The modern-day hearth IS the kitchen table

When my husband and I realized the dream of owning our own home 15 years ago, the first thing I did was get a kitchen table.

And this wasn’t just any old table. It had to be THE table. I felt that in my bones.

I grew up in two houses. The first one was little more than a shack. The kitchen table was in the living room and it was makeshift, a piece of plywood on round logs stood up on end. But everything happened at that table. It was the only writing surface in the cabin. It was the place we made things, ate, celebrated holidays, had important talks…

When my father finally finished building “the big house” after ten years, we had a real table in a nook between three big windows next to the kitchen. The table itself was made from the heart of an ancient pie-cherry tree, loving known as “Grandmother cherry tree” to the local children. It is solid enough to dance on and continues to be the beating heart of the Farnam clan, the point to which everyone returns from distant travels and other homes, and the place friends come back to. When you sit at the old cherry-wood table, you know you’re home.

So, I knew the table had to be special. Fortunately, I had the perfect solution. An Egyptian carpenter in Prague was a friend. I commissioned him to build a table to my specifications—eight feet long and four feet wide, and yes, strong enough to dance on if the occasion should ever demand it.

Creative Commons image by Peter Miller

Creative Commons image by Peter Miller

My carpenter friend fell sick and struggled to finish the table and the cabinets I had commissioned before leaving the country for a long convalescence. The result was that the table legs don’t exactly match the floor tiles underneath and the table rocks. So, for fifteen years, I’ve put folded up newspapers under one corner to keep it steady.

But otherwise it is one excellent table. I do actually stand on it regularly—to hang bundles of herbs from the ceiling. And it feels as steady as the floor, thanks to those newspapers and its massive wooden slab.

In that time my table has become a bit battered. I loved it when it glowed with a fine even finish. But since then it has been chopped by knives, hammered on by nutcrackers, drawn on and carved by children, burned by ritual candles reaching the ends of their wicks and scorched by many a hot pan. There are marks I can run my fingers over and bring back a family dinner or incident as clear as day. It has become the heart of my home as well, maybe not as heavy a draw as the great cherry-wood table far away in Oregon, but still worthy.

When we built our house, I was also adamant that we must have a wood stove of some kind, even if we planned to heat mostly through environmentally friendly electrical systems. I thought that the wood stove was the heart of a home, after all. Both of my childhood homes had stoves and in the case of the “big house” even a real stone hearth with broad lava rocks and a curved wooden mantle.

I absorbed from the culture, stories and lore the idea of the hearth as the place of greatest importance in the home, even though experience didn’t bear it out. In my first childhood home, the wood stove was an ugly brown monstrosity that lurked near the door. We never sat around it and the only time it was of primary importance was the few times that a major winter storm knocked out the power and we couldn’t pump water out of the well. We then had to cut chunks of ice and heat them in a metal laundry tub on the wood stove, because the kitchen propane stove was too small.

Even the massive and beautiful hearth in the big house of my childhood is not the heart of the family. It is technically in the center of the house and it takes up an inordinate amount of room. It is where various things are displayed and on some winter evenings people do sit in front of it. But most of the year it just gathers dust.

I see many Pagan blogs and books encouraging modern Pagans to treat their electric or propane kitchen stoves or their radiators like a hearth. We are encouraged to make a small altar near them to the hearth goddess, house spirits or ancestors and to approach work at the stove with reverence. While I don’t see any harm in that I find the comparison to the ancient symbol of the hearth to be a mismatch.

The radiators that carry central heating to the rooms of a house today are so far from the concept of a hearth that trying to treat them as such is often depressing. I’ve done so in hotel rooms and while there was nothing better to do, the concept just wasn’t there. They heat the room. For part of the year, they have a purpose. The rest of the year, they are inert. In warmer areas there is no heating system at all and more likely to be an air-conditioner.

The kitchen stove is a closer concept. At least we cook there. That is where we prepare the food to nurture our families. For many people who are the primary cook in a household, the kitchen stove can take on great importance. But the fact is that it is primarily that person who feels it. It is not actually the center of the home or family. It is part of how we process food. It isn’t meaningless, but it doesn’t have the central importance that the hearth once had.

The ancient hearth was the source of warmth. It was also the place where food was prepared. But its key importance was as the magnet that drew the family or clan together. Certainly it drew them because of the warmth and the food. But it’s most important function was as that beating heart of the basic social unit.

The Pagan concept of hospitality grows out of that. When we talk about giving weary travelers or those in need a place by the hearth, we don’t mean just that we should give them food and shelter. In so far as that practice is crucial to many cultures, it is more about taking someone into the family or community, offering them not just the physical but the social, emotional and spiritual sanctuary of the group.

To be banished from the hearth is to be truly outcast. There is an element of physical loss of sustenance and warmth but it is much more the feeling of rejection and social ostracism that make that such a terrible concept.

And that is why I say that today, the kitchen table is much more the equivalent of the hearth. That is where most people gather. It is a place connected to food and family, home and unity. In some homes the television may play a close second, if the family mostly gathers there. Still with a television, the focus is never on the family. There is never a circle around it by definition. And so, I argue that the table is the best modern equivalent we have.

The sad truth is that far too many homes don’t even have a kitchen table or any other gathering and eating place anymore. Far too many people, particularly those who find themselves trapped in poverty, lack the basic equipment and spaces to cook or eat food at home. They are forced to eat ultra-processed food and this brings with it a whole host of negative health effects. It also generally means that these same people have no place that is the equivalent of the ancient hearth, a symbol shared by every human community on earth with crucial ancestral importance.

That fact may have deep psychological and cultural results, as we not only grow further from nature but also further from the deepest roots of our sense of community and hospitality. For that reason, the hearth as a symbol gains even greater importance. Those of us who do have a kitchen table or another equivalent gathering place do well to honor that place and recognize the great privilege and fortune that having it reflects.

The next time you give thanks for a meal and thank the cooks, the farmers, the animals, the plants, the land and the ancestors, spare a thought for the table itself, the tree it is made of and the hearth it has become.

Pagan practice for the blind and visually impaired

A guide for individuals and tips for inclusive organizers

As a child I memorized which corner of my home was in the north and which was in the east, south and west. At the fire pit, where we held a drum circle and the occasional small ritual, I memorized which tree or boulder denoted each compass point.

It was my job to lay out the four objects to mark the quarters and I was born legally blind. No one ever told me how to choose my landmarks or compensate for the fact that I couldn't see distances to orient myself to the directions. 

But having grown up in the woods, I could think it through. Keeping my sense of direction was a constant preoccupation when I sometimes roamed miles from home alone through wild places.. In some ways, it was a perfect task for a mostly blind child. It helped me confirm my sense of direction and gave me a spiritual connection to the elements and their four winds. 

Still I can see how this kind of thing might be off-putting for blind and visually impaired people who didn't grow up with earth-centered spirituality. Not all people who follow similar ways use the same terminology but I have to call it something, so I will call it "Pagan" or "Neopagan" spirituality, because that is currently widespread. 

It is often said--and it's true--that Paganism is not a spiritual path of orthodoxy but of orthopraxy. It's the doing, not what you think or believe, that is important.

Image by Arie Farnam - An altar for the goddess Brigid with a stature holding a lit candle surrounded by a string of amber beads and a rose quartz crystal in the foreground. In the background there is a pedestal with goddess carvings and an offering bowl at the top. Candles and a corn-husk doll sit on a window sill. To the left a white cane with a brown wood handle leans against the altar over a brass bell. 

Image by Arie Farnam - An altar for the goddess Brigid with a stature holding a lit candle surrounded by a string of amber beads and a rose quartz crystal in the foreground. In the background there is a pedestal with goddess carvings and an offering bowl at the top. Candles and a corn-husk doll sit on a window sill. To the left a white cane with a brown wood handle leans against the altar over a brass bell. 

Modern Pagans believe just about everything under the sun or none of it. What binds us together is what we do and how we live. Interpretations vary widely and practice is not exactly standardized, but there are some practices that are widespread for specific paths. 

Getting into the practice, either alone or with a group, often requires physical movements and is aided by objects. I would argue that this is actually an ideal spiritual path for the blind and visually impaired because it can be very tactile and kinesthetic. You don't spend much time sitting and listening to something you can't see being done without you at the front of a crowd. 

My daily meditation of grounding and calling the quarters, for instance, directly impacts my ability to use echolocation and mental-mapping. It is like setting your brain to think in the spacial terms people with vision impairments so often use.

However, the literature that introduces these practices almost always describes it in visual terms, which can make it less accessible to blind newcomers. Most Pagan groups, courses and books are ill-prepared to smoothly integrate blind individuals simply because most of the early leaders of our traditions had little experience to go on and the physical nature of many of our practices mean that there are some issues that will come up.

The motivation behind this post is to provide a brief supplement for blind and visually impaired people reading Pagan books and getting into the practice, as well as to give some tips for group practice for teachers who include blind or visually impaired people. I won't be defining all the Neopagan terms here because that would take a whole book. This is meant to be read as a companion to books that introduce a vast variety of Neopagan paths. 

Group rituals

I'll start with group rituals because I hope to reach ritual organizers with one particular message. We need clear instructions, particularly for the formation of a circle and any necessary directional turns. This can be handled either with a brief pre-ritual meeting for all or with a quick briefing specifically for any blind or visually impaired participants.

Let me give a very brief spacial description here as an example. A great many Neopagan group rituals center on a circle. Sometimes there is an altar or fire in the middle of the circle. Sometimes there is an altar on the east or north side. More rarely there are altars at all four compass points. In less formal settings, participants may enter the space informally and later someone will announce that it is time to stand in a circle. It may be necessary for a blind participant to ask someone to help them find the right place to stand.

If a purification does not occur at the entrance of the space, it may happen at this time. And it is often silent. Purification may be done with water (someone may go around the circle flicking drops of water, usually sea water or water with sea salt in it, onto each participant. It's good to know which form of purification may be used, if you are visually impaired, as this could be otherwise a bit startling. No worries though, you won't actually get wet.

Other forms of purification include salt, drinking from a goblet, passing a candle from hand to hand and very often herbal smoke or incense wafting, sometimes called smudging. Someone may go around the circle with a burning bundle of herbs and wave it around each participant as part of a cleansing. If this is the method chosen, you will know by the intense smell of herbal smoke or incense--and hopefully by being warned beforehand. The important thing to do is to stand still. While smudging isn't dangerous, accidentally touching the burning end of incense or a smudge bundle can cause a small burn. 

A more formal method of both forming a circle and cleansing participants which is often employed at large rituals, involves a ceremonial walk to the ritual space, often outdoors. Usually leaders (often a priest and priestess in Wiccan tradition) or other participants will stand at the entry point and perform some kind of purification, the water flicking, smoke wafting or the like on each participant. Sometimes one is offered a goblet to sip from. Sometimes ritual words are exchanged and those are usually mentioned to participants beforehand, as non-visual things are more often communicated to participants openly. 

The other most common, required movement in a ritual is turning toward the compass points when the quarters or elements are called. This occurs at or near the beginning of the ritual and sometimes occurs again when the quarters are released at the end of the ritual. If you are partially sighted it may be enough to know this will happen and be on the look-out for it. If you can't see enough to tell which direction others are turning, I recommend asking another participant to subtly cue you or request that the organizers ask for a volunteer. 

Some groups are more formal than others and for some any disruption of this beginning phase of the circle would be very uncomfortable and unwelcome. Some parts are done in silence or with low background music. Other parts involve one person speaking or a few call and response lines. Either way, it is good to know in advance what motions will be made. There are also times when more complex actions are expected in the midst of a ritual. These come in endless variety and can best be handled by organizers taking an interest in making the ritual accessible to all.

The first time I attended a large Pagan ritual as an adult, after having watched many videos and participated in countless smaller rituals, I was immediately confused at the circle forming stage. The group did have a pre-ritual meeting, but they neglected to mention their complicated system of walking into the circle. They walked in all the way around the circle and then turned to backtrack in order to take even places around the circle. I assumed the people walking widdershins were taking up specific places to call quarters or something of the like, so I continued sunwise, until I realized I was the only person doing it and I was in entirely the wrong place.

Needless to say, this was embarrassing and did not help to win my acceptance in the group, which was unfortunately not particularly inclusive.

Later with the same group, we held an outdoor ritual in honor of Hekate in a forest at night at the moment of the new moon. It was a great idea and a beautiful ritual. I asked for some direction, given that I see even less in low-light conditions and was told that the end of the ritual was a secret and I would just have to follow the others. I was nervous about this, especially given that part of the ritual involved each participant walking through a section of the forest alone.

In the end, that was actually not a big problem for me. I grew up in the woods and found that it was so dark during much of the ritual that I was better off than most of the participants because no one could see and I was at least used to being visually impaired.

Still I would urge ritual organizers to give clear preparatory briefings. It isn't difficult to include people with visual impairments. We really can and will follow detailed instructions gladly, but we often need to know in advance what movements will be required because "follow the person ahead of you" is not a reliable option.

As it happened, the Hekate ritual was particularly difficult for one older, disabled participant who was unsteady on the twig-littered forest floor. Most of the participants were so disoriented by the darkness that I found her alone and frightened as the others blundered by. I allowed the elder to take my elbow and led her to ensure safety.

Organizers can't count on a blind or visually impaired person having these forest mobility skills, because not all of us have had the opportunity, but it is also worth noting that the Hekate ritual provided an example of why one person's disability by the standards of modern society can actually be an asset to a group. I was able to attend to the elder and free up the organizers from having to deal with the crisis.

Further, if an object, such as a goblet, will be passed silently from person to person around the circle, it will smooth things a great deal if any visually impaired person is told about this beforehand and if possible allowed to touch the object in preparation, so that they will be familiar with it and able to get a secure grip when the time comes in ritual.

Any other advice for leaders with a visually impaired participant in their group is essentially the same as for any teacher or workshop leader. It is worth noting that the majority of elders are visually impaired in one way or another. They may have difficulty recognizing faces, reading a white board or seeing objects displayed at the front of the group. It is helpful to ensure any visually impaired persons a place at the front of the group. It is essential to read any written notes on a chart or board out loud and to offer large print and/or digital copies of handout materials.

It would be helpful if any actions performed by a priest or priestess could be accompanied by words that give an idea of what is happening, "I place this flame on the altar..." and so forth. But if silence is required a description beforehand is also helpful in ensuring the focused attention and intent of visually impaired participants.

Connecting to nature

As you may have noted in the example of the Hekate ritual above, most Neopagan practice has a significant element of connecting with nature. Many rituals are held outdoors and often in less-than-ideally accessible places. This is part of the practice and should be continued in whatever way possible. 

People with visual impairments, barring any additional mobility impairment, are capable of reaching any place sighted people can reach. They may, however, not have much experience in traversing natural areas. Some visually impaired people have been brought up to believe they cannot navigate the natural environment. Others who are newly visually impaired may need further mobility and orientation skills or a guide.

Either way, there are blind mountain climbers, extreme hikers, skiers and cyclists. We can and do go deep into the wilderness, often with a guide but nonetheless. For visually impaired Pagans, getting into nature to reach a site for spiritual practice is an excellent opportunity to connect fully to the earth through all elements and all senses. It is an intensive grounding with profound value. 

That's why I don't discourage ritual organizers from holding rituals in less accessible areas. I simply ask them to make it possible for visually impaired and mobility impaired people to reach the site. Use creativity and be willing to stretch your abilities, both as participants and as organizers. No one should be cut out of Pagan activities because of disability. A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair traversed mountains in Azerbaijan by guiding four blind people who carried her.  It can be done in any group, if we take our Pagan values of hospitality, community, interdependence and honor seriously.

It may well require one participant to guide or physically assist another. This too will allow everyone involved to more deeply connect to the natural environment and experience our interdependence. This is part of the values of every Pagan ideal I have encountered. We don't exclude those who may have physical difficulty and we particularly take care of our elders. 

Furthermore, in most Pagan spiritual traditions, there is a significant focus on natural cycles. We recognize that our lives are a cycle. It is worth remembering that the abled are only temporarily abled and this cycle turns as well. 

I support and encourage visually impaired Pagans to fully participate in nature-based parts of Pagan practice. Go out with a group into a forest for a ritual, if they are inclusive. Trust that the earth and the natural environment will embrace you.

I have guided other blind and visually impaired people on hikes because I am experienced while some haven't had so much opportunity to get out into nature. I know from what my partners on those hikes told me that it can be very disconcerting for those who have been in built environments much of their lives. However, it is an experience of great and magical value.

And the road to competence in natural environments doesn't need to be too long. Explore. Use all you've got. When I was a kid, I learned to run through rough terrain by throwing pebbles ahead of me and using echolocation. It isn't always easy but it is possible. 

That said, if you aren't currently able to get out into nature or have health concerns that make it unadvisable or extremely difficult, don't despair. There are some Pagan paths in which the literature strongly states that one non-negotiable requirement is long walks in nature. My druid path is one of those and beyond being visually impaired I also have a condition that makes long walks extremely painful and damaging to the bones in my feet, now that I'm older. While I used to hike long distances and run through rough terrain, I no longer do that.

Reading some of the literature or listening to those who say you must get out into the wilderness or spend an hour a day walking alone in nature could be very discouraging if these activities really aren't possible. 

But wait! Nature is everywhere. Visual distraction in a built environment is very difficult for sighted people to bear and it makes getting out away from built environments particularly important for some. It really does play a huge role in their spiritual health. But it isn't the same for everyone. 

You can fully immerse yourself in nature sitting in a park, on the ground with your back against a tree, listening to birds and feeling the breeze, smelling the aroma of the particular season. You can completely ground yourself gardening with a few pots on your window sill. You can connect to nature through close contact with pets and service animals. The whole point of connecting to nature is temporarily unplugging from constant human input--all that talking on the phone, listening to books, news, audio text, working and surviving in the built and technological world. 

The reason for the emphasis on connecting with nature in Pagan practice is that we need it for healthy inner development, for grounding and for attuning ourselves to natural rhythms. Even if I can't see the moon, I know that the gravitational force of the moon has a very tangible effect on my body and other living beings. I follow a moon calendar and connect with the cycles of nature through timing many activities including gardening to favorable moon phases.

Everyone can find ways to observe the changes in nature throughout the seasons. Though some Druids may insist that one must walk far from home through nature to get the full sense of the seasons, sitting on the same rock every day and allowing all your senses to absorb every nuanced change in the seasons will provide the same deep connection with nature. It is simply a matter of attention to detail, rather than attention to scope.

Get to know whatever nature is near you, even if it is small and/or heavily influenced by humans. Spend time listening, feeling, tasting and smelling. Dig your fingers a short way into the ground. Feel the rhythm in the earth. Observe the changes in insects, bird calls, plant growth, air movement, temperature and aromas around you. Taste the intense flavor of fresh unprocessed fruits and vegetables in each season. Grow a little something yourself, even if it's just basil in a pot to add flavor to your food and aroma to your home, and buy from or barter with local farmers. Allow your menu to be shaped by the season wherever it is you live.

As you probably know by now, visually impaired people don't actually have "better hearing" than sighted people. We just tend to pay more attention to it and interpret it with more detailed accuracy. The same principle applies to connecting with nature. Low vision or complete blindness does not need to hinder your connection to nature in any way. Your other senses, your whole body and your life energy are capable of connecting you just as well.

Whether you delve deep into the woods or sit by an open window filled with growing plants, you will be able to gain just as much detail and experience from nature as anyone else. You use the senses and life energy that you have. And this spiritual practice will be a significant aid to your mobility and orientation skills as a bonus. That I can guarantee.

Image by Arie Farnam - A simple altar is set up on an outdoor table. In the center there is a blue-black goddess stature surrounded by fresh leaves, flowers and stalks of wheat. In front of her there is a small lantern for a candle. Behind her there is a small bowl filled with stones. On the left there is a gourd-shaped water container and on the right there is a braided sweet grass smudge stick on a candle holder. 

Image by Arie Farnam - A simple altar is set up on an outdoor table. In the center there is a blue-black goddess stature surrounded by fresh leaves, flowers and stalks of wheat. In front of her there is a small lantern for a candle. Behind her there is a small bowl filled with stones. On the left there is a gourd-shaped water container and on the right there is a braided sweet grass smudge stick on a candle holder. 

Altars and tools

I discussed spacial relationships a bit in the section on group rituals. But now is the time to discuss the nitty gritty of personal practice. Most Pagans, whether solitary or part of a group, have an altar and/or ritual tools of their own at home. 

You can read lists of tools and ideas for building altars in books devoted to the particular path you're interested in right now. And hopefully you'.ll also read that you really don't need any of that. You can get by without any tools at all. It is perfectly okay to sit down, wherever you are, fold your hands in your lap or lift them up to the sky and declare the spot you're sitting to be sacred without candles, incense, pentacles or goddess statues. 

But most of us humans, being easily distractable, inconstant and a bit disconnected from ourselves and from nature, find it easier to access spirit with tools. While there is no exact right or wrong, there are methods and techniques that have been proven to help. This is where tools come in. 

Sighted people usually have altars that are on a level surface somewhere they can be seen and appear pleasing to the eye. There are several standard layouts for altars and any number of non-standard ones. Many Pagans set up every available shelf and window sill in their home to be altar-like, i.e. with purpose and meaning to the placement of objects. 

You can find candles of every shape and size on many altars as well as sculptures and figurines. Four objects very commonly found on Wiccan-influenced altars are a goblet (or other water container, sometimes called a chalice), a knife (sometimes sharp, sometiems not, called an athame), a wand (which may be elaborate or as simple as a twig from a tree) and a pentacle (a five pointed star in a circle, which may be raised or burned into wood or may be painted on and not detectable by touch). 

Some altars will have incense, herb bundles and/or a brazier or cauldron to burn them in. Others will have crystals and semi-precious stones. Some will have drums, musical instruments, bottles, jars and bowls of spell ingredients. 

There will often be something on the altar that corresponds to the four points of the compass. This may be four candles or it may be four objects, each of which corresponds to the element associated with that direction--stones. coins or pentacles for earth and the north; incense, feathers or blades for air and the east; candles or flowers for fire and the south; and a container of water, wine or other liquid for water and the west. These may also be anything from four carved animal figures to four pictures of saints. In any event, they will be arranged in accordance with the four compass points.

If possible, ask another Pagan you trust to show you their altar and allow you to feel objects and their placements. This can be a sensitive subject because some people have taboos about other people touching their altar or ritual tools rather than just looking, but some people don't mind and it could be helpful to get an idea of other altars.

I'll describe my altar using the clock method you may have seen used to describe food on a plate. It is on a shelf behind my fireplace and if a candle isn't lit it is rather dark, so many sighted people don't notice it. But it mostly isn't there for them. 

On the back wall of the altar there is a wood-burned panel made by a friend of mine as a surprise gift. I had a series of Pagan and ancestral symbols printed out and laminated and glued to a piece of black velvet that I hung behind the altar. One day the velvet fell down and two days later my friend brought me this beautiful wood panel with all the symbols burned into it, so that I can trace them with my fingers. 

On the shelf of the altar there is a small goddess figurine at 12 o'clock. Mine is a goddess focused path. Others will have a figure or a candle for both a goddess and a god. I just have a goddess statue. At one o'clock I have a smokey quartz crystal because that is the direction of north. At four o'clock I have a metal dish to hold dried herbs that I burn as incense. At seven o'clock just about at the center of the shelf I have a candle for the south, which also lights the altar. At 10 o'clock I have a small crystal bowl of water. On the right-hand wall. I have a drinking horn, some amber beads given to me by a teacher and some feathers. On the left-hand wall, I have a very small teapot, a container of sea salt and a small box. It's a simple altar and very small but it gets daily use.

Consider that you don't need to set up your altar the way sighted people do. The key is that it is easy for you to reach, access and work with. You may well do better with objects on a wall or on small shelves where you can reach each object individually. You may also find that simply having all of your tools in a bag or box as a portable altar that you can take out and set up wherever you want works best. 

The key is to find what works for you, even if it is not what is most commonly done by sighted people.

Safety

Virtually no discussion of altars can be had in the Pagan world without a rather large note about safety. Far too many devastating fires have been caused by candles and/or incense left burning in unsafe places. But I'm going to be more specific here because most of these warnings will just ask you to visually scan the area around your altar to make sure there are no drapes near your candles. We need to consider safety on other levels as well. 

The basics: Don't leave candles or incense unattended, obviously. But even if you are there, you should take precautions. Be on alert for the smell of burning. I have been shocked by how far away something can be from a flame and still start smoldering. 

Always place candles and incense on non-burnable surfaces. Wooden table tops can and will burn, smolder and start fires under the wrong circumstances. Small metal disks are the best but ceramic saucers from old tea cups work well too. 

Even more importantly, make sure there are no hanging curtains, clothing, strings, drapes, herbs, papers or other light flammables anywhere near burning candles and incense. At least one meter (40 inches) to either side should be clear of any light flammables and none should be at any height above. A breeze can easily move papers, herb bundles or scarves, causing them to fall or blow over a candle. This is a frightening common problem for both sighted and visually impaired Pagans who often have candles or incense burning in their homes.

Many Pagans, including me, have small homes and limited space. My altar is on a large shelf in a bookcase. So, there is a shelf above the altar. This is how many people do it. The inside of the altar shelf has to be very clear of flammable objects. (My felt background was not a good idea and I've learned my lesson on that.) As much as I want to have cloth hangings to decorate my altar, I can't. Everything in the shelf is heavy and most of it entirely non-flammable. 

You need at least 50 centimeters (20 inches) of space above a small candle flame before there can be a solid wooden shelf. I have singe marks on the underside of my upper shelf from a candle that was too tall. It is amazing how far up the heat is still concentrated from such a small flame. In addition, make absolutely sure that if you have a shelf above your altar that there are no loose papers, herb bundles or other light flammables on it. All it takes is a window left open and a breeze to put some of that burnable material down on the candles and a fire can flare up so fast that it is difficult to put out even if you are present.

I have had a few near misses myself, even though I am careful. Once my smoldering herb bundle somehow rolled out of the metal bowl it was in (probably due to the front part burning down and the back part becoming heavy enough to pull it out) and landed on my altar shelf. Fortunately I was not using an altar cloth but only the sweet smell of wood smoldering alerted me. It smelled good, like incense, so I didn't think it was a problem immediately. I just knew that was an unfamiliar smell. When I found the source of the smoke, my shelf was smoldering all the way through and was very hot to the touch, all from a little herb bundle I expected to go out in moments. The thought of what could have happened if I had assumed the smudge was out and left is quite unpleasant. 

My matron goddess is Brigid, who has a role in my tradition in protecting homes from fire. She seems to have her work cut out for her with me, even though I try very hard to keep to all the safety rules.

Sacred space, purification and casting a circle

OK, back to the fun stuff. 

You will read a lot about casting a circle, calling the quarters and grounding in most Pagan books. Various traditions may do it differently but most do these things in some form. For the visually impaired or blind Pagan, there are two issues here: logistics and what to do with all the talk about visualization.

This section is primarily aimed at solitary Pagans who will be doing these things on their own or with a very small group. In a larger group, you will either need to know the actions and terrain very specifically in advance or you will need to be with someone to show you the steps. 

In terms of logistics, often the first event in any kind of Pagan ritual, meditation, prayer or work is the casting of a circle. Some traditions see this as simply marking sacred space, others as purification and still others as projecting a magical protective barrier inside which it is easier to deal with energetic forces, deities, spirits, ancestors and the like. How you physically do the circle will depend on what purpose the circle has in your tradition. 

If it is a matter of simply defining sacred space, there isn't a huge reason to actually walk in a circle. You certainly can, if it isn't difficult for you, but it isn't necessary for the purpose. You can simply stand in front of your altar or in the place you have chosen and use your incense, smudge, candle, salt, water or whatever your tradition uses to mark sacred space by gesturing to each side, forward and back.

You can turn in a circle. It is worth remembering that a clockwise turn (to your right) is often used to designate sacred space because that is technically the direction the sun appears to travel across the sky. And a counterclockwise turn (to your left) is often used for purifying or getting rid of something, as well as to end a ritual.  

For designating a sacred space with either salt, water or smoke, I will usually walk in a small circle. Some traditions proscribe a certain number of times the circle should be walked, usually three or nine but there are probably other numbers. I do three unless I really need to build my focus for something or I feel really scattered. I will sometimes turn three times counterclockwise to clear out scattered or negative energy and thoughts and then walk three times clockwise in a circle to establish my sacred space.  This is a small circle in my well-known living room, so it is quite safe once all chairs and scattered children's toys have been cleared away.

For casting a circle in a formal way, the actions are a bit more complex and there is a lot of talk of visualization mixed in with the logistics. Many Wiccans and others of ritual magic traditions that require the formal casting of a circle will talk about energy as a visible or visualized light. I have done a lot of powerful rituals in my time and I am not totally blind but I have never seen any of this light or been with anyone who did. Some claim to but you aren't missing much if you don't see it. I have certainly felt the energy of the circle and you can too. 

The first thing in casting a circle is to have a very clear, defined space that you are very familiar with. Build a mental map of it, just as you would when navigating a city intersection. In your mental map of the space put a very large sphere, a giant balloon that can hold you and whoever else is participating in the ritual inside it. If the ritual is indoors, construct your mental map of the furniture around the open space and make the sphere just big enough to fill the room or the part of the room being used. Get the map ready in your mind and then as you walk around in a circle, either alone or with others, work on refining it. This is very similar to the visualization sighted people do. Your map may be spacial rather than visual but it will have the same energetic effect. 

As you mark the circle with a wand, a blade, your finger or whatever your tradition uses, add the sphere to your mental map. It will be a thin intangible membrane but as you define it, you will likely begin to feel it. I find the sensation very similar to that I encounter with echolocation. I know that not everyone's experience of echolocation is the same, so it is likely that this won't be either. But if I entirely close my eyes to get the full force of echolocation and walk slowly around a room, I feel a kind of pressure on whatever part of my face and arms is closest to a wall, long before I could actually physically reach it. I have never consciously perceived the sound of echolocation, which may be a partially sighted thing, but I do sense this physical sensation of pressure.

That is the kind of sensation that a well-cast circle will give. And again, while it is called a circle, it is actually supposed to be a sphere. It's just that sighted people find it easier to visualize circles than spheres. 

Once you have built the sphere and marked it, it is called a closed circle. No people are supposed to cross in or out of it. This has to do with the energy or mental focus of the gathering. Whether you believe that there is an actual energy field at work or you simply understand that the meditative practice of building the sphere enhances mental focus and crossing in and out of it will tend to disrupt that focus, either way the principle is the same. If you must leave the circle to get some forgotten item or handle an emergency before the ritual or magic is finished, it is recommended that you have some sort of set procedure for this. 

The standard procedure in most Pagan books involves tracing the outline of a door in the circle with the implement used to cast the circle, then visualizing opening it and closing it behind one. This may be a bit too visual for some blind folks. I recommend finding a method that works for you. The important thing is that the circle or sphere of focused space is respected and protected. It will depend on how you sense the barrier. 

To me it feels a bit viscous as if the air was heavier there and thus it reminds me of swimming under water. I put my hands together and part it the way I do when swimming the breast stroke. But my feeling is that the energy flows back right behind me, like water, so I don't have a method for closing it behind me. If I do this and keep a conscious focus on the mental map with the sphere in my space, I can leave and return without much disruption to the energy of the ritual. 

Grounding

I remember one of the first times when I sensed the energy so palpably. I had started studying Pagan ritual but I wasn't very skilled yet. I often led small rituals for a few friends and family members and sometimes the energy felt really good and sometimes it wasn't so intense, but we were focused on the particular work we were doing, which was often Tarot or Runes, so the energy wasn't our focus. Then, a friend who was more skilled in formal ritual came and took over the leadership of one such ritual for me. And everyone there was amazed at how intensely refreshing and invigorating the ritual was, compared to most of our rituals. I knew enough by then to perceive the energy flow and to understand what my friend had skillfully done. I knew then that it was more than just imagination. 

Part of what I did not do correctly in some of the previous rituals had to do with grounding. Grounding is often discussed in terms of visualization, so it may not have been my strong point for that reason. The most common form of grounding, and the one my friend used involves standing still, taking deep breaths and imagining or visualizing roots going down from your feet into the earth. Then you are supposed to visualize warm light or energy coming up from the earth into your body, healing and purifying you. Sometimes this is continued with a visualization of light coming down from the sky to fill you through the top of your head. 

Again, you can participate fully in this, even if you don't visualize golden light. And groundng in particular can help you with your orientation and echolocation. When this brief grounding meditation is begun, stand with your feet planted firmly, flat on the ground at about shoulder width. Take some deep breaths. It is good to be barefoot if it's appropriate. Either way, feel the ground under your feet. Direct your attention there, much as you built the mental map to cast a circle. Then allow roots to grow down into the ground beneath you or just focus on the contact of your feet to the ground, feeling you feet grow heavy.

Even if someone is speaking, guiding the meditation, listen to the all the ambient sound between the words. Build as much of a mental map of the space around you and beyond as you can. Register all sounds throughout the area--dogs barking, distant voices or music, the noises of traffic, footsteps or whatever you hear. But let them be. Don't worry at them or try to figure out what they are.

Bring your attention to any exposed skin on your arms, legs and face. Feel the air, its movement or stillness, any pressure or sensations you feel. Trust that the earth and the floor beneath you holds you, not just physically but lovingly. Trust that the air that touches your skin embraces you and caresses you. You may have to be very cautious much of the time but standing still in this safe circle, take a moment to feel safe and loved. That is grounding too.

Calling the elements

Once a circle has been cast or a sacred space marked and grounding has been accomplished, most rituals continue with calling of various forces, spirits and deities either to simply be present at the event, to be celebrated or honored or to aid in some way. In a large number of traditions the first to be called are the four elements. This is often dubbed "calling the quarters," because the elements are associated with the four points of the compass: north, south, east and west

Certainly many ancient cultures were intrigued with and heavily influenced by the four directions. However, I speculate that if there were an indigenous culture in which everyone was blind, that probably would not be such a focus. The earth is round after all. The four compass points were made up by sighted people to help define their world. 

So, you could convincingly argue that blind people can just call the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and not bother much with the directions. However, calling the quarters somehow became my job when I was a kid whenever we had a ritual with family and friends, so I have a particular affinity for it. And I feel that it is a good idea to know where the compass points are in any given space, if for no other reason than better orientation and mobility.

As a gardener, they are also very important for the technicalities of gardening. South is where the intense sunshine and heat comes from. If I put delicate plants out in an exposed spot on the south side of the house, they can get sunburned. And if I put sun-loving plants on the north side of the house, they won't prosper. 

Even so, if you don't want to make a fuss about the four directions, don't worry. Just call the elements in any way that appeals to you from the sources of your tradition. You don't have to turn to face the compass pints. But if you would prefer to do it, there are a couple of options. If you have an altar, find out which way you are facing when you stand in front of it. Most traditions suggest putting an altar on the north or east wall of a room. That would mean that you are facing either north or east when you face the altar.

My main altar is in the north, so I'll give the description for that first. You can place your hand lightly against the edge of the altar and know that you are facing north. Then imagine yourself at the middle of a clock in which you are now facing twelve. Keeping your left hand against the front of the altar for orientation, turn to the right so that you are facing three o'clock. You are now facing east. Keep your hand lightly on the altar behind you and turn so you are facing six o'clock. Now you are facing south. Put your right hand back and place it against the edge of the altar and release your left hand. Now turn so you are facing nine o'clock. You are now facing west. Turn all the way back around to twelve and you have made the full circle, sunwise--the correct direction for calling the quarters at the beginning of a ritual. 

If you call the quarters by calling air at three o'clock, fire at six o'clock, water at nine o'clock and earth at twelve o'clock you will be facing the right direction when you do it. And to release these energies at the end of the ritual, simply place your hands in the opposite order, right first and turn to nine o'clock first and go all the way around back to twelve and you will have done a counterclockwise or widdershins turn. 

If your altar is in the east and you face east when you face it, then east will be twelve o'clock, south will be three o'clock, west will be six o'clock and north will be nine o'clock. Make a note of this somewhere, so that you can refer to whatever is the correct version for your home and altar. If you don't have an altar, you can do the same thing with any piece of furniture you know is in the north or east of your house. 

Once you have cast a circle, grounded and called the quarters you are well into the territory in which each tradition is different. Now is the time to call on your gods, spirits, ancestors or whatever is central to your tradition. I recommend that visually impaired Pagans have some physical object of significance (a statue of a deity, a figurine of spirit animal, a stone or something of the like) that you can touch in this phase but that is as specific as one can get when generalizing about all traditions. I use a sculpture of a woman that I have consecrated as a sculpture of my matron goddess. The physical object that I can touch helps me to hold mental focus through a ritual, prayer or meditation. 

Other visualizations

Some traditions include other energy work, such as building a cone of power. You can use the same mental map you used to make the sphere to construct this for yourself as well. It will take some time and practice to build these more complex mental maps. It may help to play with a balloon and an actual cone or kitchen funnel doing off times, to get a feel for their shapes and allow you to include them in your mental map without too much struggle. You can make a cone out of paper, by rolling one side of the paper tight and leaving the other loose, so that instead of a long round straw of paper you have a cone. This is the shape you want to build out of energy in the middle of your circle, if you are focusing on the cone of power. 

When you finish, you should release the energies of the elements if you called them, either by words or motions. If you only marked or purified sacred space, there is generally no need to undo it. It will usually have a positive effect on the space. However, if you cast a formal circle with a mental map of a sphere, most traditions recommend that you take it down or "open" it. This is different from the opening you make if you need to leave the circle during the ritual. At the end of the ritual most Pagans will retrace their steps around the circle and declare something like "The circle is open."

The idea is that the energy directed and stored within the circle is then released to do what it is intended to do. As such it isn't exactly like gently drawing back a curtain. There should be a sense of pent up energy inside and given that the sphere was somewhat like a balloon in the first place, I imagine the release of energy might be an out-rushing. 

Focusing on your mental map of the space and the sphere, retrace your steps around the circle in the opposite direction. The energy is less firmly held behind you but the sphere is still more or less there until you reach the end. Then as you declare, "The circle is open!" or "So mote it be!" the sphere releases and dissipates.

Depending on the purpose, it may even be like the intangible popping of a balloon. Or it may be like wind rushing away to take the intention where it is needed. Or if the intention was internal, it may rush into you or into a person being healed. Whatever the purpose, I suggest keeping you focus on the mental map long enough to sense this through your skin. It may not be entirely clear the first several times, but as you practice the feel of the energy against your skin and your mental map of it in the room will grow stronger. 

Many Pagan events and groups you may encounter will engage in what is called "guided meditation." Often this consists of sitting or lying quietly while someone, either in person or on a recording, tells you that you are in some other place. This is used for grounding, experiencing a safe place from which to do something difficult, for exploring the Underworld or Otherworld and more.

Sometimes guided meditation is presented as entirely visual. The guide may say, "You see that you are in the middle of a field of ripe grain. You can see waves of yellow and gold spreading out before you. The sun is blazing overhead and the sky is a deep blue." Even for sighted people this merely visual guided meditation is distant and less effective.

A better guide will simply state where you should imagine yourself to be and provide varied sensory details. "You find yourself in the middle of a field of ripe grain. The stalks of wheat prickle your ankles and the rich smell of the grass and grain fills your lungs. A soft breeze is caressing your face and the sunlight is almost too warm on your face." And so on. 

If the guide doesn't provide sensory detail beyond the visual, you will often be able to translate their words from the visual to other senses. Start with the idea of standing in the middle of a field. Though much of the description may be less helpful, you can remind yourself of the sounds, smells and sensations of such a place and join in the meditation in that way.

If you find describing such a scene with a lot of sensory detail comes easy for you, you may be able to find a useful role in groups by providing guided meditations for others. Again, sensory detail other than the visual works better for everyone in the end, not just for visually impaired and blind people.

Divination

Divination is not part of every Pagan path but it does come up in many if not most. Every ancient spiritual tradition on every continent probably originally had its own divination system. Some Pagan traditions stick to divination systems that are close to their cultural background, but others branch out into multiple geographical areas.

Divination was traditionally thought of in many cultures as a method for predicting the future and/or obtaining the advice of gods, spirits and ancestors. Today some systems still pursue one or both of these goals but modern divination often also seeks to provide psychological and spiritual counsel. Where the counsel comes from, whether it is perceived of as coming from the gods, ancestors or spirits or from inner wisdom and one's own subconscious depends on the tradition. Primarily the interpretation of the power of divination is a highly personal matter.

For our purposes, I will describe several common divination systems and how visually impaired people can access them. 

Many divination systems today rely on cards with printed pictures, words and numbers on them. Even systems like the i-Ching and the Runes which were not originally cards are often sold as cards today. 

Cards are probably the most difficult divination system for blind people to practice. Most cards have no Braille option and even when they do have one, the Braille only identifies the card and does not provide the symbolism and details that are crucial to the visual experience of the card. Because I am partially sighted, I have used Tarot cards since I was a child but the images on the cards are often too small and detailed for me to get the full visual impact.

Tarot is a system of divination cards originally developed in Renaissance Italy. Fortunately, many Tarot books include a detailed description of the image on each card and a discussion of the symbols on the card. Many of these books are also available as audio or digital books that can be heard out loud. 

If you want to use Tarot or another card-based divination system, I suggest getting a set of cards made from sturdy card stock. If you can't see the numbers or names on each card, you may be able to use a text scanner or get a friend to read them to you so that you can Braille the cards yourself. There was once a Braille Rider Waite Tarot deck with an audio book for sale on Amazon but it has been out of print for some time. 

Once you have a deck with Braille cards you can use the descriptions in the text (hopefully audio or digitalized for text-to-speech) to familiarize yourself with the potent symbols of the cards. Much of the art and skill of Tarot reading and similar card-based divination is in one's intuitive interaction with the symbols on the cards, not simply in a wrote recitation of the meanings of individual cards.

While I don't believe blind people actually have some advantage through a mythical "second sight" when it comes to divination, neither do we have any great disadvantage and study and practice can give you great skill in Tarot reading. 

Many Pagans today also use Norse Runes. The Runes are an alphabet and system of magical symbols used by the ancient Scandinavians. The Runes are made up of combinations of short straight lines and angles and are thus well suited to being carved into wood, stone and bone. Many rune sets today can be purchased. The better of them are carved or etched on a hard natural material such as rounds cut from elk antlers or burned into rounds from a branch with deep grooves. Beware purchasing without handling a set of Runes, however. Many sets are also painted on stone or wood, which may not be so accessible.

Ogham staves (sticks with carved symbols from the Celtic Ogham) alphabet are also gaining in popularity among Pagans of a Celtic persuasion. Like the Runes the symbols are well suited to being read by touch if they are burnt or carved deeply into the wooden sticks. It is more difficult to purchase Ogham staves at present, so it may be necessary to make your own set if you have some manual skill with wood. 

A set of Runes or Ogham staves with deeply etched symbols will provide a perfect divination tool for a blind or visually impaired practitioner. Books containing the magical meanings of the Runes or Ogham symbos, translations of ancient poems once used to memorize the Runes and sometimes meditation exercises helpful in studying the symbols are often available in digital formats for text-to-speech reading but less often as audio books. 

The i-Ching is a five-thousand-year-old Chinese divination system that uses either 49 dried yarrow stalks or three coins to come up with sets of numbers that correspond to chapters in the i-Ching or "Book of Changes." The yarrow stalk method is more complex but supposedly more accurate and detailed. It is also perfectly accessible to blind and visually impaired people. The coin method would require finding coins which allow you to easily tell heads from tails by feel. 

Each of these divination systems is complex and it would take an entire book to give any depth of information about each one. What is crucial to know for our purposes is that it is clearly possible for blind and visually impaired people to access divination tools. With new technologies allowing for text-to-speech and even hand-held page scanners, accessing the books that decode these tools is easier than ever before.

Astrology is another skill related to divination, though it has many other purposes than simple attempts to predict the future. Astrological forces can help us to tip the odds in our favor in just about any endeavor that involves any amount of chance. Farmers have known since the ancient beginnings of agriculture that the success of crops can be influenced by the moon phase when the crop is planted or even watered and weeded. These correlations are still observed today. 

Blind and visually impaired astrologers use math to calculate helpful and harmful dates for a vast variety of activities, just like other astrologers. This is another case where the greatest hurdle will be accessing text for study. While many sighted Pagans take great joy in observing the visible phases of the moon, I live in a cloudy part of the world where the moon is rarely visible eight months out of the year, and everyone manages without seeing the moon regularly. Even though I can't see the phases of the moon with my eyes, I still follow a moon calender as a way to stay in tune with natural cycles.

There are some less widespread forms of divination that will prove difficult for blind and visually impaired practitioners. I have never been able to read lines on a person's palm (not even my own) very well. Palmistry is not a common divination technique in modern Paganism, in any case.

More common is the practice of using sightings of animals, birds and trees as a divination system. One could, I suppose, learn the sounds of birds and use their calls instead of sightings. Or one could count any mention or reference to certain animals or trees encountered randomly during daily activities as a "sighting." But I have always found these methods of divination requiring random visual observation to be difficult for me and not particularly useful when described by others. 

Mythology and blindness

Finally we come to the topic of original stories and myths from ancient Pagan cultures. Modern Paganism has no holy book or central authority and we pride ourselves on the freedom and diversity of our community. But if there is something that is often held sacred or consulted in at least close to the way many faiths approach scripture, it would be the myths and stories of ancient Pagan cultures.

Some Pagans don't focus much at all on the myths, while for others mythology is central to their belief and practice. Still other traditions may not view the myths as indicative of ancient wisdom, but they view scholarship and understanding of primary source materials from one's ancestral cultures as crucial to spiritual progress. The view you take toward mythology will depend on what kind of tradition you choose to follow.

Accessing primary source materials and scholarly texts can be more difficult for blind and visually impaired people. Many of these texts are rare or held in library collections that can only be viewed on site and which are not digitalized. Others, however, have been translated and transferred to text versions.

If you wish to pursue the study of mythology, I highly recommend not relying solely on those popular mythology books that have been made into commercial audio books. It will be beneficial to the scholar to register with scholarly library programs that provide reading services to students. It may also be necessary to invest in a tablet or phone that can provide text-to-speech technology. Access to source material may still not be perfect, but the level of access you can gain with this technology will give you significant freedom and independence in your studies. 

Lastly there is the issue of the myths themselves and what they have to say about blindness. I hope to study this topic in greater detail and write specifically about disability in mythology and what modern Pagans can take from it. But here are a few points to start with.

Modern Pagans generally do not take myths literally. Norse Heathens today don't believe that universe is a literal World Tree. Devotees of the Greek gods don't literally believe that a girl goes down into caves underground and her mother won't let things grow so that's why we have winter. But there is much that we can learn about our existence, the gods and our personal understanding by studying these powerful stories. The same goes for mentions of disability in the stories. 

Höðr is a Norse god who is blind. There isn't much written about him except for the story of how he accidentally killed his twin brother Baldr, the golden boy of the gods, when Loki, the trickster god, played a mean prank on him. If taken literally this would be a very negative portrayal of blindness and disability in general. However, because we don't take myths literally this story can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.

The twins can be seen as two sides of a person, the perfect outer image we try to project and the inner being who is often cut off from others and vulnerable to manipulation. Another Norse myth tells how Odin, the father of all the gods, gave up one of his eyes to gain the wisdom of the Runes. Again the concept of physical sight is not what is important in the tale, but rather the idea of the sacrifices we often have to give for wisdom and magical power. 

Other cultures have their own myths that mention blindness. In Greek mythology, many monsters are vanquished by being blinded and bliding someone is often a punishment for doing something that offended the gods.

On the other hand, sometimes a person must give up sight to gain prophetic insight. In one rare occasion when a mythological character is born blind, Ophioneus becomes a great prophetic seer, apparently gaining prophetic sight in compensation for his blindness. Fortuna, the goddess of luck and chance, on the other hand, is often seen with a blindfold, a form of chosen blindness meant to symbolize impartiality and fairness.

In fact, blindness is one of the most common disabilities mentioned in ancient myths of many cultures. I hypothesize that this is because blindness was perceived of as particularly terrifying to people in pre-technological times and also particularly relatable. While people with many disabilities would have died rather quickly in those times, blind people did survive and talk and relate with other people. Many people knew a blind person and they at least believed they could imagine what blindness would be like.

Those hoping to find a disability-positive message in the myths will need to look beyond the literal interpretation because in the times when these myths were written survival was not easy for anyone and any physical disability was viewed very simply as misfortune. While today many blind people lead independent and professional lives, technology plays a big role in our freedom to do so. Blindness in mythology is not so much blindness itself but a potent symbol of the fear of powerlessness, helplessness and risks to one's survival.

As such, because we are not powerless or helpless in much of our lives today, we often cannot see ourselves as blind people in those places where blindness is mentioned in mythology. We don't generally have a special affinity for Höðr or other blind gods and goddesses. They are shared by all people who experience the fear of risk and vulnerability.

Instead, we may see disability struggles in those many myths in which heroes and heroines are outside the norm in some way or start with an apparent disadvantage that they turn to their own advantage. It is possible to find disability-positive moments even in ancient mythology, but it will take the same skills needed to interpret all of mythology for modern day life, a metaphoric and heart-centered view of what those who wrote them experienced that we still share.

We have moments, when we do feel helpless or limited. And the myths of our own cultural background and those of other cultures on other continents can give us meaning, counsel and inspiration for the struggles and journeys of our lives. Mythology can be an aid to people with vision impairment just as it can be to sighted people. 

I hope this guide has been helpful and not too limited. I have found very few sources already written on the subject of blind people in modern Paganism. I hope this will be only the beginning of the discussion and development of this topic. You are free to copy the address of this article and share it on-line and I welcome your comments, additions, corrections and discussion in the comments section below. 

Of Lughnasadh and solidarity

Over a plastic table at the university grill I laid out my case to two prominent members of the student government counsel about why we should show solidarity with low-income students as drastic cuts in federal financial aid were proposed. 

"That's exactly the problem!" one of the young men glaring at me across the table snapped. "That word."

Solidarity and harvest meme.jpg

What word? I combed back through my carefully prepared argument, trying to figure out what faux pas I might have committed in word choice. 

The other young man must have believed my expression of blank confusion. "Solidarity," he said. "That word makes you sound like a communist."

That was more than twenty years ago and it was the first time I heard that "solidarity" is considered a bad word. Unfortunately, that has not changed over the decades. 
 
Even today as progressives are making the word “socialism” halfway respectable, I still don’t hear this more personal term.
 
Solidarity isn’t charity and it isn’t socialism. It is much closer to the Pagan concept of hospitality. It means aid and comfort offered to the cold, the hungry, the wounded, the outcast and those whose harvest was poor last year or for many years, not out of pity but out of a deep understanding of our interconnection.
 
We are always saying that earth-centered spirituality is a big tent and we have very little if any common ground to base any solidarity on. And yet we all recognize "Paganism" when we see it, so there must be something that binds us.
 
Is it our acknowledgement of multiple gods of many different names and conceived of in as many different ways but still with suspiciously similar attributes across the world? Is it our yearning for something authentic, ancestral and rooted? Is it our understanding that the earth, not some man on a cloud, is the true giver of our daily bread?
 
Many of us with European roots wish to be acknowledged as a tradition en par with Native American, African or Hindu traditions that share these bits of common ground with us. But at the same time so many Pagans insist that politics and with it all social justice concerns have no place in our faith.
 
How so? What of that hospitality you speak so highly of? What of gratitude for your metaphorical harvest? What of your desire for native peoples around the world to acknowledge you as honorably seeking out your own ancestral connection?
 
What could the values of Lammas and Lughnasadh, the gratitude and the hospitality toward others possibly mean in today’s world that has been divorced from the land and agriculture, if not solidarity with those who have had hard luck, whether that meant being born in a war-torn and impoverished country or having less opportunity to obtain a secure living in our own country? What could it mean if not sharing what we have to ensure that the earth survives for another cycle of time?
 
You can claim with truth that we Pagans all believe different things. We do. We are vastly different. The words, the traditions and even our core beliefs diverge.

But if you hold some tradition of Lughnasadh or Lammas or even one comparable under some other name, then it is time to match your deeds to  your prayers and libations. Paganism is either real beyond your ritual circle or it is merely the teenage game some have accused us of.

I offer a poem for Lughnasadh and Lammas on the subject of solidarity:

Not to bow to sloth and greed
Nor to build walls of hate
Did Lugh ensure the seed
Or the Norns weave our fate.
You who claim the gods of old,
Who were silenced by crime,
Can least afford to turn cold
To those outcast in our time.
Honor you call for the great,
The ancestors of your blood,
And yet will you rise too late
To stand for right and good?
Odin wandered as it's told
In the guise of hard luck.
And Brigid of flame and gold
Always for justice struck.
Maybe tales are just that,
No more firm than mist.
Old warriors grow fat
And children are mere grist.
But if you call them sacred
And mean your oaths sworn,
It is time to battle hatred
And face the coming storm.
Hospitality for those in need.
Solidarity for those who fight.
The call of the heart’s creed
Is ringing in the night.

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.

An earth-centered spiritual perspective: Why is there undeserved suffering?

When I was twenty-three, I traveled around Bangladesh and walked alone into a slum where a million people lived in cardboard and tin shacks on a plane of mud. There I met a woman who was little older than me but looked like she was 80. She was born there and lived her whole life in extreme poverty. She broke bricks with her bare hands for a living. I met this woman because her eight-year-old daughter rescued me from an angry mob. 

Creative Commons image from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Australia

Creative Commons image from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Australia

I found my new friends to be incredibly hard working, compassionate and all-around good people. And I was forced to consider the question of why they lived such terribly hard lives, amid constant misery and sorrow, while I lived relatively easily and had many things handed to me, even though I was born in a shack without an indoor bathroom myself. 

In Bangladesh, they had an explanation. Bad karma. Supposedly the little girl who rescued me--a complete stranger--from a crowd of men demanding to know why I had come into their slum, even though I had tried to dress modestly according to local custom, had been naughty in a past life.

Though her eyes shown at me with kindness and innocence, that is one accepted explanation. There was very little chance she would ever be able to go to school or eat a decent meal and if she lived to be 30, she would be haggard, old and fortunate to still be alive.

And something in my spirit rebelled. This idea of karma was no better to me than the talk of hell fire, I heard from Christians back home in America. I was brought up with an alternative spirituality, but I had not been given an alternative explanation of suffering. 

Even in much less extreme situations, good fortune appears to be random. I grew up among relatively poor people in rural, remote Eastern Oregon but I managed to travel to five continents and forge a good life for myself, partly because my parents, though poor, were fairly well educated and did not harbor the hopelessness of generational poverty. My experience, moving between many different social classes has shown that there is little correlation between hard work and financial success. The poor are every bit as likely to work hard as the rich, if not more so. Laziness, apathy, depression and addiction happen among the rich and the poor. 

Today, as the political battles over things like food stamps, universal health care and free education heat up in the United States, I constantly run across arguments, in which one side claims that poor people aren't committed enough to earning a good living and they just need to work harder or smarter. And the other side claims that the economy is rigged against them or that health, family or other circumstances made a higher income unreachable. Rarely does anyone in the verbal sparring stop to acknowledge that hardship is mostly random and the only real question to argue about is why that is and what, if anything, we wish to do about it.

Spirituality arose among the first humans for two reasons: first, to discuss what happens after we die and whether or not we are just meat with neurons; and second, to answer this question: why do bad things happen at random even to good, hard-working people? 

Modern earth-centered and Pagan paths have various but fairly standard interpretations of the first question. As for the second question, it is worth some thought.

If you are the kind of person who believes in gods, whether a primal earth mother, a vague universal spirit or a whole pantheon of gods, then you have to confront the question of whether those gods have any power to affect our lives. Many people today believe that gods are beings that only act through our connection to them or our enlightenment, whether they just all "in our heads" or not. Others believe that spirit or the gods pervade the natural world and are part of us and everything else in the world. Some believe in gods or spirits who are specific beings with relationships to specific humans and that they can give aid, withhold it or even cause harm as they choose.

Either way, it seems like spiritual beings should have some justice to them. What would be the point otherwise? Modern Pagans mostly don't beg their gods for favors in prayers. But we do--well many of us do--ask for help sometimes. And even if you believe that it is only in reflecting in prayer or magical work that you help yourself, you either believe that is beneficial or you're just fooling around with candles and pretty rocks.

And if you're a pantheistic sort of spiritualist, who does not believe in gods per se, but believes that divine energy infuses everything, that nature is filled with sacred energy, then you also must believe there is some reason to acknowledge that creative force. You may not believe that the universe is either benevolent or malevolent. But you still must wonder if there is any point to the randomness of misfortune in our world.

There are also humanists, who do not believe in gods or divine powers or believe that if they do exist they have no power or desire to intervene in our affairs. Humanists may subscribe to the traditions of a spiritual path whether Pagan, Christian or otherwise, but they believe that humans have to deal with our own troubles on our own. While these humanists may not have to deal with the question of why gods let good people suffer, they must in the end discuss the randomness of hardship as well.

It has taken me many years of study to arrive at my own answer to this question, but when I found it, it turned out to be incredibly simple.

Suffering and hardship are random, whether the gods willed it to be that way or not, in order to give us compassion.

I do not believe in karma in the sense that you are punished for some sin in one life by being born to hardship in another. Nor do I believe in divine punishment either in this life or in an afterlife. Certainly we can make our own hardship at times, but the greatest suffering that humans endure is usually acquired at birth and is non-negotiable. 

And here's the crucial point. If we truly believed that everyone deserved what they got, either by karma, sin or sloth, and that the world gives everyone an equal, fair shot, then you would have no compassion. And you would be justified in that. It would be correct to have no compassion. It would be foolish and enabling of wrongness to have compassion.

The only reason for compassion is the understanding that much of the pain, hardship, loss and suffering of others is not a result of their cruel, stupid or lazy actions or inactions.

It just is. 

No god, goddess, spirit or karma put them there and none will rescue them without our energy and intention. Prayer matters. Physicists can demonstrate it. My personal polytheistic belief is that our gods do care about suffering and may in fact give solace or aid when our intention is strong and positive, but it is not in their nature to banish all suffering. And I am not sure that they would if they could.  

When I come closest to my matron goddess at moments of despair, I feel great compassion and caring from that source. But I also have heard a signular message. No one with the power to stop all undeserved suffering in the world would use it. Suffering is terrible, but it is not as terrible as a world of entitled, compassionless light without any understanding of darkness would be.

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. 

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.

Pagan Book Review: Pagan Dreaming

A review of a non-traditional dream manual

As a person interested in earth-centered spirituality, I've heard plenty of theories on dreams and dream interpretation. I've always been fascinated by the subject, but never committed to a paradigm. I've read both mystical and psychological texts on dreams, but didn't feel that the theories and interpretations made intuitive sense.

Now finally there is a book for people like me--the practical and scientific-minded mystic. Nimue Brown's Pagan Dreaming: The Magic of Altered Consciousness is a non-traditional dream manual that not only makes sense, it is also a comfort to read. The tone is like sitting down to a cup of tea in a homey kitchen with a woman who takes no nonsense and puts on no airs.

Brown's approach is dramatically different from the many dream dictionaries that claim that dreams speak to us in a universal symbolic language. Instead Brown argues that symbols are varied and--in our diverse world--likely to be individual in their language. This book is more about learning your own symbolic language of dreams than using someone else's. 

Pagan Dreaming presents both the physiological and brain chemistry side of dreaming as well as the processes by which giving dreams their rightful place in our lives can enrich a spiritual life. It's more of a manual of techniques and thinking than it is a dream interpretation book. And this sits well with me. 

The premise of the book is that most dreams, probably the vast majority of dreams, are ordinary processes of the body reflecting physical needs or sorting memory--essentially the "system check" mode of our bodies. And then there are a few dreams which may--and then really only subjectively--be considered to have emotional or spiritual meaning. This is the experience of most people.

Many books have claimed that the more one can act coherently in dreams and choose the type of dreaming, the more spiritually aware and integrated the person. Many books have claimed that a truly spiritual or enlightened person should have prophetic or significant dreams. These books are likely to make those whose dreams are more like a"system check" feel inferior and perhaps ready to accept the wisdom of a supposedly enlightened teacher. Brown is selling none of that. 

Instead she gives a guide to learning about one's own dreams, empowering the individual to be their own teacher. As such, I did not find in this book the answer to questions I have about some rare bit eerily predictive dreams I have experienced since childhood. I did not learn how to turn my mundane dreams into more of the predictive kind. But I did gain some ideas and a structure in which to start looking for a greater understanding.

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!

Simple method for making a beautiful Brigid doll

My eight-year-old daughter is not normally very excited about crafts and she tends to be impatient, so I was amazed and delighted by our success with this craft. 

We made Brigid dolls today--two of them because she decided to set up her own altar and wanted to make her own doll all by her self. The craft held her interest for several hours and came out really beautiful.

1. We took a square of white cloth and put a solid ball of cotton in the middle of it. You can use anything from crumpled paper to cloth scraps to a Styrofoam craft ball. You can also use a white paper handkerchief in place of a white cloth for a quick but less durable doll. 

2. We then gathered the corners of the cloth and tied a red or gold string under the ball to form a kind of neck. We cut slits every few inches in the cloth, almost up to but not quite reaching the neck. 

3. Then we rolled up another smaller rectangle of cloth and tied it at the ends to form arms. This we inserted under the neck through the slits, so that the arms protrude on both sides. (I also inserted a little extra cloth in min for breasts but my daughter didn't. You can see the difference in the photos below.

4. Then we inserted some dried lavender stalks from the bottom in place of legs. This makes the doll smell wonderful. You can substitute many different herbs or stalks of grain. Really anything symbolizing your last-year's harvest is symbolically appropriate. 

5. We tied a second string around the middle under the arms, This serves as a waist and holds the herb stalks in place. 

6. Now it was time to decorate the doll. First we put on hair. We loosely sewed embroidery floss into the head, letting each stitch dangle for several inches. This was by far the most difficult and time-consuming part of the craft and it could be avoided by coloring or gluing on wool, fabric or feathers in place of hair. But we loved the look of the embroidery floss.

7. We then tied and stitched a scarf or hair band on over the hair. This can also be done with hot glue. 

8. Next we put on faces. My daughter chose to color hers on with markers and I embroidered mine on, although I am no expert at embroidery. Both turned out fine.

9. I added a lace apron to match the scarf, because I had a bit of extra curtain lace hanging around. Both can be made with any white cloth or even a white paper handkerchief. 

10. Finally we used another red string to tie a few lavender sprigs into the hands so that they formed a welcoming circle in front of the doll.

All ties were made with either red or gold strings. A Brigid doll should generally be white with red, gold and possibly purple highlights. This is the doll we will use in our Imbolc ritual. We will place the dolls in baskets by the hearth to sleep through the night before Imbolc. Then the children will come and light candles and symbolically wake up Brigid to bring in the spring in the morning. It is their favorite part of the Imbolc holiday. 

I'm so happy to finally share the making of the doll with my daughter too.

By the way, this is the same craft used in the children's adventure story around Imbolc called Shanna and the Raven. Although in the book the craft is done with natural sticks or stalks of herbs for the arms as well. There is also a delicious recipe for white and red strawberry dumplings in the book. It's a story about how a couple of modern goddess-orriented kids celebrate the holiday and learn to use intuition for their own protection. 

I hope you will all have peace and inspiration this holiday. Blessings of creativity and warm hearths to all!

The Slavic Goddesses of the Snow Moon: International Moon Circle 8

The Slavic pantheon is one of the least known in the world today. Christianity came early to the Slavic peoples and much of what came before has been lost--even the very names of many of the gods and goddesses, let alone coherent myths. Still there are echoes to be found in folklore, cultural symbols and fairy tales. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I live in the Czech Republic, which is while supposedly a Slavic country also the most Celtic nation outside the British Isles. Ancient Celtic culture thrived in the Bohemian river valleys before the Slavic tribes came. We know little about the specifics of the warfare that ensued but genetic tests show that although the Slavic culture gained authority, many Celts remained to pass on their genes. 

As a result, in this country many of the Slavic myths have odd Celtic twists and turns. Maypole celebrations still pop up in the villages in the spring, there are troublesome and powerful spirits now called "Devils" who figure prominently in folklore.

To the east, the myths and stories change form and take on a different atmosphere, possibly more originally Slavic. And though there are a lot of questions about ancient Slavic goddesses, I have special reason to seek them out and this season of winter when the cold comes down from the north and east seems like the time to do so.

The Maiden for this Snow Moon is Zorya (technically three goddesses or one goddess with three faces), the Mother is Mokosh, the Slavic goddess of wells and healing, and the Dark Goddess is Morana.

Waxing Moon

As with the triple goddesses of many cultures, Zorya is three who are one. But when she is three, her aspects are most often depicted as three young maidens, rather than a maiden, mother and crone.

There is Zorya of the Dawn, Zorya of the Evening Star and Zorya of Midnight. (Monagham 2014) She is connected to stars and although sometimes she is described as the wife of the Slavic sea god Peroun, riding with him into battle and shielding warriors, the three Zoryas are also sometimes described as virgin goddesses. Either way her energy is that of the fierce and youthful maiden.

Her symbol could be three stars intertwined. The Slavic goddesses always pull me outdoors. I would suggest a walk at dusk when the crescent moon and stars are visible as a way to connect with Zorya. She gives us courage and power in whatever part of life needs women's fire. 

Full Moon

Mokosh is the goddess of springs, rain, spinning and fertile soil in the Eastern Slavic lands. She is a family-oriented and motherly figure. (Auset 2009) Symbols used to invoke her energy could be wells, water and raw wool. 

Distressingly little has been saved to tell about Mokosh. Some scholars consider her to be a Slavic equivalent of Irish Brigid. She is more watery though and more outdoors, not a hearth goddess although connected to family. The best way to honor her would be a visit to an ancient well or natural spring. Her gift is clean water and fertile creation in all areas.

Waning Moon

Morana, goddess of death, is mentioned in Patriotism, a poem in the Slovanic Kralovedvorsky Manuscript. There is little more about her than that brief mention from ancient sources, but the context in the poem is at the beginning of a battle in which obviously Pagan warriors note that their women stand with them from youth until death as they fight the royal soldiers who destroyed the groves and holy places of the old gods and the king who forbade offerings and worship of the old gods. (Wratislaw 1851)

This again points to the ability of women to be defenders and protectors. Morana, whether she was such in ancient times or not, can now be considered a defender of Pagan and earth-based spiritual paths. She is the call of the ancient past and of ancestors. Hers is the dark unknown into which we must go for answers. And she reminds us that life is not forever, that we must stand up for our truth now while we have the chance.

Symbols used to invoke Morana include an ax or a picture of a battle-ax, ashes or a stone marker. She can be honored through the study of ancestral roots and the protection of ancient ways.

Bibliography

  • Auset, B. (2009). The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
  • Burdette, A. (2014). Aine. In Greenfield, T. (Ed.), Naming the Goddess (pp. 90-92). Washington, DC: Moon Books.
  • Caputi, J. (2004). Goddesses and Monsters. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Wratislaw, A. H. (1851). Patriotism: the Ancient Lyrico-Poetic Poem. London, UK: Whittaker and Co.

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!

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.

Celtic Witchcraft - A Pagan book review

The book Celtic Witchcraft by Mabh Savage is a delightful little surprise. I had three books to review this week and I took this one last because I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I am a Celtic inspired Pagan but witchcraft isn’t my focus. I’ve seen far too many cookbook style spell books that seemed to do more to mock my beliefs than to further them. 

But I’m a sucker for new information, so I went for it in the end and was very pleasantly surprised. This is no spell cookbook. It is a clearly organized, yet readable exploration of the philosophy and symbols of Celtic witchcraft. It’s focus is spiritual and symbolic depth in one narrow field.

As a result there are only really a handful of specific “spells” described in the book, but the information and concepts are there that will allow those with enough experience to come up with their own and to judge the authenticity of spells from other sources. 

It's a relatively short and readable book in the Pagan Portals style, not an exhaustive academic source by any means but very useful for defining Celtic witchcraft.