Archive for the ‘polytheism’ Category

Review of “Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach”

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Beckett, John. Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2019.

If you’re “new-ish” to Druidry, Paganism, etc., and you’re looking for a pocket definition of what all this stuff is, what it entails, what at heart it’s doing on the scene, here’s another Pagan and Druid writer, J. M. Greer, with a definition that works for many:

Above all else, Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth … It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit (Druidry – A Green Way of Wisdom).

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Like his first book, The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice (Llewellyn, 2017), this second book by John Beckett delivers on its title. I’m repeating here my preface to that review:

John is a fellow OBOD Druid. We’ve met at several OBOD Gatherings, and I’ve gratefully used and credited his excellent photos in several previous posts here. We’ve talked on occasion, but I don’t know him well, except as a reader of his excellent blog. I participated in his moving Cernunnos rite at East Coast Gathering several years ago.

Usually I only review books I feel I can discuss insightfully and enthusiastically: The Path of Paganism certainly qualifies. I’m adding this personal note as brief background and for completeness.

John’s Dedication page to this new book makes subtle and far-reaching points:

For those who serve their gods and communities when it’s easy and when it’s hard, who take their Paganism ever deeper even when there’s no map, and who trust their own senses when encountering things that some say cannot be: you are building something sacred and beautiful. This book is dedicated to you.

I don’t “do Druidry” primarily as a polytheist — in spite of what you might conclude, at least on the basis of my previous post about Thecu, and intermittent posts over time about Brighid, whom I listen to most closely, as triple goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry. But I find much of value in this book, just as I did in John’s previous one. As John remarks about the “big tent” of Paganism, there’s room for a wide range of belief, because it’s practice that binds us together, and a well of common experiences.

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“dragon-stone”, Mt. Ascutney, August ’19

Go deeper, “where there are no maps”, and you learn even more deeply to trust what’s true — that is, what bears out that initial quality in your subsequent lived experience. Inner guidance proves valid, insights bear fruit, spiritual help clears the way to good things. There’s “troth” there — all those lovely older English words are clearly linked (and likely sprung from the same root as Druid, the initial d- regularly softened to t- in Germanic languages like English*) — something we can trust, solid as a tree, because of its inherent truth, so that we can form abiding relationships — multiple troths (as in betrothed) — with other beings and places where it manifests. These things quite literally “come true” — they arrive with a particular quality or atmosphere we learn to greet with joy, and to cherish, out of previous experiences with them.

As John perceptively notes:

Our mainstream culture talks about “having faith” that everything will work out OK even if we have no reason to expect it will. Pagans aren’t big on that kind of faith … There is a very utilitarian ethic to spiritual practice: do the work and you get the benefits. Don’t do the work and you won’t. Oftentimes the gods are gracious and give us things we have not earned. Their generosity is a virtue we would do well to emulate. But some things cannot be given, only obtained through sustained effort. No one could give me the experience of running a marathon or the wisdom I gained in doing it. I cannot command the presence of the gods in my life, but without years of devotional practice I would rarely hear them, much less understand what they’re telling me. Whether you want to be a marathon runner or a magician, a concert pianist or a priest, there is a high cost to being the best you can be. The down payment is due in advance and the ongoing payments never end. I’ve found them to be the best investments I’ve ever made (pgs. 206-207).

These comments come late in John’s book. If they showed up in the first paragraph, they might well bewilder or scare off many readers, and perhaps rightly so. His Introduction puts the book’s sections in helpful context. Here I’ll cite one in particular:

The Interlude of this book is titled “I like It Here — Why Do I Have To Leave?” Sometimes we find a certain level of skill and commitment and think we’ve found where we need to be for the rest of our lives. But in a year or two or ten, we start hearing a call to move on again. This section explores what that call looks, sounds, and feels like, why we might want to leave a place where we’re comfortable, and how we can begin the journey (pg. 4).

Finding our own pace, and place, is a lifetime’s quest that no one else can do for us (in spite of holy hucksters and Gucci gurus to the contrary). Nor does John claim “his” Paganism is for everyone. He writes, as he makes clear, as an “Ancestral, Devotional, Ecstatic, Oracular, Magical, Public, Pagan Polytheist” — and after he explains each adjective, he observes:

This is the religion I practice. Your journey will likely take you somewhere different — perhaps somewhat different, perhaps very different. But the methods and practices presented in this book will help you find your way regardless of the direction you take and what your deep Paganism does or doesn’t include (pg. 6).

What strikes me as a practitioner of two different spiritual paths is how much and how well the guidance in this book applies to any path. Of course its explicit polytheist and Pagan assumptions will not serve everyone, but the sections on examining our foundational assumptions, on regular spiritual practice, devotion, study, inclusion, ecstasy, communication with deity, community building, the risks and costs of deep dedication all bear the marks of thoroughly lived spirituality that anyone who has done similar work can attest to and recommend to others. The counsel can seem at times deceptively simple, because 99% of any glitter, hype and buzz has been scoured away by the inward work required.

And not everyone needs to do such work:

In the hyper-individualistic twenty-first century … everyone expects a church to cater to them. And many churches do … They’re struggling to “remain relevant” and they’re desperate to attract members no matter what it takes. My Facebook feed includes some Christians searching for “what meets my needs” and other Christians complaining about entertainment replacing worship. Given these two cultural forces, it’s no surprise many people in our wider society  (from which Paganism and polytheism largely draw their members) don’t know what to make of religions that 1) don’t claim to be for everyone, and 2) don’t attempt to cater to everyone …

So what are you going to do when you go looking for a group to practice with and a community to be a part of? You don’t want to change your identity to satisfy them, and they aren’t going to change their identity to satisfy you. Is there really no room for you in any religion? That can’t be right, or we wouldn’t have covens and orders and churches and such. You can’t get 100 percent of what you want in a group or a tradition. But you can probably get 70 percent, or 80 or maybe even 98 (pgs. 65-67).

John then discusses his involvement with several distinct traditions and organizations, including ADF, Unitarian Universalists, and OBOD, concluding:

There is room for me in all these organizations even though none are an exact match with my own beliefs and practices — that is, with my own religious identity … When I’m in one of their services or rituals I respect their boundaries and priorities and participate with them. When I hear UUs speak of “God” in monotheistic or even non-theistic language, I remember that in this context, the singular “God” is not what’s most important. What’s most important is a group of people coming together to form an open, caring, active religious community (pg. 68).

I’ll end with another excerpt from John’s most recent blogpost (link above), because in it he focuses specifically on polytheist practice and experience relevant to this review and how we might read his book:

A calling from a God doesn’t make you special and it certainly doesn’t give you any authority over others. Mainly it gives you more work to do. A fully-formed religion has room for both dedicated religious specialists and for those who simply want to honor the Gods and live ordinary lives.

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*initial d- softened to t- in Germanic languages like English: this is a regular historic sound change in the Germanic languages (but not their “cousins” — see below) as they evolved from Proto-Indo-European. The same change regularly shows up elsewhere, for example:

Latin decem “ten”, Greek deka, Sanskrit dasa, Welsh deg, English ten;

Latin ducere “lead”, English tug (and Old English heretoga “army leader”);

Latin deus “God, god”, Sanskrit dyaus, Old English Tiw (as in Tue’s day);

Latin duo “two”; Sanskrit dva(u), Greek duo, Welsh dau, English two;

Latin dens, dentis “tooth”; Sanskrit dan, dantah, Greek odon, odontos, Welsh dant, English tooth.

 

 

Ancestry, Polytheism, Tradition

Melas commented thoughtfully on the previous post, and I’d like to reflect on his words here. In trying to explore the questions he raises, ultimately I end up pushing hard against my own doubts and understandings and probable prejudices. By this I mean I’m mostly arguing with myself, not Melas. So here goes …

First, Melas’s initial observation:

The poem, though short, is moving, especially upon a reflection, as you have provided. Without considering the poet’s evident meaning or original intention, I’d venture upon a somewhat different interpretation than yours, that is, one based on my traditional views. Let us at least agree that ancestry bears some degree of importance in any tradition of polytheism; the difficult questions are, how much, and what if one is of mixed ethnic ancestry?

I’ll add to Melas’s two “difficult questions” here and make them four: Does ancestry in fact matter, how much, what if one is of mixed ancestry, and does polytheism affect the issue one way or another? (One or many gods, or none, we all have the same energies to work with. Or do we live in wholly different universes simply because we group and name and work with these energies differently?) To continue a theme from the previous post, if we consider a person of Greek descent whose ancestors for at least ten or more generations were most likely Orthodox Christians, is practicing Hellenismos, reconstructed Greek polytheism, a comfortable or straightforward way to find harmony with these most recent ancestors, to enlist their aid, or to maintain their tradition? Or consider the opposite: is the Orthodox Christian angering all those ancestors who preceded Christianity? Is it merely a numbers game?

When I welcome ancestors — the occasionally monotheist, sometimes pantheist, intermittently polytheist being that I am — I invite those sympathetic to me, one of their descendants, today. (Who else, after all, would want to come? Think of those family events you’ve tried to escape!) In this sense, ancestry is indeed everything. I’m here because of them, and with them rest both my gratitude and reverence. But I face choices and challenges both similar to and different from ones they faced. I have ancestors who were Christians, Pagans, atheists, agnostics, animists, polytheists and shamans. How do we sort out such identifications and allegiances?

Do the last thirty generations of so of Christian ancestors of varying degrees of devotion and wisdom trump hundreds of generations and more of pre-Christian ancestors? Will the polytheists among them fight the monotheists in the Otherworld, or at my ritual circle? Does more recent ancestry matter more than the more ancient strains? OBOD’s standard ritual includes a declaration of peace, without which no work can proceed. Those who work the rituals can attest to the power of that declaration, and to the tenor and energy of the rites that follow. What we do, and who we welcome, matter here and now. A feast is ultimately for those who actually attend (though even to be invited is pleasing, too). To paraphrase Jesus, many are called, but fewer are fed.

King’s poem in the previous post acknowledges his

people
back to the beginning of
life,
In the witness of the gods
and the ungods

Back to the beginning: bug and bird, beast and beech tree. I suspect, one of the words I prefer to use in place of believe, because it captures both my doubt and my intuition, that such matters as commitments and practices from one life may recede when we drop the body of that life. We work on what we need to learn. If we truly do experience all things as we move through each circle of existence and awareness, as some Druids teach, then so do our ancestors along their journeys. Some things we give up, even as we take on others. (Some will follow us through many lives.) Whether this time around I was baptized into the “right” church, or offered the traditional gifts to welcome my spirit guide on my vision quest, may matter little compared to our enduring work along the Spiral of all beings to learn and grow in strength and love. And from what I’ve seen, we’re all slow learners. The Spiral is large and long.

Melas comments:

To the first [how much does ancestry matter?], I would say as much as possible, since a connection by blood is an inner force and connection (literally and figuratively) that can’t be replaced easily or dispensed with as unessential. I am not wholly Greek in ancestry, but my ancestors are partly from neighboring nations, and therefore choosing for me is easier than someone half-Greek and half-Chinese. In such a case, it would be best to take a side, I mean join one tradition without scorning the other, since large distance is inconvenient and causes confusion in the mind and heart.

When the choosing is clear, the choice can align the chooser quite effectively within a tradition that can be a solace and a guide, a source of strength and identity. Today many are still born with such a clear ancestral heritage. In such a case, it may indeed “be best to take a side, I mean join one tradition without scorning the other”. Perhaps Americans feel more keenly the “confusion in the mind and heart” that Melas talks about, with our often mixed ancestries. Confusion may result, whether the distance is physical, cultural, linguistic, genetic, spiritual, psychological, etc.

But should I then be a Christian, because everyone in my immediate family was, and because though I’m deliciously mongrel in many ways, most of my more recent Swiss German, English, Welsh, French, and Scottish ancestors were Christian as well? (I have transcripts of letters from one ancestor eight generations back, admonishing her children to strengthen their faith in trying times.) Should I be Catholic, or Protestant, or provoke ire on all sides and practice a blend of Christianity and Druidry?

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Candomble ritual, Brazil

And I call to mind people known to me personally, who don’t count among their keys to identity a genetic match in this particular life to a particular tradition that nonetheless calls deeply to them. Is there no place for an Asian or African in an often Euro-centric tradition like Druidry? Most traditions of Druidry I know welcome all who come with good will and an open heart, regardless of DNA. And that feels right to me, and to many others. Does that weaken the tradition, or strengthen it? Or indeed not affect it either way?

What are we to make of those whose inner experiences orient them toward traditions outside their apparent genetic heritage? What of the Euro-American adopted into a Native American tribe? The person of mixed ancestry who practices two or more traditions, a syncretism that seems more the rule than the exception, if we look at human history? Many homes in America find ways to honor a colorful braid of ancestral strands, Latino and Jewish and Thai, Catholic and Native American and Nigerian, etc. Haitians practice Vodoun, and Candomble and Santeria flourish in many places in the Americas — syncretistic forms all of them.

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Santeria initiate

What of other new traditions, and restored ones, among people who already have a clear cultural and genetic identity? Native Americans have established the Native American Church, a distinctive set of beliefs and practices blending Christianity and shamanism, with sacramental use of peyote. As a Wise One once quipped, “There is little nature likes so much as to destroy old forms and then create new ones like them”. Do the ancestors of Native tribes ignore their descendants because of this innovation? I suspect — that word, again — that the ancestors either haven’t figured out yet, or worry about it a great deal less than we do.

Melas closes:

This point of the essential connection between ancestors and polytheism is too often overlooked nowadays, and I think it is dangerous. If we don’t stick firmly and mainly to a certain tradition and people (again, without scorning others), we expose ourselves to the uneasiness (sometimes misery) of uncertainty, and further we render traditions unlasting, empty and jumbled by removing distinctions from them.

Does the distinctiveness of a tradition depend on ancestry, or on honoring the ancestors? I see these as different things. I may know next to nothing of my ancestry, or through misinformation and deliberate ancestral deception I may believe things that are inaccurate, but the existence of my ancestors is still indisputable. And what of ancestors of spirit, those who have taught and trained and nourished me though we have no kinship by blood? They matter equally to me and to many others. Are such calls outside our blood the calls of those ancestors?

In the end, I’d argue that the distinctiveness or value of a tradition is simply this: does it meet the needs of those who practice it? Does it nourish the heart and spirit? Does it answer our innermost cry? If it does, it thrives and flourishes: we thrive and flourish in it. If it doesn’t, then like all things in this world, it changes or dies. It may be distinct, but dead. We contain, but also surpass, all that we do. That’s time-bound, however wonderful it is. And we live in more than one world at once, acting in each. But each of us is also still a seed, a potential, waiting in the earth, even as along time’s spiral we fruit and die, sprout again and blossom. The world shows us that much every year.

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Images: Candomble; Santeria.

Thirty Days of Druidry 7: The Gods

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Staring at the pecs and thighs of the gods,
stupid voyeur that I am, that immortal gloss
and sheen no tanning bed or airbrush skill can give,

or sampling on the sly from that moonshine still
where they refill their goblets, at last I think
I see them true, the outsized celebrities they’ve

always been for us: golden child, outcast, neurotic,
sex-addict, the pantheon’s drunk, slut, tyrant, monster —
the whole extended family a Jerry Springer dream finale.

But hear one speak with power, watch the mask slip,
face and form fade out to nothing like our own.
Now stone or star, volcano, cave, or lake, she or he

fires your heart or brands your brain, and you’ll
never live the same. The gods aren’t yours.
You’re theirs. Beyond wrong or right,

death, life or other toys to play with, you belong.

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