Tag Archives: pagans

Pilgrimage to the flowers

In previous years I’ve managed both an Easter and a Beltain pilgrimage. The Easter walk talks me via two Iron Age hill forts to Gloucester Cathedral, and is very much a pilgrimage honouring the ancestors. Like most modern Pagans, I have my share of Christian ancestors, and the cathedral itself has family stories associated with it. The Beltain pilgrimage is all about wildflowers – bluebells, wood anemone, wild garlic. This year the flowers came before Easter, and I had to choose. I chose to honour the unsettlingly early flowering and to make my ancestral pilgrimage at some later point in the year.

Part of the route for my Beltain pilgrimage takes me along the edge of the Cotswolds, through an area dense with barrows. People have been walking that way – but not that path, I assume! – for thousands of years.

The flowers I go out to see, the garlic, anemones and bluebells, are all indicators of ancient woodland. It’s not my motivation, but it is certainly a bonus. Beech trees are not long lived, so the age of trees round here is not an easy indicator of woodland age.

It was a beautiful day. Bluebells in swathes, like a misty sea in the Woodchester valley. The scent of them subtle and gorgeous. Very small lambs out in the fields. We sat near some of them (but not too near so as not to cause alarm) to have lunch. As we ate, a raven sang to us from nearby trees, pausing for the odd fly past to make sure we didn’t miss any of its raven-ness. It’s such a distinctive voice though that we didn’t need to see in order to know. Later, we found the heronry, which we’d been looking for, and several herons who looked to be in the business of making more herons.

I have personal stories and family stories about Woodchester Valley. I have folklore and history as well. Repeatedly visiting an area at a specific time of year adds to the web of stories as things happening to us are woven into the tale of our relationship with the land. The year we saw a buzzard take a rabbit. The variations we’ve walked, the people we’ve walked with…

We walk fairly quietly, but it is about engagement and engagement includes the people around us. The valley is managed, and home to a lot of wild things. There was a large flock of tufted ducks, bigger than any group we’ve seen there before. Last autumn there were dragonflies in great number. It’s not a pilgrimage to somewhere, but a big, circular walk. It’s a pilgrimage into the land and the season, a deepening of relationship with place and a commitment to holding that connection.


Not doing Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day makes me profoundly uneasy, so I don’t do it. All the usual things can be said about how it makes life harder for those whose mothers are gone, those whose children did not survive, or never were… and it is a modern festival based on promoting consumerism. But those are not my major issues.

The modern tradition of mother’s day involves kids and/or dads making breakfast in bed for mum, who may be bought flowers, taken out for lunch, cooked for, or otherwise allowed some time off. My concern is that this functions in the same way as the Lord of Misrule and twelfth night carnivals did for feudalism. That basically this is a break from the norm that serves to reinforce the norm. And the norm does not include mum getting breakfast in bed, or someone else doing the cooking. It may serve to enforce the least good things about modern motherhood.

It’s worth noting that Father’s Day involves cards and gifts, but not the same emphasis on the pampering and certainly no flowers. I’ve yet to see a cafe or restaurant advocating that you take your Dad out for a Father’s Day lunch.

There are plenty of stats out there to suggest that while most women now work outside of the home, the majority of housework and childcare still falls largely to the women as well. I don’t want Mothering Sunday as a special day of my family being nice to me. I also don’t need it, because we’re a mutually supportive unit, and I am not the house elf. One day a year of being looked after isn’t enough for anyone, and even if you add the birthday and valentine’s day to the list, it’s still peculiar if you take a hard look at it.

Every day we all get opportunities to be nice to each other, to extend small kindnesses and gift each other in all kinds of ways. Much better that than an occasional blowout for the benefit of supermarket chocolate sales.

I have seen Pagans reinterpreting this day as celebrating femininity, or Mother Earth – I have no argument with any of that. I’m a big fan of people doing what makes sense to them, but I think we should always pause and question anything that becomes normal.


Holding up mirrors

We all hold up mirrors for each other, and use other people as mirrors. Often it’s not conscious, and often we have no idea whether the reflections we see are clear and true, or alarmingly distorted. Here are the methods I’ve been able to identify, there are probably others.

We project, and then see in the other person things we don’t like about ourselves. We don’t know that we’ve made the other person into our mirror, so we may well try to punish them for how uncomfortable the likeness makes us feel.

We assume that everyone is just like us and would naturally mirror our feelings and thought processes. When they fail to be this kind of mirror, we can get confused, upset and even angry.

We see things that, when other people do them, look terrible, tragic or otherwise uncomfortable. We may not be able to see it that way when we do all the same things to ourselves, but if we can recognise the mirroring in this situation, both parties can help and heal each other.

We can hold up mirrors made of compliments, encouragement, love and support so that the person we are showing the reflection to sees themselves in the best possible way. This can help them have faith in themselves to be that person, and more.

We see the worst in what a person does – all the flaws and inadequacies, all the scope for ghastly motives, and we reflect that back to them. We show them the worst of themselves, and undermine their sense of self with it, or make them angry and defensive. In reflecting and expecting the worst, we can push a person towards being and doing the worst that they can.

We can have beliefs about what it means to be the other sort of person – as Pagans we can still be hit with crazy ideas about what Paganism means. It can be disconcerting to be reflected back as the other person’s prejudices and unfounded assumptions. (Examples – you are not thin and therefore you are lazy. You are poor and therefore talentless. You are lgbt and therefore predatory etc).

If we’re really paying attention we can hold up mirrors that simply reflect back something true about how the other person is, but this is the least likely outcome, I suspect.

We won’t always be conscious of what we’re doing, but the more alert we can be to the idea of playing with reflections rather than reality, the more scope for spotting it we get, and in turn that means not having it take over.


Walking without conquest

We did not go to the top of the hill, and as we skirted the side, the thought came to me ‘feminist walker does not conqueror the summit’. Exploration and adventure can often involve the language of conquest. There can be something decidedly macho about the bid for the top, or for covering the distance. Look back at older explorers and adventurers, and there’s a language of penetration, as the man takes the landscape, and the landscape is female. This is something H. Rider Haggard took to a wilfully absurd extreme in King Solomon’s Mines (the mountains that are the breasts of Sheba, and the treasure cave are, when you look at the map, pretty unsubtle).

It’s easy to have even the tamest of walks turn into something that is about achievement, in a way that has a really interesting impact on our relationship with the land itself. The top of the hill is just as much about reaching the summit and looking down on everything as the top of a mountain might be. Not that there’s anything wrong with climbing things or getting to the highest point. The issue is how motives and intent affect experience. There is more to a hill than reaching the top of it, but if we’re only interested in the summit, we may miss a lot of things along the way.

This is perhaps doubly interesting  as an issue for Pagans. Many of us see land, or the Earth as a whole, in terms of goddess. Mother Earth, Gaia; if we understand this as her body, then how we walk upon it, is worth thinking about. Are we here to penetrate the forest, or the cave? Regardless of gender, we can cast ourselves in really macho roles in relation to our journeys.

It’s a different process to walk as someone who is interested in seeing how the landscape unfolds. Being someone for whom each wrinkle, each bump and curve, is important, and engaging. To be someone who seeks out not just the pretty, picturesque faces but is willing to walk through old industrial sites and new ones, along main roads, under motorways – this too is the land. The land does not always wear the face of a beautiful virgin goddess – if previous visitors have ravaged her, she may bear scars and open wounds, lines of sorrow, and she may seem hostile.

If we simply go to take, if we walk to possess and to be gratified, seeking only what is most pleasing to us, caring only for the face of the land where other humans have not bruised that face with careless treatment, we are still colonialists. Regardless of personal gender, we are still the man in the pith helmet who wants to penetrate virgin forests to bring back prizes. We don’t have to be that. We can walk in sympathy. We can walk with empathy and with a desire to know and understand, to be present rather than to conquer. Then we find that the side of the hill has its own precious qualities, different from the summit but no less worthy, and everything changes.


Earth Memories

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Llewelyn Powys’s collection of essays: Earth Memories, from the 1930s.

Some of the writing is exuberant and gorgeous, some is weighed down with despair about the inherent cruelty of the world. There’s an innate Paganism to it all that I think most modern Pagans will find utterly delightful. Below is a short excerpt by way of illustration – the words are so very relevant today, as are many of his observations…

“The way of the senses is the way of life. It is the people with their hands in the till and their eyes on heaven who ruin existence. There should be open-air temples in every town and village where philosophers could expound this soundest of doctrines. Why is half the population tormented with restraints, obedience to which in no way furthers the public good? Because the priests for generations have been confederate with the money makers, and they both know very well that if natural happiness were allowed the generations would no longer accept their shrewd worldly maxims, no longer be so docile, so easy to be exploited. Without doubt, half the ethical rules they din into our ears are designed to keep us at work.”

I found it an odd read in one regard – the assumption that the reader is male, which as a female reader left me feeling quite odd at times.  Otherwise, a wonderful read, and well worth your time.


Small books, big ideas

The trouble with introductory books in Pagansim, is that most of them keep introducing the same things – basic guides to well trodden paths tend to dominate. There’s a logic in this because it is in theory the biggest market and the author who becomes the definitive writer on how to be a what-have-you could do quite well. Except mostly this doesn’t happen and we get a proliferation of ‘how to do the things you already know how to do’ books, and from a reading perspective that’s not a great thing. What do you do once you’ve read a couple of introductions and want to go further? That transition out of beginner Pagan status can be immensely frustrating.

One of the things Moon Books is doing that I think has considerable merit, is offering an array of very small introductory books. Little and cheap, they don’t require a big investment of your time or money, which makes it easier to poke about and see what appeals. They are introductions to niches, small areas of thinking and practice introduced in more depth, which makes them handy for transitioning out of beginner status, and also useful for the more experienced Pagan reader who just likes to have some idea of what everyone else is up to. Kitchen Witchcraft, hedge riding, working with power animals, fairy witchcraft, pathworking through poetry, to name but a few. It’s a diverse set of books, and growing all the time as authors come up with new niches they want to explore. I’ve read many of them, the diversity is wonderful, and I’ve learned a fair bit.

There’s now a page where you can look at all of them, which is handy for browsing. Do check it out.

There is one of mine in here. Spirituality without Structure is in part a response to Alain du Botton’s Religion for Atheists. It’s a look at the nuts and bolts of religion, considering what religious experience does for us socially, psychologically, and in discernible real world terms to help a seeker figure out what it is they need. Even Pagans following a defined path tend to be on their own in terms of putting together a practice, and for that matter a belief system, and I think there’s much to be gained from asking how and why we do that, what we get out of it, and what it might cost us. There’s a trade-off between dogma and reassurance, conformity and authenticity, we have to weigh shared participation against personal experience often, too. I know from reader feedback that this is not a happy, uplifting sort of book full of joy and sunshine, but on the other hand if you need to poke around in the underpinnings of what you’re doing, it may prove helpful to you – I have had some good feedback on that score.

If you’re reading this, and have looked at the page and are thinking ‘but why isn’t there a book on…’ do please consider that you might have a job to do.

And you can get involved here – http://www.moon-books.net/jhp-get-published.html


A gathering of tribes

It’s interesting to think about where we fit and belong, the communities we call home and the relationships we have with them. I started pondering this a couple of days ago, and making notes, and the scale of it surprised me.

I have my blood family and the people I share history with – people who have lived in the same places, been through the same schools.

There’s the folk community – full of family ties and personal history. People I have played music with, people whose songs I sing, people I listen to. Also there’s the tribe that gathers for Genevieve Tudor’s folk program, and that’s an important weekly moment of belonging. I hope to put dancing back on that list.

I identify with the Pagan community, and with Druidry, and within that I belong a whole host of places – OBOD, The Druid Network, Druid Camp, Contemplative Druidry, Auroch grove, and through the bard side, it overlaps with the folk, and through my writing with the next lot…

Authors, book people, bloggers, readers, Moon Books, JHP fiction, other publishers. People I read and admire, storytellers, the local writing community and through those connections I branch out into…

Wider creative connections with artists, musicians, local creative folk, organisers of things, and I branch out into Steampunk, Comics, and geekery in general.

My Paganism also directs me to green activism, so that’s The Green Party, which is part of my local tribe, as is my engaging a bit with the Transition Network and other local, green, sustainable alternative outfits. People I know because they are local.

Eventually, I also managed to recognise that there are people who are in my life simply because they like what I do. I have a number of important connections based entirely on that.

Inevitably it’s the people who fit in more than one of those circles that I interact with most, because time is also a factor in all of this, and the more I share, the more time I tend to spend with someone. There are people I see once a year, or less, and there are people I pine for if I have to go more than a week, and I can manage an afternoon without Tom, but that’s my limit.

Of those people who I interact with in numerous ways, there are a few with whom I share creativity – either working together, or working alongside, swapping ideas and inspiration. This is a small tribe, and these relationships I pay a lot of attention to. They are the most defining ones in my life. It’s not any kind of coincidence that I married my artist… I am most emotionally invested in people with whom I can share creativity.

Beyond that, and overlapping with wider circles in all kinds of ways, is the tiny tribe I walk with. My most essential tribe.


Affirmation – Community

The exchange of affirmation is one of the core features of a viable and self-sustaining community. Without affirmation exchange, you probably have a group defined either by necessity or leadership, which will not survive the loss of either. To make a tribe, I firmly believe that you need to create an affirmation culture.

Affirmation can mean a number of things. Without getting bogged down in detail, here’s a quick list. Respect, gratitude, appreciation, encouragement, praise, compliments. Gestures that convey liking, enjoying, valuing and affection. Recognition that the person is needed, liked, valued, understood, accepted. Some or all of these things need to be expressed to take effect, and everyone must be to some degree involved in the process of affirming everyone else.

If affirmation primarily flows from one person to everyone else, you maybe have a benevolent tyrant, or a guru. Anyone excluded from affirmation will not get to feel like they are part of the tribe. In loose collections of people this can be a reasonable way of removing people who don’t fit. In families, is tends to be emotionally damaging for the unacceptable one. Equally, anyone who is not allowed to give affirmation is automatically afforded second class status. There is power in being able to distribute praise and implications for authority when praise is a common form of social currency.

I’ve started, led, and participated in a great many groups over the years. Groups with clear self awareness but permeable borders, I don’t like cliques and cults. I’ve watched what makes a group work, and what doesn’t. I have run as a benevolent dictator enough times. To be giver of praise and encouragement is a very easy way of making that role comfortable and useful, more an act of service than one of imposition. Benevolent dictatorships are good ways of getting things done, but they are not communities.

As Pagans we form into tribes of all kinds. Moot, grove, coven, learning circle, order and organisation. Sometimes for logistical reasons these have to have people running aspects of them, but that can be one role amongst many. Shared labour goes more naturally with free flowing affirmation, and people who freely exchange positivity are more likely to share responsibility and work. An affirmation culture makes you a good deal more aware of how other people see your input, and that can be a good counterbalance to those folk who make a lot of noise but otherwise contribute very little. In an affirmation culture, everyone has the right to judge you, and that in turn gives everyone a reason to be co-operative.

One person can define the nature of any group, if they’ve the will to do it. One person can shape the tribe they are in, and inform the society around them. Affirmation gets some really interesting results, some quickly, many over time. If you want a tribe, and a place to belong, affirmation might be the best way forwards. This is how we get cohesion and belonging.


Serenity Rose

Tom (my bloke, for anyone new here…) has been a big fan of Serenity Rose for a long time. It’s a comic about a troubled, diminutive, youthful witch, and mixes the cute and the gothic, so there’s a lot to like. Over the last few days I’ve been reading the mighty hardcover of the collected ten years of Serenity, by Aaron Alexovich. It’s been a good journey and I am entirely in love with the setting and decidedly taken with the main character. I wish I’d met her as a teen, because while I tried to fake social capability, that totally confused, don’t know the rules, last child to be picked for anything oh god please let me go to the back and disappear entirely sort of feeling… that I recognise. I still have that body posture most of the time; almost ducking.

This is a story about how to live, how to deal with your personal power (whatever it is you’ve got) and the anxiety of not knowing when to act. It’s also a story about the state of the world, our collective values and our ways of living. It’s about being a genuine witch in a small town marketing itself on dodgy fake magic replicas. How on earth do you even start to be real, when everything around you is a dubious fake? It’s there in the goth side, too – the effort and over the top, bought it in a pricey store goth, verses the gothic sensibility, the soul that goes wandering the empty streets in the dark. So while the magic is fantastical, I think there are a lot of things here Pagan readers will find resonant.

This is a book that pushed a lot of buttons for me, in a more personal way. There was so much I recognised. The person who spends most of their time moving to avoid attention, standing small, folding away, whose every gesture contains a bit of an apology for taking up space. Serenity would be cute, if her awkward self-consciousness didn’t create a big sphere of prickles around her. It’s hard to come over as attractive when you’re that ill at ease in your own skin. Seeing it drawn out like that made me realise that to a very large degree, attractiveness is about attitude. It’s an expression of confidence. The person who feels good in themselves comes across better than the person who doesn’t.

When you are by nature a painfully shy and awkward sort of introvert, feeling like you are made almost entirely of elbows, there’s not much comfort to be had from thinking that if only you were someone else entirely, you’d be passably pretty. But it does help to make sense of some things.

In social situations, I’m often more comfortable as ritual leader, organiser, performer than I am trying to just chat to people. For a start, the rules of engagement are clearer when you’re at the front. I know who I’m supposed to be, and it’s also fine to be what would, in other contexts, seem excessive and overblown. The intensity that makes me hard work in person, is diluted a bit by a stage. It occurs to me that when I’m performing, I’m not faking anything. That’s me. What’s hard is getting that down to a sensible size for normal human interactions. So I look at Serenity Rose with her magic and her people issues, and something chimes for me. Clearly it’s not just me, then. This is a lot of what it’s like if you’re trying to live with a mute button on most of the time. As though we are all living in one of those TV sitcoms where the setup isn’t allowed to change and nothing important is allowed to happen.

I can very much recommend this story to all you in-hiding goth introvert witchy types. You know who you are. There’s a digital comic, if you want to explore, and also, there’s the lovely book.


Power and community

When any event or group kicks off, the priority is to get enough bums on seats to make it viable. New ventures haven’t formed identities yet and have little incentive; social or economic, to be fussy about who is ‘in’. Further, to be viable, they need to work for plenty of people, so new gatherings are often more tolerant and inclusive, or at least appear to be. When a group is established, this can change.

There are good reasons for changing – if something gets to big it can be the victim of its own success and lose its identity. That’s my impression of giant music festivals. An identity can form that needs holding carefully. Everything needs edges of some sort or you just end up with gloop.

Less useful things can happen. If something is desirable, you can put up the ticket price and perhaps force out the people who made it work in the first place. (Festivals, again). You can start demanding more conformity and if the group matters, people will conform to keep their place. A large group of people are an asset – be they customers, voters, your social kudos, advertising revenue sources or just a thwacking great ego trip. Having lots of people involved with, or wanting to be involved with your thing, has a value. A huge value. Large groups of people are easily exploited for money, status, and influence. Of course once you start doing that, you will also become afraid of losing your power, status and influence. Control freakery ensues – perhaps this is why Facebook is such a mess at the moment.

In creating a boundary, you decide who is in, and who is out. That’s inevitable, and it can be fine. Druid Camp is not going to be a good space for non-Pagans who hate camping, clue is in the name… and many such spaces tend to encourage unsuitable people to select themselves out, and as a consequence, everyone is happy. Exclusion can be a more painful process than this, from the one person in the village not cool enough to get a party invitation, to deliberately compromising people’s rights to participate in things like voting. We have responsibilities about how we handle the edges.

Perhaps most dangerous is the habit of defining group membership in opposition to some imagined other. Fascists do this. So do angry fundamentalists of all backgrounds. We imagine the hated other possessing all the qualities we abhor and do not want to see, and we feed that hatred, so as to feel better about ourselves. It’s not healthy. All those angry comments about what imaginary people do – imaginary people who are on welfare, imaginary Pagans… While it’s all about make believe and ego-trips it’s merely not doing us any good, but all too often what happens is that people who look superficially like the imaginary people we’ve hated on, become targets. We blame them, and if we do it as a community, people can and do die as a direct consequence of this process.

Hold your boundaries carefully, and hold them where you need them, but be alert to your own power. Think about who you welcome and who you exclude. Think about how you might be (even unconsciously) using your community as a power base. It’s all too easy to be complacent about such things, and when that happens, we favour growth at any cost, into ever larger and less wieldy groups, more need to control our groups and more risk of hating people we’ve put on the outside.