Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism (and me?)

I recently discovered that there is a network of people who identify themselves as Pagan and Polytheist Monastics. It has forced me to confront some things within myself. I have to admit that on one level, there is an appeal to an ascetic religious life, while at the same time, there would be certain sacrifices I couldn’t contemplate and many complications in my current life that would entirely prevent me from making some of these life changes.

 

Let me back up a little bit. My sister is a member of the Discalced Carmelite order, which is a contemplative order within the Roman Catholic Church. She lives in a monastery with a small community of women (it has varied roughly between 8 and 15 while she has been there. Structurally, it is not meant to be much more than 20 at that location.)

When she joined this order, it was a huge shock to our family. She was a college graduate with a successful career who had lived independently for years. We all knew she had become increasingly religious, and it wasn’t even a great surprise that she was considering becoming a nun. It was the specifics of her adoption of a monastic, contemplative life that was a bit surprising.

When joining a Discalced Carmelite community, she renounced the outside world, and to a large extent, that also included our family. Through various levels of initiation she becomes engaged to, and then marries Christ. She does not leave the house/compound. We, as family members, can visit her, although only at pre-approved times, and the public rooms are always separated from the monastic rooms by bars. She is always on the inside and you are always on the outside.

She does not own anything personally, and is discouraged from keeping personal mementos. All resources belong to the community, including anything we may give to her with a personal meaning. The community is supported entirely by donations – of money as well as time, effort, and various goods. Repairs, yard work, and medical care are donated. Food is sent. They are well taken care of by an army of donors, volunteers and well-wishers.

She wears an outfit that fully covers her body except for her hands and face. I do not even know such simple facts about her as, for example, if her hair has turned gray. She did not take a vow of silence, but they practice silence for much of their day. They are focused on prayer.

Of course, the vows of chastity and obedience are also a part of the package. And she does not leave, with the occasional exception of trips for medical or order-related business matters. She does not visit family, not even for weddings, baptisms, or funerals. This is part of her vow.

Although I was the member of the family whose religious outlook had moved farthest away from our family’s Roman Catholic upbringing, I was the least upset by my sister’s choice. I supported her decision to follow her path, even if it led to some unconventional choices. And frankly, the decision must have worked for her. The monastery is not an environment where “faking it” works, and she has been there for over 25 years.

Her devotion to the Christian God is not my path. Her belief in the salvation and afterlife it promises is not my belief.

 

But when she was living as a young professional woman in late 20th century American materialistic consumerist culture, virtually every moment was a struggle to live according to her values and spirituality.

This is where I start to feel her tension, her urge to step away from the lives we live. We are bombarded with messages about what to buy and what to wear, how to pick up the newest gadget promising to be faster and more convenient. We’re constantly urged to sign up for this “game changer” service (as if we’re all somehow playing the same game). We hear about hot vacation spots and TV shows we need to be watching.

Meanwhile, finding space for deep thinking seems harder to find. We collect online “friends” but struggle to make true personal connections. No one thinks about the implications of our constant purchases of new gadgets and time-saving services. Compassion is a rare commodity. Insight seems hard to grasp. Wisdom will probably be no more than the brand name of an expensive organic juice that you buy in a plastic carton at the grocery store as of next week.

Although my tradition and beliefs are more “world embracing” than traditional Christianity, less prone to see humans as sinful, more accepting of a variety of spiritual paths, I completely understand the appeal of unplugging from the consumerist world and withdrawing into a community based on prayer, meditation, and mutual support.

But Pagan and Polytheist traditions don’t have such places to plug back in, like the Catholic Church does. The institutions that we have are fairly ad hoc and unstable. There’s no continuity to create an “order” like the Discalced Carmelites and nowhere for people to find those who would help others to create such institutions. Sure, maybe you could try to crowdfund something, but Pagans are rather infamously bad about giving money to support their religious communities.

I know that the Christian monastic traditions, starting with St. Benedict, were very much influenced by the Pagan Stoics of the ancient Greek and Roman world. That said, none of those earlier institutions or the social structures that supported them survived.

The desire to “unplug” and get away from the noise, greed, and distraction of our current culture is something more closely associated with the Hippy movement and communes of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Unhappily, few of those ideological movements and communities have had staying power.

 

I know Pagan intentional communities (the currently-favored terminology for such places) do exist, but they are hard to find, and I don’t have any sense of how many are well established communities versus being simply aspirational experiments. I have tried to research such places with very little luck, and I would love to learn more about them. In any case, Paganism and Polytheism are diverse movements and communities, so there would be no guarantee that any such community would be compatible with my own path. I am fascinated by this idea, though, and I may even find myself daydreaming a bit about living a simple life devoted to spiritual pursuit. For the moment, it doesn’t feel like it could be much more than that.

Is “Hospitality” Enough For An Anti-Racist Framework?

Let me start with an admission. With all the back-and-forth that Heathens have been having about racism, tribalism, folkishness, etc. I am so glad that I have never been called to a path in Heathenry/Asatru/Northern Traditions. It’s not my intention to offend those who are called to these paths, but I’m sure many will be offended, at least in part because outrage seems to be the default mode of online discourse in many of these communities.

I feel like Heathens have a certain stigma to accommodate, even if they aren’t white supremacist, even if they adhere to the more “universalist” interpretations of Heathenism. The fact there are so many white supremacist voices within the community is horrifying. To feel the need to put your time and energy figuring out what place, if any, these people have in your tradition – well, it has to be a drag on the whole tradition. Not only that, since people outside the Pagan and Polytheist community don’t know the difference between the various factions, it’s an embarrassment to everyone who calls themselves a Pagan and/or a Polytheist.

 

But let me move on to my main point here. There has been a loud and ongoing series of discussions, arguments, angry exchanges, accusations, defensive responses, (etc.) around the topic of Heathens and Racism. It has been a dominant topic within the Pagan/Polytheist online community for a while. I have already made my thoughts about this clear.

I have to make an observation for those Heathens who are striving to assert themselves as anti-racist.

Many of those who argue for an anti-racist Heathenism point to the ethic of Hospitality (which is one of the Nine Noble Virtues taught by some Heathen traditions). They argue that anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric, policies, and violence are the opposite of hospitality. They argue that welcoming those who are different is a lauded virtue in the lore. That’s great. I am a believer in hospitality. I think there is much to be admired in using that spirit of generosity and hospitality as guiding principles. Another often repeated addition to this is that we should treat strangers as if they may be Gods in disguise, for there is a long tradition of just such stories.

But hospitality is dependent on a certain defined relationship. Someone is a host and someone is a guest. The host is the owner. The host belongs there. The guest is an outsider. No matter how gracious the host, the guest is always a guest, i.e. the outsider.

As Americans, we live in a land that is multi-racial and multi-cultural, as well as being open to people of different religions and immigrants from different parts of the world. All of these people are part of our country. Hospitality works fine when we are talking about welcoming people into our place of residence, and sometimes when we are talking about our small local organizations. But it breaks down when we try to apply a Heathen hospitality to a larger societal scope.

Heathens don’t “own” towns, much less states or the country. People of northern European descent don’t “own” these, either. They may own property and participate in the political process and economic life, but American values and laws guarantee that entry into these activities is not determined by race, ethnicity, or religion.

Further, everyone in this country of northern European descent is descended from an immigrant. Thinking of those Americans of northern European descent as our society’s “hosts” and people of darker skin or other religions as our society’s “guests” is a thought trap.

It’s a manifestation of the same racist thinking that assumes that a default American is a person of white race. This country obviously had people of Native American background long before the Europeans showed up. People of African descent have been on these lands for nearly as long as Europeans. Chinese people and other east Asian populations have been in this country for hundreds of years. We should not think of ourselves as a white European population with non-European guests. That never was a true way of thinking about it, and as time goes on, it is less and less representative of the reality of the American population.

So, to be honest, I don’t see how hospitality on its own can really encompass true inclusion in a multi-cultural and diverse society. Those of us who look like what our culture has told us is a default American identity – i.e. cis-gendered, able-bodied white people – need to realize that this doesn’t automatically mean the country is “ours”. The inclusion and participation of others who don’t fit that definition should not be defined by whether we are feeling generous that day. African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans – these are not our guests. They are fellow Americans, who have an equal share in our society.

 

Since I am not a Heathen, there will be those within those traditions who won’t even consider my voice in this conversation. But since the conversations happening within these communities reflect on the larger Pagan and Polytheist communities, I am impacted by those conversations. I hope that they can embrace a way of thinking that is more in line with full rejection of xenophobia and racism. I think that will require moving beyond an ethic based on simple hospitality.

 

If you are curious about the Heathen anti-racist movement, one of the most prominent groups is Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR).

Online vs Face-to-Face Community: The #mypolytheism Question

John Beckett recently voiced some doubts about the #mypolytheism website and project. There was a huge number of comments in response, mostly expressing disappointment, and sometimes anger, at John’s lack of support. As I mentioned already, I am a contributor and fan of the project. I love hearing from a variety of polytheists presenting their religious perspective in a non-judgmental platform.

John’s main criticisms were that he questioned the “no debate” format and felt like it would squelch potentially fruitful discussions. More to the point of what I want to address here, he felt that to form a community, people must come together face-to-face via groups or events. An online forum, especially one so diverse, is not going to manifest a real Polytheist community.

 

To address my thought on this, I have to break a convention, in a way, and talk about this blog. I have been blogging for over three years here. I think the habit of writing regularly has improved the quality of writing. I would like to think that the level of writing and thoughtfulness is on a par with most of the “Pagan blogosphere”, although I would not claim to be among the best. I have certain posts which seem to show up in search engines and get somewhat regular clicks. I occasionally catch the attention of a high profile blogger who comments or shares a particular post, which means extra clicks.

But let’s be honest, I have a low readership. As a gay pagan vegan writing reflective posts, I don’t exactly expect to be a viral sensation. But honestly, I do wonder why I am still relatively obscure within the world of pagan bloggers. For example, when The Wild Hunt does a compilation of commenters and the subject is something I write about frequently, they would never think to ask for my contribution. I am even toward the top of the list of “Fall Funders” (it’s alphabetical), so my name appears prominently on their web page. Yet, I am not on the radar.

Part of my lower profile is that I don’t court controversy. I don’t make outrageous assertions just to get clicks. I don’t write rants or screeds. I don’t jump online and respond in a heated way to something I just read. I usually think about and balance various perspectives before writing on a subject.

 

But to take John’s point and turn it on its head, I am beginning to suspect that a lot of people don’t pay attention to writers in the Pagan blogosphere unless they’ve physically met the blogger or seen them talk. It’s like the online presence isn’t acknowledged or deemed worthy of attention when there’s no physical presence at events.

I don’t show up at the big national conventions. I have never been to PantheaCon or Many Gods West. I have never gone to any of the major camping festivals. I haven’t even been to more regional conferences like Paganicon or ConVocation. I just have not had the time or money to play along, to “show up”. I also feel like flying across the country several times each year is not compatible with an environmentally responsible ethic.

I belong to my own local group, which is very small. Many of them do read my blog. It’s rare that the content is so tradition-specific that they would be the only ones to appreciate it. I have gone to our local Pagan Pride, and I will again. I have met some other Pagans and Polytheists in this context. I have even been on a local esoteric radio program and made presentations to local groups. I am still far from a well-known person, even within the local Pagan community.

 

So, sadly, unless I am overestimating the quality of or audience for my writing. I think that there’s a kind of harsh validity to John’s point. An online voice is probably an unheard voice – unless it has been backed up with some other presence, particularly a physical presence at the right events. The online Pagan community is basically a way to amplify the voices of people who already have a voice via books, public speaking or group leadership.

 

Judging from what I’ve read from many of the contributors to #mypolytheism, many will never have those other platforms. Many will have difficulty attending large events to get the attention of the right people. Many of them are not likely to lead groups, even at a local level. This isn’t me criticizing these contributors. This is simply meant to be an honest observation.

Can #mypolytheism be a true community that brings unheard voices to a larger audience? That is certainly a part of its aim, and I hope it can achieve that goal. We’ll have to see if it works out that way, if it can sustain this initial flush of new and unique contributions, or if it ends up sliding into being a platform for voices that are already represented in the Pagan and Polytheist online world.

 

My Polytheism

As part of a project to present many different views of polytheism, as shown on the My Polytheism website, my contribution is here.

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My Polytheism is about variety. At its heart, it’s based on a belief that no one is “in charge”, at least not in any over-arching sense. There are many powers in the world, many of which are greater than human powers. As we make our way through the world, we encounter many of these (if we are paying attention) – Gods, Goddesses, spirits, genii loci. Some are specific to places and times. Some have greater power to exist over long periods of time and great expanses of space. Human perception of them is limited. Human understanding of them is incomplete. But, if we are lucky, we are able to have some kind of communication with them.

I understand these powers to be distinct beings, therefore I embrace the term polytheist. Trying to think of them as part of some unified being seems intuitively wrong to me. Sometimes they seem to look almost human and communicate in a human way, but that may be either their effort to be relatable, or my own mind’s attempt to comprehend what I am experiencing. Sometimes they have existence that is clearly not like that of humanity.

In creating my own framework for a modern polytheism, I look to ancient Rome for inspiration, but I do not aim to slavishly recreate Roman practice.

I love that the Roman religious world was multicultural, eclectic, and pragmatic. Gods and Goddesses from various traditions were incorporated into the Roman religious landscape without any perceived contradiction. I love that at least one major strain of Roman devotion has a tradition of not using animal sacrifice (the Numa tradition).

I am fascinated by the way that Roman religion worked in multiple layers.

  • There was a home-based religion, based around the hearth and the lararium.
  • There were public temples and shrines, as well as festivals, often sponsored by wealthy individuals or groups. These could be for the benefit of a neighborhood, a full city, or on the roadside for travelers. I would love to see some of this in our modern age.
  • There was a state-sponsored religious cult*, dedicated to certain Gods, and eventually to deified Emperors. I don’t have much interest in a revival of this (and I don’t even understand how that would work in our current society).
  • At the same time, many people belonged to mystery cults* – initiatory organizations usually devoted to particular Gods and Goddesses and offering a more personal revelatory and/or ecstatic experience. These organizations had their own rules and practices.

None of these methods of devotion were contradictory. People could pick and choose their devotion (although for political reasons, there were expectations or even compulsions for the actions of public figures around the public festivals and state religious rites).

*When I use the word “cult”, it refers to a devotional tradition and it does not carry the negative connotation that it often does in modern usage.

At the same time, the Romans were deeply conservative, in the sense that they revered any practice or tradition that was seen as ancient. There was a strong cultural drive to maintain rituals, both in the broad and specific senses of the word. They were very picky about the specifics of how rituals were performed, often stopping and starting again from the beginning if something unexpected happened. They had the tendency to continue traditions long past the time when anyone had the faintest idea of their purpose or origin.

This kind of unexamined adherence to the past is not my way. In fact, if it were, I would likely still be a Catholic, perhaps even a priest of that Christian religion where I was raised. The truth is, for my family and for nearly everyone in this country, there is no unbroken line of polytheists. Any such traditions are revived (with varying degrees of guesswork involved) or created anew.

Because I believe in the reality of the Gods, Goddesses and various other spirits, I believe these new traditions can be valid and guided by divine inspiration. But going from divine inspiration to concrete ritual, texts, and institutions will always be colored by the current cultural landscape and individual personality of those involved.

And that brings me to my involvement with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. The Brotherhood is a neopagan order for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). Being neopagan, it isn’t explicitly polytheist, but my experience of the Gods of the Brotherhood is polytheistic. As part of the emergent tradition, there are eight Gods that we work with (an example of my work with them here), and I understand them as distinct deities. Not everyone in the Brotherhood does. But the training that I have gained through the Brotherhood has been formative for me, and it has effected my practices beyond the Brotherhood Gods.

The Brotherhood traditions are influenced by Western Ceremonial Magic tradition, and my sense of ritual and ecstasy, of mental preparedness for spiritual experience is formed by this. Going back to the framework of Roman religion, this is an initiatory group, with a special spiritual focus for the enrichment of its members. I include it in the broader scope of my religious life, and lately, it has been in a central place.

Finally, I want to say that my polytheism is ecstatic (or it aspires to be). I think the experience of Gods, Goddesses, and various other spirits is what makes it all meaningful. My polytheism doesn’t give commandments, it offers experiences. It may be that sense of wonder when walking in the woods on a gorgeous day or looking out over the ocean and trying to comprehend its vastness. It can be much more specific – a God talking to you, appearing in some form, giving you messages. It can be the feeling of a Goddess giving you a message that you must write down and pass along.

To me, much of the purpose of devotion is to honor and grow closer to the deities and spirits, to welcome them into our lives and value who they are, as far as we can understand it. It may even be just to express our awe and appreciation, and it may be to ask for guidance, focus our minds and hearts, or provide us peace. As long as we understand that these relationships do not work like vending machines, but rather that we are cultivating relationship, we can see the value in our practices.

The Gifts from My Deities Require Work

I have talked before about some of the work of maintaining a relationship with the gods and goddesses. Keeping them welcome and satisfied requires attention – made concrete in the form of prayers, candles, incense, offerings, and other devotions. As with a relationship with another human, time and attention are key.

But the work doesn’t end there. Relationship with deities are not like vending machines. Two prayers, a stick of incense, and poured out glass of wine doesn’t mean that you get a package with your heart’s desire, ready to use. To truly receive and truly appreciate the gifts themselves, we often must engage – physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Without an ongoing engagement, we miss the true benefits of these relationships and their gifts.

In my personal practice, I am particularly devoted to Apollo and Ceres.

Ceres is a longstanding connection for me, and my interest in her is closely related to my interest in food and plants. She is the one who makes plants grow, which is the cornerstone of all food, all sustenance. Ceres’ gifts are very concrete – she makes plants grow, and she delivers abundance, at least in season. But anyone who knows about farming, or even gardening (my experience) knows that it requires a fair amount of labor to turn her gifts into something usable for humans. Naturally occurring, readily edible foods are fairly scarce. Most types of plant foods – grains, vegetables, nuts, and legumes – require effort to plant, cultivate, harvest, process, cook, etc. Fruit can often be eaten directly after picked, but even there, the planting and harvesting requires human input. Her gifts are abundant, but they aren’t usable without work.

Apollo is a god who chose me, in a sense. One day, he just started talking to me, which surprised me. I don’t think of myself as particularly “sunny”, so I wasn’t sure what a sun god wanted from me. But Apollo is a god of knowledge, culture, music, theatre, philosophy and clear thought. He is a god of divination and oracles. He can shine a light on knowledge, but he leaves the wisdom, the reflection to each person. What he reveals is often, frankly, puzzling. In short, his gifts require work, processing, contemplation. Sometimes, he leaves humans like Cassandra – with a knowledge of future disaster and no tools to avert it or even warn anyone.

 

I am also devoted to the gods of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, an emergent tradition that I have written about in the past. Each of these gods have a face and personality that requires reflection and lessons. Our writings, our rituals, our tradition gives us guidance as well as a chance to interact with the god. Some of the gods are clearly reflected within ourselves and it’s easy to find an affinity, a connection. Others can be harder to find, but we continue to show them respect and hospitality, knowing one day they will have lessons to impart.

One of the main goals of the Brotherhood, and a prime purpose for our interaction with the gods, is to explore aspects of ourselves as men who love men – gay, bi, queer, trans men in a broadly defined scope. Some conceive of these gods as archetypes that men who love men can relate to, when often the archetypes of other Neopagan traditions seem to exclude us. I have worked with them long enough to see them as distinct personalities and I think of them and treat them as distinct gods. They have often given me unexpected messages that are not simply the result of some abstract idea. They require self-examination and work toward embodying their lessons in a way that is authentic to our self and our identity.

 

This is the season of The Healer, and I have been thinking about the lessons of this god. What does it mean to be The Healer, a healer of oneself and of others? I have embraced some tools. I grew up in a medical family – my father was a medical technician and then manager of a hospital laboratory for years. My mother went to nurse’s training. Other members of my family worked in medicine in one way or another. Hygiene, nutrition, general health maintenance was a frequent topic of conversation. I embrace using food as an avenue to health, and I am always eager to learn more about the properties and processes of healthy food, as well as making it appealing to those who enjoy it (i.e. cooking).

On the other hand, I am less successful at embracing the healing properties of exercise. My inclination is often to be a homebody, rather than craving activity. I love some types of exercise, such as a walk in the woods, but it is an effort for me to get out and move. Also, I know I fail at stress management. I let stress build up in my body, tightening my muscles and making my stomach churn. It can literally make me sick, and I often fail at reaching out for ways to alleviate the stress and its effects. I also have bouts of depression, mercifully less severe than what I experienced when I was younger, but still present. It can be challenging to reach out for the help I need to ease my situation when those hit. The despair and disconnection can take hold and become a self-reinforcing loop.

So, having taken stock, I will call on the Healer to help me embody some of these better habits, and help me heal myself. I will also call on the Healer to guide me to be open to helping others with their own path of healing – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. This is how I will hope to gain the gifts of the Healer and take another step toward my own transformation.

Sacral Kingship – Is That the World We Want to Make?

Some of you who follow the Pagan blogosphere have probably noticed some very heated exchanges lately. There has been a simmering tension between certain figures in the Devotional Polytheist movement (for example John Beckett and Galina Krasskova) and the writers and publisher of Gods & Radicals (specifically Rhyd Wildermuth). This post, regarding the “New Right” presence within Pagan and Polytheist circles, documents some of the racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic strains present in corners of our community, which sometimes have a violent streak, brought those tensions to the surface. I am not going to re-hash the whole controversy, but I thought I would pick up one specific idea mentioned and think about it. I may move on to others at another time.

One of the philosophical positions that is shared by certain members of the Pagan and Polytheist community and certain members of the New Right is the idea of Sacral (or Sacred) Kingship. This is often known as the “divine right of Kings”.

Louis XIV, endorsed from above

Louis XIV, endorsed from above

We learned about this in school as a Medieval European idea, tied to Feudalism and the monolithic Christian Church. It has, in reality, a far more complex and varied history. Modern examples include the Vatican and Tibet before the expulsion of the Dalai Lama, where temporal and religious power sit together in one leader. It also refers to the Queen of England’s role in the Church of England (as well as similar Church/Monarch relationships in countries like Norway and Denmark).

Sacral Kingship is often tied to Pagan and Polytheist mythology and lore. The ancient High King of Ireland is said to have been married to a Goddess. Certain Roman Emperors were deified after their death. Pharaohs had a close relationship to the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Egypt. The idea is also tied to the mythology of a King’s blood sacrifice to heal the land or continue the agricultural cycle. Frazer’s The Golden Bough links the “Dying God” stories from various cultures to the sacrifice of Kings, and Robert Graves and Margaret Murray were popular authors who furthered these connections between Pagan Gods and the blood sacrifices of Kings.

Seti I sitting on the lap of Isis By Olaf Tausch - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14797351

Seti I sitting on the lap of Isis By Olaf Tausch – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14797351

Yvonne Aburrow has a wonderfully witty criticism of this thinking within Paganism. Societies run by Kings and Queens are romanticized by those of us living in modern Democracies. Yvonne points out that for those living in a society where Monarchy’s strict class hierarchy and unearned social privileges still exist, Sacral Kingship is more difficult to idealize.

For any student of history, hereditary monarchy and aristocracy has clear problems. There’s no guarantee that the eldest child (often son) of the strong leader has any of the parent’s virtues. Children reared in a bubble of privilege and protection may have little understanding or empathy for those they are expected to lead. And that doesn’t even mention the way some royal houses have had restricted marriage partners so severely and for so many generations that the genetic penalties of inbreeding have come into play.

But Kings have sometime been chosen by war, which is in itself an argument against Kingship – the good of the people can’t be served when succession conflicts create violence and destruction. And Kings have sometimes been chosen by election in one form or another rather than by heredity. As Yvonne points out, this is often just called Presidency in our current world, rather than Kingship.

 

Galina Krasskova is one Polytheist who says she is an advocate for Sacral Kingship. I haven’t seen her elaborate on her views on the subject, and what parts of Sacral Kingship she envisions as useful to the Polytheist revival that she wants to manifest. I am guessing the actual murder of Kings is not part of her plans, so what exactly does this mean for a modern world?

I don't think George R.R. Martin believes in Sacral Kingship

I don’t think George R.R. Martin believes in Sacral Kingship

I believe in Leaders. I believe we can choose people to fill roles in a community – and that some people are more qualified than others to fulfill particular roles, either by natural talents, inclination, experience, or education. But do Leaders need to be Kings (or Queens) with all the baggage those terms carry?

Most days, I believe in Democracy as preferable to most other systems, although I know it can have its abuses and corruptions. I know it can allow majorities to tyrannize minorities. I know it can be horribly manipulated by media and misinformation. I know it can force Leaders to make popular decisions for short-term gain at the expense of a longer term goal. Compared to the crap shoot of putting decisions into the hands of a monarch chosen by heredity or force, I’ll take Democratic process, even with its flaws.

 

I believe in the power of stories to shape our worldview and our world. I love ancient stories and the view that they give us into other cultures and other times. Ancient myths sometimes involve Kings. Fairy tales often involve various members of a royal family (although perhaps Princes and Princesses more often than actual ruling monarchs).

I believe in the project of creating stories to shape our world and our lives, and I think we need to create more stories about who we are and who we want to be. What does it mean when we tell and repeat stories based around Kings and Princesses, these people of privilege? Are we supposed to put ourselves in their place? Are we supposed to critique our leaders based on these stories and thereby discern their wisdom? Are we creating a world where we are empowered when they center on those “above our station”?

 

And a final thought and question: how can we tell if our gods are choosing our leaders? Pagans and Polytheists are not only a tiny minority, but have an incredible diversity of devotions, practices and traditions. Even if we receive a sign that Odin or Isis chooses a King or Queen for us, who would even believe us or even agree?

We do have leaders who proclaim themselves or are proclaimed by others as chosen by God to lead the people of the United States, such as Ted Cruz and George W. Bush. I think it’s safe to say these aren’t the gods that most Pagans or Polytheists would be looking for as endorsing candidates.

 

I will admit I may have a blind spot when it comes to the stories of a Sacred King who dies to redeem his people. It has an echo of the central mythology of Christianity – a son of God who dies to redeem the sins of his followers. I grew up with that story and it never resonated. I understood it intellectually and never felt the emotional power that seemed to satisfy so many others around me. I never felt the need for that kind of redemption.

As an amateur gardener, I don’t see why a King needs to be sacrificed to ensure the next harvest. Death is necessary to create the next crop, absolutely. But the dried leaves and kitchen scraps that go into my compost heap are not Kings, they are the most common, but most valuable of resources. The worms that convert them into rich soil are not legendary King-killers. The process that keeps the world moving and growing is so much more modest and yet no less miraculous.

A Dark Goddess in the Trees

It was the Winter Solstice, I was home on winter break during my sophomore year in college. I was still learning to create a life that was different than the one my family and schools had dictated. I had become more open about who I was, created a life that had nothing to do with my childhood home.

I went for a walk alone in the neighborhood where I grew up. A few blocks from our home, there was a cemetery called Valhalla. It was a modest affair, in spite of the rather grand associations of the name. It is the kind of cemetery where most of the headstones are flat to the ground so they can just mow right over them. There was a section in the back that was undeveloped and unused. It was an empty field with a chain link fence on 2 sides and a line of trees separating it from the main part of the cemetery. The ground was rutted and uneven, the grass was scrubby and there were a few scattered trees and shrubs. Since it was December, it was all brown and leafless.

As I walked into the field and farther from the streetlights, I began to feel a presence in the trees. There was a woman – an older woman in a dark, hooded cloak. She didn’t speak, but I understood that she was communicating with me. She was letting me know that she was there. That she would always be there. Always watching. Always knowing. Always waiting.

I did not know her name. I did not know what she was there to show me. She was a presence in the dark, just beyond my reach. She felt like a strange dark comfort, a point of knowledge of something hidden, a fascinating mystery. With the Pagan readings I had done at the time, I thought of her as The Crone – one of the faces of the three-fold Goddess archetype. But in retrospect, and to my current way of thinking, she seemed more real, more concrete than an archetype. She was a Goddess, but one I wasn’t ready to know.

 

For my first year and a half in college, things had gone pretty well. I had come out as gay and felt the support of my college community. I had kept up well in classes, and I was fascinated by the study of eco-feminist philosophy under my first-year advisor Karen J. Warren. I had a number of great friends there.

But I was cracking, and I knew it. I had a desperate restlessness. I had begged my parents to help me take a semester to move to the UK and work. I had found a program where I could get a short-term work visa. I just needed them spend some of the money that they would have spent on my college expenses to get a plane ticket and some initial living expenses. They were against it entirely, and in retrospect, I can understand why. But they didn’t know that I was cracking. Something was going wrong in my head, and I wanted to try something radical to try to shake it off. In retrospect, traveling to a different country and being in unfamiliar surroundings probably wouldn’t have helped, but I wanted to try something, anything to shake it up.

What was coming was that I was about to have the first of several deep depressive episodes that I experienced during my college years. It was the kind of depression that caused me to sleep 20 hours a day for a month, lose touch with friends, and fall disastrously behind in my classes. I had no idea at the time, of course. I had never experienced anything like that before that time. I still have no idea why it happened then, and several more times over the next few years. I have a couple theories, but they are really only guesses.

As you may know, depression is not “feeling sad”. In the depths of it, it’s not feeling anything. Music isn’t enjoyable. Food is not interesting. Friends don’t seem important. Friends who desperately try to “cheer you up” seem irritating. And for me, I was tired, overwhelmingly tired. I slept long hours, got up, showered, unenthusiastically ate a little something, and then went back to bed. Nothing engaged me. Nothing brought me out of it.

When I finally started getting myself back, I realized everything that I had neglected had turned into a serious problem. I was in trouble in all my classes. Many of my friends were angry with me for my neglect and rude avoidance. Fortunately, I was living in college housing, so paying bills and such weren’t an immediate problem. I was still not quite right, and not feeling capable of digging myself out of the hole I had dug. I tried to reengage in my classes, but didn’t have much experience with being a struggling student. I had always been a good student, or at least a competent one. I really didn’t know how to recover when I had messed up. I tried to revive friendships, but some relationships never recovered.

 

Before that time, I thought I knew darkness. I even thought of it sometimes as friendly, useful. I had lived so much of my life not revealing myself, allowing myself to be a mystery to people. I knew cynicism, I knew that the world was full of lies and betrayals. I knew that people’s generosity had a limit, and even those who seem kindhearted could harbor prejudices. I thought I understood the world.

Of course there was so much more to learn, and much of it through painful experiences. The bouts of depression were bad. It took me a couple years of delay and some significant maneuvering to finish my degree after the academic challenges it created. Then, my parents began to experience health problems. My father had a heart attack and bypass surgery. My mother began her slow steady slide which eventually ended with her death. Financial setbacks and some unlucky choices also have challenged me.

I have come through it transformed in many ways. I have gone from being an extrovert to being very introverted, or put differently, from being dependent on the presence of others to being happy with my own company. I have rediscovered my spirituality, and as this blog attests, I have been growing and exploring that path. I have been shaped by dark forces, as I think we all are.

 

I still wonder what that Goddess wanted, what she wanted me to hear that I was not ready to hear. Perhaps she appeared as a warning of things to come, a warning that I could not understand. Perhaps she was trying to see if I was someone who could do her a service. Perhaps I was just randomly stumbling upon a place of the dead on the darkest of dark nights and I glimpsed a rare gift from the divine.

She touched me, though, in ways I don’t entirely understand. Until a few years ago, that night was one of the closest brushes I had with a divine presence, and it opened a door within me. It took me years to walk through it, though, and accept my relationship with the Gods and Goddesses. Perhaps I still don’t truly understand what it brought and what it will mean.

I am not really interested in Islam, however…

I am a polytheist. Not all people under the “Pagan Tent” are, but I am. The idea of a unified godhead seems intuitively wrong to me. There is nothing that I can see or have experienced that implies a single intelligence that controls the universe, the earth, or even the project of being a human. There are multiple powers that are greater than humans, and they may or may not work together. I see the spiritual world as a complex swirl of interactions between powers, large and small. Think of one of those giant dynamic weather maps of the world, where storm systems and pressure cells interact and combine to form constantly changing conditions. Some areas get slammed and others stay calm, and tiny variables can set off a whole chain of events. No one is “in charge”. Everything is in flux.

The idea of an all-powerful, beneficent God is fraught with major logical contradictions to anyone who is paying attention. The idea of a single book, or set of books, as “the word of God” is deeply problematic. Books in particular, and language in general, are culturally specific. Without negating the power of a message given by a particular writer or prophet to their audience, they can hardly be expected to provide precise advice and messaging to people in other cultures and in other times, facing specific problems the prophet couldn’t even imagine.

As someone who was raised in a monotheistic religion, namely Christianity, and who moved away from it, I really have no interest in spending time learning about any monotheistic religion at this point in my life, particularly not one that 1.) is based on everyone following one text, 2.) compels people to proselytize, 3.) rejects my identity as a man who loves men, and 4.) treats women as a secondary class, prohibited from equal opportunity with men.

Further, I will not put myself in the position of defining or defending Islam, whether to Christians or Atheists. It is not my place to inform people that “Islam is about peace” as the decidedly non-Muslim President George Bush once did. I am not the person to define the purpose of Islam or the goals of Muslims, whether in this country or in another.

However…

I do not think that Islam is significantly worse or more dangerous than other forms of monotheism. It includes a broad range of people with a broad range of beliefs, most of whom are simply interested in pursuing their own interests with their own families and friends. In terms of proselytizing, they are far less aggressive around here than the Christians. Within the last week I had two different people attempt to engage me in conversations about the Bible. I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen with Muslims and the Koran, and yes, there are Muslims in the area where I live.

Islam is traditionally hostile to LGBTQ people, treats women unequally, allows slavery, and has aggressively converted people, even with the threat of death. Every single one of these is also true of Christianity. Of course, many self-professed Christians today in America don’t endorse any of these traditional views. The same can be said of many Muslims.

If Islamic groups from around the world consider the United States and Western European powers evil, that has everything to do with our foreign policy and very little to do with religion. For many decades, the United States has been playing chess games in the Middle East, supporting oppressive and unpopular regimes, toppling other regimes and leaving power vacuums filled by warring factions that destabilize areas. We are pulling strings and sending bombs and then we’re surprised when the people on the ground living with the results resent us.

But for those living here, one of this country’s greatest strengths is the Freedom of Religion. As a member of a small minority religion, it is extremely important to me that this freedom applies to all, and not only to certain Christian sects. The rights to believe in varied religious traditions (or none at all) and practice religious rites within the confines of the private spaces are and should remain protected. No government, Federal or local, should favor one religion or exclude any one religion in terms of participation or benefits.

We should be free to display religious symbols on private property and wear religious symbols and dress on our bodies without being harassed or attacked. No books should be banned based on religious beliefs.

And specific to recent proposals that are being discussed in our political sphere, there should be no religious test for immigration or asylum seekers into this country. There should be no religious registry based simply on religious belief.

I am not interested in Islam for myself, but I will defend the rights of Muslim Americans and those of any tradition to live without any extra restrictions and persecutions in this country. The increase in harassment and physical violence against Muslims (or people perceived as Muslim, even if they aren’t) in the country is alarming and should be confronted wherever it happens.

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.