Category Archives: Paganism

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.

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Alternative daily practice

When we talk about having a daily practice in Paganism, we tend to mean ritual, prayers and meditation – separately or in combination. That doesn’t work for everyone. However, doing something every day can be affirming and help you stay active in following your path, so here are some things that are worth trying. It’s important to do things you can sustain and that nourish you, and that suit how your mind and body works. Many more options exist.

Communing – just spending time with something else, be that a plant, a stone, a stream. Not doing anything necessarily, not asking anything, just being there, with whatever you’ve chosen to be with.

Getting outside – to walk, or stay still, or move slowly by any other means. To be on the land, and with it in a conscious way. To just let that happen to you and be open to what it does.

Making a deliberate sensory engagement with the world – be that looking, listening, touching or smelling (tasting is risky!) taking the time to connect with some other thing in a conscious way, but not necessarily with any intent beyond that.

Resting – for many of us, stopping is as difficult as it is necessary, but you can make resting a sacred act of honouring your animal body, and you can use it to make time for your animal body, and that can be powerful.

Creativity – creating is good for the soul. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or what anyone else might think of it. Whether you’re singing the half remembered pop songs of your youth, making exquisite ink drawings, learning to cook, dancing with just your hands… making time every day for something creative is a good way to let magic in to your life.

Some of us don’t have the heads or bodies for the kind of formal discipline some paths may suggest. Some of us really can’t do half an hour of meditation and may be panicked by the memes that say in that case we should be doing an hour. Making Paganism an every day thing does not have to mean hurting yourself or struggling, or fitting in to anyone else’s ideas of what a daily practice should even look like.


Pagan Community and predators

I’ve written plenty of posts critiquing aspects of the modern Pagan community, so I’m going to try henceforth to find more productive approaches. What can we do to mature as a community? How can we do a better job of things?

One of the underlying problems is the attraction and repulsion authority creates in Pagan circles. None of us wants to be told what to do. None of us wants there to be an outfit with the power to police their practice. However, it’s a different matter when some other Pagan is doing it wrong and we want someone to police their practice and make them stop. I’ve certainly been there and I know I’m not alone. Policing only works by consent, (leaving aside situations where policing is rooted in force)and it isn’t something we, as a set of people, are likely to consent to.

We don’t have collective approaches to witchwars, or to situations of genuine misconduct and we have no collectively strategy for telling one from the other. Obviously, an abuser is going to claim they are the victim of a witchwar. Obviously, anyone undertaking bitchraft is going to try and make out they are responding to a situation of someone else’s misconduct. I wish there were parallel Druid words for this, because it certainly isn’t a problem exclusive to witches! We don’t have anyone with the authority to step in and make a call, to investigate, or do anything else that might help us collectively deal with community problems.

If we insist that misconduct, bullying and other abuses of power are individual problems, then we are not a functioning community. We are leaving our least informed, least powerful, most vulnerable people open to predation. To function well as a community, we need ways for dealing with the problems that invariably arise between people. Scope for power and income attracts people who want power and money. Holding power can enable abusers to operate unchallenged. It happens in politics, in business, in celebrity circles and in other religions. We are not magically immune.

So, what can we do?

Firstly, if someone is accused of acting in a criminal way, support and encourage the victim to report it to the actual police. Fear of making our community look bad must always be less important than dealing with the problems. If you ever catch yourself wanting to protect Paganism by covering something up, remind yourself about how well that’s gone for the Catholic Church.

If there is, or appears to be a problem, encourage people to collect evidence – screen shots, for example. Write down the day, and if you can, the time things happen, write down exactly what was said. Keep those notes. You can show them to the police. Detail is key in proving that someone is out of order. Small acts of infringement may not be of interest to the police, but a record of dozens of them over months could well be.

Always look for the power balance. Abuse always involves a power imbalance, although that might not be easy to see at first glance. It is practically speaking very difficult to bully or use someone who has power over you. It is very easy to bully or misuse someone you have power over. We come back to the attraction and repulsion of authority here, because while Pagans can be really resentful of authority, we love our gurus as much as any other group does, and when we’ve set someone up as important, we can be reluctant to see what’s out of order.

It is a commonly held assumption that any sensible person will just get out of a bullying situation. It is important therefore to understand why people stay, and that staying is about vulnerability, not consent. People stay because they’ve been given reasons to fear leaving. They stay because gaslighting has damaged their ability to make good judgements. They stay because their self esteem is so trashed they don’t think they can find anything better. Victims can be surprisingly defensive of their abusers. If it takes someone years to get out or speak out, this does not undermine their claims.

As it stands, we may not have community solutions to community problems, but we don’t have to turn a blind eye to them. Be prepared to notice, to listen, to take seriously and if needs be, to take sides. Remember that to do nothing is not a neutral position, it means you are effectively supporting the abuser, if there is one. Sometimes there are two sides to a story, two people or groups, or more, equally responsible for the shit storm they’ve brewed up. Sometimes, there aren’t two sides, there’s someone lying and abusing, and someone suffering.

For some people, Paganism, magic, ritual and roles within the community are always going to look like opportunities for power. For a minority, that can play out as getting money, sex, influence or the freedom to hurt people. So, if you see someone wielding a lot of power, ask what that power serves. Does it serve the gods, the land, the community? Or does it serve the person wielding it?


Pagan Community – matters of access

To be a proper community, we need plenty of spaces people can access without having to pay. Many other religions have advantages over us in this regard – having physical spaces people can turn up to with a paid clergy on hand. Many other religions set the bar far lower than we do – a person need only show up to a church to be included in a service. Modern Paganism doesn’t recruit and fundraise in the way some religions do, which is also why we don’t have the infrastructure. I like us better for that, but it does mean we need to be careful about access.

I’ve been in and out of an assortment of big Pagan groups over the years. I have paid my way over the threshold, and, once in have usually felt some degree of belonging and involvement. Every time I’ve left somewhere, I’ve noticed how easy it is. How ‘community’ evaporates when I can’t, or won’t pay to carry on there.

In more local contexts, participation has often meant being able to afford to access the venue. Can I afford to go out for an evening? Do I have the clothes, the money for the door or a half of something? How am I going to get there, and back and who will take care of my child? For most of those questions, physical energy can be as much an issue for me as the financial cost.

The internet has given us a lot of space where people can meet. Many Pagans are still geographically isolated from other Pagans, and it is only via membership of the big groups or participation online that they can connect with other Pagans. However, the quality of online spaces isn’t what it could be. It’s very hard for a new seeker to tell what’s reliable and what’s wishful thinking, what’s trustworthy and what’s a bid to get into their wallet or pants. There are far more people who want to learn than there are teachers – that’s been an issue for decades. Much as I love the internet (here we all are, after all) there are things that can’t adequately be taught long distance and that need the energy and magic of being in the same place.

There are lots of reasons to set the bar high with access to our working groups. If you want to do serious Pagan stuff, then constantly having to educate newbies can be a real distraction from that. Not everyone wants to teach. Too much fluidity in a group makes it unstable and stops it feeling like the safe and intimate space many of us prefer for ritual. There isn’t really a space in a Pagan ritual for lay Pagans, you can’t be stood in a circle and not be an active participant, it just doesn’t work. So we can’t have the same casual attitude to people rocking up that a Christian church might have. What works for them doesn’t work for us.

I don’t think there are many widely applicable answers to the question of making the Pagan community accessible, and not dependant on jumping through hoops. It does however help to have slightly permeable edges to groups and to do the occasional public facing thing that allows the curious to make contact and have a look. The more groups are able to be a little bit available sometimes, the easier it is to answer this need without creating too much work for anyone.

I can’t help but feel that learning your Paganism from Facebook groups and chat rooms, and the odd blog, or even books, is probably about as good as learning all your sex style by watching pornography. There’s a lot of technical stuff that you will certainly pick up. But, odd things may happen to your expectations, and you may get some unhelpful ideas about how the relationships work. There is more we can do to make internet and book experiences more real and grounded, and less like magic-porn.


Gods, feudalism and power over

It isn’t an accident that so much traditional spiritual language has a feudal tone to it. Lord and Lady are terms of nobility. Christianity is full of the language of kings, sovereignty and power over. Pagans use ‘Queen’ as a term for Goddess. For a good chunk of European history those who had taken power and wealth by force of arms were keen to create the impression of divine sanction for it. The King in his castle, sucking up the bounty, is God’s representative on Earth. God the Uber-King looks down on all from Heaven – a very literal expression of being over the top of the rest of us.

The stories modern Pagans turn to were recorded, for the greater part, by people who were part of that power-over arrangement. God the Uber-King in league with the physical monarch bestowed a lot of power on the church, giving the church every reason to support the logic of the system. Plus, in a less cynical way, we tend to make sense of things through the filters of our own experience. There are reasons to think that some mythology may have grown out of the deeds of actual people, actual Kings, Queens and rulers. It may be that much of Paganism itself is rooted in monarchic cultures.

The language of democracy doesn’t really work for religion. Any notion of elected to power seems a bit odd when talking about beings who have more power than us. Chairman of the Gods is funny, but lacks a certain swing. Perhaps this is in part because one of the key things we want from Gods, is that they be bigger and more powerful than us and therefore able to protect us from terrible things. Powerful enough to protect you from other things – ie other Kings, has always been part of the marketing for feudalism.

There are other languages out there although I can’t claim deep familiarity with them. From what I’ve read, a lot of indigenous people use the language of family to talk about the spirit powers they encounter. Grandfathers and grandmothers. Brothers and sisters. If you aren’t operating in a patriarchal/feudal structure to begin with, God the father has a very different feel to it.

The language of monarchy and feudalism tends to give humans a sense of power over the non-human world, which is doing us and the world no good at all. Perhaps it is time to start questioning our word choices and habits of thinking. I don’t have any suggestions for word replacements at the moment, except to acknowledge that I find the language of monarchy and feudalism really uncomfortable and I wish we didn’t use it.


What makes a good teacher?

Whether you’re looking for a Pagan teacher to guide you on your spiritual path, or for other kinds of guidance, it is tempting to seek out the teachers who have it all figured out. The folk for whom life is good, spirituality is easy, who are totally on top of everything, get it all their own way and can tell you how to achieve that as well. The teachers who promise it will be easy, and happy and that the path is just made of good things.

Who isn’t attracted to good, easy and quickly available?

With non-spiritual teachers, I have noticed repeatedly that folk who do things easily and naturally are not usually great at teaching. They don’t always know what it’s like to not get a thing, or to struggle. They don’t have any tools for overcoming problems, because they’ve never had to overcome problems. I notice that I have to try hardest to teach the things I am actually good at, and can more easily teach someone to do the things I had to grapple hard with to learn. Teaching my son to swim was easy, because it was hard for me to learn. Teaching him ways round the things he struggles with on the essay writing side, has been much harder going.

My spiritual path has not always been smooth or easy. I’ve had doubts and setbacks, I lose direction, I worry about things. I do not have a perfectly smooth, flawlessly happy life in which everything is in line with my will. I’ve not found Druidry to be comfortably easy. It has brought me challenges, periods of struggle, and a lot of questions. I look at the teachers who say they have answers for everything, and I know (now) that it won’t work out well for me.

If the teacher is (appears to be) totally good, wise, right, experienced and able to make everything lovely, while the student is some awkward, sometimes malfunctioning lost soul like me, there is a likely outcome. The teacher will reject the student they cannot teach, fix or heal. It will be the student’s fault for being unteachable, not positive enough, not really trying. Been there, bought that t-shirt.

On the other hand, teachers who admit to being flawed and struggling humans too, who can get things wrong and have off days tend to have the insight to help others who are struggling. For me, Cat Treadwell is a great example of someone with deep and long term dedication to the Druid path who does not tell people they can easily have all the things. I’ve watched her battling against depression for years. Her dark nights of the soul led her to write Facing the Darkness, which is a truly helpful book for a Druid or Pagan who finds themselves in a bad place.

I’m not sure I believe there are people whose lives are just good karma and fairy dust all the way. It may be good PR to pitch yourself that way. It may sell more books and fill more places on courses, it may do the perpetrator more economic good, but I think that’s all it does. Sooner or later, most of us find something we stumble over or struggle with. Most of us don’t get what we want purely by visualising it and stroking our power symbols.

When you’re chasing the idea of the perfectly easy magic solution to all things you can spend a lot of time chasing, only to be let down over and over again. It can lead to feelings of failure and despair – all these magic positivity solutions to align you with your dreams and yet somehow your life is still hard and unsatisfying! I’ll follow the teacher who can show me how to get along as a flawed human with issues, not some image of shiny perfection I know I can’t live up to, and that will, based on experience, reject me when it turns out I can’t reflect all that shiny shininess back to them.


Beneath the surface

You can’t tell if someone or something is superficial by looking at its surface. (Yes, this is the post-Asylum steampunk blog post!). It’s easy to look at the kit and play in steampunk and decide the whole thing must be very silly, trivial and pointless. As Pagans we cheerfully do this to each other, we look askance at the ones who wear a lot of velvet, and the ones whose pentagrams are too big…

Seeming superficial doesn’t make something superficial. It’s only by looking more carefully at what something does that we can work out how to value it, and that valuing is itself a subjective process.

If something is superficial, it changes nothing. There are no significant consequences.

Of course how we spend our money has massive implications, so a Pagan who is all about the bling may be contributing to the Pagan economy by supporting original creators and makers. Equally they might be buying cheap tat, made by slave labour and thrown away too soon. Here are spiritual implications for superficial practices.

It is good to play, to mess about, have a laugh and do things for the sheer pleasure of it. That can look silly from the outside, but for the goth decked up to the nines, it can be a matter of soul and emotional expression that gets them through the days when they are obliged to tone down, fit in and seem normal. There’s a lot of creativity involved in dressing outlandishly, and the bard path is all about creativity. How we look has as much potential to be a meaningful art form as any other art form.

Too much seriousness can make us stuffy, egotistical, self important and anally retentive. It’s good to be able to muck about, to be able to risk other people not taking you seriously.

There are deeper layers to this, too. Visually manifesting your identity can help people feel a sense of belonging. It’s good to look around and know that, just for a little while, you are with ‘your people’. Be that a comics con full of folk cosplaying superheroes, a steampunk event full of hats, a Pagan gathering full of cloaks or anything else of that ilk. These things can affirm our sense of belonging. For many of us, day to day life is short on that kind of affirmation, some time on the inside of a group can be powerful.

Apparently silly things can have the power to transform people. I note from steampunk gatherings that people are empowered, encouraged and inspired by the experience and this often has consequences long after the event is over. These kinds of activities open the door to friendships, explorations, creativity, feeling able to make yourself seen and heard in other contexts.

On the whole, I think one of the most superficial things we can do is Pagans is waste our time putting down other people based on the surface we’ve seen. All that can do is make someone else a bit sad, or a bit angry for a while. Perhaps the person doing it gets a brief hit from being smug and superior, but if that’s where you go to feel powerful, you really have issues with a lack of power that won’t be dealt with knocking other people down.


Paganism and stolen books

Recently, Lupa Greenwolf wrote a very good blog about how stealing books impacts on Pagan authors.  Most of us are not wealthy, in fact many of us struggle, and theft hurts us in many ways. As Lupa has covered that side of things so well, I wanted to explore the magical and spiritual implications of working from a stolen book. To clarify, if a person picks up an ebook someone other than the author or publisher of said book was giving away, and the author is alive or only recently dead, then the book is stolen.  You might want to look up a post of mine – Should I have this free book? – for further clarification.

I give this blog away. Most authors give stuff away. There’s tons of legitimate free stuff out there. Help yourself to that with an easy conscience and enjoy the results.

Most Pagan paths advocate honour. Stealing clearly isn’t honourable. So, from the moment you get that book you are at odds with the path. If you’ve exploring a path that has more of a grey feel, or is less about honour and more about power, consider that these are the authors who will unhesitatingly curse the people who cross them.

If you are following a deity, and you steal a book written by a devotee of that deity to learn more… are you in that deity’s good books? Probably not.

If you practice magic, you’ll run into ideas about how energy moves around. Give something for what you take so that it isn’t taken from you is a popular theory for people working with herbs, for example. Consider threefold return, karma, like attracts like, and all the other philosophies you have encountered. What is your stolen book going to do for you? How is that energy relationship you now have with the author going to work out for you?

I realise that most people don’t know copyright law, and it is easy to be persuaded that it’s ok to have something you want. There are a lot of people out there spouting all kinds of crap about why giving away other people’s ebooks is ok. It isn’t ok to give other people’s ebooks away, simply. However, anyone can make a mistake. Anyone can pick up a book because it sounded legit. If you are new to Paganism and just dabbling and exploring, there’s a lot it is easy not to know about.

If you’ve made a mistake and taken something you shouldn’t have had, you can fix this by rebalancing things. Buy another book from the same author. Buy a hard copy for yourself. Stick something in their donations pot or patreon.

What do you do if poverty put you in this position? If you truly can’t afford to give back? Focus on the things that are freely given. Save up for books. Consider what you are paying for – because if you can afford to buy coffee from cafes, you can miss a few coffees and buy a book. If you’re at the level of poverty where you have no disposable income, I know how tough this is, and it’s a bloody unfair situation to be in. Commit to rebalancing when things are better for you, at the very least. Don’t buy into the idea that you are always going to be so poor that you have a justification for theft. Try talking to the author. Some authors will give books in exchange for reviews. Many authors will happily point you at the things they already give away.

We aren’t going to get rid of book theft in Pagan circles until we change Pagan culture and value the people who make things a bit more. If you see it happening, call it out. And feel free to use anything in this blog, in whole or in part if it will help you. Copyright waved on all of this blog post. (For other blogs, credit me please, and let me know, but this one’s different.)


Spirituality and depression

One of the effects that depression can have is a sense of separation from the world. This can play out in all kinds of ways – a sense of alienation from other people, a sense of dislocation from what you’re doing, distance from your own body and actions. The spiritual consequences of this detached feeling can be vast and deeply disturbing to deal with.

There have been springs when my inner season has remained winter and I’ve just not been able to connect with what was going on. There have been many days when it seemed as though all the life and colour had drained out of the world. How do you practice a Pagan faith when everything tastes like cardboard? When all you can do is skim the surface of life and not experience any breadth or depth? When you can’t feel a sense of connection, depression can rapidly become a spiritual crisis as well.

When I am depressed, I have tended to lose either my intuition or my ability to trust it. I’m not creative, or am less creative. I’m not open, so very little can get in, including the things I really need to have permeating me – the seasons, the time of day, the weather, the songs of birds.

I have a suspicion that depression may be worse for Pagans than for people of many other faiths. In many religions, there are rituals, prayers, songs, actions, regular gatherings for worship. It is normal to show up to these because it’s what you do rather than in the expectation of anything massive happening. Paganism has a far greater emphasis on personal revelation, experience of the divine and the numinous, and for a person mired in depression, these experiences are not very likely at all. We’ve got a priesthood, but it’s individuals working alone, mostly. We don’t have the support infrastructures to help take care of people who run things when they are in difficulty themselves.

I hold inspiration sacred. I’m dedicated to the bard path, a big part of my spiritual life is about creating and performing. Again, these are things that it is very difficult to do at all, or to do well when the black dog has sunk its teeth in.

I don’t have any tidy solutions to this. It helps to know that you are dealing with depression and not Pagan-fail. You may not be able to do the things you normally would – anything calling for concentration – so meditation and ritual can be too difficult. You might not feel as you normally feel – no sense of the animistic reality around you, no sense of the gods or the voices of spirit in the wind or whatever it is you normally do. That itself can be painful and disorientating and will add to the burden of depression.

Believing that all of this will pass can be the hardest belief to hold onto.


All Acts of Love and Pleasure

“All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals’ is a line from Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess (read the whole piece here – http://www.doreenvaliente.com/Doreen-Valiente-Doreen_Valiente_Poetry-11.php) It’s an interesting phrase to ponder.

Up until fairly recently, if I thought about the line at all, I interpreted it in sexual terms. However, over the last few months I’ve been on a journey and have been changing my relationship with my body. A wider idea about acts of love and pleasure has taken root, and has brought me back to this phrase with much greater interest in the idea of sacredness in the physical.

All acts of love of course has to mean more than shagging. I’m not always good with touch, I can still be panicked by unexpected contact, but on the whole I’ve learned to trust, to soften, to be more open to affection from friends. I’m starting to see my own love for the physical world in this line, too. Putting my body into water, or into soft grasses, or out in the sun or under a wide sky is also an act of love, and of sacred connection.

The scope for pleasure is vast. Our physical bodies have the capacity to relish many sensations. Our senses are rich with opportunity. Yet I’ve spent most of my life with a utilitarian approach to my body, seeing it in terms of what it can usefully get done, and as a means of getting my brain places. There’s been a puritan streak in my thinking since childhood – I have no idea where it came from, but it created the feeling that to enjoy anything too much with my body was unseemly, inappropriate, greedy… that the pleasures of a body were not to be trusted or invested in.

To take pleasure in food, and rest, in skin contact, a hot shower, a cool drink… every day offers so many opportunities to delight in small, bodily experiences. And if all acts of pleasure can be sacred, that really turns the tables on the life-denying puritan who took up residence in my head very early on in life. I think much of it for me comes from a feeling that I am not entitled to enjoy or to feel good, that I do not deserve to relax into things, or delight in them – I am meant to work, to strive, and to suffer. Well, sod that! It’s a miserable way to be that has kept me in some lousy places and contributed to poor mental and physical health, so I’m learning to head the other way and to enjoy what I have and make the most of it.

So many spiritual practices treat the experience of the body as something to control, and be ashamed of. I’ve lived with a lot of body shame, one way and another. Working to change that has made a huge difference already, and I feel I have quite some way to go along this path.