Tag Archives: Language

Sticks and Stones – revisited

They say that the only sure things in this world are death and taxes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently discovered that I could not file my return for last year.

Having gone through the yearly ritual of gathering the sacred paperwork and entering the numbers in their allotted places, I pressed the key that would send my documents winging their electronic way through the aether, when suddenly I was confounded by an error message.  Repeated attempts, garnered the same result, and it quickly became clear that the I would not be filing my taxes this day, because some enterprising citizen had already filed a return in my name.

Oh, happy day!

My regular readers may remember that I’d experienced some Identity Theft last year, when I discovered that someone had taken out a loan in my name.  In the months that have passed since, I’ve done everything that one is advised to do in these situations.  My accounts have been flagged by all the proper credit agencies.  A monthly analysis is performed, looking for any fraudulent activity or accounts.

Until now, it seemed like the business with the loan might turn out to be an isolated incident.

And now I’m filling out forms in the old-fashioned way and sending them off to Ye’ Old Internal Revenue Service, along with photocopies of those precious documents which prove that I am, who I say I am.  All this, in the hope that I’ll see my tax refund…, someday.

Dealing with this (again) has been most taxing (pun, most explicitly intended), and has been the preoccupation of my thoughts, these last few days.  And so, instead of writing a new blog this week, I have decided instead to simply repost the relevant portions of a previous post on this topic.

My apologies.

****

The Changeling

The Changeling

You wake to the crying of the babe.

The fire in the hearth, burning low now, casts familiar shadows about the room as you ease from your bed to check on the child.

A quick peek into the crib and all is well, and all is well.

The restless babe is quiet again, and the room seems safe to your sleep-fogged eyes.

You ease quietly back into bed and are asleep again before head meets pillow.

And all is quiet…,

…until the things in the rafters began to whisper and move.

…until winged shadows flutter from the dark corners like leaves on a breeze.

..until the murmur of coaxing, inhuman voices, drifts up from between the floorboards.

In the dim light of fading embers, long pale fingers reach out,

…and clutch,

…and are gone.

And if you know anything of faerie-lore, you know how this tale ends.

What the parents find in the cradle come morning, while it may look like their infant, is something altogether different.  The human child is gone, and will live the remainder of its days among the hidden folk.  Left in its place is a changeling, one of their own kind, grown old and feeble after a life of centuries beyond count, and magically disguised to resemble the vanished infant.

The legends speak of many different ways in which the duped parents might eventually reveal the truth and rid themselves of the cunning gremlin that had invaded their home.  But the missing child was almost always beyond recovery.

The only sure defense against the faeries, it was said, was to have the newborn baptized before they could come to claim it.  Now, it is important to remember that most of these traditions pre-date the arrival of Christianity, and this particular part of the legend, like most intersections of the newer faith and older custom, is a bit misleading.

It is not the act of baptism itself that protects a child from faerie abduction, although it may seem to.  Rather it is the act of granting the child a name, that does the trick.

Our ancestors understood that the world around them was shaped by language.  A child, unnamed, undefined as it were, did not yet fully occupy a place in our world, and was vulnerable.

True Names

For my more skeptical acquaintances, the belief that to know the ‘true’ name of a thing is to have absolute power over that thing, is pure foolishness and superstition.  And yet here we are, living in a world where that most ancient axiom of magic is proven, again and again, every single day.

A numerologist would tell us that our lives are guided by a collection of numbers.  An economist would say the same thing.  The two might argue about where the numbers come from, but the fundamental truth of the statement is unchanged.

The naming and numbering of things is the very foundation of our relationship to the world around us.  Everything that exists, every object, every idea, has a name of its own.  To know the name is to know the thing, and the better you know a thing, the more power you have over it.  What we think of as science, is simply a codified, ritualized system for the naming of things, and it has been around since our earliest progenitors began stacking one rock atop another.

In the old stories, to know the true name of a living being, no matter how great his power, was to have power over him.  The ancient Hebrews guarded the name of their god, because to speak it was to invoke his power, and to write it down was more dangerous still.  Likewise, the Druids passed their knowledge verbally, from one generation to the next, taking care to never write it down, lest the power to transform reality should fall into hands less responsible and learned, than their own.

The naming of things, the ability to understand and manipulate them as expressions and concepts that exist beyond mere physicality, is the greatest power we have as a species.  As smallest child learns that ancient truth while reading Rumplestilskin, so the most studied theologian must glean the same truth, hidden within his holy scriptures.

Et verbum caro factum est — And the word was made flesh.

We are the words, and the flesh, and the power.

And until we accept that truth, we are vulnerable!

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names, they can undo us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Magic, Modern Life, Mythology, Religion, Traditions

Sticks and Stones

The Changeling

The Changeling

You wake to the crying of the babe.

The fire in the hearth, burning low now, casts familiar shadows about the room as you ease from your bed to check on the child.

A quick peek into the crib and all is well, and all is well.

The restless babe is quiet again, and the room seems safe to your sleep-fogged eyes.

You ease quietly back into bed and are asleep again before head meets pillow.

And all is quiet…,

…until the things in the rafters began to whisper and move.

…until winged shadows flutter from the dark corners like leaves on a breeze.

..until the murmur of coaxing, inhuman voices, drifts up from between the floorboards.

In the dim light of fading embers, long pale fingers reach out,

…and clutch,

…and are gone.

And if you know anything of faerie-lore, you know how this tale ends.

What the parents find in the cradle come morning, while it may look like their infant, is something altogether different.  The human child is gone, and will live the remainder of its days among the hidden folk.  Left in its place is a changeling, one of their own kind, grown old and feeble after a life of centuries beyond count, and magically disguised to resemble the vanished infant.

The legends speak of many different ways in which the duped parents might eventually reveal the truth and rid themselves of the cunning gremlin that had invaded their home.  But the missing child was almost always beyond recovery.

The only sure defense against the faeries, it was said, was to have the newborn baptized before they could come to claim it.  Now, it is important to remember that most of these traditions pre-date the arrival of Christianity, and this particular part of the legend, like most intersections of the newer faith and older custom, is a bit misleading.

It is not the act of baptism itself that protects a child from faerie abduction, although it may seem to.  Rather it is the act of granting the child a name, that does the trick.

Our ancestors understood that the world around them was shaped by language.  A child, unnamed, undefined as it were, did not yet fully occupy a place in our world, and was vulnerable.

Identity Crisis

A few days ago I received a phone call from a collection agency looking to collect on a debt, made in my name, of which I hadn’t the slightest notion.  In very short order, I found myself speaking with an agent of the Federal Trade Commission, a Credit Bureau representative, and a detective from my local police department.  Fraud alerts were issued and nefarious activities are being investigated.

Although my credit reports, as of now, appear unblemished, the full extent of the damage to my name, if any, remains unclear.

And now that the initial rush of activity is over, I find it is the nature of this attack against me, that is both unsettling and deeply familiar.  There are strangers out there, whom we may neither see nor touch, reaching into our lives and stealing from us the very thing that defines our place and standing within society.

We chatter about the particulars of passwords and social security numbers, because, in this impersonal society which we have built for ourselves, we are defined by the numbers which flow around us.  Identity, in the modern world, has more to do with strings of numbers in some unseen database, than it does with the flesh, blood and bone that we see when we look in the mirror.

But is that really a truth only of this modern age, or has it always been so.

True Names

For my more skeptical acquaintances, the belief that to know the ‘true’ name of a thing is to have absolute power over that thing, is pure foolishness and superstition.  And yet here we are, living in a world where that most ancient axiom of magic is proven, again and again, every single day.

A numerologist would tell us that our lives are guided by a collection of numbers.  An economist would say the same thing.  The two might argue about where the numbers come from, but the fundamental truth of the statement is unchanged.

The naming and numbering of things is the very foundation of our relationship to the world around us.  Everything that exists, every object, every idea, has a name of its own.  To know the name is to know the thing, and the better you know a thing, the more power you have over it.  What we think of as science, is simply a codified, ritualized system for the naming of things, and it has been around since our earliest progenitors began stacking one rock atop another.

In the old stories, to know the true name of a living being, no matter how great his power, was to have power over him.  The ancient Hebrews guarded the name of their god, because to speak it was to invoke his power, and to write it down was more dangerous still.  Likewise, the Druids passed their knowledge verbally, from one generation to the next, taking care to never write it down, lest the power to transform reality should fall into hands less responsible and learned, than their own.

The of naming things, the ability to understand and manipulate them as expressions and concepts that exist beyond mere physicality, is the greatest power we have as a species.  As smallest child learns that ancient truth while reading Rumplestilskin, so the most studied theologian must glean the same truth, hidden within his holy scriptures.

Et verbum caro factum est — And the word was made flesh.

We are the words, and the flesh, and the power.

And until we accept that truth, we are vulnerable!

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names, they can undo you.

3 Comments

Filed under Magic, Modern Life, Mythology, Philosophy, Traditions

A Question of Resolution

What does a promise mean?

When we make a pledge to undertake some action, whether that pledge is made to ourselves or to another, do we not feel bound by the words we speak?  Or has our increasingly casual relationship with language diminished the hold which our own words have over us?  Words are, as they have always been, little puzzles of meaning, intent and context, which we seem ever more inclined to ignore as we make our merry way through life.

Traditionally, we have invested certain words with greater power or importance.  Some few take on special meaning under certain circumstances or at a particular time of the year.

Resolutions

Resolution: as we tick away the final hours of December, this word seems to take on a special prominence.  The expectation, as we all know, is that we will ‘resolve’ to make some change in our habits in the coming year.  The dawning of a new year would seem a natural time in the turning of the great wheel to introduce some change into our lives and when we make these year-end promises, we are taking part in a tradition that stretches back into the very beginnings of human history.  What we today think of as the New Year’s Resolution, was already ages old when the Norse clansmen swore great oaths to their gods and ancestors in the deepening hours of Yule.  The tradition may have begun, as written accounts would suggest, in ancient Babylon, but I rather suspect it predates the written word.

This yearly ritual links us to the traditions and beliefs of our most distant ancestors, and yet, when I hear people speak of their New Year’s Resolutions, they often seem to be such trivial things, hardly worth attaching to such a nobel sounding word.  In the coming year, we will strive to eat better or exercise more.  Maybe we will try to be more consistent about recycling or make an effort to call our distant relations more often.

More often than not, there is the clear expectation that we will break our resolutions at some point in the coming year.  We assume that we will fail in our promise, anticipating the moment when we can abandon these self imposed constraints for yet another year and return to business as normal.

Is it possible that people simply don’t understand the word?  Resolution is a big word after all, and in a culture that trivializes language, its many meanings may have become lost or confused.

While in the context of the New Year, we may resolve to move forward with some course of action, the best way to do that may be to take a good look at the year now past.  Let us, for a moment then, consider not the promises to be made but rather the culmination of the year’s events.

Consider the last three hundred and sixty five days to have been a puzzle or a test.  How did you resolve it?

A resolution is more than a vow to be made and broken, it is the answer to a question asked.  In this case, that question is 2012.  What was the result of this year?  How did it affect you, your family and friends, or even the world as a whole?

How can we hope to know what change we should introduce into our lives if we are not considering the year now past?

Is there a single quantifiable answer to that question?  I think, not.

The outcome of the past year is an aggregate of a million smaller questions and answers which bring us to yet another of the interrelated meanings for the word Resolution.

As you read this blog you are looking at a screen on which millions of tiny dots of varying color and brightness come together to resolve the words and pictures you see.  When we speak of Resolution from this frame of reference we are discussing the number of dots (or pixels to be more precise) which come together to form the images you see.  The higher the resolution, the sharper the image and the more clearly you can see and understand what it is you are looking at.

In the same way, looking back at the last year is not simply a matter of examining a singular conclusion to the events of that year because that result is derived from the amalgam of every decision we made during that span.  The more aware of ourselves we are, the more awake to the choices we have made and the consequences following therefrom, the higher the resolution of our perception and the better equipped we are to make necessary changes going forward.

Dictum meum pactum

My word is my bond.

Once upon a time, the words we spoke were held as a reflection of the person speaking them.  To knowingly break a promise would reveal you as faithless and untrustworthy.

To whom do we make New Year’s Resolutions in this day and age?  We do not typically make them to one another.  So to whom then?  Our gods?  Our selves?

And if we cannot keep a promise we made to our own selves how can we ever feel we are deserving of the trust of another?  Or is that not something we concern ourselves with any longer?

If you choose to make a New Year’s Resolution this year, make it with awareness of the full meaning and importance of the word.  Look not just forward but back and with an eye to the little decisions that brought us to where we are.

Embracing that kind of self-awareness may be resolution enough.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Holidays, Modern Life, Philosophy

Belief

I have written before about both the power of words and the way their meanings can be distorted through misuse over long periods of time.

“Mythology” is such a word.  “Pagan” is another.

These are words which have been twisted by the dominant culture to a point where their popular usage is typically in a negative connotation.  For example: calling something a “myth” is almost universally understood to indicate that it is a falsehood rather than the more proper understanding that it represents a greater cultural perception of truth.

There are many words like these and others that seem to be joining their ranks.

One of these unfortunate additions is “Belief”.

The word has taken on a plaintive air, as if to use it, automatically assumes that you know you are alone in your convictions.

“I believe in this company…,” as the stock prices tumble.
“I believe in my client…,” who is under perjury allegations.
“I believe in the gods…,” when you can’t show any hard evidence of their existence.

“Belief” has become a weak word, to be pounced upon and eaten by the unbeliever.  A belief is seen as little more than opinion and worth nothing at all if not backed up with “facts” (a word with it’s own set of problems).

An excellent book for any polytheist interested in countering the arguments of both monotheists and atheists.

And so…,

A polytheist will have his beliefs called into question by a Christian who will rest her arguments on the “facts” presented in the Bible.  That same Christian may have her facts challenged by an Atheist who will assert that the scientific method rules out the possibility of many of the historical events described in the Bible.  Meanwhile, the polytheist will rightfully point out to the Atheist, that when properly used, the scientific method keeps an open mind to those things which it hasn’t the ability to measure.

An Atheist may “believe” that the scientific method rules out the existence of things which are untestable, but it does nothing of the sort.  The attempt to make it do so is a gross misuse of a perfectly good philosophical principal.

Belief

By now you may be wondering what got me to thinking about this poor maligned word?

I’d been knocking around how to approach this topic for a few weeks when Brendan Myers’ guest post appeared over on the Wild Hunt.  In his post, Dr. Myers details his thoughts on the growing popularity of “Humanist Paganism” within the greater Pagan community.  Unfortunately, at several points in his post, the language Dr. Myers uses to describe the differences between Humanistic Paganism and the more traditional Theistic forms comes across as rather derisive toward the latter.

What’s more, at one point in the article he seems to draw an imaginary line between Humanist and Theistic Pagans with the following description of the Humanist sort:

“…but will approach the matter with a critical, scientific eye. And speaking of science, they tend to be interested in astronomy, quantum theory, evolutionary biology, and the like, and will take inspiration from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and from Bill Nye right alongside Starhawk or Crowley. Those whom I have met tended to be in their 30′s or older, educated, earning a lower-middle class income …. (As an aside, a lot of them are cosplayers too!) Social, political, and moral causes tended to be more important to them than supernatural ones…,”

“Bloody hell,” I thought, “that’s me right down to the cosplay!”  I must admit that, on it’s first reading, the article felt very much like an attack.  A certain cognitive dissonance comes into play when I see a laundry list of my own interests paraded out as evidence that another group is better than me because they don’t believe in the gods and I do.

Frankly I prefer the casual charm of my childhood hero Carl Sagan (left) over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s carefully crafted “cool” (right).

As the proper response to this perceived slight fomented in my head, I became involved in a discussion group among some friends on Facebook discussing the following quote from Sam Harris:

“The belief that certain books were written by God—who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself—leaves us powerless to address the most potent force of human conflict—past and present. How is it that the absurdity of this idea does not daily bring us to our knees? It is safe to say that few of us would have thought people could believe such a thing, if they did not actually believe it.”

Now, while I’m obviously not a big fan of the monotheistic varieties of religion which Dr. Harris is attacking here, I tend to believe that old fashioned grasping over land and resources has always represented the most potent force of human conflict.  Religious motivations usually provide little more than a convenient excuse for social or political violence that would have happened anyway.

Now, I often enjoy debates on topics of this nature because the participants predictably take positions on either end of the Atheist/Monotheist axis.  By presenting a polytheistic perspective I can usually broaden the discussion beyond the tired old “either/or” arguments.  Maybe, just maybe someone will hear something new and interesting.

This is assuming, of course, that the other participants actually want to hear something other than their own voices.

On this particular occasion, a couple of the Atheists involved started throwing around their imagined intellectual weight.  What started as a respectful debate ended up as an exercise in philosophical asshattery and not-so carefully couched insults.  Tempers flared (mine foremost among them) and harsh language was exchanged.  I’m not proud of my behavior, but I’ve got a short temper and little tolerance for disrespect.

To be fair, Dr. Myers has since apologized for the unintended perceptions many of his readers were left with due to the indelicate way in which he presented his arguments and I have mended fences with most of those involved in the Facebook fracas.

But still, the underlying reason for the tension is there.  I typically get along very well with Atheists, but sometimes, they can be every bit as difficult to talk with as the most hard-core evangelical Christian.  I appreciate the dedication to reason, ethics and the provable which form the core of Humanist thought.  I just think it is an unnecessarily limited philosophy.  Particularly when it so emphatically ignores personal experience.

I sometimes (perhaps unfairly) suspect that the most vehement and insulting Atheists are more upset that they cannot “see the sailboat” than they are any perceived crimes committed in the name of religion.

Belief

It gets a bad rap but it’s actually a very strong word.

I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun.

I believe that the universe began with a Big Bang and that life as we know it evolved in fits and starts over billions of years.

I believe in the gods who walk among us, in the spirits of the land and the souls of our ancestors.

These things neither contradict each other nor do they require my belief in order to be true.  They do not cease to exist if I choose not to measure them or if I am not wise enough the find the stick I could measure them against.  I believe in all these things because I see the evidence for them in my daily life even if others do not.  It would be irrational for me to believe otherwise.

1 Comment

Filed under Heroes, Modern Life, Religion, Spiritual Journey

Immersed in Irish

Dia daoibh a chairde!

A question that is sometimes asked of those of us who follow a pagan religious path is: “Do you believe in magic?”  Usually, this question is rooted in popular fictionalized depictions of paganism and maybe a smattering of good ol’ biblical “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” hoopla.  It is also a question that belies an all too typical lack of understanding where the word “magic” is involved.  There are many kinds of magic in the world and one of the most common (and powerful) is language.

The power of language, the thing that makes it magical, is it’s ability to shape a shared consciousness and identity.  For example, when we speak of the Celts we are not discussing a single race or tribe.  The Celts were a collection of peoples spread across Europe (from the British Isles in the west to the highlands of Asia Minor in the east) linked together by a shared linguistic heritage.  This heritage is survived today within the Six Celtic Nations (the six regions where Celtic languages are still spoken).  These nations are Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales and Brittany.

Unfortunately, the power of language to unite can also be used to dominate and enforce the will of one culture over that of another.  Certainly the English understood this power, as demonstrated by their efforts to eradicate the Irish language during their occupation of the island.  The language we speak guides the way in which we think and shapes the culture in which we operate.  If you kill the language, you eliminate the culture and the desire within it’s membership to resist occupation from outside forces.

This same sort of thinking exists today in the political efforts to single out those immigrants (legal and otherwise) within the U.S. who do not speak English.  Treat Spanish speakers like second-class citizens and they will be more likely to raise their children to speak English.  English speaking children will be less likely to see themselves as different than their fellow citizens and will be more likely to toe-the-line (whatever that line may turn out to be).  These sorts of efforts are usually packaged as “improving the economic prospects of the children” but what it really comes down to is control by a single mono-culture.

In Ireland, this strategy almost worked.  Had the Republic of Ireland not gained it’s independence in 1922 it is hard to say if there would even be an Irish language surviving today.  As it is, despite being a required course of study in Irish schools, only a tiny fraction of the Irish population speak the language on a daily basis.  Many parents still believe the lie that Irish is the language of the impoverished, working-class poor and imprint in their children a desire to learn “better” languages, like English or German.

Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge go mall.

As a Celtic Reconstructionist, my goal is not simply to foster a return to the gods and traditions of our ancestors but to preserve and grow the living Celtic culture that exists today.  We do this by contributing with time or money to cultural causes and organizations, and where possible by learning and promoting the various Celtic arts, crafts, music, dance and most importantly language.

For the past several years I have been making efforts to learn to speak (and read) Irish.  It has been hard going, made even more difficult by the absence of Irish speakers in my own area.  Computer programs, iPhone apps and audiobooks are all good tools but still my progress has been very slow.  I falter on all but the most basic phrases.

This weekend I was fortunate to attend a Two-Day Irish Immersion Event held by the DFW Gaelic League at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.  There I found myself surrounded by new friends both young and old, men and women from various backgrounds and walks of life who all had one thing in common – a desire to learn the language of their ancestors.  As I listened to the ebb and flow of conversation among the more experienced speakers I thought I would feel my own efforts diminished.  Instead, with their friendly encouragement, I only grew more determined to increase my proficiency.  By the end of the event several of us were discussing the possibility of starting an ongoing class in the Fort Worth area.  Celtic culture will grow anew even in places as far removed from it’s homeland as Texas.

So yes, I do believe in magic.  Magic is, at it’s heart, the art of effecting change through the power of will.  Language shapes the way we see the world around us, it guides the changes we seek to make and provides the community through which those changes may occur.

Slán go fóill!

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Magic