It is often said that if you ask 10 Pagans to define Paganism, you will receive 15 different definitions. It is certainly true that Pagans do not have a common body of literature or a single set of ideas that define the essence of what we think and say – although, there havebeenattempts to establish such a framework. Even so, priding ourselves upon how we celebrate differences of opinion, and over how we are prepared to open our minds to other truths; Pagans as a rule are highly resistant to orthodoxy of all shapes and sizes – indeed, for many of us, an overemphasis upon revealed, absolute truth is what drove us away from established religion in the first place. Even though certain traditions are strict upon what counts as their tradition, you must go a long way to find a Pagan who refuses to – at the very least – accept the right of others to differ in their views. What place, then, could heresy even have within Paganism? If the basic Pagan impulse is to be as disorganised and diverse in our religious opinions as possible, what usefulness is there in a word that serves only to describe forbidden, or controversial religious thought?
In truth, heresy is a vitally important concept – both in terms of its history, and in terms of its present-day usefulness – for Pagans to understand. Heresy – like many components of religious thinking – contains a fruitful paradox. Because what lies at the heart of this concept is not – as we might assume today – the intolerance of Inquisition, and the heat of a burning stake, but rather something that is vital for all Pagans to embrace; a firm commitment to truth.
It is well known that although the Ancients gave us many of our most rarified words, what is less widely acknowledged is the extent to which modern definitions vary from how the Greeks or Romans would have used those same words. “Evoke” for example – today used for the gentle act of calling something to mind, or in magical circles to bring a god or spirit present without it being embodied (c.f. “invoke”) – comes from evocatio; perhaps one of the most evil pieces of Roman War Magic, where the gods of an enemy nation were literally “called away” from the people they knew, and co-opted to the Roman cause. “Person”, a noun that refers to the very essence of who were are as living, social beings, comes from the Ancient Greek πρόσωπον – prosopon – meaning a mere mask, for use in theatre. Heresy comes from another Ancient Greek word – αἵρεσις – or hairesis – meaning “choice”. It referred specifically to the process of deciding how one would live; by choosing between one of the various philosophical schools active in Ancient Greek and later Roman society. Would you seek happiness through the Epicurean quest for balance in all things, or would you opt for the Stoic approach of living in accord with Natural Law? Would you go mad for numbers with the mythical Pythagoras, or was union with the gods more your bag, like Plotinus? This choice was, largely, a free one – there was no one philosophical school that reigned supreme; each had their virtues, and the right of exponents to follow them, and seekers to choose between them was largely respected.
Over time, the moral authority of such considered choices started to wane. Such philosophical introspection was predominantly an elite activity – poor people, women, and slaves were almost always denied the opportunity. As the urban population grew and the Axial Age and the Empires that came after wore on, people lost their faith in the great thoughts of noble men, and started agitating for new, stricter, universal truths that applied to everyone – embodied by the faiths of Christianity, and Islam. Over time, truth became doctrine, choice became fraught, and αἵρεσις became heresy.
A not small question of religion
The impact of this shift in changing how Europeans thought about all matters religious cannot be overestimated. It didn’t just change the content of what Europeans believed, but it changed how they asked questions about and reflected upon that content too. To put it simply, Christianity introduced a compulsion in the realm of philosophy – a series of fixed points, that had to be reconciled with the facts and reason, come what may – that had simply not existed to the same extent previously.
But the transmutation was not total; there is a common thread that links Christian heresy and Pagan αἵρεσις together. Both are profoundly concerned with a commitment to the truth; to seeking it, exploring it, accepting it, defending it. What for Pagan elites was a personal journey, fueled by a singular desire to excel amongst one’s peers, for the Christian church is a matter of internal unity and consistency. The same push for political conformity and obedience that eventually killed Socrates – a controversial, and extraordinary event for its day – became far more developed, extreme and frequent in Medieval Christianity.
Over time, in order to distance itself from these compulsions (and avoid ecclesiastical censure) philosophy came to to distinguish itself from spirituality entirely; leaving the great Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers to be reclassified as fathers of various academic disciplines – with the clear and blatant theological and spiritual content of the work of writers like Aristotle and Plato being largely neglected in their secular hagiographies, despite it being well known to intellectuals.
It should be stressed that this divide – between (religious) theology and (secular) philosophy – is a varyingly porous one within the academy. But the former gulf between the two can still appear, particularly in wider society: where theology is imagined as a space where absolute truths are defended intellectually (descended from the entirely religious Abrahamic tradition), while philosophy is construed as a forum where all truths are systematically questioned (descended from the totally un-religious Indo-Hellenic tradition). In short, theology is felt to disallow heresy, while philosophy is seen to celebrate it.
On Paganism and philosophy
Paganism, of course, with it’s commitment to free choice in matters religious, appears to subvert this dichotomy. Considering how a free choice in how one leads one’s life is intrinsic to the ancient meaning of heresy – as αἵρεσις – one might imagine that contemporary Pagans would be as drawn to philosophy as their Ancient predecessors. Now that literacy is a near-universal skill, and that now a much wider swathe of society has access to the sort of learning the Ancients reserved for the few, there seem to be few obstacles to such an endeavour. And yet, with a few exceptions (including some excellent articles on this very blog), there are very few Pagans out there doing philosophy. Emma Restall-Orr’s Pagan Ethics, which also highlights the ancient origins of heresy in notions of choice, is one such exception. But Restall-Orr neglects to explore why – despite the profound commitment of many Pagans to a diversity of opinions, the doubtless intelligence of many Pagans, and our common roots with academic philosophy in the Classics – the fact that she is one of the few authors to write explicitly in this genre.
One reason – I suspect – is the imagined divide between theology and philosophy. There is no established landscape – outside of the ivory tower-guarded, academese-ridden morass of “interdisciplinarity” – between the two. Into this chasm, I fear, Pagans have dropped the concept of heresy – and therefore lost all sense of what it is about. Although this discarding of heresy has put an end to religious persecution, despite the various controversies that have erupted over the years regarding historical authenticity, reconstruction vs. syncretism, gender binaries, and the ontological status of divinities, it has also blunted our commitment to truth. We don’t do philosophy as much as we might do, because as a community we’ve lost sight of why philosophy – and truth itself – might be important or useful.
In the next series of articles, I’m going to write on a variety of philosophical topics. I do this not as an academic, nor as an expression of absolute truth, but as an intellectual exercise – for the reader, and the author. Pick apart my ideas, dig holes in what I have written. Reflect, ponder, and rebut. Hone your commitment to truth; for it is the pursuit of heresy – motivated by our desire to know – new discovery abounds.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
This morning I watered the three plants I have managed to wedge onto my balcony beside the washing machine and propped up by a makeshift shelf so the rosemary and holly could get enough sunlight and I noticed something that I was assured couldn’t happen by reason of only having a single olive tree in a part of the world distinctly not known for them: I noticed olives on a tree that shouldn’t have had any.
Time; it is something that humanity may never understand to our lasting satisfaction, we all must answer to its inevitable weight and everyone collectively or un- has a different relationship with it. Every philosophy, society, way of life – you name it; all have a different relationship to Time.
Pagans & Heathens et al have what can only be described as an interesting relationship to Time. For the most part there is less of an overt fear of our own mortality, we profess to a better and or more intimate appreciation of certain cycles than our contemporaries; we in effect have one foot in the past while we step forward into the future. This relationship however, has one prominent flaw: we’re often too damned slow to act. At barely some few days into 25, in comparison to many I certainly speak with youthful prerogative. Everything often seems to occur too slowly for one’s liking – which is a thought founded on the idea that there is a sufficiency, nay excess, of time with which to achieve one’s purpose. If I may be so bold as to say: the hour has long past the moment when we had even just enough time.
On the 26th of June, Tess Dawson at Polytheist published an article entitled “The Horror of Palmyra” which goes into an exposition about the current and past condition and use of the city of Palmyra which is both historically speaking of insurmountable archaeological value and religiously speaking one of a great many such sites which the arguably named Daesh (Da’ish/Da’eesh/ISIL/etc) have either destroyed or quasi taken hostage. Her distaste for the actions of the group is clear, her recounting of the various uses of the sacred site and the gods that have been worshipped there is rich and engaging. However by the end of the article Tess concludes the piece thusly:
“We need to nourish, hold, and maintain our polytheist spaces, our holy places, our sacred discourses, our necessary conversations, our holidays, our rites, our offerings, our blessed gatherings. We need to nourish, hold, and maintain these things on behalf of our deities, our ancestors, and each other. And we need to do this far more than any curse or call for vengeance. Indeed, these very acts themselves are revolutionary and the very things that Daesh and others would try to blot out. Do these things first, and then, only then, contemplate curses because vengeance is nothing when there is nothing left to avenge.”
-Tess Dawson, The Horror of Palymra
Tess is not the only person to have written about Palmyra at Polytheist either. Galina Krasskova is someone I openly respect and hold no small amount of admiration for; so it is a strange position for me to be in to use her as a way of demonstrating I find serious fault with.
Galina’s article “A Polytheistic Day of Protest and Remembrance”, is very much what I have come to expect from her: wise voice, powerful spirit and a refined passion resting beneath the surface. Truth be told, she reminds me of my mother in no small way in that she seems very mild mannered, brilliantly intelligent and sagacious but utterly fearsome when given to being impassioned. Her contribution is a prayer and offering for anyone and everyone to follow on the 31st of July, her proposed day of protest and remembrance – the prayer she includes with the article:
“May the holy places of the Many Gods remain inviolate for all time.
“May the hands of the enemies of the Many Gods be smashed and their efforts come to naught.
May the worship of the Many Gods flourish in many lands again.”
– Galina Krasskova, A Polytheistic Day of Protest and Remembrance
It isn’t hard to say why I think both these people are wrong in their proposed courses, because it is something that is seen regularly in the Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist et al population, substantially more than anything else. The somewhat recent Pagan Community Statement on the Environment demonstrates it again. Most articles written by Insert A. Name for as long as I can recall have shared attributes with the two I single out and the Statement; the conveyance of a belief that we still have time left. A persisting belief that there is still ‘enough time’ to solve the problem or defeat the bad guy or fix the planet – that there is time for solidarity alone to have an effect.
Tess and Galina both, fall back to a palisade oft compared to the creed “love thy neighbor” of predominantly Christian renown. While it is an agreeable thing to say ‘love conquers all’ there is an indisputable, imminent reality which quite violently says otherwise; and while I will wholeheartedly step up to the lectern to espouse just how humanity (and ostensibly by extension the universe around us) has changed in the intervening years, I would like to remind the audience that the Deity of the Old Testament is radically different to the one who practiced the aforementioned creed. Moreover it is well worth reminding that for all that we and those gods with which we align ourselves may have grown, developed or otherwise changed along with us, it is very clear that the changes have not been all too profound and what is possibility for us must surely be certainty for the gods.
There are no easy answers here: practically no white or black, very little red, green and blue and tumultuous amounts of grey yet that which transcends the issue is that the temporal component to much of what we do simply doesn’t exist. Whether it is because we ourselves are too hesitant or taken with sloth to act or the unpredictable nature of something like Daesh or the reality that nourishment and healing and solidarity are things that require time which neither we nor anyone else has anymore. Discourse won’t slow the slaughter of men or women or children; proper nourishment is chancy in the right conditions and a problem for another day in conditions such as these; the true inviolability of someone or something only comes about through a few avenues: respect for someone or something, fear of repercussion, a sense of awe, and expressions of power… Apropos Palmyra its worth remembering that the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians and their contemporaries protected such sites with curses and not with prayers.
Perhaps it is because even We fear a reality where we can set ourselves to this kind purpose and experience the results, that we do not raise our hand honestly to the task set to us. Even the most simple of curses, bad luck, still holds such a powerful sway over the modern world and so perhaps it is because the fear of even this most childish of curses persists that we outright refuse to gird ourselves and issue forth greater maledictions.
I will. Not out of spite for the words of Tess or Galina, not for any conceiting belief in my power over the world, not to prove myself as some chosen vassal of a god or gods, not because I want a fight, not for any hatred of Daesh nor love of any one nation or more, certainly not because I think it will have some sudden and cataclysmic effect on them.
I’ll curse instead of praying, I’ll do it because as sure as there’ll be some lambasting comment about my character as a human being that results from this article I will be able to feel slightly less sick to my core when I read in the news that Palmyra is in rubbles and that humanity has irrecoverably lost yet another memory to Daesh and that I did everything I could have done to try and stop them; that I used everything I had to try and prevent them from demolishing Palmyra as though it were nothing but stones.
Moreover I’ll do it because without priests and guardians of its own to do this in its defense, someone has to do it on their behalf; their duties and responsibilities are now ours.
As I’m sitting here looking at my olive tree and thinking about the bee that probably found its way up here the other month, I consider what I did when I first planted the tree. I wanted to give it the best chance I could, I took the lungs and heart of a chicken, buried them on a painted bindrune at the bottom of the pot and sang a little charm I learned somewhere to make plants grow well. I did so fairly sure that it would do something, after all, my mother’s garden seemed to respond well to similar treatment. I look at these olives and I remember the quiet moment I had when I first thought that I had caused them to happen, that I had done something so small and ordinary but ultimately what should have been impossible. I think perhaps many of us, me included, are too ready to crush that little grain of faith in favor of certain skepticism.
So I turn myself to a new task at hand. I’ve resolved myself through word and now that resolve must be turned to deed and I consider the how of it, the phrasing of it, and the moment of it. I consider that my 31st of July will be the 30th for many who have read Galina and Tess’s words. I consider how they are the grandparents of this and that part of them should be in how it will be done. I consider the importance of Galina’s design that it be done nine times, the weight of Nine; nine months of pregnancy, nine days Odin hung from the Tree taking up the runes; nine times on one day, nine times on nine days perhaps; Tess’s words about vengeance and nourishment and necessary conversations and our rites; what makes Daesh seem powerful to us; what makes Palmyra so important; the powers of names… All these things come to mind and so too does Medea, a memory of an essay written in university. I wrote about her and Prospero and their magic; more figures come to mind be they legendary, mythological, fable or fact, historical or living; so many come to mind. I can’t consider myself their equal, not in ten lifetimes but thinking on them does help. With them in mind I put pen to paper and begin to make ready.
Design by Markos Gage, a.k.a The Gargarean, for Galina Krasskova’s undertaking.
A silver tongued seductee of language, consumately un-settled and mortally afflicted with fernweh, Alan Evans learns for the sake of learning and the strangers-become-companions met along the way. He pines for the gods, teaches
English, learns languages, plays drums, understands people, makes love in four languages, writes and fights like only Australian grandson of an Irishwoman can and will salaciously flirt to death any ‘Wizard of Oz’ quips. Main site: Trees in the Train Station. Also contributes to The Elemental Witch.
“…all, and only, humans have rights.”
(Carl Cohen’s view as presented by Tom Regan, Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy p. 112)
“To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
(Peter Singer Practical Ethics)
“Mother Earth and all its components, including human communities, are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Law. The exercise of the rights of Mother Earth will take into account the specificities and particularities of its various components. The rights under this Act shall not limit the existence of other rights of Mother Earth.” (Law of Mother Nature Article 5, Bolivian Law)
It may come as some surprise when I say this, but our understand of what we mean by “rights” is a mess. There are few topics as important for political discourse and, I would claim, no topic as murky and confused in our thinking. In fact, I don’t ultimately think that we have much grasp at all about what a right is or where it comes from. It is my suspicion, however, that a pagan perspective brings surprising illumination to this problem. I hope, in this discussion, to offer some suggestions of how this might be the case.
I think I can demonstrate to you the murky nature of rights talk fairly easily. Take a moment and attempt to explain to yourself directly what rights exist, where they come from, who has them and why only those (neither more nor less) exist. Or, consider for a moment the seemingly interminable arguments that immediately occur whenever the question of a right’s exist or non-existence comes up. Can you offer a clear and applicable principle that allows you to determine real from false rights?
Before I risk promoting too much confusion, allow me to limit the scope of our discussion. Rights can be divided into various categories, some easier to address than others. I will rely upon two fairly simple categories, though others can be offered and the seeming simplicity covers over some deep problems. Rights, for our purposes, can be Natural (or Universal, or Implicit, or Inalienable) or Legal. Natural rights are understood to exist in any context, free of any political framework or foundation, and are thus found everywhere despite temporal, cultural, or political differences. In turn, these natural rights are understood to legitimize political systems.
Legal rights, on the other hand, depend upon various political and legal structures for their existence. To offer a fairly simple example, life (or human life) is a fairly noncontroversial natural right while the right to trial by jury is a legal right. Trial by jury cannot exist without a functioning political framework and we could perhaps imagine other social forms to fulfill the legitimate demands of justice other than trial by jury. However, trial by jury is a social and legal framework justified by its fulfillment of the demand offered by certain natural rights (i.e. life and liberty are supposedly insured by it, and so the natural rights provide the argument for the legal rights). So, legal rights are socially and historically contingent but legitimated by natural rights which are not contingent.
You can see how this reliance of legal rights on natural rights functions by looking, for example, at key rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The ruling legalizing abortion (“Roe vs. Wade”) justifies the legal right to abortion by appeal to the “right to privacy” which, in turn, is understood as a subset of the natural right of liberty. The recent ruling legalizing marriage equality in all fifty states (“Obergefell vs. Hodges”) bases a right to marriage on various rights such as self-expression which, again, it ties back to the basic natural right of liberty.
Now, we can sometimes feel like we have a pretty good grasp on what is and is not a right because many of our legal rights are clearly delineated in political documents and processes. But this is hardly sufficient, especially since rights talk comes up most frequently when we are trying to address cases of systematic injustice in which the existing political framework, it is claimed, has failed in some way. The most powerful and important point, then, is where natural rights connect to and justify legal rights. This is also the ground most fought over. So, for example, people have argued for years following “Roe vs. Wade” that there is no right to privacy and so no right to abortion. Justice Scalia, in response to the recent marriage equality ruling, has argued that there is no right to self-expression and so no right to marriage.
Allow me to offer one further example of the contested connection between legal and natural rights. You can find arguments that there is a right to education and a right to healthcare. These rights are, in turn, vehemently rejected by others. The argument in favor of these rights relies, most often, on natural rights. The rights to life and liberty are meaningless when one is dying of a curable disease or when one lacks the necessary education to make meaningful and effective choices in one’s own life or in the political processes of one’s community.
So, of the flood of rights mentioned above (privacy, abortion, self-expression, marriage, healthcare, education) which do or do not exist and why? This is a hard enough question for legal rights or those seemingly existing between nature and the law (privacy and self-expression for example), but things get worse when we go to the heart of the issue and ask which specific natural rights exist, why, and where they come from.
In light of the standard practice of justifying legal rights by means of natural ones, our real topic here will be natural rights. My ultimately question is drawn from the quotation with which I opened this discussion. I wish to ask, “Do only humans have rights?” Or, as Ecuador and Bolivia for example have enshrined in their legal systems, does the earth itself have natural inalienable rights? This would include, in turn, the more narrow question of whether animals have rights though I am just as interested in the question of the rights of plants, environments, mountains, seas and so on.
Considering my audience, I don’t actually suspect I need to convincing you that entities other than humans have rights (except, perhaps, for those of you who don’t accept rights talk at all – a position for which there are some very strong justifications). However, despite an assumed general agreement, I do suspect that we aren’t nearly as clear about justifying our claims as we could be. So, I am not really preaching to the choir (or, better, coven) because I think the justification of our claims is what we need to focus on.
To figure out what natural rights do, or do not, exist and who or what can be a rights-bearer it is necessary to come to some understanding of where these natural rights come from. The history of the concept of natural rights, at least in Western European thought from which most rights talk draws its foundation, stretches from the Ancient Stoics, through medieval religious thought, to the modern social contract theorists such as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hutchinson, and Thomas Hobbes. Within this tradition we can find, roughly, four answers to the question of the origin of natural rights which go along with various ways of testing whether something is a right, though frequently these answers overlap in complex ways. I would like to briefly look at each of these in order to get a sense of their inadequacy.
1. Reason as Natural Law
The Stoics never actually argued for the existence of natural “rights” but they did argue for the natural equality of all humans. Their argument rested on several key elements. First, all nature was understood to be ordered according to an overarching order or law. Second, this law was divine and was identified as reason. Third, human reason was a privileged part of this divine natural order, in fact reason made us partially divine.
This line of thought leads to two related conclusions. First, to the extent that we have reason we are equal. This is, in fact, the origin of the idea that natural rights are inalienable (in other words, we can very literally never lose them). If you reflect on the idea of inalienability you can see it is a rather odd idea. Can’t I be chained up? Or killed? Don’t I lose my rights in these cases? The answer is “no”. For the Stoics, and the “inalienable” traditional that follows from them, as long as we can reason we are ultimately free. Even if my body is in chains, the most important part of me – my divine reason – is free. This, incidentally, provides the basis for some Stoics to actually support slavery and social inequalities of all sorts! Because what matters is reason, nothing social inequality does to us can touch our real freedom and equality. Many of the Stoics, as you might suspect, were surprisingly conservative in the outcome of their thought.
The second conclusion to be drawn from the Stoic view is that the source of our knowledge of rights is reason as well. This hooks up with inalienability to provide us with a test that can be applied to rights. If you think something is a natural right, ask whether it is inalienable. If it isn’t, you have no right to it. In other words, nothing worth having can be lost and nothing we have a right to can be taken away. This view is also, obviously, anthropocentric and even falls short of providing rights to all humans since some lack reason. So, for the Stoics, only, but not all, humans have rights (with the addition of gods and any other entities with reason).
The development of these ideas leads to what we find in Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Natural rights are inalienable and uncovered by reason. Both reject the Stoic test as too limited, and instead rely upon the self-evidence of rights. We don’t, in other words, need a test for what counts as a right because our natural rights are immediately apparent and obvious to the view of reason. Jefferson doesn’t try to prove we have natural rights, he claims he doesn’t need to. This has largely landed us in the mess we are today, with generally no system for determining what is or is not a right. Jefferson and Locke also change the sense of inalienability used by the Stoics. For them, a natural right is inalienable because even if the practice of that right is taken away our claim to that right always remains. We always deserve and can demand life and liberty even when we are deprived of the use of them.
The Stoics, Locke, and Jefferson -as well as the long medieval tradition of natural law theory- all base the origin of rights on a certain conception of the divine. This conception is ultimately monotheistic (the Stoics believed in one ultimate divinity despite the existence of sub-deities) and anthropocentric (in each case we occupy a special position at the head of most or all of nature due to our possession of reason and/or special selection by god).
It is important to stress that contemporary rights theory goes beyond the basis of God in very specific ways. First, and most obviously, natural rights do not rely upon a shared religious background for justification. Second, neither the Stoic nor Biblical god provides a basis for rejecting the social inequality of men and women or the practice of slavery. The Bible clearly supports slavery. In fact the New Testament, which was heavily influenced by Stoic thought, offers arguments in favor of slavery very similar to those found in Stoicism. Most go something like this: social distinctions are natural and divinely willed so it is our duty to rationally fulfill the social roles and positions we find ourselves in, including the role of a slave. This allows both Stoics and the Biblical Paul to assert that a good slave must obey its master and so on. Locke followed the monotheistic reasoning underlying natural rights rather carefully and ended up arguing, at least partially based upon it, in favor of both American slavery and the wholesale theft of land from the Native Americans (see, for example, this excellent recent analysis of Locke’s failures).
Finally, it should be noted that by far the longest use of divinely ensured natural rights was to support the divine right of kings and firm social hierarchies. This shouldn’t be surprising. I have often challenged my students to explain to me why a monarchical metaphysics with a divine all-powerful dictator should be compatible with anything other than a form of political tyranny. It’s a difficult question and not one that all forms of paganism can easily avoid.
Interestingly, the history of natural rights theory hasn’t been particularly focused on nature. Nature has seemed to required the underwriting of “nature’s god” and/or reason. Despite that, we can detach something of an argument-from-nature from natural rights literature. We can derive from the thought of both Locke and Hobbes a sort of principle for deriving from nature a list of rights. Rights would be, on this reading, those things which a living entity naturally feels are its own. So, in nature we fight for our life, our freedom of movement, our family, and things like food and shelter that we have gathered for ourselves. Our instinctive defense of these things marks a natural knowledge of a right to them. From a traditional view, the failing of this thinking is obvious since it doesn’t set humans off from animals who also defend all these things. For this precise reason it is more promising for us. Locke deprived of his Biblical god and the superiority of reason would be left with an argument like this alone. This can be expanded into a capabilities view, similar to that of Martha Nussbaum, that might assert that a natural entity has a right to develop its natural capabilities. Our sheer having of capabilities is a signal of a right to them and their expression/development.
4. Pain and Pleasure – Utilitarianism
Strictly speaking, Utilitarians don’t accept the existence of natural rights for various reasons, but we can talk of something very similar to a rights conception in Utilitarianism based on a limited type of capabilities view. For the utilitarian theorist only one thing is absolutely good, namely pleasure or happiness, and only one thing is absolutely bad, namely pain. This lays a universal obligation upon us to increase, as far as possible, the amount of pleasure or happiness in existence and to decrease the amount of pain. This is, in fact, the basis of the argument by Peter Singer I quote from at the start of this discussion. Animals, as capable of pain and pleasure, are part of our obligation to lessen pain and increase pleasure and might be said to have a right to this type of consideration. Animals have a right to have their suffering and happiness taken into account. Plants, mountains, seas, and so on are not obviously capable of pain or happiness and so do not enter into consideration beyond their instrumental relationship to animals and humanity.
5. No Natural Rights
I should add a brief consideration of the view that there are no natural rights. We can, briefly, present this in at least three main ways. If we understand a right to mark a limit, a space or possession that cannot legitimately be invaded or taken away, then the following three views might be raised. Rousseau suggests that since the state of nature is one of natural abundance and simplicity no natural limits exist, or need exist, between people in nature. It is society that, giving rise to pride and greed, creates property, scarcity and, domination and so necessitates rights. Hobbes argues something like the reverse. In the state of nature all entities have the power to do whatever they wish and so the right to do so. Because all action is a natural right for him, in this sense, then it makes no difference to say either that there are no natural rights or that everything is a natural right. Both lead to Hobbes’ famous “war of all against all” in the state of nature. Finally, since the utilitarian thinks that we must balance the good of the greatest number of entities capable of happiness against any individual concerns there are no predetermined limits protecting the life, liberty, capabilities or goods of any given individual. The majority, the famous “greatest number”, might be said to have rights but no given individual does.
A Pagan Conception of Rights
How can a pagan perspective assist us in the challenge of making sense of the origin, nature and limits of rights? We must first state that we don’t have many historical precursors to work with. Clearly much of pagan history hasn’t been particularly promising when it comes to individual freedoms or social equality – with, of course, rather important exceptions such as many Native American and traditional African cultures. Our strongest precursor might be taken to be the Stoics but, for many reasons, I do not take them to fit fully into a pagan worldview. So, we can’t really ask what pagans have historically had to say about rights. Instead, we must take key elements of several forms of paganism and attempt to work out their implications for natural rights theory.
The first thing we might note deals with the traditional derivation of natural rights from reason and god. The nature of the god in question leads almost inevitable to the focus on reason. For the Stoic, the ultimate god and reason are all but indiscernible. In fact, the Stoics often called the universal divinity, universal law/reason, and human reason by the same Greek word – they called it the Logos. Logos is originally the Greek term for “word” but it came to mean reason amongst many other things. The Old Testament of the Bible reflects a similar view, whether through syncretism or chance, and the New Testament directly plagiarizes from the Stoic view. Thus, in the Old Testament the god of the Bible speaks creation into existence and the “Gospel of John” starts with an almost entirely Stoic claim that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” In this context the divine essence of reality will be located in the intellectual, rational, linguistic spheres of existence. This is also connected to the transcendent nature of a divinity external to creation, a transcendence that will frequently carry over into the rational part of humanity through a rejection of the body and physical nature in general.
The focus on reason and linguistic communities embodied in the natural rights tradition makes a very clear appearance in contemporary arguments about what can, and cannot, be a bearer of rights. Carl Cohen, a long-standing opponent of animal rights arguments, affirms that to have a right means to be able to assert a claim upon others while recognizing your own obligation to respond to their claims. In other words, only members of rational linguistic “moral communities” can be understood to have rights. It is clear to Cohen, though not to many of his critics, that only humans can make rational moral claims upon others and recognize those claims when they are made upon them. In other words, whether or not something has rights and what those rights are has everything to do with intellectual and linguistic capabilities.
In sharp contrast, consider the pagan worldview of Hesiod’s Theogony. In this origin story the cosmos arises out of the sexual and asexual bodily reproduction of families of gods. These gods, and the evolving universe they form through their reproduction, are largely inseparable from bodily nature. There is importantly a deep identity between much of nature and its divinities. To appreciate the importance of this, ask yourself whether the Biblical god can be understood to have rights. It’s an odd question because the answer is that the god of the Bible probably has all rights, or rather absolute right. What would this imply, then, for the rights of a natural world made up of gods in ever more various proportions and hierarchies? To cultures for which the divine is frequently also embodied and natural, rather than spiritually transcendent over nature, the world around us makes constant demands upon us in a manner very like the way traditional rights bearers do. Rivers and mountains, ancient trees and unplowed fields, all make legitimate demands for various types of respect.
A pagan theory of rights, then, will not be focused upon reason or, necessarily, a divine law-giver’s plans and demands upon a tightly structured cosmic hierarchy. The hierarchy of divinities, cosmic forces, and realities within the pagan worldview tend to be partly natural and partly political in nature. Zeus, for example, plots and fights both to gain his position and to maintain it. Even his power, however, is tentative and maintained by the overall balance of politics amidst divinities and humans.
The overlap of nature and divinity in a pagan view presents a unique opportunity. For once we might fully turn to nature for guidance about the origin and extent of natural rights. What is more, it is clear that though our pagan worldview might direct our attention to nature we need not depend upon divine revelation or dictate for our understanding of rights. Paganism might teach us that nature is divine and lays demands upon us but a pagan faith is not necessary to accept the conclusions we can draw from this.
Let us conceive the cosmos, and all its subsystems from planets to seas to mountains and so on, to be living much as the Bolivian “Law of Mother Earth” does – in other words let us embrace animism or pan-vitalism. We can begin to approach this by means of the capabilities view mentioned previously. We start with animals and plants, recognizing that each has a set of capabilities and impulses it seeks to express and fulfill. All things being equal (which, of course, they never are) each thing has an implicit right to pursue the path of its growth, life, and death. To put it as simply as possible, taken in isolation each thing has a right to exist.
But, despite the tendency towards what we might call biological chauvinism, not only organic entities express a nature and follow a path of development and change. All things individually express a type of nature and, collectively, take part in nestled interdependent systems. There is a Zen art dedicated to finding and appreciating examples of “perfect” stones, in other words stones which best capture the nature of being a stone. These won’t be polished gems or dramatic outcroppings, but rather simple stones that somehow express in an exemplary way the basic nature of being a stone. While any debate about what this nature is might be interminable, just like debates about the ultimate nature of humanity, nonetheless it doesn’t seem absurd to attempt to better grasp what the nature expressed by stones (or any other natural entity) might be. And it also doesn’t seem absurd to suggest that when such a stone is ground into gravel or melted for industrial purposes something has been lost and some wrong may have been done.
When I was a child my neighbors cut down an oak tree that had lived for several centuries. I cried inconsolably, filled with a sadness and anger that told me at a basic level that something terrible had been done – an important obligation had been broken and an important good had been destroyed. Who were they to so casually dismiss an entity that was old before their ancestors had even come to this county? I recently went hiking in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park and there, amidst trees that were massive before the supposed birth of Christ, one can’t help but feel an overpowering awe and need for respect and even worship. Not only do these entities have a right to exist, they have a dignity that goes along with an imperative that this be respected.
While we often think about rights in terms of purely negative limits on the powers of others, rights go along with responsibilities and obligations. A right to life or liberty demands that I respect these same rights in others. But, more than this, a right to life or liberty also lays an obligation on my shoulders to facilitate the living and freedom of others. It is not, as many libertarians might think, purely a right to be left alone and let everyone else alone in turn. Rights are expressions of communal membership, of being part of a dynamic system seeking to further its own development. Rights are the mark of our position in an environment, in nature. The sheer right, then, that I have to my existence and self-development is mirrored in my obligation to protect and pursue the existence and self-development of the world of which I form a part.
Allow me to restate the previous points in a more schematic form for the sake of clarity. Informed by paganism, but without need to rely upon it for justification, I argue that:
1. To the extent that animals fight for their lives and development they express a right to existence and self-expression.
2. Plants, similarly, strive to grow and survive, expressing the same right.
3. Even non-biological entities are self-sustaining systems which resist certain changes and, when they change, change in a manner uniquely expressing their nature and so they, too, express a right to existence and self-expression.
4. Collectively, these elements form larger complex systems which, in turn, strive to change in various ways and resist other changes and so express the same natural claim to rights.
5. These rights are nestled, one within another, and interconnected such that no purely individual atomistic right to be left alone is feasible. Rather, rights imply collective responsibility and obligations one to another. Some entities fulfill or fail these obligations without rational thought or consciousness, others do not, but the distinction is not particularly important.
6. All existence is a drive to be, and to change, which assumes and must be granted a basic legitimacy.
Nature’s Rights: The Model of Art
The philosophy Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that when a work of art is created, Being itself is increased. Similarly, sculptors frequently describe their work not as forcing material into some shape but rather as releasing and realizing the potential form that was already present in the material. The sculptor assists the object in its development and self-expression. Arguing for the rights of nature leads to some exceptionally difficult problems which the enriching nature of art might help us address.
If each thing, due to its sheer existence and path of development, has a right to exist a libertarian understanding of rights might lead us into a rather striking form of nihilism. From this view I can do nothing, can change nothing, without doing wrong. The ant I unknowningly tread upon today has been wronged. There is something right, I would argue, about elements of this view. All existence comes at a price to those things existing around us and many elements of the way most of us live today accentuate this price to unjust proportions. But, ultimately, the message of the rights of nature is not that all existence and action is wrong but rather that all existence and action comes with responsibility. As parts of an interwoven cosmos seeking to joyfully express its nature there is no exit from responsibility – we are, as Dostoyevsky puts it, “responsible for all to all”. How can I eat and end the life of the entity devoured? Only with a firm acceptance of my obligation to express more fully in my life the potential of that entity and a respect for its sacrifice.
It may be that in some art the material is devoured, destroyed in the making, but in the best art – in the truest art – the material comes more fully to life and expression. Art is the act of freeing the potential of what is, of augmenting and nurturing the growth and expression of existence, and it is this that nature demands of us. Neither master and engineer nor illegitimate interloper, we are part of nature’s living and called to take our part with loving devotion to the value of each and every other participant be it tree, stone, bird or star. This means, of course, an end to easy answers. If my interest is in having a nice clear list of forbidden actions and obligatory actions I am going to be much disappointed. We should not be surprised at this, as responsibility comes hand in hand with the obligation to think carefully and risk failure.
There is, at the most basic level, one natural right and it is shared by all things: the right to exist as a process of self-expression. It comes united with an obligation: the obligation to respect and assist the existence and self-expression of each thing around me. Sometimes this obligation will involve killing and destruction but only in service to a greater expression of being. But most often it will involve nurturing and a loving service to the world and cosmos of which we are children.
What is Property?
There are several practical and legal implications of this view but what I intended as a brief discussion has already gone on for too long so I will rest content with mentioning what is likely the most dramatic and controversial. What does the right to existence and self-expression imply for other traditional rights? Most importantly, it implies that our concept of property and the right to it is deeply flawed.
Locke, and recent libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick, derive the right to property from the right to life (or existence, as I have been calling it). The idea is this: the right to life is a basic property right. I own my body and this body cannot be taken from me. This then leads to the right to liberty, as my ownership over my body also means that my use of this body (with rather striking exceptions for Locke) cannot be limited. Now, when I work I use my body to transform something else. I invest some of my body – namely bodily energy and work – into the thing transformed. This makes the thing created part of my body in a limited sense. I have invested bodily life and so the thing becomes an extended part of my bodily life. When I work to grow apples my use of my body in the work makes the apples part of me in a very limited sense, so my basic right to ownership over my body extends to the thing produced. (Interestingly, this is also the basis of much Marxist thought mediated through Hegel’s adoption of similar conceptions of work through which the world becomes an expression of the self and, as it were, a second body. It is also worth noting that this is the basis of Locke’s argument in favor of taking land from the Native Americans. They didn’t work the land, he claimed, and so didn’t gain ownership through transformation of it.)
The view I have presented contains a different conception of both work and the natural world, largely because of the rejection of anthropocentrism. When I grow a tree it is as much the case that my body becomes part of the tree, part of its process of self-expression. The tree “owns” me just as much as I own it. But, even the concept of ownership is off here. From a perspective that does not prioritize reason and, connectedly, the mind-soul over the body and natural existence then I can’t be said to own my body. I am my body, it is not property. Similarly, without anthropocentrism, we are not tempted to see the world as a collection of raw materials for use such that I can imagine making the tree, or anything else, part of myself without any thought to its own individual existence. The tree and I might be in partnership, but it does not become me and I do not become it. We are part of something larger, but neither dominates in the manner required for ownership. Furthermore, the tree is also in partnership with things other than myself which belies any claim to an exclusive relationship with it.
My right to self-expression includes my right not to have my partnerships unduly interfered with and broken. You can’t come along and chop down the tree I have worked to grow without weighty reasons, but it is wrong to think that this entity with an existence and nature of its own is “mine” in any robust sense or that my relationship with it overpowers all other relationships it has. I have a right to have my relationships respected and protected, except when those relationships become unjustifiably abusive, dominating, or destructive. So, in an interconnected world viewed through the lens of the right to exist, the right to relationships replaces rights to property.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem.
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I have heard this statement from more than one source in the past few days. This is often the case for me with statements that resonate in my soul as strongly as this one did when a friend of mine uttered it and I heard it. When consciousness hears a resonant idea for the first time, it will often see iterations of that same idea all around, and would otherwise remain hidden without the spark of the initial idea feeding it.
Perhaps, therefore, I am keener to the idea; since it is already in my consciousness, I more easily recognize it. My inner psychologist concurs.
Or perhaps it is the will of the gods, manifesting themselves & their wills in specific patterns discernible to those sensitive to such things. My inner gnostic concurs.
In other words, there are a variety of ways to interpret the statement, and through the process of interpretation, creating truth. All of these interpretations have some element of truth to them. Philosophers speak of epistemology as the theory of knowledge creation, but for me, another word is more applicable for this phenomenon.
The Magic Of Capitalism
It’s a controversial word, magic, as in “the art of changing consciousness at will.” For me, magic is the correspondence between what one holds in one’s mind, and what happens outside consciousness, in the world. It is not superstition, delusion, wishful thinking, or illusion.
You can see magic in operation every day, indeed every moment.
For instance. one man this week had an idea in his head, that People of Color are “the biggest problem for Americans,” that they are “stupid and violent” (oh, the irony), and “inferior.” These ideas did not originate with this man, but he accepted them as true, and they certainly manifested from consciousness into the world, in Charleston.
Interestingly, magic has many different connotations for most people these days. Most of them aren’t particularly positive: prestidigitation, illusion considered real by naive observers, conjuration, deception. And it can be these things.
But capitalism has its magic. It has its thought-forms that seep into our consciousness. In some ways, the contents of an accountant’s spreadsheet are more real to many of us than a homeless person starving or freezing to death in an alley. These ideas govern the very fabric of society, of resource allocation, of comfort & suffering for every living thing on the planet. The world is seen through the lens of quantification, reduced to a mere number, and capitalist wizards work their arcane lore to manipulate these numbers to their favour, manifesting their will to profit in the real world.
And the costs are externalized, as always. This is part of capitalist magic and privatization in general. When the numbers come in, they belong to the owner-wizards. But when the numbers need to go back out, it’s everyone’s problem.
Have you ever been to a corporate training seminar? They are really common these days. They cover a lot of areas, like exemplary customer service, or sexual harassment in the workplace, or assertiveness training for women in business, or techniques for results-oriented communication, or effective employee motivation, or really just about anything that a “limited liability” corporation needs to sign off on, so they can create the appearance that their employees know all about the topic the seminar covers.
Whether or not all the employees actually do understand these things is not important; what is important is that the corporation is no longer liable if trouble ensues when an employee acts in a way that clearly shows he does not understand. Usually when these conflicts occur the liability shifts from the corporation to the employee, who is disciplined or simply fired. And then everyone pretends this is normal, and as it should be.
But here’s the thing. There is a key component missing from a lot of the capitalist magic going on out there: will. The most important task for an occultist is to turn inward, into the self, beyond the veils of illusion, and learn to discern what the will is. The will is not whim, it is not passing fancy, it is not going along with what everyone else around you is doing. By suppressing and thwarting the ability of millions of people to discern their will, and choosing to move forward and defend the very system that oppresses them and benefits their oppressors, capitalism works its magic.
Capitalist magic is particularly prone to what Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is “merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.” The problem is, the abstract & the concrete (or theory & practice, seen from another angle) are not always two separate worlds, forever cleaved in half. One influences the other. The abstractions we carry in our minds usually regulate our behavior. If we focus on changing behavior without addressing the fundamental thought patterns that underlie it, we will forever be chasing small fires that keep arising. Overthrowing capitalism will require a transformation of human consciousness — the very essence of magic.
Ragnarök & The Transformation of Consciousness
So yeah, Ragnarök. For those unacquainted, it is the end of the world in Norse mythology, the twilight of the gods, deaths, disasters on a vast scale. It’s not difficult to imagine in the 21st century, where sensitive souls can see the damage being perpetrated on the planet. We are now in an extinction event, where some scientists think that humans will be extinct within a century. And many of the most ardent radical anti-capitalists feel hopeless to stop it, that there is nothing we can do.
But if we follow the example of my polytheist friends and take the statement — Odin is recruiting for Ragnarök — literally, there is plenty we can do. This perspective not only shows that Gods are aware of the problems we are facing, but that they are fighting against it and recruiting help. This is comforting.
Or, we can take the statement metaphorically, and realize that the machinations of capitalism also have their opponents in those of us who would protect the precious ecosystems of the planet against capitalist exploitation and destruction. We can re-enchant the world, but we must also re-enchant consciousness.
Children of Gods
Sun and Earth
source of our abundance
blazing fecundity, alchemical, we
in their image
Grandparent stars going before
forging all we have and are
smiling on us from
what afterlife dimension
star gods burn their way to
Larger than one culture
older than our memory
together in the web of life
cycling in the seasons we spin up,
or down, in our collective energy
Nets that bind, release
renewal patterns ever dancing
breath of life so sacred
novas wild, death birthing,
in the dark, the shining spiral
We are Pagans. We have a healthy, whole worldview that doesn’t try to exclude or ignore death and darkness. We aren’t afraid of them. We know where they lead – we’ve been there. We’ve walked the paths where darknesses and deaths overtake you along the way, and that they are not only not the end (the path has no end, it’s a spiral), but they are necessary for growth and life. We don’t disown matter in favor of spirit, nor spirit in favor of matter. We know both are integral. We see both clearly, because we live in them, together, and don’t deny any part of the world we come from and live in. We don’t have a story we must make the world fit within, our stories reflect what is, and what always returns. Mythology extends our memory past the reach of history, and we know that these are not the same thing, and that both are important.
We are not alienated from our world. We feel at home in it. Our kin are here, and we belong, having been born of this place, and being suited to it. It’s not some staging area for a Great Sorting in which we’ll eventually be put on a train to our real home, which supposedly will have an absence of death and darkness. What kind of unnatural thing would that be?! It doesn’t sound sustainable.
The sun halts in its courses, but it moves back again. The moon wanes away, but waxes again. The stars burn and collapse and burst, but their gravity and star-dust make worlds and stars again.
We Pagans lack, or find ourselves healing from, the sickness that separates people from their world and from each other. We’ve awakened from the illusions of separateness, dominion, and patriarchy. We tap back into the indigenous memory of mythology and the preserving shrine of nature, which gives us the broad perspective and time-depth that is necessary for wisdom. Wisdom can’t be preserved in a book. Language isn’t big enough, alone, to hold it. Even poetry, which comes close, needs experience to translate and unlock the treasures it holds.
The sun halts in its courses, but it moves back again. Seasons come to their edge, and transform to the next again. Humanity falls down in its destructive Winter of Illusions, but reconnects with the reality of Nature’s spirit of community and thriving life… and heals again.
If we healers are to heal the sicknesses of our world, to help the season change, we’re going to need the long perspective to know where to effectively focus the short. We’re going to need to know who we are and what spot in history we are situated in, as well as what archetypes from mythology we are dealing with. We need to know biology before we can be doctors. We need to know nature to apply its medicine.
Let’s remember to step back, into the cosmos, and watch the dance, learn the steps, and choose our part in it. We aren’t just individuals, born in a geopolitical nation, and privy only to the history since our birth, as people in our civilization tend to think. We can and must expand that to humanity and the earth community… whether or not nations are formed or continued. We should be privy to how things may go as well as how they have gone before, and why.
It isn’t a hard study if you stay curious and just remember to take at least one step back for a longer view of the big picture whenever you consider something.
Humanity has been around so much longer than the couple of thousand years or less that Western civilization has brought with us in cultural memory. You can’t navigate well in a fog of forgetfulness, with only your immediate surroundings visible and only a portion of that understood. Let’s all learn the lay of the land and the times, and the ley of how they all connect. Let’s connect with each other to more powerfully heal the imbalances. Capitalism wants us separated and thinking we’re powerless. But its spell is breaking, as ours is rising. It’s time for the light to overtake the path again.
The sun halts in its courses, but it moves back again. Awake from illusion, learn, and teach again. Blessed Solstice again, and again, and again.
Over at my personal blog I have a feature I call “What We’re Reading,” where I talk about what books I’m in the middle of and what I’m reading to my kids. I’d like to share a few of the books we’re reading that might relate to readers of Gods & Radicals.
A is for activist is a fantastic board book for babies, children, and grown ups alike! It walks readers through the alphabet, from activist to zapatista, educating people on collectivist and community ideas. Bright colors, plays-on-words (in more than one language!), and find-the-cat on each page make this book a lot of fun. I have found it a great way to slowly start discussing political ideas at an early age in a way that is non-polarizing. Plus, it always impresses the pants off adults when a kid can tell you that vox populi means voice of the people! Thanks, Innosanto Nagara!
Another beautiful board book is Kim Krans’ Hello Sacred Life. Krans is the creator of the fabulous Wild Unknown tarot deck (one I use regularly). Her simple book for the very young is a favorite in our house. The pictures are simple and exquisite, encouraging a reverence for the entirety of the world around us.
In my opinion, this book is appropriate for any family from any religious or spiritual tradition. Babies will love the colors and soothing repetitive quality of the words. Parents will love how easy it is to read. Personally, I find it quite relaxing to read – and we read it a lot!
For older kids, a fabulous book on gender diversity is Talcott Broadhead’s Meet Polkadot. Using a fictionalized version of Talcott’s sweet kiddo to demonstrate the myriad ways gender can be expressed, kids get a lesson in the basics of gender theory, lived experience, and ways they can be an ally.
This is a book that can be read on multiple levels. It’s very wordy, so when I read it to my 4 year old I might not read every single word, but read the bigger points on a page. For my older kid, I will read all of it. This book has led to some great discussions in our house! I love that my kids know transgender people in real life and in stories – and this book helps explain a lot of what that means. When we meet people of any or no gender they already have a bit of language under their belt, so they don’t have to get caught up on words and theory, and can jump straight into getting to know people as people.
Click on the picture below to purchase this book directly from the publisher.
Last, but not least, is the wonderful, inspiring Rad American Women A-Zby Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. This is another alphabet book, with each letter highlighting an amazing American woman. Featuring a diversity of races, backgrounds, and sexualities, from across the centuries, this book highlights the incredible women that mainstream histories often gloss over. So many of these women were involved in abolition, socialist movements, workers’ rights, and the Civil Rights Movement. Angela Davis, Temple Grandin, Kate Bornstien, Sonia Sotomayor, WIlma Mankiller, and many others are featured here. The letter X is particularly moving – no spoilers!
Click on the image below to purchase.
Each of these books revels in the beautiful diversity of our world and the collective efforts it takes to be whole, healthy, and thriving – that’s my take away, at least! These books reflect the values I wish for my kids: freedom of self-expression; love of this embodied and created world; virtues of strength, justice, and solidarity with others; feminism, socialism, and beauty.
Another aspect of these books I want to point out, one that your kids probably won’t appreciate, is that all of them are published by independent presses; three out of the four books were the impetus for their authors’ publishing companies! You can order these books directly from them or you can order them through your local, independent bookstore.
*Important note: this review is in no way suggesting that Gods & Radicals as an entity endorses these books, or the purchasing of them. These books were purchased by or borrowed from the library by me. The authors have no idea I’m reviewing their books.
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.
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]”.
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.
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.
After that, Lugaid mac Con was a year in the kingship of Tara, and no grass came through the earth, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. So the men of Ireland expelled him from his kingship, for he was an unlawful ruler.
– Aislinge Meic Conglinne, trans. Preston-Matto, 2010
A ruler’s truth overpowers armies. It brings milk into the world, it brings corn and mast.
– Early Irish text cited in Ó hÓgáin, 1999
In ancient Ireland, the king’s justice, the King’s Truth – fír flathemon – was the condition of sovereignty on which the prosperity of the land depended. If the king ruled with justice, the land prospered. If he failed in this, the land was barren, and the people suffered. Eventually, he would be deposed and a good king would replace him.
On May 7th, the UK had a general election, and a Conservative government was elected. This post is not about party politics. It is about political activism, and why it is needed – especially when the king’s justice is by no means certain for the future.
The Conservative-led UK government has spent the past five years implementing all manner of economically and socially conservative legislation and programmes. These cuts and measures have disproportionately targeted the poorest and most vulnerable* people in UK society. Here are just a few examples. I could have cited many more.
Injustice limits access to justice
Legal aid is an extremely old concept, found in the Bible and other ancient legal systems. It’s been a pillar of the UK social security system for generations, and it exists in many other countries too. The UK government has made sweeping cuts to legal aid, limiting most people’s access to financial support for legal representation. People in the foster care system, homeless people and parents in custody battles are all having to represent themselves in court. The worst affected area has been family law, which has seen a reduction in the use of mediation, which is likely to have had negative effects on families and children. In an unintended side-effect of the implementation of the cuts, people who experience domestic violence have been asked to show evidence of this before legal aid will pay their legal costs. The evidence is required to be no more than 24 months old. And it must be police evidence, which is a serious problem if the police haven’t believed you, or if you’ve been too afraid to report the abuse. Meanwhile, employment tribunal fees are no longer being paid by the government, as a result of which the rate of tribunals has dropped by 90%. This means less justice for those working in insecure jobs, in poor conditions, not receiving minimum wage, or facing discrimination at work. Injustice entrenches itself in the system.
Injustice compounds injustice
Then we’ve had the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. If people in social housing have more bedrooms than are deemed necessary, they have to pay more for them. Often this occurs in housing where people have lived for many years, where there can be many reasons for extra bedrooms (including the need for space to store disability-related equipment or to have a care worker sleeping nearby), and which they are now being made to leave. This measure is very badly timed, hitting people simultaneously with other serious housing issues, including a rental market that is spiralling out of control, as landlords charge more and more in rent, especially in the cities. As a result, thousands of people are being forced to move away from their home towns, relocated to cheaper housing elsewhere. This is having a knock-on effect on families, with parents even losing their children to the foster care system. Injustice compounds injustice.
Injustice destroys the weakest
Another horrendous move has been the closure of the Independent Living Fund. This fund helps to pay for the care of the most severely disabled people in our society, ensuring that they do not have to live in care homes, allowing them a measure of independence despite severe impairment. The fund is due to close in July. The government claims that the funding will move into the general local council social care budgets – but it is not ringfenced, i.e. the government will move the funding over without forcing local councils to spend it on the care of disabled people. Local council budgets have been cut by up to 30% across the board, and they are already struggling to pay for the care of disabled and elderly people, whose support is being cut as a result. This moving video features disabled people who are currently supported by the ILF, talking about their fears for the future. It’s worth watching. Injustice is brutal.
There’s also been ‘reform’ of disability benefits – by which the government really means cuts to benefits. Disabled people have been affected by government cuts 18 times harder than non-disabled people, some statistics suggest. Employment Support Allowance, an out-of-work benefit for those who can’t work due to disability, has been scandalously implemented via a ‘fitness to work’ test that has certified people as ready to go back to work just before they died from their conditions, as part of a system which has negatively impacted many people’s health. ESA has since been time-limited for many thousands of people, while ill people are being penalised and having their benefits removed if they cannot keep appointments (because they are sick).There have also been changes to funds that help to pay for the extra costs of disability, regardless of whether or not a person is in work. Without some of this funding, I will have no money to pay the soaring costs of disability in a society that increasingly doesn’t have room for me. I fear for my future and ability to work when I do. Injustice is expensive.
Injustice tramples the rights of the people
The government is now attempting to scrap the Human Rights Act, which allows us such terrible things as the right to freedom of expression, the right to an education, and the right to a private family life.
According to ajgcanada.com, these are all reforms that entrench poverty and increase inequality. Reforms that leave people in desperate situations. Reforms that destroy local services, including social care for elderly people and the National Health Service that all of us rely on (there is very little in the way of decent health insurance available to anyone in this country, except for those who are very rich and healthy). Reforms that kill. Injustice is relentless.
Fírflathamon – our truth, our justice
In a system that allows free elections, we are complicit in ensuring justice for all, and in denying it to anyone. We are the king’s justice, and the absence of it. We voted in a government that plans to aim further cuts at an already-ravaged population of poor and disabled people. We will only be able to blame ourselves when the land is torn apart by fracking, the foxes begin to die again if the hunt returns, homelessness numbers rise and rise, the people suffer because food banks are not enough to meet the needs created by government austerity programmes, and more poor and disabled people die.
One of the worst kickers has been that, when I’ve told US citizens about this situation, hoping for commiseration and support, their reply has mostly been “Welcome to America.” Thanks for the schadenfreude, friends, but I think we can do better than that. One country’s injustice does not mean we have to support a string of unjust systems across the world. If anything, it should make us more keen to fight for justice, both in our own lands and abroad. The UK has a history of an excellent welfare state that was a true safety net for those in trouble. We should all fight its collapse, not celebrate it.
Religious institutions have been slow to respond to the injustice of the austerity measures and cuts in Britain. So slow, in fact, that our Prime Minister recently felt able to co-opt Christian frameworks in support of his cuts. But members of various religions are starting to step forward and speak out against the situation. Pagans need to do the same. We have access to many myths and metaphors that highlight how social injustice can lead to social and economic collapse for all. Some of those myths have been validated in the modern world – we know that societies that emphasise social justice and reduce inequality tend to do better economically and socially. The good judgments of the king really do lead to a prosperous and peaceful land. The opposite is also true. The land will not prosper while the people are oppressed. No grass comes through the earth in Britain today, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. It’s just that not everyone can see that yet.
Today, the King’s Truth is our responsibility. It is our truth. Today, the majority has failed the minority in society, those who are weakened to sustain the power of the rich, of the more privileged. The bankers who get away with economic collapse. The politicians who get away with murder. We give them their power. We can take it away again.
But on May 7th, we failed to do that. We elected a government that we knew were planning to extend austerity measures and to create even more devastation and destruction. We could have deposed the king and replaced him with wise and just ministers. We chose instead to sustain and support gau flathemon, the injustice of kings.
The question is, what are we going to do about it now?
*Generally I dislike the word vulnerable, but in this case it’s true. Society is making disabled people, and others, ever more vulnerable in this country. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s another thing that we choose to allow, to stand by while it becomes ever more true.
Preston-Matto, 2010, Aislinge Meic Conglinne (the vision of Mac Conglinne). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Ó hÓgáin, 1999, The Sacred Isle. Cork, Ireland: Collins Press.
All photographs used under Creative Commons licence.
I – Radical Voices from the Lantern Waste – Opinions That Won’t Be Chronicled by Prof. Lewis.
“Narnia is a realm dominated by one voice – the roaring caterwauling of Aslan of the East. He has cried out many times in our history, drowning out all other truths. Sometimes in love, sometimes in anger. Sometimes with great cause. But only ever when it has suited him.”
“There is a deep magic, unknown to most. There is a deeper magic, unknown even to the wise. Then there is the deepest magic – known to everyone.”
“Aslan, or the White Witch? The messianic agent of some foreign emperor, or some despot from a dead world? Are those our only choices?!”
“Susan was the best of them, really. The High King was never here; more interested in fighting foreign wars and chasing valour than government. Edmund was clever, yes – but you couldn’t trust him. He’d say one thing, and do quite another, if he thought it “just”. As for Lucy, she was all play and passing fancies. She barely had any time in between all her “romps” – as she called them – to think of anything else. But Susan had common sense, and a kind heart – and wore the burden of governance well. And she also knew the awful game of Power that Aslan had set before her, and how it was to be played. She knew what a marriage – her marriage – could mean for Narnia; Peace, and safety from our enemies. Enemies Peter and his lot never wanted to stop fighting.”
II – To Narnia, and the North
I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was six. The triple volume we had in our house contained the first three books in the series – The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy. I can still remember the front cover now; a thick, starry-blue border, edging around a rolling green landscape that swept up to high mountains beneath a clear sky. In the foreground stood the Great Lion himself; Aslan looking gold and glorious as always. It was an evocative image, and it drew me in.
My parents were surprised and overjoyed when I started reading such a long set of novels, all on my own. I devoured the books; first reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, then The Horse and his Boy, and finally The Magicians Nephew. I remember whisking my way through pages and pages of text, whilst my friends at school were still stumbling through books that were mostly pictures, and way-big typefacing. Words like “gifted” were bandied about over my head in hushed tones.
I didn’t care about that, though. I was worlds away – dancing with fauns, fleeing from wolves and fording the Great River. I was in love. In love with Narnia, its people, its places, its culture. It was a vision of a totally animate world; and yet, one that was still earthy – it wasn’t some ethereal Neverwhere, hard to imagine separately to its bookish casings – it felt like (what I now call) ethnography; a thick description of a real place with realistic people. There are plenty of less-than-pleasant parts of Lewis’ vision – the sexism towards adult women, the blatant xenophobia, the authoritarian glint in Aslan’s leonine eye – but I didn’t notice any of it. To my six-year-old mind, the nasty hobby-horses of Lewis’ rode past unnoticed; the Christian allegory, 1950s imperialism and 1930s misogyny moving over my head, perhaps written at a level only older children could reach.
What did stick with me was the obvious Paganism upon which Lewis drew – the walking trees, the speaking beasts, the divine waters. I recognized them at once as friends and true gods, following them into the wild, forgotten places of the text, whilst Lewis played his Game of Thrones in the wide, open country of chapter upon chapter.
III – A lamentable surfeit of Pevensies
Because Lewis did focus upon heroes. Heroes, by and large, I didn’t really care about. Peter, Edmund, Eustace, Jill, and even Lucy seemed rather old-fashioned to the millennial me. I was frustrated by how I was expected to only empathise with a person if they hailed from my own world. I felt patronized even at age six by this authorial choice. It was for this reason that my favourite in the series was The Horse and His Boy; here was a book where those irritating Pevensies and their fellow travelers only got involved at the edges. This book is also, incidentally, populated by characters who have the least interest in Aslan – Shasta and Hwin barely know who he is, Aravis doesn’t care, Bree doesn’t get him at all despite using him as something of a battle-standard.
But what I really loved about Horse was that it gave a precious insight into ordinary Narnia. Towards the end of the book, Shasta, on his way to the capital of Archenland, manages to find his way into Narnia proper. There, he meets a community of everyday Narnians – dwarves, fauns, talking beasts. Simple people, leading their uneventful, happy lives in the forest. Shasta spends a-few short hours amongst them, eating bacon and seeing what he’s been missing all those years in the south, before rushing off to save the day. The narrative follows him, but my heart remained in those quiet woods. I read that chapter again and again, wishing the pages would open up and lower me down gently onto a bower of golden leaves and celandines; only to be greeted by a band of dwarves with a kettle on the boil.
I read the rest of the books only later, receiving them a couple of Christmases later. I loved Prince Caspian – the trees and awakening gods avenging themselves on dull Telmarine Narnia struck a chord that still sounds in my heart today. As The Voyage of the Dawn Treader didn’t actually take place in Narnia, and ended in what seemed at the time to be a sort of fuzziness I couldn’t pierce (i.e. Christian allegory) so I didn’t much care for it. The Silver Chair, overwhelmingly bleak, had brief points of relief for me in shedding light on the irascible marsh-wiggles and a positively Bosch-esque winter celebration when Eustace, Jill and co. return to Narnia.
IV – Crying from onions
And then I read The Last Battle. Each page left me feeling worse and worse. Here was the land I loved being torn to pieces. The trees being felled, the waters stilled, the animals broken as dumb beasts. Things got worse, and worse. And then, when all seemed darkest, Lewis rewarded me with the utter annihilation of Narnia, and most of its people, in fire and death.
What replaced it? A heroes reunion. Christian Allegory. More Pevensies. In short, everything I cared least about, was assured salvation!
The Narnia I loved – that magical Arcadia half-way between dreaming and waking – was replaced by something I found utterly incomprehensible. “Like an onion, but bigger on the inside” – what utter madness, I remember thinking, that doesn’t make sense at all! My visual imagination struggled to grasp this eschatological bulb, trying to imagine it as simultaneously England-and-Narnia-and-Everywhere all at once. I failed. The Christian intention of the books, once entirely invisible to me, had now become all there was to see. Aslan’s Country was an entirely foreign land to me.
I was nine or ten at the time, and I cried. I cried because I didn’t understand why Narnia had gone, or if it had gone, at all. I cried because I felt that all those nice, ordinary Narnians – simple people, who asked for nothing except a peaceful life – must’ve been exactly the sort to be tricked by Shift and his idiotic donkey-lion, Puzzle. Puzzle (and I really couldn’t believe this part) was allowed into this post-Narnia place, despite the fact that he had shown exactly the same level of ignorance that the others had done. they had been damned, yet he had not. I cried because I knew the Narnia I had believed in, was, in the eyes of the author, gone. And what’s more, he felt that was a good thing.
Now I am older. I ended up converting to the faith that Lewis himself followed – Anglican Christianity – in the vain hope of recovering some of the mystery I had felt close to in reading those first books, and that had been thoroughly banished by The Last Battle. I now realize that it was at around the time that I read that damn book that the rot to set in – the gradual loss of innocence that was less about becoming interested in stockings and lipstick and boys, as Lewis might have it, and was more about believing the world didn’t actually have any magic in it at all. Lewis successfully broke the spells woven through my Pagan heart, by shattering it in two – for a while, anyway. In the depression that followed, I was vulnerable in precisely the way that Christianity is so adept at exploiting. As such, I became a Christian.
In the end, Christianity did little for me. It energized the worst parts of my character – the self-righteous, self-hating, self-denying tendency that I still have trouble with – and left me feeling harrowed and guilty over my sexuality, my body, and my philosophical outlook. I spent years worrying about being gay and about possibly doing something that would get me sent to hell. The voices I heard on the wind told me I was safe. But the angry words of other Christians told me something different. I doubted.
Gradually, though, I was guided back into Paganism. Those voices in the wind revealed themselves as gods, not one God and his saintly minions. Those angry words were shown to be vacuous and fearful by plenty of good education and reflection. At Cambridge and through Druidry, I found my community – my Narnia. And now, after all these years, I’ve found myself again too. Now, when I look back upon Narnia, I can understand its less pleasant side.
V – Laying siege to Cair Paravel
Although it is fair to extoll Lewis’ oevre as a seamless work of genius, you can see two very distinct sides to the land he envisioned. One, embodied by the central stronghold of the monarchy at Cair Paravel – is deeply Christian in nature; focussed around noble, exemplary people, who do great things for the sake of their faith in Aslan, and can be ranked according to their relative power and sanctity. Its enemies – represented by various other castles, from the giant’s playground at Harfang, to the visciously racist Tashbaan, and the glittering misogynist edifice of the White Witch’s House – rather than being the opposite of Narnia, are more like parodies of Aslan and his power base. The hierarchy imposed through Cair Paravel remains strictly consistent across the canon; coordinated by the Emperor Beyond the Sea through Aslan, his proxy. By contrast, the forces of evil are totally divided. The White Witch. Tash. The Lady of the Green Kirtle. Shift. All move largely independently of one another, whereas Aslan exerts complete and magisterial control over all his agents.
But this axis of united good and disparate evil in a Christian vein is balanced by Narnia’s other side: its Pagan face. Mostly represented by various genius loci (naiads, dryads, hamadryads), fauns, satyrs, centaurs, dwarves, and of course, talking beasts, here is the lived existence of Narnia, between the moments where Aslan (or his enemies) appear and fight it out for supremecy. Because the story turns about the axis of the good and bad castles, we hear about this other aspect to Lewis’ world only in fragments; night dances led by Bacchus, a river god who prefers to be unshackled by bridges. These beings distinguish themselves from the enemies of the Lion, because they all submit to the Emperor, and accept that they live better under his rule. But they nonetheless sit apart from the castle lot – the reason being, that they are disbarred from sitting in government. It is only Sons of Adam, and Daughters of Eve (i.e. humans) who have that right. Just as the gods of Narnia all submit to Aslan, so all Narnia’s other-than-human inhabitants, must submit to human authority. Their diversity is harmless, because it is disempowered.
This is a fudge; a bit of theological fancy footwork, by which Lewis does a cut and shut of Pagan and Christian theology. The Pagan world – of gods, speaking beasts, talking trees, divine waters and so on – is permitted to exist, but only insofar as it submits to the authority of the preordinant Christian cosmos, populated by humans as God’s agents. What’s more, the idea that Paganism can exist independently is not even treated as a possibility; you either fall under the shadow of Cair Paravel, or that of her many enemies.
VI – There, but for the Grace of the Gods
I have a personal theory about Lewis. As a young man, he expressed a deep and abiding love of the myths and stories of Old Europe. He felt keenly aware of this indefinable quality of “Northerness”, that he attempted to capture in Narnia. But as he grew older, he embraced first atheism and then Christianity. Paganism became, for him, a sort of “gateway drug” to Christian belief – in his view, people needed to become good Pagans, before they could be made good Christians. Although in later life he firmly classed Christianity as superior, this was not always how he viewed the world. Personally, I wonder about this theological journey – I suspect that, had Lewis been born some fifty years later or so, he would have happily embraced Paganism from the beginning. Had I lived in the time that he had, I would probably have remained an unhappy Christian – a faun in exile.
Lewis’ vision of Paganism – as the proletarian, lower stratum of a universe over which the Christian God and his chosen followers ride triumphant – is a powerful parable for how we, as Pagans, choose to see ourselves. For contemporary Paganism is like the ordinary Narnia of Lewis’ imagining. We as a society play in our glades, groves, and meads; singing with trees and rivers; feasting and drinking, celebrating with our merry gods without tiring. And yet, all the while, a war is going on: a war between the Ruling Power of our world and His vicious reflections. According to the apologists of Capital, there is no alternative to their glowing vision of a world powered by growth and money. The pitiless extremism of Islamic State, the ruthless despotism of Putin’s Russia – all are every bit as evil as Witches or Telmarines. And so, many of us – like ordinary Narnians – put their trust in a regime that promises to fight for us, rather than fight ourselves for a world where such regimes of threat and counter-threat are no longer necessary.
And what fate awaited such Narnians in The Last Battle? Most of them, confused and frightened, were swallowed up in a world-ending cataclysm, arising not simply from the misdeeds of the Evil Others against whom their Emperor rallied, but from the war itself. Only a precious few – “heroes”, in the eyes of the elite, and not ordinary Narnians at all – survive their world being overturned in fire and water, in time and the wrath of dragons.
The sad fate of the ordinary Narnians is what ultimately awaits us, should we allow the hegemonic forces of our world to set our discourse for us. What we must do is learn how to reclaim Narnia for its people; so that the bucolic vision of joy it inspires is not merely a happy sideshow to the real End of History playing out around it. We are the speaking beasts, the walking trees, the divine waters – Narnia and the North, and all they represent, are our birthright; we must reclaim them from those who would dominate them. Is it possible to live in a world without castles, without the war, without lions and witches? In my heart, there sits a little six year old boy, who dreams of sunny fields and quiet woods where dryads and dwarves dwell untroubled; who knows the answer must be yes.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
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