Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Paganism - His and Hers

I think I've outdone myself in laziness by not posting anything for months. I'm a fitful sort of blogger.

Something occurred to me the other day, though. I was sitting around with my boyfriend and some good buddies of ours, and for some reason, talk centered around domestic matters. Who does the laundry in your house? Who sweeps the floors and trims the hedges? Those kinds of things. I gently poked fun of my boyfriend, saying that I'm the one who does all that in our household, and that the house was a Grim Gap of, well, maybe not Death, but at least bacheloresque mess before I moved in. Our friends nodded knowingly. One of them commented that his mother thankfully still appears every Wednesday to do his laundry. My smugness factor went through the roof, I have to admit, as I pontificated on the importance of bleach and broom.

Afterwards, it struck me how unfair I'd been. Somehow, I've developed these highly prejudiced notions that not only are women far better at running a household; we also care more about domestic matters. It's a form of chauvinism, so deeply entrenched that I hadn’t even noticed it.
How bizarre, I thought. My mother's generation had battled for equal rights and women's liberation, I consider myself liberated, and yet here I am, ironing my man's shirts, because I don't trust him to do it without accidentally burning the house down. Also, perhaps more significantly, I take pride in ruling supreme over domestic matters, in turning a house into a home. To me, it’s a way of showing that I care about our life together, and it’s a hospitality thing.

Thinking about these things, I could name more than a handful of women who would have me committed if they heard this. We’re liberated now. We can be both genders at the same time – simply put, we can celebrate our femininity and fix our own damn cars at the same time. And that’s a good thing. However, taking it to extremes is not. I know women who will actually take offence if a guy holds open the door for them, or if he innocently offers to put up a shelf for them with his mighty power tool. There is such a thing as being too Freudian.
Women of my generation and in my part of the world are perhaps expected to take pride in our academic achievements, our careers, our parenting skills or our ability to network and socialize. If we take pride in having a well-scrubbed kitchen floor, that’s alright, but we shouldn’t really say as much. Even the realm of female sexual fantasy is now highly regulated and subject to a mild form of peer pressure.

What does that mean in a Pagan perspective? Personally, I think that the idea that there are two and only two genders, and that they are clearly defined, is a part of our Christian heritage. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Our ancestors in pre-Christian times didn’t see the world in dualist terms – good and evil, light and dark, man and woman. It seems that in that world, there were more ways of being male or female – it was perhaps a matter of degrees. Women in that world could be housekeepers, businesswomen, agitators, priestesses, shamans, pioneers, leaders of the community, professional mistresses, even shield maidens, in very rare cases. They did not have equal rights in the sense that we understand it today, but they seem to have had far more options that their later counterparts.
The same appears to have been true for men. A good while back, archaeologists discovered a single burial from the Bronze Age in Denmark. The body was dressed in a short blouse and a short skirt made of strings, with the long hair carefully coiffed, and was found buried in coffin made from a hollowed oak lined with soft fur. Everybody immediately agreed that this was the body of a young woman. Oh yes! She would have been a ritual dancer, and performed her dance at major religious festivals! A Danish belly dancer even interpreted this, and she toured the land dressed in a copy of the costume. Then one day, somebody felt inspired to take a closer look and then informed the astonished world that it was in fact the body of a young man, not a woman.
There are a number of other examples of men being buried with perplexing, ‘female’-type grave goods, which, along with other sources, indicate that both men and women had more than one gender identity to choose from. Most seem to have stuck to the roles of either mother/wife/housekeeper or breadwinner/warrior, but significantly, the options were there.

Many branches of Neo-Paganism incorporate a strong streak of women’s empowerment. After all, we now get to venerate actual goddesses who are powerful and important in their own right, not just a de-sexualized virgin sitting quietly at the foot of the steps leading up to the throne of the Almighty God. I like that. But I don’t want to take it to extremes. I don’t think the goddesses are worth more than the gods, and I don’t think women are better than men – despite my prejudices about housework (I’ll be working on that, I swear). I don’t want to do to the gods something similar to what Christians have done to the goddesses in the past – strip them of their own innate importance and view them as mere armpets of the Almighty One, whether God or Goddess.

Feminism, in its most extreme form, devalues men and traps women in very rigid roles. It’s just the same old slavery, but reverted and wearing a new mask. If we’re going to be inspired by past Pagans, then one of the ways I want to go about doing that is to allow myself the freedom to decide my own gender identity, so to speak. Even if it flies in the face of modern expectations. I will not be pressured into a role that does not fit me, neither in a mundane sense nor a religious, neo-Pagan sense.

Because of the women’s liberation movement, their bravery and their battles, I now get to appreciate the full spectrum of all that is female. I can be a metaphorical shield maiden and a housekeeper at the same time. I can venerate goddesses of home and hearth with the same respect and devotion as I do goddesses of war and kingship. And I can worship the gods as their honored equals, beloved counterparts, not just sons and servants. To me, this is true liberation. Every day, I feel thankful for that. And I believe that men should have the exact same rights. Equal rites, as Terry Pratchett puts it.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Holy, holy, holy.

So neo-Paganism, in all its many forms, is a radically different religious experience, unique perhaps in the whole history of religious expressions. We're not encouraged by parents, society or tradition (quite the opposite in many cases, I suspect) - we're doing something new here, albeit something new inspired by something very old.

Something that's been annoying me lately is the repeated claims that neo-Pagans do not take their religion as seriously as Christians or other established religions do. You've probably heard it yourself. I hear a lot of people expressing this belief, and quite honestly, even though it's irritating in the extreme, I can't blame people for thinking that.
First of all, there are so many different kinds of neo-Pagan, and in smaller towns, people are maybe not likely to meet more than one or two, who may come from very different Pagan traditions. At least where I live, there are no massive Pagan congregations that assemble every full moon. We're not very easily identifiable, and at first glance people might not see any great amount of unity between us.
Also, seeing as how we're not that visible in the 'established' religious landscape, as it were, I think a lot of people aren't that aware of the ways in which we worship. It's fair enough. I don't know the ins and outs of every religion in the world, either.
Then there's the small matter of popular culture. I don't think you see God Almighty or Allah portrayed as comic book superheroes in unlikely spandex costumes very often.

Something occurred to the other day. It's obvious when you think about it, I just hadn't up until now. If most of us come from some part of the Western world, chances are we're brought up either as Christians or at least aware of the particulars of that religion. So we are raised to approach sanctity in a particular way - the Christian god is outside His creation, not inside it as an integral part. That which is holy, in the Christian line of thinking, is above nature, purer than anything 'earthly,' and must be revered in special, clearly delineated places - i.e., inside stone churches. The saints became saints because they were un-earthly, purer than anything in the natural world. When you are approaching that which is holy in the Christian sense, you do so in a spirit of complete humility, denying that which is earthly and natural in the hope of experiencing something heavenly and pure.
The way I see it, this is the normal way of approaching sanctity in the Western world, whether one is a Christian or not. It is just the way we have gotten used to thinking about sanctity and the divine.

But Paganism presents a radically different cosmology, and a completely different way of approaching sanctity. The Pagan gods of old are thought to be inside their creation, as an integral and all-pervasive part of it. Gods and goddesses of birth, life, sexuality, death and rebirth, gods and goddesses of strength, wisdom and power. We speak about them in a language of thunderstorms, floods, blizzards, sunlight at dawn, moonlight on a howling winter night, and so to us it makes less sense to shut ourselves up inside stone churches to revere them. Granted, many of us do worship in temples or at personal home altars, but I think that we also see the influence of our deities in the world around us.

I'm no theologian, and these are only my personal opinions. But in my line of thinking, the reason people think we are less serious about our religion has to do with the fact that we do not approach sanctity and the divine in the 'traditional', accepted way. Nor do we want to. Many Pagans see something of the divine in human sexuality and romantic love, for instance - something which, in the Christian worldview, is earthly and mundane and therefore cannot be holy. We don't have the dualist element in our worldview, where heaven, spirit and 'father' is purely good, and earth, body and 'mother' is purely evil. In the Christian sense, anything to do with 'earth, body and mother’ is opposed to the divine, and therefore morally questionable. Not so for us.
And with a heritage like that, I argue that it's difficult to convince people that we are just as devout, just as sincere and just as religious as Christians - only in a radically different way.

Do we need to do anything to remedy that? That's obviously not for me to say. I think it is going to be quite difficult to get people to see things our way without getting into a serious theological discussion with them. Old habits die hard, very hard, and the Christian habit is something that has informed our Western civilizations for a very long time. I have no interest whatsoever in trying to 'win people over' to my line of thinking, but you know, it would be rather nice to feel that my religion was taken as seriously by the public at large as Christianity and other large 'mainstream' faiths.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Meet Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder General

Myths and opinions on 'The Burning Times' in different parts of the neo-Pagan communities often take center stage. To some, it is a particularly depressing chapter in the long history of human bigotry and credulity, and to others, it is clear proof that an ancient matriarchal mystery religion not only survived well in to the medieval and early modern age, but was cruelly suppressed by Christian authorities who felt threatened.
It is clearly time to look at the facts of the so-called 'Burning Times' - this has of course been done better and far more throughly elsewhere, but I'd like this to be the first in a short series of posts on the subject from my own neo-Pagan perspective.
In this post, I'd like to present to you Matthew Hopkins, self-proclaimed Witch-finder General of England, as an example of the sort of thing that went on during the European witch craze. Hopkins was a Puritan and apparently a failed lawyer, and at the height of the English witch craze in the 1640's he presented himself as a witch-finder, playing on people's fears and anxieties and earning himself a handsome living an a bit of fame in the process.
At the time, the spectre of civil war and unrest generated much anxiety in communities all over England, especially in Essex, where 'war tensions and a strong previous tradition of [belief in satanic] witchcraft came together' (Russel & Alexander, p. 97). Hopkins was clearly able to convince the local people of Essex that they were under threat from a powerful conspiracy of satanic witches hiding in their midst, blighting crops and causing death and disease in humans and livestock.
Hopkins was active between 1644-1647. In his book, 'The Discovery of Witches', he describes how his suspicions were first aroused when he overheard a group of women discussing their ritual meetings with Satan. After having had this astounding revelation, he began touring the southeastern counties of England, appointing helpers along the way and offering his ministrations in the many villages he and his band passed through. In the end, Matthew Hopkins was to cause more people to be hanged for witchcraft in the two years he was active than had been hanged in the preceding century (Russel & Alexander, p. 98).
Hopkins seems to have been inspired by Continental ideas about witchcraft - he accused his victims of belonging to a sect of devil-worshippers, flying out at night to meet their infernal master, have sexual relations with him, initiate newcomers by unspeakable blasphemous rites and sacrifice to him, and so forth. In England, the belief in witches took a different form - witches were not thought to have the same amount of direct contact with Satan, they were not thought to have sexual relations with him or sign any form of contract with him, and they did not fly off to indulge in satanic sabbats. Instead, they kept to themselves, owned familiars and spent their time blighting crops and spreading disease.
Jeffrey Russel suggests that the belief in witches' familiars, common mostly in England and to a lesser extent in Germany, could have grown from a belief in 'the little people', fairies or goblins, who had been transformed into lesser demons with the advent of Christianity (Russel & Alexander, p. 92). However, that something may have been based on folklore, which in turn may have been based on pagan religion, does not make that actual surviving paganism.
Hopkin's accusations were based both on Continental and on local British beliefs about witches, and it is even possible to make an educated guess on which books he gleaned his apparently boundless knowledge from.
There is something deeply cynical about this approach - did Hopkins, clearly something of a self-styled intellectual and expert, one day simply decide to make a profit scaring peasants and murdering the poor and helpless, and then got his hands on some new Continental notions which were even more effective at causing mass hysteria than the local British ones? He has been dead for 252 years, and we can never hope to discover his motivations. In one village, he and his two assistants earned two pounds, which would have been the equivalent of an average person's income in a whole year. Clearly such pecuniary details would not have been entirely irrelevant to him. Perhaps he enjoyed the fame and adulation, as well as the fear and awe he inspired as he bullied his victims and excited the crowds against them? Or perhaps he actually believed that he had been appointed by the Almighty to combat the legions of darkness?
Hopkins enjoyed considerable fame and success in his endeavours, but only for two or three years. He seems to have overreached himself, and to have set in motion a mass hysteria that would, in turn, be replaced with resentment towards himself. As William Godwin put it:
'The fate of Hopkins was such as might be expected in similar cases. The multitude are at first impressed with horror at the monstrous charges that are advanced. They are seized, as by contagion, with terror at the mischiefs which seem to impend over them, and from which no innocence and no precaution appear to afford them profficient protection. [...] But, after a time, they begin to reflect, and to apprehend that they have acted with too much precipitation, that they have been led on by uncertain appearances. They see one victim led to the gallows after another, without stint or limitation. They see one dying with the most solemn asseverations of innocence, and another confessing apparently she knows not what, what is put into her mouth by her relentless persecutors. They see these victims, old, crazy and impotent, harassed beyong endurance by the ingenious cruelties practised against them. They were at first urged on [...] to be satisfied with nothing but blood. But humanity and remorse also have their turn. Dissatisfied with themselves, they are glad to point their resentment against another. The man that at first they hailed as a public benefactor, they presently come to regard with jealous eyes, and begin to consider as a cunning impostor, dealing in cool blood with the lives of his fellow-creatues for paltry gain, and still more horrible, for the lure of perishable and short-lived fame.' (Godwin, p. 436-7).
According to popular tradition, Hopkins was in the end seized by the angry crowd whose fears he had been using to his own advancement, and subjected to the test of water - a torturous method he himself used to test possible witches, and then driven out of town. However, there is nothing to suggest that this actually happens; in fact Hopkins seems to have died from tuberculosis in his own home the same year. But what sort of ending is that?
We all prefer stories in which the villain meets a cruel and suitable end, and this is true for us as well as for those Essex villagers. By emplying that he is punished by the villagers after they have freed their minds from his evil manipulations, the villagers themselves are redeemed and justice is served. Sadly, on closer examination, history doesn't usually lend itself to such convenient and poetically just endings.
Several things must be remembered concerning the case of Matthew Hopkins. First of all, he acted on his own initiative; the church did not employ or appoint him, and neither did Parliament. He was a self-proclaimed saviour, playing on people's fears and feeding them with anxieties common of his time - not an agent of a malicious religious or political establishment.
Secondly, the people of the villages he targeted supported him and played along with his evil schemes. When he presented himself, he would ask whether the village had any suspected witches, not just pick somebody at random. Clearly, there is a vast amount of complicity here that needs to be addressed. The myth of the poor, suppressed peasant who is shivering with fear under the looming shadow of and Catholic inquisitor or Protestant witch-finder is comfortable, but not entirely accurate. Of course the villagers who participated in this cruel social ritual would not like to find themselves accused, but did not seem to hesistate pointing Hopkins and his ilk in the right direction. There are many other cases of witch hysteria elsewhere in Europe where one clearly sees the forces of organised mass-murder at work, but the story of Matthew Hopkins demonstrates that this was not always the case, and that 'common people' were not blameless in the atrocities committed.
Thirdly, there is nothing in the story of Matthew Hopkins or any other witch-finder or inquisitor to imply that they were working to suppress actual surviving pagan practices. Medieval European belief in witchcraft had been formed by several different sources - they had grown out of pagan religion, then sorcery and folklore, and when thoughts about Christian heresy as well as Christian scholastic theology was mixed in, the result became the belief in diabolical witchcraft as seen in the late middle ages and early modern period. The motif of twelve witches worshipping Satan in the form of a goat or horned, cloven-hoofed man was thought to be a parody of Christ and his apostles, not a distortion of a pagan ritual. Also, this motif was only introduced in the later middle ages, so it seems very doubtful that it was in reality a surviving pagan witch cult.
People like Matthew Hopkins still exist today, and will continue to exist in the future. They are self-absorbed cynics who will declare themselves the protectors of a community against a whole array of imaginary threats. Switch on one of the television channels that cater to the credulous and the religious fanatics. If you have the stomach for it, look up one the vile websites run by political extremists and racists.
The story of Matthew Hopkins should be seen in the context of the human capacity for unspeakable evil and cynicism, a story which sadly does not seem to be ending any time soon. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - it is bad taste in the extreme, as well as factually incorrect, to attempt to appropriate the victims of the witch craze as martyrs for a surviving pagan matriarchal mystery religion. The neo-Pagan community has real and present challenges to deal with, and we do not need to aggravate the situation by feeding the aptly named 'More Persecuted Than Thou'-syndrome.
Godwin, William: Lives of Necromancers, an account of the most eminent persons in successive ages, who have claimed for themselves, or to whom have been imputed by others, the excercise of magical power. London 1834.
Russel B., Jeffrey & Brooks Alexander: A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. London 2007.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Name-Calling: A Clarification of Terms

For the purpose of minimizing confusion, I'd like to explain my usage of the terms and 'neo-Pagan.' In my opinion there are too many terms floating around in the Pagan communities, such as they are. It is confusing at the best of times and divisive at the worst.
By 'neo-Pagan' I mean any faith or path that is inspired by or seeks to revive ancient pre-Christian religions. Wiccans, Druids, Heathens, Celtic Reconstructionists, Witches et cetera all fall under this category, in my opinion. I realize of course that there are vast differences between the religious practices of an Alexandrian Wiccan and a Druid, and even between an Alexandrian Wiccan and an Eclectic Wiccan, but seeing as how we all face many of the same challenges and base our practices on various different views of the past, I see no reason not to adopt the use of a convenient 'umbrella term', while still being aware of the innumerable differences between the many neo-Pagan paths. Obviously 'Pagan' will serve just as well as an 'umbrella term' for most of us, and I am guilty of switching between the two terms, but every so often it is a good idea to just remind ourselves that we are all, in form if not in essence, 'neo.'
To some, 'neo-Paganism' has become a derogatory term, implying a lack of seriousness or authenticity. However, the fact remains that Pagan practices have not survived unchanged or unbroken since pre-Christian times, and therefore they are being revived, reconstructed or reinvented - ergo, they are 'new' as opposed to 'old.'
In my line of thinking, using the term 'neo-Paganism' in a derogatory fashion implies a belief that one's own religious practice is The Ultimate Authentic Truth as well as an unbroken tradition. This is both unbelievably arrogant and denotes a lack of the most basic historical knowledge.

Apart from that, there are the debates concerning who is and who is not a 'Fluffy Bunny' and whether or not one should be a 'Hard Polytheist' or 'Hard Reconstructionist' as opposed to a 'Soft' one. Come now. How are we going to have a fair and objective debate if we adopt unfair and subjective terms to describe one another? Would anybody really name him or herself a 'Fluffy Bunny?' Clearly not. It's a derogatory term. Likewise, would anybody appreciate their beliefs being termed 'soft?' To me at least, 'soft' implies a silly, spineless and shallow attitude, whereas 'hard' implies seriousness, sturdiness and authenticity.

What's in a name? A lot, apparently. Many of these terms have become the norm in the many debates, and since most agree to use them, they are very convenient. I simply think we should excercise a bit more caution before deciding what to call other neo-Pagans who don't agree with us.


Welcome to the Bog & Owl - not a Harry Potter fanblog, not a Blog of Shadows, not a blog about ornitology or bogology, but a place for me to publish all my many, many opinions on neo-Paganism. There are many of these types of blog around, but in this day and age when the technology is so readily available, I say not only stand up and be counted, but stand up (or sit down, as it were) and start blogging!