Jun 9, 2007
So the second part of my paganism and feminism post is taking a little longer than I thought it would (that's always the way, isn't it; the rant comes easy, but the thinky bit is hard) and then I also realized that I had read Patricia Monaghan's The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog ages ago and never properly wrote a review of it like I intended to.

It's a hard book to classify; part travelogue, part memoir, part mythology and folklore. It's very much a book about Ireland, but at the same time, she covers a lot about how we relate to our world and how people live their lives and their religion in general. It was also hugely moving; I only have notes on the first half of it, because by the second half I was so wrapped up in the stories she was telling and the images she was invoking that I just completely forgot. (I had to stop reading it at work because I hate crying in front of people.)

Monaghan divides the book into five sections, one for each of Ireland's provinces, and digs into the local mythology, history, politics, and people in each one. A couple of months later, many of the details of the stories are escaping me, but I remember two very vividly -- her chapter on Brigid and the Brigidine Sisters of Kildare, with the story of how Brigid's Flame was accidentally relighted at a Candlemas ceremony, and the mention of this stone in Loughcrew Cemetary.

That stone right there -- the pointy one in the middle foreground. The memory of the afternoon we spent at Loughcrew came back with a really shocking vividness at her one-sentence description. I could pick out the stone she mentioned immediately; I remember sitting next to it to take pictures of the cairn. (I also have a picture of a Goth girl standing in that stone circle that's one of my favorites from that trip, just for what it represents.) I remembered hiking up the long hill path, observed by uninterested sheep. I remember looking out over the countryside, modern farms on one side and old stone fences on the other, trying to spot the Hill of Tara. I more than remembered it, it was like a gut-punch, a flood of emotions and a sense of connection -- we had touched that same stone, she and I, and wondered about the people who put it there. This must be what the big deal is all about, I thought.

The main focus of The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog is locality -- what it means to be from a particular place, to know it intimately enough to recognize that particular stone from one sentence on a page and a year's distance in time, and not just that stone, but every stone and tree and hill. In Ireland, Monoghan describes, everything has a name. That bend in the road, that tree on the hill, that stone circle, that well, that grassy spot that doesn't look like much of anything to outsiders. It makes the landscape...not bigger, but more. It gives it depth and shape in directions that storyless landscape doesn't have.

I've never really felt that way about a place. Oh, I get a little thrill of recognition when people mention my hometown, and for a week I told everybody about the Harlan Ellison story where he mentions the town I went to college in, but it never really meant anything to me. I think that's why I've always been a little blah about this talk of connection to the land that crops up so often in Paganism. I understand it intellectually, but it doesn't have a lot of emotional resonance for me.

Except, apparently, for Loughcrew Cemetary.

Monoghan actually confronts that issue reasonably well; she talks about how Americans -- or rather, all non-Native-Americans -- have a tough time relating to land in that way because we don't always feel like we really belong here. We don't know the stories about every nook and cranny of land, because they've never been told to us, and even if they were, they would be slightly alien, because stories that old come from a culture that is not ours. She skips a point that makes me feel uncomfortable about both her book and my reaction to that Loughcrew stone, though. Modern Irish culture is, quite possibly, just as alien to me as pre-colonial Native-American culture. To say that I "naturally" have a stronger connection to the Irish landscape because my great-great-grandfather emigrated from there is nonsense. I know more about it, and I know it in a way that makes sense to me, but that's all.

Besides, I'm not so sure a lack of that kind of deep connection to the land is an inherently bad thing anyway, or a thing that is lacking in spirituality. There is something to be said for abstraction, too. No, not abstraction -- I'm looking for a word that isn't liminality, but it's such a good word, you'll have to keep it. :) A state of not-belonging, of not-knowing, of being questionable and questioning and having one's relationship with the Universe being constantly negotiable. When Victor Turner first coined the term he didn't think it was possible to exist in a liminal state for long periods of time, but he's been shown to be wrong. (Maybe the time frame is off and we're looking at a society in a liminal period?) But I have that kind of emotional connection to liminality that so many people seem to have to land and place and locality. I can't articulate it, but it makes me happy, and it makes the world seem like a bigger place, in much the same way Monoghan describes that kind of locality doing for land-based people.

Religion In the Media

Jun 4, 2007
Yesterday morning, as usual, I listened to On the Media while getting ready for work, and there was a segment introduced as "religion in the media." And I, foolish Pagan, had a brief thought that maybe, just maybe, someone was going to talk about something other than Christianity.

I was, of course, wrong; it was a segment on whether the Religious Right deserves all the media attention it gets. It's a fair point -- the vast majority of American Christians are not right-wing nutbars, but the media makes it sound like they are, which causes both people who already dislike right-wing Christians to dislike all Christians and causes moderate Christians to become more right-wing because of the impression they get that only right-wingers are real Christians. It's a problem, and more media coverage of non-lunatic-fringe people would help solve it. But.

But. I just wish that for once, for the love of the gods, someone in the media would remember that religious and Christian are not interchangable words.

Paganism and Feminism: long time coming

Jun 2, 2007
One of the many things that continue to saw away at the back of my mind as I attempt to work modern Paganism as I understand it into a religion for me is this niggling conflict I've always felt between Wiccan and ceremonial symbolism and feminism. I used to be able to ignore it, but as feminism has become more important to me, the issue has been increasingly shoved forward.

It's this gender association thing, you see. Look up any table of magickal correspondences, page through any Wiccan ritual, and nearly everything there will be assigned to either male or female. Fire and Air are masculine; Earth and Water are feminine. Swords and Staves are masculine; Cups and Coins are feminine. The Sun, nine times out of ten, is masculine and the Moon feminine. And why?

The feminist part of my brain recoils at all this gender-labeling, saying, so why are femininte things always passive/reflective/yielding/receptive and masculine things are always dominant/assertive/aggresive/powerful? Is that really such a good idea that things always get divided up that way? (Not to mention -- isn't it redundant? If what you want to say is that a thing is aggressive, say it's aggressive. It reminds me of an archaeological survey of a graveyard once. This is a female's grave, it was labeled; we know this because it has female things in it, like pots and spinning tools. We know these are female things because they are always found in female graves. Well, lovely. Did you look at the bones? No, they didn't.)

Now to be fair, Wicca and modern Paganism do avoid associating women exclusively with feminine things and men exclusively with masculine things, both with the gods and with practitioners. But, well, it's still an association, and it's still there. Maybe if that same set of associations weren't so destructively pervasive in the wider society it wouldn't bother me so much, but they are, and for all practical purposes they always have been, and I'm wary of letting yet another religion perpetuate them unquestioning.

(Well if you don't like Wicca, don't practice Wicca, you might say. All right. How? Short of going the strict reconstructionist route -- and that won't get rid of the gender roles problem, just move it around a bit -- you won't find a modern incarnation of Paganism that isn't influenced by Wicca at least a little bit. Gender roles are pretty basic, and thus pretty widespread.)

Truth told, I feel very freed by my realization, upon reading Hutton, that there's nothing fundamentally feminist about Wicca at all. (And like Deborah Lipp posted ages ago, worshipping a Goddess doesn't necessarily make you feminist. It doesn't even necessarily make you not misogynistic.) I feel like I can stop trying to justify things I don't like about it so much because no, there was no chain of logic I would have agreed with behind it, so I can stop trying to look for what isn't there and just work on what works for me. One of the benefits of a young religion, I suppose; it's possible to do enough research to know when to stop.

None of this is news to people interested in feminism, I know. There's a second half to this post that I'm working on; it's a little more productive, I think, in looking at alternatives but as such it's taking me more time to work out...