Atheism, Polytheism, and Pagans: A Discussion

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.

"The Judgement of Paris" by Peter Paul Rubens, from WikiMedia.
“The Judgement of Paris” by Peter Paul Rubens, from WikiMedia.

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-Harmless Drudge
Jason Mankey-Harmless Drudge
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?

The brilliant Niki Whiting.
The brilliant Niki Whiting.
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 aka Johnny Humanist
John Halstead aka Johnny Humanist
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?

Muses on a Roman sarcophagus, photo by Jastrow, from WikiMedia.
Muses on a Roman sarcophagus, photo by Jastrow, from WikiMedia.

Dana Corby: I think of an archetype as a god’s job description.

John Halstead: Dana, intriguing, can you elaborate?

Dana Corby, my favorite.
Dana Corby, my favorite.
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.

The Mighty Molly Khan
The Mighty Molly Khan
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.

The Shining Shauna Aura Knight.
The Shining Shauna Aura Knight.
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?

The forthright Rua Lupa
The forthright Rua Lupa
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.

Loggia di Psiche, 1518–19, by Raphael, From WikiMedia.
Loggia di Psiche, 1518–19, by Raphael, From WikiMedia.

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: Niki, isn’t that what Polytheist.com and Many Gods West is all about?

Niki Whiting: “All about” What do you mean?

John Halstead: Creating a separate community, free from the “A word.”

11427210_821587917957261_5631865050586298708_nNiki 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.

Spear of Athena: Relationships are Relationships, or I Need a Break

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?

the ruins of a temple comprised of the remaining columns
The Temple of Zeus, Athens / jandenouden / pixabay.com

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.

Don’t Despair

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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Socially Responsible Magic: How to lead and let go in your community

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.

Marynchenko Oleksandr / shutterstock.com
Marynchenko Oleksandr / shutterstock.com

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.


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The Busy Witch: Reviewing Jane Eyre’s Sisters by Jody Gentian Bower

[Editor’s Note:  This post is part of an ongoing book club discussion here at Patheos. Check out the other posts, and join in the conversation!]

Cover of Jane Eyre's sisters
Cover of Jane Eyre’s Sisters by Jody Gentian Bower

I’ve always been a fan for the works of Joseph Campbell, particularly when it comes to discussing the hero’s journey. I’ve used this mythic structure in my own writing, and I’ve even noticed when the same journey seems to crop up in my own life. It should come as no surprise, then, that I was eager for the opportunity to ready Jody Gentian Bower’s book Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story. Although I have been happy to apply Campbell’s work to my female characters (and my own life), I immediately found resonance with Bower’s suggestion that, for many women (both living and literary), the journey isn’t so much about home-away-home as it is home (until it becomes unbearable), followed by a period of intense wandering until the heroine finds (or makes) a new home. It is the journey that prompted Bower to use the term “Aletis” (Greek for “wanderer”) to describe the heroine, since the word is not dependent on the masculine the way heroine is.

Whether we call her the Aletis or heroine, this archetype certainly seems to fit a large number of female characters, particularly those of classic women’s literature. But, as this book illustrates, the path of the wanderer is not always the same: sometimes, it requires either a literal or metaphorical descent to the underworld, to face the darkness and return with deeper knowledge, and sometimes it requires a journey into the wilderness, where the Aletis has her mettle tested and learns to rely on her own power. Bower draws on literature, mythology, and psychology in an attempt to answer the question, “why do some women seek out the goddess in the cave, while others go looking for the witch in the forest?” (Bower 61), and I found the exploration and examples fascinating. This book is a must-read for writers and literary lovers alike, and I’ve been recommending it all over the place to some of my amazing colleagues.

I’m not quite ready to abandon the hero’s journey as my go-to writing script, but especially in my YA novels, I’ll be keeping the idea of the Aletis and her journey in the front of my mind as I continue to spin stories. After all, there’s power in the telling: “Stories do not just allow us to escape from an unsatisfying life. They can also allow us to imagine a new reality for ourselves, a reality we can then strive toward.” (Bower 21) I’d argue that this is true for both writers and readers. Stories are more than merely words on a page: they are powerful (and sometimes unexpected) magic.


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Born-Again Witch: The Pope, Pagans, and Evangelical Environmentalists

Author’s Note: I was going to publish the second part of my coven’s experience at Bethel church today, but I spent the weekend reading and thinking about Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical. His theology and arguments put me back into a Christian mindset and flooded my mind with memories. I decided to postpone the second Bethel piece in favor of some reflections on religion and environmentalism.

Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
During my time in Bible College, I remember eating an organic apple on campus. When another student noticed the “organic” sticker on my lunch snack he asked why on earth I would eat organic food, since eating organic was a pagan thing to do. The conversation that followed was frustrating at best; I was told that the environment should not matter to us as Christians, and that we should not follow pagans in supporting environmental causes because our Christian faith taught us that it was God’s plan to destroy this earth.

I responded by making environmentalism the subject of my term paper, titled Eschatology and the Environment or Why Care If It’s All Going To Burn Anyways? Now, more than a dozen years later, I am amazed to find parallels to my paper in the Pope’s environmental encyclical. Thankfully, John Halstead offers 12 summary points for all of us who aren’t the kind of religion nerds who spend their weekend in front of a laptop reading 200 page papal letters and commentaries in the blogosphere.

Back in 2002, my paper was controversial and perceived as threatening to the religious community and I never thought I would read similar arguments on the website of the Vatican. What surprised me most was the Pope’s ardent rejection of an anthropocentric view of the world. “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” (¶ 68)  In my college paper I argued that as Christians holding a theocentric view of the world, we were allies with geocentric pagans because of our mutual rejection of anthropocentrism. I went to great lengths to avoid being mistaken for a pagan, highlighting the difference between theocentrism and geocentrism. “A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, writes Pope Francis. As a Christian I wrote even more emphatically that “I found a reason to care for the environment that holds greater promise even than the earth-worshipping paganism I was so attracted to.” (Was attracted to? Who was I kidding?)

Reading this paper now I hear my younger self’s passion for persuading my then evangelical Christian community, as well as my constant fear of being mistaken for a pagan (a self-fulfilling prophesy). But aside from my personal struggle, I am struck by the enduring truth of my main premise. Now on the other side of the Christian / Pagan divide, I still believe that in our mutual rejection of anthropocentrism we are allies in the struggle against environmental destruction.

Pope Francis calls for dialogue, including with those of other religions: “The majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers. This should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity.” (¶ 201) There are parts of his statements with which I take issue, which contradict my beliefs and are in opposition to my work for justice (i.e. gender and sexual identities and roles, reproductive rights, and population issues). And yet our environmental crisis is escalating, it is immanent, and we cannot afford to reject allies, regardless of how severe our differences.

My first inclination was to take my paper and edit it to offer an argument for allyship from a Pagan perspective. However, after witnessing the creation of A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment and reading the pope’s On Care For Our Common Home, I decided to post my paper unedited (except for the deletion of a couple of particularly boring passages). I’m more than a decade older and tempted to dismiss the worlds of my younger self. But, we are often too quick to dismiss potential allies. Maybe a look back in time, into the mind of an evangelical Christian environmentalist in her early 20s, will help us accept allies from unexpected places.

[Editor’s Note:  I’ve broken this post up into a few pages to try and help make it easier to digest.  Click through with the numbered links below to reach the latter parts of the article. The comments below refer to the entire thing, not just the page viewed while making the comment.]

The Rantin’ Raven: Songs for the Old Religion, in Context

Image Courtesy of Susan Lohwasser
Image Courtesy of Susan Lohwasser

Something like Songs for the Old Religion could not happen in today’s Pagan world, because Paganism has changed and we have changed. In 1975 music was something everyone did, everyone shared, everyone wove into the fabric of their lives. Today, music – even Pagan music – is performed by professionals and bought by the rest of us. It’s expected to contain professional performances and good engineering. The idea of daring to produce something that honestly home-made, just for the love of it, is totally foreign now. Oh, there are still folk/acoustic musicians around, but I haven’t played at a Pagan gathering in years, because I can’t get anyone to play with me. All the acoustic musicians have drifted over to the SCA and can’t come to Pagan gatherings because they conflict with RenFaire and the latest War. Which is, to me, a huge and significant change: most of those who self-identify as Pagan choose other activities over involvement in their religion.

I’m asked if Pagan music was important in the 70’s. Well, not as such, though individual Witches who were also musicians could not help writing songs that expressed it — I wrote several myself, including The Sungod, which appears on the album. Folk music was crucial, because so many of the secrets and mysteries are encoded in old folk songs. Witch rituals were intended to have music, specific old songs for the Sabbats, Moons, and other occasions. Pagan music — Witches’ music as it was then — grew out of that. Gwydion was to my knowledge the first to compile and sell his music, and even then it was sold at first as sheet music, for other people to learn and perform among themselves. The album was an afterthought, the result of a serendipitous meeting between Gwydion and me.

Pagan musicians in particular ask me about the Pagan music scene of the time – who else was doing what we did, what clubs played Pagan music, how records got distributed, and so forth. Wow. They really have no idea. There was no ‘Pagan music scene’ in 1975; SFTOR started it. There were no Pagan clubs, though there were a couple of short-lived metaphysical coffee houses and of course the Bodhi Tree in Los Angeles which is as of this writing finally closing its doors, alas. I heard rumors that a Witches’ coffee house in Atlanta had live entertainment; we all thought that exciting if risky – just anyone could walk in off the street and make trouble! The music industry was all corporate and union-controlled, no indy labels as there are now and for which we should thank the Muses, so SFTOR could not be played on the air or sold in stores; we advertised it through a couple of Witch magazines and sold it entirely by mail order. We were, in effect, black-market.

You must understand that there was no ‘Pagan community’ for there to be a ‘scene’ in. There were Witches, period, and even we didn’t yet think of ourselves as a community. A movement, maybe. There were a few newsletters for Witches in both Britain and the U.S., but of course this was all long before the Internet. There was little contact with other Witches outside one’s own geographic area. A ‘festival’ was just a campout that might have 100 people at it, tops, last 3 or 4 days, and you heard about it either by invitation or word-of-mouth. The large, well-publicized festivals at which ‘Pagan performers’ could perform were years in the future, though the seeds were undeniably there.

What there was, was the tail end of the folk-music scene. Donovan and many other professional musicians did things that were overtly or covertly Old Religion — Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Cathedral” is one, as is Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” The British folk group “Pentangle” was understandably popular among Witches, but so were most of the traditional folk performers. But music was much less stratified into producer/performers and consumers than it is now. It was shared. At any gathering, you could count on lots of people showing up with instruments and song sheets, eager to swap songs and sing together. Sitting around a fire singing happened at night after supper the way the (in my opinion, effing) drum circles do now. Music was not about fame & fortune, it was about sharing, it was about magic — it was about fun! And this wasn’t just at Witches’ parties & camp outs, but at everyone’s. It was just how young people socialized.

The rise of the Pagan music business is inextricably interwoven with the rise of the lavish Pagan festival. Today’s Pagan performers generally work the festival circuit, making at least part of their income by that and the CD sales it generates. But in 1975 it would never have occurred to any of us to make a profession of it; we all had regular jobs. If we had musical aspirations it was as folk singers, blues men, rock and rollers or even cabaret crooners; our identity as Witches was not part of our professional ambition. And anyway there was no place to perform Witch music — the summertime festival circuit didn’t exist yet. I think the first really big festival was Pan Pagan 1980, in Indiana. There were 600+ people there and it overwhelmed the site’s capacity and the organizers’ ability to handle things. There was no stage, performers, no costume party, and (huzzah) no all-night drum circle. I didn’t even take my guitar with me, as there was no room in the car. Neither did Gwydion; he was there to run a workshop.

I’m also asked – often — if we had any idea we were making history. No, we just wanted to make an album expressing our ideas of what Witch music ought to sound like. The first pressing of 1,000 copies of SFTOR sold out in about 3 months – and we were flabbergasted! There was a 2nd pressing on vinyl and then it went to cassette tape, which was so much easier & cheaper to produce and could be done at home, on demand. CAW, Gwydion’s heirs, did a limited release on vinyl for the 30th anniversary edition, but by then the original master had been lost; everything after the first couple of years has been dubbed from a 2nd generation tape. — And there’s your answer as to whether or not we were aware of how ‘historical’ this recording was: Gwydion lost the master.

To put a meaningful context on Songs for the Old Religion, look it up on the Web. At one site original 1975 LPs are selling for $300 – no idea where they got them. They describe it thus: “Rare private press 1975 hippy stoner wizard gypsy folk…” Farm Faves devotes a long, loving analysis to it, while at Rate Your Music, it’s described as “So bad it’s brilliant.”

Yeah. It was.


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Adventures in Wortcunning: BS & Compost

compos full size
Image Courtesy of the Author

Compost …

chicken … manure

bull … whoey

horse … pucky

Awwww … Crap!

__ it happens.

The President and Mrs. Roosevelt were at a ladies luncheon during the Great Depression of the 1930s when this very subject, manure, became the topic of conversation. The President appeared as an honored guest and even spoke to the ladies as a favor to his beloved wife Eleanor. During the course of the speech, Mr. Roosevelt had occasion to use the word… well… to use the word manure in reference to some of the problems we were facing as a nation.

Despite their gratitude for the appearance and speech of the Guest of Honor, Mrs. Roosevelt received quite a bit of flack about this choice of wording when the luncheon was over and the ladies felt free enough to speak their minds to the First Lady. Eleanor smiled and here I will paraphrase her reply to their concerns with a characteristic twinkle in her eye, “Manure? Honey, you should have heard what he was going to say!”

We don’t like straight out talking about times when … things go wrong in our lives., when the feces hits the ventilator, when it goes to Hecate in a hanky, or Hel in a hand basket.

We tend to use euphemisms–like manure or compost–or, preferably, avoid the subject altogether when we talk with friends. This stuff is gross. It’s caustic, and a little too personal for casual conversation. Besides, it just plain stinks.

If the grass is looking greener on the other side of the fence, it must be time to fertilize.

In the tradition of Pagan translation of everything, particularly natural process and cycles, into anthropomorphic or human terms, let’s look at this idea. What does it mean to “fertilize” our lives?

Does it mean we should spread a bunch of BS around?

Well, that depends…

Once upon a lily-pad and a long, long time ago. I had a boyfriend with the gift of Blarney. What is “Blarney?” It is an Irish word that has come to mean something like having the gift of gab, the ability to slice the baloney thickly, spread the BS around, or otherwise talk your way out of anything. It is a careful choice of words that has your bothersome neighbor paddling cheerfully across the River Styx; it paints a rosy picture omitting the thorns.

Together, he and I would go to a place. Let’s say, a ball game, grabbing a drive-thru burger on the way. Our team might win, or we might lose. This would only affect the mood of the evening. Later, he would describe the event to friends. He spoke in colorful detail with an eye for advertising the fun in a moment. Sometimes I wouldn’t recognize the event from his description and I would catch myself thinking, “Dang, I wish I had been there!”

As a result, to hear it from him, we always had fun. And because that is what was focused on in the retelling, I learned to remember things in this way, discarding the rough edges of a carefully cropped scene. This doesn’t mean you ignore the unpleasant, but by not feeding it more energy you minimize its impact in your life.

The function of compost in soil and growth is to add nutrients back, as food, to the cycle of life. What was once alive, died. It was eaten and in the process turned to… what have you. It has already been digested. And when it first arrives, it is hot. Hot to the touch, and hot chemically too.

You can’t put too much of it on the soil in one place or everything around and under it dies.

How do we grow from it? The crap in our lives feeds us in various ways. We learn from it. From our own mistakes and the mistakes of other people in our lives. Sometimes that hurts. But still, it gives us something important. It gives us compassion, sympathy and understanding for the troubles that others are going through.

And because we’ve survived it, means we’re probably smarter now too, and won’t place ourselves in that situation again.

When do we grow from it?  When we laugh at it. Give it time to cool down – you know, deal with it when it isn’t as ‘hot’ to talk about. Egos can get bruised in the first few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even years after something poopy has happened. It takes a while before a painful memory is old enough to laugh about. Yet, laughter is good medicine for the soul.

Spreading the BS around – a little blarney is a good thing from time to time. Look at the good, and crop the bad from the mix. Sorting what we can’t use from the nutrients, it is what we take from the lessons in our lives that makes the crap worthwhile.

The Working

For the working gather and place:

  • a flower pot (center altar)
  • a bag of garden compost (North)
  • herb or flower seeds (East)
  • plastic wrap or damp cloth (South)
  • water (West)

This working is a great mystery. Begin as you normally would, perhaps by creating sacred space, and insert this rite as appropriate to your needs. Consider what you are planting and the good that feeds it from the compost in life.

  1. Take a flower pot from the center altar
  2. Fill with (sterile) garden compost from the North
  3. add a seed or two in the East
  4. keep the soil & seed from drying out with plastic wrap & a rubber-band, or damp blessing cloth in the South
  5. add some water from the West
  6. After adding the water, return your planted seed to the North. Take a moment to express gratitude for the mystery of compost and how in time we may find something good from even the most awful offal in our lives.

The newly planted container is a token of the working. Hint: be careful not to over water. Water once and cover. This should be enough until the seeds sprout. When they do, remove the cover and plant as usual.

And may this all a Blessing Be.

(Adapted from an open ritual prepared for Community Seed, June 2015)


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Dandelion Seeds: Finding an Ancient Earth Mother

There’s this ongoing argument in my druidic tradition about Earth Mothers and if they’re really REALLY really real, i.e. real in a Druidic Indo-European context.  More to the point, we argue whether we should really put them first in our rituals.  If you find three ADF druids, you’ll quickly discover seven different opinions on the way that ritual is done. In all our rituals, the Earth Mother is supposed to come first.  This is the way our founder Issac Bonewits designed it. This is the way it is in our Core Order of Ritual. But, just because this is the way it is, doesn’t mean people can’t argue about it.  As long as the sun shines and the moon waxes and wanes, people will argue. So, I’ve been on the lookout for Earth Mothers. Sometimes, I like to argue too.  One of my favorites is from a very long time ago.  She’s a Hittite earth goddess named Hannahannas.

Image by WhiteHaven, courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image by WhiteHaven, courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Hittites are old: like Bible old. Their empire was concurrent with the Assyrian Empire. They were forerunners of the Iron Age during the Bronze Age. Their chariot tech impressed the Egyptians and they sacked Babylon. These people were around almost 4,000 years ago. This means that when we talk about the Hittite Earth Mother, we are getting a glimpse of something very, very old.

I can hear you saying that the Greeks are old too, right? Yes, but they lasted longer. That means there was more evolution of their goddesses. One thing that you learn by studying history is that the gods change. They change because the climate changes, or the people worshiping change, or the people think new thoughts and their gods reflect that. By learning about the Hittite Earth Mother we get a glimpse into something that is very old and didn’t have time to change.

The Hittite Earth Mother was called Hannahannas. What we know of her is fragmentary at best, but we do have a story to consider. The tale goes that the Storm God’s favorite son is missing. His son is the God of Agriculture, Telepinu, who plows the earth and plants the seed. According to the ancient glyphs, He has had a giant temper tantrum and has wandered off. This is unfortunate, since he’s the god of growing things, and when he wanders off, people start getting hungry.

When this happens the Sun God steps up and offers a feast. He is the ally of the Storm God, who is clearly the boss in these parts. Unsurprisingly, that wonderful spread of high energy plasma and light isn’t very filling and the Storm God complains. So the Sun God sends out his eagle to search for the prodigal son, Telepinu. The eagle searches high and low, spying all with his clever eagle’s eye, but alas, no Telepinu.

Bee Spirit Meditation / Melissa Hill
Bee Spirit Meditation / Melissa Hill

The Storm God is clearly miffed at this point and does what he should have done in the first place. He goes to the Mother of All, Hannahannas. The Mother of All agrees to help, and like most mothers, probably gives him that look that makes adult children feel totally inept. At any rate, she sends out her sacred animal, the bee, to search for her grandchild Telepinu. Of course, the bee finds him. Then the bee begins to sting his hands and feet, and then wipes his eyes and his hands with beeswax.

After stinging her grandson into submission like an old woman beating a thief with a handbag, she gives her son, the King of Gods, some good advice to pay the bride-price for the Sea Gods daughter to wed Telepinu, because what is better to settle down a cranky young God of Agriculture than a lovely young Goddess? Grandma knows best.

Entertainingly, it’s not just the young folk who have been known to wander off in a fit of pique. There is a tale told of Hannahannas’ anger as well. We don’t know what happened to cause her to become enraged, but we do know that she wandered off too. Maybe she got tired of fixing everyone’s problems; maybe it just runs in the family.

While she’s gone sheep and cattle begin to die off, and mothers no longer take care of their children. This time, however, her anger is banished to the Dark Earth and she returns full of joy. I’m sure that her children were very grateful for the improvement of her mood. We aren’t told how this banishment of anger was achieved, but another method is to burn brushwood and let the vapors enter her.

So we know a couple of things from all of this. We know she is the mother of gods, connected to mothers, sheep, and cattle, and her sacred messenger is the bee, an insect that provides sweet honey and is connected with agriculture. The bee is also connected with Demeter, whose priestesses are called the Melissae, or the bees.

It seems likely that Hannahannas is a reflex, or has evolved from the earlier proto-Indo-European cow goddess. The Indo-European cow goddess has been reconstructed through linguistic detective work and appears to be a goddess of plenty and generosity. *Gwouinda is a created name that linguists think might have been the real name of the prehistorical cow goddess of the pastoralists that became the progenitors of many of the languages we speak today including English, French, Greek and Hindi. All of these languages have a common root through these crazy horse riding, cow grazing, wagon toting ancient peoples. So, by trying to understand the commonalities between them we understand our own beginnings, and we also find out that kick ass old grandmas have been around for a very, very long time.

I think I will keep putting her first in my rituals. I don’t know that she would wander off and need some refreshing vapors to put her right, but it can’t hurt.


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Irish-American Witchcraft: Midsummer – Honoring Áine and the Other Crowd

Midsummer is fast approaching and it seems, if you’ll pardon the pun, timely to discuss my Midsummer traditions and practices. In my family you see we have a long standing tradition of honoring Áine* at this time of year and she is certainly worth sharing to those who don’t already know her. Her mythology is complex and sometimes contradictory, her stories both tragic and triumphant. We also honor the Good Neighbors at this time, which works well because of Áine’s intrinsic ties to the fairy folk.

Ladybug on Hawthorn leaves / Morgan Daimler
Ladybug on Hawthorn leaves / Morgan Daimler

Áine is a complex figure whose hill – Cnoc Áine – saw torch lit processions on midsummer in her honor to bring blessings on the fields. One of her by-names is Áine na gClair, Áine of the wisps, because of the straw torches use in the midsummer processions. She is also associated with Lúnasa, or more precisely the Sunday before Lúnasa, when she is the consort of Crom Cruach and appears as a fierce and dangerous figure. This may seem like a contradiction, that the goddess who blesses the fields one month threatens them the next, but at least to some Áine is the goddess of the summer sun who ripens the harvest but also brings the dangerous late summer heat. Several scholars make this connection, including MacKillop and Monaghan, who suggest that while Áine is associated with the summer sun her sister Grian is associated with the winter sun. This view is held in the  Irish-American Witchcraft I practice where each sister is celebrated on the appropriate holiday.

Áine is many things; goddess, fairy queen, perhaps even mortal girl. As a goddess, she may, some say, be the daughter of the sea god Manannan mac Lir, and have helped to ensure victory to her male relations when they sought to conquer the area in which her hill is found. As a fairy queen, she was the daughter of the king of Cnoc Aine; one Samhain her father was killed and she was raped by Ailill Aolum and she maimed him in return, removing his ear and rendering him unfit to rule. In this she may well have been acting as a sovereignty goddess who was removing an unworthy king who tried to take sovereignty by force, the line between goddess and fairy queen being a blurry one at best. We see this theme with later in her interactions with the Earl of Desmond who it’s said she bore a son to, sealing his right to rule; she is said to be the ancestor of both the Fitzgerald and the Eóganachta families. In later stories they say she was a mortal girl who was taken by the fairies into the hill, and the torch lit procession every midsummer was in her honor, rather than the goddess’s.

An offering cake to Áine / Morgan Daimler
An offering cake to Áine / Morgan Daimler

On midsummer we honor Áine, as the spirit connected to the summer sun, the Lady who ripens our fruit for Lúnasa, who blesses our home with abundance. We offer her milk and baked goods, usually cake, given in a ritual in her honor. The cake is vanilla with vanilla frosting and is decorated with a sun-symbol design; we cut a huge slice as an offering for Áine and the rest is shared among the family members after ritual. We light bundles of dried herbs which we carry around the boundary of our property three times to sain it; this is our equivalent of the straw-torch processions, and holding with tradition we always walk deiseal, clockwise, around the space.

For my family honoring the Fair Folk is just as important – in some ways perhaps more so – than honoring the Gods and this is especially true on certain holidays when they are said to be more active. Bealtaine and Samhain, midsummer and midwinter, in particular are liminal times when the fairy folk are more present and more likely to be encountered than other times. My children and I bake a second special cake and decorate it with triple spirals. This cake, unlike the other, is given entirely to the Other Crowd, left out at the roots of our fairy tree – a lone Hawthorn which sits on our property. This offering is a way to maintain a reciprocal relationship with the Otherworld and its inhabitants, by giving back to them a portion of our own sustenance.

All of this is done in a somewhat informal ritual. There is no circle casting, but the act of circling the yard three times with the saining fire creates our sacred space. We invite in the Powers we are honoring, Áine, the liminal Gods of the season, the goodly inclined spirits and of course our ancestors who would like to join us. We sing any and every song we can think of that fits the occasion. We tell stories, from myth and history and our own lives, weaving them all together into one strong thread. We eat cake and share the efforts of our baking with all the Powers and spirits – the Déithe and an-déithe – who are present with us. We pour out milk onto the earth and leave some in a bowl as an offering. And, usually about the same time the sun finally sets and the fireflies begin to appear twinkling in the hazy darkness, we give our thanks** to the gathered Powers and go back in the house.

Midsummer is a fun holiday, one that we all look forward to. The children enjoy walking the boundary of the property with the blessing fire and making – and eating! – the cake. I enjoy the ritual, the singing, and the feeling of connection to the spirits. Where we live midsummer marks the beginning of the real heat of summer as we move into the ripening weather of July and August, so it is an excellent time to honor Áine, who is so strongly connected to the summer sun. As we go back into the house on midsummer night there is always a feeling of joy and peace that is unique to this holiday.

The outdoor altar where our family leaves offerings after ritual / Morgan Daimler
The outdoor altar where our family leaves offerings after ritual / Morgan Daimler

*Pronounced Awn-yuh
**I actually have a strong prohibition against saying thank you to the Fey folk so to them we merely wish for friendship and peace to be between us.


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Seeking the Grail: The Heaviness – Rites of Passage

What does it mean to be initiated? To go through a rite of passage? What does it mean to stand up, to be seen, to be a leader? What does it mean to have the Mysteries revealed to us?

 

Image Courtesy of the Author
Image Courtesy of the Author

People will sometimes ask me what tradition I’m in, or just ask “Have you been initiated?” Sometimes others will ask, “Are you ordained?” or “What tradition are you ordained in?” And the answer is complex. The Pagan traditions I’ve been a part of haven’t had a formal initiatory process; not in the way most people trained in Wicca seem to mean. And though I did a three-year leadership program at Diana’s Grove, that process did not offer a formal ordination in any specific Pagan church, though graduates of the program have successfully used it in lieu of an M.Div when applying for other programs.

What I often want to say in answer to the question is, “Yes, I have been initiated.”

Because I believe that initiation is a process. Initiation is a right of passage, and there are many different rites of passage that we each can go through. That sometimes, an initiation can take different forms. Certainly one form of initiation is going through a formal education in a specific religious tradition and being accepted into that tradition by the leaders who have already gone through the process. It’s also possible to become initiated into the inner mysteries of spirit by the struggles our lives put before us.

What is a Rite of Passage?

Often when we say, “Rite of Passage,” we mean, “A formally assembled group witnessing and affirming and affirming our Rite of Passage.” Weddings, births, baby blessings, graduations, comings of age, ordinations…these are all experiences that have a certain expectation to them, a formality. They are perhaps more about the family/group/community than they are about the person.

When I got married, I didn’t suddenly change. But my family’s relationship to me changed, and my (now ex) husband’s family as well.

Many of the initiations we go through nobody will witness but ourselves. Or, ourselves and our gods, if you want to look at it that way. The night we’re crying through the rainstorm because of a broken heart. The night we wonder what it’s all for, why we’re even here, why we bother to keep going. The morning we get the phone call that our father has passed away. The first time we get badly injured. The first time we are really sick or injured and have no one to help us. First time we have sex. First orgasm. First time we did our laundry on our own. First time we get into a car accident. First time we accidentally set an altar on fire in a ritual. First time we talk to the gods and they speak back to us. The first time we facilitate a workshop or a ritual. The first time we completely blow what we were supposed to say. The first time we lead a chant and it really works. The first time we’re lied to, the first time we’re betrayed by our mentor, or friend, or spouse.

These change us and shape us in ways no planned ritual can.

Initiation Into the Mysteries

And yet…there are ritual experiences that do shape us. That transform us. The rite of passage ritual I went through at Diana’s Grove at the culmination of my three years of leadership training still sits with me, heavy on my shoulders. Often when people say, “It’s a mystery,” what they mean is this: I can try to explain why my initiation ritual was meaningful to me, but I’ll never, ever be able to get it across in words. But perhaps I can give you a shadow, an echo, a look into that experience that cut me deep, that carved open a space inside of me and shaped who I am today.

I did a three-year leadership program at a retreat center called Diana’s Grove. It no longer exists, but at the time it was located in the Missouri Ozarks. The Diana’s Grove Mystery School grew out of the Reclaiming tradition as well as Jean Houston’s Mystery School, and it borrowed from other sources such as educational theory, psychology, hypnotherapy, mythology, and more. It wasn’t really a tradition or theology that was being taught, and rather, a process of personal growth, ritual facilitation, and group leadership. Many of the staff were agnostic or atheistic Pagans, so the program was intense and transformative, but my work there wasn’t an initiation into any particular religion.

It was still, though, an initiation into the mysteries.

Leadership Training

The fastest anyone could do the program was in three years. You had to first have attended a year of intensive weekends focusing on personal growth work before you would be considered for the general leadership program. And you had to be in that leadership program for a year before you’d be considered for the culminating and intensive Rites of Passage year. Some stayed in the intermediate program for several years; others who had pressing need of advanced leadership training could do a Rite of Passage year in their third year.

As I’d moved to the Diana’s Grove land as a staffer during my first year, I was expected to adhere to the rules other staffers did, even though I hadn’t yet been through the leadership program. Thus, I was sort of shoehorned into leadership training early. Then, I began leading a group in St. Louis of people who were engaged with the work of the mystery school, so the staff invited me into a Rites of Passage year in my third year.

Over the course of a ROP year, the ROP team (my team was 4 people) takes on more and more leadership and facilitation roles. We were given less and less time to plan things like ritual parts. Our “capstone project” was planning the programming for the Rites of Passage weekend, the most well-attended annual event at Diana’s Grove. The ROP team would also offer a large quantity of the programming; we’d be doing many of the workshops and leading most of the rituals.

Rites of Passage Rituals

The only part of the ROP weekend we wouldn’t plan would be our own Rites of Passage ritual. That ritual would be kept carefully secret from each of us, and the entire community (staff, members of the rest of the leadership program, alumni, and attendees) would be involved in planning and carrying out the ritual.

Unlike the initiation rituals within a particular tradition, these ROP rituals are designed specifically for the team. In the previous two years, I’d been part of the secret ritual planning shenanigans, so I knew the level of depth that went into planning one of these rituals to make it a customized experience for that year’s ROP team.

The rituals were deliberately designed to crack people open. To show them the mirror of their own hearts.

Each year, the mystery school focused on a myth. Or more accurately, a myth retold. My first year we worked with Arthurian myths. The second year, Psyche and Eros. The year of my ROP we worked with the Ballad of Tam Lin. During both of the first two years, I spent a good deal of the Rites of Passage ritual running around behind the scenes decorating spaces, lighting candles, carrying torches.

And in one case, donning armor to portray the Green Knight and destroying a large plaster pillar with a sledgehammer while the ROP team was blindfolded; all they would hear was the sound. At one ROP ritual, each team member was led, blindfolded,  to a fire and surrounded by friends and family. There they sat in silence while they were eulogized.

I recall being nervous waiting to be led down to one of the ritual areas, wondering what they had in store for us.

The Roses

white roses
PDGR / pixabay.com

The main house was atop a large hill, and the four of us were led down the hill by our mentor to the ritual area in a converted barn. People were singing inside, and when we were led in, I was astounded. Usually I’m the one going crazy setting up elaborate ritual decorations, but the barn had been transformed into a grotto. Plants, trees, flowers, candles. And as the group came to silence, we saw four chairs in the center of the room. The four of us each took a seat.

I don’t recall the precise order of what happened, but after a meditation piece, people began to line up in front of each of the four  of us. They had white roses. They knelt at my feet.  They told me what I meant to them. They told me why my work was special. They told me how much they loved me. They laid the roses at my feet. over and over. And over and over. I’m shaking right now just writing this, the tears are falling from my eyes.

What you might not know about me is that I have a thing for roses. I wrote an entire book of rose poetry long ago. Roses, for me, were a symbol of love. Or perhaps, of love denied. For me, roses meant heartbreak and betrayal. They meant the pain of the heart. In the Ballad of Tam Lin, it’s a rose that draws Tam Lin to Jennet, it draws him forth from the Faerie realm.

And here there were roses upon roses laid at my feet. Roses of love, of honor, of respect.

The Candles

Eventually, people filed out of the barn leaving the four of us and a couple of our mentors. They spoke words to us, and then guided us to leave the barn. I was first in line, and I recall actually taking a step back from the door once I realized what was out there, out in the darkness.

As far as my eye could see, there were people standing on either side–two rows of people–holding candles. I took a breath and stepped into the gauntlet. The first person looked me in the eye. “I believe in you Shauna.” And the next, “I believe in you.” “I believe in you, Shauna.” 

Over and over and over. Somehow I walked, but I couldn’t see. I couldn’t stop the tears. Every person said, “I believe in you.” They named me. And as I passed each of them I felt a weight fall on my shoulders, a heaviness. As I reached the end of the gauntlet, the words changed.

“I believe in you, Shauna.” “Don’t let us down.” “Don’t let us down, Shauna.” “We need you.” “We’re counting on you.” “Don’t let us down.” 

There was more to the ritual; a long period of silent contemplation in the moonlight, and then each of us endured Tam Lin’s transformations while blindfolded and surrounded by dozens of people whispering at us. We each fought our own demons and shadows that night.

But it’s the roses and the candles that stick with me.

The Weight

There are some days when I am almost standing back in that row of candles, walking through the corridor of people’s faces lit by the flames in the darkness. And every time I’m standing there, I feel the weight of that honor. The weight of that respect. And the weight of that responsibility.

Whenever I do work as a Pagan leader, I try to remember that what I do has impact. That there are people counting on me. That–when my dreams are big, and because the projects and initiatives I take on are big–the impact is big too. It’s not that I don’t screw up. Wow, do I. But I try hard to live up to that honor, to that responsibility.

I believe at one point in the ritual, one of my mentors said something about how initiation and ordination is about becoming someone who can’t unsee your impact. That you can’t go back to the person who can pretend that you don’t have power, you can’t go back to pretending that what you do doesn’t matter.

I remembered back to the previous year’s Rite of Passage ritual. I had been given the task of getting enough chairs to all the ritual areas, including one special chair for someone who had some specific physical difficulties. In the frenetic last hours of setup, I’d forgotten about the special chair and so when this person arrived at the ritual area, she had nowhere to sit. Two other staffers went to a neighboring shrine and carried a heavy stone bench so that this participant could sit. One staffer injured their back carrying this bench.

I’ve never forgotten that moment, ever. The one thing we forget can cause ripples of impact, can cause pain and problems, for others on our team. For our community.

“Don’t let us down.”

Red roses, for me, have long symbolized the pain of love…of love denied. The roses might as well be red for the blood spilled from their thorns. I often thought of those thorns as the shards of broken mirrors, like the mirror from the fairytale “The Snow Queen” that shows each person the darkness in everything around them. After my own experiences of heartbreak, this was what roses had come to embody for me.

But white roses…after this ritual, for me, white roses are for honor, for respect. They are for stepping along the spiral path and into the center of the labyrinth and all that it means to hold the Grail, to be seen as a Grailkeeper. White roses are for the dream made real, the perfect stillness of a heart without hate, or fear, or pain, just love. White roses are just for that moment before the world changes. They are the moment before the thorns. They are a gift from divine love.

a single white rose
Gottberg / pixabay.com

“I believe in you. I love you.”

Once again I stand in that row of candles. I feel the weight of the belief in me, the heaviness of that honor.  For me, that is initiation, that is ordination. The weight, the awareness of my own ripples of impact. The weight of love.

“We need you. Don’t let us down.”


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