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February 13th, 2016
Once again in the early lencten (spring) season, Valentine’s Day brings us a day of celebrating with chocolates, flowers and romantic cards.
Oh, and the recurring claims that it’s a Christian holiday, or that it’s a Pagan holiday, depending on whether the speaker is Christian or Pagan and how he or she feels about Valentine’s Day celebrations.
Really, people, be serious.
How are the so-called Pagan origins of Valentine’s Day remotely relevant today? What do boxes of chocolates have to do with the Lupercalia? Exactly how many Pagans set February 14th aside to give offerings to Juno? (Okay, there are probably a few followers of the Religio who do this, but they’re the exception, not the rule.) Sure, Valentine’s Day can be celebrated by Pagans – just like Arbor Day, Veterans Day or any other secular holiday – but to say it’s an innately “Pagan” holiday borders on being silly.
As for it being a Christian holiday, are there many Christians out there who even know (or care) who Saint Valentine was? Is he the patron saint of greeting cards? The patron saint of chocolate candies?
The truth is, Valentine’s Day is just as Pagan or Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Islamic or Satanic as you want it to be. Any religious meaning Valentine’s Day may have comes from you as an individual. Because Valentine’s Day is simply a celebration of love. It is a day to rejoice in those who you love, in those who you have loved in the past, and in those who you may love someday in the future.
February 6th, 2016
Faith. I know the followers of the Abrahamic religions like to use this word, but I don’t consider my own spiritual views to be “faith based”. Taking this even further, I don’t think it’s healthy for any Pagans to base their spirituality on faith.
In Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw says, “I’ve never understood how God could expect His creatures to pick the one true religion by faith – it strikes me as a sloppy way to run a universe.” That pretty much sums up how I feel about it. The cruel and insensitive acts of the Westboro Baptist Church are faith based. The men who hijacked jets and flew them into the World Trade Center Building were motivated by faith. Faith, untempered and alone, has caused some of the greatest horrors in human history.
I can’t honestly say that faith has no role in my spirituality, but it is the same level of faith I apply to all other aspects of my life. I have faith that my truck will start when I turn the ignition key. I could be wrong, but that’s what usually happens. I have faith that a friend will return something I’ve loaned. I have faith in countless little things like this, but none of these are faith based; they are based on personal experiences.
In a similar way, I don’t believe in an afterlife out of sheer faith. I believe in an afterlife because I have seen and heard and felt those who have gone from this world – both human and animal. It is something that I’ve experienced. It is experience, too, that has led me to believe in the gods. Is faith involved to any degree? Of course; faith is a natural part of how we relate to the universe. I have never had a personal experience or interaction with Athena, but then I don’t need that in order to believe Athena exists. Not when thousands of other people have experienced Athena’s presence over thousands of years. My belief in Athena is not purely faith based, but rather based on the collective experience of others.
In my opinion, Pagan spirituality should never be a “faith”. It should be neither a matter of belief nor of disbelief, but of experience. When our spirituality is experience based there is no need to defend it. When we cast aside unfounded faith all things are up for debate and subject to change, if further experiences warrant it. And we should be comfortable with that.
I have faith in this. For now, anyway.
November 16th, 2015
I recently read an article written by a radical Christian urging people to eschew the Thanksgiving holiday because it is allegedly “Pagan”. In his argument the author cited various harvest celebrations observed by Pagan cultures.
On the flip side of stupidity, I’ve known Pagans who didn’t think we should be celebrating Thanksgiving because it is a “Christian” holiday. After all, the holiday commemorates the first Thanksgiving, when the Puritans sat down with indigenous Americans, and everyone ate turkey and sang Kumbaya.
The idea of a “Thanksgiving Day” actually did originate with the Puritans, but not the way most people think it did. Thanksgiving Days were an anti-Catholic reaction to the many holidays celebrated during the English Reformation. People were just having too much fun, and so the Puritans wanted to eliminate all of those holidays (including Christmas and Easter) and replace them with Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving. These were not recurring events; they were observed in the wake of disasters (fasting) and victories (thanksgiving). The first annual, recurring Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 after the failure of the infamous Gunpowder Plot. Today it is still celebrated each year in England as Guy Fawkes Day.
It is possible, though poorly documented, that the early Christian (Puritan) settlers and some indigenous Americans shared a feast in 1621, but an annual harvest celebration did not become a tradition in New England until the late 1660’s. But more than anything else, it is an American tradition. To call it a “harvest” festival is not really accurate. Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November, long after the harvest season has ended.
Thanksgiving is exactly what its name implies, a day to give thanks. In Christian households families will be giving thanks to Jesus. Here we will be giving thanks to Woden and Þunor. To argue who should be giving thanks for blessings received is to miss the whole point of Thanksgiving.
November 2nd, 2015
Many Asatrúar and other Germanic Pagans, perhaps in an attempt to distance themselves from Wicca, are quick to assert that they don’t celebrate Samhain. I wonder if Pagans from other non-Gaelic paths do this. If somebody wishes me a Happy Samhain, I might reply with “and a Happy Hallows to you” (I would prefer Halloween be used as a general seasonal greeting rather than the more specific Samhain) but I don’t feel compelled to engage in a theological discussion.
No, Saxons don’t celebrate Samhain. Very few Pagan paths do. Even among Celtic Pagans, Samhain is specific to only the Irish and Scots. The Welsh, for example, celebrate Calan Gaeaf. The Cornish, Kalan Gwav.
But for me to make an issue of it – to explain (when nobody has asked) that I don’t celebrate Samhain – is rather silly, because I essentially do acknowledge the same seasonal change that everybody else is celebrating. For the Saxons, this season was a liminal time; a transition into the dark half of the year.
This year on October 27th, four days before Halloween, the Blodmonað moon grew full. Blodmonað means “blood month”, and for the Saxons this initiated a month of slaughtering and butchering all excess livestock that couldn’t be wintered over. With no Bible to tell them that animals were merely “things” created for their own use, their thoughts must have surely turned to their own mortality amidst so much death. Further, the Saxons were a Germanic people, and we know that other Germanic traditions celebrate Winternights. From now until the solstice, the Wild Hunt rides throughout the land. English lore has numerous references to this Wild Hunt.
In Sweden, Iceland and Germany this transition may have been celebrated at different times, but there is a very good reason why the Saxons would have celebrated Winternights, by whatever name, at the beginning of the “blood month”. That’s when their British neighbors were celebrating Samhain and Calan Gaeaf and Kalan Gwav. These various people all lived together on an island roughly the size of the state of Missouri. They interbred and borrowed artistic styles. It’s only natural that the Saxons would have wanted to hold their own celebrations at the same time as their Celtic neighbors, even as Pagans today celebrate the winter solstice regardless of how appropriate it is for their own traditions.
Woden rides forth, and life fades from the land. By whatever name you call it, the dark of the year is upon us.
October 24th, 2015
While working on Llewellyn’s 2017 Witches’ Datebook my editor caught me perpetuating a grievous error. For years now I have asserted that the word liða as a name for the months of June (Ærre Liða) and July (Æfterra Liða) meant a “point” and referred to the moment of the summer solstice.
I was wrong.
My editor questioned the assertation and asked for any source(s) I might have to support it. I couldn’t find anything in the books I have here, so I began to ask around. Nope, nothing. My friend Jason found some online references to liða meaning to point or a point, but the internet is hardly a reliable source. Then Eric Scott of Columbia, Missouri pointed out that Bosworth-Toller (a highly reliable source) defines liða as meaning “gentle” and, in the context of June and July, alludes to the mild winds and temperatures in Britain during those months.
And so I have to admit it. I was wrong.
It is so difficult for me to say this. I feel like I have been exposed as the sort of author who perpetuates fallacies without heed to history or heritage. As if I’m the sort of author who blathers on about the fifth element being “spirit”, or about Wicca being the ancient religion of Europe. In my defense, when I accepted the definition of “point” for liða, it was the only rational thing I’d seen at the time. Other definitions made no sense to me (Branston claimed liða meant “moon”). Nevertheless, I jumped to a conclusion and have ever since perpetuated a falsehood when I’ve spoken or written about Ærre Liða and Æfterra Liða.
The months of June and July were almost certainly named for their mild weather, not for their positions before and after the summer solstice. I could have glossed over this, but to re-imagine the old ways – to substitute fantasy for historical veracity – is an insult to our Pagan ancestors. As humiliating as this may be, I apologize for my error. I was wrong.
October 11th, 2015
Last night I attended my first dumb supper this season. As with all things Pagan, there are some who believe this to be an ancient tradition, and perhaps that’s true in an era where fashions, entertainment and even household appliances are considered “outdated” after only a year or two. In its current form, the dumb supper is about 26 years old. Its origins go back further than that, but how much further is anybody’s guess.
For those who may not know, the dumb supper is a ritual of communion with one’s ancestors. People gather in the early evening at the home of the host, who may or may not have a main dish prepared. Each participant brings his or her own dish to connect with the ancestors. It might be an ethnic dish, or grandpa’s favorite casserole, or your favorite dish that your great aunt Sally used to make. Each person usually explains why he or she brought that particular dish, and a small portion is placed on a plate that will be set out for the ancestors. The host then invites the ancestors to join in the meal, and all guests prepare their own plates. When the supper begins, all talk must cease. Nobody speaks. As people eat the meal, they listen for the wisdom and comfort of their ancestors.
The original, pre-1989 dumb supper was much different. It was a sort of spell practiced (usually by young women) in the Ozark mountains. The details of the spell varied, but the desired outcome was always the same – to determine who one’s future spouse would be. The supper was “dumb” in the original English sense of the word, meaning mute (the secondary meaning of slow-witted or foolish actually comes from the German word dumm, which just happens to sound a lot like dumb). Nobody was to speak during the meal. Sometimes the participants had to walk backwards. At some point during the supper each participant would supposedly have a vision of a future spouse.
In the 1989 Samhain issue of Green Egg Magazine, Morning Glory Zell presented a creative, revised version of the dumb supper as a ritual for connecting with ancestral spirits. Morning Glory’s ritual proved to be surprisingly effective. The first time I tried a dumb supper it was with two close friends, and all three of us were overwhelmed with the presences we felt during the meal.
Today dumb suppers are not uncommon. They are most often held around this time of year when Pagan folk are celebrating Samhain or Haligæfen or Winter Nights. Sometimes the details are a little different. I have been to dumb suppers where the host provided all of the food, and the foods were items associated in Pagan mythologies with death. But most of the dumb suppers I’ve participated in are exactly as I’ve described, with participants bringing different dishes that connect them with their ancestors in some way.
However the supper is conducted, it can be a profound experience. Our religious expressions give us plenty of opportunities to speak, pray and chant. The dumb supper is a time to listen.
September 29th, 2015
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been looking at the “ranks” acknowledged by the Seax tradition: theow, ceorl and gesith. We’ve seen how theow is a term similar to gentile, cowan, mundane and other words for people who are “not of the tribe”. We’ve seen how the theow is a theow by intention, since this person becomes a ceorl the moment he or she decides to become a Seax witch. And we’ve seen how the ceorl, too, holds that status by intention. Although it is recommended that the ceorl study for a while with a coven and receive an initiation, at any time he or she may perform the rite of self-dedication and become a gesith.
The Old English word gesith (YEH-sith or ZHEH-sith) means a companion, a fellow comrade within a company. In Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings, the nine who carried the One Ring to Mordor were gesithes. Some were wise and powerful (Gandalf, Aragorn), some were naïve and meek (Samwise and Frodo), but they were united in their purpose.
Buckland made it clear when he wrote The Tree that a gesith was a gesith; that a trained and initiated gesith did not hold a higher rank over a self-dedicated gesith. Like Tolkien’s fictional heroes, Seax gesithes range from the wise and powerful to the naïve and meek, and yet we all have the same status. I didn’t fully appreciate this back in the 1970’s (after the Seax tradition was founded), but I do now. You will not find Seax witches brandishing initiatory degrees and fake titles of nobility in a scramble for a superior social position. In the Seax tradition, the wise and powerful must be judged on their own merit.
To be fair, there are many third degree Wiccan priests and priestesses from other traditions who never pretend that their initiatory rank is more than it is. And there are social settings (such as the SCA) where it can be fun to call people “Lord” or “Lady”. But in the Seax tradition every gesith is respected as a worthy and equal individual until proven otherwise.
September 20th, 2015
The ceorl (pronounced “churl”) is perhaps the most interesting position in the Seax tradition. To the best of my knowledge it is not found in any other Wiccan tradition (but then, there are so many that I could easily be mistaken in this). The ceorl is not yet “officially” a Seax witch, but is on his or her way to becoming one. In The Tree, Buckland emphasized that a ceorl should, ideally, study with a coven in preparation for initiation. But this is not always possible, and the Seax tradition allows for self dedication, and within the tradition there is no distinction made between an initiated gesith and a self-dedicated gesith.
Thus in the Seax tradition a ceorl is in a temporary position that might last for as little as an hour (however long it takes to consecrate a seax and perform the rite of self-dedication) to a number of months or even years until the coven agrees that a person is ready for initiation. And if the coven drags its collective feet, the ceorl may at any time decide to go ahead and self-dedicate anyway. Like the Seax theow, ceorls essentially hold that status until they decide to step forward and declare themselves to be gesiths. It is ultimately the individual who defines himself.
In Old English a ceorl is a freeman. It was a “low” rank, but certainly above that of a servant (theow). Unlike the theow, the ceorl enjoyed some level of status within Anglo-Saxon society. The ceorlfolc were the general public. When viewed from this perspective, the term ceorl can be taken to include all Wiccans (and perhaps all Pagans) not of the Seax tradition. Witches of the Gardnerian or Blue Moon traditions share some common ground with the Seax tradition, and so they should be acknowledged as holding some status. Within the Seax tradition they may be thought of as ceorls even if they have no intention of ever changing trads.
Ultimately the Seax ceorl is defined by the speaker’s perception of other people. Think of it as meaning “my people who are not of my tribe”.
September 11th, 2015
The Seax tradition founded by Raymond Buckland doesn’t have a degree system as such. Among Seax witches there is no hierarchy; a witch is a witch is a witch. However the tradition does have terms for defining a person’s position in or relationship with Seax witchcraft, and these (almost certainly inspired by the initiatory degrees of Gardnerian Wicca) are three in number: the theow, the ceorl and the gesith. To put it most simply a gesith is a Seax witch, a ceorl is any person taking steps to become a Seax witch, and a theow is anybody else. But when we look closer at these terms we can see how they shape and define the Seax tradition in a decidedly Anglo-Saxon way.
It is not unusual or even uncommon for a people to have a way of describing “the others”, meaning those human beings who are outside of the tribe. An example is the Jewish term gentile. When Jews refer to gentiles they are not inflicting an insult on anyone; it simply acknowledges those referred to as being non-Jewish. Some Wicca traditions use the term cowan to describe this status of other-ness. Again, it is not a term of insult or derision. Gardner borrowed the word from the Freemasons, and it simply means someone who has not been initiated, someone who is outside the speaker’s initiatory tradition. In a more general sense it is often used to describe any non-Wiccan, or even (in a yet broader sense) non-Pagan.
Seax witches use theow as a term for a person outside of the tradition. In Old English, this word (þeow) literally translates as servant or slave. That must surely be an insult, right? Well, in a word, no. This is the 21st century. Very few of us today have actual servants in the old sense of the word. However in another sense we all do have servants, and we all are servants. Today, in this modern world, we work for each other, and it doesn’t mean one of us is “less than” the other (although some services are admittedly valued more than others). When Seax witches speak of a theow, they are acknowledging the person’s worth. The word recognizes than the “outsider” can provide some useful service. From an Anglo-Saxon perception this is an important distinction. Some Anglo-Saxon groups work from the point of view that a person is worth-less until proven otherwise. For the Seax witch, every person is presumed to be worthy (to “have worth”) until proven otherwise.
Thus my physician is a theow who serves my medical needs. The nice people at the automotive shop are theowa who maintain my truck for me. Even the person who has no immediate purpose in my life – the woman who walks past me at the supermarket, or the people sitting in the row behind me at the cinema – these all have potential worth, and thus should be approached with kindness and respect.
Although theow can be used as a term for anyone not of the Seax tradition, I reserve it only for non-Pagans. It reminds me that anyone, no matter how different from myself, is likely to be a worthy person.
August 30th, 2015
While re-reading some Old English healing charms, it came to me that scholars seem to make certain assumptions about early Anglo-Saxon definitions of disease. Since the 1950’s the charm Against a Dwarf has often been interpreted as “Against a Fever” even though the word is clearly dwarf (dweorh). It is as if the word must mean something else simply because many people today don’t perceive dwarves to be real. We sometimes see the same treatment of the charm For the Water-Elf Disease. Griffiths, quoting another scholar, postulates that the Water-Elf Disease (wæterælfadle) may refer to either chickenpox or measles. But I have my own theory. I suspect the Water-Elf Disease is exactly what it purports to be, a treatment for those afflicted with wæterælfadle, which may be only incidentally related to any modern, anatomical definition of disease.
Assigning modern disease paradigms to early Anglo-Saxon ailments may be as erroneous as trying to reconcile so-called “Western” medicine with Traditional Chinese Medicine. An issue of Consumer Reports presented a study in the 1990’s showing TCM to be as effective as Western medicine, despite there being no Western explanation for this. (Of course the reverse is also true, using the definitions and concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine there is no explanation for the efficacy of modern Western medicine.) Today many people with absolutely no background in TCM nevertheless accept that modalities such as acupuncture and Chinese herbalism may be useful and valuable healing techniques. Why then are scholars so quick to assume Anglo-Saxon medicine as “superstition”?
In his book The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, Ted J. Kaptchuk shows how a single “Western” disease might be defined as half a dozen different ailments using the diagnostic tools of TCM. Likewise, a person suffering from a deficiency of liver qi might be diagnosed with any of several ailments by a physician trained in Western anatomical medicine. Perhaps the same is true of the diseases described in Old English sources. The symptoms of wæterælfadle include discolored fingernails and teary/watery eyes. Watery eyes are one symptom of measles, but wouldn’t a description of measles or chicken pox include some mention of a skin rash? And discolored fingernails aren’t symptomatic of either.
Taking this further, I wonder to what extent the Anglo-Saxon læce may have been influenced by Hippocratic medicine. Perhaps the Water-Elf Disease was only peripherally related to physical water and instead described a phlegmatic (cold and moist) condition associated with elemental water. If so, then the charm Against a Dwarf may have addressed a melancholic (cold and dry) condition, since dwarves are perceived as being subterranean and thus would be associated with elemental earth. But this is only conjecture. Anglo-Saxon diseases may have had no more relationship with Hippocratic elemental theory than they do with modern definitions of disease. We may never know.
One thing we do clearly see in the Old English remedies is the Anglo-Saxon holistic approach to healing. For the early English people, disease was as much a spiritual imbalance as a physical phenomenon.
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