Rudely disobeying the fuck out of all that seeks to control.
From Rude Dao
Authenticity is all too rare these days. The individual becomes conquered by society. Hobbies give way to labor. Individual thought becomes entangled with the beast we know as ‘society,’ and is processed into simple-minded, compliant drudgery. Love becomes more of a social norm; almost mandatory. The cliché maintains. Get a job. Contribute to society. Get married. Get a home. Continue societal contribution. Teach offspring the typical, societally accepted path of modernity. Die. This is the reality of most who live in any industrialized society. And it’s oddly accepted.
First, I’d like to give a little background on myself so that my direction can be more personally understood by readers. I lived a relatively sheltered life. I didn’t live in poverty (although my family struggled). I went to school like all the other kids. I was intimidated into christianity because, you know, burning for eternity didn’t sound too enticing. And family is always right, right?
I was taught to always respect authority- without question. If they demand it, you do it. I was told that I was to always be honest, regardless of circumstances. I basically ratted myself out to my mom any time I thought I was doing something ‘wrong.’ And having a very Christian mother, as some can surely testify, almost everything besides worship is wrong.
Then, came highschool. The clusterfuck of institutional learning. At first, I was bullied. I was anti-social. I did not fit in. The clique culture was rather drab to me. So, I continued on the usual path. Comply, ‘learn’, go home, sleep, repeat. Eventually, I met some people who did things differently. Skip school, party, adventure, whatever. The people I started to associate with, although they were sketchy and ultimately awful friends, had one thing in common: they lived as they wished. While I now resent all these people as they’ve turned out to be nothing more than a pack of manipulators, cowards, and traitorous snitches, I can say that I learned a lot. I began doing as I wished. I started slacking in school. I had no personal dilemma in dodging class. In hitting up parties. In avoiding that scary, scary curfew. The time for being manipulated by family, school, religion, and society in general, had ended.
I found myself- as in, I became unique and rebellious. Even though I generally had an issue with any authority as a child, I came to absolutely loathe it as a teen. I started getting arrested. Getting into fights. Expelled from school.
Finally, I found myself in prison. My rebelliousness did not recognize the conventional morality, or legality, of society. I was released. Everything rebellious had been destroyed institutionally (also backed by Christian rhetoric). I became remolded into that un-genuine, monotonous being. Not long had passed before I became fed-up with being used by the system for community service, court fees, and whatever else they could suck out of me. The rebelliousness and pursuit of individual desire, regardless of what authority told me, re-booted.
Since then, I have been in and out of jail and once again, to prison. I’ve had all too many run-ins with cops, judges, and probation officers. Yet, here I am. Still alive. Still unique.
The reason I tell my story is to hopefully provide some level of inspiration for the disenfranchised. The repressed. Those whose individual autonomy and will is repressed by the institutions and regulations of society. Compared to others I have met, my life has been a cake walk. But regardless of background, I would wager a bet that most can relate on some level. We all have felt that sting of having our dreams shot down. Being told that conformity to the current model is the only way. That our aspirations are nothing more than pipe dreams, and that we need to continue down the boring path that society dictates. To society, I can whole-heartedly and passionately say this: Go Fuck Yourself.
Let’s talk about labor. Can we discuss that crazy shit? I get the most boring, drone-minded responses to labor. “You have to,” or “That’s the way it is.” And then, of course, those who pretend to love their work or use some other excuse to write off being used for profit while receiving pennies on the dollar. Aren’t you glad bosses can give us some work so that they, I mean we, can make money? I’d hardly call the ‘free time’ that we receive between work days to be free when you know full well you have to adjust your sleep, personal, and social schedule based around that job. I see jobs take precedence over personal leisure, love, and hobbies almost ten times out of ten. And people are okay with that. If you are okay with being somebody’s wage slave and making minimal to make sure they make optimal, then have at it. Some of us prefer not to be submissive to a system that clearly does nothing but serve everyone but US.
Now, what would labor be without proper education? I sure as hell didn’t learn to paint with 12 years of my life spent in school. It’s quite obvious that public schooling simply serves as another source of indoctrination and submission to authority. Having to sit, against our will, and learn things that will likely never serve us to benefit us, ever. Learning over and over again how to repeat national anthems. How to properly ask authority (teachers) if we can use the bathroom. Or having to raise our hand to insert any opinion in a matter. My favorite was being reprimanded by the big bad principal for breaking rules that I never consensually agreed to obey in the first place (as if I would).
And for most, it doesn’t end at school. The same indoctrination, or justification of such indoctrination, is continued at home, church, etc. Shit, I’ve done martial arts most of my life and the majority of the places maintain that institutional mindset. The “do good and obey” mindset. Ironic, really. All-in-all, school is just a way to maintain the status quo. To turn out more societally compliant individuals. To mold them to society’s needs. To maintain the supposed authenticity of authority. To kill authenticity.
Something else I often critique is etiquette, or niceism. Think about it. Think about how often you say ‘thank you’ without meaning it. Or how we may even apologize for someone else bumping into us. Think about how we blatantly follow etiquette. While it obviously differs culturally and regionally, much of it remains the same in modern society. Cashiers, angry at their jobs, dish out niceties without thought or genuine meaning. Servers bite their tongues when dealing with shitty customers.
We interact based on what we are told is to be civil, nice, or based on proper etiquette. Hell, I enjoy going out of my way at times to be nice and make someone’s day better. But that’s because I chose to. I didn’t do it because it’s a societal norm that has been ingrained into my being since birth. Remember being forced to apologize for things you weren’t sorry for as a child? Etiquette simply serves as a rather superficial way to grease the wheels of society.
If everyone actually said what was on their mind without fear of social repercussions or being outcasted because of a lack of empty-minded etiquette, what would happen to the way things ran? It makes confrontation less likely, sure. But perhaps living in a society that enjoys bubble wrapping social interactions is more of an issue. To make this clear: I’m not talking about just being a random asshole. But I’d rather someone be real with me and say what is on their mind than simply throw me some artificial line that is said more or less impulsively, without character.
Now, on to legality. I frequently see radicals and free thinkers fall into the tragedy of legality. That because, in their mind, some laws are just simply because it covers their personal principle(s)- failing to recognize that legality is a major tool in maintaining this social order. To legitimize legality in any capacity is to give some legitimacy to the state’s ruling and therefore, their methods of handling those who break the law which include (using legal terms): kidnapping, extortion, imprisonment, murder, etc. While I’m not a moralist, I often find myself having to speak from a morally acceptable standpoint just to even get a few words in.
Laws, backed by the judicial system and its goons, the police, serve as a disciplinary measure for the authentic. For those who would seek to live a different, genuine lifestyle. Simply put, they ensure that society stays nice and clean with little hiccups. And those who disobey will be made an example of. Thrown in a pen and mentally (often physically) abused to the point of submission. Laws are the master’s tools used to breed Fear and compliance.
Now that I’ve ranted on about only a few (certainly not all, and not to be dismissive of other issues) of the things that grease the wheels of the monolithic individual killer, what about us? What about those who wish to escape this? This expected lifestyle of monotony, compliance, artificial relations and interactions, repression, and degradation?
I’m not an optimist. I’ve seen too much and felt too much to sit here and lie and say that we can change all this. We won’t undo thousands of years of social conditioning beyond perhaps and individual level. I can’t write an essay and expect to create some free ass rainbow community, all happiness-inclusive. Personally, as far as I’m concerned, this is entirely an individualistic journey. Not to deny the obvious benefits of having comradery and real community. Having love and brother (or sister)hood is an amazing feeling. But I feel that the changes must take place within, initially. It’s not practical to simply withdraw or walk away. The system has done a damn good job of ensuring that we remain meek and domesticated. That we are reliant on the system that enslaves us.
That being said, that doesn’t mean we can’t fight. Maybe it will change something. Maybe it won’t. But damn, I sure as hell feel good after telling a boss off. Or screwing over the system at any chance I get. Nothing beats the feeling of standing up. Now, cursing out a cop isn’t going to destroy the judicial system. Flipping off the boss won’t crush capitalism. But to me, it’s about one thing: RISK. And that’s scary. It’s put me behind bars. In bad situations with sketchy people. But the feeling of freedom in making your own choices, regardless of what you are told, is the most freeing feeling I can imagine. We can sit around and talk all day about how we’d like to act but if you give it a shot, you might find it’s more fathomable than imagined.
The systems won’t collapse because you take a stand for yourself… but you, as an individual, can rise. Once you’ve deconstructed and cast aside all the shit stains of modernity and are able to live an authentic life, the external becomes more easily approachable. There is power in individuality. In genuine, individual authenticity. In being what you want. In doing what you want. You might have to play the game. Escape isn’t always so practical or even rational depending on circumstances. But YOU are what matters, if you declare so to yourself and decide to live for yourself and not the whims of others. Disobedience itself is an amazing act of rebellion against conformity.
It needs no ideology or fixed goal. It need not be rooted in optimism. It simply is. It is choosing self over the society that presumptuously dictated its desires to you. Authenticity shall, and always will, trump conformity and then the Authentic Soul shall be revealed.
I live in the blue ridge mountains and have for the majority of my life. I’m heavily involved in martial arts and enjoy freedom in the wilderness. I enjoy getting Dionysian in the woods while deconstructing notions of civility and ‘proper’ behavior while pissing on normality.
Berlin is a city of the dead. You hear them behind the raucous laughter in the clubs, in the space between stones on crowded streets. They’re loudest especially in the time just after sunset, the gloaming, when Berlin seems suddenly to waken into life hidden from view of the day.
You know what happened to Berlin, probably. You know of the great conflagration in the souls of millions which suddenly turned all the minds of many towards the slaughter of a few. The parades through streets celebrating a new thing awakened, the shattered windows and bloodied faces. The seized printing-presses, the new flags adorning old stone. And then the deportations, and then the murders.
Some great Authority awakened into the world, and millions complied with its will.
The Cries of the Dead
Often, it’s easier to hear the dead than it is to hear the gods. Gods don’t leave corpses to rot in alleyways, or journals to account their worlds. We may speak of the gods, and to them, but they exist in the realm of the pre-literate, the Abyss before human meaning. Any words we ascribe to them is mere translation, any relics bearing their name were made or invoked by us, not by them.
The dead, though—they leave books and buildings, papers and clothing, hair and bone and graffiti. Their bodies rot into the soil, feeding the harvests of our present. They leave words and warnings, their echoed screams shape the sense of a place. They plant trees under which we sit decades later, along a canal they built a century ago. Their impassioned groans and throes birthed those whose later orgasmic exhalations called into being the living who jog past me as I write.
The not-human dead are easier to see, though apparently mute. The cows whose skin binds my pants to my waist and shods my feet have not yet decomposed into the Abyss, but they did not in life speak a language I understand. The dead tree whose wood forms this bench upon which I sit may have once towered over villages from which Jews were hauled into camps, but its voice is silent in response to my questions.
It’s from the dead that we even know of the gods, and the dead still speak. But I do not like what they have to say.
The dead keep telling me about that great thing awakened, warning of another.
One dead haunting me a bit particularly has been Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was born in Berlin. Feared more than anything returning there, hid in Paris, then Marseilles, as a nation inhabited by some strange new spirit swept through Europe, building camps into which their enemies were concentrated, then sacrificed. Even climbing a mountain gave him no quarter, as respect for the new religion had spread even to Spain.
The Wotanic Spirit
I use the words spirit and religion without flippancy here, without metaphor. In a speech before the second world war broke out, Jung spoke of a Wotanic spirit awakening in Germany. The God of the German Christians seemed no longer the same God of the French Christians, no longer the same God which held together the imagined community of (Christian) Europe. An older god, an ancestral god, a god of dirt and blood, a god of rage and fear had arisen, dethroning the God of Civilization.
We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political, and psychological factors. But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find Wotan quite suitable as a casual hypothesis….
Perhaps we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit — a state of being seized or possessed. The term postulates not only an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but, also, an Ergreifer (one who seizes). Wotan is an Ergreifer of men, and, unless one wishes to deify Hitler– which has indeed actually happened — he is really the only explanation.
Jung’s speech has some significant problems, not least of which is his linkage of the German people’s physical ancestry–as well as culture–as a site for the awakening of a god. But the matter of the Ergriffenheit, the possession, mirrors plenty of other writers’ descriptions of the strange spirit which seemed to inhabit those who fell under the sway of the Nazis.
But was it Wotan? Can a god do that? And anyway, what is is a god?
There’s a theory that many of the gods we now know were all once humans. Odin, for instance, is thought to have been a powerful shaman-type figure, Brân was once a chieftain of the Belgii, Ceridwen and the Morrígan and Hecate once renowned and feared witches. After their deaths, their significant deeds were remembered through story, and over generations (centuries) the veneration people from who only knew them through these great tales made them divine.
Such an idea makes a lot of sense, judging from the last few millennia. Plenty of emperors, kings, and spiritual leaders have all been made into gods—often while they still lived. Even into the late 1700’s in Europe, the touch of a royal was though to heal sickness.
In most of these instances, it was the persons themselves who made the revelation, declaring to their followers their true nature. Others, though, were made sacred after their deaths by religious leaders—though saints are subordinate to the God of the Catholics, sainthood elevates them over the realm of mere mortals. Their existence persists long after their deaths, reminded to us by venerations and sacred stories.
Were the Pagan gods maybe the same?
We cannot know when Odin was first known to those who claimed him as a god, nor whether the first to speak his name knew him as a god, a shaman, a chief, or something else entirely. And though this theory itself is neutral as to whether or not the gods-once-human are now gods, it has some uncomfortable implications for anyone who might now claim themselves a priest or mystic of such divine beings, because it’s linked to authority.
Jung may have been aware of this idea, even as he crafted his archetypal theory of the gods. But being no political theorist, Jung does not look directly at the way a State seems to inhabit the people the same way a god might have.
Gods Are Things
I should first explain what I even mean by gods. And for this I must first speak of trees.
Trees are a thing. They exist, as much as anything exists. And they are a thing almost every one of us will experience at least once.
Forget you have eyes for a moment and consider the experience of a tree. If you do not see them, you can still know there is a thing there by listening to the sound the wind makes through their branches, feeling the cool of their shade on a hot day, smelling the earthy decay of their leaves in late autumn or the fragrance of their blossoms in spring, tasting their fruit or their sap. You may even know them even though they are dead, sitting upon a wooden bench or hearing the crinkle of newspaper, tasting alder or hickory on grilled meat or smelling the smoke from winter chimneys.
Trees are a thing you can experience, and probably have already. But how is a tree even a thing at all? Without witnessing the suspension of orange from branch, without seeing chopped wood set alight, how do you connect the ripe flesh of fruit or the warmth of a fireplace to the Tree as thing? A pear is a thing, a pine coffin is a thing, toilet paper is a thing, but how are they then also part of a Tree as thing?
Humans are also a thing. I feel a human when he touches my shoulder, my chest. I smell a human when she is near me, the mix of her sweat and perfume warmed by the heat of her body. I taste a human when he kisses me, when I lick his skin. And I hear humans when I walk through cities, when they shout at me or call my name.
Like a tree, I also feel what humans do even when they are not there. I walk across the cobbles they’ve lain, I sleep on the beds, I eat the food they’ve grown. I choke on the fumes of their cars, I smell the dinners they cook as I pass windows thrown open to the summer air.
My knowledge of humans (like that of trees) comes from my senses. When I hear a human, my ears are resonating with the waves of sound their actions make. When I see them, my eyes discern the patterns of light which reflect off them. My nose and tongue translate the particulates kicked up from their existence, the nerves in my skin explode electric currents to my brain when their bodies press against mine. All this, too, is true for trees.
We walk through a world swirling with the chaos of other things sharing it with us. We’re all said to exist, to be, but we don’t really have a good reason for being certain of that. We mostly just accept it on faith—and then forget there was anything to accept in the first place. We can’t go around questioning our senses all the time. We’d never get around to living.
That acceptance is the gate to the world of meaning, the gate out of The Abyss of the rawest of life. Walking through that gate, we enter a great world enclosed by the earth itself, drenched and soaked in the meaning we weave from all the threads of the material. But we must be clear: it’s we who do that weaving. We are the meaning-makers.
I experience the gods with the same senses through which I experience everything else, and call them things. Sometimes I feel a hand on the back of my neck, breath in my ear. That’s Brân. Sometimes I see a pattern of light on water or the taste of something electric on the wind; that’s Arianrhod. Flames dancing in a certain way, the scent of a home I haven’t known yet, the lightest of rain on bare skin— Brighid. A sudden chill that awakens the body, the heightened alertness when the moon’s a sharp crescent is when I smell Ceridwen, though the pattern of black branches in that same moonlight is Gwyn Ap Nudd.
One sharp taste on a tongue is called Salt, a sweeter one is called Sugar; these are just names, but names we’re all quite insistent upon as being connected to things. Though a Frenchwoman would call the latter Sucre and the former Sel, a German insist Salz for the first and Sukar for the second, we’re pretty attached to those names.
I’m pretty attached to the names I have for the experiences-called-gods, too. Though sometimes I use others. Brighid is the Lady of the Hearth, though sometimes of the Flame, or of Tears, or the Rain. Brân’s the Raven King, and also the Guardian at the Gate of the Dead. Ceridwen’s sometimes the Huntress, and sometimes Gwyn Ap Nudd Hunts too.
Arianrhod’s the Silver Wheel, and a lot of other names I don’t really understand yet. She avoids comprehension more than the others. When a lover bit my nipples until they started to bleed, I understood something about her I still don’t get but feel again sometimes. When I see that pattern of light-on-water, I know a part of my mind awakens and understands. It just refuses to explain to the rest of me.
Gods On Thrones
Gods occupy a space of human meaning. When something strange happens, fortuitous or synchronistic, and when that happens to co-incide with what I generally ascribe to the activity of the gods, I am connecting something to the gods by a thread called Meaning. Light dances on water a certain way and I think of Arianrhod. My consciousness seems to both to expand and yet become more porous into the land around me and I think Brân.
But the gods occupy a different space from other things to which we connect meaning. We usually call that place ‘Sacred,’ rather than mundane or normal. When I pour out offerings to Arianrhod, it’s a sacred thread of meaning, a sort of special category of meaning set apart from all the others. And though we tend to think of that sacred as out of reach of the political, it’s never been the case.
Kings, emperors, chiefs, and other human authorities have always ruled by the blessing of the divine, be that gods, God, or another sacred realm outside the reach of material influence. In the present, governments gain consent to rule by the will of the people; 500 years ago, kings ruled by the will of God and the blessing of the Church; in non-Christian areas, kings claimed to rule through the blessing of the land or the gods.
That authorial space the sacred occupies in political realms is also a realm of meaning. A king derives his power from God not because God grants him that authority, but because those he rules over see God as a meaningful thing. Within a society where God is thought to exist, and where God is a pervasive, inescapable thing of meaning, the King who claims such blessing is now backed up by an entire Order of Meaning birthed by that God. How a king is able to convince the rest of us that God has given him Divine Right is of course complicated, helped along by already-existing institutions who maintain the Order of Meaning at which that God is at the head. Also, violence helps, too.
While a traditional anarchist or Marxist (or even just an atheist) might protest that the God at the head of such an Order of Meaning is merely fictional or constructed, this doesn’t actually change the power of the God. As long as enough people within a society believe that there is such a God, and that such a God also grants sovereignty to leaders, and that others (priests, diviners, etc.) can accurately determine that God’s will, whether or not the God actually exists is utterly irrelevant.
This same mechanism wherein the Sacred sustains an Order of Meaning applies just as much to the Celtic and Germanic ideas of Sacred Kingship as it does to Liberal Democracy’s concept of the consent-of-the-governed. Though it may have been Druids or Shamans or Priestesses declaring what the gods willed before, and though it may be elections and the media and politicians declaring what the people will now, God (or the Sacred) never disappeared as the originator of Authority.
Though many modern Polytheists, Christian Fundamentalists, or Islamic Radicals might use such a knowledge to claim that the Sacred therefore is the true source of Authority (and a source we must return to if we first acknowledge that such a Sacred exists), such a fascistic rush misses another important aspect of the space the Sacred occupies.
While I name certain experiences gods, I do not choose to therefore bow down to them, nor do they demand such a thing. I am aware of Brighid’s presence and say hello, or immerse myself into the world of meaning which opens when she’s around, but I don’t ask her what she therefore demands of me. When something happens which I ascribe to the influence of Arianrhod, I do not kneel or vow to serve her, nor does she ask me to.
It is only certain others, those who teach things about gods–who claim to experience them and draw power from them–who demand that I do such a thing. No god has ever said, “follow me,” no deity has ever asked that I give myself over to them in return for riches or power, no sacred being has ever threatened to punish me if I do not do as they say. But plenty of priests have.
Gods don’t demand obedience, but humans certainly do. An employer may certainly use threats to co-erce me to do more work, a politician might certainly promise fortune if I grant him consent through ballot, a religious leader has absolutely promised great power and magic if I follow them. And in each of these cases, the demand or threat is backed up by an Order of Meaning in which such obedience is derived from a ‘greater’ source. Consider:
The employer has more money than I, and the hierarchy which sustains Capitalism is clear.
The politician, once elected, may indeed wield the sort of power that might make me rich, but only because a political system already exists which grants the elected power over the rest of us.
If I believe in the same god(s) of the religious leader and accept their claims to speak on at god(s)’s behalf, I may decide that my personal autonomy is a fair sacrifice.
That is, gods don’t demand I bow to them. It is others who demand that things be bowed to or accept an Order of Meaning where bowing to things is what you do.
Those who demand gods be served and worshiped often tell us that it is “because they are gods.” This is, of course, no different from a parent saying to a child, “because I said so,” or a police officer stating, “it’s against the law.” In all cases, the reason for the obedience comes from the supposed source of the command itself (parent, god, police). Or, put another way:
Authority must be obeyed because it’s Authority, and an Authority is an Authority because an Authority said so.
The Empty Thrones
Returning to Jung’s theory that a thing like a god had possessed the people of Germany, we can start to wonder why there’s even a space within us to be possessed in the first place. And remembering that the Sacred has always been used by political powers to create an Order of Meaning in which their authority is secured, we need need ask why such a trick works.
The gods may exist outside ourselves, but the thrones upon which some of us put them don’t. Instead, those thrones exist within. Gods inhabit the spaces we make for them in our world, just as a lover inhabits our consciousness. They become not just an outside thing, but an inside thing, taking root in our heart, our dreams, our thoughts.
Put a lover on a throne and their existence is no longer just a beautiful thing to us, but a thing of Order. Put their desires and concerns first above any other, and they no longer just co-create your meaning, they become it. You become subsumed into their existence, a servant, building your life around them rather than with them. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone say of their lover, “they are the reason I exist.”
It does not matter whether the lover desires such a thing at all. Most wouldn’t ascend that throne, if it is to be called love. But it is not really up to them.
A lover might decide I am his ‘all’ regardless of whether I’d want to be such a thing (I don’t), and I would then experience him as a will-less person, too eager to please, too readily disappointed when I do not fully occupy the ascended place he’s made for me.
It seems it is the same with the gods. Perhaps there are some gods happy to have eager servants willing to absolve their own personality (and responsibility) into them. I do not imagine this does those gods well in the end. For instance, the racists and fascists who invoke Odin and the ‘northern gods’ to justify their hatred seem to do Odin no good; he becomes, like the Christian devil, a shadow-pit into which all the blame for evil is dumped. Worse, such followers do precisely the same thing as the followers of the Christian god did, demanding conformity of belief and killing those who won’t submit to their new order of meaning.
The thrones upon which we’d put a lover or a god seem to exist regardless of their desires. And that makes me wonder where such things come from—why, really, would we elevate any other being to a place of Authority besides ourselves?
The answer is probably that we’ve been taught to.
We’re taught from our youngest years to obey, to acquiesce, to comply. Our parents teach this, our elders and teachers. Police teach this, and tax collectors and jailers. Employers teach this, and journalists and bullies.
Elevate and heed the will of your parents, and you will not get punished. Hearken and obey the words of your teachers and elders, and you will not get shunned or go to detention. Fear and listen to the demands of police, and you will not get shot. Work hard, give up hours of your life and discipline yourself, and you will not get fired and go hungry.
It is our societies which carve the thrones of Authority into our souls, and there are too many others willing to sit upon them.
Putting gods upon those thrones instead of human leaders may actually seem an attempt at freedom. If Brighid occupies the highest Authority of my life, one might think I’d be less likely to obey others. But she doesn’t actually fit in that seat, nor does she seem to want to sit in it. The only way for me to keep her there would be to force her into it, bind her to the armrests, chain her feet to the floor. ‘Stay there and be my master,‘ I’d have to say, ‘tell me what to do so I am no longer responsible for my actions.’
I don’t think she’d take that well.
Others might claim she already sits there, that she sits on their own thrones, that she demands this. One sees this often with certain ‘war’ gods like Odin or The Morrígan, but those gods aren’t really much for sitting.
It is probably not possible to destroy the thrones. Perhaps once carved from the etheric stone of our wills, the thrones never go away. Taught from birth that someone must always have more say than others, disciplined while still crawling across the floor that some must always be lower and some must always be higher, maybe we can never unlearn this.
So perhaps it’s best if we sit on those thrones ourselves. I think we usually do anyway, and merely displace our blame and guilt when we do something awful, or something does not turn out well. Afterall, we choose to obey, we choose to submit, we choose to debase our nature before the will of others.
If we sit on our own thrones, we might better resist those who’d coerce us. When others demand we obey their Authority, they’d have to topple us from our own power. When hatred points to the weak and oppressed as the cause of our own weakness, we’d be strong against such designs.
Those thrones are, after all, the very seat of our own power.
The ‘Wotanic spirit’ that awakened into the world during the rise of Hitler is not much different from the great Authorities that have arisen in any other time. The lockstep obedience, the subservience to a greater power, the sublimation of individuality and the hatred of difference has inhabited humans many times before, and seems to arise now again.
Against such a thing, only those who know no other authority but their own might stand. But there would need to be many of us, many more than there are now. All the self-actualization in the world won’t protect us from bullets or bombs, gas-chambers or prison-cells. No matter how liberated we are, without many others likewise liberated we stand alone.
Our liberation is always contingent on the liberation of others.
What would the world be like if more of us occupied our own thrones? Where freedom from coercion and the divine right of self-mastery became the primary values of our societies? As long as those with whom I interact are enchained by the will of others, I could only ever be an actualised self alone, if such a thing were even possible. To become more my self, I need others to teach me how they become their selves. To be free from the coercion of others, others around me must know what coercion even is,
And here’s where the gods, temporarily unseen, resurge back like an immense tide. Beings existing outside our enchainment, needing neither to coerce nor force but merely be–are they not the very ideal of our own freedom?
That we would put them on thrones, enchain their meaning and extract it for own desire to rule everyone but ourselves–the only result of such a thing is rivers of blood running down streets or ziggurats, slaughter and manacles and camps. But if instead they are guides of our liberation, themselves unchained, themselves unmastered and unmastering, they are exactly what we might need to oppose whatever new thing is awakening in our world.
We already have guides for this sort of thing. The women and men who snuck into factories under the cover of night, smashing the machinery of the rich Capitalists, claimed to follow a spectral king. “No general but Ludd,” went their slogan, “did the worker any good.” The Whiteboys of Ireland did the same, following a spectral land-goddess, issuing evictions in her name. Not obedience, not submission, but liberation.
Perhaps our gods, like Ludd, will agree to guide us.
But we must be clear whose hands are unshackling others, whose hammers are smashing the machines, and who’s actually supposed to be sitting on those thrones.
This essay first appeared as a subscriber-only piece at Paganarch
Rhyd is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch.
When I was ten years old, my parents sat me down and with tight lips they explained that Daddy’s union was on strike and so we would be “tightening our belt” for a little while.
“How long?” I wanted to know. I wasn’t sure exactly what “tightening our belts” meant, but since my parents were usually worried about money I was pretty sure that it couldn’t be good.
He shrugged impatiently. His anger and frustration were all over him. My dad didn’t talk much, so when he did, I listened intently. “Could be a couple of weeks,” he said. “Could be for months.”
Months seemed like an eternity to my ten year old mind. “Why is the union on strike?” I scowled. Surely if the situation were understood, it could be fixed!
“Well,” Dad explained (having become accustomed to his strange, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who always had to know the reason why) “the company wants to reduce our pensions because they’re having financial troubles, and the union is having none of it. I’m not happy about it.”
“Why not?” I demanded.
“I just don’t think that striking was a good idea,” he said honestly. “I think it’s going to cost us a lot more than we’ll gain.”
“Well, if you don’t want to strike,” I suggested shrewdly, thinking of how much better it would be for my family individually, “why don’t you just go to work then?”
I never forgot my father’s response. His eyes flashed and he half stood up in his seat. “Never,” he hissed. “I am not a scab.”
“Dear,” cautioned my mother as she gave him a stern look.
I was stricken. I didn’t understand why my father had become so angry so quickly. “I’m sorry, ” I apologized. “What is a ‘scab’? Why do you have to do what the union tells you?”
His shoulders relaxed a bit. “A scab is someone who breaks a picket line when the workers of a company have decided that all work should stop. They’re traitors. The only means that workers have to protect their rights is to stand together, so if we don’t stand together, we have no rights. And they’re teaching you about how democracy works at school, right?”
“Yes.” Of course, they don’t seem to teach that to ten-year-olds anymore, but they still were then.
“Well, the union voted to strike,” he said firmly. “And I’m part of the union, so I have to respect the vote. You have to support the decision of the majority. That’s how democracy works.”
When I think about that time, I seem to remember my parents fighting a bit more, and some more frequent Kraft Dinner meals (which made me happy; I loved Kraft Dinner), and that was about the limit of the changes over the next few months that stand out in my mind. But the importance of unions was a lesson I never forgot.
So when the teachers went on strike at my school a few months later I supported them. They took the time to explain that a lot of what they were striking about had to do with class sizes; as well as some personal things, like job cuts and wages, since the BC government was in the middle of a period of scarcity politics. School wasn’t that far and in those days a child was actually allowed to go out in the daytime if they were home before dusk, so I stood in their picket lines with them. They eventually went back to work, but the fight continued. In 2002 the current BC Premier, then the Minister of Education, Christy Clark passed a law that denied the union the right to bargain class size and composition. The fight between the BC Teachers’ Union and the BC Government continues to this day.
The eighties were a time of unbridled right wing capitalism. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States; Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada; Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain. They preached the gospel that the corporate owned press and the billionaire-funded economic think tanks now pour into the ears of our leaders like poison; deregulation is the key. Labour is expensive. You have to support “trickle down economics” if you want to boost the economy.
All of these policies resulted in the Great Recession of the 1990s, the world I, from my working class background, graduated into. And one of the most significant propaganda campaigns that the Corporate Choir managed to inject into the public consciousness during that time, which we have yet to outgrow, is the myth of “Big Unions.”
“Big Unions lock up the labour market,” say the corporatists. “They make unrealistic demands upon industry until it’s not profitable to run the industry anymore. And look at all their big pensions and their high wages and their lunch breaks and vacation pay! You guys aren’t getting any of that, are you? Why should the unions do so much better than you do?”
Except that the Big Unions that they talk about aren’t nearly what we’ve been led to believe. Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, one is a media performers’ union and another is a merged union that represents auto workers and people who work in communications, energy, and paper. And it didn’t save them from job loss when Conservative (politically expedient) budget cuts hit the CBC, nor the closing of several Canadian auto manufacturing plants.
Of the 14 largest national unions in Canada, five are teachers’ unions, two are postal unions, three are unions for public service employees, one is a nurse’s union, and one is an office workers’ and professionals’ union. Most of these unions have voted to strike in the past ten years. All of the teachers, the postal workers, the nurses, and the public service employees were just legislated back to work by the government that oversees their industry, since they were deemed to be “essential services,” without any kind of attempt to even negotiate worker rights or needs. Even in the rare cases where arbitration decided in favour of the unions, new legislation just arbitrarily changed their bargaining rights, and they had to take their governments to court. And the public let them get away with this, because the public was jealous of the benefits and higher wages that those unions had, and they did not.
What a beautifully executed bait-and-switch! Instead of hating the company we work for because they pay us slave wages, we hate the union because they don’t work hard enough for us. Instead of hating corporate owners for lobbying our governments to suppress the labour market by relaxing regulations, we hate the union guys for making more money than we do. Instead of demanding that shareholders crop the salaries of their Boards of Directors, or accept slightly lesser dividends, we get mad because company unions won’t let them reduce wages and cut pensions. Instead of getting angry at the corporations for hiring illegal immigrants or Temporary Foreign Workers at slave wages and abusive conditions, we get mad at the immigrants themselves. The corporatists have effectively turned us on one another.
Rather than asking why the union guys get all of the benefits they do – benefits that, once upon a time, were considered just decent and proper working conditions and compensations – what we should be doing is asking why the rest of us don’t. And when unions act on behalf of the people they represent, we should support their action, rather than bitching because we find it inconvenient. If we did that, they would support us in our struggle for the same rights, especially when we chose to form our own unions. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have the Retail Employees’ Union of North America; or the Gas Station Attendant’s Union. And those unions would have power to get things done.
This weekend Canada Post is threatening to strike. They’re striking because Canada Post wants to get rid of door-to-door delivery and not pay their employees overtime for overtime work. While the company is claiming that they can’t compete in the market because of this, their first quarter profit was $44 million dollarsbecause of their growing parcel service – so I don’t believe them. Because I believe in the rights of the worker, I will be temporarily shutting down my Etsy shop until the strike is lifted. I will not be sending packages by Purolator. I am not a scab.
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.
There have been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I’ll make mine brief.
This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas — one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novella of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering — interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and institutionalized Colonialism and racism, and the role of identity and memory.
The protagonist of the overarching story is an anthropologist named John V. Marsch, though he never once is the viewpoint character, except by proxy in the final story through scattered and deliberately disordered journal entries. He might be descended from the aboriginal race (or races) of the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. It is generally accepted that there was at least one, and possibly more than one, aboriginal race of shapechangers who took on human forms when the human colonists came; and it is generally accepted that the humans wiped them out. However, Veil’s Hypothesis, which was invented by one of the incidental characters you encounter, suggests that the indigenous race forgot they were ever of another race, so they have intermingled among humans and the only real difference is that they have bright green eyes and they can’t use tools well. This is further complicated by a belief of the aboriginal peoples in a race called the Shadow People, who once used tools but don’t anymore, and who can manipulate thoughts and dreams. And they may once have been humans in an ancient first wave of colonization that has been long forgotten.
You will find none of this explained in the story, by the way. These details are gleaned from reading between the lines in the process of the existing stories to form all the pieces of the puzzle.
What it has to say about identity, memory and Colonialism is brilliant and thought-provoking. How memory is unreliable. How Colonial arrogance leads to a sociopathic lack of empathy and the cheapening of human life. How institutionalized racism creates unwarranted and irrational distrust in people. How it leads to the persecution of a class of people which is cloaked in “righteousness.” How identity depends a great deal on not only genetics and experience, but on one’s personal narrative. How truth depends greatly upon one’s point of view.
The writing is also brilliant. The language is amazing, and the clever, interweaving plot elements are mind-boggling. I will probably have to read it again just to pick up on all the subtle nuances I missed the first time around.
So why did I only give it a three rating? Well, to be blunt about it, I was not intending to read poetry; I was reading a novel. I found that Wolfe was so concerned with his theme and the unfolding puzzle that I could get invested in none of the characters and none of the plots, with the exception of the second story, which had the character acting in such a bewildering way at the end of it that I’m still not sure I know what really happened. In general the novel left me with a feeling of confusion and dissatisfaction. So, it was great writing, yes. But did I really enjoy it? I feel a little bit like the morning after from the time when I discovered alcohol-soaked parties in the SCA in my youth. I’m *told* I had a good time. My face hurts from smiling and my throat is hoarse from yelling and laughing. But if that’s true, why does my head hurt and why is there such a bad taste in my mouth?
Heathenry and Paganism stands at a crossroad in our history and development, and this decision point hinges on the question of how we should organize and govern our communities.
There are many who argue, in Heathenry and the broader polytheist and Pagan communities, for vesting leadership and decision-making in an anointed elite who will guide the rest based on their wisdom and superior abilities. They claim these ideas are rooted in the practices of the pre-Christian ancients and natural hierarchies even though, in truth, the argument they make is far more recent than they assume.
The position advanced by these would-be theocrats is rooted in modern political theory. In the liberal democratic societies many such Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists live in there is the central assumption of an unceasing, ongoing clash between democratic governance and rule by the few. Those who argue from one position or the other accept, without question, that humanity’s base setting is one of endless violence, rule by the few, and oppression of the many. They further claim that democracy as we know it is only possible in modern society and is a very recent development. Examples like Athens are seen as flukes or exceptions rather than the rule. One of the most eloquent expressions of this idea in American political philosophy is a famous passage from the Federalist Papers which says:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
If this were true then it would be easy to assume that monarchic, strong-arm rule was the default for all pre-Christian, pre-modern societies making these arguments for new autocracies indisputable. Yet when one digs into the histories and lore of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples nothing could be further from the truth. Investigation into their past, their lives, and social organization shows the default mode of governance among these people was highly participatory and democratic. Power rested in the hands of all the people who made, enforced, and upheld the laws of society. The freedom of these peoples was maintained by them directly, not an external lawgiver or a benevolent state.
The best term for the form of governance used by the Germanic peoples is the Thing system, taking its name from the Old Norse word for these popular assemblies. Things were directly democratic assemblies where participants met under the open sky, debated great matters, passed laws, and resolved disputes. Every free person, man or woman, could speak before the Thing and seek redress of their grievances and in some cases even thralls were given voice and space before these assemblies. These Things were the bodies that made and deposed kings. The leaders of the Germanic world, quite contrary to the assumptions cultivated in popular culture, ruled at the behest of the Things.
This system was incredibly ancient and widespread among these peoples. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his famous Germania, wrote about the Things of the Germanic peoples living in the lands now known as Germany during the early 100s AD. According to Tacitus:
“In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, 50 to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; 51 and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire. None, however, but the priests 52 are permitted to judge offenders, to inflict bonds or stripes; so that chastisement appears not as an act of military discipline, but as the instigation of the god whom they suppose present with warriors.”1
Tacitus makes it quite clear this is no system of elective monarchy or people choosing which absolutist ruler shall lord over them but is extremely participatory, especially when one compares it to the oligarchic government of Rome during the same period. He goes on to describe exactly how these assemblies functioned and what they held power over:
“On affairs of smaller moment, the chiefs consult; on those of greater importance, the whole community; yet with this circumstance, that what is referred to the decision of the people, is first maturely discussed by the chiefs… When they all think fit, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on this occasion a coercive power. Then the king, or chief, and such others as are conspicuous for age, birth, military renown, or eloquence, are heard; and gain attention rather from their ability to persuade, than their authority to command. If a proposal displease, the assembly reject it by an inarticulate murmur; if it prove agreeable, they clash their javelins; for the most honorable expression of assent among them is the sound of arms.”2
They even held the power of judging crimes and assigning punishment:
“Before this council, it is likewise allowed to exhibit accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments are varied according to the nature of the crime. Traitors and deserters are hung upon trees: cowards, dastards, and those guilty of unnatural practices, are suffocated in mud under a hurdle.”3
He makes it clear those who administer such justice are chosen by and are accountable to the people:
“In the same assemblies chiefs are also elected, to administer justice through the cantons and districts. A hundred companions, chosen from the people, attended upon each of them, to assist them as well with their advice as their authority.”4
Such practices endured on the continent among Germanic peoples, like the Saxons who lived in northwestern Germany, who held true to the old ways. One description of these proceedings comes from the account of the Frankish Christian missionary St. Lebwin who reported the following on Saxon governance practices around 770AD:
“It was also the custom among the Saxons that once a year, they held an assembly by the river Weser on a place called Marklo. There come usually the chiefs from all the (twelve) different communities, as well as twelve chosen noblemen, an equal number of free men and unfree men. There they together renew their laws, pass verdicts on important matters of justice, and decided how to proceed in matters of peace or war that they had before them that year.”5
In the Scandinavian world the Things are an extremely well-documented phenomenon. One cannot go through the historical sagas of the region without tripping over Things at every turn. Great matters were resolved by these public assemblies and the people, not the kings, were the ones who held power. Two powerful examples from Scandinavian history are the cases of Hakon the Good and Torgny Lagman.
Hakon the Good became King of Norway during the early 10th century through rallying the support of the people of Norway for pressing his claim. Central to his campaign was promising to restore the land rights they’d lost under King Harald Fairhair’s rule.6 After making good on this promise he then went before the people of Norway at the Frosta-Thing, a major assembly in Norway, and asked they convert to Christianity. The response from those assembled was not positive:
“As soon as the king had proposed this to the bondes, great was the murmur and noise among the crowd. They complained that the king wanted to take away their labor and their old faith from them, and the land could not be cultivated in that way. The laboring men and slaves thought that they could not work if they did not get meat”7
The main voice of the opposition, Asbjorn of Medelhaus, rallied opposition to conversion with this speech:
“We bondes, King Hakon, when we elected thee to be our king, and got back our udal rights at the Thing held in Throndhjem, thought we had got into heaven; but now we don’t know whether we have really got back our freedom, or whether thou wishest to make vassals of us again by this extraordinary proposal that we should abandon the ancient faith which our fathers and forefathers have held from the oldest times, in the times when the dead were burn, as well as since that they are laid under mounds, and which, although they were braver than the people of our days, has served us as a faith to the present time.”8
He then warns Hakon what will happen if he refuses to back down:
“If, however, thou wilt take up this matter with a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, we bondes have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and take to ourselves some other chief, who will so conduct himself towards us that we can freely and safely enjoy the faith that suits our own inclinations. Now, king, thou must choose one or other of these conditions before the Thing is ended.”9 (emphasis mine)
According to Snorri Sturluson, “The bondes gave loud applause to this speech, and said it expressed their will, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.”10 Hakon was forced to agree and remained king of Norway until his death in battle against an invading army from Denmark. Following his demise Eyvind Skaldaspiller composed the Hakonarmal which ends with Hakon being welcomed into Asgard by the Gods who, according to the skald, say:
Another example of the power of the Scandinavian Things occurs during a war between King Olaf Skotkonung of Sweden and Olaf Haraldson of Norway in 1018. The war between the two kings was going poorly and emissaries had arrived pleading for peace. When the matter was brought before the Thing of All Swedes in Uppsala King Olaf of Sweden angrily denounced the emissary and his foe, demanding the war go on.12 “When he sat down,” says Snorri, “not a sound was to be heard at first.”13 Torgny Lagman, a respected lawspeaker, then rose and delivered his response beginning with a recitation of the great deeds of Olaf’s ancestors before saying:
“But the king we have now got allows no man to presume to talk with him, unless it be what he desires to hear. On this alone he applies all his power, while he allows his scat-lands in other countries to go from him through laziness and weakness. He wants to have the Norway kingdom laid under him, which no Swedish king before him ever desired, and therewith bring war and distress on many a man. Now it is our will, we bondes, that thou King Olaf make peace with the Norway king, Olaf the Thick, and marry thy daughter Ingegard to him. Wilt thou, however, reconquer the kingdoms in the east countries which thy relations and forefathers had there, we will all for that purpose follow thee to war. But if thou wilt not do as we desire, we will now attack thee, and put thee to death; for we will no longer suffer law and peace to be disturbed. So our forefathers went to work when they drowned five kings in a morass at the Mula-thing, and they were filled with the same insupportable pride thou has shown towards us. Now tell us, in all haste, what resolution thou wilt take.”14 (emphasis mine)
“Then the whole public approved,” says Snorri, “with clash of arms and shouts, the lagman’s speech.”15 King Olaf, clearly bested, says, “he will let things go according to the desire of the bondes. ‘All Swedish kings,’ he said, ‘have done so, and have allowed the bondes to rule in all according to their will.’”16
This system of social organization is even present among the Gods. Along with the mention of the council of the Gods in the Hakonarmal there are direct references to the Gods working in council in the Voluspa. Every aspect of the creation of Midgard was handled by the Gods meeting in council to resolve critical matters. As it says in the saga:
Such methods of decision-making are so ingrained in the Gods they stay true to government by council even in the face of Ragnarok and their own demise. According to the Voluspa:
“Yggdrasil shakes, and shiver on high
The ancient limbs, and the giant is loose;
To the head of Mim does Odin give heed,
But the kinsman of Surt shall slay him soon.
How fare the Gods? How fare the elves?
All Jotunheim groans, the Gods are at council;
Loud roar the dwarfs by the doors of stone,
The masters of the rocks: would you know yet more?”19
If the norm for these peoples was a system characterized by democracy, direct participation, and rule of the many how is it possible such norms were replaced by the autocracy of feudalism and monarchy? The first, kneejerk reaction of some would be to argue humanity’s base inclinations overtook their higher aspirations, bringing down the Things and their democratic norms. Yet this line of reasoning is one with no support from history.
The beginning of the end of the Things, such as those in Saxony, came not by internal decay and downfall but through sword and Cross. Beginning in the 770s Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, initiated a series of bloody, vicious wars against the people of Saxony to force their submission to his rule and Christianity. One of the many atrocities committed against the Saxons by Carolingian forces was the notorious Massacre of Verdunwhere an estimated 4,500 Saxon warriors and chiefs, who had converted to Christianity shortly before, were slaughtered without mercy. Frankish chroniclers claimed the Verdun River ran red with blood for weeks after the king’s cruel verdict. Just over a century later the Christian Emperor Otto would do the same in Denmark, forcing their conversion through invasion.20 Following conversion Denmark would be the only Scandinavian country where the people were forced under the yoke of serfdom. Many other ambitious warlords, like Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Thick, followed the same pattern of using Christianity to justify naked ambition, slaughter, and oppression, destroying all who stood against them.
There is little doubt the arguments for rule by the few and submission by the many have no weight or substance. As is shown in the history of the pre-Christian peoples Heathens draw our inspiration from power was widely shared and vested in the people, not crowns or thrones. As a new and developing religious movement we stand at a key turning point in our development where we can repeat the mistakes of the past by descending into clerical and personal autocracy or avert them through a bold, decisive stand for the ways of the ancients. It is clear those who seek to dominate others in the name of all that is holy do so at the expense of those they claim to guide and protect. Their arguments of natural orders have no basis in human history or behavior. Modern Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists should heed the example of the Things and live through methods, structures, and systems that reflect the needs & desires of all adherents, no matter who they are, instead of glorifying and elevating a self-appointed few at the expense of the rest.
17 Voluspa 6, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows
18 Voluspa 24, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows
19 Voluspa 47-48, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows
20 24-27, King Olaf Trygvason’s Saga, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing
Ryan Smith is a Heathen devoted to Odin living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, a founding member of Golden Gate Kindred, is active in the environmental justice and anti-police brutality movements, and recently completed his Masters in modern Middle East History and economics.
This essay by Jonathan Woolley is among the great works published in A Beautiful Resistance—Everything We Already Are, available in print or digital.
Roy Cohn: What’s it like? After?
Roy Cohn: This misery ends?
Belize: Hell or heaven?
Roy Cohn: [laughs]
Belize: Like San Francisco.
Roy Cohn: A city! Good! I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.
Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: Isaiah.
Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.
Roy Cohn: And Heaven?
Belize: That was Heaven, Roy. 
Many Gods; Beyond Belief?
There is something strange happening within Paganism. It is strange not because it is unexpected—indeed, all families of religions go through it at one time or another—nor because it is unusual—indeed, its like happens all the time. What is strange about it, is that it seems to run contrary to the social circumstances of Paganism today. Indeed, given our highly networked and increasingly virtual world, and the relatively small size of the Pagan community (small, even when compared to the number of Pagans who don’t “do” the Pagan community, but are solitary), it seems quite remarkable.
Paganism is diverging.
In America, we are witnessing the ascent of a new kind of hard polytheism. The familiar refrains of Gaia-theorists, duotheist Wiccans, archetype-channelers, and feminist Mono-theaists are now joined by the carousing of a bunch of upstarts. These contend that no, the gods are not all aspects, incarnations, or faces of The One (or The Two), that is Nature, or its Creator Goddess and her God. The gods are real, and distinctly so–each a person in their own right, just as we [humans] are, and that believing in them as Actually Extant Beings is, really, okay. These polytheists reject the slippery theorising documented by Tanya Luhrman’s trailblazing ethnography [2,] and the postmodern construction of experience-as-basically-subjective articulated by Sabina Magliocco . The Gods, for the new polytheists, are Real.
In Europe I have seen a different trend. The same old order –in which the same gentle theologies held sway—is being complicated here too, but not by a radical call for belief in many gods. Rather, belief itself is being set aside. European Pagans increasingly do not identify as “religious” or “believers” per se. Rather, to them, Paganism is something that is lived through, crafted, cast, brewed, known—hewn from raw being itself. To talk of “believing in the gods” here seems inappropriate. The gods as we know them are real, but the question of how they are real is both an open one, and one that doesn’t matter very much. They are like love, maths, or motion sickness; part of our world, part of our traditions and customs—in a way that makes what we might think about them, well, purely academic. Fun to discuss, certainly. A question for the philosophers, perhaps. But not important for defining what we do, and think.
As the late (and much loved) author Terry Pratchett once said,
“Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.” 
The witches of Britain are, in my experience, much like those of Pratchett’s Discworld. Why bother believing in something, if you know it exists?
Much of this could be put down to broader differences between European and American societies. Although American society has been shaken by the rise of the unaffiliated “nones”, religious ideas and themes nonetheless hold tremendous power in the collective imaginaries of the American people. In Europe, however, religion itself is a highly discredited concept—exhausted by millennia of ecumenical strife, and bored by centuries of tame state churches, European peoples no longer see religious concepts as being especially meaningful or relevant. As such, Paganism has increasingly developed along lines that are cultural, aesthetic, or philosophical in nature, rather than expressly religious.
Talk is not of setting up churches, temples, and monasteries; but villages, festivals, and campaign groups. Although the Druid Network did succeed in getting approved as a religious charity by the Charity Commission recently, this development was greeted with disapproval amongst the majority of the Druids I know—Druidry, as many said to me, is not even a religion. I cannot say for certain if this is a purely Druidic phenomenon, but there does appear to be evidence from across the continent that suggests a gradual transformation of Paganism from a “religious” phenomenon, into a broader “cultural” one that is anything but “fundamentalist” – whether or not we look to socially progressive Asatru of Iceland, or the nature spirituality of atheistic Estonia.
Making sense out of Chaos, out of Order
It might be imagined that these changes are pulling in opposite directions—the American trend reflecting a “radicalisation” of religious doctrine in the form of polytheism, while the European trend representing the fulfillment of the secularisation thesis. I would disagree with this characterisation. To my mind, these trends have far more in common than might appear at first glance.
If we consider the old theological consensus, what becomes readily apparent is that in many respects, it really isn’t too far removed from the spiritual conventions of the Western world’s established religious orthodoxy. Pantheism and Panentheism have a vibrant life outside of Paganism, and the Goddess has her anchorites even within Christianity and Judaism. Even the duotheism of Wicca arguably puts very little clear water between itself and the distributed godhead of Christianity; instead of a Holy Trinity, we have a Holy Tryst. In short, from a theological standpoint, the first generations of Pagan writing owe far more to lay Catholicism and the New England Transcendentalists, than to anything recognisably pre-Christian.
However, what it did do was create a formal break with Christian and Jewish religious authority and the commitment to dogma that came with it. For 1500 years, the Christian Churches—be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Restoration—held almost exclusive sway over the souls of Western Europeans; no spiritual life—save that of the oft-persecuted Jewish community—existed outside their universal purview. By creating a new category of spiritual expression that was officially outside both the Christian and Jewish communities, any mandatory requirement to fit with the creeds and customs laid down in Holy Scripture, Halakha or Canon Law was abolished. This was in itself startlingly radical; though the Enlightenment established the legitimacy of secular thought, it was the rise of new religious movements, including that of Paganism, that actively challenged the formal, ecclesiastical control of the spiritual realm.
In short; the first few generations of Pagan sages made a gateway through which forgotten beings, old souls, and the old ways could return to human society.
And that is exactly what is now taking place.
The Old Ways, Plural
The crucial thing to remember is that what defined the old Paganism was explicitly not a single set of beliefs, nor a single set of customs. Europe, before the arrival of “the Nazarene” and his vision of the world, was a patchwork of different traditions, methods of enlightenment, esoteric systems, state cults, philosophies, and initiatory systems—all flourishing and fighting with one another, all very different in range and content. What united them—if anything—were cultural exchanges and political alliances that took place over time. The Druids, for example, commanded influence across tribal and linguistic boundaries in Iron Age Europe, just as Greek art, language and philosophy came to flourish across the Mediterranean during the same period. The Cultus of the Divine [Imperial] House united all who lived within the Roman Empire, just as various state-sponsored reverential traditions had forged civic or national identity prior to the Roman conquests.
Before the arrival of Christianity, a wide variety of interpretations of divinity existed—from the dualism of the gnostics, to the naturalism of the Stoics; from the pragmatic polytheism of the official cults to the mystical techniques advocated by Plotinus. When Christianity developed into a powerful force within Imperial politics, the drive to produce the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth became the new unifying ideology across the Roman world—an exclusive one, at that. Lacking any term to describe what they stood for, the opponents of this new order came to refer to the old ways as “Hellenism”; the defining attribute of which being a love of the Greek classical heritage that the Romans had inherited, and everything that had been syncretised with it. As Talal Asad has argued, before the rise of religion as a category, Christianity was once described as a disciplina—a system of government—just like that of the Empire itself . The Christianisation was, then, the bringing of Imperial rule in line with the expectations of Christian discipline, at the expense of pre-Christian mores.
In a sense, what can be seen in the rise of The Church is a continuation of the process of conquest initiated by Rome itself. When Rome began, it was one political vision amongst many—the Capitoline Triad were just one constellation in a myriad of political cults, spreading out from Alexandria to Bibracte and beyond. But as Roman rule became ever more absolute, the geopolitical reality of many peoples, each with their own moral, legal, and spiritual alliances faded away; being replaced by the singular authority of the Roman State. As the notion of this single disciplina became ever more established—manifest in the deification of the Roman State in the genius of the Emperors – it became possible to re-imagine the divine order in a way that better reflected what had been realized on Earth; a total system of control, focused upon a single authority.
Christianity, with its emphasis upon one God and an absence of idols, was the perfect theological companion to this new arrangement. The fact that the unstable bricolage of Hellenism failed to halt the Christian advance is not at issue here: what is interesting is that the term adopted by the proponents of a non-Christian influence was linked to a loosely-organised cultural assemblage—Hellenism—that grew out of a long, mutual history of trade, war, and intellectual and ritual expression, and not a singular body of authoritative doctrine or law, laid down by a prophet and codified by his disciples.
My analysis so far is heavily influenced by a school of thought—propounded by such scholars of religion as Talal Asad, S. N. Balagangadhara, and Timothy Fitzgerald—which argues that our contemporary concept of “religion” is highly specific to the context of modern, Western Christianity. Religion—as a separable sphere of life, concerned with spiritual beliefs, divinely-sanctioned morality, ritual, prayer, and mythology—is not a human universal. It is perfectly possible for spiritual life to exist in forms and varieties that look strikingly different to “religion”, as that word is normally understood. Pre-Christian spiritual life in Europe—in all its bewildering diversity, contradiction, and creativity, inseparable from the rest of both public and private life—is a case in point. Indeed, it is arguable that the very fact that people define the spiritual so differently today—largely through the lens of “religion”, rather than disciplina or anything else–means that it is impossible for us to posit any real substantive similarities between ancient and modern Paganisms.
But to my mind, the development of highly diverse, de-centralised expressions of “unChristian” practice in Europe and America suggests otherwise. Once the spiritual authoritarianism of Christendom was declared to be in abeyance, people began to adopt a much wider spectrum of positions, covering territory theologians have not dared occupy for a thousand years. And this is not just to be expected; it is to be celebrated. It represents a gradual, and quite organic, restoration of state of affairs truly authentic to pre-Christianity—one that puts clear water between itself and Christendom, and thrives in its own right. By acknowledging the lesson taught by Asad and his fellow social constructionists—that “religion” is a term with a specific history and social context that limits its relevance—we are freed from the expectation to conform to the implicit standard of what “counts” as a religion.
Rather than trying to revive ancient spiritualities by consciously trying to reconstruct specific rites and rituals, we have delivered a spiritual environment similar in key respects to that of the ancient world, without even meaning to. Though what Pagans think and do is thoroughly contemporary; the fact that we’re all doing it differently, in ways concordant with our particular contexts, is quintessentially pre-Christian.
Like the common heritage that gave some semblance of unity to the Classical world in the face of the conquering army of Christ, so it is with Paganism today. As Ethan Doyle White points out, Pagans are united not by a common set of rituals, beliefs, or literary canon, but by a common social history; involving diverse groups exchanging ideas, practices, concerns, and themes over time, who began appearing in the 1800s, all drawing on the pre-Christian past in various ways [6.] Just as there are Dharmic religions (who look to Dharma), or Abrahamic religions (who look to Abraham and his legacy), so, Doyle White argues, there are Pagan ones (who look to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Europe).
But this observation also points out a crucial difference between the Pagan religions of today, and the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity; Abrahamic faiths tend to focus upon the teachings of a specific prophet—Jesus, Moses, Muhammad—and earnestly affirm and search for compliance with such figures’ singular authority. All other trusted teachers and texts are judged by their compliance with the truth stated by these great men; a truth which itself originally comes from a [singular] divine source. Paganisms, however, both past and present, look to many different sources of authority – without any one of these trumping the others.
Beyond the Big Tent and into the Earthly City
Although this epistemology is applied extensively in practice, the theory has yet to catch up. Many authors within the community and in the academy still attempt to define “Paganism” with reference to the everyday definition of “religion”—as a bounded belief system pertaining to spiritual matters. Rather than allowing for a historical understanding of contemporary and ancient pagan spiritualities—whose connections are constructed through the relationships between Pagans living and dead – it is assumed that the question “What is Paganism?” can be answered with reference to a particular set of ideas, that owe their validity to a single authoritative source. In doing this, we treat Christianity – with its emphasis on just such an arrangement – as the gold standard to which we must aspire.
We see this clearly in attempts to create a “Big Tent” of Paganism, based as they are around a desire to establish certain broadly-worded statements of belief. Do you, like the Pagan Federation, believe in the role of the feminine in the godhead? Theological pluralism? Sacredness of nature? Perhaps Paganism is—as Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest argued, a triangle –with strong polytheism, an aspecting pantheism, and Jungian humanism at its points?  Or do we describe Paganism with reference to four poles—Nature, Deity, Community and the Self?  Such efforts are interesting, and noble—but they nonetheless attempt to shape Paganism after the fashion of the Christian ecclesia—a community joined by common belief[s]—and as a result, fail to do justice to our traditions. Rather than devote our energies to dreaming into being successors to the older, pre-Christian relationships that were barely hinted at by the word hellenismos, we instead spend a lot of time and effort trying to herd conceptual cats.
But such efforts are doomed to either shoe-horning the wild variety of Pagan lived experience into a conceptual prison, or being so broad as to be empty of usefulness or rigour. We are left with Hobson’s choice, of either leaving some Pagans out in the cold, or frogmarching those who would rather be outside the tent—often people of colour and indigenous communities—into its confines. Rather than create our own discourse about how our communities fit together, as Foucault might suggest we do , we consistently adopt the familiar mythos of the powerful.
The problem with a tent, is that it is a pre-defined space—it has a canopy, canvas walls, pegs, ropes, and—most of all—poles. All these things delimit the space, setting its dimensions firmly in time and place, rendering it static. If anybody tries to move any of these components, there is a very real risk the entire edifice will come crashing down.
Paganism, as a movement encompassing a range of very distinct religions, is ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-shifting. As such, it is as profoundly un-like a tent as you can imagine. Instead, Paganism is much more like a spontaneous gathering of people, in a place open to the elements—a crowd, a throng, a rally, a carnival. And as it has been going on for some time, it has become the permanent version of these: a city.
Cities do not have fixed borders, edges, limits in the same way that a tent does. Though we can easily point out the dimensions of a city in any given moment, this act is in no way is that definitive—indeed, cities are constantly changing in population and extent. All you need is for more people to come in, or for some others to leave, for some buildings to be built or torn down, and you have changed the city’s limits. Nor is a city defined by single function or concept. Certainly, something will have attracted the first settlers there—a spring, a fertile field, a crossing place, or a defensible hill—but oftentimes this feature will vanish and be forgotten as the city grows. Over time, the city will gain its own character, based on the people who have lived there, the land upon which it is built, and the events that have happened there. In short, what defines a city—and attracts more people to it—is not any one thing you find within it, but rather its history; the ongoing story of its making.
Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. 
Saint Augustine of Hippo once wrote a searing invective against what he called “The Earthly City” – a metaphor for the disciplina of the Roman Empire and all polytheistic societies. For Augustine, in such places it was Mankind who was the measure of all things, and not the Holy Spirit to which he professed allegiance. He exhorted Christendom to dwell instead within the City of God, wherein it was God, not mankind, who was the subject of devotion, and therefore the absolute standard against which society was weighed.
It is, perhaps, unfair of us to be too hard on Augustine. The Roman Empire was indeed an evil Empire; in which many bad men were raised up to a station they did not deserve. But Augustine’s vision of the City of God and the Earthly City – one holy, one fallen, each centred on one thing – is, in the terms I have lain out above, less of a tale of two cities, but more of a tale of two big tents, with big poles in their middle. The reality behind Augustine’s metaphor was, of course, but one city—Rome—that had yet to decide whether to accept the Divine Providence of Christ Crucified. In that choice, Augustine saw all of human history.
But in Augustine’s Earthly City, we can see an echo of our own situation. His City of the Pagans did not recognise the total authority of the One True God, and neither do we. In echoing this refusal, we share in a key aspect of our ancestors’ broader attitude toward the spiritual. But against Augustine, I would say that the true solution to the iniquity of Empire is not to choose an Emperor-God over a line of God-Emperors—but to dispense with the throne upon which both would sit.
The Earthly City – if by that, we mean the example of Ancient Europe that inspires Pagans today, and not the decadent late-Imperial Rome that Augustine knew – has no one king, no one centre, no one idol to occlude the vibrancy and variety on its streets.
Let us not search in vain for the one public square, the one scenic landmark, the one ancient temple, the one leader who shall take precedence. Let us not worry unnecessarily over the matter of the gods; but explore it with curiosity, and accept the inevitably of many answers to the same questions. Let us leave belief—and all the problematic baggage that it carries—behind.
For there are far more important conversations; over how we should govern ourselves, about the security of our water and our weather, and about who our friends [and enemies] are. Because the more situated, the more contemporary, the more specific in time and space, the more rooted in the pragmatic concerns and the lived experiences of people today our spirituality is, the more like the wisdom of the ancients it becomes. Let us no longer falsely aspire to dwell in the City of God – obsessed with abstraction and unattainable discipline – but rather build together an Earthy city – where we are all sensitive to the way we need to live now, and are free to do so.
And may no one god, nor no one man, be the measure of all.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
I don’t need to tell you what happened. You’ve seen it already, the images of carnage, the collective mourning, the shaking anger, vows for reprisals, calls for restraint. And then the near-simultaneous retaliations in multiple countries by anti-terror police, new crackdowns, increased arrests, tightened security.
You’ve seen it already. You just saw it, but you’ve seen it before–really.
I’m referring, of course, to the attacks in the city of Paris. But I could just as easily be referring to any attacks, in any ‘modern’ city, and all the ensuing madness. What happened in New York is what happened in the London Underground which is what happened in Moscow which is what happened in Paris which is…
You get the point.
Many of our readers are younger than I. I don’t feel old, usually, until I find myself referring to the WTO shut-down in Seattle, or the massive anti-war protests during the beginning of the ‘War on Terror,’ or the G8 summit in Genoa, and suddenly I realise the person I’m talking to doesn’t actually remember any of this stuff. Then, I feel a little tired, quite dizzy, and understand something about ‘getting older’ (I still haven’t grown up): without collective memory, we are easily ruled.
And though I’m only 38, I figure I should tell you all what I learned from watching this happen before.
To Authority’s Hammer, We Are All Nails
There’s this trick you start to notice when the same thing recurs. History doesn’t really ‘repeat itself,’ but it’s full of repeating forms. What worked to control people in one generation, one century, or one situation is likely to show up again elsewhere. It makes sense, really: use a hammer to hit a nail once, and you might use it to hit another nail, or–depending on what sort of person you are–bash someone’s head in.
In each of those previous cases, ‘democratic’ Capitalist governments immediately introduced new security measures. The PATRIOT act in the United States was the first example, but anyone who studied the thing realised quickly it wasn’t actually about protecting anyone from another event like the plane-crashes in New York.
Rather it, and similar measures elsewhere, contained new laws, new powers, and new punishments which tightened the grip supposedly democractic governments held over the people they ruled. Worse, many of the new laws didn’t actually target those who’d committed terrorist acts, but created an expanded definition of terrorism which included environmental activists, peace campaigners, animal-rights advocates, and anti-capitalists.
The same happened elsewhere, and the same is happening again, because a hammer is an awfully useful thing.
Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine outlined the process many had noticed but few had quite been able to articulate. Traumatic events that occur to societies can be used by those in power to increase their power. Terrorist attacks are one example; natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami in Indonesia in the middle of last decade both led to increases in corporate, Capitalist, and governmental power.
The Shock Doctrine works because traumatized, wounded, or otherwise victimized people have a difficult time fighting back or standing up for themselves. If you just escaped a traumatic event (or had one constantly re-created for you through the media), you are in a weakened position, unable to think quite clearly, and more ready to accept powerful people coming in and ‘fixing’ the problem.
We can see this in the reaction to peoples in Europe and the United States regarding the refugees fleeing Syria. People who might otherwise have been friendly towards the idea of settling war-victims–or even utterly indifferent about the matter–suddenly react awfully about the notion, prompted towards such hatred by politicians and anti-immigrant groups.
The Means of Production of Meaning
The swiftness with which such violent rhetoric spreads shouldn’t surprise us, though. A terrorist attack or natural disaster is an event that exists in a realm of Meaninglessness. It becomes a break in the fabric of the every-day, doesn’t fit in to our understanding of the world, and confronts us with a crisis. Our minds struggle to understand the horror of such a thing, and it’s at such moments when we begin to look towards those who create meaning.
Basically, we look to our ‘priests,’ those who can tell us what something means.
Priests aren’t all religious. The Media is also a kind of priesthood, foretelling the weather, telling us stories of other places, and fitting it all within a neat, Capitalist/Democratic narrative. In this way, politicians are also priests, as are other political groups, and the events after a trauma become a pitched battle for control of meaning.
There are several hammers that Authority can wield over people to control them. Direct violence is a bloody maul, but it’s hard to rule over people when you constantly have to break their arms. Economic violence is another: starving people are easier to control, but it’s also hard to extract taxes from those who have nothing. The third, and the one least addressed by any political theory I’ve yet seen, is to control Meaning.
Consider the Catholic Church’s stranglehold over the souls of the people. To disobey the Church was to lose one’s soul, to be exiled from ‘community’ (ex-communication), to lose access to the Divine, and to find yourself forever seared by eternal flames. Such control over the souls of people took various forms, but ‘belief’ was the primary bludgeon. Christianity controlled the meaning of the universe, the meaning of human love (through marriage), the meaning of death, and the pattern of the year–all things which shape the meaning of our lives.
The Roman Empire did something similar before them through the ‘interpretatio Romana’ and ‘evocatio’ (a ritual which convinced a god to leave their people and go over to the Roman side).
Capitalism and Modern ‘Democratic’ governments do the same thing. Capitalism does this by defining how humans relate to each other, shaping our views on poverty, on what we are worth, and what we should be doing with our lives (that is, work). Governments shape how we understand and identify ourselves (‘American,’ ‘French’), determining what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (trespassing is bad, hoarding lots of money is good), punishing those who oppose them (be they murderers or environmental activists), and claiming to be our ‘protectors.’
Against Terror, Against Authority? We Dance
So, in a terrorist attack like what happened in Paris (London, New York, etc. etc. etc.), it’s essential that we look not just at the event, but how powerful people are attempting to shape the way we see the event. Calls for retaliation, adding a French flag to a Facebook profile, massive anti-refugee sentiment…these were all shaped by people eager to control the meaning of those attacks.
We must resist all of this. Identification with a Nation is a means of control (and a control of meaning)–I am no more “American” than I am French, unless I choose to let someone decide that for me and accept that identification. The terrorists didn’t attack ‘Civilization’ or ‘Democracy,’ unless we let others decide that’s what happened.
What all this ‘means’ is completely the wrong question. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote, after September 11th, 2001:
It is the system itself that has created the objective conditions for this brutal distortion. By taking all the cards to itself, it forces the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the stakes are ferocious. To a system whose excess of power creates an unsolvable challenge, terrorists respond by a definitive act that is also unanswerable.
That is, terrorist acts push the self-destruct button of Western Civilization. When a terrorist attacks a city where Authority has become so perfect as to become invisible, it re-appears and rushes to show itself as powerful, just, and righteous. Capitalism is supposed to be perfect, Democracy is supposed to create peace, and governments are supposed to have the sole monopoly on violence.
Terrorists prove that all of that to be illusion, attacking Authority with its own game, which sets in motion a series of events which show Authority to be what it really is–just another violent regime which treats its own people well and other peoples viciously.
This isn’t to say we should thank the terrorists or even sympathize with them. Like watching a stand-off between a white supremacist and police, we should take neither side. Instead, we should look for the moment of our own liberation while violence is pre-occupied with violence, while terrorists–and the Authority which creates them–destroy each other.
Our liberation comes from reclaiming our meaning. If Paganism teaches anything, it’s that our meaning need not come from authoritarian priests or violent warlords known as ‘governments.’ Rather, our meaning comes from ourselves, our gods, our dead, our forests, and the whole dance of creation which we stand in the middle of, witches and mages, poets and rogues, singing in an other world.
Resist giving up your ability to create meaning in the world, which is the very essence of your magic.
And fight everyone who would steal that magic from you.
(For more on Authority and the Creation of Meaning, see this essay.)
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 and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest and 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