Blue Moon / Imbolc wishes

One of our family traditions for Imbolc (February 2) is to write wishes on slips of paper and put them into a wish jar for the year. First, we pull out last year's wishes to see if any of them have come true, and then we drop in new ones. It's surprising how sometimes the wildest wishes do manifest themselves in some way.

We make a point of going beyond "realistic wishes." When you wish, wish in full. This is what wishes are for and it matters. Imbolc is a special time for wishes and for prophesy. The full moon is also a magical time for wishes and a blue moon may have particular potency. 

This year I have decided to spread my pleasant wishes as far as possible. Here are my wishes for you. Feel free to share them and wish the same to your friends and loved one's. 

Blue Moon wishes meme.jpg
  • I wish you a clear night sky to view this super blue moon. 
  • I wish you a bright dawn full of hope and promise.
  • I wish you comfort and shelter in rough weather and the freedom to roam in fine weather
  • I wish you lively consciousness, a resilient body, the love of acceptance and surety of purpose.

And I also have wishes for the world at this turning:: 

  • I wish everyone could simultaneously wake up full of hope and compassion one morning, so that no one's small gesture of kindness would be rebuffed and the sense of hope would just keep going.
  • I wish all the pundits and news anchors would decide to speak honestly from their hearts and deepest convictions. 
  • I wish the people who run big corporations would suddenly all stop and consider the future of their own descendants and decide to tackle climate change seriously with us right now.
  • I wish that human leaders should be held accountable to law and the democratic will of the people this year. 
  • I wish for all humans to become aware of our close connection to plants, animals, the land, the air and the water around us, so that we make decisions that will give us the life we actually want.
  • I wish for all people to be free from addictions as well as from the dissonance between beliefs and actions.
  • I wish all the lonely and outcast people could find each other and become the biggest, most accepting and most joyful tribe on earth. 

You may laugh at my unrealistic wishes. But they are real, not just platitudes. This is the breath of hope.

Staking a claim: What is Paganism?

With a quick search, you can find an active discussion--or more likely an argument--on one social media platform or another about the definition of the word "Pagan" at any given moment.

That is the nature of social media and the nature of Paganism. Both are amorphous, unbounded by time and famously light on rules. 

I have joined several such discussions over the years--first with mounting excitement as I discovered that the spirituality I was quietly--almost secretly--raised with had a name and then later in increasing irritation as I saw that name gnawed, mauled and fought over like a bone in a dog fight. So many groups lay claim to it or insist that they define it, either for themselves or for others, and it is no wonder that a newcomer just discovering this spiritual movement today might be confused.

Even my mother, who taught me the basic tenants of Pagan spirituality based on nothing but an intuitive reverence for nature and some scattered esoteric reading, is wary of the term Pagan. Living in a conservative rural area, one absorbs the linguistic definitions of the surroundings, and when asked to define what she thought "Pagan" meant, she recently said she got a general impression of "hedonism, promiscuity, disrespect for authority and drugs."

That's a microcosm of what can be observed in the media. Many people, even those who are essentially friendly to Pagan spirituality, have this same general impression.

So, because I write about Paganism and toss the word around here with abandon, I suppose I need to define what I mean by it, both for insiders and for outsiders, unless I want to risk giving the wrong cpnnotation. And in the process I will have to stake a claim of sorts, to take a side in several hot arguments. After considerable thought, discussion and research, I am prepared to take that stand.

What Pagan once meant

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

The people of ancient Europe may have had a name for their spirituality or they may have just called it some equivalent of "common sense." We don't know and instead we know them by the words used by their conquerors. 

The oldest definition of "Pagan" according to Merriam-Webster and every other scholarly source comes from ancient Rome, when it was used to mean "a country dweller." As Christianity moved into Europe, primarily in urban areas, and the rural areas remained largely non-Christian, the term Pagan came to mean simply "non-Christian." 

Even today, Google's automatic definition for the word "Paganism" is "a religion other than one of the main world religions, specifically a non-Christian or pre-Christian religion."

This is the historical origin of the term and many Christians as well as Christian, Jewish and Muslim publications use it to mean beliefs outside those three faiths, including atheist and agnostic perspectives which are entirely secular.

This gives rise to the vehement insistence of many of the denizens of the internet that Paganism is not "a" religion at all. Clearly a religion, a tradition or an identity can not be simply defined by what it is not. 

What gives a word meaning?

If one insists on a historical and primarily Christian definition of the term, then you are stuck there and in that sense Paganism is almost a meaningless term and one most of us would hesitate to adopt as an identity. But just as many Native Americans call themselves "Indians," when the origin of that term was a rather embarrassing goof made by an outsider, today there are a great many people who have adopted the term Pagan as a positive, meaningful identity. 

My argument is essentially the same as that of Native American Indians. Words change. Definitions are first and foremost what they actually mean to most people at this given moment in history. Scholars can argue all they want but we use words to be understood and so while another term may be more academically correct, it makes more sense to use the term that the person hearing or reading your words will actually understand as you intend.

And so, if you want to say that you are Native American but resent having to use a long, cumbersome term dependent on the name of an ancient explorer which many people in your own community don't recognize anyway, you may well use the word "Indian" because it gets the message across correctly and quickly, regardless of its original goofiness and the unfortunate need to specify a continent when discussing it internationally. 

The same principle applies to the word "Pagan" today. At least among the vast majority of Pagans, if you say "I'm Pagan" that means something positive and reasonably specific. It is quickly understood--by fellow Pagans at least--and it does not require a pedantic style to express as do many multi-word descriptors.

What Pagan means today

While many dictionaries today try to avoid defining Paganism beyond it's original "country-dweller" and later "non-Christian" meanings, it is enlightening to look at definitions given for the benefit of non-native English speakers. The purpose in this section of a dictionary is not to prove a point but rather to actually allow a traveler to know what is meant in modern society by the term. As a result, these are the most current and practical definitions.

Thus Merriam-Webster gets down off the high-horse of defining Paganism tritely as "a: pagan beliefs or practices, b: a pagan religion," and changes the definition for ESL learners to, "a religion that has many gods or goddesses, considers the earth holy, and does not have a central authority."

Ta da!

There is a definition that almost all Pagans can agree on.

Almost all, but not every last one. That is why there are the endless on-line arguments.


There are some groups who are undoubtedly Pagan in spirit but specifically honor one god or goddess. Some honor only "the god" and "the goddess." Still. it can be safely said that--with only purposefully contrary exceptions--even Pagan religions which honor only one or two gods or goddesses, recognize the validity of religions that honor multiple gods and goddesses (rather than calling them inherently false as some world religions would) and thus in effect give a nod to the existence of multiple gods and goddesses. 

Some Pagan religions don't call spiritual energies or forces "gods"  at all. Others consider everything or all life to be "divine"  or "infused with spirit" and adopt a pantheistic view. However, this view serves essentially the same functions as gods and goddesses. It is simply better understood without the baggage of those terms.

This can be argued endlessly on-line, but it is one claim I am making. At least for the purpose of my writing, Paganism is positively defined as a religion involving many gods and goddesses or other spiritual entities or a universal spiritual connection with many means of approach. 

Nature as sacred?

The other point that is most likely to be bickered over is the idea of the earth or nature as "holy." That would depend on the definition of "holy," but to avoid that kettle of fish, I offer the term nature-centered (often said as earth-centered) spirituality.

Paganism is and was connected to nature in its basic forms, beliefs, myths and concepts. Even in the days when Pagan meant "non-Christian," the religions this originally applied to--i.e. indigenous Middle Eastern and European religions--were  highly focused on the earth, natural cycles, seasons, the fertility of the land and so forth. 

The pantheons of Egypt, Mesopotamia,  Rome, Greece, the Norse and the Celts were made up of gods and goddesses that represented the powers of the sun, sea, fertile land, rivers that brought life-giving water, rain, the moon and many other parts of nature and the cycles of life. By contrast, the focus of these religions was NOT on a world of pure spirit or mental gymnastics. They could have been. But they were not. They may have employed energy healing or a great many other psychic practices, but their focus--the focus of their gods was on nature. 

And most Pagans today share this focus. Most, but not all, who claim the term "Pagan."

Staking my own claim

There are those today who see Paganism as primarily an ancestral tradition and racial identity. That is not Paganism but simply the misuse of the concept of respect for ancestors to further a race-divided worldview.

There are others today who confuse Paganism with a craft in which events (or one's own mental processes depending on your take on the craft) can be influenced through the use of psychic discipline and the will. This is commonly referred to as "witchcraft," and is often confused with Paganism by practitioners and outsiders alike. There are however certainly Pagan witches who are both Pagans and practice witchcraft, just as there are Christian witches who are Christian and practice witchcraft. And from my observations, there are also atheist witches.

But there are a great many Pagans who do not practice witchcraft as well.

There may well also be other definitions offered and there are those who insist that all those who claim the term "Pagan" must be included, regardless of how vastly they differ from the accepted definition of the term, because the one part of the definition that everyone agrees on is that there is no central authority with the power to say, "This one belongs and this one does not."

Nor do I claim that there is any such "central" authority. But I do claim that language has meaning. And I do insist upon the real meaning of the term "Pagan," as understood by the vast majority of those who use it. 

When I explain the term "Pagan" to an ESL learner, which as an ESL teacher I do have occasion to do, my definition is very similar to that of Merriam-Webster. I do not confuse the issue by saying that some want to say they are Pagan. but claim that nature is not central to their beliefs. The truth is that those groups have other names for themselves as well and have no need to co-opt the term "Pagan." 

The Pagan Federation (one of several groups which claim to speak for a broad variety of Pagans) has an excellent, though lengthy definition of Paganism, which recognizes the broad diversity of Pagans in which many deities are not conceived of as either humanoid, super-powered or having an assignable gender. while also giving a clear and constructively stated definition: "A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshiping religion." That works for me.

With a little more depth the PF site continues, "The Pagan outlook can be seen as threefold. Its adherents venerate Nature and worship many deities, both goddesses and gods."

Yes, that actually makes three principles: nature is sacred, there are many deities and at least some of them are female.

When I post this article to social media, there are bound to be arguments and someone who claims to know of a group that is "truly" Pagan, but doesn't subscribe to such a definition. That's okay because my foremost goal here is to define a term for my readers. When you read my writing, you will know what I mean. 

Paganism is a vast umbrella term for a religious category, much as Christianity is. To be Christian, one should revere Christ. That is the bare minimum of what it is to be Christian. Sure, Christians will often haggle and say that this or that group isn't the right kind of Christians so they aren't really Christian at all, but from a scholar's perspective, if they revere Christ, they are Christian is some sense. 

Paganism conversely requires at a minimum that those who claim the word revere nature and are at least open to the idea of multiple deities/spiritual forces and acknowledge that those deities/forces may--among others--be female. That's the bare minimum.

My beliefs may vastly differ from other Pagans. There are times when I find myself more in accord with certain Christians, Buddhists or Jews on some point of spirituality or ethics. But this has more to do with our sociopolitical stance than it does with the umbrellas of our religious identities. 

There is no central authority in Paganism, any more than the Pope dictates the beliefs of all Christians. But there are those who set themselves up as authorities in one group or another. Paganism is very diverse and often democratic. But just as in other religions, there are groups that are more or less formally or informally led.

I am not dictating my definition as a leader. I merely state it as a wordsmith. This is my use of the term. 

A respectful nod

A special note should be given regarding indigenous religions with their own names which have not in any formal or informal way adopted the term Paganism themselves, but which nicely fit the definition I have given for Paganism. This includes Native American, African, Siberian, Australian, Hindu and other nature-focused Asian faiths.

I cannot help that in my lexicon, the definition of Pagan fits your religion. I attempt to use the term "Pagan" specifically only in cases where a group has actually expressed a desire to be called Pagan. But when I'm talking in general about all nature-centered, polytheistic/pantheistic religions on earth, I do necessarily include many who have not chosen to be called "Pagan." 

I would heartily welcome an understanding between all earth-centered faiths on the planet. If and when a different term comes to encompass all of us in the actual use of the English language, I will gladly embrace it. If those who now fit the definition of Pagan decide to adopt this term, I will wholeheartedly welcome them as my spiritual cousins. For now I respect the decision of each individual or group to make that choice on their own.

And the staves crossed

However, to those who wish to claim the term "Pagan" for purposes that contradict the earth-centered and open values of Paganism--those who wish to use the strength of spiritual seeking in our movement for political, racial or domineering intentions--I say "no."

That is not Paganism. I am not a central authority, but I am my own authority.

Therefore, no.

I am one Pagan who says "no" to racially defined, authoritarian and earth-disinterested co-opting of my identity. There are plenty others with me. We are our own authority, and those shall not pass. 

The spirit of Ostara: the cycles of the earth as a guide to good living

Sometimes I am asked why I celebrate the Pagan Wheel of the Year with my family, even when there isn't a fun community event to attend.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Why do you need special words for season celebrations? Why do you need to complicate the dates of school holidays for your kids? There isn't definitive proof of the ancient origins of celebrating eight solar holidays, so isn't it partly made up?

As with most things connected to spirituality, there are several levels to my answer.. On the surface, the answer is simply that these celebrations ring true to me deep inside. And second, I want honesty in practice, I suppose.

Growing up in an earth-centered family that didn't use the Wheel of the Year, calling our celebration "Christmas," while  acknowledging that we were really celebrating the Winter Solstice, I always felt a disconnect. If we're "really" celebrating the winter solstice and we know historically that Jesus Christ probably wasn't born on December 25 and he isn't our main focus anyway, then why don't we just celebrate the Winter Solstice and cut out the middle man? 

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

I felt like kids in real Christian families had it better because they had a tradition, something meaningful in their celebration. And ours felt truncated, damaged... even, yes, stolen. This was not an intellectual thing. I was too young at the time to know the history but that was how I felt.

And I wanted a sense of authenticity for my kids.

That was essentially my motivation in the beginning for celebrating the Wheel of the Year. But lets's face it, it's a hard thing to keep up year after year--a holiday every six weeks or so, that begs for specific preparation, attention and connection. If it were only a matter of principle, I might not have lasted thirteen years and counting. Many people don't.

What keeps me strong and passionate about celebrating the Wheel of the Year is it's practical usefulness. 

Yes, practical, real benefits. Let me explain.

We all tend to get stuck at some point in our lives, either in depression or being a workaholic, being young and isolated form what isn't in our generation or being old and feeling like our life is over. There are many places to get stuck and those stuck places can last years.

And that is a large cause of misery. 

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

The Wheel of the Year essentially ensures that I don't get stuck. The celebrations in are in alignment with nature and thus objectively "true" or "real." Even deep depression eventually has to at least acknowledge the fact that spring came again. 

And better yet, the Wheel of the Year is a spiritual teaching in a nutshell. Within it there is pretty much all you need to meditate on spiritually. Each celebration calls up specific important values and themes and taken all together they are a code of spiritual being. 

People sometimes ask how I teach my children about Pagan beliefs and rituals. The primary answer is that I celebrate the Wheel of the Year with them. There are other things, like learning herbcraft, grounding meditation, prayers of gratitude for food and a little simple candle magic, but mostly it's about the Wheel of the Year for my kids. The earth is our textbook and the Wheel of the Year is our lesson plan.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

It isn't just as simple as learning the cycles of the seasons though. Okay, sure, everything dies in the fall and is reborn in the spring here, but in some climates that isn't entirely true. That isn't really the point anyway. Each celebration has particular themes that feel connected to the earth and sun at that time and therefore are easily understood at that point in our journey around the sun.

At Imbolc we go within and delve into dreams and intuition. It is the time in the belly, before the birth of new plans, activities and projects. At Litha (the summer solstice) we are full of life, bounty, energy, pride and expression. We are often hard at work and celebration comes amid many other activities. At Samhain, we are drawn back to the earth, there is a feeling of old sorrow, of things coming to necessary ends and a tendency toward memory. It is the natural time to be reminded to honor our ancestors. 

If you celebrate Imbolc, you will not go a whole year without remembering to focus on your inner world. If you celebrate Litha, you will not go a whole year without expressing yourself with energy and pride. If you celebrate Samhain, you will not go a whole year without honoring ancestors.

And each celebration has a similarly crucial point. I will be writing more posts about the spirit of each celebration, but the celebration at hand is Ostara, so I'll start with that.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story


Ostara is the European Pagan term for the spring equinox and it is celebrated much like Easter. The appropriate symbols are eggs, sprouting plants, rabbits, hares and babies of all kinds. The obvious themes are renewal, rebirth, the beginning of life and expression, new beginnings in general and children. 

As a mother, it is very important to me that my children have a lovely time at Ostara. It is a time to honor and delight in them. They are the future, our new beginning as a species. Their joy in the springtime is a blessed and righteous thing. So, more than any other time they get to eat a lot of candy. They fully enjoy scouring the yard and back woods for treats and eggs. We make pretty colorful crafts, many of them egg-related. 

But when I started to contemplate exactly how to convey the concept of rebirth and new beginnings to young children, I realized that the spirit of Ostara goes much deeper than that. If this is a celebration that also honors children, that necessarily implies the protection and valuing of that which is vulnerable. New life is inherently vulnerable and we can see that protection of vulnerability in all of the ancient symbols of this celebration--particularly the egg.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

We know that in our modern world the worst abuses of human rights are suffered by children. Children are more likely than adults to live in poverty or to be in need of basic necessities like food, water and shelter. Children are often the first to suffer when societal racism or other prejudices rear their ugly heads. There are obvious reasons why the protection of children is connected to human rights in general. 

The protection of new life extends, of course to the protection of the vulnerable among other species. The concept of both biological and cultural diversity is implied in the rainbow colors of Ostara. This is not only a celebration of one rebirth but of all the colors and miraculous diversity of life--human and otherwise. 

This realization has deepened my experience of Ostara. This celebration of renewal can be a great help in overcoming a stuck place in myself. If there is some lingering depression, hurt, resentment or stagnation, the return of light to our northern latitude does wonders for it. The necessity of getting outside and tending vigorously to the spring needs of our urban homestead is invaluable in getting past blocks. 

But more than that, the celebration of rebirth, color, diversity and the protection of the vulnerable is what the heart needs at such times. It is a shot of clear-eyed idealism., regardless of how bleak things may seem in the outside world.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

This year, many of us are exhausted from a long winter that did not seem to be as restful as it should have been. We have been struggling to retain the way of life we and our ancestors fought for--the rights and freedoms that often came at great cost. We are also contemplating that now when we should be working primarily for a sustainable future, environmental concerns have taken a back seat to the immediate needs of vulnerable people in our society.

Plenty of us are already experiencing outrage fatigue. And it is just early days yet.

And here is Ostara, the celebration of renewal, a time to warm your heart and think of fluffy and bright colored things. It may be hard to grasp when things are hard, but this is what we actually need right now. 

Stop a moment, ground yourself in the earth. Remember that the earth's rhythm does matter. Let the energy of renewal and new life flow into you. Focus your energies on protecting those most vulnerable, both human and non-human. Celebrate the rainbow of diversity in languages, cultures, colors and species.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Break free.

 In my quest to teach my children these values of eternally resilient life and hope, I wrote the Ostara story Shanna and the Pentacle. This is a story for all earth-centered, goddess-oriented and vaguely Pagan families. It isn't a "teachy" book, but rather a story that grabs kids' attention, especially if they are growing up as a religious minority.

In this story about new beginnings, eleven-year-old Shanna and her eight-year-old brother Rye move to a new school. At first, that seems like challenge enough. New beginnings are exciting but not always easy. Amid budding flowers and preparations for their Ostara celebration, Shanna runs into a real problem. Her teacher and some of the kids at her new school object to a pentacle necklace that her best friend gave her.

When her family moved Shanna had to leave her best friend behind and that is part of the difficulty of this new beginning. When her teacher demands that Shanna stop wearing her pentacle to school and the principal confiscates it as a suspected "gang symbol," the young girl feels the sting of prejudice. 

Shanna is at the same time learning to accept others who are different from her. One of the new things about her new school is the greater cultural and racial diversity of this urban school over her previous one. Shanna soon discovers that friends come in many varieties and it is through a surprising friendship that Shanna gains the courage to stand up for her own identity as a Pagan girl. 

This story not only embodies the crucial messages of Ostara, but it is also filled with beautiful paintings by Julie Freel that evoke the season and the story. This is a story for Ostara, though one that will show that new beginnings aren't always easy. It emphasizes the importance of standing up for one's own identity, the great advantages of diversity and the need to protect the young and vulnerable. With this story, these values are not forced on children but delivered in a way that makes them as natural as the fact that the sun rises earlier every day in the spring. 

I hope you'll enjoy this story and share its fun and themes with children in your life. Many people have asked when there will be more stories in the Children's Wheel of the Year series and I am delighted to tell you that the Beltane book is very nearly ready to be printed and will be out well ahead of the holiday.

I hope you will support our endeavor--which is still non-profit due to the costs of the illustrations, materials and books--and share these stories with others. If you are eager for more stories about the natural themes and values of the Wheel of the Year, spreading the word about these stories is a significant help in our efforts to keep them coming. 

Happy reading and blessed Ostara to all!

The Roman Goddesses of the Strawberry Moon - International Moon Circle 1

The summer solstice approaches and with it a special day that comes only once in nineteen years, the day when the moon is full on Litha. Fullness within fullness. A time for wholeness and rejoicing, a time for embracing our full identity and expressing our truest self. 

My declaration of cultural opening

While I know that what we call Neopaganism and its connected communities such as Wicca or Reconstructionist Paganism are primarily European, my faith is neither Reconstructionist nor limited to the culture of my birth. My family is racially and geographically diverse, a fact I cannot and would not change. I have been touched by living in many diverse cultures and I cannot fit myself into one place. 

I wish to be respectful of cultures which have been colonized and exploited in the past and so refrain from further harming them that they may find healing. I do not adopt the titles or trappings of such cultures in what is deemed "cultural appropriation." However, I will honor the wisdom and stories of many peoples through their goddesses and thus their spiritual connection to the earth, which I believe is the key to our survival and goodness. If we do not do this, we necessarily exclude others from our circle and from our children's education. 

To further this international and inclusive Paganism--a spiritual practice that encompasses all those for whom the earth is central life and action--I am celebrating a different set of goddesses and their cultural roots each moon. In this way, I can connect to a unique maiden as each moon waxes, a linked mother goddess at the full moon and a dark goddess at the dark of the moon. Dark goddesses are sometimes the crones, the grandmothers of the spiritual tradition. But often they are not. They may be young or old, but they represent the inner and emotive parts of the divine feminine. There is a time to be shining and outward focused, but just as the moon wanes each month, there is a time to know our inner selves and acknowledge those things we fear. It is through the dark goddesses that we often find the reason to live. 

I will probably focus more often on cultures with which I am personally familiar but I also welcome contributors from other cultures. 

Roman goddesses

During this brightest month of the year I have chosen to focus on Roman goddesses. These are the goddesses of the land that gave us the Tarot and now is the season when even here in the north we can make some of their delicious Mediterranean foods with fresh produce.  What is remembered of the Roman gods in history is often a bit stoic—reminiscent of their frozen statures—and it is good to connect to their deeper sensual essences. The Maiden is Diana, goddess of the wilderness and free spirit. The Mother I choose to honor is Lucina, the goddess of light and summer warmth, the Dark Goddess is Minerva, goddess of learning and memory.

Creative Commons image by David R. Tribble

Creative Commons image by David R. Tribble

The full moon is nearly upon us and so I'll start with the mother. The moon's cycle always turns again and it is good to start somewhere other than the maiden sometimes, in order to remember this. 

One statue shows Lucina with tight braids and a crescent moon on her forehead. She often has several young children around her. She is a protectress of birth and young children. She is also called the ladybug goddess. (Daly 2009) She particularly blesses those who give to others in need. Her symbol is a silver coin, often given as an offering, or a ladybug. Activities to connect with her involve making intricate braids in your hair or attaching decorative braids to shorter hair, playing with children and helping children in need. Many countries in Europe hold a national children’s day in June in which society focuses on the needs of children, including the need for outdoor play.

Later this month when the moon wanes, I will turn to Minerva. She was originally a goddess of business and scholarship and later a goddess of crafts, domestic skills, arts and sciences. But in between she became an almost savage Roman goddess of war, death and sexuality. (Daly 2009) Somewhere in there the woman they tried to strap into the secretary’s chair and tie to the kitchen stove, got a little unruly. In the Roman pantheon she and Juno were positioned just subordinate to Jupiter, the supreme deity. But she seems to have been a symbol of the unwillingness of women to always be second. Her wisdom led her to demand her due and this alone is often seen as dark in the feminine context.

To connect with Minerva it may be necessary to take a hard look at where women have taken a subordinate position without warrant, at the difference in salaries for the same work and to be active in demanding equality.

At the time of the waxing moon, I asked for the bravery and independence of Diana. She is the Maiden Goddess of the woodland and the hunt. She particularly protects the very young, both human and animal. She was traditionally worshiped outdoors and primarily by women. Men could only take minor roles and often those that symbolized their own death. Women would go to the forest in a torch-lit procession at night to honor her. She was offered clay figures of women in the squat of childbirth and asked for protection in giving birth. (Monagham 2014) Her symbol is a bow and arrow and the most common way to connect with her involves fire ritual outdoors at night.


Daly, K. N. (2009). Greek and Roman Mythology A to Z. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers.
Hunt, L. (2001). An Illustrated Meditation Guide: Celestial Goddesses. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Jordan, M. (2004). Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc.
Leeming, D. and Page, J. (1994). Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Littleton, C. S. Ed, (2005). Gods, Goddesses and Mythology, Volume 4. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation.
Loar, J. (2008). Goddesses for Every Day. Navato, CA: New World Library.
Lurker, M. (1987). A Dictionary of Gods, Goddesses, Devils and Demons. New York, NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
McLeod, S. P. (1960). The Devine Feminine in Ancient Europe. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers.
Monagham, P. (1997). The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Monagham, P. (1999). The Goddess Companion. Woodbury, MN. Llewellyn Publications.
Monagham, P. (2014). Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Motz, L. (1997). The Faces of the Goddess. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Spirituality in Practice: Pagans, the Pope and the Earth

I recently shared a post about struggling to live the reality of my beliefs on an on-line forum for Pagans and people with earth-centered spirituality. I don’t have all the answers. I work hard to live in an environmentally sustainable way and I still find myself falling short of goals to reduce my negative impact on the earth. 

The post stirred up some anger and I was labeled a “Pagan Pope,” because I asked for others who believe in our spiritual connection to the earth to step up and take the issue of climate change seriously. 

I was shocked. How could my post about our common struggles to live ethically and bring up our children in a healthy way attract mostly hatred—and from fellow Pagans?

It was like getting a bucket of cold water in the face—a harsh but necessary awakening for me. I grew up in a community of earth-centered, if not overtly Pagan, families. I thought I knew the Pagan community well since childhood and I was certain that we’re the “good guys” and we share a deep concern about environmental issues. 

But during the past couple of years, I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by many people who I’ve met in Pagan groups on-line that I’m promoting stereotypes by saying Pagans share a concern for the earth. The truth I’m told is that many Pagans are not interested in ecology or environmental issues at all. Many are more interested in their personal growth and the deeper, inner reflections of their spirituality. 

My protected and somewhat isolated childhood is showing.

On the one hand, these misunderstandings can be disheartening to those of us who seek some spark of unity in earth-centered and Pagan circles. I mean if the earth doesn’t unite us… then surely nothing does. 

It throws you right back into the debate--which you're probably sick of--over what the word “Pagan” means. The fact is that whether I like it or not a Pagan is primarily anyone who says “I’m a Pagan.” Period. 

We have no central authority, no one who can arbitrate and say “No, I cast you out. You are not Pagan enough!”

And frankly that system doesn’t even work for Christians and they supposedly do have just such an authority. Except all that happens is that people split off and form new churches and call themselves things like Christian “protest-ants” against the central authority. 

And they’re all still Christian. Some may claim the Mormons aren’t Christian or the Catholics or the Hussites or whatever. But they are Christian because they say, “I’m a Christian.” And the vast majority of the world recognizes that they are right. They actually share enough basic ideas that they can be categorized together, despite their wild diversity.

There is a natural human tendency to think that the group one belongs to is exceptional. But that tendency is almost always wrong. And that’s how it is with Pagans and diversity. The old joke goes that if you ask twelve Pagans what a Pagan is you get thirteen answers. That’s true if you do it on a general forum on the internet. But there are places today, where groups are established enough that you’ll get fairly standardized answers. Just as you would with Christians in one church if you asked them what a Christian is. But if you ask twelve Christians all over the world. Well, you get thirteen answers there too. 

I have Christian friends who believe that the core of Christianity—the absolute core which they practice sincerely—is the tolerance and kindness modeled by Jesus. And to them “tolerance and kindness” is their equivalent of my “connection to the earth,” the thing that MUST be at the core of a spiritual path in order for it to have any relation to their own. 

And yet, we know all too well about Christians and “tolerance and kindness.” There are Muslims—many, many of them—who will swear with tears overflowing that the core of Islam is “peace.” The word Islam comes from the word “peace,” for crying out loud… like Pagan comes from “country dweller” (i.e. someone living close to the land and the earth). 

Heehee... You see the problem.

It is not uncommon to have a broad religious group that does not agree on what it stands for or who falls within the pale. So, why do we expect to or desire to have greater unity?
I can’t speak for everyone, but for myself it is because I see the desperate state of the earth’s health and the strained resources to sustain our cycles of life. All those things that are at the core of my spirituality are threatened. And when we are threatened we want to draw a circle and find unity.

The waves of refugees this past year are fleeing climate change every bit as much as they are fleeing war. The areas that were once marginal for agriculture have now become deserts. In the year two thousand and fifteen, we finally reached the breaking point at which several countries that used to produce their own food no longer can. 

There is no more warning time left. Mother has counted to ten and she is not counting anymore.

When I look into the eyes of starving, terrified refugees I see the heart of the mother of the earth breaking. I feel the gasping breathes of our poisoned Mother Earth, when I walk down my street where there used to be bees, butterflies and fireflies even ten years ago and today there are none, even though the houses are the same. When I swim in the ocean and no longer feel tiny fish brush my feet as I did as a child, I hear the sobs of a mother for her lost children.

This I cannot separate from my spirituality—especially if I claim to know a goddess or ancestors or the elements of nature.

There are those who do separate it from their spirit and who claim it is not relevant or not even true because they have not felt the fish or seen the fireflies or looked into the eyes of the refugees. And I will not tell them that they are not Pagan, because that is their choice. 

And because Pagan is a path, not a destination.  

But I will say one other thing on this subject, one that could land me in even hotter water, but still it's something I must say. 

Neopagans are ostensibly the inheritors of indigenous European spiritual traditions. I know that most are not in any way directly descended from ancient beliefs and some of us give little more than a nod to the past. Wiccans take some words and concepts from the old Celtic and Anglo-Saxon beliefs and make a beautiful and rich tradition primarily from much more recent discoveries. (Not my path but beautiful nonetheless.) But still, what is called Pagan or Neopagan today is almost entirely tied in some way to indigenous European beliefs. 

And it is very sensitive to mention any non-European polytheistic, earth-centered belief systems (garble garble… trying to avoid using the obvious word from the dictionary). We are… I am… afraid of being criticized for cultural piracy and colonialism. 

Because of our fear and inability to talk to other groups, there is no umbrella term. I’m told we cannot use the term “Pagan” to encompass all indigenous-based, earth-centered belief systems, even though that seems like a logical step. Many peoples have experienced the word “Pagan” used against them in a derogatory way and they cannot accept it now—no matter how humble, empathetic and inclusive our intentions may be. 

So, I will use “indigenous” as the broader term rather than “Pagan,” though even Judeo-Christian faiths have a geographical point of origin too. But I digress…

I simply find it interesting that I have never—in all my travels on five continents and mostly among rural people and often among indigenous people—never encountered an active practitioner of Native American, African or Asian-Siberian spiritual traditions who claimed that taking action to protect the earth was NOT at the core of their beliefs. I have yet to encounter such a person on the internet either. And even Hindus, who arguably share many traits, with other indigenous, polytheistic religions, often cite care for the land and water as central to their beliefs. 

It seems ironically that those who make the most noise about the earth—the proponents of European-based Paganism—are the primary group also taken with berating those who claim concern for the earth as a core tenant of daily spiritual practice.

I am not an authority for Pagans, nor do I wish to be. I am myself, here, taking a stand and declaring solidarity and spiritual fellowship with all those who hold care for the earth and empathy for all the people and living beings of the earth at the core of spirit. I do not know if I can call such a group “Pagan.” For now, it is the best term I know of because it is the most widely recognized term that encompasses what I mean. 

In fact, it is so widely recognized that a prominent fundamentalist Christian--Gene Koprowski, director of marketing at the Heartland Institute--understands these words of the English language and uses them in much the same way. Last fall he declared that we do have a literal “Pagan Pope” (i.e. the one in Rome). 

It was after Pope Francis put out a statement of unprecedented urgency and clarity calling for immediate action to mitigate climate change in September 2015. And here is what Koprowski said about it in Chicago: “I would say, contrary to some of the criticism, that this is not communism that has entered the church. It's, rather, Paganism."

And it's not that I take Koprowski as an authority on anything. (Although I would gladly pray with the Pope if he was amenable to praying with a flagrant Pagan.) It is more that the comment shows how far and how wide the concept of concern for the earth as inextricably tied to Paganism has spread. 

And thus it is all in the intent behind a word. When I say “Pagan.” This is what I mean. I mean reverence and care for the earth and for other beings. And because it's a path of practice, I mean living in accordance with this belief in the physical world, making sacrifices of time and energy for it and standing up to injustice done against the earth.

Book Review: The Other Side of Virtue and a vessel with which to drink the good life

"Pagan is a negative term," I was told. "It means wanton, imature snotty, rebellious and without morals." 

And this was not said by someone ideologically opposed to earth spirituality. Quite the opposite. It was said by one who taught me much of my spirituality and who finds spirit in nature and in authenticity and compassion. But the term "Pagan" has become negative for this person, through media messages, the words of critics and the words and deeds of some visible Pagans as well. 

And I while I vehemently disagree with that negative definition of the word "Pagan," I can't entirely refute the connotations of the social movement that has grown around the word in pop culture. Google it and you'll get endless pictures of objectified women in slinky black clothing with ugly makeup and suggestive poses. I have found spiritual sisters and brothers among Pagans, but I also often find a lot of nihilism and immature rebel-without-a-cause mentality. I find a subculture where many proudly claim that morals are for brainwashed idiots and that they have no spiritual obligation to do anything but satisfy their own desires as long as there isn't obvious harm done to someone else. And if there is harm done, well then "that so-and-so shouldn't have gotten in the way."

The most popular thread in one of the largest Facebook groups for Pagans for the past year has been one about how sick of "nice Pagans all full of light" the members are. These posts are full of adolescent self-righteousness, denial of spiritual meaning and flaunt-your-sex-because-it-annoys-Christians messages. By contrast, when I posted about my personal struggles around responding to climate change as a Pagan, I was met with several angry responses that demanded, "How dare you suggest that Pagans should be specifically concerned about climate change?" and "I'm so sick of Pagan popes."  

The person who told me that "Pagan" is a negative term has glimpsed this side of the Pagan community and been repelled with disgust, even though her spirituality is not far from true Pagan roots at all. And I struggle because I want to cry that there is no truth at all in the lies of the church-influenced media. Because this has nothing to do with the spirituality I know and love. But I do know that it isn't entirely a figment of evangelical propaganda. There are Pagans who say these things and openly espouse the values of wanton, immature, rebellious nihilism.

And I have searched for a coherent answer, a common definition or even a code of ethics broad enough and yet specific enough to be called "the Pagan way." And I've been told again and again that we are too broad, that nothing but external trappings connect us. And perhaps that is true, if you count everyone who ever used the word Pagan.

But today I've found a surprising spark of hope in this search.

It comes from Brendan Myers, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and writes extensively on environmental ethics and Neopagan topics. Many of Myers books may be too specific to one path or another but in The Other Side of Virtue (first published in 2008) he makes a credible, scholarly study of ethics and the meaning of a virtuous life, from ancient times to Harry Potter. Every other philosopher I have read and in fact my entire university philosophy program where I read Plato and the other thinkers that have shaped western society limited their study to the classical Roman and Greek period onward. Myers does what has been taboo and reaches beyond that boundary to explore the definition of "virtue" apparent in the remnants of ancient "heroic societies," the term he gives to pre-classical European tribal civilizations. 

Myers does not say in his book that he is defining indigenous-European Pagan ethics. It would be a very controversial claim. But he does it without the fanfare nonetheless. 

It is true that his entire study is limited to European thought, but the vast majority of those who self-identify as "Pagan" today do so in reference to spiritual paths that are at least inspired by indigenous European ideas. Even Wicca, which is so clearly not reconstructing a pre-Christian European Pagan faith, uses terms and concepts that are a clear reflection of its European roots. While I and many others may believe that Native American, Hindu, African and other earth-centered spiritual traditions are also "Pagan" in that they are non-Judeo-Christian and nature-based and involve similar ideas of deities, these communities generally do not use the term "Pagan" to describe themselves and thus they have to at least be given their own categories. Myers speaks specifically, though perhaps not exclusively, about indigenous-European Paganism--whether it be reconstructionist Celtic, Nordic, Slavic or Hellenistic or Wiccan, non-reconstructionalist Druidic or eclectic. He doesn't claim to speak to or for all these groups himself, but I assert that he makes a very good stab at it. 

The first half of The Other Side of Virtue is primarily a scholarly treatise on the development of European thought about what constitutes "virtue" and "the good way to live" since ancient times. Rather than glossing over the ancient Pagan era, Myers devotes the most pages and detail to that period and from what I have read of reconstructionist literature, his general conclusions easily apply to Celtic, Nordic (Germanic), Roman and Slavic belief systems of the times. This part of the book then presents today's Pagans with at the very least an interpretation of what ancient Eujropean Pagan ethics and philosophy was like.

And it is not a view without its uncomfortable corners. According to Myers the highest virtue for these "heroic societies was "honor" and that honor was something seen through a social lens. Those who were held in high esteem were truly believed to be good. The fact that a person was born with strength and physical beauty made them virtuous, as did their deeds. Virtue, including honor, meant being a strong chieftain or being the supporter of a strong chieftain. Those who won gained honor and those who lost were bereft. Honor can thus be seen in this ethos as more important than life and thus the focus in so many ancient tales such as Beowolf on saving honor even when it means giving up one's own life. And yet the way in which Myers shows the development and application of these ideas makes it eminently useful for modern life. 

Honor in Myers's study becomes the living of a life that is worthy of being told as a story. Honor and thus a large part of virtue can be attained by being an excellent craftsperson, a skilled and ethical businessperson, a leader who makes difficult decision, a soldier who thinks while also working within a team, an artist who creates something great. Honor is in the worthy use of the gifts one is given by "fate," whether they be physical attributes, wealth, position or internal talents. Thus while some honor may be due to a person who is famous for great beauty or success in business in their own right, far greater honor comes to those who have these gifts and use them for a great purpose. It is more in what you do with your blessings than what blessings you acquired. It is more in the sacrifice offered than in the size of what was horded. 

The second half of the book deals with a logical, philosophical argument, presented in clear, lay terms that are easy for those without a doctorate in philosophy to follow. Myers's thesis attempts to show what he believes can be proven based on natural objective principles to be the basis for living a good life, defined as a life of virtue or excellence. The ultimate measure of virtue in Myers's thinking is not what is applauded by others or what stands up to the laws of gods or human beings, but what way of life allows the individual to flourish and find greatest happiness and fulfillment. And so while Myers admits that there are unflattering strains of European thought, such as Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch, which use the same ideas of honor to create great suffering, he shows where their logical pitfalls lie. And he does this without preaching about what is morally or ethically necessary by any law or teaching of society or gods. Instead he shows how living a life that can be told as a story of excellence is also to live the good life for one's self. 

The end of The Other Side of Virtue presents a deceptively simple test by which a person can determine--very individually and without the judgment of others--how to live with virtue and honor.

Because the underpinnings of the historical study and the logical argumentation are both sound and rooted in diverse Pagan philosophies, I would argue that Myers has a great deal to say about how one can find a moral compass for Neopaganism. It is true that such a compass may be different for different people. Myers doesn't offer any fully baked answers that don't come from within the individual, but he does give the raw materials by which a compass can be constructed.  

The Other Side of Virtue is both well written and readable but it is also groundbreaking in its gathering of today's Pagan movement. Certainly there will be those who continue to claim that we need no moral compass or even that such a thing is antithetical to the broad scope of modern Paganism, but I believe that if one reads Myers with an understanding that his descriptions of various historical beliefs do not mean that he sees them as any sort of law for how we should behave but simply a historical study and if one employs the objective tools he provides to look at one's own life, there can be some real conclusions drawn about what is true to Pagan beliefs and what is a pop-culture picture based on what Myers would term "modern malaise." No one is going to make that distinction for the individual but if individuals  pour their life into this vessel and look at the reflection, they may find their own definitions of what a life of great spirit and excellence looks like.