Category Archives: Paganism

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.

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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.


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.