Barbarians in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is the first part in Wolves in the Interregnum, a two-part series.


“The old world is dying, the new world struggles to be born. Here in the interregnum arises morbid systems.”
–Antonio Gramsci

“Increasingly, people are restless. The engineers group themselves into competing teams, but neither side seems to know what to do, and neither seems much different from the other. Around the world, discontent can be heard. The extremists are grinding their knives and moving in as the machine’s coughing and stuttering exposes the inadequacies of the political oligarchies who claimed to have everything in hand. Old gods are rearing their heads, and old answers: revolution, war, ethnic strife. Politics as we have known it totters, like the machine it was built to sustain. In its place could easily arise something more elemental, with a dark heart.”
–The Dark Mountain Manifesto

The Wolf Trap

In what is now Germany, particularly in the area called Lower Saxony, a certain symbol appeared etched on stones and trees, demarcating forests left wild for hunting. In such old forests, the wolf, that heavily-culled European apex predator, still ran free, threatened only by ritualized royal chases in which an iron hook was used to trap them. The shape of the trap inspired those border symbols, which also bore its name: Wolfsangel (Wolf-Hook).

Wolfsangel_1.svgCenturies later, peasants angry at the increasingly authoritarian rule of princes and their refusal to honor ancient land-use customs revolted, wielding the symbol as their banner. In the early part of the 20th century, its most well-known use began, this time not as as symbol of revolt but of authority and Empire itself. Inspired by the 1910 German novel Der Wehrwolf, the Nazi Party and many military regiments adopted its use, which is how most of us know of it now.

The wolfsangel (also the Elder Futhork rune Eihwaz) perhaps best explains the struggle for mythic and ideological territory that has defined many of the conflicts between political forces since the birth of Liberal Democracy. Symbols, myths, and ideas seem to change hands, disappear from one place and reappear in another. Old gods and politics are re-tooled for new, darker uses, then again stolen back. The swastika appears on the feet of the Buddha, also the flag of the Nazis; Gramsci’s formulation of metapolitical change becomes abandoned by European leftists and picked up by the European New Right.

In a recent essay at Gods&Radicals, Peter Gaffney examines this process through Foucault’s reading of Nietzche:

“This is how Foucault understands Nietzsche’s concept of Entstehung, which he translates as l’émergence – or alternately as les points de surgissement (the moments, stages or positions of arising)–, by which a discourse always appears anew in the hands of historically contingent forces:

“Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing the rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules.”

There is a simpler and more raw way to envision this process, that of wars over land or sacred territory. Pope Boniface advised his priests to build their churches upon ancient pagan sites; old sacred wells where people prayed to Pagan goddesses in Europe are now all dedicated to Catholic saints and the Virgin. The sites remain, the power means something beyond the colonization and struggle. The poor and faithful still visit the sites of Druid mountains and Pagan temples, still utter prayers, but the words are different, serving different sacred orders.

It matters who holds that territory, and the wars of occupation and reclamation are fiercest at times when Empire loses its grip. Each of the three Fascist uprisings in Europe occurred at times when Liberal Democracy began to crumble, the ‘interregnum’ in which Gramsci warned ‘monsters’ (or morbid systems) awoke.

We are in a similar period.

In each previous instance, Communists and Anarchists relentlessly ceded mythic territory to the nationalist forces. Fascists have always better understood the relationship of power and aesthetic, because they have no qualms about using them. Leftists still fail to heed Gramsci’s analysis, and rather than employ their own mythic imaginings to awaken a new world against the dying of the old, they choose now (as they did last century) to side with the Empire, that “Liberal center,” which in all three instances proved not only to be poor allies, but eager assassins when the fascist threat finally manifested.

Liberal Democracy is failing again. Capitalism has entered another crisis stage, desperately seeking new resources to extract from ever-dwindling wells. The altars of Progress and Modernity demand offerings, and the priests who tend them are sharpening blades, ready to begin new sacrifices.

Eilhwaz, the wolfsangel, is a powerful symbol. It symbolizes Yew, the graveyard tree, the acceptance of death’s inevitability that leads to heroic acts of reckless courage. As a boundary marker it warned those outside the wild that past its etched symbol roamed death, while granting permission to all those on the other side of it to use violence against what passed from its boundary into the settled lands.

From experience, I also know it to be a most powerful warding rune. It trips up those who stalk your secret meetings, protects from surprise, guards territory, and acts exactly as its name suggests:  hooking wolves into a struggle to the death. No counter-magic have others found against my uses of it, though those thus trapped can, with a strong enough will, try to use it to tug back (an ensuing struggle much like we might imagine a wolf hooked by a chain held in the hands of a man might have been).

The Wolfsangel was first shown to me in a vision, the last in a series of four glyphs I learned to use during ancestral work. I have used it since, even after I learned a year later that it was symbol co-opted by the Nazis. While the antifascist ‘left’ has shown themselves quite willing to cede territory in order to keep their liberal allies, I have no intention to, anymore than I will give up the use of the wolfsangel.

That stubborness, that refusal to give up what is mine, what is ours by right of ideological and revolutionary ancestors (of blood or otherwise), is the guiding strategy of this essay. It is also the only way to neuter a threat which exists only by our permission.

Empires Crumbling

On the 18th of February this year, several hundred people gathered to hear a man speak, one who’s dedicated years to studying unpopular European philosophers, seeking knowledge from gods of death and war, and cobbling together an analysis of Modernity’s failings and what might be built from its ruins.

Actually, two men spoke on that subject that day, to two different crowds on two different parts of the planet. Both speakers were ‘gay’ men, though reject that identity in favor of self-determination. Both shape their politics of the world around an aesthetic of wild forest, unrestrained humanity, and a refusal to accept Liberal Democracy’s pretensions of peace and progress.

The first man (whose name I will withhold for a short time) presented an hour-long speech on the west coast of the United States. The other presented a 20-minute talk called “Violence is Golden” in a castle beer hall to a group of European Identitarians at the Institut für Staatspolitik. His name was Jack Donovan.

Jack_Donovan
Jack Donovan. Image use info here.

By now you have probably heard his name. You will read (and I will write) it much more than I or you prefer. So be it, though—to look away is to hide from something we ourselves have birthed and empowered, and something only we can stop.

I will not repeat the clumsy, panicked mistakes in the various recent exposés running through your news feed. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s piece in March was deeply flawed, Slate’s piece just last week was even more a failure. These two articles, as well as many other criticisms, have failed completely to explain his appeal while simultaneously missing the core threat of his ideas. These and many other failures betray a deep and intentional blindness particularly within American anti-fascist and ‘leftist’ thought, the product both of a marriage to Liberal Democratic hegemony and an almost ecstatic abdication of revolutionary territory.

Thus, one cannot accurately criticize Jack Donovan without also criticizing the anti-fascist left who has taken upon themselves the task of (ineptly) opposing him. Likewise, one cannot speak about the dangers the Wolves of Vinland (and Paul Waggener’s “Operation Werewolf”) without also telling long-stifled truths about modern society and the various Pagan, Environmental, and Anarchist movements which the Wolves of Vinland are currently poised to supplant.

This is not a comfortable task, and it is ironic that there is more risk to me in this essay than to its intended targets. That risk is not from the Wolves of Vinland’s brutalist-sculpted ‘warriors’ or their aesthetic of violence. I do not fear the muscles and fight-training of Waggener or Donovan (come at me, bro). Rather, it is from the established orthodoxy of American antifascism and its slavish worship of Liberal Democratic conceits that the vast majority of criticism for this work will likely come.

Already my admission that I am intimately acquainted with the Wolfangel has put me at risk of being considered a crypto-fascist, because many antifascist theorists police their borders not with an eye towards reclaiming lost territory, but with a terror of what lurks beyond the well-lit street lights in the dark forests into which the light of cities can never reach.

Despite the risk, I need to write this essay. Not just because I foresee further territory being abandoned as the American left cuts out its insurrectionary heart and offers it on the altars of progress, praying that the Empire can be saved. Nor do I write this only because the future Jack Donovan and the Wolves of Vinland crave is one I do not want to see in this world. More than anything, I write this essay because, on the same day that Jack Donovan helped provide the intellectual justification for violence to a strengthening European Identitarian movement, I did the same thing for a growing Pagan anti-capitalist movement. I was the other speaker that day, 6000 miles away.

Since noting the dark poetry of such simultaneity, I’ve given extensive time to reading Donovan’s work and regretting that our similarities did not end there. It’s precisely these similarities, however, which both demand that I write this essay while also making such an essay dangerous. We occupy similar territory, outside the urbs of Liberal Democratic empire where barbarians and wolves dwell, past the boundary markers where the reach of the civitas and the polis is declawed.

I know this land, these gods, and these ideas. And I will not give them up.

Barbarians in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

–Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

“In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.”
–Alley Valkyrie, Propaganda in the Age of Fascism

No discussion of Jack Donovan, the Wolves of Vinland, or Operation Werewolf can truly begin without focusing on their aesthetic. Many have tried, reducing their images to caricature, missing their sublime and intoxicating coherence, dismissing it all as if image had no power. We shall not make the same mistake.

Take a few minutes and scroll through Jack Donovan’s Instagram feed. Linger on the photos. Feel what they convey, let them wash over you. Try to enter the world they narrate. While doing so, note the repeated use of certain filters, the austerity of the backgrounds. Greys, sepias, overuse of ‘Structure’ edits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Donovan wants you to see is that the Modern world is too new, too garish, that there is no place within it for people like him nor for people like you. One imagines he hates the imposed efficiency of florescent lights, prefers the slant of sunlight at the end of day, would use lanterns if his eyesight were better, and is allergic to gaudy colors. His is not the aesthetic of a consumer. The exact polar opposite of his proposed milieu is a Walmart, bright lights glaring off the cellophane-wrapped chemically-colored products which define most American lives. Instead, behind him are unfinished concrete walls in gyms or forests, the decayed urban or the feral wild, an old-world feel clipping out the $6 latte area of Portland, Oregon where he until recently lived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aesthetic is narrative. Aesthetic tells a story, and Jack Donovan’s story is of anti-modernism. It is not just because he is anti-modern, but he also senses what his increasing fan-base knows and most anti-fascists refuse to admit: the modern is fucking awful. The modern is alienating, full of empty images and promises after which we all chase. Progress brings us a new iPhone each year and more flavors of Doritos, jobs in front of screens and new identities to try on and less and less land in which to play tribe with your friends.

The paradox, of course, is that it is precisely because of the modern that we experience his anti-modern vision, the same convoluted trap in which any critic of Liberal Democratic empire finds themselves. As Walter Benjamin noted, we are never in relationship to the subject of an image, but rather in relationship with a lens and a screen. We only ever interface with the production of images, the machinery of mass-aesthetic.

Donovan’s aesthetic attempts to escape this, but it cannot. What Donovan portrays is crafted just as any other selfie is, posed, selected, filtered and cropped, uploaded into The Feed for us all to see. It is an anti-modern aesthetic made possible only by the modern, a resistance to Empire generated by Empire like Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein waiting with Big Brother’s pre-scripted revolt. In this way, though, he is no different from any of us. The Antifa selfie, the anti-capitalist meme: we do the same.

This paradox in which we are all trapped is not limited to the mere reproduction of the anti-modern by modern means. It is an oppositional aesthetic, crafted constantly in response to the modern. What is anti-modern is determined by the modern itself, just as what is anti-oppressive within social justice is determined by the oppressive, what is ‘left’ is determined by what is ‘right.’

Audre Lourde’s statement that “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house,” while originally an attack on the bourgeois goals of white feminists, just as easily describes the perpetual paradox of all resistance to the Modern.

A Body Politic

Key to understanding Donovan’s aesthetic, then, is that he is merely retooling the master’s narrative, determined not by some mastery of the will but an almost adolescent act of opposition. Inverting Lourde’s point, Donovan attempts to look like the master himself, becoming what his chosen enemies fear him to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towards this end, his physique is his primary weapon, one that can command erotic respect from fully hetero-men as well as gays. He wants–needs–you to think he is hot, and even his feminist critics often write slobberingly about his body even as they then attack it.

This is his success: the masculinity he wears is bold, brazen, unapologetic: it draws the sort of followers he desires while offending those socialized to find such displays of virility indicative of ‘toxic masculinity.’

 

 

This aesthetic politics of the body is part of the core ideology not just of Jack Donovan but also of Operation Werewolf, a site run and founded by Paul Waggener. To understand its appeal, the imagery of its manifesto must be approached the same way the visual aesthetic must be: fully felt, with an eye on the backgrounds and filters:

“Operatives can be found in countries across the world, dripping sweat on the floor of their spartan-style garage weight room, leaving blood on the dirt in the backyard boxing ring, or bringing their feral competitive style to powerlifting meets, MMA events, bars, back alleys and the savage streets of crumbling cities. They are not products of their environment- instead they change the landscape and environment around them, forgers of destiny, architects of their own becoming. They make the flesh strong, knowing that it is the only fit conveyance for a strong mind and an iron will- theirs is a mindset that accepts no weakness.

Some are solitary practitioners, performing the rituals of life and death amongst the ruins of modern civilization, lone wolves howling songs of destruction and new growth in the woods that encroach on the edges of the rotting Empire, waiting for the fall. Others have made it their mission to seek each other out, forming militaristic divisions, chapters led by their strongest member, creating a war-band that seeks to carve its own myth, to create its own saga of power and might- men and women challenging each other to strive ever higher.”

Like this manifesto (powerful, until you realize it’s a sloppy pastiche of Dark Mountain’s manifesto and Peter Grey’s Rewilding Witchcraft), the articles on Operation Werewolf exort the reader towards a vision of self-fulfillment on the “edges of the rotting Empire, waiting for the fall.” Again, sweaty gym-forged bodies with wild forest and concrete as backdrop, perfectly selected sepia filters assuring you they aren’t currently huddled over screens masturbating to porn.

Readers for whom the notion of sweat, brawls, and ‘accepting no weakness’ is off-putting should be reminded that it is supposed to repulse you. It is not to you whom they are writing, any more than it is to the civilized urban feminist that Jack Donovan bares his torso.

Resist, however, the inclination to dismiss this as negative: while Operation Werewolf is not the body-positivity of urban social justice, it is nevertheless the positivity of a body stretched, strained, and repeatedly broken to test its limits and ‘forge the will.’

Here, many critics fall back upon accusations of ‘ableism’ or ‘fat-shaming.’ Without doubt there is no place inscribed into their aesthetic for the overweight person, nor for the chronically-ill, yet such critiques (however true within the framework of liberal social justice politics) fall utterly flat. They are not attempting to build an inclusive ideology, but rather one of difference and exclusion. Dismissing them on these grounds, however morally-satisfying, is utterly useless.

Antifascist responses to such rhetoric through the social justice framework not only fail, but expose an ignored and suppressed difference in their own ranks, best seen within the difference between Liberal and Leftist feminism. The former, which is the predominate form within Social Justice, argues that patriarchal violence is the primary cause of bodily oppression. On the other hand, Leftist iterations (Marxist, post-colonialist) locate the cause of such oppression (anti-disabled, anti-fat, etc.) in the Capitalist’s need to turn humans into workers and the State’s need to turn humans into subjects.

From a Liberal feminist (‘bourgeois’ or ‘white’ feminism) view, any politics or ideology which does not treat all bodies as equal is patriarchal, and each oppression (ableism, transphobia, etc.) is an additional variant of patriarchal rule (consider Liberal feminist statements such as “homophobia is rooted in hatred of women”). To undermine the patriarchy and achieve equality within that framework, all bodies must be accorded the same worth and access, since every exclusion is a reproduction of patriarchal oppression.

Marxist and post-colonial feminist frameworks dismiss such utopianism in favor of the abolition of the conditions which equates the worth of bodies to what can be derived from them: that is, Capitalism. A disabled or chronically-ill person is ‘worth less’ (paid less) under capitalism because they can produce less for their bosses (who are usually men, but often also women). They are valued less because their labor cannot be exploited as easily.

To a Liberal feminist, patriarchy is the problem and the problems of capitalism derive from the patriarchy, not from capitalism itself. Within the feminism of Marxists and post-colonialists, Patriarchy is merely the functional aesthetic of the oppression of bodies, while capitalist control of the body is the core problem.

What Operation Werewolf advocates does not directly conflict this latter, insurrectionist feminism. If anything, people of any gender hoping to be physically strong enough to fight the inevitable police and military backlash against revolutionary actions could benefit from such exortations. If you want to learn to fight Nazis, you’ll need first to learn how to fight.

Too often, though, discussions regarding expanding the capacity of the body are dismissed, labeled ‘ableist’ or ‘fat-shaming,’ and even potentially fascist.

A particularly poignant example of this is the reaction to an essay from Peter Grey last year, a writer and publisher who has repeatedly held the line against fascist incursions into esotericism, including pulling his work from use in publications wherein fascist writers appear. Within Pagan, witch, radical, and esoteric communities, his essay Forging the Body of the Witch was held up by some as proof that the (very not-fascist) writer was potentially fascist, or at the very least engaging in ableism and fat-shaming.

Another case in point: Silvia Federici’s essay, In Praise of the Dancing Body, was similarly attacked as ableist because she advocates dancing as a form of bodily resistance and suggests that capitalism has alienated us from our bodies through extensive medicalization.

Anti-civilizationist, autonomous Marxist, anarchist, and other radical writers have similarly come under such friendly-fire attacks so that, as of now, the only people actually putting forward a framework in which the potential capabilities of the body are fully-embraced are men like Jack Donovan and Paul Waggener.

This is the first example of how Leftists have ceded territory in which fascists can thrive. Leftists abandoned a political framework which embraces the body–both in its weaknesses as well as its strengths–in favor of one which disfavors (and even attacks) any celebration of human capacity as inherently oppressive.

In such a world, the muscular bodies of a factory, farm, or construction worker—the very people whom Leftists once saw as a revolutionary force—are to be hidden, minimized, or even derided, lest those who do not have such bodies or cannot get them feel excluded from insurrectionist discourse.

This is why antifascist criticisms of Donovan (etc.) fall flat. There is nothing inherently fascist about the body work he and Operation Werewolf advocate: indeed, it is also something embraced by many suppressed forms of feminism as well. It is only territory they occupy, colonized by a fascist aesthetic. Such territory once belonged to the Left who have become all too long happy to abandon it.

Doing so means that fascists are then allowed to run free through it and claim it as their own.

Ad Hominem

Many essays attacking Jack Donovan particularly center their critique on his aesthetic masculinity, effectively reducing his threat to his maleness. While the Slate piece devotes extensive time to his aesthetic of virility, even to the point of slobbering affection (“A beautifully muscular man of 42 who has perfected a masculine scowl…he functions as beefcake for the neofascist cause,”) the SPLC’s essay reduces his entire appeal to that of his overt maleness, inscribing him into Alex Di Branco’s thesis that it is misogyny itself which is animating new fascist movements.

Both make precisely the same mistake and only strengthen the allure of his raw, uncivilized male aesthetic.

For a constructed masculine aesthetic to be a political aesthetic, it must have a nemesis. Fortunately for him, his critics easily supply that role, reducing him to his masculinity in precisely the same way they accuse men of doing to women. For most of his critics, Donovan is a meat-head, a thug, a dumb man who probably doesn’t use deodorant. Such reductions reproduce the same ‘patriarchal’ modes of dismissal: a woman is just her tits, Donovan is just his muscles.

Like an Antifa protester lobbing a tear gas canister back at the police, Donovan is able swiftly to redeploy these reductions to expand his audience. To understand how, consider the sort of people to whom he appeals: men like him, displaced, uncomfortable in the world, first unsure of and then later angry about the absurd rules of civilization, unable to find meaning except by escape into romantic notions of heroism and courage now that the jobs are all gone overseas.

To such men, seeking something mythic, something to make them feel like they have a place in the world, ridicule of their masculinity only further entrenches their sense of alienation. When a critic ridicules his, Donovan need only hold up their insult before his audience, and suddenly his male tribalism doesn’t even need a sales pitch.

Further, Jack Donovan’s deep intelligence is easily missed by critics who are tricked by his aesthetic. On Instagram he stands shirtless, inked, holding a chainsaw; elsewhere he is wearing hunting gear, or grunting in a gym, drilling wood, wearing a baseball cap. He looks rural, the sort of working-class man urban liberals dismiss immediately as smelly, uneducated, and crass.

Here Donovan is able to leverage an inherent prejudice within what passes for the Left in America: its anti-rural, anti-working class sentiment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Donovan presents as the sort of man who drives large trucks, thinks forests should be clear-cut, drinks Budweiser in front of football games, and would bash the head in of a man at a rest stop who stared at his crotch. As such, he becomes too easily dismissed, his arguments reduced to mere grunts in, as the SPLC article put it, the “chorus of moaning that emanates from the “Manosphere.”

Donovan is no doubt aware of this, and wields these prejudices deftly against his critics. It is a trick I know well myself: I am a 6 foot 1, gruff-voiced, ‘masculine-presenting’ man who talks more like a ‘bro’ than a theorist. The disconnect between my appearance and my intelligence often puts critics and fans alike off-guard. Thus when my critics attempt to reduce my arguments to my male appearance, they will often appear shallow or uninformed in public forums. This same mechanism works in Jack Donovan’s favor.

More so, by targeting his masculine presentation, critics also re-inforce liberal urban elitism and undermine any other critique they offer. To reduce Donovan to his maleness is to reduce him to his perceived identity, alienating those who see misandry as unhelpful (or even dangerous) as well as lower-class men for whom muscles, power-tools, and backyard construction projects are inherent parts of daily life and work, rather than cultivated threats against women.

This is another territory ceded by the Left. The bodies (and the accompanying concerns of the body) of poor and working-class men–unless their maleness can also be shown to intersect with at least one other oppression identity– are all but completely dismissed in American leftist discourse. It should not surprise us, then, that the aesthetic of overt, unapologetic masculinity which Donovan, Waggener, and the Wolves of Vinland celebrate would appeal to those ignored men.

For such men, the aesthetic of brute maleness accompanied by deep thought and independent will shall always be more appealing than what Liberalism has to offer. Marxists and Anarchists once offered them something too, but if they still do, it cannot be found in current American antifascist discourse.

Squatter’s Rights

To see how well Donovan reclaims Leftist territory for his own, consider Donovan’s book on male desire, Androphilia. Written in 2006, it advances a vision of homosexuality not as a genetically-deterministic identity class, but of a variation or subset of male desire. The consequences of such a view are that male-male desire is a manifestation of human choice, rather than the current Liberal dogma that gays are ‘born this way.’

Within the vast majority of gay-rights organizing, the insistence that homosexuality is determined by biology rather than being a choice has become divine law. This ironically leaves only anti-homosexual Christian Evangelicals asserting that gay men actually have any agency in their sexual desire (by insisting it can and should be changed.)

The historical reason why it became Liberal consensus that homosexuality is an innate, essential, and biologically-determined identity has nothing to do with science. As in most cases, scientific theory follows political will, and this position was politically strategic.

In order to counter the moral arguments against homosexual sex, gay-rights activists presented homosexual desire as an immutable, scientifically-determined way of being. In such a framework, since gays had no choice but to engage in homosexual behavior, moral arguments that demanded they change their behavior made no sense.

This strategy certainly helped gays gain legal status within most Liberal Democracies, but it also stole from gays belief in their agency. Thus, I as a man who desires men actually have no say in the matter, because my genes make me desire men. The “Leftist” position now, at least the Social Justice position, depoliticizes will and individual choice, adopting the very same Nazi logic which located social-identity (Homosexual, Jew) in the body and then destroyed the body to destroy the identity.

Donovan’s arguments in Androphilia cunningly leverage this transposition. Arguing that male homosexual desire is just another configuration of male desire is really the more liberatory position. Even more (unfortunately) to his credit, rather than arguing to heterosexual men that they should accept male-male desire on account of Liberal Democratic rights, he argues that heterosexual men should embrace their already-existent desire for males.

 

 

 

 

The territory here that Donovan is able to claim—and the primary reason his ideas have so much resonance—is precisely what was ceded by Leftists who hitched their liberatory politics to the dreams of Liberal Democratic progress. While no doubt forged from a sense of pragmatic urgency (homosexuals were—and are—killed at rather high rates), the political subjectivity and loss of agency such a politics created cannot be easily undone.

Attempts to offer another narrative are often virulently attacked. I have never felt I was ‘born this way,’ yet to write openly about this is to elicit some rather intense rage from social justice activists who see such a position as a sign of my ‘heteronormative privilege,’ that I am not ‘queer enough’ to speak on such matters, or that I must have ‘internalized homophobia.’

In a situation where the leftist position insists sexual selection is innate and pre-determined, it should not surprise anyone that, as according to the Slate article, gays are being attracted to fascism. But contrary to the conclusion of the author, Donovan’s position offers homosexuals back the agency that Liberal Democracy stripped from them in return for protections.

This is not due to anything revolutionary or even original in Donovan’s thinking, but the same abdication of territory (in this case, an abdication of will) that leftists have elsewhere enacted.

Masculinity as Simulacrum

Returning to the matter of Donovan’s particular aesthetic: Donovan presents a vision of a man who is fully in touch with his will, comfortable with his desire for other men, unapologetic about his body, and unconcerned with what anyone thinks of him. In his books we see this aesthetic turn into an entire ethic, a religious redemption of the masculinity which bourgeois feminism sees as the primary cause of oppression.

Here we can re-introduce crucial discussion regarding Donovan’s misogyny, and also see how all these abandoned leftists positions re-animate into something quite morbid. Donovan loathes women. Androphilia blames almost every horrible thing on women; gay men shop because of women, gay men kill themselves because they are trying to be like women, trans women are men who have internalized everything that feminists told them about themselves.

His later books, The Way of Men and Becoming a Barbarian, both repeat this same ressentiment. Men are soft because of women, men stay at home instead of adventure because of them. Men don’t have enough men-only spaces because women expect to be everywhere, etc.. It all starts to sound so absurd that it’s easy to miss that he is parodying the excesses of bourgeois feminism in reverse.

In fact, his entire construct of hypermasculine existence could have been constructed by bourgeois feminism itself. If there is anything truly tragic about Jack Donovan’s vision of maleness—the one which fills the pages of his books and his Instagram feed–it is that it was created by the very same feminism which he so deeply loathes.

Such a reality, however, does not reduce its power.

Jean Baudrillard expanded Walter Benjamin’s work on aesthetics by noting how, now that we only have reproduction of art, we now also only have reproduction of politics. The ‘real’ we imagine is always a copy, a simulation of the real. Those copies and simulations become how we determine what is real, affecting our behaviour and the construction of our identities.

Whereas once the aesthetic was the visual representation of a way of being, the aesthetic is now our only blueprint. We do not know what it is like to be masculine except by the representation of the masculine, anymore than we know what it is to be anti-modern without representations of the anti-modern.

More dangerous, however, is that the negatives of images reproduce themselves as well. The aesthetic of hyper-masculinity from which Donovan and Waggener build their politics is produced from the negative space of liberal feminist critiques which reduce men to enemy, alpha-oppressor, toxic, and dangerous.

But negative space is never truly empty, just as territory no longer claimed is never truly vacant. We should be hardly surprised, then, that Wolves have moved into the places we have abandoned, inhabiting ideological homes which were once ours.

It is not clear, however, that many have the strength or will to kick them out.


Part Two, on ideological abandonment, here


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch.

He lives in Rennes, Bretagne.


Like Fascism? Love Capitalism? Then whatever you do, don’t pre-order Dr. Bones’ new book, Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Steal Back The World…

Capitalist Extortion in the Pagan Community

“Whatever the agenda of the extortionist, their victims are left with little to no choice: become an unwilling party to unethical, harmful conduct or try to opt out of the system entirely.”

Cultural and political commentary, from John Halstead


 

Twice in the past month, capitalists have tried to extort my silence.

That sounds dramatic.  But it’s what happened.

Corporate Extortion

The first time, it was a media corporation, BN Media, which recently took over the blogging platform, Patheos, where I used to write.  BN Media/Patheos has been withholding an electronic backup of my writing (almost 1000 posts) for several months now without explanation.  They recently let it leak that the reason for the delay was that the corporation was trying to keep me from writing negative things about them.  My writing was being held hostage, and the price of its ransom was my silence.  (That’s what prompted my recent snarky “Help Wanted: Patheos Pagan Writers” post.  Suffice it to say, I don’t respond well to coercion.)

BN Media’s attempt to shake me down was not surprising, considering how they had already attempted to extort all of the Patheos writers.  When BN Media acquired Patheos, they stepped into the corporate shoes of Patheos’ prior owners.  Writers who had formerly contracted with someone else now found themselves in an involuntary contractual relationship with an evangelical organization with a history of censorship and which had previously chased Pagans out of the Beliefnet platform.  BN Media then unilaterally rewrote the contract with the Patheos writers significantly expanding the editorial control and restricting writers’ freedom of expression.  Patheos Pagan writers now had the choice to abandon their exiting writing to BN Media or sign a contract which would give BN Media even more control over their writing.  When Pat Mosley and myself raised the alarm and attempted to build some solidarity among the Pagan Patheos writers, BN Media made an example of and summarily terminated us (which is how corporations often treat labor organizers).

Perhaps even more disturbing than the actions of BN Media were the excuses offered by the Patheos management.  The actions of the corporation were defended in terms of the profit motive (“They have to make money.”), without any regard to the people impacted–neither the Patheos writers, many of whom were unwittingly signing away control of their writing to a for-profit corporation for minimal benefit, nor the people who continue to be harmed by the anti-LGBT propaganda purveyed by BN Media’s affiliates.

This, I was told by Patheos management, was “standard in the industry.”   Indeed, it is.  And yet, why that should be any excuse for unethical behavior confounds me.  Bad behavior is bad behavior, no matter how “standard” it might be.  But I’m beginning to realize that the key word in the phrase “standard in the industry” may not be “standard”, but “industry.”  In a capitalist world, the profit motive covers a multitude of sins.

Small-Time Capitalist Extortion

The second time a capitalist tried to extort my silence this month, it was a troll who owns a couple of occult bookstores (which he calls an “empire”) and courts the worst kind of publicity for the Pagan community.  This troll was upset that I would be presenting at a Pagan Pride Day event in his region.  (Apparently, among other things, he doesn’t like my anti-capitalist views.)  He made various threats, from the vague-but-ominous (“watch yourself at that event”) to the ridiculously specific (threatening to set up an anonymous domain in the Bahamas and a website in Iceland and then publish that I molest children).

Even more disturbing than his attempts to directly extort me were his threats to harass, and even fire, his own employee, who was organizing the Pagan Pride event. This troll person unselfconsciously describes himself as “someone who not only knows how to use capitalism, but also has plenty of capital” and routinely threatens to use his capital (which I suspect is less sizeable than he likes to claim) to harass and bully those he disagrees with. I was only the most recent of his targets.

When overt threats didn’t work on me, he resorted to disingenuous appeals to my sympathy for his employees, arguing that “attacks” on him would hurt the people who work for him, like the aforementioned Pagan organizers. (Later he contradicting himself by saying that any press, good or bad, helped his business.) We’ve seen similar logic many times in the past decade, as heads of corporations escape punishment for their unethical behavior because they employ so many people.  A parallel argument was used to justify bailing out corporations which were deemed “too big to fail.”

My troll even threatened to “hire an army of gutter punks” to protest me at the event.  I admit, I had to look up what a “gutter punk” was.  Apparently it refers to a homeless or transient person who displays characteristics of the punk subculture.  So, add to the list exploiting homeless and transient people, as well as abusing the First Amendment.  (I’m not saying doesn’t have the right to hire whomever he could to stage a fake protest, but having the right to do something and doing the right thing are not the same.)

Not surprisingly, my troll also defended the management of Patheos.

Part of a Larger System

In some ways, my two would-be extortionists could not be more different.  One is a large media conglomerate that funds evangelical hate groups.  The other is a petty troll who has delusions of capitalist grandeur.  But in another way, they are two of a piece.  Both are capitalists, meaning they have accumulated capital by exploiting the work of others.  Both believe that their capital earns them the right to a louder voice than those with less.  And both attempt to use their capital to extort silence from those they disagree with.

And they are not alone.  Consider the similarity between my troll, who threatened to fire his employee if I was allowed to speak at a Pagan event she was organizing, and General Motors and Chrysler, which threaten to move their business overseas unless the American taxpayers continue to subsidize their unsustainable business practices.  Both attempt to manipulate our sympathies for the victims of their capitalist exploitation, while expecting us to take that exploitation for granted.

Or consider the similarity between BN Media and the Big Banks, like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank, which were bailed out by taxpayers in 2008.  BN Media held the writing of the Patheos bloggers hostage in order to coerce their agreement to a new contract which would give BN Media even more power, while at the same time sponsoring anti-LGBT groups.  The Big Banks hold the world economy hostage in order to coerce bailouts and deregulation, while at the same time funding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

It’s a difference of scale, but not of method.  And the end result in both cases is that their victims become complicit in their own subjugation and the subjugation of others.

“Capitalist Extortion” is Redundant

I think this reveals something about the inherent relationship between capitalism and extortion.  I say this as a capitalist myself.  I am the part-owner of a business that employs other people who are not owners.  That we business owners exploit the labor our employees is evident by the discrepancy between our salaries and those of our employees.  And there is a kind of extortion going on there, which arises out of the unequal bargaining power between the employer and the employees, caused by a surplus of labor, the lack of a social safety net, the weakening or absence of collective bargaining organizations, and so on.  This is where the concept of “wage slavery” comes from.

But some capitalists take this extortion even further.  For them, it’s not sufficient to exploit the labor of employees.  They also have an agenda to advance–whether political or personal–and they use their capital to extort our complicity with that agenda.  For the Big Banks, that agenda is neoliberalism, with its attendant policies of deregulation and globalization (so that capital and corporations may cross nationals borders freely even while people cannot).  For my troll, the agenda was the promotion of his own cult of personality–the less said about which the better (even negative attention feeds the monster).  For BN Media, the agenda is an evangelical one, part of which involves channeling of charitable contributions to hate groups like Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, and the American Center of Law and Justice, which promotes the criminalization of homosexuality.

Whatever the agenda of the extortionist, their victims are left with little to no choice: become an unwilling party to unethical, harmful conduct or try to opt out of the system entirely.  The latter path is being forged here at Gods & Radicals.

What I have realized through all of this is that this kind of extortionist behavior is not aberrant–it’s a feature of a capitalist system.  Obviously, not all capitalists will resort to such obvious shakedown methods as BN Media and my troll did, but there are no inherent checks to prevent it when they do.  After all, it’s “standard in the industry.”  It even finds its way even into our religious lives, at interfaith blogging platforms and at Pagan Pride events, for example. We can condemn extortionist behavior, but its not a problem of a few bad apples.  We need to get to the root of the problem–the inherently extortionist nature of capitalism.  Until we do, extortion will be an unavoidable part of our lives–and our Paganism.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a Pagan activist and blogger.  In addition to his writing here at Gods & Radicals, at Huffington Post, and on his personal blog, AllergicPagan.com, John is a environmental and anti-racist activist.  He is one of the founding members of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works for a just transition from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy in Northwest Indiana, where frontline communities of color are facing the disproportionate impacts of industrial polution. John was also the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” (ecopagan.com), which has collected over 9,000 signatures from 90 countries, and has been translated into 16 languages. It represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth.


Gods&Radicals is a non-profit, Pagan Anti-Capitalist Publisher.

Our latest book: Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World by Dr. Bones, is now available for pre-order!


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

The crisis of Paganism is directly tied to Capitalism

Cultural and religious analysis, from Jonathan Woolley


Ash die-back

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

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

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

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

Clarification 1) Primroses

pagan things are not (necessarily) Paganism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarification 2) Saplings:

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

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

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

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

Clarification 3) Biosecurity:

Capitalism is, in fact, the causal factor

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

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

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

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

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

For if we do not, then who shall?

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


Jonathan Woolley

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


 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.


British Paganism is Dying. Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with some existing explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Political Economy of Paganism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Woolley

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

The Heka of Keket

“God, sometimes you just don’t come through.
Do you need a woman to look after you?”
– Tori Amos


Across the desert Keket traced ribbons
of shadow, serpent-headed seeker of Set.
With offerings of beer and salt, she sought
the Red Warrior’s strength. “My beloved,
Kek, is suffering some derangement.
He claims Re’s gifts and spurns the Khemenu.[1]
Throws scorn upon my loving touch, threatens
great violence when I speak truth, and names
me his great oppressor. Without Kek we
cannot turn Ma’at’s wheel. His temple glows
with sickly blue light, gathering lonely men.”
Set knew the disarray upon the lands.
The bad harvest had stirred unrest. The folk
debated who to blame: the laborers,
the land owners, those fugitives who fled
from foreign war and camped along the shore.
Set rose, taking in hand his was scepter.
“Keket, let’s get your man.”

 

 

In darkness, cloaked,
Keket and Set entered the temple of Kek.
The frog-headed deity sat among
icons of nihilistic rage, and spells
designed to blunt the reasoned edge of mind.
Within the walls echoed Kek’s croaking laugh,
loud and ugly, suppressing reverence
and joy. His worshippers named him Pep-Eh,
darkness which brings renewal to the light.
Casting aside his cloak, Set gripped his was.
The devotees attacked with ridicule,
insulting his color and calling him queer,
mocking his wife for bearing his brother’s son.
Set gave no fucks about these feeble winds.
His scepter split the worshippers, he strode
before the throne of the frog-headed god
whose meeting eye dilated in surprise.
Set recognized his adversary from years
of nightly war. “This is a lie,” Set laughed.
“You are not Kek. You are the anti-life,
the anti-love, the enemy of Re.
Not Pep-Eh but Apep, the destroyer.”

The false one shook away his mask, body
uncoiling beneath his gilded robe,
his mouth revealing fangs, and lunged at Set.
The Red One leapt aside and pinned its head
between his scepter’s tines against the ground.
Taking a rodent’s form, Set tore the throat
of his adversary, and found a key.
As quiet filled the temple grounds, Keket
could hear her husband’s voice croaking below.
With key in hand, she found his cage and soon
serpent and frog were once again as one.
Returning to the worshippers, they said:
“Together we are the darkness, the void.
We enfold all in our loving embrace.”
And as the couple spoke, their kin appeared
as though stepping out of the empty air.
Nunet and Nun, serpent and frog, proclaimed:
“We are nothingness, possibility.
Free yourself of your fear and purity.”
Hehet and Heh, serpent and frog, proclaimed:
“We are eternity, spiral of time.
Spit out the poison of progress and turn
to soul, the soil in which your Being grows.”
Amunet and Amun, serpent and frog,
said nothing, but their silence filled the space
with tears of joy and grief, immense relief.
Ma’at’s great wheel began to spin again,
and tranquil comity returned to the land.
Set guided those who served the usurper
to serve justice in all her forms: to make
humble the strong and powerful the meek.

[1] The Khemenu, also known as the Ogdoad, were a group of eight deities worshipped in Hermopolis, comprised of four male and female pairs, the males frog-headed and females serpent-headed. They seem connected to primordial forces and are the source of the worlds in some tellings.


 

You can now get the entire catalogue of Gods&Radicals in digital editions for only $20 US.

 

Rebellion and the Gods

 

The Problem of Evil has been a central problem for monotheism for millennia. If God is Good how can it allow the innocent to suffer? If God is All-Powerful why can’t it stop this suffering? Therefore: either God isn’t Good, isn’t All-Powerful, or doesn’t exist at all. This challenge has never been presented as well as in Dostoevsky. There, the intellectual and highly educated Ivan presses his younger brother Alyosha, who is training to become a monk, on the point.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”
“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.
“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly, “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you — answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever?”
“No, I can’t admit it,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes…
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov,  Constance Garnett trans.)

Ivan’s approach to the problem is slightly unique, since he isn’t interested in arguing about the existence or non-existence of God. Rather, he uses the argument to reject the world and conclude that the only proper response to the problem of evil is to reject the unjust world God has made and “return the ticket” that is his life. Alyosha is quick to strike upon the answer appropriate to ‘true believers,’ to ask such questions is to challenge God. It is to engage in rebellion. Yet still, as a sensitive boy who cares about the world, Alyosha cannot help but be drawn into Ivan’s rebellion. 

Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project
“Fyodor Dostoevsky” by Vasily Perov

There is always something of rebellion about taking seriously the Problem of Evil. To ask such questions seriously is to question God’s plan, to say nothing of the divine goodness, power, and existence. When we are provoked by such concerns, the ‘true believer’ points out, it is a test of faith. We must acquiesce to the power, goodness, and wisdom of God despite all evidence to the contrary. It is a test of faith, a test of obedience. The question of evil, of the suffering of innocents, is indivisible from the possibility of rebellion against that entity from which such suffering ultimately comes–either because it is designed or because it is allowed.

The question of the Problem of Evil is mostly unknown to Pagan cultures. There are several fairly obvious reasons why this is so, and several more interesting less obvious reasons. On the surface there is no problem of evil in most Pagan cultures because the Gods are not understood to be perfectly good or all-powerful. What consists of blasphemy for most monotheists, i.e. admitting that God isn’t perfect, is fairly standard within Pagan cultures.

On a deeper level, however, the metaphysics and theology embedded in a Pagan worldview does not allow for an absolutist’s singular understanding of Goodness. There are goods, multiple and varied, and from the top to the bottom the cosmos is plural and irreducible to one standard of judgment. This means that many Gods can all be good and yet these forms of goodness can conflict or fail to overlap. This is one reason why Socrates’ questions as to the nature of virtue in general are so often met with confusion. The people with whom he spoke weren’t idiots, their metaphysics was just one in which distinct individual realities weren’t reducible to abstract entities such as “Goodness in-itself by-itself.” 

Socrates: Come then, let us examine what we mean. An action or a man dear to the gods is pious, but an action or a man hated by the gods is impious. They are not the same, but quite opposite, the pious and the impious. Is that not so?
Euthyphro: It is indeed.
Socrates: And that seems to be a good statement?
Euthyphro: I think so, Socrates.
Socrates: We have also stated that the gods are in a state of discord, that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other. Has that, too, been said?
(Plato, “Euthyphro” Grube trans.)

Although not addressing the Problem of Evil, the Platonic dialogue the “Euthyphro” does explore the nature of goodness under the heading of “piety” and its relation to the Gods. Indirectly it raises the problematic question of whether or not the Gods are really good, or rather just powerful, which underlies one of the challenges embodied in the later Problem of Evil. If we are going to arrive at a unified understanding of the Good, or that version of it found in piety, we are going to have to reject the multiplicity of the Gods, Socrates insists. With multiple Gods there can be no singular definition of piety, or ultimately virtue and goodness. 

Plato is pushing his own agenda in the dialogues, one that consists of a rejection of the Gods of archaic poetry and myth in favor of eternal, perfect, inhuman, and unchanging divine principles. For this reason we should not be surprised to find Socrates’ debate partners so willing to give ground on the abstract unity of goodness. I must confess to wishing Euthyphro himself were just a bit smarter and, to put it bluntly, a bit more Greek. Then he might have asked “Why precisely should I be concerned to come up with a unifying general definition of piety or goodness? What makes this necessary? May not ‘good’ or ‘pious’ be meant in many senses — senses derived from many and different Gods?” Alas we do not get this dialogue.

What we do get in the Euthyphro dialogue is the clear connection of any discussion of goodness and the Gods to the topic of rebellion. From the beginning Euthyphro, an Athenian priest, is informed in his view of the Gods by their conflict, and highest in this list of conflicts is that between Zeus and his father Chronos, along with Chronos’ own overthrowing of his father Ouranus. Each of these conflicts is, by definition, a rebellion against previously legitimate authority. For Euthyphro and the Pagans of Ancient Greece, rebellion is a central characteristic of the cosmos. Socrates, in seeking a unified Good, rejects both rebellion amongst the Gods and any legitimacy for rebellion against the Gods.

This is far from the norm, however, as stories such as Heracles’ rescue of Prometheus from the official punishment of Zeus attest. In fact, Pagan cultures in general are full of stories of humans tricking Gods, bargaining with them, stealing from them, and defeating them. Of course, more often, the human fails in its rebellion. But it nonetheless remains a legitimate potential relationship between Gods and humanity. Beyond open rebellion there is the more nuanced conflict between human adherents of conflicting Gods identifying themselves as taking part in the larger divine conflict.

The political implications of these points should be clear. How we relate to what we might call the cosmic chain of command can’t help but have implications for our relationship to worldly political structures. This is why, despite obvious preferences for forms of monarchy in divine hierarchies, I have frequently argued that the heart of the Pagan understanding of cosmic and divine hierarchy is temporary, unstable authority open to challenge and built out of tentative compromises. Likewise, a similar point can be made for a Pagan attitude towards worldly authority. All authority is fleeting and open to contestation. 

We find brief echoes of this Pagan world of contested authority in elements of the Judaic worldview of the so-called Old Testament. We see it most strikingly in Abraham’s willingness to bargain and argue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet this vision is all too brief. It is replaced in the memory of history by the more striking obedience of Abraham, an obedience willing to do what Alyosha could not and build a future world on the innocent blood of a child — Issac, Abraham’s own son. Whether or not the murder is required of him at the end, Abraham makes clear that he is willing to kill the child at God’s behest. He obediently endorses the suffering of the innocent.

Elie_Wiesel_(1987)_by_Erling_Mandelmann_-_2
Elie Wiesel

It is the vision of Abraham arguing with God, however, that the Nobel Laureate, writer, Holocaust survivor, and Judaic theologian Elie Wiesel turned to in making sense of the state of faith following the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel used to give three public lectures in Boston every year, and for many years the first lecture was always about the “Book of Job.” I was fortunate enough to see Wiesel lecture on the “Book of Job” four times and his view largely informs my own engagement with the Problem of Evil. Wiesel found the “Book of Job” to be the most important book of the Bible for the post-Holocaust world. It is also, read a certain way, the darkest moment of the entire Bible. It is a book that raises the question of the Problem of Evil, of why innocents suffer, and it strikingly fails to provide any answer to the question.

Job, his family killed and everything but his own life taken from him because of a wager God made with Satan, asks for an explanation from his God. God answers, in an overpowering whirlwind, with a show of power but offers no answers. In the book itself, Job obediently humbles himself and asks for forgiveness for having questioned his God and is rewarded with a “new family” (how inadequate this is, Wiesel notes, in the face of the loss of the first).

Wiesel, however, frequently suggested that the real end of the book might have been removed, lost, or changed. What he wanted of Job was more in the spirit of Abraham when faced with God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Job should refuse to accept God’s power as an adequate answer to the question of God’s righteousness. In short, in the face of the Holocaust, the appropriate answer of the believer should be to demand an explanation, to accuse God while remaining stalwart in belief. Whether intentionally or not, there is a strong echo of Ivan in this stance and it is indeed a type of rebellion. 

What allows for rebellion, whether potential or actual, in Heracles, Euthyphro, Abraham, and Wiesel is clearly not just a pluralistic understanding of divinity as could be found in Heracles and Euthyphro but not easily found in Abraham or Wiesel. Instead, something else is shared by each of these examples. You could call it a sense of divine personality.

Looking to Classical Greece (a penchant of mine that I fear may vex my readers from time to time) is useful because it allows us to see a culture in which the understanding of almost every major concept is in dramatic flux. In Greece we can witness the transition from an oral to a literate society, and in this transition we see a cognitive revolution the likes of which we can rarely capture with such clarity. In Greece around the time of Plato, for example, we can witness three wildly distinct ideas of divinity at full war with one another.

First, we see the oldest sense of divinity, in which the gods have bodies and fully individualized and distinct personalities in a theology free of abstract reductionism to impersonal universal principles. In such a cosmos personality is primary.

Next we see the revolution being staged by several Pr-Socratic philosophers in service of what we would today call naturalism. These thinkers propose, to risk putting it in our contemporary terms, that we understand the Gods in terms of basic laws and structures of natural material reality. Anaximenes, for example, suggests that everything is constituted out of air and that even the Gods can be understood as formed from air. The rules governing the condensation and dispersion of air will be the basic level to which we can reduce all other realities, even divine ones.

[Anaximenes] attributed all the causes of things to infinite air, and did not deny that there were gods, or pass them over in silence; yet he believed not that air was made by them, but that they arose from air.
(Augustinus on Anaximenes; Kirk, Raven, Schofield trans.)

Finally we have the complete abstraction of divinity carried out by Plato and the later Neo-Platonists in which the highest level of reality are divine principles as abstract as entities such as “The Good Itself” and “The Beautiful Itself.” Plato and later thinkers are consistent in insisting that these abstract perfections can’t accurately be considered in terms of any natural parallels, whether animal or human. These are divinities without personality.

It is from this revolution-through-abstraction that theology will draw its picture, filtered through Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in different ways, of what we could call the “God of the Philosophers.” This is a Perfect, Good, All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Seeing something that cannot possibly take on personality without engaging in a contradiction. How can the All-Powerful need anything from humanity, even love or obedience? How can it desire anything if it is Perfect and thus complete? How can it be influenced by our actions without being thus limited in its power? How can it change, since any change from Perfection can only constitute a fall? It is this God that births the Problem of Evil as we know it today.

The “Good” of this infinite, eternal, perfect something is undefined and undefinable, and so questions that would connect it to the worldly suffering we face can only be answered by gesturing towards mystery. In the same way, this perfection cannot be questioned or argued with. It does not and cannot speak and it cannot be opposed. 

It is in the persons of Plato and Aristotle that we get this view most honestly presented, where we have clear arguments that the Gods of personality must be false because they cannot be Perfect and Good in a unified and reductive sense. Most later religion, outside the boundaries of a strict practice of theology, will settle for an impossible marriage of personality and abstract perfection and goodness, one which more and more has to resort to “mystery” or symbolism anytime one attempts to make it consistent. 

In denying obedience and engaging in rebellion and contestation (whether intentionally or not), Wiesel and his imagined Job — along with Abraham when arguably at his best — side with the defenders of the Pagan Gods of personality against the naturalizing tendency on one hand and the abstracting tendency on the other. It is, similarly, the impossibility of Ivan imagining a non-abstract God that forces him away from a full-fledge rebellion against God and instead towards the self-defeating gesture of suicide. 

What can we learn from this exploration of key moments in the history of rebellion and the Gods? At the very least, I think, we can get a clearer image of what I would like to suggest is one of the noblest heritages of pagan cultures throughout the world — the tradition of rebelling against the Gods, of siding with some Gods over others, of demanding that the Gods give us an account and justify themselves to us. This same point is inevitably to be made in reference to all other claimants to positions of power and authority. We Pagans share this with what Elie Wiesel, at least, suggested was the most noble part of Judaism and also its most weighty responsibility. To contend with authority, divine and human alike, is a calling and responsibility. For this reason, I would claim that the only appropriate answer to a test of faith is to fail. 

 

024.Jacob_Wrestles_with_the_Angel
“Jacob Wrestles with the Angel” by Gustave Dore

Kadmus

kadmusKadmus 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 Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.


A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred has much more writing like this. Get it here.

Hedgework: On the Dialectic of Man and Nature

In the Vale of the White Horse, within sight of Uffington Castle, there is a large rectangular field, where until recently members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids gathered to celebrate Lughnasadh. Every year in late August, under the light of the waxing moon, 200 people, of all ages, would materialise out of the summer heat and the ripening corn. After setting up a wide circle of bender tents and yurts around a central fire, they’d make sure to beat the bounds; processing clockwise around the field, playing instruments and clapping loudly, greeting the directions and the spirits of place. The same thing happened every morning throughout the festival.

This practice highlights an important truth; although any visitor to the camp would easily recognise the importance of the central hearth, those hedges around of the field were every bit as sacred. As if to highlight this fact, at the southern edge of the field, within the hedge itself, stood a hidden grove, with a holy oak at its heart – this venerable being oversaw all the naming ceremonies, initiations, and other secret rites in the community. When I first ventured into that grove, some seven years ago, I felt like I was on a threshold; beyond which, through which, the whole world began.

Hedgerows are perhaps one of the most quintessential features of these islands*. They wend their way between gardens, grass and crops, catching the bounty of the Earth like a net catches the wealth of the sea. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences, like that mentioned above, have taken place along and within hedges. They are – to borrow a term from Celtic Christianity – “thin places”, locations where the veil between this world and the other is light, and the divine is close at hand.

The state of “in-betweenness”, or liminality as anthropologists call it, carries a great deal of significance in cultures all around the world; boundaries, be they intellectual or physical (and they’re often both), fascinate us and ensnare our imaginations; so we sanctify them, or joke about them, or wrap them up in taboos. Hedges – neither in one field, nor the next – are no exception.

It’s unsurprising then, that we find the hedge playing a major part in the sacred geography of Anglo-Celtic Pagan traditions. The hedge, we are told, is the domain of the hedgewitch – a folk healer-cum-shaman; a cunning man or wise woman, who works in service of their community from its edges. For these workers of craft, the hedge is a medicine cabinet, an altar, and an axis mundi. It gives us herbs for healing, a place to meet the gods, and a means of journeying into the Otherworld. It is from this latter use that we get the name “Hedge-rider”.

In ancient times, we are told, every village would have been surrounded by a hedge that protected it from the wilds beyond – the village witch would have negotiated this barrier; mediating between the spirits of the forest and the human folk of the village.

The trifecta of wilderness, hedge and village never sat quite right with me. For one thing, you simply didn’t see this feature anywhere in the British landscape in which I grew up. No village I know is surrounded on every side by hedges, nor are woodlands pushed to the rim of each parish like the scum on a bath. Lots of villages – including the one in which I grew up – have a dispersed, not nucleated, pattern. The houses are spread out, not clustered together.

For most of its history, my village was a string of homesteads, scattered around a large area of common land – land that was only built on in the 20th century. Commons – often in the form of pasture, woods, reed beds, and heathland areas, frequently imagined as “wild” places – are usually carefully managed in Britain and Ireland, and were created in spots that, either due to steep topography or infertile soils, were not suited to agriculture. Instead of a landscape in which humans live apart from nature in little enclosures, what you see in reality is something quite different – a patchwork of different types of land use, according to a mixture of geography and human choice. Hedges, in this landscape, are the needlework; the green thread binding everything together. The hedge, in other words, is not the interchange between the village and the wild; but rather the connective tissue between places of all kinds.

We find this pattern reaching far back into the history of the landscape here. While the Celts or Anglo-Saxons would have surrounded their villages with fences made from wooden palisades if they chose, they would head out into the woods to clear patches for agriculture, wherever the soil, aspect, and water supply was preferable. Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s most renowned naturalists, tells us that rather than surround villages, the first hedges delimited these clearings. The edges of these clearings, enclosed by bushes and trees, were called haga – the root word for “hedge” today.

It is not hard to imagine how, perhaps while working on until dusk, these first farmers would have spotted haegtessa at the edge of the forest – ephemeral figures of women, skulking between the trees. Sometimes, it might have turned out that what they’d seen was one of their own wives or grandmothers, gathering herbs or praying to the gods. At others, no human visitor to the haga could be identified – and the apparitions would have been attributed to ghosts, fairies, or other beings.

The association between mortal wise women, the haga, and ephemeral spirits stuck. As these early farmers hollowed out more of the wildwood, they left threads of trees and bushes standing, to mark out one field from another. Over time, they trained these plants into a barrier against livestock – the first true hedges of the kind we know today. The shadowy haetessa would live on, as the word “hag”. In a very real sense, then, the hedge represents the essence of the wildwood, living on in the cracks of the British landscape.

But the ancient origins of the hedge are not the whole story; the recent past of these green walls is an altogether more chequered affair. Throughout the Medieval period, the ancient hedges retreated – being cut away to make more space for farming. Across much of England in particular, it ceased to be as important to set apart different fields. In many parishes, agrarable fields and pasture was held in common, as part of the open field system – managed centrally by the entire community through manorial courts. Under such economic conditions, hedges served little purpose.

But this situation did not last. Enclosure – the process by which common land was sold off to private individuals – was carried out steadily throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, before dramatically accelerating, with the assistance of several acts of Parliament, over the course of the 18th century. As environmental historians such as Nick Blomley and John Wright have documented, one of the first acts taken by new owners was often to plant hedges; hedges being a means of excluding commoners from the land that had been taken from them. Prior to enclosure, the rural poor relied on common land – especially pasture – to supplement their diet and obtain fuel. Once deprived of these resources, they had little alternative but to move to the industrialising cities or emigrate.

The rage felt by former commoners was considerable, and riots resisting enclosure were common – with hedges often being crossed through acts of mass trespass and grubbed up as criminal damage in the process. The old saying – Horne and Thorne Shall Make England Forlorne – encapsulates the feeling of the time; with both profit-oriented sheep farming (horne) and enclosure through hedge-laying (thorne) being identified as key instruments through which the poor were immiserated. Under such circumstances, we encounter another incarnation of the “hedge-rider” – the impoverished commoner who leaps across a newly planted line of thorns, to reclaim his birthright.

The hedge, then, emerges from the history of the British landscape in particular as a deeply ambiguous, yet highly potent force from my point of view. The hedge’s origins as the mysterious barrier between cultivated and uncultivated space, as the ubiquitous remnants of primordial woodland, retains much of the power of the original image of the hedge as the border between village and wild, while correcting that image’s flaws. If we imagine the hedge as a barrier between the human and the non-human, this can reinforce the problematic divide between nature and culture; a divide that so bedevils our attempts to live and think sustainably. The hedge’s more recent history as an instrument of enclosure; that kept people off the land, and eventually forced them off it for good; shows precisely the damage this sort of rhetoric can do. We cannot allow hedges to shut us out of nature.

If, on the other hand, we think of hedges as stitching that connects up landscapes of which humans are already a fundamental, and numinous part, then they become a constant reminder of the presence of the other natures in all our lives. Hedge-riding becomes as much a matter of crossing boundaries in defence of the commons, as it is a case of journeying along green roads into the Woods From Which We Come.


Notes

*The islands of Britain and Ireland. The term “British Isles” can imply continued overlordship of the Republic of Ireland by the British crown, and so it is not used here.

Image by Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Jonathan Woolley

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


 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.


 

 

Witches in a Crumbling Empire: Conclusion

This is the third and final part of Rhyd Wildermuth’s speech, “Witches in a Crumbling Empire.”

The first part is here.

And the second part is here.

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthRhyd’s the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch, Fur/Sweat/Flesh, and posts a near-daily “Friendly Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook.

His entire life is 100% crowdfunded by readers like you. Find out how to help him here.

Gods & Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

judith-one
Seed Bombs in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, I can stop what I’m running.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Hold.”

“But I hold!”

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

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

“What did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are we here?”

 

“We are here to honour the Gods!”

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

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

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

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


Judith O’Grady

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


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