Featured, Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, praxis

Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer

“How do I pray without fire?”

– question asked once in a dream

Just the sound of the word reminds me of fire: adoration, the heart aflame.

This is the first kind of prayer I ever really learned. The prayer I come back to again and again.

burningwaxsticks_CaitlinDoe

The strike of the match on the box, the scrape, the hiss — and then the little wick of the candle catches and holds…

This moment, this motion — it is a word in itself, a softly-spoken mantra of devotion. Shivering there, changing a little from one second to the next. Sometimes wavering. Sometimes utterly still. Swaying around its center of gravity in the wake of my breathing-out and breathing-in again.

It is enough: to sit before the altar each morning, to light the single flame, to watch it catch and hold. It is enough to show up to this act of intention. Without the need to grasp what cannot be grasped. Without the need to name what cannot be named.

To hold my heart like a candle wick, steady, upright, held open to the presence of my gods.

To hold my heart like fruit, or a flower, or a handful of seeds in an open palm, that they might arrive — might alight so gently, their touch barely felt — enticed, invited, uncompelled. To be eaten as the earth will one day eat me, slowly, bone by bone…

But then: sometimes it’s not enough. All this gentility — this steady, quiet kind of praying. The little bent wick sunk in its pool of wax, rooted in place, giving itself only just a little at a time.

“Let us pray with a good fire,” the Druids say.*

And so I pile up the kindling, some of it still wet from the rain. Under its skin, sap hisses and snaps where the fire licks it clean. Smoke slithers out between the splinters, unwinding upwards like incense. The husky whispers of my more selfish desires. I give it all to the flame.

It can take a long time for the damp kindling of my life to catch fire. I might sit for an hour making my inadequate offerings, poking here and there, wincing when a bit of wood shifts and suddenly the flame sputters out, suffocated, all but lost.

It is a ritual of unwavering attention, this kind of prayer. Arranging and rearranging, gathering in, working with what I have, trying to make room — opening up space for the fire to breathe. In a world that insists we fill every spare moment with progress, or at the very least a busyness that approximates it. It can feel like a radical thing to make space in my life for waiting and failure and stillness, to open up my lungs in song to my gods and let them breathe me empty.

It is not as clean and easy as a candle flame. It is the kind of prayer driven by longing, by frustration, by unrealized vision…

Until finally, I have sat before the smoking embers long enough, watched the wood turn first charred black and then white with a loose skin of ash. Watched the flame slip along each thin twig as if along a twining labyrinth of praise and recrimination, watched it run its course and meet its end and flicker out again. Until my whole body, my whole being has grown quiet and raw and I think, This is it, I have given everything I have and it hasn’t been enough…

And then, the moment I realize I was wrong.

blueflame_TracyRhodes

Sometimes what I want is a wild fire. A fire that roars. A fire that beats at the air with its bright fists clenched. Sometimes I want prayer like a fire that claims everything it touches. Prayer that ripples out across the rough dark surface of the world like music spilling down endlessly from the night sky, carrying the stars with it. Prayer that rolls over the vaulted ceiling of the heavens with thrilling impossible lightness — a fire round and hot like laughter, dragging the lush purples of faraway galaxies in its wake.

Prayer that turns over into adoration — into a joy that burns so hot, it blossoms like a blue flower inside every thrumming ember, unfolding its quiet petals one by one. As still and steady as an open palm.

Sometimes what I want is to give my whole life over to this adoration, to the hunger of the ones I love.

To be so bright inside that you cannot look, and cannot look away.

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy…

You cannot get there with a candle flame. You cannot get there by wanting to be useful, reliable and tame.

You can only open your most secret heart like a furnace door, smoky-dark and so hot that to touch it — even for a moment — will leave a mark.

Only know that nothing is so precious it will not burn.

whatdoyousee_EileenMcFall


* Though they stole it from Hinduism.


Photo Credits:
• “burning waxsticks,” by Caitlin Doe (CC) [source]
• “Blue Flame,” by Tracy Rhodes (CC) [source]
• “what do you see in the flame?” by Eileen McFall (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Mythology & History, Social Justice

The Wild Hunt for the Other God

stilllife_modified

Our knowledge, instead of leading us to certainty, betrays us…

Guiding us deeper into the confused complexity of the forest, the dark wilds of unknowing. This is holy bewilderment. This is the horizon that is forever receding and can never be reached; the periphery that is everywhere and nowhere. We find ourselves spinning in circles. We look for a centered self that isn’t there, and when we find it, it is deeply bizarre. We are confronted by an Other that can never be centered or normalized. This is the call of the Wild One. Welcome to the hunt…


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Featured, Holy Wild, justice, Mythology & History

The Wild Hunt for the Other God

The ghostly stag flees, and I give chase, compelled as if by some enchantment or curse to follow. Drawn by the silent movement among the half-bare trees, like memory through dream, driven by the longing for that which is only half-glimpsed, half-imagined, an elusive intimacy, a wilderness so ancient it is unshakable, yet hidden, soaked into the bone. I am on the hunt for my god…

The Waincraft tradition names this god a Power, Father Wild, the primal power of Wildness itself. This deity was originally addressed as the Shaman-Father, but later the name was changed “in recognition of the plights of indigenous populations in which the term [shaman] originated.” There is an otherness to the Wild One, a seed of strangeness in the soul. It is anotherness so Other that it is even stranger to itself at times; and in experiencing itself as stranger, as Other, so it also participates in and shares the experience of the centered Self, looking out on its own elusive being stalking the edges of the liminal, in search of that which is everywhere and nowhere. Nothing is certain when you are face-to-face with the White Stag. That is the ambiguity of the term “shaman” as applied to this god, and the ambivalence the term provokes among modern Pagans. And so the hunt begins…

stilllife_modified

The etymological origins of the English word “shaman” are complicated (no, more complicated even than that), and arguably the term may not have originated among the Turkish-Tungusic speaking tribes in eastern Siberia, those indigenous populations that the Waincraft tradition refers to in its honest expression of respect. The English term “shaman” comes, through the German “Schamane,” from the Russian “sha’man” — a phonetic borrowing from the Evenki “šamán,” the word used among some of the indigenous peoples of eastern Siberia for their priests.

However, to say that the word “šamán” originated in and is native to Evenki or the Tungusic language family is inaccurate. As best as linguists can tell, the word “šamán” in the Evenki language is itself a phonetic borrowing from Chinese, “sha mén” (meaning, a Buddhist monk), and the Chinese term is a phonetic borrowing from Sanskrit (through Pali) of the word “sramana-s” (a religious devotee or ascetic). Since the Evenki term “šamán” is most accurately translated as “priest” rather than “monk,” it seems the term had already begun to change in meaning as a result of cross-cultural borrowing by the time it entered the Evenki language.

In discussing the constructed nature of terms like “shamanism,” author Mariko Namba Walter notes that, “When these terms are applied to non-Western communities, then, as in the study of shamanic art, the approach must be self-consciously critical and sensitive to diversity among indigenous and prehistoric communities.”* Walter continues:

[T]he generic shaman […] has currency, so long as (1) it is clear that it is not a fixed, nonnegotiable, value-free term, (2) indigenous art is not directly compared with Western art, and (3) the “art” in question is examined in its specific social context.

While considerations (1) and (3) seem reasonable enough, (2) drives a wedge, invoked by the specter of scare-quotes, that continues to separate “us” from “them,” their “art” from our art. In her book Druid, Shaman, Priest: Metaphors of Celtic Paganism, scholar Leslie Ellen Jones examines how these kinds of assumptions have influenced the academic study of the ancient Celts**:

Malcolm Chapman argues that the label “Celt” is in fact nothing more than a marker used by the civilized world of Greece and Rome — the center — to designate “those savages to the north and west of us” — the Other on the periphery. “Because ‘the Celts’ have consistently been peripheral,” he states, “they have always seemed backward and strange to the center, from which our theories of the social world were typically constructed”. […] However, the inherent fallacy of “center and periphery” anthropological analysis is that the anthropologist invariably places himself at the center and the people being studied at the periphery. The whole notion of conducting fieldwork is based on the premise that the anthropologist makes this journey outward, bringing back insight from the realms of the fringe.

We see this fallacy repeated in the deconstruction and use of (or refusal to use) the word “shaman.” To claim that the English term “shaman” originated among the indigenous tribes of Siberia — and not from the Chinese, or the Sanskrit — is to draw a sharp dividing line between what we consider to be legitimate and illegitimate instances of language borrowing. Further, drawing this line at this particular point in history highlights Russian imperialism but ignores the extensive contact of Siberian indigenous tribes with Chinese culture prior to their contact with Western colonial powers (during which the Tungus and Mongolian peoples were just as often aggressors and conquerors as they were those being conquered).

In other words, this interpretation of the word “shaman” only serves to reinforce a version of history defined by the Western/European perspective, in which Russia is a competing and/or allied imperial power, and indigenous peoples are assumed to be culturally isolated, unsophisticated and perpetually in the process of being conquered and disappearing. This version of history is most often put forward by the very Western academics who are themselves striving to be both accurate and sensitive to the cultures they’re studying. Yet, as Jones points out, they also often operate from the assumption of a “center and periphery” worldview in which the studied cultures are peripheral — the eternally marginalized Other. There is an irony in the fact that the modern Pagan’s desire to avoid using the word “shaman” out of respect for the indigenous peoples of Siberia ultimately rests on a foundation of Western academic navel-gazing which nevertheless (perhaps inevitably) perpetuates certain Western-centric biases.

deerskull_AlisonLeighLilly

Do we give up the hunt? Do we retreat into conceptual titles — such as Wildness, the Horned One, Lord of Animals — and risk losing the immediacy and intimacy of the god? Or do we seek out the culture-specific names — such as Gwyn ap Nudd, Herne, or Cernunnos, itself a reconstructed pan-Celtic etymological puzzle — and in doing so lose touch with the thrilling pulse of shared relationship that beats in our veins? I don’t know what to think — except that this absurdly complicated and almost-impossible-to-reconcile history of a name actually reflects the nature of this god (who might, perhaps, be well pleased to embrace the word “shaman,” if only to lampshade this complexity). In a sense, as a modern American Pagan, it will forever be impossible for me to “think my way out” of my cultural heritage. The navel-gazing of educated and culturally sensitive Western academics can still only take us so far. We cannot even safely assume that the indigenous peoples themselves can provide us with a clear-cut answer, for to do so would be to project onto them an overly simplistic, monolithic, reductionist view of these diverse tribes, as if they speak with a single voice, instead of acknowledging that they themselves contain diverse and unique individuals each with their own opinions and perspectives. There may be no straight-forward consensus.

My husband the linguist suggests, “Still, it might be better if we could find a native English word for the same idea…” and in the very same breath asks, “But, then, what is ‘native English’ anyway?” The word shaman entered the English language nearly 500 years ago. There are certainly plenty of words that are more recent borrowings which we consider to be unproblematically “native English” without batting an eye, usually due to our own ignorance about where those words come from. (My favorite — which is to say, most tragic — example is the word bikini, the skimpy two-piece bathing suit named after an island where the U.S. carried out nuclear bomb testing starting in the 1940s, after the forced relocation of its original inhabitants to another island where many of them later starved to death, unable ever to return home. Ad campaigns for the new swimsuit style bragged that it was “so hot, it’s radioactive!”)

How long does a word need to be incorporated into the English language in order to be considered “native”? Indeed, it is our very knowledge of the complicated history of the word shaman — highlighted and preserved by the very Western academics so often accused of its appropriation and misuse — that prevents us from considering it to be English in any uncomplicated way. But then, this is true of almost any word. English, especially American English, is particularly good at incorporating and borrowing from diverse other languages, and these borrowings are not always negative or the result of imperial insensitivity. The more knowledge we have — the more linguists can accurately trace the complex histories of words — the more English ceases to be a discrete and easily defined category. The idea of a “native English” seems to falter and lose meaning.

The language I speak is not even my language anymore. I am othered from my own native tongue.

Our knowledge, instead of leading us to certainty, betrays us — guiding us deeper into the confused complexity of the forest, the dark wilds of unknowing. This is holy bewilderment. This is the horizon that is forever receding and can never be reached; the periphery that is everywhere and nowhere. We cannot move from the center to the periphery without, in some way, bringing the center with us. We cannot reconcile ourselves to the perspective of the Other without becoming Other to our own selves and our own perspective — and yet, even this is not really to unite with the Other in its perception of itself, precisely because the Other is not other to itself. And so the very act of Othering ourselves in order to understand that perspective undermines our ability to do so.

We find ourselves spinning in circles. We look for a centered self that isn’t there, and when we find it, it is deeply bizarre. We are confronted by an Other that can never be centered or normalized, and because of the very fact that we cannot pin it down, we experience that Otherness as everywhere.

This is the nature of the hunt. It is the call of the Wild One.

Welcome to the chase…

hornedking_markcummins


*from Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, pp. 21-22

**pp. 27-28


Photo Credits:
• “Still life,” modified by Alison Leigh Lilly, original via Barn Images (CC)
• “Deer skull,” by Alison Leigh Lilly © 2015
• “The Horned King,” (CC) Mark Cummins [source]

Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, praxis

Goddess Withdrawn

It takes a long time to understand why she left.

She’d arrived one day with a burst of rain, a glint of sunlight on wilting ice. She’d come with mud and wind and trampled dogwood petals pressed into the cracks of the sidewalk, with quickened breath and light, with the smell of cheap wax candles burning well past midnight… And then one day, just as quickly, she was gone again.

wm_pom&candle_01

I lit more candles. I filled my room with light. I sang her praises into the heart of each flame. Night after night, I worked her name with my lips until it was worn and clumsy, just a collection of syllables. Exalted one, fiery arrow, queen of my people, poet, goddess. I pressed her name into the bright fires of prayer I kept in her honor, and still she would not speak.

Why did it bother me? Why did they annoy me so much, those who flaunt their closeness with their deities? Those who say that they are called, that they’ve been given some sacred duty to perform. They stride with such confidence into every bright day, their eyes and armor glistening with the borrowed glory of their service to the gods. Gods that are bright, always so bright, burning with all that purpose and power — and all I had were my little candles, the anemic flame, the dark slumped wick.

Why don’t you answer? I asked. Why can’t I hear you? Why don’t you give me a mission, a purpose, some great deed to do in your name, for your greater glory?

In the warmth of the lengthening days, she only laughed.

Remember how it was? Remember the mornings — before all this noise and light, before all this fire and glory — the sensual squish of mud beneath your feet, the pressure of rain plastering your silk pink soul to the earth like so many trampled petals already torn and turning to rot. Remember the sweet, dark taste of dusk. Remember the way it felt to pour yourself into the rich soft soil, to give yourself to the breeze. To bend yourself to the work — and how the work grew up around you, like a rising ecstasy.

She has gone now, withdrawn. I hear her only in the long quiet of her leaving. In her silence, she seems to say, I have no need of you. In her absence, she speaks: What could you possibly offer me?

The only demand is the work itself, for which there is no other reward.

Why does it bother me when they light candles to their gods, enunciating the holy names loudly and precisely before every act? Do I envy them the close counsel they claim to enjoy? A god to guide their every move. An offering to trade for their every desire. I think it might be nice to want this kind of greatness — to want so desperately for there to be some other reason for all this striving, some great gracious power to justify it all. (And yet, I feel embarrassed for them — what little gods they must have, to be so glorified by these mediocre deeds…)

In the coolness of the night, she only laughs.

What could I possibly offer her? All my candles have burned down. I have invoked every holy name I know, and they have all fallen back into silence. It is a terrible, malicious gift, this freedom. To know my choices are all my own. To accept that this, the work itself — though it might never be — must be enough.

And in the darkness she seems to say, This, too, is my gift: the dark absence of glory, the soft skin of night that gives way before you, withdrawing forever into longing. The slumped wick blackened and bent double, always obscured, giving itself over to the steady, burning work that is never done.

I had to go, she seems to say. How else were you to learn what light is yours?

"Cosmic Dance," by Prabhu B Doss (CC)
art, Featured, Holy Wild, peace

Art, Entertainment and the Technology of the Sacred

Or,
Satire, Irony & the Discourse on Pagan Diversity

Recent health issues have prevented me from doing much blogging this winter, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to revisit an essay I wrote almost two years ago but never published.

By the time I had gathered my thoughts and written this post, much of the controversy which originally inspired it had calmed, and the conversation in the larger Pagan community had moved on. Yet many of the issues at the heart of that controversy remained only half-articulated, and as a community, we’ve continued to encounter many of them again and again, albeit in always shifting forms. Most recently, talks and events at this year’s Pantheacon — including those involving a satirical newsletter mocking racist organizations (written in part by a Pagan of color), and the unintended but very real hurt it caused to some other Pagans of color — echo the themes I attempted to address in this essay when I wrote it almost two years ago.

How do we grapple with the sacred ambivalence of art, poetry and satire, in our theology and in our politics? How do we distinguish between healthy cross-cultural borrowing through art and other forms of communication, and harmful cultural appropriation? Between respect for historical accuracy and unique cultural contexts, and an obsession with cultural purity that so easily gives way to exclusion and racism? How do we express ourselves and explore our uncertainties freely and respectfully in the context of difficult conversations, especially about issues of injustice and inequality when the stakes are so high and the pain so raw? Two years ago, some Pagans objected to the characterization of ritual as art/entertainment because to them it implied that their religion was not being “taken seriously” by others. Today, some Pagans (not all of them the same) are suggesting that there are some political issues that are “too serious for satire.” I hope that examining some of the parallels between these conversations, separated by time and subject matter, might give us some insight into the deeper themes that our community is struggling to articulate during our long, slow coming-of-age, and how those themes are reflected in conversations about sometimes vastly different issues.

Over the past week, I’ve done some gentle editing on this essay, but for the most part it remains how I originally wrote it. For that reason, the references are almost entirely to the events surrounding the “pop-culture Paganism” controversy of two years ago, and do not directly reference current events. However, I’m a strong believer in learning from history; in this case, our own (very recent) history. I hope that this essay can offer all of us in the Pagan community who care deeply about these issues — especially those who, like myself, feel that art, poetry and satire are sacred forms of expression capable of provoking deep healing and great transformation — something to contemplate as we move forward in healthy and healing ways.

My heart aches with the weight of the racism so prevalent in American society, and in our own community. But I’m also concerned by references I have seen recently to satire as “weaponized poetry” and its elision with the use of irony as a way of obfuscating, manipulating or directing violence against others.* I’m concerned by claims that satire is only appropriate when “everyone understands” it and the satirist “understands everything” about the issue — which is another way of saying that it is never appropriate, for who could possibly claim to have such a comprehensive and complete understanding, or such control over the understanding of others?

A community that cannot tell the difference between poetry and propaganda, between satire and scorn, is a community at risk of losing its grasp of the real political power of art. It is a community at risk of sliding into the brittle literalism and harmful intolerance of fundamentalism that is actively hostile to expressions of ambivalence, uncertainty, mystery, curiosity and, in the end, diversity itself. In light of these concerns, I wanted to share this essay as a robust defense of the sacred value of art, poetry and satire within both our theological explorations and our political discourse. It is my view that ambivalence itself can be sacred, for it opens us to authentic experiences of others which may be unexpected or challenging, and so we can appreciate this ambivalence and the art forms that express it as powerful and meaningful aspects of our relationship with the numinous, and with each other.

"Cosmic Dance," by Prabhu B Doss (CC)

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]I[/dropcap] met the gods in a high school auditorium.

It began with a clap of thunder, a ripple of woodwinds and the words, “There is an island where rivers run deep…”

And then the whole vivid magic of the musical Once On This Island blossomed on stage. It was the spring of my sophomore year, I was almost sixteen, and I was coming into my own. I had finally quit the soccer team I’d played on since grade school just to please my parents, and I was writing poetry and learning guitar and generally throwing myself headlong into becoming the true artsy hippie chick I’d always wanted to be. I couldn’t sing, dance or act worth shit, but when a friend mentioned that the high school theater group had a spot open on the lighting technician crew, I signed up.

That spring I spent hours squirreled away in the tiny, dimly-lit lighting booth at the back of the theater, up among the dust and stacks of moldy, half-forgotten storage boxes just below the roof access ladder. I flipped switches and swung the spotlight across the stage, and a whole world came to life below me full of sound and fury and laughter and music and dance and so much color. And every once in awhile, the old light board would short out, plunging the stage into darkness, and I’d have to show it some tough love with a well-aimed kick or strangle it into submission with some electrical tape. But that’s how my art has always been — not glamorous and center stage, but just on the awkward side of nerdy, and done mostly in the dark.

I wouldn’t attend my first Pagan ritual until I was in college a few years later. But when I look back at that spring of my high school sophomore year, what I remember is the dawning sense of the sacred that seemed to bubble up from among the trilling flutes and rumbling drums in the orchestra pit. I remember the costumes swirling and flashing in a riot of color, set against a minimalist background of black-cardboard silhouetted trees. I remember the kind-hearted giggles among the dancers at their missteps and mess-ups as they learned their moves, and the soaring sense of awe when the singers hit those high notes, voices swept up on a surge of adrenaline and startled pride. I remember the itch to dance moving through my body like an unspoken prayer as I sat alone in that dark little booth.

And I remember watching my fellow students down on the stage, belting out songs in honor of the gods of earth and sea, love and death, and wondering… What did it feel like to sing praises in honor of gods you didn’t really believe in? I wondered if the more conservative Christians among them were wincing, or doing penance after rehearsal each night. Somehow, I doubted it. It was all just good entertainment, after all.

But then, truly good entertainment is never just that. Art is sacred. It shapes the way we see the world. It tunes us to new ways of being and thinking. It moves us to love, fear, grief and longing. It opens us to the realities of our own mortality, and to the possibilities of a life fully lived, set loose by death into the realm of memory and legacy. Storytelling, music, dance — the living arts of body and community — the preserving arts of pigments and paints, clay and stone.

"Asia Global Belly Dance Competition 2012, held in Singapore," by Matt Paish (CC)

Pagans With Hammers

There has been a perennial debate in the Pagan community about art, entertainment and theology, and their influences on modern Paganism. There have even been times when I’ve found myself caught off-guard by the ambivalence towards art and poetry expressed by Pagans who I would have thought would be strong advocates for its inclusion and celebration — a response that has challenged me to examine my own complex reactions to this topic. One such response came from Christine Hoff Kraemer, who wrote:

As someone who makes her living largely at a computer screen, I know I already struggle to be present with my little square of earth and its particular flora and fauna (including the human fauna who are my neighbors). […] I worry that fiction can have an escapist quality, and that engaging with it too directly in my spiritual life might distract me even further from the local. [emphasis added]

It struck me as strange that Kraemer would elide fiction and “time on the computer.” I could at least understand the Reconstructionists’ theological argument against newly-invented gods (even if I didn’t agree with it), but there was something unsettling to me about this notion of putting fiction, and art more generally, at odds with an attentive engagement with the natural world.

In another post, a response to an interview with secular atheist Pagan Amy B. that appeared on Jason Mankey’s blog, John Halstead shared his concerned reaction to Amy’s comment that she viewed ritual primarily as a form of entertainment:

When I read that, I thought, “Crap! This will confirm the worst fears of theistic Pagans about non-theists.” I commented on Jason’s blog and expressed my concern, and I was glad to see other non-theists speak up as well. […] Many non-theistic Pagans, including myself, have a deep sense of spirituality and treat ritual as something sacred.

Reading the rest of Amy’s interview, I wondered if “entertainment” was really the word she was looking for. She goes on to speak about the power and beauty of ritual done well, and the social and psychological implications of a shared physical, aesthetic experience. It seemed to me that she was speaking not so much of “mere” entertainment, but of the power of art.

There’s good reason to feel uneasy about equating art with entertainment, or fiction with “time on the computer.” In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman explores the differences between entertainment and what he calls “enchantment,” drawing heavily on Marshall McLuhan’s theories concerning the relationship between various media, the experiences they provoke and the ideas they communicate. Postman’s focus in this book is on the effects that the medium of television had on the many different forms of cultural discourse — from politics to religion to family life — in the modern Western world, particularly leading up to the mid-80s. But in his 1998 talk, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” (pdf), he anticipated the coming digital age of smart phones and social media when he noted:

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. […] The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether. [emphasis added]

What can we say of a culture in which access to the multi-media cacophony of the internet has become ubiquitous, instantaneous and interactive? To a person with a smart phone, everything looks like a Tumblr post. (And warrants the same call-out culture response.) As Postman rightly points out:

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. […] A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. [emphasis added]

"dancing with lights," by petros asimomytis (CC)

The debate over pop culture and theology that has raged in the Pagan community seems to me to be a debate about how technology has changed everything, including art and entertainment. One of those changes is that, at a basic level, the carefully constructed division between the two has begun to break down. We’re no longer sure where “mere” entertainment stops, and true art begins. We now live in a world where we make our own entertainment: from internet memes that seem to take on a rollicking life of their own as they crowd-surf the crowd-source, to painstakingly edited YouTube videos of autotuned local news reports and comic artists who spend hours on cartoons that intentionally mimic the look of a five-year-old who can’t draw. We live in a world where the best forms of entertainment are often meta-commentaries on the medium itself, where the sacred art of satire rubs elbows with the laziness of cynicism and sarcasm, where sincerity is in constant rivalry with irony, and everybody’s a hipster who doesn’t care if you care that they actually care.

Why We Tell The Story

So what are the “worst fears” of some polytheists that Halstead worries will be confirmed when they are confronted with the beliefs and opinions of other polytheistic and non-theist Pagans?

Perhaps most important to this conversation is Postman’s “fifth idea,” which is worth quoting in full:

I come now to the fifth and final idea, which is that media tend to become mythic. I use this word in the sense in which it was used by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. He used the word “myth” to refer to a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things. I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is. It is this way with many products of human culture but with none more consistently than technology. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context. When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control. [emphasis added]

As much as the polytheist debate has been about theology, it has also been about the mythic place of media in our religious practices.

In some reconstructionist and devotional polytheists who argue in favor of historical accuracy, scholarly research and deity-centered ritual, we can see a parallel to Postman’s “computer people” who value data and information as the primary organizing principle of reality. From this perspective, it matters at a fundamental level that the gods are “real,” external, discrete, identifiable — in short, the gods are matters of fact. Their existence is a piece of information, a point of data, that must be taken into consideration, factored into whatever code we live by if we expect that code to function properly. The growing emphasis on piety, ritual efficacy and right relationship among some Pagans reflects this desire to organize and manage the “data” of the gods’ existence in a way that will not break down or return inexplicable error messages that bring our engagement with the real world to a grinding halt. From this perspective, ambiguity in our language is an obstacle to clarity and precision that can quickly derail our attempts to live devoutly.

To “smart phone people,” however, data no longer represents inviolate truth. Facts make up the messy, quantum sludge of the collective, crowd-sourced mind out of which a consensus reality congeals. Given the overwhelming and sometimes self-contradictory milieu, there is not necessarily any way to “function properly” in the midst of this onslaught of information, no way to factor in every stray data point. Attempts to write the perfect code end up too brittle to keep up with the pace and unpredictability of change, and no matter how good your phone’s data plan, sometimes you just can’t get a signal. In fact, the task of distinguishing the signal from the noise is ultimately the work of a lifetime, a creative process of individual exploration and self-expression. From the viewpoint of some pop-culture Pagans, there is simply no reliable way to differentiate the gods as external “facts” from the socially constructed and mediated experiences of those gods. For these polytheists, ritual is like the Double-Rainbow Song — a spontaneous response to awe, autotuned, imitated, parodied and adapted into a thousand unique derivations and expressions, some of which are really quite beautiful and reverent. To “smart phone” Pagans, theology is Wikipedia.

Of course, these are not strictly defined and mutually exclusive categories; none of us are always and only one or the other. We may be “computer people” about some things, and “smart phone people” about others. At other times, we may be “television people,” “pencil people” or even “pigment-and-paintbrush people” or “hammer-and-anvil people.” All of us find ourselves in a matrix of multiple-belonging, and so many of us often feel the pressure to adjust ourselves to more neatly fit into only one category, to be only one kind of person.

Because It Might Lead To Dancing

There is an old joke that goes: Why are Southern Baptists against sex outside of marriage? Because it might lead to dancing. At the risk of ruining the joke by explaining it, the punchline works because it flips on its head the assumptions about the goal of a particular religious group and its authority figures. The joke plays on the realization that dancing itself can be subversive in its own right, perhaps even more so than sex. The act of dancing can radically shape our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. And so by extension, it can influence (and be influenced by) all of the ways that we experience the intensity of intimate relationship. It can let joy, pleasure and rebellion leak in where figures of authority would prefer to enforce conformity in the name of “seriousness.”

"let's dance! Mevlevi Sufi Whirling Dervishes," by Tinou Bao (CC)

Art has always held a controversial place in relation to authority, in particular religious authority. It can be used to shore up this authority and to reinforce worldviews, to elevate some aspects of reality to the realm of untouchability while dismissing others as merely frivolous and so justifiably ignored. Art always involves an active, intentional participation in the world; it shapes and changes that medium within which it participates. Without an appreciation for the potential power of art to shape our relationship with the world around us, art as “mere entertainment” can become something that distracts us from engaging more deeply with the world-as-it-is apart from its re-creation within the aesthetic experience. As a species, we are capable of constructing works of fantasy that are self-referential and appear to be self-reaffirming. Because works of art can present us with a sense of wholeness and coherence, balance and completeness, we always run the risk of mistaking the work itself for a comprehensive view of reality — we can become convinced that a particular artistic representation is a “matter of fact.” In short, when we no longer recognize art as art, we risk taking it as reality. Works of art cease to be cultural artifacts and are instead perceived to be, as Postman put it, “gifts of nature” that have achieved mythic status.

If sex can lead to dancing, the Southern Baptists of our joke might worry that the joy and pleasure of the aesthetic act of dancing may come to be seen as synonymous with sexuality and sexual relationship itself, obscuring aspects of sexuality that are not, in fact, very much like dancing at all (such as the ethical and biological implications of sex and its potential long-term results). We can laugh at this joke because it highlights extremist and fundamentalist attitudes that fear pleasure and aesthetic self-expression even more than sex. But this potential confusion between works of art and the realities with which they play fast and foot-loose is an issue we can see even in more open and inclusive communities. If modern Pagans intentionally mythologize works of art or entertainment, might they not risk placing these cultural artifacts “beyond our control,” reimagining them as “gifts of nature” rather than as products of our own human hands? To intentionally mythologize a work of art or entertainment may give undue authority to the human creators of those works, allowing the particular worldview that their work embodies to rise to the level of “reality” or natural fact.

Yet art can also be used to deconstruct or challenge this authority as well, and to undermine current mainstream worldviews. The very basic process of making art does this: the artist must learn how to effectively and meaningfully engage with a physical medium that is not infinitely malleable, a passive subject to the human will, but which has its own limitations and puts up its own unique forms of resistance. Making art puts us in touch with the “real world” around us in a very immediate and undeniable way — art is engagement. Great art does this not only for the artist, but for the audience as well, forcing us to come to terms with the constructed nature of the work itself by calling our attention to its own artifice. The political potential of such art lies in its ability to show us the ways that our own presumed worldview is itself “artificial,” a cultural artifact that is the product of a specific place and time. In reminding us of the constructed nature of our experience of reality and forcing us to confront the natural limits of the media through which we communicate with each other, art can open doors to a deeper appreciation of the world around us. It can be a doorway to the gods, breaking open worldviews that have become too self-referential and stagnant.

Which way you view the role of art and entertainment in modern Paganism depends on where you stand and what you have at stake. Does art undermine “serious” belief in what is actually real, or does it crack open stale notions of reality to let in a fresh breath of spirit? Does it deliberately obscure the processes of meaning-making, or does it expose those processes and invite fuller, more self-aware participation in them? There aren’t necessarily any “right answers” to these questions — only complexly overlapping views with a wide variety of (sometimes unexpected or unintended) consequences.

"Traditional Kandyan Dance," by Gwenael Piaser (CC)

Gods in Disguise

Where do I stand? Somewhere between the “smart phone people,” and the people who still see the function of art as rooted in a community of storytellers, gathered together around the hearthfire at night whispering old familiar tales into the darkness, giving life to the heroes, gods and sacred landscapes of memory and myth through the movement and music of our own bodies in a cooperative, participatory experience…

Modern social media and technology allow this kind of storytelling to take on new forms, and we often find ourselves retelling old stories in new and surprising ways. When I met the gods in high school, I did not know them for what they were.** They were gods in disguise, gods acted out and embodied by people who did not really believe in them (except, perhaps, for their shared belief in the beauty and value to be found in good art). These were gods hidden behind the veil of “mere entertainment” — but that did not keep them from being gods, and sparking in me a deep longing to explore the mystery of the Many that I sensed unfolding before me. An important aspect of my relationship with the gods is the long-standing belief (confirmed by experience) that the gods are so much more than I can possibly conceive or control. They will find their own ways into the human heart and mind, even if it means that on occasion they have to take a detour through Hollywood.

The musical “Once On This Island” still in many ways defines my sense of connection and the spirit of my own approach to worship. My heart hears the song, my feet move along, and to the music of the gods, I dance. And as the song goes, much of the time I feel that I am “dancing just to stay alive.” This is how essential, how absolutely vital art and poetry are to my spiritual life.

"Dance like no one is watching," by Heather (CC)


* The differences between satire and irony are subtle, but crucial. Satire relies on the intentional use of ambiguity and uncertainty to question the presumed authority of current systems of power, while irony asserts itself as a superior frame of reference, often through the use of cynicism, sarcasm or disdain. While irony can be used as one (of many) techniques in satire, it is in no way synonymous with it, nor can the political function of satire be reduced to a simplistic one-to-one comparison to irony, cynicism, propaganda or sophistry.

** I was also not yet familiar with the complex issues of cultural appropriation and racism that potentially arise when stories about people of color are retold by a mostly white teenage cast. I note this here, not to denounce the choice of the adult supervising staff to put on this particular musical at my high school — being involved in the production profoundly influenced me in many ways, ways that I believe have helped me become more sensitive to and passionate about issues of justice and equality — but I want to acknowledge my own ignorance about the broader implications of these issues that this choice took for granted or failed to address at the time. This is made all the more complex by the history of cultural borrowing underlying Once On This Island itself, which is a musical adaptation of a novel by a Trinidad-born American writer who herself had drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and Shakespear’s “Romeo and Juliet” for inspiration. Even now, with more awareness about these issues than I had then, I’m still unsure about whether my high school’s choice to put on this play is to be criticized as insensitive, or applauded as appreciative of diversity.


Photo Credits:

• “Cosmic Dance,” by Prabhu B Doss (CC) [source]
• “Asia Global Belly Dance Competition 2012,” by Matt Paish (CC) [source]
• “dancing with lights,” by petros asimomytis (CC) [source]
• “let’s dance! Mevlevi Sufi Whirling Dervishes,” by Tinou Bao (CC) [source]
• “Traditional Kandyan Dance,” by Gwenael Piaser (CC) [source]
• “Dance like no one is watching,” by Heather (CC) [source]

Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist, by Alison Leigh Lilly
Muse in Brief

Meme Me…

Hey look, someone on Twitter made a meme out of me! I feel honored! (Does this mean I get to start wearing a “Ask Me About My Meme” button on my lapel?)

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

From my post, “Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist.”

Earth Wind Water, by Christopher Beikmann
Deep Ecology, Featured, Holy Wild, Theology

Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist

The other day I was talking with Jeff about a recent post by Morpheus Ravenna on ritual theory for polytheists, and he said something so profound in its simplicity that it made me gasp in recognition. I was noting how all of Ravenna’s conclusions about the reality of the gods seemed to assume that the gods are very much just like people, with the same needs, desires and expectations. Jeff replied:

The problem with asserting that the only gods that are “real” are those that are like humans is that it takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real.

Earth Wind Water, by Christopher Beikmann

This is how I feel when I read posts by hard polytheists and posts such as Ravenna’s*. It’s not that I disagree with her about the importance of gratitude, commitment, respect, receptivity or deep reciprocity as essential aspects of polytheistic ritual. I affirm those values wholeheartedly and hold to them with fierce stubbornness in my own ritual practices.

Where we disagree is in the language and metaphors we use to talk about the gods. Ravenna speaks of her gods like they’re celebrities or superheroes, and her explanations for what the gods want and expect from us are all drawn from examples of interpersonal human relationships — how we might treat a dinner guest, a keynote speaker, or a new friend. She insists that if we perform rituals in ways that are not grounded in the belief that our gods have human-like behaviors and attitudes, then we must not believe the gods are “real.”

But I do believe my gods are real. Some of them are human-like, but many of them are not. Many of them are more like how Sara Amis describes her encounters with the divine:

This is how I understand the divine, and why I continue to seek it in the resolutely non-human world, with which we nonetheless recognize a numinous kinship. Sometimes, it will turn and lock eyes with you, lifting you out of yourself, changing everything. Other times, it will give you the side-eye and swoop away, leaving you longing for retreating beauty. You might not see it every single time you go looking, or where you expect to find it. No matter how common the experience, every time you stumble across mystery, or independent wild being, it is a surprise and a miracle. And every day, you can look.

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?

God Of The Mountain, by Tim Johnson

You might not understand or relate to the metaphors that I use to describe my gods, but that does not mean that those gods are not real, or that I am being disingenuous about my beliefs. My rituals may look different from yours or have a different purpose, but that does not mean that they are incompetent or superficial.

For me, the hard polytheist definition of the gods as “separate, discrete and individual beings” is simply too brittle, placing undue focus on exclusionary boundaries and either/or ontological experiences. Recently, it seems to be increasingly common to talk about Pagan theology as if all polytheism were hard polytheism. Posts like Ravenna’s and Rhyd Wildermuth’s speak on behalf of polytheists without acknowledging that there are polytheists like myself who do not agree with the anthropocentric and theologically transcendent views of hard polytheism. (In fact, Wildermuth makes the mistake of labeling me a humanistic/non-theistic Pagan, despite my many, many, many, many writings about my polytheism.**) They worry that Pagans like myself are rejecting or denying their gods…. What they don’t seem to understand is that by insisting that gods can be “real” only if they fit the definition offered by hard polytheists, they are actively denying the reality of gods that may be wholly unlike the anthropomorphic, discrete and separate beings that hard polytheists worship. When they assume that because I am not a hard polytheist, I must therefore be a non-theist, they reject my experiences of my own gods as legitimate encounters with the divine.

My gods are not always like human beings. Sometimes my gods are like mountains, sometimes they are like mist. Sometimes I seek my gods in the forests, sometimes in ritual space or the beat of the drum. Sometimes my gods are inscrutable or apophatic, and my relationship with them is one of longing and seeking rather than invocation and offering. And sometimes it is the mountains themselves who are gods, and the rivers and trees who speak.

What I would like to see is a renewed sense of inclusivity among Pagan polytheists, and a return to the possibility that hard polytheism is only one way out of many to seek authentic relationship with the many different deities in this world full of gods.


* Please see Morpheus Ravenna’s clarification and my response in the comments below.

** It saddens me that we are losing the nuances of theological and spiritual exploration in this rush to establish which side of the hard-polytheist/non-theist debate everyone is on. The fact that I do not wear a hard polytheist flag pin on my lapel during every theological debate has apparently been enough to earn me the accusation of having “humanist/naturalistic [that is, atheist] tendencies” in a post that otherwise denounces this kind of simplistic othering. What’s more, Wildermuth’s interpretation of the Google+ discussion he quotes is clearly influenced at a basic level by the assumption that I am an atheist. When I asked questions meant to provoke a conversation about how our personal values inform our relationship with the gods and our approach to discerning the health of those relationships, he chose instead to see my questions as simplistic attacks on the existence of the gods themselves — not only missing an opportunity for a more complex and challenging conversation, but dismissing me as insensitive, even hostile, towards mystical experiences (clearly assuming that I’ve had none of my own), adding personal insult to social injury.


Photo Credits:
• “Earth Wind Water,” by Christopher Beikmann © 2007 [Purchase a print here]
• “Mountain God,” by Timothy Johnson © 2010 [source]