Rainbow Heathenry: Is a Left-Wing, Multicultural Asatru Possible?

For those who raise the bowl in offering and veneration of the Old Gods, there is a glimmer of their connection to the past. Much of the Yule Celebration is based around this key concept for those who identify with Asatru, the revival of the traditional Norse pagan religion. It is the attendance to and memory of ancestors, the veneration of them just as the Gods, both of which can be traced back in a familial lineage. As Thor, Freya, and Odin are mentioned, faces around the table can envision what those names meant to their family deep in the past. The power of thunder. The perseverance in battle. The strength of conviction.

Yet it is not those elements that most of those with quick glances see when they notice a small silver Mojinir around a believer’s neck. Today Asatru is one of the most divided areas of the new pagan groundswell that is happening world wide. This is not simply because of its origins, or the warrior ethic present in its primary source materials, the Eddas and Sagas. It is the clear association between Heathenry and an openly racialist subculture, one that has taken on Norse myth and symbols as a primary form of identification. Hundreds of neo-Nazi and white nationalist bands and magazines take their names from the Northern Tradition. Some of the most militant racist prison gangs, skinheads, and open fascists venerate the same Gods of the Aesir. Across the far-right spectrum you will see the stories of Vikings and their pantheon represented as Gods of a purely white constituency, bound by blood and soil. Even amongst the more moderate view the “folkish” ideal–that says this tradition is unique only to those of Northern European ancestry–attempts to soften the blow of racial separatism.

But what is it about Asatru that creates a trajectory towards the folkish interpretation? Is Asatru today possible of having distinctly left-wing and multiracial interpretations?

The Roots of Modern Heathenry

The history of Heathenry in the modern context comes out of a certain impetus that drove its reconstruction. During the beginning of a truly industrial society of the mid 18th century, there developed a strong consciousness about the encroaching modernity and what might be lost from a direct connection with the natural world. This drove a broad interest in the traditional paganism implicit in pre-Christian Europe, but it had a unique perspective in the Germanic context.

Here, a strong sense of ethnic nationalism developed out of German Idealism and Romanticism, one that drew to find something unique and powerful inside of the Germanic peoples. This developed the strong Aryan mythology that led into the 20th century, where we see mysticism like the Thule Society developing a pseudo-spiritual base for the rise of the Third Reich. The notion was that there was a spirituality that was not just to be acquired and universalized (as Christian missions behaved), but one that you simply were by birth. The German Volkish movements needed a long-standing mythology to justify “blood and soil” and show why not only were Aryans owed control of Europe, but why they held Godlike qualities.

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Else Christensen (right)

The direction of this tradition in the post-WWII European tradition was the development of Odinism by early Gothi like Else Christensen. Here Odinism explicitly took the Nordicist concept, which saw the Nordic people as a subspecies superior in a pseudoscientific understanding of early race theory and its further breakdown of “Caucasian” as a category. The Odinic Fellowship, and later the Odinic Rite, took a decentralized Volkish communal idea, which mixed the racial mysticism that came from pre-Nazi Germanic theory and the anarchist labor ideas of her earlier anarcho-syndicalism. Many of these ideas are represented in the Third Positionist National Anarchist milieu today, which attempts to take many left-wing revolutionary elements and match them with openly fascist ideas about race, gender, and hierarchy. (1)

While Odinism was traditionally an openly racialist position, Asatru was intended to be the more moderate approach. Inspired mainly from the Scandinavian and Norse countries who were reconstructing both the traditional religious and folklore ideas of the ancestors, the term Asatru meant “those who follow the Aesir,” the main pantheon of Heathenry. While Asatru was not an explicitly racialist concept, it was not opposed to it necessarily either.

The first spark of the Asatru tradition in the United States came with the formation of the Asatru Free Assembly, coming from the earlier Viking Brotherhood. It is here we get many of the most relatable interpretations of the Lore and traditions, as well as a starting point for the organizations today. The racial interpretation was present from the start, but instead of outright allying with white nationalist and fascist convictions on race they preferred a softer “folkish” interpretation. This says that the Gods are literally the ancestors of the Northern Europeans, and that their archetypal image and presence is unique to those with that ancestry. This allowed for the Asatru Free Assembly to attract neo-Nazi and organized racist converts, which eventually forced the AFA to split into a number of organizations. Today the founders of the original AFA founded the new Asatru Folk Assembly, while others created the folkish Asatru Alliance and the universalist(non-folkish) Troth. (2)

The Politics of Asatru

The story of Asatru in America has really been centered on its most proselytizing and missionary member: Stephen McNallen. Founder of both incarnations of the AFA, McNallen is known for popular books and articles as well as speaking on radio and television programs wherever a microphone seems to be available. In his seminal work, Asatru: A Native European Religion, he offers up the idea of “meta-genetics,” which is to say that white Europeans have a unique characteristic amongst themselves. Avoiding rhetoric of racial superiority, he prefers a line of “racial distinction,” where he uses antiquated studies to try and push the notion that there are key fundamental racial differences. What this draws on in terms of spirituality comes from Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes in the collective unconscious.

hitler-reich-party-dayDuring the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, Jung wrote one of his most infamous essays titled “Wotan” where he said that this brutal militaristic spirit was the rise of Odin in the collective unconscious of the Germanic peoples. The notion here, which is much different than the actual evolutionary psychology in which Jung wrote about archetypes, is that the Norse Gods are unique to the minds and spirits of Germanic peoples and that they have a calling towards them that comes deep from within their bodies and their past. This is to say it is a voice bringing them home, and trying to instruct them about their instinctual nature and the best way of organizing communities.

The direct inheritor of the original AFA was the Asatru Alliance initiated by Valgard Murray, a former organizer with the American Nazi Party who worked with Else Christensen in the original Odinist Fellowship. Murray took an even more accommodating view than McNallen about the inclusion of neo-Nazi and organized racist types, and has brought controversy for allegedly threatening queer-identifying Heathens and publicly criticizing universalist Asatru. (3)

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David Lane

The distinct racial elements of these archetypes are key to another, and much more violently racist interpretation of the lore often referred to as Wotanism. This comes from a branch more closely associated with Nazism, popular in prison and amongst disparate skinhead gangs. The term Wotan was focused on by former Order member David Lane, who is well known for his attempt to start a race war in the 1980s and for coining the “14 words.” (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”) Lane, who formerly was a member of the anti-Semitic and white supremacist Christian Identity church, preferred the name Wotan since it could stand for Will of the Aryan Nation. It should be made clear that all branches of regular Heathenry, including the ethnically focused folkish and racialist groups, condemn the violent racism of Wotanism. Much of the consciousness of Heathenry’s association with racism comes from the high-profile crimes of Wotanists and their calls for violent white revolution. (4)

Today, further steps have been taken into the extreme edges of Heathenry, whereby racialism is only a part of the analysis. The Wolves of Vinland uses the structure of a biker gang, with its exclusionary nature and foundations on violence. Members are expected to fight and train, where differences in body type are as disallowed as differences in skin tone. While they take a hard line on folkishness, they also unite with an Evolian view of the world as degenerate and in the “Kali Yuga,” instead rejecting modernity and arguing that members should “rewild.”

Here the term tribalism is taken even more literally, where the entire function of the Wolves is to create an “Odinic wolf cult” that is defined by an in-group and an out-group. In recent months they have gotten even more notice as they gained high profile members like neo-tribalist and anti-feminist writer Jack Donovan–as well as Youth for Western Civilization and American Enterprise Institute faculty member Kevin DeAnna–joined their ranks. Their work on runic magick and on customizing and personalizing ritual has made them incredibly popular, and shows where heathen and pagan communities often focus too heavily on reconstruction rather than keeping the spirituality alive, but it has clouded the judgement of onlookers who are not seeing their direct connections to white nationalist institutions like Counter-Currents Publishing or the National Policy Institute.

The Heart of Asatru

To really understand the true nature of Asatru you need to look at its component parts. This is especially true of all pagan faiths in that followers come to them in post-modern times, where few were raised with them and they are inherently a reconstruction or a non-fundamentalist approach.

What this means is that there are few “pagan literalists,” those who take the word of myths to be literally true. Instead, the reconstruction or eclecticism itself needs to have a sort of “logical” part where people reason why these ideas and traditions are valuable and real to them. Pagans rarely take myths themselves solely as their instruction for spiritual ideas, but instead they apply already existing or developing ideas to the Myths and Gods that speak to them.

Their faith then, in this context, has a few component parts: The Myths and the Gods, The Theology, and The Philosophy.

HEIMDALLEDDAThe Theology is largely at the core of the ideas inside of a pagan worldview, and this can academically read as concepts such as pantheism, panentheism, or even “hard polytheism.” This says how you actually see the Gods and the stories told about them. Do they represent parts of nature and the cosmos? Are they both archetypal and real? Do they literally exist, but do we shift between them by culture? These ideas can be stripped away from the Myths and traditions in a certain sense, even if they are deepened and developed in relation to spiritual practice and study.

The Philosophy looks at what types of social tropes and concepts are important to find in the faith, such as courage, caring, egalitarianism, tribalism, heroism, etc. These can, again, feed from your experience of the religion, but they can also exist outside it and can be explained in secular terms as well.

This then makes the Myth and the Gods super-structural: they color, specify, and invoke the Theology and the Philosophy. This idea has been controversial amongst many pagans, especially in Germanic Neopaganism since there is such a strong Theodinist sphere that attempts to not only reconstruct stories and ritual, but to literally inhabit the minds of the ancestors and their relationship to the Gods. The religion itself, the source materials and the literature of the Gods are the cultural lens through while the complex and mystical ideas of Theology and Philosophy can be seen. This is to say, the divine itself is so complex that we need these vessels in which to place a human context. This does not make the Myths or Gods any less true to pagans, but instead represents the way that they reveal themselves to the people.

Within this idea, Asatru holds a lot of things in many of these interpretations that are clearly not in its Myths and Gods as displayed in the Eddas and Sagas. The key concept that is proposed in these ethnic Asatru conceptions is that the Gods are specific to genetic groups of people. Second, it is that those Gods actually exist in the bodies and spirits of those peoples, yet not others. When Stephen McNallen is asked to describe Asatru he often says that the best way to describe it is that “It is a Native European Religion.” This statement actually says nothing about the religion if by the religion you mean the Myths, Gods, and traditions, since nowhere in the Eddas and Sagas do they make any racial or genetic distinctions. What this does show, however, is a distinct worldview of his Philosophy that is key to his total concept of what Asatru is as a religion.

The Myths and Gods are then colored within this frame of reference, where things like the Innangardh and Utangardh (Tribal in and out groups), the warrior heroism displayed by Gods like Odin, and the hierarchy found in Viking tribal orders are focused on heavily. There are equally problematic elements in other areas of European reconstructionist paganism, including gender and power differentials in Celtic and Druid traditions, but what we see in things like Wicca (especially Dianic Wicca), Druidry broadly, Reclaiming, Feri Tradition, and a whole host of other paths that draw on the past are the use of these Myths to focus on things like ecology, feminism, queer liberation, and anti-capitalism.

This is to say that with similar mythological structure, history, and God descriptions, these traditions today still vary very seriously in term of Philosophy. The Norse myths can be transferred to these left-leaning ideas just as easily as those traditions, with gender parity more prevalent in Norse traditional cultures, transgender aspects of the Gods, as well as a certain kind of anarchist individualism.

At the same time, the rest of the mentioned pagan traditions could be forced to the political and social right, but they don’t. For example, ancestor veneration is key in most of these pagan traditions, but it is only through Heathenry that adherents focus on the “blood and soil” interpretation of that concept.

The point here is that the Philosophical and Theological work that has been done for Heathenry, its extensive writing and development, was started–and has been continued–by a nationalist, right-wing current.

The Theological underpinnings that create folkish interpretations, the academic writing that celebrates that racial distinction, and the mysticism that has created false mythologies about people with Northern European ancestry has developed a cult of Heathenry that is uniquely its own, and is uniquely right-wing while the source material is without contemporary political or racial content. The understanding that there is an entire tradition of racial Asatru and Odinism is not an attempt to uproot a “logical understanding” of the faith, because there isn’t one. Even through contradictions you will find that the main joining point in the Heathen philosophical circles is the racial and socially rightist concepts over the Myths and traditions.

An example of this has been in the publishing world that has developed around Heathenry. The editor of the Heathen journal Runa, which publishes open white nationalists like Colin Cleary, is also an editor of the aptly named Tyr journal. This journal notes itself as ascribing to the Radical Traditionalism of people like the proto-fascists Julius Evola and Renee Guenon. Here editors like Michael Moynihan brings over people like Cleary to write again about Odinism, while the traditionalism itself denies paganism outright as it lacks a “chain of initiation.” (5)

Likewise, Moynihan has been closely associated with the Church of Satan, Social Darwinist organizations, and with cultish groups around Charles Manson, all of which are mythological and Theologically conflicting with Norse paganism. You will see this crossover with people like The Troth’s Stephen Flowers and the left-hand path Temple of Set, and a lot of dabbling in Satanist, Crowleyian, and other dark esoteric traditions. (6) None of these follow any of the key precepts outlined in any traditional material on Lore, but that isn’t the point in the first place. The point for these adherents is to find a true mythological and religious justification for right-wing ideas about strength, social hierarchy, race and gender. The fidelity is not to Heathenry; it is to racism.

Historiography and genetics are twisted to create a discourse mirroring academic explanation, but it fails to live up to those field’s academic standards. The genetic argument, specifically, is emphasized so heavily among folkish journals and authors, yet the understanding that there are no significant genetic markers inside racial groups as there are between racial groups is mistaken. The idea that, on a historical time frame, there are no purely Asatru peoples of the North, nor is there a historic justification for the idea that Heathenry cannot be taken by people of different origin is always forgotten. Instead of following the academic rigor that is established in academic research, preference is given for concepts that have nothing to do with the fields they reference.

As Mattias Gardell outlines in his study on various ethnic and racial forms of paganism in Gods of the Blood, if the ethnic Asatruar’s claims that the folkish basis is not founded in racism, then you would find a welcoming atmosphere for multi-ethnic pagans with some Northern European ancestry. But here those questions faltered even further, with many members saying that it was too complicated. Valgard Murray went as far as saying that they needed to “look like a white man,” and that they would question AA members about their ethnic background and if they can “act white.”

Whiteness here is associated with mental and behavioral qualities such as trustworthiness, honesty, industriousness, nobility, honor, courage, and self-reliance—that is, exactly the virtues believed by white racists to be inherent in whiteness. If this were to think and act white, then to think and act “red,” “brown,” “black,” or “yellow” would, at least implicitly, be characterized by a lack of these same virtues. (7)

The Future of Asatru

Because of the influence of the racialist interpretations of Heathenry we have seen the most vocal parts of the Asatru tradition shift to the right, while the rest of contemporary paganism shifts (for the most part) to the left.

Right from the start the the idea of Asatru as an ethnic religion made many pagans who were Northernly inclined revolt. Gamlinginn, a long-time pagan antifascist organizer stated bluntly that the tradition out of Asgard could simply could not be exclusive to one group of people. “Every culture that has ever existed in the world has inherently esteemed the virtues esteemed by Asatru,” he said. “Asatru is a multi-ethnic religion—not because that might be ‘politically correct’ at this point in time, but because multi-ethnicity is fundamental to the theology of Asatru. Asgard, home of the Gods is multi-ethnic. For example, Magni and Modi, the sons of Thor, are also the sons of their mother, Jarnsaxa, who is Jotunn. [referring to one of the other races listed in the Eddas] Who will tell Thor that his sons should not participate in something because they are not of ‘pure descent.?” (8)

While groups like the AFA, AA, and numerous other Asatru and Odinist organizations loudly proclaim folkish values, a large current of explicitly universalist and anti-racist Heathens have emerged and are espousing a line that is more closely associated with other types of contemporary pagan thought and spirituality.

HUAROnline, Heathens United Against Racism celebrates a fully diverse group of Heathens, often hearing from people of color in the Global South who follow the Norse tradition. The spiritual Theology here is that the Gods and Goddesses can call a person directly, and that a person feels that this particular cultural tradition best represents their connection to the divine. This does help elevate the archetypal distinction that the Gods are, while real, also symbolic and uniquely represented and interpreted through human metaphor. They have utilized campaigns to confront what they identify as racist Asatru currents, including a campaign where Heathens of all different backgrounds declare their ancestry and take photos holding a sign reading “Stephen McNallen does not speak for me.” (9)

circleOne of the most radical divergences from the folkish interpretations of Germanic Neo-Paganism came from the Circle Ansuz collective from the U.S. West Coast. The group identifies with the label of “Heathen anarchist” or “Germanic anarchist,” which is to say that they stand with “red and black” anarchism of the broad revolutionary left tradition as well as following a Heathen path. Their organization, which hosted both kindreds and individuals, made political organizing and explicit anti-fascism a key part of participation. Here they refuted any racial or ethnic origins to the faith and called on heathens to participate in both confronting fascist organizing, right-wing influences in musical culture, and the problems in other Heathen organizations. Circle Ansuz’s praxis for spirituality comes from the same texts and history as the Asatru Folk Assembly, yet here they emphasize the equality of genders, the independence and free-association of individuals, and the cyclical nature of the Voluspol.

In Heathen anarchism this process is proof that free will, free choice, and autonomy are inherent elements of all life. The gods do not give humans freedom or constrain their freedom because they acknowledge that humans, by the simple virtue of living, already possess these qualities. If even the gods that created us have no right to place any constraints on our autonomy then no human institution has any right to limit our inherent autonomy by force, fraud, or coercion. Just as the gods created the universe through discussion, council, and consensus it follows all human systems should be founded on similar principles. (10)

There is no effort here to simply re-write the tradition to fit a political agenda, nor to ignore the reality of history as they acknowledge perfectly that the Viking past was far from a revolutionary utopia. The difference is that they find the tools within Heathenry to have a spiritual component to their lives that are also framed through the political commitment. Their confrontation of the broader Heathen community has been profound, where they even have a full four-part expose of Stephen McNallen focusing on his association with racialist groups internationally.

the_troth_emblem_logoCurrently The Troth, formerly The Ring of Troth, is one of the largest Heathen organizations in the world. It represents the “universalist” wing of Heathenry, and states openly that it will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. Though many of the folkish organizations often state that they are opposed to racism, The Troth takes a clear stance that anyone, regardless of ancestry, can practice Heathenry. (11) There are also many middle-ground positions that reject folkishness as a purely genetic option. The “tribalist” position is universal in who can practice Heathenry, but restrictive about whether or not it can be eclectic. The “moderate” position does support a certain understanding of folkishness, but also makes exceptions for those raised in or profoundly inspired by Germanic and Norse culture.

The notion of ancestry and culture may also simply play as a more complex series of inspirations for the faithful, which the author of Essential Asatru, Diana L. Paxson, sees as being a source of cultural inspiration since it is not possible to cleanly identify who is of what “genetic origin.” Here, the culture of ancient Europe defines much in our world and it may simply be the route to the Gods and the Earth that someone prefers. (12) Ancestry may very well be the inspiration for some, while the uniqueness of it could be the driving force for another, and for many modern Heathens all of these are acceptable as long as they are not exclusionary.

IcelantOutside of the United States, and in countries from which the Germanic traditions were originally found, the traditions are notably different. The Ásatrúarfélagið, the Icelandic Asatru organization, recently spoke publicly about the backlash from right-wing, American Heathens to their universalist and queer affirming practices. Notable for their left-leaning stance on religious and social issues, they officiate gender-neutral marriage, support progressive causes, and invite anyone in who feels draw to the religion. In many post-Nazi countries, like Germany, they are even more reluctant to allow right-wing sentiment in because of the way that the Third Reich appropriated Runic symbols. At the same time, the more violently neo-Nazi versions of Norse paganism still present a growing problem in Germany and much of Scandinavia, which they want to draw distinction away from even further.

For pagans drawn to the Aesir and Vanir, the avenues are available for building a Heathen foundation that is friendly to a multi-ethnic and progressive community.

If people from the polytheist traditions want to challenge racialized interpretation of the Asatru faith, there has to be a conscious Theology and Philosophy that can undermine the folkish traditionalism that has dominated much of the ideas inside of the “cult of Odin.” Many pagans see that this could come in the form of eclecticism that allows for openness and integration of other traditions. Many folkish Asatru oppose eclecticism and prefer a stricter form of reconstructionist fidelity, which often comes from the fact that the traditions they see as bound to their blood. Instead, pagans may find that moving past a strict adherence to traditions may leave them open to a more diverse understanding of Myth and the Gods. Likewise, it could simply mean drawing on many of the different Philosophies and Theologies that are prevalent in other traditions (though there are really every type of Philosophy and Theology at play in every pagan path).

An example of this: many of the ideas that have fueled Starhawk’s Reclaiming movement, which takes a uniquely panentheist understanding of the Gods and specifically sees an importance in the progressive values inside of Myth and practice. These ideas were never God/Myth specific, yet a strong sense of syncretism could allow a new synthesis that builds an emerging tradition that is both coherent and Philosophically strong.

The pagan traditions, both old and new, often evolve based on what parishioners bring to it. The ideas that evolve both inside and outside of spiritual practice, where it is the broad experience of life, relationships, and the earth that guide some of the most profound insights that are brought into practice. With Asatru, pagans can again bring those experiences in and make it more of an exchange between the living world and that of tradition, between the follower and the Gods. Only here can the old strictures be challenged, and followers can build up the Asatru that they have already be drawn to in the way they see it from the power of the Myth.


 

Notes

  • 1. Goodrick-Clark, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York University Press. New York: 2002. Pp. 257-277.
  • 2. Gardell, Mattias. Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Nationalism. Duke University Press. Durham: 2003. Pp. 258-282.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Gardell, Mattias. Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Nationalism. Duke University Press. Durham: 2003. Pp. 191-256.
  • 5. “About The Journal.” Tyr-Journal Website. Last retrieved September 14, 2015. http://tyrjournal.tripod.com/about_the_journal.htm.
  • 6. Goodrick-Clark, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York University Press. New York: 2002. Pp. 213-230.
  • 7. Goodrick-Clark, Nicholas. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York University Press. New York: 2002. Pp. 257-277.
  • 8. Gamlinginn. 1997. “We Are Not Racists.” Widdershins, issue 6 (Yule) http://www.widdershins.org/vo13iss6/index.html (18 October 2000)
  • 9. “Heathens United Against Racism.” Facebook.com.
  • 10. “The general theory of Heathen anarchism.” Circle Ansuz. July 4, 2013. https://circleansuz.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/the-general-theory-of-heathen-anarchism/.
  • 11. “About the Troth.” The Troth. December 27, 2013. http://www.thetroth.org/index.php?page=about&title=About%Us%20|%20The%20Troth&css=style2&pagestyle=mid.
  • 12. Paxson, Diana L. Essential Asatru: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism. Citadel Press books, Kensington Publishing Group. New York: 2006. Pp. 153-156.


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Shane Burley

Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon. His work as appeared in places such as In These Times, Truth-Out, Labor Notes, Waging Nonviolence, CounterPunch, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He contributed a chapter on housing justice movements to the recent AK Press release The End of the World As We Know It?, and has work in upcoming volumes on social movements. His most recent documentary Expect Resistance chronicles the intersection of the housing justice and Occupy Wallstreet movement. His work can be found at ShaneBurley.net, or reach him on Twitter at @shane_burley1.

 

The Inalienable Right to Persecute

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

-Evelyn Beatrice Hall

A piece on this site about the uncomfortable fact that some neo-fascists recruit through Paganism has stirred up quite some resentment.

I’ve waded through some of the back-and-forth – are Pagans inexcusably blasé towards the extreme right? Does anti-fascist zeal suppress free speech? Is truly apolitical religion impossible, or does putting the Gods first imply leaving social concerns second? Reading these arguments, I started recalling a situation from several years ago, back in college in conservative small-town Texas.

Unsurprisingly, my school hosted a profoundly Christian social milieu, including a large evangelical Protestant contingent. I was the only open trans woman there, and one of only three or so Pagans. My friend, an aspiring goði, audaciously started holding semi-public blótar on Ásatrú holidays, and a community accrued around the celebrations.

Most of us weren’t even Pagan, let alone Ásatrú. However, we all shared a feeling of alienation from the college at large: most of us were disabled people, people of color, and/or queer, not to mention unsympathetic to the hegemonic religious culture. Passing the drinking horn, we built a sense of home.

We shared campus with a sect affiliated to the New Apostolic Reformation, a theocratic Pentecostal Christian movement with a penchant for military imagery (famously documented in the film Jesus Camp). They taught that being disabled showed that God was punishing you for wrongdoing by not healing you, that LGBT identity indicated demonic possession, and that non-Christian religions represented a Satanic conspiracy. So, they chose to target us. Along with several of my friends, I found myself declared an unholy force, in public and by name, in a proclamation of “spiritual warfare.”

“Spiritual warfare,” it turned out, meant several months of organized harassment and stalking, eventually escalating to the point of death threats and (for some of my friends) physical assault. Our opposition to their divine political-religious order rendered us fair game.

I remember them whenever people downplay religious articulations of fascism.

 


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“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”

-Neil Gaiman

Much of the outrage at the New Right essay has referred to McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic, and notions of censorship and “enforced ideological conformity” in general. If the Pagan left is really against fascism, the critics claim, then why do they want witch hunts and political purges?

The article in question actually calls for none of those things. However, that line of thought still falls back on a central moral claim of classical liberalism, the Enlightenment political current associated with the West’s electoral-capitalist governing structures. As expressed by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, classical liberals asserted:

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[T]here ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.

Mill and his 19th-century fellows mainly concerned themselves with state restrictions on religious meetings and political publications. Nonetheless, the broad acceptance of that ethic has led to its application well beyond public policy. Pagan anti-fascists say that racism has no place in our religions, but we all know that no one is about to get arrested for saying “Thor dislikes immigrants.” Censorship, properly defined, isn’t at stake. Rather, the classical liberal “live and let live” attitude has been expanded to suggest that Pagan organizations, events, and communities have no more right to treat certain ideas as unacceptable than the government itself does.

Holding this classical liberal attitude implies little about anyone’s actual political program. Generally speaking, it represents the “common sense” consensus across most belief systems in electoral-capitalist countries. Left, right, or center, virtually everybody in these societies shares the classical liberal sensibility that people should be able to form and express their own particular opinions about things, and no one has any business stopping them. But what does this outlook have to do with the fascist presence in Paganism?

 


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“To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable.”

-Barry Goldwater

The goals of fascists and reactionaries of any sort (whether New Rightists or old-fashioned blackshirts) aren’t liberal in any sense. However, the Pagan far right knows that the classical liberal ethic can be manipulated for their benefit. When reactionaries invoke coexistence, the toleration of disagreement, and setting aside political differences in religious settings, don’t accept it on face value. The far right’s raison d’être is the disempowerment of social minorities. They might pursue this through racist theology in one place and street violence (or electoral politics) in another, but they never genuinely accept inclusivity or tolerance.

However, some currents – for instance, New Right-aligned Pagans – have wised up to the fact that few people who aren’t already reactionaries will accept those goals if they’re plainly stated. So, they get clever. Pagan far rightists know that most other Pagans would never agree with a policy of “whites only, no queers.” They also know that the Pagan left will never stop calling their ideas what they are: racist and misogynistic.

So, clever reactionaries triangulate. They suggest that they only want to coexist with non-fascist Pagans, but that those nasty left-wingers are trying to kick people out just for disagreeing. They invoke the classical liberal conscience of the majority and frame their practices as basically harmless, only a threat to people who can’t handle freedom of speech.

Of course, their practices are not harmless. Reactionaries aim to suppress social minorities however they can. While, through calculated appeals to “free expression,” they use liberal largesse as cover and try to discredit their critics, they keep quietly carrying out their goals all the while. Let’s glance at a few examples:

  • Folkish Heathens don’t simply advocate for the exclusion of people of color – they practice it. There is nothing abstract about the way that Folkish Heathen groups turn away non-white seekers and tell Heathens of color that they should not practice their chosen religion. While they materially enact a program of racist exclusion, though, their mainline coreligionists shield them by behaving as if the issue at hand is merely one of belief and disagreement. So, for the sake of “tolerance,” racist discrimination continues – and meanwhile, Folkish Heathenry spills over into secular political racism.
  • Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) don’t limit themselves to rhetorical attacks on trans women. For decades, TERF factions of Dianic Witchcraft have actively turned away trans seekers and told trans women that we have no place in feminism, women’s spaces, or feminist-oriented Paganism. When they hide behind classical liberal notions of “reasonable people disagreeing reasonably,” they obscure the reality of discrimination behind their words. And, of course, this also contributes to larger public policy; Goddess Movement TERFs align with secular TERFs and even, sometimes, with right-wing Christians to oppose trans rights. “Civility” is a red herring meant to obscure their actions’ destructive consequences.
  • As previously discussed on this site, the leadership of the Left Hand Path Consortium, in the name of “opposing censorship” and permitting “controversial” ideas to be expressed, invited a neo-fascist politician to speak at its conference. His graphic threats of violence eventually led them to withdraw the invitation for legal reasons, but they have already publicly equated “free expression” with their collaborating with someone who himself works with the swastika-sporting, sieg-heiling National Socialist Movement.

Each time, we see reactionaries invoking classical liberal ideas to deflect criticism, and successfully winning over large groups of non-fascist Pagans. While lauding tolerance and freedom as a defensive strategy, the reactionaries are already implementing an agenda of exclusion, discrimination, and targeted disempowerment. Further, in each case, these far rightists are translating their bases of social support within parts of Paganism into larger, secular political projects aimed at imposing their beliefs on everybody.

Most of the people objecting to the New Right essay, like most Pagans generally, believe in free speech as a matter of principle. Intuitively comparing strident anti-fascism to censorship would seem to follow from that value. Fascists, however, don’t believe in free speech. They don’t believe in free and open participation, and their invocation of classical liberal values is purely opportunistic.

Whenever fascists are tolerated, they enact discrimination. When the rest of us put up with them, we become complicit. Who actually threatens free speech and diversity of opinion: the people who actively drive minority groups away, or the people who point out how wrong that is?

The far right is counting on you to pick the latter.

 


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“I, like you, will defend the right of any American to openly practise & preach any political philosophy from monarchy to anarchy. But this is not the case with regard to the communist.”

-Ronald Reagan on the Hollywood Blacklist

Pagan reactionaries may reject classical liberal values, but they’re canny enough to manipulate them. However, they know they can’t do the same with radicals who commit themselves to explicit anti-fascism. They know that for reactionary Paganism to flourish, the Pagan left needs to be pushed out.

So, they get shrewd: invoking freedom and pluralism, they mischaracterize the left as anti-liberty and (with no sense of irony) McCarthyite, then sit back. The well-intentioned liberal majority attacks the left for them. Suddenly, there’s no need to spend much time dealing with critics. Instead, they can get back to doing what they wanted all along – implementing their policies of exclusion and building support for racist and chauvinist politics. They outsource their fights to the liberal majority.

The notion that the far left is a uniquely dangerous threat retains enormous cultural resonance. After all, it’s not as if the capitalist-owned media has much inclination to portray socialists and communists as anything but spies and traitors, or anarchists as much besides domestic terrorists. The ownership class’s use of the schools, the government, and the mass media primes everyone to distrust the left. Capitalism would rather you not take its dissidents seriously. So, when far rightists evoke these images, they do so on purpose – they know it works. They don’t themselves enjoy a dominant position within Paganism (much as they’d like to), but they get by without one. They just count on high-minded liberals to punish anti-fascists for them.

Fascists don’t need you to be a fascist. They just need you to pick the same enemies.

 


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“Opponents [of a bill dismantling anti-discrimination protections] would have condemned it, but in doing so confirmed that the modern secular left condemns all religious freedoms that impede their agenda, and that the RFRA truly has nothing to do with hate or discrimination.”

-Ken Blackwell, Senior Fellow, Family Research Council

Back in Texas, my friends and I didn’t take the New Apostolic Reformation harassment without protest. We implored our moderate and liberal Christian friends to speak out against their fellow Christians’ behavior, and even took the situation to the college administration. Every time, we got the same response: the sect espoused “offensive ideas,” but we should “respect their religious freedom” and not “punish them for their beliefs.

But it was never a matter of belief. No one had to take it on faith that they were threatening us. After a while, the mix of stalking, occasional physical violence, and indifferent peers and administrators wore us down. Some of us dropped out of school entirely. At least one had a full-fledged psychiatric breakdown. I had to take a leave of absence halfway through one semester. And a couple of years later, I found out that most of the sects’ members had moved out of state together, where their group had finally collapsed, revealing rampant sexual abuse and even sparking a murder investigation. “Offensive ideas” indeed.

Most of us can quite happily “agree to disagree.” Reactionaries want you to take that attitude towards them, but they won’t extend it to the demographics they hate. Just as my school’s ignoring religiously-motivated violence allowed it to escalate, so does our tolerating ideologies of violence and discrimination enable their ongoing implementation. Sure, there will always be people with destructive worldviews, and we can’t expect to win them all over. But they can’t enact their agendas alone. Without a social climate that lets them flourish, they would find themselves entirely marginal and effectively too isolated to function.

If each one of us, far left or not, said, whenever we encountered reactionary ideas, As your coreligionist and a fellow practitioner of our tradition, these notions don’t belong here,” then crypto-fascist groups would be unable to discriminate, unable to recruit, and eventually unable to survive. They need the tacit complicity of the non-fascist majority in order to keep existing (and recruiting). Among Pagans, they’ve been getting it. Of course, the majority retains the power to reject them.

We only need the will.

 


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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.

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

I’ll meet you on the Field of Mars – A Druid’s view of COP21

The 22nd Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Paris over the past few weeks, culminating on the morning of Saturday 12th. From the deliberations of the world’s governments over night and day, an agreement has been created – 31 pages of aspirations, promises, and plans, all concerning the steps that will be taken to protect our atmosphere, oceans, soils, and habitats from climate change. It is the first time any such agreement has been truly comprehensive; including all our world’s nations as signatories. It is, in this way, a historic act. But the agreement itself is not nearly enough. Taken together, the commitments made by the parties will still allow carbon emissions rise to an unacceptable degree. The doorway to a sustainable future remains open – but we are still a long way from crossing the threshold. The influence of big emitters remains strong, the ambition of national governments remains relatively weak. As such, despite the agreement, some commentators have said that COP21 was a failure.

I was fortunate enough to attend COP21 as a researcher. As part of a team of researchers affiliated with Climate Histories – a seminar series dedicated to tackling questions around climate change – I helped document the civil society-focussed “Green Zone”; a large exhibition space open to the public. Spread over several acres beside the main Conference Centre, the Green Zone was filled with stalls, lecture rooms, restaurants and an auditorium, all hosting a variety of speakers and NGOs, voicing their own particular solutions to the crisis. These spaces were frequently contested. Activists would often seize space in the Green Zone, protesting the inclusion of major corporations in the Conference or drawing attention to the neglected plight of the marginalised.

When I first entered the Green Zone, having passed swiftly through heavy security, my ears were met by singing. A group of men and women wearing dog-collars processed about the site chanting in words I did not understand. One of them played the bongos, while another piped away on a wooden flute. This procession of Christian clergy was an indication of the increasingly important role that the Christian churches – and religions more generally – are playing in Climate Action. Whether it is the theologically vigorous paean to the Earth and our responsibilities to her of Laudato ‘si, or the spiritually-infused passion of indigenous peoples for protecting their homelands; holy words and sacred deeds enliven the movement for environmental justice. At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.

With the active participation of so many different religious groups, I wondered if there were any Pagan organisations present at COP21. I hadn’t come across any, so I went to Twitter to see if I could track them down. As you can see below, my post didn’t pick up any replies:

https://twitter.com/aboymadeofsky/status/674591785562341381

Obviously, this isn’t to say that there weren’t any Pagans at COP, or that Pagans didn’t engage with the process in other, meaningful ways. Witches in Paris and elsewhere raised a protective, empowering, golden circle around the Conference and the city, “to summon the great, powerful, irresistible Goddess of Love – the Great Mother – she who grounds, protects, and tips the scales.” The importance of magical work cannot be underestimated; by focussing our energies onto collective ends, miracles can (and do) happen. And I have no doubt that there were Pagans taking part in marches and protests – in Paris and elsewhere – throughout the Conference. What I find interesting, is not what Pagans were doing, but what we weren’t doing, compared to other faith traditions.

Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. They have been assiduous in establishing a platform in a host of civil society spaces – such as COPs – from which they can influence the wider debate by sharing their own valuable theological, moral and cosmological perspectives. Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of travelling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).

Pagans, by contrast, have yet to engage in this organised fashion. Though we may be active participants as individuals, our organisations have shown a puzzling lack of initiative; failing to capitalise upon the almost unique relevance of our philosophies to climate change. While it has taken a seed-change in Christian theology, and a harnessing of long-neglected (but nonetheless orthodox) parts of Christian thought to respond to this Great Challenge of our Age, no such shift is necessary within Pagan religions – we share a common, compelling reverence for Nature; either as the body of the goddess, as an utterly animate cosmos, or as the province of many deities. It should be the easiest thing in the world for us to take our place in spaces like COP, and to command great power and respect when we do so: and yet, this has not happened.

This passivity has consequences. Before I went to COP, the final Climate Histories seminar of term was on the topic of religious engagement with climate change. Dr Jonathan Chaplin, the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) gave a fascinating talk on the subject, focussing upon the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale’s compilation of Climate Change Statements from World Religions. The much-discussed Pagan Statement on Climate Change was not even listed amongst them. In comparison to the statements created by other faiths, further, the Pagan Statement itself seems oddly cursory – it does not refer to a broader literature, nor does it take steps to link our ecological concerns to social justice. As has been argued on Gods and Radicals previously, this shortcoming allowed the Catholic Church to effectively steal our thunder with Laudato ’Si. Indeed, at one of the lectures hosted in the Green Zone, the discussant – Dena Merriam, the Founder of Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW) –  invited a series of speakers to discuss the spiritual malady at the heart of environmental destruction. The person tasked with speaking to how we might reconnect with the living world was not a Pagan, but Father Michael Holleran – a Catholic Priest and Zen Buddhist Sensei. He spoke well, and even mentioned us: “The Earth is our Mother. That’s not just… you know, “Wiccan”, you know, that’s… Pope Francis uses that image in here as well, and many traditions wisely and correctly do.” The is an implicit sense here, that Wicca is the fringe, from which the notion of the Earth Mother must be reclaimed. At this talk, incidentally, were Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, a Muslim, and a Lakota elder. But no Pagans.

It should be no surprise that under such circumstances, our religions should be sidelined on what is – in essence – our moral cause celebre. It’d be like Christians being outclassed on charity, Jains being outstripped as ascetics, or Zen Buddhists being bested on inner peace. Pagan organisations are in a position to lead the world in environmental ethics – and yet, that position is rapidly being lost as other traditions shift emphasis, and prioritise ecological concerns. The ability to do this is not a matter of money, or size – many of the agencies present at COP21 I spoke to had minimal resources – but of application.

Of course, the obvious point to be made in response is that there’s no point in engaging with these formal spheres of discussion around the climate. Many activists, when I spoke to them, pointed out something my fellow researchers and I also saw: the Green Zone was less an experiment in the democratic inclusion of non-state narratives and actors, and more of a Sustainability Expo. It was devoted to showcasing bright ideas, over and above nurturing real political action – this function, it seems, was reserved for the Blue Zone, where the parties gathered. Though there was much to be inspired about being said and showcased, as the searing poetry and art of SustainUS’s young protesters decried, this was obfusticated by and into so much greenwash, while people of colour and the world’s poor are being slain and displaced by rising waters, soaring temperatures, rushing winds, and failing fields. Caleen Sisk, the Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people of California, who are currently battling against the raising of the Shasta Dam that will flood what’s left of their country, wryly observed to me – the whole place had the feel of a playpen; where the dependents could be amused, while the adults talked next door. Far better, then, that we Pagans try to green our own lives and take action at a grassroots level, than to involve ourselves with the messy business of international politics.

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But it’s important to remember: even though they were critical of the entire process, these activists still took part in it. They recognised the importance of contesting the Green Zone, reclaiming the space and speaking truth to power, as far as possible. The reason being, if you don’t participate at all, you simply surrender to the corporations, lobbyists, and oil-producing governments who already command huge influence. The Green Zone, despite its significant shortcomings, is the place where the future is imagined, where expectations are raised, and the parties in the Blue Zone come to learn and witness a broader set of views. The more strongly the multitude can occupy this space, the harder it is for for those opposing change to have their way.

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Before I took the train home, I joined a massive illegal march through the streets of Paris. A kaleidoscope of people from every corner of the world, bedecked in red cut a path through the city, flooding from the Arch de Triomph to the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine, one of Europe’s Mother Rivers. One of the last things I saw that day was a group of young Muslims, gathered together, posing for a photograph with a banner proclaiming the sacred duty – enshrined in the Qur’an – to steward the Earth on behalf of Allah. They stood upon the Champ de Mars, an open field named after Campus Martius in Rome, between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire in the heart of Paris. Sacred to Mars, the God of War, the original Field of Mars was the gathering place of Roman soldiers, before they marched off to fight hostile tribes. Mars is the God of War, but also of wild, growing things – of field and forest. His wars are – unlike those his Greek brother Ares – not mindless aggression, but rather conflict that seeks, in the end, a stable peace. Mars does not fight for the love of it, but because necessity drives him to do so. What unites this broad set of quality is the core masculine virtue of the Roman people – namely, virilitas – a life-essence that gives us the strength to secure peace, and make the Earth fruitful.

The fact that the illegal action on Saturday culminated in a place dedicated to such a god was, to my mind, a powerful ritual act. The patriarchal notion that only men possess the essential vital quality needed to promote peace and restore life is wrong; but the idea that these two objectives share a common foundation is more relevant than ever. To refer back to Laudato ’si, the plight of the Earth and the plight of the poor are one common cause. People from all over the Earth; men, women and everyone else; standing together hand-in-hand, before heading out to fight for the safety and fertility of the world upon which we all rely. Though I had to leave before the ceremonies were over, I was careful to say a prayer to Mars before I did.

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Even though Paganism had no formal representation at the Conference, the influence of the kinds of thinking of which we are custodians was present in subtle ways. In the Green Zone itself, one of the official art installations involved brightly-painted trees, upon which visitors could tie ribbons upon which they had written their wishes for a better future. To tie a clootie in the heart of the Green Zone; to sing, and teach and pray in public; to represent our traditions as part of a great multitude – all these acts are sacred, and carry great potency. We neglect these rites only at great cost.

I say we should stand up for the planet and its people; we should be recognisable and recognised.

I’ll meet you on the Fields of Mars.

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Jonathan Woolley

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


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The Gods Don’t Give Us Meaning

 

 

What makes a god a weapon?

In front of Planned Parenthood across the street, they’re displaying neon yellow posters with Photoshopped fetuses. Standing in a semicircle, they read from their Bible, and they pray. Sometimes, they walk across the intersection to our side — glaring at our signs saying “Tacoma is a Pro-Choice Town” and “Pro-Health Pro-Choice,” blaring YouTube sermons from portable speakers, or asking us to talk. It’s like talking to cops, my Clinic Defense friends tell me; they want to get under your skin, get you upset, rile you up. Give them your story and you give them power.

I nod. I know the type: “prayer warriors,” living for the struggle. In their hands, the biblical “sword of the spirit” gets as close to literal violence as the law permits (and sometimes goes even further, as a string of assassinated doctors testifies). But today, they stick to their corner and we stick to ours. Eventually, they get bored, say one final prayer together, and pack up their signs and leave. As we start to do the same, I recite the Orphic Hymn to the Meter Theon (Mother of the Gods, Kybele), and the bearded man on my right says “blessed be.”

Every time the anti-choicers protest, they pray. Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means” — and in their spiritual war, Jesus serves as both casus belli and favorite weapon. The sense of purpose driving their mix of legislative lobbying and personal intimidation may strike a secular progressive as nothing but patriarchy in motion, but for them? It’s transcendental. They don’t do politics (or, for that matter, patriarchy) for the sake of reforms or social classes, or for the game itself. The intoxication of divine mission overwhelms everything — including the specific imperatives that such a mission contains.

I spend a lot of time at protests and at each one, I pray to the Meter Theon. I feel deep, exhilarating joy at seeing polytheist anticapitalism become a proper movement, not just a rare and private preoccupation. But the fact that we’re here at all begs the question:

Do our gods agree with our politics? Are we, like the militants in front of the clinic, applying a feeling of divine energy to a social cause?

Now, I could observe that just as gods are diverse and individual, so too are their social demands. I could speculate that housing Syrian refugees enacts piety toward Zeus, defender of guests, or that Artemis Eileithyia, helper in childbirth, surely demands that prenatal healthcare be accessible. However, that strikes me as somehow disingenuous — shouldn’t politics and ethics fundamentally attend to the people whose needs they address, rather than to gods whom we couldn’t endanger even if we tried?

So, while my worship of the Theoi may not cleanly untangle from left-wing organizing, at the root, I don’t look to them to provide me with a social agenda. Movements aren’t made of gods. The sidewalk by Planned Parenthood isn’t the Trojan plain; we aren’t armed with Olympian gifts. Our causes matter because they matter to mortals. But across the street, they don’t agree. Ask them why they’re out there shouting at strangers; they’ll tell you it’s because they believe that the imperative to do so comes as a package deal with the sense of meaning that, they claim, only Jesus can provide.

But why should finding meaning for mortals be a god’s job?


 

 

 

“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.”

– Rev. Rick Warren, Saddleback Church

Whether we polytheists like it or not, the societies in which most of us live remain ideologically Christian. This hegemonic worldview seeps out of religious participation and trickles down into every part of our sense of the world. Christian theology dictates common sense, “normal” emotional response, and the pre-conscious attitudes and assumptions that structure every Western culture and nearly every psyche living within them.

However, dominant Christianity is itself dominated. The capitalist system — economic and political control by the business class — exercises even more power over Christianity than Christianity does over everything else. If Jesus serves a political agenda, an economist will find it faster than a theologian. So, what does a religious basis for meaning in life mean in practice?

According to the seminal sociologist Max Weber, the “Protestant work ethic” means valorizing exertion, discipline, and frugality as inherently good things themselves, rather than just as the means to an end; it’s the theology of putting in extra overtime and thinking, “I should be saving more money.” Further, he claims that this attitude could never have become widespread without the emergence of capitalism from the collapse of the medieval system.

As Weber writes,

“Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated. Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.”

Getting religion meant getting a job. From this angle, it’s no coincidence that a career path became a “vocation” — from the Latin “vocatio,” a calling. Just as a clergyperson is called to receive ordination, so is a truck driver divinely called to deliver on time, or a factory worker to stand at the assembly line, or a grocery clerk to take inventory (even to the point of using the same word!). Existential meaning, Christ, and work all melt into one.

Who, I wonder, might want to promote such an attitude?


 

 

“There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ.”

– John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil Company

As in all social matters, we should first ask: who benefits? When a worker believes that all meaning comes from Christ, and Christ says “go to work,” the boss isn’t complaining. Since the business class is currently the most powerful class, their philosophy is the most powerful philosophy, and their religion the most powerful religion. Collapsing deity, work, and purpose all together provides them with one of the weapons they use to keep things that way. And, like every ruling class, they gladly affirm Alexander Pope’s dictum (from an explicitly theological poem, no less), hoping you’ll believe it, too:

“Whatever is, is right.”

So, what makes a god a weapon? The political strength of a social class.


 

 

“On the other hand, that man is a weakling and a degenerate who struggles and maligns the order of the universe and would rather reform the gods than reform himself.”

– Seneca the Younger, Stoic philosopher

The gods with whom I relate are just as real as any human I’ve met. However, the shared characteristic of existing does not render deities and mortals interchangeable! As Seneca reminds us, while the gods may run the universe at large, human affairs stay a human concern. And what’s more human than to need to make meaning out of a finite life? In politics, as in our everyday lives, we mortals bear the first responsibility for how we conduct ourselves — the ways in which we look for purpose included. Could anything be more hubristic than demanding that the gods handle that for us? When I protest, I pray, but I don’t expect Kybele to dial in for a conference call, goals and strategy in hand. (I don’t have that sort of “godphone.”) Healthy polytheism synthesizes piety to the deities with an ethical embrace of human responsibility and freedom.

As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declares, “I am condemned to be free.” To weaponize a god, to invoke a divine political mandate, is to deny that. So when we do politics, let’s organize for, as well as with, each other — honoring the gods is no excuse to act as if our lives, and all the meaningfulness therein, aren’t still ours.

[Image: “The Industrious ‘Prentice Alderman of London, the Idle one brought before him & Impeach’d by his Accomplice,” plate 10 of “Industry and Idleness,” engraving by William Hogarth]


 

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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 polytheism, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, writing for Gods&Radicals, nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.

The Other Gods

“Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.” Xenophanes

At the time of deep winter, the solstice, the day of the longest dark, as the Wild Hunt courses the night, my mind turns to thoughts of the Other Gods who are not like us

The Panther

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Like most of us, I like to get in touch with the spirits and gods of the land where I live or lands that I visit. I lived for a time in Florida and there I found this task to be exceptionally difficult. I would walk the boardwalks raised above the swamp, watching alligators hunt the deep and snakes slide along the water’s surface, and I would reach and call. Often enough my calls were answered but not by any voice or energy I could understand. Eventually I made a few spirit allies and came to know, if distantly and with difficulty, a few of the ancient gods and goddesses who walked that land. 

The one I felt most often, as if she called to me more than I to her, was a goddess who took the form of a Panther. I knew that she was a “she”, and I felt her frequently in the wild and in the night. I knew she was dangerous but not unfriendly or malevolent. I knew she was as old as the oldest people who ever lived in Florida and likely much older. But for all that, I didn’t know much because what I knew most of all was that she was foreign to the world of humans with thoughts, desires, goals, and concerns that I couldn’t begin to understand. She knew me, I could feel her glance in the swamp, but I could not manage to know her.  

The Image of the Other

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There are gods that comfort and then there are – others. For many people, perhaps even most, the comfort derived from the divine is the reassurance provided by the thought or feeling that a humanlike entity orders and structures reality. It can be very comforting to know that a god that loves like a person is watching out for you, and indeed there are many gods who (at least on the surface) love and care like us. But there are – others.

Divinities can be conceptualized along a spectrum with four main zones, stretching from what is often called the “God of the Philosophers” on one extreme to entities that resemble the Panther Goddess on the other. In the center lies the region of the most humanlike, the anthropomorphic, divinities.

The God of the Philosophers is the ultimate God of a conceptually consistent monotheism. It is an utterly abstract and unknowable entity – the Perfect, the Good, the All-Powerful. As recognized since the time of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes and repeated by Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and many others, a perfect entity can’t resemble humanity. It can’t change, for the only change from perfection would be to imperfection. It can’t feel, for a feeling such as love or anger would have to be triggered by something external to itself which means other things have power over it and can cause it to change. This leaves us with an utterly abstract entity that couldn’t be further from the life of people. 

Closer to the center of the spectrum we find the most common and well known gods and goddesses, from the god of most Christianity to many of the gods of the various pagan religions. These are thoroughly human gods, at least on the surface. They are thought of as appearing human, they love and hate, they speak and listen. They are caring or stern fathers and mothers, ardent protectors, wise teachers, and so on. They are the gods Zenophanes has in mind when he criticizes humanity for thinking of gods like themselves. But many of us have met these gods, the ones who relate to us as if they were like us.

Further along the spectrum, but still firmly in the central realm of the anthropomorphic, we find a variety of animal divinities such as the Coyote or Crow of many Native American cultures. These are not generally divinities cast in the form of humans but they do talk, think, and act much like us. This is often the only type of divinity recognized under the guise of divinities in the form of animals. See, for example, Hallowell’s claim in his essay “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View” that:

“Speaking as an Ojibwa, one might say: all other ‘persons’ – human or other than human – are structured the same as I am. There is a vital part which is enduring and an outward appearance that may be transformed under certain conditions.”

This, however, is not sufficient to capture either the full variety of Native American animal-like divinities nor non-anthropomorphic gods in general. This leaves the furthest extreme of the spectrum, as foreign and mysterious as the utterly abstract God of the Philosophers, but far from abstract. Here we find, I feel, the Panther goddess I met in Florida and many others besides.

It is my suspicion that this spectrum rests on the level of appearance more than reality. Or perhaps on the level of mode of communication. Nature, when it wishes, can speak to us in a language we can understand, but that does not deprive it of its hidden depths and foreign regions in which we would be lost. Gods can put on human shape, and some indeed may come from human lives, but this hardly captures their fullness.

“O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your great form, with its many faces, eyes, arms, thighs, legs, and bellies and Your many terrible teeth; and as they are disturbed, so am I.” Bhagavad-Gita 11.23

Even as Krishna appears to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita in human form only to unmask his foreign, utterly overpowering form upon request, even as Semele daughter of Cadmus requests to see Zeus’ true form and then is utterly destroyed by it, so the gods can put on forms fit for human minds without being truly captured in these. Perfection deprived of specificity is just another word for mystery, and the most familiar and comforting god still wears a mask. 

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.”

Rilke Duino Elegies

What Rilke says of angels can be said just as easily of gods, especially those who kindly come to us in beautiful forms. 

Terror and Truth

IMAG1078
Sekhmet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I first met Sekhmet it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she terrified me. The museum has several extraordinary statues of the Egyptian Goddess of destruction and the first time I set eyes upon one I felt Her, like a blow, set eyes upon me. She gazed down upon me, with a silent growl, and it was the most powerful experience of sudden awe and fear I have ever felt. I was trapped in the sight of “She who Mauls”.

This was the goddess who the Egyptians desperately tried to placate every single day of the year, by sacrificing at a different statue each time – and this practice largely accounts for the many statues of her that survive. I fled the room, but have gone back many times since that first experience years ago.

I have come to know Sekhmet, the champion of Ma’at or Justice, at least as much as she can be known by me. Like the Furies and Nemesis of the Ancient Greeks, she is the fierce defender of law and punisher of crime, a force of chaos in service to an ancient order. She is not tame, but she can serve more humanlike divinities when she wishes. Like the Panther goddess, Sekhmet is very different from myself, and though she recognizes me when she sees me–and I recognize her–she remains beyond my ken and, I suspect, beyond the ken of any human. In facing her we face a truth and a reality that is all around us and yet which shares no measure with us. It is incommensurable with us, as the world is always in some part incommensurable with us. 

There are other such gods and goddess. There are the forces of the incommensurable unrestrained, like the Sumerian serpent of chaos Tiamat, the Norse wolf Fenrir, the Greek Typhon – and there are equally incommensurable forces more willing to tolerate our differences, such as the Panther goddess or Sekhmet. There is terror in the face of their truths, but these are truths shared in part with other gods who deign to terrify us less.

We can learn much from the inhuman gods, not least of all to avoid becoming too comfortable or perhaps complacent with their more friendly distant kin. They also teach us that our arrogance, our perception of the world on a human scale, our assumption that we are at home and that the world is for us, is a dangerous and disrespectful illusion – and most of all these gods demand respect. The anthropomorphism of so many of our monotheist and polytheist gods, if unquestioned, mirrors and contributes to the anthropocentrism of the practices with which we dominate and destroy each other and much of the world around us. 

Not Symbol but Source

La tombe de Horemheb (KV.57) (VallŽe des Rois / Thbes ouest)

Hegel, perhaps more than any other philosopher, attempted to come to grips with the differences between the gods of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, those of the Greeks and Romans, and the theology of monotheistic Europe. His analysis is brilliant, and I would have the arrogance to say almost entirely wrong. But this only means that it provides valuable insight if reversed.

Hegel approaches the ancient gods by means of art. He claims that the nature of art is to express truth, and that art can be analyzed in terms of how well, or poorly, it expresses the ultimate truth.

The history of art, which mirrors the history of culture and religion, passes through three main eras. There is the Symbolic art of the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Classical art of Greece and Rome, and finally the Romantic art of Christian Europe.

For Hegel, art reached its pinnacle in the Classical Era when the depiction and the truth depicted were perfectly matched. In other words, the anthropomorphic forms of Ancient Greece allow for the realization that divinity and reality is ultimately human. However, eventually the truth (which has a history of development of its own) was no longer able to adequately be captured in the human form. The ultimate truth is, then, human consciousness as expressed in culture which can no longer be perfectly captured in art.

Thus Romantic art directs our attention to the impossibility of capturing human thought and consciousness in finite forms as found in Hamlet’s struggle and failure to grasp his own place in the world. It maybe just be, however, that we were nearer to the truth at least in part in the beginning than at the end – a fact affirmed by the sad state that the historical march of Spirit has brought us to. 

For this reason the first stage of art and culture is the one I would like to focus on in line with my earlier discussion. The Symbolic stage is, for Hegel, one in which truth or reality is inadequately captured through a mix of animal and human forms. Hegel sees in this a struggle to capture truth that approximates it in the symbolic understanding of animals but fails to realize that only the human form is the perfect symbol of reality. This understanding, if deprived of its larger metaphysical grandiosity, largely matches the most common understanding of the many animal forms that gods take throughout the world. The animal forms are symbolic of various comprehensible, indeed even childlike, characteristics.

This, I have been suggesting, is a mistake. What my experiences with the inhuman goddesses has taught me is that their inhuman forms are not symbols of commensurably human characteristics. “She who mauls” is in some sense more truly lion than human, though ultimately she is neither. A mask is not always a symbol, and for most of these gods their masks are far from symbols. Or, perhaps, a better way to put it is that those very elements that cause Hegel to see a symbol are the points at which the mask cracks and lets in a bit more of the reality beneath.

We would get closer to the truth if we were to think about the animals themselves from whom many of these gods borrow appearances, rather than these animals as conceived by us. When facing a storm on a mountain top, or a bull elk in the redwood forests, I have not had the experience of a symbol but rather a wild force against which my human expectations and understanding is utterly inadequate. Face a lion in the wild and you would, I imagine, come closest to understanding Sekhmet. 

What these gods offer us is an experience, not a symbol, and it is an experience  from which our relationship with the other gods takes its source. In each of the gods, we face a reality, one which we can touch in part, one which we share in part, but not one that we can encompass and contain within our own understandings. We can not fully comprehend, we can only experience and learn from this experience to respond. The beginning of this response may be awe, terror, respect, but most of all the humble recognition of the non-anthropomorphic nature of reality.  

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

Kadmus is also the author of Nature’s Rights, available in A Beautiful Resistance–Everything We Already Are

A Prayer to Athena for Canadian Democracy

So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

O Grey-Eyed One,

She of the Steel Gaze;

In nine days my country goes to cast ballots

In the ancient ritual You taught to Your city.

Our system is broken.

Hateful betrayers of Your sacred trust hold power,

As they have for many years now.

We elected them because we trusted them,

But they have betrayed our trust.

They have prorogued our Parliament,

Ignored Parliamentary rulings,

Accepted bribes,

Corrupted our electoral system,

Gerrymandered democratic ridings,

Taken the rights of our expatriates,

Denied voting access to the disabled, the young, and the poor,

And told people to vote in the wrong place

So as to spoil ballots.

They have lied continually to us,

Stolen our money and our future,

Denied basic rights to our citizens,

Reduced the rights of women

And of people of non-conforming gender,

Oppressed our poor and disenfranchised,

Oppressed our First Peoples,

Abandoned our ancestors and our veterans,

Broken the unity of our labourers,

Spit upon the sanctity and sovereignty of the earth,

And deprived us of the right to speak against them;

All to better serve their Corporate Masters.

Lady of Wisdom, You see more clearly than I do,

But I see all that You stand for being suborned.

I implore You; give us back our nation!

Strike these betrayers down!

Cast them from the lofty seat they have stolen!

Make our voices count!

Give us back the gift that You gave us

That we may once again govern ourselves,

Instead of being ruled over by Corporatist lackeys.

May Your steel gaze fall upon these corruptors with wrath!

May You look upon us with favour!

Help us to take back what was stolen

Without the shedding of innocent blood.

Send Your Owl to give Sight and Wisdom

To our people, who have been denied it.

Call upon any friends You have

Among the Sacred Spirits of our First Peoples

To ask them to take part in the ritual,

If only this once.

Draw Your Aegis over us!

Give us back our Canada!

I shall cast my ballot in honour of You.

I shall ask all who know me to do the same.

Praise be to the Lady of Wisdom!

Praise be to the Grey-Eyed One!

The Wild Hunt is Riding

“As far as practitioners of nature spiritualities are concerned, the Wild Hunt offers an initiation into the wild and an opening up of the senses; a sense of dissolution of self in confrontation with fear and death, an exposure to a ‘whirlwind pulse that runs through life’. In short, engagement with the Hunt is a bid to restore a reciprocity and harmony between humans and nature.”

— Anthropologist Susan Greenwood
Åsgårdsreien (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Åsgårdsreien (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The word has spread around the blogosphere; the Wild Hunt is riding.

It’s early.  Really early. For me, they rode in to BC and the Pacific Northwest US on the night of the last full moon, riding with the great storm.

Some say they’re riding against Daesh for their desecration of ancient Pagan religious sites.  Some say they’re riding for something else.  I think there’s a lot of reasons for them to be out riding.

The leader of the hunt depends greatly on the pantheon, and has been named as Odin, Holda, Berchta, Gwydion, Gwynn ap Nudd, King Arthur, Nuada, King Herla, Woden, Freya, Frigg, the Devil, Krampus, the Faery King, the Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab, the Morrigan, Fionn MacCumhaill, Arawn, Artemis, Diana, Cernunnos, Herne the Hunter, and a variety of historical figures that have been slightly mythologized.  The Steeds are nightmares or faery horses, winged horses, faery deer or skeletal beasts; the Hounds are hellhounds, Dandy Hounds, faery hounds, yeth hounds, greyhounds, wolves, winged wolves, ravens, raptors, transformed sparrows, Gabriel Ratchets, the Cwn Annwn and the Fianna.  When I See visions of the Hunt, I see the Huntsman as Herne, because He’s the deity I follow and He and I have a “thing.”  But Beth Wodanis Sees Odin, since she is a godspouse married to Him.  Others will See the Hunt differently.

Some call them the Wild Army, the Furious Army or the Furious Ride.  They are also called by the names of the Hounds; the Cwn Annwn and the Fianna of Fionn.  In some myths they are the Unseelie Faery Ride, the Sidhe or the Faery Calvacade; in others they are the unquiet dead; in still others they are simply the Witches Sabbath.  They might sweep along anyone in their path; or they might ride against the forces of darkness to take them up into the Ride.  In his classic medieval book The Art of Courtly Love, Andreas Capellanus wrote of how the King and Queen of Love rode out in the autumn to strike down all faithless lovers.  In a manner of speaking, Robin Hood and his band of merry men could be seen as another manifestation of the Wild Hunt, riding to protect the land and its people from the depredations of the wealthy elite.

I can think of a few “forces of darkness” I’d like to see swept along in the Ride; can’t you?

I, too, have been dreaming of the Hunt.  Last night, I instead dreamed of the Round Table.  King Arthur, who wore a Horned Crown, said, “All those who would take up arms against the foe; draw your swords and ride out with me!” And I reached out to draw one of the swords of the Round Table knights (or Kings, depending on your interpretation,) knowing I would not be able to draw it if I was not meant to, just as Excalibur can only be drawn by the true King.  But it came away easily in my hand, with no resistance at all, and it felt as though it had been made for me.

Let us take a cue from Dion Fortune’s magickal experiment, and visualize the Wild Hunt riding against the true enemy we all know is out there, scouring the darkness from the land and taking them up into the Ride!  Who will take up arms against the foe?  Who will ride out with us?

The Magick: Tomorrow night is the full harvest supermoon in Aries, and a lunar eclipse.  Visualize the Wild Hunt as you see it.  Find the Leader of the Hunt and fly beside Hir for a while.  Ask who the quarry is.  Think about the “forces of darkness” as you understand them — the Kyriarchy, the Banksters, the CEOs of the large monopoly corporations, corrupt officials who do the bidding of their corporate masters, etc. — and ask the Hunter if E will help to scour them from the land.  The Hunter may ask you to perform a task in return.  Listen for guidance.  If you are willing to agree to take on the task, do so.  Visualize the Hunt riding against the quarry you’ve requested, riding them down or sweeping them up into the Hunt’s ranks, as appropriate.  Return to your body and make an appropriate offering.

Footnote: I had not yet read Lee’s article The Hunt and the Hound, Part 1 (published Sept. 13) when I wrote this; however, I think this Working may work well in conjunction with his Working, and I will be creating my canine spirit house as part of this full moon rite. A canine skull mysteriously found its way into my compost pile; I have been cleaning it and wondering what to do with it.  It seems I have an answer. 

The Patriarchy is About Class, Not Gender

Credit: J. Howard Miller, Public Domain
Credit: J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

A Battle for Our Bodies

We women know a hard truth of our culture; our bodies are not our own.

We are told how our bodies are supposed to behave.  How they are supposed to look (age/weight/height/hair/skin colour/breast size/genitals; the last of particular interest to women not visibly born “female”).  What we should feed them.  How we should decorate them.  Whether or not we should use them as incubators and what we are allowed to do with them once a zygote starts growing.  We are told to hide, and suppress, our body’s needs and natural functions.  We are told that the functions that formulate the incubator are supposed to be hidden from polite company, from menstruation to breast feeding.  We are told how we should wrap them, under what conditions it’s okay to unwrap them, and whom we should (or should not) unwrap them for.

After I overcame my childhood conditioning to suppress my sexuality, I wondered why.  This is something that has puzzled me for many years.  Why in the world does anyone else care about what I do with my body, whom I choose to have sex with, or how?  I mean, think about it.  How does it affect anyone else that I’m not sleeping with (or someone who’s sleeping with someone I’m sleeping with?)  I don’t give two figs what kind of car my neighbour drives because its effect on my life is exactly zero.

I read all the Dianic literature and found it empowering: The Wise Wound, Goddesses in Everywoman, The Chalice and the Blade.  Their theory was that because, until recently, your mother was a certainty but your father was an opinion, controlling women’s sexuality assured paternity and therefore, men would not find themselves in a situation in which they were struggling to feed someone else’s offspring.  I believed it because it was the only thing that sounded plausible to me.

The men in my life were angered by this theory.  They are feminists, and they are stepfathers.  They chose to raise someone else’s offspring, knowing full well it was someone else’s offspring, and give their love even when that love has not always been returned.  I didn’t give their anger much heed.  I figured it was a case in which they did not recognize their privilege.  I figured they would come around.

But there’s another theory, one that I’ve recently stumbled upon that makes much more sense.  Like anything else it’s not new; I was excited when I discovered, as I was reading it for the first time, that Starhawk had touched on it in the Appendices of her classic book on magick and activism, Dreaming the Dark.

Patriarchy exists to preserve inheritance.

Patriarchy is all about class.

Expropriation and Estrangement

Starhawk believes that we can find the evidence in enclosure.  In the sixteenth century a movement spread through England to enclose what was previously common land.  All of a sudden, which family controlled the land and its use became of paramount importance.  All of a sudden the people who lived on that common land became threats, because if land was held by common “squatters,” it could not be enclosed.  Often, lone widows lived in such places and so they were favourite targets of the would-be landowners, since they couldn’t do much to fight back.  Persecution increased against marginalized groups; that and widespread famines and possibly ergot poisoning led to revolutions and pogroms.  Enclosure forced most of us out of the woods and fields and into places in which our livelihoods depended on wages, and since one could only farm what was now on one’s land, trade became vital, and not an enhancement to existing living conditions.  We have seen the culmination of this trend in our current world economy, which depends on trading in raw resources and the forced labour of the developing world.

Knowledge became a marketable commodity in the new mercantile culture that was developing.  Universities developed.  Knowledge became something you could only have if you had the money to pay, and thus, graduates of those universities worked to preserve their monopoly on knowledge.  This particularly affected medicine.  Graduating university doctors spread the idea that anyone who did not have their certification was dangerous and stupid and might possibly cause real harm, even when the folk healing tradition was well ahead of the medicine of universities.  Often this was also a women’s profession, so once again women became an incidental target.  And “women’s medicine,” as a natural and unavoidable consequence of all of the medical practitioners being male, lagged behind and became a method of social control, culminating with the myth of the “hysterical woman” in Victorian times; an excuse to institutionalize women who did not behave according to the desired social mien.  We are currently seeing the culmination of the ownership of knowledge, with every task requiring (expensive) papers to certify your capability, bizarre trademark and copyright laws that allow corporations to claim intellectual property over ideas created 700 years ago, and tuitions so high that only the moneyed class can generally afford to pay them.

In order to justify this culture of ownership and expropriation, the world had to be disenchanted.  If the world has no life and no spirit other than what can be used as resources, there is no reason not to use it up.  Once again, the bodies of (cisgender) women, who are bound visibly by biological needs and changes, and who hold the power of the womb, became incidental targets, as the needs of the body and the needs of the earth and its creatures were denigrated, and “spiritual perfection” came to mean transcending anything as filthy and low as biology and nature.  We are seeing the culmination of this disenchantment now, in which faith is painted as a choice between the binary of absolute obedience to a patriarchal, distant god; or utter denial of the possibility of anything spiritual.

All of this is part of a culture of expropriation that derives from estrangement; estrangement from our nature, from our bodies, from the sense of the spiritual in the material, from people who are different from ourselves, even from one another.  We are almost seeing the culmination of it now.  We no longer know our neighbours.  We no longer live in families any larger than the nuclear.  Most of us these days are raised by single mothers.  We don’t even talk to each other any more, except through phones and computers.  As a result we are siloed in echo chambers of the ideas we support and our children sit across the table from each other and use their phones to converse.  Almost by definition, Paganism and Polytheism, which see gods and spirits here within the earth, are natural enemies of this culture.

I was excited!  Starhawk articulated it so much more effectively than I was able to.

Of course, it started long before that.  While the theory of the ancient matriarchy has been essentially disproven at this point, it is likely that inheritance did not matter in the prehistoric world until there was something to inherit that did not belong to the clan as a whole.  Chieftainships created a class of haves, and have-nots, which made tracking inheritance “necessary.”

How I Stumbled on This

I was writing a science fiction novel.  In the process I created a society in which all the men were warriors, so of course, the women were required to do everything else.  This society also had a noble caste who ruled over the other classes.  And I found that the society quickly developed, through a natural process of cause and effect, into a patriarchy.  Fascist societies, the ultimate in Corporatism, usually develop into patriarchies for this reason.

So I changed one condition; I made inheritance dependent on the female bloodline.  Now clans were organized around the females of a particular family, and to become nobles of the clan, males had to marry into it.  Technically the males inherited, but only through the females.  Suddenly, it looked to outsiders like the males were in charge, but in reality, the females were controlling marriages and fertility, and through that, the process of inheritance.  Over time, males began to develop traits that the females found desirable, and eventually it led to the breakdown of the class system and changing roles for males and females.

Corroborating Evidence

Why is it always the right wing who seems to support ideas that restrict the freedom of women?  You would think that powerful women of the moneyed class would be in an ideal position to challenge the supremacy of the patriarch.  But consider it.  Keeping the classes divided is the only way in which to assure that there are haves and have-nots.  In order to separate the classes, it is necessary to assure that the poor and the rich never mingle, and that requires controlling a woman’s fertility; and subsequently, her sexuality.  This is why it’s so important to the moneyed Conservatives to prevent cisgender women (and trans-men) from controlling their own fertility and claiming their own sexuality outside of the imposed rules of the patriarchy.  If women could do that, we wage-slaves wouldn’t continue to breed fodder for factories, would we?  Especially not in the developing world.  And what if a low-class male has sex with a high-class female and she has a child?  That elevates him out of the have-nots, doesn’t it?

We women impose these unconscious limits on ourselves.  Did you know that women do not call each other “sluts” based on their level of sexuality activity?  According to a study conducted at university campuses by Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong, the key trigger to being called a slut by another woman is being from a different economic class.  Why on earth would women perceive each other as being “trashy” for being more, or less, affluent than themselves?  It seems to me that this is a subconscious method of social control, to prevent the classes from breeding together.

Also, we choose mates based on perceived status.  It’s such a cliche that we make jokes about it; trophy-wives and sugar daddies.  Men with money are considered sexy.  Men buy expensive gifts and seek good jobs to impress women, and it’s considered the height of romanticism from him to buy us jewelry or that coveted diamond ring that proclaims our status as desired property.

We feminists think we’re above that.  After all, we believe in making our own way in the world and not relying on other people for financial support.  But consider this; assuming you are heterosexual, would you marry a man who made less money than you do?  Most of us won’t.  We think that “we can do better” and men who make less than we do are often perceived as freeloaders and “bums,” no matter how hard they work.  Fortunately this is changing.

There’s one last point of note that supports this theory, and that is the Mosuo people of China.  Often called “the last matrilineal society,” they have evolved a society in which all property rights pass through the female line.  There is no permanent marriage and partners do not live together, even if they have a long-term relationship.  Men live with their female relatives.  And all the behaviours of control and sexual dominance are displayed by the women; all the behaviours of social manipulation and preoccupation with appearance is displayed by the men.  In other words, property equals power.

The Real Enemy: Kyriarchy

Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkriɑrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.  (Source: Wikipedia).

It is in the interests of the Capitalists to maintain divisions of haves and have-nots.  Kyriarchy is how they go about this in a (nominally) free, democratic society.  They teach the rest of us to see one group as being superior to another, which leads to an interconnected system of privilege and disadvantage.  Notice that the poor are the only identifiable group that it’s perfectly okay to discriminate against?  Institutionalized discrimination limits the ability of the poor to get education, houses and jobs, and forces them to pay more for simple things due to interest payments, bank fees and “planned obsolescence.”

This is why it is necessary to consider all disadvantaged groups.  The truth is that Kyriarchy cannot exist if we all stand together and refuse to see these artificial divisions.

In other words; sisters, men are not the enemy.  Those who teach us that one group is better than another, are.  And those who benefit from the status quo the most are usually the ones most invested in preserving it.  The ones who benefit the most from this current status quo are white, white-collar, straight, wealthy, older men; in other words, the Corporatist 1%.

By extension, this means that anyone who challenges this status quo and demands change is our ally.  It would help us all to march in Ferguson.  It would help us all to defend women’s reproductive rights.  It would help us all to support labour unions, advocate for anti-poverty groups, and march in the Pride Parade.  Any one of these activities is a blow to Kyriarchy; which, in its death throes, will take the Patriarchy with it.

Why the Patriarchy is Doomed

Don’t worry; it can’t last forever.  It was doomed from the invention of the Pill.  When you can’t control a woman’s fertility, you can’t control her sexuality.

But social sanctions will try.  And as long as we allow groups which are invested in the idea of patriarchy — such as religions or corporations — to dictate morality to us, then it will continue.  We must stop calling each other sluts.  We must stop trying to dictate to each other when it’s okay to sleep with someone and when it isn’t.  We should feel free to make our own sexual choices and respect the right of others to do likewise.  We should support the rights of all genders, especially because challenging the binary breaks up the division that is based in haves (men) and have-nots (women).  The Kyriarchs know this and that’s why they find it so threatening and fight it so hard.

A great victory was recently won when the United States finally caught up to the idea that marriage should be a right for everyone.  I am pleased to see another nail being hammered into the coffin as the worldwide movement for the rights of sex workers grows and we stop looking down on women who get more action than others.

When our social customs catch up to our physical and scientific realities, patriarchy’s inevitable end will crumble the support pillar that sustains the Kyriarchy; and it will collapse like a house of cards.  We will see the dawn of a new age which is not dependent on human beings dividing themselves into superior and inferior classes.  That day is coming.  I believe it’s not far away.

  • Sept. 2 Update: edits made in response to suggestions from Keen on how to be more gender-inclusive (see commentary below).

The True Western Occult Tradition? A Review of Jake Stratton-Kent’s “Encyclopedia Goetica”

Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica is a monumental achievement, but more than that it is of vital importance for practicing occultists, pagans, and all those who fall into both categories. A work spanning three official volumes stretched across five actual books, it is an invaluable addition to occult history, theory, and practice. I intend to offer, in this review, an extensive and careful consideration of the full sweep of the project but if you are waiting for the bottom line allow me to say at the beginning that anyone interested in western occultism and paganism must read these books. They are probably the most impressive occult works to be written in my lifetime.

Covers of the “Geosophia” from Scarlet Imprint

The Grimoire Revival and Bibliotheque Rouge

First allow me to provide you with some context. One cannot fully appreciate the Encyclopedia without first understanding its place in the grimoire revival and one can’t consider this revival without considering the vital role played by the publishing company Scarlet Imprint and its subdivision Bibliotheque Rouge.

The grimoire revival is a movement made up of numerous practical occultists and occult scholars who are offering a renewed interest and investigation into the grimoire tradition in Europe and the Afro-Caribbean context. The revival is a diverse business but at its heart is the attempt to take seriously the full scope of mainly Renaissance and later popular occult works commonly referred to as grimoires and frequently claiming medieval or ancient origins. When discussing grimoire magic amidst most practicing occultists the immediate references are likely to be three well known texts: The Greater Key of Solomon, The Lesser Key of Solomon (frequently called The Goetia), and The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. The grimoire revival, on the other hand, seeks to expand its view to take seriously texts frequently underutilized or dismissed by the British and French members of the late 19th and early 20th century Occult Revival (for example Eliphas Levi, the members of the Golden Dawn such as Macgregor Mathers and, of course, Aleister Crowley). These texts include the incredibly important Arabic Picatrix, the Sworn Book of Honorius, the Black Pullet, the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, the Eighth Book of Moses, the Grand Grimoire, and the works which are Stratton-Kent’s focus: the True Grimoire or Griumoirium Verum, the Great Book of Saint Cyprian, the Heptameron or Magical Elements and the Testament of Solomon.

The basic argument of the grimoire revival is two-fold. First that the popularity of the three most well known grimoires has obscured some of their inadequacies and thus offered an incomplete understanding of the practices the grimoires are trying to teach and, second, that the neglect of other grimoires has kept us from actually understanding the historical importance and nature of the grimoires themselves. Stratton-Kent’s work, as in my opinion the central edifice thus far of the revival, offers a corrected historical understanding of the nature and role of the magic contained in the grimoires, a far more complete picture of the practical methods to be employed, and frequent corrections to the names and symbols of the spirits employed. It also offers an edition of its own of The True Grimoire (completed through integration with the Grand Grimoire), Great Book of Saint Cyprian, The Confession of Saint Cyprian and the Testament of Solomon as well as numerous selections from the Heptameron or Magical Elements, the Picatrix and The Greek Magical Papyri amongst other texts.

The grimoire tradition, as pointed out by Stratton-Kent, primarily shows up in print in two main forms. These are aristocratic texts of primarily angelic magic of Qabalistic/Christian occult theory and the popularly printed texts of the Bibliotheque Bleue genre that were cheap publications for the general public from early modern France (between 1600 and the mid-1800s) with similar types of texts found in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Bibliotheque Bleue and similar publishing businesses offered for the first time texts affordable for, and aimed at, the general public amongst which were many of the “pulp” or “low” grimoires seemingly dealing with treasure hunting, the summoning forth of demons, and the like. As an outgrowth of the printing press, the appearance of these mass-produced texts was a highly important historical event with which the publishing company Scarlet Imprint has aligned itself with its Bibliotheque Rouge. While Scarlet Imprint prints high-quality (and expensive) occult works as beautiful as they are important Bibliotheque Rouge offers affordable copies of the same texts for the general use of the public much as Bibliotheque Bleue did. If Bibliotheque Blue gave rise to the grimoire tradition in modern Europe as we know it, Bibliotheque Rouge seeks to give rise to its rebirth. The occult world is greatly indebted to Alkistis Dimech and Peter Grey, the founders of Scarlet Imprint and Bibliotheque Rouge.

Circle

The General Argument

Stratton-Kent’s general argument is the following: The grimoires represent a survival of primarily ancient pagan occult and religious practices over which a thin veneer of Qabalah and Christianity has been added. This veneer, including its talk of demons and angels, can be stripped away to uncover the true pagan occult tradition beneath the surface of the texts. This reveals that the grimoire revival, at least as far as it appears in Stratton-Kent, is at the same time a great pagan revival which recognizes pagan religious practices at the very heart of all of Europe’s occult tradition and history. Magic, to put it too simply and bluntly while perhaps overstating the point, is really pagan and was dressed up in monotheist clothing for many reasons including practical political concerns such as avoiding the stake.

The full scope of this argument will involve tracing the grimoires back to The Greek Magical Papyri, restoring the central role of necromantic dealings with spirits of the dead to occult practice, and exploring the promising connection between the use the grimoires have been put to in an Afro-Caribbean context preserving the native paganism of the Americas and Africa beneath a Christian cover and the actual origins of the grimoires themselves in a similar process. Ultimately we find the grimoire practices to consist of a surviving ancient shamanism like that practiced by ancient goetes (a Greek term from which goetia derives, frequently applied to non-aristocratic wandering magicians practicing a pre-classical form of ancient paganism).

The books of the Encyclopedia Goetica

Outline of the Encyclopedia

The Encyclopedia Goetica consists of three volumes: The True Grimoire; Geosophia: The Argo of Magic, From the Greeks to the Grimoires; and The Testament of Cyprian the Mage. The first consists of one book and the second two volumes consist of two books a piece. The first and last volume (The True Grimoire and The Testament of Cyprian the Mage) are the most practically minded and focus primarily on exploring actual grimoires and their underlying meaning. Ultimately The True Grimoire is the text most easily applied to occult practice and I have used aspects of it over the last few months with rather striking results. The Geosophia, on the other hand, is the most theoretical and historical of the volumes and lays out in excellent and careful detail the nature of the ancient shamanic tradition of the Goetes that Stratton-Kent is uncovering in the grimoires. The True Grimoire and Testament will teach you how to do things while the Geosophia teaches what exactly you are historically doing and why.

TrueGrimoireThe True Grimoire

Stratton-Kent starts his Encyclopedia with an investigation of the The True Grimoire for several reasons. First, as he convincingly argues, it is the most complete version of the original lost text or collection of sources/traditions on which The Lesser Key of Solomon, a.k.a. the Goetia, and the Grand Grimoire are both based. In fact, The Lesser Key is likely derived from The True Grimoire. (It is worth noting, however, that Stratton-Kent rejects the ultimate claim that there is one originating text that is the true Key of Solomon which has been lost, instead he presents the idea that the title Key of Solomon marks more of a genre with interconnecting sources.) By combining The True Grimoire and the Grand Grimoire Stratton-Kent is able to complete the full spiritual hierarchy of the original manuscript with a total of 79 spirits and the full meaning of their differences in rank and relationships of authority, ruler to subordinate. This clearly deflates the common attempts (in which I have participated myself) to correlate the 72 spirits of The Lesser Key of Solomon with the 72 angels and names of God derived from the Qabalistic Shemhamphorasch. This, similarly, removes one common piece of support for a monotheistic understanding of the grimoire tradition while deflating the focus on The Lesser Key of Solomon.

Second, The True Grimoire includes practical methodological details lacking in the other versions of the text. The two key aspects here are the presence of an intermediary spirit used to get in touch with all the other spirits of the text and the use of the “Armadel” method about which I will say more in a moment. The intermediary spirit is known as Scirlin who acts as the door-keeper and messenger of the other spirits. Stratton-Kent is quick to point out the overlap here of the intermediary role played by figures such as Legba and Exu in Afro-Caribbean traditions; Janus, Hecate and Anubis in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions; and, of course, the Holy Guardian Angel in The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. There is also an overlap with the role played by Uriel in another part of The True Grimoire entitled “Divination by the Word of Uriel” in which the angel is used to contact any spirit (though likely primarily the spirits of the dead, considering Uriel’s frequent role as Angel of Death) the magician wishes. This use of an intermediary is, Stratton-Kent argues, an ancient pagan methodology whose neglect both obscures the ancient pagan pedigree of the grimoires and impoverishes the coherence of the ritual procedures of texts lacking it.

The Armadel method is largely what we have come to understand as skrying: the use of a bowl of water, ink, crystal or mirror for the attainment of visions. In The True Grimoire this method is used by calling spirits into the skrying surface, a practice which plays such a large role for example in the Enochian work of John Dee and Edward Kelley. This presence of skrying in The True Grimoire is important for several reasons. First, it allows the text to offer two methods for contacting spirits: the standard evocation using a traditional circle etc. and the use of skrying. Second, it shows up in The True Grimoire as one of the first and oldest presentations extant of the method in the grimoires thus stressing the important of this particular grimoire for occult history in general. Third, and finally, it offers yet another tie to the ancient pagan world.

The discussion of skrying brings us to one of the central pieces of Stratton-Kent’s overall argument, namely that the grimoires represent the survival of occult methods found in the ancient Greek Magical Papyri that themselves, Stratton-Kent later argues, represent preservations of even older pagan religious practices. I will say more about this second part of the argument in my discussion of the Geosophia but, for now, let me discuss The Greek Magical Papyri and the presence of skrying within it along with Stratton-Kent’s fascinating speculation as to the intermediary role skrying plays within the history of the development (or decline) of pagan religion.

The so-called Greek Magical Papyri are a collection of magical texts dating approximately from the seven hundred year time period stretching between the second century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E. The papyri are the product of several different periods of cosmopolitan cultural interaction and blending throughout the Mediterranean region deriving largely from the cultural unification provided by the conquests of Alexander the Great which lead to the exceptionally culturally diverse Hellenistic period of Ancient history and, of course, the complex cultural mixing of the Roman Empire. As the product of these cosmopolitan eras the papyri are not exclusively, or even individually, Greek despite their common name. They are written primarily in the Greek, Demotic and Coptic languages making them just as much Egyptian Magical Papyri as Greek ones and there are signs of both translation from Egyptian languages into the Greek and from Greek into Egyptian languages. But even this dualism is inaccurate as the texts are almost entirely syncretic, i.e. they openly contain and unify elements of almost every culture and religion involved in the cosmopolitan eras from the obvious Greek and Egyptian to Hebrew, Christian, Roman, Zoroastrian and many other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures besides. It is not at all unusual to find in them, in fact it is rather the standard procedure, Hebrew and Christian names of God and angels blended with invocations of Apollo and Horus.

It is Stratton-Kent’s argument, and a pretty conclusive one at that, that the Grimoire Tradition is a survival and development of the eclectic blending of traditions represented in The Greek Magical Papyri. In the Geosophia he will go further back in history to investigate the nature and origin of the Papyri practices themselves, but for now this should be a sufficient discussion of the subject. To establish the link between the early modern grimoires, especially The True Grimoire, and the Magicial Papyri Stratton-Kent focuses on the topic of skrying, i.e. the Armadel method. This method shows up extensively within the Magical Papyri and in a form closely resembling that of The True Grimoire. Most simply the method is as follows: the magician or the magician and a seer that has been selected for the job sit with a skrying surface (water, ink, mirror, crystal, etc.) and an intermediary spirit is called into the surface (Scirlin, Uriel, Anubis, etc.). This intermediary then brings forth at the magicians request the other spirits whose presence is desired. The unification of the intermediary spirit and the Armadel method are, as Stratton-Kent explains, a central structure of The True Grimoire and likely also a missing or unstated key aspect of many of the other grimoires. In the Magical Papyri there is usually a bit more involved in this ritual. The intermediary spirit, once it appears, is first asked to set up a ritual scene. Often the request is for the spirit to set up a banquet with a set amount of chairs and so on. Then the spirit invites in a company of the gods, or spirits, to feast and celebrate after which the desired spirit can be spoken to for whatever purposes the magician has in mind. This method can similar be applied to the spirits of the dead as well. What makes this aspect so fascinating is, as Stratton-Kent points out, the extent to which it provides the performance of a full sacrifice and pagan ritual without the use of an actual temple, offering and so on. In other words, it places the role of pagan priest into the hands of the magician and allows a full large-scale religious ceremony to be performed in one’s own study. One can see the value of this, for example, for pagans living far from city centers with their own temple precincts and staff of priests or for those living in a context (political and social) which no longer facilitates or allows for the full practice of old collective pagan ceremonies. The common occult method of skrying, then, arises from a development, or decline, of standard pagan ceremony once the open practice of the various cults of the gods became for many reasons no longer as accessible.

These elements of The True Grimoire allow Stratton-Kent both to make a powerful argument that the entire grimoire tradition must be understand from the foundation of the Magical Papyri and that the practices from those Papyri are necessary to complete the missing elements of the grimoires. It also makes clear the pagan, or at least wildly syncretic, nature of the grimoire tradition though the argument will push beyond this in the Geosophia.

On top of this complex and powerful argument, Stratton-Kent’s The True Grimoire is useful because it provides us with a completed version of the text and system along with extensive discussions of the origin of various important spirits. This unpacking of the origin and nature of the grimoire spirits continues throughout the Encyclopedia Goetica with, for example, an extensive investigation of the spirit Astaroth and her (yes, her) derivation from the Semetic goddess Astarte, her relationship to the Sumerian goddess Inanna and the Greek Hecate and Artemis, and so on while the first book of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage contains similar extensive investigations into the history, derivation and nature of spirits such as Asmodeus and Oriens.

Finally The True Grimoire concludes with a discussion of the connection between the grimoires and Afro-Caribbean traditions in the Americas including a brief presentation of the influence and overlap of spirits from the grimoire with the Exus of the Brazilian cult of Quimbanda which derived several of its symbols for the Exus from the symbols for the spirits in The True Grimoire.

Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keeps the Golden Fleece. Red-figured cup by Douris, c. 480-470 BC. From Cerveteri (Etruria)

Geosophia

The two volumes of the Geosophia are exceptionally rich. In fact, I can’t help but understate the impressive achievement these books represent. Were the rest of the Encylcopedia nonexistent the Geosophia would stand as an invaluable work on pagan and occult history in its own right. I have studied ancient culture and philosophy extensively at both the college and graduate levels, I have presented and published on ancient philosophy in an academic context, and still there was much in the Geosophia that was surprising, innovative and exciting. If I were to criticize the work it could only be for containing too much – it is a work that requires repeated and careful study – and so I cannot hope to offer anything near a complete presentation of its content. It will have to suffice to present those key aspects I found most interesting and valuable while presenting those necessary elements for carrying Stratton-Kent’s argument forward. Before I do so, however, let me point out that those of my readers who are most interested in pagan religion, practices and history rather than the contemporary use of grimoires will be best served by the Geosophia rather than the other works. You are bound to find some rather striking insights about the history and nature of Ancient Mediterranean paganism.

The overall purpose of the Geosophia is to offer in investigation into the history of goetia and its origins understood as a distinct occult and religious tradition. The books themselves are organized via an investigation of the journey taken by Jason and the Argonauts as presented in the Hellenistic epic the Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes who was a librarian at the great library of Alexandria. The mythic journey of the Argonauts provides a basic structure to the book as it provides a narrative line allowing Stratton-Kent to investigate the history and traditions related to the various heroes involved, locations visited and events undergone in the text.

The broad strokes of Stratton-Kent’s investigation is the uncovering of the nature of the goetes, or ancient shamanic magicians from which the term Goetia derives, through the presentation of an extensive conflict in the ancient world between Chthonic and Olympian religion. The main argument is that the older religion, from which much of the mystery cults derive as well, was primarily focused on the earth, underworld and spirits of the dead. It was also largely a localized religion with distinct variations based upon the history, heroes and gods of given populations. These ancient chthonic religious variations were also, if I might say so, largely the religion “of the people”. With the rise of the city-state, however, new political forces attempted to achieve cultural unity and power via a transformation of the more diffuse local cults into the official Olympian city centered religion of the Classical era.

The move from Chthonic to Olympian religion transformed the character and meaning of many gods, and some of the most important older gods were also derided and given lower rank in the new pantheons. I’ll offer two of Stratton-Kent’s main examples though he offers numerous careful and important aspects of this process. Apollo, now known as a sun god of the Olympian pantheon, doesn’t really seem to fit this role. Stratton-Kent points out, for example, that Apollo is primarily depicted with a silver bow that is a rather odd accouterment for a sun god. It seems to more easily fit a chthonic or lunar correspondence. Furthermore, within the oldest depictions of Apollo, for example that of Homer, no mention is made of Apollo’s solar nature but instead he seems to be depicted primarily as a warrior god of disease. In Homer the only sun god discussed is Helios, which of course provokes the question why another sun god is necessary. As a darker more Chthonic warrior god of disease we see Apollo’s older meaning before it was transformed into that of a solar god.

The god Hephaestus undergoes transformation as well, and this transformation is central to Stratton-Kent’s argument. Hephaestus is a rather laughable character in the Olympian pantheon. He is crippled, the gods are often literally depicted laughing at him, his wife cheats on him with other gods, and so on. This official role, however, belies his massive importance and widespread popularity as a very important god in local cults. In fact Stratton-Kent argues that Hephaestus is one of the most important gods of the older Chthonic religion and ties this into an argument that the older religion and its wandering goetes practitioners derive from the religio-magical cults of metal working tribes throughout the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern world. This is, similarly, the origin of the classes of prophetic and metal working heroes-become-gods known as the Dactyls which feature prominently in Stratton-Kent’s argument. Phrygia plays a central role in this regard.

As Stratton-Kent presents it, the practice of the goetes predates and extends well beyond Greece and Rome while, nonetheless, providing the basis of both civilizations’ original religion. It is for this reason that I keep using awkward phrases like “Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern religion” rather than talking about, for example, Ancient Greece exclusively. Stratton-Kent’s history and vision refreshingly extends well beyond these stifling and artificial boundaries. We see this, for example, in his connecting the origin of Apollo to the same origin of the angel Michael, namely the Canaanite warrior and plague deity Reshef.

Stratton-Kent’s argument expands beyond gender boundaries as well as regional ones. He focuses extensively on a discussion of each of the numerous female prophet-sorceresses known as the Sibyls. Here we see the goetes as female and male regional and traveling shamans.

In his Introduction to The Greek Magical Papyri Hans Dieter Betz describes the content of the Hellenic and Roman period papyri in the following manner:

“In effect, it is a new religion altogether, displaying unified religious attitudes and beliefs. As an example, one may mention the enormously important role of the gods and goddesses of the underworld… it is characteristic of the Hellenistic syncretism of the Greek magical papyri that the netherworld and its deities had become one of its most important concerns. The goddess Hekate, identical with Persephone, Selene, Artemis, and the old Babylonian goddess Ereschigal, is one of the deities most often invoked in the papyri… Hermes, Aphrodite, and even the Jewish god Iao, have in many respects become underworld deities. In fact, human life seems to consist of nothing but negotiations in the antechamber of death and the world of the dead. The underworld deities, the demons and the spirits of the dead, are constantly and unscrupulously invoked and exploited as the most important means of achieving the goals of human life on earth…” (The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation p. xlvi)

One way to understand Stratton-Kent’s argument is to see that while Betz’s description of the character of the culture of the papyri is correct he is incorrect in the suggestion that this represents a new religion. Instead, Stratton-Kent demonstrates, the papyri represent something of a survival and renewal of the old Chthonic religion which predates the official religions of the various cities and nations of the Classical era. Of course the syncretism of Hellenism and Rome add new names and dimensions to the practices, but it is important to recognize the extensive syncretic nature of the earliest aspects of the old Chthonic religion as well.

To return to the grimoire tradition, then, we can say that if the grimoires represent a survival of the tradition of the Magical Papyri and these papyri similarly represent a survival of the pre-Classical religions then the grimoire tradition of goetia is the continuation of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern’s oldest, even, primordial religious practices. The oldest religion, then, is goetic magic and it is deeply necromantic, focusing extensively on dealing with the dead. In this regard we can state that the spirits of the early modern grimoires such as The True Grimoire are each one of three things. They are elementals, spirits of the dead especially past heroes, and pagan gods and goddesses, keeping in mind of course that frequently these categories overlap with gods having elemental aspects or being derived from the deified dead.

Amidst the process of presenting this larger historical narrative Stratton-Kent offers us innumerable valuable insights and details about magical and pagan traditions and practices. Amongst these are, for example, the argument that the role played by two recurrent types of magical operations in the grimoires are not at all what they might seem. The grimoires frequently include types of magic to find buried treasure and achieve invisibility. Stratton-Kent presents the interpretation that these are, in fact, the remains of old rituals of shamanic import designed to achieve access to the underworld. The underworld, traditionally populated with various guardians and dangers, could be accessed through spells to find “buried” (i.e. underworld) treasures and the protective role of invisibility which would allow one to sneak past, as it were, the underworld guardians. A similar fascinating discussion revolves around the history and role of volcanoes as doorways to the underworld and the unique genre of volcano magic that shows up in the grimoire tradition. Stratton-Kent provides interesting examples of this volcano magic.

Finally, as an additional step in the movement from the magical papyri to the early modern grimoires Stratton-Kent discusses the role of the 10th or 11th Century Arabic grimoire the Picatrix and its presentation of astrological occult lore including, for example, the lunar mansions and planetary hours of the day and night. Towards this end Stratton-Kent inserts into his text useful selections from the Picatrix itself.

Saint Cyprian engaged in exorcism.

The Testament of Cyprian the Mage

Where The True Grimoire represents the French and Italian segments of the grimoire tradition the move to a discussion of the several grimoires related to Saint Cyprian serve the role of shifting to the Spanish and Portuguese aspects of the tradition that have played a massive role in influencing the occult traditions of the Afro-Caribbean and South America. Stratton-Kent’s investigation of the history of Saint Cyprian, the several grimoires connected with his name, and the question of what would have influenced the thought of and populated the book shelves of the mythical Saint Cyprian and the compilers of his history provides Stratton-Kent with the opportunity to discuss the history stretching from the writing of the Magical Papyri to the Renaissance beginnings of the grimoire tradition proper.

The goetic tradition derives its negative connotation from an extensive history of rather literal demonization. The spirits and gods are turned into demons and the practice itself is set off from “respectable” occult practices. The start of this division is the war between the Chthonic and Olympian religions in the ancient world but its Hellenized and early Christian version arises in the conflict between goetia and its generally neoplatonic opposite, theurgy. Theurgy is generally understood to be the art of uniting with gods or God, climbing as it were the ladder to the heavens, while goetia is commonly understood as the art of working with demons and is grouped along with necromancy, or working with the dead. We get here a clear contrast between the higher and lower, the divine and demonic.

The contrast between theurgy and goetia is, however, the history of a deception as Stratton-Kent’s work in Geosophia has well prepared us to see. If the origin of the “demons” of goetia is gods and the deified dead then goetia is frequently about contact and/or union with the divine. Another distinction between theurgy and goetia is based on the “lowly” or worldly nature of goetic goals. But, as Stratton-Kent demonstrates, theurgy often enough aimed at various worldly goals as well while, on the other hand, goetia can be understood to itself have higher religious and eschatological goals (and, of course, most of the lowly worldly goals of goetia are hardly what they seem). We can see this particularly clearly when we consider that theurgy largely develops from the mystery cults of the ancient world while these cults themselves developed from the earlier practices of the goetes.

Allow me to offer an illustration of some of the eschatological/religious goals of goetia that have to do with the nature of the dead and the underworld. In Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld we get to see the fate of most of the spirits of the dead. In general the dead find themselves in a rather sad state, they become speechless and personality-less shades. But this is not the fate of all of them. The prophet Tiresias, for example, is able to maintain his wisdom and identity in Hades along with many humans who become unworld judges and other honored figures. This becomes a main goal of the ancient mystery cults and goetia, the ability to maintain one’s full existence into the afterlife. The path to this goal was often laid through a process of “dying” in life through initiation and shamanic visionary experience. When one visits Hades while alive one prepares to remain, in some sense, alive when one goes there in the afterlife. This is the sense in which not all souls are immortal but one can become immortal through proper magical training and experience. It is worth noting there is a strikingly similar argument in favor of the benefits of philosophy that Plato’s depiction of Socrates offers in dialogues such as The Republic and the Phaedo.

We see methods for achieving this after-life immortality in goetia, mystery cult and theurgy alike. In regards to this Stratton-Kent offers a rather interesting discussion of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles and his claim that his philosophy could make people immortal. Rather than responding in the common way that many philosophers do and take this as an absurd exaggeration on the part of the philosopher, Stratton-Kent takes it seriously as addressing the otherworldly immortality that goetic practice can provide.

The other aspect of this goetic necromantic working with the dead involves the “higher calling” of helping those who have died without the benefit of proper preparation. In other words, one of the key works of the goetes is the “laying of ghosts”, i.e. bringing about the “salvation” of the unhappy, violent or listless dead – these most often include those who have died from violence, without appropriate burial rites, or prematurely before their roles in life had been fulfilled. As the goes can prepare the way for herself and others in finding advancement in death, so too can the goes do this work for those who are already dead although the process is likely much more difficult. This provides goetia with a truly noble role in the negotiation of the relationship between living and dead.

The connection between goetia and the salvation of the soul can be uncovered as underlying the most demonized of all if its aspects in the Christian context, the role of the infamous “pact with demons”. Stratton-Kent makes clear that this pact in the grimoires is best understood along the lines of the concept of “conjunction” with divinity. This can be considered from several angles. First, magic throughout its history from the ancient world through to the 19th and 20th century occult revival has always been understood to involve the identification with gods and heroes. We become one with the gods through their invocation, literally by “calling them in” to us, and magic is largely achieved through the power that union with the gods and spirits brings about. This goes hand in hand, of course, with our own spiritual improvement as well. When we form a pact with a spirit we join with it and are improved through this conjunction. Far from the dark contract through which one sells one’s soul to achieve worldly benefit, the pact involves a loving joining with a frequently more advanced spiritual entity. We see this process perhaps most clearly in the Afro-Caribbean traditions in which rather striking unity with gods and spirits is the fundamental aspect of the tradition’s methodology.

The discussion of the grimoires and texts associated with Saint Cyprian locates itself soundly within the war between Christianity, Theurgy and Goetia because several of these texts are written with the goal of rejecting and demonizing Goetia. Despite this, Stratton-Kent is able to draw extensive insights into the practice of goetia from these texts.

There are a few other practical aspects to the content of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage that I would like to mention. First let me mention one that I found particularly provocative, namely the inclusion of a discussion of twenty-fours fairies, their characteristics, and their identification with stars and constellations. I found this to be an exciting and unexpected bit of grimoire lore which is, at the same time, very useful. Stratton-Kent also includes an extensive discussion of the 36 astrological decans and their connection to the spirits of the grimoires. There is also a continuation of the effort to clarify and complete the understanding of the spiritual hierarchy begun in The True Grimoire through a careful analysis of the Kings or Chiefs and the almost entirely lost Queens of the grimoire tradition. This involves the rather interesting and complex problem of there seemingly being three different orders of these: a triple rulership of an alchemical or astrological nature along the lines of the alchemical sulfur, mercury, salt; and two quadruplicities overlapping with directions or elements. Finally, the second book of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage ends with the inclusion of the complete fascinating text of the The Testament of Solomon dating from sometime between the 1st and 5th Century C.E.

Solomon commanding the demons.

The Meaning and Purpose of Grimoire Hagiography

In the course of the full argument of the Encyclopedia Goetica Stratton-Kent points to an interesting and important answer to a rather basic question. There is no chance that Solomon or anyone from his supposed time period wrote the texts on which his name appears (in fact, current archeology suggests Solomon likely never existed at all) nor is it likely that St. Cyprian wrote any of the goetic texts that carry his name. Why, then, do these grimoires carry the names they do? The obvious and common answer is that connection with these names provide an air of tradition and authority to the texts. But there is a deeper answer. A key aspect of goetia as presented by Stratton-Kent is, as discussed, the conjunction with the spirits of past heroes and for a magician past heroes include especially past magicians. For the ancients this might mean identification with Tiresias or one of the Sibyls, but for the later European traditions it meant identification with the named patrons of the grimoires. The various keys of Solomon or works of Saint Cyprian or Abramelin the Mage might be less about authorship and more about the spirit through and with whom the work of the grimoire can be accomplished. Taking the next step in this, we can draw from Stratton-Kent’s books the idea that even the names Solomon and Cyprian are themselves place holders for older goetic magicians and their spiritual patronage.

Image of Astaroth from the 1818 "Dictionnaire Infernal"

Concluding Questions on the Nature of the Reality of a Spirit

I hope that I have adequately expressed my immense respect for this work and my appreciation of its exceptional importance for both practical occultism and paganism. Despite the extent of this discussion I must stress that I haven’t even scratched the surface of the rich treasures the Encyclopedia Goetica offers the reader. I would like to conclude, however, by raising a question that is equally theological and practical concerning the message and application of Stratton-Kent’s work. This is not a criticism of his work, as he hasn’t directly addressed the point I will raise, but rather seeks to take the next step in considering the import of his work.

My question is a simple one, what is the full import of Stratton-Kent’s genealogy of the various demons, spirits, and gods? This question can’t really be answered without asking the metaphysical and theological question concerning the nature of the reality of spirits and gods. If we are dealing with individual existing personalities with natures and names of their own independent of any human conception then those who have addressed Astaroth as a male demon duke in a monotheist context (as in the image above) have simply been wrong and likely have insulted the powerful entity with which they have been trying to deal. We might not get the sense that a whole lot hangs on this point, but imagine the implication of Michael and Apollo’s identification with the warrior god of plague Reshef. Have the many many people who have addressed Michael as an angel and Apollo as a sun god simply been misaddressing and/or insulting the entity Reshef? Shall we do away with Apollo and Michael both in preference for Reshef?

Those who hold to the idea that the gods and spirits are archetypes and/or mental constructs taking on independent power through the investment of the energy of the believer can address this issue easily enough. Archetypes can be understood to “nestle” and undergo evolution and transformation such that the solar Apollo and Michael, the chthonic Apollo and Michael, and Reshef can all co-exist and be worked with individually. Stratton-Kent seems much more to favor a traditional understanding of the spirits as real existing entities independent of human determination, though on this point I may indeed be wrong.

From the standpoint of the independent self-determined reality of the spirits we can offer, I feel, three main possible understandings of the message of Stratton-Kent’s work. The first I would call the reductivist response that would indeed say that when dealing with, say, the solar Apollo people have actually always been trying to deal with a chthonic god instead and that this misidentification accounts for any amount of failures on the part of the practitioners. The message, then, is that if one wants success (and, indeed, safety from insulting a powerful and dangerous entity) one had better toe the line and treat Apollo properly.

The second understanding might see the different names and natures of the spirits and gods as different roles just as I fill the role of writer, teacher, researcher, practicing magician, husband, friend and so on. In addressing Reshef, the solar Apollo, the chthonic Apollo and so on I am addressing an entity as unknowable as my own one ultimate identity (if such a thing exists) via its various names, titles, roles and so on. This solution, however, seems to cut against the grain of Stratton-Kent’s general tone that many people have gotten the nature of the spirits wrong in various ways. Of course, you could misidentify some of my roles and names but we might wonder how we could know that we had done so on the part of a spirit or god? Perhaps only through experimentation and observation of what gets results.

The third answer is, I feel, the most interesting and would be based on the suggestion that the spirits in question have themselves had a role in their own naming and conceptualization. The gods/spirits reveal themselves, and so Apollo has offered us different aspects of his own nature and perhaps even changed on his own part over time. This more seriously raises the question of whether we can be wrong about the gods, or must we take all concepts as derived from them originally? I suppose this conception still leaves open the chance of judging the concept from its practical outcome.

This question ultimately raises the issue of the relation of different approaches to the spirits to each other. In other words, how does the historian of the occult and paganism relate to the worshiper/practitioner? Say I have performed rituals to the solar Apollo and had deep and meaningful experiences of Apollo’s solar nature. How am I to take Stratton-Kent’s suggestion that Apollo was originally of a very different nature? Stratton-Kent, of course, occupies both the role of practitioner and historian but let us put that aside of the moment. How is historical knowledge to relate to spiritual revelation? This is, in fact, a conversation I had with a fellow occultist while reading the Encyclopedia Goetica and excitedly explaining Stratton-Kent’s argument about Apollo, Michael and Reshef. My friend responded, rather directly, that it just didn’t match his occult experience and, so to speak, “history be damned”. Once again, it may be that results are to be the arbiter here but they must be personal results since the reports of others are hardly going to be persuasive for me when so hard to verify independently.

Personally I will say that despite the short time I have had the Encyclopedia Goetica I have used several of its methods and suggestions with striking and impressive results and I have found the insights it provided invigorating. Practically I have absolutely no criticism. Historically, I have found the argument persuasive and am more convinced than ever that the true Western occult tradition is fundamentally a pagan one in which the grimoires play an essential part.

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 .