Violence is “Not Good”

“A small percentage of the world is benefiting from Capitalism, while the rest of the world lives in abject poverty. At some point, those people may decide they’ve had enough, and the backlash will be ‘not good.’”

From Rhyd Wildermuth, an editorial on Welsh myth and the inevitability of ‘violent revolution.’


 

Recently I found myself in an argument regarding capitalism with another Pagan writer. I’m an anti-capitalist, he runs a prosperity-magic course to help people get better at capitalism, so you can imagine the conversation was not really going very far.  At some point, however, he changed the subject slightly and asked me this:

“I keep hearing G&R calls for violence. Knowing that people take things out of context all the time, are you talking about violent response when confronted with violence from the state/private security or are you talking about proactive violence against the wealthy?”

The question arises occasionally, and the answer is hardly a simple one. Does Gods&Radicals call for violence? And what sort of violence do we call for?

The question first of all showed a misunderstanding of what Gods&Radicals is. We are not a political party. We are an anti-capitalist non-profit publisher. We are also hardly monolithic. Some writers are dedicated deeply to non-violent resistance, some are pacifists, some see violent defense as justifiable when attacked by police or white supremacists, and some writers are insurrectionists.

None of us speaks for anyone else, and that goes doubly for myself.  While I am a co-founder and the managing editor of this site, I am neither its king nor high-priest.

I cannot and won’t speak for anyone else who writes with us unless they ask me to. That’s called anarchism, by the way.

My eventual answer to this person was that we take no collective stance for or against violence, which is true. His response was intriguing:

“The fact that people within the organization are calling for it…and the organization has no stand against it makes it culpable.”

That is, by not taking a direct stance against violence (that is, without siding with the current capitalist order), we therefore are arguing for violence. Again, the ‘we’ in this formulation is not quite correct; I manage the organisation, but I do not speak for any of the writers. I technically have the power to tell a writer they cannot take a certain stand on violence. I don’t. They probably wouldn’t write with us any more if I did, and anyway: I’m an anarchist.

I should also admit: I am probably more comfortable with the idea of violence against the rich then, say, a pro-capitalist prosperity sorcerer might be. The reason why should probably be obvious: I am probably not the sort of target the poor are likely to go after. Likewise, in any revolutionary scenario, the police and military are not going to be protecting me or anything that I hold dear. I do not own a business or a home, I do not own a car or stocks, and everything I do ‘own’ (including the computer I write on, which cost $150 two years ago) can fit in my backpack.

Thus, the angry poor are likely not going to be coming for me, but if they ever do revolt, they’d be more likely to go after people like him.

The Broken Cauldron

If speaking of such things makes you very uncomfortable, I apologize. It makes me rather uncomfortable too, especially since there are many people I know and love who would likely get caught up as targets in a mass uprising because of their perceived (and often real) wealth, status, and support for the capitalist system. Likewise, I know some very poor people who dress quite fashionably–they could be easily mistaken for being rich. Further, I have met some very rich and exploitative people who are incredibly good at hiding their wealth.

The problem is that violent revolts do not operate on the same principles of polite society. In fact, they are suspensions of polite society and revolts against it.

Those who benefit from a society may not necessarily see the violence inherent in that system. If they do, they may dismiss that violence as acceptable or sanctioned. So when outbreaks of violence against the system occur, those outbreaks seem both incomprehensible and unprovoked.

A Welsh myth, Branwen fearch Llyr, illustrates this point quite well. For those unfamiliar with the story, I’ll summarize it:

There was once a giant named Brân, king of Wales. One day, the king of Ireland arrived with several fully-armed warships, and Brân hosted them in his lands. The king of Ireland then asked to marry Brân’s sister, Branwen, and Brân agreed, seeing it a good way to keep peace between their kingdoms.

Brân and Branwen had a half-brother, Efnysien fab Euroswydd. His name meant ‘not good,’ and he was away when it was decided that Branwen would marry.  Efynsien became angry about not being consulted, and so cut off the lips and eyelids of the Irish king’s horses, vandalizing his ‘property,’

The Irish king was furious and was now ready for war. Brân learned what had happened, and rather then fighting them (especially now that his sister was married into Ireland), he gave the king of Ireland an ancient cauldron capable of raising dead soldiers.

The king recognised this cauldron, and asked Brân how he came to have it in Wales. Brân explained that two giants had come bearing it across the sea, fleeing persecution. He gave them shelter, and they gave him the cauldron in return. The king of Ireland replied with his own story. It was he from whom the giants originally fled. They lived in Ireland for awhile, but the children they birthed scared the nobles of Ireland with their strength. So the king tried to burn the giants and their children alive inside an iron house. The giants survived though,and took the cauldron with them across the sea where Brân welcomed them.

Fast forward a few years. A bird arrived bearing news to Brân that his sister was being beaten and forced into slavery by her husband. Brân traveled across the sea with an army (including his half-brother, Efnysien) to rescue her. When he arrived, however, the king of Ireland welcomed him, offering him a house large enough in which the giant could sleep. Also, the house was filled with 100 sacks of grain and other riches, proof that the king did not want war with Wales.

Efnysien went through the house late that night, stabbing each sack of grain. Instead of wheat or oats, however, blood poured out from where he plunged the knife: each sack contained a soldier ready to assassinate Brân as he slept. The next day, Brân was invited to dinner with the king of Ireland and Branwen, who now had a child, Gwern. Such a child officially meant peace between the two peoples. However, Efnysien, the child’s uncle, grabbed him and threw him into a fire, killing him and starting a war. That war desolated Ireland, led to Branwen’s death by heartache and Brân’s death by a poisoned spear.

It also meant the end of Efnysien. The Irish king had used the Cauldron to raise each soldier who died in battle against the Welsh to fight again, and to stop it, Efnysien pretended to be dead so he would be thrown inside. The moment his living body landed in the cauldron, he and the cauldron shattered.

All readings of this myth lay upon Efnysien the guilt for all the violence which eventually ends both the Irish and Welsh kingdoms. On the surface, this seems definitely true: Efnysien maimed the Irish king’s horses for no apparent reason, and it was his murder of Gwern (his nephew) that triggered the war between the kingdoms. And anyway, Efnysien was ‘not good.’

The thing is, this reading misses all the other violence in the story. The king of Ireland previously tried to burn innocent giants alive, giants who had done nothing wrong except scare and threaten the rich. Then, the king married a giantess and treated her like a slave (after, according to the tale, she gave so many gifts to people that the nobles became threatened by her generosity). Then, he hid 100 assassins in the house he ‘gifted’ to Brân in order to kill him in his sleep.

While the story itself gives no indication whether or not Efysien acted specifically out of spite or from a full view of the truly violent nature of the Irish king, it is easy to see Efnisien’s maiming of the horses and murder of his nephew (both acts against innocents) as more treacherous and more evil than the Irish king’s violence against Branwen, the giants who forged the cauldron, and his attempted murder of Brân himself.

But the question of violence is never that easy.

Making the Invisible Visible

Efnysien, ‘not good,’ perfectly describes revolutionary violence. Innocents are caught up. Windows are smashed, property is destroyed, people (including innocent children) are killed. From the perspective of anyone doing relatively ‘okay’ in Western capitalist societies, such violence is not only horrific, but utterly without justification.

From such a perspective, any revolutionary acts which harm innocents are immediately not just illegitimate, but worse than the very political and economic order that they attempt to replace. Even those of us who do not do well under capitalism tend to feel disgust at the idea of such violence.

The problem with such a perspective is that it ignores that the current capitalist order already kills innocent children. Police murder unarmed Black kids in the streets very often in the United States, Democracies casually drop bombs on school kids in the Middle East, children in inner-cities are poisoned with chemicals in their water and schools, and we do not even have a full picture of how many children will eventually die from radiation poisoning or global warming in the next few decades.

The sheer scale of violence against innocents within Capitalism doesn’t stop at children. Capitalism’s extinction of entire species and the mechanized slaughter of farm animals through industrial agriculture makes Efnysien’s maiming of several royal horses seems quite amateur.

The problem is that this violence is often invisible, just like the systematic violence carried out upon Black communities in the United States which leads to ‘violent’ manifestations. These very visible manifestations are often painted as childish outbursts or events of blind rage, and become quickly dismissed by the middle-class, because what led up to it was invisible.

If you’ve ever been an adult responding to a fight between children, you maybe already understand how this dynamic works. My youngest nephew, for instance, became a master of trapping his older brother into a liberal democratic politic. He’d repeatedly hit him when no one was watching, knowing that he won’t cry. When the older finally tired of the repeated slaps or pinches and retaliated, the younger nephew would then cry loudly, provoking a ‘police’ response from his parents.

It is often the same in oppressed and poor communities throughout the capitalist world. Repeated killings of unarmed people, repeated poisonings or land-theft (gentrification) or other systematic violence remains invisible except to the people to whom it occurs.

When they are no longer willing to endure the violence, they respond. When they respond, those of us who did not witness the long build-up of violence against them see only their violent response and thus blame the victim again, just like my nephew manipulated his parents into punishing his brother.

In perhaps her most famous interview, former Black Panther Angela Davis says exactly this same thing. Asked by a reported while she was in prison if she approved of violent revolution, she responded:

“oh, is that the question you were asking? yeah see, that’s another thing. When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions.You have to expect things like that as reactions…

…That’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I just, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

Davis’s point extends to every other oppressed community within Capitalist societies, as well as those in other countries who suffer daily from the actions of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other western nations. This same dynamic also describes the ‘outbursts of violence’ from domestic abuse victims who kill their abusers, or workers who steal from their bosses, or displaced people who vandalize new businesses in gentrified neighborhoods.

Those who did not experience or witness the previous violence will be more likely to see these moments of visible violence as disconnected, unrelated, or even fully-separated from the reasons for the violence. But this does not by itself explain the entire process, because the invisible violence is no less senseless than the visible outbursts from which we recoil, and some of us benefit much more from that violence.

“Please Revolt Peacefully”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the critic who accused Gods&Radicals of being ‘violent’ is more likely to be a target of violent revolutionary uprisings than I am, and not necessarily through any direct fault of his own. Certainly, having more than those who have little makes one more likely a target, especially when that wealth is in the form of property like automobiles or homes. However, the degree to which he or others who live similar lifestyles are actually ‘the problem’ is only a matter of subjective perception. He is not part of the ‘super rich’ or even the ‘very rich.’ He is likely not a Trump supporter, nor does he actively kick homeless people in the street or wish for poor people to be shot by police.

Marxists and anarchists called the position he and many others occupy within society as ‘the bourgeoisie.’  The word literally means ‘city-dweller’ in French and applied specifically to the shop-owners, factory-owners, and others who became powerful after the French revolution beheaded the aristocracy.

The term is still in use even among non-Marxists in France and Germany, but in the United States and the United Kingdom (which never saw successful revolts against the rich), the term ‘middle-class’ is used instead. However, the middle-class is a moving target: most people in America consider themselves middle-class, whether they make $20,000 a year or $250,000. What really only seems to unite them as a ‘class’ is probably best said to be their own certainty that they are neither poor nor rich.

The conception of the bourgeoisie, however, was never merely their economic status, but also their general attitude towards capitalism. To be bourgeois is to believe capitalism is an effective way to organize society and to prioritize values that keep capitalism healthy. These core values unite both conservatives and liberals, though they often disagree on how to implement them. Looking at those values, one gets a better sense of what the bourgeoisie actually are about.

  • Private property,
  • laws against sleeping in parks or streets,
  • laws against public drunkenness,
  • a well-funded police force,
  • public order,
  • clean streets,
  • strong national defense,
  • courts which severely punish property crimes (auto-theft, burglary, bank-robbery).

It goes without saying that the poor have less interest in such things. In fact, the primary target of many of these laws are the poor, particularly poor people of color. The poor are more likely to rob a bank or scream drunkenly on the street than the middle-classes. More so, one does not hear of many business-owners or internet-technology professionals stealing cars or breaking-and-entering.

Thus, the values of the bourgeoisie do not only run counter to the existence of the poor, they specifically criminalize things that the poor do to survive. We can thus see why the poor might not care if a person who stands for such things voted for Trump or Hillary, whether they support socialized health care or oppose abortion. What the middle-classes have that the poor do not is money, property, and access to more of the same, as well as a state which defends their interests and a class-wide support of the capitalist system which ensures the poor never have more than what it takes to survive (if even that).

When you expand this outward from the societies of Liberal (Capitalist) Democracies to the rest of the world, you see the divide is even more severe. Even the poorest Americans have more access to wealth than the average Haitian, and a significant reason why this is the case is American foreign military and economic policy supported by the American bourgeoisie. The same extends to France (where I currently live), the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada and every other Liberal Democracy.

A small percentage of the world is benefiting from Capitalism, while the rest of the world lives in abject poverty, experiencing the invisible violence caused by Capitalism.

At some point, those people may decide they’ve had enough, and the backlash will be ‘not good.’

Violence is Not-Good, But It Will Happen Anyway

So, the question of whether or not Gods&Radicals or I take a stand for or against violence against the rich is really an irrelevant one.

The violence seems inevitable regardless of how I feel about the matter. Corporations, governments, and police-forces certainly agree on this: for the last decade, they’ve invested heavily in new arms, new surveillance, and new prisons to deal with the inevitable backlash. The militarization of the police forces in the United States and France that has led to increasing murders of unarmed poor people and minorities is not some unfortunate accident.

They know what’s coming.

Personally? I hate violence and wish we can have a non-violent revolution. But let’s not delude ourselves: what I personally believe about the usefulness or goodness of violence will have absolutely no effect on uprisings in European and North American cities in the next decade. This truth extends to what the bourgeoisie believe, too.

‘Non-violence’ is a religious mantra of the bourgeoisie themselves. When a protest turns violent, it is the (mostly-white) middle-classes who are the first to denounce the actions. “I don’t support violence,” they often say, forgetting that it is them for whom the police and military exist.

This class-solidarity is often stronger than racial solidarity. In Ferguson and Baltimore, many Black middle-class people opposed the expressions of rage and anger of the poor who were tired of their children being shot on the streets. In the protests at Standing Rock, many well-off elders actively attempted to eject poorer and angrier First Nations protestors from the camps. And among whites, bourgeois class solidarity is the most pronounced: middle-class liberals in protests often do the work of the police for them, unmasking Black Bloc protesters and helping to detain poor people within marches who break windows or throw stuff at cops.

While some in the “middle-class” perhaps truly believe in non-violence, I suspect there is a darker, unconscious reason.

The violence which sustains capitalism isn’t entirely invisible. Perhaps they are not as ignorant about the state of the world as they pretend to be. Perhaps they’ve made the connections between real estate sales and homelessness, business profits and poverty, Liberal Democratic ‘freedoms’ and the subjugation of entire continents, the connection between ‘our way of life’ and the destruction of nature.

Maybe they’ve seen the violence, and then looked away. Maybe they tried to forget, hoping no one noticed the sacks aren’t full of grain but assassins, that they tried to burn giants alive, that there’s an immigrant slave-woman in the kitchen being beaten and abused.

Perhaps it’s all feigned ignorance. Perhaps that’s why they insist that violence is always ‘not good,’ because they know they are the violent ones.

I suspect that nothing can stop what is coming, not my own feelings on the matter, nor a bourgeois commitment to non-violence, nor even all the billions of dollars spent by governments and police and corporations to prevent the sort of revolutionary violence that will leave us all uttering Efnysien’s name: Not good.

And if it comes to that, I suspect it will be better to be on the side of the poor than the people who oppress them, regardless the outcome. For it not to come to that, the ‘middle class’ who truly believe violence is ‘not good’ must start following that belief to its logical conclusion.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram


If you liked this essay, you’ll love Dr. Bones’ new book: Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World. It’s on pre-sale now!

Plotting the Fall of the King

Said Arthur, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?”

Said one of his men, “There isthe blood of the witch Orddu, the daughter of the witch Orwen, of Penn Nant Govid, on the confines of Hell.”

From Culhwch and Olwen


British colonialism soaks through English-speaking Paganism like fetid morning piss. Glance through the shelves of witch bookstores and, once you get past the how-to’s on crystal communication and appropriative dream-catcher spirituality, you find books full of it: delusions of chivalric murderers, bent-knee begging for noble sovereigns, and bourgeois rituals of lords and ladies playing sex by sticking dull knives into etsy-bought chalices.

This should not surprise us. Wicca—the most prevalent of the Pagan traditions—was started by a British Colonial Administrator (Gerald Gardner) and a one-time member of two British fascist groups (Doreen Valiente; National Front and Northern League). Why wouldn’t modern Paganism find itself stained with the trappings of Empire?

No place is this seen more than the spiritualisation of the Arthurian myths. Equal parts feudal nostalgia and patriarchal obsession, the Pagan longing for the return of Great Sovereigns who might restore the balance of the world is inseparable from the nationalist fictions of fading white dominance.

Along with King Arthur (that giant-killing, witch-slaughtering thief), many traditions, particularly Druidry, find deep alchemical meaning in the form of another problematic figure: Taliesin. Born Gwion Bach, a boy tasked to watch a cauldron for a witch, he stole wisdom from a witch-goddess and went on to serve kings. Whereas Prometheus stole fire from the gods to help humans, Taliesin stole the creative force of the world to serve the imperial ambitions of slaughtering empire.

While Peter Grey challenged Pagan elders for their desire to defang witchcraft, and I have aggressed them for their allegiance with Capital, Lorna Smithers has done something even more dangerous than either of us. In The Broken Cauldron, the awenydd and poet becomes the Old Mother of the Universe herself, rebirthing beheaded giants and slaughtered witches through the starry cauldron of poetry.  In the otherworld halls of the Gatherer of Souls she collects their bones, caresses their withered heads, and speaks their condemnations into our polluted, irradiated present.

Several figures recur in her mythic wanderings, suppressed blackened figures given scant reference in the Welsh lore. One such is the witch, Orddu (Welsh: Very Black), slain by King Arthur to claim a vial of her blood. According to Culhwch and Olwen, the servants of King Arthur volunteered to go fight her first so that his honor would not be stained (what King would want to be seen fighting a common woman?) Servant after servant fought against her and failed, wrestled to the ground by her bare strength alone, until Arthur himself was ‘man enough’ to fight her.

He slayed Orddu, split her in two, and collected her blood. Another trophy for a British king, another relic in the Royal museum, given three paragraphs in the Welsh bardic lore until Orddu’s bones are gathered again by a rogue awenydd:

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story, every world, every myth, with his hatred of witches, with his living knife, to put an end to wild, recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years. Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Giving us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Taking away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Confining us to virginity and chastity belts. Cutting us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Arthur was not just a witch-killer, but a giant-slayer, slaughtering ancient land-god after land-god to gain their cauldrons and their power. Subduing the earth beneath him, sending the old ways under hill into Annwn, even then following after. Accompanied by the sycophantic Taliesin, he stole what the land hid from him. Amongst these otherworldy ‘spoils’ was the cauldron of Annwn, once held by the Welsh giant Brân whose head once protected Britain from invasion. We read in the Welsh triads that Arthur dug that up, too, finding it unseemly that the common people relied upon a land-god, rather than their slaughtering, arrogant king.

It’s in this last fact that we glimpse the reason for Paganism’s Arthurian obsession. Tales of a king who needed no godsonly strength and the magic of his advisorsread in the context of British colonialism suddenly seem less like myth and more like imperial propaganda. The gods of land subdued, the power of witch-women destroyed: For traditions claiming to venerate the earth and the divine feminine, the prominence of Arthurian forms and Taliesin start to seem hypocritical.

chernobyl-1986
Broken Cauldron, Chernobyl

Orddu is not the only dark shadow re-awakened into Lorna’s poetry. Taliesin stole the awen from Ceridwen, who did not brew it for herself. Rather, the draught was boiled and stirred for her malformed son, Afagddu (Welsh: Utter Dark), later also called Morfrân (Welsh: Sea Raven). When first I encountered the story of Taliesin’s birth and Ceridwen’s chase, I took no delight in it. The selfless act of a mother to grant her disfigured child wisdom was sabotaged by the thoughtlessness of a child who later upheld kings and helped kill giants. What is there to love in this story?

And anyway, what happened to Afagddu?

Lorna answers this question delightfully, repeatedly giving Afagddu voice. Most startling is his tale in her piece, Sea Raven:

There’s been another disaster at the chemical plant, three people injured, one missing presumed dead. That young man’s name was Gwion Bach. He was employed in the control room in charge of the 30,000 gallon reactor vessel. His task was to keep the paddle stirring at several thousand revolutions a minute and monitor the changes in heat and pressure.

He was an absentminded sort, so lost in daydreams he didn’t realise the paddle had stuck. The temperature rose over 300°F. By the time he’d filled the cooling jacket it was too late. With a sound like a jet engine and deafening crash, the reactor exploded with a blast that broke every window.

Gwion was seen staggering from the control room like a drunk toward the toxic brew, dipping his finger in and putting it to his lips, his hair standing on end, before my wrathful mother leapt from the offices and he hare-footed it away with her hot on his heels.

Retelling ancient myths in modern settings is a tired trope, but Lorna is not writing urban fantasy.  Rather than recycling old stories for new audiences, she expands the (nuclear) core of the broken cauldrons and shows that they are still shattering.

After all, what else is atomic energy but a cauldron of shattered stars? When oil spills pollute the earth and oceans, is this not also the poisoning of the land after Gwion shattered Ceridwen’s cauldron? And the industrialisation of war: does not the giant-forged Cauldron of Annwn still bring forth unspeaking, obedient warriors?

For King and Country, I bore the cauldron whilst Arthur’s advisers listened to wheezing chests and throats of phlegm; counted blisters; bandaged weeping, reddened skin. I fought off green waves of nausea as it buckled my knees and wore a hollow in my spine.

When I heard an old woman’s lament, I repeated my mantra, plugged my ears as she screamed while the soldiers of Prydain unleashed poisonous gases at Loos and the Somme and foreign men drowned in yellow-green seas.

The powerthe magicof the awenyddion is to bend time around them and dance in those re-connected threads. The greater magic still is to pull you into their dance, to weave you into those threads so that, when you have left, you and time are still tangled in knots.

Post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote of these ‘time-knots’ in his introduction to Provincializing Europe, a book whose confrontation of European (and especially British) exceptionalism makes irrelevant most of the stories of kings and empire:

“what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is precisely the fact that these worlds are never lost. It is because we live in time-knots that we can undertake the task of straightening some part of the knot (which is what chronology is). Subaltern pastsaspects of these time-knotsact as a supplement to the historian’s past and in fact aid our capacity to historicize.”

It’s precisely this that Lorna does. Afagddu, Orrdu, Diwrnachthese are the subaltern pasts Paganism tries to deny. By telling their stories, we hear the cauldrons shatter again not because they are in the past, but they are shattering even now.

Ecological destruction, technological optimism, capitalist exuberance and industrialised warfarethese are the only stories kings can tell. The boy Gwion became the thief Taliesin, and the suppressed blackened ones spill out from oil wells, explode from shattered nuclear reactors, poisoning the world.

And we come to the final horror of our Paganism when we remember that both Capitalism and Industrialisation (and as Lorna points out, the very first nuclear reactor) each started in the same land where Arthur slayed witches and giants, where Taliesin broke the cauldron. And like that broken cauldron, they have all swept like choking black poison out to every part of the world.

“What lies in the cauldron now you have done away with the knowledge of wise women? Split the witches in half? Killed the giants? Driven to the seas the most ancient of boars? You are on the wrong quest, looking for the wrong grail, the cure-all that does not exist.”

If even our Pagan myths are the self-delusions of empire, then what is left for us? Though we who hear the silenced voices might raise the dead so that they might use our lips, will this ever be enough to stop the endless sundering? What good would be the reawakening of that suppressed blackness, the beheaded gods of land?

I do not know; but blackened witches, beheaded giants, and disfigured crows insist we try anyway:

Feathered arches of black wings tore from my shoulders and cracked open. My feet shrunk into claws and my body tightened into bird-form. With a black-beaked scream I flew away from the Court of the King of Suffering and broke the Spell of Nine Maidens.

Yet the death of the dead did not stop the bloodshed. Today corpses are flown in on steel horses, driven down long, wet roads to be laid on slabs in mortuaries. I no longer wish to raise them. I travel the country winged, cawing my truth and plotting the fall of the King.

In such plotting perhaps is a path far less blood-soaked than the shattering of our world.


Lorna Smithers’ book, The Broken Cauldron, is available here.


Rhyd Wildermuth

6tag_221116-215034Rhyd is a co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He was born in Appalachia, lives nomadically, speaks with stars and dead things, and likes tea.

He is an anarchist, theorist, Pagan, Marxist, punk, and really damn good cook.

He writes at Gods&Radicals and on his own blog, Paganarch.

Awakening Against What’s Awakened

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

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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.

Something’s happening.

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

InstagramCapture_e995b737-8ac9-4c72-8879-a987850b1061
Bricks memorializing homes from which Jews were deported. The woman in the center was 73 year old when deported. She died a month later.

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

berlin viewI 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.awakening meaning pull

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

Hunt graffiti, Berlin
Graffiti, Berlin

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.

awakening political pullKings, 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.

awakening obedience pullGods 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

 

Graffiti on Refugee Center, Berlin

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.

awakening taught pullElevate 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.

No Masters

Mexican Embassy Art, Berlin
Rhyd at Mexican Embassy, Berlin

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 Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthRhyd is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch.

 

 


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