It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?
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.
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
That’s enough apple pie metaphors… let’s get down to brass tacks.
It’s good to have descriptions of what a word means, so that labels are mutually comprehensible. It’s also quite nice when the meaning of a word bears some vague resemblance to its etymology. But there’s a conflict between creating a meaning that is inclusive enough to include the majority of people who want to identify as that label, and making a word completely meaningless.
A definition is a fairly precise meaning or set of meanings that are generally agreed usage(s) of a word and what it denotes.
However, language usage is fluid and changeable, and different groups of people use words differently in different contexts. That’s why it is a good idea to examine the connotations of a word, so that we can describe how it is used in different contexts.
Examples of words that have highly fluid — and thus highly disputed — meanings: Pagan, polytheist, and Wiccan.
Part of the reason that these words are disputed is because the dictionary definitions are largely unhelpful and out of date.
Why are the meanings disputed?
If a group of people wants to describe its practice, beliefs, and values as distinct from those of another group, it becomes helpful to have a name that describes only that group, and is not in use by another group. This is why the various denominations of Christianity have created labels to distinguish themselves from each other. It’s why there are umpteen different varieties of witchcraft, Druidry, and Heathenry. You can recognise some common factor that makes them fit in their respective categories; but there’s enough difference between them that it is worth adding a qualifier to the label.
The word “Wiccan” has a fairly chequered history. Gerald Gardner referred to all witches as “the Wica“. Charles Cardell described his group as “Wiccens“. Gradually, in the USA, Wicca came to refer to any Wiccan or “Wiccanish” tradition. In the UK, it tends to refer to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans — but many people identify as Wiccan who have never been initiated into those traditions. (Part of the reason for this is that it became very difficult to identify as a witch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Wiccan became a handy euphemism for witch.) The word “Wicca” has become so broad and confusing that it may be impossible to restrict its meaning to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans.
There are also other witchcraft traditions (in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the USA) such as the 1734 tradition, the Clan of Tubal Cain, Feri, Reclaiming, and so on. Most of them are initiatory. Fortunately, hardly anyone disputes that the word “witch” applies to all these different traditions.
It is also worth noting that uniformity of belief is not the prime focus of witchcraft traditions. You can be a polytheist witch, a duotheist witch, a pantheist witch, an atheist witch, an animist witch, or some combination of these. (Some readers of All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca were surprised that I said that you can be an atheist witch. It’s more difficult to be a materialist witch, not believing in or experiencing energies; but not believing in gods is not a barrier.)
To my mind, polytheism just means “many gods” or “belief in many gods”. It doesn’t say anything about how you worship them, or what type of rituals you perform to get in touch with them. Some people want to define polytheism as “religious regard for many gods” (in order to exclude those who acknowledge that gods exist but don’t have any truck with them – but I think that is redundant, as even if a Christian acknowledges that our gods exist in some way, they don’t acknowledge them as gods, so their view is irrelevant to the definition of the term).
If you want to describe a particular way that people interact with the gods, or a particular concept of what they are, then I would argue that you need a qualifying adjective. Various qualifying adjectives have been suggested (hard polytheism, soft polytheism, devotional polytheism, relational polytheism, Jungian or archetypalist polytheism, monistic polytheism, henotheistic polytheism, mystical polytheism), not in order to split polytheism as a whole, but to provide more accurate descriptions of how people relate to the gods.
Various people have different understandings of what polytheism means in their religious context. If someone else’s meaning of polytheism conflicts with your meaning, then you have two possible options:
- claim that their meaning / usage / understanding is wrong;
- add a qualifying adjective to distinguish your usage of the term from theirs.
Over recent years, there have been various online arguments about how to do polytheism “properly”, such as:
- Should you have a specific patron deity?
- Can you choose your patron deity, or should they choose you?
- Can you say no if you are chosen by a deity you don’t want? (Yes)
- Do we serve the gods, or are they allies?
- Can we ever know the true nature of the gods?
- What does “real” mean?
- Who has the authority to answer these questions for others?
What’s really going on?
It is probably not possible to “win” one of these arguments, or answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is always someone who wants their definition of a concept to be the only valid definition, and to be a gatekeeper of who gets to identify as a particular label. Being a gatekeeper or the person who gets to define a term is a position of power and control, potentially with authority attached to it.
Whoever gets to define or describe what polytheism is will have a huge influence on its future development. If it is a broad-brush movement with many different ways to be polytheist, it will become large, nebulous, and hard to control. If it is narrowly defined, it will be much smaller, but possibly easier to control. And it will end up excluding people whose insights, ideas, and practices might have been valuable to it.
My own position is that I don’t want to control anything. I am inherently distrustful of authority (including any authority that I myself may accidentally have acquired). Any authority should have checks and balances with it. If you are the high priestess of a coven, or the leader of a religious tradition, there should be a process for consultation and establishing consensus, and in large groups, for democracy and accountability. For example, in the Inclusive Wicca Discussion Group that I founded on Facebook, I created a set of group guidelines and invited members to vote on them and add to them; and there is more than one moderator for the group. In my coven, we take it in turns to write rituals, so everyone gets the kind of ritual they like; and whoever has written the ritual is the facilitator for that ritual. Whilst I am the most experienced witch in the coven, so the buck does tend to stop with me, I do try to empower others. The process of teaching and learning that we use is all about sharing ideas.
If you want to create a sub-tradition of polytheism that has a set of beliefs, practices, and values that meet your expectations and requirements, that’s fine. But don’t try to label it as the One True Way of polytheism. You will need to give it a more specific name. Some have argued that if polytheism is seen as a catch-all term that includes soft polytheists, archetypalists, and so on, then it becomes a less useful term. Maybe so, but that’s just how language and terminology work.
That’s why Niki Whiting proposed the term ‘relational polytheism’, and others have proposed other qualifying adjectives: to be clear about how our polytheism works out in practice and in context. Similarly, there are different flavours of Wicca and witchcraft, each with their own label, to enable people to find a flavour of Wicca that’s right for them.
People are confusing denotation with connotation, as often happens when the meaning of a term is contested. The term polytheism denotes ‘many gods’. To a devotional polytheist, that has connotations of devotion, religious regard, and so on. To a relational polytheist, the connotations are forming relationships with the gods. In order for different groups of people to find the polytheists they want to hang out with, we need those qualifying adjectives so that everyone who honours many gods can call themselves polytheists, without insisting on a particular definition of a god, but if you want to be more precise about how you want to honour the gods, or what you think gods are, then use a qualifying adjective.
The alternative is that a tiny group of people get to define what polytheism is and who gets to call themselves polytheist, till the whole thing turns into a clique and everyone else loses interest.
Polytheism isn’t yours
As Bekah Evie Bel points out, polytheism isn’t yours. And it’s not mine either. It belongs to everyone.
At its best, “spirituality” (whatever that term actually means) is a spur to greater compassion, engagement with social justice, and trying to make the world a better place. This used to be called mysticism, which actually meant something and sought to wrestle and engage with the wider tradition in which it was situated. Many times, organised religion sought to crush the mystics, with their call to genuine compassion, and their speaking truth to power, and their direct engagement with the divine other (or others).At its worst, “spirituality” is a mess of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the vulnerable, silencing of dissent, sweeping justified anger under the carpet, and offering a pabulum of spurious advice, airy-fairy sayings, and consumer offerings of easily-digested “wisdom” and manufactured artefacts to make you feel “spiritual” and get in touch with your inner wossnames. Many ‘spiritual directors’, ‘life coaches’, and other self-styled spiritual leaders – most of whom are not even qualified therapists – prey on the vulnerable to make them feel that they cannot have self-worth without succumbing to a rigorous programme of self-help, self-examination, and generally beating themselves up for not being spiritual enough. They keep their ‘followers’ as perpetual neophytes, never empowering them to lead the group themselves.
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him
Every time I have an encounter with someone who has an interest in spirituality, and also possesses power over others, I find that they want to silence my anger at injustice because it is “not spiritual” to be angry. I find myself bruised and diminished by their criticism of my way of being in the world. Any engagement with the intellectual or theological or historical context of an issue is also silenced by these people, because that is “not spiritual” either. These people are so convincing with their “peaceful” mien and unfurrowed brows, untroubled by actual social injustice or the suffering of others. These are the type of people who silence those who complain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, claiming that they are “obsessed” with race, gender, and sexuality.
Some of them do engage with the suffering of others, but in my view, they only exacerbate it by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer, convincing them that they must “work on themselves” and buy whatever the latest self-help book, video, course, life-coaching, etc happens to be. Some of them even say that the first step to being more spiritual or loving or whatever is to accept oneself. The natural response of many people to this is to feel guilty for not loving themselves. However, the lack of self-love and self-esteem that many people suffer from is caused by alienation from other people, from nature, and from life. It will not be solved by increased introspection, but by going out and doing what you love. If you are an introvert, that might be different from what extroverts love to do, and that is just fine. The first step to accepting yourself is to stop worrying about yourself so much.
The blame for social ills is constantly shifted from the collective to the individual in many contexts. Instead of preventing bullying in the workplace, employers hire stress and time-management consultants to ‘fix’ individuals who haven’t ‘adapted’ to the workplace. The same applies to dieting, where the fact that it is difficult to avoid eating fattening food, and difficult to get enough exercise to burn it off, is laid squarely at the door of the overweight individual, and hardly anyone bothers to look for social or societal factors that might contribute to obesity.
Whenever you see a self-help book, or a person who sets themselves up as an authority on spiritual matters, ask yourself what qualifies them to be such an authority. I am not saying their life has to be totally organised (whose life is not subject to misfortune and the vagaries of circumstance?) – but rather, how do they respond to disaster? Do they curl up in a welter of self-pity, or do they actually get out and do something, perhaps getting involved with trying to right the social injustice that caused their misfortune (if applicable)? As the wonderful saying has it, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Anyone claiming to be a Buddha is not a Buddha. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. Indeed, it was Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha himself, who said that if the things he said did not make sense to his hearers, they should ignore him:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
Subjecting advice to scrutiny and reflection about whether it applies to your own life is of course a principle that you should apply to anything that I write as well. Nothing is exempt from this principle. My perspective is also limited to my own experience, as is that of every other writer.
Do without doing, and everything gets done
If all the money and energy that was expended on trying to become more spiritual was expended on trying to make the world a better place for everyone, think how much better the world would be. I am not saying that people should not indulge themselves in a bit of pampering like a massage and a bath with some nice candles and a bit of tinkly music, but do it unashamedly because it makes you feel good, not because you think you ought to, or because you think it will make you a more spiritual person.
As the great Viktor Frankl once said:
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
Personally, I derive more benefit from going for a nice walk in the woods, or going on a demonstration about a social justice issue, or having a nice evening with friends, than I ever have from any attempt to “be more spiritual”. I am not a naturally introspective person in any case. You can derive a great amount of self-worth and connecting with others by going to take part in conservation work, or feeding the homeless, or helping animals, or doing something creative – you don’t need to sit about worrying about whether you are spiritual enough. I also derived a great deal of benefit from being a trades union caseworker, because I learnt to speak truth to power, but I became a caseworker because it was the thing in front of me that needed doing, and I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I particularly hoped to gain anything from it.
The other day, I saw a brilliant and hilarious video by J P Sears, How to be ultra-spiritual, which sends up the “spiritualler-than-thou” types (as I call them): the people who speak ultra-softly and go about dispensing unsolicited “wisdom”. It is a merciless send-up of the “ultra-spiritual”, and a critique that needed to be out there.
And then I saw a post by a “life-coach” giving women contradictory advice about how to be irresistible to men, where one of the pieces of advice was a blatant piece of slut-shaming. Fortunately, a bunch of people had posted hilarious comments on the piece, sending it up mercilessly.
I vividly remember my first encounter with a “life-coach” and I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious tosh and quite possibly a sugar-coated version of “how to be a capitalist bastard and succeed in the rat-race”.
I feel much the same about most so-called “self-help” books, which again locate the source of suffering in the individual, and fail to offer any remedy that we might all undertake as a society. There are a few excellent exceptions, such as Families and how to survive them by Robin Skinner and John Cleese, Taking care by David Smail, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (brilliantly satirised by Women who run with the Poodles, however).
This is why I have been trying to eliminate any talk of “spirituality” from my speech and writing, and instead talk about embodiment, and connecting with the body. This too might become problematic if we assume that there is only one right way to be embodied, but at least it is more earthy, and takes actual physical and emotional needs into account and makes a connection between them. Writers on embodiment that I have seen do actually seem to engage with the world around them.
Spirituality as a commodity
Nevertheless, it strikes me that the elephant in the room, and what really ails us, is the commodification and marketisation of everything – also known as capitalism. Value is no longer seen as intrinsic to an experience or a thing, but only as a marketable commodity. “Spirituality” has become yet another marketable commodity – a thing that should be our birth-right, that should be as natural as breathing, has been packaged and marketed back to us as something that can only be mediated by experts.
They say “the best things in life are free” and actually, it’s true. Having a consensual hug or a massage with someone you love, or a stimulating conversation with a friend, or a lovely walk in the woods, or some other experience of shared beauty, is much more effective than hours of “spirituality”-related activities.
One of the things that has made me a more empathetic person, and possibly a nicer person to be around, is reading novels, because novels teach you about the nuances of feeling and allow you to empathise with someone else’s pain in a safe space (the privacy of your own mind) before going out and practising compassion in the real world. The trick is to make the connection between the character in the novel and real people, of course.
Look outwards, not inwards
Many people have emphasised the idea that you need to love something greater than yourself, and/or other than yourself, in order to find happiness. Of course, many people who aspire to be spiritual do love God, or Nature, or something beyond themselves; but then they spend a lot of time worrying about how to be more spiritual, and fall back into introspection and self-doubt.
Viktor Frankl explains that the only way to find meaning and peace is to look beyond the self:
“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
So, all this relentless self-examination is actually counter-productive. The Muslims say that “Allah is closer to me than my jugular vein”; Buddhists say that enlightenment is only a heartbeat away. The great mystery of life is always available, always present, always pouring itself into reality at every moment, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed.
For me, the central mystery of my religion is love. The word religion comes from the Latin word, religio, to reconnect. Love is about connection, connecting fully and deeply with another human being. There are many types of love involving different types and depths of connection (eros, filia, storge, and agape are some that have been named).
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Our culture has also sought to commodify love, and reduce it only to romantic love, but it is much broader and deeper than that. In Hebrew, one of the words for love is Ahava, meaning ‘I will give’. The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) contains an extended meditation on the meaning of Ahava in the story told in the Book of Ruth. Another is Chesed, meaning steadfast love, loving-kindness. This term is often translated into Greek as eleos. Eleos is the personification of compassion in Greek mythology. Her Roman counterpart was Clementia. Ancient paganism had thought about love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these were among the virtues they cultivated.
All the best writing seeks to broaden our humanity by encouraging us to connect, to have compassion, to love (both ourselves and others). If we cannot be compassionate to ourselves, how can we have compassion for others?
Love is a fierce and joyful thing
Love does not mean complete negation of the self. I am a human being with needs and desires, and I deserve love and compassion as much as the next person. Transcending the ego is not the same thing as erasing or negating the ego. All that happens is that one becomes aware of a reality beyond the ego, and seeks to connect with that greater reality.
Love is not a mealy-mouthed, weak thing that allows others to walk all over one. Love is a fierce and joyful thing that seeks the greatest well-being for all – bearing in mind that another person’s well-being may look quite different from yours. As many sages have said, “love thy neighbour as thyself” – in other words, love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.
Buddhism talks about ‘foolish compassion’ – the type of compassion that fails to involve the mind as well as the heart, to try and assess what would really help the suffering other. Love is not afraid to speak truth to power, or to tell the schlemiel that he is a fool.
Love is out on the front line telling the world that Black lives matter, standing up for the rights of LGBT people, indigenous peoples, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the marginalised. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is also fierce and joyous, and angry and sad, and embracing diversity.