Happy Yuletide

Dec 22, 2006
I believe I can honestly say that I have never looked forward to Yule this much in my life. I've always been rather intrigued by that dark part of the year in between Samhain and Yule -- Samhain is supposed to be the end of the year, after all, but none of the rebirth imagery starts until Yule, leaving the months of November and most of December a kind of cosmic no-man's land, which I usually adore -- but this year Samhain was just dark enough, and the intervening months just hard enough, that Yule was both a relief and a wonderful celebration. And, yesterday, finally, my scheduling changes went through at work and I've gotten enough time off to go home for the holidays. It was a near thing there, for a while.

I continue to be unable to find convenient community celebrations (until after the fact; apparently there was a bonfire down by the lake last night, which I didn't find out about until this morning), but my roommate and I had quite a wonderful impromptu celebration of our own, featuring a bottle of red wine, a gallon of wassail, and large amounts of freshly baked bread. And frozen pizza for dinner. Look, there's only so much effort I can reasonably make on a Thursday night.

And, impossibly, the weather has finally turned a reasonable degree of cold for Wisconsin in December -- starting today all that rain they predicted for the next week is turning to snow. Call me old-fashioned, but I love a white Christmas.

Hope everyone else's celebrations were wonderful, and enjoy the sun if you're getting it!

Hutton and Duotheism

Dec 9, 2006
I rather thought that once I finished Hutton's Triumph of the Moon I'd be able to write a review post about it, but I've been trying and it turns out there are just too many things I want to say about it. So. One thing at a time --

One of my favorite things -- well, two, technically -- were the chapters entitled "Finding a Goddess" and "Finding a God," in which Hutton describes how a religion claiming to be a direct continuation of pre-Christian polytheistic religion came to be duotheistic itself. I admit, having never worked in a formal tradition myself, I never really thought of Paganism as being duotheistic. I guess I tended to see all the references to a single Goddess and God as an unfortunate shorthand of the way different pantheons sometimes get squished together in the search for the deity most suited to this week's magic spell. But then, I came to Paganism through a love of mythology, and I was always enthralled by the idea of an entire pantheon of gods to get to know.

Hutton does a brilliantly detailed job of knitting together the history of literature, anthropology, religion, and history itself to explain how the Victorians came up with the idea of a worldwide, pre-Christian Goddess culture -- it was, after all, the predominant popular and academic view of ancient religions for quite a long time. Hutton explains the development of this theory in terms of romanticism and over-generalization, based on things like the Venus figurines and ideas that people like James Frazier had about the importance of fertility to early religions.

In my History of Anthropology course, we took a cultural-religious perspective on the same thing: the Garden of Eden myth was so firmly entrenched in the cultural subconscious that it was generally assumed that degeneration was the only way most cultures changed, and since monotheism was seen as the highest, most philosophically sound form of religion, it was decided that all observable polytheisms must have degenerated from an early monotheism that was, nonetheless, inferior to Christianity: a Goddess-centered religion. It was, of course, all these factors and more that contributed to the Goddess-culture mythos, which was actually still a reasonably popular idea in the culture when Gardner pulled it out of its theoretical setting and made it a practice.

The distillation of a Pagan God, as Hutton describes it, is something I know less about -- he finds the process mostly in literature, as the Romantics appropriated Pan as their particular patron. (Of course, Romanticism has a cultural component, too -- massive industrialization made the idealization of a rustic country life much easier, and closer to Gardner's time, the effect of the Blitz on London probably contributed significantly to the idea of the countryside as a place where nothing ever changes.)

Like I said, I never particularly thought of Paganism as duotheistic, but Hutton makes it pretty obvious that duotheism is one of the primary characteristics of Wicca, and almost all forms of modern Paganism owe at least a little something to Wicca. And also like I said, duotheism has never really done it for me. I find this culture's love of binaries a little annoying, really -- and while Wicca gains a few points over Christianity for placing the binary of Goddess and God at the center instead of the binary of Good and Evil, it's still nowhere as interesting as having a multitude.

Which means that now I've identified this niggling problem I have, I now feel obliged to fiddle with my carefully-constructed eclecticism again, throw a couple more ropes around the wobbly bits, and see if I can find another solid place to nail some bits on. (Tangentially, have y'all seen Howl's Moving Castle? I only just did, and Howl's castle is a brilliant visual metaphor for my religion. If only I could find a way to incorporate hydraulics --) Because there are a lot of lovely Wiccan rituals that I quite like and have been using for quite some time. Full moon rituals are easy to change from the generic to the specific, but what about the Charge of the Goddess? Do I have to abandon the entire idea of drawing down the moon? What about initiation rituals -- addressing only my patroness seems excessively specific there, but how to generalize within a pantheon?

I appear to have some fairly significant rewriting to do. Fortunately I have never been one of those people who has a problem with paradox, so I suppose it's entirely possible I'll continue using duotheistic Wiccan rituals because they are beautiful and they are a part of a common culture I do want to belong to. I have, after all, been trying to squish a polytheistic worldview into them for several years, while I didn't understand why it didn't quite fit. Who knows, maybe now that I understand what the problem is I'll be able to make it work. Or eventually I'll accept that Paganism is even bigger than I thought it was, that even paradoxical eclecticism can only stretch so far, and I'll have to give them up. Still, it's nice to finally know what the problem was.

Devotion 3.5: Stealing and Borrowing

Nov 15, 2006
(I wrote this post during my blogging hiatus, and found it whilst trying to find something to distract me from NaNoWriMo. I'm sure there was something other than my own writing that set me off on this topic, but I'm afraid I can no longer remember what it was.)

I've been tangenting from the Devotion series for quite a while, so actually, this tangent is slightly more on-topic than I've generally been recently, so actually this tangent is not really much of a tangent at all, but it still isn't actually the last real post in the Devotion series, so I'll keep on calling it a tangent until the word tangent has lost all real meaning. Tangent.

Anyway, the last real post in the series is going to cover a number of ideas and practices I have tried, and since I do tend to like my religious practices to have some sort of weight of history behind them, they're all practices I've borrowed stolen from other religions, ones with actual traditions, as opposed to my own seven-year-old eclecticism.

First, a note on terminology. I've noticed that my online vocabulary doesn't really go over quite as well in what we so egotistically call the real world, so in my defense: I find that sticking to a moderately offensive vocabulary keeps me mindful of exactly what I'm doing. Borrowing is a fairly benign thing to do. Stealing, not so much. Rather than feel better about myself with the nicer term, I'll stick with the harsher one -- but I don't really mean it as an insult. Everybody steals from everybody else all the time, but calling it stealing helps to remind us why some people get so pissed off about it sometimes.

Paganism is all about stealing from everybody else. Early Gardnerian rituals are stolen from the Golden Dawn are stolen from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, never mind from each other. Voodoo and Santeria steal from both African religions and Catholicism. More recently, stealing from Native American and Aboriginal Australian traditions has come into vogue. Even Reconstructionists aren't originally members of the culture they are reconstructing, so that's a kind of stealing, too.

Now, you could argue that what I'm calling stealing could also be called the natural progression of cultural development and exchange, and you'd be right. Change happens to everyone, all the time, no matter how "primitive" or "untouched" some groups may seem. (More on that later. Oh, have I got a rant on that.) You could almost say that modern Paganism, which has probably stolen from everyone in history to become what it is today, is the only natural result of a shrinking multicultural world.

If only it were that easy. After all, religion is a very sensitive and personal subject, and of all the bits of culture you could steal from someone, the religious aspects are probably going to annoy them the most. In addition, many modern Pagans feel a kinship with the still extant aboriginal religions -- but the reverse is often not true. At the very least, we ought to be respectful while we go about stealing bits of other people's religions.

Exactly how that respect should be expressed is another matter. We hashed this out a bit in my anthropology classes, actually -- where we were mandated to be respectful by federal law. In our museum, we had a number of Native American ceremonial pipes (I want to say they were Hochunk, but I could be wrong) which were kept in a cabinet in the basement of the museum and were not allowed to be viewed or handled by menstruating women. Of course, the museum put up with these restrictions because otherwise the pipes would have been returned to the tribe they originated with. Without the threat of the loss of research material, the respect paid to that particular tradition would have been nominal at best -- and probably not even that, given the vocally feminist nature of our campus. Of course, I was part of that vocally feminist majority, and I can't say I disagree with them: but then, I never particularly wanted anything to do with the pipes, either.

As we as Pagans are stealing religious bits and pieces to use as religious bits and pieces, though, I think we should be held to a higher standard than the federally-mandated anthropological tolerance. I don't think we ought to be required to agree with every aspect of a practice before using it -- after all, if you were willing to do that you'd just convert (although that can be a kind of stealing, too). I do thing we ought to be required to understand every aspect of a practice, or at least as much of it as possible, before stealing it for our own practice. And, because I'm an anthropologist and context is everything, that includes the history of the practice and its variations, not just its spiritual significance. And if what I said earlier is true, that modern Paganism is stolen from just about everybody, then that goes for every aspect of our practice, including the things we already think we understand.

The fact that you understand something about the thing you're stealing isn't necessarily going to mollify the person you're stealing from, of course. It might, however, stop you from looking like an idiot and a complete jackass about it. Cultures and religions steal stuff from one another all the time; it's how they survive in a changing world, and while that doesn't mean the people being stolen from don't have a right to be upset about it, it does mean that it's not something to be thoroughly ashamed of, especially if you put enough thought into the process to understand what you're doing and to try to be as inoffensive about it as possible.

(Does it make a difference who you steal from? Absolutely. While I do believe that everyone and all cultures deserve respect, I also think it makes sense to be a little more cautious about stealing from cultures which are used to being kicked by others than those which are used to doing the kicking. (The kickers might scream more, but they'll be hurt less.))

A more respectful stealing has a multitude of benefits for Paganism; it helps flesh out our practices and theology, it helps us know where we've come from (to better figure out where we're going), and it makes us a little more popular in the wider world. If anything, modern Paganism's sin has been in ignoring its own history more than anyone else's, so I'm not sure how offensive we tend to be (as opposed to ridiculous), but it's certainly not a subject to be ignored.


Nov 13, 2006
Ever notice how the longer you put off a truly unpleasant task, the harder and harder it gets to go through with, until you've forgotten so much about it it no longer seems relevant enough to bother with (even though you know you have to do it anyway)?


After my last, more optimistic post, my grandmother took a turn for the worse and died in the early hours of October the 29th, and I spent Samhain in the funeral home after all. It was, at the risk of sounding irreverent, the most enjoyable funeral I have ever attended. Both of my cousins, only a couple of years older than me and as close to my grandmother as I was, have small children now, and it's hard to sit in the funeral home and cry when there are small children begging to be taken trick-or-treating. The service was brief and suitable, and while the pastor was only temporarily at her church and hadn't known her well, he too seemed to understand that having a little fun with it was the best thing for everyone. (I have never had a surprise belly-laugh at a funeral before. It was quite wonderful.)

Since then, the year ended and started over again, the Wisconsin elections turned out made me both sad and hopeful, I discovered a sudden and really quite shocking increase in my own precognition, NaNoWriMo kicked into full gear, and I've started reading Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon, many of which subjects I shall probably be blogging on again soon now that I've jumped the hurdle. Hello again, everybody. It's good to be back.

The Wheel Turns (and turns and turns)

Oct 25, 2006
Two weeks ago, I was going to post about how I lost my breath. When I first started meditating, the breathing techniques came so easily to me I was sure I was doing something wrong. But then, I'd sung in the choir and performed on the stage and played a wind instrument in the marching band since I was in middle school, and all that teaches you how to breathe. Eventually I realized that the mental space I was in when performing had more than a little resemblance to the mental space meditation was supposed to get me into.

But two weeks ago, I had finally sorted out my work schedule and realized that I had, at the same time, lost my meditation schedule, but when I sat down to meditate, I couldn't catch that deep breath. A proper deep breath comes from your diaphram, feels like it's coming from all the way in your gut, and I couldn't get my breath down past the middle of my chest. I felt like I was suffocating myself. I had to stop. I knew it was most likely just stress and tension, but it scared me anyway.

Last week I was going to post about how I got my breath back. How I sat down at work one day and took a deep breath and it really was a deep breath and it was like opening my eyes again. All of the sudden I could feel the world moving again, despite the awful weather and the stress of work and of still trying to settle in a new city, and I couldn't wait for Samhain, when all of Madison parties for my favorite holiday.

Last weekend was supposed to be wonderful. My parents were coming up, we'd finally have all the furniture we needed for the apartment, we'd go out and have dinner at the pub and relax and it would be a great time. They came up Saturday, and Saturday night we got a phone call that my grandmother was being rushed into surgery. They didn't know what was going on, but she was 81 years old and having major organ failure, so they were pretty sure they had a good idea. There was talk of her living will and trying to find her pastor and the phrase "what happens next" was uttered without anybody being able to move on past that phrase. I saw my dad cry for the first time in thirteen years, when his father died.

It's funny how the ICU waiting room seems to turn into a family reunion. After all, you get a bunch of people together you don't see that often; my cousins were there, and my cousin's two-year-old son, and it's hard to cry all the time with a two-year-old running around the room. So instead we talked about kids and grandkids and everybody's lives, and we laughed much more than we cried, and it never felt like disrespect. I know my grandmother wouldn't think so.

But as one of my sister's friends said, "Your grandma's badass! She has to get better." And she did. Sunday night, as the new moon turned to waxing, instead of going into cardiac arrest like they suspected, she regained some organ function and was actually conscious; they drove her up to a bigger hospital and started treating her like a sick person instead of a dying person. This morning she was conscious and communicating, and she tells the doctors she isn't in pain. Eighty-one or not, my grandmother isn't old. She's the matriarch of our family, and we are incredibly lucky to keep her a little while longer. (Besides, a funeral on Hallowe'en would have been quite poetic -- and we all know how the Universe hates being poetic.)

Suffering & Joy

Sep 26, 2006
On time for once, it's become fall all of the sudden, although the leaves have only just started to turn. All of the summer humidity has gone out of the air, and it is quite literally easier to breathe. I've always found fall the most...realistic of the seasons; I feel more myself at this time of year than any other time at all. And I've started seriously gearing up for Hallowe'en/Samhain -- no way I'm going to let the over-commercialization of Christmas (already! in the craft stores! by the gods!) get in the way of my favorite holiday. Plus, now that I'm on a regular shift at work, I have enough downtime to write -- even if my supervisors look a little confused by my piles of Crowley books all over the place. And so, the work-through of Little Essays Toward Truth continues.


I have a serious problem (and I doubt I'm alone in the Pagan community in this) with the First Noble Truth. In Buddhism, Dukkah, suffering, is the most basic fact of human existence -- or, in the words of the Dread Pirate Roberts, Life is pain. Anybody who says differently is selling something. This idea, though, has always struck me as the same sort of escapist ideal that allows the Book religions to disregard this world in favor of the next. (I know that isn't strictly the way it works in Buddhism, but there is a strong enough correlation, and the idea is borrowed shoddily enough by many Western philosophers, that the implication still lingers in my mind.)

More specifically, then, I have been having a problem with the way Crowley throws around the First Noble Truth in his Little Essays Toward Truth (and as I've said before, the origins of almost all modern Paganism are in these sorts of writings -- although I admit that this is getting a little detailed and specific to Crowley's system, here.)

One of the problems with Crowley's writing is that he throws himself wholly into his immediate subject -- in his essay on Laughter, laughter is the most important, the most vital part of the Universe and the magician's practice. In his essay on Sorrow, which basically postulates the First Noble Truth as the only motivation for magickal study, the same is true. On the one hand, everything in this world is painful; on the other hand, one of the truths the enlightened seeker will discover is the nature of the Universal Joke. Some paradoxes I can deal with, but this one seems a little out there.

On reflection, I think Crowley actually intends the First Noble Truth in a somewhat more limited sense -- this world is nothing but pain for those who acknowledge nothing but this Universe and the mundane things in it. Self-awareness and knowledge of the true nature of things -- of magick, of higher mental planes, all sorts of things like that -- allow the enlightened person to find the Universe not only less painful, but downright hilarious.

Crowley's sequence of events differs fundamentally from the Buddhist sequence, which states that the realization that the world is pain is the beginning of enlightenment and eventual release from the world. Like an AA meeting, admitting the problem is the first step. Crowley, on the other hand, says that the realization that the immediate, material world is pain is the only motivation for reaching beyond it, which eventually gives not release but a greater understanding (and the ability to laugh at the Universe, even, presumably, the bits which were previously painful.)

I still think this is a little broad -- everything is painful? even the things you enjoy? so much for individual agency, if you can't even rely on your own emotions -- but it certainly has some logic in it. After all, one of the things people often get told when they're depressed (which is extremely unhelpful if we're talking clinical depression, by the way, and not just a crappy day at work) is to get a little perspective; Crowley has just turned this everyday occurrence into a cosmology. (He apparently rejects the Douglas Adams cosmology, which states that if anyone were ever to really 'get some perspective,' they would immediately be driven insane by the full knowledge of their own insignificance. Then again, Crowley was famously egotistical, so it's hardly surprising that this possibility never crossed his mind.)

I would be happy to write off Crowley's use of the First Noble Truth as a limited and wholly temporary state of mind if not for another bit of philosophy that also seems to be lifted imperfectly from Buddhism. For the advanced practitioner, Crowley recommends a state of mind he calls indifference. Indifference here being used in the sense of "without distinguishing," one is supposed to react to every aspect of the Universe with joy, presumably as a means of forcing higher levels of awareness. First of all, I still find this idea a little broad -- I have a hard time finding joy in the news from Iraq and Guantanamo -- but aside from the usual metaphysical hyperbole, well-intentioned though it may be, the way Crowley develops this concept reminds me also of the Third Noble Truth, Nirodha, or cessation of desire. In Buddhism, this follows linearly from the First Noble Truth: because everything is pain, we should desire nothing, because nothing could be worth getting, much less desiring. Crowley is instead arguing freedom from desire via lack of differentiation -- if everything in the Universe brings you joy, why bother to desire anything?

In the end it seems as if Crowley is trying to combine several Buddhist sensibilities, which he obviously admires, with his own worldliness, which was at least partially a reaction to his own conservative Christian upbringing. After all, Crowley is famous for his worldly excesses. He was just not the sort of person to write off this earthly plane as worthless and spiritually unhealthy. However, his solution -- that spiritual enlightenment merely turns the First Noble Truth upside down, with all the absolutes still intact -- is both a little incoherent and completely morally bankrupt. These are both fairly consistant problems with Crowley, unfortunately, and in fact it is probably the recurrence of these problems in his writing which put o many people off him completely, in spite of his many genuinely useful and interesting ideas.

I Wish

Sep 16, 2006
It would of course be the week that I discover a million new ideas for posts that I also discover Witches Weekly, a weekly question prompt for Pagan blogs. I love weekly prompts (I am on the verge of stealing the Friday Five from the political blogosphere) so yay! This week it's --

What is one thing relating to your spiritual path that you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t due to lack of money, time, etc. (Examples could be….creating your own altar room, going to visit a historical monument related to your spirituality, etc).

I'm lucky enough to have already gotten (most of) the travelling I really want done, and while like everybody else I do crave an altar room, what I really want to accomplish right now is a regular schedule, not just of meditation and devotion, but of serious mental exercise. I've always wanted to learn the ancient Greek memory techniques, which would also help with my visualization, and the effort I put into it in July really made a difference, but I got sidetracked with the move. Hopefully when my job settles into my final schedule I will be able to really set aside time for this.

What Works For Me

Sep 15, 2006
Never one to pass up a beta, I've upgraded to the new Blogger. Expect some fiddling with format and such while I try to figure out what they've done to the thing -- and I think one of the restrictions now is that old-Blogger accounts aren't compatible with new-Blogger accounts, so feel free to leave anonymous comments if the system seems to hate you for any reason.


I have refrained from writing mostly because I have been helping my roommate settle in, settling into my new job (oh god employment is so wonderful, even if I do have terrible hours at the moment), and fighting with a tempermental kitchen sink. I could have given you a very sanctimonious and self-reflective post on why these things do not encourage me to think about magic or religion at all, but I decided to save the tedium for something I was genuinely interested in.

One of the good things about my job is it involves an hour-long bus ride and a lot of downtime, so I'm getting a lot of reading done. Yesterday, on impulse, I picked up my copy of Alestair Crowley's Little Essays Toward Truth to take with me. Crowley is as close as I have ever gotten to finding Pagan literature that I really like; for all his over-reliance on Judaic and Christian ideas, his questionable combinations of Indian and Egyptian ideas, his egotism and his general self-righteousness, Crowley just does it for me. I can't explain it, except to say that I have always had an irrational love for the Victorian and the completely mad.

And, of course, I quite like many of Crowley's ideas. One of the first statements he makes in his essay on "Man" (and indeed one of his foundational ideas) is that "all phenomena ... may be classified for the purpose of discussing their observed relations, in any manner which experience may show to be the most convenient. ( ... There is no essential truth in any of these aids to thinking: convenience is the sole measure.)"

It walks the line, I suppose, between extreme relativism and extreme skepticism. On the one hand, denying the essential truth of any mode of thinking is tantamount to saying that one idea is as valid as another; evolution and creationism (to take a nice, incendiary example) are just two ideas, neither of which is absolutely true. It's the insistance on convenience that separates this statement from blanket relativism. Relativism refuses to make value judgements at all, but Crowley here is advocating judging systems based on convenience -- their usefulness to the practitioner.

To extend the earlier comparison, evolutionary thinking is useful in explaining all manner of things, from the biological origins of humanity to changing drug treatments, while creationism is useful primarily in promoting a specific Biblical literalism-based worldview. So if you're a patriarch of a Biblical literalism-based church, creationism is a great idea; for the rest of us, evolution is much more convenient. The whole basis for using convenience rather than truth as the basis for judgement comes from the tradition of philosophical skepticism, which de-emphasizes the possibility of ever really knowing the truth about anything. Of course, you can't go around denying the existence of everything in your daily life, so you have to judge things by their convenience, their use to you. (Unfortunately Crowley is in the habit of describing systems he likes as "scientific" rather than "convenient," but the concept stands.)

Reading this for about the tenth time (I always feel like I should blog these things; I've just never gotten around to it before) it occurs to me that this is where the eclectic "do whatever works for you" philosophy comes from, and not entirely without merit, although the idea has obviously been watered down drastically. Because that is exactly what Crowley says in this first essay -- "I think the Qabalah is the most useful tool in existence, but if you disagree, or if you can change it to suit your purposes better, do so -- just make sure you know what you're changing first and why." Which, in all fairness, is the responsible way to handle "whatever works for you" and the way I suspect a great many people do handle it. The problem comes in with the fact that relativism is a more common and more accessable idea than skepticism for most people, and so the eclectic ideal becomes too relativistic and, sorry, too open-minded. The emphasis on the statement should be on works, not on you.


Sep 1, 2006
I admit it, the response to my last post has given me a kind of blogging stage-fright, making me feel like my next post ought to be just as amazing, which has in turn given me complete writer's block on the last part of the Devotion series. My apologies. In the meantime, though, you can check out Deborah and Fiacharry's responses, and their takes on using salt in ritual and on the altar.

My weekend plans might have been slightly tempered by the reviews of the remake of The Wicker Man, out today -- The Wild Hunt seems to feel the same way I do about this whole remake concept, but I did say I'd go see the film if someone could promise me that Nicholas Cage dies in the end. I still haven't seen that promise, so I haven't quite decided yet what I'm going to do about it...

Salt of the Earth

Aug 22, 2006
When cleaning off my altar to move it, I discovered something of a problem. I'd set this particular altar up in a phase where I was quite into ceremonial magic, everything laid out properly according to all those Wicca 101 books I'd picked up in my first years. Candles, altar cloth, pentacle, goblet, check; some scattered pinecones and summer flowers, check; and...a bowl of salt. Okay, the good tools are obvious, pack them up and go. Most of the natural materials I returned to the garden. But the salt? I couldn't just throw it in the trash; it had been on my altar, and it deserved better than that. I couldn't bury it, as I did the other bits and pieces which wouldn't be coming with me; salted soil is barren, and that's hardly what I intended to leave behind. Eventually I washed it down the sink with water from the bowl on the altar, but it set me thinking.

Salt. Who the hell thought that one up? As a symbol of earth, it hasn't got a lot going for it, other than just sort of generally being a mineral. Lots of other things do that. It's a consumable, yes, and associated with hospitality, but the reason for that is also its rarity -- salt was expensive, for a long time, and it was a sign of hospitality because giving away something that expensive is damn impressive. (Come to think of it, looking at what I paid for the jar of sea salt I've kept on my altar, salt is still expensive.)

So it's supposed to represent Earth. In that case, why not use...earth? Dirt's free. It's plentiful. And when you don't need it anymore, when you've cast something with it and it needs to be properly disposed of, when you just need something fresher, there's an obvious place to put it. This seemed so logical to me that I had to go look in all those Wicca 101 books that I'd kept around and see if they had really told me to put a bowl of salt on my altar. Except they were all packed already. Today I remembered that I was going to do that, so now that my books are all unpacked, I went and looked. And yes, that's exactly what they told me to do, universally and without explanation. (Although Cunningham's Wicca For The Solitary Practitioner says salt or earth can be used, it's salt in all the diagrams.)

Well, who really expected Wicca 101 books to have explanations anyway? Ephilias Levi was slightly more helpful -- in the conclusion to A History of Magic he devotes about a page to alchemical understandings of the elements, although they are other elements in question: alchemists, he tells us, associated spirit with sulphur, fire, and the Father; the 'mediator' (which I do not know enough alchemy to sufficiently explain) with mercury, change, and the Mother; and base matter with salt -- "because of the fixed salt which remains after combustion" -- and the Child, or that which is "subjected to education by nature." In a similar sort of vague Victorian language there is a tenuous connection to Earth mentioned in there as well, but hardly in the Four Elementals sense of the word. So. The Better Magick Through Chemistry crowd associated earth with salt because it's what's left over after you burn up sulphur. (Of course, I have no idea if these apocryphal alchemists did any such thing, but Levi thinks they did, and if a Victorian wrote about it you've probably found its origins in modern practice.)

A quick google through hermetic.com turns up the fact that Crowley and most other hermeticists also seem to follow the salt-for-earth rule, with a couple of glancing references (sadly unsourced) to the Sulphur-Mercury-Salt triad that seems to affirm my suspicion that the source for this practice is in alchemy. There's also a couple of references to anointing with earth and water in the form of salt water, which makes a little more sense, particularly if one lives in the sort of place where one doesn't have to manufacture salt water. In the American Midwest, well.

Unfortunately, that's about the limit of my useful research at the moment; not necessarily because I've run out of resources, but I'm not quite sure where else to look. (This has been my eternal frustration in researching modern Paganism; Llewellyn books don't have bibliographies, and while I'm moderately familiar with Victorian occultists, there's a huge gap in the middle there, not to mention trying to figure out where the Victorians got it in the first place.) Is there anyone out there with some experience or research in early Wicca who can help explain this somewhat baffling phenomenon?

Symbolism is all well and good, after all, and I'll steal drama and Latin and ripped-off yoga from the ceremonialists quite cheerfully, but as for me, the salt is going back in the kitchen cupboard and I'm digging up a piece of the back garden to put on my altar.

I'm Back! & Devotion part 3

Aug 18, 2006
Two weeks later and I'm finally all wired up again -- the move has been exciting, exhausting, overwhelming, all those things and more. I have job leads; I've found the grocery store, the post office, and the library; I've even been fairly successful at figuring out the bus system. My favorite thing about Madison so far, though? The gigantic year-round farmer's market. For the first time in my life, the hundred-mile diet seems not only feasable but very attractive, too.

So now that I've caught up on my Pagan blog reading, it's time to contribute to the pool again, with my continuing series on devotion. I started off this series by talking about the difference between magic and religion and last time went on to my literary expectations and disappointments in Paganism. Like I said last time, though, I am trying to move away from the idea that devotion has to be something that's done with words. After all, words hold all kinds of power, but in Western civilization the liturgial word has all too often been solely the property of the leader or priest, creating barriers between the divine and the people trying to access it. I certainly don't believe that this is the only way an authoritative text can work, but I respect the fact that modern Paganism has moved away from that idea in reaction to its misuse in other traditions (even while I continue to be confused and frustrated with the lack of coherence and external direction).

Modern Paganism is hardly unique in this respect. Last fall I took a religious studies class to fill out my senior-year schedule; it was a surprisingly fulfilling experience, focusing less on the facts and history of religions than I'm used to such classes doing and more on the experience of living within a religion. When we addressed Hinduism, we talked a lot about it being a religion of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Doctrines vary -- name and number of gods, nature of the universe, afterlife and how to best prepare yourself for it...all those things are negotiable. But everyone gives offerings. Offerings are huge. Everyone venerates images of the gods, because those images are a means of focusing and manifesting their power. Everyone, in other words, does something.

Which, hell, is one of the reasons I went for Paganism. It involves more doing than just going to church on Sunday. Unfortunately, the variability in Paganism is even bigger than that in Hinduism, and there isn't even any orthopraxy. There are no sutras to write as acts of merit. There are no scrolls to bind to your body in prayer. Especially when working with Irish/Celtic dieties as I usually am, there are no images to venerate or traditional offerings to make. There is no daily cycle of prayer -- no prayers, period.

It's one thing to decide, intellectually, that what you want out of the Universe is a mystery religion, like Paganism, where the scripture is not in a book but in your own experiences. It's another thing to struggle with finding ways of having those experiences when all you've learned how to do is the liturgy and structure of the United Methodist Church. I don't doubt the path I've chosen, and I don't doubt my need to continue as a Solitary before I try to find a group or coven to work with. But by the Gods it can be hard.

Which is, of course, why I've been running this devotion series in the first place; wandering around the idea of "how the hell do I get there from here?" I've always been a little surprised, actually, at the lack of Hindu-inspired traditions and practices in modern Paganism. After all, Hinduism is pantheistic, polytheistic, relatively uncentralized, and has endured for thousands of years. It's also almost entirely reliant on community structure, which might be one of the reasons it hasn't taken off in modern Paganism: we still lack that kind of community cohesion. Which means, really, that borrowing from the Hindu tradition might not be a bad idea right about now. (Besides, doesn't a devotional celebration this big look like a hell of a lot of fun?)

For myself, I've been experimenting with the idea of offerings. In our mostly European-inspired traditions, offerings outside of formal ritual are usually associated more with lesser spirits like the faerie than with the gods, but in Hinduism offerings, mostly of food, are the key to devotional practice. (Another offering is of clothing; statues of the gods are dressed in bright scarves and flowers. When I find the statuary I'm looking for, I'll be all over that one, too.) The wonderful thing about offerings of food is you'll never forget about them; you eat at least twice a day, and with a little mindfulness, the presence of food becomes a reminder that devotion is necessary, and stimulates mindfulness on its own. (To tell the truth, I started wandering down this line of thought with Alestair Crowley's list of devotions; he borrowed the Buddhist concept of mindfulness to inspire a great deal of his own tradition's requirements.) It's no different, truly, than the offering given in formal ritual, but if I waited to acknowledge the gods until I performed a formal ritual....well. Let's just say that technique hasn't been working well for me the past couple of years.

(Next time around: stealing borrowing from other traditions, the physicality of devotion, and Adventures with the Rosary.)

Word and Will: Devotion Part 2

Jul 31, 2006
One of the reasons I'm making some changes in my life right now is that I've realized that I seem to have different standards for Paganism than for other religions; or at least, that I seem to think of them in different ways. As a rule, I tend to think of most religions in terms of what practitioners do. Followers of Hinduism have large community rituals and food offerings and truly lovely devotional altars. Followers of Judaism keep kosher and the Sabbath. Followers of Christianity go to church and evangelize and tithe, either to the poor or to the megachurch. (Yes, to a different degree depending on the individual, but considering the devoted.) For my own part, though, I have been content to define myself as Pagan based on what I believe -- I believe in many gods, in the immanence of divinity, in magic and reincarnation and all those other things that Pagans believe.

Oh, I still associate Paganism in general with covens and group workings and events like Pagan Pride Day, but I've been isolated from the opportunities to participate in such things, and I've allowed that to become an excuse for my own lack of practice and devotion. (One of my first books was Cunningham's Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner; despite the general emphasis on covens in most witch books, I have very little excuse, really.) To be blunt, I haven't done anything in far too long. So I've been thinking about devotion.

Partially I blame my Religious Studies class; it was the first class outside the anthro department I took on religion since high school, and it gave me a lot to chew on, mostly concerning the day-to-day practice of many religions. It also really made me feel the lack of Pagan religious texts. There's a lot of history, ancient and modern, questionable and well-researched; a lot of magical theory, ancient and modern; plenty of basic introductory texts. There is not, however, a core holy text, or even a set of texts.

And I love words. I love the concept of the Jewish Tefillin, holy texts bound to the arm and forehead during prayer -- I find the idea of binding very powerful, and that of physical contact. I'm significantly lacking in holy texts, however. (I am toying with the idea of ogham and names, actually.) I love the power of words in the Buddhist tradition, where even one letter taken from a sutra has the power to perform miracles. I love the respect accorded to a Muslim who has memorized the Koran, because doing so preserves the Word of God.

I know, I know. I write; why can't I do it myself? Well, it's not the same. Other people have written often quite stunning pieces; why not use those? I'm not sure what the difference is between knowing that something was written by an unnamed poet five thousand years ago by the inspiration of God and knowing that something was written by Doreen Valiente forty years ago by the inspiration of the Goddess, but it exists in my mind nonetheless. I struggle even more with the genericness of so much Pagan writing: because there are so many gods, and because of the Wiccan tradition emphasizing the unity of all gods as the God and all goddesses as the Goddess, specificity is hard to come by. And, let's face it, a lot of Pagan writing can get pretty cheesy, and it's hard to feel properly worshipful when you're being distracted by your own cheese.

I have been trying to drag myself away from the idea of devotion as inherently tied to words. In the bible study group I went to in high school, we were encouraged to pray even if we had no words, but I have found that, for myself, this gives me even less structure than meditation does and in the end does nothing for my sense of connection with the divine. I have also been struggling with this idea that connection with the divine is something that happens only at a particular time, when you sit down to pray/meditate/what have you. As a Pagan, I know this is not true, but in real life, I often find that I wish I had that devotional ritual to re-focus my mind, remind me that whether or not my internet connection will be hooked up by next week is not the be-all and end-all of the Universe, that getting out of the house is good for the soul and the body, no matter how much of a nuisance it seems. I need a devotional ritual -- and since I've signed on for the type of Paganism that is, essentially, a massive do-it-yourself project, I have to come up with one.

That's the rest of this series, then; my wanderings through the potential of devotion and how I'm going to come up with something that makes me feel genuine, worshipful, powerful, and not full of cheese. Unfortunately, although the status of my internet connection is not the be-all and end-all of the Universe, it does affect blogging -- and since it might not be up for a week or two, posts might come a little farther between than I'd expected. I will try to get down to the library, though, when I have Part 3 ready.

Tomorrow I move my life up one state and to the right. And after that -- who knows.

Parenthetical: Productivity

I haven't had the chance to see Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth yet, which I feel slightly bad about, but only slightly, as I'm sure I'll feel worse when I finish watching it. A litany of the ways humanity seems intent on destroying the planet might be necessary, but it's hardly inspiring.

On the inspiring end of that discussion, then, I found this video of architect & designer William McDonough (via Susie Bright's Journal a couple of days ago) talking about ways the situation can actually be improved. And most of what he's talking about is an ideological shift, a way of thinking about humanity not as a detriment to nature or even just as a part of it but as an active benefit to the rest of the world. Environmentalism always seems a bit Pagan to me, and I thought this was particularly inspiring.

On Being an Intermittent Pagan (Devotion Part 1)

Jul 28, 2006
(Playing blogroll tag the other day, I found Never Say Never To Your Traveling Self, a UU blog that makes me very happy. Huzzah, new blogs!)

I really thought I'd be able to keep up with the blogging in July, despite the fact that I'm preparing to move away from home and packing up my life into lots of little boxes. As it turns out, I've been completely mentally and emotionally incapacitated by the whole thing. (I'm marathon-watching Star Trek Enterprise, for cryin' out loud.)

The fact that I've realized that marathon-watching bad scifi is as emotionally unhealthy as living on TV dinners during the move has been physically unhealthy hasn't stopped me from doing it, of course. I'm doing them both for the same reason: I'm drained, and I don't want to put the effort into making/doing something that would be good for me, even though I know I'll feel better once I do.

I seem to treat religion in the opposite way from the stereotype; it's something I do when I feel good about myself, when I feel centered and happy and prepared. When I'm having problems, I knucle under and deal with them myself, usually without much of a support structure. It's a problem I've been working on in my social life, but it couldn't hurt for me to start working on it in my spiritual life as well.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I have a tendancy to confuse magic with religion. And given that magic is more associated with Paganism than anything else, and that I don't subscribe to a brand of Paganism particular enough to separate it in my mind from the broad spectrum of Pagan beliefs, I suppose that's understandable. It isn't what I want, though, not by a long shot. I think that magic and devotion should be interconnected, balanced, and mutually supporting, but that hasn't been a reality for me, not for a long time, if it ever has been.

This seems to have turned into an introduction to my devotion series without my intending it, so I'll go ahead and announce it now -- quite a while ago I started working on a long post about devotion and the practice of religion, and it's turned into something that will go better as more like half a dozen posts, which I hope to start posting on Monday. A little cross-cultural comparison, a little theory, hopefully something really productive by the end of it all. We'll see how it goes.

You'll find most people don't set foot outside their own heads much.

Jul 24, 2006
Shortly before I graduated, one of my favorite college professors gave us some job hunting advice. When you go to your interview, she said, don't bring your resume; it makes you look nervous and unprepared. Instead, bring some Raymond Chandler. You might be nervous about your interview for the first half-page, but when you reach a sentence like, "He stood out like a tarantula on a slice of angel food," your worries are insignificant next to the glorious strangeness of Chandler's prose.

I haven't had a chance to test this theory yet, as I haven't gotten to the interview stage yet, but looking for a job is nearly as stressful as the interview, isn't it? So to relieve that stress, I've been re-reading Terry Pratchett. Pterry gives you the same benefit as Chandler -- you can be going along all twitchy and nervous but then you hit a line like "A key to the understanding of all religion is that a god's idea of amusement is Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs," and then how can you worry?

Of course, I get an extra benefit from Pterry personally in this whole job-hunt-stress-relief game; I have the unfortunate posession of a degree which does not imply an obvious career. That is, I could go to grad school and get my PhD in anthropology and then I would have an obvious career, but I don't have a burning desire to become either a teacher or a specialist in corporate workplace design, so that path is a little less rewarding than it could be. I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. This is a problem when looking for any job that pays more than $6.50 an hour, and occasionally slightly depressing.

Except I do know what I want to be when I grow up; I want to be Granny Weatherwax. I adore the witches in Pratchett books. I love Magrat's fluffiness which turns into a reasonably practical stock in trade (with a bit too many crystals for the older witches), I love Nanny Ogg's hedgehog song, I love Granny's "I aten't dead" sign. I love the way Granny thinks that believing in gods only encourages them, even if they do really exist; I love the way she has decided that the best way to go about things is to give people what they know they really need, not what they think they ought to want; I love the way she won't let a shiny ball of rock get in her way if something needs doing at the wrong phase of the moon.

And she's cranky and controlling and mostly illiterate and very distrustful of Forn Parts. Well, there might be some improvements to be made. But at least I'm setting reasonable goals for myself, right?

One of a Million

Jul 14, 2006
I wish I could say I haven't been posting because I've been having fantastical, ecstatic religious experiences that have drawn me away from the computer. I even wish I could say I haven't been posting because packing and arranging things for the move and the new apartment are eating my life. Instead, I haven't been posting because I've been sleeping a lot and geeking out with other geeky friends about Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and the new Doctor Who finale. I'd be ashamed, except for the way the past four years have been an attempt to stop being ashamed of my geeky love for things.

I have also, though, been thinking, fairly abstractly, about community. As Sojourner pointed out in reference to my last post, community is an important part of ritual and of our lives in general. I've never felt much of that, to tell the truth. It takes me a long time to feel integrated in a community, which means that both in high school and college, about the time I started to feel as if I belonged somewhere, it was time to leave. The town I grew up in holds very little attraction to me, and the sense of community here is so tied to church attendance that I have had very little sense of belonging here since I left the church when I was in high school.

I still have a strong, if muddled, sense of community with a variety of people from college, including a variety of friends, professors, and staff people, but now I've graduated and most of us are dispersing to various parts of the Midwest, those networks are bound to be a little stretched. I'm moving into my new apartment with a friend I've known for years, from the summer geek camp I used to go to in high school, another group of people I have a weird sense of community with, despite not having seen most of them in years. (They still reappear in my life from time to time, though, and we always seem to know each other on sight. The mark of a geek is eternal?)

I've definitely never had a Pagan community I've felt a part of, though I'm starting to carve out my own corner of the Pagan blogosphere. (There was an abortive attempt at a Pagan society at college once, but it seemed to crash and burn after a particularly poor Samhain ritual.) And while I love the blogging community, I'm looking at this move as an opportunity to find a physical Pagan community to connect with, if at all possible. My problem being, mainly, that I'm both choosy and easily put off by negative comments from others (despite the fact that I know the amount of negativity flying around is usually entirely excessive). I'm moving to Madison, Wisconsin, quite close to Circle Sanctuary, and trying to decide if I want to put the money and effort into a festival there; I'm looking for other groups and circles as well, and being a little surprised at how few I find. I shall keep looking, and hope that I know what it is I'm looking for when I see it, because I certainly have no idea now.

Rite of Passage

Jul 10, 2006
I signed the lease on my first apartment on Saturday, and the check went out in the mail today. It's the biggest financial commitment I've ever made (my parents being kind enough to pay for college), the most ambitious step I've taken in my life so far, quite possibly the most exciting thing I've ever done. And terrifying, too -- I'm moving to a new city where I don't yet have a job and to live with a friend I know and love but have never actually lived with before. I'll have a home of my own to care for, my own dishes to wash, my own carpets to vacuum, my own light bulbs to change. We move in on Lugnasadh, which seems appropriate, as this will be the fruition of my summer's work.

One of the weird things about anthropological training, especially the post-modern kind advocated by a couple of my professors, is that you begin to see your own life in ethnographic terms. What I have just experienced is called a rite of passage, an instance of changing roles from one stage of life to another. Graduation is the classic example, but graduation ceremonies have always seemed like more of a nuisance to me than anything else. College is really the rite of passage there; graduation is just where everybody else acknowledges that. This, though -- this was important on its own merits. One signature and the state of my life changed. I am no longer a student or a twentysomething bum living with my parents. I am now a Young Professional. (Or, given my still-unemployed status, a Young Bohemian.)

In Paganism, a rite is a ritual, an act of magic and devotion, causing change in the individual and possibly the wider world as well. And the lease-signing, really, it was that too. It was hardly the formal sort of occasion I'd vaguely come to expect from people throwing the term "lease-signing" around; my roommate and I had met up to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and we sat down with the papers after lunch in the mall's food court, reading through all the details and dating and initialling like mad for half an hour. When we were done, we sat in silence, staring at the lease, mentally adjusting our bank balances, processing the decision we had finally made. And then we pretty much exploded in excitement and had to go take a circuit around the mall before the movie started.

A couple of days later the excitement has worn down, and I'm starting to add up the costs of all the other things that need done, and getting anxious about packing and moving and no longer having a permanent address in the house I grew up in, but that's life, isn't it? We change ourselves and we keep moving, even when it gets a little terrifying in the in-between spaces.


More Out There

Jul 7, 2006
When your browser crashes because you've got too many tabs open, it's time for a links post.

I've started reading Tim Boucher's Pop Occulture Blog again, and I can't recall why I ever stopped. His post on visualizations gave me some hope for myself -- I, too, have always had an overactive imagination, and visualization seems a little pointless as a result. Don't Stop Believin' was the highlight of my week, though.

From Real Live Preacher comes an essay on divine creativity -- and on creating ourselves through the divine. I'm usually the first person to object when someone argues that all religions are the same, really, but it's things like this that remind me that the differences, while important, are not always fundamental.

Finally, Ampersand gives a good sociological analysis of the situation in Delaware that I posted about a couple of days ago. It's a sensitive and thorough explanation of how and why these things happen, which I think is important for everybody to understand. Rarely is systemic discrimination explained away by simple bigotry, though that's definitely a part of it.

I wish I didn't have to wonder if I should write this

Jul 5, 2006
This is absoultely sickening.

A Jewish family in a small town in Delaware was basically chased out of the school district by an aggressively Christian curriculum, and because they feared persecution for the legal suit they're now bringing. (Good for them.) They and another family, who have decided to remain anonymous, are being represented by personal lawyers who are working with the ACLU.

The list of complaints is a long list of tiny things -- and I mean that not to be dismissive in any way, because a long list of tiny oppressions is a terrible thing, but really they don't seem like things that would be difficult to change. And that's the problem. Don't bring Bibles to school to give to your students? Pray in the name of God instead of Jesus? Are these really awful concessions to make?

My experience in a very Christian community high school wasn't nearly as bad, but some of the things on the list spark memories. (My biology teacher was required to teach two days of religion because half the class threatened to walk out when he introduced evolution. I was shocked when I went to college to find that this sort of experience was so rare.)

Most especially, though, I remember the Indian girl I made friends with my sophomore year. I was already flirting with Paganism by then, but my experience of other cultures was minimal, and I was enthralled by the Hindu altars around her apartment when she invited me over for tea after school. I never got to know her very well; her family had moved to town because her dad was hired by the major local employer, but they couldn't deal with being the "weird ones" any longer and they moved to a larger city. My sister just graduated from the same high school, and while it seems there's a little more diversity now, a dozen instead of two non-WASP students is a small improvement.

The situation in Delaware seems to have been malicious, at least after a certain point -- an awful sense of entitlement that crowded out any sympathy these people might have had for the family they were ostracizing. But it isn't always malicious; most of the oppression going on at my high school was out of neglect more than anything else. It's awful to think, though, that it's so easy for some to cross the line from entitlement into anti-Semitism. I hate to think what Pagan teenagers would do -- in many cases, probably are doing -- in a school like that.

Literary Paganism

Jul 4, 2006
I'm not really tech-y enough to claim a Technopagan identity (just like I'm not Reconstructionist enough to claim a Celtic Reconstructionist identity, or witchy enough to claim a Witch identity...), but I have to say, William Gibson does truly magical things to my brain. I was into science fiction long before I was into Paganism, but the two things seem to share space in my head somehow, and they occasionally start running together.

Technopagans have heard this all already, but -- I read Gibson's Count Zero for the first time for a class my final semester of college, and I had to restrain myself from doing little Pagan dances of glee through all the discussions. Fortunately most of the class was relatively familiar with basic magical concepts (it was a class designed by and for geeks of all stripes), and the professor had done her homework, so we got to move fairly quickly through explaining the nature of loa and into why the idea of loa emerging out of the global Internet and taking on full existences of their own was just so. damn. cool.

My professor tried to draw a connection between that and C.S. Lewis' Space trilogy, to say that both featured higher beings that amounted to the same thing, but to me the respective cosmologies kept getting in the way (for all that C.S. Lewis is the most Pagan of all the Christian authors). Lewis writes Good and Evil with capital letters -- in That Hideous Strength, for example, the leader of the forces of Light (who simply drips Christ figure in a way that's strangely evocative of Aslan) stages an elaborate formal ritual to call down the eldils, higher angelic forces who represent the souls of the various planets. The embodiment of Venus in particular appears in both her benevolent and terrible aspects, and there is no question that she will be benevolent on behalf of those who called her down with good intentions, just as there is no question that those intentions (and the action taken to satisfy them) are good. It's a little bit Pagan and a whole lot Kabbalistic. It also comes off as very elitist; Christ-figure and Merlin, whom he's awakened from his sleep to help with the ritual, do their work in the drawing room upstairs, which is where the manifestations happen, while the rest of his followers congregate in the kitchen. They feel the effects of the summoning, and you could argue that they have some effect on it, but they're clearly well out of the loop.

Gibson doesn't give us a lot of direct interaction with the loa, but from the way people talk about them, they're something very different. (And here I hauled out my class notes to write a blog post; I've completely fallen into the depths of academic geekdom now.) "Voodoo [...] isn't concerned with notions of salvation and transcendence. What it's about is getting things done. [...] In our system there are many gods, spirits. Part of one big family, with all the virtues, all the vices. [...] Voodoo says, there's God, sure, Gran Met, but He's big, too big and too far away to worry himself if your ass is poor, or you can't get laid." And when the loa show up, they're liable to act unpredictably, to pursue their own ends, to actively get in the way of the people who brought them there in the first place.

I'd be lying if I didn't say both of those worlds ring true to me. (And from what I know, they're very true to their respective traditions as well.) The writing in both is good enough to give me goosebumps, I'll admit, but it couldn't do that if I thought it stretched its gods too far. They ring true enough that they have come to reflect the ways in which I view the Universe -- not that I didn't believe such things before I read these books, but that they've given it shape and contour and texture. I haven't yet decided if they're incompatible, but for the moment they do both seem to be working.

This is what I mean when I tell people that I get half my theology from science-fiction and fantasy novels.

Change in the Weather

Jul 2, 2006
We haven't had a drop of rain in almost a week, though the storms keep passing by to the north or south or east or west, taunting us with the electricity in the air and the faint hope of a change in the weather. It's not been hot enough to really be worthwhile, that kind of satisfying world-destroying heat you get in the end of summer, when all anyone can do is sit around and complain about the heat and speculate about the egg-frying capacity of the hood of the car, but it's been far too sticky and uncomfortable to make getting out of the house an enjoyable experience.

I gave up this evening; the constantly changing fronts and the oppressive recycled quality of the air conditioning drove me outside, in spite of the heat. Warm, almost comfortable outside after the air conditioning, but ten feet from the door I was already regretting wearing jeans instead of a skirt, for all going for a walk in a skirt is both uncomfortable and slightly odd. I went on anyway; had to find some way of working the extra energy out of my system if the weather wasn't going to break and do it for me. I've always loved the start of a storm, the bigger the better. The tension builds as the sky changes color, to finally be broken by lightning that seems all the brighter for the unnatural dark in the middle of the afternoon. Everything relaxes after a storm in a way that just isn't possible before it happens.

Hot and sticky an hour later, with my knee giving me warning that it wouldn't be happy with me tomorrow if I kept on (injury from high school marching band, no, don't laugh, the way my director wrote drill it was nearly as dangerous as football), I had to have a shower when I got home. As I turned off the water the sound of it falling didn't stop so much as shift -- and as I stepped to the window the thunder cracked. It was pouring, and other walkers with timing less precise than mine were running for shelter all down the street, even as the limp flowers in front gardens started to perk up.

Ten minutes later as I post this, the thunder's mostly stopped and the rain has settled down to a light shower; it'll go on like this for another half-hour at most, and then next week it'll do the same, and the next, until it dries up almost completely in August and starts getting more dramatic about things. It's the combination of predictability and unpredictability in the weather that I love so much about the Midwest. It'll do the same things, in the same ways, over and over again, but you can never be sure when the tension is finally going to snap.

The Anthropology of Religion (the obligatory Science & Religion post)

Jun 30, 2006
One of the things I really respect about current Paganism is the attention being paid to actual history more and more often. For the most part, we've stopped trying to believe that modern Wicca was passed down in its current form since before Christianity came to Europe, we've stopped throwing around huge numbers from the Burning Times to aggravate our own sense of persecution, and we've accepted how little we know about the distant past with which we connect ourselves. And I don't think this diminishes the importance or the depth of Paganism at all, to acknowledge this lack of continuity; it only gives us a better sense of who we are and what we're striving for. Paganism has started to give the respect due to historians and anthropologists, but I can't help but wish that respect would flow a little more freely both ways.

I studied anthropology in college, and I might go back to it in grad school, and while we were pretty damn big on relativism, that belief that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and cultural constructs, we were also big on science. Understanding not only why someone would believe the things they do but how they could hold such a depth of real, passionate feeling for their beliefs was something my advisor tried to pound into us from day one. I may have learned more about faith from our class on apocalyptic cults than I ever learned from years of churchgoing and soulseeking. But despite the constant reminders that religious people have feelings too, you never know when you might accidentally insult one of your classmates, there was always a sense of "otherness" to the discussions of religion. Religious people are not us, was the implication. We are scientists.

We talked about religion, surely -- you can't study people without studying religion. We talked about studying religion, too, how to observe and analyze without giving offense. We talked about magic, in terms of the primitive or, what is now considered to be the less offensive term, "non-empirical" cultures. We even talked about Evans-Pritchard, a British anthropologist who studied the Azande in the late colonial period and worked so extensively with their religion that he said he almost grew to believe it himself. (Reading between the lines of his book, the "almost" in that sentence is hardly warranted, but it has never been acceptable for a scientist to believe in magic, so one can hardly blame him for withdrawing from his position in publication. Indeed, I'm impressed he admitted so much.) Through all of those discussions, though, the otherness remained. I wanted to apply the anthropology of religion to my own faith, but it never worked that way. The classes themselves made it impossible.

Oh, I learned a lot of things I could use to make comparisions with. I learned about the origins of the term sympathetic magic. I learned about Evans-Pritchard and Frazier and Graves, but I also learned how emphatically wrong those men were, how useless they were in an academic context, and how I should strive Not To Be Like Them, to be objective instead of empathetic, to think of religion only in terms of What They Believe and not what I believe or how it affects me.

I was very, very good at this, to the point where I very nearly wrote an ethnography of online covens or Pagan discussion groups and probably would have been acceptably academically objective. To someone of a more traditional religion, I'm not sure it would have been as stifling as it was to me. But Paganism, unfortunately, comes out of the time period of the early anthropologists, and has, over the years, borrowed a great many of those things that anthropologists are supposed to dismiss as old-fashioned and useless. Paganism believes what anthropologists do not, that there is a unity to the universe, that there is a divinity to nature that goes beyond the immediate life-sustaining effects of crops and fields, that magic is real enough to cause people to do things for its own sake.

These are distinctions that emerge in some branches of anthropology, I will grant. Postmodern ethnographers have much less emphasis on objectivity and more on representation, and some forms of evolutionary theory are almost mystical in their descriptions. Mysticism, however, does not go over well in a field that is still sometimes desperately trying to prove itself a Science, and the term was thrown around with great disdain in several of my classes. As well it should be, I suppose; mysticism is not a scientific explanation, and should not be used as one. I don't believe anthropology and Paganism are incompatible, and I wouldn't keep trying to make it work if I did. But I do still have trouble separating the idea of Humanity as a whole from the idea of mysticism, and my anthropological training makes it unbelievably difficult to appreciate almost anything written about pre-Christian cultures and religions from a non-academic viewpoint. I know I would be more succesful in both if I could manage to integrate my anthro studies and my Paganism more clearly, but it's a constant struggle sometimes to treat both with the respect they deserve.

Almost an Update

Jun 27, 2006
I want to apologize for the silence around here the past couple of days and let y'all know that I haven't given up on this (as I have so often before). A weird combination of things has kept me away from the computer, but I'm working on a post about my academic experiences and another on devotion, so I should have one of those up soon.

The new system of meditation is working well, which is one of the reasons I haven't been posting, because when something works well I don't feel the need to complain about it, so I have no blog fodder. ;) Yesterday, as part of my visualization exercises, I started working with the images and sensations of a place, the basis of the Classical ars memoriae. I've been fascinated by this technique ever since I first heard of it, which at its most basic uses a set of elaborate visualizations in sequence to help memorize lists of things -- be it grocery lists or rhetorical points in a speech. The student develops a base location which can be filled in with symbols of what you're supposed to remember; in the Middle Ages they would use the stations of the cross or the architecture of a cathedral. I've decided to use the route I used to take from my flat to Eyre Square to school and back when I lived in Galway. I've been astonished at how clearly it comes back; either my visualization technique is already vastly improved, or the memories stuck much better than I thought they had.

I started this blog in hopes that it would motivate me to do more than just think about my Paganism (I know, I know, start a blog to avoid writing?), so I can't complain about the turn I've suddenly taken, but clearly I need to work more on the balance between doing and writing.

Conversations with the Hell Man

Jun 23, 2006
At school we had a fantastic Hell Man. He was as good as they get, as far as I'm concerned -- a clean-cut, conservative-looking, articulate guy who sat on the junction of academic and residential sides of a small, liberal school with a giant sign that said "The Wages of Sin is Death." You couldn't miss him. You wouldn't want to, either -- he knew his stuff, and he believed in it, but he was also a good debater and generally a pretty decent guy.

His methods leave something to be desired, of course; I had to defend him to my Intro Religious Studies class once, most of whom had never spoken to him, because they'd all judged him on the basis of his sign. It's a damn offensive sign, I'll give you that. And it represents some damn offensive beliefs. But it did what he wanted it to, which was to attract enough easily-offended people to keep him entertained and enough amateur theologians and philosophers to make the argument interesting.

I had a couple of really good conversations with our Hell Man in four years, and listened in on a couple more. I remember distinctly standing outside my dorm on a late spring day, my urgent need to get inside and dump my bags and let my brain turn off for a couple of hours halted by his presence. I told him I was an eclectic Pagan, and he told me that a religion that just lets you do whatever you want all the time isn't a religion at all. That was the fundamental end of that argument, though we went back and forth for probably an hour more, because I just didn't know what to say to that.

When he said that to me, I got very defensive. After all, with a sign like his, I was pretty sure I knew what he meant. The concept of sin is very basic to Christianity, and that's one of the reasons I gave up on it -- so many things Christianity labels as sinful I see as good times, at least in moderation. I don't think the point of having a religion is to tell you what not to do, and I think the best thing about the pluralistic society we live in today is the ability to shop around for a religion that meets your needs -- in other words, if you want your religion to tell you what not to do, you're welcome to take that path, but it doesn't need to be mandatory.

After thinking about it a little while, though, I came to the conclusion that he's absolutely right. A religion should include a system of morality, and that shouldn't be simply "do whatever you want." Even the Wiccan Rede adds "An it harm none" to the beginning of that statement, and while that doesn't exactly make for a comprehensive moral code, it's a long shot from "anything you want." The difference, I think, is in how the Hell Man and I think of what religion should tell you what to do and what not to do. Christianity, especially the Christianity of the sorts of people who sit on street corners to argue with people, has a fairly substantial list of things that you shouldn't do which is based mostly on their inclusion in that list. There are things you shouldn't do even if you yourself can think of no better reason not to do them than "my religion says I can't."

I feel like my moral system is much more personal and deeply ingrained than that, and nothing about Paganism tells me I shouldn't do things except things I already know I shouldn't do. I should respect others and all other living things, because the Divine is everywhere. I should support my community and my faith, because we are stronger together than we are apart. I should care for the environment, because it is part of the universal Mother that gives us all life. And that's a far cry from doing whatever I want. I fail to live up to it quite a bit, but just because I can't always meet my own goals doesn't mean I don't have them.

I only have one real regret about that conversation -- that it took me so long to see his point, and that I still don't believe I could have made that argument to his face. It grates for me to agree with a conservative Christian, as I'm sure it does for other Pagans, but I don't really think I should feel that way. Common ground is important if we're ever to stop hating each other, and even if conservative Christians are unlikely to stop hating Pagans we shouldn't hate them. This is why I read blogs like Real Live Preacher and Slacktivist and Hugo Schwyzer, which all post from a politically liberal but a Christian viewpoint -- because they give me the opportunity to try to understand and overcome the almost instinctual objections I hold to some of their views. But I also read them because thoughtful, religious people all have a connection and a similarity, no matter what their religion, and these blogs both got me through some spiritually empty semesters at school and inspired me to start my own. Multifaith dialogue is almost impossible here in Middle America, but blogs are a wonderful stepping-stone.

Merry Midsummer

Jun 21, 2006
A cheerful and fruitful Solstice to everyone -- The Wild Hunt has a bunch of links to interesting-looking articles on Midsummer celebrations. (And a happy Yule to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere!)

The longest-day-of-the-year thing is really getting to me -- at my latitude, the same time frame lasts for over a week. I don't mind the light, but the tedium of waiting for potential employers and potential landlords to get back to me is making this Midsummer rub a little raw.

I'm also taking this holy day as an opportunity to reinvigorate my practice. As I mentioned yesterday, I started practicing Paganism almost eight years ago. When I started I was enraptured by the ceremonial aspect of it, all the tools and altar setups and ritual garb. I still love those things, but I haven't used them in several years. I learned all the ceremonial bits, you see, but since I was purely self-taught, I never did much with my own mental and spiritual development. I never really moved beyond some light meditation and the energy required for circle work. For the longest time I compensated with writing and reading, and I gave myself the excuse that school was getting in the way, but I don't have that excuse any more, and it's time to start again.

Learning & Borrowing 2: Looking Back

Jun 20, 2006
My catchup on Deo's Shadow continues, and this time I became annoyed with the Christopher Penczak interview on Shamanic Witchcraft. (Contrary, aren't I?) I confess, first of all, that I studied a lot of the anthropology of religion in college, and as I've mentioned before, anthropology isn't the greatest basis for a faith. It is, however, a great way to deconstruct a lot of arguments about authenticity made within the Pagan community.

Two main things bothered me about Penczak's discussion of Shamanic Witchcraft. First, he talks about Shamanism as a return to the "core beliefs" that date back to the Stone Age practices of Shamanism and Witchcraft. I don't think I need to point out the biggest flaw in this argument -- after all, if we can't know for certain what our Celtic European ancestors did... It seems obvious when you think about it, but it's hard to realize if you don't read enough of it -- anything written about the Stone Age was written by anthropologists and archaeologists, filtered through their understanding of the world, and interpreted via things they know about. We take cave paintings and particular colors and selections of herbs to be indicators of Shamanism, yes. But we do that because they are tools of Shamanism in other, modern cultures where we can ask people directly what they mean. It's possible that these things do not indicate ritual use at all, much less ritual in the way we understand it now.

This argument is also related to the assumption that the older, more "primitive" a culture, the simpler it is. This is patently not the case -- the Aboriginal magical system is deeply complex, the political organization of tribes in sub-Saharan Africa puts bureaucracy to shame, and just about any example from the ethnographic literature provides more proof that age is no indicator of complexity. Moreover, why should we assume that all Stone Age peoples practiced the same form of religion which provided the basis for everything that exists now? The world was just as large in the Stone Age as it is now, albeit more sparsely populated.

Second, the whole idea of returning to a set of "core beliefs" returns to the fallacy that the older something is, the more valid it is. Paganism suffers from this a great deal, probably because there's a constant search to find out what pre-Christian people really did before Christianity came along. This is the fallacy that led to the decades of covens claiming to have existed since before the Christian conversion of Europe. Eventually, Paganism as a whole accepted that these traditions could have value even if they weren't hundreds of years old, but if the rest of the Shamanic movement focuses on the age of the Shamanic tradition I'm going to have to be a bit wary of it. Paganism is wonderfully generative, accepting of innovation and individual decision, and an emphasis on age can seriously stifle that impulse.

I don't have a problem at all with the practices he's presenting -- a focus on energy and individual experience, an understanding of different realities and one's place in all of them -- but I think the frame he's using is unnecessary, and somewhat offputting.

I do hate to be dumping all this Science into what I meant to be a Theology blog, but these are the little things that get under my skin anymore, and if I expect to continue building theology out of what I have and what I'm given, I need to work them out.


The more I listen to podcasts and hear people talk about their Paganism and their practices... the more I read Pagan blogs and other thoughtful Pagan writing... the more I get a chance to actually talk to real live Pagans... the more I realize --

We're, like, an actual religion, people!

That is so cool.

When I started out, my gods and goddesses it's almost eight years ago now, Paganism seemed to be a really poor collection of books in the New Age section and some truly hideous websites. If there were good, serious Pagans out there (which I know there were, really), I couldn't find them or get in touch with them and if I could, I was too young for them to bother with me. Maybe I grew up, maybe Paganism grew up, maybe we both kind of grew up together. But this group of people and ideas changes so fast and I do think there are more resources out there for a beginning Pagan than there were when I started. Blogs and podcasts especially give voice to individuals, which is something I was starved for for years, living in the American midwest and incapable of making contacts on my own. And it's hearing those individual voices, rather than the often dry, patronizing tones of Wicca 101 books or websites, that really makes this thing real. I love it, I really do.

The Relative Evil of Chiropractors

Last Christmas, I didn't have a car to drive myself home from school for the holidays, so I rode down with my cousin, her husband, and their one-year-old. My cousin is four years older than I am, the same age gap between my sister and I, but while my sister and I have gotten closer over the years in spite of the age difference, my cousin and I have tended to drift. Part of it is surely the distinction between "student" and "real adult," but part of it is surely the different lives we're already leading. She married her husband, a lawyer, just out of college and settled down to have kids, while I'm just graduated, still single, moving into the city before grad school, and childless for the rest of my life if I have anything to say about it.

I recall for my cousin's wedding she asked me to read a Bible passage, which I found amusing but not odd given that her side of the family pretty definitely doesn't know I'm Pagan. The passage wasn't anything I'd have found objectionable, your standard wedding love business, so I went ahead and read it. The groom also had a friend read a passage -- from a Buddhist text. Our family has never talked about religion much, but they certainly never struck me as the particularly conservative type.

On this drive from Chicago to Iowa, in the middle of this most stereotypical representation of a young Midwestern marriage, my cousin hit upon the topic of her Bible Study group. I was a little uncomfortable, as I always am, but fortunately no one's ever expected me to be the scintillating center of conversation, so I cowered into the bucket seat of the SUV and tried to pretend it wasn't happening. She started relating a story one of the other women at the group had told, about a particular mystical experience she'd had. She was at her chiropractor's, my cousin told us, when the doctor started talking about "energy." Oh no, I thought to myself, now we're in for a lecture on the evils of chakras. And I was right, of course -- the next part of the story was what the woman saw. Horns, we were told, tiny red horns growing out of her chiropractor's hair. My cousin delivered the punchline with all the drama of an urban legend ghost story.

Bullshit, I thought.

"Bullshit," my cousin's husband said (or some less offensive equivalent, given I'm the only person in the car who speaks like that).

My hackles went up. I was on the defensive. It was not a rational reaction, I'll admit, but a purely instinctual one, based less on the conversation we were having at that moment than on many relatively dissimilar conversations I'd had in the past. Nonetheless -- defensive, for another person expressing an opinion I'd just had myself.

"You think she was lying?" my cousin asked her husband.

"I didn't say that," he said. Sure you did, I thought. "I just don't think chiropractors necessarily have horns."

I think you can guess where the argument went from there. My cousin argued for the metaphorical but nonetheless significantly real nature of the chiropractor's horns, while her husband argued for the effects of psychological projection and expectation. And I, to my surprise, was on my cousin's side. Will's outright dismissal of the very possibility of the woman's vision got under my magic-believing skin, and I found myself arguing the case of a Bible-believing Christian who cringes at the slightest mention of "energies." Thing is, I'm still not sure I was wrong.

At the risk of wandering into the realm of extreme relativism, what right do I have not to believe her? Because I disagree with her supposed conclusion? All she said she saw (or all my cousin said she saw; I'm several degrees removed, here) were horns; clearly she meant them to be demonic, but I wouldn't have interpreted them that way, so why can't I take someone else's report and interpret it from my own frame of reference?

Is this extreme relativism? Maybe. I keep coming back, though, to one of the main differences between Paganism and Christianity. Christianity, even more than most of the Book religions, is an exclusionary system -- it doesn't recognize the validity of other systems. (Exceptions, yes, noted.) Paganism however, at least the branches I feel comfortable practicing in, recognizes the validity of other viewpoints, the viability of many paths. I won't say that it's none of my business if this woman thinks her chiropractor is demonic, because of course it is. If she associates the slightest mention of chakra energy with the worship of Satan, that is not only unfriendly but (given the precedent) threatening to myself and to Paganism in general. I will say, however, that immediately disbelieving her experience is also unfriendly, and counterproductive.

I want to make a point here about solidarity, scientific proof, and belief, and the association of liberal with scientific, but I can't quite find it. I want to find a way to express my conviction that if magic is real, then faith-healing is too, and speaking in tongues, and being "born again." There are charlatans in Paganism and Christianity alike, but that doesn't mean they're not ripping off something that actually happens, something genuine. If I can disbelieve this woman just because she's Christian, that cheapens the reality of magic as a whole, because I can reject whole categories of experience out of hand with the same sort of value judgements many people use to write off magic.

Maybe this evangelical woman is a bad example to use; the whole story smacks strongly of preconcieved notions and agendas to be made. I probably should have written about the book The Serpent Handlers which I read for my anthropology of religion class a couple of years ago, which touches on a subject that might be more understandable to magic-believing Pagans. But my reaction to this conversation has stuck with me, so clearly it means something. I still feel like I'm wandering around a rather extreme point, but I haven't put my stake in the ground there just yet, and after all, you have to understand the edges of where you'll go before you can figure out where you are.

Learning & Borrowing

Jun 18, 2006
I've finally found time to catch up on my podcast listening, and today I heard the Deó's Shadow interview with Janet Farrar (I know I'm really behind, shush, school ate my life before now). It was a great interview -- Janet Farrar is an important person to modern Paganism, and a strong and fascinating personality to boot. I particularly liked one of the things she talked about, which was her interest in studying contemporary indigenous religions and magical systems rather than continually looking to Europe's past as the sole source for modern Pagans. I think she's right; what we know about original European paganism is vague at best, and our understanding of it will always be colored by the means by which we get information about it: through Christian sources.

I am a little wary of the way she phrased the issue, though. She talked specifically about visiting groups in Australia and South Africa which still practice traditional religions and magics, and recommended learning about pagan styles of worship and ritual from them. While I'm not familiar with the details of the political situations there, I do know that many of the indigenous North American groups which practice traditional ways of life do so in much the same way as modern Pagans do, as reconstructions. Because of colonization, acculturation, and various other changes in lifestyle that come from a shift to a capitalist culture, traditional religion often almost completely died out before it was recorded (often by Euro-American anthropologists, in North America) and resurrected in common practice. The time difference between these groups and modern Euro-Pagans is huge, of course, but we may be in more of a similar situation than we realize.

What Janet talked about, though, is a perfect example of the kind of eclecticism I try to practice -- understanding how other people do things in order to better understand and formulate your own practice, without rampaging through their traditions and picking out bits as you see fit. As I said, it was a great interview, for that and many other reasons, and I highly recommend it for anyone who hasn't already heard it (you can download it from that link above).

Strict Eclecticism

Jun 14, 2006
[It looks like the first few posts here are going to be a running commentary of me and what I believe; it might be a little self-indulgent, but I can't think of a better way to start out a Pagan blog, given that there's no shorthand for things like this that I know of. I'm still sorting out what else I want to put in here, so expect more of the same for a couple of weeks, I suppose.]

I've only ever flirted with specific, defined traditions briefly, and never seriously. The closest I ever got was reading quite a bit about Celtic Reconstructionism in my first couple of years of Paganism, but I quickly decided it wasn't for me. I attribute it to my lack of focus -- I can't pick just one hobby, or one academic interest, so why should I expect myself to stick to one religious tradition? There's more to it than that, of course; the academic part of my brain quickly diverts to terms like "nativistic movement" and "authentic culture," and academic anthropology, as I've learned the hard way, doesn't have much to do with living your faith.

From a practical standpoint, I just can't do it. I find strict reconstructionism ridiculous; we do not live in the same world for which that religion was designed. But our world is different not only because of our level of removal from the actual day-to-day process of living; it is also different because of what we know about our world. The gods of any particular pantheon are not the only ones we have ever heard of. Granted, we may not be particularly familiar with Kali, or Odin, or Haephestus, or Brigid, but we have heard the names before, and it isn't too difficult to look them up. Once I know that Rhiannon and Diana are so similar as to be different names for the same thing, I can never un-know it. Once the knowledge exists it will never go away, and to ignore the opportunities that gives me is downright neglectful. (What to do with that knowledge, I'm still struggling with.)

That doesn't mean I don't understand a traditionalist viewpoint; I remember explaining the ethnic affiliations of Asatru to one of my anthro classes last year and feeling a strong resonance with the idea that who your grandparents were has some bearing on who you are. I deal predominantly with Celtic deities because the parts of my family I most strongly identify with are Irish. But at the same time, everything we know about the Celtic deities has been filtered through Romans and Christians (at the very least) and the Celts were hardly a unified group of people, themselves. "Celtic" isn't a single tradition, it's a mix of many things, just like everything else.

I also understand the indignation of people whose traditions have been pillaged, however. Kabbala is a strong example: in the Jewish tradition it hails from, there are strict restrictions on who can study Kabbala and what they can say about it or do with it. Over the years it's been borrowed by everyone from Alestair Crowley to Madonna, and I can understand people who get offended at that. It's key, I think, in order for eclecticism to be something really generative and worthwhile and as respectful as possible, not to borrow from other traditions as much as be inspired by them. It's a bit like plagiarism, I suppose: to inspire someone is flattering, but to be plagiarized is annoying at best, and deeply insulting at worst.