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.

Editorial: Fuck the “Good People”

“Step foward: we hear
That you are a good man.

Hunting through the alleys of Seattle as a poor Pagan punk was actually a lot of fun. The stuff you’d find discarded behind old buildings, next to dumpsters and shoved into crates or boxes was pretty amazing. Candelabra, fully-functional computers, arcane looking chandeliers and mirrors, massive glazed garden pots, high-backed Victorian chairs: there was rarely ever a reason to buy anything when you could construct an entire world from salvage.

After only a year, we had a pretty amazing witch house going.

One day while alley-shopping, I found a half-burned book. Thick, paper-back, old-looking, its pages bloated from an earlier rain. The scorch marks intrigued me immediately. I turned it over, read the title, and put it in my backpack. It was on witchcraft. It had scorch marks. How fucking punk was that?

I showed my roommates the book as soon as I got  home, and we made up stories for it. A summoning gone wrong, maybe–some demon of fire had lept from the pages with infernal glee and was now running amok through the gay district of Seattle. Or maybe some parent had found it in their child’s room and tried to go all Gestapo on it. Or maybe the book had survived a house fire, the last remaining thing in an entire life smoldered to ruins, its enchanted pages proof against the licking flames.

We flipped through the book, found the place where it seemed the fire had started. We read a bit of it aloud to each other. And then we all got really nauseated and threw it in the recycling bin.

Thing is, maybe the original owner had had the right idea, trying to torch that shit.

“You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.

You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?

I tried to put that book out of mind pretty quickly, but it wasn’t easy. I’d been calling myself a “Pagan” for years by then, but I was always a little self-conscious when people would ask me what that meant. I and my roommates threw massive Beltane and Samhain parties in our house, sometimes topping 100 people, sometimes ending in orgies. We’d light candles everywhere, I’d set up little altars on cinder blocks with mirrors and random statues and bits of nature, fill our house with incense, put out milk for faeries and hang pretty bits of glass from the branches of a rescued Elder tree. But when someone would ask me what I meant when I said I was Pagan, I’d freeze up.

“Are you Wiccan?” some would ask. I’d usually answer, “not that I know of” and leave it at that, at least until I saw that book.  After reading the descriptions of sex with children, I was really fucking certain I wanted nothing to do with Wicca.

The book was The Witch’s Bible, by Gavin and Yvonne Frost. Gavin Frost just died a few days ago, and the Pagan parts of the internet are full of obituaries remembering Gavin as a ‘good man.’ A little ‘controversial,’ perhaps, a little misunderstood.’

But he was a good man.

Here’s part of the text from The Witch’s Bible that some find a little ‘controversial’ or think others have ‘misunderstood.’ It’s also the part of the book I’d found that had been burnt, in which the initiation of children just after puberty (or, in the book’s terms, “When a child develops to a stage where the physical attributes of reproduction are present”) is prescribed. These are the instructions to a young girl, to prepare her for her initiation:

“You have been entrusted with two phali; these are in your care until your initiation. We would like you to be initiated at the next coven meeting, which will take place on …. This means that, excluding your menstruation time, you have three weeks to prepare your muscles for introitus. Your father or your sponsor will help you if you have any difficulties or pain. You may have to delay your initiation, but there is plenty of time and no need to hurry. These are important development phases. Relax and take your time. You have no hymen; there is no restriction except the vaginal muscles.

After your evening discussion and meditation, and before you go to bed, take the smaller phallus and smear it with lubricating jelly. Either lie on your back with your knees up and legs slightly apart, or stand up and bend your knees. Spread the lips of the vagina and gently insert the phallus. Remember it must point toward the back, not up inside you. Push the phallus in until the vaginal entrance muscles close around the core. Wear it and the larger phallus in accordance with the following table, except during menstruation.”

You can maybe understand why I soon started answering the question, “Are you Wiccan?” with a loud, agressive, “fuck no.” 

“You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?

When I’d first encountered that book, I knew absolutely that I wanted nothing to do with that sort of ‘witchcraft.’  I kept living my life the way it’d gone, kept being Pagan, kept lighting candles and putting out offerings and throwing parties and doing little bits of found magic. That stuff didn’t change one bit. But I definitely knew I’d never be a Wiccan.

Wiccans may feel a bit put out by this. And they should–there’s plenty about Wicca worth studying, much that has enriched people’s lives. And there are some people who’ve done a lot of work to liberate it from the grip of its patriarchal origins. The point isn’t that Wicca was wrong, but that my first exposure to it was pretty appalling.

It wasn’t for another ten years that I’d look at the bias I’d developed around Wicca, which was also the same time that I re-encoutered that book. Though Gavin Frost certainly didn’t speak for all of Wicca, I unfortunately learned that he had plenty of defenders.

Despite advocating for child sexual-initiation and never fully retracting their initiation ritual, the Frosts continued to teach and present at Pagan festivals throughout the United States. Some demanded organizers of those events disinvite them, but the backlash against those calls was just as fierce as the calls themselves. Established leaders warned it was a ‘witch hunt’ against two misunderstood innocent people . Some suggested they shouldn’t be judged by that work alone, and that their significant contributions to American Witchcraft far outweighed any controversy.

Besides, they were good people.

You hear a lot about good people.  Young men caught raping women behind dumpsters are described as good kids and let off with only three months because of that goodness. Politicians and Pagan leaders with some awful ideas about white supremacy are described as good folks and defended with that goodness against critics. Elders who think trans women are mentally-ill products of the Patriarchy who should be shunned from all women’s spaces are, of course, good people.

“You do not consider personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend
Are you also a good friend of the good people?

I‘ve known plenty of good people. I had a boss who really liked to help the community, donating money to help disadvantaged youth, fed her kids only organic food. She also wouldn’t hire Black people in her restaurant.  I had an uncle who coached soccer and would help my grandparents out whenever they needed anything. He also molested my mother, his own daughter, and several girls in his neighborhood before finally killing himself.

The world is full of good people. Good cops who are kind to their kids and wife who shoot unarmed Black men. Good CEO’s who really care about their employees and poison the earth. Good politicians who donate lots of money to charity while authorizing the bombing of villages.

Paganism is also full of good people. Leaders who are ‘good people’ who will privately belittle and harass women, entire good traditions who cherish family values and want to see Black Americans sent back to Africa and Jews sent to camps. These are all good people, good and loyal friends, dutiful and kind lovers to their mates, kind to animals. Many of them recycle. Many of them pick up litter off the side of the road, donate to good causes, even help Pagans get government recognition and who have built important institutions.

Capitalism is a good system, providing good paying jobs. America’s a good country, working to bring peace and prosperity throughout the world. Soldiers and cops are good people, bankers and politicians are good people.

Fuck good people.

“Hear us then: we know
You are our enemy. This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall.

Watching the way people rally around Gavin Frost or many of the other leaders and elders, defending them as ‘good people,’ reminds me why so many witches and Pagans I’ve met will never join a tradition. And occasionally I’ll read an elder bemoaning how so many millennials/kids/upstarts/’neopagans’ prefer to be solitary. So few join traditions, so few show up to public rituals, so few join mail-order initiation programs, and most of all, so few seem to care about the authority and wisdom of elders.

It’s funny, though. When people–especially younger Pagans or witches–question the ‘good people’, they’re accused of not knowing what they’re talking about. They’re not in those traditions, they don’t do the events, they don’t read the books. They didn’t get the initiations, didn’t go on the retreats, didn’t buy the t-shirts.

And when more connected Pagans question the “good people,” they’re accused of starting witch hunts. Like when a Black Pagan challenged the Covenant of the Goddess on their ‘all lives matter’ statement. Or when the founder of a Wiccan tradition was arrested for possession of child pornography, and scores came forward with personal stories of his abuse. Or when Cherry Hill Seminary was criticized for featuring an anti-trans teacher. Or when anti-racist Heathens challenged the white nationalist Asatru Folk Assembly.

All these witch hunts….against good people.

But I say there’s too many fucking good people around. Because we know what’s really meant by good people. Calling a racist a good person means you care less about Black people than you do about the racist. Calling an anti-trans elder a good person means you care less about trans women than you do about the way that elder feels. Calling a misogynist a good person means you care less about women than you do about your friendship with that man.

And if this is what being ‘good’ means, I refuse to be good.  And I know I’m hardly alone.  Much of the shake-up in U.S. and U.K. Paganism is because of this.  For too long, good people have decided the narrative, created institutions  and traditions, became the gatekeepers.

People come to Paganism and witchcraft looking for liberation, but who do they meet? Good people. Kind racists. Sweet white supremacists. Folksy gender-essentialists. Gentle old grandfathers advocating child molestation.

The civilized world’s been run by good people for too long. Good people are killing Black men in the streets, poisoning the land, stealing pensions, destroying neighborhoods, raping women, terrorizing immigrants. And there are even more good people defending all of that.

Good people are running our world.

Good people are ruining our world.

Fuck the good people. 

 

“But in consideration of
your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.”

–Bertolt Brecht, “The Interrogation of the Good”

 


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthIs the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals, the author of A Kindness of Ravens, Your Face is a Forest, and the editor of A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. He writes at PAGANARCH.

He is not a good person.


A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here looks pretty damn awesome. Get a copy here.

The Multitude and the Myriad

 

emerald-tablet

The sun is not the brightest star, but it is the closest, the loudest.

The sun is so close that it blinds from our eyes all those others who, by mere virtue of distance, must wait for the darkest of hours to remind us of their light. Without that garish ferocity, we cannot live, but it is at the cost of the myriad that this one Truth shines upon us.

If these words were in German, her warmth could bronze and perhaps sear your skin with rays of feminine brilliance. Were you reading this in French, his beckoning light might bring you instead to think on his mannish illumination gently coaxing out the life of plant from soil. The sun is feminine in many Germanic languages, while masculine in many Latin-derived tongues, and the moon is likewise gendered. It is female in French and male in German.

Is the sun male or female, though? It certainly cannot be said to have identifiable genitalia, so we are unable to resort to a particularly base methodology to discover our answer. One might even suggest that it has no gender at all, in accordance to our manner of ordering nouns in English. If this is the case, though, we must immediately judge all speakers of languages, which gender the sun, to be fools or, charitably, inheritors of a hopelessly primitive linguistic system.

Another interesting possibility exists. Perhaps the sun is both female and male, according to how and where one views it. We know, certainly, that the sun can both give life and take life away. It can both warm and burn; it might illuminate or blind depending upon where you happen to be standing or looking. That is, the sun is many things simultaneously; many things to many people. In the far northern hemisphere, I experience it in subtle degrees as the year grows cold. My friends in that other hemisphere now feel its coming strength as their winter thaws and spring flowers bloom. Those betwixt our homes at this moment shield their eyes from it, sweating fiercely under its burdensome weight.

The sun is both warm and cold, distant and close, searing and life-giving. Within Her and His and Its intensity is all the contradictions and opposites which compose a wholeness, a unity only understood in its fragmented difference.

One, Two, None, All

For more than a millennium there was one God. Before, there were many, but then there was but one, and he was male – a fierce, strong, creator-lord full of justice and power, might and judgment, as well as love, mercy, and some degree of kindness to those deserving of his favors or loyal to his causes.

We need not be so simple about it, though. There were certainly others gods; otherwise our Paganism is mere aesthetic, and vast civilizations utterly misguided, as the fundamentalist believers in Progress would have us think. The “progression” of religion from Animistic Shamanism to Polytheism, then to Henotheism, then to Monotheism and finally, at the top of glorious and final present, Atheism relies upon the hope that our present existence is somehow “better” than yesteryear, and that we should consider the succession of this forced march closely.

It proposes first a “simplistic” relationality between nature and humanity, followed by an unfortunate anthropomorphization of natural forces into human-gods. Then the desert cults, laboring under the searing, garish and very-loud sun, chose just one of the many and, when a prophet is hanged upon wood, they decide their one is an only.  Nearly two millennia later, some French and English writers decide there’s no god at all, and we are finally now enlightened–from all, to many, to one, to none – and too bad the billions in Africa and Asia just can’t catch up.

Beyond the extreme arrogance of asserting that a mere 2% of the world has accurately answered the question of the existence of gods, we should specifically complicate the “evolutionary” narrative of progressive ascension. Since so many ancient and indigenous cultures think in circles and wheels rather than vertical lines, it’s surprising that such a theory of religious succession could still maintain a grip upon Pagan thought – a theory which can be seen particularly in an unfortunate misstep of Wicca regarding the gender of the gods.

adam-and-eve-in-the-garden-of-eden-1530.jpgBlogA popular reading of the re-introduction of “The Goddess” into modern religious thought (not just Pagan, but also some strands of Christian ‘Theology’) is that it’s a necessary correction of two millennia of male-centered, Monotheistic thought. This is a fair reading, and one can certainly point to all sorts of social and religious tendencies which, through a belief in an a male-gendered Only-god, contributed to the systematic degradation of a full half of humanity. That there was only one god, and that this only-god was male, is certainly peculiar and suspicious, particularly considering the patriarchal succession of priesthoods of this only-(male)-god.

As a political act, the insistence on an equally-important Goddess was quite radical, but also incredibly problematic. Besides the failed attempts of some writers to re-narrate a matriarchal past into pre-Monotheistic Europe (and history is only narration, so we should applaud their attempts as much as we cringe at their failure), the question of the only-(male)-god is hardly answered by giving him a mate, as if the Hebrew god’s act in Eden were a model to emulate.

Worse, this Goddess is a no-one; just as the monotheistic God was also a no-one.

They are not just no-ones, but also All-Ones, or Half-Ones. The Pagan (particularly Wiccan) Goddess is a conglomerate principle, a pastiche, a compound being encompassing half of a split divinity gendered female, or a corporate entity sometimes named the Divine Feminine. What then is left which is not of the one-Half-(female)-Goddess is then re-pasted upon a feral-yet-civil hunter dressed up in sacred loin-cloth and antlers. And, we are thus supposed to sigh, relieved that the One-God’s rib forms his eternal companion.

I do not say here that there is no Goddess, rather that there are many of them, a multitude, a myriad.  Nor would it do much good for us to debate precisely the theological import of such statements like, “I acknowledge the Goddess in all Her forms” (a sort of universalist-monism) or “I worship the Goddess by her many names” (a less corporatist approach). Rather, we should ask precisely why, as inheritors and escapees of monotheistic power, we’d settle for two gods as a solution to the tyranny of the (male) one.

Being a believer in the existence of gods (by which I also mean goddessess–let none say English does not possess gender!) requires me to be a bit extra polite when another Pagan, in ritual or in conversation, speaks of Pagans collectively worshiping “The Goddess.” I must do a bit of translation of their statement in order to not be offended. It’s an allowance for their shorthand, regardless of how much I really wish to ask, “wait–which goddess? I’ve met five of them, and have heard of another eighty, at least.”

To say they are all-one, that all the goddesses enfold into one great Goddess is a bit colonialist. It’s also understandable, since we do the same thing with gender.  We speak of “female” and “male” as if all humanity is easily divided into two sorts of people, each composing a half of a corporate whole called “humanity.”

It’s a short-hand, a quick-sorting category, which is certainly useful in some circumstances, but it is also only that. And, like all categories and labels, often times they don’t fit, no matter how hard we try to peg certain beings into the spaces we’ve created for them.

Which Man? Which Woman?

Like race, we often approach the idea of gender as if it is a naturally-derived or divinely-revealed thing, though we forget we must actually be taught these categories. I had many black friends and female friends and even a few (but very few) wealthy friends when I was a child. But it was not until our differences were explained (and re-iterated, and enforced) that I understood that there was a difference between them and I. The skin-color of my friends was a mere characteristic, not a difference until I was told that being “white” meant something and being “black” meant something else. Similarly with female: a girl was a sort of a friend, not an opposition to boy. Different genitals was like different hair-length–utterly inconsequential.

But male and female, like white and black, mean something, or mean something to lots of people. Being one means you get paid less, being the other means you get paid more. It’s better to be white and male than all the other things, depending on where you live, but only because people have decided that white and male are better things than black or female.

Even our divine was male for awhile (and maybe even white, judging from most popular depictions of Jesus). Having a female divine as well is certainly nice and having her be equal (and in some traditions superior) to him corrects some imbalances certainly.

But there are many sorts of men, and many sorts of women. There are very old, withered-but-wise men, and very young, mewling, just-out-of-the-womb men. There are the strong and muscled ones, the furry ones (my favorite), but also the lithe or round ones. And the same for women–the maidens, the mothers, the crones, the really strong ones and the really graceful ones, the large and fecund or the diminutive and fierce. To say they are all women or are all men is a strange thing to say.

There are several ways people have gone about re-imagining gender, or re-enforcing gender, and these attempts are worth staring at.

One of perhaps the more common treatments has been to re-inforce the divisions between them, cutting deeper “no-man’s lands” betwixt her and him. One strand of thought focuses primarily on the genitals of the person, and to some degree the genetics. On the side of “her” has been Z Budapest and other Second-Wave feminists, insisting that women are only those who’ve been born into such things as “the uterine mysteries.”

On the side of “him” have been writers characteristic of the New Right gaining increasing popularity within Paganism, such as Jack Donovan. “Men” for them are those who possess not just testicles, but also certain physical characteristics defined precisely by their opposition to an imagined Feminine.

In both cases, it is the fault of the other which has brought them to such matters. Second-Wave feminists cite patriarchy as the cause of their need for exclusion, and writers like Donovan cite Feminism as the reason men are bound to desk-work and served “manly” drinks in thin stemware.

A second treatment of gender fails equally. The “Radical Feminism” (which is hardly radical at all) of people like Lierre Keith and Derrick Jenson of Deep Green Resistance, as well as certain positions leftover from late 60’s American Paganism, attempts to resolve the matter of gender by abolishing it altogether. On its surface, such an idea is appealing, as must have been Atheism to Enlightenment writers, noting the problems of European Monotheism. Without gender, there is no division, and all humanity becomes one. Only in its particular violence against a certain group of people, however, does one begin to see the flaws in this.

In fact, what all these attempts have in common is a shared hatred of a specific class of people–trans-folk. Humans, who have chosen to physically embody a gender according to their will rather than circumstance of birth, attract such vitriol from all these groups that we should seriously consider why. Donovan, Budapest and Keith, all on apparently opposite sides of the gender question, stand united in their venom against trans-folk. Why?

The trans-person (and, equally perhaps, the queer) stands in a place more revolutionary and radical than any of their critics can hope to occupy. By choosing their gender, they do not abolish gender, they transform it into a human act, reminding the rest of us that gender, like race, is something we create and can choose to embody, rather than something we are born into. The all is split into many; each half of humanity split into a multitude of individual embodiments.

This transformation is revolutionary because it affects the rest of us. I am a cis-male, deep voiced, muscular, “man,” but if I rely only on accident of birth to claim my specific maleness, I exist in a passive realm of non-choice. For the multitude of other sorts of men, is it not the same thing? As well, for women; if a female relies on her uterus for her identity, what sort of identity is that?

That is, we cannot merely say woman, we must also ask “which woman?” Just as we cannot merely say Goddess or God, but rather ask which goddess? Which god?

The Multitude and the Myriad

640px-Starry_Night_at_La_SillaTo lump a very large group of things, or people, or beings into one whole has not gone very well for us humans these past few millenia, particularly because we’ve had to, like Cinderella’s step-sisters, take some bloody steps to force things to fit into the receptacle of our categories.

Monotheism required the annihilation of other gods except the One God; just as it required the destruction of cultural forms to make people fit into its categories. Communism and Fascism both require similar annihilation, crushing all humans within their realm into the worker or the volk. But likewise, Atheism is hardly an adequate answer, which abolishes all gods just as some would abolish all gender. More pernicious has been Capitalism’s answer, which erases identity altogether, except what can be purchased or sold, leaving individuality to one’s choice of smartphone or automobile. Any anyway, it hates forests.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt introduced the idea of “the Multitude,” the vast teeming flood of humans and their experiences which threaten always to overwhelm Empire. I suggest we Pagans embrace it and expand upon it. I like, particularly, the word Myriad, as in a “myriad of stars,” an immeasurable number which likely has a limit but one we cannot quite reach.

In all our multitudes of experience, we define ourselves and our genders. Each man is a sort of man, each woman a sort of woman. Each goddess is a sort of goddess, each god a sort of god. They are themselves them selves, just as we are each neither cog nor component.

How many gods are there? I do not know, anymore than I could hope to innumerate the sorts of women I’ve met, or of trees. I know it’s more than two and, definitely, more than none.

Likewise, how many ways of encountering the Other, or of making love, or of relating to each other are there?  How many sorts of sunlight are there, how many kinds of illumination does the sun shine upon the earth?.

A multitude, certainly.

A Myriad.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-soaked revolution here.


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