Where does our anthropocentrism come from? Some scientists cite evolutionary pressures as one possible influence among many. But others point to instinctual cognitive processes to explain just the opposite, suggesting that the anthropocentric worldview is actually a rejection of the human instinct, not its inevitable consequence. Even if anthropocentrism isn't instinctual, for many of us it is deeply ingrained. To a man with a shovel, it can be hard to imagine any other solution but to keep digging our way out of this anthropocentric hole we find ourselves stuck in. Western society has spent a long time convincing us that the shovel is the only effective tool we have. Are there alternatives? How do we learn to think beyond the biases of anthropocentrism and reconnect with the more-than-human world?
What is anthropocentrism? Turns out, there is no single, simple answer to this question. (Just among the nearly fifty books on environmental ethics and deep ecology that I have, only one actually offers a definition of the term, despite almost all of them referring to it in their discussions. As with many words, its meaning often has to be teased out and inferred from context.) In my earlier post I hinted at the beginnings of a definition when I referred to an approach to ritual that "takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real." The question of how our idea of "the real" and our practical responses to it (for instance, through ritual activity) influence our underlying values and where we locate (or create) meaning is a complex conversation in its own right, and it is in this particular theological meadow that I'll do much of my lingering and bee-gazing in the following posts. But for now, it's probably more helpful to sketch out a basic definition, one we can use as a kind of measure against which we can hold up more complex, fidgety ideas later in the conversation...
On the same day I published "Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mists," Irish animist Traci Laird also shared a piece in which she confronted the issue of anthropocentrism in modern Western Paganism more directly. She points out, very rightly I think, that "the belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways." The response to our two posts has been incredibly varied, with writers across the Pagan blogosphere grappling with notions of anthropocentrism that range so widely at times it seems they're hardly talking about the same thing at all. The more responses and reactions I read over the past couple weeks, the more I realized that the issue of anthropocentrism in Paganism is incredibly complex and at times very confusing. Subtle and tricky ain't the half of it! And so I wanted to spend some time teasing apart some of these ideas about anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism in Pagan ritual and theology.
My gods are not tame. They do not always come when they are called. This is not a failure of ritual or a weakness of belief. It is the nature of my gods. I would no more expect a god to "show up" in my ritual space than I would expect to be able to call a mountain into my living room. That is simply not the nature of mountains. If I want to meet a mountain, I am the one who must move. Because I do not believe that humans are the only beings with agency in the world, I do not expect my gods to express their agency in the same ways that human beings do. There are gods who forever remain elusive, whose identities shift with the landscape, the seasons and the stars. And there are gods so intimate that they are never really absent at all, and meeting them is not a matter of inviting their presence but rather of quieting my own expectations and learning how to listen. There are gods whose presence looms like a mountain range on the horizon, and gods with(in) whom I walk with grace, my footsteps just one more melody in the great pattern of their being. What does hospitality look like to a mountain? How does a forest speak its mind? What does it mean to invoke a god of mist and sea on a mist-strewn shore?
What were you expecting? A tame goddess who can be bribed with easy offerings? A pleasant springtime girl who asks for nothing but your adoration in return? An owl-feathered maiden of the forest to indulge your taste for the exotic and the dark? Were you hoping for a bedtime story with a moral at the end? Blodeuwedd's story isn't over. It is on-going. It is forever unfolding in every moment, in every place where nature and culture conflict and comingle, in every breath that weaves us as human animals into the more-than-human world. It would be too easy to approach Blodeuwedd through mythology and ritual alone, to disconnect her from the messy, erotic, death-riddled real world of broom blossoms and barred owls.
In the Pacific Northwest, Blodeuwedd's darker aspect manifests as innocent victim as well as hapless intruder. Not one or the other, but both. As the Spotted owl, we might experience Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag who demands a kiss as the price of sovereignty. As the Barred owl, she is the adaptable trickster again, the wanderer driven by hunger into new lands, whose appetite and determination threaten to overturn the current order. Seeing the owl in the goddess, we also see the goddess in the owl. Do we sacrifice the one in service to the many, without that one's consent? Do we kill this one owl, or eradicate this one species, for the sake of the balance and prosperity of the whole?
How do we understand the innocence of Blodeuwedd as the Flower Maiden, and her punishment as the Owl-Faced Old Maid? In the web of life in which everything has a proper and harmonious place as part of a greater dynamic balance, those beings who wander aimlessly without place or purpose — or who refuse to submit to their fate as decreed by the greater order of things — can potentially pose a threat to that balance, causing disruption and harm in their desperate desire to survive. Love of life can lead us astray. In the utter innocence and fierce love of the goddess there exists a lurking danger, where wildness shades into chaos and disharmony. Blodeuwedd is a goddess created in the image of the human being, for a very human purpose: to love and be loved. And yet she retains (as do we all) the undeniable influences of the natural world from which she was made, a more-than-human world in which love and life-force intermingle and overwhelm as the indomitable eros of passion. She exists in a liminal state, very much like our own species. She is a goddess of exile and displacement, and for that reason she is also a goddess of invasion.
Blodeuwedd embodies the spirit of the trickster. She is herself literally the work of trickery and artifice. Her physical body is not a unity, but a cobbled-together assortment of twigs and blossoms given a kind of unnatural animation through the magic of Gwydion. And although she is designed by men far more powerful than she is for one specific purpose — to serve as Lleu's wife and queen — yet she thwarts that purpose through lies and deceit, following the call of her own hunger, her own passion and desire. As a result she is cursed, like so many other trickster figures, to aimless wandering in the wilderness, a social outcast. She is both subhuman and superhuman, both bestial and divine. She is the thief who steals away the beloved from the rightful king, except that it is her own self that she steals away — is this theft, or reparation? Either way, this is a goddess familiar with dislocation and disconnection, and one who embodies within her very being the ambivalence of human technology and how it mediates our relationship with the natural world.
As an animist, my relationship with the gods is rooted in my relationship with the land and its many beings. Yet so many of my gods are in exile from the lands of their origins. What does it mean for an American living in the Pacific Northwest to worship deities of Ireland and Wales? In part, it means that many of my gods are — like myself — pilgrims and strangers in a new world, still finding their feet and learning what it means to move in this new land with grace and respect. Their lessons today are often lessons of ambivalence, dislocation and longing. For me, no goddess has been more insistent in her teaching than the flower-faced maiden, Blodeuwedd. Who is Blodeuwedd? She is a goddess of dangerous innocence, an innocence so pure that it threatens to undo our easy assumptions about the world and our place within it.
I glance out the window at a foggy world that seems still and quiet... a little too quiet. The salmon that should by now be making their way upstream to spawn are missing. Without the necessary steady rains to wash the familiar scent of freshwater streams out into the sound, the fish languish just offshore — uncertain which way to go, unsure which creek is calling them home. It's as if they, too, are lost in the fog. In such weather, my thoughts dwell on memories of the past — what we have lost, what we have forgotten, and what we might still regain. It is so easy to think we have always lived this way, struggling with scarcity, alienated from the living earth, uncertain and alone. Without the rain-washed scent of hope, what will guide us home?