Slovenian Christmas songs, remembering the Sun and the Water, and holding on to old traditions.
From Vid Avdič Batista
(Gods&Radicals is moving! Please click here to read this full article on our new site, and remember to change your bookmarks!)
Slovenian Christmas songs, remembering the Sun and the Water, and holding on to old traditions.
From Vid Avdič Batista
“The true genesis of this line of thinking came from the cross section of my own initiation frustrations and being a part of the growing “weird Left” movement characterized in writers like Doctor Bones, blogs like Gods and Radicals, and podcasts like Black Banner Magic. There’s a growing occult movement in leftist circles that is giving Marxist/Leninists a god damn aneurysm but it’s taking on a decidedly folk magic tilt.”
From Frater Pera
“Why do we rage against modernity, enlightenment, and humanism? Because they are the ultimate forms of denial and repression. We suffer from a wound in the soul.”
From Ramon Elani
“A wise man must understand how terrifying it will be, when the riches of all this world stand deserted, as now in various places throughout this middle-earth walls stand wind-blown, rime-covered, the buildings snow-swept.”
“All is fraught with hardship in the kingdom of earth, the creation of the fates changes the world under the heavens. ”
— “The Wanderer”
Fate omnipotent bind the earth! Every day the world declines and falls!
Everywhere we see the signs of the unraveling that has come upon the world. This should surprise no one. We have been living on borrowed time for the last several hundred years. Some would put that number in the thousands or longer still. Some would claim that the sin was written upon humanity from the moment it dawned into cursed consciousness. Others would find it in the ancient practice of agriculture. Perhaps it is true that we were always destined to come to this moment, that every stage in our history was written by what had come before. Thus, following the views of Hegel, the emergence of consciousness, the development of written language, and the advent of agriculture contained, in embryo, the wretchedness of the techno industrial society. That there was no other path to follow. That our doom unfolded inexorable. That this is our fate.
But we were not made to be so lonely. We once had the cosmos in our hands and our hearts. Separated from the world, we die, and the world dies with us. Whatever else one may say about agriculture and so-called civilization, humanity was still of the land until the machine came. For all the suffering of feudalism and the dark ages, we were tied to the earth. We worked the land and give it our blood. We bonded ourselves to it. We have lost the cosmos because we have lost our connection to the land. And industrialism severed that connection, tore us away from our home. As it tears us from the land, it tears us from our bodies, and it tears us from the sacred. Ours is an age of unspeakable tragedy.
Modernity is inseparable from industrialism. Indeed, modernity is the philosophy of the machine. A mechanistic understanding of humanity and the cosmos. A dream borne from a cold lifeless heart. Modernity is a spirit, an orientation, a worldview, a cosmology. In one hand, humanism: the notion that humanity is the center of the universe, that human suffering should be avoided at all cost, that human happiness is the goal of all endeavors. In the other hand, industrialism: the creation of mass society through mass production. Reason exalted. The uncanny subterranean power of the moon, displaced by the blazing sun.
The non human world is sacred, understood as populated by entities that possess agency and individuality. The world is driven by forces beyond human comprehension. Cyclical flux and change is the law of the world. Just like everything in the world, humanity bears a trace of this divinity, which it shares with all other things. This divinity is honored by recognizing humanity’s place as one among many intelligences and awarenesses. The worship of the premodern gods is consistent with this. Acknowledging the power of the gods above us, we gesture toward the fallibility of humanity, it’s weakness, the limits of its understanding, the contingent nature of our lives. This archaic structure, the knowledge that we are subject to powers beyond our control, that we live and suffer and are happy by the will of these powers, is preserved within our souls, the memories of our spirit. We can be reminded of this heritage when we experience the vastness of the wild, the passion of sex, the magic of poetry, the beauty of art, the thrill of the fight. These experiences bring us closer to our fundamental nature, which has been eroded by the modern industrial world, which privileges the intellect, rationality, and instrumental thinking. Morality and religion that deny meaning in the body. Pleasure reduced to a mere biological urge that needs to be occasionally satisfied, rather than a holy experience of the divinity within us and the cosmos. D.H. Lawrence writes:
“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. Anger is blood, poured and perplexed into froth; but malice is the wisdom of our blood.”
The intellect separates us from the unity of the cosmos. We are individual but bound by the world. We have kinship with the non human world, which the modern world denies. It does not encourage us to see ourselves as the cousins of bears and the grandchildren of stones and mountains. Superstition is the name that modernity gave to the awareness that it represses.
It is not a coincidence that modernity denies the spiritual nature of the world, while devastating the ecosystem. Reverence of the gods is the same thing as reverence of what is called ‘nature.’ The gods are the land. They are the representation of the land. As the gods demand sacrifice and worship from us, the land demands that we also place it above ourselves. That we acknowledge that we serve the land and exist by the will of the gifts of the land. Modernity denies both these bonds of reverence, service, and love. The gods, and the spiritual nature of humanity, are nothing but tales told to scare children and keep society ordered and controlled, so we are told. And yet, the godless world that modernity created is more highly administered than anything before. The earth itself is nothing but raw material for us to use as we see fit.
Modernity: time is an arrow, rather than a circle. Tomorrow is more important than yesterday. Unfortunately this has meant that we have no future. Following the ways of the past gave us a future. Turning on our backs on where we came from means we walk to our death. The endless process of birth, death, and rebirth is shattered. Now there is only death. Put another way, Marx defined it as the metabolic rift. A closed, endlessly sustaining system is ruptured, leading to a doomed system that will eventually suffocate on its own filth and waste.
Why do we rage against modernity, enlightenment, and humanism? Because they are the ultimate forms of denial and repression. We suffer from a wound in the soul. We see all around us the price of this repression. He who would deny the darkness within or seeks to imprison in a maze of reason it will find it rise again a thousand times deadlier and more foul. Whether or not the summum bonum is create a kinder world (and I will say that it is not), modernity has led us astray. Its promises of a better tomorrow have led to more suffering than the benighted wretches of the so-called ‘dark ages’ could have imagined. We have believed the lie that yesterday was always worse than today and today is always worse than tomorrow. Let us say this: if yesterday was worse than today, it must have been grim indeed. And if our dreams will only be fulfilled in the tomorrows to come then we are forever doomed in the infinite present.
Modernity claims to offer freedom. But freedom in words is not freedom in fact. To define is to control and exclude. As Freud observed, civilization or modernity did not confer freedom, as they claimed, freedom was greatest before such a thing existed.
Thus modernity must be attacked from two points. In the first regard, we can observe that its promises were empty and bankrupt. Either a massive fraud or a failed experiment. Modernity has not brought us to a worldly paradise. It has not conquered our demons. If anything it has emboldened them and merely granted them an even greater power to exploit and destroy both humanity and the non-human world. Modernity promised equality and we unquestionably find ourselves in a less equitable world than has ever existed. No serf and lord, no slave and emperor were ever so far apart in wealth and power than the poor and the rich of the 21st century. Modernity promised an infinite of better tomorrows, a vision of progress without limit. And yet we find ourselves in a world on fire, standing upon the very brink of human extinction.
In the second case, and perhaps importantly, the principles of the enlightenment, modernity, and humanism were ultimately misguided and doomed from the start. The enlightenment was a mistake, along with the forces it brought into the world. There is no peace in the cosmos. Not among the beasts of the earth, not among the shifting subterranean flows, not among the stars that are born and die in cataclysm. There is no freedom, all things are subordinate to powers beyond them. To paraphrase D.H. Lawrence, it is the most profoundly unfree who shout “freedom!” Enslave yourself to the gods, to your dreams, to love, to fate, to the earth. To be enslaved is to be bonded. To be bonded is to be connected. To be free is to be lost. Humanity will resist with relentless fury all attempts to be subjugated by other humans and institutions of human power. And so it is for every sapling that struggles for light amongst its fellows, so it is for every salmon that thrashes against the jaws of the grizzly, so it is for every fly that finds itself trapped by the spider. The world is endless struggle, for the gods as well as humanity. But we follow the laws of the gods, not the laws made by men. Freedom does not lie in being unfettered, unencumbered, unbound. This is the state of the exile. No, true freedom is found in utter surrender and obedience to the voice of the sacred within yourself.
Modernity promises bread, though it does not deliver. Damn the bread, anyway! As D.H. Lawrence wrote, “The human soul needs beauty more than bread.”
So here is my war against the modern world: restore the world of dreams! Let loose the madness of the moon. Dive into the abyss of beauty. Bury yourself in the dirt and the mud. Offer your blood to the forgotten gods. The intuitive, magical, noumenal world never truly vanished. We have blinded ourselves to its presence with four hundred years of delusion. We must not fear our darkness but embrace it and welcome it home. It must be claimed, it must be spoken. The wolf within humanity has roamed far and wrought calamities without number upon the world. Bring the wolf back to the bosom, for it is of our flesh and spirit. The passion of life and the agony of struggle are one and the same. D.H. Lawrence: “The blazing tiger will spring upon the deer, un-dimmed, / the hen will nestle over her chickens, / we shall love, we shall hate.” The tiger does not apologize and hate himself for his violence. He shines forth like a fiery star.
The true war against the modern world is not a war for racial or sexual hierarchy. The war against the modern world, a holy war, is debased by the bigots, who are only too quick to use it to pursue their own fantasies. Fantasies of male power, white power. As though the gods and the earth and the spirits cared for such things.
No, what we are after is something altogether more grand and ambitious. It is a war against an idea of time. It is a war against the linear, in all its various manifestation. It is a restoration of the law of cycles. It is a war, yes, a bloody war. Against industrialism, perhaps on some level, against humanity itself. But more deeply, the war against the modern world is a spiritual war. A war fought every day within our own souls. To renounce the modern world is to embrace fate, the eternal return, the dreamtime, the mythic world.
D.H. Lawrence reminds us that the hell we see in the world will be washed away in the end. Climate change will clean the foulness we have made. We can return to the cosmos and its living gods. Renounce what Lawrence calls, “the diseased stability of possessions” and embrace the flux and change of love and conflict, “the fight and the embrace.” So many do not want to return to the world and the sacred. Because the cycles of the universe are death and rebirth. Growth and decay. Joyous life and bloody slaughter. They turn their backs on vitality because it reminds them of death.
The Red King and White Queen are waiting for the sacred wedding. They have been kept apart for such a long time. They wait for the union that will give birth to the God in the Egg, who is both luminous and dark. Without the darkness, we cannot know the light. Modernity, in making war upon the former, eradicates the latter. We live in an age without darkness or light. A barren waste of lifeless grey.
There is only one path, the path of wyrd, the path that is unfolding before us.
“They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
– T.S. Eliot
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He lives with his family among mountains and rivers in Western New England. He walks with the moon.
We must make those who think that Paganism tolerates abusive, controlling behaviour aware that they have no place within our traditions.
From Emma Kathryn
If you are a member of the Pagan community (whatever that means to you – we’ll discuss community later), then you may well remember when a well know witch published a blog post that talked about the abuse she’d suffered from within the Pagan community. The post did cause a little bit of a stir. It made the snippets of the popular Pagan outlets, and aside from a few private blog posts from other Pagans and witches, not much more was said.
That woman was Sarah Anne Lawless, and you can read that particular blog post here.
Sarah’s story kind of touched a cord with me. You see, many years ago, a close family member of mine was herself in an abusive relationship, and I guess I saw a few similarities between Sarah and my family member. Both are strong, fierce women. Fiery and quick to speak their minds. I would hear people question why my family member would stay with the woman beater? She’s a strong woman, why did she put up with it? Why try to hide it? Maybe they like it, you would hear people say, even other women. And so when I saw those same things said or implied about Sarah, it made me realise, though I suppose I already knew it anyway, that this topic is one that spans all divides.
Curious to discover how things had turned out for her, I recently called Sarah, and we had a chat about what’s been done since first airing her experiences.
And the truth is, disappointingly little.
In fact, that wouldn’t be the worst of it. Not only has Sarah been all but shunned by those communities she thought she was a member of but her businesses have been attacked, with anonymous reports to various agencies about the products she makes and sells. The platforms which enable her to sell those items have also received anonymous reports and have even been suspended in some cases.
And all because she dared to highlight her instances of abuse within the Pagan community, by some of those within it.
I asked her what kind of reaction had she gotten from others, generally speaking. She replied:
“It’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Some have been sympathetic. And from others, mostly men, I’ve either had complete denial or a misunderstanding.”
I also asked if other victims had reached out to her.
“Yeah, many have, sharing their stories with me. Only one other came forward to the police though, but here that’s not enough to carry forward an investigation. But I also get why others didn’t come forward. And who am I or anyone else to try to force these women to do something they don’t want to, especially after the trauma they’ve already faced. If it helps them, sharing their stories with me, then that’s a good thing.”
And she’s been all but ignored by Pagan media outlets.
”I’ve been in touch with a couple of different places, but after initial contact, I haven’t really heard back from any of them.”
Indeed, here in the UK, it’s not been much of a story. It’s almost like there’s a wall of silence, or perhaps a wall of ignorance around the whole affair, and for me, this must lead us to question why.
So is there a problem with Paganism and how we respond to abuse claims? I think there is, and there certainly seems to have been in Sarah’s case.
I find the biggest problem is that Paganism seems to operate in its own atmosphere, away from the general rules we might ordinarily apply in real life. So, in the everyday world, if a woman, or anyone else for that matter, came forward with claims of abuse, those claims would be investigated. We would expect them to be.
I also think the fact that the word ‘community’ doesn’t really cover what it actually means to be a Pagan. The draw for many is the lack of uniformity, the freedom and independence to believe and worship however they see fit.
Take a moment to consider the many differing forms of Paganism, and then all the subsets and categories and regional differences and that’s without considering those who might be solitary or eclectic. When we consider Paganism in this way, it becomes understandable as to why defining a Pagan community becomes difficult. There is no one set of beliefs. There is no right or wrong way to worship.
And so if there is no community, how then can we begin to tackle the issue of abuse? By calling it out, whenever we witness it or are made aware of it. And from that call out, investigations must occur, and then the appropriate action taken. We must not close ranks, afraid that any truth may corrupt our beliefs. Instead we should root it out so it doesn’t corrupt or spoil the hard work and dedication that others have put in. We should expel it like the pestilence it is.
And abuse can be insidious. It can be incorporated into the very foundations of an order or tradition. There’s nothing stopping anyone from setting up any kind of group, and I really do cherish that freedom, but with it comes the responsiblity to call out and report abusers. If an abuser happens to be an elder or someone with a respected position within a tradition, this shouldn’t exclude them from any investigation or punishment if necessary. They should not be allowed to slip off the grid and start up elsewhere.
We should not excuse shitty behaviour because the one being a shit also happens to be some sort of leader, or someone with that kind of power, or has followers who look up to them. If anything, it is imperative that such types are called out and reported. We should call out fakelore where we see it, and let’s be honest, you come across it quite often in the Pagan sphere.
We also need our Pagan writers and journalists to not fear tackling such subjects. Of course there is that line, that is to not portray someone as guilty when they have not been convicted and all of that, but we must also tackle those stories and bring those issues to the fore. We need writers and journalists who are unbiased and tell the truth. We need publications to talk about these claims when they arise, and also about the issues that may arise because of them.
I will take a moment to just say a word or two about those accusations that are false, that are made out of malice and badness, that are untrue and told to inflict damage. As damaging as they may be, those false reports do not detract from the truth of most claims. Those who make those false claims should also be held to account, but then it all comes back to taking the time to investigate thoroughly all abuse claims.
We must make those who think that Paganism tolerates abusive, controlling behaviour aware that they have no place within our traditions. Doing so will only strengthen them. Doing nothing will lead to their fall.
We are witches and occultists and brujas and so much more. We have the power to make our crafts and traditions what we want them to be. Let them be places where abusers find no solace. Let’s do ourselves justice.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!
You can follow Emma on Facebook.
“Acknowledging and strengthening your supportive web of equals is Right Action. Not putting value on large status symbols is Right Thinking. Be quietly comfortable; if you are well ahead you should not aspire to enter the ranks of the wealthy but be sharing more.”
From Judith O’Grady
I was presenting recently about the divination system I use, Ogham.
No, this essay isn’t about Ogham but in my introduction about them/me I touched on the way that my Druidry differs from many other modern Druids:
In Olden Days, Druids studied for 20-25 years to become literate in several languages, to memorize laws and teaching stories and then recite them, to play an instrument and sing, to make extemporaneous poetry, and other things. ‘Druidry’ was not a religion; ‘Druid’ was a title.
Some modern-day Druids consider that achieving a Masters degree gives them approximately 20 years of education, or that being head of a Grove or well-informed about the old mythos and lore gives them the title. Or they just consider themselves as such because of their inherent status and importance.
Then they make assumptions about how things were in the Older Days and say,
“The Druid informed the people when the Holidays came, decided what the law stated, passed on the lore……”
I have no clear idea how Druids acted, believed, and worshipped in the Olden Days; not much instructional lore exists because Druids had a gease
(like a taboo but which was something that they might have to do as well as being forbidden to do and also varied from person to person)
against writing down their religion, dogma, beliefs, rituals, etc.
But I have read about history.
Before Modern Times common people mostly stayed where they were born all of their lives. Even as late as Pre-Industrial Age most non-noble, ordinary people travelled 15 miles or less from their home-place in all their lives. Travel was difficult and news disbursal was slow; so only what happened in your neighbourhood was well known. Then Market day would permit news from the surrounding area and near villages and towns to be traded along with speciality goods. Big fairs once or twice a year brought further news, imported goods, and professional performers.
More classes of people went to big fairs so the news would be different in scope. On market day you would talk over your own tradespeople, farmers, and miscreants but at a Fair the news would include kings, far-away wars, clan fights, all that constitutes history. Before Common Era you might see a Druid or hear what the Druidic opinion was about the history.
But it wasn’t that you existed in a sort of formless void between the occasional, accidental, fleeting contacts with the Big People. Common people had a rich and meaningful life that had its own complete history; just one that has never made it into the books. It needed no Druid to tell you what to think or do, you could decide on your own. You might consider your family or community history; if you felt you needed advice, counsel, or Magic you need not search out a titled person. In your real, small world there were Fairy Doctors, Wisewomen, Cunning People, and storytellers (seanchaí). Although people might travel quite a distance (in their estimation, not ours) to consult a Healer or Soothsayer those people continued to be viewed as people much like the applicant but with a skill…. something like making good cheese or excellent beer. A skill with a little mysterious to it— people in touch with the Other World or wise in healing were like blacksmiths, dealing in Magic but a common-sense kind, not too dangerous.
The stories the Seanchaí told (or, failing that, the stories that came from your neighbours in gatherings) were about the high people and had larger Magics and bigger events in them and (imo) were considered to be a little inflated for the grandeur of it. But the story about your neighbour being dropped in a bog by a Will O’the Wisp was taken as told if not connected with having a drop taken.
So having a skill, even being very very good at it, didn’t change your status. You still lived down the road and traded elixir for shoes or foretellings for a chicken. Maybe if word of mouth spread enough a lady might come for a Magic Potion and give a little bit of jewellery in exchange but you were still a small person, rooted in your own countryside, associated with your own people, secure in your own identity.
In the Pagan community there is a status than many aspire to— being a Big Name Pagan (BNP) which would (presumably) make you larger than life. You might be able to live, possibly live large, on your Pagan earnings! You could be fortune-teller to the stars! But no, if suddenly my readings of Ogham went viral or people flocked to hear me give out about Irish lore or Socialist Druidry (none of these is really viable even as a daydream) I would not become a BNP, I would still live the same small life as now and just share more.
Because I want to live a small life as a goal. I don’t say to myself that perhaps I’ll win the lottery or get a fabulous job or be elected as Empress of the World and this small life is just for now. ‘Where I Am’ (the fifth direction) actually defines me and not ‘where I wish I was’. I want to be in the web of common people and connected to my many equals; this is the Right Place. I am a skilly-person; my skill is Magic and God-Speaking but I am not a religious leader, I am just religious. People can ask me about what the Gods are saying, what is Right Action and Balance in a given situation, herbal preparations and Magic, divinatory advice…… but I will ask for help in their skill in return.
So what about the coming End Times when all Small People should rise up?
In more recent Irish history there were the Troubles; that part of the island not included in the Irish Republic was at war. From my admittedly biased point of view the Freedom Fighters/Soldiers of the Republican Army/terrorists (small people) were engaged in an unequal war with a Great and Domineering Empire. Many other small people saw those soldiers as part of their community, equals and compatriots. Even if circumstances kept them from playing an active, fighting part the people actively fighting were still neighbours. Soldiers who were retreating from a losing battle could run through any unlocked door and have it locked behind them and, if necessary, answered afterward by homeowners who had seen nothing.
When the armoured cars drove into a supportive community the small people living there (part of the Great and Domineering Empire‘s battle plan was unequal hiring and pejorative housing allotments to ensure that their enemies stayed small) would stand outside their homes and clang the trash can lids on the pavement as the cars rolled by thus locating the enemy for the soldiers. If ordered to stop they could readily stop and leave the clanging to the person on the other side of the street.
There is no stigma in being small, quite the opposite. Small, taking up less room, is the Right Place. Acknowledging and strengthening your supportive web of equals is Right Action. Not putting value on large status symbols is Right Thinking. Be quietly comfortable; if you are well ahead you should not aspire to enter the ranks of the wealthy but be sharing more.
If you can fight, fight. If illness or age or family or fear keep you from fighting, stand in solidarity and bang your trash can lid.
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’).
“The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe.”
From Kevan Manwaring
Private Steven ‘Spammy’ Riggs was lost, badly lost. Discovering he had just returned to the same turning in the woods passed an hour ago, he kicked a rotting stump, sending up a spume of spores. ‘Going round in bloody circles,’ he muttered to himself. Coughing, he hawked up some phlegm to get rid of the bitter taste.
His saliva glistened on the tongue fern, summing up his feelings for the place. It was only meant to be a short-cut. As the crow flies turned out to be ‘as the diseased carrion bird splutters to its death’.
The silhouettes of the trees bled their shadows into the sky – making the forest around seem to grow, tower above him, close him in. He was losing light and he needed to find somewhere to get his head down PDQ.
Taking a deep breath, he picked a path he was sure he hadn’t gone down before and yomped on, Army issue backpack light on his shoulders compared to the full kit he was trained to carry. He just had the essentials; only what he could grab in a rush. He just needed a bit of headspace. Sort himself out.
The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe. What they had been ordered to do… To kids for Chrissakes! He didn’t mind the usual rough stuff. Give him a scrap and he’d be straight in there. Beating up rag-heads. Water-boarding. Any of the nasty stuff they made you do these days. It didn’t bother him. But this was going too far. He had nieces and nephews their age. He doted on them, loved seeing them when on leave, and sent them prezzies whenever he could. One day he hoped to have his own.
The screams were the worst.
Seeing it on the news wasn’t half as bad. All that old footage from the so-called ‘Tender Years Facilities’ on the Tex-Mex border – it hadn’t fazed him. But then they started building them over here after that Brexit bollocks finally went through. ‘Fortress Britain’ the new Tories were calling it, back in power after forming a coalition with the Britannia Ultra Liberation League lot. He been stationed at the Dover detainment camp – bit of a jolly by the sea-side he thought. But when he saw the way they treated the children, ripped from their parents’ arms, kept in stinking cages… Sod that for a game of soldiers. He had to get out.
Out on manoeuvres one night he did a runner.
Riggs stopped to catch his breath. The forest felt close, the press of foliage stifling. He pulled on his t-shirt, clammy against his chest. He had been walking westwards for days, as far away as possible from those camps. He figured if he made it to Wales he would be safe. He’d heard of the bolshy communities that had held out against the hardline government, rejected their authority. Some ‘resistance towns’ had been forced to tow the line, but new ones were popping up every day like fucking mushrooms. They couldn’t squash them all, just drive the insurgents into the wild country; like Free Scotland – those canny Scots had jumped the sinking ship after the country had left Europe. Anyone with any smarts or dosh had headed north, or west. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s what he hoped to be. By his calculations Riggs figured he was close to the Welsh Borders now. Herefordshire somewhere, the dark shoulder of the Malverns on his right. By the morning he should be in the clear. But he needed to rest. He was so fucking tired.
Breathing heavily, he came to a clearing – a small dell overlooked by oak trees, their thick, twisted limbs framed by the fiery dusk. It afforded some kind of protection from the wind, and the steep sides would obscure a fire. Not perfect, but it’d do.
With relief, Riggs eased of his pack, peeling it from his back, and dumped it on the floor. He quickly unrolled his self-inflating mat, his Army bivvy bag. Then he set to getting a fire going. Soon he was sitting by it, cracking open a can of Stella and taking a deep swig. As the cool liquid hit the back of his throat, he felt the tension ease from his body.
A gentle breeze made the flames swirl. The risk of a small fire was worth it. He gazed into the dancing glow, thinking about his escape, its consequences. What his family would think when news got back to them. The Military Police would have gone to his sisters straight away. He had to protect them, not put them at risk. It broke his heart to leave them behind, to have them think he was some kind of coward. But he’d made his bed.
It was either the glasshouse or Robin of Fucking Sherwood now.
His eyelids drooped heavy and his head nodded forward.
The tinkling in the trees yanked him back for a moment – some nutters had tied things to the branches. Rags and hippy shit. Fluttering in the breeze that had whipped up with the onset of night. Some of it made a sound like one of those wind-chimes his sister had in her garden. Hypnotic. Riggs found himself falling asleep. He was just able to crawl into his bivvy before exhaustion claimed him.
The whispering trees kept watch.
Staring eyes catching the rising flames, the children pressed in around him on all sides. Their screams pierced his skull, although they did not move their mouths. He tried to explain that he had done a runner, that he had turned his back on the cruelty, that he wasn’t one of them anymore. But the shrill screams rose higher. And whichever way he turned he could not escape. He was frozen to the spot, a fucking rabbit in the headlights.
Riggs awoke with a cry, sitting bolt upright as he tore the bivvy from his body. He was drenched in sweat, his heart beating a tattoo. It took him a moment to get his bearings. The fire, burnt low – embers pulsing in response to the light breeze. The heavy branches of the oak trees creaked. Alone. He was alone. The shadows danced on the surrounding slopes and branches, but nothing else.
Catching his breath, he drained the remains of the can, and cracked open another. After he took a swig, he started to calm down. He stoked the fire into life, chucking on some more wood. The light was reassuring as it pushed back the shadows.
He shook his head. Laughed. He’d had some bad dreams since Dover, but nothing like that. It had felt so real. He could have sworn the kids had been right there in the grove, surrounding him as he lay vulnerable to the elements, to any intruder. No one to watch his back. He’d have to be his own sentry duty. No point trying to get to sleep now. The nightmare had rattled him. It was hard not to feel scared – all alone, in the middle of fuck-knows-where. He’d done plenty of night manoeuvres. Camping in the middle of the arse-end of nowhere, in shit weather usually, while training. Never bothered him before. In fact, he kind of liked it. Riggs had always found the great outdoors made him feel … peaceful inside. That was the best thing about the Army life. It got him out of the dump of the city he grew up in, away from the sink estates, depressed men drinking themselves to death, the gangs and the drugs, the wife-beaters and Paki-bashers. Give him a woodland or a hillside any day. You could hear yourself think in the wild. Started to feel yourself again.
He knew heading west was the right move. The wilder it got, the safer he felt. The first few days had been tricky, sleeping in ditches, dodging the patrols, the CCTV cameras, the eyes of informers, anybody willing to grass him up for some poxy privileges – a travel pass or extra food bank vouchers.
Riggs let out a sigh. Either the beer was taking effect, or the place – or both. He had been pushing himself so hard, for so long. Finally he could stop, and let go, for a little while, at least. It was well past midnight now. The first glimmers of light could be seen in the east. In an hour or two the sun would be up. And then he should be on his way. Get some miles under his belt before the sun got too hot. If lucky, he might make the Border by midday. This time tomorrow he could be sleeping in a safe house. A sympathetic farmer perhaps, one with a sexy daughter he hoped. Good eating, and perhaps more if he played his cards right.
God, it had been too long since he had known a woman, felt a gentle touch, a soft word. Felt anything except fear or fatigue.
The offerings in the trees tinkled together pleasantly. The crack and hiss of the fire as a log shifted, reassuringly down-to-earth. The susurration of the gentle breeze through the summer canopy of the oaks created a soothing effect. It was almost like singing, a soft wave of voices washing over him, bathing him in sound. Riggs suddenly realised tears were streaming down his cheeks. What would his mates think? Fucking pufta. But the sobs racked his body, and he howled into the dying dark, split open with light.
Riggs hummed as he hiked along. The early morning sun filtered through the wall of trees that lined the trail, no longer so sinister in the daylight. He’d had a basic breakfast of a service station pasty and a tepid bottle of milk, but even that tasted good. Something about wild camping that made you appreciate the simplest of pleasures.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt like singing – perhaps some booze-fuelled karaoke. But this morning he felt … lighter somehow. A good blub had done him good, though he was glad nobody had been around to see it.
He continued to hum an old pop song.
Then up ahead, his trained eye saw movement and he froze. A figure approaching. A man. Riggs melted soundlessly into the undergrowth, and there he waited.
The figure approached – an old woman, out walking her dog. Not a threat. Just a pain in the jacksy.
The collie made a beeline straight for him. Started barking at the bush. ‘Fuck off! Go on!’ he whispered, but it was no use. His cover was blown.
‘Are you alright in there?’ the old woman called. She had long hair, wild and loose, and wore a battered Barbour. Kept her stick close.
Riggs appeared from the undergrowth, pretending to do up his flies. ‘Scuse me, call of nature.’
‘Oh, apologies for Bertie here. Always poking his nose in.’
Riggs bent and fussed the dog, who after sniffing his hand, decided he was to be trusted.
‘He’s no bother, are you?’
‘Out to take the morning air?’
‘What’s that? Nah. I mean, yeah, on a hike.’
The ghost of a smile. ‘Come far.’
Riggs gave her a squint. ‘Just over the hill.’
‘Looks like you’ve had a night out.’
‘Yeah, that grove back there.’
‘Where the old oak is?’
‘Weird stuff hanging in it, yeah.’
‘That’s Whiteleaved Oak. A lot of folk think it’s a special spot. They like to leave offerings.’
Riggs shifted uncomfortably. ‘What for?’
‘Blessings. Prayers. This land needs a lot of healing. There are a lot of wounded folk out there.’
He found himself nodding.
‘Did you get a good night’s sleep?’ the old woman quizzed, a wry glint in her eyes.
Riggs shrugged. ‘Sort of. It’s a … musical kind of place, isn’t it?’
‘Ah. Yes. You could say that.’ She whistled her dog to her and set off down the track.
‘Why’s that then?’ he called after her.
She paused at the fork in the path, and turned to respond. ‘It’s meant to be the centre of the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. Once they sang to maintain harmony throughout the land. Perhaps it’s time they started singing again.’
And then she turned and vanished into the trees.
Riggs shook his head. Laughed. Crazy old bird. But as he hiked to the Border, he found himself singing out loud to no one in particular.
My story is, in part, a response to Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ legendarium, although this something I realised after I had written it – a way through the woods only gleaned when one emerges from the trees. Inspiration came from a wild camp at Whiteleaved Oak, on the southern tip of the Malvern Hills, on Midsummer Eve, this year. The oak grove is as I describe it in the story – the main oak is a twisted dragon of a tree, festooned with ‘clooties’: rags, ribbons, and offerings left by pagans. It is thought to be connected to the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. First mentioned in the Welsh Triads (a series of gnomic utterances included in Le Grand’s 1796 Fabliaux), the legend was embellished with typical relish by ‘Iolo Morgannwg’ (the self-styled Welsh ‘druid’ reconstructionist Edward Williams) in 1801, when he enthused: ‘in each of these choirs there were 2,400 saints; that is there were a hundred for every hour of the day and the night in rotation, perpetuating the praise and service of God without rest or intermission.’ Fast forward to the early Seventies and it was made ‘canon’, counter-culturally, by the equally quixotic geomancer, John Michell, who identified the three choirs (Glastonbury Abbey; Llanwit Major; and Stonehenge) and placed Whiteleaved Oak at their precise centre – an alignment he termed the ‘Great Decagon’, deploying pseudo-scientific language that would not be amiss in George Huxley’s journal: ‘three vertices of a regular decagon of majestic proportions. A fourth vertex exists at Goring-on Thames where a major pagan temple once stood at the junction of several important track ways’ (Michell, 1972). John Michell’s theory is fanciful, but evocative – a Blakean gambit that as a writer of imaginative fiction I can pounce upon without having to prove, following Atwood’s ‘ways of the jackdaw’: ‘we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests’ (Atwood, 2002: xviii); or to use a Holdstockian image, feathers and fetishes to be woven into my own horse-shrine.
When I arrived there at dusk, the sky aflame, I discovered to my disappointment beer cans in the firepit. This niggled me at first, but it provided the grit in the oyster, as my subconscious did its work, imagining who would make the effort to come to such an obscure, folkloric place only to desecrate it in such a way. This telling detail, one that no Google Earth or other vicarious research would reveal, helped to give birth to my protagonist, Riggs – a product of the ‘outer world’ as much as my inner one: a way of personifying these dark times.
I drafted it when I got home in a feverish download, writing from the guts of my visceral, experiential research. But, in hindsight, I can discern Holdstockian vestiges, for they can be gleaned in much of my writing, so inextricably have his novels grafted themselves onto the frontal lobes of my imagination when I first started reading them in the early nineties, at the same time as making my first forays into novels.
‘The Perpetual Choir’ inhabits the same ecosystem as Holdstock’s for the following reasons. Firstly, its location in the Welsh Borders. Ryhope Wood is said to be a three square mile section of ancient woodland in Herefordshire, a bus and cycle ride from Gloucester. Once a friend and I went in search of the likeliest location, finding tenuous ‘evidence’ on the ground in place names – hamlets with the suffix ‘hope’; stickle-like brooks; hollow lanes; green man pubs – as well in the wood itself, complete with a gamekeeper’s cottage, formerly situated on one corner and now engulfed by the creeping advance of the trees, which fitted the description of Oak Lodge: ‘at the edge of the Ryhope estate in Herefordshire’ (1986:16). The connections: ‘just seemed to fit in an imaginative way at the time…’ (Nanson, private email, 6 August 2018) and would probably not stand up to close scrutiny, but on the day I remember them bestowing a sense of the numinous to our walk.
Then there is the actual folklore associated with Whiteleaved Oak (and nearby Ragged Stone Hill, echoed in Holdstock’s posthumously published novella, The Ragthorn): whoever is touched by the shadow of the craggy summit will have ill luck befall them, as described in Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, ‘The Ragged Stone’ (Hart, 2000: 58):
And if the tale be true they tell about the Ragged Stone, I’ll not be walking with my dear next year, nor yet alone.
Coincidentally, when I took my friends there, we returned to the car-park to find their vehicle broken into, and things stolen. This kind of ‘folklore with fangs’ is very Holdstockian – there is nothing cosy or bucolic about his world, which evokes an unheimlich anti-pastoral aesthetic: the new eerie, currently in vogue in novels like The Loney (Hurley, 2015) and The Essex Serpent (Perry, 2017).
There is the tangible sense of place that pervades Holdstock’s fantasies – the ‘other’ is always close. I remember when I first read Mythago Wood, I desperately wanted Ryhope Wood to be an actual place. I knew it was fiction, but I still wanted it to be true; and, in a way, it was – for it transformed my perception of sylvan environments. Any walk in the woods offered the possibility of conjuring mythagos, and often they did, as poems, stories and paintings erupted from my subconscious.
Finally, my story echoes Mythago Wood in its depiction of post-bellum protagonists. In Holdstock’s story (the first published in the cycle), set between 1946 and 1948, Stephen Huxley, back on civvy street, returns to his Herefordshire home to convalesce from his war wounds. They he finds his elder brother, Christian, living a strange, solitary existence in the Lodge: their mother long deceased and their father mysteriously AWOL. The encroaching woodland, dramatically over-running their father’s study, seems to be a symbol of the way it inveigles itself into the minds of the brothers, who become haunted by ‘mythagos’: folkloric archetypes fashioned in a mysterious way from the interface between the wood and its human visitors. The male Huxleys’ increasingly bosky behaviour (almost certainly PTSD in Stephen’s case) could be seen as a personification of a shell-shocked country, emerging traumatised from World War Two, desperate to find new myths to live by – a wasteland in search of a Grail. In ‘The Perpetual Choir’ the trauma is current, as a result of a Brexit-divided nation and the draconian regime it enables, a neo-Fascist state echoing Trump’s America.
These factors (proximity; folklore; sense of place; the shadow of war) align to create, on my fictive plane, a ‘Great Decagon’, which quietly evokes the Holdstock project without emulating it. Although I did not set out to write a Holdstockian story, it could be seen as a piece in conversation with the mythos articulated in the sequence of novels and novellas stretching from 1981 to 2009. I posit that one of the most fertile ways to engage with this, and in doing so honour and continue Holdstock’s legacy, is via creative responses – stories, songs, poems, artwork and music that expand the possibilities of Ryhope wood (which, I suggest in a previous article, I see as a metaphor for the creative process). While avoiding pastiche, one can find new ways through the wood, ways that intersect with Holdstocks. In the way the pilot Harry Keeton survived another ‘portal’ (Clute, 1999:776), when shot down in France, there is an exciting possibility of contemporary writers finding their own Ryhope Wood.
Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the dead: A writer on writing. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Clute, John and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London:Orbit, 1999.
Hart, Linda. Once They Lived in Gloucestershire. Lechlade: Green Branch Press, 2000.
Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood, London: Grafton Book, 1986.
Holdstock, Robert. The Ragthorn, n.p.: Infinity plus, 2015.
Hurley, A. M. The Loney. London: John Murray, 2015.
Manwaring, Kevan. Ways Through the Wood: the rogue cartographies of Robert
Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle as a cognitive map for creative process in fiction,
Writing in Practice. Vol. 4. York: NAWE, 2018.
Morgannwg, Iolo, Owen Jones, William Owen Pughe, The Myvyrian Archaiology of
Wales. 3 vols. London: n.p., 1801-7.
Le Grand, M. Fabliaux or Tales, abridged from French Manuscripts of the XIIth and XIIIth
Centuries by M. Le Grand. selected and translated by G. L. Way, 1796.
Michell, John. City of Revelation: On the Proportions and Symbolic Numbers of the
Cosmic Temple. n.p.: Garnstone Press, 1972.
Perry, Sarah. The Essex Serpent. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2017.
Bard, hiker and trail-runner Kevan Manwaring is the author of The Windsmith Elegy series of mythic reality novels, The Bardic Handbook, Desiring Dragons, Lost Islands, Ballad Tales, Silver Branch and others. His current projects include an eco-SF novel, Black Box (crowdfunding on Unbound) and a transapocalyptic rock’n’roll fantasy. Since 2014 he has been working on a creative writing PhD exploring fairy traditions and creative process, which has manifested in a transmedia novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy (www.thesecretcommonwealth.com). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic and is based in Stroud, England.
“[S]ince it has become increasingly clear that stocks, and even money itself, is entirely based on a perception of value, which is by nature subjective and mutable, the only question becomes how that perception of value is influenced? And who is doing the influencing?”
From Sable Aradia
A thoughtform is a semi-autonomous manifestation created when someone — or several someones — will it, or believe it, into being. As of that point, it is no longer entirely subject to the will of its creator(s), but in essence, acts and reacts in its own way. It has no physical reality as we understand it, but it has a virtual reality; it might as well be real because we engage with it as if it is. Which, in a sense, makes it real.
An egregore is a thoughtform that has been created by a group, and it influences the thoughts and actions of the group that engages with it. But it is also influenced by the thoughts and actions of these same people.
This is not a unique concept to the occult: William Gibson wrote about what he called “semiotic ghosts” in popular culture. To me, it was evident he was talking about egregores. I wrote an article about this recently at Between the Shadows.
The examples of a corporation and a meme are probably excellent ones for a modern reader. A corporation exists independently of its creators. The Board of Directors, the shareholders, and the employees who work for it, can change completely — leave, die, or be replaced — and yet the corporation continues.
In our modern age, money is also an egregore, and this is why it has no physical value (after all, money is no longer backed by a gold standard.) Its perceived value governs its real value on the world market. The two are effectively one and the same.
It’s extremely difficult for one person to significantly alter the nature of an egregore. A person who wants to will such a change would have to convince a majority of the other people who engage with the egregore that its nature has already changed. For example, these major brands either started their lives as Nazi corroborators, or developed significantly as corporations while doing so, but of course we no longer make these associations with them.
There was an excellent object lesson in the transformation of an egregore in the 1990s in Brazil. Plagued by runaway inflation, Brazil embraced a daring plan; they created a new currency to restore people’s faith in money. They called it the Unit of Real Value (Unidade real de valor)(1). And it was entirely fake. No bills or coins were ever printed. It was intended to absorb the effects of hyperinflation and was set at a fixed value of parity to the U.S. dollar.
Instead, people developed more confidence in the URV than in the cruzeiro real, which was the legal-tender Brazilian currency, and it replaced Brazil’s legal currency. Officially it was “extinguished” and replaced with a legal-tender currency called the real on July 1, 1994.
A semi-virtual currency exists in Canada in the form of Canadian Tire money. This is effectively Monopoly money that is given out by Canadian Tire as a reward for shopping at their stores. It’s a fraction of the value of what you bought; a very early loyalty program.
But many places in Canada began accepting Canadian Tire money as well as real money, because why not? Canadian Tire doesn’t really care where it came from, because at one point or another it came from their store, and you can still exchange it there for real goods.
Unfortunately Canadian Tire is now trying to force their clientele to go to a card system instead, citing a risk of criminal enterprises making use of their alternate currency as an excuse. I’m sure that’s a real threat: criminal enterprises profit enormously from the existence of shadow economies that don’t depend upon the whim of the World Bank. But then again, so would we.
One might also consider the bitcoin bubble. Bitcoin is an entirely virtual currency that has a certain perceived value; and it has that value because of that perception.
That’s not a new concept either. Stock values are also entirely influenced by perceived values. One of the flaws in our current economic system that is coming to a point of reckoning is that stock values can plummet, not because a company has lost money, but because it has not gained as much as people thought it would. Twitter and Facebook both recently bore a significant loss of stock value because their growth, falsely projected on false identities and bot accounts which political pressure has forced them to limit, was not as great as those false projections had assumed it would be.
What this tells us is that any free market theory is fatally flawed. It is assumed in the study of free market economics that stock value changes based on information. Traders become aware of trends, new technology, expansions, etc. which will increase the income-making potential of a corporation.
But since it has become increasingly clear that stocks, and even money itself, is entirely based on a perception of value, which is by nature subjective and mutable, the only question becomes how that perception of value is influenced? And who is doing the influencing?
The question then becomes for the magician: how can we best utilize egregores? Can we make significant changes to the harmful effects of existing egregores, such as the value of currency and how it is determined?
Marx said that in order to address income inequality, workers must control the means of production. But he failed to visualize the development of technology and the value of virtual goods. How do you control the means of production when all the production is virtual?
I think the answer is that the common people must direct the egregores instead. Right now, we have been absorbed by the semiotic ghosts of futility, apathy, and the inequalities of capitalism. And Money has become a god in and of itself. To combat this, we must embrace new egregores, and helpful, older egregores, like the Enlightened Rebel and the Will of the People.
To change the perceived value of money, and who has it, we need to re-think what we’re basing that value on. Right now, the world thinks of money in terms of national currencies, so the perceived economic well-being of nations is what drives the world economy. This creates haves and have-nots by nature. It’s dependent on the idea that some nations have more economic value than others.
It’s also, in part, determined by corporations. The more big corporations a country is perceived to have, and the bigger their stock values, the more valuable their currency is perceived to be.
Canadian Tire money erodes that economy just a little bit, because it takes a small fraction of the value of currency out of the hands of governments and stock traders, and puts it into the hands of consumers. Still not great; still capitalism, but a more decentralized capitalism.
Bitcoin is an early attempt to rethink the way we value currency. It has established a currency value on information. Bits of data are what form the essential unit of a bitcoin. But the flaw of this approach is that those who control information can control the value of a bitcoin, which is why it has already achieved a speculation bubble that makes it completely unattainable for regular people.
Perhaps we should come back to Marx. Perhaps we should be basing the value of currency on labour-units. One hour of labour might equal one credit, which could buy one full meal. Think of how wealthy artists would be! Of course I can’t think of a way to track that which wouldn’t risk intense violations of privacy. No change of this nature would be quick or easy, and each would have its own drawbacks and unintended consequences that we would have to consider, and deal with.
The question for us is: what do we consider to be of real value? And what would we like the economy of the future to look like? Which egregores should we give power to?
I’m a Pagan and speculative fiction author, a professional blogger, and a musician. I’m proudly Canadian and proudly LGBTQ. My politics are decidedly left and if you ask for my opinion, expect an honest answer. I owned a dog, whom I still miss very much, and am still owned by a cat. I used to work part time at a bookstore and I love to read, especially about faith, philosophy, science, and sci-fi and fantasy.
Hey! We pay Sable and others for their articles. We’re one of the few pagan or anti-capitalist sites to do this. 🙂
What’s an Egregore? What’s an egregore got to do with America? And what really happened to the dude who made KONY2012? In the sixth episode Alley Valkyrie and Rhyd Wildermuth discuss how the ingredients of the ritual that manifested American make it impossible to change, and discuss how an egregoric understanding can inform resistance and magic against the State.
Empires Crumble is the new podcast by Gods&Radicals founders Alley Valkyrie & Rhyd Wildermuth, on history, culture, politics, and magic.
To see a full list of episodes, go here.
What’s wrong with Sephora’s witch kit?
Is it crass to reduce a religious practice to $40 of mass-manufactured perfumes and Tarot cards? Probably, but haven’t Pagans been debating “pay-to-pray” back and forth for years? Sure, an independent Etsy artisan needs to make a living. But doesn’t Sephora also have to tap new markets to survive? The scale’s different, but what about the essence?
Is the mall any worse than the metaphysical shop?
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
It takes parts of you and makes commodities out of them. Your time, your physical activity, and your mental energy all get sold on the labor market like Tarot decks and perfume. Your body contains more than itself – it carries your community, the work and care of your loved ones, everything they do to keep you physically and psychologically functional. Without all that, how would you make it out of your door every morning with enough resiliency to work? After all, capital is hungry. A business needs to grow, or else other companies out-compete it in the market and force it into bankruptcy. The ones that can grow, survive. The ones that find more ways and things to eat, grow. They need your ability to work, to produce goods and services they can sell. All of the ingredients that go into your work, they consume.
Capital imposes its needs onto the dispossessed, the ones who don’t own businesses or rental properties and so have nothing to live on but their ability to work. The whole community depends on the money its wage-workers earn, so it has to organize its collective life in whatever way maximizes their employability. Wage-workers are exploited, and they incarnate entire communities of labor, exploited alongside and through them.
Religion is one way the dispossessed survive. Capitalism cuts you off from your basic nature: your capacity to flourish, to form relationships as a free being. It demoralizes in both the current and the older sense: the mindlessness and futility of wage-work, housewifery, and unemployment teach despair and induce depression, but when capital reduces you to an instrument, it de-moralizes you in a larger sense. The more of you that goes to satisfy capital’s hunger, the less of you is left for self-cultivation, creativity, and relationship-building. You are alienated from yourself.
Sephora sells to women.
The social base of religion (Pagan and otherwise) is not only the dispossessed in general, but specifically the specially-oppressed along racial, national, and gender lines. Even when the ministers and bishops are men, it’s women who cook meals for sick parishioners, clean up after services, teach Sunday school, and fill most of the pews. Capitalism, by definition, only pays for waged work. But, the health and functionality of wage-workers is costly; it takes a vast expenditure of unpaid work in the home and the community to feed and support wage-workers, take care of their kids and elders, and ease the emotional strain of their alienation. So, there’s a division of labor between paid and unpaid work, and it falls along the lines of gender. Culture, ideology, and discrimination harmonize with the pervasive reality of anti-woman and anti-LGBT violence, forming an elegantly self-reinforcing feedback loop; gender roles both flow from and reinforce the overall social system. Those who don’t fall in line get hurt.
Religion sits at a key point in the cycle. It allows the racially and nationally oppressed to rely on each other for support, fellowship, and existential meaning without their oppressors in the room for a few hours each week (is it a coincidence that in the US, Black people report being “absolutely certain” of God’s existence at a higher rate than self-identified Christians do?). Religion takes the edge off of alienation, offering a relationship with something bigger than you, your job, and your daily life – a bedrock of connections and values deeper and older than capitalism. At the same time, it transmits gender roles and racial social segregation from generation to generation, helps the dispossessed stay psychologically healthy enough to work, and gives bourgeois clergy a medium to preach patience and forbearance towards oppression rather than revolution and collective action. From time to time, though, it takes on an opposite role, providing mass movements with a moral language and the institutional infrastructure they need. Religion is politically contradictory. It keeps the dispossessed in line – except when it’s helping them liberate themselves.
Paganism has an even sharper gender skew than most religions. After all, it actively encourages women to take on sacerdotal and leadership roles (not to mention its historical ties to lesbian feminism and LGBT culture). Sephora sells to women, so selling women’s religion is an intuitive next step, especially given that pop culture is currently more infatuated with witchcraft than it has been since the 90s. When Sephora sells Paganism, it’s offering more than a deck of cards and some quartz. Sephora is no less responsible for capitalism’s crushing alienation than any other business. It helped create the ailment. Now, it’s promising a $40 cure.
Unlike most religions, modern Paganism’s basic institutional anchor isn’t the congregation. Rather, it’s the metaphysical shop. Jonathan Wooley explains:
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.
In other words, Sephora and a PantheaCon vendor don’t differ in essence – only in scale.
When Paganism is commercial, it’s filling religion’s conservative role, reconciling the dispossessed to their oppression. After all, if shopping is the way out of alienation, then capitalism, if not benevolent, is at least neutral. Collective action isn’t even on the radar.
But that’s not the only Paganism.
We’re all of us embedded in a living relational web – humans, the biosphere, the land and sea and sky, the gods and the dead. The nitrogen cycle and the water cycle have a sacredness. It’s holy when through death, an organism becomes food, transmuting into new life. The Sun is slowly spending itself. It feeds plants and algae with its energy, and that energy sustains the same animals who then nourish plants when they die and decompose. Gods are at once embodied in and emergent from each nexus of the process, standing at the fulcrums where nature moves humans and is itself moved. Paganism is what the mutually-conditioning cycles of ecology and evolution teach you when you pay attention to them, learn their rhythms, find where you are inside them. Prayer, devotion, myth, and ritual all orient you towards that ground of your being and make a sacrament of your participation in it. Reciprocity is cosmic, both an imperative and a fact. Do ut des, I give so that you may give, is at the heart of both polytheist sacrificial theology and the Mystery that governs the process of life.
You were born with a capacity for eudaimonia: balanced, all-sided human flourishing, the Greatest Good of ethics and philosophy. You can develop eudaimonia if you cultivate virtues: self-knowledge, self-control, justice, and right relationship. Capitalism is a social process that alienates you from that capacity, but it doesn’t destroy it. It does, however, determine the form that it needs to take.
Self-development, ritual and political practice, and reverence for the Gods, the dead, and the natural world are the foundation stones of revolutionary virtue. Paganism holds a radical seed: given the reality of capitalism and empire, the communist organizer, the Stoic sage, and the nature-mystic devotionalist must all become the same person. Each component of revolutionary virtue is incomplete by itself. They need each other, just like plants, decomposers, and nitrifying bacteria.
And it’s all unbuyable. The people trying to sell you Paganism are promising to cure your alienation with more alienation, only in disguise. They can sell you a Scott Cunningham book, a handmade pewter pendant, or a $40 “starter” box, but do those contain the Mystery? At best, they’re dispensable props. At worst, they’ll actively mislead you; like any religion, Paganism can teach you to accept your oppression or it can teach you to fight it.
If you really want to buy something, get Marcus Aurelius or an ecology textbook. Read myths. Go out and see how mosses and lichens grow on trees and how trees that die feed mushrooms and bacteria, fertilizing the soil. The relational web spreads out from there. It reaches to the sun, the atmosphere, the microorganisms, and the gods who take their embodiment in that dynamic interplay. Find your nature, your inborn potential for virtue, eudaimonia, and right relationship. You are in the web. Root yourself. Capitalism uproots you and disrupts your nature. It’s throwing the whole world’s processes so off-kilter that if it isn’t stopped, the ecosphere will endure – but it will be so changed that humans won’t be able to live in it.
Paganism lives in that knowledge. It’s a method – you learn the context of human life and you choose to act accordingly. Sephora can’t sell it to you, but neither can the vendors at Pagan Pride.
You can’t simply opt out of the alienation capitalism imposes. But, you can choose what to do about it; you are existentially free. Paganism can be a path to knowledge and revolutionary virtue, or it can be an “opiate of the masses.”
Sephora wants to sell you one of those. But you’re free to choose the other.
is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism