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March 30th, 2014
As I point out in To Walk a Pagan Path: Practical Spirituality for Every Day, caring for the hens we have in the back yard takes no more time than caring for our parakeet. The difference is that our hens allow us to participate more fully in the cycle of taking from and giving back to the earth. They recycle bugs and food scraps, turning these into delicious and nourishing eggs, with a by-product of chicken poop that gets composted to renew our garden soil.
So why don’t more people have chickens? From the questions I receive, one reason is the uncertainty of what to do with an older hen after she stops laying. I am often asked this, and the answer is two-fold. I’ve done it both ways, and, for me, either option is equally valid. Which solution you want to pursue is a personal choice.
ANSWER #1. You eat the hen. Perhaps that sounds cruel, but, if done properly, it is far kinder than what has happened to every chicken you have purchased at a supermarket or munched on after driving through a fast-food outlet. Of course you do have to dispatch the bird quickly, with as little stress or pain as possible. After killing the hen, scalding it (dunking it into a pot of boiling water) will make it far easier to pluck out the feathers. Get a book on slaughtering and cleaning chickens. It really isn’t difficult, at least not compared to other livestock. But your hen is an old bird, so don’t expect tender flesh; those big juicy breasts in the store came from very young birds. After cleaning the bird, boil it in water to which you’ve added a tablespoon of vinegar to tenderize the muscle tissue. Then use the meat in a chicken soup.
ANSWER #2. If you are a vegan, or if you’re a bit squeamish, you’ll be happy to learn that there’s no need to ever slaughter your hens. It’s true that a hen slows down when she gets older, but that happens to all of us, doesn’t it? However you don’t have to worry about what to do when a chicken stops laying, because they NEVER stop laying. At least I have never had one “stop”. When someone says a chicken has stopped laying, what he means is that the bird has slowed down to a point where it is more profitable to replace it with a younger, more productive hen. But people who keep backyard chickens aren’t in it for the profit (you’ll never produce eggs cheaper than they can under the horrific conditions of a factory farm). Your old hen will continue to give you an occasional egg, and she won’t slow down a bit when it comes to keeping down the resident bug population or adding manure to your compost heap. And, besides, she’s so darn cute.
September 4th, 2013
I recently read an online post composed by a woman who does not like Pagans and is especially offended by Pagan Pride Day celebrations. Her local Pride celebration, it seems, is too Wiccan in flavor for her. To some extent I understood her frustration (public, open Pagan gatherings do often focus on Wicca to the exclusion of other paths) but the woman’s rant completely alienated me. In the first place, she states that she is “not Pagan”, which begs the question of why she would care one way or another about her local Pagan Pride Day. Here’s the answer: She is Pagan, but she’s too much of an elitist to embrace it. And she is not alone. There are many Pagans today who claim they are “not Pagan”, although they are clearly not Christian, Jewish or Islamic. And apparently they also have no access to dictionaries because one of the definitions of the word Pagan is any person who doesn’t follow any of the Abrahamic religions. By definition, every polytheist is a Pagan. It doesn’t matter whether or not that person wants to be identified as such – there are also countless closeted queers who don’t want to identify as Gay, but that doesn’t make them heterosexual.
The self-proclaimed “non-Pagan” was horribly offended over the practices of the majority of Pagan people who attend her local Pride celebration each year. Hmmm…maybe she should follow one of the Abrahamic religions. Her attitude reminds me of the Jesus Freaks of the 1970′s, who would point their index fingers upwards as they chanted their mantra, “One Way”. But for Pagans there is no one way. That, in fact, is what distinguishes Pagan practice from monotheism. It has nothing to do with which gods you honor. Does anyone really think Pagan Rome objected to the worship of Christ? Rome acknowledged 12,897 gods and goddesses. Why would they object to deity #12,898? (I made those numbers up, but you get the point.) Paganism is tolerance for other paths.
Oh, but our “non-Pagan” blogger is sure that the demand for tolerance is nothing short of hypocrisy. She proves this by pointing out that none of the attendees would tolerate a religion that sacrificed kittens with butter knives. Ignoring how ridiculous this is, it isn’t a religious issue, I’m pretty sure killing kittens with butter knives would fall into the secular realm of animal cruelty. Your religion also does not give you license to rape eight-year-old children or to pick off redheads with an assault rifle.
My patience has reached zero tolerance level for people like this who discover Paganism and then lash out because we do not all conform to whatever their romantic fantasies might be. If you think we Pagans walk around slowly, reeking of dignity and serenity, speaking like Tolkien elves, you are going to be seriously disappointed. If you think we all relate to our gods and ancestors the same way that you do, you are going to be seriously disappointed. If you are incapable of putting your unrealistic expectations to one side and accepting us for who we are, you are going to be seriously disappointed.
For the person who is new to Paganism, here is what you should expect:
Paganism is an umbrella term for countless spiritual paths. This means that most people will not agree with what you believe and how you practice. It is not something to argue about, although civil discussion is acceptable. And if you are not Wiccan, let me clue you in, many of the public “Pagan” rituals you encounter will indeed cater to the Wicca crowd simply because they are the majority. Just try to compose a ritual that is equally meaningful to all Pagan paths. Until you have done this, do not be so quick to criticize the work of others. Instead, get involved with your local community and show by example that there are other paths than Wicca.
We did not come out of the box this way. Even now, the majority of Pagans are “first generation”, meaning that they were born and raised in non-Pagan households. We come into it with baggage, and it is not always easy to put that aside. So, yes, you will meet homophobic Pagans. You will meet racist Pagans. You will meet Pagans who still essentially worship the Biblical god, only now he is a female goddess. Given enough time, you’ll meet every sort of person imaginable. This does not mean you should accept homophobia or racism or any other offensive behaviors. You can disagree without flying off the handle. I have a Pagan friend who was very homophobic at one time. He got better. So be civil, give other Pagans a little slack, and keep in mind that you have your own baggage, even if you are not always aware of it. And this leads me to…
Every Pagan is a human being. We err, which I understand is a very human thing to do. The best of us are going to do things now and then that will really piss you off. That is the one thing you can count on. Expect imperfection as you explore Pagan culture and you will not be disappointed. In fact, you will discover that we are, overall, a decent mix of people.
Certainly an interesting mix.
July 9th, 2013
Over the past few decades, the Hammer of Thunor seems to have become the Germanic Pagan equivalent of the Christians’ crucifix or the Wiccans’ pentagram – a generic symbol for everyone who reveres the northern gods. Known also as the Thor’s Hammer or the Mjolnir, this symbol is worn as a pendant just as the other aforementioned symbols are. I have even heard people boast of how they never remove their hammer pendants. What I wonder, though, is whether this is appropriate for people with our polytheistic worldview.
I do not in any way object to the symbol, nor to the god it represents. I have about half a dozen hammer pendants and often wear them (not all at the same time, of course). I bought my first Hammer of Thunor around 1978-1979, my second in 1980 and subsequent pendants whenever a different design has caught my eye. And there is certainly some understandable value in claiming a single, unifying symbol. Humans are intensely social creatures. We like to define ourselves in groups, and to display allegiance to whichever groups we are a part of. People who grew up in or near Pittsburgh are obsessed with wearing Steelers regalia, and I could make fun of them were it not for my Missouri ball cap, my Ozarks tee shirt and other wearable displays of my own “homeland”. In the same way, the hammer pendant announces that the wearer in some way acknowledges and reveres Germanic gods and traditions. But, as a polytheist, I do not think we should limit ourselves to Thunor’s weapon as our only symbol.
At the moment I am wearing no hammer. Instead I have a small stone pendant hanging from a cord around my neck. On the stone is engraved the image of Gyldenbyrstal, the sacred boar of Ing Fréa. Since I have a closer relationship with Ing, it seems only appropriate that I wear a symbol representing Him as often or more frequently than other images. I also have a larger, brass boar pendant that I wear occasionally, but it is heavier and more suited to holiday occasions rather than everyday. To further display my allegiance to Ing, I have a nice pendant engraves with the rune ing that two of my híredmenn gave me a few years ago.
As a writer, I also have and wear images related to Woden. (Not that you have to be a writer, of course, but Woden has more significance in my life due to his influence as a god of inspiration.) One pendant depicts Woden holding a spear; it is the symbol that I wear most often when I want to connect more with Woden.
In the same way, a Pagan with a connection to Tiw could wear the tir rune. A Pagan devoted to Fréo could wear a cat pendant.
But even the Pagan who has dedicated himself or herself to Thunor could benefit by moving beyond the hammer image. Since so many now use that image as a generic “I’m a Heathen” sign, those who have a distinct relationship with Thunor/Thor/Donar might derive more of a connection from other symbols of the red-bearded god of fertility, protection and storms. A pendant with the image of Thunor, rather than just his hammer, would be appropriate. As an alternate choice, a quartz crystal can represent this god, as quartz crystals were once called “thunderstones” and believed (at least in a folklore sense) to be created when lightning struck the earth.
I am not suggesting the hammer be abandoned; I’m certainly not getting rid of my hammer pendants! However I do think we should look beyond the hammer when we choose symbols to identify with. The crucifix may be appropriate for Christians, and the Star of David for Jewish people, because they follow only one god. For people who acknowledge the reality of many gods and the validity of many paths, an array of spiritual imagery may be more suitable.
June 30th, 2013
A woman recently contacted me to ask whether I would describe her religion as “Witchcraft”. I replied in the negative and, after discerning that she worships a dualist Lord and Lady, said that I would call it Wicca. After several messages back and forth it became clear that the woman really, really wanted to call her religion Witchcraft and, for whatever reason, was just looking for someone to argue the point with.
It’s not an argument I have much interest becoming engaged in. It’s fine with me if she wants to say her religion is Witchcraft. She can call it Masturbation for all I care. My point was that Wicca was a more precise term for her spiritual beliefs and practices.
I can understand the woman’s confusion to some extent. Gerald Gardner, the man who founded the religion of Wicca (although he spelled it with only one “c”, Wica) referred to it as Witchcraft. But then Gardner made up a lot of what he publicized as “the Old Religion”. Gardner’s greatest contribution was in inspiring others to seek out the true old religions, and in his legacy of a very modern religion – Wicca – which has been a source of comfort and enlightenment for hundreds of thousands. One feature of Wicca is that many of its followers (although not all, by any means) do practice witchcraft. But then the majority of Wiccans undoubtedly masturbate as well.
The problem with calling one’s religion Witchcraft is not so much that it is incorrect, but that it is imprecise. There are many, many people who practice witchcraft who do not worship a Lord and Lady, do not cast a magic circle, do not call upon the four elements or otherwise follow any part of Wiccan worship. If someone says he or she is a witch – whether or not the word is capitalized – little information is conveyed. Is this person Wiccan? Is he or she a Saxon Pagan who practices wiccecræft? A Roman Pagan practicing stregheria? Is this person a Satanist? Yes, Satanists call their magic witchcraft, and I know many Wiccans will say these people are not “real” witches, but then the Satanists just turn around and say that the Wiccans are not “real” witches, and nothing has been accomplished other than a lot of foolish finger pointing.
Even though Christianity generally prefers to eschew magic (defined as changes initiated by a willworker, rather than by a deity) it is even possible, I suppose, for a Christian or other monotheist to practice witchcraft, because witchcraft is nothing more or less than the skill of using magic. The superficial appearance of spells vary according to the witch’s spiritual orientation, but the process itself follows basic postulates such as the Law of Sympathy, the Law of Contagion and so on. The late P.E.I. Bonewits identified some of these in his studies.
But if somebody prefers to say that his or her religion is Witchcraft, I do not have any personal objection. I think calling the religion Masturbation is a better choice, though. It is just as accurate, no matter your spiritual path, and it has the potential to attract a multitude of converts.
March 31st, 2013
My next book on Pagan Spirituality, To Walk a Pagan Path, is scheduled to be released this coming November, but there is some question as to which will be available first – that book or my first science fiction novel.
Those of you who have enjoyed my work are likely wondering why I would do something so completely different. I just received an email today from a man who says he doesn’t understand why I’m writing science fiction “since (my) nonfiction has been Saxon Pagan”. Let me make it clear that there is no crossover here; my novel Perception has nothing to do with the Anglo-Saxons or their gods, or anything to do with religion at all, really. In the novel, aliens destroy Earth’s communication systems, military forces and power infrastructure almost overnight. The story focuses on a small group of people and their struggle to cope with this devastating development.
I have actually been writing speculative fiction for years. The only thing new or different about Perception is that it is being published. And this is a good thing. I hope to gain more of an outlet for my creativity as a fiction author. If Perception sells well, I already have another speculative fiction novel prepared to send off to publishers.
Why is writing fiction important to me? Well, because I love writing, but at the same time, when it comes to my Pagan writing, I want to be like the 1960′s sitcom horse Mr. Ed who “never speaks unless he has something to say”. I do not want any temptation to write a Pagan book just for the sake of expressing myself. That sort of behavior has produced some of the worst books on Pagan spirituality written in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am not going to name any titles. If you’ve been around very long, you know the books I’m talking about.
My fiction will not bring an end to my Pagan writing. When I am inspired to share something and have sufficient material for a book on Pagan spirituality, I will put together a proposal and see if there is any interest. I am, in fact, currently working with an idea that could very well be in bookstores within the next 18-24 months. But what I will not do is compromise myself as a Pagan author.
I hope all of you – or at least those of you who enjoy good stories - will support my efforts as a fiction author. To those who will be purchasing a copy of Perception and giving my writing a chance, let me thank you now. I know you will not be disappointed.
March 6th, 2013
That was my assignment. Trevor Greenfield, an editor with Moon Books (one of the imprints of John Hunt Publishing) asked me to write a chapter of the book 101 Pagans. The chapter title would be “Heathen”. That’s all I had to go on.
I was eager to take on this assignment for a couple of reasons. First, it will expand the portfolio of publishers I’ve worked with, and that’s a good thing for a professional author. But more importantly the concept behind 101 Pagans is intriguing. The book will present contemporary Paganism from literally 101 different viewpoints. Twenty people, myself included, are writing twenty main chapters or essays for the book. Each of these will be accompanied by 4-5 shorter essays from other people writing on the same topic. The short essays will be 400-500 words. The primary essays will be 2000-2500 words.
And so I set to work describing Heathenry in 2500 words or less.
This was more difficult than I had anticipated, and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of the diversity within today’s Heathenry. When I wrote Travels Through Middle Earth, I was writing about my own spirituality, my own experiences. And I had a whole book to cover that topic. For 101 Pagans I only had one small section in which to describe an array of religious cultures including Ásatrú, Forn Sed, Forn Siðr, Theodism, Fyrn Sidu and Urglaawe.
I had to cut corners, or course, and be as succinct as possible, but I managed to hit all of the major points. I was even able to mention Seax Wica, which I believe can be considered a variant of Heathen expression. Realizing that I was writing about the beliefs and practices of many other people, I ran the essay by a couple of Ásatrúar before sending it off to the editor, including Ann Gróa Sheffield (author of Long Branches and Frey, God of the World). The responses were positive. Hopefully the greater Heathen community will feel the same.
Having seen the diversity expressed in my own contribution to the book, I am eager to read 101 Pagans when it is eventually released. I can only imagine the wonder that will be encapsulated in a hundred such essays describing today’s endless manifestations of Pagan spirituality.
November 5th, 2012
As autumn arrives we face a string of holidays, some religious and some secular. Harvest, Hallows, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Mothers’ Night and New Years march along like balloon sculptures in a Macy’s parade.
When the sacred and secular calendars converge Pagans love to adopt mundane traditions as a part of their holidays, and this is as it should be. It would be sad to see our communities eschew trick-or-treating and Jack’s lanterns at Halloween, or decorated evergreen trees, prancing reindeer and Santa Clause with the coming of Yule. Some go so far as to claim these secular traditions as “Ancient Pagan Traditions”, but there is no need to do so, and it simply isn’t true. Most holiday traditions are neither Pagan nor even particularly old. (Watch the movie Meet Me in St. Louis to see how different Halloween was just a century ago.)
Acknowledging the true age and origins of holiday traditions makes them no less meaningful. The important thing is to ensure that they are in keeping with “the reason for the season”, or at least not in direct conflict with it. In our household, for example, the Yule tree (which looks suspiciously like a Christmas tree) represents the Eormensyl, the axis mundi that connects all Seven Worlds.
Almost any holiday tradition can be adopted by the Pagan household, although some are admittedly easier than others to assimilate into our spiritual traditions. A nativity might seem out of place in most Pagan homes, but if you can find symbolism and meaning in the little barn with the fairy on top, then go for it!
Then there are those other secular holidays, the ones that don’t fit neatly into the NeoPagan wheel of the year, or with any other Pagan calendar, for that matter. Nevertheless they can still be a part of your ongoing spiritual experience.
On Veterans’ Day give offerings to the spirits of the men and women who gave their lives in battle. If you have known somebody personally who died in a war this will be especially meaningful, but it is a good time to remember all of the those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
Most Pagans celebrate three harvest festivals – Lammas, Harvest and Hallows – but American Pagans really have four. Thanksgiving, the final harvest celebration, is a good time to honor Thunor and give thanks for his protection.
Yule brings us the sacred solstice (celebrated by Saxons as Mothers’ Night or Modraniht), followed by a secular New Year’s celebration. I view New Year’s Eve as the end or culmination of the soltice festivities that began twelve days earlier. It is a time of endings and beginnings.
And let’s not forget Valentine’s Day! The chocolates and candy hearts are tasty, but this is also a good time to hold a rite honoring Fréo or, if you are not Saxon, whatever deity or deities in your pantheon are most closely associated with passion and sexual desire.
I was once told by a non-Pagan friend, “I know why you’re always so happy, Alaric. It’s all the holidays. You Pagans have Christmas all year long.” That might be an exaggeration, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. When you sacralize the secular you allow your spirituality to expand in new and exciting directions, until it almost does seem like you’re enjoying Christmas all year long!
August 31st, 2012
I admit it, there is an underlying purpose for each of my books. There is nothing especially secret about this, and I think almost anyone who looks for it can readily uncover the message that I am trying to make.
For Travels Through Middle Earth the message was that the gods are real. I felt that somewhere along the way Paganism had become (and still is) usurped by pop psychology. For many people the gods were (and still are) little more than decorations for an ongoing party. My hope was that some few would at least consider the real nature of our gods, and perhaps connect with the spiritual world in a more meaningful way.
In Wyrdworking my goal was to encourage Pagans to explore what we actually know about the runes. I know there will be many people who read this second book and then go back to playing around with the Elder Futhark and nonsense like “blank runes”, but perhaps some few will be encouraged to explore real rune lore.
My next book (which does not yet have a firm title) will be no different; there will be an underlying message. I sent the finished manuscript off today and hope that the book will be released sometime in 2013. When it is published, the message will be simple and clear: Paganism is not something you just read about and dream about, it is something you DO. Yes, my third book is about doing. About walking the walk.
The book will begin with a concise, clear “seven step” approach to living more fully as a Pagan. From there the book will go on to explore an array of things to do to integrate your spirituality into all areas of your life. Adapting the “wheel of the year” to your environment as well as to your spiritual path. Communing with the land by growing some portion of your own food. Making ritual candles. Training and connecting with a familiar. From cover to cover the book will be filled with ideas to expand your Pagan spirituality into a true lifestyle.
That will be the message, and it is my hope that some few will find value in it.
May 14th, 2012
He stands in my garden; leaning slightly back with his gaze lifted to the heavens, his arms outstretched joyfully, looking as if he might burst into song.
And he will continue to stand this way throughout the summer and autumn.
I am talking about Jack Barleycorn, the scarecrow we Earendel folk build every year in early May as a representation of the life of the fields. Scott and I have been doing this for many years; long before Earendel was formally established, before we moved east to Pennsylvania. Although details have changed and evolved, the tradition of Jack Barleycorn has been a part of my life for a long time now.
Today that tradition is well defined by years of repetition. When Earendel first gathers on or after May Day we build a scarecrow as a part of our first summer rite. I am almost always the one who sews up Jack’s head. Taren is usually the person who brings and assembles the wood framework for his body. Everyone helps, and everyone critiques our group progress as we fill out Jack’s gluts and biceps and abs with handfuls of straw. When the scarecrow is built, each person comes forward with a small piece of cloth that he or she has embroidered one or more runes on. The runes represent what that person hopes to harvest in his or her own life through the coming year. These cloths are carefully stitched to Jack Barleycorn, who is then processed to a garden where he will stand until the Winterfylleth moon grows full. At that time, six months later, he is burned on a bonfire as an offering to our gods.
Scarecrows have been around for a long time. 2500 years ago Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrows in the image of Priapus, the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. The Romans later adopted this custom, and Roman armies introduced Priapus scarecrows to Britain.
Our Jack Barleycorn could be thought of as a spiritual descendant of those early scarecrows, and in fact we do stuff extra bundles of hay into Jack’s crotch to give him a well-endowed, Priapic appearance. But the truth is that our ancient Pagan tradition only goes back to the early 1990′s. That’s a funny thing about traditions, they always have to start somewhere. Whether the tradition is twenty years old (like our annual Jack Barleycorn) or twenty thousand years old, somebody had to do it first.
So if you don’t have a lot of ancient, pre-Christian traditions at hand, start a few of your own! Don’t make the mistake that many 20th century Wiccans did of claiming a long and completely fake history for your tradition. It doesn’t matter if you’ve only been following a ritual practice for three years or three hundred years, that practice will gain power in its repetition very quickly. Create a tradition meaningful to you and your folk. It need not involve building a scarecrow. Your own tradition could be staying up all night to see the Midsummer sunrise. It could be making all of your ritual candles on Candlemas Eve.
Whatever you choose to do, cherish your traditions. We are defined by what we do, and Pagan traditions both new and old define the life and vitality of our paths.
March 13th, 2012
This may sound odd coming from a Pagan such as myself. In English speaking countries, Lent is a word used by Roman Catholic Christians for a season of self-deprivation preceding Easter (a holiday that takes its own name from that of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and new beginnings). During this time Catholics forfeit the consumption of meat, usually substituting fish of some kind for that portion of the meal.
But the word “Lent” is like Easter in that it predates English Catholicism, and in fact was not used in any specific Christian context until the 11th century. The word, lencten, or Lent, simply means “spring”.
This use of a word for the vernal season to describe a Christian tradition is unique to the English language. In other languages the words used are open references to the fasting (if you can call substituting one animal for another “fasting”) that takes place in the weeks preceding Easter. In Latin – the language of the medieval Church – the season of Lent is called Quadragesima. In Spanish it is la Cuaresma, and in Italian la Quaresima. German Catholics call it der Fastenzeit. In each of these languages the name means “time of fasting”. Only in English is the time of fasting called “spring”.
We can only speculate why this came to be. It certainly was not because the English had no word for fasting. The Old English verb is fæstan, and, logically, English speaking Catholics should call the weeks of fasting something like Fastingtime, which is an English rendering of the German Fastenzeit.
But the English language has never been logical. We may never know why English speaking Catholics chose to call the pre-Easter weeks Spring instead of (like everyone else across Europe) Fastingtime. Perhaps it was local slang in one of the Saxon kingdoms. Perhaps it was the whim of an archbishop or even a king. All we know for certain is that the word lencten – the vernal season – began to transform into a reference to the weeks of Christian fasting approximately forty years before the Norman Conquest. And after the Conquest it was the common speech of the Saxons that prevailed in naming this period of Christian self-deprivation, not the French spoken by their new overlords. Otherwise the Modern English word would be something more similar to the French Carême, which of course means “fasting”, as the season is called in every other language.
Our modern word “spring” is a descriptive we began using in the 16th century. People would speak of the “spring season”, meaning the time of year when new plants spring out of the ground; when blossoms spring forth on boughs. But the season has a more direct name, a proper name, and that name is Lent.
So I celebrate Lent, in a Pagan fashion, and Easter too, with its symbols of rabbits, chicks, eggs and flowers. None of them related to the death and resurrection of a Jewish man, but all of them glorious symbols of springtime. All of them symbols of se lencten.
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