Friday, February 23, 2007

What Paganism Means to me

“Pagan” is the word I have adopted to described my most profound attitudestoward the world and every thing in it: I am a Pagan. I am a lot of other things, of course: a man, an American, a grandfather, a lawyer, a gardener, a writer, a cook, a licensed driver, and so on. But the aspects of my self that I call “Pagan” have become increasingly important to me.

Butwhat does that mean? The gods stalked me or I stalked them for a number of years but they struck suddenly. Others, as I understand it, have had a similar experience: years of questing and experimenting and lurking around the edges of this thing, half-embarrassed dilettantism and fuzzy-minded speculation, until, one day, one night, one hour, in some ceremony, maybe with a group one has shyly crept into or maybe alone with some half-assed improvisation conducted in the back yard, suddenly there is an answer, a surge, a presence,and the world changes for you.

“Like coming home.” I’ve seen others describe this experience that way since then, and that, I swear, is exactly what I thought. I suppose people say that for the same reason people who’ve been near a tornado say “It sounded just like a freight train,” because that’s what it sounds like.

But one enters that old homeplace without necessarily remembering how the furniture is placed or when dinner is served. You have to figure out what it’s all about for yourself (although there’s help available these days.)

Maybe you don’t really need to analyze it too much. Those of us -- which is all of us -- who were raised in the world made by the Religions of the Book are inclined to think that religion should give a comprehensive account of the world, its fate and that of the little folk who adhere to it.

Religion hasn’t always been that way. It’s clear that in Old Rome and Greece, your religion was something you did, not something believed. The pious were those who performed the rites correctly as they had always been performed, and the prophets were those who came up with new rites. Religion, “Re-linking” or “tying back” in Latin, was community magic performed to keep the world on its proper course and the community stable. It was not necessary to believe anything.

Questions of final truth, of the nature of the gods, the fate of man after death, the end of the world were matters for poets or philosophers. And the argument could be made that the philosophers, in their desire to reduce to universe to tidy categories, paved the road to the hell of monotheism.

But I, raised in the chattering and organizing class, can’t really resist the philosophical impulse. I’ve spent more than 20 years trying to figure out what being Pagan means (along with what to call it.). I’ve come up with the following tentative creed which works for me here today.

The universe inhabited by many consciousnesses, some older and some younger, some faster and some slower, some larger and smaller, but none greater and none lesser than I.

The real gods are with us, in our blood, in the dirt beneath our feet, and in the stars and in the void. When we learn to perceive them, we must love them because they are beautiful and graceful, and even terrible. But we are neither their property nor their slaves, although we may sometimes be their prey.

There is a force we call magic which is the very sinews that hold the universe together. By it the gods mold, maintain and destroy all the worlds, but so may we. All the many consciousness of the universe has access to magic in its kind and to the extent of its strength. As such, we, as humans, must be objects of creation and destruction, but are also its subjects and its verbs.

This human race, the mass of hairless apes of earth, has been brought to grief for more than two millennia under the delusion of its helpless subjugation to a life-hating cosmic despot. Betrayed by that delusion, our species stands near to a well-earned extinction, but there is too much good in us to go without a fight -- and there is still time.

Every single thing at every single moment is absolutely unique and and inextricably intertwined with and dependent upon every other unique thing. Nothing is ever finally complete and nothing is every truly lost.

One last conclusion: there is no end to quest for answersto this question. Anyone who thinks that the answers they’ve found are the final answers is a fool, and a dangerous fool at that. To represent the whole of reality would require a brain larger than the entire universe.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Witches, Wiccans and Pagans

I call myself a Pagan these days. Regrettably, if I were to call myself a witch, people would just think I was peculiar. I tried calling myself a Wiccan for awhile, but found that this got me in trouble with certain others who believe that term is theirs; I have, you see, never been initiated into a coven. I always disliked the term "Neo-Pagan" simply because I dislike the common use of the particle "neo"; happily, neo-Pagan is really unnecessary, because modern Pagans are really the first Pagans, Paganism a modern system born out of the spiritual inspirations and epiphanies of Old Europe and the Mediterranean. So I am a Pagan, qualified by “modern” when some qualification seems called for.

I regret that I cannot call myself a witch. The image of the witch has fascinated me since I read Frank Donovan's Never on a Broomstick around 1971. Donovan's image of witches as secretive rebels tending the flame of ancient tradition through the dark ages of persecution charmed me and was the seed from which my grown-up opinions sprouted. Yes, I know, good sober scholarship has cast the theory of the great Pagan underground derived from the writings of Margaret Murray, Charles Leland (and Gerald Gardner, for that matter) into question, and no responsible Pagan will admit to clinging to it (or so one hears), but it was at least a useful and instructive myth. (I suspect that the historical validity of this idea has been too easily abandoned, too, but that's a topic for another day.)

It also mattered to me then that Donovan's witches were sexy and frequently nude. I read somewhere that you might be giving Paganism a bad name if one reason you became a Pagan was the chance to dance with naked witches; at 14, I was guilty. I can't say I am ashamed of that, because the idea that sexuality and sensuality could be sacred was a revolutionary one to the Southern Baptist boy that I was, and it is still a revolutionary idea and central to my kind of Paganism. (Even though, alas, I have yet to dance with naked witches.)

"Witch" is also attractive to me because nothing is more directly defiant of the more militant and intolerant kinds of Christians than to identify oneself as a Witch.

Unfortunately, words mean what great numbers of people generally understand them to mean. The meaning of "witch" as it is mostly widely known these days, derives not from Pagan speculation or even from Christian paranoia, but from popular movies, TV and children's books. And witches in the most popular of those pop culture sources have some common characteristics: They are not religious, pagan, infernal or otherwise; they are invariably females; they have magic powers acquired by heredity or happenstance, rather than study or divine/infernal dealmaking; and they are usually not exactly human.

In pop culture, there are bad witches, like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the witches in old fairy tales, or some Disney movies. Often you can tell they are not human because they don't look human, i.e. the Wicked Witch of the West and her clones, the Halloween witches, have green skin. The evil queen in Sleeping Beauty turns into a dragon under stress. And, as I realized while reading bedtime stories to my grandchildren, the "witches" in traditional fairy tales are often described extreme physical deformities that mark them as something other than human.

The there are the good witches -- Samantha Stevens, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, the Charmed Ones, the distaff magic workers in the Harry Potter novels -- who look human and are often pretty, but still are not quite human. The witches and warlocks in "Bewitched" referred to Darren and other non-magical humans as "mortals" and it was implied that the witches were hundreds of years old. (The Charmed Ones also refer to non-magical folk as Mortals, although they seem to be pretty mortal themselves.) In the Harry Potter novels, only those born with the capacity to do magic are witches/wizards; muggles and squibs can't do magic no matter how many years they may study; Witches and Wizards live an existence unknown to and separate from the muggles. Sabrina was actually native to a sort of alternate universe that she entered through a hall closet.

So in the popular imagination the Witch is not a person at all, but a supernatural being. When we call ourselves "witches," we are inevitably classed by the public at large with people who claim to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra or the bastard child of Elvis and a UFO pilot.

If "Witch" is untenable because it evokes absurd connotations to the general public, "Wiccan" seems a more likely choice; if it has less romantic resonance than "Witch," it is also bears less bizarre cargo of confusing signifiers. "Wiccan" has almost become respectable, and most fairly well-read people recognize that it stands for some sort of religious practice or belief. But a few years ago while participating in an on-line discussion of Wiccan Religion at a big well-known web site, I discovered that there are some folks who get really wrought up because people without the proper pedigree use the term. One woman who was posting to the board was startlingly bitter that anyone without a provable history initiation traceable back to Gerald Gardner would dare express any opinion whatsoever on a Wiccan board. She reminded of a Christian woman who once tried to explain to me why she objected to gay marriage. To the Christian woman, being monogamously and heterosexually married for life was a mark of her triumph her sinful nature, and was the great accomplishment of her life; she felt that honoring other arrangements as "marriage": somehow cheapened her accomplishment. To my traditionalist correspondent, her purely Gardnerian, properly documented initiated Wiccanism was a mark of her triumph over ... I never was sure exactly what, but it was apparently the great accomplishment of her life. I tried to elicit an explanation, wasn't terribly impressed with the response, tried harder, and perhaps became unnecessarily personal. I don't always play well with others in the rhetorical sandbox. The moderator kept bouncing my remarks, so I finally gave up.

Since then I've learned more about so-called traditionalist Wiccans. They're a strange bunch (as if the rest of aren't): Their position stands or falls on the uniqueness of initiations emanating from Gerald Gardner, possibly Alex Sanders. Unfortunately, Gardner claimed to have received his initiation from Old Dorothy of the New Forest, so either his initiation was not unique, or he was a liar. The traditionalists are, therefore, unique in human history: a religious movement bases its claim to authority on its insistence that its founder was a bare-faced liar.

Don't get me wrong: Gardner was a liar, a brilliant and original liar, clearly touched by the Lord of Wild Things, who is the god of con artists and tale tellers. But the god's lies and those inspired by him always disclose truths and liberate those with wit to understand them. What bothers me about the traditionalists is that, in their fear of uncertainty and ambiguity, are setting Gardner up as the
Mohammed of the new religion, the "onlie beggeter" whose authority is the touchstone of all that is good and true. Certainly, you can build a religion around such a figure -- most of the world follows such faiths -- but if that's the kind of religion Wicca is to be, I want no part of it.

"Pagan" is a better word. Not "neo." Virgil, Euripides, Hesiod, the Druids of Mona, the shamans of the steppes, the priests of ancient Egypt, none of them knew they were Pagans, or even that there was something common among their beliefs. Until the rise the desert monotheisms, there was nothing for them to define themselves against.

Virgil, Ovid, the Latin poets wrote about "pagani," the people who lived in the country and made sacrifice at the pagi, the boundary stones. The poets had a certain affection for those pagans, the country people who still believed in the old rituals, but they certainly didn't regard themselves, cosmopolitan sophisticates living at the heart of a burgeoning empire, as of those country people. But that's who I identify with, the people who sacrificed at the boundary stones, who were sunk into the earth and rooted to it, like the stones themselves.

Later, we hear, the Roman military aristocracy adopted the tern "pagan" as a term of contempt for people who were not in the army, people who stayed at home on the farm rather that going out to conquer the world. I admire those people who stayed home to raise crops rather than going off to fight stupid wars. those people were pagans, but they didn't know they were Pagans.

When the Christians came to power in the Fourth Century, they picked up the soldiers' slang and called those who resisted joining their "Army of Christ" Pagans, people who stated loyal to the gods of earth and water and fire and air, rather than floating off on dreams of heaven. I can certainly identify with those Pagans.

And "Pagan" has been used through as a term of abuse for rebels, free thinkers, free lovers, and weirdos of all stamps. I can identify with those Pagans.

So that is my chosen history and my chose identity; I am a Pagan.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Invocation and Introduction

I was raised in the South, a good Southern Baptist boy for most of my first two decades. Important events and undertakings in those times and places began with a preacher, or my father, or some august male person saying “Let us pray.” I’ve traveled some way since then a nd I am no longer a good Southern Baptist boy, but I think I shall commence this with my sort of a prayer. So let us pray:

Oh, Lady
You who must be adored,
With shining hair and honeyed breasts,
Mistress of the caverns whence issue
men and women, magic and all good things
Weaver, Brewer,
Singer, Bender,
Sower, Reaper,
Field and Forest, Stone and Sea
Nourisher, Inspirer, Slayer,
Great Whore, Limitlessly Pure
With Moonshine in your eyes

Come sit beside me,
Mother, Sister, Queen, Lover and Muse
Bless this new work of mine, which I dedicate to you,
Fill my heart with the wine of your true singers

Oh, Lord
You Old Horny, Wounded, Goatish Trickster,
Dancer in the wild places, stepping it with
the power of the storm wind,
the frenzy of the wild fire,
the grace of flowing water,
the twisted eloquence of the ancient oak
that bursts from and thrusts into the earth,
Guide to Lovers, makers, seekers and the Dead,
Conjurer, Swindler
Seducer, Redeemer,
Scourger and Encourager
Spearman, Horseman, Cocksman,
Rogue in the Night, who breaks all bonds
with Lightning in your eyes

Come Walk beside me,
Father, Brother, Lord, Friend and Accomplice
Shove me out under the lights, and
up to the battlefront, and into
her arms, kick me in the ass if I start to
doze and snatch me up by the hair if
I fall to my knees,
Bless Me
with that yawning need,
that endless desire
that moves the world

Hello, then. I am a Pagan. I have known that I was a Pagan for about 22 years now. I spent about 12 years before that hunting along that path that led me up to that mountaintop. I’ve been a Christian, an atheist, a Taoist along the way. I’ve called myself a Witch, a Wiccan, a Neo-pagan, and so on at times, but have finally decided that simply Pagan is the only word for my pact with Old Gods, Daimons and Spirits.

I am quite gray and middle aged now and suspect that time is running out on me, but I have a few things to say before I’ve quite pissed my life away on trivialities, hence this endeavor. I want to write about what I think I know about Gods and people, and other entities, and how one is to understand their being and one’s own and how the heart of the world was broken by human betrayal, and how humans thus maimed themselves in so doing, and what is to be done about. I want to talk about the great work of charming the Old Gods back to the light of plain day and what that might mean to us all. I want to discuss the shape of modern Pagan philosophy. I want to discuss why magic and sexuality have to central issues to a meaningful Pagan practice and why real Paganism can never be respectable to the big imperial religions that have leeched off humanity, and why modern Pagans who believe all religions must aspire to the condition of Episcopalianism are doomed.

It will of course, be all Only My Opinion. (Not a particularly Humble Opinion, as I am not a particularly humble person.) Henceforth, mon semblable, mon frere, you may take it as read that any statement I make, if I have not attributed it to someone else, is Only My Opinion, and that I am aware of this. Also, please understand that I do not claim the back of any Authority: I am not revealing the hidden truths of any tradition, I have not access to any otherwise-secret hereditary lore and I have not been given an assignment by any spiritual entity or formerly living person. I don’t fancy myself a guru or the leader of a movement (though I hear it’s good work if you can get it.)

But it’s all just me thinking and throwing out some ideas and trying start a discussion or possibly and argument. I don’t mind argument: I argue for a living and I’m pretty good at it. I don’t form opinions easily: if I have something to say, I’ve worked on it for awhile, chiseling away at them until I’m happy with. Other people do this, some perhaps better than I. I hope to hear from you, if you one of those; I don’t promise to ever give ground easily, but I hope I can at least always grant respect to a well formed thought.

On the other hand, not all opinions are created equal: some -- many -- are stitched together from unexamined received wisdom, half-understood tags of brighter people’s thoughts, propaganda, cant and unearned hipsterism. Such will also be given the respect they deserve.

I don’t propose to talk much about myself after this initial introduction, in part because I’m not very interesting, in part because I practice law and help to raise grandchildren in a smallish southern city, circumstances which require a prudent discretion for someone like me.

If you find any of this valuable, I’d appreciate knowing it. If you find it boring, incomprehensible or silly, well, I wish you well in your other endeavors.

All this said, let me wind up my spell with this:

Oh, Lady, Oh, Lord
Brilliant girl and ancient boy,
Here, while fiddle my craziest song,
Dance the dance you do the best,
Roll and Shake,
Twist and Shout,
and When your moans and screams have
shook the mountains to their roots and
rung the star’s crystal sphere
to the shattering note,
then may your mingled juices
rain down on the brittle bones and
sterile clay, that here
something new and strange
may grow

May you all Blessed Be.