Tag Archives: Culture

Blood and Soiled

This must be one of the saddest photographs I have ever seen.

Why do we teach our children the wrong things?

Why do we teach them to hate, to fear, to believe that if we give one man respect, or dignity, or just a fair chance in life, that we must be trying to take those same opportunities away from another?  Why do we teach our children that the land is ours, by right of blood or edict from on high, when we are only the latest insects to crawl across its surface?  Why do we teach them that one man is different from another, better than, superior, when the story of our genes tells us that we all come from a singular place and time?

Why are we dressing our littlest ones up in the raiment of hate?

And when did Nazi Cosplay suddenly become cool?

Don’t tell me it was THOSE people who did it!  Please, don’t try to put it on someone else.

It was us.  How could it not be?

There are people walking our streets and living in our neighborhoods, who think it’s okay for one group to round up another, to remove them from their homes and fence them in like animals, to starve them, abuse them and ultimately exterminate them.  And these folks didn’t time-travel here from Germany in the early 40’s. They grew up here right alongside us, went to the same schools, studied the same history books.

So how could they have learned to hate so well?

I wonder.

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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Politics

More than Skin Deep

“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…,

“NO!”

“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.”

Cernunnos Tattoo

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Filed under Modern Life, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

Idolatry 101

Idolatry Eagle

“Why are you all still sitting there?!”

A friend and I were sitting, with about fifty others, in the audience of the Birds of Prey exhibition at Scarborough Faire, a renaissance festival located just outside of Waxahachie, Texas.

I grew up just a few miles from the Faire and have attended at least one weekend for almost every year since it opened back in 1981.  I know the grounds like the back of my hand, and most of the better acts by heart, but mostly I just enjoy dressing up, and spending some relaxing time outside people-watching over a nice cool tankard of mead.

I’ve probably attended the Birds of Prey show a couple dozen times over the years.

I love watching them fly the hawks, or the occasional falcon.

They usually open with a Turkey Vulture and close the show with an American Bald Eagle, and this year was no different, right up until the end.

For some reason, as the trainer brought the Eagle up onto the stage, the love theme from Braveheart was being piped over the sound system.  She paraded around the stage holding the eagle on one gloved hand, with her other hand pressed over her heart.

When she completed her circle across the front of the stage, the head trainer spoke up from his throne at the back of the stage and said, “Let me ask you a question, why are you all still sitting there?!”

Okay, this was new.

“Why,” he continued, “didn’t you rise to your feet and place your hands over your hearts when you saw this magnificent bird, this symbol of liberty and freedom…,”.

As the scolding lecture continued, and the chastened crowd began to rise like schoolchildren who had been caught short, my irritation grew.

The very obvious answer to the gentleman’s question is that we didn’t rise because a bird, even the national bird, is not a flag!   We don’t rise for birds, we don’t place our hands over our hearts for birds.  It’s just not something that we have ever been asked to do.  Nor should we be.

Should I likewise stop along the side of the road every time I pass a field of Bluebonnets (the state flower of Texas) to show my proper respect?

As I sat there, watching the sheep around me lurching guiltily to their feet, it occurred to me that after a couple thousand years of being told that Idolatry was a horrible thing which should be avoided at all costs, people in the western world are just really REALLY out of practice.

I mean, they all still do it, but by and large they absolutely suck at it.

Maybe, I thought, there should be a class, something like a continuing education course that people could take over the course of a few weeks.  Such a class could be taught by folks from within the pagan/polytheist community, as a kind of community outreach.  Something we could do to help out all those unfortunate folks who just haven’t got a knack for it.

And once I’ve had a thought like that.., well, I know from experience that it is just going to fester in my mind until I find a way to get it out of my system and move on to other things.

And so I present to you, my pretend lesson plan for a continuing education course that will never actually exist.

Enjoy!

Idolatry 101: General Course Description

In the classic sense, we think of the idol as a statue usually secreted deep within the bounds of some ominous temple.  Surrounded by cloaked priests and clouds of incense, it is brought forth on special days, whereupon the people may fawn and bow before it, offering up sacrifice to be burned in its presence.  This is a profoundly limited view, influenced by religious propaganda and literary cliché.  This course will seek to expand upon that narrow view, by exposing the student to the many forms and functions of the Idol throughout history and into the modern era.

Week 1: When is a Door not a Door?

Synopsis of Introductory Lecture:  In the holy writings of all three of the great monotheistic religions, there are stern warnings against the practice of Idolatry.  In modern usage the word itself is, in almost all cases, used in a pejorative manner.  But what is Idolatry, really?  While there may be many related definitions, for the purposes of this course, Idolatry will be understood to mean the process by which a tangible, real-world object, is used as a point of focus for the worship or reverence of something otherwise intangible.

History shows that Idolatry is something that is second nature to the human animal, and is present in almost every facet of human activity both ancient and modern.  Furthermore, it is the foundation upon every great religion, including those which so frequently preach against it.

Witness, for example, the sacrament of the Eucharist in which bread and wine are symbolically transformed into the body and blood of Christ, whereupon it is consumed by the faithful as a means of taking the holy spirit of their god into themselves.

Now compare this modern religious tradition with that of the far more ancient cult of Dionysus, which held that the vine of the grape was the mortal embodiment of their god, and that wine was the blood of their god, fermented by his yearly passage through the underworld.  By the drinking of this specially prepared wine the spirit of the god was believed to first enter and then manifest within the devotee, in the form of holy intoxication.

The idol, as we will see, may take many forms.  It may appear to us as an emblem, a statue, a natural feature of the landscape, and even the blood of the vine.  But in whatever form it takes, the idol is a doorway to something we understand to be bigger than ourselves.  Unable to touch what lie beyond, the door itself becomes a vessel for our reverence, invested with prayer and worship, with ritual and sacrament.

It is not the business of this brief course to render judgement for or against the practice of Idolatry.  Instead, we seek only to recognize it when we see it, to understand how the practice has shaped the human condition, and to gain insight into the beliefs and motivations of those who openly engage in this practice.

Written Activity: Write a quick (1,500 words) explanation of your personal beliefs regarding the practice of Idolatry and what you hope to get out of this course.

Week 2: And Everything in its Place

Lecture and Slide Presentation:  Moving forward from the previous lecture, we will further expand the perception of what may or may not be an idol, by touching briefly upon the subject of Spiritual Geography.  The accompanying slide presentation will show multiple locations where either a man-made or natural feature of the environment has been invested with spiritual significance.  Special attention will be paid to the concept of the Axis Mundi as a point of connection and focus between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Written Activity: Briefly (6,000 words) compare or contrast any two of the following locations:  The Umbilicus Urbis Romae in Italy, The Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, Mount Kailash in Tibet, The Hill of Uisneach in Ireland, Delphi in Greece, or Teotihuacan in Mexico.

Week 3: Desecration and Empowerment

AphroditeSmallLecture and Slide Presentation: We begin with an overview of the rise of Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire and the rising tide of attacks upon both temples and statuary dedicated to the gods of the Roman pantheon.  The slide presentation will detail the ways in which images of the various gods were damaged, including beheadings, the gouging of eyes, and the carving of crosses into these objects.  Lecture will end with a brief catalogue of similar desecrations by various groups through history and into the present day, to include the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Taliban forces in 2001, and the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra ,Syria, by ISIL in 2015.

Written Activity: Write a brief paper (2,000 words) exploring one of the following questions:

1.  Is your faith empowered by the desecration of someone else’s holy icon?

2.  Is it possible to desecrate an object that is not already sacred?

3.  Does an act of violence against an object reflect the significance of that object in the heart of the believer, or in the mind of the one conducting the act of violence?

Week 4: Stars and Stripes Forever

IdolatryFlagsClass Discussion: The American Flag is often treated as an object of deep reverence.  Citizens salute it, they pledge to it, they treat the display, folding and storage of it with ceremony and ritual, and will retire a worn or damaged flag in cleansing flame.  Desecration of a flag is a crime in many locals, and people have been known to react with violence to public protests that included flag desecration.  Does this same reverence extend to all manifestations of the American flag, including the little disposable plastic ones that people often wave, en masse during parades and patriotic celebrations?  If not, then what makes those flags different?  What about flags printed on t-shirts, bumperstickers, and the like?  What, if anything, makes one flag sacred and another not?  The instructor is encouraged to keep the debate on-topic but to otherwise allow the discussion to guide itself.

Week 5: Ubiquity and the Profane

Lecture:  A brief explanation of the symbols used by various secret societies to identify members to one another, leading us into a discussion of the Christian Cross.  Once a secreted symbol revealed only to those who could be trusted, the Christian Cross has become an everyday fashion accessory for millions of people in the western world.  In recent years, a number of christian groups, in their defense of large crosses displayed on public lands, have suggested that the cross, through its ubiquitous nature, should not always been seen as a religious symbol, but may have any number of secular meanings.

Classroom Activity:  Break into groups and debate one of the following questions?

1.  Does wearing a cross have any significance in a culture where the general expectation is that any individual you may encounter in your day-to-day movements is almost certainly a Christian of some variety?

2.  Can a holy symbol be made profane though repetition and commercialization?

3.  A non-believer wears the symbol of your faith – empowering or sacrilege?

Week 6: Where does the power come from?

Final Lecture: In whatever form it takes, the Idol has the power to instill powerful emotions in those who encounter it.  For some, a particular idol may illicit feeling of deep reverence, joy, fear, or disgust, but the question remains, where do these feelings come from.  Is the power that the idol seems to possess over man a function of the object itself.  Is the physical object imbued with a special nature that brings out these feelings in those who come near it?  Does the particular arrangement of stripes and stars on a length of cloth change the nature of the fibers of which it is composed?  Does the wine become the blood of a god, or is it simply a tool which we use to feel closer to the divine?  If entirety of an idols power rests within the hearts and minds of the men and woman who react so strongly (one way or the other) to its presence, does not our reaction to Idolatry say more about ourselves than it does those we might feel compelled to judge?

Final Essay (6,000 words): Expand upon your original paper from the 1st week of class.  Have your feelings regarding Idolatry changed as you have considered the materials presented.  If so, how has your attitude changed and why?  If not, please explain how this course may have reaffirmed or strengthened your previous feelings.

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Filed under Culture, Interfaith, Modern Life, Mythology, Religion, The Gods, Traditions

Truth in Spirit or Blood?

Within certain segments of the Neo-Pagan community there is a deeply held belief that perception is reality.  I have myself, on occasion, expressed this idea in the pages of this blog.  There are many roots which supply nourishment to this belief, perhaps the most important of which is that the core of almost any magical practice is the alteration of consciousness and reality in accordance with the will of the practitioner.

However foundational this belief may be in magical theory, one is far more likely to find it actually practiced within the various Pagan Forums and Chat-Rooms that populate this, our worldwide web.  Just pick a thread, wait for someone to make an outrageous claim (it won’t take long), call them on it, and see how quickly you are flayed alive by the crowd.

Perception CAN be reality, but it can just as easily be a lie.  The gods are renowned shape-shifters, the mind is susceptible to wishful thinking, and perception often shifts with a change in perspective.  If we are to accept perception as reality we must make an effort to demonstrate that truth in the face of the reality which other perceive.

And now I’ve used a dirty word – truth.

The concept of truth scares the crap out of certain people because they live in constant fear that they will be oppressed through the tyranny of a shared reality.  If some things are true and others are not, than statements like “believe what you want” and “do what you feel is right” lose their power.

So let us examine what may be a relevant example from my own past, before we move on to current events.

I was engaged once, to a lovely young woman whom I had been seeing exclusively for a year or so.  She was funny and smart and beautiful to me in a way that made my heart sing whenever I looked at her.

Probably, it was all this arterial crooning that distracted me from some very real warning signs that things were not going to work out for us in the long run.  Looking back on it years later, there were several things that made me go, “hmmm,” but the one that comes to mind at this particular moment, was the thing with the Rabbi.

The Thing with the Rabbi.

We were still in the very early stages of planning our nuptials and there were a few very basic questions we needed to get out of the way early on.

Who would conduct the ceremony, was one such question.

I’m a polytheist worshipper of Celtic gods.  My family is primarily composed of Catholics.  And there was her immediate family of lapsed Presbyterians.  So there were several possible directions from which to approach the issue.

“Well, we’re going to need a Rabbi,” she said in a serious tone.

I remember searching her face, looking for the mocking humor that often bubbled just beneath the surface.  “Why would we need a Rabbi?”

“Ummm,” exasperation, “because I’m Jewish!”

Oh gods, it was this again.  I’d actually forgotten.

We never really talked much about religion.  Neither she, nor her parents, attended services, even on holidays.  She did not express an interest in religious topics when they came up in conversation.  For all intents and purposes, she appeared to be agnostic.

Occasionally, however, she’d claim to be Jewish.

She had told me about a family friend, one of her mothers old schoolmates, who was Jewish.  Through years of observation she had picked up the same accent, which she would pull out from time to time, along with a few key words and mannerisms, to demonstrate her Jewishness.

It was like watching Mike Myers doing his old SNL Coffee Talk skit.  She’d suddenly lapse into this outlandish character and have us all rolling in laughter.

Coffee Talk

And at first, I thought there was nothing more to it than that.

But then, every once in a while, she would drop some comment into a conversation, referring either to Holocaust, or to a more general discrimination against “her people”, and it was always very personal to her, and not simply an expression of empathetic feeling toward an often persecuted minority.

It didn’t happen often, and when we first started dating, I just assumed that she was Jewish.  I mean, she got really excited by Christmas while never displaying a menorah, and her diet certainly wasn’t kosher, but what does any of that really prove?

By the time I’d slipped that engagement ring onto her finger, I knew better.  But still, it was such an infrequent dip into a harmless fantasy…,  It seemed like nothing I should be worried about.

“I thought you were raised Presbyterian, isn’t that what your mother said?”

“Oh yeah, but I converted years ago, I told you.”

“Okay, but you have to take classes for that right?” I asked, “Because I am absolutely on board with having a Rabbi involved, but I think one of us is going to have to be, you know, officially Jewish, for that to happen.”

“….” (annoyed glare)

“Is there a particular Rabbi we should be talking to, or a specific Synagogue you had in mind?”

“…” (just staring off into space now)

And there, suddenly, in the back of my mind, I could see this little guy franticly waving a big red flag.  Needless to say, I’d see more of him as time went on.

She perceived herself as Jewish, and she could have been, if she’d done the work necessary to alter reality.

Simple belief wasn’t enough.

Truth got in the way.

A Simple Matter of Black or White.

So if you have kept up with the news at all in the past several days, you must know that I have been leading us, after my own fashion, to the case of Rachel Dolezal.

News sites and social media started working overtime last week, when it was learned that Dolezal, who heads a chapter of the NAACP and who has listed her race as African American on multiple forms and biographies, was born of two caucasian parents.

On the surface, it seems like a simple story: Crazy white woman pretends to be black.

But the truth, on this occasion, is just a bit more complex.

Rachel Dolezal

However white her parents may have been, she was raised with four adopted brothers who were themselves, African-American.  Furthermore, everything that I have read about this woman suggests that she has spent her life subsumed in African-American culture, becoming a community leader, an academic expert, and a voice of advocacy within the black community.

But is that enough?

Does active participation in a community and self identification with a particular culture trump the simple fact of her genetic makeup?  And if not, if the racial signature in her blood is more important than the work she has done to integrate herself into that particular culture, then by what criteria do we determine race?

Prior to the American Civil War, one was legally considered to be of mixed race if a full quarter of his ancestry was non-white.

In the 20’s, the “One-Drop Rule” began to appear in legislation around the American South.

And let us not ignore those voices within the African-American community who have criticized people like President Barak Obama, for not being “black enough” despite a very obvious and well documented African ancestry.

What is race, and does it have any significance in the face of culture?

My own ancestry is largely Celtic (Irish and Welsh), but the content of my blood would mean nothing if I did not strive to find a Celtic identity within myself.  The Celts were a people of many races, linked together by commonalities in language, history and belief, a culture that stretched from Asia Minor to the British Isles, and which survives still today, in places like Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.

I believe that something of that culture survives in me as well.

But wishful thinking isn’t enough.  It takes work and study to really BE something in this world.

We have no control over the content of our blood, but the content of our spirit is a different matter entirely.

Race may be expressed as a skin tone, as a checkbox on a census form, or as a means of oppression, but all these things are meaningless.

It wasn’t a subset of chromosomes that inspired the civil-rights movement, it was a culture, a community, and a spirit that was willing to do the hard work necessary to change reality to meet its own perceptions of a better world.

Is Rachel Dolezal a black woman?

I don’t know.

But if spirit along with hard work, trumps blood, as I believe it must, does it really matter?

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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Philosophy

Leprechaun Elvis

I was finishing up my last couple hours of work this last Friday, already mentally checked out and embarking on a rare weekend off, when one of my fellow employees dropped this particular nugget of wisdom…,

“There are no African Americans in this country, except for those who have come here and earned their citizenship within their lifetime.”

So I let him stand there for a moment, all proud of himself, and then I asked, “so, you are also saying that there are no Mexican Americans, or Chinese Americans, or Irish Americans?”

His answer: “Yeah, if they’ve been here for a hundred years, then no.”

Huh, I guess the next time I visit San Francisco, I’ll swing by Chinatown and let them know.  They are all just Americans, the same as everyone else, and it’s about time they started acting like it.

Right.

I remember being taught about our national heritage in grade school.

We learned how all those varied heritages — African and Middle Eastern, Asian and Slavic, Irish and German — they were merely ingredients for the great “Melting Pot”, the goal of which, as far as I could tell, was to distill away everything that was special and unique about them until all that was left was ‘American Culture’.

Or, as I would argue it, ‘until nothing was left at all’.

And the old “Melting Pot” has been very successful in its work.  So many people in this country seem to have no greater connection to their ancestors than the seemingly arbitrary arrangement of letters that make up their last name.

And yet, for all that, my pontificating young associate is as wrong as he could be.

I spent most of this Saturday among fellow Irish Americans (and Scots and others besides) at the North Texas Irish Festival, held yearly in Dallas’ Fair Park.

Like many other ethnic communities in this nation, the survivors of the Celtic Diaspora have learned that in order to survive in the face of the accursed melting pot, you have got to market yourselves to the masses.

And so we have Leprechaun Elvis, ambassador of all things green and kitschy, and I don’t know what we would do without him.

And he's holding a hunk, a hunk of green-clad pup!

And he’s holding a hunk, a hunk of green-clad pup!

Some may choose to cringe at all the plastic bric-á-brac lining the shelves of a show like this, but to do so is to court disaster.  Interspersed among booth after booth of Guinness T-Shirts, are crafts people fighting to keep alive the arts of weaving, crochet lace making, ceramics, and weapon smithing.  Here and there you will find gathered those dedicated to the preservation of the Irish language, history, and mythology.  And it would be hard to overlook the musicians and dancers who flock to such an event, hoping to grow their audience, and the audience for Celtic music in general, beyond our own limited community.

The North Texas Irish Festival brings you only the best Celt-Inspired memorabilia and deep-fried everything.

The North Texas Irish Festival brings you only the best Celt-Inspired memorabilia and deep-fried everything.

This years theme was "Erin Go Bark" with special attention being paid to the many wonderful dog breeds of Ireland.  As always the North Caledonian Pipes and Drums (right) were on hand to keep things 'regimental'.

This years theme was “Erin Go Bark” with special attention being paid to the many wonderful dog breeds of Ireland. As always the North Caledonian Pipes and Drums (right) were on hand to keep things ‘regimental’.

Dozens of Celtic musical groups were on hand including one of my favorites 'The Town Pants', hailing from far Vancouver, Canada.

Dozens of Celtic musical groups were on hand including one of my favorites ‘The Town Pants’, bringing their own brand of ‘West Coast Celtic’ from far Vancouver, Canada.

And so I raise my glass…, ummm…, my plastic cup, and I salute you, Leprechaun Elvis.

May we meet again under sunny March skies!

No matter how great a time you are having, eventually you are still gonna be like this little guy - one tired pup.  Sláinte!

No matter how great a time you are having, or how awesome the company, eventually you are still gonna be like this little guy – one tired pup. Sláinte!

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Filed under Culture, Ireland, Modern Life, Photography

Private Practice?

What do we want?

It’s a question that I’ve been asking for a long time, though not quite so directly.

Usually, I prefer a more oblique approach, poking around the edges of things, looking for those forgotten connections that so often lead us to the unspoken questions we should be asking ourselves…,

Who am I?

Who are we?

What do we want?

Yet, however much I may enjoy the scenic route, sometimes it’s liberating to just come right out and ask the damned questions and see where the answers take us.

“We are a religious movement that embraces plurality, and most often, polytheism, so we tend to reject easy binary dualisms, but there does seem to be an often unasked question hanging over many of our debates lately: what do we collectively want? Do we want to be part of the West’s religious institutional structure with churches, libraries, and schools, or do we want to be unpredictable, wild, and outside of traditional society’s norms?”

—Jason Pitzl-Waters • The Wild Hunt • January 11, 2014

In his piece, (which I highly recommend reading), Jason frames the question as a distinction between western culture and counter-culture.  On one side we are shown the trappings of acceptance within the modern religious community (churches, schools, legal protection) and on the other side is set the free-spirited, build-it-yourself nature that embodies much of the modern Pagan spiritual movement.

It is an interesting, if not entirely fair, way to present the argument.

Expressed within this framework, it presupposes that the Pagan movement is a counter-culture phenomena, and not, as I have always seen it, a means of self-correction within a society gone wrong.  When we refer to ourselves in this context, as “outside the acceptable norms”, do we not lend support to those who wish nothing more than to cast us in the roll of misfits and troublemakers.

And frankly, I don’t understand how Paganism can be a “counter-culture movement” when the whole laundry list of ‘establishment’ credentials (schools, libraries, legal protections) that we are presented with, were invented by polytheists, within pagan societies.

Big Scary Institution

It would do us well to remember that, just a couple thousand years ago, it was the Christians who were the “hairy hippies”, hanging on at the fringes of society.

I don’t believe we become “sell-outs” by wanting the things that are ours by right.

But do ‘we’ want them?

And who is ‘we’?

While reading through the reader comments at the end of Jason’s post, I counted a number of different perspectives.

There were, happily, those who, like myself, seem to hunger for the far-off days to come, when the polytheistic traditions rise out of the shadows to find equal standing with the monotheistic faiths.  We’d like to see temples and clergy and schools dedicated to the gods, and we don’t fear that having these things will rob us of the freedom to worship as individuals in whatever manner we are called to do so.

Others were fixated on the all too practical questions of how to institutionalize without losing the spontaneity of the local group-dynamic or the dreams of the mad-mystics.

Some rankled, as I do, at the application of the “counter-cultural” label.  While others seem unsure if the term has any real meaning in this day and age.

It was an interesting discussion, to be sure, and I wished I had found it earlier, while it was still ongoing.

There was one perspective however that was mostly absent.

It’s all too easy to overlook the (I fear) silent majority who just want to be left alone.

I’ve met so many people over the years for whom Paganism (in whatever form) is a refuge from a hurtful and unsympathetic religious orthodoxy.  These folks want nothing to do with temples or clergy, which, in their experience come hand-in-hand with dogma, and orthodoxy and painful memories.

I have deep sympathy for these folks.  Really I do.

I count a number of them among my friends.

And yet…,

I want more.

I want more for my gods.  I wan’t more for us.

I want to see a culture where we can celebrate our religious diversity openly, without fear or condemnation.

As important as I think it is to provide a healing space for the spiritually abused, I firmly believe that if we were more visible, more open, more ‘institutional’, the people who need us could find us sooner, perhaps even before the damage was done.

I imagine what would happen if all the energy we devote to hiding from the dominant culture (and I think it takes far more energy than most would realize) was directed instead toward mending our society and renewing the ecological balance before our hopes for survival are taken completely out of our hands.

Jason was not wrong when he said that we need to decide “collectively” what it is we want.  If the Pagan community can set aside its differences and work toward real growth, we can accomplish great things together.

Or, we can just keep doing what we’ve been doing: our own thing.  We can keep our private practice, eschewing organization, and institution, and the compromise that must always occur when people start to work together.  We live and we die and we pass nothing on to those who come after  – except of course the same broken culture we were so determined to hide ourselves away from.

I don’t know about you, but I think I’m done with the “solitary” thing.

Private practice may provide a false sense of security, but it gives nothing back.

It is time to start building things.

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Beyond “the Pail”

I must beg the indulgence the grammarians and the history buffs among my readers.  I know very well that the proper term is “Beyond the Pale”.

A “pail” is a metal bucket.  “The Pale” is something else entirely.

The roots of the term go back at least as far as the 14th Century.  In those times a “pale” was what we would think of now as a “fence post” or even a “picket”.  Essentially, a pale was a white stake, driven into the ground to form a border.  Over time, that definition grew and “pale” went from meaning a single post, to an entire fence, and then finally it came to encompass the area contained within that fence.

Ireland Beyond The PaleSpecifically, “Beyond the Pale” refers to that area outside of the city of Dublin, during the English occupation.  The area “Within the Pale” was considered to be cultured and respectable.  English society dominated, and the people behaved appropriately, following the rules of polite society like good little citizens.

In other words: everyone did what they were told.

Beyond the Pale and outside the range of the Crown’s ready authority, things were not always quite so ordered.  Folks might act against the agreed upon societal norms.  People from Beyond the Pale were seen as little more than simple bumpkins, too uneducated to understand the many personal benefits of upright, civil society.

So why then, did I entitle this piece, “Beyond the Pail”?

Because, after a sting of miserably hot days, I woke up this Sunday morning to a beautiful light rain and temperatures that were flirting with the upper 60’s F.  Having the day off from work, I felt compelled to skip my normal, hurried breakfast, and embarked instead, on a pleasant stroll through my neighborhood.

A refreshing breeze, a glowering sky, and the feel of cool raindrops on my brow, have been known to inspire strange and sometimes rebellious thoughts in my mind.

On this morning, as I wandered through the gentle patter of an unexpected summer shower, the thought that came to me was this…,

———

Imagine that as a child, you were given a bucket.  At first, the bucket was empty and you carried it around with you at ease, hardly remembering that you had it at all.  Over time, however, you started to add to it.  Your tiny hands grasp at a favorite new toy and a single drop of water plinks down against the dry metal bottom of the pail.  Your new clothes, your games, your books, your friends…,

Plink.

Plink.

Plonk.

Splash!

Now we have a layer of water at the bottom.  We can hear it sloshing around when we move, and our elders warn us, ever so gently, to be careful.  We wouldn’t want any spill over the sides.  The water is precious and should never go to waste!

And so we hold our buckets a little more tightly, and we go on about out lives.

We grow up.  We become serious.  We learn the rules.

Along the way we will go to school, get a job, buy some stuff, land a better job, buy yet more stuff, and eventually find a mate, because that is what we are supposed to do.

And still —trickle-trickle-trickle— we are always adding to that bucket.

Now it has become heavy, the strain of it, a constant burden.  The handle bites deeply into the flesh of our hands and our arms begin to ache with the weight of it.  Yet, we couldn’t think of setting it down, even for a moment.  We’ve gathered too much to risk spilling any of it now!  Desperate, we clutch the bucket to ourselves, holding it against our chests with our arms wrapped around its cold, tin shell.

Eventually, the bucket is filled nearly to the brim and we must take every step with great care.  We nearly stumble and grit our teeth in frustration as precious water sloshes over the rim.  The uncomfortable damp of loss spreads downward through our clothes, mixing with the sweat of our labor.

We glance upward for a moment, to see if the others have noticed our slip.

Until now, most of our attention has been focused downward, upon our own wavering reflection and the ever decreasing distance between the waters edge and the curled metal lip which retains it.

And now?  Looking up, beyond the pail, we see everyone else, our neighbors, our friends and family, all of them struggling with their own buckets, desperate to not lose a single drop of what belongs to them.

———

We live in an age where the greatest focus is on the self.

We work as many hours as possible so that we can afford our creature comforts, which mostly sit unused while we work to afford still more.  When we have finished our eating and our buying and find that we have money left over we deem it “disposable income” and spend it on the things that we don’t really need, but want anyway.

Old Tin BucketWe fill our buckets while others go thirsty, while the world burns down around us, and we excuse our own greed by saying that “those people” should have worked harder.  We could point them out, easily enough, the lazy ones, and the unlucky, who want little more than to take what is ours.

No, that would be impolite.

Also, these buckets are quite heavy and we need both hands to carry them.

Or maybe we could do something different, something unexpected.

Perhaps, just for a change, we could put our buckets down and rest our weary backs for a moment.  It might actually do us some good to get away from our own reflections for a while, to actually look at the people and the world around us.

Would it hurt to think a little less about what we “want” as opposed to what others “need”?

Does anyone have a dipper for these buckets?
Did they hand those out as well and we just forgot about them?

What if we shared what we have collected with our brothers and sisters and what if they shared with us; would we even need the damn buckets anymore?

Can you imagine, just for a moment, what would happen if we just heaved all of it into the air (the water – not the buckets), just gave it all back and let it rain down, watering the Earth around us?  I wonder what miracles we could grow?

———

These are the thoughts I entertain, while walking in the rain on a cool summer morning.

I only wish I hadn’t been alone out there.

The streets I walked were deserted.

I suppose my neighbors were taking an easy morning in the comfort of their homes, or attending their various Sunday morning services.

I can’t help but think that we might all be better off if more of them had been out on the street, sharing the simple joy of a rainy morning and the view of the world outside the rim of their buckets and beyond the pale.

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Filed under Culture, Ireland, Modern Life, Philosophy, Spiritual Journey