Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Spring Mix '11

For the last eight years Ari and I have a tradition of creating a "Spring Mix" of music. When we were living in Michigan that "Spring Mix" was a sort of quiet hope, a hope for warm days, no snow, reading on the porch. Now that I've been swimming in March out here in California, it's a little different, but this year's Beltane "Spring Mix" is the promise of an awesome summer, sun soaked days, nights at the beach, and hikes in the mountains! Enjoy

XTC has made some amazing Pagan-themed albums. Check out "Apple Venus" Volumes One and Two, along with "Skylarking." Gotta love songs about Maypoles!

This gorgeous track comes from the new Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers album "Unida Cantina."

A song doesn't have to explicitly be about "Spring" to make my "Spring Mix" it just has to put me in a certain mood/state of mind. "I've Never Done" by Bowling For Soup fills the bill nicely.

Ari would kill me if I left "Come All Ye" by Fairport Convention:

Probably only because it's new and I'm digging the beats, but you can't go wrong with new
Beastie Boys, this is "Make Some Noise."

"Gentle Arms of Eden" by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Dave was an amazing song writer, and Grammer has one of my favorite voices in music.

There's nothing more "Beltane" than "Beltaning," and while "Courtin in the Kitchen" is not the ideal location, it can be a lot of fun. Jason is a huge Gaelic Storm fan.

"D'yer Ma'ker" is loathed by many Zeppelin fans, but I've always thought it was a fun summertime romp.

My musical tastes are all over the board, and there's nothing more "all over" than including David Arkenstone's "Road to the Faire" from "The Celtic Book of Days." I just love this instrumental piece. Yeah, it makes no sense after Zeppelin, but "Spring" doesn't make sense sometimes. It's 80 degrees one day, 52 the next . . . . .

Summer and Spring are about "Friendship," good times, and Tenacious D!

I'd put "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" right up there with the greatest rock and roll songs of all day. We love and miss you Otis.

My favorite "Spring" song of all time is Richard Shindell's "Spring" but it's not available on youtube or anything. Do yourself a favor and find it on Itunes.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Ritual

(This entry is about ritual, and references a few. There are no names involved, but if you feel like I'm a big jerk after reading this, know that's not my intention. I know my expectations are high, perhaps unreasonably so, and I do appreciate the efforts of anyone who leads public ritual. It's not easy, and I thank you for doing it.)

This Saturday Ari and I will be attending two Beltane rituals. On Sunday we might go to one or two more. So far, there's been a lot of opportunity for ritual in the Bay Area. I'm excited about a Beltane weekend with rituals in the woods and along the ocean shore. I'm also thrilled that it's supposed to be sunny and bright, and warm. Those are things that didn't usually happen in Michigan.

Despite all of my excitement, I'm a little worried. I am a ritual snob, and so far our ritual experiences in California have been anti-climactic. Now we've only been to "open circles" and I know full well the perils and problems of performing ritual in that vein. There are always lots of concerns, and a tendency to never go "full throttle," to much unknown energy in the circle for that kind of thing. I get that, I don't expect to have some amazing transformative experience at such gatherings, but I expect something.

The first ritual we went to featured some very nice people, and while we were politely ignored by some of the folks there, most everyone was welcoming. The ritual its self was mostly seated and didn't really involve anyone outside of the High Priest and High Priestess running the ritual. Despite twenty minutes calling the quarters and casting the circle, the whole thing was done in less than thirty minutes.

Our second ritual experience was on the beach under a beautiful swollen full moon. Again, people were very nice to us, but the ritual was over in about the same time as the first and there was very little interaction between the High Priest and everyone else in the circle. On the plus side, I loved the energy that was created, and the setting alone was magickal. I'm going to steal one of the songs we used in the ritual. So there were things I liked about it, but it was also "slight."

I don't know if "slight" is the right word, but it seems to fit my purposes. "Slight Ritual" is quick ritual that doesn't involve everyone. It's sort of like peaking up under the skirt of The Goddess, instead of standing before Her reveling in all of Her glory. It's ritual that leaves you wanting more, kind of like going out to eat and only having the appetizer and never getting your meal. It's the kind of ritual that makes me look at Ari when we are done and say "When we get home I want you to read The Charge of the Goddess for me."

I'm sure I've performed "slight" ritual on a number of occasions. There are moments when the creative juices are just not flowing, or the energy in the room is so strange that I feel the need to cut things short. None of us are perfect, and we all have bad days. I know that some of the rituals I've done at festivals have been far to short. We can aim for perfection, but we all usually fall short of the mark.

Perhaps my concern over "slight" rituals stems from the fact that I haven't done very many in the past couple of years. Lansing Michigan is certainly not the Pagan Capitol of the country, but we were blessed with some amazing writers of ritual: Mel, Teresa, Jerry, Eddie, Sarah Kate, Christopher, Ari, and probably myself. (Names are incomplete out of respect, don't know who wants name checked in my blog you know.) I'm sure I'm forgetting a few there too. We were lucky, much larger communities aren't usually that fortunate.

In my mind great rituals requires six things:
1. Welcoming atmosphere
2. Calling the Quarters/Casting the Circle (setting up the ritual)
3. Invoking the Goddess and God (even my Horned God rituals have a spot for Her.)
4. Something interactive that involves everyone
5. Cakes and Ale
6. Clean Up/Thank you's

I realize that not all of these are easy steps. Creating an atmosphere free of cliques and an environment that goes out of its way to include everyone is near impossible. This could be the hardest part of any public ritual. I like to think I tried to make everyone feel welcome during my days of leading open ritual, but I'm not sure I always succeeded. I do remember approaching people I didn't know several times, but did I do it every time? I'm not sure and it's doubtful. Probably too busy flirting with girls and drinking cider, but I do know that if I saw a wallflower on the outside looking in I tried to talk with him/her.

So far in California I've been lucky enough to know someone at every ritual we've attended. Usually I know someone "going in," but beyond that I've had several people recognize me at things. That is a nice feeling, and it's a huge help when trying to put roots down in a new community. I can't imagine what it's like when you don't know anyone at all.

Casting circles and calling the quarters is pretty easy, and is something most people get right at ritual. Sure, there are always people who walk widdershins around the circle causing my eyes to bug out, but that's a small thing. About the only time I've seen a quarter calling get truly messed up is when it was happening and I wasn't aware of it happening. People do things in different ways, a heads up on how the ritual is going to unfold before hand can be a good thing. (Of course, the expectation is sometimes "everyone knows how it's going to unfold, except for you Midwesterners.)

Invoking the gods should never be problematic, but Ari and I have had so many positive experiences with this aspect of ritual over the years that it can be problematic. I need more than just "Goddess of Spring join us tonight." I need "Once in a month and better it be when the moon is full . . . . . . And ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise . . ." You know the rest. I wouldn't say ritual is incomplete without those words, but it comes close.

There was a Midsummer several (several) years ago when Ari and I felt like outsiders in our own community. It was nobody's fault really, we just all had different little groups and whatever, shit happens. The ritual that night, at one of my favorite ritual spots ever, was just a little off. It didn't work for whatever reason, and felt incomplete. If I remember correctly there was no "deity" really in it. So when we were done I grabbed a blanket, my Ari, and our BoS's and headed off away from everyone else. We decided that skyclad on Midsummer was the way to go and I had Ari read the Charge of the Goddess for me. When she was done I read the Charge of the God. We then made love under the moon, ritual complete.

I have such a strong relationship with deity, and such a huge need for liturgy, that anything less than the most absolute heartfelt Call to the Goddess along with the words of Valiente tends to leave me feeling incomplete. When invoking deity I expect to feel Goddess and God in the circle with me. These are high expectations, and perhaps more of an indictment on me than anyone else. For if I can't "find her within, I will never find her without," still I have this need for it during ritual.

Many circles tend to ignore The God completely, or pay Him just the tiniest amount of lip service. For a full fledged Panhead and member of the Horned God Army this is always a problem. A ritual without a complete dose of Vitamin P* nearly leaves me sick. Do I have an insane connection to The God? Hell yes. Can I draw Him down at a near moment's notice? Does His energy sometime consume my being? Can I lead ritual and fill a room full of Pan or Dionysian Energy? Hell yes to all of those things.

Now I don't expect others to have this sort of connection, and that's fine. But what I would like is the chance to feel Him in the circle. It's not good enough to allow just one horn into the circle, I need both. Something equal in appreciation to The Goddess is always welcome. Is it hard for me to pull myself back in ritual sometimes and stop myself from saying "I am he who abides in the deepest darkerst woods. It is my place to be with the creatures of the forest running in the cloak of blackest night. With bow strung across my back I make my home with the Earth. I am the defender of the sacredness of nature. I am the Great God." He's like an inch that has to be scratched, and absolute essential part of ritual for me.

Besides creating a welcoming environment, putting together something that everyone can be involved with in ritual is a challenging task. In a large public circle that challenge grows even bigger. The easy solution is usually just to chant or give people something, and those are fine things, but I tend to want a little something more. In a perfect world what goes on in the middle of circle will make me laugh (spring/summer/harvest) or perhaps make me introspective (late fall/winter). What it should do is change my consciousness in some way.

Knowing that I'm making magick changes my consciousness. It's one thing to be given something, it's another to put my heart and energy into it, and be encouraged to do so. I want to look upon deity at ritual, experience something outside of my usual day to day routine. I want to feel love, I want to feel that I can accomplish anything and that the world is mine for the taking. That's what great ritual does, and when we are done we might even all be a little bit tired. Witchcraft is work, I want do work in circle.

Cakes and Ale is like calling the quarters, very rarely does this get messed up. It's a time for fellowship, good humor, and creating community. It should be more than just mindless cup and cookie passing, it should be a moment of thanks to the Gods for all they have given us. (And even in the midst of this country's current circumstances there is a lot to be thankful: food, drink, music, a warm summer's day, the smile and wink of a lover, the list goes on and on.)

I'm going to approach this weekend with an open mind and an open heart. I do realize that anyone who leads ritual generally is doing their best, and that I do have crazy high expectations. But also, ritual is what you make of it. We do have the power to transform our circumstances, and yes, sometimes you can hear me whispering "Pan, Pan, Pan" under my breath at ritual, having my moment with Him. Sure I'd love to share that moment and really get involved with it, but I do try and be polite.

Viva la ritual.

*That's "Vitamin Pan" of course, a phrase coined by British occultist and New Agey Christian Dion Fortune.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Myths

I don't take the myths of my gods literally. I don't think Athena popped out of the head of Zeus, or that Dionysus was born from the Lightning God's thigh. I have no idea if Syrinx really turned herself into a bunch of reeds while being chased by Pan (though I wouldn't blame her), and frankly I don't care one way or the other if it actually happened.

Myths illustrate things about the gods. The stories of Pan raping nymphs are in there because when you call upon Him, it is very easy to lose control. That doesn't mean all Panheads are rapists, it just means that those who foolishly call Him might do something they don't intend to. Worshipping Aphrodite does not one make promiscuous, but getting lost in the power of Aphrodite might. Myths reveal all that is good, and bad about a deity, and it is a constantly evolving thing.

Myths also illuminate cultures. Zeus was able to give birth to sons and daughters because Greece was a patriarchal society, a man giving birth to his own son or daughter is a display of power, a triumph over the natural order. It's probably less an indictment against Zeus, and more of one against certain men in Greece, similar to how Yahweh's wife was written out of the Old Testament by a different set of men.

I got myself into trouble last week because a few people inferred from my rather snarky post that I discount myth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Myth is truth, about a society, a people, a god. I don't take it literally, but I do heed its warnings.

Last week I was trying to illustrate the differences between (some of) the followers of Monotheistic versus Pagan faiths. To me the story of "Exodus" is a myth, there's no historical evidence for it, and its purpose seems to be to illustrate the nature of Yahweh. In Exodus, his nature is revealed as angry and warlike, a war god par excellence who can bring down plagues and kill every first born child.

If I was a Jew living in Jerusalem, between two much greater military powers, like Egypt and Babylon (or Assyria depending on who is ruling what at the time), I'd want my god to be warlike and capable of protecting me too. When you live between Empires it probably pays to be warlike, so Yahweh became like his followers, and his followers like him. Exodus was never meant to be taken literally, it was meant to be taken as a myth promising the followers of Yahweh that they would one day have revenge on those who would harm them.

The difference between a myth like Moses and Exodus, and Hercules and the Hydra, is that no one is wasting their time trying to prove the literal truth of Hercules. There's nothing inherently wrong with Passover (I do find it a little mean spirited, but I know why it's mean spirited), but there is something wrong with pretending that it was a literal event. The literalness of the account shouldn't matter. If your faith depends on "literal truth" you'll die an atheist or an agnostic, because belief is impossible to prove by its very nature.

So I believe in myth as an illustration of a greater truth that science can't prove one way or another. Three thousand years ago in Arcadia a shepherd began to hear a voice say "Pan" over and over again. He answered the voice and wrote a story about it, that story spread to others and more stories were written. While those stories were being written the god might have whispered in the ears of his followers, or perhaps his followers just wrote tales illustrating their perceptions of Pan. Whatever happened, a body of myth grew up around that god, and it was so telling, so vital, and so important, that it has existed for thousands of years and has continually shone a light on Pan and how to interact with Him.

One of the great things about myth is that it is constantly evolving, and it gladdens my heart when my deities pull the heartstrings of poets and writers in the Modern Age. So while the poetry of John Keats might have just been an English assignment for you, for me "I Stood Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill" is a new piece of the myth of Pan:

So did he feel, who pull'd the boughs aside,
That we might look into a forest wide,
To catch a glimpse of Fawns, and Dryades
Coming with softest rustle through the trees;
And garlands woven of flowers wild, and sweet,
Upheld on ivory wrists, or sporting feet:
Telling us how fair, trembling Syrinx fled
Arcadian Pan, with such a fearful dread.
Poor nymph,--poor Pan,--how he did weep to find,
Nought but a lovely sighing of the wind
Along the reedy stream; a half heard strain,
Full of sweet desolation--balmy pain.

Those who know me well know that I also attach a great deal of significance to Tom Robbins' "Jitterbug Perfume" for similar reasons, and Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson" series of books also sheds new light on the god.

So yes, myth is very much alive, and it's something I take very seriously.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My Holidays Aren't Violent (Jason vs. Easter and Passover)

Pagan holidays are not violent. They aren't about the murder of innocents, or the re-enactment of a snuff-film. My holidays are about flowering trees and falling leaves, sunshine filled days and moonlight filled nights. As a Pagan I celebrate the cycle of life, and I take no joy in celebrating a "literal death."

Most Aprils the stark contrast between Modern Paganism and Monotheism is at its most vivid. Yesterday was the Jewish Passover, one of the most violent holidays on record. When looked at with a critical eye, Passover is a celebration of mass murder, with a "God" who is obviously not meant to be a deity for all people.

I thought to celebrate The Passover we'd take a look at the words and actions of the "God of Love" I here so much about. At least I understand a little bit better why Republicans do what they do. The italics below are the actual bloodthirsty "words of God," and the regular text is my analysis of those words.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Passover, it's the celebration of Yahweh "passing over" the houses of the Israelites and striking down first born Egyptians. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews were once slaves to Egypt's pharaoh, Passover is a part of the "Exodus" story to the Promised Land (Israel).)

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb or his family, one for each household.

Two things jump out at me here. If the Israelis are slaves in Egypt while this is going on, they are living a pretty good life as slaves. Each family has a freaking lamb! I've never owned a lamb, not even for a few hours right before dinner time. Oh, and what happens to single Moms here? It's hard to believe a community of slaves are going to have intact families.

If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.

Not only are these the richest slaves in the world, their blessings are so abundant that they have hundreds of year old male sheep (and goats) without defect! That's pretty amazing. I'm also wondering what the bleeping and baaaing sounded like as all of those animals were slaughtered. Also, why didn't the Egyptians notice all of this going on? That's a lot of livestock.

Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.

A couple of chalk markings might have worked here, but nope, we've got to use blood. Nothing says "Welcome!" like blood on the door.

That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

Eating is always easier with a staff in hand. Who needs a knife and a fork? Oh and while you are eating one handed, be sure to do it as quickly as possible, and if your cloak comes untucked while you do it . . . . well shame on you. Also, leftovers aren't advised. As slaves you have so much money and extra food lying around, so it's fine to just waste the leftovers. There ya go, throw them in the fire.

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt."

I understand that there were some problems with The Pharaoh and some of his staff, but to kill "every firstborn of both people and animals?" What the hell? I'm guessing the majority of those folks would be innocent bystanders? How bloodthirsty is that!?!?! If anyone asks me why I'm not a monotheist I'll point to this story every time. And don't give me that "your Greek Gods were jack asses" argument either. People take the above stuff literally, Pagans and ancient mythology, not so much.

While it's bad enough that all the first borns died at Passover, what about the animals? The cats prowling around the pyramids committed some atrocities we aren't aware of? I'm sorry, that's just not cool. Fido and Whiskers are pretty blameless.

Growing up I don't think I ever realized how horrible that story was. The amount of innocents that would be killed in such a scenario boggles the mind. But hey, let's raise a toast and thank Yahweh for killing all those kids and animals!

Easter is not much better than Passover folks. I think we are lulled into this false sense of Easter almost being a Pagan holiday due to the eggs, plastic grass, and chocolate bunnies. Yes, it's true Eostara was a fertility goddess, and many of the trappings around Easter are Pagan, but Pagan holidays are never giant snuff films.

"Good Friday" is about a guy dying in a horrible, grizzly, and violent matter. Crucifixion was a horrible way to go. Pagan fertility gods have met some nasty (metaphorical) deaths over the years, but nothing compares to having nails through your palms and ankles. Horrible, and for what? The baffling concept of "original sin?"

This is where Christian theology truly begins to make no sense. "So your God, who is all powerful and knowing created us with flaws? And the only way to get rid of those flaws was to come back to Earth as a man and get crucified?" Really? Why not bathe in some lamb's blood, or drink some wine (which would be the preferable way in my book) to "cleanse the imperfection?" Jesus as a teacher and a prophet I can understand, but the theological gobbledy good attached to him is a head scratcher.

In two weeks I will be celebrating the cross quarter holiday of Beltane, and I'm going to do it without celebrating any deaths. In fact I'm going to be celebrating life on that most high holy day. I'm going to drink some wine (and a lot of cider), laugh with some friends, celebrate in a cathedral of Redwood Trees that afternoon and then delight in the Lady oceanside that evening. You can have your blood sacrifices, and angry deities killing temple cats, I say "here's to life!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ben and Me, Faith pretending to be scholarship.

I read the magazine Biblical Archeology Review, not surprising huh? I've been a reader for over a decade and an actual subscriber for the past three or four years. I even had a letter published in there once. The key to my enjoyment of the "BAR" as it's affectionately called by readers is the word "Archeology." BAR knowingly prints articles that refute the "literalness" of the Bible.

The purpose of BAR is to present modern Biblical scholarship (and some pagan too, especially of cultures in the near area) to a mass audience. Some of that scholarship directly contradicts writings in the Old and New Testaments, some of it supports those writings. Most of that scholarship leads to a greater understanding of "why" a Biblical text was written and what life was like two to three thousand years ago in Israel and parts near by.

As someone who is interested in ancient religions it's hard not to like a magazine with cover stories proclaiming "Did God Have a Wife?" Obviously the BAR is not evangelical clap-trap, which gets it into trouble with its readers. Every month the letters column is full of people writing to express their discontent with the magazine, and showing their own ignorance. Scholarship exists outside the world of faith, sometimes it lends support to an argument and sometimes it doesn't. You can't just like scholarship when it backs up your point of view.

One of the most bewildering aspects of the BAR is frequent contributor Ben Witherington III. To me, Witherington is a pseudo-scholar, someone who has Evangelical Christianity cloud his judgement as an academic. A few years ago he was a part of some Christmas show on TV which attempted to prove the Virgin Birth, the star over Bethlehem, etc. Long time friends of Mankey know that I have no problem with those things, I just think that they belong in the realm of "myth" and not literal truth.

I an article on Witherington wrote:

"In fact, I would argue that it is highly unlikely Christians would make up a story about a virginal conception, precisely because it would lead to the charge of Jesus' illegitimacy by opponents of the Christian movement. There must have been some historical substance to this tradition for both Matthew and Luke to refer to the matter, independently of each other and in differing ways."

To me that's not scholarship, it's ridiculous conjecture, and I'm amazed that any scholar who wants to be taken seriously in the academic community could ever write those words. There's plenty of "historical substance" for Virgin (Miraculous) Births, it's called the history of pagandom at the time of Jesus. No "god" was born under normal circumstances, it seems ridiculous that Jesus would be the exception to the rule. Religions do not exist in a vacuum, they all influence one another. Most early Christians were Gentiles (pagans), that something with pagan origins ended up in Christianity should not be surprising.

There are other things in the New Testament its self that argue against the Virgin Birth. The obvious one is the Apostle Paul not mentioning it in his letters. The argument that the Apostle Paul makes no mention of the Virgin Birth is a completely valid one, and should not be thrown away as Witherington does in that piece. If the guy closest in time to the earthly existence of Jesus didn't think it was worth mentioning . . . . . how can it be seen as anything other than a later addition? The earliest gospel, Mark, also does not mention it. For me it's an open and shut case. The Virgin Birth is a matter of FAITH, not SCHOLARSHIP.

This leads me to a piece on BAR's website written by Witherington.* Much like the piece on beliefnet, this is a piece trying to prove the literalness of the resurrection. I'm not one to trample on anyone's belief system (though I think challenging it is fair game), but the idea of using scholarship to prove that a guy came back from the dead is ridiculous. Modern science doesn't take vampires and zombies seriously, why should it make an exception for Zombie Jesus? Besides, some things can't be "proven" they can only be accepted or dismissed, especially in matters of faith.

Witherington's argument in today's essay (link at the bottom) is that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection HAS to be true since it was basically shameful. I'll give him some credit, crucifixion was a horrible way to die, and basically said you were an enemy of the Roman State. According to Witherington religions and stories about famous people don't usually involve them dying in horrible circumstances or doing things that would lead to questions and comments from the masses. (This argument is similar to his one for the Virgin Birth.)

Of course that argument is complete bullshit. It took me about two seconds to think of something from pagan antiquity which completely discounted it. If I remember my Greek mythology right, Theseus had sex with his mother, abandoned the woman who saved him from the Minotaur on a deserted island, and ended up killing his father due to sheer laziness. He later became the most famous Athenian ever, was praised and worshipped for centuries, and eventually met his demise by being thrown from a cliff after he had gone out of favor in Athens. Why would I tell stories about this dude?

I'm always surprised that only one culture's mythology is seen as literal. We know that Troy existed but no one argues for the existence of Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Achilles as historical figures. The evidence that Jerusalem was a great city during the reigns of David and Solomon is non-existant, but they are always seen as real people. We know that Jewish slaves didn't build the great pyramids in Egypt (they were built by paid Egyptians and other laborers when they weren't busy being farmers), but people continually talk about Moses as a real person. There's more evidence of an historical King Arthur than a historical Moses, but one mythology is "literally true" and one is not.

The more mainstream media loves "scholars" like Witherington because it plays into the cultural narrative we have established. "Christian and Jewish History" is true, just like the Bible says, and everything else is myth. Dudes are born out of thin air, and rise from the dead. That's about as plausible as a fully armed Athena jumping out of her Dad's head, or Dionysus coming out of Zeus' thigh. Let's try to prove those things happened, there's just as much evidence in the historical record.

Let myth be myth, and religion be religion, and scholarship be scholarship. Stop lumping them all together, and hiding belief under the cloak of academia. Besides, the "literalness" of this stuff is not important. None of it can ever be proven either way, it's always best to just leave it a matter of faith.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pagan Music

While some people know me for Horned God lectures and dick jokes, there's another group of people who know me because of "Rock and Roll" lectures and (Morrison) rituals. Because of my obsessive interest in music I often get asked about "Pagan Music" and what "Pagan" bands I listen to. The short answer is that I don't really listen to "Pagan Music," I tend to listen to "Music that makes me feel Pagan." I gave up caring about people's beliefs a long time ago, I'm far more interested in where the music takes me.

There are some hard "Pagan" performers that I enjoy, and never miss when I'm at a festival. Most everyone who knows me knows that Kenny Klein and I participate in a mutual admiration society, but I like Kenny for his talent, not just for the shout-outs directed my way. The guy plays Renaissance fairs, and bars in New Orleans . . . he's a skilled musician and many of his songs are witty and a lot of fun. His "Pagan Bluegrass" CD ("Meet Me in the Shade of the Maple Tree") is a favorite. He's also 100% devoted to the gods, and it comes through in song.

I'll probably never be a huge fan of "just drums" music, but occasionally there are groups who use just drums that rise above the limits of that sound, the Dragon Ritual Drummers are one of those groups. I love the Dragon Ritual Drummers, and in concert, they are one of those few Pagan groups whose music has that little hint of transcendence. I'd love to see them out here on the West Coast sometime. They really are great, just a real primal and powerful sound. I'm glad to call them friends.

At Starwood last year I saw a band I really enjoyed called Coyote Run. They were a solid group, good songs, great musicianship, they tour in England and play Renaissance Festivals, usually a good sign with a band. I had never seen them at a festival before so I'm not sure how often they play Pagan events, but if you get the chance check them out.

And that's my entire short list of "Pagan" performers that I might listen to at home and that I make a point of seeing when I'm on the road. Now that doesn't mean I hate all other forms of Pagan music, there have been other artists I'm sure I've enjoyed over the years*, but it wasn't overly memorable, and a lot of that is certainly me. I have my own tastes and likes, and I'm also very open about them. There have been Pagan artists I've wanted to like, but for whatever reason their music didn't resonate with me.

A lot of my Pagan friends rant and rave about Wendy Rule from Australia, but it didn't do much for me. That doesn't mean she's not gifted, she certainly is, it just isn't my bag of tea. Maybe I'll dust it off again in a few years and give it another go.

There are artists who don't claim to be Pagan who have made some amazing "Pagan" music over the years. I have no idea what Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders believes spiritually, but her recording of "Hymn to Her" is an amazing Pagan moment. I also like "Brass in Pocket" and "Chain Gang" is required summer listening.

My favorite one-off type Pagan song is Dar Williams "The Christians and the Pagans," and some of her other songs have Pagan type lyrics from time to time. I'm a huge Dar fan, but I don't find the music transformative in the way that I do the Dragon Ritual Drummers. It's well crafted folk-pop, I can't see using it during ritual very often.

Since this post is obviously pretty long, there has to be a whole list of other artists that make (or have made) "Music that makes me feel Pagan." That's really what "Pagan Music" is about for me, music that I find transformative and that resonates with me. I'm not particularly concerned if the musicians themselves are "Pagan" or not, I'm concerned with how the music effects me.

The obvious place to start is with Led Zeppelin. No band has had a bigger influence on my spiritual development than Led Zeppelin. While not all of Zep's music has a Pagan vibe, the songs that do have it in abundance. There was the whole Crowley thing with Jimmy Page too, and there were all sorts of little occult in-jokes and hints throughout the album covers, record wax, and songs. Robert Plant had a keen interest in Celtic Mythology and that comes out in the music.

"The Battle of Evermore" is Zep's Pagan masterpiece, weaving together Tolkien and Celtic Myth. Add in Sandy Denny and you've got that whole "Male/Female" balance thing going on to. Speaking of Sandy Denny, early Fairport Convention constantly gets overlooked when people talk about Pagan music. "Come on ye roving minstrels, and together we will try, to rouse the spirit of Earth, and move the rolling sky." Come on! That's not only about as explicitly Pagan as you can get, the music kicks all kinds of serious ass. "Liege and Lief" is a true Pagan classic that should be issued upon dedication.

While Led Zeppelin remains my favorite band of all time, for ritual purposes, fewer artists are better than The Doors. There's a deep, primal, Pagan vibe to The Doors, and the moody atmosphere of it puts me in a spiritual mood faster than anything else. Songs like "The End" or "Not to Touch the Earth" are not Pagan, but they sound it, and can take you to it. That's what great music should do, transform your time and space. Was Jim a bit heavy handed and full of shit sometimes? Absolutely. Were there some "bad" Doors songs? You better believe it, but when the band was on, they were on.

"My Wild Love" sounds like a festival should. The drums, the sing-a-long nature of it, I want to be out under the stars on a warm summer night making music like that. Let me be the shaman leading the folk in song! Being Pagan doesn't mean it has to be a Hymn to the Lady or an Ode to Pan, it just has to hit those spiritual notes inside.

After The Doors, I find Loreena McKennitt to be the most transformative. Some of it is explicitly Pagan, parts of it I just find "witchy," and all of it I find gorgeous. When The Goddess sings to me, she sounds a lot like Loreena McKennitt. McKennitt makes the perfect soundtrack for autumn rituals, no one else even comes close.

"Dark Night of the Soul" is a very un-Pagan McKennitt song, but the atmosphere of it just makes me want to perform ritual, or take that quiet deep breath and think about the gods. That's what great Pagan music should do, take you to that place of your heart that honors deity and the Earth.

XTC were always that one English band that should have made it, but could never quite get over the hump. These days they are probably most well known for the atheist anthem "Dear God," but a lot of their albums have a very obvious Pagan vibe to them. "Skylarking" with it's "Ode to the Seasons" vibe is an easy place to start (it also has "Dear God" on it, originally an outtake), but even better is Apple Venus Volume One with the magnificent "Green Man." Also worth checking out is "Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume Two)" with "The Wheel and the Maypole." If Loreena is my autumn soundtrack, XTC is my spring one.

Also in that would have, could have, should have been a huge band are The Waterboys. Stuff like "Whole of the Moon" is obviously Pagan, and still sounds great nearly thirty years after it's original release. Besides, Mike Scott (the guy who is really The Waterboys) released a song called "The Pan Within." What's not to love there? They also released an album called "In a Pagan Place." Go out and buy this stuff right now!

I've always been a huge Jethro Tull fan, and I'm always surprised at how little attention they get in Pagan circles. Aren't we all familiar with the legend of "John Barleycorn?" Weirdly enough, despite my huge love of all things Tull, there Pagan output has never been my favorite stuff.

Lately when trying to get my minimum requirement of rock and roll flute in a Pagan context I've been listening to the Canadian band Blood Ceremony. A mix of the prog-rock stylings of Britain's greatest Satanic band ever, Black Widow, and the power riffs of early Black Sabbath, Blood Ceremony is a throwback to 1971. No wonder I'm digging on it a lot right now. There's also the female vocals which I'm always a sucker for, and they've got a few songs about Pan too. Even the production style sounds very 70's, awesome. I can't imagine using this in ritual, but when I'm writing it hits the spot.

Music always seems more Pagan to me when the vocals are female. I'm not trying to be sexist, it just appeals to me. There have been a whole slew of European female fronted metal bands over the past ten years, most of them playing what's come to be known as "orchestral/gothic metal." Think of a movie soundtrack with heavy metal guitars over top of it with ethereal female vocals. Most of it is better suited to be the soundtrack of a fantasy novel than a Pagan ritual, there's still a cool vibe there. The best of these bands is Within Temptation, but also worth checking out are Epica, Leave's Eyes, Delain, Serenia, and Nightwish (and dozens more). Many of them are far more Pagan than Within Temptation, and all are worth exploring.

Europe is a hotbed of Pagan music, and there are all kinds of metal bands in all sorts of metal sub-genres making music with Pagan themes. I don't have nearly enough time to explore it all, but out of what I've listened to a few stand out. Italy's Elvenking is a favorite, imagine Iron Maiden mixed with a Renaissance fair. Somehow it works. The only downside are that I can't really make out the lyrics. I don't know if "Pagan Purity" is a song about nature or ethnic cleansing.

Kind of like Elvenking, but a little more violent with the imagery are Scandinavian bands like Tyr. If you were ever going to put together a ritual with a Viking theme (or perhaps just want to celebrate Marvel's "Thor" movie next month), this is the kind of stuff you'd use. The only thing with the Scandinavian bands is that some of them to be a little bit on the dark side, mixing Norse mythology with Satanism. That pairing makes no sense to me, but I live in a place where it's not dark six months a year.

*I saw Gaelic Storm at Starwood years and years ago, and love them! However they aren't Pagan, and I can't imagine them ever playing another Pagan festival ever again.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Aborted Book Review Turns Into Something Else.

Everyone has hobbies. My hobbies are watching football, hard apple cider, the great god Pan, and studying the history of Modern Paganism. The history of Modern Paganism is a contentious one. Either you believe that most Modern Paganism is a relatively modern creation with ancient building blocks, or you believe that Modern Paganism has existed since at least the Middle Ages (the Witch Trials), and possibly stretches even farther back. The latter of the two camps can be quite passionate, and loud.

The most important book on the subject of Modern Paganim was published in 1999, and was the first academic approach to the subject. Ronald Hutton's "Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft," in many ways remains the "go-to" source on the subject. Hutton's basic premise is that the majority of the elements found within Modern Paganism emerged in the 19th Century. The "languages" we use to speak about Goddess and God come from that period, ritual forms, etc. The argument is extremely persuasive, and one I subscribe to the majority of the time.

There is a second part to Hutton's book though, and the second part is what upsets most people. In the second part of the book Hutton discounts one of the "foundation myths" of Modern Paganism, the story that Gerald Gardner was initiated into a coven of existing Witches in 1939. Hutton's dismissal of Gardner's claim is not mean spirited, a slight to Modern Pagans, or malicious. He's a historian, there's no record that he can find, so he makes an educated guess with the information at hand. Hutton's educated guess was that Gardner told a small fib.
Hutton's belief in Gardner's small fib changed everything for a lot of people. Suddenly Modern Witchcraft is not an ancient belief system. Suddenly there is no direct connection from the witches executed in the Witch Trials of the Middle Ages to Witches of the 20th Century. Suddenly there's no connection between Modern Witchcraft and ancient shamanism. For many people "the antiquity" of a religion equals validation.

I can't think of a one religion that has ever said "Hey, we're new here, try us out instead!" Christianity and Islam both saw themselves as continuations of Judaism, with the same God at the forefront. Mormonism, the most powerful "new religion," see its self as a "correction" of Christianity gone bad. The first large occult order, "The Order of the Golden Dawn" in Great Britain claimed lineage with German Rosicrucian groups etc.

To me, age means nothing when it comes to religion, but it's so ingrained in our culture to think that way that I'm not surprised people got upset with Hutton's revelations. That unease with Hutton has led many people over the last ten years to find flaws in his findings and methodology. Some of those criticisms are well founded, and the people who have done the criticizing have gone out and come up with new evidence.

While Hutton remains essential reading, there's another author whose work is equally essential, Philip Heselton. While Heselton is not an academic, he did a lot of the field research that Hutton neglected to do. None of Heselton's arguments can be looked at as "definitive proof" that Gardner was initiated into a coven 1939, but the arguments make it look extremely likely that Gardner was. Heselton gives you the puzzle pieces, how you put the puzzle together ultimately ends up to you.

What Heselton did was establish that the area in which Gardner claimed to be initiated, New Forest England, was full of people interested in the occult. He finds individuals and circumstances which line up well with Gardner's claim of initiation in 1939. What Heselton doesn't prove is that Witchcraft stretches back centuries. I've never seen a credible shred of evidence that makes me believe in the "unbroken chain back to pagan Europe."

Now there are tantalizing bits that seem "Pagan." People worry about nature spirits, fey, and other "witchy" type creatures/races that feel Pagan to many of us in the 21st Century. The argument always goes "Those people were honoring a spirit in the well, that must be Pagan, or at least a Pagan relic, there's no way a Christian would do that!" Of course, Christians have always done all kinds of things they aren't supposed to do. Many Christians today believe in astrology or tarot cards, or use a ouija board, those aren't Christian things but they are done by Christians anyways. A belief in something outside the ordinary does not make something Pagan.

Most cultures believe in magic, and that magic can be seen as "good" or "bad." During the Renaissance there were many Christian and Jewish sorcerers who attempted to conjure demons and angels, and they used magic circles for protection. To some of us, that looks Pagan, but there are people contacting the dead in the Old Testament. It wasn't Pagan, it was simply ceremonial being practiced by Christians and Jews.

Many villages in Great Britain were home to "cunningfolk," individuals who practiced beneficial magic for their town. Some of those folks had grimoires going back centuries, and were full of herblore, potions, and spells. Many Pagans keep books like that today, but those grimoires weren't Pagan, and the people collecting that material probably weren't either. The idea that Christians practiced magic always strikes Modern Pagans as odd, but think about it, growing up didn't we all know Christians who were interested in the occult and remained Christian? Palm readers aren't staying in business because of Pagans, there aren't enough of us.

One of the problems with the idea of the "unbroken chain," dating back to Pre-Christian times is that there are large gaps in the historical record. One can find something that feels "Pagan" in a 16th Century source, and then it disappears never to be seen again. Most of you know that I'm very big into Horned God Lore, and I bring that up because Pan fits this cycle rather well.

Pan was worshipped in the Ancient World, from Great Britain to the Middle East, and throughout the Roman Empire. Pan was never a god to inspire much mythology or poetry, but that he was well thought of by people is proven through the sheer volume of artwork depicting him. In some sense he was certainly popular. After Christianity triumphs and the Roman Empire turns its back on Paganism, the worship of Pan stops for several hundred years. It doesn't go underground, or wane, it simply stops. He's nearly absent from the historical record. He doesn't morph into Satan either, look at wood carvings from the Renaissance (Satan doesn't really show up in iconography until the 14th Century.) The Devil has horns and hooves, but he doesn't look like Pan, he looks like a gargoyle, reptilian even.

So Pan goes away from the years 500 to 1300 CE, that's a long chunk of change. If Pan was being worshipped in Italy during those 800 years it would have been brought up. Now something interesting does happen after 1300, Pan re-emerges during the Italian Renaissance. While there needs to be a great deal more study of this phenomenon, the Renaissance gives new life to the ancient gods. Pagan deities appear in art and literature for the first time in centuries, and Pan is a part of that. The Renaissance that began in Italy sweeps across the rest of the Europe. The gods have woken, at least for a little bit. By the 1650's they wane in popularity, and while they are no longer taboo, they cease to be a frequent motif in art and literature.

Fast forward to the 19th Century, and pagan deities are again all the rage, especially Pan. Pan becomes a major fad in Great Britain during this period of time, and in terms of literature and poetry owns the century. Pan's influence on art and literature lessened in the 20th Century, but the fact that you are reading this means it didn't just go away like it did for 800 years. It's still here.

What's the point of this? Pan's worship was a series of starts and stops. That's not a chain. Some of the ideas of Pan as a universal figure first expressed in Italy would become popular in the 19th Century, but that's only because someone obviously bothered to read them for the first time in a couple hundred years. That doesn't mean it was whispered in secret for centuries until arriving at the ear of Keats.

All kinds of "pagan" relics share a similar pattern. People worshipped at this well in pagan times. Two hundred years later there is evidence of coins being thrown in it. Several hundred years pass and in the 19th Century someone says there are fairies living in it. Is that a pagan survival, or a constant reinvention? Why does everything have to be a survival? Why can't it be a recreation or a brand new idea? No matter the religious climate people seem to have a natural desire for mysticism and magic. You can get it from saints, fairies, spiritualism, etc. Why do these things need to be a continuation of anything?

Most criticism of Hutton follows the pattern above. An isolated incident shows up on the radar, there by proving that there were "pagans" in such and such century. These incidents are nearly always isolated in space and time. A dance to ensure fertile crops in the 17th Century doesn't mean that dance came from the 3rd Century. An historian can't make those kinds of assumptions, and educated people shouldn't either.

I believe whole heartedly that magickal systems can survive and endure over long periods of time, and that legends and stories are also capable of such feats. However, stories and magickal systems are not religion. They can be incorporated into a religious framework later on, and in that sense Modern Paganism is ancient. You can trace the history of Modern Paganism back to the ancient Greeks, Ceremonial Magicians during the Renaissance, English Cunningfolk from the 17th Century, and a great many poets from the 19th. That doesn't mean it's all an unbroken chain, it just means we have a pretty impressive pedigree.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bitching about how many of us there are and the lack of celebrity Pagans

Being a Pagan in the United States is difficult. While we are a rapidly growing segment of the population, we remain an overlooked statistical blip. Visit the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life website and you won't find Paganism listed as an affiliation. I assume that we fall under the header "New Age," but when you worship Zeus "New Age" doesn't quite fit. USA Today in a 2009 article based on an ARIS survey lumps "Spiritualist" in with Wiccans and "pagans" and puts us all under the header of "New Movements." The estimated number of people involved in those New Movements in 2.8 million

A part of me thinks that's an overly generous number, and another part of me thinks it's probably accurate, and might even just represent Pagans/Wiccans/Goddess Worshippers. However, when you read estimates on the number of Pagans in the United States you quickly realize that no one really knows how many of us there are. Estimates range between 500,000 and several million. The low ends just don't seem likely at this point, there just FEELS like there are millions of us now. We have stores, lots of them, and large sections at big bookstores. You don't have those things with 400,000 adherents.

Let's say for a minute that there are 2.8 million Pagans in the United States, that would mean there are more Pagans than Jews in the US. The Jewish Population in the United States is estimated at only 2.7 million, yet Pagans have absolutely no political or real cultural clout. The same survey estimates that there are 1.7 million Muslims in the United States, half of the possible Pagan count, but did President Obama publicly court our vote in 2010? Have you ever heard a national politician name drop "Pagan" or "Wicca?" Only in jest or outrage.

One of the most deplorable parts of the 2010 elections in the United States was the outrageous treatment of Christine O'Donnell's revelation that she dabbled in Witchcraft when she was younger. The story was mocked, Witchcraft was mocked, and by both the left and the right. If she had said "I converted to Judaism for a few months when I was 20" the outrage would have been non-existant. I know there were outraged Pagan groups, but no one bothered to listen. It's so strange to me that nearly anything can be said about Paganism, and with very few repercussions.

There are a few likely reasons for why Pagans are treated like they are. The obvious one is the "newness" of the religion. It takes decades for people to get comfortable with new things, acceptance just doesn't happen over night. There have been Pagans in the United States since at least the 1950's, but it's only been in the last twenty years that we've become an almost measurable percentage of the population. With time, and our growing numbers, people will realize that we are here, and we will eventually be courted by politicians and allowed to have our own little box on survey forms, but it's a ways off yet.

Other problems are more difficult to overcome. I'm sure there are people who look at Paganism today and don't see it as an "authentic" religion. People are born in Judaism, there's thousands of years of culture and tradition behind it. Even when you no longer practice it, you are still considered a part of it. Paganism is a mantle you pick up on your own, and you can discard it just as easily, and until the age of social networking, no one would have know you were even wearing it. Yes, there are Pagan families today, but if your daughter decides to become a Christian at 21, you won't still think of her as a Pagan, and she probably won't culturally identify as one either.

Paganism still remains this weird little niche of a religion stuck in the corner. Mainstream television ignores us, and when it does bother to mention us it's a mixed bag. Lisa Simpson once said "It's called Wicca and it's empowering!" as The Simpsons cut to commercial. Years later when there was actually an episode with practicing Wiccans, it fell flat, with no lines that made me or my wife cheer. (While typing this the word "Wiccans" still comes up as a misspelling-delightful!) Yes Buffy fans, I know that Willow was Wiccan on the show, but you are a cult, and the show was never mainstream. I like Joss too, Firefly was great!

I think we as a religious minority would be on better footing if there were truly national public Pagan figures. Around the fringes there are celebrities we believe might be Pagan, but it tends to be a "are they?" or "aren't they?" sort of thing, and none of them are hitting your local (or even L.A.'s) Pagan Pride Day. About the only out Pagan I can think of is Sully Urna of Godsmack, the res leave you scratching your head. Cybil Shepherd might have mentioned The Goddess at an acceptance speech, but things stopped there. Brett Butler's "Grace Under Fire" had an amazing discussion of Pagan theology in one episode, but that was about it. We want Tori Amos, Loreena McKennitt, and Dar Williams to be Pagans, but they've certainly never confirmed those wishes.

Ashton Kutcher and Madonna can play with the Kabbalah and it's all socially acceptable, but A list celebrities just can't utter the W or P words. Heather Graham once gave an interview and talked about a group she was in called the "Goddesses" and mentioned doing spells, honoring the elements etc., but just couldn't say Witch or Pagan. It's frustrating. Five or ten celebrity A listers would help with that acceptance that seems so elusive. I certainly wouldn't want to make Heather Graham a Pagan Pope, but a non threatening celebrity would help with the P.R.

Links used for this piece: