you instantly to a memory of the past or an intimation of future bliss.

Ritual can include taste – the taste of food, mindfully and appreciatively savoured, shared amongst friends. Many Pagan rituals include the use of food in a ritual context.

Jewish worship in the home includes food, as in the well-known ritual of the Seder (Passover meal) with its various symbolic foods.

Ritual can include touch and movement – hugging, dancing, joining hands, gestures, warming oneself at a fire, anointing with oil and water, ceremonial kissing, the feel of rich earth, planting bulbs, experiencing textures.

Ritual includes sound, but there is not as much singing in Paganism as there could be (presumably a reaction to the singing of hymns in Christianity. The lyrics of Pagan chants are sometimes a bit trite. In Hinduism however, the classical raga form goes through stages, firstly of yearning for the Divine Beloved, making contact, and achieving union. The erotic aspect of this encounter is clearly celebrated in the music.

The erotic aspects of spirituality are present in Paganism (especially Wicca) but not much talked about, because they are so easily misunderstood. The erotic can be sensual, passionate, tender, mysterious, alluring, mystical; it does not have to be explicit or acted upon.

Our rituals are performed with the whole body, not just with mind and heart. This is how we integrate our spirituality with everyday life. As Mary Oliver so memorably put it, “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Let us welcome Eros into the bridal chamber of the psyche, for only then can we make the shift from the domination of the ego (the rule of law) to the balance of all aspects of the psyche (the religion of love). Let us descend into our own depths to encounter the darkness and silence, and be dazzled by the unknowable mystery of the Divine.