Paying for Paganism

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Sometimes you hear, in the Pagan community, the assertion that you should never have to pay for Pagan teachings. While a lovely idea, in practice this is nonsense. People’s work, time and effort should be fairly recompensed, as should the costs of any materials, location booking, printed handouts etc that are part of a standard teaching session.

On the other hand, I have recently seen some discussions on Pagan online spaces that seem to suggest that paying for Paganism automatically makes you a better Pagan. This is also nonsense.

While many Pagan groups keep their fees for members as low as practically possible, there will always be some who cannot afford to pay. The attitudes that paying membership fees to some organisation or other means you are more committed to your Paganism than someone who cannot do so is not only clearly wrong, it is discriminatory and privileged. If you earn a comfortable wage then the cost of a Pagan membership might seem trifling to you, but for someone deciding between that cost and feeding their family, it can be a fortune.

When someone comments that the cost of membership fees is, for instance, “less than a cup of coffee a week”, there is an assumption that everyone can afford a cup of expensive store-bought coffee a week. I know when I was out of work I couldn’t.

It reminds me very uncomfortably of comments recently from some US Republicans that people could afford healthcare if they just didn’t buy an iPhone. It suggests that poor people are just irresponsible with their money, and if they really wanted to, they could budget enough.

The other assumption is that people are choosing to spend their money on, say, a cup of coffee rather than membership to a Pagan organisation because they care more about their coffee than their Paganism. Comments I’ve seen to this effect accuse people who can pay fees, but choose not to join a larger organisation, are simply seeing Paganism as a hobby and are not *srsly srs Pagans*.

While I applaud the work of Pagan organisations, especially those that offer some form of compassionate membership discount for people of lower incomes, I feel that it needs pointing out that you don’t have to be a member of a Pagan church, Order, coven or any other group, to be Pagan. And it certainly doesn’t make you less serious about your Pagan path if you’re not. Some of the most interesting, inspiring and committed Pagans I have come across are, or at least have been, solitary practitioners.

Joanna Van Der Hoeven’s The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid is one of my favourite books, and it eloquently discusses how to be a Druid without necessarily joining any organisation at all.

This is not to knock Pagan organisations, I am a member of at least three myself, because I am lucky and privileged enough to be in a position to be able to afford to at the moment. That could change.

But it is a plea to show compassion to people who cannot afford membership dues, travel costs, libraries of books or course fees. They are no less Pagan than anyone else.

And those who choose not to pay for any of those things, and simply greet the Sacred in the sun and the soil, they are no less Pagan either. Arguably, they may even be more so.

Because, as far as I am concerned, Paganism isn’t really about courses, organisations, churches, Orders, certificates, degrees or books. It’s about your own personal relationship with the land, the sea and the sky, and with the Sacred, whatever you conceive that to be.

And that, thankfully, is free.

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Book review: Whispers from the Earth

wfteWhispers from the Earth: Teaching stories from the ancestors, beautifully woven for today’s spiritual seekers. Taz Thornton, Moon Books, 2016.

I have a confession to make. I picked this book up because of the cover. Also because I have been enjoying the short books in the “Pagan Portals” series by Moon Books, and this seemed to fit right in to my collection, but mostly the cover.

Well, despite the old saying, I made the right choice in this case. Whispers from the Earth is definitely not the sort of thing I would normally read: I tend to go non-fiction or else huge multi-book series, but this collection of short teaching stories was a breath of fresh air.

Teaching stories are, of course, as old as humanity itself and quite possibly older if our neanderthal and australopithecine ancestors told tales around their fires or huddling up in caves. Parables have been used by Aesop, Jesus, Buddha and pretty much every wise teacher you can think of, and I think the tales woven in this book could stand shoulder to shoulder with any of them.

The back cover blurb tells us:

“Throughout time, indigenous cultures have used storytelling as a way of spreading important teachings to the tribe. Much of our own rich, ancient heritage has been lost over the years, eroded with the coming of mainstream religions and new ideas, yet those teachings and stories are still there, waiting to be rediscovered and told”.

Taz has gathered and woven these tales together from her own connections with the land and the ancestors, and they are not re-tellings of familiar fairytales, but are new-old stories, channeled and brought to life for us all today.

The book itself is split into two sections, Taz’s own channeled stories, and a selection of stories from other people Taz has worked with in story-weaving sessions. Between these two sections is a practical guide to channeling your own stories through meditation, connection and inspiration, definitely useful for anyone looking to try out a Bardic exercise.

The stories themselves are remarkably diverse and drift through a range of landscapes, themes and ideas, each one short enough to read in a few minutes on a lunch break, but each one with a point, a lesson, a seed-thought, that you will spend the rest of the day thinking over.

I don’t want to give any details of the tales included, you should read them for yourself, but I will say that the stories of The Man and the Frog and The Listening Tree were particularly moving and relevant to me personally.

I’m sure that I will find myself re-reading this little book months or even years from now, and finding whole new lessons contained within.

 

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To keep silent?

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Silence is traditionally part of some Pagan practices, and forms part of the guidance of some forms of Wicca and witchcraft, as part of the advice “To know, to dare, to will and to keep silent”.

While there are many reasons for silence that are legitimate either within a particular tradition (especially one deriving from the Mystery School traditions where certain initatory rites are kept secret), or in some societies without religious freedom, I feel that there are some areas where the traditional injunction to silence is at best unhelpful and at worst injurious to individuals and Paganism as a wider whole.

Please note that I am not talking here about silent meditation, prayer or contemplation, which are of course valuable spiritual practices, nor about shutting up when listening to others’ experiences, which is just good manners.

The first, and perhaps most obvious issue with silence, is the danger of cults. Silence, the injunction to not divulge anything of the cult’s activities or even existence to non-members, is a commonplace tactic used to isolate people from friends, families and wider society and ensure their complete dependence on the cult. These sorts of commands to silence often come with a call for the member to have complete faith and confidence in the cult’s leadership and wisdom, slurs against non-members as being too vulgar, worldly or sinful to hear the cult’s message and implicit or explicit threats of punishment and exile for those who break them. Such forms of isolation, censorship and internal control are listed as cult signs in the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Framework created by Druid and ADF founder Isaac Bonewits.

In Paganism, where organisations can be self-created and have no regulation (which for the most part is a good thing, don’t get me wrong), this can be a fertile field for cult-like activity, with self-appointed High Priests, Chiefs or Archdruids holding unelected positions of absolute authority over their members and dispensing “secret wisdom” from on high.

Thankfully, this activity is rare, but it is worth being aware of and watching out for, and any injunction to silence always raises red flags in my mind.

The other way silence can be used negatively is to suppress public displays of Paganism and/or dissenting political opinions. Georgina at the Green Hedge Druid makes this point in her post about the recent “witch” protests in the USA and around the world (read the whole thing, it’s important).

Many people, unfortunately many within the Pagan community, voiced the opinion that these public forms of Pagan, or at least Pagan-influenced, protest should have been done in silence, behind closed doors. Often, this criticism was couched in terms of wanting to “protect” other Pagans who may face persecution by association with the protestors. Yet, ultimately, it boils down to a command for others to shut up, sit down and not make a fuss in public, even as a legitimate and effective form of political protest.

And when addressed primarily to women who identify in some way with the symbolic reality of the Witch as an empowered figure to make change in the world, it’s a “get back in the kitchen” argument dripping with misogyny.

This call to silence effectively oppresses an already oppressed group by taking their voice away from them. It rings uncomfortable bells that remind me of those who claim to have no problem with the LGBT community, if only they weren’t so open about it and kept it to themselves. Why should they?

As Georgina writes:

“Surely we have spent so much of our lives, and those who came before us, hiding away from persecution and sometimes death. By coming out and being public with their paganism (or just representing the ideas), these protesters have not only drawn attention to the fact that witches do actually still exist (even though many would wish that weren’t true) but that they’re bloody angry about the injustices being dealt out by the current leader of their country. I would be more concerned if pagans weren’t coming out and protesting.”

Silence will not change anything.

Silence allows the oppressive system to continue oppressing.

Silence disenfranchises the disenfranchised.

Silence is complicity.

And silence will not save you.

Perhaps instead of “to be silent” now is the time, maybe more than ever, to know, to dare, to will, and to speak out.

To speak out against injustice and oppression. To speak out, and be “out” as a Pagan. To speak, to add your voice to the wider conversation, to share a distinctly Pagan perspective on issues such as social justice, environmentalism, human rights etc.

There were no doubt times in the past when silence was the most appropriate thing to do as a Pagan, and, the way things are going, there well may be again. But I don’t think now is that time.

It’s not always easy to speak out, and I still get scared about what people might think about me if they “found out” that I am Pagan. I’m certainly not suggesting everyone needs to be loud and proud all the time in all situations. Sometimes, it is not appropriate, such as in the workplace, for example. And some people have social anxiety (I do!) that means they can’t always be as open as they would like to be and do most of their Pagan-ing from a computer.

This is OK too, but please let’s not try to shame those who are open and vocal into silence. The first rule of Pagan Club is not, in fact, don’t talk about Pagan Club. I think that public displays of Pagan, or Pagan-influenced, practices is a great thing, and opens discussion while showing people that, hey, we exist, and we have rights too.

What do you think? Is silence part of your tradition, and if so why?

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Pagan protest and feminism

Everyone should read this. It’s important.

The Green Hedge Druid

Public domain image of "The Witch, No. 1"

I have been reflecting on recent discussions that have taken place on various pagan spaces, especially on Facebook, regarding the recent (and ongoing) pagan protests against Trump. I regret to report that most of the discussions I have read have been incredibly negative, especially with regards the various iterations of people conducting public rituals based primarily around witchcraft.

While I found the reports of people getting out and protesting in new and creative ways to be hugely inspiring, not everyone agrees. And that’s ok but some of the things people were saying as reasons for disagreeing troubled me and I am going to try and address some of them here. As a caveat, healthy discussion is good, hurling abuse is not. So please do not do that in the comments or at anyone within the community (or outside) who agrees or disagrees with this subject matter.

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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 and 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 to 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.

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Among the reeds

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So, taking my own advice, I spent the day yesterday out in nature, away from news and phones and the political world. Together with my wonderful wife, I went to a nature reserve nearby and spent the day wildlife-watching.

Getting out in the open air, out in a natural setting with the birds and creatures for company, reminded me what my Druidry is all about, and how important it is to put down the computers and books, to stop reading about Druidry and to experience real, wild nature in all its wonders, even on a freezing cold January day!

The sound of the wind rushing through the reeds was unlike anything I have heard before, and it really brought home to me the sense of air as the breath and song of the world.

I managed to spot a muntjac and several fallow deer, plenty of mallards, moorhens and coots, flocks of finches and tits, an unidentified raptor (possibly a hobby, but too far away to identify properly even with binoculars) and I heard the unmistakable sound of a barn owl.

When human concerns get too much, it is good to get out into nature and remember that we are but one part of an interconnected community of beings.

 

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