Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader, edited and introduced by Peter Marshall, is a brief but wide-ranging introduction to the writings of a man who is often considered the founder of anarchism. William Godwin (1756–1836) was the first major philosopher to propose a decentralized directly-democratic society made up of small self-governing communities, and he also anticipated several of the major arguments of later radicals such as Marx and Kropotkin on issues such as private property and the labor theory of value. If you’re interested in the classical anarchist philosophers but you don’t know where to start, you could definitely do worse than this collection of short passages drawn from Godwin’s works. Unlike Bakunin and Kropotkin, who can be difficult to read because of their frequent references to events and conditions that are no longer current, Godwin expressed himself in general principles. This gives his ideas a clarity and directness often lacking in other works. Here’s his argument against the benefits of government:
The most desirable condition of the human species is a state of society.
The injustice and violence of men in a state of society produced the demand for government.
Government, as it was forced upon mankind by their vices, so has it commonly been the creature of their ignorance and mistake.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.
By concentrating the force of the community, it gives occasion to wild projects of calamity, to oppression, despotism, war and conquest.
By perpetuating and aggravating the inequality of property, it fosters many injurious passions, and excites men to the practice of robbery and fraud.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but its effect has been to embody and perpetuate it. (Pages 48-49)
Despite his radical philosophy, Godwin was not a revolutionary like Bakunin or Kropotkin. He believed that society would steadily improve through rational discussion and calm debate, eventually leading to the abolition of the State without revolutionary violence. Many anarchists will see this as a flaw in his analysis, because Godwin’s approach would force millions and millions of people to suffer patiently for generations under tyrannical rule in the naïve hope that reason must eventually prevail. Despite this flaw, I find Godwin’s calm approach much more accessible and humane than Bakunin’s fiery apocalyptic pronouncements. Godwin may also have more to offer pagan anarchists, because major elements of his philosophy are drawn from the ancient pagan thinkers.
Bakunin was not only an atheist, but a militant materialist and anti-theist. Godwin was officially an atheist too, but in a much more nuanced way. He was an “immaterialist” or idealist, believing matter to be a function of mind rather than the other way around. This unusual viewpoint is most often found among Platonists, and it tends to lead to the vague non-anthropomorphic theism which Godwin apparently adopted in later life. He was also fascinated with the occult, and wrote a Lives of the Necromancerswhich has probably not been read by very many anarchists.
The influence of pagan philosophy on Godwin is less obvious, but anyone familiar with Epicurus and Epictetus will easily recognize the ideas of these bitterly opposed ancient thinkers in Godwin’s writings. For example, Godwin tells us:
The true object of moral and political disquisition, is pleasure or happiness.
The primary, or earliest, class of human pleasures is the pleasures of the external senses.
In addition to these, man is susceptible of certain secondary pleasures, as the pleasures of intellectual feeling, the pleasures of sympathy, and the pleasures of self-approbation.
The secondary pleasures are probably more exquisite than the primary… (Romantic Rationalist, page 48)
This is nothing other than the core doctrine of ancient Epicureanism. The Stoics, enemies of the Epicureans, accused them of decadence and hedonism because they based their ethics on human pleasure. The Epicureans countered that the highest pleasures were friendship and stimulating conversation, and therefore the true Epicurean was not so much a hedonist as a person who knew how to throw a really great dinner party.
Godwin also tells us:
Justice requires that I should put myself in the place of an impartial spectator of human concerns, and divest myself of retrospect to my own predilections… Duty is that mode of action which constitutes the best application of the capacity of the individual to the general advantage… The voluntary actions of men are under the direction of their feelings.
Reason is not an independent principle, and has no tendency to excite us to action; in a practical view, it is merely a comparison and balancing of different feelings.
Reason, though it cannot excite us to action, is calculated to regulate our conduct, according to the comparative worth it ascribes to different excitements.
It is to the improvement of reason therefore that we are to look for the improvement of our social condition. (Romantic Rationalist, pages 49-50)
Godwin’s claim that reason is “a comparison and balancing of different feelings” is an original contribution (and a convincing one). Everything else in this argument is simply a paraphrase of the core argument of ancient Stoicism: justice is the highest good; reason is the uniquely human capacity to choose between rival claims on our judgment; we can best improve society by making our reason the cornerstone of all our decision-making.
The Stoics would defy authority rather than obey an unjust order, but in practice they tended to be politically conservative. The Epicureans were also a lot more likely to be found hosting dinner parties than putting up barricades. Yet Godwin somehow synthesized these opposing philosophies from the ancient pagan world to produce modern anarchism. If the whole point of society is to improve and increase human happiness and if this is best achieved when we allow our reason to regulate all our actions, then the greatest mistake any society can make is to interfere with the free exercise of our autonomous judgment and thus interfere with the general happiness. Thus, all systems of government are both oppressive and inefficient. Godwin may well have been overly optimistic about the power of reason, but his synthesis of pagan philosophies produced a vision that remains inspiring: a society of equality, dignity and autonomy.
Romantic Rationalist includes passages from Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice as well as his novels and other writings. The passages are organized into chapters (such as “Ethics,” and “Politics”) and themes (such as “Duty” and “Rights”) to make it easier to find Godwin’s thoughts on any particular topic. Editor Peter Marshall is the author of Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, which is a comprehensive if not massive work. At under 200 pages, Romantic Rationalist is a less intimidating way to dip your toes in the deep waters of anarchist thought.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.
The “mask of the warrior” I wrote about in Strong Toward the Powerful is no longer hypothetical. All over the United States, people determined to resist the Trump regime and its fascist allies are masking up and taking to the streets.
The black mask of antifascism scares some people, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When you’re faced with a threat as serious as this one, there is no ethical option except to fight back. “Fighting” can mean many different things, and in any conflict throughout history most participants are not in frontline roles. This struggle needs everyone, not only those who are prepared to personally put a mask on and punch a Nazi leader in the face.
There are some highly effective and disruptive nonviolent tactics available for those who are simply unwilling to throw a punch no matter what. The heroic water protectors at Standing Rock have repeatedly put their own bodies on the line without harming their opponents. However, there is also a type of “pacifism” that is far less admirable, because it mostly consists of lecturing other protesters about nonviolence while refusing to take any risks or carry out any effective action at all.
In its most extreme form, pure pacifism is a false value system, a self-serving attempt to maintain one’s own moral purity even if it means allowing torture, murder and every other atrocity to go unchallenged. It is also extremely rare, because hardly anyone who claims to be a pacifist is truly a pacifist. Most of the liberals who condemn anti-fascist and Black Bloc activity and claim to support only non-violent methods are simply being hypocrites.
If you have supported any military intervention anywhere for any reason, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. (Not even if the president who sent the troops into battle was a Democrat!) Bombs, missiles and bullets do the same thing to human bodies no matter who pulls the trigger, pushes the button or gives the order.
If there are any circumstances under which you would call the police, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. The police carry batons, stun guns, pepper spray and firearms and they will use any or all of those on anyone who resists them. When you make the decision to call the police on a person, you are using violence or the threat of violence to achieve your objectives in the situation — even if those objectives are perfectly noble. Violence does not magically become less violent when you contract it out.
When people condemn “violent protests” but support the police and the military, they are not taking a pacifist position at all but an authoritarian one. Right now, as you read this, there are Antifa volunteers fighting with the YPG against Daesh in Syria. The YPG has American support, so they are widely seen as heroes of the “War on Terror.” When Antifa shuts down a Nazi rally here in the United States, our enemies on the Right denounce us as terrorists and some liberals go along with them. Antifa fights against fascists all over the world, the only difference between one situation and the other is that they have our government’s blessing in one case and not in the other. That is not a coherent moral stance. Simply put, the people complaining about Antifa have bought into the State’s claim to hold a monopoly on the use of violence. That’s all the State really is, after all — an armed organization that has successfully claimed a monopoly on violence within a certain territory.
The State has a vested interest in obscuring this fact, so it defines “terrorism” not as an attempt to terrorize but as any political violence carried out without government permission. When Al Qaeda blows up a wedding party with a suicide bomb, it’s committing terrorism. When the CIA does the exact same thing with a drone strike, it’s fighting terrorism.
Not surprisingly, anarchists do not consider this distinction to be legitimate. If violence is always unjustifiable it remains unjustifiable when committed by the agents of the State. If violence is sometimes necessary, it remains so regardless of whether the fighters are wearing the right uniform or not.
If pacifism is often an incoherent and hypocritical position, what about its opposite? Some people romanticize armed struggle without asking themselves how well it really works in practice or under what specific circumstances it would be justifiable or necessary. Anyone who has studied the history of armed struggle knows that it rarely achieves the intended results. Just because a tactic is more destructive does not mean it is more effective. It would be far better to never get involved in radical politics at all than to simply ruin lives and destroy things while leaving society as unjust and oppressive as you found it. My personal opinion is that people should only take up arms when they have no other choice. How do you know when you have no other choice? I can’t answer that riddle for anyone; it depends entirely on your real circumstances. Study the history of armed uprisings and you will not find yourself eager to try it if you don’t have to.
Among the anarchist philosophers, Godwin rejected revolutionary violence because coercion of any kind was against the principles he stood for. Bakunin embraced it, because he thought the oppressive power of the State could be broken only through a cataclysm. I don’t exactly take either position. When it comes to anarchism, I am content to spread my ideas by writing and talking about them, like Godwin. When it comes to resisting tyranny and fascism, I believe in fighting back. However, I don’t think that “fighting back” means nihilistic destruction. There’s a scene in the Tain where the hills and plains of Ulster literally turn gray from all the pulverized brains. I think we can all agree that this is not the outcome we’re going for! It’s not as simple as saying that you are either for violence or against it. When it comes to punching Nazis, I am for. When it comes to coating the landscape with random brains, I am definitely against.
Some fanatics on the Right — including Steve Bannon — have been fantasizing for years about an apocalyptic civil war to cleanse the nation of people like you and me. No individual person can have much effect on whether a civil war happens or not, but the fact that it’s even being talked about should terrify you. You could make a case that we should be getting ready for a worst-case scenario, but anyone who would try to make it happen is not your friend.
If you agree with my analysis, neither pure pacifism nor its opposite are justifiable positions. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a nuanced position, in which we acknowledge that conflict is a reality while also respecting the sanctity of life.
That’s not an easy answer, because it doesn’t present a clear and unambiguous script for every situation. It leaves the moral complexity of conflict in place and forces you to make decisions contextually, based on what’s really happening in that moment. It requires you to do everything in your power to minimize harm—sometimes by not fighting, sometimes by fighting, and sometimes by choosing one tactic instead of another in the middle of a fight.
As it says in The Instructions of King Cormac:
If you are too hard, you will be broken
If you are too feeble, you will be crushed.
The bombers and bank robbers of the ‘70s were broken; Occupy was crushed. If we don’t want to be broken or crushed, we need to embrace the ambiguity of the situation and wage our struggle in a way that is neither too hard nor too feeble.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.
Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals.
Greece wasn’t really, technically, on fire. Most of it was just falling apart. This was 2011, and austerity measures had been hard at work for a few years already, gutting the economy, destroying lives, and driving half the population to xenophobia. There were a lot of anarchists in prison there, at that time. Well, always. But I was paying extra attention to it just then because I was on a ferry from Italy, heading to Greece for the first time in my life
It was a year of dark epiphanies, a year during which I wrapped my head around a lot of adult, scary bullshit. It was the year I put the words “anxiety” and “panic” to the demon that’d been plaguing my brain. It was the year I realized that actions have consequences beyond immediate and physical ones like getting arrested or injured or sick. It was the year I started to grapple with the divine, death, and family.
I spent two days and a night on the floor of the deck with the other people who don’t have the money for cabins. I watched the Mediterranean go by and tried not to terrify myself with what the Greek border guards might make of me.
“Fuck,” I said to myself, hopefully sub-vocally, “I wish I believed in God.”
To know the divine is one way to gain the strength to move past fear. It would be a lot easier to have that comfort to fall back on.
I wondered for awhile if it’s possible to wage war without faith. Faith in God is probably the common type, but I bet the hordes of godless communists and anarchists who fought fascism in the 20th century had faith of another sort.
The anarchist martyr August Spies (d. 1887) stood on the gallows and shouted: “the day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” That’s a kind of faith.
He was right, what’s more. The martyrdom of him and his four compatriots spurred a national discussion of labor issues and won a great number of people over to anarchism. His grave in Chicago is, ironically, a federally-recognized landmark.
I do have faith. I believe in anarchism—I believe that freedom is a relationship between people, not something doled out by a state or a church or something that springs forth from our wallets. I believe it’s worth fighting for that freedom, even if it scares the living shit out of me to stand up to cops and jailers and all of their ilk. I believe that these ideals, these relationships of freedom we forge in life, will survive my passing.
But on that ferry, I just wished I believed in God. It seemed a simpler way to accept mortality.
The ferry landed, and I got into the country without a hitch. I stumbled my way through a month or so of trying to be useful to the people I care about and the global movement I love. To be frank I’m not sure I had much success at either.
Tradition is a myth, a story we tell each other. 364 days and 23 hours of the year, I despise Christmas music. When I’m with the family I rarely see, at the darkest time of year with the cold about to set in, I understand it. “We’ve grown a little older, we’ve grown a little colder,” goes one chorus.
My immediate family is getting older without a younger generation taking its place, and my extended family seems to be drifting apart. We’re Catholic—culturally at least—and it’s only at Christmas that I see more than a few of my relatives. Christmas Eve has never been the same since my father’s parents died. We get together at the same house, eat the same food, sing the same songs, and it isn’t the same.
Tradition, in a conservative sense, clings to a fictitious, static way of being. Nothing stays the same in this world. The rapid pace of technological development and population growth in the modern era makes the inevitability of change readily apparent, but I believe with all my heart that the environment and the ways of life we develop to interact with that environment have always shifted from generation to generation. The conservative understanding of tradition is a violent lie we tell one another to force conformity to an illusory ideal.
At its best, tradition is a buoy in the chaotic and metaphorical sea of time. It signals the way to shore or at least gives us something to cling to so as to catch our breath. We are not beholden to tradition. It doesn’t confine us, it doesn’t trap us in the past. I’ll call this the liberatory interpretation of tradition mostly because I like the word liberatory (a word which doesn’t exist even though my friends use it all the damn time).
Since no one has ever had much luck forcing me to conform to anything, I’ve never personally been much affected by the conservative understanding of tradition. I’ve never presumed to do what my family says ought to be done. But it took me until the year of dark epiphanies to appreciate the liberatory version.
Winter holidays are the vain and beautiful attempt to drive back the sorrow of aging.
It doesn’t work, in the end, but of course in the end the dark and the cold come for us all.
The men in my family drift in that liminal space between paganism and Catholicism. One winter, one of them said to me: “the reason I like Catholicism is that it’s essentially polytheistic. We revere the saints, each a different aspect of the divine.” Well, I paraphrase him. The next year, he declared he was a pagan. He calls me on winter solstice, sometimes, to wish me a happy new year’s. It warms my heart.
Another dark year, anxiety was doing its best to destroy me. Chest pains, numbness in my limbs and jaw, headaches, and every morning I was wracked with hot and cold flashes for hours at a go. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I knew I was about to.
“You have a guardian angel,” my family told me.
My grandfather was Catholic, probably wasn’t very pagan. He designed ships for the navy, and once they were built he’d make the captain drive them into the worst storms they could find. Safety testing. He stood out on the deck and let the wind and the rain and the waves try to tear apart these ships he’d designed. According to my family, the same divine creature watches over me as watched over him.
It’s easy to poke holes in this. But when I want to be brave, sometimes I think about my granddad on one of his ships.
People are up in arms about how the word “literally” can now, according to the dictionary, be accurately used to mean “figuratively.” People think this is literally the worst thing ever. This never bothered me, personally. I actually thought it was kind of cool to have an expression of hyperbole so strong it says “this isn’t even hyperbole.”
When I think about a literal understanding of the divine, this ambiguous meaning is perfect. My granddad literally had this invisible dude (not God, a minor dude in the invisible pantheon) watching his back who kept him from drowning. When I say literally, I mean figuratively but he meant literally. But it’s the same word because it’s the same thing, in the end.
It’s a shame about what happens when people take their literal gods too literally of course, and start denying that the other people’s literal gods exist. And for all my newfound acceptance of my upbringing, I think it’s outright monstrous to tell a child that if they don’t behave they’ll be tortured for all eternity. But the evidence against every religion that’s ever held power is clearcut and well-documented, unnecessary to explore herein.
Near the end of that dark year, I developed a faith, of sorts. It’s one of the mix-mashed things that takes a reverence for the universe and throws some metaphorical (literal!) gods on top. I’m old enough now that I’m willing to accept that I’m culturally Catholic, but it would be just as honest to call myself an atheist as a pagan. If religion is a metaphor to help us make sense of the fact that we’re skeletons inhabited by colonies of microbes and stitched together with bloody meat, then I figured I could use one. I’d be a chaos magician who doesn’t believe in magic.
My fabricated faith doesn’t do shit for my anxiety. I tried for awhile. I had this mantra: “I am of the earth. I will return to the earth.” I said it to myself as panic came over me in waves, and to be real, it didn’t work. A darker epiphany still: I gave it all this thought, but religion wasn’t enough.
It’s been mostly the detached, scientific Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—and the tools it taught me—that’s gotten me through. As the worst things in my life happen, I go to self-diagnosis mode: how am I feeling, concretely? On an emotional pain scale of 1 to 10, where am I? Where do I think it would appropriate to be? How long does each wave of panic or grief take hold of my mind? How long are the intervals between?
Those are the kinds of questions that work for me. Better than invisible dudes or nature-is-god or even freedom-and-anarchy-are-all-that-matter.
But coming to know the divine, in my own way, has helped me understand the bigger picture. It’s helped me come to terms with the arc of my life, of the role I play as a strand in the woven twine of my family, my movement, and human history. I feel more connected to the earth, I feel more comfortable with the inevitability of my own death.
All light comes from darkness, after all.
is an author and editor who travels with no fixed home. Margaret’s most recent book is A Country of Ghosts, a utopian novel published by Combustion Books in 2014. Find more of Margaret’s words at Birds Before The Storm.
On a cold Sunday evening a few months ago, I left the warmth of my room and my lover’s side, threw a few books into my bag, and took a bus north to meet The Witch.
We’d corresponded a few times before but had never met in person. That happens often when you are a writer–you read someone’s words, you strike up a conversation with them, and talk for quite awhile without embodied relation. So many of the writers I enjoy live in far-flung lands, as do many of the friends I’ve made through my writing, yet we rarely meet. But The Witch was in town for a very brief stay, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see what had gotten so many others enraged at her existence.
The Witch had written something about a goddess, and it made a few people very, very angry.
Many of those people were writers whom I generally thought highly of, who’d positioned themselves as authorities on that particular goddess. But Authority doesn’t like heresy, and the words of the Witch were heresy, and they decided she needed to be stopped.
The attacks mounted against her. Some said she was an idiot, others claimed she had no Authority to speak about that goddess. Others joined in, perhaps eager to appear loyal to the authorities, or perhaps just eager to join in the pogrom.
I really wanted to meet this Witch. The attacks on her writing had been so fierce that her ability to weather them made me suspect she possessed some intense magic. After all, the people who’d assaulted her public presence were quite formidable. Authors of books on that same goddess, powerful priests or shamans with secret initiations, charismatic men claiming endless years of training –the Witch’s power was certainly at least equal to theirs, if her words warranted so many attacks.
I entered the coffee shop and saw her sitting in a corner by the window. It was her, I was certain, but it was hardly who they thought she was. She had power, definitely, but not the sort that they had.
I wanted to laugh at myself for believing the fear of others, but I also wanted to cry. Seeing her there, suddenly understanding what the war against her heresy had really been about felt like a death.
What particularly struck me, sitting across from The Witch in this cafe, was how different she looked from her critics. She was diminutive, almost elfish, Soft-spoken, a bit timid, but evincing exactly the sort of embodied power I’ve come to notice in people who relate with gods and the land. She didn’t dress the part of a priestess of a powerful deity; she dressed the part of a highly-literate, well-centered, deeply-embodied woman who had nothing to prove to the world, who just wanted to write about the really awesome experiences she was having with gods.
Also, I was in awe with her awe. A lightness of being surrounded her, a curiousity, a wonder unmarred by the cynicism and fundamental certainty of those who’d attacked her. That her open heart remained open despite the onslaught, the smears, and the violence marshaled against her ideas proved to me more than anything that she was, indeed, the Witch they had so feared.
We talked for an hour, this beautiful, timid, bookish, soft-spoken and graceful woman. I drank a latte despite the hour, she had peppermint tea. She had an interview the next morning for a librarian position at a University, and so we talked about books, and Seattle, and the city where she lived, and then I finally admitted the perceptual jolt I experienced when I finally saw her in person.
“That was awful,” she said, regarding the relentless attacks. “I had to stop looking at the internet for awhile, and wanted to stop writing.”
What we didn’t talk about was the other thing those priests attacked her for. The Witch was also a Jew, and as some stated she had no ancestral right to talk about her goddess because of this, very few defended her.
Alley Valkyrie and I sat at the base of a Cork Oak in the Pyrenees, grateful for the unexpected cold beneath its branches. Along the Mediterranean side of those mountains, Cork Oak clings to ledges and cliffs, and where they stand they create a shadow deeply welcome in the early summer heat of southern France. The sun shines strongly, baking the skin and the bare rocks, but under the Cork Oaks the temperature drops almost 20 degrees, With the wind which whips through the passes, it can actually get quite cold.
We were glad of it, sweaty and overheated from the strong sun searing through our skin as we picked our way over loose rocks. We were following Le Chemin Walter Benjamin, an old smuggler’s path through the Pyrenees between France and Spain renamed for the most famous person to follow that path.
Walter Benjamin was a mystic, a Marxist theorist, a trained astrologer, and the bane of several Authoritarian regimes because of his theories on history. Also, he was a Jew.
Benjamin is responsible for two revolutionary–and thus dangerous–ideas. The first is that of the Jetztzeit, the mystical moment which coalesces at some point in time where the direction of the world can change. It’s the ‘revolutionary moment,’ before which the world is one thing and after which, if the moment is recognized and acted in, the world is an entirely other thing.
Importantly, the Jetztzeit is a moment recognized best not by political theorists or authoritarian regimes, but by the poets, the artists, and the bardic current in any social struggle. That is, only those with a mystical awareness can see in the shifting tide the point at which the act can change the world.
The Jetztzeit, then, is the moment of the heretics.
While much Marxist and Anarchist thought at the time sought to distance itself from mysticism, Walter Benjamin danced between those worlds and others, or the Other. And regarding that Other is the other concept for which Benjamin is best known, the “Angel of History”:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin saw plenty of wreckage in his lifetime. He was friends with the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (another whose ideas I use a lot in my writing), and both watched the relentless pile-up of carnage in Europe as war broke out. They were together in the city of Marseille as France unsuccessfully fought the German advance. As France fell to the Nazis, the Vichy government forbade exit permits from the country for Jews, trapping him and many others.
Benjamin had received a visa for the United States and had hoped to escape there. Because he could not leave from a French port, the only way to do make the voyage would be to travel through the mountainous regions of Spain (by then fully ruled by Fascist dictator General Franco) to Portugal, where he could take a boat across the Atlantic.
Walter Benjamin left Marseilles for a small town on the border with Spain called Banyuls-sur-Mer. Some communists knew of a route across the mountains to the Spanish town of Portbou, earlier used by leftists in Spain to escape the Fascist round-ups of anarchists.
That’s why Alley and I were on that mountain. We left Banyuls-sur-Mer in the early afternoon and followed his route, past massive Heather, Juniper, Broom and Cork Oak, across loose scree and sudden explosions of wildflowers.
Every guide had stated it was a four hour, 7 kilometer hike across the Pyrenees. Every guide had lied. It’s 4 hours and 7 kilometers to the top of the mountain. We didn’t know it at the time, but It’s another 7 kilometers and three more hours to the end of the trail in the Catalonian town of Portbou.
We’d already drank most of the several liters of water we’d brought with us. We had to catch a train the 50 kilometers back to our campsite in a few hours. We maybe should have turned back at that point. But Walter Benjamin had made that journey as a 48 year old man with a severe heart condition, fleeing from the Nazis with a large suitcase containing his most prized possession, a completed manuscript which did not survive any longer than he did.
It seemed hopeless for us to get there on time, but it had been more hopeless for him, so we continued.
Where really could he have found sanctuary? His Marxism made him an enemy of many in Francoist Spain, his anarchist leanings made him an enemy of Stalin, his Jewishness made him an enemy in France and Germany. Had he even made it somehow through Spain to Portugal, entry into the United States was hardly a guarantee even with a visa, especially because he was a Marxist. No other country in the world has a longer history of violent suppression of Marxist and Anarchist thought. It was no country for heretics.
Walter Benjamin died when he arrived the day after he arrived in Portbou. The Fascist government in Spain had just passed a law that day which would require him to return to France. He could not escape, and he died in his hotel room, possibly of an overdose, possibly by assassination from Stalinists or the Gestapo.
Quoting Kafka on his last day, Benjamin wrote in his journal:
“There is plenty of hope, but not for us.”
I think every heretic has been so hopeless. I was, until I met the Anarchists.
The Anarchists & The Queers
I’m drunk and fucking happy. He’s in my arms, soaking through my skin. I can taste his soul, I’m drinking in his magic. The world has fallen away, or become more world, our bodies locked, our jaws locked in feral mauling. All is passion, all is joy.
We’re in Rennes, France, outside of an anarchist bar. I’d just met my companion a few days before, an anarchist witch like myself, and gay, and hot. He’d taken me the night before to this bar, we were now there with Alley, sitting outside with Breton anarchists laughing, drinking, playing music, discussing revolution and magic and the rise of Fascism in France and America.
Things are bad for leftists everywhere, and really awful for anarchists. In Rennes, though, even as their hope dwindles, Alley and I could see how strong they still are. That day was gay pride, and the government had forbidden demonstrations to punish the leftists. But instead of obeying the Authority of the government, the gays marched anyway, supported by large leftist trade unions and anarchists.
Here, for at least a little while longer, heretics stand together.
My companion and I were being a bit…exhibitionist, perhaps. Never in the US had I felt so comfortable with another man on the street, nor had I ever felt that I was amongst so many people accepting of our passion.
But then I heard from behind us:
I turned to look at them, three men walking by, disgusted by our heresy. How could two men do such things with their bodies? How could others tolerate such profaning of the sacred? I rolled up my sleeves. I didn’t have my passport on me, I knew what would happen if I got arrested for fighting these men, but I didn’t care. And I knew that in France, just like every other country in the world, Authority does not give a shit for sexual heretics.
But just as I steeled myself, ready to defend my world, I watched all the people around me stand and shout.
I was, after all, sitting at an anarchist bar.
What happened after was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my entire life. The homophobes hurled bottles at us, glass shattering at our feet. I was still ready to fight, but before I could even move eight men tore after them faster than I could ever hope to run.
The attackers fled, running just as fast, terrified of what happens when heretics defend each other, stand together against those who would stamp them out.
How tame we have become. How polite about our witchcraft. In our desire to harm none we have become harmless…How much have the elders sold us out, genuflecting to the academy, the establishment, the tabloid press. In return for this bargain we have gained precisely nothing…
…I will not be part of this process, because to do so is to be complicit with the very forces that are destroying all life on earth. It is time for Witchcraft not to choose, but to remember which side it is on in this struggle.
When Gods&Radicals dared confront Fascist and Authoritarian sympathies within Paganism & Polytheism, we got a chance to see precisely the hatred that Authority has for heretics.
A former leader of a Druid tradition warned of the death of Paganism because of our challenge to self-proclaimed elders squatting on their tilting thrones. Polytheist leaders called me and others enemies of the gods and Marxist infiltrators, declaring crusades against the heretics threatening their Authority over the gods, over witchcraft, over druidry, over the sacred. Someone bought the URL’s of my name to sabotage my identity, others called for boycotts, some made threats against supporters of Gods&Radicals and its writers…all because we challenged their Authority.
But while white American Pagans and Polytheists try to protect their petty empires from heretics, the world around us is in a greater conflict.
Capitalism is confronting a crisis of its own making. Climate change is undeniable, mass extinctions increasing. Capitalists know they are the cause, and are starting to realize that the heretics know this too.
When the rich are threatened, they rely on Authority to sustain it. And we don’t need magical sight to see how governments everywhere have tightened their control of their citizens, even as resistance against their hired thugs and murderers explodes in increasing fury. The uprisings of Baltimore and Ferguson in the United States are siblings of the uprisings now in Europe, and on both sides of the ocean Authority tries to displace that rage, strengthening the Nationalist and Fascist tendencies I warned about.
Capitalism needs us to be exhausted, terrified, eager to work for little, eager to fill our worlds with products to replace what it has stolen from us. It needs us to ignore the damage it does to our lives, to nature, to the sacred. And it needs us obedient, docile, afraid to resist, eager to blame whatever scapegoat is puts before us.
It needs us to stop questioning its Authority, and it needs us to hate the heretics who dare suggest otherwise.
Once, Paganism and Witchcraft dared challenge Authority. Once, Pagans and witches knew who they were, enemies of the religion of Capitalism. Once, we knew the weapons we held in our hands and the power of our magic.
Once, we were also heretics.
It’s time to be heretics again.
The Witch I mentioned at the beginning of this essay survived all the attacks against her, becoming stronger as those who who tried to silence her were shown for the thugs they were. Walter Benjamin did not survive, but the heresies he bore into the world are a foundation for everything I write. And in watching a group of anarchists show love for the desire of two gay punk witches against thugs, I’ve seen the seeds of the revolution.
Authority and Capitalists need us to doubt ourselves. They need us to think we cannot experience the world without them, cannot think for ourselves, cannot do for ourselves. They need us to fear death, to fear each other, to fear ourselves.
But it is they who should fear us.
They should fear our magic and our will. They should fear our ability to create a world without them, to create a world where there is no place for Authority or Capital, no place for the rich, no place for the state, no place for the Fascist or the homophobe, no place for the racist or the anti-Semite.
They should fear such heresy.
And they will.
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.
Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.
Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.
What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.
Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).
You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)
Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.
Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.
There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?
And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?
And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.
I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.
Eight years ago, I heard what sounded like a car backfiring. About a minute later, there was a knock on my door. I was half-asleep, got out of bed without throwing on anything but boxers and ran downstairs to see who was there. As I turned the door knob, I heard his voice:
“Help me! Fuck, please help me.“
A man stood before me, holding his stomach in pain. I was a bit slow, had just woken up, was maybe a little drunk, and anyway, I’d never seen so much blood. It was gushing from him, pouring through his hands, staining his shirt and jeans. His fingers were slick with it, there was some on his face, his white athletic shoes were splotched crimson.
“Fuck, man–hold on” I said. “I’ll call 911.”
“No” he shouted, really insistent, suddenly terrified. “They’ll send the cops. You gotta help me.”
I’ve no medical training. There’s realistically nothing I can do for someone who’s been shot. I told him all that, shouting a bit in panic. He was gonna die without medical attention, but would rather risk death than confront the police. What the fuck could I do?
I told him I’d be right back, that I was going to call the medics. I didn’t have a cell phone, so I had to run upstairs to make the call. When I returned downstairs, he was gone.
I didn’t hear sirens for another half-hour.
When the police finally arrived, they came without paramedics. I’d told the dispatcher it was a medical emergency, but they’d sent police instead, officers who seemed much less interested in helping the victim than they were trying to find out more about him. When I told them he’d left, they shrugged, asked me a few more questions, and then bid me goodnight.
I didn’t hear the sirens of an ambulance for another half-hour after that. A full hour had passed between the moment I’d called and the moment paramedics arrived to help him.
I learned the next morning that the man had died in some bushes less than a block away from my house.
Calling the “Authorities”
For months and years later, I couldn’t get the situation out of my head. A Black man came to the door of a white anarchist punk, bleeding from a gunshot wound, and all the anarchist knew to do was to call a phone number. Even though I knew the police didn’t care about people like him, I passed his life into their hands, to Authority. What else could I have done?
You might also find yourself wondering a few things about this situation. Some of those things may embarrass or frustrate you. It’s okay–I went through all those questions too. Questions like: was the man a killer? Had he done something so awful that it was better to die alone than face justice? What could anyone possibly have done for him? And why not call emergency services–that’s what they’re there for, right?
Those questions, those arguments, are all ways we try to find our way back to the reality we know, rather than the reality we’ve just confronted. They’re like our defense mechanism, keeping our mind from shattering when we confront something awful. The closer we get to an awful truth, the more our mind tries to protect us, even to the point of suggesting that a dead Black man maybe deserved to die for his stupidity, or really should have just ‘manned-up’ and faced whatever impending justice he was due.
For me, past all those questions and arguments and defenses was a terrible truth that I didn’t want to see. Despite being an anarchist since I was 19, despite having witnessed really awful things being done to people by police, and despite intellectually knowing that the institution of policing is inherently corrupt, it wasn’t until I faced my own helplessness when confronting a dying human and my automatic reaction–calling the police for help–that I understood how much of our lives we’ve ceded to the police, the State, and Authority.
Now, when an unarmed Black person, adult or child, is killed by police, I am no longer surprised or shocked. Sad, of course, and angry, but to act surprised or appalled would be completely dishonest. Besides, I’ve almost never witnessed police doing something helpful.
I’ve seen ’em do a lot of awful things, though:
I’ve watched friends beaten severely by police in protests.
A lover and I watched a teenage girl in fairy wings get punched and knocked to the ground by a police officer during an anti-war protest.
I saw a bi-racial friend of mine, the most harmless stoner you’ve ever met, forced to the pavement by 8 officers with guns pointed to his head.
During that same incident, I watched my companion get his phone smashed, his head bashed into a wall, and called ‘fucking faggot’ by other officers for trying to film the incident (wrong suspect, it turned out…).
A former client of mine, a deaf native wood-carver namedJohn T. Williams was shot 5 times (four in the back) just outside the shelter where he lived.
I’ve seen transfolk and dragqueens get the shit kicked out of them by angry cops while marching down the street in an ‘unpermitted’ queer march during Gay Pride (to the approval of the mostly white gay male business owners nearby).
I helped defend a queer socialist group from angry harassing protests whom the police actively favored, watching the cops repeatedly threaten us while giving extra allowance to right-wingers driving repurposed military vehicles on the sidewalk.
And I’ve had my own head pounded repeatedly into the hood of a cop car during an arrest because my lover kicked over an A-board sign advertising expensive condos (they didn’t charge me, just roughed me up damn well).
I could go on about all the harassment of homeless people I’ve witnessed, the violence against my social work clients, the batons and bikes used as bludgeons during peaceful protests–all shit I’ve seen in person. As far as my almost 39 years of life have shown me, unprovoked brutality is what police do.
Police, The State, and Capitalism
We call the police “the Authorities for a reason. They function as part of the State, by which I also mean ‘government.’ In fact, the police are the human instruments of most State policies, though they are not the only ones. Police enforce laws that the State has made, enact violence (arrest in the most pleasant situations, beatings and death in others), and otherwise provide a physical manifestation of the State in our everyday lives.
On the surface, police are supposed to protect life and property from thieves and murderers, providing for a sort of ‘general welfare.’ Stopping people who speed on roads (or drive drunk) protects pedestrians and other drivers; breaking up fights or riots protects uninvolved bystanders and nearby businesses.
But in my own experience, the Police don’t exist to protect me. Supposedly, I ‘benefit’ by their existence–they ‘keep me safe’ from murderers and thieves and drunk drivers, though this is an indirect benefit. Neither they nor I could point to a specific moment where someone who might want to kill me was prevented from doing so because the police exist.
In fact, like ‘terrorism,’ the idea that the police protect me from horrible people hell-bent on murdering me is a fantasy; I’m a rather nice guy and don’t go around doing things to make others want me dead. Also, I don’t own much–anyone who’d try to rob me at gunpoint or break into my home would be sorely disappointed. In fact, I’d feel so sorry for their wasted effort I’d likely offer them a cup of tea.
Others, of course, have a lot more to lose, and that’s where we start to understand who the police actually exist to protect. While I never have any more than $500 to my name, and nothing I own could be resold for more than $20 (no smartphone, a dying laptop, no automobile), there are plenty of people who have a lot more than that. If you’re poor and want to go the ‘criminal’ route of getting a little less poor, it makes more sense to steal from a business or someone who actually has money to take. They’re the sorts who need to be protected, because they actually have something someone else would want.
Police exist to protect wealth and those who have it.
The police don’t regularly go around bashing the heads of middle-class housewives in the suburbs against walls, nor do they regularly shoot their husbands or children because they were acting ‘suspicious.’ Why? It’s certainly not because they’re better people than anyone else.
Part of this is that such people tend to be white. But this isn’t the only factor–I’m also white, as were many of the people I’ve witnessed being brutalized by police. While there’s no doubt that the police in the United States are soaked in racism, the primary reason they don’t do these awful things to middle-class and upper-class white people is because the police exist to protect the orderly functioning of Capitalism. White people are wealthier than people of color because Capitalism is inherently racist (as Malcolm X said, “You can’t have Capitalism without Racism”), but racism is not the only reason Black people and indigenous people and immigrants are slaughtered in the US.
Most crimes, particularly after the birth of Capitalism, are so-called ‘property crimes,’ [see Foucault’s Discipline & Punish] because most laws after the birth of Capitalism were made to create, sustain, and protect the new social order capitalists required in order to become wealthy. And the modern police were created in order to enforce those laws. Other policing institutions, such as the FBI, were created in response to the government’s need to investigate and subvert radical miners strikes and anarchists in the early 1900’s, [and we’re still on their shit-list…for community gardens] and later turned the bulk of their efforts against Communists–that is, groups who threatened the Capitalist order.
If you have not personally witnessed violence at the hands of the police, it’s probably because you resemble (or are) the class of people the police are supposed to protect–usually white, never poor, never homeless, and never anti-capitalist. Most of all, you at least ‘appear’ to be no threat to the functioning of Capital or the State.
‘The Will of the People”
Police are not the only group of people charged with wielding the power of the State to ensure its proper functioning. The Military also exists for precisely this same purpose, except it performs these functions in foreign lands, amongst people outside the reach of State police.
Police exist to enforce the laws of a State–in a Democracy, supposedly the ‘will of the people.’ The Military likewise exists to manifest the ‘will of the people,’ except upon foreign people. Certainly, they’re also supposed to also ‘protect’ the people in the State, just like police are charged to protect law-abiding citizens.
And while the police have quite the record of killing unarmed People of Color, their slaughter is nothing compared to that of unarmed People of Color in other lands. For instance, in the first two years of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States military killed 9,720 civilians, 10% of whom were children. [Source]
You might be tempted to shake your head here and say, “But that’s war, right?” But one could just as easily dismiss the death of Tamir Rice or Michael Brown by saying, “but that’s just policing…”
But we should instead ask ourselves: Is there actually a difference between what the military does to other people and what police do here in our countries?
Can we really excuse the deaths of unarmed people in the Middle East at the hands of U.S. and European soldiers (that is, Capitalist Democracies) but not the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police?
And is there maybe no real the difference between the Baltimore Uprising and resistance to military invasion elsewhere?
I, for one, see no difference. I’ll not favor the lives of people in other lands less or more than the lives of people here, nor will I ever allow the ‘Authority to claim it murders on my behalf.
Consider: what, precisely, has the U.S. Military done to manifest my ‘will?’ I don’t drive, so all the oil they’ve secured doesn’t do much good for me. I’m not anti-Muslim or anti-Communist, so none of the wars in the last 38 years personally benefit me. And I don’t have any wealth to steal.
In fact, everything the State has ordered soldiers to do ‘in my name’ has actually been something I’m utterly appalled by. Overthrowing governments, killing kids, making life miserable for millions–why on earth would I want them to do any of those things?
It’s the same with the police. Pushing homeless people around, killing unarmed Black kids and women and men, beating up protesters and queers–I can’t think of a single instance where I’d ever be okay with that stuff.
But then again, I’m not the sort of person the police or military are out to protect, anyway. I have no wealth, own very little, and really don’t like Capitalism or Authority. They certainly must know by now I’d never consent to them murdering in my name.
Besides, I know who both groups are really working for: the State, and the Capitalists for whom the State exists. It’s for them these people are being murdered, them and those who support them.
But not for me….and hopefully not for you, either.
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of A Beautiful Resistance–Everything We Already Are, and co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest and A Kindness of Ravens, and is a columnist for The Wild Hunt.He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men. His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon.com/Paganarch
The phrase ‘Gods & Radicals’, was something of a koan to me when I first considered submitting material to this journal. I’m wary of the term ‘radical’ which so often slips from its original meaning of ‘seeking change from the root up’ into the values-empty ‘change by whatever means necessary’. On a recent walk, however, I found the two words ‘Gods’ and ‘Radicals’ suddenly coming together very naturally …
Making Space for the Other-s
Sometime ago I made a small contribution to a fund-raising campaign to save a gravel pit near my home from commercial development; the intention being to turn it into a wildlife reserve and public space. Amazingly, even in this time of economic austerity, the appeal raised the full amount needed; including £90,000 ($13,7228) from the local community. Then, within mere months of the local Wildlife Trust carrying out the initial habitat creation work, many previously unrecorded or rare species quickly began to arrive; including over a 1000 spiritually iconic and critically endangered northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). That, I realised, is radical! And the fact that so many lapwing arrived so quickly got me to thinking about the status of other displaced beings, including gods, and how they may be wandering and dwindling for want of a place.
Diversity is a hallmark of Gods & Radicals, and a happy one, but I suspect that a common value we may well all share is the certainty that just as we are embodied beings in need of a tangible life-world, so too – in a different but parallel sense – are the gods. One of the definitive phases in the history of disenchantment was surely when people were successfully sold the idea that we need only make a shrine for the sacred ‘in our hearts’.
Not only is there now a new place for a much wider-diversity of beings to exist in my immediate area but local people have gained access to a 115 acre space were they can interact with those beings and with the elements. This again is radical since nearly every other sizeable green space in the area is a private golf course (and our one public local wood is threatened by development). You could say that it is a win for local people’s mental health as much as it is for wildlife.
From a polytheistic point of view it is also, I believe, a small strategic victory in the long-term project of acknowledging the gods and Other-s. A 2014 BBC survey found that two thirds of the British public could not identify the songs of common garden birds such as blackbirds, sparrows or robins. Another 2014 survey by the British Wildlife Centre found that 95 per cent of young children were unable to identify UK animals such as squirrels and otters. If people are unable to identify, are unaware of, or fail to pay attention to other beings such as these; how will they ever apprehend the gods and spirits (especially those which are elusive and reticent after centuries of neglect)? Gradually extending people’s opportunities to encounter the Other-s is a vital step in the process of reenchantment.
What could be an agalma for today?
I think that my comments above make a pretty strong case, but consider this also …
In many historical polytheistic religions, and some modern ones, we find the concept of making gifts or forms to attract and woo the attention of the gods and Other-s. In Hellenic polytheism – at one time – such a gift, often a votive statue, was called an agalma (άγαλμα).
Back then producing something like a bronze statue would have demanded a considerable sacrifice from an individual or community and so it was a highly meaningful gift.  While I am not claiming that producing such an item would be cheap nowadays, the fact remains that what constitutes a sacrifice to us now is very different. Although I’m currently between contracts, the public servant’s wage that I earnt for a decade (which was several thousand pounds below the national average salary) put me in the richest 4% of the world population. In such circumstances, for many of us, what constitutes scarcity is not material goods but space and so-called ‘free time’. These are the two things that are hard for us to access and therefore some of the most precious things we can give.
‘What characterizes European civilization […] is precisely its ex-centered character—the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object-cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of our own civilization.’ 
Considering what might constitute an agalma for today, I’ve suggested that this is time and space. Bearing Žižek’s comment in mind, it then becomes clear why we fall so easily into the activity of colonisation, and it also becomes clear why the careful creation of common spaces within our own societies is so important as an anti-colonial activity.
Equally important to note is that when engaged in both of these activities, colonialism or anti-colonialism, we tend to fill the spaces and time that we claim or reclaim so as to constitute what we – in our loss and yearning – imagine would be a suitable divine lure. In other words we are impatient and assume too much, creating a mirror of our own wants rather than a habitat for the Other-s. As such, excited though I am about what beings I may encounter, I’ll not be preemptively anticipating the presence or attention of any specific deities at the site of the new nature reserve; instead heeding the advice of the poet and anarchist Gary Snyder who says in his book The Practice of the Wild:
‘There’s no rush about calling things sacred. I think we should be patient, and give the land a lot of time to tell us or the people of the future. The cry of a Flicker, the funny urgent chatter of a Grey Squirrel, the acorn whack on a barn roof – are signs enough.’ 
Given time and space – both reclaimed in an ethical way – displaced gods may return and new ones arrive; their coming heralded by the wings of birds.
~ Accipiter Nisus
I could not find an average cost for an agalma type image but Judith Swaddling states on a BBC history article that “Statues of bronze or marble [commissioned by Olympic athletes] could cost up to ten years’ wages for the average worker” (and would often have to be sponsored by the state). Today a 21 cm tall lost-wax bronze statue imported from Nepal via an ethical company costs around one to two months average UK discretionary income (what’s left after paying for food, utilities and travel).
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, (Counterpoint: Berkeley 1990, pp.102-103)
Three things govern the primitive’s conception of the dead person; He continues to live. He is powerful. He is at once well-disposed and malicious – Karl Meuli Gesammelte Schriften
The Hunt wasn’t always a Hunt, it used to be a Host; a carnival, a Mardi Gras, a parade of the dead wearing the flesh of the living. The Hunt came later with time and memory loss. Originally our youngsters would go out and live in the wilds and there they were talk to the dead, to the ungods of the landscape and to the gods themselves. During winter – possibly at the same time as their own initiation rites were taking place – they would put on masks, paint their bodies and return to the people from whom they had been sent to live apart from and for that time they would be the dead of the tribe.
Ancestor cults the world over either view the dead as beings to be feared or as beings with whom to remain in contact; they are often ambivalent about the living and as such, proper treatment and worship can keep them well-disposed to us. The prevalent attitude amongst the vast swathe of Indo-European cultures leans more towards the dead as having an interest in the living, as being concerned with them and their wellbeing as they are their own descendants and family.
This is the important thing; the dead bring fertility and abundance, whether as the ancestors, whether as chthonic beings or whether as spirits who live in the wild beyond human civilization. This transcends human cultures, occurs across the globe and in widely divergent peoples. Maybe the lines between these Outsider groups have blurred and merged in some cases, but the matter remains that the spirits beyond bring the fertility of the Land to us the people.
Traces remain in mid to late-winter practice and folklore; in Slavic countries, the festivities of Koliada and its variants have bands of people in dress and masks roaming towns singing and asking for hospitality. To do so is to bring blessings and good fortune. They represent the dead and Veles (the god of the underworld) who has sent them abroad at this time of year. Gwyn ap Nudd ‘in whom God has set the spirit of the demons of Annwn, lest this world be destroyed’; is a God who is associated with the hunt and this this raises questions about these demons. Peeling aside the Christian glosses, their identity has been suggested as being part of the andedion; agrarian spirits mentioned in the Irish Lebor Gabála as the andée; husbandmen to the Tuatha De Danan. In the British Wild Hunts, we aren’t really given an identity for the entourage with Gwyn or Arawn, but it would be in keeping with continental and comparable sources for them to be the very andedion who strike the medieval writers of the Mabinogion with fear and suspicion. A quick jump across Eurasia to India and we have Rudra’s Maruts; a storm-riding host of warriors that have striking similarities and fit within the mythic framework of the Koryos as Wild Hunt. Most pertinently, they are seen as rain bringers. Over and over we can find elements of surviving myth linking the Wild Hunt, its predecessors, cousins and descendants as having elements of growth, abundance and blessings.
We can’t expect to reinstate the Koryos as it was to our ancestors, however we can try to breathe some life into a cultic arrangement which many of us already dance the edges of.
The Koryos as an institution was about outsiders; people who spent time away from society. Who immersed themselves in the things beyond; in the gods, the ungods and the ancestors. Their practices involved ecstatic trances, shapeshifting and masking. Their gods were the wild, ambivalent ones who lived in the dark, who trod the forests, who hunted and killed and who ruled the dead in the underworld. To many of us, this is exactly what we are doing now. We don’t work in contingents of our kin and we might not work in contingents of our closest friends, but we work with the dead, with the gods and we work outside in the forests, the hills and the wilder places where something refuses to let go despite our species efforts. We are already walking the same footsteps of our ancestors, albeit in different directions and along different paths.
Our gods arise from the landscape and all that lives within it; they are an integral part of it. Destroy the landscape and we cripple and destroy our gods. If we see others inflict damage, pollute and desecrate our gods – why shouldn’t we turn to those skills and practices to stop them?
The Hunt is as much a part of our landscape and our ancestors as it is us. We already run as part of the Hunt when we step beyond the edges of civilisation and go work our magic with the dead or dance with our gods. Regardless of where we run with the Hunt or what quarry we chase down, the important thing is that we join it, ride with it and fully embrace our place as outsiders and join the ultimate expression of being an outsider amongst our gods.
I laid out last month the intention of this working; to create a spirit house within a cairn to act as an altar, a cultic focus and a place of power at which we can call out to the Wild Hunt and to its Leader.
A Hound to pass between us and the Hunt.
Next month will be the final elements of the working, laying out the processes by which we empower the Hound and lay out the first offerings and calls to the Hunt. The final month will be December – the perfect month to perform this working as it is the traditional time for the Hunt to be abroad. I will describe and lay out how I empowered my Hound, raised its cairn and made the first offerings. With a framework in place, the aim is to set you off to do likewise in the appropriate fashion for your landscape, ancestors and Huntsman.
This month however, we shall turn to the cairn. It seems fitting that in the past few days here autumn has found us, the Indian summer of unusual warmth and sunshine has finally lost its strength and we have turned to cooler winds, russet golden trees and the first real hints that a darker and harsher season is advancing.
Part of the preparation for this working is going to be to find a suitable location for the cairn to be raised. As our intention here is to create something focussed on the beyond, the Outside, those from outside civilisation and beneath the Living, the site for the cairn should be outside of cities or towns and in the wilds. That said, there are suitable liminal spaces inside towns and cities if we live there. I live in a fairly central part of London, but I also happen to live alongside one of the old Victorian graveyards. Nunhead cemetery was opened in 1840 as one of the seven great graveyards created to ease the burden on burials of the time. It is around 52 acres (21 hectares) in size, and whilst a small number of burials are still performed there, by and large it has been turned over to a nature reserve. As such it is almost entirely mature woodland and has a thriving diversity of plant and animal life. It happens to be my favoured foraging spot; blackberries, sloes, damsons and feral grapes. The woodland areas have dirt tracks running throughout and it serves as a community space with a lot of people using it for walking themselves and their dogs. We also have some community events such as film screenings in the old bombed out chapel.
The cemetery is a wild place in the middle of civilisation. It is a place of the dead and of the living. I live right on its boundary; the end of my garden is a couple of feet from the closest burials. This is my perfect liminal space between the wild and the civil, between the living and the dead. If I am to create a space for the Hunt, to inter a Hound, this is the perfect place for me.
In creating a cairn for the Hound we will need to find stones from which to raise the cairn over the spirit house. On one hand, if the location allows it might be possible to simply lie the hound upon the soil and pile the stones above it to create the cairn, alternatively – and what I am going to do – it might be better to bury the Hound in a shallow hole (with suitable libations) and then raise a cairn above that. This second method will not only be less conspicuous, but will also offer a small amount of protection for the cairn should it discovered.
That is all that need be done for now; gather your hound, find a place for his cairn and begin any spirit work with that place in preparation.
Kershaw, K. 2000. The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Männerbunde. Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph No. 36. Washington DC
Meuli, K. 1975. Gesammelte Schriften. Thomas Geltzer Ed. Basel: Schwabe.
Parker, W. 2007. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Bardic Press.