It’s April 1946, and two men are standing on the edge of a field of dying wheat on the outskirts of Mexico City. They are looking at the same field, but they see two very different visions. Both look at a field stricken by stem rust, a condition largely unknown today, but which was responsible for millennia of famine and untold human deaths. One of them sees the potential to grow a strain of wheat resistant to stem rust, and thereby to feed billions. The other sees the need to drastically reduce the human population to within the carrying capacity of the planet.
The two men are Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, and they are, respectively, the Wizard and the Prophet in the title of Charles Mann’s 2018 book, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. Mann presents Borlaug and Vogt as archetypes, representatives of two different visions of humankind’s relationship with the natural world: the one viewing nature as a something to be bent to the will of humankind, the other viewing nature as something to which humankind must bend.
Anna Walther is one of my favorite pagans. I say that because she consistently reminds me what being pagan is all about.
Most recently, it was in her essay, “Walking with my Dog is my Most Sacred Practice”. There, Anna explains that her most sacred practice involves no ritual paraphernalia, no casting of a circle, no calling the quarters, but simply walking through her neighborhood with her dog, Poe. Because she walks with Poe, explains Anna, she knows what phase the moon is in, when the trees are leafing and the flowers are blooming, when the birds and bats return, and what her neighbors are about. In short, she knows when and where she is.
“I experience a sense of place and belonging, when Poe and I walk through our neighborhood. I’m grounded, connected, and relating with intention to the human and more-than-human world around me. I’m aware that the very real world of spirits is here, right now, and not somewhere else, far away. This is it!, to borrow a Zen Buddhist proverb. To experience this world as radically alive, all I have to do is keep walking and pay attention.”
Anna reminds me that being pagan is about being here, now. But more than that, it’s about loving here, now. …
Since my wife is Christian, it makes sense to find ways to incorporate Christian themes into our Neo-Pagan celebrations. Easter tends to fall around the spring equinox (not so much this year), which causes me to think about the ways in which our two faiths overlap.
I came up with this story/ritual after reading a small book called Jesus and the Goddess by Carl McColman. In this story/ritual, the children of God and the Goddess, Jesus and Magdala share three gifts with each other and with their parents. The gifts remind them that they have more in common than they had thought. The story can be read by one person or performed by four people.
“… a beautifully-nuanced picture of today’s non-theistic Pagans. … At a time when many are being loudly vocal about what they call hard polytheism, Godless Paganism is refreshingly non-dogmatic. By telling their own stories, the writers show that just as in any religious/spiritual group, there are infinite shades of gray in both experience and practice.”
A version of this review was previously published in Witches & Pagans #35.
“…the [Pagan] movement has not prepared most people involved in it to step beyond their personal self-healing/comforting in order to grapple with larger issues….
…We are meant to be a healing balm for our ancestors and our modern cultures, going forward. We are meant to make peace with a tortured past so that institutions might be restructured. We are meant to be the chorus of the dead, for those beings that pass without notice. We are meant to give voice to those that yet remain, and affirm the relational bonds that weave the Immanent Divine.
With every calling of Mother Earth, great and bountiful Gaia, we are meant to assert the irrevocable obligations life makes upon life and all other beings of Nature. We are supposed to make kin with beings whose lives are our fortune and live in ways of mutual benefit. We are meant to teach this way of living–more than just a way of believing–to a world much in need of it. By creating little and grand rituals, we are supposed to reaffirm the belonginness due to every human….”
I have Monarch corpse pinned inside a shadow box on my bookshelf. A few years ago, I found it dying and waited for it to die before taking it inside. One day, I will show the corpse of the Monarch to a grandchild and tell them the story of the Monarch’s multi-generational migration. And I will tell them that my generation and those before mine forgot the lesson of the Monarch.
Mid-Winter, or “Imbolc”, as many Neo-Pagans call it, tends to sneak up on me every year — probably because I don’t belong to any Pagan ritual group and there is no closely corresponding secular holiday of significance (unless you live in Punxsutawney).
I celebrate Mid-Winter a few days later than most Pagans, since the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (Mid-Winter) actually falls a few days after February 2nd. This year it falls on February 3rd. Since I don’t celebrate with a Pagan group, there’s no conflict with the traditional Neo-Pagan celebration of Imbolc. And since Groundhog’s Day isn’t widely celebrated, there’s no conflict there either. If I’m being completely honest, celebrating a few days later than is traditional also works for me, because as I’ve said, the date usually sneaks up on me. So when I start seeing Imbolc articles in the Pagan online world, it reminds me I need to start planning my Mid-Winter ritual and having a couple of extra days is nice.
Here in the Midwest, February is the coldest time of the year on average. (This year, with the polar vortex, this has been very true.) There might be snow on the ground still, or it might have melted, but it’s likely we still have more snow to come. But since it’s the peak (or should I say the trough) of cold temperatures, I can look forward to the beginning of warming (or at least less freezing) temperatures. So, for me, Mid-Winter is the end of the Great Freezing and the beginning of the Great Melting.
Mythologically, I relate this to the triumph of the Bright Youth over the Darkness, which releases of the waters that have been frozen. The flowing of these waters begins the transformation of the Goddess from the Crone back to the Maiden, looking forward to the renewal of the spring equinox. At the same time, the Goddess begins her journey from the underworld, to which she descended after the Autumn Equinox in search of her dead Lover, and where she has stayed since All Hallows, and from which she will emerge at the spring equinox. At the same time, I feel myself beginning the slow climb out of my state of emotional hibernation that I enter into every winter.
My personal eclectic ritual draws on Vedic, Celtic, and Sumer-Babylonian sources — with a good deal of modern Neo-Pagan revisionism. The ritual has three parts, corresponding to each of the sources.
Part 1: Katharsis, the Release of the Waters
In this part of the ritual, the Bright Youth who was born at Midwinter battles and triumphs over the Darkness, releasing the previously frozen waters in a great catharsis. In preparation, I will gather some snow in a container. Usually, I will do this weeks in advance and keep it frozen in the freezer, in case the snow has already melted on the date of the celebration. (In a pinch, I will use ice from the freezer.) The night before the ritual, I will set the snow out to allow it to melt.
Before dawn, I will take the snow-turned-water outside in a vessel and bring a second, smaller vessel. I set the smaller vessel on the ground and put some coarse salt in it. I will then read the text below, revised from the Rig Veda, about the triumph of Indra over the monster Indra and the release of the imprisoned waters.
Indra, great is his might, the first high exploits were his own:
There the darkness stood, the vault that restrained the waters’ flow, the belly of Vritra. Huge in length extended, Vritra stretched against the seven rivers, waxing in the gloom which no sun lightened.
Impetuous as a bull, Indra forged the thunderbolt of overpowering might for the battle, golden, with a thousand edges, and ascended his car, scaling heaven to smite Vritra. Chariot-borne, sun-bright, and truly potent, he poured forth, bursting the clouds, giving life to Sun and Dawn. His wrath thundered, splendor encompassed him, and forth shone his warrior might. His bellow shook the foundation of the earth as the wind stirs the water with its fury.
In a wild joy, Indra fought the flood-obstructing serpent, vast, coiling Vritra, whom darkness compassed round. He grasped thunder for his weapon and smote death to the firstborn of the dragons. With the speed of thought, he cast his bolt down upon the jaws of Vritra, rending her joints, as of a boar. Heaven itself, at the dragon’s roar, reeled back in terror when Indra hurled Vritra down, breaking the strongholds as she fell. Thunder-armed, he cleft through the serpent, like a new-made pitcher, and the belly of Vritra burst asunder, setting the imprisoned waters in motion, as from a streaming udder.
Eager for their course, forth flowed the life-fostering rivers; along steep slopes their course tumbled, inundating the deserts. Roaring Indra, the fairest courser of them all, drove on the flood; the torrent made a roaring sound like rushing rivers, and the mountains trembled at the birth of his effulgence.
Now I pour the melted snow/ice water from the larger vessel into the smaller one, so that it overflows onto the ground.
Part 2: Lavatio, the Purification
In this part, the Goddess washes in the melted waters, which initiates her transformation from a Crone back into a Goddess. The text below, which is revised from the Celtic Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, is a despairing one—but it ends on a hint of hope. This expresses well how I feel during the cold and grey time of the year.
Ebb tide has come to me as the sea. The sea crawls from the shore, leaving weeds like a corpse’s hair. The sea slouches away from me, leaving me with salt on my lips.
Time was the sea brought kings as slaves to me. Now the sea brings only images of the drifting dead. Women love only riches now. But when we lived, we loved men, young men whose horses galloped in the open plain, beating lighting from the ground. I loved such men.
I feasted by the light of many bright candles. Now I pray in the darkness of the oratory. I drank my fill of wine and mead with kings, their eyes lingering on my hair. Now I drink the bitter dregs with shriveled hags and my hair is gray. My skin, where glorious kings once pressed their lips, is now tight and thin. My arms that once practiced the pleasant craft, caressing the bodies of comely youths, are now bony and thin. Then I wore garments of every hue and a cloak of green. Now the veil that covers my hair is black and mean.
The wine thrilled me to my fingertips. And I stretched at the side of him who would take me briefly for his bride. The storms have long since reached the stone chair of the kings. Their tombs are old and crumbling. The maidens rejoice when May Day comes to them. But I have spent the summer of my youth. I hold no sweet converse. No gelded rams are killed for my wedding feast.
What the flood-tide brings, the ebb-tide takes away. I have known the flood and I have known the ebb. The sun does not touch me. In me I feel the cold. But still a seed burns there. The time is at hand that shall renew me.
I then wash my face and hands in the water, allowing the water to fall onto my lips and tongue, savoring the bitterness of the salt and feeling the longing for fresh water.
Part 3: Janua Coeli, the Gate of Heaven
The last part of the ritual recalls the ascent of Inanna/Ishtar from the underworld, passing through the seven gates of the underworld.
I will light one candle on my seven candle candelabra, representing the seven gates through which the Goddess passed on her way to the underworld, and through which she must travel as she returns. I will then carry the candelabra inside and place it on my altar. Over the next six weeks, until the spring equinox, I will light one additional candle each week, symbolizing the Goddess’s return to the land of light and life.
I have yet to find a text for this part of the ritual. The text of the ascent of Inanna/Ishtar just doesn’t seem poetic enough. So instead of a text, I will play John Murphy’s Sunshine/Adagio in D Minor.
Before the ritual is over, I will blindly choose a card from a Tarot or Oracle deck, as a kind of divination. I don’t really believe in divination, per se. But I use tarot cards as I kind of imaginative/meditative practice. I will place the card on my altar and keep it there until the spring equinox.
Mary Oliver died today. Through her poetry, I negotiated one of the most difficult passages of my life.
She taught me to leave behind those other voices, so that I could hear a new voice, which I slowly recognized as my own and which kept me company as I strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to save the only life that I could save. Continue reading “When Death Comes”→
This will not be a typical “Know Your Rights” class. Instead, we will be taking a critical look at the American Legal Tradition from a Pagan/ecological/systems perspective. For the purposes of this class, a Pagan/ecological/systems perspective is one that sees community as interconnected, biocentric, and cooperative, rather than mechanistic, anthropocentric, and adversarial. Continue reading “Syllabus for Paganism & the Law”→
This past September, Sam Young was excommunicated by the Mormon church. Young, a former Mormon bishop, had publicly criticized the Mormon church’s practice of asking minors sexually explicit questions in interviews with bishops. Young even went on a 23-day hunger strike to draw attention to the issue.
I was raised in a Christian religion which taught me that human beings have the gift of free will or “agency” from God. I was never really explained how this was gifted to us, but I understood it to mean that God had chosen not to force his will on us, which apparently he could do if he wanted.
As I grew up, I learned more about the myriad factors that influence human behavior, including genetic predispositions, socialization, biological drives (like the need for food, sex, and security), psychological needs (like the need for esteem, love, and meaning), social influences (like peers and the media), etc. Continue reading “There is only one truly free choice we can make.”→
This morning, I knelt down in the snow
in my favorite place to pray,
a little garden off the side of my porch,
now bare and stark,
where My Lady of Tears keeps her vigil.
And these were the words which came
to me like a prayer … or an answer to one:
You wanted justice, but there isn’t any. There’s the world. Cry for justice, and the stars will stare until your eyes sting. Weep, and enormous winds will thrash the water. Cry in your sleep for your lost children, and snow will fall … snow will fall. You wanted justice, but there is none … only love. God does not love. God is. But we do. We love. That’s the wonder.*
Wise words, I think, for one contemplating the end
of his world.
*paraphrased from Archibald MacLeish’s play, “J.B.”, a modern retelling of the story of Job
Cap and trade is not going to save us. Renewable energy is not going to save us. Nuclear energy is not going to save us. Carbon capture is not going to save use. The politicians are not going to save us. The scientists are not going to save us. The activists are not going to save us.
Actually, this idea has been haunting me, hovering on the boundary between my conscious and unconscious mind, for some time.
In 2016, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate activist organization 350.org, came to speak at a rally at the BP tar sands refinery in my “backyard” in the highly industrialized northwest corner Indiana. The occasion was a series of coordinated direct actions around the world against the fossil fuel industry, collectively hailed as the largest direct action in the history of the environmental movement.
What struck me about McKibben’s speech, though, was its tone of … well, hopelessness. Here’s how he concluded his 10 minute speech:
That’s pretty sobering material for a speech at an environmental activist rally, not to mention a speech by one of the leaders of the climate movement:
“We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.”
At the time, I was caught up in the enthusiasm of participating in my first act of civil disobedience, so I didn’t think much about McKibben’s words.
I have been fortunate to have participated in some notable exceptions. I think Reclaiming rituals tend to be on the better end of the spectrum. I would attend any ritual led by Thorn Coyle or Shauna Aura Knight. The Kali Puja which Chandra Alexandre and Sharanya led at Pantheacon is truly exceptional.
But the absolute best pagan ritualist I have ever met is Steven Posch. So, I was very excited to receive Steven’s invitation to the Grand Sabbat held at Sweetwood Temenos in Southwest Wisconsin this past weekend. It was not a festival, at least not like others I have attended. There were no workshops, for example. Rather, it was tribal gathering, a gathering of the Tribe of Witches. Continue reading “The Real Pagan Deal”→
Over the years that I have been writing online, I have been accused many times of retaining some elements of Mormonism, my religion of origin. Some of my meaner critics like to call me “Mormon”, as a way of refusing to recognize my claim to be pagan. Those criticisms never made sense to me, but there is one way that my former faith has continued to influence me: the idea that the world needs to be change and that we human beings have the power to make that change happen. This is one of the ideas which has frequently brought me into conflict with other Pagans. Continue reading “7 Types of Religions (or Why I Was Never Going Make a Good Pagan)”→
Note: What follows arose out of a discussion in the comments to a recent post entitled, Religious Leave-Taking as Asking Different Questions, in which I described my growing disinterest in most Pagan discussions and the change in the questions that most concern me now. One of the commenters, Phil Anderson, challenged me to continue to be “a purveyor of sense and reason in the paganosphere”. His comment prompted a long response from me, which I have edited and reproduced here. Where important for context, I have reproduced parts of Anderson’s comment here.
I have had an altar for several years now. I’m sure that seems strange to most non-pagans. And if a guest in my home, who knew nothing of my religion, wandered into my bedroom and saw my altar, they would probably be very curious (or weirded out). Continue reading “Rebooting My Altar”→
I love bookstores and libraries. Honestly, I feel more at home surrounded by books than I do surrounded by people. But since becoming a Naturalistic Pagan, my trips to the bookstore have become a lot more complicated.
Every time I go into a bookstore, I visit the Paganism section, or rather, the Metaphysical/Occult section that Paganism is grouped with. I don’t know why I still do it. Hope springs eternal, I guess.
Each time I approach the Metaphysical with the hopeful expectation that this time I will find something that speaks to me. I stand there for a while, feeling embarrassed, afraid someone might see me. I look for an escape route. The Philosophy section is close by. The Psychology section even closer. Once I establish that I have plausible deniability, I relax a little and quickly peruse the books. Inevitably, though, I discover that I have once again wasted…
Last week, I unsubscribed from my weekly Patheos Pagan channel updates. It had been quite a while since any of the posts in the email blast had interested me enough to merit a click. It was the latest step in distancing myself from what goes for mainstream Paganism today.
When I left the Mormon church in 2000, I had to figure out a short way to explain to people why I left. I knew nobody wanted to hear my Mormon version of Luther’s 95 Theses. I think the most succinct (if not the most satisfactory) explanation I came up with was this:
“The Reluctant Radical” is excellent visual storytelling. There were lighthearted funny moments, poignant sad moments, exuberant triumphant moments, and tragic despairing moments. Through it all, I felt Ken Ward’s internal struggle with how to act in the face of seemingly insurmountable indifference. Even if I didn’t already acutely feel the same way, I would have loved this film, for its portrayal of one man’s attempt to live moral life … no matter the cost.
This past Earth Day, two of the activist organizations I am a part of sponsored a screening of “The Reluctant Radical”, a documentary about Ken Ward, by Lindsey Grayzel.
Ken Ward is one of the “valve turners” who was arrested and prosecuted for closing the emergency valve on oil sands pipelines in October 2016. He argued in court that the urgency of climate change compelled him to act. “The Reluctant Radical” follows Ken as he struggles to find an effective way to combat the fossil fuel industry. Director Lindsey Grayzel was also arrested and charged for her role filming Ken’s actions.
Following the movie, we had a Q&A with Ken Ward himself and director Lindsey Grayzel over Zoom, which was a special treat.
Each day of the month of April leading up to Earth Day (April 22), I will be offering a suggestion for how we can really honor the Earth this year. This list will go beyond the usual suggestions to change your light bulbs and take shorter showers. Instead, the focus is on collective action working toward radical social change.
My last bit of advice is to beware of lists, including this one, but especially those premised on an individualistic value system and those that sound suspiciously like advertising.
Most of these kinds of lists–“Things You Can Do to Save The Earth”–focus on changing your consumer habits, and therefore leave the underlying structure of capitalist society unexamined.
There are good reasons to change our individual consumption habits. I look at these as a kind of spiritual practice. Changing how I consume is one way of transforming my relationship with the earth. So I included a few of these kinds of things on my list:
But remember, our task is not to try to navigate destructive social systems with personal integrity, but to help change those systems. And we will never change those system until we stop thinking about change as something that individuals do.
The most radical thing we can do in a capitalist system is to build community. Capitalism alienates us from each other and nature. Any action which connects us to the wider human and other-than-human community is a form of resistance. Several items on my list address this:
Being a blogger is a nasty business, I’ve learned.
I started writing this blog for myself, as a kind of spiritual journal. But it quickly drew attention of others.
And then I started to notice that the negative things I wrote drew a lot more attention than the positive things. So I wrote more negative pieces. And that drew more attention. And that trend has continued. Continue reading “No really, I’m done.”→
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
The author observes that “Wiccans can have a difficult time being taken seriously by mainstream culture.” That does seem to be true generally of Wiccans and other Pagans. (The author seems to conflate Wicca with contemporary Paganism.) Though, it should be said, I don’t think being mocked by Fox News is necessarily a bad thing. Continue reading “Why Wiccans Get Made Fun Of”→
Today is the Spring Equinox (in the northern hemisphere). Many Neo-Pagans celebrate this day as “Ostara”. Although we like to pretend it has ancient origins, it’s little more than a bastardized version of the Christian Easter.
About 5 years ago I had a dream. I’ve been thinking about it again recently as I consider the relationship of my spirituality and my activism to contemporary Paganism. Continue reading “A Prescient Dream?”→
There are vigils being held around the country right now for the victims of the latest school shooting. I think these vigils are important: They bring home the tragedy of what has happened. Without these rituals, there is the risk that these terrible events will just sweep by us in the 24-hour news cycle, leaving us unchanged.
Like a lot of other Pagans, I read a lot of books about Pagans before I ever actually met another Pagan in the flesh. My first sources for my image of the contemporary Pagan came from Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (1999), Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1979, 1986, 1996, 2006), and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979, 1989, 1999). The first was academic, the second journalistic, and the third rhapsodic. As a result, my pre-formed image of Pagans was somewhat idealized. (I once heard Margot Adler admit in an interview that the Paganism she and Starthawk described in their respective books as more of an ideal than a reality.) I have since learned that the best way to learn about a religion is not by reading a book about it, but by going and seeing the real thing. Continue reading “Nine Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Became Pagan”→
My seasonal allergies mean that at those times of the year I most want to be surrounded by nature, it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do so. This irony is a metaphor for an essential conflict at the core of my psyche, between the desire for communion with nature on the one hand and the desire to transcend nature on the other.