Category Archives: Paganism

My thoughts are not my prayers

There are a number of statements that float around the internet as memes – my work is my prayer, my thoughts are my prayers, my words are my prayers… it is all too easy to assert this and have it be a way to not really make any effort.

My thoughts are not my prayers. Firstly, I think a lot. While I am ambivalent about deity, I certainly don’t believe that deity is especially interested in me and I don’t imagine that every random thing wandering about in my head is something to ask a God to bother themselves with.

I do not have a disciplined mind, nor do I ever intend to have this be the case, nor do I think it’s a good idea. Thinking is good. Reflecting, pondering, questioning, imagining, planning… For any of this to work, you need room to try things out, and change your mind. You can’t be creative without giving yourself space to think things that you may later reject as rubbish. If every thought is a prayer, when is there time to be creatively messy?

If your thoughts are your prayers, then the inside of your head has to be pretty saintly. I aim to act well in the world as much as I can. I give myself permission to feel all the little shitty things that pass through. Frustration. Resentment. Anger. Envy. All the knee jerk reactions to experiences that have me wanting to put politicians in wicker men. I give myself space to process these reactions and to work out better ways of expressing them. These are not prayers. I do not want them answered. These are things I need to take responsibility for. Equally, there are old feelings of guilt and shame, uselessness, anxiety, despair and unacceptability that surface now and then. These are not prayers, but they do need processing.

I firmly believe that to be human is to have this full range of experience. To be human is to get cross about things, to worry about aspects of the future, to regret past action or inaction… we don’t learn or grow without being able to do all of this. If the insides of our heads were only prayerful, there are too many things we wouldn’t be able to process. Repressing all the awkward stuff doesn’t make it go away, it just means it emerges in weird, uncontrolled ways. The sudden lashing out that you can’t explain. The telling yourself you’re doing one thing when really doing another. Make no room for your shadows, and you’ll end up with some serious cognitive dissonance, especially around who you are.

I don’t believe that the point of a spiritual life is to transcend being human. I don’t believe in higher self, as I’ve said before – I’m much more interested in deeper self. I want room to explore and to ponder. I like to treat the inside of my head as my own, private space. By giving time to reflection, working with my shadows, owning the awkward bits and working to heal them, I become more whole, and in turn less fraught. I realise this does take me, slowly, towards a place where all the things in my head could be beautiful and functional and worthy of being directed towards something other than myself. But at the same time, I always want to be angry at injustice and frustrated by needless hoop jumping. I will always need space for daft ideas so that I can work my way towards good ideas.

I can’t help but feel that thinking you’ve overcome the least good bits of your own humanity is probably only ever a sign that you’re successfully kidding yourself.

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Sacrificing Virgins

Having been ‘out’ as a Pagan since my teens, I have always attracted questions from people who know nothing. “Do you dance naked?” and “Do you sacrifice virgins?” (no, and no).

My guess is that the idea of Pagans sacrificing virgins comes from bad horror films, B movie Satanists and the lurid dreams of people who want to shut Paganism down. I think for a long time, Paganism functioned as a kind of shadow self for Christianity – if you think about the ways people imagined witches, for example. Naked, having orgies, smearing themselves with strange substances, snogging devils and so forth. The idea of witchcraft has created an emotional space in which incredibly repressed people could think about sexy things without having to feel guilty, so long as they kept telling themselves they were horrified by it.

I see similar patterns today in tabloid ‘news’.

The obsession with virginity is a Christian thing, not a Pagan one. I think many of our more permissive Pagan ancestors divided women up only in terms of whether they had birthed a child or not – no child makes you a maiden. This is a pretty easy state for an observer to figure out, and making mistakes about it doesn’t matter when it’s not especially loaded with cultural implications anyway.

Virginity is a concept deeply linked to patriarchy. It is woman as property, unspoiled by the touch of another ‘owner’. It is reproduction as the property of the man, and female inexperience enables male ownership. Virginity is a construct, not a reality, and for many young people, gaining experience is a process, not an event. The idea of virginity tends to be focused on straight penetration and to miss out the experiences of gay and lesbian people. Sexual experience should be about exploration, not focused on this antiquated notion of ‘deflowering’. Virginity itself is a concept that doesn’t reliably hold up well in a Pagan context.

Human sacrifice has always been a popular thing to accuse your enemies of. It’s also been something many cultures have practiced. The Romans were deeply opposed to human sacrifice, considering it a barbaric custom and a reason to conquer a tribe. At the same time, Romans crucified people to make political points, and celebrated the deaths of countless people in the gladiatorial arenas, with death as a popular spectacle. Christians who burned/hanged Pagans and heretics did so ostensibly for the good of the sinner’s soul, but it still looks a lot like human sacrifice to me. The lines between punishment, ritual and spectacle are often blurred and uneasy when we look at the past.

Sacrificing virginity when it means the taking it for ritual or magical purpose just makes no sense in this context. People who practice sex magic are looking for the power and energy that can be raised through the act and for that, you need confidence and experience.

Why do people think Pagans want this kind of thing? I think it says far more about the people who ask the questions than it does about us.


Higher Self, Deeper Self

I’m wary of the language of ‘higher self’ although it crops up a lot in New Age writing. For me it goes with a sense that things away from the earth and body are superior. Elevation goes with notions of hierarchy, too, which also makes me uneasy.

Talking about deeper self has an earthy sound to it, evoking something more like archaeological layers. Just as the earth is made up of rock and soil layers that represent history, so the deeper self is a vast accumulation of where we’ve been and what’s happened to us. It does not have authority over the everyday self, but it has resources the everyday self doesn’t.

Who we fully are can’t be expressed in a single moment. Who we are will depend on context, and what emerges in response to whatever is going on. We draw on our deeper selves all the time. Intuition, off the cuff decision, inexplicable whim – this can all be rooted in the soil of our deep self. How we understand the world and what we think is normal can also be part of a bigger identity that we aren’t necessarily conscious of. How we react to different things can teach us a lot about who we are.

Spiritual language is often full of hierarchy and authority. It’s there when we talk about transcendence, and enlightenment. It’s there in any spiritual tradition that tells us to overcome the body and worldly things for the sake of the soul. The language of ascending as a spirit to the sky God, permeates our language and even if you haven’t been raised a monotheist, those ideas are everywhere. Even if you don’t believe in it, ascending towards light can turn up as a layer in your deep archaeology. It amuses me greatly to suggest this. Bodies of course tend to go down rather than up in the natural scheme of things. Our earthy parts make their way back to the earth.


Unsolicited interpretations

People are quick to try and help each other by explaining things. Whether that’s symptoms, or symbols we dive in and offer our take on it. When that’s unsolicited, it can often be problematic. Unsolicited medical advice from people who KNOW that if you just ate this particular fruit the cancer would go away and that if you went for a run every day you’d stop being depressed. One of the problems here is that people mistake the fixing of small, easy things for the fixing of much bigger ones. This is especially true with mental health where minor problems can indeed be eased with a bit of nature, but serious depression cannot.

When it comes to interpreting signs and symbols, it only works if you share culture. Most signs are open to multiple interpretations. Owls can mean Blodeuwedd, or Athena. Ravens go with Odin, and The Morrigan. Jesus and Dionysus both claim the wine. Black cats are lucky or unlucky, depending on where you live. Personal symbolism further complicates things – your mother archetype in a dream will mean different things if you mother is horrible, or dead, or has been missing for years, or is likely to wake you up with coffee at any moment.

In many ancient Pagan cultures, the business of interpreting signs and dreams belonged to the priesthood. I think this is because it is a job that confers authority. The power to tell a person what their symbols mean is a considerable power. Used badly, it is the power to wipe out personal difference and deny personal experience. It’s the opportunity to force cultural norms onto someone resisting them – we don’t care what your mother was like, you’ve dreamed about the archetypal mother who is good and kind and bountiful.

The symbolic language we use in our sleep is personal. It draws on images and experiences from waking life, from the books and films we choose to encounter, and from how we think and feel about things. We have nightmares about the things that frighten us personally, not the things our cultures consider symbols of fear. To impose a meaning on someone else’s symbolic experience is thus to impose a certain authority over them. The pushier we are, the more we claim to have absolute truth and rightness, the more we risk reducing the person whose symbolism we have the ‘answers’ for.

The desire to interpret is one to watch closely. Fair enough if it is your job to interpret, or someone has asked you to – that’s a considered relationship. Rushing in to offer unsolicited interpretations is a whole other thing. I notice this on facebook where I sometimes post dream content – usually because I think it was funny, or odd, and primarily to entertain. Sometimes I ask for suggested interpretations and sometimes I don’t, but I get them either way. People who know nothing much about my life can be very confident about what my dreams signify. None of them have ever considered that I may have withheld details, or matters of context to avoid embarrassing someone else, for example. Interpreting an un-discussed, unexplored dream is not a good way to do it. The person whose symbol it is must retain the right to decide what the symbol means for them.

If you feel the urge to interpret – be that symptoms or symbols, check in with yourself about why that is. Do you want to seem clever? Do you need to feel more important? Do you want to show off a body of knowledge? Do you believe that symbols all have straightforward meanings that apply to all people in all circumstances? I think we’re often well motivated when we pile in – we want to help and believe we can, but belief that we’re helping doesn’t mean we’re actually helping. If you want to help someone, don’t try to steal their authority. Offer them possibility ‘it could be’ ‘it might’. You can share your insight without imposing your reality. Just because your ravens mean Odin doesn’t mean their ravens do. Perhaps they’ve just been to the Tower of London. Perhaps Raven is their animal guide. Perhaps Bran is trying to talk to them. There’s always more possible answers available.


Belief, self and Paganism

‘Know thyself’ might be one of the most ancient Pagan instructions out there. Let’s look at the interplay between faith, and who we believe we are.

To be a witch and to put your will into the world, you have to believe that your will is powerful enough to change what’s around you. You also have to trust that your judgement is good enough to make those changes wise.

To work with any spiritual entity – Gods, faeries, ancestors, totems, guides, not only do you have to believe in them, but you also have to believe in yourself. You have to believe you are someone a Goddess or others would want to work with. You have to believe that your experiences represent something valid and profound. You have to be confident it isn’t the voice of ego or wishful thinking in your head. You have to be confident that what you experience is not madness.

To work with intuition you need that same confidence that you aren’t just perceiving your own fantasies. If you suffer from anxiety or depression it is much harder to trust your perceptions, much less your intuition. You need to be able to believe in your capacity to see clearly, un-muddled by fear, over-optimism, desire or distress.

Often in Paganism, you need to be able to hold the belief that your individual action matters on a bigger scale than your own life. You may need to believe that the universe has a benevolent attitude to you. For almost all magical practice you need to believe that you are worth having things changed for. Sometimes by extension it becomes necessary to believe there are reasons why other people aren’t as valued, protected and blessed. It can lead you to a place where you have to do some really interesting thinking to explain when you do all the things and aren’t protected or blessed.

You won’t go looking for Goddesses if you do not believe that a Goddess would be interested in finding you. You won’t do magic if you don’t believe your circumstances could change. You won’t pray for intervention if you truly don’t believe you deserve any better. You won’t undertake rituals unless you believe those rituals have some kind of effect. What we believe about ourselves can be as influential on our spiritual lives as any belief we have about how the rest of the universe functions.


Spirituality without Structure – an excerpt

This is from the introduction to Spirituality without Structure – a small book of mine but one which I think has a lot of big ideas in it.

This is a book for people who have given up on formal religious systems, or want to, and are wondering where that leaves them. It’s often a confusing space to find yourself in. There isn’t even an agreed terminology to describe what you are doing. Some who step away from religion may identify with philosophies, or New Age thinking, some may hang on to elements of religions whilst wanting to do their own thing. Others build from scratch. No matter where you come from, trying to find your own alternative to religion will bring you to a commonality of issues faced by others who work in the same way. For convenience, I’m going to abbreviate this kind of questing down to the term ‘own path’ as being a functional, descriptive term.

Own path practice is full of challenges and, by definition, lacking in wider support networks, so this book aims to offer some ways of thinking about how to go it alone. Many people yearn to be spiritual without wanting to be tied into a formal practice; simply knowing that you aren’t the only one can be very helpful.

I’m not making any assumptions about the beliefs of potential readers. I think if a thing is going to work, it needs to be as viable for as many people as possible. Thus I’m writing with an eye to atheists, polytheists, agnostics and people of monotheistic faith alike. The things that draw us to religions are human, the things we need from a spiritual life are human, and I’ve come to the conclusion that what we believe about the presence, absence or nature of deity is the least important thing in terms of how we practice. From a personal perspective, belief or the absence thereof might well feel like the most important thing. It can be incredibly divisive. If we step away from the issue of belief and look more about what religion is and does, what spirituality means, what the human issues are, then we can find commonality and make better sense of things. That said, I am a Pagan, and a lot of my ideas come from my experience of contemporary Paganism. I’m writing from what I know, and at times that may well colour things.

 

There’s a small awkwardness with this book in that in the acknowledgements section, Tom is thanked for the cover. He designed me a beautiful cover. Unfortunately, the book designer totally ignored it and used this weird combination of photos that frankly makes no sense to me. But there we go. these things happen in publishing.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-portals-spirituality-without-structure 


Pagan Prayer

This is an excerpt from When a Pagan Prays. I started out exploring prayer as an intellectual idea, and discovered that the only way I was going to make any sense of it was by doing it. The book was a result of more than a year of exploration. It was a really interesting process that had a huge impact on me. It also made me realise that I didn’t want to continue shaping my personal practice around things I might later be able to write a book about.

“First and foremost, to stand before the unknown is to recognise the existence of the unknown. That which is bigger than we are. That which transcends our understanding. Prayer is an act of opening awareness that puts our small lives into important perspective. Most of the time we need to protect these fragile, human minds by not letting them be swamped with how much there is outside of us. We tune out far more sensory information than we allow into our conscious awareness. However, it benefits us to drop that defence now and then, to consider the terrifying, glorious enormity of it all. Death. Infinity. Eternity. You might call it deity, you might not. Of course our human natures want the enormity to wear a friendly face, pat us gently on the head and say, “Well done, keep up the good work.” Of course we want mystery to be on a manageable, human scale. This is why we like to give bits of it names, beards, clothing preferences and stories. Religion is all about making the unimaginable possible to engage with. Prayer is all about letting go of those stories again to try to encounter what we cannot hope to
comprehend,

I cannot tell you what it means to stand in that place of awareness for a few seemingly bright seconds. I’d love to say it’s like this familiar thing, or that other thing you do, and bring it down to a more mundane level. If I did that, I wouldn’t be telling you what it is like. We go there for ourselves, or not at all.

I’m conscious that I am barely skimming the surface of mystery and that many others will have gone far deeper in their quests. I have only deliberately worked with prayer for about a year now. I have an advantage in that nearly two decades’ worth of meditation work have given me some mental discipline and I know how to open my mind a bit. I can be still and quiet. It also helps that I can shift fairly easily from dealing with the mundane, to states of mind appropriate for ritual and trance. I find those same sorts of mental states are necessary for prayer.

What I struggle to do, is to remain in that place of openness to mystery for more than very short bursts. My psyche simply cannot maintain it, and I recognise there may be very good reasons not to go too far, anyway. Practice is no doubt key here, returning over and over to a deliberate opening up, and listening, to glimpse some fleeting thing and fall away again. It feels very much as though I am breaking my mind open. Perhaps if I managed to do this all at once, my reason would not survive the experience. I am here to live in this world, not to gaze continuously at something else. It is absolutely essential therefore that I crack myself open gently, slowly and with care. Not just to avoid madness, but because I think there are other processes happening here and I suspect time is needed for those.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays


Excerpts, dreaming and a winter break

Over the coming few weeks I’m going to be sprinkling the blog with book excerpts. This is because in order to spend half a week with a stall on the Stroud Christmas market, and to have any hope of a week off, I need to set up the blog in advance, and I need that not to be excessively hard work! Yes, I could stop doing a post a day, but then the hits on the blog fall away and it makes me sad, so, you get book excerpts!

Here’s the first one, taken from Pagan Dreaming, and here we get into why I think dream dictionaries are questionable…

“Why should we accept the authority of a dream dictionary, when we would not accept the authority of an official priesthood?

There’s an additional issue here that in ancestral cultures, interpreter and dreamer could be assumed to have exactly the same background, history, symbols and beliefs. A shared symbolic language makes it more likely that one person can meaningfully comment on another person’s dreams. A glance at human history will show you that symbols are not universal. The swastika has been both a sun sign and a fascist emblem. Some cultures consider black cats to be good luck signs, others find them unlucky. All symbols are culturally specific in their meanings. So for ancestors who shared culture and symbolism, the priest might well be able to help the dreamer make sense of things. These days it is less likely that any two people will entirely share a symbolic language, making interpretation necessarily a more personal business.

We have a very diverse and fractured culture, exciting in its lack of hegemony, but in which we can no longer make assumptions about shared icons and archetypes. My symbols may well not be your symbols. Thanks to technology, we have access to a wide ranging culture that gives us new stories, imagery, metaphors and concepts on a daily basis as well as access to all of the available mythology and culture of the world. The speed and
quantity of material we are exposed to also undermines our scope for having a shared symbolic language. What I read yesterday may inform me, and you have no way of knowing what I tapped into. The dreamer’s associations can therefore be radically different to the ideas an interpreter brings to them. How can we possibly assume the existence of a universal language in this context? Furthermore, with such breadth and richness to draw on for potential symbols, how can a book of a few hundred pages hope to cover all possible symbols and meanings, or deal with the speed at which pop culture icons change?

Culture not only informs our symbols, it also tells us what is important. In materialistic western culture, we might be more motivated to look for insight into our careers and financial prospects, than into the condition of our morals and virtue, for example. This will direct us to pay more attention to some dream details than to others, and probably shape what we dream about in the first place. We are unlikely to dwell on things we truly consider to be irrelevant. Thus we cannot think about dreams without also bringing into consideration our relationship with our culture.

It is worth being cynical and considering that writing dream interpretations is really easy. You can make correlations with anything that takes your fancy, and no one can objectively prove that you are wrong. You might find it amusing and instructing to invent a few dream definitions of your own. Or, take some focus that pertains to the human experience (sex, ambition, frustration, depression) and work out how every dream you can remember
having can be made to fit that interpretation. You will find that anything can be made to seem like a symbol of anything you want it to. If you intend to work with symbols, then understanding how innately malleable they are, and how vulnerable to our desires they can be, is really important. Any attempt at working with symbols has to at least try to budget in the impact of human desire – conscious and unconscious. All too often we see what we want, or what we fear may be true, not what is actually before us.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-dreaming

 


Wild Fire – a review

Wild Fire is the third book in Anna McKerrow’s awesome Greenworld trilogy. That’s a tricky reviewing setup right there, because reviewing the third book without spoilering the first two means I can’t talk about the story much at all. Further, you don’t want to start here, you want to start with Crow Moon which I reviewed here – eco-pagan-mythmaking/ and then read Red Witch – reviewed here ways-to-live-a-trio-of-reviews/

The Greenworld is in the southwest of the UK, a small country led by witches, hived off from the rest of the world as said rest of world plunges into fuel wars, environmental degradation and chaos. A little bit of utopia set against a very dark background. Except that, like most utopias, it is held together by things that don’t work so well for everyone. Book one – Crow Moon introduces us to the Greenworld through the eyes of Danny, and Danny isn’t a fan. His journey into becoming a witch opens up the setting. I liked book one, I enjoyed having so much Paganism in a novel, and ecotopian thinking is a good thing.

 

 

 

When I read book two – Red Witch, I thought it blew Crow Moon out of the water. New book, new perspective, and time inside the head of Melz, one of the young witches we first met in Crow Moon.  Melz rocks. Melz is the sort of person teenage me wanted to be, and wasn’t. She’s complicated and brilliant and learning to stand in her own power. The story takes her out into Redworld, and casts everything I thought I knew from the first book in an entirely different light.

 

 

 

Then along comes book three, Wild Fire, and a new perspective (and I can’t tell you who without spoiling some things for people who haven’t read book one yet!). I love this narrator – flawed, romantic and cynical at the same time, painfully self aware… This is in part a story about forgiveness, and when it needs doing and when it doesn’t. Wild Fire takes the small UK scene of the first two books and blows it open onto the world stage. Things that had been background details before – like the fuel wars – suddenly become a good deal more important and in the foreground.

There’s a message in all of this, and it is that we cannot hive ourselves off from the world and build little private bubbles. We all of us have to deal with the totality of what’s going on. It will not go away if we ignore it. We will be affected whether we choose to engage or not. It’s an essential message for our times. I spent much of the last few chapters of Wild Fire crying, because it had hope in it, and I honestly did not expected that.

All three books have a serious pace on them. There’s no mucking about – events come thick and fast, with the scale of the action increasing at every turn. The characters are messy, complicated, often confused. They make mistakes, but they build on what they learn from their mistakes. They learn to forgive themselves, and each other, and the adults who have never been enough. They learn who not to forgive as well, and that’s important. These are stories about what we do in face of fear and difference, who we include and who we shut out when banding together to overcome difficulties.

It’s really, really good stuff. Engaging, hard to put down and likely to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

These books are ideal for Pagan teenagers, and for anyone else who is happy to have Pagan teens as the main characters in a series. Highly reccomended.

find out more about Anna McKerrow’s work here – annamckerrow.com/books.html


What makes a good community?

I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about how we might do a better job as Pagans of being a community. So, here we go again!

Modern Pagans often only assemble to do Pagan things – moots, rituals, festivals, camps, conferences… I think this is true for people of other faiths too, in the west at any rate. We don’t live in our faith communities, our lives are fragmented and we do different bits of it with different people. Our Pagan ancestors lived together. They worked together, celebrated together, dealt with sickness and injury together, grew food together, and ate it together. They sold their wares to each other, married each other, gave life to the next Pagan generation together, raised their young folk together. We don’t do that.

For me, one of the defining qualities of a real community is that it has depth and breadth. People are involved with each other’s lives, interdependent, and connected in multiple ways. Now, with the way the world works at the moment, we can’t have Pagan villages to re-enact ancestral lifestyles. However, we can do more to create threads of connection between us.

Communities need to come together as big groups where people may only be loosely affiliated with each other. They also need to be able to hold within them many smaller groups, sometimes overlapping, where people are more closely involved. There has to be some room for fluidity – movement in and out of the big group, and movement between small groups, with new small groups forming at need and ones that are no longer needed falling away.

For a while when I lived in the Midlands, I think I managed something that worked on those terms. There was a moot, a folk club, a local ritual group, and a bigger more centralised ritual group drawing from a wider area. There were several meditation groups, the people who made the wicker man each year, and numerous musical configurations overlapping with those groups. It wasn’t all Pagan, but the Pagans tended to be the core of a lot of the things going on. It had a real energy to it.

It’s very difficult to run that as a top-down operation. I don’t recommend it. This kind of breadth of community works better and is more sustainable when it occurs in a more organic way. Key to developing it is good communication so that people can get involved with various aspects. It is really important that most of it does not end up too cliquey and exclusive. It also depends on no one being too power-hungry. If there’s someone who runs The Moot and it is their moot and the only moot in town, a new moot running on different terms for different people may cause unrest and trouble. If there’s someone who thinks they alone should run ritual in the area, or someone who objects to the Pagan knitting group as too fluffy, it can be hard work getting things sorted.

It takes a lot of people with will and patience to make a real community. It takes people who are not willing to be told what to do by people who want power over them. It takes a willingness to nurture diversity, make mistakes, give up on ideas, try new ones… and as we argue, negotiate, experiment, and evolve our way through various forms and configurations, we stand a chance of becoming something a bit more recognisable to our ancestors.