Paganism for Beginners: Social Structures

The social world as it is currently structured is the product of a particular set of assumptions about the world, about the role of different genders, and about the relative worth of different social roles and different cultures.

The fact that people can own land, that property is deemed more important than human life by our current laws, that those with wealth and property are given more power and status, that making war is given priority over creating community or protecting the most vulnerable people, that certain social functions are seen as female and others are seen as male – these are all cultural constructs resulting from thousands of years of  looking at the world in a particular way. They have been built up by custom and practice over a couple of millennia. But they are not inevitable.

A lot of our current social and economic structures exist because of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer and other early societies organised themselves differently.  The archaeologists excavating the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey have discovered that there was very little gender specialisation in people’s roles, and that people from different genetic groups lived together.

Many of our current legal and social systems come from the structures imposed by Christianity and its cultural ancestors (such as the Akkadian empire). Many ancient pagan and polytheist societies were organised differently, with matrifocal culture, matrilineal inheritance, collective ownership, and other variations.

"Earthlights" - Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Earthlights” – Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Different social models

Patriarchy is a system where descent is counted through the male line, and property passes from a father to his first-born son. This meant that a man had to control the sexuality of the the woman he had children with, otherwise he might pass his property on to another man’s son. Women were punished, often killed, if they had sex with a man who was not their husband.  The word “patriarchy” means “rule of the fathers”, and before the rise of feminism and the emancipation of women, the father was the head of the household, and men had a considerable amount of power over women. Married women in England could not own their own property until 1870, and if a couple split up, the man got custody of the children. Various patriarchal systems are still in force in many parts of the world, and patriarchal attitudes persist everywhere.

It is worth noting that unless there is a notion of individual property rather than communal property, there can be no notion of inheritance, so patriarchy would be unlikely to exist without the concepts of private property and inheritance.

Patriarchal societies also tend to enforce rigid gender roles for men and women, and often separate the sexes into different spheres of activity. Women are frequently required either to stay in the house, or to wear a veil when they go out.

Rape culture is the patriarchal belief that women do not like sex (a belief promoted by so-called radical feminists as well as “men’s rights activists”), and that men are inherently predatory and want sex all the time. According to this view, women always have to be coerced or cajoled into sex. This erases the possibility of meaningful or enthusiastic consent. In this view, any woman who actually enjoys sex is a “slut” and is therefore “fair game” to be hit on by men (note the predatory language). Think of all the times you have heard the idea that a rape victim was somehow “asking for it”.

Rape is mostly about exerting power over the victim; it is mostly not about fulfilling a sexual urge. It is also worth noting that when a man rapes another man, it is often done to “feminise” the victim, in other words, to exert patriarchal power over him. A similar motive occurs in the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians by men – an attempt to “put them back in their place” in the patriarchal power hierarchy.

Kyriarchy is an expansion of the concept of patriarchy to include hierarchies of class, sexuality, and race. According to Wikipedia:

The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Multiple inheritance is a system in some societies where property to be inherited was divided equally between the children of the owner. The problem with this approach was that it created smaller and smaller parcels of land. The interesting thing about this system is that there are no “surplus” males to be sent away to conquer other lands.

Matriarchy is a system in which the mother or oldest woman heads the family. The most important line of descent and relationship is that traced through the female line. It is also defined as government or rule by a woman or women. There are no known purely matriarchal societies.

Matrifocality is where the family is focused on a woman, usually the mother (typically because the male is absent). It does not imply anything about power outside the home. It can also be used to indicate that more “feminine” values (such as nurturing, relationship, and negotiation) prevail.

Matrilineality is the tracing of descent through the female line. It may also correlate with a societal system in which each person is identified with their matriline – their mother’s lineage – and which can involve the inheritance of property and/or titles. Many cultures (especially Celtic and Native American and Jewish) trace descent through the female line.

Egalitarian systems do not advocate the specialisation of roles by gender; do not regard people as property; and are non-hierarchical.

What does this have to do with the Pagan revival?

There were many factors that prompted the Pagan revival. One was the disenchantment of the world – the sense that everything was emptied of meaning and sacredness, because everything had become a commodity. So people began to see Nature as sacred. Another was the loss of the Divine Feminine and the relegation of women to second-class citizens. So the Pagan revival went hand-in-hand with the rise of feminism and ecological awareness. There was also an important utopian, socialist, and gay aspect to the early phase of the Pagan revival – mainly embodied in the persons of Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.

Among the impulses and stirrings that led to the Pagan revival, people began to look at alternative ways of organising communities, relationships, and property. They looked forward to imaginary utopias, and back to earlier societies, and outwards towards other cultures. They examined existing social structures and realised that they were grounded in a particular way of looking at the world – a patriarchal, hierarchical, heterocentric, property-oriented, capitalist, Protestant way of looking at the world. Some realised that our attitude to the Earth – regarding her as a resource to be used instead of a mother to be cherished – was inherently patriarchal. So they began to imagine other ways of relating to each other and to the world. That conversation, that process of reinvention, is still going on, not only in the Pagan and polytheist community, but in other communities too.

So, examining social structures and relationships has everything to do with Paganism. It’s about how we relate to the Earth, to other animals, and to our deities.

If we cease to see land as a resource to be used, and instead see it as a sacred place, then we begin to realise that it cannot be owned.

If we begin to see women as subjects rather than objects, we begin to realise that women cannot be owned, and women’s sexuality should not be controlled.

When we come to see all life as sacred, we come to see all that sustains life as sacred.

The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth.

Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood, and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without them.

To call these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, and our purposes must be judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy.

All people, all living things, are part of the earth life, and so are sacred. No one of us stands higher or lower than any other. Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom. Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity.

To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible.

To this we dedicate our curiosity, our will, our courage, our silences, and our voices. To this we dedicate our lives.

–from Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

When we see all life, and all that sustains life, as sacred, we will truly honour and celebrate diversity, and the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” – people of all colours, all sexualities, all genders.

A place or a being who is sacred cannot be owned, so societies that regard them as sacred will also be egalitarian, co-operative, and consensual.

Agreeing To Disagree

Different colours, by Gari

Different colours, by Gari [Pixabay] CC0 Public Domain

Arguments make some people uncomfortable. It is true that conflict can be divisive, but it can also be healthy, because it can help to clarify aims, goals, beliefs, and values. Trying to sweep conflict and arguments under the carpet and pretend they are not happening is counter-productive and just creates more conflict in the end.

I have been saying for a while that we are not all climbing the same mountain. As John Beckett points out, a fish is not just a fish: it might be a halibut or a hake, a a pike or a perch.

The Pagan umbrella (or big tent) is only a problematic concept if we try to define it too narrowly. The Hindus have many different sects, philosophies, and belief systems as part of the Hindu dharma. As a similarly pluralist religious movement, we should be able to do the  same.

In a previous post on the varieties of religious experience, I outlined Arne Naess’s model for different groups to collaborate on a shared project without compromising their core philosophies and values. Naess’s model shows how it is possible to agree on common goals for a particular project without necessarily agreeing entirely on goals for non-shared projects, or theology, or even the underlying reasons why you are pursuing the goals in the shared project.

If our focus on our particular values or beliefs gets in the way of the shared goals of the project, then our allies have a right to complain.

For example, many Pagans and polytheists agree that the environment and climate change are major priorities for humanity and for us. But – due to our different political and theological analyses – we might disagree on how best to tackle the problem, or what the underlying causes are. Many of us think that it is capitalism, or perhaps it goes deeper than that and is caused by the kyriarchy; others are unsure of the cause and just want to fix the problem. But rather than trying to align our philosophical perspectives completely, we can agree on shared goals without compromising our values and beliefs – but this requires being clear about what those values and beliefs are, how they inform our analysis of the issue, and what we believe the means to achieving our aims should be. So when it comes to actually working together to fix the problem, we don’t have to set our differences aside to achieve the desired outcome, but we do need to agree to differ, and allocate tasks and resources based on the interests and concerns of the members of the group.

Let’s look at Naess’s model again, and how it applies to wanting to save biodiversity without overly compromising our values.

Level 1, irreducible diversity, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions in the space labelled “Pagan movement”. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. 

Level 2, common platforms, where groups can form alliances. These can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common, but without sweeping differences under the carpet.

Level 3, planning, where the groups actually agree to act. Group A, informed by its commitment to anti-capitalism, believes that the destruction of habitat is caused by capitalism. Group B, informed by its intersectional feminist approach, believes that the kyriarchy is the cause. Group A decides that it should start by formulating alternative economic models to capitalism. Group B decides that it needs to work on dismantling kyriarchal structures and creating alternative social models. The two groups notice that despite their different philosophical approach, the alternative social models and the alternative economic models have some similar features and would work well together, so they pool their resources and ideas to see what the differences and similarities are.

Level 4, action, where the groups actually carry out their plans. In this example, because the alternative social models and the alternative economic models actually complement each other, a better outcome is achieved, because the two different philosophical approaches were allowed to inform each other and complement each other, but not merged into a single unified philosophy.

Where are we at?

At the moment, the Pagan / polytheist blogosphere is at multiple levels – some people are trying to plan; others are trying to identify the irreducible diversity; others are trying to identify common platforms; and there has even been some action (in the form of A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment and A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer). However, we need all of these activities – and it is great that they are happening.

Disagreement, discussion, and even argument are good – as long as they are civil and civilised – by which I mean that we don’t attack each other for thinking a certain way. I am not tone policing here – it is fine and perfectly understandable for people to get angry, but let’s get angry with ideas, not attack the people with the ideas (in other words, by all means say “that idea won’t work because x, y, z counter-arguments” but don’t say “you are stupid because you think that”).

Marriage equality: All you need is love… or is it?

All you need is love, all together now
All you need is love, everybody
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need – The Beatles – All You Need Is Love

I am immensely heartened by the legalisation of same-sex marriage across the United States of America by the Supreme Court ruling, and by popular referendum in Ireland. Even the Pitcairn Islands have legalised it, despite not having any gay couples living there. This makes the US the 23rd country to legalise it. Given the large number of people in same-sex relationships who want to get married, it seems like a very good idea, especially when it grants access to all kinds of other benefits (the ability to visit your spouse while they are dying in hospital, the ability to be named as their spouse on a death certificate, and so on). And we should celebrate our victories along the way. However, it does not mean that the struggle for equality is over.

All of the above is why I would urge you to support the LGBTQ Bill of Rights.

Love wins

I really the enjoyed the fact that my Facebook feed was full of rainbow profile pictures, as loads of friends, both straight and LGBTQIA, rainbowed up their profile pictures. Because they were celebrating with the LGBTQIA community, and they didn’t care if anyone else thought they might be gay. Could you have imagined that, twenty years ago? Ten years ago?

Same sex marriage has been a stunning success in so many places because it is not particularly complicated, and it is easy to get behind it. BECAUSE LOVE. Everyone can get behind it, everyone can understand it. Two people in love – awww, right? Obviously it is a bit more complicated than that, because marriage is all tangled up with property and legal status and all that kind of stuff – and until relatively recently, marriage was a massively patriarchal thing designed to ensure that a father (who owned the property) could be sure that his biological offspring would inherit his property, because he knew his wife had not had sex with anyone else.

However, it was the concept of romantic love that changed heterosexual marriage for the better. Before the rediscovery of romantic love, and the invention of chivalry, women were mere chattels who could be exchanged as part of a contract. That is why so many of Molière‘s plays champion marrying for love against marrying for the furtherance of parental property deals.

Chivalry, and the accompanying tradition of courtly love, schooled the uncouth knights of Europe in the art of behaving like somebody who actually read books and knew one end of a lute from the other. Prior to this, they had been too busy indiscriminately raping, pillaging, and looting their way across Europe and the Middle East, all in the name of Christendom, in an activity usually referred to as the Crusades.

In fact, it may have been contact with the Muslim world that started the tradition of courtly love, according to Wikipedia:

The notions of “love for love’s sake” and “exaltation of the beloved lady” have been traced back to Arabic literature of the 9th and 10th centuries. The notion of the “ennobling power” of love was developed in the early 11th century by the Persian psychologist andphilosopherIbn Sina (known as “Avicenna” in Europe), in his treatise Risala fi’l-Ishq (“Treatise on Love”). 

It took a good few centuries, and the subsequent introduction of the concept of companionate marriage, followed by the impact of feminism, but eventually heterosexual marriage started to be more equal. But it was the concepts of courtly and romantic love that started the process.

"Codex Manesse Bernger von Horheim" by Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Codex Manesse Bernger von Horheim” by Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) – Universität Heidelberg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The other day someone commented on Facebook that same-sex marriage is important because, “for some straight people, it is the only thing that makes them realise that queer people are human too”. I would argue that the concept of love (courtly and romantic) achieved the same thing for women.

Contrasted with the slow progress of equality in heterosexual marriage, the rise of same-sex marriage has been meteoric, and that in itself is quite an achievement – in England and Wales, homosexual activity between consenting adults over the age of 21 was legalised in 1967. It was not legal in Scotland until 1981, and in Northern Ireland, not until 1982. I was gobsmacked recently by an article by Colm Tóibin, in which he commented that some otherwise liberal people were unaware that same-sex relationships involve love:

I met a prominent Irish feminist, someone had been at the forefront of the women’s movement, and she too expressed surprise at the intensity of the relationship between the two men in the book. “They sound like straight people,” she said. I told her that that was because they were like straight people, that they wanted intimacy and love, they wanted each other, they wanted ease in their domestic and family lives. They also wanted their relationship to be publicly recognised. They wanted to move out of the shadows and into the light.

I am unsure of how anyone could be unaware of this, as it seems kind of obvious to me – but then I recall how, when I published a piece celebrating the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK in a magazine of which I was the editor, someone commented that “you already had one article about sex in that issue, did you really need another one?” I was appalled by the assumption that same-sex marriage is only about sex, and not about love and equal rights.

Progress is incremental

So, you think same-sex marriage is not enough? That we need polyamorous marriage, marriage that is not entangled with property rights, and an understanding that not everyone wants to get married? Well, yes, but let’s celebrate this milestone on the road to equality, because it’s all about love, and that is worth celebrating. Recently, it was the anniversary of Loving vs Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court case in which laws against people of different colours marrying were struck down. Someday, the idea that two people of the same sex were not allowed to marry will seem as bizarre as the idea that two people of different colours couldn’t marry. It was particularly apt that the couple bringing the case were called Mr and Mrs Loving.

Today we celebrate, tomorrow the struggle goes on.