The Importance of Bees

I have always been fascinated by bees. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting inside a Forsythia bush (like Lilacs in colder climates, Forsythia hollow out as they grow making little ‘houses’) watching the bees carrying purses of pollen on their legs. Once I stood in front of a butterfly bush catching bees in my hand, holding them for a moment, and then letting them go.

It was quite a while before one finally stung me. As enchanting as they are to a child— the fuzziness, the cartoon roundness, the mysterious sense of purpose— the more you learn about them as an adult the more wondrous they become.

Biologically, they are one of the pivotal beings of the Earth; without them pollinating, the wasteland awaits. And, for humans (particularly Northern humans), they are agriculturally vital as a source of sweetness. Tree sap (Maple and Birch predominately) and honey are the only sugar sources in the cold North and, although sugar has been demonized by post-moderns, back when we were hunter/gatherers and early agriculturists sweetness was hard to come by and prized.

Bees are also one of those Magical, untouched species (like most cats) that co-exist with us but unlike actual domesticated beings (dogs and dairy cows) have not been twisted away from their wild beings.

They are meaningful to the feminist as well, exemplifying the imagined workings of an all-female egalitarian society. Well, yes, there are drones and a queen but their rôle is limited. Drones appear to some human observers to have an idyllic life; they laze around sipping nectar, do no work, and then mate. But Nature is a stern Mother; drones are created by parthenogenesis only when they are necessary, the act of mating kills them, and if there are any left at the end of the Summer they are the first to be kicked out of the hive in preparation for the cold season.

The queen when anthropomorphized seems to be an absolute ruler with a crowd of sycophants filling her every need, but actually she is trapped and kept from moving about by the ladies-in-waiting around her. She only flies once in her life, gathering up all the sperm she will need from the ‘successful’ drones (who then die). She then spends all the rest of her time laying eggs— if production falters through sickness or age the workers will create a new queen and kill the old one. It’s the workers with their heads full of instinctive behaviour that actually run the hive and make honey; and they are all, like Maoists in blue pyjamas, visually identical sisters.

Bees also have great religious significance to me. Bees and Ravens are the two kinds of messengers from the Other World that also live a real life in our world. Ravens, when not living in the deep woods, eating carrion, and getting grumpy with others, carry messages from the Gods to our world. But, just as the raven becomes a ‘real’ bird when ze crosses the boundary, the message becomes an unusual occurrence, a ‘coincidence’ and can be ignored or mis-interpreted. Bees, on the other hand, do not change there to here and bring back intangible good things in the pollen sacs on their legs— contentment, good health, healings. As one of the Ogham, they associate with Ur/Heather and are an omen of good fortune.

Judith Bee 5A number of years ago the Goddess to Whom I am dedicated instructed me to interact with people more. Something I find difficult since I am paralyzingly shy and don’t really like doing things for the first time ever. My son winkled me onto the Internet to chat, argue, and make friends but that, as it turned out, was not enough for Her.

“Go out into the real world and interact with people face to face in religious endeavour.” She admonished.

Since I am an Irish Descendant I picked Druidry and attended the only ‘Druid Grove’ then extant in my city. It, like many North American Groves, is affiliated with Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF)

ADF is like and unlike my personal religion, of course, but is largely about praxis and does not demand many actual beliefs: fairly comprehensive polytheism, absence of religious circles and watchtowers, non-emphasis on the dualtheistic binary, and Indo-European pantheons. Add to this a heavy emphasis on lore, and I’m mostly satisfied. ADF does, however, use a strict framework of steps, actions, and sequence that all public (all Holy Days are mandated public) rituals must follow. Again, nothing too startling: we prepare ourselves for ritual, we address Mother Earth, we prepare and open a gate to the Other World, we invite the Kindreds and Deities to cross, give offerings, receive an omen, are given blessings, thank Everyone, and close the gate. It makes a nice sameness— when I attend some other Grove’s ritual I can easily follow and feel comfortable knowing what will come next.

As you will see if you look at the website, there is lots and lots of information. When it gradually became clear that my injunction from the Goddess required establishing a Grove, I carefully copied out the sequence and headings of the ritual as a part of my preparation for writing a religious service. In the same way that ADF mandates action but not belief, these are immutable steps but how we voice and enact the moment are left up to the organizer. I write formal poetry and so wrote the standard form of our ritual in poetics, and I am a Found-Object Artist (doesn’t that sound fine? I make things out of junk and repurposed stuff) and so made all the ritual objects/props myself.

Partly, I see the entire ritual as an offering and so want it to be a welcome one to the Gods and addressed Beings. Additionally, I see it as a piece of theatre and so want it to have ‘punch’ as well as religious meaning. Finally, since sometimes I slide towards personal belief rather than ADF dogma I want to be as enclosed by the recognizable and ‘correct’ framework as possible.

Our Grove, as well as many Groves, move about— we go inside in the Winter /Dark Half and outside in Summer/the Bright Half and we are sometimes asked to provide ritualization for opening or closing events altogether elsewhere. So, on the one hand, we need meaningful religious objects, on the other hand they must be available and moveable.

The preparation for opening the gate to the Other World is a dramatic and pivotal step and a good example of my varied impulses and criteria; ADF describes this as “re-creating the cosmos” and explains that “Sacred Center is most commonly represented as Fire, Well and Tree”.

So, every Grove needs a well and few have one available in their ritual space nor will it be a movable object. Many Groves use a container of water but dramatically a bucket of water is a chancy and unconvincing prop. I made a ring of many-shaded blue silk waves/ripples/drops that packs into a fresh-water clamshell— the officiant pops open the shell and a big loop of bright blue ‘water’ falls out.

Fire can be problematical as well– sometimes Groves are in public parks where fires are not allowed (I was a part of a ritual where the police came to insure the safety of the park), someone has to specifically be a fire-tender and not wander off, sometimes it’s raining. So we have a staff crowned with a gold plastic fake-mistletoe bunch. The officiant reaches up, pops open the wrapped-around string of Mardi Gras pop-it beads, and a 3′ multilayered pennant in red, orange, and yellow gauze streamers out. After the ritual I have to lay it carefully out on a table and fan-fold the gauze back inside the red brocade wrap and reset the poppers, but at the moment of ritual it is very satisfying.

Judith Bee 4The Tree is the most important of the three symbols. I started with a big stick, original about 8′ tall but (no surprize) it wouldn’t fit in a car that way so I sawed off the bottom to make it more manageable. On the top is a representation of Fionn’s Window.

And inside that a tree made of wire and beads. (The streamers hanging off the bottom are the roots in this world).

When I first saw the bee patches that Alley Valkyrie made, not only was I enchanted by the art, but I saw a way to enact ADF-mandated ritual in a way aesthetically pleasing to myself. The ‘order of ritual’ describes the action as ‘unveiling’ which I wrote as:

Unveil yourself, Sacred Tree,
Grow in all worlds, one in three….

But ADF recommends incense. I don’t personally like incense, it smells like something objectionable burning to me. But, my prejudices aside, lighting incense as a stage action is terrible. Either you have to have an already-going fire at hand (see problems above) or you have to bring out a distinctly non-magical lighter and then everyone waits for the incense to catch. And sometimes it doesn’t and then what!

But I realized that I could get a bee patch by sending a donation to the Wild Hunt (glad to do it, actually I gave and the Grove gave both) and use it and the extra, dark green, leaf-patterned scarf I didn’t need when I made the personification of our Watershed Spirit and make an actual veil!!
Triumph of art and aesthetics (jazz hands here)!

Alley graciously helped by sending me an extra compliment of the right kind of bee patches. As you can see, the bee flying UP towards the Other World has less-fancy passage spirals, while the bee coming down FROM the Other World has extra-glittery trails and sparkling gifts of intangible good things attached to her back legs. I could say that I included my dog as a size comparison (she is a ‘boxer mix’) but actually I just couldn’t resist a good photo-bomb.

As the ritual begins, the scarf is looped over the top of the Sacred Tree (the Irish term for the World Tree is ‘Bile’ pronounced bee-lay, nothing whatever to do with your liver) with the roots tucked inside.

Judith Bee 3The top (in this position) of the scarf has three (the Magical number and what I had around) glass horseshoes attached, filled with embroidered french knots of luck, with five (same) tiny pewter bee buttons trailing french knots of good things weighting it down in the up position because when the Bile is outside we don’t want the veil to blow off prematurely.

When the tree is unveiled, the officiant picks up the top/end and drops it down the front.

Judith Bee 1The Being beside the Bile is the Personification of the Spirit of the Watershed the Grove sits in, whose un-needed scarf is the veil. Ze is largely made of gleanings as well.

I buy some components, of course. I try to buy things from artisans if I have to buy something new. I buy things from thrift stores, and post-season craft store sales, and I trash-pick. But a surprising amount is given to me— I have a big section of free-standing shelves in our crawl-space storage area loaded with carefully sorted junk. Stuff that looked appealing years ago or that I didn’t need for a project, stuff picked up outdoors, other people’s discarded projects or de-stashing, junk that looked appealing to other people so they gave it to me…..

My belief is that everything has the potential to be Magical because the entire World is both real and Magical together. Every scrap the Gods make holy is no longer trash, but also every ritual implement in our Grove’s rites is a voice acknowledging our dedication to trying to do better for the World. We go out in the cold rain to pick trash or slog through the mud to plant seeds— we don’t schedule rain days, we just go when we planned to and Ottawa has not-the-nicest weather. About one in four events is actually pleasant….

When we act we are then re-sacralizing our intention for Right Action so that when the Keeper of Sacred Space holds up a stick with a plastic ornament and cloth tatters on one end or lowers a re-purposed scarf with sequin strings sewed on the Gods will visit, and Imbas will fire in our heads.

And perhaps more people will pick trash, and make things out of other things, and try to fix things when they break. Or not buy someone else’s Magic, but fabricate their own. And listen for the voices of the trash telling them that the Whole World is one system. Does the trash have voices? Only very tiny ones that are easily ignored, but they are a part of the World-Song. How big a part is up to all of us.

It’s like the dating advice that on a fancy, impress-you date the thing you should pay the most attention to is how your date treats the server, particularly if something is less-than-perfect. I could commission an artist to make me a one-off religious bibelot and have, at deservedly great cost, a more beautiful glory-piece than I could ever buy from Pagan-Artifacts-R-Us or even make myself. But that isn’t the meaningful decision; tiny lifestyle choices are also religious acts.

Will I carry my plastics back home or throw them in the trash when there is no recycle bin handy? When I unwrap something outside do I put the wrapper in my pocket? Do I trap unwanted insects in a glass and carry them outside? When my clothing wears out do I cut it up for rags, and does that work because it was natural fiber to start with? When I bought it, did I check the country of origin?

No Nazgûl will swoop down from the sky screaming “How was that fish caught!?!”; I am left alone in the grocery store holding either the cheap or the very expensive can of tuna.

Judith Bee lastJust do one thing. Then another……..


 

Judith O’Grady

judithJudith 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’).

Editorial: The Blue-Black Stain

A few years ago, I lived next to a small bit of forest.   The place became my grove, my hiding place from the world, a place of raw nature and unmediated experience away from the city and the internet and people.

It became a place of ‘pure being,’ and damn I fucking loved that place. There, I could  ignore the really miserable conditions of city life. Capitalism didn’t matter there. Left/Right didn’t matter there. My rent payments and utility bills and job didn’t matter there.

The forest was Outside all that, a gate to the Other.

One day, it rained, so I hurried to the forest to go play in the stream. I loved that stream. I loved the spirits there– they always jabbing me for being too serious.  We’d play, or I’d play and feel them playing with me. In fact, that whole place was the only site in the world I could truly be a kid again, could play without care.

I was playing on a log when I saw the blue-black stain. I’d been watching the water cascade under pressed leaves and fallen branch, listening to the laughter of the small waterfalls.  I would let my fingers trace patterns into the water, something I used to always do as a child, but this time I pulled my hand  out of the water and saw it.

It was motor oil.

I sloshed through the mud to try to find the source, hoping someone had just discarded a near empty bottle of the stuff somewhere upstream. But no–the blue-black stain came from farther up, pouring through one of the culverts from which the stream was daylighted.

Forest 4It was fucking everywhere, this blue-black poison, so much of it I couldn’t stop seeing it even when I closed my eyes.

I cried.

I tried to gather dead plants that could filter this stuff out, but the rain was pouring so hard that I couldn’t. And once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it–the stuff was everywhere.  Worse–I could tell that it had been there for a while, much of it there much longer than I had ever noticed.

In my horror and panic I slipped, fell face-first into the mud, getting so much of it in one eye that it became infected..

Laying face-down in the mud, I could feel the spirits with whom I’d always played, and the gods I’d invited to share the space looking at me, sadly.  It seemed they were watching a beloved child first learning an awful truth about the world.

I had lost my innocence, but the place hadn’t.  The spirits there would have known all this long before I did. I wonder if the attention I felt from them–one of sorrow and sympathy–was them remembering the first time that oil came into the stream. Remembering the time the blue-black stain entered their home, the moment they knew they were not safe.

This forest had felt like a completely apolitical, safe, wild, raw place where I could speak with my gods and be spoken to.  It was a sacred place where I could revere them, build them small shrines and leave offerings in the trunks of trees.  But it was also, undeniably a site of politics.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

–The Communist Manifesto

Perhaps the most common worry about the work we do with Gods&Radicals is that, because we are writing about the gods, the earth, the ancestors and each other through a political lens, we are somehow politicizing the sacred. Ritual circles, magic, ancestor veneration, polytheist reconstruction–these are things we like to consider as safe, set-apart, all existing in a realm where government and economics don’t matter.

Forest no dumpI sympathize deeply.  Like the forest grove where I went to escape all the horrors of the city, our beliefs and magics and spirits seem set-apart, outside, Other, sacred.

But unfortunately, like the blue-black motor oil coating the stream of my grove, the places we think of as outside the political never actually are. In fact, our very notions of ‘outside’ and ‘sacred’ were  created through politics. Our idea of what is Sacred (‘set apart’) comes from Roman law by way of Christianity.

In Rome, sacer meant something that was set apart, outside common use, outside society or the city.  Sacer also made no distinction between what was holy or cursed. Sacer, was both a religious and a legal concept. It was the place where Roman law couldn’t apply. Things made sacer were outside the realm of politics, but the category of what was sacer was created through the political order where the political order did not apply.

People who were banished from the cities for broken oaths or horrible crimes were consigned to that realm, their fates left ‘to the gods,‘  becoming ‘homo sacer,‘ or ‘sacred man.’  And because they were excluded from society, they were also excluded from the protection of the law.  Anyone could kill people in the category of homo sacer without fear of being punished.

Through Christianity, sacer became ‘sacred.’ As in Rome, it was also a political category, becoming the opposite of both ‘the profane’ (which the original sense never meant) and the opposite of the Secular.

The Church then named themselves the authority on what was within the sacred realm.  Just as Rome had used priests, diviners, and the gods as justification for their political authority, The Church continued this tradition, becoming the ‘sacred authority’ which justified the rule of monarchs, or what was called the Divine Right of Kings.

‘Sacred,’ then, was always tied to the political, but there was always at least some degree of separation between the two (in Rome, the realm of sacer; in Europe, the split between ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ authority).  Unfortunately, under both Capitalism and Democracy, there is nothing outside the reach of the State or the exploitation of Capital–not even our bodies.

Is the body a sacred place, free from politics? Ask most women.  The fact that birth control pills require a prescription in many countries is proof that sex, conception, and a woman’s uterus are controlled by politics.

The problem is this–there is no legal definition of what is untouched by politics and power.  There is no “bare life,” no sacred.  And this doesn’t just affect how governments see human life, but also how we see our own lives, our own bodies, and the sacred.

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoē and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city….

 

…In the camps, city and house became indistinguishable, and the possibility of differentiating between our biological body and our political body — between what is incommunicable and mute and what is communicable and sayable — was taken from us forever.
Georgio Agamben, Homo Sacer

Our very notions of what makes us human were also created through political processes, much of which occurred in the last few hundred years.  Gender, race, sexuality–all these are political categories, rather than deriving from nature.  And, worse–Nature is another politically-created category, and the physical places we go to in order to be in Nature are also subject to politics.

Not convinced?  Consider National Parks and Wildlife Reserves in North America–not only are such places created by law, but they were once previously inhabited by indigenous peoples who were displaced or killed, in many cases to create those parks in the first place.

Forest TrashThere is no ‘outside.’ There is no realm where our existence is out of the reach of political forces. No matter how much we pretend, no matter how much we try to ignore the blue-black stain in the streams of our sacred places, there is no place to escape.

Feeling disenchanted?  It’s okay.  When I saw the blue-black stain in my sacred grove, I felt that way too.

But seeing how political forces have shaped our existence, seeing how there is nowhere sacred anymore is really the beginning of wisdom. Disenchantment isn’t just failing to see the world as magical, it’s also losing our illusions about how easy it will be to get that magic back.  The world didn’t stop being sacred, we did.

But, as I said–this is the beginning of wisdom.  Pretending that there are still parts of our existence that are safe from politics won’t get us anywhere.  And recognizing this but falling into despair won’t help, either.

Instead, we must fight. We must become magical again.  We must become the sacred.

Every part of our existence has become colonized–even our very ideas about magic, the gods, the sacred and ourselves. Reclaiming the sacred will take a lot more than just casting ritual circles and spell, setting up altars or giving worship to forgotten gods.  Though these are certainly great places to start, ritual and magic, devotion and offerings become no more than fantasy-play if it changes nothing in the world or about ourselves.

Seeing the blue-black stain is the beginning of wisdom.

Everything after is revolt.


 

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd 2016Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. His second book, A Kindness of Ravens is available now.

Heresies II: Being and Divinity

Floralia_in_Aquincum

Polytheism: Old answers, to new questions

i – The Question at Hand

Debates about the existence of (the Monotheistic) God have been going on for ages, and have gone nowhere interesting for almost as long. A regular dance now plays out – where believers and non-believers dodge and weave around the bones of Augustine and Aquinas, Voltaire and Kant, their jousts and jibes predictably inconclusive. I think part of the problem is that what we have is a disagreement between apologists and critics – people who want to defend a particular theory, and those who wish to poke holes in it. What’s more, that “particular theory” is the rather narrow beam of mainline Christian theology – set in stone and ink in a hundred or more synods and councils since Nicea. What nobody ever seems to do in the debate over the Man Upstairs is speculate – theorise openly about what sort of god, if any, the evidence might point towards. It is worth remembering that the question posed – in TV debates and radio discussions around the world – is always “Does God exist?” (never “gods”). Nobody asks “In what ways might the gods exist – from the available evidence we can muster?”

The former question is very narrow, and this can be seen in the lines claimed by the belligerents in the debate itself. Atheists tend to merely claim that God is a “delusion” concerning a “supernatural being” or a “creative intelligence” hypothesis that has now been exceeded. Monotheists tend to agree (apart from the delusion-and-hypothesis part), viewing the traits of supernaturalism and creative intelligence as the natural conclusions to draw from the various omnies they attribute to God – omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence. This view has a long (Christian and Islamic) philosophical provenance, and aside from being logically fraught, it seems to say more about what Divinity does than what it is. Even labels like “supernatural” tell us nothing other than this being or quality doesn’t fit within our world. It doesn’t stipulate how its own world functions, or how we might identify its effects on this one. It throws the divine outside of this world, specifically to protect it from scrutiny – something atheists are wont to criticise, but never really transcend. All this verbiage is the intellectual equivalent of kicking the can down the road.

In short, it seems to me that whole debate is badly posed, and badly understood – even by most theists. They cling to one particular image of Divinity, rather than approach that image philosophically and critically. The reason for this is simple – the importance of upholding the right set of beliefs in Christianity has always been paramount, and is of considerable importance in the other Abrahamic faiths. As such, rather than openly ask the question “What is this Divine thing anyway?”, theists have spent much of their time in the recent past trying to justify other people’s answers (i.e. those of Biblical or Quranic prophets) to this basic question, while atheists have spent most of their time trying to torpedo those same answers. To use an awful academic phrase, nobody is doing any blue sky research. Or nobody participating in the debate is, at any rate.

Imagine if we asked the same question of other things. It looks patently stupid if we apply it to physical objects – when Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbited the sun, nobody began to ask “Does the Earth exist?”, after all. But a more telling comparison arises when we think on immaterial qualities. When Charles Darwin discovered evolution, nobody (or almost nobody) questioned the existence of humanity itself as a category. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, nobody asked “Does the economy exist?” This a particularly good comparison to strike, as the economy is very much a product of human artifice – it is imagined, a fiction, “made up” – and yet it has very real consequences for how we each lead our lives. It is quite real. Nobody denies its reality, and although many of us want to see the entire system transformed, root and stem, there is nobody who either suggests that all exchange between persons should be abolished, or that such exchange doesn’t exist in the first place. So even if the atheists were right in claiming that the gods were brought into being by men (and I do not believe they are), that doesn’t necessarily mean the gods aren’t there at all.

My approach has always been one of looking to the blue sky for answers; always one of trying to explain experiences I have, rather than attempting to defend a theory somebody else has provided for those experiences. For me, the Divine is as real as joy, power or the colour green – it is something I experience directly. So the question isn’t “does this exist?” but “how does this exist?” How does this relate to the world, of which I am also part? This approach – known in philosophical circles as “Natural Theology” – is not only worthwhile because it allows for free and open speculation towards the gods, of the sort we would use for any part of reality – it also allows us to escape two basic contradictions; one in monotheism, one in atheism; that still dominate popular discourse about divinity.

ii – The First Contradiction

Monotheism is predicated on the notion that there is only one god; powerful and eternal. But as is pointed out in Steven Dillon’s excellent text on the subject, this is flatly contradicted by two facts, namely:

a) Many people have wildly contradictory experiences of “God”. He is alternately male and female, kind and cruel, helpful and harmful, generous and selfish, forgiving and grudging, wise and stupid, immanent and transcendent. One is not meant to be all things to all men, but this being supposedly manages it.
b) Still more people – throughout history and around the world, of good character and with no reason to lie – have experiences of more than one god. They meet these beings, work with them, understand them as well as we understand any human person we might meet.

Now, the usual monotheist apologetic for dealing with this is threefold: God’s superlative quality means that he not limited by human perception of his qualities; human beings frequently lie, forget, and are deluded about god; and that these other gods who behave in ways unlike the One True God, are actually devils sent to trick us.

The first of these three statements is easy to dismiss; special pleading, without evidence – it’s yet more kicking of the can. The second two bear closer scrutiny. Both of these may indeed be true; we know that human beings are indeed fallible, and there may well be devils, if there is a God (ignoring why a supposedly omnibenevolent, just God would permit such convincing frauds to carry on their business for now). My objection, however, is that both of these explanations sound suspiciously like gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a means by which abusers twist or manipulate information in such a way that benefits them – denying that a victim’s own experiences of the world (i.e. that social workers, friends, and family are helpful and kind; that you yourself know what’s good for you) are valid (i.e. social workers, friends, and family are all secretly plotting against you; you don’t know what’s good for you – I do). When you consider the behaviour of “God” – the blatant obsession with controlling his followers, the constant threat of (eternal) pain, the desire to police their thoughts, the push to attract more followers, and punish those who disobey, accompanied by the near-constant lip-service towards love and kindness; what emerges is not a kind and loving Father, but a vicious and persistent abuser. In this context, the apologetics of monotheistic theology are unmasked as a rather transparent attempt to separate devotees from those who might otherwise be able to help them – that is to say, other gods, and first and foremost the good sense and genius of each follower in themselves.

With this in mind, there seems to be little reason to doubt such an overwhelmingly well-attested report as that of there being many gods; not just as an article of faith, but a vital step towards personal liberation from long-lasting patterns of abuse on a cultural scale.

iii – The Second Contradiction

From a reductionist atheist perspective, the gods are just mere imagination – voices in the head, created by some quirk in the evolution of the brain. Primitive man, so the theory goes, personified natural phenomena – thunderstorms, dreams, spring, childbirth – in an attempt to better relate to them. Those who still express this trait are a throwback to this earlier time, before mankind developed reason as a better way of understand the world. In anthropology, this idea was championed by Edward Tylor, who believed that religion was a “survival” from a prior phase of human evolution. He was working in 19th century, and his ideas are now seen as highly antiquated by contemporary anthropologists of religion. But they still prove popular amongst certain atheists – particularly Richard Dawkins – because they serve the same purpose for which Tylor originally thought them up – to discredit religious beliefs. There are some Pagans who, quite happily, base their own practice on this theory; here, the gods are just human projections onto the world, protected from refutation by a postmodern affirmation of personal experience. There is a delicious irony in how a theory devised by a sceptic to skewer religion for good has ended up being retro-fitted as a kind of Natural Theology for a relativistic age.

The problem for this reductionist disavowal of the gods is, of course, that lots of other things exist primarily as structures in the brain – not least consciousness itself. Physically speaking, my humanity, that of all the people I know, and the personas of my gods are composed of much the same stuff – neurological matter. If we take a materialist view of the world, my sense of “I” and my sense of “Sulis”, “Frey” or “Nodens” are basically the same mental function – the brain being able to create a particular sensation, in this case, one of persona and agency. We see that this places atheism in a bind; if [a] god does not exist because my experience of it is solely in my head, then my consciousness does not exist by the same token – both are mere shadows on the wall. If we put the gods on the bus, then we will surely join them soon after. What will be left behind are mere bodies; capable of nothing but empty production and consumption, devoid of any meaning or purpose, and easily exploited. This point has been made excellently elsewhere on this blog; but suffice to say, if we kill the gods, then we wipe out ourselves too. The claim that gods do not exist because we imagine that they are there, also indicates that our own consciousness does not exist, because we imagine it is there.

iv – Weighing and Measuring – Towards Better Questions

Here, we have taken the measure of the two conventional stances taken in the debate – that of conventional Monotheism, and that of conventional Atheism. Both, as we have seen, are blighted by fundamental flaws, that conflict with the commonsense view of reality – monotheism is contradicted by the fact that many gods have been met by humans; the flat out denial of the gods on the basis that they are imaginary would also require denying humanity as a “delusion” as well.

So how might we construct a more robust, natural theology?

v – On the Nature of the Gods

We know, from a vast array of historical and personal evidence, that gods exist. They are awesome, powerful, and long-lived beings. From the second contradiction, we know that the gods share their interiority – in some degree – with humanity. From the first, we know that they can lie.

Many of them appear to be embodied by natural forces and features of the landscape. Others are connected with forces and powers that are found within human society – like love, and war, and victory. They are mortal. They can kill. And they can lie. Humans can become divine through theosis, and gods can become human through incarnation.

From a moral perspective, gods seem little different to human beings; some are good, some are bad, all have virtues and vices. As such, we should approach our relations with them in much the same way as we do with one another – showing respect, giving credit where credit is due, and avoiding those who give the signs of being abusive or cruel. Gods may be much wiser than we are, much kinder, much braver – but they are still people, and so, they might not. We must use our own discretion, and that of those we trust, to be sure.

The relationship divinities have with their physical manifestations appears to be the major difference they have with humans. Simply put, humans are tied to and defined by our mortal bodies, in a way that gods are not. We find mirroring of this in the ancient texts, where what marks humanity and the gods apart is not their power, their supernatural station, or their cosmogonic role – indeed, humans often fill these roles too – rather, it is the fact that they eat food that makes them immortal. Ambrosia or apples or the bread of life; it makes no difference. Because they are not tied down by life as we are, they can extend far more broadly throughout time and matter; so that, as Thales once said “All things are full of the gods”. Man, sadly, appears to be mostly full of himself.

Valdres Roots: Enclosure, Ancestral Displacement, & Domestication

by James Lindenschmidt

“Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. Without these moments of force, money would have remained a marginal aspect of human history. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. This flight ended with “producers becoming more dependent on exchange” since they had no other way to survive but by either selling their products or selling themselves or being sold. Thus did “exchange become more independent of them,” its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove “everyone” into the monetary system.”
George Caffentzis, “The Power Of Money: Debt and Enclosure,” In Letters Of Blood & Fire

It is spring, 1870. My great-grandfather, Mons Olsen Fuglie, then an 8 1/2 year old boy, left his ancestral home in Valdres, Norway, traveling south to Kristiana (what had been, and is now, called Oslo). He boarded the Argonault under the command of Captain S.W. Flood, bound from Kristiana to land in Quebec, before continuing the journey to their new life in Minnesota. The journey across the Atlantic took two months, with 237 passengers aboard a ship whose length was 147.5 feet and beam 29 feet, depth of 11 feet. With Mons were his 3 siblings, his mother Ambjor Monsdatter and his father Ole Arneson. Pre-industrial transatlantic travel was grueling, so much so that Ole was weakened from the journey and collapsed, 25 days after landing in Minnesota, dying of what they called heat stroke. My great-grandfather thus grew up on a new continent, in a new ecosystem, in a place with new languages, without his father.

Ancestral Homelands?

Does this look like an ancestral homeland to you? It's where I grew up, seen from above with technology.
Does this look like an ancestral homeland to you? It’s where I grew up, seen from above with the aid of technology. I moved here with my family when I was 8. Image created by the author.

When I was growing up in a midwestern middle class suburbia of the 70s and 80s, I don’t remember hearing much about displacement. When we did, it was usually in the context of studying the standardized, whitewashed account of slavery in the Americas, where African people were kidnapped from their homelands, taken against their will in slave ships across the Atlantic, and inserted into the capitalist system as slaves. In one sense, I was lucky that my high school had a good racial mixture of people. European-Americans like myself were the majority, but there were a lot of African-Americans and Asian-Americans as well. Despite an interest in my genealogy as a child, I never thought much about displacement as it applies to my own life and ancestry until the past decade or two. It is no accident that I have also spent this time cultivating my connection with place, as part of my spiritual practice.

It is also no accident that this spiritual connection with place was developed around the same time I moved to Maine. Maine is an extraordinary place, with some astounding ecosystems and nature spirits. I have an ocean, beaches (both sandy and rocky), marshlands, mountains, rivers, forests, springs, small cities, lakes, ponds, parks, trails, and farms all well within an hour’s drive of my home. I have spent more time in nature in the 1/3 of my life in Maine than all the other places I have lived or visited combined. I have slowly picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the ecosystem, learning to identify plants, trees, animal tracks, scat, game trails, and geological formations. I find it fascinating, but despite all I’ve learned I know that my knowledge is dwarfed by the knowledge any child who has seen 8 summers in an indigenous culture with an ancestral connection to place would have. Despite my increasing comfort level with the ecosystem here in Maine, I know and recognize that I am “from away” (in the local parlance). As beautiful as Maine is, and as much as I love “my” 2 acres of it, I know that on some level — the most primal, ancestral level — that I don’t really belong here. I have no doubt that the Arossagunticook people who lived here for hundreds of generations prior to the arrival of the Europeans would concur.

Maine is also as close as I can get to my ancestral homelands without leaving the US. I’m sure the fact that I ended up here is a coincidence. Of course.

Valdres Roots & Husfolk

“The visitor to Valdres … by traversing its whole length between Spirilen and the wilds where Sogn meets Gudbrandsdalen, with excursions into the many spots of beauty or grandeur on either side, … has the opportunity of seeing some of the best that is to be found of a practically all elements of scenic attractions that Norway offers the sightseer anywhere, and he will understand why the native of Valdres thinks his Valley the most beautiful region of all the old Fatherland.”
Andrew A. Veblen, Book of Valdris, p 19
Picture of Lake Helin in Vang, Vestre Slidre, Valdres, Norway. Taken on top of Åkslefjellet showing Mountain Grindane in the North and Gilafjellet to the right (east). Photo by Trarir. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Picture of Lake Helin in Vang, Vestre Slidre, Valdres, Norway. Taken on top of Åkslefjellet showing Mountain Grindane in the North and Gilafjellet to the right (east). Photo by Trarir. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

For dozens of generations, my Norwegian ancestors were Husfolk — “land tenants” who subsisted in mostly feudal arrangements with the landed lords — in Valdres, a fogderi (county) in southern, central Norway, just south of the Jotunheimen mountains. From 1750-1850, the population of Norway doubled, from about 700,000 to 1.4 million. This was the period of Enclosure in Norway, which drove my ancestors from their subsistence on the land, and destroyed the ancestral link they had with it. Much of the potential farmland, that had lain uncultivated and intact since the Black Plague in the 1300s, was enclosed as private property. For the Husfolk, this gave them fewer options; since they didn’t own land and had no way to buy it, they could only be subsumed within the labor exploitation of capitalism. Yet, industry hadn’t really come to Norway, certainly not to the Valdres valley away from the cities. As a result of the lack of “opportunity” in Norway, 900,000 Norwegians emigrated to America between 1825-1914, such that by 1920, there were more people in America descendent from Valdres than there were people left in Valdres.

One can therefore see the appeal for the landless Norwegians to emigrate to America, particularly in post-slavery America, the land of “manifest destiny,” provided that the Europeans were courageous (or desperate) enough to risk the frontier, in its wildness and with the last remaining packets of resistance from the Indigenous peoples of the continent protecting their ancestral claims to the land. My ancestors, therefore, left Norway for both sides of the capitalist enclosure coin. Norway had been completely enclosed, and there were too many people there without land rights struggling to eke out a living. On the other hand, in the so-called New World (or if you prefer, Turtle Island), enclosure hadn’t yet begun if you went far enough west, where there remained millions of acres of fertile land and far fewer Europeans to claim them. So while my ancestors were being pushed out of Norway, they were also being pulled toward Minnesota.

Blood Roots & Mud Roots

“The ancestors are such an important part of our spiritual tradition. When we call to our ancestors in ritual and prayers, we may be asking for specific guidance from those who are conscious of our existence and coherent in their form, but perhaps more poignantly we are waking our own perception to their unceasing presence. We speak of their stories humming in our blood and bones, and this is true in terms of our genetic inheritance, yet felt too in the sense of their presence being everywhere. We speak of the breath we breathe having been breathed by our ancestors, and in this too we accept the practical logic of our globe’s one body of air, yet also in the poetry and omnipresence of their consciousness.”
Emma Restall-Orr, Living Druidry, p 204-5.

I never knew my grandfather, Milton. Cancer claimed him long before I was born, when my mother was 12. Mons, Milton’s father, also died when Milton was a child, having been kicked by a horse. So along with Ole, who died shortly after arriving in Minnesota, the three consecutive generations preceding me all grew up without their paternal connection to their homeland. This is, through my mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather, my connection to Valdres. I find it interesting that despite these generations of disconnect, I feel the strongest connection to this quarter of my family tree, over and above my Irish (Mom’s Mom’s side) and German (Dad’s side) ancestry.

"Albrecht Dürer, The Fall Of Man, 1510. This powerful scene, on the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden, evokes the expulsion of the peasantry from its common lands, which was starting to occur across western Europe at the very time when Dürer was producing this work." -- commentary by Silvia Federici
Albrecht Dürer, The Fall Of Man, 1510. “This powerful scene, on the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden, evokes the expulsion of the peasantry from its common lands, which was starting to occur across western Europe at the very time when Dürer was producing this work.” — commentary by Silvia Federici

In Druidry, we talk about Mud Roots and Blood Roots. Mud Roots are a connection to a particular place. Blood Roots are those who came before, the ancestors. For more than a thousand years, as far back past history and into mythology as we can see, up to the late 19th century, these Blood and Mud Roots were intertwined in Valdres, until the connection was broken by the capitalist enclosure movement. Think about that for a moment. This ancestral connection to place was strong enough to withstand centuries of hardship, famine, plague, warfare, the imposition of Christianity by force (spearheaded by Olaf the Saint, another one of my ancestors, but that’s another story), not to mention a thousand harsh Norwegian winters, only to finally be destroyed by something so powerful, yet so insidious, that people today have to be taught what “enclosure” means. The notion of “private property” remains so abstracted, such a given, that many believe it has always existed, assuming that feudal Lords “owned” property in the same way as today’s landlords, and that serfs were much closer to slave status than we ever could be in these enlightened times. On the contrary, as Silvia Federici reminds us:

The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serfs direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lords’ land (the demesne), the serfs received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves, and pass down to their children…. Having the effective use and possession of a plot of land meant that the serfs could always support themselves and, even at the peak of their confrontations with the lords, they could not easily be forced to bend because of the fear of starvation. True, the lord could throw recalcitrant serfs off the land, but this was rarely done, given the difficulty of recruiting new laborers in a fairly closed economy and the collective nature of peasant struggles.”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, 23-4).

The Husfolk of Valdres, therefore, were not slaves, or mere servants of the lordly class in Norway. There was a powerful bond between them and their place, a bond that, by the mid-1800s, after more than a century of capitalism and enclosure, had grown weak enough that more than half the population of Norway had been displaced.

It is only in the past 300 years — far less than 1% of homo sapiens time on this planet — that we must distinguish between mud roots and blood roots. Prior to that, as rates of migration were much slower, they were much more intimately intertwined.

Domestication & The Capitalist Accumulation of Labor

“In the aftermath of the Black Death, every European country began to condemn idleness, and to persecute vagabondage, begging, and refusal of work. England took the initiative with the Statute of 1349 that condemned high wages and idleness (author’s note: with higher wages, workers could work fewer hours and therefore had more leisure time), establishing that those who did not work, and did not have any means of survival, had to accept work. Similar ordinances were issued in France in 1351, when it was recommended that people should not give food or hostel to healthy beggars and vagabonds. A further ordinance in 1354 established that those who remained idle, passing their time in taverns, playing dice or begging, had to accept work or face the consequences; first offenders would be put in prison on bread and water, while second offenders would be put in the stocks, and third offenders would be branded on the forehead.”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, 57-8.

After my great-grandfather Mons settled in Minnesota, where he lived until he died in 1925, he raised a large family there. But displacement caused by capitalism would strike again, this time in the form of the Great Depression. It would cause my grandfather to leave most of his family in Minnesota and settle in Ohio with his sister and her husband. In due course, he met my grandmother, married, and started a family before his premature death in 1958.

So of course, the winners of this game of severing ancestral connections to place are, and continue to be, the capitalists. A people united with the land they occupy will give much more formidable resistance to enclosure, accumulation of land and labor, and exploitation of all the resources it can than a divided, domesticated people severed from their ancestral place. Capitalism requires workers to exploit, and most people, given the choice, will not enter into such an exploitative relationship. Therefore, the choice had to go, and capitalism had to make people more dependent on what they were offering. Human domestication, via displacement and other strategies, had to be stepped up to a new level.

By most estimates, human domestication has been underway for 10,000 years, but it has accelerated dramatically in the capitalist era. Ostensibly, it doesn’t matter where we live now. Just in my generation of my family, a few stayed in Ohio (where they’d been for only 2 generations), but I have siblings or cousins in Indiana, California, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Missouri. As strangers in strange lands, our domestication and dependence on the infrastructures of industrialized production grows more complete and absolute, such that not only are we uprooted from our ancestral homelands, but our connection with any place at all is broken. How many of us have a sense of place, where we humans are part of an ecosystem, when the majority of us go not to the land for subsistence, but to the grocery store, buying factory-farmed food that has traveled thousands of miles before landing on the shelves?

Domestication is what happens when a connection to land is severed, and subsistence, provided by an industrial infrastructure, becomes abstracted from place. At one time, exile was a fate as bad as, or worse than, death, because it meant one had little or no access to subsistence via the tribe, a collection of people working together for the common good. In this new, domesticated world, access to the tribe is mediated by money. Those without money — the poor among us — are on some level exiles who must fend for themselves. And the quickest way to end one’s exile is to allow oneself to be (re-)assimilated into the capitalist system of labor exploitation.

Looking Ahead

My daughter, unlike I who am still “from away,” is a Mainer. She was born in Portland and has never lived more than 20 miles from the city of her birth. She still most strongly resonates with the streets of Portland, rather than the far more rural area where we live now (check out her music, by the way, it’s really good, said the proud immediate ancestor). I wonder, having grown up in this place, how her children and subsequent generations will be connected to their places, and whether their place will be in Maine.

The world is undone. In the age of neoliberal capitalism, otherwise known as “globalization,” our people and our cultures are scattered to the four winds. Most ancestries in the 21st century are intertwined and complex; the stories I have told of my ancestors above are but one branch of my genealogy. Virtually everyone is, in some way, a victim of ancestral displacement. My point is not to level out the differences between the different cultural victims of displacement, colonialism, and capitalist enclosure. While nearly all people of nearly all cultures, races, ethnicities, and groups have now experienced displacement, the fact is that my white ancestors who arrived in Minnesota found themselves inserted into a different place in the power hierarchy than earlier peoples from Africa, kidnapped from their ancestral homeland, to be slaves in the Americas.

Re-enchanting the world will not occur in an office, in the checkout queue at Whole Foods, or in the blogosphere. It will require humans to get out into nature, and work ceaselessly to re-establish relationship with what they find there. There are some positives we can take from this situation we find ourselves in — for instance, most geneticists agree that diversity in our gene pools is a good thing — but until we exist in better relationship with our place, rewild ourselves, resist our domestication by rejecting the infrastructures of capitalism where we can, and begin re-weaving an ancestral connection to place for future generations, the world will remain little more than something to be owned and exploited.


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Words for Sale: A Critical Political Economy of Paganism

by Jonathan Woolley

Image from flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Image created by Tax Credits, sourced from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of days ago, Rhyd wrote an excellent essay on the Faustian pact of Google Analytics, and other similar software packages. Sure, you get all sorts of interesting information out, he explained, but at its heart, this seemingly benign, innovative means of objectively assessing impact and reach – the sort of thing authors endlessly agonise about, particularly in such a crowded forum as the internet – allows Google and other organisations to collect detailed information about your readership; for sale to the highest bidder. Like so much in our society, when you reflect upon the ways in which influence, money, management and labour intersect within SEO, social media, and the like – a form of reflection called “political economy” – an unsavory commercial logic emerges from the undergrowth.

Sadly, Paganism is no different.

Going Critical

It is possible to write a political economy of any human community. From tiny Amazonian villages, to vast multinationals; all can be understood in terms of flows of power and produce, that are quite literally the meat and drink of our existences.

It is interesting, therefore, that despite the universal scope of this method; nobody has yet – to my knowledge, anyway – attempted to explore Paganism in such a fashion. Magliocco focuses on folklore; Luhrmann on logic; Salomonsen on gender; Hutton on history; Harvey on cultural comparison – in all their analyses, they touch upon the political and economic activities of Pagans, but no scholar has yet attempted a full-bore political economic analysis of contemporary Paganism itself. Of course, this generation of scholars belong to a very specific project; seeking to normalise Paganism in order to protect it from accusations of spuriousness from academics, and immorality from the mainstream. As such, they tend to stress the extent to which Pagans are also “normal people” – with normal jobs, normal houses, normal relationships, and the normal range of political and social opinions. Irrespective of our eccentric dress, our fantastic language, our rites, spells, conversations with gods and poetic madnesses; we are, first and foremost, part of the modern world. Because of this, the study of Pagan political economy becomes a non-subject; our economic relations are simply the same as those of everyone else. In such circumstances, the development of a critical account of Pagan political economy – that problematised this “normalness” of Pagans, and attempted to unpick it – was intellectually unnecessary, and politically undesirable. But in the past 20 years or so, Paganism has matured, and so now the time is ripe for such an analysis.

When one takes this critical stance, the forms of organisation normally described within Paganism – covens, groves, traditions and so on – fade away, and a very different structure emerges. Different, not just from how we describe ourselves, but from the social orders we find in other religions. We find few churches, monasteries, temples, or mosques – those that do exist, often struggle. In Paganism, centre stage is taken a small circle of private individuals – primarily authors and teachers. In Britain, this means names like Philip Carr-Gomm, Vivianne Crowley, Nigel Pennick, Prudence Jones, Caitlin and John Matthews, Pete Carroll, Rae Beth, and Emma Restall-Orr. They make their living – partly or wholly – by selling their ideas; through writing books, and holding workshops. Around this core of content creators, you have a network of bookshops, occult suppliers, robemakers, celebrants, and healers – all working in ways inspired by the writings of those at the centre of the network.

Surrounding this central core of those who are primarily or solely employed in Paganism, you have a second group – employees of the muggle world. Some – like those working in Forest Schools, or Counselling – have employment that dovetails neatly with the ideas at Paganism’s core. Others – those working in more “ordinary” jobs – from Estate Agency, to Local Government, from IT to Retail – do not. In both cases, however, Paganism is something they have to fit in to their spare time, and is something through which they spend their wages, rather than earn them. Financially, this outer corona supports the core – those at its heart would not be able to make a living speaking, celebrating, and writing if those employed outside “the Pagan business” did not buy their products. And, of course, those in the corona are supported emotionally, creatively, and spiritually by those in the core – if they were not, they would not buy what those at the core have to sell.

What I am describing here is quite unlike other religious communities; these are first and foremost collective enterprises – funded by donations, or the state. For all the world, the Pagan community sounds less like a church or a network of temples, or an ummah – for its social order is fundamentally commercial in nature. The corona of those who do Paganism in their free hours is fundamentally a space of consumption – wages spent on services rendered. It is often said, that the difference between Paganism and the New Age is the number of noughts on the workshop ticket prices. This joke is a sword that cuts both ways: although it points out the rapacious greed of certain New Age gurus, it also highlights that Paganism is just as fundamentally market-oriented as they are. With this consumer-vendor dynamic in mind, what becomes clear is that Paganism is less a religion – in terms of its political economy – and more akin to a literary genre, with an accompanying fandom. If we compare worldwide Paganisms to some of the more established fan communities – such as Trekkies, for example – the similarities become almost painful. Both hinge upon a small circle of content creators at the hub of the wheel, whose writings and performances inspire all sorts of sub-creations from fans. It is fitting, therefore, that the largest Pagan gathering on Earth should be a “Con[vention]”.

Pagan Business

With this in mind, we can see how consumerist logic has leached through Pagan culture, even though elements of it that do not carry a price tag. What is the moot, if not a book group? What is the public ritual, if not a LARP? The fact that these things are done for free by passionate and often very well-intentioned supporters, does not negate the fundamentally capitalist exchange that preceded them. The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

The point here is not that those who make their living through Paganism are being greedy or venial. On the contrary, writing words, speaking spells, crafting holy things, and making ceremonies that heal, enlighten, and empower is important work, and those working in these ways cannot survive on mere air and good wishes. The problem arises from how we are currently supporting the work that they do, and the centrality of this (commercial) arrangement in our community. Before all else, you have to pay. By relying upon the Market to directly transmit our lore, to fund our gatherings, to supply our goods, we become complicit in it. It means the fortunes of our traditions turn not with the wheel of the year, but with the shifting fashions and stock prices of the global publishing and wellness industries. Our community is directed less by the will of the gods, and more by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. The heartbeat at the core of our living traditions becomes the ring of a cash register.

This dominance of the logic of the Market within Paganism is not surprising, even if it is disquieting. Paganism is one of the few religions to have arisen within the Modern Age, when Capitalism was in its ascendency. This has very real consequences for us all. Let us not forget the prototypical “gateway experience” for a seeker – traditionally – was buying a book from an occult book shop. The fact that the internet and Amazon have replaced the knowledgeable local bookseller is to be lamented; but it is not so meteoric shift as we might suppose. Whether your spirituality is expressed through buying knowledge from a kooky shop on Glastonbury High Street, or from Amazon, your spirituality is still being expressed through shopping. Equally, this shift demonstrates the extent to which our infrastructure is dependent upon the vagaries of the market to survive: the rise of the internet has caused many Pagan bookshops to close; depriving local communities of an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn, and socialise. Indeed, it is precisely because we have relied on the Market that this transition – from a friendly, in-community, low-profit enterprise, to a distant, global, high profit one – has taken place. The very means by which our lore is spread has been transformed for the worse by the dictat of the Market.

The most fundamental problem, though, is how this allows unhealthy class dynamics to spread within our community. For every one successful Pagan author, there are many many more who dearly wish they could make it in the “Pagan Business”, but instead work in some mind-numbing office job to make ends meet. The vocation of the former, is bought and paid for by the drudgery of the latter. Even those who do succeed are constantly threatened under Capitalism – whether it’s through being out-competed by multinational competitors, exploited when your publisher is bought up by a Market leader, or being ruined when your austerity-hit consumer-base can’t afford your £30 tarot readings or £8 herbal poultices anymore. This is not a game any of us can win.

The dominance of consumer goods – books, candles, incense, space enough in your home to cast circle, salt and so on – within the Pagan sphere sets up obstacles for poorer people wishing to participate, and often relies on exploitative labour in Chinese or Indian factories as part of their manufacturing cycle, or the use of precious resources from fragile ecosystems. Although many fee-charging camps and festivals have ways you can work to earn a ticket – through volunteering in the kitchen or setting up beforehand – even this can create a gulf between those who earn enough to pay outright, and those who have to work.

In all these ways, Paganism is little different from wider society. Our community, like any other under Capitalism, is shot through with consumerism. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What’s more, it shouldn’t.

Disorganised Religion

I find the most frustrating thing about the political economy we currently have – of two concentric rings; of the Content, and the Consumers – is not that it’s undesirable, or unsustainable: rather, what really sticks in my craw is that it’s not even planned. It’s not as if some dark coven, or evil magician has concocted this – that would, at least, give us somebody to blame, and me somebody to castigate here. Rather, this set up has appeared entirely organically; merely as a result of Pagans also being (largely) liberal Western individuals. We simply are repeating the economic patterns that govern our society as a whole, without really thinking about the consequences of this choice, or if there might be a more truly Pagan alternative. Indeed, I suspect many of us doubt that such an alternative is even possible.

It’s common for Pagans to describe the fact that we express “disorganised religion” with some degree of pride. I firmly support the moral of this boast – that there should be no compulsion, no Byzantine hierarchies, no exploitation, in matters religious. But the liberal individualism that many Pagans treasure does not automatically create a utopia, in which we are free to do as our consciences and our gods dictate, in contrast to the rest of society. Rather, the true result is that – without a firm commitment to a different vision of how society might be organized – we just end up replicating the unhealthy relationships that we all experience everyday under capitalism.

Used under Creative Commons, sourced from Wikipedia.

Beyond the crossing of palms with silver

What we need to do is find “cracks”, where our communities, like pavement weeds, can grow. In these autonomous spaces, the strictures of capitalism are held in abeyance, and we are able to live instead under our own laws and principles.

There are many ways in which such cracks can be formed, depending upon the legal and political jurisdiction you find yourself within. I first experienced one such crack with the tribe at Four Quarters Farm in Pennsylvania where I did my undergraduate fieldwork. I was so inspired by their heady mix of sustainable ethics and earthy magics, I resolved to find a tribe living in a crack close to my own landscape. I found such a crack – or the beginnings of one – with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids here in Britain. Philip Carr-Gomm has written an excellent piece on his vision of how Druidry should be organised – not as an ashram, with a guru-like Archdruid ruling the roost at the heart of it all, or a clamorous New Age fair, but rather like a Maori village, with all the people contributing different skills according to their own abilities, and obtaining what they need from others. Societies have existed happily without the Market for thousands of years: providing resources and mutual assistance along ties of love and kinship, rather than through the medium of money and debt. As the OBOD community matures, this is exactly what it is starting to feel like – a network of friends and family, whose common culture and bonds of friendship is beginning to annihilate the distinction between “The Pagan Business” and those who consume its products. Instead, people are beginning to give what they can, to those that need it, for no other reason than they’re part of the same tribe. We might not be able to escape the Capitalist system – yet – but we can at least try to create our own spaces where we can liberate ourselves as far as possible from its pernicious influence. We certainly can change the way we live together, so that our philosophers and ritualists don’t have to hawk their wares, our relics are made sustainably, and our seekers may learn for free,  I’m sure other examples must exist of this nascent “living Paganism” – a network of villages, thriving in the cracks as Capitalism begins to fall. I’d love to hear about them.

There is much more still to be done. Personally, I wonder if what we need now is more ambition within the Pagan community – a drive to build our own structures and spaces, that have the strength and clarity of purpose to resist capital, and to attract like-minded others to our cause. Let’s not have our seekers running the gauntlet of Amazon and MBS-bullshit, wasting money they don’t have before, they can be made welcome into our tribal federation. As a people, we are not averse to seeing visions; let the visions we have now be political and economic visions, and may all the good that we see in them come to pass.

Pagans Are A Conquered People

By James Lindenschmidt

We Pagans are a conquered people. Our people have been systematically tortured, murdered, domesticated, and exploited. Our tribes have been displaced and scattered; we now live in tiny, redundant, inefficient and resource-hungry enclosure-cages creating an illusion of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, while plugged in to the matrix with its feeding-tubes and thought-machine programs. Our traditions of dwelling with nature have been mutated, assimilated into the dominant culture of exploitation and resource extraction. Our gods have been relegated from vibrant, living beings and companions in relationship with us to mere characters in old, forgotten stories. Our magic and wonder have been dismissed as superstition, while the hegemony of the laboratory masquerades as wisdom, replacing Truth with mere facts. Our sacred connections to the land and its ecosystems have been severed, made so abstract that only a tiny handful of us could survive away from the infrastructures of civilization for more than a few days, or only a few hours in adverse conditions.

We Pagans are a conquered people. The conquest of Paganism is so complete, so fundamental, that it’s obscured from our view: many of us couldn’t even identify our conquerors. Today, while we sort our recycling bins, putting the refuse-relics of our consumerism into the proper containers for “disposal,” our culture argues about whether or not Climate Change is real, whether planetary rates of extinction are happening 10,000 times faster or only 1,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. We get online, sipping our lattes, and we argue about whether a vegan diet or a paleo diet is healthier for people or the planet.

We Pagans are a conquered people. We don’t even know who we are anymore. Getting Pagans together is like herding cats: we joke, we celebrate our diversity, and gossip about our witch wars. There are many types of Neopagans today, and all of us have been conquered. It doesn’t matter what kind of Pagan you are, which specific tradition, subculture, or set of Pagan values you embrace, we Pagans are a conquered people.

What kind of Pagan are you? Not that it matters….

Are you a Druid? The Druids were wiped out by Romans, though there have been attempts to revive the traditions. At best, we are guessing at what the Druids were, and the ways of modern Druids — connecting to the land, being in relationship, guarding the stories of the tribe, and questing Awen — are in opposition to the mainstream culture. We are no longer aware of our direct relationship with the land and its ecosystems. There is only property to be exploited, to be conquered and “improved” for private gain subject only to the laws of free-market mythology. The Awen of direct experience, of intimate relationship and engagement, is being replaced by vicarious, secondary experience. Rather than gather by the thousands to wander in the wilderness, we gather in stadiums to watch other people run on artificial grass, elite athletes clad in kevlar armor. Rather than commune directly with the wild divinity in nature, we gather in megachurches to listen to other people sing & tell us about God, passing around a collection basket. The “tree wit” of Druidry lingers, but we must learn to see it.

Are you a Heathen or an Ásatrúar? In most places you will be seen as a racist, a white supremacist, or simply as deluded. The hagiographers say that Olaf The Saint, one of my ancestors, was responsible for converting Norway over to Christianity. The Gods of the Northern tradition endure, even if we must look deeper than portrayals of Thor as a blonde, hot-tempered hottie who is merely a quaint albeit archaic member of an elite group, aloof from humanity, who fight the evil space-aliens bent on their own agenda of colonization.

Are you a Polytheist? Two thousand years of hegemonic monotheism means that you are not likely to be taken seriously in most places in the Western world when you speak of your gods, and your relationships with them. No longer is the question of many gods up for debate; instead it is which god is real, with the rest being imaginary with frauds or infidels for worshipers. And even this is among those who acknowledge the possibility of divinity at all — for many others, talk of divinity is madness and delusion.

Do you work with magick? Your work will be derided as superstition, under the epistemological monopoly of science. Indeed, a favorite tactic of modern, fundamentalist pseudoskeptics is to reduce an idea or a concept to mere “magical thinking” so that it can be dismissed entirely as folly.

Are you a Goddess-worshiper? You are a threat to patriarchy, by even having the audacity to suggest that the feminine can be on the same plane as the masculine, and that a divine feminine is even possible. There is no room for the Sacred Feminine in Father, Son, & Holy Ghost, in Allah and His Prophet, in YHVH, much less in the “human resources” departments responsible for writing smaller paychecks to its female employees.

Are you an Animist? A Pantheist or Panentheist? Then you live in a place, on a planet, that has been systematically disenchanted, desacralized, and despoiled, a place that almost certainly bears little or no resemblance to what the place looked like a few short centuries ago before Capital got its clutches onto it, extracting all the resources it could for private profit without regard to the intraspecies genocide it left in its wake. Anyone who spends enough time out in nature has heard its call, its lament, crying out to anyone, anyone who will listen, in a language not audible to domesticated ears.

Are you a Reconstructionist? The reason you have to reconstruct your spiritual path is because it was wiped out in the first place. That these old, Pagan ways of being are not glaringly obvious even to a child in our culture is perhaps the biggest indicator that we Pagans are a conquered people. Some ancestral wisdom has been lost forever, wiped out by a mere few hundred years of colonialist hegemony, and its reconstruction will require another few thousand years of indigenous human experience as part of their ecosystems.

Are you a Witch or a Wiccan? Untold thousands of Witches were burned at the stake for over a century, one of the most widespread examples of genocide in human history. This genocide was not limited to one nation-state or one single power-structure, as one of the first historical examples of a unified, global assertion of power. The ways of the Witch are beyond forgotten, they were deliberately and systematically stamped out under direct threat of death and torture, replaced by other mechanistic social orders ripe for exploitation.

The smell of smoke lingers

Image in the public domain.
Image in the public domain.

Even today, the smell of smoke lingers. To those who learn to be attentive, to quieten the mind and pull one’s awareness away from the thousandfold distractions of modern life, the past will whisper its stories into the ears of the present. We must look at our history to discover all the layers of our identity. Who are the Pagans? What stories from the past helped to shape who we are today? I am convinced that our history reveals a very strong characterization of our tribe & our subcultural identity in the 21st Century. We Pagans are a conquered people, and we have largely become so within the past 500 years.

The Pagan ways-of-being were much more intuitive and apparent to people living 500 years ago, before the Scientific Revolution, the birth of Capitalism, and the beginnings of European Colonialism. Modernity itself rose from the ashes of the Pagan ethos as it was systematically and globally incinerated from popular consciousness on thousands of pyres and stakes of the victims of the witch hunts.

Indeed, even today the smell of smoke from The Burning Times lingers. This period in history remains the paradox of our age: at the same moment that the prevailing worldview was turning to those core values that we fetishize — the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of science as the best (indeed the only) epistemology, the rise of capitalism and its notion of property and profit as the fundamental organizing principle of society and the planet’s resources — there occurred some of the most brutal examples of repression and genocide ever witnessed, a brutality that was unprecedented in its scope and scale:

In this “century of geniuses”—Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes—a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
—Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 168.

This past, once we clear the irritation of the acrid smoke from our eyes, will begin to speak. As we learn to listen, we begin to understand that this time is best described as a turn from Pagan values, resulting in the wholesale slaughter of entire populations who embrace these values, the marginalization of Pagans within the new power structures created at this time, and the demonization of these values within our consciousness.

The new power structures used fear both as a means of social control and to engineer this shift in values. They cultivated fear of the witch-hunters and the Inquisition, who could exercise nearly complete power-over in the most horrendous and unspeakable ways, and ultimately fear of that which they claimed to be eradicating: witches, demons, devils, and magic. Pagan ways weren’t quaint practices or ignorant superstitions that faded away because now we know better. They were deliberately and systematically repressed until they were all but stamped out. We must now reconstruct them.

In this culture of fear, our Pagan values were nearly lost. Today, the signs of this loss reveal themselves to souls attentive to the world’s condition. The first hint is a vaporous sense that is hard to put a finger on: something is fundamentally wrong with the world, with the way the world is organized, with the flows of power structures in the world. As we look deeper, they become more apparent.

Eight signs

Fallujah, Iraq (Nov. 8, 2004) - An air strike is called in on a suspected insurgent hideout at the edge of Fallujah, Iraq by U.S. Marines. Image in the public domain.
Fallujah, Iraq (Nov. 8, 2004) – An air strike is called in on a suspected insurgent hideout at the edge of Fallujah, Iraq by U.S. Marines. Image in the public domain.

First, there is always war. From the massive mobilizations and armaments of World War II, to the development, use, and threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to the wars against hidden threats such as communism and terrorism, to the resource wars seeking to control supplies of oil across the globe, to the political and economic dominance of the military industrial complex, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Poverty. War, war, war. No sane person wants it, yet it is all around us, organizing much of society.

Systematic deceit is not linked to either "side" of the dominant power structure. Above, At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax, while arguing that Iraq is likely to possess WMDs. Image in the public domain. Below, on January 22, 2009, Barack Obama signs an executive order to close down the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open to this day.
Systematic deceit is not linked to either “side” of the dominant power structure. Above, At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax, while arguing that Iraq is likely to possess WMDs. Below, on January 22, 2009, Barack Obama signs an executive order to close down the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open to this day.

Second, there is habitual, widespread, and systematic deceit by those in power. These are most easily spotted in the various antics of the US government, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. From the destruction of the USS Maine in Cuban waters leading up to the Spanish-American war, to the Reichstag Fire preceding Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, to the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the illegal “detainees” of Guantanamo Bay following the attacks of 9/11, to the Watergate scandal, to the empty rhetoric-posturing in any political “debate” preceding an election, it is clear that those in power do not say what they mean, much less do what they say. Indeed, it is fundamental to the preservation of their power that they don’t. This is not a problem of either side of the US power structure; both Democrats and Republicans systematically operate from this place of deceit, and for both parties the main goal is to preserve, consolidate, and expand their power bases, each serving the larger power structure in slightly different but related ways.

Friday, Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street - photos from the camp in Zuccotti Park. Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Friday, Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street – photos from the camp in Zuccotti Park. Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Third, there is an unprecedented stratification of wealth that continues to widen the gap between rich and poor, for individuals, businesses, corporations, and nations. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. An economy exists to help regulate the use and distribution of wealth, which can only be created through labor and enclosure of natural resources. Awareness of these injustices reached a crescendo in 2011 in the various Occupy movements, and continues today with Strike Debt and countless other movements.

Fourth, humanity’s relationship with food is completely out-of-balance. In some places of the world, people starve, barely eking out adequate sustenance for survival. In other places, food is not a way to sustain life, a gift of nature of which humanity is a part, but rather a mere sensual pleasure, packaged in plastic, with a myriad of choices as to which flavor variety will suit one’s whim that day — indeed thrice daily. As a result, nearly a billion people struggle with getting enough food (to say nothing of adequate nutrition), while nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. There are many causes for obesity, and the problem isn’t this simple, but the poor almost never get adequate nutrition whether they are consuming too many calories or too few. In addition, because of the way food is produced on our planet, there is alarmingly little quality topsoil left, and it is deteriorating 10-40x faster than it can be replenished. The aquifers of the earth are running dry, due to both irrigation and the bottled water industries, to say nothing of fracking.

Fifth, healthcare is nearly impossible to navigate for many people in the world. In some parts of the world, there are not enough doctors, healers, educators, and above all, resources; in another part of the world, healthcare has become so profit-driven with costs so inflated that it is inaccessible to millions. The system is bogged down by the allopathic medicine machine — insurance companies driven by profit, actuarial tables, and entire departments of workers whose sole purpose is to find specific ways to deny coverage for its patients; pharmaceutical companies who hoard knowledge of health techniques through patents, who overcharge patients in certain countries so that it is more profitable, who advertise their drugs in mass media, promoting the idea that wellness can only come through chemistry, and reinforce that it is OK to profit from the suffering and misfortune of others. The witches used to be the healers. Every community had them. These healers were attuned to local ecosystems, and knew how to make medicines of all kinds. The community supported them. People didn’t lose their homes and everything they owned when they got sick.

Sixth, and related to the pharmaceutical industry, there is rampant mental dis-ease in the west. Depression, angst, and eating disorders (anorexia & bulemia on one side, emotional binge eating on the other) are everywhere one turns. Usage of psychotropic drugs are at an all-time high, including mandatory prescriptions for “difficult” (which usually means unusual or hard-to-control) children in public schools. This problem of overmedication stems from and reinforces the notion of “compulsory neurotypicality” explored by Sean Donahue, which “decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variation from the norm.” Furthermore, these drugs are widely advertised on television, creating a sense of never-having-enough. No longer are commodified neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter modifiers tools to chemically assist people in navigating the emotional and psychological pain they are experiencing, but instead have become “happy pills” for millions of people, sold to exploit our culture’s deepening sense of unease and malaise.

Seventh, the problem of wageslavery is fundamental to western culture. There are a few who derive happiness from their jobs, but the vast majority of people would immediately quit their jobs if earning money was unnecessary. It’s one thing to expect people to contribute to society — including the unpleasant jobs that no one really wants to do — to the best of their ability, but how many jobs are truly essential to a healthy, well-managed society? Does society really need a fast-food restaurant on every corner, providing two-dozen underpaid jobs each, in order for people or the neighborhood, much less the ecosystems it extracts resources from, to thrive? Do marketing executives truly make the world a better place? Are corporate lawyers responsible for maintaining a smoothly-functioning society? In short, no. There are far more work-hours of labor performed each week than are necessary to maintain a healthy society. Our time performing these tasks should leave plenty of leftover time for adequate self-care and wherever our personal liberty takes us. It’s more difficult to enjoy and pursue one’s liberty when you have a work schedule during most of your waking hours. This is the opposite of liberty, or our culture’s promise of the pursuit of happiness, as Marcuse reminded us in 1966:

“I hesitate to use the word — freedom — because it is precisely in the name of freedom that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated. This situation is certainly not new in history: poverty and exploitation were products of economic freedom; time and again, people were liberated all over the globe by their lords and masters, and their new liberty turned out to be submission, not to the rule of law but to the rule of the law of the others. What started as subjection by force soon became “voluntary servitude,” collaboration in reproducing a society which made servitude increasingly rewarding and palatable. The reproduction, bigger and better, of the same ways of life came to mean, ever more clearly and consciously, the closing of those other possible ways of life which could do away with the serfs and the masters, with the productivity of repression.”
—Herbert Marcuse, “Political Preface 1966,” Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966) xiii-xiv.

Circular crop fields in Kansas, characteristic of center pivot irrigation. This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA.
Does this look natural to you? These are circular crop fields in Kansas, characteristic of center pivot irrigation. This file is in the public domain.

Eighth, unprecedented weather patterns rage across the planet. The Earth’s environment — in terms of its ability to support human life — is rapidly deteriorating. The “global warming” debate rages on in yet another dualism, where each side thinks the other is somewhere between mad and stupid. Limiting this discussion to one parameter (temperature, ie, warming) or even a few (broadening it to include “climate change”) does not look at humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem. It is clear that humans are affecting the ecosystems of the world in a profound way; all one has to do is fly over the US and look down to observe the effects industrialized human activity has had. Everything is in muted colors or artificial, mechanical, geometric patterns attached the natural landscapes. Humanity is beginning to see the effects of a few centuries of industrialization, which accelerated the desertification of the planet by way of human domestication for the past 10,000 years or so. These effects have been all-too-easy to deny because they have taken longer than one lifetime to manifest.

How did this happen?

I could go on. Many do; indeed the present (not to mention the future) seems quite bleak.

What happened? Where are the ideals of scientific progress, of Enlightenment notions of “perpetual peace” and “equality and justice for all”? After 500 years of ostensibly chasing these noble goals of the “century of genius” — the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, the dawn of Capitalism, the first experiment with modern republics and “representative democracies,” the Bill of Rights — these ideals have not fulfilled their promise.

The complex web of problems we see today is an extension of this history of Paganism over the past 500 years, a history that can be characterized primarily as a move away from Pagan values. There is a disconnect between these core Pagan values and our daily experiences within our present, 21st century world, a disconnect which produces not only the global crises outlined above, but also a spiritual and psychic conflict and crisis within each observant, thinking Pagan whose life is all-too-rarely in harmony with these values. We Pagans are a conquered people indeed. But even worse, we have been assimilated, which means we directly participate in our own suppression. This is both the horror and the genius of colonialism.

We Pagans are a conquered people. But many questions remain, and indeed will be explored in future columns in these pages. Among them:

  • What exactly are the Pagan values that have been lost?
  • If Pagans are a conquered people, then who are the conquerors?
  • What benefit are Pagans getting from this relationship of conquest? What should we do about it? Should we resist, and if so, what are the most effective modes of resistance?
  • Will Pagans be courageous enough to decolonize themselves?

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The Quality of Mercy

Photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most people’s knee-jerk response to a question of external ethical systems (are good and evil relative or absolute?) is that morals are human-derived and cultural. On the one hand this is true— in humans everything except fear of falling is learned and therefore culturally derived. On the other hand it is false. All human ‘laws’ are actually justifications: because you have transgressed/ been convicted /are guilty, society as personified by myself or my nominees is justified and right in this punishment. As is most always the case when justification is employed, the justifiers (or ‘right’) are scraping up a bunch of quibbling props to allow them to behave badly towards the guilty party (the ‘wrong’). ‘In this case’, ‘Ordinarily I wouldn’t’, or ‘Now you have forfeited the right’ are all just politer circumlocutions of ‘I know I am acting wrongly, but’ because at heart you know you are dishing out to someone else what you wouldn’t eat yourself. On the gripping hand, it is the impulse towards kindness and consideration, towards mercy— the kernel of ‘nice’ inside the shell of ‘right’— that defines good.

The other knee-jerk response is that (as the absence of light is dark) evil is merely the absence of good and, like moral systems, exists only inside the human mind. Sad to say, belief in Incarnate Evil is an integral part of my world view. Although light (again physics intrudes unpleasantly) has odd properties, it is, however, a real thing— measurable, stable, and part of the external world. We see poorly ‘in the dark’ and cat’s eyes see ‘better’ (more effectively) in low light but the light is the same; the difference is in our equipment, the rods and cones in our respective eyes. If we typify humans as= ‘moral’ and cats as ‘amoral’ then it is our differing ethical equipment that allows the distinction.

Part of our equipment is extrapolation— if a cat wants to sit where another cat is sitting ze will use stern looks, pushing, threats (both auditory and physical), and finally whacking-on-the-noze. Humans sometimes use this same cascade but the civilized expectation is for request and negotiation before pushing. Humans can teach cats with moderate success to not scream and whack in the presence of humans. The cats are employing an external moral system in exactly the same way that many humans do— ‘if I am seen to be doing what is forbidden I will be punished’— the guilt lies in discovery.

Cats extrapolate slightly— if they are not aware of humans they will scream and whack freely, although they will stop and pretend no whacking was occurring as soon as they realize their mistake. Humans do this as well (although they do not break off their fights to groom) but humans can carry this one step further if they choose. Humans can place themselves in the other point-of-view. ‘I would not want to be stuffed in a trash can by someone twice my size‘ ….. ‘perhaps being twice the size of someone does not justify pushing them around’. Cats (as far as I have ever seen) never do this, humans sometimes do.

This extrapolation, the assumption of commonality, is the first step of goodness. Nothing in it actually supports Right Action— if a bully fully and unreservedly expects to be abused by those larger than ze than any action is acceptable. As well, if I like cilantro than I am completely justified in making everyone to whom it tastes like soap eat it too. Giving other humans the choice of self-direction is the other side of ‘moral law’. Free will is everything’s birthright. Not that every being gets to keep their inherent free will; since it is the fulcrum on which everything pivots it is under attack constantly.

On the one hand, systems and individuals try to grab up the free will of others— my laws, my beliefs, my culture, my ‘more powerful than you’ allows me to dictate your behaviour, your beliefs, your right of possession. On the other hand, people constantly tell themselves lies— the laws I live under, the beliefs taught to me, my powerlessness/ unworthiness constrain my thoughts and actions against my will. People search long and hard for ‘masters’ who will accept the responsibility of taking away the power of decision from their followers.

But first, their followers let them.

On the gripping hand, when someone takes away another’s free will by force or when someone denies themselves their own birthright and gives their will to another, they are choosing. When they choose to act (or decide not to act, only the other side of the labrys) their action reverberates— they define how they want the world to be, they pick their own rightness or wrongness, and they inform the Gods and make an offering of that action. It seems a ridiculous weight to put on ‘throw down the wrapper/put it in your pocket for later disposal’ but everything counts. The lie that ‘this is trivial, when it’s important I will make a different choice’ is one of the oftenest-told. A little thought will almost always indicate right action. (sigh) It’s almost always the (slightly or immensely) more difficult action.

The prime directive (don’t be a douche) and the first law (everybeing has free will) are the ideal that underlies not only all human moral systems but also, to some extent, are reflected in the Gods’ interactions with us and each other–and so they are neither culturally learned nor human based.

Sometimes when I discuss my archaic beliefs I am informed with pious condescension that “the Gods are not human”, by which the people I am talking to generally mean ‘the Gods can use dictatorial force and pre-emptive actions and make arbitrary demands if They want to‘. And of course They can because They are not human and are much more powerful than we as well as being largely inscrutable to us. Sometimes our powerlessness and incomprehension seem to make us unable to tell Them ‘no’ when They ask with Their Large Voices (and sometimes we go crazy or die with the ‘no’ on our lips) but They always ask.  Examination of multicultural lore shows us this.

The Father of Lies and His Minions, the crafty lying F***ies, have to obtain permission from their victims. They, the ultimate free-market capitalists, unhesitatingly tell lies about their offers but if they can convince people that rotten husks and stagnant water in a hovel is a magical feast in an other-world castle, they will honestly come through with the husks and water. Like robber barons throughout time, they will laugh through the cigar smoke and assure each other that those poor folk do not feel things as they do (I’m not a douche and you’re not one either) and that if only they weren’t so stupid and not-really-like-us they would be one-of-us (only everybeing we give ‘being’ status to has free will). Even Yahweh, the toughest game-show-host ever, is playing ‘let’s make a deal’ with Abraham.

This we read in lore; what is undocumented belief on my part is that the Good Gods (not Those who act with demonstrable ethics, They all do, but Those who act for the betterment of Their acolytes) are more powerful than the Not-Good UnGods. And that They are aware of and amenable to an on-going communication (as in ‘I speak to You who have often spoken/ Let the bond between us be unbroken’). When I am threatened by Evil or by my own stupidity, often the Good (although fairly demanding) Goddess to Whom I am dedicated will nudge aside the worst outcome:

The Hand of the Goddess over me,
The Gods between me and harm.
Let it be so; so let it be-
Your power works the charm.

 

Judith O’Grady 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’). She’s also the author of God-Speaking.