The Scottish folktale “Great Brid of the Horses” survives only in a version collected from Cape Breton Gaelic storyteller Joe Neil MacNeil and published in Tales Until Dawn in 1987, but the concepts in this story are much older.
“Great Brid of the Horses” is based on a medieval Irish tale called “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly.” The original version is a story about the high-handed behavior of the fili or elite bards of Ireland under the leadership of famous poet Senchan Torpeist, who has a voraciously hungry wife named Brigit.
In “Great Brid of the Horses,”Senchan does not appear in person and the poets are led by a woman named Brid. Since the group is still called “Senchan’s Band” and Brid is just a variant of Brigit, this must be Senchan’s wife.
“Great Brid of the Horses” is greedy, demanding and unreasonable. Her personality is so different from the popular image of Brigit that they don’t seem to be the same sort of entity at all. Still, as the wife of Ireland’s greatest fili this Brigit could well have some connection to Brigit the goddess of poetry. This raises the question – why is Brigit so hungry?
Senchan Torpeist is the anti-hero of “The Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” which is essentially a satire on the mafia-like behavior of the fili or poets. Because the clan chiefs and provincial kings of ancient Ireland were terrified of the magic power of a bardic satire (and of the fact that a satire could destroy a heroic reputation overnight), the poets were able to take advantage of the situation and impose on the kings.
When Senchan Torpeist was elected chief poet of Ireland, he decided to set the tone for his reign by visiting the good King Guaire with a vast following of lesser-ranked poets, hoping to bankrupt Guaire and force him to be less-than-flawlessly-generous to the poets. Senchan intended to use the slightest lapse on Guaire’s part as an excuse to satirize him, thus destroying the good king and establishing Senchan’s reputation as a poet to be feared and respected by all.
When Senchan’s wife Brigit sent a plate of food up to his room as a present, Senchan was enraged to find it eaten by rats or mice. He composed a satire on the creatures, and ten of them were killed by his magic power. (An incident so famous it was referenced by Shakespeare!) He then satirized the cats of the world because they failed to kill the mice, but Hirusan the King of the Cats came up out of the Cave of Cnogda to get revenge on Senchan. The monster cat ran away with Senchan, but St. Kieran saw it carrying the bard off and killed it with a flaming iron bar he happened to have handy.
Far from being happy at his fortunate rescue, Senchan was so put out that he remained gloomy of temperament for the rest of his days, because if he had been eaten alive by Hirusan then the Grand Bardic Assembly would have had the excuse they needed to satirize King Guaire.
As it happens, King Guaire was able to get rid of the Grand Bardic Assembly by asking them to recite the lost epic of the Tain, which shamed them into leaving and setting off on the quest by which the Tain was eventually recovered. As they were leaving, Senchan did refer to Guaire as “stainless” but added rather ominously that “We shall visit thee again, O Guaire, though now we depart.”
In “Great Brid of the Horses,” the poets impose themselves on a king and their leader Brid demands a series of impossible things such as blackberries in January, a meal of a pig that has never been born and a ride on a white horse with red ears. The symbolism of Brid’s demands is complex and symbolic, and seems to have something to do with the powers of the underworld. (As does the anecdote about her husband Senchan being dragged away by a monstrous cat who lives in a cave – raw cat flesh and raw pork were both used as sacrificial offerings by the fili when performing divination rituals.)
However, “Great Brid of the Horses” is not the only story about Senchan’s Band – in fact, these stories form a genre of their own in Highland folklore, and some of the other versions shed a different light on the entire concept.
Starting in the late 16th century, the government of Scotland began to pass a series of repressive laws against wandering bards and other “masterful beggars” in the Scottish Highlands, ordering them to flee the country on pain of mutilation and death.
Masterful beggars were people who roamed from place to place “sorning” or demanding hospitality from clan chiefs and other powerful people. In traditional Gaelic society, the rich and powerful were expected to provide generous hospitality on demand to nearly anyone who asked for it, and any rich man who failed to do so would have been scorned by everyone.
This custom was, in effect, a social welfare system – privilege carried with it an absolute obligation to be generous. Sorners and masterful beggars could not be asked to move on, so they would often attach themselves to a particular chief and live on his largess for as long as possible. A chief could get rid of his sorners only if he could meet certain ritualized conditions. For instance, a wandering swordfighter could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local swordfighter capable of defeating the wanderer in a broadsword match. A wandering bard could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local person to defeat the bard in a battle of wits. (Or, as my wife Cicely would have it, an “MC battle.”)
There were different categories of sorners, who were generally expected to provide some sort of service in exchange for the chief’s hospitality. According to James Garden, writing in 1692, wandering bardic troupes usually included “excellent poets” or what he called phili (the elite fili of Gaelic tradition), storytellers and genealogists or sheanachi, conversationalists and news-carriers or kreahkirin and riddlers or kheakirin. Garden also mentions fiddlers and women who sang Gaelic songs, and notes that such wandering bands of entertainers were known as Chlearheanachi. Whenever a bardic troupe came into a certain district, they would take turns visiting the local chief to provide entertainment and receive his gifts.
According to the Gaelic scholar John Shaw in his article “Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain,” these troupes were colloquially known in the Highlands as the Cliar Sheanchain or Senchan’s Band, just like the group in “Great Brid of the Horses.” Although the earlier “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly” portrays Senchan’s troupe as a band of high-ranking fili, the later Scottish Gaelic folklore uses the phrase Cliar Sheanchain for bands of sorners.
Brigit of the Great Hunger
According to Shaw, the name Great Brid of the Horses or Brid Mhor Each, is actually a later misinterpretation of Brigit Mhor-shaithech, a phrase that originally meant “Brigit of the Great Appetite,” referring to the wife of Senchan Torpeist. I would suggest that the name may not be merely a misinterpretation but a play on words, as the double meaning would have been appealing to any Gaelic storyteller. In Highland stories, the battle of wits between the Cliar Sheanchain and the local wit always ends when the local says something so clever that it stupefies or silences the bard – an act known as “putting the black mare” on the silenced person. This was seen as an act of magic, not just of cleverness, so there is an association between magic power, superior wit and horses.
So, if Great Brid of the Horses is also Brigit of the Great Hunger, we return to the original question – why is Brigit so hungry? The fili were a high status class in ancient Irish society, so why would the wife of Ireland’s chief fili be hungry at all? The story presents it solely as a case of bardic avarice, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Shaw mentions another variation on “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” collected from Highland storyteller Archibald MacTavish in 1881 or 1882. In this version of the tale, the members of the Cliar Sheanchain are described as “five hundred blind men, and five hundred deaf men, five hundred lame men, and five hundred dumb men, and five hundred crippled men” along with their wives, children and dogs. Other accounts of the Cliar Sheanchain indicate that the bardic troupes were actually much smaller than this – maybe a dozen or two people in a band. However, this description is quite revealing.
The repressive acts of the Scottish government against the bards in the late 16th and early 17tth centuries were not directed against the high-status professional fili retained on a full-time basis by clan chiefs, but only against the wandering “masterful beggars” of the Cliar Sheanchain. These laws were not designed to destroy the bardic institution per se, just the wanderers who demanded hospitality under threat of magical satire. Why exactly did they do so? Not because they were uncontrollably greedy as most of the stories suggest, but because they were homeless people, often with physical disabilities, who needed material assistance to survive.
Gaelic culture, over the centuries, had developed an effective social welfare system in which the poor and disadvantaged could compel assistance from the powerful through magical acts of “direct action.” The law intervened to crush them, by scourging, branding and hanging defiant bards.
“Great Brid of the Horses” is also “Brigit of the Great Hunger,” not because the bards are greedy but because her people are hungry. She is the ruling spirit of the Cliar Sheanchain, their protector and champion, a goddess vilified even in the lore that preserved her name – just as the homeless and hungry are vilified still.
“Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain” by John Shaw:
Lately, I’ve been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber. I recommend the book wholeheartedly for anyone who wishes to understand the theory, history, psychology, and ethics of debt. This is not a review of the book, but look for a review by George Caffentzis coming soon to Gods & Radicals. Graeber’s book has been food for thought to say the least, and has me thinking about the function of debt under capitalism. It pervades the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, about not only our individual places in society but also the structure of society itself. One of the main themes of Graeber’s book is that debt functions as the primary arbiter of morality in society; many contemporary religions speak in terms of debt help & advice as well as repayment in their cosmologies, often in terms of the afterlife. Debt can also function as “fate,” in the sense that with debt, one can accumulate restrictions that limit the potentialities of one’s existence, further chaining us inside the capitalist workforce. As Graeber shows us, these stories about debt are worth further attention.
The Tiv Flesh-Debt & The Society of Witches
Graeber reminds us repeatedly that these questions of debt and economy are, above all, human stories, and as such are well served by his anthropological approach. One of the human stories he tells is of the Tiv flesh-debt and the society of witches, a story worth quoting at some length:
“The mbatsav, or society of witches, was always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people into eating human flesh. A witch would take a piece of the body of one of his own close relatives, who he had murdered, and place it in the victim’s food. If the man was foolish enough to eat it, he would contract a “flesh-debt,” and the society of witches ensured that flesh-debts are always paid.
Perhaps your friend, or some older man, has noticed that you have a large number of children, or brothers and sisters, and so tricks you into contracting the debt with him. He invites you to eat food in his house alone with him, and when you begin the meal he sets before you two dishes of sauce, one of which contains cooked human flesh….
If you eat from the wrong dish, but you do not have a “strong heart”—the potential to become a witch—you will become sick and flee from the house in terror. But if you have that hidden potential, the flesh will begin to work in you. That evening, you will find your house surrounded by screetching cats and owls. Strange noises will fill the air. Your new creditor will appear before you, backed by his confederates in evil. He will tell of how he killed his own brother so you two could dine together, and pretend to be tortured by the thought of having lost his own kin as you sit there, surrounded by your plump and healthy relatives. The other witches will concur, acting as if all this is your own fault. “You have sought for trouble, and trouble has come upon you. Come and lie down on the ground, that we may cut your throat.”
There’s only one way out, and that’s to pledge a member of your own family as substitute. This is possible, because you will find you have terrible new powers, but they must be used as the other witches demand. One by one, you must kill off your brothers, sisters, children; their bodies will be stolen from their graves by the college of witches, brought back to life just long enough to be properly fattened, tortured, killed again, then carved and roasted for yet another feast.
The flesh debt goes on and on. The creditor keeps on coming.”
–David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, emphasis added
Interesting, but more than a little morbid, right? This story of debt & cannibalism is useful precisely because it horrifies our western minds, and yet it reveals the arbitrary construct of the psychology of debt as it operates in our consciousnesses. A few points about the above passage:
Trickery & entrapment as foundational recruitment practice. The “society of witches” are “always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people.” This is a political organization, in the sense that they have a certain amount of power in the Tiv culture. This political organization reproduces itself through trickery, bonding its new members after the trick to use their “terrible new powers” in service to the group.
An ability to ignore one’s conscience and act in ways that are normally repugnant. New members of the society of witches must have “a strong heart,” which means that they are able to overcome their distaste and disgust for the group’s cannibalistic activities which are repugnant to the core. It is interesting that an ability to shut off one’s conscience is seen as “strength.”
Blame-shifting & corroboration of a lie benefiting the conspirators. The deceptive recruiter then confronts the new recruit: he “pretends to be tortured” which shifts the blame for murdering, cooking, and eating another human away from the very person responsible for the deed. Instead, everyone already invested in the society of witches pretends that there is nothing at all unusual about the arrangement, and that the flesh-debt is the fault and responsibility of the person tricked into cannibalism. They not only tell the story & believe it, but also behave as if the story is true. The society of witches, after all, ensures that “flesh debts are always paid.” As always, the repayment of debt is always seen as sacrosanct and legitimate, no matter how abhorrent the story of any specific debt might be.
Debt is now a tool of capitalism
These structures of the debt relationship repeat themselves through many of Graeber’s examples of how debt works. I invite the reader to take a look at how the above structures of debt relationship manifest in our culture, indeed in many of our lives, since the amount of debt people carry these days is greater than ever. Indeed, as Jacques Laroche pointed out at strikedebt.org, debt might be the single unifying factor in all the various struggles going on against capitalism.
Debt is arbitrary, and not always tied to the value of specific things that have been purchased. As an example, one needs only look at the story of student debt and the “deal” between the capitalists and the working class of my generation, growing up in the 80s. This deal was reinforced in our young minds, and continues to be reinforced in schools across the nation. The story is something like this: “hire education” is mandatory for those who wish to work at well-paying jobs. Those who don’t achieve this hire education are fated to mop floors or flip fast food burgers — a story accepted as axiomatic by millions despite the fact many successful capitalists are not college educated. Furthermore, even more so than debt in general, student debt is completely arbitrary. My wife and I have the exact same degree from the exact same educational institution. One of us managed to get this degree without incurring any debt, whereas the other one accrued tens of thousands of dollars in debt, again, for the same degree from the same institution. I will leave it to you students of kyriarchy to determine which of us was saddled with the debt (hint: it wasn’t the straight white male).
Debt is not the same thing as capitalism, having been around at least 10x longer than capitalism has. Debt is now a prime mechanism by which the working class is kept under control, giving millions of people no other choice but to sell the only thing they have left to sell: their labor power in order to survive. Debt underlies all aspects of class struggle. Since the destruction of the Commons, there is no other possibility for most people to subsist and reproduce their lives.
Robert Anton Wilson had a great thought-experiment, where instead of using the term “money” (which also is not the same as debt, by the way, despite their close relationship) he suggests using the term “survival tickets.” This thought-experiment shows that money and debt introduce an abstraction into the most basic survival impulses in the most primitive parts of our consciousness. We humans evolved with “fight or flight” instincts to protect us from imminent danger, such as being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. Now, few of us are in danger of being consumed by a wild animal, yet these instincts remain with us. The “survival ticket” concept illustrates this fear beautifully, as these completely arbitrary and abstract tickets are the way we survive, and the fear of their lack drives many of our actions.
Most of us, of course, don’t really have enough money, at least not to live the way we wish to live. Most of us will use our limited “survival tickets” to buy food and shelter, meeting our most basic needs for survival, while in the meantime the spectre of unpaid debt keeps growing in the back of our minds, gnawing at us, creating fear that eventually men with guns will come and take away our limited survival tickets and our home. This fear keeps us willing to engage the capitalist system, so that we can struggle for more survival tickets, showing how powerful this story of debt is in our culture.
The importance of stories & violence of silence
“When you begin to believe in your own B.S., you enter the state that I call self-hypnotic ideational trance, and pretty soon you’ve got a headful of S.H.I.T.”
—Robert Anton Wilson
Wilson also had some other fabulous ideas about the ideas we hold in our minds. He warned us to be mindful of our B.S. (belief systems), and to make sure we don’t operate with destructive S.H.I.T. (self-hypnotic ideational trances) that we aren’t deliberately cultivating for ourselves. I would call this process decolonizing the mind. Graeber’s book can certainly help us see through some of the constructs lurking below our everyday awareness, that help push capitalism forward and reproduce itself. This leveling process of capitalismrequires us to lose sight of stories, whether it be the debt-stricken person being thrown into the street, or the ecosystem being raped and its inhabitants destroyed, because capitalism cannot operate under the nuances of existence:
“To make a human being an object of exchange, one woman equivalent to another for example, requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is, and thus, into a generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt. This requires a certain violence.”
—David Graeber, from Debt: The First 5000 Years
We must refuse to be silent. We must insist on stories, both in telling our own and hearing those of others. Don’t believe the same old B.S. that capitalism sells, and get that S.H.I.T. out of your head. We are Pagans, and we are (or should be!) sensitive to the stories that lurk, undiscovered, in the corners of consciousness and the forest. It is these stories that will transform & re-enchant the world.
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I am thirteen and bleeding all over the floor of Renee’s bathroom. It is the middle of the night. I thought I had to pee, but it’s just that my period has started. I can’t predict these unpredictable occurrences. My stomach hurts. I feel queasy. But my flow is so heavy it’s running down my leg and making a mess on the floor. I mop up what I can. I swallow my pride and wake my friend to wake her mother. We need assistance. Thankfully, in an act of female teenage solidarity, no one ever hears of this story. Until now.
I am fifteen, crawling on my hands and knees through the halls of my high school. I have cramps so severe I cannot walk. I am pale and my English teacher is concerned that I might be passing out at my desk. Thankfully, most everyone is in class, so few people have to see my humiliation. But humiliation is the least of my concerns right now. Basic bodily functioning is my only priority at this moment. No one ever mentions seeing me do this.
I am nineteen and even being on the pill can’t cure me of cramps so bad that once again I cannot walk. I am slumped on the tile floor of the university dining hall bathroom. I might be passing out. A male friend is brought in to find me and carry me back to my dorm room. He never mentions this again.
In each of these moments what isn’t mentioned is that these moments aren’t mentioned. Women are supposed to be quiet about something that our bodies do every single month for thirty or forty years. Don’t make a big deal of your experience. Don’t gross anyone out. This is shameful and people will mock you. Or they willfully ignore it.
Don’t smell of flesh and blood. Don’t leak or leave a bloody stain. Stuff your cunt up. Eat ungodly amounts of pain-killers. Alter your hormones with birth control pills, regardless of the sex you may or may not be having. Don’t let cramps get you down; girl, let’s see that smile! Don’t rest; taking a day off work just proves women are weak and unreliable.
Patriarchy and Capitalism are cozy bedfellows. They are happy to convince women that their bodies are disgusting, so they can sell us one more product to make us more “productive”, to make my vagina smell like candy or flowers, anything that will stop these cunts from bleeding.
HARDER FASTER STRONGER MORE
Anti-Capitalist efforts have always maintained the dignity of the human person, that our dignity is inherent in our being, and is not more nor less dignified according to our material wealth. Our bodies are not machines, and therefore we cannot work 12, 16, 18 hours a day. Thanks to the Socialists of the past, we now have an 8 hour work day.
Except, we don’t really. Our paid work may only be 8 hours a day, but there is no room for rest in our society. In 1974 Silvia Federici tackled the issue of the unpaid work of housework, done almost exclusively by women. She says “the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it”. By denying that housework is work, that raising children is work, Capitalism can ignore women’s needs for equality of time, reimbursement, and support. If it’s not work, we can continue to underpay house cleaners, nannies, preschool teachers, (some) cooks, and so on.
We are encouraged to work ever longer hours. We are isolated in our nuclear families, not sharing the collective labor our lives require. Our communities are designed for long commutes. You can sleep when you’re dead. Play hard. Never give up. Always improving, never just being. There is no room for pain, or rest, or love, but our bodies are not machines.
“Women’s work,” women’s bodies, women’s embodied experience, in fact, all human embodied experiences, are inconvenient for the Capitalist enterprise. Because our bodies are not machines.
EMBRACING MY BLOODY BODY
In my late 20s, when I was in graduate school, I decided to try an experiment, because I could, because I had the flexibility to do so. I decided to give myself a 48 hour menstrual holiday. I was on the pill and could ensure that my period always started on a Friday. I would not make any plans. No studying if I could help it. I hung out in my pajamas, eating cheese burgers, napping, and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And bleeding onto cloth. No pushing myself to look good (when I was bloated and heavily bleeding). No trying to socialize (when I was spacey and queasy). No needing to be ON. No bleached cotton and chemicals blocking me up.
It transformed the way I felt about my period and my body. I stopped hurting as much. I stopped experiencing PMS symptoms as strongly. I started looking forward to my body releasing and resting. I started wondering how many other people, particularly women, were pushing through pain and discomfort, ignoring their bodies, menstruating or not.
It changed the way I understood bodies, period. My compassion for others’ bodies increased.
BY BEING SOFT I WILL RESIST
These days I don’t have “days off.” I have small children, born of a body so used to pain that labor was not that much worse than my cramps. When I am menstruating, I continue to observe my monthly holidays. I try not to schedule anything. We eat leftovers. I put my feet up. I embrace the blood that keeps my womb clean and healthy. I settle into a space, mentally, physically, and spiritually, that feels liminal and helps me wander between the realms of life and death, of this world and Other worlds.
By resting and embracing my bleeding I resist the fetishization of my female body. I don’t have to smell like a prepubescent female. I can smell like the animal I am, iron and flesh, pheromones and earth. I listen to the completely natural urges of my body. Sometimes the slickness and warmth sing a song of sex, needing salt and a firm hand. Other times I want not a single touch, as if every inch of my flesh has gone on strike.
Instead of purchasing conventional period products, I have acquired, over time, cloth products, made by women who work out of their home. They are more environmentally sustainable, easily washable, more comfortable, and supporting, not some corporation, but a family and/or independent craftsperson*. I step outside the conventional model and resist – economically, environmentally, bodily. One act of resistance leads to another.
BLOODY WILL BE THE WAY
I resist Capitalism by not being “productive.” I resist by refusing to accept that my body or your body is a machine. Our bodies need to rest. Our bodies need time and space to heal, to purge, to grow, to be. Honoring my body shows my kids that the female body is not disgusting, but a cause for celebration.
Blood is life. The blood that pumps in my body and your body every moment of every day is life. Your heart’s blood and my cunt’s blood. A bleeding woman is a powerful woman. A bleeding woman can grow a life in the hidden spaces of her body. A woman who resists hiding her power, in her sex, in her blood, lays bare her connection to the sacrality of life, of our flesh.
Who better to understand this than Pagans? We understand the balance on the knife’s edge between life and death. We understand that life is sacred, that blood and sex are sacred. The Capitalist system denies this sacredness and tries to shame us, male and female alike, by insisting that we soldier on, cover up, and purchase more goods to Get Through.
The body is a site of resistance. Resistance to Capitalism and Patriarchy may begin with a glimmer of a theoretical idea, realization, or hope. But those ideas must flower in relation to our lived, embodied experience. Resistance begins in these personal moments, in the ways we love, the ways we bleed, the ways we live and die.
I saw the tentacles of control between the two-headed hydra of Patriarchy and Capitalism, passing our bodies around. I cut one tentacle, only to see that we are tangled in others. But the confidence to cut one tentacle leads to cutting more. Resist once and you can resist again.
Resist beautifully. Bleed.
*Ironically, this form of resistance has finally been noticed by Capitalist powers and the FDA has decided that cloth pads are “class 1 medical devices” and must be regulated and taxed accordingly
Niki Whiting is a mother and a student of theology. She was born and raised in Alaska and currently lives in Olympia.
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In my essay from April 27th, “Towards a Pagan Politics”, I claimed that capitalism levels all values while paganism is committed to a pluralism of irreducibly different values. I lacked time and space then to fully flesh out this point, but I would like to dedicate myself here to clarifying and expanding upon the claim.
What is Value?
I think that my claim could have been made even stronger, specifically that while capitalism starts out as the dominance of one value over all others it becomes a complete loss of all sense of value. Capitalism is a nihilism of the most banal sort. Paganism, on the other hand, is dedicated to the rich complexity, vibrancy and value-laden nature of life. To see how and why this is the case we need to investigate the concept of value rather closely.
Today we have a highly subjective concept of value (which is, itself, largely an effect of capitalism). In other words, we understand the noun “value” from its verb form – we primarily understand value as what a thing has because it is valued by someone. Without human valuing, on this reason, nothing would have value. In other words, value has no reality in and of itself but rather derives from human actions or resides in human minds alone. The models here, of course, are the little pieces of paper and metal which we make into valuable money because we treat it as such.
But the actual word for value, and the origins of the concept behind the word, comes from words for strength and power. Relative terms, surely, but not subjective ones. Value, valor, virtue, virility all share the same origin. Far from the model of money, their most primordial model is fire (another word which is cognate with value) and, we might suggest, the incontestable importance of light and the sun.
Value shines. It is that which shines-out to us, that which shines for us. It does not shine because we make it shine, but rather it calls to us as the sun draws the plant that leans towards it. Nature, everywhere, values because it responds to the obvious presence of real value. At the most basic level we might say that wherever there is the force of attraction there is value. The earth values the sun when the day-star sets its path and motivation.
Human values are no different, they are the draw of things of power and importance that appear to us and define us as those who can see them. Value, then, is inseparable from the concept of a calling. We do not, cannot, determine or choose what will call us. We can only listen, or refuse to listen, to the call.
If we contemplate the model of values as fire and as light we see that values determine how the world shows up for us. Certain things leap out at us, whether dramatic or small, as important, worthy of respect, or in need of a response from us. Values, then, are reality’s opening of a conversation with us – a conversation to be enacted through what we do. The light determines the look of things, what shows up and what doesn’t, and how things appear. It is in the light of how reality reveals itself to me, as value – worth – beauty – truth – that I become who I am and act upon the world as it has appeared.
Divinities and Nature
One of the oldest forms of value are the goddesses and gods whose shining appearance cast the whole of reality into a certain aspect and form. Since before history, when values called to humanity they called through the voice of the divinities. For the same reason, when ancient heroes displayed valor or virtue they were understood to embody or be empowered by one of the gods, they become the active body of value. This is, in fact, what virtue first meant, to embody value i.e. the power and truth of a divinity. Far from subjective creations, value was understood to be the revealing of a truth most frequently encountered as a divinity.
This connection between values and divinities explains, as well, the connection between divinities and nature. In the power and beauty of the river shone forth the face of a goddess or god, the aspect of a value. In the terror and force of the mountain or storm unveiled the might of some divinity and a demand – a value.
None of this is to suggest, however, that divinities are symbols of values. The situation is far more the reverse. We have emptied values of their active vitality, and so find it hard to understand that values are experienced in the action and event of basic truths, forces, powers and realities appearing to us. Values, as active agents, are better taken as symbols of the divinities than the reverse.
To repeat a few points from my previous essay, pagan values will be distinct in being plural. The recognition of several diverse and separate divinities is, at the same time, the recognition that reality is made up of a plurality of irreducible forces and truths. There are always many values, and they cannot be translated one into another or reduced one to another. The many values, as the many gods, are incommensurable – they share no common measure against which they can be organized and unified. There is no unity, no totality, no final truth and ultimate value. Despite that, however, certain values and gods will call to each individual in a unique manner. I will serve certain divinities, enlightened by certain values, and you others. It is only together that we gain a better grasp of the endless plurality that is reality but not through totalizing the diversity of values, truths and ways of life.
Profit and Power
Capitalism is necessarily monotheist in its metaphysics in the sense that it reduces all values to one ultimate value, specifically the standard of price. The market admits, indeed relies upon, the fact that people will value different things and disagree about a given thing’s value but one element is asserted (and echoed in economics) without question – that all things will be reducible to a price either individually or based on the statistical average of what people are willing to pay. We see obvious examples of this in terms of risk calculations that determine how many people can be injured or killed by a product before the risk gets too expensive for a company. Human life, suffering, and death can all be reduced to a price. So too can environmental destruction. How much profit, it is asked, can be extracted from the earth before the destruction outweighs and benefit? Forest and mountains, entire species and nations, all have their price. For the market and the capitalist there is absolutely nothing which can not be numbered, calculated – price checked. In this sense capitalism is leveling, it levels the diversity of values to the basic point of price.
It is easy to assume, then, that capitalism places wealth or profit as the ultimate value to which all others may be reduced but this is, in fact, naïve. For many the goal might be wealth or profit, but the illusory nature of wealth is inherent to capitalism’s own system. Money is just worthless paper and metal unless people behave as if it is not, and the wealthiest people and wealthiest businesses have far more money than the search for wealth would really justify. Wealth is a finite value, but capitalist leveling knows no end. Wealth is finite in the sense that it can only be used and enjoyed up to a certain point, beyond that point you have more than you can use or you have too much for there to be anything or anyone left to buy. A society made up of three wildly wealthy people and a hoard of the desperately poor is a society in poverty for poor and rich alike, there will be nothing to own because nothing produced and no one to sell it. This is why the collapse of the middle class is always the death knell for those who value wealth.
Capitalism knows no limit because it isn’t about wealth, it is about power and control. The rise of capitalism wasn’t about the desire and valuing of wealth conquering all other values, it was about certain social classes and members of professions attempting to gain power over other classes and roles. In this sense the dream of capitalism and science are similar: complete and total control – the ability to order and measure all things. This move, however, from profit to control is the move from leveling to nihilism. We might, similarly, understand it as a transition from trade to The Market. To understand this transition it will be necessary to briefly turn our eyes to Karl Marx and the analysis he offers in Capital.
Money and Market, from Leveling to Nihilism
Money and trade have been around for a long time, long before capitalism proper. The most ancient cultures engaged in trade and, indeed, had gods of trade. But despite the existence of money trade wasn’t about profit measured in cash, it was about concrete diverse goods. In Capital Marx lays out two primary and different processes of exchange in which money might function. First, and most ancient, is the use of money as a medium for exchange. We can represent this in the following way in terms of Money (M) and the concrete goods of Commodities (C):
C -> M -> C
This process represents the use of a good you have, say grain you have grown, to arrive at money through trade that is then used to purchase another good such as shoes. This is the same basic process as direct trade of goods where grain would be exchanged for shoes but money as a medium allows for a wider range of trade since it can be used to buy many things and so doesn’t require the grain producer to find a shoe maker in need of grain. The goal here is goods, or commodities, and the process can be used in service to any set of values since various values can be served through the goods/commodities we aim to purchase. This process can also be in service to wealth, as the collective commodities the process aims at might by those of luxury, riches, and so on. This is what, indeed, most people think goes on in the market, which misses the fundamental nature of capitalism.
The above ancient process transforms in more modern capitalism into this process:
M -> C -> M
We can see the contrast between these two processes clearly if we consider the difference between ancient trade, and the values it frequently served, and the modern Market economy. Ancient trade was most distinctly in service of diversity and plurality. Its gods, such as Janus and Hermes, were gods of new beginnings and doorways. Trade was united, unavoidably, with travel and so the gods of trade were also the gods of travel. The collection of values which group around these related ideas of newness, beginnings, openness, and travel make clear that trade was undertaken in the spirit of curiosity and cultural enrichment rather than strictly of profit or wealth. The image of ancient trade was the wild diversity of the agora marketplace or bazaar. The marketplace was a failure if it lacked a pluralism of goods and life. Money, while perhaps used for exchange (though not always so used), hardly features into it at all.
In contrast, the image of the modern Market is the bank or stock exchange, replete with numbers and abstract symbols of exchange-value – money. An ancient marketplace can’t function without diversity and strangeness, but the modern Market does not require diversity. This is why it is possible to use money to buy money and then, in turn, to make money from the exchange. This is what happens in currency exchanges, or the purchasing and selling of debt. The modern Market can be strictly empty of commodities and still function, because what is being bought and sold are certain patterns of money. It is not, however, just that the modern Market doesn’t require diversity of goods. Rather, it actively militarizes against it. Since all things on the Market must be reduced to price, i.e. exchange-value, there is already inherent in the Market a basic drive towards interchangeability and similarity. Things that are too new, or too weird, become difficult to price and must, at all cost, be either dismissed from the Market or made to conform to the Market’s prices. But, of course, in contemporary capitalism the world is the Market, and vice versa, so all things must be reduced and ordered. Even “priceless” works of art are insured for specific amounts.
The fact that money itself, much like luxury and wealth, can be exchanged and priced makes clear that the final goal of capitalism and its one world Market is not money, wealth or profit. The goal is order, of a very special sort. The Market’s goal is an ordered world in which all things are reduced to their Market price, a world in which one need never deal with faces, textures, sights or feelings but rather numbers alone. The essence of the Capitalist Market is the force of translation and reduction. In this it shares an essence with modern industrial science, whose goal is the reduction of all things to raw materials from which power (might like price) is to be extracted and transformed. Mountain to coal, coal to energy, energy to work and so on – the process of transformation pursues only its own growth so that anything that is produced is so only to increase the power of production. Ultimately in each case power seeks only its own growth without end or purpose, and this growth of power is a process of leveling or pricing.
It is precisely this lack of goal or purpose that represents the nihilistic nature of the Capitalist Market. It ultimately knows no goal and no specific values. It is without commitment. In this sense, it is also without actors. The C.E.O. is a tool of the ongoing growth and ordering of the Market as much as anyone else. None escape the invisible claw. There is no outside the process, and so no ultimate leader or beneficiary of it. Even the richest and most powerful people in the world have a very specific market value that marks the point at which they can be exchanged for someone or something else.
This unbounded nature of capitalism may derive from its historical and conceptual connection with monotheism with its transcendental creator god. For many pagan theologies the divinities are present within, indeed are part of, reality. For most forms of monotheism, on the other hand, the one god transcends reality and pre-exists it. Taking this one transcendent god as an ultimate value requires a rejection, whether explicitly or implicitly, of nature and the world.
We see here, for example, the place of the myths of the Fall which define both human nature and nature in general as corrupt and human life as a punishment and trial. Paganism, on the other hand, most frequently embraces life and the world while avoiding the world and life rejection of transcendental monotheism. Max Weber demonstrated convincingly that capitalism is deeply tied to Christian theology. It enshrines the virtues of hard work and moderation and translates the presence of god’s grace and salvation into success on the market. Since, however, the ultimate goal of salvation is never to be found in this world, the “grace” experienced or demonstrated through work and capitalism similarly aims at an infinite transcendent goal that can never be captured in this world. We should not, then, be surprised that capitalism disregards all worldly values, realities and lives (human, animal or plant) in much the same way monotheism frequently does.
Integrity and Reality
There is, ultimately, one thing that the Capitalist Market cannot tolerate, and that is integrity. We have made clear the sense in which the Market process is a process without limit. It will allow, and can calculate the price and profit of, any action. Cities and nations have a price, as indeed the capitalist resistance to acting on Climate Change makes clear, as do capitalist machinations leading to warfare. The day will come when the full planet will have a price, once the possibility of moving elsewhere becomes a reality.
Integrity consists of a commitment to a given value or set of values, it marks the limit of action beyond which a person will not go. We use the term “integrity” because it is the unifying point, the ultimate defining commitment, which constitutes any given person’s character. Discover what is most important to a person, what they will never harm or destroy – what they will die for the sake of, and you have uncovered that person’s character and the point of their integrity. The Market has no such limit, and those in full service to it such that they will always do what the Market reveals as profitable likewise have no character. They exist in a world in which the call of reality – its revelation in terms of beauty, divinity, or truth – is ignored as impractical.
In this way we can see that the Market requires a dramatic ignorance of reality and truth which results in divorcing what it insists is “practical”, “profitable” and “reasonable” from what is grounded in reality and the world. The Market is a phantom, an illusory claw, a mathematical dream run hopelessly awry. It demands that we ignore, at first seemingly temporarily but ultimately permanently, everything that calls to us as worth pursuing or preserving and all that we are drawn to love and revere. For many of us this is the earth and its children – animal, plant and human. Also it might be the full richness of different ways of life, various cultures, complex history, the spectrum of visions revealing the wild complexity of meanings and values. In the face of the Market the pagan says “No” to the dominance of any one value and “No” to a limitless nihilistic process of destruction and control. Here, in part, is our integrity, where we draw the line and state clearly that some things, many things, even most things have no market price. We live in the Priceless World because it is a world of Real Values.
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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To be pagan and/or polytheist in this society is to be part of a minority. Whether you’re in the closet or out and proud, there are still things about the way you worship and the beings that you revere that not only most people in this country don’t understand, they don’t want to understand. Ancient Egyptian architects that became gods? Oh, but a man can’t be a real god. Genius loci? What’s that? Thor? Oh, he’s only from those movies. Worshiping your ancestors? What, you mean, like, Grandma? That’s just ridiculous. The Horned Lord? Don’t you mean the devil? We’ve all heard similar ignorance, some of it genuine, some of it willful, some of it intentionally meant to offend, and some of it just ridiculous. In a society where the idea of what’s acceptable to worship is decreed by the monotheistic worldview of the majority, we have all eventually learned to simply deal with it — by ignoring it, or by trying to educate, or by fighting it — and move on. That’s true of the problems of all minorities, in essence, not just those faced by individuals in minority religions.
On the other hand, being poor in this society makes you part of a majority. According to Census Bureau data, 49% of Americans get some sort of government aid: SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, Medicare, housing subsidies. Of those, roughly 14.5% live below the poverty line, including 20% of American children. For some of us, this is the result of a single, sudden catastrophic incident that happened recently: a death in the family, the loss of a job, recent health problems. For others, who grew up in a poor family, it is simply the status quo, rarely if ever remedied. I fall into that latter group; I grew up in a family where my father was awarded all my mother’s credit card debt after their divorce ($30K in new debt in 1976 was quite a bit more devastating then than it is now). He worked three jobs, my stepmother two, and we relied on government cheese and peanut butter to help get us through the hard times — and pretty much all times were hard times. The summer I turned 12, I can remember the last week of July, when things became tighter than normal because the factory that was one of my father’s places of employment laid everyone off without notice. For a week, everyone in the family except my 6-month-old half-brother ate nothing but mulberry smoothies, made from the ice in the freezer and the abundant mulberries growing on the trees in the back yard of the apartment building we lived in. (My baby brother received government aid that allowed us to buy formula.)
What percentage of that 49% might be pagan or polytheist? There are no concrete studies on that, but it has been noted anecdotally in plenty of forums on the internet that pagans, by and large, tend to fall on the less advantaged end of the economic spectrum. When a pagan, a Wiccan, or a polytheist becomes wealthy (such as 2007 lottery winner “Bunky” Bartlett) or when a wealthy person is, or becomes Pagan (most often when we hear of items like this, it is with celebrities whose every act in this media-saturated society becomes news — examples include Godsmack lead singer Sully Erma and actress Fairuza Balk) it’s big news in our community, partly because it is so very rare. It is also worth noting that, despite the First Amendment of the Constitution and laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of religion, I have known far too many pagans and polytheists who lost their jobs for “unrelated reasons” in the event that their (always monotheist, and usually Christian) employers found out about their faith. Such employment difficulties directly contribute to poverty among Pagans; it’s hard to keep one’s head above water, economically speaking, when you can get fired if your boss learns you aren’t down at the First Baptist Church every Sunday, singing your heart out.
One of the major differences between the three main monotheist faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and the various faiths practiced under the umbrella of paganism (Wicca, animism, druidry, heathenry, and too many forms of polytheism to count) often comes down to belief vs. practice — orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. In a religion where believing the right thing is given more moral weight than how those beliefs are expressed, such as Christianity, there tends to be an eventual evolution among the people who follow that religion. As an example, when Christianity began, it was a religion of slaves, the poor, the oppressed and downtrodden, who believed that even if they could not have the good things they saw that belonged to the elite in this life, they could still become loved, uplifted, and chosen in the afterlife. Nowadays, while Christianity still has its hold on the poor and miserable in our society, it has become all too common to see it also espoused by the wealthy and privileged, often at multi-million-dollar megachurches built on tithes from those impoverished followers who go without their needed medications and survive on food stamps and cat food while the pastors and the upper crust of their flock buy new cars every year and blithely continue ignoring Matthew 19:24.
By contrast, in a group of religion where the right acts are emphasized over right belief — given that so many pagan and polytheist faiths have no historical equivalent to a single group of texts laying down precisely what the right beliefs are, as Christians have in the Bible, Muslims have with the Koran, and Jews have with the Tanakh — carrying out acts meant to show devotion and honor to the deities, spirits, and ancestors that we revere can definitely be impacted by poverty. Devotional acts can be divided into those that require money and those that do not; generally, the ones that require money are better-known and require less effort than those that don’t. Examples: burning candles or incense or food offerings (barley and meat, for example, are common offerings for Hellenic polytheists); pouring out libations of wine, whiskey, other alcoholic beverages, milk, cream, fruit juice; and making pilgrimages to places such as the Parthenon in Athens (or the duplicate one in Nashville), Tara in Ireland, or the site of the old Germanic temple in Uppsala, Sweden.
Of these acts, the only one possible to adapt into something that doesn’t require any money is that of pouring libations; as a wiser writer than me has said, even pouring out clean water to the deities and spirits you revere shows more respect than doing nothing, and the gods understand when you truly have nothing but still want to show Them honor.
But there are other ways to show Them respect, to honor Them and make offerings to Them that require less or no money. An example, oft-quoted, of a way to show respect for nature spirits is to pick a location and spend time picking up other folks’ garbage. A city park, a beach, a forest — I have visited all of the above and spent hours gathering up used diapers, aluminum cans, mylar balloons, broken glass, plastic snack wrappers, old condoms, styrofoam containers, rusty metal, and too many other forms of trash to name. Adopting such a location and going monthly, weekly, or however often as one’s personal health issues allow (disclaimer: I have fibromyalgia, tendonitis, arthritis, bursitis, and ACL damage in both knees, so the frequency of my visits has gotten less as I age, but I have never stopped going completely) is an excellent way to show devotion to the spirits of nature, in a way that scattering bread or popcorn never cat. (Note: high-carb, low-nutrient food like bread and popcorn, when ingested, can have harmful effects on the growth of waterfowl such as geese and ducks, and which can also lead wild animals to acclimate to being fed by humans, which can lead to malnutrition at best, and the actual euthanization of dangerous animals like bears, who can become aggressive in trying to take food from humans, at worst.)
Human creativity also provides a way to create offerings for the gods, spirits, and ancestors. If you have a talent for any sort of creative endeavor, from painting to sculpture to writing, bending that gift toward creating things for Them provides offerings of a quality that simple store-bought goods never could. I’ve been writing poetry since I was seven, and writing requires only my thoughts, a pen or pencil, and some scrap paper; even the back of store receipts or blank areas found on junk mail will do. Other arts require art supplies, of course, but I have seen amazing sketches produced by pencil on scratch paper, or with broken crayons picked out of the gutter outside a restaurant. For the last fifteen years, the majority of the work I write has been dedicated to the gods and nature spirits, and every indication I have gotten — through divination, through other forms of communication, and from speaking with other co-religionists who have bonds of their own with these beings — indicates that They approve of the work I write on Their behalf. So, too, can your creativity be devoted toward making things for Them, even if the only human being that ever sees those things is you.
Living in abject poverty definitely affects religious practices, but it does not need to prevent devotional activity. Devotion comes from the heart and soul, after all, and we get those for free when we’re born. How we choose to use them is up to each of us.
Polytheist, animist, and all-around outsider for over twenty-five years. Writer for much longer than that. Jack-of-many-trades who got used to doing things the hard way because it was the only way available. Lives outside of Chicago with five cats, an ossuary, an overgrown garden full of nature spirits, and a houseful of gargoyles.
Everything is spinning out of balance. The world is being polluted and corrupted, and it’s decaying while still alive. Mega-storms, droughts, fracking quakes, and rising seas eat entire island nations and devastate helpless communities which are then swarmed by hungry, opportunistic corporations that sell off and buy up what’s left, and build hungry empire in their place. Entire mountains have been eaten by mining operations, which also leave the land and water around them toxified. Racism bides within social institutions and quietly mows down swaths of people of color, and stands on the necks of those who remain. Colonies of bees die off, Monarch butterflies cannot make their annual migration to overwinter and reproduce, hundreds of birds fall from the sky at once, mysteriously slain. Many, many species of Earthlings are going extinct and taking a lot of the balance and creative diversity of nature with them — taking pieces of the whole with them — now forever secret. Most members of our own species live difficult, oppressed lives in or under the purview of stratified societies and empires which invented poverty and wealth, race and class.
What need did humanity have of empire, in its incredibly long existence? It had none, for hundreds of thousands of years… eons filled with kin and culture and integration with the abundant world. We had wholeness. Now we have fragmented, unbalanced lives being pushed by clocks, pulled by disjointed narratives and misconceptions, stomped by greed, and our only defense the solid reality of community, love, and nature… when we are lucky enough to find islands of it amidst the cacophony of ticking time-which-is-money, manufactured desires, and hyper-individualistic isolation in which this terminally ill culture is drowning.
The decision to unbalance society and exclude all of the community (even the eco-community) except the men (and often only certain privileged men, at that) from the communal decision-making and interest-considering was one of the first steps on this unbalanced, destructive path. Pathological patriarchy arose to control women, and to ensure the tracking of sired children — tracking which hadn’t been necessary in matrilineal societies that took care of all children. Some long-ago group of men thought they needed to ensure that their efforts would only benefit their own children, not the community. Selfishness triumphed over communal responsibility, and became codified into law.
Ownership and inheritance became important to them. Their society was stratifying, and they needed to get on top of the heap. The alternative was poverty and slavery. Dominance became important too. Having dominion over not only your family and community, but neighboring communities and even all living creatures became a cultural value and driving subtext in the script. If [empire], then [be emperor]… or as close to it as you can get, otherwise you’ll [be fodder]. A LOT of fodder lies at the bottom, and only one emperor at the top, with an inverse pyramid of wealth held at the top and a heavy lack of enough resources at the bottom. It’s pyramid shape of hierarchy is inherently unfair and unjust.
We’re still working from this script, a few thousand years later. But not for long. This script is not sustainable. This play chews up the set and buries most of its actors. There won’t even be an audience left, at the end.
This is not the only script ever performed, nor the only one possible. It’s only the most recent. Imperialism is relatively new in human history. Capitalism is even newer – only about 300 years old — and even more destructive. Capitalism is a natural outgrowth of the kyriarchal complex of cultural concepts like patriarchy, dominionism, hegemony, colonialism, wealth, and hyper-individualism that have busily been infecting the cultures and peoples of Earth and rewriting their cultural DNA, re-scripting their histories and futures with lies and false promises.
And we can be done with it.
We can cancel the terrible show and start writing and rehearsing, or even remembering one that does not eat our children and destroy mind, body, soul, Earth, and connection. It made us forget what community is, and what sacred means, but we can find them again. Some of us have already begun. Some of us in indigenous communities never lost them and can share them. There are paths strewn with fulfillment rather than endless hunger. We can find the paths with vital air to breathe, clean water to refresh, and solid ground to stand and circle with each other upon. Our ancestors knew them, walked them, danced them. Some continued to remember them throughout empire, despite the illusions of usurious capital and divine right of kings, and preserved markers for us in myth, symbol, and language. Nature, itself, contains markers and inspiration. Our home and kin are calling us.
We are some of the first in generations to hear the call of nature, spirits, gods, and ancestors, and our own connected souls. We are some of the first to gather again in circles and remember, to listen to wind and stars and recall. We are organic circles of community, not mechanical pyramids of empire. We remember who we are, we remember all Earthlings are family, and we remember that we belong to the Earth — the Earth does not belong to us. We are now charged with finding the paths again and showing each other the way before this path leads an entire world into chaos and premature death. We must heal this sickness, for are we not the healers Earth has produced in her time of need? Do you not feel the calling of the oppressed, the ancestors, our children’s children, and the Earth, chanting our names and the great need?
We are the enchanted, who will answer the call of justice and of healing, and re-enchant the world, singing up reconnection and dancing up a real future. We have the magic – will and intention, the calling and the help of truth. Let us be the good ancestors who take up these Witches’ brooms, Druids’ sickles, and Heathens’ hammers to clear away, to build, and to relight the sacred flame at the heart of the world.
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Reflections on marches, May Day, and the possibilities of Pagan theology.
Marching in rain and starlight
As I write, my fingers hesitate. My side aches. My hip aches. The grey matter behind my eyes feels lost in hazy, pain-killer-induced lethargy. And yet… isn’t this melancholia exactly that state prescribed by the sages for the best reflection, prayer, and appraisal of purpose? I can feel my own spine shimmering…
One week ago tonight, things were different. Cold sweat ran down my shoulders as I marched elbow-in-elbow with activists from across Chicago in solidarity with the #BaltimoreUprising. Black, Brown, and white, mostly young and smiling, fatigued by the chill but stepping in time to singing on all sides – we came walking down from Police Headquarters on 35th Street through neighborhoods lit and unlit, poor and well-off. We marched past darkened apartment windows and past buzzing street lights zapping flies. We passed my own apartment. We passed within shouting distance of Obama’s Southside home (but were diverted by police bikes). We came down through the city like flood waters until we stood looking south toward the blinking lights of the University of Chicago. Rain wanted to start falling, but didn’t. Our voices rained down instead in three staccato syllables:
Come. Out. Side!
Come. Out. Side!
With each shout we welcomed the people in the brick, three-story buildings all around us to come out and join our marching river. I could see young people and old people and students and parents and people I knew and people I didn’t know all peeking through their window blinds, some rubbing sleep from their eyes but most just turning away from grey-blue screens for one moment, made curious by the rising tide of us. They peeked and they opened their doors and came out onto their porches and onto the streets and they clapped and cheered and smiled, and so did we. Someone added verses to our syllables:
Come. Out. Side!
(We love you!)
Come. Out. Side!
(We need you!)
And we did. We loved each other, and we needed each other.
We loved each other because there, in the clammy night, we clung to each other’s body heat while we clutched our purpose close to heart. What was remarkable – what I remember most vividly— were the smiles like starshine that lit our way, smiling down on us from covered porches and wooden fire-escapes. Constellations of smiling faces blinked on and off, twinkling while the people sang. My spine shimmered in that glow.
It wasn’t quite May 1st, but the crocuses were peeking out at us like those onlookers through their blinds and it felt like Chicago’s wet and clammy springtime was upon us. Still, this march – one of the largest and most vocal in the city since the height of #BlackLivesMatter activity over winter – was my May Day.
I’ve been a Neopagan for over a decade – more or less, off and on. There are statues on an altar in my apartment (Aphrodite could surely hear our step-stomping on the sidewalks nearby), but to be honest they are bare instead of heaped with regular offerings – I never stand before the table and light the incense and clap my hands. Not anymore. Why?
In a Beltain article, Crystal Blanton touched on something that resonated powerfully with me. She writes:
I still believe that life has purpose and I still celebrate the cycles of the wheel as it transitions every 45 days, but my spiritual core has shifted. I am no longer content with the story as I use to be, the world around me doesn’t match the simplicity of the theology.
Listen, I am not saying that this theology is inaccurate. I am just saying it is no longer enough for me, it does not serve me in the same way that it use to because I am walking through the trauma of the society that I breathe with.
While my altars gather dust, my shoes grow soggy with sweat and coated in grime off the street. Instead of lighting candles I am stenciling signs. The hymns go unsung but my throat is hoarse and dry.
If I can speak a little more about Mx. Blanton’s article, I would like to point out something else; to do so I’ll need to mention James Lindenschmidt’s article, also published on May 1st, which I found both hyperbolic (“untold thousands”) and anachronistic (“Pagan ethos”). In these two pieces I find two different perspectives on the relationship between contemporary Pagan thought and the fight for justice. Equating contemporary Pagan practices with the thought and practice of generalized ancient cultures, Lindenschmidt asserts that Pagans (and he goes out of his way to include the whole spectrum of people who might today identify with that label, and more) do now and have always had theological perspectives that are anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-nationstate, etc.
On the other hand, Blanton suggests (according to my reading) that this is not the case. Instead, she describes a detachment, or dissonance, between – to put it one way – the circle and the streets. Instead of relying on generalizations about “Pagan values” from the past (as I think Lindenschmidt does, to his argument’s detriment), Blanton takes the opportunity of her own dissonance and her dissatisfaction with the lack of robust justice theology in contemporary Paganism and furrows new theological fields. Taking up her contemporary understanding and tools, she creates:
Today justice became the seed within the Goddess’s belly.
This Beltaine, and for many days before, I have felt the dissonance Blanton describes, or something like it – not only because of the state of American life but also because of that aching hip I mentioned, and for the debt collectors calling, and for other reasons, too. I don’t approach my altars because, though beautiful, they seem hollow and wanting. I ask myself: Athena, where were you the night Rekia Boyd was shot? Hestia, where is your sanctuary when it comes to Black folk? Asklepios, what new ailment is this?
But I think today of the songs we sing in circle and I think of the songs we sing in the street, and I think of fields we could furrow and of what a new Paganism – not an anachronism – could look like, watered both by offerings of milk and water and by hymns chanted in staccato syllables.
Come. Out. Side!
(In the East we call to Justice, golden-haired and weary!)
(And the people looked out!)
Come. Out. Side!
(In the South we call to Love, rosy-cheeked!)
(And the people smiled, teeth like stars!)
Come. Out. Side!
(In the West we call to Compassion, whose face is wet with tears!)
(And they sang together a flood of healing and of power!)
Come. Out. Side!
(And in the North we call to Mother Earth, bedrock beneath our feet!)
(And their feet, though sore, marched on.)
And I wonder if my hip will still hurt or if my brain will think with clarity, and I look to the smiling stars and hope to feel the sweat-sweet-rain-love on my shoulders and to link elbow-to-elbow with comrades in struggle and in circle.
This melancholy (melanc-holy) doesn’t lead me to answers like bezels of wisdom under the paving stones… but I am at uneasy rest, mind a-flutter.
We Pagans are a conquered people. Our people have been systematically tortured, murdered, domesticated, and exploited. Our tribes have been displaced and scattered; we now live in tiny, redundant, inefficient and resource-hungry enclosure-cages creating an illusion of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, while plugged in to the matrix with its feeding-tubes and thought-machine programs. Our traditions of dwelling with nature have been mutated, assimilated into the dominant culture of exploitation and resource extraction. Our gods have been relegated from vibrant, living beings and companions in relationship with us to mere characters in old, forgotten stories. Our magic and wonder have been dismissed as superstition, while the hegemony of the laboratory masquerades as wisdom, replacing Truth with mere facts. Our sacred connections to the land and its ecosystems have been severed, made so abstract that only a tiny handful of us could survive away from the infrastructures of civilization for more than a few days, or only a few hours in adverse conditions.
We Pagans are a conquered people. The conquest of Paganism is so complete, so fundamental, that it’s obscured from our view: many of us couldn’t even identify our conquerors. Today, while we sort our recycling bins, putting the refuse-relics of our consumerism into the proper containers for “disposal,” our culture argues about whether or not Climate Change is real, whether planetary rates of extinction are happening 10,000 times faster or only 1,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. We get online, sipping our lattes, and we argue about whether a vegan diet or a paleo diet is healthier for people or the planet.
We Pagans are a conquered people. We don’t even know who we are anymore. Getting Pagans together is like herding cats: we joke, we celebrate our diversity, and gossip about our witch wars. There are many types of Neopagans today, and all of us have been conquered. It doesn’t matter what kind of Pagan you are, which specific tradition, subculture, or set of Pagan values you embrace, we Pagans are a conquered people.
What kind of Pagan are you? Not that it matters….
Are you a Druid? The Druids were wiped out by Romans, though there have been attempts to revive the traditions. At best, we are guessing at what the Druids were, and the ways of modern Druids — connecting to the land, being in relationship, guarding the stories of the tribe, and questing Awen — are in opposition to the mainstream culture. We are no longer aware of our direct relationship with the land and its ecosystems. There is only property to be exploited, to be conquered and “improved” for private gain subject only to the laws of free-market mythology. The Awen of direct experience, of intimate relationship and engagement, is being replaced by vicarious, secondary experience. Rather than gather by the thousands to wander in the wilderness, we gather in stadiums to watch other people run on artificial grass, elite athletes clad in kevlar armor. Rather than commune directly with the wild divinity in nature, we gather in megachurches to listen to other people sing & tell us about God, passing around a collection basket. The “tree wit” of Druidry lingers, but we must learn to see it.
Are you a Heathen or an Ásatrúar? In most places you will be seen as a racist, a white supremacist, or simply as deluded. The hagiographers say that Olaf The Saint, one of my ancestors, was responsible for converting Norway over to Christianity. The Gods of the Northern tradition endure, even if we must look deeper than portrayals of Thor as a blonde, hot-tempered hottie who is merely a quaint albeit archaic member of an elite group, aloof from humanity, who fight the evil space-aliens bent on their own agenda of colonization.
Are you a Polytheist? Two thousand years of hegemonic monotheism means that you are not likely to be taken seriously in most places in the Western world when you speak of your gods, and your relationships with them. No longer is the question of many gods up for debate; instead it is which god is real, with the rest being imaginary with frauds or infidels for worshipers. And even this is among those who acknowledge the possibility of divinity at all — for many others, talk of divinity is madness and delusion.
Do you work with magick? Your work will be derided as superstition, under the epistemological monopoly of science. Indeed, a favorite tactic of modern, fundamentalist pseudoskeptics is to reduce an idea or a concept to mere “magical thinking” so that it can be dismissed entirely as folly.
Are you a Goddess-worshiper? You are a threat to patriarchy, by even having the audacity to suggest that the feminine can be on the same plane as the masculine, and that a divine feminine is even possible. There is no room for the Sacred Feminine in Father, Son, & Holy Ghost, in Allah and His Prophet, in YHVH, much less in the “human resources” departments responsible for writing smaller paychecks to its female employees.
Are you an Animist? A Pantheist or Panentheist? Then you live in a place, on a planet, that has been systematically disenchanted, desacralized, and despoiled, a place that almost certainly bears little or no resemblance to what the place looked like a few short centuries ago before Capital got its clutches onto it, extracting all the resources it could for private profit without regard to the intraspecies genocide it left in its wake. Anyone who spends enough time out in nature has heard its call, its lament, crying out to anyone, anyone who will listen, in a language not audible to domesticated ears.
Are you a Reconstructionist? The reason you have to reconstruct your spiritual path is because it was wiped out in the first place. That these old, Pagan ways of being are not glaringly obvious even to a child in our culture is perhaps the biggest indicator that we Pagans are a conquered people. Some ancestral wisdom has been lost forever, wiped out by a mere few hundred years of colonialist hegemony, and its reconstruction will require another few thousand years of indigenous human experience as part of their ecosystems.
Are you a Witch or a Wiccan? Untold thousands of Witches were burned at the stake for over a century, one of the most widespread examples of genocide in human history. This genocide was not limited to one nation-state or one single power-structure, as one of the first historical examples of a unified, global assertion of power. The ways of the Witch are beyond forgotten, they were deliberately and systematically stamped out under direct threat of death and torture, replaced by other mechanistic social orders ripe for exploitation.
The smell of smoke lingers
Even today, the smell of smoke lingers. To those who learn to be attentive, to quieten the mind and pull one’s awareness away from the thousandfold distractions of modern life, the past will whisper its stories into the ears of the present. We must look at our history to discover all the layers of our identity. Who are the Pagans? What stories from the past helped to shape who we are today? I am convinced that our history reveals a very strong characterization of our tribe & our subcultural identity in the 21st Century. We Pagans are a conquered people, and we have largely become so within the past 500 years.
The Pagan ways-of-being were much more intuitive and apparent to people living 500 years ago, before the Scientific Revolution, the birth of Capitalism, and the beginnings of European Colonialism. Modernity itself rose from the ashes of the Pagan ethos as it was systematically and globally incinerated from popular consciousness on thousands of pyres and stakes of the victims of the witch hunts.
Indeed, even today the smell of smoke from The Burning Times lingers. This period in history remains the paradox of our age: at the same moment that the prevailing worldview was turning to those core values that we fetishize — the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of science as the best (indeed the only) epistemology, the rise of capitalism and its notion of property and profit as the fundamental organizing principle of society and the planet’s resources — there occurred some of the most brutal examples of repression and genocide ever witnessed, a brutality that was unprecedented in its scope and scale:
In this “century of geniuses”—Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes—a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
—Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 168.
This past, once we clear the irritation of the acrid smoke from our eyes, will begin to speak. As we learn to listen, we begin to understand that this time is best described as a turn from Pagan values, resulting in the wholesale slaughter of entire populations who embrace these values, the marginalization of Pagans within the new power structures created at this time, and the demonization of these values within our consciousness.
The new power structures used fear both as a means of social control and to engineer this shift in values. They cultivated fear of the witch-hunters and the Inquisition, who could exercise nearly complete power-over in the most horrendous and unspeakable ways, and ultimately fear of that which they claimed to be eradicating: witches, demons, devils, and magic. Pagan ways weren’t quaint practices or ignorant superstitions that faded away because now we know better. They were deliberately and systematically repressed until they were all but stamped out. We must now reconstruct them.
In this culture of fear, our Pagan values were nearly lost. Today, the signs of this loss reveal themselves to souls attentive to the world’s condition. The first hint is a vaporous sense that is hard to put a finger on: something is fundamentally wrong with the world, with the way the world is organized, with the flows of power structures in the world. As we look deeper, they become more apparent.
First, there is always war. From the massive mobilizations and armaments of World War II, to the development, use, and threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to the wars against hidden threats such as communism and terrorism, to the resource wars seeking to control supplies of oil across the globe, to the political and economic dominance of the military industrial complex, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Poverty. War, war, war. No sane person wants it, yet it is all around us, organizing much of society.
Second, there is habitual, widespread, and systematic deceit by those in power. These are most easily spotted in the various antics of the US government, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. From the destruction of the USS Maine in Cuban waters leading up to the Spanish-American war, to the Reichstag Fire preceding Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, to the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the illegal “detainees” of Guantanamo Bay following the attacks of 9/11, to the Watergate scandal, to the empty rhetoric-posturing in any political “debate” preceding an election, it is clear that those in power do not say what they mean, much less do what they say. Indeed, it is fundamental to the preservation of their power that they don’t. This is not a problem of either side of the US power structure; both Democrats and Republicans systematically operate from this place of deceit, and for both parties the main goal is to preserve, consolidate, and expand their power bases, each serving the larger power structure in slightly different but related ways.
Third, there is an unprecedented stratification of wealth that continues to widen the gap between rich and poor, for individuals, businesses, corporations, and nations. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. An economy exists to help regulate the use and distribution of wealth, which can only be created through labor and enclosure of natural resources. Awareness of these injustices reached a crescendo in 2011 in the various Occupy movements, and continues today with Strike Debt and countless other movements.
Fourth, humanity’s relationship with food is completely out-of-balance. In some places of the world, people starve, barely eking out adequate sustenance for survival. In other places, food is not a way to sustain life, a gift of nature of which humanity is a part, but rather a mere sensual pleasure, packaged in plastic, with a myriad of choices as to which flavor variety will suit one’s whim that day — indeed thrice daily. As a result, nearly a billion people struggle with getting enough food (to say nothing of adequate nutrition), while nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. There are many causes for obesity, and the problem isn’t this simple, but the poor almost never get adequate nutrition whether they are consuming too many calories or too few. In addition, because of the way food is produced on our planet, there is alarmingly little quality topsoil left, and it is deteriorating 10-40x faster than it can be replenished. The aquifers of the earth are running dry, due to both irrigation and the bottled water industries, to say nothing of fracking.
Fifth, healthcare is nearly impossible to navigate for many people in the world. In some parts of the world, there are not enough doctors, healers, educators, and above all, resources; in another part of the world, healthcare has become so profit-driven with costs so inflated that it is inaccessible to millions. The system is bogged down by the allopathic medicine machine — insurance companies driven by profit, actuarial tables, and entire departments of workers whose sole purpose is to find specific ways to deny coverage for its patients; pharmaceutical companies who hoard knowledge of health techniques through patents, who overcharge patients in certain countries so that it is more profitable, who advertise their drugs in mass media, promoting the idea that wellness can only come through chemistry, and reinforce that it is OK to profit from the suffering and misfortune of others. The witches used to be the healers. Every community had them. These healers were attuned to local ecosystems, and knew how to make medicines of all kinds. The community supported them. People didn’t lose their homes and everything they owned when they got sick.
Sixth, and related to the pharmaceutical industry, there is rampant mental dis-ease in the west. Depression, angst, and eating disorders (anorexia & bulemia on one side, emotional binge eating on the other) are everywhere one turns. Usage of psychotropic drugs are at an all-time high, including mandatory prescriptions for “difficult” (which usually means unusual or hard-to-control) children in public schools. This problem of overmedication stems from and reinforces the notion of “compulsory neurotypicality” explored by Sean Donahue, which “decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variation from the norm.” Furthermore, these drugs are widely advertised on television, creating a sense of never-having-enough. No longer are commodified neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter modifiers tools to chemically assist people in navigating the emotional and psychological pain they are experiencing, but instead have become “happy pills” for millions of people, sold to exploit our culture’s deepening sense of unease and malaise.
Seventh, the problem of wageslavery is fundamental to western culture. There are a few who derive happiness from their jobs, but the vast majority of people would immediately quit their jobs if earning money was unnecessary. It’s one thing to expect people to contribute to society — including the unpleasant jobs that no one really wants to do — to the best of their ability, but how many jobs are truly essential to a healthy, well-managed society? Does society really need a fast-food restaurant on every corner, providing two-dozen underpaid jobs each, in order for people or the neighborhood, much less the ecosystems it extracts resources from, to thrive? Do marketing executives truly make the world a better place? Are corporate lawyers responsible for maintaining a smoothly-functioning society? In short, no. There are far more work-hours of labor performed each week than are necessary to maintain a healthy society. Our time performing these tasks should leave plenty of leftover time for adequate self-care and wherever our personal liberty takes us. It’s more difficult to enjoy and pursue one’s liberty when you have a work schedule during most of your waking hours. This is the opposite of liberty, or our culture’s promise of the pursuit of happiness, as Marcuse reminded us in 1966:
“I hesitate to use the word — freedom — because it is precisely in the name of freedom that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated. This situation is certainly not new in history: poverty and exploitation were products of economic freedom; time and again, people were liberated all over the globe by their lords and masters, and their new liberty turned out to be submission, not to the rule of law but to the rule of the law of the others. What started as subjection by force soon became “voluntary servitude,” collaboration in reproducing a society which made servitude increasingly rewarding and palatable. The reproduction, bigger and better, of the same ways of life came to mean, ever more clearly and consciously, the closing of those other possible ways of life which could do away with the serfs and the masters, with the productivity of repression.”
—Herbert Marcuse, “Political Preface 1966,” Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966) xiii-xiv.
Eighth, unprecedented weather patterns rage across the planet. The Earth’s environment — in terms of its ability to support human life — is rapidly deteriorating. The “global warming” debate rages on in yet another dualism, where each side thinks the other is somewhere between mad and stupid. Limiting this discussion to one parameter (temperature, ie, warming) or even a few (broadening it to include “climate change”) does not look at humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem. It is clear that humans are affecting the ecosystems of the world in a profound way; all one has to do is fly over the US and look down to observe the effects industrialized human activity has had. Everything is in muted colors or artificial, mechanical, geometric patterns attached the natural landscapes. Humanity is beginning to see the effects of a few centuries of industrialization, which accelerated the desertification of the planet by way of human domestication for the past 10,000 years or so. These effects have been all-too-easy to deny because they have taken longer than one lifetime to manifest.
How did this happen?
I could go on. Many do; indeed the present (not to mention the future) seems quite bleak.
What happened? Where are the ideals of scientific progress, of Enlightenment notions of “perpetual peace” and “equality and justice for all”? After 500 years of ostensibly chasing these noble goals of the “century of genius” — the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, the dawn of Capitalism, the first experiment with modern republics and “representative democracies,” the Bill of Rights — these ideals have not fulfilled their promise.
The complex web of problems we see today is an extension of this history of Paganism over the past 500 years, a history that can be characterized primarily as a move away from Pagan values. There is a disconnect between these core Pagan values and our daily experiences within our present, 21st century world, a disconnect which produces not only the global crises outlined above, but also a spiritual and psychic conflict and crisis within each observant, thinking Pagan whose life is all-too-rarely in harmony with these values. We Pagans are a conquered people indeed. But even worse, we have been assimilated, which means we directly participate in our own suppression. This is both the horror and the genius of colonialism.
We Pagans are a conquered people. But many questions remain, and indeed will be explored in future columns in these pages. Among them:
What exactly are the Pagan values that have been lost?
If Pagans are a conquered people, then who are the conquerors?
What benefit are Pagans getting from this relationship of conquest? What should we do about it? Should we resist, and if so, what are the most effective modes of resistance?
Will Pagans be courageous enough to decolonize themselves?
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Farewell now my sister Up ahead there lies your road And your conscience walks beside you It’s the best friend you will ever know And the past is now your future It bears witness to your soul
Because when I was a child, I realized everything is connected, and that was joyous and it felt important but I didn’t tell anyone, because somewhere I had picked up on the notion that was silly, or meaningless, or something.
Because I have always loved the sky and the mountains and the fish and the insects and the quiet stillness of a landscape covered with snow and the crashing of waves and the distant yet so close grandeur of the Milky Way and to see any of that harmed or lost to us is like losing a beloved friend, like losing touch with one’s gods, like having part of your own heart removed.
Because I spent several years reading a lot of liberal, feminist political sites, and got educated on the systemic harm being done to humans by other humans in the name of domination, and then I got burned out, because it was always the same stuff, with different details, and positive change was too rare and infrequent.
Because after 30-some years of atheism, I got an unshakeable notion in my head that an ancient Norse god with a reputation for shaking up the status quo might somehow, inexplicably, have an interest in me, and then I got around to asking Him if that was true, and the answer meant I had to leave a lot of old beliefs behind.
Because for reasons I will never be able to articulate, I realized as a young adult that what I really wanted to do was to help heal the Earth, and I’ve tried to change as much of my life as possible to live in accordance with that.
Because in seventh grade, my biology teacher taught us more about ecological devastation going on than I had already been aware of, and it hit me really hard, and with pre-teen angst, I wrote “The human race is going down the drain” on the inside back cover of my TrapperKeeper, and I am not yet convinced my younger self was wrong but I really hope she is.
Because one of my much-loved feminist blogs introduced me to the term “kyriarchy” and suddenly so much of the shit I was reading about cohered into one big thing; the system still sucked, but at least it made some sense.
Because shit is fucked up and bullshit and I’ve never been able to stand being a part of a system that is fucked up and bullshit without either trying to change it, or deciding to leave, and the latter isn’t an option I’m currently willing to consider.
Because I hate how other living things are considered “less than” us, and less important than “job creation,” and this justifies their abuse and – too often – their utter oblivion.
Because at every turn, asking “But why are they doing this harmful thing?!” seems to come down to one of two things: 1) greater profits-for-profits’-sake for whoever is in already control or 2) a need to keep someone else down; two sides of the same tainted coin.
Because during the worst year of my life, while getting some much-needed rest at my childhood home, the Occupy movement started, and they didn’t get beaten and jailed and run off in 24 hours, or 48, or even a week, and for the first time in years, I felt a little faith in humanity restored, along with some actual hope for the future.
Because if we don’t stop harming the biosphere, we’re going to hurt ourselves very, very badly, along with billions of utter innocents who share the planet with us.
Because reciprocity and sharing are vital to support life and healthy relationships, and I see that in the ecology of wild systems and I see that in lessons from religious lore but I do not see that in the dominant culture.
Because thanks to a variety of interactions with various gods, I got back into reading lots of news – focused on ecological, environmental topics this time – and I now see everything through the lens of ecology, interconnected systems, webs of relationships that feed each other in one complex beautiful system-of-systems of life creation and re-creation.
Because our human-made systems form a kind of perverse ecology of their own, so much of it ecocidal and life-denying, dealing death without the possibility for new life to arise.
Because I believe a good life is all about living in right relationship with others, whether those others are your family, coworkers, gods, marshlands, songbirds, or food crops, and the dominant culture does not teach people how to do that; in fact it feeds on the opposite.
Because my involvement with Occupy got me exposed to some actual anarchist and anti-capitalist writing and I realized that they were saying an awful lot of things about the world that I had concluded already, and – that awkward moment when you realize you’re way leftier than you thought.
Because my polytheism came along with animism, which gave additional weight to my belief that the other-than-human ought to be treated as people and with respect.
Because as a bookish 14-year-old, I had my life changed by a novel – not The Lord of the Rings or Atlas Shrugged, as the famous quote would have it, but the Illuminatus! trilogy (thanks, Dad!), and I’ve come to consider the Principia Discordia a sacred, guiding text.
Because science says that we’re related to other life on earth and that our bodies and other living things and the planet itself are all made from the remains of ancient stars, and my animism say that thus, we are all kin here, and this means the kyriarchy is literally destroying my very vast and diverse and weird and wonderful family and this cannot stand.
Make sure that the love you offer up Does not fall on barren soil. For the wind cries of late In the whispering grass. Our way of life is held In the spinning wheels of chance. I believe in a way of long ago
And the sounds I believe rose our glow And we are changing our ways Yes we are taking on different roads Tell me more about the forest That you once called home.
Because I am horrified, on a spiritual level, at so much of what is being done so thoughtlessly to the ancient dead: their remains disinterred without regard for them or the surrounding land and then converted into choking poisons in the air and land and sea.
Because I opened my life and my heart to a god, and He gave me a bigger, more deeply interconnected world than I had dreamed possible, and He gave me back joy of life and hope for positive change, and I can’t not use this incredible gift to aid others.
Because I’m angry that the dominant culture has convinced us – forced us – to exist in a system where we trade our time for money, allowing us to buy “happiness” in the form of material goods (assuming we even have enough after paying for basic needs) while restricting our means to achieve a fuller well-being through expressing creativity, developing stronger, healthier social networks, and engaging in other deeply meaningful pursuits, and then tells us, “You ought to be grateful you have a job at all.”
Because I am inordinately fond of birds.
Because in the early stages of my conversion, I discovered there were people who worshiped the Giants of Norse myth, as gods of the primal forces of nature, and I knew, as an undeniable heart truth, that these were my gods, this was home, and I had found something I had always (unknowingly) been looking for.
Because the monarchs are dying so the tiny minority of Monsanto and its ilk can make even more money to control even more of our food supply and to keep pressuring people with law-changing power to stay on the side of profit-oriented poisoners.
For the wind cries of late In the whispering leaves And the sun will turn to waste The heavens we build above. Father teach your children To treat our mother well If we give her back her diamonds She will offer up her pearl.
Because for years I’ve felt a need to use the tag “Western civilization has a lot to answer for.”
Because I am part of the land. It feeds my body and my soul; perhaps it is a part of my soul, or I am a part of its, or both, or we’re parts of some bigger soul, I don’t know, souls are complicated, but that we are inextricably connected is undeniable (you are where you eat) and I love it like I love nothing else.
Because as a white person born, raised, and living in the United States, I have inherited many great benefits at absolutely horrific costs, and I believe it is therefore necessary and right to try to remediate what harm I can and help create a better world than what my many “ancestors” left for me.
Because capitalism is very good at taking all the many fears and angers bound up in other forms of abuse and oppression and convincing people to very literally buy into them and thus support the whole grotesque “ecology” of dominance and anti-life destruction it feeds on.
Because I can’t not question authority and “common wisdom” and if they say “But we must have progress! We must keep growing! And we can’t go back to that old stuff” instead of changing harmful behaviors, well that’s just not good enough.
Because I’ve been tired of not finding like-minded people – there are lots of pagans, and lots of environmentalists, and lots of radicals, but I’ve run into sadly few at the intersection of those interests.
Because everything IS connected, and to truly solve one of these problems, one of these systems of dominance, to stop oppressive, abusive behaviors (remove, replace with something better, as my beloved ancient Norse change-causing, gift-bringing god would do), we must cease all of them.
Because I believe another world is possible and I want a hand in helping it exist.
Because of Love.
We must sing her creation song Jeune du monde Invoke the spirits that feed us This dreaming takes too long But I’m not bitter, no, I’m surviving To face the world, to raise the future So why don’t you tell me, come on and tell me About the world you left behind Can you tell me?
[lines in italics quoted from “Tell Me About the Forest (You Once Called Home)” by Dead Can Dance]
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