How to Buy a Religion

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Source

What’s wrong with Sephora’s witch kit?

Is it crass to reduce a religious practice to $40 of mass-manufactured perfumes and Tarot cards? Probably, but haven’t Pagans been debating “pay-to-pray” back and forth for years? Sure, an independent Etsy artisan needs to make a living. But doesn’t Sephora also have to tap new markets to survive? The scale’s different, but what about the essence?

Is the mall any worse than the metaphysical shop?


Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

Karl Marx

Capitalism alienates.

It takes parts of you and makes commodities out of them. Your time, your physical activity, and your mental energy all get sold on the labor market like Tarot decks and perfume. Your body contains more than itself – it carries your community, the work and care of your loved ones, everything they do to keep you physically and psychologically functional. Without all that, how would you make it out of your door every morning with enough resiliency to work? After all, capital is hungry. A business needs to grow, or else other companies out-compete it in the market and force it into bankruptcy. The ones that can grow, survive. The ones that find more ways and things to eat, grow. They need your ability to work, to produce goods and services they can sell. All of the ingredients that go into your work, they consume.

Capital imposes its needs onto the dispossessed, the ones who don’t own businesses or rental properties and so have nothing to live on but their ability to work. The whole community depends on the money its wage-workers earn, so it has to organize its collective life in whatever way maximizes their employability. Wage-workers are exploited, and they incarnate entire communities of labor, exploited alongside and through them.

Religion is one way the dispossessed survive. Capitalism cuts you off from your basic nature: your capacity to flourish, to form relationships as a free being. It demoralizes in both the current and the older sense: the mindlessness and futility of wage-work, housewifery, and unemployment teach despair and induce depression, but when capital reduces you to an instrument, it de-moralizes you in a larger sense. The more of you that goes to satisfy capital’s hunger, the less of you is left for self-cultivation, creativity, and relationship-building. You are alienated from yourself.


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Pop-culture resurgence: Internet tabloid Vice offers dozens of witchcraft-themed articles. Source

Sephora sells to women.

The social base of religion (Pagan and otherwise) is not only the dispossessed in general, but specifically the specially-oppressed along racial, national, and gender lines. Even when the ministers and bishops are men, it’s women who cook meals for sick parishioners, clean up after services, teach Sunday school, and fill most of the pews. Capitalism, by definition, only pays for waged work. But, the health and functionality of wage-workers is costly; it takes a vast expenditure of unpaid work in the home and the community to feed and support wage-workers, take care of their kids and elders, and ease the emotional strain of their alienation. So, there’s a division of labor between paid and unpaid work, and it falls along the lines of gender. Culture, ideology, and discrimination harmonize with the pervasive reality of anti-woman and anti-LGBT violence, forming an elegantly self-reinforcing feedback loop; gender roles both flow from and reinforce the overall social system. Those who don’t fall in line get hurt.

Religion sits at a key point in the cycle. It allows the racially and nationally oppressed to rely on each other for support, fellowship, and existential meaning without their oppressors in the room for a few hours each week (is it a coincidence that in the US, Black people report being “absolutely certain” of God’s existence at a higher rate than self-identified Christians do?). Religion takes the edge off of alienation, offering a relationship with something bigger than you, your job, and your daily life – a bedrock of connections and values deeper and older than capitalism. At the same time, it transmits gender roles and racial social segregation from generation to generation, helps the dispossessed stay psychologically healthy enough to work, and gives bourgeois clergy a medium to preach patience and forbearance towards oppression rather than revolution and collective action. From time to time, though, it takes on an opposite role, providing mass movements with a moral language and the institutional infrastructure they need. Religion is politically contradictory. It keeps the dispossessed in line – except when it’s helping them liberate themselves.

Paganism has an even sharper gender skew than most religions. After all, it actively encourages women to take on sacerdotal and leadership roles (not to mention its historical ties to lesbian feminism and LGBT culture). Sephora sells to women, so selling women’s religion is an intuitive next step, especially given that pop culture is currently more infatuated with witchcraft than it has been since the 90s. When Sephora sells Paganism, it’s offering more than a deck of cards and some quartz.  Sephora is no less responsible for capitalism’s crushing alienation than any other business. It helped create the ailment. Now, it’s promising a $40 cure.


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Metaphysical shopfront. Source

Unlike most religions, modern Paganism’s basic institutional anchor isn’t the congregation. Rather, it’s the metaphysical shop. Jonathan Wooley explains:

The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

The point here is not that those who make their living through Paganism are being greedy or venial. On the contrary, writing words, speaking spells, crafting holy things, and making ceremonies that heal, enlighten, and empower is important work, and those working in these ways cannot survive on mere air and good wishes. The problem arises from how we are currently supporting the work that they do, and the centrality of this (commercial) arrangement in our community. Before all else, you have to pay. By relying upon the Market to directly transmit our lore, to fund our gatherings, to supply our goods, we become complicit in it. It means the fortunes of our traditions turn not with the wheel of the year, but with the shifting fashions and stock prices of the global publishing and wellness industries. Our community is directed less by the will of the gods, and more by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. The heartbeat at the core of our living traditions becomes the ring of a cash register.

This dominance of the logic of the Market within Paganism is not surprising, even if it is disquieting. Paganism is one of the few religions to have arisen within the Modern Age, when Capitalism was in its ascendency. This has very real consequences for us all. Let us not forget the prototypical “gateway experience” for a seeker – traditionally – was buying a book from an occult book shop. The fact that the internet and Amazon have replaced the knowledgeable local bookseller is to be lamented; but it is not so meteoric shift as we might suppose. Whether your spirituality is expressed through buying knowledge from a kooky shop on Glastonbury High Street, or from Amazon, your spirituality is still being expressed through shopping. Equally, this shift demonstrates the extent to which our infrastructure is dependent upon the vagaries of the market to survive: the rise of the internet has caused many Pagan bookshops to close; depriving local communities of an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn, and socialise. Indeed, it is precisely because we have relied on the Market that this transition – from a friendly, in-community, low-profit enterprise, to a distant, global, high profit one – has taken place. The very means by which our lore is spread has been transformed for the worse by the dictat of the Market.

In other words, Sephora and a PantheaCon vendor don’t differ in essence – only in scale.


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The nitrogen cycle. Source

When Paganism is commercial, it’s filling religion’s conservative role, reconciling the dispossessed to their oppression. After all, if shopping is the way out of alienation, then capitalism, if not benevolent, is at least neutral. Collective action isn’t even on the radar.

But that’s not the only Paganism.

We’re all of us embedded in a living relational web – humans, the biosphere, the land and sea and sky, the gods and the dead. The nitrogen cycle and the water cycle have a sacredness. It’s holy when through death, an organism becomes food, transmuting into new life. The Sun is slowly spending itself. It feeds plants and algae with its energy, and that energy sustains the same animals who then nourish plants when they die and decompose. Gods are at once embodied in and emergent from each nexus of the process, standing at the fulcrums where nature moves humans and is itself moved. Paganism is what the mutually-conditioning cycles of ecology and evolution teach you when you pay attention to them, learn their rhythms, find where you are inside them. Prayer, devotion, myth, and ritual all orient you towards that ground of your being and make a sacrament of your participation in it. Reciprocity is cosmic, both an imperative and a fact. Do ut des, I give so that you may give, is at the heart of both polytheist sacrificial theology and the Mystery that governs the process of life.

You were born with a capacity for eudaimonia: balanced, all-sided human flourishing, the Greatest Good of ethics and philosophy. You can develop eudaimonia if you cultivate virtues: self-knowledge, self-control, justice, and right relationship. Capitalism is a social process that alienates you from that capacity, but it doesn’t destroy it. It does, however, determine the form that it needs to take.

Self-development, ritual and political practice, and reverence for the Gods, the dead, and the natural world are the foundation stones of revolutionary virtue. Paganism holds a radical seed: given the reality of capitalism and empire, the communist organizer, the Stoic sage, and the nature-mystic devotionalist must all become the same person. Each component of revolutionary virtue is incomplete by itself. They need each other, just like plants, decomposers, and nitrifying bacteria.

And it’s all unbuyable. The people trying to sell you Paganism are promising to cure your alienation with more alienation, only in disguise. They can sell you a Scott Cunningham book, a handmade pewter pendant, or a $40 “starter” box, but do those contain the Mystery? At best, they’re dispensable props. At worst, they’ll actively mislead you; like any religion, Paganism can teach you to accept your oppression or it can teach you to fight it.

If you really want to buy something, get Marcus Aurelius or an ecology textbook. Read myths. Go out and see how mosses and lichens grow on trees and how trees that die feed mushrooms and bacteria, fertilizing the soil. The relational web spreads out from there. It reaches to the sun, the atmosphere, the microorganisms, and the gods who take their embodiment in that dynamic interplay. Find your nature, your inborn potential for virtue, eudaimonia, and right relationship. You are in the web. Root yourself. Capitalism uproots you and disrupts your nature. It’s throwing the whole world’s processes so off-kilter that if it isn’t stopped, the ecosphere will endure – but it will be so changed that humans won’t be able to live in it.

Paganism lives in that knowledge. It’s a method – you learn the context of human life and you choose to act accordingly. Sephora can’t sell it to you, but neither can the vendors at Pagan Pride.

You can’t simply opt out of the alienation capitalism imposes. But, you can choose what to do about it; you are existentially free. Paganism can be a path to knowledge and revolutionary virtue, or it can be an “opiate of the masses.”

Sephora wants to sell you one of those. But you’re free to choose the other.


Sophia Burns

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


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Bargaining Even With the Spiritual

“Rules to be followed in order to achieve something desired, exchange favors, the human mind is so materialistic that it bargains even with the spiritual.”

From Jal Souza

English Translation Here

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Barganhando Até Com o Espiritual

Regras a serem seguidas com o intuito de alcançar algo desejado, troca de favores, a mente humana é tão materialista que barganha até com o espiritual.

Não se trata de um texto didático, baseado em livros de pessoas celebres ou de status reconhecido, mas sim um relato de uma simples alma, que aprendeu na pratica, sendo liberto do crime, das drogas e da ignorância política, através da fé, vendo a força dos ancestrais, filhos da grande mãe África, dos impérios de Oyo Yorubá, Kongo, Aksum, a quem somos herdeiros e guardiões legítimos de sua sabedoria, livrar o povo preto da morte, em todas as formas que ela se apresenta aos jovens de periferia, e escutando os ensinamentos de uma ialorixá, não uma com iniciados famosos ou com terreiro gigante em algum bairro nobre, citada em veículos de comunicação, mas uma de baixa escolaridade e muita sabedoria conquistada nos seus 27 anos de feita, iniciada na religião, que perdeu muitos filhos, vê os iaôs como nascidos dela, para a política assassina racista do estado brasileiro, mas salvou muitos, esse texto é uma prova.

É triste ver como as pessoas, até mesmo praticantes da fé africana, não entendem a força dos nossos antepassados, não conhecem a essência dessa crença tão rica de sentimentos, onde não é preciso ser o mais letrado ou endinheirado, vivemos do resplendor dos impérios da terra natal ao cativeiro do solo americano, e nem isso nos apagou da sociedade e do crescimento. Fé significa verdade, se encher um copo na torneira, colocar em uma prateleira e crêr que ali está uma energia sagrada, o que chamam água, chamamos Oxum, se tomar um banho na praia e acreditar que ali foram tiradas todas negatividades, o que chamam de água salgada, chamamos Iemanjá, ao dar de comer a um semelhante faminto, ali está a terra que nos da o alimento, chamamos Omolu, Obaluaiê, o que chamam natureza, chamamos Orixás, seres de luz, guias, aqueles que não mudam o planeta, mas mudam a nós, para agirmos pelo mundo. Não se trata de oferecer e receber, a experiência de colocar um simples prato de milho branco na pratileira, após usar cocaína, e nunca mais usar novamente, dá essa certeza, e até mesmo não adepto do candomblé, mas que fez o bem a si mesmo e ao próximo, está rodiado das energias positivas, pois, o vento não se vende por bens materiais, Iansã não precisa, e sopra o agô, misericórdia, também aos que erram, pois nos erros que aprendemos, mas pesa o martelo da justiça aos maldosos convictos.

O mal existe? Sim! A personalidade do ser humano faz parte da natureza, temos positivo e negativo, não chamamos os deuses dos outros de demônios, ou quem não segue a crença de perverso, cada um tem seu papel e aprendizado nesse universo, que chamamos Oxalá, Obatolá, e só o Grande Criador sabe o que cada um passou, e passa, em sua caminhada, o diabo é nossa própria escuridão. Cultuamos seres malignos? Opcional de cada um. Se alguém lança uma praga contra outro, seja acendendo uma vela, em oração, e até mesmo pura palavras, o maligno se apodera, para prejudicar a todos, mas, a natureza é justa, não mau, assim como um animal predador só caça a quantidade de presas de que precisa para sobreviver. Dificuldades todos passaremos, conheceremos o melhor e o pior de existir, faz parte do aprendizado, mas o senhor da guerra, o sangue dentro de nós, Ogum, tem as chaves das portas da prosperidade para quem merecer, lutar por si e por seus semelhantes. As entidades não farão milagres do acaso, mas, como o ar que é vital a vida, te dará a energia para vencer na luta, as ruins não vão segurar seus braços, pernas, não há melhor ferramenta que a própria preguiça, desatenção.

Não é preciso ser adepto do candomblé, umbanda, quimbanda, para ser agraciado pelos grandes reis e rainhas do oculto, do não palpável, cada tempo que vivemos é um novo conhecimento, senhor Tempo ensina, basta abrir a mente para o que é mostrado, se apropriar do que faz bem, distribuir amor, com justiça. O espiritual não é capitalista, não está a venda, só entende quem conhece a gratidão e paz interior.


Jal Souza

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 17.41.25Um brasileiro de 30 anos, nascido e criado nas periferias da capital do estado da Bahia, candomblecista e esquerdista, me descobrindo tarde, após vencer preconceitos e senso comum aprendidos desde infância.


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English Translation

Bargaining Even With the Spiritual

Rules to be followed in order to achieve something desired, exchange favors, the human mind is so materialistic that it bargains even with the spiritual.

This is not a didactic text, based on books of selected people or of recognized status, but rather an account of a simple soul, which he has learned in practice, being freed from crime, drugs and political ignorance, through faith, seeing the strength of the ancestors, sons of the great mother Africa, of the empires of Oyo Yoruba, Kongo, Aksum, to whom we are heirs and legitimate guardians of his wisdom, to rid black people of death, in all the forms that it presents itself to the peripheral youth, and listening to the teachings of an ialorixá, not one with famous initiates or with a giant terreiro in some noble neighborhood, mentioned in vehicles of communication, but one of low education and much wisdom conquered in his 27 years, initiated in the religion, who lost many children, sees the iaôs as born from her, to the murderous racist politics of the Brazilian state, but saved many, this text is proof.

It is sad to see how people, even practitioners of the African faith, do not understand the strength of our ancestors, do not know the essence of this belief so rich in feelings, where one does not have to be the most literate or wealthy, we live from the brightness of the empires of the homeland to the captivity of American soil, and not even that erased us from society and from growth. Faith means truth,

if you fill a glass on the tap, put it on a shelf and believe that there is a sacred energy, what is called water, we call Oxum,

if you swim at the beach and believe that all negativities were taken, what they call salt water, we call Iemanjá,

when giving something to eat to a famished fellow, there is the land that gives us the food, we call Omolu, Obaluayê,

what they call nature, we call Orixás, beings of light, guides, those who do not change the planet, but they change us, to act for the world.

It is not a matter of offering and receiving, the experience of putting a simple plate of white corn on the shelf, after using cocaine, and never again using it, gives that certainty, and even those not adept at Candomblé, but those who did good to themselves and the neighbor, is surrunded by positive energies, because the wind is not sold for material goods, Iansã does not need it, and blows the agô, mercy, also to those who err, for in mistakes we have learned, but the hammer of justice weighs on the vicious convicts.

Or does evil exist? Yes! The personality of the human being is part of nature, we have positive and negative, we do not call the Gods of others demons, or who does not follow the belief of perverse, each has his or her role and learning in this universe, which we call Oxalá, Obatolá, and only the Great Creator knows what each has passed through, and passes, in his walk, the devil is our own darkness. Do we worship evil beings? It depends on each one. If one hurls a plague against another, whether by lighting a candle, in prayer, or even in pure words, the evil one seizes itself, to harm everyone, but nature is just, not evil, just as a predatory animal only hunts the amount of prey it needs to survive.

Difficulties we will all endure, we will know the best and the worst to exist, it is part of learning, but the warlord, the blood inside us, Ogun, has the keys of the doors of prosperity for whom deserves, to fight for him or herself and for his or her fellows. Entities will not perform miracles of chance, but, like the air that is vital to life, they will give you the energy to win in the fight, the bad ones will not hold your arms and legs, there is no better tool for that than your own laziness and inattention.

It is not necessary to be adept at Candomblé, Umbanda, Quimbanda, to be graced by the great kings and queens of the occult, the unpalpable, each time we live there is a new knowledge, Lord Time teaches, just open the mind to what is shown, to appropriate what is good, to distribute love, justly. The spiritual is not capitalist, it is not for sale, understood only by who knows gratitude and inner peace.


Jal Souza

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 17.41.25A 30-year-old Brazilian, born and raised in the outskirts of the capital of the state of Bahia, Candomblé and leftist, discovering himself late, after overcoming prejudices and common sense learned since childhood.


The Ways We Breathe

“This era of mass consumerism… is imperilling the ways we breathe”

From Lorna Smithers

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

“We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.”

Stephen Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to trachea, insects fill their air sacs, breathing in, breathing out. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through their moist skins. Fish breathe water in through their gulpy mouths then out through their gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen is produced than used.

Underground, fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is also utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

To live we must not only breathe, but consume. Life lives on death. And this human animal consumes not only to create ATP, but for warmth, light, housing, transport, pleasure. Some say it began with fire, others with farming, others with writing, others with machines, others that it originated deep within human cells in the power plants of mitochondria – the Anthropocene.

The spark of this era of mass consumption has become a funeral pyre fanned by the winds of greed. Its smoke is imperilling the ways we breathe. Fire triangle: oxygen, fuel, heat. Smoke from carbons and hydrocarbons is composed of water, carbon dioxide, countless other fumes.

Smoke inhalation damages the lungs through burning, tissue irritation, oxygen starvation (asphyxiation). In 1952, 4000 people died in the Great Smog of London. Great smogs hang over Delhi, Baghdad, Beijing, Los Angeles, Rome. Asthma, lung cancer, COPD, leukemia, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, weakening of lung function, difficulties breathing in and out.

Carbon dioxide levels rising, increasing greenhouse effect, raising temperatures. The forests, cut down, cannot help. The peat bogs, drained off, cannot help. The oceans acidifying cannot help. We are choking those who breathe with us, who are dropping like canaries in coal mines.

Who would dare to douse the fires? Throttle the exhausts? Get locked out of the factories for good?

Those who inspire. Those who burn with inspiration, ysbrydoliaeth, rooted in spirit, ysbryd. The breath of the universe, the breath of our human and non-human ancestors, the breath of the gods. Those who not only consume but give and offer those gifted breaths back before expiring.

Inspired ones! Burn with me! Breathe with me! Breathing in, breathing out, with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled.

All one breath.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published two books: Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.


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A Standing Rock Story Part 2

“We [White people] have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.”

From Lisha Sterling

Photo by Tim Yakaitis.

“Gooooooood morning, Water Protectors! This is not a vacation! We’ve got work to do, relatives! It’s time to pray! Get your čanupa! Get your bible! Get your sacred items and come to the sacred fire!”

– Morning wake up call over the loud speakers near the sacred fire at Očeti Šakówiŋ.

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The night I rolled in to Standing Rock it was dark, and finding the right entrance to the camp where I wanted to go was confusing. It was all headlights and flashlights on a short strip of road, traffic coming up from the south, lots of  people and cars but everything else was dark. Really, really dark. So I drove past Očeti Šakówiŋ, past Sičangu (Rosebud), and all the way to the town of Cannon Ball, then through the town, out the other side and back up to Sacred Stone camp. I didn’t see much of anything that night. I think it must have been overcast, because I don’t even remember the stars. Or maybe it was clear, but I was so tired from the 2 day drive and overwhelmed by just having arrived that I didn’t really see the sky.

The next morning, after breakfast, I drove back out through Cannon Ball, over to highway 1806, and north towards the other camps. Just before I got to Sičangu I crested the hill, and in the clear sunlight the sight of thousands of people camped in tents and tipis was awe inspiring. There are no words that can express that feeling. Joy. Excitement. A thrill at the hope all those tents and tipis represented. These are just approximations. I wish that I could take that feeling that wells up in my heart even at the memory of it and place it inside your heart so that you could experience it, too.

That feeling never went away. Even in the coldest and harshest part of the winter, even in the most stressful days of battle, the view of the camp was exhilarating.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

You Are Not In The United States

One of the first lessons for anyone coming to camp who wasn’t Native was that Camp was not part of “America”. Camp was sovereign territory. Camp was on treaty land, run by the people of the Seven Council Fires, existing in the cultural ways of what the American government calls The Great Sioux Nation.

Each camp entrance had a security checkpoint. Signs by the entrance reminded people whose land they were entering and set out the clearest of ground rules:

No Weapons of Any Kind.

No Alcohol Or Drugs.

Not on you and not in you.

This Is A Peaceful Prayer Camp.

Each of the three camps were broken into smaller camps. I don’t know what the separate areas of Sacred Stone were called, or if they even had different names, but at Očeti there were camps with names like, “Oglala Camp,” “Southwest Camp,” “Red Warrior Camp,” “Cheyenne River Camp,” “Red Lightning,” and so on. The fact that life at camp was broken into these smaller camps was something utterly lost on most of the non-Natives who showed up.

Johnny Aseron would ask people in the morning meeting or at some other meeting throughout the day, “What camp are you in?” and the answer from non-Native vistors was almost always, “Oh, we’re not in a camp. We’re just in a tent by ourselves.” This was rarely the first experience of culture clash that people would experience, but it was one that embodied all the other clashes. “Go back to your tent,” Johnny would tell the visitors, “then look around you. Figure out who is near by. Introduce yourselves and ask what camp they are in. Get permission to be where you are, and then make yourselves useful to your camp.”

“White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!” Johnny would fume. And he was right.

We come from cities and towns where we never see our neighbors any more, where we don’t even know the people in our own apartment building. We travel through life completely oblivious to the people next door unless they play their music too loudly in the middle of the night. We have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.

People showed up from all over the country certain that they could do something to help the camps, but few took the time to stop and listen before they told everyone what their great idea was. As a result, a lot of duplication of efforts happened between September and December, a lot of projects went off half-cocked, and so many things were started and then abandoned when the people who started them decided to go home.

Even some of the people who did take the time to listen as well as talk managed to cause consternation when they treated the space like it was Burning Man rather than the sacred ground of the meeting place of the Seven Council Fires. There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.

This was not the only incident, possibly not even the most egregious one, that angered the Native community for its complete lack of respect for Lakota culture. But those who stayed for the long haul learned how to live in better harmony with the local culture. White people learned to cook buffalo instead of quinoa. White women learned to stay away from the sacred fire on our moon time. White men learned to let Native men set the boundaries and decide what steps to take next. Some of us left camp as honorary Lakota. Some found themselves connected with and adopted by the Nation from the land where they make their home.

FirstDayOnHopHill-ByRobertoMonge

Sacred Ground and A Place of Prayer

The land where the camps were is sacred ground. Lakota tradition teaches us that many medicine men have put sacred medicine into the land where Očeti Šakówiŋ was. There were also burials in several areas within the camps’ boundaries and to the North of them. It was no coincidence that the movement to protect the water gained so much momentum from this place. The prayers spoken there carry extra weight.

I had heard this before I ever arrived at Standing Rock. I knew it in my bones once I got there.

On the night that I arrived at Sacred Stone, I walked down to the Cannonball river and talked to the spirits of the land and the ancestors there. That first night the spirits were not impressed with me. They gave me something of a cold shoulder. They were doubtful about my intentions, I think, and not terribly trusting. I’m not sure exactly how it is that I gained their trust, but it didn’t take long at all.

One thing that I do know is that prayers were answered for everyone at camp, and miracles were absolutely commonplace there. People would talk about it while sitting around a fire or standing in line at a kitchen. You need a thing. You pray for that thing. The thing shows up. Again and again and again. Need someone with a certain skill? Pray. Need a power inverter? Pray. Need to get in touch with someone but your phone doesn’t work at camp and neither does theirs? Pray.

In November I found myself at a laundromat in Mandan, about 50 minutes away once the checkpoint had turned into a roadblock and everyone had to drive around the long way between Standing Rock and the urban area to the north. There were no laundry facilities at camp, so nearly everyone went north to wash their clothes once every two weeks or maybe once a month. I met a White woman at the laundromat who was also staying at camp. She said that she really liked the environment at camp, but she was skeptical of the idea that prayer was going to do anything useful.

“You can’t stop a pipeline with prayer,” she told me.

“I don’t know if we will stop the pipeline, but you have to admit, prayer is doing something,” I pressed.

“No. I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe that prayer has any purpose.”

“But, wait, haven’t you noticed the weird things that happen? How things just magically seem to turn out just so? How people end up in the right place at just the right time? How things show up just when you need them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” She admitted somewhat uncomfortably.

“Well, you don’t have to call that a miracle if you don’t want. You can put it into another cosmological framework if you choose. Call it a synchronicity. There are an awful lot of synchronicities happening. Where does that come from?”

She laughed, “Yeah, there sure are a lot of synchronicities. I have no idea where they come from.”

“Well, maybe you would think of it as some sort of as-yet-unexplained quantum phenomenon. Or maybe it’s just the Unknown. But that thing that makes the synchronicities come together, that’s what some of us call God.”

The Atheist White Lady agreed that it was possible to hold the idea that whether there was a God or not, something was certainly happening at camp. When I got back to camp, I shared that story, and from then on the term “Očeti Synchronicity” entered the collective lexicon of the folks I camped with.

The Ancestors Stood With Us

In early October I was standing between the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Media tent and the Water Protectors Legal Cooperative tent on top of Facebook Hill in Očeti Šakówiŋ. As I stood there smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the IEN volunteers, we saw a red car come speeding from the south on 1806 followed by a police car with it’s lights flashing. The car turned into the south entrance to camp and sped right past the guards. As soon as it entered camp it turned off its lights, but the police car continued in pursuit, lights still flashing. The red car disappeared into the camp, but the police car made it about ¾ of the way around the loop road through the south side of camp before it was surrounded by angry Water Protectors. People on the hill jumped into their cars and trucks and sped down towards the police car. Some of the vets who were camped north of Facebook Hill near the north entrance did the same.

From our perch atop the hill we could hear people yelling at the police officer inside his now stopped car. The situation was tense. There would be some yelling, and then silence, then yelling again.

I ran into the tents to inform people inside what was going on, and to tell my friend to get ready to grab his sleeping kid sprawled out in front of the wood stove and put them in my van. “If there are shots, we go. If more police show up we go. I’ll drive through the fence if we have to. We don’t want to be here if this gets ugly.” I went back outside and kept watch.

Eventually, the police car turned its flashing lights off and began to drive slowly around the rest of the loop road toward the north entrance. Another police car showed up and parked by the north entrance. I went inside to get my friends and go. We jumped in my van, and I drove straight for the south entrance. As we got there, more police cars were coming up 1806.

When we got to the south gate, one of the guards stepped up to stop me from leaving. “We’re on lock down,” he explained, “Someone just drove in to camp in a stolen car and there are police here.”

“It’s not us. We saw the whole thing from on top of the hill. I have a kid in the van. We need to get back to Sičangu. I need to keep the kid safe.” I told the guard. I don’t know why he let me through. They didn’t let anyone else out of camp. We were the only ones. But he let me go, and I pulled out of Očeti, drove south of the river onto undisputed Reservation territory and turned into the driveway of Sičangu camp.

“Sorry. No one in or out. We’re on lockdown.” The guard at Sičangu told me.

“I know. We were just at the Media tent. We have a kid in the van. I need to get ’em safely back to our camp.” The guard knew who we were, an advantage of living in the smaller camp at Rosebud. He nodded in ascent and let us through.

As we pulled into the back grove where we were camped, I gave my friend instructions, still functioning in emergency mode. “If they raid the camp tonight, come find me and the van. I’ll drive us out of here no matter what it takes. If you can’t get to the van, then run south towards the town. I’ll find you and pick you up.”

I need not have worried. When the police car had turned its lights off, the Akíčita (say: ah-KI-chi-tah, warriors) of Očeti Šakówiŋ had made an agreement with the police who happened to be a local Lakota from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The police would stay outside the camp while the Akíčita would search for the car thief and bring them to the police. They found the bad guys, a driver and two passengers. They also rescued a woman who got trapped in her tipi when the car had plowed into it. Miraculously, she only had minor injuries.

That night I had a dream that I was walking around the whole perimeter of Očeti Šakówiŋ camp with my brother who had died on December 25, 2015.

When I became aware that it was strange to be walking with my dead brother as if it were normal, he spoke up, “Phew! That was scary last night!!”

“Yeah it was.” We walked and the silence hung over us for a while.

“I’m so glad that you are here, though. If I were alive I’d be there with you.” He paused, “Well, I am here with you. Just not like that.”

I looked at him and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”

The author’s brother, photo taken in 2005.

One day in October there was a 9am meeting unlike any other while I was at camp. It was in the army tent on Hunkpapa hill, before the days when morning meetings happened in the dome. Johnny Aseron was late, but some other elders came in to the tent and started the meeting off without him. As usual, sage was lit and passed around the circle of people gathered. An opening prayer was said, just like always. But instead of Johnny saying a few words and then going around the circle to hear from whoever wanted to speak, these elders stood at the focus of everyone’s attention.

One elder spoke of the terrible number of Water Protectors that had been arrested the day before. Another spoke of the people who had not stayed peaceful and had instead lit fires. There were agitators amongst the Water Protectors who said that peaceful protest was not enough. We needed to fight already, they said. This elder said that made no sense at all.

“Look at the power of the United States,” he said, “Do you think that we can defeat them? Of course not! If we use violence, they will come down on us with as much force as they need. They will not just arrest 40 people or a hundred people. They will come in here and kill us. We’ve lost enough of our people. We need to live and we need to fight smarter than that.”

I didn’t know it then, didn’t know who these men were, but I would find out later that these were men who had once been militants who had no compunction about using guns in their battles. They had aged since then, and wised up. They had watched revolutions in other countries and seen how they went down. They had contemplated their own history and realized that winning every battle was not enough to win the war. They had learned that violence was not going to give them the gains they wanted. Only prayer could do that.

One of the elders stood up to tell a story that I don’t think I will ever forget. “Back in the 80’s we were told to go to the Black Hills with our families to stop the mining. The elders told us then to go out and set up a camp. Build a sweat lodge and pray all day, every day. We wanted to fight, but they said, ‘No. This time you just go and pray.’ We did what the elders said. There were about 30 of us. My wife was there and my kids. Other families, too. We just prayed and went into sweat lodge every day. After we’d been there a while, one morning we wake up and we’re surrounded by White men on the hills overlooking the valley where we were camped. All these White men up there with their guns. Some of them were sheriff’s deputies, but there were also just guys from the area near there. They’d called up and said that anyone who had a gun should come down and stop us. So there they were, surrounding us. There was nothing we could do. They stood there with their guns pointed down at us, men, women and children. We thought for sure it was going to be a massacre. But no one shot a single bullet. We all stood there for a long time, until finally someone came to us to negotiate a deal, and then we left there.

“Well, you see, about ten years after that happened, I was telling the story at this place. You know, I’d travel and speak at places, and tell what happened there. And I told the story this one time, and after the whole thing was over, this one man comes up to me after to talk. It was a White man. He said, ‘I had to come here to tell you that I was one of those men up there with a gun pointed at you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know back then, but I know now. I’m really sorry for what I did.’ and then he said, ‘but I have to tell you something, because you didn’t say anything about it in your story, and I don’t know if you even know. There’s a reason we didn’t shoot. When we looked down into that valley, we saw thousands of Indians and they were all armed. We all knew that if we shot, we’d all be dead. We didn’t see 30 people. We saw a valley full of Indians.’

“And so that’s how I know. Prayer works. The ancestors were with us that day. They stood with us, and those White men saw them.”

I feel pretty certain that the same thing happened at Standing Rock during the encampments. Not just once, but over and over again. The police were terrified of the Water Protectors. They told stories of Water Protectors with pipe bombs and tire irons and knives threatening them. None of those things ever happened. Some of that was surely just cops telling lies to justify their actions, but I heard cops talking with real fear in their voice on more than one occasion. Now, either they are such complete cowards that they make stuff up in their own heads – which considering the vast number of non-gun items that police have claimed were guns in the hands of Black men, we can’t ignore that possibility – or else, they really did see angry Native ancestors brandishing ghost weapons.

I know the ancestors were there. Against all logic, I met some of them. In the days of late November when I slept in my van outside the Cannon Ball Rec Center after working late into the night alongside the Media team, I saw ghosts who were as real and as solid to my mind as any living person. The wind seemed to blow them my way, and they gathered around the van. Some pressed their faces against the windows to look inside. Some followed me into dreams. I was able to describe people who had died many years before to relatives of theirs at camp and at the Cannon Ball Rec Center. I should perhaps mention that I do not usually see ghosts. This was not a type of magick or medicine in my repertoire before those nights.

One night after the snows started I climbed into bed at the back of my van and snow began to fall on my head, blowing through a gap between the back door and the frame where the seal had shrunk away from age and cold. I climbed out of the van and went back inside the room in the rec center where the Media team worked. I fumed in frustration and exhaustion, and sat with John Bigelow, head of the Media team, for a bit to vent about how things weren’t working right on this thing and that thing and I felt so isolated and alienated and unsure of myself. (We didn’t know it then, but TigerSwan had been using infiltrators to intentionally create division between White people and Natives, and I’d been hit by some really cruel words about my not belonging there.) John reassured me and told me to talk to the ancestors. They’d tell me how to handle it.

After our talk, I climbed under a table to sleep on the floor. As I closed my eyes I prayed that the ancestors would speak to me and give me guidance. Just as I was falling asleep, one member of the Media team stuck a pillow under my head, and another put a blanket over me. And then I was in another place and time.

I dreamed that I was at a meeting with a number of chiefs from the past and some other Native elders from the past and the present. We were in a long lodge. We sat on pillows at a long table that was close to the ground. I sat on the corner at one end of the table listening to the conversations going on. When it seemed appropriate, I took part in the conversation. After a bit, the people at the table broke into lots of smaller conversations. I had a deep conversation with two men that were sitting right by me on the long side of the table and a man who sat down at the short side of the table next to me for a bit and then got up to take care of something else. Towards the end of the conversation the man right next to me said, “We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I felt so pleased, so I said the most obvious thing of all, “Just a moment. I’ll give you my mobile number.” And then I woke up.

Every time I think about that dream it makes me laugh. I offered a 140 year dead Lakota chief my mobile number. Oof! John got a good laugh at my foolish offer, too, but said that it was a good sign that they wanted to talk. I needed to spend more time learning how to listen to the ancestors.

Fixing equipment on the communications tower that brought Internet into Oceti Sakowin on a freezing winter day.
Photo by Scott Golder.

Experiencing Communalism

“I learned more about anti-capitalism in the short time we were there, than I had in decades of research. Theory vs practice.” – Karina B Hart

One of the things about camp that everyone noticed, whether they were there for a day or for months, whether they took the time to understand Lakota culture or not, was that none of the camps functioned like the outside world. No one worked for money at camp, but everyone worked. No one was homeless at camp. Everyone had food to eat. Everyone had clothes, batteries, cigarettes, matches, flashlights, and whatever other basic need they might have. Healthcare was free, and it included both Western medical care and an assortment of other modalities including herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.

If you needed almost anything, you only had to go to the tents where donations were sorted and distributed. If you were hungry, there were kitchens located all around the camps. As winter approached, there was a construction team that worked literally 24 hours a day building temporary housing for those who needed it and insulated floors for those who had sturdy tents or tipis that just needed a little extra protection. (It gets so cold in North Dakota that the ground freezes solid and if your sleeping bag is directly on the ground you can freeze before you wake up, even inside a heated tipi.) There was another team whose sole job was to construct wood stoves out of 50 gallon drums. The solar team that worked with me provided and/or repaired power systems at major locations throughout Očeti Šakówiŋ and Sičangu camps, including at the medical facilities, the dome, the restrooms, and at some of the larger insulated army tents that held a lot of people.

There were people at camp who complained that they never got what they needed. I will be honest and say that I don’t understand what happened in those cases. I wish I did, because it is something that all of us who were leading teams around camp worked hard to avoid. It was important to all of us to make sure that no one was left behind, especially Native families and elders. The medical team even sent out teams of medics to visit every single tent, tipi, and structure in all the camps to check on people, find out what they needed, and make sure that those who were unable to get to the donation tents or the medical yurts for whatever reason got whatever it was they needed.

Nearly everyone worked in some way that benefited either their local sub-camp or the camp as a whole. Some people were unable to do outside work because they were caring for their children, for elders, or they themselves were handicapped in some way. There were rumors of some people who didn’t work at all, but I never came across those people. I have no idea if this was just a TigerSwan-spread rumor or what. The only people that I know of that came and didn’t work were some of the “tourists” who came to camp for a weekend or a week and figured that since they’d brought donations they didn’t need to take part in any of the work. They could have been a burden, but I think that their work ethic was less of a concern than their general lack of respect for Lakota culture. But, then again, even among the “tourists”, most showed up and pitched in wherever they could.

There was so much to do. In an off-grid community, chopping wood becomes a vital job. In the winter, after the porta-potties were gone and we all started using the composting toilets, we needed two people per shift to work in each toilet tent to keep the wood stove burning, the sawdust bins full, and the composting toilets from overflowing. Every kitchen needed assistants for food preparation and clean up. The donation tents needed people to sort through things, pack up surplus to go out to reservation residents, and help Water Protectors find the things they needed. Each of the three camps needed security at the gates and walking through the camp 24 hours a day. The sacred fires required trained men to tend the fire round the clock in every kind of weather. The medical camp needed all sorts of non-medical support in addition to the healthcare work. The technology team needed network engineers who could drive a snowmobile up to “hop hill” outside of camp to fix our connection to the Internet if the wind, snowpack, or mystery computer gremlins cut us off. We also needed people who could program radios so that medics and security personnel could keep in contact throughout the area. A few tent or tipi fires occurred, and when they did every available hand was needed to put out the fire and make sure that everyone stayed safe. There was a school at Sacred Stone and another school at Očeti, so we needed teachers.

There was no top-down hierarchy that planned and managed everything. Instead it was more like herding cats. There was a volunteer desk near the main sacred fire in Očeti where people could sign up with their skills or find out what needs there were around camp. There were daily meetings for the representatives of sub-camps and work groups to discuss the work of the day, what they offered to others, and the needs they needed filled. Not everyone trying to run a project showed up to those, and not every camp had representatives at the meetings each morning. We did the best we could to keep things running as smoothly as we could. There were failures in communication, and failures to accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish, but all in all we did amazingly well.

Miraculously, there was not one single death in camp throughout the bitterly cold winter, though there was one death ten miles south in the parking lot at the Prairie Knights Casino when a man was working on his car in the snow and electrocuted himself in a freak accident.

All of this near utopia would not have been possible without the donations that flowed in from around the world. Some people would say that the need for donations proves that this sort of community life is impossible without people in the capitalist over-culture supporting it, but I would disagree strenuously. There was certainly a need for donations at the camps, but that need would have been far less if the camps had continued for a second or third year. If we could have grown our own food, we would not have needed food from outside. If we could have produced our our own clothing using traditional methods – whether Lakota or not – we would have needed fewer and fewer clothing donations over time. If we had stayed for more than a year we could also have begun to make things which could have been sold to people outside the camps so that the camp would have money available for those things which can’t be made from renewable and well-stewarted local resources. As it was, we had so many donations that we were able to ship truckloads of clothes and other items to communities on Native reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota and beyond.

The added bonus of all those surplus donations for camp is that children who had never had snow boots in their lives, despite living in a place where the temperature gets below -20F (-29C) and the snow can be several feet deep, got snow boots as well as warm gloves and jackets, toasty long underwear, and more. Some of the surplus warm weather gear from the summer and autumn was shipped onward to Water Protector camps in Florida. Other gear made its way to poor urban communities in places where it doesn’t get as cold as the Dakotas.

It’s true that the camps could not survive the first year without donations, and they probably would have continued to need some help in a second and third year, but those donations where investments in the better world that we would all like to build. They were transvestments of capital and other resources from the capitalist system into a gift-based system, and those transvestments did bring resources to more than just the camp community. Having now entered the gift economy, many of those donations will continue to circulate free of the capitalist system for a long time to come.

And that is one of the beautiful things about allying ourselves in the work of environmental protection and economic shift with indigenous communities like the Lakota. The Lakota have a rich tradition with the gift economy. The wopila is a cherished celebration of thanks in which a person, family, band, or tribe gives away as much as they possibly can. And so, the goodness keeps revolving, moving from hand to hand, staying put only when and where it is most needed.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

A Place That Changed Lives

I was there for such a brief little spurt of time and I still feel the loss in such a profound way. It changed me even though I was only there for mere days….” – Elizabeth Schindler

Standing Rock was a life changing event for a great many people. For some it was the experience of living in the flow of a gift economy where work is something you do out of love and where receiving is as important as giving. For others it was how Lakota culture seeped into their consciousness after months of living in that land and with that amazing community. For some it only took a few days for the vision of tipis standing on the plain to etch something indelible on their soul. For others it was the long fight on the frontlines, face to face with militarized law enforcement and mercenaries who brought tactics back from wars in the Middle East to oppress people right here in North America that changed their view of the world and their place in it. Standing Rock also changed me in dramatic ways that I’m still just beginning to understand.

The first and most obvious change in me was faith, or maybe I should say “belief”. I was first trained as a healer when I was just nine years old. The first cancer patient I ever worked with is still alive 37 years after she was told that she would be dead in less than three months. They had given up on chemo therapy and were just concentrating on palliative care. And yet, even after many more years and many more patients where I saw “miraculous” things flow from the use of those core healing techniques I learned as a child, I used to say that I didn’t really believe in any of it. I would do the work as I was taught, and results would happen, so it was obviously a real thing, but I would say that I didn’t believe in it any more than I believe that the sun is going to come up in the morning. I just knew that it worked, but I couldn’t say with certainty why or how, and I was never fully certain – definitely not as certain as that the sun would come up – that any good at all would come of my attempts to heal someone. And prayer? We all know that sometimes the answer to prayer is “No.” So, how can you believe in prayer if you don’t know what the outcome will be?

I blame that lack of belief on the dominant culture of the West. These spiritual things don’t fit into the scientific narrative, and so saying that they are real is the height of foolishness. Worse still, to say that I believe in such things can damage my reputation as a technologist. How can someone “believe” in science and also believe in such unscientific things as prayer and energy healing?

Očeti changed that for me. I saw the power of prayer over and over again, but I realize that wasn’t what changed the way I feel about belief or the sense of certainty I have now that wasn’t there before. The real change was wrought because for six months I lived in a community where that belief was normal and accepted and perfectly reasonable.

Standing Rock also gave me hope for the chance that we might be able to live in a different way again. For years I have longed to be able to live in a way which reflects my cosmology of infinite interconnectedness and universal sentience. For a prolonged period at Standing Rock there were over 10,000 people, and for a short while there were as many as 20,000 people, who were living as if we are all connected and every animal, every plant, even the soil and the water are our relatives. Occasionally I meet a person who feels the way that I do and I am inspired for a moment, energized to live my Truth more fully. But that energy can get snuffed out by the demands of the dominant culture. Standing Rock changed that for me.

Colonialist culture says that there is one right way to do things, and anything else is unworthy of respect. Standing Rock said that there are many Nations, many ways to be in the world, many ways to pray, and they all are worthy of respect.

Settler culture says that when I move into a new land I can simply replicate the culture and way of life from my old land without consideration of the realities of the new place or the culture of the people who lived there before me. Standing Rock said that the land has memory and long standing cultures exist the way that they do for good reason and we must listen and pay close attention if we wish to live well.

Extractivist culture says that there is no value in the Earth except what we can take from it and no value in humans except what they can produce. Standing Rock said that there is value in every human even if all they can do is sit in the path of a bulldozer, that there is value in the oil that stays in the ground, that there is value in clean water even if it only nurtures weeds and fish that we will never eat.

Standing Rock gave me and many other people another culture to cling to, a new extended family, and the strength of knowing that we all still have the fire of Očeti Šakówiŋ with us wherever we go.


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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The Sword Radiant

“If there was ever a thing of beauty among our race, it was the part that held the light of the star and the crash of the waves upon a rocky, inhospitable shore.”

From Ramon Elani

“The spirit of the depths spoke to me: ‘Look into your depths, pray to your depths, waken the dead.’”

“There is a desert on the moon where the dreamer sinks so deeply into the ground that she reaches hell.”— C.G. Jung

I stand upon a hill and gaze to the north, where the sky is filled with flames. The whispering trees sway gently. Urging me to wander, filling my heart with the bittersweet madness of wandering. But I have walked so long already. I have wandered and now have finished with wandering. All will happen as it has happened a thousand times. This is the curse of wandering. Again and again, the wanderer finds himself standing before monuments he cannot remember. Only that he stood he before and he will stand here again. Onward and onward he will be driven, pursued by maddening storms. The self runs but its path is only to circle the endless stones. Life and the cosmos will always be elsewhere. The beast will always be full of bitterness and hunger, as it runs across the plains. Because what it hunts is its own self.

*Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,

Maker’s mercy. Though he must traverse

Tracts of sea, sick at heart,

Trouble with oars ice-cold waters,

The ways of exile—Weird is set fast.

But I bind myself to this hill. Here I will stand until ruination. I will not find my home and my mother through movement. I will find her by digging my grave and standing within it. My mother, the moon, gazes down upon me. I can sense her light from beneath, as well. A pillar of light, extending into infinity. Where shall I seek the barrows? Where are the ancient kings buried, with all their war-gear? Where does the radiant blade shine beneath the dark earth? I know, I know.

Thus spoke such a ‘grasshopper’, old griefs in his mind,

Cold slaughters, the death of dear kinsmen.

What is there to search for that you will not find within yourself? We have buried much of ourselves with them, the dead kings. We have put aside their cruelty, their bloody masks. And yet we have torn from our hearts the beating drum of life and the cosmos. What is left of humanity? What force ever animated these sickly limbs with a sublimity to match the soaring falcon above the dusky hill? The falcon soars that he might rend the flesh and bathe himself in blood. We know, we know.

symbolism_2

No weary mind may stand against Weird

Nor may a wrecked will work new hope;

Wherefore, most often, those eager for fame

Bind the dark mood fast in their breasts.

If there was ever a thing of beauty among our race, it was the part that held the light of the star and the crash of the waves upon a rocky, inhospitable shore. Where has it been driven? Driven beneath the barrow, denied with the blood. For, do not mistake, the blood and the light are of the same substance. We can extinguish the one only by hiding them both in the darkest places of soul. One hand holds the fire, and the other holds a blade dripping with gore. And yet, whose blood? Our own, of course. But we are done with fathers and the things of the father. The prohibition against blood-letting is the domain of the father, as are all prohibitions and the logic of law.

There stands in the stead of staunch thanes

A towering wall wrought with worm-shapes;

The earls are off-taken by the ash-spear’s point,

That thirsty weapon. Their Weird is glorious.

Dig, then. Dig into the black and musty earth. Dig out the sparkling blade from a realm of worms and rot. The sword carried aloft, the moon shining at its apex, for I am of the moon. Never forget: “Who would be born must first destroy a world.” The sword shines in the heart of the jewel. And the one who wields it is the maker and annihilator of worlds. Hesse once wrote, “I am a star in the firmament.” The star knows not morality or mercy. Seek not, nor ask for mercy. Mercy is not a quality given from one divine thing to another, but from a master to a slave. Blazing in the void of space, the glory of the star is combustion and the gentle light that it shines upon the faces of the dreamers, who gaze up at the night sky. Gentleness we may find, perhaps forgiveness as well. But never mercy. To struggle into becoming is the fate of the world.

A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be

When all this world’s wealth standeth waste,

Even as now, in many places, over the earth

Walls stand, wind-beaten,

Hung with hoar-frost; ruined habitations.

The wine-halls crumble; their wielders lie

Bereft of bliss, the band all fallen

Proud by the wall.

We have come unto our kingdom and found it ashen and decayed. A lie was written somewhere. We followed a path that circled the tower but never approached the steps. So we flee to distant places. The soul is thrown beyond. The horn is heard among the standing stones upon the hill, where the wolf moans to the wind and the bear digs among the moss and roots and the hawk shrieks for slaughter. The song echoes among the bogs and watery places, where dark things slither and dim lights shine beneath the murky water. Reason has made a waste of the world and buried the flaming heart and the weeping sword. Wraiths wandering among the fallen stones speak to us of times gone by. The White Bull and the crescent blade that slit his divine throat. Even as now, even as now. Like Hesse, we are doomed to endlessly traverse the “hell of inner being.”

Where is that horse now? Where are those men? Where is the hoard-sharer?

Where is the house of the feast? Where is the hall’s uproar?

Alas, bright cup! Alas, burnished fighter!

Alas, proud prince! How that time has passed,

Dark under night’s helm, as though it never had been!

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There is no pain we cannot endure, for indeed, we carry with us the sorrows of the eternal courses of the world within us. Within the heart, all has come and gone and come again. There is no death we have not suffered. The cup is filled and drained and will be filled again. Yet here we stand, alive in a morning world, though our souls dwell in the evening. We have been raised by the Sun, in a Sun land, but we long for our mother the Moon and the icy mists of the forest in twilight. The noumenon rises like a mountain into the sky within the soul. It is not outside of us. Its fragment pulses in the moments that we truly live, like a germ of ice that brings with it the promise of a demon called the glacier that grinds down the ages of the world.

Storms break on the stone hillside,

The ground bound by driving sleet,

Winter’s wrath. Then wanness cometh,

Night’s shade spreadeth, sendeth from north

The rough hail to harry mankind.

The dead live within us. They slumber in the hidden places of the psyche. In this ancestor-less time we have sealed their tombs. And we evoke their names in a manner both crass and profane to strike out against anything as long as it is not within ourselves. There must be a surrogate for the slaughter. Those who will not battle within their hearts will seek a victim for their impotent rage. May they be buried by grains of hail, that nothing will grow from their malice and I will cast a shadow upon them from the north that will bind their vulgar tongues and feed the monster within them, who they will not fight, and who in time will make their existence an inescapable hell. And I will curse them to wander forever among the lost stones of their own fear and stupidity and self hatred. Woe unto them who run from their demons, for they will bring ruin upon ruin to the world. The creature will be fed, one way or another. One war or another. One sacrifice or another.

In the earth-realm all is crossed;

Weird’s will changeth the world.

Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us,

Man is lent, kin is lent;

All this earth’s frame shall stand empty.

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Dive down and waken the dead! Find the demon that time immemorial has twisted and generations of denial and repression has cursed. There lies your foe. Unearth the tombs, shatter the bands of iron that seal them. And the spirits, faced and bested, will fight for us, will trace the edge of the rusted blade until it shines like a beacon through the ages. And the sword held on high will burst into flames and radiate its light into the heart of the star that beats dimly within our blood. And a flame will rise in the north, where I stand upon my hill. And I will not weep for the end of a world. And I will plant the tip of my spear in the dark earth. And I will raise the sword to the moon!

*Excerpts of “The Wanderer” as translated by Michael J. Alexander


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.


Mór

The Morrígna over me by day,

Bedb

In the guise of the crow.

You will tell me what to say,

Reveal what I should know.
The Morrígna over me at night,

Macha

On the wings of the owl.

You will show me second sight,

The path of right action now.
The Morrígna over me with power

An Mór Righan

Terrible, raven-black and glistening.

From Whom wisdom? Now Her

Voice speaks; who cannot be listening?

hawthorne

 

 

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’).

What is Pagan Anarchism?

Prayer to Our Lady of Anarchy

 

Oh black-robed lady with the bleeding eyes,

Red-belted, standing on an open book,

With hands outstretched but empty. Hear our cries!

In dread and sorrow for the things you’ve seen

You weep for us. And yet your heart is fire.

Oh red and black Madonna, let desire

Come blazing through us till we cannot sleep.

Destroy our apathy

And help us keep

Our covenant with rage,

Our own bright fire.

And let our eyes bleed with the same desire

Until the day arrives when we shall see

Fulfillment of the prophecy

That someday soon, a flood

Shall cleanse these streets and wash your cheeks of blood.

In Spain before the Civil War, anarchism was known as “the Idea,” and anarchist activists had a reputation for almost monastic austerity and self-discipline. Despite these semi-religious overtones, the far majority of them were atheists and many were militantly hostile to organized religion. Today’s anarchist movement still includes many atheists, but also a large minority of religious people – including pagans. Pagan anarchism is a reality, a fact which would probably surprise many of the past adherents of “the Idea.” So what exactly is pagan anarchism?

Paganism and anarchism are both hard to define, because so many people attach so many different meanings to both words. To understand how these two ideas can work together, we first have to understand what they each mean separately.

“Paganism” in particular can mean a lot of different things. Many of the people who use the word now are referring to one particular type of pagan religion loosely based on Wicca. Many of them are not even aware that the terms “pagan” and “Wiccan” are not synonyms, or that there are types of paganism with little similarity to Wicca. Scholars often use the word “pagan” to refer to the polytheistic religions of pre-Christian Europe, some of which were fully organized religions with State support. Modern reconstructionist pagans look to these ancient forms of polytheism for inspiration and try to systematically reconstruct these ancient practices.

I’m using the word in a broader sense, to refer to folk religious and magical practices focused on nature spirits, fairies, the dead and the gods. Paganism in this broader sense did not end with the Christian conversion, because it was never limited to “organized religion” in the first place. Regular people all over Europe continued to leave offerings for the fairies and the dead many centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. They didn’t think of themselves as “pagans” in any formal sense, but they still thought of the world around them as being filled with spirits and their daily spiritual practices reflected this worldview. They still believed in local fairy queens and fairy kings, entities that would have been understood as gods before the Christian conversion. They also retained a semi-polytheistic worldview in the veneration of saints, many of which were not recognized as saints officially by the church and a few of which were originally pre-Christian gods.

Peasants resisting feudalism sometimes turned to this tradition of magic and spirit worship for aid against their oppressors. For instance, Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie documents how folk beliefs about fairy kings and the malevolent dead were used by magic practitioners in 17th century Scotland to curse feudal landowners.

During the time of the enclosures, rebels in Ireland described themselves as followers of the fairy queen Sadhbh, angered by the enclosure of the commons. There are a number of similar accounts from other areas, showing that folk magical and religious practices were not merely “the opium of the people” but could be invoked to inspire struggles against oppression.

So when I talk about “paganism,” I’m not necessarily talking about Wicca and I’m not necessarily talking about a meticulous reconstruction of pre-Christian polytheism. I’m talking about the religious and magical practices of the common people – centered on fairy spirits, the dead and other entities such as saints or gods. These practices existed alongside organized religion yet distinct from it, before the Christian conversion and after it. People cultivated relationships with the spirits of nature, the dead and other entities for help with their practical daily problems – including how to effectively resist oppression. When you combine this type of religious practice with anarchism, you get pagan anarchism. So what is anarchism?

 Most people interpret the word “anarchy” to mean “a society without a government,” but even though an anarchist society would not have a government as we now conceive of it, that isn’t really the origin of the word. The word comes from the Greek prefix an or “without” and arkhos or “ruler.” In other words, no bosses.

I’d like to suggest that this is a more useful way to understand the word, because it helps us clarify what anarchy is and what it isn’t.

When we think of the word “anarchy” as meaning “no bosses,” it’s clear that many of the ideas people refer to as types of anarchism really shouldn’t be described that way. If you want to live in a Mad Max world of warlords and warriors, you are not an anarchist. A fractured society of armed bands loyal to local warlords is not a society with no bosses – it’s a society with far too many of them! An anarchist society would have to reject the rule of petty local tyrants.

If you want to live in a world where anyone can do whatever they want at any time even if that means hurting or violating other people, you are not an anarchist. A society where bullies are allowed free reign is not a society with no bosses – it’s a society where any sociopath can become your boss by simply overpowering you. An anarchist society would have to aggressively reject all forms of domination and mistreatment.

If you want to live in a world where business is totally unregulated because there is no government, you are not an anarchist. A society with a “free market” but no government is not a society with no bosses – it’s a society where your boss is all-powerful and there’s nothing you can do about it because your only options are to obey or starve. An anarchist society would have to reject the capitalist economic system.

So there are not as many different types of anarchism as there might seem to be. There are various political philosophies that are opposed to the State, but not necessarily to other types of domination and oppression – so-called national anarchism, anarcho-capitalism and so forth. None of these philosophies should logically be described as forms as anarchism, because none of them actually aim to get rid of bosses.

There are also varieties of anarchism that critique anarchist thought from one perspective or another, such as anarcha-feminism or queer anarchism. These movements don’t reject core anarchist values the way anarcho-capitalism does. Instead they call other anarchists to fully examine the implications of those values.

Finally, there is also a strong tradition of individualist anarchism. Personally I see this more as a difference of emphasis than a core disagreement. All anarchist philosophies aim to give individuals the greatest possible range of personal freedom.

However, not everyone values freedom highly enough to respect the freedom of others. When other people won’t respect your autonomy, you can stand up to them on your own if you’re strong enough – but there’s no way you can always be strong enough. The only way you can ever be secure in your autonomy is to actively protect the autonomy of others. Passively respecting their autonomy (as in Right Libertarianism) is not enough, because it still leaves them without your direct assistance against bullies and predators – and thus leaves you without theirs. If you want autonomy, you must have solidarity.

The only way for people to successfully resist the tyranny of would-be warlords, sociopathic predators and capitalist exploiters is to stand together, on the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” That means that anarchism is logically a form of communism.

Some anarchists use the word anarcho-communism. This sounds like it must describe a particular sect within anarchism, but in my opinion it really just clarifies what the word “anarchism” logically implies.

If some people have more than they need while others struggle, then the people who have more than they need will obviously become the bosses.

If you want to create a society with no bosses, you have to get rid of economic inequality – and that means getting rid of private property and restoring the commons. Personal property such as your own living space would not be a problem for a society without bosses, but private property beyond what you can personally use would have to be a concept unrecognized by the society. If any person tried to claim ownership of more property than needed for personal use, other people would be free to simply disregard the claim.

A society with no bosses would still have to have a way to get things done. The only way you can get things done when no one has the power to tell everyone else what to do is to get together and talk it out. You can talk until you all agree on a course of action, in which case you have consensus. Or you can agree that you’ll talk for a while, take a vote and then abide voluntarily by the results of the vote. So, a society with no bosses would have to be directly democratic.

There’s no way to run a directly democratic society on a massive scale, so a society without bosses would have to be decentralized. However, there’s also no way for tiny communities like that to be completely independent, so they would have to work with other such communities in some sort of loose federation. An anarchist society would be a federation of directly democratic people’s assemblies with no concept of private property. This is the society described by most of the major anarchist thinkers, although the details vary.

So much for theory. For whatever reason, anarchists have developed an unfortunate reputation for sectarian dogmatism. If you look up “anarchism” online, you will find many densely-argued debates about the tiniest points of anarchist doctrine. This is somewhat ridiculous – in a society with no bosses, how can there possibly be one perfect system?

I believe that anarchism should be broadly understood in the terms given here, but that any sort of pre-set anarchist dogma is a contradiction in terms. Any revolutionary project based on the principles of autonomy and solidarity is a step in the right direction, and quibbles about the exact system and whether it’s “truly anarchist” are a waste of time. It doesn’t even matter whether the people involved in the project call it “anarchism” or not. If it manifests general principles of moving away from rule by bosses and toward “power from below” then anarchists ought to give it their support.

In my opinion, we shouldn’t think of anarchism as a doctrine or a system, but as a critique of all existing systems – including those created or supported by anarchists. Anarchism is an approach to political philosophy in which you take a critical stance toward all claims of authority, and advocate for decentralization, equality, autonomy and communal decision-making. It can never become a finished project; the revolution must be perpetual.

If anarchism was a system or dogma, it could never achieve its goals without converting the majority of people to its cause. This is extremely unlikely, but it is also unnecessary. In times of chaos and the fall of empires, there are two different ways people can potentially respond – by falling in behind warlords and petty gangsters, or by working together in a spirit of mutual aid and cooperation. History provides examples of both; it’s never written in stone. As human beings, we get to choose which path we will take.

Because human beings have an instinctive capacity for mutual aid, it is simply not necessary to convert everyone to anarchism. In the right circumstances, people will embrace communal structures of mutual aid and decision-making whether they think of themselves as anarchists or not. For example, the far majority of the people involved in the Occupy movement would not have identified as anarchists, but Occupy still used an anarchist model of decision-making. The role of the anarchist is to critique authority and promote autonomy and solidarity, but not to try to lead anyone to anything.

Nantes Fountain Hardcore
River Goddess, Bretagne

Defining paganism and anarchism as I have done here, how do the two ideas work together? It all comes down to your experience of spirits. If you’ve never interacted with spirits and you perceive the world in purely mechanical terms, then you may see spirit practices as a form of superstition and an aid to various forms of oppression. If you interact with spirits and perceive the world as being filled with spirits, then you can form relationships with those spirits just as you can with human beings or animals. Pagan practices are simply ways of interacting with the spirits all around us, ways of being in relationship with them. This has political implications.

For instance, if the world is a dead and mechanical place then you can blow up a mountain to get the coal inside it without worrying about anything other than the practical implications. If the mountain is seen as a living thing, imbued with spirit, and a home to a number of other spirits, then you can’t just do that. You have to respect the autonomy of the spirit world along with the human world. You have to stand in solidarity to resist and defeat anyone trying to commit the crime of blowing up the mountain.

If a river is just a body of water, you can dump poison in it without worrying about anything other than whether you might need to drink that water later. It’s a different matter entirely if you think of it as poisoning a goddess.

If the world as a whole is just a rock we happen to live on, we can use and exploit anything we find on that rock until there’s nothing else to use up. Of course, we’d die then – but it’s always easy to forget about tomorrow and think only about today. If the world as a whole is alive and filled with spirit, treating everything as an exploitable object starts to look like the greatest crime in all of history.

Although the majority of modern pagans are not anti-capitalists, there is a fundamental contradiction between the pagan and capitalist worldviews. The worldview of capitalism is sociopathic – it treats everything and everyone as an object to be used. The worldview of paganism is relational – not only does it not treat people or animals as mere objects, it doesn’t look at anything else as a mere object either.

Earlier forms of anarchism were atheistic because organized religion was a force of oppression. People are going to go on having spiritual experiences anyway, so perhaps the answer is not to deny those experiences but to acknowledge and celebrate them. If organized religion is the opium of the people, magical religion can be our medicine – healing us and giving us the strength to fight for a better world.


cst-photoChristopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

Prayer to the Storm God in a Time of Conflict

 

A flicker of white light across the sky

As lightning cuts the clouds. The god is here,

A sword blade flashes by

And all the sky comes clear.

As near and far the clashing shields

Across celestial battlefields

Cast echoes through the night, but don’t destroy.

The god is fighting for the simple joy

The sweetness of pure movement, the delight

Of perfect action, flawless, self-contained.

The sky is cut in two

This night.

Its blood pours down on us as rain.

God, let our deeds be true.

And as the cities fill with restless crowds

Like heavy, lightning-bearing clouds,

Grant us the strength to fight

Like sheets of blinding light

And let us take no joy in causing pain

But only cut the sky to bring the rain.

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.


Christopher Scott Thompson is one of the many writers featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here. The digital edition is also on sale now.