Holy Wild, justice

Embarrassment: An Invitation to Growth


Embarrassment has been a hot topic in the Pagan blogosphere this week, and it has me thinking about my own relationship with the Pagan community. But it also has me pondering my relationship with embarrassment itself.

The question of how we relate to our own embarrassment is not something I’ve seen discussed in any of the many interesting and provocative posts being shared on this topic by people like Teo Bishop and John Halstead. These posts focus, instead, on how the behaviors and beliefs of other Pagans are a source of disappointment and sometimes cause for concern about the maturity of the community. For instance, John writes:

Paganism for me was a rich and complex tradition with the potential to transform consciousness and, dare I say, save the soul of the world. But the public face of Paganism seemed to me silly and naive. […] I was not embarrassed about my Paganism. I was embarrassed by “their” Paganism. I was afraid of being associated with the public face of Paganism as I have come to know it.

I can’t say that I’m unfamiliar with this feeling of embarrassment. Unlike John, my introduction to Paganism was not in books or online, but through actual, in-person engagement with other Pagans. While working on my thesis, I attended Pagan rituals and interviewed participants as part of my field research. The Pagans I talked to tended to be earnest and studious about their work, pulling all-nighters in the run-up to a scheduled ritual doing research into the gods and goddesses they planned to invoke and their associated cultural contexts. But the rituals themselves often fell flat. (The choreographed sword fight that dragged on twenty minutes too long. The moment when all the lights in the circle were doused to evoke the mystery of the Earth’s tomb/womb, only to be disrupted by the ritual leaders fumbling around for props in the dark.) And the post-ritual wrap-ups, when the organizers gathered together to discuss the pros and cons of the event, were often filled with comments that sounded a lot like justifications for screw ups. (The strong presence of the Powers of Air served as an explanation for why the priestess couldn’t get her long plastic grill lighter to spark and catch on the altar’s candle. The challenging riddles of the gods, as an explanation for why the rune divination after an offering turned out to be nonsensical, irrelevant or in direct contradiction to the ritual’s theme.)

But while I was doing this field research and meeting Pagans in person, cringing sometimes at the lack of polish and professionalism, I was also reading. The philosophies and theologies that I found in my reading excited and intrigued me, and the aesthetic qualities of nature-centered ritual moved me in the same ways that great literature and poetry inspired me (even if the realization of this aesthetic was not always easy to pull off in practice). I was pretty young and feeling rather spiritually experimental myself, and so it was a combination of these direct experiences of Pagan ritual and my own reading that spurred me to start exploring Paganism in my own life. I vividly remember a conversation I had at the time with a Pagan friend: I mentioned my excitement over some of the simpler, personal rituals and how I saw in them the potential to challenge our deeply-held assumptions about the world and to connect more directly with Spirit.

His response was one of embarrassment: He was embarrassed by me.

This was the first time I was struck by how powerful a force embarrassment was within the Pagan community. My enthusiasm seemed to this other Pagan to be as “fluffy bunny” and poorly informed as some of the rituals presented by his very own Pagan group had seemed to me, and his response to my enthusiasm was to distance himself from it (and in doing so, to discourage me from expressing it). In fact, as our conversation continued, I came to realize that my own embarrassment at some of the over-blown, overly-serious rituals I’d attended had been interpreted as a failure on my part to fully grasp the deeper nature of those rituals. My enthusiasm and embarrassment alike were simply signs, to others, that I had not yet attained the cooly competent attitude of the “serious” Pagan. But it also seemed to me that this was really just the same detached, post-cynical “professionalism” that had led to the dull sermons and condescending intolerance of so many modern mainstream religions, the very problems I had so hoped Paganism would be able to challenge in the first place.

I can’t help but hear echoes of this experience when I read these recent posts about Pagan embarrassment. While John locates his love of Paganism in the feminist and process theologies that have informed his understanding of deity as the nondiscriminating All-of-All, it seems his response to his own embarrassment is to step back into the role of the discriminating gentleman of refined tastes who finds himself discomfited by the overly-emotional and seemingly irrational exuberances of his fellow Pagans. In other words, he is disturbed by evidence in our community of the messiness of the nonrational psycho-spiritual experience, when his own theology says he should be celebrating it. After all, this is the very aspect of the religious life that feminist theology encourages us to embrace as powerful and transformative, rather than dismissing it as “mere superstition” and therefore less authentic or less relevant than the rational, analytical part of our religious life. (And don’t get me wrong, I really like John’s writing in general and I have a lot of respect for him. This is more about our lack of self-analysis when it comes to the dual nature of our embarrassment and how that embarrassment sometimes reflects a lurking inconsistency in our own beliefs.)

Making Friends with Embarrassment

Growing up with an incredibly pale complexion that flushed as brilliant red as a tomato at the least bit of discomfort, I couldn’t avoid developing a personal relationship with my own embarrassment. I learned early on that when others perceived my embarrassment, they almost always assumed that it was because I was ashamed of myself, and I was encouraged — in all the subtle ways that culture shapes the individual psyche — to turn a critical eye on my embarrassment and question how it might reflect my various flaws. Maybe this is because, in our culture, male embarrassment is more often perceived as a value judgment about others, while female embarrassment is interpreted as a response to personal failing.

ConscienceAnd maybe this was unfair (no, scratch that, it was definitely unfair), but one thing it did was force me to confront the personal psychological aspect of my embarrassment directly. I had to learn to befriend my embarrassment, to allow it to be my teacher. Because embarrassment would be so clearly written on my face, I had to hunt down my embarrassment with a certain ruthlessness. If I wanted to interview for that job I wanted, or get along with those relatives who enjoy Fox News a bit too much, or simply be taken seriously as an intelligent, articulate person. I would have to master my embarrassment if I wanted to get through life without others constantly assuming I was ashamed of myself.

The result was a deep familiarity with the psychological sources of my embarrassment. Sure, there were times when I was embarrassed by something I had done or said, mistakes I’d made or social faux-pas I’d tripped into in ignorance. But just as often, I was embarrassed by what others were doing or saying — and it was this embarrassment that I had to grapple with if I was going to function as a socially well-adjusted human being, because the truth is, no matter how polished we might make ourselves, we don’t have control over how other people behave or what they think, and half the time, we don’t have enough information to form an accurate opinion anyway. When we stop and ask ourselves why we feel embarrassed, we soon notice that embarrassment arises from an anticipation of pain or discomfort.

Embarrassment is really all about fear and insecurity and, on the other hand, strength and flexibility.

I came to realize that my own moments of embarrassment almost always resulted from a shallow engagement with the person who was causing me embarrassment, and an impoverished relationship with my own sense of self. The more I was able to engage with other people and relate to their perspectives, the more my own embarrassment subsided because I felt more secure in my ability to anticipate and navigate social tensions. The times when I felt most worried about being judged as shallow or silly because of my associations were the times when I was least secure about my own reasons for doing and believing as I did, unsure that I had the strength or presence of mind to connect with others beyond trivial first impressions.

This isn’t exactly a startling new insight. Anyone with teenage kids (or who has recently or not so recently been a teenager themselves) knows how powerfully the experience of embarrassment is tied up with the tumultuously evolving self-identity that comes with adolescence. Teens are mortified by how stuffy and out-of-touch their parents are, and parents in their turn are embarrassed by the way their messy, emotional, irrational teenagers seem to parade around all of the family dysfunction in public. Teens are also deeply invested in belonging to the right in-groups that will guard them effectively against embarrassment, in part because all of their energy and focus is engaged in the very difficult, radical work of testing out new skills and developing new talents. They earn allegiance in a peer group through a strange mix of conformity and bold rebellion, and they do it in order to shore up their personal boundaries during a time when their self-identities are undergoing enormous change and they’re discovering the kinds of roles they will play in adult society. They need to do this work safely, in a peer group that will support them and even admire them for their messiness and experimentation, instead of judging them for their failure to have already become competent (stuffy, boring) adults.

Sincerity, Competence and Risk

And here we are again. The old, ongoing debate about sincerity versus competence. Despite what some have claimed, it’s been my experience that those who highly value sincerity within the Pagan community almost never advocate (or even excuse) incompetence. On the contrary, they are more likely to admit to incompetence, especially their own, and confront it as an opportunity to learn. They are more likely to push beyond the shallow judgement of externalities to look at the underlying influences that shape our actions and expressions, understanding how the latter give rise to the former. They often show a great appreciation for the talents and skills of others and are as enthusiastic in their support for others’ explorations, experimentations and successes as they are about their own. Sincerity is an attitude of honesty, openness and a lack of duplicity (even about one’s own faults); it shares etymological roots with words like “crescent” and “crescendo,” words of process and growth.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those in the Pagan community who worry overly-much about the competence or incompetence of others are often just as embarrassed by expressions of sincerity, regardless of the competence with which that sincerity is expressed. (Indeed, being enthusiastically sincere can sometimes be taken as a sign that you must therefore be incompetent, by people who have no other criteria on which to base their judgement!) This is not because sincerity is actually a sign of incompetence. Although someone who is honest with themselves and others about their own imperfections might provoke our embarrassment as we anticipate the potential for failure, it’s perfectly possible for someone to be both sincere and competent. They might just be more interested in cultivating and refining their skills, and more willing to push themselves to try new things, than they are in resting comfortably on the competencies they’ve already developed. But we need people like that, who are willing to push themselves to grow and risk failure, risk embarrassment.

I Promise Not To PeekBut I think this embarrassment about sincerity also has another explanation, beyond simply our aversion to risk-taking. I think it actually stems from the unchallenged attitudes of mainstream society itself, which equates the emotional, nonrational aspect of the self with what is “feminine,” and views it as less valuable than detached, professional, rational — that is to say, “masculine” — aspects. In this view, these feminine traits are supposed to be kept in the home, a private matter, and only masculine traits like polished competence and educated reason are deemed acceptable for the public forum. People are perfectly welcome to experiment, take risks and mess up, so long as they do it privately and present only their best, most composed face to the rest of the world. So concerned are we with this distinction that we’ve even invented a term to mark the difference between private exploration and community acceptability: Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG.

Making a Mess of Community

The irony here is twofold. First of all, we cannot engage in building community and navigating social tensions in the privacy of our own minds. This kind of work has to be public. If we want a strong, flexible, mature community, than the process of our exploration and experimentation has to take place publicly. There’s just no other way to do it.

Furthermore, the obsession with embarrassment, this fear of incompetence, is itself the biggest stumbling block to the process of maturing into a serious, spiritually authentic community. There is a very good reason why teenagers balk against the stuffy, boring restrictions of adulthood — plenty of adults really are out of touch with their own creative processes because they’ve allowed themselves to become overly concerned with their fears of embarrassment. Creative endeavors falter under the yolk of constant editorial critique and oversight. If we cannot allow ourselves to be whole, messy people in public when we are in community with each other, then our spiritual community will remain largely an excuse for private posturing and play-acting.

It is when we confront our own messiness in the presence of others that we are forced to grow, but to do that we have to first overcome our fear of being seen as messy. And that means confronting our embarrassment at the thought of being perceived as messy-by-association. Like adolescents (for we are a very young community), we need a safe social space within which our experimentation and courageous rejection of old norms is not only welcomed and supported, but applauded and admired. Otherwise, we remain children trying to dress up in our parents’ clothes.

And that also means we need voices like John’s and Teo’s (and others’) to remain part of the community, to bring their sober perspectives and their appreciation of complexity to bear on the ways we express ourselves and communicate with each other. I might not agree with John’s take on Paganism, but I’m disappointed by the reactions to his piece that suggest he should stop calling himself a Pagan unless he’s willing to accept all aspects of Paganism uncritically, or that he can hang out under the Pagan Umbrella so long as he doesn’t jostle anyone but leaves each person to their own private devices. These, to me, sound like the reactions of people who haven’t come to terms with their own sources of embarrassment and do not want to be confronted with the mirror that John holds up to their practices and beliefs.

But even though creative work is hindered by constant criticism and self-analysis, it is equally handicapped if attempted in isolation. Creative work engages with the resistance of the medium, and the creative work of community-building absolutely demands that we overcome our embarrassment to have real conversations with each other about the things that matter, and that we do that openly and publicly. We can’t do that if we are politely escorting those who disagree with us to the exit, but we also can’t do that if we expect those disagreements to be pleasantly shelved for the time being while we all light candles and hold hands in a circle together. The one is a recipe for intolerant theology, but the other is a recipe for shallow practice.

Ritual gives rise to theology, and vice versa. There is no scenario in which we can practice together without that practice both shaping and being shaped by our shared beliefs.

We have to learn to be friends with our embarrassment, because the only way we can engage in the deep work of the authentic spiritual life as a community is if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and messy in the full awareness of our awkwardness and the awkwardness of others. We’re all just going to have to get used to seeing each other naked.


Photo Credits:
Numb” (CC) Khan Mohammad Irteza
Conscience” (CC) KnockOut_Photographs
I Promise Not To Peek” (CC) Jari Schroderus

Featured, Holy Wild, Theology

Religious Branding

Star Foster of Patheos Pagan Portal has asked some of us for articles responding to the latest flurry of debate surrounding the issue of who call themselves “Pagan” and why. I’ve weighed in on this question before, and my partner, a linguist by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has written on several occasions about how language and labels function and evolve, especially when it comes to religious community. But the topic keeps coming up, and I keep finding new reasons to find it silly. Here’s yet another one.

When I was growing up, things were simple. I was Catholic. With a little brother on the way, my parents moved our small family into a house on the cheapest, oldest edge of the best school district they could find and at two years old I went from being a city-dweller surrounded by people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, to a suburban kid with a swing-set in the backyard and streets that were wide and safe enough to learn to bike in, surrounded by other (mostly white) suburbanites. My mother, who has a funny sense of loyalty in an age of social mobility and product placement, kept on sending my brother and me to the same day care center in the city (where my father still worked) until we were old enough for school, and my favorite teacher for those first few important years of my life was an elderly Hispanic women named Mrs. Iris, who taught me poetry in Spanish.

When I started attending school, everyone was Christian (except for Ramsi, who was Muslim, and the other Allison, who spelled her name with two Ls and was Jewish, and Jeremy and John, who were atheists and anarchists and played trombone in the high school marching band). As a Catholic, I was Christian. This didn’t matter much, because no one in our yuppie school had much of a mind to religion. Soccer was important, and dominated our lives three times a week for practice plus Saturdays. The church my dad took us to on Sunday mornings was full of young couples and new parents with screaming babies, interested in doing right and looking for a quiet, gentle reminder that suburban life wasn’t the end-all of existence — but who were mostly worried about how they were going to get the kids to soccer practice after school the next day. I took a certain amount of pride that I wasn’t just Christian, wasn’t just Catholic, but was Irish Catholic, which seemed to my young self to carry a flavor of nature mysticism and deep roots in the same way that the air by the ocean seems to carry the taste of salt into every crack and crevice. I loved that mysticism and that poetry, and I explored my spirituality through the lens of aesthetics and poetics, all the while devouring books on mysticism, metaphor and mythology from every exotic culture I could get my hands on. None of that made me any less Catholic. It just deepened my Catholicism into something more meaningful and uniquely personal.

It was only when I got to college that I met for the first time people who believed Catholics weren’t Christian, who were surprised, amused and maybe a little bit scandalized at the very suggestion. We had too many saints, for one thing, and we took the whole Trinity thing a bit too seriously and mysteriously. Plus, the Pope, I mean, come on. In fact, some of the folks I met in college insisted that Christianity wasn’t a religion. It was a “way of life,” a transformed existence. Religion was what happened to other people, it was what you got when you turned to silly things like prayer and candles and rosary beads and incense, before you got Saved. Once you were Born Again, you didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Jesus Christ.

Needless to say, as someone working on her degree in comparative religious studies, I found this perspective fascinating. And while I was busy meeting people who said I wasn’t Christian because I was Catholic, at the very same time I began to meet people who thought that, because I was Catholic, I was incapable of being intelligent, informed or broad-minded. There was mild pressure within the academic community to disown any personal religious affiliation and step out into the realm of “objective observer.” But more intense was the pressure from my friends studying physics and chemistry, the nerds I naturally gravitated towards, who thought religion in general was a bunch of silly nonsense. You didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Star Wars, punk rock and Dr. Pepper.

Star Wars, punk rock, Dr. Pepper, Jesus Christ, Manchester United. In the end, it’s all about branding. American culture still struggles with the consequences of ideals like freedom, pluralism and diversity. If we can accept that communities or cities or college campuses can be diverse places, we still expect that complexity and diversity to be named and delineated, categorized and branded. In some ways, this naming is essential — the ability to name one’s own identity can lend strength and foster solidarity in communities struggling against misunderstanding or oppression. The sacrality of naming can create a small haven of understanding and relationship in the mad rush and noise of the American mainstream.

Too easily, though, the holiness of naming is mistaken for the manipulative convenience of branding. Branding makes it easier to consume, easier to sift through the cultural loyalties of the people we meet, easier to choose who we’ll befriend and who we’ll pass by. Branding allows us to create our own image and advertise our community allegiances with prepackaged customizations. Is your iPod black or red? Is your cell an iPhone or an Android? What do you drink? Are you a good ol’ fashioned, All-American Pepsi kind of girl? Are you a fitness nut, chugging down Aquafina by the gallon, sipping your Ocean Spray grapefruit juice at breakfast, maybe indulging in a Lipton Diet Green Tea for lunch? Do you like the caffeine rush of Mountain Dew or AMP Energy or a carmel Frappuccino to wake you up in the morning? Winding down with a caffeine-free Mug Root Beer or Sierra Mist? Or maybe you’re a bit of a hippie, chilling out with a SoBe or a Tazo? And how much does it matter to you that all these drinks are made by the same company?

There’s a reason the Pepsi-Cola company downplays the relationship between all these different brand names. There’s a reason they don’t call it “Pepsi grapefruit juice” and “Pepsi water” — just reading those names has probably conjured up some pretty gross concoctions in your imagination (they definitely do in mine!). And that’s the point. Each name brand has its own associations and assumptions. Challenging those often superficial characteristics is much harder to do than simply creating a new name whenever you want to target a new demographic or capture a new market.

So it’s not surprising to me that there are people in our wildly diverse community of outsiders, fringe-dwellers and envelope-pushers who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the “Pagan” brand. It tastes too much like Wicca(nate), they object, it’s too fizzy and fluffy, it’s bad for your teeth. There may be many reasons why an individual or small group who leaves the “Pagan” name behind suddenly find themselves more appealing to the American mainstream — for the same reason that, as a Catholic girl, I read about Sufism and Buddhism and Taoism and Hinduism and Mossflower of Redwall and the Dragonriders of Pern. There is something appealing and tantalizing about the exotic and the strange, something that seems to promise ancient wisdom or harken back to more intimate times…. especially when that something is a brand that can be tried on for style, taken up and discarded again, without demanding anything of you, without expecting you to change.

But that’s also the problem with branding. It’s shallow. It’s ephemeral. It’s easy. It obscures not only the deep connections that we actually share with one another, but also the very real and more intricate diversity that is a part of any community no matter how apparently homogenous on the surface. We struggle with acknowledging just how diverse a community can be while still retaining its coherence, I think in part because we are so used to an “Us versus Them” mentality that takes for granted that “They” are always a simple, easy to categorize Other. This remains true even when we find ourselves drawn to that Otherness. We imagine that maybe being Other is easy, or that it will meet some need in ourselves to be other, to be unique and different. But when Otherness is merely a brand that we slap onto our tee-shirts and stitch into our shoes, that we advertise with our jewelry and our bumper-stickers, we’re likely to find that it fails to satisfy, it ceases to tantalize and soon enough we’re searching again for a new style.

When it comes to “Pagans who aren’t Pagans,” I’ve noticed two patterns that seem to come up again and again. The first is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who has wandered from religion to religion maybe for years, hardly staying with one tradition or community long enough to decide he isn’t satisfied before moving on again to the next. He may praise Paganism (or a Paganism-That-Isn’t) for its flexibility and plurality, for catering to and upholding individualism, while at the same time pointing out how much he regrets that so few (other) Pagans are as deeply rooted in real, authentic ancient tradition as he is. That there might be some sacred tension or paradox here between individuality and community, between freedom and rootedness, doesn’t seem to occur to him. Roots are not something you grow by deepening your practice, but something you acquire by seeking the right community with the right name. Community is not something you build, but something you win, something akin to popularity or fame.

The second is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who settled down into a tradition and grew roots and built community, and who for one reason or another fell under the impression that she was the only one who did. For her, the name “Pagan” has come to signify the early stages of her growth, like an old skin that now feels a bit too scratchy and tight for comfort. She sees her old Pagan self in all those neophytes wandering the eclectic Wiccan(ate) mish-mash, just getting their feet wet, sampling from here and there and not yet settled down. She might even see other Pagans-Who-Aren’t as part of the problem, folks who wander from one tradition to the next looking for some satisfaction in the superficiality of the name they choose.

Some of my favorite people in the world are this second kind of Pagan-Who-Isn’t… people who continually struggle with the loneliness and complexity of that sacred tension between individuality and community, freedom and plurality. People on the edge of throwing up their hands and saying to Hel with it, but who have enough self-awareness and self-reflection to see just how mired in Pagan aesthetic and modern Pagan history they really are, whether they like it or not. People interested in asking themselves, and each other, what that relationship with the name “Pagan” really means.

Just the other day reading Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book on the ogam, I was struck by how much some of her meditative practices were clearly influenced by ceremonial magic… the same ceremonial magic she took pains to distance herself from earlier in the book. She describes Celtic Reconstructionism as a tradition rooted in ancient Celtic lore and culture but still relevant to today’s society, but then that’s exactly how my Neopagan/Revival Druidry order describes itself. And our practices, though different in some ways, are also very similar in many others, and the academic and cultural sources of our inspiration that inform and shape our practice are barely distinguishable. Writers, teachers and leaders in the CR community are admired and appreciated among the Druids I know — and their occasional insistence that they’re Not-Pagans is taken in stride as not being all that relevant, especially since they continue attend and teach at Pagan festivals and gatherings and participant in the Pagan online community through blogs and forums.

It seems a bit silly to me that we have a collective habit of bemoaning a lack of “beyond Pagan 101” material out there, as though we should expect “Pagan 202” to drop into our laps neatly packaged as a simple, single tradition. In college, I didn’t go from taking “Comparative World Religions 101” to “CWR 202.” I started taking courses called things like, “The Protestant Reformation in Europe” and “Holy Texts and History in Rabbinical Judaism” and “Religion and Violence” with numbers like 224 and 315. I took advanced philosophy and politics courses like “Middle Eastern Relations” and “Political Philosophy in the Socratic Dialogues” and “Word and Image” and “Philosophy of Consciousness” and “The History of Family”— not “Philosophy 202” and “Politics 202.” But the idea that because these advanced courses had a specific name and particular focus, they were no longer part of “politics” or “religion” but had become something else would have been foolish… as foolish as those Christians who told me I wasn’t Christian if I was Catholic, or that if you were truly Christian then you weren’t religious.

Part of deepening is discovering that diversity can exist even within coherent, larger communities, and that coherence and camaraderie can exist even where there seems to be endless plurality and difference. Part of the difference between a name and a brand is that a brand is shallow and simple — in fact, a brand relies on being shallow and simple and at least superficially different from all the other brands out there. But a name — a name is something that embraces a certain delicious ambivalence and fascinating complexity. A name is something, like a seed, that grows with nourishment and cultivation, that continues to evolve and change while still retaining some basic essence that weaves it together into a kind of tenuous wholeness. (“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay.” – Shaw)

If we want the name “Pagan” to be something more than just a brand or a fashion statement, some of us are going to have to stick around and own up to it when the going gets tough. We’re going to have to be honest with ourselves about our roots not only in ancient cultures but in the so-soon-forgotten history of the recent past, the last couple hundred years when the theosophists and the Freemasons and the deep ecologists and the feminists were all conspiring to become our embarrassing old uncles who show up uninvited at the family reunion. The word “Pagan” doesn’t come prepackaged with its own meaning — if we want “Pagan” to mean something, we’re going to have to make that meaning, to build that community and grow those roots through our effort and our outreach. And yes, it will be more difficult and it will challenge and change us in the process. And no, it won’t always make us popular or trendy.

And yes, sometimes it will mean throwing in our lot with the over-enthusiastic neophytes and the High Priestess Lady Shimmering Fairy Wolf Moons out there. Every community has its converts and beginners. Personally, I don’t mind. I’m not all that invested in telling people they’re not good enough to share a name with me, that they’re not deep or real enough to be called what I call myself. And that’s what you’re in for, as soon as you start trying to shed the name “Pagan.” The name exists because there is a community here that requires it, that demands — quietly, insistently — to be named. As soon as we try to move away from the name “Pagan,” we’ll find a new name cropping up in its place (maybe it will be “polytheist” next, that seems to be catching on). And in a few decades time, we’ll look back to find ourselves still having this conversation, with different names but the same furrowed brows, the same wringing hands… and no closer to a solution.

Featured, Holy Wild, peace

Ancient Warriors, Celtic Peace

There is no going back. We consent to our own destruction, with the passing of time, with the changing seasons, with the restless intensity of living and breathing. Above the cold concrete and glass of the city skyline, sharp-wedged forms of birds wheel and tip in the dark, blustering sky. I find myself thinking again that it takes an awful lot of courage to live in this world sometimes, knowing that winter is coming, the dark is coming, and death, too, will eventually arrive to claim us. It takes courage to release ourselves, to enter willingly into the wild dance that whirls in this liminal space between life and death, creation and destruction. In my mind, the image of birds crashing through wind currents and swift-driven clouds commingles with the image of the warrior, poised in grace on the edge of chaos. The face of that warrior is not violence, but fearlessness. And the culmination of fearlessness, the height of its realization, is peace.

On Violence and Control

We live in a modern world, a world that has known the power of peace as well as the force of violence and war. A world that has known King and his dreams of the mountaintop. That witnessed Gandhi leading hundreds to the shore, stooping to gather the sea salt forbidden to them by law but offered freely and ceaselessly by something far greater and older than empire. And it is no less true for being trite: these days we have the capacity for obscene violence as well. This world we live in has seen the invention of atomic weapons by men cloistered away in sterile laboratories, and the use of those weapons to intimidate and threaten, to bring whole cities broken and poisoned to the ground. I share this world with you, and together we have watched our modern culture grow bloated and listless with propagandistic marketing trends and diet fast food. Yet alongside these we’ve felt a dawning common understanding that can no longer excuse violence against women and the marginalized, nor accept the callous mechanizations that would treat nature as fuel to burn for turning a profit. These times are unique, with their contradictions and global communications networks. There is no going back. We live in a world in tension, a culture brought precariously to the brink of tremendous violence again and again. How can we live, fully and freely, in such a world?

In modern society, war and advertising, factory-farming and imperial political bullying all share a common assumption about the nature of uncertainty and how we ought to respond. When equated with insecurity, our lack of certainty can be frightening, a fundamental threat to our survival; even at best, it is an inconvenience keeping our ambitions in check and jeopardizing our plans for the future. Society teaches us that the unknown should be excised, that mystery is dangerous and our uncertainty irresponsible. In its place, we strive for the security and efficiency of control. We fight back against the whims of weather and ecology by spraying down our genetically-modified monoculture crops with petrochemical fertilizers and insecticides. We ensure the success of our new plastic-cased microtechnology fad with the right marketing aimed at the most vulnerable demographics. We protect the borders of our nations through threat as well as force, seeking a dominant role in world politics so that we do not feel ourselves at the mercy of the unknown lurking behind foreign eyes. In the face of uncertainty, we lock down, prepared to exercise all our power to keep ourselves safe and whole.

This obsession with security and control which largely defines our modern society inevitably leads to wide-spread systemic violence on all levels of community life. The word “violence” comes from the Latin violentia, which translates as vehemence or impetuosity, both words that well describe our culture’s brash, forceful pursuit of certainty and mastery. Related is the verb violare, which gives rise to the English “violate” and means “to treat with violence or irreverence, to dishonor.” Violence is not merely an act of destruction or harm; it is a rejection or denial of the unique and meaningful individuality of another being, a violation of our sacred relationship with the other. Such rejection of the other is a fundamental characteristic of a cultural system based on a need to control, for to honor other-ness as meaningful we must acknowledge that others are greater than our attempts to explain and define them and, thus, they remain essentially beyond our control. The Other remains a mystery.

The irony is that, as systemic violence runs rampant on a large scale seeking to impose order on uncertainty, our daily lives have grown increasingly safe and predictable, with much of the degradation and harm occurring behind a veil of propriety and sanitized professionalism. This makes the violence of the modern world harder to identify and resist, but it also opens up a space of calm in which ordinary individuals can begin the work of living peacefully. In this cultural space, we have grown more receptive to the lessons of diversity and interconnection, giving birth to environmental and civil rights movements alike. Modern science and innovations in technology reveal a global ecology that is both biological and social in nature, and we cannot escape or ignore the growing awareness that what happens on the other side of the world has ramifications that reach all the way to our own doorsteps, and vice versa. Of course, this burgeoning ecological sense can itself be a source of uncertainty and stress, especially when we begin to perceive our own participation in systemic violence and experience the helplessness that often follows. Add to this the din and flashing lights of constant advertisement bombardment, and the fear-mongering of sensationalist media, and we may still find ourselves living in a state of artificially-inflated anxiety and insecurity despite our fairly mundane, domesticated lives.

Fear drives us to make excuses, for ourselves as well as for others. Rather than acknowledge the violence underlying a social philosophy of control, we excuse each instance of state or corporate violence as a forced hand that, with the proper knowledge and power in play, can surely be avoided in the future. Confronted with uncertainty in our own lives, we worry that we as individuals are not strong enough or capable of enough, that we will fall victim to chance or malice or our own impetuousness. We cite every lame, ineffectual excuse that comes to mind, rather than commit to a philosophy of engaged, creative peace-making. Not because we believe that violence is inherent or unavoidable; after all, most of us live every day without acting violently towards others, and examples of effective peaceful cooperation are literally everywhere, so ubiquitous that at times they are almost as invisible as water is to a fish. No, we reject pacifism, we turn away from an active commitment to peace, because we are afraid. We fear what such a commitment might demand of us, and we doubt our ability to live up to these standards. We worry that our commitment would leave us vulnerable, would ask us to give up our attempts to control others and instead respect them as sacred in the very difference and mystery that leaves us at the mercy of chance. We reject out-of-hand the notion that we might find peace and prosperity if we relinquish our hold. In short, we are afraid because ending our violence against others means that we must face the possibility of our own destruction.

But there is no going back. We have already consented to our own destruction, with the passing of time, with the changing seasons. To live is to face the risk of death, and today’s Pagan, joyfully and reverently immersed in the cycles of change and revolution, knows this better than most. As Pagans, and as people, we cannot ignore the need for fearlessness in our modern world, a call that resounds off every hillside and parking garage. Faced with systemic violence, it is no longer enough to hunker down and concern ourselves with the private struggles so often seen as the realm of the religious life. Ours is a social path as well as an individual one, with a sense of community and shared ritual embedded at its very core. We look back to the spiritual ways of our ancestors, but we cannot pretend to live in a pre-modern world any more than we can stop another winter from coming on. We find this world of ours, here and now, saturated with violence and dishonor on many levels. We must find ways that we can respond meaningfully to this reality, or we risk acquiescing to and perpetuating a schizophrenic culture of insecurity and violence.

Peace in the Celtic Past

The world today demands an active commitment to peace and preservation, to creative pacifism in the face of systemic violence. Our spiritual lives take root in this world, in the reality of the here and now, but they dig deep, seeking out the sustenance of ancient wisdom, the myths and rituals of our ancestors. Modern Paganism often upholds the ideal of fierce and noble warriorship, with its mythic heroes and unfathomable gods shaping landscapes with their battles, bringing art and wisdom and life itself into being with each clash of their numinous power. On the other hand, Revival Druidry in particular sometimes evokes the image of stodgy old men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries declaring peace to the four quarters while their own imperial government sought the false peace of “civilizing the savages” through colonization. But we no longer live in a world where tribal loyalties and blood oaths alone, nor the motives and methods of empire, can offer all the meaningful guidance we need. Our identities have expanded; we live now as members of a world community as well as of our families, local neighborhoods and nations. If Paganism is to remain a vibrant and relevant spiritual path, we need to begin the work of exploring our roots with a mind to peace. We must seek out the seeds of pacifism, a mythology of creative, engaged peace-making rather than of brute force and glorified war.

This is not to say that we should willfully re-imagine our past as idyllic, or else abandon it completely. We cannot learn from our ancestors and their struggles if we do not first seek to understand the complex cultures of the past in their own right, shaped by people who were responding to times of war and hardship as well as times of prosperity and tranquility. But this does not mean we should limit ourselves or attempt to restrict or deny a living engagement with our traditions. When we endeavor to take our heritage seriously, we approach its stories and art as people living in the modern world, drawing new meanings and understandings that may not have occurred to those who lived millennia ago. This is what it means to have a living tradition, a thriving practical spiritual heritage rather than merely an academic interest. We acknowledge and respect our ancestors when we live complex, meaningful lives of our own, engaged as they were in the very real daily struggles of honor and justice, love and gratitude.

The ancient Celtic past gives us many examples of war and warriorship in image and story. Some of the most well-known and widely-read myths of Ireland and Wales — the Book of Invasions and the Tain Bo Cuailnge, as well as the Second and Fourth Branches of the Mabinogion, to name just a few — center on great battles, sometimes between the gods, sometimes among leaders of local tribes over possession of some sacred object of power or status. Icons and idols of gods and goddesses of war, destruction and death were common enough, archeological research tells us, and often dwelt alongside deities of fertility, prosperity and healing. It can be difficult to see our way to the kind of philosophy of peace that the modern world compels us to adopt, when our roots soon reach the tough bedrock of individual glory in battle and petty disputes between kin over the trophies of war.

On the surface, this is the very character of sacred mythological texts and traditions from other ancient spiritual paths. In Hinduism, we find the Bhagavad-Gita, a story of the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, avatar of the god Vishnu, faced to battle Arjuna’s kin in order to claim the throne. Yet within the Gita, Gandhi and others have found spiritual truths of fearlessness and self-discipline essential to the path of creative nonviolence (or satyagraha). Likewise, the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa draws on the old Tibetan legend of the warrior-kings of Shambhala to seek out the rich and fruitful path of the sacred warrior living in the modern Western world. In both of these cases, the insights gained from such inherited wisdom are not restricted to literal interpretations of glorified violence and obedience to cultural hierarchies, but grow and evolve organically into a meaningful and powerful philosophy creative peace-making and practical loving-kindness. With these role models before us, we can set about the task of approaching the cultural traditions of our Celtic ancestry with a similar intent, teasing out themes of wisdom that can provide context and guidance for our modern lives.

To begin this work, we turn to the archeological evidence for the religious practices and institutions of the Celtic past, including the aesthetics of its religious art and architecture. Supplementing this research are the few texts preserved and passed on relating the mythology and folk traditions of the Celtic peoples, as well as modern reinterpretations and the work of historians to sift out authentic pre-Christian paganism from the glosses of later Christianity. With all of this information at our disposal — though much of it is controversial or obscure — the simplest approach can sometimes be the most effective. Three themes immediately present themselves as vital to the Celtic worldview when we approach our sources with an eye and heart attuned to peace: the themes of individuality, vulnerability and the interdependence of creation and destruction. These concepts are expressed time and again in both the mythology and the archeological evidence of ancient Celtic culture, through reverence for the head, depictions of warrior nakedness, and the iconography of the sky-warrior in particular.

Vulnerability, Individuality and Interdependence

Contemporaries of the Celts reported them as being strongly independent, and many of the heroic tales passed down to current day describe courageous individuals who choose a life of glory and accomplishment to be remembered down the ages, rather than an unremarkable life of longevity and quiet. Cu Chulainn, the quintessential Celtic warrior-hero, makes just this choice when he overhears a prophecy that the young man to take up arms that day would become the most famous hero in Erin; the eager young hero then proceeds to test out, and break, every piece of weaponry in the land until the king himself must offer him his own spear and war chariot.[6] At first glance, such stories might seem to support the notion that the ancient Celts were hungry for conflict and the accolades that could be earned, that they were downright scornful of peace and “easy living.” But other well-documented aspects of Celtic culture suggest another interpretation, perhaps no more true than this first but more relevant to today’s world.

The emphasis that the Celts put on the head, as the seat of the individual soul, is evidenced both in myths (such as the prophesying heads of Sualtam and Conall Cernach, and the severed head of Bran the Blessed which brought comfort to his comrades and protection to his land) and in archeological finds of skulls kept in places of reverence or display. Celtic warriors did not collect the heads of slain enemies merely as trophies to exhibit their battle-prowess; rather, it seems they preserved only the heads of those fellow warriors for whom they had respect and admiration, friends and enemies alike.[7] This practice suggests that the reverence for the head is tied intimately to the honor or value of the individual, the other. Myth supports this interpretation with stories of enemies meeting and exchanging compliments about the weaponry and skills of the other, and of brothers or old friends who must face each other on the battlefield, often sorrowing over their conflict brought about by some misunderstanding. The story of how Cu Chulainn comes to kill his son Connla through the tragedy of mistaken identity is especially curious, and may communicate a lesson about the importance of individuality and the uncertainty of otherness.[6] In a society that valued face-to-face honor so highly,[5, 7] reverence and respect for the individual played a clear role in what it meant to be a warrior, and yet we understand today that violence itself rejects or negates this reverence — leaving us with the challenge of how to reconcile such violence with a genuine commitment to honor.

Another rather remarkable aspect of Celtic warriorship is the depiction of warriors and war gods — both in myth and iconography — as naked and exposed, engaging in battle equipped only with sword and shield, and sometimes helmet.[2, 3, 7] In our modern world, the very idea of waging war without the complicated trappings of tanks and armor, “smart bombs” and satellite surveillance is simply bizarre, self-defeating. Even metaphorical nakedness or exposure is considered impractical, almost blasphemous. In ancient Celtic society, however, it seems more emphasis was placed on the terrifying demeanor of each opposing army — complete with painted or tattooed bodies, dyed hair or horned helmets, whirling spears, shimmering shields, and screaming, chanting and the blaring of horns — than on the efficacy of their weaponry alone. War gods were depicted nude, an erect phallus evocative of this animated battle frenzy and the thriving life-force from which it sprang.[3] Even contemporaries of the ancient Celts found their wild nakedness baffling, an example of their basic savagery.[1, 4] In myth, the nakedness of warriors is rarely a central theme, though several stories tell of warriors who dilate to enormous size or burn with the physical heart of battle fury and must be doused in cold water to restore them to themselves.[6] It is easy to imagine why, with such images of the warrior, clothes might be considered a restriction to be burst through or even burned off.

Yet even in ancient society, nudity must have also evoked a kind of vulnerability, the bareness of skin exposed to the elements as well as the blade of the sword. Without armor or even tunic to clothe each warrior in visual uniformity, their bodies displayed their individual physical strengths, but also were unable to hide potential weaknesses. Here we see that essential relationship between individuality and vulnerability, where the experience of unique other-ness is also an experience of risk, and the expression of difference also a potential revelation of weakness or uncertainty. Hand in hand with the Celts’ emphasis on individual honor and reverence for other-ness in foe and friend, is the acknowledgement that to do so leaves us vulnerable. But rather than deny this vulnerability or seek to escape it, the Celtic warrior puts it on display and revels in its, embracing it as a powerful revelation of fearlessness. This relationship between vulnerability and fearlessness rears its head again, so to speak, in the ithyphallic iconography of war gods, where the sensitive penis is also a symbol of vitality and fertility, the life-force pushing its way into manifestation despite potentially difficult or hostile environments. The fact that the Roman war god Mars adopted by the Celts in later times was often adapted to or associated with gods of wilderness and forests, such as Cocidius and Esus, seems to support this view.[2, 7]

Perhaps the most fascinating, and pertinent, of these nude war gods is the Sky-Warrior, a figure found throughout the Romano-Celtic world. The deity depicted was usually a Celtic version of the Roman ruler-god Jupiter, king of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Wielding a lightning-like weapon and placed atop high columns as though reaching up towards his proper celestial realm, his iconography differs from the classic Roman depiction, however, in that he is portrayed as a warrior on horseback and very often (though not always) as naked and ithyphallic.[2, 3] Horses were themselves strongly associated with the sun, the realm of the sky and the heavens, as well as with warfare, and sometimes the Sky-Warrior is portrayed along with a spoked wheel evocative of solar associations.[3] In many of these depictions, the Sky-Warrior, proudly astride his rearing steed, rides down some kind of monster or giant with exaggerated, grotesque features and serpents for arms.

Encapsulated in this iconography is an incredibly interesting pairing of animals associated with the solar/celestial and the telluric/underworld realms, as well as anthropomorphic figures evoking the same duality. At first glance, the iconography of the Sky-Warrior looks to be that of the powers of order and light overcoming the powers of chaos and darkness.[2, 3] This in itself tells us something about the Celtic notion of warriorship, with its emphasis on honor, individuality and vulnerability expressing itself through images of protection and victory over forces of destruction and irreverent violence. But closer examination, of a few specific examples of Sky-Warrior figures in particular, suggests that the horse-riding deity is not merely trampling down the monster/giant, but is also in some ways upheld or supported by him.[3] Certainly, the serpent did not have purely negative connotations in the ancient Celtic world, but also represented earthy wisdom and energies and was even at times connected to the protection of warriors.[3,7] It is just possible that the Sky-Warrior figures were meant to evoke a more complex, intimate relationship of interconnection between life and death, creation and destruction. Such an interpretation makes sense in light of Julius Caesar’s report that the Gauls went so recklessly into battle because they did not fear death, believing instead in a very real reincarnation or rebirth of the soul.[1, 4] Whether this rebirth occurred in this world or some Otherworld is not exactly clear; but regardless, the interweaving of light and dark, order and chaos, life and death is an important theme found both in ancient Celtic society as well as modern Druidry today.

A Celtic Model for Practical Pacifism

With only this brief look at Celtic mythology and iconography, we can already see the beginnings of a viable philosophy of practical peaceful warriorship, rooted in ancestral wisdom but also responsive to the needs of today. When we draw on these three elements of the Celtic worldview — vulnerability, individuality and interdependence — to guide our understanding of pacifism and its potential role in our everyday lives, we see several definite themes emerge. Honesty, gentleness and creativity, among others, all take on deeper meanings when we view them not merely as moral qualities or personality quirks, but as vital manifestations of fearlessness.

The Celtic emphasis on nakedness, for instance, may serve as a reminder of the value of making oneself naked, not only physically in intimate or sacred contexts, but also metaphorically in quite ordinary situations. By revealing our nakedness, we accept our own essential fragility, the delicate beauty of our being. With this vulnerability in mind, we can learn to relinquish our clinging need to construct elaborate defenses, accepting our eventual bodily destruction as a natural and fitting dissolution back into the receptive earth. This willingness to embrace death and cessation is itself perhaps the biggest and most important step we can take towards remedying a culture of control. The challenge of learning to be vulnerable with each other demands a daily commitment, always asking us to strive for honesty and flexibility but also teaching us to respect the natural boundaries of others and treat one another with gentleness. We can begin this process immediately, in our daily interactions with coworkers, family members and friends. Practical pacifism takes root in our everyday lives long before it begins to manifest on the larger social and political level. But eventually, remembering our nakedness and honoring the nakedness of others, we find ourselves moving through our lives with grace in harmony with the currents of peace.

Remembering our nakedness is also a way of revealing ourselves to ourselves — shedding our self-justifications and excuses and cultivating an attitude of fearlessness towards ourselves as well as towards the world. When we seek our naked selves, we are also seeking our individuality — the sacred spirit the Celts located in the head — in all its flaws and weaknesses as well as its strengths and skills. We learn to acknowledge places of resistance that keep us from living up to our ideals of peace-making. Even when we understand, for instance, that eating animal flesh can be done honorably and with reverence in theory, we can also admit when we are simply making excuses for our appetites, laziness or even our sense of helplessness by indulging in that fastfood burger in spite of our knowledge that it is the product of the abusive, environmentally-devastating meat industry. Rather than turn our backs on these limits and failings, we can face them in our nakedness and learn to work to overcome them. We can watch ourselves with sharp insight and honesty, and learn to judge our motives, to know better when we are dishonoring or showing irreverence (that is, doing violence) to others. In this way, we cultivate a deep-seated integrity that strengthens us in our resolve as well as giving us the self-knowledge that will render our efforts at peace-making more practical, grounded in the reality of our individual needs and abilities.

Our individuality also leads us to appreciate Awen, or inspiration, as the “fire in the head” which can aid us in finding peaceful, honorable alternatives to violence. When we feel helpless or overwhelmed, caught between two bad choices, we can strive to cultivate our sense of that divine creativity, standing strong in our vulnerable integrity and commitment. We can make new paths, create new options and opportunities where none existed before. Rather than settling for “the lesser of two evils,” our inspiration sheds light on the world around us and illuminates new possibilities. We can sing, make art, tell stories and express our individuality in many ways that serve as peaceful protests against the mainstream values of our violent, controlling culture, but that also create new meanings and make new myths about our place in the world. Awen, that gift of divine inspiration and creativity, that “fire in the head” that illumines and animates as well as inspires, is also a reminder that, like the Sky-Warrior and the monster who supports him, we are all interconnected through our story-telling and peace-making. Our destruction of the old mythologies of control and fear make room for new stories about who we are and how we can live together in reverence, and these new stories can embrace both dark and light, life and death, as valuable and beautiful when they support each other in a cyclical dance between the celestial and the earthly.

When we apply the same passionate fearlessness to our commitments to peace and nonviolence that our ancestors brought to the literal wars they waged, we work to create not only a more livable world for all of us, but a world in which our ancient spiritual ways can find new relevance and meaning. We can embrace mystery and uncertainty as holding within them the potential for true creativity and infinite opportunities for courage and beauty as well as strength and grace. We can celebrate the coming darkness, the winter’s wandering fingers reaching chill over the hills and rooftops, as a reminder that order and life must always give way again to entropy and death, and that we can participate willingly in this dance, lighting our own lights in the darkness. We can respond to destruction with new creativity, and to violence with a fearless peace rooted deeply in the present moment.

This essay originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality, Winter 2009. Many thanks to my editors, Paige Varner and Bob Patrick, for their encouragement and feedback.

References and Citations

[1] Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

[2] Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2004.

[3] —. Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. London: Routledge, 1989.

[4] Hutton, Ronald. Blood and Misteltoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. Padstow, Cornwall: Yale University Press, 2009.

[5] Orr, Emma Restall. Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics. Ropley, Hants: O Books, 2007.

[6] Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

[7] Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. Chicago, Illinois: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996.