Archive for the ‘Paganism’ Tag

Avatar

We went to see Avatar in 3D on Wednesday. It’s the story of the human colonisation of the fictional planet of Pandora, and the resistance of the native population of Na’vi (The People). The humans attempt to usurp the Na’vi on a number of fronts, including militarily and diplomatically. They genetically create Na’vi bodies (or avatars), which trained specialists can upload their consciousness to, in order to negotiate with the Na’vi and attempt to ‘educate’ them in human values and language.

Pandora is a breathtakingly beautiful planet, and rendered in high-definition 3D it’s pretty awe-inspiring. The Na’vi enjoy a close bond with their land and can access a kind of ancestral consciousness through forest network. They are experts in tracking, hunting, healing, caretaking and honourable relationship. The barbarity of the colonising attitude is at the fore throughout, but for once things don’t always go the usurpers’ way.

Avatar is well worth a view and hopefully I’ll be going back to see the IMAX 3D version before it leaves the cinemas.

The gods

Following up on the post on crafting simple ritual, I believe the gods as we understand them are human responses to external stimuli, in the same way as the concept of a thunderstorm is a human creation, a structured yet arbitrary interpretation of the sensations that enter our subconscious and are ordered by the structuring system of our conscious mind (which operates like a language). It’s impossible to know the ‘real’ gods, or the underlying reality they occupy, without recourse to the linguistic structuring of consciousness.

This underlying reality can be thought of as the realm of spirit, a unified place of infinite potential, the raw materials from which all interpretations of the world are forged through the process of classification. Things in the conscious world are sacred because they reflect this underlying potential. They are the stories and songs of our relationship with spirit. As I recognise this as being true for everything, so I believe that everything is sacred.

To those who honour the gods, they are as real as a table or a rainbow. As our structuring process is inherited, and as the gods were a crucial element of our ancestors’ worldview, so polytheism seems such a natural way to respond to the world for so many people today. Polytheism is a prototype, fossilised in myth, of our modern way of structuring the world. Accessing it speaks to something very elemental within us, connecting us to our earliest ancestors and reminding us of our place in the long process of becoming human and relating to Other.

Reason and logic are also ways of structuring, and often incompatible with the belief in deity. They don’t easily fit. To hold both is to be exposed to the gaps between the structures we use to conceptualise the world, to recognise that the process is arbitrary, an interpretation of an infinite underlying potential, not the sum of everything that is. But it’s not just their incongruity that makes the gods worthy of attention.

Our pre-modern ancestors had an innate recognition that experience was but a reflection of an underlying, unknowable reality. Language and cognition were but translations of that reality, subjective and arbitrary yes, but infused with poetry and artistry. Modernity brought an end to that realisation, in a process of disenchantment, when a worldview that had become standardised through shared language began to be mistaken for objective reality. An appreciation of deity re-enchants us, in that it reminds us of our relationship to the unknowable, to that which exists on the other side of language. It removes us from the centre of our cosmology, humbling us with the knowledge that we are subjects of our reality, not masters of it.

We need to honour the gods to remind us, and them, that we are still part of nature, still reflections of an underlying infinite potential.

Paganism and gender

I have recently been reminded of some of the less progressive attitudes to gender displayed by certain Pagans. Here’s an extract from one of my posts on the TDN forum from a while ago, dealing with this issue:

I don’t feel that feminism has gone far enough in modern Paganism, as gender stereotypes are just as prevalent as they always have been, if not more so. Liberal feminism, while a necessary first step in re-addressing gender inequality, has only altered the balance of power superficially while preserving the unhelpful distinctions been masulinity and femininity that upheld women’s oppression in the first place.

For all the celebration of the feminine the distinction hasn’t altered, women are still expected to be feminine (intuitive, mysterious, maternal) and men are still expected to be masculine (practical, strong), to the detriment of both men and women, and especially anyone who deviates from the norm.

Think of some of the stereotypes of modern Paganism that are still strong today. Think of the artwork in an average Pentacle or Pagan Dawn magazine – the slender nymph, the muscular hunter. Who can live up to these reductive stereotypes, and who would want to?

One of the reasons that I’m turned off by Wicca is the dualistic focus on masculine and feminine energies, with little questioning of how this axis of difference and maps onto biological sex and sexuality. What draws me to Druidry is the plurality, the celebration of all life, of the particular, of the individual.

Someone then asked how Paganism can be compatible with a feminism that on the one hand wants to remove gender differences, and on the other acknowledges them through Goddess and women’s mysteries? I responded:

Not all feminism is concerned with doing away with gender… more with recognising it for the cultural construction that it is. In realising it is arbitrary, yet nevertheless important in shaping our lives, we can be better equipped to navigate through life as men and women. Just because something is a cultural construction doesn’t mean it is any the less ‘real’ to us. Without cultural interpretation we wouldn’t be able to operate as humans … we wouldn’t be able to think or talk about the ‘real’ (whatever that may be).

I’ve heard the word ‘deconstruction’ a couple of times in this conversation and I usually shy away from it as so often it’s used outside of its specific Derridean context. Here, however, I think it is applicable. Sometimes, by focusing on the less dominant part of a binary pairing (in this case ‘feminine’) it is possible to undermine the structure of that pairing, showing how it is reliant on other terms to operate … meaning is deferred … and its artificiality is brought to the fore. Hence the introduction to feminism of French philosophy in the 1980s and 90s and concepts such as ‘ecriture feminine’ (google Julia Kristeva or Helene Cixous). So a focus on the Goddess as the ideal of femininity, on her contradictions and difficulties, is not necessary at odds with feminism.

Someone then suggested that feminism was now redundant now that equality was enshrined in law. My response:

Law is only a part of it. There’s no law to say that young girls can’t starve themselves to death to live up to an artificial ideal of femininity presented in the media as natural. There’s no law to stop women who decide not to have children being made to feel like they’re unnatural. There’s no law to stop the slur of being called ‘unfeminine’ or ‘unladylike’. Society upholds and polices the notion that gender is natural in a thousand different ways.

Paganism seems to be quite positive in this respect, in that a lot of Pagan women seem to have opted out of this cycle of conforming to gender stereotypes compared to non-Pagans. This is a bit of a generalisation, but I would guess that this drops off considerably at the ‘New Age’ end of the Pagan spectrum however. And I’m sure we can all think of a daughter, sister or friend whose life is still ruled by how well they conform to gender ideals.

Crafting simple ritual

I’d like to spend some time to think about ritual, taking it back to basic principles and ditching some of the stuff we do simply as a result of habit and fuzzy thinking. For me ritual is about carving out a sacred space, to mark our paths (individually and communally) through life, and to acknowledge and honour the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities (I’ll come back to what I mean by spirits and deities in a later post). In communal ritual it’s also about fostering a sense of community and shared intent.

Firstly, I think for it to be a ritual it has to be done regularly, regardless of whether that is daily, monthly, quarterly or yearly. Therein lies its strength. A sense of familiarity arises as instinct takes over from cerebral thought and the mind is freed to focus on the intent and respond to any subtle changes and outside influences that may occur. It also creates a relationship between the ritual participants and the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities that they gather to honour. If it’s a one-off then it’s a rite rather than a ritual.

The first stage of the ritual should be to state the intention, to focus the minds of the participants and to announce to the relevant spirits or deities that the purpose of the ritual is to honour them. I disagree with the practice of invoking or ‘calling in’ spirits in the High Magic tradition; it’s arrogant to think that these entities are waiting to be invited in at the whim of the ritualists, at a time and place of their choosing, and on their terms. If a spirit or deity is interested in what is going on, he/she will choose their level of involvement. Announcing the intention of the ritual and being open and responsive to the flow of events is sufficient.

A lot is made of protection and the need to ward off bad spirits, and even to cleanse bad spirits already ‘within’ or ‘attached to’ the participants. I don’t really believe that there are any such things as malevolent spirits out to get us. At worst a spirit may be indifferent, but on the whole I think they have better things to be doing than attacking unwary bystanders. The best ‘protection’, I believe, is humility, consideration and the ability to recognise and rectify any offence that might be caused during the course of the ritual. Negativity attracts negativity, so if there is anyone coming to the ritual with intent to cause harm then they shouldn’t be taking part in ritual in the first place.

As for the idea of cleansing people of negativity or bad spirits at the start of the ritual (usually by ‘smudging’) this strikes me as a little too close to the Christian concept of inherent or ‘original’ sin, that people are by default unclean or impure. There is an argument for cleansing in terms of leaving behind worries and preoccupations on entering the ritual, but I think it is important to stress that this is not due to anything inherently wrong with the participants. They need to recognise themselves as integral parts of nature, not something external that needs to be cleaned.

Nor do I go in for ritual washing. Dirt and sweat should be as much a part of the ritual as flowers and finery. Again there is the argument that the process of ritual washing helps the transition between normal life and ritual space. I’m in two minds about this as I believe that part of ritual should be to celebrate the mundane and to help dissolve the idea that only certain parts of experience are sacred, only to be brought out on special occasions.

It is important to mark ritual space as different, to help focus the minds of the participants on the present. There are ways to do this, however, without reinforcing distinctions between the sacred and the mundane. One way is to stress that everything is sacred, but that it is only by appreciating it as so are we able to forge a meaningful relationship with the land, ancestors, spirits and deities. Ritual space is differentiated as a place of heightened perception, and the celebration of what we see, feel and interpret.

Attention should be be focused the particular, including the peculiarities of the land, atmosphere and the current point of time within nature’s cycles. Ritual should be about celebrating the local, the particular and the one-off; it shouldn’t be a mindless reiteration, an archetypal pantomime divorced from place and time.

One of the few conventional elements of Pagan rituals I am particularly fond of is the circle, not cast to seal the ritual space off from the outside world, but merely as a shape used to focus attention. In communal rituals it is the most democratic of shapes, with everyone equal and able to have direct eye-contact with everyone else. The circle mirrors the cycles of the seasons, the tides, the paths of the sun and moon through our skies, and the horizon. It is a nurturing shape. The ritual circle is undoubtedly one of the best aspects of modern Pagan ritual.

In contrast, I’m not an advocate of the four quarters, particularly the Wiccan-style practice of calling in the four ‘guardians’. Even addressing the spirits of North, South, East and West in a non-invocatory style seems rather an arbitrary thing to do. To me these spirits don’t have a personality. It seems much more likely to me that our distant ancestors would have honoured the spirit of the forest, or river, or mountain, or thunder, rather than those of the cardinal directions, which gained prominence during the Middle Ages. That doesn’t mean that they have no merit, just that they are not essential, and (to me) counter-intuitive.

One of the perceived benefits of using the cardinal directions was their correspondences to the four ‘elements’ (earth, air, fire and water), and by extension the four humours, the four tarot suits etc. This whole cosmology again strikes me as rather medieval and out of place in modern ritual. Focusing on earth, air, fire and water however (though not exclusively or necessarily together), is a useful way to focus attention of the peculiarity of the ritual space and to celebrate nature. It is easy to imagine some of the earliest rituals taking place around a central fire, with participants taking turns to toast the spirits of the land and their ancestors in a similar vein to a modern Heathen blot, and I think this is still a very good practice.

Something I think still has a place in ritual is theatre, much as in the Mystery play tradition. An important element of ritual is to ground us, to allow us to position ourselves within the wider story of nature. Exploring cosmologies through drama is a good way for people to imagine their place within the world and so feel connected to it. From which cultures these stories and cosmologies come, or whether they are old or new, is not important, though if the intention is to honour a specific spirit or deity it makes sense to choose a story relating to them or to create a story within the cosmology they inhabit. To do otherwise would be rather insulting.

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways to bring communities together, to create relationships between people and their worlds and to honour the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities. It is only in recent centuries that it has become divorced from spirituality. I believe that part of a ritualist’s role is to draw attention to story as the material from which ritual is crafted, and insodoing remind the participants of the unity that once characterised our relationship with the world, in stark contrast to the alienated individuals we seem now to have become.

Re-reading my MA dissertation

I’ve just been reading over the dissertation I submitted for my Masters degree in Religion and Magic back in September 2006. I can’t believe it was over two years ago! Here’s synopsis of The Foundations of Modern Druid Spirituality from the opening preamble:

This study explores the phenomenon of modern Druidry, one of the most rapidly-expanding forms of alternative spirituality in Britain today. It investigates why, despite the fact that there is so little verifiable evidence relating to the spiritual practices of the ancient Druids inhabiting Britain prior to the Roman invasions of the first centuries CE, modern Druids continue to look to their forebears as a source of inspiration and guidance.

I argue that modern Druids tend to have a much more sophisticated grasp of the foundations of their spiritual practice than many academics claim. This attitude to the past has much in common with recent developments in post-modern historiography, including a realisation that it is impossible to isolate a single, objective past without relying on written accounts, which are in turn subject to the politics of representation.

Using Horkheimer and Adorno’s concept of disenchantment, I argue that this attitude has been marginalised since the onset of the Enlightenment project, when the separation between history and myth was consolidated, and the latter came to be regarded as little more than a poetic lie about what really happened. Since that time, the texts surrounding Druidry have proliferated, to the extent that the connection between the Druid mythos and the true past has been lost.

As a result, the mythos exists today in something akin to what Baudrillard terms hyperreality, in that it represents not the historical Druids but the tradition of representation itself. This recognition renders a conventional mode of assessing the past obsolete. A more sophisticated attitude is required, and is demonstrated by members of the modern Druid community. 

I was quite surprised at how pertinant some of the issues seemed following the recent controversies surrounding the authenticity of identifying with the ancient druids when we have so little verifiable evidence of them.

It’s interesting to see how my outlook has changed in the past two years. It appears as if I have begun to yearn after the very logocentric fallacy I so criticised back then, as if I can regain some authenticity through reducing things to the tangible.

Though it’s not as if I have lost sight of the technologies by which history presents itself as fact. Nor have I lost the sense of wonder at the chase, of the signifying process through which the world is enchanted. In fact, I think that an emphasis on the simple and the tangible only heightens the wonder, stripping back the layers of misdirection that maintain the notion that human culture is in some way natural or universal.

My feeling is that tangible sanctity and the ‘mythic approach’ to the foundations of Druidry are not necessarily incompatible, and may even be mutually supportive. I will give it some more thought.

I did plan to carry on with this work, looking specifically at the disenchantment that occurred around the sixteenth century, exploring a possible re-enchantment through a post-structuralist dismantling of Enlightenment ideologies, leading to a more sophisticated and robust philosophy of Paganism and the magic upon which it rests. Either that or working to rescue Romanticism as a philosophically-sound approach to nature-based spirituality. I was never able to formulate these into a coherent PhD proposal though, and was somewhat exhausted at the thought of the work involved.

I also began to plan out a book looking at the relationship between Pagan spirituality and the re-enchantment of language, which incorporated many of these ideas. Perhaps I will have another look at that instead.

Winter solstice

The solstice this year is at four minutes past midday on Sunday (21 December). I’ll be marking the end of the old year and the start of the new year, if there is such a thing. I usually tend to think of time as cyclical rather than as a succession of discrete units.

I certainly don’t recognise the arbitrary Gregorian calendar date of 1 January, and have never really got on board with the theory that Samhain marks division between one year and the next.

The only seasonal festivals I really recognise now are the two solstices marking the rise and fall of the sun, Beltane and Samhain as the beginning and ending of the fruitful season and a main harvest festival in August/September. Other than those, the only points I really take any notice of are the moon’s fullness and darkness.

‘Craft’

I find this a fascinating word, in that, like ‘tangible sanctity‘, it links together the physical and the spiritual. Crafting is the physical process of creating something, as opposed to artistry, which has more cerebral overtones. The Craft is also another name for witchcraft, an earthy spiritual practice that has been reborn as Wicca in the twentieth century. There’s something very compelling about a word that blurs the boundaries between the mundane and the sacred.

‘Craft’ comes from the Old English and originally meant ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’, just as ‘kraft’ in Swedish means ‘strong’ today. It is linked with notions of authenticity through physical presence, strength and longevity.

‘Craft’ has its negative, as well as positive, associations, with definitions around ‘deceit’ or ‘cunning’. Is it a coincidence that the art of the witch so readily took the name ‘witchcraft’ rather than ‘witchery’? The cunning man or woman was the local practitioner or folk magic in centuries past, synonymous with the witch.

There’s something authentic and inspirational about ‘crafting’, with body and mind working together to create harmony between crafter and material world, crafting objects in accordance with pure will. You might almost say craft and magic are one and the same, our craftspeople akin to powerful and respected witches or cunning folk.

A craft is also a vehicle, but more specifically a small boat. Crafting an honourable relationship with our sacred environment and heritage is much like manoeuvring a small boat. Sometimes the waterways are calm and reflective, sometimes stormy and tempestuous, but we are always reliant upon our skills and our appreciation of the power of nature, and how to work with it rather than fight it.

Why ‘tangible sanctity’?

Sanctity n.
Because so much around us is sacred – the land, sea and sky, their plants and animals, our ancestors and their gods.

Tangible adj.
Because sanctity is immanent, not separate from the physical or the mundane. And because modern Paganism, with all its wild and wonderful distractions, can be so ephemeral and vague.

I will endeavour to focus on the tangible, on the nature and culture we share with our ancestors, and on the traditional crafts that helped forge their mutually rewarding relationship with the land, to honour the sacred and to live within my means.