Category Archives: Paganism

Dancing in the dark

Dancing plays many roles in my life. It’s a way of engaging directly with music, for a start. It enables me to do all kinds of emotional processing without having to slog it out by thinking everything through. I can just dance with what’s going on until my body has dealt with it. There’s a Pagan aspect to it that I’ve written about recently – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/06/08/the-temple-i-am-building-a-poem/

In summer there are usually a few opportunities to dance outside and, even better, to dance in the dark. For me this creates an intense sense of connection with land, sky and season. My usual trick for this is to be near the venue rather than in it – I’ve spent a fair few evenings outside marquees at folk festivals, and being outside other venues can work for me, too. I don’t do well with very loud music, and I’m not always inclined to dance where I have much of an audience. Dancing where I am not supposed to dance, and communing with the summer night is always a powerful experience for me.

Some of the time I dance for, or with Tom, but much of my dancing is more solitary even if other people are around. Most of the time I don’t do it for the entertainment of a viewer. I certainly don’t do it to be sexy for the male gaze – I’ve spent a lot of time exploring dance that is deliberately about avoiding sexualisation. I find my elbows play a big role in that. I dance with my whole body, and I dance to be in my whole body.

Sometimes, if I like the performer and it feels like the right thing to do, I dance to raise energy for the music. I will be the first person to get up of an evening. If there’s a big crowd on the dance floor later on, the odds are I won’t be in it, I’ll have sauntered off into the night to do my own thing.

I am perpetually confused by how long it takes many people to make it to the dance floor. How many other people have to get up first and how much alcohol they need to feel brave enough to move about a bit. People who, by the end of the evening will be having a great time, but don’t jump in sooner. Sometimes I dance to create permission – by getting up early and dancing outlandishly I can guarantee that anyone else following in my wake will look far more sensible. I tend to find if I get up and dance, other people are not far behind me.

Without a doubt, the dancing I love most is undertaken for myself only, in summer nights, outside, where it is not reasonable to expect a person may be dancing.

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Rain on skin

One of the things I’m looking for is the opportunity to have intense experience of my own body as part of the living world. Working on a computer for hours every day, it is all too easy to become a head and hands in relationship with a screen. It is important to me to spend time outside, and time in motion.

I notice that it is the more dramatic experiences that give me the strongest sense of myself as a body. Rain on skin makes for an intense experience because of the constant triggering of nerve endings by the contact of falling water. The literal impact of an element upon me. The coldness of rain against the heat of skin warmed by a summer day and by motion.

I can only afford to be rained upon in these warmer conditions. In winter, getting soaked to the skin is a real problem, leading to muscle stiffness, chills, and pain. In summer it becomes a joyful, sensuous experience and a chance for immersion in a feeling of wildness.


Glamour

In fairy folklore, glamour is the magic fairies have that make them seem beautiful and alluring. Glamour hides the dirt and squalor, the mean faces, the bones… it struck me that this kind of magic is something some humans also seek.

I’m pro beauty. I think making and seeking beauty is a good use of energy – especially when there are more diverse possibilities around beauty. I like the beauty of twisted trees and older, more lived in human faces. I like the beauty that a warm heart gives a person. I like creative beauty made from innovation and joy in how we present ourselves. I don’t like glamour.

Beauty is always intended to be real. Glamour is intended to persuade. It’s the harnessing of sexual attractiveness to try and hold power over others. It’s a contrivance to sell product – and often in our visual media, it’s been processed beyond anything the human body can achieve. The glamour of glamorous fashion magazines is often about as real and healthy as the fairy glamour of folklore.

In Paganism, it’s the person who is busy selling you their face, and their look rather than their ideas. This of course draws on the norms of mainstream advertising, but it isn’t very ethical. The book and the workshop won’t make you glamorous, but by associating glamour with product you may be tempted to reach after what you can’t have – and here we are back at the goblin market, eyeing up the forbidden fruit.

We’re easily moved by human beauty. We want it, and we want to be it. The less glamorous you feel yourself to be the more vulnerable you may be to the glamour of others. Gods know, I’ve been there. The less experienced you are in your path and craft, the more the persuasive are the people who glamorously look the part. I’ve been there too, hankering after surfaces because I was twenty-something and inexperienced and the glamorous stuff is eyecatching. But like fairy fruit, it won’t nourish you. The glamour you crave remains out of reach, but you keep paying for it, running round after it and feeling inadequate in the face of it… after a while you can tell it was glamour all along because it leaves you threadbare and unhappy, but by then the damage is done.

There is a beauty that comes to people who do the work. I see it in Jane Meredith, in Cat Treadwell, and Rachel Patterson, to name some visible examples. I see it a lot in people in the Pagan community who are living their magic, and who are suffused by it. It’s a softer, subtler thing, permeating through who people are and what they do. I see the other ones as well, and I see the power of their glamour to attract and persuade. If you can, it’s always worth stopping to ask whether they are selling you glamour – the gold coins that will be dead leaves by next morning, or whether there is any substance to what’s being put forward.


Living Tradition

My parents met in the folk club my mother and grandmother were running. Folk music featured heavily in my childhood. I was terrified of mummers as a child. Not only did I get exposed to the more usual rounds of Greek mythology, Robin Hood and King Arthur, but also to other folklore of the British Isles. I grew up in a landscape rich with story. For me, folk is something you do, not something you pin to a board and leave, dead and dry to gather dust. I am deeply invested in the idea of living tradition.

The trouble with folklore is that there are some folklore academics, and people who wish to align with what they think academic approaches to folklore look like, who want to police it. They want dead things pinned to boards. They have rules about what folklore is, and it is all about what is in the past, and what has been widely accepted already. They actively exclude living tradition people from the folklore playground.

Not all folklore academics, mind you. I’ve had some brilliant conversations recently with people who see folk as a process not a product, and for whom the living tradition is just as important as the history. I’ve got books to hunt out and people to read and I’ll be back to talk about this excellent stuff more when I’ve had chance to dig in. Because for me, dialogue between folklorists and living tradition people is a good thing when that’s an open conversation and not one set of people trying to tell the other set what they are allowed to be, and do.

I take this all very personally. My land stories, my relationship with songs and places and tales, with mumming and history and the imagination are threads that run through my life. They are part of how I see myself and understand myself. I’m by no means alone in this. To tell a living tradition person that they are outside of folklore, that they don’t have any right to have what they contribute taken seriously, is, frankly, offensive. Folklore and tradition are living things, made by people, changed by people – the people at the cutting edge of it should not be excluded from it.

This is especially important for modern Pagans. So many people are working with old stories, personal gnosis and vision and the realities of our modern world to create a living tradition that is both rooted and relevant.

But, as folklore is a living thing, it has the means to wriggle out of the hands of gatekeepers and those who would kill it and pin it up for scrutiny. Folk traditions have always resisted authority – folk remains dirty, plural, messy, contradictory, full of re-invention and innovation, becoming whatever people need it to be at the time. Folklore, as one of my fellow comrades in living tradition points out, has a habit of biting on the arse anyone who thinks they can own it.


Having a physical daily practice

The general wisdom with any spiritual path is that you should have a daily practice. It’s how you make your path part of your life. Most things improve if you keep doing them, and what we do a bit of every day is what defines us – far more than any occasional, dramatic things will.

One of the things that has happened for me with the Druidry is that I’ve embedded it in my life to a degree where I can’t always see it. I live my path. I live it in the everyday green choices I make, in my relationship with my landscape, in how I deploy language, in my relationships with people… It colours everything I do, but at the same time there’s not much I can easily point at and say ‘this is my Druidry’. I’ve had patches of wondering where my Druidry had got to and whether I had slipped out of it. It’s an odd state to be in.

One of the most direct benefits of having a regular spiritual practice is that you get to feel like a spiritual person with a regular practice. The more you embed your beliefs in your life, the less visible they become and in some ways that’s a good thing, but it can also take something away. If your work really is your prayer, if you take a meditative mindset into everything, if there is no hard line any more between what is sacred and what isn’t… you may lose that sense of your own spirituality. 100% Pagan may make it impossible to see the wood for the trees.

In the last few months, I’ve taken up Tai Chi – in no small part because I wanted to add something to my life that I can do every day. Being a specific physical practice, I can’t embed it in my life by any other means. I have to do Tai Chi to do Tai Chi. I spend time moving and standing most days, and I like how this has changed things for me. It’s a good physical discipline and I’m benefiting from that – which is also a way of honouring nature in my body, so, more stealth Druidry! I’ve a long standing interest in Taoism and the Tao Te Ching so this is a body meditation that connects with it. Tai Chi also functions as a martial art, but I’m not especially exploring that side at the moment. I’m studying balance and how I load my joints, slowing myself and seeking a soft, flowing motion.

The more successfully you do the work, the less visible it becomes to you – this is the way of it for most aspects of a spiritual path. Most of us find affirmation in the more self-announcing parts of what we do, and this is one of the great benefits of community ritual. One of the good things about doing something physical in this way is that it remains self announcing. You have to practice it and in doing it every day you get to remind yourself that you are indeed the sort of person who does such things.

I’m aware that such an ‘ego-led’ approach to what we do and why might sound wholly unspiritual. But at the same time, I think being in denial about why we may be motivated to take up spiritual things in the first place just leads to a different kind of self importance. A secretive and dishonest kind of self importance that does no good to anyone. Best to be honest about these things. We take up spiritual work because we want to be spiritual people and we want to feel that way about ourselves. When we do it well, what we do becomes less visible to us, and we may well need things that help us feel the same excitement of a novice.


Disrespecting the Gods

A guest post from Aspasía S. Bissas

 

I blame Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods).

All right, I don’t really blame them, but they and a host of other fiction writers and TV showrunners aren’t helping. By turning the Gods into mere characters, showing no real regard for the beings that inspired and populate their stories, they’re setting the stage for an atmosphere of disrespect.

There’s an emerging culture of scorn for the Gods. Not the usual scorn heaped on Them by various monotheists and atheists, but a new form, coming from people identifying themselves as pagans and polytheists, even adherents of the Gods they’re disrespecting. You can find them online, especially on Tumblr, where cursing a God out happens as casually as shipping a favourite couple.

Zeus is a common target for misplaced hate. “F*** Zeus” is tossed around both jokingly and angrily, in both cases usually in reference to His perceived promiscuity and adultery. Hades is another such targeted God, thanks to the myth of His abduction of Persephone (I won’t even start on His name being used synonymously with the Christian Hell).

There’s also a gentler form of disrespect evident, where those who feel connected to a particular God or Goddess decide that they can speak for Them. I’ve seen many a post presenting Aphrodite as a magical gal who sprinkles blessings like candy on all who believe. Although these posts claim to offer insight into the Goddess, they show little awareness of Hellenic forms of worship or the concept of kharis. Neither is there a sense that the writer is sharing personal gnosis; rather, the posts read like wishful thinking or fanfiction, where the Gods exist to befriend and take care of humans.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be close to the Gods, or even with questioning, doubting, or rejecting Them; but our interactions with the Gods should come from a place of knowledge and learning, not from reactionary ignorance. Aside from applying modern human standards and judgments to ancient stories and deities, what these instances of disrespect all seem to have in common is a lack of knowledge, as well as a lack of interest in delving deeper. The Greek myths are not canon, and they’re certainly not meant to be taken literally (the story of Persephone and Hades, for example, represents transformation, not actual abduction and imprisonment—a point many critics seem to miss). Furthermore, much of what has been written and translated about the Gods has come to us from non-pagan, often antagonistic, sources. They can’t be treated as reliable or definitive.

For those interested in the Gods of a particular path, there’s no getting around it—you need to study. Read contemporary sources and scholarly works (and pay attention to potential biases of writers and translators). Read books and articles by other pagans and polytheists. Read multiple versions of myths, and pay attention to symbolism and deeper meanings. Talk to other pagans and polytheists—if something about a particular deity or myth bothers you, ask others what they think. Do you want a relationship with a God or Goddess? Learn how to best approach them. Find out what you can do to forge a meaningful connection.

We don’t have to abandon our favourite authors, ignore what bothers us, or stop being fans of the Gods. But when the urge to disrespect them strikes, maybe we should question our own assumptions, rather than the Gods themselves.

 

Aspasía S. Bissas is a Hellenic polytheist and seeker of everyday magic. She’s the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding, and can be contacted via her website or Facebook page. She can also be found on Tumblr.

 


Paganism and Self Care

There are a number of things about Pagan paths that can help us with self care and living in gentler, more viable ways.

Firstly, this is not a life-transcending path. We aren’t punishing our bodies for spiritual advancement. We don’t have traditions of self-harm as spiritual tools. If you look at the lives of our European Pagan ancestors you can see easily that the majority were after rich, joyful, rewarding, happy lives, with enough mead and merrymaking and art, and food and fun. To live as a Pagan is to live fully, while embracing what this life has to offer.

Secondly, this is not a martyrdom tradition. We do have our stories about dying heroically but there’s no sense that sacrificing yourself in some pointless way has any spiritual value in it.

Thirdly, our bodies are part of nature, and as followers of nature based religions, this is a good place to focus for matters of self care. If you aren’t caring for nature as it manifests in your own body, you’re missing a thing. Self care brings us to all the most fundamental things of our living bodies – sleep, food, water, rest, exercise, what kinds of physical contact we need, fresh air, tree time…

To care for your body, and to take care of nature as it manifests in your body, it is necessary to push back against pressure to work more, longer and harder. Earning more and consuming more won’t lead you towards self care. A quieter, simpler, more peaceful life where you can take care of your simplest needs is key. Slowing down, resting more, having more time for yourself is essential. If you are experiencing in-work poverty this can be a hard cycle to break, but if you can meet your basic needs plus some, it’s worth looking at whether the extra costs you more than it gives you.

There’s a beautiful circular-ness to all this. If we slow down to take better care of ourselves, we consume less. A gentler life is almost guaranteed to be a life of lower carbon consumption. When we take care of nature within ourselves we are likely to change our lives in ways that take care of nature outside of ourselves. Every time you walk instead of driving, you benefit your body and the natural world. Every time you eat raw plant matter, or drink water rather than fizzy pop from a bottle, or sleep rather than staying up late staring at screens, all of nature is served by this.

When you shift your life so that you honour nature in yourself, and thus take better care of nature around you, it moves you a lot closer to living as a full time Pagan.


Dreaming your full time Pagan Life

What we do is informed by what we dream. That’s true of our daydreaming, and or our less intentioned night dreaming. What we absorb resurfaces in our desires to shape our intentions and our actions. Magic is all about will, but will is informed by many things we might not be aware of. Take a step back from your intent to check where it comes from and what’s feeding it.

Make time to dream your Pagan life. This is especially important if you can’t meditate or don’t have time for a daily Pagan practice. Make time – whatever time you can – to just sit down and daydream. I recommend a plant or a good window view or a nice outdoors setting for company if you can. Failing that, some Pagan art, your oracle cards, a crystal – anything that gives you a bit of Pagan-flavoured headspace. Imagine what it would be like to live a totally Pagan life.

What would you eat? What would you wear? What would your sleeping arrangements be like? What would your job be? How would you pay your bills? How would you get around? What would your family life be like? What would you do in your time off? And how would your spiritual practice fit in to all of this?

If you work with guides, gods or any other spiritual forces, you can invite them in on this process. Ask for guidance. Ask for inspiration. Keep doing it in whatever moments you can find and see what emerges. Find out what you really want from a full time Pagan life. Explore it imaginatively. Play with ideas – your first impulse is not necessarily your best one, you may need to dig in a bit.

Now, here’s the fun bit. There’s no direct action stage here. Just keep dreaming. Except that all our ideas are born of dreams and imaginings, and that what we invest energy in shapes us. You may feel moved to run out and make radical changes – feel free, it’s your life. You may not feel able to, you may not be able to see how to get to your dreams from where you are now. But, as you go along, your dream infused life will change, because you will make small, every day choices based on those dreams. The odds are it won’t be the dramatic shifts that really count in the long run – it will be the small, every day things that change everything. It usually is.

Dream who you want to be. Dream the life you want. Dream how best to manifest your Paganism in your life. I don’t particularly believe that like attracts like, or that what we focus on, we get. But I do know that what we think about colours every experience. How we think shapes our perceptions. What we focus on, we invest in. So often, things we are not conscious of get the steering wheel in our minds and lives – it’s the expectation of this that underpins every single advert you encounter. Take back your dreaming. Change everything.


The Pragmatic Animist

I’m not much of an evangelist, but today I would like to persuade you to take an animist approach to life. Not necessarily to believe in animism, but to make the pragmatic decision to act as though you do.

Western humans have become far too prone to treating the world like a bunch of objects that exist for our convenience. We collectively treat the rest of life as resources to exploit. We don’t respect life, and we do not consider that other living things have any right to autonomy, or any feelings about their lives that might matter. The factory farmed animal in a tiny pen, turned into a food producing machine for humans, is a case in point.

Our human-centric view of the world is destroying the world we live in. To survive and thrive, we need to adopt more sustainable perspectives. This is where I think the case for pragmatic animism comes in. If you assume that everything around you could have ideas, intentions, preferences, feelings and so forth, it’s a lot harder to treat these individuals as objects and resources.

Here we simply sidestep the question of which living things have which kinds of thoughts, feelings and experiences. (I think this is the clever bit.) Reject that whole line of questioning. It is enough to consider that anything else you are dealing with could be aware and purposeful. Currently we are most willing to give care and rights to things we see as most like us – although not reliably then. We prioritise thinking and feeling in other beings even though we have little scope to measure or understand it.

Whether we can prove that something non-human thinks and feels is less important than how we behave if we adopt the idea that thinking and feeling are options. If you treat everything as though it exists in its own right and does not exist purely to answer some need of yours, you treat everything with greater respect. The pragmatic animist has reasons to seek co-operative solutions that serve life, not merely human life. It creates a context for not putting human wants centre stage all the time.

It’s a curious irony that our survival as a species won’t depend – as we’ve long imagined – on our out-competing everything else, but on our ability to support and nurture life. Survival of the fittest, going forwards, will not be about the human conquest of the natural world, but our ability to learn to live in balance, harmony and peacefully, with more care and respect.


Religion and the need for stability

Life is of course unpredictable, but there is something in many of us that craves stability. Some people thrive on challenge and change, but many do not. It’s easy to look at religion and the way in which we appeal for help or try to appease forces of nature, and see the desire for stability playing out. As we’ve become more able to control our environments and create stability for ourselves, we’ve changed from making sacrifices to the most dangerous aspects of nature, and grown religions that are more human-centric.

Religions are full of rules about what we can and can’t do. At some level, those rules are about keeping God happy because if you keep God happy you get stability. You don’t get floods, storms, volcanoes, plagues… The Old Testament is pretty clear that these are the consequences of an unhappy God. Being able to ascribe unpredicted things to the will of an angry God may itself give us more of a feeling of control.  Perhaps it is worse to imagine that terrible things happen for no reason at all and that the universe couldn’t give a shit.

We are comforted (some of us) by the idea that the universe gives a shit. The desire to see the world as both kind and meaningful can lead to staggering forms of cognitive dissonance. If the world is good, then terrible things are really good things in disguise. That which ruins our lives and tears us apart – literally and metaphorically, has to be recast as our benevolent teacher. I think choosing to learn can be a good and valid response to difficult things. However, the idea that we have been given the terrible things so that we can learn makes me really uneasy.  Sometimes it seems much kinder to say ‘shit happens’ and not to feel taught by it at all.

Change itself is neither automatically good, or bad. It can take us in either direction. However, change is exhausting when it is mostly what you experience. Even a great deal of good change can wipe you out. We need time to process change. We need to be able to make sense of it, and we need to feel we are riding the waves even if we have no say in where they are taking us. The more out of control you feel, the more tempting it may be to attribute the chaos to a will beyond your comprehension. Perhaps sometimes that helps. However, trusting that the chaos is taking you somewhere you need to go can itself be a dangerous choice, and one that encourages us not to think things through or take care of ourselves.

If you find yourself swept away by a river in full spate, do you trust the river’s intentions? Do you trust that the river God has a higher plan for you? Or do you try and get out of the river?