A guest blog from Chris Mole
Tag Archives: pagan
We live in a goal-orientated society. Success is understood in terms of achievement, goals and markers. Qualifications, promotions, pay increases, a bigger house, a more expensive car… we set up goals and chase them and then, when we’re done, we head for the next goal. There’s no space here to feel happy or fulfilled, and this is part of what keeps us locked into consumerism. People who feel unfulfilled can be persuaded that products will answer this need.
Now, in some ways, moving goalposts are unavoidable. If you have any investment in improving yourself, you’ll always see ways in which you can improve. One of the signs of knowing more, or deepening a skill is that your scope to see what else you could achieve always increases too. However, this is a constant process, and it doesn’t create goals that you can easily brag about.
Paganism does offer us ‘levels’, titles, certificates, and all the things that help us live a goal-orientated life. What does it mean to be a successful Pagan? How many books and articles must you have published? How many followers must you have? How much must you be able to charge for courses? And what does it do to your spiritual path if your path becomes all about the number of moots you can run, and students you can sign up? The more goal-focused we are, the more the spiritual things may slip from our grasp.
For me, spiritual growth has proved to be a lot like growing as a creator. I can’t tell you what exactly it is that makes me a better colourist than I was a few years ago, but I know I am. Many tiny things have changed day to day as I’ve worked on comics pages. There are things I know because I’ve done them a lot. There’s the consequence of showing up to the table and doing the work. I know I’ve improved and I can see it.
On the Druid side it gets even harder to explain. There’s the same process of showing up. At the moment I am showing up for the land as much as I can. I know things that I did not know before but as much of it is body knowledge I’m still struggling to put it into words. It doesn’t make me a better druid than any other druid, but I feel it as growth and I feel I’m a better druid than I used to be. I am not trying to compete with anyone else, any more than it makes sense for me to try and compete as a colourist with other colourists who have totally different styles and intentions.
My success is a process. It’s a day to day thing with no real goals; only to deepen and widen and become more. I see very similar things happening in my relationships, in my writing and thinking. I have no specific ambitions, which I’m finding liberating. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone else any more, which is a great relief. This success process allows me to celebrate small things all the time. It allows me to feel sufficiently satisfied with my life not to be miserable. It also keeps me on my toes enough not to feel bored or stagnant. I can enjoy what I have because I’m not focused on the next goal. At the same time, I can develop and grow. I don’t have to look at anyone else’s version of success and compare mine in order to feel validated.
(thank you Tommy Elf for the inspiration to write this – https://tommyelf22.wordpress.com/2018/10/27/looking-for-advancedpagan-practices-roll-for-initiative/ )
As I usually point out when writing about the seasons, the journey through any given season is a process, not an event. Some things of course are events – the first frost is a good example. There is a process of the nights getting colder until heavy dews are replaced by frost, but there’s a definite difference between frost, and not-frost and you can mark it.
Changes in temperature aren’t a smooth process. We may have a few unusually cold or balmy days and then the season gets back to something more expected.
This week, I passed a significant marker for the season – the nights are now cold, and walking home after dark now requires more layers, hats, and so forth.
Walking for transport gives me an immediate relationship with what’s going on outside. I walk at different times in the day depending on what I’m doing, so there are some morning forays out, some daytime excursions and at least once a week I’ll come home after dark. For most of the year, I have to pay close attention to weather and temperature so as to be dressed for it – and not only dressed for when I leave, but for when I come back. A few hours can make a surprising difference.
In this way, I have a day to day body experience of the season. Our Pagan ancestors would have had this as well. You don’t have to go back very far for most people to be on foot or on horseback, or in a cart if they were going anywhere. Insulation from the elements was for the leisured few. Dealing with weather and temperature day to day was part of the normal life of most people in a way it isn’t now. If you can set the thermometer in your home to a fixed temperature, and if outside is only a few moments between temperature-regulated home, and temperature-regulated car, then your body isn’t involved with the seasons. I’ve never done it, so I have no idea what that experience does to a person.
A guest blog from Nils Visser
“Is this Wicca?” Somebody asked me at the Steampunk Asylum in Lincoln, to which I had brought my Wyrde Woods books Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd.
“Erm, yes, no, maybe…” I was left fumbling as per usual.
Truth be told, both Neverland and Dance (the both forming one story) have defied easy categorisation since their conception. I didn’t know this when I wrote them, knowing next to nothing about publishing fiction, but I was defying all conventional wisdom by producing works which are hard to squeeze into a clearly defined genre. Had I known, I would have probably ignored it anyway, because I mostly wrote Wenn Twyner’s story as part of self-therapy at a time when I was stuck in a deep, dark pit.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many Wyrde Woods readers cared enough about the story to make it their own, describing it to me as a love story, or books about coming-of-age, mental health issues, ecological conservation, road protests, magical childhood kingdoms, spirituality, regional (Sussex) culture, or witchcraft. I am not about to argue with people’s personal reading experiences, and it’s quite magnificent to have conceived a tale about which readers really care, so their insights are much welcomed. However, if you asked me to tell you what Wenn Twyner’s story is about, I would mention all the above as being essential ingredients, but subordinate themes to the main one, which is one person’s journey from trauma to recovery – something that is by very definition a highly personal and unique experience.
Is the magic and witchcraft in the books Wicca? Yes. No. Maybe. It wasn’t written specifically to be presented as a Wicca book. If I were to claim it was, I’m quite sure even a mediocre pedantic could easily find fault with it, for I have relied on a wide range of experiences, insights, and personal preferences to construct the magic of the Wyrde Woods. Much of that overlaps, but not all.
So how did it all come about?
It begins with my own concept of spirituality, which is quite a melting pot and goes way back to the 70s. I was born in the Netherlands in 1970, but apart from a few fragments, my first memories are of another country altogether. When I was three years old, my father was due to write his anthropology PhD thesis. This included a lengthy stay amongst the people he wanted to observe, so the entire family moved from the Netherlands to a tiny village in the central plains of Thailand.
This wasn’t the luxurious ex-pat existence more common these days, but total immersion. We lived in a hut on stilts near a big river, without any mod cons, just like everybody else in the village. I saw elephants on a daily basis, cars not so much, maybe one would pass by every fortnight or so, at snail’s pace because all of us village children would crowd around it to marvel at the shiny contraption. Not that modern technology passed us by entirely, for we frequently saw US Airforce bombers heading for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to give you a bit of historical context. We didn’t have a bathroom. We washed ourselves with water from a bucket, and relieved ourselves in the banana plantation behind the cluster of huts which was home to several extended families as well as our own smaller one. Upon our return to the Netherlands, after close to three years in Thailand, my younger brother and myself caused occasional consternation at home or visiting relatives and friends for a year or so, because we would happily wander into tiny suburban gardens to squat and do a poo, not quite appreciating the Dutch fondness for tiny, cramped, and claustrophobic indoor closets for such purposes.
I attended the village school and – with that knack young children have – managed to learn to speak and read Thai. This is a complex language, with a great many ways of pronouncing vowels, each pronunciation denoting a different meaning. My father wrestled with Thai. One day he was asked to repeat his compliments of a market seller’s watermelons again and again, as more and more villagers were invited to hear him speak, to collective delight, because he was actually mistakenly complimenting the market seller’s wife’s breasts…very nice…round and juicy…you get the drift. He solved this by appointing me as his translator. I was around four years old at the time, and already an anthropology research assistant, my first job!
Part of the research involved religious beliefs, because spirituality pervades everyday life in Thailand to a considerable extent. Although Buddhism forms the central core of Thai religion, it is infused with an old (Brah-maist) Hindu tradition, shamanic animist roots, and ancient folklorist beliefs. The spirit world is closely interwoven with the living world, and everyone in our village had a ‘spirit house’, a shrine where offerings can be made to appease ghosts to prevent them from becoming malevolent. I maintain the custom of keeping a spirit house to this day, by the way, usually one of the first things I set up when moving into a new place.
The generic name for spirits is phi, but this covers a very wide range of beings, from ghosts, to benevolent nature spirits, to an impressively grotesque array of demons. I recall visiting temples, where drawings on delicate rice paper were produced, illustrations of demonic Yamatoots (in the service of Yama, the Lord of Hell) tormenting humans in ways that make your average Hieronymus Bosch depiction of hell seem like a pleasant countryside picnic. Translating all of this for my father, I built up an impressive knowledge of the Yaksha, both the good guardian variety as the evil ones who haunt wild places and devour unwary passer-by’s. I also learned the stories of the Garuda, the Naga, Hanuman, Thotsakan, Maiyarap, Phi Krasue, Phi Krahang, Phi Braed, Phi Lok, Mae Nak Phra Kanong, and many others.
I have vivid memories of a visit to our village by a demon specialised in the abduction of naughty children. With hindsight, it may have been a cautionary appearance by a villager dressed up and wearing a demon’s mask, but that is not how we experienced it. My playmates and I were terrified, but also fascinated, so we stalked the demon as it stalked us, and I remember the whole thing being horrifically realistic and tremendously exciting.
The Christian beliefs back in the Netherlands, generally cleansed of doom and hellfire, seemed tame and lame when I returned, and failed to capture my imagination the way Thai spiritualism had, apart from a few old testament stories like Jonah and the Whale.
A few years after our return to the Netherlands, my father got a job as administrator of a Dutch NGO Third World Development service in Kathmandu, Nepal, and once more we left the Netherlands to live abroad. I lived in Kathmandu for four glorious years, from age ten to fourteen, and could often be found wandering about the magnificent temple complexes of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, Patan, Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath, Bouddhanath, and Pashupatinath.
In contrast to Thailand, Hinduism was the main religion here, with a very royal dose of Buddhism thrown in for good measure, the whole influenced by deeply rooted shamanic beliefs. Akin to Thailand, spirituality was interwoven into daily life, rather than compartmentalised into something you might do on a Sunday. It was not at all uncommon for a Nepali to use his lunch break to eat at a local temple whilst communing with his (deceased) parents, and to come back to say that his father or mother had said this, that, or the other. Amongst other things, I paid a rupee to behold Kumari, the Living Goddess whose feet must not touch the ground, developed a personal affinity to Parvati and Ganesh, witnessed the ritual sacrifice of more goats and buffalo than I care to remember, watched (and smelled!) open funeral pyres, visited a shamanic witch doctor seeking cures for a wide variety of Delhi-Belly, participated in religious festivals, and collected colourful masks of my favourite gods and goddesses.
Towards the end of our stay, I also became fascinated by the Goddess of Lightning who provided some of my earliest sex-ed. Temples needed to be protected from lightning, you see, and this was achieved by elaborate carvings on the struts supporting the tiers of temples, depicting just about every sexual act you can imagine (men and women, men and men, women and women, threesomes, foursomes, tensomes, a lot of bestiality involving dogs, monkeys, donkeys etc.). The reasoning was that the Goddess of Lightning was a virgin who would naturally shy away from graphic erotica.
One of the most profound experiences I had in Nepal was when I was eleven, on a trek somewhere in the Himalayas. We were high up, above the tree line, so probably about three-and-a-half thousand meters, and took a brief detour to a Tibetan monastery perched atop a ridge of craggy rocks, at the centre of a vast web of colourful prayer flags. The backdrop was formed by the Himalayas, snow-covered giants which towered another three, four thousand meters over our heads, reducing us to insignificant particles with a comparable life-span of a mayfly. Just the sort of thing to put you in a state of mind in which you contemplate the mysteries of life.
We went into the monastery, purchased silk scarves and incense, prostrated ourselves in front of a statue of the Buddha, and then presented the scarves and incense to the Head Lama, who took the incense and blessed the scarves before laying these around our shoulders. As was customary, he then shared some wisdom. Hindsight tells me that he had a standard spiel for this, based mostly on young Westerners on a semi-spiritual walkabout in exotic destinations, but that is not how I experienced it as a wide-eyed eleven-year-old.
The Lama started by explaining the prayer flags we had seen. They are delicate squares of cloth, coloured white, yellow, green, blue, and red, with prayers printed on them. They are unravelled by the wind, and the strands worked loose blow from the Himalayas – the roof of the world –, to the rest of the planet, thus ensuring that the prayers are spread widely. The Lama added that this was a good thing, because it didn’t matter what people called the God(s) they worshipped, or the religion they adhered to, since it was “all the same Light, or the same Darkness, regardless of the shape or name given to the eternal balance between Good and Evil, and the choices people must make between them.”
Those words have formed the firm cornerstone of my personal beliefs ever since.
The Lama followed with a rebuke of sorts, saying that he admired us for travelling so far to seek enlightenment, but that the best place to seek such knowledge was at home. This puzzled the eleven-year-old me, as we weren’t all that far from Kathmandu, which I considered home. It wasn’t until later, that I realised he was really just rattling off a standard speech intended mostly for young twenty-somethings on their (almost mandatory) magical mystery tour before settling down. I think it was a warning, not to consider spiritual enlightenment as something that was just a part of a grand tour of the East, but to see it as something which should be sought for at home, infusing everyday life as it did in Asia.
At any rate, those words too, took root in my mind, and will lead us to the Wyrde Woods in Sussex many years later.
(Part two of this will be along in a few weeks, as will my review of Nils’ brilliant Wyrde Wood books).
Equinoxes have always foxed me. I think in part it’s because there’s very little folk material to draw on for them. Other festivals have seasonal activities and a wealth of traditions, but the equinoxes don’t. Here we are facing the autumn one. Grain has been harvested, fruit harvests are coming in, root crops will be harvested for some time to come. Often the festival is taken as an opportunity to consider the bounty and the harvests in our own lives, but that isn’t without issue.
When I first came to pagan ritual it was reasonable to assume that no one in the circle would be going hungry. Austerity has pushed so many people towards the edge, that I can’t contemplate harvest now without also thinking about food banks. I can’t assume, if I run a public ritual, that everyone in circle will be able to talk about bounty and harvest. I cannot make a ritual into a place of privilege or pile on the discomfort for those who come along who are really struggling.
This is all quite hypothetical in some ways because I’m not running a public facing ritual this year. But like many Pagans, I’m online talking about how we celebrate the season.
Harvest times weren’t always a cause for ancestral celebration. You don’t have to go back very far for communities to be much more dependent on what they could harvest themselves. International food trade gives many of us insulation in face of poor harvests – those of us who live in more affluent countries. Food shortages tend to push up food prices which can drive poorer regions out of the market.
Famine is still a thing. We have the means to feed everyone, but not the will. We’ve decided that profit is more important than human life or comfort. In rich countries, we’re willing to let people starve and suffer long term from malnutrition. We’re willing to let people in difficulty around the world go hungry if they can’t pay for food. We’re happy to have them growing non-food items for our market places rather than food supplies they can live on.
This is not something any of us can fix by individual action. We can however start questioning the way money and resources move around. We can challenge the priorities. What good is all of our growth and development if we can’t solve the most basic problems? What good is our technology and knowledge if people go hungry? Harvests are a matter of luck as much as anything else. Your climate and where you live also play a part. Why do we think it’s ok for the lucky to get rich at the expense of the unlucky?
The horse chestnut near my flat decided to get autumnal some weeks ago. Partly because of the drought I expect, and also partly because it has some sort of tree disease and tends to shed its leaves early. Said horse chestnut has nearly bare branches already and what leaves remain are the kind of brown most other trees won’t develop for more than a month.
Around it, most of the other trees are still green. At this time of year, the green of leaves is dark and tired looking compared to the fresh, bright tones of spring. A few of the trees are also yellowing – ash and elder specifically. These are usually some of the first trees to turn at this time of year. At least here. I have no idea how exactly autumn plays out anywhere else.
I think it’s really important to observe the seasons as they occur for you, not as they are supposed to occur. Far too many pagan books tell us what the eight festivals mean in terms of nature, and are mostly wrong – because of regional variation, shifts from year to year and so forth. No one can tell you how the wheel of the year will turn for you.
It’s also good to think about key seasonal markers and what those are for you, and how they manifest around you. What kind of trees grow where you live will very much affect your experience of the season. If you mostly live with evergreens, you won’t have colourful leaves. Here it’s predominantly beech, so those tend to turn a little later than ash and chestnut, and produce intense and coppery colours. For me, full on autumn is a beech wood, but for my husband who came from Maine, autumn means maples and birch, which we don’t have in the same way. We get the odd birch, but not enough to define the season.
At the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Pagan Pride in Nottinghamn. It’s a very large Pagan gathering, but hard to tell how large with people spread out in a park, under trees. As someone who finds tight packed crowds incredibly stressful, I was delighted to find that there was always room, and space, and tree shade, and at no point was it overwhelming.
Much to my delight, the event gave me opportunity to meet in person many people I have known online for years, including Moon Books authors Barbara Meiklejohn-Free, and Taz Thornton. My son went to one of Taz’s workshops and had a fantastic time. It was good to meet Indie Shaman’s June Kent, too, and to catch up with Paul Cudby – author of The Shaken Path, a brilliant book taking a sympathetic look at Paganism from a Christian perspective. Quite a few people told me that I email them about review books, or that they follow this blog, or know me from my Pagan Dawn column, which was all very exciting. Working quietly at home it’s easy to feel that I’m not having much effect, so it’s incredibly affirming getting feedback like that.
In terms of meeting new people, the absolute high point for me was finally getting to meet Mike Stygal. I’ve known Mike as an online and in print voice for many years. He’s currently the vice president of the Pagan Federation, after serving for many years as president. He does an amazing amount of very effective work supporting the Pagan community but he’s not a self publicist. He’s a fine example of a person using their power to get things done rather than seeking power for the sake of being important. I’m a big fan. I had to make quite a lot of conscious effort not to go all fan-girl on introduction. He’s every bit as awesome in person as he is in the internet ether.
There is a real power in getting to be bodily in the same space as people. There’s something incredibly uplifting about being in a gathering full of fellow travellers and kindred spirits – I find this is just as true at folk festivals and steampunk events. There is a joy in being surrounded by people you feel are your people. Having time where you can feel a real sense of belonging and acceptability, is wonderful. Pagan spaces are pretty diverse, so it’s not like anyone can look round and see obvious reflections of themselves, but in that space there is so much room to be as I am, and that’s worth so much.
There are questions to ask about what the environmental cost is of gatherings and travelling to gatherings. How we balance up the impact of what we do. I acknowledge a personal, emotional need for spaces where I can connect in person with other people. I acknowledge that there is always an environmental impact to doing this. I think if you yearn for something because it feeds your soul, then the answer may well be to make more dramatic changes in some other aspect of your life so that your overall impact isn’t too high.
I am delighted to announce that my speculative novel – Fast Food at the Centre of the Wold – is now entirely up at bandcamp and you can start listening to it here – https://nimuebrown.bandcamp.com/track/fast-food-at-the-centre-of-the-world-part-one
This is a novel recorded by me in 22 episodes – each episode is about twenty minutes long. If you listen on bandcamp you can hear the whole thing for free, so far as I know. I encourage you to do that! (If you want to throw money at me, that’s lovely, but you definitely don’t have to.)
This is a story with a lot of magic in it. While the magic is considerably more dramatic than the kinds of experiences Pagans tend to report, I’ve tried to root it in ways that make sense. The most obvious sorcerer in the mix – Dunsany – is very much a will worker and comes from the kind of tradition that draws complex sigils on things and reads a lot of books. He’s also touched by otherworldly influences.
Some of the magic is wild, chaotic and instinctual. There’s also a lot of bardic magic here and I think that’s the most realistic part of the mix. I firmly believe in the power of song, poetry and story to act on people and radically change them. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in this story. And it is a story that has managed to cast a spell on at least one person – resulting in her now writing poetry. This is something I’m enormously proud of.
I’m pondering what the next audio project might be. Poetry? Chants? Short stories? Songs? Another novel? Obviously some of these things I can do more quickly than others. If there’s anything you’d particularly like me to do, please say.
And in the meantime, if you want to help me get more stuff out there free at the point of delivery (this blog, youtube videos, informal mentoring, etc) consider supporting me on Patreon if you want to make a monthly commitment (and get more of my creative stuffs). Or, if you want to do a one off thing, throw money in the ko-fi hat below (everything helps). Thank you!