It’s Earth Day today, and the significance of it being in the middle of a pandemic, when Nature is getting a brief respite from the depredations of industry and big oil, has not been lost on people, I hope.
My first guest column at The Wild Hunt.
I have been anxious for months, years even. I have watched with growing horror the rise of right-wing populism, the melting of the icecaps, the burning of Australia, the beginnings of wars over water and resources, the seemingly inexorable destruction wrought by climate change. The protests of Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion gave me some cause for optimism, but it is also obvious that governments have not been doing enough to turn the economy around to stop the production of carbon emissions. So when everyone suddenly swung into action to deal with the coronavirus crisis, it gave me some hope that perhaps now the needful actions to deal with climate change (many of which, it turns out, are quite similar to the actions needed to flatten the curve of coronavirus transmission) would seem doable. It also feels like now everyone else is as anxious as me.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my new book, Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft.
Some years ago, I started the festival of Borrowed. It’s on February 28th or 29th, and is a reminder that the Earth is precious and ecosystems are fragile. It seems even more relevant in the face of the climate emergency.
The festival of Borrowed highlights the idea that we do not own the Earth and its finite resources, we only borrow them, and share them with all other life.
On Sunday, I checked my carbon footprint (it was not good) and resolved to go carbon neutral by planting trees.
Pagans care about the same issues as everyone else – poverty, war, racism, homophobia, transphobia, the environment, saving indigenous lifeways, knowledge, and culture, women’s rights, cruelty to animals, and so on. Like any other movement, there are many different opinions in the Pagan movement: some Pagans don’t care about these things; some take a different view of them; and some care about them very much more than the average.
But there are some issues that are associated in people’s minds with being Pagan, the two most obvious ones being environmentalism and feminism. Many people have claimed that Paganism is a Nature religion (and many others have claimed that it’s not), and since Paganism and Nature-worship are synonymous in many people’s minds, caring for the Earth seems like an obvious thing for Pagans to want to do. And since the Earth is often viewed as a goddess, or as the Goddess, Paganism is an obvious choice for anyone who wonders why so many monotheists view their deity as exclusively male.
Pagans care about the environment for many and varied reasons. Some people became Pagans because they care about the environment; others began to care more about the environment after becoming a Pagan. Either way, Pagans recognise that the Earth is our mother, and if we don’t take care of her, we will all die, and so will many other species.
The earth is our mother,
we must take care of her.
Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yan yan.
Her sacred ground we walk upon,
with every step we take.
The earth is our mother,
she will take care of us.
The causes of our current destructive course are many and complex. Some people blame capitalism; others blame consumerism; and others blame the dominionist views of conservative Christianity. I blame all three, and think they are historically interlinked.
Capitalism does not simply mean a market economy; it means the investment of surplus money in a business venture. This means that instead of being accountable to the whole community, a company becomes accountable to its shareholders, and shareholders generally want only one thing: a profit.
Consumerism is not simply wanting nice things; it is the view that only having nice things makes you happy, and the drive to acquire more and more nice things.
Dominionism is the view (derived from the book of Genesis) that God gave the Earth to humans for our use.
A major contrast with these views is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and argues that this requires a radical restructuring of modern human societies. This certainly chimes in well with the Pagan world-view, and I explored the ecological and embodied world-view in two previous posts, Eco-spirituality and theology and Eco-spirituality in practice.
The language of ecology can be problematic, especially when it gets co-opted by business trying to preserve the status quo. Sustainability used to mean living in a way that prevents damage to the environment and loss of species habitat; now it has been co-opted to mean something like ‘greenwashing‘ (paying lip-service to environmental concerns while actually continuing to act in a destructive way), or buying carbon credits and continuing to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The “environment” implies something that surrounds us, but which we are not necessarily part of. We are part of the environment and of ecosystems; we are not separate from our habitat.
A group of Pagans (of which I was one) have recently produced A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has been translated into several different languages and has now reached around 5000 signatures. Whilst a statement will not fix things on its own, what it does is articulate the principles and practices which will help to fix things, and signing up to the statement means a commitment to its principles and to doing something for the planet.
Some people became Pagans because they were feminists; others began to focus more on equality after becoming a Pagan. Either way, feminism is a natural bedfellow of Paganism, because most Pagan traditions worship a Goddess or goddesses, and value diversity and equality.
The roots of feminism lie in three simple premises:
- that women are equal to men,
- that women are not currently treated equally in society,
- and that we should do something about it.
However, as with any other philosophy, there is more than one flavour of feminism, because not all feminists necessarily agree on the correct tactics for getting rid of inequality, or indeed on who counts as a woman.
Variants include: Amazon, Analytical, Anarchist, Atheist, Black, Chicana, Christian, Conservative, Cultural, Cyber, Difference, Eco, Equality, Equity, Fat, French, structuralist, Global, Individualist, Islamic, Jewish, Lesbian, Liberal, Lipstick, Marxist, Material, Maternal, Mormon, Neo, New, Postcolonial, Postmodern, Poststructural, Pro-life, Proto, Radical, Separatist, Sex-positive, Social, Socialist, Standpoint, Third world, Trans, Transnational, and Womanism. There is even an online quiz for deciding what kind of feminist you are.
Here are some of the ones that share concerns with Paganism:
According to Wikipedia, “Anarcha-feminism, also called anarchist feminism and anarcho-feminism, combines anarchism with feminism. It generally views patriarchy as a manifestation of involuntary coercive hierarchy that should be replaced by decentralized free association. Anarcha-feminists believe that the struggle against patriarchy is an essential part of class struggle, and the anarchist struggle against the state. ” Historically, anarchist feminists included those who advocated free love and campaigned against marital rape and the subjugation of women.
Black feminism: Black feminist theorists argue that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality has been adopted by many other feminists and social theorists. According to Barbara Omolade, ”Black feminism is sometimes referred to as womanism because both are concerned with struggles against sexism and racism by black women who are themselves part of the black community’s efforts to achieve equity and liberty”.
Eco-feminism: According to Vandana Shiva, women have a special connection to the environment through our daily interactions. She says that women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes.”
Obviously there are lots of other things that Pagans care about, but these are two areas that are fairly central to why so many people have joined the Pagan movement.
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’ link at the foot of the blogpost.
The next post in the series will be on controversies in the Pagan community, where I attempt to summarise all the controversies of the last few years, including racism, transphobia, Wiccanate privilege, and more.
Recently, Stephen Fry was asked how he would respond if he met God. His response was entirely understandable within the context of Christian theology. If there is an all-powerful supernatural creator god, why does he/she/it allow hideous suffering like parasitic insects burrowing into the eyes of children? As Fry so aptly pointed out, who would worship such a god?
But what he has done is take Christian theology and turned it on its head, as so many atheists do. There is more to life than Christian theology. There is no supernatural creator god (as atheists have very ably demonstrated). That does not mean that the concepts of deity and deities are completely redundant, as a supernatural creator deity is only one possible mythological or theological construct.
Indeed, Fry went on to say that if he turned up at the gates of the afterlife and it turned out to be run by the Greek gods, he would have more respect for them, because they do not claim to be anything other than human in their appetites and capricious in their ways. I think even this is still too close to the idea of a creator (or creators), because the Greeks did not actually believe that the universe was created – and most ancient pagan creation myths actually acknowledged the existence of death and conflict as the very basis of the creative act (the killing of the giant Ymir in Norse myth in order to create the world, or the slaying of the dragon Tiamat by Marduk to make the earth, for example). But he is going along the right lines towards understanding the pagan worldview (both ancient and modern).
Yes, insects that burrow into children’s eyes are horrible, but they are neither evil nor good, they just are. They have their own agenda, like all other beings, and that agenda – finding something soft and squishy to lay their eggs in – happens to be massively in conflict with our agenda.
Right-wing Christians assume that humans are the pinnacle of “creation” and that the world exists for our benefit. Atheists often turn this on its head and claim that the universe is hostile, but fail to notice that we are just one species among other species. The universe is neither 100% hostile, nor is it 100% benign. There is food that we can eat, and oxygen to breathe, and most of the time, the temperature is about right (until we screw it up by causing unprecedented climate change). But the fact that we exist at all, as oxygen-breathing animals, is at the expense of the organisms that existed on Earth before the atmosphere had oxygen in it – and there was a mass extinction of those non-oxygen-breathing organisms when oxygen entered the atmosphere. One animal’s beneficial environmental feature is another animal’s deeply hostile environmental feature.
The world was not created for our benefit – indeed, it was not created. The sooner humans realise this and stop behaving as if we own it, the better. There are other sentient beings who deserve our consideration – elephants, dolphins, whales – all intelligent and sensitive. And the other (supposedly lesser) animals also deserve our consideration. That doesn’t mean that I would not kill the insect that was trying to lay eggs in a human eye – but I recognise that the insect is not evil, it is just doing what comes naturally to it.
Neither atheists nor Christians seem to consider that we could only have evolved in the environment we are in (and that the the same applies to nasty insects). The environment in which we live is generally quite hospitable, but it also happens to be hospitable to some things that we consider unpleasant. Monty Python nailed it with their wonderful send-up of All Things Bright and Beautiful, aptly entitled All Things Dull and Ugly. (Listen to it on YouTube here.)
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.
Yep, the universe contains both “all things bright and beautiful”, and “all things sick and cancerous”. This means that any theology worth its salt must deal with this fact somehow. (To be fair to Christian theology, it kind of gets around this by explaining that the Devil put the nasty stuff there, because he’s spiteful – but obviously there is still a flaw because in order for this to happen, the Devil must be just as powerful as God, and then you get Manichaean dualism, which is not allowed in mainstream Christian theology.)
The universe just is, as it is. Not created, not hostile, not especially benevolent, but many diverse beings and species, each with their own imperative to survive and thrive, and some of those in harmony with our imperative to survive and thrive, some of them in conflict. We have to learn how to manage those conflicts, not blame them on an all-powerful supernatural creator (or creators). As Terry Pratchett wrote, “There’s no justice. There’s just us”, implying that we have to create our own justice.
Pagan theology deals with the fact of death and predators and icky parasites by taking the view that there are many beings (including deities and nature spirits), all with their own agendas, their own imperatives for survival, some of which may be in conflict with ours. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and sharks, and horrible insects, all have to eat, but we would rather they did not eat us. So, for the most part, we stay out of their way. Hurricanes emerge from the weather system and wreak havoc in their path, but this is an unfortunate fact of existence. Nature spirits also have their own agenda, and sometimes that aligns with ours, and sometimes it does not. That is why Icelanders take care not to demolish the dwellings of the huldu-folk (elves and trolls), and why British folklore advises against cutting down hawthorn trees, because the Fair Folk live there.
Pagan deities are not seen as all-powerful, but beings on their own journey, who may sometimes walk with us and help us. They are not there for our benefit, and we are not here for their benefit. Just as you make friends and forge alliances with other humans for companionship, or to further some collective goal like campaigning for social justice, the same applies to deities – we make alliances to further a common cause, or we make friends with them.
The universe contains both great beauty and great brutality (as Stephen Fry also acknowledged). You can’t ignore one and focus entirely on the other; they are both part of a complex picture. I recommend anyone who thinks that Nature is all fluffy bunnies and cuddly animals to spend a few hours on the Wikpedia category on parasitic insects. But for anyone who thinks that Nature is entirely hostile, go outside and bask in some warm sunshine, look at some nice trees recycling our exhaled carbon dioxide, and browse the list of edible foods that you can gather in the wild. And gaze up at the stars to be reminded of just how big the Universe is, and be thankful that you can behold such beauty, and reflect that you yourself are formed of atoms forged in the heart of a star.
This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.
Whenever I confront my personal ethical choices around sustainability and ecology, I realise that everything depends on everything else. One choice may be more sustainable than another, but it may have other deleterious effects. You fix one part of the ecosystem, another gets broken. You try to fix poverty by donating clothes to charity shops (thrift stores) and then discover you have undermined small-scale indigenous clothing manufacture. You buy fair trade goods and then discover that they have been shipped over vast distances.
This interconnectedness of everything shows that we need a massive global paradigm shift, not merely a cosmetic fix to our already broken system. Capitalism – the practice of creaming off profits to give to shareholders and investors who do not contribute directly to the enterprise – created the opportunity to exploit people and resources, and got us into the mess we are in now. I recently watched a documentary on the origins of the industrial revolution, and it was very clear that it could not have got started without capitalism to fund it, and consumerism to drive demand for the commodities that were produced. Manufacturing snowballed in response to the stimuli of investment and consumer demand.
As others have already outlined, we are in a huge mess right now, and we need action. Climate change is already happening, sea levels are rising, species are dying off. It might be worse if there had not been an environmental movement, and if Pagans had not existed. This is also the premise of the excellent book Hope in the dark: The Untold History of People Power, by Rebecca Solnit.
Deep Ecology is the radical idea that all life has the right to exist, that no one species is more important than another.
According to Judi Bari, “Nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are a part of nature, one species among many. All species have the right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans”.
Biodiversity is essential for the continued existence of the living Earth. As part of this biodiversity, humans must learn to live within nature, according to nature’s laws, and learn to accept our role as one among many.
— Centre for Deep Ecology
Environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand. You can’t solve world poverty unless we are all in right relationship with the Earth:
‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’
So we all need to change our perspective to one of deep ecology, rather than seeing environmentalism as some kind of ‘add-on’ to our existing lifestyles.
How will this change of perspective come about? Like any paradigm shift, it started with individuals who were ahead of their time, and has gradually been building momentum. Sadly, so has climate change, but this means more people will wake up and smell the coffee. We can take action to speed up the process of change. We can re-enchant the world that capitalism and the industrial revolution disenchanted.
There are also interventions that can be made to restore ecosystems.
One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years has been trophic cascade. This is the discovery that if you restore a major predator to an ecosystem, other species recover.
For example, restoring wolves to Yellowstone Park resulted in a decrease in elk, but an increase in the tree species that elk would otherwise have eaten, and consequently an increase in beaver and bison, as well as carrion birds which benefit from the remains of the wolves’ kills.
Restoring beavers to river systems has resulted in the creation of more pools, and hence more habitats for fish and plants.
The problems that climate change has brought, is bringing, and will bring will be severe and disastrous. Maybe we can ride out the storm; maybe it is too late; but if we despair and do not act, it will definitely be too late.
I am currently reading the Emberverse series by S M Stirling, in which electronics, guns, the internal combustion engine, and gunpowder all stop working overnight. The laws of physics have been tampered with by some unknown power. The books explore the consequences of this strange event, known as the Change. Part of the story follows a small group of Georgian Wiccans who take to the hills; another part deals with a man who decides to set up a feudal Norman-style state. The people who do best are those with some skills in farming, making things, but also, the ones who are rich in stories that help make sense of the world, which help them to build just and cohesive societies.
I think that the Change is shorthand, or a metaphor, for what happens when the oil runs out. It won’t happen overnight, and if we are lucky, it will be managed sensibly. But all the current indications are that it will not be managed sensibly. Instead of reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, companies are inventing ever more destructive ways of wresting them from the ground, the worst of these being fracking. We are also not investing in sustainable power sources, or taxing carbon consumption, or anywhere near enough of the things we should be doing. The warning signs of climate change are being ignored.
Rhyd Wildermuth’s story, What we built from ruins (part 1 and part 2), in response to the question, what will Paganism look like in fifty years’ time? got me thinking, as well. I realised that my response completely ignored the question of what will happen when the oil runs out.
I also recently attended a ritual in my local area that was part of a global magical working to protect the waters of the world from fracking, which is about the most irresponsible and damaging thing anyone could possibly do to the environment. It was a very moving and beautiful ritual, and it brought together eco-activists, Pagans, shamans, and others.
So what can Pagans and other ecologically-minded people be doing to prepare for the eventual crash, or shift?
We can reduce our own dependence on fossil fuels; campaign for investment in sustainable energy sources; campaign for environmental and social justice. But in addition to these, we can do magic (the art of changing consciousness in accordance with Will) to heal and protect the Earth and other living beings, and we can learn skills such as building roundhouses and coracles and boats, raising livestock, weaving, growing our own food, and so on. We can get involved with the transition towns movement and other sustainability initiatives, support organic farming, and check our own ecological footprint. We can build strong communities – not only of Pagans, but including others of good will. And we can engage with stories that show how to build just, cohesive, and inclusive societies. We are already doing all this to a certain extent – we just need to do it more.
It seems that Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated around the world, despite many cultures having their own festivals of love. In some countries, public displays of affection (whether same or opposite sex) are frowned upon, which is rather sad.
As you celebrate Valentine’s Day with your significant other, remember that in many places, it is still not safe for same-sex couples to hold hands in public. And remember that V-Day is also devoted to stopping violence against women. It’s also the day when Eve Ensler’s stage show, The Vagina Monologues, is often staged.
However, it is quite possible that Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love should actually be on 3 May. Chaucer wrote a poem celebrating the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, mentioning Valentine’s Day. The engagement took place on 2 May, the eve of the festival of St Valentine of Genoa. The Pagan festival of May Day (now generally referred to among Pagans as Beltane), which celebrates love and springtime, is on 1 May, and May day revellers were known to take to the woods to make love, gather may blossom, and wash their faces in the dew. (We know about these customs because Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes railed against them in The Anatomie of Abuses.) Chilly February hardly seems a good time to be celebrating romantic and/or erotic love – expansive and blooming May seems like a much better time.
Whatever the origins and timing of Valentine’s Day, 14 February was originally the eve of a very different festival – the festival of Lupercalia on 15th February. This was a fertility festival honouring the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. It also honoured Lupercus, god of shepherds. The festivities were presided over by the priesthood of the Luperci, who were dedicated to Faunus. They sacrificed two goats and a dog. There was then a sacrificial feast, and the Luperci cut thongs called februa from the skins of the animals, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city. They struck all those who came near with the thongs. Young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from the thongs. This was reputed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility, and ease the pains of childbirth.
There seem to be several themes running through Lupercalia:
- a celebration of wildness in the form of the wolf;
- male bonding (whether in the form of friendship or same-sex love);
- purification and cleansing;
- a celebration of Spring, fertility, new life, and childbirth (though fertility doesn’t have to mean producing children – it can also mean creating new ideas and projects);
- the celebration of the founding of Rome (which could be extended to the founding of all cities);
- the relationship of city and countryside;
- and a celebration of consensual kink.
In an article from 2004, Robin Herne has some suggestions for how to adapt Lupercalia for contemporary Pagan celebrations.
The Pagan Library suggests that the festival was originally dedicated to Rumina, the founding she-wolf of Rome. It also points out that “The name of the month comes from the februa, anything used in purifying including wool (used for cleaning), brooms, pine boughs (which make the air sweet and pure), etc.” So if the other aspects of Lupercalia do not appeal to you, you could always celebrate Lupercalia by giving your house a thorough spring-cleaning.
The wolf was, until the late twentieth century, mostly a symbol of the ultimate predator. It was associated with desolate wilderness and the fear of being eaten by wild animals. More recently, as civilisation encroaches on the wilderness, and with the rise of deep ecology and animistic understandings of the rights of non-human beings, wolves have been celebrated as a symbol of wildness and freedom. They are highly social animals, and there are accounts of them taking in and caring for lost human children. The excellent book by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves, emphasises the importance of wildness and instinct for both women and men. The importance of connecting with Nature and the wild was also emphasised by Thoreau:
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
The wildness aspect of Lupercalia reminds us that each of us is an unfathomable mystery, that we have the right to sovereignty over our own bodies, and above all, the right to consent, or to refuse consent. If only everyone was taught about what “enthusiastic consent” means. If only millions of Valentine’s cards were not inscribed with the phrase “be mine”. People are not possessions. Misogyny and violence against women is intimately connected with the notion that women are possessions, that men have a right to sex, and that men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable. Misogyny and the subjugation of women are also connected with the patriarchal idea of controlling, subduing, and taming Nature, often personified as a woman. The Pagan reverence for Nature is aligned with promoting the equality of women.
As humanity’s relationship with our environment is flawed, we need to recover the sense that the city and the countryside are both ecosystems, and need to operate in harmony with each other. The recent floods have shown that cities are not isolated from their surrounding river systems, and that we need to exist in harmony with Nature, not trying to conquer and subdue it. So perhaps we need to rediscover Lupercalia as an exploration of the relationship between city and countryside. Cities can be beautiful places, and need not be a blot on the landscape or a drain on natural resources.
The kink and fertility aspects of Lupercalia can teach us about embodiment and being aware of physical sensations and what they mean. Many people don’t listen to their bodies and dismiss physical symptoms and sensations. The very physical aspects of Lupercalia remind us to be in our bodies.
UPDATE: corrected the post because Lupercalia was on 15 February, not 14 February. Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus, expert on all things Roman.