“What’s that say on your wrist?”
Sometimes I miss the good conversations.
The other day I missed a doozy, and by mere inches.
A friend and coworker was chatting with a customer when the woman paused their conversation to ask her about her tattoo. Well, one of her tattoos, she’s got a whole sleeve of them but I guess the crisp letters on my friends wrist made for an easier point of inquiry.
“Release,” my friend answered, “It’s a tribute to one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, ‘I shall be released’.”
“And,” the suddenly inquisitive woman continued, “do you know the history of tattoos?”
“Well, it depends on what culture you’re referencing,” my friend managed before…,
“It’s a PAGAN ritual!”
“It’s a PAGAN ritual for the dead!”
(softer now – dismissiveness replacing the forceful tone)
“Sometimes we just do these things on a whim, without realizing the history. We just don’t realize the importance of history.”
All of this, I was sad to discover, happened just outside of my earshot.
Had I only known, I might, as the Pagan in the room, have interjected on our customer’s behalf.
Because, she wasn’t wrong when she said tattooing is of pagan origin, it surely is.
As, I might have offered, was all the makeup and the hair dye our concerned advocate was wearing. Also, the custom of adorning oneself with jewelry, that came from the pagans too. Oh, and agriculture, and roads, architecture, the manner in which we measure time, drama, art, language, mathematics, both democracy and the republic…, In fact the vast majority of stuff that makes her intolerant little life possible, have their origins among the various pagan tribes and peoples of this wide and wonderful Earth, and would have been understood by those people as being inseparable from what we today would call their ‘religious beliefs’.
The good news for our tattoo fearing friend, and everyone like her, is that wearing the trappings of the ancient pagans, be it makeup and hair dye, or a little creative ink injected into the skin, does not make one a Pagan, anymore than going to church every Sunday and reading the Bible would makes one a Christian.
No, it’s not so simple as that.
Paganism is not a thing that one may wear.
It is not a bangle or a bead.
It is not, I think, even a belief or a practice, although we use those words often and all too interchangeably.
Oh, and it is nothing to do with faith.
It runs deeper than that, or it should, and deeper by far than some ink in the dermis.
My paganism hums in me, in my bones and my blood, it shudders at the touch of a breeze upon my skin, reaches down from the soles of my feet into the rock and soil upon which I trod, and it crackles between my fingertips with the approach of a summer storm.
We turn with the great wheel, but the wheel turns within us as well.
Come this time of year it gnaws upon me, my skin feels stretched almost to the point of snapping, my muscles grow tight, and a deep restlessness takes hold of me. The antlered god, growing older again within his fleshy prison, wants to rake his thorny horns against rough tree bark, he wants to run, to fight, and to rut before the winter comes and the great raven arrives again to pick at his scattered bones.
We walk daily among the gods and the spirits of this world, and if we are very lucky we are aware of it, of them, passing near us, through us.
It is beauty and pain made one and it doesn’t happen on a whim. And it’s certainly not something that happens by accident while having some work done in a tattoo parlor.
We spend so much of our lives dressing ourselves up to meet the expectations of others. Yet the urge to express ourselves, our loves and our sorrows, is part of who we are. It’s a human trait, not just a pagan one, and life is too short to just set it aside for the sake of base conformity.
Of course, there will always be those who are frightened by such freedom.
To them I say, “a superficial faith breeds superficial fears. If a little ink is enough to get your religious fervor going, the problem is almost certainly more to do with you.”