Category Archives: Paganism

Making new traditions

For me, one of the great joys of modern Paganism is the scope we have to create new traditions. Not, I hope, with an eye to becoming the dogma for future generations, but in a playful and light-hearted way that enables us to let go of anything that doesn’t work.

We have a wealth of inspiration to draw on from folklore and mythology, but we don’t have to be excessively faithful to it. You don’t have to spend long studying these things to realise that they change over time anyway. Traditions are all about people keeping the bits they like, letting go of the bits they don’t and innovating new things to suit the time and place in which they find themselves.

Midwinter is the season of festivals, and there are a great many we might look at. Or, we can make our own. For me, one of the key seasonal features is the Christmas pudding. This is largely because of all the festive foodstuffs, it’s the one I truly love. I’ve been making puddings for years, and where I can, I make puddings to share. Having a pudding tribe is an important part of the season for me. One of my other personal traditions is visiting the swans – I live near Slimbridge, where migrant swans come in each winter to feed. They travel thousands of miles escaping the arctic winter for the relative mildness of the UK. There are also huge duck migrations, and I’ll enjoy seeing them, too.

Traditions give us fixed points in the year, they can connect us to ancestors, landscape, other living things, communities… they are very much what we make of them. Too much tradition is inevitably stifling, but sprinkled through a year, traditions form points of familiarity and continuity that can help us feel secure and give us a sense of place in both time and the physical world.

Anyone can start a tradition, and keep it for as long as they wish. As Pagans, we can, and I think should craft our traditions based on our experiences and needs, knowing what we want and need from them and acting accordingly. If we’re going to invest in keeping on doing something every year, it should be something that feeds the soul, lifts us, helps us bond with each other and brings joy, comfort, coherence, and connection.


Fair Weather Pagan

I admit it, I’m a fair weather Pagan. My willingness to go out and celebrate the seasons depends highly on weather conditions and temperature. This summer we started a monthly venture of going out to celebrate the full moon in a bardic way. The last session was in September because by October, the idea of standing round outside, at night, for an hour or so to share songs and stories, held no appeal whatsoever. We’ve moved to the pub, where there is less sense of the magical natural world, less of the shining full moon, but also less risk of accident, injury, or just getting very cold.

Having had chilblains during several winters, my willingness to stand around in the cold is not what it might be. Having fallen on the way out of a session in the dark – painful and embarrassing – I’m in no hurry to put myself forward for that again. Being out as a bard by the light of the full moon is a glorious thing, in the right conditions, but during a British winter, the prospect does not inspire.

There are always balances to strike between connection and viability. The younger, fitter, healthier and better resourced we are, the easier it is to do more extreme things. Gone are the days when my body can easily bear the experience of a sleepless night on the cold side of a hill.

I’ll continue to connect with the seasons, but I have to do so on terms that work for me. Daytime rituals and gatherings in the winter mean better light levels for dealing with the more slippery ground conditions – be that mud or ice. Staying warm, not being out for as long, not being as far off the beaten track, are all part of how I respond to winter. Waterproof trousers and thermal socks, a flask of something warm and a flashlight. These are not things my ancient Pagan ancestors would recognise, but then that’s true for the larger percentage of how I live my life.

‘Getting back to nature’ is something we as modern Pagans can often only do because we have a car to get us there and a washing machine to deal with what nature does to our trousers. It’s easy to kid ourselves that our particular work-around is somehow more natural, or more authentic – be that ski gear, energy drinks, or thermal underwear. We don’t live close to the land and seasons in the way our ancient ancestors did. Most of us don’t have the physical capabilities, knowledge or experience to live as our ancestors did. Doing what makes sense to you is fine, but don’t avoid looking at what you’re doing.

I think it’s better to be honest about what we are, and aren’t, and to modify ritual behaviour according to what we can genuinely cope with. Driving out to ‘nature’, dressing up in expensive, modern kit and knowing we can warm up with something hot from the microwave when we get home does not mean being especially in tune with our ancient ancestors. It just means we can afford this stuff – not everyone can. It’s worth thinking about the kinds of effort involved in winter rituals, and being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. It makes more sense to me to have a practice that reflects how you live, rather than having to do things that are otherwise quite unnatural to you, (or prohibitively expensive) with the idea that this will bring you closer to nature.


Who Pays the Piper?

He who pays the piper calls the tune. But what happens when no one pays the piper? This is an issue across creative industries, where people are often expected to work for free, or for ‘exposure’. It’s also an issue in Pagan circles, where authors, teachers and celebrants come under pressure to do it all for free, because that’s more ‘spiritual’.

So, what happens when we don’t pay? Well, the short answer, is that we only get to hear from people who can afford to do it for free. What this means, is people who have enough resources not to need to be paid. The independently wealthy. Those who are supported by a working partner. People who already own their home. People with pensions. People who can work full or part time to support themselves and still have the time and energy to do creative or spiritual work. That sort of thing.

This is a logic that excludes people. It means certain voices are far less likely to be heard. If you’re well enough to work, but not well enough to both support yourself and work extra in your free time, you can’t do it for free. If you are in abject poverty and already working several low paid jobs, or lots of overtime, if you have dependants, you can’t afford to work for free. If you are raising children or caring for the ill, then your time and resources are limited, and if you have to earn alongside that, the odds are not in favour of your also being able to work for free.

Of course people do it, and give more than they can afford, and this can add to both physical and mental illness. One of the price tags on having people work for nothing, is increasing the risk of them getting ill or burned out.

If we ask that things be given to us for nothing, we’re basically agreeing that we’re happy just to hear from the independently wealthy and privileged, and that we’re happy to see creative and Pagan jobs only carried out by people who are massively advantaged, and that we don’t need to hear from people from more diverse backgrounds. Or that we’re happy to have people hurt themselves to try and give us this stuff.

Of course not all of us can pay. Many people are facing all kinds of difficulties themselves, and don’t have the luxury of choice. It’s important that creativity and teaching be available to people who can’t afford it.

How do we get a balance here? If those who can pay, do. If those who can afford to pay the piper see it as part of their social duty. Pay when you can. Pay what you can afford. Even if what that means is that once a year you buy a book – that helps. We have an economic system that makes financial exchange all about the cost of what’s sold, but as Pagans we don’t have to buy into that narrow idea. What if we paid based on what we can afford?

This post was prompted by a piece on Gods and Radicals, which you can read here – https://godsandradicals.org/2016/11/04/help-us-pay-our-writers/

 


The Burning Times

The first time I heard the song The Burning Times, I was a teenager at Bromyard Folk Festival. By the end of the second verse, I was in tears. It’s a powerful song. Especially that second verse, about how the Pope declared the Inquisition, and 9 million European women died as a consequence, mostly burned to death, apart from those in the last lines of verse 2 ‘and the tale is told of those who, by the hundreds, holding hands together sought their deaths in the sea, singing in the praises of the mother goddess, a refusal of betrayal, women were dying to be free.’ It took me a long time to learn it, because singing it reduced me to tears.

In my twenties, I started reading more seriously about Paganism, and it didn’t take me long to start finding a lot of reasons to question the Burning Times myth. In the UK, we tended to hang witches, not burn them. The Inquisition was mostly about Christian heretics. There weren’t enough people in mediaeval Europe for a death toll of 9 million to make sense. The whole argument for smooth continuation of witchcraft practice coupled with witch burning doesn’t stack up properly. Whatever happened, verse 2 of the Burning Times isn’t it.

I took to doing a short history note before singing the song. But it bothered me, because this is a myth that isn’t, I think doing us any favours.

This autumn, out of the blue, a thought came to me. The Burning Times is now. And so I re-wrote the second verse.

 

If you aren’t familiar with the original, you can hear it here – https://youtu.be/RsNmJ7GKOUQ


A shifting daily practice

The idea of having a daily practice is widespread and popular. It’s an obvious difference between being a holidays and high days kind of Pagan, and a series full time Pagan. What does it mean to have a daily practice in the context of a nature based spirituality?

I admit it’s an idea I’ve struggled with. I’ve been consciously Pagan for something like twenty years now. I do something deliberately Pagan most days – some kind of spiritual expression. There are often stretches of doing the same thing daily for a while – that might be prayer, or meditation, it might be a daily divination session to tune in to the cosmos, or deep working with creativity, or walking to commune with some specific thing… But it seldom stays as the same daily practice for long.

The walking gives a case in point. I had a long stretch last year of going out at twilight to commune with the bats, and then the winter came and the bats hibernated. I had a few weeks this spring of going out to commune with young owls, but the owls became adults and went hunting by themselves in early summer. I go up onto the hills to commune with the orchids, but they aren’t there for most of the year. Where I might go and what I might do is inherently seasonal. The day length and temperatures change, and it just doesn’t make sense to do the same things always. Or if I do the same things the consequences will be different. I can’t get up at 7 and celebrate the dawn in the middle of winter.

There’s something in the idea of a fixed daily practice that appeals. It suggests discipline and dedication, and seriousness. In practice, it doesn’t work for me, and I like what I do a good deal better when it’s more responsive, and thus constantly shifting.


Avoiding economic exclusion in Paganism

People experiencing economic difficulties will often go to considerable lengths to hide this. At the same time, poverty can be a huge barrier to participation. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but its issues I’m aware of from personal experience and seeing problems friends have had. I’ve included suggestions about how best to minimise these problems to make Pagan activities more inclusive.

First up, be aware that your own measure of ‘small charge’ won’t be other people’s measure. People with financial challenges are probably budgeting, and that budgeting can be down into the pennies. There may well be no wriggle room. Advanced warning of costs enables budgeting and participation. Predictable costs are easier to deal with.

Entry cost. This is the most obvious financial barrier to participation. Offer concessions if you can and don’t humiliate people who ask for them. Working tickets can enable participation. Make sure your ticket price is the whole cost a person will have to pay – surprise expenses and sudden additions t the program are a nightmare, either causing the embarrassment of being compromised through lack of funds, or putting people in a position where paying now means they might not be able to eat later this week.

Transport costs. Poverty often means not being able to run a car. Public transport isn’t cheap and doesn’t go everywhere. Late night taxis are prohibitive. Look for venues people can get to, actively organise lift shares (it’s greener anyway). Stop before the last bus. Publish your end time, and stick to it so that people can make viable arrangements.

Childcare. If your event excludes children, then you may make it impossible for less affluent parents and single parents to attend. End times are really important if you’ve had to pay for a babysitter, as with transport issues. Name an end time and stick to it.

Kit. Required reading lists, and pressure to own certain items or wear robes etc. It all costs money up front, but there are hidden costs too.  If you’re on public transport either you travel in robes – not always safe – or you carry them and can’t carry anything else. For people in dire circumstances, laundry can become a problem, so pressure to have pristine white robes can become exclusive.

Compulsive attendance. It may be that a person can afford to attend sometimes, but won’t always have the money for the train, or the door. In extreme circumstances, being able to afford hot water to wash the self and clothing can be a problem. If there’s a requirement to make every session, even if the session itself is low cost, people in extreme poverty may be pushed out.

Buying food and drinks. Look for venues where people can self cater. The cost difference between bringing your own lunch, and having to buy lunch, is huge and can easily be a deal breaker for anyone in a tight financial situation. Make it clear if self catering is an option. If you are taking people to a venue – for example a pub – where they will be expected to buy drinks, check out the prices first. Some pubs are prohibitively expensive. Mentioning the likely drink costs will help people judge if they can afford to attend.

If some events have a significant price ticket on them, try and make sure there are others that don’t, so that people who can’t afford the weekend retreats etc can at least show up to something. Walking moots and house moots can be very affordable.

There are other things we can do to help each other. Share things, give things away, offer lifts… if we act more like a community, we don’t have to force out those who are unable to bear the costs. Paganism is a spiritual path, not a hobby, and no one should be priced out of participation.


Staying on the beaten track

There’s a romantic appeal to getting off the beaten track. It can suggest getting ‘back to nature’ – into some purer, more pristine space, less defiled by humans. And of course for a Pagan, that’s got to be attractive. We’re nature people, we want to be close to nature, so why am I suggesting we don’t get off the beaten track?

I mean this very literally, by the way.

First up there’s a practical reason to stay on the path – otherwise you can very easily get lost and in some places, getting lost can kill you. At the very least, stay on the tracks and build stamina and experience before you even think about doing something that takes you further into the wilds.

Consider though, that the more people get out there, off the beaten track in search of pristine nature, the less ‘pristine nature’ there is going to be. If you see human presence as at odds with wildness, then adding your presence is questionable as an action. And no amount of saying ‘I am a special priest of the land and my being there is different’ makes rocking up in your vehicle to do your bit of erosion any less of an impact.

Humans are pushing the rest of nature to the margins. The more we insist on traipsing off into what marginal wilderness remains, the more pressure we put on it. The more resources we use to ‘get away from it all’ – by flying to exotic places, taking 4x4s so we can get off road and so on, the more resources we use and the more harm we do.

When we’re on the beaten path, we are predictable to other creatures. They know where the paths are, it is easier for them to avoid us, and they tend to feel less threatened when we are where they expect us to be (based on my own experiences with deer). If we push into their spaces, they are going to feel threatened. We may frighten them or drive them off. They do not exist for our amusement and we should think carefully about how we treat their space.

When we’re on the beaten path, we can see where we are putting our feet. Some birds make their nests on the ground. Some rare flowers are very small. When we spend time stomping around off the path, we are more likely to harm or kill something.

Paths are ok, and they aren’t unnatural. Deer and badgers make paths. Sheep make paths. Pathmaking is part of how creatures interact with landscapes. Humans are creatures too, and using our own paths to move through a space in a way appropriate to our own bodies, and inoffensive to other life forms, is not some kind of Pagan-fail.

You can, I promise, stand on a path and look at, be moved by and enjoy that which is not on the path. It may be less macho but it’s a good deal kinder and more respectful.


How to take over

Earlier this year I was accused of worming my way into positions of power and influence. ‘Accused’ in the sense that the observation was not meant as a compliment. As there’s a lot of truth in it, I thought it might be productive to expose my methods and philosophy, and the outcomes. Much of what I do could be done by anyone with a mind to do it, and there is certainly both the need and the space, although I’m by no means the only person working in this kind of way.

Philosophy

I look for groups, events, organisations and individuals who I think are doing something valuable but show signs of needing more help. I choose based on where I can most usefully give help, what most interests me, and what I think will do most good. I move on when the job is done, or I’m bored, or think something else is more important, and suchlike. My primary aim is that there be more good stuff.

Methods

I rock up and offer to help. I take on jobs that aren’t fun, glamorous or self promoting – I steward, tidy up, pick stones out of allotments, litter pick, paint fences. I also offer my particular skills – public speaking, blogging, writing, marketing, networking, media, creative thinking, performing, organising… and other things. One of the consequences of doing this over many years is that I know a lot of awesome people who are willing to pile in and do things, and who are working in gift economy and favour exchange, and who can be asked, and awesome people who can be booked.

Results

Often what I do is put awesome people in touch with each other, resulting in more awesome, and more scope to do this sort of thing. I spend a lot of time working for free, on things I believe in. I get the pleasure of seeing things work. Sometimes there are direct personal benefits – opportunities are created, sometimes paying work comes off the back of volunteering, or other scope for self advancement. I am not ashamed of this, and actively encourage anyone doing good stuff to accept the gifts and favours that come with working in a gift economy. It’s easiest to grow good things when people are generous but not self-sacrificing. Work that is entirely about giving is hard to sustain and more likely to burn people out.

Conclusions

This is not a career strategy by any conventional standards, but I have to say that work-wise, Tom and I benefit greatly from this way of doing things. Favours become opportunities. Helping out creates enduring networks of friends. We make valuable contacts. More good stuff happening means more good stuff for us to be part of. We greatly enjoy what we get to do.

If you are interested in exploring this way of working, then you need to be clear about your goals – not in the sense of personal achievement, more what you want to invest in to see more of. You need to know what your skills and strengths are and not be afraid to offer them as things of worth. There is always more that needs doing than there are people willing to do it, so once you get started, you have to be mindful of what’s sustainable because people will ask you to do more (I’ve messed up repeatedly on that score).

There are of course people who will look at this work, and these groups, events etc and see the scope for a power base, and who will want the power base, not the ‘more good stuff’ or the effort of doing the work. They can be an obstacle to productively getting things done. Where there’s a lot of ego, the scope for good stuff is greatly reduced, while the likely effort required increases. People who want to be important can be jealous of people who are effective at getting things done, and the results are seldom pretty. The best places to volunteer are where the people running things are intent on ‘more good stuff’ and not self aggrandisement, and the best volunteers to take on are those who are far more excited about the work, than about the scope for personal advancement.

Fully taking over, I should note, tends to mean carrying the legal, financial and practical responsibility for a thing, and that’s not as much fun as it sounds.


Considering the Nature of Prayer

This is an excerpt from the start of my book When A Pagan Prays…

When I first started thinking about prayer, it was very much from a position of intellectual curiosity. In many ways, my prompt was Alain du Bottan’s Religion for Atheists, which explores the social benefits of religious activity. Prayer was notable in its absence from the book. However, the idea of considering religions in terms of what they do in this world, appealed to me. While I am not an atheist, I’m not very good at belief either. In many ways the atheist position seems too much like certainty to me, but nonetheless I find a lot of atheist thinking appealing. Demanding that things make sense on their own, immediate terms rather than with reference to unknowable, ineffable plans, is something I have to agree with. Looking for rational approaches to religion led me to write Spirituality without Structure in one of the gaps while this book was being wrestled into submission.

There isn’t really a fixed modern tradition of Druid prayer. Some groups and Orders have defined approaches to praying, but my impression is that the majority do not. Early conversations on the subject indicated to me that many Druids feel uneasy about what they see as being a practice we can only borrow from other religions. Petitioning the gods for things feels both pointless and wrong. Looking further afield, I found that people generally take prayer to mean petition, unless they are deeply involved with a spiritual path that includes a more involved understanding of the subject. This seems to be true of
people of all religions.

My thinking at this stage was: other religions use prayer extensively and apparently we don’t. Why is that? Are there good reasons to reject prayer, or are we missing a trick? I admit that I thought the question could just be tackled intellectually. Being the sort of person who defaults in all things to getting a book on the subject, I set off to read around.

When I was first looking for books to read about prayer, I poked about online and in bookshops. Books of prayers are plentiful, but not what I wanted. Books that consider prayer as a process are relatively few, although I did eventually track down some excellent ones, and you’ll see scattered references as we
progress.

In a Christian bookshop, a generous woman spoke to me about her own prayer practice. She viewed the urge towards prayer as innate to the human condition. She also found me some books, and did not blink too much when the subject of Druidry came up. “I pray to God as if I was talking to my father. He is my
father. I can go to him and ask him for things,” was the gist of her description. I did not learn her name, but remain grateful for her help. She spoke to me about prayer as something intrinsic and natural, and found it odd I should want a book examining how and why we pray. The shortage of such books suggests that many religious people would agree with her perspective.

From that first book (How to Pray, John Pritchard) a new way of thinking about the idea of prayer began to open up before me. “Essentially it is about entering a mystery, not getting a result.” I found this resonant. The author is an Anglican Christian, but the sentiment struck me as being totally compatible with Druidry as I practise it.

My next read was a Catholic book (Ways of Praying, John C Edwards) by which time it had become plain to me that in some quarters, prayers of petition are considered to be the least important form of prayer, at least by the people for whom praying is a professional and serious business. After that, my reading took me into works from other traditions and I wondered if I would be writing a comparative religion text. However, that would have largely been a rehashing of other people’s work, and I’m not convinced the world really needs something like that.

I had considered surveying the modern Druid community in a more formal way to deepen my understanding of what we do and how we do things. However, my initial enquiries had raised the issue that a significant percentage of the Druids I had talked to were not praying at all. There are some who admit to occasional petitions, and several groups with much more involved approaches. I could get figures for the praying and not praying, I could ask nosey questions about who people pray to, and what they think they get out of it, but how much would that help? This was my first inkling that intellectual research might not be able to shed enough light on the subject. It could easily be like scraping the paint off pictures and weighing it to make judgments about the value of art works. That leaves the anecdotal, and self-reporting, neither of which constitute good science – not even in softer subjects like psychology. I don’t have the kit to study what happens inside people’s brains when they pray.

Why was I fearful of writing a spiritual book about a spiritual subject? It was a question I did not know how to ask myself at the time, but looking back it seems significant.

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

 


Pagan Clergy

Last week I read this excellent post on The Ditzy Druid blog – https://ditzydruid.com/2016/04/23/why-i-believe-pagans-need-clergy/ which got me thinking about Pagan clergy.

In organised religions, clergy tends to mean hierarchy. It means people with more power and influence, perhaps in a many tiered system. I can’t say it’s something I find attractive. As a Pagan doing the clergy job, I’m very aware that I don’t have much of a formal support network. No one is paying me to support others through crisis or to offer guidance. There isn’t someone I can definitely go to for support myself, or advice or anything like that. I have no doubt it’s easier to do the work when you get paid for it and you’ve got backup.

In practice if I’m struggling, I’m likely to look around and see who, of the wise people I know, might have some ideas, or some spare energy. I am a celebrant, and an advice giver, but there are times when I need the benefit of someone else’s insight and experience. Sometimes I need a perspective from someone not as emotionally caught up in things. If I need a rite of passage, I need someone else to do that for me. If I need witnessing in something, I need someone else to do it. I think this is true for all Pagans.

One of the oft touted ideas in Paganism is that we are all our own priests and priestesses. We can all talk directly to what we hold sacred. However, in being priests and priestesses, perhaps we need to think about that role not in purely personal terms, but in community terms. In every tarot reading, every assist with a troubling dream, in ritual, in exchanging ideas and in comforting each other, we act as each other’s spiritual guides and counsellors.

Priestwork need not mean authority or hierarchy. It could be understood in terms of shared responsibility. We all need people to advise, support and challenge us once in a while. We can do that without sacrificing autonomy, by having it happen in a more fluid way.