Capitalism! The American Dream! Except that what we believe about capitalism, and how it actually works, are two different things. We’ve been told that the essence of preserving the economy involves making things better for the wealthy, so that they will make bigger companies and hire more people for more jobs, and thus the crumbs of their good fortune will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Except that it’s not true; wealthy people won’t part with their wealth unless regulations force them to.
We are told that the American Dream rewards the hard-working and the worthy, and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Except that it’s not true; people in poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than people in wealthier countries, and good infrastructure is the key to building the wealth of nations.
We are told that you must pay good CEOs and Directors of large corporations top dollar so that you will get the best. Except that it’s not true; Board Directors often make decisions that are best for them in the short term, and really bad for the company itself in the long term (fancy that!) And by the way, you’re probably wrong about how much they’re getting paid. Most people think it should be about 10 times what the average worker in their companies get paid, and they think it’s actually more like 30 times. But they’re wrong; it’s really more like 300-400 times as much!
We are told that what’s good for the shareholders of a company is good for the company overall. Except that it’s not true; shareholders want to buy low and sell high, and quickly, and that means that often decisions are made in companies to cut corners, cheat, and patch instead of fix, until the whole structure collapses. Like with pretty much every automobile company you’ve ever heard of, and several large airlines.
We are told that the free market economy is the best way to handle things, because market forces will ultimately balance everything out. Except that it’s not true; there is actually no such thing as a “free market economy;” governments and corporations fix the conditions of the market all the time. So could we; and so we have in some ways, which is why “fossey jaw” is a thing of the past.
We are told that education is essential to the future wealth of a nation. Except that this isn’t true either; there’s almost no correlation. What drives the wealth of nations is actually manufacturing.
Don’t believe me? That’s okay; Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge trained economist who has won prizes for his work, and he’ll tell you better than I can, with figures to back it up. And he’ll explain it in a way that even an arts major like me can clearly understand.
I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you, like me, see the rot at the core of our economic system but you lack the words to tell people why it’s rotten, this is the book for you. If you don’t understand economics and you want to learn without taking a course, this is the book for you. If you think that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and you think lefties are wingnuts who don’t understand how the world really works, this is still the book for you because you can acid-test your theories against an educated dissenting opinion. I wish that my Prime Minister would read it because I think he would run things a little differently if he did.
Over the next couple of months I’ll be writing an extended series focused around the theories presented in this book on Gods & Radicals if you want to know more.
I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.
A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.
Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.
The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?
If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).
Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?
Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?
At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.
I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?
More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?
Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!
I wrote most of this article weeks ago, but I stumbled on this business just yesterday and I thought it illustrated the problems I’m discussing here brilliantly. Apparently the New York Times edited an online article for content after it was posted to completely change the tone.
Since the Public Editor is supposed to be a watchdog for the public trust to insure honesty in media, I guess it’s okay to completely manipulate a story like this. This is an acceptable standard for our most trusted sources in mainstream media. And this is how they’re handling the move to get online.*
In my article from two weeks ago I discussed how the internet is threatening the supremacy of corporate media, particularly broadcast media, along with how this is forever altering the way we do politics. But the halcyon days of net neutrality are already over. There are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage.
The process of media convergence is resulting in a small handful of very large companies being able to control not only what you can watch or read, but your internet access and your phone and cell phone services as well. Not only that; they are learning how to manipulate search engine results, public perceptions, and social media to their advantage. Only by being aware of these tactics, and in some cases fighting their lobbyists in the political and legal arenas, can we hope to maintain this precious resource.
Let’s point out some of the problems and discuss solutions:
Problem: Favouritism in search engines
Search engines list the most frequented sites on a given topic first. In these situations, corporate media still has the advantage because they still have a reputation that encourages a lot of people to go to them first. Most of us glance at the first five or six listings (because the human brain can only count five objects at once in a glance) and then choose the one we like the sound of best. If we’re really literate or really interested maybe we read two or three.
Solution: Make sure you skim down the rest of the page, maybe a couple of pages, and try to read at least one differing opinion from your own with an open mind. And never forget that Google is a large corporation.
Problem: News aggregates
Most of us get our internet news from aggregates such as Huffington Post. They use software that selects the most popular articles from the most-visited sources. As a result, they give you the same information that the first six links on Google give you; and they have their biases as well.
Solution: Same as above. Try to find an opposing viewpoint to the one your favourite news aggregate offers you.
Problem: Information overload
Because there’s so much information out there we often don’t spend the time we should to use our discernment. Furthermore, knowing this, media outlets, corporations and political parties flood the internet with articles and links that support their bias, which makes it look as though their bias is the most prevalent opinion. The more money available to a given group, the better they are at this.
Solution: Don’t fall for it. Even if the opinion in question is the prevailing one, that doesn’t make it the “correct” opinion anyway. Double check the data and decide for yourself.
Problem: Expert opinions
Groups with political motivations will try to lend their viewpoint legitimacy by enlisting experts to support that viewpoint. But money talks even among “experts,” as anyone who has ever been through a civil lawsuit could tell you.
Solution: Consider the source. A scientist working for Exxon is not going to support the climate change data. An avowed atheist is going to ignore any information that supports divine powers. Pharmaceutical companies are going to discredit any medicinal source that they can’t manufacture and patent. Economists of the Koch Brothers sponsored Fraser Institute are not going to support economic models that don’t benefit the Koch brothers and their ilk.
Problem: Misleading and clickbait headlines
Most of us don’t read whole articles. We read the headlines and then skim the text. As a result we acquire an oversimplified version of the facts, and we miss subtle caveats or even contradictory information contained in the rest of the article. Journalists writing to the direction of company heads with particular political viewpoints sometimes know this and use it to deliberately downplay facts that contradict those viewpoints, while at the same time claiming a lack of bias because their articles do contain those facts; they’re just written in the internet equivalent of small print at the end.
Solution: If you’re going to read an article, read all of it before casting judgment.
Problem: Siloing and polarization
Because there are so many choices available to us in internet media we often only read the information that supports our pre-existing viewpoints, rather than trying to get a whole picture. As a result we often find ourselves in echo chambers that gradually lose touch with the big picture. Also, journalists supporting a bias often deliberately write articles to encourage us to divide into camps without considering individual issues and situations.
Solution: Again, read contradictory articles. Or find an online friend who supports political views that you don’t that you can have a respectful debate with.
Problem: Copyright laws
Did you know that when an American article posted a clip from the Daily Show, no Canadian could watch it unless we wanted to watch the whole episode? Copyright laws are applied unequally, depending on the desires of certain groups. “Fair Use” is actually subject to individual interpretation, so corporations will often enforce their copyright when a site uses their clip or photos in a way that doesn’t support their viewpoint when they wouldn’t if it did; or governments with particular agendas (such as the right wing Harper administration) will make it more difficult for media that disagrees with their preferred narrative to circulate opposing viewpoints by unequally applying copyright claims.
Solution: This is a tricky one because it’s so hard to prove. A copyright holder has every legal right to enforce their copyright however they wish. But perhaps small copyright holders should consider the broader implications of draconian copyright enforcement with a view to the long term, rather than buying into the narrative that claims that such laws protect small artists as much as it does big business.
Solution: There are only three; petition, protest, and politicize.
Problem: Corporate internet marketing and privacy
Most major internet and social media companies now collect demographic data on us whether we want them to or not. So do our cell phone providers. They claim that they do this to provide us with information and advertising suited to our preferences. In reality this simply increases the siloing and also allows corporations and governments to routinely violate our privacy, even if that’s not exactly what it was intended for.
Solution: Fight this uninvited snooping any way that you can. Protest, lobby, and always edit your privacy options, no matter how complicated that is.
Problem: Obsessive, rude and professional commentors
Did you know that political parties have begun paying people who (at least say that they) share their views to comment on news stories online? This, along with some genuinely focused people, is why you can’t read an article about sexism in politics without someone ranting about political correctness and feminists, and why you can’t read an article on climate change without some hothead sputtering their defense of oil production. This makes it sound like more people support such opinions than actually do, which gives said viewpoints the appearance of greater legitimacy.
Also, the toxic nature of internet commentary, fueled by a human tendency to be nastier and more rude to anonymous people they don’t know than they would be to someone they were speaking to in person, creates a confrontational environment where people become more concerned about arguing with people than the issue at hand.
Solution: Don’t comment to engage with commentors. Better yet, don’t read the comments section at all. If you wish to engage with the article’s author in any way, be it positive, negative, to ask a question or to provide information, read quickly through all of the comments to see if your issue has already been addressed and then post what you need to post.
Problem: Pretty does not equal accurate
It is human nature to listen to people we find attractive more than people we don’t, and we tend to believe that a more professional look to a site means that the site is more legitimate. But of course that’s utter nonsense.
Solution: Read between the lines and don’t dismiss something, or someone, just because it isn’t visually appealing.
Problem: Opinions are like . . .
Anybody can say anything they want on the internet. But often the opinions offered are unsubstantiated, backed by logical fallacies, or unsupported by real data.
Solution: This problem obviously affects other forms of media too so don’t let that stop you. But look for logical fallacies and patronize sites that cite their sources over ones that don’t. Also, consider who is doing the speaking. Obviously if someone works for the oil industry they probably want to downplay information about the receding ice caps or pollution in Beijing.
Looking to the Future
We have no idea of our own power. We need to take the information we’re learning online and do the only three things we really have the power to do with it; petition, protest, and politicize. We are the hope of the future.
The internet is changing the game and providing great freedom of information. But we have to be willing and able to use it, and we have to use our discernment in order to benefit from it. Politicians who want public support in the future will have to learn how to navigate the internet with aplomb; and we will have to learn how not to be manipulated if we want to reap its benefits.
*Please note: I include this information only to illustrate my point. I tend to follow stories on Bernie Sanders because I like him and I am disturbed by how the media is treating him, but I would not presume to endorse any Presidential candidate. I’m not from the US and it’s not my right to tell US citizens who they should vote for as their President.
I think that since September 2015 it’s going rather well. There have been a lot of interesting shifts in the way things are going in the world. For one thing, in October, the Liberal Party of Canada, headed by Justin Trudeau, finally toppled the Conservative Harper Regime, which was well on its way to transforming Canada from its social democratic roots into a Corporatist paradise. Those who support an anti-capitalist (or anti-corporatist) viewpoint can’t be as happy with that as we would be about an NDP victory in Canada, but it’s definitely an improvement.
For another thing, the American Presidential primaries have never been so interesting! It’s fascinating to see how Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who’s been speaking from the same place since the 1960s is suddenly a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Not that you’d ever know this if you only followed the mainstream media! Their deliberately misleading coverage in their desperate desire to preserve the status quo has been even more interesting, and it inspired my last article.
But it’s a truth that in magick one must be especially careful of what one wants to accomplish, because you may end up with unintended consequences. Donald Trump may be one of those unintended consequences. Those of us working magick for change were not very specific about what form the change should take, were we? Clearly Trump is setting out to destroy the modern Republican party, which is clearly either our foe or a powerful ally thereof, but perhaps the cure is worse than the disease. It scares me a little that Americans seem ready to elect the 21st century equivalent of Mussolini.
So what’s to be done? Well, perhaps more magick is called for. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when you use magick to break down, you must also use magick to build up.
So it’s time now, I think, to call upon the growing and healing spirits of transformation. With spring (and March 15) just around the corner, it’s time to call upon that energy of renewal. When the system comes apart, what will replace it? Let’s all lend our energy to the United States right now, where much of the world’s future is about to be decided (like it or not,) and then let’s spread that power out into our own lands:
Use whatever your usual procedures are to enter into a Journeyworking (spirit travel.)
Visualize a bald eagle flying high over the land. See it flying high above you, searching. It cries as it finds what it seeks and it lands on the shoulder of Lady Liberty, who is bearing Her torch of freedom. She smiles and nods Her greeting to you.
Who is Lady Liberty? Is She just a symbol, a statue? Or is She something more? She bears a strong resemblance to Athena to me. I think perhaps She is a new goddess. And as an American goddess, the fate of Americans matters to Her.
Ask Her to lend Her support to those working for the cause of liberty, freedom, and justice in the upcoming Presidential election process. Ask Her to withdraw Her support from those who are not working in the interests of those causes. Ask Her not to take a side in personal political preferences, but to keep in mind the personal motivations of candidates that we cannot see and the long-term consequences that we may not be able to predict.
If you, like me, are not an American, then reach out to impress upon Lady Liberty how the American Empire affects the entire world, and why we who are not U.S. citizens care about the future of American politics.
As when dealing with the Wild Hunt, be aware Lady Liberty may ask you to perform a task in return. Listen for guidance. If you are willing to agree to the task, do so.
Visualize the torch of freedom illuminating those who are doing the work of freedom with a glowing spotlight or halo. Hear their words being amplified to spread to those who need to hear it. See that light spreading out over the United States, and then the whole world. And where it touches the yokes of the ones who would enslave us, let those yokes be burnt to a crisp.
The eagle takes flight over the illuminated landscape and lets out a cry of joy. Lady Liberty smiles.
Return to your body and make whatever offering you feel is appropriate.
And let’s cross our fingers!
* I deferred my intended subject for the next article because I felt that this was a little more urgent. My article on the pitfalls of internet media will follow next week.
I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.
We’re currently in the editing process of the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance! Pre-order, subscription, and underwriting information is here.
This morning I watered the three plants I have managed to wedge onto my balcony beside the washing machine and propped up by a makeshift shelf so the rosemary and holly could get enough sunlight and I noticed something that I was assured couldn’t happen by reason of only having a single olive tree in a part of the world distinctly not known for them: I noticed olives on a tree that shouldn’t have had any.
Time; it is something that humanity may never understand to our lasting satisfaction, we all must answer to its inevitable weight and everyone collectively or un- has a different relationship with it. Every philosophy, society, way of life – you name it; all have a different relationship to Time.
Pagans & Heathens et al have what can only be described as an interesting relationship to Time. For the most part there is less of an overt fear of our own mortality, we profess to a better and or more intimate appreciation of certain cycles than our contemporaries; we in effect have one foot in the past while we step forward into the future. This relationship however, has one prominent flaw: we’re often too damned slow to act. At barely some few days into 25, in comparison to many I certainly speak with youthful prerogative. Everything often seems to occur too slowly for one’s liking – which is a thought founded on the idea that there is a sufficiency, nay excess, of time with which to achieve one’s purpose. If I may be so bold as to say: the hour has long past the moment when we had even just enough time.
On the 26th of June, Tess Dawson at Polytheist published an article entitled “The Horror of Palmyra” which goes into an exposition about the current and past condition and use of the city of Palmyra which is both historically speaking of insurmountable archaeological value and religiously speaking one of a great many such sites which the arguably named Daesh (Da’ish/Da’eesh/ISIL/etc) have either destroyed or quasi taken hostage. Her distaste for the actions of the group is clear, her recounting of the various uses of the sacred site and the gods that have been worshipped there is rich and engaging. However by the end of the article Tess concludes the piece thusly:
“We need to nourish, hold, and maintain our polytheist spaces, our holy places, our sacred discourses, our necessary conversations, our holidays, our rites, our offerings, our blessed gatherings. We need to nourish, hold, and maintain these things on behalf of our deities, our ancestors, and each other. And we need to do this far more than any curse or call for vengeance. Indeed, these very acts themselves are revolutionary and the very things that Daesh and others would try to blot out. Do these things first, and then, only then, contemplate curses because vengeance is nothing when there is nothing left to avenge.”
-Tess Dawson, The Horror of Palymra
Tess is not the only person to have written about Palmyra at Polytheist either. Galina Krasskova is someone I openly respect and hold no small amount of admiration for; so it is a strange position for me to be in to use her as a way of demonstrating I find serious fault with.
Galina’s article “A Polytheistic Day of Protest and Remembrance”, is very much what I have come to expect from her: wise voice, powerful spirit and a refined passion resting beneath the surface. Truth be told, she reminds me of my mother in no small way in that she seems very mild mannered, brilliantly intelligent and sagacious but utterly fearsome when given to being impassioned. Her contribution is a prayer and offering for anyone and everyone to follow on the 31st of July, her proposed day of protest and remembrance – the prayer she includes with the article:
“May the holy places of the Many Gods remain inviolate for all time.
“May the hands of the enemies of the Many Gods be smashed and their efforts come to naught.
May the worship of the Many Gods flourish in many lands again.”
– Galina Krasskova, A Polytheistic Day of Protest and Remembrance
It isn’t hard to say why I think both these people are wrong in their proposed courses, because it is something that is seen regularly in the Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist et al population, substantially more than anything else. The somewhat recent Pagan Community Statement on the Environment demonstrates it again. Most articles written by Insert A. Name for as long as I can recall have shared attributes with the two I single out and the Statement; the conveyance of a belief that we still have time left. A persisting belief that there is still ‘enough time’ to solve the problem or defeat the bad guy or fix the planet – that there is time for solidarity alone to have an effect.
Tess and Galina both, fall back to a palisade oft compared to the creed “love thy neighbor” of predominantly Christian renown. While it is an agreeable thing to say ‘love conquers all’ there is an indisputable, imminent reality which quite violently says otherwise; and while I will wholeheartedly step up to the lectern to espouse just how humanity (and ostensibly by extension the universe around us) has changed in the intervening years, I would like to remind the audience that the Deity of the Old Testament is radically different to the one who practiced the aforementioned creed. Moreover it is well worth reminding that for all that we and those gods with which we align ourselves may have grown, developed or otherwise changed along with us, it is very clear that the changes have not been all too profound and what is possibility for us must surely be certainty for the gods.
There are no easy answers here: practically no white or black, very little red, green and blue and tumultuous amounts of grey yet that which transcends the issue is that the temporal component to much of what we do simply doesn’t exist. Whether it is because we ourselves are too hesitant or taken with sloth to act or the unpredictable nature of something like Daesh or the reality that nourishment and healing and solidarity are things that require time which neither we nor anyone else has anymore. Discourse won’t slow the slaughter of men or women or children; proper nourishment is chancy in the right conditions and a problem for another day in conditions such as these; the true inviolability of someone or something only comes about through a few avenues: respect for someone or something, fear of repercussion, a sense of awe, and expressions of power… Apropos Palmyra its worth remembering that the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians and their contemporaries protected such sites with curses and not with prayers.
Perhaps it is because even We fear a reality where we can set ourselves to this kind purpose and experience the results, that we do not raise our hand honestly to the task set to us. Even the most simple of curses, bad luck, still holds such a powerful sway over the modern world and so perhaps it is because the fear of even this most childish of curses persists that we outright refuse to gird ourselves and issue forth greater maledictions.
I will. Not out of spite for the words of Tess or Galina, not for any conceiting belief in my power over the world, not to prove myself as some chosen vassal of a god or gods, not because I want a fight, not for any hatred of Daesh nor love of any one nation or more, certainly not because I think it will have some sudden and cataclysmic effect on them.
I’ll curse instead of praying, I’ll do it because as sure as there’ll be some lambasting comment about my character as a human being that results from this article I will be able to feel slightly less sick to my core when I read in the news that Palmyra is in rubbles and that humanity has irrecoverably lost yet another memory to Daesh and that I did everything I could have done to try and stop them; that I used everything I had to try and prevent them from demolishing Palmyra as though it were nothing but stones.
Moreover I’ll do it because without priests and guardians of its own to do this in its defense, someone has to do it on their behalf; their duties and responsibilities are now ours.
As I’m sitting here looking at my olive tree and thinking about the bee that probably found its way up here the other month, I consider what I did when I first planted the tree. I wanted to give it the best chance I could, I took the lungs and heart of a chicken, buried them on a painted bindrune at the bottom of the pot and sang a little charm I learned somewhere to make plants grow well. I did so fairly sure that it would do something, after all, my mother’s garden seemed to respond well to similar treatment. I look at these olives and I remember the quiet moment I had when I first thought that I had caused them to happen, that I had done something so small and ordinary but ultimately what should have been impossible. I think perhaps many of us, me included, are too ready to crush that little grain of faith in favor of certain skepticism.
So I turn myself to a new task at hand. I’ve resolved myself through word and now that resolve must be turned to deed and I consider the how of it, the phrasing of it, and the moment of it. I consider that my 31st of July will be the 30th for many who have read Galina and Tess’s words. I consider how they are the grandparents of this and that part of them should be in how it will be done. I consider the importance of Galina’s design that it be done nine times, the weight of Nine; nine months of pregnancy, nine days Odin hung from the Tree taking up the runes; nine times on one day, nine times on nine days perhaps; Tess’s words about vengeance and nourishment and necessary conversations and our rites; what makes Daesh seem powerful to us; what makes Palmyra so important; the powers of names… All these things come to mind and so too does Medea, a memory of an essay written in university. I wrote about her and Prospero and their magic; more figures come to mind be they legendary, mythological, fable or fact, historical or living; so many come to mind. I can’t consider myself their equal, not in ten lifetimes but thinking on them does help. With them in mind I put pen to paper and begin to make ready.
Design by Markos Gage, a.k.a The Gargarean, for Galina Krasskova’s undertaking.
A silver tongued seductee of language, consumately un-settled and mortally afflicted with fernweh, Alan Evans learns for the sake of learning and the strangers-become-companions met along the way. He pines for the gods, teaches
English, learns languages, plays drums, understands people, makes love in four languages, writes and fights like only Australian grandson of an Irishwoman can and will salaciously flirt to death any ‘Wizard of Oz’ quips. Main site: Trees in the Train Station. Also contributes to The Elemental Witch.
I – Radical Voices from the Lantern Waste – Opinions That Won’t Be Chronicled by Prof. Lewis.
“Narnia is a realm dominated by one voice – the roaring caterwauling of Aslan of the East. He has cried out many times in our history, drowning out all other truths. Sometimes in love, sometimes in anger. Sometimes with great cause. But only ever when it has suited him.”
“There is a deep magic, unknown to most. There is a deeper magic, unknown even to the wise. Then there is the deepest magic – known to everyone.”
“Aslan, or the White Witch? The messianic agent of some foreign emperor, or some despot from a dead world? Are those our only choices?!”
“Susan was the best of them, really. The High King was never here; more interested in fighting foreign wars and chasing valour than government. Edmund was clever, yes – but you couldn’t trust him. He’d say one thing, and do quite another, if he thought it “just”. As for Lucy, she was all play and passing fancies. She barely had any time in between all her “romps” – as she called them – to think of anything else. But Susan had common sense, and a kind heart – and wore the burden of governance well. And she also knew the awful game of Power that Aslan had set before her, and how it was to be played. She knew what a marriage – her marriage – could mean for Narnia; Peace, and safety from our enemies. Enemies Peter and his lot never wanted to stop fighting.”
II – To Narnia, and the North
I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was six. The triple volume we had in our house contained the first three books in the series – The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy. I can still remember the front cover now; a thick, starry-blue border, edging around a rolling green landscape that swept up to high mountains beneath a clear sky. In the foreground stood the Great Lion himself; Aslan looking gold and glorious as always. It was an evocative image, and it drew me in.
My parents were surprised and overjoyed when I started reading such a long set of novels, all on my own. I devoured the books; first reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, then The Horse and his Boy, and finally The Magicians Nephew. I remember whisking my way through pages and pages of text, whilst my friends at school were still stumbling through books that were mostly pictures, and way-big typefacing. Words like “gifted” were bandied about over my head in hushed tones.
I didn’t care about that, though. I was worlds away – dancing with fauns, fleeing from wolves and fording the Great River. I was in love. In love with Narnia, its people, its places, its culture. It was a vision of a totally animate world; and yet, one that was still earthy – it wasn’t some ethereal Neverwhere, hard to imagine separately to its bookish casings – it felt like (what I now call) ethnography; a thick description of a real place with realistic people. There are plenty of less-than-pleasant parts of Lewis’ vision – the sexism towards adult women, the blatant xenophobia, the authoritarian glint in Aslan’s leonine eye – but I didn’t notice any of it. To my six-year-old mind, the nasty hobby-horses of Lewis’ rode past unnoticed; the Christian allegory, 1950s imperialism and 1930s misogyny moving over my head, perhaps written at a level only older children could reach.
What did stick with me was the obvious Paganism upon which Lewis drew – the walking trees, the speaking beasts, the divine waters. I recognized them at once as friends and true gods, following them into the wild, forgotten places of the text, whilst Lewis played his Game of Thrones in the wide, open country of chapter upon chapter.
III – A lamentable surfeit of Pevensies
Because Lewis did focus upon heroes. Heroes, by and large, I didn’t really care about. Peter, Edmund, Eustace, Jill, and even Lucy seemed rather old-fashioned to the millennial me. I was frustrated by how I was expected to only empathise with a person if they hailed from my own world. I felt patronized even at age six by this authorial choice. It was for this reason that my favourite in the series was The Horse and His Boy; here was a book where those irritating Pevensies and their fellow travelers only got involved at the edges. This book is also, incidentally, populated by characters who have the least interest in Aslan – Shasta and Hwin barely know who he is, Aravis doesn’t care, Bree doesn’t get him at all despite using him as something of a battle-standard.
But what I really loved about Horse was that it gave a precious insight into ordinary Narnia. Towards the end of the book, Shasta, on his way to the capital of Archenland, manages to find his way into Narnia proper. There, he meets a community of everyday Narnians – dwarves, fauns, talking beasts. Simple people, leading their uneventful, happy lives in the forest. Shasta spends a-few short hours amongst them, eating bacon and seeing what he’s been missing all those years in the south, before rushing off to save the day. The narrative follows him, but my heart remained in those quiet woods. I read that chapter again and again, wishing the pages would open up and lower me down gently onto a bower of golden leaves and celandines; only to be greeted by a band of dwarves with a kettle on the boil.
I read the rest of the books only later, receiving them a couple of Christmases later. I loved Prince Caspian – the trees and awakening gods avenging themselves on dull Telmarine Narnia struck a chord that still sounds in my heart today. As The Voyage of the Dawn Treader didn’t actually take place in Narnia, and ended in what seemed at the time to be a sort of fuzziness I couldn’t pierce (i.e. Christian allegory) so I didn’t much care for it. The Silver Chair, overwhelmingly bleak, had brief points of relief for me in shedding light on the irascible marsh-wiggles and a positively Bosch-esque winter celebration when Eustace, Jill and co. return to Narnia.
IV – Crying from onions
And then I read The Last Battle. Each page left me feeling worse and worse. Here was the land I loved being torn to pieces. The trees being felled, the waters stilled, the animals broken as dumb beasts. Things got worse, and worse. And then, when all seemed darkest, Lewis rewarded me with the utter annihilation of Narnia, and most of its people, in fire and death.
What replaced it? A heroes reunion. Christian Allegory. More Pevensies. In short, everything I cared least about, was assured salvation!
The Narnia I loved – that magical Arcadia half-way between dreaming and waking – was replaced by something I found utterly incomprehensible. “Like an onion, but bigger on the inside” – what utter madness, I remember thinking, that doesn’t make sense at all! My visual imagination struggled to grasp this eschatological bulb, trying to imagine it as simultaneously England-and-Narnia-and-Everywhere all at once. I failed. The Christian intention of the books, once entirely invisible to me, had now become all there was to see. Aslan’s Country was an entirely foreign land to me.
I was nine or ten at the time, and I cried. I cried because I didn’t understand why Narnia had gone, or if it had gone, at all. I cried because I felt that all those nice, ordinary Narnians – simple people, who asked for nothing except a peaceful life – must’ve been exactly the sort to be tricked by Shift and his idiotic donkey-lion, Puzzle. Puzzle (and I really couldn’t believe this part) was allowed into this post-Narnia place, despite the fact that he had shown exactly the same level of ignorance that the others had done. they had been damned, yet he had not. I cried because I knew the Narnia I had believed in, was, in the eyes of the author, gone. And what’s more, he felt that was a good thing.
Now I am older. I ended up converting to the faith that Lewis himself followed – Anglican Christianity – in the vain hope of recovering some of the mystery I had felt close to in reading those first books, and that had been thoroughly banished by The Last Battle. I now realize that it was at around the time that I read that damn book that the rot to set in – the gradual loss of innocence that was less about becoming interested in stockings and lipstick and boys, as Lewis might have it, and was more about believing the world didn’t actually have any magic in it at all. Lewis successfully broke the spells woven through my Pagan heart, by shattering it in two – for a while, anyway. In the depression that followed, I was vulnerable in precisely the way that Christianity is so adept at exploiting. As such, I became a Christian.
In the end, Christianity did little for me. It energized the worst parts of my character – the self-righteous, self-hating, self-denying tendency that I still have trouble with – and left me feeling harrowed and guilty over my sexuality, my body, and my philosophical outlook. I spent years worrying about being gay and about possibly doing something that would get me sent to hell. The voices I heard on the wind told me I was safe. But the angry words of other Christians told me something different. I doubted.
Gradually, though, I was guided back into Paganism. Those voices in the wind revealed themselves as gods, not one God and his saintly minions. Those angry words were shown to be vacuous and fearful by plenty of good education and reflection. At Cambridge and through Druidry, I found my community – my Narnia. And now, after all these years, I’ve found myself again too. Now, when I look back upon Narnia, I can understand its less pleasant side.
V – Laying siege to Cair Paravel
Although it is fair to extoll Lewis’ oevre as a seamless work of genius, you can see two very distinct sides to the land he envisioned. One, embodied by the central stronghold of the monarchy at Cair Paravel – is deeply Christian in nature; focussed around noble, exemplary people, who do great things for the sake of their faith in Aslan, and can be ranked according to their relative power and sanctity. Its enemies – represented by various other castles, from the giant’s playground at Harfang, to the visciously racist Tashbaan, and the glittering misogynist edifice of the White Witch’s House – rather than being the opposite of Narnia, are more like parodies of Aslan and his power base. The hierarchy imposed through Cair Paravel remains strictly consistent across the canon; coordinated by the Emperor Beyond the Sea through Aslan, his proxy. By contrast, the forces of evil are totally divided. The White Witch. Tash. The Lady of the Green Kirtle. Shift. All move largely independently of one another, whereas Aslan exerts complete and magisterial control over all his agents.
But this axis of united good and disparate evil in a Christian vein is balanced by Narnia’s other side: its Pagan face. Mostly represented by various genius loci (naiads, dryads, hamadryads), fauns, satyrs, centaurs, dwarves, and of course, talking beasts, here is the lived existence of Narnia, between the moments where Aslan (or his enemies) appear and fight it out for supremecy. Because the story turns about the axis of the good and bad castles, we hear about this other aspect to Lewis’ world only in fragments; night dances led by Bacchus, a river god who prefers to be unshackled by bridges. These beings distinguish themselves from the enemies of the Lion, because they all submit to the Emperor, and accept that they live better under his rule. But they nonetheless sit apart from the castle lot – the reason being, that they are disbarred from sitting in government. It is only Sons of Adam, and Daughters of Eve (i.e. humans) who have that right. Just as the gods of Narnia all submit to Aslan, so all Narnia’s other-than-human inhabitants, must submit to human authority. Their diversity is harmless, because it is disempowered.
This is a fudge; a bit of theological fancy footwork, by which Lewis does a cut and shut of Pagan and Christian theology. The Pagan world – of gods, speaking beasts, talking trees, divine waters and so on – is permitted to exist, but only insofar as it submits to the authority of the preordinant Christian cosmos, populated by humans as God’s agents. What’s more, the idea that Paganism can exist independently is not even treated as a possibility; you either fall under the shadow of Cair Paravel, or that of her many enemies.
VI – There, but for the Grace of the Gods
I have a personal theory about Lewis. As a young man, he expressed a deep and abiding love of the myths and stories of Old Europe. He felt keenly aware of this indefinable quality of “Northerness”, that he attempted to capture in Narnia. But as he grew older, he embraced first atheism and then Christianity. Paganism became, for him, a sort of “gateway drug” to Christian belief – in his view, people needed to become good Pagans, before they could be made good Christians. Although in later life he firmly classed Christianity as superior, this was not always how he viewed the world. Personally, I wonder about this theological journey – I suspect that, had Lewis been born some fifty years later or so, he would have happily embraced Paganism from the beginning. Had I lived in the time that he had, I would probably have remained an unhappy Christian – a faun in exile.
Lewis’ vision of Paganism – as the proletarian, lower stratum of a universe over which the Christian God and his chosen followers ride triumphant – is a powerful parable for how we, as Pagans, choose to see ourselves. For contemporary Paganism is like the ordinary Narnia of Lewis’ imagining. We as a society play in our glades, groves, and meads; singing with trees and rivers; feasting and drinking, celebrating with our merry gods without tiring. And yet, all the while, a war is going on: a war between the Ruling Power of our world and His vicious reflections. According to the apologists of Capital, there is no alternative to their glowing vision of a world powered by growth and money. The pitiless extremism of Islamic State, the ruthless despotism of Putin’s Russia – all are every bit as evil as Witches or Telmarines. And so, many of us – like ordinary Narnians – put their trust in a regime that promises to fight for us, rather than fight ourselves for a world where such regimes of threat and counter-threat are no longer necessary.
And what fate awaited such Narnians in The Last Battle? Most of them, confused and frightened, were swallowed up in a world-ending cataclysm, arising not simply from the misdeeds of the Evil Others against whom their Emperor rallied, but from the war itself. Only a precious few – “heroes”, in the eyes of the elite, and not ordinary Narnians at all – survive their world being overturned in fire and water, in time and the wrath of dragons.
The sad fate of the ordinary Narnians is what ultimately awaits us, should we allow the hegemonic forces of our world to set our discourse for us. What we must do is learn how to reclaim Narnia for its people; so that the bucolic vision of joy it inspires is not merely a happy sideshow to the real End of History playing out around it. We are the speaking beasts, the walking trees, the divine waters – Narnia and the North, and all they represent, are our birthright; we must reclaim them from those who would dominate them. Is it possible to live in a world without castles, without the war, without lions and witches? In my heart, there sits a little six year old boy, who dreams of sunny fields and quiet woods where dryads and dwarves dwell untroubled; who knows the answer must be yes.
Jonathan 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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Most people’s knee-jerk response to a question of external ethical systems (are good and evil relative or absolute?) is that morals are human-derived and cultural. On the one hand this is true— in humans everything except fear of falling is learned and therefore culturally derived. On the other hand it is false. All human ‘laws’ are actually justifications: because you have transgressed/ been convicted /are guilty, society as personified by myself or my nominees is justified and right in this punishment. As is most always the case when justification is employed, the justifiers (or ‘right’) are scraping up a bunch of quibbling props to allow them to behave badly towards the guilty party (the ‘wrong’). ‘In this case’, ‘Ordinarily I wouldn’t’, or ‘Now you have forfeited the right’ are all just politer circumlocutions of ‘I know I am acting wrongly, but’ because at heart you know you are dishing out to someone else what you wouldn’t eat yourself. On the gripping hand, it is the impulse towards kindness and consideration, towards mercy— the kernel of ‘nice’ inside the shell of ‘right’— that defines good.
The other knee-jerk response is that (as the absence of light is dark) evil is merely the absence of good and, like moral systems, exists only inside the human mind. Sad to say, belief in Incarnate Evil is an integral part of my world view. Although light (again physics intrudes unpleasantly) has odd properties, it is, however, a real thing— measurable, stable, and part of the external world. We see poorly ‘in the dark’ and cat’s eyes see ‘better’ (more effectively) in low light but the light is the same; the difference is in our equipment, the rods and cones in our respective eyes. If we typify humans as= ‘moral’ and cats as ‘amoral’ then it is our differing ethical equipment that allows the distinction.
Part of our equipment is extrapolation— if a cat wants to sit where another cat is sitting ze will use stern looks, pushing, threats (both auditory and physical), and finally whacking-on-the-noze. Humans sometimes use this same cascade but the civilized expectation is for request and negotiation before pushing. Humans can teach cats with moderate success to not scream and whack in the presence of humans. The cats are employing an external moral system in exactly the same way that many humans do— ‘if I am seen to be doing what is forbidden I will be punished’— the guilt lies in discovery.
Cats extrapolate slightly— if they are not aware of humans they will scream and whack freely, although they will stop and pretend no whacking was occurring as soon as they realize their mistake. Humans do this as well (although they do not break off their fights to groom) but humans can carry this one step further if they choose. Humans can place themselves in the other point-of-view. ‘I would not want to be stuffed in a trash can by someone twice my size‘ ….. ‘perhaps being twice the size of someone does not justify pushing them around’. Cats (as far as I have ever seen) never do this, humans sometimes do.
This extrapolation, the assumption of commonality, is the first step of goodness. Nothing in it actually supports Right Action— if a bully fully and unreservedly expects to be abused by those larger than ze than any action is acceptable. As well, if I like cilantro than I am completely justified in making everyone to whom it tastes like soap eat it too. Giving other humans the choice of self-direction is the other side of ‘moral law’. Free will is everything’s birthright. Not that every being gets to keep their inherent free will; since it is the fulcrum on which everything pivots it is under attack constantly.
On the one hand, systems and individuals try to grab up the free will of others— my laws, my beliefs, my culture, my ‘more powerful than you’ allows me to dictate your behaviour, your beliefs, your right of possession. On the other hand, people constantly tell themselves lies— the laws I live under, the beliefs taught to me, my powerlessness/ unworthiness constrain my thoughts and actions against my will. People search long and hard for ‘masters’ who will accept the responsibility of taking away the power of decision from their followers.
But first, their followers let them.
On the gripping hand, when someone takes away another’s free will by force or when someone denies themselves their own birthright and gives their will to another, they are choosing. When they choose to act (or decide not to act, only the other side of the labrys) their action reverberates— they define how they want the world to be, they pick their own rightness or wrongness, and they inform the Gods and make an offering of that action. It seems a ridiculous weight to put on ‘throw down the wrapper/put it in your pocket for later disposal’ but everything counts. The lie that ‘this is trivial, when it’s important I will make a different choice’ is one of the oftenest-told. A little thought will almost always indicate right action. (sigh) It’s almost always the (slightly or immensely) more difficult action.
The prime directive (don’t be a douche) and the first law (everybeing has free will) are the ideal that underlies not only all human moral systems but also, to some extent, are reflected in the Gods’ interactions with us and each other–and so they are neither culturally learned nor human based.
Sometimes when I discuss my archaic beliefs I am informed with pious condescension that “the Gods are not human”, by which the people I am talking to generally mean ‘the Gods can use dictatorial force and pre-emptive actions and make arbitrary demands if They want to‘. And of course They can because They are not human and are much more powerful than we as well as being largely inscrutable to us. Sometimes our powerlessness and incomprehension seem to make us unable to tell Them ‘no’ when They ask with Their Large Voices (and sometimes we go crazy or die with the ‘no’ on our lips) but They always ask. Examination of multicultural lore shows us this.
The Father of Lies and His Minions, the crafty lying F***ies, have to obtain permission from their victims. They, the ultimate free-market capitalists, unhesitatingly tell lies about their offers but if they can convince people that rotten husks and stagnant water in a hovel is a magical feast in an other-world castle, they will honestly come through with the husks and water. Like robber barons throughout time, they will laugh through the cigar smoke and assure each other that those poor folk do not feel things as they do (I’m not a douche and you’re not one either) and that if only they weren’t so stupid and not-really-like-us they would be one-of-us (only everybeing we give ‘being’ status to has free will). Even Yahweh, the toughest game-show-host ever, is playing ‘let’s make a deal’ with Abraham.
This we read in lore; what is undocumented belief on my part is that the Good Gods (not Those who act with demonstrable ethics, They all do, but Those who act for the betterment of Their acolytes) are more powerful than the Not-Good UnGods. And that They are aware of and amenable to an on-going communication (as in ‘I speak to You who have often spoken/ Let the bond between us be unbroken’). When I am threatened by Evil or by my own stupidity, often the Good (although fairly demanding) Goddess to Whom I am dedicated will nudge aside the worst outcome:
The Hand of the Goddess over me, The Gods between me and harm. Let it be so; so let it be- Your power works the charm.
Judith O’Grady is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’). She’s also the author of God-Speaking.