Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political

By Ginger Drekisdottir

A common refrain I hear in many Pagan spaces, both online and off, is “this is a non-political space”. In light of the recent toing and froing around this issue in the Pagan blogosphere, this has been on my mind again.

On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Paganism is religion, and politics is politics. Paganism should be about bringing people together in honour of our gods and spirits, while politics just divides people and distracts from the reason why we get together as Pagans in the first place.

But, and this is a big “but”, there is a problem with declaring any space, including Pagan ones, as being “non-political”, and that problem is that there are some issues in our society on which it is impossible to be non-political. I’m not talking about the party politics of Labour vs Tory, Democrat vs Republican etc, but if you think that this is all that “politics” is then that is a very privileged position, which does not reflect the day-to- day lives of many people, including many Pagans.

Let me explain. There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are not only oppressed through the very structures which make up our society, but there are also people who actively try to keep us oppressed, bigots who actively try to keep us down at best and wipe us out of existence at worst.

For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

You might have heard the phrase “the personal is political”, well, for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.

Our daily fight for existence carries on inside the circle just as much as it does outside of it. And for those of you lucky enough who don’t have to fight daily for your right to exist, I’m sorry to tell you that there is no “non-political” neutral position on these issues. There is a saying which goes “all that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”. Now aside from the noticeable sexism in this quote (see how politics gets in everywhere?), this makes a very good point. Claiming a neutral position in the face of injustice only ends up reinforcing the status-quo and therefore reinforcing these oppressions. When you are in charge of a space, whether this is a circle, a Pagan Pride parade, or a blog, this can express itself in many ways, some of which might not be obvious at first glance: Who are you inviting to your event? Remember those bigots I mentioned earlier who want to keep people oppressed or worse? Well if you have them at your event then their very presence makes it unsafe to attend for the groups they oppress. If there is an active transphobe in your circle, then their presence makes that circle unsafe for trans people to attend, regardless of the opinions or wishes of the organiser, and so trans people won’t attend. Not out of protest, but out of a need to survive.

Who attends your event goes beyond the safety of oppressed people, it can also greatly affect how the wider public view Pagans and Paganism. When anti-fascists point out the risks of the far-right to Paganism, we are criticised for making associations between Nazi’s and Paganism, but if you have Neo-Nazis accepted at your “non-political” Pagan Pride parade, that will definitely create the association in the general public’s mind between Paganism and Neo-Nazis. This is dangerous for all Pagans. And if you scoff and think “well of course we wouldn’t want Neo-Nazis on our Pagan Pride parade” then you are already bringing politics into Paganism, the very thing anti-fascist Pagans are criticised for doing. Beyond issues around attendance, does your ritual recognise and include same-gender couples? Then that’s political. Does your ritual not include recognition of same-gender couples, maybe only using a God-and- Goddess structure? Then this is just as political. Western society has spent years if not centuries saying that same-gender relationships are lesser than man-woman relationships, it has erased those relationships while oppressing the people in them. Unfortunately your ritual cannot be separated out from this cultural context, and by not including same-gender relationships alongside man-woman relationships, you are excluding by omission, contributing to and continuing this history of erasure. This is true regardless of the opinions or even the sexualities of the organisers.

Have you gone to extra lengths to make sure trans women are safe using the toilets at your event? In light of the current campaign against us being able to, this is a political act. Do you not know or you haven’t tried to ensure that trans women are safe using your toilets? This is just as political. Regardless of your opinion on Laverne Cox, if we cannot do something as simple as peeing, then how are we going to be able to engage in the rest of your event? Trans women have far higher rates of UTIs and bladder cancer than equivalent cis women due to us retaining urine too long due to not being able to use toilets. It’s hard to think of a more personal issue which has been politicised by oppression than trying to use the bathroom. Similarly, do you have gender-neutral toilets? Political. Do you not have gender-neutral toilets? Just as political. If non-binary people also cannot pee at your event without risking personal upset at best and violence at worst for using the wrong toilet, then they also won’t be able to engage in your event, making this decision just as political.

If you have icons of your deities on the altar at your public ritual then what do they look like? Have you chosen a diverse range of ethnicities and body types to represent? Political. Are they all white, thin and appear to be able bodied? Just as political. If the appearance of the very deities you have gathered to worship end up reflecting the exact same body types and appearances which are placed at the top of the pyramid by our society, then what message does that send to people whose bodies don’t and never will look like that? If you are told every day, in every advert you see, that your body is wrong and these bodies are right, then you turn up to a ritual in the evening and you only see those exact same bodies being held up as being the gods, how might that make you feel about your body and your relationship to the gods?

This sort of politics goes even beyond the events themselves to the behind the scenes. Who is doing the work of organising the circle? Who has the time and energy to put into doing this? Can everyone who wants to get involved in the organisation? If not, why not? Who is doing the small but essential bits around the edge which makes sure everything runs smoothly? Who gets the credit for the event? Who is doing the emotional labour, soothing arguments and comforting people when they get stressed out?runes

Unfortunately the answers to these questions have a tendency to follow existing social structures, and these structures are oppressive. One of the (many) really nasty aspects of oppression is how insidious it is, and how much we all reinforce oppressions on a day-to- day basis without realising it or meaning to, and this even includes oppressions against ourselves. So if women end up organising the food and childcare aspects of your event, while the men plan the main activities of the ritual and receive all the credit, then this doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. But it does show you just how politics and these political issues permeate every aspect of our lives and everything we do.

Finally, I find this whole argument about a “non-political” Paganism to miss a very important point: being Pagan is ALREADY being political. In the UK we have an official state religion, which is Christianity; in the rest of the Anglophone West, Christianity is the dominant religion if not the official one. By stepping outside of this dominant social paradigm, all Pagans are being political. Even if we do so under calls for secularism being accepted, that is still a political stance. As Yvonne Aburrow points out in this excellent piece, all religions are in fact fundamentally political in nature, because they want to cause change, both in society and in people. As I write this, there is currently an online funding campaign for an anthology of radical feminist essays called “Female Erasure”. This is being led by Ruth Barrett, an American Dianic priestess, and is purely an ideological attack on the transgender community, our right to exist, and those who support us. As Susan Harper so wonderfully said over on Witches & Pagans:

“This is not a matter of disagreement over personal spiritual practice. This is not a difference of opinion. This is not a question of different views of how the world works and is. This is violence. It is hate speech.”

Criticisms of this, including criticisms coming from other Pagans, have been met with threats of doxxing (where people’s person information including home addresses are released publicly onto the internet). This as a practice is highly dangerous to those targeted, and is being done, at least in part, in the name of the Goddess Movement and Goddess Spirituality. If you don’t stand up and publicly say “not in my name” then you are tacitly endorsing it, as this hate speech is being done in your name. Standing up for other Pagans, especially some of the most marginalised of our community, is a vital act for people to do. It is also a deeply political one. You might not have asked to be a part of this fight, but other people are making you a part of it by attacking incredibly vulnerable people, at least partly, in your name. This is what I mean when I said that there is no neutral position on these issue, even just trying to opt out of attacks made in your name is a political act. If you don’t want to confront some of the oppressions and privileges which I have discussed here, then that’s up to you; but don’t claim refusing to confront them isn’t just as political as trying to challenge them. And if you do want to challenge them, then you can do so all the stronger by embracing the political nature of that struggle.


Ginger Drekisdottir is a Heathen and follower of Frey and Freya. She is a trans lesbian living in London and active in feminist and queer liberation politics. She is interested in the overlap between liberation and environmental justice, and spends her free time climbing and taking photos.

Orlando, Transphobia, and Culture-Shaping Violence

Attis arrived in Lydia with the Mysteries in hand. She taught the worship of the Mountain Mother, and more and more took initiation as gallai, Kybele’s transgender priestesses. As the Mother’s cultus started to rival his in popularity, Father Zeus became angry and punitive. He sent a giant boar to Lydia, trampling crops and goring farmers. No hunter survived trying to bring the creature down. Attis prayed to her Mother, then knew what Zeus demanded. When Attis sought out the boar alone, it sliced her body with its tusks; Zeus and his monster were satisfied as she lay bleeding out in the field. The other gallai found Attis and took her to Kybele’s temple. Attis lingered for days in front of the altar as her sisters fasted and prayed for her recovery. When she finally died, the Mother heard the gallai lamenting and saw them flagellating themselves in grief. So, Kybele lifted Attis up from the underworld, making Attis her dead-yet-immortal charioteer. Ever since, every year, gallai bleed during the Spring Hilaria, enacting the mysteries of Attis’s killing and apotheosis. Through ritually sharing that violence, we move into the sacredness of trans embodiment, trans devotion, and trans religion.


 

 

Orlando wasn’t unique because a racist homophobe attacked queers during Pride week. What made it different was the degree to which the shooter pulled it off; hate crimes, especially during Pride, are depressingly routine. Double-digit body counts, though, still rattle us. Once the news broke, I started receiving (and sending) texts, calls, and Facebook messages: comrades and partners locally, queer friends online, chosen family back in the South, all checking up on each other. Perhaps someone’s social network would extend to Orlando. Even if not, for many of us, it felt personal because hate violence always does. Shooting up a nightclub exists on a comparatively short spectrum with the ambient violence that informs queer consciousness. We know to reach out and offer emotional support. We’ve had practice.

For trans women and nonbinary transfemmes, we do something similar every few weeks. Someone will have vanished from the internet, or posted a note; a body will be found (and misgendered) in the news. We contact each other with fear and urgency, because it’s even odds that someone we know has died by suicide or murder, been attacked, or landed in a psych ward after an attempt. Our communities have developed the social and cultural infrastructure to acquire and share that type of information very, very quickly. Living under such precarious material conditions, we have to.

And of the women and nonbinary people that I’ve had any degree of closeness with, I can’t think of more than two or three who haven’t dealt with some experience of rape and/or abuse. I certainly have. I can’t think of one who hasn’t been harassed, sexually and/or transphobically – sometimes, both at once. Trans or cis, queer or straight, binary or nonbinary, gender violence pervades our lives and profoundly inflects our psyches, politics, theologies, and relationships.

For women and for gender and sexual minorities, as for people of color and disabled people and impoverished people, violence shapes our communal lives. Subjectively, I’d call it the predominant discursive theme in transfemme subcultures. Beneath the discovery of identity, coming out, and navigating the world as trans, there’s the threat and practice of violent punishment. It’s not by chance that violence from a male authority provides the basis for the apotheosis of Attis in otherwise-quite-different versions of the myth. How could gallai realize holiness through our transness if we didn’t come to terms with this daily ordeal? Sure, painful trials can bring power and gnosis. I’ve spent enough time around other transfemmes, seeing their wisdom and power and tenacity, to realize that. However, there’s only so far that sacralization can carry us. At a certain point, even the most spiritually rooted of us stops getting anything from traumatic conditions besides more trauma.

When I heard about the latest nonsense from Ruth Barrett and the introduction of Cathy Brennan to the picture, I felt as if we still haven’t escaped from the field sprinkled with Attis’s blood.


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#StandWithOrlando Vigil, Hermann Park, Houston, TX. Image from Strength In Numbers Blog, Ashton P. Woods. License.

Barrett and Brennan are both women deeply embedded in lesbian and feminist communities. While I lack direct knowledge, I’d be stunned if either has managed to avoid these pervasive types of gender violence. One would have hoped that a shared position of disempowerment and danger under patriarchy would provide a sufficient basis for feminist solidarity. Sadly, unlike other radical feminists of their generation, neither has approached trans women as sisters in the struggle.

They deny the bare material truth that transfemmes are at least as victimized by gender violence as any other population. Instead of joining with us and resisting sexist violence, they’ve joined in. They’re doing patriarchy’s work, just as much as every misogynist, rapist, or MRA out there. TERF discrimination isn’t just cruel. It’s redundant.

That shapes our subcultures, too. For instance, I’d heard of Cathy Brennan long before finding her websites or meeting anyone she’s doxxed. In transfeminine oral culture, she’s a synecdoche for the worst kinds of TERF violence, harassment, and discrimination. Brennan has served as our folk villain for years now. Now that she’s targeted some well-known cis Pagans, I halfway wonder if this is her ticket out of the folkloric niche market. While her actions certainly produce immediate destructive consequences for individuals, at the same time her power as a cultural figure far exceeds anything she could actually do. Harassment doesn’t only victimize its targets. I think of the panopticon, the prison where there are more inmates than the warden could possibly watch at once – but where every prisoner always feels surveilled, because they can’t know at whom the warden is currently looking. Doxxing functions the same way, as does hate crime. Why be afraid, when most of us will never actually get the worst of it? Well, any one of us could.

Brennan and Barrett have both presented trans women as some powerful, conspiratorial force. They tell stories of terroristic trans women supposedly endangering both them individually and womanhood itself. Of course, we aren’t so powerful. Cis lesbian feminists aren’t particularly high up in the patriarchal pecking order. In transfemmes, though, they’ve found one of the few groups they can target with relative impunity. I’ve talked before about the underlying dynamics there. It comes back to sexual work and the role of transphobia in constituting transfemmes as a sexual underclass. I won’t rehash it here.

Instead, I’ll just extend my solidarity, love, and prayers to all of us whose communal lives get shaped by violence, be it in Orlando or in the bedroom or on the sidewalk or at Cherry Hill Seminary. Queers and women and trans people deal with too much horror already to inflict it on each other. May the Mountain Mother hear our grief. May she bring us all through pain and bloodshed to community, freedom, and love.

Io Attis. Io Kybele.

 

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla of Attis and Kybele, a Greco-Phrygian polytheist, and a communist. After coming out in the small-town South, they moved to Seattle, where they are active in the trans lesbian community. They also write at The North Star, where they’re part of the editorial board, and serve as an officer for the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism. This August, they will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

Free Against Hope

Lately, I’ve recalled a conversation a friend of mine had with me several years ago, back in Texas. He wondered why I even bothered studying Marxism – “do you really think,” he inquired, “that there will ever actually be a revolution in America? I’d call that a pipe dream.

Looking over a few of my personal political heroes, I’ve weighed his question. After all, their experiences seem to share one particular theme. See if you can spot it:

Each movement created ideas and techniques full of potency and beauty. Each one generated plenty of experiments and concepts from which today’s radicals could learn much. And each one failed, liquidated by hostile forces, their goals still unrealized decades later. Historically speaking, even the cleverest and most effective revolutionary movements stand an overwhelming chance of destruction, not success. Sure, it’s prudent and useful to keep hold of some revolutionary optimism. And unlike my friend, I do believe that there can, eventually, be a successful fundamental restructuring of politics, economy, and society. However, it stays true radicals in the West, by and large, end their lives frustrated or worse. Further, those who do make it to power often find (as did Prime Minister Tsipras and President Mitterand) that winning the political game doesn’t always mean you get to change the rules.

So, one might ask, what’s the point? Is Leftism merely quixotic, just defiance for its own sake? Why should we do what we do?


 

 

 

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Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle, tapestry, Jacob Jordaens and Jon Raes, ca. 1625. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 68.23.

Why did Achilles fight at Troy?

After all, he didn’t expect to capture the city. He knew, thanks to the Pythia’s prophecy, that signing up for that war meant that he’d die in the field before Troy fell. Obviously, that meant he didn’t fight for personal material gain either; what good does a casualty get from plunder? And, of course, he wasn’t trying to contribute to the maintenance of his family or kingdom. If he wanted that, he would have chosen the long and unremarkable life the oracle offered. Few families celebrate a member’s death in combat overseas, or their committing to join a campaign that (according to a respected diviner) was guaranteed to last nearly a decade.

Did he fight for honor, glory, and fame? Sure – but that only bumps the question back one degree, like the monotheistic child who asks “if God made the world, who made God?” Why did Achilles find honor, glory, and fame worth more than his life? What made them so profound that Achilles not only relinquished his chance at survival, but also let go hope of participating in an Achaian victory?

Let’s begin from the problem of Achilles’ motivations and find out what, if any, ethical framework we can extrapolate. Ethics, after all, only means figuring out what to do and why. And, we’ll see, the implicit ethics that Achilles exemplifies also turns out to be quite relevant when revolutionary work faces likely failure.

Traditionally, formal ethics contains three main camps: consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. Roughly, each category proposes a different primary criterion for rightness and wrongness. For consequentialists, the likely results of an act – the consequences – determine its morality. Deontological ethicists, however, say that what counts is the act itself: regardless of consequences, some actions are inherently right and others are intrinsically wrong. Finally, virtue ethicists prioritize the character of the person involved. According to them, ethics means making yourself into someone who exemplifies goodness.

In general, the Left embraces consequentialism. Marxists, anarchists, and reformist socialists all tend to agree that the currently-existing government and economy cause quite a bit of harm. Marxists and reformists also usually believe that they need to respond by engaging with government. Reformists say running for office works best, while Marxists disagree and typically support outright replacing the existing state instead. Anarchists mostly reject working with any state at all, but generally do concede that some degree of social disruption (either violent insurrection or mass nonviolent resistance) will be necessary for any future solution. Few anarchists consider either inflicting or risking violence to be intrinsically morally good, any more than Marxists and reformists consider the existence of governments in general to be. But, in the end, all understand that bringing about needed change to reduce harm doesn’t mean causing literally zero harm in the process. It means selecting the option that offers the least extra harm and the most potential benefit. Even though these different segments of the Left frequently dispute which path, exactly, fits that description, they still typically share a basic moral landscape.

Admittedly, one can also find deontological and virtue ethical undercurrents. In particular, proponents of nonviolence often argue that killing is intrinsically wrong and should not be accepted as a revolutionary tactic. (Typically, they express more comfort with property damage, maintaining the distinction between things and people). Additionally, certain branches of Marxism-Leninism place great weight on the habits of character their adherents cultivate. Nevertheless, in the end, even revolutionary pacifists generally end up framing their position in consequentialist terms: “nonviolence works better,”not “killing is always wrong.” Similarly, even the more character-focused communists ultimately concur that their ethics are only virtue-based inasmuch as they provide helpful rules of thumb in the pursuit of larger, consequentialist goals.

Achilles does, of course, accept the defined goal of the Achaian campaign. He and his comrades fight the Trojans because without conquering Troy, they can’t punish Paris and make Helen come back to Menelaus. But is Achilles expressing a consequentialist’s reasoning that he ought to do whatever will most likely accomplish his stated aim with the least trouble?


 

 

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Dispute Between Achilles and Agamemnon, etching from the workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710.

The philosopher who established Marxist Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, affirmed that the relationship each of us has with the world and everyone else rests, in the end, on choice. Whatever external circumstances exist, the way a person responds to them is the way they choose to respond to them. (As Viktor Frankl, the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, observes, even when there’s no external freedom, no one can remove your control over your internal reactions and values.) In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre reveals that everyone’s orientation towards the world results from their choice to adopt a particular set of values. To deny this absolute existential freedom, he points out, is just self-deception. Whether we admit it or not, we are all already making those decisions. (Indeed, the idea that you don’t choose your own worldview is, in fact, an example of a worldview that you only believe if you choose it!)

Achilles fights on the field of Ilion, but when Agamemnon insults him and refuses to make amends, Achilles goes on strike. He knows that without him, the Achaians will flounder – in fact, he asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to persuade Zeus to make sure of it! Now, in each case – deciding to fight, and deciding to withdraw – does Achilles live out the same values?

As Sartre observes, we don’t get to pick either the circumstances of our births or the psychological tendencies in our brains. However, we do decide how to react to our circumstances, and whether or not we go along with our mental predisposition. In the end, everyone carries absolute responsibility for the kind of person they elect to become. “Existence,” he writes, “precedes essence.” You aren’t born with an essence, a basic nature. You’re born simply existing, carrying the existential reality of your freedom. Your only “essence,” you create through each choice you make.

(Sartre was an atheist, and characterized his intention as “to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.” However, even those of us who aren’t atheopagans – for instance, I’m a devotional polytheist – needn’t find any inconsistency there. Accepting many gods of limited scope no more resembles the monotheist theology of omnipotence that Sartre rejects than does Sartre’s own worldview.)

Achilles has chosen to be a person who cultivates personal honor and heroism in combat. To be sure, he wants recognition, but that stays secondary. This is no Sir Robin, who cares so much about his reputation that he won’t go anywhere without poets to compliment him! For Achilles, in the deed, the glory. He doesn’t fight to win (because he knows he’ll die before the war ends). He doesn’t fight for the admiration of his peers (withdrawing from combat would win few popularity contests!). While he certainly cherishes other things too (for instance, his boyfriend Patroklos), honor and heroism always top his list of priorities. He makes his first two major choices – going to war and withdrawing to his ships – because they express the kind of person he chooses to be.

He disdains deontological concerns. If not for the personal slight from Agamemnon, withdrawal would have been cowardly. After the insult, it became honorable; neither fighting nor not fighting is intrinsically right. Further, he eschews consequentialism, except as a subordinate approach. He never renounces the stated Achaian goal of conquering Troy, and overall his actions during the near-decade of siege reflect his military commitment. But when he does withdraw, he goes out of his way to make sure it hurts his comrades: he enlists Zeus himself to ensure it!

In short, Achilles embraces his existential freedom by selecting his values. Then, he implements them in a kind of virtue ethics.


 

 

“[It] is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hour by hour resolve firmly to do what comes to hand with dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations.”

-Marcus Aurelius

I find hints of Existentialism perhaps the ancient Mediterranean’s most popular formulation of virtue ethics: Stoicism.

According to the Stoics, the trick to eudaimonia (“good spirits,” a state of contentment, well-being, and general flourishing and thriving) lies in human nature. They taught that the basic nature of humans involved the application of logos. This uniquely and universally human capacity lets us examine our lives and choices, understand them, and – most importantly – choose to live virtuously, free and content, “unmoved by blame or by praise.” To the person living in eudaimonia, only virtue matters, no matter what anyone else says or does. In the words of the former slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus:

“This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead!”

The greatest possible good consists of living in a way that properly expresses one’s nature as a human. But, contrary to modern understandings, “human nature” doesn’t automatically express itself, and it certainly isn’t shorthand for people’s inevitable shortcomings! Rather, as Epictetus proclaims, unvirtuous behavior makes one less authentically human. Human nature is available to everyone, but realized only by those who acknowledge that they are free to become whatever they choose to be (and then choose to be ethical). As Heathens say, whatever happens, we are our deeds.

Achilles tacitly accepts this assessment of his condition, although his understanding of “right values” differs quite a bit from the Stoics’ (or, for that matter, the communist Sartre’s). The oracle of Apollon presents him with foreknowledge of the outcomes of his two options. He selects the more painful one. The privations of war, absence from his home, and loss of longevity matter less to him than embodying the values he has decided to make his own. And, for someone who accepts their freedom and creates an “essence” out of their values, even bodily death can’t negate their virtue.

Like Achilles, we have moral and existential freedom. Like Achilles, we have to decide how to engage with a brutal war, the end of which we can’t expect to witness. How will we choose? What values will we embody?


 

 

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The Fight of Achilles Against Scamander and Simoeis, painting by Auguste Couder, 1825. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 15307.

I believe we should answer the Existentialist challenge by creating a revolutionary virtue ethics.

Gods or not, we are free. Whether or not we admit it, we all choose the values that we enact. As revolutionaries, we certainly ought not select the specific values of Achilles – his honor has too much toxic masculinity and too much of the absolute subordination of women to emulate, especially given the patriarchal dynamics of the activist scene. However, his existential courage should inspire us to live our own values of cooperation, community, and compassion alongside liberty, equality, and solidarity.

Of course, the current Leftist preoccupation with consequentialism does offer benefits we should retain. In particular, we ought to imagine our preferred endgame around “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and our activities require all the strategic and tactical thinking we can muster. Individually, none of us can expect to experience victory, but collectively, we must take risks and make decisions with that goal in mind.

However, that needs to remain secondary. Winning isn’t certain, and statistically, whatever movement does eventually make revolution in the West probably doesn’t exist yet. Nevertheless, we participate in the work because it reflects the values we’ve chosen – and to understand those values properly, we shouldn’t cling to the hope of emerging triumphant. Act rightly because our most authentic human nature demands that we choose to do so. Organize because the horrors that oppression and exploitation create mean that anything short of opposition makes us complicit.

Like Achilles, we find ourselves facing a nearly-indestructible enemy. Like Achilles, we can expect our lives to end before the siege does. Our Troys are white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and empire. Our war has lasted quite a bit longer than nine years, and will continue for many years yet. But, our existential reality is the same as his, and the same as the Stoics’, and the same as Jean-Paul Sartre’s.

Our only essence is the values we choose to express. Each of us is the kind of person that our choices create. Outcomes aside, that’s inescapably real.


 

 

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other.”

-Assata Shakur

Our duty is to make ourselves into the sort of people who fight for universal freedom, and the sort of people who pick their goals, consequentialistically, in order to win. But ensuring the highest possible chance of victory doesn’t mean expecting to experience it firsthand – let alone fighting because we want to individually see the future we envision.

Rather, let’s be revolutionaries because it is right. Let’s let our revolutionary virtue ethics proclaim that it is human nature manifested to “tremble with indignation at every injustice.” In the end, rightness doesn’t come from success (although anything short of wholehearted striving for success would surely compromise our rightness). Whether it ends in victory, tragedy, or anticlimax, virtue justifies itself.

Achilles knew this deeply enough to accept his death for the sake of it. Let’s make our choice, and embrace it too.

 

 


Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a polytheist and communist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

The Original Sacred

A few days before Beltane I walked the long ridge to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. It snowed that day, winter clashing with spring around me. It was a liminal time in an ancient sacred space. As I walked along stone carved deep by glaciers with the sea roaring below, the land spoke to me of the past and a beginning. It was a lesson about the sacred and the profane that I will do my best to share with you.

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All pictures are from Acadia State Park and are taken by my husband.

When we talk of the “sacred” and “profane” we use them fundamentally as concepts of boundaries and limits. “Profane” means, literally, outside “pro” the “fanum” or temple. The “sacred” is tied into words for agreements and treaties, but also an ambiguous sense of being set aside or outside in the sense of being taboo or even cursed. Focusing on both taboo and treaty, it is clear that the term “sacred” is unavoidably tied to a negotiating of borders. With only these words as our guide we envision a world made of two types of spaces. There is the temple, the sacred precinct, like a small circle of light and there is the vast expanse of the profane that dominates the rest of existence. Surely most things are outside the temple.

The Great Wild

20160425_132408But the mountain, the stone, and the deep churning sea spoke to me of a time before the sacred and profane were measured on a human scale. They showed a story of how this human scale came to be.

The Sacred is not the sane. The Sacred is not the safe. The Sacred is not the tame. Once the wild world was the Sacred, rising around humanity in overpowering movement and blossom. Beautiful and horrifying, deadly and seductive, the Sacred surrounded us and when we were animals amongst animals we too were Sacred. The first pre-cinct, the first circle-girded space, was the first profane in which humanity set itself off in a small space, perhaps of firelight, amidst the Sacred. All was the fanum, the Temple, save our small space of temporary safety. When the world was Sacred and we were of the world we were as “water in water”, to steal an image and phrase from Georges Bataille, but when we set ourselves off we were as nothing before the mighty Other.

There were millennium during which the stars spun and wheeled in the sky and we looked upon them amazed and bewildered – terrified and desperately hopeful. There were years that dwarf all we know of history during which we sat by the fire and faced into the darkness, what lust and anxiety must have filled our eyes. There were those who went into the dark, who crossed the boundaries of sacred living mountains and taboo rivers. Some of those came back but most were lost into the Great Wild. Many of us sat in our circle of the temporarily profane, before beast or cataclysm whipped it aside, while others went Out hunting the divine. There were even those who could bring the Sacred into the circle, establishing the winds of the wild within the home with its hearth.

But we did not come out of that early Great Wild into the light of the profane alone, our first fire was the fire of the gods – stolen, bartered, or given. It survived or died based on the delicate shifting laws of original sacramenta, or sacred oaths. This is largely what magic, and religion, are – negotiating the boundaries of the profane and sacred.

Such delicate pacts and gifts, friendships and hard fought alliances, formed those first flimsy boundaries that protected that space marked by the Sacred within – the Hearth – and the Sacred without – the Wild. From cave to camp to city the formation was the same, and always the boundaries were heavy wrought with shrines and temples, idols and markers, signs of the tentative agreements that allowed the profane to exist along with the sacred heart of the profane that alone kept the space alive.        

But it was clear that not all denizens of the Great Wild, of the Other beyond our boundaries, were open to negotiation, to friendship, or to alliance. Amongst the populace of the Sacred some gods stole fire for us, and others wanted it back. And, of course, a friend to one or some was not necessarily a friend to others.

Negotiating the Profane

20160426_162848Standing at the foot of a mountain can make you feel small, but standing on top of one makes you feel exposed – exposed to the vast Others against whom we build walls and throw up screens. Aristotle claimed that anyone who could live without a polis, without a city or human community, was either an animal or a god. But, of course, the deeper point is that such an entity is neither – it occupies that liminal space that remains from before the wild and the divine were ever separated out. A vital part of the ambiguity of the Sacred is that what is cast-out is just as Sacred as what is worshipped, what is denied is just as holy as what is invoked – the Unseen is alike the exalted and excluded, the inhuman heart of the human community and what is beyond its boundaries. What this makes clear, and what Aristotle missed, is that the complicated, plural, and ambiguous Sacred is always already political. Even the gods debate. 

Not essentially different from the fire-light’s circle, the space of the city and society as a whole was one opened within the midst of the Sacred. The structures of the society, the oaths that bound it and boundaries that sustained and protected it, were the site of compacts with the Sacred. The first politics was born out of negotiation with the divine. Even as there were gods friendly to humanity and antagonistic to it, so too did different gods give rise to different sacramenta and different politics, cities, and societies. And, of course, there were the forces of revolution, the divine allies of the slave, the poor, the rejected, the outcast who were already closer to the Sacred than those comforted within the circle of the profane. But even in the established orders of the imperial gods there was an ambiguity as dangerous as it was protective. Zeus himself was once a rebel, as indeed was the father he overthrew.

 In Ancient Greece, at crossroads and boundaries, stood piles of stones and eventually pillars crowned with a divine head. These were the Herma that marked and guarded the borders and passageways and, in doing so, established them. From these pillars the god Hermes likely drew his name and his nature as a liminal god. The guide of travelers, especially those passing into and out of the underworld, became as well the god of both merchants and thieves – a force that established boundaries and transgressed them, establishing property and taking it away.

The March of the Profane

20160427_132806In Rome the dual headed god Janus played a similar role to that of Hermes as a god of passageways, travel, and trade. But being the keeper of gates meant something more than just this. The gates of the Temple of Janus were kept closed during times of peace and flung open during times of war and “inside, unholy Furor, squatting on cruel weapons, hands enchained behind him by a hundred links of bronze, will grind his teeth and show his bloodied mouth.” (Aeneid I 395-398, Fitzgerald trans.) The protector of boundaries, commerce, and travel was also the guardian of the forces of destruction that he could only temporarily keep at bay or willfully unleash upon the world.

In Virgil’s Aeneid we get a particularly striking sense of the ambiguity here, because the manner in which the gates of Janus when closed contain and limit the force of destructive war and fury is mirrored in similar images of the gods locking away “contending winds and moaning gales” beneath mountains and the natural wildness of humanity being temporarily repressed. The poet compares storms to human riots and allies the aged statesman’s power to calm the crowd to Jove’s power to silence the storm. Virgil dreams of the utter conquest of humanity over the wild and glories in Rome’s breaking the backs of rivers by building bridges over them. Here we see clearly that Empire is always the advance of the profane upon the wild Sacred. But it is also clear that, despite himself, Virgil does not believe that a final conquest is possible – the doorways remain just that, fickle in their tendency to open as well as close, and the last scene of the unfinished epic is that of the hero “blazing up terribly in his anger” and shamefully sinking his blade in fury into the chest of a defeated enemy begging for mercy. The relationship between the Great Wild Sacred, in both its beneficent and dangerous forms, and the profane is always an ongoing and unstable one.

Despite this, Rome did its best to break the backs of as many rivers as possible and push the boundary of the profane as far as it could. This image of the river as a dangerous force to be defeated is one with which Virgil would have been familiar from the much earlier Iliad of Homer where it plays a strikingly ambiguous role. In the Iliad the river Scamander, outside of the city of Troy, rises up several times to take part in battle and defend the city from the Greek invaders. In fact the river alone is able to face the full fury of Achilles and only with the help of other gods can Achilles escape its assault. This wild sacred river, however, is at the same time the original name of the heir to the throne of Troy – the river in this way is also marked as a sacred source of the city and civilization of Troy. In the pursuit of breaking rivers and taming the world Virgil must also have seen Rome’s refusal to accept society’s source in the wild Sacred. Such a project, Virgil suggests, is always doomed to fail.

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The Creator-God and the Artifact Universe

The pagan world is always a negotiation between the sacred at the heart of society, the Wild Sacred outside it, and the small everyday space of the profane with its fragile existence between. The content of these negotiations are themselves political and contain human society and its foundations within themselves. How did things come to seem different?

The rise of monotheism brought with it a dramatic change in the way people saw the universe, for it presented the idea of an absolute Artificer God who crafts reality as a total work. Where pagan cultures have had creator gods these have been, by and large, shapers of already existing realities – for example those who build a world from the bits and pieces of a fallen giant, or snake, and so on. Reality is, and is diverse and resistant to totalizing control and craft. More than this, the forming and shaping of the cosmos is partial and ongoing. We see early shifts away from this idea in the proposal of a demiurge in Plato, but even then the demiurge creates against the background of a greater reality and uses pre-existing material that resists its dominance. But with full monotheism a shift occurs, the Creator-God has absolute and total control and its creation is One. Reality is an artifact, an object or tool in the possession of an absolute tyrant, be that tyrant  more or less benevolent. The totalizing and reductivism is complete. 

The Artifact-Universe, obedient to its Creator, gives rise to a fundamental shift in the view of the Sacred. “Sacred” comes to only mean something like “sanctified”. In other words, all is profane until made otherwise. All is profane until the temple is chosen and blessed by the One. The sacred becomes that which is set off within the general profane, and the Wild itself becomes little more than material-for-use if not a demonic threat where echoes of the old Sacred remain. At the same time, the focus of our relation to the sacred shifts away from this world towards a transcendent with the full denigration of this world that this implies.

These are themes I have certainly dwelt on in much of my work, but I would like to simply stress that the shifting of our relationship to the sacred to a transcendental abstract One served largely to sever society from its foundations. For pagan societies, and indeed all of prehistoric humanity, politics began with negotiating our relationships with the wild and the diverse inconsistent divinities encountered through and within it – and these were as often contentious negotiations as otherwise. These negotiations with the wider wilder world found continuity in our negotiations with each other and with the gods who came to occupy, or at least visit, our societies as well. In the Artifact-Universe politics either became the mad obedience to a transcendental master, as in the case of rabid theocracy, or a distraction from the real heart and meaning of existence. But what comes to seem clear is that politics is “just” about this world, about the sad gears grinding away on the divine artifact. Politics becomes merely and purely profane.

 20160426_160143When the time came to dethrone the One tyrant, this sense of the profanity of politics nonetheless often remained in the odd idea that what I love most, what I commit myself to, what makes for a meaningful life, is somehow divorced from the real work of making a way in a living world that is a community of multiple forces, meanings, purposes, and creatures. Along side this odd idea also arose the rejection, in capitalism in particular, of any re-emergence of the sacred through an insistence that all is profane and everything has its price. In the Artifact-Universe without an Artificer, all things are objects for use and sale.

The question of the Sacred, of its nature and our relationship to it, is the question of how we are to live in the world and live with each other – in other words it is a political question. Such a question cannot be asked without a shuddering, shamed, and honest gaze upon the damage we have wrought to the world and to each other. It requires a new gaze upon the darkness at the edge of our firelight, a new experience of the limits of the profane and the border of the Original Sacred.   

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .

Spruce

by Ada Skjærasdottir

It was a great old spruce, gnotty and gnarled, guardian of a small forest clearing high on the bank above a creek—and it had been desecrated by cheap plastic trash, polluted by capitalist offerings to false spirits: the gods of Disney and Hollywood, the spirits of shiny junk and mindless consumerism.

I was stunned immobile as I rounded the bend to pay homage to the tree spirit I hadn’t visited in some time. Gaudy, unnatural colours had caged it: a wide scattering of plastic junk around its roots, hideous baubles hanging from its lowest branches, filthy pop culture figures jammed into the crotch of its trunk. There were even signs, printed in toxic ink on bleached paper, advertising that this was the home of a “gnome” and pleading with passersby to “enjoy, don’t destroy.”

I had found the spruce a few years earlier, exploring the side trails that wind down from the ravine’s main path. I certainly wasn’t the only person to have been struck by the quiet majesty of the tree, pausing for a moment to feel its pulsing life beneath rough grey bark, to rest on the patch of earth it encircled with two of its great upthrust roots. I’d seen offerings of a sort before—the careless leavings of denizens who only visited after dark, chugging cheap malt liquor and leaving behind the cans and bottles. It was disrespectful, but other keepers would move through the forest regularly and clean those leavings up: the forest’s unwitting custodians made to serve it out of their inability to live within society’s boundaries and standards and white picket fences, for whom those empties were a necessary windfall.

Never before had there been a pollution to this extent: every nook and cranny of that mighty spruce had been populated with false spirits and trash. The true chthonic creatures dwelling in that ground had been driven out, and the insects and birds, rodents and herbs had been poisoned by chemical byproducts burrowing into the soil.

Blind fury came quickly, followed by steady resolve. It was likely not the intended reaction that the clueless creator of this mess had in mind.

That someone would feel compelled to leave offerings for a mighty tree and the other genius loci of the forest is a natural, intuitive desire. The place resonates with power and magic. The creators of this trash heap—because it was started by one, but greedily perpetuated by others—were desperate to connect with the natural, the wild. And yet their approach was so far out of touch with natural rhythms that they became invaders, conquerors, colonizers. They forced useless consumer products onto the wilderness, one of few such spaces left within the city’s sprawling asphalt web. These were not offerings of reverence and respect, but declarations of ownership and sacrilege.

In this misguided attempt to bring magic to a place already brimming with it, they had desecrated that very space, claimed control in the name of capitalist trash and a Pinterest board post.

I returned to the spruce the next morning, early: the air still carrying a crisp bite and the shafts of watery sunlight just beginning to filter through the dense canopy. As I approached the spruce’s clearing, I slowed my steps and took a few steadying, grounding breaths, then whispered an entreaty three times to the genius loci: to keep intruders from the area while I set to my task of cleaning the trash from their space, with the promise that I’d return to keep it free and unpolluted.

Arriving at the spruce, I pulled a bag from my pack and quickly set to work, plucking every bit of plastic junk, every container filled with processed, chemical-laden food, every piece of willing blindness to the fierce nature thought to be tamed and rendered friendly by scraps and trinkets. The bag was bulging as I pulled the last bit of garbage from the spruce’s branches, a heavy burden I carried triumphantly from that place.

The cries of the desecrator came later, unheard by me as I departed the clearing. The spruce has been left untouched since then, though rumours gather at the edges of the forest and the threat of copycat vandals have appeared. Quietly I watch; silent I return. My pact with the spirits of that place—the true genius loci—will not be broken. I will not allow their home to be invaded again by plastic pretenders, the cutesy perversion of the true face and nature of the forest’s oldest denizens.


Ada Skjærasdottir is an animist and journalist living in northern Canada.

The Unopened Door

“Don’t open that door,” Brân said before we cut off his head and brought it back from the war. We’ve been stuck here with it eighty years. It never speaks. Nothing happens anymore.

Life’s an endless party. I drink a can every morn, with a light and breezy head look out the window where the tides ebb and roll, open another one. The days are always the same unspiralling cigarette by cigarette.

We’ve got stores of food and nobody has to do any cooking. Cornflakes for breakfast and microwave meals. It’s curry night every night then every night there’s bawdy jokes and dancing.

When we turned the music up, Brân used to sing along but his baritone got too big for our small pop songs. When Pryderi tried to cheer him up by putting a party hat on his head it shrivelled and fell off as he narrowed his gargantuan eyebrows.

Nothing makes him smile anymore. Not even Taliesin’s rude rhymes and limericks.

We know the Awen’s gone sour like the milk we cannot find sniffing round refrigerators that never hum or leak are never empty or grow mould.

“You’ll never find it,” says Manawydan, always in the background shaking his head. The one who keeps his brother’s orders yet stares with longing at the sea.
There’s only so much beer one can drink. Only so many games of cards and poker and gambling chips. Only so many songs that speak of nothing but the emptiness of bliss.

My life’s become a blur of repetition but for the increasing nagging in my soul.
Remember, remember, what’s behind that door? There’s a reason we have to keep it shut, I’m sure.

That’s the point, if you remembered… but I cannot… I cannot hear my soul. I’m getting edgy. I’m off the beer. Heart racing, clammy handed, I’ve got the shakes. Looking at Brân’s head’s beginning to make me queasy. Something within me small, trembling, winged is trying to escape.

I can’t believe they’re reading the same old newspapers, circling the same Monopoly board, leaving no empties where the ash trays never spill.

Manawydan’s asleep on the slouchy chair dreaming of flying away as a great black seabird. He isn’t going to stop me opening that door.

They’re engulfed in the game. Glifau’s got Regent Street and Oxford Street but Pryderi’s heading for Bond Street on double sixes. Ynog’s on the edge of his seat because he’s stuck in jail. Gruddieu’s counting coloured notes. Something’s telling me to remember…

Still I slip from my seat and round the back of the settee. Try to look inconspicuous, like I’m stretching my legs, trying to get a better view in.
That door. That door. It’s a plain old thing: white painted, brass handled, just like the other ones except for the DO NOT OPEN sign Pryderi made from cardboard and string for a joke.

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They haven’t noticed me sliding toward it, reaching out, touching the cold metallic handle. Do you really want to end your time on Gwales? Remember everything that should be shut out?

Brân’s eyes flash open.
Without a doubt. I turn the handle and look out. A sea breeze whips in with plaintive cries of gulls telling of every loss we have ever suffered, every kinsman and companion lost, staccato of gun-shots, crash of bombs. The broken cauldron that birthed the Awen and split the atom.

As I look across to Prydain in eighty years nothing has changed. They’re still birthing warplanes from slick white aerodromes and building glassy universities to teach deadly technologies. Sending young men away and bringing us back useless with headless comrades.

I remember every single thing including why I should not have opened that door. The colour fades from Brân’s cheeks. The colour fades from us all. Not a year has passed. Not a thing has changed. We must face the world again and bear Brân’s head with us.

*This story is based on the Assembly of the Noble Head from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion which can be read HERE.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython.

 


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When Deities Say “No” to Apolitical Polytheism

While the New Right discussion has most recently dredged it up, everyone who combines a religious affiliation with Left politics hears it eventually. Apparently, because we prioritize both areas of concern, we must therefore be putting politics first. (Ironically enough, while our coreligionists make that claim, we often face the opposite accusation from political comrades.)

Of course, that begs the question: why should left-wing and religious concerns be at odds? Many Pagan leftists have reiterated lately that everything involving more than one person is, in some sense, political by definition. Others have denied any strict delineation between the religious and political components of their worldviews. I also might observe that when right-wing or reactionary politics get injected into Pagan theology, their proponents might get told they’re wrong, but they don’t get called “fake Pagans.” Not uncommonly, our detractors suggest that the mere existence of the Pagan Left somehow impedes the revival of polytheism itself. Sure, I think that right-wing politics and redbaiting are absolutely wrong, but I’d certainly never question someone’s religious sincerity on those grounds. I’d prefer to be extended the same courtesy, particularly from people who accuse us at Gods&Radicals of attempted censorship. It seems to me that there’s less a backlash against “bringing politics into polytheism” per se than against bringing in leftist, as opposed to rightist or liberal, politics.

(And again, there’s a category difference between censorship and asking Pagans to stigmatize the practice of discrimination. Public criticism isn’t censorship; for that matter, neither is no-platforming. Censorship means using violence, the threat thereof, or a direct position of power over someone to prevent them from disseminating their ideas. Anything short of that is just disagreement, and even if G&R wanted to censor our critics – we don’t – we lack the logistical ability to censor anybody, conspiracy theories aside. It’s not as if we’re a government agency with police powers.)

As a devotional polytheist, I don’t think that the gods’ multiple and divergent agendas cleanly line up with any worshiper’s ideology, my own included. I don’t promote a set of generalized or supposedly-universal spiritual values. Instead, I have specific deities whom I serve in particular ways. Am I putting my communism “first?” Without looking at the actual relational content of my religious life, there would be no way to coherently say. So, let’s take a look – after all, to my mind, my devotional situation actually requires some sort of political engagement.


“[Gallai] wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?”

– Julius Firmicus Maternus

 

“Transies who attack us only care about themselves. We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men…Women are born not made by men on operating tables.”

– Z. Budapest

I am a galla. I belong to Kybele, Mother of the Gods, and Attis. I’ve taken vows to serve them however they prefer. That’s my unshakable priority.

Not everybody can be a galla. A cisgender person couldn’t, nor could a trans man. Being a galla requires a transfeminine identity. (Theologically, this involves the devotee’s relationship to the apotheosis of Attis.) After all, my deities’ spheres of patronage include the transgender community. Kybele collectively adopted us thousands of years ago, and my individual spirituality needs that context to work. One consequence of that is the importance of venerating the non-biological ancestors who constitute all the previous generations of trans people.

Further, I find myself charged with work going past prayer and cultus (though certainly including those!). Kybele’s children aren’t all ancestors yet, and Matar has conveyed to me that serving her implies serving trans people, too. Necessarily, that includes supporting other trans people’s material as well as spiritual and social needs. The ways trans people inhabit our bodies are often painful but always sacred. Every trans woman and nonbinary transfemme moves through the world echoing Attis’s own divine physicality. So when prominent and powerful people call those holy bodies little more than walking rape machines, trying to punish us for existing as we are, how apolitical could I in good faith allow myself to be? When Paganism contains leaders who theologize that rhetoric, how could I not challenge it without dishonoring my deities?


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I last entered a Christian church on November 20th last year. The pastor had offered his sanctuary to a small advocacy group for their annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil. As I stood there, candle in hand, reading aloud the names of some of the newest trans ancestors, I silently recited a prayer over and over. The TDOR list includes just the ones whose deaths were reported as murders and classed as hate-motivated, just the ones whom the police identified as trans, just the ones whose bodies have been found. Even without factoring in the many driven to suicide, everybody involved knows the official list represents a small portion of those actually killed. Despite these restrictions, I still can’t recall a year when the number of names didn’t hit triple digits. I venerate the trans dead alone every day, and once a year with everyone I know. This is part of my polytheism.

Anti-trans violence, of course, is neither bad luck nor a natural disaster. The nexus of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism that impoverishes trans communities also exposes Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women to the most intense violence in the LGBT world. The patriarchal gender system and lack of legal jobs that disproportionately lead transfeminine people into sex work also criminalize that work, partly causing astronomical rates of incarceration (plus plus pushing up the work’s danger level). The gentrification in Seattle, where I live, that leaves so many trans people unhoused also gives us the third-highest rate of anti-LGBT hate violence in the US. The right-wing Christian organizations that cause parents to kick trans kids out also push laws that criminalize trans bathroom use and slander us as rapists.

That’s the shape of American trans people’s reality. These conditions kill some of us and prevent many more from living free and fulfilled. They are Kybele’s children’s needs.

My religious mission demands I address them. I can’t pretend they’re not political.


“With the realization that what we saw as personal problems were in fact social ones, we have come to understand that the solutions must also be social ones.”

– Chicago Women’s Liberation Union

Sure, I could ignore my community’s material conditions, but Kybele and Attis deserve gallai who don’t choose ignorance. Honest engagement requires analyzing these problems as they actually exist. They are structural, economic, and political. Personally, I’d connect the particular strain on trans people to society-wide systems that organize power and resources – capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. My opinion is that the best empirical understanding of those systems says that they’re about who does what work and who enjoys the benefits created by that work. Various divisions of labor have led to a class system, where some people make a living by skimming a chunk off the top of what working people create. Those people are a ruling class of business owners. They enforce their exploitative and unaccountable power through both organized violence and sophisticated propaganda. That’s capitalism. Further, capitalism keeps certain kinds of work – housework, emotional labor, most sex – out of the money economy and mostly makes women and femmes do it. That’s patriarchy. Under patriarchy, your gender isn’t just a question of your own identity. It’s equally a matter of whether or not others, in a given situation, expect you to do that unpaid gendered work. Trans women and nonbinary transfemmes get expected to do that work in an extra-exploited way. The enormous levels of violence (emotional, social, physical, and spiritual) that get thrown at us serve to keep us in line, doing that extra-exploited work. Marxist feminism means figuring out ways to fix all that.

Obviously, plenty of people disagree with that description of society. And while I believe it’s empirically true, my deities certainly never sat me down and said “read Silvia Federici.”

You may well think that’s 100% off the mark and incorrect. However, once we’re talking about whether my specific ideas are the most accurate ones, we’ve already conceded the point: politics won’t be dodged. If you think my politics are wrong, then all that means is that yours differ. I’d never expect my coreligionists to become communists en masse just because I’m one. No one else on the Pagan Left asks for that, either. Hell, I don’t even demand it of the people with whom I do secular activism.

But, my religious commitments and desire to piously serve my deities don’t permit me to eschew some sort of political consciousness. I take polytheism seriously. Therefore, I can’t ignore Kybele and Attis’s imperative to address the trans population’s needs, material ones included. Thus, I have to know and address those needs as they really are. More often than not, what they are is political.

My deities come first. That’s why I’m an organizer. That’s why I lack the option of deferring to “civility” or some supposedly-apolitical polytheist unity. Racist and male-supremacist discrimination is already happening in Paganism and polytheism. Attis and Kybele want and deserve gallai who won’t leave that alone.

The Pagan Left’s critics wish we’d just focus on rebuilding the cultus of the gods. Because I take that same mandate seriously, I’m with the Pagan Left. The gods don’t automatically align their plans with conservative polytheists’ comfort zones. From time to time, deities do, in fact, decide to be patrons of acutely oppressed populations. Mine are among those, so I do politics.

And that is what living polytheism looks like.

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family. This fall, she will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

The Irrational Fear of Death

Someday, you’re going to die.

Yes, you.

Maybe it will be something sudden.  You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.

Maybe it will be something longer.  Cancer, maybe.  Cancer gets lots of people.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance.  Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it will be old age that gets you.  You’ll be a hundred and ten.  You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.

And guess what?  There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.

Nothing.  NO-thing.  No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you.  Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.

No amount of positive thinking will protect you.  Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer.  He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?

No amount of exercise will stop it.  Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!

So knock it off.

Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.

Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.

Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.

Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret.  Stop with the victim-blaming.  Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.

Because it will.  If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you.  No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.

"Cow Skull" by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.
“Cow Skull” by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.

So why let it bother you?

Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time.  But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.

Old age isn’t a disease.  Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old.  It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA.  Everything breaks down in the flesh.  Physical bodies cannot last.

If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness.  But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.

More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.

If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change.  Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat.  Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.

If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people.  And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet.  If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should.  It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something.  It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters.  Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t.  Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate.  Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.

But don’t you believe it!  There is no reason.  Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people.  And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too.  No one’s keeping score.  There’s no brownie point system.  Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.

So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.

Let it go!  Relax!  Have fun every once in a while!  Take risks!  Dare!  Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end.  And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.

Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.

A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.

Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.

The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?

If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?

Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?

At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.

I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?

More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?

Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!

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