A few years ago, I lived next to a small bit of forest. The place became my grove, my hiding place from the world, a place of raw nature and unmediated experience away from the city and the internet and people.
It became a place of ‘pure being,’ and damn I fucking loved that place. There, I could ignore the really miserable conditions of city life. Capitalism didn’t matter there. Left/Right didn’t matter there. My rent payments and utility bills and job didn’t matter there.
The forest was Outside all that, a gate to the Other.
One day, it rained, so I hurried to the forest to go play in the stream. I loved that stream. I loved the spirits there– they always jabbing me for being too serious. We’d play, or I’d play and feel them playing with me. In fact, that whole place was the only site in the world I could truly be a kid again, could play without care.
I was playing on a log when I saw the blue-black stain. I’d been watching the water cascade under pressed leaves and fallen branch, listening to the laughter of the small waterfalls. I would let my fingers trace patterns into the water, something I used to always do as a child, but this time I pulled my hand out of the water and saw it.
It was motor oil.
I sloshed through the mud to try to find the source, hoping someone had just discarded a near empty bottle of the stuff somewhere upstream. But no–the blue-black stain came from farther up, pouring through one of the culverts from which the stream was daylighted.
I tried to gather dead plants that could filter this stuff out, but the rain was pouring so hard that I couldn’t. And once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it–the stuff was everywhere. Worse–I could tell that it had been there for a while, much of it there much longer than I had ever noticed.
In my horror and panic I slipped, fell face-first into the mud, getting so much of it in one eye that it became infected..
Laying face-down in the mud, I could feel the spirits with whom I’d always played, and the gods I’d invited to share the space looking at me, sadly. It seemed they were watching a beloved child first learning an awful truth about the world.
I had lost my innocence, but the place hadn’t. The spirits there would have known all this long before I did. I wonder if the attention I felt from them–one of sorrow and sympathy–was them remembering the first time that oil came into the stream. Remembering the time the blue-black stain entered their home, the moment they knew they were not safe.
This forest had felt like a completely apolitical, safe, wild, raw place where I could speak with my gods and be spoken to. It was a sacred place where I could revere them, build them small shrines and leave offerings in the trunks of trees. But it was also, undeniably a site of politics.
All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
–The Communist Manifesto
Perhaps the most common worry about the work we do with Gods&Radicals is that, because we are writing about the gods, the earth, the ancestors and each other through a political lens, we are somehow politicizing the sacred. Ritual circles, magic, ancestor veneration, polytheist reconstruction–these are things we like to consider as safe, set-apart, all existing in a realm where government and economics don’t matter.
But unfortunately, like the blue-black motor oil coating the stream of my grove, the places we think of as outside the political never actually are. In fact, our very notions of ‘outside’ and ‘sacred’ were created through politics. Our idea of what is Sacred (‘set apart’) comes from Roman law by way of Christianity.
In Rome, sacer meant something that was set apart, outside common use, outside society or the city. Sacer also made no distinction between what was holy or cursed. Sacer, was both a religious and a legal concept. It was the place where Roman law couldn’t apply. Things made sacer were outside the realm of politics, but the category of what was sacer was created through the political order where the political order did not apply.
People who were banished from the cities for broken oaths or horrible crimes were consigned to that realm, their fates left ‘to the gods,‘ becoming ‘homo sacer,‘ or ‘sacred man.’ And because they were excluded from society, they were also excluded from the protection of the law. Anyone could kill people in the category of homo sacer without fear of being punished.
Through Christianity, sacer became ‘sacred.’ As in Rome, it was also a political category, becoming the opposite of both ‘the profane’ (which the original sense never meant) and the opposite of the Secular.
The Church then named themselves the authority on what was within the sacred realm. Just as Rome had used priests, diviners, and the gods as justification for their political authority, The Church continued this tradition, becoming the ‘sacred authority’ which justified the rule of monarchs, or what was called the Divine Right of Kings.
‘Sacred,’ then, was always tied to the political, but there was always at least some degree of separation between the two (in Rome, the realm of sacer; in Europe, the split between ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ authority). Unfortunately, under both Capitalism and Democracy, there is nothing outside the reach of the State or the exploitation of Capital–not even our bodies.
Is the body a sacred place, free from politics? Ask most women. The fact that birth control pills require a prescription in many countries is proof that sex, conception, and a woman’s uterus are controlled by politics.
The problem is this–there is no legal definition of what is untouched by politics and power. There is no “bare life,” no sacred. And this doesn’t just affect how governments see human life, but also how we see our own lives, our own bodies, and the sacred.
Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoē and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city….
…In the camps, city and house became indistinguishable, and the possibility of differentiating between our biological body and our political body — between what is incommunicable and mute and what is communicable and sayable — was taken from us forever.
Georgio Agamben, Homo Sacer
Our very notions of what makes us human were also created through political processes, much of which occurred in the last few hundred years. Gender, race, sexuality–all these are political categories, rather than deriving from nature. And, worse–Nature is another politically-created category, and the physical places we go to in order to be in Nature are also subject to politics.
Not convinced? Consider National Parks and Wildlife Reserves in North America–not only are such places created by law, but they were once previously inhabited by indigenous peoples who were displaced or killed, in many cases to create those parks in the first place.
There is no ‘outside.’ There is no realm where our existence is out of the reach of political forces. No matter how much we pretend, no matter how much we try to ignore the blue-black stain in the streams of our sacred places, there is no place to escape.
Feeling disenchanted? It’s okay. When I saw the blue-black stain in my sacred grove, I felt that way too.
But seeing how political forces have shaped our existence, seeing how there is nowhere sacred anymore is really the beginning of wisdom. Disenchantment isn’t just failing to see the world as magical, it’s also losing our illusions about how easy it will be to get that magic back. The world didn’t stop being sacred, we did.
But, as I said–this is the beginning of wisdom. Pretending that there are still parts of our existence that are safe from politics won’t get us anywhere. And recognizing this but falling into despair won’t help, either.
Instead, we must fight. We must become magical again. We must become the sacred.
Every part of our existence has become colonized–even our very ideas about magic, the gods, the sacred and ourselves. Reclaiming the sacred will take a lot more than just casting ritual circles and spell, setting up altars or giving worship to forgotten gods. Though these are certainly great places to start, ritual and magic, devotion and offerings become no more than fantasy-play if it changes nothing in the world or about ourselves.
Seeing the blue-black stain is the beginning of wisdom.
Everything after is revolt.
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. His second book, A Kindness of Ravens is available now.