Not all giants are ancient

There is something in Pagan cyberspace that has been niggling at me for awhile like one of those little parasitic worms that got under my kid’s skin a couple of summers ago after she went dipping in a scummy pond.

That is the fad of dissing hippies.

OK, I’m ready to duck already .But this has got to be said. Gerald Gardener may or may not have started a modern witchcraft tradition and a lot of other big names contributed to the nice wave of Pagan-friendly public sentiment and popular trendiness we now enjoy, but without the counterculture movement, the New Age, and yes, the hippies, we would not be experiencing a western world in which Pagan spirituality and culture are both widespread and generally well-accepted.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

Without the cultural developments of these movements that are so widely ridiculed among Pagans, Wicca would most likely have remained a tiny fringe interest of a few wealthy eccentrics. Traditional witchcraft would have stayed where it was for centuries, losing ground and scrambling to preserve shreds of knowledge. And non-Hindu, non-indigenous Paganism would have remained in the history books.

Don’t get me wrong. I am as irritated by “fluffy bunny” New Age platitudes as any hard polytheist.. Yes, we intersect with the New Age sometimes and it can cause a bit of friction and some eye-rolling on both sides. But let’s face it. Other movements have impacts on the social environment we live in and even on us.

The New Age not only sheltered a lot of early Pagan, Wiccan and witchcraft books and tools in bookstores for several decades. It is only in the past twenty years that a meaningful line could be drawn between modern Paganism and the New Age.

I will grant that New Age spirituality has little directly in common with modern Paganism outside of a few visual trappings. But many people came to Paganism through contact with New Age authors, stores, publications and events.

Beyond the New Age movement, the wider counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s had an even deeper impact on society, opening up the possibility of acceptance and widespread information on small and growing spiritual movements of all kinds, including ours.

That brings me to my own background. My parents and most of the adults I grew up around were on the rural, financially poor fringes of both the counterculture and the New Age. They didn’t have the connections, wealth or geographic positioning to be part of early Wicca and other more recognized Neopagan groups. Instead they were what are today (usually disparagingly) called hippies.

Specifically, my father and mother arrived on a rocky piece of land in Northeastern Oregon shortly before I was born with little more than a broken down old truck to their name. There was a weathered one-room school house on the property, which they shared with another family—until it burned to the ground one November night, while they were out, due to a faulty DYI woodstove.

My folks were left in the snow with my two-year-old brother and my mom pregnant with me. My dad built our first house—often referred to as a “shack” by outsiders—around and over the old truck, which no longer ran. That’s where I grew up, learning to grow food, pay attention to natural cycles and call the quarters on important occasions.

We weren’t Pagan in the ways most widely recognized today, but we were in the ways that actually matter. And we were not alone.

As I traveled around the world as a journalist, I met countless adult children of the hippies—some better adjusted than others. Some adopted their parents’ values and some rejected them outright. But they all share a new kind of cultural assumption of fluidity and diversity—whether they like it or not—that has fostered the modern Pagan and witchcraft movements.

Why do I care if Pagans make fun of hippie names or other symbols? Can’t I just take a joke? Lighten up?

It bothers me. Maybe it is because it is part of my own roots. Maybe I’m not pure enough in my rejection of all things New Age. But there is something here Pagans should pay attention to. These too are our ancestors. They are the ones on whose shoulders we stand. Not all giants are ancient or even very tall. They sometimes just muddled through harsher times so that we can have what we have today.

Think on it the next time you laugh at a hippie name or a fluffy bunny chant.

Why do we strive to live morally and ethically?

“Why can’t I have all the presents?” one of my kids shrieks.

The tone isn’t joking the way you might think. She is demanding, furious, her face red and sweaty. For a moment, she is overcome with that primitive urge that seems to defy all ethics. I call it the “me-want-now” urge. We all know it, though we don’t always admit it and some of us bury it deeper than others.

“I want everything! They’re mine, not his!” She kicks toward her brother but I pull her away. He is often ready with sibling comebacks, but this one of those moments when his older sister shocks him into silence.

Some kids seem to be born with a moral compass on the most basic level. They have the urge too. but they also get that other people have it and that we’ve got to meet somewhere in the middle. Fair is fair. They can be persuaded to see the logic of “How would you feel if someone did that to you?”

But this is by no means a universal trait. And unfortunately, my kids aren’t among the budding saints of the world.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

I not only have kids myself, I also teach preschool and early elementary ESL students. Two sisters ages 5 and 8, who I teach, are always cuddling. The older one looks out for the younger one—making sure she gets the colors of crayon she needs and that she’s dressed warmly to go out—but then insists on winning all the games in recompense. And most kids aren’t even that nice.

Between the current wave of right-wing, anti-compassion politics and my struggles with my own little humans, I have been thinking a lot on ethics lately..

We blithely talk about teaching children to know “right from wrong,” but increasingly it seems like adults in our world don’t know or at least wildly disagree on the subject. OK, most people—at least publicly—get behind the rules of not killing or physically harming people or stealing.

But every week I come across at least one online post declaiming on how wimps who are hurt by verbal bullying should grow a thicker skin—i.e. exclusionist opinions in direct opposition to what I know of as ethics. And clearly, while most of us think it isn’t okay to kill or steal, we go on buying products the production of which requires killing and stealing from the poorest people in the world.

What is it we really believe? And why would we strive to live morally and ethically even if we could agree on what it would entail?

Abrahamic religions have an answer that is so widely disseminated in the world today that I doubt there is a fluent English speaker who isn’t well versed in it, regardless of whether or not you follow one of those faiths. There is the carrot of Heaven and the stick of Hell. And each particular religion or specific sect has its set of commandments or moral rules saying what will be grounds for sentencing you to Hell or rewarding you with Heaven.

For those who believe literally in this Heaven and Hell thing, the ethical life may seem relatively simple. Follow the rules or you will suffer. It’s a fear doctrine with a bit of a possible reward held out—not unlike my methods with my children. “Stop kicking your brother or you will lose your video privileges and be banished to extra chores-ville!” I’m less eternal about it, but only because I—unlike the Abrahamic God—can’t manage to hold grudges and don’t have guards to enforce my Hell while I am otherwise occupied.

Another popular method is the Hindu concept of Karma. Some more sophisticated versions perceive Karma as primarily about providing specific lessons that one needs to learn. But there is always an element of “If you behave unethically, you will suffer as a result, possibly in another life, but eventually you will suffer.”

This may be conceived of as learning a necessary lesson in order to be more enlightened in a future incarnation or as straight-up karmic punishment, depending on who you listen to, but either way, it’s a method of enforcement.

My parenting often has a Karma-like element too. “If you break your toys, you won’t have them. If you use up all your time fighting, you won’t have time to play. If you break someone else’s toy, you’ll have to work it off.”

In parenting circles, we like to call this “natural consequences” rather than punishment. Just like we like to call the Heaven and Hell version, “reward-based discipline.”

Every reward entails the possibility of its denial. And every natural consequence that a parent enforces is only one step removed from punishment.

It may be that immaturity leads many of us to require this kind of external moral compass. As children we almost all need it to some degree. Many adults still appear to need it. Without constraints, most humans don’t act particularly ethically. This is why we have law enforcement after all.

Some people will argue that morality and ethics are nothing but social constructs, and thus somehow suspect and questionable. Many animals don’t appear to have ethics, these ethics deniers argue.

But that is a belief primarily espoused by those humans who spend very little time with animals or in nature. In fact, very few animals kill beyond self-defense, the need for food or competition for procreation, i.e. beyond absolute necessity. Some do but most do not. Many animals respect the territorial rights of others with only exceptional outbreaks of violent struggle. And recent research is showing a remarkable number of animal species that are capable of compassion, loyalty, empathy, revenge, community cooperation, communication and occasionally even heroism.

So it isn’t really possible to say that ethics is a merely human conceit.

A secular, humanist perspective acknowledging this science often simply claims that we want to do “what is right” without any basis for it. And perhaps those young children and animals who act ethically—seemingly without threat or reward—may be proof that this principle has some traction. This reason for ethics is pleasingly uncomplicated, but often there are hidden reasons.

My extraordinarily well-behaved eight-year-old student wants the approval of adults. She is highly motivated for approval and enjoys being praised more than most kids. She also enjoys winning though, which is why she insists on winning every game over her younger sister.

There is a reward being sought and a consequence being avoided. The reward of praise and approval and the consequence of disapproval. The fact that her reward and consequence equation is a bit less tangible and forceful than that required by some kids does not negate the fact that it is still there. She glows under adult praise and so pursues it.

It is still an external reward but perhaps it is easier to transition from such a non-tangible reward to an internal reward and thus to ethical independence. That is why parents often try to motivate children through praise alone, hoping that our children will not always need a carrot or a stick.

As a follower of Pagan gods and a seeker for spiritual insight in ancient traditions, I am often fascinated by the ethical systems of ancient cultures. Many do not appear particularly moral to us today. The concepts of ethics were different and some ancient cultures were quite hierarchical and ruthless. But the deeper you go into tribal, hunter-gatherer traditions, the less hierarchical and the less external reward-consequence thinking you find.

It is not that there is no possible reward for ethical acts but in these ancient cultures there is a heavier reliance on internal rewards, those we give only to ourselves in the form of self-respect and s healthy self image.

This is what I am interested in. Whether we call it enlightenment, awakening or honor, it all comes down to one thing—self-respect.

Within reason, children need consequences and rewards. And in law enforcement, these mechanisms seem necessary as well. But when it comes to most ethics and my own deepest beliefs, I want to live my life ethically based not on a hoped-for reward or a feared consequence from outside, but rather because my self-respect demands it.

Unless I am within a specific tradition that uses a different term to mean the same thing, I use the more universal term ‘self-respect” because that most clearly gets at the meaning. My goal is to live well, ethically and morally in such a way that I can feel unreserved self-respect.

This is one reason I follow an earth-centered spiritual path with ties to ancient cultures. This spiritual approach lends itself to the ethics of self-respect. I strive to teach my children these values as well. It is not easy in a world filled with instant, external gratification from consumerism and passive entertainment. But when they do well, my first response is not a material reward or even my approval, but a comment to notice how they feel inside.

When you call yourself a "gypsy"

Pagans, new agers, beautiful beings or spirit and creativity, all of you, hear this.

I have done some very silly things in my time. When I was a young teen and I desperately wanted to be a beautiful and wise Pagan priestess and herbalist healer from Middle Earth, I mixed up inedible brews of random leaves from around my house. I forced my best friend (a boy) to sit facing me and hold a crystal on his forehead in lengthy tests of our telepathic powers.

I also talked him into training to be a "knight" by whacking a tree endlessly with a wooden sword. This last was not just silly but ultimately destructive and cruel. My friend, trying to win his medieval wannabe lady's favor, knocked all the bark off of the tree in a ring all the way around the trunk. And the tree died. 

My friend went on to learn to use a sword skillfully from martial arts teachers in Japan. I spent the next twenty years learning which plants actually have medicinal properties and which are poisons or will just give you a stomach ache. Fortunately, for me and my friends, I stopped short of being stupid enough to get anyone to drink my early concoctions. 

The fact remains though that we do silly things when we are inexperienced and uniformed. Some of those things are not just silly but stupid. And some of the stupid things end up hurting someone. 

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

There is one silly thing going around in Pagan and other spirituality circles that I want to warn you off of. I say it as a fellow silly person. I don't come from a high preachy perch, but rather from the earth-bound, true-hearted path of one who did not always know better.  

Please don't call yourself a "gypsy" unless you really are Romani. Please don't even name your pets, children, homes or objects with "gypsy" as either a noun or an adjective.

I get it. The word sounds fun. So many people use it and they mean no harm. At worst, it is silly to you in the places where you live. 

I, however, live in a place where the word "gypsy" Is as harsh and dangerous a racial slur as the N-word is in the United States. In Central Europe where I live, eighty percent of Roma live in poverty, often the absolute poverty rarely seen outside of the developing world. Thirty percent of Roma in the wealthy European Union live in households with no running water.

It was only in 2008, that the schools in the European country where I live began to desegregate and Romani children started attending real schools. We are otherwise a wealthy and highly educated country, but discrimination against the Roma is still pervasive and hate crimes, both violent attacks and threats, are widespread. 

Earlier this summer, a gang of ten men armed with knives attacked a Romani community in Western Ukraine, a few hundred miles from where I live. They killed one person and injured four others, including a child. When the Romani residents fled the area, journalists found bloodstained clothing scattered amid children's toys and other household items.

Where I live in the Czech Republic, 65 percent of Roma report discrimination when seeking housing and 55 percent of the non-Romani population openly say they wouldn't want a Romani neighbor, which shows that the Romani reports are probably not exaggerated. In addition, more than 50 percent of Romani children reported racist harassment and bullying in school in a European Union survey published earlier this year.

I know that people who call themselves "gypsies" in fun or even in a belief that they are thus "honoring" the free spirit and beauty of the Romani people don't mean the term the way those who attack Romani people using that word do. But it is still a mistake. It is one of those silly things that actually hurts people by accident. 

Just as Native American indians do not appreciate people dressing up with feathers on their heads and waving their hand in front of their mouth to "be like Indians" even when this is meant positively, Romani people are hurt by the stereotype of the "free-spirited, sensual and cleverly tricky gypsies." They are harmed in spirit and in heart, but also eventually harmed in body as well because these stereotypes contribute to international silence and indifference when gangs of thugs attack the Roma and bureaucrats block the doors of schools and apartment buildings. 

I knew much of this when I first came to live in the Czech Republic. Fortunately, I did not fall victim to this particular silly thing as a young person. I spent my twenties writing for international newspapers and magazines, often about the Roma, racism and ethnic violence in Central and Eastern Europe.

Creative Commons image by Pablo Segade 

Creative Commons image by Pablo Segade 

But of course, a journalist doesn't experience these events the way those targeted do. After I had lived in the Czech Republic for ten years and was married, I adopted a child. My husband and I couldn't have biological children and we were open to adoption. As it often happens in this country, the child the orphanage placed in my arms was a tiny Romani girl. 

The first weeks with my daughter were some of the happiest of my life. I remember the spring rain and sunshine of that April with misty-eyed joy.  

Then a month later, Neo-nazis threw three Molotov cocktails through the windows of a Romani home and one landed in the bed of a two-year-old girl. The beautiful little girl, who looked very much like my daughter, suffered terrible burns over 80 percent of her body and lost three fingers but survived after months in an induced comma and fourteen major surgeries.

The violence, discrimination and structural racism that the Roma suffer cost my daughter her first family and ended that month of naive bliss for me as well. Two years later we adopted a little boy, also of Romani background, who had already suffered racism from caregivers at an orphanage, where they told me "nobody really liked him." He was ten months old and already deeply traumatized.

Today my children are seven and nine years old. They are largely sheltered from the harsh realities of racism. My daughter once panicked when kids at school called her "black" because she thought they knew something she didn't and that she was going to turn the color black. She has a light olive complexion which is here sometimes called "black." She does love to wear flamboyant dresses and flowers in her hair, but so do many non-Romani little girls playing princess. 

My son's friend from school recently told me that some boys teased my son and called him "gypsy." My son reluctantly confirmed that it was true. He looked terrified as he waited for my reaction. 

My children don't really understand the many uses of the word "gypsy" yet. But like many other Roma, the first place they hear it is in the schoolyard as a racial slur. I will try to explain to them when we visit our family in America and hear people use it in a much more silly way that thee people do not mean to be hurtful. Maybe they will understand but maybe they will just learn to be quiet and keep their hurt inside.

Regardless, the silliness that accompanies the western use of the word "gypsy" spreads unhelpful stereotypes about the Roma, who are called Gypsies because historically some people believed they originated in Egypt. (They actually originated in India.) 

Pagan friends, I ask you not to do this silly thing. Don't misuse the word "gypsy" with a small "g" and don't use "Gypsy" with a big "G" as an insult either (obviously). The former may seem like a minor issue to many but it would help as a show of support for the Romani people who remain one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

Thank you for understanding. 

What I learned from Christians and Muslims about sharing one's identity with assholes

A few years ago, I attended the concert of a local Pagan band which was heralded as the Pagan event of the season in our area. The music was OK, but then half-way through the concert, the band started making the Nazi salute and yelling "Hail!" 

I grew up in one of those earth-centered families where we didn't call ourselves Pagan, but we read the stories of Norse, Greek and Native American gods, called the elements to start rituals, did Tarot and read the Runes... you know, all that good wholesome Pagan stuff. When I discovered the modern Pagan movement as an adult, I was delighted. There was suddenly so much more information and a whole world of potential community. 

Creative commons image courtesy of Novak Hunsky

Creative commons image courtesy of Novak Hunsky

The days of avoiding the pesky "What's your religion?" question in public were forever behind me.

Or so I thought.

I moved to Central Europe twenty years ago, following my journalism career. And there are many positive things in my new country, but racism isn't one of them. To say that I was upset to find neo-fascism spreading its slimy tentacles through the local Pagan community is an understatement. I was devastated. My experience with the band was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident and I struggled to find Pagan friends.

I set out for an international Pagans and Witches conference with high hopes of finding a more open-minded atmosphere in an international group. My children were little more than toddlers at the time and I wanted them to grow up the same as me, except better. I wanted them to have all the comfort and wonder of earth-centered spirituality AND a vibrant and friendly community where that spirituality is wholeheartedly accepted. 

I enjoyed being part of a large group ritual and found many of the discussions at the conference interesting. But several prominent persons at the conference made neo-nazi references and while some people seemed uncomfortable, no one said anything. As the only person there who didn't personally know anyone, I was hesitant to speak up, and when I did, I was harshly rebuffed and told to keep to my own business by one of the organizers.

I left the conference early. My mission had failed, since my children aren't white and I could see that even at an international gathering, they wouldn't always be truly welcome.

As a result, I was aware of the insidious creep of white supremacist groups encroaching on Pagan circles long before it became big news in the United States. Now with prominent white supremacist leaders claiming to be Pagan and alt-right demonstrators carrying Pagan symbols it is no longer so easy to admit to being Pagan in public. 

I have written about this scourge before and urged fellow Pagans to stand up to the abuse of Pagan symbols and groups by supremacist ideology. But for a long time, I struggled to make peace with the issue within myself. Should I abandon the term "Pagan?" I grew up without it after all. I could live again with a nameless identity or find a different term that might fit better.

Should I try to promote understanding of the Runes and other symbols as Pagan spiritual symbols, risking being painted as a racist bigot myself, or cede them to the Neo-nazis, allowing them to become public symbols of hate without a fight? There are certainly enough internet discussions on these issues and I've heard passionate and thoughtful arguments on both sides of that dilemma.

I have heard Pagans of Jewish and Native American background say that we are obligated to stop using the Runes and other symbols stolen by racists. I have also heard people from the same backgrounds argue that white Pagans have no right to just gift these symbols to white supremacists and hide from the problem, that we are obligated to publicly denounce the racist use of these symbols and advocate for their true meanings.

It seems that whichever we choose, we can't just blackout the assholes and go on with our merry lives in peace. At first, this seemed terribly unjust, and in fact, free fodder for the alt right--you know, white people being denied the right to their own cultural symbols because they "offend" someone.

Creative commons image courtesy of Shadowgate of flickr.com

Creative commons image courtesy of Shadowgate of flickr.com

But then I got some perspective from a surprising source.

"Now you know how we feel," one Christian friend mentioned while I was in the middle of this lament. 

I stopped. "What?"

But of course, progressive Christians have to deal with being associated with conservative Christians and fudnamentalists all the time. They've had a racist, sexist, homophobic, hard-right side of Christianity dominating their image in the United States for decades. They have cults, politicians, sexual predators and profiteers all leaching off their identity.

Many Pagans like the idea that because we have no central authority, we are fundamentally different from other identities. Paganism isn't even a religion, the say. We are just spiritual and we aren't going to say it in polite society but we believe we're more enlightened than Christians. 

As it turns out, we aren't all that different. Our beliefs may differ and our relationship with the gods may be radically different, but in some ways it really is the same old story.

By the time my Muslim Palestinian friend chimed in, I got it. Yes, I can imagine how irritating it would be to have your identity associated with the likes of "the Islamic State." 

As much as I would love to have an identity term that encapsulates only open-minded, diversity-loving, tree-hugging polytheists, I don't. All kinds of people on the Internet will tell you that they are Pagan and then drive a jacked-up truck with a bumper sticker that reads "F--- Mother Earth" without seeing any hypocrisy in that. There are Facebook-feed-loads of self-described Pagans who think one of the best things about their ancestral past was its mythical--and much overestimated--racial purity. 

So I got a little more humble and decided to look at how other spiritual groups have handled this kind of honor bruising. Certainly, there are plenty of authoritarian religions who have taken to declaring who is out of their religion for various transgressions. But this didn't seem like an attractive option.

I took to reading blogs by progressive Christians protesting the hateful and harmful practices of fundamentalist Christians. I found some very passionate denunciations, tough questions and calls to reexamine both the scholarship and basic values behind bigoted words and actions by other Christians. But after about two months of research, I was surprised by one thing I did not find in the posts of progressive Christians. 

I did not find any disowning, excommunicating or banning statements--no cries of "Those are not Christians!" 

Not one of the dozens of articles I read, as critical as they were, tried to say that fundamentalist hate-mongers aren't Christians. It isn't so much that I want to follow their example, but that I am surprised to see it. Some fundamentalist Christian denominations do claim that they are the only true Christians and refer to anyone else, including all Catholics, as non-Christians in Sunday School materials. I would expect that eventually progressive Christians would reciprocate. But for some reason they don't.

And the other thing they don't do is bequeath their symbols and terminology to hate-mongers. These progressive Christians don't turn belly-up and cede public views of Christianity to fundamentalists. Similarly my Muslim friends and several well-known Muslim authors, despite being slandered and attacked worldwide, continue to calmly repeat that Islamic fundamentalists don't represent them. 

I may not take my cues from other religions, but I am smart enough to learn from history. This is apparently the price of having that wide and inclusive community, full of new information and potential support which I was so delighted to discover. Soon enough someone hateful is going to claim that identity and abuse it for aims that appear to desecrate everything it stands for. 

That does not mean that we are implicated automatically or that we cannot use our own symbols. It does mean, however, that we have to stand up and face this. We may not have caused it, but at the same time we have a responsibility to speak out against those uses of our identity which are abhorrent.

I, for one, believe we should still use the Runes, but we must also acknowledge that when we take them up, we take up the burden of fighting racism and xenophobia as well. We don't get to just have our identity and remain silent believing that the injustices perpetrated in the name of that identity don't reflect on us.

Like everyone else, this is part of our story.

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.

Polytheism?

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 Hawaiian goddesses of the Egg Moon: International Moon Circle 10

The energy of spring is a welcome boost to activism and social justice movements. We need the joy of dance and flowers, the breaking free and the energy of fire. 

Creative Commons image by  Steve Corey

Creative Commons image by  Steve Corey

Though ancient Hawaiian culture was quite formal, it gave us some of the most inspiring goddesses for social justice. It is to these women of joy, freedom and fire that I devote the month of April, the Egg Moon. 

It takes a while for spring to make it all the way up through Central Europe to our Bohemian valley. February is long and frigid. March is usually gray, muddy and lashed with chilly rain. When spring does come it often brings sudden, wild color and light to our area. The shift usually happens in early April and I have chosen to focus on the colorful and sensuous goddesses of Hawaii for this moon. The Maiden is Laka, the Mother is Hina and the Dark Goddess is Pele--goddess of fire, destruction and anger.

The Waxing Moon

Laka is the Hawaiian Maiden Goddess of the wild wood, dance and gifts. Her energy is that of pure joy and the colors of the natural world. She embodies joyful wildness, the innocence of young things full of promise and delightful movement. (Andersen 2011) This is what happens in April when flowers burst forth and the first green is brilliant. Laka's symbols are flowers, dance and the color yellow.

Creative Commons image by Crishna Simmons

Creative Commons image by Crishna Simmons

The energy of Laka is a glorious gift. She reminds us to bring play into our lives, to dance, to make fun gifts for no particular reason. This type of connection to a childlike joy is also a way to honor her. This is a great time to make a dandelion or buttercup crown or bouquet and to dance with no one watching.

The Full Moon

Hina is the female generative force of Hawaii, the ancient creatrix. She leads other goddesses and breaks free of male domination. She takes on many different identities, including that of trickster. But she is always tied to moonlight. She represents the rainbow array of women’s experience and the mother beyond stereotypes.

The stories of Hina are full of action, adventure, dragons, flamboyant tricks and colorful mist. One important myth of Hina is about how she made the decision to leave her husband and find a new home. She has the power to create and the strength to call an end when needed. (Monagham 2014) Her symbols are dragons, rainbows, tricks (such as April Fools day pranks) and dance. Reading stories of her adventures would be a good way to honor her as well as making dragon and rainbow decorations.

The Waning or Dark Moon

Creative Commons image by Ron Cogswell

Creative Commons image by Ron Cogswell

While Pele is the goddess of volcanoes and anger, she is treated rather nicely by the popular media. There was even a club founded in 1922 for people who had looked into her volcano in a Hawaiian national park and made offerings to her. (Nimmo 2011)

Images of her often emphasize her joyful side, which does exist. But she also truly represents the intensity and quick temper that often make strong women intimidating and gain us the labels of “hysterical” or “raging.” Half the time this intensity doesn’t even come from Pele’s anger. Like many emotionally intense and expressive women, she just is that way. She may be expressing joy but it comes with fire and spitting lava.

A way to connect with Pele is to release your inner intensity, express emotions vehemently, even if only in private. Fire is her primary symbol, though dragons may also be appropriate.

Bibliography

  • Andersen, J. (2011). Myths and Legends of the Polynesians. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
  • Auset, B. (2009). The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Nimmo, H. A. (2011). Pele, Volcano Goddess of Hawai’i: A History. Jefferson, NC. McFarland & Company, Inc.
  • Motz, L. (1997). The Faces of the Goddess. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Reid-Bowen, P. (2007). Goddess As Nature. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
  • Skye, M. (2007). Goddess Alive! Woodbury, MN, Llewellyn Publications.
  • Sykes, E. (2002). Who’s Who in Non-Classical Mythology. New York, NY: Routledge.

Of Beltane and earth warriors

Pagans and earth-centered people, even if you consider only those who celebrate Beltane, are wildly diverse in worldview, beliefs and lifestyle. We don't all teach our children the same things. It has often been said that there can be no Pagan politics, because we never agree on anything.

Be that as it may, it is not difficult to see connections between earth-centered spirituality and the movement for social and environmental justice. If you have a strong spiritual path and you also feel strongly about protecting the earth, there is no doubt that these two parts of you will be intertwined. Likewise, spirituality and social/ethical values are interconnected for most people, whatever their spiritual path.

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

We follow an earth-centered path because we resonate with a way of being that is concerned with interconnection, natural cycles and a sense of the divine in many parts of life. We are concerned about the environment for the same reasons - interconnection, natural cycles and a sense of sacredness in the natural world.

Many also translate this into social justice. We are interconnected. Injustice anywhere is my business, because I'm part of the weaving. Natural cycles and the freedom to be close to nature is crucial. All beings have a part in the divine. Wildly diverse Pagans--just as people of other faiths--are going to translate these abstractions into concrete reality in all sorts of ways.

But in the end, the point is that we cannot actually separate spirituality from social and environmental concerns.

Beltane is a time when that connection is even more apparent. As the veil between the worlds thins, so does the separation between the spiritual and the social, the personal and the political.

Beltane is most often associated with sexual energy and passion. It represents the vibrant maturing of the youth phase in most cycles, that stage in which energy is moving upward and outward.

But it is difficult to ignore the other side of this coin of passion. There is love and sexual passion, yes. There is also the passion of the warrior. The Lovers card in the Tarot is followed immediately by The Chariot. And there's a reason for that.

Beltane is the celebration of passionate union. It is also the celebration of unity in struggle. It is no coincidence that movements for social solidarity adopted May 1 early on as May Day. Like everything sacred throughout history, that connection has, of course, been used and abused by those seeking control and power. But that doesn't negate the foundation--the energetic connection. Earth day is also close by on April 22.

When the body and spirit feel oppression within our human and non-human family or destruction of our home (the earth) happening all around us, warrior energy rises within us and demands a greater channel. 

This is a season when our warrior energy is demanding a release. In times of peace and tranquility that energy can be channeled into dance, love and other energetic, expressive pursuits. But when the body and spirit feel oppression within our human and non-human family or destruction of our home (the earth) happening all around us, warrior energy rises within us and demands a greater channel. In such dangerous times, the denial of warrior energy leads to predictable results: anger, fury, conflict and further destruction.

Anyone who has been in close contact with teenagers (the human stage closest to the energy of Beltane) knows that sexual energy is powerful. Suppression and silence only lead to unhealthy results. That is why we give it expression in healthy ways, learning how to channel it.

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

Warrior energy is the other side of that coin, the shadow in the spring sunshine. And its suppression is no more possible. 

The Warrior

Human society relied on literal warriors and hunters for the vast majority of our genetic history. In recent centuries, we have shifted our social organization from tribes to nations and tried to relegate warrior energy to defensive armies and law enforcement.

I'm for peace as much as anyone, and I have huge respect for professional police officers and soldiers. Their channeling of warrior energy for the protection of all is part of what is needed.

However, the warrior energy does not simply dry up in the rest of us--the civilians. Modern society attempts to suppress it for the sake of the status quo, but when we see and feel injustice, it erupts. If not given a legitimate outlet, that eruption is often self-destructive or harmful to others.

This should not actually be nearly as much of a problem as it has become in our modern world. We try to force warrior energy to conform to sports competitions or try to drug it into submission with video games. But neither of these truly satisfies the need at a deep level.

The most basic reason for this lack of release is that injustice and the destruction of our earth is all around us. And as long as there is such a threat, our warrior energy will not rest.

Yet there is something constructive and positive that can satisfy it. Instead of suppression, professional armies, sports or video games, we need to recognize that the incarnation of the warrior today is the activist.

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

As such, Beltane is the natural celebration of activism and resistance to tyranny. In this year when much of our environmental and social fabric is threatened, the celebration holds particular meaning.

The Activist

You may not like the word "activist" because it has been  used as a pejorative in recent years--to mean someone with a selfish agenda. But a person who is pursuing an agenda for profit is most often simply a business person. A person pursuing a profitable agenda for some other entity is just an employee. These are not activists, but rather people working at a job, whether you like their agenda or not.

Calling anyone with an agenda an "activist" Is a trick of those seeking power to suppress the warrior energy of those they want to control. 

Activists, on the other hand, are in the most clear definition of the word not paid and not working for any specific personal gain. Instead their motivation is that of the warrior--protection of home and family, protection of the tribe, defense of the interconnected reality that allows the self to live and thrive.

This is the other energy of Beltane, the shadow side.

The opposite pole in the dance with the lover is not the hater. It is the warrior. Union is the natural partner of protection.

In the past year, the brave people of Standing Rock helped other people all over the world realize the fundamental link between the ancient warrior and the modern activist. While there are activists of many types, fighting in defense of home, family and tribe in a myriad of ways, the activist most easily connected to the warrior tradition is the environmental activist.

From Standing Rock campers to alternative energy innovators, from animal advocates to investors in rain forest reserves, earth warriors share the energy of Beltane. That is why for me this is a celebration of environmental activism and interconnection around the world as much as anything else.

Children and warrior energy

Now that I have children, this topic has become critical for me. I see them pulled--by peers, media and society--toward frittering their life force away with video games or allowing it to be suppressed. I realize the need to awaken that warrior energy for appropriate modern activism. 

I have been an earth warrior from an early age. I spoke up in defense of Greenpeace activists when a teacher at my conservative middle school denounced them. I wrote letters to the local newspaper when I was fourteen to protest clear-cut logging practices. I marched in anti-nuclear protests when I was much younger than that and protested the 1990 war in Iraq, at a time when few others did.

The book Shanna and the Water Fairy is children's fiction but its writing was informed by these experiences. I know from my own childhood that children often feel the pull of warrior energy. And if given access to information about the issues, they are often passionate earth warriors. This book is first and foremost a gripping story that kids love to read or hear read a loud, but it also has the capacity to give hope to the spirits of young earth warriors, who may be beginning to feel that the struggles are too big for them.

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

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 twelve days of Yule with kids

There are always challenges to celebrating a holiday outside the mainstream culture, especially if you have kids. If you celebrate the Winter Solstice and your kids attend school, it is likely that you've had some of these headaches:

  • Your kids are not only still in school on December 21, it's also the day of the school Christmas party, which they can't bear to miss.
  • Your kids are embarrassed to hear you say Yule or Solstice unless you're home with the doors locked.
  • When you go out December 22 and 23, everyone is always asking your kids what they want for Christmas and you have already had your family gifts. 

"Arg!" as a modern-day Viking might say.

Creative Commons image by Mike Beltzner

Creative Commons image by Mike Beltzner

Okay, none of these problems isthe end of the world, but they are annoying. Fortunately, we have a few advantages as well. The twelve days of Yule give us a lot of options. Here are some ways in which Pagan and earth-centered families get around the logistical hassles. 

You can dispense with the giant pile of presents and the kid-mania all together and give your children one small present each day from December 21 to January 1. If you're extra organized you can coordinate the types of presents to match the themes of each of the twelve days of Yule. Or you can simply use the special events of the twelve days of Yule to take the pressure off your Solstice celebration to be perfect.

There are fun and enriching things you can work into your days with kids all through the season. Without even doing anything beyond what you would probably normally do, you can make each of the twelve days a holiday for your kids.

Here are the themes for each traditional day of Yule based on the twelve astrological houses and the values of the Wheel of the Year.

December 21 is for self reflection and rebirth. It is a good day for rituals and divination. We honor the deities and spirits of the Sun as well as the mother goddess of the starry universe. We start the day by greeting the rising sun with hot chocolate and lanterns on some high place outdoors. It is fun have a candlelight dinner with round dishes in the colors of the sun. Because many people celebrate the twelve days from sundown to sundown, this dinner is often actually held on the evening of December 20. We make a clay figure of a goddess for the table and in the morning place a gold-painted clay infant in her arms to symbolize the return of the sun. We also do an annual Solstice Tarot reading, in which each person receives an atmosphere card for the whole year and twelve cards, laid out clockwise for each month of the new year. 

December 22 is for abundance and property, often a day of giving gifts or house blessings, This is often the day my children take off of school. The morning is devoted opening stockings. Gifts may be presented as a sharing of the abundance we have been given. Or they may be seen as the gifts of Santa Claus, Befana, Odin, the sun child or the Holly King--as symbols of the sun's strength and light which in truth does ensure our life and wealth throughout the year. The gifts parents give their children were in absolute terms first gifted to us from the sun's energy. 

December 23 is for communication, art and music. This is an excellent time for crafts or caroling, We make small boxes or plates of cookies and take them to the neighbors homes with a song. 

December 24 is for the home and family. It is a good time to meet extended family or to stay home and focus on whoever you consider family, Some people hold annual home blessings on this day. Because it is Christmas eve for Christians, it is often a time we meet with family members who celebrate Christmas. whether religious or secular.

December 25 is for play, children or connecting with one's own childlike energy. This the first day when the sun finally appears to return from the darkness a little. We can see that the new sun child is truly alive and we can celebrate this life. It is a good day to indulge children a bit, play a bunch of games and put aside work,

December 26 is for work and professionals, a good day to take a gift to colleagues, support unions or go out for some adult fun. Kids could draw pictures of a profession they'd like to try or learn about their parents' jobs, Sometimes it is simply a day to reconnect with reality and get things together for more holiday to come. 

December 27 is for partners. This is a time to get a babysitter if you have children and go out with your partner, whether romantic or otherwise. Kids can make cards for people they love.

December 28 is for magic and life force. This is a good day for making magical or ritual objects, Adults or children can make items for a new altar. It is also a good time for sending out wishes for the new year or for divination on a particular troubling question. It is also a day for healing and for honoring the herbs that provide us with medicine.

December 29 is for education, thinking and learning. It is a good day for educational games or thinking on what education kids want to pursue, This is a wonderful time for reading or listening to stories, a quiet time of contemplation and inner pursuits. 

December 30 is for careers, life path and duty. This is the day for activities concerning one's true vocation and role in life, Adults may make art or do divination around their profession or vocation. It is a time to come together with others of a similar profession. Children can learn about responsibility by doing some new tasks at home and being given a token of extra year and extra duties they have gained.

December 31 is for community. This works not only astrologically but also in terms of the secular calendar. This is the day of larger celebrations for New Year's Eve. It is also a good day for kids to do some volunteer work or bring a meal to someone who doesn't get many visitors during the holidays.

January 1 is for sacrifice and spirit. This is a day for giving offerings and possibly for divination. There may be gifts of spirit for children. It is also the time to give up things or habits that are no longer useful to use. This is not merely a resolution for our own health but also an offering to our gods, land or ancestors. By giving up excesses that may harm us or our environment, we make an authentic sacrifice with a purpose.

Blessed Yule to you and yours!

I am water

Here's a revelation from the shower..

The only time anyone gets to think in my household seems to be in the shower. Things have been crazy and the holidays aren't even here yet. Everyone is stressed out. My husband and I were on the rocks. The kids have taken arguing to a whole new level.

I feel like I'm hanging on by my fingernails sometimes. And I'm supposed to be resting after my eye operations. 

Creative Commons image by  Alex Dixon

Creative Commons image by  Alex Dixon

My six-year-old came and asked me, "Who is the boss in our family? Is Grandma the boss or you or Papa?" 

The seven-year-old says whoever wants to be the boss has to be big and strong enough to get rid of Donald Trump, her new nemesis. I barely even feel big and strong enough to get breakfast. Let alone a healthy breakfast. 

I was in the shower in the midst of this, when simple words came into my mind, repeating like a mantra:
 

I am water.
I am the river.
I am the well.


Simple. Too simple maybe. But also the answer I needed.

I am water. Our bodies are mostly water. And the only way I can make a difference in the world or in my family is the way water works its wonders--through persistent, gentle, adaptable and never-ending action. Through seeping into cracks and expanding with the frost. Through the quiet, unbeatable strength of atoms. 

My children may not eat a healthy meal every meal, but I continue to work at it. I may be blocked and dammed up at times, but when the water rises high enough, the important things will spill over. Water never stops. Never stops. 

Water spreads everywhere. Water seeks freedom. Always heading down toward the open sea. No matter how turned around, no matter how many barriers. Water always keeps seeking freedom.

I am the river. I am also standing in the river, feeling the water flow all around me. I can catch certain things in the rush. My children, for example. I have caught them many times when they might have been swept away on a tide of consumerist glitz and brain-dead computer games.

Someday I will let them go in the river. And they too will be water. They will go through the rough water and scrape against rocks. Then I will have to hope I have taught them to swim well enough because many drown.

I am the well. There is something deep. I don't want to be the only one who gives food or peace or family harmony or hope. But while I can, I let it be. It seems I must be an endless and inexhaustible source for my children and those around me.

I have railed against it sometimes. But even I know I have to be a well. In a home with small children. In a world with so much need and hopelessness. Each of us must be a well of something, whatever it is we care deeply about. Be the source.

If it is peace you want, be the source. If it is safety or joy or love you want, be the well.

And be well.

The Goddess in America - Pagan Book Review

Here's America's answer to Pagan Planet. which focuses heavily on the British Isles. The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context, edited by Trevor Greenfield, is an impressive anthology of Neopagan, Reclaiming and Goddess-oriented writers and it provides a valuable study guide for anyone seeking to understand Goddess-centered faith in America.

Right off the bat, this book passes the first, most obvious and most often failed test when it comes to looking at Goddess spirituality in America. That is it starts before Columbus... long before Columbus and stays there for a solid chunk of the book. Kudos to the editor for that. It isn't a stance without its critics and dangers. 

The issue of the uneasy relationship between Goddess-devotees of European descent, Native American Goddess spirituality and cultural appropriation is addressed without any definitive conclusion. It's a sticky subject and there is essentially no way to satisfy everyone. Several authors weigh in on the topic in this anthology, all offering various versions of a moderate viewpoint: i.e. people should be free to honor goddesses other than those from their own genetic background as long as they do so with true respect and take the time to understand the cultural context of the goddess and give something back to the culture and community that the goddess comes from. Some authors have more exacting standards than others when it comes to correct respect but that is the general consensus.

The book continues with a variety of perspectives on the historical development and contemporary character of goddess spirituality in America. Again, the editor has heard the calls for more racial diversity in such anthologies and the authors represent reasonable diversity within the movement, including Vodun and Hebrew goddess perspectives. 

The book is generally well written, excellently edited and interesting to read. Unlike some similar books there is little attempt to make it easy or light reading, however. The authors state their issues in all their complexity, which will make the book appropriate for university programs and other scholarly considerations. It includes several sections on pop culture, including an essay on representations of the Goddess in pop culture as well as the Goth movement, but these issues are handled from an analytical perspective, with respect for those who are part of these trends and yet without playing to a pop culture tune. 

If there is any issue in which I feel the book is not fully representative of American goddess-spirituality it is in the emphasis of several authors on Reclaiming. My broad experience of the on-line world of American goddess spirituality shows that both formal Reclaiming groups and the general values and ideals of Reclaiming are much less prominent in America than they are represented in this book.

I personally love the Reclaiming movement, however, and I wish these values and ideals had greater sway in the popular goddess movement in America, so I don't take offense at its exaggerated influence in the book. I dearly wish more people today took social and environmental activism to the core of their spirituality and acted on the principles they profess. Instead I find a media landscape which deadens passion and ridicules those who stand up for their beliefs actively.  

Thus to paraphrase the motto of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, this is something like the Goddess in America--as she is and should be.  This book sets out not just to document where we are but also to point a conscious way forward for the goddess community in America. 

All in all this is an excellent anthology on contemporary goddess spirituality and well worth the read.

The Art of Ritual: The difference between laughing at ourselves and laughing at our faith

I once had the honor of guiding a young woman in her first full-blown Pagan ritual. She had been to some drumming circles and Tarot readings but not a ritual with all the besoms and wands. She had also grown up in a household where spirituality was a dire affair, strictly dictated and ruled by an angry God who would supposedly damn anyone who didn’t do it “just so” to eternal agony. 

She was eager for something different, but also anxious. 

Creative Commons image by Anand Krishnamoorthi

Creative Commons image by Anand Krishnamoorthi

What if we did something wrong? She was reverent and serious about learning. That is good and proper, and yet too much seriousness can be limiting.

I was not all that experienced in leading rituals and this was one of the more complex I had done. It was Samhain and I wanted to do it right. I had very specific reasons for wishing to connect with ancestors, mine and others, that year. I had recently adopted two children from a different ancestry than my own and I wanted to approach their ancestors with honor and respect to ask for their blessing on the adoption as well. 

So, it was a serious ritual. But in the first moments, my informal apprentice mixed up the quarters. We all know it happens. She was flustered and worried. But I told her we didn’t have to worry. We started the calling of the quarters over again and did it right.

Then I turned in the dim candlelight and knocked over a small bowl of libation water. I managed to catch the bowl, not break it and even save enough of the water that we could continue without interruption, but water splashed onto the floor. 

I started laughing. First, nervously but then joyfully. 

My young companion was startled. I explained that not being perfect is part of the ritual and so is laughing at ourselves. The rest of the ritual was punctuated by moments of laughter and once when we both started laughing for no good reason and couldn’t stop. 

But it was still one of the most powerful small-group rituals I’ve ever known. The energy was intense and I truly felt the blessing and protection of many ancestors.

I tell this story because it is good to keep in mind that laughter has its place in ritual, as do mistakes and a bit of silliness now and then. Some rituals guide us to laugh away negative energies or to laugh in order to overcome difficulties. And these are good uses of laughter.

That said however, silliness should not be the focus of every ritual. And while we should learn to laugh at ourselves and our troubles, we should not laugh at or mock ancestors, the spirits of the land or our gods, Some people are going to be rolling their eyes reading this and calling me a “pious Pagan,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

But I’m not actually saying that we should remain reverent in order to avoid curses and the thunderbolts of Thor. I was not raised with that jealous, angry god with a hell full of torment and fire, and yet I do see how fearing retribution for irreverence puts one on a slippery slope.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.

It is the mere fact of inner truth and faith.

I was given the task of reviewing the book The Art of Ritual by Rachel Patterson. The book purports to give an overall basis for ritual. And yet it is full of attempts at lightheartedness, which are not particularly funny. It needs a good line edit. And it is more of an example of how to pretend to do ritual while laughing out of the side of your mouth to make sure your friends know you don't really believe this stuff. 

There are word-use and terminology mistakes, such as calling Mabon "the Autumn Solstice." ("Solstice" means "the sun standing still," which is the appearance when the sun’s movement changes direction at the Winter and Summer Solstices. It does not happen in any way at the Equinoxes.) In another gaff, there is an attempt at the re-imagining of the myth of Atlas, which falls flat when the author says Atlas was was relieved of his "turmoil" instead of "torment." There was no sense that the author meant Atlas had some inner conflict and outer turmoil would likely be much less boring than holding up the sky for eternity.. 

The honest mistakes may simply be the consequences of a small, over-taxed publisher and they can easily be forgiven. But errors close to the heart of the matter do dissipate the author’s credibility. 

More troubling still are the author’s references to matters of faith. Patterson says, jokingly, of her attraction to the god of life force and nature by whatever name he is called, “For me, it’s all about the antlers.” This and many other notes in the book insinuate that many parts of this spiritual practice are done for image and the street cred of the priest or priestess. While that isn’t out-of-bounds in and of itself, there is no corresponding depth or sense of real purpose in the rituals. 

The author talks about energy glibly, how to call this kind or dispel that kind. But the only explanation of energy or investigation of the purpose of ritual is contained in a tiny passage describing rubbing one’s hands together to raise heat and feel it between your hands.

It is as if an atheist wrote a how-to cookbook for people who want to dress up as Pagans in order to impress their friends. I doubt that's the case. The author is probably a very spiritual person trying to navigate the market for books on Pagan issues. I think if the book were marketed not as the full "art of ritual" but rather as the outer "ritual tools and scripts" I would have much less to complain about.

At every turn the author describes in detail physical objects for ritual or specific actions for ritual and then goes to extreme in denying any real need for them, never explaining that ritual objects and actions are aids to meditation and focus. Perhaps the author wants to avoid stating any of the reasons for ritual objects and actions to ensure that no one can contradict her. The problem is that this leaves the core of the book hollow.

The focus on image over depth in this book points at a troubling demographic phenomenon in which many Neopagans are Pagan not because they believe in our gods but because they don’t believe in the angry god with those threats of hell. They are accustomed to “not believing,” and they see Paganism as a religion where anything goes and nothing is sacred. It is an identity to wear proudly but not one to internalize.

Everyone has their own path and I don’t think most people dabbling in Paganism or witchcraft are likely to unleash some sort of negativity due to a lack of reverence. Our gods aren’t like that and I’m not here to judge others on their path, least of all those who have been through religious abuse and are most in need of some laughter. On the other hand, an overall frivolous and shallow approach to ritual isn’t what I would recommend. And thus I can’t really recommend The Art of Ritual as a general book on ritual. It may, however, be helpful to those who are too serious or afraid of negativity in ritual.

Ritual to me must be rooted in some authentic belief, even if it is only the inexplicable sense that “there is something out there.” We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, but we should hold something sacred—at least the earth, at least the hunger and need in the world. In times as troubled as ours, when we are threatened by imminent and disastrous human-caused climate change, war and massive multiple refugee crises, the art of ritual should come primarily from what is sacred to those practicing the ritual.

Ritual is first and foremost about deepening either personal or community experience and there is no word about this in The Art of Ritual. When we do rituals imperfectly and laugh to free ourselves from fear, it is an opening of spirit. When one laughs at the deepening experience of ritual, the spirit closes. 

Bringing Race to the Neopagan Table: an exploration of a taboo subject

The Neopagan community today is an odd combination of a publisher’s Summerland and a publisher’s Hel. There are wildly popular markets and bewildering hundreds upon thousands of books on some Pagan topics—cookbook-style spell books, books promising an instant cool factor and a good many serious books on specific gods, goddesses, methods and re-constructionist traditions. But there are some areas of great interest and concern that are untouchable, effectively off-limits to most publishers.

Creative Commons image by Debs of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Debs of Flickr.com

One of those issues is the quagmire of Neopagan race politics. It’s a scary swamp of murky definitions, guilt, fear, hate and accusations—cultural appropriation, stifled multiculturalism, isolated Santerians, Neo-Nazis masquerading as re-constructionist Heathens and lots and lots of white people confused about the concept of being a “minority” versus having “privilege.”

There is no conceivable way to enter this swamp without being criticized from one quarter or another (or all at once). It reminds me of writing articles from the interethnic war zones of the former Yugoslavia. The only way I knew I was even slightly on track was when I worked very hard to understand every side and then everyone was angry when I went to press. When one side was totally happy with me, I worried. 

That makes me think the book Bringing Race to the Table, which tackles the issue of race in the Neopagan community is doing a damned good job in a difficult crossfire. There is no way that anyone will be 100 percent happy with all of the opinions expressed in this anthology, because the authors don’t all agree with one another on all issues.

I would give this book top marks, five stars or whatever the equivalent, not because I agree with everything in the book. I have some quibbles. But because it does an excellent job of tackling such an incredibly difficult issue. And my quibbles are all on matters in which I agree with some of the authors but not others. I learned a massive amount by reading this book.

Being white, I learned fast and hard during the first half of the book, which reflects more the perspectives of people of color in Neopagan communities and I squirmed uncomfortably at times in the second half which reflects more the perspectives of white people. But this anthology represents most essentially an act of great courage both by the publisher and the authors, treading into a minefield and making a blessed good stab a very hard task.  

As a white Pagan who is part of a racially mixed family, I have become convinced over the past five years that the issue of race is the Achilles heel of the Euro-centric Neopagan movement. I believe that we either solve this problem, clean the skeletons out of our closets and lay them to rest or our movement will go the way of the Flower Children, to be remembered by future generations as a short fling with reinvigorating ancient Paganism, an attempt that was doomed by deficits in spiritual depth and inclusivity. 

Is Paganism a fashion statement or a religion? That is the question and oddly enough race is at the core of it. Many Neopagans have been hiding from the issue of race, pretending that “European Paganism,” which somehow ended up including Egyptian, Romani (Gypsy), Middle Eastern, Classical, Celtic and Heathen Paganism but nothing else is somehow distinct as a “religion” and that we can clearly identify a tradition, a goddess, a culture or an individual as “European” or not. In this paradigm race becomes a non-issue because the nature of this “religion” is that it originated in Europe. 

Creative Commons image by Duncan Price

Creative Commons image by Duncan Price

I hate to break it to those folks, but Egypt is not in Europe anymore than Nigeria is. And there is nothing all that unique or unified about European Pagan traditions. Celtic traditions share a lot of similarity with Native American beliefs. Most Pagan traditions worldwide share many similar tenants and often eerily similar details in mythology. Any line we draw around one continent’s Paganism is an arbitrary line and thus a line that cuts open the can of worms called “race,” no matter how hard we try to hold it closed.

The trouble Neopagans have with race begins with the fact that we don’t talk about race. When Moon Books sought to create an anthology of Pagan thought in the 21st century and titled it Pagan Planet (not Pagan Anglo-Empire), they forgot to include anything about non-European Pagans. It’s an all too common pitfall. 

But worse than that, some Pagans do talk about race—just carefully and when it is about the white race. During recent racially charged incidents in the United States and Europe, I have seen several news items posted on Pagan forums with emotive posts in support of white parties in the conflicts, but I have not seen Pagan posts sympathetic to victims of crime who are people of color. 

When I recently posted a news item critical of white supremacist groups in the United States on my own page (and thus not intruding on specifically Pagan forums) I was insulted and shamed by several members of Neopagan groups to which I belong who noticed my page. This may seem little different from the regular verbal sparring over political and social issues that goes on every day on social media, but after long observation on Pagan forums, a pattern emerges in which most members of Neopagan groups are silent about injustices against people of color. 

A vocal minority in the Neopagan on-line community shames and attacks those who speak up for people of color while posting their own racially charged items that favor people of white appearance. No one in turn shames or insults these white-favorable posts in Neopagan forums. Those of us who dislike such posts generally want to keep the peace and we hope the racist end of the Neopagan community will somehow just go away. In the end, there is an atmosphere where discussions of racial tensions in society is taboo with the exception of posts favorable to white-supremacist and European-heritage-only Pagan groups. It is difficult to imagine that people of color could feel comfortable in such a community. 

The lack of a non-European perspective in the book Pagan Planet is a clear symptom of the problem. A book that references the whole planet, that is supposed to take a broad look at Paganism in the twenty-first century, published by a respected Pagan publisher—one of the most up-to-date books of its type—contains almost no mention on race. That’s why we needed Bringing Race to the Table, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood and Brandy Williams.
Crystal Blanton describes some of the things that people of color encounter when attending Neopagan meetings and events: “From strange, questioning looks when someone walks into circle to asking a Hispanic practitioner if she is the maid at a Pagan event, all of these types of interactions happen within our community.” 

There is a difficult interethnic tension in the very term “Pagan.” Many non-European indigenous religions that would otherwise fit the definition of an earth-based polytheistic spirituality, are not considered Pagan either because their adherents vocally reject the Pagan label or because European Neopagans fear that they might be offended. Thus Hindus, Native American spiritual practitioners, Santerians and many others are often not considered “Pagan,” despite fitting all of the definition except the “European” part. 

Blanton theorizes that the root cause of incidents that are unwelcoming of people of color is inherent in this assumption that European Paganism is the norm in the Neopagan definition: “The fundamental assumption that we are attempting to integrate into a community that is not ours is the root of all these microaggressions. The Eurocentric construction of the Pagan community lends to a structure that coincides with greater society, making Caucasian the default, the overculture. This structure automatically “others” people of color.”

Creative Commons image by Porter Rockwell

Creative Commons image by Porter Rockwell

There are some corners of the Neopagan community where groups openly state that they are only open to those of European heritage, justifying themselves by saying that there are groups which are only open to those of Native American or African heritage and insisting that they wish to have an authentic Re-constructionist experience of their ancestral spirituality. 

Blanton explains, “I was recently told that I could not join a specific group of Heathen practitioners because I was not of European descent. When I challenged that, and actually concluded that I was [of European descent], I was told I still could not participate because I was not of ‘primary European descent.’ When I asked how that was measured, I was not given an answer that was consistent among those who would apply. In the end, I concluded that looks would be the determining factor of whether someone was of primary European descent, and although I would not qualify, my son would because of his sandy hair and blue eyes.”

I personally have encountered a related problem. As an obviously white person with light-colored hair, I was allowed to attend several Neopagan events in Central Europe until local groups met my children, who have darker skin and hair. Then I was given the cold shoulder and told that only European practices and deities were acceptable, even as organizers of the event held a large ritual honoring Egyptian gods. Somehow European Neopagans have decided that Egypt is part of European, not African, heritage.

Genetic exclusivity is a thorny issue, because there are indigenous spiritual groups from many continents who maintain genetic exclusivity as a means of protecting their cultural and spiritual treasures from continued exploitation and colonization by those in possession of greater wealth and power. This is one of the areas where I disagree with some authors in Bringing Race to the Table.  I understand that there are good reasons people of color must protect indigenous traditions and European Neopagans don’t encounter the same pressures. 

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

However, the world is now full of racially mixed individuals such as Blanton as well as the descendants of indigenous individuals who were removed from their culture of origin and either adopted or “reeducated” in boarding schools and other institutions. These individuals, both mixed race and those whose cultural heritage has been stolen or hidden from them (and thus who may not even know of their genetic background) are harmed most by genetic exclusivity. Beyond that, many people of European heritage now live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples many generations before. While wallowing in guilt over what one’s distant ancestors did helps no one, to simply transplant European Neopagan traditions to these lands and utterly ignore the indigenous traditions of the land on which one lives feels callus and simply spiritually wrong.

The issue of cultural appropriation is related, however, and it causes significant confusion in Neopagan communities. Unlike the few genetically exclusive groups, most Neopagans insist that they want more people of color in their circles and that because they embrace various parts of Native American, Asian or African cultures or spiritual teachings, they are multicultural and welcoming of people of different races. The problem is that this very adoption of bits and pieces from other cultures (and most often the adoption of the titles of spiritual leaders such as “Shaman” or “Medicine Woman” and identifying one’s self as one of these without clear knowledge of even which culture the term belongs to) is often felt as a slap in the face by people of color. It can feel like the flaunting of the spoils of colonialism and when those from outside the culture set up shop as teachers of an indigenous culture in order to profit from their incomplete knowledge, it adds insult to injury.

Neopagans often struggle with these issues, trying to be sensitive to indigenous cultures but feeling the need to connect beyond cultural boundaries. Yvonne Ryves writes about her shamanic practice that is guided by spirit allies of various cultures: “My guides are also not Celtic, nor is the shamanism I practice. In fact my shamanism still doesn’t link to any particular culture, but this no longer concerns me. As I am taught by my guides I may learn something that links to the culture they are from, for example early on, my Native American guide taught me how to make an offering to bird spirits with sage and feathers. This doesn’t make my shamanism Native American in any way though, especially as I make my own sage bundles from the sage I have growing in my garden, working with the spirit of that which is native to where I live.” 

While such practices are well-meant and authentic to the practitioner, adopting a term such as “Shaman” and using it out of context—Shamanism technically is Central Asian and does not refer to all out-of-body journeying techniques—can make people from indigenous cultures mentioned uncomfortable and thus alienate them from Pagan circles, where they might otherwise find an appropriate umbrella for their spirituality. 

As a result, some among both whites and people of color insist that cultural appropriation occurs when those not born to or given primary access to a certain tradition use the symbols, teachings, terminology or practices of that tradition.  However, this is another area where the authors of Bringing Race to the Table don’t have consensus. Reluctant Spider, a writer of African heritage, rejects the rigid genetic/ethnic measurement of cultural appropriation. She points out that unbiased application is impossible when some Greek myths have African origins and even Thor has ties to Ethiopia. 

Several authors of Bringing Race to the Table struggle to define the exact boundaries of cultural appropriation. Is it a question of power imbalance, when those with greater access to education, wealth and leisure time take what they want from those with less resources for spiritual study? Is it the cherry picking of only some terms, images or misrepresented concepts from other cultures and interpreting them through the lens of one’s own culture? Is it when the mystery of another culture is used for gain, whether to sell something or to claim titles and positions of spiritual authority? There is no easy answer but the common theme seems to be the attitude and respect with which we interact with other cultures. Neopagans do often give that respect when taking from other sources but sometimes they don’t.

Paradoxically, the final reason that people of color often don’t feel welcome in Neopagan communities is a lack of respectful and culturally sensitive inclusion of the deities, terms and practices of non-European earth-based traditions. Essentially, there must be some respectful cultural integration in order for Neopaganism to become inclusive. 

For instance, most encyclopedias of deities popular in the Neopagan community either put the vast majority of their focus on European and classical deities or include deities of various continents with the conspicuous exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Naming the Goddess, edited by Trevor Greenfield is an example. The latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines by Patricia Monagham  includes some African deities but they are only either Egyptian or African diaspora deities and this is the far progressive end of the spectrum with countless books entirely devoted to northern European and classical deities.

Reluctant Spider, one of the authors of Bringing Race to the Table, set up an objective experiment to determine the acceptance and placement of non-European deities and images in the Neopagan community. Because so much of the community is on-line, the on-line reflection of the community can be assumed to be fairly true of overall attitudes. And because the rankings of Google searches are based primarily on popularity statistics, such searches can accurately reflect what is appreciated in a community, as well as what has the backing of major organizations and funders. Therefore, Reluctant Spider used Google Image searches as an objective measure of the prevalence of images of non-European deities in 2014. She searched for specific terms and then counted the number of images of Caucasian deities one had to pass by in order to reach a single image of a non-European deity. 

First she simply entered the term “Goddess.” After 21 images of European goddesses, she encountered one Native American goddess. After two more, at number 23, she encountered a Hindi image. There were 35 images before she found a goddess image with skin dark enough to be conceivably African, although the image had European nose and lip features as well as bright green eyes. After 65 images she finally encountered a tree nymph with a green leafy afro. There were occasionally other Hindu images as well as Egyptian iconography, but there were no other black African goddess images. She stopped counting at 200.  

While a Google Image search is a reasonably objective tool Reluctant Spider’s first search was simply the term “Goddess” and it would not only produce results from Neopagan sites or forums. It would produce all images associated with the term “Goddess.” She also entered the search terms “Black Goddess,” “African Goddess,” “African American Goddess,” and “Latina Goddess.” Instead of resulting in a flood of more culturally diverse goddess images, these terms resulted in lists of images featuring secular celebrities and sexualized models. Then she tried “White Goddess” and she was returned to actual goddess images, primarily those of the Neopagan community with a scattering of historical sites. But of course the real test was when she put in the term “Pagan Goddess.” In this case there were no results showing a goddess resembling an African within 200 results. (Reluctant Spider 2015, 8-9%)

Kids cellebrating Samhain - CC image by Steven Depolo - all good.jpg

Clearly, filtering the original search for Neopagan sites resulted in an even more extreme lack of multicultural images. I have unintentionally replicated these experiments many times while searching for appropriate Goddess images for my racially mixed family and coming up frustrated. It is important to remember that it is the actions and preferences of millions of Google users—what they share and pay attention to—that is reflected in such a Google Images search. This makes these results all the more troubling. We have no one to blame it on and it is very likely to be a true reflection of the aesthetics preferred by most English-speaking Pagans today. 

After reading Bringing Race to the Table, I must conclude that the Neopagan community falls woefully short of meaningful inclusivity at the present time. While the authors sometimes don’t agree with one another, their differences are invariably about details, such as the exact definition of “cultural appropriation.” 

Blanton argues that this unfortunate state of affairs will not change until Neopagans openly take action for racial inclusivity: “We cannot pretend that our spirituality makes us decent people if we are not out there fighting to make things right in areas of inequity for people of color. We justify away what makes us uncomfortable. We also excuse rules, prejudices and guidelines that eliminate the participation of people of color. Then the community ignores the lack of black and brown faces in our circles or conventions, excusing it away instead of exploring it.”

Bringing Race to the Table is the best source of material for investigating these issues at present. I wish it could be required reading for all Neopagans. Given that that won’t happen, I hope that Neopagans who do care about these issues will read it and be vocal about the problems. Our future depends on it.

“The road forward in an inclusive community would have to start with an honest evaluation of how our actions are causing intentional and often unintentional harm by setting a culture that is not welcoming or embracing of those who do not fall within the walls of our Euro-centric overculture,” Blanton writes.

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.

Biblliography

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.

Pagan Book Review: Pagan Planet looks at how modern Pagans live and act on their beliefs in the twenty-first century

What are the diverse experiences of contemporary Pagans of an indigenous European bent? What are the challenges of reclaiming and integrating ancient beliefs in the twenty-first century?  What are our values and how do we act on them?

There may be some blogs and other online sites that discuss these intense and complex issues that take the Pagan community beyond romantic ideas of candles, crystals and witchy hats, but they are scattered and often jumbled in with other things. Getting a balanced view of where the Pagan community really stands by skimming such websites would be a daunting task. That’s where the book Pagan Planet (edited by Nimue Brown of Moon Books) comes in. 

This is an anthology that sets out to chart the breadth and depth of the contemporary Pagan community. The subtitle Being, Believing and Belonging in the 21st Century brings issues of identity, faith and ethics to mind. Here at last is a credible attempt to take a serious look at Neopaganism without any delusions or fetishes, simply as a contemporary way of life. For that, it is most welcome.

The list of authors and topics in the anthology is delightful and intriguing. There are essays on specific issues and musings on life as a modern Pagan, even a poetic or fictional bit or two for added flavor. All around, I was not bored reading this. The writing is varied, and professional--the cream of the Neopagan community. I found a few of the insights particularly gripping, especially when they had to do with how Pagans act on the values promoted in our teachings, such as honoring elders and ancestors, helping those in desperate poverty to gain self-reliance through Pagan Aid and protecting the earth in many valuable ways. As a Pagan parent I found the pieces on Pagan parenting entertaining and the entry on Authentic Shamanism was fascinating. All this is contained in the book.

At the same time, many of the authors were clearly aware of the eyes of history reading their words as well as today’s readers. They were not only setting out to reflect our community back to us. They were also attempting to document a moment in the development of Neopaganism to say essentially: “Here in 2016, this is where we stand. These are our struggles, concerns and achievements. Let it be remembered.” That too is a good and honorable task.

Because of these goals, this anthology is almost too broad. In trying to look at all the diverse aspects of Pagan life, it is limited in its ability to explore in great depth. That isn’t a serious flaw because we need a book that takes into account many different issues. There are already books on many of the specifics. And at the same time, I was disappointed in one aspect of this book--its focus not just on indigenous European traditions but the heavy emphasis on the British Isles in particular. This is a more serious limitation because it purports to give a global perspective. While there is a southern hemisphere piece and a few North American entries, most of those that mention place are in the UK or Ireland. 

It is beyond sensitive to tread on the borderlines between European Pagan traditions and other indigenous and earth-based traditions that have mostly not adopted the word “Pagan” though they essentially fit the description aside from not being European. I recognize the difficulty of forming bridges to other earth-based cultures because of the issues of cultural appropriation and historical colonialism, However there are so many of us who dwell in the borderlands between European and non-European ancestry, lands and cultures (whether we like it or not) that we ignore this aspect at our peril.

This book shies away from earth-centered traditions of non-European in origin with only the briefest mentions of trading vague comments with a fellow Shaman in Africa and one author who admits to mixing in some Native American ideas with a careful caveat against usurping Native American culture. However, this last was another case of someone living in Ireland, not dealing with Native American culture because of proximity or the ancestry of one’s land, but because it is personally interesting. 

I offer that as a critique not in order to tear down a good and much-needed book, but to ask for our community to stretch even further in the issues we dare to talk about publicly. I grew up on a plot of land that tangibly spoke of fairly recent Native American ancestry and this influenced my understanding of the world, history and spirituality. I am now raising two children of mixed ancestry, who will have to bridge the gaps between Europe and other continents. I would like them to grow up into a Pagan community that is more inclusive of those who are not all European. Globally as well, the issue of race cannot and should not be ignored. 

Another enormous issue that is barely touched in this book is climate change. Many of the authors in this anthology are active in the anti-fracking movement, an extremely important part of the environmental struggle. And yet there was almost no mention of climate change and the challenges the next generation will face, including ethical issues when faced with massive waves of refugees and real hardship encroaching on the edges of our community. Our children will struggle with these and other heavy issues. Can we give no sign posts or explanation to the next generation who will have to struggle with issues so painful that we barely dare to touch them? 

All in all, Pagan Planet is a good book discussing issues important to the Neopagan community with some geographical and cultural emphasis on one area. It should be included in comparative religion and multicultural courses, studied by those beginning a Pagan path and discussed with passion and gusto by experienced Pagans. 

Reclaiming Pagan identity

"I'm not a Gypsy!" a thirteen-year-old boy in a Romani (otherwise known as Gypsy) settlement in Eastern Europe once told me. "Do I look like I have some kind of free and easy life? I don't have a wagon or one of those funny round guitars."

I was a journalist at the time--supposed to be impartial and not interfere with the natural course of events--so I didn't do what I wanted to do. I have since regretted that I didn't put an arm around the kid's shoulders and say, "I hear ya, brother. I know what it's like to have your identity usurped and dragged around to serve various fashion trends and self-indulgent subcultures. Don't let that stop you from knowing who you are." 

I do know because my identity is bound up with similarly loaded words. And when I first started writing Pagan children's books that was the greatest obstacle I faced. Many people who I expected to be supportive (because I grew up with their earth-centered spirituality) were skeptical and even resistant to the idea. 

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

"If you use words like 'Pagan' or 'magic' or 'witch,' you're going to limit the types of people who will read the book," one critic told me in no uncertain terms. "And a cauldron?  I mean seriously! I can't believe you called it a 'cauldron.'" 

Other times I've heard people who clearly practice earth-centered spirituality say essentially the same thing that the Romani boy told me.  "I'm not Pagan," one said. "When people hear 'Pagan' they think about immature mind games, hedonism and irresponsibility. It's the sort of thing that teenagers play around with just to annoy their parents. It's not a serious earth-centered spirituality." 

There are always tough decisions to make when presenting a book to the world and foremost among them is "Who am I writing this for?" I had to keep that question firmly in mind as I navigated the publishing process for Shanna and the Raven

The answer is that I wrote it for Pagan and earth-centered families. I want people who share these beliefs to be able to find the book using those search terms. And I'm not as interested in what everyone else in society thinks those terms mean. 

And moreover, I have two children myself and I think about what it meant to me to grow up with an identity that had no socially acceptable name.

Why "Pagan?"

I know there are a good number of people in the United States, Europe and Australia who accept the term "Pagan" readily. However, the fact is that there are many more people (possibly several times our number) who share our essential beliefs yet don't accept that term. That's why it's worth addressing the issue of why I use the specific term "Pagan."

I grew up with earth-centered spirituality but I didn't adopt the term "Pagan" until I was about thirty. That was mostly because I spent many years looking for a word that could accurately convey my meaning. Over the past twenty years many terms have become well-known--some ultra specific like "Wiccan," "Druid," "Asatru" or "Reconstructionalist." Some vague or only used by some, such as "New Age" or "goddess culture."

I chose the term "Pagan" for one simple reason. It is broad enough, yet to those who accept it, it means what I am trying to express. Thus if I find someone who identifies as Pagan and I say that I am Pagan, we both have a rough idea of what that means. Not perfect, no. But look at the wild diversity of Christianity or Islam. We're hardly alone in not being uniform. 

The term "Pagan" is also used in a specific way by serious news media. In the code of newspaper journalism, one should call a group "Pagan," if it represents an indigenous belief system with strong ties to nature and probably several gods or goddesses. Recently I have seen newspapers refer to tribes enslaved by ISIS as "Pagan" because they fit those criteria. Thus the term "Pagan" Is not exclusive to indigenous European religions, although it is most often used that way.

I know I'm treading on dangerous ground among fellow Pagans, asserting that I have a firm definition for the term "Pagan." But it isn't so much that I have that definition myself. It is that I accept and identify with the standard definition of the term. I don't fight the meanings of words because the most popular definitions of words will prevail in over time and resistance in this case really is futile. If I had come of age and discovered that most people called the beliefs I hold "gobbledygook" I would have identified with that term and fought for its correct interpretation and positive identity. Thus I don't fight against the term but rather for its clearer understanding. 

Get the Pagan children's book  Shanna and the Raven here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

That is why I use the term "Pagan" both for myself and to my children and in my children's books. Yes, "Pagan" originally meant something like country bumpkin and it wasn't specific to a religious path. But it is now. It has a commonly accepted definition, whether we like it or not.

Gay used to mean happy. American Indian and Gypsy were both terms assigned to (and largely accepted by) whole nations of people based on someone else's poor grasp of geography. (Gypsy comes from the incorrect belief that the Roma came from Egypt.)

Seriously, we need to stop whining and be glad for the identity we have. Show me a better or more understood term, and I'll seriously consider it.  But for now "Pagan" is the term we have. The term "Witch" is in a similar category, though the road to the broader understanding of that term will be even more rocky.

Why do we need an identity term?

There is another argument I encounter in the community discussion on this issue and that is that some people strongly believe that we don't need terms of identity at all, that these are just "labels" and actually potentially damaging. I do understand the idealistic and positive intention behind these concerns. We should all be human beings first--dwellers of this earth and universe, in kinship with every being. 

But... you knew that was coming, didn't you? But we don't live in an ideal universe and neither do our children. The concept of rejecting all labels and merging into one big happy identity is akin to the argument for "colorblindness" among many white people in the United States or Western Europe. The lack of identity works just fine if there are truly no distinctions or problems between people in society. However, if there is any measure of tension, lack of identity works in favor of those associated with the largest and most privileged group and to the detriment of minority groups. 

Get the Pagan children's book   Shanna and the Raven  here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

Many of those who embrace earth-based spirituality today grew up in another religion with a very distinct name, and part of their change is to release themselves from names and labels, so our community members often balk at terms such as "Pagan" or even "earth-centered."

It's understandable. However, there is an issue here that goes beyond the desires of individual spiritual development. These first-generation Pagans did grow up with an identity, one they could understand, make decisions about and even reject because it had a name. And they also grew up in the majority culture.

Children raised in earth-centered families are not fully in the majority culture and they often lack the words needed to make their own decisions about their beliefs. That was why out of all the worthy topics for children's books, I chose to devote my first books to stories of contemporary Pagan children.

As I write the second book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series I note that the only times identity labels are needed or even arise in these stories are when the characters encounter hostility from the majority culture. We could live happily without labels, if we lived in isolation. But we don't and our children don't. If you send a child out into the world after teaching them values and stories that are very different from those of the majority but give that child no words with which to think consciously about such things, you send the child into inevitable confusion and pain and cut the child off from a sense of belonging. 

Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs, beginning with physical needs for food, shelter and safety and culminating in self-actualization. The theory, which is used widely by psychologists, is that one cannot progress to higher levels without fulfilling the lower needs on the hierarchy. Thus to reach self-actualization an individual must have basic physical needs met. And directly above the basic needs of the body and safety is the need for belonging. 

For children to fulfill the need for belonging in the majority culture, they must  feel that their ideas, values and beliefs are supported and shared by others at least to some degree. The facts of today's world are that many Pagan children encounter not a world where labels don't matter but a world where their beliefs are disregarded or rejected and their celebrations are unknown or mocked. In such a world, children must still have belonging in order to reach self-actualization and that belonging comes from the understanding is that there is a community out there--though scattered--that shares and honors their values and stories.

That is why we need a Pagan identity.

The Dead are Never Gone - Samhain meditations

I spent most of November of 1992 sitting in a basement in Hessen, Germany listening to a young Czech migrant worker play folk songs on a guitar and tell stories of the dead. 

I was sixteen at the time and wide-eyed at the horizons that had just burst open before me. Up until a few months before, I had been a girl living in a remote part of the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. I couldn't spell Czechoslovakia and I had never heard the world Pagan, even though my family was Pagan. Now I heard about the deep Celtic roots of Bohemia and of the centuries of conquest and struggle that successive totalitarian regimes had brought. I soaked up tales of grandfather healers, tough-as-nails grandmothers and one who took his own life. 

In that month of November, I grew more than I have in most years of my life. I learned that the dead are never gone, that we breathe because of the struggles of our ancestors, that the stones of a place tell their own story, that my roots stretch back to many traditions and that the whispers of spirit can come through music even in another language.  

I had never heard of Birago Diop at the time. He was a great Senegalese poet, story-teller and veterinarian, a man of the African renaissance, whose words would inform my spirituality later and haunt the world. But though I had yet to hear of him, Birago Diop died that month at the age of 83, becoming an honored ancestor of his people.  

Today when I look back at those who have passed into the realm of ancestors and prepare for the time of long, dark nights and contemplation, Diop's poem "Breaths" is my primary meditation. They are words true to the beliefs of Pagans all over the world in one form or another, no matter our continent. Surely, they link us back to the common past of humanity, to the ancestors that link us all.

What honor do we give our ancestors if we make war or draw lines between cultures, traditions and races? What honor do we give our ancestors if we fritter away the gift of our lives with consumerism and lifestyles that make the earth unlivable for the next generation?  

I make the offering of candles inside vegetables beside my door and freshly brewed tea. Bless the ancestors of this land and hearth. May you be nourished and healed of your wounds that we may be free in our day. 

One thing I love about Diop's poem is that it can be adapted. The cadence of it is easily shaped to whatever signals the presence of ancestors for you. As long as you don't try to publish it as your own original work, you can use the poem "Breaths" to make a personal meditation.

Here's mine with all honor to Diop:

The dead are never gone.

They are there in the evening shadow.

The dead are not under the earth.

They are there in the falling rain.

They are there in the line of a child's smile.

They are there in the black soil of the garden.

They are in the fire on the hearth.

They are in cold night wind.

The dead are never, never gone.

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.