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

29 March, 2012

G is for Goals

A lot of people have goals for religion.

They want to achieve initiation. They want to find a patron deity. They want to do this, have done this, achieve that, get to the finish line, and then, I guess, ... what? You can stop? I suppose for the ones whose goal is "get access to heaven" once they get there they can stop, but seriously folks.

And a lot of these people sound to me like folks who have planned out their perfect wedding and have no idea how they want to conduct a marriage. But it will be brilliant, it will be perfect, the weather will conform, and the spouse will be ideal. And everything gets measured up against the wedding, that supposed "best day of your life" for a cartoon woman: will it serve the wedding? will that person look right in the tux? is this picture-perfect? Does it do what I want?

And some of these people achieve their fairy-tale lacy cake with the fluffy, cloying frosting. And then they wake up the next morning and have no fucking clue what they're doing with themselves. Everything was geared towards The Goal, all issues were plastered over and touched up with paint to make it through The Goal, and now everything can come apart, because there's nothing sustainable about that vision of peak performance aimed at perfection.

Every day is not your wedding day.

There are a lot more every days than there are wedding days.

In fluffy fairyland I can do my morning prayers when I get up after feeling fully rested, and go about my day. In the real world, I'm awakened by Little Foot poking me and shouting "Time get up! Go down taaaaairs!", and half the time can't convince her to stay and "help mama count" my situps, let alone let me do my prayers without either jumping on me or heading off on her own (fortunately, she can take care of herself well enough that I don't worry about that much). And that's just morning rituals. Making a goal of perfect religious practice is a non-starter, and even if through some miracle and divinely appointed childcare I pulled it off one day, there's still tomorrow.

It's not done. When you reach a goal, you get to be done.

Religion is not goals. (And really, look at all those people who have as a "goal" making it to heaven - how many faces do some of them stomp on because they think it'll give them a step up towards the clouds?) Religion is relationships.

You don't get a relationship and then be done. You have to show up the next day too, and the next day. Sometimes they want more time, sometimes they want less. When everything is going well, relationships are uplifting and supportive, helping you to be better, stronger, more competent, more secure, because people are the sort of animal that gangs up on things. I'm not talking just romantic relationships here - friends, family, all of these are relationships. Deities: also relationships. The grand span of the freaking universe: relate to that too! And sometimes the relationships need your support instead of just feeding you, and it all goes around in cycles: I give, you give, and as we give so we make it possible to continue giving.

Don't think of it as something you get done.

Think of it as a relationship with how to live.

23 March, 2012

F is for Family

I sometimes get the impression that a lot of pagans are kind of allergic to thinking of religion as something that happens in families.

Yes, I get it: there's a substantial number of pagans who are dealing with the aftermath of having been indoctrinated into some form of religion that didn't work for them, which might even have been cruel to them, and who have resolved that they will never participate in that sort of thing.

But religious ritual isn't just about the cosmic. It isn't just about the turning of the seasons and making sure the sun comes up.

Religious ritual marks births, deaths, comings of age, marriages - not all of them in all religions (no marriage in mine, for example), but most of those big life event things, the things that form, transform, and change families tend to show up again and again in religious ritual. I can't see how to take family out of religion without taking the people out.

Oh, sure, you can do DIY family. Coven-oriented oathbound witchcraft is, as I understand it, supposed to be that: the family of the religion is the circle of initiates. But not everyone is into that sort of thing.

But still the books come out, with titles that end "... for the solitary practitioner". "... for one." The unspoken things in the books are so often either geared towards a young adult with no voluntary fixed ties or people even younger, still at home with presumably-disapproving parents. The assumptions are adult, independent, almost isolated.

My household is mixed-religion. It's important to me to support the religious Stuff of each of my family members. Which is why I spent some time a few months ago making a children's menorah so that Little Foot could learn about her other mom's Judaism in a participatory manner. She would light the candles for the adult menorah, and then we would go light little LED candles in the cups of the other one, and let them 'burn' until morning, a small child's miracle. And Little Foot loved the Hannukah rituals just as much as she loves helping tend my (Celtic pagan) liege's cattle shrine.

My ritual notebook has notes on formal grace prayers for the dinner table. It has morning prayers, evening prayers, bath prayers. Things that I could, when she is a little older, teach my child, because children thrive on rituals. When I look for how to celebrate my holidays, I don't just dig for the esoteric and "spiritual", the meditations, the ecstasy - I look for the things that a child can love, a child whose response to a candle is "Make fire!"

"Make fire!" is the core of so much of religious ritual, cross-traditionally. "Make fire!" is the foundation of the hearthside, the meal cooking, the resting in the long winter. "Make fire!" a child understands.

Which means a child can understand religion.

Make fire.

22 March, 2012

F is for Festivals

Running way behind.

So the thing about Egyptian religion is that, from the point of view of the common man, the stuff they got to participate in outside their household were the festivals. The daily cultus of the deities in the temples was under the purview of the priests, and regular folks were not invited.

Which means that I think it's kind of important to figure out what to do for those festivals, the things that people like me would be regularly participating in. And that's not a simple question.

Some of the festivals, as is the case for pretty much all religions, were seasonally based. And the Egyptian seasons were different. There were three of them - Akhet, apparently meaning 'horizon', the flood season; Peret, meaning 'emergence', the planting and growth season (often translated, I've found, as 'winter'), and 'Shomu', which means 'low water', the harvest and parching summer season. While that hot summer season significantly overlaps the Northern Hemisphere's temperate season of summer, note that that winds up putting the planting and farming season starting around the time that Wheel of the Year celebrating pagans mark the harvest and the dead at Samhain.

There are ways of thinking about this, but they do require thinking.

There's also the problems of building the calendar itself. The oldest festival calendar appears to have been lunar, and thus structured similarly to the modern Jewish calendar. However, at some point after the establishment of the civil calendar (a 365-day year), festivals started to 'drift' and attach to that. So that raises the question of whether a given date refers to the civil calendar or the religious lunar calendar or, indeed, the later lunar calendar that was attached to the civil calendar rather than observations of the stars.... And how does one want to do it? My current draft calendar is basically a civil-year calendar. I don't like that, and I want to update it at least somewhat, but that's a lot of work - and I haven't really wanted to go to the work to hand-calculate every month, so that's work I'm not doing. Maybe someday I'll find a computer program that will do the grinding for me, and then I can make a shiny new webpage for that.

And then, of course, what to do for each of those festivals, which - in ancient times - were celebrated by the state apparatus, often had governmental activity, involved interactions between active great temples, and so on. Finding something that can be done simply, at home or in a small community, is a lot harder.

09 March, 2012

E is for Exclusivity

Touchy, touchy subject, especially in the wake of things like the PantheaCon Trans Inclusion Debacle (Mark 2). But I'm not just thinking about that, I'm thinking about huge chunks of things.

Most people reading this likely grew up in a culture that was dominated by Christianity. And the thing about that is that there's a whole bunch of subtle stuff that comes with it, a lot of assumptions that don't actually get questioned and checked - even among people who have actively chosen to reject Christianity, often with the "my awful ex sucks" attitude that a lot of pagans have.

For example: Christianity is a universalist religion. It claims to be there for everyone, available to everyone, and in fact it wants everyone. Different bits of it manage different quantities of genuine welcome, but even the parts that are least friendly to us deviant types will say "We want you to join us, give up your deviancy and get our divine cookie when you die!" (Why that's appealing is still unclear to me, but that's neither here nor there.) In the two most common (in my experience) framings of Christian universalism, people are either divided up into Good People (heaven-bound) and Sub-Human Scum (hell-bound) or categorised in some flavor of "You can just get to heaven if you do it right, let me show you what I know about how to do it right." (I know plenty of Christians who do not proselytise at me or consider me hell-bound, mind, but I suspect that their basic approach is something like that from C. S. Lewis's Narnia, in which 'doing it right' is by axiom recognised by the Power(s) that would appreciate such action.)

The assumptions of universality are much more persistent than the actual belief in Christian religion, though. (If you need an example of this, go into any atheist vs. theist flamewar and see how often "religion" is equated with a coercive force intended to convert or compel those people who are not adherents to it. I have stalled out several ranting atheists by pointing out that I really could not give less of a fuck whether or not they "believe" in any of my gods. They generally paused briefly, and then went back to arguing as if I did not exist.) The fact that it was an innovation, and that most religions historically have not been down with that kind of nonsense, is completely lost in the hegemonial status of A Religion Is For Everyone (Except Maybe The Sub-Human Hellbound Scum).

Ancient peoples, for example, were not generally universalists (though some philosophical branches within them might have been: vide Atenism). Oh, each tribe and culture likely thought that their gods were the best gods - and one act in war was stealing icons from the enemy to deprive the enemy of their power - but it was an axiomatic given that those people over there had different gods. After all, they were different people, a different culture, with different customs. If they had the same gods and practices, why, they'd be us, not them.

Obviously, this attitude has its ups and downs - Christianity has had an effect in making it more plausible to see widely varied people as part of "us", after all - but it does mean that the whole "impose on you the one true religion" thing is kind of a no-starter. I think the closest we get are things like the Romans, who tended to do things like conquer places, study the local Powers, and say, "Oh, your gods? Those are other names for our gods. Update your statues accordingly and pay your taxes and we won't smite you a second time." (Some times their accuracy in parallelism was better than others.) And even with the equation of "proper attention to the Roman cultus" with "decent citizen not in need of smiting", there were periods when Jewish people were given exceptions from those laws, despite being, in Roman terms, atheists (without statues to update).

But modern paganism has a largely-unrecognised tension between universalist tendencies and exclusive ones. I have - more than once, probably more than a hundred times - seen the basic argument between the person who expects religion to be universal, and thus to be coddled, persuaded, and handed membership for the asking, and a person who expects religion to be something affiliated with a specific community or even family, who therefore asks the universalists why they should get special treatment as a total stranger.

And of course this always blows up, because, at some level, the would-be pagan coming from a universalist standpoint takes that as "you are Sub-Human Hellbound Scum". Because if they weren't Sub-Human Hellbound Scum, obviously they'd be welcomed as a member! There is no other reason to say no! Religion is for everyone! And information wants to be free! (Has the information climbed into your personal ear yet? No? That's why you're asking for it? Clearly it doesn't want to be as free as all that.)

There's also the thread that the universalist probably thinks 'pagan' is a religion, rather than the none-of-the-above category box for leftover religions, and thus expects a well, more universalist approach to things. Sure, anyone can be pagan by saying so. That doesn't mean jack shit about anything specific....

The critical thing about modern paganism as a mishmash is that while some of the founding influences were fairly open (for example, most reconstructions being fairly open to those who are willing to do the work and adopt the appropriate attitudes), others - including the best-known things - are organised around mysteries. And mysteries, by their nature, are not general-access things.

A mystery is, at root, an experience that can only be understood by going through it. One can learn all kinds of theory about many mysteries, but that doesn't actually provide functional knowledge. (Much like reading and learning about sex is not the same thing as having sex: sex is a mystery.) A mystery may be an experiential aspect to a comparatively open religion (technically speaking, Communion in Christianity is such a thing, not that this is commonly presented) or it may be more limited - only those people who make the correct sacrifices may enter, only those people who have the correct devotions, the correct background, or whatever else.

If the entire religion is structured around a mystery, then it is the responsibility of those people who are in possession of the mystery to only bring it to appropriate dedicants. Simply wanting the mystery does not make it happen, any more than wanting a pony pays the rent of a stall at the stable.

The tricky parts come in with trying to talk about how and why these communities are limited-access.

A while back I had a few go-arounds in a conversation about a particular religious witchcraft tradition. Unlike Wicca, it has not yet spawned a more universalist derivative (using the same name or otherwise), and the teachers are still heavily localised. And, for one reason or another, the conversation degenerated to, "Well, if your tradition is so great, why aren't you sharing it more? Don't you want to share your shiny thing?" And a lot of the responses got read as "Well, I sacrificed to get to a place where I could get training, so if you don't do that, you just don't want it bad enough" or "Something will magically happen to make it possible if it is your destiny, otherwise fuck off" or "Only the special people get in."

And, y'know, some people think that way. It's not a useful way to think, especially, but it's out there.

I'm suspecting people wanted to convey was something more like, "Look. Training in a mystery religion is hard work. It's very rewarding for the people who pursue it, yes, but it will also quite likely turn your life upside down, force you through all kinds of complicated and painful situations, and honestly, if you're not a person who really, genuinely, truly needs to do this particular thing, you will not succeed, because it's not worth it unless you need it." (Doing outer-court training in a mystery tradition led directly to the end of a five-year relationship for me, by the way.) I'm also suspecting that there was something to be said along the lines of, "Look, just because you think something is shiny doesn't obligate someone to invest their personal time to give it to you; if you really, truly want it - if you think you're one of the people for whom it's worth that level of effort - you have to evaluate what you're willing to do to get it."

And also, I don't think that this was actually a part of that conversation, but it needed to be said anyway: mysteries are a dime a dozen. You can trip over one walking out your door. Your life is full of them. If the access to this specific mystery isn't compatible with your life, find another. The thing that makes this mystery all that for me is that it's the one that I choose and the one that I need and the one that blends with my experience.

Mysteries are by definition hard to talk about, but I think people need to start being clear about them. "This is the mystery for the people who need this specific mystery" is something that only makes sense when one has a little knowledge, after all.

"This ritual is for those people who wish to celebrate their menstruation experiences" is a much better phrasing than "this is for women's mysteries" (which suggests that it's for women in general, including those who have never menstruated for whatever reason or those like me who find that 'menstrual spirituality' is much of a muchness with stuff like 'tasty, tasty shit pancakes in delicious oil-spill sauce') or "this is for blood mysteries" (which gives me a vastly kinkier impression than I think was intended).

"This ritual is for those people who are seeking to develop an intimate devotional relationship with this specific Power" is a pretty specific way of dividing the wheat from the chaff of potential attendees, though obviously traditions where the nature of the Power in question is among the information held privately it is harder to judge whether or not one wants to seek to develop such intimate relationship.

It's even possible to put things in the negative, though I think it's harder to do so without potentially creating issues. "This ritual is for survivors of sexual violence", for example, would include male survivors and trans survivors of all sorts, while a ritual structured in a way where there is concern that someone might be triggered by an encounter with a penis perhaps due to a lack of trousers, and where avoiding those triggers is important to the organisers, would not in fact be open to all people dealing with an experience of rape, and should not bill itself as such.

"This ritual is for adult Greek-speakers who have never committed murder, who make the appropriate piglet sacrifice, and who perform the appropriate ritual bath in the river Illisos", meanwhile, is all that and a bag of pomegranates.

01 March, 2012

E is for the Elements

Most pagans are of course familiar with the classical Greek conception of the elements, which wound up in ceremonial magic and thence into Wicca. Earth, air, fire, water, and all that associated crud.

What is an element?

An element, according to a handy dictionary I have kicking around here, is "one of the fundamental or irreducible components making up a whole". The stuff that stuff is made out of, you know?

Dealing with the classical elements produces spiritual compounds that have particular traits. These are - both due to their ubiquity in magical language and their clear derivation from fairly straightforward bits of the observable world - particularly tangible and perceptible structures. They are arranged in a particular grid, which is also a structure of balances and oppositions: fire and water suspended between earth and air in a set of perpendiculars and negations, the properties defined in opposition to each other. There is a solidity to this set of checks and balances, which perhaps inspired the addition of a fifth element intended to correspond to the spiritual or animative world.

Consider, though, a different system, such as the Chinese five elements. There is no tidy pairwise opposition to be had in odd numbers. Instead, each element gives rise to another in an organic process, and each element likewise can be seen to destroy another. It becomes readily apparent why many translators say "phases" or "movements" rather than "elements"; these are part of a cosmic flow rather than compartmentalisable building blocks.

The elements you build from will inform and structure what can be built from them. It is the nature of a thing to reflect what it is built from, after all.

I don't do a lot of exoteric stuff with the concept of elements. It does not appear to have been a terribly significant thing for the ancient Egyptians, which means that when I stumble across people trying to wodge Egyptian thought into a Greek elemental system I mostly just kind of avoid; it's not generally a good translation.

However, I have done more than a little noodling at esoteric elements, and in this I draw from my favorite of the major Egyptian cosmogenetic myths, that of Khmun, better known as Hermopolis. The name "Khmun" meant "The City of the Eight", and it is those eight that I ponder when I want to ponder elements. They are:

Nun and Naunet: the formless primeval waters
Amun and Amaunet: the hidden and secret (also associated with the invisible air)
Kek and Kauket: the darkness
Heh and Hehet: the infinite and eternal

In some of my Craft training, it is said that there are titans who hold the boundaries of the cosmos, and here I perceive them: formlessness, secrecy, darkness, and boundlessness. These are things that can only be approached mystically, in a manner beyond what can be contained in the tangible and aware. These are the traits of the borderlands, the edges of things, the unknown, and the uncreated. They neither give rise to each other nor oppose each other; they are serpents and frogs in the realm outside where time and space were created by their inversion.

That which exists has form. It can be known. It can be illuminated. It is bounded, finite, and mortal. These are the inversions of the elements of the Ogdoad, the guardians of the mysteries at the edge of creation. At the first time, the titans touched and polarised and created being. But yet they remain, on the edge of the manifest, between us and the dissolving chaos beyond.

I find those an interesting set of edges to explore. What can you build with formlessness and form, with secrets and knowledge, with darkness and light, with infinity and that which can be measured?

These are my elements.