Childfree and Pagan

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So, yesterday I watched a documentary on the BBC about people choosing to be sterilised so as not to have children. The programme itself (available on iPlayer for those in the UK) was pretty awful. The people chosen, while all awesome and very much my sort of people, were to the mainstream viewer’s eye…well…weirdos. Nerds, aspies, people with mental health issues, non-binary folk etc. Again, they’re all brilliant people and brave for going on telly, but they were clearly chosen to fit a particular narrative about what childfree people are like.

The programme also interviewed a “bioethicist” (actually a theologian, not a medical doctor…yeah, let that sink in) who basically said that having children is what makes us human, sterilisation is mutilation, and “allowing” people to make that choice is “treating these people as if they were irredeemable”. So…thanks for that.

This got me thinking about the emphasis on childbirth in Paganism, as well as in the wider “life script” offered to us by society. In certain forms of Paganism I have experienced, there is a huge focus on “the God” and “the Goddess” coming together to create life. The Wiccan Great Rite reflects this idea (in either its literal sexual form or its symbolic athame & chalice metaphors), as does some forms of Druidry.

The idea of “male and female polarity” is part of this as well, suggesting that “male” and “female” are universal energies, that embody certain qualities (often seen in “traditional” hunter-gatherer terms) that are innate to one gender or another and that they need the “opposite” to be complete. Srsly, I’ve heard Pagans say that a man needs a woman and a woman needs a man to complete them…yeah.

This also often leads into a very heteronormative idea of sex and sexuality, where, despite Pagans talking a good game about sex-positivity, can boil down to basic biology of male seed + female womb. The elevation of straight, reproductive, penetrative sex as the Most Sacred Mystery of course necessarily involves the unspoken assumption that other forms of sex and sexuality are lesser. You don’t have to hold a “God Hates Fags” sign to perpetuate homophobia, even unconsciously.

And then there’s the perpetually-pregnant statues of the Mother Goddess, and the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetypes, and Ceridwen and Taliesin, and so on and so on.

All of which serves to make me, a childfree, sexually-fluid, not particularly “masculine” man happily married to an equally childfree, sexually-fluid, not particularly “feminine” woman, feel pretty alienated. I would love to know how it makes gay and trans* Pagans feel (I genuinely would love to know, if you are one please leave a comment!).

Of course, we now know that gender is a spectrum and that the roles and qualities attributed to “men” and “women” are largely social constructs. Women can be warriors and men can be homemakers. Shocking, right? It’s almost like it’s the 21st century or something…*snark*

One of the cool things about ADF Druidry, where I began my Druid training, is that they don’t do any of that. They deliberately don’t do Wiccan-style “God and Goddess” gender polarity stuff, and they are pretty explicit in their openness to, and support of, the LGBT community. And while they do have a virtue called “Fertility” they go to some pains to point out that they don’t mean it as literal reproduction (think a fertile field or mind instead).

But it seems all too common for Paganism in its more generic forms to fall back on unquestioned 1950s concepts of gender and sexuality, which may have been truly revolutionary compared to the conservative Christianity of the time, but are now woefully out of touch with the wonderful diversity blooming in our modern, connected world.

What am I getting at with all of this? I don’t know, mostly it’s just a rant about something I find deeply irritating and unsettling. But also, I would like to look to a vision of Paganism that, yes, still holds childbearing and mothers as sacred, but also encompasses the sacredness of LGBT people, childfree people, non-binary people, asexual people, people who cannot have children because of biology rather than choice, and everyone in between.

For me, it is Nature which is most sacred. And Nature shows us infinite variety and diversity. Not only has homosexuality been observed in literally hundreds of species, there are eusocial insects and naked mole rats, where whole colonies are sterile apart from the queen and a few chosen suitors, there are fish which change gender depending on water temperature, there are trees which mate as male and female, and trees which are both and mate with themselves. There are single celled organisms that reproduce by dividing, aphids who make clones, galaxies born from the black holes of other long-dead galaxies.

There is, as in the Vulcan creed (Trek nerd alert!) Kol-Ut-Shan: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

And that is sacred. We are sacred. Our bodies and our choices are sacred. And above all, Love is sacred.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law. Love under will”. -Crowley

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Fire

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“Let us pray with a Good Fire” – From the Rig Veda

The final element in the classical four-element schema is fire. Unlike earth, water and air, fire is of a different kind; it is a reaction, a creation from a source of fuel, a source of ignition, and a source of oxygen. Thus, unlike the others, you can create it at will.

Fire has always been part of many world religions, and the concept of lighting a candle as a prayer is seen across Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, various forms of Paganism and beyond. Perhaps this is because fire is a natural symbol for the “spiritual”, that which is beyond our grasp, ever changing and fleeting.

“She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes” – Pagan chant

It seems likely that fire was first discovered by early hominids in nature, as the result of a lightning strike or forest fire, but once humans learned how to make fire, to tame it and use it for cooking and heating, it was a great leap forward for civilisation and may even, as primatologist Richard Wrangham suggests in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, have led to the evolution of our large brains.

Certainly fire was seen as sacred by early Pagans, who had gods and goddesses of the hearth, the flame, the forge and the fire of the sun. Its ability to change and transform, to cook food, to burn wood, to melt metal to forge into new forms, was no doubt seen as a magical, even divine, gift (as in the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to give to humans).

Even today in secular society, we see elements of fire-worship remaining in traditions such as lighting candles on a birthday cake (to be blown out with a wish), putting lights (originally candles) on Christmas trees and, in the UK, lighting huge bonfires on 5 November.Wherever people gather, we tend to do so around fire, whether it’s a romantic candle lit dinner, a comforting hearth in a country pub, or toasting marshmallows around a campfire.

In ADF Druidry, a tradition I have worked with, fire is seen as really the one key essential for a Druid rite, and forms part of the “Triple Hallows” of fire, well and tree. Michael J. Dangler, an ADF priest, has an ongoing project called “The Flame of Hope”, where he and other ADF members are lighting one candle a day every day for the next four years, to shine a light of hope throughout the turmoil of the world. You can follow along on Facebook at Tending the Flame of Hope.

The Celtic triple element system does not include fire, focusing instead on land, sea and sky, but, as Graeme Talboys writes in The Druid Way Made Easy, “Fire is also present, but not regarded as separate. Rather, it is the spirit that inspires the rest of the world”.

May the flame of hope illumine our hearts in the darkest times.

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Image from Michael J. Dangler (Chronarchy) on Tumblr.