Posts Tagged ‘Paganism’

I’ve been reading a lot of Aidan Kelly lately, ever since Jason at The Wild Hunt linked to a post on Aidan’s recently inaugurated blog. I’ve read every post on the blog; in addition, I’ve read Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches, his book on the formationof the NROOGD and his short novel Goddess Murder, in which he does what Dan Brown was trying to do in his most famous work, only better.

In HCBW, he records some of a group conversation amongst himself and the other people most closely involved in researching and writing ritual for the group. In this discussion the group talks about “having an intuitive sense of what our pattern is, or we couldn’t have looked at all the bits and pieces of traditional information and figured out which ones would fit into a pattern for us and which ones wouldn’t.”

This rang a bell with me, a bell which chimed again when in a recent blog post Aidan discussed  the intellectual discipline which advancement in the Craft requires and said, “You must read Murray and Graves and Gardner, for starters, as theology, not history.”

This work, the seeking that Aidan describes the NROOGD doing as a group in its fledgling years, the picking up of pieces from a pattern, the fragments of a jigsaw puzzle, the shards of a vase, is the work I am doing right now. It’s the work of creating a system of philosophy and practice, a system which will probably only ever be mine and mine alone, but which will be tested by experience and have enough internal consistency and practicality to be shared with other people. This system need not have a name, except “what Mam Adar does”. It will include magic and devotion and creative work; it will owe something to Wicca, Druidry, Buddhism, Feri, Northern traditions, hermetic magic, and the Prayerbook and Hymnal that taught me what religion and liturgy should look like and sound like.

One way that I am doing this work is by exploring the practices of one of R.J. Stewart’s more recent books, The Spirit Cord. The book teaches methods of working with one of the simplest of all magical tools: the Cord. I braided three strands of hemp thread together, good tough vividly dyed thread bought at my local bead shop, knotted off the ends, dripped a bit of beeswax on the knots, and I was ready. I have not so far done much formal sit-down work, except for the three rounds of three different dedications which Stewart prescribes as preliminary to the work, but as I have carried it on my person and slept with it under my pillow, my dreams have strengthened, my daily practices have stabilized, and I’ve begun to see, feel, and sense (to borrow one of Stewart’s favorite phrases) the pattern which belongs to me and into which my pieces fit.

The joyful part is that things are working, things are fermenting. The frustrating part is that I was clued in to this pattern some twenty years ago, and I got distracted from it, repeatedly, by a lot of different things. Stewart’s books are part of the pattern, and so are the works of John and Caitlin Matthews; the Druid Revival is part of it, but so is pre-Christian Celtic religion; Wicca has some pieces of it alongside Druidry, Buddhism has some pieces alongside Christianity (and Buddhism has been invaluable in giving me a picture of what an intact, complete religious/magical system looks like and how it works).

Is that eclecticism? is it syncretism? I don’t know and I actually don’t care. What I do care about is following the thread of this pattern, like Theseus in the labyrinth, and not getting distracted again, whether by my own fears and doubts, or by other people’s critiques of what I’m doing. The five feet and four inches of my slender hand-braided cord are my vow not to get distracted or derailed again.

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For as long as I’ve been able to read, I’ve loved to read about religion. Whether it was my own religion, Protestant (Episcopal) Christianity, or the more exotic forms of Christianity in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, or other religions entirely, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, it was all interesting. I started with picture-heavy tomes on Religions of the World, went on to children’s retellings of Greek and Norse myths, and branched out into adult books on archaeology, mythology, and comparative religion. For most of my life (I could already read when I entered kindergarten), religion has been for me one of the most fascinating things in the world.

When I discovered The Spiral Dance at thirteen, the same year it was published, what I discovered was not just that some people believed in a Goddess, or The Goddess, or gods and goddesses. I discovered that people like me believed in them, worshipped them, took them seriously, right now today. People who were Americans, who were brought up as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who weren’t ethnic or exotic or distant from in time or space. People like me.

As soon as I finished the book, I was quite certain I was actually a Witch, or at least a Pagan, and that I always would be. My observance took the form of writing a lot of bad poetry about spring and fall and my two favorite deities, Athena and Dionysus. Well, I was only thirteen. Then when I was sixteen, my grandmother died, after no illness and a massive heart attack and on my birthday, and within two years, I was back at my little Episcopal church, because there was a new priest there and absolutely no community, no support, in my solitary poetry-writing paganism.

In the last twenty years, I have identified variously as a Neopagan, an Anglican, a Druid, a Magician, and a Buddhist. I have been a member of two different druid organizations, trained in a Hermetic magical system, flirted with Greco-Egyptian syncretism, and taken refuge and bodhisattva vows. I have kept and abandoned and restarted this blog multiple times. I have read not only on Druidry, magic and occultism, and Tibetan Buddhism, but on Zen, Santeria, Wicca, Feri, Reclaiming, Asatru and the Northern Tradition, and Thelema.

In that same period of time, I have been happily monogamously married to one man, my husband, my best friend, my lover. Being sexually and emotional faithful, being true to the traditional Christian wedding vows we made, has not been difficult or challenging in the slightest. Admiring beautiful people and swooning over beautiful, talented actors has not interfered with my commitment to one person and our life together.

A lot of people find long-term sexual/romantic commitment difficult, even impossible. They cheat on spouses, adopt serial monogamy, or try the path of polyamory. Yet they might not have a problem adopting one spiritual path, one system of practice, and sticking to it. I know people who have been Wiccan or Heathen or Buddhist for decades, as contentedly as I have been married. If someone asked me for relationship advice, as somebody with a successful marriage, I would have no hesitation in giving it. But if someone asked me for spiritual advice, well, I have to admit, finally, that I remain in many ways a beginner, because I have never stayed the course and gone deep with anything.

Right now I’m reading Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire by Thuri Calafia. In the introduction, she describes her system of study in the Craft as a circle of five stages corresponding to the elements: Seeker (Air), Dedicant (Fire), Initiate (Water), Adept (Earth), and Master (Spirit). The Initiate, Adept, and Master stages correspond to the First, Second, and Third Degrees of coven-based Craft. Here is how Calafia describes the Dedicant:

The Dedicant becomes very passionate and fired up about this religion, and begins by learning to use his will as he learns about himself and the Craft.

And the Initiate:

The Initiate (in traditional Wicca, the first-degree) falls in love in a whole new way with her religion as she comes to understand how deep she must go to truly know and love herself and her gods.

Somehow, I have never crossed the threshold from the enthusiasm of the Dedicant to the commitment of the Initiate. I’ve gotten engaged a lot of times but never made it to the altar.

Why is it that a sexual, relationship commitment has been easy for me to make and maintain, but a spiritual commitment nearly impossible? Why does the grass always look greener to me in somebody else’s circle? I don’t have an answer, but this is a question I am going to be exploring for a while.

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Katrina submitted a long and thoughtful comment on “Whatever happened to Neopaganism?”–so long and so thoughtful that I decided I ought to respond to it in a post. I have edited it for length.

As a practitioner of Hellenismos … I am not about to tell others that they shouldn’t call themselves whatever they want. Sadly, I cannot say the same of many of my fellow Hellenes, and that does anger me. I have been on some Hellenismos message boards that were truly scary in how venomous they were towards others, especially those that honor the Greek Gods in non-traditional ways.

I have seen a little of that venom in Internet fora where Hellenists dwell, yes. And not just Hellenists but also Celtic Recons, and Asatruar and other heathens.

My only problem is that the words Pagan or Neopagan tend to conjure up images of a more eclectic, modern path that is just not me, and every Pagan gathering I have ever attended has been ill-equipped at best, and downright hostile at worst, in regards to Reconstructionists, and seemed to lean in a decidedly Wiccan direction. For a community that can be very vocal about welcoming diversity and embracing all paths, many events seem to cater almost exclusively to Wiccans and magickal people.

Two points: One, that a “more eclectic, modern path” seems to be what I actually want, and two, that “gatherings” of pagans are short on Recons and on resources for them. Here, I think Kat has inadvertently answered my question, “Whatever happened to Neopaganism?” by answering a question I didn’t pose: “Where are all the neopagans?” The Neopagans are having real-life, face-to-face, meatspace gatherings of various sorts, while I am online, in cyberspace–where the Recons are.

Though it does not justify the nastiness, I think a lot of the criticisms coming from Recons is due to a feeling of marginalization. We get all the same crap from closed-minded Christians and other monotheists as you do, and on top of it, we have been all but invisible to other Pagans, that is, when we are not met with hostility because we may not fit the hyper-feminist, corset-and-faerie-wings-wearing, level-four vegan-with-a-compost-fetish model. There is nothing wrong with those that do, but it is just not me, and many others feel the same, and there is some resentment over constantly being lumped in with them, either by outsiders or other Pagans.

*cough* Well, I don’t exactly fit the “hyper-feminist, corset-and-faerie-wings-wearing, level-four vegan-with-a-compost-fetish model”, either. Feminist, yes; corset, no; my husband is a vegetarian, I am a somewhat reluctant omnivore. I’d have an indoor composter if we had enough garden space to make creating compost worthwhile.

What I am is an introvert, a library professional, a lifelong city-dweller, and a writer. All of the pagans I know are online. I don’t go to cons, generally; I don’t go to festivals where people camp out (I’m afraid I’d see the woods and go all Blair Witch Project); there’s a botanica in my general neighborhood, but the only pagan bookstores I know of are out in the suburbs, and I don’t drive. And the last time I went to one of those bookstores, via a long and tedious bus ride, their stock consisted of the current Llewellyn catalogue plus a lot of dragon-fairy-unicorn tchotchkes that didn’t appeal to me any more than they would to a Hellenist, a Kemetic, or for that matter a Hindu.

To reiterate what I said above: The crux of the situation is realizing that that eclectic modern path, which I had lost in my online travels, might be precisely the way for me to go.  That will most likely mean going as a solitary, and that, actually, is fine. I have tried to find a place in a number of pagan groups, without finally settling down; now I understand that it wasn’t a matter of the groups not giving me what I want, but of my not wanting what they were offering, if that distinction makes any sense. A beautifully presented, delicious chicken pot pie may not be appealing if what you are absolutely craving is a heavily-laden pizza.

(Though at the moment? the chicken pot pie is what I want for lunch.)

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This weekend our water heater went on the fritz, and I did not have a proper hot shower between Friday evening and Monday evening (although I did have a hot bath and a few quick encounters with heated water and soap). No doubt that’s why the long hot shower-and-shampoo I took last night, after the heater had been fixed, was utterly blissful, and full of expressions of gratitude to the heater, the repair man, my husband who was home to receive him, etc., etc.

Perhaps it’s also why I began thinking about something that hadn’t really occurred to me before. I realized that I missed Neopaganism, and I started wondering what had happened to it.

What is Neopaganism? you might say. There are thousands of Neopagans out there. Isaac Bonewits said so. We’re not Paleopagan, we’re certainly not Mesopagan, we’re Neopagan!

I don’t actually even hang around the Pagan blogosphere a lot, compared to some–if I may estimate by the number of blogs I read and the number of comments I leave behind–but I keep seeing people say things like, “I’m not Pagan,” or, “I don’t even think of myself as Pagan any more.” The people who are saying those things do identify as Hellenismos, or Asatru, or polytheist, or Celtic Reconstructionist, or Northern Tradition, or any one of a number of traditions that I would have grouped together as Pagan traditions. “Paganism is just an umbrella term,” and obviously there’s not enough room under the umbrella for some people.

I think now that what the I’m-not-Pagan Pagans mean is one or both  of the following. First, they might mean that “pagan” as a designation for “non-Christian” seems to come out of a derogatory use of the word by mostly urban Christian converts in the Roman Empire, directed at a way of life they saw as mostly rural: An equivalent of calling someone a hick, a rube, a hayseed. Or possibly it was a derogatory term used by Roman soldiers to mean a civilian, adopted by the Church as Christians began to think of themselves as “soldiers of Christ”. Or maybe not. But they might just mean that “pagan” is a label for their way of belief and practice that they reject because it was invented by Christians, those other guys.

They might also mean, and this seems increasingly likely the more I think about it, that they are Not Neopagan. They are not part of that alternative religious movement that I remember from the 1980s and 1990s (remember them? the 20th century?), the movement that, however furtively and uncertainly and isolatedly, I myself was part of.

Once upon a time, I believed that all pagans were liberal, left-wing, feminist, environmentalist types. I thought they were tired of religion based on rigid structures that never changed until they crumbled beyond repair; they wanted no permanent temples, no paid clergy, no outside authorities. Everyone could put on a robe (or not) and lead a ritual; everyone could speak to the Powers That Be; a living room, a back yard, an open space in a park, properly cleansed and purified in ritual, were sufficient sacred space. Pagan religion was light and portable, a religion of immanence and improvisation, inspired by the ways of the ancients but not necessarily derived from them, interwoven with high magic and low magic and poetry and craft.

In other words, I thought everyone was part of Reclaiming.

Seillean at Crossroads Companion wrote recently about how everyone has That Book, the one that turns you on to The Path. For him it was Donald Michael Kraig’s Modern Magick. For me it was, as I have mentioned, The Spiral Dance. It is perhaps not insignificant that I was thirteen or fourteen, a teenager, an adolescent, a girl who had just passed menarche, when I first read a book that glorified women, goddesses, the body, natural cycles, inner power, and poetry. And it was new, brand new, delivered to me from the mentoring hands of the branch librarian who knew how much I liked to read about comparative religion. The inexpressible thrill that Starhawk’s words raised in me was the thrill of knowing that the gods I had read about as phantoms of the past, the gods of Greece and Egypt and the North, were not dead, not far away (like the many gods of Hinduism who looked so colorful in the big two-page illustrations), but being taken seriously by worshippers right now. And religion didn’t have to mean the same beautiful but increasingly hollow words recited week after week (by a man), the same few hymns sung on the same occasions every year (by the women in the choir, while the men gathered around the altar). The Goddess was alive, and magic was afoot!

I wrote a lot of bad pagan poetry in the next three or four years. But bad pagan poetry and books on Goddess spirituality will not keep you going when your grandmother dies, and the center cannot hold, and your mother has a string of heart attacks that look like an ongoing attempt to not outlive her own mother. I went back to church, where there was soon a new rector, some different ways of doing liturgy, men allowed in the choir, and women allowed at the lectern, at least.

Later, in my early twenties, I was back in Neopaganism again, this time with a spouse and interested friends. I discovered Druidry; OBOD was re-forming, and though I couldn’t afford the correspondence course, I could read Ross Nichols and Philip Carr-Gomm and John and Caitlin Matthews. I could take a workshop with R.J. Stewart, could write rituals and host them, could read more Starhawk and take a little weekend workshop on core shamanism and have a shrine and do meditations and….

And bounce back into the church again. And back into Neopaganism. And try this group, and that group, and go back to church and sing fantastic choral music and get the occasional solo and so on, ad infinitum, lather, rinse, repeat.

In the meantime, the World Wide Web was being woven, Internet access was becoming easier, cheaper, and more widespread, I discovered online journaling and blogging, and here I am today–wondering what happened to Neopaganism.

Well, the short version, I guess, is that reconstructionism happened.  Discoveries in archaeology, ancient literature, anthropology, and other fields trickled out of the specialist journals and into popular publications where they could be found by interested pagans who began tracing the articles back to the specialist journals and asking for more. No longer were people content to light a candle, cast a circle, call the quarters, and make a rather free-form offering to the gods; they wanted to find out exactly what the gods wanted and, if possible, give it to them, short of trying to butcher a live animal in an urban living room. (Those on farms and in other rural settings found animal sacrifice more manageable.)

I realize only now that I’ve been watching all of this with a good deal of bafflement and occasional dismay. From my perspective, Reconstructionists were clamoring to have all the things that I wanted to get away from: Buildings that need budgets and maintenance; official authority figures with official titles and official costumes; pre-determined right and wrong ways of doing things; rules! regulations! what, are you people crazy?

No, you all are not crazy. You are creating what you want: Organized, stable, complex religions based on ancient models. But I am here to say that I am not crazy, either, when I say I don’t want paid clergy, official seminaries, and permanent temples. (From my experience as a fairly active Christian for much of my life, I would say there’s no better way to ensure someone stops learning and growing than to send them to a seminary and then ordain them to ministry.) Nor am I “fluffy”; I don’t believe Gardnerian Wicca goes back to the Stone Age,  I don’t believe in a peaceful ancient matriarchy ruined by discontented men who refused to love the Great Mother, and I don’t think the ancient Celts were peaceful poetry-spouting tree-huggers. (Look at contemporary Celts: Poetry-spouting, always, but peaceful?)

A few weeks ago I wondered about where I found myself, what to call myself, and whether to rename this blog. Thanks to my shower musings, I’ve come up with a new title: Retelling. It’s a conscious nod to Reclaiming, the tradition that grew out of The Spiral Dance and the people behind it, Starhawk and her compatriots. It’s also a nod to something I do a lot in private, often in the shower: I retell stories. I recount plot summaries of books I have read or video I have seen; I rehearse incidents that happened to me, sometimes recent ones, sometimes long ago. In doing so, I appropriate the meaning of those stories; I create what they mean for me; I allow them to change, and I allow them to change me.

That, my friends, is what I hope to do here: To tell and retell the stories that have made me Christian, Buddhist, and Neopagan.

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In honor of Lughnasad, read Alexei Kondratiev’s article on Lugus and his worship.  Does Kondratiev yet have his own website or blog?  He should.

A collection of humourous exam answers. I’m sure you’ve seen oodles of these, but what makes this collection stand out above the rest is that many of them are visual jokes. You have to look closely at the questions as well as the answers.

You’ve all seen the Bhutanese version of Linux, right?

Who knew that moose could be playful?  “Look, mom! look what we found in this human’s yard!”

And finally, arm your asparagus for THE MOST ADDICTIVE ONLINE GAME EVAR.

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