Friday, April 20, 2012

Pagan Theology – Crisis of Faith, & Star’s List

Star Foster has written a nice essay discussing some of her internal process around a shift from one school of Pagan thought and practice toward another. Do read the whole piece here .

I sympathize with her, and have certainly been there. I have made two big shifts in ritual style and symbolic matrix in my occult/religious career. The first was from the local neo-wiccan system in which I did my first group ritual work, and which I helped to write into the specific tradition of an initiatory witchcraft group. New tools, new symbol-net, etc. In that case much of the cosmology and the ritual map remained familiar, and there was the advantage of rather being ready to accept the authority of the initiation to drive the shift.

The second big move was to move away from the four-square, seven-tiered cosmos of post-hermetic Wicca, in which the world-view of renaissance magic was often employed with ‘God’ snipped off the top of the ladder. As I entered a ‘Druidic’ system I took the approach fashionable in early Celtic Reconstructionism and entered a Triadic cosmos. The four principles that late Hermeticism calls the ‘elements’ are in that model arranged as a triad of Land, Sea and Sky with the Sacred Fire at the center. This reflects a number of archaic arrangements, such as the Hellenic kingships of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. In one stroke of a leaf-blade I discarded the four elements in the quartered circle, the four ritual tools, and the seven planets (which are not very findable in Celto-Germanic lore). Likewise any traces of post-Golden Dawn duotheism from my Wiccan days were discarded in favor of a much harder polytheism.

The process of making that transition internally took years. It has been the process of helping to build a new Pagan system, now in fairly wide use, and of working at home to build an esoteric practice based on it. So I surely understand how Star might find herself at sea as she pushes off from the shore of a previous system.

Somehow, none of this ever felt like a ‘crisis of faith’ to me. I don’t actually put much value on ‘faith’ in my religion work. I don’t call what I do ‘my faith’ and I’d never speak of my religion as ‘a faith’. I rather dislike that turn of phrase as an effort to duck the primary term ‘religion’. I prefer to talk about ‘our work’ and the ‘work’ of my religion.

Maybe it was because I never had to leave behind my Gods as I shifted systems. I had been moving away from the ‘all gods/goddesses are one god/goddess’ position steadily over my whole life. I already understood my witchcraft cult as worshipping a small list of specific Gods in our traditional way, not some cosmic principle of goddess-ness. Since I was already in a pretty Gaelic system I was able to simply transplant my devotion to Brigid, Lugh, etc. from its Wiccan ritual context to a more Druidic one. Nevertheless the cosmology and ritual-pattern shift was a big one, and sometimes dizzying, especially while doing both systems at once.

So I wish Star well in her path – may her genius guide her and her daemon open her ways. The easy advice: push on, choose some practices and begin them, and keep studying. Also, keep writing about theological ideas – I love that stuff! In fact I was moved to respond to Star’s list of 10 things she wants in a religion.

1. The Gods are distinct, greater than myself, and have an interest in humankind.

This is fine. At least, there appear to be things that act like what human tales call the Gods. I don’t believe I need a coherent opinion about their ‘real’ nature to work with them, or to have a viable religion. I do have two or three favorite models of what they might “really be”.

2. Any unity beyond the Gods is not sentient. Monotheism, in any form, is incorrect.

Agree. If there is a unified field it isn’t a person, doesn’t have volition or providential will. The wills in the cosmos are multiple.

3. I am a polytheist, not an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, a duotheist, a henotheist or a monotheist.

Here I would only quibble to say that I see polytheism as a subset of animism, really. The world is full of spirits (animism) some spirits are quite mighty, and have a special relationship of worship and blessing with mortals. Those are what we call gods. But it is a difference of degree and not of kind between a God, one of the Dead, an herb-spirit and my own spirit.

4. Religion is the bond between humankind and the Gods, and its purpose is to foster excellence and virtue for the survival of the species.

Agree entirely. I might express the second by saying that its purpose is to foster health, wealth and wisdom for the folk, and wisdom, love and power for the soul.

5. Religion is not what makes me feel good, nor is it therapy or pop-psychology.

Right. Though spiritual methods can be used for healing of any sort, including emotional or even behavioral healing, that isn’t its primary purpose. Pagan religion doesn’t intrinsically propose that most people are wounded, or that we all come to the divine in some state of weakness. Rather, Pagan religion assumes a core of strength and capability in every person.

I do think that the practice of religion, though it is often work, should make one feel good. Like any kind of work/fun deal that may include less fun parts…

6. Religious culture should be multi-generational and fully accessible.

Agree entirely. That will mean the building of Pagan religious institutions that can survive the death of their founders, probably including property, fundraising and all the surrounding deal. It also doesn’t preclude esoteric work inside the larger structure.

7. Religion is a fully realized worldview and way of being. It is not loosely-connected disparate elements. It is coherent with a vocabulary sufficient to express all of its nuances and concepts clearly, but not bound by pure logic.

This is complicated. A culture is a fully realized worldview and way of being. Religion is a subset of culture. In a multi-religion culture such as the USA, some religions make a great deal out of ‘world view’, and consider the holding of the correct opinions about this and that to be a part of the practice of the religion.

Myself, I don’t think that to have been the case in ancient Paganisms. In no case do we find a ‘credo’ of Athenian religion (to choose an example). One can find various philosophers who proposed various sets of opinions (opinion = doctrine, linguistically), but none of them became mandatory for participation in the community’s religious life. Religious life depended on observances – on making the sacrifices, remembering the nymphs of the pool and the Gods in their temples, attending the community rites. No priest would ask what one ‘believed’ (that is, what one’s opinion was) about, say, the nature of the gods and spirits.

In our modern religious supermarket environment one might hope for a Paganism that could be bound between covers. It would be comfortable if Pagan ways could be delineated and defined but I think that when we do that, and to the extent that we do that, we do something unlike what the Old Ways were. I think that religion in Athens would have been a lot like a loosely-collected set of traditions, customs and ideas. The ways of one household would not have been identical to another, and even different Athenian-kingdom villages would have had different festivals and customs. In a polytheism religion tends to become various, local and differentiated.

As to vocabulary, I’d expect a number of competing vocabularies to be the norm. In a system with no authority that determines required opinion various schools of thought will arise and compete. While members of those schools might keep some religious customs separately from one another they would also be likely to turn up together at a city festival. In this way I suppose we can talk about sects within what is still describable as a single Pagan religion. I think we find a nearly exact parallel in what is called Hinduism, which is really a family of related schools and practices, sharing myth, custom and history, but expressed specifically in what amount to different sub-religions.

That leaves any given Pagan – especially one working without a ‘village’ or largish worship group – the task of essentially creating their own hearth religion. This is a natural part of building our modern polytheism, I think. In old times hearth religion would have been based on family ancestors (probably buried under the house), the Gods associated with the family livelihood and customs, and the local land-wights whose cooperation allowed access to resources. That hearth religion would have interfaced with local village religion through the community calendar-festivals and the public sacrifices sponsored by rich people, and it all might have interfaced with some royal or tribal religion to which one went on pilgrimage once in a while. At least Ireland looks likely to have been that way…

Here’s the thing. Not a single part of that shared religion that might cross an entire island such as Eire would *require* a “fully realized worldview and way of being”. Any two cattle-barons standing next to one another might disagree wildly on what the nature of the gods was, whether there ‘really’ were Gods or an Otherworld, etc. Certainly there would have been cultural norms of opinion, and repeated tales and histories offered as evidence of the gods and spirits, but once again devout participation in religion would not have involved the holding of specific opinions or beliefs.

Incidentally, the essay discusses mystery religons, such as initiatory witchcraft, and whether they can function as complete religions in themselves. I would say that in the ancient world (or modern Hinduism) they do not. A mystery religion is a specific set of rites, images and ideas meant to produce specific effects in the initiates. It always exists inside of (or occasionally in contrast to) a larger community religion. As my own work has built a local village-style religious tradition I have been starting to feel the need for some mystery…

8. Science is not opposed to religion, and very important for humanity to study and promote. However, the languages are not interchangeable. Zeus cannot be explained by string theory any more than a libation can cure cancer.

Agree to the first. In fact religious descriptions of cosmos should be influenced by scientific understandings, even as they continue their mythic and poetic forms of expression.

We’ll see whether the languages turn out to be interchangeable. We may yet find machines with which to speak with spirits. At this time there is little to be gained in practice by mixing the metaphors of science and religion.

9. What you believe matters as much as what you do. Only when in accord with a single vision can any physical act by humans be truly effective. This applies whether you are making the next Avengers movie, or building a temple to Athena.

Disagree with the first. I tend to see beliefs as ephemera, compared to traditions. If one pursues a spiritual practice of meditation, ritual, study and reflection then one’s opinions (‘beliefs’) will change and grow with the results. In my opinion the belief should not precede the practice, or should be approached only as a proposition. As an occasional teacher I would never tell a student of Pagan religion what their opinion should be about the afterlife. Rather I would set them to honoring the Dead and honing their trance and vision skills, while studying the lore about the Dead from old times. After a year or three of that I might ask them what they have come to believe, and compare notes. It would not be important to me for us to agree, so long as we were willing to make the sacrifices together.

If one were to say that passionate commitment - dedication and focused effort - were required, then that sort of belief – as in belief in one’s ability and in the value of the work – makes sense. What one believes, for instance, about what Gods ‘really’ are, or about the afterlife, is much less important. That sort of thing needn’t be organized or consistent to have a working spiritual system. Folks like me who enjoy that sort of thing might come up with coherent models, but once again there’s no reason to pick one of those and make it official inside a religion. Let the ale-house be our collegium, sez I.

10. The religious work we do should not be for ourselves, but for the generations to come.

For ourselves and those who come after, surely. Religion should always benefit us in the here-and-now. Making ourselves stronger and wiser makes the tribe stronger and wiser, and making the tribe greater makes us greater.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Celtic Creation Poem

Pursuant to a discussion on Facebook...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Witchcraft Again – reply to Raven.

Raven commented on one of my witchcraft posts, and he makes some objections that I keep trying to clarify to myself. I’ve been interested in the current wave of ‘Traditional Witchcraft', which has been gaining steam over the past 20 years or so. I’ve just finished a round of reading including Oates, Howard, and ‘John of Monmouth’. Fascinating stuff for history-of-occultism geeks, especially about the early 60s and the first seeds of public Paganism. None of it, however, changed my opinions in this article.

Raven in italic:
I think you are overlooking the fact that many modern Traditional Witches do not consider themselves "Pagan," and some do not even consider what they do to be a religion.

No, I’m questioning whether the term “Witch’ can accurately be applied to a magic user who isn’t working in a specific religious context.

I’m generally opposed to using the term ‘witch’ as a synonym for ‘folk-magic user.’ Folk magic is a huge category in itself, encompassing every religious type, including the modern idea of having no religion but still working magic. I’m confident that the notion of magic without religion is a modern concept, one that I tend to dismiss as a new age error.

My impression is that a huge percentage (so far as I know, all) of modern self-identified Traditional Witches have constructed their own practice from literary sources, sometimes with a cultural link to a previous generation of European-culture charmers or conjurers, but much more often without that. They’ve made it up themselves out of books, just as other Neopagans and speculative occultists do. When I see a modern Traditional Witchcraft practice that involves the worship of pre-Christian gods or spirits then I become almost certain that we are seeing a modern construct. I have yet to see convincing evidence of survival of pre-Christian worship into early modern times, especially not in northern or western Europe.

So to me either an attempt to work magic with no religious context or to work it using Pagan deities marks a system as nouveau. Those who work magic using the dominant paradigm of cultural myth and ritual, usually Christian or Muslim though there are Hindu examples too, don’t usually like to have the term ‘witch’ applied to them, or at least they didn’t before Gardner. To the extent that traditional practitioners might use the word now I’d suspect they rely on the good will that Neopagans have built for the term to let them use it with impunity.

Most of the ones I know of do indeed draw from the well of Judeo-Christian folk magic, the various grimoires (which were also used by the Cunning Folk, and which do indeed contain references to summoning the spirits of the dead) and other forms of traditional folk magic.

Yes, the cunning arte *is* traditional folk magic, with plenty of crossover from the literate elite magical tradition. However, since I think the term ‘witch’ should be reserved for a non-Christian religious position (whether Pagan or diabolical), and since the cunning-folk themselves would have refused the word, I don’t use ‘witch’ to refer to cunning men such as Arthur Gauntlet.

There are two things that ‘witch’ meant over the Christian years in Europe. First the term applied to remnant Paganism, with those who ‘offer to trees and wells’ for health etc. said to be following the teachings of the wicces. Later the term is applied to the Church’s imagined Satanic cult, with ‘witch’ referring to a specific theology and worship. Of course folk magic continued. But no folk magician called themselves a witch, (though they might have so-called their competitors) and if the Sabbats continued from their Pagan-revel origins, they were the remnants of religious practice. (I do note the possibility of actual Satanic-mythology-based witches in early modern Scotland, as proposed by Emma Wilby.)

Obviously cunning men like Gauntlet would have drawn their magical power from their relationship with ‘God’ and Jesus and the saints. They were not ‘witches’ by any definition except the unacceptably broad one of the Church: ‘anyone who uses magic.’ Again, that’s not a good definition for ‘witch’ if our goal is to have a reasonably technical vocabulary that practitioners can use to communicate.

In my mind, saying Traditional Witchcraft is "NeoPaganism" is like saying Hoodoo is "NeoPagan" merely because it's suddenly become popular.

‘Traditional Witchcraft’ does not mean ‘European folk magic’. Most folk magic isn’t witchcraft in any sense except in the sense of Church doctrine. ‘Witchcraft’, if the word is to make any sense, refers either to the survivals of pre-Christian European magico-religious practices or to the diabolical cults first imagined by the church and later imitated by occultists.

Hoodoo is a body of magical technique that can be applied inside any number of religious models. It isn’t a system in itself, really, so much as a body of method used inside a system. For most of southern conjure that system is Protestant Christianity, though there are Catholic versions and re-Africanized ones as well. Now, of course, there is lots of hoodoo tech being applied in Neopagan religious contexts. That's entirely reasonable since lots of hoodoo practice does come from Europe.

European folk magic (itself one of the sources of hoodoo) is likewise a body of technique that migrates from religion to religion over the ages. Originating in Pre-Christian, ‘Pagan’ Europe it includes plenty of material ‘leaked’ from the literate magical tradition. By the 18th century, with rising literacy, the popular publishing of the grimoires led to an even closer joining between folk and literate traditions.

European magic has been taken up by the various Neopaganisms, starting with the Golden Dawn, leading eventually into the invention of self-described ‘witchcraft’ in the 20th century. I view Cochrane as at least as much an inventor as Gardener, and consider modern, self-defined Traditional Witchcraft in the English-speaking world to be a 20th century reconstruction.

There are almost certainly real traditional folk-magic users and sellers in business. I doubt that they call themselves witches. People who call themselves witches (in English) are basically modern reconstructors. My assumption, again, is that practices such as Tapping the Bone, the Compass Round, Hedgecrossing, and skull-necromancy are modern reconstructions based on literary sources and personal inspiration. I consider them juicy reconstructions, incidentally, much closer to the spirit of world magical practice than post-masonic style rites.

...However, it is clear to me most modern Trad Craft draws from the same well that European Witchcraft has always drawn from, which to my mind makes it an authentic historic practice (practice, not "Pagan religion") that in many ways is incompatible with modern NeoPaganism.

If it isn’t religion (or mystery spirituality, if you think there’s a difference – I don’t), it isn’t witchcraft, in my opinion - it is magic. On the internet people have the ability to refer to themselves as whatever they please, and I’m not interested in quibbling over individual cases. In general I prefer words to have set meanings, and I prefer not to multiply entities needlessly. Thus, I like the term ‘witchcraft’ to refer to a specific category of magic. A look at its historical usage seems to plainly align it with magic among pagan remnants practiced during the rule of the Church, and later with those who renounced the mandated religion in favor of another, more ‘Satanic’ one (by whatever theological measure).

There are lots of good words for ‘general magic user’ out there; sorcerer, mage, conjuror, spiritual worker. I’d like to find an actual niche for ‘witch’ (sorry) that might clarify more than confuse.

That said, let me be clear that I like the Traditional Witchcraft style of reconstruction. It certainly resonates with me more than does post-Cunningham public easy-does-it Wicca, and really even more so than BTW, post-Gardnerian style witchcraft. I think that the Trad Crafters’ diligent research into the actual magical practices of the past is paying off. I just think that the efforts made to connect existing Trad Craft practice (as it is visible to a relative outsider) with any organized sects or lineages of European folk-magic before the early 20th century are unconvincing.

Every wave of Neopagan reconstructors has drawn on the best scholarship available to them in their age. Mathers’ understanding of Graeco-Egyptian magic was based on the newest material, freshly revealed, and now outdated. Gardner’s reliance on Murray was in line with the best scholastic opinion of his age. Cochrane’s reliance on Graves is perhaps less excusable, but Graves was certainly popular at the time. The entire first two-thirds of the century relied on Frazier, who is now mainly set aside. Modern Trad Crafters are reconstructing usable systems for themselves using today’s scholarship into early modern magic and folklore, non-European models of spiritism, and the Grimoire tradition. I admire the effort. If I wasn’t all bound in with this Gaelic thing I’d likely be in it myself ; ) (or maybe it would have been ATR…).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Third Power

A Natural Evolution of Druidic Practice.
(I’m indebted to Fox for setting this idea into plain view in my mind at Wellspring some years ago. None of this is his fault, though…)

We have used the Two Powers of Underworld and Heavens, Chaos-potential or Ordering-energy as a motif for ‘grounding and centering’ for some years now. Along with the practical benefits of the model, it has developed some cross-over with our cosmological and mythic models. The Two Powers correspond neatly to the Underworld and Heavens, the Fire and Well. That, however, leaves an obvious place for a Third Power, that would correspond to the manifest world. There seems, to me, an obvious way to express this idea in grounding and centering, and in¬ ritual. That is through the principle of vibration, expressed in sound.

It seems to me that throughout the IE world the idea of a core cosmic vibration principle is expressed as sound, as the word and as their many echoes and sympathies. My recent reading discovered the pre-Hindu Vedic idea of ‘Brahman’ to be ‘the power of mantric sound and vibration’, i.e. the cosmic underlying hum, or Om. When the Brahmin takes the sacred words of ritual into his mouth, he becomes himself an expression of the cosmic vibration, and so can work his will in ritual. This seems to me to resonate nicely with what we know of ‘words of power’ among the Greeks with their strings of sacred vowels, and even with the seership and active magic of the poet-singer-magicians of the Celts, Hellenes and Balts. It is by attuning to the Power of Sound, and expressing that cosmic power in the Note, in the Word, in Speech that we can attune to a core, impersonal principle of holy existence.

Such a model opens us to the notion of viewing all manifest existence – all that lies between the Deepest and the Highest – as varieties of vibration in pattern. This corresponds nicely with some of the more arcane of ancient philosophies. It also happens to correspond handily to present-day scientific models, always a pleasant thing in a theology. I think that at this stage in our Druidic examination of this interesting ancient concept we should avoid constructing any specific doctrine or mythic image about it, and just approach it as a practice, as a visualization, an exercise and a meditation, and see what results we get.

As a practice it is so easy to introduce sound into grounding/centering/empowering exercise, and there are so many ways to do it. The most common method, used throughout the Neopagan world, is intonation. Sometimes called ‘Oming’, from its most popular syllable, this is simply the expression of the feeling of the Two Powers in the body as a vocal hum, vowel-tone or other wordless or nearly-wordless sound. The uninhibited use of sound vibration in this way produces a very entrancing feeling of physical and vision-power joining as one. It is quite common for any Pagan circle to end its G&C exercise with an ‘Om’ – that gives the whole thing an IE rationale that fits a familiar Neopagan ritual trope.

My own favorite way to make a wordless intonation is to vibrate the vowels of my own language. The idea of the vowels as expressive of spirit seems pretty widespread in IE thought, and is explicit in Hellenic magical words. One might also use the vowel set from the Hearth language of one’s choice. Most IE languages have more than English’s conventional 5 vowels (so does English, my speech-therapist wife informs me…) – sometimes a symbolically convenient seven or nine.

The Third Power could also be expressed in words. A proper invocation, a proper chant or incantation, a spoken ‘word of will’ are all ways of bringing your inner understanding and intention into manifestation.¬¬ Those who cannot see themselves as ‘singers’ may wish to use a spoken charm as an expression of the union of the Two Powers in the self. There is, however, great symbolic value in the physical effect of an intonation felt in one’s very flesh. Even charms with words can be intoned rather than just spoken – and I strongly encourage experimenters not to think of the process as ‘singing’, but simply to seek sounds that make the bones vibrate.

In my wanderings in Gaelic lore I came across the Irish term ‘Dord Fían’ [Irish dord, buzzing, droning, intoning] The war-chant or cry of the Fianna of Fionn mac Cumhaill. It is described in stories as being low on the musical scale, often delivered with a bass voice. This term ‘dord’ (pro: dor’d) seems convenient to me, and I have been using the term ‘dord draoi’ (dor’d dree) - meaning ‘magic intonation’ or ‘druid’s buzz’ – to refer to this Third Power intoning.

Depending on how you work with the presence of the Two Powers, you may find certain visualizations useful as well. It has long been my own custom to do an exercise in which I bring the Waters of the Deep into my cupped hands, overflowing as they flow. Into the Waters I bring the Fire, and envision it flaming atop the water. As I increase my focus, and strengthen the flow of the Two, they have always seemed to me to become a sort of Third Power – a plasma or ether composed of the Fire and Water. I have found that beginning an intoning allows me to sort-of unify and expand this very mechanical dual symbol into a kind of vibratory fire and water field that is useful in many ways. In the same way it increases the integration of the Two in my whole body.

So, I offer the idea, and with it a revised ‘grounding, centering and empowerment’ exercise for discussion. I would recommend experiments with this exercise to those who have become familiar with the Two Powers as we have been using them.

Centering in the Three Powers
• Breathe deep and find your peace, perhaps by the bone, blood and breath technique.

• Remember the Underworld Power, and use your breath and will to draw the Underworld Power into yourself. Feel yourself filling with the Waters, allowing them to flow through you as they will.

• Remember the Heaven Power, and use your breath to draw the Light and Fire into yourself. Feel the Light filling the Waters, flowing with it.

• Remember that sound is vibration, and that vibration makes the form and substance of all things. Feel the Light set the Water to vibrating, making patterns of waves, shapes and, in fact making you – your flesh, even your mind and spirit, all made of varying and interweaving patterns of the Light and the Shadow in union.

• Pay attention to the way the Water and Fire join together. Think of their joining as a sound. What hum or buzz or chord would their work together make? Use memory and imagination to hear the sound the Powers make, as they exist as you and your surroundings.

• Breathe deep, and allow yourself to begin to hum softly. Lips mostly closed, just make a sound, and let it settle into a level that feels comfortable. Hum more loudly, and perhaps search for a note that puts a vibration in your chest as you make it. When in doubt, begin with one of the deepest pitches you can find – growling and breathing is a good way to start, but let the sound rise louder in you as you find a level.

• Breathe deep and with at least three breaths, make as solid and vibrating a note as you can with your voice. Don’t hesitate if pitch or tone varies – keep your voice and will working together to find that feeling of vibration in the body and spirit.

• You might wish to conceive the three intonations as vibration in the Three Cauldrons, or in some pattern like:

Vibration of the Waters: Reaffirming inwardly the connection to the Underworld
Vibration of the Fire: Reaffirming inwardly the connection to the Heavens
Vibration of the Self: Setting the two into shape by the Third Power

• This last breath could end with the Water and Fire flowing and shining in the hands, as we sometimes do.