To Those Erecting Fallacious Political Strawmen in Response to My Last Post

•May 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Alfred Glasses

The Marginalization of Polytheists in the Public Sphere of Paganism

•May 28, 2017 • 6 Comments

Of late, there’s been some question as to the position of varying theological Pagan-types within the public (largely Online) sphere of Contemporary Paganism, and the definition of core defining characteristics of Paganism as a contemporary religious umbrella term.  And, what happened to begin with the question about definitions has warped into a general attack on polytheistic theology.  With this, I am putting my hat in the ring and adding my perspective, even though those I’ll be criticizing have already succeeded at getting out numerous tracts since Sunday.

This has been most notably found within discussions (beginning in early April) of the question about whether or not Paganism was both an “earth-centric” religion (as denoted here:  “On “Earth-Based Religions””) or, if Paganism was “dying” as an institution (as denoted here: “Paganism Isn’t Dying; It’s (Finally) Maturing”).  It’s your general, frivolous Pagan drama in its reception.  Both topics are somewhat nuanced, and, I think reflect on the changing demographics and cultural shift of Pagan practitioners.

The death of pan-Pagan institutions, and the changing demographics are absolutely something that needs to be discussed.  And people should absolutely have reasoned debate about it.

However this debate has one notable point that consistently comes to the fore: the reactions of some of the people in the comments section of the second post (“Paganism isn’t Dying”), who have made appearances in other spaces of the public Pagan fora.  These people are those who inherently talk down about polytheistic belief in the public sphere.  People who are, for all intents and purposes, acting like anti-polytheists.  I encourage people to read those comments, to see this in action.

I feel that most people who are getting their dander up about this whole situation, which Hrafnblod of Grennung Hund Hearth has quite willingly provoked, do so because they lack a fundamental ability to critically read the situation of which is being spoken.  That, or they elect to raise purposefully misleading strawman arguments in an attempt to control dialogue and mischaracterize the discussion.  We’ll see a bit of this later.

It should be said that in my experience, most (because I obviously cannot speak for everyone in this matter) polytheists aren’t trying to tell nature-worshipers, deep pantheists, non-specific Druidic practitioners, or whomever else that, by in large, their nature-based practice and interpretation of Paganism is wrong.  They’re trying to expand and move the dialogue of Pagan definition beyond archaic and Romanticized variants of back-to-nature Western philosophy that the 19th Century and the Victorian Era both inculcated within the popular discourse.

Now, I’m of the mind that non-specific nature-based spirituality is a type of Contemporary Paganism.  I’m talking about things like the Hindu-like, Emersonian post-Christian nature spirituality types of Robert Corrington.  Even if they’re influenced by liberal Protestant theology.  But I adamantly do not believe that definition of Paganism as a fundamentally “nature-based religion” is at all applicable as a broadly defining characteristic any more.  That doesn’t mean that it is invalid for all Pagans, though.

And I’m certainly not kicking them out from the table.  I’m certainly not trying to define their religion for them.  I am trying to see that Paganism, as a non-specific descriptor of varying religions, expand accordingly.

I’m trying to establish space for polytheism.  I am not going to go over the timescale of this last debate or discussion, because the roots of this go back further than just these past two months.  I had largely thought it had blown over after the bigger names had said their piece, and certainly seemed to quiet down.  Last Sunday night, however, defecation hit the proverbial rotating oscillator.

I have made my position abundantly clear over the years, but I think perhaps it is best to recount this for some people who may be drawn into this space:

  1. I am a Pagan.  No, really.  I am.  For twenty years this year, even!  But, that’s obvious, right?  Isn’t that why we are all here.  I have a vested interest in the comings and goings of this community.  And despite not being as prolific as others, that nevertheless gives me the right to share in the space.
  2. I am a reconstructionist.  Like, a lot.  Like, a lot-a lot.  But I’m not one who thinks everyone should be a reconstructionist.  It’s a methodology for those who are inclined to do so.  However, I do recognize that a lot of reconstructionist work is used by avowed non-reconstructionists, while reconstructionists themselves are looked down upon.  And I think that this should be rectified.
  3. I am an American, specifically a Northeasterner.  I was born in the 80s.  I am part of the 21st century.  I don’t pretend to be anything else.  I have never said that any bit of my religious expression was anything but a contemporary interpretation of a historic one, modified to the present world.  Very few people in historic or reconstructionist polytheisms will say that what they’re doing is 100% accurate to the past, or believe they can totally revivify what is there.
  4. I am focused on humanity and our intersection with the divine.  After all, we experience divinity, even if it exists without us or our impact. I don’t classify my Paganism as nature-based at all, no more than Rome would be considered a “nature based” civilization because they were subsistence agriculturalists.  And I am not alone – Urbanites, or Cosmopolitan Pagans routinely question their place in Contemporary Paganism with its seeming emphasis on “nature worship” as a descriptor.  And this is something that isn’t going to change any time soon, with the expected 15 million to 20 million new urban dwellers by 2050.  We’re seeing a shift in demographics away from suburbia back towards urban centers.  Let alone the fact that many millennials aren’t looking at being able to afford a house, or land, or whatnot.  All of these need to be considered in the definition of Pagan identity.
  5. I am an unrepentant polytheist and animist.  That should go without saying, if you know anything about me.  I believe in the multiplicity of the divine and the pluralism of the religious spheres through a polytheistic and animistic religious system.  And, as such, I have been targeted by specific rhetoric implying I am religiously and ideologically contaminated.

So let’s talk about the incidence of polytheist marginalization.  Along with other polytheistic faiths (Hinduism, Shinto, etc.), polytheistic Pagans face comparatively more discrimination from the overarching society because of this fundamental disagreement with what is considered an “acceptable” religious orientation.  First we’ll take a look at ways in which society approaches polytheism, especially in regards to the more ‘legitimate’ polytheistic faiths.  Then, we’ll take a look at some of the ways polytheistic experience in Contemporary Paganism is marginalized, and how a certain few attempt to control the narrative in order to diminish what is already an arguably minority population.  

I was going to publish a more formal piece from a more academic view point, so I’ll be drawing a bit of information from this unpublished paper.  

As a religious theory, polytheism is inherently aberrant to modern Western society, with its predominantly Christian cultural foundation.  It has been constantly and externally defined, as is the case of the origination of the term “polytheist” by Philo of Alexandria, to routinely disparaged as primitivist, as by Jesuit missionaries.  In those Western countries which are thoroughly Protestant, I contend that the perception of the aberrance of polytheism is magnified immensely.  I’ll be speaking to this largely from the perspective of an American Pagan although I have personally had discussions with Northern European Pagans that would intimate a commonality of reception to polytheistic practices.

One of the notable ways in which polytheism is marginalized within society can be seen in the discussion of public “secular” space and how this space is inherently used to reinforce a singular religious paradigm, e.g. Protestantism.  And this is not some claim of self-victimization, but discussed at length in a variety of scholastic works.  Notably, this is spoken about in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, where it is highlighted how the public space is “encoded”, and supporting of various Protestant monotheistic traditions.

This is done by establishing a perspective of what is considered religiously normalized with an eye to internal consistency.  Everything that falls outside of this popularly perceived “norm” is pushed into the private sphere as they are not palatable or appropriate for group consumption.  Americans are quite familiar with the concept of the separation of Church and State, and use it both as a weapon and defense against religious encroachment.  But it should be remembered that this accomplishment  and by extension the whole of what is considered the “public sphere” in regards to religious discourse is largely a Protestant (and overwhelmingly monotheist) accomplishment.  In short, this public sphere presupposes and blatantly reaffirms the dominant religious tradition as what is effectively considered secular, while purporting tolerance.

What we find in the public is the lack of a pluralistic understanding of religion, which takes into account the differences in cultural expressions and religious concerns not at all.  It masquerades certain religious tolerance – more appropriately in some cases as mere toleration – only if it evacuates public life.  The demarcation between “secular” and “religious” space is inherently untenable for theists who take an immanent view of divinity.  Divinity – and by extent the enactment of the religion – pervades facets of everyday life which necessarily includes accountings in public space.  This defined separation is unnatural and ultimately disenfranchising.

What we find is that, essentially, a “separation of Church and State” ultimately fails in its task of being a multi-religious, pluralistic model within our “Secular Democracy”.  The result is that secular public space does inherently assume and favor a church (or a series of confessional/congregational populations), at least as it exists in North America.  Compared to the multireligious pluralistic state of India, the United States (and the United Kingdom) effectively engages in state-sponsored religious coercion in which their definition of “religion” inherently privileges Christianity.

The failing of popular society to distantly tolerate – let alone anything socially outrageous like embrace – concepts of pluralistic polytheism are apparent.  C.S. Lewis’ work Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life quite clearly indicated a form of “chronological snobbery” (his term) where the hegemonic forces of Christianity are felt; the intellectual and cultural capacities of an earlier time positioned as inherently inferior to that of the present modern time, simply by view of the present being experienced and dominated by Lewis’ own ‘ethical monotheism’.  

Predating and complementary to Lewis, the followers of the “Psychologists of Religion”, inspired by Wellhausen, Hegel, Boyer, and others, position the theisms of animism and polytheism as an archaic religious “primitivism”, something that will naturally and ultimately give way to more “advanced” expressions of religious thought until something akin to Lewis’ ethical monotheism is obtained.  Atheistic writers and philosophers push this synthesis of biological evolution and cultural progress further, aiming for an ultimate goal of a mature society existing in a state of post-monotheistic secularism.

These views, along with lingering colonial attitudes towards identifiably non-European peoples, pervades the reception of polytheistic theology, even in the nominally “modern” and “tolerant” West.  We find these notions of modernity and enlightened tolerance to be hollow claims.

We see this biological argument even in the sphere of Paganism, with the discussion of the “evolving trajectory” of religion.  We see in these words the same intellectual rhetoric of C.S. Lewis, only consisting of  the idea of a non-specific post-Christianity instead of his ethical monotheism.  We see the same assumption of chronological snobbery, that the modern period is better than the pre-modern.  That looking to the past is unrealistic and applying anything from it is anachronistic.

As a collection of new religious movements, contemporary Pagan polytheisms are often suspect in regards to the their claims of religious legitimacy to practice or concerns regarding their theism as being accepted.  In a religious and social culture that expects identified figureheads, these people are often without an overarching authority or representative body.  This is to say nothing about how the recognized polytheistic religions have had to adapt to these hegemonic monotheistic cultural forces.

Even the “legitimate” polytheism of Hinduism, when in the diaspora of the United States, was forced to contend with and eventually adapt to these hegemonic forces.  Prema Kurien’s Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism offers an engaging and fascinating account of the pressures of American Hindus in adapting their religious image to one of a “model minority”, both in regards to religion and ethnicity.  These pressures ultimately lead to the assimilation to Western culture in both the colonial and the immigrant contexts through a constructed, organized Hinduism based in both text and history, and heavily reminiscent of the monotheism of the colonizing or immigrant culture.  

Within the Protestant, monotheist West, we see significant cultural pressures against polytheistic traditions.  Consider that one of the world’s oldest, and largest, polytheistic religions finds itself at the mercy of these prevailing hegemonic forces.  What is a minority religion with a lack of resources like polytheistic Paganism to do?

It is absolutely true that most Pagans do not face the same associated racism and ethnic prejudices that the polytheistic cultures of South and Southeast Asia experience.  I am identifiably white, and I make no such claims that my discrimination is anywhere near the same.  But, the same distrust, disgust, and diminishment of religious experience remains.  Contemporary Pagans are, of course, well versed in the struggles of being a religious minority – doubly so in parts of the West at the mercy of evangelical monotheisms in social and political power.  In these places there exists an even greater pressure in regards to engaging in an identifiably polytheistic religion, resulting in the expectation of religious privatization for economic or safety concerns.

So how can we say that Paganism engages in this same type of marginalization?

Regardless of the location in which it originated, Contemporary Paganism was reared within a Protestant and Protestantized monotheist culture.  If Gerald Gardner’s foundation of British Traditional Witchcraft is held as the “beginning” point of Contemporary Paganism, that is a product of his Protestant culture.  If we’re speaking specifically to the American exegesis and the varying developments primarily driven by American Pagans, these likewise were birthed under a Protestant monotheist overculture.  If the “proto-Paganisms” of the Romantic and Victorian eras are counted as the first stirrings of Contemporary Pagan thought they are undeniably of Protestant origin.

All Westerners are exposed to these Christianized, monotheistic, and ultimately hegemonic forces.  They’re externally and internally used as a metric which all other things – morals, ethics, actions, beliefs – are inherently measured.  In seeing how minority religions like Hinduism acclimate to these forces in their own diaspora, we can perhaps see the types of hegemonic forces that are exerted on us without our awareness.  

Everyone and anyone – even people who were never raised within a religious household or were not raised within a monotheistic religious system (a-religious, atheistic, etc.) is raised this way.  No one is raised in a vacuum, not even Contemporary Pagans.  As a product of this culture, Paganism sees these same prejudices and the same biases which have to be addressed by everyone in some capacity.  I have, in the past, written about some of these biases in the form of baggage and reactionary definitions which serve to warp our conception of Paganism into a shadow or an inversion of the overarching culture.  This problem is far less easy to approach than identifying baggage because it deals with a fundamental understanding of our society which we are all collectively raised with.

When polytheism enters the public sphere it is subject to this same type of baggage by other Pagans.  And invariably they are attacked not for the theological substance of their claims but for strawmen that are erected which are quite clearly not the focus of discussion.  These misrepresented arguments are masked behind the claims of their detractors, like Mark Green’s “not being in competition with theism” in “Atheopaganism and the Future” (linked above), or in John Halstead’s willful misrepresentation of claims of supporting polytheism and polytheistic Pagans.  But, when pressed, they always revert back to disparaging, insulting, and painfully public comments.  What is lacking is a fundamental understanding of the basic qualities of (particularly Western) polytheistic practice, with no apparent attempts to learn.

This is the culture that preaches tolerance (remember: toleration) of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism – these logical thinkers, empiricists, and humanists who would value the “human experience” within Paganism so much that they would denigrate theistic belief as inferior and morally primitive.  The same attitudes that we see repeated in anti-Hindu, anti-indigenous, and overwhelmingly monotheist tracts.  

Their “sympathy” masks their moral positioning and supposed intellectual superiority.  Even when they admit that we are not remotely the same thing, at all, on a basic cosmological level.  And in the same breath state that because polytheists might have issues with being marginalized, our faith is weak.

What we see with commentary like Halstead’s and Green’s is a concerted and well admitted attempt to simultaneously control the polytheist narrative and to diminish polytheistic theological experience within the nominally and ostensibly public sphere.  These even go so far as to directly insult the fundamental basis of polytheist belief through repeated efforts to portray polytheists as backwards and conservative ignorants who worship “fictional” characters or “imaginary friends”.  It follows the footsteps of the majority of the monotheistic West in viewing polytheism as something fundamentally flawed and erroneous in belief, to be pitied and not defended.

Halstead and company imply that our “disenchantment” with the world is a result of our failure to view the interconnectedness of all things in life and to enjoy our place within this reality as it is.  In fact, our “disenchantment” is due to the colonization of aberrant hegemonic monotheistic forces that continually warp and assault polytheistic beliefs, practices, and idols.  Polytheists aren’t “re-enchanting” their religious life.  They’re recognizing it for what it is, and embracing this ancient and widespread theological paradigm, and honoring these timeless beings anew.

The marginalization of Western polytheists persists with an abundantly glaring, disheartening frequency.  The attempts to portray the gods as thoughtforms, archetypes, or imaginary friends simply takes its theological place as adjacent to Protestant monotheism.  It has become normalized, with constant attempts to diminish the oddities of multiple-god worship.  Following Hindu attempts to make their polytheistic values palatable to Westerners, Contemporary Pagans have engaged in reductionist efforts to make their many gods as close to monotheistic as possible.  

What is done in the name of “tolerance” is reaffirm these hegemonic practices in the public space.  Halstead, Green, and those who would cast aspersions on polytheistic theology are perpetuating this.  These actions diminish pluralist thought in favor of privatization of “aberrant” philosophical and theological outlooks.  It is an irony of this entire argument that both sides are claiming marginalization and victimization, a gulf created by people who consistently fall back on questioning the “realness” and existence of the other’s focus of worship.

However, what religious and social history both show is that only one of these two theisms has consistently been marginalized since before even the time of Lactantius, establishing a culture of bigotry, marginalization, and ridicule.  And this rhetoric only promotes it.

 

 


Works Referenced:

Butler, Judith, Jürgen Habemas, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

duBois, Page, A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Green, Mark, “Atheopaganism and the Future”, Atheopaganism: An Earth Honoring Religion Rooted in Science, May 5, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017. https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/atheopaganism-and-the-future/

Green, Mark, “What About Those Who Insist Their Gods are Real: A Policy Statement”, Atheopaganism: An Earth Honoring Religion Rooted in Science, May 25, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017. https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/what-about-those-who-insist-their-gods-are-real-a-policy-statement/

Halstead, John, “Literal Gods are for the Literal Minded: Re-Enchanting Polytheism”, Humanistic Paganism, May 25, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017. https://humanisticpaganism.com/2017/05/25/literal-gods-are-for-the-literal-minded/

Halstead, John, “I Got Played By A Troll”, Patheos Pagan, The Allergic Pagan, November 3, 2016, Accessed May 28, 2017  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2015/11/03/i-got-played-by-a-troll/

Hrafnblod, “On Earth Based Religions”, Grennunghund Hearth, April 5, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017. https://grennunghund.blog/2017/04/05/on-earth-based-religions/

Hrafnblod, “Paganism Isn’t Dying, It’s (Finally) Maturing”, Grennunghund Hearth, May 21, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017. https://grennunghund.blog/2017/05/21/paganism-isnt-dying-its-finally-maturing/

Kurien, Prema, Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Levi-Bruhl, Lucien, Primitives and the Supernatural, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc, 1935.

Lewis, C. S., Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955.

York, Michael, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, New York: New York University Press, 2003.

 

*Note: I make no apologies for my caustic commentary on Hrafnblod’s blog.  I stand by those words, although I recognize that I could have been a little bit less acerbic.

On Human Wrought Boundaries

•April 12, 2017 • 6 Comments

The State boundary marker between New York and Massachusetts from the New York side.

 

There is some inherent, unique quality to man-made boundaries, a quality which I feel often gets overlooked in conversations about Paganism. The demarcations of space which cut across the landscape in sometimes glaringly artificial lines, which nevertheless draw our eyes to them. We follow them and trace them, experiencing them as both tangible and intangible forces. A ditch or culvert, roads and dirt tracks, an old moss-covered stone wall, and even post markers of property or former lines which no longer exist are all representative of the division of human space in this world.

These structures contain something more, something that exists both within and alongside the power from the natural realm that many Pagans emphasize. At times, it can be near-palpable and noticeable: crossing a threshold or stepping through an opened gateway, or crossing from one side of a seemingly mundane border to the other can elicit a feeling of change and otherness. These spaces can be as liminal as the twilight and the dawn, or as much as stepping onto a mound. They simply exist in different and sometimes imperceptible ways.

And people have long known this. Intuitively or by design, the power of the boundary was understood by numerous traditions. Boundaries have long been used by priests to demarcate sacred space. It was understood by witches and cunningfolk, in their use of intersections and existing structures. In a way, it just makes sense that there’s more to the division of the world. Humans are creatures of space as much as anything else. And as such creatures, they are adept at engaging with the forces which also inhabit that space, and are even able to construct it on their own with little initial assistance from the divine.

I often see Pagans approach their religions by being enamored with the glamour of the natural. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, ever. The sanctity and engagement of the divine in the wild and in the natural world, of the gods of the land and earth and those ancient powers that predate humanity’s ascendancy are just as important now as they were in the yesteryear. If not more so. Please do not misconstrue what I am saying in this regard.

But so many Pagans seem to ignore the importance and reject the power inherent in the constructed. Commonly, I have seen it viewed as an eyesore, or a physical reminder of the destruction that our species has caused – the creation of an unnatural edifice that contrasts directly with any real sense of the natural. Some go so far to view it as a blight on their quest for a true Nature religion, something that is at best tolerated but often lamented.

Yet there is power in these boundaries. The Romans knew of Terminus, He of the boundary post and the demarcation of what would today be considered the “secular space” of fields, and pastures, and workable property. He, who was honored by a position of such importance that He was placed next to Jupiter Himself. As traditional polytheistic religion pervades every facet of one’s engagement in this world it is understandable that these sites would be treated as importantly as those of nature. What’s more, the priests understood the importance of the sacred, but nevertheless artificial, boundary in the establishment of the pomerium.

Artificial construction bears relevance and importance in a cosmic sense, much more than some would think. The intersection of two walls creates an inherent axis mundi, a physical representation of the sacred cosmogony. The entire edifice becomes an image of the cosmos. Whether through natural happenstance, simply by existence of a familiar sacred geometry, or through some measure of ritual efficacy, the animation and sanctification of space through sacrifice and rite, these sites become attractants to all measure of spirits and deities. These boundaries are as important as the sacred trees that represent the connection between earth and sky, and they in the same way connect our presence space with that of the cosmic other.

There is sacredness in the enclosure. Walls and barriers so erected protect and, further, preserve the sacred from the profane contamination of the material and mundane. In their many forms they enshrine conduits directly to the numinous – rocks piled just so, a string or rope surreptitiously placed, borders and boundaries that ties reality together in an intimate way. The dichotomy of sacred and not is protected by powerful monuments wrought of human hand, be they ditch or bank that surrounds a sanctuary, or a wall which encloses one’s yard.

Crisscrossing the landscape there are networks of roads which both follow and cut across the contours of the land. These lines of hot asphalt and dusty gravel or dirt enable us to function as a society. They’re necessary and used daily without a second thought. But these very same roads, the arteries of present civilization that act as boundaries in their own right, cross. They become gathering places where dead things can gather during those thin nights of the year, and where Trivia reigns over liminal places. Cunningfolk seek to use them and work their spells with the inherent power of these boundaries. The mundane becomes a source of the esoteric.

Would these very same sites have achieved such relevance if not for the intersection of humanity and the numinous? I could not say, but perhaps not.

Interacting with these human boundaries gives me a sense of the other that pervades our material existence. The walls and roads cut across mundane reality in ways which assist me in contextualizing my place in geography and being. There is a noticeable shift in my perception at times when I walk across such a line, even when I don’t expect it. Even something as innocuous or unremarkable as the political border of two states found in the woods can have a more profound meaning. There is something there. Those that would reject it for being artificial are missing out, I feel.

My religious and esoteric practices take place within the realm of human experience, within the human landscape. I do not seek to maneuver outside the anthropocentric world. I come back to this place when I return from the wilds, across the henge or the road. I am always reminded of how the human environment interacts with the spiritual on a fundamental level, and how the most mundane features can reflect the cosmos.

From the Tool Shed – Transitions

•March 24, 2017 • 13 Comments

Spring has officially sprung. Ēastre is on Her way, complete with flowers, and green things, and warm weather.

Or so they say. You’d never know it, looking out the window.

A late winter snowstorm that hit the Northeast dumped over twenty inches of snow in my area of the Hudson River Valley. Though there were harder hit regions, it was still an inconvenience. Those few warmer days, having reduced the snow pack’s size, have once again given way to bitter cold and sub-zero windchills. In typical New York fashion, we’ve gone from near sixty-degree days to bitter cold, often within hours.

And now those selfsame snow packs are hard, and compacted, and near-solid enough for me to walk on without breaking the outer layer. But they still make the trails impassible. The bitter chill still stabs at your lungs if you try to go outside and do anything.

Layers are still needed. My hands are still ice. Just today our forecast is sleet, freezing rain, and snow showers.

But it’s a mixed blessing, really. For as much as this dreary, turbulent Winter has been hanging on, it competes with the knowledge that we need the water for the coming season. See, what they don’t really tell you about living in Upstate New York is that we have a fire season. It may not be as widespread, nor as devastating as other regions, but it exists. There’s a month or so between mid-April and mid-May where the foliage hasn’t grown up enough to provide a buffer against the spread of wildfires, and state-wide burning bans are common.

So the late snow has been a welcome sign, even if it’s made this transitional period between seasons difficult. Even if it perpetuates that kind of melancholic self-reflection that the stark bitterness of the Winter season creates: the white ground, gray skies, and the dour and dark, leafless trees all adding to it.

This transitory, liminal period of time has caused me to think about this space, Heathenry and Paganism, and my place within the circles of wider community. It’s been no secret that I’ve been dealing with a lot in my personal life – more, in fact, than I’ve really spoken about here – and things have gotten even more topsy-turvey for me (especially) in the past two months. Hard hits, let downs, things of that nature. Ultimately passing, yet nevertheless distracting.

It’s stopped me from being able to pay as much attention to this blog as I would otherwise like to.

My inspiration for writing has been low, lately. You can tell by how infrequently my posts have been since October. I attribute part of that to the level of writing I do. I err towards high-quality, in depth research, because that lets me keep my skills up. The downside is it takes a bit of time to produce something that I’m personally happy with.

And, I think, focusing heavily on that style of writing makes reading my work a bit inaccessible for some people. Consequently, I often feel that this space is a little too impersonal and sanitized. Oh, I periodically have written bits of creative exercises. But even my community critiques tend to be somewhat distanced, and I view them all as teachable moments. And while this blog was never intended to be a “slice of life” blog, maybe personalizing it a bit more would be beneficial.

I had an impressive year last year, in terms of reach and readership – for me, at least. I want to capitalize on that and do better than I did last year, reach more people, and engage with them more. Grow more. I think part of that is reaching out and humanizing Of Axe and Plough. At the very least it gives me opportunities to expand my reach and my writing, and I want to engage more in not only academic works, but in thoughtful projects and contemplations that I feel I often otherwise lack.

Recently, I have made the decision to pare down a lot of my extraneous engagements and limiting myself to a handful of Pagan projects. Most of it deals with leaving the drama of social media, save for a very few groups which I find value in. My focus is almost entirely on this blog, and my work with the Larhus Fyrnsida, and verbalizing my explorations of hearth cult, and other such interests that I’m exploring.

I don’t have much of a plan, and maybe this is my failing. A redesign maybe? An expansion to other social media sites? Who knows.

I’d like to hear thoughts from my readers. Am I wildly off base? Am I not? Inquiring minds want to know!

Blōstmfrēols: A Distinct Fyrnsidu Holiday

•March 17, 2017 • 2 Comments

In developing a more comprehensive character to one’s religious identity, inspiration for practice can come readily from scraps of information or otherwise from the barest of inspiration.  As a reconstructionist religion, Fyrnsidu is distinctly benefited from the use of various comparative methodologies in order to flesh itself out so that it does not remain in a static or otherwise stunted form.  Incidents of holidays and a religious calendar are one such facet which are underrepresented in the historic record and must be worked around in order to craft a proper identity.  The following is presented for practitioners of Fyrnsidu and the followers of the Larhus Fyrnsida to consider.

Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary includes a definition:

blōstm-frēols es; m.

A floral festival

Blōstmfrēols >>floralia<<.[1]

This definition is an Old English gloss for the Roman festival Floralia.  This may hint at an early-Spring festival that was associated with that more ancient observance, and was thus suitable for a proper Old English gloss for the Latin term.  It is known from the Anecdota Oxoniensia, the Old English Glosses, edited by Arthur S. Napier.

It is not unusual for an Old English gloss to exist for a corresponding Latin concept without proof of an existing practice.  Questions necessarily surround the extent of such a commonality of practice between these two terms.  But in this instance it may be reasonable to assume, with the prevalence of regional Spring festivals across the whole of Northern Europe that some measure of festival occurred within the Anglo-Saxon period that the scribes best associated with Floralia.

European folk traditions that take place in late-April and early-May are commonly known.  Of these, to modern practitioner, “May Day” celebrations are perhaps the best known of these Spring festivals.  It is common for contemporary Pagans to treat “May Day” as the archetypal spring festival honoring fertility, abundance and growth, given over to modern practice from a culturally syncretic Wiccan religious apparatus that combined Gaelic Beltane and traditional English folk practices.  

Blōstmfrēols is of interest in the quest of establishing a unique holiday practice to enrich the practice of Fyrnsidu as distinctly Old English practices for Heathens are largely nonexistent.  Blōstmfrēols, as a gloss of Floralia, gives us an insight into the nature of the period, and the position of that Roman holiday provides the foundations for a future construction of worship.

We are not alone in making these comparisons with Floralia, nor is this found only in Bosworth-Toller.  Such a comparison had been previously made in the monograph Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire, by Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock.  Published in 1908, it was one of several printed volumes of collected folklore remnants at the time.  Floralia is intimately associated with the practice of “going a’Maying”, an old custom observed by children on the 1st of May.  Particularly, garlands of flowers were constructed that were adorned with dolls, explained by Gutch and Peacock as the chief doll “being representative of the goddess Flora, in the festival of the Roman Floralia[2].

While it is untenable to assume that the survival of pre-Saxon Roman practices into modern memory, the comparison nevertheless lays an important groundwork for the exploration of what could constitute a development of a particularly Old English Heathen practice.  Independent of Gaelicized-Wiccan observances, this practice can be explored through comparative study with the Floralia, in order to give more substance to what the writers of these glosses were describing.

Behind Blōstmfrēols: Floralia

As a festival celebrating the fertility and fecundity of the Spring, Floralia is the Roman festival for the goddess Flora and consisted of a festival post-dating the expansion of the original Flora cult in 238 BCE [3].  In the veneration of Flora, it consisted of hares and goats being released within the Circus Maximus and various seeds and beans scattered among the attending people gathered taking place on the 28th of April through the 3rd of May.  Given the emphasis on fertility and the bloom of the Spring and dealing with the fructification of the earth and humanity both, it was functionally and undeniably a festival for the common folk [4].

Flora is an old Italic deity who is associated with both Ceres, as the agricultural goddess of fertility, and with Venus, as the goddess of love and fecundity [5]. She is nevertheless set apart from these two deities.  She is not simply an “agrarian” deity in the same nature of Ceres, but deals specifically with the celebration of the Spring bloom of flowers.  Historically, the temples of Ceres and Flora were established separately, and their respective holidays were likewise kept apart.  Despite the apparent links between this holiday and the Cerealia, the celebration of Floralia-as-fertility festival was independent of celebration of agricultural cultivation

Floralia is representative of the fertility of the land through nonviolent means.  The release of the hares and goats, themselves herbivorous animals, were not sacrificed.  This positions Floralia against a bloodletting festival which would otherwise ensure the fertility of the land.  It takes place at the end of April when the flowers and fields are beginning to bloom for much of the northern hemisphere.  Much like Ēastre and Beltane, it would fall in the transitional period between April and May.

The festival of Floralia has been classified as a ‘propitiatory sacrifice’, or a piacula.  This denotes a ritual action reserved for sacrifices that are designed specifically in order to ensure the continuation of or otherwise protect against some specific outcome.  As much of a celebration of flowers and the Spring, it appears to have been a ritualistic safeguard to continue the natural order of spring growth.  

Blōstmfrēols in Contemporary Practice

The literal definition of Blōstmfrēols as a “floral festival” in Bosworth-Toller places flowers, flowering plants, and fructification as the highest concern in this holiday.  It celebrates the growth of those vibrant attractants and their importance within agriculture.  What does this include?  Flowers.  Bees.  Pollination.  Life.  It is more than a Spring festival, but one that actively worships the vibrant attractants which inevitably help produce the fruits and vegetables we as a society depend on, as well as the creatures that make that happen.

The question remains: How can one appreciate and celebrate this holiday if they so wish?  What are ways that practitioners of Fyrnsidu and their hearths can potentially approach such a holiday?  What would the requirements of ritual be?

It would perhaps be best to determine when the festivity should be.  Floralia is positioned late in the month of April, sometime between April 28th and May 3rd.  A similar positioning for Blōstmfrēols is absolutely appropriate, although individuals in different growing seasons are more than welcome to move it further ahead or behind, depending.  For instance, late April is a good time for those in what is considered “hardiness zone 5”, when things are entering their bloom.  Those that are in warmer climates further south may decide that close to Ēastre may be preferable.

It is a festival of both levity and solemnity, one that both celebrates flowers and new growth as well as seeks to ensure that the coming Spring and growing season are fruitful and prosperous.  Given its roots in the non-violent Floralia, it is unsuitable to celebrate Blōstmfrēols with offerings of meat or game products, relying instead on wines, honey, oils, and other products of agricultural practices which are benefited by the proliferation of flowers and pollinators.  Suitable sacrifices are poured out in libation or are otherwise “gifted back”, and coupled with votives (hares and goats in particular) and other offerings as deemed appropriate.

Though we do not have a comparative figure associated with Flora in Old English folklore, Ēastre provides a suitable focus for worship.  She is honored from the full moon of Ēastremōnaþ to the end of Blōstmfrēols, and celebrated as the bringer of the Spring and the flowers.  In this manner She is approached as the Goddess of flowers (Ēastre Blōstmbǣrende), of bees (Ēastre Bēomōder) and honey (Ēastre Hunigflōwende)[6].

Blōstmfrēols could then be seen as the end of the “Ēastre season”, the finished culmination of the honoring of the equinox, and the hope for the growth it should bring.

Compliments of the Sierra Club, such packets only help bee populations.

We can utilize later-period Lincolnshire folklore as an example for suitable actions, as well. The creation of flower garlands[7], especially utilizing native flowers to the area and grown at the appropriate time and adorned with ribbons and other festive decorations, is appropriate. Votive representations of either the hares or the goats, or of a divine figure placed within those garlands, can hang prominently throughout the period of the observance, only to be deposited on a body of water or buried in the soil at the end of the festival, as hearth practice entails.

Given the dire state of the bee population in the West, especially the United States where they suffer from Colony Collapse Disorder, the celebration and protection of pollinators is of paramount importance for our continued survival as a society.  Seeding local types of wildflowers or maintaining a space conducive for their growth will only aid in the proliferation of the bounty which Blōstmfrēols ultimately seeks to ensure.

In Summary

It is highly unlikely that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon tribes maintained a festival that was undeniably drawn from Roman practices, as a simple reading of the gloss would otherwise intimate.  No matter the thoughts of folklorists and gloss scribes, it is simply unlikely to have happened.

It is, likewise, undeniable that Blōstmfrēols is a contemporary holiday that is built upon very ancient practices.  There are no claims to antiquity in the present practice of the observance.  Instead it takes the tradition of established Spring festivities and brings them to the fore for Fyrnsidu practice, incorporating a perspective of our world and employing it in a fundamentally unique way.  This is vital in the performance and continuation of a modern religious identity, for if those holes which we have are not filled, we will remain in the mire of intellectualism and academic debate and not a living religious identity.

 


[1] Bosworth, Joseph, ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others, Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Blóstm-freóls. (Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010), Accessed: Web. 29 July 2016. http://www.bosworthtoller.com/040634.  There is also another word given for Blōstmfrēols in Bosworth-Toller, “Blōstmgeld” which serves as an alternative.  This word also is translated as “floralia”.

[2] Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock, County Folk-lore Vol. V., Printed Extracts No. VII: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire (London: Long Acre, 1908), pg. 200.

[3] W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans, (London: Macmillan and Co. LTD.), 1899, pg 91.

[4] Fowler, Roman Festivals, pg. 95.

[5] Fowler, Roman Festivals, pg. 92.

[6] This would syncretize Her with Flora, Chloris and Mellona, respectively, providing additional clues for an appropriate practice of the holiday period.

[7] Gutch and Peacock, Printed Folk-Lore, pg. 200. Traditional descriptions of these garlands include an “oval shape”, and were otherwise composed of cowslips, wood anemones, crab-blossom, wall-flowers, primroses, and daisies. Given the geographic conditions of modern Fyrnsidere, it is advised that one uses locally procured flowers.

Eofores Holt Heorþ

•January 31, 2017 • 1 Comment

The individual Heathen identity is often subsumed under group and communal identity. This is understandable, given the nature of human society, and how we collectively buld social bonds. If we are to take someone like Ken Dowden at his word in his book European Paganism: The Realities of Cult From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, as heathens our polytheistic practice by its very nature is unconsciously designed to encourage the growth of a form of greater-than-personal identity [1].

While I heartily disagree with this assessment of the native spirituality of these pre-Christian peoples, there is truth in the idea of the coalescing of identity within a larger group. As we as a society (especially American) progress from one of hyper individuality and a disillusionment with a pan-national idea, we’re engaging with and encouraged by the growth of tribal identity. In our society, we coalesce around hobbies, interests, and orientations which we derive our understanding of the world. Religion is, ultimately, tribal and concerned only with its constituent members. Pan-cultural universalist religion was a relatively late, relatively unique, development in the human idea of religion.

Other Heathens have written about the relative lack of individuality and individualism within Heathenry, that the worldview is inimical to the concept of the sole individual. Heathen religion is a communal religion, so they say. Larger traditions within Heathenry believe that divinity deals with the whole, and not the individual, and that the individual should nevertheless avoid attempting to engage with some facets of higher divinity. Others are content to ignore the personal for the communal, which has ultimately lead to a deficiency in home-based religious orientation.

They are, of course, free to do this and to prioritize their religion as they see fit. But it has never been something which I’ve approached as tenable to my understanding of self, my interaction with the wider community, and how I engage in my personal practice. And I identify that as one of the fundamental deficiencies of Heathenry as a religious movement.

We hear often that there is no such thing as “Solitary” practice within Heathenry, as a result of the pressures to engage in a wider group. “Go and do” is often uttered to interested neophytes and curious onlookers – go and find a kindred or tribal Heathen entity and see what they’re about. If you cannot, try to build one, no matter the relative experience (or lack thereof) that one may have. In some cases, this works well, and vibrant groups are founded that meet several times a year for ritual and rite, and otherwise make an effort in their locality.

In others, it fails abysmally. The location is not good, or the surrounding community are filled with people whom do not align with one’s politics, worldview, or what have you. These are all major considerations for the interpersonal relationships that are founded between people and while diversity of opinion is valued, some differences are insurmountable to a healthy working relationship. There are reasons why people stick to themselves. With concepts of intermingling luck, worth, and more importantly wyrd, it is particularly egregious to ask anyone to engage in a ritual relationship with relative strangers simply for the sake of “communal religion”.

With the discussion naturally focusing on the wider group, an individual tends to be glossed over. Ignoring the universally abhorrent quality of most published 101 level works, which might have some information about home-based worship, there is no true initiative in the maintenance of a home cult. Which is odd, considering the inverse importance that many Heathens place on their ancestors and local tutelary spirits over the higher gods. Some people even believe that there is such a thing as “too much gifting”, and that only a handful of times a year is suitable for their veneration and devotion.

While there are historic arguments for the development of individualism within the Western conscience (my Old English professor was aghast at the theory that some academics had that argued the idea of the “individual” did not occur until the Romance literature of the Medieval period), there is no argument that the individual household holds preeminence within archaic society. While the nations were supported by the tribes, the tribes were supported by the community, and most importantly, the community was established by a collection of households.

Our very understanding of the innangeard originates on the household first. This is the fundamental unit within Heathenry, and one that is vastly overlooked, to the detriment of the foundation of the whole religious outlook.

This brings us to the topic of this post: Eofores Holt Heorþ

I eschew the titles “Solitary” or “Unaffiliated” Heathen. I do not believe that community is the sole determining factor of “Heathen-ness”, and I have often found myself the pariah of various communities which I engage that espouse this view of Heathenry. By characterizing my practice consistently around my association with others, I lose myself, my family, and my gods, in the process.  This is unacceptable to me.

Instead, I choose to embrace a term employed by the Larhus Fyrnsida (as of yet unpublished, so here’s a sneak peek): Frēosceatt Hæþen [2], or “Freehold Heathen”. My hearth is independent from a larger tribal body. I am an independent entity holding to Heathen ideals and practices.  As the smallest unit of the innangeard is on the hearth, so is mine a unit, and I encourage individuals to look at it in this way.

In the honored tradition of the sacra privata of the Indo-European peoples, I am the familial priest of my hearth, and take the title: Þingere, or “intercessor”. As the sole polytheistic member of both my families, I keep my ancestors, and handle my gods on the behalf of them, any residing members of my family in my house, and tend the sacred space of my hearth and whichever tutelary deity is there.

To that end, to help assist the Larhus Fyrnsida (as member of the Larwitan) in the development, proliferation, and visibility of a hearth-centric Heathen practice, I take this time to formally announce the naming of my hearth, Eofores Holt Heorþ Boar’s Wood Hearth. I officially join the ranks of other free hearths like Sundorwīc, Þunresfolc Heorþ, Weiß Alb Hearth, Eber-Blut Hearth, and many others.

The nature of my hearth will blend my domestic cultus into my worldview as established by Heathenry and Fyrnsidu. As hearth cult is mutable, it is a guide to be inspired by, not necessarily one to be followed in toto, and will naturally differ from even those who I am in close correspondence with.

Consider this a statement of intent, a peek of what is to come, and an apology for not having much to update since October.  It’s been rough.


[1] Ken Dowden, European Paganism: The Realities of Cult From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, (London: Routledge, 2000), 291.

[2] The Larhus will be elaborating more on this in an official capacity.

Bīnaman: A Distinctly Fyrnsidere Approach to Divinity

•October 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I wrote a piece on Larhusian Fyrnsidu, and a unique perspective that we take towards Heathenry. While I traditionally share the pieces here first (see: Prayer in a Heathen Context), I opted not to for this page. But I am sharing it, and I hope that people enjoy it!

Lārhūs Fyrnsida

Author’s Note: This piece partially builds off of “Prayer in a Heathen Context” and “Prayer in a Fyrnsidu Context”, as a natural continuation of those practices within Fyrnsidu.

For practitioners of Fyrnsidu, or other Anglo-Saxon Heathen traditions, there exists a fundamental impasse in the understanding of divinity within strictly “Anglo-Saxon” religious perspectives. The problem is quite simple: the identifiable “pantheon” of Anglo-Saxon deities is beyond poorly represented in surviving literary works and materials. Outside of place-name analysis, the linguistic lineages such as the days of the week, and a few inclusions in authored works that survive – like Bede’s De Temporum Ratione – the actual identifiable names of deities are few and far between.

On the surface, this would not seem like much of a problem, until one thinks about the plethora of divinity that other tribal peoples would have access to. Instead, it generates the…

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