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Review of “Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach”   Leave a comment

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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.

 

 

Review of “Falling in the Flowers”   Leave a comment

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Photo courtesy Srinivas Ananda.

Granderson, Benjamin and James Granderson. Falling in the Flowers: A Year in the Lives of American Druids. Amazon, 2017. Kindle Edition.

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Stone Circle at Four Quarters Sanctuary — photo courtesy Anna Oakflower

The Granderson brothers, a photojournalist and ethnographer team, key their book to the general reader, taking care to provide a short introduction to Paganism and some of the main strands of contemporary Druidry. But given their focus on a particular OBOD Grove, Oak and Eagle (hereafter abbreviated OAE), and largely on the two leaders of the grove, David North and Nicole Franklin, the text has a valuable immediacy often lacking from such studies. The 97 color photos also go far to bringing the reader into an experience of living Druidry, and grounding it in vivid sensory detail. (Respecting copyright, I include other images here to enliven the text of this review.)

The Grandersons are also careful not to generalize too far from their experience embedded with a specific Grove. Benjamin writes:

Unlike my previous project on Paganism, this work is a tighter focus; one which examines a very select group of Pagans who follow a specific Druid school of thought: The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, or OBOD for short. Starting with Dave and Nicole, my brother and I investigated the lives and practices of these individuals who called themselves OBOD Druids (pg. 10).

In addition to taking care not to paint all Druids or even all OBOD members with the same brush, the authors nevertheless back up assertions like the following with specific examples, detailed description and photos.

Since the OAE is more intensive than a typical Seed Group, the core members are very tight-knit and comfortable with one another, and often consider the others to be close friends and confidants. From woodland camps to the living rooms of suburban houses, there is a clear culture of openness, where one moment raucous drinking and jokes are interspersed with moments of deep discussion and potent ritual (pg. 23).

One comes away with the impression of the significant trust the OAE members placed in the Grandersons, and the authors don’t betray this trust in intimate portraits of OAE members and their practice of one form of 21st century Druidry.

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David North, second from left. Photo courtesy Gail Nyoka.

Catching David at a point near the completion of his Ovate studies, and the transition of OAE from Seed Group to Grove, Granderson perceptively observes,

While what constitutes “completion” of the course material varies from person to person based on the correspondence between them and their mentors, before all else, a person’s evolution through the grade work determines if they feel like they have achieved balance (pg. 35).

Much of the non-hierarchical and non-dogmatic character of OBOD comes across in comments like these, in large part one of the signal accomplishments of OBOD’s current leader, Philip Carr-Gomm.

The authors also show themselves sensitive to picking up on Druid cultural practices:

(a) widespread hugging in greeting and farewell, often even among those meeting for the first time;

(b) the relaxed quality of “Pagan” or “Druid Standard Time”, in which events happen in a fluid and intuitive way, not on a strict schedule, but more when the group as a whole feels ready, and almost everyone alert to group energies feels a subtle shift toward action;

(c) unspoken taboos against bad-mouthing other Druid groups (in part because people are often members of more than one, each affording a unique set of teachings and perspectives), and

(d) a kind of ritual respect, so that during unscripted moments in ritual, when attendees are invited to toast, offer thanks, blessings, prayer requests, etc., one forgoes invoking a deity or energy out of keeping with the group, or exclusive to one’s personal practice.

Part of the authors’ experience drew them in deeply enough that the boundaries between observer and participant start to blur. Undesirable as this continues to be in good ethnography, it confers the authority of personal witness to what the Grandersons can recount:

I situated myself on the floor, text in hand, and I began reading. The text started off like the beginning of the Imbolc ritual, with the calling to the corners and the centering of the self. While I read the text aloud, Dave moved from corner to corner of the room, gazing into the expanse—at what I did not know. The text then changed, and from that point onwards I began to lose any understanding, only picking up something about ancestors. I was intent upon trying to guess when to stop to give Dave time to perform the ritual, while also fighting my excitement about getting a good photo (pg. 81).

Something of the eclecticism present in OBOD practice emerges. While much of the study material is Celtic in origin or spirit, OBOD members come from such varied and often mixed backgrounds that the OBOD ethos encourages members

to throw away selectivity and investigate and study the wisdom and traditions of all their ancestors, spanning time and geography, to form a complete profile that honors all of those that came before … to be open toward other traditions and practices that do not belong to one’s ancestral background, and to be willing to recognize wisdom and truth no matter what source it comes from (pg. 89).

Recording the mood, participants, ritual actions and aftermath of several of the Great Eight seasonal festivals of Druidry and Paganism generally, the Grandersons caught the generally relaxed ritual mindset, as well as the personalities of individuals:

There were some slip-ups, with a ritual participant or two walking the wrong way at first, starting a line too late, or failing to light a candle due to a stubborn lighter. An occasional glance would be cast at Dave or Nicole, seeming to seek their validation. Dave looked on stoically, though always welcoming and patient; he knew from experience these rituals were never flawless (pg. 109).

Though much of modern Druidry is indeed visible, or at least detectable with some modest effort at inquiry, if one is interested, there is a quality of what might be termed “spiritual privacy” to even its public rituals. This is a cherished skill among the Druids I know, one for intermittent discussion, certainly, and always a matter of judgment and discretion. Each person assesses the line he or she prefers to observe in how public the individual practice of Druidry should be. The Grandersons capture it well:

OAE wasn’t afraid to be out in public, but they made that public space private. They didn’t hang a sign up saying, “Druid Meeting Here,” or make announcements on a loudspeaker. They also chose a pavilion that, by design and location, created seclusion; it was a reserved piece of land that they sanctified, and they created an island for themselves for a day. Again, this speaks to the contemporary Druid’s ability to take what is modern—a state park pavilion—and make it ancient, carry out their practices in the open air, and somehow remain largely hidden (pg. 124).

The authors divide their book in to poetically captioned sections: Introduction; What is A Druid?; Opening the Door; Naked Before the Full Moon; Into Spring; Beltane; Branching Out; Trip to Four Quarters; The Latter-Half of the Year; Living with Dave and Nicole (a ritually full time, with a wedding of Druid Hex Nottingham and his wife Daisy, East Coast Gathering, a baby-naming ceremony during the same Gathering weekend, a local Pagan Pride Day, etc.); A Detour to New York (with an interview with another Druid, Nadia Chauvet); and The End of the Journey.

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cabin banners at East Coast Gathering

This review has focused more on the first half of the book; the second half builds on it, with more interviews of members we have already encountered, and observations specific to their experiences.

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MAGUS Beltane fire-circle. Photo Courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers.

In sum, I recommend this book to the “Druid-curious” for its detailed reporting and photography, and for conveying, as close as text and photos can, something of the experience of what doing Druidry actually feels like. And to those familiar with Druidry who may also know many of the Druids it portrays and interviews, it’s a pleasure to read and ponder. Finally, as an insight into the energy, organization and personalities behind the very successful MAGUS gatherings of 2017 and 2018, it also deserves exploration by anyone interested in contemporary Druidry and in organizing focused and effective Pagan events.

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Review of John Beckett’s The Path of Paganism   2 comments

Beckett, John. The Path of Paganism: An Experienced-based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 2017.

[Note: John is a fellow OBOD Druid. We’ve met at several Gatherings, 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 [link below]. I participated in his moving Cernunnos rite a few 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.]

pathofpaganismJohn Beckett knows intimately the Pagan call to service. More importantly, he heeds it. On his Patheos blog and in this book, he serves both newcomers and experienced Pagans alike with insights and examples from his own experience at every turn. Rather than adding to the seemingly ever-growing list of “Paganism 101” books for beginners, replete with tables of correspondences, ready-made (and therefore usually too-generic) rituals, how-to’s and endless reading lists, John offers something far more useful.

Here is a book that can guide the reader into a personal exploration of what the path of Paganism can mean and where it may lead. While he sometimes suggests a range of possible answers, he’s more interested in helping us find questions worth asking. He may give us his answer, but it remains his. He never runs afoul of our sovereignty by claiming it’s THE answer. His examples, drawn from his experience, are meant to charge us up to find our own.

Rather than advocating for a particular Pagan ethics, for instance (Recycle! Eat organic! Protest X policy! Boycott Y or Z Company!), he says instead, “Go for a walk … When we establish our connections to the natural world, it begins to affect us. We start to feel the intrinsic value of nature, and we start thinking about what reverent care might look like” (pg. 58). He trusts the integrity of readers to decide for themselves.

Thus in a section on ritual, he writes: “A member of your Pagan group has asked you for an initiation. After some conversation you’re convinced the desire is genuine … You’re not part of an organization that has an established initiation ritual … Now what do you do? As with any new endeavor, begin by educating yourself. Fortunately, even though the details of most initiations are shrouded in secrecy, there’s a lot of information available on the internet – more than enough to give you a good idea of what to do and how to do it” (281). This is solid advice whether you want to self-initiate or initiate others.

As a ‘hard polytheist” or believer in the reality of distinct spiritual entities, John doesn’t shy away from hard questions. In a chapter titled “The Gods,” he notes, “If you’re on the cusp of being ready to hear, you may not know what to listen for. You may be inclined to interpet a religious experience in a nonreligious manner” (pg. 74) Rather than attempting to persuade or convert anyone to belief, however, John offers some useful tests to help anyone understand their experience. “If a god is calling you, odds are good they want you to do something: make an offering, tell a story, do something to help their work, or do something to make yourself ready to do something bigger at some point in the future. Be prepared to respond with action” (pg. 75). This is advice I can use right now: put into practice my current understanding, testing it for its validity.

John opens his book by observing, “No matter how you came to this point right here right now, wanting to learn more about Paganism, you aren’t starting from scratch” (pg. 1). As John makes his intention clear, this book can help activate things you already know. With supportive and enthusiastic reviews from Damh the Bard, Kristoffer Hughes of the Anglesey Druid Order, Kirk Thomas of ADF, and author and blogger Jason Mankey, this book will leave you highlighting parts of the text to try out and check back in with months and years down the road.

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Image: The Path of Paganism.

Edited 28 July 2017

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