Why do daily spiritual practice?

It has been some time since I wrote about my daily spiritual practice. And I think it’s time I fully admitted that I have become a solitary Pagan, though I didn’t set out with this end in mind.

Those of my family and kin who practice a similar path are five thousand miles away. I was rejected by the only coven I ever actually managed to meet in person (supposedly because I wasn’t interested in angels). I tried to join several local Pagan groups and had to opt out of all of them because of either latent white supremacy or heavy-handed ego trips within the leadership.

There are no more publicly contactable groups to try within reasonable transportation distance. I tried to start a local group three times and was laughed off of forums and left alone with my circle of boulders that I had moved to my yard for this purpose.


And so here I am. Just me, my garden, my chickens, my big rocks and my emphatically disinterested husband and children.

I once hoped that my spirituality might bring me community, mutual support, friendship, family unity and even possibly a livelihood. Spiritual traditions and communities sometimes do bring these things and many of us want them. Some go into a religion or tradition specifically for the social standing, the image or a career.

I didn’t go in with a conscious agenda, but subconsciously I now think I did hope for at least the community part when I took up serious spiritual practice.

In a way, it might be a good thing in the end that my subconscious desires didn’t pan out. My spirituality has been stripped of all accouterments and fringe benefits.

It is what it is and what I get out of it will be only that which comes directly from the spirituality itself.

Do I really believe there are gods? Does my matron goddess really watch over me? Are the spirits of the land there and if so do they give a flying crap about my offerings? Does magic work in any shape or form? Does my spirituality matter at all? Does my life matter?

A solitary Pagan has to face the questions of the soul full on.

There are no pep talks and theory doesn’t matter much. From where I stand, what matters most is practice. And for me that means daily practice.

I have technically been a practicing Pagan since I was a kid, but for much of my life it was pretty sporadic. As a young adult, I was focused on my journalism career and traveling adventures. I had a tiny kit with a few stones and a traveling-spirit doll that I carried everywhere with me and propped up on window sills and against tree trunks from Ecuador to Nepal.

But in those years I didn’t ask the tough questions. Life was chaotic. But in one important way, it was easier. I had only myself to look out for.

Now times are harder in general and I have kids, a husband, students, animals, a garden and a house to look out for. I can’t avoid the tough questions any longer.

I’m in my third year of intensive daily practice. It has changed a little since I started but only in the details. And as a solitary Pagan it is the real heart of my practice, even if I occasionally do rituals with family members or friends as well as specific spiritual work elsewhere.

I do my main spiritual work in the morning, if possible before the rest of the family is awake. I light a candle on the altar by the hearth, say a quick greeting to the light of the new day and to the goddesses of light, burn a bit of a cleansing herb bundle and do a brief visualization for grounding, protection and blessings for ancestors and home guardians.

Then I get down the daily cards from the kitchen altar (a Tarot card drawn the day before and a card showing the exact moon phase) and take them (and a cup of green tea) to the main altar in my office. There I do a longer meditation focused on connection with my matron goddess. I make offerings, light candles and sip tea while reciting a chant.

I have been studying the goddesses of many cultures over the past two years. I study and make offerings to a different goddess each week. Then I renew the moon card and draw a new Tarot card for the day, which depending on how positive or negative it is I take as either a blessing or as guidance about potential pitfalls to be aware of during the day ahead. Then I write notes, noting down any divination or working I have done, making note of my daily Tarot card and physical and emotional state of being. I also write down the weather and outside temperature as well as whatever work I have done in the garden in my almanac and moon calendar.

These studies and notes keep me consciously aware of natural cycles and help to slowly improve my abilities in herbalism, gardening and divination.

When there is time I may follow up with a working for prosperity, artistic inspiration, healing, binding of threats or protection of my family, animals or garden or to celebrate the turn of the seasons. Occasionally I’ll do divination on a pressing question through Tarot, i-Ching, Runes or Ogham.

On good days, this practice leaves me feeling cleansed and invigorated, ready to take on anything. Not every day is a good day though. There are plenty of days when I have to hurry through my practice with little time for anything but jotted notes and rote recitation. On other days I’m slow to wake up, sick or nursing psychic wounds from the harsh social environment I live in.

On the hurried days, I go through the motions easily enough, now after so much recitation. Very rarely I devote just a few seconds and cut back most of my practice if I have to leave the house before six in the morning.

On the emotionally hard days, I muddle through, stopping and starting, spending overly long periods staring blankly at the wall or into a candle flame. Sometimes I cry or argue with my gods or question or rage in anger.

Not every day is good. In fact, the hard days seem to come ever more often. But I am rarely tempted to shirk my daily practice. The calming effect is clear, and beyond that, I like the warm glow of candles and the smell of herbs and incense. For those few moments, I feel that all is right in my world and that I can be who and what I have always wanted to be. The failures and disappointments of life fall away. The chaos is temporarily quiet.

Is that enough? Is that a good reason to spend 15 to 30 minutes in front of an altar every morning? My atheist husband sounds irritated and dismissive when he does mention my practice, which only happens in the context of arguments over who is more stressed and who should take on some new household task or problem.

If one truly believes there is nothing beyond the physical world and the zapping neurons in our brains, then we must rely only on the calming effects of this meditative practice to give it purpose. Supposedly it has health benefits, but it’s unlikely that I’m doing it to the specifications of whoever studies such things.

My thealogy is pretty shaky. I do believe there is more to the world than the physical realm. I have had bits and pieces of evidence of something beyond. But while I love and revere my goddess and enjoy studying goddesses of the world, I’m not exactly sure what I think a god or goddess is. I have theories—mostly pretty unorthodox theories. I want to believe in the Otherworld and the Good Neighbors or spirits of the land or both. I study on them but there are so many different perspectives and without a group to hold me to one line, it is easy to get lost.

I want to care for my ancestors, even though my personal ancestry is uninspiring. I still stand on their shoulders, whatever the price. And there are ancestors of my craft and of social justice movements that I honor.

Beyond all that, I have never managed to believe in a purely materialist reality. I don’t know for sure if my spiritual practice really brings me much more than some added calming, grounding and centering. I just know that when most of my life feels like I am carrying a backpack loaded with rocks, my spiritual practice lets me set it down briefly and it sometimes feels lighter when I pick it up again to go on with the day.

Before I committed to doing spiritual practice every day, the practice I did often felt like part of the load of rocks. It was hard to get to. It was one more task that I felt like I should do but often put off behind other more urgent practical tasks because it could technically wait. I’d go far too long without visiting my altar at all. My tools and books would get misplaced and it would then be much harder to return to it.

I made a commitment to do daily practice partly because the signals were that it was asked of me by my matron goddess and partly as an experiment. I am not certain how much it is a requirement from a goddess. I have missed a rare day or two in the past two years. Once I was truly too sick with an extreme flu that killed my mother-in-law and left my children severely dehydrated. And I didn’t get any irritation from my goddess.

It’s more the experiment part of the commitment that turned out to be important. Sure, it was hard at first. There were days I didn’t want to. I was tired and too busy. But I did it and after a while the struggle eased. Now this is one thing I don’t have to struggle over.

I feel incomplete without my spiritual practice and I enjoy it. In the end, that’s the bottom line. Why do daily spiritual practice? What is the purpose of spirituality?

It is good. It fills a need. It helps when things are hard and uplifts when things are good.

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.

Identity for children in Pagan and mixed households

When I was a child, it bugged me every time someone asked me, "What are you?" meaning "What religion do you follow?" That wasn't because I didn't want to be asked. It bugged me even more, when they just assumed I was Christian like 95 percent of everyone in the community around us.

It bugged be because I had no words for it. 

I grew up in a time and place where earth-centered spirituality was kept under wraps and publicly admitting it could very well lead to employment problems and/or an investigation by Child Protective Services. It was probably a good thing that I had no words for the little rituals, rune drawing, Tarot cards and quarter calling that I participated in with my mother's circle. And I survived the quiet longing for something more openly stated pretty well. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But today most Neopagans have no such external restraints on giving our children a spiritual identity. Instead we are caught in the dilemma of whether and how much to hand our kids the ready-made Pagan identity. 

This goes beyond the concern that some adult Pagan events don't or can't reasonably include children. There are plenty of ways a child can be involved in earth-centered or even specific Neopagan practice. The feasts of the Wheel of the Year provide plenty of kid-friendly fun, inspiration and tradition, even if that is all a child is exposed to. 

But many earth-centered parents have either seen friends undergo or undergone themselves the forcing of a religious identity in childhood. The major religions today, other than Paganism, insist that children born within them should be held to them. Many Pagans who weren't born into an earth-centered path are Pagans specifically because they fled the oppressive atmosphere of religions that force an identity and practice on children.

So naturally we don't want to become just as bad as what so many of us struggled to free ourselves from. And the issue of how much to develop family-centered traditions permeates Pagan parenting discussions.

In my family, that dilemma intersects with another long-standing controversy in Neopaganism--the issue of ethnic identity. There are many mixed-race families in Paganism today. I've run into Norse-tradition Heathens who are half-Scandinavian and half-African but naturally to Europeans look more African than Scandinavian. There are Irish-East Indians. a great many people with mixed European and Native American background and many Pagans whose ancestry is all over the map.

And in my family and several others, there is the issue of inter-ethnic adoption. Life takes us down unexpected paths and ours led my husband and I to adopt two children who happen to be of a different ethnicity. They are Romani (ethnic Gypsies) and as such there is some debate over whether or not they qualify as ethnic Europeans, since their ancestors came to Europe from India somewhat more recently than most Europeans. 

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

This type of thing isn't a controversy because we believe that one must follow the Pagan tradition of one's genetic ancestors. There have certainly been plenty of non-Celtic Wiccans while other Wiccans claimed some connection between Wicca and ancient Celtic traditions. But it is uncommon to find a Slavic reconstructionist Pagan who doesn't have at least some Slavic genetic background. And when it comes to children, it is particularly important to honor their own unique genetic heritage.

It's an unarguable fact that most earth-centered traditions share a deep connection with ancestors and the land on which ancestors lived. Certainly we can and do honor ancestors connected to us by our tradition, craft or beliefs as well as those of blood and nation. But it is hard to entirely ignore the issue without some doubts of authenticity creeping in.

There is very little scholarly work to be found documenting original Romani spirituality. There are always rumors and plenty of people who will claim their Romani grandmother passed great Pagan spiritual traditions down to them. But Romani people still living in the Romani communities today usually vehemently deny much of what these revelations claim. While the Roma as a people have held on to their language and culture far more fiercely than most other small, landless ethnic groups, they are chameleons when it comes to religion. 

Wherever Romani communities are found today, they match the religion of the majority society. In Muslim areas, they are Muslim. in Catholic areas they are Catholic and in Orthodox areas they are Orthodox. Whatever is left of their original spiritual traditions is well buried. 

And so I not only stand in the usual dilemma of most Pagan parents today, but also on an ethnic divide, where one side is almost entirely unavailable. I feel a strong connection to the ancestors and spirit of the Central European landscape where I now live and to Celtic traditions. But neither of those seems to have much to do with my children. My altar carries ancestral symbols for everyone in our household--Celtic, Norse, Romani and Slavic. And when I honor ancestors of blood, I honor them all.

But I am hesitant to tell my children what they should be. 

I tell them they are Romani and teach them to be proud and not to hide it. I tell them their citizenship in two countries. I tell them about Romani ancestry and about mine and that of my husband. I tell them that the spiritual traditions we practice are sometimes called Pagan. 

But there is a line where I stop. I don't tell my children they should call themselves Pagan.

I have pointed out when someone identifies as Christian or Pagan or Muslim, explaining what it means to identify yourself that way. But I leave their own identity open to them with enough words and experience imparted that when they do want to choose i hope they will know something about what they are choosing.

So far, my nine-year-old daughter wants nothing to do with spirituality. She refuses to enter churches and avoids my altars and Tarot cards, and she always has. My seven-year-old son, on the other hand, often asks to light a candle on the altar, colors pictures from Pooka Pages, asks to draw a Tarot card, spontaneously says a Pagan morning prayer sometimes and requests Pagan songs for his piano lessons. These are all things he is exposed to because of adults around him.  

This is the wavering line I've decided to walk in parenting between too mysterious an identity and forced identity. 

We read myths and other stories from a Pagan worldview. I have even authored several Pagan children's books, illustrated by the children's grandmother. I don't hide my rituals or altars and I sing a short blessing song before important meals (though not before all meals). We occasionally meet up with another Pagan family with young children for holidays.

We celebrate the eight holidays of the Wheel of the Year as a family with specific earth-centered traditions. My husband enjoys the traditions and the focus on nature but isn't particularly spiritually inclined. So some of the holidays aren't overtly spiritual. It's just what we do and it adds a pleasant, natural rhythm to the year. 

There are many different paths to walk in Pagan parenting and it is beyond my station to say what is right or wrong in it. The Shanna books (Shanna and the Raven, Shanna and the Pentacle and Shanna and the Water Fairy) portray a single-parent household that is somewhat more overtly Pagan than mine. The children in the story are older than my kids and have a more developed sense of their identity.

But much of the conversation and holiday traditions practiced by the fictional family of the story is similar to what our family and many others do. The second book, Shanna and the Pentacle, weaves a story around the issues of identity that kids in middle childhood often face.

In this spring-equinox themed story, eleven-year-old Shanna has to consciously acknowledge what her pentacle necklace means, though she previously thought of it mainly as a gift from a friend. And she has to learn to stand up for herself in the face of pressure in a society where Pagans aren't the majority. The story is one that is close to home for most kids in Pagan families and Shanna's adventures along the way prepare her to make her own decisions about identity. 

I wrote that story and the others as part of my quest to find the right balance of information, experience and freedom of choice for my kids. My parenting is a work in progress and I love to hear from other parents dealing with related issues. Please leave comments below if you are inspired.

How do you approach passing on your values and beliefs to your children? Is your family mixed? How do you approach holidays with extended family that may have different traditions? What is the hardest part of parenting children in an earth-centered spiritual tradition? What's the easiest or most fun part? I look forward to reading your experiences.

Staking a claim: What is Paganism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Pagan once meant

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

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

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

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

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

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

What gives a word meaning?

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

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

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

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

What Pagan means today

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

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

Ta da!

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

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


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

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

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

Nature as sacred?

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

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

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

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

Staking my own claim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A respectful nod

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

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

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

And the staves crossed

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

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

Therefore, no.

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

Of Beltane and earth warriors

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

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

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

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

The Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

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

The Activist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children and warrior energy

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

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

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

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

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

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

And I wanted a sense of authenticity for my kids.

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

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

Yes, practical, real benefits. Let me explain.

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

And that is a large cause of misery. 

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

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

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

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

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

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

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

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

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

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story


Ostara 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!

Dedication to Brigid

This Imbolc, after thirteen years of searching and a year and a day of study and devotion to Brigid, I have chosen my specific path and made my dedication. This has come at a time of great injustice in the world. Brigid is in her warrior guise and rides to protect outsiders, refugees and children. Healers are needed. Poets and writers are needed. Warriors for justice are needed. I do not know all the twists and turns of the path ahead but I have faith in her guidance. 

Why I don't call it Christmas

I could sense the palpable relief in my children's Jewish piano teacher when I wished her a happy new year in October. Now she smiles bemusedly at our tree calendar that only goes up to the 21st of December and says, "It's not that I mind Christmas music really. I just wish we didn't have to play the same songs non-stop for a month every year at every concert."

She is very good at playing and teaching both English and American Christmas music but she is relieved that I don't necessarily want her to teach my children the standard Czech Christmas carols on the piano. Instead I printed out the sheet music for Yule song and she was delighted. Anything as long as it's a change.

Creative Commons image by storebukkebruse of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by storebukkebruse of Flickr.com

I don't have anything against Christmas either. In fact, I rather like Christmas music, even some of the very religious carols. They are beautiful and expressive of the joy and hope of the season. I'm more than happy to wish my Christian friends "Merry Christmas" but I don't celebrate the mass of Christ.

There is no "war on Christmas" here. Quite the opposite.

I stand by my Christian friends who find spiritual solace in Christmas. That is what it should be about. Calling everything in the season Christmas, and primarily the big commercial bonanza of December being called "Christmas" is what truly dilutes and distracts from Christmas. Sure, joy, gifts and frivolity are part of Christmas, much as they are part of Yule and Winter Solstice celebrations. I'm not saying one must be solemn to have real Christmas.

But I hear Christians saying that there is more to Christmas than the commercialism. There is a spiritual core that they struggle to make the center of their homes at this time. That's worth supporting.

And part of that for me is avoiding the temptation to just call it Christmas when in mixed company, when I mean my own family celebrations, which are so clearly not Christmas, or even when referring to secular community events. I don't really want to have a long drawn-out conversation about my spirituality and culture every time I try to wish someone a good holiday.

So, I feel the pressure to conform too. Just say, "Merry Christmas" and just call it a "Christmas tree" in front of other people. So much simpler. 

Except that every time I give in to the impulse, I feel like I steal from my children, cheapen my own spirituality and disrespect my Christian friends--even if some Christians demand that people call everything that isn't Christmas "Christmas."

I grew up with earth-based spirituality, but we still called the winter holiday Christmas and the celebrations in my family were almost entirely secular. I know not all children are spiritually inclined but I always felt an uncomfortable shame about it. I knew we didn't do "real Christmas" and that seemed to mean that we were fakes.  

Our house was an idyllic cabin in the mountains with snow usually piled all around it, a tree with colored lights and home-made ornaments. There was an assortment of my mom's cookies and the delicious excitement of Santa Clause. But there was also a sharp yearning for something more, something with a deeper meaning. 

I sang Christmas carols at school and always felt guilty about taking joy in the story of Christ's birth, as if I had no right to it. But oh, it was a beautiful story and the tunes made my chest ache. Something was reborn. That I knew.

My mother did tell me about the solstice, but we still called it "Christmas" and celebrated on the 25th. When I realized that I had a choice, that I could call it Solstice and celebrate on the 21st, I finally felt truly free. It is unquestionably the right thing for me. But I'll admit that it hasn't always been easy dealing with the rest of the world. 

Even my own brothers make a bit of fun at my expense during the holidays because of my constant use of Solstice and Yule terminology. Even though they aren't any more Christian than I am. They seem to feel that I am demanding something extra from them.

But I don't mind how they celebrate. I can work an extended family celebration on the 24th or 25th into my Yule just fine. I'm glad we aren't all the same. I'm not trying to spoil Christmas or make anyone's life more difficult. 

I am simply trying to be real and respectful, while focusing on the meanings that are deeper than strategic gift buying. I joyfully accept a lot of "Merry Christmas" wishes in my community and don't care too much. But it does matter to me if someone takes the time to say Happy Solstice or Merry Yule to me. It means you are thinking about the deeper meanings of the holiday too.

I do wish that the drumbeat of " Christmas"  was less prominent at school, because my children have already internalized the belief that there is something shameful about our family celebrations. That's why when I'm out and about, you might here me refer to the school holiday program as a Solstice program or the town tree as a Solstice tree. Yet when something really is connected to the celebrations of Christians, I am happy to call it "Christmas." 

Happy Hanukkah! Blessed Solstice and merry Yule! Merry Christmas! Good Festival of Lights! Joyous Mawlid un-Nabi! Lovely Lohri! Bright wishes of joy and peace to all!

The Goddess in America - Pagan Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was eager for something different, but also anxious. 

Creative Commons image by Anand Krishnamoorthi

Creative Commons image by Anand Krishnamoorthi

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

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

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

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

I started laughing. First, nervously but then joyfully. 

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

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

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

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

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

It is the mere fact of inner truth and faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons image by Debs of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Debs of Flickr.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons image by Duncan Price

Creative Commons image by Duncan Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons image by Porter Rockwell

Creative Commons image by Porter Rockwell

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spring blessing of the living earth

Original image Creative Commons by  Marilyn Peddle

Original image Creative Commons by Marilyn Peddle

Like a wondering child I step out in the new morning.

I walk to stand before the fire.

And I raise my face to our infinite sky.

I feel gentle raindrops kissing my skin,

the singing wind that moves the trees,

our wet, rich earth beneath my feet.

Oh spirit, I recognize you now.

Earth mother, you've always been here in all things.

Through all things has your spirit loved me.

And never was I all alone, nor could I be,

in this truer world of spirit and living earth.

(Adapted from a poem by Rochelle Wallace)

An Ostara story

Heads up! Shanna and the Pentacle, the Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year, is now available in Kindle and paper back editions, but Amazon has yet to put them on one integrated page. Here are the links.



Here's the story:

The gift of a friend, 
The promise of the pentacle, 
A new beginning… 
And the courage to stand your ground. 

Here is a story for Pagan, Wiccan and earth-centered families to share the wonder of the Wheel of the Year. Ostara is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all. 

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, the popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye can meet new challenges and find new friends. 

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

The Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year is finally here!

With no time to spare... but we made it. The Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year series is out. 

Shanna and the Pentacle is everything I hoped--an adventure story that will have kids rooting for the characters. It's also an example of how to deal with bullying problems and the often difficult new beginnings in life. There are more wonderful and evocative images by Julie Freel.

Here's the story:

The gift of a friend, 
The promise of the pentacle, 
A new beginning… 
And the courage to stand your ground. 

Ostara is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all. 

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, the popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye can meet new challenges and find new friends. 

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

The book is currently available in Kindle format and will be out in paperback and other digital formats next week. Look on the Children's Wheel of the Year site for minute-by-minute news about new formats.

Bullying, exclusion and a healing story for children

I walk onto the playground and check my posture, my expression, my clothing. A group stands on the sidewalk halfway to the gate. I approach, carefully crafting a mildly pleasant but not overly enthusiastic smile. 

Original image by Lee Haywood, text by Arie Farnam

Original image by Lee Haywood, text by Arie Farnam

My stomach tightens in knots and I concentrate hard, trying to find the dim blotches of eyes on pale oval faces. I can’t see them, but they can see me. Like a perpetual foreigner in a land whose language is beyond my physical capabilities, I try to play the game of eye contact and greeting. 

I’m not a child on this playground. This time I’m a mother. My kids spin away from me toward the playground equipment, yelling to their friends, as I join the loose circle of grown-ups on the sidewalk. A man is handing out forms. That’s good. Maybe this is the leader of the mini-Scouts group I signed my kids up for. That’s the purpose of my trip to the school today and it would be great if I could find the group so easily. 

I lean a few inches toward the woman beside me. “This is the mini-Scouts group, isn’t it?” I ask. My white cane is in my hand and most of these parents know me anyway. They know I can’t see much. My question should be self-explanatory.

But the woman edges away and pretends she didn’t hear me. 

The man handing out the forms has become flustered and the circle is losing cohesion. The man talks to a couple on my other side, turning his back to cut me out of the conversation. I wonder if he thinks a random blind person has wandered into his group and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Many people can’t conceive of the idea of a visually impaired parent. 

I could almost laugh about that, but the knots in my stomach tighten. By the man’s words and explanation to the other couple, I glean that my guess is correct. This is the initial meet-up of the mini-Scouts. Now to get one of those forms without a major public humiliation. 

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz

I wait and try to make out if I know anyone in the circle. The woman who edged away from me seems to be a neighbor from a few streets over. I’ve heard that she’s signing her daughter up. We’re on okay terms in private, but she still won’t exactly say hello in public. 

I know I’m dressed well, clean and groomed. I don’t wear makeup or dye my hair, so some moms will turn their noses up over that alone. But mostly the shunning has to do with my eyes. They’re squinted half closed all the time. My eyes are small and raggedly, restlessly moving, rarely ever even appearing to make eye contact. 

They make people uncomfortable. I don’t entirely blame people for feeling that way. I know that strange-looking eyes bring up a primal response. People usually aren’t trying to be cruel, but my whole body is tense now. 

The man with the forms turns away from the couple and rocks back and forth. I can make out the blurry bulk of his shape craning to see other parents he’s missed. I’m three feet in front of him, but he pretends not to see me. I greet him anyway, forcing a smile. My words are drowned out as he calls to someone behind me and swerves around me toward a woman approaching with a stroller. He hands her a form and starts explaining about pick-up times again. 

A roaring, buzzing sound seems to have taken over my ears. I feel dizzy and a lump is suddenly blocking my throat. Why is this so damn hard? If this happened once in awhile it would be one thing, but it has been happening again and again.  I want to give up and walk away. I would if it were anything I could forgo, but my kids want to be in this group and they’re still too little to be expected to take the brunt of these situations. 

A voice penetrates. The woman with the stroller has called out to me. “Arie,  you’re kids are going to be in this too? That’s great!”

I can’t recognize her at ten feet but I could kiss her whoever she is. I grin and wave. The man with the forms turns back around, confused. But the woman with the stroller moves to make me part of her conversation with him. Now he has to acknowledge me. I greet him again, forcing my voice to stay steady. Now he returns the greeting and hands me a form. 

How bullying really happens - Creative Commons image by Serge Saint

How bullying really happens - Creative Commons image by Serge Saint

The mini-Scouts meeting is the tiniest of incidents. I’m not complaining about it, simply telling it like it is. These types of routine social interactions are often like this for me. This one was only unique because of the woman who made it clear to the leader of the group that I belonged there. It could have been much worse. 

That woman is one of those people who understands about social exclusion or simply is conscious about her own reactions to appearance. But three of my near neighbors who stood in the group did not say hello or give any indication that they knew me. This happens. And among adults it usually ends at that, a bit of exclusion but nothing overtly mean. 

Among children, however, difference and social exclusion can easily lead to more—to bullying. 

A story for healing: Shanna and the Pentacle

I’ve always been legally blind—thus an oddball as a kid—so I’ve dealt with my fair share of bullying. My family was also very alternative, including in spiritual matters, so my brothers and I got flak for that as well. My brothers were harassed about having long hair or different clothes. Back in the early 1990s my mother told me her job could be at risk if people found out about our alternative spirituality or using Tarot. I was never harassed about not being Christian at school, because I was never dumb enough to let anyone find out.

That’s why I chose bullying and social exclusion motivated by prejudice as the key issue in the second book of the Children’s Wheel of the Year series. 

Illustration by Julie Freel

Illustration by Julie Freel

Some people have questioned my choice to make the theme of the book something “negative.” It’s supposed to be an Ostara story, after all. My take on it is that the bigger the problem is, the greater the relief when we come into the light. Beyond that, the issue grows directly out of the concept of new beginnings. It arises for the children in the story, because they enter a new school.

The issue of bullying and specifically the issues that children from earth-centered families face in a society where some large groups of people truly believe that our symbols and beliefs are “evil” are reality for children. Silence about these issues from trusted adults doesn’t shelter children. It only makes them feel alone.

When I hear about children who are ostracized or even censured by teachers for wearing Pagan or earth-focused symbols on jewelry or clothing—something that I do hear about every month or so—I know in detail how difficult it is. Most Pagan children who face bullying or prejudice at school will encounter only a bit of it and will not be completely isolated by it. But there are cases today, especially in religiously conservative areas, where harassment can become serious. 

It is crucial that kids know first that this kind of prejudice isn’t acceptable and that if they are targeted by it they aren’t alone or to blame. Portraying common stories in fiction is one way to give kids a sense of connection to others who may deal with the same issue. It also helps to teach sensitivity and empathy. 

The best kind of children’s books are those that have a strong story, a conflict or adventure that children can relate to. And when they teach something, these stories should do so in a way that is sensitive to the feelings of children. The story shouldn’t stop in order to teach and it shouldn’t talk down to kids. 

The Children’s Wheel of the Year books do teach. In particular the upcoming book Shanna and the Pentacle shows ways of dealing with bullying--both things a parent can do to help and things a child can do alone, such as talking openly about the problem and focusing on those peers in a classroom who are open-minded and friendly. But these books teach through providing a good model and creating a suspenseful story around the issues.

In Shanna and the Pentacle, the upcoming Ostara story in the Children’s Wheel of the Year series, Shanna and her brother Rye are the new kids at a larger and more diverse school. One teacher and the popular girls are convinced that pentacles are Satanic and Shanna runs into trouble because of the pendant her best friend gave her before she left her old school. New beginnings aren’t always easy, but Shanna can find ways to celebrate her new life and the Ostara holiday even amid these tensions. She also learns how to keep her own equilibrium in difficult situations, how to stand up for her beliefs and how to make friends despite differences. 

Shanna and the Pentacle is the second book in the Children’s Wheel of the Year. It will be published later this month. 

Spirituality in Practice: Pagans, the Pope and the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

My protected and somewhat isolated childhood is showing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heehee... You see the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And because Pagan is a path, not a destination.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming Pagan identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why "Pagan?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we need an identity term?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is why we need a Pagan identity.

Night terrors and protection magic: Addressing fear without dismissing it

It isn't suave to make this kind of confession, but in this case its necessary. I was afraid of the dark as a child. Very much afraid.

I wasn't afraid of monsters under the bed or of ogres in the closet. At least not unless I had recently watched a scary movie. Adults would often ask me what I feared and it was impossible to say exactly. 

I feared the tingling pressure of darkness against the back of my neck. I feared the way my muscles tightened and sometimes I couldn't move, even though I was fully aware of my surroundings. I feared the sense of consciousness and non-physical forms that I couldn't possibly understand. But as a child I didn't have words for these things and so I simply clung and  refused to be alone.

I found that darkness was actually only part of the problem. The other part was being alone. I found that the pressure against my senses didn't come if I was with another person... even a child much smaller than me. It wasn't that I thought a smaller child could protect me from something malicious. I didn't fear harm. I just did not like the strange pressure and awareness I felt but couldn't understand. And that feeling lasted until I was well beyond childhood.

 Today I understand better what I perceived as a child. I had some sort of gift for sensing non-physical reality. Despite the fact that I had very poor eyesight and couldn't see the facial expressions of others, I often sensed the emotions of others correctly, even when they wished to hide their feelings. And several specific experiences convinced me that I could at times perceive non-physical beings. Because I couldn't understand what I perceived, it was frightening and some of it may have actually been negative and beyond the abilities of a child to handle. 

It is because I've experienced this that I have a lot of sympathy for children who have fears they can't describe. Some of these fears may come from sensing non-physical reality. Others may come from deep memories or previous traumatic experiences that are not consciously remembered. Either way, there are ways to deal with these fears that address the root cause and allow children to keep their emotional and spiritual sensitivity without being afraid or encountering psychic negativity.

heading home.jpg

In popular western culture today, the primary response of adults to a child's fear of the dark or the unknown is either suppression, denial or mockery. "Look. There's nothing under the bed. Just calm down and go to sleep!" or "If you just be brave and ignore it, it will go away." 

From my experience, these usual responses are utterly useless. Most children just suffer through it until they are old enough to block out the non-physical world. And that can seriously limit their sensitivity and ability to know themselves and reach their potential.

A few more creative adults make a game of battling those things that trouble the child, dressing up in capes with swords and charging around the bedroom to exorcise the monsters. This latter approach does often work, and that's more than just because it's fun and distracting for children. It is also because such games often contain the basic elements of energetic ritual.

That is where the real solution lies. If an adult is skilled in their own spiritual path and can keep a steady center while giving a child the tools of self-protection and energy conservation, lengthy struggles with these fears can be avoided. And the child can grow to develop psychic gifts to their fullest without having to put blocks on their sensitivities. I have seen people of various religious persuasions do this in various forms--from Christians to a Cuban voodoo practitioner. So, I can't say there is one "correct" way to go about it. 

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But the basic elements are common. An adult should help a child to create a safe psychic space, often a circle. There may be candles or other items that help in concentration and a feeling of peace. Teach your tradition's form of centering, whether that is through visualization, meditation or prayer. Then cleanse the negativity in the area in a way that makes sense to you, such as smudging with herbs, drumming or prayer. Set a boundary around the room or home, using substances (such as salt and herbs) or protective symbols. And give the child a symbol or talisman of psychic protection. Talk about energy and spirit with the child in terms the child can understand and explain what you have done. Don't forget to close the sacred space and give thanks.

Even this very general description may go beyond the spiritual experience of some adults. I don't expect those who believe solely in a materialist world devoid of gods, ancestors and spirits to agree with my perspective on this. I'm not a guru and my own spiritual path is very personal and eclectic, reflecting my varied past and international family.

However, I can offer a more concrete depiction of this process for those who embrace a Pagan, Wiccan or earth-centered path in the children's book Shanna and the Raven, which is an adventure story linked to the February 2 festival of Imbolc. The book follows a ten-year-old girl through experiences of both perceived and real danger and shows how her mother helps her to use both physical measures and ritual to empower her, connect with intuition and obtain safety. There are serious themes in this book but children love it for the story and don't realize it means to "teach" something and that alone makes the concepts much easier to absorb.

I often hear parents say that they don't allow their children to participate in their spiritual path until they are teenagers. And this perplexes me. Certainly, there are practices that are beyond the capabilities of children and children shouldn't be forced into a straight-jacket of specific beliefs. However,  there are many simple practices, rituals and traditions that can give children protection that truly soothes fears rather than simply suppressing them. And the successful use of such means will inevitably give children a greater overall sense of security and confidence. 

I wrote Shanna and the Raven as the first book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series precisely because I see these needs in my own children. And I hope they may help others as much as they have brought comfort to my family. 

What are your experiences with unexplained fears, the need for protection and using spiritual means to banish anxiety? Drop a line in the comments section below and join the discussion.

Why do our kids need contemporary Pagan stories?

"Just don't say 'Solstice' where anyone can hear you, Mom," a fifth-grader says. "Everyone says 'Christmas' - even the people who have other holidays."

This is the kind of thing you will hear, if you're an earth-centered parent living someplace multicultural enough that you would actually consider using Pagan terms in public. This is a fact. We live in a society where the majority culture is very strong in the media and public space, despite the fact that only about half of the population shares that culture. 

You want a Pagan children's story? Here are some of the beautiful illustrations by Julie Freel from the soon-to-be-published story  Shanna and the Raven . Ten-year-old Shanna and seven-year-old Rye learn to use the magic and energy of Imbolc for protection in a dicey situation.

You want a Pagan children's story? Here are some of the beautiful illustrations by Julie Freel from the soon-to-be-published story Shanna and the Raven. Ten-year-old Shanna and seven-year-old Rye learn to use the magic and energy of Imbolc for protection in a dicey situation.

I grew up Pagan in a conservative, rural corner of the United States. Wait... I have to amend that because my mother is likely to lodge a complaint. I grew up with many Pagan ideas, stories, practices and beliefs, but I was nearly thirty before I had a word for it or knew the names of the solar holidays.

If and when we did a ritual or used something like Tarot when I was a kid, my mother either didn't overtly talk about it at all or called it "woo woo." By the time I went to school, I didn't have to be told that I should keep quiet about the whole subject of spirituality.

When I was sixteen, I had to fill out a form including my religion and I asked my mother what I should say.

She said, "You better say Protestant just in case." I knew we weren't Protestant, but I put it on the form anyway. The only options were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Buddhist.  There wasn't even an "other" category in those days. I was tempted to mark the Buddhist category just to buck the system, but it was an important form, so I decided to take my mother's advice and keep my head down as I did at many other times.

Pagan kids choosing their path in a media world

As a result, I understand why many Pagan kids are worried about being publicly identified as non-Christian, let alone Pagan. Sure, it can be considered brazen and cool among teenagers, but at earlier ages, both teachers and other kids often react negatively to open use of Pagan terms or symbols. Kids listen to the news and to the way people talk. And they take their cues from the media.

Today's kids can relate to to Shanna and Rye because they are just like them, going to school, having fun with friends and thinking about how they fit in.

Today's kids can relate to to Shanna and Rye because they are just like them, going to school, having fun with friends and thinking about how they fit in.

While the film Frozen may drop many Pagan hints, it stops short of using any Pagan terms. Meanwhile, the majority of stories and films encounter Christmas or other Christian terms and integrate them with ease. These terms pervade the common media culture and make clear what is "normal" for kids.

Some kids will be strong inside and not care much. I didn't. I kept my own beliefs and sat through plenty of public and semi-public Christian prayers throughout my childhood. But I always felt the coldness of the outside world and the isolation of my family. I struggled to find words when I traveled in my teens and people asked me "what" I was. When I came close to being able to describe it, I was met with a wall denial: "That's not a real religion." "That's fake." "You just made that up." 

And I didn't listen. I knew that I hadn't made up the myths of Norse and Greek mythology or the casting of a circle and the calling of quarters. (I knew neither term for those actions but I knew how to do them.) However, I teetered on the edge of despair over it. I envied my Native American friends, who were the only people I knew with similar practices and yet I sensed the wrongness in cultural appropriation at a young age and I refused to go that route. 

Many more kids will not want to stand so alone. Only a few of the similarly "quiet Pagan" kids I knew growing up retain any of this spiritual path today. And it's fine for everyone to choose their own path. As long as they are happy where they are.

The problem I see is that Pagan children are routinely denied a reasonable chance to truly choose. They are told bits and pieces of their parent's spiritual practice, but mostly they are thrown into the world of Christian and secular media. There are a few books about Pagan beliefs aimed at children, but almost all of them are focused on teaching specific facts and practices. They bear little resemblance to the fun and adventurous stories where kids usually find Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July.

A child's need for engaging identity

The divide is stark - Pagan literature which is often dry and school-like versus pop culture which is fast-paced, fun and focused on Christian and secular terms.  The inevitable conclusion that children draw is that Pagan things are stilted and boring, while the majority culture is adventurous and laid back.

How did this happen? Paganism is supposed to be the religion of freedom, play, dreams and the natural world, is it not?

A holiday story should include the magic and comfort of family traditions but should also include a story to grip and entertain the reader. These stories are for earth-centered kids themselves, rather than meant to educate their classmates about Pagan beliefs.

A holiday story should include the magic and comfort of family traditions but should also include a story to grip and entertain the reader. These stories are for earth-centered kids themselves, rather than meant to educate their classmates about Pagan beliefs.

And beyond the issue of what path our children will choose as they mature, I would like to make a plea for childhood free from fear, secrecy and self-doubt. Yes, I was strong enough to weather the great silence and that feeling of isolation alone, but I hope my own children won't have to undergo it. I want them to know what our beliefs are called, to use these terms without fear and to respect other beliefs without feeling dominated.

These are key parts of a healthy identity. And without a solid identity we can't freely choose our own path.  

That's why I am turning my story-telling craft to earth-centered and Pagan children's stories for a time.  I am indebted to the writers of Circle Round, Pooka Pages and similar materials for families and children, which have done a great deal to provide Pagan education for kids. This leaves me free to embark on a new path with my stories.

These are stories rooted in today's most common Pagan paths, but they are primarily about adventures and difficulties that children actually overcome. These stories are to Pagan beliefs as the American Girl series is to history. There might be a bit about the facts in the back of the book, but the focus will be on stories that children will actively ask for - stories that will grip the reader with suspense and joy. 

A series of contemporary adventure stories for Pagan kids

I have begun the Children's Wheel of the Year stories with a book that will be published in January 2016. It's an Imbolc story because it occurs at that time of year and includes a family's Imbolc celebration. It also includes the themes of Imbolc - protection from danger, the good use of intuition and the cleansing of negative energies. But these themes are not taught with a heavy hand. They are part of the story of how ten-year-old Shanna acts bravely and intuitively to protect her younger brother from a criminal. 

Yes, these stories will encounter some real conflict and suspense. They aren't meant for preschool-age children, but for those who read adventure stories involving an element of danger. The stories that my own children love don't pretend that children are immune to or unaware of the darkness in the world. They are the stories that show children as strong and capable of facing difficulties, protecting themselves and standing up for important principles.

That strength comes from facing real problems and battling fear itself. These stories will have happy endings and be empowering for children, but they will involve true conflict and adventure that kids can relate to.

Modern Pagan kids just like me

"Class, who can tell us what is special about February 2?" the teacher asks. Shanna is excited that someone else knows about Imbolc. But then the other kids laugh and the teacher really meant Ground Hog's Day. Fortunately, the teacher is open-minded and she asks Shanna to tell the class about her lovely traditions.

"Class, who can tell us what is special about February 2?" the teacher asks. Shanna is excited that someone else knows about Imbolc. But then the other kids laugh and the teacher really meant Ground Hog's Day. Fortunately, the teacher is open-minded and she asks Shanna to tell the class about her lovely traditions.

The Children's Wheel of the Year books are meant for kids ages six to ten and may interest kids outside this age range as well. The stories are realistic and contemporary, following a brother and sister named Shanna and Rye whose family follow an unspecified earth-centered path. Like other children today, they go to school, have friends, enjoy fun times and encounter real problems and fears. Like the Magic Tree House books or The Little House on the Prairie, these stories are relatable and fun. They can help in teaching kids about a Pagan path, but their focus is on building a strong and fearless Pagan identity in general, rather than on teaching details of a particular path. 

The first book in the series is titled Shanna and the Raven: An Imbolc Story. The series will continue around the wheel of the year. There is no particular significance to beginning at Imbolc. It simply fits the children in the story best.

I strive for accuracy in all references to Pagan practices, but I keep much of the specifics out of these stories in order to allow a wide variety of families with different paths to use them. It will be possible to enter the story with any of the books, though there will be a gentle overall story running from Imbolc through Yule as well. 

Get this book here

If you want to learn more about the Children's Wheel of the Year stories, you're invited to sign up for my Hearth-side Email Circle. Subscribers are entitled to a free ebook, and you can either grab one of my adult fantasy books or Shanna and the Raven as a thank you from me.. 

I love your comments on these Pagan Notes posts and I would be particularly interested in the ideas and concerns of fellow Pagan parents. What issues are your kids concerned about? What kinds of books, movies and other media do you wish we had for Pagan kids? Thanks for your comments.