Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Books; A Self-Review for Buyers

Gifting at the solstice season is an old and honorable custom, stretching back into Pagan time, along with drinking and feasting. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, whatever our religious inclinations, the solstice season is a time for enjoying friends and kin, and sharing the bounty that the year has brought. Here at the always-annoying initial descent of winter I am already looking forward to Yule morning, when the light begins to grow again.

Regular readers will know that I write books and sell them. I’ve done this a long time, though I have yet to have a main-stream publication. (The truth is I’m only a little motivated. The advantages of self-publishing continue to appeal to me. ) As a result I am sometimes asked how to approach my material in an orderly way, or, “what to read first”. In an effort to reduce the retyping of the answer to that question I’ll try to put the important stuff in order here.

If you are looking to read my books, you are hoping to learn about a practical approach to modern Celtic-style religion and magic. I freely refer to what I do as Pagan, though my material is radically different from much of modern Pagan practice. I begin with a reconstructionist’s concern for the original and reliably authentic lore of the Celts, especially the Gaels. To that I add a modern mage’s willingness to reframe, reinvent and experiment. In general I am more concerned with occultism and sorcery than with religion, mainly just as my personal inclination. However all my magical work is framed inside the Pagan religious model in which I work. Blog readers will know my opinion about the intimate connection between religion and magic.

Had I been interested in fame as an occultist, I’d have been an eclectic. Instead I have hitched my wagon to the specific ritual format and cosmology devised within ADF’s Druidry. Fortunately that format has come to be more in tune with trends (and/or contributed to them) in modern magic over the last decades. The modern interest in real work with spirits based on offering, divination and blessing fits very nicely (imhhaa opinion) with the work that I’ve devised. Readers used to working in a post-Wiccan or post-Masonic ritual style will find plenty in the material that can be adapted for their own work.

1: ADF’s Dedicant Path: The 150 page book that comes with one’s first year of ADF membership provides a simple introduction to the symbol system and ritual forms used in the rest of my work. I wrote most of the material, and edited the most recent edition. Even if one is uncertain about ADF as a primary Pagan path the material in our training, and the community of support, is valuable for those interested in non-Wiccan modern Pagan directions.
The Dedicant materials are available only with a one-year ADF membership. Note that all the following are available at my Lulu shop, except for SFHW, which is available at Amazon from ADF Publishing.

Top Tier:
2: Sacred Fire, Holy Well, A Druid’s Grimoire. This was the first formal writing I did about
our Druidic system. The core material began as a pamphlet for our local Grove in 1991. By the end of the 90s it had grown into the 300 page item it is now. In truth, all the themes of my later work are present here. If there’s a fault in the book it is that the rites were written to be performed for and by medium to large groups. The seasonal rites are based on our local Grove rites, where we readily have a half-dozen voices available, and the magical rites are written for myself and a partner to work for a fairly large group. The rites have been criticized as unworkable by solitaries, and that may be true.

However I continue to get good reviews from readers who find the book useful for developing a personal practice. It is a multi-category compendium with an introduction, at least, to the whole shootin’ - match.
 3: The Book of Nine Moons. This is a formal system of weekly exercises intended to provide initiation in magical skills and alliances over nine months.  It begins with a program of daily prayer and offering, and works its way into a fully consecrated home shrine and tools, practical magic and spellcraft and the work of gaining familiar spirits. It is specifically written for solitary performance. It includes no seasonal rites, focusing on personal hearth-cult and magical work.

It is, according to students who have attempted it, an intense and challenging program. I based the model on the kind of work that we expected of ourselves back when I was running a training coven. It may be that the pace is too brisk for someone working the system at home alone. I do (still) plan on expanding it into a slower-paced set of trainings, but that has been slow to happen. Those who have completed some basic familiarization with Druidic ritual (say, the Dedicant’s work) will find more of the more advanced material in one place in this book than anywhere else.

Having run a few students through the Nine Moons work I realized that much of the material might be of interest to folks not involved in Our Druidry. I decided that two of the primary teachings of the system ought to be broken out an offered to more general readers, apart from a rigorous general training. Those are the spirit-arte material, and the teachings on trace and vision-work.
 4: The Book of Summoning.  This book presents a systematic approach to gaining the aid and friendship of the spirits (especially non-deific spirits) and beginning to employ them in magic. It begins with a summary explanation of our Druidic ritual form, proceeds with a suite of rites intended to ‘introduce’ the magician to the spirits, and then proceeds to the work of making alliances.

This book contains my final-to-date efforts to apply principles of classic magical spirit work as found in the grimoires to a polytheist, alliance-based model. The rites have been tested by several magicians now to good effect, and I’m confident offering the material. I expect the system to be especially useful for those working to gain primary familiar allies among the Dead and the Landwights.
 5: The Book of Visions. Again using material lifted from the Nine Moons system, this book brings together the exercises for energy-work and vision-trance into a set of progressive exercises. This includes an invention of which I am fairly proud, the Nineteen Working. The working is a sit-down energy, meditation and visualization pattern based in a modern understanding of Celtic Pagan symbols.  It offers both an opportunity for mystical insight, and an important level of understanding and authority for spirit work.

The focus of the book’s vision-work is the construction and use of an Inner Nemeton – a visualized temple and workspace that serves as an arrival and departure point for further vision. This is presented in some detail, in a series of scripted trances. Also provided are exercises intended to allow an approach to the personal Higher Genius, here conceived in a Pagan way.

Let me say this plainly – I don’t recommend buying both the Book of Nine Moons and the two “Books of…”. There is some new material in each of the latter (more in the Book of Summoning) but they mainly reframe material from the full system. The two later books are more modular, easier to adapt to a personal a la carte practice. The Book of Nine Moons is a complete system.

Second Tier
6: The Court of Brigid Grimoire. This is a complete ritual suite for approaching the
goddess Brigid, meeting her primary ‘ministers’ or ‘angels’ or ‘daemons’ and working with the servant spirits of her ‘court’. It is based entirely on the methods presented in the Book of Summoning (and to some degree in Sacred Fire, Holy Well). It could be worked directly from the text by a new student, but some study of the underlying system will certainly reduce confusion.
 7: Draiocht;  A Celtic Sorcery Primer.  As titled, this is a simple introduction to the system, along with a collection of deity invocations, spells and trances. If you want a walk-through of the kind of magic this is, this could be the book for you.
 8: Beginning Practical Magic. This old monograph began life as a transcription of a day-long workshop on spellbinding and practical work. It remains chatty in tone, but it also still sells widely, especially in e-book. The advice and teaching has been rewritten in Sacred Fire, Holy Well.
 9: Spirit Talk; Seedling of Pagan Theologies. Articles on Pagan theologies originally published on this blog.
 10: The Book of the Dragon. What can I say; I wrote this in 1982 or so, in a first attempt
to synthesize my art. It is Wiccan in ritual form, but contains attempts at new work combining shamanistic methods with ritual magic. Very primitive by my current standards, but the art is fairly cool.

Me Having Fun
11: The Fire and Well Spellbook. This was me having fun with typesetting. It is all the ritual material from Sacred Fire, Holy Well arranged in a pretty type-face. Buy the hardback if you want something romantic for your wizard’s library.
12: Blank Books and Journals. (buggy-whips and sealing-wax on the left…). Keep an eye out, I put different ones up. Also see lots of them at my Tabula Rasa shop
13: Liber Spirituum. The grimoire tradition of magic includes the idea of a Book of Spirits – a personal book in which one collects the names, sigils and ‘signatures’ of the spirits with whom one has made pacts. This is my typeset of one for myself. The decoration is Celtic, but it would work for any spirit-arte collection.

The Dwale of Afagddu. My small effort at a Cthulhu Mythos tome begins with a weird tale of ancient Wales, telling the secret story behind Cerridwen’s brewing. It then provides a grimoires of mythos rites. It walks a line between actually performable and why bother, but it includes a variety of fake-evil sorcerous Cthulhu art by me.

I write because I like writing, and because I hope that my words and ideas may be of value to other modern Pagans and occultists. I do my own typesetting and art, and enjoy making a book an expression of magic. May my readers be blessed by the work.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Samhain Season Tale

Druid Facebook elder and funnyman Mike the Fool called for a round of short stories to be produced for the Samhain season. Drawing on (i.e. stealing) another literary game, he declared that each story should begin with "It was a dark and stormy night, as the Druid thought about the strange events of Samhain." I thought this was a nice idea, and decided to give my bardic skills a try.

The following is pretty much a live performance of an improvised story, save that I wrote it down instead of telling it aloud. It has had only the smallest edits of word-choice and grammar. As I understand Mike intends only to archive these tales on Facebook I'll just stash this here.

While the Feast of Samhain has passed, we remain in the dark season, until Yule morning turns the tide. The season of the Dead and the Sidhe is still upon us. Time to gather family and friends and enjoy your fire and ale. May you be blessed in it.

The Burning of Eoghan’s Rath
Ian Corrigan 2013

It was a dark and stormy night, as the Druid thought about the strange events of Samhain. The rath still smoldered before him, as small pockets of fire continued to ignite in the ruins.

Eoghan the Chieftain was an arrogant man, elected by the barons because he had defeated their old enemies up the river. He proclaimed his desire to extend the clan’s holdings into the ancient forest, and he set his barons to cutting the trees and clearing stumps. This was no ill thing, the Druid thought, that the king should enlarge the tribe’s wealth.  However, care was required.

As custom taught, the Druid had gone ahead into the wood. He laid his hazel-rod across his knuckles and reading its swoops and dips he determined what patches and parts of the wood were dear to the clan’s Good Neighbors. A wise chief would have heeded him, but Eoghan declared that it would be his clan who ruled our fields, and called for full clearance.

The cutting began as the full moon passed, and for two weeks the axes worked steadily, regardless of the Druid’s warnings. Eoghan often went with his ax-men, for with his goad they would cut all the faster. In time they came to a deep, wet portion of the wood, where the bare trees stood above dark water. Two weeks before the Samhain Moon, at the twilight of the day when the first silver-shaving sliver of moon was visible above the fields, three wights walked out of the woods.

It was a marvel to see them for they were accompanied by a ringing, swirling cloud of notes, as if harps swirled about their forms. Likewise they lit the woods, coming out of its depths where night shadows already gathered. Even so it was difficult to say whether they generated light, or only defined themselves by the shadows that were thrown from them, making the trees into grasping sentries as they walked.

Tall and slender they were, and white like the moon, white like silver, white like chalk. Long and thin their faces and piercing their eyes, like the eyes of birds that spy a frog.
“Turn aside” cried chalk; “Stay away” screeched silver; “Come no further” croaked moon.
Eoghan and his crew stood still as stones, fixed under their gaze, until the three turned and vanished again. The men would cut no more that day, and Eoghan led them back to their rath.

At the feasting bench, later, Eoghan asked the Druid what this omen might mean.
“Not hard, big man,” he answered, “We dwell in the territory of the Seat of Mider, the God of Magic and Wisdom, the King of the Aes Sidhe in these parts. Those three were his messengers called the Three Cranes of Denial. None who is not a welcome guest can ever pass them. We must cease our cutting, Chief, and be 

pleased with what we have gained.”

But Eoghan would not hear wise council. He declared that he would rule the vales, not some once-mighty so-called king, and he filled his men with ale. Drunken they swore to take up their axes against the Neighbors, though many regretted their boldness in the morning.

So those who dared returned to the cutting, and the Druid turned away from them. He called upon his Druid rights, and declared that the Samhain Sacrifice would be made before the very gates of their walls. His apprentices aiding him, he built the low square mound on which the Fire was laid. Searching carefully, he brought in good dry oak, and ash, and birch from the forests. He was pleased that his rod still led him well, and the wights did not seem to impede his work. He built a good square fire, and laid up wood to fuel it. Three cows he brought, Nine goats , and nineteen squabs. It was the Chieftain’s job to host the feast for the clan, and his wealth brought the singers and jugglers, his slaves raised the tressels and benches and built a good roof over the Fire.

At last the feast days came, and all came to the sacrifice ground for the feast. As the sun was high overhead the Druids began, offering first the cows to the Shining Gods, so that the cooks could prepare them for the folk. Ale-kegs were broached and ale poured, for the gods, the spirits and the folk, and the rite and revel continued until night was full upon the court.

As the full moon rose over the wood, there came a great roaring, like the unceasing thunder of bronze trumpets, and the rumble of hooves, with the wailing of prey in the wolf’s jaws. The host of the Sidhe rode forth on Samhain night, and charged toward the gathered folk. At its head rode the White King, white as bone, white as corpse-flesh, white as snow. He led the roaring host once around the rath, his left shoulder turned toward the walls, then rode to the edge of the Fire’s light and stopped.

The Druid greeted him, but there was no joy in their conversation. The White One desired vengeance, a price for the insult given by Eoghan.
“I will burn your fort”, he roared, and brandished a white-flamed torch, “and cook the flesh of your folk for this my horde to share with the God in his Seat.”

The Druid gestured, and his apprentices began to slaughter the nine goats, as the singers sang an ancient hymn to the God of Wisdom and his Cranes. The Druid proclaimed that he gave flesh already, and that the price was paid, but the White Rider would hear none of that.
“Here then is my offered price, Herald of the King,” the Druid said at last, “I will burn this feast, and these walls, and these beasts, in your honor. You will not have my folk, neither their men nor women nor bairns, but return to the King with our fealty, and our promise to abide outside his wood.”

All this was acceptable, save for one other condition. So the barons of the clan dragged forth impious Eoghan, and the wights of the horde took him up, and set him aflame, and carried him flaming away from that ground. As the War-Leader watched, the Druids set fire to the walls of their rath, and the benches and tressels of the feast and even the roof of the fire-porch, and the night was lit by fire even as the folk drank their fill of ale. The feast continued through the day, as the folk rejoiced in their rescue and the barons discussed the succession.

Now the Druid stood, after the next sunset, and contemplated the work before his people. Foolishness, he knew, was seldom rewarded, and the Gods would have their due.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

What’s Worship?

I'm making some effort to catch up on posts as the year ends. Getting my writing-hinges all oiled up. Back to some practical stuff soon, too...

On the topic of “worshipping gods’ I covered what I think a god is. Now I’ll take a whack at what I think ‘worship’ is. There is hardly a stickier, pricklier term in all of modern Pagan discourse.

I’ll put my cards on the table. My goal is to demote the word ‘worship’ from its specialized place of honor or disdain in modern times. I want to normalize it, and strip it of its special status.

Let’s start with the schoolboy stuff:
From Wikipedia (because I know this one is accurate)
“Worship is an act of religious devotion usually directed towards a deity. The word is derived from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning worship, honour shown to an object, which has been etymologised as "worthiness or worth-ship"—to give, at its simplest, worth to something.”

From the Free Dictionary:
wor·ship n.
1. a. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.
b. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.
2. Ardent devotion; adoration.
3. often Worship Chiefly British Used as a form of address for magistrates, mayors, and certain other dignitaries: Your Worship.
 [Middle English worshipe, worthiness, honor, from Old English weorthscipe : weorth, worth; see worth1 + -scipe, -ship.]

1: chiefly British:  a person of importance —used as a title for various officials (as magistrates and some mayors)
2: reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power; also :  an act of expressing such reverence
3:  a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual

Remembering that dictionaries are only commercial efforts to compile usages, I especially note two things. First, in no case is worship said to involve personal abasement, bowing, scraping, etc. Second, I note that worship is not reserved for any specific category of being. It is extended to gods, ‘supernatural beings” (never mind…), and honored humans.

Here we must, once again, discard the weight of historical western religious thinking. The central principle with which so many of us were raised is that only “God” is worthy of worship. In that model worship is a special position of the emotions and intention that elevates “God” above all other things. All other beings can only be approached with some lesser degree of emotion and intent – often described in English as reverence or devotion. The Roman church uses Latin terms:

Latria vs. Dulia and Hyperdulia: Latria is sacrificial in character, and may be offered only to God. Catholic and Orthodox Christians offer other degrees of reverence to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the Saints; these non-sacrificial types of reverence are called hyperdulia and dulia, respectively. In English, dulia is also called veneration. Hyperdulia is essentially a heightened degree of dulia provided only to the Blessed Virgin.

So this is the deeply-written core notion of western religiosity – that worship belongs only to the Highest, the Most True, the Ultimate, etc. I think this is among the most important notions to discard as we attempt to regain an understanding of ancient ways. It is an imposition of monotheism, for the most part.

When approaching a word with thick layers of meaning I like to return to etymological origins. I know this isn’t the end of any story about a term, but I like it for clarification. The term worship does not have, at its base, any reference to the divine or spiritual. Instead it refers to the human act of giving honor or respect to another.

Perhaps we should begin at what may be the strange end for westerners – the worship due to other people.
“the five central religious duties or "sacrifices" of the Hindu householder: paying homage to seers, to Gods and elementals, to ancestors, to living beings and, manushya yajna, "homage to men," which includes gracious hosting of guests.”

In English we find ‘worship’ applied to magistrates and other ‘worthies’. There is simply no reason to consider worship to be some high and special position of the heart, reserved only for the highest and most-special things. It is proper, in my opinion, to offer worship to anything in life one finds worthy of respect.

In fact, that would be my own definition of worship in a Pagan context:
The ritualized expression of respect and honor.

The ritualization part can feel funny for modern people in our informal age. In more formal times ‘ritualized respect’ included proper forms of address and detailed rules for social interactions. For some periods and in some places this ritualized respect might have included a degree of ‘bowing and scraping’ (when your lord can kill you or make you rich at a whim, there’s this tendency…). More commonly it includes exchange of gifts, mutual obligation and mutual respect between me and the powers that I worship. In some extremely formal situations, such as eastern guru-worship we see the material presence of a teacher treated as the idol of a deity. That’s strange for moderns, but fully within the spirit of the traditional idea of worship. Most notably for us it again illustrates that worship in a polytheistic context is not limited to the highest or ultimate being.

In the same way, worship does not require any sense of hierarchy or superiority/inferiority. Kings pay ritual respect to other kings, farmers to farmers and, yes, gods to gods. I fall back on Hindu tales again, where when one god petitions another for aid they are plainly said to worship and sacrifice to them. Hellenic story is less specific, though we plainly see gods petitioning other gods for aid. In modern Hinduism the pious greeting is the ‘Namaste’ or “Namaskar’, understood to mean “The god in me greets the god in you with worship”.

Durga is worshipped by other gods.
In this we can understand that no being is omnipotent. No being shapes the world through personal will alone. All beings exist in relationship, depending on the power and good-will of others for our successful lives. All beings must maintain relationship with other beings in order to work our will – even individual gods. Thus it is not abasement or acknowledgement of superiority that drives worship, nor need it be based on overwhelming awe and wonder. Simply the need or desire to establish relationship is all that is involved in the basic idea of worship.

In ADF we sometimes do a style of rite in which we pass the toasting cup, and each present toasts to those spirits that are important to them. Strictly ethnic Pagans might be appalled at some of our rounds, as people toast gods of various cultures, ancestors, nature spirits and, often enough the spirits of living animals, especially their personal companions. While I find a degree of humor in worshipping one’s housepets, I can’t really fault it. It seems proper to respect and honor those you allow to live with you, and thus proper to express that respect in a sacred way. Worship is no more fraught than that.

Next, I find that Pagan worship in no ways requires or assumes exclusivity. There is not the slightest notion from ancient lore that the gods were jealous of one another, or that they ‘competed’ for worshippers. While households, occupations and districts might have their favorite local powers it was understood that people invoked the gods at need, through the customary methods of offering and asking. On the other hand too much is made of ‘categorizing’ the gods (love, war, etc). If a worshipper had a relationship with a powerful spirit that would be the first spirit one asks for aid, even if one is asking a mother goddess for victory in strife. When travelling it was normative, and good manners, to worship the gods of the house or land in which one found oneself. The notion of loyalty to one’s gods did not commonly include exclusivity.

Some religious models suggest that reciprocity is impiety – that we ought to worship because the gods are too wonderful not to worship, and that asking for things in turn is impious. There is great value in generating experiences of awe and wonder in the personal mind. However, I think that from a Pagan perspective we must set aside the notion that worship is primarily a response to awe. Certainly approaching powerful spirits is like approaching a Tesla coil – it produces effects. Those effects are, themselves, desirable, and lead to repeated action. However I don’t think we need some moth-to-the-flame motivation for worship – self-interest is a noble enough cause. We worship because it is good to worship – it produces good for us, andfor the spirits with which we interact.

Proceeding from that I would suggest that Pagan or magical worship is not primarily a position of the heart, but a deed of the hands. Worship is accomplished through willed action. Usually this is ritual action – making an offering, reciting a charm in a spirit’s name, etc. It can be a purely internal action - such as a visualization and silent invocation – but it is deliberate, conscious and focused. The spirits may or may not be concerned with the ‘sincerity’ of the action, so long as the proper ritualized respect is shown. My experience is that the more intimate one’s relationship with a god or spirit becomes the more this stuff matters, though even my hearth gods do not seem to require every offering to be made from the very sweetest position of my heart.

These positions – mutual worship, non-exclusivity, the piety of reciprocity, and praxis-preference – are easy to find attested in lore. Forgive me for not tracking down citations for this blog post.

I suppose my goal here is to rinse away some of the recent accretion of nonsense on the fine old idea of worship. It’s no big deal. When you offer a guest a drink on arrival it is worship. When you leave a harvesting-offering for an herb or tree spirit it is worship. When you place your ancestors’ pictures in a place of honor it is worship. From there of course one proceeds to the other traditional elements of worship – singing hymns, giving praise, offering food and drink. What guest would not be pleased by such kindnesses?

This is why I do not hesitate to say that I worship my ancestors, or the land-wights, or the ground I walk on. It’s only right, and no big deal.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What’s a God?

I keep finding myself talking with folks who are making deals with powerful spirits, entering long-term relationships with them, etc, but who assert that they do not “worship gods”. It’s a thorny conceptual maze, those terms, but one that is central to how we understand what it is we are doing, and what the ancients and modern tribal peoples do. So I’ll take a whack at trying to find the out-door.

I do think we must discard the entire corpus of post-pagan theology and religious philosophy if we are to understand tribal and polytheist thought. I begin by asserting that in a Euro-Pagan context, at least, there is no such thing as a Creator and Lord of the Universe. No god is that. I don't believe that absolute omnipotence or omniscience are available to any specific being, and so I do not attribute those to gods. Relative omnipotence is another matter.

I don't think that the All-Being of the cosmos is a person, or accepts worship, or gives a crap about what happens to existence - it just *is*. Mystics may have a use for it, but it's pretty pointless for common magic and religion. In the same way I do not believe there is any plan in or for the cosmos, unless several powerful beings get together and make one for a while. The All does not exercise Providential Will. Individual gods exercise individual will.
A Roman Fire-Sacrifice

The Germanic root of the term 'god' means "that to which we sacrifice". Out of the great cosmos of spirits, many are indifferent to mortals, but some choose to respond to our invocations. Out of those, some are especially effective in granting us their blessings. These beings become the gods of various peoples. Poets write pretty stories about them, turn them into a big Royal Family, etc, but they are still a subset of spirits.

So when I use the term god, generally, I mean 'a spirit who answers offering with blessing'. Incidentally, I find that the term god is entirely inappropriate to refer to the Ultimate Reality, or to the Ground of Being. Once again, those are impersonal realities that do not love or hate, have will or intention. I sometimes use the general term ‘the divine’, but I mean it in the way one uses ‘nature’ to refer to general trends in the material world.

So, let’s forget about all that, and try to begin from first principles.
1: There are spirits. Leaving aside just what spirits “really” are, it is obvious that humans in every age and culture have experienced contacts with spirits. The development of relationships with those spirits is what amounts to “religion”.
2: The development of relationships with the spirits brings blessing. The reason our species bothered is that we perceived positive results from our efforts with the spirits.
3: Over the eons we developed relationships with specific spirits, often seeking great powers that transcended immediate locale (Sun, moon, wind, etc) but also meeting local spirits of stone and stream. Renowned ancestors may also become regular parts of a local religion. “Religion” then, means re-linking. It is the regular maintenance of the links between mortals and the spirits.
4: In a broad sense, in English, any of the spirits who are offered to and respond to offerings are ‘gods’. They are also ‘spirits’. Cultures differ about whether there’s a big distinction between those categories.

For this to make sense we must entirely abandon the notion that ‘god’ refers to some unique category, different in kind from the rest of existence. Gods are not apart from nature, or from spirit, or from biological life including humankind. Gods are specific beings within the broader category of spirits. They may be big, cosmic-y gods, or immediate local gods. Ancient Pagans had no problem referring to the gods of the hearth or the well, referring to spirits much lesser in cosmic-story significance than the Olympians. Any spirit with whom one enters a relationship of offering-and-response can reasonably be referred to as a god, though it is often useful to define additional subcategories. In Greek the word theos is applied both to spirits who receive worship and to human kings and rulers. In that usage a ‘god’ is not limited even to spirit beings, but is any being that has the power to give blessing in return for honor.

To be complete it is worthwhile to examine the mythic model that also answers my original question. In this I must limit myself to Indo-European examples, both for brevity and because that’s as far as my slim expertise extends.

In Euro-Pagan story, an original chaos comes to be divided (mysteriously) into polar
opposites. These usually impersonal opposites then generate the basis of existence-in-form. From that basis, by various premises, the first personal beings arise, occupying the closest we see to a ‘prime mover’ in old models. These primal beings are ‘gods’ mainly in the sense that they are ancient and renowned – they seldom receive worship in the actual cult of the people. Perhaps one or more of these primal beings finds a place in the final pantheon. Often a later god-name becomes associated with a primal figure of tribal stories.

From these usually dim and symbolic origins arise tales of a first family of deities. Usually confused, miraculous and incestuous, the great ones play and war among themselves. Usually a primal war occurs, between the gods who later become the
gods of mortals, and other powers less friendly to human comfort. The gods who like mortals defeat the gods who don’t care, and the bits or order that allow life are carved out. Our world is one such orderly enclosure, held fast by our gods and spirits.

My above abstract model might seem to lack in reverence. The mythic model includes it fully. The gods, in this case, are the eldest and mightiest, wise and caring, who maintain the turning of seasons and support the continuation and prosperity of the tribe. They are worthy of worship by their very natures, the way an accomplished hero is worthy.

In practice the mythic model is still fairly permeable. That First Family adopt others, have new children, marry and make alliances. Local spirits and ancestors may be promoted, variant pantheons are normative. Most of the basic formula proposed above still applies in fact, whatever the poets say.

So, if I were to answer my own question, in light of all this, I might say:
A god is a being, especially a spirit, who has power and will answer honorable worship with good blessing. While the term can be applied even to small local spirits, it is most often reserved for the oldest, greatest or most central of the spirits honored by a tribe.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The 'Authority' of Paganism

In some of my Facebook religious discussions, someone asked what we rely on as ‘proof that Paganism is real’.  It took some discussion to arrive at his actual question. He was discussing religion with a convinced Christian, who held up his Bible as ‘proof’ of his religion, and was poking around for a way to answer that without attempting to discredit the claim of the Christian. This is a goal I admire – we should have good answers of our own, and not rely on disproving the authority of someone else’s scripture, no matter how well-barrelled the fish may be.
                Because our OP was new to Paganism, I begin with some basics. Always worth a bit of restatement…

'Paganism' can, for the sake of this discussion, be defined as "the naturally-occurring religious impulse of a local area" By naturally-occurring I mean that it hasn't been brought in by preachers or prophets, and reflects the tradition-whose-beginnings-aren't-remembered. by 'religious impulse' I mean the human inclination to make relationship with a perceived 'spiritual' reality - with the persons and beings seen to reside in the world. by 'local area' I refer to the worship of beings local to the religion - the god of *that* mountain, *those* stars.

Paganism like that isn't revealed by the divine to mortals as commandments and prescriptions. Rather it grows out of the nature of humans, matter and the divine, the same way plants and animals grow, and the way that music or poetry has grown among humans. It "just is". The rest is detail.

To be fair, one should look at a little of that detail. The Pagan religions that early Christians knew were the indigenous and traditional religions of Europe and the Middle East. While modern historians have theories on where those cultures came from, and how they grew, for those living in Rome or Ireland the ways were just the ways - the stuff people had always done to keep relationship with the spirits. They didn't have an original prophet, or a 'founder'. They didn't have a 'scripture' on which the Ways were founded, they were a collection of customs, ways and specific artistic inheritances (hymns, images, etc) that together made up the 'religion' part of life.

Our modern Paganism is a set of efforts to reclaim the kind of spirituality enjoyed by the ancients. We observe the work of modern polytheists (there are a few 'pagan' religions still in business, unbroken, but not many), study the records of pre-Christian religion in Europe, cobble together experiments and try them, and through all that we devise ways of relating with the spirits that we hope resemble those of the ancients.

Some specific modern Pagan systems can be said to have founders. Gardnerian Wicca, specific Asatru organizations, ADF all have known histories. However in every case members of the systems take them home, experiment with them and vary them as local conditions warrant. There is no original 'authority'.

Perhaps that's what your original discussion was really about - what is the *authority* of Paganism? Christianity places great store in the authority of their scriptures, allegedly authored by their God, and thus the Final Document in all disputes. Paganism neither needs nor wants any such thing, and never did. In my spirituality the Authority of the divine rests in my own heart. The divine is distributed among all things, and that includes us humans. When I decide to approach the greater divine (the gods, etc) I do it by my own will and work, informed by the teachings of others like me in the past. Certainly the spirits give their input and inspiration, but they are partners in the work, not lords of it. Paganism has the authority of nature - it exists because it was natural for it to exist, and nature is the true depiction of the divine.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Wisdom Way, pt 1

Beyond Sacrifice and Blessing 
We’re trying to build a religion. By ‘we’ I refer to myself and my colleagues in ADF. For the past 30 years we have been researching and designing symbol sets and ritual patterns that provide the framework on which a religion can stand. Our work is proceeding well. We have dozens of local congregations, serving thousands of Pagans across the US. (Our formal membership number hovers around 1500, but our Groves serve a vastly larger number in local communities. Check our reorganized website here)

The fact is, we have a religion up and running – a family of religions, really. Being polytheist, local cult varies widely, different Groves worship different Gods, etc. We are unified by our ritual customs and by our common vision of polytheism restored to the common discourse of the modern world.
However we are a very young religion. We are grown from shallow soil – the enthusiasm and amateur scholarship of late-20th century Neopaganism. We are rooting well, but our real growth is still ahead. I see two important directions for our growth. Both are implicit in our ideas, but not very much expressed. The two may be related in various ways.
First, I think we can benefit by inventing and rediscovering formal methods of spiritual technique. My most usual shorthand for ‘formal methods of spiritual technique’ is ‘magic’. Formal methods bring the system closer to the living voices of the spirits, and stand as a counterweight to the high pile of rationalism produced by our scholastic inclinations. Readers of this blog will have watched me make some efforts at this, and more will be forthcoming.
The second large branch of religious work before us is the work of helping mortals to be happy. We have begun that work through our rituals of blessing. In ancient days such rituals may have been all the comfort offered to people by religion.

The Point
If I were to set a primary goal for spiritual practice (and this after long consideration of terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘liberation’) I might propose that it should make us happy – or at least happier. Note that here I’m not referring to some mystical adventure goal, of heroic conquest of reality. Rather I’m asking what good should a spiritual practice offer to the non-adventurer, to the “householder”, as they say.
Spiritual growth and magical power – those have commonly been the goals of occult spirituality. However any review of the histories of magical arts shows that these goals do not, in themselves, result in happiness for the individual.
Happiness for the individual is the common-sense base that seems to me, at least, to be a believable goal of life. As human animals it is our business to enjoy the world we find ourselves in, to learn to understand our bodies and other material things so that we can interact pleasantly and productively, even to apply our imagination and creativity to increase beauty and utility in the world.
I’m going to be trying to write a bit on this topic. It feels presumptuous, rather, but that’s never stopped me before. I’ve gotten a bit of age on me, watched both myself and a number of other people live life, and devoted myself, off and on, to spiritual work. I find myself with this or that notion about the subject of happiness.

What It Is.
Let me skip further prologue and propose my tripartite notion of ‘happiness’ .
Happiness is composed of contentment, fulfillment, and delight. When these are present, properly mixed for the individual, that individual knows happiness.
1: Contentment: On the first level this refers to satisfaction of basic biosurvival needs. Food, Housing and Sexual Release are powerful basics. If they are not met sufficiently to the individual, it’s hard to move on toward happiness. Some mysticisms try to short-circuit psychological dependence on these basics. That’s a difficult road; for the householder it is simply the work of life to meet these needs. When one can ‘come home’ to a safe, personal space in which ones needs are met, the physical end of contentment is met. Further issues surrounding contentment are often tied in with the second category.
2: Fulfillment:  Each of us is born with a specific set of potentials and inclinations. While we may be 80% similar to any other person born in our time and place, there are balances of brain chemistry, variances of perception and chances of programming that bring each of us toward adulthood with a unique personal profile. In order to be happy, it seems to me that the individual must have some expression of and recognition of those potentials. Our ‘dreams’ and aspirations must achieve some manifestation.
3: Delight: (or ‘joy’, or ‘peak experience’) The human nervous system has the potential for very intense experience. Beyond the day-to-day management of our lives, we can know great experiences of joy, delight, terror, pain, wonder and despair. The ancients tell us how important such experiences are to the formation of a fulfilled life. Notably, experiences of pain and harm make deep tracks in our neurology and memory. It can be especially valuable to balance those with powerful experiences of joy, wonder and delight. For many people sexual experience fills this need, but there are many other methods.

Why It’s Good
Isn’t this obvious? Maybe. It’s good, first, because it feels good. Why does happiness feel good?
There are various brain-chemistry reasons involved, but never mind that. Mainly it feels good because it is freedom from stress. When our material and psychological needs are not met, we experience a sense of general alarm that activates fight-or-flight reflexes. This makes us anxious, twitchy and suspicious, and reduces further our sense of contentment. When those needs are met and we are experiencing regular moments of delight our general sense of alarm and concern relaxes. Our sense of contentment increases, which frees resources to work toward greater fulfillment.  The very work of fulfillment can produce peak experience, as goals are met, though special occasions of sensory or spiritual pleasure are still important.
That’s a long way round to assert that ‘happiness is good’, but that’s philosophy fer ya.

What Does Religion Have To Do With It?
It does not seem that in Pagan times people went to their temples to seek relief from emotional or financial turmoil. The cares of mortal life - confusion, indecision - were not the provenance of priests or ‘clergy’ (the latter term didn’t exist). There was no model that said that the human self is essentially broken or in error, and so priests did not make it their business to advise the folk on how to live, or seek the ‘cure of souls’.
That job, in the literate cultures of which we have record, fell to what the Greeks called ‘philosophers’ – people who undertook to comprehend how human life works, and how one can make it work well. They created systems that were called ‘bios’ (my Greek is nonexistent) meaning ‘way of life’. Various philosophers prescribed various notions, from naked exercise to vegetarianism, from pietistic devotion to rationalist skepticism. This supermarket of lifestyles was the norm for seekers in the ancient world.
Modern people expect their religious practice to help them be happier and more successful. For many modern practitioners of religion, their church serves as a primary social institution, in which they seek to meet many of their fulfillment needs. Some even seek basic material needs through their churches, especially in context of ‘charitable’ work.
Two such systems have had special influence in the modern world. The first is Buddhism. The Buddhist method isessentially a ‘way of life’ (in the Hellenic sense) that prescribes various moral and lifestyle stances, along with a system of mental management meant to soothe the passions and promote rational judgment.
The second is Christianity. Christianity was in fact mistaken for ‘a philosophy’ by early Pagans. The notion of wealth-renouncing preachers standing under trees proclaiming ‘the Good’ was familiar to Hellenes – their philosophers were the usual culprits. Christianity also offered a code of morals combined with a method of spiritual practice.
Let me mention one other major model of moral and spiritual formation that has greatly influenced the Pagan movement – the training systems of Masonry and their related schools.  In these models the student is given a series of moral lessons as they proceed through the teachings. In more mystical versions the lessons accompany teaching of occult techniques intended to grant wisdom and power to the student. This model had a primary influence on early Wiccan teaching. The three ‘degrees’ of that form of witchcraft are used as a progressive schooling toward spiritual growth and magical power. This ladder-model attempts to combine some of the sense of the ‘spiritual adventure’ of mysticism with the moral soundness of the householder life.
Whatever opinion one may have of these paths in history, every modern Pagan is influenced by the models of ‘religion’ that they present. We are trained to expect aid and comfort, emotional support and the alliance of higher powers from our religions. Much of modern Paganism seems little concerned with this kind of work. However those who are entering our systems from more popular ways will have those expectations. They will expect a religion (i.e. a way of connecting the individual with the divine) to come complete with a way of life (guidelines and methods for living well and being happy).

The ancients sometimes called their spiritual goal “The Summum Bonum; True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness”. With the understanding that True and Perfect things are seldom real in the world, that old formula seems to me to be a fine expression of the goal of spiritual self-work.
                So I’m going to have this topic on my burners. How do I think happiness can be achieved in various circumstances? What are the personal internal mechanisms that produce and maintain happiness? I’m going to avoid quoting various modern science, unless something particularly striking comes along, in favor of present what amount to nothing more than my best guess. Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of Paganism, occultism and magic. There will even be moments when the two topics converge.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Carry the Fire

Last night we worked our annual Samhain sacrifice. This Samhain marks, incidentally, the thirtieth birthday of Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF) the Pagan church in which I situate most of my work. Thirty years is a good record for a Pagan group, and we’ve done it without any shut-down-and-restart incidents. Thirty solid years of continuing effort at the restoration of polytheist religion to modern times; I won’t ask forgiveness for a moment of bragging, but I’ll be done.

One of our former Archdruids (who I’ll call by the name everyone calls him, “Fox”) has recently undertaken an in-depth personal study of the Indo-European customs surrounding sacred fire. There will be publications coming, starting with a trickle of articles in ADF’s magazine, ‘Oak Leaves’, so I won’t even try to summarize all of the wonderful treasures of lore that he has found. However we have generated one new bit of custom and ritual that found expression for me in last night’s rite.

The ancient custom was to place the
hearth-fire in the center of the house.
In traditional European Paganism, the fire in the home’s hearth is highly sacred. It is separated from common life by taboos, customs, and observances and treated, in essence, as the presence of a deity in the home. It is fed and cleaned, put to bed each night and wakened each morning with ritual and incantation. The hearth fire is center of what can be called the ‘domestic cult’ in traditional Paganism, the realm of family and daily life.

An Aukuras - a Baltic
Fire altar.
Religious ritual in traditional European Paganism often centered around another sacred fire, lit in ritual space on a raised fire-altar. This fire is, again, the very presence of the divine in the Grove, and receives the offerings and carries the voices of the people as we speak with the spirits. From Vedic lore to (posited) Druidic ritual, it is fitting to refer to traditional ritual as ‘fire worship’.

Ritual Fire is lit from domestic fire. The spark is brought from the hearth of the person sponsoring the sacrifice, or from the hearth of the city or village in some cases, and lights the sacrificial fire. Thus every fire partakes of the primal spark. That primal spark is extinguished and regenerated at regular intervals, as part of the calendar customs. In Rome and Persia, Spring Equinox was the traditional season for this custom. In Gaelic countries it seems to have happened twice yearly, at Samhain and Bealtaine.

So, at this past spring equinox, Fox and our current Archdruid, Kirk Thomas, ritually lit new
That's a big one a' those!
I want a fire-churn!
fire using a fire-bow. The fire was lit as part of a ritual intention to grow the spiritual and organizational unity of Our Druidry, to be a Hearth fire for our folk. That fire has been preserved and is slowly passing among ADF households and groves. We received it at our Clergy Retreat, and are undertaking to keep it lit perennially, until it is renewed next spring.  So far so good.

Yesterday we brought it for the first time from our hearth to the hall where we work our rites. We set up the hearth-fire on it’s own shrine, making it part of our usual custom of providing a ‘purification station’ for folks to do pre-ritual water-and-smoke cleansing. There’s a whole complex of ‘cleansing water next to hearth-fire’ that makes this especially satisfying. The spark was then carried from that purification altar and used to light the ritual fire.

This was a very satisfying beginning to our new ritual year. Things are coming, things are changing.  In the rite, the omen of blessing was:
• Nion - translation: support - tree: ash. Implies strength, communication (alternate translation is 'letters') and connection "Weaving of Women" is a gloss.
• Coll - trans: Hazel (one of the fews that is actually named for a tree); Wisdom, poetic inspiration. "Fairest of Trees"
• Straif - trans: sulfur - tree: blackthorn connotations of protection and the sidhe, from the tree; connotations of transformation from the chemical nature of sulfur. "Increasing of Secrets"

So, I'd say that the Grove was offered strength and connection, wisdom and magic inthat omen, a very good sign for the season, and in light of coming work.

As Our Druidry (and all of the neopagan, polytheist restoration) continues to grow deeper, both nationally and locally, I think we’ll see more examples of the materializing of ancient Pagan customs of respect and power. Let us carry the fire – hearth to hearth, temple to temple, until it warms us all.