Seekers and Guides: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism (Part One)

I’ve been there.  Staring into a bleak abyss of misery, with no hope and no prospect of any; wondering whether I should slit my wrists, eat a bottle of pills, or jump off of my hometown’s only parkade.

I’ve been there.  Curled in a heap on the floor, sniffling as the police carried the unconscious form of my best friend out of the apartment next door to me, where he’d swallowed a whole bottle of Tylenol 3s while I hosted a New Year’s Eve party he’d been invited to.

I’ve been there.  Standing at a Samhain altar, about to priestess for my community for the very first time, when we were told that Jodi, a sweet woman who was always smiling, was not late; she was dead by her own hand, and just that morning.

I’ve been there.  Seven o’clock in the morning, sitting in the hospital, keeping a woman in my congregation company as she awaited shock treatments for her severe depression while delicate hands below scar-mangled wrists fidgeted anxiously in her lap.

I’ve been there.  Four years old, hiding under the couch with my little brother while a police officer talked quietly with our dad; then Dad explaining to us that Mom needed a rest from all of us and she would be in the hospital for the next month.  And it seemed like forever when I was that young.

The Insidious Nature of Depression

Let’s start by dispelling some myths.  Depression is the result of a chemical deficiency.  It’s an illness; no different than, say, the hemoglobin deficiency that causes sickle cell anemia.  It can be hereditary.  It’s as dangerous as diabetes.  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s not something you can just turn off if you want to.  It’s not that easy, and urging suffers to “cheer up,” or pointing out why their situation isn’t that bad, only serves to minimize and demean their trials, and makes them less likely to reach out to other people for help.  And that’s when people succumb to the illness.

Where the problem and confusion come in is that it often has triggers.  Stress, grief, poverty, life changes (even childbirth or menopause), loneliness, feelings of alienation, a history of abuse or trauma, catastrophic injury, concurrent mental illnesses and addictions can all contribute to triggering or deepening depression.  So can purely biological causes, like neurological disorders, hormonal fluctuations, shift work, not getting enough sleep, or not getting proper nutrition in one’s diet.

Statistically, Pagans are more likely to experience many of the risk factors than the average population.  Most of us have suffered from feeling like black sheep; those who come from homes with opposing faiths, struggle with gender identity or practice alternate lifestyles are even more likely to experience this.  We tend to be working class people, whose education often outstrips our financial circumstances, leading to frustrated ambitions and debt.  We are more likely than the average population to come from abusive backgrounds and suffer from neuroses or anxiety disorders.  Pagan leaders are almost guaranteed to encounter someone who looks to them for guidance that struggles with this illness.  And if you’ve got a diagnosis of a depressive disorder – at least you know you know you’re not alone!

When an addiction comes into play it ups the ante.  Therapists now call this deadly combination a “complex addiction,” “dual diagnosis” or “comorbidity” and they’ve learned that you have to treat both concurrently, since an addict is almost always self-medicating.

Not all depression is clinical.  Sometimes it is a reaction to life’s events.  This is why so many people insist upon the “cheer up” prescription.  But often, it’s a pre-existing vulnerability that is activated by life’s events.  And it’s dangerous.  In the US, 3.4 percent of those with major depressive disorder commit suicide and 60% of suicide victims have major depression or another mood disorder.

Symptoms

If you’re worried that you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, some of the symptoms include:

  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits.
  • Changes in body weight.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Stressed relationships with loved ones.
  • Reduced sex drive.
  • Low mood.
  • Fatigue, headache, or digestive problems.
  • Chronic generalized pain.
  • Agitation or lethargy.
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and other aspects of self-care.
  • Cognitive changes (loss of short term memory, inability to do simple math, etc.)
  • Poor concentration.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Preoccupation with feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness and self-hatred.
  • Preoccupation with inappropriate levels of guilt or regret.
  • Psychosis or delusions.
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Sometimes a person tries too hard to laugh it off.  In this case, they avoid conversation about their difficulties entirely and instead put on a happy demeanor. Often the class clown is laughing so s/he won’t cry. This unwillingness to be vulnerable, even with one’s closest friends, can be a warning sign also.  Humor could be biting and bitter.

It should be noted that children especially may display agitation and irritability rather than lethargy.  They often lose interest in school and their grades decline.  They might become clingy, dependent, demanding or insecure.  They are often misdiagnosed as having attention deficit disorder or a learning disability.

Emergency First Aid

I realize that there are many of us who don’t like doctors and don’t like medication.  But listen: this is no small matter.  Just like with any other life-threatening illness, the first priority is to get out of the danger zone.  The first step is to reach out.  The second step is often meds.  At least for now, at least for a while.  Please, if you’ve entertained the thought of suicide for more than a second, reach out to someone, anyone.  A friend, a guide, a family member; and also a professional.

I can hear the negative self-talk now.  “Oh, nobody wants to hear about my problems.”  “I don’t have anyone I can reach out to.”  “I have to be strong for everyone else.”  “People tell me I should get over it, but I just can’t.”

I’m sure you’re wrong.  I’m sure there’s somebody who cares about your problems.  Sometimes just having a listening ear can be amazingly helpful.  If you can’t find a friend to talk to, most areas have support groups you can join.  And if you’re on that edge, the suicide hotline number in the US and Canada is 1-800-273-TALK (8255); in the UK you can find a full list of contacts at http://www.samaritans.org; and in Australia it is 13 11 14 and New Zealand it is 09 5222 999 within Auckland and 0800 543 354 outside of Auckland.


In the next few subsequent columns, I will discuss a Pagan spiritual perspective, self-care, alternative or complimentary therapies, professional resources for sufferers, resources for those suffering from dual diagnosis, how you can help others, and resources for teachers of the Craft.  The next installment will be appearing next week, not in two weeks!

Next column: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism (Part 2)

Seekers and Guides is published on alternate Mondays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

Birthing Hereditary Witchcraft: Family Coven, the NFL, and Council of Mothers

I admit to being a huge football fan — well, until the most recent scandal was thrust into the forefront of everyone’s mind by video cameras and TMZ. Many watched in horrified fascination as Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens struck his then-fiancée (whom he has now married) to unconsciousness during an argument. Rice’s two-game suspension created a backlash against the National Football League and placed a spotlight on spousal and child abuse of immediate family members of NFL players.

itsonusThe NFL, with its multimillion dollar players and multi-billion dollar bottom line, is a convenient target. While this media storm continues, the president with celebrities last Friday launched the It’s On Us campaign. The campaign’s goal is four-fold:

  1. To recognize that all non-consensual sex is sexual assault, even when alcohol is involved.
  2. To identify situations where sexual assault may occur.
  3. To intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.
  4. To create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.

There is an online pledge that college students can take and educational material around when assaults are likely to be perpetrated or experienced on campus (IT’S ON US Campaign Website, 2014).

Rutgers University is a featured campus in conjunction with this campaign. The White House commended Rutgers University as a college campus where progressive actions are being taken to combat sexual violence. Rutgers is one of the top five colleges with unprecedented sexual assault cases reported in the United States in 2010 (Monmouth (1st), Princeton (2nd), Ramapo College, New Jersey (3rd) and Rutgers University (4th)). Around fifty-five colleges or universities around the country, including Rutgers University, are under federal investigation regarding possible violations around the reporting and handling of sexual assault cases on campus (Serrano, 2014).

However, Rutgers University is leading the fight with their mandatory orientation campaign presented for incoming freshman called “Let’s Talk About It.” In this graphic depiction, upper classman improvise a scene where two people drink alcohol, and eventually the male overpowers the female actor. The orientation attempts to illustrate and begin conversations around sexual assault and how that intersects with college campus life. (Rutgers University Web, 2014) Their free interactive seminar is available to nonprofit, educational, and government institutions.

What never escapes my mind, as a mother and a pagan, is that these discussions were once led by a Council of Mothers. In many indigenous tribes, the council of mothers were the quiet power behind any leader. They appointed tribal leaders they had raised and groomed for the position. The Council of Mothers could even remove leadership should their choice be proven unwise.

As tribal societies have broken down, so has the influence of the council of mothers. As the natural keepers of the earth and indigenous traditions, women have long worked behind the shield and sword in tribal society to keep the peace and bring civilization and balance to men whose very lives were shaped by the animals they hunted and killed. Their prowess as warriors relied upon their ability to violently protect the village and women within. Women, however, unflaggingly required male leaders to find compassion, honor, humility and grace in societies whose very existence were violently held.

Some of our most popular games are the most violent–notably rugby, whose origins are linked to the clan culture of the Celtic Race; lacrosse, whose origins are linked to the American Indian ball game; the Scottish game of shinty; tī rakau from the indigenous people of New Zealand; and soccer, whose origins are traced by some historians back to the ancient Mayans’ Ball Game involving two stone hoops, one ball, and two teams. The link between tribal and clan violence and these games is most eloquently experienced on YouTube between the Iroquois National Lacrosse Team and the New Zealand Lacrosse team through chant and dance (LAX.com, 2014). You cannot look at the warriors of New Zealand’s lacrosse team and not envision the ancient warriors of that nation preparing for war in a similar manner.

Yet, even here, the council of mothers is missing. There are no women on the sidelines supporting the fighters. The honor and glory of the game is diminished by the lack of female presence and praise. This need to have both genders reflected, honored, and praised for their unique contributions to society often gets shuttled to the side and drowned in the shouting for sexual equality. I have never taught my son that the sexes were truly equal. He doesn’t need me to tell him that his nearly six-foot frame of lean teenage muscle could easily overpower me if he wanted to. He knows this.

No, what he was taught from a young age was that I am part of his Council of Mothers. We represent to him that all should be EQUALLY VALUED, including the persons of other genders who have taken residence on the council with me. I may not be able to overpower him physically, but that apparent weakness is part of my strength. That I can rise and overcome physical difficulties to cook for him, do his laundry, and shuttle him around as he needs is a testament to a strength of spirit he has not needed to possess yet.

His Council of Mothers includes his Aunt Yannu. Another High Priestess and devote of Frigga, she is the mother of four children (three girls, one boy), and when I must travel and he cannot be with me, it is into her care I commend my child. It includes Laurie, his step-mother, a high priestess and devotee to the path of Stregga. I know from his talks that she brings a fierce Italian womanhood to bear when dealing with our son. It includes his Aunt Crystal, High Priestess and devote of Yemaya. This black goddess, advocate, and activist features prominently in any conversation we may have around race and privilege. There is his Aunt Katie, whose maiden love of his brother Nate is a journey he has witnessed firsthand. Through it he has discovered a new appreciation for the strength that can occur when two opposing forces agree to walk together. Aunt Nancy is the oldest mother he bears witness to, and recently he said to me that she was the one he was most afraid of: “After all, she was the one that decided to pet a wild black bear and got away with it. I wouldn’t mess with her.”

My boy’s council of mothers also includes Uncle Jerrett and Uncle Kyler, gay men who advocate for tolerance for all manifestations of maleness and femaleness, even that energy that may seem to be both at once. Along with Uncle Nate, my boy has found that he is not ashamed of being openly bisexual and readily accepting of other variations of genders.

I encourage Family Covens to seek out and name a Council of Mothers for their children, male and female. Seek out various ages, genders, sexual orientations, races, classes, and opinions. Ask them to help you raise your child as a guiding lights. Then look around you. What children are in your sphere of influence? Are there children you could become part of the council of mothers for? Is there a tween child that you could take out for ice cream and encourage them to talk about healthy boundaries when dating and healthy views about sexuality and violence?

Post-tribal society, we can all move to form council around children being raised in our communities. We can volunteer to support, through word and deed, parents raising children. Because it isn’t the White House, Rutgers University, or the NFL that will have the greatest impact in lowering the rate of sexual violence. It is the council of mothers that forms the landscape of children’s lives. It is the quiet word and seemingly off-handed comment. It is the praise of physical prowess tempered by the principle that physical abuse of others is not acceptable. It is the equal value placed upon children of all genders that ensures their own feelings of equality.

Who are your children’s council of mothers? What children are you serving as part of their council of mothers?


Birthing Hereditary Witchcraft is published occasionally on Agora. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Alone In Her Presence: The Goddess Is In The Dirt

10687897_10152301914421024_8570443596171641878_oWhen I look our into the world, what I see beyond the horizon of humanity’s need is Earth Mother. She is the precious jewel that is ever luminous even when she frightens. What might it be like had the Charge of the Goddess started with, Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Earth Mother, Mother Nature, Stone Mother, Dream Giver, Soothing River, Steadfast Tree, Gentle Breeze and by many other names”?  What if we truly allowed ourself to lean into that? To the primordial Goddess who is all Goddess, She who is Earth with her many faces, ever generative?

One of the faces of Earth I consider most resplendent is during a hurricane. Whereas many fear the potential of destruction, with winds howling, there was (and still is) for me an immense comfort.  I remember being eight years old, and watching wide eyed the giant tree in my backyard completely uproot and crash though my neighbor’s house. It was terrifyingly awesome, the sheer ferocity. The storm had a fieriness that once it passed through became a stillness unparalleled by anything else I’ve known.  I often have thought that life is like that hurricane, and we are the trees. It seems the more limber trees move with the wind, yet the seemingly rigid-rooted don’t always fare so well.

For years, I heard the Christian expression to ‘lean on God’ in times of struggle, strife, and turmoil. But for many, and for centuries, that God isn’t or wasn’t an option. What if there was  another option? What if we leaned on Earth and instead of the cup of salvation that Christianity offers, we sought to nurture the healing vessel of a Earth Mother?  

Earth Mother is the primal and supreme deity of the ancient world, the oldest and most universally worshiped entity known. For thousands of years, before there were any male gods, there was The Goddess, and Her devotion was observed and held. There are a lot of theories around matriarchal prehistory, exactly what it was and was not, yet what is accepted as known is that Earth as generative Mother was held in esteem.

From history, she is known by many names, from Pachamama to IxChel. Her indigenous and aboriginal face takes on many transcendent names. She is the commonly named Goddesses like Isis and Lakshmi, and when we trace her ancestry, they all seem to dwell in earth. This primordial Earth Mother is both darkness and light, and her devotion is the reconciliation of all. She is the creatrix that continues to build upon Herself. Destruction (like in the hurricane) is part of the natural cycle as night follows day, and we accept it with grace as Her ultimate gift; when we are born, our first inhale is on Her exhale, and when we return, She inhales our last breath. She that flows in, among, and around is Earth Mother; the Goddess in the Dirt! This is the all-encompassing energy of life itself, her womb the vessel from where  all energy pours into creation. Her all-devouring mouth is the vessel through which all matter is consumed to be reborn. In swirling patterns of pure love,  she ignites, becoming the Star Goddess of whom Starhawk writes, “alone and awesome, complete within herself.”

The Goddess is Earth, and She is you. She is Earth Mother. She is not abstract or a mystical metaphor, but rather the giant rocks that spring forth from the soil. She is the wind and the soft caresses and the howl. She is not “in our heads” as consciousness or an archetype. We can wade in her waters by the sea and be soothed in her rich earth. Her body is of substance as material as is our own. All Goddess, All Earth, All Earth Mother.

There is a belief among indigenous peoples that “We walk lightly on the bosom of the Earth Mother.” In the chaos of busy lives, I find that we often forget that immanent love surrounds us and is as close as the dirt at our feet.  This dirt, rich in nutrient, is the body of a single vast living being–Earth Mother. This is the fertile crescent where we can find the vessel of our most sacred self. Here we are invited to observe. Maybe it is the lesson of the pliant trees in the hurricane. Maybe the lesson is in the cultivation of sacredness. And maybe it is as simple as sitting ourselves down in the dirt for a moment of breath. Earth Mother invites us to experience an unfolding of a self that is capable of manifesting the lives we want to live. When we touch the dirt, we are awakening to consciousness.

It is this consciousness that is interdependent cultivation to build our life’s great work. This is the place where we return, the earth as a vessel. In weeks to come, this column will explore how to manifest a relationship with Earth Mother and invite the mysteries that continue to unfold. How can the Goddess who is all Goddess realign our lives and bring us into greater peace, harmony, and communion with the deep ecosystem that for centuries has always been spinning love? It starts with touching the dirt.


Alone In Her Presence is published on alternate Wednesdays! Subscribe via RSS or e-mail.

Jewish Witch: My Devotionals, Part 2 – The Work

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Shema: the twice-daily declaration of faith. This week I’m going to describe the rest of my daily devotionals. I love reading about people’s daily practices, and I want to add mine to the mix with the thought that, as we all rebuild this big, messy, beautiful thing called Paganism, it’s better for everyone to have more access to diverse devotional practices.

There’s actually more to the Shema than that one line. The rest of the prayer consists of a few key passages from Deuteronomy and Numbers. Here’s my version, very heavily adapted from Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings:

I will do your work, my Goddess, throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you in my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

For awhile I fretted a little about the nature of the work–what exactly was I promising to do?–and at one point I even tried to define it myself, but gradually I learned to let the work reveal itself to me. It pops up in little, unglamorous ways: giving a spontaneous offering to a deity or the fey folk, sticking up for someone who’s being bullied, showing compassion to a difficult person at work, cleaning up litter. The constant repetition every morning and evening (or, at least, that’s what I aim for) helps me remember to keep my eyes open for ways to serve. Once, my phone rang a second after I said the word “work,” and it turned out to be a wrong number. Still a little high from my prayers (I got into a real groove that night), I wished the person a good night. He paused, seemingly surprised, and then said it back. Did I make some tiny difference in his life? Or was it just a coincidence, his surprise a figment of my imagination? I’ll never know. Such is the humble nature of the work.

Which isn’t to say the work is never exciting. I serve on the ritual planning circle for Reclaiming LA and priestess at public rituals. Right now I’m writing a series of hymns to the Morrígan. The more exciting work requires constantly distinguishing genuine service from my own ego (“Lookit me, I’m a priestess!”), but when I do it well, I enjoy it.

My devotionals have a structure loosely based on the elements: my declaration to the Goddess, followed by devotionals to the deities I’m working with (both temporarily and on a long-term basis), then a hello to the fey folk and ancestors and spirits of the land, a lovingkindness chant, and finally a few moments of silent meditation. The latter three always feel pretty straightforward, if sometimes a little challenging; my devotion to the land and all its people is at the center of my Witchcraft, and Buddhist meditation is simple, yet profound.

The deity devotions tend to give me trouble, though. I still find it hard to break away from a monotheistic mindset that dictates that one god should be able to give me everything I need spiritually. I still have trouble with the idea that I can work with Deity A without Deity B automatically getting offended. Part of the problem, of course, is that the Morrígan is very big and very strong and demands a lot of attention. A friend of mine who started working with the Morrígan around the same time I did told me that she periodically has to put away her statue because the energy is just too much for her. I’ve found myself in the same boat more than once. Recently I had to take my Morrígan totems off my altar because she was swallowing up my entire practice, and my spirituality was suffering for it. I hesitated because I was afraid of pulling a Cu Chulainn…but then I realized that any devotional practice based on fear is a practice that will benefit no one. Now my devotion to her consists of writing her hymns while I try to build up my daily practice with Cernunnos again. I’m slowly learning that you can love and serve a deity while being clear about your boundaries. And despite her reputation, I think a goddess of sovereignty understands that.

Also, last weekend I took an Aphrodite intensive workshop, and I’ve started doing devotionals to her. I’ve never really felt like Aphrodite and I had much to offer each other, but that may be all the more reason to approach her. The knee-jerk reaction I’ve always had to her–“Love and beauty? Yuck! Frivolous! Not for me!”–is, I know, a veiled expression of a void in my life. I won’t get into the particulars; suffice it to say that I have a lot of work ahead of me that neither Cernunnos nor the Morrígan can help me with. Aphrodite is a power every bit as big and deep and ancient as the more “serious” deities.

My daily practice takes other forms, too: drumming, singing, running the Iron and Pearl Pentacles, aligning my triple soul, reading the cards, or aspecting. Sometimes sitting at my altar and performing formal devotionals feels right. Other times, I’m called to take my drum out to the patio and sing. And still other times, I just want to whisper to the plants in my garden. When I took my first Reclaiming class, one of the teachers advised us to “hold it lightly.” Don’t let your practice get dogmatic and joyless. Don’t start believing there’s only one right way to do it. That way of thinking will never pay off.

May your devotionals, if you perform them, be light as a feather and deep as the ocean, as bright as a flame and dark as the earth.


Jewish Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Heathen Woman: Honoring Our Ancestors, Part Two

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what it means to honor our ancestors. As the autumn air settles in and October approaches, I would like to take this opportunity to expand on it, since this time of year brings about much discussion on the thinning veil between the living and the dead and remembering those who have gone before us.

When honoring our ancestors, there can be a tendency to reach only towards our pre-Christian ancestors – to those who venerated the heathen gods. I think it’s important, however, to bring our more recent deceased relatives into the fold, as some of these people were those who knew us in life. For instance, my grandmother’s recipes saved me from possible starvation when I rented my first apartment. To this day, I am still able to stretch a dollar at the grocery store thanks to her frugal and clever ways of cooking wholesome, affordable meals. My father taught me how to properly care for a car, while my uncles are fondly remembered for gathering after the big family meal every Saturday on the back porch of my great-grandmother’s home. These are some of my earliest memories of building familial connections.

My grandparents, those uncles, and my father are now deceased, but I keep their pictures in frames on my mantle. Along with my brothers and cousins, I help to make sure their grave sites are properly cared for and maintained. When I’m seeking additional emotional support and guidance from family members, it is these people that I call on.

Why would I honor these individuals instead of reaching far back into my heathen ancestry? Why not call on a past hero or even a king? The answers to those questions stem from my knowing these family members personally. My most recently deceased ancestors knew my flaws and gifts, and I knew theirs. There was a personal bond.

This isn’t to say that I exclude my ancient ancestors. I surely appreciate who they were, and had it not been for their persistence and survival, I would not be here. I also have family members who I did not know, but who are recent enough in the family line that their lives are recorded in the family book that my mother keeps. These included my great-grandparents (x 3) who raised horses – a tradition that they learned from their parents and passed down to my grandparents. However, I cannot maintain their grave sites (caring for a family member’s grave mound was once a common practice) or recall any stories, which have been lost to time. Was this ancestor the tribe comedian? Did that ancestor like beef but not venison? What other preferences did they have that defined their personalities? I can’t answer those questions. I can, however, look at how people lived in those days and remain mindful of them in my own traditions and practices. In this way, I am honoring those more ancient ancestors according to their worldview and activities, and I have the choice of implementing those ways in my life and rituals.

Sometimes the question arises as to how best to honor our ancestors who were not heathen. For a variety of historical reasons, many members of a person’s family may have practiced another religion. This can sometimes be contentious for those who don’t want to offend a family member by including them in heathen practices. Religious affiliation does not have to cause a sticky situation, though. A family member’s religion of choice is not their only defining characteristic. The same can be said for less than savory family members who have passed on. It may be prudent to seek out whatever qualities they had that were helpful to the family. Did they build their own homes? Were they involved in community organizations? Were they known for certain qualities that are positive, such as determination? Perhaps they were artistic, creative, or chose a profession similar to the one that you have chosen. These are all aspects of an ancestor that can be celebrated when they are remembered.

This type of remembrance does require drawing on a few facts about one’s family line, which is why it can be helpful to focus on more recently deceased ancestors as opposed to those who lived in the eleventh century. In some cases, however, there may be a famous ancestor who accomplished great deeds and about whom much is known. It is not necessary to only honor those ancestors who made a name for themselves. An especially honorable person may also come from a family who fulfilled ordinary responsibilities in an extraordinary way. They may not have been famous, but their dedication to their community and ingenuity may have contributed greatly to the preservation and success of the family line. They are equally worthy of being remembered.

Eventually we ourselves will be someone’s ancestor. Building a good name for ourselves is an important part of keeping the frith in our homes and building up our individual communities. Our deeds and commitments will be reflected, and hopefully remembered, down the road. Our ancestors, then, hold the keys to our family history. In honoring the Desir, we might ritually offer items specific to the women in our family. Likewise, we may choose to display or offer things that are special to our family on a mantle or altar that is dedicated just to our ancestors. However we choose to honor those who walked before us, may we include them in a way that expresses gratefulness for their perseverance.


Heathen Woman is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Wyrd Words: 1 Year of Wyrd Words!

Greetings, and welcome to the 1 year anniversary of Wyrd Words.

Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

Wyrd Words has now been running for a solid YEAR, and nobody has put an end to our antics yet. This is both fantastic and, quite frankly, surprising. Looking back on my time here, it’s been an interesting year. We’ve covered a pretty wide variety of topics in this column, and it always fascinating to see which articles go viral for inexplicable reasons, and which ones end up gathering dust in the back of Agora’s proverbial closet. In a way, we can learn about ourselves as a community by exploring which topics seem to generate the most interest. Thus, in the spirit of exploration, I present the top 5 articles of the year!

#5 Faces of Odin – Soldier, Scholar, Skald, and Skeptic
 photo 140416131740-odin-ruler-of-asgard-story-top_zps8cfd77f2.jpgÓðinn, as he is depicted by the Lore, is very complex and multidimensional. To simply label him as a “God of War” is not only an inadequate descriptor, it’s a disservice to the depth of his personality. The Allfather wears many faces, and all of them are important to the Sagas he weaves. [Read more…]

This is one of my rare “theological” articles, and because of that I never expected it to do so well. I often focus on the “big picture” of our community and forget that so many of us are really just looking for our own connection with the gods. Missing the trees for the forest, so to speak.

 

 #4 Pagan Relationships – Building a Lasting Community

 photo bonfire-dance_zps00607fbc.jpgIn a recent article, I mentioned the relatively short lifespan of many of our kindreds, covens, and groves. I believe that the reason for this can be broken down into three major problems: size, distribution, and (most importantly) the types of relationships we build within our local communities. [Read more…]

Our community is still young, and we spend a LOT of time trying to figure ourselves out. You can talk about herding cats all you want, but I have seen firsthand how much the majority of our community wants to see us achieve a real structure and stability. 

 

#3 Drawing The Line – Heathens Against White Supremacists
nazi Scum photo NaziScum_zpsa557ab4d.jpg

There is a small segment of the modern Heathen community that co-opts our religion for racist purposes. I refuse to allow them to abuse and dishonor our faith, our community, and our gods. [Read more…]

I don’t know if this article was the best thing I’ve ever written, but I believe it was by far the most IMPORTANT. I am ashamed that, in this day and age, this article still needed to be written. I am proud to be part of a community that so strongly stands up against bigotry and racism. 

 

 #2 Pointless Arguments (Part 1) – The Polytheism Debate

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We could all argue about theology until we’re blue in the face, but in the end we’re only debating a matter of faith, as none of us has any objective evidence with which to support our case. This is a dilemma I like to call “Schrodinger’s God.” Read on for awesome stick figure illustrations. [Read more…]

This was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing a blog article. I learned two things about our community based on how this article was received. First, we are perfectly willing to admit our faults and point out when we’re being silly. Second, stickfigures are remarkably entertaining and can be surprisingly educational. *shrug* Who knew?

 

#1   10 Pieces of Practical Advice from the Hávamál (Part 2)
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More practical advice from the Havamal: How to Party Like a Viking! Remember, the party’s no fun if you can’t remember enough of it to know where you put your pants! [Read more…]

Coming in at #1: Practical advice from the Havamal. The fact that this piece is the MOST POPULAR THING I’VE EVER WRITTEN, is why I love this community. Say what you will about us, but we know how to laugh at ourselves!

 

It’s been a great year, and hopefully we have a great year to come!


Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Socially Responsible Magic: BNPs Aren’t Automatically Elders and Leaders

 

Recently I was asked by The Wild Hunt about what makes a person a Pagan Elder. In my response, I noted that  didn’t feel that a Big Name Pagan (BNP) was automatically an elder. Indeed, this year the Pagan community has struggled with a number of incidents where BNPs engaged in questionable behavior. (You don’t have to be a BNP to engage in questionable leadership, though, as Shauna Aura Knight explains in this post). However, I want to focus on BNPs because I think that the Pagan community invests authority in BNPs that is unwarranted. Let’s take a moment and define what a BNP typically looks like.

A Big Name Pagan usually has written books or produced music or has organized festivals and is well known for one of those activities. Many BNPs teach classes and some even create mystery schools through which they offer those particular classes. They also travel and present at festivals. They are interviewed in magazines and podcasts. They write articles for sites such as this one. Some of them are part of specific magical traditions and have even founded those traditions. All of them have some degree of fame in the Pagan pond. I would probably be considered a BNP, though certainly not one of the more famous ones.

So now we have a definition of a BNP. There are a few reasons BNPs are considered to be leaders. The first reason is because they usually teach some type of class. The role of teacher carries with it some authority, which in turn can be associated with leadership. However, just because a person is good at teaching doesn’t mean that same person is a leader. Teaching isn’t the same as being a leader, though the roles can draw on similar skills. And while it can be argued that a teacher should be responsible for what they teach, that responsibility doesn’t automatically transfer over to leadership skills.

Another reason a BNP might be thought of as being a leader is if s/he founds a tradition or holds a position of authority in a tradition. This is a legitimate reason for thinking such a person is a leader, but one of the questions we should ask is whether or not leadership skills have been taught to the BNP (or anyone else occupying such a role). If leadership skills aren’t taught, then the person won’t become a leader by default. They will still have to learn the lessons everyone else has to learn, and they’ll likely learn them the hard way. A person doesn’t become a good leader without proper training, and just because someone has founded a tradition or belongs to one doesn’t automatically mean they have leadership skills. It just means they occupy a position of authority. The question to ask when finding yourself in this role is: “What have I done to earn that authority?”

Yet another reason a BNP is associated with leadership is fame. While that person may not be as famous as celebrity or a politician, within the Pagan community such fame can have a similar effect. For example, I was once told a story about a BNP and his wife who referred to themselves as occult royalty. They seemed to think that being famous made them something special. The problem with such fame is that it can be addictive and misleading. We live in a culture at large where fame is often equated with authority and leadership, even though the majority of people who are famous tend to make fools out of themselves on a regular basis. What we should remember is that just because a person is famous doesn’t mean s/he is a leader. And if that person seems to indulge in the fame, we should consider it a red flag.

One of the recent scandals involved Christian Day, the author and bookstore owner. A BNP posted a long complaint on his Facebook wall about how people had asked him to take a stand and say something about a recent scandal. These people wanted him to denounce Christian Day. In his complaint, the BNP explained why he wouldn’t do that and also explained why he wasn’t a leader and didn’t want people expecting him to lead them. This is a fair enough request, but what it highlighted to me was the expectation that people have that fame equates to leadership, without really considering whether or not a famous person is fit to be a leader, or if s/he wants to be one. Just because someone is famous doesn’t mean that person is automatically a leader.

I think the Pagan community needs to be more discerning when it comes to associating BNPs with leadership. We need to ask what makes a person a good leader and then weigh that against what the person is doing. Is the person visible for the right reasons or the wrong ones? Shauna and I got into a conversation about visibility vs. fame, and she pointed out that a leader does need to be visible, but the leader should not encourage fame. Instead, what a leader does is make sure that people see who s/he really is, faults and virtues included. By keeping it real, the leader stays grounded and recognizes that his/her authority has more to do with the role s/he has taken on than anything inherent in him/herself.

I also think a leader operates from a place of service. What that means is that the person is choosing to serve the community over his/her own interests. As such, fame is not important. What is important is being able to serve the community by becoming a good leader. Becoming a good leader involves learning and applying leadership skills as well as sticking to a code of behavior that reflects those skills. In other words you have to walk the talk… not just talk it.

I think some BNPs are good leaders. But I think as a community, Pagans need to carefully look at our standards of leadership and ask if those standards are really being fulfilled by the people who are put into positions of leadership (BNP or not). Let us not buy into the cult of the BNP, but instead question that cult carefully and ask ourselves if we really want a BNP to be a leader just because that person wrote a book or put out an album. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing a talent for writing or art or something else, but let’s not make the mistake that such talent automatically makes a person a leader. While we can appreciate talent, we also need to appreciate the difference between it and the qualities required for good leadership.


Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

The Busy Witch: Wonder-ful World

When I first tell people that I’m a witch, their eyes inevitably drift to the lotus pendant around my neck, and I can see them squinting, trying to figure out if it’s a strange form of pentacle that they’ve never seen before. If they ask, I’ll explain that I usually only wear my star during rituals, which sometimes leads to other questions about my practice. It’s getting easier for me to speak openly about these tangible reminders of my spiritual practice after spending much of the last decade within the safe confines of the broom closet, but there’s one place I still find it difficult to put thoughts into words:

It’s hard to express the sense of wonder that is part of my path.

I can talk about nuts and bolts, myths and archetypes, festivals and full moons to anyone who will listen, but I’ve found that it’s harder to put into words the deep, child-like wonder that infuses so much of my daily life. The more I’ve worked with magic, the more I’ve come to appreciate the most mundane things.

For me, magical practice isn’t just about the spells and rituals (although I love those aspects, too). It’s in the sound of wind chimes dancing outside my window; the brush of the wind through my hair, reminding me to be present; the warmth of the sun on my shoulders or the rough earth beneath my feet. The magic of mindfulness is something I’m still learning to listen to, but that sense of paying attention to the world with wonder and delight have become more and more vital to my spirituality over the years, and I hope I continue to look on both the mundane and the highly ritualistic as sacred, magical acts.

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Every breath is a spell, and every step part of the dance.

Starhawk wrote of the importance of “child self” in her transformative work The Spiral Dance, and over the years, that childlike sense of belief, anticipation, and wonder have become more and more central to my own practice. It can be hard to explain “child self” to a non-Pagan, however; when I try, I often find myself searching for words, before I finally smile and point outside to a beautiful patch of sunshine.

I think it’s so hard to explain wonderment because we all express it in different ways; for me, it’s a very sensory experience, taking in the scents and sounds and feelings associated with each place and each moment. For others, wonder comes from internal conviction, or reading of signs in the world, or from works of man-made art. There are countless ways to feel wonder, just as there are countless ways children play and learn to make sense of the world around them, and for me, that sense of awe is the crux of my faith. I don’t need to wear my pentacle every day to know I’m deeply bound to the elements; all I must do is open my eyes and remember to breathe.

 

photo courtesy of shutterstock: shutterstock.com


The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

Seekers and Guides: A Few Books that I Think Every Witch Should Read (Part Two)

Some more metaphysical booksLast column I laid out a list of recommended reading for witches.  This column continues that list.  A little reminder of my conditions: As I said last time, some of these books are by Pagan authors and some are not.  Some are a little scholarly, but since I said “every Witch,” I have deliberately excluded anything that is geared strictly to the academic.  Some might require a little explanation as to why they should be included.  Please keep in mind that this list is entirely subjective, and in based entirely in my own opinions.  I am well-read but no expert, so I’m sure that I will add to this list over time, and maybe there will be more articles on the subject in the future.  If you have books to recommend, I’m always excited to find new material, so please let me know in the comments!

Liturgy and Philosophy

Liturgy for the modern Pagan movement is, at best, problematic.  There are no writings that are consistently used by all of us.  The Charge of the Goddess comes closest, but even that has many variations.  So if I’ve recommended something here for liturgy, it’s because I think it offers a good essential grounding in Wiccan liturgical concepts.  The recommended reading on philosophy was a little easier.  I include the works that I do because I think they illustrate important concepts in Pagan and Wiccan philosophy quite well.

The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess by Starhawk – Yes, if you didn’t read it for its value to the Craft, read it for its liturgy.  Starhawk is a gifted poet.

The Practice of Witchcraftby Robin Skelton – Skelton was a professional poet as well as a well-known Witch.  This book, which has been republished with many different subtitles and also under the title “The Practice of Witchcraft Today,” offers meaningful witchcraft rituals in beautifully written poetry.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein – I doubt that Heinlein had any concept of how influential this sci-fi story would be.  But a whole church organization was founded on it, and that group published the most influential Pagan publication in history, and thus, these ways have been fully integrated into modern Paganism.  Concepts with origins in this story include the Divine Within, the Gaia Hypothesis, and polyamory.  And grokking.  I’m certain Heinlein didn’t invent any of them (except the word for grokking,) but because he wrote about them, we have these powerful elements in the modern Pagan movement.  Besides, Heinlein was a great writer and you should read him anyway, just because.

The Wyrd Sisters and I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett – These books are, probably quite unintentionally, some of the greatest dissertations on magick, myth and the Craft ever.  As a matter of fact, it won’t hurt any Witch to read the whole Discworld series.  If it doesn’t make you seriously think about the structure of the Universe, I don’t know what would.

The Other Side of Virtue: Where Our Virtues Come From, What They Really Mean, and Where They Might Be Taking UsandA Pagan Testament: The Literary Heritage of the World’s Oldest New Religion by Dr. Brendan Myers – Myers is a professor of philosophy and a Druid.  He’s been considering Pagan ethics and philosophy for many years and writes about them well.  I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but his writing provokes thought and encourages you to come to your own conclusions.  “The Other Side of Virtue” examines Pagan ethics from the Rede to the Nine Noble Virtues, and “A Pagan Testament” (and its clever subtitle) covers all liturgies that are important to modern Paganism, from the Charge of the Goddess to the Mabinogion.  Well worth owning for that alone.

The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler – I had to chew on it a while before deciding to put this book on this list, because it is very political and not all will agree with its conclusions.  I don’t agree with all of them myself.  Eisler’s thesis is that patriarchy and a fascination with war are intrinsically linked.  At any rate, it’s certainly been influential in the modern Pagan movement and it’s worth consideration.

Magick

If you have an interest in the practice of magick, these books are a great essential primer.

The Inner Temple of Witchcraft: Magick, Meditation and Psychic Development by Christopher Penczak – It gets criticism for being very New Agey; but keep in mind, most of us come to the Craft through the New Age movement these days, and this is the first language we hear to describe these concepts.  It’s a good book with simple and intelligent explanations.  If you’re just beginning to study magick, this is a great place to start.

Magick in Theory and Practice by Aleister Crowley – This is the seminal text on why and how it is that magick works.  If you hate everything else Crowley has ever written, read this, because it was brilliant.

Psychic Self-Defense by Dion Fortune – Now that you understand how magick works, read this guide to protecting yourself magickally.  Even if you don’t believe in spirits and magickal bugaboos, it’s good psychology.

The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews by Scott Cunningham – There are better books on herbalism.  There are better books on incense-making and creating dyes and inks.  There are better magickal formularies.  But no other book I know of gives you such a good grounding in the basic techniques, and offers varieties of possible magickal substitutions along with essential herbalism and a basic formulary.

Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic by Isaac Bonewits – Even the Amazon description is brief because the subject is complex.  Bonewits breaks down the essential laws, forms, and commonalities of magic with an acerbic sense of humor that makes what could be a very boring and dry (but important) text of classifications into a fun and informative read.  I keep referring back to it in my own descriptions and explanations.

Modern Magick: Twelve Lessons in the High Magickal Arts by Donald Michael Kraig – When I read this in the late eighties it was only eleven lessons.  Most Witches will dismiss this book immediately because it’s about ceremonial magick.  Here’s why you shouldn’t.  First, because the Western occult tradition is foundational in Wicca and this book will teach you just enough of what that’s all about that you will understand any reference to it, at least vaguely, from then on.  Second, because it is a very effective course in teaching the skills that make you into a skilled practitioner of magick.  I picked up this book when I was fourteen years old.  DMK suggested it would take a year to work through.  I did it in six months.  And I’ve never looked back.

Blink: The Art of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell – This is not a book about magick per se.  It’s a book about how “intuitive flashes” might actually be collected knowledge that lingers in our subconscious.  In essence, we know things that we don’t realize that we know.  Why this is important to practitioners of magick is that first of all, it offers a rational, scientific explanation for how psychic phenomena might work; and second, it points out that some of our subconscious “knowledge” is based in cultural biases and assumptions that we pick up that have no basis in fact.  I think that this sort of self-awareness is important, and that it makes your magick more effective.

The Game of Wizards: Psyche, Science and Symbol in the Occult by Charles Ponce – Also published in a later edition with the subtitle “Roots of Consciousness and the Esoteric Arts,” this book illustrates how we invent occult symbolism due to the particular way our consciousness is consistently seeking to make patterns, and how symbolism is our attempt to map our own consciousness.  I think this is a great piece of information for any aspiring magickal practitioner to be aware of.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physicsby Gary Zukav – It’s a bit dated, but this introduction to quantum physics will probably make most educated Witches froth at the mouth as we see the principles of magick and mysticism illustrated in the very fabric of reality; and science is beginning to prove it.

Teaching and Mentoring

These books are of greatest interest to those who teach and mentor others.

Deepening Witchcraft: Advancing Skills and Knowledge by Grey Cat – So you think you’re past all the 101 material and you want to start teaching?  Then do yourself a favor and read this.  From ethics to advanced magickal theory to leading group ritual to “feces coagulation,” this is the perfect primer for all who want to take their Craft to the next level.

The Outer Temple of Witchcraft: Circles, Spells and Rituals by Christopher Penczak – Again, if you want to start leading others, this is a must-have book.  It explores the nature of spells and rituals, what makes them work, and what the meaning of Wiccan priesthood is.

Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work by Isaac Bonewits – Mostly this is a gripe about Bonewits’ pet peeves in public rituals.  But he had a point, so read this to learn what not to do, and why.

Wicca Covens: How to Start and Organize Your Own by Judy Harrow – Harrow was a Wiccan high priestess in a BTW descended tradition with a master’s degree in counseling and a history of interfaith work.  We just lost her this year, but this excellent work on group psychology and dynamics is a fitting legacy that I think will guide new Craft leaders for generations to come.

Great Lies We Live By by Dr. Stephanie Burns – This book has nothing to do with Witchcraft.  It has to do with how we learn, why we think we can’t do certain things, and how we can break that cycle.  It will make you a better student and a better teacher, and a better magickal practitioner too.

Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth Haugk – This book was written for Christian priests.  Hold your nose and read it anyway.  Why?  Well, have you noticed that there always seems to be some jerk in every group who always has “suggestions” for “how things could be done better,” or who seems like s/he won’t be happy until the group is destroyed?  This book explains why these people do what they do, shows you how to identify them at the early stages, and tells you how to get rid of them.

Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions by Starhawk, Diane Baker and Anne Hill – If you are intending to do any work with children and youth, you should really read this book.  ‘Nuff said.

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings and Meditations on Crossing Over by Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare and Reclaiming – Sooner or later, if you are in a position of spiritual leadership, people will come to you for help in dealing with pain and grief.  There is no better book for Pagan leaders that I know of.  Chock-full of helpful ritual (which, after all, is the essence of Wiccan practice,) this book handles death, divorce, abuse, trauma, and more.  One of my favorite elements is a ritual for grieving an abortion or infant-loss.  As a mother who has miscarried, it was invaluable to me.

Handfasting and Wedding Rituals: Welcoming Hera’s Blessing by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein – When you are asked to do your first handfasting, get this book.  It covers all levels of Pagan ritual, from the most overt to covert multi-faith options, and every variation of marriage from heterosexual to homosexual to polyamorous to BDSM.

Advanced Practice

The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer – Published in many editions, from abridged to twelve volumes, and with several subtitles, this highly influential book was probably the origin of our concept of the God.  But it’s dry as toast, and most of its anthropological theories are now in disrepute.  You’ll want to read it as part of your practice once you’ve been doing it a while, but if you’re not inclined as a scholar, it’s likely to be a bathroom reader.  Read the first three volumes; those are the important ones.

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves – As above, only applied to our concept of the Goddess.

Summoning Forth Wiccan Gods and Goddesses: The Magick of Invocation and Evocation by Lady Maeve Rhea – There is no other book that I know of that offers details and practical advice for learning how to draw down the moon.  If you want to Aspect divinity, read it.

Wicca 404: Advanced Goddess Thealogy by Ezra Free – While again I don’t agree with all of her conclusions, and certainly the Amazon critiques that advise applying an ego-filter are valid, I know of no other book that so thoroughly questions: what IS the goddess exactly?

Honorable Mentions

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches by Margaret A. Murray – While, again, the influences of these books are without question, most of their theories have been disproven now.  You can still see their influence in the work of Gerald Gardner – which, to me, is sufficient.  If you’re a history buff like me you’ll want to read it, but if you aren’t, don’t.

Aradia: Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leland – The origins of the Charge of the Goddess lie in this book, but its accuracy is debated and it really isn’t how we view the gods these days.  Still worth the read if the origin of liturgy interests you like it interests me.

The Gardnerian Book of Shadows by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, compiled by Aiden Kelly – The link will take you right to www.sacred-texts.com, where you can read it in entirety.  As a matter of fact, you can find plenty of interest to Pagan theology at that site.  I think it’s a good thing for most Witches to read, but I don’t know if it’s essential, especially if you’re not BTW.

777 and Other Qabalistic Writings by Aleister Crowley – This was probably first book of correspondences in wide circulation.  It’s still highly influential, though probably not as essential as it once was.

The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries by Z. Budapest – While the influence of this book is without question, and certainly it’s worth a look to understand modern feminist witchcraft, it is very misandrist.  Don’t make your male students read it because it will make them angry.  And honestly, it should.  I believe the pendulum swing was important at its time, and I think that women’s anger is legitimate, but I think the challenge of our modern Craft is to find inclusive solutions for all and this book will not do that.  I consider myself a feminist and I still found myself cringing at much of the language in this book.

The Collected Works of Rumi – Rumi’s ecstatic poetry, grounded in Islam, is probably more influential to modern Paganism than we’d care to admit.  It’s not specifically Pagan, however.

The Complete Works of Ovid – Ovid’s devotional work to the Greek deities is still every bit as relevant as it was in his day.  I have incorporated much of his work into my rituals and I think it improves them considerably.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer – Anglicanism probably influenced modern Wicca more than we’d care to admit too.  This essential Anglican book lays out a practice and liturgy for the seasons, and I can’t help but see how it must have influenced the beliefs of Margaret Murray and Gardner.

Beyond Good and Evil and The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche – Nietzsche is problematic because his work was used to bolster Nazi propaganda and is sometimes shaded with fascism and violence.  These two works helped define both our ethics and our practice, however.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman – Humanism is part of modern Paganism.  This book of humanistic poetry is a marvelous declaration of Pagan theology.  Read the older editions, not the newer ones.

This is my list of recommended reading for all Witches.  I am sure that there are things that I have missed, and I am sure you have your own thoughts to add, and I invite you to do so in the comments.

Next column: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism


Seekers and Guides is published on alternate Mondays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

The Zen Pagan: Wild Naked Pagans

I remember my first night at my first Pagan festival, the 1998 Free Spirit Gathering. Of course, I found myself at the Fire Circle. Well, we’d done dance and drum fire circles before in the Coven of Lovin’ — much much smaller ones, but I knew how this worked, and so I joined in.

It was a warm night, and FSG is a clothing optional event. Thus, there were some naked people dancing around with me. That was a first. Well, okay, I could deal with it. I didn’t want to bump up against any sweaty naked men, but I didn’t want to bump up against any sweaty clothed men either, so as long as there was plenty of space, no problem. There might have been a naked woman or two there also, but I was an adult and had seen naked women before and it was not as big a deal as it was when I was seventeen.

So, a bit to my own surprise, I was okay with naked people dancing around with me. I just tried not to look too much. But I couldn’t imagine myself ever joining them in their unclothed state. That was just too wild, too far out. Nope. Me, naked in a (sort of) public place? Not going to happen. No way.

Oh, sure, as I got hot I took off my shirt. But as a male that was no different than going to the pool or mowing the lawn on a hot day, I was not breaking any taboos there.

But as I continued to dance, I learned three important things. One: fire is hot. When you’re dancing close to it on a hot night, you want maximum cooling surface exposed for sweat evaporation.

Two: fire is sacred. You want to expose as much of your skin to it as you can, to best absorb its energy.

Three: in this sacred space, in this time outside of time, I felt safe. I felt unconditioned. I felt free. So, after an hour or two, off came the pants.


This is the first nude photo of me on the internet…as far as I know

I danced naked around a fire to the beat of the drums.

I broke one of our society’s strongest taboos. The humor columnist Mike Nichols once noted, “Take off all your clothes and walk down the street waving a machete and firing an Uzi, and terrified citizens will phone the police and report, ‘There’s a naked person outside!'” [quoted in Lawrence, 229]

There is power in breaking such a rule.

I used to have those dreams where I showed up at work or at school and suddenly realized, to my absolute mortification, that I was naked. But after a few years of attending clothing-optional festivals, of dancing naked around the fire or just letting myself air-dry walking back to camp from the shower, I had that dream once final time. This time, though, when I looked down while talking to someone and noticed I was naked, I said, “Oh. Anyway…”, and calmly went about my dream business.

I have not had that dream since. A fear so deep it reached into my dreams has been removed from my brain. That, my friends, is magic power.

And nakedness has that power because it is wild. “Civilized” people wear clothes; the “savage”, the “wild” one, goes naked.

That’s why nudity has been found in Neopaganism since its 19th and early 20th century roots. It was part of the German lebensreform movement of the 1890s,[Kennedy, 56] which came to be an influence on the American counter-culture. (It strikes me that it may also may have been, through intermediaries, the ultimate source for Gardner’s practice of naturalism, but I’m just speculating.) It’s in the proto-Pagan writings of Whitman: “Is not nakedness then indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent.”[Whitman] It’s in Leland’s Aradia: “And thus shall it be done: all shall sit down to the supper all naked, men and women…”[Leland] It was used in the initiation rites of Crowley’s OTO.[Regardie, 177]

Nudity is a powerful way to raise energy.

So I make it a point to spend a little time going around skyclad at any event I can, not so much because I need that energy myself — it’s already done its thing for me — but so that I can show others that it’s okay to try it. To step outside the taboo and be wild.

But from my casual observation, it seems like fewer people are taking advantage of this primal source of power. (This is a topic that came up when our good friend Jason Mankey had me as a guest on his “Raise the Horns” podcast.)

Some folks, of course, just aren’t comfortable being seen unclothed. But that’s the point: you don’t raise magical energy by doing familiar, comfortable things. And some folks are concerned about covering up from the sun, what with the hole in the ozone and all. Which is fine, but the sun does go down, and sunscreen will work its magic on all parts of you.

What has really startled me is that lately I’ve encountered some Pagans who were not just uncomfortable going skyclad themselves but were outright hostile to the idea of other Pagans doing so. One even claimed that it must surely be illegal for adults to be nude in front of children — which would be a shock for nudist camps that have served families for decades, not to mention the local Y where kids in the locker room might see me change into my swimming trunks.

It seems that nakedness is a little too wild for some contemporary Pagans.

I am not a witch, but Peter Grey’s essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” has been getting a lot of attention the past few months. It makes some questionable arguments — for example, the story of how the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone created an “ecological miracle” seems to be more myth than fact[Middleton], and his view that some inevitable nuclear catastrophe will eliminate all life on the planet for 100 million years is not based in any fact. The “living Earth” is not “fragile”: life will be here on this planet in some form even if we do our absolute worst. The question that faces us is whether we can be smart and mature enough to be part of it, or whether we’ll leave the Earth to other species.

But putting aside the ecological eschatology that makes up the bulk of the essay, Grey (perhaps incidentally) makes a broader point about “wildness”, one with which I agree wholeheartedly if I substitute the more general “Paganism” for “Witchcraft”:

I will argue that Witchcraft is quintessentially wild, ambivalent, ambiguous, queer. It is not something that can be socialised, standing as it does in that liminal space between the seen and unseen worlds. Spatially the realm of witchcraft is the hedge, the crossroads, the dreaming point where the world of men and of spirits parlay through the penetrated body of someone who is outside of the normal rules of culture….

My argument is that witchcraft became too tame…[Grey]

1998 was not that long ago. But in 16 years since that first festival I’ve seen a distinct change in the culture, a “de-wilding” and therefore a loss of power — and perhaps even a loss of purpose.

There’s an idea from Joseph Campbell that has greatly influenced my thinking and my work the past few years. In his essay “The Symbol Without Meaning”, Campbell points out the difference between the direct religious experience of Paleolithic, gatherer-hunter, shamanistic cultures and the mediated priestly religions of Neolithic (and later) agricultural civilizations. That Neolithic social order, Campbell says, is dissolving in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and “what is required of us all…is much more the fearless self-sufficiency of our shamanistic inheritance than the timorous piety of the priest-guided Neolithic.”[Campbell, 189]

In other words, we must get wild with our spirituality, untamed and direct.

It seems to me that this is why the Neopagan movement exists in the first place, a reaction to the inability of “civilized” religion to deal with the circumstances in which humanity finds itself. We are on a quest for something more direct.

Something untamed.

Something unafraid to stand naked.


References:

Campbell, Joseph. The Flight of the Wild Gander. New York, N.Y: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Grey, Peter. “Rewilding Witchcraft”. <http://scarletimprint.com/2014/06/rewilding-witchcraft/>

Kennedy, Gordon. Children of the Sun. Ojai, California: Nivaria Press, 1998.

Lawrence, Cooper and Scott Baio. Cult of Celebrity: What Our Fascination with the Stars Reveals about Us.Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. <http://books.google.com/books?id=hQDPYS13CwAC&pg=PA229>

Leland, Charles G. Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/aradia/ara04.htm>

Middleton, Arthur. “Is the Wolf a Real American Hero?” New York Times 10 Mar 2014: A21. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/opinion/is-the-wolf-a-real-american-hero.html>

Regardie, Israel. The Eye in the Triangle. Tempe: New Falcon Publications, 1993.

Valiente, Doreen. “The Charge Of The Goddess”. <http://www.doreenvaliente.com/Doreen-Valiente-Poetry-11.php>

Whitman, Walt. “Specimen Days” Prose works, by Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892. <http://www.bartleby.com/229/1133.html>


If you’re interested in this idea of Neopaganism as a response to industrial civilization, it’s one of the themes I cover in my book Why Buddha Touched the Earth. You could buy a copy.

Or you might choose to join a new Facebook group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan over there, too.

And you can subscribe to The Zen Pagan via RSS or e-mail.

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