hth: (Hth the 2nd)
[personal profile] hth
I follow fewer magic/occult-specific blogs than I used to, as the amount of magic-proper that I do at this point in my life hovers just above zero, and neoplatonism gives me a rash. However, I'll always keep Rune Soup on my list, because it's just full-on a trip, in every possible sense of the world. Gordon is eccentric and funny and his writing style is this odd whirl of ideas, most of which he just tosses out there and slides on past; I seriously understand about one-third of what every post says. By the time I do my research, I'm usually up to two-thirds. I'm not usually a subscriber to Secret History of the Universe type stuff, but holy shit, sometimes reading Rune Soup convinces me that world is crazier and more of it than we think.

He's got a good recent post on Tolkien, which you should absolutely read.

Let me first say that the point on which I'm still not convinced is that there's anything particularly pagan about Tolkien's moral universe -- or rather, if there is, it's mainly based on the aforementioned neoplatonism, which was so thoroughly absorbed into Christian philosophical thought so early on that it's silly to imagine that paganism retains any ownership of it, lo these many centuries later. That whole process of history moving from the purity of its great cosmological forces into denser, more complex, and more flawed "modernity" -- sure, that predates Christianity, but it's a late entry into pagan thought and sealed into the very early foundations of Christianity, which from my perspective makes it more fundamental to Christian thought.

As best I can unwind the argument, it's that the fatalism of Middle Earth is the authentically pagan element -- that it lacks the triumphalist vision of Christianity: Middle Earth is a world without the Kingdom of God, where all heroes are only victors until their defeat, where evil is a fundamental presence that can be somewhat corralled, but never eradicated. Of course, did you see what I did there? That's two completely different statements that I put next to each other as though they were restating the same thing. In Tolkien's work, they basically are: if all the battles and the heroism are fights against evil, then to say that heroes always fall in the end is pretty much the same thing as to say that evil always gets the last word.

The thing is, heroic morality is *like this,* but *different.* Pagan stories about heroism do, generally speaking, end with the hero's gruesome death, with the hero meeting some foe who (through trickery or strength or luck) simply can't be defeated. And that's important. That's so important, I think, and for the same reason that Gordon seems to be thinking of when he says, "This is the cornerstone of Middle Earth’s morality. One acts as best one can in a much larger context than is ever possible to grasp. The decision to choose a moral road happens on a moment-by-moment basis, not because one is moving toward a preferred outcome that is fully visible from the outset." The morality of heroism is that you fight on, *knowing that every fight may be your last.* There are no assurances that you'll win, or even that you've chosen the right battle. You don't ask for assurances. You don't take refuge in apocalyptic thinking, in the idea that your virtue will be rewarded, or any other type of "preferred outcome," other than perhaps harboring the hope that someone remembers your story. It does feel a bit gruesome from the perspective of modern Western thought, where everything should contribute to PROGRESS and the BETTERMENT of the world, as well as Western occultism, which also emphasizes coming closer to perfection, through "rising on the spheres" or whatnot. As far as we can tell, most indigenous European paganism just didn't have that concept that the choice of right action was about pragmatism, about getting to the best possible goal. The thinking was that pragmatism was the *default* -- that pretty much everyone tried to improve their station. But morality happened in those moments of not knowing, of choosing virtue with no particular reason to believe you'd be rewarded for it.

More and more, I find myself coming back to this vision of morality, which I agree Tolkien does capture much more powerfully than any other modern writer. The world is so complex and so unknowable that I think a lot of us are well and truly paralyzed by trying to figure out which actions will lead to our preferred outcome. Maybe this is a cop-out, but a lot of times lately, I find myself saying, in essence, fk it. Cattle die, kinsmen die. The dragon got Beowulf and will get you, and all the empires, and all the works of humans. Even the heroic vision of immortality through fame is close enough to a lie as makes no difference; if you're lucky enough to be remembered, it won't last all that long -- go far enough back into the 100,000 years of human history and there are no more immortal names. So I find myself being sort of released from the burden of Saving the World. The question I end up asking myself isn't what will the ramifications of this action be down the road, but will I be proud of myself or ashamed of myself if I do this? Like, ten minutes from now. Will I feel like I'm a slightly better person, ten minutes from now, or a slightly worse person? Of course, for this to work, you have to have a sense of what a "better person" might look like. Otherwise you have no way to answer the question. And that's what wisdom is largely about, and the reason I've often argued that wisdom is the one and only virtue that you can't have too much of. In Tolkien's terms, it's why the characters he presents as most virtuous -- Gandalf, Galadriel, Faramir -- flatly refuse to handle the ring. Because they know who they are and what the best version of themselves looks like, and they're able to see that the ring is going to make them not-so-slightly worse people. The fact that Frodo does handle the ring, and essentially sacrifices himself to it, shows not that Frodo was more or less virtuous, but that the Best Possible Frodo is a different person from, say, the Best Possible Gandalf. Frodo's particular road was about his love of home and family and his passion to preserve that; self-sacrifice made sense for him in a way it didn't for any of the other characters. It was the particular Fate laid on him and specifically relevant to his -- well, I'd use the word da/n, his soul or gift or destiny. Even though Frodo's life was pretty well shattered by his experiences with the ring, he went out pretty old-school pagan heroic: the best Frodo he could ever have been.

It sounds like an easy morality at first glance -- don't think about the future! Screw the consequences of your actions! But the longer you think about it, the more you realize it's really, really, really not easy at all. Being the best possible You that you can be, *literally in every moment and with every little choice* (because you never can see which choices count most), is relentlessly difficult. I fail at it 99.44% of the time, and the excuse I use to rationalize my failures is usually, "Well, it won't really matter, there won't be any major consequences." Except that I'm obviously lying when I tell myself that, because the major consequence is that I'm just slightly *more* not-my-best than I used to be. And that's everything. (Shoulder to the wheel, Dollhouse fans!)

Wow, I was going to talk about Middle Earth vs. Arthuriana, but maybe this is more than enough for one day. Anyway -- Be a Better You -- read more Rune Soup!
hth: (Hth the 2nd)
[personal profile] hth
Other than some dilettanting with other groups and on our own, A. and I have primarily practiced in the ADF tradition, and part of its foundational values is open and public ritual. ADF groves are required to hold public ritual on the customary neo-pagan 8 Wheel-of-the-Year holidays, but for the many years since we left the Atlanta area and our former Grove there, we've chosen to uphold the tradition in our small way by making it known to our pagan and pagan-friendly friends that anyone is welcome to come along with us for any High Day they like. We usually have our friend Lisa in attendance -- Lisa isn't pagan herself, but enjoys the High Day energy and faithfully serves as our Grove Photographer, taking amazing pictures on her trusty iPhone. (One of these days, I'll post some of our back catalog; Lisa has an amazing eye for composition, and she makes our ritual spaces look much artsier than they really are!) Sometimes we have another person or two, a newbie pagan or someone from a different tradition who wants to See What We Do, but traditionally Bull Moon rituals have been "public" in theory and hearth-centered in fact.

A couple of years ago, A. started doing what I think of as public ritual 2.0 -- not a ritual where people are invited to join us necessarily, but rituals that take place *in public.* Her inner Roman/city girl locates civic spaces as holy ground, and she's done some amazing work in developing ritual that can be performed in public space. I'm trying to get her to post some details here about her Ludi Plebeii experiences in Durham's City Plaza, and she and our Wiccan HPS friend Amanda have collaborated to bring some ritual blessings to the Moral Monday protests at the capitol in Raleigh.

Now all of a sudden I feel like we're launching into 3.0 -- actual-facts ritual for the public. I'm writing a new autumn equinox ritual for Gaia's Circle, the community ritual group that we sometimes attend. We hosted one ritual for Gaia's Circle previously, but just by inviting folks to join our regular ADF-style Imbolc ritual; this is the first time I've designed something specifically for Gaia's Circle, with an eye toward making it satisfying for the eclectic membership. Now that our grove liturgy has pretty well stabilized, I haven't had any need to write new rituals from scratch for quite some time, and I'm having a lot of fun with it, finding ways to marry the design principles of California Eclectic Wicca with the polytheist devotional work that's Bull Moon's wheelhouse. We've also been invited to present an evening ritual at Thaumaturgy 777, our friendly neighborhood occult store/botanica. That'll probably happen in October, and will be a "working ritual" designed to bring people into greater awareness of the spiritual dimensions of our local landscape, and hopefully to make initial contact with some well-disposed local landspirits. I'm working off of a base of the "spirit art" rituals designed by Ian Corrigan, who has definitely been a major influence on my magical style, inasmuch as I have such a thing.

I feel like this is a big leap into a new world for us. We've talked a lot about wanting to be there for the pagan community in Durham -- and about wanting there to be a pagan community in Durham that can be there for others -- and after a lot of semi-patient prodding by the Gods and the Ungods, I think we're finally moving toward it in small but measurable ways. I'm having to learn and relearn a lot about building ritual and scaling it up effectively. Maybe someday we'll be able to put on full-on community ritual theater here in Durham. (Not saying that ritual in particular does it for me personally, but great muppety Zeus, you have to be in awe of the love and labor that went into it. On that level, it's deeply inspiring.)
hth: (Hth the 2nd)
[personal profile] hth
Seasonal and relevant! Irish folklore on Crom Dubh and bulls

We've made an effort not to put Our Bull, the Durham one, into too much of a mental box. Is he a land spirit? Is he a spirit generated by the life of the city itself? Is he an emanation of some primordial Great Bull? Is he a localized expression of some particular god? (We got a fairly visible omen at our Neptunalia one year just as A. was invoking a bull-related aspect of Neptune, which was interesting.) Who knows? Every year, I think I become -- not less curious as a theologian, but curious in a healthier way, less needy about answers. I don't know who he is, but I've made many an offering at his feet, and I've become more sensitive over the years to the specific quality of his attention and presence. He feels watchful and protective to me in a somewhat dry, world-weary way, as though he's seen enough human foolishness to expect it by now, but dumb as we are, we're his responsibility. There's affection there, but its dominant note is unbending strength rather than warmth. On any given tv show, he'd be the grouchy but ethical Chief of Police who claims to want to retire but would never really do it voluntarily.

We do a lot of small ritual in the Plaza, often just hello-we-see-you offerings, sometimes slightly larger rituals aimed at the health of our city. Public ritual -- genuinely public ritual, in front of random passers-by -- is an interesting experience. We performed one recently, midmorning on a Saturday after the farmer's market. I held the space in the center of the Plaza with our little travel/camping candle, while A. crossed the street to offer to the Outsiders. She did what she always does on the way, stopping to put her hand on the Bull's nose and say a brief prayer.

I was the one in a position to see that after she did this and then crossed the street, a very ordinary-looking black man in his mid-20s came along just behind her, and then paused to do the very same thing. He put his hand in the same position on the Bull's nose and held it there a moment, looking up into its eyes, and then walked on about his business. It was a beautiful example of how places and objects of power draw people in toward themselves, how we don't always need to know why we're doing what we do in order to experience a connection to something numinous. Whoever that man was, whatever thought process motivated him to pause during his day just to touch and to look at a giant brass bull statue, I think he experienced what Hindus call darshan, the experience of reciprocally seeing and being seen by the divine. I wonder how it might change him, without him ever knowing it.

Taurus Civitate, macte esto.
hth: (Hth the 2nd)
[personal profile] hth
As Alisa likes to remind me, the Roman summertime was campaign season, hence her gearing up of Mars devotions and outward-turning Conquest of Obstacles during the summer months. While she has so far resisted the urge to conquer and subjugate the barbarian in her living room (that's me! hello!), the Hearth is definitely experiencing a mobilization of our energetic legions.

The theme is civic engagement over on Alisa's end (she keeps turning up those Kings of Wands). She's been a regular at Moral Monday protests, although she has so far resisted my every attempt to goad her into getting arrested. People's Durham, a small but very cool local group, has a strong investment in public education but a staff that's fairly overextended, so Alisa (who is a former education reporter and now works for an education nonprofit) is helping them out by evaluating some recent local initiatives to reverse NC's traumatic pitch forward into widening the school-to-prison pipeline, to see if there's any way that People's Durham can be of service. I'll let her be the one to post more about the connection between her experience of Roman paganism and her commitment to voting rights and the democratic process, but it's definitely work that she and I are both supporting on the spiritual and esoteric levels as well as through her direct action.

As usual, I'm holding down the more mystic side of our little universe while Alisa is being organized and productive. After spending a couple of years in "I really ought to write a book" space, I'm actually starting to do it. The book is untitled, but it'll be on the subject of what I'm calling, for lack of a better term, "feminist druidry," mining the intersection of my backgrounds in polytheist/reconstructionist-derived paganism and goddess spirituality, and hopefully proving thoroughly obnoxious only to *almost* everyone in both camps rather than *absolutely* everyone. Right now I'm in the outlining phase while I bang away at the final chapters of my first novel, and we'll see what happens from there.

There's more in the fermentation stage, as we're conspiring with some other local pagans to create some networks here in Durham. This is an incredibly progressive, environmentalist community with a huge amount of energetic bounce and sizzle, and yet pagans here are relatively isolated, all doing their own things without much contact as a community. My hometown, which is less than half the size of Durham alone (never mind Chapel Hill and other adjacent townships) *and also in Missouri* has a fantastic community resource that's been around for over a decade (not sure how much over; their current bylaws were adopted in 2006, but I was involved with them before I moved away in 2001, so they're at least that old). Hearthfires is very much a model for what I'd like to see Durham have, although obviously it'll develop its own character and mission that's relevant to the needs of the land and community here.
hth: (i'm a veronica)
[personal profile] hth
In general I neither know nor care all that much about the Olympics, but we happened to be at a friend's house (a friend who donated her copious kitchen space to Peachapalooza 2012, out of the kindness of her heart and for the small bribe of some ginger-peach jam and peach chutney) and the opening ceremonies were on her DVR.

Wow, I'm glad I saw those, or I would never have appreciated the extent to which Boyle celebrated London by depicting it as a horrifying blight on the earth. At first I thought I was just projecting my crunchy-granola aesthetic onto what the color commentators kept reassuring me was "a celebration of progress and industry," but by the time the *giant smokestacks* came up and they *forged an actual ring,* I was pretty sure they just had to cut the Uruk-Hai for time.

It was actually a genuinely moving piece with fantastic music -- once the Olympics' copyright goblins get bored and go away, you should try looking for it on YouTube if you didn't see it the first time through. One of the things I like about Britain is its general lack of jingoism -- I'm sure this is an oversimplification, but they seem much more able than Americans generally are to accept that it's reasonable to have discomfort and grief and frustration about your country and still love it in many ways. That just seems like a very adult way of loving anything: not blindly, because does anyone really want to be loved blindly more than they want to be loved by someone who really sees them?

Surely it isn't possible to have a genuinely mature and loving relationship with the land if we can't include both our deep loyalty to it and our ambivalence, grief, and anger over the enormity of our impact on it.
hth: (i'm a veronica)
[personal profile] hth
This post from another druid living near Aurora, Colorado intersects with a conversation we had at our pagan bookclub the other night. He talks about feeling close to the tragedy of the Aurora shootings and wonders if it's odd or irrational to feel emotionally closer to strangers because of their physical location near you. I don't think it's either odd or irrational. I think it's central to what makes pagans who we are.

With everything that makes pagans diverse, I spent a long time wondering what there was that united us, and I think I finally know the answer: pagans are inevitably a people of the specific, a people who fully occupy their place and seek to deepen in relationship with it. This pops out vividly for me when I use the word tuath, which in Gaelic means both a discrete group of people and the unique, specific land on which they live. It means both the human history and the natural history of a place, culture and environment, indivisible. You can see that very clearly undergirding the older 20th century writings from the pioneers of neopaganism in Britain, in their strong sense that the religious witchcraft they were creating and codifying was a uniquely, natively British heritage, seeped in local fairylore and folk tradition, even while they reinterpreted those folk traditions in a new theological light.

Then the movement jumped the pond, and American neopagans had this whole new issue: how to take a distinctively British religion out of the land of ancient barrows and stone circles and make it relevant to a land where that type of paganism had never been practiced. The questions that brought up led, I think, to the self-conscious idea of a "nature religion" -- that is, of religion that is about "the earth" conceptually, and not about *this* earth, *your* piece of earth.

I'm not against thinking about "nature" or "the environment" -- there's something to be gained from all that. But it seems to me that the types of paganism that sink their taproots in most deeply, that avoid the faddishness and superficiality that constantly plague us as a community, avoid generalization and urge people to refine and deepen their connection to the local. You can definitely see it in the spreading influence of reconstructionist traditions and the rising popularity of "Traditional Witchcraft" that consciously avoids the ceremonial/Masonic influences of Gardener and looks more toward Cochrane and his folkloric influences. I think people who find themselves being drawn to paganism are hungry for and irresistibly attracted by the prospect of having an intimate, experiential, spiritual relationship with what they interact with physically around them. I think you can even argue that it's the pagan version of "enlightenment" -- the hope of being peacefully and permanently in right relationship with where you are.

So it makes perfect sense to me that when you live in a community that's been hit by violence (or natural disaster, or a shuddering economy, or whatever), there's an instinctive pagan urge to deal with the spiritual disruption. It's in *your home,* after all. On your land. In your own house, your tuath. It would actually be a profound violation not to fold around those affected, not to acknowledge their loss as your own. It would show that you're operating as if your wellness is separate from the wellness of your locality, which strikes me as something as close as a pagan can get to blasphemy.

(Oh, also, read the comments at the above link for some very pretty prayer offerings from polytheists of several traditions.)
hth: (i'm a veronica)
[personal profile] hth
Because a certain type of Christian is sort of famous for insisting on doctrinal issues of faith that are objectively not at all how the real world works, I thought I'd be incredibly fair today and talk about one of those places where I also struggle between things my religion teaches me to believe and, well, actual-facts reality.

There's this idea that exists throughout the Indo-European world, embedded deeply into the ancient language and literature, of something called "undying fame," which is believed to take precedence over any other kind of undyingness. Pagans had various views on the afterlife, depending on time and place, and while I think there's a lot of good evidence that the belief in a peaceful underworld existence where the dead rejoin their families is an ancient, indigenous IE belief, the historical record clearly shows that the Greek and Roman worlds, at least, had a pretty grim view of the afterlife. They saw it as populated (for the most part) by sad, hungry shades who longed eternally for the living world they would never see again, a world which had all but forgotten them.

On the other hand, there was this "undying fame," which provided a sense of continuity. If you were mighty and successful in whatever way, congratulations! The poets would sing about you forever. You, unlike the other sad, dead bastards, would continue to be remembered, and to matter to the world. This was a huge component of the heroic ethos and these cultures' sense of what a good life meant. Essentially, it meant a *great big* life, one that was impossible to forget. That was the goal of it all: not to fade away. That's why the great heroes of the poetic tradition inevitably make a speech that boils down to "I don't care when or how I die, as long as I take enough enemies with me that they'll sing my Undying Fame til the end of time."

That's a pretty neat trick if you're trying to recruit warm bodies for generations of systemic, endless fighting over cattle and gold and wives: turn it into a great quest for glory and honor instead. We still pretty much do that. It's a winning strategy, for the warlords who field these armies of eager-beaver hero wannabes.

But the thing is, the end of time is a long way away. Human memory just is not "undying," even under the very best of circumstances. In the last post I mentioned that human history is tens of thousands of years long. The great ancient heroes we've heard of (assuming for the moment that these were ever real people; some of them may have been, or maybe not), your Gilgameshes and Beowulfs and Achilleses (Achillei?), are preserved in memory over the course of maybe three or four thousand years...and that's because of the accidents of history that provided for some (very far from all) of the IE world's traditional oral epics to be written down once the cultures began to change so irrevocably that their institutional memories were failing.

That always happens, is the thing. Cultures fail. Civilizations fall. Memory exhausts itself. We don't know the names or the stories of the people who built Stonehenge, although that's a fairly epic achievement. We don't know the names of any of those original great warriors who rode down out of the Caucasus to seek their fortunes and eventually spread throughout Europe. Forget their personal names, we barely even know what they called themselves as a whole (they might have called themselves something like "Aryans," but it's more likely that was a conceptual category that united a number of completely disparate tribes and helped enable them to cooperate with each other). The effects of their deeds are impossible to overstate: they invented the western world as we know it. We don't know one name. Not one of them achieved the Undying Fame they believed would be their reward.

Heck, the thing about an afterlife in another realm is that it's not exactly disprovable. Undying Fame *is* disprovable. It's disproven. And it's a pretty sketch concept anyway, given that it's supposed to apply primarily to the heroes of action-packed epic wars and not to the people who, you know, invented axles and agriculture and other things that have a lot more world-shaping significance than the siege of Troy or the Cattle Raid of Cuilgne ever could have -- let alone to the people who just lived decent lives and raised -- improbably, *amazingly* -- one more generation of human beings, launching their children out into the future freighted down with all their hopes and fears. Those are the people who made us who we are. Those are the people whose deeds invented our world. And most of us can't name them four generations back.

So here I am, trying to practice the religion of my ancestors, but unable to accept one of the really pretty significant belief systems that animated and drove them. Death for me can't mean what it did to them. Life to me doesn't mean what it did to them. The idea of fame will never have the same weight to me; I'm the child of many centuries of revolution in thought about the concepts of elite and common, of significant and insignificant, and I'm just not driven in the same way by the dream of heroism. I'm driven by the other dream: of honoring my obligations to my family, and of the joy of being at home among them eternally. I like to tell myself -- with some good evidence, I think! -- that that's a vision at least as old, at least as well-integrated into the tradition. But the thing is that even if it isn't, I'd choose that over the other.

I think there's something to be said for the honesty factor when it comes to tradition. No matter how deeply we honor where we came from, I think all of us run into those things where we just can't believe the same things about our world that our ancestors did. I'm not saying that's always comfortable, but I don't know of any tradition that doesn't pretty clearly place a higher value on truthfulness than falsehood.
hth: (i'm a veronica)
[personal profile] hth
So I set this up a few weeks ago and then was paralyzed by the pressure to do something Introductory, which would end up seeming like some sort of mission statement. This is not a mission statement!

When Alisa and I kick around ideas about what the heck we're doing with this Being A Practicing Polytheist Household business, one thing we say a lot is "the ancestors." Because what we do is something like a folk tradition, in that it didn't start abruptly at some point or end abruptly at any point, and like any folk art or folklore, there isn't a correct way to do it and then variations on that way. There's just a body of thought and practice and story and technology and belief, some of it more universal, some highly specific. So when we have questions about things -- and we have ALL THE QUESTIONS about things, most of the time -- there's not only usually not a specific answer available, but we keep circling around to the awareness that Specific Answer is a category that barely even exists.

And yet if you're going to decide anything about anything, you have to appeal to something. Something has to break the deadlocks, and for us it tends to be this fairly amorphous category that I in particular refer back to with wild abandon: Well, the Ancestors thought.... Well, our Ancestors didn't have a problem with that.... Well, but, the Ancestors....

This is, objectively, a little bit stupid. The Ancestors aren't some kind of monolithic category. Even if you write off a millennium and a half (give or take) of European Christianity and just start the Ancestor ticker directly before that, Our Ancestors have been kicking around and recognizably human since, at a conservative estimate, 50,000 BCE. They had a few different opinions about things.

50,000 BCE. Everyone alive today has an unbroken lineage FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS long of pagan ancestors. Fifty. Thousand. That number is huge. That number is the *conservative* estimate; some archaeologists suggest we were human beings about 100,000 years ago (so, you know, about 50k or else possibly twice that -- thanks, science!) Answering questions with "Well, our Ancestors" is, okay, if not stupid, then possibly a little bit hilarious? How ridiculously arrogant and myopic is it to use "the Ancestors" as a shorthand for "the Roman Republic" or "Iron Age Ireland"?

(This part is the mission statement.)

Sometimes, as a mostly out pagan, I get people who ask (usually in pretty good faith, usually more or less just really curious) why. Why this quirky small subcultural religion that I have to practically build out of chewing gum and chicken wire, when the world is chockablock full of Legitimate World Religions? And sometimes -- usually -- I just kind of say that it's like getting married, and the right one for you is the right one for you, and everyone else is great and marvelous and all, but all the good qualities in the world don't make the wrong one for you suddenly right.

Which is true as far as it goes, I guess, but the real answer for me is: FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS. And they were pretty tough years, some of them! The Legitimate World Religions didn't make us human; some form of animism did that, as far as we can tell, and some form of animism kept us going for a literal two thousand generations, and this is my form of animism, because it *works.* Clearly it works. The other guys can get back to me when they been doing their thing another twenty or fifty times over and we'll talk.

I'm conservative like that.


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Bull Moon Hearth

October 2013

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