Category Archives: Paganism

Beneath the surface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paganism and stolen books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spirituality and depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All Acts of Love and Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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


Knowing the Land

I love visiting new places and exploring unfamiliar landscapes. It’s very easy to get excited about the unfamiliar, and the rush of discovery and encounter. The new view, the unfolding of a landscape that surprises at every turn – there are adventures to be had.

It’s all too easy (and I say this because I’ve done it) to come in for the first time, get caught on the wave of excitement and feel that you’ve got a deep and meaningful insight into a place. It’s possible (again, I’ve done it) to psyche yourself up into an especially magical Pagan mindset so that every part of the experience is charged with symbolic resonance and a sense of the divine. It’s easier to do this with an unknown landscape than a familiar one, because the unfamiliarity makes us pay more attention and tends to leave us more open to being awed.

It’s possible (yes, yes I have…) to come away from a very superficial encounter with a new landscape feeling powerful, charged up, spoken to… or whatever else it was that you wanted to feel.

Walking in a familiar landscape won’t give you that rush. When your feet know the shape of the land, and you’ve been there season after season, and you know what’s normal, and the land going about its own things and not therefore any kind of sign meant just for you… it takes effort to go out into the familiar and really see it. Seeing the familiar as magical is much harder work, because you have all the baggage of your everyday life and self in the mix.

What comes from a slower, deeper relationship with the land is less likely to make you feel big and important, and more likely to make you feel part of what’s around you (and thankfully yes, I’ve done that too).


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.