On the Wings of Birds
The phrase ‘Gods & Radicals’, was something of a koan to me when I first considered submitting material to this journal. I’m wary of the term ‘radical’ which so often slips from its original meaning of ‘seeking change from the root up’ into the values-empty ‘change by whatever means necessary’. On a recent walk, however, I found the two words ‘Gods’ and ‘Radicals’ suddenly coming together very naturally …
Making Space for the Other-s
Sometime ago I made a small contribution to a fund-raising campaign to save a gravel pit near my home from commercial development; the intention being to turn it into a wildlife reserve and public space. Amazingly, even in this time of economic austerity, the appeal raised the full amount needed; including £90,000 ($13,7228) from the local community. Then, within mere months of the local Wildlife Trust carrying out the initial habitat creation work, many previously unrecorded or rare species quickly began to arrive; including over a 1000 spiritually iconic and critically endangered northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). That, I realised, is radical! And the fact that so many lapwing arrived so quickly got me to thinking about the status of other displaced beings, including gods, and how they may be wandering and dwindling for want of a place.
Diversity is a hallmark of Gods & Radicals, and a happy one, but I suspect that a common value we may well all share is the certainty that just as we are embodied beings in need of a tangible life-world, so too – in a different but parallel sense – are the gods. One of the definitive phases in the history of disenchantment was surely when people were successfully sold the idea that we need only make a shrine for the sacred ‘in our hearts’.
Not only is there now a new place for a much wider-diversity of beings to exist in my immediate area but local people have gained access to a 115 acre space were they can interact with those beings and with the elements. This again is radical since nearly every other sizeable green space in the area is a private golf course (and our one public local wood is threatened by development). You could say that it is a win for local people’s mental health as much as it is for wildlife.
From a polytheistic point of view it is also, I believe, a small strategic victory in the long-term project of acknowledging the gods and Other-s. A 2014 BBC survey found that two thirds of the British public could not identify the songs of common garden birds such as blackbirds, sparrows or robins. Another 2014 survey by the British Wildlife Centre found that 95 per cent of young children were unable to identify UK animals such as squirrels and otters. If people are unable to identify, are unaware of, or fail to pay attention to other beings such as these; how will they ever apprehend the gods and spirits (especially those which are elusive and reticent after centuries of neglect)? Gradually extending people’s opportunities to encounter the Other-s is a vital step in the process of reenchantment.
What could be an agalma for today?
I think that my comments above make a pretty strong case, but consider this also …
In many historical polytheistic religions, and some modern ones, we find the concept of making gifts or forms to attract and woo the attention of the gods and Other-s. In Hellenic polytheism – at one time – such a gift, often a votive statue, was called an agalma (άγαλμα).
Back then producing something like a bronze statue would have demanded a considerable sacrifice from an individual or community and so it was a highly meaningful gift.  While I am not claiming that producing such an item would be cheap nowadays, the fact remains that what constitutes a sacrifice to us now is very different. Although I’m currently between contracts, the public servant’s wage that I earnt for a decade (which was several thousand pounds below the national average salary) put me in the richest 4% of the world population. In such circumstances, for many of us, what constitutes scarcity is not material goods but space and so-called ‘free time’. These are the two things that are hard for us to access and therefore some of the most precious things we can give.
Another illuminating thing about the history of the agalma is that Lacanian theory borrowed and psychologised this term, allowing Slavoj Žižek to make the striking observation that:
‘What characterizes European civilization […] is precisely its ex-centered character—the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object-cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of our own civilization.’ 
Considering what might constitute an agalma for today, I’ve suggested that this is time and space. Bearing Žižek’s comment in mind, it then becomes clear why we fall so easily into the activity of colonisation, and it also becomes clear why the careful creation of common spaces within our own societies is so important as an anti-colonial activity.
Equally important to note is that when engaged in both of these activities, colonialism or anti-colonialism, we tend to fill the spaces and time that we claim or reclaim so as to constitute what we – in our loss and yearning – imagine would be a suitable divine lure. In other words we are impatient and assume too much, creating a mirror of our own wants rather than a habitat for the Other-s. As such, excited though I am about what beings I may encounter, I’ll not be preemptively anticipating the presence or attention of any specific deities at the site of the new nature reserve; instead heeding the advice of the poet and anarchist Gary Snyder who says in his book The Practice of the Wild:
‘There’s no rush about calling things sacred. I think we should be patient, and give the land a lot of time to tell us or the people of the future. The cry of a Flicker, the funny urgent chatter of a Grey Squirrel, the acorn whack on a barn roof – are signs enough.’ 
Given time and space – both reclaimed in an ethical way – displaced gods may return and new ones arrive; their coming heralded by the wings of birds.
~ Accipiter Nisus
- I could not find an average cost for an agalma type image but Judith Swaddling states on a BBC history article that “Statues of bronze or marble [commissioned by Olympic athletes] could cost up to ten years’ wages for the average worker” (and would often have to be sponsored by the state). Today a 21 cm tall lost-wax bronze statue imported from Nepal via an ethical company costs around one to two months average UK discretionary income (what’s left after paying for food, utilities and travel).
- Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, (Counterpoint: Berkeley 1990, pp.102-103)
- Slavoj Žižek, From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism (Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001)