The Goddess, alone in the universe She had created, felt a need to be companion-ed, mirrored, partnered. So She divided Herself to create that partner, and the God was born. To see Him was to desire Him, and the Goddess felt desire. Dancing, swaying, singing the first spell ever known, She seduced Him. They loved and were One again; and out of Their love the world of matter was born. In one form or another, this is the central myth of Traditional Wicca. The Goddess and God, the Perfect Couple, completing each other on all levels and in that completion creating the Universe. It is a beautiful myth, one of enormous power both magically and psychologically.
In our rituals the theme is repeated, as the Priest and Priestess take on the mantle of Deity to enact the myth, embrace in the kiss of consecration, and symbolically or directly to perform the Great Rite, the heiros gamos. To the participant in such a ritual, even just as an observer, the experience is profoundly moving, sometimes even disturbing.
Nothing in modern society prepares us for this open, unabashed celebration of the sexual urge as something holy. Yet to the inherently mystical personality, that fact has always been self-evident. If life is good — and it is — then that which gives life and joy and a sense of completion is more than good. It is divine.
The Jungian theory of the anima and animus, each man’s inner feminine, each woman’s inner masculine component, restates the myth in psychological rather than religious terms and reiterates the theme of the reunification of sundered halves to make a whole that is all the more complete for having known separateness. This seeking for a lost “other half” is why we are attracted to the people we are: they remind us of our own animus or anima. Jung would say that we “project” it onto potential mates.
When the process takes place entirely in the unconscious, behind the scenes as it were, it can lead to disaster. We marry a harridan just like Mom, a wife-beater just like Dad. Or we waste our life in increasingly frantic bed-hopping, hoping that this will finally be “the one”. Or we quit hoping at all, and settle for meaninglessness.
With Wiccans, the process is deliberate, and therefore (theoretically) under some control. We see someone as anima or animus, as Goddess or God, because we choose to. We invoke divinity into a particular person, and like the attendees at a 19th-century séance, relate to the Personage through the medium of the person. There is a strong resemblance, here, to some of the practices of Tantra. Abraham Maslow, in his “Religions, Values and Peak Experience”, argues persuasively that a man who cannot sometimes see his wife as a goddess, a woman who never sees her husband as a god, does not really love. Granting Maslow’s 30-years-out-of-date conventionality in specifying “wife” and “husband” rather than “woman” and “man”, every Wiccan would agree. In Circle and out of it, we have the uniquely Wiccan delight of embracing a God, a Goddess, and knowing it.
In Irish mythology, it was said that on the night before a battle the Morrigan, Goddess of battle and lust, used her foreknowledge to choose a lover from among those champions destined to be slain. All night long She loved him as deeply, as fiercely, and as perfectly as only a Goddess can. And when his death was upon him he died gladly, knowing that he had indeed been loved by a Goddess, and that the love of mortal women, even life itself, would be but ashes thereafter.
Something rather like that seems to happen to some Wiccans. Having once experienced the sexual epiphany of a powerful Great Rite, some of us thereafter need all our sexual encounters to be that earth-shaking. Like the love of the Morrigan, our Divine encounters seem to leave us unfit for the joys of ordinary mortals, unable to enjoy the kind of tired-but-horny bedtime lovemaking that is the pleasant staple of most couples’ sexual diet.
In a disturbing mirror-image of Maslow’s observation, we can not only sometimes see the God or Goddess in our beloved, we require it of them.
We become unable or unwilling to continue loving once it dawns on us that most of the time this being we have hooked up with is an ordinary mortal who gains weight, disagrees with us, and farts in bed. We feel cheated and betrayed, and go looking for another Perfect Lover to carry us with little effort on our part into realms of ecstasy.
Instead of enriching and ennobling our relationships, as our unique perspective ought to, more often than not it merely destabilizes them. The ideal of the Perfect Couple becomes a phantasm, a sad, dysfunctional fantasy need.
Part of the priest-craft of the Craft is learning to assume the mantle of the Goddess or God at will; a part of it also is — or should be — turning it off again at the Circle’s edge. Except for those moments in ritual, magical partners, even when they are also lovers, are not the Perfect Couple.
Perfect union, perfect love, cannot exist in this plane. Not for long. It is possible only to partake of that perfection once in a while, when we’re lucky or the Gods are with us. Recognize it for the miracle it is, revel in it, rut in it, but don’t count on it. And the next time your lover farts in bed, snuggle close and whisper, “Thou art God.”
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Today, we call it the “Star Spangled Banner”. The lyrics we most often sing (read as: mumble) at the start of a ball game were written in 1812 by Francis Scott Key to accompany a popular melody of the time. It has only been the US National anthem since 1931.
Below are the original lyrics to that drinking song as first published in 1778 with a added few notes:
The song was composed to be the anthem of a gentleman’s drinking club, devoted to wine, women and song – perhaps in that order.
Anacreon is the name of a famous Greek poet with similar tastes who lived some 2500 years ago, long before we ‘found’ the North American continent and called it ‘the New World’. Momus is the god of mockery and satire.
The song tells of men who ask Anacreon, the poet to sponsor their club. He says yes, and “I will also…” All the trouble ensues from there. I won’t ruin the ending for you.
One of the herbs appearing in the song is Myrtle (myrtus communis) sacred to Venus/Astarte. It is infused in water and used for youth, love, fertility and prosperity workings. Bacchus’ vine was of course the grape, which has long associations with fertility, lineage and abundance as well as over-indulgence and drunkenness. Bay Laurel is used to impart protection, healing, psychic powers, strength and purification.
This poetry was written as solo performance art, meant to be spoken or sung by one person with musical accompaniment. This means the melody is as much a part of the song as the words. Think of “Stairway to Heaven” or “Amazing Grace” – it would be difficult to separate the words from the music in your mind. The same was true for people of the time. Hearing the tune naturally would bring to mind it’s original words.
These are those words:
To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee, A few Sons of Harmony sent a petition That he their Inspirer and Patron would be; When this answer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian: “Voice, Fiddle, and Flute, no longer be mute, I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to intwine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”
The news through Olympus immediately flew; When Old Thunder pretended to give himself airs. “If these Mortals are suffered their scheme to pursue, The devil a Goddess will stay above stairs. Hark, already they cry, in transports of joy, Away to the Sons of Anacreon we’ll fly,
And there with good fellows, we’ll learn to intwine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ Vine.”
“The Yellow-Haired God and his nine lusty Maids From Helicon’s banks will incontinent flee, Idalia will boast but of tenantless shades, And the bi-forked hill a mere desert will be. My Thunder no fear on’t, shall soon do its errand, And dam’me I’ll swing the Ringleaders I warrant.
I’ll trim the young dogs, for thus daring to twine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”
Apollo rose up, and said, “Pry’thee ne’er quarrel, Good King of the Gods, with My Vot’ries below: Your Thunder is useless” — then showing his laurel, Cry’d “Sic evitabile fulmen” you know! Then over each head, my laurels I’ll spread, So my sons from your Crackers no mischief shall dread,
Whilst, snug in their clubroom, they jovially twine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”
Next Momus got up with his risible Phiz And swore with Apollo he’d cheerfully join — “The full tide of Harmony still shall be his, But the Song, and the Catch, and the Laugh shall be mine. Then, Jove, be not jealous of these honest fellows.” Cry’d Jove, “We relent, since the truth you now tell us;
And swear by Old Styx, that they long shall intwine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”
Ye Sons of Anacreon, then join hand in hand; Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love! ‘Tis yours to support what’s so happily plann’d; You’ve the sanction of Gods, and the Fiat of Jove. While thus we agree, our toast let it be: “May our Club flourish happy, united, and free!
And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”
Thank you to herb lore master S. Cunningham and Wikipedia for making this research so much easier. And much gratitude to Ralph Tomlinson & John Smith for composing the original lyric and tune.
And Happy Birthday to that merry club! Long may we flourish as we “intwine” the Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ Vine.
Who says we aren’t a Pagan nation!?
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Throw in a handful of hilarious, and the fact that I haven’t seen ain several weeks, and you’ll begin to understand what my month looked like!
So as you can see, the past month has been a bit of a mixed bag. There’s been all of these fantastic, wonderful things going on, with some truly horrendous bits of news sprinkled through. That’s basically been my life since my wife hit the third trimester of her pregnancy. We probably would have done just fine with all of this, but as I mentioned in my last update my Father-In-Law passed away shortly before the birth of his granddaughter…
My wife and her father were incredibly close, and we were both devastated at the loss. He had been hoping to hold out to meet the baby, and it was a big blow to everybody when we realized that was not going to happen. The whole family came together to keep him company during his final hours, and he got to be the only family member to learn the name of his granddaughter before she was born. He left this world surrounded by kith and kin, secure in the knowledge that he was well loved.
I’ve lost family members before, but never one so close to me. Most of my extended family I’ve never met more than once or twice. Even when we lost my beloved great grandmother, she passed in her sleep at the age of 102. It was sad, but we were all prepared for it. In many ways, the grieving process we were (and still are) going through now is an experience neither my wife nor I were prepared for. Neither of us had ever had to deal with that kind of loss, and it compounded a lot of the stress in our lives because we weren’t sure how to cope with it. My Mother-In-Law has said on a number of occasions that all deaths are sad, but not all of them are tragic. The passing of my 102 year old great grandmother was sad. The passing of my Father-In-Law was tragic.
Many of us turn to tradition when our own life experience falls short, finding answers in the thoughts and actions of those who came before us when our own lives haven’t prepared us for what we need to do. My Father-In-Law is Jewish, so a lot of what The Lore has to say about what lays beyond death’s door didn’t offer much comfort. However, The Lore has a lot more to say on the subject of death then the simple specifics of the various halls of the dead. The ancient Norse had a unique perspective on grief and loss that can be seen through the greater narrative of the Völuspá.
Throughout the old legends, the world was always depicted as a wild and dangerous place. The forest was always hungry, and the winters were always harsh. Midgard was a hard place, filled with monsters. Despite this, Humanity wasn’t seen as under siege. To the contrary, we were the invaders in a world of terrors; building societies and fighting to inflict order on a chaotic world.
So much of western religious philosophy is centered around answering the Epicurean question of why such ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people. When the ancient Norse encountered a tragic loss (a truly awful thing happening to good people) it wasn’t because the gods took them away, or because they were somehow being ‘punished’. It’s because we battle the forces of the world every day, and not all battles are won. Sometimes the crops freeze, the cattle starve, and the village disappears over the winter. The important part is that WE KEEP FIGHTING. We keep living. We rebuild the village in spring, resow the crops, and sing our songs to the honored dead. We stand on the shoulders of all who passed before us, and we fight on in order to remember the meaning and value of their lives.
So now it’s time to rebuild the village. My wife and I are caring for the home he loved, and working to raise the next generation of the family he devoted his life too. We’ll resow the memories of his life in the songs and tales we tell our daughter, passing along his incredible life story.
And the fight goes on.
**Helena Folmer was born on June 24th, 2015!**
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Today’s a good day to be gay. However, it’s not a great day to be gay, at least when you live in Michigan, where the new joke in the LGBT scene is that now you can get gay married on Saturday, and then gay fired on Monday! (Cue the drums and the canned applause.)
I made squee sounds and jumped up and down when I got the NPR story on the SCOTUS ruling sent to me last Friday. I might have even clapped. I do that sometimes. I feel it’s okay for adults to occasionally, spontaneously clap for themselves, but I digress. I was really truly excited and contacted a friend who works at the local university in the LGBT Resource Center to ask if there was anything going on in town. She knows things. It’s kind of awesome, like a gay phone tree. She told me there was stuff happening at the Capitol and that I should get my pagan priestess butt over there and marry some gay people! (Pun intended.)
One of my partners happened to be home from work so I was able to sneak away from my child watching duties to go be a priestess! I ripped off my cutoff jeans and tie-dyed tee I had stolen from another partner, threw on my grown-up looking black wrap dress, grabbed my stole and went. I was really excited to marry some gay people.
I got to the Capitol and wandered toward a crowd of people. They looked weirdly subdued for a bunch of newlyweds. They were loitering on the Capitol lawn eating their lunches from Styrofoam containers like business casual pigeons. They also seemed kind of young. I kept looking for some rainbow flags, or possibly some confetti. There was none. Awkwardly I stood there, wondering if I should ask these people where the marriages were happening when I noticed they all had lanyards with name tags on. These weren’t gay people. At least most of them probably weren’t, and none of them were getting married right that moment. I had found a flock of interns taking a moment in the sun before getting back to whatever grunt work they were being assigned in the bowels of our state government. Hmmm.
While I was trying to figure out what had happened, a fellow druid and friend who works nearby texted me that she was across the lawn and ready to witness some gay marriage! I waved and explained about the interns. She and the friends she had brought were clearly downcast, but we had the idea to go to the courthouse and see if the County Clerk’s office was the site where the joyous moments of union were occurring. It was only a couple of blocks away so we walked together through downtown. It was weirdly normal, with people walking around looking busy and bored. We got to the County Clerk’s office but my companions elected to go get some grub with the rest of their lunch hour while I wandered inside. I bid them farewell, looking doubtfully at the seventies style wood paneling before wandering off to seek out the County Clerk’s office.
No one was there but one bored woman behind the counter. Our eyes met for a moment and I shrugged and gave her a sheepish smile before turning around and walking back outside. I wondered what she thought of me in that moment, and if I was the most interesting thing that had happened that day. I hope not.
Determination took hold of me. I had a rare opportunity to be part of history! I looked at my phone and saw I had a couple of texts about Barb Byrum, our County Clerk at the clerk’s office in the county seat. Pictures of happy married couples standing in front of the historic Mason Courthouse showed me where I should go. The game was afoot! I hurried back to my car and drove down to Mason, about twenty minutes away. I have a friend who works for the county down there so I knew where to go, mostly. I only got lost once. That’s really good for me. I ended up circling the County Jail and the Courthouse, but the forbidding dark brick structure sat squat and forlorn. No rainbows were to be found there.
I drove to the Historic Courthouse, which is different from the regular Courthouse where Siri had sent me. Bad Siri! But as I circled looking for a parking place, my heart beginning to pound with excitement, I realized something.
There wasn’t anybody here either.
At least not anybody looking like they were celebrating a great moment in civil rights history. This was a defining moment finally allowing those of us who are attracted to individuals of our own gender to legally bind ourselves in contractual agreement with a person whose genitals match our own. What the Hel?
There were a couple of bored women in frumpy flowered dresses eating lunch, a mom pushing a stroller, and a man in a business suit. I texted my friend who worked across the street to see if she wanted to get lunch since that seemed the only thing to do, but she wasn’t in town. No lunch. No gay people. It was one of those moments when you either have to cry or laugh. I laughed. I laughed and texted my partners that I couldn’t find any gay people to marry! My husband had been updating people on Facebook. I had a friend on the scene back downtown who couldn’t find any gay people either. All of us were desperate to be part of such an exciting moment, many of us part of the LGBT community ourselves, and yet…
No gay people.
I drove home. I took off my official garb and let it be known on Facebook that I would be available to serve as an officiant at any marriages that occurred that weekend. It was a strange letdown, but the strangest thing was that I didn’t understand. I should have. I should have known how burnt out many LGBT people here in Michigan are. I should have known that hate is still legal in our state and that those people who had wanted to run out and get married at the courthouse had already done so the first time it was legalized in Michigan. That time I didn’t happen to have a partner handy to watch children so I had to watch from the sidelines while all the marriages occurred. I should have known how much struggle and heartbreak had already worn down those people who worked to preserve the marriages that were then made illegal again the very next day when a higher court upheld the ban on same-sex marriage. This was a law enforcing hate that had passed by popular vote on our state ballot. We live in a state where the majority of voters think that being gay is wrong, or ugly, or even evil. Typing that makes me sad. I’m bisexual and polyamorous, you may have noticed the mention of “partners” pluralized earlier in this post. So though I do have a legally wedded husband, this stuff lives close to my heart. I’m wrong and ugly and evil too.
I talked about my adventure with a neighbor who has worked for years within the LGBT community in my town. He looked at me like I was crazy, because I was. I had forgotten in my rainbow and confetti haze that there was still so much hate. I had forgotten that being transgendered is like putting a target on your back. I had forgotten that if you and your lesbian partner want to rent that lovely apartment above the shops by the river, you can get declined simply because “We don’t rent to your kind.” I had forgotten that hate is imbued and woven into the fabric of our lives. This echoes into the burning of Black churches in the south, and the hate killings of innocent men and women in Charleston. When we allow hate to be legal we allow this to happen. It doesn’t matter which subgroup of people is demonized or dehumanized the process of allowing oneself to hate blindly is horribly dangerous.
I’m not much of a protestor. I did walk in a march against the Iraq War. My protest is usually of the quieter sort. A life lived according to different values, hard work put toward finding a more sustainable, loving way to live. I’ve been running up against the hard limits of how many hours there are in the day. But I feel in my bones that we must stand together as people to speak all of our truths. When a gay or racist joke is made in front of me I call people on it. I try not to be mean, because that just shuts dialogue down. I talk more openly about being bisexual too. The women I have loved deserve to be part of my history and my now.
It’s easy to let hate win. To hide and cower, or just to let it all slide from your mind. It’s hard to know what do to, how to be an ally, or to be open about things that cause a quick flicker of discomfort in a new acquaintances’ face. Let’s see this ruling for what it is: a step in the right direction. One step in a very long journey started so long ago. Walk with me, dear reader, away from hate and into something else, something new and better.
Dandelion Seeds is published on monthly on the first and third Wednesday. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!
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In my last blog on midsummer and Áine, I mentioned in passing that I also honor the liminal Gods and I thought it would be good to discuss that a bit more.
“Liminal Gods” is a term I use to describe beings who occupy the place between the Gods of known pantheons and the Fair Folk, although that gets a bit complicated in itself since all the Irish Gods are considered, technically, part of the aos sí because the Gods went into the fairy hills after humans arrived in Ireland. The key difference is that while the Irish Gods clearly have established myths and stories, have history, the liminal Gods don’t. Even calling them Gods is a bit of an assumption on my part, as I don’t know for certain if they are truly déithe in the old sense or if they are the powerful kings and queens of Fairy who choose to acknowledge and interact with those who honor them. Although I can get fairly rigid about semantics, in most cases everything with the liminal Gods is fluid and hard to pin down.
The line between the Good Neighbors and Gods has always been a blurry one, as we see both the known Irish Gods being counted among the fairies (aos sí) in folklore and also the highest ranking fairies, such as the Queen of Elphame, acting in some stories nearly as deities. In her confession renowned (or infamous) Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie claimed that she dealt with the Queen of Elphame, and in similar confessions, many Scottish witches claimed to have gotten part of their power from the Other Crowd. In Ireland the mná feasa, or wise women, were said to have gotten their knowledge and skill from the fairies as well. Just as the Gods can bless us–or not–the Fair Folk can bless, heal, and grant luck — or curse, cause illness, and bring death.
The biggest difference, I think, has always been about the magnitudes of power involved, with the Gods at the highest end of the scale and the lowest of the lesser Fay at the lower end. The liminal Gods, as the term implies, occupy the transitional area between Gods and the Gentry. Maybe they are truly Gods in the old sense; maybe they really are the Kings and Queens of Fairy. I do not know, not even now after honoring them for many years. What I do know is that when prayed to they answer and answer in ways I would expect of a deity, which is good enough for me.
So, who are the liminal Gods? Well I suspect there are many actually, but like so many things of the Otherworld, we tend to know and connect to only a few. I am aware of slightly less than a dozen myself, but I only honor four of them. The ones who my practice acknowledges and with whom I have established a connection are: the Lady of the Greenwood, the Lord of the Wildwood, the Queen of the Wind, and the Hunter. They have always come to me in pairs, and the pairs depend on the seasons which divide the year, either summer or winter. The names are, obviously, not names at all but titles which I call them based on how they appear and the powers I perceive them to have. Doubtless they have proper names, but the titles work quite well and seem fitting to use given their natures.
The Lady of the Greenwood and Lord of the Wildwood rule the summer, from Bealtaine to Samhain. The Lady of the Greenwood is the living soul of the forest, the surge of new life, the seed and the fruit. She is the spirit of sexuality, fertility, growth, and potential which nurtures and comforts, heals and supports all life. The Lord of the Wildwood is her compliment and balancing force, active where she is passive, wild and challenging where she is gentle. He is the nurturing masculine element, but also the will to live, thrive, and succeed. Where she is the fertile soil that cradles the new seed he is the force that compels the plant to burst forth and reach for the sun.
The Queen of the Wind and the Hunter rule from Samhain to Bealtaine. The Queen of the Wind is the spirit of endings, renewal, and enchantment; her realm is magic and divination and her power is great; she sees all futures and potential without judgment. She is the breath of wind that heralds spring and also the storm which freezes everything in its path. The Hunter is her partner and balancing force. He guides the souls of the dead to the next world and protects the living who are not yet meant to pass beyond. He is the fierceness of the stalking predator but also the courage of the warrior defending his home. He is a guide, strategist, and sage. Where the Queen of the Wind is the force which balances life and death itself, cutting away the old to make room for the new, he is the spirit that brings harmony by easing the transitions she brings and protecting what is meant to be preserved.
These are the liminal Gods as I know them. They are the Gods of that which is between, the edge of darkness where the firelight stops and the night begins. They have no established mythology, no ancient stories, rather they are entirely experiential, beings which must be known to be understood. They are utterly civilized and yet completely wild, Gods who are contradictions, gentle and fierce, Otherworldly and immanent, passionate and detached. They are equally at home in the deepest wilds and the most populace city, in the solitary places and the crowds. In other words they are of Fairy, and honoring them is a dangerous and wonderful thing. Although I do honor the Irish Gods, respecting and honoring the aos sí is the core of my spirituality and so worshiping the liminal Gods is a vital thing, and forms an essential part of my practice of witchcraft as a religion and a craft.
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[Editor’s Note: June’s fifth Monday throws off our normal bi-weekly schedule introducing some chaos into the otherwise orderly process of the Agora’s columns. Shauna was ready and willing to help fill in some of the schedule’s gaps with this auxiliary post for her column, Seeking the Grail. Our normal bi-weekly schedule resumes on Wednesday, July 1.]
Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), one of the oldest and perhaps best known large Pagan festivals, had to be evacuated because of a flash flood. If you’re not familiar with what happened, check out this Wild Hunt article. This year was the first time I had to miss PSG since I began teaching Pagan leadership workshops there back in 2009.
I grieve for those affected with this, and I especially empathize with how difficult it is to cancel an event. Years ago, I organized a day-long Pagan conference, and a freak ice storm forced us to cancel the event. I wrote the below article months later. Each year, the Diana’s Grove Mystery School worked with a retold myth. In 2007, we worked with the Ballad of Tam Lin, and that story provides a framework for the article.
Part of my Grail-seeking is being the person who comes up with big ideas and works to make them happen. Sometimes, the thing you’ve toiled over and worked for and fought for, doesn’t come to pass.
And it hurts.
I thought I’d re-post this article in honor of those dealing with the emotional after effects of the cancellation and evacuation of PSG, including the organizers and staffers that work all year long to make the event happen. I feel for your heartbreak.
Desire, Yearning, and Being Afraid to Reach
In the Ballad of Tam Lin, Jennet reaches for the rose. She has smelled the impossible scent of roses, and now she reaches for that otherworldly flower, for the dream, for what she desires. Jennet touches Mystery, the place between the worlds, the place where her dream waits to be born.
What do you reach for? What do you desire? What is your dream?
Reaching for the rose is part of my profession. As a designer, artist, writer, event planner, and leader, I often reach for something that doesn’t exist, and pull it from the place of dream into reality. The essence of any creative work—whether creating a life, a work of art, an event, or something else entirely— is in forming, shaping and realizing something that did not exist before.
Creation, for me, is an act of reaching for and manifesting something I desire. Desire itself is life force—when I yearn for something, that yearning is the very fuel that I use to bring it into being.
Afraid to Reach
Have you ever desired, yearned, reached for … and failed to achieve a dream? I have danced between desire and disappointment, and at times I’ve been afraid to risk failure, risk having my heart broken, by reaching for a dream and not achieving it. The times when a dream has failed to manifest have left me afraid to reach for my dreams— a project, a job, a community, a romantic relationship, and limitless other possibilities.
In January 2007, I was in the midst of final preparations for Reach for the Flame, a daylong spiritual conference I was organizing including five tracks of workshops, presenters from around the Midwest, and a community ritual focused on personal spiritual transformation to be facilitated by a team of over a dozen people.
My dream was to hold an event that would bring the ecstatic, participatory, and alchemical transformative style of personal and spiritual work as well as leadership and community building to the St. Louis metaphysical/Pagan/alternative spirituality community.
I had personally invested hundreds of hours in reaching for this dream.
The day before the event, an ice storm hit our region of the Midwest. The night before the event, half of our facilitators contacted us, trying to drive to the event and unable to get there, or having found out that their flights were cancelled.
As I facilitated the meeting in which the planning team agreed to cancel the event, I felt like I was midwifing a stillborn baby. We had fuelled the fire of this dream with our life-force. My dream was dying, unfulfilled.
My heart broke.
Each time my heart has been broken, I’ve been left afraid to reach again. Sometimes when I’ve wanted to reach for something, like a romantic relationship, I’ve been so afraid of being turned down that I failed to act, failed to take any step to manifest my desires.
Other times the failure to achieve a goal, or the accidental or intentional destruction of one of my projects, has left me depressed. Sometimes the death of a dream has left my heart frozen over, unable to feel, desire, or reach for anything. I have wondered, in those moments, “Will I ever be happy again?”
Desire and Yearning
I once dreamed of a ritual that took place at Diana’s Grove, the retreat center and mystery school where I learned leadership and ritual arts skills.
During the dream: Each participant processed across a field in the twilight to a house, a cabin. Inside, a staff member that I knew had taken on the ritual role of a cross between Hades and Baba Yaga; he had a terrifying mask on and an old ragged shawl so he looked like an old woman. He was embodying this archetype, and at a certain point the dream shifted and he became the archetype, the terrifying challenger and guardian of the gates of the Underworld.
I felt drugged, and it seemed to me that each of us had taken some disorienting drug. The inside of the cabin was hung with black cloth, almost like a haunted house. I was pulled forward and my vertigo got too intense, and I found myself sitting on a spinning chair.
I was terrified. Hades/Baba Yaga asked me, “Which do you choose? Happiness? Or Yearning?”
I wanted more time to weigh the possibilities, but my answer was clear. The happiness he mentioned seemed stagnant—settling instead of reaching for the larger things. Yearning was risk, but the reaching was what brought me bliss.
I said, “Yearning,” and Hades searched through a jewelry rack of identical pins, glass hearts of many colors. He then gave me a bright red glass red heart. I held it and stumbled out the back of the cabin where others who had been through this same process were sitting on the floor, weeping, holding whatever they’d been given.
Yearning and Happiness
The mystery of yearning is that I’m happiest when I’m striving. When I’m at a standstill, the landscape of my life feels like a flat wasteland. My soul begins to wither.
Yearning, reaching, is the key to my own bliss.
“We can see this in the very shape most often assumed by the Grail, that of a Chalice. The upper portion is open to receive the down-pouring of blessings of the spiritual realm: the lower half, stem and base, form an upward pointing triangle that represents our own aspirations. In the centre the two meet and are fused….”
–John Matthews, Introduction to Sources of the Grail
Igniting the Spark
What ignites you? What lights you up? How do you feel when you are passionate about a dream?
For Jennet, it was the scent of roses. For me, it’s the impossible. Passion lights in my heart with a blaze when a huge, improbable project comes across my desk. Particularly the words, “that’s impossible,” inspire a very visceral reaction somewhere between my heart and my gut.
When I’m lit up by a vision of what could be, when I’m craning with my whole body to reach and pull that dream from between the worlds, I feel like I have wings. When I’m fortunate, that fire inside my heart inspires others to reach with me for that dream, or to reach for their own
And sometimes when I reach, I will fail and I will fall. Desire does not always mean pain, but desire is bittersweet with risk.
Your Dream Needs You
The story of Tam Lin reminds me that my dream may be aching for me even as I desire it … that the dream, the unmanifested potential of spiritual energy, cannot pull itself into the world without me. That only I can reach, and bring the dream into being.
The inherent risk of desire is that I might not attain what I’m reaching for … that I might fall in love with a dream and never be able to achieve it. At times my heart has been broken and I swore to close myself off to passion rather than to risk the pain of disappointment.
And no matter how many times I have seen a dream die, I know that desire will spark in my heart again. I will again be lit up by a vision. Reaching for the impossible is my bliss. Reaching—even when the outcome is uncertain and all my strength, talents, and soul will be required to achieve the dream—reaching is bliss.
Healing from the death of a dream can take time, and in the aftermath of canceling the Reach for the Flame, conference, I was tired for a long time. Recovery was slow. My small group of community organizers was able to reschedule the ritual part of the event and recover our financial losses. And later, we rescheduled an event with a more modest scope. I went on to plan other events. Life moved on, and I reached again.
But in those moments, I didn’t know that. All I knew was hope. I knew that soon, my passion would re-awaken.
I know that no matter what happens to me, I will eventually smell that scent of roses, and my soul will re-ignite. I might stay for a time in that stillness, waiting for that impossible scent again. Until the moment I catch the scent on the wind.
What do you reach for?
First published in Between the Worlds, July 2007
Seeking the Grail is published on monthly on the third Monday. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!
Image above courtesy of the author.
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Paganism was not even remotely on the radar in my growing-up years. Even when I began my personal journey in earnest, I sought out more visible and accessible spiritual and intellectual approaches: Buddhism, feminism and New Age spirituality. Paganism found me, speaking to my big, wild, delicious, magical feminine nature like nothing else did. After just one ritual, I knew this was the spiritual path that sang to my soul.
Paganism is not just about beliefs, it’s about stepping outside of the strictures of everyday reality and stepping into full-bodied experiences of the wild, magical world of what else is true and possible. After twenty-plus years of pagan explorations, these are the precious things that I’ve learned:
Life is delicious.
Paganism is a spiritual practice that calls us to a joyful, sensual communion with nature and our bodies.
Take a walk on the wild side with your unruly, untamable pagan nature. Turn up your favorite music and dance from the inside-out. Eat a bowl of the ripest, sweetest fruit you can find. Make love to your partner as if you are made of one skin. Breathe the blue of the sky deep into your lungs. Spin yourself dizzy under the moonlight. Be radically, delectably, unapologetically alive!
Even in those bumpy times when your challenges and losses bring your down, remember that life is delicious and that there is always a brush of beauty to sweeten your sorrows.
The Earth is alive.
Paganism is defined by its earth-centered ethos. While our collective humanity has lost sight of the ways of the green world, pagans hunger to touch and be touched by the powers and splendor of nature. And in this sensual, embodied exchange, we awaken to the living world.
Hang out in your favorite green space with your senses on high. Attune to your exchange of breath with the trees: their green breath of oxygen with your red breath of carbon dioxide. Open your flat palms toward whatever wild thing catches your fancy and sense the tingling meeting of your energies. Peer into the microcosm of a rotting log, with its teeming collective of interdependent inhabitants.
The Earth is alive. One web of life connects us all, breath to breath, and essence to essence. What your mind has forgotten, your body remembers.
The Goddess is everywhere, in everything.
I didn’t go looking for the Goddess. I set myself on the trail of my lost humanity and womanhood, and one day there She was, everywhere and in everything.
She is the burning ember of light interwoven with matter that shines forth in all living things. She is the unending, outrageous beauty of the wild world. She is the driving force that calls us to strive and struggle, and to grow and blossom. Her cupped hands hold us in the shifting seasons of our joys and sorrows, and life and death moments.
The Goddess’s deepest presence is love, not as an emotional state, but rather as the primal desire of life to seek out, create and nurture life. Through this love, all things are made holy and infinitely worthy. We are made holy and infinitely worthy.
Lift your face toward Her living light, open your heart to Her infinite love, take in Her green-drenched beauty and feel Her holy presence in your own shining soul, and know that the Goddess is indeed everywhere and in everything.
So without, so within.
Pagans celebrate the wheel of the year: eight sabbats that mark the turning seasons of nature and their shifting balance of darkness and death with light and life.
Our life too is a shifting balance of light and dark, joy and sorrow, and life and death moments.
Ponder the seasons of your own life: the death-like times when darkness, sorrow and loss swallowed you whole, and other times when the sun was shining bright and life was rich and full. Dig deep and notice that the good things in life hold you in your darkest moments, and that your sorrows and challenges can make your high points all the more poignant and precious.
So without, so within; like the natural world, our humanity is woven of darkness and death, and light and life. And in this bittersweet, powerful truth, we can find our balance and wholeness in the face of life’s shifting seasons.
Magic is real.
Magic, in basic terms, is the ability to experience and work with the Mysteries (alternative states of being and knowing). Think of reality as a frequency dial that can tune into the astounding magical possibilities of the world around us: “normal”, everyday modes of consciousness fall within a specific frequency range; the Mysteries are engaged at different frequencies on the dial.
Pagan magic practices, such as ritual and spellcrafting, develop and deepen our abilities to turn the frequency dial and work in altered states of consciousness.
Be brave: turn that dial, step between the worlds and the Mysteries will show up, in all their wonder. Brave experience by brave experience, you can come to truly know that magic is real and a natural part of our humanity.
Don’t take my word for these things I have shared. Instead, think of paganism as an invitation into the realm of what else is true and possible. Take a little journey beyond the everyday for yourself and bring back whatever sings to your soul.
On Wednesday June 17 various writers from Patheos Pagan got together to discuss the roles deities play (or don’t play) in our lives. In the blogosphere we often talk at each other and never seem to talk with each other enough. This discussion was an attempt to rectify that.
Our conversation was a long and meandering one and ended up being the size of a small novel so I’ve edited it extensively for readability. If any of this ever feels argumentative while you are reading that’s my fault as an editor. Our conversation was cozy and congenial all the way through. In the weeks to come I’ll be posting more of our group discussion.
So How Do You Define Your Own Beliefs?
Niki Whiting (A Witch’s Ashram): Honestly? I try *not* to define myself. I’m really wishy washy about it. And it usually depends who’s asking or what the audience is when I do define myself.
Lilith Dorsey (Voodoo Universe): Voodoo priestess, which i do consider pagan. human most days, yet with clear vampyre tendencies.
Jason Mankey (Raise the Horns): I’m a Pagan Wiccan, with the Wiccan more importantly lately. Until recently I’ve always thought of myself as a polytheist. I believe in deities that are distinct and relatable, though I always believed that they were a part of a bigger whole. These days I often use the word phrase “Neo-Platonism” though that would have never occurred to me even five years ago. History shows us that deities change and progress.
John Halstead (The Allergic Pagan): Neo-Pagan of a non-theistic/atheistic/naturalistic/humanistic/archetypalist variety. I believe the gods are archetypes and the archetypes are gods.
Dana Corby (The Rantin’ Raven): I’m a BTW, 3rd° and current senior-most HPS of the Mohsian Trad. I initiated with them in 1973 but originally studied a mish-mash of folk witchcraft and ceremonial magic. Over the years I’ve also become a Bard in the RDNA and a Companion/2nd° in the AODA, but I’m pretty much inactive in both.
Rua Lupa (Paths Through the Forests): I define myself as a Saegoah (“Seeker of Ehoah”, Ehoah meaning “complete harmony within Nature”) – I know its a mouthful. It stemmed from the desire for a more specific label for what I was seeking so I coined a new word for it. Not unlike some German words. In addition to Saegoah I also define myself as a Naturalist – in both meanings of the word: The Study of Nature and Naturalism. I no longer define myself as Druid, though I most connect with Druids in religious spheres.
Rua Lupa: . . . . the supernatural and thus deities are obviously something that didn’t draw me to Paganism. What did draw me to Paganism was its earthiness – the fact that many Pagan practices were participating Nature’s rhythms. My father had always considered me a “Nature child” so it was only natural for me to gravitate that way. Even after they discovered my Paganism (National news! for a Pagan Pride event – I was on drums), and once they understood my position (which too a while), they understood that I never really changed.
Shauna Aura Knight (Seeking the Grail): I define myself as a pantheist. I lean more towards archetypes than gods in the sense of, archetypes as large huge energy chunks of story.
Molly Khan (Heathen at Heart): I’m absolutely a polytheist, though how hard varies from day to day. Working in anglo-Saxon culture, there’s not a lot of myths and lore, so I build off of Norse sources. Are they the same deities? Some days I say no, some days yes, and most of the maybe.
Deity as Archetypes
Jason Mankey: How do you define “archetype” John? A lot of Pagans use the term archetype to signify a bigger deity idea, like Mother Goddess, and they pray to that and honor it. I know that’s the wrong definition of archetype in a Jungian sense . . .
John Halstead: Parts of our psyche that act independently of our conscious minds and have a powerful influence over our behavior and our perception of the world = archetype. It’s important to me to emphasize that they are not mere metaphors. That’s reductive and why I think a lot of people react negatively to calling the gods archetypes. That’s why I say the archetypes are gods, too.
Niki Whiting: Intellectually, I think some version of soft polytheist monism makes sense; my lived experience though tips toward hard polytheism. So I try not to make any grand statements. So, how do you define a god, John? (Can I put on a polytheist conference and say that?)
John Halstead: Niki, I know it when I feel it.
Niki Whiting: Something larger than Self John?
John Halstead: Niki, definitely if by “self” you mean, conscious ego. What about you Niki? What is a god?
Niki Whiting: John, ultimately *I don’t know*. Gods as I experience them are spirits that exist non-corporeally and can travel between the worlds/planes. Some seem more Epic – in terms of interests, abilities, and concerns; others much more specific.
Jason Mankey: John, like traditional deities, do those archetypes offer comfort? I don’t think you “pray” to them but do you invoke them? If you say their name or think of them does something happen internally?
John Halstead: I have prayed to them. And I do invoke them as well. I have sought comfort. Mostly I seek to come closer integrating them into my consciousness.
Niki Whiting: “Victor Anderson said “God is Self and Self is God and God is a person like myself.””
Jason Mankey: That last part sounds like Joseph Smith (founder of the LDS Church-the Mormons).
Niki Whiting Having left monotheist thinking behind I have gained an entirely new respect for Mormonism.
John Halstead: “As man is, god once was, and as god is, man may become.” – Joseph Smith
John Halstead: I just did an interview with Sparrow of The Wigglian Way and she told me she was raised LDS in a dual-faith household: part LDS and part Pagan gives me hope for my kids.
John Halstead: Oh, Niki, I thought of this quote from Gilbert Murray in answer to what is a god: “There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God: not fabulous immortal men, but ‘Things which Are,’ things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity.”
Jason Mankey: Lilith, do you see the loa as deities, or something a little bit below that?
Lilith Dorsey: Deities that are or were human once, and therefore are representative of cosmic qualities that also make themselves known as archetypes.
John Halstead: I started out a believer (monotheistic), and then I realized how I had created this God that I was worshipping, And then I realized that even after I stopped believing in him, he still was influencing me. … hence, archetypes
Niki Whiting: Wow, great point John. I think archetypes and gods can exist simultaneously.
Archetype as a Job Description And Can You Be Friends With a god?
Dana Corby: I think of an archetype as a god’s job description.
John Halstead: Dana, intriguing, can you elaborate?
Dana Corby: Well, think of it this way: nearly every culture has a deity of the local grain crop, but Ceres is not Lugh by a long shot. Every culture has deities associated with love, but Eros isn’t Aengus. And so on through entire pantheons and pretty much every culture on earth. Gods have their own personalities and quirks, many of which can’t be explained by the archetype they embody.
Dana Corby: The grain is not an archetype. It’s a physical thing.
Jason Mankey: I think the gods are the ultimate mystery. I’ve had too many experiences to doubt that they are real in some sense, but I don’t know exactly how they work or exist.
John Halstead: Dana, so is Ceres an archetype and the god is something beyond that?
Molly Khan: Not to speak for Dana, but it’s my perception that” deity of grain” is the archetype, and Ceres is the Goddess holding that job for a particular culture.
Jason Mankey: The deity is a conduit to a larger idea, like grain.
Niki Whiting: Because grain might mean different things in different places.
John Halstead: I’m not sure, but I think we have several different orderings of the relationship of god-archetype-incarnation.
Jason Mankey: Of course we do, the gods reveal themselves in mysterious ways.
Molly Khan: For me, the idea is that different beings will take on a needed function- a culture wants the grain to grow, they pray and offer, a deity steps forward to take on that mantle. I’m pretty different in personality and interests than my coworkers, but we all fulfill much the same function while working.
Dana Corby: Molly, you read me aright. While there are many kinds of grain, I don’t think ‘archetype’ is a good word for the *idea* of grain. That would be more like a Platonic ideal. As I see it, the ‘archetype’ is the Deity’s job description or classification — Not unlike the way things fit in a table of correspondences or on the Qabbalistic Tree.
John Halstead: So, carrying that analogy forward, when I’m at work, I may not care so much who people are when they are at home, I just want to get my job done– but at home, I care more about who people are — what’s your relationship with the gods more like: all business or BFFs?
Jason Mankey: Depends on the deity John, but Pan, Aphrodite, Cernunnos, and Dionysus are BFF’s in this house. I’m not sure that we “talk” but they make their ideas known.
Molly Khan: John, it all depends! Sunna and Eostre I honor for their light and warmth functions, but I know less about their personalities. Nerthus I’m kind of in love with.
Dana Corby: I cannot believe in abstract or theoretical Gods.From the very beginning of my Craft activities, I’ve had startling and unexpected communications from them, including being told off. But I’m not dogmatic about it. It seems to me that they exist on multiple planes, and are *both* human constructs and actual beings with lives of their own. Witches have always loved paradox.
Shauna Aura Knight: I used to be more of what I’d identify as a polytheist. When I was a tween/teenager, I was going through a really rough time; really horrific bullying at school. I talked to the Moon/Night Goddess/Angel. She was real to me. I had dreams where I connected to her in that way I can only call divine rapture. I had the occasional vision. I painted her over and over.
Shauna Aura Knight: Later, when I started doing leadership training, I seemed to lose all connection to her. I can’t even express the frustration I felt that I had finally found a way to learn how to be a priestess in the modern world and follow my calling, and then to have this goddess somehow absent. It took many years, and by the time I reconnected with that goddess, I was identifying as a pantheist. I look back on the self that I was and I see how I needed to believe that there was a real goddess out there looking out for me. That she had somehow called me to this work, that I was meant for something more. It kept me from seriously considering killing myself.
Shauna Aura Knight: Now, though, I don’t believe that there is a deity out there “looking out for me.” When I was in my car accident, people said, “The gods are looking out for you, they protected you,” and I just don’t believe that is how it works. If that were the case, then the other folks that were on the road that night who did die in a car accident somehow deserved it? So, I don’t think of the gods as taking a direct action in my life, so much as these old, huge stories that we can connect to. A mirror/lens/mask through which we view the divine. The divine is too big to just engage with, so we interact with a facet of the divine that looks like ourselves.
Are the Gods Distractions?
Jason Mankey: Rua, How do you define your belief (or lack thereof) in deity?
Rua Lupa: As a naturalist I find no evidence for the supernatural and thus live accordingly. The definition of naturalism puts its succinctly enough: “all phenomena or hypotheses commonly labeled as supernatural are either false or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses”
John Halstead: Rua, do you see gods as distractions?
Rua Lupa: Yes.
John Halstead: Please elaborate.
Rua Lupa: Sorry I accidentally pressed enter and didn’t want to leave the quote hanging – am going to elaborate…
Jason Mankey: I thought it was much more bad ass to just say “Yes,” Rua.
Rua Lupa: Yes. But more as unnecessary really. I don’t think they exist so I don’t bother with the subject. In other words I don’t see the point (being a non believer).
Jason Mankey: When I started out twenty years ago it seems like deity was this bigger part of Paganism. Books made constant reference to the Triple Goddess and the Great Lady. It seemed like such an ESSENTIAL part of everything. I can’t imagine anyone seeing the gods as “distractions” even fifteen years ago.
Niki Whiting: I think there is a definite place for non-god focused/believing Pagans. I tell people that if they don’t experience gods they’re not wrong. I do, I’m neither right nor wrong. It’s like some people see more colors than others. Not right nor wrong.
Rua Lupa: After I came to the realization that there was no God, everything I learned about Jesus and the other supposed two (God & Holy Spirit – if they were something that was supposed to be separate in the first place) was without foundation. Feeling quite disoriented I struggled to find my footing and the closest I could find some firm footing on was the Reformed Druids of North America, whom didn’t require literal belief and were obviously very earthy in practice. Not to mention relaxed considering their founding.
Rua Lupa: The main thing was that it was okay to “not know” which was unlike my entire youth which expected you to have an answer to everything – If not something you learned in school then GOD. I took that God Hole and learned to leave it open to enable myself to learn and slowing fill in the edges but willingly accepting that it will never be filled. I embraced not knowing and that brought a new kind of satisfaction.
Niki Whiting: I really like how many people are relating their experiences and ideas with an ultimate core of “I don’t know”
On the Future of Paganism
Jason Mankey: Are we headed toward a Paganism where those of us who believe in deity are going to be the exception and not the rule?
John Halstead: Jason, I think we’re heading a direction where the people who care about that question will split into two camps, and the rest who don’t care about the answer will go wherever they like or float back and forth.
Rua Lupa: I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. It looks like the more science explains, the more the ‘Supernatural’ (Gods/Goddesses included) are getting pushed out.
Jason Mankey: I sometimes feel like we deity believers are going to be the ones left out of the Pagan umbrella, and that sort of bugs me because I feel like we were here first. I don’t mind sharing the tent by any means, but I don’t want to be known as a “polytheist.” I want to be a Pagan.
Molly Khan: I think that’s an interesting question Jason. I also advocate for less of a split- in ADF we treat deities as existing and distinct in ritual and have fun conversation afterward. This is the kind of Paganism I enjoy
Rua Lupa: If it helps Jason, I don’t feel like I really properly fit in the Umbrella. I just stumbled in from the nudging of others (which I didn’t mind – its a good party in here
Niki Whiting: I would hate to see the camps split in a polarized fashion, the way American politics split.
John Halstead: Creating a separate community, free from the “A word.”
Niki Whiting: John, I think the space that Polytheist.com and MGW are creating are important. I can’t speak for poly.com’s ultimate aims, but MGW is….. well, expanding conversations we want to have but not in any way fostering a split. The people involved there are part of a wide variety of communities – and I like that.
Jason Mankey: John, last year’s Polytheist Leadership Conference felt like someone was throwing down a gauntlet. MGW feels a bit more gentle, I mean I’m going to it. There are people who wouldn’t even call me a polytheist.
Niki Whiting: I’m sure there are hard polytheists who want there to be a split and a distinction, I’m just not one of them. I’m much more in the the “get on with your good work and let others practice as they will” camp.
Jason Mankey: But Rua, twenty years ago I feel like I was the textbook definition of what would fit under the umbrella. Now I’m less and less sure.
Molly Khan: That’s fair Jason. As a Heathen also identifying as Pagan I feel like I don’t belong on either side sometimes.
Rua Lupa: Jason, I’ve always seen Pagans like yourself as the quintessential Pagan. Still do. So I don’t think you’ll ever not be. Same for Heathens. I feel like Pagan has evolved to be the umbrella we have described as being and has numerous little pockets of specific ways of practicing and believing. Not unlike how one would describe a kind of school with all its social circles – They are all still students of that school.
Jason Mankey: When an atheist Pagan talks about “occult nonsense” it makes me want to retreat from the word “Pagan” and wrap myself in a Wiccan blanket. I know you would never scold me over my beliefs John, but there are some who are very loud about talking down deity and magic believers.
John Halstead: I get a kick out of the fact that everyone (myself included) feels like the Pagan minority. We can’t all be the minority
Rua Lupa: I agree with John – We can’t all be the minority.
Molly Khan: Haha, a problem that may come with Paganism- we may be too used to being a minority religious group
Niki Whiting: I don’t feel like the minority, for what its worth.
Jason Mankey: Of course we can’t all be the minority, I think the majority of Pagans are still probably believers in deity to some extent (even if it’s more like Shauna’s conception) but that does feel like it’s rapidly changing.
Rua Lupa: It just looks like the social circles were always there, just that they are recently less ambiguous and are comfortable enough to draw more clear lines on where each social circle stands.
John Halstead: I have gone from one Pagan event where people said “what?! there are Pagans who believe the gods are literal beings?” to another event where people said “there’s no such thing as a Pagan atheist”. Even many Pagans don’t realize how diverse we are.
Molly Khan: In my little pocket of the Midwest, deity believers are still very much the norm (though mostly Great God and Great Goddess stuff). One of the founders of the Heathen kindred here is an atheist and almost embarrassed to admit it
Dana Corby: I think one of the biggest problems Pagans have is this false idea that we’re *a* community. No, we’re a collection of interrelated communities with a lot of terminology in common that we tend to define just differently enough that we constantly misunderstand each other.
Niki Whiting: Yes! We are a collection of communities, theo/alogies, etc.
John Halstead: Who all like the word “Pagan” for some reason.
All of the polytheists that I know, though by no means does this mean all polytheists ever, affirm that the gods have individual agency. They can call people, they can bring blessings or misfortune, they are autonomous beings. It doesn’t seem contentious, yet this idea has a few implications that I haven’t seen talked about much. It makes our relationships dynamic, unique, and yet malleable. There is, for most of us, no perpetual covenant or deal that we must keep nor continual favor. Relationships can change, just as they do in mortal to mortal interactions, suddenly and quickly. The reasons may be obscured to us at the time, but, just as with our fleshed friends, they have a cause, a reason, and a desired goal.
Changes in Relationships
Part of the implication that we must deal with in our assumptions of individual autonomy is that we can end relationships with the gods and likewise the gods can end (or suspend) relationships with us. Mortals and gods are both capable of initiating these changes. We can choose to walk away from gods who have plans for us. Evidence from outside our own communities is abundant. There are reams of stories of Atheists who rejected what they–at the time–saw as YHWH’s plan for them, and you can find similar stories in abundance in Pagan and Polytheist communities. Beyond the typical story of YHWH, you can find plenty of tales of walking away from a particular deity for X, Y, or Z reason and embracing another. Likewise, you can also find tales of deities turning away from or suspending relationships with certain worshipers due to their own agendas and designs. Our relational arrangements are not set in stone, things can and do change.
I described this to a (vaguely) “spiritual” friend of mine and they found the thought horrifying. Why would you want to worship gods who may at the end of the day reject you?
Why choose Zeus when you can have the all accepting Jesus?
Mutability is Strength
The ability of our relationships with the divine to change is a source of anxiety for some, certainly, but it is also a great and wonderful strength. While people who worship one god and only one god often claim unconditional acceptance, this acceptance comes at a price: there are standards and requirements that the deity has its worshipers follow and if the deity rejects you, for whatever reason, it makes it extremely difficult to participate in communal religious life.
This rejection can result in feelings of extreme disconnection or confusion for the supplicant. Yet the idea of rejection by deity is denied. The blame must then fall on the worshiper, who is rejected, since the deity in this particular theological outlook must accept the worshiper as long as X, Y, and Z is done. If one is rejected and one is following X, Y, and Z it is assumed one must not be genuinely X-ing, Y-ing, and Z-ing hard enough.
In many polytheistic theologies, rejection or suspension can happen for no reason that is apparent to the worshiper. If he or she was involved in a devotional relationship, it can in fact result in feelings of disorientation but it does not mean that one must leave the tradition altogether. The mutability allows for a frank and honest examination of one’s relationship to the tradition and the plethora of divine beings allows for one to participate meaningfully in the tradition even if one particular relationship goes catawampus.
The mutability may in fact cause some anxiety for those who do not sufficiently understand the relational schema. But, for those who sufficiently understand it; a great comfort can be had.
Breaking Up: You’ve Done It
All of this begs the question then; how does one handle a divine relationship when things change? Much like with human relationships, ending one can leave an individual weary, hurt, confused, and angry. It may make one feel like drawing close again is not worth it due to the potential for getting hurt. How many of us have met the person who has given up on love due to heartbreaks? These are understandable and natural reactions, but our reactions are not our destinies. After you have split, or gone on break, with someone (or Someone) you have to pause and ask yourself “where do we go from here?”
It might be necessary for you to re-evaluate your involvement with your tradition. Like joining a club that your romantic partner was in, you have to determine whether or not you were in it for you or for them. You may find that you only did it because it helped you connect with them more, and that further participation without them is undesirable. This is okay. Just be sure that leaving the tradition with which the deity was affiliated is what you really want and not what you are simply doing out of anger. You may choose to stay involved with the tradition despite the heartache you have just experienced. This is also a perfectly valid choice. Just be certain that you are staying because it is what is good for you and not staying out of nostalgia and longing for one who is gone.
The “break-up” may leave you eying other traditions and curious about them; you may find yourself yearning to explore. Explore. Don’t rebound to someone (or Someone) else, but if you have a genuine yearning to explore and experiment, do so. You will gain new knowledge, and if you are truly meant to be a part of that particular tradition you will find yourself there in time.
Above all, don’t give in to despair and anger, which is so frightfully easy to do when a divine relationship changes. It is very easy to be angry, bitter, resentful, and desperately want to put as much distance between you and the One who put you in this situation as you possibly can. Don’t give in. Make choices slowly and very deliberately, find healthy outlets for your emotions, talk to a friend who can provide a truly sympathetic ear, and realize that things will get better. They won’t ever be the same, no, but they will get better. Don’t regret the time you spent in worship and meditation with the deity; you will look back and realize it made you who you are. The feelings will, with time, fade and simmer down.
Maybe you will get involved in another intense devotional relationship, maybe you will join a new tradition, maybe things eventually go back to normal with you and this particular deity, but things will get better.
And, you’ll be better for it.
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Recently a friend of mine, who lives on the East Coast contacted me. She’s read my newsletter where I mention the magical experiments community and the classes that occur every month and she was intrigued and wondered if it was possible to create her own chapter of magical experiments. I was pleasantly surprised and happy that someone else wanted to create their own version of the magical experiments community and at the same time, I’ll admit I wanted to think carefully about what to share and how to convey what I consider to be essential about magical experiments. I also sat with the realization that I’d have to let go just a bit and trust someone else as they created a community similar to my own, based on my own, but nonetheless likely to become distinct and different as all such things do.
One of the challenges of being a leader is knowing when to let go, and also knowing when to step back and let other people take the reins. And in this case, where someone is all the way across the country it becomes a necessity. More importantly though it causes me to come face to face with an essential truth about community: no one person owns it. Instead, we are all part of it, and all of us make it what is. To be a true leader in a community involves a recognition that for it to grow, its leadership must be set up so that one knows when to step aside in order to let the community grow.
I thought carefully about what I should share with this person, and I realized what I needed to share was everything. I needed to share the history and how the magical experiments community came to be. I needed to share the mistakes I made along the way, the lessons I learned, and what I considered to be the fundamental values and principles of the community. Most importantly, I needed to share that I would be happy to help, but I would also trust the judgment of this person as she worked to create her own version of the magical experiments community.
My choice to share everything recognized that in order for my friend to create her own version of magical experiments she necessarily needed transparency from me in order to benefit from what worked and didn’t work with the creation of the original magical experiments community. Part of what makes a community work is the ability of the people involved to be transparent about what is working and isn’t working, so that the community as a whole can succeed. In talking with my friend, I told her a lot about what hadn’t worked and why as well as sharing what did, but I also knew that no matter what I shared with her, ultimately she and her own version of the magical experiments community will have their own experiences and growing pains. I can only hope that my experiences will help her and her community navigate their own experiences.
The creation of a community and the sustaining of it takes a lot of work. It’s a labor of love that defines you, in some ways, and calls on you to step up as a leader in organizing it. At the same time, knowing where to lead and where to step back is also important. Part of what has made magical experiments so successful is that while there are certain ground rules to help organize the activities, everything else is left up to the community to create for itself; everyone shares responsibility for making it what it can be. That’s what makes the community successful. That only happens when the leader knows what to let go of and what to focus in order to help the community be successful.
Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!
And, please use the links to the right to keep on top of activities here on the Agora as well as across the entire Patheos Pagan channel.