Dancing and Dowsing: Moving Into Polytheism

 

Music is the exaltation of poetry, composer Henry Purcell said some few hundred years ago.

Then dance must be the exaltation of music, I reply.

One of the unfortunate messages of my childhood was that I could not be a dancer. One of the parts of myself I gave up as I moved into parenthood was singing. Here I am, left with poetry.

**

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

I went to a dance class for the first time in years a few days ago.

It was a very low-key affair: a drop-in gathering at my local UU church for “expressive movement” or something like that. There were five of us, plus the teacher, a tiny woman with a generous wide mouth and a big, bubbly laugh.

Coming in a minute or two late, she sat down on the floor and proceeded to cut a wire coat hanger into pieces. She picked up the two corner pieces and said, “Today I’m going to dowse your auras.” Debussy’s Claire de lune was on the CD player.

**

When she got around to me, the only newcomer, she asked, “Is this too out there for you? Because I’m really fine with people who just don’t want to do this kind of thing. It’s okay.”

“I blog as a polytheist on a pagan website,” I told her. “I just finished taking a shapeshifting class. Trust me, I’m fine with this.”

**

There is no one, no one in my family that I can think of, and very, very few people among my friends, who would be able and willing to stand with me in this room while someone holds two ends of a coat hanger up and walks around me in a slow circle, feeling for my aura. How did I get here, anyway?

In his book Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte writes:

Freedom is perhaps the ultimate spiritual longing of an individual human being, but freedom is only really appreciated when it falls within the parameters of a larger sense of belonging. In freedom is the wish to belong to structure in our own particular way.

**

We often think of freedom as a surficial, horizontal motion that aims for the horizon, and belonging as a depth dimension (to put down roots somewhere). But I have come to believe that there can be such a thing as “deep freedom” too. I think it may be true that no life is fully lived that doesn’t dare those depths: to ask the largest questions… and risk the answers.

So, swimming in a deeper element, I named myself anew and started writing again. I admitted that I feel spirits in the corners, that the universe may be shaped like a tree and that I would love it if it was, so why not, that deity is approachable (at least some of them) and real and multiple. And here I am, alone with these women I don’t yet know, as the piano music continues to unspool from the CD player.

Turns out my aura is not so big as some, but remarkably evenly distributed.

**

What do I believe?

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

I believe to do this work, to do any work, takes time, sensitivity, practice, and the right tools. I’m skeptical of the coathangers. I’m skeptical this can be effective, given that we’re all shuffling around this too-small room in the corner of the church while she tries to isolate the aura of each of us. But even as I allow those doubts to surface, I’m completely willing to join in the exercise if it gets us thinking about personal space, personal boundaries, self-expression through the body and how our personalities, confidence, fatigue levels, etc. etc. influence our impact on others. Influence how we move into and through the hours of the day. I’m willing to use words like “aura” to talk about these things.

**

At this moment, I can say that apparently my own particular way of living in the world includes dowsing for auras with coat hangers, if that’s what is available. Using what is at hand, being open to the possible and the ridiculous all at once, and the living, unique, prickly and amazing beings all around us (whether human or other than human)…that’s a pretty good description of my religion, whatever you want to call it. Over at the new site, www.polytheist.com, Julian Betkowski offers this passage:

If we are in love with difference, in love with the individual and unique, and if we allow love to reveal reality to us, then we must accept the multiform and various as innate features of the world. We must be willing to see the experiences of others as profoundly True in a way that we, perhaps, may never fully comprehend. If we really love others as they themselves are, then we realize just how necessary they are for us to understand the complexity and richness of the world. Through love, Truth shatters apart, and its single center opens up to reveal an endless array. Truth, in fact, becomes a process, and open ended procedure: the practice of love.

So that’s what I’m doing here, with my metaphorical coathangers, as I sashay and spin and stretch my way into the music. I’m using my body, my senses, and my pen—all the tools at my disposal—to dowse not only for auras, but for the quickpoints of truth, of love, the zany and breathtaking and completely unbelievable (and yet it really happens) ways this world unfolds each minute. This is my practice of love.

 

 

A Dance of Impermanence: Introducing Myself in Two Chapters (Otherwise Titled, Why Am I Here and Who Am I, Anyway?)

“Theology, at the core, is an expression of our holiest experiences and our deepest knowing, integrated with the clarity and eloquence of the rational mind.”

Christine Hoff Kraemer, “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue,”
Sermons from the Mound blog, Dec. 7, ‘12

 

Chapter One

I have described myself as “pagan” for years without really knowing what I meant. Or what the word meant. It occurred to me recently I should maybe learn a little more. So, this past semester I went back to school and took an introductory class on Pagan Theologies at Cherry Hill Seminary, taught by Christine Hoff Kraemer. I went into the class defining myself as a loose-ish, pagan-ish follower-ish of an undefined goddess figure, and I more or less believed that all the gods and goddesses are really archetypes—representing facets of the human experience, common to us all whether or not we are aware of them.

I changed my mind pretty quick when I was approached by Wayland the Smith, a more-than-mortal figure about whom I knew nothing.

*****

The dark river unloosed.
The bright-eyed bird sought rest
in pine trees full of a broken clock
music of grackles, ditches full
of the chonk-a-ree of redwings.
It’s a birdy world, a pratfall
of lost, pit of resist, as rinky-tink
meets honky-tonk, minister
meets medicine show meets last
night in the eyes and tempest
tossed. Comical and sad,
that glottal halt, salt water
taffy and the smell of lilac.
Listen. You can’t go back.
Fallen and falling like a waterfall,
the music that cracks
the sturdy little egg of the world.

(“Autobiographies”)

Raven Kaldera, shaman, priest and author, says, “You get the god you call.” Maybe, but I think I placed the call in my sleep. So now I’m learning as much as I can about polytheism and the Norse, or Northern, as I prefer, traditions that Wayland is part of, reading books and searching websites and trying to memorize the runes. Occasionally Wayland himself chimes in, telling me what he wants or giving me advice. He can be quite specific. Recently, he asked me to keep my eye out for a ceramic grail or goblet, bone-colored.

**

No, you know that’s not it. I want a goblet made of bone.

But where on earth will I find something like that? We’re at Sears. I see a white coffee mug and pick it up.

It’s $3.49, on sale, mass produced. This is Sears. Put it down.

I look sideways at him. You’re not going to be a cheap date, are you.

You have no idea.

*****

I could be more worried about undertaking a theological life journey with a largely forgotten deity who wants to wake up again, but I’m a poet. I figure it comes with the territory.

Who am I? Why am I here? Big questions—but inserting myself into an established blog space seems to demand some account of myself. My life, like this essay, is a patchwork of prose, poetry, daily life, spiritual musings, occasional interruptions and eruptions. Intro to Pagan Theologies brought me full circle to my life twenty years ago, an undergraduate majoring in Religion. I loved every minute of the Cherry Hill class. When it ended, I grieved a little and wrote in my journal, “I need community. I need adventure. I need a way to sink my teeth into life and not let go.”

And then Christine emailed, asking if I wanted to write for Patheos.

 

Chapter Two

 Okay, that’s a wrap. I think you’re in, kid.

But—

 No buts. You can do this. I could point to poems where you already have.
Write the shadows. Write the taboos. Write me.

 But—I’ll sound like I’m crazy.

Oh come on. Where’s your courage? Where’s your sense of adventure?

 Right. “Fear nothing.”

Fear nothing. Including ridicule. Remember, they laughed at me.

 Yes. Yes, I –I know that story.

I know you do.

 Your story. Wayland, lord, I—

Enough.

 

*****

 There’s one very, very old, relatively well-known story about Wayland from the source materials that have survived. As a writer, I can’t wait to wrestle it down onto the page in my own language. But before I tell someone else’s story, I need to be honest about my own. Who am I, then?

Self in the world is a kind of performance, an interpretive dance of at times painfully mundane movements. When I walk out my front door and wave to the neighbors, there I am: wife, mother of two, school and church and community volunteer. I have a book of poems, Somewhere Piano, published by Mayapple Press, a couple of smaller chapbooks. You can look me up any day of the week.

But that would be too simple, wouldn’t it. Shortly after Somewhere Piano was published, it became clear to me that my domestic and domesticated self had said all she had to say. She no longer held the pencil. I needed to find wilder fingers.

So, like Albus Dumbledore drawing his silver memories down into a pensieve, I turned myself inside out and drew out a new self:

Shadow, Sad Eye, Said I, Sadie
Daisy
Dicey, Doosie, Do See, Do Say, Ducet

I turned myself into a pun, a smile. A way to breathe underwater, created of shadow and possibility. I set myself dancing on the page.

***** 

Career suicide, conventional wisdom argued, aghast. Changing your name midstream.

I’m exploring unconventional wisdom. It’s my hope to touch in here every once in a while, to explore the connections between poetry, myth, Wayland’s story and my own wanderings and wonderings, and how it all relates to current events, life in this twenty-first century. Just like my favorite bread-and-butter pickle recipe, the Journey is “good alone or with somebody,” but I think it’s best when shared with others.

Unconventional wisdom keeps me in motion, dancing in the spaces between Sarah and Sadie, able to change, to disappear and then reappear, eyes a slightly different color than they were. Unconventional wisdom encourages me to imagine a person can be verb instead of noun. Truth lies somewhere between fictions. I would not posit this essay as truth.

*****

A book is a basket of deaths. Small ones.
A web with no spider (hide
her), this is the secret dilation,
the interior shore, a little
lagniappe, something more,
a dance for the sake of dancing.
Verse. Reverse. Press in, be pressed
upon and disappear. Address,
redress and put your clothes on, honey.
Embrace arrest. Treat and retreat. Flight
does not equal resist. This is
the walled garden, the invitation,
an intimate penetration.
Let’s not lie or cover over.
It’s sexy as hell, what’s going on.

(“Riff on the Definition of Poem”)

*****

This is the path I’m on, maybe not quite so rational in my approach as the epigraph by Christine would suggest—more of a perceived glimmer, a scent I follow down the road, trusting peripheral vision, sideways, sidewise.

The eyes in the greenery, wild, watching, just out of reach. Meet me there.

 

*All poems in these entries written by Sadie Ducet unless noted otherwise. “Riff on the Definition of Poem” is included, with a whole bunch of other lovely poems by many, many poets, in the 2015 Wisconsin Poets’ calendar, which is available for sale at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets website. 

Wiccanate Privilege and Polytheist Wiccans

I was not going to wade into the “Wiccanate Privilege” debate, but having read most of the posts on it, it seemed to me that one angle had been missed, and there was potential for misunderstanding.

Some Wiccans seem to have misread or misheard “Wiccanate” as “Wiccan”. As I understand it, the problem as stated is that the Pagan book market is flooded with “Wicca 101” books, which means that a lot of Pagan discourse is couched in the language of Wicca 101 books, and there’s a set of assumptions out there in the public domain about what Pagans do, based on these books – that all Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wheel of the Year, that all Pagans think the deities are archetypes and expressions of a single underlying divine energy, that all Pagans do magic, and so on. And the complaint is that workshops at events are also based on these assumptions.

Whilst it is true that the market is flooded with these books, and that many people assume that Paganism means Wicca-lite, some of these assumptions are also problematic for Wiccans, especially Wiccans who don’t conform to general expectations and assumptions of what Wicca is about.

These 101 books often contain an assumption that you are a Wiccan if you have read one of these books and you do the rituals in them. If someone wants to identify as a Wiccan, but does not have access to a compatible coven and coven training, then who am I to stop them starting out on their own and doing what they can? That is why, in the UK, we refer to initiatory Wicca to distinguish it from the non-initiatory variety; and in North America, initiatory Wicca is referred to as British Traditional Wicca (this term does not really work in the UK, as various Cochrane-derived traditions are referred to as Traditional Witchcraft). There are also other forms of witchcraft, both initiatory and non-initiatory.

More problematic for me is the fact that books on Wicca often contain an assumption that Wicca is duotheistic; whereas most Wiccans I know are polytheists, pantheists, animists, or non-theists. But because it says in these books that we are duotheist, other polytheists often refuse to believe that a Wiccan can be a polytheist. But many Wiccans regard ‘the Lord and Lady’ as patron deities of the Craft, two among many; and many covens honour a different pair of deities as their coven patrons than the standard two, and honour a multitude of deities alongside them. I would really like never to hear “but you can’t be a polytheist if you’re a Wiccan” again. I have never heard it from a Wiccan, but I have heard it from polytheists.

Another problem is that books on Wicca are often heterocentric, and seem to have forgotten that the ultimate goal of the Wiccan mysteries (and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn before us) used to be seen as spiritual androgyny, or to put it in more Jungian terms, integration. So whilst one may perceive differentiated “male” and female” energies, there are energies of many genders, and (in my opinion) the ultimate divine source, which has no personality, both transcends and includes all genders.

Add to that the fact that these 101 books are often prescriptive about what Wicca involves, and you get the imposition of a set of norms which it is difficult to challenge in our particular culture (“but I saw it in a book so it must be true”) and assumptions from non-Wiccans that that is what Wicca is like. I often get asked by coveners to recommend a book about Wicca. It is really hard, because I disagree with most of the books out there. That is why I am writing one.

So, as a Wiccan and a polytheist, I think we should dismantle Wiccanate privilege as soon as possible. Let diversity flourish. If other Pagan traditions don’t want Wiccans representing them at interfaith events, then show up to interfaith events. Let’s not have Wicca-flavoured ritual at events. Let’s have devotional polytheism, liturgical Paganism, full-on Wiccan ritual, revived Eleusinian mysteries, Heathen blots, Druid rituals etc. And let’s not have assumptions about what Pagans believe – that way lies orthodoxy.

The ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ debate

(sorry if I have omitted your ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ post – please add it in the comments if you want it included)

UPDATE: Several people have asked me to define my terms better. The problem is that Wicca and witchcraft are very multivalent, especially in North America, and the terms used in the UK are a bit different. I am not trying to exclude anyone who wants to use the term Wicca.  I was just trying to make a distinction between different types of Wicca and witchcraft and the terms used for them in the UK and North America, not saying that one is better than another. If it works for you, great.

Also, for those who are new to this debate, I did not coin the term “Wiccanate”. John Halstead explains:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

Pagan sacraments

Handfasting by Gordon

Handfasting by Gordon (Wikipedia)

A rite of passage is a ritual designed to make sacred a particular life event or transition from one stage of life to another. We might also call these rituals ‘sacraments’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sacrament as “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol”. The word is used in Catholicism to refer to the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony – which are mostly rites of passage; and in Protestant traditions, to baptism and the Eucharist. The etymology of the word is from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (from sacrare ‘to hallow’, from sacer ‘sacred’).

An important element of rites of passage and sacraments is that they have a physical component, often linked to one or more of the classical four elements (earth, air, fire, water). Immersion in water is used in both Judaism and Christianity to signify entering into a new phase, being consecrated (baptism) or re-consecrated (mikveh). Fire is used as a purifying medium in the Hindu ritual of aarti, which is both an offering and a purificatory ritual. Water is used for the Sikh baptism ceremony called Amrit Sanskar. The ancient druids are reported to have used sensory deprivation by requiring candidates for initiation to lie in darkness for several days and then thrusting them into the light, according to OBOD. All these rituals signify some sort of symbolic death and rebirth experience.

The sacraments in Pagan traditions

There is no standard list of sacraments for any contemporary Pagan tradition, but we can identify sacraments for most of them.

In Wicca, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, cakes and wine, naming (sometimes called “Wiccaning”), initiation, handfasting, and croning.

In Druidry, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, naming, initiation, and handfasting.

In Heathenry and Ásatrú, the sacraments could be said to be the blot, the sumble (or symbel), and the handfasting.

In Religio Romana, there are many rituals designed to connect the practitioner with the deities and sacralize life. These include libations, a prayer for ablutions (a ritual formula to purify oneself prior to the performance of other rituals), and various daily rituals at the lararium or home shrine.

Life-rites

Most Pagans presume that everything is already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world. Therefore, rituals of consecration are about creating extra sacredness, or reconnecting us with the deities, the community, or the natural world.

Birth and naming. Pagans do not perceive a need to purify either the mother or the child after birth, considering that people are born innocent. The child will typically be welcomed into the community and given a name, but will not be committed to any particular religious tradition, as most Pagans believe that children should be able to choose their religion when they are old enough. Although the naming ceremony in Wicca is sometimes called a Wiccaning, it does not mean that the child is considered to be a Wiccan as a result of the ceremony.

Coming of age. There is a distinct lack of coming of age rituals in Western culture generally, and this is echoed in Pagan traditions, although some groups do celebrate the onset of menstruation, as long as the young woman in question actually wants this.

Initiation. Wicca and Druidry both have initiation rituals, often based on the initiation rituals of occult orders such as Freemasonry. Isaac Bonewits identified three types of initiation ritual:

  1. Initiation as a recognition of a status already gained
  2. Initiation as an ordeal of transformation
  3. Initiation as a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power

I have identified six aspects of initiation, which may be present in a single ritual, or may be a gradual process. There is the inner process of transformation; the initiation by the gods and goddesses (making contact with the numinous); experiencing the Mysteries (that which cannot be spoken, or Arrheton); being given the secrets of the initiating group (that which must not be spoken, or Aporrheton); joining the group mind of the initiating group; and the joining of the lineage or tradition of which the coven is part.

In Heathenry, initiation is replaced by profession, a ceremony where someone professes a desire to become part of the Asatruar (people who are true to the Aesir, the Heathen deities), and then takes an oath.

Handfasting. This is the term for a wedding, mainly in Wicca and eclectic Paganism. The term has been in use since the 1960s, according to Wikipedia. The ceremony generally involves the symbolic crossing of a threshold, such as leaping over a broomstick or a small fire. The use of ribbons to fasten the couple’s hands together has been practised since the 2000s, again according to Wikipedia. Rings and vows are usually exchanged.

In Heathenry, wedding ceremonies are usually hallowed by holding them beneath the hammer of Thor (Mjöllnir), and arm-rings are exchanged. The couple may also hold an oath-ring while exchanging vows.

Croning. A ceremony for a woman who has reached menopause, usually celebrated in Wicca. A croning ceremony usually takes place around the age of fifty, and celebrates the achievement of elder status in the community, and feminine wisdom.

Dying. There is no set ritual for preparing for death, but there are many excellent resources in The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by M Macha Nightmare (formerly of the Reclaiming tradition) and Starhawk.

Other rituals

Preparing sacred space (the circle). Most Pagan traditions have a preparation for ritual, as rituals are often held in spaces which also have other uses, such as a living room, a garden, or a park. Therefore sacred spaces are temporary and have to be reconsecrated. It is also necessary for the participants in a ritual to be prepared for ritual, in order to help us enter into the right mind-set. Preparation typically includes some form of consecration of both the space and the participants with the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Incense, water, salt, and other symbols of the four elements may be used to create sacred space.

Blot (Heathenry). This ritual has three parts, the hallowing or consecrating of the offering, the sharing of the offering, and the libation. The offering, shared with the deities, is typically mead, beer, or juice.

Sumble / symbel / sumbel (Heathenry).

“The sumbel is actually quite simple. The guests are seated, (traditionally, in some formal fashion), and the host begins the sumbel with a short statement of greeting and intent, and by offering the first toast. The horn is then passed around the table and each person makes their toasts in turn. At the sumbel toasts are drunk to the Gods, as well as to a persons ancestors or personal heroes. Rather than a toast, a person might also offer a brag or some story, song, or poem that has significance. The importance is that at the end of the toast, story, or whatever, the person offering it drinks from the horn, and in doing so ‘drinks in’ what he spoke.” ~ The rituals of Asatru

Cakes and wine (Wicca). In Wicca, cakes and wine are consecrated and shared. This happens at every circle.

Libations. These are offerings of mead or wine poured for the deities and spirits of place. The libation is important in Religio Romana, Heathenry, and Wicca.

What do all these rituals have in common?

They all involve one or more of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water).  Earth may be represented by stone, salt, crystals, or soil. Air may be represented by blades, wands, feathers, or incense. Fire may be represented by a candle flame, a bonfire, incense, or wands. Water is represented by water, chalices, and cauldrons. Each element has a sacred direction, which can vary between different traditions.

Initiation ceremonies all include a section where the candidate is asked whether they wish to be there. In naming ceremonies, where the baby cannot be asked if it wishes to take part, a simple welcome to the wider community of humanity is all that takes place.

There is an assumption that things are already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world, but sometimes we forget our connection with the divine, and need reconnecting.

They generally involve marking the transition from one phase to another – sometimes by actually crossing a threshold: stepping into the sacred space, or leaping across a fire or a broomstick.

They generally involve deities or spirits being asked for their blessing and/or protection.

Individuation in Pagan traditions

I have been thinking for a while that the aims of Pagan traditions with regard to the self, soul, spirit, consciousness and its relationship with the Universe are different from that of other religions.

The cultivation of virtue

One of the aims in several Pagan traditions is the cultivation of virtue. In Heathenry, there are the Nine Noble Virtues; in Wicca, there are the Eight Wiccan Virtues; many adherents of Religio Romana try to cultivate the virtues which the Romans of antiquity valued. The cultivation of virtue assumes that the virtues will grow in fertile soil – the soul in which they grow is not choked by weeds, although a certain amount of weeding might be required to help the virtues to grow.

In Christian mysticism, by contrast, in order for the divine image to grow in the soul, there must first be kenosis – a process of self-emptying. One is then filled with divinity (divinisation in Western Christianity; theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy), and one’s divine image is restored (previously it had been bleared by sin).

In Wicca, there are three levels of initiation, and each involves an encounter with a different aspect of divinity – but there is no self-emptying. There is a stage where everything changes and is called into question, but that is the nature of such a journey, and is found in most traditions.

The kinds of virtue that are being cultivated are also slightly different. Whilst compassion is a virtue, it is wise compassion rather than indiscriminating compassion (this distinction is very important in Buddhism, where I first came across the idea). Other Pagan virtues include strength, mirth, honour (three of the Wiccan virtues) and courage, honour, self-reliance (three of the Heathen virtues).

Seeking the authentic self

Sarah Pike, in her anthropological investigations of Pagan festivals (documented in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community), found that the goal of the Pagan quest is to find the “authentic self” or the “true self”. This suggests that we are uncovering a pre-existing treasure, rather than erasing what exists and starting again.

The authentic self may turn out not to be “nice”. The Romantic poets were true individuals who produced great poetry; but they were not necessarily nice people (thanks to my friend CA for this example).

Most Pagans view the divine and/or deities as immanent in the world (or as immediate). Therefore the world is not fallen, and a multiplicity of forces – creation and destruction, yin and yang, growth and decay, energy and entropy, are in dynamic balance within it. These forces are also at play in microcosm in the human psyche, and that is entirely natural. Being angry, or sad, and acting on those emotions (in a controlled way), is not wrong – activism comes from anger, creativity can come from sadness.

The shadow and the psyche

A person with their shadow well-integrated can use its energy to provide them with power and decisiveness. A person with a well-integrated shadow knows how to say no, how to offer constructive criticism, how to avoid foolish compassion, and how to accept, welcome, and use the “dark side” of their personality (including anger, assertiveness, power, etc). They are also more interesting to know.

A person with no shadow (or no conscious access to their shadow) appears to be all sweetness and light on the surface, and presents as either generous, receptive, or passive, but when they eventually lash out, they do so from an ungrounded place, and are unable to connect their anger with the emotions that would balance it. Often, such people are “touchy-feely” and not analytical.

I have met a lot of “spiritual” people who are just too nice, and it seems false; they even talk in a high-pitched voice that sounds fake. There’s a great Monty Python cartoon where there’s a ‘nice’ vicar type with a soapy smile, but his smile keeps unzipping and letting monsters out of his head, so he has to keep nailing the top of his head back on. In other words, the more someone suppresses their “dark” side (shadow) and fails to integrate it, the more likely it is to lead to an explosion and an eruption of the shadow aspects (“monsters from the Id”).

Jung said that the work of individuation is all about integrating the energy from the Shadow and being able to use it creatively and constructively. As we bring the obscure unconscious material into the light of consciousness, it is transformed.

The psyche and the world

In Pagan communities, people do not attempt to shape others into any particular mould – there is no template for how the authentic self should look, because it is unique to each person.

Heelas and Woodhead, in The spiritual revolution (2006), talk about religions of humanity, that attempt to mould their adherents to a particular way of being and a set pattern of virtues. Most Pagan traditions refrain from doing this, and instead encourage individuality and a quest for the true self.

The relationship of the individual with the Pagan community tends to be more network-based. We meet in pubs for Pagan moots and gatherings, and the actual spiritual work happens in small groups such as covens, groves, hearths. People come together for large festivals, but there the quest is for freedom to be one’s true self.

Spirit and matter

In many spiritual traditions, especially those descended from Gnosticism, the aim is to leave the body and return to the divine source. (The radical rejection of matter may have been one of the reasons why orthodox Christians persecuted the Gnostics, apparently.)

In Pagan traditions, I would argue, because we love the land, or the Earth, or Nature (depending on the tradition), the aim is to awaken the soul of Nature, and to commune with the spirits of place (land wights, genii loci, and so on); therefore we want to bring more spirit into matter, not to separate the two.

Some people interpret “spirituality” to mean “the things of the spirit world”. Personally, I have always interpreted it as “a response of awe, wonder, and gratitude for the beauty of Nature, art, literature, scientific insight, and poetry” but increasingly it is being used as a term that means something to do with the non-material. It has also been described, by L Bregman, as “a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning”.

So I am starting to prefer the word “embodiment”, which is all about being in touch with your body, and not alienated from it. I am still (slowly) learning about embodiment practices. However, I think embodiment is probably a more Pagan concept than spirituality.

Conclusion

Given that Pagan traditions generally seek to cultivate the authentic self, and to put us in touch with the physical world, the wider community of other-than-human people (animals, plants, and spirits of place), and given that Pagans generally regard the divine and/or deities as immanent in Nature, we should be wary of importing spiritual practices, norms, and goals from other traditions without first checking how they fit with our existing goals, norms, and practices.

The varieties of religious experience

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer (Wikipedia)

There has been much talk (in the Pagan blogosphere, and on forums and mailing lists) about the problem of an overall Pagan identity erasing and subsuming particular traditions within it, which have their own distinct identities, mythologies, values, and theologies.There is a way in which these groups can come together without those distinct identities being erased, however. If you look at campaigning coalitions (such as the American Civil Liberties Union in the USA, the Accord Coalition in the UK, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and so on), they have coalesced to campaign on a specific issue on which they all agree, and set aside their differences only for the purposes of the campaign.

Andrew J Brown explores four different levels of organisation at his blog, Caute, using a model formulated by Arne Naess, one of the proponents of deep ecology.

Level 1, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions available in the world. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. We could call this level “irreducible diversity” (I like to give different aspects of a model names, because numbers don’t mean much to me). In the space we label “Paganism”, irreducible diversity consists of the different traditions, such as Druidry, eclectics, Feri, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Reclaiming, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc.

At level 2, these groups can form alliances, or common platforms. These can be for a specific campaign purpose, or for forming a bigger grouping for the purposes of interfaith dialogue. These alliances can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common. The member groups set aside the differences temporarily in order to work together, but they do not sweep the differences under the carpet, attempt to form a synthesis, or otherwise erase the differences.

Problems occur when a level 1 group (such as Wicca) is mistaken for a level 2 group, or when the distinctive identity of a level 1 group is misapplied to another group in the level 2 alliance or common platform. Paganism is a common platform; it is not a level 1 group.

At level 3 of the model, the groups which have formed an alliance have to actually agree to act. We could call this level “planning”. At this point, plans are informed by the beliefs, values, and mythology of each group. Let’s say for example that a group of polytheists and a group of pantheists decide to do a ritual together, perhaps to strengthen the local Pagan community. The polytheists will want to emphasise the distinct identity of any deities that are mentioned. The pantheists will probably be less interested in distinct deities, and more interested in emphasising the immanence of the Divine. At this level, there is lots of disagreement on how to proceed.

At level 4, the action is carried out (so we could call this level “work” or “action”). In our example, a ritual is performed. It very probably won’t be entirely satisfying for either the polytheists or the pantheists, but whatever the purpose of the ritual was, it should be judged by whether that purpose was achieved (in this case, was understanding increased between the two groups?). Afterwards the two groups can return happily to their own style of ritual. They will also evaluate the action in terms of their own values, beliefs, mythology and tradition – to ascertain whether it was helpful, and whether they want to co-operate with the other group on some other project.

The point of this model, as Andrew Brown makes clear, is that

when this process is working at its best it does not result in the reduction of one set of fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs to another. Rather, firstly, it helps those different groups better to work together at the level of common platforms. Secondly, this better, practical working relationship … has the beneficial side-effect of helping these very different groups sit better with their basic differences and disagreements

It also means that diversity can be maintained, which is important because different groups provide different forms of nourishment to their members, and we don’t all want to be munged together into some sort of eclectic soup; and it means we can respect each other’s differences while working together on any aims we have in common (such as, perhaps, respect for the environment).

I posted a link to my previous blogpost “The Pagan umbrella is leaking” on Facebook, and someone commented ‘Why does it matter what you are called, as long as you are a good person?’

It matters because a group name expresses a distinctive identity, philosophy, tradition, set of values, mythology, and community identity. These traditions are ways of being in the world. They are collective projects which explore the question of “How shall we live a good life?” (and what do we mean by ‘a good life’) in very different ways. They each have their own rich collection of source texts and rituals which try to answer that basic question, along with many of the other great existential questions, such as “Why are we here?”

Given the endless variety of religious experience, and the multifarious ways that humans like to connect with the numinous, we simply cannot splurge all the distinct traditions together into an eclectic mix, because that necessary diversity would be lost.

When I was a little kid, I once mixed a lot of different colours of Plasticine (similar to Play-Doh) together. At first, they made a pleasing rainbow of colour – but the more they were mixed together, the more they merged into a rather disappointing olive-brown colour, until eventually there were no distinct colours, only the drab uniform olive-brown.

People often think that if you mix religious traditions together, you will get the pure white light of the original ur-religion (if that ever existed). But quite often, you get brown putty instead. Of course, if you carefully mix two colours, you might get a lovely new colour. But the more colours you mix, the more likely you are to get drab olive-brown…

Tradition

Tradition is something that grows and evolves. It is not set in stone, but is more like a discourse; if you start with a particular set of premises, ideas and values, you will get further ideas and practices that are consistent with the initial set of ideas. Religious traditions evolve according to social, cultural, and political circumstances. For example, a Catholic community in India had the tradition of having a procession in honour of the Virgin Mary. It was a particular honour to carry a special flag in the procession, and to raise and lower the flag on the special flagpole. This meant that more people wanted to have the honour than could be accommodated by a single flag and a single raising of the flag. So more flags were added to the procession, and more occasions of raising and lowering the flag were added, till over the years, the original custom was elaborated by considerable additional flags and flag-raising. There’s an example of a tradition evolving.

In a comment on a previous post, Erin wrote:

‘Tradition’ is the accumulation of what others in the past have experimented with to create what will feel like a meaningful experience, whether it is designed to ‘work,’ ‘feel good,’ create connections, or speak through specific symbolic language and action to the powers of choice. ‘Tradition’ does not even necessarily mean set in stone, as personal experiences allow one to gather information which might lead to tinkering and tweaking of said traditions in order to evolve them. Following tradition means attempting to understand how it was created and why, to discern what is language is, and learn how to speak it, to see for oneself if the results are as they are claimed to be. When experiences fall short, the knowledge gained can be added to the accumulated mix that has created tradition thus far, adding a new dimension to it. It is meant to be a living thing preserved by a people which speaks a uniquely meaningful language to them, carried with thanks to those who came before who contributed what they did, and carried carefully to those who will come after, as an important legacy of what has been known and created up to that point.

This is an excellent summary of the organic and evolving nature of tradition.

Some people think that tradition is rigid and unchanging (or that it ought to be so), but this is not the case. Some people also think that saying “because it’s traditional” is sufficient reason for doing a thing. But because tradition evolves in response to circumstances, and because customs can sometimes be harmful, saying “because we’ve always done it that way” is not a sufficient reason for doing something. First we need to consider why it was done that way in the first place. If the reason for doing it that way is still valid, then that’s not a problem. But if there is a new group of people to be taken into consideration (who weren’t considered when the custom was first devised), then we may need to adapt or drop the custom in order to accommodate them.

Folklorists pay attention to the transmission and context of a tradition, as well as to its content. The means of transmission is also important in Pagan traditions. In Wicca, the validity of an initiation is important (it has to be done by someone who is already initiated, and it must be done according to certain criteria). In reconstructionist and polytheist traditions, some people think it is important to have a cultural or ethnic connection to the religion being reconstructed; others derive the legitimacy of their practice from ancient texts about their religion, mythology and deities. Before a new insight (an Unverified Personal Gnosis) can be more widely adopted by practitioners, it needs to be compared to textual evidence, and/or substantiated by comparison with insights from other contemporary practitioners. It then becomes a substantiated personal gnosis.

In Native American religion, the transmission and context of tradition is incredibly important. They would argue that you cannot take their traditions out of the context of people, language, and land where they arose. It is certainly true that when these traditions are taken out of their context and borrowed indiscriminately, with little understanding of what they mean, it is usually cultural appropriation, which erases the identity of the keepers of the original tradition, and can be actively harmful.

That is not to say that you can never adopt a tradition that does not relate to your ethnic background; it does mean that in order to be respectful towards that tradition, you need to study it in depth and respect its original sources and context. If it is possible to receive transmission of that tradition from one of its keepers, then so much the better.

However, if an aspect of the tradition that you have received is actively harmful, then it is legitimate to change it, in my view. An obvious example is the tradition of marriage. In the past, the definition of marriage included polygamy. Some people regarded this as injurious to the individuality of the additional wives, and so polygamy became widely frowned-upon. It also included a woman being required to marry a man who raped her; this was obviously harmful, so the practice has been discontinued in most cultures. Until the early 20th century, it was extremely difficult to obtain a divorce, which meant that many people were trapped within failed marriages; again, this was regarded as harmful, so marriage was redefined as something that could be terminated. Currently, many same-sex couples are harmed by their exclusion from the possibility of being married, so they want the law changed so they can get married. Some have argued that this is a redefinition of marriage; maybe it is, but marriage has been redefined many times before, and it’s still popular. The story of the evolution of marriage shows that it is possible to modify a custom to include more people, or to reduce the harm that it may cause, without changing the basic features of the tradition.

Fundamentalism

What is fundamentalism? Is it all bad? Can the term ‘fundamentalist’ be applied to Pagans?

What is fundamentalism?

The term fundamentalism originated in Christianity, when a series of books called The fundamentals was published, outlining five beliefs that the author considered it essential for Christians to hold.   In that context, the term originally meant someone who adhered to these five beliefs. The movement was created in response to liberal theology and higher criticism; so in that sense it is essentially conservative.

Since then, the term has been applied to other religions (notably Islam), where it is characterised by a tendency towards literal belief  in a particular interpretation of the scriptures or tenets of that religion.

There have been movements to take scriptures literally in the past, though whether we can back-project the term “fundamentalist” onto them is open to debate.

A commenter on this blog has argued that fundamentalists are not all bad, but are passionate in their beliefs. I am not sure that this is true — I think that fundamentalism is characterised by fear and insecurity.

Mystical and experiential religion is characterised by direct experience of the Divine or deities. The mystic recognises mystics from other traditions, and assumes that they have a similar experience with a different mythology (or with a different being or beings). Someone who experiences their religion in their heart usually has no need for rigid dogma and doctrine (unless the need to conform to a doctrine is imposed on them from outside).

Conversely, a person who does not have an inner experience of the Divine or deities may resort to fundamentalism to give them a structure or a sense of certainty. (I am not saying this is always the case, just that it is a frequent occurrence.)

Is fundamentalism all bad?

Well, not all fundamentalists are necessarily bad people, but if we define fundamentalism as a fearful response to critical engagement with doctrine and dogma, then the fundamentalist tendency can’t really be seen as a good thing.

If your faith is strong enough (because it’s rooted in an inner experience of your deities or deity), it ought to be able to withstand criticism, either from atheists, or from other traditions. It is possible to be a passionate adherent of your tradition, and still open to other views and to criticism.

Can Pagans be characterised as fundamentalist?

Where there is a tendency to be rigid and dogmatic about tradition or belief (e.g. “we’ve always done it this way, so it’s correct, even if it hurts you”, or “we believe this, so we act in a certain way, even if the belief is contrary to evidence and the action hurts people”), then yes, it is possible to be a Pagan fundamentalist.

Recently, Pagan Studies academic Sabina Magliocco wrote a guest post at The Wild Hunt, in which she discussed fundamentalist tendencies in Pagan traditions.

She defines fundamentalism as:

a form of ideology, religious or secular, characterized by a black-and-white, either-or, us-vs.-them morality that precludes questioning.  It generally involves insistence on belief in the literal truth of some canon, as well as a concern with identity politics and boundary-setting.  Fundamentalisms are inflexible and have difficulty adapting; they have a strong need for certainty and a clear sense of belonging, and anyone who disagrees is labeled an enemy or heretic.

She goes on to discuss whether this is applicable to contemporary Pagans, and finds that a certain rigidity has emerged around two particular topics: the historicity of Wiccan foundational narratives; and the reality of deities. She cautions against defining our community belonging by belief, because belief is provisional and changing. I recommend reading the whole article, and the paper when it becomes available.

I have also noticed a tendency towards rigidity when discussing gender roles in ritual. When I have questioned why a thing is done a particular way, and suggested changing it, people have responded with “but that’s the tradition”. Well, traditions evolve and change in an organic way; they are not fixed. They change in response to circumstance, and people’s needs.

A further indication of fundamentalist tendencies is the way in which some people have spread rumours about academics studying Pagan traditions that they are out to discredit Paganism and undermine it. This seems to me to be a fearful and insecure response, which is a characteristic of fundamentalism. In fact, as Sabina Magliocco points out, many Pagan academics have risked opprobrium from other academics by even writing about Pagan traditions and taking them seriously. They are also bound by a code of ethics; and in most cases, the academics who study Pagan traditions are also practitioners (either of a Pagan tradition, or of another tradition).

Whether or not we apply the label “fundamentalism” to these tendencies towards rigidity and dogma, we do need to guard against developing an us-versus-them mentality, and labelling people who disagree with us as enemies. We need to be flexible, open-minded, and inclusive.

Values, beliefs, practices

What makes you a Pagan? Is it what you believe, what you do, or something else?

Some other religions

Because Christianity is strongly creedal (uniting around a set of beliefs), people tend to assume that all other religions must also unite around beliefs.

However, in Hinduism (a religion which has many similarities to Paganism), there are many different beliefs, ranging from monotheism to monism to polytheism. Rather than uniting around a specific belief, groups of Hindus unite around devotion to a specific deity, guru, or practice.

Unitarian Universalists unite around values, not beliefs. They affirm that a free and responsible search for meaning is up to the individual, and they do not have a creed. That doesn’t mean you can just believe what you like; it means that you have a responsibility to discover your perspective on truth.

Jews don’t ask what you believe; they ask if you’re observant – do you observe the mitzvot (commandments)? The degree to which the commandments are carried out, and how they are interpreted, depends on whether the person is an Orthodox Jew, Reform Jew, or Liberal Jew. But being a religious Jew (as opposed to a cultural or ethnic one) implies some level of observance.

Pagan traditions

It has often been said that Wicca is an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy. In other words, most Wiccan rituals include standard practices such as sweeping, casting a circle, consecrating water and salt, calling the quarters, raising power, cakes and wine, and closing the quarters and the circle. However, the beliefs of individual Wiccans can and do include animism, polytheism, atheism, duotheism, polymorphism, and pantheism.

Beliefs also vary within Druidry, so I would argue that what makes you a Druid is performing Druid rituals.

Reconstructionists tend to place greater emphasis on having polytheistic beliefs, but even within that, there is some variation; and the key feature of belonging to a Reconstructionist path is that you work within the mythology of that tradition.

So it appears that what makes you a Pagan is that you identify as Pagan. It could be argued that participating in a Pagan tradition, and being recognised by other members of it as a Pagan, is what makes you a capital-P Pagan rather than a small-p pagan, but that distinction gets a bit blurry when you start talking about solitary practitioners, and people who identify as Pagan among Unitarians in the UK (where there are no CUUPs chapters). Personally, I want to include these two categories as Pagan.

It is possible to identify a few beliefs that most Pagans share, but they are not defining characteristics of Paganism, partly because members of other religions also have these beliefs, and partly because not all Pagans have them. Most Pagans believe in reincarnation; most believe that the Divine and/or deities is/are immanent in the world; most believe that the Divine and/or deities include(s) both male and female. Many Pagans embrace an ethic of environmental sustainability. That’s about it for common beliefs though, so it’s almost impossible to use belief as a yardstick of who is or isn’t Pagan.

Pagans often have a lot of values in common, such as feminism, personal autonomy, making up your own mind about ethics, environmentalism, and so on, but these are not required features of being a Pagan.

Many people have tried to define Paganism as a specific set of beliefs, but you can always find someone who says “I don’t believe that” and yet is still a Pagan. So defining membership of Paganism in general, or any particular Pagan tradition, by beliefs is bound to fail.

Defining Paganism by its values might work better, but it would take a long time to figure out which Pagan values are core values, and which are not. The excellent Pagan Values blogging project, started by Pax, at least describes some Pagan values, but I think it’s fair to say that there is not really a consensus as to what values are specifically Pagan. It’s great that a conversation about Pagan values is happening in the public sphere, though.

You might define Paganism as being about old mythologies, but then what about people who work with newly discovered pantheons? I think being interested in gods and goddesses is a good description of most Pagans – but it depends if you want to include pantheists (who might not be interested in specific deities) under the Pagan umbrella, or not.

Even the proposal to define Pagan traditions as orthopractic is a bit problematic. If someone decides not to cast a circle for their ritual, does that suddenly make them not Wiccan? Not in my book – they probably had a valid reason for choosing not to. I think a shared set of practices is a better basis for describing a religion than either beliefs or values, though.

SENZ umbrella testing - photo by Eelke Dekker

Will the “Pagan umbrella” survive a storm?
(photo by Eelke Dekker – Wikipedia)

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever come up with a really watertight definition of Paganism that satisfies everyone. I think you can define individual traditions a bit more easily, because they tend to have internal rules about who counts as a member. The problem with the Pagan umbrella is that if you pull it down on one side to give shelter to one group, you end up letting the rain in on another group that is excluded by your new definition.

You can describe Paganism as generally including a particular set of values, beliefs, and practices – but it’s very hard to extract a definition from that description.

Five questions about Paganism

From Michael York:

In preparation for a paper for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s annual conference, I am seeking answers from pagan practitioners to the following questions. The title of my presentation is “Religion and Theology: A Contemporary Western Pagan Perspective on Identity Formation and Modern Policy.” The analytical framework I propose to use is one that differentiates paganism (broadly of course) from Abrahamic, dharmic and secular religions or perspectives, but for the questionnaire itself that differentiation need not be considered if it does not seem to be relevant for any respondent. There are five questions overall and concern theological and other distinctions of paganism from other religions. I welcome any and all answers that anyone wishes to supply. These answers will be presented anonymously in my paper unless a respondent explicitly allows me to use her or his name.

The questions are:

(1) How is paganism different?

(2) What is the significance of its difference?

(3) What are the key issues in a modernity project?

(4) What can paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions?

(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?

I am most appreciative for any responses anyone is able to return to me. My email address is exchange@michaelyork.co.uk.

Here are my personal responses to these questions:

(1) How is paganism different? 

Paganism is different from non-indigenous religions in that its goal is to integrate spirit and matter, not for spirit to escape matter. Indeed, whilst many religions have succumbed to the Cartesian split between mind and body, it could be argued that Paganism has resisted this split (though not entirely escaped it).

Paganism is different from indigenous religions in that they are specific to a particular culture and people; Paganism tends to include specific ethnic elements, such as Celtic, Norse, Hellenic, Roman, etc, but is not restricted to a particular ethnic group.

Paganism does not claim to be “cosmically necessary” (in other words it is not needed for an individual to have a pleasant afterlife); nor does it claim a monopoly on the truth. Paganism does claim to provide a way for individuals to relate to the world around them.

Paganism is an umbrella term for a number of different religious traditions, but it is possible to belong to more than one of them without conflict with the others.

Pagan traditions don’t have a single canonical text like the Bible.

Most Pagan traditions affirm the sacredness of (consensual) sex.

(2) What is the significance of its difference?

The differences are significant in that Paganism(s) offer(s) a way of being in the world that is life-affirming, sexuality-affirming, and LGBT-inclusive.

Pagans can regard deities as a metaphor and perform rituals with other Pagans who believe more literally in the existence of deities.

(3) What are the key issues in a modernity project? 

I am not sure what the phrase “modernity project” is intended to signify. if you mean the relationship between modern life and Paganism, I think there is no conflict, because the Pagan revival occurred in a modern context.

Pagans don’t have a problem with modern life being in conflict with the commandments of a canonical text, because we don’t have a canonical text, and because the source of our ethics is reason, conscience, and empirical evidence. 

Many of us do have a problem with rampant consumerism, capitalism, and corporate greed, because we want to live sustainably and in a way that respects the planet and the other beings with whom we share it.

However, the question does not take account of postmodernism. I would define modernism as the tendency to assume that facts can be objectively known, that it is possible to take an objective stance on any given issue, and that economic and social progress are inevitable.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, assumes that all knowledge is subjective, that everyone’s perspective is coloured by their circumstances, and that progress is not inevitable, and not automatically desirable if it leads to living social injustice or environmental destruction.

(4) What can paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions? 

Pagans are particularly well-placed to discuss environmental ethics and sustainability, because our outlook is very similar to that of deep ecology. Other religions may have the theology and the ethics to cope with these issues, but they don’t necessarily have the mythology and the stories to illustrate them.

(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?

Pagans can and do participate in interfaith dialogue and other work (usually as individuals rather than as Pagans). These efforts are sometimes hampered by other religions’ prejudice against Pagans; sometimes by the relatively small size of the Pagan community; and sometimes by Pagans’ suspicions that interfaith dialogue is thinly-disguised proselytising (not a view that I personally hold, but it is widespread in the Pagan community).

A great set of answers to the five questions was posted by Ian C.  at Into the Mound.