What is Pagan Anarchism?

Prayer to Our Lady of Anarchy

 

Oh black-robed lady with the bleeding eyes,

Red-belted, standing on an open book,

With hands outstretched but empty. Hear our cries!

In dread and sorrow for the things you’ve seen

You weep for us. And yet your heart is fire.

Oh red and black Madonna, let desire

Come blazing through us till we cannot sleep.

Destroy our apathy

And help us keep

Our covenant with rage,

Our own bright fire.

And let our eyes bleed with the same desire

Until the day arrives when we shall see

Fulfillment of the prophecy

That someday soon, a flood

Shall cleanse these streets and wash your cheeks of blood.

In Spain before the Civil War, anarchism was known as “the Idea,” and anarchist activists had a reputation for almost monastic austerity and self-discipline. Despite these semi-religious overtones, the far majority of them were atheists and many were militantly hostile to organized religion. Today’s anarchist movement still includes many atheists, but also a large minority of religious people – including pagans. Pagan anarchism is a reality, a fact which would probably surprise many of the past adherents of “the Idea.” So what exactly is pagan anarchism?

Paganism and anarchism are both hard to define, because so many people attach so many different meanings to both words. To understand how these two ideas can work together, we first have to understand what they each mean separately.

“Paganism” in particular can mean a lot of different things. Many of the people who use the word now are referring to one particular type of pagan religion loosely based on Wicca. Many of them are not even aware that the terms “pagan” and “Wiccan” are not synonyms, or that there are types of paganism with little similarity to Wicca. Scholars often use the word “pagan” to refer to the polytheistic religions of pre-Christian Europe, some of which were fully organized religions with State support. Modern reconstructionist pagans look to these ancient forms of polytheism for inspiration and try to systematically reconstruct these ancient practices.

I’m using the word in a broader sense, to refer to folk religious and magical practices focused on nature spirits, fairies, the dead and the gods. Paganism in this broader sense did not end with the Christian conversion, because it was never limited to “organized religion” in the first place. Regular people all over Europe continued to leave offerings for the fairies and the dead many centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. They didn’t think of themselves as “pagans” in any formal sense, but they still thought of the world around them as being filled with spirits and their daily spiritual practices reflected this worldview. They still believed in local fairy queens and fairy kings, entities that would have been understood as gods before the Christian conversion. They also retained a semi-polytheistic worldview in the veneration of saints, many of which were not recognized as saints officially by the church and a few of which were originally pre-Christian gods.

Peasants resisting feudalism sometimes turned to this tradition of magic and spirit worship for aid against their oppressors. For instance, Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie documents how folk beliefs about fairy kings and the malevolent dead were used by magic practitioners in 17th century Scotland to curse feudal landowners.

During the time of the enclosures, rebels in Ireland described themselves as followers of the fairy queen Sadhbh, angered by the enclosure of the commons. There are a number of similar accounts from other areas, showing that folk magical and religious practices were not merely “the opium of the people” but could be invoked to inspire struggles against oppression.

So when I talk about “paganism,” I’m not necessarily talking about Wicca and I’m not necessarily talking about a meticulous reconstruction of pre-Christian polytheism. I’m talking about the religious and magical practices of the common people – centered on fairy spirits, the dead and other entities such as saints or gods. These practices existed alongside organized religion yet distinct from it, before the Christian conversion and after it. People cultivated relationships with the spirits of nature, the dead and other entities for help with their practical daily problems – including how to effectively resist oppression. When you combine this type of religious practice with anarchism, you get pagan anarchism. So what is anarchism?

 Most people interpret the word “anarchy” to mean “a society without a government,” but even though an anarchist society would not have a government as we now conceive of it, that isn’t really the origin of the word. The word comes from the Greek prefix an or “without” and arkhos or “ruler.” In other words, no bosses.

I’d like to suggest that this is a more useful way to understand the word, because it helps us clarify what anarchy is and what it isn’t.

When we think of the word “anarchy” as meaning “no bosses,” it’s clear that many of the ideas people refer to as types of anarchism really shouldn’t be described that way. If you want to live in a Mad Max world of warlords and warriors, you are not an anarchist. A fractured society of armed bands loyal to local warlords is not a society with no bosses – it’s a society with far too many of them! An anarchist society would have to reject the rule of petty local tyrants.

If you want to live in a world where anyone can do whatever they want at any time even if that means hurting or violating other people, you are not an anarchist. A society where bullies are allowed free reign is not a society with no bosses – it’s a society where any sociopath can become your boss by simply overpowering you. An anarchist society would have to aggressively reject all forms of domination and mistreatment.

If you want to live in a world where business is totally unregulated because there is no government, you are not an anarchist. A society with a “free market” but no government is not a society with no bosses – it’s a society where your boss is all-powerful and there’s nothing you can do about it because your only options are to obey or starve. An anarchist society would have to reject the capitalist economic system.

So there are not as many different types of anarchism as there might seem to be. There are various political philosophies that are opposed to the State, but not necessarily to other types of domination and oppression – so-called national anarchism, anarcho-capitalism and so forth. None of these philosophies should logically be described as forms as anarchism, because none of them actually aim to get rid of bosses.

There are also varieties of anarchism that critique anarchist thought from one perspective or another, such as anarcha-feminism or queer anarchism. These movements don’t reject core anarchist values the way anarcho-capitalism does. Instead they call other anarchists to fully examine the implications of those values.

Finally, there is also a strong tradition of individualist anarchism. Personally I see this more as a difference of emphasis than a core disagreement. All anarchist philosophies aim to give individuals the greatest possible range of personal freedom.

However, not everyone values freedom highly enough to respect the freedom of others. When other people won’t respect your autonomy, you can stand up to them on your own if you’re strong enough – but there’s no way you can always be strong enough. The only way you can ever be secure in your autonomy is to actively protect the autonomy of others. Passively respecting their autonomy (as in Right Libertarianism) is not enough, because it still leaves them without your direct assistance against bullies and predators – and thus leaves you without theirs. If you want autonomy, you must have solidarity.

The only way for people to successfully resist the tyranny of would-be warlords, sociopathic predators and capitalist exploiters is to stand together, on the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” That means that anarchism is logically a form of communism.

Some anarchists use the word anarcho-communism. This sounds like it must describe a particular sect within anarchism, but in my opinion it really just clarifies what the word “anarchism” logically implies.

If some people have more than they need while others struggle, then the people who have more than they need will obviously become the bosses.

If you want to create a society with no bosses, you have to get rid of economic inequality – and that means getting rid of private property and restoring the commons. Personal property such as your own living space would not be a problem for a society without bosses, but private property beyond what you can personally use would have to be a concept unrecognized by the society. If any person tried to claim ownership of more property than needed for personal use, other people would be free to simply disregard the claim.

A society with no bosses would still have to have a way to get things done. The only way you can get things done when no one has the power to tell everyone else what to do is to get together and talk it out. You can talk until you all agree on a course of action, in which case you have consensus. Or you can agree that you’ll talk for a while, take a vote and then abide voluntarily by the results of the vote. So, a society with no bosses would have to be directly democratic.

There’s no way to run a directly democratic society on a massive scale, so a society without bosses would have to be decentralized. However, there’s also no way for tiny communities like that to be completely independent, so they would have to work with other such communities in some sort of loose federation. An anarchist society would be a federation of directly democratic people’s assemblies with no concept of private property. This is the society described by most of the major anarchist thinkers, although the details vary.

So much for theory. For whatever reason, anarchists have developed an unfortunate reputation for sectarian dogmatism. If you look up “anarchism” online, you will find many densely-argued debates about the tiniest points of anarchist doctrine. This is somewhat ridiculous – in a society with no bosses, how can there possibly be one perfect system?

I believe that anarchism should be broadly understood in the terms given here, but that any sort of pre-set anarchist dogma is a contradiction in terms. Any revolutionary project based on the principles of autonomy and solidarity is a step in the right direction, and quibbles about the exact system and whether it’s “truly anarchist” are a waste of time. It doesn’t even matter whether the people involved in the project call it “anarchism” or not. If it manifests general principles of moving away from rule by bosses and toward “power from below” then anarchists ought to give it their support.

In my opinion, we shouldn’t think of anarchism as a doctrine or a system, but as a critique of all existing systems – including those created or supported by anarchists. Anarchism is an approach to political philosophy in which you take a critical stance toward all claims of authority, and advocate for decentralization, equality, autonomy and communal decision-making. It can never become a finished project; the revolution must be perpetual.

If anarchism was a system or dogma, it could never achieve its goals without converting the majority of people to its cause. This is extremely unlikely, but it is also unnecessary. In times of chaos and the fall of empires, there are two different ways people can potentially respond – by falling in behind warlords and petty gangsters, or by working together in a spirit of mutual aid and cooperation. History provides examples of both; it’s never written in stone. As human beings, we get to choose which path we will take.

Because human beings have an instinctive capacity for mutual aid, it is simply not necessary to convert everyone to anarchism. In the right circumstances, people will embrace communal structures of mutual aid and decision-making whether they think of themselves as anarchists or not. For example, the far majority of the people involved in the Occupy movement would not have identified as anarchists, but Occupy still used an anarchist model of decision-making. The role of the anarchist is to critique authority and promote autonomy and solidarity, but not to try to lead anyone to anything.

Nantes Fountain Hardcore
River Goddess, Bretagne

Defining paganism and anarchism as I have done here, how do the two ideas work together? It all comes down to your experience of spirits. If you’ve never interacted with spirits and you perceive the world in purely mechanical terms, then you may see spirit practices as a form of superstition and an aid to various forms of oppression. If you interact with spirits and perceive the world as being filled with spirits, then you can form relationships with those spirits just as you can with human beings or animals. Pagan practices are simply ways of interacting with the spirits all around us, ways of being in relationship with them. This has political implications.

For instance, if the world is a dead and mechanical place then you can blow up a mountain to get the coal inside it without worrying about anything other than the practical implications. If the mountain is seen as a living thing, imbued with spirit, and a home to a number of other spirits, then you can’t just do that. You have to respect the autonomy of the spirit world along with the human world. You have to stand in solidarity to resist and defeat anyone trying to commit the crime of blowing up the mountain.

If a river is just a body of water, you can dump poison in it without worrying about anything other than whether you might need to drink that water later. It’s a different matter entirely if you think of it as poisoning a goddess.

If the world as a whole is just a rock we happen to live on, we can use and exploit anything we find on that rock until there’s nothing else to use up. Of course, we’d die then – but it’s always easy to forget about tomorrow and think only about today. If the world as a whole is alive and filled with spirit, treating everything as an exploitable object starts to look like the greatest crime in all of history.

Although the majority of modern pagans are not anti-capitalists, there is a fundamental contradiction between the pagan and capitalist worldviews. The worldview of capitalism is sociopathic – it treats everything and everyone as an object to be used. The worldview of paganism is relational – not only does it not treat people or animals as mere objects, it doesn’t look at anything else as a mere object either.

Earlier forms of anarchism were atheistic because organized religion was a force of oppression. People are going to go on having spiritual experiences anyway, so perhaps the answer is not to deny those experiences but to acknowledge and celebrate them. If organized religion is the opium of the people, magical religion can be our medicine – healing us and giving us the strength to fight for a better world.


cst-photoChristopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

Prayer to the Storm God in a Time of Conflict

 

A flicker of white light across the sky

As lightning cuts the clouds. The god is here,

A sword blade flashes by

And all the sky comes clear.

As near and far the clashing shields

Across celestial battlefields

Cast echoes through the night, but don’t destroy.

The god is fighting for the simple joy

The sweetness of pure movement, the delight

Of perfect action, flawless, self-contained.

The sky is cut in two

This night.

Its blood pours down on us as rain.

God, let our deeds be true.

And as the cities fill with restless crowds

Like heavy, lightning-bearing clouds,

Grant us the strength to fight

Like sheets of blinding light

And let us take no joy in causing pain

But only cut the sky to bring the rain.

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.


Christopher Scott Thompson is one of the many writers featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here. The digital edition is also on sale now.

Goetia

Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica from Scarlet Imprint traces the buried roots of the grimoire tradition in cthonic practices, especially those of the ancient goes or necromancers. While I was reading the Geosophia, Volume II of this work, a poem started to come to me. It represents the ritual trance induction song of a goes preparing for a journey to the underworld such as those described by Stratton-Kent. You can think of it as a book review in verse!

Goetia

 

To the tune of “In the Pines”

 

I will moan

I will moan

I will moan

I will moan

Dressed in rags, and my hair will be down.

Oh, you spirits in flight

Ride on moths through the night

And alight at the top of my crown.

 

Now my head with their dead dreams is swarming

I am not what I was, I can tell.

By the price I have paid

And the magic I’ve made

I will go on a voyage to hell.

 

I will go

I will go

I will go

I will go

On the sea of the whispering dead

With a wreathe on my brow

And a head on my prow

And a crown for the murmuring head.

 

And the crown will be made out of iron

And the eyes of the dead they will burn

And the head will proclaim

All their barbarous names

So the gates will swing wide

In their turn.

 

I will sing

I will sing

I will sing

I will sing

As I walk through the ash and the rain

By the mountains of glass

Made of dreams that have passed

And the bones of the giants in chains.

 

Oh their blood with the starlight is seething.

When I drink of it, I will be dumb.

In my silence I’ll weep

For their dreams in the deep.

In my sorrow for what

They’ve become.

 

In the kingdom below, there are regions –

Some of fire, some of ice, some of stone.

There are oceans of mud

There are rivers of blood

There are forests of hair and of bone.

 

There are spirits sublime and most subtle.

There are others both vulgar and strange.

There are spirits who fly

Through the underground sky.

There are others who burrow and change.

 

If you wish to be allied with legions

And to know all their names and their signs

You must enter your mark

In the book, in the dark

You must drink of the fire and the wine.

 

I will moan

I will moan

I will moan

I will moan

Dressed in rags, and my hair will be down.

Oh, you spirits in flight

Ride on moths through the night

And alight at the top of my crown.

cst-photoChristopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

The Universal Patriot

A Forgotten Ancestor

I imagined to myself that the House of Commons were going to divide the common lands among the poor. But what was my astonishment and my indignation, when, by the after-clauses of the bill, I found that the poor and indigent were to be driven from the commons; and the land which before was common to all, was now to become the exclusive property of the rich! – The honourable House of Commons vanished from my sight; and I saw in its stead a den of thieves… (John Oswald)

The founder of anarchism as a modern political philosophy is generally held to be either William Godwin (1756-1836) or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). Some of the most influential ideas in anarchist philosophy come from Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), who proposed a system of anarcho-communism. Kropotkin’s ideas later influenced Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), whose philosophy has now been taken up by the Kurds in Syria. Bookchin’s system -which is not strictly anarchist – is based on networks of directly democratic people’s assemblies.

Forgotten in all histories of anarchism is the extraordinary and obscure figure of John Oswald, a veteran of the Black Watch Highland Regiment who turned his back on colonialism, lived for a time with the Kurds, joined the Jacobin Club in Paris, taught martial arts to the revolutionaries and then died in combat in the Vendée.

In a short work called “The Government of the People, Or A Sketch of a Constitution for the Universal Commonwealth,” Oswald proposed a system of directly democratic people’s assemblies in 1792 – a year before Godwin and decades before Kropotkin. Oswald never became as influential as these other thinkers, but you could make the case that he should be considered one of the founders of modern anarchism.

He was also, at least in some sense, a pagan. Consider this passage from his vegetarian tract “The Cry of Nature”:

But not to the animal world alone were the affections of man confined: for whether the glowing vault of heaven he surveyed, or his eyes reposed on the greeny freshness of the lawn; whether to the tinkling murmur of the brook he listened, or in pleasing melancholy melted amid the gloom of the grove, joy, rapture, veneration filled his guileless breast: his affections flowed on everything around him; his soul around every tree or shrub entwined, whether they afforded him subsistence or shade: and wherever his eyes wandered, wondering he beheld his gods, for his benefactors smiled on every side… From that joyous commotion of his heart arose the Queen of young desire; on the fond fluctuation of his bosom glided the new-born VENUS, deckt in all her glowing potency of charms. And thou too, O CUPID, O CUPID, or if RAMA-DEVA more delight thine ear; art thou not also with all thy GRACES a glad emanation of primal bliss?

Oswald’s writing style tended to be even more florid than 18th-century tastes required, but to sum up what he’s saying here in one sentence: humanity in prehistoric times worshiped the powers of nature under the names of the pagan gods, through instinctive gratitude for the beauty of the world.

Oswald was definitely what we would now call “anti-civ.” He goes on to say:

misled by the ignus fatuus of science, man forsook the sylvan gods… hence the inequality of ranks, the wasteful wallow of wealth, and the meagerness of want, the abject front of poverty, the insolence of power…

While I do not personally agree with his primitivist stance, I find it fascinating that Oswald linked the abandonment of pagan religion and the birth of inequality. Some of the ideas we talk about here at Gods and Radicals are not as new as people assume – they go right back to the birth of anarchism and the earliest days of the modern pagan revival in the late 18th century.

At that time, both paganism and atheism were seen primarily as statements of rebellion against Christian orthodoxy, and most people made no clear distinction between them. Godwin’s son-in-law, the poet Shelley, portrayed himself as an atheist in some contexts and as a pagan in others. Oswald was much the same, and was known for his intense hostility to organized religion. The few historians to write about him usually describe him as an atheist, but his own writings make it clear that Oswald was at least highly sympathetic to paganism. If he was still alive today, he would probably be one of the pagan humanists or atheo-pagans. According to Oswald:

The first adoration of mankind was paid, no doubt, to heaven and earth, and this worship was nothing else than a sentiment of gratitude emanating from the heart… The offerings of gratitude, which in the first ages the human race sacrificed to the gods, consisted simply of grass. In proportion, however, as men multiplied their enjoyments, more costly offerings were made of honey, wine, corn, incense.

In his own lifetime, Oswald was often accused of being a Hindu due to his vegetarianism and his frequent references to Indian deities such as Rama. This was not exactly true, but Oswald’s unusual political and religious opinions did have a lot to do with his exposure to Hinduism while fighting in India in a Scottish Highland regiment.

The Black Watch

800px-Soldier_of_the_Black_Watch

The Black Watch began as a military policing unit in the Scottish Highlands, tasked with suppressing the Jacobite clans and preventing cattle raiding. It was eventually incorporated into the regular British Army as the 42nd Highland Regiment, and used in many of Britain’s colonial wars. This pattern is as old as the Roman Empire: after the conquest of a warrior society, the empire then recruits those warriors to fight on its behalf. The Highland Regiments were one of the earliest examples in British history, to be followed by Sikh regiments, Gurkha regiments and so on.

Oswald himself was not a Highlander, but a Lowlander from Edinburgh. His parents were the owners of a popular café. Other than this, little is known of his early life or why he decided to enlist in a Highland regiment. When he joined the regiment, he would have received instruction in the Black Watch style of Highland broadsword fencing. (Another Black Watch veteran who served around the same time as Oswald preserved this system in a fencing manual now studied by historical fencing enthusiasts.) Oswald carried a sword at his waist for many years, so we can assume he continued to practice Highland swordsmanship.

However, he seems to have had problems getting along with his new comrades at first, leading to a pistol duel with an officer named Norman MacLeod. As often happened after a duel, MacLeod and Oswald became close friends, and many years later MacLeod spoke up for Oswald in the British Parliament when news of his revolutionary activities raised the possibility of a treason charge.

Oswald fought with the Black Watch in India, but he became disgusted with Britain’s colonialist policies and the war crimes he saw committed by the army. He was impressed by Hindu vegetarianism, and became a passionate vegetarian himself. Resigning from the army, he wandered for some time through the Middle East and lived among the Kurds. He ended up in London, where he became a hack writer for the Scottish publisher William Thomson. (Oswald may have ghost-written the biography of the famous swordsman Donald MacLeod.)

When the French Revolution broke out, Oswald went to Paris and became an active member of the Jacobin Club. However, he did not share the authoritarian views of fellow Jacobin Robespierre, with whom he publicly clashed on several occasions – before Robespierre had the power to do anything to retaliate.

Due to his military background, Oswald was an obvious choice to train the revolutionary sans-culottes of Paris. He designed his own system for using the pike, a kind of spear favored by revolutionaries without access to firearms. Oswald’s pike unit trained and drilled under his instruction in Paris, but when they were sent to fight the counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée they put down the pikes and took up guns.

800px-Les_furies_de_guillotine
Revolutionary women armed with pikes.

Unfortunately for Oswald, he seems to have placed too much faith in the Highland Charge he had seen in action during his time with the Black Watch. The Highland Charge was originally a tactic for Highland swordsmen who had to fight regular troops armed with muskets. Knowing that the musket took some time to reload, the clan warriors would simply draw their broadswords and run straight at the soldiers while they were reloading. More often than not the soldiers would panic and run, and the Highlanders would claim the victory. In the final Jacobite uprising in 1746, government soldiers stood their ground and did not panic, and the Highland army was destroyed.

After the disastrous defeat at Culloden, the Highlanders were banned from carrying weapons except in the British Army’s Highland regiments. Many of them joined these regiments and fought for the British Empire, although not always willingly – families that refused to give a son to the army could be evicted or have their houses burned down over their heads.

The British Army was happy to use the tradition of the Highland Charge for its own benefit, sending countless Highlanders to die as cannon fodder, trying to storm almost impregnable enemy positions. (In the words of British general Wolfe, “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”) Despite the high cost in human life, the Highland Charge often succeeded through sheer courage and force of will. Oswald must have convinced himself it would work again.

When Oswald tried to get his sans-cullottes to stage a Highland Charge against the counter-revolutionaries, they shot him instead. It’s a sad ending for an idealistic revolutionary, although if he had stayed in Paris instead he would almost certainly have fallen victim to his old rival Robespierre during the Reign of Terror.

The Universal Commonwealth

Oswald’s attempt to get Parisian sans-cullottes to fight like Highland clan warriors got him killed. From the perspective of the men who followed him, charging straight at a fortified position must have seemed like suicidal stupidity. They reacted as many other soldiers have done under the same circumstances – by fragging the officer. Despite his death under these ignoble circumstances, Oswald’s political ideas were strongly anti-authoritarian, which is why I refer to him as a forgotten founder of anarchism.

Oswald called himself as a “universal patriot,” or what a modern radical would refer to as an “internationalist.” He strongly disagreed with the statist tendencies of his fellow Jacobins, and proposed a new system of localized government through directly democratic assemblies open to everyone equally. Networks of these assemblies would replace the nation-state, creating what Oswald called “the Universal Commonwealth.”

Unlike the silent hand symbols of an Occupy assembly, Oswald’s system was based on noise. Anyone in the assembly could stand up and make a proposal, and the crowd could either vote for it by shouting enthusiastically or against it by groaning. Oswald had nothing but disdain for the representative democracy the liberals wanted to establish, declaring that as long as one man could not piss for another, a man could hardly be expected to think for another either!

Oswald not only anticipated anarchist ideas about how to organize society, but Marx’s analysis of labor as well:

No, say some with an air of triumph, those only should have a right to vote who are men of property. But, pray, is there any man without property? Is not the daily labor of the peasant, or the mechanic, as much his property, and as precious to him, as the wide possession or funded wealth of the landholder, or man of money?

Although Oswald’s proposals lack the detail of later thinkers like Kropotkin and Bookchin, his emphasis on local and directly democratic assemblies places him in the same intellectual tradition, and his example of the sort of thing his assemblies might decide upon makes him an early anarcho-communist. According to Oswald, the first order of business was to decide:

Whether the land should be cultivated in common, or divided equally between the individuals of the nation?

Oswald did have some unexamined prejudices. For instance, he accepted the idea that some nations were “civilized” and others “savage,” and he never really addressed what role he thought women should have in his revolution. However, Oswald and his allies were also anti-slavery activists, and Oswald was friendly with Théroigne de Méricourt, a feminist revolutionary who carried a sword and trained an all-female pike unit using the system he had created. (Fore-runners of today’s YPJ among Oswald’s old friends the Kurds!)

Theroigne_de_Mericourt
Oswald’s comrade Théroigne de Méricourt

The only book-length study of Oswald in English is Commerce des Lumieres by David V. Erdman, which includes more of Oswald’s writing and many details of his revolutionary activities. It isn’t a particularly readable work, but it does gather all the available information about Oswald in a single place.

“The Government of the People” has been out of print for a long time, but selections from it can be found at the end of Erdman’s work. Oswald’s vegetarian tract The Cry of Nature is available as a reprint, and some of his poetry can still be found online – although readers should not expect too much from it as poetry. Oswald may not have been a great writer or a major thinker, but he did anticipate some of the ideas that were to become important in radical circles over the next century. Like Kropotkin after him, he saw clearly that representative democracy would ultimately serve only the ruling classes – but also that authoritarian forms of radicalism would not fulfill their promises. The revolution Oswald wanted was egalitarian and decentralized, directly democratic and communist, and it included reverence for nature and the pagan gods.

When I leave offerings to my ancestors, his name will be among them.


Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/

“None of us are going to be safe until you’re exterminated…”

“None of us are going to be safe until you’re exterminated.”

That’s a line from a four-part blog post written entirely about me and the writing I do for Gods and Radicals.
I’m going to be talking about violence in this article, so if that’s likely to be difficult for you I would just like you to know ahead of time.

I’m sure most of you are aware that Gods and Radicals has been getting a lot of criticism ever since we posted that article on the New Right. Some of that criticism has been intense, but that’s not a problem. Readers  have every right to call us out if they have an issue with something we’ve done.

I hope you’ll agree with me that calling for the “extermination” of our writers is a very different matter.

One of the things that drew me toward Gods and Radicals in the first place was that Rhyd Wildermuth and I have similar backgrounds. We both know what government cheese tastes like, we’ve both struggled with a lot of the same issues and we’ve come to similar conclusions about what’s wrong with this society. I’ve always thought of Rhyd as a person I could trust, because he’s seen what I’ve seen and he knows what I know.

Rhyd’s a better person than I am, though. As far as I can tell, he never lost his ethical center even in the hardest of hard times. That’s not me. It took me a lot of years to figure out who I really wanted to be.

For a lot of people, violence is something from outside normal life. You hope it never comes in and invades your life, and if you’re lucky it never will. When I was growing up, violence was an absolutely normal part of my daily life. No one I knew when I was a kid ever expected to be safe from it or to be able to avoid using it themselves. You expected to have to fight every day or run every day. You ran if you could, and you fought if you had to.

That is not a universal experience among people who grew up in the lower classes in the United States, but it’s not uncommon either.

When I was a kid, I once asked my father about the concept of a “fair fight.”

He could be a scary guy when he wanted to. He used to train racehorses at Rockingham during the heyday of Winter Hill, and his nickname on the racetrack was “Psycho.” So his response kind of surprised me.

“I hate violence, son, I really do. So if you give me no choice but to use it, the last thing I am ever going to give you is a fair fight.”

We ended up far away from all that, homesteading in the woods on a dirt road with no electricity or running water. But the things I’d experienced as a kid stuck with me. As a young man in the hardcore punk scene in the 1990s I saw a lot of violence. I once got hit in the face so hard my head broke the window behind me. Another time I was shocked with an electric cattle prod and then had mustard squirted directly in my eyes when I fell down.

So it took me a long, long time to really understand what my father was saying about violence. I didn’t know enough to hate it, because it was just too normal to me. By the time I was ready to stop fighting, I was almost ready to have kids of my own. And by that time I had a lot of horrible memories.

But he was absolutely right. Violence is disgusting, and that’s all there is to it. Deliberately hurting another living being when you don’t have to is a repulsive thing to do, and it has a poisonous effect on both the victim and the perpetrator – for the rest of their lives.

I’ve been studying a martial art for more than fifteen years now, but I haven’t thrown a punch outside of training in ten. When I say I’m committed to nonviolence, it’s not hypothetical. I know what violence really is, and I hate it as only those who know it can hate it.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t defend myself if I have no choice. The phrase “None of us are going to be safe until you’re exterminated” isn’t satire or hyperbole. It is a violent threat.

I’m not concerned about the blogger who wrote those words. He was obviously ranting, and not to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, one of the white supremacist groups he speaks positively of has a chapter in my home state, and I cannot know who might choose to act on his threats.

Under the circumstances, I consider this to be a death threat in retaliation for my writing on this site, and I will be taking appropriate precautions to ensure my physical safety and that of my family. One of those precautions is to let people know what’s been going on, and to reiterate that I will not initiate force under any circumstances – but I will be ready to defend myself if I need to.

I hope you’ll stand with me and speak up against these disgusting threats. No matter how you feel about Gods and Radicals, this is unacceptable. Disagreeing with us is one thing. Condemning us is one thing. Suggesting we should be killed is something else. Anyone who promotes or supports this sort of contemptible behavior is personally responsible for the consequences.

Christopher Scott Thompson

cst-photoChristopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

Strong Toward the Powerful: A Warrior Path for Radical Pagans

The Issue of Violence

In my article “Praxis,” I briefly mentioned my commitment to never initiate the use of force. Despite the plain language I used to express myself, my words were willfully misinterpreted by a critic of Gods and Radicals. Before I go any further with a discussion of pagan warriorship, I want to express my position on this topic again.

I have made a personal commitment to fight only in self-defense or in direct defense of another person. If someone attacks me physically, I will defend myself. If I see someone being physically assaulted in front of me, I will jump in to help the victim. As an anarchist, I pay attention only to right and wrong and I consider the law to be irrelevant. However, it happens to be the case that the circumstances under which I will fight are exactly those circumstances allowed by law – to protect myself or another from a violent assault. I also happen to believe that nonviolent mass resistance is a more effective strategy in most circumstances than the use of force, as it avoids the huge strategic error of pitting weakness against strength in a direct confrontation.

However, I also refuse to condemn people who fight back against violent oppression, as in the heroic struggle of the Rojava Cantons against Daesh or the Zapatista uprising of 1994. Real life is complicated, and sometimes people have little choice but to fight back. This article will address radical pagan warriorship in the context of both strategic nonviolence and actual fighting, but I remain committed to nonviolent protest actions.

Warrior Dreams

Our myths and legends tell fascinating though often tragic stories of great warrior heroes. Many pagans find these stories inspiring, and some look for ways to recreate a “pagan warrior path” in the modern world.

Some pagans treat the concept of the warrior entirely as an archetype, and use phrases such as “peaceful warrior.” Others reject this as inauthentic, and insist that no one can claim the name of warrior without being “initiated” through violent conflict.

Both perspectives treat the word “warrior” as something special, a myth to live up to, a status to earn. I’d like to examine the relevance of these ideas for pagan radicalism, and explore how we might be able to make these concepts work for us. I’m going to be looking at several different aspects of what warriorship might mean to us – including the definition of the word “warrior,” the benefits of focusing on victory, the importance of strategic decision-making and tactical discipline, the potential danger of treating warriorship as an archetype and the usefulness of building a martial mindset through martial training. I’ll wrap it all up at the end by looking at a pagan warrior code from Irish lore, and adapting it to our purposes as modern radicals.

What is a Warrior?

Anti-capitalist pagans are committed to seeking radical social change. Many of us are also uncomfortable with the whole concept of the warrior, associating it with violent masculinity. Unfortunately, some pagans do make a simplistic connection between the “warrior archetype” and the “sacred masculine,” ignoring the reality that these are two separate concepts.

Female fighters of the YPJ play a significant combat role in Rojava. CC BY 2.0 Free Kurdistan.
Female fighters of the YPJ play a significant combat role in Rojava. CC BY 2.0 Free Kurdistan.

The revolutionary women defending the Rojava cantons from Daesh are obviously warriors by any definition, yet they are also fighting for gender equality in their own society. The peasants who marched on Versailles with their pikes in 1789 were mostly women, and there are many other examples. The concept of warriorship doesn’t really have anything to do with masculinity. Of course, the existence of warrior women in ancient pagan Europe is especially relevant to us. If we reject the idea that warriorship is an expression of masculinity, then what exactly is it?

Can “pagan warriorship” be something real and practical, not just a symbol or an archetype? To answer that question, we have to define the word “warrior,” knowing that the definition we settle on will have implications for our own lives and actions as radicals.

In the most down-to-earth terms, a warrior is a person who fights in a war. To define what a warrior is, we have to define what a war is. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a number of different definitions, of which the first naturally refers to armed conflict in the literal sense.

Two of the other definitions are more relevant to our current situation: “A sustained effort to deal with or end a particular unpleasant or undesirable situation or condition” and “A state of competition, conflict, or hostility between different people or groups.”

Most anti-capitalist pagans would probably see themselves as being in a state of conflict with the capitalist system, and would see themselves as being part of a sustained effort to put an end to it. Therefore, our struggle against capitalism can be seen as a war in the broad sense, although we are not engaged in armed struggle and many of us would reject the idea of armed struggle for moral reasons.

Activists with roots in the anti-war tradition might be uncomfortable describing our struggle against capitalism in terms of war and conflict even symbolically. However, many pagan activists already worship warrior deities or feel themselves to be on a warrior path.

If a war is a state of conflict to end an unacceptable situation, then you could say that a warrior is a person who engages in conflict with the goal of achieving victory.

However, in any war there are many different roles, and not everyone is on the front lines or exposed to high levels of personal risk. The term “warrior” does seem to imply that you have accepted a higher level of personal risk. If we factor that concept into our definition, what we get is this:

A warrior is a person who takes significant personal risks in a conflict, with the goal of achieving victory.

The risks will vary. In some protest actions we risk being hit in the head with a nightstick or choked by teargas or arrested and sentenced to prison time. Depending on where we are and who we are and when it happens, there is sometimes the risk of live ammunition being used on the crowd as at Kent State  – or more recently, in Minneapolis. A protest isn’t usually much like a literal war, but in the worst case scenario it’s exactly like one. If we’re thinking about being at the front of the line, we need to ask ourselves why.

What Would Victory Look Like?

The risks we take are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The purpose of taking a risk is to contribute to victory. If we’re serious about the warrior path, we should give some thought to victory – what it is and how to achieve it.

To figure that out in any specific situation we need to distinguish between tactics and strategy. Tactical issues are the small picture and strategic issues are the big picture. In any specific case, we should be able to articulate what a strategic victory would look like, what a tactical victory would look like and how the tactical victory will contribute to eventual strategic victory.

For instance, let’s say your strategic goal is to prevent a neofascist candidate from becoming President of the United States, and your tactical goal is to expose the violent nature of his campaign and alienate mainstream voters who might have otherwise voted for him. So you attend his campaign rallies and call him out on his racist statements. When he verbally encourages his followers to attack you, you win a tactical victory. When these incidents convince a majority of voters that he is not presidential material, you win a strategic victory.

My strategic goal is to help create a radically egalitarian, democratic and ecological society. Since this is my goal, any specific tactics I choose should always support this long-term goal. Any action I take can be judged on the basis of this goal. Either it contributes, or it doesn’t.

Whatever your strategic goal might be, the reality we have to face as radicals is that we lack the tools to win a direct confrontation with the powers that currently rule our world. The conditions for victory in the short term simply don’t exist. Historically, revolutions that happen very rapidly often result in mass murder and the creation of new totalitarian regimes. As an anti-authoritarian, I would be totally opposed to that type of revolution.

Revolutionary situations sometimes develop unexpectedly due to a “black swan” or highly unanticipated event. For instance, no one expected a mass protest movement against the Assad regime in Syria, and no one expected it would result in a civil war and the breakdown of centralized authority. That breakdown made the Rojava revolution possible.

By definition, no one can really plan for a black swan event. No one with any compassion for human suffering would wish for something as terrible as a civil war just to create the conditions for revolutionary change, although I think the Rojava revolutionaries were right to seize the opportunity when it came up. As the contradictions of global capitalism continue to worsen, we may see other such opportunities at any time or in any place, and we should do our best to be ready for them.

Although we should aim to be ready for anything, we can’t realistically plan for a short-term victory. Victory in the long term should be the basis of our strategy.

Strategic Decision-Making

Once we’ve decided to seek a long-term victory, this strategic decision has to inform all of our smaller tactical decisions. Strategy informs tactics, not the other way around. If our long-term goal is to contribute to a revolutionary transformation of society without making everything worse for everyone, then all of our daily tactical decisions should also contribute to this long-term goal in a tangible way.

In my opinion, the reason we can’t challenge the ruling powers directly is that the people most affected by capitalism don’t have solidarity with each other. Therefore, the one indispensable precondition for long-term victory is to establish solidarity. Solidarity in the real and practical struggles regular people actually face, building power from below until no power from above can stop it.

The old paradigm of the vanguard has largely been rejected by the revolutionary movements that most inspire me personally. In his farewell address, former Zapatista spokesperson Subcommandante Marcos said that the Zapatistas had moved “from revolutionary vanguardism to ‘ruling by obeying;’ from the taking of Power from Above to the creation of power from below; from professional politics to everyday politics; from the leaders, to the peoples.”

If we agree with this approach, then all of our actions and all of our decisions should be based on creating power from below, helping people win in the everyday politics of their daily lives and centering our efforts on regular people, not political leaders. In practice, this means lending our numbers and our courage to any action or cause that promotes solidarity and builds power from below.

Tactical Discipline

If our long-term goals depend on building solidarity between all people and groups affected by capitalism, then anything we say or do that damages solidarity is self-defeating. Solidarity does not mean group-think. You don’t have to agree with every detail of what other people say or do in order to hold the line with them. However, you do have to make a serious attempt not to do anything that would alienate them unnecessarily, because no one who doesn’t trust you is going to want to stand with you.

I’ve seen more than one movement-building conversation knocked off the rails by toxic suspicion and distrust, especially between people split by differences such as race, sex, class or gender. We live in a sick society and have all been affected by this sickness, but if we want to make the situation better we have to exercise self-discipline and avoid destroying solidarity.

The burden of this shouldn’t fall on people who are already expected to put up with too much. They shouldn’t be expected to silence themselves to avoid making me feel uncomfortable. I can keep my mouth shut sometimes when I am uncomfortable, if it will help me win the changes I want to win. Yes, I’m a white guy who grew up in poverty. No, it is not likely to help my cause to bring up that fact every time anyone mentions white privilege. Self-disciplined behavior is an important aspect of the warrior mindset.

Self-discipline is especially important in the actions we take on the street.

The Mask of the Warrior

When a myth helps you stay strong in the face of adversity and danger, it’s helping you and helping your cause. When a myth leads you to make destructive choices that merely feed your own ego, it’s hurting you and hurting your cause. Myths are powerful magic, and we have to decide carefully how we use that magic.

The idea of being a warrior can become a dangerous daydream, leading us to make decisions that don’t serve our broader goals but do feed the archetypal self-image we want to nurture – such as recklessly fighting with the police when there is no necessity for it.

From my perspective as an anti-authoritarian leftist, I would much rather we not think of “warrior” as a title to be earned. A free and egalitarian society with a warrior elite is obviously a contradiction in terms. Even if a free society saw the need to create such an elite to meet a temporary crisis, it most likely would not remain free for long.

An individual wearing a suit and Guy Fawkes Anonymous mask. CC BY-SA 4.0 by Tony Webster.
An individual wearing a suit and Guy Fawkes Anonymous mask. CC BY-SA 4.0 by Tony Webster.

The model that works best with our political principles is that of the ordinary person who takes up arms only when the community is directly threatened. Warriorship as something you do when needed, not as an intrinsic identity. There are plenty of myths about that as well, and there’s a simple magic behind the transformation. We can think of warriorship as a role or a mask, to be taken up in certain circumstances and put down in others – something like the Guy Fawkes mask worn by many protesters around the world.

You can easily turn this into a powerful ritual, putting your mask on before an action along with prayers and offerings to the gods you worship. By taking the mask off again when you return, you reverse the magic and go back to your everyday frame of mind. Even if you don’t choose to wear a mask when protesting, you can still use the mask ritual in a symbolic sense.

“Putting on the mask of the warrior, I ask the gods and ancestors to bless my actions and to grant me the courage of true conviction. Removing the mask of the warrior, I ask the gods and ancestors to bless my actions and to grant me peace of mind until I take the mask up again.”

You don’t always have to play the same role. If I’m able to take significant risks at one action and not at another, then I am in a warrior role in the first action and a support role in the second. It’s important for us to be flexible about this, and encourage people to play any role that works for them on a particular occasion.

Martial Mindset

Whenever you are in the warrior role, you will be most effective if you adopt a martial mindset, a way of thinking that is different in several ways from a regular everyday attitude. The martial mindset includes the acceptance of risk and discomfort, resolution in the face of danger, loyalty to comrades and tactical awareness. Stoicism, courage and loyalty are common among many radicals from what I have seen, but tactical awareness is much less common.

Tactical awareness is a state of alertness, in which you are constantly aware of all potential threats in your environment even while pursuing your other goals.

Riot police officers "kettle" protesters at the Bishopsgate Climate Camp, London, 1 April 2009. CC BY 2.0 Charlotte Gilhooly.
Riot police officers “kettle” protesters at the Bishopsgate Climate Camp, London, 1 April 2009. CC BY 2.0 Charlotte Gilhooly.

In my experience, most participants in a protest march have no tactical awareness. They simply march straight forward, and when the police begin closing side streets off they don’t usually seem to notice. This is the first stage in a police tactic called the “kettle,” where they trap the protesters in the smallest possible space and then hold them there. At this point, the police can make mass arrests if they want to. The other thing I’ve seen the police do is to kettle all the side streets and the road ahead, then attack from behind before the protesters realize there is nowhere to run.

I’ve seen Black Blocs with the tactical awareness and group cohesion to avoid being kettled, but they’re definitely the exception. If you’re at a particular protest action as an individual and are not participating in the Black Bloc, tactical awareness can still help you avoid being kettled or attacked from behind. You can also use it to help your friends and comrades. For instance, if you think a particular person is likely to be targeted by police you can direct them into a store or down a side street before the trap is sprung. If you see the police attacking before anyone else does, you can shout a warning and possibly help a few escape.

Occupy the Midwest used this tactic at several protest actions, designating some activists as “nonviolent bodyguards.” Every media person was assigned a bodyguard whose sole job was to protect that person from arrest or assault by police. This is a good example of the “mask of the warrior,” because bodyguards only retained that role for the duration of the action. Once the action was over, the bodyguard would go back to being just another pair of jazz hands at the General Assembly.

The tactic proved to be successful. Citizen journalists protected by bodyguards were able to keep filming even while the protesters were being attacked by police right next to them. To be effective, nonviolent bodyguards had to be able to maintain tactical awareness in all directions for several hours at a stretch. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but some of the people who volunteered as bodyguards had the advantage of prior training.

Martial Training

The primary advantage of tactical awareness is to get yourself ready, so you are in a better position to adapt to a chaotic situation as it develops. No one can say ahead of time what shape this will take. A good martial arts program can greatly improve your ability to maintain this level of alertness. It doesn’t particularly matter which martial art, as long as it is an art that encourages this type of alertness and allows you to practice it till it becomes habitual.

The other advantage of practicing a martial art is that the training tends to strengthen your resolve and encourage you in the warrior role when needed. It doesn’t have to be a “street-realistic” art and it might even be preferable if it isn’t. If you’re committed to strategic nonviolence you aren’t going to be fighting anyone in the literal sense anyway. You need the inner strength and self-discipline to refuse to fight even when greatly provoked. Martial training can give you that.

Of course, some protest movements do escalate beyond that level. Antifascist streetfighters obviously expect to fight fascists in the literal sense, so they need to train in practical fighting techniques to do what they do effectively. You have to decide for yourself how you feel about that and what you would do in that situation, but tactical awareness is relevant in any scenario where you face the threat of physical attack by security forces or vigilantes.

A Radical Pagan Warrior Code

Warrior codes of honorable behavior are as old as the concept of warriorship itself, but again we should not confuse a means with an end. The end is not to fantasize and obsess about following some ancient honor code. The end is to win, to create a world that works for everyone. A code of behavior is nothing more than a means, a tool to help us achieve that end.

There have been as many different warrior codes as there have been different types of warrior. The bushido code of the samurai was obviously a different thing from the medieval knight’s code of chivalry, which was a different thing from the code of an ancient Irish Fianna warrior.

Ends define means, so we would have little use for a warrior code based on upholding feudalism. As pagans, most of us would be inclined to look to the pagan past for examples of warrior codes, and such examples do exist. However, a code based on Iron Age pagan society is not going to work for a modern radical without substantial revision. The circumstances are different and the fight is different. The underlying values are not always compatible. Any code a pagan radical could adopt would have to reflect these differences.

Here’s one example of what can be done to bridge the gap between ourselves and the warriors of the past. I have taken the Maxims of the Fianna and rewritten them for a modern context. If you compare them to the original version you’ll find many differences – but I think I’ve kept everything from the original that can be readily applied in our circumstances and with our values.

1- Save your courage for when you need it- don’t boast or bluster.

2- Never accuse anyone of anything without strong reasons.

3- Don’t get caught up in pointless arguments.

4- Don’t associate with anyone destructive or harmful.

5- Never bully.

6- Don’t exaggerate accomplishments or feed your ego through false bravado.

7- Never abandon your cause or your comrades.

8- If you are in a leadership role, do not abuse the trust placed in you.

9- Spread no rumors and start no trouble.

10- Don’t drink too much or abuse other substances that might cloud your judgment.

11- Be more inclined to give than to deny.

12- Don’t force other people to pay attention to you.

13- Never stop fighting until the struggle is over.

14- Always strive to be gentle.

This code puts the emphasis on behaviors that build and maintain solidarity and contribute to eventual victory. That is its only purpose. There are other examples of wisdom-literature associated with ancient pagan warriors, and I’d encourage anyone interested in radical pagan warriorship to create their own interpretations. One line I particularly like comes from the Counsels of Cormac, an ancient Irish warrior king:

I was weak toward the feeble, I was strong toward the powerful.

As I interpret this, “feeble” is not an essential state. It simply refers to relative power in any given situation. If I have any strength or any courage, let me direct it only against the powerful. That’s the warrior path, and it stands in direct opposition to the cowardly and vicious tactics of terrorism. Terrorists deliberately avoid targeting the powerful and instead direct their violence against people who have no effective means of resisting them. This is true of all kinds of terrorists, including some who wear police or military uniforms.

Whatever strength we possess, let us use it only to resist unjust power.

cst-photoChristopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

 


Christopher Scott Thompson’s will appear in A Beautiful Resistance: We Bring The Fire. You can order it here.

Praxis

Most of the discussion about polytheism and politics has focused on theory. This is a little bit strange because you often hear people saying that polytheism is a matter of “orthopraxy not orthodoxy.” As it happens, I am not particularly a fan of either. Still, if it’s all about “right practice” then why has so much of the conversation been about “right belief”?

 

Nearly every aspect of my daily life is marked by religious practice. I pray when I wake up, at midday and before I go to sleep. I pray before I eat or drink anything. I leave offerings frequently, and do trance-work for an hour about three times a week. I tend a candle every 20 days for Brighid as a Brigidine flamekeeper, and meet with a small group for prayer and offerings every new moon. When religion plays such a large role in my daily life, it’s only natural that I would also turn to religion whenever I have to go on a journey or face any kind of challenge.

 

A few weeks ago, I started a Southern Maine chapter for an antifascist organization. I’m not going to name the group here, because they are not a religious organization and might not prefer to be mentioned in an article about paganism. I’m sure the members come from a wide variety of backgrounds, both secular and religious. However, the current membership of the chapter I founded is the same group of people I worship with on the new moon every month. Our current focus for antifascist activity is the Trump campaign, so when we found out that Trump was going to be speaking at the Hyatt in New York City on April 14th I decided to go.

 

The night before the action, I stood in front of my deity altar and prayed the Sloinntireachd Bhride, the Genealogy of Brighid in Gaelic. This prayer is the center of my daily spiritual practice, and under normal circumstances I recite the Sloinntireachd at least twice a day. I’ve said this prayer so many times over the years that I can recite it during sleep to dispel a nightmare. Almost everything else I do starts with reciting this prayer.

 

There is a long tradition of antifascist streetfighting, going back to the decades before the Second World War. Even now, many groups take an aggressive approach to antifascist action. I do not condemn this strategy, but due to past experiences in my own life I have made a personal commitment not to ever fight except in self-defence or direct defense of another. I chose the particular organization I’m part of because they have made the same commitment. Nevertheless, my next step in preparing for the protest was to make an offering to Macha.

 

Why would I pray to a goddess associated with war and conflict before going to a nonviolent protest? Because civil resistance is a form of conflict even when the participants reject violence as a tool in that conflict. Past protests against Trump have been marked by violence against the protesters, and the NYPD has a reputation for violence at protests too. I left a small bowl of milk and honey, and asked Macha to keep me safe and sound on my journey to new York and in the protest itself, and to bring us victory if such was her will.

 

Next I went to my ancestor altar and made three bowls of fiery water for my dead. Fiery water is an important symbol in Celtic lore, representing the water in the Well of Wisdom. There are a number of different ways to make it. I poured a libation of cold tap water into three glass bowls, lit a white pillar candle, then circled each bowl sunwise over the candle flame to put the fire in the water. Then I spoke briefly with my dead, asking them for both protection and moral clarity. In emotionally-charged and confrontational situations like a protest, it’s easy to get caught up in an emotion and carried away by events. I asked my dead to warn and counsel me if this should happen. I finished with an appeal to the spirits that watch over me, then went to bed.

 

If any of my spirits or deities had a strong objection to my plans, or a warning of great danger, I would most likely hear about it in my dreams. That night I dreamed that one of my spirits approached and smiled at me, so I knew that all was well and I could proceed as planned.

 

I have the primary responsibility for childcare in my family, so part of our planning for this event was to arrange for the other members of our group to help with babysitting so I could make the trip. Before I left, the babysitter spoke a blessing over me in the name of Thor. Then I got on a Greyhound bus for the eight-hour journey to Manhattan. I brought a history of the Spanish Civil War to read on the long bus trip.

 

When I reached Manhattan that evening, I had to walk as quickly as possible from the Port Authority up to the Hyatt on East 42nd Street to join the protest. As I made my way through the crowds, I saw one police van after another heading down the street in the same direction, followed by a column of officers carrying zip ties for mass arrests, and a bus to transport arrestees in case the vans weren’t enough. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me nervous, but I knew I was as well-prepared as I could be.

 

When I heard the sound of drums up ahead, I knew I had found the protesters. The drums belonged to the Fight for $15 contingent, which also had its own team of dancers for the event. Protests tend to attract an almost-random collection of people with different causes to push, but in this case the connection was easy to understand – Trump is on record as saying that current wages are too high!

 

There was also a large contingent from Black Lives Matter, and another from a group called People’s Assembly. In case anyone assumes this was a partisan protest, many of these groups had also been protesting Clinton the day before. The People’s Assembly speaker was saying something to the effect that “Trump doesn’t speak for us! Clinton doesn’t speak for us! Sanders doesn’t speak for us!” This wasn’t about the Democrats versus the Republicans.

 

I managed to find the local chapter of the group I’m affiliated with somewhere in that crowd of a thousand or so people. They were right up in front of the police barricades. These were intended to keep us separated from the much, much smaller contingent of pro-Trump protesters on the other side of the street. The barricades were not entirely successful for this purpose, as a Trump supporter had already come running across the street to punch one of the protesters several times in the face. As any activist knows, you can be arrested without warning for something as simple as stepping off the sidewalk at the wrong time, but the Trump supporter who attacked the protest wasn’t arrested or even asked to leave. The police just told him to go back to his own side of the street.

 

Shortly after I reached the barricade, I saw one of the protesters being carried away on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance. People were saying he fell off a barricade and hit his head. As the EMTs wheeled him by, I recited the Sloinntireachd under my breath to ask Brighid to bless and help him.

 

I introduced myself to the other people from my group. Solidarity is a type of love, not based on personal history or affinity but on the simple act of standing together as comrades even though you might have almost nothing else in common. Solidarity is real spirituality, it can bring people together who would normally never have any reason to even speak to each other. I had never met any of my comrades at this action or even exchanged an email with any of them, but they all welcomed me to join them with warmth and acceptance.

 

As we were making our introductions, another protester walked by carrying an effigy of Donald Trump, filled with needles and pins like a so-called “voodoo doll.” Surprisingly enough, this led to a debate between two of my comrades over the relative merits of Vodou and Santeria! (Neither of which actually uses this type of magic, but that’s beside the point.) I turned to them and said “whatever gets the job done” and they burst out laughing. That was the end of the debate.

 

The woman who had made the fliers for our group had just had hip surgery, so she couldn’t walk through the crowd to distribute them. I volunteered for that job, but there were a lot of protesters packed into a small space and various random New Yorkers kept trying to push through the crowd. A pedestrian pushing a bike happened to get behind me just as I was turning around. I fell over his bike and landed on the sidewalk, but a Black Lives Matter activist quickly leaned in and pulled me to my feet before I could get hurt.

 

The police were trying to keep us away from the Hyatt and Grand Central Terminal with two rows of barricades and a large contingent of uniformed officers blocking us from crossing over to the other side. Despite their efforts, a hundred or so protesters managed to get around them (possibly through the subway system, I’m not sure) and were soon in front of the doors on the other side of the street.

 

The police immediately swarmed in on them while moving to close off access to the rest of us. I tried to slip through a gap in the barricades and cross the street to join the other protesters, but found the way blocked by a row of cops and new barricades. I thought I might be able to get around them if I went down the street a little way and then crossed at that point, but there were police blocking the way no matter how far I went. They were letting commuters through at one spot only, so I removed items that would have identified me as a protester and slipped through with the commuters.

 

I tried to circle back to where the protesters were trying to get into the building, but the police weren’t letting anyone through. I walked up to 45th, then cut down a side street to try to approach from the west. I happened to pick the street the police were using as a staging area for their reinforcements. More vans, more beat cops, a row of cops on horses. I walked right past them trying to look casual and a bit distracted so they wouldn’t realize I was trying to rejoin the protest. It worked, but by the time I got to my destination all the protesters who were trying to get inside had done so, and cops were standing in front of the doors. I found out the next day that around 30 of us were arrested in total, so despite their preparations the cops didn’t arrest that many people.

 

At this point the action had all shifted elsewhere and my people were nowhere in sight, so I returned to Port Authority for the journey home.

 

As I was walking up 42nd, I recited the Sloinntireachd one more time to thank Brighid for her protection. We may not have succeeded in shutting down Trump’s event, but I did what I came to do. The more people who stand up and confront neofascist ideologies, the stronger the resistance gets. We’ll keep building this movement until Trump is defeated – either before the election or after it. Then we’ll turn our attention to the next threat.

 

Fascist ideas may be resurgent, but so is the willingness to confront and defy them. May the gods protect and bless us as we do so!

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

The Politics of Spiritual Service

Anne_Hutchinson_on_Trial Antinomian Anne Hutchinson stands up to the Puritans. Public domain image.

Some people seem to think that Gods and Radicals writers are part of a Marxist conspiracy to destroy polytheism. Of course, most Gods and Radicals writers don’t know each other personally, and don’t really have any way to coordinate such a sinister conspiracy even if we wanted to.

Some of us are Marxists, but some of us are not. Personally I identify more with thinkers like Kropotkin and Bookchin, but it doesn’t bother me that some of my fellow writers here like Marx more than I do. One of the reasons I don’t identify with Marxism is that the anarchist Bakunin tried to warn Marx of what would happen if people used state power to implement his ideas. History seems to have proved Bakunin right, but that doesn’t make Marx personally responsible for the crimes of Stalin or Mao. Anarcho-communists who read Marx certainly cannot be held responsible for the crimes of a totalitarian state they would have resisted with all their power. So, even though I don’t hold the exact same opinions as some of my fellow writers here, I’m proud to stand with them in resistance to capitalism. We don’t all speak with one voice and we don’t have to.

Which brings me to the topic I’d like to discuss today. Dr. Bones recently published an article called “Against Tradition,” where he discusses his own antinomian attitude toward spiritual traditions and divine beings. During a visionary dream of the goddess Hestia, Dr. Bones refused a direct request to become her servant. This got me thinking. My chosen religious name is Gilbride, which means “Servant of Brighid.” In the human world, I fight against power systems and identify with anarchism. In my religious life, I describe myself as a servant and am fully comfortable with that role. Is this a logical contradiction? Not to me. That doesn’t mean I think Dr. Bones is wrong, it just means that I base my decisions on different ideas and come to different conclusions, because Dr. Bones and I have had different experiences in life. For us to agree about everything wouldn’t make any sense, which is exactly why the idea of a monolithic Gods and Radicals conspiracy is so ridiculous.

So why am I comfortable with calling myself a servant of Brighid? There’s a Bob Dylan song with the line “it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I’ve always liked that song. I don’t agree with the dualistic theology expressed in it, but I still like it. It expresses something that I think is true: our actions in the world will always tend to promote, support and further (or “serve”) whichever power or principle we center our lives on.

If we center our lives on a human leader, our actions will promote, support and further that leader. Even if that leader turns out to be corrupt, self-serving, or incompetent. This process can be especially poisonous in spiritual communities, where the members risk handing over their deepest inner selves to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There are people who lead with the best interests of their followers always in mind. Still, I choose not to serve any human leader.

If we center our lives on an established tradition, our actions will promote, support and further that tradition. Even if that tradition turns out to be oppressive and destructive. When people find out that their tradition has been used as a cover for terrible crimes, they will often do whatever it takes to defend the tradition rather than expose the crimes. I am not against the concept of tradition; there are traditions I value highly. Still, I choose not to serve any established tradition.

If we center our lives on one of these vast and numinous powers we call the gods, then our actions will promote, support and further whatever that power represents. Brighid is a power of inspiration, creation, healing, justice and peace. I have no problem promoting, supporting and furthering those wonderful things. I choose to serve Brighid.

In person, I tend to be assertive – at my worst, I tend to be arrogant. Thinking of myself as Brighid’s servant doesn’t create an imbalance for me, instead it counters the aspects of my personality that don’t live up to my own values. Another person, loving Brighid just as much as I do, might feel uncomfortable with the word “service.” That’s fine, because there are other words and other ways of being in relationship with her.

In my own dreams and my own visions, I have refused point-blank instructions from spiritual entities on some occasions, and accepted those instructions without reservation on other occasions. What determines my decision to accept on one occasion and to refuse on another? Nothing but an inner sense of the truth and rightness of what I’ve been told. If it feels right and true and in line with my highest vales, I do it. If it doesn’t, I don’t. Brighid has never once told me to do anything against my inner sense of truth and rightness.

The religious equivalent of anarchism is known as “antinomianism,” a word meaning “against the law.” Antinomian religious movements reject the claimed authority of spiritual leaders and the laws they would seek to impose on others. Instead they insist on the right of the individual to decide, based on the inner light of one’s own understanding. I claim this right for myself, which naturally includes the right to place myself in service to that which I believe is worth serving.

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

Gods of a Radical

Prayer to the Goddess of the City

 

In wooden beams, in bricks, in cobblestones

I see your face and feel your watching eyes.

And when the alleys moan

With wind I hear your cries.

You dance in every shaking sign

And drink when gutters run with spilled red wine.

You slip unnoticed in your all-night walk

Through empty playgrounds marked with fading chalk.

You sleep on benches in the winter cold

Forever growing old.

You see all secret things, and know all crimes

Committed on your streets. And you reveal

All things the wicked wish they could conceal.

When paper skitters down an empty street

At 3AM, I hear you walking past.

And I can hear the echoes of your feet

In sirens and in breaking glass.

Protect all those you pass along your way

And see them through until the light of day.

Oh goddess of my city, I am poor.

Keep hunger from my family’s door.

Protect my neighbors from the storm

And keep us all well-fed and warm.

And I, in gratitude, will do the same

For others, in your name.


This has been an emotionally and spiritually exhausting time to be a writer for Gods and Radicals. Apparently, writing about pagan religious practice and radical politics in the same space makes you a “fanatic peddling a divisive agenda” as one “apolitical polytheist” described me.

While the initial controversy was set off by a page about the New Right in pagan movements, many of the critics have made it clear that they don’t want Gods and Radicals to exist at all. In their minds, any discussion of left-wing politics in a religious context is illegitimate. The most common criticism seems to be that we aren’t really motivated by religion, and that the only thing we care about is politics.

Now, I’ll give them this much. If a person is willing to stand up with me and fight the powers that are despoiling this planet, I don’t care if that person is a pagan or not. I’m happy to stand on the barricades with an atheist or a Christian. I don’t think the revival and growth of polytheism is more important than the crises currently facing this planet, and frankly I can’t understand the values of anyone who would.

That doesn’t mean I “don’t put the gods first” as so many are saying. It also doesn’t mean that I think my gods are telling me what side to fight on. Just to be clear, Brighid never came down from above and told me to be an anti-capitalist, and neither did Macha.

On the other hand, the lore and mythology associated with Brighid and Macha has implications for both society and my daily life, and I happen to take those implications seriously. Why? Because I take my gods seriously, of course.

In the lore about the various Brighids of Irish mythology, we find them mourning war, asserting the rights of women and the poor, and standing up to rulers and kings. Doesn’t this imply something about the values Brighid represents and manifests?

In the lore of Macha, the goddess dies in battle fighting the oppressive Fomorians, then comes back in human form only to die when she is forced to race the horses of the king of Ulster. She curses the warriors of Ulster in vengeance. Doesn’t this imply something about the need to make sacrifices to fight oppression, and about Macha’s attitude to unjust rulers?

These stories may imply something different to you than they do to me. That’s fine, there’s no one right way to read a myth. And your gods may have different values from my gods. That’s your business. But if your god’s lore implies something to you and you choose to ignore it, you can hardly say you’re “putting the gods first.” The lore of my gods implies certain values, I take those values seriously, and I guide my life by them.

As such, there is no conceivable way my polytheism could be apolitical.


Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.