So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

28 June, 2009

Reality is Messy

Okay, crawling out of my horrible state of incoherent illness or whatever the hell is wrong with me for at least one more pagan values month blog post. This will wind it up for the month, hope you've enjoyed the trip.

I've done a whole bunch of these things, and I haven't talked much at all about gods. Which may be a bit odd for a sequence of posts about religious values. So here's a goddy post for all of you god fans.

I've found that a lot of people steeped in a monotheistic background of whatever flavor have a really hard time parsing their way through polytheism. Enough so that in a lot of discussions, when I point out that monotheistic assumptions don't apply to my religion, I just get ... ignored, passed over, as if someone turned on the Somebody Else's Problem field, and people keep going on arguing about religion as if they were actually talking about religion and not some subset thereof. And when people actually respond, it's often ... I pointed out the flaws in a monotheism-assuming argument to an angry atheist once, and got the fascinating response of, "Well, why would anyone want to worship a god who isn't omnipotent in the first place?"

What an alien world that is to me, though that's unsurprising with my little postcards-from-Gehenna schtick.

For context, I gotta tell you what I think about gods. Gods are elemental. I don't mean this in the sense of that earth-air-fire-water shit, I mean elemental, I mean like the periodic table, only with a lot more little boxes and squiggly abbreviations that require context and opaque numbers. Gods are exactly and precisely what they are, a coiled knot of consequences around a pure idea.

This doesn't mean that gods aren't complicated. You can't take a pure idea and fractal* it out to encompass all its consequences without getting complicated. The stories we tell about gods aren't the shard at the center of the god, they're all the stuff out on the edges that we can relate to and understand. Getting at that elemental core requires figuring out in what way all the stories are the same -- finding the part that iterates.

If I talk to you about Neb.y, sometimes I'll talk about transgression, sometimes I'll talk about sex and power, sometimes I'll talk about the initiator, sometimes I'll talk about the twinning of the desert and the fertile land, or the king and his twin the usurper, or deviancy and the foreign, or the strength borne of the individual, or the difference between destruction and annihilation, or the force of the storm, or the dread of the dark and the things that may go bump there. All these and more are part of His mythology, after all. But nestled into the centre of all of those is the Other. Edge of the map stuff, here be dragons - and will you be a dragonfriend, or will you be lunch?

Set as god as storms is the same thing as Set as god of redheads is the same thing as Set Who (in one set of myths) killed His brother is the same thing as Set in the prow of the solar boat as the one strong enough to break Apep's neck every night is the same thing as Set on the stolen throne waiting for Heru-sa-Aset to kick Him off is the same thing as sexually insatiable, pervy, queer Set with His foreign wives is the same thing as Set clasped hands with Heru and crowning the king. Dig into this and one can learn the mysteries of this god. It's all of a piece, the same thing, just requiring the right understanding to find the elemental equation that is the god.

Now, obviously, within this sort of system, this conceptualisation, one can't have just one god. If we got nothing but hydrogen, the universe looks a hella lot different than it does now.

Reality can be seen as being made up of this complicated tangle of all of these fractalised deities, twined through each other, rubbing up against each other, this glorious profusion of blended iterations. Just about everything we run into is composite, a sticky fornication of thousands of different raw principles: is the mask on my wall the Other? Is it Transformation? Is it Creation? And that's just a superficial getting into it being a mask, without considering what face it contains.

And this reality, this twined-together mass of composite being, answers things like the "Problem of Evil" quite simply - in a world where the millions of different pure fractal being-concepts are all tugging in their own particular directions, the composite is not in for an easy time, simply because there are too many flows. And that's without getting into the fact that being-concepts can include things like Strife For Glory or perhaps Appease The Abyss. And some systems want to suggest that all these arguing-combining-twining fractals, that entire fecund pile of conceptual DNA with its frantic combinations and recombinations, is sort of an intercessory layer between the composite and the ultimate, but even if true, that's a long way off into actual practical irrelevance.

Why worship a god that is not omnipotent?

Why not ask, have you ever fallen in love?

This is not a flip question, this is the core question. To be in love with the messy tangle of reality, to maybe find in the twisting apparently-contradictory convolutions something that speaks to what one loves in the manifest universe, something that makes up a little of one's own compositeness, or maybe something that answers a part of that, meets the valence number of some loose end and energises a system -- to be in love with this and to accept that that means all of the things which are not tidy, friendly, which are not matters of perfect benevolence.

And if the gods are flawed in their incompleteness, their lack of encompassing all of everything and thus having unquestioned power over it, then They are flawed, but They have the virtues of Their flaws.

And the virtues of our flaws is something that we, finite, composite humans can aspire to.

* Verbing weirds language.

26 June, 2009

Living the Mystery

Another Pagan Values Month post, now, which may be a wee bit more coherent than the last one.

I'm going to talk about mystery religion.

This is a matter of particular relevance to initiatory religions such as traditional Craft lines, but it's not unimportant to the reconstructionist lines either. A value most often explored in mystery work is the experiential exposure to the ineffable, and this is something that a lot of modern pagans value highly - as I mentioned yesterday, the whole concept of no intercessor is one of the things that a lot of pagans feel strongly about at some level.

First, a little terminology definition.

A mystery is, at its most straightforward, something which cannot be explained accurately; it can only be experienced, and afterwards offered explanations can actually make sense. Mysteries are not limited to the mystical or spiritual, though the ones that aren't are rarely described as mysteries, and the ones that are common human experience (sex, say) are often spiritualised by at least some people. The Greeks - who coined the term and set the stage for how we think of it - recognised two classes of mystery, the greater and the lesser. Lesser mysteries can be fucked up with spoilers, like a movie with a twist ending. Greater mysteries are immune to that sort of thing, because whatever experience is being evoked cannot be broken with partial preknowledge.

"Greater" and "lesser" may be misleading; I consider learning to turn while skiing a greater mystery. It's also my standard explanation for what a mystery is, so I will tell the story in brief: the one time I went downhill skiing, my parents sat me down and talked about their ski experiences, and explained to me how to turn. The explanation they gave was, "You go down, then up, then down." And they told me I would not understand this until I did it. I thanked them for their useless advice, went skiing, fell over a few times, and then I went down, and then up, and then down. And, as the koan ends, hearing this, the man was enlightened.

And those of you who have done downhill skiing will probably nod and understand this story entirely, because you have partaken of the Mystery; those of you who haven't will nod and smile and, perhaps, thank me for my useless advice.

We, obviously, know very little about ancient mysteries, because we haven't been down that hill. Some mysteries, such as the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, had huge populations of initiates, all of whom were earnestly sworn to utter secrecy about the content of the ritual. In other cases, though, we know a great deal about what was going on at the point that the mystery happened - but not necessarily enough to be sure we can reconstruct the mystery and have it happen again. We can try, but we can't be sure it will work.

(This actually came up in a conversation with a Canaanite reconstructionist a few years ago, who had done one portion of a well-recorded ancient ritual, and had a fellow practitioner say, "That was great, let's do the whole mystery next year!" In the end, my advice, which she wound up agreeing with, was to try adding factors from the historical record into what they actually did, and if the mystery happened, well, now they'd know the secret and could honestly say the time after that that this was a mystery initiation. If it didn't happen, they'd know they were missing something.)

Again, historically speaking, the mysteries were often presented as gifts from the gods, sacred treasures to enlighten, instruct, or transform the initiates - who might be the local citizenry, who might be devotees of the god who gave the mystery to the people, who might fit some other, more complicated criteria of citizenship, heritage, affiliation, role within the community. Initiates might be aware of each other as a sort of semi-secret society, or might have no further connection to each other than the shared experiential knowledge.

Now let us transfer to the modern day.

Many modern pagans are interested in experiential knowledge in various forms. I submit that this is one of the reasons for the popularity of modern Craft religion, as many of the principles thereof are rooted in the manifest world rather than the commonly interpreted as transcendent values of Christianity. (It is, of course, not this simple, and the treatment of Christianity as purely transcendent is erroneous. But that's off to the side, a bit.) I wrote, elsewhere, at one point, about Neb.y, that while He is not the storm, if one cannot encounter Him within the storm, He's not likely to be terribly findable, because the storm is an expression and manifestation of what Neb.y is. This is experiential knowledge; most pagan gods have similar manifestations that can be touched, felt, or known (and what Egyptian woman is not honoring Hetharu when she does her makeup?).

An interest in experiential knowledge almost inevitably leads to the Mysteries.

In many reconstructionist circles, people who claim to be performing the Mysteries are considered pretty fringe. The studious religion-with-homework attitudes of reconstruction tends to be very logic-brained, unlike the intuitive experience of the Mystery -- and, of course, we don't know how the Mysteries were conducted, for the most part. Someone who claims to be able to initiate you into the Eleusinian Mysteries is probably talking through their hat or their nether regions, because we have no data.

This doesn't stop the interest, it just treats some forms of it with contempt, causing unfortunate fractures within the community. There have always been and likely always will be people with a mystical bent, who will be interested in some form of mystery work; if that pursuit is made incompatible with reconstruction, these people will be driven out of reconstructionist work. And I think that's a major loss, because the sorts of stuff people can pull out of mystery work is the stuff that keeps a religion alive and engaged with the experiential world. Those people who take a reconstructionist-leaning attitude towards the Mysteries - that the gods will reveal whatever mysteries they think appropriate when the time is right - barely manage to stay within the fold, at times. Coloring within the lines becomes almost de rigeur for reconstructionists, unless they have sufficient clout within a community that people will take their inventions and revelations as just as good as historical information. Needless to say, I think that's unfortunate.

Of course, the initiatory mystery religions have the opposite problem. Instead of losing people who are trying to find an authentic mystery experience, they are accumulating people who don't think their mysteries are important. The historical and sociological reasons for this are fiddly to track down, but a lot of it comes down to the difficulty of articulating what a mystery is. In a culture where things written down are highly significant, this experiential process is denigrated. Further, in a culture where people think they should have access to anything they want (heard anyone say "Information wants to be free!" recently?), there are a lot of people who are deeply hurt when they're not accepted as candidates to experience a particular mystery. Religion is for everyone, right? It's universal! Only ... not so much.

Mystery paths, historically speaking, were mostly offshoots and side paths, away from the mainstream religion, something that the particularly interested would seek out. For those who didn't want the mystery investment, there was the mainline stuff they could do. For Craft religions, well, there was no mainline for a good long time. And now the Craft community is bewildered by all of the people out there claiming to be a part of their traditions who haven't actually encountered the mysteries - because they're inventing the mainline stuff, partially out of dribs and drabs of what people have let slip, partly out of whole cloth. When one's rooted in the assumption that the mystery is fundamental, this winds up looking tremendously messy - as well as unrooted in not only the actual meaning of the traditions thus transformed, but, potentially, reality. (And some of the more fascinating neo-Wiccan groups have some fascinating notions about reality ....)

I would not be surprised, in the long run, if the pagan world winds up with more people like me, with one foot in the reconstructionist camp, and one foot somewhere in mystery religion of some sort (whether Craft or not) -- looking to bring the possibility of repeatable ecstatic experience back into that book-crusted treatment of religion on the one hand, and matching modern religious expressions with ancient roots on the other. I'm not thinking in terms of the sort of "[Culture in the blank] Wicca" or whatever else might come to mind here, where a loosely Wiccish structure is meshed with a selection of gods from a particular culture (though I consider Ellen Cannon Reed's Circle of Isis an excellent book, even if alien - in part because she passes the god sniff test in her descriptions, rather than doing the common bastardisations of myths to fit an alien structure) but an actual syncretistic form that is really neither reconstruction nor straight-up mystery based religion.

And now I am up far too late, and Neb.y is storming gloriously at last, so I am posting and appreciating my experiential world.

24 June, 2009

They Have A Word For It

Okay, let's shift some gears a little; I've been doing ancient history for a wee bit, and that's not going to be relevant to all the pagan values month folks. (This is still Egyptian theology, just applied. Heh.)

I was discussing with someone the other day names and roles for "the woo" (for general reference, a lot of 'the woo' is tagged 'madness in motion' in here); at other times I've discussed things like the meanings of the words "priest" and "witch". I wrote a while back about reconstructionist sensibilities and clergy roles, which is one of the reasons I'm not redoing it right now; go read that one if you want it. And I'm a student (currently on maternity leave) of a teacher in an initiatory Craft tradition, too, whole different sets of meanings in there - but my teacher loves words in a nicely Egyptian-theology-compatible way.)

And among the things that we need to do is figure out what the roles are for these words, what they mean, what shape they have in the world. There are assumptions about what people with titles will be doing in religion, defined in reaction to the surrounding culture and its hegemonial Christianity - that a clergy type, whatever title they have, whatever role, will conduct public services, provide pastoral counselling, do marriages, and so on. Even in religions where the clergy-types don't have that role officially, they often do it just because it's easier than arguing for cultural space to do it properly (I believe many of things that rabbis can do can, strictly speaking, be done by any adult Jewish male, for example).

So take a word like "priest". A lot of modern pagans accuse Christianity of requiring some sort of intermediary between the devotee and the divine, and thus talk about everyone being their own priest -- where "priest" means "someone who's able to talk to the divine without requiring an intermediary". (Never mind that "priesthood of all believers" is, y'know, a Protestant term and many of these people are coming from a Protestant background.) Which means there are a fuckton of pagan priest/esses running around, many of whom don't know their asses from their elbows.

I am reluctant to speak too much about the practices in religious witchcraft traditions, as I am not an initiate, and I am entirely too aware of the differences wrought by initiation and the understandings thereof. However, my understanding is that (in coven-based Craft traditions) the appropriate analogy is of a monastic order, in which a group of ordained people (and trainees) gather for the purpose of honoring and serving the divine in a shared context. (I am even more reluctant to speak about my own non-coven-based Craft tradition, because it is much more weirdly touchy to get that wrong. My teacher appreciates my quoting Terry Pratchett on witches, with comments such as "the natural size of a coven is one", though.) In any case, 'priest' here means someone who is dedicated to a particular mode of interaction with the divine, according to the strictures of the tradition.

"Priest" in Egyptian context means a servant of the god in the house of the god (the temple). The temple is the god's private estate, not open to generalised exploration. There are no services; there is no pastoral counselling. The rituals are for the benefit of the god and, more obliquely, the community, because the community is well-served when the god is pleased. It was, further, historically speaking a part-time job, and also often a sort of sinecure. I've done a godawful amount of religious work, and fought off the priest label because damnit, I am not the servant of any god in Their house. (The madness in motion sideways exception of that between myself and Neb.y is weirdly complicated, and I don't actually talk about it much even though there are times I'd kind of like to, but, y'know, a lot of people think that shit's crazy.)

Which means that I was left short of words for what it is that I do. Because what I do is in many ways more rabbinic than anything else: I'm a scholar, though self-taught, of the relevant texts, I make interpretations, and - perhaps most importantly - I expect people to argue with me, disagree with me, and go off and form their own fucking schools of thought because damnit, we need more thinking. One of these days I'll find a good Kemetic word for that, and then I'll have a title for my public work.

For now, I'm stuck with a sort of uncredentialed ministerial jobbie, which I whimsically refer to as being jackaled (this is like being hounded, only with more Anpu (Anubis)). (Though it's primarily Wepwawet (Ophois) that I deal with, people have at least heard of Anpu.) And a lot of that is what I'm doing here with my pagan values month series of posts: putting forth structure and underlying thought and giving people chewy things to take away and gnaw on, at least in theory, because that's what that particular job is all about. My pastoral counselling is interestingly nondenominational, not because I step out of my religious structure to do it, but because what gods - if any - the person who needs help deals with are completely irrelevant to the question. Wepwawet is the opener of the way; Anpu is the guide to the lost. If someone comes unstuck and finds their way, that's a win on the 'doing god's work' front for me.

Other things that people lose words for are devotional. One can see a lot of pagans looking for "their patron god/dess", without any sort of clarity on what that means to them. Some are seeking a personal relationship with some deity, which may or may not be in the offing. Others pull back to a more historically accurate sense that a patron is the god who looks over one's profession - and I will note that I consider Khnum mine, for all that I have not properly had my hands in clay for years. (Man, I want my studio set up.) Some would find Djehwty a more reasonable patron for a writer (inventor of writing, after all), but my writing is very much about creating worlds in many ways, and thus the maker of souls (Father of fathers, Mother of mothers) looks over my work.

I don't even have a word for how I'd characterise my devotion to Hetharu. In many ways, it's very much in keeping with the ancient structures of worship: the idea of attempting to embody the values of the deity in question. (A Greek travelling in Egypt commented that there was not a woman in Egypt who was not giving her due to Hethert by putting on her makeup, and wasn't that a remarkably devoted population! ... not that I'm femme enough to do makeup most of the time, but that's beside the point.) I do not fear service (obviously), and I can say I pledged myself to Her service some fifteen years ago at this point; I can point at the curve of my belly and talk about the goddess who governs motherhood right now, hell. But this is a subtle and personal thing, not clergy, not something that most people will ever meet clear and in the open, even. I do not fear the word "worship" as many pagans do, nor do I equate it with abasement and grovelling. I sort of hover around "devotee" a lot of the time, as "follower" is not strong enough.

I have no tidy segue for "witch", which is one of those words that rattles around and causes controversy. I was actually sort of peripherally discussing that with a friend recently, who commented that she doesn't care for the word because she thinks that it's used too much for historical shock value, that it's not a reclaimable concept. (I seem to recall that my liege feels similarly, though we haven't talked about it recently.) And it's a word I've been ambivalent about for a long time; for a while I would only self-describe with it using a modifier - specifically "kitchen witch", which describes my style pretty appropriately, as my magical remedies for burns include live aloe plants. (And similar such approaches.) I'm not actually sure what started to shift me on that front, away from the 'this is not me' thing, aside from my deeper Craft studies and perhaps reading too much Terry Pratchett. I don't use it often, and I still often use it modified -- but it's not an entirely alien space anymore.

As posts go, this is not a terribly coherent arc of one, but whatever. I'm allowed to blither on a bit every so often. I think I hit my high points, someone else can fix the transitions. Summary: words mean things. Think about what they damn well mean. Use nuance. Build the world true.

22 June, 2009

With All This Bathwater, There Has To Be A Baby In Here Somewhere

For this round of pagan values month, I'm going to spend some time gnawing at the differences between ancient and modern worldviews and explore a bit about what that requires of the modern practitioner, on the thinky thoughts dimension. Obviously, I'll be drawing primarily on my own religious background here, but a lot of this is applicable to others, and thus a lot of it will be written generically.

First of all, and perhaps most subtle in its effects: we are, for the most part, not living in communities of co-religionists, let alone tribes or nations. Most pagans were raised in other religions, or none at all; many of us are at a loss for how - or if - to raise our children with our own traditions, if we even have formulated traditions that might be appropriate for children. We can have no city-wide festivals as were done in the ancient Mediterranean, let alone the sort of city festivals that drew celebrants from all over the country as was the case at times in Egypt.

We are not surrounded by people who believe and practice as we believe and practice; in fact, many of us feel the need to hide ourselves for fear of repercussions. Even when we can gather in groups of other pagans, that does not mean that we can gather with co-religionists, and public festivals frequently take on a neo-Wiccan or similarly flavored tone because that is one of the few things that most participants might be aware of. (In some cases, the only thing that some of the participants know.) Our families and communities are for the most part not of our religion - though in some cases, they may be different pagan religions - and in fact many of the places that put an emphasis on primarily having relationships with co-religionists have alarming, cult-like tendencies towards insularity and isolation.

The difference this wreaks on the practice of reconstructed religion is both huge and subtle. Much of the information we have, when we have information, is dependent on the large-scale, the cultural assumptions being in line, the public festival in which entire communities participate, and we do not have these things. We have to find and adapt these things to the scale on which we live - an individual, a family, maybe a small working group - often in the absence of any significant knowledge of how an individual might have thought of the gods, might have constructed religious duty, might have acted in their home. We can guess, we can extrapolate, but this is new construction inspired by the old, not the way they did it in the olden days.

Related to this: the philosophy of the individual is far more thoroughly developed than it was in the past. Most people likely to read this are not typically thinking in terms of where they fit into their tribe, or their heirarchy, or the complicated social dynamics that come of living in more or less the same place among more or less the same people for a lifetime. Yes, the ancients thought in terms of individual needs, individual prowess, and so on, but they were also members of coherent peoples with complex layers of family, clan, ethnic, social ties. When we read an ancient text that mentions deferring to superiors and being gracious to inferiors, we do not read it as they did; we have different ego-boundaries and senses of place. We do not necessarily live within a short walk of our closest kin, and thus do not think of one of our souls as the same as our family. Many decisions are based on individual need and desire, rather than social patterns - and while many people think there is a 'cult of the individual' that has gone too far, that is, again, an individual's opinion. The very nature of conversion would probably be utterly alien to most ancients, and most modern pagans are converts.

Ancestor veneration, reverence for that family soul? What does it mean to people who have limited family ties due to mobility, due to feeling that past generations were unethical or unworthy, due to simply not knowing where they came from? What does it mean to mongrelised people, with ethnic ties sweeping across huge swaths of continents? What does it mean to people whose more immediate ancestors would likely not approve of such veneration in the first place? What place do honored elders who are not of our kin and clan have, if any, on our western shrines?

If the worldviews we wish to touch are born of particular lands, climates, and situations, how can we properly know them in a completely different context? I do not live in Egypt; I don't even live in a landscape dominated by a river, nor one with the stark twinned dualism of its landscape. For all that I resonate spiritually with these ideas, I do not have them engraved onto my understanding of the world the way someone who lived in that land would do.

And, to conclude, because it's totally late and I should have been asleep hours ago: we have the wrong information. It doesn't even matter what information we have, whether drawn out of old texts, extrapolated from art, recorded by historians or monks or whatever; it's not the information we need. We don't know what the information we need is, because it's about how to bridge between the old and the new. We may know a lot about how a divine king can rule over a unified, heirarchical, and ritualised society geared towards a particular envisioning of how to honor and serve a particular set of gods; we don't know jack about how a diasporic scattering of converts in a society of entangled and separated loyalties can build a functional model that is true to that original world without recapitulating it, because attempting to recapitulate it as it was is dumb.

16 June, 2009

No Dark Sarcasm In the Classroom

The children of the literate classes in Egypt were taught reading and writing by rote repetition. Many of the texts that they copied over and over again were instructions on proper behaviour, and thus literacy came with pedantic instruction in local values. So, for this Pagan Values Month post, I will explore one of these texts with an eye to general overview. I have chosen The Wisdom of Amenopet for this purpose, rather than selecting from multiple texts; link provided for those who want to see a translation. (For those who want to know what specific translation I'm working with, I'm using Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology with translations by John L. Foster because it happens to be my book of Egyptian writings near the computer at the moment.) Traditionally speaking, these wisdom texts were supposed to have been written by ancient sages for the proper instruction of their sons.

(A value of reconstruction: citing sources.)

One can see in Amenopet's writing that he lived in, and valued, a society that was ordered, heirarchical, polite, and prudent. He treats the gods as a given, declaring that truth is a matter of the God's love (the offering most commonly presented to the gods in wall decoration is a figurine of Ma'at, representing truth and justice, among other things), and expects his son to appreciate each day as the gift of the gods, as such is far wiser than sinking into mundane expectation that one day is just like another.

He has a great deal of advice on how to deal with people in a civil manner. He disapproves of snarky messages (either sending them or appreciating them), which probably has me in trouble. He suggests the generally prudent values of not arguing with hotheads, leaving the quarrelsome's generalised bitchiness in the hands of the gods, being generally polite with opponents, and not giving enemies an excuse to go overt with hostilities. He disapproves of negative gossip and suggests that his son should speak the good he knows of others, not the ill; in fact, he suggests avoiding abrasiveness in conversation altogether (there's another rough one). He disapproves of eavesdropping on judges and government officials.

Simple politeness expands to a certain generosity of spirit in Amenopet's eyes. He suggests taking time out of a workday to speak to widows, lending an arm to drunken old men and giving them the support that their children might provide if they were present, and forgiving two-thirds of the debts held by the poor. If there is beer in his son's jug, he ought not turn away a thirsty stranger. His son is encouraged not merely to not cheat the laborers of their fair day's wages (Egyptian laborers were paid in food) but to measure out their meals as if he were laying out food for a friend. Care and charity for the poor ought to be greater than debt to the mighty, and judging the poor should be done without harshness. If life is a ferry ride, he is not to leave people behind at the dock, should not worry too much about collecting fares, and should take his fair turn at the oar without demanding special treatment. It is unjust to use power to oppress those who do not have it, and Amenopet specifically mentions widows and the elderly in that category; he also objects to mocking the disabled.

He has a lot to say about living in a just society. He lists off a dozen different forms of fraud in order to say "don't do any of these": moving boundary-stones, falsifying weights, crafting false weights, falsifying writings, altering scales and balances, changing proportions of measures. On top of this he notes that messing with the planting of another man's land produces no benefit, but cultivating that man's good will does. He disapproves of associating with swindlers and thieves. He disapproves of threats and bribes, though he will allow as how it may be wise to speak what praise one can for someone who offers a bribe ... in case they come back. He goes so far as to suggest that one should not accuse others of criminal behaviour, for one does not know what motivated their actions; I imagine one 24601 would have appreciated that one. He suggests neither accepting favors from the powerful nor harassing the weak in their name.

There is a delicate balance of status to be navigated here, as well. It is important to know one's place; it is also possible that, by doing good, a god will chose to elevate one's station. This is not to be counted upon or begged for, because pleading for such things proves an unworthiness. One should not hang out in bars looking for someone important to latch on to and toady to, nor should one hold back dues to the temple in the hope of accumulating more. One should not covet the goods of the poor, for they have enough damn problems; instead, look after them. Nor should one covet the goods of the rich, for if the rich man asks one to administer his property, how could one do that honorably if one wants it for one's own? Both seeking wealth and seeking poverty are inappropriate in Amenopet's view of the world: a properly balanced personality will be provided with the gods with sufficiency, and wealth aside from that is a matter of luck or fate.

There is a great deal, as well, about putting on a correct social face. Some of this reflects the heirarchical nature of Egyptian society: to not criticise the conversations of the great, to not eat before a nobleman, to not backtalk superiors, to remember that a servant will serve a master's interests. At the same time, he advocates a certain set of attitudes so that his son's reputation will be a protection to him: his integrity should be so publically known that it is a comfort to his neighbors. He should be a good friend; if a friend is troubled, he should neither silence nor provoke into greater agitation, but rather let the friend speak, hear the issues with an understanding of where that friend is coming from, and attempt to bring about peace through listening. Amenopet holds the good will and good speech of others to be more valuable than the contents of storehouses. Another line I will simply quote from the translation, for it is too fantastic to paraphrase: "A strong arm is not weakened by discretion, nor is one's back made safe by bowing."

The Egyptian focus on truthfulness is clear throughout the writing. Not merely falsehood is denigrated, but the specifics of speaking false praise, of keeping quiet about one's goals so that others will be unable to interfere with them, and passing false laws get their own mentions. He is against not merely perjury, but babbling on in court. Goals achieved by lies are rotten in the heart, he says - the heart, the shrine of right action - and will come to no good in the end.

There is, further, a thread of prudence throughout the work. Take care of your health, Amenopet tells his son. Sleep on it before you speak. Pursue self-sufficiency in your fields, for work well-done brings the most satisfaction, and it is better to stand on your own feet than be dependent or deceive for sustenance. Do not overeat and indulge to excess, and do not associate with those who do. (Amenopet would not have approved of certain aspects of Roman high society.) You cannot know what tomorrow will bring, and you are of this time, not any other; live accordingly.

So. A set of values put forth by an Egyptian sage, and inculcated in generations of schoolboys.

15 June, 2009

Price of Power

Here's some more Pagan Values Blogging, specifically dealing with the concept of rulership/leadership. Here is a reconstructionist approach, for those who are less familiar with the process of reconstruction; I look at the texts and evidence of the ancients, what they thought was the right thing to do, in order to derive an understanding that can be applied to the now.

Obviously, in a system that was, effectively, a theocracy mediated through a half-divine king, the concepts of rule and leadership were tightly intertwined with religion. Many of the royal duties were to perform ceremonial functions bound up with the gods' obligation to maintain the balance and function of the universe; in fact, many of those duties could only be performed by the king or his special delegates in the temples.

In the oldest days of dynastic Egypt, much was done solely in the name of the king as the son of the sun, by fiat, divine right as it were. In the turmoil of the First Intermediate Period, though, "I am in charge because I am in charge" lost a lot of its lustre; the nomarchs (local rulers) started to write tomb biographies explaining why they were the rightful rulers. It was not enough that they ruled and thus had the blessings of the gods; they established that the proof of the blessings of the gods was in how they ruled. That they upheld order and ruled properly showed that the gods had chosen them; that they were successful as caretakers of the people was proof of their worthiness to rule.

(Keep in mind that tomb inscriptions are basically propaganda, so that the afterlife judges will think the best of the official buried there. However, it's worth seeing what the ancients thought worthy of putting forth as propaganda.)

So, for example...

Nomarch Ankhtifi:

Heru (presumably of Edfu) asked Akhtifi to reestablish the rulership of the nome of the House of Khuu, and the rightness of this divine order is proven through its accomplishment. And how is that deed accomplished?

- the previous administrator, characterised as "a rebel and a wretch", was deposed (and history is written by the victors)
- peace was made between the survivors of murder victims and those who had done them harm (if I'm reading that line right)
- the hungry were fed; the naked were clothed
- those without oil for protecting their skin from the sun were anointed
- the barefoot were given sandals
- the unwed "were given" wives
- not only were the people of this nome fed in time of famine, but travellers from other nomes could trade for food

So: a justice system is reestablished, the needy are taken care of, there is no starvation, families were founded. (One does wonder about the opinions of the wives thus given, though.) Basically, the justification for the claim that the god willed this rulership is that the ruler took care of the people of the nome.

Nomarch Henku:

- fed the hungry, obviously a popular concern, including provisions for cattle
- depopulated towns were reestablished, and their proper organisation reaffirmed
- property rights were protected
- and he says he was a pretty nice guy

A little more bourgeois, this list, but much in the same mode: people were able to live good lives under his rule, so clearly he did it right.

Nomarch Tefibi:

- people were safe on the roads from bandits, brigands, and other evildoers
- the king was defended from rebels (in this time period, there was a lot of dispute over who was a proper king anyway; many nomarchs had their personal preferences)
- the temples flourished and proper offerings were made to the gods

This fellow had a rather militaristic attitude, and most of his tomb inscription talks about his success as a warrior in support of the king, but the support of both the ordinary person who would rather not be robbed and the proper heirarchy is present.

We also get a mention of the temples, which were, in many ways, the centres of the Egyptian economy. Not only did they serve as local collection points for tax money and redistribution of wealth to the needy, the temples were sources of education, trained medical practitioners, and similar professional-class services, and supported communities of artisans. If Egypt was a place of great culture and luxury, the means for that was largely focused through the religious structure.

Nomarch Kheti:

- built monuments
- supplied water where there had not been water access
- made sure grain harvests were plentiful
- provided tariff rebates (presumably to people in economic distress)
- cattle, again, and apparently magic extra-special fertile cattle which can certainly be chalked up to tomb inscriptions being propaganda pieces
- military competence
- shipbuilding
- speaker of truth
- close to the king

So this one, in addition to the standard "keeping people fed" procedures, offered public works products, support for local industry, tax rebates, and the suggestion that he had an in with the royal family that could be played for local advantage. Thus, we have introduced political awareness into the qualifications for rulership.

So what can we say, conclusively, about the theology of power here? That a theologically correct ruler will demonstrate that correctness in action; that the most important (or at least most consistently mentioned) action is the feeding of the hungry; that justice and public safety are established and reliable; that the economy is stable. The good ruler, in this system, proves the worth of that rule by the well-being of his people: their health, safety, security, and wealth.

And there is the religious justification for power, the thing that the heirarchy is intended to produce in all of that talk about social order and the right way to do things.

Health, safety, security, and wealth. These are the fruits of power well-applied.

I will conclude by quoting Sheshi:

I have come from my town;
I have descended from my nome;
I have done justice for its lord;
I have satisfied him with what he loves.
I spoke truly; I did right;
I spoke fairly; I repeated fairly;
I seized the right moment,
so as to stand well with people.
I judged between two so as to content them;
I rescued the weak from one stronger than he
as much as was in my power.
I gave bread to the hungry, clothes ...
I brought the boatless to land.
I buried him who had no son;
I made a boat for him who lacked one.
I respected my father; I pleased my mother;
I raised their children.
So says he whose nickname is Sheshi.

(I think next I will write about Wisdom Literature. I'll note I'll probably not write about the Negative Confessions, because I expect that most Egyptian recon types will wind up wanting to write about the Negative Confessions and there's a whole big heap of other stuff out there for exploring the concepts of values.)

13 June, 2009

Ear to the Ground

Okay, some serious theological musings now, without pop culture at all. Next in the Pagan Values Month blogging.

Value systems evolve in environments.

This is both more and less complicated than modern ecopaganism (the ancients, as I have noted many times, really stank at environmentalism); rather than a straightforward concern about preserving the health of systems with a modern understanding of how they work, those values are derived from those systems, grow up as a part of them.

I am going to paint a landscape for you now.

Start with the river, a pulsing, throbbing artery that cuts through the land. Everything here focuses around the river, not just in the way that its banks are bathed in seasonally refreshed fertile land, but the way it divides the world into halves: east and west, upstream and downstream. Imagine it clogged with boats, little reed things most of them, with the occasional hefty barge made mostly from imported wood. The current flows north; the wind blows south; the great highway of the river is made to connect the place its feet are sunk in cataracts with its mouth. It is full of fish and fowl, yes, and also dangerous animals, whether predator or simply huge by human scale. The banks are covered with flowers and useful plants. The river is a living, essential entity; its god is painted in blues and greens, with pendulous fertile breasts and a great well-fed belly, and His crown is made of reeds like those that the people pluck from His banks.

Expand out, now, from this view of the river, and look at the land, its stark divisions. The fertile strip runs along the fat blue god's sides, covered in fields, fruit trees, gardens, sliced through with canals, all feeding grain and flax and vegetables. The range of floral scents is amazing; travellers from foreign lands come here in search of perfumes. And beyond that rich wealth of fertility, there is the stark desert, punctuated with monuments and tombs and graves, reaching to the horizon under the cloudless sky. Out here there is wealth, for those who brave the starkness, of a different kind: wealth of metal and gemstone and quarried rock. The two lands, it is called, the red land of the hostile and protective desert; the black land of rich life.

Sky and earth are similarly starkly divided, for the horizon is painfully sharp in the desert, and for all the rich wet central heart around the river, this is a desert land. Day and night are sharp and clear.

Let time pass. Watch the red land swell and grow and swallow up the fields in its time, the river dwindle. Watch the river swell again, in a great surge that devours the encroaching desert, bringing with it not just the new year's rich earth but malaria and other plague, a dual-edged sword of life and death. Watch the river secede, now, and the people clear their fields and once again plant flax, wheat, barley, cabbages, onions.

This is the land of the Nile, in ancient days.

What are the values of this land?

Look at it, see how it is divided into pairs: east and west, north and south, riverland and desert, earth and sky, fertility and starkness, life and death, all in the same packages. See how these pairs dance with each other, sometimes one ascendant, sometimes the other, all in intense, dynamic balance. This is not a land that lends itself to easy absolutes, not in a place where the river's rising brings disease that may kill your children or might swallow the foundation of your house and wash it away, nor a place where the terrifying and dangerous desert both holds wealth and forms a barrier that foreign raiders so rarely dare to cross. It is a place where twinned forces, equal and opposite, dance with each other in perfect balance, and the greatest value is that balance. All cosmic energies have ambivalent natures, even the ones that seem most friendly, and are dangerous out of their proper place.

It is a precarious land, balanced entirely on the grace of that androgynous reed-crowned god, and yet its wealth is amazing. In a good year, and most years are good, it can produce more food than it needs to feed itself, even while supporting the presence of many craftsmen, priests, scholars, artisans. That precariousness is aligned so perfectly, though, that it reveals an obvious divine order; why else would the wind blow so consistently southward, letting travellers reach the inner cities of Egypt by raising sails, and return to the Great Green simply by letting the current carry them? And thus it is apparent that so long as that divine order is preserved, maintained, encouraged, there will be wealth almost beyond imagining, and people will lead happy lives. The price for falling out of balance is harsh and generally immediate; the bounty of right action is equally dramatic.

And so this is what their land taught that set of ancients: that the world was made of synergistically opposing forces, in the center of which is the perfect balance of utter abundance. That even the most benevolent power might have a bitter edge, and even the most dangerous have worthy and valuable secrets. That preserving the order laid forth in these monumental terms was a delicate line to walk, and that falling from order was ruinous. That all these powers were necessary, a part of the intricate design that made for the land of Egypt, Gift of the Nile.

And thus we find, when we dig further, that the concept of order, also of justice, rightness, right action, truth, is represented as a feather: a delicate thing, light and balanced. And we find that in the end, people's hearts are laid in the scales to see if they have lived in the center of balance, held all the interconnected forces with appropriate love and appropriate fear, and thus was abundant rather than scarce.

This is what that land taught.

I do not live in that land. I live in the land where the Three Sisters teach the lesson of balance and synergy, not where those lessons are writ to the scale of giants. My bones are New England granite, and my land teaches me endurance, stability, order, ritual, and pattern in its own language. My bones are New England granite, and my heart is full of the dance of loving brothers in constant opposition.

12 June, 2009

And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots and they won't take either of them.

I have no coherent response to this abomination presented by the current administration and its homophobic lackeys on the 42nd anniversary of Loving vs. Virginia, at least not one that does not require that I explore whole new realms of expletive. (This link, being from an actual lawyer, rather than AmericaBlog, may be more palatable to some; it points out that, among other things, the executive is obligated to defend extant laws if they are legally defensible, though it is not obligated to be an asshole doing it.) (Another link: Pam's House Blend. There are a lot of links around; I'm going to stop snagging them. There are difficulties with the arguments in some of them ('cousin marriage' is not the same as 'incest', for example) but that does not make the whole thing less disgusting.)

I have had a simple response, one that I intend to supplement by actual writing of a paper letter to the White House, but it is a simple and elegant enough response that I would like to suggest it to the broader world.

I went to the White House contact form and sent them this quotation, with my own supplemental commentary:

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about. --Mildred Loving

Shame on you.

On this day of all days.

I would like to suggest to all my thirty-three and a third readers who care about the administration's reprehensible defense of DOMA that they, at minimum, pop over to the White House contact form and quote Mildred Loving.

11 June, 2009

Embracing the Shadow

This was not the post I was expecting to write next for the Pagan Values Month blogging thing, but the post I will be linking to is just too beautiful to let slip away.

Both of the religions that I follow have, in places, an aesthetic of duality. There are repeated myths of the siblings or pairs, exact opposites, exact equals; their conflicts, their parallelisms, the fundamental creative tension between the self and the shadow, however one defines the self, however one defines the shadow. The thing that comes closest to expressing this in common consciousness is the yin-yang symbol: the two shapes curling around each other, each having a spot of the other at its core, the essentiality of both of them.

What does it mean to be in a world in which one's opposite is one's beloved brother, in which love and conflict build the glorious?

Hold that thought.

I will now take a turn into the ridiculous and talk about this past season of American Idol. And in the end, when this thought embraces its shadow, it will achieve the sublime.

I'm not much of a reality TV person - I'm not much of a TV person at all, let alone specific manifestations thereof - but my family wound up watching much of the end of this season of American Idol. There is a whole cultural thing tangled up around this, but our household attachment to the drama orbited around the three figures who were the final three contestants left standing. We talked about musical skill, we talked about impressions, we talked about what we liked and did not like about the voices of the performers, and we talked about the nature of the contest, the way the judges attempted to skew results to get particular performers to pass to the next week or off the show.

And we were cheered every week one Kris Allen managed to beat expectations, beat the harsh criticisms of the judges, stay on the show despite having someone we felt had an inferior voice and a far inferior attitude consistently pimped as a superior singer. Adam Lambert's progress was almost a given, so his continued victories were simply a sign that the world was functioning as it ought, but Kris Allen's progress was another story, one with actual dramatic tension, pitting him primarily against Danny Gokey, the other 'Christian contestant' and obvious judge favorite.

And the narrative in some circles was not the music, it was the package the music came in. Here's the big story: the flamboyant, theatrical gothling who was, in a phrase I saw recently, born fabulous, but whose unmistakable vocal brilliance and skills overcame whatever reticence some might have about his outrageousness; the down-to-earth Christian performer with a traditional relationship background. But which one of the latter?

In the end, it was Kris Allen.

And now I direct you to An Unapproved Road and a post titled We Get To Carry Each Other, from which I will quote (found via The Moderate Voice):

I know next to nothing about Kris Allen’s non-musical life, except that he’s married, he calls himself Christian and he’s done missionary work across the world. I heard about the exchanges among the other contestants that made reference to what is supposedly “godly” and right in relationships, but Kris’s name wasn’t part of that. I don’t know what kind of Christianity he practises, or how he envisions his God. I do know this: he declares himself Christian to the television audience – i.e. to the world; and he freely, publicly, verbally, and especially non-verbally, loves Adam Lambert like a brother.


In an interview the day after the finale, Adam departed from the usual breezy soundbytes required of him to emphasize what he felt was most important about the competition -- that the friendship and respect between himself and Kris might be an example for others in transcending difference, for the reward of becoming enriched by it.

Now do you see why I started out talking theology and then started babbling about American Idol?

(Go read that post, by the way. I mean it. It's gorgeous. Read at least some of the comments, too. Like this one.)

Look at the glorious nature of the duality. Look at the one young man, pianist and guitarist and singer-songwriter sort of voice, skilled musician, dedicated Christian; look at the other young man, whose coming out as gay in Rolling Stone isn't so much a revelation as an incidental footnote that he throws out on his way to 'Let me talk about my music.' Look at some of the narratives about the heartland vs. the coasts, culture and counterculture, down home vs. the clubbing scene, modest and self-effacing vs. charisma that can smack ya like a club, all the ways these two young men were supposed to be at each other's throats. One could imagine introducing them, telling each, "This is your Shadow. This is the Other. This is Not Like You."

And we are so readily taught that when there is that division between the two, that they are enemies, that there is hostility: this is the story of heaven and hell. This is not that; that is not this; they are locked in an eternal combat, jaws locked on each other's throats. This is everywhere, in politics (an us-and-them display if ever there was one, these days), in social things, all over the place, this antagonism between Self and Shadow.

But Self and Shadow are reflections off the same divide; that which is other to me is my negative space, the shape of the world that embraces. It can conflict, yes, but it can also twine and reveal the most amazing things, things like the friendship of two young musicians who recognised across that line that their exact differences made them, in the end, exactly alike.

In the tension between Self and Shadow, the world sings.

06 June, 2009

Frameworks and Fireworks

I want to start off by linking this post, which I think is overall excellent.

Unfortunately, I read all the comments, so I can't just enthuse about it. Damnit. I wanted to just point and say this is cool, go read it.

But there's an argument thread in there that wants to talk about things like "all men are potential rapists", which isn't what the post is about at all; and while that's not as bad as the more extreme form, it's still ... not a thing that is protective of me, not something that helps me come to terms with my experience as a survivor.

This isn't a warning about the universe. No; this is a scalpel sliding blame and responsibility under the flesh to make sure the scarification stays sharp. If "all men are potential rapists", then if I want to be safe from rape, perhaps I should consider not associating with any men. Need to be a good little penis policeman, after all.

Except, you know, all people are potential rapists. Gendering it creates a heirarchy of survivors, makes some victims more real than others. Rape is not just sexist. Rape is racist. Rape is transphobic. Rape is homophobic. Rape is anti-sex-worker. Rape is ablist. Rape is a thing that sprawls across all kinds of intersectional social differentials, including some I haven't mentioned here, including ones that don't have tidy words for them. (What's the ism for the socially awkward nerdy guy who was raped and expected to be grateful for it? Not a hypothetical; I know at least one.) And not all the enforcers who use rape are men.

And I can read comment threads where people talk about having their bisexuality slide closer and closer to lesbian the more they think about this, and I wind up alienated and tearful, because I know maleness doesn't cause this thing. It's a social defect that winds up in people, and while it may be overwhelmingly more common in men because of privilege and the nature of the crime, that doesn't make it not a people thing.

I read that post right after reading a post in which a friend commented that her mother keeps patting her ass whenever she bends over and giggling about the discomfort it causes. I don't know about how you conduct things back on Earth, but here on Gehenna that's a sexually-tinged assault at best, made all the more creepy and fucked up by being something a parent is inflicting on their child and deriving some sort of perverse gratification from. Tell me this isn't contributing to rape culture. I want to see you say it and keep a straight face.

And if you can say it to me -- go say it to the young autistic woman who is trying to figure out what "normal" behaviour is, who has only just realised that maybe being randomly groped might actually be beyond the pale.

And, y'know, the power - and responsibility - to say "What the hell is wrong with you?" for attempting sexual assault and rape is not something that rests solely on men. It's a people thing, because if there's a 'rape culture', it's not just guys who are stuck in it.

So with Cereta, I'm gonna call on us all to be That Guy. Because there aren't enough stories of people getting other people to can the rape-promoting bullshit, and to stop people who want to perpetuate rape culture before rapes happen.

05 June, 2009

Some Basic Historical Pagan Values From Various Places

This is the first of a set of posts that I'm going to be making for International Pagan Values Blogging Month, because I think this is important stuff to be going at, for one, and also because I've been too much of a ranty bitch here and I'd rather talk religion and theology for a while.

I'm writing this from a generic perspective before digging into things from my own traditions; these aren't going to be true for all pagan religions, or anything, but they're sort of first-order true historically (requiring back of the envelope calculations to correct). As someone with a reconstructionist sensibility who is also kind of amorphous and blurry, I find this sort of thing a useful place to start out from.

I've started a 'pagan values month' tag in case some of these don't get hooked up into the blogfest correctly or something. The ancients were great believers in backups and all.

So. A few points of general historical interest, possibly a little whimsical in presentation.

  1. Our ancestors knew what they were doing. They are also, due to being our ancestors, our closest allies in the spirit world, and, being in the spirit world, probably have a better handle on all this numinous shit than we do. Keeping on their good side is smart, as they're the best allies we've got when the weird goes down.

    For a more modern perspective: Most reconstructionist paganisms include some level of ancestor veneration. Further, the entire concept of reconstructionism is based on a form of "our ancestors knew what they were doing", the idea that these old religions actually had some stuff sorted out and we can start working from that basis. Even non-reconstruction pagan religions often have forms of inherited lore and tradition, as well as some level of ancestor veneration. This is all, of course, rendered much more complicated by shifts in the nature of tribal identity in the West, having known specific ancestors who were real jackasses, or having people who feel like ancestral figures without any particular blood tie. People muddle through, in the end.

  2. The gods don't care whether you believe in Them any more than the rocks care if you believe in them, the panther in the forest cares if you believe in it, or your cousin Sam cares for that matter. What they care about is whether or not you treat Them properly and do what They want, much like the rocks and your cousin Sam (the panther is well-aware that you're unlikely to do what it wants, especially if you have a spear on you, but remains hopeful that you won't). Your community cares, too, because they can see whether or not you do the right stuff, and the gods occasionally have a blast radius.

    For a more modern perspective: Most pagan religions are orthopraxic. Some are militantly orthopraxic, knee-jerk responding to a culture that puts an unbalanced amount of weight on belief by refusing to consider systematisations of thought as relevant. Even in a community that has a healthier balance, it is entirely likely that there will be a number of different beliefs within that community, much as the ancient world had people who had philosophical perspectives on the nature of the gods living alongside people who had belief in the gods as entities and various other shades of meaning. For many of the religions with a strong basis in historical cultures, there is a sense of shared community practice; while people will have their own personal practices and devotions, religion is a matter of public ritual as well. This is one of the things that is actively different for a lot of modern pagans, due to the diasporic and convert-based nature of the religions in question.

  3. It is blatantly obvious that different people deal with different gods. Why, if everyone had the same gods, it'd be much harder to tell our tribe from their tribe, and that Just Wouldn't Do. (Besides, these gods are our oldest ancestors/creators/etc., and they didn't beget/make/etc. them.) And there's no point in making other people worship our gods, really, because that would be like adopting them into the family, and we don't actually like them all that much and we don't want them over here thinking like they're as good as the rest of us. Let 'em have their second-rate gods, and let 'em have them over there.

    For a more modern perspective: most pagans are not big fans of proselytisation. I suspect that in all honesty this has a lot more to do with feeling harassed by a dominant culture of pimped conversion than anything with historical basis; however, the closest thing we have to a conversion culture in the Western pagan world is the Romans, who tended to declare various local gods equivalent to various of their gods, say, "Do these rituals this way or we'll stomp you some more", and go away. At least in theory, pagans are not threatened by people with different gods, beliefs, and practices; in practice, well ... the difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference.

  4. Sometimes those foreigners from the tribe over there actually have a cool god. (They probably stole it from us back before we remember.) Well, cool gods are cool; we can worship that too. We may even come up with a story of how that god relates to our gods if we feel like it.

    For a more modern perspective: For all that many modern pagans rant and rail about god-borrowing and similar practices, they are ancient. Even without getting into the major things like the aforementioned Romans or Graeco-Egyptian syncretism or anything else, people nicked gods from their neighbors all the time. And with modern communication and the research of lost cultural traditions, just about everyone is everyone's neighbor these days. A historically-based practice will likely center on a particular cultural grouping of gods, yes, but a smattering of other gods is far from implausible.

  5. Gods tend to live in particular areas. It's rude to not give the ones in the area one lives in proper respect when one travels.

    For a more modern perspective: most modern pagans no longer consider major gods to be strictly bound to particular locations. (Gods of locations are a different story, of course. They tend not to move much.) Nonetheless, They have places They are strong in, whether the homes of individual people, houses of worship, etc. Unfortunately, the value of giving care and attention to local powerful gods is not one that has really carried over into modern paganism, perhaps because it would obviously, in many cases, require being polite to Christians.

  6. Gods are embodied. Not simply, the way people are, but in a complex interlacing of forms and appearances. The sun is not the sun-god, but if you can't perceive the sun-god by observing the sun, that's not a terribly effective sun-god, is it? (But at the same time, that same sun-god may be embodied in an icon, a sacred animal, and so on; learning to see the gods in all their forms is an important mental thing.

    For a more modern perspective: The word that gets thrown around a lot is "immanent", in opposition to "transcendent". God is in us, and in the environment, and all this. Now, the ancients kind of sucked at environmentalism in general, but their basic attitude was in many places that all kinds of things (animals, plants, and natural phenomena) might happen to be the current form of a god going about godly business, and thus worthy of respect and cautious treatment. Many also crafted icons to house gods when gods wanted to drop in in humanish ways; these were later degraded as "idols" by people who figured that a god in a body was limited.

  7. Gods are not omniscient. Nor are They omnipotent. (Though They may approach these things within their particular domains of interest.) They are certainly not omnibenevolent. They have Their own agendas, and those agendas are Their primary concern. They may offer help to people if that forwards Their agendas, or if those people are perceived as useful; it's just as common for people to wind up caught between a major divine personality conflict, or just haphazardly hurt by an agenda. In short, gods are a lot like people. Just, y'know, really big ones.

    For a more modern perspective: the gods aren't going to fix you, make everything all better, or otherwise cuddle you through your problems. Sometimes you have to deal with shit under your own power. This is a big deal for people who are raised in a culture in which the Problem of Evil is a major underlying philosophical concern: where is an all-powerful, all-good deity when you really need one? "Jesus with tits" paganism is ahistorical, in other words, and frequently abuses the names of gods Who aren't inclined to agree. Like other people, gods aren't perfectly reliable, and They don't have infinite patience either.

  8. Worship is making a deal. God doesn't do what you want? Withhold the sacrifices. This is a contract, and there are rules and principles.

    For a more modern perspective: honestly, a lot of modern pagans are really uncomfortable with the sorts of compulsions that the ancients would put on the gods. But one of the standard sorts of prayers we have recorded (on shards and other things) goes something like, "If you do this thing for me, I'll sacrifice this for you" or some similar service. And a lot of other things are, "If you don't return things to the way they should be, the rituals will stop." The god-impersonation intrinsic to Egyptian theurgy makes a lot of people kind of squeamish.

Ngh, that's what I got for now. I'm probably missing a few, but what the hell, if I keep digging at this until I unearth everything in my head that might fit I'll never get anywhere.

03 June, 2009

Who Does This?

My mother invited herself up for a visit.

This isn't the funny part.

The information I had was "Sometime after Memorial Day" and "My roommate may need to be near there on June 1 if she takes that internship". To which my response was, okay then, I'll try to get my brain armorplated by that time.

So last Thursday I get an email from her saying, "Don't bother calling me, I'm heading out on Saturday to visit people!" Not a personal email, a mass mail to twenty or thirty people.

... okaaaay.

Time passes.

Monday afternoon, the phone rings, and my powerful psychic skills say, "That's my mother," and so I leave it to go to voicemail. And lo! It is my mother.

She wants to come up Wednesday and stay through Friday.

This isn't the funny part.

Wednesday: birth class. Thursday: preexisting commitment with friends.

I crack up. And explain this to my [legal] husband (I need a new title for him, this brackets thing is maddening, but I'm not going to just post treating him as my only husband dammit), and he says, "Well. That's piss-poor planning on her part."

He said that a lot Monday evening.

So I called her up Monday night. She is Very Enthusiastic and all. And then I point out the schedule issues, and she says, "... oh."

"Oh", like she's suddenly shocked into a realisation that, y'know, I have a life that exists outside the fringes of her peripheral vision.

Well, she's going to go up to Maine on the weekend to see her other brother, why not visit on the way back down?

Sure, Mom. But I'm out of the house all day Tuesday.


So she's driving down Sunday night, here for Monday, and going away Tuesday morning.


Who does this?

02 June, 2009

Tiller in the Seventh Month

I mentioned that I'd been affected by the Tiller assassination today to the shrink.

She said, "Yeah, I was wondering how you were reacting to that."

Just great. One of my therapist's thoughts about the news was how I was dealing with it, and on her own dime to boot.

It's obvious, of course, that it would. I'm seven months pregnant. I have anxiety issues. (Secondary effect of my depressive disorder.) My primary criterion for dealing with my pregnancy (both in terms of medical care and everything else) has been minimising stress and meddling, with a particular eye to things that I know I can degenerate into obsessive circles of increasingly frantic worry over; I know how to manage my brain when I'm off my meds, after all, I've been doing it that way for most of my life.

It is completely normal in the course of a pregnancy to have worries about the health of the baby, to have moments of 'what if', to fret about whether things are okay. The baby wants to hang out pretty much exclusively on my right side; does that mean the cord is tangled up and making my uterus into a trap? Etc. And my anxiety and I, we've got a little routine for this: I listen to the fretfulness, I acknowledge it, I point out that there's nothing we can do about it right now, I set it aside, and I go do something else.

Before Sunday.

On Sunday, as I'm sure you well know, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his church. A man who specialised in care and comfort for third-trimester women in tragic circumstances. Who conducted the abortions with sufficient skill and empathy to provide grieving parents with an intact body to mourn and bury. Who had followed in his father's footsteps in feeling that this care was essential for women in need (his father had had a patient die after refusing to perform an abortion, and thereafter changed his practice), who had been one of three people in the United States who did it at all. [Added:] Who was known to provide that care even to people who could not afford to pay for it.

There is often a foot wedged against my bottommost right rib, an uncomfortable pressure, sometimes accompanied by a sequence of thumps.

I think of the woman in my childbirth preparation class who has as her mantra, "If it's kicking, you know it's alive." She is pregnant after a miscarriage, after all.

After Sunday, I rock and pray that that is good enough. Kicking means alive, right?

I read, and see people talking about babies eaten up with terminal cancer, ancephaly, various other syndromes, deformities, failures to develop, and I try not to jump and startle with every kick, every vibration of the skin of my abdomen, try to stifle the exaggerated startles of my PTSD and just repeat, "If it's kicking, you know it's alive."

I have friends who have lost children to miscarriages; who learned that their desired baby was a blighted ovum and had to work through the whiplash from 'nurturing life' to 'harboring death'. One of my [legal] husband's coworkers had a baby recently, a baby who lived for two hours after birth.

I have been carrying this life for seven months. It's kicking, right?

But the fear is there, the overwhelming fear, from reading about, thinking about, the women who carried their lives for seven months, eight months, nearly nine, and then learned that no, what they had nurtured, invested in, prepared for, perhaps named, was going to die. Maybe killing them on the way too, bleeding out or rot or toxins poisoning the system or any of the other horrible malfunctions of flesh.

And people write about Tiller, write about the care he gave to these stricken families, and sometimes to do that, they have to write about why his job was necessary.

And I cradle my belly and want to howl with the terror of it.

I want to crawl into a hospital and demand tests, poking, prodding, knock me out and put a fucking closed circuit TV in my belly if you have to, let me know that it will be okay. Let me know that it's enough. Let me know that it will be all right. Even though I made all these careful, cautious, informed choices, avoiding the medicalisation of pregnancy, facing this natural process with calm and serenity and all that good stuff, I want to throw it all away and beg someone, anyone, somewhere, to give me reassurances.

Because a man who helped women face the worst when the worst had to be faced was murdered by a terrorist.

Who has certainly achieved a fine terrorist goal: one terrified woman. And with me, probably many others.

I talked about it so rationally, reasonably, with the shrink, noting in the abstract that it was setting off my anxiety, that I really ought to go to some effort to address that, remember my vitamins, all that good sane stuff.

I left her office, fractured, and my liege said that I looked completely exhausted. Yes.

And I had talked about it, which meant the walls around the roiling mass of terrified were breached, and the entire trip home I sniffled and fought back tears, trying to hold on a little longer without falling apart. Couldn't fall apart. Couldn't make a scene. Couldn't ... show ... fear.

I closed the kitchen door, a soft scrape into solitude, and when I was alone I howled like a terrified animal, howled and screamed and spat bile and let the tears roll down my cheeks. Only in solitude, because it was too much to show even my husbands.