Tag Archives: pagan

Belief, self and Paganism

‘Know thyself’ might be one of the most ancient Pagan instructions out there. Let’s look at the interplay between faith, and who we believe we are.

To be a witch and to put your will into the world, you have to believe that your will is powerful enough to change what’s around you. You also have to trust that your judgement is good enough to make those changes wise.

To work with any spiritual entity – Gods, faeries, ancestors, totems, guides, not only do you have to believe in them, but you also have to believe in yourself. You have to believe you are someone a Goddess or others would want to work with. You have to believe that your experiences represent something valid and profound. You have to be confident it isn’t the voice of ego or wishful thinking in your head. You have to be confident that what you experience is not madness.

To work with intuition you need that same confidence that you aren’t just perceiving your own fantasies. If you suffer from anxiety or depression it is much harder to trust your perceptions, much less your intuition. You need to be able to believe in your capacity to see clearly, un-muddled by fear, over-optimism, desire or distress.

Often in Paganism, you need to be able to hold the belief that your individual action matters on a bigger scale than your own life. You may need to believe that the universe has a benevolent attitude to you. For almost all magical practice you need to believe that you are worth having things changed for. Sometimes by extension it becomes necessary to believe there are reasons why other people aren’t as valued, protected and blessed. It can lead you to a place where you have to do some really interesting thinking to explain when you do all the things and aren’t protected or blessed.

You won’t go looking for Goddesses if you do not believe that a Goddess would be interested in finding you. You won’t do magic if you don’t believe your circumstances could change. You won’t pray for intervention if you truly don’t believe you deserve any better. You won’t undertake rituals unless you believe those rituals have some kind of effect. What we believe about ourselves can be as influential on our spiritual lives as any belief we have about how the rest of the universe functions.

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Fickleness, loyalty and virtue

Loyalty is generally seen as a virtue. In heroic cultures, loyalty to your leader is much prized – loyalty makes it to the list of nine Heathen virtues for this reason. It is key to cooperation, and is woven into marriage vows as well – we often pledge to love each other in sickness and in health, for better or worse – to be loyal regardless of adverse circumstances or better offers. To stick with someone, or something when the going gets tough, can take courage and determination as well as generosity. Loyalty is something to treasure.

However, like all ideas, it has its limits. Staying loyal to the person who has abused your loyalty stops looking like virtue and starts looking like self harm. If people are not loyal to us in return, it may be ill advised to remain faithful and devoted to them. Staying loyal to someone who has behaved dishonourably is also questionable. JK Rowling’s loyalty to Johnny Depp, for example, does not inspire confidence in her, and strikes me as a rather dishonourable choice. There can be no honour in loyally sticking up for the cheat, the abuser, or the exploiter.

Loyalty can get us stuck places to no one’s benefit. Sometimes you just need to come in, and do the things, and when the things are done, move on. Staying out of a sense of loyalty can keep something going that is no longer use or ornament. As Pagans we recognise that death and decay are part of the natural cycle. Everything has its seasons, its lifespan. To loyally cling on and not give up on something that needs to be allowed to die may feel like virtue, without having the consequences of virtue.

Truly virtuous behaviour, from a Pagan perspective, makes more good happen. It enables, it causes self and/or others to flourish. Virtue promotes health and wellbeing, and enables us to have good lives in all the sense of that word. Anything taken to excess won’t do that. Loyalty taken to excess becomes limiting and harmful.

We all need room to experiment and to change. What made sense for us at one life stage may stop making sense as we age. Our needs shift. Sometimes we all need the freedom to flit between projects, jobs, friends, lovers, belief systems, in order to figure out who we are and where we fit. Sometimes we need to be fickle, to change our minds, to pull away from what we once enthusiastically embraced. If loyalty must be absolute, and commitment must be unconditional and for always, we stifle ourselves.


A Steampunk Manifesto

Something cheering today, I thought! I first heard this piece in Lincoln last summer, and it was a wild blast of a performance full of mirth and enthusiasm. What’s below is A steampunk manifesto, not a definitive work. It’s more of an invitation, I feel, for people to go away and think about what their own steampunk manifesto would look like. Or their Pagan manifesto, or anything else they wanted to write an impassioned declaration about.

 

 

You can find Kevan Manwaring over here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com

And you can find the manifesto on Tom’s Etsy page, along with other originals and posters that we will send to you in exchange for money.  https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/583729847/steampunk-manifesto?ref=shop_home_active_2

(We will later exchange said money for foodstuffs, art supplies, coffee and a steady supply of presentable trousers).


My life with books

One of my many hats, is that of book publicist. It’s work I’m proud of, and also work I think it might be useful to talk about. As an author, and as a person with lots of friends who are authors, I know quite a lot about the publishing industry. The bigger a company you deal with, the more they look for a sure fire win. They want books that are an easy sell. Most Pagan authors would not be able to get their non-fiction work picked up by a major publisher. Or their Pagan fiction for that matter.

For me, it’s always been a case of trying to identify really good books and then get those books in front of the people who would appreciate them. I think this is what the publishing industry should be about – getting great reads to people. Most of the time it isn’t. My friends Phil and Jacqui can’t get a deal – editors love their work, but Matlock the Hare is about a talking hare, and talking animals are children’s books and these are not children’s books and therefore it cannot be done. They are one example among many.

The average book sells three thousand copies in its lifetime. A bestseller is a book that sells more than five thousand copies. Over at Moon Books, Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess – a book about ritual descent and shadow work, has sold over ten thousand copies. This is not the sort of book that many publishers would have taken forward, and yet, the numbers tell a different story. Some time next year Morgan Daimler’s introduction to The Morrigan is also going to pass the ten thousand mark for sales. I take great pride in helping promote these books. What really sells them is that they are excellent and needed.

I’ve seen repeatedly that an original book in a definable niche can actually do better than something that looked like a box ticking crowd pleasing sure fire thing. Forgive me if I don’t name names and ask you to take that on trust.

The author who knows who, specifically they are writing for can do a lot better than the one who imagines they are writing for everyone.

For folk on the literary side, there can be something distasteful about having to consider the lowly business of actually selling the books. The book is published, and then by magic, should sell itself by dint of its obvious literary merit. Again, I’ve seen it done and I won’t name names. The kinds of books that get listed for literary prizes have often only sold a few hundred copies before they make the list. This frustrates and annoys me. If you believe something is good, surely it makes sense to do everything you can to get it in front of people who will appreciate it?

I can say with confidence that when good books sell, good things happen for the authors who created them. The morale boost of a few thousand sales versus a few hundred is considerable.

Moon Books has proved repeatedly that a book doesn’t have to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, or an obvious easy sell in order to be massively successful. All you have to do is figure out who is going to want to read a book and get it in front of them. I see my comics publisher – Sloth Comics – doing the same thing. Sloth publishes quirky comics, and then gets out there and sells them to people. That’s not a quick or an easy process, but it is possible. I think the same must be true of anything else good, well made, beautiful, thoughtful, or worth having.

We live in a world where the norm is to make cheap throwaway things, pile them high, sell them as fast as you can and move onto the next one. I know, because I’m part of a company that does it, that other ways are available. I know there are plenty enough people out there who want substance and quality, originality and beauty. I feel no shame in trying to sell to those people so that good authors are paid for their work and encouraged to keep going.


Pagan Prayer

This is an excerpt from When a Pagan Prays. I started out exploring prayer as an intellectual idea, and discovered that the only way I was going to make any sense of it was by doing it. The book was a result of more than a year of exploration. It was a really interesting process that had a huge impact on me. It also made me realise that I didn’t want to continue shaping my personal practice around things I might later be able to write a book about.

“First and foremost, to stand before the unknown is to recognise the existence of the unknown. That which is bigger than we are. That which transcends our understanding. Prayer is an act of opening awareness that puts our small lives into important perspective. Most of the time we need to protect these fragile, human minds by not letting them be swamped with how much there is outside of us. We tune out far more sensory information than we allow into our conscious awareness. However, it benefits us to drop that defence now and then, to consider the terrifying, glorious enormity of it all. Death. Infinity. Eternity. You might call it deity, you might not. Of course our human natures want the enormity to wear a friendly face, pat us gently on the head and say, “Well done, keep up the good work.” Of course we want mystery to be on a manageable, human scale. This is why we like to give bits of it names, beards, clothing preferences and stories. Religion is all about making the unimaginable possible to engage with. Prayer is all about letting go of those stories again to try to encounter what we cannot hope to
comprehend,

I cannot tell you what it means to stand in that place of awareness for a few seemingly bright seconds. I’d love to say it’s like this familiar thing, or that other thing you do, and bring it down to a more mundane level. If I did that, I wouldn’t be telling you what it is like. We go there for ourselves, or not at all.

I’m conscious that I am barely skimming the surface of mystery and that many others will have gone far deeper in their quests. I have only deliberately worked with prayer for about a year now. I have an advantage in that nearly two decades’ worth of meditation work have given me some mental discipline and I know how to open my mind a bit. I can be still and quiet. It also helps that I can shift fairly easily from dealing with the mundane, to states of mind appropriate for ritual and trance. I find those same sorts of mental states are necessary for prayer.

What I struggle to do, is to remain in that place of openness to mystery for more than very short bursts. My psyche simply cannot maintain it, and I recognise there may be very good reasons not to go too far, anyway. Practice is no doubt key here, returning over and over to a deliberate opening up, and listening, to glimpse some fleeting thing and fall away again. It feels very much as though I am breaking my mind open. Perhaps if I managed to do this all at once, my reason would not survive the experience. I am here to live in this world, not to gaze continuously at something else. It is absolutely essential therefore that I crack myself open gently, slowly and with care. Not just to avoid madness, but because I think there are other processes happening here and I suspect time is needed for those.”

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


Excerpts, dreaming and a winter break

Over the coming few weeks I’m going to be sprinkling the blog with book excerpts. This is because in order to spend half a week with a stall on the Stroud Christmas market, and to have any hope of a week off, I need to set up the blog in advance, and I need that not to be excessively hard work! Yes, I could stop doing a post a day, but then the hits on the blog fall away and it makes me sad, so, you get book excerpts!

Here’s the first one, taken from Pagan Dreaming, and here we get into why I think dream dictionaries are questionable…

“Why should we accept the authority of a dream dictionary, when we would not accept the authority of an official priesthood?

There’s an additional issue here that in ancestral cultures, interpreter and dreamer could be assumed to have exactly the same background, history, symbols and beliefs. A shared symbolic language makes it more likely that one person can meaningfully comment on another person’s dreams. A glance at human history will show you that symbols are not universal. The swastika has been both a sun sign and a fascist emblem. Some cultures consider black cats to be good luck signs, others find them unlucky. All symbols are culturally specific in their meanings. So for ancestors who shared culture and symbolism, the priest might well be able to help the dreamer make sense of things. These days it is less likely that any two people will entirely share a symbolic language, making interpretation necessarily a more personal business.

We have a very diverse and fractured culture, exciting in its lack of hegemony, but in which we can no longer make assumptions about shared icons and archetypes. My symbols may well not be your symbols. Thanks to technology, we have access to a wide ranging culture that gives us new stories, imagery, metaphors and concepts on a daily basis as well as access to all of the available mythology and culture of the world. The speed and
quantity of material we are exposed to also undermines our scope for having a shared symbolic language. What I read yesterday may inform me, and you have no way of knowing what I tapped into. The dreamer’s associations can therefore be radically different to the ideas an interpreter brings to them. How can we possibly assume the existence of a universal language in this context? Furthermore, with such breadth and richness to draw on for potential symbols, how can a book of a few hundred pages hope to cover all possible symbols and meanings, or deal with the speed at which pop culture icons change?

Culture not only informs our symbols, it also tells us what is important. In materialistic western culture, we might be more motivated to look for insight into our careers and financial prospects, than into the condition of our morals and virtue, for example. This will direct us to pay more attention to some dream details than to others, and probably shape what we dream about in the first place. We are unlikely to dwell on things we truly consider to be irrelevant. Thus we cannot think about dreams without also bringing into consideration our relationship with our culture.

It is worth being cynical and considering that writing dream interpretations is really easy. You can make correlations with anything that takes your fancy, and no one can objectively prove that you are wrong. You might find it amusing and instructing to invent a few dream definitions of your own. Or, take some focus that pertains to the human experience (sex, ambition, frustration, depression) and work out how every dream you can remember
having can be made to fit that interpretation. You will find that anything can be made to seem like a symbol of anything you want it to. If you intend to work with symbols, then understanding how innately malleable they are, and how vulnerable to our desires they can be, is really important. Any attempt at working with symbols has to at least try to budget in the impact of human desire – conscious and unconscious. All too often we see what we want, or what we fear may be true, not what is actually before us.”

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

 


Darkest Part – a review

Darkest Part is a ten track album by Madeleine Harwood. Madeleine won Bard of Hawkwood last year, and has gone on to do all sorts of exciting things since – this album being one of those.

Darkest Part is a really unusual piece of work. The songs are all original, and are sung unaccompanied. There aren’t many people who could pull off an entire album of unaccompanied singing, but Madeleine makes this absolute focus on voice and words work for her.

I’m not confident saying what kind of genre of music this is. There’s a folk influence, there’s also blues, jazz, gospel, and moments that put me in mind of many different female singer songwriters who don’t play by the rules. This is something unique, which has grown out of roots music. It is music as art, but it isn’t like contemporary art music. It is voice as instrument, but the words aren’t secondary. The tunes are powerful, soaring, making use of Madeleine’s vast range and vocal power. They are also earworms, I find they follow me around and snatches of song replay in my head at unexpected moments.

In terms of the lyrics, again this is really unusual stuff. The Darkest Part that the title refers to, is being bi-polar. A number of the songs are very much about living with mental health problems. It is intense, beautiful stuff, and there’s much in what’s said here about depression and anxiety that really resonates with me. There’s also a gorgeous overtly Pagan song about Bablon, which gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. The lyrics are in the CD case so you can read them separately – and they certainly reward the person who does that.

I’ve known Madeleine a long time. We were at school together. I was reading her poetry when we were in early adulthood, and I loved her work then, and I love it now. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit with her in pub back rooms and heard some of these songs when they were first written. The amazing voice that emerges from the CD is simply how she sounds any time she sings. You can hear when you listen that this is a voice presented naturally, because nothing needs tinkering with. If you get a chance to hear her singing live, I heartily recommend that you do.

You can find Darkest Part lots of places, here’s the Amazon link – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B074Y9CKJ8/


Wood Wise

Learning about the natural world is an important part of the Pagan path. Otherwise we run the risks of having some very odd ideas about what nature is. We may end up thinking of nature as something exotic, away and largely unavailable to us – which isn’t true. We may end up with nature as some kind of abstract concept that we celebrate by calling to it from our living rooms, and that’s not optimal. Even if life obliges you to be a mostly indoors Pagan, learning more about nature enriches a practice.

For Pagan parents, aunt, uncles, grandparents etc, teaching children about nature can be a great way of sharing your path with your young humans. I know many Pagans are uneasy about indoctrinating children, and some paths aren’t really suitable for younger folk anyway. This is a great place to start, and a child who grows up with a deep love of and understanding of the natural world is likely to turn into an adult whose values you can respect, regardless of what they end up believing spiritually.

So, as an act of public service I want to point you at this free, high quality publication. Wood Wise comes from The Woodland Trust, you can download it here or subscribe to have it sent to your inbox – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/publications/2017/07/wood-wise-summer-2017/


Checking in

I’m a big fan of regularly taking stock of what’s going on. It’s the sort of thing you can do on your own, but which often works better when you have someone to check in with. I find it relevant in all aspects of life, and useful for making sure things are going as I want them to. It’s an antidote to getting distracted, losing your way, running out of ideas and getting overwhelmed.

When we check in with each other, it’s a process that affirms and builds relationship. For this to work the ‘how are you’ of standard greeting has to be meant. You have to have room to say, and hear more than an empty ‘fine thank you’ and it has to be balanced. If people really care, and listen to each other and speak honestly, that process of checking in can be really effective. Being heard, recognised, understood can do a lot to alleviate discomfort. It may lead to help or advice. It gives us all the chance to be there for each other.

We can give the same attention in non-verbal check ins with places, creatures, tools. A pause to see how things really are, and how we feel and what we’re bringing in can make a lot of odds.

Rituals provide a very natural space for a Pagan check in. In smaller groups, giving people time to say a few words about where they are and how life is for them can help that transition into ritual mode, and also help people bond and support each other. In bigger circles, inviting people to offer one word that says what they’re bringing gives people opportunity to check in with themselves and have something heard.

Any formal social gathering can include check in time. We used to do it when the contemplative Druids sat each month and I found it really helpful for getting things into perspective. Witnessing for each other also helps us make sense our own experiences as we put them in a context bigger than personal experience.

It doesn’t have to be about spiritual practice, either. I’m looking at developing a space for writing and works in progress, and I think the check in may be a good ingredient there. Having time to reflect on where you are with your work and how you feel about it can be really useful.

When there’s a lot going on, we tend to talk about it – it may take over. The check in can help keep that in balance. When there’s not much obviously going on, we may be quieter, but reflecting on the fallow patches can be enlightening in its own way, and opens us up to seeing bigger patterns in our lives. The experience of other people’s struggles and victories, busy times and quiet times helps put our lives into perspective.

We can of course do this for each other on social media, with no other framework at all.

We can also do it privately, without input from anyone else. A little solitary ritual or meditation space is all it takes to check in with yourself and ask how you are doing. If you don’t want it to be too much about you, then you can check in with something else – a house plant, a pet, or just reflecting on how things appear to be going for the people around you.

I think a reflective life is a life lived more fully and with more awareness. Conscious reflection on what’s going on, what we want, where we’ve been and where we are going is how we keep on track. It’s important to take a step back fairly regularly and look at the bigger picture of your life, and at your life in the context of other lives.


Wild Fire – a review

Wild Fire is the third book in Anna McKerrow’s awesome Greenworld trilogy. That’s a tricky reviewing setup right there, because reviewing the third book without spoilering the first two means I can’t talk about the story much at all. Further, you don’t want to start here, you want to start with Crow Moon which I reviewed here – eco-pagan-mythmaking/ and then read Red Witch – reviewed here ways-to-live-a-trio-of-reviews/

The Greenworld is in the southwest of the UK, a small country led by witches, hived off from the rest of the world as said rest of world plunges into fuel wars, environmental degradation and chaos. A little bit of utopia set against a very dark background. Except that, like most utopias, it is held together by things that don’t work so well for everyone. Book one – Crow Moon introduces us to the Greenworld through the eyes of Danny, and Danny isn’t a fan. His journey into becoming a witch opens up the setting. I liked book one, I enjoyed having so much Paganism in a novel, and ecotopian thinking is a good thing.

 

 

 

When I read book two – Red Witch, I thought it blew Crow Moon out of the water. New book, new perspective, and time inside the head of Melz, one of the young witches we first met in Crow Moon.  Melz rocks. Melz is the sort of person teenage me wanted to be, and wasn’t. She’s complicated and brilliant and learning to stand in her own power. The story takes her out into Redworld, and casts everything I thought I knew from the first book in an entirely different light.

 

 

 

Then along comes book three, Wild Fire, and a new perspective (and I can’t tell you who without spoiling some things for people who haven’t read book one yet!). I love this narrator – flawed, romantic and cynical at the same time, painfully self aware… This is in part a story about forgiveness, and when it needs doing and when it doesn’t. Wild Fire takes the small UK scene of the first two books and blows it open onto the world stage. Things that had been background details before – like the fuel wars – suddenly become a good deal more important and in the foreground.

There’s a message in all of this, and it is that we cannot hive ourselves off from the world and build little private bubbles. We all of us have to deal with the totality of what’s going on. It will not go away if we ignore it. We will be affected whether we choose to engage or not. It’s an essential message for our times. I spent much of the last few chapters of Wild Fire crying, because it had hope in it, and I honestly did not expected that.

All three books have a serious pace on them. There’s no mucking about – events come thick and fast, with the scale of the action increasing at every turn. The characters are messy, complicated, often confused. They make mistakes, but they build on what they learn from their mistakes. They learn to forgive themselves, and each other, and the adults who have never been enough. They learn who not to forgive as well, and that’s important. These are stories about what we do in face of fear and difference, who we include and who we shut out when banding together to overcome difficulties.

It’s really, really good stuff. Engaging, hard to put down and likely to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

These books are ideal for Pagan teenagers, and for anyone else who is happy to have Pagan teens as the main characters in a series. Highly reccomended.

find out more about Anna McKerrow’s work here – annamckerrow.com/books.html