Category Archives: Paganism

The economics of spirituality

One of the things Paganism doesn’t really do, is enable people to live full time as devotees to their path. Many religions have monasteries, allowing people to make a full time commitment to spirituality. Many religions have paid posts for priests so that the person called to work in their community has a viable way to do that. 

This kind of infrastructure isn’t possible without the religion itself being organised and having a hierarchy. Pagans tend to rebel against that sort of thing. We mostly want to be independent and free to follow our own calling, but the trade off means that there are economic restrictions on following your own calling.

Yes, we have paid priests, but that income is occasional and unpredictable. Doing a job where part of the job involves chasing the work and trying to make yourself financially viable is a lot of extra job for the money and it takes a toll. 

The calling to work as a Pagan can also take people into writing, healing, teaching, divination, making clothes, tools, and other materials, and offering guidance. None of these jobs pay a person much unless you also spend time promoting yourself and your work – this doesn’t always go down well and can lead to resentment. Pagans all too often resent it when other Pagans need to be paid for the work they do. The jobs that might make you a full time Pagan actually don’t make you a full time Pagan because of time spent on marketing and accountancy and business type things.

I don’t have an easy practical answer to any of this. Clearly there are a lot of Pagans who feel the call to be full time in just the way many people around the world feel called to centre their lives in their beliefs. We don’t have the support systems to make that possible and I doubt we ever will. But we’re also not really dealing with the implications of that. We could do a lot better in socially supporting our would-be full time Pagans and we could at least have a culture of treating people kindly when they step up to this way of working and being.

We exist in a capitalist society, and Pagans have bills to pay just like everyone else. Much of the work a person might do is not spiritually nourishing. Those of us able to do work we find ethical, rewarding and intrinsically worthwhile are in the minority. Not everyone can balance part time work with part time Paganism. At the same time, not everyone can afford to pay for the kind of work we want and need Pagan priests to do for us. The answer is not to get angry with our full time Pagans over this. As is so often the way of it, the actual solution will lie in dismantling capitalist systems, so that we can all live on better terms.


Inclusive thinking

One of the easiest and most problematic mistakes to make is simply to assume that everyone else we deal with is just like us. I’ve seen it in books and articles, in how people organise events and manage volunteers, and more. It tends to come from people who have enough privilege that they don’t have to pay attention to how privilege manifests in their lives. When you think you are normal, it’s a small step to thinking that anyone different is just being awkward or uncooperative and thus feeling no obligation to respond to their needs.

If you’re stepping into any kind of leadership /authority /author role as a Pagan, I think it’s incredibly important to consider how your notion of your own normality might impact on how you treat other people. It takes effort and empathy to look past your own experiences to learn about how the world works (or doesn’t) for other people. It takes effort and imagination to consider where your assumptions might make your efforts exclusive. It takes integrity and courage to look at how your beliefs might unwittingly have made you ableist, racist, sexist, classist. And it is so important to dig in and do the work.

If leadership is the comfortable acting for the benefit of the comfortable, while leaving the disadvantaged on the outside, it’s more about self indulgence than service. It is certainly the case that making everything totally inclusive for everybody tends to be both prohibitively difficult and expensive, because we operate within systems that are problematic. But that doesn’t mean you are free to not try.

This isn’t about the imaginary people who might want to get involved. Not being able to cater to the need of the imaginary people can just be a way of letting yourself off the hook. What matters most is to include the people who show up wanting to be included. The real ones who are in your immediate community.

Here are a few things you can do in this regard. 

  1. Be explicit that you are open to hearing from people about their access needs or barriers to attending.
  2. When people tell you about access issues and barriers, listen with respect and take them seriously.
  3. Try to find workarounds based on what you are being asked to do, trusting that the person asking you to improve inclusivity knows most about what would help them participate.
  4. Consider it your responsibility to enable participation.

If you aren’t acting as a leader in any capacity you can help by flagging up access issues when you see them, and by supporting people who ask for things to be made more inclusive. Amplify, affirm, take seriously and treat with respect people who need help around access.


Communion and Consumption

We’re Pagan. We want to commune with nature. We want to be out there in the wilds, off the beaten track… Us and everyone else. The pandemic has led a lot more people outside. More people are having vacations closer to home this year, and this is putting far more pressure on the land.

It’s not just the people who rock up to litter beaches and poo in the Glastonbury fields while wild camping. It’s the increased traffic around beauty spots, and the damage done to landscapes just by too many people going through them. It’s people taking from spaces, and mistreating what’s there. Pagans can be just as guilty of this as anyone else. Our tea lights, inappropriate offerings and rubbish tied to trees are just as problematic as anyone else’s mess.

If you truly want to commune with the land rather than consuming and damaging, here are some suggestions.

Stay as close to home as you can. Explore the green spaces nearest to you and minimise driving. There are a lot of green spaces in urban environments and it’s great to explore those. Footpaths, cycle paths and tow paths are good. Lanes can be well worth exploring but you are at more risk from irresponsible drivers so be careful. If there’s an artificial surface, you aren’t going to cause erosion.

Stay on the footpath. If you go off the path you will damage plants and habitats. You may feel more magical and special, but the birds, insects and creatures you disturb won’t thank you for it. 

Take nothing, leave nothing. Try to make sure you don’t need to shit in the bushes. Don’t leave shitty offerings that may harm the wildlife. Don’t light fires. Don’t burn anything, not incense, not candles, not anything. Don’t pour alcohol on the ground, it’s not good for the wildlife either. Don’t pick anything, don’t dig anything up. Windfalls are probably ok, but give serious thought to anything you think it would be ok to take home.

Don’t take your mountain bike offroad. Footpaths take a lot of damage from bikes, and in sensitive environments they can be really damaging. Don’t cycle over ancient monuments. I hope this is something no Pagan would ever consider doing, but I see so much of it happening that I have to mention it.

If we’re heading out into ‘nature’ because we want to be nourished and spiritually supported, we need to be alert to what it costs. The wild world is under immense pressure from humans and there’s nothing spiritual about adding to that. Any feelings of being special, exempt, entitled or important that justify why we should put pressure on wild things need serious scrutiny. There is a real and important issue around the impact of green spaces on mental health, but we can seek the green without harming the wildest places. 

Alongside this, we need to push for more green urban spaces, more urban trees, and more safe places to walk. Imagine what a difference it would make if just a small percentage of urban parking spaces were given over to plants instead.


God Issues

I’ve been interested in Pagan deities since childhood. I’m deeply attracted to the stories, and early on I was much more of an active polytheist, seeking relationship with deity. The reasons that I fell out of that are many. I’ve no problem with the idea that gods exist and that people interact with them, it just doesn’t work for me.

I struggle with the feudal language that always comes up around deity. It’s funny because there’s a massive sub streak in my nature but most of the time I have no desire to be in a relationship with a being who is so much more powerful than me. My urge to serve doesn’t translate into an urge to serve a deity, and I have no idea why.

I struggle with the gendered language. It’s taken me a while to figure out anything much about the ways in which gender doesn’t do it for me. So much of the language we have is so very gendered when it comes to deity. Some days I find Goddess material difficult because while I have a (mal)functioning womb, my experience of being embodied just doesn’t chime with a lot of what other people seem to be doing around Goddess worship. I know there are gender complicated deities out there, but none of them really speak to me either.

I struggle with the whole notion of anthropomorphic Gods, a lot of the time. I think humans tend to favour picturing Gods as a lot like humans because for many people that helps. For me, it’s a bit of a barrier. I don’t actually want the spirit of the land to show up with a human face and talk to me in my own language. For me, that would feel like a loss of magic, not a more accessible manifestation of deity. If I want to talk to the land, I talk to the land, and I don’t expect any kind of reply.

Around all of this, I have an experimental and intermittent prayer practice. I’ve found that it works best for me just to address things to the universe, or to any bit of the universe that might be listening and interested. I listen, on the off-chance there’s anything out there that wants to talk to me – and mostly there isn’t, which is fine. Most days, there is no reason at all for anything out there to take interest in me, and most of the time I feel that this is far better for me anyway. I’m not sure it would be at all healthy for me. I have too much hunger around wanting to feel special and important, and I think that would make me a problematic worshipper, and an even more problematic priest. Better to work through those issues in my own time than load that onto a relationship with a deity and risk where that might take me.


Is it appropriation?

Thank you to Jenny who flagged up questions of how we tell what’s appropriation and what isn’t on a recent post. I’m currently in a deep exploration of many different aspects of Japanese life and culture – including sewing techniques, festivals, and language – although I’m not getting very far on that score!  It is always important to ask what it’s appropriate to do when working with material from another culture.

Good things to explore – history, geography, language, culture, traditions, folklore – if these things are in the public domain they are excellent places to start. If some of those things aren’t being put in the public domain by people they belong to, tread carefully. Avoid white American/European takes that don’t closely reference named sources or demonstrate having had direct teaching.

 On the Japanese front I would flag up the number of people writing about Zen who have never studied it in Japan or with someone whose tradition that actually is. We have a lot of people learning  partial Zen from other people who have learned it partially – if you want to study it in earnest, go for source material not bad recycling. That we mostly know about Zen and mindfulness from non-Japanese sources in New Age and Pagan circles is an example of what appropriation does – it distorts and removes the context. If there’s a feeling of entitlement to own and represent someone else’s tradition, that’s really suspect.

If a culture is making something into a tourist attraction, or is actively pitching it to the rest of the world, then you are clearly ok to explore or celebrate that. Many Japanese festivals are offered as tourist attractions. These are not secret or closed practices. There are however things around Shinto that seem to me to be very closed and secretive – what happens inside the shrine, what even is inside the shrine can fall into this category. It’s not supposed to be for everyone. That needs respecting.

Where possible, get content from people whose culture you are interested in, not other people interpreting that culture. That may mean content in translation. If you can’t find these kinds of sources, look for people who have engaged deeply, but be aware that they are speaking from outside.

It’s important to look at power balances, too. Is the culture you’re exploring struggling to maintain its identity and traditions in face of colonial pressures and history? Are you dealing with the cultural legacy of an oppressed minority? What’s your relationship to this culture? How are people from the culture you are exploring likely to feel about your interest in it? What are you interested in? There are far too many examples of people making money out of colonising other people’s cultures. Whether that’s charging for courses, selling versions of traditional objects or creating a power base. Consider white sage, and dream catchers.

If something is freely offered by people from a culture, then engaging with that is fine. If your desire is to learn, not to profit, you’ll get this more right than not.

I learned about Sashiko from youtube videos made by a man from a family of Sashiko artists. What I do isn’t Sashiko, but I am inspired by the tradition. I’m learning about festivals from what sources I can find online. I’m staying away from anything location-specific, and focusing on things that are more social than religious. What reading I’ve done around Shinto inclines me to think that it’s not something I could or should explore that deeply, but that there are things I can learn from what’s more generally available. I’m sharing notes on my journey, but I am not presenting myself as an expert on a culture that is not my own when there are plenty of people from that culture who can speak about it perfectly well. I think that works.


What feeds you?

What inspires you? Where do you find nourishment for your soul? What lifts your spirits or eases your heart?

The glib answer for Pagans is often ‘nature’ but by ‘nature’ we often mean something dramatic and exotic. It’s a horrible irony that nature is often a place we have to drive to. Many people in the UK are desperately short of access to green spaces close to home.

One of the reasons for following a spiritual path is that it can provide nourishment for our souls. This is easier, I think in contexts when you can either get out to those wild places, or get into circles with other Pagans. We’re lifted as much by what we can share as a community, as we are by communing with nature. Many of us engage better with ritual as a group activity rather than a solo practice. And honestly, working with other people makes us more accountable and more likely to show up.

The internet gives us options for sharing personal practice in a way that means we can inspire and uplift each other. Photos of the lovely walk, the beautiful altar, the devotional art, videos of your chants and songs, blog posts about prayer and meditation… There’s a lot of good to be found in this, and it’s something I’ve been glad to participate in. For me, it really brings into focus how much the effectiveness of spirituality in our lives can be about our relationships with people.

I’ve taken plenty of people into the woods (not in this last year, though) who were only spending time with trees when there was a seasonal ritual to show up for. It was the community they were showing up for, and through that connection, they had tree time and meaningful encounters with the land.

However much we might long for interactions with Gods, spirits, fairies, guides etc, these are unreliable. Not everyone gets called. Not all offerings are answered. Not all dedications lead to powerful interactions. People are a lot more reliable and will often show up when you invite them. People will witness you and hold you to account. They will be moved by the beauty of work your spiritual practice has inspired you to create. With that feedback, it is simply easier to show up as a spiritually minded person.

I think this is something to embrace and work with. It’s not just a spiritual issue, either. Many of us do our best parenting when there’s another adult about to impress. We may well do our best creating, our best activism, our best ethical choices when we have people to witness us and either nourish us with their approval, or make us worry about not looking good. We are fundamentally social creatures, and this year of pandemic has deprived us of a lot of that contact. Things that used to feed you may not work so well as solitary activities. There should be no shame in that. It’s just easier to be, and enjoy being your best self when you’ve got a supportive and appreciative audience.


Books and blogs

As well as writing this blog, I also write books. Most of the Pagan ones are published by Moon Books, with the exception of Druidry and the Future, which is over on ko-fi – https://ko-fi.com/s/6f6d37772a

You may be wondering what the relationship between the books and the blog is. If you read the blog, is there any point reading the books, especially given that most of them are for sale (Druidry and the Future is free).

There are bits of my books on the blog, if you search for excerpts. There are ideas that started here and that I’ve since expanded on and developed. Those are scattered around. There is, for example, a Pagan Pilgrimage category where I occasionally play with ideas around this subject. At some point there may well be a book, but that will come from an assimilation of the experiences I’ve blogged about here, and there will be a lot more to it than these first forays.

At the moment I am writing a Druidry and the Darkness book over on Patreon, with new and otherwise unavailable content each month. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB That’s in the Bards and Dreamers category, which also gives you a poem every month and my singing the wheel of the year content. What goes up there is some of the first draft content, so there will be more in the final book. It’s also an opportunity to engage more in my writing process, get the finished pdf before anyone else (when we get there) make suggestions and the such.

What I don’t do, have never done and will never do is take content from the blog and recycle it into books and then charge for it. The books are written as books, with a considered structure and the kind of oversight and integrity that you can’t have if things are cobbled together in 500 word chunks off the cuff. Blogs are, by their nature a bit limited and superficial, there’s always more to say. A book is the better vehicle for digging in to a subject and exploring it in more depth and breadth. For some readers, an easily digestible thought is much more helpful than a hefty tome, and for others, the digging in is preferable so hopefully this mixed approach works for more people.


Sacred Space

A rowan tree spirit, on rowan wood, created by Keith Healing. Now part of the family altar space.


The Secret, Special Knowledge

If someone claims to have secret, special knowledge they are probably wrong, mad or lying. If they want a lot of money from you, or sex, or attention, they probably know they are lying. They may want to be treated as super important because of the secret special knowledge, but to keep it secret, they won’t actually be able to share it with you. It also doesn’t help that it doesn’t exist, and when you press them about the ancient book they have (there is often an ancient book in the story) it will turn out to be on loan at the moment, or recently destroyed in a house fire. You will never get to see the book.

There are no big secrets in Paganism. There are secrets of course – many schools, orders and traditions, even family lines will have secret knowledge only available to members, initiates, blood relatives… When this happens, there tends not to be one keeper of the special knowledge – there tends to be a whole school, or family line, who know the things and only share what they know with people they feel have earned it.

One of the great things about Paganism is that you can figure out a lot of it all by yourself. You may be able to find your own secret special knowledge – it will come from your relationship with the land, or the work you do with the ancestors, or the personal gnosis arising from your work with deities, or something else of that ilk. And that’s wonderful, and yours, and exactly as secret as you want it to be – unless you get some sort of geas from whoever you are working with in which case it will have to be very secret indeed.

Someone else’s personal gnosis is not going to be more secret and special than yours. The more claims they make for how important their personal insight, the more likely that they are spouting rubbish. The desire to be important can do terrible things to people. Best not to feed into that – you do not owe anyone your interest and curiosity even, no matter how important they say they are. And it’s worth remembering that negative attention – anger, confrontation, argument – is also attention and will feed people who are desperately attention hungry and can encourage them to stay with their unreasonable claims.

I once had a run in with a chap who claimed to understand the ‘truth’ about the Brehon laws because he was descended from the lawmakers – the evidence being that his surname sounded a bit like Brehon. He had one of those secret books. These people turn up with tedious regularity and they don’t even tend to be very original.

The land is there. Your ancestors are in your blood. There may be all kinds of Gods, spirits, fairy folk, and so forth who might be willing to talk to you. Find your own secret special knowledge. Join a group that shares its secrets. Don’t be intimidated by anyone who makes outlandish claims.


The Ways of the Underworld

“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect
They may not be questioned”

These lines have been in my head a lot in recent days. Partly because of the Dark Goddess book I’ve been reading. The words have settled on me with a weight that I cannot ignore, a sense of presence and truth that overrides everything else that has been going on for me. The ways of the underworld are perfect…

It’s been a tough few weeks, and my blogging about what’s happening has been fragmentary. Partly this is because I only tend to write about things when I’ve properly processed them and think I have something useful to say. Partly because I’m not the only person caught up in this and I can’t check in about what it’s ok to say, because that’s part of the problem. I am not the only one to have taken a sudden and very intense underworld journey.

My own journey has taken me through issues of what happens when my most basic needs aren’t met or respected. I’ve been into the darkest places of PTSD triggering. I’ve questioned everything. I’ve stared into a future that looked like no kind of future at all. I broke down, and wept and broke until there came a point where I could break no further, and breakdown shifted, dramatically and gloriously into breakthrough and healing.

It was a bloody tough journey, but there was no way of getting from where I was to where I am now without something on that scale. The ways of the underworld are perfect. Terrible, terrifying, but also perfect.

At the time of writing, it’s left me in a strange place of simply having to trust to that perfection. I’m not the only person on an underworld journey, and the shape of my future may depend a great deal on how others emerge after walking their own dark roads. I can’t do that for them, or with them. All I can do is wait and trust, that what is happening is what needs to happen. That’s not easy either, and so I come back to those lines, over and over – the ways of the underworld are perfect, they may not be questioned. All of this is beyond me, bigger than me, and I get no vote in a lot of it. All I can do is surrender to the process, and accept it, and wait.

But, that’s actually a choice, that’s not simply passivity. There have been choices all the way in this journey. Letting go is a choice, fighting is a choice, belief is a choice. Even hope is a choice and often it’s hard to see that those are things you are choosing. But they are. My recent journey has revealed them to me as deliberate choices, over and over. The choice to get up, again, to move again no matter how much it hurts. The choice to love and trust and hope no matter how irrational that seems. I write this from a place of peace, settled into that irrational love, hope, trust combination, accepting the perfection of the journey in all of its emotional brutality and challenge.

The instruction to be quiet isn’t a knock-back, or a denial of the experience. It comes to me as comfort. Quiet, Nimue, the ways of the underworld are perfect.