In Paganism, we spend a lot of time shouting across the chasms of meaning and misunderstanding. One of my best friends and I have been at loggerheads for about fifteen years over the most basic of assumptions about the nature of the universe. And the root of this disagreement is a simple one.
You see, I’m not a Neoplatonist. Maybe it sounds like a strange thing to say. It’s definitely not the best way to start conversations at parties, as I learned from hard experience. But, it’s true.
As I explored the Western Occult Tradition, again and again I ran up against things that I couldn’t agree with — there was some underlying assumption that just didn’t fit with my experience of the world.
The first principle of Neoplatonism is the One, or the Good. This is the source of all the universe, and also the source of all goodness and virtue. The only way for people to be virtuous is to emulate and reflect the gods. This practice is the basis of theurgy, which is the primary religious aspect of the Western Occult Tradition and many of its lineages including Traditional Wicca.
It would be hard to understate the influence of Neoplatonic thought on the West. Neoplatonist thought has been (and is) hugely influential both on the Western Occult Tradition (WOT) and on Christianity. Consciously or unconsciously, most Western pagans are Neoplatonists. Westerners tend to believe things like “the spiritual is closer to God (or the gods) than the physical” and “the gods are inherently more virtuous than we people are.”
Neoplatonism in the Western Occult Tradition
The whole idea that we’re purifying ourselves and making ourselves better? That’s straight out of Neoplatonic thought — and especially Plotinus’s Neoplatonism (say that five times fast!). ¹ In Neoplatonism, all religious activity is about improving and purifying the soul by exposing ourselves to the presence of the divine. The highest form of magic is theurgy.
Many Western magical texts, especially Theosophy and anything it has influenced, talk about the improvement of the soul either during one’s lifetime or from one life to the next. This whole idea is central to the Western Occult Tradition, and is present in its most popular sect, Traditional Wicca.
In addition, the whole “Human Potential Movement” comes out of this same philosophical strain. This movement is what happens when we blend two Western traditions: Neoplatonism and capitalistic individuality. The greatest good is my happiness, and through us all seeking our own happiness, the world will be made a happier and better place. Philosophically, it’s hogwash — but I can see the appeal.
Neoplatonism is clearly tied to Christianity, the Western Occult Tradition, Wicca, and the New Age. In other words, Neoplatonism is the most spiritually influential word in Western culture that people have never heard or never taken seriously. When I say that I’m not a Neoplatonist, I’m not just being flip and obscure.
Animism stands outside the Neoplatonist tradition. It doesn’t place all of the universe on a sliding scale of value from the One at the top to the dregs at the bottom. All things take part in the universe, and all things reach the fundamental ground of existence out of which they flow, and to which they return.
That which appears to be transcendent, unchanging, and perfect is as transcendent as the sky, as unchanging as a mountain, and as perfect as an eagle’s flight. Which is to say, these things are only infinite from the perspective of our own finite-ness.
In such a universe, we don’t have the Good to guide us to goodness. We no longer get to rely on the gods to help us be good. When we have set aside the West’s singular organizing principle, what is virtue?
The Practice of Virtue
When virtue is no longer an idea held out to bring us closer to the Good, it becomes something else. Virtue becomes a practice, something we cultivate. In my practice, there are three organizing principles: purity, harmony, and power.
It is easy to imagine something that is pure, but impossible to find something that truly is. We associate purity with perfection, but what if we ease off on the Neoplatonism for a moment? When we speak of purity in a generalized Western context, we think of absolute purity. The word is so strong, it has an ominous context to it. It’s uncompromising.
Purification rituals are part of any spiritual tradition worth its salt. Animist traditions are no different. But the practice of cleansing isn’t the search for some perfect, existential purity. Think of purity as cleanliness. We want things clean because it promotes health, but that doesn’t mean we want to autoclave the whole world. Literal and metaphysical soap and water are good enough.
I have found the practice of meditation to be a key to purification. On one level, it promotes the harmonizing of mind, body, and spirit. On another level, it means unifying the self — integrity.
As wonderful as all the integrity in the world might be, “no man is an island” and even less so any animist. And as much as we might work toward being pure and clear in our intentions, living in the world means having to harmonize with those around us.
It used to be, when I thought of harmony, I thought of peacefulness. But I have come to see that the harmony of peacefulness is only one kind of harmony.
Harmony is the counterpart of purity. When we’re alone in the wilderness, harmony means being in tune with nature. But in a city, it means something entirely different. It means being in harmony with a seething mass of people. In other words, harmony is situational.
Being in harmony with one’s environment means in a place of quiet, be quiet. In a place of busyness, be busy. In a place of danger, be dangerous. But true harmonizing means being empty and reflecting the world back on itself.
How do we learn to reflect the world, instead of exhausting ourselves trying to make the world reflect us? On the whole, the first steps are harmonizing the various parts of ourselves, and connecting with the world through seeking harmony.
Through the purification of self, and harmonization with the world, a new part of ourselves opens. It is the soul — and it is powerful. Is the human soul filled with brimming goodness? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, it is clear-eyed and unafraid.
The Western Occult Tradition beckons us to bring our souls close to the gods, and through them to the One. For an animist outside the Tradition, virtue looks different. But it is no less powerful, and every bit as worth cultivating.
Among the tenets of British Traditional Wicca (BTW) is the statement that our Gods offer us “certainty, not faith.” The idea is that we don’t need faith because we have ways of directly communicating with our Gods, as well as gaining empirical knowledge of things that in mainstream religions must be taken “on faith.”
Questions like what the Otherworld is like, what our Gods expect of us, why we’re who we are in the here and now, and many other questions get direct answers. We’re expected to seek and find our own answers to these life-questions through personal experience, and no authority figure will tell us we’re wrong, damned, and by-gawd better change our way of thinking before it’s too late. The worst judgment we’re likely to get is of being ‘not a good fit.’
But having certainty doesn’t mean that we don’t need faith. It means don’t need blind faith, the kind that places our lives and the responsibility for our own spiritual fate in another’s hands. And, it is in this sense, I believe, that the “certainty, not faith” statement was included in the foundations of the Craft, short as it was otherwise on statements of belief. We’re not expected to take a dogma or gospel on faith and internalize it, though we may accept another’s idea as a working hypothesis. There’s an old saying in the Craft: “If it works, it’s true.” By which we mean, true enough to get results.
So what kind of faith do BTW’s have, and how do we exercise it?
At bottom, faith is confidence in the future. For the Witch, it includes confidence in oneself. Faith is the basis of all magic. Without confidence in a future, one that can be shaped by action taken now, there’s really no point in taking action at all. Without confidence in oneself, the temptation and most likely course is to simply let things take their own course, or to hope someone else will deal with them. But, a Witch’s faith is based on personal experience, not second-hand tales.
Which brings us to the precursor of faith: hope. The first few — or several — times we attempt magic, all there is to go on is hope; we follow the ritual script and hope it works. And, then we feel something; if we’re lucky, we may see something. And, a while later we get that job or our friend gets well, and we haven’t been able to shake the euphoria. And, the next time we do that ritual we don’t need hope. We know it works; we have faith.
Faith is what leads us to work now on a project that will bear fruit years from now, whether a PhD or working through the Wiccan degrees. But, to accomplish anything you have to have one final quality: clarity. You have to examine your motives, your methods, and your goals. You have to be prepared for the outcome. You have to clearly see the path ahead and how you’re going to negotiate it. You even need to have clarity about the basis for your faith, which is not easy.
The monotheistic religions discourage clarity, teaching that to have faith is to follow blindly, to accept uncritically. Wicca and other Pagans like to question authority, which seems antithetical to faith but upon examination is far from it. With faith, hope, and clarity we can change our world.
So mote it be!
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Once called the ‘King of the Herbs’ by ancient Druids, there are few plants as well known for an ability to impart prophetic dreams than Mugwort. Here in the garden are two kinds, Artemesia douglasiana, a Western North American native, and Artemesia vulgaris, its European cousin that the Druids knew.
Artemesia vulgaris is an interesting name. In Latin it describes the Goddess of Wisdom, Artemis. Then, “vulgaris” means common, or of the people. Then this is, by name, a plant of common wisdom. In the plant kingdom there are other Artemesias, but this is the one for everyday people.
Last night a friend stopped over on her travels and in the course of conversation, she asked to visit the European Mugwort; it is a coveted specimen in the herb garden that claims an equally coveted sunny space at the lowest entrance of the terraced hillside. Like a guardian at the gates of the underworld, here mugwort waits to delve into dreams with you.
Mugwort likes a lot of room, as most perennial herbs do if given a place for the roots to ramble deep in soil. Yes, with care one may grow these herbs in pots. And although this may be perfect for the urban balcony hedge witch, it is a commitment, too. Herbs will require constant water and tending in this circumstance. Regular feeding with aged compost, and frequent trimming, too.
Around here, our herbs have lots of toe-room. Therefore, the maintenance required is almost nothing. Feed the soil with organic mulch: two inches, twice a year; monthly water in the dry season; and an annual harvest once the seeds are set and the plant gets leggy.
Pruning is a necessary evil in the garden or mugwort, like sage, mint, bee balm, nasturtium, and even rosemary, will take over a plot of sunshine in a few seasons, thriving on your benign neglect.
You see, when the plant gets leggy, it wants to travel. It will grow its branches long and push all the leaves to the end of each stem. The long branches lay seemingly helpless on the ground. But this is all part of the plan for roots to grow into the earth from the stem where it lays touching the soil.
By trimming the plant back to its original size annually, it can be maintained within a three foot by three foot space (approximately one square meter). Because I am saving the plant trimming for magickal purposes my process for harvesting herbs also has its peculiarities.
First, use bedside manners (planting bed-side, that is) and ask permission of the plant. After all it is giving up rather a lot in the deal. Remember that “please” and “thank you” are the first magic words we learn. They are still magic.
Tell the plant what you are doing and ask if it is willing to help. Stay open as you await a response. Usually I receive an excited “Yes!” or a sleepy “Hmmm? alright…” and sometimes, in the quiet waiting an herb will tell me more. Listen to “NO!” There may be a very important reason for it.
Secondly, the harvested plant matter should not touch the ground. This is very important and is an instance where magickal practice and practical magic are the same for two very different reasons.
In practical terms, harvest that touches the ground is infinitely more germ and fungus contaminated than leaves that have only felt wind and rain. This is especially true if the soil is fertilized with composted manure.
And in magickal terms, harvest that lands on the ground belongs to the Faye. Do not pick it up and put that fallen fruit into your basket of goodies. It belongs to someone else now. There is no five-second rule. Move on.
With harvest gathered, it is now important to preserve the stem, leaf, flower and seed for use later. This will be part of the magickal inventory until it is needed and not renewed until the next season of harvest. It may be next year, or much later, depending on the weather and the particular herb. It is important to make sure the supply is useable in the meanwhile.
Because the stems had grown as long as six-feet, I was obliged to ask my son who is much taller than I, to hold the stems up, off the ground, as I collected them. He is not magically inclined — but he knew mugwort is good for prophetic dreams.
Then I tied the stems together and he hung the bundle, leaves down, from the ribs of the patio umbrella. Next began the fun of cleaning the dead or damaged leaves and stems, dirt and spider webs from the long stalks.
The seed heads are set aside to dry on a tray and be saved for use later, either in the garden or in a magickal way. Be careful with them. As you ask mugwort for help with your dreams, remember, these seeds also hold the dreams of mugwort for the future.
With debris and seed heads gone, only short leaf-tipped stems remain on the long, woody mugwort stalks. I carefully clip the branchlets from the main stem and gather the leafy heads in small bundles, tying them with lavender colored hemp twine.
Hanging them to dry in the kitchen, it occurs to me… since the bundles of mugwort will be immediately below my bedroom, perhaps it would be good to keep the dream journal handy by my bedside. You never know what could be waiting!
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Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, here on Agora!
This has proven to be an interesting week here at the Patheos Pagan Channel. Tom Swiss, author of ‘The Zen Pagan’ wrote an article on the idea of cultural appropriation that’s caused a bit of a stir among the other bloggers here. To clarify, by “caused a bit of a stir” I mean “initiated a spectacular fecal maelstrom!”
With a title like ‘There is no such thing as Cultural Appropriation’, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that ThereHaveBeenQuiteAFew Responses! Hang on though, because we haven’t even hit the choppy waters yet. No the real storm hit its stride in the comments sections in all of the above. I watched a community that normally prides itself on social justice and awareness just completely collapse in on itself!
I watched otherwise reasonable people vehemently attack Crystal Blanton’s response, not with any kind of intellectual forethought, but with fear and denial. Many of the commenters on the Patheos Pagan Facebook page chose to discount her because she’s a liberal, a feminist, and a woman. They would rather attack her as a person, shouting ‘PC POLICE’ at the top of their lungs, than deal with the issue at hand.
If you want to learn more about the definition and history of Cultural Appropriation, I highly recommend Crystal Blanton’s or Cat Chapin-Bishop’s articles on the subject. They both do a great job of explaining it. What concerns me is how poorly equipped for this discussion our community seems to be.
So, why do Pagans in particular seem to have such a hard time with this topic?
The short answer is fear — pure and simple. Regardless of what flavor of Paganism one is practicing, one of the more universal points of commonality between most Pagans is that we are usually trying to revive dead or nearly dead religions. Many of us are also fairly far removed from the birthplace of the traditions we practice. I’m a 21st century English speaking American, living in the Sonoran Desert. Despite my ancestral origins, I’m about as far from the frozen northern landscape of my seafaring ancestors as it gets. I’ve never even been out of sight of land in my life. I may be descended from Viking stock, but the landscape and language of the lore is foreign enough to me that it might as well be Mars.
That’s not an uncommon situation in our community. Many of us have had to struggle to feel connected to our identity as Pagans. I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to studying Icelandic (which I’m still not great at) and examining the culture and legends that I feel are an integral part of who I am as a person. That struggle is something many of us can probably empathize with. Which is at least part of why the topic of cultural appropriation inspires such knee-jerk, volatile reactions from otherwise reasonable people.
While it’s never happened to me, I’ve watched an Irish Atheist tear into a devoted worshiper of the Tuatha Dé Danann, claiming that an American had no right to his national identity. There’s this underlying fear that if we acknowledge that it’s possible to have one’s culture stolen away from them, and we may even be guilty of it ourselves, then part of our very identity might be vulnerable. In a community where we’ve had to fight tooth and nail just to have our existence recognized, the possibility that someone could call our identity into question is terrifying. So for a lot of us, it’s simply easier to ignore the issue then risk having to deal with it.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a real issue that can cause real harm to those minority groups that are being oppressed or demeaned by casual appropriation. If you don’t believe that, then look no further than the image on the right.
Cultural drift and exchange are perfectly normal and healthy; no culture exists in a vacuum. However, when we utilize elements of a culture to which we have no claim, and fail to pay it the respect that we would expect others to show to icons of our own culture, there’s a problem. If little Suzy wants to go up onto a mountain top, burn some sage, and try to get in touch with her extremely distant Native American roots, that’s one thing. If little Suzy comes back down from the mountain and claims to be a Hopi spiritual leader, that’s quite another.
We can’t simply plug our ears and pretend this doesn’t exist purely because we don’t want to have to think about the potential consequences. That’s not rational, that’s not productive, and that’s most certainly not an action worthy of the traditions our communities claim to uphold.
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About ten years ago, I commuted to my job on the train up to Oakland. This gave me about two hours a day in which I probably could have worked on my laptop or read a book. Mostly, it gave me about two hours a day to get some more sleep, but not very good sleep, lest I wake up at the far end of the line and late for work. It also made me the passive receptor of a lot of coughs and sneezes and conversations that were probably intended to be private.
One such conversation stood out during those several years. I had left work early, and the train was nearly empty at that time of day. Sitting on the other side of the car were two old black men, and I got the impression they had not met before. They sat not close to each other, but near enough to hear each other over the clack and howl of the rails. Their discourse was like nothing I had heard before or since. The words were easy enough to understand, but what they were supposed to mean was beyond me. There was no information in them that I could discern.
This went on for about ten minutes. It was not what one would call an animated discussion. The words were few, and the pauses long. Both men had wry smiles on their faces as their elliptical messages went back and forth. There was an occasional laugh, where I could not remember anything funny being said. I remember thinking “What are they doing? And why are they doing it?”
Years later, I still cannot give firm answers to those questions, but I have a guess. I think they were confirming to each other that they understood each other, and could understand and trust each other, in ways that others could not. These men were unusual to me. Between themselves, they were ordinary, and were willing to put a lot of time into nothing more than letting each other know that.
We humans do a lot to convey to other humans that they can trust us. Sometimes, we do a lot to convey to others that they should not. Most of the Trust dataflow is more subtle than credit checks or pat-downs or body cavity searches. How we dress, how we walk, what we talk about, the little jokes we tell each other, when we do and don’t look each other in the eye, these and more are the clues we emit, saying “I am like you. I trust you. You can trust me. So let’s get together.”
Within Heathenry, we talk a lot about Inangardh and Utgardh, inside and outside, who is behind our literal or figurative shield wall, and who is on the other side of it. There are lots of opinions on what that means and how one conveys or perceives it. Jennifer Snook, Ph.D, Professor of Sociology, AKA Skadi, decided to have more than an opinion. She asked a lot of questions of a lot of Heathens over a lot of years, and counted up the answers.
This is not a case of a mole burrowing into our community to ask questions we would not have answered to an outsider. Nor is it a case of someone entering a community under false pretenses and then “going native”. In this project, she is not one to collect data and then lack the concepts to understand what she has found: no one here will insist at the end that we must really be devil worshippers. Snook is a Heathen. She is one of us, and has been since before she began her quest.
Her book, American Heathens (ISBN 1439910979, available from Amazon), is the first long-term sociological study of what it means to be Heathen in America. It is an interesting work.
Not to say that it is an easy read. Dr. Snook often writes the high-viscosity code of the professional Soft Sciences. Figuring out what some of that means may or may not be worth your time. In other places, she is quite clear about things you may or may not have thought much about. You will have your opinion, and she will have hers, and they may or may not be the same. What she has on her side, however, is the unarguable work and analysis she has done. That is worth something.
Can one understand a religion with a spreadsheet? Similarly, can one understand myths through technical literary analysis? No, but these things are still valuable and worth doing. Often enough, what everyone knows must surely be true turns out to be false when someone really goes to look. Are the ideas various Heathens describe as necessary really eigenvectors of the faith? Or are they arrows pointing nowhere, like the portrayal of Oz in the movie: impressive, memorable, fearsome even, but without substance or connection to how anything really works?
Snook went out of her way to be fair. For example, I appear in her book, and she sent me and others their relevant portions before publication, so we could talk about and clear up any misunderstandings she might have had. She did have some, and I didn’t get around to answering her at the time. Busy life and all, you know. If I had, it probably would have changed a few sentences in the result. No, I will not tell you which, but I have since told her, not that it will help at this point. Any fault here is mine, not hers.
She applies to herself several liberal-oriented labels that annoy some people, including myself sometimes. And she has repeated elsewhere the usual post-modernist mantras: objectivity is impossible, and politics pervades all. As a corollary to this, she sometimes seems to simply replace one set of questionable judgments (perhaps yours) with another (perhaps hers) and then calls it Science. Like a lot of Hard Science people, I am not sure that is what it is. But it is interesting, and probably useful, too: like technical literary analysis. Remember to be a critical reader (not the same as wrong-seeking, but questioning the questioner). For those who seek Right, it is rarely found in a flash, but by stumbling through a series of murky Wrongs that eventually come to Right. Or at least More Right. Be a stumbler. There is virtue in that.
The Snook book will kick over the stones of your hearth to see what is under there. You may then put them back, if you like. For most of them, you probably will. For a few, you might decide to clean them off and set them back at a slightly different angle. You might find yourself looking at your Inangardh and Utgardh at a different angle, too. Since we are Heathens, whether Dr. Snook approves of your decisions is not anything that needs to concern you. That you chose to examine your hearthstones again through her work would undoubtedly be gratifying to her.
[Editor’s note: the topic of cultural appropriation is being hotly debated on various articles here on the PatheosPaganchannelandelsewhere. Today, I’m cross posting an article from outside the Agora by Peter Dybing related to these discussions.]
It is always an exacting experience to examine our own contributions to perpetuating oppressive cultural norms. What is personal inevitably triggers resistance to concepts that directly confront our own behaviors. This is a process of evolution of belief and social understanding. While my core beliefs have remained constant, my insight into what those beliefs require in terms of actions and the compassionate support of others is in a constant process of maturation.
I am guilty of Cultural Appropriation
This statement does not mean that I embrace any such actions, only that my understanding of the concept has evolved over the years: nurtured by listening to the experiences of those whose beliefs have been trod upon by our privileged over culture of which I am a participant.
My spiritual journey began in the Hopi Lands of Arizona. In the Hopi I found a true feeling of peace, wonder and appreciation of nature….
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I see in the future of traditional witchcraft a very personal relationship within the spiritual landscape. Witches will connect to the land spirits and will together be dealing with the current state of human habitat destruction. Witches allied with the spirit-side of our environment are going to matter. Visionary thinkers like Peter Gray are promoting the rewilding response to the mainstream myth of everything will be okay if we keep up business as usual. Over the short time since his book, Apocolyptic Witchcraft, came out, the blogosphere has already put interpretive essays about rewilding before a wider audience. Rewilding is standing strong in why we do what we do as witches versus seeking out rebellion for the sake of rebellion or conformity for the sake of mainstreaming. We do what we do as a corrective to a sick society. Rewilding is to slice out the infection and stitch up the wound–hoping the scar isn’t too bad.
The hopeful future of traditional witchcraft is curbing some of the elitism new members of the practice spout off with and reminding them they don’t know everything the day they find their first site or book and go all dark, purple and full of conviction. We do what we do not merely because it upsets the order, but because the order needs to be upset for very good reasons.
The future of traditional witchcraft is professing ethical codes of conduct with a careful eye to the consequences of our actions. No more are we served by platitudes and universal maxims that disregard reality and others’ agency. Everything is not permitted, but many things are permitted. Everything is not possible for everyone, but many things are possible for many people. In other words a reaffirmed and not assumed understanding of values, ethics and boundaries. That is based on freedoms practiced with discernment and honor.
The future of traditional witchcraft is developing currently with a variety of thoughtful and wise authors who have gone beyond basic binary thinking and creating a cultural literacy that allows for exchange versus theft. For example credit should be given where credit is due instead of stripping our traditions of every custom not ‘ours’ to conveniently make them pure of having been taken from somewhere else. We can desist with the very modern essentializing of gender and stop shoehorning every object and concept into man or woman, dark or light, and good or bad. So many historical magical traditions did not even address gender and we don’t always need it to navigate folk magic. A mind open to multiplicities will find them in abundance.
Traditional witchcraft’s future is realizing that we don’t have a single tree root lineage back to ancient polytheist times. Rhizomatic polyvalent thinking will prevail over binary thinking and we will revel in the intersections and meetings of our histories. Witchcraft is and was not a unified religion, it’s a weed or volunteer you might say that resurfaces in waste spaces and in between and shows that spirit can still grow there.
The future of traditional witchcraft is in the paradoxical understanding both that tradition is dead and that we partake in living tradition. Long dead seeds re-root and bloom again. I see us coming to magic with innocence and experience to shape destiny for the better.
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Long ago, we worshipped the Great Goddess, the Creatrix and the Dark One, the giver and the taker of the breath and sustenance of our mortal existence. Her ever-present love and life-giving ways, like shining silver threads, wove the tapestry of our human society, threads that were passed down from the Great Mother, to the priestesses and women leaders, and to the daughters who were to inherit the red cloak of feminine power.
So it was, for generation after generation, the silver threads of the Mother’s ways continued, shining and undiminished.
Yet nothing lasts forever and the seasons of humanity turn. As the sun overtakes the moon in the shifting of night into day, so the rule of men and their patriarchal Gods eclipsed the leadership of woman and the Great Goddess. Dominion and death overruled creation and the nurturance of life, and the silver threads of the Mother became tarnished and frayed.
Much was lost of the profound mysteries and powers of the Great She. Her stories became twisted and tainted, with Her Heavenly light glorified and Her Underworld dark reviled. Her nature, once whole and holy, was disassembled and granted to usurper Gods and their lesser Goddess consorts and companions.
Still, within this newer, distorted weaving, the silver threads remained visible for those with eyes to see and a heart to receive.
With each successive generation and in patriarchy’s quest for absolute rule and absolute suppression of the Mother’s ways, Her silver threads faded farther and farther from our human awareness. Fear and disdain replaced love and reverence.
There were no priestesses, no women leaders, and no daughters to pass on our sacred feminine lineage. Only the bravest of our ancestors, the witches and the healers and the wise women, dared to remember and speak of the remnants of the Mother’s silver threads, woven into the Old Religion of the Great Goddess. Then they too became a part of our disappearing herstory, tortured and murdered during the horrors of the Burning Times for the taint of association with She who must be purged from Her stubborn roots in the human psyche.
And so we find ourselves in these modern times, seemingly adrift in the excesses and destructive impulses of our collective humanity, disconnected from the Great Mother’s life-centered ethos of goodness and love, and headed on a collision course with ecological disaster.
Yet nothing lasts forever and the seasons of humanity turn. The sun shares the sky with the moon, just as God shares this world with the Goddess, and a male ethos with that of the sacred feminine. One may eclipse the other for a time, but what was lost will be refound and balance will return.
We, the waking daughters and sons of the Great She, stir after lifetimes of a deadening sleep. Piece by broken piece, we remember Her in the shards of pottery, crumbled sanctuaries and fragments of sacred text that have weathered the ravages of time and persecution. Somehow these silver threads, though torn, tangled and disconnected from their original holy weaving, reach through the ages and whisper their secrets to our hungry hearts.
If we listen deep and hard from our soul, She will reveal Her greatest secret of all — that we, Her human children, are woven of the very silver threads of Her mysteries. From the tiniest specks of our cellular matrix, to our streaming blood, shimmering nerves, and our miracle bodies of bone and flesh — we are made of Her shining light and sacred matter. In our most holy and profound nature, radiant still in the core of our being, we are Her natural goodness and munificent love.
And all around us, Her silver threads shimmy and shine in the outpouring of life and splendor of this planet Earth, and in the mysteries that underlie our waking reality. While we banish Her to the shadowy recesses of our minds, still She walks amongst us, gifting us always with the abundance and beauty of the green-growing world. Still, we journey by Her side in our dreams and between-the-worlds magic, receiving Her teachings and guidance on our path of soul.
In these turning times, we must begin again, collecting and weaving Her silver threads into a new tapestry of sacred texts and secular practices that return balance and Her goodness and love to our human psyche and society. While we mourn the destruction and desecration of the ancient weavings that were once the bedrock of our humanity, we must also remember that new times require a new weaving.
Each of us, individually and together, in our personal lives, families and communities, must collect and weave, collect and weave, the silver threads that are everywhere and in everything — in the laughter of children, the heat of our lover’s touch, the smile of a stranger, and the best impulses of our warm beating heart — in the crisp bite of an apple, the comforts of home and hearth in the dead of winter, the glorious scent of a summer rose, and the silver brush of moonlight on a sleeping landscape — in our dreams, intuitions, creative expression and spiritual gatherings, where the Mysteries congregate at our doorstep — and in our big and small choices and actions to right the injustices, environmental damage and human abuses of our troubled world.
In this essential work, we are going to stir up the brittle, crusted-over places and twisted, tangled threads that hold our personal wounding, and the fears and nay-saying old stories that dig their heels into the status quo in resistance to our forward movement. We will come face to face with the worst of our collective destructive impulses and the tumultuous, terrifying upheaval that mark the ending of one season of our humanity and the birth of the next. Yet we must not waiver nor let these old stories and fears stand in the way of our sacred task of co-creating the new.
In all these things and so much more, She is with us, gathering up our smaller weavings into the greater tapestry that is the template of a better, kinder, more sustainable and loving world. And in this tapestry, we will find Her shining ancient threads, the tarnished silver strands when we lost our connection to Her sacred ways, and the new golden threads of our remembering and reclaiming the love and goodness that are Her most precious gifts to us.
I reach out my hand to Her. I reach out my hand to you. We have work to do. Let us begin.
I recently started leading an “Intro to Heathenry” class in my hometown. This past week’s class we discussed blots and sumbels—the foundation of all Heathen rituals—and several popular heathen holidays. In preparing for the class, I made a last-minute decision to include a short generic blot at the end. My teaching partner was a bit confused by this, as it is a class, not a ritual, and is mostly aimed at non-Heathens who were learning about Heathenry; but he went along with it anyway.
I first hailed all of those in attendance, hoping that those who had come had received the knowledge they had been seeking. Then, I raised the horn in honor of the goddess Idunn (who grows the apples of immortality for the Gods) for Her part in helping to keep the Heathen tradition alive throughout so many centuries. I thanked Her for the fact that when I came into this world, it was still here waiting for me. We hailed Her, and I drank. (Apple juice instead of alcohol, since we were at the local UU.)
As I passed the horn along and listened to everyone else—ranging from a devout Heathen to an interested atheist, and everything in between—hail the Gods, their ancestors, the land, I had a realization. This is what it is all about, I thought. Not the short lecture we had just given. Not the discussion the various holidays. Not even the interesting discussions about where certain traditions come from, or random bits of Heathen-based lore (such as the fact that the day “Wednesday” is named after Woden, the Anglo-Saxon version of the god Odin). While this was all useful and interesting stuff, true, it is not what Heathenry was all about.
Asatru is a lived religion. It is built on the interaction between us and the Gods, us and the ancestors, us and the landspirits, and us and the other humans who are worshiping with us. If we are not there, participating and interacting with the Gods and/or with each other in fellowship, then a vital component of the religion is missing. Without that interaction, what is the point? Without the doing, what was the use of all of that studying?
Asatru is a reconstructed(ish) religion, so it is really easy to fall into the pattern of simply repeating the Lore. “Snorri Sturlson (recorder of much of our Lore) said x about Goddess y, but he didn’t say anything about Goddess z. So it must not be true.” We do it all of the time — on blogs, on mailing lists, in person. I myself had found Heathenry when I was in grad school, so when I found out that there was a modern Pagan religion that was based on the scholarship around ancient sagasand myths, I was on it. I researched everything I could find. I read the sagas and the Eddas and I actively discussed the Lore on various mailing lists. I nitpicked other people’s experiences and grumbled to my other Lore-Lawyer friends about how some Heathens seemed too “fluffy” and “woo-woo.”
But let me tell you, it did not make for a happy or satisfying religious experience. I never really got past “first base”, as it were, with the Gods when I had this attitude. Eventually I realized I was impeding my own spiritual progress, and I let it go. Now, I actually like my religion. I have experiences with my Gods and spirits that go beyond strict scholarship, and I am much the better for it. Instead of being filled with constant anxiety over whether I knew enough of the Lore to be a “real” Heathen, I actively participate with an open heart and mind. I make space for the Gods and spirits to come and be an active part of my religious experience, too.
While it is very useful to have a grounding in the Lore, and I highly recommend that new Heathens acquire some sagas and start reading them, I think that this step is only a starting point in a Heathen’s journey. To get some real satisfaction out of their religious experience, people need to put the book down. Stop theorizing about what the Gods would or wouldn’t do; stop comparing and critiquing what other scholars or practitioners experiences or opinions. Just show up and participate. Live the religion, don’t just study it.
Hail the Gods and Goddesses. Leave offerings for your ancestors and the landspirits. Congregate with other people of like mind, and blot together if at all possible. You can come together to practice frith, weave community, and honor everyone’s spirits and ancestors, just like the Vikings did back in the day. And when you do a ritual such as a blot, leave some space for the Gods to interact with you. A blot is, at its essence, a gift; and in Heathenry, we know that one gift begets another. Give the honored ones a chance to give us back a gift as well.
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“You should worship Loki. He’s the only one of our Gods that successfully changed their sex.”
Those words came from a conversation that I had at the Wellspring Festival in 2015. While I do honor the Wolf-Father in my own way (yes, boo hiss boo, I know) it has nothing to do with me being transgender. As a matter of fact, the assignation of trans status to Loki has always gotten under my skin, as it does when people label Tiresias as transgender.
A transgender person identifies with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth. There is no indication in the lore that we have regarding Loki that he identified as a woman or even that he was assigned male at birth – these are things that we do not know. We know that he is a shapeshifter. We know that he developed a uterus when he became the mother of Sleipnir and the nameless children mentioned by Odhinn in Lokasenna. We know that he is capable of changing his body and how he manifests – a not uncommon trait among deities, especially the tricksy sort. With Tiresias, again, we don’t know how he identified – a key part of transgender identity. We know again that his body was changed at that point, and that he enjoyed his time living “as a woman”. We don’t know how he thought of himself at any point in his career. Language for gender identity was not the same back then (despite all of the lovely Greek and Latin roots we love to use for it nowadays.)
Or we can look at a more historical (but still highly relevant to modern Pagans) example – Sappho. Sappho’s poetry and invocations express love for those of multiple genders, and yet her homeland has become the word for women who only prefer other women, and her name has been similarly adapted. So while it’s understandable that any gynophilic Pagan women could identify with Sappho, strictly describing her as a “lesbian” in modern terms may not be entirely accurate (despite the irony of the permanent entanglement of her identity with that term).
In these cases and many others like them, a mythological figure (or an historical figure that has become mythologized or is tied to our mythologies) is attached to a modern understanding of a part of the human condition. We do this all the time with stories and legends – we all seek figures that we can identify with. When a population is particularly under-represented people strive to find figures that fit some portion of their narrative to latch on to.
I know the urge; I completely understand it. I really do wish that there was a trans woman in Norse mythology or the sagas who I could offer to and honor! Someone who had dealt with the same pain and sorrow, someone who had striven to cope with the same difficulties that I do every day and has fought similar battles. Someone that I could point to as part of my sworn duty to other transgender Pagans, when they are looking for the same.
So while I would love to pluck figures from mythology and claim them for my people, I don’t. In fact, I view it as harmful for a few very important reasons.
In a lot of cases these assignations are not made by people who fit into these categories themselves. Especially when it comes to gender identity and sexuality, people who do not have these same experiences rarely come to them from a point of understanding. That’s not their fault; I can’t expect cisgender (folks who aren’t transgender) people to understand what trans folk go through.
To someone who has never questioned whether or not they are straight and negotiated the sometimes labyrinthine definitions that we have developed for various sexualities nowadays, it’s easy to label someone as “gay” when they’re observed interacting intimately or romantically with a member of the same (perceived) sex. However, there is a range of terms used to describe the experiences of people with different varieties of sexual attraction that (while frequently mocked by those who do not experience them) are actually valuable in helping us to realize that there are others that feel the same way and go through the same experiences.
What does someone who is not trans witness when a trans person goes through the process we call transition? To their eyes they see someone of one gender “becoming” another. For a lot of transgender people, though, that’s not what they experience at all – many of us have always seen ourselves as a particular gender, and are in the process of making our bodies and social characteristics align with our inner identity. Only someone who has never gone through this themselves would tell us that those are one and the same thing.
What do straight people see when someone is exploring and attempting to understand and come to terms with their sexuality? They often see us as “experimenting”, “questioning”, or worse, “confused”. Confused because we don’t conform to what we’ve been raised to believe is the standard-issue sexuality, questioning because we’re questioning the assumption that all people are naturally heterosexual, experimenting with different bodies to find what resonates with us because the ones that we’re told that we’re supposed to be attracted to don’t do it for us. Again, if you haven’t been through it, it’s something that you can’t personally understand.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. I know that I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color in the United States, but I try to educate myself on it. I do that by listening to the voices of PoC who are trying to explain the injustices and pain that they experience. I do it by hearing them talk about the systemic racism that they face that I can’t see because I’m not experiencing it myself. I know that I will never encounter the same things that they do, but I do know that I can listen to them when they speak, try not to talk over them, and try to empathize with them.
It’s very important to acknowledge that we won’t understand all human experiences. Telling someone that their experience or interpretation thereof is incorrect when you have not yourself lived through it can be dangerous and damaging to them. It is essentially telling them that they do not know themselves and understand their own lives, and that your own understanding of their experiences is superior because it does not match theirs.
One of the worst things that can come out of this is an internalized misunderstanding. Let me give you a highly personal example.
When I was a teenager/twentysomething in the nineties, there was very little public education on sexuality and gender identity. A lot of folks conflated the two things (in fact, they still do). So that left me confused – I was told that someone who the world viewed as a man who knew themselves to be a woman was “gay”. I tried for years to live as a gay man, with depressing and sometimes amusing results. Men who liked men who drew close to me romantically would usually back away quickly; whether they were conscious of it or not they realized that I was not what I was pretending to be. The only long-term relationship that I had was with a man who identified as gay socially but admitted he preferred people over their parts.
So I spent years of my life in a spiral of confusion because public understanding of what I was going through was lacking, and my own research ended up muddying the waters because it did not match what everyone else seemed to think of it. It brought about pain and self-harm as I tried to force myself into a role and identity that wasn’t mine. I wasn’t alone in that, either; many transgender people have experienced the same.
What does this have to do with identification with mythological figures? We internalize what we learn through our culture. Pagan culture is no exception – we are developing our own micro-cultures in our paths and traditions, as any Heathen or Druid will tell you. Let’s take the example of Loki again. For someone like myself who had no other association with him, being told that he should be a patron or that I should be Fulltrui (trusted friend or representative) to him because of the misunderstood assignation regarding his gender identity confuses multiple issues. Others that I’ve encountered have been rejected by Heathens because they incorrectly associate him with transgender people, and consider him to be evil.
I’m privileged in that I’m well-educated on gender issues and Norse mythology and have a solid stance and opinion on the matter. Someone without the benefit of my education could be casually pushed away from Heathenry and would likely internalize that negativity. I’ve seen it – trans people and gay or bi folks who refuse to associate with Heathenry or Celtic Recon or other paths because of the hostility that they’ve encountered, often based on misunderstandings of lore, history, and identity.
This stuff matters. If it doesn’t affect you it might not matter to you directly (or at least you might think that it doesn’t) but it affects people. As our paths develop more solid worldviews and we come to see life through Pagan lenses those worldviews are going to inform membership and community. I’d hate to see us go commit the same sins that many mainstream religions have by constructing cultures that are inimical to our understanding of our identities and struggles, with dogma being passed down by people who have never had these experiences themselves. Those who might benefit from our paths might be forced to turn from them. We also run the risk of eschewing the benefits of having people who can provide vital diversity and important perspectives to our communities by basing our understandings of them off of our own opinions rather than what they know to be true about themselves.
Personal Subjective Experiences
I use PSE (personal subjective experiences) for a broader category of experiences that include but are not limited to UPG. I like to say that there is no gay-o-meter that you can stick into someone’s head and tell their sexuality. There is no gender spectrometer that can tell you who a person really is on the inside. While behavior can provide indications, it’s not a certainty. A person could be married to a man for twenty years, have four kids, and still be a lesbian (I’ve seen it); anyone can learn to play a role. Anyone can pretend for their own safety, or because they’ve been told that a certain way to be is the only right or healthy way by people who have not shared their experiences.
Our spirituality is informed by a combination of personal subjective experiences and lore (which is the PSE/UPG of our Ancestors). While we may gnash our teeth and fight about UPG and its place and application to a certain extent everyone’s practice and belief is subject to it. As a group of faiths that embrace (or at least don’t outright shun) our personal subjective spiritual experiences, I believe that it’s important to keep our eyes open to other personal subjective experiences that fall outside of just our spirituality. We many-souled humans have many components to our identities, and if we follow paths that claim the importance of community and family we need to be cognizant of our own limitations in understanding experiences outside of our own.
What can we do?
Let me say that (going back to the same example) there are transgender people who identify with Loki. We often do work to change our bodies to match our identities, and he is a shapeshifter, after all. He’s not alone, either – there are a lot of deities that, for one reason or another, resonate with trans people. The excellent book Hermaphrodeities contains some examples and was an inspiration to me that helped me to think about and consider the possibilities of gender regarding the Powers.
For those of us who follow paths that venerate the Ancestors, we may have additional options. Thorberg from the Saga of Hrolf Gautreksson identified as a man despite the disagreements of others around him (there’s an essay with some information on him linked here) and the dismissive attitudes of many scholars that have reviewed the material. I’ve always thought that the Roman emperor Elagabalus may have been a trans woman – Elagabalus offered a princely sum to any surgeon who could “fix” their genitals and shamed the stodgy Romans with their effeminate ways. There are countless Ancestors in Pagan histories that display non-hetero sexualities as well, from Sappho to Alexander the Great.
In addition, when reaching out to Ancestors we need not merely go to Pagans for aid and guidance. Modern and historical individuals whose identities resonate with our own are suitable subjects for veneration and supplication. As an example, in my old household we would perform a rite of offering and thanks to Harvey Milk on Harvey Milk day.
You need not know the names or identities of the Ancestors to call on them if you know how. I’ve done work with the Transgender Dead before, reaching out and back through time to those of the past who aligned with my identity and struggles, and have made contact with spirits willing to assist and guide us now. Queer and trans Ancestors exist, and they want veneration as much as any others (thus my habit of adding a third category of “and everyone else” or “those who were both or neither” when folks offer to the Mothers and Fathers of our lines). In many cases they may be bitter due to their treatment in life, but I’ve found them to be welcoming of the love and attention and acknowledgement. At the LGBT Ancestor rite that I performed at Wellspring of 2015, we received omens in the form of a candle and a quill – “Keep the candles lit for us.” and “Keep telling our stories.”, they seemed to say.
If you’re not of a particular identity, don’t tell someone who they should or shouldn’t venerate based off of that. Trying to pigeonhole us into roles that we don’t fit into only ends up hurting us and pushing us away. Telling us that we should be “skilled shapeshifters” or more capable of walking between worlds because we’re transgender or non-hetero isn’t celebrating us – it’s assigning us particular roles that we haven’t asked for and may not actually be skilled at performing. Traditional or not, not all of us fit into those categories – if we do, let us discover these things on our own.
What you can do is provide us with information, listen to us when we tell you what’s going on with us, and help guide us in coming to our own decisions. Attempt to respect where we’re coming from – trans and queer people walk a hard road, and it doesn’t “get better” for many of us, despite popular campaigns to the contrary. What will make it better is allies willing to listen and work with us based on our own understandings of our experiences. That will help us to feel at home and negotiate our own spiritual paths, and you might just learn something from our unique experiences and viewpoints in the process.
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