Heresies II: Being and Divinity

Floralia_in_Aquincum

Polytheism: Old answers, to new questions

i – The Question at Hand

Debates about the existence of (the Monotheistic) God have been going on for ages, and have gone nowhere interesting for almost as long. A regular dance now plays out – where believers and non-believers dodge and weave around the bones of Augustine and Aquinas, Voltaire and Kant, their jousts and jibes predictably inconclusive. I think part of the problem is that what we have is a disagreement between apologists and critics – people who want to defend a particular theory, and those who wish to poke holes in it. What’s more, that “particular theory” is the rather narrow beam of mainline Christian theology – set in stone and ink in a hundred or more synods and councils since Nicea. What nobody ever seems to do in the debate over the Man Upstairs is speculate – theorise openly about what sort of god, if any, the evidence might point towards. It is worth remembering that the question posed – in TV debates and radio discussions around the world – is always “Does God exist?” (never “gods”). Nobody asks “In what ways might the gods exist – from the available evidence we can muster?”

The former question is very narrow, and this can be seen in the lines claimed by the belligerents in the debate itself. Atheists tend to merely claim that God is a “delusion” concerning a “supernatural being” or a “creative intelligence” hypothesis that has now been exceeded. Monotheists tend to agree (apart from the delusion-and-hypothesis part), viewing the traits of supernaturalism and creative intelligence as the natural conclusions to draw from the various omnies they attribute to God – omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence. This view has a long (Christian and Islamic) philosophical provenance, and aside from being logically fraught, it seems to say more about what Divinity does than what it is. Even labels like “supernatural” tell us nothing other than this being or quality doesn’t fit within our world. It doesn’t stipulate how its own world functions, or how we might identify its effects on this one. It throws the divine outside of this world, specifically to protect it from scrutiny – something atheists are wont to criticise, but never really transcend. All this verbiage is the intellectual equivalent of kicking the can down the road.

In short, it seems to me that whole debate is badly posed, and badly understood – even by most theists. They cling to one particular image of Divinity, rather than approach that image philosophically and critically. The reason for this is simple – the importance of upholding the right set of beliefs in Christianity has always been paramount, and is of considerable importance in the other Abrahamic faiths. As such, rather than openly ask the question “What is this Divine thing anyway?”, theists have spent much of their time in the recent past trying to justify other people’s answers (i.e. those of Biblical or Quranic prophets) to this basic question, while atheists have spent most of their time trying to torpedo those same answers. To use an awful academic phrase, nobody is doing any blue sky research. Or nobody participating in the debate is, at any rate.

Imagine if we asked the same question of other things. It looks patently stupid if we apply it to physical objects – when Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbited the sun, nobody began to ask “Does the Earth exist?”, after all. But a more telling comparison arises when we think on immaterial qualities. When Charles Darwin discovered evolution, nobody (or almost nobody) questioned the existence of humanity itself as a category. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, nobody asked “Does the economy exist?” This a particularly good comparison to strike, as the economy is very much a product of human artifice – it is imagined, a fiction, “made up” – and yet it has very real consequences for how we each lead our lives. It is quite real. Nobody denies its reality, and although many of us want to see the entire system transformed, root and stem, there is nobody who either suggests that all exchange between persons should be abolished, or that such exchange doesn’t exist in the first place. So even if the atheists were right in claiming that the gods were brought into being by men (and I do not believe they are), that doesn’t necessarily mean the gods aren’t there at all.

My approach has always been one of looking to the blue sky for answers; always one of trying to explain experiences I have, rather than attempting to defend a theory somebody else has provided for those experiences. For me, the Divine is as real as joy, power or the colour green – it is something I experience directly. So the question isn’t “does this exist?” but “how does this exist?” How does this relate to the world, of which I am also part? This approach – known in philosophical circles as “Natural Theology” – is not only worthwhile because it allows for free and open speculation towards the gods, of the sort we would use for any part of reality – it also allows us to escape two basic contradictions; one in monotheism, one in atheism; that still dominate popular discourse about divinity.

ii – The First Contradiction

Monotheism is predicated on the notion that there is only one god; powerful and eternal. But as is pointed out in Steven Dillon’s excellent text on the subject, this is flatly contradicted by two facts, namely:

a) Many people have wildly contradictory experiences of “God”. He is alternately male and female, kind and cruel, helpful and harmful, generous and selfish, forgiving and grudging, wise and stupid, immanent and transcendent. One is not meant to be all things to all men, but this being supposedly manages it.
b) Still more people – throughout history and around the world, of good character and with no reason to lie – have experiences of more than one god. They meet these beings, work with them, understand them as well as we understand any human person we might meet.

Now, the usual monotheist apologetic for dealing with this is threefold: God’s superlative quality means that he not limited by human perception of his qualities; human beings frequently lie, forget, and are deluded about god; and that these other gods who behave in ways unlike the One True God, are actually devils sent to trick us.

The first of these three statements is easy to dismiss; special pleading, without evidence – it’s yet more kicking of the can. The second two bear closer scrutiny. Both of these may indeed be true; we know that human beings are indeed fallible, and there may well be devils, if there is a God (ignoring why a supposedly omnibenevolent, just God would permit such convincing frauds to carry on their business for now). My objection, however, is that both of these explanations sound suspiciously like gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a means by which abusers twist or manipulate information in such a way that benefits them – denying that a victim’s own experiences of the world (i.e. that social workers, friends, and family are helpful and kind; that you yourself know what’s good for you) are valid (i.e. social workers, friends, and family are all secretly plotting against you; you don’t know what’s good for you – I do). When you consider the behaviour of “God” – the blatant obsession with controlling his followers, the constant threat of (eternal) pain, the desire to police their thoughts, the push to attract more followers, and punish those who disobey, accompanied by the near-constant lip-service towards love and kindness; what emerges is not a kind and loving Father, but a vicious and persistent abuser. In this context, the apologetics of monotheistic theology are unmasked as a rather transparent attempt to separate devotees from those who might otherwise be able to help them – that is to say, other gods, and first and foremost the good sense and genius of each follower in themselves.

With this in mind, there seems to be little reason to doubt such an overwhelmingly well-attested report as that of there being many gods; not just as an article of faith, but a vital step towards personal liberation from long-lasting patterns of abuse on a cultural scale.

iii – The Second Contradiction

From a reductionist atheist perspective, the gods are just mere imagination – voices in the head, created by some quirk in the evolution of the brain. Primitive man, so the theory goes, personified natural phenomena – thunderstorms, dreams, spring, childbirth – in an attempt to better relate to them. Those who still express this trait are a throwback to this earlier time, before mankind developed reason as a better way of understand the world. In anthropology, this idea was championed by Edward Tylor, who believed that religion was a “survival” from a prior phase of human evolution. He was working in 19th century, and his ideas are now seen as highly antiquated by contemporary anthropologists of religion. But they still prove popular amongst certain atheists – particularly Richard Dawkins – because they serve the same purpose for which Tylor originally thought them up – to discredit religious beliefs. There are some Pagans who, quite happily, base their own practice on this theory; here, the gods are just human projections onto the world, protected from refutation by a postmodern affirmation of personal experience. There is a delicious irony in how a theory devised by a sceptic to skewer religion for good has ended up being retro-fitted as a kind of Natural Theology for a relativistic age.

The problem for this reductionist disavowal of the gods is, of course, that lots of other things exist primarily as structures in the brain – not least consciousness itself. Physically speaking, my humanity, that of all the people I know, and the personas of my gods are composed of much the same stuff – neurological matter. If we take a materialist view of the world, my sense of “I” and my sense of “Sulis”, “Frey” or “Nodens” are basically the same mental function – the brain being able to create a particular sensation, in this case, one of persona and agency. We see that this places atheism in a bind; if [a] god does not exist because my experience of it is solely in my head, then my consciousness does not exist by the same token – both are mere shadows on the wall. If we put the gods on the bus, then we will surely join them soon after. What will be left behind are mere bodies; capable of nothing but empty production and consumption, devoid of any meaning or purpose, and easily exploited. This point has been made excellently elsewhere on this blog; but suffice to say, if we kill the gods, then we wipe out ourselves too. The claim that gods do not exist because we imagine that they are there, also indicates that our own consciousness does not exist, because we imagine it is there.

iv – Weighing and Measuring – Towards Better Questions

Here, we have taken the measure of the two conventional stances taken in the debate – that of conventional Monotheism, and that of conventional Atheism. Both, as we have seen, are blighted by fundamental flaws, that conflict with the commonsense view of reality – monotheism is contradicted by the fact that many gods have been met by humans; the flat out denial of the gods on the basis that they are imaginary would also require denying humanity as a “delusion” as well.

So how might we construct a more robust, natural theology?

v – On the Nature of the Gods

We know, from a vast array of historical and personal evidence, that gods exist. They are awesome, powerful, and long-lived beings. From the second contradiction, we know that the gods share their interiority – in some degree – with humanity. From the first, we know that they can lie.

Many of them appear to be embodied by natural forces and features of the landscape. Others are connected with forces and powers that are found within human society – like love, and war, and victory. They are mortal. They can kill. And they can lie. Humans can become divine through theosis, and gods can become human through incarnation.

From a moral perspective, gods seem little different to human beings; some are good, some are bad, all have virtues and vices. As such, we should approach our relations with them in much the same way as we do with one another – showing respect, giving credit where credit is due, and avoiding those who give the signs of being abusive or cruel. Gods may be much wiser than we are, much kinder, much braver – but they are still people, and so, they might not. We must use our own discretion, and that of those we trust, to be sure.

The relationship divinities have with their physical manifestations appears to be the major difference they have with humans. Simply put, humans are tied to and defined by our mortal bodies, in a way that gods are not. We find mirroring of this in the ancient texts, where what marks humanity and the gods apart is not their power, their supernatural station, or their cosmogonic role – indeed, humans often fill these roles too – rather, it is the fact that they eat food that makes them immortal. Ambrosia or apples or the bread of life; it makes no difference. Because they are not tied down by life as we are, they can extend far more broadly throughout time and matter; so that, as Thales once said “All things are full of the gods”. Man, sadly, appears to be mostly full of himself.

Words for Sale: A Critical Political Economy of Paganism

by Jonathan Woolley

Image from flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Image created by Tax Credits, sourced from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of days ago, Rhyd wrote an excellent essay on the Faustian pact of Google Analytics, and other similar software packages. Sure, you get all sorts of interesting information out, he explained, but at its heart, this seemingly benign, innovative means of objectively assessing impact and reach – the sort of thing authors endlessly agonise about, particularly in such a crowded forum as the internet – allows Google and other organisations to collect detailed information about your readership; for sale to the highest bidder. Like so much in our society, when you reflect upon the ways in which influence, money, management and labour intersect within SEO, social media, and the like – a form of reflection called “political economy” – an unsavory commercial logic emerges from the undergrowth.

Sadly, Paganism is no different.

Going Critical

It is possible to write a political economy of any human community. From tiny Amazonian villages, to vast multinationals; all can be understood in terms of flows of power and produce, that are quite literally the meat and drink of our existences.

It is interesting, therefore, that despite the universal scope of this method; nobody has yet – to my knowledge, anyway – attempted to explore Paganism in such a fashion. Magliocco focuses on folklore; Luhrmann on logic; Salomonsen on gender; Hutton on history; Harvey on cultural comparison – in all their analyses, they touch upon the political and economic activities of Pagans, but no scholar has yet attempted a full-bore political economic analysis of contemporary Paganism itself. Of course, this generation of scholars belong to a very specific project; seeking to normalise Paganism in order to protect it from accusations of spuriousness from academics, and immorality from the mainstream. As such, they tend to stress the extent to which Pagans are also “normal people” – with normal jobs, normal houses, normal relationships, and the normal range of political and social opinions. Irrespective of our eccentric dress, our fantastic language, our rites, spells, conversations with gods and poetic madnesses; we are, first and foremost, part of the modern world. Because of this, the study of Pagan political economy becomes a non-subject; our economic relations are simply the same as those of everyone else. In such circumstances, the development of a critical account of Pagan political economy – that problematised this “normalness” of Pagans, and attempted to unpick it – was intellectually unnecessary, and politically undesirable. But in the past 20 years or so, Paganism has matured, and so now the time is ripe for such an analysis.

When one takes this critical stance, the forms of organisation normally described within Paganism – covens, groves, traditions and so on – fade away, and a very different structure emerges. Different, not just from how we describe ourselves, but from the social orders we find in other religions. We find few churches, monasteries, temples, or mosques – those that do exist, often struggle. In Paganism, centre stage is taken a small circle of private individuals – primarily authors and teachers. In Britain, this means names like Philip Carr-Gomm, Vivianne Crowley, Nigel Pennick, Prudence Jones, Caitlin and John Matthews, Pete Carroll, Rae Beth, and Emma Restall-Orr. They make their living – partly or wholly – by selling their ideas; through writing books, and holding workshops. Around this core of content creators, you have a network of bookshops, occult suppliers, robemakers, celebrants, and healers – all working in ways inspired by the writings of those at the centre of the network.

Surrounding this central core of those who are primarily or solely employed in Paganism, you have a second group – employees of the muggle world. Some – like those working in Forest Schools, or Counselling – have employment that dovetails neatly with the ideas at Paganism’s core. Others – those working in more “ordinary” jobs – from Estate Agency, to Local Government, from IT to Retail – do not. In both cases, however, Paganism is something they have to fit in to their spare time, and is something through which they spend their wages, rather than earn them. Financially, this outer corona supports the core – those at its heart would not be able to make a living speaking, celebrating, and writing if those employed outside “the Pagan business” did not buy their products. And, of course, those in the corona are supported emotionally, creatively, and spiritually by those in the core – if they were not, they would not buy what those at the core have to sell.

What I am describing here is quite unlike other religious communities; these are first and foremost collective enterprises – funded by donations, or the state. For all the world, the Pagan community sounds less like a church or a network of temples, or an ummah – for its social order is fundamentally commercial in nature. The corona of those who do Paganism in their free hours is fundamentally a space of consumption – wages spent on services rendered. It is often said, that the difference between Paganism and the New Age is the number of noughts on the workshop ticket prices. This joke is a sword that cuts both ways: although it points out the rapacious greed of certain New Age gurus, it also highlights that Paganism is just as fundamentally market-oriented as they are. With this consumer-vendor dynamic in mind, what becomes clear is that Paganism is less a religion – in terms of its political economy – and more akin to a literary genre, with an accompanying fandom. If we compare worldwide Paganisms to some of the more established fan communities – such as Trekkies, for example – the similarities become almost painful. Both hinge upon a small circle of content creators at the hub of the wheel, whose writings and performances inspire all sorts of sub-creations from fans. It is fitting, therefore, that the largest Pagan gathering on Earth should be a “Con[vention]”.

Pagan Business

With this in mind, we can see how consumerist logic has leached through Pagan culture, even though elements of it that do not carry a price tag. What is the moot, if not a book group? What is the public ritual, if not a LARP? The fact that these things are done for free by passionate and often very well-intentioned supporters, does not negate the fundamentally capitalist exchange that preceded them. The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

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

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

The most fundamental problem, though, is how this allows unhealthy class dynamics to spread within our community. For every one successful Pagan author, there are many many more who dearly wish they could make it in the “Pagan Business”, but instead work in some mind-numbing office job to make ends meet. The vocation of the former, is bought and paid for by the drudgery of the latter. Even those who do succeed are constantly threatened under Capitalism – whether it’s through being out-competed by multinational competitors, exploited when your publisher is bought up by a Market leader, or being ruined when your austerity-hit consumer-base can’t afford your £30 tarot readings or £8 herbal poultices anymore. This is not a game any of us can win.

The dominance of consumer goods – books, candles, incense, space enough in your home to cast circle, salt and so on – within the Pagan sphere sets up obstacles for poorer people wishing to participate, and often relies on exploitative labour in Chinese or Indian factories as part of their manufacturing cycle, or the use of precious resources from fragile ecosystems. Although many fee-charging camps and festivals have ways you can work to earn a ticket – through volunteering in the kitchen or setting up beforehand – even this can create a gulf between those who earn enough to pay outright, and those who have to work.

In all these ways, Paganism is little different from wider society. Our community, like any other under Capitalism, is shot through with consumerism. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What’s more, it shouldn’t.

Disorganised Religion

I find the most frustrating thing about the political economy we currently have – of two concentric rings; of the Content, and the Consumers – is not that it’s undesirable, or unsustainable: rather, what really sticks in my craw is that it’s not even planned. It’s not as if some dark coven, or evil magician has concocted this – that would, at least, give us somebody to blame, and me somebody to castigate here. Rather, this set up has appeared entirely organically; merely as a result of Pagans also being (largely) liberal Western individuals. We simply are repeating the economic patterns that govern our society as a whole, without really thinking about the consequences of this choice, or if there might be a more truly Pagan alternative. Indeed, I suspect many of us doubt that such an alternative is even possible.

It’s common for Pagans to describe the fact that we express “disorganised religion” with some degree of pride. I firmly support the moral of this boast – that there should be no compulsion, no Byzantine hierarchies, no exploitation, in matters religious. But the liberal individualism that many Pagans treasure does not automatically create a utopia, in which we are free to do as our consciences and our gods dictate, in contrast to the rest of society. Rather, the true result is that – without a firm commitment to a different vision of how society might be organized – we just end up replicating the unhealthy relationships that we all experience everyday under capitalism.

Used under Creative Commons, sourced from Wikipedia.

Beyond the crossing of palms with silver

What we need to do is find “cracks”, where our communities, like pavement weeds, can grow. In these autonomous spaces, the strictures of capitalism are held in abeyance, and we are able to live instead under our own laws and principles.

There are many ways in which such cracks can be formed, depending upon the legal and political jurisdiction you find yourself within. I first experienced one such crack with the tribe at Four Quarters Farm in Pennsylvania where I did my undergraduate fieldwork. I was so inspired by their heady mix of sustainable ethics and earthy magics, I resolved to find a tribe living in a crack close to my own landscape. I found such a crack – or the beginnings of one – with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids here in Britain. Philip Carr-Gomm has written an excellent piece on his vision of how Druidry should be organised – not as an ashram, with a guru-like Archdruid ruling the roost at the heart of it all, or a clamorous New Age fair, but rather like a Maori village, with all the people contributing different skills according to their own abilities, and obtaining what they need from others. Societies have existed happily without the Market for thousands of years: providing resources and mutual assistance along ties of love and kinship, rather than through the medium of money and debt. As the OBOD community matures, this is exactly what it is starting to feel like – a network of friends and family, whose common culture and bonds of friendship is beginning to annihilate the distinction between “The Pagan Business” and those who consume its products. Instead, people are beginning to give what they can, to those that need it, for no other reason than they’re part of the same tribe. We might not be able to escape the Capitalist system – yet – but we can at least try to create our own spaces where we can liberate ourselves as far as possible from its pernicious influence. We certainly can change the way we live together, so that our philosophers and ritualists don’t have to hawk their wares, our relics are made sustainably, and our seekers may learn for free,  I’m sure other examples must exist of this nascent “living Paganism” – a network of villages, thriving in the cracks as Capitalism begins to fall. I’d love to hear about them.

There is much more still to be done. Personally, I wonder if what we need now is more ambition within the Pagan community – a drive to build our own structures and spaces, that have the strength and clarity of purpose to resist capital, and to attract like-minded others to our cause. Let’s not have our seekers running the gauntlet of Amazon and MBS-bullshit, wasting money they don’t have before, they can be made welcome into our tribal federation. As a people, we are not averse to seeing visions; let the visions we have now be political and economic visions, and may all the good that we see in them come to pass.

Reclaiming Narnia: Walking Trees, Talking Beasts, Divine Waters

By Jonathan Woolley

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Image by Skullb3at

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

Bparavelecause 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

Snarling_lionAnd 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

Arnold_Böcklin_-_Faun_einer_Amsel_zupfeifendI 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 Woolley

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


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Guerilla Wizardry: DIY spiritual pat(c)hwork

Stick em' up!
Stick em’ up!

By The Dizzy Wizard

All Gods – No Masters!

Mainstream religious thought is rife with oppressive doctrine, patriarchy, and bigotry. Global history is colored by the death that deity worship has caused, yet many of those who deny spiritual practice have adapted or acknowledged the beneficial tenets that are professed by most faiths. That is to say, in all things there is balance if you look past what is presented TO you and instead create something that is made FOR you. Towards this end it helps to dissect the process of spiritual work, utilizing what rites and practices most apply to understanding of the self while discarding or re-purposing the things that are detrimental to personal growth. The result of understanding this process is a personal method of access to an intangible force of nature. More frequently this method of access is used in ritual and energy work termed as “magick”, not in communicating with a cast of characters enforcing rules as professed by many religious institutions.

Anarcho-Spiritualism is not a religion, it is not a doctrine, it isn’t even a collection of “good ideas”, Anarcho-Spiritualism is a political and spiritual practice that encourages the study of theology and the occult outside of any institution or system to further our self-knowledge and effect. Unfortunately the term “spiritual” is so poorly defined that the designation often feels meaningless, spirituality has become a catch-all term for any practice outside of an individuals native culture. In using the term this way, individuals can digest foreign practices while keeping them at arm’s length and avoid having to investigate the practice for themselves. This is a missed opportunity to test the viability of these practices toward personal growth, encouraging mimicry instead of understanding. Anarcho-Spiritualism seeks to find those bits and pieces of learned truth and apply them to the individuals personal, spiritual (non-tangible) practice as they were intended, focusing on integration and avoiding the more surface methods of appropriation. In finding personal connection to esoteric concepts we empower the term “spiritual” as it is shaped by our experience.

With a little help from my friends...
With a little help from my friends…

Religious institutions, the feared and derided vehicle of most spiritual thought, have become hollow in their modern incarnation. Their adherents are often ignorant to the nuances of faith and use religion as another facet of nationalism instead of as a vehicle towards connection with themselves and one another. If these institutions are now hollow structures then Anarcho-Spiritualists are the squatters of these structures, take from them what is most beneficial and leave the rubble where they have crumbled. Religion itself is a very small part of what we have done with this important evolutionary trait. Our dreams, inventions, expressions of creativity, our senses, our society, are ALL born of this same connection to the collective potentiality and experiences outside our sphere of sensation.

It was by delving into this connection that I first came upon Anarcho thought. Both political and philosophical arguments seldom address their common source, drawing lines in the sand and refusing to acknowledge that all parties are still on the same beach. I sought like so many others to find what I considered to be the larger truth and this led me to anarchy, this led me to believe that freedom from rule is our souls most pure desire and that all beings are connected and inseparable. It seemed that the philosophers and politicians who most feared themselves and their own freedom were the ones most concerned with creating structures and methods of enslavement that prevented the freedoms of others. Personal liberation is the framework that Anarcho thought builds on as the issues and culture change over time.

Within Anarcho-Spiritualism the focus is on self-knowledge, regardless of the innumerable problems we can find outside ourselves it is more important to understand our own perception, bias, and limitation before trying to solve the issues we find in the world-at-large. Fortunately our ambitious attempts to remove the hooks of oppressive systems is itself a form of understanding, it is the understanding of the role we as individuals play in the collective unconscious, in our communities and families, and within society and social circles. Psychological visibility is a reactive image of the self that confirms our existence by responding to our presence. Countering the passive and reactionary function of psychological visibility is the concept of “will”. Will can be described as active desire, it is the force that carries desire outside of the conscious mind of the individual and into the unconscious. This communication has the important function of manipulating the more subtle energies that allow desire to manifest into the physical world, a result of collaboration between our conscious and subconscious minds. If actions really do speak louder than words it is because of our inherent connection to will. Both intentional and unintentional messages can be discerned through an individuals actions, picking up on these cues is an important part of our survival instinct and over time non-verbal communication has taken up a much larger portion of our daily interactions.

Free thinking individuals are far and away the best at detecting the stark differences between what is said and what is done. Honesty and integrity are paramount within both anarcho and spiritual communities, those who harbor ill intent are often outed and pushed for clarification lest they be expelled and marked as unwelcome. This communal decision-making is a trademark of these communities that sets them apart from the more popular “follow-the-leader” style groups, and is both their greatest strength and weakness. Movements and actions are too often stymied by a chaotic battle between the wills of just a handful of individuals. Those who are less aggressive become marginalized and their wills are pushed aside for the sake of a dramatic argument to take place by wills seeking dominance as a result of fear for their survival. Within these environments the noble tenets of equanimity, inclusiveness, and tolerance are thrown out the door in favor of semantics, accusation, and petty argument.

That's the ticket!
That’s the ticket!

The structure of the Corporate class ensures cohesive decision-making through forcing the wills of the many to submit to the fascistic orders handed down by a select few. This structure is similar to religious institutions, the difference being that the God of the upper economic classes is capital and the most influential or wealthy members act as their priests. A model that is this deplorable, brutal, and effective requires an equally cohesive communal force to oppose it. Even though we are not prone to submission and do not run from these conflicts, progress is slow. Most of the damage that is done to capitalism is self-inflicted due to the systems inherent flaws.

I have not found a code of ethics more beneficial to all life than the ethics of anarcho philosophy, Anarchists have taken responsibility for the role our species has in this world and have tasked themselves with diminishing harm and increasing global cooperation without national, economic, or imperial intentions. If there is no cooperation between equal wills then the chance of appealing to those who stand on the side of capital is nil. Adding a spiritual practice to anarcho philosophy allows greater communication through increased conceptual understanding of human interaction and self-knowledge. Political involvement should not be the primary characteristic that makes a person “complete”, nor should they define an individual’s personality. What is needed are complete individuals coming together to create a whole movement. This is a requisite for any healthy relationship to grow, yet this “wholeness” is commonly lacking even in interpersonal relationships between empathetic actors. Spiritual exploration reveals the strongest threads that support the interconnection of all life, in understanding ourselves we will understand one another and reinvigorate the desire to preserve life and grow towards a common aim.

While popular religious currents serve to separate us from one another and from our true self, there are some modern environments which facilitate this growth. In studying and utilizing historical methods of connection to a force outside ourselves we find the tools of change that best suit our personality without allowing them to become our identity. It is a wide gate that leads to a narrow path, Anarcho-Spirituality encourages walking our own path until we find the clearing that encompasses all of humanity. Humans posses a unique evolutionary ability to manipulate invisible forces that make real change in the physical world our bodies inhabit. Ignoring this trait does not lessen its ability, only the ability of the individual to take part in the constant creation of objective reality. In the case of the Anarchist, who espouses equality and community above all else, a diluted will is a detriment to the battle for life itself. In knowing ourselves we will know the machinations of the universe, in knowing the universe we will change the world.

All Gods – No Masters!

The Dizzy Wizard

DizzyTaking Khalil Gibran’s statement, “Your daily life is your temple, and your religion” to heart, The Dizzy Wizard believes that there is magick in every moment. Focusing on Anarcho-Spiritual topics, he writes with the aim of exploring the forces behind the godforms and their paradigms as well as manifesting these forces to combat the archon known as, “Capitalism”.