What is ours to give?

Many pagan and polytheist practices are based on offerings to gods and goddesses and practitioners have many different traditions in making offerings to their deities. One aspect of my path lately is an interest in devotional rituals – a practice based on giving something to a god or goddess. I love the process of researching what foods and herbs are associated with a deity, what colors to use for candles and altar cloths, what incenses to burn and what drinks to use to pour libations.

I have also been interested in a certain anti-Capitalist bent within certain corners of Paganism and Polytheism. There is actually a wonderful website called Gods & Radicals with this very theme. They have collected a talented group of writers who post there and the content is often thought-provoking and challenging.

So my thoughts have been wandering down these paths and they have come to an interesting intersection, one that brings up many questions.

In Marxist thought, the capitalists are the owners of the means of production – both in terms of raw materials and of machinery, factories, etc. The workers supply their effort, their Labor. The raw materials are transformed by the labor of the worker and the worker increases the value, the usefulness of the material. The raw grain becomes bread. The cotton bales become a shirt. To grossly simplify, one of Marx’s critiques of Capitalism is that the worker’s labor is owned by the Capitalist, since they own the final product, and the worker is not given a fair share of the increase in value that the labor provides. Marxists advocate for a shared/collective ownership of the means of production, so that workers can have a more meaningful benefit from the increase in value, and there’s no cut “off the top” for the Capitalist just because they own the factory/machinery/raw material.

When we challenge the ingrained ideas of personal property, as anti-capitalists do, we arrive at some questions about what and how we give a offerings to a god or goddess when our ownership of an object is conceptually suspicious. If the people whose labor has gone into a product were not fairly compensated, is the product really ours to give to the gods?

Is it “ours” if we have reserved it for our personal use? When we share a bit of a meal we’ve made for ourselves and our family, that seems like we are giving of something that is truly our own. But what if that meal is something that was just warmed up from a package purchased at the grocery store? We may not even know where the food was grown or what mystery additives it contains. Is this an acceptable offering to our deity?

If we have put our own work into it, does it then become our own? If we have carved a statue or woven a cloth, if we have grown a meal in our garden or cooked it ourselves, if we painted the picture or made the corn dolly – are these truly our own? Intuitively, it seems right and these seem like fitting offerings. They are from ourselves and not a gift that we have simply taken from someone else.

Then there are more abstract sacrifices – prayers, habits, meditations, speaking up for a cause, giving healing energy. It’s easier to say that we own these things. When give an action rather than giving an object, it is easier to say that it comes from our self. The gift to the god is not borrowed or stolen from another. It is clearly our own to give.

To me, live animals are not objects – they are conscious beings that think, feel pain and exist for their own purposes. So how could I conceivably give the life of an animal to a deity? It’s not mine to give. Even the act of taking a life does not mean I have ever owned it – I have only destroyed it. I know that in many traditions, the killing of an animal is the most valued offering, but to me I can only give it if I have stolen it – it is never truly mine to give freely.

Sometimes a god or goddess asks for something specific or has a particular traditional affinity for a particular kind of offering. If we do not make it ourselves, but we go out of our way to acquire it, if we use our money we have earned through labor in exchange for this offering – is this sufficient to make it our own gift to the deity?

In our culture money is supposed to be a stand-in for value we’ve earned, but often it doesn’t take much to realize that’s not true. We can buy things on credit card debt. We can gain and lose money through the almost hallucinatory trading of commodities, stocks, options, bond, derivatives and derivatives of derivatives. Fortunes are gained and lost on trading bubbles and market fluctuations that have nothing to do with anything we have earned. Money is increasingly abstract, and unrelated to actual work. If something is bought on credit, inherited from another, gained through a financial trick – is that something that is worthy to offer to a deity?

This is a wandering set of questions without many definite answers. I am still working it through in my own mind. But it is not a subject I hear discussed very often. I would love to know other people’s thoughts on this, particularly if your practice includes devotions and offerings.

Chicagoland Pagan Pride 2015

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This past Sunday was the Chicagoland Pagan Pride event at Pleasant Home/Mills Park in Oak Park. Oak Park is a leafy suburb just west of Chicago known as the place where Frank Lloyd Wright started his career and Ernest Hemingway grew up. The park itself is in a turn-of-the-last-century mansion with a surrounding garden. There has been a Pagan Pride festival in Chicago since 2002. There’s more about the history of the event here.

The event has grown significantly even in the years since I have attended. There are hundreds of people who attend and dozens of vendors. There are several entertainment stages and several workshop spaces. In addition, a rotating list of local pagan groups host the opening and main rituals. I participated in the main ritual last year, led by Earth Traditions, and my own tradition of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix is scheduled to lead the opening ritual next year.

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There is also a service aspect of this festival in the form of a food drive, which is donated to a local food bank. There is no other admission charged – just the encouraged donation.

When I first attended a number of years ago, I went to see Terra Mysterium perform. They are a theater troupe whose show I had enjoyed, and I very much wanted to see them perform again. I hardly knew anyone, and felt quite apprehensive. I’m not a fan of crowds, and didn’t really have any sense of my place in the Pagan community at that time. Now that I’ve been involved with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix and The Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment, I knew a lot of people at this event.

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One of the main reasons I went this year is because one of the members of the Brotherhood was doing a workshop on our unique cosmology. George, our Herald, did a great job explaining some of the emergent philosophy that has come out of our tradition, and the group reacted well to the presentation, particularly the guided meditation/visualization.

Visualizing cosmology as a kind of landscape is powerful tool. It allows us to see and feel abstract concepts and bring underlying structures to light. It’s empowering to think about these ideas and to try to understand and shape our conceptions of the structure of life and world around us.

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I did some “window shopping”, and I now do regret that I didn’t buy a particularly interesting moonstone that I saw. The price wasn’t really in my budget, but I don’t think I’ll have another chance to see that particular one. Well, I do think that there is always another lovely thing in the world that will come across my path, and I don’t need to hoard every pretty thing I see.

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There were a number of well-known personalities there. Selena Fox from Circle Sanctuary was probably the most well-known “BNP” (Big Name Pagan). Blogger, artist and teacher Shauna Aura Knight was there and the podcaster Fire Lyte. Unfortunately, I missed the band Cheshire Moon perform, who I have enjoyed in the past. I did have the chance to enjoy several other bands including Secrets of the Beehive and a wonderful Irish folk group.

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It was a wonderful day, and it’s a great event, since it brings together a community that is typically so disparate and independent. There are flavors of Wicca, Heathenism and Vodou as well as dozens of other traditions, and people are able to explore and cross-pollinate under the generous shade of those glorious old trees. Bravo to the organizers! May this festival continue for many years.

“Forest bathing” to soothe the soul

The Forest Path

The Forest Path

This August was a spiritually enriching time for me. I took a weekly class with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, which has given me new experiences and given me tools to enhance my devotion and connection to the Gods of the Brotherhood.

In addition, I have had a garden this summer, due to the generosity of a neighbor who is letting me use his yard. I have profoundly enjoyed this regular connection to the earth, to growing plants, and to the cycle of growth and decay. I am not a great gardener. I am too new at it for that. It’s a skill that takes years to develop. I’ve had a number of successes, though, and the garden has provided me with abundant tomatoes, radishes, swiss chard, and lettuce, as well as some cucumbers, squash, broccoli, peas and carrots. I hope to get cabbage, turnips and kale before the end of the season. Even with a violent hailstorm in the middle of the summer, which was a setback, the garden has been a success on many levels, not the least of which has been deepening my own spiritual connection to the Earth.

In spite of all this, I realized that I have been missing something this year which had been a larger part of my spiritual practice the past few years. I have not been walking in the woods very much.

Where I live is a fairly densely developed urban area and there are not wooded areas in walking distance, aside from the thin strips along railroad tracks and small corners of nearby parks. There are definitely not the kind of wooded areas that are completely out of the visual line of streets, buildings or other signs of human development.

Wild flowers in the woods

Wild flowers in the woods

Fortunately, the County Forest Preserve has areas that are within a half hour drive from where I live. Many of them are along the branches of local rivers (the Chicago River, the Des Plaines River), so they are riparian forests. The terrain around here is fairly flat, and we are prone to periodic heavy rain storms so many of these are managed wetlands and flood plains. There are also prairie preserves, but I have to say that the prairies never speak to my soul the way that forests do. Prairies are fascinating and alive, but they don’t calm me and envelop me the way a cool, green canopy does.

North Branch Chicago River

North Branch Chicago River

I believe in the intrinsic value of wild places, but I also believe in their profound value to humans and animals. Obviously, they harbor and encourage a biodiversity of plant and animal life far beyond what developed areas have. They allow natural processes of decay that nourish the soil and encourage new life. They are vital for cleaner air and cleaner watersheds.
Exposure to wooded areas also provides specific benefits for humans. Research for this has been conducted in Japan, where they have a practice called Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing) that is prescribed as a stress-reduction therapy. We are creatures of nature and even though we have adapted to life in cities where nature is mostly excluded and very tamed, we have great benefits when we see, smell, hear, and feel natural places from time to time.

Skokie Lagoons South - Cook County Forest Preserve

Skokie Lagoons South – Cook County Forest Preserve

I was drawn to a specific place this weekend to go for a walk in the forest. It’s north of me, along the North Branch Chicago River. In a certain sense, it’s a place that has been shaped by human hands, since my favorite stretch of trail is along a levee next to the river, and the river is controlled by a series of dams just north of there. On one side of the river is a paved trail, which is extremely busy with bicyclists on warm days, and sure enough, that trail was a constant swarm of people is plastic helmets whizzing past on brightly colored metal contraptions. I think biking is great, but it’s not exactly a great way to connect with the Natural surroundings.

Wild Flowers

Wild Flowers

On the other side of the river is the levee with a gravel trail on the top. These trails are far less used, so I can take my time and really look at the trees, the river, the different plants, and if I’m lucky, the animals that cross my path. The forest is a soothing canopy of green, but it’s also so much more to it. There are wild flowers of various shapes and colors. There are tree barks that range from almost black to silver and green. The shapes of leaves and textures of barks vary widely. Sometimes vining plants wrap around trees, adding interesting patterns and making me wonder if the trees mind this extra burden. Fallen trees are a bonanza of gorgeous mosses and lichens, mushrooms and other fungus in wonderful shapes and colors. This time of year, duckweed covers the river, and I might catch sight of a ducks and even an egret. I hear birds calling in the trees and squirrels and chipmunks rummaging through the fallen leaves. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to see deer.

The river through the trees

The river through the trees

This is all magical to me. It fascinates me and nourishes me. And I wonder why I don’t live in a place where I can have this closer to my home. Why do I live my life in a way that is so removed from this?

A shock of red - an early sign of Autumn?

A shock of red – an early sign of Autumn?

At home, I may see squirrels and songbirds in my neighborhood, but I’m just as likely to see scavengers like rats or gulls picking through trash. It’s not exactly the same kind of wildlife. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great things about where I live. It’s a neighborhood full of cultural diversity and cultural resources. It has good access to public transportation, and it’s close to Lake Michigan. It’s also more affordable than many parts of the city. But it is missing this experience of a connection to nature.

Wild flowers along the river

Wild flowers along the river

I can almost forget how much this kind of connection means to me sometimes. If I don’t get my shinrin-yoku for a while, I don’t remember how fantastic I feel afterward. And frankly, that’s a sad thing. I need to remember to keep this as a part of my life.