‘Battle not with monsters Lest you become a monster. If you gaze into the abyss The abyss also gazes into you.’
You call us monsters,
we with single eyes in our heads
glaring with an ugly neon green light.
We who keep battalions of men beneath
the roofs of our mouths and in our napes,
fat with hundreds of souls softly slither
through the netherworld’s nocturnal
grandeur undoing form and shape.
If you wish to live and prosper battle not with monsters.
Do not pierce us with spears.
Do not slice off our sanguine limbs
and nail them to the gables of your halls.
Do not cut off our voices with our heads.
Do not come to us with mirrors for fear
of being turned to stone and slaughter
all of our many-headed reflections.
Do not lure us with scantily clad
innocent-eyed virgin daughters lest you become a monster,
sacrificing the last vestiges
of humanity for love of conquering.
If you kill us you will not be satisfied
dominating the otherworld of Annwn.
You will seek out other lands sailing forth
fervourous in your white-prowed ships
with burning swords and fiery lances
crusading, enslaving, becoming
the monsters you dismissed. If you gaze into the abyss
we will gaze back with a million
crippled one-eyed stares undulating
through the underworld of your Empire
devouring ruined tower blocks bearing
all those you enslaved and conquered
shouting their defiance of your rules
in our splendiferous serpent skins,
riding aboard monstrous eyelids.
“Slaughterers behold the truth: the abyss also gazes into you!”
*This glosa has a loose basis in the depiction of the monsters of Annwn in ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in The Book of Taliesin. Here Taliesin battles on the side of the magician god, Gwydion, who conjures a host of trees against the forces of Annwn, the Brythonic underworld. The warrior-bard later accompanies Arthur on his raid on Annwn, plundering its treasures. I also reference other monster-slaying tales such as Beowulf and Peredur.
Lorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods and dreaming new ones. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and has edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signpost in the Mist.
You can help us pay Lorna and other anti-capitalist Pagans and witches at Gods&Radicals here. And thanks!
Calgacus speaking to the Caledonians. Public domain image from Wikipedia.
In the year 83 AD, the legions of the Roman Empire advanced into the mountains of Caledonia – what we would now call the Scottish Highlands. The warriors who came together to meet them in battle came from many different tribes, unified to some extent by their Celtic language but primarily by their mutual refusal to be conquered by Empire.
The Roman historian Tacitus, in his description of the battle, reports a stirring speech by the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus:
But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
If this description seems eerily familiar, that’s because all empires are basically the same. Crime on a large enough scale to declare itself the law. Most people, then as now, would rather just live their lives and not have to deal with people depraved enough to want to rule and exploit everyone else. As Calgacus told his warriors, fighting back comes naturally to some and not to others, but “in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety”. When “obedience and submission” bring no peace, it’s safer to fight back than it is to submit – just as it is for us today with the return of fascism.
In other translations of the same speech, Calgacus refers to the Caledonians as “the last of the free” and describes the horror the Roman soldiers must have felt, surrounded by enemies in a remote wilderness:
Few in number, dismayed by their ignorance, looking around upon a sky, a sea, and forests which are all unfamiliar to them; hemmed in, as it were, and enmeshed, the Gods have delivered them into our hands.
According to the Romans, the Caledonians suffered a crushing defeat at Mons Graupius despite their confidence, but it must have been a curious sort of defeat, because the Caledonians remained the last of the free. Rather than advancing to conquer and administer Caledonia, the Romans withdrew to the south and later built fortified walls to keep the Caledonians out. Over time, the unconquered tribes to the north of the Roman walls became known as the Picts. These walls are the obvious inspiration for the massive wall in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, as the Caledonians and their successors the Picts are the obvious inspiration for Martin’s “Free Folk.”
The Picts were the Free Folk of ancient Scotland, defying the Romans for hundreds of years and surviving to pillage the declining empire. No one can say for sure who the Picts really were. They left behind so little – enigmatic stone carvings of strange animals and abstract shapes, bleak fortifications, a few place names that don’t seem to be of Gaelic origin but still seem to be Celtic.
I feel that I have a better sense now of who the Picts must have been, but the answer was not provided by any Celtic scholar. James C.Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia has changed my entire understanding of Celtic history, of history in general, and of what the State really is. It has also changed my understanding of how we can liberate ourselves and our world.
The Zomia Highlands is a vast region of mountains in Southeast Asia, most of which was effectively outside the control of any state for the past two thousand or so years. Down in the valleys, among the rice farmers, states came and went as they always have. Up in the mountains, among the hill tribes, there were not only no states but often no concept of hierarchical leadership at all. Some tribes did have chiefs and elite family groups, but others did not. For instance, the Kumlao Kachin people refused to acknowledge the authority of any leaders, and had no chiefs even at the village level. The Lisu had village headmen, but granted them no coercive authority and told many stories about headmen who were murdered for telling other people what to do too often. The British colonial authorities found it so impossible to accept this state of affairs that they imposed “tribal chiefs” on peoples that had never had such a thing before.
The peoples of the valley states usually interpreted the hill tribes as barbaric or primitive, holdovers from an earlier stage of human development. Scott’s argument in The Art of Not Being Governed is that the hill tribes were not an earlier stage at all, but people who had deliberately rejected the state and placed themselves beyond the reach of its laws:
best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. (Scott)
No pre-modern state could exist without concentrating huge numbers of people in the richest agricultural areas where they could be taxed, conscripted and controlled. They did so through slavery, through violence, and through the establishment of armies. Once this fact is understood, we can see even the earliest states for what they really were – organized criminal enterprises.
At the same time, no state could prevent people from running for the hills if they decided to do so. Like Martin’s “Free Folk,” the Zomia Highlanders were not throwbacks to a more primitive era but simply people who chose not to be governed.
Before the modern era, no state was powerful enough to assert its authority effectively in remote and mountainous areas. In the British Isles, the Scottish Highlanders were outside the control of central authority until 1745. In the Zomia Highlands, most of the tribes were outside the control of central authority until after World War II, and to some extent a few of them still are.
When the Roman Empire invaded Britain, anyone who didn’t want to be ruled by Rome could always just head north and keep on going. While the original Caledonians were probably just the people who already lived in the Scottish Highlands, there were probably huge numbers of refugees from the original conquest, from the failed uprising of Boudicca, from the civil war among the Brigantes. Escaped criminals, escaped slaves, people who didn’t want to be told what to do – the Last of the Free. I think the Picts came into existence as a maroon people, a mix of native Caledonians and Britons fleeing Roman oppression.
Ethnic homogeneity is supposed to be one of the defining characteristics of a “tribe,” at least when that word was still being used by reputable anthropologists. Many indigenous cultures are and have been largely homogenous, but there are some interesting exceptions to this in border regions.
Scott’s research found many exceptions to this rule among the Zomia Highlanders. Some villages in Zomia didn’t even have a single common language, with up to five different languages being spoke regularly in the same small town and some villagers unable to communicate with each other except through intermediaries. Colonial authorities found this baffling, because it was too much like a cosmopolitan neighborhood in a big European city, and not enough like their own stereotypes about “tribal peoples.” The typical bureaucratic response to this was to declare each village the territory of a particular tribe, assign a chief, and then interact with the chief as the legitimate local representative – essentially creating an ethnically homogenous hierarchical tribe where none had existed before.
Not only were the villages not always ethnically homogenous, the individual people weren’t either. Any individual hill person could often claim two or three different ethnic identities at once – including the ability to speak the languages, tell the stories and participate in the customs and ceremonies of all those identities.
This may sound bewildering, but the evidence suggests it was not uncommon in similar areas elsewhere in the world. For instance, something similar could be said of the people who lived on the border between Highland and Lowland Scotland before the 18th century, and about the Gaulish tribes near the Rhine before the Roman conquest who could claim either a Celtic or a German identity depending on circumstances.
The Gaulish example is also interesting for another reason. Just as some Zomia hill tribes allowed no chiefs and killed anyone who tried to claim the title, so did some of the Gaulish Celtic tribes. The resistance leader Vercingetorix was the son of a man who was executed by his tribe for seeking the kingship.
It’s not that the ancient Celts had no concept of hierarchy – like other Indo-European peoples, they clearly did – but at least some of the anti-authoritarian tendencies found among the Zomia peoples also manifested among some of the Celts, and some of the Celts showed the same tendency toward blurry ethnic boundaries and multiple simultaneous identities.
If real “tribal peoples” are not always homogenous and are not always hierarchical, the whole right-wing fantasy of tribalism simply falls apart. What is left is something much more interesting for us as anti-capitalist pagans – an example of how people have become free before and may yet do so again.
In 2016, The Intercept acquired a Pentagon training video used in a course at the US military’s elite Joint Special Operations University. The title of the video was “Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity,” and the theme of the video was that the cities of the near future will become so vast as to be effectively ungovernable. According to the video’s anonymous narrator:
Megacities are complex systems where people and structures are compressed together in ways that defy both our understanding of city planning and military doctrine… Even our counterinsurgency doctrine, honed in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, is inadequate to address the sheer scale of population in the future urban reality…
You read that right. Although the American military’s strategic planners seem to believe that these megacities will become “subterranean labyrinths,” (what a lovely, chthonic thought!) producing “sophisticated illicit economies and decentralized syndicates of crime” and divided up into autonomous neighborhoods with their “own social code and rule of law,” it does not propose to regain control over these future cities once control has been lost.
Why? Because it already knows there will be no way to do so. Other Army reports obtained by the Intercept make the same admission in even clearer terms:
the Army is currently unprepared. Although the Army has a long history of urban fighting, it has never dealt with an environment so complex and beyond the scope of its resources… U.S. Army is incapable of operating within the megacity…
Because the military knows that no one will be able to govern these massive cities, it does not propose to even try. Instead the goal will be containment – segregating the rich, affluent areas of the city under the rule of law from the vast slums of the now self-governing poor. Just as it was in the declining days of the Roman Empire, the Army’s job will be to maintain the frontier against the barbarians, not to attempt to reestablish control.
Is all of this merely a contingency plan, a possibility the Army wants to prepare for even though it probably won’t happen? Not according to the video:
This is the world of our future… It is one we are not prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable.
Note the choice of language. They’re not even talking about trying to control these megacities, only to “operate within” them as one player among many. And they’re not even confident they can do that much.
As frightening as this scenario is, it is also an opportunity. There are no longer any large Highland areas in the original sense, only small remnants of what used to be vast ungovernable spaces. But the megacities of the future will become as impossible to govern as the Highlands once were. Some of these massive urban spaces will surely be divided into oppressive and violent patriarchal societies, warlord zones with no justice and little hope. But others may become Free Territories, liberated spaces where no one is allowed to rule. In fact, it’s already happening.
Viewed by many as “an evil den of anarchists and criminals living in a neighborhood that is beyond the law,” Exarcheia is an area of Athens into which the riot police enter only in force and always anticipate fierce resistance. The area’s tradition of resistance goes back at least as far as the Athens Polytechnic Uprising of 1973, which helped bring about the end of the Greek junta. In recent years, the neighborhood’s many militant anarchists have successfully radicalized the entire area, to the extent that any incursion by the police is likely to be resisted by an immediate neighborhood uprising.
The real Exarcheia is not an “evil den” but a liberated zone, a place where the rule of the State no longer applies. The result is not an apocalyptic wasteland, but a vibrant urban neighborhood:
home to students, immigrants, Greek families of different economic strata, restaurants, cafes, computer shops, used vinyl and CD shops, terrific guitar shops, used bookshops, boutiques, clubs, bars, anarchists, drug addicts, stray dogs and just about every kind of person, except cops. The police don’t really go to Exarchia except in extreme situations because for them just to enter the neighborhood creates trouble. So on many weekends in downtown Athens you will see police and soldiers stationed strategically on corners around Exarchia, not to keep people out, but to keep large groups of anarchists or troublemakers in. (Matt Barrett’s AthensGuide)
Some people argue against anarchism because they believe that only governments can provide effective social services. Exarcheia does have social problems, like any gritty working class neighborhood anywhere in the world. It also has free and low-cost medical clinics, pay-what-you-can-afford restaurants, and refugee housing. The anarchists have proven much more committed to creating a social safety net than the Greek government has.
Just as predicted by the Pentagon’s video, the Greek security services do not attempt to govern this liberated zone, but merely to contain it. Exarcheia only remains free because its inhabitants and ready and willing to fight for that freedom, and they do live under the constant and watchful eyes of armored riot police hovering just outside the liberated area. If Exarcheia was only one of thousands of such zones, how could any State even hope to contain them?
First of the Free
Just as the ancient Caledonians under Calgacus were the “last of the free,” the people of Exarcheia and similar liberated zones could be described as the “first of the free,” the first people who have begun to escape the rule of the State. This is what anarchists mean by revolution. Not an attempt to overthrow one government and replace it with another, but to liberate space from the rule of any government whatsoever. As the megacities grow and spread, and large areas drop out of the effective control of any government, the opportunities to create new liberated zones will only multiply. The opportunities to create pagan spaces will multiply too.
In the Zomia Highlands, rebellions against centralized authority usually took the form of religious movements. A revelation from a god or spirit was often the spark for a rebellion, destroying whatever elements of institutionalized hierarchy had managed to creep in. In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott suggested that many of the existing ethnic groups in the Zomia Highlands may have begun as rebellious sects of this type.
Our gods and our dead have been speaking to many of us; sometimes with warnings and sometimes with urgent calls to action. As pagan radicals, we have seen the things we value most being used as weapons by our enemies. Many of the fascists now marching and killing on the streets of the United States identify as heathen, think of themselves as tribal warriors and base their entire selfhood on this set of lies.
We must drive them from the streets of our cities, but we must not stop there. We must also heed the words of our dead and our gods, by creating and defending new liberated spaces. We must work together in mutual aid and solidarity, to create a thousand and then ten thousand Exercheias.
We must become the first of the free.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.g
Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals Press. Order it here.
On June 5th, 754CE St. Boniface was murdered by thieves who claimed their act was just. They murdered Boniface and his retinue as divine revenge for Boniface’s desecration of a sacred pagan site of worship.
In 723CE, Boniface, then a Christian missionary named Winifred, chopped down a Donnar-Oak (Thunder Oak). The massive and ancient oak trees found throughout northern continental Europe were considered sacred to Thor, the god of thunder and the protector of the common people. While chiefs and petty nobles worshiped Odin, his son Thor, a strong god who slays frost (winter) giants, brings fertile rains, and also happens to be the god of metal work, was the champion of slaves, peasants, and the common people in general.
St. Boniface’s official church narrative claims he was converting savages. He gathered the people around the oak and claimed that if he could hack it down without being struck down by a lightning bolt that the warriors had to convert to Christianity. He hacked the tree down and ordered the villagers to construct a church from its wood. Another instance of Christian cannibalism.
However, geopolitically there was a larger motive for his mission to the barbarians of Germany. Boniface had the protection and funding of Charles Martel, the Frankish ruler of what would one day become France. He was attempting to unify Gaul and gain recognition and blessings, not to mention cash, from Rome. Martel’s power-grab destroyed paganism and primitive communist tribes, and in their wake–and over their corpses–he spread Feudalism.
Boniface’s real mission among the pagans was an attempt to civilize them. Martel’s missionary sought extension of his benefactor’s power over his kingdom’s northeastern border. He later made the converted chieftains his margraves, semi-autonomous allies who in return for supplying him with resources and soldiers gained titles, his protection, and his backing in fights against neighboring tribes. Martel was facing an invasion from an opposing civilization on his opposite border in the form of the Umayyad Caliphate. He wanted security and a source of fresh troops from the pagan barbarian hinterlands of so-called Europe so he and his Christian leviathan could prevail over the Islamic leviathan which had recently crossed over the Pyrenees.
It is ironic that Boniface made a bet that he could desecrate Thor’s sacred oak tree without being struck down by the god, only to die later in life at the hands of a band of pagan highway robbers claiming revenge for their desecrated site. Some legends even claim it was the elderly druids of the felled Thunder Oak who had finally tracked down the saint to seek their revenge.
While the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Boniface, let us lovers of nature and haters of Leviathan instead celebrate the brigands who sought revenge for their lovely tree upon him.
Speaking of Leviathan and the Thunder god, it was Thor who subdued the great sea serpent Jormundgandr. The serpent who encircles the world and holds its own tail in its mouth (an ouroboros) is said to dribble blood and poison from its mouth. In the final days of the current age it will release its tail and will rise once more from the seas to fight with Thor. Thor will strike a killing blow but the serpent will fatally poison him and in its dying throes drown the world in poison.
Perhaps we should heed the warning and slay Leviathan before it poisons us all. Or perhaps better to evade its toxic desolation and the cleansing fires of Surtr (Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time comes to mind) and hide among the trees like Lif and Lifthrasir (life and life’s lover) and emerge when the fertile new age dawns after Ragnarok has passed and all the gods and leviathans are dead.
Anyways, let us defend the trees wherever they are (I find joy in how many sacred cryptoforests I have stumbled upon in the heart of urban civilization), no matter how majestic or humble their size, in whatever time we have left. We have little time before global climate change spreads deserts to the last sacred groves and ruins the ability of megafauna, including humans, to thrive without major technological intervention and dystopian geoengineering.
Let us become barbarians again, slayers of the Bonifaces of the modern age.
May the Yggdrasil’s roots undermine the skyscrapers, pyramids, and ziggurats.
With howls like Fenrir’s we will sunder the chains and bring dionysian riots to every hamlet, village, town, city, and megalopolis.
Let the great bacchanal potlach in which civilization is destroyed begin!
Vesuvio Urales lives in and haunts the coves, overgrown farms, crumbling textiles factories, and forests of eastern Massachusetts.
THERE ARE A LOT of reasons not to write an article about cultural appropriation, colonization within paganism, and the relationship between non-indigenous pagans and indigenous peoples.
Most of the discussions I have seen on this topic tend to devolve to the point where no one is listening to anyone. One thing that tends to emerge in these discussions is the gulf of subjective experience separating people who know the pain of having aspects of their culture be appropriated by others, and people who cannot know this experience and struggle to draw parallels. The hope is that, as Pagans, we are good at trusting subjective experiences.
Positioning myself here as a white radical Pagan, speaking to a white radical Pagan audience, I hope that what will be conveyed here is a sense of why engaging in the struggle against cultural appropriation will benefit both our radicalism and our paganism. On the one hand, our Paganism raises the stakes of this debate, cutting to the quick of our souls. On the other hand, our Paganism makes us better equipped to transcend the material limits of this debate and to walk a path that is far more powerful, honest and meaningful.
To start with, everyone has appropriated from other cultures. I have, you have, we all have. That doesn’t make it right, but it just means that I am not some authority on how to avoid it. I imagine that, like most people, I started doing it out of a genuine interest in these cultures, out of a disaffection with the overculture. Like most people I stopped identifying with the overculture pretty early on, and began seeking out alternatives, seeking refuge in other cultures and traditions.
For many white radical Pagans, identifying with other cultures is a way of “opting out” from the overculture. A lot of times, we carry with us a fantasy world of this other culture that has accepted us, that sees our strengths, and is helping us cultivate them. So it can be a rude awakening when we are told that what we are doing is harmful. That utopia of this all-accepting other culture that we have built up in our minds comes crashing against the reality of actual members of this other culture who are angry at us, and no matter how hard they try to explain it, we have no idea why.
Many of us have experienced the downside of capitalism, have inherited memories of the trauma of capitalism, and we have a long legacy of theorists to draw from to help us better understand our experiences. Even still, we can have a hard time conveying the pain of this reality to someone who does not understand. If you have ever had a conversation with a rich person who honestly does not understand how their wealth corresponds to the poverty of others, then you know how hard it is to convey the pain that capitalism causes to someone who has never directly experienced that pain.
The victims of colonization are in the same position when they struggle to convey their experience. We end up being like that person who wants to get it, but since they have not lived or inherited that experience, they have a hard time believing that this experience outside of them is valid. We become that person who needs evidence, sources, logic, because we do not trust the heart of the other when it speaks to us.
Faced with this lack of trust, oppressed people resort to tactics that feel safe and empowering, but are not always effective. We all know that the best way to deal with another person’s harmful behavior is to speak to them, person to person, about how their behavior impacts us. The problem is when power enters this equation, it is hard to trust that this vulnerability will not backfire on us (as it often can). If you have ever had to confront a friend or lover about something they have done that has hurt you, then you know how hard this can be. So we turn to more trusted tactics of shaming and ganging up, which, while they feel psychologically safer, can also end up backfiring. What feels like a quest for restorative justice to one side, to the other feels like puritanical mob hounding for a confession.
This is where things get very bizarre, as the person or group of people who were confronted suddenly become very adept at exploiting their very real feelings of hurt in order to avoid coming to terms with their own culpability. They are so horrified that their sense of themselves as a good human being has been tarnished, that they refuse to acknowledge that they too may have caused harm. This can be particularly difficult for pagan “teachers” whose identities, reputations, and livelihoods often rest on the sense that they are flawless conveyers of Truth.
The tragedy is that any accusation of cultural appropriation is bound to come from somewhere else, and to catch us off guard, because most of our traditions don’t have an apparatus to help us avoid stealing from other cultures. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Most of our traditions have some element of stolen or fabricated stuff from another culture woven in there, with our elders telling us it is fine, or like good magicians, getting us to look the other way. It is terrifying and unsettling to acknowledge that something which has nourished and empowered our soul may not be for us, may in fact be stolen, and may need to be relinquished. And it would be wonderful if our traditions began teaching us how to do this, as engaging in the process of spiritual reconciliation will lead us to a more honest spiritual path.
Gods Under Glass
We need to start listening, and we need to trust in the validity of subjective experiences outside of our own, something that our Paganism should equip us to do. Because if our Paganism is going to be truly radical and liberating, then we need to understand the impact that colonization, not just capitalism, has had on spiritual practices. This can be tricky because while we have clearly been hurt by capitalism, we were a little bit more complicit when it came to colonialism.
We European Pagans aren’t just the descendents of plucky witches, resisting the enclosures and hexing the factories. We are also the descendents of high magicians: you know, the ones whose “wonder rooms” or “curiosity cabinets” were filled with the pilferings of empire: shrunken heads, ceremonial knives, sacred objects taken from tombs, scrolls in ancient writing.
From a colonized perspective, such cabinets speak to diversely expressed common themes in humanity, as is attested to in this description of the Pitt River museum. Such collections, whether they are in private homes, or museums, tend to be regarded with ambivalence by most white Pagans. Most white Pagans have no qualms about going to see the Gundestrup cauldron and other Celtic artifacts at the British Royal museum, or having other ancient artifacts housed and displayed in museums. Likely because most of us have never seen a living version of our spirituality that was not reconstructed from the fragments in these collections, informed by anthropological studies of other living practices.
The way that most white Pagans experience museums or collections is very different from how nonwhite, and particularly indigenous people, experience such collections. For indigenous peoples and other victims of imperialism, museums are where the dead, the gods, and the sacred possessions which have been stolen from them are held by the Empire. A vast indigenous and anti-colonial discussion exists which describes the extent to which collections and exhibitions served to remove sacred aspects of indigenous cultures from their context and hold them like prisoners.
Maori Anthropologist Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes the way that helping her father in his museum work involved:
“the ritual of cleansing ourselves by sprinkling water over us which my mother insisted on when we returned home. My grandmother was not too thrilled with the idea of my being in a museum at all. Many other Maori people, I was aware, were scared of what lay in the cupboards, of whose bones and whose ancestors were imprisoned in those cases.”i
Laguna writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead contains a fictionalized account of a Laguna delegation seeking their deities in a museum, worth quoting at length:
“The glass case that held the stone figures was in the center of the museum’s large entry hall. Glass cases lined the walls displaying pottery and baskets so ancient that they could only have come from graves of the ancient ancestors. The Laguna delegation later reported seeing sacred kachina masks belonging to the Hopis and the Zunis as well as prayer sticks and sacred bundles, the poor shriveled skin and bones of some ancestor taken from her grave, and one entire painted-wood kiva shrine reported stolen from Cochiti Peublo years before.
The delegation walked past the display cases slowly and in silence. But when they reached the glass case in the center of the vast hall, the old cacique began to weep, his whole body quivering from old age and the cold. He seemed to forget the barrier glass forms and tried to reach out to the small stone figures lying dreadfully unwrapped. The old man kept bumping his fingers against the glass case until the assistant curator became alarmed. The Laguna delegation later recounted how the white man had suddenly looked around at all of them as if he were afraid they had come to take back everything that had been stolen. In that instant white man and Indian both caught a glimpse of what was yet to come.”ii
Like the white man in Silko’s museum, conversations about cultural appropriation raise in many of us white pagans the fear that we will have to give up everything that has been stolen. This fear is probably the real motivation behind such debates, usually spearheaded by white people, about what exactly does and does not constitute cultural appropriation; whether white people can drum, have mohawks or dreadlocks, or “smudge”, whether they can worship non-European deities or spirits. These how-many-angels-can-rest-on-the-head-of-a-culturally-appropriated-pin debates; replete with straw men holding babies hostage along with bathwater, end up leaving both sides feeling unseen.
From a more materialist radical perspective, a people trying to hold sovereignty over how its traditions are practiced, and who can practice them, can be seen as one group of people trying to claim an aspect of the sacred as their property; an enclosure onto the cultural commons of sacred traditions. Accordingly, white people want to know what exactly is going to be enclosed, how far it will go.
For Pagans in particular, this cuts incredibly deep, as the very land that we stand on has been taken from Indigenous Peoples, and most of the traditions we practice have been informed in some way by anthropological studies of Indigenous cultures. European magical practitioners were the direct beneficiaries of what Tuhiwai Smith describes as the:
“process of systematic fragmentation which can still be seen in the disciplinary carveup of the indigenous world: bones, mummies and skulls to the museums, art work to private collectors, languages to linguistics, ‘customs’ to anthropologists, beliefs and behaviours to psychologists.”iii (28).
Fragments of Shattered Cultures
THE RENAISSANCE of European Paganism was in-part fueled by this fragmentation. At the exact moment that European magicians were resurrecting ancient mysteries made accessible via imperialism, indigenous people’s cultural traditions were broken apart and carted off to far away imperial centers. Additionally most colonial regimes imposed outright bans on most Indigenous traditions. In the United States, Native ceremonies and other religious and cultural practices were illegal until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom act in 1978.
Such bans were enforced with prison time, and also violence. The 1890 massacre at wounded knee – in which 150 Lakota men, women, and children were killed – began when the U.S. Calvary opened fire as a Lakota medicine man named Yellow Bird performed the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance, as well as other practices such as the Sun Dance, were outlawed, and being a medicine man itself was a crime. Thomas J. Morgan’s 1892 Rules For Indian Courts states:
“Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or shall adopt any means to prevent the attendance of children at school, or shall use any arts of a conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof, for the first offense shall be imprisoned for not less than ten nor more than thirty days.”iv
There are Native people alive today who went to prison for practicing their traditional religion. While white practitioners were able to access diluted and decontextualized Native and other pagan traditions made available through museums, scholarly studies, and explorer accounts, Native peoples risked death and imprisonment in order to keep the living version of their culture alive.
The mention of schools in the above passage is important, as Native American children were removed from their families and placed in far away boarding schools where their hair was cut off and mailed home, they were forbidden from speaking their Native language, and forced to convert to Christianity. For an oral tradition, where the survival of culture depends on it being transmitted to children, this had devastating consequences. Today, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are coming to terms with the legacy of abuse which occurred at these schools.
When you read the accounts of the white people who oversaw these schools, what becomes abundantly clear is their very good intentions. In this report from the Training School For Indian Youth in Forest Grove, Oregon, the commissioner for Indian affairs describes how children were used to make shoes, blacksmith, and dig a sewer line, stating that these children “are commended by their instructor for their obedience and industry.” The commissioner and those in charge of the school do not see themselves as destroyers of culture, forcing children into hard labor, but as good people teaching the downtrodden children how to survive under the colonial regime.
This disconnect between one’s self-perception, and the impact of what one is actually doing, is worth attending to. Without realizing it, white pagans claiming to preserve Native American traditions by practicing and teaching them are perpetuating this cycle. Like the boarding school administrators, they may have good intentions, but they are serving the wrong cause. By presenting diluted traditions with important contextual elements missing, such “teachers” are serving to diminish, rather than revive, the power of these practices. This topic is the subject of the 1996 documentary White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men.
Recovering What We’ve Lost
THE HARM THIS DOES cuts both ways. It perpetuates the legacy of theft and lies, and it also hurts us when that legacy of theft and lies becomes a part of our spiritual practice. As pagans, we understand that the power of the sacred operates within a specific context, and we seek to foster such contexts. Most of us are engaged in a struggle against capitalism’s “disenchantment” of the world. What is hard for us to understand is that white peoples’ use of non-European spiritualities has actually served to further that disenchantment.
We need to recognize that colonialism and imperialism were not just about economics, or psychological domination. That there was a very real spiritual dimension that went beyond converting people to Calvinism or Catholicism, but was engaged in neutralizing spiritual traditions, to break apart systems of meaning which had the power to take down empires.
Part of this process was making scraps of these traditions available to white Pagans, with good intentions, who were hungering for meaning in a disenchanted world, and yet who ultimately used these scraps as the raw material to fuel their own egocentric needs to be “chosen”, to lead as “teachers”, and in many cases, establish lucrative careers offering retreats, ceremonies, and sweat lodges. Ironically, the very “off limits” nature of Native traditions can make someone who claims to have come by them authentically seem even more magical.
Just as capitalism renders itself invisible, so does colonialism. The white teacher offering up their own version of Native American shamanism does not recognize the continuum in which they are operating, they see themselves participating in the free exchange of culture. They see themselves as doing what so many Pagans have done before, accessed some kind of knowledge, and used it to build their social and economic capital.
While we as radical Pagans may want to question this practice in general, we certainly want to question it when it comes to using stolen cultural elements to leverage our own spiritual, social, and economic growth. There is no apparatus to check this within the framework of a colonized paganism, within which using the possessions of colonized subjects as raw material for one’s own manufactured tradition is entirely acceptable.
If our Paganism is to be truly radical, then dismantling capitalism is indispensable, but insufficient.v We must also dismantle colonialism. We must recognize the harm of spiritual traditions based on fragments of and fantasies about other living traditions, no matter how “well-researched” those fantasies are, and recognize that these are not for us to use. These traditions must exist on their own terms, not the terms we lay out for them.
We have seen the power of Native-led resistance and spiritual practice in the recent events at Standing Rock. These traditions will continue to gain power, and the best thing that we white pagans can do is to take a step back and critically evaluate the way that we engage with these traditions.
As we do this, one way to grant power to indigenous peoples is to acknowledge them in our practice. Consider starting your next ritual or ceremony by saying,
“I acknowledge that this ritual/ceremony is taking place on indigenous lands, and I acknowledge the strength, resilience and potential of the [names of the peoples] who are the rightful and traditional stewards of this land.”
This is a generally accepted way for non-indigenous peoples to honor the indigenous peoples of their area.
It can be useful to look at disengaging from cultural appropriation as ancestral healing. Clearing our lives of the plundered clutter from the very empires we seek to overthrow opens up the space for a more honest spirituality to emerge.
When we relinquish what has been stolen, it allows our ancestors to come to us with our true legacies and traditions.
Living traditions can guide and inspire us to look to our own past and discover our own traditions. Some wonderful things have come from this. Interest in animal totems inspired the Druid Animal Oracle. Interest in smudging led European pagans to rekindle the use of Agrimony, Mugwort and other herbs in smoke cleansing.
In 2002, I was fortunate enough to spend some time at the Swinomish Tribal community, and to talk with an elder there named Ray Williams. I brought up this feeling that, as white people, we have no culture. He told me a story about a delegation from Ireland who had come to them to exchange tactics for cultural survival. The Swinomish people had shared the tradition of the sweat lodge with the Irish delegation. A member of the delegation had asked if they could take this back to Ireland with them. Ray told them that this was a Swinomish tradition, that it needed to stay here, but that if the man looked hard enough into his own past, he would probably find something similar.
The man went back to Ireland, and did some research, and sure enough discovered that there had been a shale construction which had served as a sweat house, called teach allais. The man built just such a building, with a circular pattern corresponding to the sun. When it was finished, he held his first Irish sweat ceremony inside. In that moment, the spirit of his grandfather came to him and said, “you’ve found your way home.”
This is the magic that happens when we engage in the process of teasing out what has been stolen, giving it up, and seeking out that which is honestly for us. In uncovering and revitalizing our own traditions, we cease to grasp at stolen artifacts and fantasies for meaning in a disenchanted world. Instead, we can practice a spirituality which rests on our very real connection to our ancestors. It is not an easy or quick process, it is one that may take us generations and lifetimes to fully accomplish. Yet if we are to have viable traditions that can be passed down through the generations, those traditions must ask us to be honest about who we are.
i Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, 2008. p. 11
ii Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. Penguin Books, 1992. p. 33
iii Smith, L. p. 28
iv Morgan, Thomas J. “Rules for Indian Courts” in Documents of United States Indian Policy [Edited by Francis Paul Prucha]. University of Nebraska Press, 2000. p. 186.
v This term comes from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press, 2000.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Penguin Books, 1990.
Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Said Arthur, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?”
Said one of his men, “There is—the 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 gods—only strength and the magic of his advisors—read 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.
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 power—the magic—of 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 pasts—aspects of these time-knots—act 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, Diwrnach—these 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 warfare—these 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 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.