Fire from the Gods on Evildoers

“Let us call to them to enter into, as is Their mandate, this iteration of the never-ending fight against the Powers of Wrongness;
the stealing and imprisoning of children.
Send down Your power to help us stand for Right Action.”

From Judith O’Grady

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At our MidSummer Ritual, the Deities addressed are Archetypical Seasonal Personifications rather than Deities of a specific Pantheon. They are the Oak King, Warrior for Right and for the Powerless (a modern analogy is King Arthur), and His Warrior-Band Leader, a sort of Joan-of-Ark figure without the visions and eventual burning-at-stake (Scáthach, if you’re familiar with Irish lore).

In the wake of recent news and responding to a Sending from the Gods, I made some changes.

This is how it came about:

I was in the depths of Morning Meditation (dozing) and the thought came into my head that our Druid Grove doesn’t have a specific processional for MidSummer (this is one of my ongoing projects). Suddenly my head was singing a protest song from my teen years (I was in the March on Washington in 1967).

“Hardly appropriate to Longest Day.” I thought.
…more singing, with Fierceness added. I listened harder.
“O, You have volunteers for the fight against the caging of children….. I see.”

Our processional song is now ‘Like a Tree Standing by the Water, We Shall Not be Moved’ with some new topical couplets in the verses. I also changed the Statement of Purpose:

Guiding Druid: Why are we here?

All: We are here to honour the Gods!

Guiding Druid: As our ancestors once did, so do we do today, and so will our children do in the future. This is the Holiday of Midsummer.

Come in good faith and with strong and open hearts for the Ritual of the Longest Day!

This is the time of Greatest Light, let it shine into our lives!

This is the triumph of the Oak King, Warrior for the powerless, Protector of the oppressed. He rides into battle; the Warrior Maiden, his War-Leader, at His side.

Together they ride the turning wheel up into brightness.

Let us call to them to enter into, as is Their mandate, this iteration of the never-ending fight against the Powers of Wrongness;
the stealing and imprisoning of children.
Send down Your power to help us stand for Right Action.

Unlock the cage doors, this sorrow vanquished with this day’s battle won.

Let their light shine into our lives today and always!

Bíodh sé amhlaidh!
All: Bíodh sé amhlaidh!

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I re-wrote the in-ritual invocation and thanks a little:

Guiding Druid:
Will the Oak King and the Warrior Maid also come?

Druids of the Occasion:
Triple, Triple, flow and ripple,
Praise and Honour; not a mickle

The Gates are open, as You see-
Cross here, with Fire, Well, and Tree

Without the Gods we fail and wither;
With thanks and love we ask Them hither.

Oak King’s Druid:
King of Summer, Mighty Oak,
Your triumph is the Longest Day!
Strong, You help the weaker folk.
Bright, You shine to point the way.

Shine Your brightness, we invoke;
Here, where we have come today.
Praises to You rise up like smoke,
And Offerings in glad array.

Warrior maid’s Druid:
Lead us victorious through the heat,
Warrior Maid, to Harvest Home.
Even cold in Winter’s deep,
As Your kerns we’re not alone.

You know the tiredness of Duty,
The loneliness of standing guard;
Let it all resolve in Beauty-
Led home by You, the way unbarred.

This is Your time, green and warm,
To bring all things to their fruition.

Your mighty tasks You will perform,
And we will send You our petition.

*suitable offerings are made*

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The Deities of the Holiday are thanked:
All that comes will surely pass,
Thank You for coming here today.
We, to you, are blades of grass,
We will go and You will stay.

Warriors, we thank you both;
Bold and sharp! Nevertheless,
You will help us, nothing loath,
‘Gainst the Powers of Wrongness.

But the biggest change was to add a Working, which in this case is an invocation to the ghosts of historical killings and a call to the Gods for intervention:

Now do the strong oppress the weak.
Rise again, Drogheda’s shadows,
No kingdom’s given to the meek.
And there are lies to be exposed.

The echo of history will ring,
Ghosts created at Culloden,
And ephemeral warriors bring,
To right wrongs done by evil men.

St Louis, ship of souls, sail on;
Now is the time for a crusade.
Come, whole and sound, from where you’ve gone,
Your memory has not decayed.

Powerful men have called up war,
To be waged on little children.
Memories! Clans!Allies and more,
All Beings for Good from now and then!

Bring Mighty Voices, even the odds,
I call Holy Fire down, Gods.

In my belief system the invocation for action on the part of humans changes the enforcement of the Second Precept (‘EveryBeing has Free Will’) to allow more direct action on people by the Gods. I am, to a certain extent, abrogating my free will to the use of the Gods but also I believe that more manipulation of events is available after invocation. So even though I no longer an American citizen, have no representatives, and cannot think of what I can do to help or change, the Gods will act on my request. And, I am sure, the petitions of many other saddened people like myself.

Bíodh sé amhlaidh!
Which is, roughly translated, ‘Let it be so!’ and is our Grove’s ‘Amen’.


Judith O’Grady

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is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).


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Down, Down to Troy Town

“But with what desperation do we seek to deny the cycles of time! That it were not so is the dearest wish of humanity. Any catastrophe imaginable would be preferable to the secrets hidden in Troy Town.”

From Ramon Elani

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“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. The God’s name is Abraxas.”

—Hermann Hesse

“In this world is man Abraxas, the creator and the destroyer of his own world.”

—Carl Jung

Roused from my sleep by turbulent dreams, I came to the riverbank. The river opened its eyes to me and galaxies were born and died in its eddying currents. Mist rose in hissing tendrils from moss and fern. The moon, a cold shining knife blade. Two figures emerged from the darkened wood, one wearing a mantle of straw, the other clad in twigs and alder and hazel leaves. Each was crowned with bark, with ferns upon their feet and masks of wood covered their faces. One carried a wand of hawthorne, the other a wooden sword. Hands clasped, they stood before me in silence. Then came forth a third figure, darker than the night and in its hands, a flaming sword. At the approach of this fell thing, the Wild Ones bowed their heads in unison and knelt upon the ground. The executioner raised his dire sword and I turned my head as the dolorous stoke found its mark. Soundlessly the two figures, hands still entwined, slumped to the earth and the dirt was stained with bright blood, which poured into the river below. A thong of shadowy mourners came and lifted the bodies onto a litter of branches, decorated with antlers. At the executioner’s behest, the procession began to move, and I, compelled by an urgency in my blood, followed. Then we came to a tarn, deep and still, surrounded by oak trees and standing stones. And the bodies of the Wild Ones were thus drowned in that black water. Down and down, through uncountable fathoms, I saw the bodies sink. A shudder passed through the world. The lips of the executioner moved: “guilty,” “guilty,” “guilty.”

Then came a number of young girls, with flowers in their hair. And they sang this song:
Now carry we Death out of the world,

The new Summer into the world,

Welcome, dear Summer,

Green Little corn.

Death will sleep beneath the oak tree,

Summer will soon be here,

We carry Death away for you

We bring the Summer.

Give us a good year

For wheat and for rye.

We carry Death out of the world,

And the New Age into the world.

Dear Spring, we bid you welcome.

Green grass, we bid you welcome.

We carry away death.

And bring back life.
The girls carried between them a small coffin and when they set it down, the executioner and all his attendants entered the coffin and the girls buried it beneath an oak tree. Then one among the girls spoke: “Of what was he guilty? For he was so good.” And three girls stepped forward, each bearing a chalice. “Weep not,” they spoke. “For what is sweeter than milk, honey, and brandy?” And the first of them poured sweet milk upon the dirt, the second, honey, and the third, brandy. At that, the sound of a horn broke the silence of those grim woods and a jubilant crowd passed before me. At its head, upon a fair horse, rode a figure robed in bark and crowned with gold. He was adorned with flowers and ribbons hung from his breast. Behind him came boys and girls bearing straw effigies upon tall poles. I remembered the words:
Those trees in whose dim shadow

The ghastly priest doth reign

The priest who slew the slayer,

And shall himself be slain.

 

And the King of the Wood came again into his kingdom.

And I awoke by the side of the river.

And I knew that as I slept, she goddess of the river had placed her tynged upon me. That I would be cursed to see the dying of an age and know that not I, nor any other, can prevent what is coming. For this world is truly a fortress of turns. And what has come is always fated to return. Against whom do we war but ourselves? To go out, one must go in. The law of history and the law of the maze are one and the same. As Rebecca Solnit writes: “sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.” One must not approach the hilltop but by the ringed paths that surround it. Remember, with every step, I have been here before, I will be here again. Nothing could be more profane than to walk straight to the center. No, the lines of seven folds must be obeyed. And why? Because unless we follow the circle path, we will find nothing at all when we reach the end.

But with what desperation do we seek to deny the cycles of time! That it were not so is the dearest wish of humanity. Any catastrophe imaginable would be preferable to the secrets hidden in Troy Town. We will come, in time, to deny everything in the world in our attempt to be free. Destiny, fate is abhorrent to the modern mind because it is so self evident. A vision of humanity that sits, impervious, upon a shining pyramid, looming over the barren plain cannot abide the notion that powers beyond us direct the course of all things. Borges, one haunted by the labyrinth:

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am.

We are the body of the cosmos. We are the dreams of the world. And we, and the world, are no more than mist and dew.

Within the maze, we look up at the eternal stars. Their implication suddenly becomes clear. We find that past and future are the same. We find that the present is the only illusion. There is only the endless rhythm of the tide. A wave that is always coming and going. There is a sensation, most acutely felt, of being pursued throughout our lives. Something implacably seeks us. It finds us in our dreams, in Troy Town.

Modernity fails because it teaches us to kill the monster. Confine it because we fear it. Trap it and bind it. Instead of the hallowed offerings we once gave freely, it now will take its own bloody rewards. And on its own terms, the price will be arbitrary and cruel. Then, when it has trespassed too far, we will hunt it, drive it down to Troy Town and butcher it and declare ourselves rid of its vileness forever. And then we will act surprised when its bloody lips spread wide again to devour us. We only sin against ourselves. Joseph Campbell:

Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

The cycles turn, without end. We can escape nothing. We are destined to fight the same battles forever. Just as Holly and Oak, winter and summer, life and death. When we embrace this awful truth and walk the spiral path in Troy Town, we will once again dwell in the bosom of the living gods.

 

Amor fati, amor fati.

 


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.

Pan-Human Goddess

“The yearly poem to Bridget [that] has come to me in my sleep.”

From Judith O’Grady

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We call out to you at
Goddess Bridget; and will You bless
With magic these things of the folk:
The brat, the scarf, and all the rest.

Gracious Saint, Midwife of Mary,
Leave Your footprints where we have smoored
On Your day in February.
See? Here we have unlocked the door.

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Come down and dance, Maman Brigitte.
And tell us what we need to know
To the sound of the horses’ feet.
Let us be filled to overflow.

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The world is rife with those in need;
In all Your aspects, please take heed.


Judith O’Grady

image1is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).


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Lady of Forges, Lady of Flames.

Today is Imbolc.

I write this while sitting before a fire, remembering every other Imbolc at which I sat before fire. This year, as the last two years, it’s a wood fire. Each of the three years before that, the fire came from candles.

Imbolc is the name given to one of the oldest remembered Celtic holidays still celebrated in European and other lands. It’s not clear where the name came from, though most think it’s a reference to the beginning of the birthing of lambs. It might also refer to milk; both are possible and related.

Before industrial civilization enchained cattle and humans into factories, people in northern climates went through periods of food scarcity late in the winter. Harvests that had been stored in autumn dwindled, as did the meat from animals slaughtered just before the deep cold set in. Even all the ales and meads (ready by mid-winter Carnifals) would be mostly gone by now. Nothing would grow, either, and all that was left was to wait for Imbolc.

Because by Imbolc, the lambs and other livestock began to produce milk for their new offspring as they are born. The beginning of a new cycle of abundance, the promise of growth and sunlight and warmthall of that was this day, Imbolc.

It’s also known as Brigid’s day, or St. Brigid’s.

Brigid of Menez Hôm, Bretagne

Perhaps no other ancient goddess was so blatantly preserved in Catholic practice. Sure, it’s obvious after just a little digging to figure out where other saints came from (France’s patron St. Denis is named after the Gaulish shorthand for Dionysus, for instance). But even the practices around St. Brigid’s days make it impossible to argue the saint was anything more than a concession to Celtic Pagans.

Another catholic holy-day that maps to Imbolc is Candlemas, which itself carries on many traditions of the Roman Pagan festival of Lupercalia (15 February). During Candlemas, all the old candle stubs and left-over wax from the year before are melted down to be made into new candles. It’s a day of purification and transformation, fitting well with one of the aspects of Brigid, that of patroness of forging.

Besides forging, Brigid is known for many other things. Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism, details three aspects of her particularly relevant to anti-capitalists. My favorite aspect is that of Brig Ambue, “Brigid of the Cowless.” The lore speaks of a Brigid who defended the rights of the dispossessed, the poor, and the outcasts (including criminals). Other aspects include that of justice (particularly on behalf of women) and hospitality.

I know her as the lady of the forge, the lady of the springs, and the lady of the hearth. Five years ago today I had a vision of a woman sitting in front of a fire, throwing fuel into it and laughing. I’d had the vision before, so many times I thought I was going crazy. I’d close my eyes and see it, blink and see it, always certain I could hear that laughter to the point I almost asked others if they heard her too.

Everything about myself changed that day. Or started to, because ‘reforging’ isn’t a short process. I look back at my life of almost 41 years (my birthday’s a day before lupercalia, on the day of a beheaded saint, in case you’re curious), and see that day five years ago as some sort of rebirth.

I don’t really like the word rebirth, thoughthat’s what the christians use, the ‘born-again’ drivel that makes them hate abortion and gays. “Reforged” makes more sense, anyway. I didn’t die and change: things broke apart and melted down but are all still there, just in different, better places.

But like the way christians who’ve been ‘born again’ seem to all share the same experience, there seems to be lots of others who’ve had similar experiences with Brigid. Several of them write for this site, others are people I’ve met randomly. But again, unlike christians, we don’t go around telling people how great it is and how she’ll save your soul. If anything, we usually advise caution, because it’s not necessarily a nice and comfortable thing to have your entire life re-arranged around you. Gods help you like forest fires help the forest and lightning fertilizes the earth; powerful, but not pleasant.

Besides, Paganism and witchcraft aren’t colonizer religions anyway. We don’t need or want missionaries, or crusades, or tent revivals. The gods I know seem generally indifferent to whether or not people believe in them; but it’s precisely because they aren’t conqueror gods, or civilization gods. They’re not the gods of kings and popes and CEO’s, but usually of poor people and trees and small streams. Gods of things that actually matter.

Brigid’s one of those gods, and I speak of her not to tell you to believe in her. There’s no point believing in things anyway; belief is for obedient people who do what they’re told and don’t question. I think that’s why gods don’t really seem to care if you believe them or notwho wants to talk to slavish fools who question nothing?

Offering the manuscript of Anthony Rella’s new book Circling The Star to Brigid on Imbolc. She likes ‘important paper’ particularly.

I speak of Brigid mostly to tell you about me, why certain things are important to me, why other things don’t matter at all. Because I know a goddess who cares about criminals and poor people and likes to throw things into a fire and laugh about it. I think she laughs because she knows nothing is ever really completely burnt. Ashes remain, and those ashes feed forests.

So it’s Imbolc, Brigid’s day, a day that was a lot more important to people before capitalism than it is to people living under capitalism. I think it will be an important day again. It has been for me these last five years, and also to an increasing number of people I love and care about and want to fight alongside of, whether they know of Brigid or not.

Happy Imbolc.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.


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Ash, Oak and Thorn: Clarification on the Death of British Paganism

The crisis of Paganism is directly tied to Capitalism

Cultural and religious analysis, from Jonathan Woolley


Ash die-back

Last month, I wrote an article in which I argued that the British Pagan Movement was dying. I was pleased to see it provoked(1) quite(2) a bit of(3) interest(4). As I expected, some people agreed with what I had to say, while others did not. Whenever you broach a controversial topic – and my article most certainly did so – there will always be some measure of disagreement. So before I move forward and offer some solutions to the problem as I see it, I thought it might be worthwhile to make some points of clarification.

This is what I shall attempt to do below; by means of a naturalistic metaphor. Much of my academic research has been concerned by exploring the ways in which the human and non-human worlds affect one another; how the forces of belief, profit, and bureaucracy percolate out through the landscape, and create patterns in the land and its people that closely mirror one another. Although I agreed with much of what John Beckett had to say in his response to my article*, what I found rather iffy about it was his use of evolution as a way of thinking about the development of religious communities. Using evolution as a model for understanding the spread or decline of human societies has a long and rather dubious history in anthropology, and contemporary social science has generally left metaphors of this particular kind behind.

While I still think nature can be – to use Levi-Strauss’ famous phrase – “good to think with” regarding social relations, I’d deploy it in a rather different way to John. So I thought I might demonstrate this, here, before I move on.

It will show, I hope, three things. One, it will help us appreciate what kinds of social groups I am talking about – in short, what I mean by “The British Pagan Movement.” Two, it will help us understand what “death” means here; what conclusions the evidence supports, and what conclusions it does not. Three, it will help us to understand why this process is inextricably bound-up with global flows of capital.

Clarification 1) Primroses

pagan things are not (necessarily) Paganism

There is a little wood, not far from where I live, that is mostly ash trees. As of this moment, the place is in a state much like many other ancient woodlands in the UK, managed for conservation; the branches are alive with birdsong, the forest floor is covered with a carpet of bluebells, primroses and lush spring grass. New life is flourishing everywhere you look. But if you look up, you see that a good number of the trees have brown lesions on their bark, and that last year’s withered leaf stalks are still clinging to their branches. Many of the older saplings are dead. Signs on the gate posts at the entry to the wood warn you – the whole place is suffering from Chalara, or Ash dieback. This fungus has already hit 90% of Denmark’s ash trees, and it is now spreading rapidly across the British Isles. Although mature trees can survive with an infection for many years, it decimates saplings, preventing the ash population from regenerating.

But remember – we are at the height of spring, and the forest is green, and many of the older trees will still put out leaves this year. So the majority of human visitors might imagine – even those who know the wood well – that there is no problem; hence the need for signs. But unless a solution is found, Britain’s glorious ash woods will die out. This does not mean the end of woodlands in general, nor does Chalara affect all plant species that live in ash woods – many of whom can and do thrive in woods of other sorts of trees. But if the ash trees all die out, then the woodlands defined by them will likewise disappear.

My previous article on Gods and Radicals made a similar diagnosis regarding British Paganism. I observed that – like the ebullient undergrowth in my ash woodland – the level of interest in “pagan” (note the small p) things is flourishing like never before. We’ve just celebrated May Day here in England, and there have been festivities up and down the country of a decidedly “pagan” feel. Despite many of these traditions have deep roots, I cannot remember them being celebrated so widely, or being publicised so much in the media.

I myself spent May Morning in Oxford with some friends, and 27,000 other people, who listened to the choir of Magdalene College sing to the rising sun, before a blessing was called out upon the Earth, our Mother, and the flourishing of the verdure for which the English springtime is famed. As the bells rang in the day, and Morris Men and other folk dancers jangled their way down across the Radcliffe Camera, the people of Oxford spread out to pubs and cafes – open especially early for that Morning – to toast the summer. And although there were initiated Pagans like myself present, by far and away the majority of those out on May Morning were not. The blessing was called out by an Anglican vicar, after all, and the choir were singing Hymnus Eucharisticus, a 500 year-old hymn about the Incarnation of Christ.

Events and activities of this kind, though undoubtedly “pagan” in a sense, should not be conflated with the Pagan Movement in Britain – which, as I stated in my original article, is a network of historically-related initiatory traditions, membership organisations, mailing lists, moots, and shops, all built around a genre of spiritual books, published from the late 19th to the present-day. This retail and voluntary framework supports a group of small religions and mystery schools that have grown dramatically in size during the 1980s and 1990s.

In the comments, a number of people suggested that because interest in pagan things like May Morning were doing so well the Pagan Movement itself must be flourishing. This reveals a common tendency  within both the advocacy and the study of Paganisms to claim pagan groups, ideas, and customs as part of the Pagan Movement, in a way that bolsters the Movement’s perceived size. An extreme version of this approach is represented in Michael York’s Pagan Theology, where he argues that indigenous religions, Hinduism, Shinto, African Traditional and Diasporic Religions, and Chinese Traditional Religions should all be reclassified as Pagan. This view has been heavily criticised for being a wild oversimplification of theological and ritual diversity in the traditions concerned, and for appropriating the independent philosophies of people of colour for confessional ends – despite the fact that followers in those philosophies would certainly reject the “Pagan” label.

I suggest we see a similar mistake being made when cultural events like May Morning, or the Stonehenge gathering at the Solstice, are treated as evidence for initiatory Pagan traditions themselves being in fine fettle. True, small-p paganism might encourage some people to seek out deeper mysteries, but I see little evidence that supports the view that the former necessarily leads to the latter in all cases. To dismiss the prospect of a gradual decline in popularity of initiatory Pagan groups or membership associations in Britain out of hand, simply because of the popularity of “pagan” cultural themes in Britain today is a bit like saying the ash trees can’t be dying from Chalara, because the primroses are doing awfully well.

Clarification 2) Saplings:

A lack of young people, and a lack of volunteerism are the problems; not an immediate collapse in membership

In my article, I identified evidence of decline with two observations; that there appear to be fewer people under 40 attending events organised by British Pagan traditions than previously, and that far fewer members of our community are volunteering to organise events. In the comments to my article – and in some rather frantic critiques published elsewhere – a lot of people went on to assume that the actual number of new members had collapsed, and that the existing membership figures of organisations like OBOD were falling. I have subsequently received clarification that – at least in the case of OBOD – this isn’t the case.

OBOD is increasing its membership rapidly to the point that the office is positively bustling; I have been informed that there are now nearly 20,000 members worldwide, an increase of roughly 4,000 over the past four years. Though reassuring, this bit of quantitative detail doesn’t necessarily affect my original observations – as OBOD doesn’t record the age of its members, it could be that this growth in membership is taking place solely amongst the over 40s. And as I argued in my original piece, if young people are joining the Order, but not coming to events, that still represents a problem. If millennials and younger members of Generation X are not being reached by the Order now, we have no guarantee that this will change as they get older – so the lack of young people at events could still indicate a problem that needs to be resolved. Nor does this continued growth indicate the extent to which people are willing to volunteer their time to organise moots, camps, or rituals.

With our ash woodland, the point is not that all the ash trees are dead already, or that no new seeds are able to germinate – rather, the problem is that Chalara is preventing the trees from flourishing as well as they might, to the point that a almost a whole generation of saplings has withered away, and this will have consequences long-term. The lack of young people at events, and the lack of ready volunteers, indicates that such a process may be ongoing in the British Pagan Community.

Clarification 3) Biosecurity:

Capitalism is, in fact, the causal factor

One might imagine that a fungal disease attacking ash trees and the combination of market forces I identified as being so deleterious to Britain’s initiatory Pagan traditions would have very little to do with one another. But in fact, both track the impact of global capitalism on local communities of different kinds.

Chalara – a species native to Asian forests, where it does no harm whatsoever – was imported into Europe in mass-produced furniture and ornamental plants. Rather than put in place adequate biosecurity measures to protect our forests from such diseases, the UK government opted for deregulation, preferring to protect the free movement of goods over the safety of our forests. It was neoliberal ideology – the religion of late capitalism – that brought Chalara to our shores. Just as Britain’s trees are blighted by the demands of capital, so our mysteries are deprived of the means of their reproduction by those self-same demands.

In the epic poem by Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, the nature spirit Puck explains that – apart from himself – all the magical people of England have left

“The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes and the rest — gone, all gone!”

Only he remains, for “I came into England with Oak, Ash, and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash, and Thorn are gone I shall go too”. This powerful poem contains, I suggest, the seeds of the sort of radical “saving vision” that John Halstead suggests we must pursue, not just to save our Movement from long-term decline, but to make it worth saving. While Britain’s ash trees wither due to the spread of Chalara, other threats – like the devastating Emerald Ash Borer – lurk on the horizon. Britain’s oak trees, too, are in danger – with Sudden Oak Death being another species introduced by the trade in exotic plants, without adequate biosecurity. It is the responsibility of initiated Pagans to lead the charge in protecting Oak, Ash, and Thorn, making the land welcoming again for The People of the Hills.

For if we do not, then who shall?

*However, as he believed his remarks were in disagreement with my own, I suspect he wrote more of a response to the title of my article, rather than its content.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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British Paganism is Dying. Why?

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the OBOD Summer Gathering about the role of young people in Druidry. I began by pointing out that the average lifespan for an adult during the Iron Age was about 30 years – even if the sky-high rates of infant mortality were excluded. Today, we tend to think of elderhood as something reserved for those over 65; but to our ancestors, anyone over 30 would have been looked upon as an invaluable source of wisdom and experience. To accentuate the point, I invited the audience to stand up, and then asked all those over 35 to sit down again. If we were Iron Age druids, the majority of those seated, I explained, would be dead. Although the point I was making about the relativity of youth and eldership is an important one, this little experiment – getting anybody over 35 to sit down – revealed something else. Of a room full of 150 people, only about 9 were left standing. If this sample is taken to be indicative of the Order as a whole, that means only around 6% of OBOD’s members are aged between 16 and 35. By contrast, this age bracket covers some 26.4% of the UK’s general population.

This lack of young people at OBOD gatherings made manifest something that had been lingering in the back of my mind for some time; something that had previously only been whispered over campfires, on kitchen tables, late at night when the wine was flowing. Not only are few younger people coming to OBOD events, but some of my friends report that there seem to be fewer people of all ages taking an active role in organising events and rituals. While people are still coming to big public rituals at seasonal festivals, they are less and less inclined to volunteer to organise them, or to take on regular commitments of any kind. Moots are shrinking, it’s harder to fill up workshops, and getting enough volunteers to set up and run camps and gatherings is a struggle. For a long time, I suspected that this was confined to OBOD – Druidry, after all, has a powerful association with old white men with old white beards – but having spoken to friends of mine involved in other traditions, it appears to be more widespread, if not as extreme in other parts of the community. I’ve been told that the number of registered members of the Pagan Federation has gone down for the first time. At the Harvest Moon Conference in 2016, Melissa Harrington confessed that she felt that this decline in active participation was indicative of Paganism “going underground” again. Most of the Pagan Federation events I’ve been to recently have shown a similar demographic spread to OBOD ones.

All this is developing in the context of our experience of the most recent UK census in 2011. Ronald Hutton calculated in Triumph of the Moonpublished in the mid-ninetiesthat the number of initiated Pagans was around 17,000 – 20,000, with a larger number of “active engagers” of about 120,000; people who may revere Pagan gods, practice magic, and mark seasonal festivals, but are not initiated into any Pagan group. When the 2001 census recorded some 44,000 Pagans across Scotland, England, and Wales, this figure attracted considerable press attention, both positive and negative. Hutton speculated that if 44,000 people were sufficiently invested to identify themselves as Pagan on a censusdouble his figure in Triumphthe number of more loosely affiliated “active engagers” could have doubled too; creating a figure of 250,000 people.

In advance of the 2011 census, major Pagan organisations in Britain led the Pagan-dash campaign, encouraging people to identify themselves as Pagan on the census. However, the number who reported themselves as “Pagan” increased to only 56,620 peopleand depending upon how broadly one defines “Paganism,” the number of those identifying as a member of a Pagan or esoteric tradition increased to around 80,000 people. As Vivienne Crowley pointed out, this indicates that the meteoric growth of the 1990s had slowed. My concern is that the declining number of young participants in the Pagan community in Britain, and the general diminution of those taking an active role in the community as a whole, indicates that that growth has stalled. British Paganismas a subculture and as a movementis in trouble.

The clickbait-y title of the piecechosen to encourage you to read what I have to say (sorry)is doubtless an exaggeration. As such, I’ll need to make a couple of caveats. The problem I mention above is not some catastrophic dissolution of the social relations from which the Pagan Movement in Britain is forged; there is no imminent disaster, we’re not all in schism or at each other’s throats. The fact that this crisis is a slow crisis, I suggest, is what makes it so easy to ignore. But communities are not just vulnerable to feuds and disruption; time itself is an enemy. It is said that we are all dying, one day at a time—but communities have ways of warding off the parabolic curve toward the grave, by recruiting new members from new generations. If none of these ways are followed, however, then a community will necessarily disappear, subjected to the remorseless attrition of the passing of years. The death of the Pagan Movement is some way off; my aim here is not to pronounce its imminent demise, but rather to draw attention to a set of problems that, if unaddressed, will necessarily lead to the movement dying away.

I’d also stress that the scope of my observations above is necessarily quite limited. This situation applies solely to British Paganisms, and not to those of other countries. On a recent trip to Australia, for example, I witnessed a quite different realityin which a great many of people my own age are getting involved in and leading Pagan traditions. In European countries, I know, the demography is similarly diverse. Are there thriving covens and groves, recruiting many members under 30, out there in the UK somewhere, that I have yet to meet? Very possibly. If they do exist, I’d very much like to meet them; it’d be fascinating to learn how they’ve managed to buck the trend that I’ve observed in my own experience of the British Pagan Movement.

I also think it’s important to point out that the decline in British Paganism does not mean in the slightest that magical practice, animistic beliefs and ritual, British folkways, or the celebration of the wild and mythic heritage of these islands as a whole is under threat. Indeed, I would suggest to the contrary; that all these cultural practices are very much alive, and growing, amongst the younger generations as anywhereindeed, witchy stuff, hippy vibes, eco-activism, and nature mysticism are more on trend than ever. Which makes it all the more bizarre, to my mind, that existing British Orders, Traditions, and Camps are not riding the wave of the neo-folk, authenticity-seeking, sustainability-conscious zeitgeist. Hutton’s distinction between initiated Pagans and “active engagers” is very useful hereit is important to stress that becoming an initiate of a mystery school, and actively engaging in a broader cultural tradition of enchantment do not necessarily relate to one another. They are two rather different things.

What is in decline, then, is something quite specificthe Pagan Movement; a collection of organisations, publications, ceremonial genres, training courses. That collection is no longer feeding the appetite of the general public for the magical. That appetite has not gone away; indeed, it has potentially increasedso we must ask ourselves what has changed.

Dealing with some existing explanations

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, some of those I’ve spoken to tend to comment upon it in a number of ways. Firstly, they tend to argue that young people are just inherently less interested in spiritualitybeing more concerned with enjoying themselves, having children, or workingand that they will find Druidry when they become more spiritually-inclined as they get older. Secondly, the argument is made that there are probably many younger druids, but they just don’t come to the existing selection of events. Finally, some druids argue that most people are fundamentally ignorant and insensitive to the subtle forces and immanent power of wild places. Each of these commentaries serves to minimise the problem; the assumption being that the absence of younger people will resolve itself in time. With regard to the dip in the number of people prepared to take on organisational responsibilities, people tend to simply shake their heads, and mutter darkly about adverse economic conditions. I’ll deal with each of these responses in turn.

The suggestion that young people are necessarily less spiritual is one that doesn’t reflect my own experience, nor does it chime with the history of Paganism as a movement. I routinely meet people my own age with a deep and profound engagement with religious and spiritual practicebut they’re just normally involved other organisationssuch as Western Buddhist Orders, the Brahma Kumaris, or even liberal churchesover Pagan ones. As I’ve already pointed out, much of what Paganism is all about is very popular amongst young adults today. This reflects a long and passionate history of youthful involvement with magical and mystery traditions; the 1990s “Teen Witch” phenomenon demonstrated an enthusiastic appetite for enchantment amongst teenagers, and as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy eloquently point out, the derisory views of this phenomenon by more experienced practitioners was largely ill-founded. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, if you go far back, pretty much all the Druids and priests of pre-Christian times would have been in their 20s. And although many people will get more inclined to involve themselves in spiritual practice as they get older, the same could be said in the reverseit is a well known phenomenon for spiritual ardour to cool with age.

The more moderate claimthat young Pagans are out there, but they aren’t coming to events or undertaking coursesis more plausible. As I’ve said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a large population of “active engagers” in Pagan materialeven if they aren’t accessing that material through active participation in the community itself. But that begs a further question: why are British Pagan community leaders not organising events and courses that better cater to the majority of people? What might resources of this kind look like? The fact that the majority of those interested in “Pagan” themes in Britain aren’t being catered to by what’s already on offer within our community is not a reason for complacency; if anything, it should be the opposite. I would suggest that we’re simply doing as we’ve always done, even though it clearly isn’t working in the way that it once did.

The final claimthat most people simply don’t appreciate what the Pagan movement has to offeris, I think, the reason for this complacency about the narrow appeal of our movement in Britain. For much of the 20th century, Pagans have been viewed with thinly-veiled hostility by British society at large, with most of our valuesfrom respect for nature to equality for women, from sexual liberation to a valorisation of the imaginationbeing decidedly countercultural in nature. This had direct consequences; in custody battles, in dealings with the police, in employment and at home. This experiencepart of living memory for most Pagans todayhas reinforced the perception that the rest of society simply “doesn’t get” what we’re all about.

But the fact is that British society and its values have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Much of what once made Paganism radical is now widely accepted by those of all religions and none. It is no longer particularly progressive to believe in the central importance of the natural world, or in basic equality for all. Though these values are under attack from corporations and far-right populist movements, the very fact that the opposition to these values has crystallised at this moment demonstrates the broadening of their appeal. People would have no need of the gurning outrages of Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins if everyone still took their regressive views as common sense, as they once did. While British Pagan organisations have concentrated on mainstreaming, it has escaped the notice of many of us that the mainstream is now increasingly flowing in our direction. We are winning the argument.

And yet, rather than harness this tectonic shift in the soul of Britain, some Pagans have remained pretty insular in their thinking. The recent memory of bigotry shown toward our community has become a shield for other, less edifying attitudes. Like members of most subcultures, it’s tempting for Pagans to look down on those outside of our small community, characterising the general public as mindless, uncritical “sheeple” or “muggles,” enslaved to societal expectations. We are all familiar with the extreme form this attitude can take; the British Pagan Community has its fair share of what an American friend of mine referred to as “Grand High Poobahs.” But I would suggest that we all need to be vigilant against this tendency within ourselvesmyself included. In the past few years, I have met so many people who shared identical values to those of contemporary British Pagans. Though lapsing into a bit of mild snobbery is a ubiquitous trait in British society, I suggest that it has led us initiated Pagans into underestimating the current reach and appeal of the things we care about most. As such, we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterismtreating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

To return to Hutton’s formulation, then, it appears the problem is not the decline of all cultural practices that can be connected to the Pagan revival. Rather it is a disjuncture between the orders, traditions, newsletters, groups, literatures, and organisations that make up the “Pagan Movement”and a broader audience of “active engagers” that is larger than ever. But how has this rift emerged? I suggest that, of the comments I’ve mentioned so far, the one that sets us on the path to understanding this process is the lastthose grim reflections upon economic adversity, and its impact on people’s ability to engage in the time-consuming task of organising and volunteering for community activities.

The Political Economy of Paganism

In one of my first essays on Gods and Radicals, I explored the political economy of contemporary Paganism. There I argued that Paganism is quite unlike more established religions, in that the prevailing economic structure is not a church, or a monastic order, or an ashrambut rather a fandom. It is a group of avid enthusiasts, who consume content produced by a smaller circle of creators, who distribute their content through an open marketwith that content being celebrated through events organised by enthusiast-volunteers. My aim in producing this description was to provide the most accurate picture of how goods, services, labour and authority circulate in our community. The point is not that individual British Pagan authors, workshop leaders, diviners, and shopkeepers are greedy capitalists. In fact, all the creators on the British scene that I have met are generous and altruistic, with spiritual rather than profit-motives. The point is that the system in which they all work is a market-oriented one. And as it lives by the market, I suggest, so our community is now dying by it.

Within the British Pagan Community, two kinds of organisation played a key role: the Independent Small Business and the Unincorporated Association. Mind Body Spirit Shops and Bookshops are all small businesses; institutions that rely upon commerce, but provide a hub for existing initiates, and, crucially, allow new seekers a means of finding their way into the community. Through the gateway represented by the MBS Shop, the seeker would find their way into a network of covens, orders, groves, moots, ceremonies, and camps. All of these are forms of Unincorporated Associations, run by volunteers, usually at costif any money changes hands at all. The key feature to both these types of organisationSmall Private Companies and Unincorporated Associationsis that they’re both very vulnerable to fluctuations in the wider market.

The fate of the MBS Bookshop makes this vulnerability plain. Like all small, independent shops, a great many pagan or MBS bookshops have been forced to close, afflicted by economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, rising business rates, andmost importantlyout-competed by internet retailers. The Internet has now largely replaced the bookshop as the first place seekers go to find out about our traditions. Pagans were early-adopters of the Internet, and the web provided an invaluable means for Pagan groups to meet and work with one another. But the Internet itself has transformed drastically since the 1990s. Web design, search-engine optimisation, and e-marketing have become tremendously advanced, funded by vast amounts of corporate capital. In the crowded marketplace of online content, it’s easy for your brand to be drowned out unless you can successfully deploy a rich supply of fresh, original content, distributed adroitly through social mediamuch of which consumers expect for free. British Pagan organisations have been slow to adapt to this environment; and while being slightly dated and tatty adds to the charm of an independent bookshop, a website that is poorly designed or has late 90s coding won’t look any better for it. To those of us who have grown up with the internet, an old-fashioned website is downright off-putting.

A further problem from a commercial standpoint is the fact that Paganism’s “brand” has suffered in recent years. As John Halstead has pointed out, we’ve gone from being perceived as a threat, to being seen as a joke. Although efforts to mainstream the Pagan movement have brought undoubted benefits, it has nonetheless had the unintended side-effect of removing some of the edgy charisma that was once part of the movement’s appeal. This effect has been compounded by the fact the British Pagans who most assiduously court publicity are amongst the most eccentric, with the lowest production values. Those of us who are less inclined to dress up crushed velvet, or give ourselves grand titles exceeding our actual accomplishments have ended up avoiding the limelight entirely. Though understandable, this reaction has meant that the British public now have a mental image of Paganism that amounts to little more than bad cosplay at the Summer Solstice.

If we turn away from the shop front, towards the community meeting in the function room upstairs, we run into a different set of issuesbut ones that can nonetheless be traced back to market forces. The Pagan Community is reliant upon the voluntary labour of enthusiasts, as the events rarely collect enough cash to pay the going rate for the labour involved. During the 1990s, when many camps and moots were being set up, this was not a problembenefits and wages were generous enough to allow people copious spare time that they could devote towards voluntary activities. But after decades of cuts in state finances and stagnant wages, paired with a rising cost of living, people across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are working longer hours. With their increasingly limited time off, they now need to focus upon domestic labour, spending time with their loved ones, and on recreationactivities that “recharge the batteries,” allowing them to continue working.

Voluntary labour and extra-curricular learning have both suffered, as people no longer have the time or energy to spare to engage in them. Unfortunately, these are precisely the two types of activity upon which the Pagan community was built in the mid-20th century. As the amount of spare time available has collapsed, so have the number of people prepared who can find the time to become initiated, learn the mysteries, and then enact them for others for free. The only exception are those who have already secured sufficient assets so that they no longer need to work for a living; that is, retired people.

In short, the same reason lies behind the aging of British Paganism, and the decline in the number of active initiates prepared to run events. The Pagan Movement was constructed, quite unintentionally, as a network of commercial relations, that in turn stimulated a thriving voluntary scene, all gathered around a common genre of writing and ritual. But as market conditions have changed in the past few decades, this delicate arrangement has been yanked out of alignment. The Movement has not remained competitive in the crowded marketplace of online content, and has not made the most of its distinctive brand. Given that people are more pressed for time and money than ever, fewer young, working people are attracted to it, and there are no longer enough volunteers available to run its events.

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

Although I have taken pains to reveal the commercial underpinnings to British Paganism, this does not mean that I think this situation is an ideal, or even good state of affairs. There are a great many alternative ways of organising ourselves that would make our core activities much less vulnerable to shifts in the wider economy. Equally, in saying this, I do not mean to criticise anybody’s individual way of making a livingas I’ve said, I have not met anybody on the British scene who I would describe as a profiteer, exploiting their spirituality to collect a tidy sum. Instead, what I’ve experienced is lots of passionate, enthusiastic people, aspiring to earn a wage in a fulfilling way. But it is interesting that the social structure that developed organically around our Movement was in the first instance a capitalist one. Even our voluntary arrangements, as I have argued, have been directly affected by adverse market conditions. This just goes to show that the British Pagan Movement is not exempt from the prevailing capitalist logics that structure British society in general. And these same logics are now placing the very longevity of our community in question.

To lay out the issues before us plainly, there are two things with which the market once supplied the Pagan Movement in Britain. Namely, a means for “active engagers” to find out about the Movement and become initiates within it; a shop-front, in other wordsand sufficiently generous and un-taxing sources of income to allow for initiates to pursue the mysteries in their spare time. The market in Britain no-longer provides us with these things, and so our community is withering on the vine. Although there are, perhaps, more “active engagers” than ever, we are cut off from them. The question that now lies before us is this: How can we better connect with this large pool of active engagers, of all ages, and how can we better sustain the practice of the mysteries, now that people’s time and energy is so short?

I cannot provide a comprehensive programme of solutions here, though I will venture some suggestions in future articles. But there are some key observations I wish to make, by way of concluding remarks:

  • It is clear that our movement’s focus around long-term, expensive, extra-curricular pedagogy – that is, upon initiation pursued in one’s spare time, with one’s spare incomeis becoming harder to sustain. In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.
  • This does not mean we should abandon our drive to initiate more people into the mysteries; but it means we should re-think how and why we do this. If we are serious about broadening the reach of what we do, we need to find ways of making it accessible and feasible for people to learn about it.
  • This, if anything, shows us one thingBritish Paganism is being killed by capitalism. Although I have cast it in quite stark, commercial terms, at the heart of the Pagan community sits a utopian vision of free-association: a Bookchinite imagined village, in which individuals are free to interact with one another regarding matters of mutual interest, and to exchange goods and services in a similar manner. There are many ways in which this vision has been put into practice; particularly in the voluntaristic dimensions to the Pagan experience. I have lived and breathed this sort of lifestyle at Pagan camps I have attended. But it has become increasingly hard to sustain in the cut-throat landscape of post-recession Britain. If we’re serious about wanting to build a village-like community in contemporary Paganism here, we’ll need to destroy capitalism in order to do it.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

Gods & Groups

AT THE LAST RITUAL, which was Imbolc, while we were having our customary snack afterward, I asked the Grove if we would like to give to a refugee assistance group as well as our traditional (for Imbolc) donation to the food bank. In our world order, the deity of Imbolc is of course Bridget, Whom we see as a protector of the poor as well as the midwifery and blacksmithery aspects. And our winters are fiercely cold; and apparently there is a donation slump in the post-Christ-mass non-Pagan society.

So now is when we give to the hungry in Her name because who needs intercession and assistance, really…… it’s like the famous historical personage who’s name I don’t know (my, that fellah said a lot, almost as much as ‘anon’, neh?) who was told that the new-made laws were not ‘anti-poor’ and responded ‘I see; the rich cannot sleep under bridges nor beg in the streets as well’.

I looked around at the Grove members present; one said that our focus should, in her opinion, be local. Another countered that since we had specifically spoken to Her about the refugees we should back up our petition; the first speaker agreed and said she would be satisfied if the amounts were unequal.

“Excellent,” I said “60/40? 70/30?” The first speaker nodded and I glanced around again.

As it happened, we had a guest present. “Are you going to vote now?”

“No, we are not a democratic group. We are mostly socialists and few in number; we run by consensus only.”

We only act if we are all acting together. If we don’t have agreement we act as individuals (like when I cursed the animal abuser named ‘Seagull-Ripper’ by my son—I only reported to the group because we are all invested in the river-shore’s well-being. They were guardedly relieved that action had been taken although they were uncomfortable with it).

Anyone can do this, you don’t have to be Druids nor follow the Old Gods. Form a group of like-minded people, convert a friendship group to action, mention in a social setting that you would like to take some action and draw in the people who like the idea. Talk it over and make a plan you all are comfortable with, then do something.

In the same post-Ritual chat ‘n snack, the visitor commended us on our work after I reported on the ongoing dialogue between me and the public lands bureaucracy about our planting trees at MidSummer Ritual. (Be you sure that we will guerrilla if we are not granted permission; if we are given permission, however, we will also get free trees given us). It’s not hard; discussion fosters ideas and the person most interested in the idea makes a plan that the others participate in.

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Seed Bombs in the making

It’s fairly easy to convert talk to action in a small group: it’s impossible to lose transparency, non-participation is obvious, adjustments are fluid and quick.

I was heartened and moved by the post-inauguration Woman’s March; big numbers are good for making big statements. A lot of people show a consensus that is hard to ignore. But actually, a lot of those marchers were small action groups that had planned together what they were going to do.

All of those little stories: the choral group who had practiced over video and had never met in person until they were marching, the people holding up street-width group banners, my house-bound friend who made and sent a lot of pink hats and all of her sisters who did the same, the people who put on skits or donned costume….

Following leadership is the old way. If you elect a leader, you abrogate your involvement in the process. Yes, I belong to a nation and I pay taxes. I expect my government to engage in sewer maintenance. If my provincial leader ran on a ticket of free post-secondary schooling I would vote yes–that’s something I and my several friends would have difficulty implementing ourselves. But organizing garden plots in the yards of interested people and sharing around the produce? That’s something we can do ourselves. Teaching the dominant languages and bureaucratic form-filling in the community centres? Again, something we can do ourselves.

judith-twoI must admit, I don’t belong to those two exampled action cells myself, although I am aware of both of them and know some of the people who do those things. I don’t have dig and weed capability, but have shared seeds and knowledge with other action cells that are forming to de-grass yards.
What I do best is talk to Gods and Beings, and talk to people who don’t trance, and receive messages about what it’s like. Just like my Grove members that didn’t want to curse “Seagull Ripper” themselves, there are quite a few radicals and ecologists (not mutually exclusive groups, though) who don’t want to acknowledge that the world is full of Gods and Spirits, but can hear the World Song faltering nevertheless. They acknowledge the convergence of our goals while insisting on the divergence of our beliefs. But action is still furthered.

It’s like before I retired. One evening I was in the lab working when an assistant came down the hall.

“We have an intractable cat in treatment,” she said “and the technician told me to come and get you.”

“Okay, I can stop what I’m running.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Hold.”

“But I hold!”

“Right,” (now we’re in treatment…)”I’ll hold the front, you’ll hold the back. Now we’ll just wait a moment and I’ll tell the cat it’s all right.”

So the cat quiets down and we draw blood. The assistant is still confused.

“What did you do?”

The treatment technician, a person of science if there ever was, said,

“We don’t ask ourselves that question; Judith is doing something that works, go and get her when we’re having trouble. But don’t listen or you’ll fall asleep.”

“I can’t talk to aggressive dogs,” I cautioned “just fear.”

Eco-terrorists can operate without a speaker-to-the-Earth, but if they acknowledge that having a speaker/believer facilitates success, things work better. And, to the believer, a different level of action is undertaken. In the believer’s world, the Gods, if willing, lend Their aid to the work. In the unbeliever’s world that isn’t the case, but if they perceive that the work goes better with a believer along, then the end is achieved without their having to question what is going on. And getting the work done is important to both the believer and the un. In this case consensus of belief isn’t needed, only consensus of action.

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Follower of Manannán macLir sharing trash-picked elementary-school lunch scraps with his friends

In our Druid Grove, we have a framework of liturgical format that stays the same from ritual to ritual. When the Guiding Druid is about to declare what the Holy Day is, how celebrated, and Who will be addressed, ze always begins that segment with the call-and-response:

“Why are we here?”

 

“We are here to honour the Gods!”

That is all there can be at bottommost: expression of belief and participation. To the believers, the interactions between people and people are necessarily secondary to the interactions between people and the Gods. The critical (as in the most important, not as in the need for negative input) responsibility of the Gods-Speaker/s of the group is to facilitate the communication with the Gods. That should be the impetus that brings all the worshippers together in a ritual and helps to inform all the participants in a God’s-interesting undertaking. Pagan endeavour references Beings different from the humans present, and the attention of the humans present at Pagan events or the Pagans present at human events should be turned towards something other than themselves.

By not acknowledging the larger-than-self referential a poorly focused Pagan brings upon hirself an additional level of culpability. The Gods are not being honoured and the work is not moving forward; the positive outcome of the group activity is ‘larger-than-self’ and so is the possibility of negative outcome enlarged if the believers are not carrying their two agendas successfully.

judith-four
With one hand I pick trash for the environment, With the other I pick trash for the Gods.

And, since I have belief, I also believe that the Good Gods act to constrain the UnGods as well as the people who choose against Right Action. However, I believe that They do it following Their own agenda which is not mine, not at my behest, and often not comprehensible to me. Our communication is imperfect; I have found that a shining and unexpected asset of group (rather than solitary) communication is how much more stable and clear the lines of communication become over time in a group. What works clicks into place with practice more smoothly, and a whole group of troubleshooters is standing by to root out what doesn’t work and suggest alternatives.


Judith O’Grady

judithis an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).


A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred looks pretty amazing. Want a copy?

Frith, Peace, and Protest

Within my Druidic practice, there are three key properties that sit at its heart. Awen, the force of poetic inspiration, engenders creativity and nourishes charisma. Imbas, or life-force, brings health and prophetic vision. The third principle – Frith – is harmony and liberty. Each of these terms is rooted in a different language from my own ancestry; awen is Welsh, spoken by my mother’s family, imbas is from Irish, once spoken by my father’s family, while frith is from Old English – the language ancestral to that which I speak daily. Although the roots of Druidry in Welsh and Irish culture are well known, the ancient Druids practiced right across the British Isles, and the landscape and culture of England continues to speak to Druidic themes – frith being a part of this ongoing conversation. A conversation, I suggest, that speaks to our present duress.

Druids have a longstanding concern for peace. We have old stories of Druids striding out between opposing armies, helping them to reconcile, and during the Druid Revival in the 17th Century, Iolo Morganwg integrated a strong pacifist streak into druidic teaching. But there are certain problems with the concept of peace – and pacifism – as we understand them today. Pacifism is often used as a justification for inaction, or the condemnation of fellow activists. Although notable pacifists are often extremely qualified in their advocacy of nonviolent resistance, such nuance is all-too-often ignored by those who believe that true pacifism means all violence is always wrong. Often coming from positions of class or racial privilege, such advocates of pacifism ignore the structural nature of violence, and instead use the principle as a stick to beat other activists of whom they disapprove, or as a prop for personal cowardice or self-interest. Making a principled stand not to fight back is one thing; ignoring the nature of the violence to which you are opposed is quite another.

It is helpful here to consider the origins of the word “peace” itself. Descended from the Latin pax, the meanings are what we’d expect – tranquility, reconciliation, silence, and agreement. However, such meanings cannot be disentangled easily from the broader social structure of the Roman Empire, under whose terms pax was sustained. The Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – was created and guaranteed through extreme and often genocidal violence; committed against any who refused to accept the authority of the Roman Senate and, later, its Emperors. Indeed, one can note that as soon as a Pax is invoked as a nation’s gift to the world – such as the Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Pax Britannica that held from 1815 until 1914, or the Pax Americana under which we now live – it is more or less guaranteed that the nation concerned has achieved imperial hegemony, backed up with a vast military. “Peace” therefore has a history of concealing a backdrop of institutional violence; silent assent in the face of coercion.

FRITH IS A RADICALLY different sort of concept, because unlike pax, it directs our attention not just to the state of harmony itself, but to the wider sort of relationships that best engender it. Although frith has not survived into modern English as a synonym for harmony, the word does survive in both the words “friend” and “free”. Whereas peace is maintained through treaties, there is a sense with which frith is founded upon kinship – it is the state of harmony that should, ideally, exist between close relatives and friends. It is the active sense of safety that we work towards, ensuring that we are secure in each other’s company. It is only in such a state – wherein we are safe from harm or disturbance, due to our good relations with others – that we can be truly said to be free. It used to be the case that any enclosed sacred space would be termed friþgeard – “frith-guarded”; a place of sanctuary or asylum, where those within were free from attack. In this sense, frith is not just a social, but a sacred property – a blessed state that unites both humans and divine beings. While peace is always enforced with the stamp of a boot, frith can only be managed with friends.

The groundedness of frith in kinship and communal liberty reflects the fact that, in contrast to the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England was a small-scale society; founded upon a clan-structure, and interpersonal relationships. But it would be a mistake to believe, because our society operates at a global scale, that we have nothing to learn from the concept of frith today. Indeed, I would suggest that frith transforms our understanding in two ways – both vital for the present moment.

16266021_10154941397702726_8619162010299285668_n.jpg
Oh. Dear.

1 – Freedom isn’t individual

Liberty is sometimes imagined to be a matter of absolute individual sovereignty. According to this view, each man is an island, and no institution should be created that goes against this fundamental principle. Such a euphoric vision owes much to a certain pioneer spirit; combining a scepticism towards the state with a spirit of resolute self-reliance. Everyone is responsible for their own destiny. Quite often, corporations are oddly exempt from this demand – despite the fact that they can be every bit as corrosive of individual freedoms as an oppressive government.

The concept of frith points to the limitations of such a view. Being free is not simply a matter of being on your own; indeed, being abandoned to live on your own wits at the edge of the world is more akin to being an exile or an outlaw – the very opposite of frith. Frith acknowledges that true calm and equanimity emerges not when you are totally on your own, vulnerable to the elements, wild animals, and hostile human beings, but when you are surrounded by those you love and trust, who can guarantee your safety and security in their company. Just as we are determined by our genes, our upbringing, and our experiences – in short, by our relationships with others – so it is through friendly relationships that peace of mind can be guaranteed. Living in a society with frith is king – a state of “freedom” in literal terms – means being able to trust, and be trusted by, all those whom you meet. In a truly free society, we are all one family.

Fr That’s your business, not theirs. Although you might be able to evade the State and other central authorities out there, you are constantly consumed by the struggle to preserve your own life, something that is your responsibility alone. Being an outlaw gives you individual autonomy, but that is not true freedom. This can only exist in the heart of the community.

In recent elections across the Anglophone world, people have voted to “take back control” from distant, sinister central government – be that in Brussels or Capital Hill. Support continues to be thrown behind right-wing parties like the Tories or the Republicans, who promise to cut taxes and restrict the reach of the state. Thinking of freedom more broadly – not simply as an absence of the state, but as freedom from fear, pain, and harm for everyone – demonstrates how hollow such rhetoric is. Though they promise freedom, what they will do is make us all into outlaws.

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Eric Garcetti Office, Los Angeles Women’s March January 2017 / Creative Commons

2 – The Importance of Friendship

Frith demonstrates another crucial consideration for the way ahead – the importance of friendship and empathy in sustaining freedom. With all the outrageous perpetrated by the Trump administration on a daily basis, any sense of harmony seems far away – and we have a long way to go to return to such a state. Getting there will be difficult, and will require a great deal of sacrifice and energy, put into building a social movement of many millions of people.  Returning to a spirit of friendship and common cause will be a fundamental part of that movement’s success.

Alicia Garza, special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, explains this principle eloquently. Reflecting upon her own scepticism towards the Women’s March, she points out that the organisers were clearly inspired by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet failed to acknowledge this – wrongly appropriating the work of black people. But despite this, and the many legitimate criticisms she has of white feminism, she participated in the March anyway. Anger has great power that must be acknowledged, Garza argues, but it is insufficient to take power. For that, we need a mass movement: She writes:

This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organizers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us…

…We can build a movement in the millions, across difference. We will need to build a movement across divides of class, race, gender, age, documentation, religion and disability. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.

The aim shouldn’t be to reject justified anger on moral grounds – the same error that lies at the root of the cod-pacifism I describe above – but a pragmatic acceptance of the need for all of us to demonstrate leadership and solidarity within the movement of which we’re part. As Garza points out, this does not mean letting privileged people off the hook; now is not the time for white, male, or upper-class fragility. If anything, this moment is an invitation to draw even more deeply on our reserves of empathy, and being prepared to shut up, listen, learn, to yield, to put ourselves on the line, and to be held to account. Part of being friends with someone, an alchemical combination of tolerance and honesty – an ability to speak the truth, while knowing that it is safe to do so. Maintaining this kind of friendship is a vital precondition for taking power.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Warriors and Soldiers and Cops — Oh My! 2.0

The following essay was written by the late Isaac Bonewits (1949-2010), the founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF). The original version of this essay was published in The Druid’s Progress #5 in 1989, and is reposted here with permission from Phaedra Bonewits and Arthur Lipp-Bonewits.


IT’S WELL PAST time to deal with some polytheological issues that most Neopagan groups have been ignoring—specifically those of violence, self-defense, and the ethics of being a cop or a soldier in modern times. Insofar as Neopaganism is going to develop doctrines (note that I did not say “dogmas”) about these issues, ones that Neopagans can take into a court of law, this essay is an attempt at articulating the arguments that seem relevant to me.

Like many members of the Neopagan community, I grew up as part of the 60’s counterculture. Our primary interactions with law enforcement officers and soldiers were generally of the negative sort. We saw them as the upholders of a corrupt status quo, mouthing platitudes about freedom and democracy while they beat in our heads or napalmed little children. Yet, most of us grew up thrilling to the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and other noble, idealistic warriors. In later years, some of us studied the martial arts, and watched television shows such as “Kung Fu,” where the emphasis was on the lone warrior who is a master of him/herself first, and of others only incidentally.

All of these experiences gave us conflicting ideas about the nature and role of violence in our lives. Those of our generation who suffered in Vietnam or in the ghettos are much less idealistic than those of us who have only been on the dojo floor or the medievalist tournament field. Yet our common “Nam era mentality” of cynicism towards governments and generals is perfectly appropriate as a base from which to begin articulating spiritual opinions.

As we create religions for the future, we must have a coherent body of polytheological opinions about violence. These opinions must reflect our ideals, while being fully informed about historical realities, if we hope to change the world enough so that future history will not simply be a bloody repetition of the past.

THE AWARENESS of this essential conflict between practical survival needs and ethical ideals is not new. The Paleopagan Indo-Europeans (like most other peoples of the past) spent a lot of time thinking about it, and preserved their wisdom in their myths, sagas, and folktales. So before I begin to express my own conclusions about the various issues involved, I’d like to quote from Jaan Puhvel’s excellent book on Indo-European myth and epic, Comparative Mythology (John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987). After repeated tellings of the standard Indo-European warrior myth as it appears in the different cultures, he has this to say (in the chapter on “God and Warrior”) about it:

Basic to that [standard Indo-European warrior] myth is a profound anomic [lawlessness, social alienation] of the human and societal condition, rooted in the use and abuse of power. Order, security, peace—positive conditions all—tend to depend for their preservation on the readiness of something that is inherently destructive, such as “security forces” or a military machine with the attendant mentality. If boosters of law enforcement like to describe their favorite agents of public order as a thin phalanx protecting civilization from anarchy, there is an even thinner line separating champion from berserk, police action from police riot. Those trained as agents of aggression and repression may experience difficulty functioning as normal human beings under great stress, or conversely when the pressure is off. Such abnormality also induces clannishness vis-a-vis the general society, “fraternal orders,” “Protective” associations, gangs, juntas, and other forms of structured apartness.

This kind of perennial tension is reflected in the ancient myths. Warlike exaltation, martial ecstasy where fury gets out of hand, is displayed by the Third Horatius, by Cuchulainn, by the berserkir. The Maruts, sodalas, fiana, or einherjar constituted bands with their own inner structure and interactional dynamics, with a collective svadha or “ethos” (the two cognates meaning etymologically “self-law, autonomy”) that was only capriciously at the call of a commanding figure such as Indra, Publicola, Finn or Odin. The warlord himself could be an equally self-willed individualist and from inspired and inspiring leader shade over into a lone-wolf kind of martial toiler (Indra led the Maruts, and yet he was also eka- “one, alone, unique,” acted yathavasam “as he chose” and had a svadah of his own). The warrior thus had an ambivalent role as a single champion or part of a self-centered corps or coterie, both a society’s external defender and its potential internal menace.

After discussing the myths about warrior kings and warrior gods, Puhvel devotes the rest of the chapter to the stories about mythic heroes, of the sort that many Neopagans who perceive themselves to be warriors pattern themselves after. Here’s what he has to say (with my comments in the square brackets):

A third type was the warrior who was not divine but a saga hero manipulated by deity, not a king but merely in royal service. This is the kind most marked by a tense relationship to the environment where he operated, to his divine and human patrons and his social constituency at large. He had no agglomeration of transfunctional attributes to lose [as the warrior kings and warrior gods did], but he nevertheless managed to offend (or was perceived as offending) all segments of the social order by a structured set of misdeeds. With his flawed willfulness (or perhaps his “programmed,” predestined, predictable nature) he compromised his career by nadir episodes that involved impious/unjust/sacrilegious, cowardly/under-handed/unwarriorlike, and covetous/venal/adulterous acts respectively [the “three sins” against the three Indo-European social functions of legal and spiritual rulership, courageous defense of the community, and prosperity and fertility]. The varieties described are found in epic, saga and folklore, from the fells of Scandinavia to the jungles of India, from the Bay of Bengalk via the Gulf of Argos and the Tiber to Galaway Bay. These kinds are not extinct — they were spotted not long ago on both the Mekong and the Potomac [and in Central America, Afghanistan, Africa, Moscow, Iraq, etc.].

bonewits-pullAll of the points he makes are directly applicable to a discussion of Neopagans in the military. As I have said many times, “one of the primary tasks of the clergy has always been to ride herd on the warriors… Since the primary threat to life on this planet now comes from out-of-control warriors, it’s time we started taking that duty seriously again.” In this particular time and place, that riding herd process requires confronting some unpleasant and unpopular truths. We can no longer ignore the issues involved. Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts:

I perceive important distinctions between “warriors” and “soldiers,” with the former word having positive meanings for me and the later negative ones. In order to define my terms clearly, I will now oversimplify:

A “warrior” is a person who has been trained to use violence both effectively and selectively, but who refrains from doing so except when she/he perceives a genuine danger to her/himself or to others in the community whom she/he deems worthy of protection. She or he strives to use exactly the minimum amount of violence (if any) of whatever sort is necessary to defeat the danger, and is willing to risk her/his life in the process. A warrior prefers to see the face of his/her enemy, and takes personal responsibility for the ethics of his/her behavior. While she/he may enjoy her/his occupation and may experience and appreciate the thrill of battle, she/he does not enjoy or disregard the emotional and moral effects of killing. Warriors will compete with each other, not just to hone their combat skills, but to emphasize their individual identities. Courage, honor, integrity, and self-awareness are the ideals I associate with this image of the warrior.

A “soldier,” on the other hand, I perceive as a hired killer, whose primary task is not the defense of his/her community, although that claim is usually made, but rather the defense of that community’s political, social, religious, and economic rulers. A soldier enjoys being violent, especially when she/he has superior odds, and often becomes addicted to the battle frenzy (berserkirgang) experience—many to the point of receiving sexual satisfaction from the destruction they cause. He or she will kill any man, woman, or child that he/she is ordered to kill, simply because he/she was told to do so (as with the Russian airmen who shot down K.A.L. flight 007, or the American seamen who blew up that Iranian airliner). A soldier is perfectly willing to kill at a distance, without ever seeing the faces of his/her victims, and even when she/he sees them up close does not consider them to be “real” human beings (but “Huns,” or “Japs,” or “Gooks,” or “Micks,” etc.). A soldier considers rape and plunder to be a natural right in time of war, even if the war is against citizens of his/her own country. Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this essay, a soldier takes no responsibility for the ethics of his/her actions, since she/he is “only following orders.”

bonewits-pullTo transform a person from a civilian into a soldier, it’s generally necessary to extinguish her/his individuality and integrity, and to replace them as much as possible with group identity and unthinking, machinelike obedience. (Robert Anton Wilson has an excellent, and somewhat terrifying analysis of military basic training as a classic “brainwashing” process in Prometheus Rising.) This obedience to authority, obsession with “winning,” and emotional insensitivity to the impact of his/her behavior on the lives of others, are the ideals of the soldier. Of course, most generals and admirals will tell the general public (and their soldiers whenever the public happens to be listening) that the warrior ideals are the ones that soldiers do and should have, but this publicly presentable official message is easily drowned out by the other messages delivered during basic training, and quickly vanishes in any real war zone.

swat_team_prepared_4132135578These opinions come from growing up reading about Nazi war criminals, seeing films of soldiers dropping napalm on small children, studying the history of the European, American, and Russian Empires, going to high school near a major military base, reading reports of the Gulf War from foreign newspapers, etc. and comparing the data gained from these sources to the idealistic legends mentioned earlier.

BUT IN ORDER to avoid monotheistic dualism here, lets create a value spectrum with the above defined “warrior” on one end, and the “soldier” on the other. Most modern police officers, security guards, and members of the armed forces will fit somewhere along the line between the two extremes. About the only ones who will come close to being real warriors will be those individuals who have dedicated their lives to the Martial arts, and a few political, ecological, and social activists.

(Since some people like to play games with the phrase “martial arts,” saying that anything having to do with the Roman god Mars should be counted, including soldiering and C.I.A. assassinations, let me emphasize that when I say “martial arts,” I’m referring to Tai Chi, Akido, Karate, Kung Fu, etc. as well as similar practices from non-oriental sources, when followed as a philosophy and a way of life.)

momdadshot1Perhaps we need two more axes of polarity here, a vertical one for degree of sanity or insanity, and another going off at right angles to the first two, for ethicality and unethicality of character. Warriors going berserk or cops rioting against a group of [Editor’s note: The noun here was missing from the original essay; I believe it would have been “civilians.”] would go near the insane end of the sanity-insanity scale, while a C.I.A. hitman or the members of a S.W.A.T. team trying to eliminate a sniper might belong near the sane end. Of course, that hitman would probably belong on the Wrong side of the ethical-unethical spectrum (depending on his/her target?), as would a Mafia hitman, Nazi Storm trooper, or a Russian airman dropping napalm on children in Afghanistan. As American Neopagans, we might decide that the soldiers who fought in the American Revolutionary War were ethical to do so (English Neopagans might disagree) or those in the U.S. Cavalry during the “Indian Wars” (unless you’re part or all Native American, or have studied the history carefully, in which case those same soldiers become grossly unethical), etc.

Many of these judgments are difficult to make, especially if you belong to a multivalued, pluralistic religion such as Neopaganism. But it should be clear that, despite the conflicting ideals discussed earlier, not all warriors are ethical and sane, and not all soldiers are unethical and insane. Nonetheless, I will make the argument, for the rest of this essay, that in our time it is far more difficult for a soldier to remain both ethical and sane from a Neopagan point of view than it is for a warrior to do so (law enforcement officers wind up in the middle — as usual).

Let’s get down to some ethical/spiritual nitty-gritty:

  • It is wrong, under any and all circumstances, to drop napalm on kids, or to machine-gun women with babies, or to launch a missile towards a building full of elderly people.
  • It is wrong to kill a total stranger, simply because his/her politicians disagree with yours as to the best way the two of you should be swindled.
  • It is wrong to kill, maim, and torture people in order to maintain the wealth and power of multinational corporations, or of a dictator, or of the leader(s) of one’s religion.
  • It is wrong to defoliate thousands of acres of forests or jungles, or to poison rivers and wells, or to bury millions of land mines in areas where civilians will die from them for decades to come, or to disseminate new diseases.
  • It is wrong to teach dictators how to more effectively torture, rape, and enslave their own citizens (or those of neighboring countries), no matter what benefits our own political and economic masters might gain.
  • It is wrong, for any reason that a human is capable of inventing, to create, maintain, or use weapons that can kill every man, woman, child, plant, and animal on Earth, raping our Mother to death with nuclear fire. Our planet can survive a hundred or even a thousand years of domination by any “evil empire.” It won’t survive World War III. To assist in any way, shape or form in killing the entire biosphere (at this point the only one we know exists) is the ultimate blasphemy which a worshiper of Mother Earth could commit.

I could not live with myself if I did not know, on a gut-level basis, that these things are Wrong. All the metaphysical and theological and political excuses in the world cannot change these crimes into acts of virtue or heroism.

Yet each of them is an action that any member of most modern army, navy, or air forces (especially those of a “superpower”—what they used to call an “empire”) can expect to be ordered to commit, sooner or later. The excuses will be grandiose, the justifications noble, and the instructions quite clear: “Do as you’re told—that’s an order!”

EACH AND EVERY ONE of these actions is one that I expect a Neopagan (or a sane, ethical warrior of any other faith) to refuse to perform, even at the risk of court-martial and execution (that’s easy for me to say — all I have to worry about is execution, legally or illegally, for the “treason” of voicing these opinions). Thus, I believe that Neopagans, whether Wiccans, Druids, or members of any other variety of Neopaganism, have no place in a modern superpower’s military.

The Coast Guard or a state militia might be an exception to this basic principle, except when they are performing functions unconnected to actually defending the lives of the populace, but one would have to evaluate each such organization and situation individually. I know that the National Guard in California, for example, actually spends most of its time fighting forest fires, but I remember when it was used against antiwar demonstrators back in the 60’s. The kids who shot the kids at Kent State were members of the Ohio National Guard. And lately the Coast Guard has been spending most of its time busting drug smugglers (which gets us into the topic of Neopagans and law enforcement, to be discussed later in this essay).

US Soldier next to corpse of unarmed civilian.
US “Kill Team” Soldier next to corpse of unarmed teenager he killed.

As for those Neopagans who are currently in the military, and who are sensibly unwilling to risk death by firing squad (or by “accident”), I believe that you should attempt to get out, by any comparatively ethical means necessary, as soon as you can. If escaping really is impossible (and not just bloody inconvenient), you should try to get transferred to units where your activities will be only remotely connected (they can never be completely unconnected) to those of others actually committing the crimes of the sort mentioned.

The question of whether or not we should have Druid or other Neopagan chaplains for Neopagans who choose to join or remain in the military is a messy one. If, as I believe, you’re not supposed to be there in the first place, what role does a chaplain have other than to betray his/her faith by telling you it’s OK? Would the military allow a chaplain who went around persuading folks to quit? The suggestion that Neopagans, whether chaplains or laity, should be in the military in order to enlighten the armed forces from within is absurd — as soon as you got close to actually changing people’s minds, you’d be arrested for “subversion.” Offering more enlightened alternatives to a superior officer is as likely to get one branded a “bleeding-heart liberal” and ignored, as it is to change anyone’s opinions—not to mention destroying your military career. A discussion of Neopagan chaplains is quite moot, however. The U.S. military in 1987 commissioned its first non-Judeo-Christian chaplain (a Buddhist of all faiths!) and is in no rush to have chaplains from any other minority faiths. Besides, military chaplains are expected to have been ordained after a period of college level training in an accredited institution that would have prepared them for full-time, professional clergy work — and we don’t have any accredited Neopagan seminaries yet and are unlikely to for several years.

As for young people facing the draft, I say you should refuse to register, or emigrate elsewhere as soon as your government actually starts taking kids. If you do register, do it as a Conscientious Objector (and be prepared for a long, messy fight). If you don’t register because of your religious beliefs, expect to be discriminated against when applying for school loans, etc.

I CAN STILL HEAR THE screams from when I first published these thoughts, from Neopagans in the military: “How dare you tell us what to do!” “How can you make our ethical decisions for us!” “You commie-hippie-weirdo-freak!” “Your subversive and ‘unpatriotic’ stance is what undermines the strength and character of a country.” “Who made you the spokesperson for all Pagandom?!”

Well, nobody did. Nonetheless I have the same rights as anyone, polytheologian or not, to express my religious opinions. And as a “spiritual leader,” I have an obligation to be truthful about my beliefs. Every other major religion in the world has doctrines about these issues. It’s about time we started working ours out.

bonewits-pullAs for the Norse warrior types in our community, I can only say that the better (sane and ethical) old Norse heroes would have had nothing but contempt for modern military procedures (although I suppose some of the Vikings might have approved of the raping, looting, and pillaging parts).

“But what about national defense?” I hear some of you asking. Well, if the Chinese come swimming across the Pacific Ocean with atom bombs clenched between their teeth, or the Mexicans come charging over the border with their third-rate weaponry (we’ve never let them have more than they needed to keep their own people properly tyrannized), attacking San Diego and El Paso, I suppose even I might concede to a necessity for some sort of National Defense. But my response (“If I were King of the Forest!”) would not be to whip out weapons that can kill thousands or millions of innocent bystanders, but rather (if physical violence really were necessary) to unleash professional assassins against the individuals in the invading country’s government who are responsible. Of course, this sort of measured response, aimed directly at the genuinely guilty parties, is simply “not done.”

I’ve had several acquaintances, who used to be in military intelligence organizations, independently tell me that U.S. spies advised our government back in 1938 to assassinate Adolph Hitler before he got too dangerous. This plan was vetoed on the grounds that fighting a war by assassination was likely to get our politicians assassinated in retaliation. So to save the lives of a handful of politicians in the US and Europe, millions upon millions of men, women, and children died. A direct result of that war was the invention and use of the very weapons that threaten our planet’s survival today. Frankly, I would rather have lost twenty or thirty politicians.

drone-bombing
Child killed by US drone strike.

None of this deals with the ethics of assassination, of course (which would require a full discussion of situational ethics). And so far, American government assassins have proven much more effective at eliminating democratically elected (but economically threatening) leaders (both foreign and domestic) than at killing genuine threats to world peace. Also, it’s been pointed out that making assassination the primary means of international conflict would lead to the creation of ever more fascist police states in order to protect the politicians. Nonetheless, I would far rather live in a world where wars were fought personally by the people who benefited most from them (the generals, the politicians, the dictators/kings, the billionaires, the commissars, etc.) than in what we have now: those folks pulling puppet strings to make the rest of us dance, and die, to their tunes.

But that’s a fantasy. We are stuck with what we have. The CIA and all their other alphabet comrades take their orders from the powers-that-be in each nation/corporation, not from ordinary citizens like us, despite the supposed oversight exercised by governmental committees composed of people we may elect. This may not change in our lifetime. So even if you could convince yourself that murder is sometimes ethically justifiable (a tricky proposition at best), a career in these agencies is going to be no more ethical than one in their associated armed forces.

BUT WHAT ABOUT the theory of the “just war”? That always comes up in these discussions. I say, it’s a just war if you defend yourself when the KKK attacks your farmhouse and tries to shoot your husband and kids, burn down your barn, and rape your cow. At that point you’re ethically, morally and even legally (outside of New York City) entitled to defend yourself and your family from “a clear and present danger.” But when the Front for the Liberation of XYZ attacks its country’s Gestapo in an effort to free prisoners who are being tortured for trying to organize labor unions, and the Russians or the Americans (or the British, the Israelis, the French, the Chinese, etc.) send in tanks, bombers, napalm, and experts to train the Gestapo in better torturing techniques—no, that’s not a “just war” for the invaders—no matter what impact the results might have on the President’s or the Chairman’s Swiss bank accounts, no matter what noninterference might do to the next quarter’s profit margin or the current five year plan, and no matter that the XYZ Liberation Front may be just as unethical as the folks they’re fighting.

bonewits-pullThe overwhelming majority of wars that have been fought in America’s brief history, like those of other nations, have had little to do with “preserving human freedom.” Our Revolution and the War of 1812 were fought so that a bunch of wealthy, slave-owning men (George Washington and friends) wouldn’t have to pay taxes to England, at least as much as they were for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of (male, land-owning) happiness.” The Civil War was an economically based battle between the Second Wave industrial North and the First Wave agricultural South, with the freeing of slaves an afterthought done more for its devastating economic impact than for any concern for human rights. The genocide campaigns against the Native Americans, the multiple invasions of Central America, the Spanish-American War, etc. were all done for the purpose of gaining physical territory and/or exclusive trading “rights” (“Hi, give us all your natural resources at dirt cheap prices or we’ll kill you!”). The First World War was for the benefit of the banks and the munitions manufacturers (who also had a hand in setting up W.W.II).

Even I have to admit that Hitler’s Germany needed stopping, although I’ve already indicated one way it could have been prevented—by all the Gods, it could have been prevented by the W.W.I victors simply not having been so nasty afterwards! While the Japanese in China and Korea were just as horrible as the Germans in Europe, the war in the Pacific was the direct result of the Japanese and American Empires disputing territory thousands of miles from either’s home turf (neither of them really had any “rights” to the Kingdom of Hawaii). The wars in Korea and Vietnam were also territorial grabs. We wanted to make sure that prime agricultural land (before defoliation, the Mekong Delta used to be called “the Bread Basket of Southeast Asia”), rubber plantations, tungsten mines, offshore oil deposits, etc., remained under our control (or that of our “friends”), rather than let the rival Chinese or Russian Empires have them. Not to mention the wonderful locations for air, land and naval bases close to our rivals (no “Monroe Doctrine” for our competitors, no-sir-ree, just for us).

The Persian Gulf War was fought for the benefit of multi-billionaire Kuwaiti royalty, the boys in the Pentagon who wanted to try out all their new toys (especially the desert warfare machines), and a President who wanted to prove that he wasn’t a wimp. A quarter of a million men, women, and children died—the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians—as a direct or indirect result of American and other Western European military actions. This was as many as died in the Burning Times (the Renaissance witch hunts) we Neopagans talk so much about as an archetypal atrocity. Yet the man we supposedly fought the war to dethrone is still running his country and only a fraction of his military personnel were killed.

None of this should be surprising, except for those who believe their high school history books, the stories in the mass media, or their old drill sergeants. Every Empire in history has acted this way: The Russian Empires (both Czarist and Communist), the Chinese ones, the British, etc., going all the way back to Mesopotamia, have all grabbed as much loot as they could and have made up whatever excuses, if any, their soldiers needed to hear. In most of the modern empires, however, it has become necessary to claim that one’s invading armies are not conquering turf, but are liberating toiling masses instead. China doesn’t commit genocide in Tibet, it “educates people away from their superstitions.” The American Empire doesn’t prop up sleazy dictators who are killing their own citizens, we just “help friendly governments to maintain a strong defense against communism/terrorism/international drug cartels.” The Russian Empire didn’t invade Afghanistan to gain access to the Middle East and create another buffer state around its former national borders, it was “helping a friendly government to maintain a strong defense against capitalism.”

The bottom line of all this political discussion is that governments—all governments—habitually lie to their citizens and the rest of the world, especially when planning and executing wars. The only thing that makes ours any better is that the U.S. was founded by a bunch of agnostic, skeptical Freemasons who didn’t trust governments very much—including the one they were founding—and who tried to see to it that intelligent people could keep the corruption and tyranny down to a dull roar. But that’s impossible if citizens naively believe whatever their government tells them is true, routinely obey whatever orders they are told have come down from on high, and object to essays like this one being published. I’m not the first to point out these unpleasant and “treasonous” truths—Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, and other famous/infamous people repeatedly remarked on the gullibility of the general public when faced with official versions of reality.

PEOPLE NOT ONLY tend to believe what they’re told when governments are leading young men off to slaughter, they tend to actively disbelieve any evidence to the contrary. Historians now know that the Lusitania, supposedly an innocent cruise liner whose sinking by the German navy was one of the primary incidents that led the U.S. into entering W.W.I, was indeed carrying ammunition to the British, just as the Germans claimed. Evidence has accumulated that the U.S. Battleship Maine was blown up by American spies in order to create an incident to goad a reluctant public into the Spanish-American War. John F. Kennedy, who was beginning to de-escalate the Vietnam War, was “coincidentally” assassinated, then replaced with someone who was quite willing to keep the war going as long as it was profitable. All this has been published over and over again, in scholarly journals, in the back pages of newspapers, in obscure political magazines. The mass slaughter of civilians during the Persian Gulf War was broadcast live by CNN! But very few people read or view these unpopular facts, and most of those who do, don’t believe them, since they contradict the history books, the government, the press, and the military. Those who do believe them are so cynical that they don’t think it really matters—after all, what’s done is done.

In one sense they’re right. We can’t change the past. All we can try to do is to remember as many of its lessons as possible. Among those many lessons are (a) governments seldom are willing to pass up any opportunity to gain greater power, (b) governments always become more powerful in wartime, and therefore (c) there is a built-in incentive for governments to be in a constant state of war. So we not only have to watch the scoundrels in our own government, but those in all the others as well.

isaac-pullHow does all this political skepticism tie into Neopagan ethical approaches to military service? Very simply. When our government tells us, or anybody else’s government tells its citizens, that a war is necessary for “national defense,” the odds are a thousand to one that the government is lying. For the individual member of the armed forces, murder, rape, and pillage, whether direct or by remote control, become even harder to excuse when you haven’t even a shred of hard evidence that the crimes you are being ordered to commit are actually going to protect your loved ones at home from whatever theoretical threat is being waved in your face. What you can be sure your crimes will do—up to the point where someone starts W.W.III—is to fatten several national leaders’ Swiss bank accounts, generate enormous profits for the arms industry in all the countries involved (the same companies in Europe sold weapons to all sides in both World Wars, and are still doing it today), get rid of a lot of surplus teenage males (always a threat to the inner stability of any culture), totally wreck whatever environment your war takes place in, and thoroughly mix the gene pools of the survivors.

None of these results, except the last, is one of which Neopagan polytheology can approve and there are plenty of other ethical (and much more pleasant) ways to mix genes.

A few folks have mentioned that military personnel have the “right” to disobey “unlawful” orders. While true, this ignores the fact that many unethical things are perfectly legal, under civilian or military law, and that refusing to obey a direct order based on this right is far more likely to get one court-martialed and/or shot than it is to prevent a crime being committed. Your superior officer will merely order your replacement to perform in your stead. As for an obligation for American military men and women to serve as “world peacekeepers,” (1) I don’t recall them being elected to or asked to fill that role by the rest of the world, and (2) the U.S. government has been extremely selective about where and when and how it fulfills that “duty.” By some odd coincidence, it always seems to depend on American political polls and corporate profits.

So I’m forced to repeat my earlier conclusions. Despite all the traditional arguments about “just wars” and “national defense” and making the world safe for democracy/capitalism/communism, etc., a soldier, sailor, marine, or air fighter in a modern superpower armed forces organization is holding down a job where he/she has agreed, by the very act of signing up or letting him/herself be drafted, to commit or support acts of a grossly unethical and immoral nature whenever he/she is ordered to commit or support them, for reasons that will usually be equally unethical and immoral. That makes superpower military service (and that in many smaller nations) a “wrong livelihood” for a Neopagan. Period.

What about other forms of “serving your country”? If the government decides that all citizens must spend a year or two working as firefighters, or conservation corps members, or hospital workers, or street pavers, etc., then such service may be perfectly ethical and moral. An argument can even be made that such community service is a genuine moral obligation (nobody, except absolute Libertarians, likes parasites very much). However, if such service becomes “alternative service,” meaning that you are filling a job position so that someone else can go commit crimes in your place, then you haven’t escaped the ethical and moral issues, however worthy the service you are performing might be.

I’d like to emphasize that I am not saying that Neopagans in the military are “bad people” or “lousy excuses for Pagans.” Many very good people join the military for reasons that have little to do with wanting to kill. They join because of various psychological goals they think the military will help them accomplish (though military service often makes personalities more dysfunctional, not less), to get specific job training (though they usually get cheated in this area), to earn tuition to pay for college later, to travel around the world (…”visit exotic places, meet fascinating people, and kill them”), or because they genuinely believe that they will be helping to “defend their country” or be “world peacekeepers” by becoming part of the military machine. If you grow up believing everything that the government and the mass media tell you, this sort of innocence is understandable. Neopagans, however, are usually far too intelligent and well-read to be that naive.

What I am saying is that Neopagans now in the military, or contemplating being there, should think long and hard about all the issues and arguments, official and unofficial, overt and covert, genuine and fraudulent, before they decide to stay or join — not just swallow whatever propaganda they’ve been fed by career military people or right-wing politicians.

453807506NOW, ABOUT THOSE PAGAN COPS: As I see it, the major polytheological point in evaluating the morality and ethicality of law enforcement has to do with the nature of the laws that are being enforced. This requires a discussion of two terms from the field of criminology, “crimes with victims” and “crimes without victims.” The former are the obvious ones: murder, rape, arson, theft, fraud, most traffic laws, etc. and some subtler ones such as bribery, graft, etc. The latter are activities in which there either is no victim at all or in which the primary “victim” is the criminal: the vast majority of sex, drug, and gambling crimes fall under this classification. In essence, Judeo-Christian preachers who have been unable to convince their congregations to stop “sinning” have used their political power to get the civil governments to declare various sins to be “crimes.”

It seems clear to me that no culture can survive for long if it allows crimes with victims to take place without efforts to prevent the crimes and/or punish the criminals. It seems equally clear that the legal creation of “crimes without victims” is a complete violation of the principle of separation of church and state, but such is not unusual. A Neopagan cop who is devoting his/her career to working on a homicide squad, or investigating arson, or solving rapes, etc., is behaving in a perfectly appropriate fashion for a Neopagan. Contrariwise, if she or he is arresting prostitutes, or busting gay couples for sodomy, or destroying pot fields, then she/he is not acting in keeping with Neopagan beliefs, but is instead using the force of the civil government to impose Judeo-Christian (and corporate) values on the general populace. That’s not only immoral and unethical, it’s unconstitutional as well. Unfortunately, in order to get promoted to a position where you can concentrate on crimes-with-victims, you usually have to spend several years enforcing victimless crimes.

The other major sorts of crimes without victims are the political ones. In these “crimes,” generally useful laws are reinterpreted to forbid what are supposed to be constitutionally protected protest activities. And this is where we get into gray areas of interpretation. If a hundred thousand people are marching down a street protesting a government policy (i.e., exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of their grievances), it’s immoral and unethical to attack them with billy clubs and police dogs, even if you think their opinions stupid, ignorant, or “subversive.”

These distinctions can be fairly clear. But if someone from an ecological action group has decided to destroy bulldozers, or sink whaling ships, or dump bags of red paint on members of a government commission who are neglecting their duties to protect endangered species — then we have a problem. Their activities are clearly illegal, and are indeed crimes that have victims (the developers, the whalers, the bureaucrats), yet they are being done to prevent even greater crimes, ones that many Neopagans would also oppose. Personally I cheered when I heard about the “eco-guerrillas” who sank the (empty) whaling vessel in Iceland, wrecked the whalers’ mainframe computer, and destroyed their freezing units. By committing crimes against property, they saved the lives of scores of whales who would have been slaughtered by that machinery. But approving of people “taking the law into their own hands” for “a greater good” gets us, as I was swiftly reminded when this essay first saw print, into yet another moral quagmire—one that opens the door to all sorts of abuse by special interest groups, such as “pro-lifers” murdering doctors, or right-wing Christians persecuting Neopagans, or anti-pornography feminists forcing bookstores out of business.

Unfortunately, when one becomes a law enforcement officer one swears an oath to uphold the law as written. One isn’t (officially) allowed to pick and choose which laws she/he will enforce and which she/he will ignore. Of course, every cop I’ve ever known did, in fact, pick and choose on a daily basis, simply as a matter of necessity in big cities (where there’s too much crime going on for the police to stop all of it), and of tradition in small towns (where the local cop or sheriff is often judge, jury, and punisher as well). However, as a law enforcement officer, one is supposed to enforce every law as it currently exists, no matter how unjust, stupid, immoral, or ecocidal it might be. If a Neopagan takes that oath, she or he is going to be in spiritual trouble sooner or later.

Yet, unlike the average member of a superpower military force, a cop routinely acts in a genuinely heroic way. The highway patrol keeps the drunks and crazies from killing the rest of us on the roads. Homicide detectives try to find murderers and stop them. SWAT teams capture or kill insane people who are shooting passersby. Cops pull people from burning cars and buildings, rescue drowning children, give mouth-to-mouth and CPR to collapsed victims of heart attacks, and risk their lives every day they go out onto big city streets.

If we had a legal system that was sane, rational, and upheld the separation of church and state, and a political system that was not terrified of its own citizens, then the career of law enforcement might be a completely honorable one, all the time, for a Neopagan. As it is, Neopagan cops must constantly be making complex ethical and moral decisions about their own behavior as cops. If one can find a section of his/her law enforcement agency where he/she can be exclusively involved in solving and/or preventing genuine crimes with victims, then one could have a long and honorable career. But if one is a general duty officer, then sooner or later he/she is going to be ordered to arrest people he/she thinks are harmless, simply because they’ve violated some Judeo-Christian taboo. Thus, being a cop can be a right livelihood for a Neopagan, but its a hard road to walk.

Nonetheless, there are advantages to the Neopagan community as a whole, in having cops around who know that Neopagans aren’t baby-killing monsters. Certainly the fundamentalist cops are working really hard to convince the rest of their colleges that Neopagans are no different from the “sincere sociopath” Satanists who do commit atrocities. Having some knowledgeable members of our community be also part of the law enforcement community can only improve communications between all of us.

HAVING SAID ALL THESE negative things about soldiers and cops, just what sorts if warriors do I approve of? Well it should be obvious from my earlier remarks that I believe that martial artists are worthy of admiration, as are spiritual warriors in the Native American style (though that phrase, like “shaman,” has been badly abused by New Agers and Neopagans alike). I also approve of Earth Warriors or “eco-guerrillas,” such as the members of Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Society, who are willing to risk their own lives to protect our Mother, as long as they remain careful not to kill people in the process of their monkey-wrenching. I think that private citizens who fight for freedom and our constitutional rights, through such groups as Common Cause, People for the America Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, etc. are heroes (if not necessarily warriors) worthy of our admiration.

What all these warriors and heroes have in common, and what I think is fully in keeping with the warrior ideals of our Paleopagan ancestors, is a belief that process is as important as results. To a martial artist a dishonorable victory is not a victory. Eco-guerrillas try very hard to avoid endangering human and animal life while they are destroying ecocidal machinery. The legal action groups mentioned use constitutional means to defend the constitution, even though they know that their enemies will not.

And let us not forget the heroism of many people who do not think of themselves as warriors. The woman who pulls a plow because her children are hungry and the horse died, is a hero. The man who stays awake night after night nursing a sick child, is a hero. The nonviolent activist who lays her body down in front of a bulldozer or a truck carrying toxic waste, is a hero. The antinuclear protester who is willing to go to jail for his or her beliefs, such as Starhawk, is a hero. Many of these people are, in their own ways, warriors of whom we can be proud, albeit their opponents may be either abstracts (such as hunger or death) or specific corporate or governmental individuals.

bonewits-pullA genuine warrior confronts her or his enemy as another human being, not as a faceless stranger or a nonhuman “thing.” A genuine warrior is willing to risk his or her own life, job, reputation, family relationships, and more, to fight for what he or she believes is morally and ethically right. A genuine warrior does not push a button to kill hundreds of civilians ten miles away, just because some bloody politician told him/her to—because that is terrorism (violence being used against someone who can’t fight back, showing a wanton disregard for human life), not heroism. A genuine warrior knows that her or his greatest challenge is internal, rather than external.

If any of us wish to call ourselves “Warriors for the Gods” or “Defenders of Our Mother,” then we must be willing to pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the causes we claim to believe in. Anything less may be good on its own merits, but is not true warriorship.

Thor, Indra, Athena, and Kali are not impressed by fancy costumes, expensive weapons, or self-serving excuses. They are the ones who will judge whether someone is really a Neopagan warrior or a blowhard—not me, not the Druids, and not the Neopagan Community. So if we are going to have Neopagan warrior cults, their organizers are going to have to have their acts together. Each of them should select a cause with which most Neopagans can agree, then train themselves to fight for it effectively (not just romantically—but that’s another whole essay), and begin the process of fighting. Just sitting around drinking beer and swapping war stories/myths is not going to be enough to gain them any respect or support from the rest of us. Putting their bodies on the line for Our Mother will.

Isaac Bonewits

isaac-bonewits-real-magicIsaac Bonewits was one of North America’s leading experts on Druidism, Witchcraft, and the Earth Religions movement. A practicing Neopagan priest, scholar, teacher, bard and polytheologian for forty years, he coined much of the vocabulary and articulated many of the issues that have shaped the Neopagan community in the United States and Canada. He is the author of the classic Real Magic (1971, 1989), as well as Authentic Thaumaturgy (1979, 1989), Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca (2006), Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism (2006), The Pagan Man (2005), Real Energy (co-authored with Phaedra Bonewits) (2007), and Neopagan Rites (2007). He is survived by his wife, Phaedra Bonewits, and his son, Arthur Lipp-Bonewits. His collected writings are archived at Neopagan.net.


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